by Janna McMahan

The window gave a couple of inches. Virginia, poised on a cinder block, put her hand against the bottom of the sash and shoved again. Paint fractured and fluttered down on her as the frame broke loose and slid up. The reek of nicotine tinged with perfume seeped over her, a sour contrast to the clean air outside.

It was a vivid day. The sky seemed close as Kentucky skies can, as if you could just reach out and touch the pale smear of clouds. Virginia squinted into the dark interior. She could see it was a bedroom, as she had anticipated. Not hard to figure out where things were in these rectangular brick boxes. People had started trading tall breezy farm houses for the central air of squat ranches with hardly enough room to make up a bed and no kitchen big enough to have a family meal.

She hoisted herself up onto the ledge. Her pants snagged on rough brick and ripped. She stopped, balanced on her stomach, half in, half out of the window, to inspect the dirty, thin streaks of blood where her forearms had scraped the window ledge.

She hadn’t expected to have to go to so much trouble. Most people around Falling Rock never locked their doors. But this woman was from Louisville. She had paranoid city habits.

Virginia dropped down onto the floor, her heart beating in her ears as if she were underwater. She felt submerged, her movements measured, her legs heavy. What was she looking for? What did she hope to find, to not find, in this women’s house?

The louvered closet door screeched as she pushed it aside and there she saw what she came for. His frayed jeans with the torn pocket. Scarred hunting boots. Proof.

A metal tang came to her mouth—an angry taste she recognized. Her fingers itched to rake everything in the room into a shattered pile. She imagined the perfume bottles on the women’s vanity, the hand mirror and brushes and combs in a grotesque dance on the hardwood. The cut glass lamps and crystal ashtrays—one with Roger’s cigarette stubs, the other with her long skinny ones all crinkled down—she could sweep from the bedside tables with one swipe. She could find scissors and cut blouses and skinny little jeans to shreds. Bleach would ruin every carpet and drape and bed linen in the house.

She felt a stinging on her leg and turned in the vanity mirror to check where she had caught her pants. A right angle was neatly cut from the thin material and her skin underneath was abraded. She saw herself fully then—ruddy cheeks and dark hair in riotous curls around her shoulders. She didn’t like what she saw, this woman with a set jaw and hollow eyes.

She jerked suddenly, her attention focused down the narrow hall. Was that a car door thudding shut? Virginia reactively laid her hand to her heart. Its staccato throb under her fingertips threatened to burst through her bones. She crept to the kitchen where she scanned outside through the kitchen sheers. Nothing in the carport. She peeked through dust-filmed windows in the front room. No truck on the gravel road beyond. She moved from window to window, checking every possible angle before she was satisfied that nobody had arrived. It was her imagination. She’d checked to be sure they were in town before she came.

She gave a little laugh then. Silly, she whispered. Why was she so jumpy? She’d thought this through. She knew what she was doing. Her car was hidden on the other side of the woods behind the house. There was a farm road that cut through fields to the next road over. She’d have to open and close a few cattle gates, but she could slip away and never have to drive back down the road in front of this house.

But even if she got caught breaking and entering, nobody would blame her. She’d never spend one night in jail, not with the way Roger was doing her. Did he think she was stupid? Didn’t he know how the town talked? How people were always interested in anything that smacked of good gossip?

At first Virginia hadn’t realized anything was amiss. Then her sisters had come to her with what they’d heard at church, at the factory. Virginia chalked it all up to how much she and Roger fought. They didn’t make a big secret out of their intense marriage. But when she really paid attention, Virginia recognized Roger’s absences had grown longer and more frequent. One night at supper she’d watched his mind wander. He’d turned preoccupied, even when he was physically there.

Virginia hated to admit she missed Roger’s touch, but she did. She missed his hand on the small of her back when he kissed her in the morning. He’d grown to treat their infrequent contact as an obligation and then finally stopped all together. The past few months he’d grown more distant from her and the kids. Her children didn’t seem to notice, but once Virginia realized something was wrong, she saw it in his mannerisms and inflections and even his appetite. What had been a sort of foreplay in their high-tension marriage now held no interest for him. He had changed. It was as if, after all these years, their roles were reversing.

Now her whole body ached for his weight against her. She regretted the times she pushed him away, imagined she was somewhere else when he reached for her. Now that his interest had shifted, it might be too late. He was getting his fantasies fulfilled elsewhere, from this whore nobody around here knew. So she was all painted up and teased and bleached. So she owned a beauty shop. Roger probably thought that was exotic somehow. Maybe he was tired of a good woman who cooked his meals and took care of his home and children. Maybe this woman reminded him of those whores in that movie “Shampoo” that Roger had insisted they see in Louisville one time. Roger had thought it was great, talked about it for days, but it had made Virginia feel dirty. She’d felt slightly sick after seeing it. Roger knew she couldn’t handle strange sex and he knew why.

She turned her attention back to the woman’s house, to the kitchen where she opened the refrigerator. There wasn’t much. Beer. A bottle of wine. Butter. Pickles. Old bread. There was a fast food bag stuffed in the garbage under the sink. This woman didn’t cook. Virginia opened drawers and picked through mail on the counter. She didn’t think Roger had enough sense to forward his mail.

She opened and slammed cabinets. There were no Sports Afield among the Hair Styles and Beauty Salon magazines on the coffee table. She went through the bathroom cabinets and saw medicine for yeast infections and birth control pills and a silver old-fashioned razor. She went through the dresser and found leopard print and red lace. She slammed those drawers. She even looked under the bed, but she didn’t find the second thing she had come for.

A sign. Any sign that her husband intended to stay.

Virginia checked her watch. She’d been inside twenty minutes. She lowered the bedroom window and closed the closet door. In the kitchen, she locked the door handle and was ready to pull it closed behind her when she saw the photo. It was pinned to the side of the refrigerator with a magnet, nearly hidden by a newspaper clipping. She slid it out.

The shot was grainy and dark, probably taken at dusk. They were seated at the picnic table in the backyard. She was on his lap, kissing him on the cheek. He was laughing. His hands nearly encircled her tiny waist.

So this was it. They looked like a couple. They took photos. It wasn’t just sex. Somebody had snapped the photo so at least one other person knew. Maybe that person had been talking. Spreading lies was what Virginia had thought. But it wasn’t a lie. She had known. Inside she had known or she wouldn’t be here.

She considered taking the photo as evidence; had actually put it in her pocket. But at the last moment, she balked. What good would it do? She would obsess over it, make herself sick with it. Plus they might wonder where it went. Women know where things like a favorite photo live. She pinned the glossy paper back under the torn newspaper, checked that the handle locked and pulled the kitchen door closed behind her.

Her vision was liquid. The cool of shadows brushed her shoulders as she moved beneath the heavy canopy of oaks and tulip poplars toward her car. Although vines tripped her up and logs blocked her way, she walked with purpose. She knew now. At least she had that much. She was no longer a fool. Now she knew.

Janna McMahan’s fiction has won numerous awards including the Harriett Arnow Award from the Appalachian Writers Association, the South Carolina Fiction Project and the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals including Limestone, Wind, The Nantahala Review and Alimentum: the Literature of Food. McMahan’s work will be included in the anthology Bloodlines: Emerging Kentucky Writers from the Jesse Stuart Foundation in the fall of 2007. “Intruder” is the first chapter of her novel, Gathering Call, scheduled for release by Kensington Books in 2008. Contact her at