Where They Live by Nickalus Rupert

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A small two-bedroom across the street from a shooting range. They’ve moved east to escape California and the wildfires that claimed two of their houses. He manages the local record store. She spends sullen afternoons doing voice work in her home studio—radio commercials and jingles, mostly. Every time he leaves home, she says, “Don’t get shot out there”—a joke between them, only she’s not joking. Cloistered in her soundproof vocal booth, she fears people with guns; streetwalkers who might poison their cat; the brown water that pours from the taps; the wedge-shaped F-4 tornado that tore through the year before, maiming three high school volleyball players and scouring a geometrically perfect line from end zone to end zone. She even fears the pothole near the end of their driveway. Toward the center, an elliptical hole.

“It’s just a pothole,” he says. “I’ll call the city and they’ll fix it.”

“What if Madmartigan falls in?”

He calls the city. They decorate the pothole with an orange hazard cone.

Weeks pass, and the cone becomes the cat’s favorite rubbing post. She lands a string of commercials for southern parlor-style ice cream. Tornado sirens wail about disasters that never take place. The water turns clear for a while, then darkens. A truck driver flattens the hazard cone, and then it disappears. 

The pothole expands, the driveway sags. She begins parking at the gun range, but he’s stubborn. Every time he parks his Camry, he makes it a point to roll over the pothole.

“Still only a pothole,” he says.

This year’s tornado is only an F-2. Their house doesn’t lose a shingle, but the gun range loses most of its roof. The cat is nowhere to be found. While they’re searching, a reporter shows up and asks them to stand in front of the range and describe the storm. 

“Sounded like a freight train,” he tells the reporter. 

“People always say freight train,” she tells the reporter. “It sounded more like Niagara Falls.”

They’re still bickering about the sound when the reporter and camera guy pack up. She follows him inside to finish their worst fight since moving. They argue about the move, who forgot to let Madmartigan inside, whether or not she’s qualified to hawk southern-style ice cream.

“You’re from Sacramento,” he says.

She heads to his music nook and smashes two Steppenwolf LPs and an autographed Fleetwood Mac. He pours her $100 pinot—they’ve been saving it for her thirtieth birthday—into the sink. Then he charges into the back yard with a bottle of Clorox. He bleaches her herb garden, her cucumber patch. He comes back inside breathing heavy and reeking of chlorine.

“I hate this place,” she says. 

“I’m happy anywhere,” he says, eyes bulging to show the enormity of his happiness. “You’re miserable wherever we go, and you can’t even describe the sound of a goddamn tornado.” 

Furious, they fall upon the couch and peel off their clothes. It’s arguably the worst sex of their marriage. Even the afterglow takes on a sharp edge. Crossed arms, bodies parted. He’s the first to leave, and she worries that he’ll consider this a victory.

“We’re in need of Tylenol and a sack of cheeseburgers,” he says. 

“Try not to get shot out there,” she says.

He winks at her, or he tries to. It’s been a while since they charmed one another. She decides that maybe they’re not doomed. People suffer worse marriages, don’t they? She watches him through thrashed blinds. She extends her finger, making a gun of her hand. He fastens his seatbelt, gives her a playful salute, rolls backward. She closes one eye and fires an imaginary bullet to the left of his breastbone, and he and the Camry sink from sight.

It takes the police over an hour to arrive. They probe at the gaping pothole with the toes of their shoes. One lies near the edge and crawls toward the center.

“It’s the strangest thing,” he says. “Could’ve swore I heard music.”

“I think he was listening to Bob Seger,” she says.

The cops mark off the pothole with yellow tape. They stand around for a few minutes, shrugging, until the dispatcher radios them about downed powerlines a few blocks to the south.

“But he’s still down there,” she says.

“Ma’am,” says the cop on the ground, “you should probably take this up with your insurance provider.” 

A premature cold spell narrows the pothole. She begins spending mornings out there, drinking tea and speaking into the void. She asks him if he remembers how the sky went black, the chugging wind. Tiny music, tiny voices rise, but she knows it’s the wind fluting against ragged concrete. 

Within two weeks, she loses the ice cream gig. Voice too gravelly, the producers say.  She decides she doesn’t mind the town. The water’s okay when filtered, the street’s nice and quiet now that the gun range has closed. And no wildfires. One still-dark morning, paws scrabble up through the pothole. A wide-eyed animal head raises from the void and yowls.

“Madmartigan?”

The animal disappears. 

Shorter days, longer nights. A breathy warmth rises from the pothole, a faint glow in that bottomless dark. She keeps her hands in the warmth until the numbness passes. Memories of winter tule fog in California, the terrible unzipping sound as the gun range lost its roof. 

“Like Niagara,” she tells the void.

“Fine,” answers a strained voice. “Like Niagara!”

shootcropped (1)NICKLAUS RUPERT spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast of Florida. In 2015, he completed an MFA fellowship at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he works as an associate editor for Mississippi Review. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Harpur PalateSlice MagazineThe Literary ReviewPleiadesTin House Online, and other journals.