Everyone had a theory about Dani or a judgment and a strong inkling that they were right. It had become a pastime of sorts, the kind that sneaks up on you because there is a lull in the conversation or you’re irritable with the day and why not? Telling stories about other people is infectious and ingrained in the human species, whether or not we get things right. So when she took off after the rifle shots, everyone had a pretty good idea what had happened.
Ben was the sort of man who knew better–his upbringing was decent enough, he had two parents who took reasonable care of things and their six kids– but didn’t much or often enough care. If he didn’t get what he wanted at his real work, with his side business or in other more personal ways, he caused a scene that often played out at home. Especially if the audience wasn’t good enough at the bar. But people got tired of his belly aching and the bartender would cut him off and then he’d stumble on his way until he ran into some unfortunate buddy or stray creature. At home, the door was slammed shut and he’d let her have it, everyone said. She wasn’t saying much at all at her post office job. She was not a shrinking violet, she was private. And tough, there was no denying that. Who else could live with Ben Kerrigan?
The bigger question was: who would want to live with contrary, immature Ben who had temper tantrums at the least? And that’s how it started, all the hypotheses that became rumors before and after the rifle shots.
For one thing, she wasn’t from around there. She’d come up from Cape Farnham, a half a day away, and nobody imagined Ben would end up with her. She was sleeker, smarter, and seven years older.
Her co-workers whispered behind her back–or so they thought–right off.
“She’s bound to have come from a tough background, see how she walks? Like she’s ready for anything, heels hitting pavement so hard those boot soles will wear out in under six months,” Tilly said.
“I know but look how she dresses. Money and style, she’ll get another pair if our shoe repair shop doesn’t suit her. Unlike Ben who has no style though he may have some cash. It is funny she wears them all the time, that’s her look, I guess.” Fran snorted.
“Money doesn’t mean class. Time will unravel this one. Maybe it’s animal attraction.”
“Well, she is attractive. That sophisticated shiny black hair–what does she put on it?–and all the rest.”
“I meant him, sad to say, he does have that going for him though who would put up with him? Oh, right, she weirdly does.”
“Just give him ten years. You know how his brother and father turned out.”
Dani came to work and kept her mouth shut except what related to work and, of course, general pleasantries. She was a fast learner and not so hard to get along with as they all got used to each other. All she said about her life down south was that she had cared for her mother until her passing and then asked for a transfer after the family home was sold. So they knew she was flush with more than a few bucks, just no sure how much or from what source beyond the house sale. Dani didn’t flaunt it, just was literally and figuretively well-heeled–didn’t they all want fine leather shoes or boots and flair like hers? But they were luxuries. They half-wanted to overlook things, get to know her, forgive her as they continued to gossip.
But when she got serious with Ben, they were more than taken aback.
“He can be an idiotic brute and is just a carpenter! She has college education,” Fran said as if others had forgotten. He did much of the good work in town, that was also true.
“No, he’s an artiste!” Tilly chortled, as if this was a designation could not possibly fit such a rough blue-collar guy.
The fact was he made things that sold well in Carrington’s, the main gift shop. Beautifully turned bowls and candlesticks and small animal figurines, but also toys, of all things, for toddlers. Plus a few finely wrought and intricate wood puzzles. But this was not nearly enough to endear him to any woman–until Dani came, apparently. The men, they took him as he came, and when they were tired of him, they just walked away if possible.
“She must be in it for something, but what?” Fran said as Dani happened to walk out of the back office.
Dani paused, looked up at her co-workers with her piercing blue eyes and the room cooled twenty degrees. Then she kept on working as if nothing was said. The women tried to keep it quiet until breaks and lunch after that. Dani went her own way, not that they ever asked her to join them.
Life just carried on for about eight months and then Dani moved in with Ben. Some said they’d taken off and eloped and among all the things postulated, this one was true, apparently. She wore a ring; Ben actually called her “my one and only.” The guys at the bar clapped him on the back and he liked that, being a part of the group that had at last gotten hitched and were glad of it. But no one asked him more though curious, as they saw he was in love. That was enough for them, at least for the time being.
More than one wondered if she was pregnant, and so did their wives and girlfriends. But was Dani in love with Ben? Who was this woman and why was she with this guy? Time would tell.
“I heard she comes from some money, her family is into art and she thinks he is a good investment. Weird, huh?”
“You mean, his wood working?” Fran’s husband Jake paid attention all of a sudden. “I need to get busier in my shop!”
“I guess so, he is pretty good at it.”
“Better than I am, I cannot deny it. Well, I suspect Ben got the better end of the deal,” he said.
“Yeah, and now she’s about to be our supervisor since Cass retires soon. I mean, I sure don’t want that job but Tilly is pretty hot about it.”
“Tilly can get hot about a hangnail.”
But Jake wondered even more about Dani, what they were up to. There had to be some connection of dots no one could see. There had to be something way deeper. He didn’t like the talk at the bar about her good looks or her so-called attitude or choice of men and so he kept his thoughts to himself. He wasn’t overly fond of Ben, despite his good carpentry but he wasn’t against the man. Jake just wasn’t a gabber. Gossip was for the idle, he was too busy.
Some wondered if Ben was different around her. They weren’t often seen together yet he still could get prickly when they were about their business. She ignored it, as if it was best not to feed the moodiness attention. Likely, that was true. But they often walked arm in arm, too, sharing each other’s company in a quieter way. Maybe that was her effect on him, calming, despite her almost haughty ways around others.
“Odd ducks, both of them, they’re about suited, I’d guess,” Mr. Carrington mentioned to his wife.
She agreed and that was that at their dining table.
But somehow that idea got around so other citizens just shook their heads when they saw them. Some muttered about Dani’s too-quick acceptance of authority at the post office as if it was a weakness. Her long-legged, fast and strong walk reinforced the appearance of great confidence. Many thought it obnoxious while others said it was captivating. And then there were Ben’s rising prices on those figurines. But overall nothing much else changed except Ben’s bar tab. He wasn’t so often there.
Everyone watched, waiting for the day when Dani would come to her senses, even if no one was exactly rooting for her. And they feared it, too, as Ben’s behavior could be so impulsive.
It was Black-tailed deer season so when the rifle went off, people were only mildly startled. Each year some fool acted erroneously but so far not in a deadly fashion. Those incidents resulted in steep fines if happening within town limits. When the neighbor by Ben’s place called the police, word spread fast and a couple trucks raced up near house before the cops even got there. But no one answered the door so the law crept around back, gun at the ready; another police car came screaming down the road. They found a rifle on the ground but nothing else disturbed. The small, sparse woods behind the place was entered and searched. Soon people called up friends and family and the unofficial reports went flying.
Nonetheless, inside nothing was stirred up or amiss. They went looking for Ben and Dani.
And she was soon found–due to Tilly’s fast snooping–just walking fast and hard down to the bay in her good work clothes but bundled up to fend off wet, chill wind.
Then Ben came out of nowhere and ran after her at a good pace.
“Dani, are you okay? Wait up, Dani, I really want to talk to you!”
Police sirens shrieked but the official cars slowed once they saw the tow of them on the walk way by the sea. Both were accounted for and no one trailed blood. The officers got out and stayed put, preparing for whatever came next.
Ben had caught up with Dani and when he thrust his arms about her, she pushed him off, and garbled words were exchanged. but he kept at it, grabbing her coat sleeve and pulling her close as she beat upon his chest and yelled something not one of the several who had gathered could understand.
Two officers stepped forward with a guarded sense of urgency.
Mrs. Carrington and a friend–both of whom had gotten out of her car and started to call home–retreated. She felt embarrassed and sullied, observing it all unfold. Jake, despite himself, stayed on, gravely worried that Ben had lost his temper more than usual or might do so. He had seen the younger man get into and out of many a scrape; he’d hoped for better things to come. But Tilly, Fran and a couple of their friends (who had been walking, as luck had it) had gathered on a waterfront bench, a couple pairs of gloved hands pressed to their faces in anxious anticipation.
Dani turned and collapsed into Ben’s arms. He led her to an empty bench and as he did so he glanced over his shoulder and saw police advancing.
“No, don’t come over here now! When will you people let us be?”
He shielded Dani’s body with his, but that didn’t stop them and they came up behind the couple, then stood before them with hands hovering by their guns. Then they dropped back as they briefly conversed.
The irregular group of passersby had melded at park’s edge, a hushed murmur rising in puffs of foggy breath. Fran and Tilly and friends were on the edge of their claimed bench, heads together.
Dani stood up, Ben at her side. He put a hand on her shoulder as the police stepped farther back.
“Why are you all staring at us? What is it you just have to know? Did you want to think we’d gone and hurt somebody? Did you think Ben lost his cool and hit me? Were you awaiting news of the dire situation like vultures circling over fresh road kill?”
“Please, Dani, just stop. They’re not worth all this, let’s go home,” Ben pleaded, eyes big with worry and misgiving, with his arms lifted, hands opened to her.
“No, I will tell them. Then they’ll stop making things up.”
Dani walked rapidly up to Tilly and Fran.
“You and you.” She pointed, shook her finger, then let it drop. “You want the raw truth? Then you shall get it this one time.” Dani paced a bit then stopped, arms folded tightly before her as Ben hung his head and shook it once.
Dani’s voice was so low that the crowd edged forward as if one, straining to hear as she lifted her chin a little. Blinked at them, eyes bright and fierce.
“I pulled that trigger on the rifle. I shot into the woods, then right into the heavens. Yes, that’s right, me,” she said as many voiced surprise, “I was yelling at God. Everyone and everything.” Her chin tipped up more. “Because this–this–this is the date my only beloved, three year old child died two years ago and this is a day after the date my father was put in a nursing home after an accident left him irretrievably damaged four years ago…and this is when my mother died last year, sick at heart, bereft of him and her granddaughter. This, you see, is the date my life was changed beyond any reasonable recognition.”
Dani clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream as the crowd started to blur. Was silenced. She pulled in a deep breath.
“I just got out Ben’s rifle, shot a tiny hole in the trees, in the sky. I don’t know why. To find a passage to God or try to hurt the universe back. And it didn’t help.”
Fran could see, in the pale luminosity of winter, a tear slipping down Dani’s reddened cheek and smoothed her own face, chest heavy.
“And now I’m going back home with my husband. And I may even get drunk, if you don’t mind. I came here to start anew, to find peace, and I’m still searching.”
Ben reached for her and she let her hand be taken into his.
“Is that enough for you?” Ben said but his heart and words were emptied of usual anger. “Can we just go on and live our lives now? We’re all just people.”
They strode by everyone–she, an inch taller than he; he, harder shouldered than she–with eyes forward, leaving the police behind, deserting all who shifted from foot to foot with dark faces turned away from the couple whose lives they’d dissected. Made into a common, vulgar pastime.
But Mrs. Carrington and Jake got out of their cars as Dani and Ben neared.
“I’m so sorry,” Jake told them, cap crumpled in his big hands.
“My sincere condolences,” the older woman whispered as she brushed Dani’s sleeve. “Forgive us.”
The couple nodded but moved on down the street, arms about each other’s waists. Their booted feet struck asphalt like exclamations uttered in clearest unity.
Thanks kindly to Derrick Knight, for use of his atmospheric photograph. Please visit his offerings at his blog, https://derrickjknight.com/