By Kristen Milano
The gifts appeared around the same time Elmer’s cabin began falling into the river in earnest.
True, he had long noticed the slanting of the structure, the way it listed to the north. For years pens and candlesticks had been rolling toward the river side of the main room when left to their own devices. But the snow and ice in recent months had been unrelenting, leaving the cabin’s perch above the river ever more precarious.
The greatest hazard was the screened-in porch. The river bank had eroded enough that its supporting beams, once invisible in layers of packed soil, were now exposed and bowed at an angle to the building. The porch sagged toward the water below.
Elmer resolved not to use the porch. There didn’t seem to be anything much a man of his age could do to remedy the situation. He had resigned himself to the gradual disintegration of his home, much like his body. He dragged an old plastic lawn chair outside and slumped down each morning with a grunt as the woods awoke, sip-ping his gritty coffee to the roar of the current.
It was early spring and the river was angry and bloated with melted snow. Elmer’s river was cut into the mountain, narrow and rocky with a current fit to make mothers yank their children back from its gnarled banks. That is, if there were any families on the mountain. As far as Elmer knew, the woods were inhabited only by a bare smattering of lonely hearts who had recoiled from society as if it had bitten them. The river rushed on, solitary and angry, and that was how Elmer liked it.
The first gift was a bunch of wildflowers.
On an April day when the river pushed itself over its banks, Elmer shuffled along the dirt-packed road to the old homestead. The warmth in the air was sliced open every few moments by a remnant wind from more frigid days. The homestead was a frequent destination on his rambling walks— a clearing containing the remains of a two-hundred-year-old stone farm house, nearly indiscernible from the road.
The bouquet could not be missed, its vibrant blue a shock against the deadened ground. As Elmer ap-proached it, sidestepping a sunken cornerstone, he saw it was a handful of wild geraniums lain in the exact center of the farm house ruins.
At once Elmer felt exposed. He squinted warily into the surrounding forest, his breath taut beneath his ribs. But he was, as always, alone.
Back in the cabin, Elmer set the flowers in an dusty jelly jar. He glanced at them repeatedly as darkness thickened in the woods, his eye caught by the shocking beauty of the spring bouquet. Who would leave such a pret-ty offering in that hidden rubble? And would this person notice— or care— that Elmer had taken it?
The questions needled him as he heated his condensed soup and settled into his bunk. They drove him back to the homestead the next day, and that was when he found the earring. It was one of those dangly types, metal strands interwoven in an ornate pattern and only just tarnished. He pocketed it furtively.
The following days saw an accumulation of gifts from the homestead. The carcass of a luna moth. A chipped porcelain figurine. Tiny oblong stones formed into a spiral on the deadened grass.
The unease of being observed was muted by Elmer’s acute desire to know his watcher. With each new item, he became more certain the gifts were meant for him. They appeared with such regularity, such precision. And so he continued to collect them. They began to form a shrine on his rickety kitchen table. He spent hours inspecting and handling the items as the daylight wained, running his knobby fingers over them as if to reveal their secrets.
On the rainy seventh day, Elmer was placing a hawk feather into his collection when the screech of the rusty porch door jolted him to attention.
It was a girl standing feet away from him, just inside the door frame. She was young— fifteen? Nineteen? Isolation and age made it difficult for Elmer to guess. Her clothes were grimy and riddled with holes and muddy streaks. Her dark hair hung limply around her face. She stared at Elmer as though silently pleading with him, eyes wide and honeyed. Though Elmer didn’t know anything much about teenage girls, it was clear that she was on the run just as clear as it was that she was pregnant.
“Get off that porch,” Elmer’s voice was cracked and rusty from disuse. “It’s not safe.” He waved the girl inside to get her off of the porch, which he could swear he felt lurch as she stepped forward heavily, one hand on her rounded middle.
Once in the main room, girl said nothing. Her brow furrowed and she breathed heavily.
“So?” Elmer asked gruffly, the only way he knew how. “Care to tell me who you are and why you barged into my home?” Even in the musky cabin light he could tell she was still a kid, too young for that swollen stomach. He let his grimace soften just a bit.
“I’m just looking for some food.” The girl looked down, her face splotchy with shame or fear, Elmer couldn’t tell.
He wanted the girl to leave. His couldn’t hear the river above his pulse and the feeling reminded him of why he chose to live out here, away from postmen and next-door neighbors with their petty chatter and unan-nounced visits. But to turn away a pregnant girl in this April chill?
He motioned for the girl sit down on a kitchen chair coated in a thick layer of dust and shoved a package of cookies toward her unceremoniously before beginning to stoke the potbellied stove.
As pine-scented warmth began to spread through the cabin, Elmer sat back in his armchair. The girl was inspecting the collection of gifts on the kitchen table as she ate. She took one of the stones into her hand, caressing it like a beloved pet.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” he asked, the ancient cogs in his head beginning to turn, that spark of curiosity the gifts had brought him reignited. “The gifts at the homestead.”
The girl nodded slightly, still entranced by the stone. “Once I saw you take the flowers, I wanted you to come back. I thought you looked kind, maybe lonely. But I didn’t know what to say to you.” The girl had been living in a tent for the last two weeks, surviving off scraps of food she scavenged from here and there. But now the tent was soaked. The food was gone. She had no options but the solitary old man she had seen in the clearing.
Elmer didn’t ask why she had run away. Something in the girl’s face told him she’d been hardened young in life, that she didn’t trust easily. But surviving on the mountain had tamped the tough out of her. She sat slumped against the chair, exhausted.
There was nothing for it but to let her stay. Elmer gave her only what she needed, blankets that smelled like mothballs and half of his meal of soup and sliced bread.
“I’m not lonely,” he said as the girl settled onto the threadbare couch to sleep. “Just alone.” He pulled the cord to extinguish the hanging bulb before she had a chance to respond.
And the days went on.
They spoke little. Elmer wanted to ask her where her family was, or when she would leave, or what on earth she would do when it came time to have that baby. But talk was tricky, and Elmer was out if practice. Easier instead to slip past one another inside the cabin, for Elmer to go on living as he had lived before, silent and without compassion.
“I like this place,” the girl said one bright morning, standing in the doorway.
The circles had faded under her eyes, but those frown lines— that hardness— remained. She had taken to rising early, even before Elmer, and sitting on the slanted porch, arching her back so her shoulders touched the wall of the cabin. He had warned her about sitting on that porch, but she seemed intent on it and Elmer figured that any living thing so determined to hurt itself should be left to its own devices.
Elmer grunted a thanks to the girl’s comment and turned toward the sink, but she spoke again, the first question she had ever asked him. “Did you always live here, alone?”
“No.” Elmer stayed facing away from her. He took a breath and continued, keeping his voice steady. “Used to live a normal life. You know, around people and such. Not since a long time ago, though.”
“Why do you want to know?” Elmer turned to the girl, expecting her to make some jab, to call him a her-mit or a crabby old man. But her eyes were as wide open as he’d ever seen them and she said nothing. “If you really need to know,” he relented, “I never liked people so much. Not a big one for conversation.”
The girl snorted. A laugh, but not an unkind one.
“I just…” Elmer hesitated. “Well, I just seem to disappoint people."
He picked up a dirty plate from the sink, aware of the silence that now blanketed the room.
“Did you have a family?” she asked after a few moments had passed.
“I did. Once.”
“But you disappointed them.”
Elmer sighed. “Yes. I did. I hurt them many times over until they didn’t want no more of it. And I can’t blame them.”
“My family always hurts me,” the girl spit the words out.
“Maybe that’s what families do,” Elmer paused. “I’m better off here. No people, no hurt.”
Elmer concentrated on scrubbing the dish. He felt exposed, just as he had when he found that first bou-quet. There was something unexpected rising in his chest, now his throat. It was a feeling he’d carefully built his cab-in to keep out. He swallowed hard to force it down inside him. He didn’t need this girl’s prying questions, her judg-ment, her expectations.
“Getting warmer out,” he said. “You best be leaving here. It’s no place for a baby and you’ll be needing a hospital soon.”
Elmer saw the girl’s hand instinctively go to her stomach and even in her hardness she looked wounded. “Okay.” She said. But she made no move to leave.
When Elmer returned from his walk that day a spring wreath hung on the outside of the cabin door. Bare twigs and evergreen boughs intertwined, warped into a ragged circle. She had placed flowers here and there, the same ones Elmer had found that first day, and for a moment he thought this was meant to be her goodbye. But inside he found her standing at the electric burner, stirring water into Campbell’s cream of mushroom, as if nothing had changed at all.
Elmer began to wake in the night, worrying about the girl’s growing stomach. The rhythm of his life had been unchanged for years. Each day he had the river, his walks, the tasks necessary to continuing his simple exist-ence. For a time, he had thought life could stay the same with the girl. After the day with the wreath she had asked no more questions of him. He had come to enjoy her quiet company and waking up in the morning to his coffee already brewed. But he knew this could not last. His cabin was more ramshackle by the day, his canned food quick-ly depleting. This was a dying, forgotten place. A place apart from the world. It was no place for the girl, and cer-tainly no place for a new baby. No, the girl would have to go. And his life would go back to what it had been before. He tried to ignore the dismay this thought stirred.
There was no phone in the cabin, so Elmer had to work up the courage to get the thing done. He felt nau-seous as he shakily turned the keys in ignition of his old truck. He hadn't driven in half a year. He didn’t tell the girl that he was leaving, just snuck out the back door as she sat on that damned porch above the river.
The police station was in the county seat, twenty-seven miles away and further than Elmer had ventured in a decade. The officer in the gray-tiled reception area looked at him condescendingly, taking in his haggard beard, his moth-eaten coat, and Elmer knew what he was thinking. Crazy old hermit.
“This girl showed up at my place. She’s about to have a baby. Must be someone looking for her.” He felt like his tongue was swollen in his throat, his hands were balled into fists. He fought the urge to run back to his truck, away from the sterile walls and the officer with his raised eyebrow.
The officer gave him a binder filled with posters of missing girls. And just like that, there she was. Sixth page. Evelyn [Evie] Larrow. 16, Alton Bay.
The officer followed him back to the cabin in a cruiser. Elmer’s knuckles were white around the steering wheel, his throat tight as he sucked in shallow breaths. He had betrayed the girl. He knew this. He had never even asked her why she’d run.
The old Ford rumbled past squat little houses on the side of the route, tidy and welcoming with carefully tended gardens, and Elmer thought of his own sinking cabin, its wooden beams hollowed in places by the carpenter ants he could hear chewing in the summer nights and did nothing to stop.
He would fix the porch. That was it. He would find a contractor. Pay a hefty sum from the bank account that had sat untouched for years. Make the cabin safe, so that when the girl— Evie—had her baby she could come back to visit. They could sit silently on the porch, side by side, and listen to the rush of the water while she rocked the child to sleep. He liked that image. It eased the catch in his throat, reminded him of the sight of a new gift on the damp ground at the homestead.
The flow of the river was so deafening the girl didn’t hear the cars approach. She was still sitting on the porch, dozing, when Elmer and the officer stepped through the screen doorway and the officer said loudly, “Evelyn Larrow?”
She jolted awake and scrambled to her feet as fast as she could, her eyes wide and feral. She backed away from the officer, shaking her head.
“No. I won’t go back!” She began to cry as the officer was shuffled toward her, mumbling platitudes, grabbing at her arm. She jerked it out of his reach and looked at Elmer with a rage that sheared him from the inside out. He had seen that type of rage just once before, in another woman who had been everything to him. He wanted nothing but to escape that look.
“It’s the right thing,” he said quietly. But he wasn’t so sure anymore.
That was when the floor lurched.
Evie and the officer were occupied with their rough back-and-forth, but Elmer felt it. “Watch out,” he tried to say, but his voice was a dozen pebbles in his throat. Then, louder, “Out!”
They glanced at him, and, as the porch heaved again, they fell, as if one being, through the far-side screen doorway onto the solid ground, Evie landing heavily on the officer. Elmer scrambled toward the door, the floor bucking under his feet. He was inches from the door when the beams below gave a great crack! And he was in the air, legs flown out from underneath, reaching for anything to hang onto.
He landed a half second later on the screened side of the porch, which was now nearly parallel to the ground and dangling just above the gushing current. He lay on the two narrow wooden beams that connected the screen to the floor, flecks of water spraying his hands and face.
Elmer thought about it for an instant. He thought about lifting up his weight and thumping down heavily, forcing the porch to complete its descent, forcing the inevitable conclusion he had been creaking slowly toward for his last isolated decade. Images raced through his mind. Evie’s enraged glare, the way he had betrayed her, surely he deserved death for this and for so many other opportunities he had squandered in his miserly life.
But what came to his mind was the wild geraniums. That flash of azure, that little burst of life in an abandoned place.
And he was crawling, carefully now, barely hearing the cries of Evie and the officer over the roar of water just beneath. The cabin groaned and shuddered, as if it could no longer bear the weight of its warden. And still Elmer crawled, almost to the door now. The officer held out his arms as if Elmer were a fragile child, and Elmer grasped Evie’s hand and allowed himself to be lifted by the officer until finally his feet were on the soil, one knee throbbing in pain from his fall.
As they huddled on solid ground the porch gave a final searing snap, and they watched it break off from the frame of the crooked cabin. They sat silent on the bank, the only ones in those woods for miles most likely, and watched the swollen current tear through the screening like some hungry sea monster. It ushered the mangled porch downstream, breaking up boards as they slammed into boulders and low-hanging branches, turning the water dead brown with mold and filth.
Elmer watched until the debris had been swept out of sight downstream and the river ran clear and foamy once again. And still he did not move, his face turned toward the rushing water, his chest heaving in concert with the flow.
He knew his future then with more certainty than he had known the porch would eventually give, or that Evie was a runaway. The officer would take the girl and he would be alone again, in his rotting carcass of a cabin and his lost corner of the woods. He knew it was all his doing, knew he could be sending that girl back to someplace unkind, violent even. He could have let her stay, he thought now, why hadn’t he let her stay?
The officer cleared his throat and grasped Elmer’s arm, helping him to his feet. “Well,” he said, “we should get a move on. The parents will be at the station by—” the officer swallowed the end of the sentence. As the two men turned, they saw that in the space where Evie had sat just behind them, there was no one. Just a patch of emp-ty grass beside the river.
Elmer squinted into the woods around him. He willed away the throbbing of his knee as he hobbled to the remaining cabin door, peering in although he knew already she would not be inside. The officer was calling for her now, hands cupped to amplify his voice among the pines. He climbed into his cruiser and tore off to look along the dirt pack road that connected to Elmer’s drive.
Elmer stayed where he was next to his ruined cabin on the riverbank. Evie, he knew, would not be found. Later that day, the officer would slip her picture back into that thick album. And he, Elmer, would return to meting out his remaining time as if the girl had never appeared at all. Elmer’s knee seared with white-hot pain. He reached out to steady himself on an oak, and as he unclenched his fist something small and shiny spiraled out and onto the mossy ground.
With effort, he bent to retrieve the object. It was a screw, weathered and rusted a perfect bronze. A screw from the lost porch. Her final gift, Elmer understood, remembering Evie taking his hand as he stepped from the lim-bo of the broken porch onto solid ground. And though he hadn’t known he had been holding it all this time, when Elmer examined his gnarled hand he realized that the screw had already left its perfect imprint on his palm.