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by Christi Nogle
Jason gets home while I’m at the sink. He comes up behind me, holds me around the waist, and tickles the side of my face with his soft new beard. We watch the young squirrels shake a tree branch, listen to them chatter through the open window. They zoom across the front yard and across the street.
“How was it with Dr. Emory?” asks Jason. He already realizes his slip. “Watson, sorry.”
“Watson-Newcamp, actually. She’s wonderful, just as promised,” I say.
As soon as I say it, I wonder if I mean it. The new doctor, just thirty or thirty-five, struck me as someone I might do yoga or lunch with, but she spoke just as slowly and gently as Dr. Emory. Her round eyes were so dark you almost couldn’t make out the pupils.
“I’m glad he left you in good hands,” says Jason. I think he might stay and talk, but he has chores too. He takes the garbage and recycling bins out the back door, then our son Simon comes rumbling down the stairs. That’s all I see of either of them until dinner.
Simon’s ten now, but he still doesn’t know about my past, so we don’t speak about the new doctor over dinner or while we wind down in the living room. I’m thinking of her, though. When she asked what I’d like to talk about, I assumed that she wanted to hear my story, though doubtless she already knew a lot. When I was six, I was the sole survivor of an attack that left my entire immediate family dead. Watson-Newcamp didn’t let on that she knew anything in particular. She just let me speak.
Something about the whole appointment troubled me. It wasn’t only that she was so young. It was her consultation room, too, everything just on the edge of modern, all cool colors and light. Dr. Emory’s room was like a professor’s office in a movie, with bookcases full of dark-skinned books and the old leather furniture with brass tacks up the sides and all.
There was something I said at the consultation, something that looked small on its surface but bothered me as I drove home and for the rest of the evening. I said that when they found me, just a little six-year-old child limping along a mountain road, my designer jeans all torn and burnished with dirt, they didn’t know who I was right away. I didn’t look like the girl in those pictures of the missing family. My hair had grown and bleached out during the time I was lost in the woods. My skin had burned over and over again, lips cracked in the dry air, nose broken weeks before in a fall. I didn’t look like my pictures.
I said to Watson-Newcamp—and this is what made her expression change, just subtly—I said, “My face burned so badly because they always kept me inside in the daytime.”
But that was an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. My face had burned like that because I’d been a well-cared-for little girl. They’d always put sunscreen on me when I played outside.
When I go to make Simon’s breakfast, the milk on the fridge door is well past its expiration date. I give it a whiff and pour it into my coffee, then get out the new gallon for Simon’s cereal. Jason and Simon go out for a bike ride right after breakfast. I should go too, but I’m still a little off, a little sad about Dr. Emory retiring. He’s been my rock all these years.
I unlock the trunk at the end of the bed to look at the mess of family photos again. Mom and Dad’s wedding, Abbie’s school photos, holidays. It’s sad to think these all belong to me now and no one else. I could never share them with Simon because he’d ask questions. Well, maybe I’ll feel differently when he’s a little older.
I come to the photo I keep on the bottom, the picture of Mom, Dad, Grandpa, my sister Abbie and her boyfriend Ben, and me. We’re at a garish pink-and-green painted picnic table, all of us with double-scoop ice creams, grinning big for the camera under an overcast sky. All of us but Ben wear brand-new outfits from some pricy outdoor store. Mom never printed out this photo; I did, years later. It was just something she had a stranger take for us and then posted online. It was the one printed in newspapers, the one that must have played over and over on the nightly news. It was the last one she took. Cell service must have ended just after that stop.
Ben’s face catches me, out of all of them. Such a magnetic, witty face. Jason, in his better moments, has something of his smile. With a cringe I wonder, not for the first time, if that’s what first attracted to me to my husband.
I feel guilty after looking at the photos and decide to do some cleaning before the boys get home. Nothing much, just a couple of loads of laundry and the breakfast dishes. Simon’s room is orderly for the most part, but I notice that the front of his fish tank is all dark with algae. The one big surviving catfish huddles under his gnarl of driftwood like he always does when the water’s too dank. I should be pissed at Simon, but I’m not that kind of mom. I’m upset with myself for not noticing it sooner.
I have to round up the tube we use to vacuum and the bucket and scraper before I can set to work. When I finally open the lid, the tank smells rich, like earth. I find it satisfying to scrape the algae off the glass, and am already thinking ahead to the satisfaction of vacuuming up the dark water. I want to do a thorough job, so I lift off the back part of the tank and see, lying across the plastic support, a thick line of algae different from the rest. This is where specks of fish food have fallen. It’s dark and, when I touch it, springy; a quarter-inch thickness of green sponge like the skin of a toad. When I smell my fingers, the scent is earthy like the water but fishy as well. I use the scraper to slide the long strip into the water and then, unable to stop myself, I lift it out and bite off a piece. And another.
The taste is green and rich, something like seaweed but a little meaty, too, a little salty. The feel of it in my mouth is like wet velvet.
I rush from the room, thinking to brush my teeth, but I can’t help it. I go back. Three times I go back until the whole long strip of it is gone, and then I suck-start the hose vacuum. I watch the swirl of dark sludge come up from the gravel: algae and leftover food, excrement and whatever else a fish sloughs off. I take in several swallows of the dark stuff before I finally do stop myself and let the hose end fall into the bucket. The flavor lingers in my mouth while I do the rest. The room is warming, light hot on my back. By the time I am done and my boys come in, the guilt is gone and nothing but a cozy feeling remains in my belly.
The boys are bushed, but there’s much left to do. Grocery shopping—and Simon needs a new bike helmet while we’re out.
Always more cooking.
Simon’s friend Sam sleeps over on Saturday and stays until noon on Sunday. It isn’t until evening that I think to tell Jason that Watson-Newcamp would like to see me a little more often than Dr. Emory did. I’ll be going once a week, at least at first.
“Fridays are the only times that really work for her,” I say.
Jason makes a pouty face and pulls me close. “Poor baby, losing your Fridays,” he says.
Dr. Emory said, more than a few times, that I was the most resilient child he had ever known. He made me feel that I was strong.
Watson-Newcamp is different. Where Dr. Emory felt it was a fine thing to be a mother and wife, Watson-Newcamp wants to know about my personal goals for the future, which makes me uncomfortable. The truth is, I’ve barely ever needed to work. There was money from my parents’ small estate and my father’s insurance, money from donations, and a bit of support from the state.
My aunt Kara and Uncle Chuck took me in. I’d never met them, or any of the extended family, but I’d talked to Kara often on the phone. They’d both followed my story online from birth and fretted over me all the time the family was missing. They became good parents for my sake.
I could have gone to college, but Jason and I were already close. I didn’t want to be away from him. We had a small wedding, and Simon came eighteen months later. Jason has always made enough, and we live simply. Dr. Emory seemed to feel that all of this was fine and right.
Watson-Newcamp is different. Three Fridays gone now, I know all her expressions. A certain look she fixes on me sometimes—I feel like she is searching for cracks in a facade. When she asks where I see myself in the future, I hear myself speaking about how far Jason will go at work and about how eventually Simon will go off to college. I hear how it sounds, but I have nothing else to say except what I am saying.
Even her name, Newcamp. It makes me remember Ben saying we ought to see more than just the campground, how we left Mom and Grandpa at the barbell-shaped campsite. I tell, for the millionth time, how Dad, Ben, Abbie and I all hiked up a ridge. I remember the wildflowers to her. I tell her how they first mentioned the word “lost,” about Dad angry and helpless, Abbie refusing to believe that Ben couldn’t get us back to camp.
Abbie told him to relax, just sit and think, and we would be back by dinner, surely, but then night fell. We were in a new camp, after all, far away from all of our things. Ben set about building us a little fire. Frightened, I leaned into Dad, which only let me feel how old and weak he was.
Not long after closing our eyes, we heard the people approaching, laughing.
I need to clean the fridge before Jason gets home. There’s a container of macaroni and cheese at the back that’s frosted with lush emerald mold. I skim off the top layer with my fingers and swallow it cold, then in a rush I drink the pink liquid from the top of the old cottage cheese. Behind the new salad mix is an old sack with three fingers of pulp soaking in green liquid that tastes harsher than it should. I feel warm and content the whole time I’m tipping things into the garbage, but when I’m drying the containers, my bowels begin to rumble.
By the time Jason gets home, I’m stuck upstairs with a bout of hot, acidic diarrhea. Everything in moderation, I think, but late in the night I steal downstairs for something more. I squeeze raw chicken juice into a glass, add eggs and a dash of cayenne. I sit at the table sipping my concoction and thinking about the past.
I was their change-of-life baby. My sister Abbie was already sixteen when we went camping. Her boyfriend was just two or three years older, but he knew the area well and had tempted us with his stories. Ben was like someone in the movies; he charmed us all. My sister was always a little nothing next to him. In the pictures she comes off as prissy and slow-witted—but sweet, pretty like me.
They never found Ben. They found Mom and Grandpa back at the campground with their throats slashed, which was what started the search. Mom was found lying in her sleeping bag and Grandpa on his face a few yards into the brush. They figured he’d been going to pee and she’d been napping when it happened. Searchers found Dad and Abbie a few weeks later, miles from the site, long gone and crouched among the tree roots in the side of a little creek. Both were poisoned. Not from something in the woods. It was a baffling mixture of chemicals; everything from antifreeze to flecks of deadly mushroom. It looked like Dad and Abbie had been holding onto one another while they died.
The camping trip was late in May; the limping girl found on November first. “Call my aunt Kara.” That’s the first thing I said.
There were many, many doctors and officers and lawyers, many cold blank rooms, and then Aunt Kara and Uncle Chuck’s little house on its acre lot (a space that seemed to have been waiting for a child. The swing set sprouted up there and then the trampoline, the birthday balloons, the laughter).
Mom and Dad had been teaching me to read, Kara knew from the posts they’d been making—and from our calls. I didn’t remember any of my learning at first—could barely talk, after all—but I re-learned it all quickly.
In time, all the other doctors and investigators fell away, leaving only Dr. Emory. Our visits stayed regular, but became less frequent as he saw how I thrived. I played soccer, made solid if unexceptional grades, made friends. My hair grew back just as brown and glossy as it had been before. I grew beautiful.
We always worried about what would happen with my skin after that wicked sunburn, but we kept an eye on it. I’m thirty now, and nothing has happened.
Dr. Emory published a few pieces about me, but despite the bookshelves, he was not a scholar. I was the highlight of his career, the most resilient child he’d ever know. His pride and wonder drove me, helped me heal. I was normal. All that had happened to me, and I had bounced back unscarred.
In my dream, I sit on a four-poster bed with a red and pink patterned quilt, leaning over a sick little girl. “Call my aunt Kara,” she says.
In my dream, the house is coming apart, black mold growing up its walls, vines creeping in through shattered windows. They always kept me inside, I tell Watson-Newcamp. She and I are seated in brass-bradded old leather chairs in a running pool of sewage in the center of my living room. Frilly white mushrooms dance on the surface of the pool. I want to harvest them. I am struggling to keep this desire from her. She is the first to reach down.
When she sits up again, she is Grandma. (The one they called Grandma, I correct myself.) The heavy white makeup, long hair dyed black, the red-lined mouth stuffed now with the supple flesh of mushrooms.
“Taste of it. Just taste it,” she groans with her mouth open so that the mushrooms and foaming spittle run down her chin to bib out onto the front of her dress. I rise from my chair and curl on her lap in the cloud of scent from the mushrooms—and more than that, the smells of piss and shit from her clothes and the smells of her decaying teeth and blood from her gums. The scent of her scalp and her sweat, her makeup. I taste it all. I suck it from the front of her dress and wake hungry and longing for home.
In that moment of waking, I must cry out, because Jason pulls me close and says, “You are home. You’re home.” He shushes me like a baby. The room smells of lavender carpet powder and lilacs from outside the window. It smells false, not a home at all.
After Monday yoga, I stay for another, faster class at the gym because I’m meeting friends and want to be able to order whatever coffee I want, but then when the coffee comes, it is a weak syrup I can’t begin to drink. Sal and Mary’s conversation strikes me so flat, I can’t pretend to be interested. I stare out the window past the traffic to the foothills while they talk, making myself more and more angry.
Am I seething because they don’t notice that I’m not pretending to be interested today? Because they never noticed I was always pretending before? I don’t know. I’m weary and can’t stay longer. I rise and go, tipping the full cup into the garbage can on the way out.
“Not feeling well?” calls Sal, but I don’t turn back.
It’s the kind of aberrance that might have brought out stark concern in Dr. Emory. He might have come over to my chair. We’d have spent the session plumbing the depths of my reasoning for it.
I did nothing so dramatic while in his care, but there were little things over the years—of course there were. He’d show his concern and make me really think on why I’d done these things. He’d give me a way to do better. He always made me better.
Watson-Newcamp wants to see me get worse.
I think all week of what I’ll say. How to present this moment in the coffee shop? How to explain myself? By the time the meeting comes, there’s more to tell and no clear way to tell it, so I go back to the past instead. Lost in the woods, making a sad little fire at the new camp, bedding down. The band of loud merry ne’er-do-wells tumbling into camp, drunk or stoned, I can’t say. Seven or eight of them or more. The old woman with the long black hair they called Grandma and the younger adults, one or maybe two children. They surrounded us. At first it was just teasing, but you could see the alarm in Dad and Abbie’s faces.
“Teasing?” says Watson-Newcamp. Framed in the blue of the window like an icon, she strikes me as especially smug today.
I say, waving away her concern, “I think they were making fun of our clothes. A couple of them were sort of grabbing Abbie, saying something about her figure, you know. They were wasted.”
“And Ben?” says Watson-Newcamp.
Oh, don’t you know? Ben was one of them. He brought us out there on purpose.
“Ben tried to be the man. Dad certainly wasn’t going to. He’d been out of his element from the moment we left the ice-cream place. Ben asked what we could do for them. He stayed calm.”
There’s so much I can’t say after this, but I say, “We’ve gotten to the part I never remember well. There are just . . . flickers after that.”
“Just some of the gestures—you know? —of a struggle there in the new camp. And the next thing I remember well was when I was alone in the forest, looking for things to eat. I had escaped them—I expected I’d run into the arms of a policeman somehow, but of course that didn’t happen. We might have been close to a road, but I ran away from it into wilderness. I ate berries at first, but they didn’t hold. I ate bear scat. It didn’t matter. I ate a fish I found by the bank of a creek so rotten it was . . . like a liquid.” My mouth rushes with water. I’ve said all of this before, can say it without thinking.
I keep going with my wilderness adventures. How I ate, how I kept from freezing when the autumn came. The survival tales are everyone’s favorite part.
I remember much more than I can say. It isn’t just flickers. Dad and Abbie begged for their lives at the last. When the people holding the knives to their throats let them go, each of them, they didn’t make a grab for me. They ran, and we all went silent for a time listening to them crash through the forest. I sat, stunned and waiting for death, in the circle with all of the bad people. They built up the fire and passed around jars of the same murky liquor they’d forced Dad and Abbie to drink earlier.
One of the children was just about my size. She wore a long dress and had long, tangled hair hanging all around her shoulders. She had been looking at me from across the fire, but when the liquor began to flow and the laughing came louder, she came to sit close on my right-hand side. “Just take a little,” she whispered. “It won’t hurt you.” She smiled. She seemed nice, and so when the old woman pressed the jar to my lips, I didn’t fight her. I took a sip and let it sit like fire in my mouth. Didn’t yield to the temptation to spit it back at her, didn’t cry. I stared into the old woman’s face as the liquor mixed with my spit, and then I swallowed it as slowly as I could.
Their voices, already so loud, rose with energy. They were cheering me. “A tough one, there,” said one, and someone said it would be a pity to see me wasted.
“Ah, she’s cute, let’s keep her,” said a wild-looking woman with tangled hair like the little girl’s. I noticed Ben at that moment because the woman was sitting on his lap. She turned her beautiful face around to kiss him, and his hands grasped like claws into her back.
I noticed then that over her dress, the old woman wore a flowered windbreaker just like the new one Mom had bought. One of the men wore my Grandpa’s new hiking boots. And I knew just like that they were dead.
The liquor was not just liquor, of course. Grandma always put a little something in there, something from the woods or something from a bottle. She was no purist.
Taste of it. Taste it. Just take a taste. That was what she always told you. It didn’t matter what it was.
The little girl to my left took a sip and passed the jar along. Her hair was so pretty, all clean and trimmed at the ends like a doll’s. “See, your daddy will be all right,” I whispered to her, but she shook her head. He had drunk a lot of it. The big girl maybe not too much, but the daddy, yes, he’d drunk and drunk.
The consultation room comes into focus once more. Am I still speaking of being lost in the woods and all those things I ate? I feel my mouth has kept moving up until just now, but I am not sure what’s come out. Watson-Newcamp looks sleepy. A cloud passes. The light behind her brightens, so I look away.
“And why do you think you’ve been eating these things recently?” she says.
“Excuse me?” I say. I’m stunned, don’t remember telling her of anything recent.
“And the incident at the coffee shop? What do you think that’s about? Though honestly, it worries me less than what you’ve said about Simon.” She’s not sleepy after all. She’s only trying to mask a high state of interest. She’s practically on the edge of her seat now.
What have I said about Simon? I’m not sure.
“I’m not feeling well,” I say. “I feel like I might have a fever.”
“I believe we’re making some progress here,” she says, edging closer.
“I need to be getting home. I’m not feeling at all well,” I say.
Her eyes are dark mirrors. I see myself in them, small and frail. I look away.
“You said a moment ago that you were tired of your husband and child. I think this is something we need to. . .”
“I’m sorry,” I say, taking up my purse.
I am in the hall, on the step. I am in the car. No one’s following me out the door. Of course they’re not. I am a nice lady in a fine little green car, driving home to my beloved son and my husband. The day is over-bright, but the polarized lenses help. I could make this drive in my sleep.
I am in the rattling van with the others. Someone strikes a lighter over and over beside me. The beautiful woman still sits on Ben’s lap, only the circle of people is so close now that her foot touches mine.
My head is in the little girl’s lap. She strokes my hair.
“Pretty, like a doll,” she says.
Her head is in my lap. I stroke her pretty hair. I always wanted to be a little girl like this one. She smells of vanilla and strawberry, at least the top part of her does. Her clothes are clean except for the crotch and leg of her jeans where she pissed herself earlier, but it will dry. Her jeans have white and yellow flowers embroidered on the pockets. I see them when the lighter flashes. I’ve never had anything like them. My own legs are bare and filthy.
“I love her,” I say. I don’t think anyone hears.
Grandma drives. She focuses on the road, but some of the others are murmuring about the little girl. What to do with her, where to leave her.
“She’s sick,” says Grandma with a note of disgust.
She is. A little pink vomit leaks out onto my knee. I taste of it.
“She’s mine. I’ll take care of her.” I say it so fiercely that when we stop at the station wagon, we do not leave her there with her mom and the old man. People get out to see what there is left to take, and I stroke her clean hair. I tell her I’ll take care of her.
All the long ride home, that’s what I do. I stroke her head like Grandma does when I’m sick, which isn’t so often anymore. Tasting things all the time makes you stronger.
When the van rattles to a stop and the door slides open, Ben takes the girl from me. He carries her up the stairs and lays her in my bed. I get in beside her, feeling her heat soak into the covers.
Our house is cold and dark as always. It’s someone else’s house we’re using for now. The people are somewhere downstairs. I don’t go near them because Grandma might tell me to taste of them.
Everyone’s tired after a party, so while the whole house sleeps, I bring the girl water and biscuits. I take care of her.
She tells me her story over the days and weeks. She speaks weakly of her dolls, her little friends, what school is going to be like. We move to a smaller house and then to a kind of barn. We go back to our real home, which is sprawling and damp. The ivy went mad when we were gone and broke the basement windows. The kittens had time to be born and go wild. We stay at our home for a time and then we go back in the van, drive into another forest.
The girl always asks me to call her aunt Kara. She tells me, over the days and weeks, all about how nice things were where she was from. She doesn’t care so much to go back because her dad and her mom won’t be there, but she thinks maybe Aunt Kara wants her. Or wants to know where she is.
I make her taste of things. It’s the only way to get stronger, and she does get stronger, at first.
I can’t keep driving. I’m crying so hard, I have to pull to the shoulder. In the rearview for an instant, it’s Grandma’s face I see. I see red lipstick all over my lips and teeth, taste it. I get out and heave and try to puke, but it isn’t happening.
I have a strong urge to taste of something and pop a piece of gravel into my mouth to dull the hunger.
Is it true, what Watson-Newcamp said? I’m tired of Jason and Simon? It doesn’t feel true. They are so much finer than I am . . . and so much weaker. I take care of them. It’s all I’m here to do, now. There was a time when I needed caring for, but now I’m here for them. I need to make them stronger. I need to let them taste, but only a little bit at a time. That’s how you grow stronger, just a tiny taste at first and then a little more.
Except that’s what I did with the girl, and it didn’t work.
I’m crouched down by the side of the car now, bawling. I don’t know quite what’s gotten me so distressed.
It’s strange, the scenarios that go through your mind when you’re upset. I think Dr. Emory might happen to drive by in his long gray car and see me here—he lives not far away, after all—and we might speak right here by the side of the road. He might tell me again how strong I am. It might be enough.
Or I could leave the car and walk to the edge of the city, up the foothills and into the desert, past the desert to the mountains, tasting of all sorts of things along the way. I might look for them. They must be somewhere out there. Ben, Leslie and all—maybe not Grandma anymore, but some of the others.
If I ate the right thing, maybe I could see them as in a dream. It would feel like a dream, but it wouldn’t be. Grandma said there were things you could eat that would tell you things and others that would let you travel, things that would send you right through time itself. Things that would make you trade bodies with someone, things that would wake the dead. These things exist; they’re hard to find but worth the search. If I ate the right thing, my people could show me where they are now, or it could let them come to me.
No, that can’t happen. He’s mine, I think. Simon. You can’t have him. He’s weak. I need to make him stronger before he can come with us. I think, not for the first time, of a squirrel I saw rotting on the road a few blocks from home. It was still there this morning.
No, he’s staying soft and sweet as he is right now. We’re not going anywhere. We’re happy in our bland, clean world.
My thinking branches off in all these directions. It’s a matter of not knowing what to do and not having someone like Dr. Emory nearby to tell me.
What finally decides me is this: I think of the little girl on her last night. I think of how she longed for cinnamon and strawberries and cream, how her eyes widened with longing when I described the pretty little house I lived in as a child, just like the one I live in now. I can get to it—right now, I can get to it—if only I can breathe and settle and get back in the car.
My little house smelling of lavender and powder, all the fresh, healthy things in the fridge. Clean sheets, nice pretty clothes. My little boy—still a little boy, really, all soft with his glossy hair smelling of grass and sunshine. I’ll love all of this for her sake.
I imagine saying it to Dr. Emory, imagine the pride in his face and the dark books all around us. I’ll try. One more time, I’ll try.
About the Author
Christi Nogle is a longtime college composition teacher who lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their dogs and cat. You can listen to more of her stories at Escape Pod, Tales to Terrify, and The Wicked Library–or read her most recent stories in the literary journals Vastarien and Hermine Annual.
About the Narrator
Dani is a jack of many trades, master of none. But seeing as she loves the rogue life, that’s ok with her. You can hear stories she’s narrated on all four Escape Artists podcasts, StarShipSofa, Glittership, and Asimov’s Science Fiction podcast and you can contact her on Twitter @danooli_dani if you’d like her to read for you.