Caitlin Scarano is a poet based in Washington. She spent November 2018 in Antarctica as an NSF grantee. Her debut collection of poems, Do Not Bring Him Water, was released in Fall 2017. You can find her at caitlinscarano.com
When Lois calls her mother, her tongue is heavy and tastes bitter, as if she’d been sucking on a handful of pennies. The ringing cuts through the manicured silence of her childhood home. She’s borrowed a cell phone to call California. Her mother answers, asks where she is.
“I’m still in Juneau.” Lois studies the dried blood lining her fingernails from where she’s been biting them.
“I thought you’d be in Seattle by now.” Her mother’s voice is measured and prim, like a little dollhouse woman she could sit in her palm and soothe or fling against a wall. Lois imagines her mother flipping through Home and Garden while talking to her and arraying the magazines on the coffee table so they overlap in an appealing arch. Southern California sunlight dripping through the sheer peach curtains in the sitting room. A maid from the cleaning service working just out of view.
“That didn’t work out.” In fact, the guy, Saul, had left for Seattle without Lois three weeks before. She’d woken up in their soggy tent at Thane Campground, sour with a boxed wine hangover, her unwashed hair sticking to the side of her face, and he and most of her cash were already gone. When she went outside, she found Saul’s dog, a temperamental two-year-old husky-chow mix, Boris, tied to the truck fender.
“Well, that’s too bad.”
Lois looks around the room she and Boris are crashing in. She’s in the unfinished basement of the house her coworker Mara shares with five other roommates. She’s seated on a stained lumpy futon against an exposed cinder block wall. Even though the radiator rattles all night, she can never get warm. She hasn’t been warm since she came to Alaska, even during summer. She doesn’t know how much longer Mara’s roommates will let her stay there. She presses her palm against her neck and feels the tendons there, the heat, her pulse. Her mother details the latest drama of the homeowners’ association. Lois tightens the grip of her hand against her voice box. Once—just once—several years ago, she’d asked if she could come back and her mother had paused, cleared her throat, and replied, “Richard doesn’t think that’s a good idea.” Lois was nineteen at the time and living out of a ’95 Civic in Eugene.
“Are you working today?”
“I just wanted to say hi.”
“I have this cashmere pullover I found at Lord & Taylor that I wanted to send to you.”
“Actually, I have a shift soon.”
“It’s sort of a light purple.”
“But I didn’t have an address for you.”
“I’m between places.”
Her mother laughs in pleasure, as if Lois made a clever joke and responds, “Aren’t we all?”
. . .
In a way, it was good Saul left her. “A bit of a blessing, actually,” she tells Mara as she dries a rack of pint glasses. His behavior had started to turn. It was an almost imperceivable shift, but one Lois knew well. When the way he grabs your hair and arms when he’s fucking you changes from pseudo-rough to actual disregard, when he casually kicks the dog in front of you for the first time, or when he starts to talk to you and the dog in the same voice—that’s when you know it’s time to go.
When he found her last winter, she’d just lost a waitressing gig in Anchorage and the sole on her left winter boot was duct-taped in place. He bought her dinner at Waffle House and told her about his kids (two boys under ten in Texas, both with names beginning with R). His mouth was thick with regret. He let her sleep on his couch but she soon migrated to his bed. He seemed in need of a project and she’d learned not to pass up that kind of opportunity. After a few weeks together, he helped her get a deal on the Toyota pickup (“Don fucking owes me,” was all he’d say) and showed her a job ad online about the slime line in Juneau. She could make up to twelve dollars an hour plus overtime and this place didn’t require a piss test.
He said, “Let’s get out of this city.” And she went. Sometimes, she’d found, it was that simple.
Juneau was rainy but gentler. Summer was coming. She had one day off a week and she liked to hike up to Mendenhall Glacier with Boris. Saul was good with small diesel engines and, when he was clean, didn’t have too much trouble finding work. Their days had structure. He seemed calmer. They were renting the backroom off a guy’s garage for cheap. Boris had a yard to run in. For a while, she joked to Saul that they were a bit of a family and he would smile but look slightly over her left shoulder.
She lost her job at the cannery in June and he was gone with the money by early August. Now she works at a dive bar downtown. She has nearly enough saved for at least the first month of rent somewhere. She’s poised, she just doesn’t know what for yet. Ever since Saul left, she’s felt afraid, like the thing that’s been breathing hot down her neck for years is finally going to consume her. Time is always borrowed.
“You keep saying you’ve been on your own, you’ve been on your own,” Mara says from the high top she’s scrubbing with skilled aggression. “But you’re usually running with somebody, right?”
Lois catalogues the men she’s tried to tackle her life with, but doesn’t reply. Mara is younger than Lois, but she handles herself with confidence, seems versed in an AA-brand of human psychology. She’s sober but working in a bar, which Lois finds intriguing. She has a birthmark like a smudge of dirt on her chin and a sleeve of tattoos on both arms—“Most of which I don’t even regret,” she joked with Lois when they met. She keeps her coarse hair in a braid and doesn’t wear makeup except maroon lipstick, which makes her look both dramatic and like a young girl playing dress-up—both untouchable and vulnerable. Lois has seen Mara navigate the bar crowded with fishermen on payday (energized and flirtatious and ready for a drink) like she’s a dancer with a knife between her teeth.
“Look, I get it,” Mara says. “But just cause you got kicked out or kicked around or whatever doesn’t mean you have to do it this way, their way.”
They stand in the empty bar facing each other across a room of stools and high tops. Their way. Lois thinks of her mother and Richard. She thinks of the tourists who flood the town and look at her like trash. She thinks of Saul grabbing her by her ponytail. It is late afternoon, dim inside. But outside the rain and the light take turns on the water.
“No, I don’t want that.”
“I’m going back to Fairbanks for the winter. There’s a coffee shop, they always need help. Tips are good. I know a guy renting out a two-bedroom cabin for $500.”
Lois does some quick math in her head, starts to imagine. “Aren’t the tourists gone by now?” she asks.
“Mostly. That’s the point. It’s great—the snow and the quiet. You’ll see.”
“You want me to come with you.”
“Yeah, I do. Plus, I need a ride.” Mara flips the cloth over her shoulder.
. . .
A week later, they load the truck with the dog and their insubstantial belongings, and ride the ferry to Haines. On the boat, Lois watches Mara hang over the railing trying to get a better look at the porpoises in the boat’s wake, and she feels buoyant for the first time in several months. Leaving Haines, she takes the road slow. Boris sits between the girls, militantly facing forward. Mara smokes tranquilly out the passenger window and sips coffee from a Stanley thermos that looks older than she is.
After a few minutes of silence, Mara offers, “This was my dad’s mug. He’s in a prison outside of Duluth. He shot his buddy in the face when they were drinking.” Mara lights a Pall Mall, exhales, “Ironically enough, it was an actual accident.”
Lois thinks of her own father. His Colt 1911.
“Did you get along with him?” Lois readjusts her hands on the steering wheel, trying not to seem too eager to learn more about Mara’s life, but she notes a feeling like a stone at the base of her throat.
“Are you asking me if he was a good man?”
“He was as good to us as he could be, I guess. If they aren’t aggressive, drunks are usually just,” she squints hard at the mountains to the west, “ineffectual.”
Lois remembers a guy, Robbie, she crashed with in Eugene. He pissed himself so often that she made him sleep on the floor on nights he stayed out. He used to try to crawl into the bed as the sun was clawing through the blinds. Sometimes, she gave up and let him get in with her and they both woke up soaked and reeking of ammonia. It was about that time that she started thinking about heading north.
“After he was sent away, my mom got sober, got her shit together, and raised us. It was good for a long time. That was,” she looks up as if counting years on the ceiling of the cab, “eleven years ago.”
“Why’d you leave home?”
“She started up again. We fought all the time, fought dirty, I mean. She called the cops on me once. I was in community college but living at home. It was too much. My sisters were in the middle—I couldn’t.”
“Why’d she start again?”
“This fucking guy she’s dating. He ruined all of it, all the progress she’d made. Just like that, it just takes one person to implode a household.”
“I know.” Lois thinks of Richard, how he used to stand over her bed at night.
They drive in silence, watch the road unfold just for them.
Lois asks, “Did he live—your dad’s friend?”
That night, in Haines Junction, they camp on the edge of town.
. . .
They sleep in Lois’s mildewed tent. The temperatures dip to the mid-thirties and a cold rain starts to fall. Lois shivers in her sleeping bag. Through sleep and the dark, Mara instinctively reaches for her. Lois dreams of lakes, lakes of women. Women in straight jackets, swimming like dolphins, their bodies twisting for the surface. In the morning, she wakes up with Mara’s arm across her torso, Boris curled against her stomach. She can smell Mara’s skin. Her cheeks flush with heat. She stays very still, thinks, Okay. She watches the top of the tent move in the wind.
Gently, she touches Mara’s shoulder and says, “I think we should hit the road.”
A little over an hour later, they park near Destruction Bay. “I can’t believe this place,” Lois gestures to the mountains as she climbs out of the truck. “Is Fairbanks like this?”
Mara, affectionately, “Definitely not. Fairbanks is a bit of a dump.”
Lois tries to picture it—the town, the tunnel of winter, a cabin with Mara. But she can’t see anything. Just this rutted road.
They scramble down boulders to the teal water of Kluane Lake. Mara takes off everything but her underwear. Lois does the same. Lois is surprised at Mara’s skin, the vulnerability of it. A whole stretch of her body not picked or scarred or sun-worn. She could be a young girl at the beach. She could be someone else entirely.
They stand knee-deep in the water, both shivering and watching each other. Boris barks at them from the shore, as if urging them on. Then Mara suddenly dives under. Lois follows her.
When they come up, they’re gasping. The lake is fed by the Kaskawulsh Glacier. The cold is so deep that Lois feels as if something deeply rooted in her has dislodged. A wedged bone, a primal fear. Mara reaches for her, helps her get steady. They stumble out of the lake, cold-shocked bodies close. Mara grabs her shirt and dries Lois’s face with it. Lois stands still and watches her carefully. Mara cups Lois’s chin, her hands are cold, they are inches from each other.
Mara smiles, lets go quickly, throws her clothes on, and rushes for the truck, yelling back at Lois, “Ready?”
. . .
“I had a different life before this,” Lois tells Mara as they cross back into the United States. Boris is now in the passenger seat and Mara sits between them with one leg on either side of the stick shift.
Before Alaska and Oregon, before meeting Saul, before rank motel rooms, before buying oxy and stealing pints of Evan Williams, before dumpster diving outside a Safeway, before hitchhiking and the fear that became instinct, before she traveled and slept with a handgun in her glovebox, before the way her body aged and altered, before what she couldn’t take back, she had a different life. It was a life of material things—a large bedroom in a suburb that overlooked a golf course, laundered clothing, hair appointments, volleyball championships, a Montessori school, a decade of violin lessons, a close, sometimes competitive, friendship with her mother, a family retriever she walked through cul-de-sacs. Like many of the girls from her community, she was able to present one overachieving precocious persona to adults, and another cynical, self-destructive, sexually mature persona to her peers. What she lost track of between these two things was herself. Confronting Richard, her stepfather, about a decade of molestation, was the first time she felt a true sense of self, a mirage of blue sky in the split seam of an endless storm.
Then the moment passed, the world locked around her. She remembered she possessed no real power compared to Richard. She had, in his words, successfully ruined their family and her own future. Her mother said it could not be true. (“He loves you like a daughter. You must be confused.”) During a screaming match in the foyer, Richard threw Lois out while her mother sat in the kitchen, refusing to intervene.
From a payphone in Eugene, Lois pleaded with her mother to believe her.
“I won’t discuss it again. Tell me about your travels.”
Lois isn’t sure why she kept calling her mother over the years, or why Richard allowed her mother to take the calls. At first, she thought she might be able to convince her mother of the truth. Then she hoped her mother would send money if she knew her address. (She did occasionally send items—clothing, a pair of orchid-shaped earrings, birthday cards—but never any money.) Then she just felt afraid and needed to hear her mother’s voice. Recently, she believed she called every few months out of a detached morbid curiosity.
Lois’s father, an investment banker like Richard, shot himself on that golf course one February night when Lois was seven. She only ever heard her mother speak directly of it once, the night after his funeral.
Everyone else is gone. Someone has tidied up and put all the catered food away in neatly stacked Tupperware. Someone has dressed Lois in pajamas and set a glass of milk beside her bed. But she can’t sleep. She wanders the halls calling for her mother, whom she finds alone in the kitchen. Her mother is dressed in an expensive black dress with a sheer lace yoke and a high neckline. Lois worried all day that her mother was slowly choking.
“I knew he’d do something like this,” her mother says. She’s holding a tumbler of Scotch. Her head is angled toward the kitchen table like a reptile about to consume a fly.
“Like what, Mom?”
“That he’d try to embarrass me like this.”
Lois leans on her mother’s arm as if straining on a bell rope.
“But not this time. No.”
Lois tries to climb into her lap.
“You don’t get the last word.”
Her mother pushes her off.
. . .
“I’ll never go back,” she tells Mara.
This much Lois is certain of. But who she’ll be and where she’ll go, these questions grow more and more panic-inducing as the years hurtle through her, as she ages, as her face grows more and more like her mother’s. At first, her choices, her homelessness, felt like an experiment. The actions of her parents provided her with the necessary backstory and justification for everything she did. She mistook it for a resource that renewed and renewed.
At first, she found it fun. Sleeping in strange places, waking up as the sun rose over the Willamette, having to think about survival. But she stayed on and on while the people around her died or got clean or aged out. There were points, exit ramps if you will, not often but present, that she specifically avoided, until she found herself walled in. As her behavior became less and less tenable, opportunities dissolved like snow in rain.
She left a privileged life but kept behaving with entitlement, as if recklessness were endearing and without consequence. She thought of the people she ran with in Eugene, gutter kids, Robbie had called them—rich white teens who wanted to live on the streets, found it edgy. They were the quickest to steal from you or fuck you up. She spoke about them as if she weren’t among them.
. . .
They reach Fairbanks around 6 p.m. The sun has not set, but the sky is cloudy and impassive. Everything is gray, damp, hard to discern. They’re surrounded by boggy lowlands and scrubby spruce trees. The cabins are mainly plywood structures, low to the ground, surrounded by tarps, old cars, and trash. They park at a gas station while Mara calls the guy renting the cabin.
It smells like fall: loam, birch, and woodsmoke. Lois chews on the skin on her index finger. Fifteen minutes later, he pulls up in a battered Subaru Outback. An old white husky hangs his head out the back window. Boris and this dog survey each other in silence.
“Welcome to Fairbanks,” their new landlord, Noah, says. He’s in his mid-forties, has a full beard, but not much hair up top, and is wearing dirty Carhartt pants (Is that animal blood? Lois thinks) with knee-high Xtratuffs. Lois regards him with suspicion, but Mara is friendly with him. She met him and his wife in AA last winter.
“How’s your family?” Mara asks him. He lights a hand-rolled cigarette and Mara pulls out one of her Pall Malls instinctively. Lois feels irked at how socially impressionable she can be.
“Well, shit. I guess they’re good. We had a crazy summer. We went to Chitna last month and took the girls. My wife was a nervous wreck. Now I’m trying to get a moose.”
“That didn’t go so well last year.”
“No. No, it did not,” Noah’s face droops at the memory of this particular moose hunt.
Mara laughs and says to Lois, “He ended up losing one of his boots in the bog and had to walk three miles back in one shoe.”
“Some outdoorsman,” Noah shrugs. He puts his cigarette out on his boot and puts the butt in a rancid-looking Gatorade bottle in his car. “Welp. Y’all ready to see this cabin?”
. . .
The cabin is, if nothing else, confusing. The roof is metal and the walls are made of large round logs that don’t seem to notch together evenly. There is a wall of south-facing windows, although none of them match. It is a narrow and tall structure, three stories, with a main floor and two lofts that stack on each other and can only be reached via wooden ladders. There is a stained mattress on the floor of each loft. Two bedroom, I guess, Lois thinks. The floor is plywood and seems particularly soft in a few places that Noah strategically avoids. As promised, there is both a Toyo and an ancient oil drum wood stove. Perhaps half a cord of wood stacked off the large front porch.
“You can have that wood. If you fill the tank, you’ll probably be fine through the winter.”
“How much does it cost to fill it?” Lois asks.
Noah looks sheepish. “Well.”
Mara cuts in, “We’ll figure it out.”
The outhouse has a double seat. Noah gestures to a sauna behind it. “You’re welcome to use it, just holler first.” His family’s home, a larger cabin of the same variety, in the distance. They’re in a birch grove in Goldstream Valley, out of the bog and away from town.
“I’ll plow your drive when I do mine. Although, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with that truck,” he looks at Lois’s pickup with admiration.
“When do you think it will snow?” Lois asks. She realizes she doesn’t want to lose the golden glow of the birch grove just yet.
“Oh, any day now. Certainly cold enough at night. You might be able to get away with a few more weeks of not turning the heat on, if you have heavy blankets.” He looks at the sparse congregation of bags and boxes in the back of the truck.
“Maybe my wife has some extra quilts. I’ll have my daughters bring something over. Otherwise, the girls know not to bother you.”
Just then, a chorus of dissonant rolling howls rips across the hillside and up Lois’s spine.
Noah listens to it as if he’s being delivered a message.
“My neighbor over there has a huge team, thirty-strong. He keeps them half-starved so they’ll run. I’d stay away from there. They almost attacked one of my daughters.”
He gestures to Boris, whose head is tilting left and right as he puzzles over the howls. “Keep an eye on him. He doesn’t look too bright.”
. . .
They both get jobs at the coffee shop, but the manager starts them each at about twenty hours a week. They can’t afford fuel. As they drive away, Lois bites on the skin around her left thumb until it bleeds.
Mara reaches over and gently pulls Lois’s hand from her mouth. “Look, we’ll be fine,” she says. That night, Mara drags the mattress from the top loft to the second and pushes it against Lois’s. She opens a zero degree sleeping bag Noah loaned to them and spreads it across the mattresses and then layers all the quilts on top. The girls sleep together here like it is a nest. Boris whines from the first floor and eventually settles into a tight ball, what Mara calls his puppy knot. For now, they are warm.
They fall into a routine. They ride into town together. When they don’t have the same shift, Lois and Boris walk the university trails or she goes to the Blue Dog bar and sips PBR tallboys while Mara works. When Lois works, Mara hangs around the university library. She tells Lois she wants to enroll in classes in the spring and she’s trying to get ready, but she mainly surfs the internet and emails her sisters. Noah checks on them each week and brings them things, which he presents as coincidental. (“My wife had these old Mukluks lying around, I thought they might fit one of you.”) He lingers in their doorway. Lois catches him watching her. He tucks his head and leaves.
One Saturday morning while Mara sleeps in, Lois drives the truck to each of the neighbors’ houses and asks if they have any odd jobs. Jeremiah, owner of the large dog team, tells her she can water his dogs and scoop shit every other day if she wants and he’ll give her twenty dollars a week. By now Lois knows a bad deal when she sees one, but she takes it.
. . .
On October 3rd, the first snow falls. The darkness has not yet set in and the world is in color. Sunrise in shades of fuschia, orange, and cornflower blue. Gold aspen and birch leaves against fresh snow. The Chena flows to the silty Tanana, snakes toward the Yukon, makes for the Bering Sea. Mara has the day off and stays home, while Lois works a closing shift. When she gets done at 9 p.m., she steps outside and the city is suddenly closer, everything is muffled and blanketed in a few inches of snow. She drives to the Blue Dog.
In the bar, she sits in a back booth and sips a whiskey and water, watches a group of military guys play pool across the smoky room.
“I used to drink alone.”
She looks up, surprised to see Noah standing beside her, his wool hat in his hands. He smiles. She smiles back.
“This isn’t sad drinking alone,” she reassures him. Her voice is throaty and her face is warm. “This is contemplative drinking alone.”
“I see,” he says. He holds an IPA in his right hand and gestures to her booth with his left. “May I?”
“Sure,” Lois says. She doesn’t mention that she thought he was sober.
“Tell me about your day, Lois,” he says, leaning in toward her.
She doesn’t want this man, but his awkwardness flatters her. He’s nervous, like a boy with a crush. She avoids questions about his family and their shared property. Instead, she asks him how he ended up in Alaska.
“I was born here. Third generation. My dad worked on the pipeline.”
“Did you ever want to leave?”
“I did. Went to Denver when I was nineteen. Didn’t last a year.” He shakes his head. “People don’t make sense to me down there.”
She thinks of Saul, how he used to bury his face in her stomach and blow air, trying to make her laugh. “People don’t make sense to me anywhere,” she says. “Want to get some shots?”
They drink for another hour. After the shot of Bulleit, Noah nurses a beer for an hour while Lois continues to drink. He seems fidgety to her, as if he’s unsure what he’s gotten himself into. He checks his phone every ten minutes. Finally, he says, “We should head home. Need a ride?”
Lois is drunk. Strands of her hair have come loose from her ponytail. Her eyes are glazed. She feels a familiar anger creep over her. “I don’t have much of a choice, right? What am I gonna do—hail a cab?” She laughs at her own joke.
As Noah goes to settle their tab, she watches him with a new disdain. She can tell he suddenly wishes he weren’t in this situation, that the evening has lost its shine for him. They leave the bar. She follows his footsteps in the deepening snow.
When they pull up to her cabin, Noah looks at her with concern. “Want me to walk you in?”
Sitting there in the parked Subaru with this confused man, snow falling around them, Lois suddenly feels very sad.
“I’m sorry,” she says flatly. It is an automatic response.
“I only have a drink or two on the weekends. Clara knows. I’m not hiding anything,” he says.
Lois has heard this sort of talk before, it doesn’t interest her much. She suddenly misses Mara. She looks out the passenger window. When she looks back at Noah, he’s examining her face. She wonders if he’s going to try to kiss her. They watch each other.
“I’m not a bad man,” he says, his voice is raw.
“I know,” she says. The air is heavy with his need. She’s exhausted. She’s been exhausted for years.
Just then, Mara knocks rapidly on the driver’s side window. Lois is both relieved and irritated. Startled, Noah opens the door.
“Noah,” Mara says sharply. “Don’t you think you should head home? To your family?”
“I should check on the girls,” he agrees, getting quickly out of the car, not meeting Mara’s eye.
At the mention of his daughters, Lois opens the passenger door. Her head throbs when she stands, the snow-coated night tilts. Mara shoots her a furious look.
Noah sees their exchange and says, “I just gave Lois a ride.”
“Great. Fantastic of you. Goodnight.” Mara steps forward and closes his car door. She stalks into the cabin. Lois follows.
The girls face each other in the dark.
“Where’s your truck?”
“The Blue Dog.”
“Great. How will we get to town tomorrow?”
“I’ll figure it out in the morning.”
“Did he drink tonight?”
“Not much. He was good to drive.”
Mara is trembling. Lois fights a growing panic.
“I didn’t do anything.” She hears the whine in her voice. She hears her mother.
Mara, as if trying to contain her anger, turns and walks into the kitchen. Lois follows her with desperation masking as rage.
“I ran into him. We hung out. He said he could drive me home.”
“For fuck’s sake. He’s sober, Lois.”
“Certainly didn’t look like it. I didn’t try to fuck him, Mara. But thank you for letting me know who you think I am.”
“So you’ve never fucked a guy with a family?”
“I stopped fucking men when I was seventeen.”
“I guess that answers that question,” Lois says, gestures around her. “Here we are—playing house.” Her stomach flips. Why am I goading her like this?
“You don’t know shit about me.”
“Don’t I?” Lois takes a step forward. Mara doesn’t move.
“Are you a mean drunk? Is that what I get to learn tonight?”
As suddenly as it started, Lois feels her anger crumble. She puts both her hands over her face, crouches on her heels, and makes a small sound. Mara backs away, leaves Lois, and crawls up the ladder to the loft.
Lois is alone. Boris whines from where he is sleeping in the corner, but he doesn’t come to her. She doesn’t understand what she is doing. She gets up from the floor and drinks a glass of water, willing herself sober, but the room continues to spin. Sleep it off, just sleep it off, she tells herself. She curls up on the couch and pulls her parka over her.
Hours later, Lois wakes as weak blue twilight creeps into the house. She climbs up the ladder, which creaks beneath her. Mara listens and waits. Lois peels back the quilts, crawls beneath them, burrows her face into Mara’s shoulder, and says her name. Mara pulls Lois’s face up, presses her mouth to Lois’s mouth with muffled hunger.
. . .
Richard’s face is in her hair. He’s breathing heavily. He tells her he loves her so much. What can he do? What can he do? His voice cracks.
. . .
Noah avoids Mara and Lois. His wife, Clara, waves at the girls when she sees them across the yard. When Lois leaves for Jeremiah’s, Boris scratches at the door, howls to follow. Lois scoops bucket after bucket of dog shit. She leans into the smell and the labor, seeks repentance. If she could drain weakness from herself like bleeding a deer, she would. She feels Jeremiah watch her from his house. From their cabin, Mara watches Noah’s daughters disappear into the trees on skis, their awkwardness dissolved, their laughter fading beneath dipping birches. Lois carries the buckets into the woods and dumps them. Her tongue feels thick as rope in her mouth. She can hardly speak. Her body throbs. The snow packs and packs. The darkness swells. At night, strange lights waver over the valley in ribbons of pink and alien-green. Lois swears she can hear them, like bells. The dogs cry over the hill at night. Dissonant queer sounds. Lois counts.
. . .
If there is a warning, Lois doesn’t see it. Perhaps the warning is everything—the dogs straining on their heavy chains, their sharp hip bones, their snapping snouts. Maybe each desperate trench worn into the bare earth around the doghouses is a warning. Maybe Jeremiah’s dark broken teeth and eyes like windows in a vacant house. The way he clubs the dogs as he cuts through them as if parting some awful self-made sea. How he lingers between his tinkering tasks to watch her as she scoops shit into buckets and hauls them into the woods. Who is this man? Where is his family? Don’t we all come from somewhere? But she doesn’t want to speak to him and he seems fine with that. Each Sunday he hands her an oily twenty-dollar bill from a rubberbanded roll of cash in his back pocket. Maybe this too is a warning. She studies the dogs as she works among them. She tries to figure out who to give the widest berth. But Jeremiah planned these rows so close. To be out of the reach of one means she is in the reach of another. This feels like sinister architecture, as if he knew, years ago, she would come, and he wanted to see her work through this puzzle. His great design.
By the end of the second day, she distrusts about a third of the dogs. There are only a handful she will touch, and she does so quickly, almost with shame. She doesn’t feel a great connection to these creatures, just as she doesn’t feel a great connection to people, even the men she’s been with. The past few years, she’s just been trying to get by. The men were simply part of that.
Still, this situation with Mara.
Isn’t that a warning? There is a clear recklessness about the situation, their feverish need to be together, alone together, to speak into bone, to crawl beneath the quilts, bodies pressed, to seal off and against the rest of the world. Lois thinks they need never leave their cabin or this cold distant city like a shell of snow. Shelter, shelter.
The fire begins within the house.
If there is a warning, she doesn’t see it.
. . .
One of the older dogs, a bony contorted creature who hadn’t seemed to pay her much mind but must have been silently waiting, catches the heel of her right Mukluk when she thinks she is out of his reach. The top half of her falls in the radius of two of the others.
She screams and then swallows the sound, not wanting to spur them on. She’s learned something of animal instinct through the desperation of humans. One dog gets her between her neck and left shoulder, tries to pull her his way. They are so close. The smell of them is the truest thing she’s ever known. She crawls fast into the reach of the second dog, who lunges for her. She covers her face. He crushes the bones of her right hand with his mouth.
After an eternity of moments, Jeremiah steps out of his house, fires a warning shot into the air, and walks casually toward them. The dogs around her scatter. The rest of the pack howls, eyes lolling in excitement.
Jeremiah drops his sweat-stained flannel shirt beside Lois. From where she is curled, she wraps it around her bleeding hand to hold the pieces together.
“Now, I know,” he says calmly, studying the shotgun as if he’s never seen it before, “you’re smart enough not to give me any trouble over this. Or to come back here.”
Somehow, she stands up. She cradles her right arm. She gets close to him.
“Are you asking if I know what kind of man you are?” she says through gritted teeth.
She nods. She absolutely does. A line of warm blood runs down her back.
She starts the mile home. Halfway there, Mara, running, dressed in an open coat and untied tennis shoes, meets her.
. . .
“No cops,” Lois says to Noah, who is livid, pacing around his kitchen. It is one of the oldest rules she knows and one she’s never broken.
A stack of dirty dishes and fetid water sits in the sink. A pot of boxed macaroni and cheese waits on the stove. His daughters listen from the stairwell, out of sight. One of them starts to chew her hair.
“What? We have to. That crazy fuck.”
Mara is silent.
“Noah—just wait,” Clara says. She’s stitching Lois’s shoulder.
“Fuck no. I’m calling the sheriff.”
“You won’t,” Lois says.
“Mara, tell her!” Noah ignores Lois. He’s blind with vindication. He doesn’t think of what Lois may be hiding. He doesn’t think of what Jeremiah might do.
“No cops,” Mara echoes.
Clara sees. She promises.
. . .
Lois is afraid. She emails her mother asking for money for the first time in years. The energy in the cabin thickens. She and Mara are simultaneously closer and more strange to each other. Each morning, Lois wakes up and feels as if she steps off the bed and onto a tightrope. She is almost robotic in her daily tasks. She allows Mara to help her. Thanks her in a flat voice. Their fucking swings between rough and frantic and painstakingly tender. Once, she asks Mara to hit her in the face. Lois can tell Mara is frightened by her and the intensity of their situation. Lois waits to see if Mara will start using again. But Mara is unyielding in her sobriety. This, in turn, scares Lois, who believes she will never be so resolute in her life. That she will never be deserving of Mara.
One day while the girls are both at work, Noah has the fuel tank filled. He’s waiting on the porch when they arrive that evening.
Lois gets out of the truck, gingerly nursing her body. “Hey,” she says warily. She is still embarrassed at her own actions and angry at Noah. But she understands him now, and sees him more as a confused boy. Plus, as Mara pointed out, they need his and Clara’s help now more than ever.
“Clara reminded me,” he says, “that the last guy who was here actually filled that tank up in the spring, thought he was staying another winter. So I checked it—there’s plenty of fuel in there.”
“How much do we owe you for it?” Mara asks.
He waves one hand, shrugs, and says he has to get home. Lois knows he feels guilty, but she thinks to herself, Let him.
That night, they turn on the Toyo, set it to sixty-four degrees. Lois asks if Mara wants to sleep alone, since they are now warm. Mara laughs at her, pulls her down onto the mattress with her.
. . .
The letter from Richard’s lawyer arrives two days after Christmas. If Lois contacts them again, he’s going to take out a restraining order. Nestled with the lawyer’s typed official letter is a short handwritten note from Richard. Lois reads and rereads the letter, fixates on two lines—You’re never going to get anything from us. You didn’t follow the rules of the family.
. . .
On January 2nd, Mara rides to town with Clara to get groceries. When Mara gets home, Lois is nearly packed.
“What’s going on?” Mara asks slowly, setting the paper bag of bread, peanut butter, spinach, black beans, and white rice down on the counter.
Lois looks at Mara, her expression both pained and vacant.
“I’m heading out.”
“Out,” Mara echoes her.
“Look, Saul emailed me.”
Mara swallows hard. “And?”
“He’s back in Anchorage. He wants me to join him.”
“He explained it all. He needed to get clean on his own. Now we can be together.”
Mara grips the edge of the counter, speaking as if to herself. “You think it’d be different with women. It isn’t. It isn’t. You’re just as shitty as a man, Lois.”
This hits Lois like a fist to the gut. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Maybe this is just what I am. Here’s the fucked up thing—the shit that happened after I left was way worse than what Richard did.”
Mara is incredulous. “Do you hear what you sound like? You were a child, Lois.”
“I asked to come back a year later. I begged them, Mara. I begged to be taken back in. Like I wanted it.”
“Please, don’t do this.”
“You always talk about how we get to choose.” Lois is suddenly angry with Mara. “This is my choice.”
Mara turns to face the sink.
Lois, quietly, “Will you keep the dog?” She remembers Saul kicking Boris in the face for chewing the sole off one of his boots.
“No,” Mara says. “I won’t.”
. . .
On the way out of town, Lois pulls down a gravel road off the Mitchell. Between the spruce trees, she notes the peaked roofs of a cabin farm less than a mile away. This will work, she thinks. She parks the truck and gets out. She cuts a path through the knee-deep snow. She doesn’t zip her coat. She walks around to the passenger side door and opens it. Boris watches her carefully.
“C’mon out,” she says.
The dog does not move.
“Boris. Get out!”
She reaches for him and he cowers on the floorboards of the passenger seat. Through tears, Lois grabs the dog roughly by the collar, pulling out some of his gray hair between her fingers. He digs his feet into the truck’s dirty carpet. He’s stronger than she’s ever realized. She drags him out of the truck. He’s giving off a low desperate whine. When she lets go of his collar, he tries to jump back in, but she shuts the door before he can. She doesn’t look back at him.
She gets in the driver’s seat and starts the car. Just before she turns back onto the highway, she glances up at the rearview mirror. He’s still there, perfectly framed in it, ears perked forward, sitting obediently. Certain she’ll be right back.