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Private Lives by April Sopkin

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April Sopkin’s work appears in the Southern Indiana Review, The Southampton Review, SAND Journal, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and residencies from the Tin House Summer Workshop, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, the Jentel Foundation, and VCCA.

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We invited her into the house because that is what happens when you open the door and see someone you know standing on the porch. It was not a decision. It was the fault of normal behavior.

“Cindy, hey—come in.” Anna swung the door wide and stood aside as if Cindy needed a wide berth. She did not, for the record, need a wide berth. Cindy was a vegetarian who ran marathons. Her sinewy limbs were stacked tight and narrow. 

She peered in at us, arranged in the usual horseshoe around the unlit fireplace. We held wine glasses aloft, mid-tip in front of our mouths. No one spoke, but we smiled, disbelief curling our lips. Someone broke a Ritz cracker in the spinach dip. 

“I brought that wine I mentioned last time,” Cindy said, gazing down at the threshold as she stepped over it, like she had never noticed it before. Her running sneakers were silver and red, brand new. We found this interesting, because Cindy did not tend to shop for herself. Her four boys needed everything and she gave it to them. So selfless, we always told her. But too extreme, we told each other.

“You look good,” Anna said, taking the bottle of wine and closing the door. “You look well-rested.” 

Cindy’s smile was quick but uneasy, and her hands moved in hard palm strokes, smoothing back the fly-aways from her temples. She continued to wait, paused in the foyer, fussing with her purse as if something just thought-of might need to be found.

How strange, we thought. We’d never seen her look so uncomfortable before. But, really, the situation was unprecedented—what did we expect? Truly? We could hardly believe she was even standing there. The last we’d all seen her was on the ten o’clock news eight days before. Bloodshot eyes glancing from the camera then back to local newscaster Byron Ryan, who asked, maybe too excitedly, “What did they look like? Did they have gray skin? Do you remember how you got to the woods?”

But she looked like herself now. We had to admit that. Blue jeans and a faded University of Minnesota-Duluth sweatshirt. Pale, thin, with cheeks like concave slopes. Vegetarianism was not attractive, we thought. But she did look normal. We searched for something missing. We wondered if her husband, Martin, had already found it, whatever it was, and what he thought about the whole situation.

“Cindy, here,” Joyce said, patting a space next to her on the sofa. 

Oh Joyce, we thought, always the ambassador for peace.

Cindy smiled for real this time, then pretend tiptoed across the wood floor of the entryway and into the carpeted living room. “I’m late, I know, so sorry,” she said, eyes jumping around the horseshoe as she sat. She crossed her legs, folded her hands together around one kneecap like everything was utterly regular. We stared into her eyes, tried to see what was there. We glanced at her sneakers. “My old ones were ruined,” she said abruptly, to all of us, to none of us. “It was muddy.”

We heard the silent rest of that sentence: that night. We wanted to know more. We wanted to be like Byron Ryan and press her. We also did not believe her.

“Should we get started?” Anna asked, retaking her hostess seat in the wing chair. 

We took out our paperback copies of Little Women, most of them pristine. The Classics Book Club had an uneven track record, often watching the movie instead of reading the book. But we pretended not to notice this cheat. This flaw. Instead, we uncorked more wine. This was about friendship. 

. . .

In the beginning, it was Darlene who met Cindy first. They crossed paths in the drugstore. This was six or seven years ago, long before we all had teenagers.

“She’s from up north,” Darlene told us. “Basically, Canada.”

In comparison, we were so far south as to be basically Iowa, but we nodded about Canada like it was the other side of town. It didn’t matter. Everywhere in Minnesota looked the same covered in snow. We each sipped our mug of coffee, the carton of half-and-half was passed, spoons stirred until the color was right.

“Any kids?” Joyce asked.

“Three boys. About to have another.”

Our chins tipped back, like whoa.

“They bought that yellow rambler,” Darlene went on. “The one near the cul-de-sac? With the huge yard?” 

Of course, we knew the one. The For-Sale sign had been up forever, due to a cracked foundation and appliances from the ’70s. Anyone buying that house either had money to sink into it or no money at all. 

“What’s her husband do?” Anna asked, her usual first question.

“Teacher,” said Darlene. “The new world history teacher at the high school.” We all nodded, made noises of polite understanding as we considered how this information fit with the semi-decayed yellow rambler. The math wasn’t hard to do. After a moment, Darlene laughed at her own thought, rousing the rest of us from our silent arithmetic. 

We waited for her to explain.

“No, no, it’s just,” Darlene started. “I don’t know? The way I found her in the store? She was standing there by the rack of cards. And she was holding birthday balloons. And she was just, like, staring off into space.”

We still didn’t get it.

“She looked like—almost like—one of those chubby angel figurines with the sad faces. You know which ones?” 

“Precious Moments,” Joyce confirmed.

“Yes,” Darlene said. “Exactly. Except she’s not chubby, just pregnant. She’s a pretty woman. Simple, but not plain. Kind of young? It’s hard to tell—I don’t think she wears makeup? Early thirties, or maybe twenty-nine? But, just, what a nice person—we got to talking, of course. You know how I am. Too curious—”

We laughed at this truth. 

“You should’ve been a journalist,” Anna agreed. “Or a detective.”

Darlene waved this off, but we saw the private satisfaction in her grin. “Anyway,” she said. “We exchanged numbers. She seems great. You’ll see—I invited her to the Christmas coffee thing.”

A few days later, at the Christmas coffee get-together, Anna opened the front door and Cindy smiled with full teeth right away, like she could not wait, like she had envisioned the moment. Two deep dimples greeted us. Our new friend wore a long snowflake-printed dress, snow boots, and an oversized winter coat that hung open, barely hooked on her small shoulders. Her breath turned white in the cold air, forming a cloud around her, and she rested a plastic-wrapped plate of gingerbread cookies on her swollen belly. Almost third trimester, we quickly learned, because Joyce—who had no kids, yet insisted she had intuition—was terrible at guessing these things.

“Thirty-four weeks?”

“Twenty-five,” Cindy told her.

“Jeez,” Darlene cut in, “is that your age, too?” 

We all laughed and our new friend flushed a deep red.

She did seem so much younger than us. Who got embarrassed so easily anymore? She was petite, maybe even delicate-looking. We led her to Anna’s green plaid sofa—this was before she redecorated with all the cream and beige—and we clustered around our new friend, leaned in a little more than was polite. Her milky skin blushed again. Her eyes veered to the carpet and stayed there. We leaned back a little. Let her catch her breath.

. . .

She had this quiet way of listening, one-on-one, that was so warm and easy. Like a lost art. We forgot the silly few years that separated our ages and, one by one, over the weeks, months, years, we knocked on her door. And one by one, she led us to her dining room table, stacked with papers, magazines, newspapers—she was always researching something for an old professor of hers up north. We drank her homemade ginger tea and sighed, subconsciously placing a hand over our mouths as we hesitated. 

“What is it?” she asked. She searched our eyes. She encouraged us silently. 

We told her our deepest, most indelicate secrets.

Cindy’s blue-gray eyes softly blinked in response to every admission—severe credit card debt, impending layoffs, a career full of lateral moves, no career at all, unrecognizable husbands, our own unrecognizable faces, sexlessness, fear of illness and diagnosis, silent houses, screaming houses, thoughts of affairs, children pushing away, children being medicated, unrecognizable children, fears of being left, desires to leave, the ordinary loss of parents, the way the snowfall is gorgeous and cozy until Christmas passes, then everything after smells like ice and exhaust and the snow is hard as a rock and filthy and the air is so frigid it feels like drinking ice water when you breathe, and, also, the lingering anger over long-ago slights, jealousies and resentments fostered and blooming across years—we shared anything, anything at all that was simply too arduous to bear alone. 

Truly, Cindy held us steady every time. 

Like she knew it all already, but not in a snobby way. Not like she thought she was smarter or had all the answers. More like, she had the capacity to imagine our struggles in a way that was almost physically apparent. And afterward, she carried them with us. 

Cindy’s quiet patience harbored no judgments. She accepted us. 

We loved her.

. . .

“They didn’t speak in words.” 

That night—the night she was found in the woods near Nixon Lake—none of us were together. But we sat in our homes, edge of our sofas, kids in bed and husbands pausing as they passed through the room.

“What the hell?” they asked us. “Is that Cindy?”

We stared at Cindy’s face on the television: bloodshot eyes, yellowed pallor, an inflamed ring of dry skin around her lips. But she was okay. The stiff white hospital gown made her look like a kid, or a sick angel. Someone had combed her hair, parted it down the middle, and pulled it forward over her shoulders for the interview.

“What do you mean?” asked Byron Ryan. He twice tipped the microphone from Cindy back to himself, like he might have more to ask but thought better of it.

“I mean, they never moved their lips,” Cindy said, one hand entering the frame as she gestured to her own mouth. “But I heard them. Somehow. In my head? I understood—they told me they were lost. They asked, I think they asked, for—for star coordinates?”

We dialed each other, pressed cordless phones to our ears. 

“Are you watching?” 

“She looks all right, thank God.”

“Did you hear what she just said? What did she—’’

“Where’s Martin?”

“What do you mean? She looks like fucking hell.”

“I mean, she’s alive.”

“Did you see her nails? Totally black.”

“Two days in the woods? In October?”

“They only found her in the woods.”

“Is this a live interview? Where the hell is Martin?”

“The other night got down to twelve degrees—”

“It says ‘live’ at the bottom of the screen.”

“Oh, right.”

“Shhh—she’s talking again!”

“I remember going to the woods,” Cindy said, “because I run there all the time. In the woods. Around Nixon Lake. I’ve never seen anyone else. It’s always just been me. In fact, I made those trails all on my own. Almost three miles in circumference.” 

Byron Ryan nodded slowly, his smile small, careful. “That’s good. That’s impressive.” 

“I do two laps, usually.”

“That’s impressive,” he said again. “And did you do two laps that night?”

Cindy looked at the newscaster a long time. When she finally blinked, a few tears dropped down her cheeks, splotched her hospital gown. “I had decided to do three laps. I was on the third lap.”

Byron Ryan squinted. “You were planning to run nine miles. In the woods. At night?” 

Cindy pushed up a little in her hospital bed. “I’m training,” she said and shrugged. “It was time to push myself to the next step.” 

. . .

We did try to visit her in the hospital. But, after the interview, she was no longer accepting visitors. Forty-eight hours of fluids and observation, then Martin checked her out. We supposed—could only imagine—the sheer embarrassment of that interview. No one answered the phone at their house. The answering machine was full. Then someone must have taken the receiver off the hook, because the line was always busy. We discussed it at Anna’s house, gathered in her living room as usual, four days after Cindy was found. 

Joyce broke the silence: “We should just go over there.” 

“No,” said Anna. “They want privacy. Clearly.” She offered a plate of Triscuits and cheddar cheese squares, but no one reached out so she placed it on the coffee table, helpfully nudging a stack of white napkins closer, just in case.

“We could leave food on the steps,” Darlene suggested.

“You can if you want,” Anna said. “But I’m waiting for a signal.”

“What does that mean?” Joyce asked. 

“Listen,” said Susan. 

We turned to her. Susan was older, just past fifty, and did not live on our road. She was the mail lady. She drove by each of our houses every day, knew who subscribed to what, who received past-due notices, who never received anything but mailers labeled “To: Current Resident.” She had age, eyes, and insight.

“Every time I pull their mailbox open,” she said, “yesterday’s mail is still there. I don’t think they’ve left the house yet.” 

“Chad says her boys have been on the bus every morning,” Darlene said of her son. “There’s some teasing—probably more than they’re admitting to me—but they’re okay.”

“Maybe,” said Susan. “Maybe they are. But my ex-husband’s sister went through something similar—not, like, aliens or what-have-you—but she lost it one day at work. She was being laid off and all of this underlying stress and anger she’d been suppressing just came out. No one saw it coming. She was never the same. Cracked like an egg.”

We didn’t say anything. 

“I think back to that,” Susan went on, “and I wish we had not tried to help right away. Because it didn’t help. It was chaos. Too many cooks, and her family suffered for it. Relationships suffered for it.” 

After a moment, Anna agreed. “It’s true. I have a cousin—he’s also, well… When he doesn’t take his medication, it gets bad. But there are long stretches where things are fine and you wouldn’t know.”

We wetted our mouths with wine and considered these stories. In the end, we nodded. This was not a death in the family. This was not a cancer scare. This situation was fragile and unique, and we didn’t really know anything about it.

We gave Cindy space. We gave her family space. 

. . .

She surprised us all when she showed up for Little Women, just over a week after she was found. We took her cue. It seemed polite to do so. We carried on, because she was carrying on.

In November, we read Great Expectations

We took December off. 

January started strong with The Grapes of Wrath

In February, we tried for 1984, but that never quite came together. 

March was Jane Eyre.

April was Legends of the Fall. The movie. 

And Cindy was there. Each time, she was right there with us.

. . .

By spring, the whole situation felt a long way away. 

We saw her in the yard with shears, trimming the bushes under the front windows. She spent three days repainting their split rail fence. A fresh set of numbers was painted on the mailbox. She hung a tire swing from the oak tree and her seven-year-old son took to sitting out there on the weekends. Watching her. 

She dug an enormous vegetable garden, twelve rows deep by twelve rows wide, right in the middle of the front yard. Martin often came out to witness the progress. Once, he brought her a glass of water and she startled at his sudden appearance next to her. She’d never even known he was there. But he watched all the time. We thought it was heartbreaking. We looked at our own husbands—across the dinner table, chewing; next to us on the couch, digesting; in bed asleep, farting—and we wondered if we, too, needed to claim alien abduction just to get a little notice.

Frequently, she left fresh vegetables on our porches and stoops, the paper bags marked with a smiley face. Darlene thought it was bizarre and called up Joyce.

“Since when did Miss Master’s Degree suddenly become a smiley-face person?”

“You’re being unfair,” Joyce said. 

“Am I?”

“Yes.”

Silence, then: “Joyce, in nearly eight years, she’s never signed so much as a Christmas card with less than first and last name.” 

“You know,” Anna later said, after Darlene had hung up with Joyce and called her next, “that’s very true.”

“I’m not saying there’s anything particularly wrong with it,” said Darlene. 

“Right.”

“I’m just saying, this is new.”

One day, we opened the paper and there was Cindy, dimpled smile in black and white, standing next to the school superintendent like she was being granted amnesty. The picture was poor quality but it looked like she was holding a Bundt cake. Headline read: “Local Mother Mounts Most Successful Bake Sale in School District History.”

A flurry of calls went around.

“She doesn’t say a thing about who donated what.”

“I made six dozen oatmeal raisin cookies—”

“Not a single word.”

“I made cupcakes. Red velvet!”

“Just ‘It’s so important to give back. It’s so important to be an active part of the community.’”

“The Girl Scouts sold, like, a million Thin Mints this year.”

“I chaperoned that godawful field trip to the Iron Range. Slept on a gymnasium floor. Got no sleep. Was at the chiropractor every day after that. You remember?”

“I remember.”

“I mean, good for her. But c’mon, right?”

“Right.”

On top of all this new behavior, she kept running, too. But she never went back to the woods. Forever after, she was on the dirt shoulder alongside the road—our road, but also County Road 44, and 24, 10, even Seven Hills Road, which was dangerous. People were impressed by the distances, though it was common knowledge that she ran marathons. But suddenly, there she was on the side of the road, in almost any kind of weather, wearing those sunglasses with the dark lenses that are like mirrors. And she’d be halfway to St. Cloud before turning around. That’s something like fourteen miles, round trip. People were constantly passing her. She held up a hand to everyone, and they did the same. No one could say she was unfriendly. No one could say she was hiding. No one could say she seemed unhappy.

. . .

We had to keep going, too. Several of us had kids graduating from high school. The whole neighborhood spent a series of consecutive weekends moving from house to house, handing over cards stuffed with cash or check, eating charred burgers and brats, discussing the lake level, the gopher problem, the widening of the freeway, the new subdivision on the other side of town. But conversation always came back to Cindy. People still wanted to know the truth.

They nodded in the direction of her house, down the street.

We shrugged.

“C’mon,” they said. 

We shifted on hips, glanced over our shoulders. “She’s good. Busy.”

Some people took this answer, because they have manners. Those who didn’t would stop us for small talk at the drugstore, or Coborn’s Grocery, or the Holiday station.

“And how’s that neighbor of yours?” they’d ask.

“Great,” we said.

“You know, I passed her on 44 the other day.”

“Did you now?”

“She sure likes to run.”

“That’s true.” 

“She’s pretty interesting. She doing all right?”

We relayed these conversations back to each other all the time. When it happened to one of us, it happened to all of us. We grew closer. We had to keep each other in the loop.

In truth, we had no information to give people. Clearly, Cindy was not dwelling on what happened, and we were not the kind of people to bring up painful subjects just for the sake of curiosity. Let people live, we said. Let people heal. 

“Can we just get back to normal already?” Anna asked.

. . .

And sometimes, when people asked after Cindy, we said, “You know, I don’t really know her all that well. We’re friends. Neighbors. But she’s a very private person.” And we’d smile apologetically, shrug, and give them a good long look. They understood.

. . .

The second time it happened, we were terrified for her. 

Martin called Joyce, who said she hadn’t seen Cindy that day, then Joyce called Darlene, who said, “We should ask Susan.” But Susan said, “I didn’t see her when I was making my rounds. I usually catch her on Seven Hills around quarter to one, but nope. Not today.”

We spent all night in our cars, slowly driving down every road, windows open, shouting her name into the dark. We pulled into parking lots and did slow circles along the perimeter, headlights illuminating beyond. Into the trees. The corn fields. The overgrown clearings. 

We walked the beach at Nixon Lake. Shone our flashlights out into the water. 

After the requisite twenty-four hours, the police put out an APB for a forty-year-old Caucasian female, blonde hair in a ponytail, five-foot-two and 110 pounds, wearing black spandex shorts and a gray University of Minnesota-Duluth sweatshirt. 

“Viewers might recall,” Byron Ryan said, live from Nixon Lake, “this is the same woman who went missing just eight months ago, in October of last year. We’re told by police that she may appear confused or disoriented, but no further indication is being given about her possible condition. Updates when we have them. Back to you at the station, Myra.”

. . .

During the days Cindy was missing for the second time, the new summer began. Two days became three and four and five, still no sign. Temperatures reached the high-nineties and stagnated. We moved through it, but every day she wasn’t found, we woke up the next less certain of what we were looking for. 

“I can’t,” Darlene said. “I’m done. At first, I thought, God, please—but now? I don’t want to find her body.” 

We stood in Joyce’s kitchen, barely evening yet, but our voices hushed against her husband napping in the TV room. Her childless house was silent. We found it eerie, without teenagers arguing, feet stomping across floors, doors slamming.

“You think she’s dead?” Anna asked.

“Don’t you?” Darlene said.

Anna shrugged. 

“What?” said Joyce.

“I don’t know. I just,” but Anna stopped. Shrugged again. “Don’t you think it’s possible that she left Martin? That she left her boys? I mean—what about that professor up north? Maybe something was going on there.” 

“She wouldn’t do that,” Joyce said. “How could you think that?” 

“Because,” Susan interjected, “people do it, Joyce. They do.”

We thought about this. Susan seemed to have secret knowledge of such behavior, or at least spoke as if she’d recently seen a compelling episode of 60 Minutes.

Then, Darlene: “No. I think she’s dead.” 

“Stop saying that,” Joyce said. She wrung her hands in the air, tucked them under folded arms. “Please. Stop. I can’t stand it.” 

“Then what do you think, Joyce?” Darlene grabbed her purse from the kitchen table, swung it over her shoulder. It smacked her hip once, then she held it there, fist gripping the strap. “Do you think she was abducted by aliens? Is that what you think?”

. . .

And on the seventh day, she was found. 

“In the early hours this morning,” reported Byron Ryan, “missing woman Cindy Hartso was discovered walking along County Road 10, about two miles from Lorton Penitentiary.” He swept a hand behind him, and the camera zoomed in on the gray brick prison wall looming in the near distance. “Dazed and covered in mud, but uninjured, she was found by local farmer Charles Paulson as he was driving his tractor along this stretch of deserted road around five a.m. today.” 

The television screen switched to a pre-recorded interview featuring a tanned elderly man in a once-white t-shirt with a dark sweat stain circling the collar.

“I came up on her,” Mr. Paulson told the camera, “and I thought she’d been in some accident. Didn’t know who she was. Didn’t know there was anybody looking for her.”

Off-screen, Byron Ryan: “Did she tell you where she’d been?”

“She did not.”

“Did she tell you who she was with?”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Did she say anything at all?”

“She said, ‘I’m thirsty.’ And I gave her some water from the thermos I keep in the tractor. She drank all of it.” 

“I see. Then what happened?”

“I gave her a ride back to my house and she used my phone.”

“She rode on the tractor with you?”

“In the trailer. Sat on a hay bale.”

“Did she say anything else?”

“She said, ‘What day is it?’ And I told her the day.”

. . .

Susan said the mail was piling up again.

The garden grew wild and wilted.

“I’m going over there,” Joyce said. “This is insane. We’re her friends.”

“It’s a family matter,” we told her.

“You know what I say?” said Joyce. “I say screw that.”

Joyce didn’t use that sort of language very often. We didn’t say anything else, just let her go. 

We heard nothing from her for the rest of the day. The next morning, she summoned us to her house, coffee and cinnamon rolls waiting in the kitchen. We took our seats.

“She told me,” Joyce said. Her posture was very straight and she looked at each of us around the table, one at a time. Slowly, the firm line of her lips relaxed. She swallowed and opened her mouth to speak. 

. . .

Joyce sat at Cindy’s dining room table like it was any other time she had come over in need of a patient ear. But this time, the table was completely cleared of the usual stacks of papers. The wood shone and smelled of fresh polish. They drank ginger tea.

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” Joyce said. “I should have come right away. In the very beginning. The first time. But—I am here now. What can I do?”

“Do?” Cindy asked. She glanced around the room, surveying, as if cataloguing possibilities. “I’m not sure what you want to do. Could you cook dinner for my family?” 

“Absolutely—”

“Maybe clean my fridge?” Cindy went on. “Could you do the laundry, too? And then, maybe, get my children alone and ask them questions about their crazy mother?”

“Cindy—”

But Cindy continued: “I suppose you want to figure out how my husband is dealing with this burden, too. It’s a good question. I don’t blame you.”

Joyce stopped trying to break in. Her mouth pulled tight at the corners.

“And after you have all the facts,” Cindy said, “will you be sure to take them right across the street? And then down the street, too? And, later, will you stop people in the grocery store? Make an announcement at church? Maybe take up a fucking collection?”

Joyce flinched at the curse, but nodded, kept nodding. “I’m sorry,” she tried again. “I have such regrets about this whole situation—”

Please,” Cindy said. “Don’t ask me to care. Don’t do it. I can’t even hear it.”

“You’re right,” Joyce said and backed off. She lowered her eyes, feeling chastised. They sat in silence.

“Why does it matter what really happened?” Cindy asked finally. “I had an experience. It was very, very difficult. You cannot imagine how difficult. And it changed me.”

“I understand,” said Joyce, eyes drawing up eagerly.

“You can’t.”

“I can.”

“They weren’t violent, Joyce. I was not attacked.”

“Okay.”

“They were very calm. It was a family, I think.”

“Okay.”

“Four adults. Two children.”

Joyce felt a distant tingle in her bowels. She was nervous, and tried to sit as still as possible, as if her friend were a small animal. Her friend’s hand stroked the gleaming wood of the table, back and forth, slowly. 

“It was just like last time,” Cindy said. “They had a map but I don’t know anything about astronomy, constellations, any of it. They showed me a broken computer in their ship. Then they spread this big map out on the floor. It wasn’t the Milky Way. I know that much—it didn’t have the spirals—”

“Have they just been out there in the woods all these months?”

Cindy shook her head. “They were parked in a different place this time. I think they left for a while but came back because they were still lost.”

“Why didn’t they ask someone else?” Joyce asked. “Why did they keep asking you? You were gone so long this time—”

“I don’t know. I don’t know! But, this time, they couldn’t understand me. I could hear their voices in my head—speaking English—but they could not understand me when I spoke. Something had changed. It didn’t feel like days. I had no idea it was so many days.”

Joyce felt the tingle move from her bowels up her spine. The scalp on the back of her head tightened, and she asked, “What changed?” 

“They looked very sick. Like, starving. The children weren’t moving anymore, just sitting in the corner, maybe sleeping, but I don’t know. It smelled terrible. Something terrible had happened and they knew it, but they seemed in shock. They kept pointing to the map, then to the children. Pointing to the map, then back at me.”

“What did you do?”

“I took two of the adults to a field. Showed them how to husk the corn. They ate it dry and raw. I don’t think they eat meat. Or fish. They weren’t interested when I pointed to a deer that ran across the road. Or when I brought them to the water.”

Cindy’s eyes glistened. Joyce put her hand atop her friend’s hand. The touch was accepted, allowed, and, again, Joyce kept as still as possible.

“They took a bunch of corn back to the ship. I went with them, carried some for them. But they didn’t let me back inside. They took the corn from my arms, one of them looked at me a long time, and then shut the door. I waited, but they never opened the door again.”

“Do you think they were mad?”

Cindy shook her head, hard. “No. I think they finally realized they weren’t going home. I think they realized they were going to die—the way that one looked at me, his eyes were so far away, and he wasn’t saying anything in my head. I didn’t hear his voice anymore. He looked exhausted. Gone. Like he was giving up. And they wanted to be alone together.”

They were quiet again. The house was somehow more silent than before and Joyce realized, suddenly, that no one else was home. 

“Where are your boys?” she asked.

“Martin took them to the Mall of America. To ride the rides.” Cindy closed her eyes. “You know, they look just like you think they’re supposed to look. Just, exactly. But real.”

. . .

We didn’t speak. In one hand, we each held a mug of cooled coffee, and in the other, we balanced an untouched cinnamon roll on a decorative napkin leftover from Easter.

“She’s perfectly sane,” Joyce said. 

“You believe her, then?” Anna asked.

“Of course.”

“What do you mean ‘of course’?”

“I mean, the look on her face, in her eyes, just the whole way she seemed—what she says happened, it really did happen.”

Darlene put her mug down on the kitchen table. “Joyce,” she said, carefully, “this was a delusion. She’s very sick. And all this time, we just didn’t really know it.” 

“It’s so hard to know,” Susan echoed. “This kind of thing…” 

As Joyce looked at each of us, we looked at her in turn. She had the same erect posture as before she began Cindy’s story.

“Of course,” she said. “Of course, it’s impossible to know anything for sure. Of course, I know that. But she means what she says, so I have to think—I have to imagine—that this story… Maybe it’s not real, but—”

“It’s insane, Joyce,” said Anna. “You know it’s insane.”

“Devastating,” Susan agreed.

“Yes,” Joyce said, her shoulders falling an inch. “It is devastating. And insane. It’s all impossible, the whole thing—but we can’t, we cannot know—” Joyce slapped the table, once, rattling the spoons in our mugs. “It’s impossible to know,” she said again, louder now. “But she told me what happened. And I know what I saw in her face—”

“Joyce. Please.” Darlene extended a hand across the table. 

But Joyce pulled back, farther away from the outstretched kindness. “I won’t debate,” she said. “I will not. I won’t do it.” She slapped the table again and we all jumped.

Moments later, upstairs, Joyce’s husband flushed the toilet, the water rushing down a pipe behind the wall in the kitchen. We glanced at each other, wanting to laugh at the noise, wanting to say something about how serious things were feeling until that moment. It was just like an oblivious husband to break the tension. 

But we didn’t laugh and we didn’t say anything like that. Because Joyce stood then, her chair abruptly scraping the kitchen tile, and she waited, hands folded together. We looked up at her. It took us a while to realize that she was politely asking us to leave. •