Excavation of a Breathing Fossil
by Richard Hartshorn
My first mistake was pulling onto the shoulder when I saw the hitchhiker. She stood on the pavement in a patch of shade, sporting black heels and holding a cardboard sign that read Nautilus. Her hair was long and red, skin sandblasted with freckles. Once she settled herself into the passenger seat and wedged the sign into the back, I decided she must have been around twenty-four. After introducing myself as Kate, I asked her name. She looked up at the air bag advisory on the sun visor, scanned it until she reached the French translation, and said, “Danger de Mort.” We shook hands.
Caterpillars had erupted from the Earth during the summer solstice, infesting the district and making it their home. Tree branches were reduced to thread. I couldn’t walk outside in high heels without impaling soft bodies or draw the bedroom shades without black, suctiony lumps clinging to the glass and blotting out the sun. The Mayor, who would be up for re-election in a year, had proposed only one solution, and it involved the word flamethrowers. The idea had yet to be applied, but I shelved my habit of sitting with my back against the brawny oak in our backyard while flipping through gardening magazines – the trunk writhed and rippled with life, like a giant muscle.
“Where is Nautilus?” I asked the hitchhiker.
She fingered some caterpillar guts on the windshield and narrowed her eyelids. Why had I offered her a ride if I’d never heard of the place she wanted to get to? I didn’t look away. If I could handle a classroom full of third-graders, screaming and breaking pencils and shoving gum under desks, I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a woman called Danger. We shared stubborn eye contact as the engine stuttered and the sun baked the leather seats. Dust spores hovered between us.
“North,” she said, cracking the dead air and sending the spores whirling. “Take me North.”
We passed through three towns and rolled across the expanse of open highway. Danger simply pointed to the exits she wanted; she knew precisely where she was going, and I allowed myself to trust her.
Unable to endure the silence as we pulled onto a two-lane exit ramp, I blurted out, “My husband likes pornography more than he likes me.” She hadn’t asked why I was so cooperative, why I was okay with driving her as far as she wanted to go, but she was bound to.
I discovered Bryan’s hobby after a fight. Thinking on it now, I couldn’t tell you what the fight was about. Bryan wasn’t incredibly discreet with his personal things, but when I planted myself in his office chair and pushed his laptop open, I knew what I was looking for. I entered his email password (MyGirlKatie), ferociously clacking the keys as if I meant to hurt them. I expected – or perhaps wanted – to find questionable messages from young girls with slutty usernames, maybe his female clients from the gym, listing the scandalous ways in which they’d thank him for tightening their cores and molding their legs into smooth, toned trunks.
What I found wasn’t nearly as simple – Bryan had requested and paid for pornographic art, which he’d thought out in incredible detail: fetishistic mayhem I’d never thought could exist anywhere outside of science fiction. I looked through every drawing, from the rough sketches sent by the artists and approved by Bryan, to the finished products, trying to fuse my mind with Bryan’s and figure out the thought process that led him to this. Through his glowing computer screen, I tried to become him.
“So,” said Danger, “Did you divorce him and become a wandering transport servicewoman?”
“We’re still together,” I said. He’s in Los Angeles, meeting with some people who want to give him his own DVD series. He’s a pretty well-known fitness trainer. I substitute teach because I enjoy it. I wouldn’t abandon those kids even if Bryan got the deal.”
Danger forced a yawn. “I’ve never heard of him. I do kickboxing. That’s all I do. And look at me.” She dragged a hand across her flat stomach. I tried to remember whether any of Bryan’s fantasy women looked like Danger.
She flicked the radio on and twisted the knob until she found a station she liked. She tapped her heels in tune with a juvenile pop-punk song midplay.
“We’re doing okay, though,” I said, talking over the machine-gun guitars and braking at the cyclopian eye of the traffic light.
“Take a left here,” she said.
When the green arrow lit up, I took my foot off the brake, turned onto the main strip of whatever town we’d just entered, and pulled into the first roadside diner I spotted.
The diner was called Red Carpet Cafe’ and was decked out like a celebrity hotspot. The front steps led to a glass entryway underneath a maroon awning, adorned with star-shaped lights and a marquee featuring the day’s food specials.
Danger said she’d rather stay in the car, but agreed to come in when I told her I’d pay for breakfast. I tugged on the diner’s glass double-door, which made a shiff sound as it opened, and held it for her. The diner’s lobby, made to reflect the prestige of its name, was embellished with black-and-white photos of movie directors and beloved actors, and the tile floor was painted to look like a rolled-out red carpet. The air conditioning swept Danger’s red hair as she passed through the doorway, and there was a certain beauty about her, all the allure of any cover-story socialite I could think of, but in the out-of-makeup way. Playing her doorwoman and seeing her flounce across that red carpet in those black heels, I imagined Danger de Mort headlining the next box-office smash.
After a teenaged waitress seated us in a roomy booth, I used the cloth napkin to wipe away the remains of the caterpillars I’d clomped while walking from the car to the diner. Danger ordered an orange juice. I was too disgusted with the green and black smears on the white napkin, and with myself for my public behavior, to even look at the waitress. It must have been mutual, because she did not ask me if I wanted anything.
While we waited, I asked Danger about the tattoo on her forearm: a helical blue shell with a coiled mass of tentacles percolating from a hood-shaped opening. A single eye indented the shell, and it appeared iridescent, as though it had been painted with the film of a soap bubble.
“I’ll let you ask me one question about it,” she said, and I thought of a conversation I often had with Bryan about how celebrity actors must grow tired of fans asking them to quote their most famous characters or to slip into a phony accent they’d owned onscreen a decade ago. I bet everyone asked Danger about her ink.
I asked, “What did the tattoo artist use for the eye?” and I immediately wished I’d asked her what the creature was. But there was something about the eye, something about the way its colors seemed to change as Danger moved her arm, blue and purple and yellow, in flux.
“I told him I wanted everyone who looked at me to see something different,” she said. She swiveled her arm. The colors flickered. “This is what he did for me.”
The waitress returned and placed a sweating glass of orange juice on the table. She looked down at me, the shoe-wiper, the public menace with death mashed into her napkin, and asked, “Have you decided?”
I’d been so enchanted with the shining eye of Danger’s forearm that I hadn’t even begun thumbing through the breakfast menu. “Just a fried egg,” I said. “No butter on the toast.” I didn’t really want it, but not having glanced at the menu, I thought of the last meal I’d made for Bryan before he’d hopped a plane to L.A. He took his fried eggs underdone and his toast butterless; he loved to watch the yellow lump burst and drag the bread crust through the yolk.
The waitress scribbled the order on a white pad and turned to Danger.
“I want the Anne Francis,” she said, pressing her finger against an image of food on the menu. “Bacon, not sausage. Potatoes crispy, not burnt. And a side of raspberries. I’m sure you’ve got some back there.” The waitress jotted it down and scuttled off, probably suppressing groans. I was dying for a coffee, but was still embarrassed about scraping the corpses from my shoes and didn’t need another reason to draw attention.
My eyes meandered to the glitzy marquee menu and then to the wall of black-and-whites – had they really snagged Ingrid Bergman’s autograph? Danger, disinterested and withdrawn, stared at the backs of her hands.
I’d tried to treat this like an adventure, an outing with a best friend, but the silence made me see the hitchhiker as a stranger again. The freckles dotting her nose and cheeks were unfamiliar; the way she shook the hair out of her eyes was something out of a magazine spread. She didn’t even trust me enough to tell me her name. She was a kid. I was supposed to call Bryan in an hour to see how his meeting had gone, and I was countless miles from home, far from our bed, where I liked to lie when we talked on the phone, and far from my garden, where I could bury my hands when we were done.
Danger tore the fat away from the bacon with her front teeth. She smashed her egg yolks with a fork.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked.
She skewered a piece of egg and didn’t look up from her plate. “I don’t remember.”
“Why can’t you tell me anything about yourself?” I said, stabbing a chunk of my own egg and mirroring her mannerisms. “I told you about me.”
She went “Ah,” holding up a finger, indicating that I was to wait for her to finish chewing. After swallowing the eggy mass, she said, “No, you told me about your husband. I know more about him than I know about you. All I know about you is you don’t like caterpillars on your shoes. You said something about teaching, but I can’t see you taking care of children.”
“I like to keep a garden,” I said. “That’s why I hate the caterpillars. I make life. They chew it up. Your turn.”
“I used to cliff dive at Crooked Pitch. Happy?”
“You can do better than that.”
She put her fork down. “What if this is a test?” she asked. “What if Mother Nature put me on the side of the road with that cardboard sign?”
“Fine. What’s the test, then?”
“It’s not for me to figure out, Kate.” Her words came out like spit, yet she pronounced my name the way a protective sister might. I ripped off a piece of toast and clammed up. Danger’s egg yolks had spread across her entire plate, drowning the bacon. She sighed as if resigning, touched a finger to the white ceramic, and asked if I’d ever dissected an animal.
“Frogs in middle school,” I said.
She worked her finger through the yolk. “My father was a crabber and a fisherman. He was also a drinker. One night, he got loaded and brought home one of his traps. He’d caught something he hadn’t wanted. It looked like a tiny sea monster.” I pictured the sea-beast tattooed on her forearm. “I was bad that day. I broke a cup, muddied the kitchen floor, made a lot of noise. Cried for no reason. My father hated that.”
“Did he hurt you?”
The yolk began to solidify around the bacon and the barely-touched potatoes. She continued pushing her finger through it, and the yellow gunk collected at the end of her nail. “I was twelve,” she said. “I think he knew better than to hit me anymore, but I was still afraid. He put this, this thing in front of me, and he told me to eat it. Everything but the shell. So I did. With my hands.”
I needed her name now, but I didn’t have it.
“It made me stronger, Kate, pulling every tentacle from that shell. They were like weeds with strong roots. It took me a full minute to chew each one. I even downed the eye and scraped the rest of the meat out of the shell with my fingernails.”
“Because I knew he didn’t think I could do it. He’d passed out by the time I finished, so for all he knew I could have thrown it out the window, but it was still victory. I didn’t throw up, just gagged a little. Had a nice conversation with the bathroom mirror after that. I was pretty sure the thing had still been alive while I was picking it apart. Even when you swallow and it all stays down, that’s not the type of thing you ever really digest; know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
She stopped playing with the food and pushed the plate away from her. “I need to get the hell out of this place,” she said. She flagged down the waitress for the check. “Thanks for the ride, Kate. I can find my way from here.”
Every morning, I passed a Lutheran Church on my way to work. The church was older than my parents. God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts, the church sign once declared in blinding white letters on paneled wood. Bryan, slouching in the passenger seat, amended the sign: “God always re-gifts the spiritual fruitcake.” Even road signs weren’t safe from my husband’s wit.
We rode to a fancy French restaurant and he mimicked the waiter’s accent. We shared dessert, a slice of white cheesecake in a perfect triangle. After that night, I began recording the messages on the sign, even the ones that weren’t all that funny, and a year later I already had so many pad pages, gas receipts, and old napkins full of laconic scripture, I could’ve easily scribbled the opening chapters of my own Book of Holy Passive-Aggression.
A week into my summer vacation, a few days after breakfast with the hitchhiker, I overtoasted an English muffin while distracted by a talk-show on television, and began planning a trip to the store. I whipped the car keys around my finger and headed down the road – driving past the church, I could just make out the words, Fight Truth Decay, behind the wall of caterpillars.
The night before, I’d dreamed of graphite-sketched women with mile-high stilettos and pink hair stalking me through the halls of my old high school. They jerked with each step as though being drawn on the spot. “I miss you,” Bryan had said on the phone the night before, in the weakest voice I’d ever heard come out of him. He must have suspected that every word between us made me think of the grotesque pictures on his computer, of impossible naked acrobatics he’d never even suggested we try together but was quick to fictionalize with his fantasy women. When he said he missed me, I wondered if he was imagining me revving my little Japanese car and disappearing from his life.
“I miss you, too,” I said. I knew how I sounded. I wanted to hurt him. I also wanted to snuggle him like he was a child apologizing for a mistake, but I knew he’d be filming his debut fitness video the following morning and would be surrounded by sweat-drenched, hardbodied women in tight sports bras. He’d enjoy their blithe personalities, their flawless skin, and their exuberance for increasing their heart rates. He’d place his hands around their narrow waists to make sure they were squatting with immaculate form.
“I’m going to buy a brand new computer when I get home,” he muttered. “I’ll get rid of all that stuff.”
“Let’s not get into that now,” I said. You have to focus.”
“Whatever you want.” He sounded defeated, as though he’d spent all day gathering the courage to speak to me about this. After a breathless pause, he said, “I’m about to take my group through some stretches. We’re filming Plyometrics at nine.”
If the test video satisfied the fitness company’s bigwigs, Bryan would be called back to Los Angeles and his fitness program would be promoted on national television. This was supposed to be a time for celebration, but I couldn’t detain my shock at what I’d found on his computer, and the shock manifested itself in my speech. My hoarseness told him I’d been throwing up. Every avoided subject was a sign I’d been tearing through his suit-closet for incriminating pictures and revealing letters. I felt like a culprit myself. My tone was false. My voice, a lie. When I spoke, Bryan could sense my nightmares.
When he’d first received the call from the fitness company, we’d sat at the kitchen table and planned a weekend of poolside laughter, fresh hotel sheets, iced champagne, and commemorative photos to top it off, but hoping for any of that now seemed ineffectual. Bryan persisted with his promises to exhume a sexual seed that had been growing untrimmed for years.
“You’ll do great,” I said.
When we finished talking, I walked to the garden. I drove my hands into the topsoil, working them in until I couldn’t see anything below my wrists. I spread my fingers like roots.
When the geraniums had sprouted promising buds, Bryan returned. An airport shuttle stuttered up to the driveway and Bryan appeared from behind the sliding door, dragging two Pan American suitcases behind him. I waited at the end of the walk. When he reached me, he dropped the luggage and kissed my lips.
Over the next few weeks, Bryan’s behavior became erratic. He was constantly crouched in front of the television, watching and rewinding clips of his fitness demo. When I’d try to watch it with him, he’d tell me to let him concentrate. His computer never moved from its desk. I wondered whether he knew I’d been shuffling through his things. He kept his sentences short when he bothered to speak at all.
Mornings were percussed by Bryan’s wake-up cycle: swing the bedroom door open so the knob bashes against the wall; pore over DVDs and drop the television remote onto the wooden TV stand; lift and release dumbbells on the living room floor; hurl the sliding glass door of the shower hard enough that it fully closes the first time; and when going out for the mail, slam the front door to be sure it doesn’t stick.
I remember watching a news story one morning while drinking hazelnut coffee. A newscaster in a charcoal suit, poised at the entrance of an outdoor aquarium, chatted with a young woman in a yellow raincoat. A name-tag was pinned to her front, and the newscaster held a black microphone to her face as if offering her an ice cream. “The ocean was once full of externally-shelled cephalopods, half of which are now extinct,” she said, with a TV smile that made the contrition in her voice seem terribly detached. “That’s why this find is so thrilling, Mark,” she went on. The newscaster nodded dully. “These creatures are impossible to track, and no one has ever figured out their reproduction patterns. They are literally living fossils.” A red ribbon of text accelerated across the bottom of the screen, unreadable through the steam rising from my cup.
I peered out the window at the rhododendrons puckering in the post-rain sunlight, awaiting my attention. Bryan was becoming more volatile by the day. Once his increasingly raucous morning routine was finished, he would either sit by the phone or disappear until dinner. He was afraid to wake me up, even when he knew I wasn’t sleeping. I still dreamed of crudely drawn women with flesh bared, of Bryan’s laptop cord morphing into a white, snakelike rope, looping around my neck and constricting me until my dream body died.
On the television, the woman in the raincoat led the newscaster toward a stone pool. The cameraman tilted the lens so that the surface of the pool was visible. Starfish clung to the sides. Beneath the opaque water, two white blurs darted around the perimeter. “Only three aquariums on Earth have been able to produce fertile nautilus eggs,” the woman said, “but no one has ever raised one to maturity. The animals often develop shell formation problems. No matter what we do, it’s almost as though they will themselves to die through some sort of natural trauma. We are hoping for an entire family once these eggs hatch.”
I recorded the rest of the show and set the television to record every installment of the Channel 17 morning news for the next two weeks. I remembered the cardboard sign – Nautilus – clutched in Danger’s hands, and how after breakfast, she wouldn’t let me take her there. But I had: I’d asked her about the tattoo with the gleaming eye, which had led to her telling the story of eating the tiny sea monster. Nautilus wasn’t a physical place; it was a mindset, a birthmark, a state of conversation. Why hadn’t she needed me once we’d arrived?
That night, Bryan lay awake, whispering about the bosses at Morton Fitness, how they sat around a polished oak table and discussed how to dish Bryan’s ideas to the public, how to get people to believe him. He joked about their tacky suits and ironed black ties, about how out of place he felt standing before them in a yellow jumper and hightops. This moment was a balm for both our wounds, maybe, but where joking would have turned to laughter, laughter to teasing, teasing to frisking, frisking to lovemaking, there was only me, the blackness of the bedroom intermittently lit by the passing of cars, the echolalia of the neighbors’ dobermans, the stubborn crack in our small-paned window, and the thought of caterpillars devouring my jasmine and coating my home like a shell.
The air felt cooler in the morning, as though the house had taken a breath. While I roamed the kitchen, scrambling eggs and brewing fresh coffee, the phone began shaking in its cradle. Bryan rushed in, materializing out of nowhere. He scooped the phone from the cradle and spoke his own name into the mouthpiece. After a series of nods, nine instances of Yeah and six of Thank you, Bryan hung up. “It was Morton,” he said. “They’re giving me the DVD deal.” I finished arranging breakfast and slid the egg-laden ceramic plates, wedding gifts from Bryan’s parents, onto the table. Bryan barely touched his food as he explained his ideas for the fitness program; he had clever slogans, poster designs, and even sales numbers figured out in his head. I managed “Mmm-hmm” through a burning mouthful of coffee.
I stabbed a piece of yellow egg with my fork, rolling it around on the plate, thinking of the pregnant nautilus. I thought of Danger devouring tentacles like strings of white pasta.
Bryan left for Los Angeles again. After he kissed me goodbye and boarded the shuttle, I slipped his demo disc from its sleeve, dropped it in the DVD tray, and planted myself on the ottoman. Once the Morton Fitness logo – the silhouette of a woman jumping rope – had popped in and faded, Bryan appeared on the screen, clad in black tights and flanked by two women, each with slender arms and abs of granite. “Guess what?” Bryan said, turning to the camera as though the viewer had just stumbled onto the set, which was built like a three-walled gym, “You’re here for the Plyometric Cardio Burner. Get ready to jump higher, run faster, and get those ripped thighs. Are you ready, Karen?” The woman on Bryan’s right, a curly-haired brunette who looked about seventeen, fist-pumped her approval. I endured the full forty minute workout, fast-forwarding here and there when the endless squats began to bore me or when the women in the video pumped out thirty reps of a jumping-jack-knee-tuck hybrid of which I was quite sure I couldn’t do a single one. When Bryan finished the workout, he and the women were drenched. I couldn’t help feeling a bit proud. My husband, the fitness icon. “That’s it,” he said to the camera lens. “How do you feel?”
As the shot faded back to the Morton logo, he high-fived the unnamed woman, and the brunette approached him for a sweaty hug. I expected him to shoot her one of the glib retorts he always gave me when I attempted the sweaty hug, but he reciprocated. Great grins spread across their faces in what felt like slow motion. The screen went dark as they embraced, leaving me with nothing but this moment, as if they’d drowned in each other’s moisture.
I still blame the caterpillars for what happened to my garden. The army of trees behind our home, which reclined over seven acres of sprawling hills, had gone from their usual apple-green to an aberrant brown.
I had spent springtime training Carolina jasmine to climb a crosshatched fence I’d nailed together and painted myself. I’d propped the fence alongside our duck pond, which my father had dug with a backhoe a few years back. During the caterpillars’ assault, my jasmine was the last plant to die, chewed to stems over the course of two nights. I scraped clumps of black caterpillars from the trellis. They felt like soft meat in my hands. I collected the hanging pots, ripped up the roots of the spider plants, and dumped the caterpillars into the pond. A duck, gliding over the still water, pecked at the ripples, unsure. I tore the fence out of the ground and swore until my mouth went dry.
Bryan had been gone for over a week, and I needed something green in the yard again.
Determined to regrow my jasmine but completely ignorant of what I’d need, I drove to the hardware store. I passed the Lutheran church sign (In the dark? Follow the Son!) and turned onto Cocca Ave, crushing legions of caterpillars beneath my tires. I attacked the store’s aisles, sifting through barrels of seed packets and rearranging the architecture of the spade display. As I heaved the door open with an armful of gardening loot, I saw her.
The hitchhiker, in a maroon dress and black heels, stood on the curb between a chest-high recycling bin and a telephone pole plastered with fliers for missing pets. Her arm was extended, her thumb pointed toward the sky.
“Danger?” I didn’t know what else to call her. I wished she would lower her arm before someone else pulled onto the shoulder and whisked her away.
“Hi, Kate.” Her hair settled in a red curtain as she turned.
“I’m sorry,” I said, still feeling uninhibited. “I should have been more helpful when you told me about your father.”
The sign was tilted against the recycling bin, facing the road. “You don’t seem like the same person,” she said.
“Why are you hitchhiking? How did you get all the way back here?”
“I shouldn’t really say. There are rules.”
Thinking I had figured out at least one of the hitchhiker’s tenets, I didn’t bring up the tattoo again.
“What if we start traveling somewhere, but we never arrive?” I asked.
Half of her mouth bent upward like a sliver of moon. In pure daylight, her face was a white, freckle-flecked seashell.
“Please spend the afternoon with me,” I said. “Please.”
During the non-air-conditioned return drive, I explained why I’d been ransacking the hardware store. I told Danger about my dreams, how the grotesque hand-drawn women had returned after I’d watched Bryan’s workout video. That brunette, Karen, had appeared, often with tentacles sprouting from her neck and curling around mine; her skin was made of hard white lines, as though etched with blackboard chalk.
Danger asked my age. She said nothing else during the entire drive.
“Thirty-four,” I said.
She smiled warmly, as if speaking to a grandparent.
Summer heat began lightly toasting my skin, just as it had when I’d first shaken Danger’s hand in the car. Still wearing high heels, she stood in the garden over a backdrop of yellow and green. A white admiral fluttered over her shoulder; she swatted at her hair. Sunlight cut through the striped maples, and as Danger lowered her hand, her graffittied skin glimmered with color. Her entire form refracted in the hot beams.
In some ways, I felt safer with Danger than with Bryan, who moved from room to room like a ghost of himself, and whose invented ghosts had burst through the walls of my dreams. The house felt more familiar, even among the empty pots and rotting, leafless trees, than the Red Carpet Cafe’, dressed in its unnatural colors and bedecked with gaudy bullshit.
Upon seeing the ruins of my jasmine, Danger immediately bent at the waist and pulled the trellis upright. We crouched over the soil and planted the new seeds together. She dragged a shovel from the woodshed and asked if I had anything we could burn. We descended the concrete stairs into the cellar; I breathed in ten years of must. Soot rushed to occupy my lungs. Danger laughed as she wiped the dust from the surface of Bryan’s wine rack with her bare palm. “No,” I said, stifling a cough. “We can’t burn that.”
I led her to the wood stove, currently abandoned, which sat in the back of the cellar behind ceiling-high stacks of gardening supplies. “That’ll do,” Danger said. She dumped a shovelful of ash and white coal into the metal bin under the stove, then led me up the cellar stairs the same way I’d brought her in. She poured the contents of the ash bin over the surface of each dirt pile we’d made, around the foundations of every root in the garden. She promised me the ashes would avert the appetites of the caterpillars, and indeed, long after the last time I ever saw her, I would still clot flowerbeds with ash. Stems always issued unharmed from soil to sky.
“He likes her,” I told Danger after I fast-forwarded to the end of Bryan’s fitness DVD. “That’s why he’s been so good about his computer. He didn’t touch it when he came back from L.A.”
“You’re assuming a lot,” she said. I leaned back on the couch, sinking into the forest green upholstery. She arched forward, elbows on knees, grinding the spikes of her heels into the hardwood floor.
“You do the workouts?” she asked.
“Maybe it would help if you did the workout instead of watching him hug a sweaty woman over and over.”
“I’m not in good shape.”
“That’s the point of a workout, Kate. Let’s do this – ” she peeked at the DVD sleeve, “– Cardio Burner, together. Then I’ll be a sweaty woman, and you can hug me, and you’ll see that this thing is in your mind.”
I refused. But even after I’d gone to the kitchen and had begun preparing a chicken stir-fry, I heard the Morton theme music and Bryan’s voice, followed by the sticky sound of feet on hardwood. She was doing it.
I couldn’t watch. I drew out the time it took to prepare dinner, making sure to place the dishes on the table just as Danger was wandering into the kitchen, and as she drifted through the doorway, a trail of sweaty vapor rose in her wake.
“Hug me,” she said, ignoring the steaming plates. I was boxed into the L-shaped alcove formed by the sink and the blue tile counter. I felt a feeling like fear, and opened my arms. Danger looped her hands around my shoulders. Something in her touch, her scent, her sweat gliding along my skin, her arms hooked flimsily around me – youth bled from her.
I asked her age, whispering into a drape of red hair. She said she couldn’t remember.
I awoke at midnight with a cold hand caging my wrist.
After dinner, I’d asked Danger if there was somewhere I could bring her. She told me no, not this late. I watched with admiration as she threw back four shots of Bryan’s special bourbon, and as I changed the sheets in the guest room for her, she clandestinely stumbled into our bedroom, snuggled beneath the calico quilt, and fell asleep. I would have woken her had I not wanted the company, a solid body to weigh down the other side of the bed, so badly. When I felt her hand, I imagined she was my teenage daughter. Envisioning myself with children, I noticed the caterpillar on the wall, traversing an orb of moonlight. I pretended this orb was a second moon, with the body of the caterpillar blackening the surface like a crater, and I whispered to my teenage daughter stories of how her father and I gazed at that same moon on our wedding night, surrounded by ramparts of gift-wrapped boxes, our skin dancing as our blood rushed beneath it. I held onto this fantasy until the caterpillar moved, making me forget the second moon. I leaped from bed, felt cold fingers slide from my wrist, grabbed the nearest object (Danger’s high-heeled shoe) and crashed it against the wall. The kill wasn’t clean. When I brought my hand down, the caterpillar scuttled away, and the heel of the shoe severed its body; the lower portion stuck to the wall and the upper portion retreated frantically until I smashed it with my bare hand. Languid, half-asleep, I got slowly back into bed, careful not to wake my daughter, and before I closed my eyes, I tried to shimmy my wrist back between her still fingers.
I woke to an open shade, a brown smear on the wall, the phone ringing, and a woman-shaped dintin the opposite side of the mattress. I grabbed the cordless phone from the cradle and groaned unintelligibly into the mouthpiece.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” Bryan said, sounding ready to take on the world. “It’s great to hear your voice.”
“Yours, too.” I gazed at the spot where Danger had been. Her scent, that of cinnamon and down, was everywhere.
“You’re speaking to Bryan Cross, the Nicest Guy in America. Trademark.”
“That’s what they’re calling you?”
“Yeah. I admit, it’s a silly marketing gimmick, but Morton liked my smile.”
“What about Karen? What does she call you?”
There was a long stretch of silence. “Who?”
“The girl from the video. The one who rubbed her sweaty body all over you.”
I walked through the bedroom doorway into the brightly-lit kitchen. I squinted and felt my way around. Danger sat at the table, eating oatmeal with a salad fork. Her hair was a shaggy red mane, and her eyes, black against the sunlight, were fixed on me.
“Katie,” Bryan said, “This is the way fitness videos work. You have to act all buddy-buddy with people and look like you’re having a great time. People who aren’t in shape feel like shit, and after they work out, their knees are rickety and they’re on the verge of vomiting. They need to know that a community of involved people is there for them, and it helps if those people appear as though they like each other.”
“How am I supposed to believe that? Why did you stop looking at porn all of a sudden? Your computer hasn’t moved from its desk since the first L.A. trip. Things don’t change that quickly, Bryan.”
“You’re right. They don’t. But it’s not what you think.”
I sat at the chair across the table from Danger. Her eyes were still on me. As she lifted the fork, dripping with mush, to her mouth, her tattoo shimmered. The oatmeal steamed. I inhaled brown sugar.
“I killed a caterpillar last night,” I said to Bryan. “They’re in the house now. And you’re not here. This is the kind of thing we’re supposed to do together.”
He forced a laugh. “Killing bugs?”
“Defending the castle.”
Another pause. “I know, Katie. I’m coming home soon. We’ll talk again.”
After hanging up, I realized I hadn’t told him about my nightmares of being strangled with wire, that even if Bryan never looked at his artwork again, it decorated my dreams, and every night it killed me.
“Hi,” Danger said with sleep in her voice. I reached across the table and touched her hand. She was wearing one of my robes. We linked fingers.
I threw jeans on, gassed up the car, and drove Danger to the aquarium (the Lutherans had put together a message about forgiving the wicked; the deluge of caterpillars teemed around the white letters as if hiding them from me).
Yes, she’d said when I’d asked if I could bring her somewhere. There were no hints save for the cardboard sign in the backseat of my car. The tide pool from the eleven o’clock news was set between an animatronic narwhal and the gift shop, the gaps filled with dozens of passersby whose expressions ranged from enthralled to fatigued. Children waved pearl-colored wind toys with dolphins for petals; the wordless chatter of tour guides vibrated through the walls; a little girl ran between Danger and I, treading over my feet; a woman with a ring on every finger took my hand and apologized for the girl.
“I’ve been everywhere,” Danger muttered, placing her palms on the stone rim of the tide pool and leaning over the surface of the water. “I just point my finger and go wherever the driver decides to take me. It’s an exercise in interpretation, I guess.”
She told me where she’d started. If it had been anyone else, if I hadn’t felt the softness of her hand, the honesty in the lines of her skin, that road map of veins and creases and invisible hairs, I would not have believed how far she’d traveled. I leaned next to her, watching the water. She tracked every ripple.
White blurs jolted beneath, bubbles rolled across the top like boiling tap water on a stove, the perfect living conditions described by the girl in the yellow raincoat on the news. I wished one of the creatures would bob its head, if it had one, above the surface and prove to me it was growing properly, that its shell wasn’t caving in, that it wasn’t willing itself to die.
Knowing why she had come here, why she’d needed someone to take her here, I took her hand again, lifted it from the rocks, unclenched it. I felt her bones relax. I set her fingers against my lips, one by one. The grooves in her fingertips were like the stony impressions in the face of a fossil, revealing layer after layer after layer. You are forgiven, I thought, kissing her toughened skin. These hands, these contrite fingers, tore that innocent animal apart, and that’s why you’re here. But the creatures in the pool can’t forgive you themselves.
Her eyes narrowed again, her expression tentative, and her chest rose and fell in quick beats, just as it had when she’d finished exercising and walked into the kitchen dripping. As she raised her other arm, her artwork came into view, that gorgeous prismatic nautilus, and I tasted sea salt as I touched her first two fingers to my mouth.
Winter destroyed the caterpillars. I wished their passing had been more romantic, but it was better than local madmen spraying fire at every stalk of vegetation in the district. While lying awake and counting the speckles of light reflected by passing vehicles onto the ceiling, I contemplated whether my murder-by-shoe had been the turning point in the struggle, whether the caterpillars had just given up after that.
Bryan returned, and during single-degree temperatures, when the spruces froze solid after a spritz of rain and the front steps were clumped with snow, he pined to go to Los Angeles more than ever. Every other month, Morton would drag him away to appear on QVC or lead a week-long workout series with the Army. I watched the news every morning and took to eating oatmeal with a fork. One Saturday, when the sun had cracked the clouds for the first time in weeks and Bryan was selling his exercise program on the Home Shopping Network, the phrase “disappearance of the nautilus” caught my ears through the popping of hot butter in the egg pan. According to the lady in the yellow raincoat, now flanked by two police officers with folded arms, a young woman scooped the animals out of the tide pool and ran off with them cradled to her chest. Without saying a word, she hit the glass door with her shoulder and vanished into the sun, her body blurring together with the bulk of the creatures, her hair like tentacles and their tentacles like hair.
I considered taking up hitchhiking, but I waited.
After the airport shuttle had pulled away, Bryan collapsed to his knees in the snow. I knelt next to him, took his face in my hands, and rubbed the tears away with my thumbs before they froze. He told me he wasn’t addicted; he’d only been curious. Karen was no one; he hadn’t spoken with her since the shoot. He hated how I avoided him and floated to other rooms when he was home, how I pretended to be asleep after he got up, how he’d lie in hotel beds with the phone resting on his chest, awaiting my familiar ring, missing me.
I said nothing; I couldn’t even comfort him. Moreover, I couldn’t bring myself not to believe him. I tried to make myself cry, but nothing came out. I took him by the hand and led him inside, dragging one of his suitcases and assuring him I’d unpack his things in the morning.
That night, Bryan kept me awake with ceaseless tossing and turning. Unable to take anymore, I kicked the white sheet from our bodies, watching it float from my foot and settle against the oak dresser like a curtain of fog. I rolled onto him. He tore at my thin nightgown, and after flinging it into the corner, he put his mouth on me, instinctively, like an animal struggling to seal a wound with saliva. In the morning, when sunlight shone through the fish tank and cast chlorinated ripples against the bedroom wall, I felt exonerated.
Bryan is in the driver’s seat. I am on the passenger side with Ruby, our daughter, resting in my arms. We are in the parking lot of the Lutheran church, where Bryan leads “celebrity workouts” with the church’s elderly members on the weekend. It’s an election year, and the church’s big sign shares the lawn with the names of political hopefuls. “Judge Russell,” Bryan quips, gazing at a lawn sign the size of a chalkboard. “I will, if I ever meet the guy.” He draws a long breath and lets the air settle into his chest. He scrutinizes the old church through the pocked windshield as though considering whether he wants to go in, whether he’s supposed to sit in the driver’s seat forever.
Ruby gazes up at me, cooing for her bottle, her blue eyes like little mood-rings. I nudge my index finger into her soft palm, and she squeezes. One day, years from now, while Ruby and I are tending the garden together, dumping ashes over soil, she will ask me about my life, about the adventures in youth and romance that led to her birth. I will tell her about beginnings, how her parents fought off the caterpillars, and how the caterpillars finally left us – they all became moths, I’ll tell her, fluttering from their cocoons and filling the sky like a fireworks display. I remember the scent of cinnamon and down, a road trip with no destination, and if I’d hitchhiked to Crooked Pitch instead of staying to give life to Ruby, how I’d have found a frozen high-heel-print at the water’s edge, the legacy of a little savior, Danger de Mort ascendant, forever kicking through the waves with the weight of the world cradled in her arms.
Richard Hartshorn lives in upstate New York and earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Split Rock Review, Hawaii Women’s Journal, and other publications.