The year crashed into being. This was before the disappearances, the pets and the girl and the house. That morning, on New Year’s Day, Elle drove to the grocery for black-eyed peas, because she’d realized that she hadn’t done anything for her son for the new year, no ball drop on the TV or glitter glasses made of numbers or even a simple countdown the night before. She hadn’t had a good reason for letting the night be ordinary, other than that she’d seen enough holidays by then. So. Black-eyed peas, even though they lived in Iowa, to mark a year that, God willing, would be an improvement on the last.
Tuck had woken up as she took her long coat off the hook by the door, and she threw the coat over her sweatshirt and told him to hurry, that he could come along, and they crept out to the beat-up Civic she’d bought the previous fall to show her ex-husband—Tuck’s father—that his money didn’t matter anymore. It was mid-morning, yet the street was hushed and church-like, the air around them solemn and still, or perhaps it was the collective heaviness of their neighbors’ hangovers. The morning had a tang to it, gritty. Like the abandoned railway cars at the edge of town, hulking in some kind of wait.
“Can we get cupcakes?” Tuck asked.
“What for?” Elle said, digging in the pocket for her car keys, regretting her question at the moment of its leaving her mouth, because of course Tuck would want cupcakes. He would want them, because today was his half-birthday. Eleven and a half, nearly a dozen years of Tuck.
It was hard sometimes, remembering that she was supposed to sell her kid on the world.
“Mom,” he said. “That’s mean.”
The previous day had been warm for the Midwest, and the resulting slush had frozen hard in the night. All around Elle and Tuck, watery impressions sat fixed now in dirty glass, iced, a tiny-scaled Pompeii. Tire tracks, solid little lagoons at the ends of driveways. She caught Tuck’s arm when he nearly fell twice on the thick glaze that coated their sidewalk, by way of apology. “Careful!” she said, steering him over the ice. He’d tried to bring his device with him, a Christmas gift from his dad, but Elle hated the thing and so made Tuck leave it behind. The sun, though bright and clear, felt farther away than it had ever been, another thing generating cold, not even clouds to blanket them from above. They shuffled to the car in the driveway, and Elle wondered dimly if it would start. She shut out the part of her who missed the Volvo she’d lost in the divorce.
But the car did start, and they set out for Gary’s with the defroster blasting chilled air onto the windshield, webbed with frost crystals—Elle had forgotten to buy a scraper. Loose change frozen in the console and something about all this metal making her sad.
It was a prescient feeling, this sadness, because on their way back from Gary’s, a single can of peas and a dozen mini cupcakes in the back, Elle crashed her car into a stop sign, and her front bumper nestled itself into the iced-over snowbank that lined the road. Her tires were mostly bald, and she’d braked too quickly. It was a terrifically slow crash, more a grinding than anything else, and Tuck had time to say, “Mom, you’re going to hit that pole,” and Elle had time to reach her arm across her son to hold him back at his chest and mutter, “Fuck.” The sound rang out across the neighborhood in a slam, but still, no one was out. For while, they simply sat.
Elle reversed the car, turned the wheel, tried to reverse again, but there was nothing, just the shrill rub of tires on snow, going nowhere.
“Let’s call Dad,” Tuck said.
She caught her own image in the rearview mirror. “No,” she said. She’d grown sallow over the winter, with gray roots that revealed the lie of her long and honeyed hair. A pert little sty on her eyelid that was new, and she reminded herself again that it was well past time to start moisturizing her neck. Elle thought of walking back to Gary’s, which was only a few blocks away, but the girl at the register had been surly, her eyes red-rimmed, some college kid who’d drawn the short straw on the holiday schedule. And so Elle told Tuck to zip his coat, and they began walking the other way, the farther way, toward home, the plastic package of cupcakes cutting into her forearm and the can of peas grown cold in her palm.
* * *
She was tired. The night before, well after midnight, her brother had called. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, which was how he liked to begin. His calls were, always, a fever in the night. Elle knew she could choose not to answer, that she could sleep with the ringer off. But she would always answer for her brother, even when he called very late.
“What’s on your mind?” she’d asked, as she always did. She laid on her back and stared at the popcorn ceiling above her, cast in moon shadow.
That night it was sea turtles misled by changing ocean currents, a deepfake video of the British queen.
“It’ll get better,” Elle said. “The world always gets better, in the end.” He called her, usually, for exactly this: a reason, no matter how thin, to shake off the world’s problems, to stay unweighted in his airy life. And she did owe him that—she carried a great debt—but more and more, she’d begun questioning her own words and resenting her brother for expecting her to call them forth.
Elle hadn’t seen her brother in years. He’d traveled, from Seattle to Mobile to Santa Fe and then up to Maine, his movements erratic—how he got from one place to the next, she’d never asked. He suffered from a need to stay untethered from the world; he told her once that all of his possessions could fit into a suitcase, that he carried a shampoo bar in his pocket.
“Will you come?” she asked him now, before she could shutter the words in her throat. He wouldn’t, of course. It was an old question, a habit.
Elle turned to her side and watched the digital clock by the bed: two thirty-two, now two forty. Sometimes, after he called, she fell back asleep to the strangest dreams, rabid bats striking at her throat and presidents revealing themselves to be ghouls.
“Happy New Year, brother,” she’d told him when it was time to hang up, and he’d chuckled, his voice now lighter than it had been. “Let’s hope we get through this one unscathed,” he’d said. And that is what Elle thought of as she walked back to her house with Tuck, already a little bit scathed in the new year even though it wasn’t yet noon. She held onto her boy and tried her best not to slip as they treaded past the college where Elle taught composition and introductory literature and the antique store where Bea, the owner, set lavender shortbread next to the cash register. As they walked, Tuck strained against her hold and kicked at blocks of ice-encased snow and asked questions about the coming year. Would they finally name their new cat? Would they plant a garden in the yard? Would they stay in the house they had now? Yes, Elle said as they walked. Yes, yes, yes.
* * *
When they got to the house, Tuck stopped at the edge of the lawn and said, “Where’s Featherstar?”
And it was true: Featherstar was gone.
He was a metal rooster, garish and loud to look at. Tuck had fallen in love with him years ago at an art fair, transfixed by his faded red comb and his yellow and green body, his coloration more parrot than chicken. A wide-faced woman had sold him to Elle and the husband, saying to Tuck, “Pet it, go ahead,” and Tuck had delighted at its hot metal touch in the summer sun, something lucky and nearly alive. Featherstar had come with Elle in the divorce, and he now sat at the house she’d bought, next to the mailbox.
“Do you think Dad took it?” she asked. The husband had loathed Featherstar, but she couldn’t fathom who else would take something so large, and so close to the house. He was the only person who made sense.
But Tuck waved his arm over the space where Featherstar had been, as if perhaps the sculpture had simply gone invisible. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
She nodded, agreeing, but then, in the absence of a story that made sense, something else kicked in. Not a panic, exactly, but low-grade alarm. “In the house,” she directed, handing Tuck the cupcakes and the cold can of peas while she fumbled for her keys—the front door locked, thankfully—and ushered them both inside.
She set everything on the counter and went to stand over the floor register by the sink, which kicked out its dry heat. Had the rooster been there when they’d left for the store? How long had they been gone? She couldn’t remember. “Now what,” she said to no one in particular. “Now what.”
They lived in a stone bungalow that had been designed almost a century before by an architect who’d gained a measure of national fame before settling into reclusiveness, dying in the last house he’d designed. All of the doorways in the bungalow were rounded at the top, and even the seam where the ceiling met the walls had a rough curvature to it. The husband, who loved right angles, would have hated it. Elle would have, too, once upon a time, because it reminded her too much of where her mother had raised her and her brother.
But something in her had coveted the house more and more anyway as her marriage dissolved into nothing, and she would drive by it slowly, heat on full blast after dropping Tuck off at school, back when she had her better car. Right before the divorce paperwork was well and truly final, she’d contacted the owner. It had been perhaps the most impulsive act of her life, to knock on this heavy, rounded door without having any idea who was behind it, and her pulse had thrummed when an elderly woman answered. She’d been white-haired and black-eyed and Elle had been struck immediately by the smell of cinnamon and of cat.
They’d talked. Incredibly, the woman invited Elle in, and she gave her rose tea with sugar cubes. She knew the isolation of divorce, though she was a widow—“but that’s still something left unfinished,” the woman had said. Elle had listened and stroked an enormous orange cat with half an ear missing that had planted itself on her lap, and in the end, Elle made the woman an offer to buy the house, something so far above market value that everyone involved, even the realtor Elle eventually hired to clear the paperwork, even the old woman, ended up disdaining her for it. Money was offensive more than it was anything else, Elle knew, but half of the husband’s money was what she had gotten, and something in her wanted to spend it quickly, irresponsibly. And this was the house she had wanted, for her and for Tuck, far from the gleaming subway tiles of her former home with the husband, who was a surgeon, a farmhouse-turned-mansion just outside of town, the imported granite countertops, threaded as they were with golden streaks, sanded to a museum sheen. That had been the house Elle had always wanted to love more than she ever did.
So she’d scrubbed their new home with its rounded door and corners. She’d polished the wooden floors to a lemon-scented shine and had scraped flecks of old paint off the windowpanes.
They’d also gotten a cat to combat a mouse problem in the basement crawlspace, the elderly woman’s cat not having been much of a mouser. This new cat, however, was a sleek calico with a temper, and before the mice had moved on, Elle had woken up most mornings to a carcass at the foot of her bed, the cat’s lithe body stretched out next to her, and Elle liked to scruff up its neck fur and pretend the mouse wasn’t there at all and say, “Beats my last marriage by a mile,” which wasn’t true but felt like an empowering thing to say.
The bungalow rarely got much sun because it was tucked away among red maples and a yard the white-haired woman had converted to prairie grass and vines that climbed toward the sky, or what of it they could find. Sometimes, Elle stood outside and walked into the house as if she was touring it for the first time, the scuffed and uneven floors and cracked plaster and ceiling beams, ponderous and dark. The round window in the kitchen that reminded her of a porthole, she and Tuck adrift in a tiny slice of prairie.
They were making the home their own, Elle and Tuck, and this included the garish metal rooster by the mailbox. But where was that rooster now?
“Do you think a neighbor stole it? Maybe they were offended by it?” Elle said, running it over in her mind—How would they have carried it, and where would they have put it? She tried to suppress it, but something unsettled her deeply about this missing thing. Things disappearing, things from her home.
“Mom,” Tuck said, scolding. “Featherstar is art.”
* * *
The husband was due over at noon to pick up Tuck because New Year’s Day was his custody day. Elle hadn’t forgotten, though she had lost track of time, with the long walk from their abandoned car, and so when the doorbell rang she first thought that perhaps something menacing was about to happen, that someone was ringing the doorbell to catch them off guard, and when Tuck ran for the door, his small and fragile head bouncing as he hopped along, she cried out, “Wait, don’t do that!”
“Don’t do what?” She could hear the husband before she could see him as Tuck opened the door, a velvet voice coming in from the cold. He’d never been in the bungalow before. It was new to them all; she and Tuck had only moved in a month before. But this place was sacrosanct, Elle had told herself her very first night there, after she’d put Tuck to bed. She’d lit a stick of sage, an old and superstitious habit, and she’d smudged the house of its bitterness and former resentments, whatever the white-haired and black-eyed woman may have harbored when she wasn’t drinking her tea. Elle had marched the stick through the chilly cinderblock basement, which was where, she learned that night, wolf spiders bred.
But what Elle had also learned, too soon, was that this house was haunted. Not with the past, but with what might have been if the husband hadn’t disappeared from her life. The impression of his shape on the sheets next to her, before the cat took over. His favorite cereal in the cupboard, which she kept buying even though it tasted like cheap chocolate dust. He never would have wanted a place like this, with its tilted bathroom cabinet, its hopeless winter drafts. Which was, she supposed, why she had bought it. He belonged where he was, on the manicured hill in the country with the south-facing windows and regressed lighting. In the garage he swept out every Sunday, no exceptions.
“Dad!” Tuck said. He pressed his cheek into his father’s side, into the frosty wool of his coat. “I forgot it was New Year’s Day when I woke up,” he said. “Mom didn’t tell me any different.” He cast a pout her way.
It hadn’t always been like this, with Tuck. Before, it had always been him and Elle, mother and son, joined in a conspiracy of mutual understanding. When he was smaller, they’d made up words while he’d bathed, and then they’d made up songs with those words that the husband couldn’t understand. They’d shared space in the very same body; Elle believed in the power of these things. But the divorce had shaken Tuck’s loyalties, knocked everything loose.
“You’re early,” said Elle.
The husband’s eyes were darting around, appraising the house, finally landing on the cat licking her haunches in the corner next to the couch. “So this is the new abode.”
Elle motioned for him to come in and shut the door behind him. “Tuck and I were going to have cupcakes before he left,” she said, “for his half birthday.”
“From Gary’s,” Tuck added, and it sounded incriminatory, the way he said it, like they may as well have fished them from the trash.
“Well, hey,” the husband said, and he put his hands out in front of him, gloved in lamb skin. He’d once cupped Elle’s breasts with those gloves, on a snowy Christmas Eve after a party, in their driveway, their breath sweet with vermouth and colored lights casting fairies about the car. Elle’s breath catching, then heaving, then catching again; those hands that could massage a heart back into beating.
“I can wait, if you want to do that real quick.” He paused then as if just remembering something. “Except, I have someone in the car.”
“Right,” Elle said. “Someone.”
Old energies still stirred in Elle, the jealousy and the hurt. She didn’t know when it would end. She remembered when it was the two of them, she and the husband, going to pick up cars they’d left overnight at bars and at restaurants, the giddy trips with travel mugs full of fresh coffee and sunglasses to pick up her Volvo, waiting wherever they’d left it at the cusp of last night’s hopes. And she wondered, although she tried not to, if the girlfriend had taken her makeup off before she went to bed, or if she still wore their New Year’s revelry on her face.
“She can come in and eat with us,” Tuck said before Elle could stop him with her eyes. And then, worse: “And we can go get Mom’s car, because she ran into a pole and left it.”
* * *
Elle sat in the back with Tuck, the heat in the husband’s car on too high and making her sleepy, like a bath. Like soup. “Thanks for doing this,” she said, trying not to direct anger at the child sitting next to her. “But I really could have gotten the car on my own.”
The girlfriend turned around. She was very small but had comically long eyelashes, even in the morning. She was ten years younger than Elle and carried a purse lined with plastic studs made to look like spikes. “Such treacherous roads,” she said. “You never get this in Florida.”
Elle knew she was from Florida. She knew more than she probably should, thanks to the internet and a few evening bottles of wine. That she had a daughter and four equally brunette sisters; that she could do a perfect headstand. She’d also known the girlfriend before she was the girlfriend, as one of the new batch of tenured professors at the college. She taught art history, and Elle had once overheard two of her own students talking about the girlfriend’s intro course: She brought her pet terrier in on the day she discussed the dog in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. “Canines are a sign of fidelity,” one of Elle’s students had said sagely to the other. This was shortly after Elle had discovered that the girlfriend had slept with the husband, and she had, in that moment, wished she could meet this pet terrier, so she could give its fidelity a kick.
“Yes, treacherous,” Elle said now.
“Featherstar got stolen,” Tuck said, flipping around on his device, not looking up. Elle tugged at the thing, trying to take it away from him, but he jerked it back his way.
“For the best, probably,” the husband said. “The metal rooster thing,” he explained to the girlfriend, who said, “Weird. My favorite potted pine is gone, too.” She seemed deep in thought, and she turned back into her seat. “Maybe they’ll catch who did it?”
The husband pulled up next to Elle’s abandoned car. “It was kids,” he said, in his surgeon way. “Drunk kids doing New Year’s Eve things.”
A thing disappearing, leaving a space behind. She thought of her brother, traveling as he did, finding new landscapes for his shifting life. Of the husband, who’d replaced his marriage to her with an art professor. When could you count on a thing being what it was; when could you count on it being yours? But instead of saying anything, she braced for the cold, and then she opened the door.
They got her unstuck in the end. Elle sat in the driver’s seat, doing her best to reverse gently, while the husband and Tuck leveraged themselves against the snowbank and pushed on the hood to get it back out into the street and the girlfriend stayed in the other car, talking to her daughter on the phone with her eyelashes and her purse. There was a dent in the Civic, an ugly plastic pucker, but it wasn’t of immediate concern.
At one point, while she was looking behind her to make sure the road was clear, Elle heard a terrific two-toned grunt and turned back around to see the both of them through the windshield, the husband with his hungover bloodshot eyes and wool coat and hair graying into one solid streak in particular, their son in his hunter’s cap with flaps. Both of their noses pink, both of them squinting against the exertion, the sunlight refracting off the windshield. My boys, Elle thought, before she could suppress it.
Then the husband said, “We should follow you home,” and Tuck said, “And then we can have the cupcakes,” and Elle said, “Okay, okay,” to them both.
* * *
Back at the house, the husband picked up the can of black-eyed peas. “Dinner?” he asked, and this seemed to make him sad, and he looked around everywhere, at the doorways and the old couch and the cat that now sat in the middle of the kitchen joylessly scratching at her side.
“For luck,” Elle said.
Tuck had wanted a half-birthday celebration because there was a precedent for it. It was decadent and unnecessary, but they’d done it every year anyway, for him. Their entire circle of friends had escalated with their own children over the years, offering up tooth fairies who paid wildly inflated prices and elementary-school graduation parties that were, God help them, catered. Back in the gleaming farmhouse, Elle and the husband had presented Tuck with New Year’s cake—German chocolate—and a heaping scoop of ice cream from the dairy over in Kalona. That was the tradition. But that was a different life.
“Eleven and a half!” the girlfriend said. Elle put a mini cupcake on each, and she opened the can of black-eyed peas and divvied it up among four small bowls.
“Let’s have it all,” she said, winking at them and then shoving the cat aside with her foot as she made her way to the table.
And that was how they ended up huddled around the little two-person table she’d picked up from Craigslist, each with a cupcake and small bowl of peas, the husband and the girlfriend still in their coats.
“I have candles!” she said, generating enthusiasm for all of them. And here it was, in the junk drawer, a tattered package of blue and white striped candles left over from her own birthday.
“Can I have something else later?” Tuck asked, eyeing his bowl of peas, which looked, with their black bellies, like tiny creatures curled in sleep.
The husband leaned over and whispered something in Tuck’s ear. Tuck smiled. “That’ll be good,” he said.
“What? What?” Elle said, but nobody answered, so she pressed the candle into Tuck’s cupcake, lit it, and began the half-birthday song. It was now fully day, and icicles held fast against the kitchen windows.
Three, she liked to tell her students, was a difficult number in literature—two bonded and one outside, for better or for worse. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, with that poor wife in the attic. Dracula and Mina, tepid Jonathan Harker sucking the blood from the story. Cinderella and her awful stepsisters. The rule of three, she liked to argue, was compelling not because it created harmony but because it called forth conflict. It told you who mattered most. Even in the holy trinity, she would tell her students, can the spirit really compete for story with the father and the son?
But their three was now in tatters. Although that wasn’t quite right—they were actually five, with the girlfriend picking at a cupcake of her own and with the girlfriend’s daughter back at their house. And with that equation in play, it seemed to Elle that the only fair balance would be that the husband could have the girlfriend and her daughter and that Elle could have her Tuck. She laid her arm lightly on the back of his chair.
Tuck blew out his candle. “Thanks, Mom,” he said. Elle put another cupcake on his plate, and then another for good measure. She wanted him to have as many as he’d eat; she wanted him to be too full, even sick, for whatever celebration the husband had promised.
“To luck,” the girlfriend said, holding her cupcake up as if it were a glass of New Year’s champagne. “One quick cupcake, and then we should probably go.”
* * *
Before the husband and the girlfriend left, they told Elle that they were getting married, that there was a wedding planned. Tuck had gone to his room to gather his things, his tablet and the charger and the book of spells and the flannel robe he insisted on carting back and forth between their houses.
“In June,” the husband said.
“Oh wow! Just wow.”
The girlfriend reached down to pet the cat, who hissed and trotted away, and then she said, still crouched, “I know it’s fast.”
“Does Tuck know?” Elle asked. But of course he did.
“My best man,” the husband said.
“And my daughter’s my maid of honor,” the girlfriend said. “It’s like the family’s getting married.” She stood.
“Adorable,” Elle said flatly.
“Oh! I didn’t mean it like that.” The girlfriend, Elle could tell, was someone who often said more than she intended, and she did this again now, when she said, “You should come, if you want. You should be there. Again, if you want. We’d love to have you.”
“Honey,” the husband said, which was a word Elle had never heard him say.
“It’s the right thing to do,” the girlfriend said, her voice pleading and defensive.
“Watch out for Tuck’s internet use?” Elle said, ignoring the girlfriend. She turned to the husband. “He’s reading things. The government collecting all our DNA, et cetera.”
The husband nodded, buttoning on his coat and running a hand through his hair. “Elle. One thing.” He fixed on her face once more. “Are you okay over here?”
She flinched, not looking at the girlfriend. “Of course.”
He wanted to say more, she could tell, but then Tuck was there, his arms stretched in a big hug of items. “Be good,” she said, kissing the top of her son’s fuzzy head and avoiding the husband’s eyes. “Be safe.”
She watched them slide their way to the car on the icy walk; she watched her boy transition over to his other life, or the same life, she supposed, cleaved in two.
* * *
She would clean. To purge the Christmas tree and take out the trash still stuffed with torn wrapping paper, to go through Tuck’s closet and set aside the sweaters she knew were now too small, to toss them into a bag for donation.
As she stripped the tree of its ornaments, its gaudy plastic miniature carousel and the glass balls the cat had been steadily breaking, Elle called the police—the non-emergency number, which felt like a fair compromise between inertia and alarm.
“Yes, I’ve had something stolen,” she said when a beleaguered-sounding voice told her she’d reached the Castleton Police Department. “And I would like to know my options.”
The person at the other end of the line hesitated. “You can make a report, but listen: Nothing usually turns up.”
The voice coughed. “Okay, sometimes it does. But we’ve had a lot of calls about missing items today.”
“A lot? Like how many?”
“So unless we find a shed full of stolen things, it’s not likely you’ll see your item again.” The person paused. “Unless it was a car, or jewelry? It’s different if it’s like that.”
“It wasn’t a car,” Elle said. “It was a rooster. A sculpture.”
“Oh,” said the voice. “So you can do a report. If you want.”
Elle taped up her box of ornaments and began unscrewing the tree stand, keeping the phone pressed between her shoulder and her ear. “I guess not,” she said, and then she sat on the floor and called over the cat, which was just shy of feral but attracted to shadows, and so Elle made a bird with her hands that seemed to glide along a strip of sun on the floor, and the cat’s eyes dilated and she leapt onto the shadowy bird.
For a moment, Elle let herself go back to her childhood home in the woods, which had become while they lived there so far beyond clutter. The book tower in the kitchen that went clear to the ceiling, the pile of sweaters she would push to the side of her bed each night, making just enough space for her body. Things and things and things above and below and around them, her mother’s inability to let go writ large in the narrow pathways Elle and her brother cleared from one room to the next.
“Cat,” Elle said, leaning over to scratch the creature’s ears, but it realized that the shadow bird was gone and so slunk away and under the kitchen table.
She went around then and made sure all the windows were locked, especially in Tuck’s room, and the back door that led out to their little yard. She decided then, as she often did when she was anxious, to pare down further, to toss the glass ornaments after all and to recycle the cardboard snowperson that Tuck had made at school. And then she called her brother.
She could hear something rhythmic through the phone—waves, maybe, or cars on an interstate. She told him what had happened, that things had gone missing and that it was probably nothing but that she was locking the house nonetheless. That there was going to be a wedding in June. “They invited me to the wedding,” she said and then she snorted out a bitter laugh. “I’ll need a plus one.”
For a long time, it had been Elle and her brother. Back when they had far too many things and then later, when they had almost nothing at all.
But he only said, as he always did when she asked him to come see her, “Elle.” And then: “No.”
“Something’s going on.” Even as she said it, she looked toward the old Christmas tree now laying on the living room floor, and next to it was the box of glass ornaments she could have sworn she’d just thrown away.
He was quiet for a moment. On the line, a lone horn sounded—a boat, perhaps. He was, she knew, somewhere warm, somewhere loud, far from Iowa’s icy hush. “It might just be kids, you know? Kids like absurdity. It might be nothing.”
It might, it might, it might.
* * *
An uneasy start to the year, then, but suddenly, midway through January, the spring semester began. Elle’s students were already buzzing when she walked into class the first day. The students at the college were often sunny and smart, though they hadn’t chosen the state universities for a reason. They wanted a campus where they could name the squirrels that picked around the commons; they wanted a teacher who would call, concerned, if they happened to miss a class.
This semester, Elle was teaching a course on flora and fauna in literature. They would pore over the puppy in The Great Gatsby; they’d discuss Mrs. Dalloway’s famous flowers and how she would get them herself. That the focus on animals wasn’t so different from the girlfriend’s exploration of The Arnolfini Portrait was something Elle decided not to worry about.
She’d begun to suspect that Castleton was failing her, or that she was failing it. Elle believed in a life of constant improvement, but in the purest form of such a life, it was hard to know where to land. Before she was an adjunct instructor she’d been an editor for a textbook company, and before that she’d almost completed a master’s degree in social work. In each iteration of her life, something else had called to her more loudly—for a long time, that thing was Tuck—and now, she’d grown embarrassed when she walked into the department kitchen to see that the other adjuncts were growing younger, seemingly not far off from her students themselves.
The buzz today was about missing things. It had happened again over break—purple-and-white collegial flags taken from outside the football stadium, a stone in front of the admissions office engraved with the names of the 1998 debate team.
“I heard it was university students,” a girl in a green turtleneck said, her hair pulled back too tight. Sometimes, the students fretted about the nearby university. They felt bullied by its proximity, its sprawling facilities and research hospital, and the football stadium that could fit four Castletons inside it. “They did it as a prank.”
Another student, this one a boy a full head shorter than everyone around him, nodded. “Who else could it be?” he asked.
Elle set her bag down at the desk at the front of the room and surveyed the group in front of her. Fifteen of them, as expected, and only three she recognized: one worked at the commons food court, and another had been the lead in the fall play. Last semester, she’d had an ass, a boy who’d smirked at her from the second row as the trees crawled with ants and then turned red and then lost their leaves outside. The promise of the fall semester, deconstructed, and that smirk, always there except when he chose to nap at his desk, and she’d never been able to figure out what to do about it. He turned in his essays, but they were deplorable, scraps he’d dashed off an hour before class, no doubt. She’d given him a D just so that he’d go away, so she wouldn’t have to fail him and get a phone call from his parents.
But here he was, right at the front of the room, scrolling through something on his phone. That smirk now set against the winter landscape outside, and she tried her best to let her eyes pass over him as if he were nothing, as if he were water.
“What’s your evidence for it being university kids?” she asked, projecting to command the room’s attention. She was teaching in one of the oldest halls on campus, all dark wood and tall chapel windows. Outside, ice pelted the building.
The girl in the green turtleneck looked startled. “It’s something they would do?” she said.
“Okay, but why?” she said now, hopping to sit on her desk, feigning casual. There was so much pretense to teaching, so much performance. If she stood, she was stiff. If she sat behind her desk, she was afraid. She always felt, on these fraught first days, like a teacher in a movie.
The girl squinted at Elle. “I don’t know,” she said. She looked around at the listening heads around her. “It just makes sense.”
“Let me guess,” the student—the one from the previous semester—said, now looking up from his phone. “This is our first lesson. Something about argument, about backing up your points.”
Elle was about to confirm that yes, that was exactly what was happening, though not so tritely as he was making it out to be, when they all heard a crash outside, deep and earthy. The students glanced around, stunned, and then first one and then another pushed their chairs back and clamored around the narrow windows to see what had happened. It was, it turned out, a huge and knotted tree branch, fallen, snapped off by the weight of all the ice and wet snow they’d had that year. Elle tried not to think of it as an arm, positioned as it was in the snow—here a bent elbow, and there a wrist. Its wizened bark like old skin, tough and weathered.
“Whoa,” the students breathed. One of them said, “That could have fallen on somebody.”
The tree, Elle knew, had frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed, once too often. Like a heart that breaks for the final time; like a screwhead that’s been stripped bare. And she thought, in the brief moment where they all pressed against the windows, that this world changed too quickly for them, for the kids and for the trees. It couldn’t catch up with itself—it couldn’t stand fixed in the moment. Freeze and thaw, which is how she’d lived, to an extent.
They looked out into the gray day, her students who might someday lose things or themselves for that matter, and one girl gasped. “Oh look,” she said, and they did, all of them, as a barred owl, silent and sweeping, dove down and snatched a mouse right out of the snow.