The Wilderness

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/178949.html)

The fight started after the last gas station stop up I-5 before the turn-off, although it didn’t start as a fight. Just as (Jon would maintain to himself, pathetically) an attempt at advice — but in their still-rattled state after their near-miss with that 14-wheeler it had bristled Cris immediately, which in turn had stung Jon, until the whole thing was blown out of all sense and proportion, another shambling, misshapen beast loping off across the landscape, tearing down buildings and ripping up powerlines without losing its fangy malformed grin. That was the thing: it was always stupid to start, always nonsense. Otherwise they might notice it instead of letting it fly under the radar, and could stop it before it began to grow.

“I’m just saying, if we’re trying to make fewer stops — ”

“It’s dangerous,” Jon repeated, keeping his voice low — he always kept his voice low — and as patient as he could. His knuckles had turned a bone-color on the steering wheel, his eyes fixed urgently on the road. Cris’s expression thundered out the window, superimposed over whirring trees and undergrowth.

“It’s not dangerous! They just say that to scare you into saving them a couple of bucks.”

“It doesn’t save the station money, how would it? The meter’s still running as long as the gas is pumping.” He flexed his hands again on the wheel, trying to loosen the aching joints. “I’ve actually read — ”

“Oh, of course.” Cris lifted his hands and dropped them to his lap, rolling his eyes when Jon risked a glance over. “You’ve read something that proves you’re right, of course.”

“Can I finish, please?” Cris scowled and said nothing, so Jon went on anyway, eyes fixed ahead again. “It’s just that I’ve read that it can cost you money. When the system shuts off automatically, sometimes the vapor recovery system sucks back some of the excess gas. So you’re just paying more for extra gas you didn’t even get — ”

“Will you stop pretending you know anything about cars?” Cris cut him off again, and Jon bit his teeth shut and fell silent. “Jesus. It’s not the point whether it helps or not anyway. Would you like it if I jumped in every couple seconds to tell you how you’re driving wrong?”

Now this was familiar territory — sort of like throwing up and tasting what you’d had for dinner in it. Jon locked his teeth harder, then exhaled through them. “I’m not telling you you’re doing things wrong. I’m just trying to — ”

“What?”

Help,” Jon said, in a low lost tone that was almost a whisper. He knew every time his voice dropped like that it was just making Cris madder, and honestly it made him mad at himself; it wasn’t actually timidity or acquiescence — just the show of rolling over and showing his belly that he always put on, the I’m meek and cowed and upset, how can you live with yourself if you keep being angry at me? routine that had always worked on his parents. Cris had finally called him on it during the apocalyptic fight at Christmas last year, but that was secondary to how long he’d been calling himself on it, and to how all the same, no matter how he tried, he seemed unable to stop. The movies and self-help books all lied. Sometimes admitting you had a problem was the first step to getting nowhere.

Cris started to open his mouth again at that, to say something else more infuriated than ever — and this time Jon got suddenly in ahead of him, clenching his hands on the wheel. “Don’t do this,” he said. Cris looked startled for a second, and then his scowl drew itself even deeper, like cracks appearing in a rocky landscape.

“What?” Snapping more than ever. “What am I doing?”

Jon knew better than to answer that. “We came here to not do this,” was all he said, softly: really softly this time, really meaning to be gentler. Cris seemed to hover on a knife’s-edge briefly, caught between teetering over toward anger and teetering over toward surprised self-consciousness… and then he let out a long, deflating sigh, sinking back in the passenger seat.

“Yeah, well, it looks like we can do this anywhere,” he muttered, rubbing a hand over his face. “Congratulations, we’re taking the show on the road.”

From the sound of it, he’d actually settled on a third option: sudden, sullen misery. And just as suddenly Jon felt his temper flaring in him again, a wet hot feeling in the middle of him like being rotted out at the core, making him want to get angry all over again, pick a fight all over again. What right did he have to be miserable when Jon had been miserable for so long? What right did he have to go all long-suffering about how much he hated this drama when he was the one who’d made a drama of it in the first place?

Instead, he took a breath of his own, staring at the road until it started to blur dangerously in his eyes. He could at least be the one to make the decision not to rise. He could at least be the bigger person.

“We’re almost there,” he said, instead, and it was barely audible over the crunching of branches under the tires as they turned off the asphalt state road onto hard-pack dirt.

The house had grown over from how he remembered it, was his first impression as they bumped up the washboard dirt drive, clearly ungraded for the last fifteen years. The last time he had come with his parents before the divorce, he felt sure there had been a surrounding space of cleared, rocky ground: hillocks of needle-strewn dirt bed that rose up to the house from a tiny creek, and then faded again into trees behind it only gradually, a few stands of pines at a time. The woods had pressed in around all edges, disappearing into the rising wilderness of the mountains out to the east side, but it had given way to that space first, and off to the southwest the glimmer of the distant river had been visible now and again through the trees. Now, though, as they got out of the car, there were only maybe a few yards of space between the old vacation house and the tree-line, which was such a shimmery green, undergrown density that it blocked off vision to all sides. Standing there, the car and house marooned together and the ribbon of drive disappearing back into the woods behind them, reminded Jon a little of the “crossing the Red Sea” part of The Prince of Egypt, which Cris’s little cousins had watched obsessively during a couple of the first times Jon had ever gone with him to visit his family. Down at the bottom, walled in eerily and ripplingly to the sides. The Green Sea.

There were weeds springing up out of the ruts in the driveway, weeds throttling the walk up to the house. Tree-roots had spread and broken up the walk too, dislodging stones, earthquaking up the dirt into ripples. Small ferns had sprouted out of the cracks in the front steps, and even between the boards on the wooden front porch, in thick lush patches. The two posts that divided the front of the porch were scaled, leprously, with what looked like some kind of mushrooms. It looked, Jon thought, like the forest had crept up on the place year by year and now had finally begun to eat it alive; and managed to have the thought with no sense of premonition, of foreboding, whatsoever.

It was overcast but not rainy-looking, just stale late-summer hot. They’d made it by early evening, and crickets were announcing themselves in what remained of the grass, a thin high chorus. The sound of footsteps overtop of them surprised him; and he turned to find Cris rounding the front of their hybrid Civic toward the house, holding a hand over his eyes to keep out the glarey grey daylight. And as Cris looked over the house, Jon felt himself twist suddenly toward irrational, preemptive annoyance and hurt: yeah, so it was old, so it was untidy, so no one had been here in a long time, so what? So they’d have to have the power turned on and someone come out here to add the wiring to give it anything but dial-up, so the rooms would need to be aired and probably vacuumed and sheets put on the bed and the fridge stocked after being checked for leaks. What was it to Cris, what right did Cris have to raise the catty, needling objections he was undoubtedly about to? It wasn’t like Cris would be the one to do those things. Things like that, the practical things that made comfort and convenience possible, always managed to slip Cris’s mind, in favor of the less mundane, the more exciting and immediate. But of course he could complain with the best of them about the consequences, when they didn’t get done.

But no sooner had he gotten really rolling on that thought than Cris turned back to him: grinning like a kid under his shielding hand, the stormclouds forgotten from his face and replaced by all the sunlight this day lacked.

“Awesome,” he said, beaming; and the sour embarrassed guilt that twisted up out of the back of Jon’s throat was enough to make him forget the rest, for a while longer.

They had met in college: Jon a history major, Cris a computer science and engineering double. From opposite poles of the world, more or less, but they overlapped in their both needing to use the practice rooms in the music building. Jon played the violin, Cris the guitar. They started to recognize each other, then to hang out when by some chance their social circles swung each other’s way. Except for Jon it had never been quite pure friendship; he’d been struck through with a gut-deep red arrow of longing the first time he saw Cris through one of those tiny windows in the hallway, Cris on a plastic orange chair in a room otherwise barren except for spilled-over music stands and a ripping brown carpet, playing and singing “Hotel California” with a complete lusty abandon that shut his eyes and sent his dark hair swinging in his face. But Cris had slept his way steadily through their mutual female acquaintances in front of Jon’s wistful gaze, and Jon had basically given up by the time, after they’d graduated and wandered out into the real world a ways, he and Cris had gone out to one too many bars and between one thing and another Cris had finally admitted, slurrily, that the girls weren’t all of the story. Jon, likewise emboldened, had for once in his life not stopped to think: just grabbed Cris into a kiss where they stood on the dark street, a wet, awkward, flopping thing like a fish in both their mouths.

They had moved in together a year later, and stayed that way ever since. At first it had been good, and then it had been difficult, and then it had been easier, and then it had been taken for granted, and then, gradually, it had become a war zone. Jon had never been able to decide on a precipitating factor: if it had been his finally going part-time at his horrible teaching job in disgust and going back for his Ph.D., which hadn’t really strained them money-wise given Cris’s job but had nonetheless upset the balance of the money, tipped things too far over in Cris’s direction and ripped open that nasty, rotten, humiliating sac of resentments and frictions; if it had been Jon’s increasing involvement in Cris’s conservative and highly Catholic family, and the increasing awkward strain of the “friend”s and “roommate”s Cris clung to stubbornly, in spite of the fact that not even his dad could possibly believe them anymore; if it had been Jon’s mother’s bout with breast cancer, which had opened up his frequent absences and worried on-edge nitpickiness like ragged holes in their shared fabric, that had lingered even after the successful surgery and the relative safety of remission. But honestly, the far more terrifying thought — needling more and more at the back of Jon’s mind over these past few years — was that it was none of those reasons. That it was no reason. Maybe nothing in particular had caused them to start falling apart like this; maybe they had just never been supposed to be with each other in the first place. Maybe Jon’s desire had all been chemical and Cris’s response had been just affectionate or opportunistic and it had all been just an accident, they actually didn’t fit at all, they were going nowhere but an inevitable end. Jon had never really dated before Cris, so he had no real experience, just the vague TV-given platitudes in the back of his mind about “magic dying” and “breaking up,” and it was impossible not to wonder: was this how it happened? Did things just go wrong, and scratch themselves to pieces? Did that mean you were “incompatible,” that you “weren’t meant to be”? He told himself he didn’t believe in any of that stuff in the daytime, that everybody made up their own fates as they went along, and then obsessed over it while he tossed around in the bed at night beside the hill in the covers that was Cris, unable to sleep. Had he never really been in love with Cris, just a romantic kid fooling himself? How did you even begin to tell?

Or, on the other hand… was it possible that this was just normal? That this was just what happened now, what happened eventually, no matter who you were or what you tried to do together? Was this as well as any two different, disparate, entire-in-themselves human beings could work together, separated from each other by their skin and skulls and points of view? Was this just something everybody kept secret and nobody told, for fear they’d get called out as a sham, when everyone was a sham? That the trick to old married couples was actually just that they never spoke to each other when no one else was around?

It was hard to say which was worse to think.

Finally, after what seemed like forever of fighting, then ending the fight, then ignoring the fight, then burying the fight over, then building a new fight over top of its ruins — they had struggled their way into talking about it, hiding the thin thread of desperation in the talk. They were tired, they had decided. They were stressed, they had agreed. This was a rough time, a lot had been going on. What they needed was a break. Getting out of the carved-deep tracks and the regular ruts, bumping free to some other place. Neither of them had said what, exactly, they expected that freedom to do. That would fix it, had been the implication, that would make all of this horrible, unexpected growth between them stop and begin to recede; but deeper down, Jon thought maybe they were expecting it to tell them whether things were really hopeless. If anything would actually change, or if things would just go in the same old direction, no matter where they were and what they were doing. And in the latter case, what could they do, really, but quit?

So he brought up his parents’ vacation house up north, in the mountains. And they’d made their arrangements, packed up the car, and started out.

The sky had gotten dark, and they sweaty and tired and bleary, by the time they got all the suitcases and boxes and the cooler hauled in, and finally they agreed to leave the power and internet situation until tomorrow (it was so easy to just bring things up in a way that wasn’t accusing, to just talk them over and find a solution, when you weren’t already angry — as easy as it was desperately impossible when you were). Instead they just made a late dinner of cold sandwiches, and sprawled with them right on top of the dusty sheets on the living room furniture. The light was shadowy and tricky when they finished, deep in the end of dusk; the broad wooden room was bigger than the lamps could really handle, and their light flickered and thrummed in long cycles with the generator, waxing and waning. When Jon finally managed to get up to take the dishes into the kitchen, Cris first burst out laughing at the powdery all-over imprint of dust on the back of his polo shirt and shorts, and then got up and brushed it off for him, lingering goofily over his ass. Jon smirked and swatted off his hands, then dropped a kiss on his mouth as he went to wash up. He stood at the sink with his back aching and skin unpleasantly sticky, finding now that he was tired and full that he felt both good and surprised to feel good. The water ran a mucky, sputtering brown from the kitchen tap for a few moments before clearing up, but even that could throw only a single wrinkle-nosed frown into his improved mood.

Maybe this could work, he even caught himself thinking as he rinsed the old chipped plates once the water had run for a while, the entire drive up somehow already dim and forgettable in his mind; maybe the air up here really would prove lighter and not so volatile, the ground less shaky and full of pitfalls. Things already felt better right now, calmer right now. Maybe, for once, that wouldn’t go away again. Maybe this would be the time that it would stick.

He was distracted by the thought, concentrating on the dishes, the water running loud in his ears. He turned it off and turned to rip some paper towels off the roll standing loose on the counter, to dry off the plates — and then his eye was caught, suddenly, by unexpected shapes and movement at its corner. Jon looked back up, and saw in the reflection in the dark window over the sink, with a senseless, twitching start in his muscles, that Cris had come up behind him unheard while he’d been working. His face hovered in the glass, ghostly and slightly smaller for being behind Jon’s shoulder, smiling just a bit. Jon started to smile too, started to shape the word Hey and turn around —

Something was wrong.

It wasn’t quite a smile. Now that he looked, it wasn’t quite a smile. Cris’s lips were — pushing out. Stretching. Being pressed at. His whole face seemed strained, stretched somehow: as Jon watched, stopped in his word and his smile by confusion and uncertainty and now just freezing over, a small, unmistakable, pointed bulge pushed out near the top of one of Cris’s cheeks — like he had poked his tongue into it from inside, except that there was another one down at the bottom of his other cheek, just above his jaw. And then another, deep in the fleshy meat of the cheek itself — and then another and another — the first ones fading back again but it didn’t matter, there were more, more and more every second, fast and bulging and distorting with the sense of writhing movement hidden just behind Cris’s lips, and there was sudden terror in his reflected eyes —

Cris’s head snapped back. His mouth split wide, opera-wide, scream-wide. It split open around a tangle of branches, growing branches, a stop-motion film of a tree being born but from his mouth instead of the earth. They had been inside his mouth, pushing at the inside of his mouth, now pushing out of his mouth, and their tips were budding green and then blossoming into sudden, stark spring flowers as they wrenched his jaws apart and spilled out of him like wooden smoke. The blossoms were large, fleshy, white, six-pointed: dogwood blossoms. At first they lined bare branches, and then leaves thickened between them. The branches splayed out, questing and climbing forward and upward over one another, toward the ceiling, towering and reaching. Cris’s eyes, almost obscured by the tilt of his head and by the branches, were round with horror, and maybe pain — and then they burst, noiselessly and bloodlessly, in two anticlimactic wet squelches of the tips of branches bursting forth from their sockets too: filling them, climbing and twining out to flower and bloom.

Jon’s paralysis broke when they did. He whipped around, toward Cris, to try to help him or just to stare at him uncomprehending and stupid, a scream drilling up in his throat —

Cris wasn’t there.

Nothing was there. He was looking, wild-eyed and panting, at the blank white front of the refrigerator. He was standing in the kitchen alone.

It took him a long time to struggle his breathing back into a controllable, regular rhythm. A long time to unclench the long iron rods that his muscles seemed to have become. Even longer still, once all that was done, to slowly turn back around, and look back into the window above the sink.

Where he saw himself. His face strained and taut and drawn, superimposed in reflection over the darkness of the night outside, eyes wide and wild, lips flexed slightly back from clenched teeth. Nothing else. No Cris behind his shoulder; no branches; no anything. Just him, looking crazy and unsettlingly weird with his eyes huge and teeth showing, like a horse in a burning barn. Suddenly self-conscious — suddenly a lot of things — he made himself change that expression, relax the clamping tension out of each part of it back down into something like normal.

It had all taken place in less than a minute.

“Babe?” Cris’s voice called. From back on the couch in the living room, from which he’d never moved. Where he’d been the whole time. “Everything okay?”

“Fine,” Jon said, distractedly, maybe not even loud enough to carry that far. He stared into the dark window, as though not yet able to summon the courage to move his eyes; as though daring it to happen again. “It’s nothing. Everything’s fine.”

Jon managed to get the bed made up in the master bedroom upstairs — the one Jon’s parents had always slept in on their summers here, although you had to try not to think about these things — and they went to bed early, aching and sprung. He burrowed a little too close once under the sheets, and Cris let him and then welcomed him, and then ended up fucking with slow sleepy contentment on the old creaking mattress, even the sheets thrown off to one side and spilling in a river down the foot of the bed. There was no central air and the place was sticky and close even with the windows thrown wide open, letting in the noise of the crickets like the screech of some ancient rusted engine thrumming along out in the dark. The bedclothes adhered clammily to their skin, and once they’d both come and Jon collapsed back off of Cris onto the bed, they fell asleep back-to-back without recovering the top sheet, unable to escape the bottom one. Jon dreamed nothing he could remember, and by morning had almost started to believe that he’d imagined what he’d seen in the dark kitchen window, that the order of things had gotten confused in his mind and it had just been a dream brought on by the reaching roots under the house’s front walk.

They spent the morning on their phones: the guy from the power company engaged for that afternoon, the DSL guy engaged for sometime between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. the next day. The guy from the power company shouldn’t have had to come out at all, honestly, but switching the juice on from the company’s end didn’t seem to be working, so they had to send out a technician to figure out what was what. He showed up around 4, a young round black guy with a paunch and a toolbelt who never seemed to stop talking even for a second, and they followed him dumbly around the exterior and then the basement for an hour or so, answering questions and laughing politely at jokes whenever he gave them a chance. The basement was a blessed coolness in the worst part of the day, as they stood and watched him first cut out a section of wall and then dig into it, and then draw out hand-over-hand a seemingly endless length of hairy honeysuckle vine from amid the tangle of wiring, dropping it into innocuous green-and-brown loops on the stained concrete floor.

Under the circumstances, they didn’t manage to get into town to stock up for a couple days, and when they did, it ended up being nearly disastrous end-to-end. It was a foully hot, sticky day, and Cris was in a real mood to start out with: muttering under his breath and slamming doors on their way out, bitching endlessly as he drove about the thick intruding tree-roots that seemed to have laced their way under the dirt road’s surface overnight. “I mean, what the fuck?” he demanded, of no one in particular, as they bumped their teeth-jarring way along toward the main road. “It wasn’t this bad on our way in. What the fuck’s different?”

“I was driving then?” Jon suggested, through an all-lips grin, trying (he would tell himself) to lighten up the air with the joke. If so, though, it backfired: Cris shot him a narrow, glittering glance lanced with furious suspicion, before stabbing his gaze back at the road. A silence dropped over them fast, rude as an interruption.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cris finally said, out of its thunderous space. Jon had already seen it coming, though, was so ready he nearly overlapped.

“Nothng. Nothing, just — trying to be funny.” He sighed, under his breath, unable to help it. “Forget it.”

“About what, exactly?” And v then, when Jon refused to answer: “Do you want to drive?”

“No, I don’t want to drive.” Louder, more exasperated than he’d meant it. He rubbed his hand over his face, trying to steady himself again. “Forget it. Look, I just meant, I’m more familiar with the roads around here, so I — ”

“From when, when you were like thirteen the last time you came here, apparently? You did a lot of driving around here then?” Jon didn’t answer that either, although this time with his lips pressed in a tight, hard line. “Do you want to drive?

“No. I don’t want to drive.” Going quiet and long-suffering again, hating the sound of it, knowing Cris would hate the sound of it, unable to stop. “Jesus. Sorry, I guess I won’t try talking to you again.”

Cris didn’t bother to answer that — just tightened down himself, and jerked the wheel particularly hard going into the turn onto the state road. Jon jumped, his hand fastening into a momentary claw around the passenger door-handle.

“Don’t you pull that shit,” he said, a moment later, much more quietly and a lot less meekly. To his credit, Cris’s scowl had already softened to a troubled, maybe guilty frown, even though his hands were still very tight around the wheel. He was silent a moment, then let out a long, gusty sigh.

“…Sorry. Fuck. Sorry.” He scrubbed at the side of his face, his palm rasping off his skim of dark stubble. “I’m not trying — I’m just stressed. The road.”

Jon breathed deep for a moment, watching the woods flow by faster now on the paved road. “…You know, maybe we should just go back. Maybe we shouldn’t do this today.”

“If we don’t do this today we’re not going to have any food in the house,” Cris said, and flexed and resettled his hands on the steering wheel. “Whatever. It’s fine. We’ll just go.”

They let that sit for a few seconds, and then Jon made another tentative prod. “Maybe we should go by the hardware store, then? See if we can find an air conditioner, a little window unit or something.”

“We don’t need an air conditioner.” Cris’s voice was tautening up again, his knuckles paling. “Christ, do you want to keep hemmorhaging money?”

No!” And that definitely came out with way more force than he’d meant for it to, and then he couldn’t even collect himself back afterward, couldn’t cool the stung rattle out of his voice. He always had to go straight after that — “It’s just awful out today, I thought that might be making you irritable.”

“Jesus.” Cris ground the fingers of one hand into his brow, exhaling hard through his nose. “No, it’s the road. I can deal with being hot, okay? I’m not five.”

“Well, that doesn’t explain why you’re — ” acting like you are, was how that thought finished, but Jon managed to choke it off halfway, just glaring out the window instead. For all his too-late restraint, though, it didn’t seem likely that Cris didn’t know what he’d been going to say, and they both just glared out window and windshield, in tumultuous silence, for the rest of the drive.

The nearest town was barely one at all: just two main streets of businesses and stoplights, shading out to spaced-out foothill houses at all the edges along the roads that wound away out into the woods. The parking lot of the grocery store was ancient-looking, its asphalt broken up and runneled with long grass-growing cracks, like lava coming out of the earth in an old adventure movie but on a TV where the colors were so botched that green and red had swapped. More mushrooms grew in thickets along the edges of the chain-link fence that surrounded the lot. The automatic doors of the store itself were turned off and chocked open with blocks, and a redheaded white teenaged clerk who was freckly and pimply in equal measure was down on her knees in their gap, wearing a green store apron and rubber gloves and scrubbing at the doors’ tracks with a spray bottle of fungicide.

Jon thought they were both relieved to split up, each taking half the list; he went for dry goods while Cris went for cold things — a shorter job, but Cris always took much longer to decide everything, getting distracted by appealing labels and unfamliar oddities. He picked up spices and staples down the Baking Needs aisle, muttering his list to himself over and over as he went through it to make sure he didn’t miss anything, over the noise of a pair of clerks with a broom back in the seafood department chasing down a couple of rogue grosbeaks that had gotten in and were now fluttering stupidly around the corners of the ceiling, in a buzzing rush. He felt sort of like it was the first time he’d been able to breathe all day. It was only in the checkout line that he keyed back up again: his muscles all screwing tight, seeming to pick up on and siphon into themselves all the tension in Cris’s; finding himself taking personally the cashier’s truculence, the barcode scanner’s reluctance, the doom-and-gloom headlines on the newspaper racks on the way out about deepening recession, some car accident out on I-5 a few days before, some protesting students being killed in the Middle East.

They did end up going to the hardware store, too, without any more of a fight about it than one suggestion and one protest before coming to an agreement, and got a cheap window air conditioner at least for the bedroom. Jon didn’t want to admit it, but having it would help him out too; the nights were much cooler, but the humidity could be pretty awful. He didn’t think either of them had been sleeping well, and for his part he kept having weird dreams.

When they got home, he trucked the air conditioner box upstairs without a word, panting and sweating through his shirt by the time he got it there. He spent over an hour putting it in, swearing and sweating and nearly dropping it through to the other side at least once, wrestling with the screen and screws and the protesting old window sash. There was some kind of ivy climbing up the outside of the house, that had gotten tangled in with the window hardware in tricky, nearly invisible ways, making it hard to open all the way and prone to fall back in on itself at the worst possible times. He had only just gotten the damn thing done with, and was trying to put all the tools away and collect himself again when Cris’s footsteps creaked up the stairs, Cris coming in behind them with a blessedly icy beer in hand and a small, sheepish smile.

“I’m sorry about today,” he said in a sudden, serious blurt, while Jon was drinking. “I’ve been being really shitty. It’s not even the heat, work is just freaking me out — my boss is always a bitch about time off eventually, even working from home time, and it’s like I’m just waiting for the hammer to fall…” He trailed away, and then let out a long breath, walking his creaking way across the floorboards over to sit on the edge of the bed. “You did an awesome job with the air conditioner. It looks perfect.”

Jon smirked a little, looking down into the open mouth of the can and hovering on his feet. “Yeah, it’s an art form.” He paused a moment longer, and then sat down too, taking another drink. “…It’s okay. I’m sorry I keep making it worse.”

“You don’t make it worse.” Cris smiled, and it softened his face, open and affectionate. He ruffled at the short, sweaty spikes Jon’s hair was clumping into, which Jon ducked away from a little, trying to be playful about it but in his overheated exhaustion just ending up a little annoyed at that too. They sat in silence for a minute or two, Jon drinking his beer, Cris looking around the room in a long, contemplative sweep. At last, at the end of it, he said, “Did your family really used to come up here for the whole summer?”

“Well… yeah.” Jon shrugged, a little shortly. “My dad went back home during the week and my mom wrote freelance, so it worked out. I told you. …I never really even noticed it was hot. But I guess when you’re a kid that stuff doesn’t bother you quite so much.” And he tried to hold his tongue, he really did, but it burst out anyway: “Or maybe I didn’t learn to really be a waste of money ’til I grew up, I don’t know.”

It came out a lot bitterer than he’d even feared. Cris stared at him, dumbstruck at least for the moment, and suddenly it just made him tired. He stood up abruptly, setting his beer down on the bedside table. “I’m gonna go take a shower. I’m gross.”

“I didn’t mean — ” Cris started to say just as he was getting to the bathroom; but Jon closed the door on it before he could hear the rest, fast and hard.

They spoke no more than necessary for the rest of the night. Jon fell asleep on one of the uncovered chairs down in the living room, undisturbed by the occasional creak from upstairs, and seemed to drift for a long time in and out of half-dreams, where he sat with his eyes closed in the chair and heard slow, slithering sounds of some thick and distant movement, somewhere out in the dark.

“Babe?” Cris called out of the bathroom, as Jon sat up on the edge of the bed with his hair sticking up in spikes, scrubbing at bleary eyes. “Come here for a sec.”

Jon squinted around over his shoulder, and then turned and got up, shuffling along barefoot in just his boxers over the creaky boards. He was only barely awake, not really thinking yet. The bathroom was still steamy from Cris’s shower, and Cris was naked with his hair slicked back over his skull, his skin glistening with dampness. He was also crouching down over the pale green bathmat in front of the tub, his bent knees splayed with his arms draped over them and his dick and balls dangling framed in the sprawl of his thighs, all making him look sort of troglodytic, primordial. Not that Jon would have said any of that even first thing in the morning.

“Look,” Cris said, glancing up at him as he came in, and pointed down at the bathmat, tapping at it with his fingers. Jon squinted some more, then bent down himself, bending over with one hand planted on the wall of the bathtub. The air conditioner in the other room fought the humidity in here only distantly; the air was tropical, hard to breathe. He wished Cris would just open the window. “I nearly stepped on them when I was getting out. Kinda gross.”

Jon frowned, and squinted in closer. His eyes were bleary and he wasn’t sure what he was looking at, and it took him a minute to really focus in and understand. But then, when he followed the line of Cris’s fingers, he saw them, all at once: a little thatch of tiny white mushrooms, sprouting up in between the fibers of the bathmat and nearly blending into their forest. They were like miniscule pillars, ending in a knobby button shape that had what at first looked like hair all over it, and on closer examination appeared to be almost microscopic spikes prodding out of the surface of the fungus like porcupine quills. Each one was a little taller and thinner than a pencil eraser, and the entire patch of them was smaller than the palm of Jon’s hand, straggling out and dwindling at the edges. He stared down at them for what seemed like a long, empty, stupid moment, then finally looked up frowning into Cris’s eyes.

“Were they there last night?” Cris asked — almost smiling, almost like he was trying to make a joke of it, except the joke never seemed to find its way to his eyes. “Do you remember seeing them?”

Jon shook his head, slowly, his eyes making their gradual wandering way back down to the patch of mushrooms as though if he took long enough they wouldn’t be there anymore. “I didn’t see them. But they must have been.” He paused for a long minute, looking, and then said with a little more confidence, “They must have been. They’re… pretty little, I guess we just didn’t see them.”

“…Yeah.” Cris sounded somehow unsatisfied, all told, but on the other hand Jon kind of felt that way himself, too. And when Jon looked up at him again, he stood up, slicking water back out of his hair. “Well, uh. …Guess we should throw that mat away, pick up a new one.”

“Yeah.” Jon hovered a moment longer, then mustered himself and nodded, standing up too. “Maybe I’ll look up an exterminator around here, ask them to come by and check the place out.”

Or you could just open the window when you take a shower, he almost added in another of those needling, not-disguised-enough would-be jokes, but in the end, held his tongue for once. That time.

The problem, Jon sometimes thought — probably in his lower moments — was not the distance between them, but the closeness; not a lack of intimacy, but a surfeit. They’d been together some five years now, gradually shedding inhibitions and climbing off of best behavior, becoming more and more themselves around each other. And in turn, more and more of the unexpected, the unsuspected, the dark and sour and ugly and unpleasant, was bound to come bursting out of each of them at odd times — and, because they each thought they knew the other so well by now, to be all the worse and more shocking for it. They could predict each other too clearly and now could predict each other’s worst impulses, could see through each other and now see too much of the gargoyleish things running around inside. Cris, who had friends who loved robotics, had told Jon once about the concept of the “uncanny valley,” where robots got progressively more appealing as they became more lifelike, until suddenly they reached a point where they both seemed too human and not human enough and abruptly started putting people off, instead. Now Jon thought what they were going through was something a little like that: just before the high plateau of perfect harmony, a sudden drop off into the wilderness.

Things began to settle over the next few days, though: giving him another stubborn, amnesiac surge of hope. He sat in the chair in the master bedroom and did his comp exam reading, and Cris sat at the desk in the bedroom that had been Jon’s as a kid and kept up with his projects through the VPN tunnel to his work. They spoke no more than necessary, which (in line with those vague fears of Jon’s) kept things reasonably peaceful, fairly at ease. The trees loomed in on all sides, the Green Sea, coating the driveway with roots and pine needles where none had been before, their shadows deepening. There were times when it even seemed like they were happy.

The sound knocked them both out of deep sleep, in a single jerking tangle of limbs. Jon sat up first, his heart already an adrenal steam engine in his ears; the air conditioner iced over the sweat-droplets over his forehead and shoulders, missed the hotter ones sticking his thighs together. Cris, propped on his elbows, was a lean set of angles in the light skim of alarm-clock light, the whites of his wide eyes reflective. “What the fuck was that?” Jon whispered.

It was mostly to be sure that they’d actually both woken up from the same thing, that it hadn’t just been in his dream and set off a chain reaction, but his asking seemed to steady Cris, to harden him. “Sounded like something breaking,” he murmured back, and then clawed up and out of the sheets, now outlined naked in the pale light as he pulled upright. He bent over and rummaged on the floor until he pulled on a pair of sweatpants, loose below the bony concavities of his upper body. “Maybe some — asshole kids in that hick town think — ”

“I didn’t hear a car,” Jon protested over the mumbling end of whatever Cris, half-awake, thought they might think; but Cris was already moving, pushing his way out the door into the hall. Jon collected himself a moment, and then followed, too tense and alert to stay where he was.

Cris had vanished into the dark by the time he got out into the upstairs hallway, and Jon made his way around the corner to the steep staircase with one hand trailing on the wall, his fingers following the flat planes and then the grooves of the fitted boards. He transferred his grip to the banister instead when he felt the floor drop off ahead of him — he could see almost nothing in here, the stairs were enclosed right in the center of the house and the darkness was total — and made his way down the stairs half-sideways, feeling each ahead of him with his foot. He didn’t hear Cris yelling or storming around downstairs by now, though, so he guessed he could afford to take his time: they weren’t under attack, at least, not intruded upon.

Except —

He saw Cris’s back first, in the slightly renewed light once he was downstairs; there were windows in all the walls down here, starlight ebbing faintly in from outside. Cris’s dim figure was just discernible standing in front of one of them, on the far side of the living room. It was only when Jon got closer that he actually saw, that he came around Cris far enough to bring into focus what it was that Cris was looking at. To feel the difference in the flow of the air, even, the new breath of outdoor coolness mixed into the stifled, dusty heat where the air conditioner couldn’t reach.

The window was broken. Where it had been, a pine branch thrust through the glass into the living room — by a distance of over a foot, actually, prodding inward with a stunning intensity, like it had sprouted from the wall itself instead of from a tree outside. Glass and needles sprawled in a mingled litter over the lip of the windowledge, and over the back and seat of the couch in front of the window. A few small clusters of cones clung to its length up near the tip, where they could see, nestled in between the needles and bark. One of these clusters had a small sliver of glass caught in it, reflecting what there was of the light.

Jon leaned sideways, his throat and face numb, so he could peer up and out the window. The tree the branch extended from stood right outside the window, brushing right up to the side of the house. The whole treeline on that side was pressed against the house, crowded against it, like a crowd of paparazzi trying to see inside a celebrity mansion. He would have sworn that they had been further back when they arrived at the house, when they had driven back up from the last time they’d gone to town. Had he not looked closely enough? Had he been wrong? Could that have changed, somehow have changed, the — the wind pressed them in or something, in the time that they’d been inside, without going out? …How long had they been here, been staying inside? It seemed short, but also like he’d already lost track of the time.

He turned to Cris, straightening up again, opening his mouth to say something… and then closed it again when he realized he didn’t have anything to say. Cris was staring at the branch, staring at the detritus scattered all over everything, looking about how Jon felt. His eyes reflected back the starlight just as strongly as did the broken shards of glass.

It was actually bright out today, the sunlight thick and syrupy where it poured into the bedroom; the air conditioner could fight it only feebly, even cranked down to a low temperature so that the hot and chill collided in tidal surges. Dust-motes glittered in the beams of sunlight through the windows’ heavy, wavy old glass, drifting on the currents of cooler air. It chilled and numbed Jon’s skin as Cris tugged his shirt off over his arms, laughing, as its slight dampness pulled away from him and fell away in a drift over the side of the bed. Cris had just come in to kiss him after they’d been split up again for a while since lunch, except then after kissing once it had seemed senseless not to do it again, and then somehow eventually this had happened, this overheat of Cris’s skinny body sprawling over top of his thicker one and tumbling into the gaps between his splayed legs and searing Jon’s throat with his mouth, balanced by the engine-roar of the air conditioner and its interrupting freeze.

Jon yanked at Cris’s shirt and Cris grabbed his hands instead, grinning into his mouth, pinning them both up under the pillow over Jon’s head. “Just wait, you’re such a bitch, just wait,” Cris muttered in his ear, and it was a testament to how right this had remained that Jon laughed hard instead of scowling, gnawed mock-growling at the side of Cris’s jaw and made him crack up and shove away. The bed was languidly unmade, the sheets lolling out in loose crinkles to one side or the other and the fitted bottom one tugged off one corner of the mattress like a woman’s dress falling off the shoulder. Cris’s hands set Jon’s in place and then let them go, both of them still kissing, and then a moment later soft cord looped around each one under the sly shield of the pillow. Jon laughed again into the kiss, surprised — that was new, not really like either of them under most circumstances, but Cris just grinned goofily back and kissed down to his collarbones, his hands free again and already tracking down Jon’s chest and softening stomach to his hips.

He worried sometimes about getting older, being less attractive, but Cris honestly never seemed to mind; this, of all things, remained just fine, regular and rhythmic and easy compared against all the rest. Cris’s mouth made a hot wet trail (but so soon cold in the burr of the air conditioner) down the outside of Jon’s stomach and the inside of his hip, pushing his shorts and underwear out of the way ahead of it so they were alll the way gone down Jon’s legs by the time Cris’s mouth reached the edge of his pubic hair. Jon pulled against the bonds around his wrists, already forgetting them in his want to grab at Cris’s hand or hair, and then made a low graveled sound in the back of his throat when they wouldn’t come. They had never really even talked about that sort of thing, and honestly in Jon’s youthful experiments with it during bad pre-Cris lays, he had never really liked being tied up: it had always felt annoying rather than sexy, made him feel impatient and stupid, self-consciously embarrassed, an inexperienced actor who couldn’t quite suspend his disbelief enough to throw himself convincingly into a melodramatic play. Now, though, it didn’t seem so bad. He found himself beaded with more sweat than ever when his hands wouldn’t give, stuck and hungry with Cris’s lips teasing around the base of his cock and then uncomfortably ticklish inside his thighs, reduced to just spreading out his legs to try to ask, to draw him closer in.

Finally Cris seemed to get down to it: crawling in closer and craning his head down so first his hot damp breath surrounded Jon’s cock — making him clench his teeth and lock solid, unsteady and mutely desperate — and then, at last, his lips eased upward and slipped over its head. Jon flinched and drew breath in long and shaky, and Cris held him at his base in leisurely fingertips, wetting a circle around his already-wet tip. Sensation seemed to flicker and flare around behind his tongue-tip, like a trail of afterimage color in the wake of a moving light. Jon pressed his face into the plane of his bicep, on one tethered arm, and Cris sank Jon’s dick deeper into his mouth, surrounding it, submerging it. His mouth was as hot and slow as the sunlight, the brand of the cold airflow on Jon’s wet skin every time his head pulled back like a kiss of ice.

Pinned in place, splayed out naked on the bed in the afternoon sun, Jon didn’t have that much longer in him: just flushed hot and cold through a few more minutes’ work, and then the cold gradually receded and the hot started to be all that was left, pounding deeper and harder through him with every cycle of his racing heart. Sweat tickled down the sides of his neck, flowed free and slick between his forehead and his arm, collected on the curves of the line of muscle down into his hip and thigh and made Cris’s hand skid on it. The hand felt like a branding iron, Cris’s mouth like a sun. The heat swam over him, enveloped him, made him dizzy and slightly sick. Vanished him inside it — and his thick, overheated head seemed to split open with it when he came, jutting like a piston and groaning and whining through his clenched teeth with brows knitted, all his mind bursting open so that all there was of him was gone. He fell back on the mattress panting, new-born in his wet blankness, and took several slow, long, recovering minutes to start again to feel the cold.

Cris clambered back up over him, beaming and panting, looking so ridiculously pleased with himself that Jon laughed in a wheezy, stomach-punched creak. He tried to touch Cris’s face, to clasp his head, but he’d forgotten about his hands, and they budged no more than they ever had so far. And then Cris was kissing him and it didn’t matter, his mouth hot and wet and cold, his heavy breath warm and slightly sex-smelling on Jon’s face around the edges of the kiss. And then he was making a small thoughtful noise and moving off, and to the side, and rooting into the bedside drawers that they’d only just barely unpacked into.

“It’s all in the second drawer down, with the chapstick and stuff,” Jon murmured, thickly drowsy as the sunlight, butting his wet forehead against his arm and the sheets to try to dry it. Cris shoved the drawer he was in shut and went down by one, finally coming up with a condom and lube. He was smiling when he came back up, pausing only to push off his shirt and wriggle out of his shorts and underwear, a process Jon watched with lazy pleasure from one corner of the diamond-shape of his suspended arms. You never got tired of some things. Cris’s ribs stuck out like an afterthought below the wiry muscles of his upper chest, his shoulders full of hollow places, his Adam’s apple a sudden sharp outcropping in the stubble-feathered landscape of his throat. It was none of it perfect and all that much better for being his to look at.

“I guess there’s no point in asking if you feel like it,” Cris said, smirking, and came back to him with his long hands fitting comfortably over Jon’s hips. It almost made him squirm away anyway, ticklish in the aftermath, but instead he just grinned and moved his legs, walling Cris in between them. He wasn’t really ready again on his end, but his breath was coming up a little shorter all the same at the thought of it like this, the novelty of Cris in him when he couldn’t do anything but lie where he was. The thought at least managed to beat back the perennial, uneasy ideas that tried to creep out of the shadows at the back of his mind; he’d never fucked Cris, it had never come up, but he worried sometimes about that — about Cris and girls back in college, which was a phase of things he himself had never really gone through. Cris would still follow a particularly good-looking woman through a restaurant or coffee shop or store with his eyes, and while Jon wasn’t all that jealous and could understand that the weight of years had its own inertia, there was that tense llittle flutter sometimes of whether inertia was all it was. Cris might be here now but there were his parents to consider, his family to consider, their expected legion of children in every generation. Sometimes expectation tempted people away from what they wanted and into what they could stand.

On the other hand, he liked being fucked so much that it had managed to keep him from bringing it up. Or at least, he assumed that was the reason. It wasn’t like he’d ever been any good at keeping his mouth shut to spare a fight.

Cris entered him with a little difficulty, in spite of long practice: the heat and sweat, the clammy humidity of things pitted against the dry blast of cold air. Jon’s thighs and ass were sticky with sweat and dragging at Cris’s hips and hands, making it hard to position and to slide. Cris ended up having to use an absurd amount of lube, sweating and cursing absently under his breath, until his sheathed cock was actually dripping and making a transparently darkened spot on the sheets under Jon’s body, that occasionally he bumped into and winced with its cold. Then, though, Cris had his thighs up and his cock in between them, his eyes half-shut and lips half-open, head ducking down so hair swung into his eyes as he pushed in. “Fuck,” whispered like a pet name, and Jon shivered and winced, wanting to clutch at him and unable. “Is that okay?”

It was still a little sticky and uncomfortable, but there was nothing Cris could do about that, so Jon nodded with his eyes squeezed shut. “Fine,” he said, a whisper so faint it was barely any more than just moving his mouth. He’d never liked saying anything during sex; the distance between his brain and mouth seemed long and dangerous at the time, a long way for thoughts to turn stupid and embarrassing on their way to words. Cris let out a breath, though, like he’d heard. Cris had never had such problems.

“Fuck, ‘s hot…” The air in here, or the inside of Jon’s body, or what they were doing, Jon didn’t know and didn’t ask. Cris breathed a moan and started to move. “God. You’re so pretty. Want to do you ’til you come again.” Jon, feeling his face flush, squeezing his eyes shut more than ever, but feeling his cock flush fuller and achey against his stomach as Cris rocked him on his back. Cris had never had such problems. “Fuck. Yeah. There we go, that’s it — ”

Cris moved, slowly. Jon moved with him as much as he could: arching his back, pushing his hips up as much as he could against the leverage of his shoulders on the bed. His arms were starting to ache from so long in this position, although for a mercy his wrists had at least been tied loosely enough that his fingers weren’t going numb. Cris held him at the knees, keeping them bent back so that he was folded nearly double, practically turned turtle on his back. Cris was into him deep, working into him in a steady, regular, unhurried way that made him think of water. Gradually the friction faded, the slickness spread, everything got easier; he was grinding upward, not caring, his teeth clenched tight in his head, and Cris’s voice just breath and obscenities above him, hot and constant. At one point Cris actually craned in and bit the inside of Jon’s thigh, near the knee, which struck him as so ridiculous he probably would’ve laughed and ruined everything if he hadn’t been so out of breath.

And then finally came, hitching breath and then letting out a high grunting cry that sounded almost surprised. Jon shut his eyes and stopped working quite so hard, letting himself just be held in Cris’s hands as Cris jutted his last few times and then was still, unmoving and unbreathing. The moment held where it was for a second, silent and nearly calm, and then Cris collapsed, into harsh breath and bony angles and shaky, slim limbs soaked with sweat. He let Jon’s legs down, Jon’s knees creaking and thigh muscles groaning with relief, and then slid uncomfortably back out and rolled off him, lying to the side with his arms slung in disarray around and over Jon. And then, finally, reaching down to grasp his cock and finish him off, without even bothering to deal with the condom first.

He came after a few minutes of Cris’s sweat-slick, shaky hand: hard enough to make him loud, but a tiny bit unsatisfying, all the same. The sense that he was building up to something huge, and then something in the heat or tiredness or discomfort of sweat on skin took a little of the wind out of its sails, and all it felt like was too much, better done than when it was going on. That was all right; the end got less important as he got older, he’d found. He relaxed back onto the mattress with his arms aching and the rest of him barely noticing, eyes closed and cheek buried against Cris’s hair. It smelled like sweat and also herbal, spicy.

After a moment or two Cris let out a long breath and sat up, then wobbled up to his feet and to the bathroom to deal with the condom. When he came back he started to say something, looking at Jon and smiling — and then suddenly frowned a little, still smilingly, and cut himself off. Really looking at Jon.

“Wait — what’s with your arms?” he said, puzzled and half-joking. “Have you just been doing that this whole time?”

For a second or two this made so little sense that Jon could only blink at him, unable to answer. Then he tried to laugh — just as baffled, trying just as much to joke. “…What, are you kidding?” he said, but Cris still looked so honestly baffled and slightly weirded out that the question answered itself. He tugged at his wrists again, as if to demonstrate. “Okay, so you’re going senile. You tied me up, remember?”

Cris’s frown deepened, incredulously, lost its smile. “No I didn’t.”

Jon stared at him. Neither of them spoke for a moment. “Yes you did,” was all he could finally manage, stupidly. He yanked at his wrists harder this time, feeling vague panic start to batter at the base of his throat and not really even knowing why yet. “After you held my wrists down. Cris, what the hell, I am tied up right now.”

“I didn’t,” Cris repeated. Not even angry, for once. Almost calm, completely nonplussed.

For another long moment, neither of them said anything or moved.

Then, sudden explosion. Jon trying to thrash, brainless, not knowing or understanding yet but all thought gone from his mind. Cris sprinting and stumbling around to the side of the bed, a confusion of limbs, maybe saying something, Jon couldn’t make out what. Throwing the pillow aside to reveal — Jon couldn’t see what. Only the way Cris’s eyes widened, hanging over his head — the way his face tautened as though someone had tightened a key in the skin at the back of his head.

Cris turned and scrambled into the bedside table. Whipped back with a pair of scissors.

He did something over Jon’s head, fast and twitchy about it, with a soft metal whispering from the scissors. Seconds later, the loops around Jon’s wrists pulled away. He scrambled up and off the bed, nearly crashing into Cris and knocking him over, and turned back around to see what Cris had seen. What Cris had done.

A broken runner of honeysuckle vine lay in two twisted noose-loops over the end of the head of the bed, disappearing back under the headboard at each end. Both loops had been cut in roughly half at their nearest curve, the shape of the loop fattened and broken by the injury. The cut ends bled a slight stickiness of green sap. One of them had smudged it against the sheets, in a small pale stain. There was more sap on the blades of the scissors, still in Cris’s hands.

They moved the bed out away from the wall, without speaking, both of them trembly but panic-strong. The vines slithered off of their tenuous grip on the mattress and tumbled to the floor, with a sound that was somehow sly, secret. The loops led down to more vine, twining up the back of the headboard and the legs of the bedframe, making it impossible to pull more than a few feet away from the wall. They ran along the base of the wall, leafy and innocuous, and disappeared into a crack in the corner baseboard, like telephone wires.

Half-awake, not long after that; the middle of the night. Some noise, loud and harsh and intrusive. The beginnings of thought tried to grey back out into sleep for a moment, and then solidified. That damn noise. The noise was tearing sleep apart.

Jon blinked his eyes barely-open against the dark, breathed in the dark. Cris, a long lump next to him, made a small disgruntled sound, but only burrowed deeper and away into the bed. Sour, wordless familiarity in the back of Jon’s mouth, feeling the springs shift. Up to him. Typical.

He staggered up; it was the air conditioner, he had somehow sorted out in the meantime. Making that rattling, roaring, hoarse noise. Something wrong. Something stuck in it, blocking the vents, he felt, pawing around the front of it. Didn’t matter. Just needed to get it to shut up.

Tangles of whatever it was over his hands, thick and cool and springy and somehow fleshy. Draping like a loose curtain down the front of the air conditioner, from between the slats of the vents, a little damp from condensation or humidity. He pulled, hand over hand, tugging it free and loose and dropping it between his feet. It came easily. The air conditioner coughing and sputtering all the while, clearing and then blocking up again, then really clearing.

He pulled everything he’d found free, pawed around, cleaned up a few stray bits and then felt around some more. All clear, it felt like. Good. Great.

He brushed off his hands, staggered back to bed. Tumbled in, sprawled out, and fell back asleep within moments. When he woke up again briefly in the early morning, from Cris tossing and turning at the border of waking up, he only vaguely remembered getting up earlier, and thought it had been a dream, as much as he thought about it at all.

Until he finally woke up again for good, and sitting up, saw the pile of tattered moss, lying in the corner of the floor and wall below the air conditioner. It had fallen in a small heap, about the size and distribution of a dropped bath towel. It was bruised and dead now, already browning in the innocent late-morning light coming in at the edges of the bedroom window-shades. As he stared at it, he became that there was even a smell in the air: green, light, jungly. There were tatters and strings of moss still drooling from the vents in the air conditioner, down the corrugations of its front, some of them fluttering slightly with the air coming in, like pennants.

By two days later, a new crop was growing down the wall from the crack under the air conditioner, where it didn’t quite meet the window ledge: bursting right through the duct tape Jon had stretched across as makeshift weather-stripping, leaving it in a stretched-out, dangling loop. The moss tumbled down like a green waterfall, like a spreading stain from a leak. By then, Jon wasn’t even surprised.

They talked about it less as it happened more and more often, until finally, when the siege really began to pick up speed, it seemed to have become taboo to speak of it at all. As long as there was no explanation and no answer, talk seemed pointless, and as long as they didn’t mention it it was possible to pretend otherwise, to pretend nothing was happening. Or at least to pretend to pretend.

The mushrooms in the bathroom came back, seemingly overnight, and with greater force each time. The bathmat looked mottled white in the morning, so thickly spread with the tiny white mushrooms that it looked like the manufacturer had had a strange idea for a pattern and used much thicker fibers for the white parts. And then there were more in the grout between the tub and the floor, between the floor tiles, at the edges of the toilet tank and slyly around the base of the cabinet under the sink. Jon scrubbed them away amidst increasingly desperate, choking clouds of mildew remover, and then later in the afternoon found that, coming in to use the toilet, he looked around and saw scales of fungus now patterned down the lintel of the bathroom door, like out on the pillars of the front porch. The mushroom scales were a dirty off-white and pulsated very faintly, as though around a beating heart. He took those off with a paint scraper, which of course also made deep gouges in the white paint over the wood. Those scratched places grew more mushrooms even faster the next day.

The vines were probably the worst of it indoors: they were everywhere, and insidious, always turning up in the hidden places of the house with no indication of how long they’d been there. Standing up from the living room couch one evening, Cris nearly tripped over another runnel of hairy honeysuckle, and went swearing to his knees only to find half a dozen more roped around under the couch, and more still when he ordered Jon up and pulled the couch out away from the wall. They also disappeared into the baseboards, and no matter how Cris yanked and snarled and ripped off their leaves with his sliding gripping hands, in the end he could only cut them off as close to the wall as possible and hope for the best. Another runner appeared snaking out from under the refrigerator one afternoon, and trailing blackberry was coiling up from the cracks in the boards of the staircase and twining up the banister when they came downstairs another morning.

But even as bad as the vines’ infiltration was, not even they could compete with the dismaying, awful impossibility of what was happening with the trees. Little by little, one morning after another, the treeline was creeping in toward the house. There was no denying it, no dismissing it, and just as little possibility of understanding how it could even be. Jon couldn’t tell if it was that there were new trees somehow appearing in the space of a day, or that the existing ones were somehow moving, but every day, they had eaten a little ways into the cleared, needle-strewn area the house had to itself, closed off a little more of the sky out the windows. The driveway was surrounded for more and more of its length, broke free into the open for less and less distance. There was less and less open at all. Moses had departed and abandoned his people; the Green Sea was closing in again, soon to drown them.

One morning Jon came downstairs, still bleary-eyed and sour in his head with the thudding, dull adrenaline that began to settle in in those first few minutes after he woke up — what’ll it be this time? what am I going to have to look at today, and somehow keep from covering my eyes and screaming because it’s just wrong? — and looked out the front windows on either side of the door on his way to the kitchen… and stopped where he was, in mid-step. A birch tree, slender and vulnerable-looking, was growing right through one side of the front porch. Its body interrupted the boards, making them cut off in a ragged edge all around the circumference of the trunk; the porch railing had crunched out into a bow shape that split into two pieces in its middle, where the pressure had simply proved too much for it. The top stair up to the porch, from the ground, had also been clipped at the edge, losing a chunk from its innermost corner. There was a small spray of splinters and broken chunks of wood on the porch and on the upper step — as though it had all been broken off with tremendous force, whenever (and however) the tree had arrived.

They worked, without discussion, without mention. Jon got further and further behind with his reading for school, could concentrate on the words less and less even when he did find a few minutes to try. Cris spent less and less time in the second bedroom, in front of his computer or otherwise. Instead, they were pulling, clipping, scrubbing, spraying, with a silent mindless diligence that began to look more and more like clamped-down hysteria as time went on. Jon was in their bedroom one afternoon, hacking apart the moss growing down the walls for the umpteenth time, when suddenly the faint shuffling sounds of Cris working in the upstairs hallway crescendoed into bangings, and then stompings, and then terrible torturous screaming explosions of abused metal and wood. Jon lifted his head first, frowning and looking over his shoulder for a moment at the nothing he could see out through the bedroom door: a part of him, he hated to admit, not even wanting to go, not wanting to see or know or have to help when he was so tired, so tired. But finally he got up, and went out into the hallway, even though everything had fallen off into ominous silence by then. He found Cris bent over in a ball on his knees on the floor, a pile of severed bruised vines coiled up haphazardly next to his knees, and a large chunk of the baseboard and the floorboards torn out, revealing a gaping black hole in the floor. Below the points where he’d severed them the vines disappeared down into it, into a single tangle that trailed off far out of sight, into the dark. Cris’s shoulders were hunched up and shaking slightly, and his face pressed into both his hands, their fingers covering his eyes. His breathing was ragged and irregular. Jon went to his knees next to him immediately, without thinking for once, and pulled him into his arms, but Cris fought him off after no more than a second, shoving and shrugging him away and scrambling up to his feet. He apologized in a mutter, then vanished into the second bedroom and clapped the door shut.

Jon just sat on his knees in the hallway, next to the pile of vines and the yawning hole they came from, the air thick with spinning golden dust in the shaft of light from the hallway window, and closed his eyes.

When Cris finally suggested, on one of those awful mornings, that maybe they should drive into town, Jon agreed at once: both of them fake-light and roped with heavy tension underneath, like steel cables spiderwebbed across a gap that was slowly proving too wide.

By then the driveway was almost obliterated, and the road not much better: both coarsely overgrown with trees and brush, roots so thick under the dirt it was like driving on a washboard. Branches scraped, screamingly, along the side of the car as they inched their way through, bumping and crawling. Several times Jon had to stop the car so Cris could get out and break off branches that had come across the road so far and so thickly-leaved that they would have made visibility impossible. At least once Jon simply gritted his teeth and pushed down the accelerator blind, trusting in the car’s momentum to snap off tree-limbs in its way. The sound they made struck him as being like bones breaking, like broken reaching arms. Even once they were on the state road, the overgrowth made a low constant rustling sound off the side of the car as they went along. Jon inched closer to the central yellow line and cranked up the radio.

He started to know this had been a mistake, they never should have come, as soon as they got to the edge of town, turned onto the deserted main street from the state road and slowed to the residential speed limit. There weren’t exactly a lot of traffic lights in town, but several of the ones they did pass were blinking their middle lights yellow, as though it were midnight; still others were out entirely, making Jon lean over the wheel and peer in all directions each time, before creeping through the intersection on his own. Here, too, the trees had invaded: shouldering up to the road on all sides where there had almost certainly been grassy space before, craning their branches out to close a green canopy overhead, limbs breaking through stop signs and thrusting aggressively over sidewalks. In some places the shrubs lining some house’s property had overgrown across the sidewalk and into the road, so Jon had to swing wide to avoid those too. In one patch, the curb seemed to have broken open and spilled grass over its edge and down into the road, breaking it up in lumpy cracks. Like a spill of green paint.

The grocery store parking lot was more overgrown than ever: the cracks of grass were now huge patches and hillocks, taking up more space than the actual asphalt did. It had been split into dull black islands and peninsulas, heaved up and broken apart into crazed scatters by the force of emerging greenery. Huge thickets of weeds forced the openings wider; mountainous ant-hills peeped out from between fragments of former curb. Pale, interrupted zigzags of the white lines that had delineated parking spaces were still visible in some places, entirely demolished in others. A blue handicapped symbol had been isolated almost whole on one piece of asphalt near the entrance, miraculously only clipped at one corner. The handful of cars that were actually there sat mostly in precarious jostles on top of this newly alien landscape; one, however, had been overturned altogether, turned turtle on its back with its tires pointing up at the sky. Weeds were growing, somehow, out of the cracks of its doors, and from the wheel-wells around the tires. Vines laced across its exposed belly like leafy spiderwebs.

Jon parked with creeping, painstaking caution near one edge of the lot (the mushrooms along the fence had run riot, along with more vines climbing it and weeds tangling in its links), both of them in tense white-lipped silence as the tires bounced and thudded over the uneven ground. They should never have come, but they couldn’t turn back now; to turn back would mean somehow, in some way however small, actually acknowledging what they were seeing, and there was no way either of them could handle that. They picked their way across the disturbed grass, over the nearly-destroyed concrete of the entrance. There was a soft thudding sound, a sense of motion at the front of the store, as they got out of the car, and the sound just growing louder and louder as they picked their way across the disturbed grass and the nearly-destroyed concrete in front of the entrance: until finally Jon could see that it was the automatic front door, wheezing its way open by an inch and then shut again, over and over, with sad determination. And the thick carpeting of brown broad-capped mushrooms along the side of its inner track that was keeping it from closing, still stubbornly alive even as the door ground endlessly into them, trying to get flush with its frame. It was like watching someone punching a pillow again and again — someone who was more tired than angry, just about to the point of giving up.

The red-haired white girl Jon had seen here before was at one of the cash registers, staring openly at them as they came in; all the other registers were abandoned. The store smelled of wet and faint mold and a touch of decaying food and spilled chemicals. In one aisle, a display of cereal boxes spilled into a forgotten tumble on the floor; in another, an open refrigeration case gone slightly skewed with a bursting welter of vines that had come from behind it, crawling out along the wall and tangling with its plug so that it had lost power. A heady, sickly smell came from the wet boxes of pre-cooked meat sitting warm inside it. A skim of black mold had grown along one of its dripping sides, almost hidden from view against the next case over. Jon hurried away from it fast — he and Cris had separated again almost at once, without talking about it or even really noticing — and wound up in the end aisle, where a colony of birds’ nests loomed suddenly over top of another bank of refrigerator cases. Black-headed grosbeaks peered down from them at him like a jury, their dark heads peeping up above their yellow and mottled-brown bodies. Jon stopped where he was for a second, staring at them, and then slowly backed away, putting his back up against the shelves opposite them and sidling along without taking his eyes off them. A sea of black, unblinking eyes followed his progress the whole way up the aisle, and every now and then one of them would rustle its wings — making him start, his hands clench into useless white-knuckle fists to either side. But in the end, none of them moved, and he made it past. Another clerk, this one a young man, was huddled on the floor in the corner at the end of the aisle, his face against the wall. He didn’t move or look up when Jon passed.

He made his numb, stumbling way back up to the registers after what seemed like hours, his hands full with an odd assortment of unspoiled groceries he didn’t remember picking up. Seeing Cris coming that way too at the same time, looking rigid and blank-eyed and knot-jawed and also clutching a haphazard jumble of toilet paper and coffee and granola to his chest, sent a wash of crazy hysterical relief through him that even still seemed to amplify his adrenaline rather than decreasing it. The newspapers and magazines in the racks by the checkout lines were weeks or maybe even months old, he thought at a distracted glance, and all of them regardless of publisher seemed to have the same picture on the front page: a car crashed beyond repair at the side of the highway, thickly overgrown with trees and weeds and grass.

“Sorry about the mess,” the girl at the register said, fixing John with a frozen, ghostly smile. Her skin was so pale her freckles seemed to float on it, like fragments of leaf on the surface of a lake, and she seemed to be wearing a lot of mascara for working at a grocery store. She looked like if she opened her mouth too far, she’d throw up. “Did you find everything you needed okay?”

“Yes,” Jon said; barely aware of doing it, barely conscious enough to be dismayed by the wheezy, punched-away sound of his own voice. Cris’s body near his, offering protection or seeking it, tense and thrumming as some piece of machinery wound to the point of breaking. “Yes. Fine. No problem.”

She stared at him; something almost pleading in her eyes. Then she was checking their weird tumble of groceries, awkwardly one-handed, only looking away from him each time just long enough to find the UPC code and put it in the right place. Her nostrils flared, her teeth slightly showing, like a mad horse. Jon had never seen anyone so terrified, including his own face in the mirror.

When she turned, halfway, in a sideways strain to grab plastic bags from the end of the counter and start to put the food in them, Jon could finally see why she was only using one hand: the other was down below the level of the counter, and entirely devoured inside a massive tangle of vines and weeds that had swarmed up the cash-register counter, from somewhere down in the floor he couldn’t see. Her hand was completely invisible inside that mess, clearly totally and irrevocably tangled, just her wrist emerging from it like a tree-trunk from ground. A tendril of vine had already grown up her wrist, too; they would keep spreading, if she didn’t break away somehow, climbing her arm, wrapping up to her shoulder and maybe even her neck and head. When she finally turned back to Jon, and he was able to tear his eyes away from her hand again, her eyes met his with a new effort at that grim, skeletal smile that showed too many of her teeth. The smile of a hostage with a gun in her back. And he could see, all at once, that what he had taken for eyelashes thick and clumped with mascara were not; that instead, a delicate cluster of tiny, thin, brown-capped mushrooms were growing out of the pores in her skin, along her lower eyelids. Each one was no bigger than the lead of a pencil, but all the same he could see the filigreed traceries of ridges in the surface of their caps — like cracks in volcanic earth.

Please, she mouthed, slowly and soundlessly and unmistakably. Holding his eyes the whole time, holding them and holding on to that desperate, awful smile.

Jon couldn’t look away. Couldn’t do anything. If he let on that he saw, somehow he just knew, if he showed that he understood… No. Impossible. They just had to get out of here. She was already lost. They all were.

He took the grocery bags in numb fingers, without looking, and backed away from her slowly, never daring turn around. “Thank you,” he found his mouth trying to say, inanely, his voice coming out as barely more than breath. Cris somewhere behind him, around him, going with him, he couldn’t look where. “Have… have a good one.” Sweat rolling free down his forehead and the back of his neck. Blood heavy and loud in his ears.

The girl said nothing: staring, mutely pleading. Just before they made it out the doors, he thought she raised her free hand, stretching it out toward them — but by then he was finally turning away, risking it just to move faster, and Cris’s arm was gripping around his bicep out of nowhere to drag him along, to pull him out of there and across the parking lot at full pounding speed.

They drove home in silence. And they didn’t go into town again.

The Green Sea, closing overhead. More and more battles lost, until finally the war followed. Giving up and giving in.

The trunks of trees grew at angled intervals through the downstairs living room. Patches of broken darkness surrounded their bases where they had burst through the hardwood of the floor; the ceiling broke open to let them emerge, in tunnels that had smeared the bark inside them with plaster dust and insulation. Most of them grew high enough that they emerged through the upstairs hallway and bedrooms and out the roof as well, but one sapling topped out with its leaves brushing the downstairs ceiling, and one shorter full-grown tree had burst its entire leafy top into the unused upstairs bedroom, entirely filling it with green and branches. The floors were carpeted with vines, the walls tapestried with them. Patchwork armies of mushrooms had fully invaded the kitchen and the bathrooms, barely dispersed enough to leave small islands of floor that could be tiptoed across. The shower-head bristled with them, dripping out of its choked mouth. Ferns erupted from the radiators in the hallways; shrubby undergrowth prodded under the front and back doors and through the growing cracks in the walls of the living room and entryway. The entire front of both the refrigerator and the bedroom air conditioner had been covered with cloaks of moss. The house was dark in early afternoon, all of its bright dust-lit patches eclipsed by the mid-day dimness of heavy forest. The quiet was incredible, oppressive.

They hadn’t even gone outside in weeks; just hunkered down, closed in, stopped talking more than necessary or thinking at all. Jon couldn’t even remember what month it was anymore, or how long they had been here, or how bad any one thing had gotten when. They sat together on the leafy, mushroom-dappled sofa late in the evening, at one end to avoid the tree-trunk that had ripped through the stuffing and upholstery of the opposite side, and watched television without speaking or looking at each other; and every night there were fewer channels, more stations that were just color-block test patterns over a high-pitched drone. Rerun sitcoms seemed to be holding out the longest, while anything current had been the first to go. The last time they had seen a news broadcast had been ages ago. The meteorologist describing the Seattle weather had done so with a huge, frozen, hurting grin, and a green stippled growth up the side of his neck and face from the collar of his suit that had looked suspicioiusly like moss, rooted in his skin. His makeup had dimmed it out somewhat, but been unable to cover it entirely.

Now Jon sat in the chair in the dim master bedroom, in the thick smell of loam and leaves, the books for his comps stacked in a couple low towers in the wispy sprigs of grass at his feet. The moisture of all the plant life had gotten into them, swollen up their pages until they were heavy and soggy. He was staring dull-eyed at the pages of one of them in his lap, barely even able to focus enough to read it. The lack of light in here made it hurt his eyes.

He was just looking numbly at the words so much, reading them so little, it took him a long time to start to notice.

Sperber notes that, “recall is not storage in reverse, and comprehension is not expression in reverse. Memory and communication transform information.”11 Rather than being a perfectly retrievable system of storage and recollection, memory is by inherent nature both fallible and mutable. Not only is culture not reproduced mimetically and without errors from one member to the next, the act of its communication by the oral tradition itself metamorphoses the information. Communication, like a tree growing out of your mouth so quickly that the branches break your teeth, alters the landscape into which it appears. Cultures whose primary mode of historical organization is oral therefore tend to lack the fundamentalist imperative that has become the underlying assumption of written history since its relatively recent inception. Indeed, it can truthfully be said that “history is a modern invention.”12 In the vast majority of human civilizations, the literal transcription of factual past events has been the least of history’s concerns. Furthermore, the impracticality, if not possibility, of a precise and accurate historical record — given the vagaries of memory, the imprecisions of language, and the lacunae of record — does not necessarily argue for a scientific approach to history, if indeed such a thing exists. The water is rising. It has also been noted, not unfairly, that historical literalism remains primarily the intended end of first world, Western scholarly historical study, a fact which has often been overlooked even as alternate historical forms and approaches have been marginalized with the rise of “modern history.”
It becomes necessary at this juncture to acknowledge the fact that everything has its limitations. Only in the context of this truism can both sides of Sperber’s argument be fully understood. All lives, cultures, memories, civilizations, histories, and mushrooms eventually arrive at their own destruction. Astrology kale bereavement in timorous collegial esophagus. Witness, for example, the end of the world, which is occurring right now, all around you. You must have fucking noticed by now. The wilderness is reclaiming the territory that was once its sole property, as is necessarily the outcome of a house, or a civilization, or a relationship built on the fragmentary bedrock that is the human capacity for expression and comprehension. Everything dies, including you. Ding dong bell, pussy’s in the well.13 When juxtaposed with Sperber’s observations, these basic truths make it obvious that lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nam nibh. Nunc varius facilisis eros. Sed erat. In in velit quis arcu ornare laoreet. Curabitur adipiscing luctus massa. Integer ut purus ac augue commodo commodo. Nunc nec mi eu justo tempor consectetuer. Etiam vitae nisl. In dignissim lacus ut ante. Cras elit lectus, bibendum a, adipiscing vitae, commodo et, dui. Ut tincidunt tortor. Donec nonummy, enim in lacinia pulvinar, velit tellus scelerisque augue, ac posuere libero urna eget neque. Cras ipsum. You’re dead. Vestibulum pretium, lectus nec venenatis volutpat, purus lectus ultrices risus, a condimentum risus mi et quam. Pellentesque auctor fringilla neque. Duis eu massa ut lorem iaculis vestibulum. Maecenas facilisis elit sed justo. Quisque volutpat malesuada velit.14, 15

His mouth had gone numb. His fingers dry. Eyes blurring and fixed, seeming unable to move except for his hands, Jon held his place with one finger and flipped to the back of the chapter, where the endnotes were listed.

11 Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 31.
12 So what are you forgetting?
13 Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Green.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who ne’er did him any harm,
But killed all the mice in the farmer’s barn.

The page ended there. He flipped to the next one, his fingers trembling slightly.

14 Do you hear that?
15 The river is coming.

No more endnotes were listed, although the chapter had gone on for some length past that point. When he flipped the next page as well, to where the next chapter should have started, the page was blank. All the rest of the pages were.

He could hear something. Something low and deep and resonant, at the very bottom of his range of hearing, not yet quite making its way into his awareness even through the unnatural quiet of everything in the house. Just barely, but it was getting louder all the time. Jon lifted his head, slowly, the book left forgotten on his lap, his eyes wide and burning and strained.

The sound of rushing water.

The river is coming.

Before he even knew he was going to move, he’d already thrown the book down in the chair and scrambled to his feet. He nearly fell forward over the stack of books, but caught himself on his hands on the bed, rebounded back off. Went stumbling at a clumsy run, gaining speed, out into the upstairs hallway. His shoulder smacked off the edge of the doorway and then he was out, dodging between the trunks of trees, skidding on fragments of broken plaster from the ceiling. The sound was building so fast — already it had gone past rushing, past roaring, become a huge growling crashing thing that filled the world.

Cris had already run to the doorway of the other bedroom, and was clinging there wild-eyed, screaming something Jon couldn’t hear over the noise. Instead of trying to answer he just clawed out and grabbed Cris’s wrist as he sprinted by, yanking him to the stairs and clattering down behind him, nearly sending them both head over heels. They skidded at the bottom, pounded around and across the downstairs past the living room, clinging to each other’s hands. The sound world-shattering, ringing in their ears, a sharp briny smell everywhere, some enormous sucking force racing along just at their backs where he didn’t dare look —

He slammed the door behind them when they were both out, and when they were both still hurtling down the broken steps from the obliterated front porch, the river came.

Water exploded inside the house. The windows burst out in coughing showers of glass, solid walls of water shooting through all of them at once as though from the world’s biggest firehoses. The door held, but just barely; it was slammed outward with a report like a gunshot, its hinges screaming under the pressure. Water detonated around its edges like shrapnel, frothing it, the concussion that struck it making it seem for that instant to beat like a heart. Still running, they were both drenched from what seemed like all sides; mercifully, miraculously, they were right between the actual sprays, which would have hit them like a wall, but the sheer force of the water made its edges catch them, fanning across them and soaking their clothes and hair to their skin. They kept running, blind, barely missing trees and snagging in undergrowth, until they stopped feeling it — until the fans of stinging river-smelling water stopped raking over them, like huge cold angry hands.

Cris fell first, and since Jon was still hanging onto him, he went right after. They tumbled sprawling into the pine needles and dust, breath whooshing out of Jon when his side struck a tree-trunk, some grunting noise coming out through Cris’s teeth. Everything on the ground, needles and dirt and bits of leaves, seemed to stick to their wet skin. There was a second when the shock and disorientation of it kept them where they were, wheezing and sobbing for breath, and then Jon dragged himself up to a sitting position, clambering up along the tree and leaning on it, panting. His eyes felt huge, like they’d fall right out of his head. His hair seemed like it must be standing on end, except it was so wet it was plastered to his skull. He stared back at the house, where they had just been, through the unnatural thickness of the trees.

Water poured from the broken windows, in gushing streams that slicked down the outer wall and made it glisten in the little dapples of daylight, darkened the wood of the porch, showered between its slats to the dirt and made puddles there faster than it could soak in. It just kept coming and coming; there was no end to it, and no source for it, just an endless infinity of water. It poured from the upstairs windows, too, tumbling in long cascades down the sides of the house, like streams of tears from dark eyes. A muddy lake was forming all around the foundation, already, a sinkpit that it would have no choice in the end but to sink into.

Eventually, Jon was able to drag his eyes away, and turned his head very slowly so they fixed wide and staring on Cris instead. He found Cris staring back at him, drenched and dripping, looking about the same. They sat there, staring at each other, heaving for breath. They had never quite let go of each other’s arms.

The yard was entirely obliterated, the driveway vanished as though it had never been, they found when they finally had the presence of mind to look around; all there were were trees and undergrowth, ferns and shrubs and an endless nothing of towering slender trunks. It looked like virgin woods, a place where nobody had ever been. The car was gone, too, it took longer to notice; where it had sat at the end of the driveway had been eclipsed by elderberry and ferns. There were no signs that it had ever even been there in the first place.

They stayed where they were for a long time: catching their breath, staring at the house, wet and still and shell-shocked.

Slowly, finally, they picked themselves up, cleaned themselves off as best they could with dazed numb hands. The roar of the water in the background was still so loud that they couldn’t really talk, but there didn’t seem to be any need to. Side-by-side, they just turned and started walking toward town, along where the driveway had once been, and then where the road had once been. The breeze caught in Jon’s wet clothes, pleasantly cooling them. It was hot outside.

There was no more dirt road, and then there was no more state road, where they would have turned on to it. Just broken, uneven raised patches of asphalt, caught under and between the roots of trees in a scattered ribbon. Here and there a bit of the yellow line down the middle was orphaned, half-hidden under some greenery or in a bit of shade. Most of it just looked like rock: overgrown with moss, cracked and crinkling, no longer even recognizable as the manmade substance it had once been. They picked their way through the weeds and trees along its edge without speaking, without looking at each other. Cicadas raised a screeching chorus all around them as they walked; but otherwise, everything was silent. No motors. No voices. No planes droning overhead. Nothing anymore, nothing at all.

It didn’t seem to take them as long as it should have to reach town, although Jon had no real sense of how much time had gone by, or even of time passing at all. Everything just seemed endless and isolated and meaningless; one foot after another, down the side of the road. It could have been forever, or no time at all. But then, suddenly, they were turning down the main street, which was also more or less entirely gone — just chunks of asphalt adrift in even more green sea — picking careful footing over its slabs and catching their clothes in the reaching brances of shrubs. And Jon looked up for no reason and saw the crumbling remains of what had been the first house along the side of the road, and now was just a ruin of shattered boards and siding collapsed around a thick clutch of towering, reaching trees. The broken frame of what had once been a window still hung from one of the lower branches; tiles of the roof were caught between the leaves. The picket fence around the yard was collapsed and burst outward, covered by runners of vine and shrub. There was a thick, hilly green mound lying in the front yard, suspiciously human-shaped; moss and mushrooms had thickly overgrown all of its splayed limbs, and a blown-out, sickly-sweet rotting stench that the breeze carried over from it now and again was the only remaining sign of the corpse it might have been. Jon crossed the fragments of road to the opposite side away from the yard, his lip curling helplessly up against his teeth, and Cris followed him close behind, by now just a sound of footsteps at his heels.

Everything was trees, just endless trees. They came across traffic lights now and then, dangling from broken crossbars in between the branches, and they were dark and silent, roped with vines. One had fallen down entirely, its orange lens shattered into glittering fragments on a chunk of destroyed sidewalk. There were snags of broken powerline caught in the branches, but they were already dead; no electricity snapped at their frayed ends. More houses had been broken into fragments, replaced by tree-trunks and greenery. There were no separation lines anymore, all of the curbs and sidewalks and roads that had delineated things broken up and scattered. It was just forest, occasionally interrupted by bits of junk.

Eventually they made their way to a broken-open square vault of building that sagged into two vague jagged halves, its roof blasted off and open to the sky and bristling with climbing leaves: what was left of the grocery store, where they had made the mistake of coming however long it had been ago. The broken bits of what had been the parking lot were no longer even visible under the undergrowth, the link fence around it just a looming green wall of climbing vines. When they passed its front side, Jon craned his head around and looked in, past where the electronic doors had been wrenched off their tracks, thrown outward, and shattered into glittering glass fragments in the shrubbery by a festering, endless platoon of mushrooms inside their frame. Inside what had been the store, the shelves of spoiling food stood overgrown with more creeping vines, in between weedy, grassy reaches of open ground. A few shelves had toppled over, leaving long trails of crashed broken jars and dented cans spilling into the former aisles. Trees had grown through the floor throughout. Each of the four smallest ones had grown right through the body of one of the grocery clerks, through the center of each one’s torso, lifting them off the ground to dangle limp in the air. The young man who had been crouching in the aisle of grosbeaks lolled in an impossible mid-air backbend, his apron and stomach split in a wide circle by the body of the young tree growing through him. Tatters of red meat were visible around the edges of the trunk; below him, blood had stained the trunk all the way down to the roots, in long soaking runnels that looked long since dried. His dangling fingertips and the toes of his sneakers, hanging lower than any of the rest of him to either side, cleared the ground by a space of inches. His hair hung in a curtain from the top of his head. Jon recognized the red-haired white girl hanging from another one, the one who had mouthed Please at him from the checkout line with a huge frozen smile and mushrooms in her eyelashes. It was only her hair that he could identify her by; her face was entirely obscured by thickets of fungus, vines and leaves grown all up her arms and dangling from them like heavy green sleeves. She was hanging, bent double, from the branches of a slightly larger tree, her feet in midair a few yards above the grass. Blood from the branch that had pierced her stomach had soaked her apron and jeans, left crusted red streamlets down her dangling arms, turned parts of her white socks a pinkish maroon.

They kept walking, not stopping. All the way through town to the other side; to where the main street led back to I-5.

The highway had held together a little bit more than the smaller roads, although not by much; it looked like the road and driveway out to the house had not long after they had arrived, all waved up and humped with the reaching roots of trees crawled underneath it, not quite able yet to break it. The asphalt had begun to break in some of the more severe folds, and here and there trees and grass were already starting to grow in between, forcing their way. The road stretched out empty to either side, and Jon couldn’t hear a single engine, not even at a distance. Just the cicadas, shrilling in the trees. Cris stood looking at the four empty lanes for a while, from the exit ramp they’d walked up, and then set off to the right, back to the south, walking along the broken rumble strip at the side in spite of the road’s emptiness. After a moment or two Jon followed him, picking his way over the crests of pavement like breakers at the edge of the ocean. They were in direct sunlight here, finally, and his clothes — which had become unpleasantly clammy and sticky by now — finally dried against his skin.

After they’d been walking for what must have been more than a mile, Cris stopped. Jon came up beside him a moment later, out of breath and tired, with a question finally forming on his lips. And then he saw what Cris was looking at, and he stopped too. Not only did his voice die, but his breath seemed to die. All the air seemed to rattle out of his body all at once, leaving him deflated and shriveled, the abandoned shell of an empty balloon.

Their car sat at the side of the highway, crashed at a wild careen off the edge of the road and into the edge of the treeline beside it. It was on a slight angle, with the way the ground sloped down there; two of its wheels sank down into the drainage ditch, two teetered up, as though the whole thing might go over at any minute. The front end was accordioned in on itself from some impact, horrifically, unsurvivably. And the whole body, of course, was buried in plant growth: coated in weeds, roped with vines, carpeted so heavily with greenery that its shape was barely recognizable if you didn’t already know, somehow, what you were looking at. Dimly, Jon became aware that it had been the car in the pictures on the newspapers in the grocery store, that he just hadn’t recognized it then. There might have been some shapes inside it, some hidden shadows under the daylit glare of the few cracks of windshield and windows that were visible, but under all of the vines it was impossible to see inside. And what would it have mattered even if it hadn’t been?

Jon stood there looking at it, not moving, for what seemed like a long time: like months, like years. Then, finally, he sat down, amid the dusty grass and roots at the side of the highway. He propped his elbows on his knees, and rested his head on his hands, his palms against his cheeks and fingers splaying up over his eyes. By the time Cris sat down next to him, rustling in the grass beside him, his hands were wet.

A long time more seemed to pass before Cris finally spoke.

“I meant to tell my dad about us, when we were home at Christmas.” His voice was quiet, but easy to hear over the rustling leaves and cicadasong that seemed to be all of the sounds in the world. “I really did.”

Jon didn’t move for a while. Then finally, slowly, he let his hands slide down his cheeks and down, into his lap. The grass in front of him, the buried car out beyond it, blurred and swam in his vision. He was surprised to find his voice shook only a little. “Why didn’t you?”

“I just…” It came out oddly offhand, like they’d almost started talking at the same time and it wasn’t that Cris was answering the question. He stopped there, and sighed, and leaned back on his hands, staring up at the sky. Jon could only see him at the periphery of his vision; as little as he wanted to look straight ahead of him, he even less wanted to turn his head away. “I don’t really know. Just chickenshit, I guess. Just scared.” He let out a hard, blowing breath. “I think part of me was thinking it wasn’t even going to matter anymore, pretty soon. Maybe — you know. Even hoping.”

Jon didn’t answer that. The wind sighed across them, in this narrow valley that was finally open to the sky: ruffling up Jon’s hair, making Cris’s shirt collar flap against his neck.

“It’s not that I’d rather be with a girl,” Cris said, finally — again so offhandedly that it came out sounding almost aggressive. “It’s… fuck. More like I wish you were one, I guess I was going to say, but that’s stupid too. It’s that… I don’t want to be a guy whose only person he’s ever really been in love with and he can picture sticking with forever is a guy. …It sounds so fucking stupid when I say it like that, I mean, I’ve always known what I like and everything, we’ve been doing this a while and you’d think I’d be over that, but just…” He sat up a little, pushing his hair back from his face with both hands. “Just, it’s like — then, I wouldn’t even have to tell them anything. I wouldn’t have to explain anything. Ma’d cry and call all my aunts in L.A. and Dad’d at least show up in a suit and keep quiet. It wouldn’t be just them looking at me like — oh, it’s Cristián, we should have expected this. Again.” He hitched to a stop, then seemed to pull himself up short, and take a couple of breaths. Reining things in, or regathering his courage, Jon couldn’t have said which.

“…There was this one time, when I was in high school,” he started again, very haltingly, after a few moments. “I came home from hanging out with some of my friends after school, and my dad was the only one home. Ma and my sisters were out shopping or something, and Dad came home from work early, and I was kind of stoned still and not expecting it and then boom, I come in the door and there he is sitting at the kitchen table.” He laughed a little, shakily, not convincingly. “But it was okay, you know? It seemed like it was okay. I got a soda out of the fridge and he had a beer, and I hung around a minute or two talking to him, and we weren’t doing too bad. I was in the play at school — that was Our Town year, I’m pretty sure — and I ended up telling him how that was going, and he seemed fine about it. He just said he never got that interested in that kind of stuff, and I said, well, I liked it ’cause I got to pretend to be somebody else for a while.” He paused, and his mouth curled up at one edge; and then the curl fell away. “And he looked at me and kinda laughed, and said, ‘Well, that makes sense, I pretend you’re somebody else all the time.'”

Cris fell silent for another moment. Jon stared at his hands, laced in his lap, and waited.

Finally Cris made a sound like a laugh himself, scraping at his hair again. “I know it’s dumb. I know he didn’t really mean it like that — like he probably even thought he was making a joke or something, hell. But…” He seemed to run out again there, and just sat staring down too for a moment. “I’ve never told anyone that before,” he said, finally, and then took a breath like he was about to say something else; and then stopped, and went quiet again. And then seemed to change his mind. “I guess — that’s kind of why I lose my shit so much, and get so pissed off and everything, when you start, you know, being critical, and nagging me, and everything. Even if it’s not that big a deal. It’s like…” He took another breath, let it out long. “I think you were the first person I ever knew who really just liked me. And when you do that, it’s like… you’re trying to fix me. Like you finally noticed all the shit that’s wrong with me, and you’re trying to… I don’t know. Stick patches on all the leaks. Like you finally changed your mind about me. …Like everybody does.”

Jon just sat, for a few long moments more, after Cris had fallen silent. Finally, he sat back, letting out a long breath of his own, and shook his head. Still without looking over at Cris, but now, at least, able to look up: away from the tumbled car, and out at the dense, endless line of the trees.

“That’s not what it is,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure you know that, honestly. But… it’s really not. It’s…” He sighed, and pulled up his knees to his chest, locking his arms around them. “That’s my parents, I guess. Everything had to be fixed, even if it was perfect. Me, the house, the car, their jobs, the neighbors, my grandparents, everything had something that could get picked at. I couldn’t wait to get away from it, and then I just brought it with me.” He snorted a watery little laugh, and scrubbed at his eyes again. His voice kept trying to waver. “But it’s… how I get control of things, I think, kind of. When I’m scared and nervous about things. With my mom getting sick, and my job being so shitty, and then not working all the time anymore, and going back to school, just… I got really scared. And I’ve still been scared. So I worry about all the little things I can do something about instead of the giant things that I can’t. And I try to make you worry about them too so it’s not just me.” He twisted his fingers together, dropped them apart, took a breath. “When things get bad, I just start panicking, and it’s like I can’t keep my mouth shut. Even about the stupidest shit.” He paused, and then snorted, under his breath. “…Or else I’ll be the only one who feels like I’m doing something wrong. And we can’t have that, I guess.”

Cris didn’t respond to that either, at first. Then he turned his head a little to the side, smiling, which surprised Jon enough that he actually looked back for a second. “You seem kind of okay now, though. Considering.”

Jon stared at him, then somehow found a stretchy, difficult smile pulling at his mouth; it turned into a sour little laugh, and he turned his head down on it, looking away again. “…Actually, I kind of am.” Cris was still looking at him, eyebrows raised, but he didn’t look up. It took him a moment to put his thoughts together, and finish. “It’s like… I can relax. When everything’s the worst it can get, and there’s nothing I can do, then it’s like I can just — not care anymore.” He was quiet for a second, and then another shaky laugh found its way out of him. “Maybe it was the chance things could get better that was the problem.”

They sat in silence for another moment, letting that sit. Finally, Cris stood up, clambering to one knee and then his feet in the grass. He dusted himself off for a second — and then, when Jon looked up at him, held out his hand.

“C’mon,” he said, almost smiling. “Let’s go.” Jon blinked up at him, his eyes hot and raw in the sunlight.

“Where?”

Cris shrugged. “Anywhere. As long as it isn’t here.” He paused a moment, and then met Jon’s eyes. “…Let’s go back. I mean, we might as well.”

Jon stared up at him, and then at his hand. And then, after a few more seconds, took it, and pulled himself up.

They held hands, off and on, this time as they walked back down the side of the highway; as they rounded back down the exit ramp to the main street, threaded their way back through town. Sometimes they let go, to walk single-file through narrow spaces between trees, or for Cris to walk ahead a little ways to kick some broken glass or metal to one side with his tougher sandals. Sometimes they joined up again, when the way opened up a little. Jon didn’t look around this time, at the inside of the broken grocery store, or at the corpse-shapes under the brush and turf in patches of thick forest that had once been backyards. He looked at Cris’s back, or at his feet.

It seemed to take a lot less long than it should have, to reach the house again. They must have walked some ten miles today, all told, but Jon was barely even tired by the time they came up through the column of trees that had been the driveway again, and the house loomed ahead, its porch lost to trees and ferns and mushrooms and all its windows shattered. The water had stopped pouring out of them, Jon was a little surprised to see, and the ground all around the basement appeared to have all but dried. Now it was just a wash of pine needles sticking to the siding, dark places in the earth in between the greenery on the ground.

They glanced at each other, and then, without speaking, Cris mounted what was left of the steps to the porch, and Jon followed right behind him. Climbed their way much more carefully back up than they had come barreling down, what already seemed like a lifetime ago, like something that had happened in a dream. Or maybe like all of this had happened in a dream, and they were still dreaming now. The door, Jon saw as Cris got closer to it, was hanging slightly askew on its hinges, not quite fitting inside its frame. He found himself holding his breath.

After a few empty, endless seconds, Cris reached out, and touched the knob. Turned it. And opened the door.

And inside was the river.

The old river: the one that the woods opened to some two or three miles to the southwest, the one whose faint glimmer had been visible off in the distance, through the trees, around the house when he’d been a kid. Jon recognized it at once, as soon as Cris opened the door: now it was just here, where the inside of the house should have been, as though just the act of turning the knob and pulling the door wide had erased the distance between here and there. Tree-roots and shrubs and vines crawled all over the bank, like clinging fingers, but the water was still open and uncovered, of course: the sun glittered off it in drops like floating jewels. Except for out in the middle, some quarter-mile down, where the crashed, crumpled hulk of an airplane humped out of it, the flow of the water rushing all around it as though it were just an outsize rock. The plane had vines stretched across it like ropes, like clinging arms that might have just reached up and grabbed it down out of the sky, into a fatal hug. It was slightly nose-down, its tail thrusting up on a shallow angle toward the sky. Southwest’s colors and logo, Jon was faintly amused to see for no reason, peeped here and there through the vines and mud and water.

Cris stepped through the doorway, onto the bank; when he let go of the door, it fell backward behind him, come entirely loose. Being opened seemed to have been the straw that had broken the camel’s back. Jon followed him through, and then turned and looked back, unable to help himself. The door was flat down in mud, the doorway with its torn hinges standing upright, directly on the squelchy, tree-root-filled, needle-strewn bank of the river. There was no sign of the porch, or of the house. They were alone here.

If Cris had noticed, though, he gave no sign of it. He set out without looking back down the bank, at an angle, toward the water and further down the river. Jon followed him, wincing when his sandals stuck or skidded in the mud. As they reached the water’s edge, sunlight fell on them again, but Cris never stopped — just raised one precarious leg and set its foot on the wing of the airplane, where it had come to rest at the end of a long cleft it had carved in the bank, like an abandoned blade.

“Be careful,” Jon said — suddenly, sharply — and then immediately hated himself. Hated himself even more when Cris turned back around to look at him, that crease back in his brow, his face disgusted and tired and thundery: seriously? After everything they had just said, just talked about… But then, after a moment or two, the frown melted out from between Cris’s eyebrows, and went smooth again; and suddenly, there was even a tiny grin pulling at Cris’s mouth. It was wry and hurting and ugly, but it was there. And after a couple seconds more that was enough for there to be a matching one on Jon’s lips, too.

“I will,” was all Cris said, and Jon smiled and looked down. There were dull, hollow metallic thuds as his feet both caught his weight on the wing of the plane, as he walked his slow way in toward its body. Jon thought of the vines’ leaves, of how slippery they might be by comparison, but this time just bit his tongue, and said nothing.

They were both quiet for a while: Cris climbing on the wing of the plane, Jon hovering on the bank, watching and trying not to watch. The sky was bright blue, cloudless overhead, the sun mercilessly warm. The only sounds were the steady slow whisper of the river passing, striking against the airplane, and the endless screechy drone of cicadas.

“You know, I don’t even mind about you going back to school,” Cris’s voice called suddenly, by over where he was hunkered down by one of the plane’s little porthole windows. Jon had to crane to see him. “I never did. The money thing honestly doesn’t bother me. Not really.”

Jon blinked, then frowned. He’d crossed his arms over himself, getting nervous at the sight of Cris climbing like that, but now he let them go slack; it was just too hot. “…It doesn’t?”

“Yeah.” Cris, his back still turned to Jon, reached up and braced his hands on the side of the plane, then set his foot in the bottom of the window’s frame and tried to push up. Before Jon could even protest that one, though, he gave it up; he went maybe four inches, then lost his nerve and dropped back down again. Skidded slightly on the wing, then caught himself in a half-crouch. “I mean, we get by. It doesn’t matter to me where it’s coming from, or if I’m working more than you.”

“Then why do you harp on it all the time?”

Cris shrugged, his back still turned. “I don’t. Or at least, I don’t say it as often as you hear it.” Jon didn’t have a good answer for that. After a moment, Cris turned around, his head down, and sat down on the edge of the plane, dangling first one knee and then the other off that flap that always retracted when they landed. Vines glistened between his calves. “…No, I do a little. I know I do.”

Jon took a deep breath, and then a couple steps forward, ending by setting his own foot on the plane’s wing. He used his hands, too, though, staying low as he clambered up — almost onto hands and knees. He tried to pretend he didn’t see Cris smirking at him as he half-crawled, half-crabwalked out toward where Cris was sitting. Neither of them said anything while he did it: not until he was settling down next to Cris, his chest loosening a little once he wasn’t moving anymore. Their legs dangling down toward the sun-dappled water, side-by-side.

“Because I know it bothers you, I guess,” Cris finally answered him, and this time he was the one looking down at his hands between his knees. “Because I know you feel bad about it. It’s like… I finally get to win something. I get to make you feel like shit.” He stayed in place a moment, and then raised his head, shaking his hair back and staring straight ahead with a bitter, unhappy smile. “So maybe I really couldn’t blame anybody for pretending I was somebody else. You, or my dad, or anybody.”

Cris’s eyes were slightly overbright, Jon could see for a second or two before they closed. The light caught in them like jewels, too. It didn’t matter, though; a second later he’d ducked down his head, his lips still curling deeper into that grimacey smile.

“So — at least it’s not about you, I guess.” On a choking little laugh that might have been covering for a waver of his own. “God. It’s about me because everything’s about me, apparently. I’m almost thirty and I still can’t seem to give a goddamn shit about anyone but me. Making me feel better and making me feel smarter and making me not be so fucked up about a stupid joke my dad made when I was sixteen, or what my first girlfriend said when I wanted us to go to college together. Like seriously, what the fuck. When do people grow up finally?” He made another strangling little sound, wilder, less like a laugh. “Or did everybody else do it already? Is it just me?”

Jon sat silent, not able to move enough to answer. He was still looking at Cris, but after a while that seemed wrong, so he looked out at the water instead. It was so bright out there it stung his eyes.

“Maybe this is it,” he said, into the quiet, over the lapping of water and the insects and birdsong. “That’s what I’m afraid of, anyway. Maybe this is it and the rest is just… faking it.”

Cris made a harsher sound, a sound that wasn’t even trying to be laughter. He had his face down in his hands now, Jon saw from his peripheral vision; scrubbing at it, almost angrily. “Tell me you don’t actually believe that.”

Jon took in a long breath, let it out slow. “I don’t know what I actually believe,” he said. Now his own voice was shaking again, too. Just a little. “…And I’m not sure it even matters now.”

“It matters more now,” Cris said, into his hands, with startling force.

They sat in silence for a while longer, a longer while. Maybe more than minutes, maybe more like hours. There was no way of saying for sure now. The sun’s afternoon slide down the sky seemed to be endless, the woods all around them completely without clues. It could have been a very long time.

“What are we going to do about all this?” Jon asked, finally; sweeping one hand out, all around them, in a gesture that somehow ended up being vaguer than it should have been. The trees, the roots, the bushes, the mushrooms, the vines, and the two of them, sitting together in the middle of a crash. His voice, he was somehow surprised to find, was still trembly as he said it, and finally broke near the end, on the word do. “We’re never going to be able to get rid of it all.”

Cris, who had finished wiping his face by now and dropped his hands, stayed looking at them for a moment longer, and then finally raised his head. When he looked at Jon, Jon looked back; and found his face tireder, sadder, and more lost than he had ever seen it. There were deep dark circles under his eyes that didn’t seem like they’d been there before, hollows in his cheeks, a papery fineness around his eyes and mouth that made him look much older than he was. And even still, at the same time, he was very slightly smiling.

“I think maybe we don’t,” he said. “I think maybe we just… learn to live with it.” He took an unsteady breath, turned his eyes back to Jon’s. “Maybe we’re both going to have to change.”

Jon dropped his head forward, down. “I don’t know how,” he said. His voice was a cracking whisper.

Cris took another breath that he could hear, one he let out as a sigh. “Yeah. Me either.” He went quiet for a moment — and then ducked his head down a little, toward the level of Jon’s, to where he couldn’t avoid it anymore. Jon met his eyes, and found he wasn’t really smiling anymore, just solemn and warm. He looked, for the first time in a long time, a little like that boy had looked some ten years ago, when Jon had seen playing his heart out on the guitar in a music practice room: big-hearted, fearless, a little stupid, a little crazy, a little ready for anything. “But you know, on the other hand… I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be right here with you, the whole time.” And there was the smile — cracking wide and bright out of nothing, like the brilliant blue sky and sun overhead. “So at least neither of us is going to be doing it alone.”

And he held out his hand, palm-up, over Jon’s lap. And after a few seconds, barely able to believe he was almost smiling himself, Jon took it. Their palms clasped together, and fingers interlaced. Jon leaned his weight against Cris’s shoulder, and Cris leaned back, so they were both propping themselves up together. And they sat like that, just like that, in the middle of the river, the sun bright on their heads and shoulders and on the metal holding them up.

It was from their interlaced fingers, from the gaps and crevasses and small spaces where their hands met, that the first vines and dandelions and small delicate mushrooms began to sprout: the vines first creeping in tendrils out across the backs of their palms, and then gradually wrapping around them, binding them together.

Author’s Notes

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