Fiction / Issue 3

Fiction by Marina Mularz

The Wilderness

When the hunters invaded tropical Cherrapunji, half of them brought pornography. Most of the men favored Brazilian waxes and names like Krystal. The women of the pack carried old Harlequins, old issues of Playgirl where Leonardo DiCaprio used words like “passion” next to “iceberg.” Two of the women bonded over Leo on page 75, soft lighting and cotton-tunic nothingness. The men bonded over a latex co-ed holding a chainsaw, but skin was skin was skin. Man, woman, waxed, bearded, airbrushed, ’80s, ’90s—all of it made the same firecracker rattle in the tropical rain—sopping copies of old magazines. The porno enthusiasts knew it well, faded four-letter words in ink on their fingertips as they held their issues up in the tropical downpour—waiting, alone, together.

Every so often, someone would flip a page, hoping a new angle of tit or dick might lure more than a happenstance bird out of the wilderness. Other hunters used different bait. Some yelled obscene curse words into the air. Some chewed their nails and spit the tips on the ground. Others kissed each other—loud and hard, like a high school production of Romeo & Juliet—hard, loud, and wet, gasping for air in the endless rainfall. The really devoted kissers tried groping and nibbling.

All of the kissers were married, but not to each other. That’s what made their practice so valuable, so exciting. They were smart to choose a vice that constantly evolved. Others weren’t so fortunate. The nail biters quickly ran out of material. So did the pornographers, for that matter.

Skin was skin was skin, no matter how you dressed it up.

Still, in the perpetual darkness of Cherapunjee summer, the hunters invaded by the dozens, setting up makeshift nylon tents and waiting—alone, together—to snap a single photograph of the ultimate prize: the yeti.

For years, people mistook the yeti for a cold-weather animal, hovering over a branch bowl of glowworms in the arctic tundra, until Jessica Sanchez of Rancho Cucamonga took the very first portrait in Cherapunjee at twilight. After two divorces and a screening of Eat Pray Love, Sanchez set out on her own wanderlust and took one too many lefts on an unmarked trail. By lunchtime, she raised her knapsack and started bargaining with god.

“Lord,” she said, “if you shall take me, let me leave this Earth as pure as I arrived.”

By nightfall, Sanchez changed her tune.

“Fuck you,” she muttered, her face in her bag. “Not like you even exist.” She shook a cigarette out of the bottom, the rainfall beading on the back of her neck, and found a lighter to finish the job. Branches broke as she huddled into herself, blowing smoke into a paperback copy of Human Being or Being Human? Motherfucking waste of time. Motherfucking soul retreat. Motherfucking Paul and Steve, motherfucking babysitters. Motherfucking loneliness. No more make-it-better, quick-fix uplifting quote. Loneliness. Loud and clear. Loneliness.

She lit another two cigarettes and let the smoke seep out and mix with the rain. When the moment vanished, the figure appeared.

White fingers, white arms, white eyebrow beds. Breathing down-comforter. White feet. Tufted tower of soaking wet fur. He inched closer and reached for her mouth. He smelled like something ancient and fresh, like charcoal grill and antique furniture. The rain stopped midair as his fur brushed her lip, a drip drip dripping of drool leaking out of his mouth. He filled his chest up with air and huffed, and, in one slow swipe, he pushed all the limp cigarettes out of her mouth. She managed a single whisper as he turned to leave.

“Fuck.”

The yeti circled back and surveyed her mouth again. He put a single finger to her lips and shook his head. No. The universal language. Loud and clear. He seemed to linger for her response.

“Sorry,” she said. “Fudge.” The yeti nodded and turned to leave again, a slow creep, hunched and silent. Sanchez fumbled with her knapsack as he disappeared, eyes wet and wide. Her hands got busy in her bag, feeling her way to the lens of her camera, fishing it out as he stopped to clean his ear.

“Fuck,” again, a little louder. The yeti turned back to a flash flash flash. Birds took flight and greenery shook as he instantly disappeared, so fast he simply vanished. The rain picked back up; the smell disappeared. Sanchez began to weep, loud and brand-new, shrill and piercing, until a group of nighttime yogis stumbled upon her experience.

The photograph was blurry at best, but the Union of Yeti Hunters all took a look at the shadowy figure—the long, white fur, the empty gaze—and agreed that it was, in fact, a certified yeti. A week later, Jessica Sanchez sold her photo to the Smithsonian for five million dollars.

“He feeds on vices,” she told Big Game Weekly. “He’s a mother-fudging vice eater, and he’s waiting for his next meal, somewhere.”

And so they went, the amateur hunters, in droves to Cherapunjee, hoping to also lure the yeti out with their own terrible habits. Maybe this time he’d even pose.

A group of alcoholics arrived first, but they all wandered away during an argument about the Steve Miller Band. The Ivy League cheaters came next and copied each other’s tents. Then came the narcissists, the thieves, and the people who hit squirrels on the highway on purpose. Everybody brought something inexplicably terrible to share. Trixie McPhee brought a box of Tootsie Rolls.

“Sometimes I just eat ten of these a day,” she said, two fellow hunters begrudgingly listening, a spread-eagle photo of Pamela Anderson in the air. Trixie mastered the art of yelling over the rain in the first five minutes, her whole body amplified under a see-through umbrella. She held up two Tootsie Roll wrappers, and the hunters continued nodding. Everything she said, she really said.

“I just can’t quit ’em! I’m just about as guilty as they come, just a good ol’ case of gluttony.” She yelled the second part a little louder, her eyes shifting to a patch of heavy greenery. Nothing surfaced. “God came to me in a dream once and he told me to quit the stuff, no more sweets, y’know? That’s why I don’t go to church no more.” The rain fell a little harder. Trixie ate another piece of candy and started singing a Dolly Parton song to pass the time. She was the first person to bring a true southern drawl to Cherapunjee, the first to bring a clear gingham poncho, the first to keep her face done up in the downpour, the first to give everyone a goodnight hug—even the squirrel killers. Trixie was also the first to bring a spouse, who manned his own box of Tootsie Rolls.

“If you think I’m bad, you should see David! Can barely keep his paws off the stuff. Would rather see a chocolate mousse in a bikini than me, I’m sure of it!” Trixie giggled and leaned in to the poncho beside her, umbrella rain spilling over. David wiped the water off and nodded and flashed a smile, his teeth covered in a brown film of sugar spit. Maybe if the yeti surfaced by midnight, he wouldn’t have to eat another damn candy again.

The lying first started when David married Trixie. She looked so sweet that love seemed secondary. Just a word, really. If it was love that she wanted to feel, David was happy to touch her—in high school under the bleachers, in college on the library lawn, at her parents’ over Christmas, when the underwear finally came off. Maybe it was love, whatever it was, though David never thought of her that way. Lovely, of course, which is really about the same. At the end of the day, it was David’s mother that truly loved Trixie, and David truly loved David’s mother, so it all really made sense. So kind, so sweet, so young, both Mama and Trixie. Then the baby happened.

Trixie’s belly didn’t show, but David showed up anyway, at her grandma’s trailer on Christmas Eve, a ring on loan from Trixie’s Aunt Charlie. David told Trixie it was a sapphire because maybe it was, who would really know.

“Anything’s a sapphire if you really believe it is,” Aunt Charlie said.

Trixie melted and squealed and cried, and Mama helped her plan the wedding. A simple mass and apple crisp. Carnation cross on the getaway car. Mama’s satin wedding gown. She stayed up late on Sunday nights and sewed the skin right off her fingertips. It was worth it once the dress went down the aisle. Trixie looked so sweet, so young, so easy to please in old, cream-colored lace. Strawberry blonde and freckled and fresh, just like Mama before dad went and ruined it. At the end of the ceremony, David took a break from rubbing Trixie’s belly and gave Mama a kiss goodnight.

“Beautiful,” he said. Mama held him tight and whispered back.

“Yes,” she said. “And this time for good.”

The holidays passed, and Trixie didn’t grow. On Valentine’s Day, she admitted she made the whole thing up, except the part where she said “I love you.” Maybe because she dreamt about a baby happening, maybe because she swore she felt something in her insides. Maybe because she wanted Mama as her own, so she could finally know what it was like to shop with one. Maybe because she wanted David forever, and didn’t know how to ask for that herself. Before David had a chance to really think it all over, Trixie asked if she could at least keep the ring. She looked so sad, so sweet, so lonely—so much like Mama when Dad stopped trying for good. Maybe even sadder. It was so pure, so simple. David stayed and gave and felt good doing it. He gave her a hug because it seemed right. Trixie had a hard time letting go.

“I’ll never take another thing,” she said.

The Fabergé egg was Trixie’s first splurge, after the dentist told her she needed a root canal and she dreamt that she’d die in the chair. David said she could have it, whatever it was, because it gave her peace of mind and things were good and she was good and that’s really all that mattered. Soon after, Trixie skipped the middleman and charged up cards in David’s name for almost everything. Porcelain angels. Golf clubs. She bought a lot of things for Mama, but then borrowed them indefinitely. A knife set. A sad clown painting. She earned a rare Elvis bust when David took a school job in Freedom Point and they were forced to leave Charleston for central Wisconsin. Alligator suitcase. Aromatherapy plunger. Egyptian cotton whatever. When David was named principal, she sent all the teachers at Freedom Point Junior High designer popcorn balls for lunch. When David called to call her lovely, she informed him that she bought two cemetery plots back in Charleston because she had a dream she died of boredom and, even as a ghost, longed to be back in South Carolina, where home is really home.

“How much of your middle name do you want on your tombstone?”

It was always something. Trixie would sit and buy and cover herself in David—sweater sets and designer pasta he had forgotten to give her for something or other. When she found out a baby could never come, a catalogue of timeshare condos arrived in the mail. David made it disappear the following morning.

One time, Trixie admitted that all she wanted was an ostrich coat so that she’d know what it really felt like to be wealthy before she, god forbid, actually died.

“And the website says it’s functional, too.”

The coat came twice, in two different shades of eggshell.

David tried to tell Trixie no, all the time, every day, but he couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing her. She’d worked so hard to stay so lovely, to keep her face so fresh over the years, so bright-eyed, with cheek blush like the makeup Mama did on their wedding day. She was a permanent reminder of the promise that he had made. He had never even seen her cry, couldn’t even imagine what that would look or sound or feel like, couldn’t stand the idea of her sitting on the stoop like Mama, waiting for dad to get back and apologize. If that was honesty or love or whatever, who needed it?

Work got longer as money got tighter. David supervised extracurriculars that nobody should ever have to supervise. Gingerbread Club. Touch Soccer Team. Junior Cheese Sculptors of America. He tried so hard to seem interested in everything, all the curds and the “ankle sprains” and the hope that maybe all the bills might figure themselves out if nobody ate breakfast or snacks. Then he’d go home and a taxidermy gator would be waiting in the garage. The house felt smaller, the truth less frequent. David got tired. The tipping point was Trixie’s fortieth birthday, where she told all of her friends that they were buying a condo in Aspen. She held up a catalog that had garbage stains on it. David put a freeze on all the accounts without saying anything, and Trixie did the same, but with David’s lower region. A week went by, and nobody said or did anything about either matter. Trixie spent the whole weekend on the phone with Mama to make a point, and, the following Monday, Mama died from stress or something equally terrible. At the wake, Trixie finally opened up. She looked so sweet, so broken, so lost. It was only natural after Mama gave her so much. Trixie squeezed David tight near an old bowl of nuts on the funeral mantle. She could barely compose herself to get out everything she needed to say.

“I can’t believe it all,” she said. “And to think, I was just tellin’ her about how unfair you were with the condo and such.” Trixie wiped her nose across an ostrich sleeve as David tried to think of anything to say. Trixie filled the silence. “I guess we’ll never know what finally did her in.” She went on to speculate about how much they might inherit, until it was clear to David that things were finally over.

Time was of the essence. David delayed action until the very end of the school year, when some stranger two towns over drew up papers during the year-end Blue Cheese Conference. The plan was to leave them on the kitchen counter and then simply vanish for a few weeks of summer and hope she found her way back south. Maybe he could even help her move once she cooled down. That would be a good way to end the papers, a little note or joke about heavy lifting. Maybe a doodle, too. And maybe they’d go best with a nice card or box of candy—something that fit into her new all-nougat diet. Zero confrontation. Very kind. He’d even thought of a lot of nice things to say over email in case she needed them. She wouldn’t be alone forever, just for a little while, and he could still come over and listen to her sometimes-psychic dreams. He’d help her paint the condo if she ever got one. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad; maybe she knew it was all coming.

When David got home from leaving, Trixie was sitting on the front stoop, waiting—two alligator suitcases on either side. Maybe she had a dream and already called her own lawyer. As David pulled in, she waved for the car to stop and dragged the bags to the passenger side. As she got closer, she looked happier. It was not the face of a knowingly abandoned woman.

“Where’d you go?” she asked.

David’s voice went up an octave or two.

“Students or something.” He’d have to serve the papers soon if that were the best of his lying abilities.

“Oh. Well, I got you somethin’,” she said, a newspaper rolled up under her armpit. She shook it out and flipped to the inside, her eyes peeled back with excitement. She probably bought the paper, the whole thing, the machines and everything. She pulled a section out and handed it through the car window. The photograph was blurry at best. A shadowy figure, a handsome reward. Two flights and a camping pack. No refunds.

“We’re rich!” she said. “I can feel it this time!” Trixie nearly frothed at the mouth. “Let’s go get a yee-ti.” She disappeared from the window, the suitcases zipping and unzipping. David tried to think of a way to let her down without actually letting her down. Maybe he’d get lucky and spontaneously die.

“Maybe the paper’s old. I think I heard the story last month. Yeah. Maybe they made a mistake. We’d better go inside and just wait until we know for sure.” The zippers stopped moving, and Trixie popped back up. Her face softened, lengthened if possible.

“I already got the tickets.” She took a big breath, more than anybody needs. “I guess I thought you’d wanna spend more time with me.” She pouted and David felt instantly guilty. Maybe he could just go to the airport and then find a way to hide. Maybe the bathrooms had a trap door.

Trixie leaned in farther through the window, her chest rising and falling and her eyes welling up. She took a big breath and lowered her voice.

“Plus, I wasn’t gonna say anything,” she said, “but I had another dream.” She stopped to build suspense. “Mama says hello.”

David’s breath felt short. She’d probably come by to finally say I love you.

“What else did she say?”

“Well, she said that this is our chance to get the money, real money, and she really wants us to do it because life’s too short and life is expensive and god forbid one of us dies too, then what would we do?” Trixie choked back tears and took David’s hand. “She said she’d never ask you to do another thing. And then she died. Again.”

David felt the burn of the legal envelope in his back pocket. Mama looked so helpless on Trixie, so pure, so soft, white knit and cotton blend, so carnation cross and distant church bells.

He tried his hardest to make his mouth say no. He tried to finally get away for the first and last time, as quietly as possible, until Trixie started making a sniffling noise. She set her gaze on David and tempted him to listen. It was so gentle, so distinct. It was nearly identical to the one Mama made when David first proposed.

“You do her right,” she had said, long streams of mixed emotions rolling down her cheeks. “And, when it’s hard, you do it for me.”

Somewhere distant, Mama probably readied herself to die again of sheer disappointment. She probably regretted spending so much time teaching Trixie how to tease her hair, how to frost a bundt, how to make those eyeliner lines so straight. She probably regretted ever believing that David was something other than his daddy. She’d probably make the lace gown simply evaporate from earth, like socks do in the drying machine. That way, nobody else would ever have to wear it and pretend like maybe miracles happen.

David let the weight of it all vibrate through his body while Trixie kept herself busy by folding up the newspaper. She tried so hard, her hair so high, her eyes so straight. She looked so familiar in a brand-new way. David watched her fingers move and felt the back-pocket papers virtually disappear before he finally interrupted.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s try.”

The Cherapunjee rain fell the hardest when the McPhees first arrived. All the tents circled up beneath the long palm leaves on the edge of the clearing, and the hunters started mingling with each other. The kissers took a vote and started adding triple kissing into their curriculum. The cheaters played trivia with the squirrel killers, and, naturally, always won. The thieves took a liking to Trixie after she showed them her jewelry box. David wandered about the woods alone, burying little mounds of Tootsie Rolls he simply couldn’t bring himself to stomach. That was all Trixie could think of when she had to pick a bad habit to pursue: Tootsie Rolls.

God bless her for trying. David wasn’t nearly as good at it. He almost called the whole trip and the whole life off after Trixie spent ninety dollars on honey-glazed airport walnuts before asking him when he thought Mama’s money might finally come through. She asked again during takeoff and when the cola cart came by and when the woman in the next row over cried during some in-flight special on what really causes sunsets. At one point, Trixie fell asleep in the crevice of David’s neck, and, somewhere over the ocean, he let himself imagine which fellow passenger might be able to take better care of her. When the cola cart came by again, David made a list of all the things that he could say to get somebody else on board with Trixie. Semi-psychic. Smells nice. Well-kept face. Kind to both animal and child. Medically unable to bear either, but able to embody both in extreme emotional circumstances. She could be a millionaire in no time, depending on the yeti hunt. Now that was a sell. The million would definitely do it. She could probably get somebody even nicer than David with that. Better hair, even, and all it’d take was one photograph at twilight. Ten seconds and David could be a hero all over again. Mama could finally be proud, wherever she was. Maybe Trixie could be okay, too.

The sun set for good in the next row over as David found his way into finding his way out. The plan was really a three-part process. Scope out the wild of Cherapunjee and get a feel for the landscape. Cover himself in leaves or toucan dung or something equally rugged and ambush the beast. Board a flight back home and hand Trixie the camera and say, “This is for you, now give me my last name back,” and Trixie would say, “Thank you, I forgive you, and I’m sorry about all of the gingerbread windows you were forced to measure,” and everything would be so sweet and kind and sort of silly, and the papers would practically sign themselves. Mama would probably materialize for a last-minute word of wisdom. Zero confrontation, no tears, no disappointment.

Cherapunjee would be a place of great relief.

A koala ate David’s watch within the first hour of hunting, but other than that, things were all right. Trixie only asked about Mama’s money once or twice. The rain was warm and the boots dry as he wandered through the greenery alone and enjoyed the silence. Every so often a branch would break, another hunter crossing paths with a flashlight and a centerfold. A foreign howl surfaced from behind an old, mossy log, but when David approached, it was just two kissers. They were so alive, just as exotic as a shaggy beast. He wandered by a few more times to watch, and hoped Trixie’s next husband would get a piece of that.

When the kissers caught on, David snuck away to an old clearing and fished the envelope out of his back pocket. One of the thieves was so kind as to find a piece of cellophane one evening, which David wrapped into a waterproof shield. The corners still felt so crisp, so official. The least he could do was tell Trixie he was leaving with a clean, dry document. Maybe he wouldn’t even have to say the words. Maybe she would see it and accept it and forgive him. Maybe he could really just disappear. The leaves rustled and a nearby monkey cried out. Nobody’s boots were that heavy. David tucked the papers away and fumbled for his pocket camera. He wiped the rain out of his eyes and tried not to breathe so hard. The footsteps were loud and wet, and a steady rhythmic grunting echoed through the trees. No time for leaves or toucan dung. As the figure approached, it reached the chorus of “Jolene.”

“I couldn’t find you!” Trixie yelled. “I saw you leavin’ and I thought you might get lost!” She struggled to cross a fallen branch, all wobbly in rubber boots that she once bought with Mama at the mall. She looked so helpless, so soft, her hair teased up and her eyes so wide. Her poncho draped over her like a long gown. David’s envelope felt heavy. Trixie finally jerked her foot up and over, turned back, and kicked the branch for good measure. The envelope got a little bit lighter.

“I couldn’t find you!” she yelled again, candy in her mouth, wrapper in the air.

“I was looking for you, too,” David said.

“For what?” She looked so lost, so wet, mascara in little pools under her eyes. The answer was simple, but David decided it simply wasn’t the time.

“Thought I saw a tropical mouse with something in its mouth. Thought it was an earring or something”

“My earring?”

“What?”

“The mouse, my earring?”

“No, or, I don’t know, maybe.” The envelope was practically on fire.

Trixie scrunched her face up and stared him down. David thought about confessing to the whole plan. If her makeup was already running, it would really be a kind gesture to save her the trouble. Mama never liked to waste makeup. Before David could talk himself into it, Trixie reached for something in her boot. She looked up and squinted in the rain, a row of freckles showing under a layer of melted cover-up. So strange, so small. She put her hand out in a fist and opened it up. Two Tootsie Rolls.

“Well I’s just worried you wouldn’t have enough.”

One of the candies was partially unwrapped. David popped it into his mouth and nodded his way through another dose of required sweetness. Who cared if it was the right thing to do. It’d be a shame to just leave it there.

By the second week, David still hadn’t gotten a grasp on the landscape. Everything was covered in mud—even the mud was covered in mud. The kissers got sloppier, the monkeys louder, the rainfall harder and harder. The Tootsie Rolls started sticking to David’s insides. Trixie started to look off, her hair smaller and her face a little sloppier. Her voice more ragged when asking about the inheritance. She had lines that David had never even noticed before. She’d been busy, though. She’d somehow figured out how to spend money in a bartering system. Where others traded porn for smokes for food for sex, Trixie snooped around the grounds to find more makeshift toilet paper.

“Is this anybody’s?” she’d say, holding up a loose leaf that blew in from the rain. The thieves would usually trade off their spokesperson each time.

“That’s mine, Trixie,” one of them would say, before she even had the chance to hold it up.

“How much?”

“For you? Three dollars.” It was a steal. Literally.

“I just don’t know how y’all make any money when you make so many exceptions,” she said, pulling a soggy five-dollar bill out of the neckline of her poncho. “If we had a little more sunshine, I’d stay here forever.”

It was good that she was open to moving. Maybe she wouldn’t even ask for the house or the blender. Maybe she’d pack up and leave Freedom Point and start a new life in Branson or Raleigh or Hollywood. They probably had condos there. Maybe she could sell the things on the Home Shopping Network. She could be so striking, so full of life like that. Whoever had her next would be mostly lucky. Mama’d loved that. A tree branch broke somewhere off in the clearing.

“Hey,” Trixie said in David’s face, her arms wrapped tight, poncho-to-poncho. “Whatcha thinkin’ bout?”

“Baseball,” David said. Trixie squeezed a little tighter.

“You don’t fool me; I see you.” Her hands rubbed his back under the plastic shield, her nails hitting the corners of the envelope. “I know what guilt looks like on you.”

David nodded and shook his head all at once. It wasn’t the time for clarity. He still had another week, at least. Maybe he could even wait it out a little longer. Trixie pulled him by his sleeve and led him back to their tent. She moved all hunched over, all slippery in the mud, and looked so awkward in a way David had never seen. Older, weathered, worn down by the rain. He suddenly couldn’t remember how Mama’s gown had fit her at all. She took a seat on the dirt and pulled him down with her. The water was loud on the nylon. Trixie compensated.

“Listen,” she said, a loud yelp. “I know things haven’t been good since Mama died, god bless her soul, but I just want you to know that I know.” She perched up on her knees and leaned in, her lips to his ear. Her voice dropped an octave or so. “I know,” she said again, her voice lower than its usual chirp. Their white carnation wedding cross was a million miles away. She scooted back and looked instantly sad. Of course she knew. Anybody who had any intuition would know, and Trixie had lots of intuition. She probably knew by Day 4 when she caught him rehearsing his exit speech with an old tree stump. She probably knew on Day 8 when he disappeared for the night, or Day 10 when she caught him eating another woman’s bread, or Day 12 when he stopped rinsing off completely and just lay next to her like a pile of bones and mud and khaki scrap. She probably knew from the very beginning, and figured she could get one last free trip out of it. That’s why she was so persistent; that’s why she stopped trying to look like anything nice. It was so smart, so kind of her, to start the conversation. She could be good like that sometimes.

“I know, all of it,” Trixie said. “Everything. Better clean your act up and get back to business.” She seemed a lot madder than what David imagined in his plan. It didn’t look like she was going to forgive him for much.

Trixie let her threat hang in the air for a few seconds before she twisted her whole body around and pulled a cardboard box of candy out from under her pillow. Little scraps of sticks and leaves stuck out from the black-and-white Tootsie Roll wrappers.

“I know you been burying these,” she said. She didn’t even breathe as she waited for a response. That was all she had to say. It was so strange, so stunning. Trixie shook the box to make a point, the rattle of the inside mixing with the rattle of the rain. “You got anything to say?”

David tried to find a way to say that he’d had enough, that he could barely feel his teeth, that the chocolate wasn’t even really a bad habit, that he had been doing much worse, that Tootsie Rolls weren’t really even chocolate, but some kind of terrible cousin of wallpaper paste. He tried to just say it already, all of it, but it all just seemed very mean. He would have to think of something nice to say to balance it out, a lot of nice things. Until then, he said the only thing he could think of.

“I must’ve dropped them; I can’t believe it.” Rigid monotone. He took the cleanest one out of the box and choked it down. All the sensation in his body stiffened up. It had been sixteen days since he had a bowel movement that didn’t feel like a candle was coming out. The piece went down in heavy chunk, like wet school eraser—so solid, so cold. Trixie rubbed his back and kissed him on the cheek. She was sweet like that, so warm, so kind. When she pulled away, she smiled a little.

“I knew Mama was wrong about you.”

What felt like a century of darkness swept over Cherapunjee as David struggled to stay on schedule. The yeti still hadn’t surfaced, although two thieves told all of camp that they caught him, and anybody who wanted to see him had to pay ten dollars. It was easy to assume where the woman that used to be Trixie went that day. Who could really blame her, though, whoever she was, for believing. By the third week, belief in anything was a talent. David tried to believe that the plan still had a fighting chance, that the rain might let up, that the candy might run out. He tried to believe that Mama might come to him in a dream, too, and tell him that he was a good boy no matter what he did. That wasn’t the case. The rain never stopped; the trees all looked the same. The yeti never surfaced. Neither did Mama.

While the rest of camp played charades that night, the McPhees snuck away to a clearing, where David staged a going-away party dressed as a romantic dinner. Two logs served as dining chairs. He made a table out of loose branches and a nylon tent bag. Candlelight was a distant dream. David thought about waiting until they got back to Freedom Point, because maybe the candle was essential. Something that sort of resembled Trixie approached the party with an unwrapped pile of Tootsie Rolls on a makeshift aluminum tray. She held them up in the downpour, announcing their presence in a monologue for nobody.

“Here I come, eatin’ only choc-o-late, all we eat, even though it’s a baaad habit that we know nobody could help us break! Here we go, we gonna just sit here and eat them, my husband and me, here we are, look at us, nobody come out because we have to eat all this chocolate right here, right now.” She wandered in a circle, her hair soaked into an uneven bob, her face all worn and featureless. David had to really look to see who she had become. She was the furthest from a carnation cross a woman could be. She was something else entirely, someone else that David didn’t know at all. She kept up her circular wandering for so long that by the time the tray arrived at the table, all of the rolls had melted into one mutant pile of brown gloss. She smiled, whoever she was.

No more. It had to be tonight.

After the second course, Trixie-ish stopped talking about the deal she got on toilet paper, and what kind of curtains might look good in a condo once Mama’s money finally came through, wherever it was, and started talking about David. She looked him in the eye and rubbed his hands, waxy film on her fingertips. Small eyes and dark teeth. It was such a strange mixture. He wondered how long she really was that way, and how she got away with it.

“I tell you,” she said. “I know we had a rough year, what with Mama, god bless her soul, but I’m glad that we can both just start over with a new beginn’n.” Trixie shook her head and went on. “It’s awk-a-ward, I know, to bring this up, but, I just can’t watch you suffer no more with yourself.”

The rain felt lighter. A tropical mouse chirped from the brush. Two sloths started mating in a nearby tree. Everything felt a little sweeter. Trixie went on.

“And I just been thinking about a lot of things—about you and me—and everything that’s been going on here—and I want you to know that it’s okay.” She said it again, a little slower, softer. “It’s okay, David. I forgive you; just have the decency to give it to me now.”

She stopped there and let her head nod. The flashlight made her look so much softer or older or both. Of course she knew it was coming. She was smart like that, read people like that. It was so kind of her to simply save him from having to finally say it. Cherapunjee was a place of great relief.

David let the silence linger for a moment—all pure and sweet—before reaching for his back pocket. He stood a little, her eyes following, and pulled the cellophane envelope out. The flashlight made it look shinier, smoother. It felt almost invisible as David slid it across the makeshift table. Trixie shook her head, smiled a little. She looked surprised, but relieved. What a girl.

“I don’ know why you thought you could hide this, but I forgive you,” she said. “And whatever’s in here, I’m sure it’s more than enough.” She touched his hair and reminded him what it was like to be loved. Adored, even.

“I hope so,” David said. “You’re so lovely.”

“And I love you,” she said. She picked up the envelope and held it up to her chest. She took a big breath, more than anybody needs, and, for the first time, she whispered. “I knew Mama left me something.”

An instant frost washed over David as it dawned on him that Trixie thought something else was coming, that some sort of reward or celebration was in store. He swore he heard thunder for the first time or a family of trees uproot and escape. Panic, loud and clear. Disaster. Maybe if he wished hard enough, some sort of fortune would actually be in the envelope and they could both just leave and enjoy eating solids again. Maybe the koala would come back, this time with a gun, and cut David a break simply by killing him, and Trixie could go on believing that she was worth fighting for, whoever she was. She was worth being covered in things that hint at I love you, and David wouldn’t have to be another one to take that away. Maybe, just for once, it could be like Touch Soccer, like Gingerbread Club, and everybody could just join a team or build a home without getting hurt, no matter if it was right or wrong. He thought about diving across the brush-branch table, across the wild space between them, and just saying it already—I love you—to see if it was really worth anything. He thought about doing a lot of things, but instead he just nodded.

The rest of the campers sang “Kumbaya” in the distance as Trixie peeled the cellophane off. She stopped a few times to wipe her eyes as the rain picked up and her poncho blew back. The trees rustled, and a mouse ran by. Trixie started talking about property values. She used her teeth to rip through the last piece of the wrapper. A flock of birds abandoned a nearby eucalyptus. She put her thumb under the lip of the envelope and dragged it all the way across in a single tear. One of the flashlights blew away. Trixie tucked her whole body under the front of her poncho and squinted to make out the paper details. David shined a flashlight on her to help her out, one last time. It stung to hear her voice trail off.

He winced as she started to get quiet, for what seemed like the very first time in their life together. Slowly, a high-pitched whistle-cry, almost unrecognizable. A long, drawn-out silence and the muffle of her hands. Loud and wet and hard. When he finally opened his eyes, she was simply a balled up poncho. He watched her back breathe, up and down, slower and slower, and thought about Mama on the stoop in the same state.

Loneliness, loud and clear.

He let the flashlight fall and took his poncho off and put it on her shoulders. He stumbled around in the darkness and felt his way back to his side of the wilderness. The rain really fell for the very first time, all over his whole body, every part cold and fresh in a brand-new way. A branch broke nearby as a fellow hunter finally interrupted. David shined the last remaining light on the ground to help them through the fallen brush. When he turned to see who it was, a mass of white fur emerged. Hands, feet, chest. Fresh fluff, practically glowing. Naked and blank. He stared at David and David stared at him, and they both wiped rainfall from their faces.

Neither of them had ever seen anybody so clean.

dingbatsmaller

Marina Mularz is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Creative Writing M.F.A. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Cal State Northridge, where she served as the editor of the Northridge Review. She is currently working on her first short story collection and channeling her inner tween in The Super Secret Diary of Karlee Starr at www.karleestarr.com.  Selected by Eric Boyd.

Image © Roma GG via Flickr Creative Commons.

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