The First Law of Thermodynamics

 

The change in a system's internal energy is equal to the difference between heat added to the system from its surroundings and work done by the system on its surroundings.

 

WINTER, PRESENT DAY

The sheriff’s office in Caswell County, North Carolina, pronounced “Caswull,” like the majority of places she’d encountered in the past day, was dark, strangely humid, and smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke they couldn’t scrub out of the carpets and upholstery. Much like downtown Providence, the space was covered in cheap holiday schmaltz. Paper and felt reindeer, stockings taped to the dark wood paneling, green and red metallic tinsel draped across desks. One of the desks had a plastic bowl filled with tree-shaped chocolates. August’s holding cell was void of these embellishments, but at least the officer who locked her up gave her a grin and told her that if she made bail, he’d give her a candy cane.

Scrawled across the sheriff’s face was a pencil-thin brown mustache. His gut was disproportionately too large for his otherwise bird-like frame. When he stood, resting his hands on his tool belt of Tasers and bobby clubs and pistols, his shape resembled that of an ostrich at rest. She couldn’t tell if she knew him or not. Everyone in this town aged faster than they were supposed to, and he seemed to be stuck somewhere between 28 and 45.

She thought she would have been arrested for “stealing” the rental car, but they cuffed her for public alcohol consumption and public intoxication. From the back of the cop car, she had joked with the sheriff that he hadn’t seen what real public intoxication looked like until he had been wandering through Bushwick at four in the morning. He had not understood or laughed at the joke. Instead, he slammed on the bakes so that she hit her head on the Plexiglas separating the front and back seats of his sedan. The officers had all laughed when they booked her, though, chortling as they led her to her holding cell. One of the deputies approached her and quietly asked through the bars where she’d gotten the goods. She winced at him, and moved further back into the corner of the concrete box where she parked for several hours, listening to the mundane updates about the squad’s life while she waited for her phone call.

She was relieved when Mark entered, though he took his time high fiving the cops and deputies. One of them asked him, “You’re responsible for this one?” Mark laughed and shook his head, “Yankees,” she heard him say.

“Gus!” he greeted her with a giant smile on his face. “Where the hell is the Monster?”

“Hi Mark,” she responded sheepishly.

“I give you a hundred bucks for toilet paper, Monster, and other beverages, and now I have to pay like five times that to get it and you back?”

She sighed. “Obviously, I don’t have the toilet paper, Monster, and other beverages anymore, Mark.”

“Didn’t waste time guzzling down that ‘other beverage’,” one of the cops joked.

Loving the theatrics, Mark threw up his arms playfully in protest. “Not even the toilet paper?! August Conrad, what makes you think I’m going to bail you out of county jail if you didn’t even manage to bring along the toilet paper?!”

“Well, Mark, I can tell you’re in a bit of a bind here. I’m not quite sure what to tell you. Would I appreciate your help? Yes. Do I expect you to do it? Only after doling out a significant amount of public humiliation. Please, continue.”

Mark smirked, turning back to the policemen. “Did she tell you she knew when the world was going to end?”

The deputies broke out into riotous laughter, some going to the effort of clutching their stomachs and doubling over. One grabbed Mark on the arm to keep himself standing; it looked like he might fall over. August rolled her eyes.

“The math checked out,” she muttered.

The ridicule continued for quite some time, while she could only sit there and take it. Mark eventually let up, forking over the five hundred to the Sheriff, who in turn gave him the pleasure of unlocking the door to her holding cell. The deputies and officers gave a long, slow clap as she exited.  Ashamed, she blushed, collected her things, and made a bee-line for the door. Mark chauffeured her home, egging her on the whole ride.

When they were younger, he often carried on this way, only then he would have been less annoying, and he wouldn’t have been wearing pants. Mark was one of those little brothers who went through a phase where he refused to wear anything except batman underpants, one of those little brothers who fashioned a sling shot out of her training bra, and yet somehow, she had become the sibling who embarrassed herself in public, the one they all laughed at. 

 

August had settled in to the Conrad house, unpacking the modest bag she’d brought with her. The Sheriff’s office had given her a court date a week out, and there was no sense in digging through her sack every morning for something to wear. Though only days after the funeral, the house had been turned upside down. Abigail had carted off the giveaway and garbage piles days before, and what little was left behind felt empty, dusty, and hollow.

Despite antagonizing her, Mark drove by every day to check on his older sister, concerned that the funeral casserole supply would be dwindling. Admittedly, he had also been fascinated that his older sibling was actually home. When he spotted her kitchen in total disrepair, however, a dirty fork sitting in a mostly-eaten casserole dish on the kitchen floor, dishes piled high in the sink, stained coffee cups littering the counters, he dragged August out and drove her to Edna’s Diner.

“Like old times,” Mark quipped as they wandered in. The diner, like much of the town, was covered in holiday schmaltz. A venue that attracted a mostly geriatric population, Edna’s kept the heat on full blast, and August felt as though she were melting inside her coat. The siblings took a plastic-coated booth in the corner, and she ordered a hot water with lemon. What she wanted was bourbon, though she’d settle for a beer, but she couldn’t get either here.

“Some things never change,” Mark chuckled, as though he were stalling. “Look,” he reluctantly started, “You know I love you. I kind of don’t have a choice, sis. But honestly, I don’t know why you came back here.”

“Would you accept, ‘I just missed you so much’?” When Mark lifted an eyebrow, she admitted, “It’s complicated.”

Mark didn’t know about the day she caught their father Mitchell rooting around the front yard. He didn’t know that she stood on their front porch with a half-eaten peach in hand, juice dripping onto her bare toes at midnight in the dead of summer while she watched him digging around with a hand spade and a cigarette stuck between his lips. Mark didn’t know that she waited until Mitchell was done searching the ground and followed him all the way down to the basement, peach pit in hand, where she finally asked, “What were you looking for?” Mitchell hadn’t thought anyone had seen him, and he’d stubbed out his cigarette in a misshapen, hand-made ash tray as he’d formulated an answer. “The insurance policy,” he’d said. “Don’t tell your mother.” After a beat, he’d added. “Mark, either.” Having never really been tasked with keeping a secret before, August was eager to step up to the challenge. She nodded, the peach digging into her hand. “Does she know you’re smoking?” He’d dumped the ash tray in a trash bin with discarded wooden pieces. “Let’s keep that one between us, too.”

August had tossed what was left of the peach into the bin as well. “Is it the treasure?” Her hand was sticky and wet with peach juice, and she wiped it against her thigh. Mitchell seemed flummoxed so she repeated, “The treasure? I found one of Great Grandma Lizbet’s journals and she said there was some treasure or something buried in the yard. From before? When there was a tobacco farm.”

Mitchell had nodded slowly, turning to his daughter. “Time will tell, kiddo.”

In the diner, Mark kept rambling on about how concerned he was about her, coming back after so long, losing Mitchell, eating cold casserole directly out of the dish.

August came back into focus on their conversation and interrupted him. “I’m fine,” she insisted, “Lazy, but fine.” She laughed darkly.

“But you still have your job? I mean, they’ll invite you back to the university?” Mark swirled his clear straw around in his ice water, the lemon set off to the side of the glass. “I don’t know how that works.”

August looked up and held eye contact. “Seriously?”

“Well I mean they can’t fire you for just being crazy. Aren’t all professors crazy? Like they pay you guys to lock yourselves in tiny rooms with like microscopes and telescopes and beakers and shit. Of course, you’re going to be crazy.”

It hadn’t occurred to August that her job might still be waiting for her. The sticky note she’d left declaring her hiatus, the litigious things she’d screamed at the staff holiday party, the whole sleeping with Dr. Czeszicke and promptly plastered photos of his withered, naked, curled up body around the department in retaliation, how she’d spent an entire class arguing with one student about chaos theory and how she’d discovered the missing decimal that proved, without a hint of a doubt, that earth was on a collision course of apocalyptic proportions… If Columbia would invite her back the following semester, it would be nothing short of a miracle.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call more,” she offered insincerely.

Mark chuckled. “No you aren’t, Gus.” She shrugged. “Dad missed you. He missed you a lot. When Mom left? It was just him and me and this shit house and this massive yard and his tools. Do you know how he died?”

She didn’t. And she did not want to know. Mark didn’t push the issue.

“Well, he left you the truck. Mom wanted to be pissed about it, but she kind of hated the thing. You know her.”

“Beam of sunshine, our mother,” August said sarcastically.

“Seems like you might need it now, the truck. I don’t know if it actually needs any work, or what, but… yeah. It’s yours. He hadn’t driven it in a while.” Mark looked down at his own keys. “Look, Gus, I know I give you a lot of shit, but I just don’t know how to deal with whatever this is. Whatever it is you’re going through. I mean, fuck, I haven’t seen you since basically the turn of the millennium.”

She nodded, uncertain how to behave around him. She took another gulp of her hot water and fidgeted in the seat. Mark leaned toward her, his belly bulging over the edge of the table.

“I do know that staying in this house all the time will drive you even crazier than you already are. How long do you think you’re going to be here?”

“God only knows,” she replied. “I have to show up in court ext week. I guess we’ll see.”  

He held up his hand, flagging the elderly waitress to order. “Grilled cheese with tomato soup for the little lady over here, and a Salisbury steak for me.”

August was at once touched by her brother’s recollection of her standard diner fare, just as she was disgusted by his order. When their meals arrived, Mark grinned as he cut into the drowning, grayish brown meat and mashed potatoes. They had spent so many of their younger childhood dinners at this corner booth, picking at the same plastic seat cushion covers, pushing the same saturated foods around their plates. Abigail was awful in the kitchen, and the moment they started to earn an allowance, August and Mark rode their bikes into town to have dinner at Edna’s. Edna herself had died way back in the 60’s when she still had her looks about her. If you asked around town, they would have told you she’d died in a car accident, but in truth, Edna had overdosed on cocaine with the county manager in the back of his Cadillac while his wife and kids were out of town for the weekend. So, while technically it had been an accident and it had happened in a car, history had a way of smoothing over the grisly truth.

The siblings ate in silence, uncertain of what to really discuss after so much time has passed between them. It was a welcome distraction when a vaguely familiar face approached their table and greeted them by punching Mark squarely in the arm.

“Oh, shit!” Mark yelped with a huge grin as he rubs his arm. “Sis, you remember Leonard, one of the assholes at the Sherriff’s office?”

“You douche,” Leonard laughed, and August noticed a gap in his two front teeth.

Recognizing August, he quieted his demeanor, cleared his throat, and tipped the edge of his camouflage flat-rimmed cap in her direction. “Ma’am.”

Mark worked himself out of the booth and hugged Leonard in a very bro-y fashion. They patted each other on the back forcefully. August winced. “The fuck are you doing here?” Mark asked.

“Killin’ time,” Leonard said, having not taken his eyes off August. She suspected he was holding a knot of chewing tobacco between his gum and lip. “The fuck are y’all up to tonight? Wanna party?”

Mark looked to August, shrugging. It wasn’t like she had anything better to do. “Count us in!”

To “party” in Providence, North Carolina, a phenomenon August Conrad had never experienced during her teen years, consisted of three factors: substance abuse, exposure to camouflage, and video games. Occasionally, two people were caught having sex in the laundry room as well, but that was far less interesting than what was happening in the main room.

At Leonard’s, a modest powder-blue five-room house just outside of city lines, the front yard where normal individuals would have planted shrubs or dogwoods or Crape Myrtles, had morphed into an impromptu parking lot for the Hondas, Fords, and Chevys owned by party attendees. When they arrived sometime after dark, someone was already leaning against the side of the house vomiting.

“Is this even legal?” August asked, leaving her coat on and keeping watch near the door as they entered the cream-carpeted living room.

“Welcome, fuckers!” Leonard passed a beer he’d already opened to August and stepped a little closer. Mark had already disappeared.

Reluctantly, she took the beer, commenting on the t-shirt had chosen to wear: a busy screen print with skulls and guns and roses and some topless woman strung up amongst all of the things. Leonard took this interaction as flirting, and he leaned in to whisper, “So, you thought the world was going to end? I’d be more than happy to show you how to get to heaven, baby girl.”

August could smell the stale cigarettes on his breath. She declined his immodest offer, and slipped past his predatory stance in front of her. Darting into the kitchen, she could still overhear Leonard warning the others to make sure they hold onto their keys, that she was into lifting cars. She hated guys like Leonard, wash-ups who never left home and who wielded what little power they had over women who rejected them. It wasn’t lost on her that she’d found herself in the same boat, washed up, back at home, but at least she had disappeared for a while up north.

After begrudgingly consuming a few watery beers, August made her way back into the living room to set out playing the latest assassins-themed video game Leonard had queued up in the PlayStation. She could imagine a world in which Leonard came home from a hard day of intimidating minor offenders, stripped off his pants, scratched his balls, and queued up the PlayStation to virtually kill anyone who got in his way. Despite being a copy, he’d likely never use a real weapon, and the game was as close to shooting someone as he’d ever get. He needed that release, he ached for it. She imagined he had sat here, dreaming fondly of that one time he actually had consensual sex. She imagined he paused the game to rub one out and then wiped what’s left on his hand against the seat cushion of the couch. Disgusted, August readjusted herself, eyeing the cushions around where she was seated for any signs of crusty leftovers.

Leonard eventually got too drunk to stand, and passed out at his flimsy brown kitchen table. Mark patted him on the back, and replaced the beer still resting in his hand with a glass of water. Leonard’s county-issued gun sat out on the counter as if it were spam mail.

“This is how you spend your weeknights?” August asked, straining to contain her judgment once they were finally back in the car.

“It’s a small town. Plus, Fred would rather die than hang out with these assholes.”

“Who’s Fred?” she asked, to no reply.

They were silent for the rest of the drive to the Conrad House. When he dropped her off, Mark promised to pick up her on the morning for her court appearance, asked her to maybe wear something a little nicer for the judge. August returned to her room, door locked behind her, and sat on the floor staring out the window as she rolled the leftover pills in her hand. She curled into the fetal position, holding a pillow against her chest until sleep set in. In the morning, she’d find that the blue dye from the pills had stained her hands, the sheets.

 

The courthouse in Caswell County was as dull as it was chintzy. Dirty gray carpet, cheap wooden pulpits, and filthy pew cushions, August could feel her skin crawling. The only people present for her sentencing aside from courthouse officials, including Leonard who refused to make eye contact, were her brother and a reporter from the next county over.

There was a whole song and dance of gaveling, objections, and shrugging before August was formally charged with public intoxication. The judge issued a lecture about respect for herself and others and the Lord and the rule of law, shamed her about irresponsibility, and demanded a public apology for her behavior. He then sentenced her to twelve months of community service. When asked what might constitute community service in a town where little community exists, the judge chortled. They handed her a reflective DayGlo yellow penny, a bucket and a shovel, and told her to report to City Hall every weekday, where she’d receive her assignment. It didn’t take long before she learned that there was only one assignment, and it was “whatever the town needs you to do to.” This ultimately translated running the cash register at Eugene General, and whatever other janitorial work Flo was too lazy to do on her own.

That evening Mark picked up a bottle of red wine from across the state line and showed up at the Conrad House. The siblings sit on the floor of their basement, still a cold, unfinished concrete where snow and ice collected at the back door during winter. They shared the wine, drinking straight from the bottle, surrounded by relics of their childhood: roller blades, unusable cassette tapes, a video camera Mark once used to document sneaking in to August’s sleepover, covering her friends’ hands with shaving cream, and tickling their noses until they scratched, smearing the cream all over their faces. The two got drunk enough to start hugging and crying about the things they shared, the things they lamented, the things they’d lost. August began to feel a pang of wholeness.

In the morning, August finally showered after several days, using what was left over from her father’s collection of Pert Plus shampoo, Dial soap, and a coarse foot scrub whose label was indecipherable from use. After, she tossed on the penny and stared at herself in the mirror: a convict, a kind-of felon, the kind of kid she literally never thought she would become. She was impressed that it only took a few weeks for her life to completely implode.

Grabbing the keys to Mitchell’s truck, she wandered outside. The door of the vehicle was still frozen shut, but after pouring coffee on the lock and throwing her body weight into it, she managed to jostle the handle open. Though freezing, the truck smelled like warm leather and summer afternoons, even now. The material had split on both of the seats, and the gear shift , an awkward, bent metal stick that had just started to change color. There was a hole rusting its way through the floorboards beneath the driver’s seat. It was a cheap hunk of metal on wheels, but August loved this truck; she loved this truck more than she loved most things in life. It could just be appreciated for what it was.

When they were younger, much younger, Mitchell had taken August and Mark to the river one summer day. There was nothing remarkable about the afternoon, which is perhaps why it had stuck in the hazy, perfect fog of her memory. Mark kept climbing up a small rock and doing cannonballs into the colder part of the water. August spent most of her time on the shore, sprawled out on their large blanket eating orange slices and fighting with the pith. Mitchell thumbed through yesterday’s news. Mark belly flopped onto the water and emerged from the river crying, a massive pink splotch on his stomach. They’d laughed at him lovingly. Mitchell had taken his son in his arms, wrapped him with a towel, and fed him a juice box until the entire incident had been forgotten. August had always thought of Mark as somewhat of a baby back then. He always threatened legitimately daring things, and in the final moment, once he executed, he was deeply unhinged by the results.  That summer, they had a Polaroid camera, and between the three of them, came back with a stack of poorly staged photos that caught only hints of the day. A blurry leg running out of frame. A splash of water obscuring someone’s face. The glare of sunlight behind the siblings as they made a castle out of smoothed river stones. August managed to grab a snapshot of her little brother whimpering after his belly flop. She could practically hear the dreamy, caramel Motown music that perfectly complemented the moment.  

The engine sputtered when she turned the key, and all the lights ignited on the dashboard. Nothing could be done about that, and she was in no place to pay for a car mechanic. The car managed its way down the highway, through the bend of endless pine trees and dried grass. There was no radio in this vehicle, the thing must have broken years ago, so she was forced to listen to the thumping of the pavement. In the silence, she started singing something from childhood. When she finally made it into town, she saw far more cars parked on Main Street than she expected, and was forced to park on a parallel street. August had spent the entire car ride amping herself up for the moment where she, a woman with PhD’s in astrophysics and mathematics, would saunter into the only grocery store in the area, rocking a DayGlo vest and a pair of garden gloves. Whatever confidence she had managed to build up over the past hour completely faded away when she stepped in Eugene General, shook her hair out from underneath her scarf, and found half the elderly community, staring at her as she entered.

They knew, they all knew she was the crazy girl from New York City who got arrested on the steps of Dunphey’s drinking in public.

“Popcorn?” she peeped, uncertain of what to do. “Looking for popcorn!”

Flo stepped out from the cash register, grabbing a few patrons by the elbow and giving them reassuring smiles. “You’re a funny one,” she wagged her finger at August before enveloping her in a bear hug. “We are so excited to see you! Can I get you anything before you hit the bricks?”

August shrugged from within the hug. “Just a time machine.”