Nobody’s Going to Save You
The woman lay propped against the pillows in the room at the back of the cabin. Her eyes were narrowed to slits. Around her face, patchy hair billowed like spun sugar. She’d been going gray even when Rose was in high school, even before Rose’s father had strung up the extension cord in the shed behind the house and looped it over his neck and stepped down off their old green cooler. Now it was a silver confection. Beneath a worn denim shirt her shoulders protruded like knobs. Her fingers, too, were knobby, and Rose watched as they picked at an invisible flaw on the bedcovers and she thought of what those hands had done—the vodka they’d poured, the cigarettes they’d lit and held cupped, the icy-eyed men from the shipyard whose bodies they’d squeezed pleasure from. Rose took a breath to speak but no words came out.
The woman spoke instead. The voice husky, to match the husk of her body.
She recognized her, then. “Yes.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it.”
“I made it.”
“What took you so long?”
“It’s two thousand miles!”
The woman turned her head as though to look out the window. But a heavy wool blanket had been nailed over the panes and there was no view, just a strip of light at the blanket’s top edge. “You drove,” she said. “If you flew you’d have to rent a car. Denver’s five hours away.”
“We couldn’t afford to fly, Ma.”
Her mother shifted back. “They poison people with those planes. Are you scared of me? Come in here.”
Tentatively, Rose stepped from the doorway into the room. Even in this isolated cabin a hundred miles from anywhere it smelled the way the nursing home always had—caustic, like piss and shit and decay.
“You’re scared of me, Rose Marie. Come here. Let me look at you.”
“I’m right here,” Rose said. But she took another step forward so she was standing a few inches from the bed. With effort, her mother reached for a cup of water on the nightstand, steadied the straw against her cracked lips. She sipped without a sound and worked to set the cup back.
“Look at you,” she rasped. “You turned out fine. I knew you would. I knew it.”
Rose said nothing.
Her mother leaned her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes. She was quiet for so long Rose thought she’d fallen asleep, but she saw that the long fingers were still worrying the blanket. The room was silent except for her labored breathing. It was stuffy in the cabin, and hot, though not as hot as outside. Rose thought about Ori and Daryl out there in the bright desert sun. What questions had passed between them, she wondered, and had they gotten things sorted with the stray? The stray would make it or she would not. Either way there might be a lesson in it for Ori. Rose thumbed the lighter in her pocket. Her mother’s eyes flew open. “You have no idea until it happens to you!” Then, after a long hard breath, “You came all this way. Why?”
Rose scowled. “You asked me to. Daryl said you asked.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t hate me.”
“I don’t pretend shit. I brought Ori out to meet you.”
Her mother strained to lift her head, look around. “Ori?”
“My son. Your grandson.”
“I don’t have a son.”
“No. My son. He’s fifteen.”
The woman let her head fall back. She regarded Rose. “Did you even want babies? You were one of those girls who likes girls. How did you end up with a baby? I never wanted babies, either. He wouldn’t listen.”
Rose swallowed. She remembered her old nursing home job, tried to tell herself how it was with the dying—sometimes they made sense and sometimes they didn’t, and even when they seemed coherent they were still dancing around in their own twilit world.
“Who wouldn’t listen?” Rose said. “Dad?”
Her mother winced.
“Does something hurt?”
The woman breathed heavily and stared at Rose through the slits of her eyes. “You have no idea.”
In the stuffy room Rose was suddenly overwhelmed. “I’ll be right back,” she said, squeezing the lighter in her pocket. “I need to check on Ori.”
Her mother let her head roll on the pillow so she was looking again toward the covered window. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Daryl was on his knees in the shade of Rose’s pickup. The stray dog lay on her side in the red dirt. Ori knelt, too, and stroked the dog’s head. On the porch, Rose lit a cigarette. Because of the dog, and his concern for the dog, Ori had been too preoccupied to change out of the clothes he’d put on at the motel that morning in Omaha, eight hundred miles ago—the green knit dress with the low-cut front that Rose had bought him from Amazon. Before today, he’d never worn it outside the walls of their duplex back in Maine and she was sorry, in a way, to see him in it now, in this godforsaken place where dirt and dust made a dress impractical and likely to be ruined, and yet it was one of her favorites, a good color on him and a good shape, and the fact that he was wearing it at all confirmed that he’d grown bolder in the days since they’d left home, more himself, which might be the silver lining to this trip, if there was a silver lining to be found. Beyond Ori and Daryl, the sage-covered prairie stretched to the horizon. It was like the moon out here. Looking from the cabin step Rose felt the same unease that she did when she stood at the edge of the ocean back home. So much endless space. A person could disappear forever.
“How’s she doing?” said Daryl. He didn’t look up when he spoke. Neither did Ori, who was stroking the stray’s head. Her fur was matted with blood and Rose thought the wounds did not look terrible. But how could you tell?
Which is what she said as she blew her smoke away from them. “How can you tell?”
Daryl rocked from his knees into a squat and held up a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. He had grown lean and almost bald in the decades since he’d sweet-talked Rose’s mother into driving west with him to wait out the end of the world. Back then, it had been Y2K. Now the threats were less predictable but more dire. On the phone he’d mentioned nuclear war, climate change, coming pandemics. “Take your pick,” he’d said. “If you thought it was bad before.”
But he had never struck her as crazy.
What Rose remembered of Daryl was that he’d been different from the other men her mother brought home in those first months after her father’s suicide. Those men had paid more attention to a sixteen-year-old girl than to the woman they’d been sleeping with. They had needed Rose’s approval. Not Daryl. He’d never tried to get Rose to like him. He hadn’t bothered with her at all. There’d been a steadiness about him that she had noticed back then, a steadfast acceptance of the way things were even as he’d made plans for what was to come, which was the same quality she witnessed now as he worked to care for this wounded creature that was not his, beside Ori, a stranger to him, a boy in a dress, even as his wife lay dying inside. The steadiness had not made Rose like him any more than the others, but it had made her hate him less.
“She’s in and out,” Daryl said. “You can tell.”
Rose took a drag. “I guess she’s in. Sort of.”
When Daryl touched the stray’s side, trying to see past the dried and matted blood to the bite marks beneath, she yelped. Ori grabbed his wrist.
“Hey,” Rose said. “Let him work.”
Daryl took his hand away. The dog’s breathing was shallow and rapid. “She needs a vet,” Ori said.
Rose sighed. “She’s not even our dog.”
“We picked her up! She is too ours!”
“The vet’s a couple hours away,” Daryl said quietly. “I’m not getting on the road with all that traffic.”
“The eclipse isn’t for two more days.” Ori’s voice was high and desperate. “It’s not that bad.”
Rose took another long drag. They’d left Omaha at dawn, turned north off I-80 in the afternoon to travel the state highways and then the dirt roads that had delivered them to this strange dusty compound in the middle of Wyoming, and Ori was right: traffic—at least in the way that Rose, as someone who’d lived her whole life two hours from Boston, understood that concept—was not something they’d encountered along the way. Rose supposed the notionmeant something different to Daryl. He put his hand on the dog again and moved his fingers gently. She growled. Ori bent close and whispered into her ear. It made Rose nervous—the stray was dodgy and unpredictable, which was how they’d gotten into this mess in the first place—and she started to say something, but stopped herself.
“The vet’s a waste of money,” Daryl said. “She’d charge you three hundred bucks to tell you what we already know.”
Rose dropped her cigarette in the dirt. “Which is?”
“Your dog’s in rough shape.”
Ori stroked the stray’s muzzle. He adjusted his dress and moved from his knees to sitting, his legs tucked to the side. He had been on edge since before they’d left home and Rose could see that whatever happened now, with this ratty dog they’d found in a parking lot and that Rose had stupidly agreed to let into their truck, could be the thing to send him over. At home that might be a slammed door and hours of silence or an angry walk to meet up with Suki. Out here, she had no idea.
“Let’s get her into the shop,” Daryl said.
They worked together to carry the dog into the huge metal building at the edge of the yard. Daryl flipped a switch near the door. Fluorescent light flooded the cavernous room. Towering rows of shelves sat perpendicular to the walls, filled with a seemingly endless supply of items. It felt like the catalog warehouse where Rose worked back home, but instead of jewel-toned hiking shirts and canvas tote bags the shelves were stocked for an apocalypse—hand tools, fuel cans, gas masks, medicines, bandages, and jars and jars of food. At the far end of the building a set of bulkhead doors loomed. Rose imagined the space that must be sprawling in the earth beneath them and she wondered what might be down there. Ori was quiet. He and Rose held the dog and waited for Daryl to pull the supplies from a shelf. His eyeliner was streaked. Daryl set two towels on the concrete floor and they laid the dog upon them. Her mouth was open and her tongue lolled. Her glassy eyes would not focus. Rose moved to wipe away the streaks on Ori’s face, but he recoiled.
“Let’s clean her up,” said Daryl, “and see what it is we’re dealing with.”
When had it started getting hard with Ori? Was it before or after Rose had found the lace underpants beneath his bed, before or after she’d carried them downstairs to where he sat doing geometry homework on his Chromebook, laid them on the arm of the couch, making him sit up, horrified? “Two rules,” Rose had said before Ori could speak. “She says yes. Every time. Loud and clear. That means it’s off the table if she’s drunk, or not sure, or if you can’t tell what she wants, or if she changes her mind. Do you understand? Every single time.”
Ori’d begun to protest, but she held up a hand. “And you use a condom. Every time. No matter what. I’ll buy them for you. No excuses. The last thing anybody needs is for me to be a grandmother before I turn forty.”
“Oh my god.” Ori slid down on the couch. His laptop tipped into his chest.
“Yes?” She turned his chin so he was looking at her. “Do you understand?”
He pulled away. “God. Yes. I understand. But it’s not what you think.” He’d closed his eyes and opened them and swallowed hard. “I have to tell you something.”
Rose’s stomach pitched. She was too late. They needed money—or, worse, they wanted to keep it. “Shit, Orion, if you guys already—”
“No!” Ori grabbed the underwear off the arm of the couch and stuffed them in his sweatshirt pocket. “God. They’re not Suki’s. They’re mine.”
“What do you mean? You got them for her?”
“No. They’re mine. I got them for me.”
It took her a minute to understand. “Oh,” she said. “To wear.”
Ori’s face was deep red. He was not looking at her.
Rose almost started to laugh, she was so relieved. She couldn’t help it. She lowered herself onto the arm of the couch and crossed one leg over the other. “Well that’s fine,” she said. “That’s no big deal. I mean, I’m sure it feels like a big deal to you, but . . . Jesus, I just thought—” She stopped. “Are you and Suki having sex?”
“It all still stands. If you are, I mean. Or when you do.”
In the last three months they’d spent hours online looking at wigs, clothes, shoes, even silicone breasts. They’d ordered a starter kit of decent makeup. It was nice, this sudden, unexpected time together, although Rose was useless when it came to color palettes or caring about hair—synthetic or otherwise. So she enlisted Victoria’s help. Sweet Victoria, so desperate to help, to turn what she had with Rose into something real, some kind of family, Victoria with her massive makeup bag and curling iron and bookmarked YouTube tutorials.
“You told her?” Ori said as they stood in the bathroom practicing with his eyeshadow at the mirror.
“She’s better at this stuff than I am.” Rose used her thumb to brush the loose powder from Ori’s cheek. “She wants to help.”
Ori pulled away from her. “Are you serious?”
“It’s fine, sweetie. Victoria doesn’t care.”
“Oh my god. That’s not the point. I mean . . . you should know that! How many other people did you tell?” He stood up and took off his wig and threw it on the vanity. “Did you tell Marco?”
Rose combed the wig with her fingers. “Marco’s the most supportive person you could possibly find.”
“You did! Jesus! I can’t even believe you right now.”
“Hey,” Rose said, but he grabbed the wig and makeup kit off the sink and pushed past her.
“I’m such an idiot!” he yelled from the hallway. “Why did I think I could trust you!”
It had only gotten harder from there.
“I should go back in,” she said. “Why don’t you come with me.”
Concerned, Ori looked from her to the dog to Daryl.
“It’s okay,” Daryl said. “I think she’s stable.” Ori looked again at the dog, then reluctantly got to his feet. He followed Rose outside, where they stood a moment in the long-angled light, letting their eyes adjust. The small cabin inside of which her mother lay sleeping was ramshackle and low. It appeared to have been constructed in fits and starts, maybe as cash rolled in from one or another of Daryl’s odd jobs, or as other projects around the compound were completed, or maybe once the sale of Rose’s childhood home back in Maine had gone through. That had happened years before, when Ori was a newborn. It was the last time Rose and her mother had talked.
“Ammonium nitrate,” Ori said. Rose followed his gaze to a small metal lean-to near the bunkhouse where three white bags, marked in stark black letters, had been stacked on a row of pallets. “Think they’re gonna blow something up?”
Rose laughed drily. “Entirely possible.” She’d decided long ago that the less she knew about her mother’s life, the better. “Listen,” she said. “Do you want to get cleaned up a little? Wash your face?” She reached again to wipe the smudges on Ori’s cheekbone and he ducked away.
“Why are you trying so hard right now?” he said. “Especially for her, of all people.”
“I’m not. I just thought you might feel better if you—”
“She left you. It’s child abuse.”
Rose sighed and fiddled with the lighter in her pocket. “I was almost seventeen, kiddo. Not some baby on a doorstep.” Why she was defending her mother after all these years, she had no idea.
“Well, it’s screwed up,” Ori said, smoothing the green dress over his thighs and bending to brush a spot of dirt from his knee. “This whole thing. It’s super weird.”
“It is,” Rose said. “And one day you’ll be glad you came.”
They climbed the steps to the porch. “Whatever,” said Ori. “Just as long as I’m back for camp on Monday.”
Inside, Rose’s mother was asleep. Her hands rested atop the blanket. Her chest rose and fell. Rose and Ori stood shoulder to shoulder in the bedroom doorway, and Rose could feel Ori’s breath next to her in the silence. She realized she was holding her own air in, and she tried to relax. Ori was quiet. She thumbed her lighter.
Suddenly the woman’s body jerked and her eyes flew open. She looked from Rose to Ori. “He’s wearing a dress,” she said in her raspy voice. “Why in the world are you wearing a dress?”
“Ma,” Rose started, but Ori cleared his throat.
“I like dresses.”
“But you’re a boy.” This was not a question. “And you have titties. Look at that! Bigger than your mother’s! Are those fake?”
“Jesus, Ma. Leave him alone.”
“I like them,” Ori said, smiling. “They make me feel good.”
Rose’s mother worked herself to an upright position. “I remember that feeling,” she said. “Vaguely.” She waved a hand over her chest. “Do you like boys or girls?”
Ori raised his eyebrows.
“Not appropriate, Ma.”
“Oh, stop it. I just want to know where everybody stands. What about you? Do you still like girls?”
“Girls.” Rose scoffed. “I’m almost forty. But yes. Did you think it was a phase?”
Rose’s mother smoothed the bedcovers with her knobby hands and let out a long sigh, which was followed by a fit of dry coughing that went on for close to a minute. When she caught her breath she said, “Who could tell with you! First you have a girlfriend then next thing I hear you’re pregnant—by someone I assume wasn’t a girl. You understand my confusion.”
“Come here,” her mother said. Ori stepped into the room and moved closer to the bed. She reached for his wrist and peered up at him. “What happened to your face?”
Ori looked to Rose.
“He got . . . there was this asshole last night in Omaha,” she said. “It’s just a scrape. He’s okay.”
“Was it the dress?”
“Not this one.”
Rose’s mother clucked her tongue. “People have tiny little minds,” she said. “Pea brains. You’re going to have to watch out for yourself.”
“Ma,” Rose said. “Ori’s been accepted into the National Honor Society. It’ll help him get into college. And he got into this fancy science camp back home that starts Monday. It’s a big deal.”
Her mother turned from Ori to Rose. “College,” she said. “Good. But why he? Why aren’t we saying she?”
“I go back and forth. I don’t always wear dresses. I like he.”
“Back and forth. Between boyfriends and girlfriends?”
The front door flew open then and Daryl swept in. His hands were covered in blood. Ori’s face went ashen. Daryl started scrubbing his hands at the kitchen sink. “She’s bleeding again,” he said. “There’s just a couple puncture wounds—they don’t even look that bad. But all the sudden it’s like she can’t breathe. I don’t know. She’s losing blood.” He wiped his hands on a towel by the door and pulled a box of Saran Wrap from a drawer.
Ori pushed past Rose and ran out the open door. Daryl leaned his head in to the bedroom. “How you doing, Firecracker? Need anything?”
“Who’s bleeding,” Rose’s mother said.
“Kid’s dog,” said Daryl.
Her mother frowned. “I need a drink.”
“Up there,” Daryl said to Rose, pointing to a bottle over the fridge. To her mother he said, “Have her pull the blanket back so you can see the sunset. I’ll be in in a bit.” Rose looked at him. “She likes an ice cube.” He grabbed the plastic wrap and a roll of duct tape and headed for the door.
When Rose handed her mother the glass, she peered into it and said it needed more ice. Rose carried the whiskey back to the freezer. Her phone buzzed.
hey, change in plans
call me ASAP
Rose shut the freezer door.
“Thank you,” her mother rasped when Rose held out the glass. She took it with a shaky hand.
“You want the window open?”
Her mother murmured. “There’s a hook,” she said. “On the wall, there. See? Just pull it up.”
Rose inched around the end of the bed and drew back the heavy blanket. Sunlight streamed through the dirty glass, golden and diffuse. She struggled to open the sash. “It’s stuck,” she said. “I can’t get it.”
Her mother waved a hand like it didn’t matter. “Sit.” She gestured toward the foot of the bed.
Instead of sitting, Rose went back to the kitchen. She poured herself a shot of whiskey and downed it then poured two more and returned to stand in the doorway.
“He’s just like you,” her mother said.
Rose took a drink, let the burn hang at the back of her throat before swallowing. “You don’t know that. You don’t know anything about either of us.”
“I know he’ll never let anyone tell him what to do. Anyone can see that.”
Rose leaned against the doorframe. “Like you ever bothered telling me what to do.”
Her mother took an unsteady drink and smoothed the blanket on her lap. The angled sunlight shot through her wild halo of hair. “Wouldn’t have done any good. That’s my point. Has he always dressed like a girl?”
“No,” Rose said, though the truth was if she’d been paying more attention she might have suspected something. Ori had always just been Ori.
“Does he have friends?”
“A few. A best friend who’s also his girlfriend.”
Her mother took another drink. The ice rattled in her trembling hand. “And you?”
“You have a girlfriend?”
“But not that same girl, the one who moved in with you when I left.”
“Jade Berlin,” Rose said. “That was twenty years ago, Ma. Not her.”
Her mother reached for a handkerchief on the nightstand. Rose noticed a small vase of blue flowers next to the cup with a straw. She imagined Daryl picking them, bending to pluck the tiny blooms from that endless sweep of prairie.
“I hope you’re happy.”
“What?” said Rose. “Why?”
“So many people aren’t, is all. It’s a shame.”
“I’m happy enough,” Rose said. “I don’t have a lot of time to think about it.”
Rose’s mother handed Rose her empty glass. “Well, you should,” she said. “You should think about it.” Then she closed her eyes and said they would talk again tomorrow.
Rose set her mother’s glass in the sink and walked to the living room, where she stood before the crudely framed picture window. The cabin was silent and the western light was fading fast. Daryl and Ori were still outside, tending to the stray. Rose knew she should go see if they needed help. Instead, she pulled out her phone. There was another missed call from Lewis. Plus Victoria had been texting all day, nonstop, from the moment they left Omaha. She scrolled through the messages. Call me babe. I 4giv u! I won’t rilly leave. I could never. I miss u. Pls call, I have 2 tell u sumthing. Omg where r u??? Rose took a deep breath and tapped out a text to Marco. Hey. We made it. Not sure I can do this? Instantly he sent back a smiley emoji and a thumbs-up.
Victoria picked up on the first ring.
“Oh my god! Where have you been? I’m so sorry about last night. I didn’t mean what I said. You know that, right? I’m just lonely. You know I’d never leave you. I can’t even stand being away from you for this long. Why haven’t you texted me back? Tell me again why you think we shouldn’t get married?”
Rose laughed softly at Victoria’s torrent of questions and leaned against the rough ledge of the window. She could feel the long day’s miles gnawing at her lower back. Her right arm ached, wrist to shoulder. Had they really been in Omaha that morning? Had it really been just twenty-four hours since she’d hung up on Victoria in the motel room, since Ori had taken the stray for a walk and run into that redneck and his German shepherd? It felt like another lifetime.
“I wish you’d let me move in with you,” Victoria was saying. “My stupid roommates are watching Dancing With the Stars and I’m trying not to shoot myself.”
Rose stifled a yawn. “Don’t do that.”
“Didn’t you get my texts?” Victoria said. “Why haven’t you answered?”
“I’ve been driving,” Rose said. “And there’s barely any service out here. It’s a kind of a wasteland.”
“You should’ve let me come with you.”
Rose closed her eyes. “I’ve told you, Vic. This isn’t some girls’ trip.”
“I just think your mother would like me.”
“My mother doesn’t like anybody.”
“Well.” Victoria went quiet for a beat, and Rose knew she was pouting. “I have some news,” she said.
Rose poured herself a shot from the bottle she’d carried to the living room. Where did Daryl get his booze, she wondered. Was there a package store in some dusty town where he loaded up a few times a year?
“I saw Anne on a date last night.”
“You went out after we talked.”
A pause. “Maybe.”
“It’s fine,” Rose said, capping the bottle. It was fine. “I’m just surprised.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
Rose took a drink. “It’s what they do now. Date night. Anne’s therapist recommended it. They also schedule sex on their google calendar.” She laughed. “In case you’re wondering how marriage actually works.”
“She wasn’t with Marco.”
Rose stared out at the plum-colored sky. It looked like a painting. “What do you mean?”
“It was some other guy.”
“The nurses go out all the time,” Rose said. “It was probably a friend from work.”
“You think I don’t know what a date looks like?”
Rose thought of Marco back home in the empty apartment that adjoined her side of the duplex—the duplex he and Anne owned. They’d been planning to rent that apartment out until a few weeks ago. Then Anne told him she wanted a separation. Marco had shown up in the drive unannounced, with a futon strapped to the roof of his black Subaru and a couple boxes of books that Rose helped him haul into the bare apartment. He also had a laptop, three bottles of scotch, and a coffee cup with a picture of Garfield on it and the words I hate Mondays trapped in a thought bubble. The plan, Marco said, was to finish his book of poems. “It’ll be good,” he’d said, not about the book but about the time away from Anne. He’d just cashed out some investments and quit his manager job at the warehouse—right after helping Rose get a job there. “It’ll be like a writing retreat. People pay good money to go be alone somewhere and write their books.” He’d been wearing an old flannel over a threadbare Metallica shirt that looked like he’d slept in it for a week, and he hadn’t shaved in days. “Anne needs a little space,” he said. “I can do that. I can do space. She’ll come around.” His optimism was almost too much to bear.
On the phone in the cabin living room, Rose said, “Did you tell him?”
“Marco?” said Victoria. “Of course not!”
Something darted past under the window. Rose leaned over to try and see but it was gone. “Don’t say a word to him,” she said. “He’s not in a good place right now. At all. It wouldn’t go well. Plus it’s not our business.”
“I know that.” Victoria sounded defensive and hurt. Then she got quiet. “It’s just so sad.”
“It’ll work out,” Rose said. “However it’s supposed to.”
“You didn’t answer me about marriage. You never answer me.”
Rose sighed. “Do we really have to do this now?”
“You can’t answer me?”
“I just don’t think marriage is the solution. To anything. You know that.”
“Because it’s true.”
“You don’t love me?”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“Then why don’t you say it?”
“Vic. Jesus. We’re not in high school.”
“Well, how much do you love me, then?”
There was a pause. “Enough to make me come over the phone?”
Rose burst out laughing. “I’m in my mother’s living room!”
Victoria started to moan.
Rose tipped back the glass of whiskey. Outside, an eerie noise rose up. It sent a shiver along Rose’s spine. She set down her glass and kept an eye on the front door, listened for any sound from the bedroom.
“I’m so lonely right now,” Victoria said softly. “I’m so horny.”
“Babe,” said Rose. And even though all she wanted was to close her eyes and get through this night and then get through the next one, and then figure out how to get the hell back home, she stood there in the waning light and whispered encouragement as her crazy girlfriend got herself off two thousand miles away.
“Tell me about your family,” Marco said once, not long after they’d started to get to know each other. “Tell me what happened.”
“It’s not that interesting. You don’t want to know.”
It was the dead time between lunch and happy hour. Two-thirty or three. An empty dining room. A quiet kitchen. Chairs pushed in, tables wiped. The still, flat light of January. That was a hard thing to take sometimes—that dead and flattened light. Marco sat by the window with his book, but he wasn’t reading. Anne was working a twelve at the ER. He did not like to be home alone. It was one of the things Rose was learning about him. Beyond the window, the gray sky disappeared into the gray ocean. She had just come in from a smoke on the icy deck.
“Everybody’s got something,” she said. “It doesn’t make you special.”
“I know. Believe me. Tell me about your thing.”
“Why,” she said.
“I think it will help.”
Rose bristled. “I don’t need help.”
“Not you,” he said. “Me.”
So she stashed her cigarettes and jacket behind the bar and got a glass of water and sat down across from him. She looked out at the roiling dark water as she talked and told him what she remembered of that November day, running through the images in order, like cursed charms along a strand.
Needing to make dinner.
Crossing the yard.
The stuck shed door.
The wet logs.
Rain beaded on the window and the feel of wet glass against her forehead.
“I saw his beer can tipped over on the workbench,” she said. “Lying in a pool of foam. Our old green cooler was tipped on its side, too. Its lid was open. I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t see that first. I must have seen him first. But I remember the cooler. And the blue extension cord we used for the Christmas lights. I’ve never been able to get the cord out of my head. And the toes of his boots. His leather work boots. Spinning.”
“He hung himself,” Marco said softly.
“Men usually use guns.” Rose tapped the table with her fingers. “He had one out there. He taught me to me shoot squirrels with it.”
Marco studied his glass.
“I smashed out the window,” Rose said. “I don’t know why, it wasn’t like I could climb through. And there wasn’t anything I could do anyway.” She sighed. “So I just screamed at him. Like maybe I could wake him up. I don’t remember if I thought he wasn’t dead yet, or what. He was, though. He definitely was. Then I slipped off the stupid logs and I ran back to the house to call someone. I didn’t even realize I was bleeding.” Rose fingered the long scar on her wrist, which still sparked when she pressed it. “Everywhere. All over the place, like a crazy person. But I could only sort of see it, you know? It was like—I understood that someone was bleeding onto the floor and I knew in a weird way that that someone was me. But I couldn’t really make sense of it or what to do about it. Like, it seemed peripheral to the main thing. I stood inside the door waiting for someone to show up, kind of holding my arm against my stomach, just gushing all over my shirt. Thinking about that fucking blue cord. You’d think I’d have been in shock. I mean, I guess I was. I’m not sure why I didn’t pass out. Anyway, all of a sudden the cops were there and the paramedics and they broke open the shed door and all I know is they were in there for a long time and then they brought him out under a sheet. They wheeled him across the driveway on a gurney and I remember it was bouncing like crazy as they tried to get him over to the coroner’s van. There’s this gurney just kind of bumping along on the grass and gravel, and there’s my dad on top of it, and I was watching and all I could think was that he was going to fall off. And I started laughing, believe it or not. I could not stop. Somebody finally noticed me inside the door and took me in to get stitches.”
“I believe it,” Marco said. “The laughing. Where was your mom?”
“Working. Or on her way home? I’m not sure.”
Suddenly Rose felt tired. Maybe it was the light. Maybe this flat gray light was why Mainers flocked to Florida in January. Maybe this was why there were snowbirds. She wouldn’t mind going to Florida. She wouldn’t mind going anywhere besides this shithole. Just once before she died. Rose pushed back from the table and got to her feet. In the kitchen the prep cooks were arriving for work, banging around the pots and pans.
“You thought it was your fault,” Marco said.
Rose looked at him.
“You still do.”
Rose picked up her water glass. “I never said that.”
Ori was sitting beside the dog on the concrete floor of the long metal building, his phone in his lap. Rose watched from the doorway. He held a chunk of elk meat that Daryl had dug out of the bank of freezers lining the wall, but the dog did not even lift her head. The night before, in Omaha, they had trashed every white towel and washcloth from the motel room to stop the dog’s bleeding, and they had stopped it, and for most of the day the animal had seemed fine. It wasn’t until they’d turned off at Arlen and started heading north, away from the surging interstate vein of 80, across the ribbon of unspooling pavement that had eventually delivered them here, that something changed. Even then, in the back seat of the crew cab, as the dog’s breathing had gone ragged, she’d seemed stable. But apparently Daryl had dislodged a clot as he’d cleaned her up. He’d shaved away a patch of her hair and taped a piece of Saran Wrap over one of the wounds, and the blood-streaked film crackled as the dog’s rib cage heaved with her breaths. The sight of it made Rose lightheaded. Ori set the raw meat on the floor and closed his eyes as he stroked her head.
“The puncture’s deeper than I thought,” Daryl said. He came out from behind a shelf, wiping his hands on a rag. “I think it hit her lung.”
“Is she—do you think she’ll make it?”
Daryl looked at her, and then at Ori, who opened his eyes wide and looked back expectantly. “Maybe. I’m not sure.”
Rose went to sit next to Ori. “I know you don’t want to hear this.”
Ori shook his head. “She’ll be fine.” In his lap his phone pinged with a text.
Rose looked at Daryl. “I’m going to check on your ma,” he said. “Just keep her comfortable. If she makes it through the night she’ll be okay. Come get me if something changes.”
Ori tapped out an angry text.
“We need to be realistic,” said Rose.
His phone pinged. “I am.” He read the reply and closed his eyes again.
“Is that Suki?” Rose said. “Are you two okay?”
Ori set the phone on his thigh and stroked the stray’s nose. She shifted at his touch, let out a wet, muffled sound. “I mean, we broke up.”
“What?” Rose turned. “When? Just now?”
“Ori! Why didn’t you say anything?”
The dog struggled to lift her head and Ori offered her the meat again. She sniffed and let her head fall back.
“Maybe because I don’t feel the need to tell you every little thing that happens in my life.”
“Breaking up with Suki doesn’t seem little.”
“You’re a good judge of what’s worth sharing and what’s not?” He snorted.
Rose ignored the dig. “Will you tell me what happened?”
Ori ran his hand along the stray’s ear, which was pebbled with small, hairless scars. The dog leaned into his touch. “She needs time to figure some things out. She said she still wants to be friends. I mean, it’s classic, right? It’s not you, it’s me. So. Whatever.”
“Is it the clothes?” Rose asked. “Is it because of how you’re dressing? Does she know?”
“She knows. Yeah. It’s not some big secret.”
This was news to Rose. “What’s she think?”
Another ping. Ori turned his phone over and looked. “Can we not talk about this?”
“Sure,” Rose said. “Of course.”
From the darkness outside came the strange noise she had heard in the cabin, an unsettled keening that sounded far-off even as it seemed to wind around and envelop them. The dog growled. Ori bent to quiet her. “She’ll get better,” he said.
“You don’t want to let her suffer.”
“She’d get better if you took her to the vet! The vet could fix her!”
“And how exactly do you suggest we pay for a vet?”
“I don’t know. The same way you’ve paid for the rest of this stupid trip.”
Rose felt impatience creeping in around the edges of her exhaustion. She tried to keep her voice calm. “The card is maxed,” she said. “We spent almost four hundred dollars just to get out here. We still have to get home.”
Ori mumbled something under his breath.
“What did you say?”
“I said of course the card is maxed. And you didn’t have to spend your last twenty dollars on that stupid girl today.” He picked up his phone and typed out a text.
Rose thought of a moment from the first morning of their trip, when they’d been trying to navigate their way around the concrete nightmare of Boston, looking for the exit that would get them onto 495 and through Worcester. She had merged the Toyota onto a ramp, which circled them up above another freeway, where traffic was snarled to a standstill. From that height they could see down through the mist and out over rusted billboards and weedy lots and warehouses. Just below the overpass was a windowless adult bookstore with a lone car parked out front. Two girls—twelve, thirteen years old?—stood leaning against a length of chain link, smoking in the drizzle. Through it all wound a creek, surrounded on both sides by a steep thicket that barely hid a carnival of wet tarps and blankets and cardboard, a cluster of shopping carts lying on their sides. The main thing she had noticed as they’d hung suspended over that lonesome, colorless scene was Ori’s absent gaze. She’d realized then that a sight like that was lost on him—the feel of being down in the thick of that tattered gray world, immersed in a life that turned on transactions, where the next person you encountered might save or destroy you.
She got to her feet. “We’re not paying for a vet.”
Rose walked down the middle of the dirt two-track, away from the compound. There was no moon, just the lingering light from the sunset. She could make out the plants and clumps of grass at the edge of the road. The only other light came from the compound behind her. And from her phone. That there was even spotty service out here seemed like a miracle. Daryl said the cell tower on a ridge a mile away was what had caused her mother’s cancer. He’d been working on a plan to jam it—Rose wasn’t clear on the specifics. Maybe that was what he meant to blow up. For now, she was just grateful for the slim connection to the outside world. She found the number she’d pulled up the night before in the motel room, just after Ori had taken the dog out for the walk. God. All it would take was a tap. And there she would be, at the other end of the line after all these years. Jade Berlin. Just thinking of her, Rose felt her insides settle, the way they did when she took her first drink of the night. She swallowed and called Marco instead.
“Shit,” she said as soon as he answered. “I just realized it’s almost midnight back there. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. Your psychotic cat is keeping me awake.”
“Can you hear him through the wall?”
Marco chuckled. “I let him into my place. He’s decent company.”
“Wow.” Rose laughed. “I didn’t see that coming when you moved in next door.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Marco said.
“I need your opinion.”
“I’ll bet I have one.”
“I tracked down Jade’s home number.”
“My ex. From way back. Before Ori.”
“Ooh.” Rose heard Marco suck in a breath. “The ur-ex,” he said dramatically. “The only woman to ever crack your icy heart.”
“I want to call her. Like, I really really want to.”
“That seems like a bad idea, my friend.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
“Because you know it’s true.”
“But why is it a bad idea?” Rose groaned. “I mean, really. What’s it matter? Help me think this through.”
“Well.” Marco cleared his throat. “Maybe start with Victoria? She’s not your ex. Or not yet, anyway. Are you looking to speed up that process?”
“It’s not a booty call,” Rose said.
A burst of wind swirled across the road. Grit pelted her face and legs. “I just—I called her office night before last, when we were in Cleveland. I found the number online, you know? It went to voicemail—I mean, that was the only reason I called. It was after hours, so I knew nobody would answer. But. I don’t know. I can’t explain how it felt to hear her voice on the stupid voicemail greeting. Even after all this time it’s just . . .” Rose closed her eyes. “I don’t know, Marco. It felt like home.”
“Did you leave a message?”
“No. But she listed her cell number. She wouldn’t do that if she didn’t expect to hear from people. Right?”
Marco sighed. She imagined him back home in the echoing apartment, shuffling around in the dark in his ancient concert tee, splashing more scotch into his childhood mug.
“You’re going to call her,” he said. “You only ask my advice after you’ve made up your mind about something. So I guess my secondary advice would be to figure out why you want to contact this woman you haven’t talked to in—how many years? Is it because you’re suddenly thinking about the past? Because you’re almost forty and wondering what the hell happened to your life? I get it, by the way. Middle age is a mindfuck.”
“It’s not that,” Rose said. But maybe it was. Maybe it was all of that and more.
“Anyway. If it were me I’d be thinking about what I’d gain from calling her. Then I’d weigh that against whatever I might stand to lose.”
Rose kicked at a rock. “I’m kind of a mess right now,” she said quietly.
“Cut yourself some slack.”
“Ori hates me.”
“He’s dealing with a lot. How’s he doing?”
Rose started to explain what had happened in Omaha, but stopped. The last thing she wanted to do was breathe any more life into it. “Suki dumped him,” she said. “Apparently she doesn’t know what she wants.”
“Fuck that. Sorry. But come on. She’s either gotta have his back right now or get the hell out of his way. That’s how it works. Ori needs to know that. Does Ori know that?”
“The girl’s fifteen,” Rose said. “So let’s cut her some slack, too.” She squinted into the darkness. “He did find a dog. So there’s that.”
“A dog. There was this scraggly-ass stray wandering around a parking lot in Iowa. I wasn’t going to let him keep it. But . . . Jesus, you should have seen him. It made him so happy. Then it got in a fight with another dog—long story—and now it’s got a punctured fucking lung. I don’t know, it might not make it. Obviously a dog is the last thing I need in my life. One more thing to be responsible for.” She laughed.
Marco was quiet for a minute. “Listen,” he said. “I don’t mean to be an asshole. But letting you guys have a cat in the apartment was a stretch. You know? The lease is pretty explicit about pets. Especially dogs.”
“I didn’t even think about that. Sorry. I tried to say no.”
“Yeah, you kind of have to be the parent in a situation like that.”
Rose stopped walking. “What did you say?”
“Sorry, Rose. But sometimes it’s like you forget who the adult is. Who’s actually in charge.”
“It’s true,” he said. “And you know it.”
Rose saw something move across the dusky road. A rabbit? A coyote? She stared up at the stars blinking out of the darkening night. It felt like the ground was moving beneath her, like she was standing on the deck of a ship. She braced to keep her balance.
“Question,” she said. “Are you and Anne seeing other people?”
“What?” Marco laughed. “No. Definitely not. This isn’t that kind of separation.”
Slowly, Rose spun around. The buildings back on the compound were tiny pinpricks of light. She narrowed her eyes against the deep swell of darkness at either side of the road, imagined how good it would feel to lie down on her back and close her eyes. “Are you sure,” she said.
“I’m sure. Why are you asking me this?”
“I just think you might want to double-check with her, is all.”
Marco’s voice went lifeless and flat. “What are you talking about.”
Rose swallowed. She didn’t have to do it. She could stop herself right now. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Victoria saw her out with some guy last night. On a date. She was very insistent that it was a date.”
“I just thought you should know.”
“Jesus, Rose.” Marco’s voice was almost a whisper.
“Listen,” she said. “I have to go. I have to go parent my kid.”