Tim Millas lives with Susan and Clare in New York, Florida, and Maine. Twenty-five of his stories have been published to date, in such journals as Adirondack Review, The Battered Suitcase, Confrontation, Conte, Dirty Chai, Eclectica, Exquisite Corpse, Literary Orphans, Gargoyle, and Unlikely Stories, and in the print collections Best of Nuvein Fiction and Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind. This is his fourth appearance in Amarillo Bay. You can reach him at email@example.com.
The black of Maine night blinds everyone who enters it. Gil was drunk and already half-blind before he entered, but hours later, when his eyes opened to black, he instantly knew he was awake. Because his dream was green.
In the dream he was moving. Couldn’t feel his legs, but he felt his motion. Not fast, yet he was unable to stop, his helplessness accelerating. Light splintered and became leaves, branches thrusting into his face. His panic turned green, green in his eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, and he couldn’t hear what Vee was saying—
So black came as a relief. He left the bed, found the living room, stumbled into a chair, felt Teedy’s wet nose against his leg, and all was still black and he realized it didn’t matter. Fleeing the dream only brought him back to its source, which the purest black couldn’t hide or pardon.
But neither would he return to bed and risk sleeping again. He thought of Vee in her bed, fifty miles away. Was a coma the same as sleep? Was everything black, day and night, or did she dream in green, like him?
Teedy’s tail thumped the floor. Thanks to his hangover Gil felt the vibration in his skull. “OK,” he said, and stood, and he could hear the dog’s panting and the click of her toenails. He knew how many steps would get him to the door. It opened to a cooler black. He heard a grunt as the dog left to do her morning dump and patrol.
Several light switches were by the front door, but Gil didn’t reach for them. In his mind’s eye he saw everything anyway. Moving from living room to dining room, he saw the table. He put out a hand and felt it. A cracked round table left by the previous owner. He saw Vee sitting there, her skin white enough to be luminous. In two weeks she’d made it her creation table, where she drew and wrote and sometimes sang her Barry stories. Your Gold Mine, Gil would call him, not affectionately, to which Vee would reply, “Not gold. Half dog, half pig, half dragon, and Very Red!” Gil would remind her that nothing contains three halves. “Oh! Mathematical Gil,” she would laugh, all the while sending Barry into new adventures, because she could work in the open with her husband talking at her.
Gil could not fathom this. He needed a silent room with the door shut to do basic accounting.
He made coffee in the dark. It wasn’t hard because he knew exactly how many steps to the freezer for the coffee, exactly where on the counter he had left the coffee maker and measuring cup. He did it by rote. The way he did everything.
By rote he drank half a jug of water, to start flushing out the vodka consumed last night to make him sleep. By rote he walked back to the living room, straight for the wood-burning stove. He knew where that was—a black presence at all times. Vee hated it. She’d asked two contractors about replacing it with a fireplace. Both pointed out that a fireplace could not be a direct replacement: it would become the new spine of the house, demanding extensive construction. “Fine,” Vee said, glancing at Gil. “We can afford it.”
She said We to include him, but Gill knew what it really meant: She could afford it now.
Vee had always wanted a house with a real fireplace. On one of their Maine trips they visited Stoneland, an island off the coast near Sky Hill. Vee had heard that a famous artisan school, Barn Cliff, was there. Along the way she noticed a dirt turn-off with no street sign and told Gil to follow it. The road got narrower and bumpier for what felt like a mile, with increasingly dense evergreens pressing in. Abruptly they came upon this house. An ancient man stood outside the front door, motionless as if he’d been rooted there longer than any of his trees. He didn’t look happy to see them, but within seconds Vee had him showing them around.
Small, with grey-brown shingles, the house had that “Maine-made” look that Gil thought shabby but Vee loved. The old man had built it himself and was the only person who had ever lived in it. Back, front, and left sides faced thick woods; the right side faced Penobscot Bay, not from a cliff but a yard that sloped downward, the grass thinning into mud, rocks, then water.
The old man barely spoke, never smiled, yet he didn’t miss a beat when Vee offered to buy the place. Said he’d sell it at half market price if they paid cash. It was Gil who stood there with his mouth hanging open.
And now Gil kicked the stove. He punched the stove’s exhaust pipe that extended from the top all the way through the roof of the house. This made plenty of noise but hurt his hand and foot more than the stove. It easily withstood his rage, as it had withstood Vee’s dislike. It was still here and she wasn’t.
# # #
Had they sat her up yet, or was it too early? Down or up she seemed to be thinking about something with her eyes closed, lips curving like a heart about to speak, fingertips stirring with her latest impulse.
But her head was shaved. When they crashed, the back of Vee’s head—she’d turned away instinctively to shield Teedy—struck her window frame with such force that her brain began to swell. They had to cut a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure.
Size of hole, degree of swelling, he would have buried himself in facts like these, but couldn’t, because of the central fact: he had caused this. It was his fault. The crash was totally his fault.
In the first days of her coma, Gil had asked if Vee could wear her favorite hat, a junky beret she wore when she was sketching, because “it arts me up.” The nurse was reluctant since Vee was at high risk of sepsis, but he pleaded until she took the hat and sterilized it. He was allowed to place it on Vee’s head while he was visiting.
The beret was that particular red Vee loved. She wore it in hats, coats, scarves, stockings, lipstick, nail polish—sometimes all at once. Even so she always looked good. Her clothes rag-tag or gypsy, hair cut nearly as short as Gil’s, eyes a little too close-set, teeth eccentrically spaced—yet the very first time he saw her Gil knew he must have her, and that she had him, had co-opted his mind, changed the rhythm in his chest. I looked at her and that was it for me, he would say. “See? He’s so romantic!” Vee would say, and even her friends, who thought Gil dull, so unlike lively and loving Vee, couldn’t argue with the look his words put on her face.
Once he took her hat to the paint store and went through swatches with a puzzled salesman to determine what red it was. Vermilion—but she never called it that. She called it her Very Red. It wasn’t deep or bright, yet looked rich next to her white skin. It might have made her features too stark, except a faint film of freckles—covering every inch of her, even toes and ears—prevented that.
“Hey Vee,” he said, the first time they let him bring it. “I got your very red beret here.” It sounded so nothing. He couldn’t even say it right. “Time to art you up,” he made himself say, and placed it lightly on her head, to the side so it would cover the spot where they had cut her skull; she liked to wear it off center anyway. “You look beautiful—” He stopped; the sound of his voice was unbearable. He would have cried if he knew how.
# # #
Gil always assumed he would get married, because that was what everyone did; yet he’d somehow reached age 38 no closer to marriage than he’d been in his twenties. Nor would he ever have met Vee in the normal course of things, since he lived on East 80th and she shared a dump way down on Hudson Street. He worked for the NYC Department of Finance; between waitressing, she freelanced as an art director. They met by chance in the lobby of his office building. He was going to lunch and she was waiting to show cover designs for a new college-recruitment brochure that HR was developing. One slipped off her lap to the floor, he retrieved and handed it to her, and she asked him what he thought of it. He didn’t answer because he was looking at her.
So he waited until her appointment was done. He told her he was taking her to lunch. She laughed: “I know a place.” Gil had worked in the area for fifteen years, yet she took him somewhere he’d never noticed, a second-story hole that served Thai food hot as a blowtorch. They laughed about how much water they had to drink to get it down. She traced the sweat on his forehead and said: “Don’t you want to know my name? It’s Vee.” “Just the letter V?” he said. “No, V-E-E. Originally Verna, what was my mother thinking, right? I like vintage but that’s too vintage even for me. And you are?” But again he failed to answer, because again he was looking at her.
When they married two months later, none of Vee’s friends thought it would last. From day one she was the dreamer and he did things. She the source of all fun, conceiver of adventures, discoverer of weird movies or outsider art, who brought home a starving stray mutt with stunted legs and ugly yellow-brown fur and somehow intuited her need for a gluten-free diet. He the source of moderate but steady income, payer of bills, the one who read the map and drove the car and remembered to fill it with gas, who didn’t want a dog yet tracked down the store that carried the special food the dog needed. All the while refusing to call her anything but the dog. And Vee laughing and instantly making a name from his refusal—Teedy, or “TD” spoken. And Gil admitting this was clever, and finding himself one day calling “Teedy!” to breakfast.
In this way their marriage had endured for six years. As long as they stood perfectly opposed, it worked. And then came Vee’s victory with Barry.
She had always scribbled funny pictures, silly words. Gil smiled at them because she did them; he never expected them to amount to anything. But a friend shared Vee’s scribbles with another friend in publishing, and the publishing friend showed them to an editor, and the editor contacted Vee and gave her a tiny advance to make the scribbles into a book. And Vee, who never concentrated on anything for long, concentrated long enough to create Barry.
Gil was amazed that she finished it. And then the editor published it. It sold so well that Vee was offered a big advance to do a Barry series. Combined with her royalties on the first Barry, it was enough to buy this house, even enough to reconfigure it for a fireplace if that was what she wanted.
Gil had accumulated decent savings in his twenty-plus years of work. Gil also liked Maine in his way—liked the driving, plotting of directions and logistics to fit in all the antique stores and artsy places Vee wanted to visit. But he never considered blowing a huge chunk of money, their future, on a house up there. And when Vee said she would pay for it, it was like an ice pick had pierced Gil to his core.
Not that he admitted this to her or himself. He argued against it for logical reasons: they already had one mortgage, the house would need a ton of work (even forgetting the fireplace), they’d never spent more than eight days in Maine and winters were terrible.
And Vee said: “But baby, we have the money to pay for it outright. Without touching our savings. So still just one mortgage. And forget winter, we’ll do summers here. And if we decide we don’t like it, or you don’t like it, I promise we’ll sell the house. Even make money on it, right?”
So again Gil was astonished—her logic was stronger. He couldn’t argue with it. “OK.” He kissed her. “We’ll give it a try.” But in that moment, their loving opposition became a silent war.
Vee didn’t know they were at war, and Gil never declared it. But he prosecuted the war in a thousand ways.
He took charge of negotiations, using the house inspection report to demand repairs. Once, the old man threatened to call the deal off; Vee’s tears made Gil temper his approach, but not before shaving another thousand off the price. Then, though it killed him to use up his vacation, he got the old man to agree to let them spend two weeks in the house before the closing. “Let’s really live in it,” he said to Vee, “put it to the test. We can always back out before we sign the papers.” The way Vee smiled when she said OK told him her mind was already made up, which made him all the more determined to unmake it.
Now Gil not only did all the packing, he reviewed every item Vee planned to take, rejecting anything not “Maine essential.” He wouldn’t let Vee take the wheel even once on the drive up, and packed so much food and drink they only had to stop a couple of times for gas. He got them there in eight hours; and, though exhausted, he did all the unpacking and shopping and cooking, not letting her touch a thing.
Each morning he woke Vee with a list: “Here’s what we’re doing today.” “Monster Gil,” she would moan, but nevertheless joined him on room-by-room re-inspections of the house; helped him price tools, lumber, lawn mowers, generators; sat through interviews with caretakers and contractors. He made her listen to the local vet describe the shots and collars Teedy would need, along with horror stories about dogs attacked by coyotes or carried off by giant owls.
The night before the closing, he sat Vee down and tallied what they’d already spent, future costs, flaws of the house, threats to Teedy, likely weather damage. Vee listened to all of it, and said: “Gil, you’ve been so wonderful on this trip, worked so hard for us, but I don’t think you smiled once. Do you not want this house? If you really, really don’t want it, we won’t buy it.”
“Of course we’ll buy it,” he said instantly. “I just wanted us both to be—aware.” He made himself smile. Then spent the rest of the evening packing and not speaking.
The plan was to do the closing in Rockton, pick up Teedy and luggage back at the house, and drive straight home. Gil was up from three a.m. plotting strategy for the closing. Once again things got tense, the deal almost in jeopardy, but finally, to Gil’s amazement, he extracted another check to repair a cracked pipe weld in the basement. It was two in the afternoon by the time everything was signed and packed and they were on the road.
Since Vee refused to put Teedy in a crate, on long road trips she sat with him in the back seat holding his lead while Gil sat alone in front. Now she was happy, extra silly, planting her beret on his head, singing “Sniper kiss!” to Teedy who lunged to lick her face. “It’s our house!” she kept saying. “Think about it, right? Our house now! Thanks to you today. You were great.” Gil reminded her to put on her seat belt. “Yes sir, Chauffeur Gil!”
Gil forgot to listen for the click of her belt. He felt weary to the marrow of his bones. Vee had won. He had to admit it finally. The house wasn’t “ours” but hers. She had found it, paid for it, and now would make it the site of endless creative projects. She’d done it and would keep doing it without any help from him. He was unnecessary.
And if not necessary, what was he? Making money—but she made her own money. Handling the bills—but she could always hire an accountant. Their friends were hers and none of them liked him. He never said anything funny, or conceived a destination, just handled transport—a car service could do that. How much longer before Vee realized this and left him? Maybe she already realized it. He smelled pity in her praise of him, her playfulness. It drove him further into silence.
Vee and Teedy grew quiet. Abruptly she asked if he was all right. “Are you tired, my negotiator? You were up so early.” He didn’t answer. Soon he could hear her breathing, and Teedy’s snoring.
They’d left the island far behind, were on a long stretch of Route 1. The trees on their right side were so dense and deep he couldn’t see to the end of them. His mind wandered. Did the trees get so thick you had to turn sideways to squeeze through? Did they draw closer the farther you went, did branches and leaves interlink, was there a point where the light couldn’t get in? Afternoon sun flashed over his windshield and splintered against the wall of leaves, making Gil squint; and then he was parting the leaves, squeezing between the trunks, going deeper and deeper until he reached that innermost point, where at last he could disappear.
Vee wasn’t asleep after all. Gil heard her calling to him, but he couldn’t make out the words or ask her to repeat them. He could only move forward, leaves and branches coming at him, green choking his eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears. Then came the smack and crunch of wood to metal to bone, and his side and spine were burning, and he heard the disembodied voice of roadside assistance, are you all right Mr. Selving, and he realized he had dozed and the car had gone into the trees. He tried to turn but pain in his neck stopped him. “Vee, my God! Are you OK?” All he got back was the sound of Teedy’s panting.
# # #
The black was turning grey. He could make out shapes in the room, the frame of the window. Light. Through the window he saw darting across the grass: squirrel or rabbit maybe, followed, too late, by lumbering Teedy.
Gil rose, forced down three cups of coffee and another half jug of water. He made his shower brutally hot then cold, trying to wash away his drunk and rouse himself for Vee. He brushed his teeth, pushed his hair back while avoiding the mirror. In the first days, with hopes of waking her, he’d used the mirror to practice his expressions, rehearsing the husband whose love for his wife had the power to open her eyes.
He did love her! But at her bedside his voice would fail. Vee’s eyes never opened, her silence never changed. The doctor had told Gil that they still detected “brain activity.” But after twenty days, the odds were against her ever waking. He didn’t need the doctor to spell that out.
It was past six thirty. The hell with it, he would start now. He dressed, called Teedy, fed her and walked her to the car. Teedy jumped into the back seat, always excited to see Vee, though her panting affections had no more effect than Gil’s.
The morning sun widened and warmed the air. As the car began to move, Gil glanced across the yard and saw light splinter against the wall of trees. He stopped right there and got out, leaving the door hanging open.
He took one step and heard Teedy jump into the front seat, then onto the grass. He turned and said: “Sorry, but don’t follow me. Sit. Stay.”
Teedy sat. The fur around her face was so overgrown that only the nose and mouth were visible. The head didn’t cock as it would at Vee’s voice; the nose simply stared back at Gil. Gil took another step, turned: Teedy hadn’t moved. “Stay,” he repeated. He didn’t look back again.
Finding a gap between two trees, he pushed aside some high weeds and stepped into the woods.
Instantly there was buzzing in his ears, itching down his arms; the sensation of swarming, things brushing his face, insects and weeds and fir needles but other things too, which he couldn’t identify. It was cooler in here, yet the dense air felt fevered. He moved forward, then yanked his foot back thinking it was about to land in some poison ivy, lurched to the right and froze just before some bare branches impaled his cheek; he pushed at them and they were so brittle that two snapped off in his hand. Damp to the touch though. The yard grass had been dry, but in here, a few steps had soaked his shoes and socks.
“Come on,” he muttered, pushing forward. Much of the ground was covered with moss, it looked soft and felt bumpy, a crazy quilt of rocks and roots that made every step a stumble, an almost-fall. Then he fell. Skinning a hand to break the fall, sputtering at the impact of stone against his knee—“Fuck it!”—turning to retreat. Then he remembered following Vee, in the Bahamas, onto a beach at noon; the sand scalded the soles of his feet, he sputtered Fuck it and ran back to the beach’s wooden entrance path. Some passing kids laughed at him and Vee laughed too, from the sand, her own feet planted on it. “Just ease into it, baby,” she said. “Like a hot bath . . .”
Gil refused to let his feet touch sand for the rest of the trip.
But remembering made him turn and continue. He tried to see everything calmly. Tried to step forward and accept what his feet encountered. Trees ahead and all around, varieties of pine and oak, close as teeth and then a tooth missing, a gap filled by flowering weeds, yellow, purple. The swarming steadied into a kind of silence. Mosquitos, yellow jackets, and, on the ground, beetles scuttling toward a rock. To his left a cloud of flies, or ants with wings, feeding on something dead. There was as much dead here as living, for every green tree a bare one, rotted, propped up by its neighbors like a corpse in a subway.
Moving on, he heard birds overhead, not birdsong but the scraping of wings. As he approached a particularly thick tree, a buck burst from the other side, froze under his gaze, then disappeared into the woods.
That’s what he needed to do. He knew it was wrong not to be going to the hospital, wrong to abandon Teedy. But he needed to keep going until he reached that spot where no sun could reach. It was time.
The first step, Gil realized as he passed between two evergreens, was to not recognize that one was white pine and one was spruce. To not identify the red weeds flaring up as a kind of sumac. Stop all that—cataloging, seeing. He glazed his eyes at the next tree and pressed his cheek into it. Feel it: but he pulled back because what he felt was something crawling on his neck, under his shirt, and he tore the shirt over his head and watched a huge black ant flee down his bare side. Once it got on his jeans he lost sight of it.
Gil reached for the shirt and saw his arm stop, as if the arm had thought for him. He left the shirt behind. He knew he was being bitten, scratched as he moved deeper, and that too he had to move past. Gil—he had to move past that. He—that too must pass, if the goal was to disappear.
So more walking, and more clothes came off, belt, boat shoes, socks, jeans; freezing once like the buck at the thought of his wallet. Only a second and the second passed, not even a conscious rejection, simply moving again, wallet and his and buck and money not only gone but without reference.
At some point no underwear, just air everywhere. No more trees just shapes, where colors end sensations begin, buzzing and scraping without origin, smelling seeing shoots of pain a sudden hooting not separate anymore but the same. Yes. Y-E-S, word to letters, letters to lines, lines dissolving—
—And then “Vee. V-E-E. Originally Verna. And you are?” He hears it, sees her, somehow talking with mouth and eyes closed and Very Red closing the hole in her skull. He sees himself, Gil.
Gil raked nails across his chest and punched his own crotch. He doubled over, but stayed on his feet. His nausea like a smell in the air. It’s still not dark enough, he thought. Walking on and on and on, trees closing in but still not dark enough. He still saw. Even through the interwoven leaves, light pierced him.
Then, far ahead, there was something. Something he couldn’t see through, tall but wider than any tree, massive beyond bear or Sasquatch.
He took a step, and wondered if it had taken a step too. Had it been moving while he moved, closing the gap between them? With the intent of taking him, swallowing him whole? Gil stopped. Let it come.
He waited, but the thing came no closer. Yet still it could swallow him if he entered its mouth. So Gil closed his eyes, bowed his head, clenched every fiber of his body, and charged.
# # #
A wet sound. Not rain on his face but something thicker, swirling.
An animal; but he was being licked, not eaten.
“Teedy. Jesus.” But Teedy wouldn’t stop licking until Gil raised his head.
His back felt stabbed and cushioned, as if on a bed of rubber nails. Throbbing bones in left temple and solar plexus. Touching his head brought a hiss from him that made Teedy whimper and lick again. “No. No sniper kisses, honey. But thanks.” Then slowly propping onto his elbows, wincing at a spasm down his back. Whatever he’d slammed into must be rock hard.
He hadn’t budged it; that was clear. Neither had it swallowed him; and as his eyes adjusted to its shadow, he knew it would not. It loomed over him without a hint of threat. Or any attitude.
Searching for a face, he found stones, and a few bricks, mortared in irregular rows. With Teedy dancing around him, Gil slowly, painfully got to his feet. Still the thing towered, easily higher than five men. Wide at the bottom, tapering upward. Gil tried to step around it, stumbled, fell on his face, and his gasp blew something up his nose, making him cough. Black and cold. Cinders.
It was a chimney.
His head was in the hearth, a square opening at the bottom with waist-high bricks on either side, which could hold ample wood for a fire while drawing the smoke up the tower and out. A chimney! Here, where nothing could possibly have been. Here in fact a house had been, although the chimney was all that remained.
Gil circled it, and then moved further out and around, but found nothing else. Maybe the house had burned down. Or fell with time, leaving only this to be surrounded but never absorbed.
And then he knew something. It was not a fact but an idea. Conjured by him, created right inside his own head. This was Vee’s chimney. This is your chimney, Vee. All we have to do is move it. It’s the fireplace you always wanted.
He realized he’d spoken out loud. It all sounded right.
He turned to Teedy, who stopped at the sound of his voice. “Right Teedy? This is Vee’s fireplace; all we have to do is plant it in our house!”
Teedy whined and ran back in the direction they had come. Before he took a step she was in front of him again, her whining garbled as once in Central Park when she’d brought him a dead pigeon, but now her mouth held something whiter and dirtier: underpants. “Thank you, Teedy.” He took them, put one leg through, cursed the agony of his groin and back, then managed the other leg without toppling.
“Go,” he said to Teedy. “Find daddy’s things.” She went, and he followed. Pain surged from multiple places, but in his excitement he could withstand it; his mind was working, filling up with ideas, what was needed to transport that chimney, how it could be done. Most of all the idea of telling Vee about it, of waking her with it.