Authors: Jessica Katoff
“I’m going to have to undress you, if you won’t do it yourself,” Hilary tells her weightily, as Harper sits motionless in the basin. She doesn’t want to have to treat her twenty-six year old like a toddler, but she will if need be. She swallows thickly while waiting for a response that doesn’t come. Harper only stares unseeing at the dripping faucet as her sweatshirt floats loosely around her in the water. Nodding gravely, Hilary rolls up her sleeves and reaches beneath the waterline to pull the hem of her sweatshirt over her head, leaving her in a tank top and ratty pajama shorts. The sweatshirt hits the tile of the bathroom floor with a wet thwack as she discards it, and Harper turns her stare from faucet to floor, her hands moving in slow motion to reach for the little piece of her that’s been taken away. “You can’t have it back, Harp. You need to bathe. This isn’t healthy.”
“I can do it,” she says, but her voice is just as frail as her body. Hilary picks up a washcloth from the rack above the tub and sets it in her waiting hand, staring down at her skeptically, eyebrows raised and head cocked. “I can do it,” Harper repeats, her hand balling around the cloth as she submerges it in the lukewarm water. She pulls it out from beneath the surface and makes a show of rubbing it down her arm. “Really.”
“You’re sure?” Hilary asks, reaching across the expanse of the tub to grab a bottle of body wash. She hands the bottle off to Harper, who only answers her with a hard gaze. “Okay. Well, if you need anything, I’ll be out in the hall.”
“I should get out of the house,” Harper says absently as she wipes the remnants of her finished sandwich from the corners of her mouth and sets her napkin on the table beside her clean plate. Hilary is in the middle of making one for herself, as Harper hasn’t left as much as a crumb in the past few days, but she doesn’t mind the extra work. She smiles at her daughter’s words as she flips the bread in the pan and hums a positive reply, not wanting to sound too excited by her obvious progress. “Can I take Dad’s truck?”
“It’s yours, so I don’t see why you couldn’t,” she says with a shrug, flipping the bread again. She taps the spatula on the countertop as she turns around to smile at the back of Harper’s head. “Going anywhere in particular?” As she watches Harper’s shoulders shrug, she turns to grab the shopping list off the refrigerator. “Well, how do you feel about going to Safeway? We’re running low on milk.”
“I can do that.”
Hilary sets the list beside her on the table and watches as she scans it, her index finger moving over the items on the list. There isn’t a lot written there, so she won’t have to be out for long, and Hilary thinks this is a step in the right direction, one that will put her back into the world and further away from her wrecked remains. And it’s a big one, because it’s one Hilary hasn’t forced her to take. Harper looks up from the list and smiles. It isn’t a big smile, not like it used to be, but it’s a glimmer of hope, and Hilary nods while grinning back at her.
“Do you mind if I add some things to this?” Harper asks, her hand already reaching for the pen that sits atop the newspaper in the center of the table. “I kind of want some pasta.”
A week later, Hilary finds Harper on the couch in the living room, her stare focused on the blank television screen, with a book resting open in her lap. When she left in the morning, Harper had just started the novel, but now she has nearly half of it pinned under her thumb. She shifts her gaze and watches as her mother hangs up her coat and removes her scarf. When Hilary meets her stare, Harper offers her a smile, inclines her head and hooks her thumb in the direction of the kitchen. “I made fried chicken,” she says, setting the book on the coffee table as she rises. “It’s probably cold by now and the bird’s obviously not from the shop, but it’s good, I promise.”
“Did you eat?” she asks, moving through the room to the adjacent kitchen. Harper trails behind her, stretching her limbs as she goes, and leans back against the countertop while her mother removes the foil from the dish on the table. “Doesn’t look like you have.” Harper wrings her hands and stares as Hilary drops a thigh onto one plate and a breast onto another, and motions for Harper to join her at the table. She makes a face but not a move, and Hilary’s quick to ask, “What? Not hungry? Is everything okay? Harper, you can’t keep doing this—”
“I’m fine. Really. I was just thinking,” she starts, slowly inching closer to the table as if not to frighten a skittish animal or a small child. Hilary has a nervous look in her eyes, one Harper easily recognizes, and she knows her mother thinks she’s slipped. Harper smiles reassuringly as she reaches the table and sits beside her, and Hilary’s relief becomes obvious when her hands unclench her napkin and she relaxes into her chair. “I was thinking about maybe going over to Rhodes tonight.”
“Harp,” Hilary sighs, reaching over and covering Harper’s hands with her own. “I don’t know if that’s the best idea.”
“I promise I won’t binge drink, if that’s what you’re thinking. I know, when Dad died things got a little out of control, but I haven’t—I just—I don’t know. I just think going there might be good for me.” She slides her hands from beneath her mother’s and tugs down the sleeves of her sweater, pulls them over her hands. It’s a nervous habit, and as she does it, she finds she is suddenly very unsure of herself. She hadn’t considered the ramifications of showing up there, to that place that became home to her and Liam over the years. They had their first date at Rhodes Gastropub and Speakeasy, when they were sixteen—a basket of buttermilk onion rings and a pair of Weinhard's Root Beers, with a side of awkward conversation and stolen glances. In the years that followed, it turned into their magnetic north, the place where Harper, Liam, and their various friends studied, hid from rain, snow, and the summer sun, discovered age-old musical treasures in the jukebox and newer gems in the speakeasy, and just generally existed. It was where they had all kinds of firsts and lasts and everything between, and she quite honestly missed it. But every inch of the place would remind her of him and she hadn’t thought of that until now. “I’ll just—I’ll have one drink and see what happens.”
“Look, I can’t stop you—I
stop you—but if you need me, you call. You hear me?” Harper nods and tries not to notice the worried pinch of her mother’s eyebrows. “One drink.”
She collects her things quickly and pulls on her coat under the watchful eye of her mother, who has worriedly torn the skin of the chicken thigh to pieces. Harper smiles again, trying to reassure her that this will end well, that it won’t hurt, even though she’s no longer nearly as confident as her smile lets on. Keys in hand, she offers a wave, resolutely pulls open the front door, and steps out into the night.
Austin yearns for a bit of melancholia—some Hank Williams, a little Johnny Cash, a heavy dose of Merle Haggard—and feeds his hard-earned lumberyard money to the jukebox with gentle murmurs of appreciation on his tongue. It gives him synthpop, instead—a laughing bass beat that mocks him and his solemn mood. His heavy, leather boot collides with the side of the machine just hard enough to make the song skip and sputter to a stop. Disheartened, he stalks away from the machine and over to the bar. The empty beer bottle in his grip connects with the heavily lacquered wooden bar top with a sharp clatter, and earns him an annoyed glance from the bartender and namesake of the pub, Dylan Rhodes. Austin regards him with nothing more than an indifferent glance and a haughty, beckoning-type gesture for another beer, a motion at which Dylan snorts.
“You may think that rough and tumble routine is endearing, man, but all it does is make you look like a fucking jackass,” Dylan tells him, though he swaps Austin’s empty for a fresh beer, as instructed. Austin leans across the bar, his mouth set in a cocky half-smirk, grabs the bottle and twists the cap off with his forearm. He rockets the cap at Dylan’s face and walks off as it connects, his half-smirk shifting to full-blown and devious satisfaction. “One day, I’m going to ban you from this place, Hayward,” Dylan calls after him, rubbing at the spot on his cheek where the bottle cap nicked him. He could easily do more than that—his physique that of a linebacker—but he has a tendency to go easy on Austin, recognizing more than a bit of himself in his wayward nature. “Wait and see, lumberjackass.”
“You go on and do that, Dylan. See how well that works out for you and your bottom line,” Austin calls over his shoulder casually, before tipping his head back and taking a long pull from the bottle. “We keep you in business.”
“We?” Dylan laughs the question at Austin’s back as he continues to cross the bar. “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re a few short of
Austin doesn’t let Dylan bait him, pretends not to hear him, just as he’s pretended for weeks that his loneliness isn’t a fact, and that he hasn’t been abandoned—again. He keeps his eyes trained on the door, hoping that Liam will walk in with Harper on his arm. They’ll order up a pitcher and some shots, give a salute to life and love, and throw darts until the bell signals last call. He stares, but the door only gives way to familiar strangers—the scholarly-looking old men who come in after work to drink brandy and dissect Shakespeare’s themes, the artsy-type women who gather in the corner over a bottle of organic red and discuss Ayurvedic cleanses and the Ashland Culinary Festival, the occasional misguided young tourist with a big city sense of entitlement and a fake ID, as if Dylan would fall for that kind of thing—and Austin begins to feel the slow creep of the desolation he’s been denying. Staring down at his boots, he tries to shake the feeling, but it settles into his spine and he sinks down into a booth to try to fight it off, beer his only weapon for battle. When he reaches the bottom of his bottle, his empty arsenal, and resigns himself to defeat, that’s when he hears her.
“I’ll, uh, beer. Something red—amber. You know what I like, Dilly.” There’s a chasm in Harper’s voice and a broken kind of ache fills the spaces between her words. It’s painful for him to hear, and he wants to go to her, tell her he’s still there for her, and that they don’t have to be alone.
He finds himself torn. In every breakup, there are sides to be taken and he knows to which he would likely be assigned, if that were the case, even if Liam left him, too. Deeper than friendship, he and Liam grew up as if they were kin, and Daniel and Sylvia Barnes nurtured and loved him as such. But Harper has always meant so much to him—too much, maybe.
From the moment Austin saw her, seven o’clock in the morning on Monday, August 11
, 2003, in Mrs. Watts’ homeroom, he wanted her, and that feeling has never left him. It was with him when she went on her first date with Liam six days later and when they became an official couple on the fifth of September. It was there the first time they went out as a trio—
at the Varsity on a Sunday night—and the first time Liam was absent from school and she sat with him in the quad at lunchtime. It was in the midnight food runs he made for Liam, Harper, and Hilary as they sat vigil at her father’s bedside at Ashland Community and as he watched helplessly as Liam held her that May morning in Hargadine Cemetery. It came with him every summer to the banks of the Rogue River and the hundreds of nights he slept mere feet away from her and Liam in the Barnes’ basement. It was his sole reason for not dropping out of high school and what anchored him to Ashland after graduation, even when he had so many reasons to leave. It was with him every single day of the four long years Liam spent at OHSU, the more than fourteen hundred days he ate lunch at Meat and Eat during that time just so he had a reason to be in the same room as her. It made every relationship of his fail, made each kiss taste sour and every woman pale in comparison to her. It was in everything, is and continues to be everything.
He listens for her to speak again, just so he can hear it, that ache that touches the corners of her words, and as she says, “Oh, no thanks. I’m good,” he’s granted all the justification he needs to let his loyalty cross the line. With his empty bottle pinched between his fingertips, Austin detours to the jukebox, his eyes trained on the back of Harper’s head as he moves. He toes the machine lightly, an apologetic caress of a motion, and a prayer falls from his lips as his fingers insert the money, his eyes still on Harper as he presses the familiar buttons. The soft, saddening pleasure of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” floods the air as he walks across the bar to her, and sits just to her left, deliberately obscuring himself behind the curtain of her copper-colored hair. He says nothing, just sits beside her, and he already feels less alone.
“Aussie,” Harper whispers and it’s almost a sigh, but it isn’t a greeting, only recognition. She doesn’t need to turn toward him or glance his way to know he’s there beside her. She knows the change in the air around her, the slight warmth she can feel along her left side, is Austin. He is, as he has been for as long as Harper can recall, implicitly identifiable by the crisp scent of freshly cut wood, mingled with spicy cologne and cigarette smoke, by the soft shuffling sound the soles of his well-worn leather boots make on the tile. She knows it’s him and she knows she’ll cry if she looks at him, so she focuses her attention anywhere else—the wood grain of the bar top, the drink specials written in chalk above the bar, the neon RESTROOMS sign in the far corner. Austin is watching her much in the same way that Harper isn’t watching him—intently. They both have the same desolate look to their eyes, no matter where their gazes settle. She sighs heavily and finally turns to him, tears prickling at her eyes before they can even really see him. “You’re cruel, you know,” Harper tells him, her voice a low whimper. “This place used to be like home to me, and I came here to—” She snatches her bottle of beer from the bar as her voice breaks and she swallows long against the glass, the bubble and burn of too much liquid flooding her throat helping her threatening tears to spill. She gasps for air around the sting and fumbles the bottle back onto the bar, looks over at Austin again, and there are so many kinds of hurt apparent in her brown eyes. “Playing this song, while I’m here—how could you, Aus?”