Benny Remmert loved Julia Williamson. He loved her full-bore and nonstop since the day in Scholl’s Grocery when she reached for his Dinty Moore, paused before punching in the numbers, and said, “This stuff is so danged good.” Before that, Benny had seen her from a distance: in the back of the Williamsons’ Pontiac, on their porch swing, or walking through town. He knew her name because he knew everyone in Pioneer, but it took getting up close and hearing Julia’s thick sugar voice for the ache to start swimming through his limbs. After that, he planned out his needs so he could show up in her lane twice, even three times, each week.
He tried to be reasonable, not to look slack-jawed. While she punched numbers, he consumed what he could—her straightedge jaw, ropey strands of chocolate hair, how she steered cans along the metal chute and past her left hip, how her sandy neck led down into soft mysteries. He waited for the moment when she’d offer her whole face, eyes aimed straight, and tell him to have a nice day. With all the goodness he could muster, he’d return the hope. “You have a nice one as well.”
On one hand, Julia Williamson was a world beyond him. She lived in that big house with a wrap-around porch. Her mother worked at a bank down in Bryan. Her sisters had already zoomed off to Toledo or Columbus or one of those places. And here was Benny, a workingman with no diploma, no inheritance, no parents left to bolster his future, only two rabblerousing brothers who’d blasted the hell out of Ohio after they acquired the means and wheels. On the other hand, Benny had strong arms and good hair. He knew that about himself. He got his share of second glances, and since first hearing Julia talk straight at him, he’d been reclaiming his teenage body. He walked hard in the woods and did pull-ups on sturdy branches. He lived a clean life and figured he had as much energy as Julia would ever need. He imagined them tucked into a small treed lot where no one would be surprised that a hunk of high school dropout could win over the elegant daughter of an upstanding family.
On a Friday in October, Benny made his second weekly trip to Scholl’s. The place bustled. He took his time, pacing through the aisles while Julia’s register dinged at the front of the store. He bought a jar of pickle spears, sandwich buns, flour, a tin of coffee, saltines, and two cans of green beans, French style. He got in line behind Mrs. Dillard. In front of her was Harriet Temple, his eighth grade mathematics teacher, and in front of them all was some thin-shouldered guy, a stranger with a nice coat and feathered hair taking his sweet time. Something he said made Julia laugh. She threw her head back and whinnied at the ceiling. On his way out, the guy turned to get an eyeful of her backside, and that’s when the future bonked Benny in the face. Any day now, Julia would be off to some shimmering life. He had to act.
The next week, he had a big load, double the usual, including some exotic items—canned baby corn and an unpronounceable kind of pasta. He dallied until the store cleared, then made his way up. It was just them—Benny, Julia, and a whole lot of groceries.
“How ya doing tonight,” she said.
She reached for the wedge of Colby cheese. From the side, she seemed to be smiling.
He asked when she’d graduated. “Last year, right?”
“That’s right,” she said. “Class of 89.”
“You going off to college or anything?”
“Maybe,” she said. And then she talked about home—how her father was sick, why that meant putting off plans.
Benny had heard. It was a lung problem that required tanks and hoses and all kinds of fuss, which is why Julia’s aunt and wiry little nephew would come down from Saginaw and stay for weeks at a time.
“I guess I knew about that,” he said. “Not to pry or anything, but I hope you’re doing okay.”
She leaned back against the counter, crossed her arms, and looked at him hard—like an answer to some old question had gelled in the air between them, and while her arms were crossed under her breasts, Benny noticed his groceries sprawled out and unbagged—stretching out the time before he had to walk away.
“You’re Benny, right?”
“That’s right. Benny Remmert.”
“And you live here in town?”
“Out on Main, heading north.”
“The yellow place with the willow tree?”
“Yep,” he said. “That’s me,” and he felt a whoosh—like a pack of dogs were fresh off the chain and tearing through his blood.
“You work here?” she said.
“No, not in town.”
“Up in Reading,” he said. And then he explained how he’d been putting in about thirty hours a week at Ballinger’s elevator, that he’d stopped going to school because Mr. Ballinger himself offered him a job repairing machinery.
She kept staring at his face, so he kept talking. He said everything up close and far away, everything that had shape or meaning—how he was doing pretty well despite losing his mother a couple years back, that the little house up against the woods was just the right distance from town for his taste, that he hoped to keep moving up the ranks at Ballinger’s, that he could imagine staying there because they always had coffee for the workers and holiday bonuses, and that someday, if he kept saving, he might build a cabin on Coldwater Lake, something on the east side so he could watch the sun hit the water every night.
She said Coldwater was nice, that she’d like to live up there someday too, and Benny could tell by the way she twisted her torso when she talked that she wasn’t just making conversation. She was glad to have him up close, just the metal chute between them. And they could’ve kept going like that—Benny watching her jaw move while they planned out a future—but goddamn Hank Elders came up with an armload of potatoes and ground beef, so Julia bagged Benny’s things in a hurry and said she’d see him next time. He walked home with a soaked t-shirt and waistband.
The next week, Julia called him by name—first and last—when he started unloading. “Hello, Benny Remmert,” she said. “How’re things up by the willow tree?” She smiled at her own question and kept it going while they talked about the cool air rolling in. He said he could finally sleep through the night without waking up drenched, which was a crazy thing to mention, but she made it okay. “I know what you’re talking about,” she said.
And the week after that, on Halloween night, even with four or five people waiting in line and a gaggle of kids raising hell in the aisles, Julia said she was looking forward to seeing him outside the store. “Let’s talk sometime without groceries between us.”
He said that sounded good then walked home dodging kids in sheets and laughing aloud at plastic fangs.
November was Benny’s time of year. That’s when he hummed with mastery, when he’d bring bags of venison to grateful neighbors, when he didn’t have to keep his arms down to hide the sweat, when his socks stayed dry and his tree-trunk body glowed against the chill. And this November was tailor-made. Four inches of snow came two days into deer season, which meant good hunting.
At first light, Benny walked into Butch Louck’s land, a seventy-acre swath of unfarmed slopes where he’d been harvesting deer since he was old enough to aim. He headed for his usual spot, a solid plank perched high in a maple. He sat back and watched the cranberry glow turn orange and then yellow. Through his breath, he saw two deer, murky outlines trotting between trees. They turned to specks and blurred away. But no matter. The air smelled like sweet cream. He could already feel the sun on his fingers, and he wondered if Louck would consider selling, if he might draw up a contract that’d allow Benny to buy the land slowly. There were deals like that. And such a thing made sense. Louck himself was old as dirt, barely able to hobble. Maybe he’d been waiting for an offer. Maybe a year or two out, Benny would have a little two-story. Just he and Julia looking over these rolling fields, just them and this cool quiet.
In growing light, there was another shape—like a lone doe standing in a shallow gully. A year earlier, he’d brought in a buck from the same spot. Deer are like that. They follow patterns. They do what others do season after season, year after year. He watched and waited. Any fawns and he’d have to hold. He studied the horizon for movement—for another body, a little ripple of brown trailing behind. But there was nothing, so he took the shot. The concussion filled the sky and the tawny shape rolled from sight.
He took his time packing, climbing down, and crossing the field. There was no doubt. He’d gotten it. He felt the impact in his gut—the punch of sympathy, something he’d conjured and reflected on over the years. You share in the death. You feel it knuckle into your midsection. And when he came into the gully, there was no doubt again. He’d shot little Darren Williamson, Julia’s wiry nephew. The body was curled up and leaking a stream. The eyes were still open and aimed straight up. Benny’s knees buckled and he sat in the snow. He watched his own breath plume out and then he lay back against the slope. He saw the full morning up there and wondered at the speed of daylight—how it runs across the sky like spilt milk over a table. And then he rolled to his right and threw up. He watched the frothy explosion against the snow, how the coffee and pancakes seeped down and mixed with the pink pool.
Julia didn’t work on Saturdays. But Benny went to Scholl’s anyway. In the bread aisle, he closed his eyes and inhaled the air tinged with rye. He breathed until he felt the floor tip. He opened his eyes and counted the loaves—white, wheat, and rye—along the wooden shelves. Seventeen. They’d end up in eight or nine kitchens because most people bought two if they were buying any. In the canned goods, he looked at labels and said hello to anyone coming through—Melanie Falvo, David Parshall, one of the Maloney girls who looked at his empty basket. He grabbed two cans of hominy, walked to produce, and stood by a barrel of butternut squash. He held one in his palm and studied the skin, hard as ceramic, smooth as beech bark. He heard a refrigerator compressor kick in and felt his face tighten, like everything inside was pushing to get out.
He was thumbing his eyes when Miss Temple came along. She parked next him, leaned down on her cart, and asked how his mother was doing.
“Well,” he said, “we lost Mom a couple years back now.” His voice creaked like an old split tree trunk.
“Oh, God,” she said. “I knew that, Benny. I knew it but saw you and forgot.”
“It’s fine,” he said. And he wondered if his eyes were wet or red, if he’d keep on standing here or something else.
“And you’re doing okay?”
“I think so,” he said. “I’m up in that little yellow place north of town.”
“You finishing school?”
“Well,” he said, “no ma’am. I was asked to do some work up at Ballinger’s—at the elevator in Reading, you know—so I’ve been doing that for a couple years.”
Miss Temple nodded, looked him up and down. “They treat you okay up there?”
And then she invited him to come by on Monday, to come knocking any time in the afternoon. She was baking up an apple crisp and would have a dish ready.
Benny said that he would, sure thing, and watched Miss Temple walk away. He thought of hot apple crisp, set down his basket, and walked out the front door. He headed for the backside of the building where vents moaned out over milk crates and old carts. He knelt in a mound of gravy-brown leaves, heard himself whimper. His basket with hominy was still in there by the squash. But he wasn’t going back for it.
At home, he put a second round of seed in the backyard feeder, sat on the step and watched finches dart back and forth—hurling themselves at one another, blurting out sharp commands, each determined as hell to let the others starve or at least suffer a little. He decided he might toss out the feeder, leave the finches to fend for their goddamn selves. After that, he moved a woodstack until sundown. Then he went inside, ate a single piece of bread, and dressed in layers. He got his ax and shovel, then followed his tracks into the dark.
A crescent moon sliced through the cloud strands. There was a sheen of light, sparkling grays and blues. His footsteps cut through the quiet, and he hoped for a thaw—for Indian summer to roll in, to melt the tracks and scuffed up snow. But the wind was still swinging down from the north, still crisp.
He made his way along the gully, up the slope and into the furthest woodpatch where he’d spent an hour that morning kicking out a divot and pressing the boy down, winter coat and all. He’d meant for it to be temporary, a day at most. Now in the bristly quiet, he studied the place, his careful shaping and dusting. The surface had settled, and it looked like iced cream flecked with berries—almost natural, as though some giant airy hand had come along. All the digging would change that. It’d upend roots and soil. It’d look like an explosion. Anyone within range would investigate.
He thought of hauling the body further north into the plowed fields. But there’d be more tracks and digging, an open wound in the snow. He thought of the woods to the east, around Lake La Su An, all the hidden ditches and washouts. But that seemed like trouble. There were too many farms, farm dogs, teenagers roaming on a Saturday night. And using his truck bed seemed even worse. He imagined police cars and flashing lights.
And so he’d wait. He’d let the boy rest. It was below freezing and would be for another day, maybe more. By mid-week, the snow would melt off. There’d be rust-colored camouflage, murky ground, the smell of mulch. He’d come back and spend a night digging deep. He’d bring a blanket for the boy, maybe the soft green one from his mother’s bureau.
He walked north and down the slope. Deer tracks stitched across the field. He followed along, trudged over clods, and drifted into open space. He looked back to where he’d been, where the moon rested on a crown of treetops, and saw himself from up there, like a stick figure—arms and legs making a tiny x on a bone-colored plain.
On Sunday morning, he woke, still dressed, to Margaret Leonard hammering at the door. She was carrying the sad news house to house. Little Darren Williamson was missing. He’d gone out early to play in the snow. The sheriff had brought an extra car from Osseo and there was a meeting at Christ’s Church.
“Noon,” she said. “After services.”
“Okay,” Benny told her.
“They could use your help,” she said. “They need someone who knows his way around them fields and woods.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m coming.”
The assembly room was full—the Millers, the Fitch boys, Hank Elder, Betty Harrington and her daughter, Nan and David Parshall, the whole Falvo clan, Justin Maloney and his girls, Mavis Archer, George Stickney, Butch Louck, crazy Jack Derrick, who didn’t come out of his house for anything, and Julia. She was up front, next to her father, who sat purple-faced by a cracked window. And next to them, Sheriff Hulbert, decked out in full uniform, stood with Minister Bob.
Benny leaned against the back wall. His shoulders jackhammered against it, and he felt hiccups in his feet—jolts that made his weight shift. He headed for the coffee tank, grabbed a cup, and flipped the trigger. His hand shook and the coffee sloshed. He stopped at half a cup, reached for the sugar, and dumped in too much. Betty Harrington’s daughter was watching, big-eyed. He put the sugar down and headed back to the wall.
Minster Bob thanked everyone for their willingness. They were, he said, a testament to God’s grace, proof of the Living Word. Then he gave the update. Darren had been gone, officially unaccounted for, since Saturday morning. He’d been out all night in nothing but his winter coat, some old mittens, and a thin cap.
Sheriff Hulbert explained how they’d set up a grid and send teams to sectors. It was important to cover every foot, every nook and cranny.
Mavis Archer asked if they’d imagined kidnapping. “People sometimes go missing,” she said. “They show up hundreds of miles off.”
The sheriff said they’d considered it. Word was going out along the proper channels. Eyes and ears were open. “We’ll find him,” he said. “But we’re starting here. It’s most likely that Darren’s close by, lost, too scared to ask for help.”
People nodded. They agreed that it was up to them—the people of Pioneer—to get out first.
Benny threw back the coffee, wadded up the cup, and fisted his pockets. His neck felt tight, like ropes were pulling at his jaws. All these sensations, new and terrible. He craned to see Julia, still sitting by her father, probably managing the tubes, maybe whispering the plans so he’d understand.
The sheriff said how the snow was good fortune. Darren’s tracks were plain as day. They went from the house, circled the yard, and then disappeared into the usual downtown traffic. “But here’s the thing,” he said. “There’re some promising offshoots, small enough to be his.”
“Well alright,” Mavis Archer said. “Let’s get to it.”
“Here’s something else,” the sheriff said. “The weather people are calling for rain. Could be early tomorrow, maybe even late tonight. We’ll lose the tracks, so we have to move fast.”
Everyone shuffled. Benny stepped back as far as he could. He listened to sectors get assigned, the teams forming, everything ratcheting up. There was talk of distance and time—how far a boy could walk inside of an afternoon. Betty Harrington murmured something about Darren being a little untamed. Justin Maloney confirmed that sentiment. “A few crossed wires,” he said. Hank Elder wondered who’d let the boy meander around during deer season in the first place, especially in the morning and especially on a Saturday. It made no damned sense, none at all. Mavis Archer snapped at the whole line of reasoning. They weren’t gathered up to theorize about parenting but to find a lost child.
Benny felt a weight, turned, and realized Julia’s hand was on his forearm.
“Thank you for coming,” she said.
“Sure,” he said.
“It’s really good of you.”
“Well,” he said because he had to say something, “I’d like to help.”
Julia said something about her father sitting over there, but Benny decided that he needed to get outside. He made it to the snow, felt it crunch under his knees, and saw the stream of coffee fall. He watched a crater deepen and a few blades of stewed grass come into view. And he stayed like that, his face aimed down and his throat croaking out notes between coughs, until he heard the front door swing open.
He stood, palmed his eyes dry, and used his collar to wipe his mouth. Two blocks to the south, toward the center of town, Scholl’s looked like something from a book, a place in someone else’s story, and Benny decided he’d wait out here for Julia, that he’d tell her straight. She’d understand. It was an accident. The boy’s tan coat at dawn would have fooled anyone, even an eagle-eye shot. By the time he got there, it was too late. He did what he thought best—carried the boy over his back, put him in the ground, and even said a few words into the morning sky, an old verse about welcoming God’s children home.
“Hey there, Remmert.” It was Butch Louck, out of the church and standing close. “You want to head out with me? Back part of my land?”
Benny tried to focus.
“The more eyes, the better,” Butch said. “We’ll circle once and see what we see.”
Others had gathered on the steps, the sheriff pointing and nodding, everyone zipping up and pulling down their hats. Julia wasn’t out yet.
“Let’s hit it,” Butch said, walking to his truck.
And so Benny followed.
They started by the road and traced the ditch. Benny’s legs did what legs do—one forward and then another, no thought required. Butch talked fast about old times and how kids behaved differently, how they wouldn’t disappear back in the day unless there was some serious trouble, which there wasn’t because everyone watched out for everyone else. He stopped in mid-ramble and said they’d outta head for the back. “We’re not bringing in corn,” he said.
“Well, we have to cover every foot.”
“Horseshit. The boy ain’t out here in the open.”
Benny fisted his pockets and they angled toward the back slope. One leg and then another. Snow crunching down. Everything separate and meaningless.
“I suspect,” Butch said, “those dogs’ll find the boy if he’s around.”
“Sheriff mentioned they’re bringing in the hounds—coming over from Hudson. Said it at the end. Should be here later tonight. A whole team. You ever hear hounds on the trail? It’s a wonder. Like they’re singing something, a song they know and we don’t.”
Benny stayed a step or two back and watched Butch’s stride.
“You ask me though,” Butch said, “they won’t find good news. A boy that age doesn’t decide on a lark to spend a night in the snow. Doesn’t happen. Twenty degrees tops this morning.”
Benny unzipped his jacket and let the cold seep in. He thought of Margaret Leonard, how she stood in his doorway, one hand on the screen and one patting his forearm while she gave the sad news, how her mouth would hang open if she knew, how Minister Bob’s eyes would close against the truth of it, how Mavis Archer and Justin Maloney and everyone else would feel duped. They’d hate him for the way he stood in the church, the way he nodded along sometimes, that he drank coffee meant for the search teams, that he used too much sugar.
He measured the distance to the body—a quarter mile, a little less. He tried to invent an interruption, a story, anything so Butch would go home and nevermind this whole business. If Benny could shoo him off, he’d get out there and do what he should’ve done already. Hounds were coming. He’d have to go at least three feet down. He’d need urine, animal scent, hours. But Butch was full of crazy gumption, charging ahead and kicking up snow.
Benny had never seen himself as clever, and now he wished he’d practiced a little—maybe tried some storytelling as a kid. Years back, he told his mom how he and his brothers spent the afternoon shooting headlights out in the junkyard. He could’ve said hanging around, shooting field mice, exploring, anything shy of the full truth. But she’d asked, and he answered, which got them all a big dose of punishment. Before he left Pioneer for good, Dennis, the eldest, told Benny not to be a sucker his whole life. Benny took it to mean he was dumb, some kind of dunderhead. But lately he’d been tossing that off, feeling smart and clearheaded. Not everyone, after all, gets a personal invitation from Ballinger’s—hell, from Mr. Ballinger himself. Benny was good at real things—nuts and bolts, belts and gears, the stuff right there in the moment. You didn’t need to conjure or snake if you could make sense of here and now. That’s what he was paid to do—figure the problem and fix it. Trucks, lifts, conveyors, anything like that. He could test and reason his way along. But this problem was all spread out, hard to grasp. He couldn’t tell what step to take—stay in Butch’s tracks, start running for home, or ask for help, maybe come clean about it. Maybe he and Butch could work together, make a solemn promise, a blood oath. But he didn’t know how to begin—how to go from talk of hounds to what he’d done. There were no good words, just shards of action. He pictured getting in his truck, driving quiet and hard—shooting north past Reading, on up to Lansing, Mt. Pleasant, over the big bridge, through the UP, which he’d never seen before, and then into Canada, into some mammoth no-name forest where moose outnumbered people, where awful men could be forgotten.
“Think I’ll take a look in the last woodpatch,” Butch said.
“Well,” Benny said, “I’ll take that. You can stay in the open where it’s a little flatter.”
“We might both walk it. It’s the only place with any cover.”
“It’s okay,” Benny said. “Let me take it.”
Butch stopped and looked back, his eyes shrinking into glints. Then he looked again toward the trees. The quiet welled up between them. And then Benny obeyed a reflex, something like a bolt from the ground, from somewhere behind him. He shoved with both arms and felt Butch’s shoulders rattle in response.
He made a gangly sprint across the field and kept looking back to see Butch flattened like an old blanket dropped from the sky. He’d pushed hard—hard enough to send the old coot face-first into the clods, hard enough to buy some time. Every minute mattered. He didn’t know why yet, how it would all work, but Benny felt a rocket, a sudden deep-down engine that made all his limbs flail. He kept charging forward, turning back, charging forward, turning back. At the tree line, where a splotch of woods started and went the half-mile or so to his own yard, he stopped and got a good look. Butch was still down, a scarecrow cut free of duty, a plop of old clothes.
At home, he had three stashes, $135 total, stuffed in different corners, places no one would consider. He got $45 from the toe of an old boot and $40 in an envelope beneath the flour bin. There was another $50 somewhere. He checked all the spots—the bottom cupboard by the stove, in the family Bible, behind the one loose chimney stone. Nothing. He couldn’t think. Hounds were coming. He kept going back to Butch Louck, maybe halfway home by now, or not, in which case everything was worse, way worse. The money was somewhere safe, a new place he’d conjured up last spring, one of those soggy days that keep you inside fidgeting.
He tried a full scan, thinking memory would kick in. He stood in the middle of the living room and faced north: the small window, the chest of blankets beneath it, the lamp beside that. He pivoted right: the one upholstered chair, a leather-topped ottoman from his Aunt Mildred. He pivoted again: the threshold to his little bedroom, where he’d go next. He turned toward the kitchen and heard an engine wind up, someone accelerating on their way out of town, someone on the move. And it hit him like a bucket of ice. The $50 didn’t matter.
He grabbed clothes, everything he’d need for long cold nights, travel, looking presentable in some other town. He pulled out food, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, saltines. And in the last few seconds, surrounded by his mother’s furniture and some old photos smiling at him, he grabbed one and then another coffee cup.
And here he is on the Williamsons’ porch, panting, his shirt soaked through, his truck idling in the driveway. His plans are lunging back and forth and all over. He rings the bell. Maybe he’s beaten the news. Maybe Butch Louck is still down.
The lacey curtain on the window shivers and the door swings open. Through the screen, still gummy with summer dust, Benny can see Julia’s eyes—hope, even gratitude. The call hasn’t come. And before his insides can revolt, he says what he’s come to say. “I’m leaving. I have to go.”
“North, I think. Up to Canada.”
Her face goes slack. She’s grappling with it, trying to add up the facts. And watching her struggle, Benny wants to reach through the screen and pull her out of the shadowy hallway, the sorrow and the quiet, the last few years of watching her father in a web of tubes, the shrieks of grief coming pretty soon.
“Canada?” she says.
His truck coughs. From the porch, it looks ready, a fresh sunray gleaming on the hood.
“You could ride along,” Benny says. “If you’d like, you could come with me.” And he means it.
“Benny,” she says, “what’s happening?”
It’s a hard question. She means it seriously. He doesn’t know but figures there’s time to sort it out, that somewhere out there, they’ll both come to understand. And he figures that everyone, sooner or later, heads for the horizon or slides into the ground and never comes back, so if you can, you may as well go ripping into the distance together and cling like crazy because the ground is cold and wet.
He has these thoughts writhing around and all ready to go, and she’s waiting for an answer, her head tilted, her eyes narrowing behind the screen, her expression shifting to something other than wonder. And it comes out of him like a wheeze. “It was an accident.”