a long short story by Steve doCarmo
“So is she what you thought?”
“Who,” Will said. “Earth to Em. Coryn.”
They had just walked out of the museum. Were moving slowly, the two of them, across the deserted campus.
“Not after the pictures you’d shown me,” she said.
“She’s Cory now,” she said. “Remember?”
Cicadas churred. It was still hot out. She watched the sidewalk under her espadrilles.
“I kept looking at her during that talk,” she said. “I didn’t even know it was her.”
“Why were you looking at her?”
She looked at him. “Look at her.”
The car was up ahead, parked across the street from campus. No traffic. Students wouldn’t swarm town again for two more weeks.
“So you gonna call her?” he said. He carried the gallery pamphlet with her number scrawled on it.
“Not calling your ex.”
He gazed up at trees, grinning.
“We’re married now,” he said. “Exes are ex-spouses. Didn’t you read the manual?”
She didn’t answer.
“You’d like her,” he said. “Really, truly. I mean it.”
Sunset blared out at them from between buildings.
“And isn’t that something you’re supposed to do?” he said. “For Rob?”
“Meeeeeeet new people?”
They crossed the road. Got in the car. He put the windows down but didn’t start the engine.
She stared into the dashboard.
“A few months I dated Coryn,” Will said. “Six years ago. So what.”
She stared at the dash.
“I think you’d like her.”
A bright glob of nothing in the middle of her laptop screen.
She ignored it for several minutes. Tried reading around it. Then pressed her palms to her eyes. Listened to herself breathe.
She found her purse in the kitchen. Chased a pill with tap water. Climbed the stairs and lay down on the bedcovers.
A crow on the patio out back cawed incessantly.
Will got home. Climbed the stairs. Sat on the bed.
“Uh-oh. You okay?”
He put his hand on her forehead.
“It’s not a fever,” she said.
“Kill that fucking crow.”
She peered around the edge of the front door. Again.
The man and woman were still out there. In a top-down convertible Mercedes curb-parked right in front of the house. Loudly discussing the last time he tried to teach her to drive stick.
She’d be late for Rob. She stood there, purse on hip. Hands at sides. Eyes closed. Breathing.
Two lightly sweat-glazed girls on the couch in the spartan living room. Laptops out. Books all around. The ancient lumpy-glass windows behind them hoisted open to the warm breeze.
“Susan, Tashi,” Cory said. “This is Emma.”
They took two cane-back chairs out to the porch behind the kitchen. Nothing around the old farmhouse but woods.
“You rent this place?”
“It’s the College’s,” Cory said. “We’re on a corner of the old preserve.” She leaned back in the creaking chair. Fingers laced over her stomach. Knees spread. “Basically I just caretake it for the year. That and call if I see bears.”
Emma nodded. The bears went right by her. “Your students? Inside?”
“My workshop seniors. Yeah. Two of them.”
The semi-terrifying buzz-cut had grown out some since museum day. Softer now. Gesturing toward feline. Same ratty denim overalls, though. Same sandalwood cloud around her. Same naked face, freckled and a touch sun-burned around the nose, the startling gray eyes.
“So what are you doing?”
“Oh. I’m—a tech writer,” Emma said. “Semi-freelance.” She cleared her throat. “There’s an agency in Chicago that emails me work.”
“Want one?” She’d pulled a tangerine from her overalls’ pocket. “Tashi brought a whole crate.”
She dug in a thumbnail. “What do you for yourself?”
She watched Cory’s thumb work. “I—take pictures. I read. I write little things.”
“Gonna let me read something?”
Emma guffawed. “You’re joking.”
Cory laughed. Dropped a chunk of peel on the wood planks.
“I’m so glad you called.”
A photo of her on the old Airstream-style fridge inside. In some woman’s arms. The woman’s chin was on her shoulder. They both smiled wide at the camera, verge of laughter, faces flash-lit, nighttime dark all around.
Cory looked over. “Girlfriend.” She was washing her hands.
Emma leaned closer. Tried to think of what to say.
“She’s older than you,” she somehow landed on.
“Yeah. Goin’ like a freight train for forty.”
She twisted off the spigot. Stepped to Emma’s side, drying her hands on a dishrag. “Anna,” she said. “In New York. In case you’re about to ask. Stage manager.”
She tossed the rag at the counter. A boyish motion. The two students had gone. The kitchen had filled with sunset.
Emma cocked an eyebrow. Looked her host up and down.
Cory laughed. “That was funny.”
Her voice was girly.
“I meant to bring you wine,” Emma called from the driveway, unlocking the car.
“Oh, gosh,” from the front door. “I’m four years sober.”
“Nuh-uh. You go.”
“They want to see you, too.”
“No they don’t. They’re your friends. And that woman fucking hates me.”
He collapsed against the doorframe. Exaggerated exasperated. “No one on this earth hates you, Em.”
“She’s condescending as shit to me. Every time I see her. Just because I went to a state school and she went to—fucking—Brown.”
“Show some compassion. Ivy Leaguers don’t like when people are smarter and prettier than them.”
She glared from under her brows.
“They’re only here tonight,” he said. “Come on. Wine it out.”
“I’m exploring sobriety.”
He looked at her.
“I’m not kidding,” she said. “I hung out with your ex. You know I have limits and you can’t just sneak up on me with shit.”
An email from Bethany. Her senior-year housemate. Now in Philadelphia. Married. Pregnant.
She stared at the screen. Tried to figure out what to write back.
“I just read Castor and Pollux.”
He looked up. “You what now?”
“A story of hers. ‘Castor and Pollux,’” Emma said.
She was on one sofa, laptop out. He was on the other, changing the strings on his old Martin.
“What’s it about?”
“Two twins. In Wyoming. And one comes out to the other.”
“Jesus Christ,” stretching an arm over her head. “Intense is what it is. She doesn’t have siblings, does she?”
“Corynnnnn.” He was fighting a tuning peg, wrists bent awkwardly. “No. Only child.”
She watched him.
“Did you know she has a girlfriend?” she said. “In New York?”
He gave up on the peg. Collapsed back into the sofa, guitar on his lap. Looked at her. Obviously hungover.
“No,” he said.
She studied him. “Think it’s strange?”
He bent down a long, waving string end. Face-shrugged.
“We’re modern people,” he said.
She considered this.
“Well, was she, like—bi when you were going out?”
He leered. “No.”
They looked at each other.
She shut the laptop.
“You ever read any of her stuff?” she said. “She’s a little bit of a big fucking deal.”
“That story’s in The Paris Review.”
He still smiled. “She wasn’t a writer when I knew her.”
She looked at him. The question implicit.
“She was a party girl,” sitting up again, going back to the tuning peg. “She was a business major.”
She watched him work.
“I feel like you showed me some awful video of her once.”
“A New Year’s thing,” she said. “A Y2K party. She was completely trashed.”
“She had long hair. A sequin dress.”
Cory’s knee was drawn up, her fingers laced over it. “I like that you never wear makeup.”
She smiled. Was examining her own fingerprints. Pinching them. For no good reason.
They sat on a bench outside the hulking Victorian mansion that housed the College’s English Department.
“You don’t say.”
“Not many of your people have the good sense not to.”
She looked over. “Who are my people?”
She bugged her eyes. “Who are my people?”
“Ridiculously pretty people.”
She went back to her fingerprints. Other hand now. “I’m frumpy.”
“You’re not frumpy. You’re rumpled.”
They both laughed.
“It’s all this linen you wear.”
A male student waved from across the house’s manicured yard. Cory waved back.
“Don’t come over here,” she murmured.
They watched together.
“Frumpy is just what they call women who refuse to wear clownface.”
Emma looked at her. “Wow.”
Cory thrust her face closer. Squinted interestedly.
She knuckled Emma’s hair aside. “Your ears aren’t even pierced.”
“Nuh-uh. Was always too afraid.”
Cory studied her. “You’re a little too afraid of things, Emma.”
She shrugged. “That’s my diagnosis.”
“Generalized anxiety disorder.”
Cory looked at her. Emma straightened her posture. Collapsed it again with a comedic sigh.
“I know I’m not exotic.”
“Look at me.”
“You’re exotic as fuck.”
Emma looked back out at the yard.
“Do you hear me?” Cory said.
“Do you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“Do you hear me?”
“I’ll pierce your ears if you want,” Cory said.
She was quiet a moment. “How?”
“Sewing needle. Ice cube.”
She drew her own knee up. Rested her cheekbone on it. “Can I think about it?”
“Yes,” mugging, imitating Emma’s deeper voice. “You can think about it.”
Emma turned to Cory, grinning. “You’re ridiculously pretty.”
“Ha. No I am not.”
“Even with that U.S. Marine haircut.”
“I’m not even standard-issue pretty,” Cory said. “I just miss. And you know what?”
“I don’t concede.”
“I’m fine with it. You know why?”
“Because I’m sexy as fuck.”
Cory waved at someone leaving the English Department building.
“Sorry I keep cursing,” she said.
The sun’s rays were tipping. A pack of shouting, laughing girls passed at the far end of the yard.
“So I’m just gonna ask,” Cory said. “Where’s your family?”
Emma’s cheekbone was back on her knee. She didn’t answer.
“Never mind,” Cory said.
She flicked Emma’s thigh.
An SUV blaring hip-hop passed on the road behind them.
“It was hard for me to call you that first time,” Emma said.
“I know it was.”
“I’m opening that Macallan Lily and Danny left,” he called from the kitchen. “Want a snort?”
“None for me, thanks!”
He stuck his head in the living room. Looked at her.
“Really exploring sobriety?”
She climbed the steps to the mansion’s stone terrace. Spotted Cory and her class on the lawn below it, sitting in sun and shade, everyone writing away in notebooks. Cory, too.
Eleven girls. Two boys.
One boy wore combat boots. A way-too-big rugby jersey. Lots of eyeliner.
A blue jay swooped over the scene.
Cory flipped a page. Kept writing.
A pony-tailed girl got up to go. Bent and swapped cheek-kisses with Cory as she left.
Emma watched how Cory held her forehead as she wrote. Waited for the moment she’d look up. See her. Smile.
“I hate those fucking things.”
A carpenter bee. Hovering in front of them. Emma looked around for something to swing at it.
“No no no,” Cory, holding her forearm. “They’re reincarnated people. Why do you think they come stare at us like that?”
She slid the photo out from between the book’s pages. Her old, tattered copy of Charlotte’s Web.
She stood examining the picture in the sunlight pouring through the bedroom window.
One of those vintage snapshots with a white border all around. Yellowed. Faded. Cracked through one corner.
On a beach, she stood. A beanpole in a paisley bikini. Hair moving in a breeze. The top of her head was lost to sun glare.
Emma touched a fingertip to the teenager’s face, shoulder.
“I met someone,” she whispered.
“I’ve been trying so hard not to say I told you so.”
She didn’t look up from her book. “Don’t break a streak.”
“You and Coryn.”
Now she looked. “Cory. Asshole.”
He was crawling across the sofa. Coming at her.
“And something else.”
“Why do you have to be so sexy?”
“Just to irk you. Get off.”
“Are you gonna leave me for your new girlfriend?”
She was plucking sunflower seeds from an oily paper sack. Cracking them one by one between her incisors.
“What do you want to ask me?”
Emma sat down in the grass. Had just completed a slow circuit of the little farmhouse, taking pictures.
“Why do you think I want to ask something?”
“Everybody wants to ask people things.” She split another seed. Inspected it. “So here’s permission. Ask me anything.”
Emma crossed her legs. Skimmed her palm over the tops of grass blades.
“I don’t know if it’s a why or a how.”
She skimmed the grass.
“Why and how did you change so much in just a few years?”
Cory set the paper sack by Emma’s knee. Leaned back on her palms, stretching her legs in front of her.
“I wanted to is why. I just plain did it is how.”
Emma looked at her.
“That means the queerness, too,” Cory said. “If you’re wondering.”
Emma pressed a tuft of grass down with her palm. Released it. Watched it climb again. A frantic black ant ran on one blade.
“My father died,” Cory said, “and it prompted the exact freak-out soul-search you’d expect. Within a few months, I saw I’d grown up in a tiny cult. And I never wanted to be in another one. So I killed the scaredy-cat daughter in me and turned myself into an artist and knocked it off with boys already because I knew it was just a matter of time till I turned one into my next Jim Jones.”
They looked at each other. Sunset beamed through the trees, lighting Cory’s face.
“You know who that is?”
“Plus the overwhelming, and I mean the truly vast majority of boys, would be happy to have that role.”
Emma reached into the paper sack. Brought up a single seed. Jostled it on her palm.
“Do you think Will’s like that?”
“That’s for you to decide.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “You went out with him, too.”
“I was so drunk senior year of college I don’t even remember how Will and I met.”
They looked at the woods. A breeze rustled the trees. Sun shone through them.
Emma tried to get into the sunflower seed with a thumbnail.
“Here,” Cory said.
She split it with her teeth. Gave it back to Emma. “Better eat that. Skinny cat.”
She held the seed in her palm, studying it. “It never would’ve occurred to me you could decide to like—girls.”
She looked at her.
“You have no idea how easy it is.”
Emma chimp-mouthed the sunflower seed off her palm.
“Everyone’s born queer,” Cory said. “Sex rules are just the first fences they put up around us when we’re little. You kick those first fences down and it’s outrageous the changes you can make to yourself. I mean it’s like you grow a whole new brain.”
“I’m trying to imagine Will taking this advice.”
“Almost no boys can do it,” Cory said. “I’m not saying it’s their fault. Or they’re defective. It’s just fences aren’t the word for what they put around them. They put four-foot-thick, fifty-foot-high fortress walls. It’s sad but they’re write-offs. Almost all of them.”
Emma went back to palm-skimming the grass.
“My birthday present,” Emma said. “From Will.”
“When was your birthday?”
“Get out!” Cory thumped the ground with her palms. “What day?”
She stood frozen in place, half-unconscious with rage, and for about two seconds she wasn’t sure if she was just envisioning it or actually doing it: grabbing the frat boy’s giant soda cup from the tabletop in front of him and pouring its entire icy contents over his moussed-up, bitch-ass head.
Cory had her hand. Was thrusting those freaky gray eyes into her line of sight.
“Hey,” she said. “Hey.”
On the sidewalk outside she sputtered out what she’d heard.
Cory exploded in laughter.
“Good lord, Emma! Who cares? Who doesn’t love Tom Sawyer?”
Her badass leather motorcycle jacket. The one she’d bought the year before at the local consignment store and never once worn.
She slipped it back off. Threw it on the sofa. Went quickly out the front door when she saw Will pull up in front of the house.
Imagine her runwaying that crazy thing on the sidewalk. In the movie-theater aisle. Everyone staring. Thinking fuck you.
“So what’s the anxiety about? And don’t say you don’t know or it’s complicated because it’s not and of course you do.”
Emma had the phone between ear and shoulder. Was examining the little embroidery scissors she held, turning them over in the bedside-lamp light. Will downstairs.
“My mother left my dad and me.”
She listened to Cory breathe.
“How old were you?”
“Eight,” Emma said.
“Where is she?”
“California. Last I heard.”
“Living with a guy who has a car dealership who used to hang around with the Manson Family.”
More quiet. Then the scratch, Emma thought, of pen on notebook paper.
“How did your father die?” Emma said.
The scratching stopped.
Emma set the scissors down on the comforter. “Jesus Christ. Was he a—firefighter?”
The teenage girl with Down Syndrome. The one who always rushed, hands clasped, to greet her. Standing in the big window by the stack of hand baskets like she fucking knew Emma was on the way.
Aisle after aisle she’d stuck with her that time last winter. Chatting. Recommending cereals. Telling Emma how pretty she was. An assistant manager had finally peeled her off. Then winked—winked—at Emma.
She spun on her heel.
It made the orange-vested boy pushing the long row of rattling, banging carts do a double-take. Some mentally ill chick practicing drill steps in the parking lot.
“Did Will want kids when you were with him?”
They gazed off across the playground together. The College’s spires jutted up over treetops a half-mile away.
“It’s a shitty question.”
“Nuh-uh,” Cory said. “No. I mean—not shitty.”
They were on the swings. Side by side.
“Yes,” she said. “He did.”
A man walked a Rottweiler on the far side of a wrought-iron fence.
“We were way way way too young for that kind of talk and that’s basically when I knew we were done.”
Emma’s espadrilles were in the grass ten feet away.
“Does he still?”
“Yes,” Emma said.
Cory lifted her bare foot with her booted one. Let it drop.
Emma drew in the dirt with her big toe. “I’ll come around.”
Cory planted her heels. Started herself swinging. The chains creaked.
She skid-stopped herself again.
“You know that’s not something anyone should come around on. Right?”
Emma stared at the ground. Kept drawing.
“People should only have kids if they’re desperate to and they’re a hundred percent sure they’re gonna be a-may-zing parents.”
Emma laughed out loud.
“What?” Cory grinned. Rolled her eyes like I-amuse-you?
“The whole species would be extinct in a century!”
All her mirth dissolved in an instant. Who knew why.
She rested her head on the swing’s chain.
“Who cares?” Cory said.
She didn’t answer.
“You see the sun?” Cory said. “The trees? The hills?”
She rubbed her head against the chain. “Yes.”
“The birds and clouds?”
She didn’t answer.
“They won’t be any less beautiful without people here looking at them.”
The man and the Rottweiler had U-turned. Were walking back the other way.
Cory stood. Pulled Emma up out of the swing.
“You could’ve been the mother of my children,” Emma said.
“No. I mean—Will knew she was moving here. A college friend of his told him last spring. But it was a total freak he came in and spotted her.”
“At the gallery talk.”
He was writing in his legal pad. “And she’s—a professor?”
“An artist in residence. A one-year thing.”
He nodded. Wrote. “A writer.”
Everyone she knew’s name went in the pad.
He wrote for a while. Rob. “Spoiled bitch” over and over for all she knew.
He finally set the pad and fountain pen on the table beside him. Smiled at her.
“Will’s old girlfriend,” he said. “There’s a fun wrinkle for a new friendship.”
She laughed halfheartedly.
“It’s barely a thing. I totally forget ninety-nine percent of the time.”
“The fact she’s—queer now kind of takes all that tension out of it.”
He nodded. Let some quiet seep into the sunny room.
“Well that’s terrific, Emma,” he said.
She felt herself paste on a smile.
He fingered the cleft in his chin.
“And she has a partner?”
“In New York. Yeah.” She cleared her throat quietly. “A kind of older woman.”
“Almost forty,” she said. And immediately felt stupid because no way Rob wasn’t her father’s age.
“Long way away,” he said.
“I think she’s gonna go spend winter break with her.”
He put his cheek on his fist. It was his tell: he’d shift the conversation into a higher gear, if possible.
“You happy about that?”
Immediately she was crying.
He stood, tall gangly man, and got a box of tissues from his desktop. Set it in on the coffee table in front of her.
She didn’t take one. Just palm-wiped her face, mouth-breathing.
“Friendships have intense phases,” he said, sitting again. “Right?”
He picked up the pad again. Not yet the pen.
“I don’t really do friendships,” she said. “I just fall in love with people and then they hurt me and that’s that.”
She wiped her nose on the back of her hand.
“It’s just the thing with my mother over and over.”
Funny. He usually gobbled that shit up. Now he just reached for the fountain pen again. Started writing again.
“Core-ree?” he said.
He nodded as he wrote. “And she’s here in town.”
“She’s out on the College’s preserve land, actually. There’s this old house they put visiting artists in.”
“Ohhh yes,” smiling as he wrote. “Someone interesting lived there once.”
“All right, dude. Let’s get some latex happening.”
He had that glassy-eyed look that meant the end was near.
He kissed her neck above her T-shirt collar. Right on her carotid.
“Why don’t we live a little dangerously?” he said.
She blinked. Shook her head. “Getting a migraine.”
“Yeah? How do you know?”
“A bright spot. Wherever I look. Soon it’ll be this long snaky light.”
“With these pulsating Mondrian patterns in it.”
Cory shoved some books aside. Scooted over.
“Put your head down,” patting her lap.
Emma did. Lying on her back. Looking up at her.
Cory stroked her brows. Insides to outsides, thumb and middle finger. Over and over.
“Sleep,” she said.
“I want to pet your hair.”
She lowered her head. Emma ran her palm over her skull. Felt the inch-long hair sift through her splayed fingers.
When she woke again she was on her side, facing the sunset-orange windows across the room.
“I drooled on your leg,” she said.
“My eyes are better.”
She didn’t move.
“How long did I sleep?”
“Mmm. An hour,” Cory said. “More.”
She rolled onto her back again.
“Have you just been sitting here?”
She stroked Emma’s hair.
“I can’t believe I forgot to tell you this.”
“You have morning breath. What?”
“Rob told me who lived in this house.”
“Oh oh oh,” Cory said. “I can probably beat you to the punch. Two Amish sisters. Before the Civil War.”
She lay awake. Will snoring blithely beside her.
She rolled onto her back. Stroked her own brows. Insides to outsides. Thumb and middle finger.
“Sleep,” she whispered.
“First bear sighting this morning.”
“No way. Where?”
“Edge of the woods. Out back. Nice chubby black bear. The authorities have been notified.”
“Is someone gonna come shoot it?”
Cory looked up from her notebook. Baffled.
“Emma. No one’s gonna kill anything.”
She got to the fourth floor. A little winded. No strangers, mercifully, in the stairwell.
Cory’s office was at the end of the winding corridor. As she neared she heard crying. Female.
She slowed her walk.
Cory’s T-shirted back was visible through the ajar door. She squatted in front of a seated person whose face was hidden by doorframe.
“Why the fuck does he get to grade me?” the crying student said. “He didn’t even get my Kathy Acker reference!”
“Tashi,” rubbing a kneecap. “In all seriousness. Okay? Are you listening? Why do we care what other people think?”
“I were you I’d make a million bucks modeling,” the Alabama-accented student told her. “Then every day the rest of my life I’d eat peanut butter right out the jar.”
A sudden thunderous clang from somewhere deep in the woods.
“Workmen,” Cory said. “Some sort of tower is all I know.”
“Cellular tower,” Emma said. “Will’s company. Wait. It’ll look like a huge artificial tree.”
“Good lord. Julianna, you’ve got that giant pick-up. Drive up there and crush them all to pulp and guts under that thing’s wheels.”
The kid stood up from the cane-back chair, squirming and tugging up her jean tops like ready-to-go.
Cory laughed. “Jules.”
“What? You want me to?”
“I stood up at the end of class today and blood everywhere.”
Emma’s hand was over her mouth. Her eyebrows in her hairline.
“Don’t make that face,” Cory said. “I’m a woman. I bleed.”
She’d escaped to the other side of the terrace, at least, before Cory ripped the paperback in two through its spine, tossing half away to the lawn, half in Emma’s general direction.
The pony-tailed student sat bolt upright in front of her, watching her half-fascinated, half-terrified.
“Nothing changes just because you tear up a book.”
“What are you talking about?” Cory answered. “There was a whole Philip Roth novel here a second ago. Now half of it is over there and half is down in the grass with the ants. The world is different.”
Emma, breathless, snuck another look. The girl was still rigid-backed. Cory, elbows on splayed knees, leaning toward her. Folksy. Bristly hair shining in the sun.
“Katie. Never underestimate materiality. Sometimes things don’t change until things get shredded.”
“Is there a book I can drop on this thing?”
Cory stepped out of the spare room. Followed Emma’s eyes.
A wolf spider on the living room floor by the radiator.
“Gosh,” she said. “Big one.”
She went to it. Squatted by it. Then Emma watched astounded as she nudged it with the fingertips of one hand up onto the palm of the other.
She stood again, knee or ankle cracking. Examined the thing on her flattened hand. It moved one quick step and froze.
“Come look,” she said. “She’s carrying her babies.”
Emma stared wide-eyed. “Her what?”
She approached cautiously, eyes moving back and forth between Cory’s face and the spider.
“Look. All over her back, there.”
Emma stretched her neck. Tiny black pinheads covered the spider’s bulbous abdomen. One of them shuffled minutely from one side of its mother’s body to the other, scurrying over its siblings. Burrowed back into the crowd.
“You hold her,” Cory said.
“I’m not crazy.”
“Yes you are. I can’t.”
“Of course, you can.”
Emma looked at the spider. A whole lot of real estate it covered on Cory’s palm.
“Emma,” Cory said. “Emma. Look at me.”
“I love you and I would never hurt you. All right?”
Emma studied her. The gunmetal eyes. Then raised her hand up slowly. It was warm and sweaty, she knew, alongside Cory’s cool and dry one.
Cory nudged the spider so it climbed over. Its footsteps were feathery on Emma’s outstretched palm.
It sat there placidly, seemingly looking up at her. Its several largest eyes shining dully under the ceiling light.
“Take it,” Emma said.
Cory scooped it back into her hands. Crossed the room and squatted again. Nudged the spider back to the floor planks. It vanished immediately under the old cast-iron radiator.
She stood. Turned back to Emma.
“Hey hey hey,” she said.
Emma sobbed howlingly, heels of her hands in her eyes.
“Emma Emma Emma.”
She sobbed and gasped, bent over.
“Emma,” pulling her back up.
Cory got her hands off her face. Wiped her eyes and nose sloppily with her shirt cuff. She pried open Emma’s balled-up, ringless right hand. Lowered her face to it. Kissed the wet palm where the spider had been.
“We don’t kill things. All right?”
“Do you talk to Anna about me?”
Cory gazed at the apple she’d bitten into. Wiped her mouth on her T-shirt sleeve.
“What do you think?”
Emma felt her own face burning. “Is she jealous?”
Cory turned the apple in the sunlight, inspecting it. Chewed a long time. Mouth open.
“I’m not gonna lie.”
An email from her aunt.
“Doug and I sure miss hearing from you. Any chance you and Will could come down for Thanksgiving?”
Doug. Her father.
She startled. Jabbed with a socked foot.
“Hey. How about you actually eat some actual food?”
She blinked at the bowl in front of her. “I think I’m off meat.”
Cory’s jaw dropped. “You can’t think there’s meat in this house.”
Cory had her elbow.
A big doe up ahead. Looking at them.
It loped across the trail. Fawn behind it.
“You’re very I-don’t-know-what today,” Emma said.
They walked. Cory watched the trail under their feet.
“I’m working on a story so good it scares me a little.”
She didn’t even know he’d put the traps out in the basement. Yet to her it fell to discover that tiny animal with its head smashed. Wet spatter of gore under its nose.
She found him on the third floor.
“Do not let me see shit like that! Do you want me back on those fucking meds?”
His hands were up. Eyes wide.
She jabbed a finger at the floor. “The fucking—blood and brains everywhere!”
It was getting chilly out, nights.
For warmth, they came in.
She turned smiling. Then saw where Cory looked.
She yanked the edge of her sleeve back down. Hand-knocking Cory’s. Mouth-breathing instantly.
Cory got behind her. Wrapped her arms around her shoulders. Pressed her mouth to a spot behind her ear.
“Emma,” she whispered into her hair.
She didn’t answer. Just breathed.
“Emma. Nod if you hear me.”
She thought about it some. Then nodded. The tiniest bit.
“You’re never, never doing that again,” Cory said, her words hot on Emma’s scalp.
She kept breathing. Panting.
“It’s one hundred percent over,” Cory said. “Right this minute. I mean forever.”
“Relax,” Cory whispered, squeezing her.
The trees outside the window were yellowing.
“Deep breath,” Cory whispered to her.
“Another one,” she whispered.
Such a strange thing. The sun. Warm. Bright. Alive. But unsettling, too. The overexposedness of it. The too-muchness. The feeling she could never shake it marked the exact spot in the fabric of her mind where some awful truth too pulverizing to confront had made a nest.
She’d just stood, purse slung over her shoulder. About to go.
He capped the fountain pen.
“Maybe I’m not the kind of doctor who should ask.”
She smiled. Waited. Scared rabbit.
“Are you eating enough?”
“So what are we drinking?”
“Water,” Cory said.
He looked at her across the table. Face thrust forward over the top of his menu.
“Get the fuck out.”
Emma was silent. Couldn’t think of a single thing to say to either one of these strangers. That plus drinking being out of the question meant dim prospects for a fun evening.
Will leaned back. Menu down. Studied Cory.
“Well good for you,” he said.
He nodded. She stared back at him. Amused-like. Hands jammed in the pockets of the surplus-store peacoat she hadn’t bothered taking off.
“And the writing,” he said. “And the whole new look. And the whole new”—he urged the word forward with a spinning hand—“lifestyle.”
There was a semi-scary edge to her smile for him. It made Emma realize she’d never seen her interact with any male person. Except for Will himself. And that way back on museum day for like three polite minutes because what choice.
“I’m a walking case study in impermanence, motherfucker.”
Will leered delightedly, doing that thing Emma hated of exploring a favorite molar with his tongue.
“Funny,” he croaked. “Emma’s apparently on the wagon, too.”
She and Cory looked at each other and Cory had a mildly crazed look on her face and she couldn’t even guess what expression was on her own, but when she turned back to Will again she saw he’d just seen something well-nigh flabbergasting.
They hugged after dinner and Cory’s hand got in her jacket. Pressed her ribcage.
“Do you know how much I love you?” she said to Emma’s ear.
It was quiet in the car on the way home.
Will reversed into a spot in front of the house. Killed the engine. Stared a while at the VW’s dark instrument panel.
“You’ve got a little bit of a crush on Coryn,” he said.
She burst into tears.
“Do you hate me?” she said.
“Do I hate you?” He’d twisted part-way in his seat. “I mean—are you, like—in love with her?”
She had the heels of her hands in her eyes. Mouth-breathing.
“I don’t know,” she said.
More silence. The thunderstruck kind.
“Well do you know whether or not you’re sleeping with her?”
She dropped her hands. Looked at him. Knew her face was all tears and snot.
“You can’t think I would do that to you!”
His own hands were up: who-me-what?
“Well, I didn’t think I was married to someone who’d—feel—whatever about a woman!”
She stared blankly out the windshield. No neighbors out on the sidewalk, at least, to witness this.
“I figured she’d take you to poetry readings,” he said. “Take you out drinking with—intellectuals and shit.”
She stared out. Glad, insanely, she hadn’t let Cory pierce her ears because that was full-on sex and what could she possibly have said here tonight?
An opossum waddled in the street in front of the car, nosing the curb.
She knew his next sentence would feature Rob’s name.
She was unlocking the front door when headlight beams swept through the bare trees below the driveway.
She froze, exhaling fog. Watched until the red taillights disappeared around the next bend.
She stepped inside. Shut the door against the cold. Stood in the little parlor, they no doubt called it back in the day, breathing the familiar musty air.
Radiators thunked and gurgled.
It took her a minute to find the stairwell light. When she did she climbed the twisting, creaking staircase.
On the second floor, she reached into the near bedroom. Felt the wall for the antique light switch. Its loud click echoed through the rooms.
The little iron-framed bed was in the corner. Like a relic from a Civil War hospital. Neatly made. Pillow atop patch quilt.
She went to it. Sat down on it, coat still on. Heard its springs complain.
She leaned down and inspected the pillow’s surface in the ceiling bulb’s dim light. Kept looking until she found one of Cory’s now two-inch-long hairs. Picked it up carefully with middle finger and thumb.
She put the hair in her mouth. Clasped it between chapped lips, feeling its minute touch on her tongue.
She lay down. Pressed her face to the pillow. Smelled Cory’s skin and hair and sandalwood perfume.
Quietly at first. Then less so.
She stroked her own hair when she felt her diaphragm spasming. The side of her own face.
When it was over she lay mouth-breathing, feeling the cold, wet flannel under her eye, her cheekbone, her nose.
She wondered which runaway Amish sister’s bedroom she was in just then. The one who put the axe in the renowned local slave catcher’s neck or the one who fled the farm and went meekly back to Pennsylvania.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stevie doCarmo grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He teaches literature and writing at Bucks County Community College in suburban Philadelphia and holds a Ph.D. in modern American literature from Lehigh University. His fiction has appeared at BULL, The Squawk Back, Literally Stories, Out There Literary Magazine, and in the 2022 edition of TulipTree Publishing’s Stories That Need to Be Told anthology.