Jane Barrett hums while she leans over the chicken cages, scrubbing white chalky circles until they thin and vanish into the cloth. She catches herself in mid-tune. Humming. While cleaning chicken shit.
Life’s been slowing down lately. Her daughter has adjusted to high school, finally, no longer comes home every afternoon from softball practice with huge puffy eyes, stomping up to her room without a greeting and eating sullenly at the dinner table. Like any teenage girl, she still flips once in a while. A few days ago, Jacqueline went on a rant about how stupid everything was and what was the goddamn point if she was just going to get dumped anyway? But a half hour later, she was on the phone with Micha about some boy in gym class.
And Karl’s business has been quiet for these past few weeks. It’s always this way in late fall. For some reason, people don’t want to chop down and uproot trees when the temperature starts to drop; why, Jane doesn’t know. Maybe it’s an ingrown thing, an evolutionary trait, developed when there weren’t supermarkets and space heaters and indoor plumbing. Winter means shortages (even though fifty degrees Fahrenheit shouldn’t qualify as winter weather), and when there are shortages, unwanted trees can stay a little while longer.
Jane has scoured the house today; washed, dried, and folded four loads of laundry; vacuumed and swept every square inch. Bathrooms, kitchen sinks, counters, mirrors, bookshelves, wall sconces, windows, coffee tables, stairway railings, and wine glasses are shining, gleaming. She has deep-cleaned the upholstery.
Brynn Rosaline Church will arrive soon.
Jane knots the cloth in her hand and starts humming again. In earnest. Quite badly. The notes come out sharp and flat and she grits her teeth as she grabs the water hose and sprays down the coop.
“Really, Jane? The coop?” is was what her husband, Karl, says as soon as she enters the house. She rolls her eyes in what she hopes is a I-wouldn’t-have-to-if-somebody-else-did kind of fashion. He’s making dinner, though. And he’s very good at making dinner, her silver-haired, strong-backed husband. She glances at the clock on the microwave. Only an hour and a half! She hurries to pull off her filthy work clothes as she makes her way up the stairs, careful not to touch the polished railings. She’s completely naked by the time she gets to their bedroom, and she’s glad now that Jacqueline decided to spend Friday night with Micha. She really doesn’t approve of Micha, pitcher for Spruce Creek High’s softball team, who’s flighty and carefree and who doesn’t even seem concerned about going to college. A girl needs to learn how to make important choices that affect the rest of her life.
Jane finishes washing up and spends, according to the clock on her nightstand, forty-five minutes covering up crow’s feet, jowls, gray roots—this is impossible for the short time she has, but she does her best—and a myriad of other things she usually doesn’t worry about but is terrified Brynn will notice.
They have not seen each other in six years. Not since Brynn’s last promotion party, making editor-in-chief of the Kansas City Star and more money than Jane would know what to do with, when Jane went alone to visit her best and only childhood friend out in Missouri. Karl had offered to join her, but as it was a weekend and he would have had to cancel several bookings, she’d declined.
She has been dreading this day since that day. If dread is what you call this frantic make-up and hair-adornment whirlwind she’s in that requires literally stopping for breath because her chest hurts whenever she thinks that Brynn will be here, is here, is ringing the doorbell and wearing a form-fitting blazer, black skirt, and black toeless slingbacks that are probably worth as much as Jane’s sofas, and her breasts are enormous! They bounce, like on the movies, when Karl shakes her hand. Jane opts for a side-hug to avoid an intimate encounter with her friend’s latest plastic surgery foray. She feels immediately guilty when Brynn grabs her hand, as if nothing has changed since the day they met, as if twenty years of stilted, bi-monthly phone calls, broken promises, and mutual resentment have had no effect on Brynn, as if she has never once questioned their friendship.
“I can’t believe I’m home,” Brynn whispers, her eyes welling up. She blinks them dry and slips into a familiar smile, as she turns to Karl so that she’s speaking to both of them, her arm now linked with Jane’s. “How about a grand tour and then”—sniffing deeply—“am I smelling lasagna or what!”
From a polite distance, Jane watches Brynn steel her smile for the garish flashes of expensive cameras. Brynn poses and grins and holds up her diploma. Empty, of course. It’ll arrive in the mail long after they have already left town. The cameras disappear as the high school superintendent waltzes into the mix to speak to his two biggest non-alumni contributors to the school’s technologies fund.
“Come on,” says Brynn, suddenly at Jane’s elbow, as soon as her parents have turned to greet the superintendent.
She lets Brynn lead her—it’s a habit by now—out the back of the auditorium where a group of students have already disrobed and broken out a few celebratory joints. Jane knows them all by name, but they’re Brynn’s friends, not hers.
Jane leans against the concrete wall, staring over the sea of sun-glazed cars, wondering if her parents, whom she spotted in two of the back rows of the auditorium—late-comers—had already left by the time she walked or if they simply hadn’t been able to find each other afterward.
She doesn’t turn down a hit the way she usually does. She listens to Brynn’s loud laughter. It carries her; she releases the smoke slowly. She takes another hit and closes her eyes.
After a while, or maybe it’s not a while, Brynn settles back against the wall with her, snuggling. “Honey, fuck them. Just this is all we need. Not all their fancy fucking diplomas and careers and money, money, fucking money!” She laughs. The others have slipped away, and the sun is warm and heavy. “I pulled my Harvard account this morning. Huge-ass wad of cash in my bra’s making my boobs itch.” She gives Jane a kiss on the cheek: it’s light, soft, and cool. “Jane, we’re not coming back. Promise me.”
Jane swallows. A long-necked palm tree’s shadow splays over the ground, fronds like fingers stretching outward. Away. She presses closer to Brynn, her friend’s perfume and musky hemp clinging to her hair. She doesn’t have a lot to come back for, it’s true—parents who can’t stand the sight of one another, mother too busy, father too lazy, no siblings, no friends, just a long stretch of white sand and water and humid air and summer showers. But she likes this about home: the predictable, the sure. College is one thing. Never coming back is another. She laces her fingers between Brynn’s, hoping it’s enough of a promise.
They eat most of Karl’s homemade lasagna and finish off two bottles of Chianti. Brynn is delightful and delighted all at once. She has taken the grand tour and adores the chickens. She can’t believe Jacqueline is a woman now, with boyfriends and breasts and attitude—they were staring at her school pictures in Karl’s study. Brynn had just finished ogling Paul Barrett, Jane’s first child, away for his third semester at Rochester, eating holes through the family’s pockets.
“And you were always the one who said you’d never have children, remember?” Brynn shook her head.
Jane didn’t know about always. She’d said it once. After her parents went through with the divorce and her mother told her that her father had voluntarily given up custody and visitation rights in lieu of paying child support.
“I remember someone saying plastic surgery was for shallow girls with security issues.”
She’d wanted the words back.
“Honey,” said Brynn seriously, thankfully ignoring the jibe (or ignorant of it—Jane couldn’t tell which), “I’m living proof of that. But I’ve grown up since then. What you look like’s got nothing to do with who you are.”
A chill slinked up Jane’s arms. Go away! she’d wanted to say. Jane hadn’t invited Brynn for the three weeks she would be staying. They’d been on the phone back in May, and she’d said something about Brynn not realizing how much Jacqueline had grown up and she should see just see her! And Brynn had said Honey, thank God, yes. Do you mind if I come right away? There’d been another promotion and another breakup and Brynn was (sobbing into the phone) tired. A teensy bit tired were Brynn’s exact words. She hadn’t come, and Jane had felt guiltily relieved. Until a week ago when Brynn phoned her from a hotel room in Kansas and didn’t say a word more than I’m coming. (Jane could hear in the background through Brynn’s uncharacteristic silence the sound of man’s voice, muffled and angry.)
When Jane had finally gotten Brynn to talk, she said only that she needed a break. Just a few weeks. No laptop, no stories, no men.
Jane takes another large sip of wine, wondering if her teeth look stained, as she listens to Karl talking about—of all things—fishing. Her husband is endearingly simple. She can’t imagine that Brynn is actually enjoying the conversation. Brynn shudders when he comes to the cleaning part, flaking off the scales, slicing the fish up the belly, and pulling out its yellowy guts.
“Karl,” laughs Jane, putting a hand on his arm. It’s a comforting arm, she thinks, as she notices Brynn’s eyes land on the spot for a moment. “Maybe not while we’re eating?”
“Oh, she’s always been squeamish,” says Brynn. “At your wedding, somebody vomited all over the bathroom stall—do you remember?—and Jane, you looked like you were about to blow chunks yourself.”
Jane has forgotten that Brynn met Karl once before. How could she forget that? She watches Brynn laugh and nod and flutter manicured hands as her husband tries to best Brynn’s story with an even more nauseating dinner topic. She feels a strange jolt in the pit of her stomach and excuses herself to the bathroom. The porcelain toilet seat is hard and cold. She tries not to think. She doesn’t know what to think.
When she comes out again, the plates are cleaned up, and she finds them sitting in the living room with the TV on low, finishing the bottle of wine. Karl smiles when she enters. He rises, kisses her cheek. “Ladies, I’ve got a bunch of palmettos to dig out at six o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m afraid you two will have to enjoy yourselves without me.”
Jane can’t help sliding her arm protectively around Karl’s waist—it has thickened over the years, hasn’t it? And the gray in his hair is prominent; it makes him look distinguished, she thinks covetously. She blushes when he kisses her again, murmurs goodnight, and hands her his half-full wine glass as he slides away and vanishes up the stairs.
Brynn pats the seat next to her, and Jane moves forward to sit. Their bodies don’t touch. They stare at the nearly muted television as it flickers through shapes and colors that Jane doesn’t consciously recognize because her mind is full of the fact that Brynn is in her house, is sitting next to her—and they’ve gotten to the awkward part without meaning to. In phone calls recently, this nervous silence means that Brynn has run out of new things to tell Jane, and that Jane—who always feels a bit stunned after the nonstop one-way conversation falls into a muffled electronic hum punctured by the sounds of their breathing from either end of the line—has not yet figured out how to admit to Brynn that her own life is both completely boring and fairly satisfying, and that she only ever feels unsatisfied when she thinks about Brynn. And she doesn’t know why this is because she doesn’t want Brynn’s crazy, fast-paced, jetlagged, loveless (or full of too much love from too many different places), wealthy, colorful life. Jane likes hers, she thinks. She likes Karl, her children, working as an insurance agent, and spending every other Christmas at her mother’s in the next county over. She likes the chickens. Even scrubbing their shit.
She hates the feeling that somewhere down the road, a long way back, she made a wrong turn.
They accidentally glance at each other at the same time and their eyes lock. It’s good to see her, Jane realizes. It’s really good to see her again. Brynn swirls her wine gently. “This is such a home,” she says. “I didn’t imagine it like this. I didn’t imagine Karl like that—when you married him.”
A tingle spreads over Jane’s arms and neck. “Me neither. I mean, I kept reading the horoscopes, but I think I just got lucky.” She says “horo” like “horror,” and the tingle goes straight into her chest, the way smoke does, tight, fast, surprising.
She feels her easy smile fade. “I’m actually getting pretty tired,” she says then.
“Oh, right, you too, of course. You had an early flight.” She stands and takes Brynn’s glass. “Your room is—” But she stops, remembering that Karl showed her earlier when he brought in her luggage. Brynn will be staying in Paul’s old room, converted, while he’s at college, into a guest room. “Shame to waste the wine, though,” she murmurs.
Brynn takes both glasses and finishes them off in a couple of gulps. She hugs Jane again, this time a full-on squeeze. It lasts for several long heartbeats, loud and doubled, and Jane can hear them like she can when she dreams of falling.
Jane walks to the edge of the pier and looks down. The dark gray-blue water is still and hard, like a ceramic tile. She runs her hands over her bathing suit—a bright orange floral print—and shakes her head, grinding her toes into the grain of the wooden pier. Her dark auburn hair clings to her forehead and neck in sweaty, salt-thick curls. Below, the girl she met a few hours ago while building a sandcastle bobs among the waves, the water swimming up around her body like a swallowing mouth. Every time Brynn ducks under, Jane cries out.
She can’t do it. She cannot jump the ten feet from the pier into the water. There are no grownups around to save them. And she’ll drown if she jumps. She just knows she will. The water is deep and Jane is not a good swimmer.
Afterward, Jane lends Brynn her beach towel. They collect shells as they walked back to where their parents lie, gleaming orange-red and gritty under the sun, splayed on thick towels, a few yards apart—all the grownups are; in little twos and fours along the beach, having carved out a sector, their own little island plot of sand.
“Next time,” says Brynn, talking about the jump, and shrugs. She hands Jane a yellowed conch shell the size of Jane’s fist. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
The shell is smooth and warm from the heat of the afternoon.
“When I first did it, I peed my pants.”
Jane puts the shell on her nightstand when she gets home; it is a memorable night: her father throws a plate. He leaves a dent in the wall, a long smiling gash. After she finishes cleaning up the fragments of broken porcelain, she goes to bed and looks at her shell and closes her eyes. She dreams of jumping off the pier, but she never hits the bottom. Once, she manages to get in up to her waist, but it’s then that she wakes up to her own screaming and finds she’s wet the bed. She’s eight years old, much too old to be wetting beds. The screaming doesn’t surprise her, though. She’s had night terrors for as long as she can remember.
During the night, Jane does not dream. She almost wishes she had. She has a habit of reviewing her dreams in the shower, refurbishing them if they’re boring, uncomfortable, or irrelevant, extending them if she’s woken before getting to see how they end. This morning, she takes an extra-long shower after waking up early enough for a quick romp before Karl has to get to work. They kept absolutely silent: Jane even squashed a pillow over Karl’s face at one point when her mouth and hands were otherwise engaged. Karl was surprised but not unpleased, Jane thinks now, as she lathers her legs for the razor.
The sex hasn’t made things any better, though, and neither has a good night’s sleep. She still feels tingly and edgy, invaded, somehow, as if her home has an intruder in it. A guest is not an intruder. Her best friend is not a guest! She tackles her hair with conditioner, scrubbing at her scalp. The water is hot enough to scald.
She finishes, turns off the water, and turbans her hair in a towel. She steps out to find the mirror steamed up, her wet body a ghostly thing in the reflection. She wipes a circle clear and begins removing residual mascara she hadn’t the energy to clean off properly the night before. She still can’t see anything in the mirror. She strolls over to the door and opens it and shrieks. Brynn stands there, holding a dress on a hanger to her curving, silk-wrapped figure.
“Hon, your stomach is so flat,” the other woman says matter-of-factly, eyeing Jane’s naked body.
Jane rips her turban off and wraps herself in it. “What are you doing?” she hisses.
“Come for your opinion. A?”—The floral print dress is replaced by a cyan tank top and Capri pants outfit—“Or B?”
Jane stares at the pink nightgown behind the hanger.
“Relax, Jane,” says Brynn, frowning. For a moment, wrinkles cascade over her face. “Nobody’s here but us. I heard the front door close a long time ago. Now A or B?”
“What—” She’s having difficulty thinking. Today is Saturday. No work, because the insurance office is closed. “What for?”
“I booked us a few engagements. Girl stuff. Hope you don’t mind I invited your daughter and her friend. I called the number on the fridge.”
Jane feels faint. Water drips from her hair and slips along the groove of her spine at the small of her back. It settles between her cheeks.
“A?”—the dress switches out—“B.”
“For chrissakes. B. Now, can I get dressed?”
Brynn gives her a half smile. “You’ve got nothing to hide, J.”
This is what Brynn has been telling her for years. Always the same words, except hide is sometimes to be afraid of and sometimes to lose. Jane wonders how true these word are and why, as she closes the door again, she feels a ripple of rage shudder through her.
They go out for breakfast and mimosas (though Brynn has to slip these to the girls since they’re too young to drink, and the extra twenty sitting the whole while at the edge of the table helps the waitress look the other way). They get pedicures; they have their hair done. Brynn pays for Jane’s new color, a daisy blond Brynn insists will keep the grays from showing better than the natural auburn-out-of-a-box Jane usually applies monthly. They have lunch on the beach, and Brynn pays. They walk the beach and shop at the mall—which consists of either waiting for the girls to try on rack-fulls of clothing or leaving the three of them and peering into windows at diamond-studded jewelry, trying on expensive boots and putting them back, and sniffing colognes Karl would never wear, only to catch up with them all later and find them laden with shopping bags. Jane knows by the uneasy smile her daughter shoots her while they stand in line for ice cream that Jacqueline hasn’t been saving up for just such a trip. At four, they see a movie. At seven, they call Karl and have him meet them for dinner at The Oyster Pub, ordering salmon, New York strips, and dirty vodka martinis—the girls have virgin daiquiris—and Brynn pays.
That night, after Micha drives home and once Brynn has finally gone to bed, Jane creeps into her daughter’s room. Asleep, of course. She sits at the desk and stares in the dark at the shadow of Jacqueline’s body, listening to her daughter’s slow, steady breathing.
She’s not sure why she’s here. She hasn’t done this for years, not since Jacqueline and Paul were small children. After a while, she gets up, and turns the TV on in the living room, subtitled. She doesn’t want to sleep. No, that’s not exactly honest.
She grabs a bag of chips and salsa from the kitchen and returns to the TV program. She doesn’t read the subtitles, crunching close-mouthed until she finishes the bag. She’s afraid of sleeping, actually. She’s afraid that somehow the woman’s presence in her guest room downstairs will counteract the effects of the conch shell on her nightstand, that has been, ever since moving back home after the wedding, an amulet against bad dreams.
She hits the remote with her big toe and the room goes dark.
“What I do when I can’t sleep is I picture myself in a meadow,” says Brynn one night. This is when they are still rooming together, just out of high school, athletic, sexy, optimistic, Brynn sitting on the sofa and Jane on the floor with her head leaning against Brynn’s legs, her eyes closed as two sets of extremely talented fingers walk themselves up and down the length of her forehead, the bridge of her nose, her temples and neck, and through her very dark auburn hair.
Brynn hums as she works. “And I lie down in the grass and wait for the animals to come from the forest and sniff me and wander away. I trace the stars through the sky, and I picture that I’m growing into the ground. Part of the earth. I’m not me anymore. My thoughts aren’t mine. My body isn’t mine. I don’t have to do anything or be anyone. I just am.”
Jane usually ignores Brynn when she talks that way, but right now, with her eyes closed, Brynn’s fingers erasing the tension from her forehead, Jane can see what she means. The floor of their two bedroom second story apartment isn’t the earth exactly, but she does feel connected to it. Or to something. Or just very relaxed. Very safe and alive.
She drifts off eventually—she always does when Brynn takes over, soothes her nightmares. They’ve done this for so many years now, it has become habit.
For the next two weeks, while Jane and Karl work, and while Jacqueline’s at school, Brynn ravages the most expensive boutiques, restaurants, and even jewelry stores in town. Jane and her husband come home to lavish gifts every evening: marble and glass home décor, framed artwork, sports coats and fancy lingerie. Even Jacqueline looks a little distraught after the weeks are over and she has collected a healthy array of pricey fashion jewelry. And Jane has not been able to sleep. When she does, she dreams of falling. She wakes up with a scream lodged in her throat.
But Brynn will be gone soon, thinks Jane the following Monday as she instructs a young married couple buying life insurance about the policies’ accrual rates.
She is sporting Brynn’s gifts from top to bottom. A new gray suit and blue undershirt that matches her eyes, a rope of pearls which she twirls around her finger as she waits for the newlyweds sitting nervously across from her to sign the many forms. She’s wearing black pumps and red-lace underwear.
The young man looks up at her, and she nods encouragingly.
The tingle has not gone away. Sunday, Brynn will go back to Missouri, she thinks. This is only temporary. She’s been on-the-go since she graduated college and she needs a break. Things will go back to normal after this. The pearls speed up around her finger. The idea of things going back to normal is at once welcome and abhorrent. And for a moment, she sees her life as a long, straight line—like a line of sand—stretching endlessly toward the horizon, monotonous, broken neither by wave nor footprint nor building. Her throat tightens. In that moment, she loathes herself.
The couple finishes with the pen and slides the stack back toward her. She smiles.
“All done,” she says, and she watches both chests deflate. She’s seen them come through her office more times that she can count: different pairs of faces but the same tight, worried sets of lungs. Are we making a good choice? Have we made a good choice? those lungs are asking the whole while. And Jane must always say Yes, all done, like a careless oracle. And they will believe her until they find out otherwise. Today, this makes her sad.
The three shake hands, and then the couple leaves her office. Jane sinks back into her leather chair, a hand on the stack of papers she must now enter into the computer. Her fingernails are salmon pink and smooth. Her hands are soft from yet another manicure. Her back is uncomfortably aware of the massage it underwent yesterday, courtesy of Brynn’s pocketbook.
What a sad little room this is, Jane thinks, staring at the white and red walls, the glossy black furniture, and her myriad of family photos. Such a little museum. She has an old picture of Brynn on her desk, arms looped around Jane’s neck as she stands behind her, as if ready to jump up, piggy-back style. They’re in front of the Disney World sign, smiling fearlessly. And why shouldn’t they? This is a high school picture, right before graduation, with the whole world open to them. It’s from before Jane decided to move back home after college. She missed home, the way the water looked at sunrise, reflective and infinite, part of the coral sky. She thought Brynn would understand. She missed palm trees. She missed the way her mother’s house smelled so often of popcorn and, less potently, of oatmeal and air freshener.
The smells make her think of the time they stole from a candle shop as kids, running out with their purses full of tri-colored pillars and scented oils and plug-ins. Or rather, Brynn’s purses. And after Brynn came out, smirk-faced, she’d handed a purse to Jane, who hadn’t actually gone into the shop.
Jane remembers listening to Brynn’s ecstatic, skyward laughter.
She considers dismantling the picture, but finds herself simply staring at the girls in the photo. Brynn had smaller breasts back then, but she’d still been the looker of the two. Next to her, Jane remembers feeling plain.
There are no mirrors in her office. Jane puts a hand suddenly on her stomach, feeling conspicuous and a little ridiculous in her new outfit, the store-set creases in the pant legs still visible. She feels like she should be hiding behind Brynn in that picture, and not the other way around. That’s what she’s doing now. Under all these clothes, she’s just a middle-aged woman, skin losing elasticity under the arms and breasts and thighs, alien stretch marks making her abdomen look like a human leaf after two full-term pregnancies. She’s beginning to look worn-out, she realizes, her body finally catching up with the way she feels.
The receptionist rings. Her first time car-buyer appointment is in. She moves the life insurance papers to the side, applying a plastic smile like a drugstore lip gloss.
On Saturday night, Jane and Karl make love.
She comes up to bed, late, because nearly three weeks of staring at the subtitled television after everyone else has said goodnight has become a habit.
She glances at the nightstand in the dark, grinding her teeth at the knowledge—she can’t really see it—that the conch shell is still sitting there. Karl is a black lump in the king-sized four-poster. She slides in and snuggles up, thinking she feels tired enough to sleep like a brick, dreamless. And then she smells it.
His cologne. Something pungent and erotic and new. Something Brynn must have given him, and she flips on the lights and rips the covers off of him. This is when she notices the boxers, as her husband groans and blinks uncomfortably in the sudden brightness.
They’re a pair of Ralph Lauren navy blue boxers, yet another gift from Brynn.
“What the hell,” she says flatly, blanket in one hand and the other in a fist at her side.
He doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She tosses the covers and moves toward him, yanking off the boxers. He’s aroused instantly, and also nervous, and somehow this makes her angrier than ever. She shakes the underwear at him.
“When did she give you these? And why the fuck are you wearing them?”
“I thought you knew. They were in the bag with the shirts.”
“And the cologne?” Throughout her body, her blood is furious, and she can’t help taking all of him in with her eyes, as he’s lying there naked and erect beside her. Her desire makes her neck and chest flush with anger.
“In the bag,” he whispers. She is sure he knows that by wearing it, he has crossed a line. From the beginning, he never wore cologne for Jane. Even the boxers, she could forgive. After all, the chiffon nightgown she’s wearing is last night’s gift from Brynn.
The thought makes her hands unfist, and she begins to laugh. It comes out loud and indecorous, almost braying, teetering toward hysterical.
Maybe he realizes why, maybe he’s just sleepy and horny and trying not to get into more trouble, but he takes her laughter as the invitation that it is.
She slips out of the nightgown and folds into his arms. They are quiet, as they were when the children were small; and rough and ardent, as they were when they were first in love. She bites her lip to keep from making a sound, arching into him, feeling safe, somehow, and very alive.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, perhaps when he puts his hand in her hair and presses her scalp as he kisses her, as he moves his other hand up and down and into the curves of her body, she realizes her mind is elsewhere. She’s thinking of that long, unbroken line of sand.
She’s almost glad when Karl pushes her over and gets behind her, propping her up as he tries to take her in the ass, something he’s never done—not once even suggested as long as they’ve been together. Because she knows then that he, too, has been affected by the woman lying asleep on the floor below, her bags packed and prepared for the flight back to Missouri tomorrow morning.
She feels the laugh bubble up again, this time a sad, bewildered sound. She wonders, as he pulls away from her, his mouth open, his face framed against the soft bedroom lights, if Karl is making the same sound, silently, behind his frozen face, wonders if Brynn has ever made that sound before. If maybe she made it in that hotel room, silently, with the phone pressed to her ear as with the other she was inundated by accusations from her most recent man—how many men? And if she were to lay them down in a row, would there be enough to fill up Jane’s imaginary shoreline, all the way to the sunrise?
Jane hits the lights again and returns to bed, facing her nightstand, studying the thicker blackness where the conch shell rests. After a moment, the bed moves, and Jane is afraid her husband will curl up around her. He does. His body is warm and slightly sweaty. He strokes her hair, his fingers bending to massage her neck, carefully, haltingly, moving like familiar feathers against her hairline and forehead. His cologne is powerful, still lingering on his skin. It smells heavenly.
“I said I wasn’t going back,” says Brynn, as Jane offers to stop by Brynn’s old house on the way to the airport.
They pull out onto Clyde Morris, heading north, passing familiar shopping strips in the process of revitalization, older churches and newer ones, dilapidated preschools, and plots of still-unbulldozed pine-forested land. The sun slants across the easterly windows in blinding flashes, between the trees.
Jane wonders if she ought to point out that Brynn ran away from her parents’ money, not from her parents, and that she hasn’t really run far enough to say she can’t go back.
But she says nothing, and turns onto ISB.
They kiss—mwah mwah—goodbye at the drop-off.
“Call me when you get there.” Jane will be surprised if she does, but she says it anyway, just as she says, “Come back whenever you like.”
From the car, Jane watches through the airport windows: Brynn’s confident stride, her thick shiny hair. She holds her breath as the bags are checked, tagged and loaded, releases it only once the last one had followed the conveyor and vanished, taking with it the conch shell Jane had wrapped in Karl’s boxers and tucked into one of the outer pockets this morning. Once it’s gone, she feels emptier, a teensy bit tired. She puts the car in gear, pausing only a moment longer to watch through the window as Brynn disappears around the corner in the direction of the terminal.
Lora Rivera holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and works as fiction associate for Claire Gerus Literary Agency. She writes literary and young adult fiction, as well as juvenile fantasy. Her stories are published in several online journals, which can be found on her website: www.lorarivera.com. She is twenty-four years old.