Devon Shepherd lived in a duplex across the street from the high school and north a couple of blocks, in one of Weirton’s nicer, newer developments. A couple of young stick-like maple trees had been planted with hope in the front yard and there were more trees—bigger trees—in back. Bushes. Yard covered with brown and red fallen leaves. Devon’s car was parked in the driveway. Blinds drawn on the windows.
“I don’t know,” Tee said. “I feel really bad about this.”
I shrugged. I thought—Yeah, you said that. Of course, I was getting a bad feeling, too. Devon not calling in. Seeing her car just sitting there in the driveway. Not even in the garage. It wasn’t right. I got out of Tee’s car and stood there watching Tee walk up the steps and ring the doorbell. After a moment she pushed the button again. And again. She turned and looked back at me.
“Do you have a key?”
“What?” I asked. “No….”
Not quite a lie: I didn’t have a key to Devon’s house with me. I had one at my house, though, hanging on a hook by the kitchen door. I felt weird carrying it around on my key ring after we stopped seeing each other. She never asked for it back, which always sort of gave me hope.
Tee asked, “Could you maybe go around and look in the back window?”
Whatever, I thought. Make me a peeper. Have one of the neighbors fucking shoot me. But still I walked around to the back and climbed the steps up to the deck and peered through the window. No movement inside—no lights, no Devon. The kitchen was messier than usual—actually, way messier. There were pans and dishes stacked up in and around the sink. Big disordered piles of papers on the dining table, a wine bottle knocked over on its side under the table, what looked like junk mail scattered around on the floor. I hadn’t been over here to Devon’s in a couple of weeks, and I knew housekeeping had always been a pretty low priority for her, but I’d never seen it messy like this before.
I said aloud, “Shit, Devon. What the fuck happened?”
A small gray and white cat came over to the patio window and opened its mouth for a meow, silent through the thick glass.
“Hey, Fuzzhead,” I said. “Where’s your mom?”
The cat meowed again silently.
I said, “Tell me about it.”
Back in front of the house Tee was leaning against Devon’s car, talking on the phone. She looked at me and nodded twice forcefully.
What the fuck did that mean?
I sat on the damp steps of the duplex and pulled out my phone. Tapped on Facebook and opened it. Looked for Devon Shepherd. Devon didn’t post very often—she didn’t really trust social media. But.
This has been the worst 980 days of my life. A goddamn nightmare. I’ve had to endure a hostile, sexist work environment--
Fuck me, I thought.
I don’t want to read this.
I looked up—feeling guilty, feeling like I was reading someone’s most private diary.
Tee was still talking on her phone.
I tried to think: 980 days—that would be—that would be, I tried harder to think—I’m not good at math or calendars—that would be maybe like three years. Almost three. About the length of time Devon had worked at Southeast Kansas, of course. The worst time of her life.
Though I knew that already—she’d said so many times. We’d talked about it so often. Teaching at SEKSU was the worst time of her life.
But still. Saying that publicly was different than saying it to me.
I looked again at the first few lines. Sexist. Hostile work environment. Fuck. Suddenly worried that someone would take the post down, I tapped on the share button and sent the post to myself as a message.
Jesus. The last time I talked to Devon—last Friday. Just three days ago. Devon had been unhappy, Devon had been upset. Not unusual. But before she got mad at me and called me clueless—and blind, and deaf—she’d talked around about, sort of half-hinted about what she said might be some serious problems in the department, and then she sighed and said, “There’s just some bad shit going on with Courtney and Nancy.”
But she never said what kind of bad shit, exactly.
And, fuck—you know, I never really asked her.
Courtney Keadle and Nancy Buckley. They were two of the other creative writing faculty—horrible people—they could be up to all sorts of bad shit, and probably were.
But I didn’t ask Devon about them or about the goddamn bad shit. I just went home in a snit, with my little hurt feelings, mad at Devon for calling me blind and deaf, and I spent the weekend working on my job materials, and I applied for a job that I immediately regretted applying for.
But what happened to Devon?
Tee pocketed her phone and walked over. She said, “The landlord’s coming over to let us in.”
“Yeah?” I asked. I thought, Let us in.
“This is bad,” Tee said. “Did Devon ever say anything to you?”
“Uh, no—not really,” I said. Though of course every time Devon opened her mouth she’d had something to say, and a lot of times she had something bad to say—or, not bad, exactly, but something she was unhappy about, something she didn’t like about the school, or a student, or some dissatisfaction she had with Tee or with Courtney or Nancy. There’s just some bad shit going on with Courtney and Nancy. Devon was unhappy, she was bummed, she was overwhelmed, she wasn’t getting any writing done. She was tired. But, fuck—was she any more tired and overwhelmed last Friday than she was any other time? Maybe she was. Maybe she was and I didn’t pay attention. Maybe I didn’t take her seriously. Maybe I was so caught up in my own shitty depression that I didn’t even notice her. I sure didn’t ask about the bad shit. To Tee I said, “I mean—hell, don’t know. She said she was overwhelmed, she said she was tired.”
“Everyone’s overwhelmed and tired,” Tee said. “That means nothing.”
After a few minutes Tammy the landlady drove up in a while Ford pickup, a kind-looking and pasty pale woman with graying red hair.
“I don’t like letting you in like this,” Tammy said. “It’s kind of an invasion of her privacy, you know?”
Tee said, “Well, we’re worried.”
“I mean—jeeze,” Tammy said. “Did you call her brother?”
Tee glanced at me. I shrugged. Devon’s brother, Anthony. Was I supposed to call Devon’s brother? I’d never met Anthony, I just knew that he existed somewhere—a truck driver based in Atlanta or someplace like that—and that he seemed to be in trouble a lot, in and out of jail.
Tee shrugged, too. “We didn’t want to worry him until—”
Until—what? I shook my head. Fucking Tee.
“I don’t like this,” Tammy said. Still, she unlocked the front door and stepped back to let Tee go inside—to let me go inside, too. Fuzzhead the cat trotted over to greet us, yowling. The front room was messy—scattered papers everywhere across the floor, books in odd places, three wine bottles and four glasses on a table by the couch.
Wait. I stared at the glasses.
Why four wine glasses?
Devon usually drank wine from coffee mugs. Easier to clean up, she’d said. Less likely to spill. But maybe this time she was celebrating, or something. A special night—it might be. It must have been.
“Devon!” Tee called. “Are you home?”
I glanced back over my shoulder at Tammy the landlady, who was standing there wide-eyed. Fuck. At last I finally fully agreed with Tee—yeah, this was bad. Before, you know, I’d been kind of irritated at having to leave my comfortable dim office and go outside and hang around with Tee and deal with something, and I really had been thinking--hoping—that Devon was just so disgusted with SEKSU that she didn’t want to come to work, or that she was lolling around drunk and high, or maybe she really had just found herself a new boyfriend, or maybe she was at least normally sick with a cold—but looking around that room, seeing all that mess, hearing the hungry cat yowl—I felt this sudden big quiet knot of doom, of tension—of fear—in my chest.
Holy fuck this was really bad.
“Devon! Are you okay?”
I didn’t think Devon was okay. No. The last time I saw Devon—only last Friday—she’d been angry, tired, frowning, sad. Suspicious of whatever bad shit Courtney and Nancy were up to. Which is to say—she was pretty much normal! That’s how she had been for most of the three years I’d known her! What the fuck should I have said to her? Courtney and Nancy were always up to some bad shit or other. I was unimpressed. I was bored. I had other things on my mind. What the fuck was I supposed to say?
The thing is, I didn’t say anything.
I let her walk away and I didn’t really ask what the problem was.
Damn it, Devon.
What the hell happened?
I realized Tammy was standing there behind me wide-eyed, but also sickly eager to violate Devon’s privacy herself and look inside. Tee was still standing stock still in the middle of the messy, cluttered living room.
“Devon, are you okay?”
Fuck you, Tee, I thought. She’s not okay.
I stepped on into the house, into the living room and I immediately smelled the unemptied cat box—but I smelled something else, too. Something greasy and heavy, like meat. Fuck. I walked on in past Tee and went on into the kitchen, Fuzzhead the cat following. There was a bit of water left in one of the cat bowls, but the food bowl was empty. Poor kitty.
“Tom—you can feed the cat later.”
I found a bag of dry cat food on the kitchen counter, half-hidden among wadded-up scattered plastic grocery bags, three more empty wine bottles, and a pizza box. I filled the empty bowl and placed it on the floor for the hungry cat.
Tee was staring at me like I was crazy. She looked horrified. She said, “You don’t have to do that now!”
“Mister Fuzzhead’s hungry,” I said. I bent down and patted the little cat, felt him purr.
“Wow, this is bad,” Tammy said. “Look at the wine stains on the carpet—we’ll have to get that cleaned.”
“Tom?” Tee asked. “We need to find Devon. Maybe she’s in the bedroom?”
Tee stood there, looking at me with her watery half-bulging eyes—waiting for me to lead the way. I just looked back at her, feeling that scared tightness in my chest. I thought—Fuck you. You’re the boss—you go first.
The landlady pointed down the hall. “The bedrooms are back there.”
I knew where the bedrooms were but I was goddamned if I was going to be the first one to go snooping around down there. Devon was down there, probably. I stood there feeling pressured and tense—stubborn, too—and after a moment Tee started down the hall.
The first door, on the right, was Devon’s office. The desk and the area around the desk was covered with random scattered piles of paper—the computer monitor peeped out from the pile, the printer was almost buried, the keyboard somewhere beneath it all—and balls of wadded-up paper overflowed from a wastebasket and were scattered across the floor. But probably two-thirds of the room was taken up with tall stacks of cardboard boxes unopened or half-opened. I remembered those boxes. Poor fucking Devon.
“She never finished unpacking,” I said. Even after three years. “She said she never had enough time to put things away.”
The bedroom was the second door, on the left. It was closed.
Devon always slept with the door open, so Fuzzhead could come and go.
Why was the door closed?
“Devon!” Tee called. “Devon—are you okay?”
There’s not going to be an answer, I thought. I know that. Don’t you know that? She’s not in there taking a nap—she’s not in there getting laid.
Tee cracked open the door and peeped in and gasped. Then she turned and pushed past me, past Tammy, and bolted back down the hall. Over her shoulder she said, “Call 911.”
I looked into the room. There was Devon—dead. Of course. Predicable, right? After all this? Everyone’s bad feelings come true. Devon laid out in her bed, on her side, brownish stinking stains on the sheets, pale dead flesh greenish and moist and nasty in the dim light, hip up in the air, naked from the waist down, wearing a University of Georgia football jersey—number 34, Herschel Walker. The Georgia Bulldogs. Devon loved Georgia. She wished she’d never come to Kansas—but there she was, now, in Kansas, dead.
“Tom!” Tee yelled from the front of the house. “Call 911!”
Fuck you, I thought. You’re the chair. You and your people treated Devon like shit for three years and now you won’t call even 911 for her.
But still I made the call.