I close my eyes when I hear running on the stairs. Keep them shut with the jingling of keys, the door creaking open. Silence, and I know what he sees: me on the couch, paler than pale, my freckles white, my hair dark from lack of sun, a greasy blonde; and I'm covered to my neck in wooly blankets. The heat hisses above my head. All day I've been waiting for him.
"Your friend's been at our garbage can again," he says. "I've no idea where it is." The rustling of clothes: a jacket, a hat, some gloves.
"It's freezing outside," he goes on. "Tough day here too, I see?"
I grunt and turn into the soft crease of the couch.
"The herbs have all died. You forgot to bring them in." Cupboards opening, pots shifting around. "What do you want for dinner?"
"I'm trying to sleep here!"
"I think we should say something about the garbage can."
"Just go over and get it, it's in his backyard." I pull myself into a sitting position; my limbs feel heavy, my skin packed with lead. Steve's behind the counter in a purple tie, holding a sauce pan.
"What does he need it back there for? That's what drives me crazy, he has his own damn trashcan why does he need ours? How much trash can one person have?"
"That's too many questions so you get answers to none of them."
"Did you get any work done today?" he asks, starting the stove, crashing pots around.
I turn away from him, frown at the black screen of the TV, the silent empty mirror.
"You need a job or something," he says.
"This is a job."
"You need to keep busy."
Nights I can't sleep I imagine things happening to him, a car crash, a stab wound, the apartment caving in. He's carried off in an angry twist of wind, pummeled by a torrential downpour, crushed beneath a crumbling wall. I see his face burned and scarred, various limbs missing, a bullet through the gut. This is how I feel things. This is how I move closer and put my arms around him.
Something dimly thrilling about the travel-size section of the store. All those small baskets and miniature products, like the band of gnomes living below us climbs into the store in the twilight hours to consume just like us, justifying us. What hope do we have if they've got the gnomes too?
They don't have my soap.
"Just bring a big bar," Steve says, sticking his fingers into various baskets, toothpastes, the mini deodorants; he can't just stand there, just stand still.
"But I like the miniatures," I tell him. "It's the whole point of traveling."
"My mom wants you to call her."
"What does she want?"
He knocks a few razors to the dirt-streaked linoleum: how is it possible to have this many employees roaming around and no one cleans the floor?
"Questions about the wedding."
"Sorry. I'm not fielding those anymore."
He puts his arms around me. "Little Krissy doesn't want to get married." He picks up my hand, studies it. "But still, she wears the ring."
I shake him off. "It's gotten way too big."
He laughs, looks at me warmly. "It's not that big."
"Hundreds of people."
"A hundred. One hundred."
"I'm not calling her. Doesn't she know what's going on?"
"Weddings yield for nothing, Kristine."
The airport. They have questions about my bag: "What's with the frying pan?"
"I need it where I'm going."
"You going to use it as a weapon?"
"I'm going to use it for cooking."
A man with gray hair, a gray beard comes over, lifts the pan, studies the grease stains around the sides, the scratches in the center. He glances at me. "This yours?"
I tell him, "It's my good pan."
He looks me up and down and this is what he sees: a scrawny scrubby girl, knobby in her jeans, old in her eyes, scraggly in her hair.
"Go ahead," he says.
Steve's driving home as I study the blue monitors, walk toward my gate. He's listening to music, singing, smiling: things I don't let him do lately when I'm around, the somberness of grief, the excuse: Lindsay has died, how can you sing? She's rotting in the ground two months and you're up here happy?
And once he said, "The gnomes are looking after her."
I laughed at this, loud, broken, hyena kind of laughing, the sweet hilarity of him believing in the gnomes, the desperate gasps for air. Then the crying, then the silence.
At the gate I sit down, take out my paperback, frown at the lumpy passengers and their overstuffed bags, the long windows holding up the bright dismal runway, the bright dismal sky.
The car exploding on Steve's smiling face, the screams of passersby, the long lines of traffic, the halting rush of firetrucks to the scene, their horns, they're driving on the sides, in the grass, grazing other cars, crashing forward: hold on Steve, they're coming for you!
My mom: "Tell me when you have your bags and I'll come around. The security guard yelled at me last time, that hateful rat man!"
Walking through the terminal I can't control my shaking, the phone ringing and ringing, Steve pick up, oh God, what's happened to you?
His voice: "Hey, I just had a run-in with your friend."
A rush of relief, my body goes limp. "Why do you keep calling him that?" A boy passes me squeezing tissue to his nose, a large red circle seeping through.
"I saw you talking to him once. He seemed to enjoy it."
"He said he didn't know how our garbage can ended up in his yard. He didn't know. I looked at him for this long time until it got really awkward, and he started shifting around. Then I said, It must be the gnomes. I said, The gnomes are taking our garbage can as a gift to you."
"Why would the gnomes do that?"
A couple stands off to the side, the woman dabbing her scarf against a gash on the man's forearm.
"They've gone crazy with grief," he says. "They heard you were leaving."
"God, what's wrong with you?" my mother asks, running from the car, chunky in her gloves and scarf and puffy blue coat with the yellow and black lion fur around the hood. "You look like you've been pecked to death by lust-driven hens."
I hand her my bag, shivering so hard it seems my teeth will murder each other, the wind not merely biting me but holding me firmly in its skin-puncturing, bone-grinding jaw.
"You live in the South for Christ sake, you have sun year-round." She loads my things into the trunk, waving me away, clucking disconcertedly.
"It's cold there now too. I'm not going to freeze just to get some sun."
She slams the trunk and shakes her head at me. "What does Steve think about you sitting inside all day, pouring over your thesis? Does he think it's healthy?"
"He thinks everything's unhealthy."
She nods. "Have you stopped with the cheap milk then? I told him you don't need those extra hormones."
"He thinks everything's unhealthy until it comes to spending more money."
"How much money's it going to cost when you both have cancer!" She glances at the security guard, a gaunt blue man, and lowers her voice. "Let's go."
We get in the car, drive awhile, my mom surprisingly quiet, watching the road, humming softly through her closed mouth. I feel packed in by the snow on the sides of the road, hunted by the black barren branches, scabby and wretchedly naked in the cold. Amazing how ten minutes in Michigan makes Alabama seem exotic, a tropical paradise.
My mom glances at me, stops humming. "I want you to take two deep breaths before I tell you something."
"What did you do?"
I make my lungs quiver. She watches, and then:
"I've invited Lindsay's mom for dinner."
Everything shuts down for a second, the car hurtling across the freeway to the other side, a bloody collision. "Why the hell would you do that?"
She huffs, stares at the road. "You think you're the only one suffering about this? Think about her mom!"
I moan. "I came home for a vacation, to stop thinking about all that."
"Well, I think this will help her. Don't you want her to recover? I would want some support." She glances at me. "You've no idea."
My sunny room, the walls painted yellow. I bury the heart-shaped pillows in the closet, lower the blinds, and there's dark lines on the walls like the walls are bleeding. High, quiet voices. Those long-nosed gnomes, those squat little guys with the bushy eyebrows and dotted bowties, I imagine they're responsible for what happened, they found the gun, brought it to Lindsay, crawled over her sitting body, wrapped her fingers around the trigger. A different sort of gnome here in Michigan: the frozen ground twists them each winter, everything shaken, their little brains loosened, jostled, chaffing from the shivering. What was I thinking coming here?
Remy shows up at the house and my mother bursts into tears. "You poor darling!" She leads him to the couch and hovers, patting his arm, straightening his sleeve, touching the sharp spikes of his bracelet.
I stand up, allow him to coax me into his car, a repayment for my mother among other things.
"Let's go through the carwash," he says, screeching from my neighborhood.
"It's really worth ten dollars to have a clean car for a minute?"
"I don't know if you've noticed I don't give a crap if my car's clean."
We drive silently, the window half-down, Remy sucking cigarettes so viciously my throat aches just listening. I huddle by the door, looking at the long white clouds, stretched and tortured against the horizon. We pass several gray brick stores with bright bubble signs and pull in a long drive that brings us up to the beginning of a tunnel. This is when I start getting excited. Remy asks the guy for "the longest cycle you've got." We inch forward, the brushes and sprayers start moving: it's like entering a stomach. We're about to be digested and spit out the other side.
Remy rolls up the window, puts out his cigarette. He pushes his chair into recline and leans back with a sigh. I do the same, reach over and take his hand. I close my eyes, feel the car rocking, hear the whizzing, the purring, the rubbing, the scrubbing.
"This is it," he says. "This is all I want for the rest of my life."
The gnomes find me in bed, peel off the covers, look in my eyes with their little round red ones. They pull my hair and suck on my toes, rake their nails across my stomach. Hello, they say, We like you. We want to be friends. This is the only way we know how.
My mom in the morning: "I don't want to alarm you, but I have a lunch date, a guy I've been seeing. He won't sleep over while you're here."
I crawl out of bed, fussy, exhausted, though this is the first night I've slept through in months. "Who else knows I'm here?" I follow her into the kitchen and she hands me a cup of coffee. We stand facing each other in the new made-up room, all shiny chrome and dark granite.
"Just Denise and Remy. I ran into Remy at the store, he was smelling the cantaloupe. I helped him pick one. I thought seeing you might help him recover."
"Do you have cantaloupe here?"
She smiles and moves to the refrigerator, drags out half a melon covered in plastic wrap. I'd like to grab the melon, bury my face in its sweetness.
"What makes you think I'm in a state to help anyone?" I ask, watching her with the knife. I take pieces as she cuts them. Though they're bland and mushy, I can't stop eating them.
"You're the stablest of us all. You're getting married."
I refused going to the funeral, but I know the cemetery, not far from the school, we used to hang out there together. We fancied ourselves detectives, followed people visiting graves, hoping they'd speak, those conversations with the dead more serene and regretful than the screaming, crashing ones we heard at home. We stood quietly behind trees, large stones, or tombs, holding hands and listening, believing in an intimacy with the dead we did not think existed in living relationships.
After my mom explains the general location, I wander around until I find the flat pinkish stone engraved with Lindsay's name, covered in bouquets with cheap plastic wrappers. I push them off the stone and bury them in the snow. I sit on the stone and place my gloved-hands on her name.
"I heard it happened at night."
I breathe in some air, my nose crunchy and cold, wondering about the air beneath soil, how it feels, how it tastes.
"Do you find it easy to forget things at night?"
I pick the ice out of her letters, wondering about sound, if the gnomes knock on her coffin, if she hears them.
"You shouldn't have done this," I tell her. "There are other ways to destroy yourself. Little ways. I could've told you about them if you'd asked."
Steve's mother calls my cell-phone. "Just a few questions," she says warningly.
I'm in the bathroom applying my mother's foundation, rubbing it in, attempting to look less pale.
"I'm sorry Joan, I'm visiting my mother. I don't have my datebook."
"I just need the spelling of your dad's name. For an announcement in the paper."
I groan. The foundation's too dark for me, it looks like a mask, crinkling as I screw up my face. "We weren't going to do any of that frilly stuff."
"Kristine, you've got to get a better attitude about this, it's your wedding for Christ's sake!"
"I know Joan. I'm just not in a great place to think about it right now."
A pause. "It's an issue of responsibility. Steve told me what happened. All the more reason to make the right decisions yourself."
I try to tone down the heavy foundation with some blush, some pink eyeshadow.
"Maybe you're not sure you want to marry Steve anymore," she says softly.
"Why would you say that?" I drop the eyeliner into the sink, leave a black line on the porcelain.
"Maybe you two aren't as compatible as you were a couple years ago."
Breathing heavily, I look in the mirror, my face painted, a pretty skeleton. "Just tell me what you need to know."
I make fajitas for my mother and Denise in my good frying pan. "It's a special pan," I tell Denise. My mom's in the other room setting the table. "It protects you from toxins and brings you good luck."
"Where'd you get it?" Denise asks, a wine glass in her hand, navy blue circles beneath her eyes. She's having trouble with those eyes, they stick too long when she blinks, like her tear ducts emit glue instead of salt.
"The mall," I tell her. "Its specialness comes from a ritual. You have to perform it when you first purchase the pan." I look at her; the peppers and onions sizzle and steam beside me.
"What's the ritual?" she asks.
"You get the heat going really high," I whisper. "Take a live rat and drop it in the middle." I shake my limbs all around and look at the ceiling, like I'm electrified and seeing God at the same time.
She screams with laughter.
"What's going on in there?" my mom yells.
I stop shaking. "You've got to wait for it to die."
"That's so gross," Denise says, staring at the pan, wiping tears from her eyes. "I'm going to pretend you're joking."
"What's the joke?" my mom asks, walking in the kitchen.
"A dead rat," I tell her.
She looks at me a moment and nods. "Dead rats are always funny."
Remy picks me up, drives me to this field behind his house, the brittle corn crunchy in the cold and covered in snow. Tomorrow I'll go home, plan a wedding. I've just one more night to get through.
I ask him, "Did Lindsay ever tell you about the gnomes?"
He stares at me, flicking his lighter on and off, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The moon's barely out tonight; everything's dark and circular.
"You know," I go on, "the luck-bringers, the fate-handlers? The little guys that come in at night and move things around and make things happen?"
He lights his cigarette. "Everyone knows about the gnomes."
We laugh a little, nervous laughter, mostly from the nose. We lean back and look out the windshield. There's nothing to see, but we hear the rumbling of a highway a few miles away, and we listen a long time.