Ainsley prayed for a single line, a negative—not a cross, please, God, not a cross, though the outcome of this test was pre-determined, written in her hormones. Through the crack in the bathroom door she could hear Ivan snore lightly every other breath. His heavy body, wrapped in a cocoon of sheets, shown pale in the morning light that glowed faintly in the curtains. Already, outside, the alien chorus was picking up, shivering like the tale tip of a massive rattlesnake curled around the city. The sound rose, growing faster, rising to a chattering fury, then all at once, dropped away.
Yesterday Ainsley had noticed the crisp sap-colored husks clinging to the tree trunks as she walked to work. Soon they would be everywhere—black bodies the size of chestnuts hanging in branches, mating on the hoods of cars, staring down with red, circular eyes. She avoided looking at them, just as she did thirteen years ago when they invaded her summer camp, but it was too late to avoid the one that came hurtling toward her neck as she and Linda were walking back to the office after lunch.
“Poor little guy got himself all wound up,” Linda said, breathing her mint gum close to Ainsley’s face as she worked to disentangle the thing from her hair. Ainsley held still, trying not to show her repulsion as the legs scraped, the wings fluttered, the buzzing like an electric razor near her neck. “Fly free. Go find you’re your mate,” Linda said to the insect as it wobbled away on the air. Ainsley, released from her tense trance, bent over the base of a cherry blossom tree and unloaded the mixed greens she’d had for lunch.
She spat and said, “Must be the heat,” her ears ringing. Even if it did seem plausible in this record-breaking weather, both of them slick with sweat, Linda looked skeptical. “No such thing as global warming, right?” Ainsley said, mimicking the sarcasm of other researchers in her division to deflect her embarrassment. To react that way about a little bug—a bug that had waited underground for thirteen years only to crawl up and fuck a few times before it died—was shameful, and worse in front of Linda, who had slept under mosquito nets in Thailand and Haiti. Linda, who Ainsley considered her mentor and who, though at sixty was twice her age, treated Ainsley like a friend.
“You sure you’re not pregnant?” Linda asked.
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” Linda said. “You guys are all about amor platonicus.” Ainsley often had to defend her relationship with Ivan, to explain that it somehow worked. That she was the ambitious one, the breadwinner, the one with a mission. It was a joke around the office: how Ainsley dove into every assignment. Her co-workers rolled their eyes affectionately over the depth of research and the level of detail in her reports but, just two weeks ago, her efforts had paid off. Her anti-drilling campaign had helped to bring about the moratorium on fracking in the National Forest. The night the president made the announcement, the whole division went out to celebrate, and Ainsley began to wonder if maybe Linda was right about Ivan. Swept from bar to bar, where handsome D.C. types bought her drinks and talked about politics and international policy, she wondered how her life would be different with another man. Now in the bathroom, she winced at the memory—how she came home in the early morning hours, soaring as she stumbled into bed, and roused Ivan from his stoner’s slumber, saying, “Drill, baby, drill.”
As the cross, faint at first, transformed into a brazen blue, the weird droning seemed to grow steadily louder, a throbbing rhythm Ainsley recognized from the last invasion when her dad came by himself to pick her up from summer camp, he said it was the best thing for everyone and it was nobody’s fault but all she heard was their looping chatter We are We are We are far away at first, but getting closer, coming for her, then the singing stopped, a silence, it was then picked up, continued with a new refrain Ov-er Ov-er Ov-er.
That day at work, in her cubicle, she conducted research—a seventy-five percent chance of miscarriage in the first three weeks—and cleared her history. She got home and changed into jogging clothes, went for a long, sweat-sprinkling run. When Ivan snuck off late at night to the roof to smoke she lay in the dark and visualized a heavy period, tensed the muscles in her still flat stomach to provoke cramps. All week at work she tried to focus on her current assignment. But nobody watched over her shoulder, or anybody’s shoulder. It was a government office. And she could erase her history.
I was in so much pain… on the toilet for a week they said it would be three days… didn’t work for me I had to go back to the clinic… worried I’m going to hell my priest said… The horror stories in the online forums didn’t bother Ainsley. Studies showed the pills were quick and effective. And she could ignore even the worst cramps, had learned to that summer her mother dropped her off at camp with twelve tampons in her knapsack. That thing inside her was a ball of cells, simpler than an insect. She wanted to tell this to the woman outside the clinic, the young woman with the angry, pock-marked face and limp hair who had been holding up a sign, printed with the words, It’s not a choice. It’s a life. She wanted to show the woman the PowerPoint she’d made during her lunch breaks at work. The PowerPoint she’d made for Ivan.
She expected to find him as she had most other evenings since school ended for the summer, in bed, the windows blacked out, eyes open, staring at the ceiling, Bonnie Prince Billy or Low blaring from the Bose. Once or twice every year he slipped into a despondent malaise and took to the bedroom darkness. Once, in college, it had gone on for two weeks, but this episode was his longest yet. Secretly, she called it his “depressed house-husband routine” because the apartment was always clean and there was usually a full vegetarian meal being kept warm in the oven or stored in Tupperware containers in the fridge when she came in late from work. She knew he still smoked-up in secret, although she made him swear he’d quit, the fact was, he cooked and cleaned compulsively when he was stoned.
She found him in the kitchen, bent over a simmering pan, a pot bubbling on the rear burner, his face sweaty and grinning. He had an interview with the Manassas Historical Society in the morning, for a job taking portraits at Civil War reenactment camps. She didn’t ask about the pay or benefits, instead she told him it sounded perfect. He would need something good in his life, some shiny new project to throw himself into after she broke the news.
The next evening she came home and found him buried under the covers in bed, staring as if he could see some dark, ominous image projected on the ceiling.
“You ever look at their faces, the kids going off to war? I mean really look.”
“I take it you didn’t get the job?”
“They wanted someone who shoots digital. For the battle scenes. Can you believe that?”
“You shoot digital.”
“I don’t want to shoot digital.”
“You didn’t refuse.”
“They hired this guy who has a studio in Vienna. I think my beard wasn’t long enough.”
“At least you have School Shots,” Ainsley said.
The usual rant rose on the curl of his lips, threatening to break, but died in a mute swipe of his hand that acknowledged, generously, she need not hear it again. She knew how he hated the cheesy backdrops and the high school girls who demanded a re-shoot because their hair wasn’t right, the middle school boys who made shivs out of the plastic combs, the teachers who laughed over their coffee while Ivan begged the students to behave, and the teachers sat down on his stool and made the same damn joke every time, so that he wanted to say, no he could not make them look ten pounds lighter, but said instead for the millionth time that day Sit up straight and Lift your chin.
“You should use this summer to do your work. Get back into making art.”
He had not taken a picture with his own camera in over a year, not since his last series, Portraits of Old Computers, was roundly rejected by the galleries. He’d said the cost of chemicals was the problem, but that was bullshit; Ainsley would pay for chemicals. The real reason had something to do with a friend of his from college by the name of Conway. Conway had started working as an independent curator in New York while Ivan was in grad school. Ainsley always suspected that Conway was a pretentious prick, but her suspicions were confirmed after he came to visit them a year ago and Ivan took to the bed for a week. She finally got it out of him, what Conway had said about his work. “He said I’m not saying anything with the camera that wasn’t said already by 1880. So, I’m not wasting your money anymore. It’s over.” At the time, she assumed he was being hyperbolic, that eventually he would dig up out of his hole. But when she saw the cross on that test, heard the song outside the window, their relationship appeared as frail and hollow as the ghostly integuments on the tree trunks.
She left the test out on the lip of the bathroom sink and went to work. At the office, coffee trilling in her veins, she clicked through the slides of the PowerPoint and pictured him standing over the toilet, yawning and groggy in his briefs. He would glance at the test and do a double-take and then his aim would stray. Her cellphone would direct him to leave a message. He would try to sound positive, supportive, would put on a happy face, but off the phone he would sit with his head in his hands and the plain facts of their situation would rise like bubbles, agitating the surface, until he reached a rolling boil and Ainsley would sweep in with the twelve little answers to his prayers in a bottle. If his sense of moral guilt took over, if he tried to talk her out of it, claimed that he could raise a child on his own, she would show him the PowerPoint. And she could always point to the little problem of his drug addiction.
Outside the door of their apartment she closed her eyes and went over the phrases she had rehearsed, but they melded into the noise of the insects, an echo of her father’s voice saying Sometimes people grow apart. It’s nobody’s fault. As she reached for her key the door opened. Ivan stood there, his face an expression of intense, suppressed joy. In his hand he held a plastic grocery bag filled with broken glass.
“It’s my bong,” he said and handed it to her as if it were a bouquet of flowers. He guided her to the couch and sat her down. Things were going to be different from now on, he said. He had lost his way for a while but this was a new start. He talked about the seven-ish years they’d been together, how he had changed and how he had given up, but she had never given up, and now he was going to prove her right.
But Ainsley didn’t hear him. She was listening to the chattering outside, growing louder, the alien chorus singing We are We are We are multitudes, droning all across the city and from the forests beyond the city Ov-er Ov-er Ov-er.
Time was running out. One afternoon in late July, she followed him up to the roof, where he used sneak off and smoke, but when he got there, she saw the bag he carried contained a yoga mat. In two weeks, it would be too late to use the pills. Then there would only be the other way. She had learned about that from the ex-nun who taught her high school health class, who showed the same video every year. Charlton Heston’s Old Testament voice narrating as the reddish silhouette on screen writhed and tucked its legs up to escape the tongs. She couldn’t remember being in the womb, or her expulsion from it, but she preferred to have that all taken care of before the thing developed nerves.
“Hey,” she said to him, looking out across the view of the city, “we should go camping.” It was a temptation too strong for him to resist. The two of them used to go camping all the time in college.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been so hot.”
“It supposed to cool off this weekend.”
“Maybe I’ll take my camera,” he said and glanced at her.
“Buy the chemicals,” she said.
The drive out of D.C. was pretty much like this: Abe Lincoln, traffic, The Pentagon, nausea, chemicals sloshing in jars in the back of the van, puke in a CVS bag, and the worst part of it all, Ivan asking over and over if she was okay. Then he put on the old mix-tapes they’d made for each other in college and smiled at her as he sang along to Slater Kenney and the Pixies and My Bloody Valentine, while she watched the road pass by, trying to calculate the angle she would need to tuck and roll her body to survive the leap.
Three hours and several rest-stops later, he rolled his window down and the cool, dense forest air come flowing in. You’re here You’re here You’re here, the insects sang in uniform, but they could just as well have been singing, Eerie Eerie Eerie, their volume so loud, the vibration of their membranes so intense, Ainsley felt a quiver inside her, as if a bass string in her stomach had been plucked. She dug around in her backpack, searching for the pills. The smooth plastic, the clink of the pills, it stilled the twitching in her stomach, just to have them, to know she had the option.
Ivan said, “There it is.” In back, the glass plates rattled in the cases and the jars clinked. She shoved the bottle deep into her bag as the van squeaked to a stop. She still had a week.
He stepped out of the van, stretched his arms and exhaled in a deep groan.
She slid stiffly from the seat, walked up to the boulder and leaned forward to prop her hand on it. She could feel heat inside it.
“It looks smaller,” she said.
“The trees are bigger is why.” He scratched his beard and squinted critically, his eyes following the lines down to the forest floor. It had been a long time since she’d seen that look on his face. There were creases in the corners of his eyes she’d never noticed before. “Man, the light is perfect.”
“You get started,” she said. “I'll set up camp.”
But he was already unloading things from the back of the van. She stood by waiting for him to hand her something, but he kept adding to his own load until he slumped beneath the weight of it. The tent, awkward under his arm, slipped from it sheath. She caught it and slid the poles back in without allowing a sharp comment to slip out. He was probably nervous. He hadn’t used his camera in over a year. She couldn’t risk hurting his confidence, even if it irritated her to be treated like some frail thing in need of a man’s assistance.
She reached for the red dufflel bag.
“Not that,” he said. “I need that here.”
She gave him a steady, skeptical look. “Why? What’s in it?”
“Just some stuff I need.”
“Not that,” he said. “I smashed it, remember?”
“The bowl too?”
He hesitated, then said, “Yes, the bowl too.”
“Then you don’t mind if I look?” she said, gripping the zipper.
“You don’t trust me?” He lurched under the weight of the equipment. “I’m not hiding anything.”
“Then why not let me look?”
“Would you like it if I went through your bag?”
“I wouldn’t mind at all,” she said. Sweat pricked the skin of her forehead and on back of her neck. Did the label on the bottle say what the pills were for? She tossed his duffel bag on the ground and put her hand out. “I can carry something else.”
“Lead the way,” he said, barely able even to motion with his head toward the dirt trail that ran down between the trees to the piney clearing below.
She started quick, stepping easily over the roots and rocks, trying to keep her eyes averted from the gleaming tissue of their wings, their orange legs crawling on the tree trunks. Miracles of nature. Beautiful symbols of the life cycle. One dove at her, brushing her ear. She swatted with a stifled screech, side-stepped on a root and caught her balance, gripping the backpack, her laptop inside it; the white fear echoed through her bones. Her shoes crunched on a pile of shells. Temple of Doom. On the trail above, Ivan had his eyes on his feet, using a tree for balance as he inched sideways down a slope. She started on again and noticed a stack of the black bodies lined up on a log like fallen dominoes: a three way. She was beginning to regret her success at work; a little fracking might have kept their kinky asses underground.
“I should have brought ear plugs,” Ivan shouted.
“They’ll quiet down when it gets dark,” she said.
On a level stretch of land Ivan eased the bags down onto the dirt and pine needles. “Wow,” he said, standing up.
“This is one of the oldest sections of the forest,” she said. “Some of these trees are a hundred and forty years old.” He was looking at the base of a tree, the ground completely covered in bug-husks. “When I went to camp, the boys used to put them on us when we weren’t looking. They’d stick them to our shirts.”
He held one up to his face. “It looks like a fetus.”
A shiver scurried up her arms.
“What do they do underground for thirteen years?”
“Dig around and eat.”
“No wonder they go crazy when they come up,” he said. “How do they make that noise? Are they like crickets?”
“No,” she said. “They have membranes in their abdomens. They contract their muscles and it vibrates the membranes. But just the males. Only the males can sing.”
“The females don’t sing?” he asked.
“They make like a clicking sound that attracts the males.”
“What’s it sound like?” he asked.
“Like snapping your fingers,” she said. “Come on, you’re procrastinating. You should get to work.”
He snapped. “Like this?”
“Don’t do it,” she said.
He snapped. “Why not?”
“Because,” she said, covering her hair.
He snapped, snapped. One of them fluttered down like a leaf and landed on his arm.
“Cool,” he said.
She bent over and picked up a rock. “I’m going to clear this area and set up the tent,” she said. “You should get to work.”
“Hey baby,” he said to the creature, turning his arm as it crawled. “Looking for a date? You looking for a good time? I like how you sing—Shit!” he said and flung his arm. “You could have told me they bite. Fucker tried to drill into me.”
A great crash and tinkling of metal stopped her from laughing. She turned around and saw the contents of the tent in a pile. Ivan tossed the sleeve aside. “What?” he asked.
“If you lose any of these stakes,” she said, raising one and pointing it at him. As she sorted the thin metal rods, she stared at one, thinking if she didn’t have the pills, if there was no such thing as pills. It made her knees feel weak. She helped him guide the thin poles through the nylon eyelets, but the joints kept slipping out. When they were finally able to keep them connected, bending them into arches over the square base, something was off. The tent slumped to one side or the other.
“Ivan, go work,” she said. “I’ll fix it.”
He was sliding the rods from the eyelets.
“You’re losing daylight,” she said, then screeched and flung her arms, letting the poles drop.
Ivan bent over laughing. “An ecologist who’s afraid of bugs.”
“An artist who doesn’t make art.” Heat spread over the back of her neck as she held her eyes on him.
“You’re right,” he said, and tossed the poles on the canvas. “I’ll get to work.”
When he reached the top of the hill and opened the back of the van, she exhaled a deep breath. The woods were quiet. Then a rattle from far away, high up in a tree. Another buzzed, closer by, and the steady, rolling sound rose again We are We are We are fifteen she still hadn’t gotten it but it came in the car on the way to camp that summer her mom in the rest stop bathroom saying it won’t hurt just put it in and she did because she had to swim and ride horses even though it did hurt a little and when he came to pick her up he said it wasn’t anybody’s fault and they didn’t go to church together anymore after that and her mom said they tried to stay together for the kids but now they were better off.
Inside the tent had a stale stuffy smell of canvas and the light coming through made her skin and everything glow pink. The sound of her unzipping the window flaps was amplified and so was the rustle of her jeans against the canvas. A slow breeze passed through the soft mesh. She opened her laptop and waited for it to boot up. The canvas walls muffled the droning hum outside. She stretched out on the cool sleeping bag, with its old stored up smell. Last time they’d zipped their sleeping bags together. Now she felt it was too warm.
She opened her project folder full of data and research that would generate support for a ban on road maintenance in the National Forest. She agreed that the vehicles brought pollution into the eco-system, but past logging and subsequent planting had created swathes of forest that were made up entirely of trees all the same age. Many of them were approaching the end of their lifespans. While rotted trunks were themselves entire little eco-systems, younger trees needed room to grow. A strategic logging plan would allow them to make space, to diversify the elderly sections of the forest, but her cute slogan promoting compromise—the drilling ban for a logging plan—was promptly dismissed. In the open spreadsheet, she reworked a few figures that didn’t truly need attention then closed the file.
She clicked on the PowerPoint she had created secretly at work, during her lunch breaks. Her favorite slide provided a conservative estimate of the number of living things—accounting for life span, breeding habits, and population density fluctuation per acre of consumed forest—that were denied their “right to life” by an average American human being in the course of a single year. Watching the phrases fade, fly, and bounce across the screen usually gave her a sense of certainty, a satisfaction in the orderly headings—Ethical Costs, Lifelong Resource Consumption, Not So Little Carbon Footprints—but now it seemed ridiculous. It was designed to convince her, not him. Better to just tell him it was a miscarriage. In her high school health class, a man had brought a fetus in formaldehyde and the ex-nun made them go in pairs behind a curtain to look at it, stuffed into a jar, all green. Her jeans felt tight around her waist, digging into her skin. The tightness traveled to her throat. It had no nerves. It didn’t feel pain. It was the size of a bug. She couldn’t wait any longer. But there was nothing she could do about it now. Too dangerous to tell him out here. She’d wait until they got home. Tell him first thing on Sunday.
Fucking Catholic school. She lay back in the tent and felt her body. Touch yourself and burn in hell. Let a man touch you, burn in hell. Unless he is your husband. Some magic trick. Call God to make a husband. She believed in all that once. Maybe it was good to believe in hell. She never let a boy go in. Even when she didn’t believe in it anymore, she went on living by it, kept going to church, singing all the words she’d memorized. Then in college, she stopped going, but she still wouldn’t let the boys. Not until Ivan, and even then it took a year before she told him, said she was on the pill. It happened just the way she wanted with no icky regret, though it was icky in a way. Just put it in it won’t hurt though it did hurt a little. She wondered did they wait too long? Was the fire out before they started? Was that the reason it was never really any—oh, but sometimes, it was. Like out here in the tent that time, her voice echoed in the woods as she was tugging on his beard. What was that, three, four years ago? Now, when she let him in, usually she stared at some spot of nothing in front of her, waiting for him the way you stare at nothing while you wait for the next Metro car. But what would it be like with other men?
She closed her eyes. A breeze touched her hair, gently and gradually, the forest buzzing, the pulsation growing, escalating. It had its rhythms, like the city. A wood pecker pounding at intervals reminded her of the construction she heard every day at work. The rush of wind in the trees almost like cars driving past her window every night—a long, slow, ever-repeating sigh.
She sat awake with an impression of the sleeping bag’s zipper running up her arm, her skin tender and damp with sweat. Something had landed with a soft click against the mesh. She leaned in to examine it up close, its hooked orange legs. A female, she flicked her wings—snap—a small, sharp sound—snap. Ainsley grabbed her stomach. It couldn’t. Not at eight weeks. Or did some people feel it moving earlier? The website said it would be another month at least. She dug into her bag for the pills and clutched the bottle, hands shaking. Maybe it would be sort of nice out here, bleed out into the woods. But he would rush her to the hospital. Maybe it was just gas. She had to Google it. She dug her phone out of her bag and tapped the screen but couldn’t find a signal.
On tingling legs she crawled from the hot tent out into the sweet-smelling air. Up the hill, Ivan stood behind the tripod, most of him hidden under a tarp that fanned over his back. With her laptop and phone she climbed the trail but still got no signal. She put the phone and computer in the cab of the van and noticed Ivan’s red duffle bag leaning against the back tire. He must have moved it out of the way while he was climbing in and out with his plates. She took a step toward the bag but as she bent down, he flipped the tarp back and dipped out from under it.
“You’re alive,” he said.
She stretched her arms, acting as if that was why she was bent over. “I fell asleep.”
“Feel rested?” he asked.
“What’s this?” she asked and stepped over to see what he had his camera aimed at. It was a fallen tree, grown over with vines, parts of it rotted away. A salamander slipped from a crevasse and disappeared behind a leaf. Beside the camera, a large photograph was laid out on a rock. She bent over to look. “Didn’t you take that last time we were here?” He watched her with restrained excitement as she examined the picture. She looked again at the rotting tree. “Is that the same tree?”
“It was hard to replicate the framing in this one. The ground is sort of uneven and last time I was using that crap tripod.”
His leather portfolio lay open on the big rock.
“Is that the whole series?” she asked. Reaching for it she almost dropped the pictures.
“Careful,” he said. “Those are the originals.”
“You don’t have the plates?”
“I smashed them.” He winced. “After that thing with Conway.”
“You smashed everything?”
“I didn’t take criticism very well back then.”
He flipped through the pictures until he found the one he wanted and handed it to her. “Remember that?” he asked. In the picture, she leaned against the big rock, that girl she once knew from the mirror, with smooth, sepia skin, her eyes challenging, taunting her. But her fingers, barely touching the small familiar mole beside her nipple, showed she was a little timid before the camera, unsure of her body, though it was evident she had no reason to be. She thought her body was flabby then but she saw now it was dewy and beautiful, those arms and legs she used to hate.
He put the lens cover on the camera and snapped the latch on the back shut, slid the rectangular box from the back of it and glanced at the picture in her hands. “I want to do that one next.”
“No,” she said, but he was climbing into the back of the van. She grabbed the door before he could shut it. “No, Ivan,” she said. “Not like this.”
“You look hot,” he said.
“I don’t want a picture of me like this,” she said.
She let the door slam shut and hot tears pressed her eyes. She swallowed them. Five years from now, if she should come across that picture. You never get your body back, the women online wrote, no matter how many miles you run.
She knelt down and unzipped the duffle bag, pushed around the balled up clothes he had tossed in, looking for his little black box, his magic box he used to call it—there it was—just the right size for a lighter and an eighth. Though it looked different, shinier. She pulled the lid away. Inside it was another box, this one curved on top and bound in velveteen. She slid the smaller box free and raised the lid.
The ring sat on a pink pillow—was that a diamond? The flecks of light trembled in her hand. Did he take out another loan? Seriously, a diamond? Hadn’t she bitched about the diamond industry the very first moment they were alone together after any of their friends showed off an engagement ring? Didn’t they watch that documentary about blood diamonds? The acid burn rose to the back of her throat and she held the box away to keep from getting anything on it. She wiped her mouth, staring at the thing and from this angle she recognized it, though it was much brighter now than when she saw it four years ago, at Ivan’s parents’ house. The little gleam in Mrs. Muleski’s eye, when she took Ainsley off to her bedroom and showed her his grandmother’s ring, hinted that maybe it would belong to her one day and made Ainlsey’s head dizzy with hope.
A clatter inside the van and she snapped the box shut. Quick, though her hands were shaking, she assembled the outer box and shoved it in under his clothes, her whole body tingling with fear. She stood up just as the door swung open and Ivan stepped out holding the glass plate in his gloved hands for her to see. The sound from the woods seemed to pump in her head, louder than ever, growing louder with every heartbeat. On the plate, leaves of ivy and the mossy cracks were printed in precise, black and pale detail. How could a thing that was over there rotting be suddenly on a piece of glass? What was she doing here? Now up in the van he held the glass above an oil lamp, moving the plate back and forth over a flame. What time was it? Had she just daydreamed the last four years?
“I’ve got light for one more picture maybe,” he said, squinting at the sky. Then he looked at her as if he had asked her a question. “You wouldn’t have to be naked.”
“I’m going to start the fire.”
“Hey, can you wait until I get this all cleaned up? This stuff is flammable.”
“It’ll be fine,” she said, tromping down the hill. She could say no. But then he might do something desperate, might throw the ring out into the woods. He might wander off in the darkness to lay on the ground somewhere with his eyes open, staring up at the trees. She eyed the edge of the trail for tender and kindling, but her eyes saw only the glitter of the ring. He would wait for it to seem romantic, by the fire maybe, or when they crawled into the tent. She could go to bed before him, say she was sick. Better yet, she could start a fight and put him out of the mood. Then tomorrow back at home she would tell him about the pills before he had the chance to ask.
She braced her foot and pulled at a fallen branch until it split with a great dry ch-kak! She would say something just bitchy enough to piss him off. That would be easy; she was already shaky and irritable from hunger.
The van doors clapped shut and Ivan started down the hill, the portfolio in his hand and the duffle bag on his shoulder. Ainsley kept her eye on the bag until he set it down by the flaps of the tent. Excited, he talked on and on about the work. Side by side, the images would show the decay and growth of the forest, but they would also document his growth as an artist. The pieces would be about time, and process. “You could do something like this in digital but it wouldn’t have the same resonance because the immediacy of digital…” on and on, talking as Ainsley tried not to stare too obviously at the bag, conscious of it as she struck the match and held it to the dry leaves. A flame licked up spreading quickly over the log.
“Did we bring lighter fluid?” Ivan asked.
“Don’t need it,” she said. “The wood is so dry.”
The smell of the marinated chicken was calling to Ainsley who had sudden, intense cravings for meat that drove her to secretly eat turkey straight from the deli bag in the fridge. Even if he did make a delicious black bean burger. She watched him maneuver the food on the grate with a vision of him wearing an apron, World’s Best Dad printed on the chest. A little girl or boy at his side might ask him questions about his camera and he would answer patiently. She could see herself in the scene with a little child clinging to her, but in a waft of smoke the vision dissolved back into the bedroom of their apartment, his face in the dark, his body a lump under the covers. But ever since that day he handed her the bag of glass, he’d been cheerful, adaptable, even maybe a little too accommodating, his patience and calm seeming to increase in direct proportion to her bitchiness. How had he done it? Not a sign of withdrawal. Something inside him must be about to crack. He held out the plate with the black bean burger on it, his hand shaking. She took it and he laughed nervously. Or maybe he knew about the pills? Was trying to prevent her going through with it. People didn’t change like this overnight.
He picked up his portfolio and moved to sit on the log beside her. He pulled the pictures out and flipped through them, holding them out for her to see. “Remember that?” She glanced at the picture of the two of them, sitting on top of the big rock, their lips locked in a kiss.
“Yeah,” she said, and stuffed her mouth with a big bight of burger. She kept her eyes on the dufflel bag.
“That night,” he said. “In the tent.”
“Aren’t you going to eat?” she asked.
“The chicken takes longer.”
She had been watching the whole time and never saw him near the bag except when he carried it down with him from the van. His arm and the side of his leg pressed against hers as his body shifted. He was reaching into his pocket.
“You know what,” she said putting her plate aside. She picked up one of the photographs from the portfolio and looked at it closely. “I think Conway was right.” Her throat felt tight but the words came out easily.
He held suddenly still. Then he cleared his throat and asked, “How do you mean?”
“I mean the idea—like it’s just going to be the same thing all over again. Just a rehash, you know.”
Heat flowed from his body and from the fire. She stretched her arms and cleared her throat. There was nothing to worry about now. To shift the weight from her stomach she changed the subject and talked about mindless things, a minor office drama at work, but he wasn’t listening. He was staring at the pictures, tucked away in the portfolio.
Before the fire went down she stood up and said she was exhausted. He said he would join her soon and as she climbed into the tent she heard the dull thud and hiss of a new log on the fire.
She lay wide awake, holding her stomach, felt the thing twitching in there, and calmed herself by planning what she would say tomorrow, I didn’t mean what I said about the pictures you are so talented I only said it because I was scared to tell you. Tomorrow she would fix it. When they got back to the apartment she would tell him about the pills and how good the pictures really were it would be alright.
She had just started to drift off when a strange smell tickled her throat. She coughed and sat up. It was a pungent burning smell, not wood or charcoal, more like something chemical. The glowing ball of light wavered on the canvas and, worried he had fallen asleep out there, she unzipped the flaps and climbed out.
He stood in the orange wreath of trees, his face, in profile, bent over the stack of pictures in his hands. He held one up to look at it then let it drop into the fire where, she now saw, the black smoke leapt from the black, curling corners of other pictures. “No!” she shouted staggered reaching out for it, but even as she held it, swatting at the flecks of flame, its edges receded inward, melting their younger faces into ash and light.
The sting tore it from her, sent it sailing on a bright trail through the dark. She stood frozen, her fingers pulsing. Where it landed, the light spilled out across the dry brush, like milk flowing from a dropped jug across a kitchen floor, except it flowed upward too, climbing in thin leaps through the trees, rising up the forest on a waft of dense hot wind, exposing all the little creatures that scurried from the knots and holes in every direction and a pair of deer that stood staring as fixedly and stunned as Ainsley at the glowing trees.
Branches scraped her bare arms and legs, her naked feet slapping on rocks and sharp branches and something moving, alive under her foot as she was pushed, pushed and then pulled her by the arm toward the van. He opened the door for her but she spun around to face him. “We have to put it out!” she said and fought him, trying to run back down the trail. “We use the tent it will suffocate it.”
“It’s too late,” he screamed.
Heat rolled in from the open doors at the back where he was pulling out boxes and jugs and tossing them. The motor sounded weak and insufficient, but the van was moving, branches scraping the roof, the road ahead bright like it was day. Embers skid like fiery snowflakes across the windshield. Hot wind blew the leaves wild in the dirty air. Further on the patches of light curled like sea foam, then slipped back into a hazy darkness. Ivan switched on his headlights as the highway rolled up under the tires and the van seemed to fly.
Her phone wouldn’t pick up a signal.
“Use mine.” He slid it out of his pocket and handed it to her. “The battery might be low.”
“God dammit, Ivan. You never charge your phone!”
The gas station had lights on but no one was inside. The pay phone out front was an empty shell. At a sign that said Vacancy, he pulled into a gravel lot. It was the sort of place that hadn’t changed in fifty years, except for wear and dust. Though a bay window in the office she saw an old man leaned back in a chair behind the counter. He didn’t get up from his chair but pointed to a red phone on the wall.
“What did you tell them?” she asked when Ivan got back into the van.
“I saw a fire as I was driving through.”
A lone siren wailed from a distance. It was joined by another, then a third, singing rounds punctuated by the crude whoop of a police car. The sound grew louder until the vehicles passed on the other side of the highway. Ivan’s face illuminated white then red was not panicked or distraught, as she expected, or even fearful, watching the road ahead, he appeared calm, focused.
Their passage left a strobe of light in her vision, spots that when she blinked became smaller and moved across the trees that hovered in the window like a wall of shadow. A drop in the valley showed a flash of fire in the distant trees—but no, it was the sun peeking up, turning the sky from blue to pink.
“Maybe they put it out by now.”
“No.” Ivan’s narrowed eyes were darting back and forth between the road and the mirrors in a way that made Ainsley turn to look. In the window, a thick, slow tornado of smoke was leaning across the pink sky. She rolled down the window, breathed in the cool air and the smell of burning leaves.
She grabbed her stomach.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Do you feel sick?”
Outside the land rolling by in the rising light was silent.
“I don’t feel anything.”
At the bridge, on the pink horizon, the distant obelisk, which had always reminded her of a metronome missing its pendulum, seemed to stick up from the edge of Roosevelt Island, as if marking a line where something began or ended.
The light in the apartment on the thin curtains was like any other morning when Ainlsey got up to run before work. In the shower, the sweet stink of burnt foliage sloshed off her body, trickled down the drain like so many bad dreams. There was no blood, no sign that anything was wrong: nothing had changed. Wrapped in a towel, she stepped quietly into the bedroom to dress with the childish hope—as she had peered into her parents’ bedroom, her first morning back from camp—that Ivan would be still wrapped up in the sheets, asleep.
When she came out, he was standing in the living room, flipping through TV channels, his t-shirt torn at the sleeve, his jeans brown and dirty up one leg. He paused briefly at the news stations.
….started early this morning has fire crew and emergency personnel from areas around the George Washington National Forest… spreading quickly and park services are warning anyone… investigators don’t yet know how the fire started but yesterday they issued a campfire advisory for areas…
She sat on the couch. The shower had cleared her head. “This might not be as bad as it looks,” she said. “The Forest Service was talking last year about a controlled burn on some of that region.”
“Yesterday morning I proposed to you,” he said, still facing the screen. He turned to look at her. “And you said no. We had a fight. That’s what you’re going to tell them. You said no and I was upset and I said I was going to sleep somewhere else. I took the tent and the sleeping bags and you haven’t seen me since.”
“No,” she said. “I know what I’m talking about. I do research on forest maintenance. The punishments for this sort of thing are inconsistent.”
“If I turn myself in, it won’t be as bad.”
“You could still go to jail. Look, we weren’t near any of the official campgrounds. We never checked in. Nobody saw us. We didn’t tell anyone we were going there.”
“We left all of our stuff!” he shouted.
“What did we leave? A tent? Some clothes?”
Ivan covered his face with his hands. The ring, she realized, was never in his pocket—it had stayed in the duffel bag.
“You’re not taking the blame for this,” she said.
He put his hands on her shoulders. His voice was shaky but assertive. “I proposed. You said no. We had a fight. I was upset and I said I was going to sleep somewhere else. I took the tent and camping gear and you haven’t seen me since.”
“No,” she said and threw his arms off. She hurried around him to block the door. “I started it. Let me take the blame.”
“You can’t. Don’t you get it? Your job.”
“I don’t care about my career.”
“This isn’t about your career!” He shouted so close, she was startled back against the door.
She smiled. Cool tears flowed down her face as she bent over, wrapping her arms around herself, laughing. She took his hand, cradled it to her stomach. “Oh, God,” she said. “Thank you, God.”
The burned out woods were silent. A haze hung in the air. The black scar cut across the base of the mountain and ran for miles, showing the contours of the land. Everywhere the charred, limbless trunks pointed toward the gray sky. Ainsley left a trail in the dust as she walked, scanning the scorched earth for a glimmer, a wink of light in the soot. But it was all gray and black around the big rock and at the bottom of the hill, except for an unburned patch where the tent had been. At the station the investigator had shown it to her in a bag labeled Evidence.
He said they didn’t ever find any ring.
Maybe he owed it to his art to go back again. But he said, what’s the point? He said there was nothing left, nothing to go back to. So she went alone, thinking maybe she would find the thing they’d lost.
A little sparkle of light gleamed on the surface of a charred log. She hurried to grab it up. But it was something else: a nymph, pumping her way out of the split skin, her new body white as a sprout, pushing, pushing in slow contractions. It didn’t matter what was around, that the woods were burned to nothing, that there was not a male within hearing of her snapping call, no song to follow through the air to him: this was her moment, what she had waited for for thirteen years. It was difficult, hard to break it but she kept on thrusting at the split in her hard shell. For hours, she pushed and pushed, heaving with the effort, and finally, as night was falling, a limb tore free, then another limb. From the crusted grave of her old skin she arose, a vampire in white, unfurling her wet wings in the ashy air.
BECKY BONCAL is a graduate from the MFA program at George Mason University. She teaches writing at John Tyler Community College and at The Visual Arts Center in Richmond, VA. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Copperfield Review, HOOT, Everyday Genius and The Buried Letter Press.