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by Mary Wood



The day after Caroline found out that Miles died, she quit her job and moved to the desert. People always said don’t make any decisions right after a death, but it wasn’t exactly a decision. She started doing things and couldn’t stop herself. She didn’t want to stop herself. There was no wanting or not wanting. She sold all of her furniture and moved out of her apartment right on the river in Portland, Oregon. She rented a U-Haul trailer, crammed her 12-year-old tabby Crumbles into a carrier, settled her messy-haired self behind the wheel, and drove down to Grandma Shipley’s abandoned house on the outskirts of Victorville, smack on the edge of the desert.

“You must be happy that the world is rid of him,” her sister Mia said when Caroline called her from the road to tell her about Miles. “Is that road noise? Are you driving?”

“Yes, I’m on the road. I’m moving to the desert house. You know, Grandma’s house.”

“What? What about your job? Can you pull over? I can barely hear you.”

“I quit it!” Caroline shouted.

“Why on earth would you do that? And that house is a wreck. I don’t even know where the keys are. Do you have them? Why are you going there?”

Caroline thought for a moment. “I don’t really know why,” she said quietly, then remembered the road noise. “I don’t really know why!  I just want to! I’ve been keeping the keys in the back of my sock drawer, remember?!”

“No, I don’t remember. You can stop shouting. I can hear you better now. Caroline, I was just thinking the other day that we should sell that house. Nobody’s been there in years, and we could use the money. Both of us could. And you’re too old for a mid-life crisis.”

“We can’t sell it!” Caroline said. “I’m going to live there. Mia, I’m barely fifty. And it’s not a mid-life crisis. It’s the opposite of a crisis.”

“You’re fifty-three. And what about your life in Portland? I thought you loved it there.”

“I did. Now I want to live in the desert. In Grandma’s house.”

The fact was, after she heard about Miles, Caroline had to go somewhere. Her body started moving around, and then it couldn’t stop moving. It couldn’t stop cleaning, packing, sorting, then couldn’t stop driving, turning on the radio, turning off the radio, pulling into rest areas, checking on Crumbles, pulling out of the rest areas, looking at trees, counting trucks and hawks and Teslas.

It didn’t make much sense because the fact was that she and Miles weren’t together anymore and hadn’t been for ten years, no thirteen years. So she didn’t really have a right to feel this bad when Miles died. She knew that. Caroline had been the one to break them up. Mia had told her to leave him for years. Her friends had told her to leave him for years. Miles was mean. Miles drank, and he hit her more than she ever told anyone. Every time he got mean, Caroline imagined herself driving away from San Francisco and going to the desert, to Grandma Shipley’s old house near Victorville. Finally she did drive away, but instead of going to the desert, she drove up I5 to Portland, Oregon. She started a new life, there in Portland. Yay Caroline for thirteen years. But then Miles went and died.

Caroline remembered the desert house from her childhood. Grandma Shipley bought the house long before Caroline was born, way back in 1932, when lots of Hollywood people like her were buying cheap houses in the desert. Grandma Shipley worked in scripts, and, according to her, in the 1930s there were script writers, set designers, makeup artists, and sound people, not to mention directors, producers, and actors, scattered across the desert from Palmdale to Borrego Springs.

Caroline drove for two days, stopping over in Red Bluff. Finally, she pulled up to the house with her U-Haul. As soon as they stopped moving, Crumbles started yowling. Caroline took out his carrier and set it down in the front yard, which was basically a patch of dirt.  At least Crumbles could look around a bit from there.

Mia was right, the place was a wreck. It was a small stucco house, painted a rose color that was now faded and peeling. No one had lived there for at least twenty years, and before that first this relative then that relative had used it for a vacation or moved in for a few months before they got sick of the ten-mile drive for groceries, the hot wind, the huge humiliating sky, the coyotes yip-yipping with no consideration that a person had to get some sleep. A rusty porch swing sat out front, the squeaky kind with white aluminum poles and flowered cushions, now covered with several layers of dust and stained by generations of fruit punch and beer that never got properly cleaned up. That swing would have to go.

Someone had left several small pots of succulents, which seemed redundant in the desert, but they were thriving, so Caroline let them be, making a mental note to put them in some kind of arrangement later. A small wooden table stood next to a Weber grill, not the electric or propane kind. Caroline felt a little nervous to pick up the lid, so she just left it alone. Another mental note: Look under the lid when you’re feeling stronger. She glanced at the garage, separate from the house and painted the same faded rose color, but decided to leave that for later too. She could only take on so much the first day.

Caroline stopped inside the door and looked around. The place didn’t look half as bad as she thought it would. The walls could use a coat of paint. Luckily, she had kept paying the utility bill all these years, ever since Grandma Shipley died, so the lights worked. It was your basic 1920s bungalow with two bedrooms. In the front part of the house was a living room, with a kitchen stuck at one end. The kitchen had a sink and range—all dinged up and grimy– and a four-seater table smack in the middle. The fridge stood by itself against the back wall, humming away, unconcerned by the absence of humans. In the living room, a plaid sofa with wooden arms sat opposite the windows that looked out on the desert. An old stuffed chair angled itself next to the sofa, with an end table and lamp in between. In the corner was a wooden case, about three feet high, with an antenna and several knobs. Must be an old radio. Cool. Caroline plugged it in and tried playing with the knobs. It seemed to be giving off a low hum, but she couldn’t get any other sound to come out despite turning the knobs this way and that. Mental note: try again later, when you’re more rested.

It looked like someone had squatted in the house for a while, but not too recently. Half a loaf of bread sat lumpy in the refrigerator, covered completely in green mold, along with a couple of cans of Coke. Caroline just closed the door. I’ll deal with that later, she told herself. Aside from dust and spider webs everywhere, the house was pretty tidy, considering. Caroline picked up a sheet of faded yellow lined paper lying on the kitchen floor. It must have blown there from the table, either when somebody left or just now, when Caroline opened the front door. “Thank you,” it said in scrawly handwriting. “I really enjoyed staying here but now I’m going.” The ink looked fresh. There was no signature.

Caroline turned the sheet over. On the back was written, “For Dot, with love forever. Bert in sound thinks I’m going to marry him—haha.” The faded ink was barely readable. Caroline squinted at it, pretty sure that was what it said. “Dot,” Caroline said aloud. Grandma Shipley’s first name was Dorothy, but no would dare to call her Dot. She put the note on the kitchen table for future thought.

When she turned on the kitchen faucet, it sputtered for a bit but then the water came blasting out. The water used to come from wells and her mother wouldn’t let her drink it because of the arsenic. Luckily, now Victorville had grown enough that the house was had squeaked its way inside the Water District boundary, so now treated water was pumped up from the aquifer and piped out by the city. Except for her mother, the grownups had seemed happy enough drinking the arsenic water.

“It explains a lot,” her mother would say. What did it explain? Caroline wondered. Her mother never liked the desert and took a dim view of her mother-in-law, her friends and relatives.

Caroline fetched Crumbles from the front yard and plunked him down in the living room, still in his carrier. Then she walked down the hallway to check out the bedrooms. The walls were bare except for a photograph in a wooden frame. Caroline remembered it from when she was little. In the photo, Grandma Shipley, who looked to be in her thirties, stood in front of an art deco building, wearing a tweed skirt suit and a black tie. Her hair was pulled up into a tight bun, just as Caroline remembered it. Next to her stood a younger woman, maybe only slightly younger. She was dressed in a flowy dress belted at the waist. A jeweled barrette pinned one side of her hair back. Caroline squinted at some writing in the bottom right-hand corner. With Buckie at MGM. While Caroline had walked by this photo a hundred times as a child, she had never wondered who Buckie was. She wondered now. Mental note: Figure out what was going on with Grandma and Buckie.

The main bedroom was bare except for an iron-framed double bed and small wooden dresser, some beer bottles scattered about the floor, and a package of gum in the top dresser drawer. The gum looked surprisingly new, but Caroline chalked that up to good packaging. Whoever had squatted here preferred to drink in bed, apparently. The other bedroom was empty. The bathroom at the end of the hall was disgusting. Caroline decided to tackle that first, to get it out of the way.

She felt proud of herself that she had packed cleaning supplies last in the U Haul, anticipating that she’d have to clean before unloading anything. She was exhausted from the last leg of her drive and decided not to finish unloading until tomorrow, but she at least wanted to get the place cleaned up enough so that she could put sheets on the bed and fix herself some breakfast and coffee in the morning. So she filled the Crumbles’ dish with cat food, put in her earbuds, cranked up Bowie’s Let’s Dance, and set to work.

The next morning, Caroline woke up early despite having stayed up until 2 a.m. or so cleaning the house and unpacking what started out as a couple boxes but turned into nine or ten. She never found her sheets and blankets so had laid a couple of tablecloths on top of the bed and slept fitfully on the scratchy fabric, turning this way and that under her jacket and a throw that appeared in box #5. Plus Crumbles kept jumping up and walking all over her and she was too tired to put him back in his carrier.

Leaving Crumbles inside the house, Caroline took her cup of coffee to the front patio and looked out across the desert to see what she could see. What she saw was mostly just scrub brush, with a few houses way off to the south, little blocks of grey and brown in the distance. She remembered passing a house when she drove in last night, so she stepped out a little further into her front yard and looked north to see if it was as close as she remembered. Sure enough, there was a rambling property about a quarter mile up the road. The house itself was a hard to see because it was surrounded by a high chain-link fence, the kind with green metal slats that kept you from seeing in. Just the roofs of the house and what looked like a couple of outbuildings poked up above the fence. Caroline thought it would be a good idea to take a nice walk down the road and introduce herself to her closest neighbor. You never know when you might need some help, though Caroline had no intention of asking for it unless it was an absolute emergency. Just let them know you’re here, said Mia’s voice in her head.

After she finished her coffee, she unloaded a few more boxes, then put on her jacket and started up the road. It was February and actually pretty chilly. It had gotten downright cold during the night, another reason Caroline didn’t sleep too well, and she had been too exhausted and disoriented to get up and turn on the electric floor heaters. Who knew if they even worked? As she walked, she started to warm up. She felt the air dry out and heat up as the sun climbed higher above the horizon. While she hadn’t felt much of anything on the drive down, she started now to feel content, satisfied with her move. She was happy, even excited, to meet her neighbors and get a better sense of this area she hadn’t been in for decades but that held so many memories.

As she got closer to her neighbors’ house, she could hear some kind of machine noise, as if someone was using a chain saw. No, it was harsher, more like metal against metal, or maybe metal against rock. She came up to the chain link fence but wasn’t sure of how to get in. She didn’t see a gate. She started to walk around the property, looking for a way in. Finally, well off the road by now, she found what looked like a gate with a high latch. She reached up to try to pull it open, but just at that moment, she was startled by a furious barking of what sounded like three or four dogs, at least, big dogs by the sound of it. She backed away from the gate. The barking kept up, but she stood still for a while and eventually the dogs quieted down a bit.

“Hello?” she shouted, hoping to get the attention of the dogs’ owner and make it clear that she wasn’t a burglar or some other suspicious character. With the sound of her voice, though, the barking started up again, more furious than ever, and one or two of the dogs started hurling themselves against the fence, which rattled and shook as if it might split apart. Caroline backed up further, not sure what to do. The metallic grinding sound kept going off somewhere within the enclosed area.

Well, maybe this wasn’t the best time to meet the neighbors. She tried to peer between the slats in the fence but could only see vague shapes moving this way and that, probably the dogs. One of them kept throwing itself against the fence, over and over. Caroline thought she had better leave before it got hurt.

After she got back to the house, she spent the day finishing up the unpacking. As she was carrying a bedside table into the house, she noticed someone walking down the road from the grinding-metal house. She put the table down and waited.

The person turned out to be a teenaged boy, about thirteen or fourteen years old. As he got closer, Caroline could see that he had dark hair that was gathered in a braid down his back. He was about five foot two, slightly built, a strange mix of graceful and gangly in the way he walked. He got as far as the edge of her front yard, then stopped and looked at her. He had rather striking green eyes.

“My dad wanted me to ask if you need some help moving in.”

Caroline wondered how his dad could possibly see what she was doing over that high fence. “Well, I’m almost done, but, sure, I’d be happy for the help. I can pay you.”

The boy chewed on his lip as if he was mulling something over. “My dad says I shouldn’t take money. I’ll just help you.”

“OK, I’ll respect that. I appreciate it. What’s your name?”

“Marcus. Marcus Greenwell.”

“Pleased to meet you, Marcus. I’m Caroline.” She didn’t see the need to give him her last name. She wasn’t in a neighborly frame of mind as she had been when she started down the road earlier.

With Marcus helping, she was able to unload quickly. During one trip from house to car, he crouched down and made cooing sounds at Crumbles, who had been imprisoned again in his carrier so he wouldn’t run outside. Marcus didn’t look very strong but he lugged the heavy boxes without complaint and ferried them at a clip into the house. At one point, Caroline saw him stop and look at the photo in the hallway of Grandma Shipley and Buckie. He reached up and ran his finger along the frame, which struck her as a little odd.

“That was my grandmother,” Caroline said, coming up beside him. “The one with the bun. She used to live here and I would come visit her. Sometimes I stayed a long time. Until I was about your age.”

“Hm,” he said, and went back out for another load.

“She had parties,” Caroline called after him, “with lots of people coming and going. Hollywood people!” He didn’t say anything but it’s possible he nodded.

After they were done unloading the car, Caroline made Marcus a thick sandwich of turkey, cheese, and tomatoes she had bought at a supermarket in Victorville. He dug into it happily. He didn’t seem to want to talk, which was fine with Caroline.

As he was leaving she tried to hand him a ten-dollar bill, but he waved it away and sprinted off down the road towards his house.

That night, Caroline took one of the kitchen chairs outside, turned off all the lights in the house, and sat looking at the inky sky, the spattering of stars, the pale abyss below them that was the desert at night. Coyotes howled off in the distance, then closer by. Instinctively, Caroline turned around to make sure her door was closed, with Crumbles safe inside. The darkness emptied her out and filled her at the same time. She thought of Miles, his round, boyish face. She had so many questions about him and also questions for him that now he would never answer. Why did he let himself lose control? Why did he hit her? Why did he drink if he knew he would end up yelling mean things and slapping her around? Why did she think sometimes he was the ugliest person she had ever seen and then the next minute she adored him? Why didn’t she leave him sooner? Why did she still think about him? Why did he die without telling her how terribly terribly sorry he was for everything he did? She felt like a ferret was inside her chest, writhing this way and that. It wouldn’t settle down into one thing or the other, hate or love or longing or grief or forgiveness or an intense desire for revenge. The coyotes yowled. They were just hungry. You couldn’t blame them for wanting to kill things.

She thought of her grandmother, went inside and took down the framed photograph and brought it back outside, scooting out quickly to make sure Crumbles didn’t follow. She sat down and looked at it. It was barely visible in the light from the waning moon. She remembered the smells when she would first arrive at the house as a child, bursting out of her father’s car with Mia—leather boots by the door, wool blankets, roast chicken and potatoes, red wine. She remembered how strict her grandmother was, how serious, her mouth a thin, tight line. Grandma Shipley was always pouring herself a drink.  The stiff lines of her body would start to sag. She lurched around, dropping things, while her eyes got far away, as if she were watching a movie in the air. People would drive up in cars, laughing, and Grandma would pour them tall drinks over ice or red wine in round glasses. The people tilted into one another, legs thrown over chair arms, or they rocked in the porch swing, looking at the stars and each other.

Caroline remembered her father picking at his guitar in the corner, her mother closed up in one of the bedrooms with the radio turned up loud, Hank Williams or Tammy Wynette. Sometimes her parents would leave, and then Caroline and Mia would lie in the big double bed watching the moon through the window, listening to the grown-up voices, the creak and bang of the screen door, the car engines, the coyotes yipping in the night.

Remembering all this, Caroline noticed something, in the picture. Her grandmother and Buckie were not touching, but they leaned, ever so slightly, towards one another. Who was this Buckie anyway? She would have to ask Mia.

The next day, Caroline returned the U Haul in Victorville then went to the Safeway while she was there to get more food.  She called Mia from her car.

“You’re right, the house is pretty bad. But not as bad as I thought it would be.”

“Good! You can get it in shape to sell. As long as you’re there.”

“Mia, I live here now. You don’t get it.” She hung up. No point in asking her about Buckie.

When Caroline got back to the house, Marcus was sitting on the disgusting porch swing, rocking himself back and forth with a foot on the ground. His hair was still tied back in the braid, though stray hairs had worked their way out all over his head. He wore a red flannel shirt that looked about three sizes too big.

Marcus stopped rocking as Caroline got out of her car with her bag of groceries. “Do you need help with anything?”

“Well, I might. But isn’t it a school day?”

Marcus looked down and started making the swing move with his foot again. “I guess.”

Caroline went inside and left the groceries on the kitchen counter, then came back out. “Does your dad know you’re here?”

“My dad doesn’t like me very much. He thinks I’m at school.”

Caroline thought about that. She wasn’t sure she wanted to get mixed up with this family that had a bunch of crazy dogs and a fence you couldn’t see through. Not to mention that grinding noise. She wondered if there was a mother in the picture. “Why do you think he doesn’t like you?”

“He yells at me. He hits me. I hate school and he doesn’t care. He wants me to play football like my brother.”

Caroline wanted to go unpack her groceries but she didn’t want to leave Marcus just sitting there. He really should be in school. “I think it’s normal to hate school at your age. I’m sure your dad loves you. Hey, that swing is pretty gross. Maybe you shouldn’t sit there.”

Marcus didn’t move. “It’s ok. All the stains are old and dried up. How would you know if my dad loves me? You don’t know him.”

“Good point. I need to get rid of that swing. I just haven’t had time yet.”

“No!” Marcus grabbed one of the aluminum poles. “You can’t! It belongs here. I like it.”

Marcus sounded like he owned the place. Caroline had a thought. “Did you used to come over here before I moved in?”

Marcus scrunched his mouth up. “Maybe once or twice.”

“Did you go inside? You can tell me, I won’t be mad.”

“Maybe a couple times.”

“Were those your beer bottles? And your gum?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t have a chance to clean up. I would have, if I knew you were coming.” He sounded a bit put out, as if she should have notified him.

Caroline thought she should remind him he was too young to drink but decided against it. As if he didn’t know.

“How did you get in?”

“Back window. I barely got out before you came in.” He perked up at that, clearly proud of himself.

“Did you leave that note? The thank you note?”

“Maybe.” Marcus grinned a bit. Then he got serious again. “I am sorry I didn’t clean up. I’m not like that. I just had a bad couple of days.” He sounded like a forty-year-old for a minute.

Caroline picked up one of the potted succulents. “Are these yours?”

Marcus sat up. “Yeah! I dug them up from the desert. The pots were already here.” He started swinging harder, producing a rhythmic squeak from the rusty poles.

“Could you slow down?” Caroline asked. “That sound.”

“Sorry. Hey, do you have a gun. My dad thinks if you’re a woman living alone you should have a gun.”

“No, I don’t have a gun and don’t want one. How does your dad know I live alone anyway?”

“There’s only like four houses out here. Everybody knows what’s going on. What if a coyote gets your cat? Wouldn’t you want to shoot it?”

“I don’t let him out. Hey, do you want to clean out the garage? I’ll give you ten dollars.”

“Sure. It’s pretty cleaned out already. Not much in there.”

How did he know that? Caroline went in the house, put away the ice cream and frozen peas, then came back out with one of the kitchen chairs. She put it down kitty corner to the swing and sat down.

“How did you get in there, Marcus?”

“Oh, there was just a padlock. I sawed it off. I borrowed the metal saw from my dad’s shop.” He sounded very matter-of-fact. “Please don’t say anything if you ever see my dad.”

He sawed off the padlock? Caroline took a couple of deep breaths. “I won’t. Your dad must have a lot of tools.”

“Yeah. He works on cars. And he builds sculptures out of metal. He’s always making something.”

“What kind of sculptures.”

Marcus shrugged. “People. Animals. Pipes that sing in the wind. Stuff like that.”

Yeah, perfectly normal, thought Caroline. She stood up. “Well, if the garage is already cleaned out, I don’t have much for you to do. You should probably go to school.”

Marcus stood up. He started to say something, then stopped. Then he said, “I hate going to school. I usually hang out here.”

“I thought you said you had only been here a couple of times.”

Marcus scrunched up his mouth. “Ok, I came more than that. Like every day.”

“You came every day?” Caroline suppressed the urge to yell at him, but she sure felt like it. “If you came every day, what’s with the moldy bread?”

“An experiment. Just because I hate school doesn’t mean I don’t like to learn things.” Caroline couldn’t tell if he was messing with her. “It’s pretty tidy in there considering,” he went on. “Don’t you think? Most kids would have made a huge mess.”

“Marcus, I think you should go home now. No, I guess you can’t go home. Well, you have to go somewhere. I need to be alone in my house for a while.”

Marcus grabbed onto the swing pole with one hand. He started to put one foot up on the cushion but stopped. “Ok, I’ll go. But can I show you something first?”

Caroline sighed. “Yes, but I don’t have a lot of time so let’s not drag it out.”

Marcus motioned for her to follow him to the garage. Caroline noticed as they got closer that the padlock was open but fixed to look as if it were locked. Marcus took it off and opened the door. It was dark inside. Caroline hesitated at the door. She couldn’t see in and for the first time started to feel nervous about Marcus.

“You don’t have to come in,” said Marcus. “You can stay right there. I’ll get it.”

What could he be up to? Caroline stayed by the door, waiting. She could hear Marcus walking around inside the garage. Pretty soon, he reappeared. In his hand was an old blunderbuss shotgun.

Caroline backed up immediately.

“See, you do have a gun!” said Marcus happily. Then he noticed the look on her face. “Oh don’t worry. It’s not loaded.” He cocked it to show her. She peered at the chambers, but didn’t really know what she was looking at. She looked at Marcus’s face. He was clearly proud at what he could show her, and, strangely, she trusted him then.

“This is an antique!” he declared. “My dad would love it.”

“Well, he can have it,” Caroline said. “I don’t want it.”

“No, my dad doesn’t deserve it. It looks like Dot wanted it, even if you don’t!”

For a second, Caroline didn’t know what he was talking about. Then, she remembered that Dot was the name on the back of the yellow note paper. Marcus apparently thought Dot was her grandmother. It did make sense, even if Caroline had never heard that name in her life.

‘I’ll put it back,” said Marcus. “It lives here. And really it’s nothing. It’s nothing.” He looked at the gun. Then he disappeared back into the garage. Soon he came out and started off down the road, but turned around and came back almost right away.

“Can I pet your cat before I go?”

Caroline was really so ready for Marcus to leave. “Ok,” she said, “but don’t dawdle. I mean it.”

Marcus sprinted to the house. Caroline waited outside. She knew if she went in, pretty soon she’d be offering him something to eat.

Marcus reappeared and headed off down the road again. “I’ll tell my dad I came home sick,” he said as he passed her. “I’m pretty good at throwing up whenever I want.”

Caroline bustled around until Marcus was far up the road, then sank down on the swing. She realized she was exhausted, from moving, from Miles being dead, from thinking about her grandmother and her parents, and from dealing with Marcus. She remembered this swing then in a way she hadn’t before. She moved the swing gently back and forth with her foot, the way Marcus had done, and looked out over the desert. She noticed for the first time that the desert wasn’t just barren dirt with a few bushes. In the diffuse afternoon light, she could make out a few Joshua trees, holding their arms out like puppets. There were small yellow flowers on some of the bushes and some graceful swooping plants that reminded her of the aloe plants she had given to her neighbor when she left Portland. Maybe they were aloe plants. Aloes were succulents and this was where succulents came from after all.

She must have fallen asleep because she gradually realized that someone was shaking her arm. When she opened her eyes it was dark out, and her neck hurt when she tried to sit up.

“Are you ok?” It was Marcus.

Oh god, thought Caroline. Is he going to be one of those kids who just keeps coming over? She was going to have to come up with a way to set clear boundaries with him.

She sat up, fully awake now. “Yes, I’m fine. Why did you come back?”

Marcus sat down next to her on the swing. “I wanted to show you something. Can we turn on the lights?”

Caroline rolled her eyes, knowing Marcus couldn’t see her, but she got up and went into the house. She flipped on the light in the living room so they could stay outside but still see. She went back out and sat down next to him again. He had an open beer in one hand and a photograph in the other.

“No drinking,” said Caroline. She took the beer out of his hand and put it down on the ground as far away as she could without standing up again. Marcus didn’t object. He showed her the photograph.

It was an old picture, slightly faded, of a young-ish woman sprawled on the porch swing, the same one they were sitting on. Caroline peered more closely at the picture. It was Buckie from the framed photo in the hallway. In this photo, she was wearing pants and boots and a cowboy hat, which was tilted to one side. She had on what looked like a man’s denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She was looking straight into the camera with an expression that looked playful and vulnerable and slightly hurt, all at the same time.

“See,” said Marcus. “It’s Buckie.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“Do you think they were lovers?” Marcus asked.

Caroline looked at him in surprise. Why would he even think that?

“Look,” he said, pointing at the photo again. “She must be looking at Dot.”

“It’s hard to see. I’ll look at it tomorrow. Where did you get this?”

“It was in the garage, on a shelf. Just sitting there.”

“Why did you take it, Marcus?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. You can have it back. It’s yours.”

“Well, yeah.” Caroline held onto it. “Hey, Marcus, I thought of something you can do for me, something I can pay you for. You know that ten dollars.”


“The old radio in the house. I can’t figure out how it works. Do you think you can get it to turn on? Are you handy that way?”

Marcus stood up. “Sure, but it’s not a radio.”

“It’s not? It sure looks like one. What else could it be?”

“It was out in the garage. I brought it into the house. It’s a theremin.”

“A theremin? What’s that? And how do you know what it is?”

“Reddit. I posted a photo. On my dad’s computer. After he was asleep. Some Russian guy invented it. It makes these weird sounds. They used it in movies in the old days, movies with space ships and aliens.”

Marcus opened the screen door. “Let’s bring it outside. We can use an extension cord. I’ve done it a bunch of times.”

Caroline followed Marcus into the house. He opened one of the bottom drawers in the kitchen, reached toward the back, and pulled out an extension cord. He draped it over his shoulder. “Let’s carry it out together. It’s hard to get it out the door.”

He went into the living room and plugged in the extension cord, then connected it to the black cord running out of the theremin. Caroline stood, feeling a bit paralyzed, and watched what Marcus was doing. Marcus looked up and waved her over. “Come on.”

“Wait,” said Caroline. She pulled out a roll of packing twine she’d stuck in a kitchen drawer, cut off a long piece of it, then tied one end around Crumbles’ collar. She tied the other end to a kitchen table leg. She really didn’t want Crumbles running off into the desert.

The two of them hauled the theremin out the front door and onto the patio. Marcus dragged it further out, onto the dirt yard, taking it as far as the extension cord would allow. Crumbles came out with them, secure on his twine leash.

It was fully dark by now, with a cloudless sky. The waning moon hung high in the eastern sky, surrounded by a halo of light. Stars spread everywhere across sky, making it look busy and alive. Beneath this piercing but distant light, the cactus and creosote appeared to float in water, rising and falling as Caroline squinted into the darkness, trying to capture something solid.

Marcus stood behind the theremin and bent over it turning some knobs. The living room light made him look ghostly and alien. He raised his arms as if the desert were an orchestra and he was the conductor, holding audience and musicians in that stillness before the first note. What was he doing? Caroline almost yelled at him to tell her what was going on, but something stopped her. She was sick of this kid and sick of herself for letting him rummage around in her own house. But he looked vulnerable there, silhouetted against the emptiness. It was hard to imagine him at a school desk, or on a football field. How could anyone hit or rage at this slight and intensely curious child?

Marcus held one hand poised above the wooden box. The other began to move in a kind of dance, as if he were drawing figures in the air. At the same moment, a thin line of sound emanated from the box. Caroline flashed right away on old movies with jerky spaceships and paper mache planets. But those images faded.  Marcus moved his arm and hand, the sound rose and fell in an eerie music that traveled in waves out over the desert. The sky, with its imperfect moon and clustering, hushed stars seemed alert, listening. Marcus moved again and Caroline felt the sound move through her jaw, her eyes, her rib cage.

Marcus turned to her, smiling. “You try it!”

Caroline hesitated. “Is this what that message is about, on the back of the yellow note paper?” she asked. “The one you left on the table before you climbed out the window?”

“Yes, it must be!” Marcus laughed. “The paper was tucked inside, when I took it apart to try to get it to work.”

Caroline took her place in front of the box as Marcus moved aside. Crumbles brushed against her leg, then plopped down in the dirt, as if waiting for something. Marcus showed Caroline how to hold one hand over the curved antenna while waving her other hand to alter the tone and length of each note. At first the sound seemed wild and uncontrolled, having nothing to do with her. But gradually she figured out how to control it, to create a melody that she felt inside her trying to come out, a melody that scared her at first as it had the audacity to pierce the desert silence, the pulsing sky. But slowly she began to relax. She could feel Marcus there beside her, quietly cheering her on as he rocked from one foot to the other. She sent the ghostly electric music out across the creosote and lupine, the aloes and tilted chollos, the burrows of the pocket mice and sidewinders, the dens of the coyotes. With one hand she held the world on a string, while with the other she talked to the stars in this new language, to the dipping bats and nighthawks. And then she talked to Miles, briefly, in staccato notes. With one long, rising tone, she explained to Mia about the vast desert sky. And in a rising, falling serenade without end or beginning, she spoke to her grandmother, and to Buckie, who gave to Dot and now to Caroline, by way of a sad and insistent boy, this magical machine with its wordless ways, its arrogance, its singing that you could hold in your hand and fling as far as the eye could see.

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