It’s not that I never think about Paul. He comes to me occasionally before I’m fully awake, though I almost never remember what he said, or what I did or didn’t do to him. In my mind, the kid just plops down into my lap. Boom. That’s how I know it’s him: there’s no interest in me, no hesitation. We’re sitting in the Nature Center on a late afternoon like any other, and his body moves automatically toward mine—not out of love or respect, but simply because he hasn’t yet learned the etiquette of minding where his body stops and another begins. He’s four, he’s got an owl puzzle to do, don’t talk to him. I don’t. Outside the window, an avalanche of poplar fluff floats by, silent and weightless as air. The sunlight shifts, the puzzle cleaves into an owl and comes apart again, I prod Paul to standing. Time to go. It’s time. But in the second before we rise, before he whines out his protest and asks to stay a little longer, he leans back against my chest, yawning. And my throat cinches closed. Because it’s strange, you know? It’s marvelous, and sad too, how good it can feel to have your body taken for granted.
Before Paul, I’d known just one person who’d gone from living to dead. He was Mr. Adler, my eighth-grade history teacher. He wore brown corduroy suits and white tennis shoes, and though his subject was America he preferred to talk about czars. He once showed us a photograph of Russia’s last emperor, and that’s how I think of him now—black bearded, tassel shouldered—though in fact Mr. Adler was always clean shaven and plodding. I was in English class when his fourth-period student burst in saying Mr. Adler had fallen. We crowded across the hall and there he lay facedown on the floor, eyes closed, blue lips suctioning the carpet. “Does he have epilepsy?” someone asked. “Does he have pills?” We were all repulsed. The Boy Scouts argued over proper CPR techniques, while the gifted and talented kids reviewed his symptoms in hysterical whispers. I had to force myself to go to him. I crouched down and took Mr. Adler’s dry-meat hand. It was early November. He was darkening the carpet with drool, gasping in air between longer and longer intervals, and I remember a distant bonfire scent. Someone was burning garbage in plastic bags, some janitor getting rid of leaves and pumpkin rinds before the first big snow.
When the paramedics finally loaded Mr. Adler’s body onto a stretcher, the Boy Scouts trailed behind like puppies, hoping for an assignment. They wanted a door to open, something heavy to lift. In the hallway, girls stood sniffling in clumps. A few teachers held their palms to their chests, uncertain what to say or do next.
“That a Doors song?” one of the paramedics asked. He’d stayed behind to pass out packets of saltines to light-headed students. I shrugged. I must have been humming out loud. He gave me orange Gatorade in a Dixie Cup, saying—as if I were the one he’d come to save, as if his duty were to root out sickness in whatever living thing he could find—“Drink slow now. Do it in sips.”
The Walleye Capital of the World we were called back then. There was a sign to this effect out on Route 10 and a mural of three mohawked fish on the side of the diner. Those guys were always waving a finny hello—grins and eyebrows, teeth and gums—but no one came from out of town to fish, or do much at all, once the big lakes froze up in November. We didn’t have the resort in those days, only a seedy motel. Downtown went: diner, hardware, bait and tackle, bank. The most impressive place in Loose River back then was the old timber mill, I think, and that was because it was half burned down, charred black planks towering over the banks of the river. Almost everything official, the hospital and DMV and Burger King and police station, were twenty-plus miles down the road in Whitewood.
The day the Whitewood paramedics took Mr. Adler away they tooted the ambulance horn as they left the school parking lot. We all stood at the windows and watched, even the hockey players in their yellowed caps, even the cheerleaders with their static-charged bangs. Snow was coming down by then, hard. As the ambulance slid around the corner, its headlights raked crazily through the flurries gusting across the road. “Shouldn’t there be sirens?” someone asked, and I thought—measuring the last swallow of Gatorade in my little waxed cup—how stupid can people be?
Mr. Adler’s replacement was Mr. Grierson, and he arrived a month before Christmas with a deep, otherworldly tan. He wore one gold hoop earring and a brilliant white shirt with pearly buttons. We learned later that he’d come from California, from a private girls’ school on the sea. No one knew what brought him all the way to northern Minnesota, midwinter, but after the first week of class, he took down Mr. Adler’s maps of the Russian Empire and replaced them with enlarged copies of the US Constitution. He announced he’d double majored in theater in college, which explained why he stood in front of the class one day with his arms outstretched reciting the whole Declaration of Independence by heart. Not just the soaring parts about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the needling, wretched list of tyrannies against the colonies. I could see how badly he wanted to be liked. “What does it mean?” Mr. Grierson asked when he got to the part about mutually pledging our sacred honor.
The hockey players slept innocently on folded hands. Even the gifted and talented kids were unmoved, clicking their mechanical pencils until the lead protruded obscenely, like hospital needles. They jousted each other across the aisles. “En garde!” they hissed, contemptuously.
Mr. Grierson sat down on Mr. Adler’s desk. He was breathless from his recitation, and I realized—in an odd flash, like a too-bright light passing over him—he was middle-aged. I could see sweat on his face, his pulse pounding under gray neck stubble. “People. Guys. What does it mean that the rights of man are self-evident? Come on. You know this.”
I saw his eyes rest on Lily Holburn, who had sleek black hair and was wearing, despite the cold, a sheer crimson sweater. He seemed to think her beauty could rescue him, that she would be, because she was prettier than the rest of us, kind. Lily had big brown eyes, dyslexia, no pencil, a boyfriend. Her face slowly reddened under Mr. Grierson’s gaze.
She blinked. He nodded at her, promising implicitly that, whatever she said, he’d agree. She gave a deer-like lick of her lips.
I don’t know why I raised my hand. It wasn’t that I felt sorry for her exactly. Or him. It was just that the tension became unbearable for a moment, out of all proportion to the occasion. “It means some things don’t have to be proven,” I offered. “Some things are simply true. There’s no changing them.”
“That’s right!” he said, grateful—I knew—not to me in particular, but to some hoop of luck he felt he’d stumbled into. I could do that. Give people what they wanted without them knowing it came from me. Without saying a word, Lily could make people feel encouraged, blessed. She had dimples on her cheeks, nipples that flashed like signs from God through her sweater. I was at chested, plain as a banister. I made people feel judged.
Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed. In the middle of December so much snow fell the gym roof buckled and school was canceled for a week. With school out, the hockey players went ice fishing. The Boy Scouts played hockey on the ponds. Then came Christmas with its strings of colored lights up and down Main Street, and the competing nativity scenes at the Lutheran and Catholic churches—one with painted sandbags standing in as sheep, and the other with baby Jesus sculpted out of a lump of ice. New Year’s brought another serious storm. By the time school started again in January, Mr. Grierson’s crisp white shirts had been replaced with nondescript sweaters, his hoop earring with a stud. Someone must have taught him to use the Scantron machine, because after a week’s worth of lectures on Lewis and Clark, he gave his first test. While we hunched at our desks filling tiny circles, he walked up and down the aisles, clicking a ballpoint pen.
The next day, Mr. Grierson asked me to stay after class. He sat behind his desk and touched his lips, which were chapped and flaking off beneath his fingers. “You didn’t do very well on your exam,” he told me.
He was waiting for an explanation and I lifted my shoulders defensively. But before I could say a word, he added, “Look, I’m sorry.” He twisted the stud—delicate, difficult screw—in his ear. “I’m still working out the kinks in my lesson plans. What were you studying before I arrived?”
“Ah.” A look of scorn passed over his face, followed immediately by pleasure. “The Cold War lingers in the backcountry.”
I defended Mr. Adler. “It wasn’t the Soviet Union we were talking about. It was czars.”
“Oh, Mattie.” No one ever called me that. It was like being tapped on the shoulder from behind. My name was Madeline, but at school I was called Linda, or Commie, or Freak. I pulled my hands into balls in my sleeves. Mr. Grierson went on. “No one cared about the czars before Stalin and the bomb. They were puppets on a faraway stage, utterly insignificant. Then all the Mr. Adlers went to college in 1961 and there was general nostalgia for the old Russian toys, the inbred princesses from another century. Their ineffectuality made them interesting. You understand?” He smiled then, closing his eyes a little. His front teeth were white, his canines yellow. “But you’re thirteen.”
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry if this has started off badly. We’ll get on better footing soon.”
The next week he asked me to drop by his classroom after school. This time, he’d taken the stud out of his ear and set it on his desk. Very tenderly, with his forefinger and thumb, he was probing the flesh around his earlobe.
“Mattie,” he said, straightening up.
He had me sit in a blue plastic chair beside his desk. He set a stack of glossy brochures in my lap, made a tepee of his fingers. “Do me a favor? But don’t blame me for having to ask. That’s my job.” He squirmed.
That’s when he asked me to be the school’s representative in History Odyssey.
“This will be great,” he said, unconvincingly. “What you do is make a poster. Then you give a speech about Vietnam War registers, border crossings to Canada, etcetera. Or maybe you do the desecration of the Ojibwa peoples? Or those back-to-the-land folks that settled up here. Something local, something ethically ambiguous. Something with constitutional implications.”
“I want to do wolves,” I told him.
“What, a history of wolves?” He was puzzled. Then he shook his head and grinned. “Right. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl.” The skin bunched up around his eyes. “You all have a thing for horses and wolves. I love that. I love that. That’s so weird. What is that about?”
Because my parents didn’t own a car, this is how I got home when I missed the bus. I walked three miles down the plowed edge of Route 10 and then turned right on Still Lake Road. In another mile the road forked. The left side traced the lake northward and the right side turned into an unplowed hill. That’s where I stopped, stuffed my jeans into my socks, and readjusted the cuffs on my woolen mittens. In winter, the trees against the orange sky looked like veins. The sky between the branches looked like sunburn. It was twenty minutes through snow and sumac before the dogs heard me and started braying against their chains.
By the time I got home, it was dark. When I opened the door, I saw my mom bent over the sink, arms elbow-deep in inky water. Long straight hair curtained her face and neck, which tended to give her a cagey look. But her voice was all midwestern vowels, all wide-open Kansas. “Is there a prayer for clogged drains?” she asked without turning around.
I set my mittens on the woodstove, where they would stiffen and no longer fit my hands just right in the morning. I left my jacket on, though. It was cold inside.
My mom, her own jacket damp with sink water, sat down heavily at the table. But she kept her greasy hands in the air like they were something precious—something wiggling and still alive—that she’d snatched from a pond. Something she might feed us on, a pretty little pair of perch. “We need Drano. Crap.” She looked up into the air, then very slowly wiped her palms on her canvas pockets. “Please help. God of infinite pity for the pathetic farce that is human living.”
She was only half kidding. I knew that. I knew from stories how my parents had ridden in a stolen van to Loose River in the early eighties, how my father had stockpiled rifles and pot, and how, when the commune fell apart, my mother had traded whatever hippie fanaticism she had left for Christianity. For as long as I could remember she went to church three times a week—Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday—because she held out hope that penance worked, that some of the past could be reversed, slowly and over years.
My mother believed in God, but grudgingly, like a grounded daughter.
“Do you think you could take one of the dogs with you and go back?”
“Back into town?” I was still shivering. The thought made me furious for a second, wiped clean of everything. I couldn’t feel my fingers.
“Or not.” She swung her long hair back and swiped her nose with her wrist. “No, not. It’s probably below zero out there. I’m sorry. I’ll go get another bucket.” She didn’t move from her chair, though. She was waiting for something. “I’m sorry I asked. You can’t be mad at me for asking.” She clasped her greasy hands together. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
For each sorry, her voice rose a half step.
I waited a second before I spoke. “It’s okay,” I said.
Here’s the thing about Mr. Grierson. I’d seen how he crouched down next to Lily’s desk. I’d seen how he said, “You’re doing fine,” and put his hand very carefully, like a paperweight, on her spine. How he lifted his fingertips and gave her a little pat. I saw how curious and frightened he was of the Karens, the cheerleaders, who sometimes pulled off their wool leg warmers and revealed bare winter skin, white and nubbed in gooseflesh. Their legwarmers gave them a rash, which they scratched until their scabs had to be dabbed with buds of toilet paper. I saw how he addressed every question in class to one of them—to the Karens or to Lily Holburn—saying, “Anyone? Anyone home?” Then, making a phone of his hand, he’d lower his voice and growl, “Hello, Holburn residence, is Lily available?” Blushing, Lily would do a closed-mouth smile into the lip of her sleeve.
When I met with him after school, Mr. Grierson shook his head. “That was a stupid thing to do with the phone, right?” He was embarrassed. He wanted reassurance that everything was okay, that he was a good teacher. He wanted to be forgiven for all his little mistakes, and he seemed to think—because I crossed my arms and did poorly on tests—that my mediocrity was deliberate, personal. “Here,” he said, sheepishly, sliding a narrow blue can across his desk. I took a few sips of his energy drink, something so sweet and caffeinated it made my heart pound almost instantly. After several more gulps I was trembling in my chair. I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering.
“Did Mr. Adler ever show movies?” he wanted to know.
I’m not sure why I played his game. I don’t know why I coddled him. “You show so many more movies than him,” I said. He smiled with satisfaction. “How’s the project going, then?”
I didn’t answer that. Instead I took another sip of his energy drink, uninvited. I wanted him to know that I saw how he looked at Lily Holburn, that I comprehended that look better than she did, that, though I did not like him at all—though I found his phone joke creepy and his earring sad—I understood him. But the can was empty. I had to put my lips on metal and pretend to gulp. Outside the window, sleet was shellacking every snowdrift, turning the whole world hard as rock. It would be dark in an hour, less. The dogs would be pacing the far orbit of their chains, waiting. Mr. Grierson was putting on his jacket. “Shall we?” He never—never once—asked how I got home.
Mr. Grierson treated History Odyssey like we both knew it was a chore. Secretly, I wanted to win. I was determined to see a wolf. Nights, I went out in mukluks, a ski mask, and my father’s down jacket, which was redolent with his scents, with tobacco and mildew and bitter coffee. It was like wearing his body while he slept, like earning a right to his presence and silence and bulk. I sat on an old ice bucket near the furthest fish house and sipped boiled water from a thermos. But it was rare for a wolf to be spotted here so late in winter—all I ever saw were distant logs squirming with crows. In the end I had to settle for a dead one. Saturdays, I snowshoed to the Forest Service Nature Center, where I studied the stuffed bitch in the lobby, with her glass eyes and coral nails, her sunken black cheeks pulled back in what looked like a smile. Peg, the naturalist there, pouted when she saw me try to touch the wolf’s tail. “Uh uh,” she scolded. She gave me gummy bears and taxidermy techniques, told me how to sculpt eyelids from clay and muscles from polyurethane foam. “Iron the skin, iron the skin,” she warned me.
On the morning of the History Odyssey tournament, I sawed a branch from the old pine behind our house. Needles poured in little whik-whik propellers onto the snow. I took the casino bus to Whitewood after school, lugging my wolf poster and branch past the old people from the retirement home, who frowned at me but didn’t say anything. In the Whitewood High School auditorium, I propped the branch against the lectern to create the crucial atmosphere. I played a tape of howling wolves on repeat. Though my mouth was dry when I began my speech, I didn’t have to use my notes and I didn’t rock back and forth like the boy who went before me. I was focused, calm. I pointed to diagrams of pups in different displays of submission, and quoting from a book I said, “But the term alpha—evolved to describe captive animals—is still misleading. An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.” Those words always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden. I thought of the black bitch at the Nature Center, fixed in her posture of doggy friendliness, and I recited that part of my speech over again, slowly this time, like it was an amendment to the Constitution.
Afterward, one of the judges poked his pencil in the air. “But—I have to intervene here. There’s something you haven’t explained very well. What do wolves have to do with human history?”
It was then that I saw Mr. Grierson by the door. He had his jacket in his arms like he’d just come in, and I watched as he caught the eye of the judge and shrugged. It was the subtlest shift of his shoulders, as if to say, What can you do with kids? What can you do with these teenage girls? I took a deep breath and glared at both of them. “Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them.”
They gave me the Originality Prize, which was a bouquet of carnations dyed green for Saint Patrick’s Day. Afterward, Mr. Grierson wanted to know if we should load the pine branch in his car with the poster to drive back to school. I was depressed and shook my head. The winner, a seventh-grade girl in a pantsuit, was getting her picture taken with her watercolor rendering of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. I buttoned my coat, then followed Mr. Grierson as he dragged the drooping branch out a side exit. He javelined it upright into a grainy bank of snow. “It’s like A Charlie Brown Christmas,” he said, laughing. “I want to hang tinsel from it. It’s cute.”
He bent down to brush stray needles from his slacks, and on impulse I thrust out a hand and brushed as well—swish, swish—against his thigh. He stepped back, did a little shake of his pants, laughed awkwardly. Men can be so ungainly when it comes to sex. I learned that later. But at the time, what I’d done didn’t feel sexual. Let me be clear about that. It felt like grooming. Or like coaxing a dog to you, watching its hackles rise and fall, and then you have a pet.
I licked my lips, Lily Holburn–style, deer-like, innocent as anything. I said, “Mr. Grierson, would you mind driving me home?”
Before we left Whitewood High, Mr. Grierson went back inside for a wet paper towel to wrap around the stems of the carnations. Then he set the bouquet in my arms, cautiously, as if it were some kind of bracken baby. As we drove the twenty-six miles from Whitewood to my parents’ house, we watched a storm blow ice in monstrous crusts off the limbs of trees—so that was part of it, too, the slow-motion sense of catastrophe. Mr. Grierson’s defrosting fan didn’t work very well, and I swiped at the windshield with my jacket’s dirty cuff.
“This where we turn?” he asked, as he drove down Still Lake Road. He was pulling little bits of skin from his lips with his incisors. Even in the near dark, I could see a crack in his lip, bloody but not yet bleeding. at pleased me for some reason. It felt like something I had done to him myself—with my wolf presentation, with my pine needles.
The turnoff to my parents’ road was unplowed, as usual. Mr. Grierson pulled to a stop at the intersection and we both leaned forward to peer out the windshield and up the steep, dark hill. When I glanced at him across the car, his throat looked as wide and soft as a belly exposed, so I stretched out and kissed him there. Quickly, quickly.
“This way then?” he said, pulling up the zipper of his coat and tucking his neck back in his collar. Up on the hill sat my parents’ lit cabin, and I could tell he had fixed his attention there because it was the first thing in sight. “Um, that’s that ex-cult place, isn’t it? I heard some strange stuff about them. They neighbors of yours?”
He was only making small talk of course—still I gripped my carnations. I felt myself split open, like kindling. “They keep to themselves.”
“Yeah?” His mind was somewhere else.
Sleet popped against the windshield, but I couldn’t see it because the glass was getting all fogged up again.
“Let’s get you home,” he said, cranking the gearshift and turning the wheel, and I could sense how tired he was of being responsible for me.
“I can walk from here,” I told him.
I thought if I slammed the door hard enough, Mr. Grierson might come after me. That’s what it’s like to be fourteen. I thought if I took a few running steps off the road into the snow that maybe he’d follow me—to assuage his guilt, to make sure I got home all right, to push his chalky history hands under my jacket, whatever. I headed for the lake instead of going uphill. I darted out onto the ice in the prickly sleet, but when I looked back, his car with its brights was turning around, doing a meticulous U-turn in the trees.
The Grierson scandal broke a few months after I started high school the next fall. I overheard the gossip while I was pouring someone’s coffee, working as a part-time waitress at the diner in town. He had been accused of pedophilia and sex crimes at his previous school and was promptly fired at ours—a stack of dirty pictures had been confiscated from some former apartment of his in California. That day after work, I took my tips to the bar down the street and bought my first full pack of cigarettes from the machine in the vestibule. I knew from the few I’d stolen at home not to inhale fully when lighting up. But as I ducked into the wet bushes behind the parking lot, my eyes started watering and I coughed, an ugly fury thumping at my heart. More than anything else I felt deceived. I felt I’d perceived some seed in Mr. Grierson’s nature, and that he’d lied to me, profoundly, by ignoring what I did to him in his car, pretending to be better than he was. A regular teacher. I thought about Mr. Grierson zipping his wide, warm neck back inside his jacket collar. I thought of his rank scent when I got close, as if he’d sweated through his clothes and dried out in the winter air. I thought about all that, and what I felt for him, finally, was an uncomfortable rush of pity. It seemed unfair to me that people couldn’t be something else just by working at it hard, by saying it over and over.
When I was six or seven, my mom sat me down in the bath basin in my underwear. It was midmorning, midsummer. A shaft of light caught her face. She dribbled water on my head from a measuring cup. “I wish I believed in this shit,” she told me.
“What’s supposed to happen?” I shivered.
“Good question,” she said. “You’re a new pot of rice, baby. I’m starting you all over from scratch.”
I didn’t want to go home the night Mr. Grierson dropped me off. I thought—with pleasure, feeling a necklace of hooks in my throat as I swallowed—how I might break through the brittle lake ice and just go down. My parents wouldn’t worry for a long time, maybe not till morning. My mother nodded off each night sewing quilts for prison inmates. My dad spent his evenings scavenging wood from the cleared property that was for sale across the lake. I never even knew for sure if they were my real parents, or if they were simply the people who stayed around after everyone else went back to college or office jobs in the Twin Cities. They were more like stepsiblings than parents, though they were good to me, always—which was worse than anything in a way. Worse than buying cereal with dimes and quarters, worse than accepting hand-me-downs from neighbors, worse than being called Commie, Freak. My dad hung a swing when I was ten from a giant cottonwood; my mom cut cockleburs from my hair. Even so, the night Mr. Grierson dropped me off, I kept thinking, viciously, waiting for my body to plunge through ice: There goes the rice, Mom. There goes the whole pot.
After I went to community college and dropped out, after I had been temping in the Cities for some time, I found a national database online into which you could type any sex offender’s name and track them around the country. You can watch someone’s little red trail on a map of each state as they go from city to city, as they go from Arkansas to Montana, as they search for bad apartments, as they enter prison and come out again. You can watch them try to give new names and get called out, a flurry of angry posts erupting online every time this happens. You can watch the moral indignation. You can watch them try again. You can follow them to southern Florida, to the marshes, where, among the mangroves, they set up a little out-of-the-way antique shop, selling whatever, selling junk. Hawking rusty lanterns and stuffed ducks, fake shark teeth, cheap gold earrings. You can see everything they sell because people update their posts and give all the details. There are so many people watching. People are updating all the time. “Should I buy a map from a convicted sex offender?” people write, and it seems an ethically ambiguous question. “Don’t I have a constitutional right to tell him I don’t want him here, selling his postcards at half price?” People write, “Don’t I have a right to tell him to his fucking face?” People write, “Who does he think he is?”
Papers passed along in a pile. That’s what high school was. They went down one aisle between desks, came back around the next, looped slowly to the back of the classroom. The gifted and talented kids—transformed now into the Latin Club, the Forensics Team—licked their fingers to extract their portion. They always set to work like the swim team doing laps, breathing from the sides of their mouths, biting down on their pencils. The hockey players had to be prodded awake when the stack came down their aisle, had to be treated with great deference—or else we would lose the District Championship. Again. They woke from their naps long enough to take one paper and pass the rest on, long enough to dump open bags of chips into their mouths, wipe the salt from their lips, and return to their dreams of Empire. What else would hockey players dream about? It was their world we lived in. When I was fifteen, I figured this out. They dreamed it into fact. They got teachers to forgive their blank worksheets, they got cheerleaders to scream out their names at pep rallies, they got Zambonis to stripe the world as far as you could see—ceaselessly—in perfect swaths of freezing water. We were in a new building that year, a bigger classroom with pale brick walls, but outside it was the same thing it had been since we were children. Winter boomeranged back.
Outside: four feet of snow sealed in a shiny crust.
Inside: European History, American Civics, Trigonometry, English.
Life Science came last. It was taught by our old eighth-grade gym teacher, Liz Lundgren, who trudged over from the middle school at the end of the day in her Polartec parka and camouflage snow bib. Ms. Lundgren had a tic. Whenever she got irritated or inspired, she switched instantly to whispering. She thought that would make us listen better; she thought it would make us pay attention to protists and fungi; she thought we would try harder to understand meiosis if we couldn’t quite catch all the words in her sentences. “The spores . . . in absence of water or heat . . . maneuver in great quantities,” she would murmur, and it was like hearing some obscure rumor that, due to over-telling, no longer held any relevance we could make out.
In that class you could always hear the clock tick. From every window, you could see snow blow away in gusts, then drift back the next day in piles as high as houses. One day near the end of Evolution, a late-season storm brought a huge poplar branch down in a wumff of ice. Through the window, I watched it cascade to the ground and narrowly miss a small blue car pulling out from the grocery store across from school. At the board, Ms. Lundgren was chalking out the pros and cons of natural selection in squeaky cursive. The window fogged as I leaned toward it. I leaned back. Someone in a huge hooded parka got out of the blue car, dragged the branch from the road, got back in. Then the Honda drove a wide arc around the perimeter, crunching a few twigs beneath its tires.
Minutes after that the sun came out: brilliant, stunning us all. Still, it was no surprise when we were let out of school a half hour early due to the windchill. I made my way home from the bus stop at a rigid trot. I crunched along the snow-packed trail, felt the wind come off the lake in blasts, heard the pines groan and creak overhead. Halfway up the hill, my lungs started to feel raggedy. My face changed into something other than face, got rubbed out. When I finally got to the top of the hill, when I slowed down to brush ice from my nose, I turned and saw a puff of exhaust across our lake. I had to squint against all that white to make it out.
It was the blue Honda hatchback from town. A couple was unloading the car.
The lake at this point was extremely narrow, not much more than eight hundred feet straight across. I watched them for a few minutes, nursing my fingers, scrunching them into in flexible balls.
I’d seen the couple once before, in August. They’d come to oversee the construction of their lake house, which had been built by a team of college students from Duluth. The crew spent the summer clearing brush with backhoes, arranging plywood walls, stapling shingles to the vaulted roof. The house, when it was finished, was unlike anything I’d seen in Loose River. It had split-log siding and enormous triangular windows, a broad blond deck that jutted out over the lake like the prow of some ship. From their hatchback, the father had hauled Adirondack chairs and docile cats: one black and fat, the other white and draped ornamentally over his arm. I’d seen them out on their new dock one late August afternoon, bundled head to toe in towels. Father, mother, tiny child. The child’s towel dragged on the wooden planks, and the mother and father had knelt down together, at once, arranging the folds. They were like attendants to a very small bride, doting, hovering. They seemed to be saying something very sweet to the child, who had a high, frightened voice that carried across water. That was the last I’d seen of them.
That winter day, though, they returned. I saw the father in the evening whisking away at the snow on his deck with a pink broom. Smoke drifted from their chimney. Out came the child and mother the next afternoon, waddling in their boots and snowsuits. The boy moved unsteadily across the fresh crust of snow, walking on the surface of it for a few steps before breaking through. When the mother lifted him under the armpits, he was plucked clean from his boots. As I watched, the mother dangled the poor kid helplessly aloft, unsure whether to set him down or carry him like that, suspended in socks over a universe of snow.
I thought, scornfully, what the hell had they expected? But I felt sorry for them, too. Almost nothing on the lake moved or breathed. It was the worst part of winter, a waste of white in every direction, no place for little kids or city people. Beneath a foot of ice, beneath my boots, the walleye drifted. They did not try to swim, or do anything that required effort. They hovered, waiting winter out with driftwood, barely beating their hearts.
We were prepared for another month of winter at least. Each night, I fed the cabin stove before climbing the ladder to my loft, and each black morning I scraped the embers together again and, with sluggish fingers and some cedar shavings, coaxed up a new flame. We had a cord and a half of wood stacked against the cabin that I was parceling out very slowly. We stuffed more rags in the window casings to hold in heat, kept big pots on the stove for morning meltwater. My dad had drilled a fresh fishing hole through ice that was close to eighteen inches thick.
But then, in the middle of March, the temperature shot up to fifty and miraculously stayed there. Within a couple of weeks, the south slope drifts had eroded to stalagmite pillars. A wet sheen appeared across the surface of the ice, and in the late afternoons you could hear the whole lake pop and zing. Cracks appeared. It was warm enough to gather wood from the pile without mittens, to unfreeze the latches on the dogs’ chains with the heat of your fingers. Across the lake, the family set up a telescope on their deck—long and spear-like, pointed to the heavens. Beneath the tripod was a footstool where the child sometimes stood in the evenings clasping the eyepiece to his face with two mittened hands. He wore a candy-cane scarf and a red pom-pom hat. Every time the wind started up, his pom bounced on the air like a bobber.
Sometimes his mother came out in a ski cap and readjusted the tripod, raising the tube and peering through it herself. She rested one gloved hand on the boy’s head. Then, as the evening turned its last shade, I watched them go inside again. I watched them unwind the scarves from their necks. I watched them cuddle the cats, wash their fingers in the tap, heat water in a kettle. They didn’t seem to have blinds on their enormous triangular windows. I saw their dinner like it was done just for me. I sat on the roof of our shed with my dad’s Bushnell binoculars, turning the sticky barrels, warming my hands against my neck. The kid sat in his cushioned chair on his knees, rocking. The mother barely sat at all. She went to the counter and back, she sliced things on the boy’s plate. She made wedges of green, triangles of yellow, discs of something brown. She blew on his soup. She grinned when he grinned. I could see their teeth across the lake. The father seemed to have disappeared. Where had he gone?
Early spring brought more icicles. They oozed blue-black water from the school roof. They dripped away the afternoons, synced to the ticking clock, then going as fast as my heart, which I could feel when I pressed my fingers to my clavicle. I was doing poorly in school, as always, and as the hockey players dreamed us backward toward December, and the debate kids memorized the reciprocal identities, I watched Lily Holburn get abandoned— one by one—by her friends. She’d always been Number Two in a group of four, but since the start of winter she’d become Number Five. It was hard to pinpoint what had changed. It was hard to say exactly when the rumors about her and Mr. Grierson had started. But by March, a space had been cleared around her—like a forest after a fire—and her silence no longer seemed particularly dumb. It was unsettling. Skank, her old friends sneered, under their breaths, behind her back. It was the same thing they used to say to her face when they were joking with her after class. Because of her ripped-up jeans, because of her cheap tight sweaters. Now they were strictly sweet when forced to acknowledge her. They didn’t laugh when she showed up to class without a pencil, or give her grief for forgetting her lunch. They loaned her money when she asked for it. They handed her toilet paper under the bathroom stall when she was out, whispering, “Do you need more? Is that enough?”
In the halls, though, they walked right past her.
I had news for her. I wrote it on a note, which I passed to her when the stack of worksheets came gliding down our aisle one afternoon: I don’t care what they’re saying about you and Mr. G. It wasn’t that I wanted to defend her—we’d never been friends, we’d never been alone in a room together—only that her name had somehow gotten yoked to Mr. Grierson and I wanted to know why. But Lily never wrote back. She didn’t even turn around to look at me, just hunched up in her seat and pretended to understand square roots.
So I was surprised to find her waiting for me by the back door that day when school let out. She wore an elaborately wound scarf, a red one, and a strange kind of jean jacket that buttoned like a sailor’s slicker from knee to neck. I was caught off guard. As casually as possible, I took out a cigarette and lit it—but when I handed it to her she shook her head and stared out at the glistening, glittering, melting world.
“What a mess,” I said, to say something.
She shrugged—very Lily-like, very sweet—and I felt a twinge of exasperation.
I could see her long white throat peeking from beneath folds of red. It made me glad to see that her jacket was shabby up close, the hem torn and dragging in a puddle behind her. For all her experience, Lily had always struck me as inexplicably innocent. And now she seemed inexplicably superior, drifting just past everyone. Say Mr. Grierson, and up she went. Like a balloon.
I took a chance. I whispered, “What’d he do to you?”
She shrugged again, eyes widening.
“Where?” She seemed confused.
I took a step closer to her. “I knew something was up. I could have warned you.” She wasn’t looking at me, and I could see that her hair had been barretted back so one ear was exposed. That ear was bright red in the cold—shiny and strangely lip-like. I had a new thought. “You made that stuff up.”
Though she didn’t say anything, I knew by instinct I’d hit the mark.
“About you and him.” I swallowed.
We might have been merely standing next to each other on the curb, waiting for the traffic to pass to go our separate directions. We might have been carefully ignoring each other: me with my cigarette, she with an open can of Coke, which she lifted delicately from her jacket pocket. Still, for the moment, I felt very close to her, and it seemed unnecessary to say anything else. The silence between us filled with possibilities. We could hear the trickling of unseen streams, rivulets coursing down the street and sidewalk. We could hear the salt crystals crunching under car tires. Then Lily shook out her Coke in the snow, and it occurred to me that she’d spoken without any sense of occasion at all. It occurred to me that she’d only told me because I had no one to tell. It was like dropping a secret into a snowbank.
My lips felt clumsy around my cigarette. “It’ll pass, you know. People’s talk.”
She shrugged a third time. “You think so? I don’t think so.” She crushed a lump of slush with her boot, pulled at her scarf till she was pretty as anything, long bent arm cutting geometrical shapes in the sky.
She sounded so satisfied, almost smug about it.
I followed her the next day. After eating my peanut butter sandwich in the last stall in the bathroom, I came out and caught sight of Lily going into the counselor’s office. The back of her head, the blue hump of her backpack. She didn’t show up for English that afternoon, but I saw her at the drinking fountain afterward, dark hair fisted in one hand as she bent for a sip. I trailed her when she started up the stairs. On the landing, I watched her eyes move to the second-story window, out of which you could see a few purplish crows towing trash from the school Dumpster. She paused for a second to take that in. I could see the whites of her eyes when she turned her head. Then, as the last bell rang, I watched her walk the length of the fluorescent-lit hall, which was emptying out around her.
From the outside, nothing about Lily had changed. Her clothes were still gaudy and bright: clingy sweaters with unraveling seams over fraying, faded, ripped-up jeans. She still showed too much cleavage. She still walked too much on her toes, like a ground-feeding bird. Lily had always been everybody’s pet. Her one fervent goal had been to please everyone. Now people turned away when she passed, wouldn’t look at her. Even Lars Solvin, her boyfriend since sixth grade, turned bright red under his blond beard when he saw her coming down the hall. He was six feet tall, a second-string forward on the hockey team. But he found an ingenious way to shrink, to slouch against a nearby locker and examine his sports watch. His buddies closed around him as she approached, touching the bills on their caps, hitching up their jeans. All of them kept their eyes down—far, far, far from Lily’s cleavage—but the unlucky one closest to the classroom door felt obliged to turn the handle for her.
“Thank you,” she said, not smiling, but not not smiling either.
I followed her into Life Science, opening the door for myself.
For years I’d sat near her in class: Furston wasn’t far from Holburn on the register. For years I’d felt vaguely protective and vaguely resentful of Lily, who lived in a trailer three lakes north, who was loved by everybody, whose dad collapsed each Saturday somewhere on Gooseneck Highway and had to be collected up before church. Now I scooted my chair desk a little closer to hers. I watched the green threads on her sweater sleeve quiver as she opened her notebook. She wasn’t taking notes, I noticed, on the short expendable lives of protozoa. She wasn’t working on a diagram of the essential role of bacteria as the decomposer link in the food chain. She was making slow, snaking spirals with her pen, then filling in the linked loops with dozens, with hundreds of smiley faces.
Who’s watching who? I wondered, when I went out to the dogs one morning and saw the telescope across the lake aimed straight at my parents’ cabin. It was pointed like an arrow right into the cabin’s heart, into our one window with its rags in the casings. A mold-stained tarp flapped over our front door. I felt my scalp prickle.
I looked up. Above me, a pale yellow leaf drifted in a breeze. Higher, then lower, without fully descending. I plucked the leaf from the air with a little jump. Then with one hand I slid the skin over the dogs’ skulls—breathing, as I did, on their latches to unfreeze them. Ha, I puffed, making the dogs wiggle and spin, freeing them one by one. Go, I told them. I set Abe and Doctor and Quiet and Jasper loose in the woods. For a moment, I listened to their panting breaths as they loped through old snow. Then, as the rising sun bleached the treetops, I listened to the whole frozen lake groaning under their paws. It wouldn’t hold out for long I knew.
It didn’t. When the last of the ice was drifting ashore in jagged chunks, when the last of the snow lay in dunes on the north slopes, I saw him again, the kid from across the lake, crouching on the roadside not far from my house. It was the kind of day you could leave your jacket unzipped, and as I walked home from the bus stop, I was reading a book. I don’t remember what. At that point I was into anything with maps and charts. Great Rescues of the Old Northwest, Build Your Own Kayak. I was almost to the sumac trail when I saw him. A bike was overturned on the gravel shoulder, balanced upside down on handlebars. It took a moment before I saw a girl folded over it, fumbling with the chain. As I approached, both girl and child looked up. They had the same dark eyes, I noticed, the same orange-blond hair.
I thought of deer lifting their heads in that coordinated movement they have. I thought of anything running. But they didn’t go anywhere.
“Hi!” the boy said, enthusiastic-preoccupied, turning back to his task on the ground.
“That’s her there,” he said, sidelong, to the girl.
“That’s who there?” the girl replied. “I don’t think we’ve met,” she said to me.
Like the boy, she was friendly but distracted. “We’ve gotten ourselves a bit tangled up, I guess.” She laughed easily, set a greasy hand on the boy’s head. “I’m a whiz, as you can see, with vehicles. My husband wouldn’t even trust me with the car, seriously. And he’s not a patriarch or anything. That’s not what I mean.”
“Patriarch,” the boy said, without looking up.
“A man who is in charge of things, unfairly.” She looked at me for confirmation. “Right?”
“Okay,” he said, still busy. He seemed to be stuffing snow-flattened leaves into a black pouch.
“Like, I drove the car off the road the first day we arrived, right into a snowbank. Wham. So I said, I’ll stick with the bike. It’s better right?” She seemed to want me to agree with her. She was much smaller than I thought she’d be from watching her all those nights through the window—more skinny limbs than body. She was tiny now that I could measure her against myself. She wore a maroon U of C sweatshirt with sleeves shoved to the elbows. “You’re our neighbor from across the lake, right?” she went on. “Did I say hi yet?” She turned to the kid. “Did I already say hi to her? I’ve forgotten what it is to talk to people.”
The boy stood up. “It goes like this. How do you do!” He rushed forward, holding out a massive black hand for me to shake. The thing was bloated, weirdly twisted— fingers splayed at improbable angles.
I shuffled a few steps back.
“It’s my Thirdhand Man,” he said. “For survival.” It took me a moment to realize the kid had stuffed a man’s leather glove with leaves, and that he was now thwacking it hard against a pine trunk. After a few blows he sat down again, panting. Spent.
“He’s very into that thing,” the girl explained. “So, I’m Patra, the parent. He’s Paul, the kid. And so far, you’re Blank, the neighbor.”
The kid laughed. “Blank.”
Up close, she looked too young to be anyone’s mother. She didn’t seem to have eyebrows, and she was as skinny as I was—curveless—wearing tennis shoes, leggings, and long wool socks pulled up over the leggings to her knees. Her hair was the same wispy orange as the kid’s, but frizzy, held down with a blue plastic headband. When she smiled, the headband glided backward over her scalp. “I’m kidding. You’re—”
Mattie, I thought, as a breeze tugged the resins out of the trees. “Linda,” I said.
The boy in a crouch on the ground pulled on his mother’s sleeve. “I have something to tell her.”
“Just say it.”
“It’s a secret,” he whined.
“Then just go up and say it!” she urged him forward. I was on one side of the road and they were on the other. “Look before you cross. Though”—she spoke to me—“I haven’t seen a single car go past since we stopped. It’s marvelous. The locals here read in the middle of the highway.”
Did she wink then? Was she laughing at me? Was I supposed to laugh?
To the kid she said, “Right, left. There you go.”
At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer probably was: right away. But that feeling faded as I got to know him. Paul’s breathy way of talking, the way he had to sit down when he got excited— these tendencies seemed to me, more and more, just the way he was. Paul was fussy and fragile, then whooping and manic. I got used to his moods. Though he was always getting mistaken for someone older, he was four the spring I knew him. He had droopy eyelids, big red hands. He had four-going-on-five-year-old plans: visit Mars, get shoes with ties. He was building a city out of stones and weeds on his deck. Almost every piece of clothing he owned had a train on it, Thomas the Tank Engine, or nineteenth-century cattle cars, or steam engines stamped across his chest. He’d never been on a real train in his life. All spring long, he rode buckled into the plastic seat on the back of his mother’s bike, to the grocery store and the post office. He carried around that old-man’s leather glove wherever he went, its fingertips worn to purple, palms green with rot.
He handed it to me once he crossed the road. He gave me the glove, then put his hands in a fist at his crotch. He made me bend down to hear him. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he whispered.
Oh please, I remember thinking. The sun, which had been gleaming, moved off the road into some other part of woods. What was I supposed to do about that? I looked at his mother, who was wiping her hands on her sweatshirt, righting the bike, calling the boy back to her. She walked the clicking bike across the road by the handlebars. A child’s helmet dangled by the chin strap from her wrist.
“I think he has to—” I began. But it seemed obvious. The kid was holding his crotch with two hands. It seemed unnecessary to say what he said, to use those little kid words out loud. And anyway, she was already lifting him up, wedging him in his seat, buckling him down.
He seemed about to cry out, so his mother kissed him on the forehead, brushed hair from his eyes. “No luck with the bike, kiddo, but I can push you as we walk and sing. How ’bout that?” She eyed the glove in my hand, so I passed it to her, and she pressed it back into his arms. “There. What would you like to sing, hon?”
“‘Good King Wenceslas,’” he said, pouting.
“Is that okay with you, Linda? Want to walk with us back?” She smiled over his head, and I saw how quickly she shifted between faces, between soothing mother and conspiratorial adult.
It pleased me for reasons I could not explain to be part of the latter allegiance. I nodded, surprising myself.
When we got to their house, the door was unlocked. Paul turned the handle with two hands. Inside, mother and child stomped on the mat. “Fee-fi-fo-fum,” he growled. “I smell the blood of an Englishman,” she responded. Then they both plopped on the floor, he in her lap. She took off his shoes while eating his neck.
This is a thing, I thought, as they played the ritual out. The cats watched warily from the windowsills. I stepped o the mat and into the room, and it was like wading into warm water— the heat was jacked up that high. I could feel all the layers of my clothes at once, all the weight I’d been lugging around, and then I could feel those layers sequentially, from the outside in: hunting jacket, sweater, flannel, T-shirt, no bra, sweat. Sweat dragged in a trickle from my left armpit. I shivered.
“Well, come on in,” Patra said, standing up in her socks, Paul shoeless now, scrambling off to pee.
Their cabin was mostly the one big room I’d seen through the window at night. The kitchen with all its shiny knobs made up the inside wall; the lake sparkling in a million itty-bitty fishhooks came through the far windows. All the furniture was new, I could see that, all maroons and creams, all browns and yellows. Corduroy couches intersected in a corner, and a tawny table, fresh as a pine log just axed open, stood in the center of everything. Down the one dim hallway, I heard a flush. The child emerged from the hallway leaping in socks, springing from oval rug to oval rug in an elaborate game that required his full concentration. Then he was back at my side saying, “Take off your shoes.”
Boots, swampy wool socks, scaly yellow toes. I shook my head.
“Take off your jacket then.”
I kept it on. The room felt poured in sunlight. The uriney kind, pale and thin and hot. For a second, I worried that my mother might see me here, across the lake and through the window. Then I remembered how black those glass triangles were in daytime. There was nothing for her to see.
“Take off your shoes,” he said.
“You’re being a despot, Paul,” his mother told him.
“Depspot,” he repeated, mechanically.
“Like a patriarch, only worse. Telling everybody what to do. Without being voted into power.” Patra was at the counter, filling a pot with water. I remembered how this went from watching her. Soon there’d be mugs, plates draped in steam. Soon she’d be cutting things for us.
“Let’s cook something,” she suggested. “Come on in, Linda.”
Paul clutched at my hand. “Take off your shoes,” he pleaded. “Take off your shoes. Take off your shoes.”
I didn’t bend down. I didn’t use a voice especially reserved for talking to children. “No, thank you,” I told him, but too quietly for Patra to hear. Almost hissing. “Let go of my hand, okay?”
The kid looked up at me, confused. As if I’d told him to take off his own face.
Within twenty minutes, we were eating butter on spaghetti noodles and fluffy green salads made of some kind of lettuce I’d never seen before in my life. The leaves curled up around my fork. I moved stiffly in my jacket, clumsy but careful as I lifted my mug of tea and sipped. My boots still weighed down my feet. I buttered my wedge of toast and sweat clean through my bottom layers, through my T-shirt and flannel. I didn’t mind. Deep in my mug, the tea bag floated like something drowned, but it tasted bright as spring, like mint and celery. The steam made my nose wet, my eyes blurry. Patra had cut cherry tomatoes into brilliant red coins.
“I’m going to tell Leo about you,” Patra said. “He was sure that it was only old hippies and hermits this far from town. He said to watch out for bears and quacks.”
“There is ducks,” Paul agreed.
“Leo?” I asked, my eyes swimming.
“Dad,” Paul explained.
“He’s in Hawaii,” Patra added. “Doing March’s numbers, looking for protogalaxies. Getting the charts started.”
“Oh, Hawaii,” I nodded. I tried to say it like I’d been there recently myself, and found the food disappointing, the locals unfriendly. I shrugged. As if I’d already wasted too much of my life looking for the so-called protogalaxies on tropical islands. “Hey!” Patra said to me. “Speaking of which!” She’d been untangling Paul’s noodles with a knife and fork, laying them out in long parallel lines across his plate. She paused. “We should call your mom, right? We should let her know where you are, in case she’s thinking about fixing you dinner. Here.” She reached back with one hand and pulled something from her pocket. “The Forest Service has a tower”—she gestured vaguely behind her—“and Leo put up a big booster on the roof, so! You can get reception if you go out back, next to the telescope.” After a moment she added: “Sometimes.”
Cautiously, I took the cell phone she handed over. It was heavier than I thought it would be for its size. Years later I would deliberately throw my cell into the river—I’d rack up a bill so high, they’d cut the service and my phone would be useless—but at the time I’d never held one before. For just a moment I sat feeling its weight, examining its rounded plastic shape and the rubbery stem of the antenna. Then, careful not to knock anything with my jacketed elbows, I pushed back my chair and crossed the room.
Outside on the deck, it was almost night. Out in the newly cooled air, my jacket felt unbelievably light, almost as if dissolved. I stood still and let my eyes adjust to the rustling darkness. Among all those shadows, the telescope seemed oddly alive. A great elongated bird—mutant heron—perched on a plank of wood and watching me. I watched the lake, ignored the telescope. Last of the ice gone, last of the sun browning the choppy surface. A bobbing loon drove down into the water.
Finally, having put it off, I set my eyes on my parents’ house.
No one had turned on the lights, which was nothing special. My father, no doubt, was drinking beers with Quiet in the shed. Most nights my mother stitched her quilts at the table by the stove until it was so dark she nearly stabbed herself with the needle. And then, as if surprised, as if shocked by another day ending—yet another day handed over—she usually lit a lantern or started the generator out back, which turned on the lamp in the kitchen. She did this as if affronted. “Why didn’t you tell me it was so dark?” she’d ask if I were there, if I were huddled over some last bit of homework. I don’t know why it pleased me so much to let night sneak up like that. I don’t know what it had to do with me at all—but it was true, I almost always did know it was dark, and so it felt like luring her into the same trap over and over.
Got you, I thought.
Though the lake was very narrow here, it was two miles around by foot—an hour’s walk through the woods—to my parents’ cabin. There it stood: half-shingled, sided with woodpiles, dark behind the pines. A muddy black path wound from outhouse to toolshed to cabin door. It was sixteen-by-twenty feet inside, including my parents’ room and the loft, including the living space with its iron stove and scrap-wood table. I’d measured. In the darkening evening, I could just make out a thread of smoke pulling up from the pipe chimney. I could just barely see the shadows of dogs swimming through the shadows of pines.
Behind me, I could hear voices clearly. Forks clawing plates, dinner getting cold.
I punched some random buttons and held the phone to my ear. I imagined Patra watching from behind, so I took a big breath.
“No, Mom! I’m fine. I’ll be home in a couple hours. No, they’re nice! Patra and Paul. They’d like me to stay after dinner. They’d like me to play Go Fish. They’d like me to read the kid a story and watch The Wizard of Oz on a DVD. They’d like me to stay and eat popcorn. No, I don’t know what they’re doing up here. She’s an astronomer or something, or her husband is. No, that’s not mysterious, it’s very scientific, it’s the definition of science. It’s stars. No they’re not going to kidnap me, they’re a mom and her son, not a cult, not a hippie commune or anything weird. Oh, they’re pretty innocent, actually. They need guidance and help. They need someone to teach them about the woods.”