On a remote piece of land in a lesser part of the Commonwealth, a man found that the links of his shackles had turned to soft orange dust and consequently, he was a little bit free. He didn’t know how many years he had been held captive, but he did know that it had not been his choice to live in this manner. No, it wasn’t like that at all. As a boy he had been led to this discreet area by force and with threat, enough of each that he could no longer recall the exact series of events that left him in a dark metal container with a small square-cut hole in the roof. Chains bound his wrists to his ankles, which became more limiting as he grew. He tried not to grow.
The man’s captor was a stranger named Burt who spent his days banging on the metal container at unexpected intervals, screaming gibberish mixed with fucks and fuckings. The man knew his name was Burt because Burt always said This is Burt before beginning his daily tirade and required him to say Thank you, Burt once it was complete.
The man was still a young man, although how young, he couldn’t tell. Long ago he had stopped counting the number of times the sun filled the square above his head, and besides, he had no tool to record that number, and also he lost count because of lack of nutrition and intermittent sleep patterns, and too, he stopped caring, as one would. There were so many reasons to lose track. What does one care about when in captivity? What does one treasure? It depends on what kind of person you are—perhaps sentimental, tender of heart. This boy—this man—was neither, which isn’t to say that he was cold. No, he was just somewhat forgetful, which was helpful in adjusting to his imprisonment. Very quickly he forgot the face of his mother and the voice of his father. He forgot their names and where they sat daily at their family table, and if there had been anyone outside of the three of them. And in forgetting, there was peace. What he treasured was peace, and silence, and the precise moment—the extra beat after the final clang or fuck you fucking fucker—that told him Burt had finished with him for today. Thank you, Burt said the young man, and he meant it.
The young man treasured one other thing: the time he spent outside his cell. When he had first been caught and hadn’t yet lost all of his will or lean muscle, he discovered that by pushing the blue Beatrice milk crate he used as a pillow beneath the square hole in the roof, he could thrust the top half of his head through and see some of what surrounded. The blunt tin edges pushed his ears down, making fine, lateral abrasions where the arms of a pair of spectacles might curve were he not a captive whose eye health was of no concern to anyone. On days that were bright and on days that were not, the young man lived in this narrow view, until the sun made him too hot or the rain made him too cold. Eventually the abrasions welted and he no longer felt any soreness above his ears. If he’d been in possession of a mirror, he would have seen that his ears had curled down to allow for his favoured position in the roof. It was a touching gift for a body to give a soul.
On this day, when the man was still a young man but not very, curled around his milk crate in something approximating sleep, he felt his wrists release from the position they’d been bound in since his arrival. The cuffs remained, but his hands raised themselves unbidden as if filled with something lighter than air. In the pure darkness, he pressed his palms against the ceiling, a thing he’d never been able to do until now.
Run, it said. Run quietly, but more importantly: run now.
With Beatrice’s assistance, he butted through the hole, forcing the metal past his deformed ears so that his head was completely outside the shack. The young man’s toes pressed against the milk crate, muscles he’d never used, radiant and aching. The closeness of the stars drew tears and he wept noisily, remembering the small twin sisters who now must be near marrying age. Bringing his hands up to the edges of the hole, he thought of the girls and his parents standing in the sun, hands linked like paper dolls. Bracing himself, he pulled on the filthy tin edges with whatever might he’d been keeping for this moment.
From the outside, the little shack seemed like a good place to store hammers and a few old chairs, things that needed fixing and the tools to fix them. The young man’s stomach turned without warning and he doubled over, releasing a stream of yellow vomit, which splashed onto the roots of the maple that stood behind him. It wasn’t his home anymore. He was free, and the shining crescent moon above was the only witness to this new fact. On trembling legs, he pushed away from the bilious tree and made his way to the dirt path that led away from the shack. The night quickly filled him with strength. Fresh air and open space! He could almost laugh with the difference of it.
The path veered left, placing the young man back in front of the tin shack he’d just left. Blearily, he walked around it, wondering how he could have doubled back without noticing. He laid his hand in the deep dent on one of the wall’s edges, the spot that Burt struck with such endurance that the paint had been stripped. A hacking cough came from behind the wall; a wet cough, trying for relief. The sonic closeness made the young man’s head spin. This sound that was only a foot away from him, contained by this corrugated wall, cold to the touch, which was not his own, but like his own. The cough came again and the wall vibrated under his fingers with the force of it. The young man pressed his hand to his chest, felt his heart beating beneath it with an intensity that spoke. Run, it said. Run quietly, but more importantly: run now.
After a few hours, the young man’s eyes grew accustomed to the darkness of the forest, took comfort in its velvety absence, which was not dissimilar from the interior of his—he stopped himself from thinking the words. This darkness was different, and not just because it smelled of openness. This darkness was a screen, upon which he saw his future, a future composed of his past. His mother, with her love and beige cooking. His father, who got angry at the exact right things. His little tiny twin sisters, who did whatever tiny twin sisters did that were so amusing and easy to love.
Cutting a path through this new, rich darkness, the young man raced towards his unknown destination. His hands reached for the silver gleam of the trees before him. Hours passed, the young man warming to filial trivia—names, ages, loathed pizza toppings. Up popped an image (or was it a memory?) of the little ones (what were their names?) banding his legs with their arms as if to never let him go. In the midst of this peaceful mental tableau, the young man tripped, falling to the ground with a leaf-rustling thud.
“What’s your damage?” groaned someone near the young man’s feet. He pulled himself to sitting, at once too affrighted and confused to reply. Damage, he thought. What is mine? A match exploded in a warm, sulphuric burst. Gazing at him with curious reproach was a girl, or maybe a woman. It was hard for the young man to differentiate between subcategories. She brought her face closer to him, her yellow eyes filled with the flame. “Wait, let me,” she said, rustling around in a bag by her side, removing a knob of wax with a blackened wick. Lighting it with the still-burning match, the girl cleared the ground of leaves, setting its base into the earth. A bubble of soft light filled the space between the young man and this person he had stumbled upon. In the light she looked very easy and comfortable, and the young man worried that he might vomit again.
“Where are you escaping from?” she asked, placing thin twigs and needles around the candle as if to build it a little nest. “I don’t know,” replied the young man, disturbed by how readily she observed his captive status. He cleared his throat, from which had come a voice that was both deeper than he remembered and yet indisputably his own.
“For many years I was confined to a small tin shack, held against my will with chains and brute terrors that I will not share for fear of it weighing upon you. But I have escaped, and am now free to be what I once was. That is: myself.” The girl nodded and smiled vaguely, examining his face as if it were a roughly drawn map. “I’m also escaping,” she offered. “From the age of five I was rendered orphan after my parents were killed in an accident that I and my younger sister witnessed. Shortly after that, we were sent to live in a rustic home for Orphan Girlchildren, where we were kept without tenderness or mercy.” She raised her eyes, and the young man noticed that her face was a bit crooked, her mouth off-centre. “I will decline further detail for fear it would shock you.” He shuddered at her words; thought of Burt, who would soon be arriving at his shack, ready to beat upon it. “Your ears are gross and weird,” said the girl, reaching a hand out to touch one and then the other, rolled as they were like cured meat. He withdrew at her touch, feeling his face go hot as if in sympathetic union with the candle.
She smiled, her crooked mouth rising up one side of her face. “I’m going to a new town,” she said. “I believe there’s a life for me on the other side of this forest.”
The young man stared at her in admiration. He hadn’t even thought of where he was going, what sort of world held an empty space in his shape. Instead, he thought of his shack, his milk crate, the dull metal cuffs still circling his wrists and ankles. What belonged to him outside of these things? His imagination provided him with nothing, and the nothing bloomed into a perspiration that dotted his hairline.
“Are you cool?” the girl asked, again taking his ears in her hands. “I don’t know,” he answered, lulled by her grip. She laughed and gave him a shake, as if his head were a jug of something whose contents had settled. He laughed too, a sound that shocked and pleased him so much he kept doing it, even as she buried her nails into the sinewy bracket of his ear’s cartilage. “What’s your name, bud?” she asked, releasing his ears. “I’m Gretchen.”
That night, for the first time in however many years, Michael slept surrounded by softness and fragrance, with Gretchen’s warmth at his back. It took him some time to fall asleep, so enchanted was he by the waves of heat rising from her.
The next morning, Gretchen packed up her belongings, plaiting her hair into two long and narrow braids. She tugged each strand taut, as if doing up a pair of boots, and her face seemed tighter once the task was complete. “Quit staring at me,” she said, her back turned to Michael as she laced her boots with the same resolve she’d applied to braiding. “I’m sorry,” he said faintly, moving his hands through his own matted hair and beard. “How old am I?” he asked, hoping she might be able to intuit something he had long ago forgotten. Gretchen squinted at him, taking his ears in her hands. “Don’t ask me questions,” she said. “We can do this together, so long as you don’t ask questions.”
Michael realized in that moment that wherever she was going, he was going too. He would only ask questions in his head, and then after a moment decided that he wouldn’t even do that. No questions at all. He touched a finger to his ear. It was the best decision he’d ever made.
“Thank you, Gretchen,” he said. And he meant it.
They travelled as if drawn by magnets, waking at dawn and following the river that Gretchen said would take them to the place they needed to be. She was a fine hunter and they didn’t want for food. “I was the best cook at the orphanage,” she told Michael, feeding the fire with sticks and moss he had gathered. “I made very tall pastries, filled with custard and dusted with sugar. We never got to eat them, of course. They were for the wealthy men who came each day to take what we had made. Sissy was dull and couldn’t do much more than sift flour, but I kept her in the kitchen with me. I expect her punishments have been plenty since I left.”
Each of them held a bird on a spit, turning its inert body over the fire until Gretchen said they could eat. Michael loved hearing about the pastries, frosted in colours he had seen reflected in clouds during certain sunsets. Eggs cracked one-handed into bowls, flour scooped from yawning sacks, sticks of yellow butter in a softening pyramid—Gretchen described each ingredient so well Michael felt they were there before him on a long wooden table, flickering under morning light. In his shack, Michael’s diet had been vegetarian, not by choice, but by circumstance. Every few days, Burt threw a few hunks of mouldy bread and cheese through the roof. Hunger was so constant that Michael came to like the food he was cast, finding flavours that may or may not have been there within its blandness and rot. Sitting beside the fire with Gretchen as she told him of sugar clouds and velvet coin bags, he took his first bite of meat since he was a boy. Its bloodiness spread through his body, filling him with heat and colour. There had been barbecues whence he came, with hot dogs and relish and one cold pop for each of them. “Are you even listening to me?” Gretchen asked, throwing the remains of her meal into the fire. “It sounds beautiful,” he replied. “Of course it was,” said Gretchen. “But harsh,” she added. “Very harsh.”
They walked and hunted and ate and slept. Sometimes the hours passed in complete silence, other times Gretchen recounted bitter details of orphanage life, to which Michael responded with apt sounds of validation and dismay. On better days, she described the fairness and wealth of her dead parents, of the home they had lived in before the orphanage, the home where she was heading now. When she grew weary of explanation or was made unhappy by recollection, she sang a melody of her childhood. Michael’s ear was quick to tunes and gradually the song became a meandering conversation between the two, turning things they passed on their journey into lyrics for their river song. Michael’s calves widened and his chest expanded with the fresh air he breathed. The sunlight they followed through the day penetrated his skull, it seemed, and he smiled as he walked a few paces behind Gretchen. In the middle of the night, he would briefly yearn for his mother and father to hold him as they had when he was young. But then, he was no longer young, and Gretchen held him in her way.
“Let me see what’s in your pants,” she said one evening, as Michael buried some animal bones near the river’s edge. “My pants?” he said, standing up so fast his head plunged into a thatch of low-hanging branches. Gretchen laughed and sprawled herself on the ground, the blanket of needles shifting beneath her. “It’s a nice thing,” she said. “Come down here and I’ll show you what I mean.” She showed him several times what she meant, and Michael quickly understood.
The evenings were colder now, and the fire had burned down to embers. Michael had grown less fond of night now that the openness was no longer new. It reminded him too much of something he couldn’t name: his worst and oldest feeling, which lived as much in his body as in his mind. The lightening sky came as a relief. Gretchen turned over and pulled him close to her as the birds began to chirrup, invisible in the trees but for the occasional darting shadow. “There is only one thing I need,” said Gretchen, as they lay entwined. Michael warmed, anticipating the invitation to join her at Homestead, in the big feather bed that had belonged to her parents, Mitch and Barb. His attentive silence, his loyalty, his body would be rewarded with Gretchen’s companionship. “I need my Sissy,” she continued, placing a finger on Michael’s left nipple. “I need her and she needs me. We are each one part of a pair.” She took Michael’s right nipple in her other hand and pinched hard between her fingernails.
Michael was unsure what this meant. Not the nipples; he knew what that meant. As he watched Gretchen moving atop him, eyes shut tight, it seemed clear that he would have to make himself indispensable if he wanted to reach Homestead with her and Sissy. But what about him could not be dispensed of?
On a vaporously cool, white-skied day, Michael and Gretchen reached the township Sissy had been moved to. “We were being transferred, both of us. 18-hour days in the Damp Factory.” She shuddered. Why, Michael wondered, had Gretchen left her sister to such a miserable fate while she herself pursued a free life? He did not ask, because more than ever he needed to prove to Gretchen his respect for her rules. Instead, he thought of that single, plangent cough from the night of his own escape, how he had fled from its proposition. Gretchen’s voice broke his reverie. “I’m coming for you, Sissy,” she said, pushing the gate inward.
He knew that forgetting was much like healing, for he had done a lot of that himself.
They hid in a cellar beneath the town pub. Huddled on its dusty floor, Michael was struck by its similarity to his shack. He thought of Beatrice, and the square-cut hole in his tin roof, from which he’d watched the sky as if it might bring news. He hadn’t been happy there, but at least it had been entirely known. Long ago, he’d reached consensus that this is what life was like and as the years passed his imagination ceased to provide alternatives. Now, he was frightened, and the thought of being without Gretchen made him more scared than he could physically suppress. He reached out and touched her left cheek, which relaxed upon contact.
It hadn’t taken Michael long to realize why Gretchen’s mouth was off-centre: almost constantly, except while sleeping or having sex, Gretchen would bite the inside of her left cheek, fretting the soft flesh from front to back. Occasionally she bit too deep, spitting blood and greyish pink threads of flesh. These were the only moments that Michael saw any flicker of anguish in Gretchen’s manner. He understood that for her, this habit was both comfort and its opposite. He never questioned her, as promised. But on this night, confined to the cellar below rowdy men, singing and thumping and no doubt spilling ale on the packed-dirt floor, he felt permitted to acknowledge it with a touch. “I wonder,” he said, “whether my own sisters remember me. They were so young when I was taken, it’s possible my parents thought it best to let them forget.” He knew that forgetting was much like healing, for he had done a lot of that himself. Gretchen turned her face away from his touch. “Sissy certainly remembers me as much as I remember her. Perhaps more.” Michael held his hand, heavy as a stone in his other fist.
The sunlight woke them the next morning, a solitary beam that sought out Michael’s head particularly. They climbed the stairs to find the grassy medians of the main boulevard sparkling with frost. Gretchen faced Michael, a thing she did rarely or perhaps never. “This is it,” she said, her eyes mirrors that showed him his own hairy face. Michael raised a hand to block the sun, but her eyes kept him out.
“I won’t be able to get Sissy out with you lagging behind. You’re dead weight,” she said. “But you said if I didn’t ask questions—” “Michael,” she sighed, as if they’d been talking for a very long time. “You’re a criminal. A fugitive of the law. How am I supposed to introduce you to my family?” Michael’s head swam, his mouth shaping sounds that failed to materialize. “You’re not free, and you never will be, so you’re a liability.” “I’m not a criminal,” he mumbled. “I didn’t commit any crime, I was just taken, from my family, a child like your Sissy,” he stuttered. “That’s what you say,” said Gretchen, picking a bit of invisible lint from her lapel. “But how likely is that, really. You were a prisoner, and that’s what you are. You’ll never stop being one.” Michael couldn’t argue with this. Was she right? Had he done something criminal and not known it? Had his escape been ill earned? “You were a friend to travel with but now I’ve arrived at my destination.” He looked at her, braids tight as ever, small mouth subtly askew. He had done as she said—hunted, walked, listened, and slept. In spite of that, he had lost her. “I knew you’d get it eventually,” Gretchen said, smiling as she turned away. “It’s been real,” she added, before stepping into the street, running lightly across, cresting a gleaming hill, and fading from view completely.
Not having any of the numbers that permitted a person to work, Michael made a little money by selling his vital fluids at the town clinic. They paid fairly and distributed snacks; it was a step up.
The clinic’s automatic doors opened with an aggrieved sigh. He liked the sensation of the blood leaving his arm, the cool faintness that made the hard chair seem soft in the haze of his bloodletting. Hands ushered him from the chair, and he would once again find himself in the street, only with a banana and an envelope in hand, the doors gliding open and closed at his back.
The weather turned bitterly cold, so Michael spent most of his days in the cellar below the public house where he and Gretchen had shared their final night. If he focused his ears, he could make out the patrons’ conversation through a slatted vent in the ceiling: problems with women and problems with men; problems with knees and with coworkers. The pub’s tender was a loud man who laughed frequently at the things he was told and always had a pithy retort. Michael liked him and laughed when he did, thrilled for it to be happening so near his head.
When the pub closed and oblivion turned to mild dread, Michael made himself think of the clouds he was so fond of gazing at through his shack’s roof. They were blameless in the small aperture; each tuft of smoky white gliding in the direction he had come from, past the field and the ravine, casting a blue shadow over his family’s small yard. That in an hour, or a day—however fast clouds travelled—that same tuft might very well pass above his sisters and mother and father, all sitting listlessly on patio furniture. What could tie us closer than that? Michael asked himself, the sorrow squeezing from his eyes in shining tracks. He wondered what Gretchen was doing.
Michael returned to the clinic as soon as he could, tired and pallid. He still liked having his blood taken, but it was becoming less potent. Now, sitting in the nurse’s vinyl-and-metal chair, his mind kept staggering back to Gretchen. Gretchen’s back in front of him, Gretchen’s braids in the sun, Gretchen watching him from a bed of needles, both predator and prey. He didn’t think about anything else. Gretchen was a cap over the lens that pointed up at the sky.
The automatic doors parted for Michael with a shuddering burst, something having interfered with its mechanism. Donna, the receptionist, had generously turned her back to the snack table, allowing him to pocket three juice boxes and an entire row of Oreos. Calories were hard to come by these days, as Michael was too scared to steal. He didn’t know what punishment was like in this town, and he had no taste for thrills. He was content enough to spend his days in the cellar or walking in a directionless manner, hoping to catch sight of Gretchen and Sissy. He would offer to be their steward, which as he remembered from a book of stories his mother had once read was a noble and necessary pursuit.
“Michael,” said Donna, handing him an envelope on his seventh or eighth or ninth visit to the clinic. “I wonder: does anyone know where you are?” Donna’s voice had a tone that Michael found difficult to read, but struck him as non-threatening. She sat in her squeaky chair, leaning forward so that her breasts rested on the desk like the bags they put goldfish in at pet stores. “I know you’ve never mentioned family, but I…” she pursed her lips. Michael was nervous. No one had said that his parents needed to know his whereabouts in order to sell blood. He remembered needing permission for things as a boy, but he had, perhaps wrongfully, thought that unnecessary now that he had a beard. Donna noticed his unease. “It’s fine! You’re not in trouble. I just worry about you is all,” she said, blushing. “A man can’t live on cookies alone.” Michael’s heart swelled at her words, for they reminded him of his mother, yelling at him to eat all the moist foods she’d placed before him. Donna’s voice penetrated his reverie. “I’m about to close up for the night. Why don’t you come home and have dinner with me? I’m making my Special Spaghetti.” She smiled, showing her white teeth and shiny gums.
Her kitchen was warm and wood-panelled with blips of a green Donna called avocado. It was not pretty, but it was the first kitchen Michael had been in since the day he’d disappeared. In the adjoining room, Donna put on a record, whose notes entered and eddied around the room. “This is pretty good,” he told her, spooling spaghetti on his fork and depositing it in his mouth. Donna stared deeply into her bowl. “My husband loved this sauce,” she said, casting a doleful glance at a portrait on the wall depicting a fat but otherwise unimpressive-looking man. Michael stopped eating to examine it. “Your husband is very old,” he said finally. “Ha ha!” She yelped. “Alec was my father’s best friend and business partner. My father owned a box company, so naturally I grew up surrounded by boxes! Hiding in the boxes and making a nuisance of myself, you know.” She pulled her chair closer and poured herself some more juice from the decanter. “Alec was very handsome when I was a girl. Suit every day, hair perfect. He smelled exactly as a man should smell. Like a box.” Donna giggled and shook her head. Michael thought of his own father, who had no smell that he could recall. “He sounds like a good person,” he told her, drinking his juice, which tasted sort of rotten but warmed him from the inside out. “He was good,” Donna said, too loudly. “Good to me. Good to his employees. But he died of a stroke two years ago. We’d only been married six months.” She pushed her plate aside and rested her head on the table.
Donna’s bed was full of pillows and smelled like skin. Unlike Gretchen, Donna placed her lips all over Michael’s body, moving her tongue against it in a way that he liked. She gently moved him so he was positioned over her, which was, again, unlike how he had done it with Gretchen.
“Your season is definitely Winter,” she said, flushing. “It’s obvious now.”
Donna invited Michael to stay with her for as long as he wanted. The next morning, after she left for work, Michael bathed and cut his nails with clippers from a plastic basket on the bathroom counter. Donna had left some clean clothes for him on the bed. The clothes felt soporifically fleecy against his skin, so much so that after dressing, still hot from his bath, he lay on his back in the centre of the bed and fell asleep. Michael didn’t typically dream, or if he did, it was of bugs and dried fruit that looked like bugs. They were dreams with no flow, so he had nothing to flow with. But now, on Donna’s bed, in her husband’s washed-soft clothes, Michael dreamed himself back in his cell, with its small, stinking business pit and the rocks he had once arranged in the shape of a clock face. And there was Beatrice, his crate, so blue and so yielding in its plastic way.
When he woke, Michael went downstairs to the living room that Donna had decorated in various yellows, with amber wallpaper and collaged side tables. Magazines were heaped on the glass oval table in the centre of the room, a dusty game of Chinese checkers left mid-play. Examining the small book case listing away from one wall, Michael found he knew how to read. He’d never done very much of it, but text still formed itself in his eyes as speech did in his throat. He selected a thick women’s magazine from the glass table and wedged it deep beneath the case. It stood a little straighter.
When Donna arrived home at dusk, Michael was sitting at the kitchen table, staring into the backyard as a squirrel shook the mount of her bird feeder with its tiny paws. “They spill the seeds onto the ground and don’t even eat any of it,” she told him, turning on the Tiffany style lamp swag-hung above the table. “Michael,” she said, pulling at his shoulders. “These clothes must be twice your size. You look like a child.” Donna’s eyes filled with tears as she straightened the place mats.
With Donna’s assistance, Michael shaved his face bare, observing its lines and hollows in the light of her pink bathroom. “Which of your parents do you look like?” she asked, gathering the wet hair in her palms and throwing it in the toilet, where it floated like a wiry nest. “Your season is definitely Winter,” she said, flushing. “It’s obvious now.”
Donna cooked plenty of food, most of which required simmering and stirring. Michael chopped celery and rinsed beans and punched cold eggs into meat to form loaves. Where he had previously been gauntness and angles, he now developed soft pockets of flesh that pressed against Donna’s.
“Are you happy?” she asked him one morning, inserting her finger under the steel screw pin of his wrist shackle. “Because I’m extremely happy.” Michael couldn’t say whether he was happy or not. His body felt good and he was always warm, but it wasn’t the same as when he’d been with Gretchen in the woods. There, everything had seemed new—every taste, every touch, every sight. In truth, each time Donna left for the clinic, Michael was relieved to be free of her probing fingers and constant line of questioning. The books and magazines he read filled some appetite of his, but aroused something else. Tedium. Tedium and bitterness.
He gave up reading and took up baking. Donna was delighted the first time she came home to find a fallen cake cooling on her counter. Michael resisted her efforts to improve him, claiming that he wanted to teach himself something without her help. Despite his growing distaste for her, Michael couldn’t bring himself to say anything that might hurt Donna’s feelings. He found reasons to avoid her touch and gaze up until the moment they went to bed.
His pastries were good. Thick with custard and studded in glace cherries, he threw them out almost immediately, or poured boiling water over them until they dissolved into a puddle of sugar and food colouring. Because they didn’t bring him closer to Gretchen, the sweets served only as a diabetic reproach. Donna was disappointed to see them all thrown away, but she understood that Michael was working through his details.
At night, he ambled through the rooms of the house, switching lights on for a few seconds before moving on to the next. “Maybe you’re homesick,” said Donna, following him into the laundry room. “I’m going to sleep down here tonight,” Michael said, overturning a laundry basket full of towels. “I haven’t washed those,” said Donna as he lowered himself into a nest of dusty rose. “Can you get the light on your way out?” he replied.
She wasn’t wrong. Michael was homesick; he just couldn’t put his finger on exactly what about his home he was sick for. It seemed wrong to claim a connection when he had been gone for so much longer than he hadn’t.
Michael had no knowledge of ceremony, but he did believe in manners. He went to the clinic the next morning and waited his turn to check in with Donna, who looked at him questioningly as he approached. “I’m going home,” he said. “But I need to sell some blood first.”
Outside the bus station, a man in a tilted hat shuffled up to Michael and pointed at a painted advertisement on the wall adjacent to where they stood. “That’s the oldest Coca-Cola sign in the country,” he said. “It’s been there since the beginning.” Michael didn’t say anything. This man’s statement begged too many questions. People in this world didn’t make very much sense.
His daily treks with Gretchen seemed somehow less gruelling than travelling by bus. Michael watched the landscape roll by until he felt sick. Then he slept. At one rest stop, he bought a refrigerated bagel that discarded its seeds all over his corduroys. Three days later, he arrived in his hometown. This neighbourhood, he remembered, had been thick with trees, but now, walking the route, there were only saplings, not much more than a few years old. His house seemed denuded. He stood before it, the memory of his childhood home suspended over this house before him like a slide. It looked very much the same, with a few corrections and flourishes—geraniums on the sills, a small car in the driveway. Sportage. There was his own window, which he had peered out of on days hot and cold.
The front door opened and a woman stepped out. “Can I help you?” she called over to him, a ribbon of challenge in her voice. “I used to live here,” Michael answered. “Years ago.” The woman’s body uncrossed and she stepped closer to him. “Do you dream about it?” she asked. “No,” said Michael. “Not really. What happened to all the trees?” The woman looked around, her eyes narrowing in confusion. “The old trees. The real ones,” he added. The woman stepped back towards the front door, still open. “Let me ask my husband,” she said, and disappeared inside. A minute later, she returned with a blondish man, drying his hands on his shirt front. “Your house, eh?” he said, mouth wide. “When we bought the house, the realtor said something about Dutch Elm Disease taking a swipe at the old trees around here. I guess they came in and buzzed them all down. That’s what you have to do, no saving ’em.” Michael looked at the trees marching up the street in a long, feeble parade. They weren’t sick. They would grow to be nice and big and healthy. “You must’ve been a kid back then,” said the man, who Michael had forgotten was there. “Want to come in and take a look?” The thought drove like a spike through the roof of his mouth into his brain. “Please no,” said Michael after a moment. “Please,” he emphasized, backing away from the couple and walking in the direction he’d come from.
A few blocks away was the park where Michael had taken his sisters after school. He cut through the sandbox and swing set to the steps that wound down to the ravine, which he descended with no small amount of excitement. He had come here nearly every day as a boy, and the smell of it—damp leaves, clay, water—made the blood pound in his temples. He’d like to show it to Gretchen, if he could. She would understand something about him if he could show her this place.
He fumbled his way up the weed-tangled bank that met a chain link fence. As a child, he’d been able to fit through a small opening burrowed into the earth by a large rodent, the twisted prongs of the fence catching his tee shirt. The hole had been filled, but the dirt was slick and Michael was able to clear a space to pass under in a little more than an hour. Sweating, streaked in filth, he squirmed through the hole and onto the grass above, weeping with the effort of it. Now his heart was in it. Now he felt he knew what he’d been missing. He strode through the open field, past the tall, vibrating electrical towers that had seemed to him as fantastic as beanstalks when he was a boy. This is where he had made up his mind; this is where his life had begun. He walked, half-running, until he reached the tree where he was sure he had, it seemed so long ago, thrown up the night he’d escaped from his sheltering cage.
But the shack wasn’t there. It and the surrounding brush had been razed; packed down to nothing. Michael orbited the spot where he was certain it had been, where he had woken thousands of times to the same four walls, his father pounding on the door of his bedroom to get up, get up, his mother coughing in the kitchen. On the street, the sick trees went into the chipper. He had come here every day, kicking the old milk crate over from some nearby hobo camp. Wasn’t this it? He walked around the spot again, marking a square in the dirt with his foot. Yes, he thought, stepping in. This must be it.