The almost-night lay almost-quiet over Northwest Arkansas, high spring air alive with insects, taillights, tractor churn, and rubber thrum. In the west, the sky glowed with salmons and opals and ruddy pastels. In the east, in the south, in the north, on all sides slouched the Arkansas Ozarks, soil bauxite-red and rolling over sandstone laid down by the mandala motions of Cambrian seas, since greened by the patience of mosses and seeds, then peopled by peoples on peoples on peoples. In the loamy folds of all those once-upon-a-corals glowed the Athens of the Ozarks, as Fayetteville had once been known; and still, its center was a university, and still, it was the bluest of the state’s municipalities, commerce churning easily along its northern strip, and wealth and Christian virtue on its eastern slopes, and a folksy music scene, and fine craft brews, and multicultural cuisine, and Razorbacks to root for, and over-priced housing, and a city council committed to saving, if not the forests, then at least the trees. And, naturally, there was an underbelly, too: homelessness, food insecurity, de jure segregation, tenancy laws straight out of the Louisiana Purchase days, ruthless union-busting, drug labs, poverty, desperation, crime. People drank, chewed pills, shot up, lost faith, and went a little off the rails. Gunshots bored through drywall, sometimes. On the southside, vacant lots bristled with Bermuda grass, fescue, PVC pipes, heaping piles of black plastic sheaves, and tractor trailers’ softly rusting carcasses. Marsupials ran the dumpster scene, and squirrels’ bodies came apart beneath indifferent wheels, and spandexed joggers loped along the former Trail of Tears, and here and there, undaunted by the changing of the world, the leather-jacketed and tatted of the fireflies cavorted in defiance of the artificial lights, the ever-ebbing habitats, the pesticides. On South School, pawn shops snuggled close to liquor stores, and automotive outlets nuzzled up to homeless shelters, and farther out, toward the corporate airfield, a symposium of bail bondsmen’s offices waited for any and all who would sift through society’s cracks, ready with their technicolor adverts, their lurid bone smiles, their fistfuls of cash.
Soon enough, those cracks would shudder and unhinge their jaws. Soon enough, a new molecular machine would creep into a species too intent on guarding other, lesser borders, and from there would tiptoe cell by cell across the world. But this was April, 2019. Modern life went on uninterrupted, and the cruelest of the scarcities were still constructed, artificial, and the plague had not yet come.
On South School, under a gas station’s glimmering tent roof, a figure stood pumping gas into a yellow VW van.
Half an hour earlier, Silas Ledbetter had stood on the concrete behind the gas station, loose and hazy in the brain. The edge of his vision had pulsed with blue neon from the hookah bowl above the Ambrosial Lounge across the avenue, whose hoses pretzeled left-to-right along its gray façade to spell its name. The blue had seared his vision, and the orange had seared his thumb, and reflexively he’d flicked at the joint he’d been smoking, just as a breeze was coming on, across the asphalt, toward the pumps. Then fear had gripped him. He’d chased the joint, scrabbling hands along the asphalt, never mind the grease and glass and discs of hardened gum. He’d read somewhere that fire could sleep in a cigarette’s corpse for minutes, even hours, before reviving to surge across carpets, up curtains, through wastepaper bins. What might such a mean ghost do with petrol fumes? He’d found a butt that might’ve been his, ground it to ash with the sole of his shoe, then straightened and punched himself hard in the temple: stupid. Dazed, he’d stood there. Dazed, he’d swayed. The brick, the floodlights’ glint, the ring of blood and current in his ears, had swelled and faded, swelled and swayed. He’d pinched his nose and let a wave of darkness rise and pass him by. Then, a little steadier, he’d ambled back inside to slump behind the service desk and nurse his shame.
The next time he looked up, he saw the figure out the window, pumping gas.
Maybe it was just the foggy pane, but the scene looked somehow low-res, as if someone had sketched it in charcoals, smudging edges with a careless wrist, a dragging sleeve. Squinting, Silas registered the figure as too broad, too bulky, maybe bundled in a trench coat or a hoodie—strange in April—but then, a moment later, as too tall, too thin. He ran his tongue along his lips. He rubbed his eyes. He needed glasses. His phone was doing this to him, eroding his cone cells. His mouth tasted chalky, sandpapered down by the Mary J burn, and his limbs ached and fizzed, and his skull whirred like beetle wings.
Then his concentration broke.
The door. The bell.
The girl had tattoos, roots emerging at her collar, threading her neck flesh like varicose veins. She wore men’s jeans and a pullover, green, so long its sleeves almost swallowed her hands. Late twenties, Silas guessed. Early thirties, maybe. But with poor posture, bone-white curls, and a strange, almost sciatic rhythm to her motion, the uncanny shudder and twitch of Claymation. She was plump, though not quite overweight. Attractive, with a heart-shaped face. And she pulsed with the Sweeney Todd vibes of a woman who made art with dead things. Silas had once almost gone on a date with a girl who’d made art with dead things. Owl skulls, in her case, specifically. They’d matched on Hinge. He’d messaged her after an hour, some generic Whassup? salvo, and she’d answered, Do you want to help me dig up some owl bones?
He’d given careful thought to his reply. Do you dig up a lot of owl bones?
And she’d said, Only when the moon’s full.
Hammad, who ran the gas station, had scheduled Silas for an early shift the following morning, and she’d wanted to go—planned to go, with or without him—at midnight. Not sure I’m gonna make it this time, he’d replied.
That’s okay, she’d said. It’s not for everyone.
He’d sent a few more messages—Hey, you? You there?—but that had been her last reply.
At the end of his college year, he’d booked a session with a therapist, his first and only time, and she’d wondered aloud whether he might gravitate, in her words, toward chaotic women.
Silas would’ve put money on this woman being chaotic. He tracked her progress in the dome-shaped mirror, watching as she trailed a hand along the cooler doors. Something hung by a strap from her shoulder. Not a purse, as he thought at first glance, but a Polaroid camera. She didn’t seem to register his presence, so it was almost like he wasn’t creeping. Her eyes skittered on the tiles, at the level of the low racks hung with Reese’s Pieces, M&Ms, Gummy Bears, Gummy Worms. Then she went into the women’s room.
Silas shivered. Sat up straighter.
Outside, the figure went on pumping gas.
In the going-on-twelve months since Silas had gotten the gas station job, he’d gotten pretty used to the bone-throb of sitting eight hours right under the AC, zoning out, web-surfing, skimming e-books on his phone. Tonight, though, his brain felt like the fuzzy static on a TV poorly tuned. All afternoon, he’d thumbed through apps, deleted old numbers, lost word games to strangers, and swiped on profiles as they’d floated up like lilies from beneath a pond: sorority plaques, and floppy-eared puppies, and bare, glossy midriffs, and stars-spangled bras.
It usually didn’t take long to exhaust the new faces. He would check in periodically throughout the day, a few swipes here, a few swipes there, knowing that once he viewed them, he would lose them. Those few seconds would be the only seconds with those women he would have. Which made them precious. Tonight, though, he must’ve logged on in the midst of a surge. An hour had passed, and more and more faces had come, and with so many pictures to sift through, the swiping had begun to feel…compulsory? As if the real goal weren’t the prospect of a match, but instead the empty screen, the snowy order of aloneness, each new face an obstacle between him and that eventual, familiar, arctic calm.
At first, he’d felt impatience. And then, with each new image rising from the screen, a measured dose of irritation.
He’d stopped. He’d sat staring at a blond in booty shorts and tee, leaning nonchalantly on a fishing pole, but really he’d been staring at himself. At this new feeling.
It had occurred to him that, for women, this was probably routine. Here, at least, in Northwest Arkansas, where men outnumbered women, the swiping must amount to little more than drudgery. Not a lust-driven thrill, but just something one did to keep up with the Joneses: i.e. jonesing for attention. Except, he knew too, in the back of his brain, that this was but a ghost of what the women on the apps must feel. After all, he didn’t have to factor in the risks, the fear of swiping wrong. Paisley told him stories sometimes when they smoked together, stories that left him feeling queasy, wanting to blurt out that he wasn’t like that, not one of those men. Except, of course, he didn’t even know if this was true. How could he? He had no proof. He’d never had a chance to prove himself. No one had ever offered such a chance to him. And, considering what was out there, and how unappealing he was, could he blame them?
Caffeine had pooled in his shoulders, his pelvis, the base of his spine. He’d wanted to bolt from the chair, to run, to put swiping and time clock and duties behind—but where could he have gone? Nothing ahead but the nightly routine: forty minutes home on roads that went from paved to gravel-strewn to rutted clay, through a gate and fallow fields marked off by windrows, then finally the house that his parents had spent six years buying, though its previous owner had asked next to nothing. It slouched amid the knee-high grass he never thought to mow, wrapped in a veranda’s sagging, wooden arms, and at its heart, a woman soaked in the TV’s glow: Flora Ledbetter, Silas’s meemaw, a creature of wadded-up paper and bone, whose breath shuddered through her like twentieth-century central heating, ancient in her rotting chair.
In 2002, the year his parents had closed on the property, three-year-old Silas and his dad had driven out to Texas where his meemaw had then lived alone. For Silas, the trip had been miles of wide-open road coming over the dashboard, his dad’s voice mixing with the radio’s many, and the sticky-sweet smell of the trailer, Coca-Cola and decay. They’d found her surrounded by wrappers with condiment stains, metal cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles, bluebottles. The trip had been his father sending him outside. It had been the snapped-off maple rod he’d wielded like a sword, smacking old industrial drums and engine parts and aspen trees. It had been the golden, slanting light when finally they’d emerged, Flora wrapped around her son like poison oak around a scrawny tree. It had been the diesel and alfalfa fumes as they had driven home, Flora up front like a huge paper wasp nest, mumbling about demonic forces in the world and their clever use of federal façades.
Back in Arkansas, Silas’s dad had done his best to recreate her trailer in their living room. He’d even gotten cable, pumped her favorite channels in. Isabel, Silas’s mother, had gotten a job by then, leaving Stan and Silas to absorb Flora’s hours of silence and Howitzer blitzes of fury alone, until, a few weeks in, Stan had finally broken down, disappeared for a weekend, and returned with the actual trailer hitched up to the Ford.
Except, by that time, Flora had forgotten all about her former home.
For months, it had sat in the driveway, but eventually, tired of cutting the Ford through the lowland where rain pooled, Stan had Sawzalled and a rough doorway in the house’s outer wall. He’d annexed the trailer there, where it could be reached from the hall off the kitchen. Isabel had claimed it as a studio and used it for a few years, up until her death. It had become Stan’s sanctuary after. When he’d disappeared for good in 2017, Silas had sealed the door to the trailer with particleboard.
He would pass that particleboard on his way down the hall. Mewling cats would pool around his feet, demanding food, and he’d cut a path through them. He’d find his meemaw where he always found her, in her chair, crouch with a hand on her shoulder, walk in step with her to the bathroom, and ease her down onto the toilet bowl. While she emptied her bowels, he’d empty her ashtray—into the garbage disposal, not the trashcan. Safer. She might be immune to smoke, cancer having crept into her lungs and out again, but fire was another story altogether.
Not that Silas thought she’d ever actually die.
While the cats slurped their food, he’d excavate prepackaged meals from the icebox and knock off the frost. He’d help his meemaw back to her chair, bring her meal steaming from slits in the plastic, then carry his own to his room at the back of the house and eat cross-legged on his moldy box spring, staring dumbly at the wall, because what else was there to stare at dumbly? And then, eventually, he’d sleep.
None of this had called him home, and yet he’d needed to escape his phone. And so, seeing no one at the pumps, he’d gone out back to calm his mind. Good stuff, straight from Colorado. Paisley had a hookup there. He should’ve waited, though, like he usually waited. The walls and ceiling seemed alive with insects, now. In the corners, fuzzy-wuzzies flexed their cilia limbs. He never heard a flush, but when he looked up, there was the girl again. He watched her, backdrop dimming, heartbeat pulsing with fluorescent shimmer, sure that soon her eyes would leave the cooler doors and flick to him. What would happen if they flirted while she paid? If she left her name and number when—
She’d marched right out the door. She’d gone.
Had she opened the cooler? He tried to remember. He couldn’t recall.
He watched her cross the parking lot, remembering slowly that stopping shoplifters was part of his job. He could still chase her down, insist that she turn out her pockets—but for the right reason? Or would he be chasing her chasing her, because he wanted this meet-cute so bad that he would chase a girl across an empty parking lot at dusk?
He watched the figure hang the nozzle on the pump and board the van. The girl went around to the driver’s side. The headlights bloomed. After a minute, the van pulled away.
The clocks ticked on.
Silas’s high grew stale, but didn’t fade. When the night clerk arrived, he neglected to mention the girl. Outside, in his truck, with the engine still off, he returned to his phone. The blond was there when he opened the screen, leaning nonchalantly on her fishing pole. He swiped left. Then the screen was empty.
From the other side of South School, the Ambrosial Lounge’s neon hookah glowed. It was owned and run by Hammad, too. Last week, he’d offered Silas a shift there. He often played the shell game with his employees, but usually the gas station needed staffing, not the lounge, and Silas—why had he answered thanks but no, he liked it where he was? Because he liked being seen as reliable, possibly, up for the grunt work that no one else wanted. He already got thirteen-fifty an hour at a job that should’ve paid minimum wage. Any additional largesse would’ve left him feeling queasy, like it had to be a trap, too good to be true, or else some kind of clerical error, a hand-out he didn’t deserve.
Maybe Hammad had been testing him. But for what? Loyalty? Not likely. Hammad wasn’t that kind of boss.
Maybe he’d been looking out for Silas, then. Offering him—not a promotion, exactly, but something.
Maybe saying no had been a stupid thing to do.
Silas chewed his lip. Reliable, steady, loyal, but so what? These days, reliability wasn’t in. People liked when you were sleek and scrappy, not when you worked fulltime to keep your meemaw flush with Reds and Diet Coke and frozen Mac & Cheese. People took one look at him and saw that there was something missing, insufficient, wrong. Not that he’d really expected a soul mate from Tinder, but shit, offline wasn’t any better. Though, if he accepted Hammad’s offer…maybe it was only wishful thinking, but college students had been known to hang around the lounge.
Silas found his phone. Texting Hammad always made him anxious—his first language, Hammad’s third, but whose texts were always clean?—but after several read-throughs, he decided it was good enough. Hit send.
He hadn’t even reached the turn-off where he lost reception when the answer came: yes, there was an opening tomorrow evening. He usually had Tuesdays off, but a shift at the lounge would beat sitting at home. He pulled off again to answer, feeling better the minute things were squared away. Maybe no one on Tinder gave a shit about him, but his boss did, and so did Paisley, and this meant, technically speaking, that caring about him was possible.
The last four miles took the longest, dirt roads pinching down to nothing, hemmed by sassafras, mailboxes, blackberries, Trump signs. Out this way, neighbors never came with casseroles at Christmastime. There were no fireworks, bonfires, barbeques. There were no pears nor pies nor cups of sugar shared. The less people knew they were there, Stan always used to say, the better. Like something bad was bound to happen if they showed themselves. For years, Silas had lived with this fear breathing hot on his nape. The older he’d gotten, though, the more he’d watched his dad’s and meemaw’s sinister convictions grow, the more he’d wondered whether all their paranoia could be separated from the outside world, chalked up to something intrinsic, unmoored.
At the turnoff, he scooped junk from the mailbox, dumped it on the passenger seat, heaved the gate to the Ledbetter property wide before the truck and shut it again behind. The fields lay festering, gone to seed, boundaries marked by lines of trees. Silas gunned the engine up the first field and into the second, where the house stood, trailer grafted like a tumor to its side. A tool shed leaned against the split-wood fence, gone rhombus from many storms. Silas sat benumbed behind the wheel while, the engine tick-tick-ticking its heat away, the night alive with mating calls. He watched the murky line where grass met trees, thinking of the figure pumping gas into the van. He could almost see it there against the night-soaked brush, an afterimage. He thought of the girl, albino curls, tattooed arms—woman, Mel would’ve corrected him. Mel, whom he’d dated for a few short months in college, who’d told him not to call them girls: girls was demeaning. They were women. Since then, he’d always stumbled on the word.
He felt an urge to check his phone, though he got no signal here. He’d swiped right so many times that night that maybe, possibly, statistically—but no, he told himself, it wasn’t just statistics. Not all men had equal odds. His own profile picture made him cringe. A year younger, his hair a year longer, man-sprawled on the sofa sunk in Paisley’s yard, eyes pinched shut against the sun that hung at her back, casting a lopsided shadow across him: her shoulders bulked out by her dreads, her phone’s rectangular shadow recording acne-riddled, over-bite-afflicted, gawky frame. White trash. Evolutionary dead end.
He’d liked living next to Paisley—perhaps the only thing he’d liked about his college year—though they’d barely said hello until the spring. If they still lived in the gray stone house by campus, he would hammer on her window now and ask her for a better picture. She would take one. She’d never refused him anything in all the time he’d known her, except for sex. Which had confused him. Before they’d met, he’d caught glimpses of her out the grimy window, a tatted, dreaded figure tramping off to campus in T-shirts so long, you never could tell what, if anything, she wore beneath them. Freckled and a little chunky. Not exactly overweight. Not exactly well-proportioned, either. What Silas had felt—it hadn’t been attraction, not exactly; more like intrigue, a curious urge. She’d borne no resemblance to the pretty girls roaming campus in makeup and short shorts, strategic with the skin they showed. She hadn’t cared about that shit. You could see that from a distance. She’d had an ethos, an aesthetic, all her own.
Because of this, Silas had allowed himself to think he maybe had a chance with her. But when she’d finally banged on his window one evening in March, asking if he’d help her smoke a bowl, and he’d gotten his hopes up and reciprocated what he’d thought was an advance, she’d collapsed in uncontrollable guffaws. “I’d be, what?” she’d cried, teary-eyed, “your first woman, ever?” Silas hadn’t bothered to correct her, since she wasn’t really wrong. Mel had called it dating, but they’d never kissed, never so much as held hands. “Trust me,” Paisley had gone on, “I should never be anyone’s first woman. I’m a lot to handle. Come back when you’ve had, like, five or six to practice on.” And then she’d bounced up from her chair and waltzed inside, singing, “I’m a lot to handle, I’m a lot to handle!” and refilled her measuring cup with wine.
That had messed with Silas’s head for a while, but he’d needed friendship, badly, so he’d accepted hers for what it wasn’t, and eventually for what it was. Her generosity had never ceased to baffle him. She was always pushing food or weed or box wine on him, never wanting or accepting compensation, no matter how broke she was. Even after she’d completed her BA in urban planning, and applied for law school, and gotten accepted, and moved from the gray house to a duplex at the foot of Mount Sequoyah while Silas, beaten down by life and school, had packed his bags and moved back out to the boonies, only to find his father gone, he and Paisley had stayed friends. They rarely saw each other anymore except when Silas needed weed, for she was up to her eyeballs in law school, had more important matters on her hands. Still, she called him “friend.”
A cat, the big orange one that Mel—who’d named all the cats, though she never had met them—had christened Destroyer of Worlds, rocketed out of the darkness and nearly tripped Silas as he climbed the steps, letting out a string of mews. Silas didn’t pause to scratch behind his ears. He slipped inside and groped for the light switch. Destroyer of Worlds hunkered down in a full-body wiggle, eyeing a cockroach on the dip in the linoleum, where the plywood underneath had rotted through, but Silas was already pulling down cans from the cupboards, and more cats were appearing, circling, yowling, tails up like flagpoles, and the cockroach, taking advantage of the chaos, scuttled under the refrigerator.
Silas usually hurried to check on his meemaw, but that night, he took his time doling out wet food, reluctant for some reason that he couldn’t put his finger on. An odd, bad smell suffused the air. He wrinkled his nose and named it: sulfur. The kitchen didn’t seem to have been used since he’d poured himself cereal ten hours earlier, but he checked the sink anyway, the dish drainer, even the cupboards, in case she’d overcooked a pan and stashed it back among the others. The smell persisted, though he couldn’t find a source: burnt cloth, burnt hair. A toxic char.
“Meemaw?” he called.
Silence came back to him. Silence and the burble of the TV in the other room.
“Meemaw?” he said again. “What’s that smell?” He waited for an answer. Listened. “You book cooking?”
Down the hall, he spotted half of Laura Ingraham on television. Gesticulating, slivered by the doorway to the living room. But, he noticed, the image wasn’t quite in focus. Or the air wasn’t clear. He was looking, he realized, through a faint blue fog.
The smell grew stronger as he entered the hall. At the living room threshold, his eyes fell upon the empty armrest of his meemaw’s chair. He swallowed. Managed, “Meemaw?” once more, though his voice was smaller than before.
On screen, Laura Ingraham told her viewers how everyone thought that they could be the next president. Even some baby-faced mayor from the Midwest had thrown his hat in the ring. Too bad he couldn’t admit that America was in the middle of a manufacturing renaissance. She cut from a clip of his speech to one of the last president, the black one, then back again. They sounded the same. Derivative hack—that’s what the mayor was. The corners of her voice curled upward, fire tendrils licking at the edges of a photograph, and Silas, coming around the chair, realized that it wasn’t empty after all. At first, the dark shape on the cushion could’ve been a cat, maybe too drowsy to answer the dinner call. The way the light from Laura Ingraham flickered, it was almost stirring, a dormant creature waking from a years-long hibernation.
Many years before, the week after Silas turned six, he’d spent eight sleepless hours transfixed by a dark patch bobbing near his bedroom window. All night, he’d watched that thing, and it had watched him back, hypnotic, malevolent, daring him to close his eyes. He’d hardly breathed. And then the dawn had come, and it had turned back into what it was: a deflating balloon. He should’ve felt relief, then, big boy that he’d been. But, instead of shaking off his fear, finding scissors, and sending that sad little ghost to the trashcan, he’d stayed where he was, still sure that as soon as he looked away, the balloon would resume its other, more dangerous form. Several more hours had passed before he’d worked up the courage to ease himself free of the bedclothes. His mother found him in the hall outside his room, holding his door shut so that nothing could follow. He’d told her what had happened. She’d slipped inside and slain the balloon. He’d seen the tattered rubber tadpole in her hand, and later in the trash, but it had hardly mattered, then. For weeks thereafter, he’d spent long nights shivering, sleepless, sure that dark shape would return.
And now it had.
Eyes on the chair, Silas reached for the lamp switch, half-expecting it to blow: a blinding flash, then darkness deeper than before, and as his eyes adjusted, he’d find the silent shadow rising, bobbing implacably toward him. But when his fingers brushed the switch, it did work. Light gushed forth, a sudden, incandescent blaze, and Silas saw what lay there, still and lifeless, in his meemaw’s chair.
Not a succubus summoned from childhood. Not a popped balloon. Not even a cat, dead or sleeping. He stared at the cushion where Flora Ledbetter had sat these last seventeen years, and in her place, on the fabric pressed flat by the bones of her ass—now singed—there lay nothing but a quiet heap of ashes.
Emma drank long, drank hard, then scraped the cap back on and wedged the water bottle down between her thighs. When she wiped her mouth, her sleeve tasted sour: dead moths floating in days-old milk, silver sifting off their wings. Three months since she’d last used a washing machine. Three months since she’d gathered spare change scrounged from sidewalks in a dozen towns to feed to slots in Tampa’s sketchest laundromat. Three months of crouching on creek banks, scrubbing till her knuckles bled, and silver sparkled in her underwear’s weave, and the bars of purloined hotel soap were gone.
Cool as condensation beading on the plastic, Sparrow said, “You didn’t pay.”
Something tickled Emma’s toes. When she looked, she saw, through her sandal, a dry wad of sage. Paraphernalia flooded the van’s floor: scratched CDs, plasticware, paper napkins, fast food wrappers, dried wildflowers, and pamphlets for roadside attractions that she’d seen or hoped to see. She liked roadside attractions. They weren’t the same everywhere—not like billboards, not like restaurant chains. “Have you seen my bank statements lately?” she demanded, bending to dislodge the sage.
Sparrow looked out the passenger window, toward the neon snakes emblazoned on the hookah lounge. “You at least could’ve given him a blowjob or something.”
“Gross.” Emma started the engine and hesitated, a hand on the bottle opener that dangled from her keychain, the other on the wheel. “I don’t know where we’re going.” The hairs on her neck still tingled, even with Sparrow now looking away. She used to know when she was being watched and when she wasn’t, but Sparrow had scrambled her sixth sense. No re-magnetizing that compass.
“I was wondering,” Sparrow said, eyes fixed on the empty space above the avenue, “about the catwalk.”
“I don’t see it.”
“And the tunnel,” Sparrow said, gaze sliding down like a shovel blade into the earth.
“Under the road.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Connecting those two buildings.” When Emma shook her head, Sparrow went on, “I was thinking maybe you could ask him.”
“The clerk at the gas station.”
“I’m not asking him anything,” Emma said. “And I’m not giving him a blowjob. Do you want him to think I’m a crazy person?”
“You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”
“What? Because I’m wearing sandals?”
“Let me see the picture.”
The edge of the Polaroid cut the flesh above her waistband where she’d tucked it. Sparrow took it and held it with both hands, inspecting it carefully: hand dryer covered with fingerprint smudges, Emma’s reflection peering from the paper towel dispenser’s glossy carapace, camera raised and face obscured. You could see the edge of the toilet, a narrow swath of grimy tile, moldy splotches on the mirror’s silver backing. Gum in the drain.
Sparrow let the picture go. It wafted and settled with the junk on the floor. “Let’s imagine, then.”
“Let’s not. You know I hate this game.”
“Let’s imagine you’ve been wasting time.”
“Sometimes I wish you’d just yell at me,” said Emma, “like a normal person.”
“Let’s imagine that she’s got a little dignity,” Sparrow went on. “Let’s imagine that she wouldn’t get caught dead in some tumble-down gas station bathroom.”
Emma put the van in gear. The pumps shrank in the rearview as she pulled out onto South School. Ahead, above, an obelisk glowed against the dusk: the Chancellor’s Hotel, repainted now, exterior patterned like a red checkered tablecloth, looking like the tallest thing for miles from this vantage, illuminated apex of a city on a hill. Emma remembered reading somewhere that to know what mattered most to a society, one had only to look to their buildings. In the Middle Ages, they built the churches tallest. In the modern era, it’s the chambers of commerce. In Fayetteville, Arkansas—Walmart country, Bible country—it’s a bed and breakfast: Southern hospitality, but in a kitschy, monolithic mode.
“And let’s imagine,” Sparrow continued, “that your time is running thin. Let’s imagine that you never really thought you’d find her in Nebraska, Kansas, West Virginia, Illinois—that you know as well as I do you’ve been barking up the wrong trees.”
Taillights bunched together at the stoplights onto 15th Street and MLK. Emma stomped hard, and the van slowed. The brakes would need replacing soon. She’d learned to change a lot of things—tires, coolants, filters, oil, certain types of people’s minds—but brakes, even if she could scavenge good ones from a junkyard, were beyond her. But she’d have to learn.
“And let’s imagine, too,” Sparrow said to the side mirror—Sparrow had a thing about mirrors—“that you’ve had your reasons, though they may not be defined. That you’re afraid, though perhaps you can’t explain what you’re afraid of. That you’ve settled into searching, and now the very thought of finding scares you shitless since you don’t know what comes after: where it leaves you, what happens to me.”
The van churned up the sensuous switchbacks of Archibald Yell, the same as 2015, as if four years had never passed, as if she’d never gone. But had the pavement always been so glossy? Coming into Fayetteville, she’d avoided I-49, remembering narrow lanes strewn with traffic cones and orange-vested working men. But maybe that construction work was finally done. Maybe outside the van, time had not become synonymous with entropy. Inside, Polaroids flowed from cardboard boxes, garbage piled thick beneath the front seats, and a rumpled sleeping bag stretched thin between the metal nubbins where the backseats used to lock in. The AC drew its power from the engine, so Emma couldn’t accelerate when the vents were pushing cold air, but she couldn’t drop the windows, either, not even in the summer, when the van grew dank and sun-suffused, lest the wind catch at the Polaroids and carry them off in swarms. Four years’ work: bathrooms etched in light and shadow, two dimensions: public/private, single/multi-stall, unisex/gendered, filthy/clean; bathrooms in hotels, convenience stores, gas stations, supermarkets, apartment complexes, duplexes, and private homes; porta-potties at campsites, festivals, and fair grounds; half-constructed bathrooms deep in half-constructed houses; urban, rural, newly built and decades-old; all the bathrooms of America. Empty, empty, every one.
“Let’s just imagine,” Sparrow said, “that all these years, she’s been looking for you. Would she have found you?”
“Shit, dude. And here I thought I asked for just a little off the top and sides.”
Past Dickson and Mount Sequoyah, Maple and Lafayette, through the lights all glowing green, as if the town were opening in celebration or predation, spreading its arms for her, spreading its legs for her, unhinging its jaw for her, inviting her to rattle down its throat, psychoactive in her fragile yellow capsule. She pressed the throttle as the intersections thinned. She knew where she was going now. A memory had stitched itself together. It beckoned.
Sparrow said, “No bathrooms there.”
“It’s just a place to spend the night.”
“I mean, I’m glad you’re thinking outside the box for a change.”
“It’s just a place,” Emma said. “It’s just a place to rest.”
“She liked that there weren’t bathrooms there.” Emma said nothing. “She liked getting out afterward,” Sparrow said, “and squatting with her pants down, pissing in the winter grass.”
Emma’s knuckles tightened on the wheel. “You didn’t know her.”
“She liked the frost on her thighs and her ankles and the gravel in her soles and the wind in her hair like the wind in the weeds and the wind in the grasses, the wind in the pines. It made her feel like she was a part of things.” Sparrow hesitated. “And she liked him watching.”
“You think everyone likes people watching. You perv.”
She almost missed the turn-off: Lakeview Drive, a residential-looking street halfway to Springdale, barely marked, houses growing larger, brighter, sparser farther down the road, and then a sharp curve left, and on its outer edge, a second turn-off into the secluded gravel lot set back from Lake Fayetteville, divided from the water by a boarded path and trees. She’d only been out here a few times, years before, and never with Astrid. Then again, those had been her first times, too. Formative. Archetypal. Like sister, like sister.
Except that whenever she’d been there, the lot had been empty. And now—
A row of cars: a white Honda Civic, a violent orange Subaru, a gray Ford pickup, frat boys lounging in the bed, beer coolers, fishing poles, cigarettes, the crackling white noise of glass-muted voices, and Sparrow saying, “Don’t worry. Ignore them.”
“They shouldn’t be here.”
“They’ve got every right. It’s public parking.”
“But no one comes here. Ever.”
“Not in winter, maybe. But they do in summer. Spring.”
Of course. She’d never seen this place at any pleasant time of year.
Gravel crunching, tightness in her chest and windpipe, and she knew there was plenty of room for the van, plenty of space to make a three-point turn, but the maneuver daunted her, as if she hadn’t done it countless times before, as if, with those guys watching from the pickup, she was guaranteed to botch it, and they were guaranteed to laugh, to mock her, and—but they weren’t really watching. She wasn’t doing anything sexy or strange, so why would they? But she felt as if they were.
“This was a bad idea,” she said.
Sparrow’s palm squeezed her thigh. “Consider it practice.”
It’s all practice, she wanted to say. Everything, always—what isn’t practice for something else? Something—
But for what? What’s the point, when she never got anything out of it, never got anywhere, never an end?
She stopped herself. Sparrow would follow her right down that rabbit hole. No telling how long they’d spend down there, floating in a bilge of half-said truths and abstract forms, or what they’d find when they came up for air. She didn’t have another plan, nor energy to make one, though she was used to waking up in one town, ending in another. This was a different kind of day. This one had worn her thin. Homecoming, just as she’d feared, was turning out to be a bulky thing, an ugly, uneven load, this joint aching more than that one—though soon they’d all be overtaxed, if only thanks to compensation. No money for a room. No backup plan.
The night grew louder when she killed the engine. The men’s voices seemed to rise, and she imagined them approaching, surrounding the van—let’s imagine—necks thrust forward, chests ballooning, hands clutching not-yet-broken bottles. She didn’t have to imagine Sparrow doing nothing: same as when she’d changed a tire on the highway outside Nashville at nightfall, headlights-taillights whipping coldly by, no one stopping as she’d crouched with the jack, cracked lips and goose flesh arms. Or the time she’d watched three men beat up a faggot—so they’d called him—in a Kentucky cowboy bar. Or the time last December when she’d walked the length of a Chicago shantytown in search of someone, anyone, with jumper cables and an engine. Although Sparrow never left her, she was never not alone.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Sparrow murmured. “You would miss me.”
She still had toothpaste in the travel-size tube she’d taken from a Holiday Inn a week before in Jackson, Tennessee. She still had floss in the dispenser that she’d bought in a Walgreens in Atlanta seven months before, at two a.m. She still had pearly whites. Routine. Shoulders bunched against imaginary wind, she crossed the parking lot and slunk into the trees, slouching until she was thoroughly hidden—eyes on her, eyes on her, crawling and crawling—and counted off the seconds as she brushed the way she used to do when she and Astrid brushed together, side by side in the bathroom mirror, little girl bodies swallowed up in too-big clothes. That voluminous gray shirt that Emma had claimed after one of their mother’s boyfriends left it, smelling of coffee and man-sweat and smoke. That enormous faux-mink jacket that no one had ever stopped seven-year-old-Astrid from wearing in spite of the glittery letters on the back that spelled I’m Foxy. It had taken Emma years to work out that they were not poor. Even once she’d learned that their mother had money, she’d continued telling herself that the second-hand clothes and the foot-pinching shoes and the disconnected power and the times their mother disappeared for days, leaving Emma to scavenge for food, and check Astrid’s homework, and count out a hundred and twenty foamy seconds for them both, could all be accounted for. Unavoidable. Overdetermined.
She spat in the leaves. The stray sputum glimmered with its own private moonlight. The forest twitched and moaned, and dizziness rose up inside her and pummeled her. She squatted in the loam. When the dizzy spell passed, she stood again, feeling no calmer. Fragmentary human noises filtered through the trees. She needed booze. Not bad enough to try and bum it off the pickup guys, but still. Or maybe weed. Or something stronger still.
But no. She knew better. Knew better, knew better.
Unless, a mosquito-thin voice whined, the idea had some merit. If to search was to get in the head of the searched-for, then maybe.
“You don’t have to be such an asshole, you know,” Emma said to the darkness. As soon as she’d spoken, she might not have spoken, voice swallowed up by the night’s rampant vacuum, and she didn’t know to whom she’d spoken, or if they could hear.
Sparrow had left the passenger seat when Emma returned to the van. She climbed in the back through the sliding door and, still in her clothes, wriggled into the sleeping bag. Polaroids bristled around her like leaves. Sparrow sat against the door, arms folded, knees pulled in. Emma didn’t think she would sleep, but soon her own warmth lulled her, set her drifting.
“Are the doors locked?” she murmured, and Sparrow said they were, and she continued her descent until Sparrow’s voice snagged her like a fishing line.
“Did you smell that? Back at the gas station?”
“The clerk was high.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Emma did her best to sound like she was talking from the other side of sleep, as if her senses hadn’t just flared up again.
“If it’s intoxication that you’re looking for—”
She rolled over, propped herself up on an elbow. Above, backlit by muted moon, hung the guillotine of Sparrow’s face. Like a slumber party. Like all the slumber parties Emma hadn’t ever had. So many nights on chilly basement cots, she and Astrid side by side, or sinking in their mother’s giant, empty bed, alone. “I’m not giving him a blowjob for weed,” Emma said, “if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Drink when you’re thirsty, and piss when you need to. Life’s not so complicated, then.”
“I didn’t need to pee until you said that.”
“Fuck you,” Emma said, struggling out of the sleeping bag. “Fuck you all the way to Vegas.”
“Just remember,” said the darkness that was Sparrow as she clambered down, flinching at the sharpness of the gravel on her bare feet, “you would miss me.”
All her life, Astrid had complained of a small bladder. As soon as she could crawl, she’d celebrated her newfound mobility by propelling herself to the nearest bathroom with the surety of a homing pigeon. Toilets had daunted her at first, but she’d had better luck with bathtub drains. After she’d learned to walk, taking her out in public had invariably come to involve her vanishing, holing up in a restroom somewhere while Emma searched frantically, peering under stalls, apologizing to skinny-legged strangers, memorizing Astrid’s shoes. A few years later, when Astrid learned to read, outings had gotten even dicier. She’d taken to carrying books and camping out in public stalls, feet perched on the toilet rim, rocking in time to whatever adventure she’d cast herself into while Emma, on the verge of tears, explained to suspicious, mother-aged women why she was stoop-squinting under stalls or tiptoe-peeping over them. Dawn Hargrave never took her daughters on a road trip, but if she had, sooner or later, Astrid would’ve been left at a rest top.
From an early age, Emma had defaulted to using their mother’s bathroom upstairs instead of waiting on the one that she and Astrid shared. She’d gotten used to conversations through the downstairs bathroom door: what Astrid wanted for lunch, whether she’d finished her homework, whether this itch or that bulge or those splotches needed treatment or would vanish on their own. She’d learned to read the patterning on that door, to make sense of the stories unfolding there: the spot that resembled a werewolf’s head thrown back, mid-howl; the intricate smear that she and Astrid had identified as the Virgin Mary getting white-girl-wasted on peach vodka; the large, roughly circular swath of dark wood that had made Emma think of the aerial photos she’d seen of strip mines in Australia, vast craters gouged in indigenous earth by backhoes taller than cathedrals. In the B-horror movie scripts that she and Astrid had written together from opposite sides of the bathroom door, the miners had dug a little too deep, and giant insects had emerged from the earth, and battled the huge machines, and won.
Astrid’s self-seclusion wasn’t always a problem, but sometimes it was, like a few weeks after Emma turned eleven, when she’d taken the bus to the hardware store with money from their mother’s sock drawer and spent forty minutes in the millwork aisle, paralyzed by the vast array of hinges. Earlier that day, Dawn, who’d recently taken an interest in psychoanalysis, had stormed through the house with a hammer and screwdriver, crying, “She’s stuck in her anal phase! We’ve got to get her out of her anal phase!”, removing hinges from the bathroom doors and ferreting them away.
Mother Nature. As far back as she could remember, those words had burned primordial and true in Emma’s mind. Mother Nature wasn’t comfort, wasn’t refuge, wasn’t calm. Mother Nature was star-fall and hunger moons, Shiva and Kali, was giveth and taketh away. Sometimes present, sometimes absent, sometimes in between, Dawn used to disappear for days and leave instructions for her daughters or forget to, rock them on her lap or scream and shatter plates and windows, bring home food or let their stomachs churn. Mother Nature was a big tree on a stony hillside, silver-blond curls cascading like Spanish moss, mastiff jowls, glittering eyes. She could breathe all the air in a room in an instant, chilling children, killing candles. She was no kind of mother for difficult girls, and Astrid was no kind of daughter for Dawn, and so Emma, caught between, had consumed herself for years with adaptation and anticipation. She’d packed Astrid’s lunches and left them in the downstairs bathroom, where she’d see them, instead of on the kitchen counter, where she’d miss them in the mad dash to the bus stop. She’d deepened her voice like their mother’s when officials called, assuring guidance counselors that Astrid was physically and mentally fine, just going through a phase. She’d worn hoodies, slathered dark makeup, and chewed on cigarette butts at school, and by sixth grade, rumors were going around: Emma Hargrave would shank you if you crossed her, worse if you crossed her sister. She’d never gone too far, though. She’d always known when and how to walk the line. In twelve years, except for lapsing grades and truancy, she’d received but one real slap on the wrist, for loitering by the dumpsters and pretending to huff gas from a bag that, in reality, had held nothing but a few greasy French fries.
All through their childhoods and teenage years, they’d had each other, no one but each other. All through those years, Emma had forfeited friendships and good grades, bearing thorns and crosses in a constant triage, living only for the life that she and Astrid shared. At times, Astrid had resented Emma, blamed her for their stigma and their isolation, but even this had seemed an okay price to pay. Even this could be accepted for the sake of their survival—so Emma’d told herself. So she’d insisted, year after year, until the year, the month, the day she couldn’t anymore. Until the day when Astrid turned thirteen, when Emma had stayed home from school to bake her sister’s favorite cake: vanilla yellow, chocolate frosting. Their mother had been gone, and Emma, unsure when she might return, had carefully covered her tracks, wiping up spilt flour, polishing surfaces, burning sage to hide the fragrance rising from the oven. When the cake was done, she’d carried it downstairs and stashed it in the cupboard under the bathroom sink, along with a handmade card, and a moleskin diary gift-wrapped in newspaper, and a book about lady assassins in a fantasy kingdom, and a plate, and a napkin, and a fork, and a pint of whole milk, and a metal spatula for slicing, knowing that Astrid would smell the cake when she got home from school, that she’d have it all to herself this way, that their mother wouldn’t even know, wouldn’t have a chance to take so much as a slice from her daughter—as if any pastry, however secretly preserved, could make up for what Emma was about to do.
Several months of chilly silence would follow that day—the day that Emma left home, left her sister, never to return. She moved in with a boyfriend, almost thirty, whom she’d met online, and from there into a housing co-op, heavy on swinging, light on inconvenient, age-related questions, and this had given way, in turn, to a period of informal subletting from strangers loosely affiliated with the co-op, whose landlords, by and large, neither knew nor cared what went on at their properties as long as the rent got paid—which, thanks to Emma’s fast food and waitressing gigs, it always had. It was Astrid, eventually, who’d broken the silence, for Emma had been too ashamed, too sure that what she’d done could never be forgiven. Indeed, it never was. Their sisterhood resumed, but now with secrets going septic between them, silences growing like cysts on their tongues. Astrid rarely spoke of home life, steered their conversations stiffly past each mention of their mother. More and more, Emma deferred to Astrid’s reservations. Emma learned. She graduated high school with a steady string of Cs, collected leftovers and write-off from stores to leave with Astrid when their mother wasn’t home, never invited Astrid to move in with her, never knew for sure if this was out of self-preservation, or respect for a line in the sand. There were lines in the sand now, and no way of knowing what would happen if she tripped one—whether she would lose her sister, or herself, once and for all.
One week, their mother had announced she had a rare disease, something to do with spinal fluid and aggressive T-cells, and tears had fallen, and plates had flown, and Astrid had appeared at Emma’s door, desperate for refuge. They’d ordered takeout every evening, plowed through serial killer documentaries, Emma narrating whatever Astrid missed while she was on the toilet, and, later, lain in bed and traded stories, like the one about the high school guy who’d taken Astrid back to his garage and plied her with gallons of home-brewed cider, and she’d drunk so much, she’d had to interrupt their clumsy sex seventeen times, and because she’d been nervous, and tipsy, and high, she hadn’t exactly played it cool: she’d kept up a running commentary like an auctioneer—“And that makes nine trips to the bathroom, folks, do I see a tenth coming, is that, do I—yes! Yes, I do! That brings it up to ten!”—and of course she’d never spoken to the guy again. Six days had passed like this. Six days, and perhaps it would’ve led eventually to reconciliation, but then they’d found out that the diagnosis had been self-administered. There’d been no doctors, no disease.
So, Astrid had taken her things and gone. Emma had despised herself for feeling grateful when her sister didn’t beg to stay. She didn’t know what might’ve happened if she’d had to look her in the eyes and tell her, “Go.” The guilt had clung to her for weeks, a walked-through cobweb on her skin, but at least she had been able to reclaim her space. At least they’d each retained a little dignity.
And yet, that week had proven—even once the status quo had been restored—that she could’ve rescued Astrid all along. That what she’d lacked was not resourcefulness, but rather courage, will. Her memories had grown threadbare, weeks and months effaced and gone, and so she told herself she must’ve forgotten the very real reason she and Astrid couldn’t share a home. The reason was…the reason was….
And then the reason was that Astrid didn’t need her anymore. That she’d found her own way out, her own escape route from their once-shared hell. The reason was the vastness of unfurnished rooms, the moving boxes stacked five-high, the light through upturned glasses, suds-streaked, gleaming, casting soapy shadows on the counter’s calico as Astrid’s arms worked rhythmically, elbow-deep in dishwashing gloves, face heart-shaped and turned away. Too bright, that kitchen. Emma had to drop her eyes.
She’d just made a mistake. An awful one. She’d asked, “You’re sure this is a good idea?”
In her arms, she’d held a toaster oven.
“Seriously?” Acne polka-dotted Astrid’s cheeks and chin, sores her makeup couldn’t hide. She swished brisk hands beneath the foam.
“Just saying.” Emma’s mumble buffed the oven’s surface, agitating dust and sun. “There’s only one bathroom.”
As if the timing weren’t a telltale sign, proof that Astrid’s move was cosmically aligned. That spring, Emma had begun, impulsively, to purge, boxing cookware, dragging furniture to the curb. She couldn’t have explained what she was doing, only knew her tolerance for having things had worn thin. Her possessions would’ve gone to strangers if her sister hadn’t called and told her of the boyfriend and the lease they’d signed. Boxes had rocked in the back of her van: clothes and candles, thumbtacks and deodorant and silverware. No point differentiating what would merely clutter up her sister’s life from what would set her on the right path. These decisions would be Astrid’s, going forward, hers alone.
Later, Emma would realize she’d even given Astrid her toothbrush.
“He’s a dude,” Astrid said. “He’ll go outside if he needs to.” And then, “What makes you think you get a say?”
“Yes, you were.”
Some people got turned into boulders or flora or pillars of salt for their misdeeds. Some people got chained to cliffs and fed to birds. Some people had to carry stones up mountains, then watch them roll back down again. And some people, those who’d really screwed the pooch, had to stand for an eternity with toaster ovens in their arms.
In the background, a portable speaker on the windowsill played Florence and the Machine, vocals like fish in a mountain stream:
This is a gift
It comes with a price
Who is the lamb
And who is the knife?
Emma bent at the knees. She set the toaster oven on the floor, then retreated through the living room, awash with boxes and badly dubbed anime, out through the propped-open door. The air smelled damp, as if from rain. An aging white man stood a few yards off, watering a potted fuchsia on an upturned garbage can. His eyes tracked Emma as she crossed from the apartment to the van, lingered on her as she took a box, followed as she waddled toward the building, cut-offs riding up her thighs.
“Shoes!” Astrid shouted from the kitchen.
“Huh?” Emma straddled the threshold, half out, half in, caught between the AC and the humid air behind.
“Don’t forget to take your shoes off.” Astrid arched back from the sink, a gymnast’s bend, to glare at Emma through the overlapping doorways. “He likes the way they do things in Japan.”
The boyfriend. Jerry, Gerald, Jeremiah—something like that. He reclined on the sofa, ashtray on his lap and beer in hand, gazing at the television as it sank into the cardboard box it rested on, squishy with clothes. He didn’t seem to notice the sinking, or that they were speaking of him. Emma wondered if she’d met this one before. Keeping Astrid’s boyfriends straight could be a challenge, not because she’d had so many—at seventeen, she was only on her third—but because they’d all had the same look, the same rapacious appetite for cultural appropriation, and, most disconcertingly, the same unwillingness or sheer inability to acknowledge their surroundings. It baffled Emma. Her own partners were kaleidoscopic, sans a common theme.
“Are you taking your shoes off?” Astrid called.
“Yeah.” Emma raised a leg and tried to peel her sandal off. Something in the box she carried shifted, and she caught the doorframe, gave up, and proceeded lopsidedly, one foot bare, feeling ahead with naked toes. Stacks of boxes cantilevered all around her like exotic desert rock formations. She eased her load onto the dresser in the middle of the room. The disarray left her feeling claustrophobic, queasy. But, she told herself, it didn’t matter. This was Astrid’s life, and this was how she wanted things: chaotic, about to tip over.
And the boyfriend? Emma had to admit, he did intrigue her with his…but what was it? Apathy? Were noble gases apathetic when they didn’t share electrons? She retrieved the box she’d just set on the dresser and, with experimental cunning, placed it on the Ottoman between the sofa and the TV, atop of a wad of clothes. The boyfriend arched his body sideways so he wouldn’t lose sight of the screen. Fascinated, Emma extended one bare toe and nudged the box a few more inches, interrupting his line of sight again. He made a noise this time, not quite a word, and craned farther, seemingly oblivious to the human agent implicated in the box’s motion.
Then, in the kitchen, something shattered.
From Astrid’s throat, a cry. A strange, torqued sob.
It was an ordinary glass she’d broken, Emma saw, reaching the kitchen, same as all the others, but the guttural wail that rose from Astrid, as she plucked its larger fragments from the drain, was the sound of an animal losing its firstborn. She leapt away from the sink and plunged past Emma, through the living room—boxes tumbled—down the hall. No blood anywhere that Emma could see, but still her sister howled, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”, and the bathroom door slammed, and the boyfriend stayed inert and cockeyed on the sofa. Emma’s body spun of its own accord. Her mouth came open, as if it might speak useful words, and she stood there on the threshold, gaping, at a loss. And then Astrid’s voice, much smaller now, came from the bathroom down the hall: “Can someone get me some fucking toilet paper?”
But Emma didn’t know which box she’d put the toilet paper in.
“Emma,” Astrid shouted, “I’m not dicking around in here!”
The direct address jarred her. She remembered paper napkins, turned and galloped toward the van.
Two latex gloves lay twisted on the kitchen floor, canaries coughed up by a coal mine.
That was the last time Emma saw her sister, the day before she died.