Justine’s feet burn in the wrong shoes—the lucky red boots with turquoise tips, boots that usually tempt the fates, call on rain gods to drench the soft leather. She couldn’t bring herself to wear sandals in winter.
“Never seen a February look like July,” says the farmer, reaching up to touch the curling edges of a peach tree, clucking, shaking his head. The heat baked hills shimmer, yellow as though with fever, the land gaunt and thin under the abnormal sun.
Buds like new breasts peek between leaves. “Peaches fooled into coming on early.” He inhales hard. Then rubs the still-green nubs, a sweep with the thumb, not too rough. “No damn rain to keep them alive.”
Heat lines glaze the horizon of trees, as though this orchard is a mirage. Stone fruit were always her favorite in summer, oozing their juice, staining summer dresses pink.
“Miss? You have questions for me?”
Justine shakes herself like a dog after a bath. “Sorry. First day back on the job after a year.” Her voice sounds hoarse, still scraped with lack of use. Communication at home with Nate happens in whispers and grunts, their own sign language of least contact.
He chuckles softly. “Doesn’t bother me. I talk to trees and goats more’n people. You took a sabbatical? An illness?”
A stab of surprise at his bold asking. “An accident. Lost someone.” Her throat feels sliced from the saying so, first time aloud to a stranger in a year. For a moment she can’t swallow around that hurt.
“That’s a damn shame.” He cocks his head skyward. “Too much damn loss.” He looks up at the tree overhead which reaches down new leaves like a lover tickling his scalp.
She realizes he’s giving her a moment to herself.
A man of good humor, Justine thinks. She’s forgotten what it’s like to be around one. Focus, she prods herself. Feels the slender recorder in her pocket; pulls it out. Digital now, none of the heft of the old machines. She holds it up toward him slightly, as though offering a cigarette.
He leans in, his lips close to the silver box. “I may be out of a job end of this summer.” Dark green eyes fold into furrows of brow. “Family’s had Stone Fruit Orchard seventy years. Survived blight, competition, some minor droughts and even a fire. But now the county’s going to end a legacy by taking our water away.”
“Water district told me you have wells,” she says. No taking sides. Just the facts, Justine reminds herself, though she’s already stepped over the dry line toward her subject. He’s wearing blue and white plaid shorts in February, flip-flops. His calves are ropey and browned; she suddenly yearns to see them flex, climb a ladder up into the waiting trees. She sleeps as far as possible from her own husband at night, two castaways on separate continents, but now, here, she wants to slide her arm around this stranger’s shoulder, knows how the soft jersey knit t-shirt will feel beneath her fingers. She imagines he’ll smell like hay and plums.
His laugh is an amused bark. “We have wells. We live on one—water for the house, the animals, and so on. The other hasn’t been used in thirty years. What it’ll cost just to see if it even works, hell.” A vigorous shake of the head dislodges a leaf from his thick brown hair. He laughs again.
“So what does that mean for your orchard?” A reporter’s job is to ask stupid questions, so the subject will provide good quotes, yet every word exhausts her. All this talking to talk.
Now the easy smile slides away. He squints up, eyes like the green flash at sunset. “It means I gotta choose between keeping my orchard or my wife alive. Can’t afford a well and her chemo, both.”
A gust blows pollen straight up her nose. Her sneeze explodes, so fierce, so fast she can feel the pause of her heart. At last, a subject she’s conversant in: death.
“I’m sorry,” Justine says. It’s the thing you’re supposed to say in the face of deathly things, though she knows too well it’s less than a band-aid, but you say it because it’s better than the things you really want to say, like fuck cancer or no, I don’t feel better.
His eyes stay tight but that grin returns. But then his jaw locks up, subterranean veins pulse beneath the stubble of his beard. Justine recognizes the stoic pose you take to prevent tears, to still emotion back into its lair.
“Sorry, yeah, aren’t you.” Voice hunkers down to a whisper and he turns only his eyes to look at Justine. “You know what my wife said to me? ‘Hal you just let me go my own way. I know a way, I won’t feel no pain. A sip of this, a swallow of that. Just need someone to help.’”
Justine can barely breathe. Any sound might scare him back into talking at the surface. Here’s a topic she understands. Willing death in. Seeking its escort to a place beyond pain.
“Can I meet your wife?” Her hand sweats around the recorder. Moisture beads up at the back of her neck and trickles between shoulder blades, too. It’s got to be eighty degrees out here.
He raises an eyebrow, bites his lower lip, exhales. “Ohhh.” His limbs shifting, shuffling. “She’s not really up to seeing folks. Don’t think she’ll be much good to your story.”
Justine turns the recorder off, jams it back into her pocket, holds out her hand, as though in prayer, beseeching. “I don’t want to talk to her about the story.”
She holds his gaze so long it almost hurts, waiting to be understood without having to make more words.
At last the coils of his face release, his eyes glaze with little clear pearls. “First, let me show you one more thing.”
They walk in silence up a fat hill. She enjoys the pleasant, rhythmic exertion of her thighs, thin excuses for former muscles that hang and flap when she stands naked before the mirror. Breath burns in her lungs but feels good, too—she remembers this from the Time Before, when she and Nate did laps to nowhere on side by side treadmills at the gym, chasing that high in that perfect life that needed nothing else.
At the top, Hal stops and pivots out. Awed breath gathers at the edge of her throat. The whole town spreads out below them, a sweeping silent valley of matchboxes, beveled in yellowed hills with dark green berets—all those ancient oaks. She can almost feel their thirst from here, see them curling brown at the edges.
“I used to see a pretty vista, stars twinkling at night, a sunlit paradise in a lush valley by day. Now? I see my livelihood dribbling away.” He plants his hands on hips, an almost womanly gesture. “You know what really nuts me up?” He doesn’t wait for any confirmation that she’s listening. “Thinking of all the water wasted all over the damn place that nobody knows a thing about, can’t stop or fix. Dripping faucets, and little kids flushing toilets over and over for laughs, and some drunk asshole forgetting to turn off his bathtub, and sprinkler heads broken and shooting water into cement parking lots, not to mention all those athletes wasting waters in showers at the health clubs. It keeps me up at night, all that water that could be mine, that could keep this orchard alive, but there’s nobody watching, nobody to catch it…”
Nobody to catch, to keep an ambitious child from tall ladders. A wind whips through Justine; she flings arms around herself, chilled.
Hal tilts his head back and up, closes his eyes. “Best damn thing I’ve felt in months, a breeze.”
Justine’s teeth are chattering.
What does Justine expect of Hal’s dying wife? Perhaps the same sorts of false impressions people expected of her in the Time After—a glowing, vogue version of decay with natural make up: How natural death looks on you! What a great fitness regime is grief.
But instead, a ragged woman, thin to bone except for the bloated face, a patchwork of bruises and greenish hues. The skin around her eyes and lips flaking, a body in drought to match the landscape. Skin thinned to nothing at the edges but swollen like a pregnant woman.
The wife sits propped in a ratty green recliner, watching the news. Medical paraphernalia clutters the edges of the space, things made of grey plastic bowls for catching vomit and spit; cups of liquids, half-consumed.
The wife frowns, shakes her head, makes a quick scoop of magazines into a half-tidy stack. “Ah Hal, couldn’t you have let me know we had company, tidy up?”
Hal jams thumbs into belt loops, looks at the ground like a chastised child. “Reporter lady, uh, is doing a story for the Merc on our water situation.”
The wife’s lips compress, “I can see she’s a lady. What’s her name?”
“Justine.” She moves closer, puts out a hand.
The wife looks at her own hands, puffy and mottled, inexplicably bruised. She clutches them close but smiles, nods. “Diane. Sounds a lot like dying, don’t you think?”
Justine laughs, easy to do when it’s someone else’s sorrow.
Diane focuses on her with Malamute blue eyes, the pale orbs of a person who has little use for sight for much longer. “Why you writing this story? Think it’s gonna bring awareness? One little orchard goes out of business because it doesn’t rain enough—who’s gonna care? It’s not gonna stop teenagers jerking off in forty-five minute showers. Or Los Gatos ladies from watering their ornamental gardens.”
Justine’s legs feel weak; but sees no other chair. She squats, then drops to the ground, legs betraying her.
“You okay?” Hal suddenly speaks.
She can tell he’s a good husband, the kind who tends his wife’s every need—needs he likely never signed up for on “I do;” beyond the dignity any woman hopes to be revealed in.
“Fine,” Justine says.
“Oh go on, Hal, you never let me have any fun.” Diane winks at Justine. “Let the ladies talk a while.”
Justine likes the ornery fire of this dying woman. “I’ll get your quotes on my way out, Hal,” she says.
Hal shrugs as if waiting for Justine to come around, remember who she’s really here to interview, then shuffles off like a banished teen, all hangdog eyes and hunched shoulders.
Justine leans in close enough to Diane to smell the sweet funk of a body that can’t be washed as often as would make for polite company. “I can help you.”
Diane shakes her head, slight, more an action of eyes and lips. “Newspaper stories don’t offer much help. Lots of words lost on a bored public. We can’t afford to get the second well running.”
“No, I mean…Hal told me what you want to do, well, because of your illness.” Justine grapples for how to say this. “To help you. I have, supplies, more than enough, I lost…”
How to explain the excess of drugs, vials, and bottles of pain-numbing medications never put to use, never needed before they flipped that ever so final switch?
But Diane’s hairless eyebrow rises, a punctuation mark of mutual understanding. “Oh.”
A pause of synchronized breathing; Justine feels herself rough at the edges. Conspiratorial stillness settles between them, so intimate Justine feels as though they have just kissed.
Then Hal returns with glasses clinking full of icy tea where there should be steam, hot cocoa for a wintry afternoon that is, instead, hot as summer.
The entire time Hal sets down glasses, offer sweetener, props his wife’s pillows more firmly behind her neck, Justine and Diane don’t break eye contact. Justine hasn’t felt so alive since, well, since the three month mark when the doctors assured her the fetus had passed that anxious point, beyond the fear of sudden loss (such silly doctors, with their false certainties. No talk about what will happen to a fetus in the years beyond the womb, as if life is any certainty of safety).
“Well now,” Diane starts when Hal is gone, then sips her tea, circles a square of ice around inside her mouth until it clinks hard against teeth. “It’s not so polite to offer death to a stranger.”
Justine lifts her glass, which sweats like a woman in labor. Her eyebrows rise, involuntarily. She takes in Diane again—looks through the illness to the woman beneath. Sees the kind who once cracked the whip on that kind-hearted husband, who ran operations, birthed an orchard into bloom, picked and packed and cradled fruit, fuzzy and fresh into crates. “I’m sorry, Diane. I haven’t got anything else to give.”
“You a nurse or something in your off time?” Diane sips, then spits out ice again. “Ice makes my mouth ache, he knows that. He’s wearing down under my illness, the drought, the crisping orchard; not that I blame him. The water or the wife—that’s horns of dilemma right there.”
Justine shakes her head. “Medicines were for my daughter.”
Diane holds her gaze. “She didn’t make it?”
There’s no whisper, no careful treading over the fact of this loss. Not exactly a scab removed, but maybe a bandage loosened ever so slightly to let in air.
The words trip out of Justine’s mouth like bumbling kids at a first dance. “She didn’t.”
“I never had any,” Diane says. “Wanted them, but we thought we had time, and then we had ovarian cancer.”
Justine pushes out a half-hearted smile, a “well this has been nice” kind of forced grin, ready to rise and run from this whole day. This day of being back to work in the world was supposed to show everyone how fine Justine has become, how healed.
Diane plants her palms to thighs, lightly, though she winces all the same. “Justine. Well then. You come on back. Bring your medicines, you hear?”
Justine blinks, throws back her tea before her mouth makes some kind of mischief she can’t justify. “Okay.”
Diane puts out a hand. The fingernails are already too white, bluish half-moons rising beneath purple skin, clammy against Justine’s arm. “You can’t tell Hal. Come next Friday, he will be gone.”
Here’s what gives Justine pause; a man deserves the right to say goodbye, to prepare. He’s still fighting for this half-gone woman. She likes Hal and his soft-spoken, good humor. The way he touched the too soon buds of plums when he showed her the orchard like they were all there was to love in the world. The way he looks at his woman like she’s everything she no longer is.
Diane tilts her head, sparks a smile. “Come on now. Men don’t give us permission to go so easily. I’m betting you know that already.”
Justine’s husband Nate rises up in mind, a hunched and patient sentinel at a cold white bedside, the voice of reason, begging her to reconsider the miracles that only ever happened in movies, not in forlorn hospitals over ravaged families. How she pressed both palms down upon his shoulders to make him hear her. “She’s gone.”
“Friday. I’ll be here.”
A cold beer slides down the bar before her. She hates beer, or did, Before. There were lots of Befores like never eating poppyseed bagels, or running, because it knifed aches into her knees.
The third beer goes down just as smooth as the first two, but hits her stomach like a dense slice of bread. Her head, a gyroscope flicked too hard. She leans her forehead to the tacky surface of the bar just a moment. How long since she’s had a drink?
“Hey, hey don’t get sick here,” the bartender, a boy really, all bulging muscles sprouted beneath a thin black tee, echo of goatee, gently pushes her head up.
She’s up and stumbling when she sees Nate—still life of Husband Come Upon Wife Making a Scene—the wavering frown, the disappointed eyes; the unbeered parts of her brain know there’s a full face beneath it, a man in a suit just off work, meeting his wife at the bar for a drink. All she sees are those orbs of accusation.
He grips her arm. “You’re drunk? What’s going on?”
She shoves out of his arms and pushes past him, past ladies in sparkling thigh-high dresses—a bachelorette party, a celebration of singleness?—with Nate chasing after calling, “Heeeey.”
She pukes on the curb.
“What’s gotten into you?” Nate yanks her away from the puddling green evidence of her self-disgust.
“I’m helping a woman to die.” Her words come on delay, like a bad dubbing in a foreign language.
“Jesus, Justine, not this again.”
“I’m not talking about myself!” She flings off his attempted grasp, and thinks on Hal’s fingers stroking a tiny green peach. Nate’s palm closing over the fist of their newborn’s head. The warring images make her gorge rise again.
“You can’t do that. It’s illegal. What are you even talking about?”
She walks, too fast for the wobbly way her head attaches to her shoulders, and trips over a lip of cement.
“Jus.Tine.” He kneels beside her. Suit jacket unbuttoned, tie an open space she wants to close up tight.
“The farmer’s got no water. His wife has got no life.” Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean. “They can’t afford her medical bills and a new well both. She wants to die. She’s close, too; her body’s all rot and decay…” Her words, she hears, are more sobs than speech.
Nate squints at her with familiar fear. “God damn it, Justine. Let’s go home.”
She leans into him on the way into the house, with its strange slate sliding recalling a sarcophagus in the low light. Alcohol slides through her seams and wakes up old desire. Nate smells of bay rum, a musky sweetness that used to linger on her skin long after making love.
He slips an arm around her waist, and for once in a long time, it’s supple, not steel bands between them. She’s caught, remembering the farmer Hal’s strong calves, his soft shirt she wanted to touch, patience and pain in his eyes as he looked at his wife. Is that how other women look at Nate? See the long-suffering champion of the grief-torn woman? What a miracle, really, that their limbs are entwined without one or the other pushing away.
She teeters into him, still swimmy. And before this sudden yearning is gone, she yanks open his tie, rips the buttons right off his shirt, the gasp of fabric splitting open reflected in his startled eyes. He leans in and strips her of her blouse in a gust of air. They don’t kiss—vomit still lingers in her mouth—but knock into each other, their bodies gawky. His mouth remembers her nipples need a little scrape of teeth, but her hands guide him out of necessity—she’s a long since visited city—crashing together, barely enough lust to succeed. Until they’re both gasping on their backs, fish gnashing at air that won’t come.
In the dark of the unused living room, the only light is the blinking red voicemail button. Later, she will wish she had left it unpressed, its words unknown, nurtured this tiny bud of trust between them; mended one seam.
But now, why not press it? What is left but small calamity?
Still nude, her finger lingers over the sleek black box. She hears the voice of the speaker as she imagines Nate must hear it, for the moment the words “This is Jason, from Three Palms Morturary” slide out, she glides free of her body, rises above the scene.
Nate sits up, spine rigid, but Justine collapses, a folding crane, dizzy again under extreme gravity.
A courtesy call, the voice says. As if it could ever be considered such a thing. “After a year, we move all cremains to the county facility.”
She doesn’t need to look to feel Nate’s hard eyes. “You said…” Rage chokes off his words. “You said you’d pick them up.”
Them. Particles and pieces disassembled, rent from the space of their daughter’s body and scattered into impossible plurals. How could he expect it of her?
Bottles rattle a familiar music she hasn’t heard in a while. In the Time After, she preferred life inside that parabola of smooth edges, everything round and blurred by drugs with their sweet, soft padding—Ativan and Xanax, aliens from the planet Forget-Your-Woes. But only a few months in, Nate moved them from their regular spot, no more little soldiers in the bathroom cabinet reporting for duty. Her doctor didn’t feel it was in Justine’s “best interest” to keep so numb. Young doctor with too-smooth cheeks, what did he know about what and how much pain a person should bear? And Nate, she is quite sure, it was his only revenge; though the patting, petting friends and mothers all said the same stock line—it could have happened to anyone—they both knew this wasn’t true. Not Nate. He’d never have fallen so deeply into distraction; he’d never have looked away.
What he never gathered up are all these other, tinier bottles of pain pills that had to be crushed into puddings for the week her child’s mouth and throat still worked, and then the vials full of opaque fluid, medicine meant for a person departing the planet, tucked in the back of the bathroom cabinet behind tampon boxes and old make-up. She is surprised to feel relieved to put it all to use; these bottles have taunted her with an easy release too many times.
Dust coats the edges of Justine’s car. Their lawn is a crisped square, no longer green. Still too warm, no need for a jacket. Clouds come and go, mostly tease with their fat white edges, skirts full but never dropping. Only evergreens are green, while the city trees, meant to make her suburban streets seem lush and full, stand bare and hard, refugees clustered in a too-hot camp with no relief. It reminds her of her own childhood—prone to chest infections that left her stuck in bed, gasping, coughing, kicking off covers—everything around her seen through a yellow sheen of heat. Maybe it will never rain again.
The bottom of Hal’s Stone Fruit Orchard sign is layered brown, from all those wheels kicking up dirt. She wonders if there will be any fruit to share come summer. Strange to find herself salivating at the ghost of a firm, ripe nectarine between her teeth. She only eats when the rumbling of hunger pounces hard enough to make her notice, which isn’t often.
The front door of the little green house is open. But Diane isn’t in her living room recliner. Hal’s there, instead, eyebrows drawn together tight, fingers locked together.
“How could you?” He seems a taller man as he stands up and faces her. “Do you have any fucking idea what you’ve done?”
The head of one rib seems to poke her heart, sharp things bloom in her chest. It’s Nate’s voice all over again. How could you look away? How could you?
She shakes her head, hands out. He moves toward her like fire, with intention to consume.
“You said she wanted help.”
His smile is a leer, teeth breaking through. “I was just talking, telling you my pain. She’s my wife.”
“I know, it’s just…” How glad she is now she brought no frills—made no party of this moment.
“—I don’t understand how you could even think of such a thing. You don’t know us. You come in here meaning to write a story and then you just…insert yourself!”
“Hal!” Diane’s voice, so small from the back bedroom.
His shoulders cave in, but he shakes one last fist. “You had no right. I was trying to keep her looking up. I’d raze this place to the ground for her.”
Justine turns—she can’t quite leave, that’s like escaping from a criminal scene. Breath fills her with the power of sobs wanting to unleash, but she chokes them back. “I need to use your restroom.”
Once inside, she pops in the lock, presses her back against its cool frame like a horror movie teen in temporary reprieve from the zombie horde. Outside, Hal and Diane are murmuring words, not quite shouting. The shower holds a bench and railings, the toilet framed by a caged portable potty, its basin half full with a deep orange urine.
She would like to put her fist through the glass, but then she’d have to look at the gaunt woman there, her eyes gilded with bruised half-moons, the ill-fitting black dress that once hugged curves…what overcame her to wear black? She sets down her basket of death. She turns on the faucet to muffle the clatter of the bottle and its little white pills.
She swallows one without water. Droplets swirl down a white basin. Hal doesn’t understand. Thinks he’s saving his wife something, thinks there’s something left for her, but Justine knows different. She’s been at the end and seen what’s there. Let the medicines work. Let the body stop its hurt. She could keep this tap running, just walk out of the house and let it pour and pour, be just another asshole wasting his water.
She shuts it off. Steps out. The living room is empty. Voices momentarily stilled. She leaves, slow and quiet, Goldilocks slinking away after trashing the place.
The garage door is open at home and Nate’s trunk, ajar. Inside it, big white bags piled in, plump and bursting like spider sacs. Out of the pursed mouth of one hangs a small pink sleeve with tiny pink pigs.
A gut punch. The hangover of Hal’s anger has her brittle at the edges already. Nate bustles out of the house, eyes sudden lamps of surprise. “You’re not supposed to be home.”
“What…are you….doing?” Her voice lacks weight, comes out all whispers.
He tosses a last bag in the trunk, closes it hard, has to really push to make it click, but doesn’t look at her when he speaks. “It has been a year, Justine.”
The weight of her name in his mouth feels mean, like poking a finger into her heart just because he can.
What’s a year, she wants to say. Days, really, moments collected and ticking, only substantial in the quality of their having been lived; she wants to argue that such time without fullness, lacking in love, is nothing. Some people grieve for decades before returning to their functions in the world. But Nate, apparently, has filed his grief in expandable folders—tucked it away and carried on.
What she says instead is, “You always pushed. Pushed and pushed and made lists and bought books. You married me knowing I didn’t want children.” Spit gathers at the edges of chapped lips. No breeze whips in around their legs, the dry air raising hairs and static, her dress adhering to her thighs.
Nate’s dark eyes are full of storms, his mouth purses in tight. “You didn’t want children? You had a child. You loved a child. But you looked away, and she died and now you can’t even say her name. Is that how you treat life? Casually? You look away from your own child but you will walk face first into a stranger’s death, hand it out?”
She’s not entirely numb—his words wedge in between ribs and settle there, sharp if she breathes too deep. She lifts her chin, refuses to be like one of the beaten down members of a jury. She wants to beg him to open that trunk just one last time, lift out the tiny pink sleeve. But what’s the point? This is the end of pretending.
She drives, all those numbing medicines clattering in their glad little basket on her passenger seat. She drives and drives, the stab in her ribs growing stronger, like a thorn working its way out. Past the pre-school their girl never got to attend; past the urban park where Justine made herself into monsters to chase her curly-haired pixie; past the library where she held her girl, a circle of limbs in the clutch of her lap for storytime.
And at last, she reaches her child’s final home. Outside it is an advertisement for false paradise—those three fake palms and a too-green lawn. A water fountain of cascading angels, tumbling down a bluish spray of piped in water. The pill bottles clustered together remind her of nothing less than the ones that once held her own mother’s milk, expressed in painstaking hand-cranked pumps to a backdrop of Scrubs reruns. At first, the pumping had been painful, squeezing out harsh surprised breaths, the same way the baby’s clamped lips would elicit a gasp. And then, over time, brought relief. A stone breast became flesh again, released.
She takes one pill. Then another. With fastidious fingers, she readies a shot of Demerol, needle in so neat, sucking up fluid like a straw. She tests its tip on her finger; still sharp. Watches it squeeze out two tiny milky drops, like breast milk in reverse.
By the time she walks inside, the world has been drugged into rounded corners—there are no edges, just suggestions of a giving horizon that bends on forever. The mortuary scent is sort of peaches and cream.
A woman sits behind a desk, sleek blonde hair in perfect strands around a long neck. A magazine sits on her lap, spread wide, salacious with gossip about Demi-gods of Hollywood and their slattern ways, until she spots Justine and then it slides to the floor with a rude-sounding slap.
“Can I help you?”
Justine’s mouth feels sure and firm but the words slink out like drunk girls slipping home in stocking feet. Something about remains.
The woman’s brows crease in tight. “Are you okay, ma’am?”
“Really? You think anyone who comes here is okay?”
The woman’s fish-gape stammer makes static prickle in Justine’s hands. She can feel Medusa’s snakes coil on her head with the urge to strike.
“I only meant, ma’am that you seem a little…woozy, like maybe you want to sit down and rest.”
“Give me my daughter,” she says, her words beginning to slither. “My damn daughter, what’s left.”
“Uh, uh of course.” This blonde lady smoothes her skirt. “Your name please.”
Dates and details, the power of a name she hasn’t spoken in a year, afraid to conjure spirits. Standing there, awaiting this final slap, she sways, hips tilting from one wall to the other. Just like those early days, even two years in, when in line, waiting to pay for food, she cradled gallons of milk, slung ice cream cartons to sleep. Her knees refuse this ungainly gravity when the tall man in his black suit emerges from down the corridor. He carries this important package with straight-armed respect, rests it flat upon his palms, as though it bears a golden samovar.
Not a few steps left till he’s at her side, her knees collide with tile, palms slap down to keep herself from a face plant.
“Oh!” One single word jerked from his lips, he rushes toward her, this stranger, bearing all her love, distilled to ash. Torn for a split second, the blonde woman, who has resumed her reading, flings the magazine to the ground.
It is a foolish move in a string of such folly to drive to the Orchard, from which she was so recently rejected. But it is closer than home and she has taken too many pills. The sun is setting early, the only hint of winter in the time the light goes down.
A moment of memory, her daughter, aged two, cradled in the hammock with a summer fever, just like the land is now—only happy under the open air, a cool cloth pressed against her head. The heat of her ailing child between her legs like the heat of the love that made her, like the volcano of her birth.
The ashes look like dirty snow, slippery between her fingers. Dense with bone shards, not delicate. She lets them rain onto her legs, rubs them in, these stardust fragments of her little girl, these particles of everything. These ashes to ashes. Another pinch, like salt to spice a stew. Like the glitter her sweet girl sprinkled on clumps of glue, those projects pinned in unexpected nooks.
A year doesn’t seem so long. A year of never mores and sudden starts, certain her child’s voice has beckoned from the end of the hall. How many times she’s traced a swath of skin, edges and elbows, expecting to grasp her small hands. That sense of a face peering around a corner, only not there.
She reaches in, takes a real scoop, silty and soft between her fingers. It seems inevitable to bring the fist to her mouth. The pills have worked too much softening, the world now crimping, film curling in against flame. So simple to pinch an inch of fat, plunge that Demerol needle in, too. Instead she eats a fistful of ashes, swallows with effort, like sand. Eats some more, the promise of relief in that tiny white syringe still resting in its basket in her car. The ashes choke; spit pools up and mixes it to a sludge she can’t swallow. Again, like labor, she pushes, though this time in, swallowing and gagging until her body says no more.
On her knees again, just like the first few weeks when the baby’s presence asserted itself, everything rises—the bile and little bits of food, and nested in it, all those partially digested white pills. She curls into her knees, lying down on hard earth.
A sound startles her awake. Hal above her, monolith of man framed by fresh stars. She shivers against the settling cold, expects a tirade, to be escorted off by sirens and uniformed police.
Instead, he kneels beside her, brows pulled tight, the glazed eyes of disbelief, green eyes taking in the gray dust. “What’s going on here?”
Justine shakes her head, absent of words.
He squints. “I didn’t mean to yell. Didn’t matter anyway. Should have let you stay. Diane’s gone. Said she needed me to go away, but I wouldn’t go. So I went to check the taps were all tight, and when I came back, she was gone.”
Justine clutches the black plastic box that holds the rest of her girl and lifts it slightly toward him. “I’m sorry, Hal. Maybe it won’t take you so long. Took me a year.”
Hal tips his head to his fingers, reaches up and brushes away the dust at the edges of her mouth, exhales a tear-filled sigh. “What was her name?”
“Mira. It means sea, sort of.”
Hal puts his face into his hands. “The body is seventy percent water,” he says without looking up. “Never really got that, but I see it’s true.” A quick tilt of the head toward her lap.
“What will you do now she’s gone?” Justine asks.
“Leave it behind. Lease it out. Let someone else make that new well start pumping. Go see a few things.”
Her fingers still laced with ash she’s sure will leave a trace, Justine puts a free arm around his upper back. In the gloaming before the lights blink on in the valley below, the land below, dark and dense, offers the illusion that it is lush, for just this moment quenched.
About the Author: Jordan E. Rosenfeld is the author of seven books, most recently the novel, Women in Red, and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence. Her work has been published in Alternet, Dame, Marin Magazine, The New York Times, Ozy, The Pacific Sun, The Rumpus, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and many more.
Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.