On Monday I was passing by the department office and Sally Baldwin noticed me and called to me, and I stopped.
“You need that key to get back into Devon’s office again, right?”
“What—no,” I said. “I think I got what I need—”
“I’m pretty sure you--didn’t,” Sally said. She looked at me like I was stupid. Maybe I was. She asked, “Let’s go down there and look together?”
In a moment Sally came out of her office with a key ring in her hand and a clipboard tucked under her elbow. She pushed by me into the hallway and headed down toward Devon’s office. She was walking fast, boots clopping, keys jangling, and I tried to keep up with her—though I couldn’t think of anything in this place that was worth hurrying to get to.
“I think I know where that file is!” Sally said loudly—almost yelled.
“Good!” I said. Might as well yell too.
At Devon’s door, Sally said, “I think that file’s on top of the file cabinet!”
“Maybe the bookcase?” I asked.
Sally frowned at me and opened the door. She motioned for me to go first, and I went in and turned on the overhead light and she followed and shut the door and we were alone.
“Don’t talk so loud,” Sally said. Now she was almost whispering. “But we should be okay.”
I asked, “What’s going on?”
“Courtney thinks you took something from this office.”
“Yeah?” I asked. I sat in one of the wooden student chairs by the door. I looked around the room—the books, the files, Devon’s sweater hanging from a hook. I said, “Well, I did—the Frankie file.”
“I don’t know what she’s up to,” Sally said. “But she got in here somehow—maybe Otto let her in. But she didn’t find what she was looking for.”
I looked at Sally. I asked, “Uh, what was she looking for?”
“C’mon,” Sally said. “You tell me.”
Sally hopped up and sat on the edge of Devon’s desk. Her denim-covered knees were sort of in my face.
“I mean—I don’t really know.” I know, I’m a bad liar—but that wasn’t too much of a lie. I tried to scoot back from her knees a little bit. “But Courtney’s up to something—and Nancy, and Ted.”
“Yeah….” Sally looked at me through her glasses. Squinted. Green eyes unconvinced. “They’re always up to something.”
Sally’s knees were making me nervous. I could smell oranges, somehow—she must’ve used orange-scented laundry detergent. I got up and went around the desk and sat in Devon’s chair. More comfortable, more authoritative, more safe—a desk between the two of us. Sally got down and sat in one of the student chairs facing the desk.
“Well,” I said. “Yeah, I found some—notebooks. Some writing she did—poems, story beginnings. Some artwork….”
“Devon did artwork?” Sally asked.
“Collages,” I said. “Pictures, clippings….”
“Really?” Sally sat forward on the chair a bit. “You’ve got all these notebooks hidden, right?”
I paused. “—They’re at my house….”
“Better fucking hide them under your bed!” Sally was sort of half-smiling. Joking?
I asked, “Why?”
Sally looked at me for a long time with her deep-set eyes. She asked, “So, are you going to Courtney’s Thanksgiving party?”
What? I said, “Fuck no. I watch football on Thanksgiving.”
“It’s on the Saturday after Thanksgiving,” Sally said. “You should go—I’m going.”
We looked at each other again for what seemed like a long moment. I finally asked, “Why—would I want to go to Courtney’s party?”
“I go every year,” Sally said. “It’s not fun, it’s—”
“Well, Courtney’s there!” I laughed. “How the fuck could it be fun?”
“Yeah, Courtney’s there,” Sally repeated. A real smile now. “So—no, it’s not fun—it’s weird, actually. I go and I--watch them. You know? I try to figure out what they’re up to.”
“Yeah, well…,” I said. I tried to picture what that might be like, leftover turkey with Courtney and her squad. Bleh.
“Think about it,” Sally said. She stood up. “Really. Maybe we can talk more then….”
I stood up, too. I glanced down at Devon’s desk. Something was different. Then—I noticed the empty bowl. The protein bars for hungry students were all gone.
“Courtney took Devon’s snacks!” I said. “This bowl was full last week!”
“Yeah, see?” Sally asked. “That’s our Courtney. Stealing food from a dead woman.”
Wednesday night—the night before Thanksgiving. Full moon night. Lynnie and I met for happy hour, and then, an hour or so after the moonrise, we drove over to Coal Street, on the southwest side of town. In the 19th century the Coal Street neighborhood had been where Weirton’s elite—the oligarchs and mine owners—lived, and their remaining houses—and there were a lot of them—rose solemnly up into the dark leafless branches of maples and American Elms. Cars were parked up and down the street, but there wasn’t any traffic. We got out of my car into the quiet evening and slowly strolled down the street.
We stopped at Martha Street, a cross street. Down a short block to our left was Courtney’s house. It was one of the biggest in the neighborhood, full-on steamboat gothic, three full stories with a pair of castellated turrets on the top of the front that rose for what seemed like two more floors. A fucking mansion. Dull red brick like many of the older buildings on campus, and an owner at some point had added wooden porches to the first and second floors, giant porches that ran around three sides of the house. Looked like there was a deck in back, too, behind a big privacy fence.
“That’s really her house?” Lynnie asked. “Jesus—I’ve driven by it before, I never knew who lived there.”
“She’s an MFA poet who doesn’t even have a fucking book,” I said.
Devon had two books and an MFA and a PhD and died more or less broke. She owned an old car and a pile of debt to student loans. There’s no justice in the academic world.
“How can she afford that place?” Lynnie asked.
“She can’t,” I said. “I looked up her salary on the state employee database—she’s a Full Professor, but you know how we get paid. She makes less money than a starting Assistant Professor at a big research university.” Even in a permanently depressed place like Weirton, Courtney’s salary of $58,000 a year couldn’t afford a mansion like that. And maintenance on the place must have been immense, too. How much did it cost to heat in the wintertime?
“Man,” Lynnie said. “Courtney’s got it going on.”
“She’s up to something,” I said.
I began walking down Martha, toward Courtney’s house. Lynnie followed me. The big November moon was glinting through the tree branches. I could see there were people in Courtney’s house—saw glimpses of movement through the windows. Just people moving, shapes moving.
“I’m freezing,” Lynnie said. “This is stupid. Unless there’s an orgy, let’s go back to the bar.”
The privacy fence around the backyard was very tall—eight feet, at least. Courtney was hiding something.
“Where’s the orgy?” Lynnie asked.
“It’s a cult, not an orgy,” I said.
“Hush,” I said.
We were across from the house. There was a dim blue light on the front porch but most of the porch was lost in shadow. I kept walking down to the far end of the block, then crossed the street and came back up on the Courtney side of the street. A red light went on in the backyard. Then someone yodeled “Moooooo—oooon!”
We stopped walking.
“That’s a weird-sounding orgy,” Lynnie whispered. “Fucking creepy.”
Other voices joined. “Mooooon! Mother Moon!”
The one person—it might have been Courtney—yelled “White-armed goddess! Bright-tressed queen!”
Then everyone sang, “Moon! Mother Moon!”
I looked at Lynnie. She looked at me. What the fuck?
Lynnie whispered, “Let’s get out of here!”
I said, “No….” I walked on up the sidewalk. Slowly. Beyond the fence I heard a voice—this time I was pretty sure it was Courtney—speaking, maybe reciting a poem. Then, passing the front porch, I heard a dog growl, a deep bass growl. I stopped—Lynnie bumped into me.
On the porch a shadow moved under the blue light. A dog—then another dog. Two big dogs. Growling. Then a third. Others maybe in the shadows—a fucking pack. Big dogs—mastiffs of some sort. Lynnie backed off the sidewalk into the street—she tugged at my jacket sleeve.
In the backyard someone shouted, “Selene! Selene!”
One of the giant dogs, broad-shouldered and tall, jumped out of the darkness and charged down the porch steps—and hit the end of its chain and jerked there, growling.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go get a drink.”