Maxwell Surely Sr. comes into the farmhouse on Old Stopgap and stomps the late November snow from his boots.
Take them off, Jenna calls from the kitchen.
But it’s deer season, and Max hasn’t tagged a thing. He’ll have to go back out. He looks down at the boots—red laces, scarred leather, deep treads, same ones all the guys wear—and shrugs. It’s just water. He walks into the living room, leaving slushy prints on the rust shag.
The kids are lined up on the floor, ready for the game. Max invented it on a rainy afternoon months ago, when he was still laid off; it taught him never to play anything with his kids unless he wanted to play it every day until they graduated high school. After twelve hours at work, pretending to spray a car is the last thing he wants to do.
Choose your bodies, Max says, tossing his beanie on the couch.
Raelyn and Jacob, nine and six, shout their makes and models. Macky, a year and a half, shouts, too, but it’s general shouting; Max can’t make out a specific car.
Max takes the hose from the vacuum and runs it along Jacob’s arms and legs, mimicking the sound of the sprayer: Shhhhh. The rainbowed specks of paint that ride Max home each day fall unseen from the hose’s mouth and land in the fine blonde hairs on Jacob’s wrists.
You’re cherry, Max says to Jacob, the Corvette, who’s wearing a red waffle shirt.
You’re forest, he says to Raelyn, his Charger in her green corduroy jumper.
Max turns to Macky. During the layoffs, Max was responsible for the laundry, and Macky’s onesie had gotten in with a load of work clothes. It isn’t a color anymore, but you can’t paint a Firebird dishrag.
Glacier, Max says at last. Special edition. Better not get scratched. Take a trip to the dealer to fix you.
In the kitchen, Jenna lets the butcher knife snap against the magnetic strip. She’s still convinced it’s bad luck. Wants to throw it away. But when Max gets a deer he’ll need a good knife. It’s time for Jenna to head to work, where she will continue to watch Celeste Martin drowning in her own body. Bound. Gagged. Thrown in. Could be me, Jenna thinks as she straightens her scrubs and checks her reflection in the blade. Could be any one of us.
Jenna walks into the living room to say goodbye. She rests her hand on Jacob’s cheek—Mrs. Swalings, their neighbor, told Jenna to put the middle child first whenever she could.
Fingerprints on the paint job! Jacob says, pulling away.
Jenna kisses Rae and Macky, puts her coat on, gathers her purse. She stands at the door waiting for the keys, which Max holds jangling out of her reach until she kisses him.
Keepaway! Jacob says.
Jenna goose-steps down the snow-encrusted driveway, her white leather shoes small in the holes Max’s boots made. She gets into the S-10, still warm, and puts it in drive, wishing they still lived in city, where the streets were salted and plowed. Mostly. It was Flint, after all. But Max is right: they’re not hemorrhaging out here. Someday they might even buy the place. Unless someone gets to Stopgap and turns it into subdivisions like everywhere else. Then they’ll never afford it. But it can’t hurt to imagine a house like that, Jenna thinks as she turns onto Old Stopgap. Everything clean and new. She grips the wheel and presses on the gas.
Slamming door, gardenia shampoo, rumbling engine—a hint of something unfamiliar and slightly sweet, like maple sap—slide over the clearing, weaving around the relic stalks of corn that slice up through the snowpack. The doe’s ears turn. Her nose twitches, but she continues to lap at the block of salt perched on a stump.
A mile away, Ruby Swalings hears Jenna’s truck growing louder as it approaches. Doppler effect, Charlie would have said. He had loved that stuff. How the world works with the body. But Ruby’s husband is gone now. She hears a car coming from the opposite direction. She pushes herself out of the chair and goes to the window. Ever since the crash, Ruby watches Old Stopgap whenever she hears two coming at once. As if watching might change the outcome. She recognizes Max’s old green truck and Paul Martin’s prized-but-bondoed GTO. They slow to pass each other. Ruby clings to the drapes. They do not collide.
The night of the accident, her Charlie had waded through the fire while she stood on the roadside, shivering not from the cold, but from the lingering impact, which had traveled through the asphalt, the fallow land, the house’s foundation, and into the springs in the sofa where they were sitting. It had shaken the remote right off of Charlie’s thigh. By the time Charlie got to the Corolla the man and woman were beyond saving. But somehow he managed to scoop the baby out of her carseat, clasp her high against his chest the same way he had held their own babies summers at the lake. Ruby took the baby from Charlie, whose white crew neck was gone. A bit of his boiled skin clung to the baby’s singed sateen snowsuit—but she was unharmed, a marvel, hazel eyes alert, glittery, reflecting.
Jenna can’t drive past Ruby’s house without remembering, either. Jenna had been in labor with Macky that night. She had known something was going on—the nurses who tended her nearly vibrated with the energy of some terrible and nearby misfortune—but Jenna was pushing, pushing and couldn’t care what. The next morning Ruby Swalings came up from the emergency room to see the baby Charlie had saved, and saw their Macky for the first time, too. Jenna had listened to the story while Macky grappled at her breast. She tried to avoid the idea that it was some kind of omen. Macky was, after all, their accident, the one they didn’t mean to make. For this reason, she worries about him more than the others.
When Jenna pulls into the parking lot of the hospital, the truck slides. Driving into the spin, she regains control, but it sets in motion the familiar terror: something is wrong at home.
You always have a bad feeling, Max had said to her a few weeks before.
Anything could happen, Jenna had defended herself. You have to watch them all the time.
They go through scrapes and bumps, Max said.
Max forgets quickly, trusts lightning to strike once and be done. He’s probably right, Jenna thinks. She tries to drop the worry like a stone, imagines it landing in the bottom of her jar, clinking among other visions of her children wounded, maimed, murdered. She walks across the parking lot and takes the elevator to the second floor. She hangs her coat, stashes her purse, says hello to the other nurse’s aids, and goes to check on Celeste.
Celeste Martin lies in her hospital bed, the mauve tub wedged beneath her, pressing into her thighs. She stares at the ceiling. She spoke her last words twelve days ago. Since then, she’s taken to pretending the ceiling is a giant computer screen. Celeste calls up a Google map of the area. Yellow roads cut through mint fields, pastel and embryonic, no details, no history, until Celeste mentally clicks satellite. There, just past the IV stand, is the roof of her own house, half-obscured by the barren branches of a giant elm. The tree is dying. When it falls, it will crush the house. She should have reminded Paul to have it removed. Now she can’t.
Celeste zooms out. Paul is likely already in his GTO somewhere along Old Stopgap, that road cut by the county a century ago to get grain to the rail before the highway was put in. No matter how they plane it, it’s uneven, hard to read.
Celeste lifts the bubble-limbed avatar from his cell and settles him onto the side of the road so she can look out over the fields. She remembers the smell of wet tassel and beer—they used to come here when they cut class, let fallen husks make welts on their backs loving each other, tiny clods of dirt clinging in their hair. So begins the long, sleepless wait for Paul’s morning visit, the curved brim of his Tigers cap as he leans over to kiss her.
But it’s Jenna’s face that appears before her now.
Although Celeste can’t answer, Jenna asks: Do you want something to make it easier?
Max looks out the kitchen window at the clearing, the trees beyond. The place is not quite a farm, anymore. But it could be. Turning it around would take hard work, but it would be better than spraying trucks coming off the line to waste space on a lot where nothing’s moving. Max had grown up on his grandpa Jake’s farm, hoped to work it himself someday. But his dad had inherited the land, sold to developers, and burned through the money in a couple of years. So Max went to the factory. After the most recent layoffs, they docked him almost a third of his pay, are making him wait out insurance again. Still he took it. Had to.
The setting sun casts a red glow on the walls. He’s got to get moving. He gulps his coffee, grabs his cell, and goes to the front closet, sidestepping Jacob and Macky, who are playing on the floor. Max pulls on his heavy orange jacket. He can’t find his beanie, and digs around in a bin for a spare. Before he reaches onto the top shelf for his shotgun, he glances back to see that the boys aren’t watching—Jenna says they can’t ever know where he keeps it.
Macky yelps as Jacob yanks him around by the arms, leaving crop circles in the damp shag by the door.
Easy, Jake, Max says. Why don’t you boys go watch TV?
Max tries to clip his phone to his belt, fumbles, and misses. He sighs. No place you can go anymore and be alone. He looks down to get it right. So he’s not watching when Jacob drops Macky’s arms. He’s not watching when Macky, weaned just two months before, presses his mouth to the carpet and tugs at the scratchy strands, sucking the sweet moisture out.
Even if you watch all the time, you won’t see everything. That afternoon, no one in the paint room heard the vent fan go silent, the teeth of its gear worn away. No one smelled the solvent, the toluene, heavier than air, that gathered, sank, clung to Max’s boots. There was no stain on the entryway carpet where Max had walked through, his boots dripping.
Jacob settles into the couch and pulls Max’s beanie onto his head so he can feel its woolen edge against his eyelashes. On the screen, he watches the blue arrows catch on Michigan’s thumb like the band of a slingshot. That’s the cold front his dad says will move through soon. His dad has to get at least one deer and hopefully two before every-damn-thing beds down for the freeze. Now that Jacob’s alone, he puts his hand to his face, trying to hold onto his mom’s touch. He doesn’t want to pull away from her, but for some reason you can’t stop being the one they think you are.
That September, Jacob had been eavesdropping under the window, hoping Mrs. Swalings would say more about her husband’s arms, which got hurt in the crash—the skin peeled right off.
Instead, his mom told Mrs. Swalings what Jacob did to Macky. Not that he meant to do anything to Macky, just with him.
Mrs. Swalings warned his mom: the one in the middle never gets enough love.
Jacob had fallen off a ledge inside his own chest, then. He had always known there was something wrong with him. Finally he knew what. He pushes his palm hard against his cheek, wondering exactly how far he is from his fill-line compared to Raelyn, to Macky.
Raelyn takes up the less-sharp knife beside the one her mom says no one is allowed to touch ever again. She begins to slice cheese. Her dad leans into the kitchen, raises his eyebrows, and taps his cellphone with a curved finger. This means: call if there’s trouble. Raelyn nods. A cold current of air grabs at her when he opens the door. She watches out the window as he walks away, then she keeps staring at the sunset until her eyes burn. Would she ruin them if she did it enough? She blinks. Her dad’s shape flashes up, acidic green.
Macky comes up behind Raelyn, a symphony of swish-clunk-diaper-knee. Macky can walk, but just barely, so he still crawls when he wants to get somewhere fast.
Rae! he says.
She gives him a cracker and turns back to the counter. Rae, Rae, Rae. All day long. A new book waiting, too.
Raelyn feels the thud of Macky’s head hitting the floor before she hears it. The sound is familiar—he’s fallen a lot learning to walk. She turns, prepared to comfort him.
But Macky’s back is arched, his body shaking like a ghost has ahold of him. Raelyn runs over and straddles his small ribcage, tries to hold his head still. His eyes roll back. Blood leaks from his mouth, speckles the linoleum. Raelyn screams. The sound rises, traps itself against the ceiling. When Raelyn lets go, Macky’s head snaps like a stone launched from Jacob’s slingshot, so she does not hear the sound of the gun firing in the distance.
Raelyn rushes to the old phone on the wall and dials her dad’s number.
Come home, she cries against his tinny recorded voice. Please!
Jacob comes in and stares at Macky.
What’s he doing? Jacob asks.
Go get Dad, Raelyn says. Bundle up!
Jacob puts on his coat. He pulls on his boots. He looks out at the gathering shadows and pauses, clinging to the doorknob.
Go! Raelyn screams.
Jacob opens the door and runs out.
Max kneels at the edge of the dead zone that ate his daughter’s call. With blood-slick fingers he ties the doe’s ankles. He covers his shoulders with a garbage bag and hoists her, slipping his head into the triangle of her bound legs. He rights himself and her last warmth floods through the polyethylene crinkles into his neck—like the staticky charge of his wife’s thigh through her nightgown. Max’s arms hurt. He is so goddamn sore today. His breath comes like iron in his throat.
One down, one to go.
He takes up his shotgun and steps from the trees. The beep startles him, shatters the still, cold air of the clearing. Max spreads his feet to balance the doe’s weight. He grabs at his cell phone. A high, thin wailing overtakes the staccato. He looks up. A slight silvery silhouette moves toward him.
He shrugs the doe’s body from his, heaves it to the ground. He runs, cradling the shotgun in his arms like a child.
Was your boy taking any medications? Was he exposed to chickenpox?
Jenna knows these doctors, but they are strangers today.
No, Jenna says. At least, I don’t think so.
She clutches her purse like a shield. One of the nurses had brought it, which Jenna understood as a sacred act of consolation.
Jenna had been opening Celeste Martin’s body from behind when the nurse manager came to tell her Macky was in the ER. At first Jenna did not understand, shifted to hide Celeste’s nakedness. When Jenna registered the words, she dropped the enema bag and bolted. The tube writhed, spewing soapy water on the grey tiles. She took the stairs to the ER. People jumped out of her way—she was clearly headed to save someone’s life.
But the orderlies held her at the door. And the entire jar of stones spilled, everything she’d carried since they were born.
Max puts his arm around her shoulders. It’s streaked with blood from the doe and Macky’s tongue, which is swollen, protruding from his mouth.
How much time passed between onset and your arrival in the ER? they ask again, clipboards poised, eyes squinted.
Max takes his arm from Jenna’s shoulders, and she feels the sudden lightness. He tugs at his lower lip.
We live a ways out, he says.
Max and Jenna listen as the doctors conjecture that Macky was likely predisposed to brain bleeds—genetic deficiency, weakness in the cells, freak occurrence.
At the plant, the hollow body of another Silverado comes down the line. Paul Martin pulls the cord, swings the sprayer forward again. His shift is almost over. He’s moving slow, heavy in the chest over Celeste today. There’s a thick sweetness in the air, as if everything, even this new navy blue truck, knows the nature of his ache.
What’ll he do when she can’t breathe on her own?
Paul’s head pounds as he walks out into the parking lot just before dawn. He gets into the GTO, swerves as he pulls out onto the road. Damn, he’s tired. Maybe he’ll take a nap before he goes to see Celeste.
He parks the car in the driveway, staggers around the elm, dragging his fingers along its cold, rough bark. He holds the doorframe as he unlocks the house. He can’t heat a Salisbury steak, can’t even pour a bowl of corn flakes.
He lurches into the bedroom, eats some aspirin, and lies down. It’s the first time he uses more than his half of the bed.
Raelyn’s stomach hurts. When Raelyn’s dad saw her breathing into Macky’s blue lips, he had run for Mrs. Swalings’ car. On their way to the hospital, Macky in her lap, Mrs. Swalings had begged their dad to drive safe. After the swinging ER doors swallowed Macky and their dad, they waited on the plastic chairs. Finally their dad came out and asked Mrs. Swalings to take them home. The lopsided moon was sinking over the parking lot, but Mrs. Swalings drove so slowly that the sky had turned pink by the time she tucked them in.
Now it’s almost noon and Mrs. Swalings has put them out for twenty minutes to let loose their energies despite the cold. Jacob convinces Raelyn to come with him to the clearing so they can find the doe. The coyotes haven’t come. But there aren’t so many coyotes anymore, their dad said. It means their childhood isn’t right. Their clearing was once a cornfield and the kids who grew up here helped harvest, letting the golden kernels pour through theirs fingers. They made toys from cobs and silks, played hide-and-seek in the rows.
A fine layer of frost rests on the doe’s fur, the sheen of it almost like oil. Her tongue is black, hangs from her mouth. It isn’t easy on Raelyn’s stomach. Her parents–especially her mom, who warns her to be careful, who prays for her to stay well–do not need two to be sick. That’s what they say whenever one of them is misbehaving, and another starts in: we certainly don’t need two.
Jacob crouches and examines where the bullet exited the doe’s haunch, leaving a jagged hole. He stares into her face. Pulling off his mitten with his teeth, he reaches out and taps her frozen eye with his fingernail. It makes a clicking sound.
Don’t, Raelyn says.
Jacob puts his mitten back on.
Let’s go, she says.
Mrs. Swalings makes them cocoa, but Raelyn can’t drink it. Mrs. Swalings says not to think about the pain and it will disappear. Anything you don’t think about disappears.
While Max goes to the bathroom to wash up a little and then upstairs to see about the finances, Jenna remains at Macky’s bedside. She pulls a wipe from the plastic container and winds her arm around the ventilator to swipe at the blood on Macky’s chin. She wads the wipe in her hand and just as she sometimes played telephone with him, whispering down a paper towel roll or the vacuum hose, she cups her hands around his ear and whispers: Macky, Macky, hoping he’ll turn toward her, grin like they’ve understood some mystery together. But it’s as if he’s escaped, like he did that day Jacob cut a hole in the playpen.
Where is he? she screamed, but did not wait for an answer.
And where was Max, who was supposed to be watching?
Jenna ran toward the road. Macky was not on it or near it, nor in the ditch on the other side. She went around the house and into the clearing. And there he was, crawling toward the trees, gripping the handle of the knife, its blade pointed forward like the prow of a small ship moving through the fine dust of September’s late drought.
Macky, Macky, she pleaded with him.
When he came to her, she pried the knife away and he wept. Jenna had searched him for cuts and found none. He could have crawled away and bled to death, been eaten by coyotes drawn to the smell, like in that movie where the baby is carried away by a dingo.
But none of those things happened, Max said to her after.
And even later, pacing in the kitchen, Macky asleep in her arms, Jenna listened to his conversation with Jacob. After a reminder to be careful with Macky, Max talked about dingos, and then the coyotes, their sad dwindling. Jenna peered around the doorframe. Max sat on the couch, Jacob on one knee, Raelyn on the other, a field guide open on the coffee table. They talked prey and carrying capacity. At some point, Macky startled. His mouth, as if shocked by a current, pursed. She had spent the month weaning him, but she pulled her collar down and touched her nipple to his lips, offering herself to him. He latched on one last time.
Now a tube blocks his mouth. She calls his name again.
Part of Macky wakes up that afternoon, just for a moment, but part of him does not. That part is lost to the vast clearing he’s entered and it pulls the waking part with all its weight. He struggles toward the trees, seeking a cracker, a game, anything that is not blank.
Choose your body. Choose your body, one voice says.
Keepaway! says another.
The woman in the chair, her face a tree, eyes and limbs brimming with her deepest sap—she makes noises at him. She’s one of his trees, and she is welcoming him into the wood. He tries to crawl in, but the clearing is too wide.
Max listens as Jenna tries to tell the doctors what happened.
It was just for a second, Jenna says. But it was real.
The doctors nod.
Macky’s started to breathe on his own, and his vitals are good, the silver-haired one says. That’s a great sign, but there’s no evidence he’s responding—
He looked right at me, she says.
—to verbal commands.
Jenna covers Macky’s ears. Max knows Jenna thinks if Macky hears, he might believe it.
Will he start talking? Moving? Or what? Max asks.
Please, Jenna says.
Max, his face hot, follows the doctors into the hallway.
The younger doctor scratches his neck and says: It’s a waiting game, now. Medicine is not magic.
The numbers rise unbidden, swimming before Max. The accounts manager, a skinny, balding man whose red tie was a gash against his white shirt, had gone over the prices for everything they tested and tried. A single day cost more than a brand new Silverado. More than a year at college for one of the kids. Max is ashamed for thinking it. Any price is worth getting their Macky back. But if they charge him, then they should fix it, and it’s clear to Max they’re not going to. If only Macky had waited for the insurance to kick in. If only Macky’s genes were okay.
Max nods as he shrugs the doctor’s hand away.
The doctor walks down the hall, and Max goes back into the room.
Jenna’s on the bed and has pulled Macky close to her. Max negotiates the IV tube so he can sit near them. He looks past his wife’s shoulder into Macky’s eyes, which are like the stones that wash up at the creek’s edge. Jenna collects these stones. She keeps them in a jar. They all look the same to Max, but he believes her when she says she can tell them apart, remember the days.
In the paint room, the swing shift millwright, Tom Peters, hangs from a crane. He unscrews the fan’s casing. Sure enough, the gear’s gone smooth again.
Like a baby’s ass, he says to the supervisor as he pulls the part from the front pocket of his coveralls.
Thought I smelled it, the supervisor says.
Tom quickly replaces the gear and lowers himself to the ground. He flips a switch and the fan starts running again. The room should be aired. But there are no windows. Pollen, dust—it would ruin the jobs. He props the door, shoves the hallway windows open.
Damned lucky nobody fell over, he says to the supervisor.
The supervisor doesn’t reply. If toluene could sing, this guy would be in the middle of an opera, but here he is clutching his damned clipboard.
You oughta take a break from this room, Tom says.
Tom walks away, shaking his head, considering the path of dispersal: toluene settles over the parking lot, twists down the road, blows into the trees and fields until a single molecule lands on the sealed pouch of a milkweed next May.
Thank God the Earth’s big enough for fools.
Max walks into the frigid evening air. He gets into the truck and drives off before it can warm. It chugs its resistance. He picks up his cell phone, and turning the wheel with his other hand, punches a button, puts it to his ear to listen to the message yet again.
Please, his daughter begs.
Mrs. Swalings meets him at the door, a cup of coffee in her hand. Max sips it. The moon hangs low, nearly full, and the light seems to hover, stretched thin but reaching so he thinks he can make out the slight hump of the doe’s body at the edge of the clearing.
Supper’s waiting, Mrs. Swalings says. The kids are already in bed. Worn out, she adds.
Please, please, please.
Could you stay? Max asks.
Of course, she says, and touches his arm.
He pats her hand, gets his shotgun, and walks out the door and down the porch steps. He crosses the clearing.
In the depths of her dream, Raelyn leans over Macky. She puts her mouth on his, but does not taste his salty blood. She feels the frozen eye. The doe’s eyelashes snap—thundering, echoing—and Raelyn startles in the sweat-damp sheets. The gun fires in time with her heart.
Raelyn rises on her elbows in bed to look out her window. Mrs. Swalings is running across the clearing in the moonlight, holding her shawl beneath her chin. Her dad is howling, screaming, a noise far worse than the gun.
Early the next morning, Jacob sneaks out to see it.
Mrs. Swalings had made them go to bed early even though they were good. He sat at the window in his bedroom, waiting, worrying: what if he missed the coyotes? The view was better from the attic, but Mrs. Swalings wouldn’t let him go up there because the floor still had missing boards, weak places. Then his dad ran away from the house and shot up the doe. Jacob fell off that ledge inside again with each shot, and then with the real echoes, and then the other kind of echoes, the inside ones.
He heard Raelyn crying, and he went into her bedroom. He put his arm around her shoulders because that is what you do to an upset woman.
Raelyn said they had to pretend they slept through it, or their dad would be sad.
Why? he asked.
Don’t be dumb, she said.
Jacob went back to his bed, stretched out, flexed his toes, and thought about the night Macky got sick. Macky’s head had hit the floor hardest when the gun fired, and though the gun seemed far away, when Jacob went into the kitchen and saw Macky was bleeding, he thought Macky was shot in the mouth. Macky’s stupid mouth shot off.
Now Jacob runs to the clearing, his lungs burning.
He stops short.
He didn’t know flesh could shatter like this, like glass. Her pieces sparkle in the sun. The fur is dull now. He picks up a frozen red chunk and brings it to his nose. She still smells mostly of snow to him. But coyotes can smell blood turning long before a human boy, he bets. From miles away, his dad had said. And the thaw is coming. The afternoon sun will melt her edges. He puts his tongue out. For just a moment, the tip sticks, then recoils from salt and cold.
Raelyn sits on the couch with a book propped on her knees. She’s finally gotten all the way in, stopped thinking about her stomach. She hasn’t stared into any bright lights, either. Not since she heard her dad tell Mrs. Swalings Macky might be blind.
Around one, Max emerges from the bedroom, his face lined by the pillowcase. Raelyn glances up at him, and returns to reading, as if everything’s fine.
But Jacob, who’s been tumbling around on the rug for the last hour, tugs their dad’s arms.
Paint my body, Dad, Jacob says. Give me a paint job, ok?
Raelyn feels Jacob’s words press against the soap bubble of her reading until the story about orphans living in a boxcar pops. She leaps up to stop Jacob. But she’s too late. He’s thrown himself down. Raelyn knows they can’t play games anymore, but Jacob never understands anything without being told.
Another time, buddy, their dad says, bending to rub Jacob’s head. Their dad shuffles into the kitchen, where she hears him fumbling with the coffee pot. He turns on his phone and begins to dial.
Raelyn wishes she could rewind time. By minutes, yes. Days. But what if she could go back more? Be part of that family who lived here once, whose home it had really been? Or maybe an orphan in a boxcar?
When the phone on the bedside table rings, Ruby Swalings is asleep in the bed she shared with Charlie for fifty years. The memory of the night before threatens to dissipate, but she keeps herself in the clearing for just a second longer: her breasts pressed through her shirt and shawl to Max’s back. She had reached around him to take the gun. It was hot and cold at the same time. She had led Max to his bed and tucked him in as easily as she passed the baby to the EMT. But while she slept, it seemed Max was the one here with her, the baby girl between them—but you get just one life. She picks up the receiver, knowing she would not trade a moment of hers. Once Charlie rolled over in his sleep and their elbows touched. They barely knew each other then. But that bony chafing in the dark—it was the turning point.
Jacob’s shirt is beige. Too dull for any model, he supposes.
I’m so sorry, his dad says into the phone.
But sorry does not work. Raelyn is still glaring at Jacob. His mom stays mad at him a long time, too. Jacob never gets to tell his side. Take that day with the knife. His dad was patching the floorboards in the attic and Jacob was sick of handing him nails; Jacob wanted to use the hammer, but his dad was in a hurry, and would not show him how. Raelyn was reading all afternoon and wouldn’t come outside. Macky was outside in his playpen. Jacob soon got bored with pressing his face to the mesh of it to make Macky laugh. He tried to haul Macky out, but couldn’t get enough leverage. The blade parted the mesh so easily Jacob can hardly believe his mom blames him. Macky tumbled out of the hole. But once the playpen was empty, Jacob crawled in. He wanted to remember what it was like. He lay inside the padded square watching September clouds, thumb in his mouth. Soon she would come. Macky didn’t even appreciate their mom, didn’t even know how lucky he was.
Jenna, sent by the head nurse who will not take no, leaves Macky’s side to get a late lunch, a cup of coffee. On her way back from the cafeteria, someone catches her arm. She turns. The man lets go of her so he can hold the back of his hospital gown together. He clings to an oxygen tank with the other hand. He’s wearing a Tigers cap, the brim deeply bent. She knows him, but can’t quite place him.
Sorry. I’m not on duty, she says, gesturing with her styrofoam coffee cup at the uniform she’s been wearing for two days. Let me get someone to help you.
You’re my wife’s nurse, aren’t you? he rasps.
Aid, she says.
Celeste. You know. Down on Two. She’s got the lupus.
Oh, yes, Jenna says, Paul, right?
Funniest thing, he begins his story, but Jenna’s mind keeps on toward Macky, so she does not hear about how Paul got up from his nap and his body hit the floor, T.K.O., failed the ten count, no explanation—stress, most likely—and the nice neighbor who brought him supper called the ambulance.
What if Macky opens his eyes again? What if she isn’t there?
Can’t let them know at work, Paul says. Already tried to freeze me out once. Can’t tell Celeste. She’d worry herself sicker.
Your wife’s a strong lady, Jenna says. She blinks, forcing away the flash of lubricant and tube and the flinch when she entered—people feel even when they can’t talk or move. Maybe Macky is in pain and she doesn’t know it. She couldn’t bear that. But now that she’s thought of it, she has to bear it.
The enema did its trick, wrung Celeste’s insides out. She can tell by the light it’s late afternoon; she’s been drifting all day. And Paul hasn’t come. A jittery metal thread of terror trembles in her throat. Has he found her out? All he’d need is her password. He could guess it easily, if he were the guessing sort.
Maybe it’s worse than that—the elm tree in her mind collapses, its roots unearthing the foundation, smashing the house where they shared their life, trapping Paul beneath its mammoth trunk—
But the brim of his hat pushes past the IV stand’s hook. He stands over her, what remains of her life, this man, sick with losing her, letting her go, weeping against her stomach, not knowing she isn’t much to lose.
What are the things you wish you could say to the people you love? The people you’ve hurt? Would you tell your husband about the affair? The lover from Wisconsin you met online? A slender man, ten years younger? The way he read your words before he entered you like his ride out of town on the motorcycle, a single steady fast line exploding so that by the time you knew it was a mistake it was already over? And if he snapped his spine with your scent on his body, if he orphaned someone—is this what you would say?
No. If you had one last story, you would say, it was always you. You I loved.
Jacob has been waiting all evening for his chance. When Mrs. Swalings sits down on the couch and starts to read to his sister, he says he’s going to the bathroom. He flushes the toilet and hovers in the hallway to make sure they have left him for the boxcar world, won’t notice he’s gone longer than he should be. She’d said it herself: the one in the middle never gets enough love. Jacob sneaks up to the attic, careful to leap the creaking stair. He inhales the scent of rotten wood and old trophies. He approaches the window. He thinks he should cry about Macky, should pinch his own arm until it happens. Everyone would forgive him if he cried more, maybe. In the frosted ring of his breath on the glass, he can just make out the dark forms of the coyotes at the edge of the woods, in the clearing. They circle around her, breathing thick clouds. Their eyes shine. They turn their faces to the sky and howl.
Author Bio: Josie Sigler Sibara is the author of The Galaxie and Other Rides, a collection of stories about growing up in post-industrial Detroit. Her book of poems, living must bury, won the Motherwell Prize and was published by Fence Books. She is a graduate of College of the Atlantic and the University of Southern California’s dual Ph.D. Program in Literature and Creative Writing; her doctoral dissertation focused on literature, race, gender, and climate change. She has been a resident at The Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, The Millay Colony for the Arts, and The Studios of Key West. Josie completed a PEN Northwest Wilderness Residency, during which she lived for six months on a remote homestead above Rogue River in southern Oregon. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. The draft of her first novel won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. A work of long fiction, The Man on the Beach, was recently published as a Ploughshares Solo. Josie is a contributing editor to F(r)iction.