The boy sat on top of the hill with his head dipped down into the eyepiece of a telescope. Behind him, a young man trudged up with two cheap mugs in one hand and a Superman thermos in the other.
“Hey, buddy.” The young man said as he walked up beside the boy. He looked up at the sky, “It’s still there.”
The boy did not look away from his telescope, “Yep.”
The young man motioned with his hands, “Mom made you some hot chocolate.”
“Is it Swiss Miss?”
The young man looked at the thermos. Superman was flying up to him with his fist extended, “I don’t know.” He said, “I think so.”
“Then she didn’t make anything. She boiled water.”
“Look,” The young man said as he sat down on the grass next to the tripod that the telescope rested on, “It’s cold up here.”
“I’m not cold.”
The young man sat the mugs and the thermos down next to him and tapped his finger on the grass for a moment. He looked at the boy then down the hill to the white clapboard house he had come from with its little windows all lit up in warm light. After a few moments, the young man unscrewed the thermos, “You may not be cold, but I am.” He poured some of the thin, brown liquid into one of the mugs. Steam rose up from it and met with his breath in the night air.
The boy looked at the young man for a moment, then took the other mug and poured in some hot chocolate. He took a sip.
The young man smiled, “How long are you going to be out here?”
The boy turned his face back down into the eyepiece. “Until this one goes out like the rest.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
The young man motioned with his mug at the small, dented telescope, “Can you even see anything with that thing? I thought dad broke it when he dropped it.”
“Yeah. It’s sort of blurry, but I can still see.”
The young man took a sip of hot chocolate, “I threw away all the stuff that asshole got me.”
“This is important.”
The young man shrugged his shoulders, “It’s a broken toy.”
“You don’t understand. This is history. I’m watching history.” The boy looked back at the young man. Despite the hot chocolate, his lips were still blue, his teeth still chattered, “People say it’s the end of the world. That it’s a sign.”
“People say that about a lot of things.”
“What if this is different?”
The young man scooted closer to the boy, draped his arm over his small, boney shoulders, and pulled him in tight. He looked up at the sky and at the lonely pinprick of light a trillion miles away, “The stars have all been dead a long time, a lot of them a lot longer than people have even been around. A lot of them longer than the world has been around. We just didn’t know until the old light caught up with us.” He paused for a moment and looked down at the boy, “I know it seems like everything’s different, but nothings changed.”
The boy finished his hot chocolate, “Then why does it feel like everything has?”
The young man looked into the thermos before shaking his head and giving his mug to the boy, “Because we didn’t know what was really going on. Because we couldn’t know what was going on.” He rubbed his eyes and looked away from the boy, “Because we were tricked.”
“It feels like we’re alone.”
The boy grabbed the young man’s hand, “I watch the star because I don’t want it to go…because maybe me watching will make a difference.”
The young man looked at the boy. Tears ran down his face, “Maybe it does.”
“I just don’t want to be alone.”
The young man sniffed, “No. No one does. But the funny thing is that no one really is. We may feel it, but it’s not true.”
They didn’t say anything for a long time. The boy fell asleep on the young man’s shoulder, and picked him up and carried him down the hill and into the house. A middle aged woman was standing by the door, and she smiled a thin, bitter sweet smile as he walked in. They both tucked the boy in his bed and then they went into the kitchen where the young man cried on the woman’s shoulder. She shushed him and stroked his hair. Her eyes were wet and blood shot.
On the hill, the telescope still pointed up at the star, and the light still came down.
A Fire, Somewhere
The car smells like the roasted pumpkin seeds from Emma’s breakfast. She had driven the two hours from Black Mountain to Wilkesboro, and I had taken over at a gas station, just at the edge of Miller’s Creek, where she bought two coffees, a Cheerwine, for me, and a big cellophane bag of Lance roasted pumpkin seeds. The bag is about half gone, now.
“Are you sure you don’t want any?” she asks
“I don’t want the whole thing.”
“I don’t like pumpkin seeds.”
She shrugs her shoulders and keeps eating.
“I hope you like this place,” I say.
“I hope so, too.”
Every now and then, I sneak a look at her in the passenger seat. She had just gotten her hair cut short. She looks like she did when we first met.
It takes over an hour to climb up past White Oak, and Jefferson, and Silas Creek before we hit Virginia and up a one lane road flanked by rotting barns, and cemeteries, and long grass, and past the faded sign that says “Grayson Highlands”. It’s late in the season. The parking lot is empty.
We get out of the car. Emma is dressed from the J Crew catalogue, and the earthy colors match the bald that rises up in the background.
“There are ponies here, you know,” I tell her.
“I know. Why do you think I’m up here?”
“To spend time with me.”
“As if. Fucking ponies, man.”
I smile at her and she smiles at me and I put my arm around her small shoulders as we walk on the long switch grass that covers the trail. The place smells like dung, and sunshine, and the upcoming autumn.
About halfway up, we see a group of maybe five or six ponies. They’re squat, woolly things that gallop away as soon as they catch sight of us.
“Skittish little guys,” I say as we walk to where they were. Emma’s still watching them head off behind a large outcrop of exposed, purpley granite.
“I’m disappointed,” she says.
I smile and move my arm down her shoulder and put my hand in hers. She grips it hard for a second before letting it relax.
I’m about to say something when Emma stops. She’s looking over at a heap of woolly fur just off the trail. “Shit. Please don’t be what I think it is,” she says.
We walk over to the pony. It’s on its left side. It’s muddy brown with a white blaze across its long face. It’s not dead--at least not yet--I see its squat chest rise and fall with laboured breathing.
I hear Emma’s voice very close to my ear, “What do you think is wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. It may just be old.”
She drops my hand and squats down next to it. “How could it be old? It’s so small.” She rubs its knobby head and scratches behind its ears. “It looks so young.” I watch Emma take the pumpkin seeds out of her jacket and pour some out into her palm. The pony raises its head slightly at the smell of the food. Emma lays her hand under the pony’s mouth and its meaty lips wash back and forth until the seeds are gone. The pony lays its head back down. Emma tries to feed it again, but this time it won’t move. It just lies there and struggles to breath.
We stay until the breathing stops.
The sun is still high in the sky, but we are heading back. I kick rocks with my boots.
Emma sniffs a bit. Her cheeks are streaked and still a little wet. “I’m pregnant.”
I nod. A few days ago, I found a pregnancy test buried in the bottom of the trash bag when I was looking for a lost receipt. As soon as I saw it lying there, upside-down, on top of a crushed pizza box, I stuffed the garbage back on top of it and gave up on the receipt.
“What do you want to do?” I ask
“I don’t know.”
I put my arm around her, “I’ll be there for you. You know that, right?”
“Whatever you want.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“No. It’s not.”
“I don’t know why I’m telling you.”
“I’m glad you are.”
“Yeah. I think so.”
She stops and looks at me. “I want it to be like this.”
I kiss her forehead. It’s cold. “This is nice.”
“Do you love me?”
I look into her eyes. They’re terrifyingly blue…like wet topaz, and streaked with red from where she had been crying. “Yes.”
“I love you. I do. I really do.”
“And you’ll be behind me?”
“I will be.”
“I need you behind me.”
We get inside the car, the engine turns, and we drive away. Somewhere deep in the back of my mind, I notice that the car doesn’t smell like pumpkin seeds anymore.
“Where did that come from?” Emma asks pointing at the dashboard. I follow her finger up the wide expanse of vinyl where, resting on its side, is a sick looking orchid. I look back at the road, then back at the flower, then up at Emma’s face. Her eyes are wide. “I don’t know,” I say.
“The door was locked, right?”
I nod. “Yeah.”
“Where did it come from?”
I feel a tinge of electricity just beneath my skin. “I don’t know.”
“Stop the car.”
“Stop the goddamn car!”
It takes me a few seconds to pull off of the narrow road. Emma leaves just as I put it in park. I pull up the emergency brake and get out.
As I jog after her, I notice the sound of the wind, crickets chirping, the low hum of the still running car. It’s a long stretch of straight road, and the place smells like honeysuckle.
It doesn’t take long before I catch up. She’s walking on the edge of the road with her hands in her pockets, “Where are you going?” I ask.
She shakes her head, “I don’t know.”
“It’s just a flower, Emma.”
“How did it get there?”
I shrug and smile. “It must have been a prank. A guy with a slim jim and a fucked up sense of humor.”
Emma shrugs her small shoulders.
“The car’s old, it’s not hard to break in to…”
We turn around and walk back. “It’s only a flower,” I say.
“Get rid of it,” Emma says as I open the driver’s side door.
I nod and reach for it. I feel the electricity under my skin again. It’s like I’m hooked up to a 9 volt battery. The feeling stops when I touch the flower--it’s small, off-white, and the edges of the petals are wilted and brown. I drop it on the road. Emma stares at it for a moment before crushing it with the heel of her hiking boot. I look over at her and think of the mass of cells, deep inside her body, multiplying, but I force my mind off it.
We don’t really talk until we hit Buncombe County, almost three hours later. “This wasn’t a good day,” Emma says.
I shake my head. “No. No it wasn’t.” I pause and debate for a moment if I should follow it up with something. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK. I just want it to be over.”
It’s dark now, and the car smells like the McDonald’s french fries from supper. I think about how the car almost always smells like some sort of food, and I wonder how many meals I’ve eaten in here. How many hours have I sat in this seat? How many songs have I heard on the radio? How much of my life has been spent on my ass with my hands on this wheel just watching the trees and the sky and the asphalt pass me by?
We pass a green reflective road sign that welcomes us back to Black Mountain.
Twenty minutes later, we’re driving up to the chalet style A-frame that sits on a hill above the forest. Home.
Even in the night, I can see the colors are already starting to change on the trees that crowd the mile-long driveway. The dark green of the leaves are being edged out by reds and golds and oranges.
I hear Emma’s voice, but it seems like it comes from a distance; like it was an echo from down a tunnel. “Do you ever feel cut off by living this far away?”
I shake my head, “No. Do you?”
“I could have moved in with you.”
She shrugs and lets out a breath, “This was your parent’s house. You wouldn’t have left it.”
I don’t say anything else.
We head up the stairs to the deck. The motion sensor picks us up and the porch lights switch on. In the wide expanse of glass that makes up the front of the house, I see myself and Emma standing on the other side in a faded reflection. We both look like hell.
I open the door and we walk in.
We take showers and then go lie down. She sleeps on her side of the bed and I sleep on mine.
I dream about a tree that’s cut down and, inside it, there’s another tree. So they cut that one down, but there is another tree inside it, so they cut that one down…it goes on like that until I wake up. Emma’s already gone. She works at the coffee shop, and has to be there at five in the morning. I don’t know how she lives on so little sleep. She says that if she gets more than six hours she feels like crap. I guess some people are just like that.
I don’t work. Inheritances are good like that. Five generations spent building a logging empire, and all it takes is one guy to sell it, and you never having to worry about money again.
You never have to worry about anything again.
I put on some fresh underwear, my jeans from yesterday, and a V-neck t-shirt that Emma had gotten me a while back because she said it matched the color of my eyes. It just looks brown to me, but it’s comfortable.
I head to the kitchen and make coffee and eat a bowel of Raisin Bran. It’s Monday, and I don’t have any plans. I sit and stare out past the expanse of glass, and up at the sky, and listen to the crunching of the cereal in my head. I think about being thirty and how my dad had me when he was twenty-nine, and how that the difference between us was that was an adult, and I’m still not. I always thought that I would, somehow, know when I had grown up. That I would stand at some sort of edge and say, “This is it.” And I would feel it coursing through me. Changing me into what I’m supposed to be. Now, the more I think about it, the more I know that it will never happen. I’m still a boy, and I will always be one.
Suddenly, I hear a loud “thunk” and I watch a bird—a real big mother fucker--fall down to the deck. For a moment, I feel a twinge of guilt and I hear myself saying, “Poor guy.” This isn’t the first time that it’s happened; every now and then, a blue jay, or a cardinal, or a robin isn’t able to see the difference between the glass and the sky. I walk over and look down at the bird. He’s on his belly with his wings outstretched like he’s still in flight. It’s a hawk. I thought that they were smarter than that.
I shrug and head to the basement. I come back up with a set of thick work gloves and a shovel.
I think about going back to the bedroom and getting some socks, but opt to just put the boots on that sit by the door. I slip the gloves over my hands and pick up the hawk. He’s lighter than I thought he would be, like all he’s made of is feathers. I can see where his neck was snapped, and his head hangs limp and at an unnatural angle.
I walk out past the yard to the edge of the forest, and breathe in the musk of decaying plant matter. I kick aside some rotting leaves, and dig a shallow grave.
I bury the hawk in the red-clayed soil.
I head back to the house, and, just for a second, I think I smell honeysuckle.
As I walk up the steps, I take off the gloves and put them in the back pocket of my jeans.
I see it when I get to the door. Plastered across the center of the glass is a “Hello, My Name Is” sticker. Written on it, in block letters, is a name. “Julian Cost.”
I feel the electricity under my skin again as I peal the sticker from off the glass. I look off the deck and down the long driveway with its bent, encroaching trees. I’m alone. I try to think if I had seen it there when I went out this morning, or when we had gotten back last night. I can’t be sure either way. I feel my stomach turn. Holding that little bit of paper and ink was like holding a disease and I crumple it and throw it off the deck. The feeling of electricity stops, and I notice how quiet it is. There is an uneasiness about it all, like I’m being watched. I feel dirty. Once I’m in the house, I lock the door and take a shower.
Emma gets back at a little past three. I hear her truck bombing up the driveway long before I see it kicking up a dust trail as she rounds the last bend and up the straight away.
She puts her keys on the kitchen counter next to my three empty beer cans and gets a Coke from out of the refrigerator. She wears a bandana over her head that hides her hair.
I had decided earlier not to tell her about the hawk or the sticker. Part of the reason was not to creep her out; the other part was because I wanted to forget about it.
“How was your day?” I ask.
She shrugs. “It was OK. Nothing really changes there. You?”
“Nothing really changes here, either. I painted a little.”
Emma nods and takes a sip of the soda. She puts it down on the counter and looks down at her shoes. “I’m going to the clinic tomorrow.”
I scratch my cheek. It doesn’t itch, but I scratch it anyway. “Uh huh.”
“I want you to come.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. But I’m asking you anyway.”
She mumbles something. I don’t really know what, but it sounds sort of like “Thank you.”
I go back to my painting. It’s another landscape: The Blue Ridge Mountains in winter. For some reason, I paint in a bolt of lightening striking a birch that had been standing peacefully in the foreground. It’s naked, and twisted, and soon to be on fire. I wonder if I’ve ever seen a lighting storm in winter. They must happen.
In the morning, we go to the clinic. It happens faster than I think it would. I don’t wait long before she comes back out. I smile at her and she hugs me tight. Her hair smells like lilacs and ginger. “How do you feel?” I ask.
She lets go, and I try to look her in the eyes, but she dodges it. A moment passes, and I hear her breathing, and my breathing, and the air conditioner switch on in the waiting room.
She puts her hands in her pockets, “I feel empty.”
We have lunch at an Applebees and talk about everything except what’s on our minds—television shows, movies, the leaves at home changing colors so soon. By the time the food arrives, I had forgotten what I had ordered, but it tastes OK.
When we get back at around two, I see him as we turn the last bend in the driveway. He’s a kid--maybe eight, or ten years old. He stands in our yard like he had always been there…straight back, eyes pointing foreword. He watches us come up the gravel.
I park the car next to Emma’s truck and we get out.
It’s a little boy; he wears a plain white T-shirt, and blue jeans, and beat up sneakers.
“Hello.” Emma says to him.
“Are you lost?” I ask him.
He doesn’t answer. He just stands there and watches the empty driveway. I turn to see what he’s looking at, but all that’s there is a settling dust cloud, and the trees. I notice that the green in the leaves are almost gone now.
I walk up to him and squat down in front. His face is just a face. He’s not beautiful or ugly, just a kid with a medium complexion, and brown eyes, and hair that’s the color of mud. “Are you lost?” I ask him again.
As I look into his eyes, I feel like I’m hooked up to a battery again.
“What’s your name?” Emma asks.
The boy turns away from me and looks up at her. She had kept her distance and stands on the edge where the driveway and the lawn meet.
“Hello, my name is Julian Cost.” The boy says. There is something about his voice…something distant--like the echo of an echo. I feel my stomach turn and my chest gets cold, “I live with the man in the woods.” He starts to walk towards Emma.
She takes a half-step back. “Who?”
The boy continues to walk towards her, and I find myself standing up and following him. “He is not my father.” The boy continues.
Emma backs into the car. “Jim,” she says to me. “Stop him, he’s creeping me the fuck out.”
I nod and try to put my hand on his shoulder, but I don’t…I can’t. I feel the electricity coursing through me and all I can do is follow him.
The boy stops in front of Emma. “He is sorry, but he wants you to know that…” The boy reaches into his jean pocket and takes out a small white orchid and drops it by her feet. “Sometimes, these things just happen.”
I smell the thick scent of honeysuckle, and the electricity switches off in my skin. I grab the kid by the waist, pick him up, and carry him away from Emma.
I don’t know where I’m taking him, just away from her. He’s still talking, his voice never changing in pitch or tone “And don’t worry. You can’t see him. He tore off his face, but you’ll find it.”
The loud “thunk” makes me drop him. Another bird has crashed into the house. I look up at the sky and see dozens of them all making a bee line down.
For a minute, all I can hear is the sound of the birds smacking against the front of the glass until, finally, it shatters.
When I look back down, the boy is gone, and Emma is a crumpled pile by the car. She holds the orchid in her long hands. She’s rocking back and forth, and I think she is crying.
It doesn’t smell like honeysuckle anymore, just the musky scent of decay from the forest.
I run over to her. “Come on, we’re getting the hell away from here.”
“I saw the forest move,” she says as I pick her back up. Her eyes are dull and soft.
I put her in the passenger’s seat and head round to my side.
The engine cranks, but, before I can put the car in reverse, I see them come out of the woods--a cloud of birds falling down on us like rain. I watch wave after wave crash into the windshield. Hairline cracks form. Everything smears with blood. The sound of them smacking turns into a percussion.
I back the car out fast and spin it 180 degrees, quickly putting it into drive, and head forwards blind. We hit something hard and my face buries into the steering wheel. All I see after that is the dark.
It’s night when I wake up with shattered glass in my hair and the taste of blood in my mouth. The car is filled with birds—all of them with broken necks and their wings still outstretched. I look over at the passenger’s side. Emma is not beside me.
I get out of the car. My head feels like it’s full of water, and I hear a dull ringing from deep inside my skull.
I had driven into the thick trunk of a birch. The driveway is gone. Instead, it’s all just forest.
I scream out Emma’s name.
I look over to the yard. Instead of grass, it’s a mass of white orchids. Emma stands in the middle, crushing them with her feet.
“I can’t kill them,” she says. “They just grow back.”
I walk over to her and try to put my hands around her small shoulders, but she pulls away.
“What do you want?” she screams into the forest.
I look down at the ground and see the crumpled sticker lying where I had thrown it. Carefully, it unfolds itself, and I watch as the wrinkles smooth themselves out and the luster of the gloss paper returns. In the same block letters it asks, “What Do You Want?”
I crush it with the heel of my shoe and scream, “To fucking leave!”
The wind blows. It sounds like a distorted growl, and I don’t know what to do. Emma has stopped crushing the flowers. She just stands there. Her eyes are wide and faded. They don’t look like topaz, anymore.
“Come on.” I say taking her by the shoulder. We head up the stairs. I feel the crunching through my shoes as we walk on the shattered glass and on the dead birds.
I try the lights, but there’s no power. I stumble, and feel my way to the closet, get a flashlight, and turn it on. The house looks dead and foreign and the light seems to just make more shadows. I head back to the kitchen and I try the phone. It’s dead on the other end. I make an animal sound and slam the receiver on the kitchen counter. It snaps in two. Emma’s still standing at the open door. I don’t know what to say to her. All I know is that I’m scared.
She walks towards me and holds out her hand. She’s still clutching the orchid the boy had dropped and I see that it’s grown roots and has curled around her forearm--turning into a mass of green, and white, and flesh.
“Help,” she says.
“Fuck,” is the only thing I can think to say, but I can’t say it. My mouth isn’t working. My brain isn’t working. All I can do is drop the flashlight and dig, and claw, and rip the roots from off her. She screams and I see blood, and bits of skin, and the exposed muscle of her forearm. The air smells sickeningly sweet and electricity dances under my skin. She falls to her knees as I pry open her fingers and rip the orchid from out of her hand. I can feel the skin of her palm come off with it—a gentle tugging and tearing as I pull. All I can hear is her scream. It rattles through my brain as I stomp on the mass of plant and flesh. Each time my foot falls, I feel the electricity lessen until the orchid is nothing but pulp.
The room is filled with the smell of piss. I notice that my jeans are wet and warm.
Emma curls into a fetal position. I hear her sobbing to herself and I try to touch her shoulder, but I can’t. My hand withdrawals like a reflex. I pick up the flashlight and head to the bathroom. I vomit and then grab some bandages. I can’t find any peroxide, so I head to the bar and grab a bottle of cheap vodka. By the time I come back to the kitchen, Emma is standing on the porch and looking out on to the forest. I walk towards her, but stop just short of the door. Her arm is healed—the skin is pink and fresh like baby skin. She turns to me, and I can’t move.
I stand there as she stuffs a bandage down the neck of the vodka bottle and takes out her lighter. She leads me by the hand to the edge of the deck. She sets the bandage on fire, and, in its light, it looks like her hair has grown long again. She looks at me--her eyes are like wet stones.
The fire flickers as she throws the bottle off the porch and into the nest of orchids below. I hear the glass shatter far away from the house and watch the fire leap from flower to flower and towards the forest. In the orange glow, I see Emma smile. The wind blows hard, but the fire keeps burning. It spreads down to the edge of the trees. Their leaves are gone now--like winter had sit in a long time ago--and they stand naked and twisted as the fire licks up their trunks. For a moment, I hear the sound of birds crying out and wings flapping only to be replaced by the roaring of the flames.
We stand there on the deck, on the bed of glass and birds, and watch the fire spread until it’s a bright ring around the house. For a second, I think I smell a sweet smell over the smoke. It’s not honeysuckle. It smells like lilacs and ginger.
Emma puts her hand in mine and she squeezes it tight. I look at her and she looks at me and smiles a private smile. Something goes off deep inside my chest and it runs up my head and tears run down my cheeks. I feel the new, smooth skin of her hand wipe them away one by one.
We kiss, and it seems like something wonderfully familiar and terrifyingly new.
I feel the heat of the fire consuming the forest, and the heat of the woman holding me, and the heat in my head and in my chest. “Is this it?” I ask.
Emma leans in and her voice is close to my ear, “Yeah. Yeah, this is it.”