Laura M. Gibson hails from Idaho, where she works in education, tends a tiny urban farm, and hangs out in the foothills with her dog. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and most recently in Sundog Lit, Flyway, and JuxtaProse. She’s currently at work on a novel.
Essie tonged the jars into her mother’s old pressure cooker, seated the lid and set the timer. Through the kitchen window above the sink, she eyed the empty side yard. Her neighbor, absent from his campaign against the grove of hemlocks that bisected their properties, had left his tools in the grass. She’d chosen the house for the evergreen screen of privacy, because hemlocks had been her mother’s favorite. Each time she’d tried to meet him, he’d turned to go inside or didn’t answer the door. She decided he might be deaf.
The neighborhood tom streaked through the gap, followed by ten-year-old Ruby, the cat’s sidekick. “What’s your hurry?” Essie yelled through the screen, and the girl raised a hand in salute and kept running up the hill behind the house. The feral child of no one, it seemed, Ruby was the one neighbor Essie had met.
The timer dinged and Essie flicked the cooker’s valve to release the steam in four long gasps, then she carried the pot to the sink and ran cold water over it. On the counter she lined up the jars, inspecting the lids to make sure they were sealed. Skinned and boned, the salmon inside was fleshy, corrugated. For forty winters, her whole life, the jars had meant the delicious taste of flush times, of summer and the outdoors and the pursuit of self-reliance.
Famine food, Wyatt had called her jars of meat.
Upstairs she took a cool shower, put on clean shorts and a tank top, and by the time she was finished, her neighbor had returned and tethered the top of the ladder to the hemlock near her bedroom window, where he was balanced on the third step. He pulled loppers from a loop in his pants. Scissoring the blades, he limbed the branches brushing her house. Of the sixty trees, twenty-five remained.
Essie pulled up the blinds. “Good morning, neighbor,” she said through the screen. The closest she’d been to him. “We meet at last. I’m Essie.” Under the shelf of his brow his eyes were deeply set, moss green. Three twists of gray hair he’d missed shaving grew from a dimple on the left side of his mouth. He was older than she’d guessed.
“Skip.” His voice was soft, disarming, not the slurred, guttural speech of someone with a hearing problem. “I woke you.”
“Not at all. I’m a terrible sleeper.”
“Almost. I wanted to ask you about the trees—”
“—They’re sick. On the way to rotting, falling on the houses. I’m doing us a favor.” He clipped the last limbs his blades could reach.
“Lots to do.” He made his way back down.
On the ground, he gathered a rope and the chainsaw, and climbed the ladder again, agile even with the extra load. She already knew he wouldn’t look, but she didn’t want him to catch her standing there. In the bathroom, she washed her face, massaged the bags under her eyes with the tips of her fingers. The underside of the hair she twisted into a bun was steel, wiry, shot with new paper wasp gray. As if aging had come all at once when she wasn’t looking, growing through the humus of her skin like new grass.
. . .
As she’d done most days over the two weeks since Essie had moved in, Ruby parked her bike in the middle of the driveway as if it were a car. She sauntered onto the porch where Essie sat with her binder, plotting a trimester of sophomore English. “You work a lot,” Ruby said.
“It’s part of the deal when you’re older, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.”
The girl scrunched her face and used one of her red braids as a paintbrush along her upper lip. “I guess.” She waved at a man driving a battered green pick-up. “That’s Keeler. He’ll trash-pick your junk at the curb.”
“Ah. I’ll keep him in mind.”
They sat quietly a moment. The clanging bass of Skip’s diesel engine ignited, revved, then pulled into view and down the street past them. “Another crazy bird,” Ruby said, flicking her chin at Skip’s truck. “Hey, how come you’re not married?”
Essie paused, decoding Ruby’s segue. “I was. For a while.” She wasn’t about to tell the girl how it had made sense after Wyatt left to do something bold—buy a house she found online, take a job after only a phone interview, move cross-country. Decisions made so Wyatt would see she could be spontaneous and brave, though by the time she enacted her plan it was a whispered sort of battle cry; they were already long past the point of return. A year since Wyatt had left and she’d heard from him once—a postcard from India sent to their old address and then forwarded. As if she was a lost acquaintance and not the woman he was married to for twenty years.
“My parents are divorced,” Ruby said. “They both hate their jobs.” She leaned against the porch rail. “You think your house is haunted by Ida?”
Essie smiled, shook her head, thought of the nine gallons of paint and new flooring it had taken to erase the nicotined presence of the house’s former owner. “Only by me,” she said.
“Last year the ambulance and the coroner came to our street three times. My Dad says this neighborhood’s gonna age out.” She pulled a strand of hair from her braid and wound it around a finger until the tip was bright purple. “One time Ida let me puff on one of her smokes.”
“How was it?”
“Pretty gross.” Ruby shrugged and swatted a fly from a large scab on her leg. “The coroner came to Skip’s house and took away his wife under a sheet in the middle of the day.” She gestured with her hair to the neighbor’s yard. “Now he has an anthrax room.”
“You know. A place to go when something bad happens.”
“Oh,” Essie said. “Like a sanctuary?”
“Yeah. Kind of.”
Later, in the kitchen, Essie washed dishes and looked at Skip’s windows, wondering which room was the shelter. A flash of color at his basement windows registered a few beats after she’d seen it. She was sure he’d driven away again earlier. Her cell phone was in the living room; she held her breath, waited to identify the intruder. A light behind the glass switched on, then off again. Essie turned off the light over the kitchen sink. She stepped so that her body was hidden and kept her eyes on the basement window.
A pair of small hands pushed the aluminum frame of the basement window open. Ruby’s head in a baseball cap appeared, headlamp dangling around her neck. She pushed out the fat, orange tomcat. It sprinted around the corner of the house, and then Ruby’s wiry body maneuvered out of the opening. She stood and brushed the dirt from her knees.
Essie called out. “Ruby, what in the world…”
The girl stopped, raised a hand to wave, and then put a finger to her lips.
Skip’s diesel rumbling down the street freeze-framed them both for a moment until Essie waved Ruby on, told her in a loud whisper to hurry. She watched the girl dart through the ragged stand of hemlocks. The truck appeared, its engine pinging as it slowed, then Skip turned into his driveway. Essie ran to her front door and out.
Skip unfolded himself from the cab carrying a white paper bag that smelled of soy sauce and fried rice, a grease spot blossoming beneath the neat fold at the top. In his other hand a six-pack of Coors Light, and he still wore his jeans and t-shirt, his work boots, his standard yard clothes. At the base of his neck the hair was gray. His forearms were a hairless muscular highway of raised veins. His back was to her on the way to his front door.
“Wait. Wait,” she said. “I want to talk to you.” She shuddered at the lame opening, expected him to move forward without hearing her, but he stopped and turned. “No screen this time,” she shambled on. She stuck out her hand.
He tucked the beer under the arm that held the bag, put his keys in his pocket and reached out. His work-worn paw was dry and rough as fine sandpaper just as she’d imagined but not as big; in fact, he wasn’t a big man at all. She blushed and waited for him to speak. He let her hand go. She looked down the side yard for Ruby.
“Essie,” he said. “Teacher from out west.”
She swallowed hard, felt he had sensed her without actually looking, and it made her nervous and thrilled all at once to know she’d been noticed. “The trees?” she said. “Can we talk about them?”
He blinked and looked past her, shifting the bag under his arm. “Didn’t we?”
“They look pretty healthy. I mean, did you have an arborist look at them? Maybe there are other options.”
“Disease called woolly adelgid. Most of the needles are covered with egg sacks that look like the ends of Q-tips. Two generations per year of larvae, all female. They reproduce asexually.” A faint sibilance on the last word in the drawn out cadence of kids she’d known who’d learned not to stutter.
“Oh. All of them?” She realized her words were freighted. The hair at the base of her neck prickled, chilled with new sweat.
“Oh, yes. Every one.”
She wanted to ask him about his dead wife, his anthrax room, which she’d assumed until now was a ten-year-old’s tall-tale. But the girl had just been inside, an invasion Essie couldn’t quite get her head around. “You’ll plant something else? I mean, I think that space belongs to both of us,” she said. “We could choose something we both like.” She reached out to touch the crook of his arm where he cradled the beer, and then stopped short of contact and withdrew her hand.
He stiffened. “If privacy’s your worry, there’ll be a fence.”
Inside on her kitchen counter, rows of jarred tomatoes cooled. She heard one of the lids pop, then another. Skip shifted his weight and she knew he was about to unplug, and she couldn’t bear the thought of going back inside to her lonely carrying on, canning jars for an army, for fuck’s sake. Her whole life’s arc, she saw with clarity, built around preparation for a twisted version of end times. Fireflies flickered like inverse stars hovering in the sky-grass around them before wafting into the hemlock spars and up the hill. She wanted him to invite her into his air conditioned lair. Show her what preemptive looked like on the inside. She wanted it more than anything she’d wanted for a long time, and she couldn’t make any sense of this doomed longing, or the way all her nerves were on the outside of her skin, lit up, phosphorescent.
“So,” he finally said, “you probably need to be alone. And I’ve got dinner waiting.” He held up the white bag, then turned and went into the house.
. . .
The next morning, Essie shelved the last of her books into the built-ins on either side of the big window in the living room, tried to shut out Skip’s chainsaw, the way he’d seen her coming. As if the fallout of her life was a brightly lit billboard advertising her confused desperation and loss. Insanity, to think she’d be a different person in a new place. To think there was anything she could do now to bring Wyatt back to her.
The clock salvaged from her mother’s cabin chimed. In the house she’d shared with Wyatt, the longcase had lived in the dining room, and he’d hated it. Said it made them slaves to time. Plodders. Cautious and caught. Old before they needed to be. The list went on until she finally understood it wasn’t time he wanted to be free from, but her.
“I want to live, Es. I mean, don’t you?”
“We are. I am.”
“You’re not. You’re waiting, afraid you’re going to end up like her. You’re missing it all.”
“But there are signs,” Essie said. She held out a shaking right hand. “Look.”
He reached out and palmed her skull in one large hand. “Imagined.”
She broke down the book box and went out back to the recycle bin. The chainsaw wailed. Another ten hemlocks down. She walked under the last of the trees by the creek, touching ribs of bark. Under their silver-green velveteen branches she looked for egg sacks, combing through the soft needles for evidence. If the eggs were there, they were too small to see.
Before her mother died, a neurologist with the cast of a human head on his desk had tapped a silver pen at the affected regions of her mother’s tissue. Underneath the dura mater, the supposed shield of tough inflexibility protecting the delicate engine within, her mother’s demented brain had gone rogue. Essie thought of the coral reef of the brain’s convolutions, the gyri, the intricate cording pocked with fissures. For all she knew her own brain was even now rewiring itself, altering the terrain of her essence. There was no way of knowing. Wyatt had been right about Essie’s insular existence, scaffolded on waiting for every worst scenario. For the inheritance of her genes to flame hot and dispossess her.
. . .
Evening, she broke down the rest of the boxes, mashing them into the recycle bin. The violet sky ticked blue black, and she’d seen no sign of him in two hours. She dragged the wheeled bin around the side of the house as the hydraulic rasp of Skip’s back screen opened. In one hand he held a set of tongs, and he must’ve forgotten something because he turned and went back inside. Hurrying to avoid another encounter, she pulled the bin too sharply over the edge of the woodchips, and the whole of it tipped over. She bent and rushed to reassemble the load, looking over her shoulder to see light spilling out through the screen from his kitchen. Moths congregated, careening at the porch light. She righted the can and dislodged the wheel from the woodchips.
The screen door exhaled and Skip stepped onto the patio carrying a plate. It was the first time she’d seen him in anything but yard clothes. In a white shirt and khaki shorts, his legs were skinny and hairless and his feet were bare, all the toes in a blunt line. His hair was faintly wet and he smelled of aftershave and he looked at her and sighed.
She yanked the bin behind her and walked past his patio without acknowledging him.
Fat from the meat sizzled and popped. “Manufacturing another encounter to harass me about the trees?”
She turned to watch him flip the meat. Smoke billowed, encased his torso in a cloud.
“Look. I’m not trying to be mean.” He turned his wrist to look at his watch and forked meat onto the plate.
“It’s a small thing to be friendly,” she whispered.
He shook his head. “I’m not the one.”
. . .
Two days later he emerged dressed in a button down shirt and a pair of slacks. Essie watered a tangle of hyssop and lupine in the front garden and forced herself not to look up when his diesel chugged past.
She turned the sprinkler on, then sat on the porch, restless, her last day of freedom before school. Ruby flew by on her bike ahead of three other kids from the neighborhood and shouted, “Hi, Essieeeeee!”
After a while she walked around the side of the house to the gone grove, all the trees cut down to sixty silent nubs. The sight of Skip’s bizarre landscaping frightened and infuriated her and filled her with a confused self-loathing. She hadn’t thought to check the property boundaries on the deed until last night after too many glasses of wine. Days past suspicion that there had never been any woolly adelgid. The trees had been half hers, and she’d done nothing to save them.
Sweat fell between her breasts and gathered at the waistband of her shorts. Cicadas in the oak of her front yard beat their frenzied thrum-call. She walked to his basement window, pushed at it with her foot. It opened a crack, and she squatted down and pressed it open with both hands, then shimmied through it feet first and held onto the frame until her feet found a chair. She worked the rest of her body through the opening and pulled the window shut behind her.
The basement was unfinished. Cinder blocks and thick posts shored up the house. A weight bench, a washer and dryer, a huge generator, two large freezers. She tried to see the space through Ruby’s eyes, but nothing seemed interesting to a child. She went upstairs to the first floor, entering through a door that in her own house was a pantry. In the living room, she eyed his white leather furniture pushed back against the walls. Cold air from the vent above. The house smelled strongly of Pine-Sol.
She climbed the stairway, balancing on each riser without touching the banister, considering the weight of her trespass, if it was worse than his. At the top a bathroom with white tiling, white towels rolled into a rack above the toilet. The small bedroom next to it, at the front of the house, an office in her own, held a bed and dresser, a nightstand with a small desk lamp on it and an alarm clock, a kitchen chair in the corner. His yard clothes lay folded over the back of the chair.
The door to the master bedroom was closed. She leaned her face against it until it pushed open; and then she was inside, in utter darkness. She flicked the light switch on the wall. A naked fluorescent bulb on the ceiling buzzed and flickered, then hummed to brightness. Essie stood at the threshold a minute, thinking of Ruby, and of what need within the girl called her to do the same thing Essie was doing now. She took a step.
The windows were covered in black plastic and sealed with duct tape. A twin-sized bed covered in an old army blanket sat against one wall. Low shelves lined a third wall and held canned goods and water, flashlights and toilet paper, rolls of plastic and duct tape. Cans of beer, video games, decks of cards, towels and soaps, antiseptic hand wash. A backpacker stove with several fuel bottles.
At the desk, she lifted the handset of an old rotary telephone, then stuck a finger into one of the round slots and wound it round the horn before setting the handset back in the cradle. Essie opened the desk drawer and found a roll of papers held with a green rubber band; she peeled the band off and smoothed it to find an aerial view, the block of Skip’s house in the middle. A faint blue line sketched the city sewer and gas lines. Another in red outlined the perimeter of his property. The line ran down through the hemlocks.
Underneath these plans were others. A rainwater tank system and an article from an Australian newspaper about how to pipe it to the house. A sketch for a wood-burning furnace system. An estimate for solar panels. How to build a composting toilet, a greenhouse. She rolled them back together and returned them to the drawer.
A refrigerator next to the bed hummed to life, its balance slightly off so that it rattled.
On top of it, a jar of her canned fish vibrated.
The room tilted a little at the thought of him in her space while she was away, except it didn’t seem like his style. Then she understood Skip’s house was not the only space Ruby explored.
She crossed the room and sat down on the bed. Above her, fault lines of the cracked plaster reached out from underneath the light and crawled toward the blackened window like a constellation of rivers. She calculated how long it would take to eat through the shelves one can at a time. The flesh on her arms goose-bumped, thinking of the two of them, trapped under the roof of his house, breathing only each other’s air and ruinous grief.
The landing outside the door creaked and Essie stood and stepped close to the wall.
“I know you’re in there,” Ruby said. She emerged in the doorway, her feet bare. She held the orange cat like an infant. “You should go. On work days he sometimes comes back to make sure he turned the lights off.”
Essie’s pulse roared. “How often do you come in here?”
Ruby shrugged and stroked the cat’s back. The lid over one of its eyes was split; hairless and swollen, the skin hung down so that only a sliver of green was visible. “Some,” she lied. “The first time I just wanted to know if it was true.”
“You could get in a lot of trouble, you know. We could.” Essie realized she didn’t even know who to call about the girl. Ruby seemed to have the unfettered freedom and street smarts of a vagabond. Essie might have conjured her. She might have conjured everything from the last two weeks. Before they both understood the stakes, her mother had just been forgetful, overwhelmed. Driving in reverse from the end of the drive to double-check the stove, the locks. Sometimes four times before they could leave the house. Later, intruders lurked behind the armoire and longcase and under the beds. A coyote paced the rooms at night.
Essie reached for the jar of fish and held it out to the girl. “And what’s this about?”
“Well. He needed it,” Ruby said. She gestured at the shelves of supplies. The cat yowled, squirmed in her arms. She shushed it and gripped tighter. “Up the street’s a lady who cans beans.”
“How many houses do you go into?”
Ruby shrugged. The cat freed a paw, and she tucked it back under her arm. “I dunno. A couple,” she said. Her eyes zigged at the shelves as she lied again. “It’s pretty easy. People don’t pay attention as good as they should.”
They stood facing each other. The bent quest of Ruby’s hobby struck Essie in the confounding way everything else about the girl did, as both a violation and a fierce attack at intimacy. “Well. You shouldn’t. Neither should I.” She ushered Ruby into the hallway, turned off the light and closed the door.
On the stairs, Ruby stopped. “You hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“He’s back. I told you.”
They sprinted to the basement and crouched by the chair underneath the window, panting. The front door opened. Skip’s footsteps fell in discrete increments above them. They faded into another room, grew louder as he came back. “He goes upstairs and then comes down here last,” Ruby whispered hoarsely into Essie’s ear. Strapped in Ruby’s embrace, the cat purred, closed both eyes. In the kitchen, the faucet turned on, quit, and ran again. “Some days he checks the water.” Ruby’s voice was hot in Essie’s hair. Skip left the kitchen. The main stairs to the second floor squeaked.
Essie pushed open the basement window and Ruby released the cat. It streaked across the gap into Essie’s yard. She helped Ruby out, then pulled herself through the window into the cloying heat of the day. Stunned by the haze of white light, she took a moment to let her eyes adjust.
“Hurry,” Ruby said.
They ran past the stump line of the gone trees to the shelter of Essie’s backyard and stood breathing heavily behind the rhododendron in the excruciating quiet, waiting. Essie still clutched the jar of fish. Finally, Skip’s engine fired, revved, grew loud in the gap and then faded. Cicadas fledged a syncopated song.
“You did good,” Ruby said, still panting, patting Essie’s arm. “That was a close one.” She pulled her elbow toward her face to examine a bloody scratch. She swabbed a finger over the wound and put it in her mouth. On the street a car slowed, its gears grinding, catching. “Keeler,” Ruby muttered, swiping at her cut.
Essie listened, locked her shaking knees. “Thanks for coming to get me,” she said. “That was....” She considered the right way to finish her thought. Ruby was brave but she was also wild, and didn’t Essie’s knowledge of the girl’s illegal activity mean she had a duty to contact a parent, not to mention be a mentor that didn’t mirror criminal acts, especially ones that could lose her the job she hadn’t even started yet? She closed her eyes, concentrated on the sick heaviness in her gut instead of thinking about her mother’s demented fascination with cops and robbers at the end as some kind of prescient sign.
Ruby shrugged and straightened her arm, watching blood run down between her fingers and drip on the flagstones. She pointed at the jar. “What is that stuff anyways?”
“Salmon. It’s tasty. Really.” Essie offered it to her.
Ruby scrunched up her nose, held the jar aloft and examined its underside.
“I’d give it to you, but I’m worried it’ll end up in the bean lady’s house.” Later, she told herself, she would have a look around her own house for gifted items she hadn’t noticed. “You know. We could just go over and talk with the bean lady and get to know her the old-fashioned way.”
Ruby blushed. She set the jar down on the patio and squeezed her wound so that it bled in quick, fat drops. “It looks like a science experiment. My uncle has a cow brain in a jar. He does research.”
“You should probably get a Band-aid. They’re—”
“—I know.” Ruby went inside.
Essie walked to where her hemlocks used to be. Without them, her yard was full of light. Enough space for a tiny orchard, a raised bed garden. The woodchip pile was nearly her height. Essie stuck her hand inside of it, felt the heat within, the beating pulse of matter becoming.
Ruby emerged, her elbow bulging, bandaged and taped as if her cut were much deeper. She came to stand by Essie and stuck her good arm into the pile. She held her doctored elbow away from her body in a winged chevron. “Holy hell. Why’s it so hot?” She pulled her hand out and watched steam emanating from the shifting wood chips, and then she stuck her arm back inside, deeper, and turned, grinning, to face Essie.
Essie thrust her other hand into the pile. “It’s alive. Changing.” She swam her hands toward Ruby’s and squeezed the girl’s fingers. •