by Jon Fotch
We hiked up the hill. Bailey was ahead, looking for what she called arrow points.
“Think of it like destiny,” Rebecca said.
She huffed next to me the whole way up. Too close. Her breath a mix of old pennies and sourdough. I watched Bailey disappear up the trail. Todd right behind her. Like a puppy. Or a predator.
“She could do better,” I said.
“Oh yeah? Like you?”
I watched my feet.
The sky skidding above the trees, and then higher, the clouds came over at angles. Their edges disappearing into the cold of space. Top of the run we caught our breath. The yawn of the world below. Like a silly green idea. It’s everywhere. The cabin below. Disappearing among the trees. Smaller and smaller. The laws of memory. The immutable statutes of distance.
“Let the ceremony begin.” Todd winked at Rebecca and took a pint of cheap tequila from his bag. He snapped it open and we drank.
“To everything special,” he said, raising the bottle to Bailey, “May the spirits never go without.” She smiled like a rosy baby. Todd took her by the waist. As he put his mouth to her, she began to disappear. Dissolve. Like the hiss of old TV snow. I saw it happen. I watched her smile go. Her straw-colored hair. The sweater. The shoes. All of her. Gone like a dream in a dawn so bizarre.
To every bird came a hush.
Rebecca watched me.
In the cabin hall, three mounts hang in a row. In old man’s horns, the spiders tend their veiny webs. The three deer only faintly related. The coloring gives it away. The reddish one is new and little. Her snout thin and fine and holy. The bright plastic eyes. Old man murmurs in the night, trying at the cobwebs. Little one sneaks down while old man and mother sleep. Curiosity and youth are sisters. Life goes on for the spiders.
The spiders know nothing but work.
The gods know all and do nothing.
I am up first in the morning. Blanket aside then across the floor, quiet as an Indian. Bailey’s jacket hangs on the chair. The shroud of a relic. Careful not to touch it. Through the windows a phthalo-blue whisper. The haunted house squeak of the bathroom door. Couldn’t help it. Had to go. I make the coffee and pad outside. No sound from the cabin. Holy time. High above, crisscross planes drag their frozen tails.
It’s too far to hike out alone.
And on the wall, old man dreams. Following his nose. His legs wiry strong and quick. His thumping wild heart. Forever ready. He is not a hunter, but through the trees and over the rocks he moves so easily. All the moons pass. Too many to know one from any other. He’s seen his kind from afar. He’s seen the men. He avoids them both. Sleeps a hidden sleep. He snuffs the pine needles in the briar. Over all creation, the stars forever twist.
“What do we do about Bailey?” I said.
Rebecca and Todd were sitting Indian style on the rug. Todd had the TV on.
They looked up over the coffee I made.
“Bailey?” Rebecca said, as if she were learning a new word. I thought Todd shook his head at her. Just a little.
I close my eyes and concentrate on mother in the hall. She lies in a bed of crisp fall leaves. She could be sleeping but for the weird tangle of her legs. Her head across her back. The urge to stroke her wiry fur. To feel it. She opens her eyes. Black as space. The wet backdrop of stars. The rise and tilt of the head. Considering me. This stinking alien thing before her. She licks her lips and yawns. She would get up and walk away, but she’s shot through the spine and knows it. She bats her eyes and from far away a choir begins to sing,
“Run along before she wakes.
Pray to God your soul to take.”
In the trees outside, the birds begin to crackle and pop awake.
I refill my coffee. From the porch, I see nondescript animals move behind the trees. Quick as silver. Like darting fish. Skinned in muted neutral colors made for hiding.
Then one day the last one of us disappeared.
Airplanes do not cross the sky. The very last car sits parked in a quiet city. A trillion miles of empty highways.
The animals will move freely again.
Bailey disappeared. I saw Bailey disappear.
It’s too far to hike out alone.
Inside the cabin, Rebecca’s door is closed. Warm shower running. Steam from beneath the door. Their voices together. A high laughing punctuation.
I can hear them.
Put on my jacket, fill a grocery bag with cans of beer from the refrigerator. Search the kitchen drawers for a knife. Anything. Find nothing sharp. Two books of matches at the back of the drawer. Fire.
Maybe God is watching after all.
The trail leads up behind the hill. Halfway up is a bluff where the planet Earth falls away on one side, and on the other, a gap in the pines frames the cabin. I squat in the needles and open a beer. Above and below the day passes. Every day passing is the scared teenage mother of the next. I can smell my armpits.
One by one the lights come on at dusk. I watched all day. Saw them both come out on the porch to look. Cautious. But not worried. By the afternoon, Todd was dressed and walked around the cabin and up into the trees but not far. He only called my name once. It sounded like an admonishment.
In the night I made a fire. Kept it small. It made boogeyman shadows in the trees. In the dark, an owl stopped his call. Only then did I become aware of him. Native people ran these hills nude and barefoot and free. They cooked strips of wild meat on staves cleaned by razor flint and callous. How the starving dogs watched them eat. Hungry and thin as banjo strings. I tried a prayer to all of them, but I am no kin. I come here a stranger.
I thought of Bailey.
I saw her disappear.
The cabin lights stayed on all night.
On the wall old man has weepy eyes. Mother sees. Every night she dreams. Fields of sweet green grass. She dances under the moon. Her dance is like wild blue butterflies. Her wings have butterfly dust. She’s older than the bobcats.
“Dry your weepy eyes,” she says to him, over and over, “Dry your eyes.”
And the front came in. Cold as a cadaver. Cold enough to make you laugh at the sky. Laugh at all we’ve done. From the carriage to the rocket. It’s a horrible, beautiful laugh. I warm my fingers at the fire. Victory. Surrender. It doesn’t matter.
All we’ve ever done is an awkward try at dancing.
I think of Bailey.
In the morning, the ants. A perfect line from the beer cans across the pine needles and up the rock leading off and away toward kingdom come. All things become one at the vanishing point. Dawn is different when you sleep outside. Dawn is holy. A night in the cold will remove your blood and run it through a machine that makes it not yours anymore. You can have it back, but it’s only borrowed.
I wonder if I’ve beaten them awake. I watch. No sound or movement down at the cabin. No chimney smoke. Here comes the sun and the world. I straighten myself. Pee in a line straight down behind the rocks. Rub my eyes.
Down to the cabin. I have no choice.
The warmth inside was like finally meeting Jesus.
Todd was making breakfast. Hairy legs at the bottom of a thin blue bathrobe. Standing at the stove. Over his shoulder he said, “Long night up there. Cold. You should sit down. Want some eggs?”
I sat at the kitchen table. A rough-topped thing with heavy grain and knotholes that wouldn’t let a cup stay upright. One of the legs still had a Crate & Barrel tag stapled to it.
Todd slid the eggs onto a plate. His cold blue eyes.
“Juice?” he said.
“What happened to Bailey?”
“Listen, you need to understand, we invited you up here. Rebecca and me. We invited you. Understand?”
“Where did she go?” I pushed the plate of eggs away. I wanted the eggs badly. They smelled like Christmas morning.
“I saw her.”
Sitting across the table, Todd reached up and took Rebecca’s hand as she approached from the hall. Her body completely naked. Muscular in a way that could never be hidden by her clothes. Muscular like an animal. A bulge of teeth behind her lips. I wondered if he had brought another girl in while I was up the mountain. While I slept. Snuck her in.
“Bailey was special.” They said in perfect unison. They smiled from inside. They smiled like a chord being played.
“You are special. More special than you know,” together they said.
At the sound of their voices, something beautiful and warm washed over me. I couldn’t help myself. It’s nice to hear the truth. It was easy. I rose and went to them.
And it’s OK. The surrogate mother and father. Mother’s wet mouth. It’s not worth understanding. Think of it like the wind in the trees. That sunset layer in the ocean where light gives up and goes no farther. The universe of space in ordinary radio static.
Like numbers go on forever.
An amount with no value.
I could have cried from finally knowing it.
Old man stopped getting down years ago. All his dreams are smoke. The spiders catch them in their webs.
Little one gets down every night. Lifts herself from the nail. Sneaks down the wall. Noses around the kitchen. Dragging her wooden mount, she checks the trash. Sniffs the musky underwear in the hamper. Her ears move at the wolves and bobcats crying far away. The family is safe. She knows the wolves could never reason out the doorknob. She’s tried.
Before the sun comes, she slides quietly up the wall and, feeling around, finds her nail. Quiet as a ghost. Better at it all the time.
Out the window she sees the stars so many.
One spring, the old man found a clearing of yellow flowers.
His god was far away.
Once in a broken tree, he found a rip of honey.
In the field, the flowers watch him fall, crumpled and surprised by a power unknowable. He thought when it was over, he would get up and run.
That he would run the sky again.
The flowers watched him fade. They could not move themselves for the boots that came. When he awoke on the wall, the spiders had begun their work.
Jon Fotch‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Avalon Literary Review, Avatar Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, BoomerLitMag, Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal, Carbon Culture Review, Caveat Lector, The Conglomerate, Courtship of Winds, Evening Street Review, Euphony Journal, Flights, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Hungry Chimera, Menda City Review, moonShine Review, Mudlark, Waving Hands Review, and Whistling Shade.
Image: Luke Stackpoole/Unsplash