Jens could feel the snow accumulating, the wet flakes clumping on his shoulders—one more weight piling on. He lit a cigarette and let the smoke warm him as the feeble sun scooped along the horizon, grazing the line of trees at the edge of the sea. Far to the north, Suna was settling back into her family’s house along this same coast. “Just for now,” she’d said, “until…” Yes, until. And then—
He put off covering the last quarter-mile as he always did, standing in the gray melt at the side of the road where she used to drop him. Time had been messing with him lately. He lost track so easily, minutes slipping by without his noticing. Once close to an hour had passed while he sat holding a piece of toast. He’d taken the clock down and replaced the battery, thinking there had to be a mechanical explanation. When that didn’t fix things, he tried to blame Suna; but it had been there long before she moved home.
The sun crept sideways, clipping the treetops. When the bell rang at the school on the little hill behind him, he ground out his cigarette and made his way carefully along the trunk of a spruce that had fallen across the creek. A thin slick of ice coated the wood under his feet. On the other side, the only other tracks were those of some large animal—a dog probably, maybe a wolf. There were still a few around from the failed reintroduction at the beginning of the century. A fresh start to the new millennium, the boosters had said. Once or twice every winter someone spotted a holdover hovering on the outskirts of the new developments. They were thin and mangy, people who had seen them told the news crews, not terrifying at all. Even their howls, which had once echoed hauntingly through the birch woods, had thinned to whines that hardly carried past the highway. No one cowered in their huts. There was nothing to be afraid of anymore, it seemed, aside from each other.
* * *
“You look like hell,” Hanson said.
“I’m all right,” Jens said, dumping three packets of creamer into his cup. The coffee was watery and smelled faintly of the sea. Salt and cod scales.
“All right? That ain’t good enough. You got to buck up to awesome!”
Jens had watched over the last four years as Hanson, a once-likable engineer from the country, a polite, apologetic farmer’s son, gradually devolved into this aphoristic company man. His hick’s voice grated with slangy camaraderie and sudden, unwarranted insults. Jens suspected the original Hanson was still in there somewhere, and during slow periods he studied his face for telltale signs that he wanted out.
“Better down that, bro,” Hanson said, “and suit up.”
Jens had forgotten about the meeting. He looked over the water lapping almost to the building, out toward the skeletal outlines of the rigs. The water was gray, the sky was gray. Color was an extravagance redlined by the penny-pinchers in the front office. Even the flight suit was gray. He hadn’t washed it since the last time, and his own smell wafted up to him, sweat and stale smoke. A dog would have smelled it right away, a little tinge of fear. A wolf too. But there were no dogs or wolves on the helicopter, only three rig workers and a woman from HR.
He and the woman from HR had gotten together once after work—someone’s birthday, drunk and careless at the tourist bar by the ferry dock. She had an accent from up north, her words swallowed whole and brought back up in pieces. There was no real attraction, hardly even lust. But Suna and he had been on opposite schedules, and their separation was giving them both too much time to think—maybe they weren’t inevitable; maybe they could do better.
“What a waste,” the HR woman had said, staggering back inside after Jens had turned away because Suna’s voice was in his ear, narrating his mistake. The outside wall of the bar was old brick, the mortar crumbling. He could see handprints, his handprints, trailing along the back of the woman’s dress as if someone had scrabbled there, clawing for air.
She avoided his eyes now from the bench seat on the opposite side of the helo. At one point she lifted her hand and turned it slowly in a sort of pageant wave, focusing the weak sun for the briefest moment on a slender engagement ring. He smiled; she didn’t smile back.
Hanson led the meeting, standing with his legs apart and his hands loose to show his disregard for the swaying platform. Out the window, Jens could see the white combs of the swells where they broke around the superstructure. A few gulls and larger birds, cormorants he thought, rose and fell in the buffets of wind bouncing off National Oil’s artificial island. Watching their desperate zigs and zags, with the room rocking under him, a sudden realization bloomed: Suna wasn’t going to leave him. She already had.
He leaned to his left, away from the table, and threw up.
“No sea legs,” Hanson said. Everyone laughed. The woman from HR laughed hardest.
“Sorry,” Jens said.
“That’s why there’s no carpet,” someone else said. More laughter.
Jens found a bucket and mop and cleaned it up while the meeting continued around him. Hanson read off the names of the employees scheduled for the next training round in Texas:
“Svald, Knudson, Parritt…”
America. Sunlight and long views. A sky distant and harmless.
“Berg, Mullinen, Frakk…”
Inmates scheduled for release, each seeming taller and hardier after his name had been read. Faces suffused with light, songs rising in their hearts.
Hanson paused. Jens looked up. It was a mistake, surely.
“Software update,” Hanson said. Jens thought he winked. The woman from HR crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. Dahla, yes; that was her name. She’d been called too.
Jens thought it was strange that so little seemed to change at that moment—though he was convinced it was a decisive one—remarkable how the platform continued its rhythmic motion, the sun its predictable slow descent. Outside, the birds rose and fell. They looked lost, darting among the leafless beams and humming cables. Did birds get lost? He doubted it. It seemed a decidedly human predicament.
* * *
In Suna’s childhood room, the tangible accumulation of time was on full display. Her early years were preserved in state—wonky-eyed, straw-haired dolls, music posters turning brittle, blue and red and white prize ribbons—and overlaid with a fresh stratum of adult belongings. There was even a picture of the two of them, turned slightly toward the wall.
“You came all the way up here to tell me you’re taking a vacation?”
“It’s not a vacation.”
“Work. I don’t know.”
“Okay. Well, happy travels, I guess.”
They hiked up to the top of the hill behind the house, taking the family dogs with them. Looking down over the house toward town, a series of rounded humps, buried rose bushes, pushed up under the snow, unnaturally regular in the blank expanse falling away to the sea. The coast boat he’d taken here—flights were ridiculously expensive—was still docked in the half-frozen harbor. The snow had started as soon as he’d stepped off it.
“You could go blind out here,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
She looked at him in genuine wonder.
“Not to me.”
He knew that was true, and her connection to a world he couldn’t wait to be rid of fell between them. As they walked out along the drive after dinner—plowed just yesterday and already buried again—the deep snow radiated a blue, internal light against the insubstantial trees. It might have been beautiful; he suspected he’d remember it that way.
“You’ll be a small fish over there,” she said. Then, removing her hand from his and tucking it into her pocket: “Smaller.”
They made love for the last time in her little bed. There wasn’t much to say afterward. They slept and woke early. The snow fell and Jens pictured swimming pools and palm trees beneath the drifts, busy sunlit piers where these sagging docks stuck their tongues out into a frozen harbor.
* * *
The water of the Gulf was unnaturally warm and briny. Salt crystals chafed between his legs and on the back of his neck beneath his shirt collar. Dahla giggled and tried to splash him from the shallows. Berg tackled her from the side and they fell together into the stale water.
“I’m going,” Jens said. Neither of them seemed to hear. They sloshed in the waves like baby seals.
Sand flies swarmed up from the ground as he made his way along the curve of beach, shambled past a village of fallen sandcastles overtaken by the incoming tide. Small crabs scrabbled up the ruined walls, the brittle crenellations sliding out from under them the harder they fought. The sun had already baked a number of them, tiny burnt stars that would be light enough by sunset for the wind to carry off.
A little farther on, past the last discarded flip-flop, a natural untidiness returned to the landscape. A small mixed-breed dog with one crimped ear appeared, crossing from side to side in quick darts just ahead of him. The dog bore no resemblance whatsoever to Suna’s graceful northerners but recalled nonetheless their last walk. He looked around for the dog’s owner; there was no one at this end of the beach. Gulls landed and rose from the summit of a sandstone pillar just offshore. A remnant, he assumed, from some larger feature that had been wiped away. He waded out and laid his hand against the stone face. Slicks of droppings reflected the hard sun like snow. The stone was soft and crumbled at his touch as he began to climb.
The dog stood barking below him, chased up and back by the waves. At the top, amid the white splashes of guano, hollows carved out by the elements held cupfuls of saltwater blooming with anemones, opening and closing like heart valves. He lowered his finger into one; it snapped shut, spitting him out. A hermit crab scuttled from one pool, across his ankle, and into the neighboring one. Its leg hooked briefly onto an earring with a pendant pearl that flashed twice as it was kicked loose and settled to the bottom again. Twenty feet above the Gulf, he tried to imagine the rogue wave that would be required to keep these high pools filled. It would happen at night, he reasoned. When there were no witnesses but drunks and cheating lovers who were never believed in the morning.
He climbed down carefully, splashing into the ankle-deep waves at the tower’s base. The dog followed him back and waited outside the glass doors of the hotel bar.
“Texas isn’t America,” Dahla was arguing, leaning against Berg. “Why didn’t they send us to California?” Her ring was gone, leaving a noticeable indentation where the flesh hadn’t reflowed yet.
“Los Angeles,” Berg said. “San Francisco.”
“This isn’t a real beach,” she continued, turning to Jens. “The Beach Boys would spit on this.”
He looked out at the thin, disheveled strip of sand, behind which the light was fading unremarkably from the sky. The jukebox played sad country songs, one after another.
“We should be crying,” Dahla said. “Why aren’t we crying?”
“It’ll come,” Berg said.
After the bar closed, Jens climbed a flight of uneven stairs to the roof and watched as row after row of puny waves broke, lit with a sickly green bioluminescence. The air was still and dead, the rooftop furniture rusting resolutely. He thought about the sandstone pillar, the high tide pools, the massive wave that would come to fill them. With any luck, it was on its way.
* * *
He stayed on with the company in Galveston, watching Dahla and Berg walk hand in hand through the airport doors and away. Hanson stayed on, and it was through him that Jens met Gillian.
“She’s a real peach,” he’d said, his lilting natural accent mixing absurdly with his affected local one.
Gillian owned a condo not far from the beach, within sight of the sandstone pillar. Jens watched it dissolve slowly over the next two years, telling himself repeatedly that he’d climb it again and retrieve the earring for Suna, but he never did. Instead he bought a knockoff pair with an oblique resemblance at a mall jeweler’s, dropped one into his pocket to age, and discarded the other in a trash can in the food court.
“Say something sweet,” Gillian would whisper, hovering over him, squirming as he cooed meaningless phrases in his native tongue:
“Det kom ei mann med hanhund I bann…”
Only later did she ask what it meant, watching Jens’s eyes closely as he lied to her.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he said, though it was really about a man walking a dog.
In the morning, Gillian brewed a single cup in her pod coffee maker and left the house at 7:48 on the dot. She was a pharmaceutical rep and took an inordinate pride in this repetitive precision. She was less careful with her sample bag. Jens had taken to cleaning up the strays that inevitably spilled out onto the kitchen counter. He’d take the pills blindly, with results that ranged from vivid hallucinations to crippling diarrhea, ecstasy to misery. Some mornings he wondered why he didn’t care more about the outcome, why he left it to chance rather than trying to decipher the pills’ imprinted codes.
His sick days piled up, until the company realized his absence made little difference to production and let him go. He put off telling Gillian for almost two months, spending his days following the nameless roads vectoring in every direction like spokes on a broken wheel in the company of Hanson, who’d quit a month earlier and bought a used semi-tractor with his carefully amassed savings.
“That oil slickness,” Hanson said, explaining his sudden decision. “Everything slippery all the time. Nothing to hold onto.”
“Did you say slickness or sickness?”
One afternoon they pulled off the highway into the high desert outside Marfa, took a pair of pills apiece, and walked off in different directions. Jens wound aimlessly through cactus and scrub brush, the sun at an angle above him he couldn’t evade. It was burning something out of him, little by little. He wondered what it would leave behind. He thought of Lot, of the pillar of sandstone back in Galveston, the shells ground down and built back up into monuments before being ground down again. He’d been telling himself for a while now that there was a logic to his own progression, but it was hard to see what that might be from where he stood.
His trail opened eventually onto a narrow mesa where saguaro were marshalled in rows with their arms open in welcome. There were small flowers on some of them like sores blooming. He thought of his mother for the first time in a very long time, her slow decline under the spreading infection, her bizarre late contention that time runs the wrong way. She’d only had him for comfort, which must have been a disappointment.
He moved carefully through the alien landscape, zigzagging to maintain his distance from the spiked statuary, and almost fell over Hanson, who was sprawled flat, his eyes wide open and empty. He’d taken his shirt off and ants were traversing his chest, which was nearly hairless and emblazoned with an elaborate, indecipherable tattoo that Jens had never seen before. A jumble of symbols and letters that must have represented some vision of Hanson’s personal cosmology, a Nordic farrago of homesickness and superstition. He nudged Hanson’s foot. Waited.
He took a blue, ovoid pill that was fuzzed with pocket lint and watched the procession of ants cross Hanson as they would any other obstacle, following the radiating lines on his chest like a map. It occurred to him he should say something over the body; a prayer would be fitting, if he’d known one. Instead he sang, in a thin, uncertain voice, what he could remember of a weepy country song Hanson had played that morning over the truck’s excessive sound system:
It’s plain to see the sun won’t shine today
but I ain’t in the mood for sun anyway…
Of course the sun was, in fact, shining, as it did relentlessly. He waited beside Hanson until it began to weaken, watching with satisfaction as it dropped slowly behind a line of low hills. The light drained out of the sky, unaccompanied by any display of color. He started the song again and let it dribble out without an ending. Beside him, Hanson rose slowly to an elbow.
“Keep going,” he said, his voice hoarse. “You left out the bridge.”
His face was slack and worn-looking, filling slowly again with blood.
“I thought you were dead,” Jens said.
“I think I was.”
There was no fear in his voice. A little awe, maybe, some relief. He brushed a few ants absently off his chest and took a deep breath, opened his mouth. It seemed for a moment that he might be on the verge of revelation. He was in a position, Jens figured, to raise the curtain a crack on the ultimately unknowable, but a dog that had been following Jens all day materialized just then from the shadow of a pinyon pine and let out a high, keening wail that flushed a pair of cactus wrens in a thrum of wings. Hanson scrambled backward, kicking the air. One raised arm slammed into a saguaro, he screamed and swore. The dog stopped and studied him, looking curiously at the dust sifting down around him.
“Is that a ghost dog?” Hanson said, his arm held out to the side.
“No,” Jens said. “Some kind of terrier, I think.”
“I thought it was a ghost dog.”
The dog sniffed around them, circling. Hanson began picking spines out of his arm. The night that had been so slow in coming fell all at once, blackening the world in all directions. To the south, the Marfa lights rose in response, sailing in slow arcs back and forth along the horizon. Hanson shivered, found his shirt and pulled it on.
“I guess they’re real,” he said.
The lights spun and pulsed, separating from the background stars.
“What was it like?” Jens asked.
Hanson thought for a second.
“Quiet,” he said.
“Was there anybody there, anybody else?” Jens didn’t know what he wanted the answer to be, which side of belief he’d like to fall on. “You know…waiting or anything?”
“I didn’t see anybody.”
He nodded, but there was no satisfaction in the answer. The lights would have to do. The darkness, aside from them, was complete, almost tangible. He reached out, expecting resistance, but there wasn’t anything to push against. The dog laid down a little ways off, one paw tucked under his chin, and they watched the lights together, Jens and Hanson clapping enthusiastically at particularly long-lasted flares, Hanson smiling widely and letting out little yelps of surprise that whistled through the gaps in his wide-set teeth.
“This is awesome,” he said. “I’m glad I came back.”
Jens thought about that, unsure how he’d feel in his place. The saguaro stood around them, arms still thrown wide. The lights tore little holes, then sewed them back up. The dog disappeared again. Maybe it was a ghost dog.
* * *
When winter hit, Hanson left for California. Gillian kicked Jens out not long after. It was a quiet breakup, no arguments, no ugly scenes. November, with snow falling in the high country. Jens drove back up toward Marfa, as far out into the desert as he could go. He’d thought the snow and the weird dance of the lights might recall the auroras of his youth, but it was a disappointment. The snow was thin and wet and the lights fizzled in the cold air before they could get very far. There was some redemption when the clouds cleared and wide strands of stars appeared arching over him, tangling together in their prescribed configurations. He thought of Suna, calling the constellations by the names of her family and her friends: Turid the water-bearer, Knut the archer. Jens the leaver.
He drove back the way he’d come, the snow churning to mud, out through the little towns scattered like dull coins fallen through a hole in a pocket. At the junction he turned north, away from Galveston and the coast, the salt air and water. Through the night and on into the next day, the sun rising hot, the cold front dissipated. Steam rose from the ground, burning off almost immediately. Around noon a range of mountains appeared in the distance with what looked like snow still clinging to their shaded slopes. He drove as close to them as he could get, up to where a gate bloody with rust blocked the road. He parked and began walking. Before long the mountains revealed themselves to be, not alpine peaks, but hills of sand deposited over ages and ages, treeless and barren. The glare off the sand was as bright as any glacier, as sharp as any slicing off the North Sea.
“Maybe you’ll be a movie star,” Suna’s sister had said.
“Or a cowboy.”
Suna rubbed her little brother’s head.
“We won’t recognize you,” she’d said, almost hopefully.
Everyone had thought America would change him. The problem was, it hadn’t.
His feet slipped as he climbed. At the crest of the ridge a spring-fed valley opened below him, unbelievably green against the bare backdrop of sand hills. There was a small lake in the shape of a comma, its surface crosshatched by ripples from a light breeze. He waded out from the grassy shore until the water was deep enough to sit with the waves lapping against his chest. It wasn’t as cold as he’d hoped, but it was still good. He floated on his back, paddled in a slow circle, his body light and buoyant. He didn’t notice the earring—moved absently over time from one pair of pants to another, bent and discolored now—fall from his pocket and settle into the silt. He floated a little longer.
A squall moved across the lake and stirred the waves until they were washing over him. He didn’t resist, letting himself believe, this once, that it was snow falling, burying him as he stood again on the side of the road at his familiar smoking spot, the snow churned by his boots, Suna’s taillights disappearing around the bend by the fire station. The bell at the school on the hill above him would start to ring any minute, and the children would run out into the thin, hard light screaming and laughing. The wind from the west, warmed slightly by remnants of the Gulf Stream winding through the sea behind the thin band of spruce and fir, would set the trees’ branches trembling, ice crystals fluttering down and catching the light in such a way that it would be difficult—even for those kids deflected from joy by restlessness or cynicism—to stop themselves from running out to gather what looked like jewels into their open hands.
After the wind died again, he found a sheltered spot beneath a stunted tree on a little rise above the lake and let the sun dry him until there was just the hard essence of him left.
Jeff Ewing is the author of the short story collection The Middle Ground, published by Into the Void Press, and the poetry collection Wind Apples, from Terrapin Books. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Willow Springs, Crazyhorse, Southwest Review, ZYZZYVA, Subtropics, and Cherry Tree. He lives in Sacramento, California.