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Kara Conway is 150 steps east of where I lay in bed each night. When the moon is full, I can turn my head and look out the window to see a lazy flashing light above the spot where I buried her fifteen years ago. My higher mind knows the flashing light is the moon reflecting off an electric fence sign as it sways in a gentle wind. My animal mind knows she is saying hello. Reminding me not to forget her.

I could get out of bed. Jam my unsocked feet into boots. Walk through my cabin in the dark. I could go out the front door and stand outside my bedroom window. Then I could begin walking. Counting paces from my resting place to hers. My strides are longer in the summer: it takes me 137 paces in July. In the refrigerator dark of February, Kara is 182 short, shuffling steps away. But it is October now. 150 on the dot.

Tonight I will not make this walk. Instead, lying warm beneath the covers, I dig. I imagine myself in the moonlight standing in that grove of birches. The trees have shed their leaves and the forest floor is blanketed in their yellow teardrops. Before me, the leaves are cleared in a circle as wide as I am tall. A ring of black earth amidst the yellow leaves. In my hand, there is a shovel with a short handle, squared head. I drive it into the ground, heave the dirt over my shoulder. I work my way around the edges. The moon hangs motionless above as I dig deeper until I must hop into the hole, until I’m at eye level with the bright leaves. Down I go, into the hungry earth.

I did not bury you this deep, I think as I become dwarfed by black dirt walls. But I will find you.

I keep shoveling, looking for her skeleton, for the faded flannel shirt she’d worn when I dug this hole for real. Soon I reach bedrock. Shovel head scrapes stone. I sit down, and tiredness hums through my real and imagined bodies.

I ask, “Where are you? You’re always here.” I lean against the crumbly wall, look up at the moon: a golden hole punched in the sky above a black hole punched into the earth. I close my eyes, listen to the wind creaking through white branches far above.

“I found you,” she replies and, when I open my eyes, we are in a plain wooden room bathed in golden candlelight. We sit cross-legged facing each other but I cannot make out her features.

“I’ve been digging too,” she tells me.“Upwards.”

“Toward the surface?”


“What will you do when you get there?”

“What will you do when I get there?”

I decide to leave. There is a door, and when I walk through it I am again in the barrel of the earth’s dark gun. I lock the door behind me with a key that appears in my hand. I throw it into the dirt. I climb out of the hole, lie on the yellow leaves and look at the moon. When I stand again, the hole is gone. Only bare white birches standing watch.

When I wake up, it feels as if I haven’t slept. The cold grabs me as soon as I throw off my covers, and I put on an old sweatshirt as I walk through my cabin in the predawn dark. This is the thing of Maine: you can’t mind things cold, and you can’t mind things dark. I moved to the cabin at 243 Mooseback Lane five years ago. People in town were surprised that I bought the cabin on account of the fact that people in Taylor, Maine, think Jay Cousins is a top-shelf piece of shit. But my family is here, and I had my other reason. When these five acres went up for sale, I offered the owner a cash sale. No bank, no loan. He’d expressed surprise that a man like me had the cash to offer, being that I operate a loader at the paper mill and grew up in a trailer down the road. He’d expressed surprise that a man like me wanted to come back. But I’d been saving for a long time, and I’d been saving for this. So now I spend most mornings like today’s: coffee and two cigarettes on my porch, nodding silent hellos to the deer and turkeys or the occasional moose who pokes his head out from the treeline.

At five-thirty on the dot, I lock the front door, reset the alarm, and climb into my truck. The telephone poles alongside the road have identical fliers strapped to them with two bands of bright orange duct tape. When I go the speed limit—which I always do—those orange bands flash by about once a second. I don’t look, no need. Same flier’s been around for fifteen years on telephone poles scattered around this part of Maine, usually one every couple miles or so. But not so long after I moved to 243 Mooseback Lane, someone came through and taped one of those goddamn fliers up on every single telephone pole between there and the International Paper mill up in Rocksfield. Flashes of orange, one per second, for the fifteen minutes it takes me to get from home to work. There’s one stoplight on my route, and I hit the red today. Waiting there, I feel her staring at me from a senior picture that was never distributed to friends at graduation but instead to telephone poles across the region with the caption, “HELP BRING KARA HOME.”

Light turns, I go.

Folks don’t talk to me much at work, and that’s okay. I drive the loader and sit with my thoughts. For many years such a thing would have been unbearable, but I’ve discovered that clear thoughts are less scary than buried ones. They can be seen for what they are, they can be managed. My digging method began as nightmares. Little nighttime terrors from Kara as she poked around my mind. So I began to use her weapon as my tool, digging into my mind to find her, to face her, to move on. Sometimes I encounter her corpse, sometimes she is in my car during those last minutes of her life, sometimes she chases me through stone corridors, sometimes she is crying, sometimes she screams up the hole to her brother Tommy, “Come and find me, Tommy, bring me home again.”

Kara has never tried to escape. She has been angry about what happened, she has wished aloud that it hadn’t, but she has always accepted that it did. I do not know what to make of last night’s meeting. 

After work, I stop at the Variety store to get some eggs. I try to avoid the place but Ma tells me, “You ain’t no monster, Jay. You gotta show your face around, show folks you ain’t different from them.” So I get a bag of sour candies too. Monsters don’t like candy, it’s for kids. For tired adults. But when I walk outside again, Tommy Conway is leaning against my truck holding a newspaper, and I am a monster again.

“Your buddy’s dead,” he tells me. I don’t have buddies, so I don’t say anything. He throws the paper at my feet. “Jackie Carmichael.” I pick up the paper and see an article titled Missing Nurse Found Dead. That is Jackie Carmichael in the picture alright, older now.

“We ain’t buddies, Tommy. You know that.” I nod my head to the side to politely ask him to move the fuck away from my truck.

“I heard they found her hangin’ out back of her house. She’d been there a few days,” he says, stepping close enough that I could grab him, but he steps close because he knows I can’t, wants me to know he knows I can’t. “Heard she did it herself. There’s a note and all. I heard she was hangin’ there for so long they was worried her body would pop clean off the rope while they was cutting her down.” That makes me sad, but I don’t want him to know it.

“Get to your point, Tommy.”

“What do you think that note says?”

I look down into his angry blue eyes. I’ve got four inches and thirty pounds on him but the way he looks at me, it would be an even fight.

He continues, “Because I think that note says something about my sister. I think your bitch friend’s conscience got the best of her, maybe she confessed something before she snapped her neck. What do you think, Jay? Do you think that note might cause problems for you?”

I think it might, but I don’t want him to know it.

“Tommy, I don’t know what happened to Kara.”

“Okay. Well, I think now you’re the only person who does.” He spits a direct hit onto my boot toe.  “Fuck you, Jay.” I take a deep breath and hold it, count to twenty.

When I get home, I go into the woods to visit Tommy’s sister. I walk until I hit the rock wall which is, according to the deed, my eastern property line. I step over the wall into the grove of birches, onto the patch of dirt I’ve imagined digging into thousands of times. There is a big rock here, a “glacial erratic” it’s called, with a perfect seat-sized chunk missing. The geologic throne of my secret kingdom, carved into the rock by small and unseen forces. I sit down.

“Why come up here, Kara?” I ask the patch of dirt concealing her bones. “It’s been so long, what good could it do? You know I’m sorry about what happened. You know we didn’t mean it. But it did happen. We can’t change it, can only accept it, try to move on.”

Leaves whisper, I hear her in them. As if she is speaking into the roots of the trees, her message pulled upward by their vessels to the thin white branches at the top whose leaves amplify her words into the wind.

“Selfish,” she says in that overhead whisper, “By moving on, you mean forgetting .”

“I can’t forget you. How could I? My life ended when yours did, we’re just on opposite sides of this dirt.”

“Not for long though.”

“Did you come to Jackie like this? She killed herself, you know. Couldn’t stand it no more. Is that what you want for me too?”

“You don’t deserve to know what I want.”

“You know what I want?” The words feel heavy on my lips, like honey, like blood. “Sometimes I want to be caught. To be found out. The older I get, the more I’m tired of this. You’re heavy, Kara.”

I rise from my rock throne and stand over where I buried her. I dig my boot toe into the dirt as if I’m squishing a bug. Slow inhale, hold. Exhale, hold. I kneel so my face is inches from the ground. I want her to hear me, for my words to get sucked through the earth to her skull.

“But I’m not ready yet.”

I follow the rock wall north until I get to the spot where I’ve left my work. Here, there is a gap between the wall I’ve been following and where another begins ten feet to my right. That original wall continues all the way up to the creek, which is the northern boundary to my property. There is a wheelbarrow tucked into some brush. I’ve got a small notebook in my pocket so I can record how the rocks were puzzled together by some long-gone farmer into a wall. I get to work moving the old boundary stone by stone ten feet west. I bought this property to watch over Kara’s grave. Would not want some asshole from Massachusetts to stumble upon her burial place while building a garage. But the problem with having her on my property is that she’s on my property, since, after all, Jackie and I followed the wall while carrying Kara’s body into the woods. I can’t change the past, but I can make it harder to find.

I will say this, as I put another carefully documented lot of rocks into the wheelbarrow: it was an accident. We were dumb kids who thought the best manner of dealing with a fuck-up was pretending like it hadn’t happened. As the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind. I restack this stretch of wall, redefining my property line. I imagine walking into the Somerset County Sheriff's Department and saying, “You were right. I killed and buried Kara Conway but I swear it was an accident.” The accident of it slipped away from me like a season. What choice is there anymore?

Through the woods, I hear a car honk three times. My brother knows I keep my rifle at hand in case Tommy and his friends pay me a visit here at home, so he told me once, “Jay, listen for the short-long-short. That means it’s just me.” I take off my work gloves. Following the rock wall back south, I look over it to the grove where Kara is buried, the grove which is the gateway between worlds. She is in purgatory: buried on property I own, but on the other side of the wall which marks its border. A nowhere world.

“Hey Nate,” I call out to my brother who sits smoking on my porch. “Section of the fence blew down.”

He offers me a cigarette when I sit beside him, and I take it.

“You hear ’bout Jackie?” In his hands, he wrings a baseball cap held together by years of dirt and motor oil.

“Tommy found me at the Variety earlier.”

“Imagine he had a lot to say.”

I exhale smoke while looking to the treeline, out toward Tommy’s sister.

“You talked to Jackie’s sis at all?”

Nate looks sad, and I am sorry for it. Our families had grown up close, and he and Jackie’s sister were especially fond of each other. But Kara’s disappearance cast a long shadow, and Nate tried to build a life outside of it, if such a thing is even possible. So he and Jackie’s sister grew apart, just as me and Jackie did, the heavy thing that should have pulled us to its center instead spinning us away like oil from water.


“She say why? Was there a note?”

Nate shakes his head. “Didn’t mention a note but didn’t seem like it was much of a surprise. Said she had been in a bad spell for a long time now. Tried to escape up to Orono, but seems like this shit chases you no matter how far you go.”

We are quiet for a moment, letting the silence catch back up. Nate sighs, smashes his cigarette underneath his boot heel.

“Just… don’t go that route, Jay,” he says, studying the porch and chewing his lip. “Don’t let them get you too.” Our eyes meet, his flickering with an anger that mine have long lost. “Plenty of folks in town still got your back, know you didn’t do shit. Me and ma, we’d take bullets for you.”

“I won’t,” I tell him. I don’t know if I mean it. But he nods, hoping he has done his part. Nate got me the job up at the mill. Begged his friend to give me a chance, not to listen to the rumors about his big brother.

“Tell Ma I’ll be by for dinner this weekend,” I say as he gets back into his truck. His red tail lights burn through the powder blue of dusk. Cold air scrapes across my skin. I sit on my porch until the sun has gone and the world is dark again, until the gray plume of my breath reminds me that I’m alive. Then I go inside. Make dinner. Wash the dishes. Go to bed. Lying in the darkness, I push aside the memory of Tommy in the parking lot, the thought of Jackie hanging dead, the heaviness of Nate’s unwavering love.

I’m standing in the grove again, birches looming as I heave dirt aside. Beside me is my wheelbarrow loaded with wood, nails, a hammer. The shovel clinks against rocks in the soil. My shoulders burn, my body feels swallowed as I stare down into the black earth.

“I didn’t want to hurt you,” I say, but she knows this. “I didn’t want this to happen, but I can’t take it back. Why don’t you just stay put? Why do you want to hurt me?”

The ground disappears and the hole collapses on top of me in clouds of dry, cold dirt. When the dust settles, I am in a cavern with my wheelbarrow beside me. My feet are wet. Around me are passageways that faintly pulse with distant light. Thick, black liquid pours from within them. Kara stands to the side, watching it pool around me. It smells like rot, like a slaughterhouse, like old blood. I rush toward Kara, swinging the hammer and striking her head. The same black liquid floods from the wound but she is unbothered. I grab nails from the wheelbarrow and drive one through her hand into the cavern wall and this too begins to gush with a thick flow of decay.

“I deserve peace too,” Kara says. Her face has features, as distinct and young as they were in life, “You’ve had it for this long, shouldn’t I have my chance? My family? Tommy?”

“You think I’ve had peace?” I yell as I drive a nail through her other hand, then an iron spike through her throat. Her eyes are cool and unperturbed. The earth’s black bile rises up my calves. I grab boards from the wheelbarrow and start nailing them over passageways. The putrid sea is at my waist when I reach the last one, and I shimmy into it with a heavy squelch. Kara watches me from across the cavern, bubbles bursting and flecking her pale skin with oil black droplets.

I wedge the last board into the passageway to block her exit. From behind it, she calls, “We both deserve to rest a while. That’s all I want.”

I scramble up the passageway until I am again standing on the blanket of yellow leaves which glow in the stagnant moonlight. My clothes are soaked, my shovel gone. I walk through the woods by instinct, step by step, until I can see my bedroom window: a little square of light on a little square cabin in a little square clearing inside the big, sprawling woods.

I’m grateful for the solitude of my work. I spend my hours in the loader making sense of Kara’s actions. I decide I can’t blame her. That Jackie’s death has roused me from idle melancholy, has thrown uncertainty into the routine of concealment. That’s all. Kara has been angry with me before, of course. It is my responsibility to hear her out, to respect what she tells me about myself. Perhaps in doing so I let her get too comfortable. I let her see me as weak. But I have left her alone for several days, down inside that cavern so she can reconsider. Calm down a bit.

After work, I stop at the Variety for a gallon of milk. The headline of the paper declares Leaf Peepers Say Goodbye for Another Year! The kid at the register tells me it’ll be three dollars twenty. I hand him a five.

He clears his throat when he hands me the change. “Everything okay, Jay? Weird news.”

“What news?”

He glances down at the paper and another headline catches my eye, cut in half by the bend in the page: New Clues in Notorious Cold Case. I hand him back the change and grab the paper.

“Guess I’ll be wanting this too then.”

Back in my truck, I read until the words “search warrant issued.” I peel out of the parking lot hard enough to send a spray of gravel toward the Variety door, but I drive back going the speed limit as I always do. Flash flash flash the flyers go, one per second, screaming at me from the roadside to BRING KARA HOME, a thing I dread and want and cannot reconcile in a single feeling.

There is a news van by my driveway and a cop car. As soon as I turn in, someone hits my passenger-side window so hard it cracks and when I look over it is Tommy Conway, his face red and taut. The cop yells at him to back off, and Tommy backs up to stand by an old man sitting in a lawn chair staring death at me, an oxygen tank by his side. Kara’s father. Stage four lung cancer, Nate told me once.

“What’s going on?” I ask the cop.

“Search warrant for the property, Jay. Officer Daniels has a copy for you, he’s just up ahead.”

“A search warrant for what?”

Tommy yells, “You know what you shitbag. My sister. You’ve got my sister, and I’m gonna sit here until you get dragged out behind a fucking cop car—”

I pull ahead. Four state troopers are parked across my lawn. I get out with my hands up like all the times before and let one of the officers pat me down. He hands me a search warrant.

“Warrant to search for human remains. Officers have authority to search your home and a part of your property line, detailed here—” he points to a section on the first page, “with dogs and ground-penetrating radar.”

I read the page slowly. Section I: Premises to be Searched. 243 Mooseback Lane is a one-story residence located on 5.2 acres of land bordering the north side of Route 2 in Taylor. The target areas are the single residence, owned by Jay Cousins of Taylor, and the section of the eastern property line extending from Route 2 until parallel with the residence. The property line is defined by a rock wall.

This is good news, but I don’t want the officer to know it. I ask him, “May I call my brother?”

When Nate arrives, he gets into the passenger’s seat.

“What the hell is going on?” I hand him the search warrant, point to Section III: My Conclusion that Such Probable Cause Exists is Based on the Following Factual Information. He reads it on his own.

“What the fuck,” he breathes as he reads that Jackie Carmichael confessed to involvement in the 1996 killing and burial of Kara Conway in her suicide note. She described where she and Jay Cousins had brought the body: property which Mr. Cousins knew from hunting. She described following the rock wall north until, through the trees, they saw a light in the cabin which was, she reports, due west of where they stood. Ms. Carmichael reported that Mr. Cousins dug a deep hole to conceal the body from animals.

Nate throws the search warrant on the dashboard. “What is she talking about? Why would she lie now?”

“She must have been tired. Of waiting. Of having everyone think she was guilty. I can understand. People tell you that you did a thing for long enough, it gets easy to believe it.”

Three cops emerge from the woods with a dog. They signal to another cop. Nate watches me watch them.

“Maybe I should let them have me,” I say. “To make it stop. So you and Ma can move on.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Jay,” he replies. The cop with the dog shakes his head, looks over to my truck. “We did come up here hunting, though, remember? Used to come up here with the .22 thinking we could get a deer with it. Ma gave us thermoses of shit coffee. We never got nothing.”

“We were lousy hunters.” I imagine us going into the woods together again. Orange hats, orange vests over red flannel, stomping through the stream in our duck boots, bigger guns now in hand. Shoot me, I would beg Nate, tell the cops that we was always lousy hunters, it was an accident, you promise.

The cop motions for me to get out of the truck. They didn’t find anything, not in the cabin. Not along the property line either. They thank me for my cooperation. When they leave, Tommy Conway’s screaming ricochets across the trees, his pleas for them to do their jobs, to find his sister, to do something.

Nate stays for dinner and drinks a few beers as I put my home back together. Papers back in drawers, clothes back in the closet. It’s nearly ten before he puts his jacket on and I walk him to the door.

He asks, “Why did we stop hunting here? Why did we stop hunting at all?”

Because that hole was never really closed, I think, and she might grab my boot as we stomped over her grave. She would drag me downward and I would drown in the dark muck. But I tell him, “I don’t know.”

A lazy flashing light catches my eye while I am lying in bed. It’s after midnight. I sit up and grab my rifle. Load the rounds. It isn’t my electric fence sign tonight: there’s no moon, no wind. I walk outside into the dark, the fall air biting, the ground blanketed with leaves.

I count my steps as I walk through the trees. Seventy. Ninety. One twenty. I rub the cold belly of the gun as I walk toward the sound pulling me forward:


He doesn’t hear me coming, he who wears a headlamp and digs toward his answers. I could change the wall, but I could not move the birch grove or the rock throne upon which playful boys might climb on their morning hunt, the clearing where naughty brothers might stop and sneak sips of stolen whiskey as they perched upon an old rock wall.

The light of his headlamp blinds me.

“Jay,” he says, a voice I know well, of a brother rageful and loyal. He stands inside a knee-deep hole, a void within the yellow leaves exhaled in the season’s dying gasp.

“It was an accident,” I tell him, the gun heavy in my hands. “Let me show you.”

I step over the wall.

© 2021 Sara Ray

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