On the map, their destination had been a stretch of green, as if they would be living on a golf course. No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: those had been left to rot years before. Frida had given this place a secret name, the afterlife, and on their journey, when they were forced to hide in abandoned rest stops, or when they’d filled the car with the last of their gasoline, this place had beckoned. In her mind it was a township, and Cal was the mayor. She was the mayor’s wife.
Of course it was nothing like that. The forest had not been expecting them. If anything, it had tried to throw them out, again and again. But they had stayed, perhaps even prospered. Now Frida could only laugh at the memory of herself, over two years ago: dragging a duffel bag behind her with a groan, her nails bitten to shit, her stomach roiling. Grime like she’d never imagined. Even her knees had smelled.
She thought it would be easier once they arrived; she should have known better. The work didn’t end then; if anything, it got worse, and for months the exhaustion and fear tick-ticked in her body like a dealer shuffling cards. At night, the darkness gave her a skinned-alive feeling, and she longed for her old childhood bed. For a bed, period.
She had packed some things to comfort herself: the dead Device, a matchbook from their favorite bar. Cal later called them her artifacts. In a world so disconnected from the past, her attachment to these objects had been her only strategy for remaining sane. It still was.
She tried not to take them out too often, but Cal had left the house to do some digging, and he wouldn’t be back for at least an hour. Even though the sky was gray, the sun weak, he’d worn his plaid button-down and a bandanna around his neck. They still had a bottle of sunscreen, but it had expired and was as watery as skim milk.
“Stay inside for a while,” he’d said before he left.
Frida had linked her arms around his neck. “Where would I go?”
He kissed her goodbye on the mouth, as he still did, and always would. She was thinking, already, of the artifacts tucked away in an old briefcase, shoved under one of the unused twin cots. It had been a rough morning.
Cal had latched the door behind him, and once his footsteps receded, she went right for the briefcase. From the small pile of artifacts, she picked up the abacus. She liked to pull the blue beads back and forth across the wires. She counted, she tapped, she closed her eyes. Frida had played with the abacus as a little girl and even then had depended on its calming effect. Her brother Micah, two years younger, had one as well, red beads instead of blue, but one day, when he was about seven, he cut it apart and strung the beads onto a piece of yarn. He’d presented it to their mother as a necklace.
Frida flicked at the beads. She found herself counting the days yet again. Forty-two.
“I’m late,” she said aloud, and her voice in the one-room house sounded small and plaintive. The walls seemed to breathe in the words; they would keep the secret until she told Cal.
“I’m late,” she repeated, and willed her voice to stay steady. She’d have to tell him soon, and like this. She could not be freaked out. She would have to declare it, as she would any fact.
Frida pulled the last bead across the abacus. It would be pleasurable, she thought, to pluck the wire from the frame and let the beads fall. She would pop one in her mouth and suck on it like a candy. But then she wouldn’t have the abacus.
She put the thing down and sifted through the briefcase for something better. The other artifacts wouldn’t do. Not the Device, nor the matchbook, nor the ripped shower cap she couldn’t stand to part with. Not her mother’s handwritten cake recipes, already memorized and useless out here. Not the box of antique pencils, nor her bottle of perfume, halfway empty.
She knew what she wanted.
Unlike the other objects, the turkey baster had been new. She’d brought it with them precisely because they hadn’t had one in L.A.; it was something different, a simple object to mark a before and an after. She had liked the idea of using it at Thanksgiving, although she hadn’t been sure they’d celebrate that anymore. She didn’t think there would be turkeys here, and she’d been right.
Thanksgiving. That holiday was so quaint in her memory it felt like something from a storybook: Once upon a time, Goldilocks ate herself silly.
Frida couldn’t hold herself back any longer and pulled the baster out of the briefcase. It was stored in old Christmas wrapping paper, printed with gingerbread men and mistletoe, and she unwrapped it slowly. She had last looked at the baster a few weeks ago, and she had taken care to put it back properly. It could not be damaged.
At the store, Frida had so much fun playing with the turkey baster, squeezing its plastic bulb so that the air farted out the glass tip. Frida had wondered if they might use it to try to get pregnant someday: their own ad hoc fertility treatment. It was funny how that had been on her mind even then.
But, no, Frida thought now, she wasn’t pregnant. Couldn’t be. She’d stop thinking about it.
The baster had been on sale. The store, like so many others, was going out of business. When the first of them perished, it had seemed impossible. “A chain like that!” people had said. When she was younger, Frida used to go there with her friends to marvel at all the useless necessities: the soy sauce receptacles, the tiny mother-of-pearl spoons, the glass pitchers. Even then, she didn’t know anyone who could afford such things. When she turned thirteen, she spent all of her birthday money on a single cloth napkin. Her mother would have killed her had she known; things weren’t dire then, not yet, but times were tough, and Frida could imagine her mother decrying such waste. Frida had stored the napkin in the pocket of a coat she never wore.
But on her last visit, at twenty-six, she was no longer that same stupid little girl, or so she told herself. The place had been ransacked. Frida still remembered the starkness of the floodlights; they ran on a generator in the corner, illuminating the remaining coves of products, which were jumbled together in plastic bins. The register was by the entrance, and the girl who worked there accepted gold only, and not jewelry—it had to be melted down already.
Frida couldn’t conjure the girl’s face anymore, but she did remember her eyeliner. How had she gotten her hands on eyeliner? Perhaps it was an old stick of her mother’s, gone to crayon at the back of the medicine cabinet. She could have sold it, if she wanted to, but she hadn’t. The girl was barely eighteen, more likely sixteen. The place shut down a week later, didn’t even make it to Christmas.
By the following spring, Frida was celebrating her twenty-seventh birthday in an empty apartment, their belongings packed and ready by the door. She’d wanted to spend one more in L.A.; she’d been born there, after all. Cal couldn’t argue with that.
Frida held the baster by its plastic bulb, lifting it above her head. She imagined the store had probably gone feral soon after they left, like the rest of the businesses at that stupid outdoor mall. The Grove, it was called. Maybe in these two years it had sprouted some trees, finally earned its name. The famous trolley, rusted, its bell looted. The fountain, which had once lured tourists and toddlers to its edge, was probably dry; that, or sludgy with poison.
But what about the girl? Maybe she had been brave and stupid enough to head for the wilderness with only a bag full of tiny sherry glasses and cloth napkins to keep her company. Maybe a turkey baster, too.
Back in L.A., Frida had kept the baster a secret from Cal because she’d spent gold on it, gold they were saving for their journey. They’d saved for almost a year to get enough money for gas and other supplies. She had purchased something frivolous, and she knew it. She was still that same little girl, hoarding her treasure. She hadn’t changed at all.
Once they were leaving, she kept the baster a secret because she was afraid Cal would say they couldn’t bring it with them. They could only fit so much in the car, and before it ran out of gas, they would have to abandon it, carry their possessions the rest of the way. There was so much to carry, they had ended up making multiple trips with their stuff, and then they drove the car in the opposite direction until it sputtered dead, so they couldn’t be followed. It was a small miracle that they found their possessions again, piled where they’d left them, unharmed.
Frida had smuggled the baster, like she had most of the artifacts. Cal eventually discovered her other things, but she’d still managed to keep the baster hidden.
She’d initially intended on using it in the afterlife, in whatever way it was most needed. And then, one day, she realized she wouldn’t. Occasionally she toyed with the idea of snapping off the tag, which was attached to a string at the base of the bulb. At least it wasn’t one of those plastic threads; she used to hate those, how they would leave holes in clothing and require scissors to remove. Those doodads were probably the whole reason America had gone to hell, the plastic seeping poisons, filling up landfills. What foolishness. But she loved the turkey baster precisely because it still had its tag. She loved its newness: the pure glass of the cylinder, its fragility, and the plastic butter-yellow bulb still chalky to the touch. It inhaled and exhaled air like that first time. She had to keep it hidden. It belonged only to her, and the secret of it had become as precious as the object itself.
Frida was tucking the briefcase under the bed when Cal stepped back into the house, ducking to get through the oddly small door. She liked how tall her husband was, and his narrow shoulders made him look even taller: stretched. Every morning he combed his short reddish hair with his fingers; it was so fine that little knots formed at the back of his head as he slept, and he hated it. Frida loved that, and she loved how every morning he woke with crescent-moon bags under his golden-hazel eyes, no matter how well rested he was.
A fine veil of soil covered his shirt and face, and he’d untied the bandanna from his neck so that he could wipe the sweat from his brow. The room filled with the sweet stink of him. Their feet had started to smell—not the vinegary scent that had cursed Frida in L.A., but something fungal and rotting, a bag of dying vegetables. Cal had said they smelled homeless, and she agreed. That’s when they brought out their last Dove bar and their tube of antifungal cream. They didn’t discuss what would happen when they ran out. Their homemade soap, made from Douglas fir and the fat of vermin, smelled great but didn’t actually work.
“How are the traps?” Frida asked.
Cal shrugged and went toward the thermos. They drank coffee once every two months, a treat, and the rest of the time they filled the thermos with water from the well. On the morning after a coffee day, the water absorbed some of the bitterness that still coated the thermos. If the world didn’t end, and they moved back home, she would sell it to the cafés, get rich off coffee-water.
Cal filled his cup and drank it in one gulp, his Adam’s apple sliding up and down his neck. That Adam’s apple. He had once explained to Frida how Plato believed that the soul’s parts—its reason, its passion—were located all over the human body. Frida liked to imagine Cal’s soul, a sliver of it, residing in his slender neck, the jagged cliff that signified he was a man. He could never pull off drag with an Adam’s apple like that.
“I know you think the traps are ridiculous,” he said when he was finished drinking.
“I don’t. You’ve built dozens of snares before, and they’ve worked. Why would I question you on traps?”
“You didn’t have to.”
“It’s not like I rolled my eyes,” she said, approaching him. Cal did stink. She handed him a towel from the shelf of supplies and told him to wipe off.
He gestured to the holes out the open door. “These traps will be bigger than usual, I know. But those gophers are stupid. They’re bound to run in there.”
“But, babe, this isn’t Robinson Crusoe. Do you even know how to build a trap?”
He removed his shirt, so he could clean off his pits. “I did it as a kid,” he said.
Frida sighed. “For fun or for real?”
“What’s the difference?” he asked.
“You’re lucky you’re so clever,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
He’d been working so hard out there. Maybe the holes he was digging would also keep them safe from the bigger beasts: the coyotes, the bears, and the wolves, which they sometimes heard howling at night.
Cal had been designing the traps in his journal for a few days, the physics and all that. He said they had worked on his father’s land when he was a kid, and they would work now. Frida wasn’t sure what gopher meat would taste like, but Cal said, “Protein is protein,” and they couldn’t be picky. They’d eaten a snake once—Bo Miller had cooked it for them—and occasionally they craved that, especially in winter, after days of turnips and potatoes.
Frida took the towel from him. “I know you’re dying for meat,” she said. “I’ve heard gophers taste like steak.”
He sighed. “If I could just stop wanting it…”
“If only,” she said.
He was already on his way out again. Back to work.
“Wait,” she said. Would she tell him now? Forty-two days, she thought.
“What is it?” he asked.
“August’s supposed to come this week. Should we see if he’s got soap?”
“He never has soap.”
That was true. For over a year, August had been a fixture in the afterlife, something to mark the time by. He arrived once a month on his mule-drawn buggy with goods to trade and information to gather. He wanted to know how they were feeling, and he liked to share notes about the weather, too. Once Frida had a cold, and he’d asked her what color her snot was.
“Clear,” she’d told him.
He’d smiled and said, “It’s going to be real cold tonight, so bundle up.”
Frida had once traded August an acorn squash for a dented tin of evaporated milk and, another time, her old cashmere sweater for a knife, recently sharpened. As he handed it to her, blade down, he’d said, “For cooking, or weaponry.” A statement, not a question, for it was understood that all tools in the wilderness needed to be versatile.
August was a thin black guy, probably ten years older than they were, just shy of forty, and he wore the never-quite-faded desperation of a former addict. “A tendency toward the vampiric” was how Cal had once put it. August even called himself a junkie, and he was: he traded junk for other junk. He liked to say he was the last black man on earth, and he might have been; around here, all jokes looped back to sour.
“I want to try planting some garlic,” Cal said. “Maybe he has some.”
“There’s that look again. What is it?”
“It’s nothing. Go digging.”
“Whatever it is you’re worrying about, just don’t.”
She said she’d try not to.
Cal waved at her from the doorway.
“Breathe!” he called out behind him.
Frida exhaled. How could he tell?
He’d been saying that for as long as she could remember. He’d said it a lot during those first few months out here. He had kept her calm. Occasionally, his own nervousness about their survival spiked, and the air around him tightened, but most of the time, he seemed almost peaceful. It was as if he’d just returned from a monastery, his eyes gentle and open to the world, its good and its evil, the fair and unfair. Meanwhile, she could not even remember to breathe. It had taken everything to keep herself from saying, We’ll die out here, won’t we?
Back then, she and Cal were living in the shed, and they thought they might be there for good. Neither knew that they’d eventually have a house to move into.
They’d stumbled upon the shed, searching for a good spot to settle, and its presence had saved them. The truth was, they had been clueless, some might even say reckless, about their plan. They were headed for open space, and that was all. “I just want to go away,” Cal had first said to her. “I can’t stand how awful everything is here.”
Because she understood, Frida hadn’t asked him to elaborate. He could have meant L.A.’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and its sagging houses. All those dead lawns. Or maybe he meant the closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out. Or its crime; the murder rate increased every year, and the petty theft was as ubiquitous as the annoying gargle of leaf blowers had once been. The city wasn’t just sick, it was dying, and Cal had been right, it was awful.
The shed had been a sound-enough structure: the walls, floor, and ceiling made of wooden planks, a roof covered by six tires, held together with baling wire. Cal had said, “Let’s move in,” to which Frida had replied, “Yeah, sure, nice outhouse.” But she knew this shed was better than anything the two of them would be able to build on their own. Cal had done construction on his father’s farm and, a little later on, in college, but he’d never built a home.
“I can do it,” he’d told her as they moved their stuff into the shed. He said they could sleep there as they built an expansion. “I can do it with your help.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Frida answered. “You and me, alone.”
At first, that’s how it had been. August hadn’t found them yet, nor had the Millers, their closest and only neighbors, a few miles to the east. They later learned that Bo Miller had built the shed, years before. Their first four months out here, Cal and Frida had spoken only to each other, and sometimes that was the hardest thing, more trying than the planting or irrigating or the labor it took to build the rudimentary outdoor kitchen. Though she’d tried to prepare herself, Frida couldn’t believe that they were really alone. Just the two of them.
One afternoon, at the end of their first summer, Cal had just called her over to the shower, a plastic receptacle heated by the sun that they’d secured to a tree branch. They had done this back home, when the gas bills got too high, although they’d hung the warmed water in the shower stall. Now they were outside. Everything was outside; it was like they were on an eternal camping trip.
That day the air was still warm, but with a sharpness to it that hinted at the chill to come. Frida looked forward to autumn; she actually liked collecting wood and making a fire as Cal had taught her to do. It seemed almost romantic. But Cal had warned her that she didn’t really know what cold felt like. And he was right; she didn’t.
“Go ahead,” Cal had said, his hand on the plastic. He was confirming its temperature, and all she had to do was turn the plastic spigot.
Frida thanked him and pulled her dress over her head. She no longer bothered with underwear or a bra. She liked being naked outside. Right then she tried to catch her husband’s eyes, maybe shimmy her shoulders and bite her lower lip. Remind him how nice the line of her hips was. She might even say, Hey there, and smile.
But Cal had already turned away. He had the next task on his mind—the first one, perhaps, being his wife. In their four months out here, Frida had become a problem to solve, and once solved, she was invisible to him.
At the time, Frida imagined herself describing the moment. Maybe to an old friend or to her mother. Or online, as she used to do until their last year in L.A., before electricity became too expensive, before the Internet became a privilege for the very few. She had once kept a diligent online record of her life; she’d had a blog since she’d been able to write. Her brain couldn’t just let that habit go, and in her head she said, There I was, naked, my hair falling over my shoulders. But he didn’t care! He had become immune to my nakedness. The phrase was so silly, so melodramatic. Immune to my nakedness. But it was true. Cal wasn’t looking.
And all at once she understood: no one was looking.
That day, Frida stood under the weak stream of water, never as hot as she wanted. It was the end of summer, and the only thing this world could promise them was that it would get colder, which would certainly crush their morale further. The finality of their situation sat on her chest like a brick and pushed. No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away, the ones keeping her safe with their concern, keeping her okay, keeping her the same as before, and she was spit out as if from a Wizard of Oz tornado. She felt like she and Cal were really alone.
She’d been wrong, of course: they’d met Sandy and Bo soon after. But maybe that was why Frida didn’t like to think about that moment, because the Millers, who had seemed to be watching over them those first few months, weren’t here anymore. Now she and Cal really were alone, and her old fears were too dangerous to revisit. Some feelings were hard to recover from.
She needed Cal. Her darling husband. She would call him in from his digging, tell him she was late, and he would remind her to breathe, and smile at her with his gentle, beautiful eyes.
She grabbed her hat and pushed open the door. Though it was overcast, there was still a glare, and she wished, yet again, for sunglasses. A breeze rustled the woods, and a far-off twig split from a branch.
Across the yard, Cal was pushing the shovel into the ground, his back to her. Behind him, the garden looked crowded and lush; the squash had come in, and once it was harvested they’d plant the lettuce and peas. The land had not given up on them, thank goodness. They had both been relieved when the rains came—and the house hadn’t flooded. They had already lived through two winters here, and their third would be upon them soon. Frida would help Cal plant the garlic, if they could get it. If nature continued to cooperate, they would be okay.
Frida watched Cal push the shovel into the dirt and scoop it out. There were piles of dirt all around him, and the latest one was still small, the size of a science project volcano. Cal was muttering to himself, which meant he was worrying about something, unknotting some problem. She smiled and crouched behind the outdoor stove. She put her hands to her lips and whistled.
Cal lifted his head immediately. He looked past the crops to the line of trees there. Most were still green and lush, but some were starting to turn. Fall.
Frida whistled again, and Cal dropped the shovel. He was looking for a bird. She had fooled him. She saw him smile.
“Hello?” he called out.
Frida waited, her heart beating faster.
“Hello?” he said again.
Frida whistled back, Hello, darling, and this time Cal started. He slowly reached out his hand. Was it meant as an invitation? Did he think he was Saint Francis, that a bird would come to him?
She laughed and stood up.
“Fuck,” he said when he saw her, and shook his head.
“I can’t believe you fell for that.” As she approached, she put her lips together and made the sound again.
“You got me. Good one.”
She could tell she’d shaken him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Can I help?”
He shook his head. “No, but keep me company.”
Frida nodded and sat down right on the dirt; it was cold, and she moved quickly to a kneeling position. She’d finally given in and worn one of Sandy’s long dresses. It was made of denim and looked vaguely cultish, but it was comfortable and, with leggings beneath, warm.
She kept her eyes on the shovel.
“How deep do you need to go?”
He shrugged. “Deep enough.”
She rolled her eyes. She hated when he offered vague, poetic answers to her questions.
“I didn’t get my period,” she said. Why had she just blurted it out like that?
He looked at her carefully for a moment, as if willing himself to recognize her. “How late?”
“Too late. Thirteen days. You know I’m always on time.”
On one wall of their home, Frida kept track of her cycle. She wrote with a chalky stone, sharpened to a point with the paring knife. She’d learned the system from Sandy Miller, who said she’d served as her own midwife for her two children. Frida liked the tallies and the circles, the order of it, how the body adhered to some invisible system. She sometimes called herself a hippie, told Cal she had an intimate relationship with the moon, but they both knew she took the record very seriously.
“Pregnant?” he said. He could barely get the word out.
“Maybe.” She paused. “Or there’s something wrong with me.”
After they’d met the Millers, she and Cal had thought perhaps having children would be all right. Jane and Garrett breathed easily in this world and didn’t want for anything, had no idea there was anything more to want. Maybe it was Frida and Cal’s destiny to be parents. They even joked with Bo and Sandy about their families joining, as creepy as that sounded. Their children would mark the beginning of a new and better species, start the world over.
But Frida kept getting her period. And they made love all the time. Sometimes their lust was unquenchable, and sometimes they were just bored. Sex was the only fun, the only way to waste time. It replaced the Internet, reading, going out to dinner, shopping. The universe had righted itself, maybe. Still, no children. Now that the Millers were no longer around, Frida had begun to think it was for the best.
“So that’s what’s been bothering you,” Cal said now.
She nodded. “Maybe it’s just a nutrient I’m missing.”
“Meat,” he said, and nodded to his half-dug hole.
“I feel okay. I’m fine.”
“You think August has a test?” he asked.
She laughed. “I doubt it. Eventually, I’ll know one way or the other.” She brought her hands to her stomach; it was still flat. “But maybe he knows a witch doctor. He could bring her over here.”
This was a thing Frida liked to do: try and figure out where August traveled, and with whom else he traded. On his first visit he said he lived “around the way” and gave them a look that meant he didn’t welcome personal questions. Short of following him, which they had promised never to do, there was no way of knowing where he went in the month they didn’t see him. He refused to provide any clues. He had once told Frida, “I’m warning you, don’t be nosy. I don’t serve the curious.”
“When he comes,” she said, “make yourself scarce. Go forage or something.”
Cal thought about it for a moment. “He does like you better.”
“And if I tell him our situation…”
“He’ll at least give you a deal on the garlic.”
They fell silent. Somewhere, far away, but not so far off, a bird began to call.
“What if you aren’t sick?” he asked. “What if you’re—”
“I can’t even imagine it…”
She suddenly thought of her parents. Hilda and Dada, they called them. As if on cue, she thought of Micah, too. Dead five years.
“Hey,” Cal said. “Don’t go there.”
She smiled, and he helped her to her feet. She took note of how careful he was being, how tightly he held her hand. Already, she realized, he thought of her differently.
Frida had imagined a child inside of her so many times, it was a wonder she had never given birth to one. She had felt her hips expanding, conjured morning sickness and swollen breasts, and sent love to an imagined fetus: fingerless and translucent, its heart glowing in its chest, tiny but there. Frida knew better and, in fact, often wished away the baby she had imagined. And maybe the wishing worked, because she never was actually pregnant.
Frida blamed Sandy for planting in her mind the notion that a family was a good idea. Not only that it could happen, but that it should. On one of their long foraging walks, Sandy had asked, “Who else will look after you in your old age?” as if it were assumed that Frida and Cal would live long enough to have that problem. Sandy believed strongly that the world wasn’t going anywhere. The country was wrecked, yes, but something else, something better, something beautiful, was bound to replace it. Many times she had swept an arm through the air in front of her and said, “Look at what my children will inherit!” It wasn’t hard to be seduced by Sandy Miller.
Frida had first met her down by the creek, which was only about a fifteen-minute hike from the shed. The walk was almost always pleasant; in the spring, Cal had pointed out the baby blue eyes and, in the summer, the clarkias. When she was alone, Frida would keep her eyes out for snakes, listen closely for other animals that might be hidden by the trees. That first summer, a porcupine had walked into her path, quills up, and Frida sucked in her breath and turned around, ran back to the shed crying like a kid. She imagined coming upon a bigger, more dangerous animal, being eaten alive. Cal said she shouldn’t worry, but he didn’t call her crazy, either. They were in the wild, after all, and anything could happen—to think they could control their surroundings was foolish.
It had taken two weeks for Frida to find the bravery to venture into the forest by herself again. When she did, she was vigilant as a hunter and proud of herself for not turning back at every unknown rustle in the foliage. It only took two solo treks for her to get comfortable again. The green world filled her head and cleared it.
But on the day she met Sandy, their first summer out here was quickly turning into fall, and Frida’s initial panic about their isolation had been replaced with a low hum of hopelessness. She barely saw the world around her. Not even five months into the afterlife, and she had turned to chores as a way to cope.
That day she was headed to the creek to wash some clothes. She pushed through the cattails to get to the edge of the water, the canvas bag of laundry bouncing over her shoulder. She should feel like a buffalo, she thought, heading to the water to drink. Instead, she was channeling a cartoon bandit or Santa Claus. As she stepped onto the muddy patch where she would do her soaking and wringing, something moved in the brush a few feet away. She froze. Between the grasses, a flash of corn silk. Barbie hair, Frida thought.
A very small boy popped up from the ground, and she let out a cry. She knew he was real because of the details she couldn’t have made up: hair so blond it was almost white. The small scratches and bug bites on his arms and legs. Freckles all over his face, except his eyelids, which were as white as his hair. The man’s T-shirt he wore like a dress, which read official pussy inspector. That made her laugh, and she glanced at his feet, which were bare, calloused into hooves.
“Don’t be alarmed!” a female voice called out.
Frida looked up, and across the creek stood a woman, almost as blond as the boy. She was tall and thin and wore overalls. It didn’t look like she had on a shirt, but it couldn’t have mattered—she looked as flat chested as a ballet dancer. A girl, older than the boy, with long brown hair, hid behind her mother’s legs. She was wearing what looked like a burlap sack, sewn into a jumper.
“I come in peace,” Frida yelled. What was this, some terrible alien flick? She started again. “Who are you?” All at once, she felt electric. They weren’t alone!
Frida turned to the boy again and smiled. He widened his eyes, as if he, too, couldn’t believe there was someone else to talk to. Later, Frida would learn that this was the way Garrett showed his pleasure.
Frida marveled at how quickly Sandy and Jane got across the creek. They knew which rocks would hold them and which ones were slippery with algae and should be avoided. Jane was barefoot like her brother, but Sandy wore hiking boots. Once across, she introduced herself and her two children. Jane was seven. Garrett was three. Up close, Sandy looked older: the face of a woman who worked outside without sunscreen.
“Bo and I,” Sandy said, “we’ve been watching you two for some time. Making sure you were safe.”
Frida nodded slowly. She and Cal hadn’t counted on a family of spies. Making sure you were safe. Did that mean they were judging them, or protecting them?
“The birds!” Garrett cried. He was pointing at Frida now, as if he had just figured something out.
Frida raised an eyebrow.
“We took to calling you the birds,” Sandy explained. “As in lovebirds. You two sure do like each other.”
In a different context, Frida might have blushed. Instead she said, “It’s cheaper than going to the movies.” She was trying to keep her eyes off Sandy’s chest. Her overalls had shifted in her commute across the water, and one breast, all nipple, peeped out from the bib, its tip long and knobby. It reminded Frida of a caterpillar.
“You’re living in our shed,” Sandy said. She didn’t seem mad, and so instead of apologizing, Frida thanked her for building it.
“I assume you don’t want us to move out. It was empty when we arrived.”
“Oh no, we love that you’re there. It’s where Bo and I first settled. We built that well you’re using, you know. We like the little outdoor kitchen and fire pit you’ve added. I told Bo it was proof of your ingenuity.”
“How long have you been here?” Frida asked.
“Forever,” Sandy said.
That was the thing about the Millers: they never got specific. It was easy to deduce they’d arrived at least seven years before, since Jane was born on the land, but that was as much as Frida could figure out on her own. Sandy and Bo wouldn’t say where they were from, either, though Los Angeles didn’t seem to register much familiarity on their faces, nor did Cleveland, where Cal had been raised. It wasn’t that their speech was accentless but that it shifted, from bland to twangy and back again in a single conversation. Once, Bo wore a Duke shirt, but Sandy said she’d gotten it from a friend, years and years ago. “Be protective of your past,” she finally told Frida. “Our children don’t need to know too much about ours.”
On that first meeting, Sandy told her the names of the fish in the creek. “We don’t know what that one’s called,” she said, pointing to a thin silvery one, “so we call it a princess.” Frida wished she had a Device that worked, to take notes. She hadn’t felt this happy in—maybe ever. Sandy’s eyebrows were light as dandelion fuzz, and Frida loved the surprise of them. She hadn’t realized how tired she’d gotten of Cal’s face.
Sandy offered to help Frida with her laundry, and Frida accepted. Garrett ran up and down the creek, collecting rocks, and Jane stayed to help the women. Frida hadn’t been taking much notice of her until Sandy said in a stern voice, “Hand that over.” When Jane hesitated, Sandy snatched Cal’s red bandanna out of her daughter’s hand. She threw it to the ground as if it were on fire, her eyes squeezed shut.
“You okay?” Frida asked.
“She likes red,” Sandy said. She affected a breezy laugh, but there was something shaky and nervous behind it. “We don’t let her have too much of it.”
“Sorry, Mama,” Jane whispered.
The next time Garrett sped by, Frida tried to keep her voice casual. She didn’t want to freak Sandy out again. “What’s with his shirt?”
“He likes to help forage.” Sandy raised an eyebrow, her eyes going twinkly for a moment. “Pussy is a kind of mushroom.”
Frida laughed until she realized Jane was watching them.
“We find food, in the forest,” the little girl said.
“Cool,” Frida said. Cool? She supposed it didn’t hurt, lying to the kids. It wasn’t like Garrett would find out the truth. They could rename everything, if they wanted to.
The laundry was drying by the time Sandy led her kids away, back to their house. Frida practically ran to the shed. Sandy had invited them over for lunch the next day! The route to their house was easy, Sandy had said. With a stick she drew a rudimentary map in the mud. “And we’ve nailed hawk feathers into trees, to mark the trail. You haven’t noticed them?” Frida shook her head.
It took some effort for Frida to convince Cal she wasn’t playing a trick on him. And once he believed her, he was concerned. How did she know they weren’t dangerous? Why had they brought children into this world? “That’s troubling to me,” he said, but Frida wasn’t eager to follow this line of argument. He sounded like her brother when he talked that way—all doom.
“I’m going whether you come or not,” Frida had said, and that settled it.
The Millers’ house would have been impossible to find, were it not for those feathers, and those key phrases chiseled into Frida’s brain: “Turn left at the boulder, walk until you reach two fallen trees, one atop the other, forming a cross. Turn right.” A few times, Frida felt a flash of nervousness that they were lost, but an hour later they pulled back a large branch, attached to which was another feather, tied with turquoise-colored leather, and entered a clearing. Across the field, a house materialized. Frida felt victorious.
Compared with the shed, the Millers’ home was enormous, and durable, its exterior built of stone and wood. The family must have heard them approaching because all four of them were waiting outside the front door.
“Are they getting their portrait done?” Cal whispered. Frida barely registered the comment, so transfixed was she by Bo’s naked face, no beard to obscure it. Cal himself had a thick beard going, the same look Micah had sported when he left for college, as if he hadn’t been raised in a city, as if he’d ever gone camping. She kind of liked Cal’s copper-colored beard, but maybe this Bo could teach her husband how to shave with a knife. What she missed was having the option.
“Welcome.” Bo stepped forward and shook hands with both of them. He did not smile. He was shorter than Sandy but sturdy with muscles, barbed with them. His seriousness took something away from him, Frida thought, his high cheekbones and heavy black eyebrows menacing rather than dignified. And he squinted, as if he’d lost his glasses. Perhaps this was a man who had been broken down by blurriness.
“We’re so happy you made it!” Sandy said. She wore the same overalls but, thankfully, had added a blue T-shirt to the ensemble. She held Jane’s hand, and Garrett was slung on her hip. At Frida’s greeting, the boy rubbed his left eye with a fist and shook his head. “He just woke up from a nap,” Sandy said. The little girl nodded, as if confirming her mother’s story.
Bo invited them inside, and Jane skipped forward to lead the parade. The house was one large, low-ceilinged room, with two cubbylike spaces for bedrooms. They slept in real beds; Sandy and Bo’s had a wooden headboard, and the children slept on what looked like sturdy cots. Frida saw Cal take in these comforts. In the shed, she and Cal had four sleeping bags, which they rotated or layered. No pillows.
“What a place,” Cal said. Later, when he was trying to make Frida laugh, he would refer to it as the Miller Estate.
There were no windows, so the house was dark, but it was surprisingly cool, like a basement. They could open the door for light and air, Sandy explained.
In the middle of the room two mismatched couches faced each other. The setup reminded Frida of a rundown rec center or a home for the elderly gone sadder than expected. Someone had built smaller chairs for the kids, but they looked about as comfortable as birds’ nests: twiggy and sharp. On the rudimentary wooden table nearby, Frida counted two oil lanterns and half a dozen candles.
With Garrett still on her hip, Sandy moved toward the kitchen area. It was just a stone fire pit, and a trashed card table. No chairs. Bo had built shelving into the walls, and on these the family’s dishes and tools were crowded. Frida took note of the plastic tarps, folded on the bottom shelf. She wondered if the house leaked.
“We do most of our cooking outside, or we eat raw,” Bo said. “Smoke from the fire pit in here won’t kill us—there’s a chimney of sorts—but we could’ve designed it better.”
Sandy smiled. “I hope you’re hungry. We’ve got rabbit, just need to put it on the fire.”
Frida squeezed Cal’s hand; she couldn’t remember the last time they’d eaten meat.
“We use snares,” Bo said, and Cal said he’d love to learn more.
Bo offered to show them the root cellar next and the outhouse and their new underground shed, where they were doing their curing.
Despite his initial austerity, Bo treated Frida and Cal with a tenderness that seemed Southern. He often used their names when speaking to them, as if his conversation were a gift. “You see, Calvin,” he would say, “snares can be difficult to build, but they’re quite efficient.” Like his wife, Bo wore a gold band on his left ring finger. So they’d been out here awhile, Frida thought, long before the world really went to shit. Hilda and Dada had given Frida their rings as a wedding present, but she and Cal had sold them not long after.
“You two married?” Sandy had asked her at the creek. No wonder.
With the Millers, Frida felt like she’d fallen asleep and awoken in a bygone era. They could have been pioneers, hitching their covered wagons, staking claim on a new frontier. Manifest destiny bullshit. Or the opposite: with Bo and Sandy, the land outside wasn’t wild and uncharted, something to fear until conquered. No, the earth was to be respected. Only then would it collaborate with you, tell you what it needed and what it was willing to give. And it was willing to give you a lot, if you knew how to ask. It was a lesson in coaxing.
After they’d eaten a meal so succulent and satisfying Frida could have moaned with pleasure, Sandy asked her to follow her back into the house. The men had begun to discuss how to handle larger predators and keep the deer away from food storage and scare off the rare bear that skulked the grounds. Bo had once seen a mama bear and her cubs at the edge of the land; “Imagine if I’d been near them,” he was telling Cal. “They’re just animals and I’ve got a gun, but still, I’m not stupid. They scare me.” It was a conversation Frida thought she should be involved in, but what the hell, she could get a distilled version from Cal on the walk back to the shed. She wished Sandy and Bo would invite them to stay over, but she knew they wouldn’t. Already, Bo had made it clear that they would not be seeing one another all the time. “There’s always work to be done,” he’d said during lunch.
Sandy had grabbed Frida’s hand as they walked into the house. It was as dry as Frida’s own, her knuckles white and flaky. “I guess you won’t be lending me any lotion,” she said, nodding at their intertwined hands.
“I wish. I’m dry as an old lake bed. But I did want to show you this.”
They were like two little girls on a playdate, like Sandy was about to reveal her secret doll collection, her stickers, or her mother’s lacy lingerie. Jane tried to follow them inside, but once they were a few feet into the house, Sandy had turned around and said, “Go to Papa.”
Once Jane was gone, Sandy pointed to the far wall, just to the left of the bed she shared with Bo. Frida had seen the grayish marks earlier, but had taken them to be Jane’s scribbles: the cave paintings of a seven-year-old.
“Go ahead,” Sandy said, and Frida let go of her hand to walk closer.
Of course the drawings couldn’t be Jane’s, they were too far up the wall. At the top, a line of carefully drawn circles, some of them shaded in, others only partially.
“The phases of the moon,” Sandy said behind her, and Frida raised an eyebrow. She hoped Sandy wasn’t inviting her into a coven.
“You can’t just run to the store for tampons,” Sandy said, and Frida understood what this calendar kept track of.
“I figured that out pretty quickly,” Frida said. She didn’t bother to tell Sandy that most stores in L.A. had found the needs of women harder and harder to meet.
“You can’t be teenagers forever,” Sandy said. “Cal should give you a child.”
“Excuse me?” Frida said. No wonder Sandy had made Jane stay outside. “I don’t think I understand what you mean.”
“Yes, you do,” Sandy said. “Lovebirds. Eventually there’s a cloacal kiss.”
How close had the Millers been watching them? Close enough. They had seen Cal move off of her, just before he came. She and Cal liked to do it outside, if the weather was nice. Frida wanted to sew this strange woman’s mouth shut—or, better, her eyes.
“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” Frida said.
Their birth control of choice was common back home. She didn’t know anyone who did it otherwise; it wasn’t foolproof, but no one she’d known had ever had an accident. And, thank God: Who wanted to bring children into this world? Who could find a doctor, who could afford condoms, let alone the Pill?
When Frida was in high school, she’d taken it to help ease her cramps. She’d loved the little pink clamshell they came in and the way the tiny tablets popped out of their plastic sheaths. But before her senior year began, Dada started having trouble finding work, and gas prices were rising every week, and the family began its Great Austerity Measures, as Hilda put it. Goodbye clamshell and a menstrual cycle Frida actually kept track of. Goodbye almost everything frivolous and easy.
By the time she and Cal had agreed to leave L.A., it seemed like no one had access to meds; only the deranged would buy a handful of drugs from a guy on the street corner. Was that really Xanax wrapped in tinfoil? Prescriptions, like doctors, were for the rich. The lucky ones, the people with money, had long fled L.A.
“I apologize if I’m embarrassing you,” Sandy said then. “I didn’t mean to see.”
“Don’t you believe in privacy?”
“Not really, I guess.”
Frida didn’t know what to do with Sandy’s candor. She finally asked: “Why are you showing me this?”
“Because it’s your responsibility. It’s everything,” Sandy said.
In the doorway, the sun caught the lightness of her hair, and it seemed for a moment as if she wore a halo.
“Don’t tell me you came out here to die.”
Frida was about to ask Sandy if she was nuts. She wanted to say it was too risky to have a kid, that it was selfish. What if they got sick? What if there wasn’t enough food? What if, what if. But Sandy was already turning around. She left Frida alone in the dark house.
Cal admitted he’d been wrong, that—after spending the afternoon at the Millers’ place—he trusted them. “They have small children,” he said that night, once they’d finally reached the shed, just before sunset, thank goodness. As if he hadn’t known about Jane and Garrett before he’d met them. As if people with small children couldn’t cause harm. Frida decided not to tell him what Sandy had said. They would be seeing the family fairly regularly, and as weird as they were, Frida was relieved they existed.
“But I do wonder where they get the salt to cure their meat,” Cal had added. Frida didn’t have an answer, and, anyway, it was the farthest thing from her mind, and she didn’t press Cal to go on. She couldn’t stop thinking about what Sandy had told her in the house. It changed things. Frida felt her perspective shifting, tilting the world, blurring the colors, brightening them.
The next time they had sex, when Cal said, “I’m close,” Frida held him to her, wouldn’t let him go. “Good,” she’d whispered into his ear.
They didn’t talk about what had happened, not at first. When they did, they both admitted it felt right. Having the Millers nearby, just the very idea of them, gave them both solace. The hopelessness lifted right off of Frida.
Three weeks later, the Millers arrived at the shed. Already Garrett looked older, taller, and someone had given Jane a bob.
“You look like a flapper,” Frida had told her that day. The girl frowned. Of course she had no idea what that was.
“It’s a kind of lady, from a long time ago.” Jane waited, as if expecting more, and Frida kept talking. “From like a hundred years ago…actually longer, maybe close to a hundred and thirty. A long time.” Frida paused. “She liked to dance.”
At this Jane beamed, but a moment later, as if startled by her own joy, she turned away from Frida, hiding her face in her mother’s thighs. Sandy said, “Sometimes Garrett bangs on the drum we have, and Janey dances.”
Frida laughed, and so did Sandy.
“Do you mind showing me the shed?” Sandy asked. “I’m curious to see what you’ve done with the place.” Frida agreed, and Sandy grabbed Jane’s hand. The three headed to the shed.
When they reached the open doorway, Sandy looked up, her eyes on the dark interior. Suddenly, she stepped back into the sunlight and pulled Jane’s hand so roughly her daughter crashed against her thigh. What was it? Cal’s bandanna wasn’t in sight, but then Frida saw it: her sleeping bag was a bright red.
“You okay?” Frida asked.
Sandy said nothing, only stepped farther away from the shed, dragging Jane with her.
“Sandy,” Frida called out, but Sandy was already halfway to the garden, where Bo, Garrett, and Cal were bending over something in the dirt.
Frida followed them. When Sandy saw Frida behind her, she forced a smile and said, “Oh! I almost forgot. We brought you some stuff.”
The Millers had come bearing gifts. A rabbit, already skinned and ready to roast. Also some chanterelles. “Sandy will show you how to find those,” Bo said to Frida. The subtext being: I hunt. You, Woman, shall gather.
The third gift was the most surprising. Sandy smiled at her, as if to say, Let’s forget about what happened in the shed, and pulled from their bag a box of Band-Aids. Frida yanked it out of her hand.
“Where the fuck did you get this?” she asked.
“Frida, calm down,” Cal said, but Bo was laughing. In another minute, Sandy was, too; she seemed totally relaxed now. Frida felt relieved.
“It’s okay,” Sandy said. “They are exotic, aren’t they.”
Frida flipped open the tin’s lid. Inside, the Band-Aids behaved so well, lined up like schoolchildren. Already she was imagining plucking one out. Its white wrapper thin as rice paper, and those tiny blue arrows at the top. Open here. How it would peel back so easily to reveal the Band-Aid itself, nestled flat inside. Frida’s stomach fluttered. She could have sucked on it. The salty, pretzel taste of wounds.
“Thank you,” Frida said finally. “How long have you had these?”
“A few weeks,” Bo said. “We traded for them.”
That’s how they learned about August.
“He travels widely,” Bo said. “He won’t tell us how many others are out there, but there are a few.”
“Is that so?” Cal said. “I guess this is the place to be. Who knew that—”
“Don’t,” Bo said, holding up his hand.
“Don’t what?” Frida asked.
Sandy smiled weakly. “Never say where we are.”
“It’s something we decided on,” Bo said. “The state. Place-names. Keep all that out.”
Sandy added, “It feels more private this way.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in privacy,” Frida said.
“You got me there.”
The men didn’t catch their little joke. They were clueless. Some things didn’t change.
“Think of it as a place of mystery,” Bo said.
Later, Cal said the Millers were a little nuts. But he liked the rule. “This place of mystery,” he said. “It’s got a ring to it, don’t you think?”
Yes, Frida had to admit. It did.
Excerpted from California by Edan Lepucki. Now available!
“In her arresting debut novel, Edan Lepucki conjures a lush, intricate, deeply disturbing vision of the future, then masterfully exploits its dramatic possibilities.” –Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
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