The summer the animals began to disappear was the summer of the pink fires. Everything a little more alive than usual because that’s the way of things just before they end—the muscular blaze of deer, for instance, in the headlight glare of highway cars. Crack of beers thumbed open at the edge of the shed that would later burn to ash. Foamy secrets we drank so fast our moms would never see, and the scald in our eyes, forcing it down, the belief that something better would arrive before the ache, and no fire like that could last for long.
Is this the world of all girls? Maybe. But back then, we had invented it.
Back then, our world was Hannah and Lana, Lana and Hannah, best friends forever and the necklace to prove it. Our world was sleepovers where we didn’t sleep and baby doll dresses that made us the opposite of babies and dolls. Our world was trading vintage Heartthrob cards until their black-and-white faces bent from handling: This is the boy you will marry. This is the boy who will leave you. (Be gentle with them, warned Hannah’s mom, from whose closet we’d stolen the Heartthrobs. They’re fragile. They’re still very special to me. By which Grace meant the cards, though we liked to pretend she meant the boys, how sad, how pathetic in such a mom way, and laugh.) Anyway, we always made sure we ended up with our soul mates—Hannah’s vampy Trevor, my bad-boy Jake—and then it was Miss America pageants on repeat until my dad kicked us out of the den. Our world, back then, was watching: a constant vigil for color, for buzz, for the bright sequins of our real lives, stuck on pause until we could at least get cell phones. Which is maybe why that summer, the summer I turned thirteen, the summer Hannah came home from boarding school, our world was also Peter McCleve and all his dead animals brought back to life.
Peter’s shed was full of them: foxes with Farrah Fawcett bangs, beady mascara-blacked raccoons. Owls and turtles, silvery fish painted shiny as lip gloss, everything gutted and salted and sewn back up into newly unbroken bodies. The squirrels alone formed a mounted, bucktoothed army on the plywood shelves—squirrels in mariachi outfits, squirrels in orange hunting vests clutching tiny rifles, squirrels yanking open their own furry chests to reveal superhero logos. Peter was a specialist (he told us) in reincarnating the dead. And if you’re going to return, why not come back as something better than you were, something that also makes a buck at the Sacramento craft fair? Hence the groundhogs retroed out as Jem and the Holograms, sticker-star earrings pressed into the fur, and Pizzazz, my favorite, in a neon green cotton-ball wig at the front. Hence the mounted bass with human teeth—dentures Peter’s grandma was going to throw out—leering at us with a witchy, white grin.
And then there was Peter himself, the most miraculous rebirth. He was twenty-one now (locked up for five years), and the pale, pimply kid we remembered from bus stops had become a man, golden with thick-armed smolder. We knew the rumors. A drunken joyride, alone, at sixteen. Hit-and-run, cops tracing the crushed car back to his driveway; then juvie, rehab. Now he lived with his parents and fancied up animals in the backyard shed, and maybe there were jobs that would have impressed us more. But there was something mythic in him, in his own resurrection. Something that made us want to push the T-shirt up his hard, knobby stomach and look for the sewn-tight scar.
“You’d be surprised,” he told us, leaning his threadbare jeans against the workbench. “You’d be shocked, actually, at how much people will pay for roadkill if you just give it a shine.”
“It’s an awful lot of roadkill,” Hannah said, rubbing her arms. She made it seem like she was cold, but I figured she liked him watching her touch her own skin. I wished I’d thought of it first. “Is it really all from cars? You don’t shoot some on purpose?” She nodded at the hunting rifles in the corner.
“What do you think?” he said.
What I thought—what kept me up late—was Peter running his hands across each shiny rifle. The shed’s doorframe dug into my spine, but still I leaned harder. I was trying to summon tautness, that slim and nimble way of moving that Hannah had learned from her dancer mom, or maybe brought back from their fancy school in Boston, where Grace had gone too. There Hannah was considered a legacy, a word she always said in embarrassed italics but which made me think of delicate heirlooms passed lovingly between generations—austere family pearls, slender lockets, the haughty white profiles of cameo women. In the shed, I tilted my face. I put my hands behind my back, arched so Peter could see my flat stomach, the silver belly button ring winking out beneath my shirt, if he looked. He didn’t look. “I think you wouldn’t shoot a little animal,” I said, and liked how it sounded.
“The little ones are hard to shoot.”
“But you think about it, don’t you?”
I could feel Hannah staring at me with a funny look, a who-the-hell look. Same look I probably gave her when she stepped off the plane with her actual breasts and satin hair the color of fawns, plus those weird new loafers she wore despite the heat. They all wear them there, she’d said, then let her eyes skitter out the airport windows to a far-off place, a Boston place, a place that made her profile go all red-brick and wistful. And me stuck forever in Plainsville, Mouse Brown Frizz Town, Boobie Flats—dead suburban Sacramento where she’d left me. Though it was hard to stay mad with her doctor dad still away in Syria, plus her mom in one of those moods. Harder still when Hannah put down her backpack and cried delicate tears into my hair at Baggage. I just missed you, she said, holding me tight, and I felt forgiveness unclasp in my throat: fragile, returned to me, legacy, legacy. Tell your mom thanks for picking me up.
“What I’m thinking about,” said Peter, still not looking at my belly ring, “is gutting this chipmunk.” He picked up a razor and the tail of something gone ratty and matted. “Feel like watching, girls?”
Perhaps this is worth noting: Peter’s razors miracled ugly to beautiful. He slaved over those corpses—rinsed entrails from the skins before preserving them, worked relaxers into the fur, blow-dried on low so the hair would fluff without burning. He brought crushed, gray lives back from the dead in a way that felt spiritual. His post-jail body was the finest example of this, all the pale tanned out, all sinew and shine, muscular as the curve of a revved car. Vehicular manslaughter, Hannah had whispered outside the shed. I heard it was a girl. Did it thin out the syrupy feeling we felt around him? If anything, the edge of salt made it sweeter. If anything, what we’d wanted our whole lives was exactly this: Peter’s fingers sunk in the downy dark of the chipmunk’s belly, the blood and guts, the real mess of the thing—then emerging, finally, with one bright heart, round and impossible as a pearl.
“Want to hold it?” he said, and every hand inside of me opened at once.
Which is why we were willing, in the weeks that followed, to do the dirty work—me scraping the pavement for squirrel donations, Hannah holding open the plastic bag. Her voice cooing up each time into a gaspy spiral so thin and breathy (“ew ew ew ew EW”), it was almost pretty by itself, just one more reminder that we weren’t the same anymore, not really, and we both knew it even if we never said it out loud. I felt lots of things about this, but one of them was grateful. So I carried the shovel.
Picture us, then. Hannah and Lana, Lana and Hannah, Target bags of fresh roadkill swinging beside our smooth thighs, our nicked-up knees, as we make our way toward romance. Picture a summer we knew even then we’d remember for its bloody costs, but also its returns—how it feels to be tank-top-bare and June-loosed, out of the houses where dads hit (mine) or dads leave (hers) and moms swirl from room to room lonely with wine, where no one cares what you do as long as you show up alive for dinner. Remember freedom. Remember the sweetgreen smell of scattered grass cuttings and the hair-whipping joy of biking without helmets, remember the roar in your ears, remember tonguing the sweat from the tiny cup above your lip. Remember disconnection—no Facebook, no Finsta, no translucent life on a screen, just life as it felt in your teeth, raw and thick and throbbing with everything you could ever want, so sun-drenched and pretty, it could make you scream, want to tear through something just to hear it rip.
Picture us like that.
Twenty nights before the night of his death, Peter McCleve was watching the sky. It was that electric time between day and dusk, sun barely sunk, horizon a long orange power cord in front of him. Peter wanted to feel the jolt. He’d been like that once, a long time ago, the type to stop and take notice: blue starlight a chord in his chest, the tawny California hills so curled and animal-like, he used to see them breathing. Hard to remember a world like that, the sky something other than merely empty—though he was trying, searching beyond his windshield for a vision that hadn’t yet appeared. He wasn’t sure what it was, only that something had told him Get in the truck, something had said, Keep your eyes up. So he did, and drove.
His heart beat a funny itch inside its bars of bone—Peter tried to shake the sensation. It had been coming on more often lately. That hot, frantic feeling of a cage inside him.
He knew himself well enough to know that maybe he wasn’t searching the sky for anything. That maybe this ride on this night, his twentieth-to-last night, was more about getting away from the little shed off the back of his parents’ house. He liked to call it his studio, and when the girls were there, when he looked around through their eyes, he could almost believe that’s what it was. But at night, by himself, the room was too close and tight, smelled too much of death. Too much a shed.
He knew, too, that this aimless ride might be more about getting away from his parents’ basement and the bottles they kept there, bottles that sang to him like bells, ringing their empty promises. Bottles they could have trashed for his sake but didn’t. You need to live in the world, Peter, and it’s not spinning around you. His mother had told him that once, watching him unpack his few things from rehab. You need to live in the world, and the world has booze in it. So deal.
So deal. He sighed, tightened his grip on the wheel, and drove in long loops through town. Night was leaning in, the road brightening by contrast in his headlights: dark begets light, light begets dark. A balance he didn’t yet understand, though he was trying that too. He thought of the Eleventh Step prayer. It is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens, and suddenly there it was, a flash of white in the periphery of his vision. He felt the truck start to swerve beneath his hands, felt the gallop spring into his chest like a fenceless deer—wings? A glimpse of gold amid downy white feathers, the blur of a lost thing returning?
He understood then, impossibly and unequivocally, that what he was seeing in the corner of his vision was the owl he’d mounted last week, the white snow owl with golden eyes he’d tried to replicate with marbles and couldn’t. It was the owl (he thought all of this so quickly, it was as if he had already known it) that had been missing from its place on the workbench for three days, the owl Grace hated because he’d dressed it as a bespectacled doctor. The owl whose eyes mattered because they reminded him, the honey color smudgy with death, of a memory that kept flapping away.
And then, just as quickly, the owl was nothing more than a wisp of cloud wafting by. The edge of a storm coming into view—they had said that on the radio, hadn’t they, that a storm was coming, and Peter’s thoughts thudded hard back into this world, the one that didn’t spin around him. The wheel sweaty in his grip, the itching in his chest: he felt feverish. Felt the urge for Grace like a drink, that cool thin swallow of her body, and he understood suddenly where he was driving although she said never to come to her house, that she’d always meet him in his shed. He’d be quiet, he promised himself. He’d signal to her somehow from the driveway. She would wave him off and he would drive back home and she would walk to his shed and offer the forgetting she offered him and he knew this and drove forward with a clear purpose. Not watching the sky for wings. Not watching her house for a face in the upstairs window, a girl wondering who he was, this scattered, shaking, blurry boy behind the wheel, wondering shouldn’t someone drive him home?
Because her bed, with its smooth, unwrinkled, un-moved-on sheets, felt like a long letter Grace couldn’t write. Because Xanax, Zoloft, Pexeva, Zyprexa: old poem of darkness, those decades-long stanzas, and Peter as blank as a new verse. Because not knowing when, or if, her husband would return; and because she loved him, which should have meant no; and because she could kill him a thousand ways with her mind, which meant yes, yes, any means of survival. Yes.
Maybe because the way the skin beneath her eyes was changing. Grace had never taken note of that skin before, never even considered it because it was just skin, the thing covering up her muscles, her face, her open-eyed way of smiling—yes, her beauty, although beauty wasn’t quite the point. Once, skin had been merely a reliable way to clarify her muscles’ movement. What had happened? There was something papery now beneath her eyes, crinkly and thin as checkout-lane magazines. Her neck, too—folds where there’d never been folds before—and her veiny hands, old-woman hands, not the hands of someone in her late but athletic forties. She’d been proud of her hands once. Choreographer’s hands. Taut, elegant, but secretly strong enough to lift a dancer, to point to a troupe and transform them into something synchronous and otherworldly, unencumbered by mortality. When was the last time she’d felt that power? She had made the mistake, Grace realized now, of believing she held a gravity deep within her, one the outside world would always orbit.
But nothing held. Everything slackened, threatened to scatter. Eyes, neck, traitorous skin. Traitorous brain, her focus as fluttery as loosed birds. On her desk, stacks of scratched-out pages for a company in San Francisco, a long-overdue ballet commission—the type of choreographic work on which she’d made her name. The type of work that shouldn’t be hard. But the bodies she sketched were nothing more than fragments, mere vignettes. A useful sequence here and there, but none of it adding up to the whole she needed.
Even her husband was in pieces these days, Matthew’s voice disembodied in a war zone across the world. Syria this time—an operating theater near a rebel base that was frequently shelled—although she sometimes worried she’d forget where he was, his philanthropic benders frequent enough to blur. On weekends he’d call from satellite phones that Doctors Without Borders provided for family check-ins and stateside clinical consults, each type of call pulling battery life from the other. And so Grace felt the pressure to rush, to tell him yes, of course her meds were up to date, and no, they weren’t affecting her focus, the commission work was going great, and yes, Hannah was happy at school, of course she called home nightly, of course. Which might have oversimplified some facts. But there was that phone battery ticking down against some other person’s life, someone who needed saving. Besides, how much of what she said got through to Matthew at all? His own stories were hopelessly incomplete, shattered by the patchy reception. I’m telling you, Grace, if you could only see xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. A boy last week who xxxxxxx and one leg. The xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx unmendable. My God. xxxxxxxxxxxx your perspective, you know? And the xxxxxxx to survive. We are so lucky, Grace, so xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. Remember that.
And she did. The trouble, in fact, was that she couldn’t forget. xxxxxxx and one leg. xxxxxxx and one leg. Those crumpled piles of paper on her desk. Bodies that stubbornly refused to fuse, to make any sense at all. Late at night, across the empty stage of her bedroom ceiling, the Operating Theater filled in Matthew’s blanks, cast show after show without her permission: sliding white spotlights of incoming shells, the severed arms and rolling heads. The craters. Right at that exact moment, perhaps—right now—no, right now—all her husband’s exhausting goodness could be arabesquing into tiny, unmendable pieces as the bombs came down. She watched as her mind made it happen again and again, horrifying but necessary. She knew it was impossible that her mind would project the exact same thing that was happening on the other side of the world—no magic here, after all—and so as long as she remained vigilant, watching the terrible show, she knew Matthew must be safe.
Because that kind of thought had begun to seem logical. Saving him by destroying him.
On the worst nights, it wasn’t enough to shatter Matthew, and her mind drifted to Briarfield, to Hannah—not the sweet girl Grace had sent there but the stoic young woman taking her place, the one who looked more and more like her mother, and who called less and less as the year went on. That tender softness of her newly adolescent body: hard pear of her girlhood gone suddenly lush, easy to bruise. Hannah had always been an obedient child, unassuming and too eager for approval, the type to apologize before the affront. And what Grace could picture in the gaps between calls was how mercilessly Hannah must have been split open by the girls of Briarfield, girls with blade-sharp judgment, girls who’d take down one of their own before risking their loss in a crowd. Night after night on her bedroom ceiling, Grace watched Hannah cry alone in her distant dorm room. Watched her slip out the window after lights-out and take long walks through the thorny woods, that pocked white moon scoffing down from above. She always made her lonely way to the edge of campus: the forbidden pond and its dark allure, its tenuous reflections that gathered and split, gathered and split. Sometimes she wandered to the end of the dock, running her hands along the frayed seams of reeds at the edge, and looked down into the black water below. What would make a person do it, what would be enough of a reason? Grace’s mind walked right up to the edge of that thought before she panicked, stepped back, her only relief the late-night phone call she swore she’d stop making, swore this was the last time. And Hannah’s voice on the line, safe and sound in her dorm bed, was always the same: sleepy, a little impatient, mostly embarrassed. Mom, seriously? You woke up my roommate again.
So here was another reason then. Besides the papery eyes, the flinty crackles of satellite static; besides scratched-out ensembles and reuptake inhibitors and the xxxxx and the xxxxx. Because when it wasn’t enough to imagine the worst, Peter filled the emptiness. Because when he held her hips, her thighs, held every loosening part of her in hands that were far from elegant—hands that were dirty and gut-crusted, hands that looked like the shame she tried to summon and couldn’t—Grace felt a force center deep inside her, a darkness so potent that light was no longer the point. She was gravity itself. She was a crater, already shelled; she was the drop beneath the Gorge Bridge; she was the black abyss of a long-ago pond. Not threatened, but the threat. Not waiting, not anticipating: she was already there. There. There. She’d guide Peter’s hands, she’d bite his neck. There, there, yes. Like that. And when she came, it wasn’t the falling apart of making love to her husband. More like focused reassembly: that black hole inside her, sucking the rest back in.
Mid-June now. The nights were shorter, the arrangements more careful. For a time, an invisible clock had been ticking toward school vacation—Hannah’s impending return from Boston and Grace’s certainty that this would mean the end of Peter. Grace would be busy reconnecting with her daughter. They would stay up late in the summer-lit nights, lie on her bed and wait for Matthew to call from Syria. They would talk about Briarfield, all the things Hannah seemed too busy to discuss on the phone: the teachers, the dorms, the girls and the boys. How some things had changed in these decades between them, and how some had stayed the same.
But more often than not, Hannah slept over at Lana’s. (That’s okay with you, isn’t it, Mom? I mean, she really missed me too.) And so the clock ticked onward, the nights as empty as before. Days, too, stretched out blank and inessential: the girls carried their own house keys, made their own lunches, walked themselves to the grocery store. If Grace offered a ride, they were quick to establish their distance—no more begging to push the cart or scavenging her purse for quarters. No more please, please. Now they led with bared collarbones, jeweled flip-flops spanking their heels as Grace trailed behind them with an empty basket. They selected licorice ropes and lipstick, tipped their blown-straight heads in consultation over rainbow rows of Wet n Wild, and paid with their own dollars. Later, at home, they painted their toes on Hannah’s comforter. They flipped through fashion magazines and rated the models while Grace watched through a crack in the door. Lana’s merciless sneer—sharp white teeth, that glinty laugh as she slid her licked finger across the women’s faces—always reminded Grace of Briarfield. And Hannah’s pressed lips, her inscrutable smile, hair falling forward before Grace could interpret it: yes. That reminded her too.
The girls left polish streaks on the navy blanket. Hazy shimmers of Cherry Delish, of Flaming Orange Firestorm. After they were gone for the night, Grace would scrub at the stains with acetone, almost hoping they wouldn’t come out. In another season (already she could see it coming), this might be a spot she would need to return to, a place to press her fingers against the shine—legacy of Hannah, glitter ghost on the smooth sheets. That aftermath sparkle, like the broken moon in water.
Grace stood up. Dusk had fallen at some point—behind the blinds she could see night stacked in thin layers—and she tried to squelch the urge to walk to the shed. She stood and looked at herself in Hannah’s mirror, smoothed the wavy tangle of her black hair. (Not even one thread of silver, she reminded herself—there was that.) Dabbed from a pot of Hannah’s gloss, ran it over her lips. (Pinkish without stain—there was that.) Then gloss beneath her eyebrows, a little more along the sharpest rim of her cheeks; she’d been stealing the fashion magazines the girls left behind, and she found beauty tips she’d never needed when she bought them herself but which proved surprisingly helpful now. This is how you make yourself look more awake: line the bottom rim of your eyes in white. This is how you make yourself look less old: don’t smile when you apply the blush. This is how you make yourself look defined: put the shine along every bone. There. Like that.
We burned things. Mostly to help Peter get rid of the entrails and the bodies too crushed to salvage, but also trash and old papers, knuckled branches, piles of leaves we could have jumped into but didn’t. Stuff the world felt too full of already; we’d pile it all into tiny mountains and send their skylines flaming. From Peter’s firepit, the black smoke slow-danced itself toward blue, a loose-limbed sky, unbuckled with heat and waver, and if we could take all the trash in the world and make it that, then we were doing something good, weren’t we? Burning off this ugly residue of being alive.
It’s what I sometimes pictured now in the silence of my bedroom, the way I used to picture Peter and his guns. Those fires. I imagined myself getting closer to the flames and melting away my outsides, a golden toast that takes patience, like browning a marshmallow slowly instead of shoving it hard into the heat. The crust of me darkening and darkening and then falling away—everything pure underneath, that lightness I could feel at my core but no one could see.
“Watch this,” Peter said once to Hannah and me. “I have something magic to show you.” It was almost twilight, the fire burned almost to nothing; our moms would wonder about us soon, but how could we leave now, of course we could not leave. We watched him jog back to the shed, those little dots of fireflies in his wake, eerie green and disappearing as soon as you looked at them.
We didn’t speak while we waited. I remembered how we used to be good with silence, back before Hannah left for school, before she came home and the silence felt different. Once, someone told me love means not needing to speak to someone because you’re two halves of the same brain. It was an idea I remembered there by the fire, an idea that felt just right, like a heart necklace broken, lightning-ripped down the middle—Hannah and Lana, Lana and Hannah, twin halves matching up our jagged sides. I felt tears brinking, though if you’d asked me why, I couldn’t have explained. I would have said it was the smoke.
Then Peter was back, jogging through the darkening field. He was carrying one of his white-powder jars, and he stood right next to me, breath heavy, his skin almost touching mine as he opened it. He said, “Don’t try this at home, girls.” And when he winked, it flared in me like the fire flared when he threw the powder on the coals and it all burst into hot pink flames. I heard Hannah gasp, felt her breath go in as if it were my own. I felt the jar in Peter’s thick hands—the cold of the metal getting warmer where he held it, the tiny bumps in the brass of the lid’s ring, the way one part of the jar was made for another part and everything could screw right down to its proper place if we wanted to close it, to save it. I felt the pink fire because I had always felt it, because it was me. The whole night ballooning with oneness.
“What is that?” Hannah said, and her voice sounded hexed, and I felt that, too.
Peter shrugged, but he looked pleased. “Just a weird kind of salt. I have a bunch in the shed, probably one for every color. It’s really for the animals, to line the skins after I gut them. Salt dries the skin out so the bodies last forever. But it has this nice side effect on fire.” He sprinkled more and the flames glittered: sunsets, sequins, the dress on Miss North Carolina, that horsey girl I’d pegged to win last week who came in second.
“My dad used to make bonfires,” Hannah said after a while, and I glanced at her, wishing she’d shut up about parents. “When I was little,” she added. “Not colorful fires like this. But bigger.” She was staring at Peter with a weird look, unblinking. I didn’t know what to make of it.
“That sounds nice,” Peter said. He wasn’t looking at Hannah, hadn’t noticed what I’d noticed, but maybe he sensed it because his gaze went skyward, aimed pointedly away. His eyes were cast black in the shadow of his cheekbones. All around us, night began to pull its shade.
Finally, he said, “I used to do this with my band friends. A long time ago, before they stopped coming over.” He cleared his throat. “Fires like this. We were your age, I guess. We burned up all kinds of things. I don’t even remember them now. Copper pipes will turn it green, I think, or maybe blue. And that fake blood-pressure salt my dad always used at dinner—that made purple, I remember that for sure. I used to swipe it and watch him look around and yell at my mom for not getting it at the store. I never said anything.”
“Why not?” Hannah said.
“Why didn’t you say something? When you saw what was happening?”
I poked her. She didn’t poke me back. Peter sighed and I felt the held-together center finally scatter, tossed loose as salt. “I should have. It wasn’t really that purple. Anyway, I thought you girls might like it.”
I said, “You’re really good with destruction,” and he laughed. Then Hannah said, “What happened to your band friends?” and he stopped laughing, and I felt rage flare violently in my stomach. She had to know it was exactly the wrong question, part of the dead-eyed thing we saw in his face as we spied on him from afar. We had watched him do everything at this point, for weeks—eat cereal and sit in front of a dark TV and piss behind uncurtained windows. We had measured our days by the length of his summer shadow as it crossed the yard from the house to the shed. We had memorized his life. We had bought our way into it with flattened bodies, scraped intestines off the asphalt and felt shimmery flies throwing themselves against the taut white plastic of the bags we carried, we had smelled the smells, we had done it all to get here, to this new, perfect moment, pink flames, skin to skin, his dark voice filling us like smoke—and just like that, she had thrown on the lights.
“I guess people get older,” he said. “I don’t know. We grew apart. You two should get home, huh?” And he turned and walked away, back to his unlit shed. Night true dark by then, all the magic in the air hollowed out, and I wanted to do something spectacular and glittery, a thing that would summon him back to us, magical as pink fire. I wanted to shove Hannah forward into the coals and watch her blister. I felt these wants equally, the beautiful and the ugly. But I didn’t do anything, and Hannah just kept staring at the fire, which was mostly gone now anyway.
“Hey,” Peter said suddenly, looking back at us from the edge of the shed. “Have you girls seen my owl? The white one with the gold eyes?”
“You mean the doctor owl?” I said. Hope licked at my heart, flickering joy to have him turn back. “I love that one!”
“Yeah.” He hesitated. “It’s gone missing. The fox has too, I think—the one in the houndstooth coat.”
I heard Hannah chuckle and turned, something snagging in my head before it made it to my mind. But she wouldn’t look at me—still smiling, her eyes cast down at the coals, at her stupid shoes—and after a while I shook my head. “I don’t think so,” I said.
Peter waited there as if he wanted to say something else. But he didn’t, and we didn’t either, and then he faded off into the dark.
Later, on the walk home, dragging our feet now because we knew we were in trouble, I asked her, “Why was it funny? Those missing animals?” The snag I had felt suddenly kinked into a knot of realization, a terrible hope: “Did you take them?” Because it made as much sense as anything. The owl, in particular, looked weirdly like her dad, still abroad doing doctor-hero things, though my mom pegged him for a regular deadbeat. Who leaves his wife for months? she’d mutter. Not to mention when she’s in a state. Which I guess meant the way Grace wore bathrobes these days, or watched us sometimes through the crack in the door while we played MASH and Heartthrob, and seriously, Grace, don’t think we can’t see you there. Her crazy-lady hair so pathetic, we couldn’t even laugh at her anymore. I could see why a husband would stay away. More to the point, I could see why Hannah would want the owl. I pictured her secretly running her fingers down those shiny white feathers in her room, holding her father and Peter to her chest at the same time, and I felt a new distance yawning between us, and not a small amount of awe. She always got what she wanted.
But she just shook her head. “Of course not. As if my mom would let me keep something that dirty. He probably just lost those animals.” The moon in the sky was a blank white face turned half away. “Nothing disappears without a reason,” she said.
“So why did you laugh?”
“Are you kidding? A fox in a houndstooth coat? A missing doctor?” She laughed again, and her eyes were in shadow the same way Peter’s had been. “It’s just funny sometimes. How death imitates life. Isn’t that what they say?”
Why should he feel haunted? Why now, that pull of the past on his coat sleeve, just when he was starting to see a glimmer of future in Grace, a way of starting his life over? And yet haunted was the word that kept winging through his mind. The feeling of being watched—in the shed hunched over each tiny body, at home moving mindlessly from room to room. Even out in the woods, even when he knew he was alone, he couldn’t shake those golden eyes staring at him from the trees.
And that empty space on the shelf. How every few days, a new space bloomed: The missing fox. Then the missing goldfinch. The top-hatted trout that swam off into nothingness, leaving its pine mount still tacked to the wall, and those three bandit squirrels in a single night—vanished, a pack of furry convicts on the lam.
What he felt first, oddly, was envy. It was still a fresh scar, his own barely healed ache for transformation. He could remember his cell door with its eight-inch window, the sound of the latch clicking and his heart like that hamster he’d had as a child, the one that went rabid and threw itself against the cage until it had a seizure and died. He could remember every part of him wanting to shrink down to a thing that could crawl out an eight-inch window, that could float right through a door. Hate of the body and its thick, inexhaustible solidity. Even after juvie, once he broke his probation and landed in rehab, there was still that sense of his body being too full, too stuck to the earth, without the lightness of liquor to unmoor him. He wanted air; he wanted to disappear.
Hence, irrationally and rationally, the envy as he looked at those empty shelves. It was so easy, apparently, to slip off into nothingness.
Mostly, though, he just felt haunted.
It got so bad he started asking the girls if they wanted to hunt with him in the woods. And he knew it was wrong, knew Grace would kill him if she ever found out. Of course he knew that kids shouldn’t be around guns, even the air rifles quiet enough for suburbia. He tried to convince himself that it was a gift of education he was giving to them: the beauty of a sunrise, the liquid ripple of distant birdsong. But really, he was just afraid of being alone. Alone, there were too many things he remembered.
For instance: alone, he would come upon the Gorge Bridge at the edge of the woods, the bridge he had to cross every day to get back to his car, and suddenly the vision of Grace would be there looking down, transparent as a ghost. She’d be standing on the railing of the bridge, toes curled over the metal lip, the same spot he’d met her three months ago while hunting, that spot right above the deepest, emptiest space in the gorge. He hadn’t understood at first that she meant to jump, and for a moment as he’d looked up at her, he had simply thought her magical. Immortal. Untethered by the earth. He would remember the yellow cotton dress clinging to her chest and stomach like a film, everything else ribboning out into the open air behind her, and the slim white arms, the bare white legs exposed as her skirt took the breeze, sun splintering across her face: all light. The only dark, earthly thing about her was her hair, black and glossless, a negative space he could fall into. (He had known even then, even in that first narrow moment of seeing her, that he wanted to bury his face in it, this hair that would later tangle in his mouth, choking him in a way that felt holy.)
Three months later it would have been a beautiful memory if his mind let him see it as it had actually happened. He could have remembered the way she turned to him and said Please, go away in a voice that seemed oddly polite given the circumstances. He could have remembered how he put down his gun and said I’m not going to hurt you and how she threw back her head and laughed, the airy loop of it slinging out of her throat and fluttering there before it was lost in a rush of wind. How she looked at him with dark, dark eyes and said I’m not afraid of you in a voice that made him feel so ecstatically powerless, it was a fall by itself. I just don’t want you to stop me.
And yet he had. He had stopped her. He had saved her.
The memory of her climbing down from that ledge, so precious to him it was almost erotic.
If only he could remember the truth before it morphed to nightmare, then maybe he could hunt alone. But the truth wasn’t what returned. Instead, ghost-Grace looked down from the lip of the bridge and her eyes were golden owl eyes now. Her swirling hair beat dark, muscular wings around her head. And then his mind made her jump. At first it was beautiful, at first she was flying, slow motion, waving her arms, magical again—a miracle! No human body should fly this way! But that moment of recognition bleached the color from the miracle, and suddenly she was only falling, endlessly falling (this vision was always slow motion), and he could feel it too, the forever spin—her body, his body—both of them spinning in circles through the air. White lights, then dark. White lights, then dark. The whirl over and over, a seat belt pressing impossibly hard into his chest, over and over, around and around until finally: stillness. The ticking of some engine, some heart. The rising sound of sirens, but it wasn’t sirens (this took him a while to realize), it was a sound coming out of his own mouth. He got out of the car. His legs doing things beyond his control, slipping and sliding on the pavement, freezing rain in his eyes and something hot in his eyes, too, hot and cold running down together from his forehead. He couldn’t stand up, so he crawled to her body, this magic girl who had flown—he had seen that miracle, hadn’t he, her owl-white parka swooping across his windshield and into the night—and the sirens in his throat were back now, and everything was slippery, everything that should be inside was outside. The unsalted pavement, slick with ice. The sleet on the girl’s broke-open face. Her golden eyes gleaming in the headlights, unblinking, uncaring. How they wouldn’t look at him no matter how many times he yelled into her face.
The siren of his voice in the dark: no no no no no.
The siren of Grace’s voice in the dark: yes yes yes yes yes.
All of it crushed together, twisting and snarled, whenever he was alone in the woods.
So—Lana and Hannah joined him. Dulling the shrill memories with their sweet, downy reactions to hunting: their muffled giggles, their little-girl chatter, that swimmy way of looking up at him no matter what he did or said. Everything matted inside him becoming clean again, washed spotlessly clean by the way they looked at him. You’re good with destruction, Lana had said once, but she hadn’t understood that destruction was never the point, destruction was merely the itch. The point was the scratching—everything rough and bloody becoming soft again in his hands, stitched whole as it must have been in the beginning. Like that morning they came upon a herd of six deer right across the creek—an easy shot, but Peter didn’t take it. He felt stillness in his chest, no urge to start the dying-and-living process all over again. He pointed across the creek and heard the girls gasp—deer, they whispered, deer, Peter, deer! Like a lullaby, dear Peter, dear, and there was this beautiful split-second calm before the deer flung their heads up in unison, all six springing into one choreographed motion—six mirrored leaps over a barbed fence—and then, just as miraculously, gone. Instantly invisible. Only the loud echo of one deer’s warning, a throaty keening, lingered behind, calling from a place he couldn’t see.
The three of them had stood there together in the dappled light of the woods, the morning that glittered suddenly with wild promise. And as the girls erupted into ecstatic yells—did you see that, omigod, omigod, did you see that—he thought how he wouldn’t have wanted to see such a thing alone anyway. Not because it was haunted, this moment, but because it was too much beauty for one body to take. Too much pleasure in the emptiness, in having something still out there to find. He didn’t notice on this morning, his third-to-last morning on earth, that he was not thinking of a drink, not thinking of Grace, not thinking of flight or a distant horizon. He didn’t notice that he was not thinking of anything but this world, living.
Because the stage light behind her eyes had become a strobe. Because the less she slept, the more she couldn’t turn it off, a wire increasingly stripped. Because paper skin, paper bodies, and the ripping feeling inside her every time Hannah left for sleepovers at Lana’s—earlier and earlier, without a good-bye—the whole house hers to drift around in, smolderingly lonely, for the rest of the evening.
Because late commission work. Because missed calls, missed doses.
Because Hannah, each night, sitting next to his pushed-in chair at dinner: “Hear anything from Dad today?” Her voice so careful and soft, so full of crushable hope, that Grace had to acknowledge her greatest failure, which was not losing her daughter (though that felt imminent) but raising Hannah in her own image. Deferential, too agreeable. No toothy rage to carry her through the distinct possibility that her father was somewhere in pieces right now, that her mother might be next. No fortitude for death, its borderless mystery, the maddening imagining. It made Grace want to do something wild—upend the dinner table, send the dishes flying, shove Hannah hard out the door and into the merciless world, this girl she loved with her whole, messy, shameless heart, because what was love if not a form of survival?
But she just smiled. Her second-greatest failure. “Dad called while you were at Lana’s,” she said. (A lie: he hadn’t called in six days.) “Everything’s great. A quiet week on the base. He set some broken bones, fixed a little orphan boy’s cataracts. The usual. He says he loves us and he’ll be home soon.”
Hannah pressed her paper napkin to her mouth and nodded, looking down. Then she got up from the table, slung her backpack over one shoulder, and glanced at Grace before she walked out the door. “Mom,” she said quietly, very agreeably. “Cataracts are for old people.”
Because the kitchen clock ticking away in the silence. That tsk tsk, like a vigilant mother.
So maybe, in the end—Grace wasn’t even sure how she felt about this, but the fact was indisputable—because Peter needed her. More and more, in fact, than he had in the beginning. More than Matthew, more than Hannah, the people she loved who (late-night thought, pond-deep thought) might very well be better off without her. The way Peter looked at her now felt like those early, lost years of marriage and motherhood, that sense of being essential to someone, tenuously vital. How urgent his gaze when he made love to her. The way he always kept his eyes open and drank her in, wouldn’t stop watching, wouldn’t stop making her be seen. How tightly he held her, as if she were a lifeline, a route out of danger as they pressed against the walls of the shed, the edges of tables, this tiny space still big enough, but barely, to hold something that she knew was getting larger, sparking at its sharp, flinty edges.
“Don’t leave,” he told her tonight, afterward. “Don’t leave. Stay.” His body spent and heavy on hers, face buried in her hair, and after a while the sparks faded to cool reality, as they always did: The plastic tarp they were lying on. The fine skim of sweat and grit that had felt one way a moment ago and now felt the opposite. Electric-blue twilight hummed outside the dirty windows, enough to bring the room into focus, the dead marble eyes staring down at them. Hawk and fox and mouse and bird, the predators mixed up with the prey—she couldn’t usually see them there. She usually met Peter in the shed past dark, after she was sure Hannah must be asleep at Lana’s, when it was dim enough not to feel the glassy gaze of the animals on her body.
But they were meeting earlier lately, or else the days were getting longer. Either way, a solstice approaching.
“Stay with me,” Peter said into her neck, sweetly, needily, and she pushed his body off hers.
“I have a call,” she lied, getting up from the floor. She pulled on her sweatpants, her slack tank top. “With a director in San Diego. Tomorrow. I need sleep, and we need to stop.”
Grace watched him freeze. A new carefulness in the air. The words had been in her throat for weeks, and suddenly she had released them—hadn’t meant to necessarily, but now that they were out, the relief was undeniable. The rush of enacting one’s own destruction. The anticipation over. She thought of the drop beneath the Gorge Bridge, of Hannah on the threshold of the kitchen doorway, the black night lapping behind her. At the edges of her mind, strobes flickered.
“We don’t need to stop,” Peter said quietly. “In fact, we can’t stop. You want this as much as me. You need this as much as me.”
Grace stared at him. His face was smooth and faultless in the blue light. Certain moments he reminded her too much of Matthew, and here was one of them: that earnest gaze, full of vulnerable faith in her. He was so very, very young.
She turned to leave but paused at the door, an animal snagging her attention amid the masses. A mole? A vole? Something larger than a rat, positioned with its mouth wide open, a miniature gun to its head. Teeth tiny and angry as pins. The gray fur was so soft it seemed to glow, and when she reached out to touch it, her fingers tingled with a vivid current—almost alive, she thought. Almost, in a strange way, beautiful. She touched the little black gun and realized it was actually a little black telephone and the darkness pressed harder against her temples. She hated all of them.
Peter’s hands touched her shoulders, turned her slowly around.
“This was never supposed to last so long,” she said. His eyes were lost in the dark, and she wanted to see them and hate them too, she wanted guts and dirt, she wanted ugly, the dread inside her translated into a pulsing, ugly thing she could name. But he wouldn’t stop touching her shoulders with that warm earnestness, and already the hate was cooling, hardening to mere fatigue. She leaned her head into his chest. “I have a husband. You know that.”
“You had a husband.” He cupped her neck, fragile in his hands. Brittle. Mere bone. “He left you. He’s insane, but he left you.”
“I have a daughter.”
“She’ll love me. All kids love me.”
“You haven’t met Hannah. You don’t know what she’s like.”
Peter stiffened against her. Started to say something, then stopped. She tried to push him away, but he held on, he wouldn’t let go, and she realized she was crying without sound, and still he wouldn’t let her go. He said, “When I found you, you were flattened. You were five minutes from bottom. You need me,” and something rose inside her like steam, pirouetting white heat. She pressed her face against the smother of his skin. “I saved you,” he said, “and you saved me. That’s worth figuring the rest out, right? Isn’t that worth starting over?”
Behind her, where she couldn’t see them, all the rows of glittering eyes, the window and the moon’s pale face, girlish and curious. The night electric. The ticking, ticking dusk.
“I don’t believe you,” Hannah said, and her face was sharp and bright, every angle symmetrical, a perfect face drawn in pen on perfect, clean, white paper. So I told her how I watched her mom take off the tank top—one quick yank over her head—how she threw it on the deer’s crooked antlers across the room, how it hung there like laundry. “I don’t believe you,” she said, and her face was smudged now, but only a little, like crayons but drawn by someone with a lot of control, everything still inside the lines. So I told her how she went down to her knees in front of him and took off his pants, how he just stood there, how even the hair on his thighs was gold and he looked like a god, a bronze statue with closed eyes, face tilted up to the moon, while her bobbing tangled head at his waist looked like something he was trying, over and over and over, to press underwater. “I don’t believe you,” she said, and now her face was one long smear of chalk pastels, and the white was blurring into the pink and the red and the fawn-soft brown—somebody’s careless hand had smeared itself all over the pretty of her page. So I told her how when he shouted out loud it sounded like the deer when they ran from us, this wonderful-awful moaning, how I could still hear it in my ears in the long silence after, and that’s when her face got really ugly.
“He betrayed us,” I told her. “We meant nothing to him, can’t you see that? We were just a route to your mom. Here, have some more,” and she didn’t argue this time, she just took the can from me and drank, and the foam was filling us up with air, I felt my whole life bubbling hot just beneath my skin. The boys always said beer made you feel hazy, but that was the opposite of what I felt. I felt beautiful in the way the sun must feel beautiful. I felt ready to burst with truth and light if someone could just cut me open.
It was Hannah who thought of going to the shed. Breaking in and tearing apart all those sewn-up little animals, all those bodies we’d salvaged, the dues we’d paid to get this in return. Or maybe it was my idea and I just let it come out of her mouth. We were starting to feel like one person again; it was hard to tell where I stopped and she began, our bodies one body linked by betrayal.
So we waited for my parents to close their door for the night. Zipped pillows into our sleeping bags, popped my bedroom screen, and slipped out into the crickety dark. Our long white T-shirts, matching; our white-and-pink-heart boxers, matching; a second six-pack—my dad’s, swiped from the basement fridge—swinging in a Target bag between us. The cracking sound of opening the cans, loud as thick bones snapping. We walked along the shoulder of the empty street and scanned for roadkill, but everything was bare and clean, the pavement, the sky, everything naked with something that felt oddly like joy, everything a beginning. I love you, I told her, kept babbling it out because some film had been taken off my mouth and words were pouring free and rich and easy. Peter doesn’t mean anything. Your dad’s coming back. Of course he’s coming back. I’ll help you get through this, you know that. We’ll take that fucker down, and she just nodded. We’ll fix it, don’t worry, and she was done crying now, the snot wiped away, but her eyes were still swollen and raw-meat red, and I loved her even more because of it.
Because why do we treasure the things that are pretty, stitched up and shiny as if it can last? Sometimes love is a wound. A slash in the gut, jagged and wild.
When we got to the shed, the padlock’s jaw was already unclamped. I pressed my finger to my lips, though I think Hannah was actually the quiet one, and we shared another beer at the edge for courage. The can, when she handed it to me, tasted sweet like strawberry ChapStick. Like summertime, like Hannah. Like my dad, after a couple but before too many. I felt the night expanding, including all of us.
Until we walked inside the shed and found them all missing: every shelf bare, every animal vanished. The empty mounts still on the walls, the little props still scattered around—tiny canoes, tiny guns, tiny hats and vests and jackets and buttons—the jars of salt, the stripping tools, the hair dryer hanging from its hooked cord like a noose, the scissors and razors, all of that was there. But every animal was gone.
I felt something breaking open then inside me. Couldn’t explain it and can’t explain it now—just the sensation of a zipper, a liquid feeling, spilling. I said to Hannah, “I think I’m going to throw up,” but I didn’t throw up and it kept spilling out anyway. All this light I’d felt inside fading out to the cricket sounds, to Hannah’s red eyes, to the dusty outlines left behind by everything that had disappeared.
We heard his voice before we saw him. Turned in the doorway and watched him emerge through the dark, a ghost coming into focus.
“Is that you?”
We waited, Hannah and I. Didn’t say anything, but maybe we understood each other in that moment, felt the same blank rage. He stopped when he saw our faces in the moonlight, his eyes stuck in mine. I don’t know what he saw there. But sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I like to imagine it. I like to think it was something sharp, like the razor on the table, the scissors, the hooks on the walls. Something wild. Something as dangerous as all the things Hannah was suddenly throwing around the tiny shed in a white, winged, swirling rage, angry and loud in a way I’d never seen her, yanking mounts off the walls, dumping salts from the jars, flipping the work table—all of it flying and blade-bright.
But not before he saw it first in me, in my face. Not before all that danger was mine.
When the night fell silent, I looked at him, standing there shock-still as a dumb mounted squirrel. Hannah was crying in the doorway, her face turned away from us. I held a razor out in front of me. I don’t know how it got there. It was as if it had suddenly appeared in my hand by magic.
I wanted to say to him, Here. Open me up.
I wanted to say, I want you to want me. Not her. Not them.
Instead, I held the razor higher and said, “Get the fuck out of here.” Because that’s what best friends do. And when he ran to his truck, eyes glassy and wild, I followed him, but not very far. After a while Hannah came up behind me, her footsteps slow rustles in the grass. I felt her take my hand, the hand without the razor in it, and we stood like that together, breathing the same steady beats, as we watched the headlights fade.
He’s pounding on her front door now, pounding long and loud and watching for her through the tiny window in the door’s blank face, long and loud and hard because he knows Hannah isn’t home, no one’s inside to wake except Grace. Knows he was foolish to think starting over would be easy, but the foolish—he knocks even louder—are still allowed faith. A whole life can be crushed and then saved, a stitch here, some sawdust there, just prop it up and believe in it.
So when he sees her through the window of the front door, walking slowly down the stairs, flicking the exterior light switch as she passes so it floods brightness around him, he is certain he will tell her everything—the girls, the shed, that Hannah must know about the affair, and how protective he feels already toward her, as if she were already his daughter. How important it is that they come clean, tell Hannah the whole truth, ask forgiveness before they embark upon this new life. He is certain Grace will listen, then nod. She will hold him close on the outside steps and say his name. She will open her door and they will float into the house together.
Grace looks at him through the glass of the window, her hand on the knob. Her eyes are feathering at the edges. Her pupils are chasms, that black-hole look he remembers from the gorge.
When she pulls the curtain closed, maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. But he is. And when she turns off the light, darkness swooping down around him, something cracks in his chest, an itchy heat that hasn’t flared so intensely in years. He feels it still as he pounds on the door, hard, then harder, then lighter, then stops—itch like an unscratched match, rough as the wood against his palms, unyielding. Itch like the scuffed-leather grip of the wheel, the too-fast roads beneath him when he drives away. Asphalt blurs in the headlights’ white, abrades itself beneath his tires, but still this blazing itch untouched, this siren stuck in his throat, stuck right in the pulpy dip where his pulse wants out, out, out.
That itch could have lasted all night, flared its way through the darkness, then faded by morning. It would have faded eventually. He could have parked the truck in his parents’ driveway, sun just starting to pink the horizon; he could have returned to his childhood bedroom, thought about the endless lonely day to come. The world all around him, spinning. He could have closed his eyes and he could have opened them and a new day could have begun.
Except that it’s right then, on that nighttime road, that the white flicker finally returns: pale flash at the periphery of his vision, near the shoulder of the road and coming closer, straight at his truck. White feathers of an owl, white outline of a girl, a cloud on the horizon—it doesn’t matter. What matters is the beautiful panic in his heart, the panic he feels once again and the sense that it’s right there for the taking, a second chance to grab the wheel and swerve.
He wrenches it to the left, feels the tires leave the ground—
And the joy overtakes him: to feel no impact, to surge forward only through emptiness. Glorious. Flight. He’s spinning again and again now, ecstatically back through time, a coil of string winding in reverse, everything coming undone. The stitches are spooling, unthreading the bodies, opening them. The bodies are spilling their sawdust into his hands. His hands aren’t taking the guts out, they’re stuffing it all back inside, the blood and mess and pulse, stuffing every little thing full of its beginnings, and the skins zip themselves closed invisibly, stitchless, whole again, rise up from his hands—magic.
In Peter’s last breath, in the glow of the headlights—which will stay on all night until someone finds him, and which could stay on even longer if they had to, pulsing with gas made eons ago from the bones of some other animal—he catches a glimpse of motion at the edge of the horizon. Peers into the darkness at the lost thing coming toward him. Is it gray fur? Blue feathers? Or the soaring he’s hoping for, the torn-open flight of a tiny white body lifting up into space and never coming down?
Months later, after Matthew returns from war, while he sleeps the stone sleep of the dead and the safe, Grace will leave him over and over. She’ll drift to the front door, press her face against the glass, and watch the sky, which is never empty—the blind bats darting, the night moths’ tango with the porch bulb’s deadly gold. Her hand will hover above the trigger of the light switch until she can conjure Peter out there, his face, his desperate hands pounding against the door, and maybe this time will be the last time. Maybe this time, when she cuts the lights, he’ll disappear for good.
Because the moths can’t help themselves, drawn from darkness to the heat.
Because isn’t it a kind of mercy, then? To flick the switch, send them night-bound? To try and save them?
Because her father was a professor of biblical studies, and once he told her the story of the ten virgins.
A gospel parable: Ten virgins were waiting together for their bridegroom, who was late returning to them. And yet they were faithful, keeping their watch. Each virgin had a lamp to ward off the dark, but only half had remembered to bring the oil to light it. When the night came, the foolish women with the dry wicks said, Won’t you pass along a share of oil, won’t you help us fill these empty lamps with light? But the wise women just laughed, understanding their advantage. And when the bridegroom returned, he gathered half the virgins into his arms—only the women who already had what they needed to survive the dark walk—and led them to the marriage feast.
So the foolish virgins stumbled, lampless and lonely, through the woods. Their palms were cut by thorns, faces laced with scars, knees blackened by dirt they couldn’t see to brush away. When they finally found the feast, they pressed their ears against the door, hearing the harsh laughter of the women on the other side. They pounded on the wood and shouted to their bridegroom, Lord, Lord, open up to us, please—Lord, you know us. But he came to the threshold and looked out at their bodies disguised by the dark and said, What I will say is true: I am certain I don’t know you. I am certain I cannot say who you are.
When they found his body, the car wasn’t even dented. Still running, not a scratch on it, no evidence whatsoever of the crash that killed him. It was as if the shiny outside of the Chevy had restored itself, come back to life, and Peter was the dead sawdust cost of it.
A heart attack, the doctors guessed, though no one sounded sure.
As for the fire in the shed, they said it came from the salts. Some of them were explosives—lithium and chloride and nitrate and saltpeter—generally used for fireworks, not taxidermy. Turns out he hadn’t known so much about what he was doing, and sometimes I wonder what happened to those little animals and their brackish pelts, lined on the inside not with preservatives but with propellants that could have become any color. Just waiting to ignite.
When we watched the shed burn down, we held hands. We thought it might explode into rainbows, each one of those jars bursting with an individual beauty, a brilliant salt for every crayon in the box. But it was just a regular fire. Our T-shirts smelled like smoke for days, and we didn’t wash them until our moms made us.
You won’t believe me if I tell you we didn’t burn it down, so I won’t.
But don’t tell me I was wrong. To want it burning. To want the insides matching the outsides, to want every dust-lined, animal-fled, abandoned space filled with the blazing color it deserved. Don’t tell me I was wrong to watch for them returning—I’m still watching for them—those tender, salty bodies, lost and flameless, that were never going to last forever.
That fall they sent Hannah away again. Back to boarding school, where she wrote me letters for a while. She sent me a new Heartthrob card in every envelope, smiling gray faces tucked inside like lockets—Scotty and Bobby and Jake and even Trevor, each a story we had told each other, once upon a time, in the dark. I still have them saved in a box. I don’t look at them very often. It’s enough to know they’re there, that on some cobwebby day I might slice the tape and lift them from the shadows, rift their softened edges across my thumbs, these boys, these beautiful boys, still and flat and waiting, these lives we used to press against our hidden, beating hearts.