Fiction Finalist: House Crawl

When the Carnahans moved to Spirit Island Estates, it was one of those decisions that on paper looked like a sure thing, a natural path, so alluring in its possibilities as to seem irresistible. With Reed’s company losing big accounts to the Pacific Rim, his boss had begun hovering over him like a killer drone. One look at the cylindrical ashtray on the tiny patio outside the breakroom, the way the partially smoked, stubbed out cigarettes stood in a cluster like the skewed pillars of some primeval ruin, and you sensed there was trouble. In the gritty office of an Oil Change Express, Greta read an article about how people in the U.S. replaced their friends on average about every seven years. For a variety of reasons or perhaps no reason at all, they had begun to fit the mold. People they once saw on a fairly regular basis began to hide behind their email and Facebook accounts. Caller ID made it seem like they were trying to get through to the White House for a casual movie night and their families were scattered across the country like explorers. What was it that suddenly seized hold of you with the absolute certainty that you were on the wrong road, heading in a direction which led nowhere, that you had better throw out the old map and start from scratch?

The Island, as it was usually called, was a new colony and you could buy a 2,700-square-foot faux Dutch Revival for under a couple hundred grand. The community was pleasantly separate from the fractious effects of the city, in an area, though flat as a billiard table, that sported three lakes and a private golf course. The real estate agent had touted “the commons,” a sort of corridor of free space that ran behind most of the backyards, as a mosaic of neighborliness. The place also featured a security entrance, framed by a limestone arch that had the grandeur of some famous portal, to keep the chaos of the wide world at bay. Reed and Greta couldn’t even have said exactly what they wanted—something less compressed, away from the bungalows and accidents of proximity yet not too far, perhaps an intermediate step toward one of the coasts. Their five-year-old, Otis, would no longer be bouncing off the walls of a bedroom whose cramped dimensions reminded them of an attic.

Reed sat with Brian Trent at the Arrowhead Grill after their round of golf, lounging under an umbrella with some Italian logo, now and then glancing at the mostly errant shots that traveled up to the 18th green in front of them. The flag in the hole would lift slightly and fall with subtle variations in the breeze. The panorama seemed to extend for miles without a shopping mall or office building to blight the natural contour. Their playing partners had already departed for errands and social obligations but they lingered, partly because the manicured grass, the edge of the lake in the distance represented for them some indescribable sanctuary.

“You would have had a good back nine except for that one hole,” Brian said, distracted by the series of numbers he was adding on the scorecard. Reed vividly remembered his drive striking the famous “cleavage tree” on the edge of the 16th fairway, so named for its two large symmetrical humps next to one another, like the prow of a Viking ship. The ball had caromed out of bounds and across the street into the Micellis’ tomato plants.

“It’s a good omen hitting that tree though,” Brian said with his characteristically sanguine take on things. “Don’t be surprised if you get lucky tonight.”

“It would be nice but I don’t think Greta’s very attuned to tree magic. I suppose an incantation or two wouldn’t hurt though,” Reed said, rolling his eyes.

Brian and Mandy Crockett, a couple for about a year, had become the Carnahans’ primary friends of the new crop. Brian had just the right amount of extroversion, just enough openness tinged by restraint, and a similar, if not particularly fervent, political bent. He had the smallest handwriting Reed had ever seen, very precise, a signature that required a magnifying glass, and a tendency to deftly change the subject if things got too personal. Otherwise he seemed very much in control, genial, never cutting you off, often summoning some odd item from the internet if the conversation were to go slack. He was moderately successful, having gotten in early on the tanning salon craze. He was one of those guys who felt himself to have a little clairvoyance, who might be able to spot the next big thing before the rest of the herd. Probably in his early forties, Brian had begun to seem like the older brother Reed never had. Both of them loved golf and Mandy, who Greta met in a Photoshop class staged in the community house, wrote a blog Greta found clever.

Even though the brightness had dissipated with the late afternoon angle of the sun, Brian never seemed to take his sunglasses off, like some kind of Secret Service agent. He sipped a gin and tonic while Reed took long gulps of his beer. They had met at last year’s glow ball tournament and since then Brian had acted as a cross between a sponsor and tour guide.

“What do you make of people shooting at the menhirs?” Reed said, recalling the weekend’s news. “Didn’t we all move out here to get away from this kind of stuff?”

The signature element of the development’s theme was the “menhirs,” rough stone monoliths about seven feet high supposedly excavated from a site somewhere in the county, artifacts of a tribe that had flourished 1,400 years before. There were a few of them, all with some crude markings, placed at strategic locations throughout the hamlet. No specific purpose had been sorted out through the obscure lens of all those years, except that they seemed to embody a kind of sacredness. But a certain faction in the community had come to feel the blocks were somehow heathen and apocalyptic. One had recently been vandalized to depict a rather menacing alien figure with the caption, “They are coming!” This might have been dismissed as part of the overall graffiti problem if it weren’t for the fact that someone was obviously using some of the menhirs for target practice. At first people mistook the popping sounds in the wee hours for fireworks or vehicle backfires, but it became obvious the stones were becoming chipped and embedded with the fragments of bullets.

“Well, some folks are upset,” Brian said, his line of sight still out along the fairway. “Those boulders are some kind of focal point. It’s their way of protesting I guess. I don’t think it’s much to worry about.” They both paused a few seconds when a group of women on the other side of the deck broke into a collective paroxysm of laughter that had them nearly gasping for oxygen.

“Bullets flying around are something to worry about in my view. And protesting what? Are we in the Middle East?” Reed said, regretting the sense of complaint that had crept into his voice.

“Some kind of backlash. You had all the graffiti on the routers—you know for cable—and meetings springing up to get rid of them because some people think they’re something of an eyesore. People will fight for their TV. It’s their lifeline to civilization.”

Reed had to admit that interference entered into everything out there at times. The radio signal would fade in and out but with a near constant background hum. The signal decoder had to be positioned just right, the blinds drawn and the bric-a-brac on the mantel arranged just so or the digital picture would dissolve into square pixels like some incomprehensible modern painting. And of course the phone calls could echo like they were in some vast underground cavern. The town council, of which Brian was a key member, had quietly approved a dozen router boxes on easements throughout the town, before a coalition could be formed to stall the onslaught. Reed noticed a few of them already, dull oblong frames with columns of jittery dials, emitting a perpetual low whir with blinking red lights set close enough together that it wasn’t hard to imagine them a pair of eyes.

“Last year it was the leaf blowers. So what if they sound like jet engines. They move the damn leaves,” Brian said, grinning.

“I like the menhirs. I know they’re probably fake but there’s something almost reassuring about them… At least the police seem to be closing in on it,” Reed said, gulping the last of his beer.

“A two man force—I wouldn’t expect much unless one of the shots strays into somebody’s dining room window.”

Brian insisted on paying the check, perhaps because he’d recently won a lawsuit against him by a guy who claimed to have suffered a mild burn described as vaguely the shape of Greenland. In the locker room, he overheard some joking with Brian about a woman other than Mandy, and then when he’d asked him about it, Brian had gotten coy. “Romantically, things are sort of in a state of flux” was all he divulged. Once outside under the pounding sun, from the opposite side of the lot, Reed saw Brian get into one of those tank-like vans that was not his own, a woman he’d never seen before at the wheel. Brian didn’t see Reed’s perfunctory wave as the driver eased them out into the trafficless street.

 

For a while, Greta could be almost feverish in pressing Mandy’s last blog post on him, though by and large Reed felt overwhelmed enough by the actual world to dismiss most of the virtual stuff as a giant sinkhole of distraction. He had seen countless others get drawn in to the web’s glowing vortex, devouring whole sections of their lives, a danger on a scale somewhere between insipid gossip and the Indian casino in Broadport. Not that Reed didn’t like Mandy. She was a tall, sandy blond, with an eye-catching walk but an air of preoccupation. She was a stay at home mom for the time being with a journalism degree that in the last decade hardly seemed worth the paper it was printed on. A bit reserved, almost to the point of secrecy, her self-effacement had a way of drawing you out, getting you to talk about your own situations more than you otherwise might.

So one Saturday morning he found the site. There was a kind of motto at the top that read: “Smallgripes.com—Shining a light on mankind’s little annoyances since 2006.” Beside this there was a vaguely sketched woman with the look of a gorgon, hair sticking out in all directions and eyes ablaze, with what appeared like steam coming out of her head. Mandy’s dissatisfactions apparently ran the gamut. The first few topics in the index were:

–massive privately owned urban vehicles

–people who pretend they’re unaware you’re behind them

–dramas with the obligatory torture scene

–ripped out articles at the dentist’s office

–mildly rude cashiers

–marketing: the new hypnotism

–the euphemistic style of waiters

This last post began, “Does it bother anyone else that for as long as I can remember every waiter and waitress in America has used the same standard phrase for determining if she/he should remove your plate from the table? We all know what they say, without variation, no matter what their ethnic background, no matter whether you’re eating goat in the Addis Ababa Cafe or pancakes at the local diner, whether their inflection is gentle or matter-of-fact or brusque. They say, ‘Are you still working on that?’ This is obviously a code that restaurant owners everywhere seem to impose on their staffs, a mantra, a forced expression, a euphemism, for determining where the customer is in her meal. Doesn’t this rob the server of any originality whatsoever? And aren’t we all sick to death of it?”

That was just the most recent one but there were scores more as he scrolled down the pages, each with dozens of messages of approval in much smaller script. She had even scored an advertiser, a local florist who was offering a discount on the flower of the month. It struck him that Mandy had never outwardly betrayed a hint of frustration or sarcasm, nothing to suggest some smoldering inner critic. In person, Reed could not recall a single instance where she had signaled even the slightest hint of grievance. Her demeanor was always so breezy, so absent of controversy, almost as if she were on some meditative plane that somehow skimmed above the fray. It was a not unpleasant shock that like him, she found so much to fault. He liked that there was always something hidden about certain women, some aspect that was always halfway around an impenetrable corner. This was not to mention her nearly perfect rear end, the slope of which might have formed the model for an Olympic ski platform.

The following week when Greta was at the allergist, Reed had to get off early to pick up Otis from his playdate with Mandy’s son Paul, who was his intermittent companion. He had seen Mandy dozens of times by then but it was always in their foursomes with Brian holding court, and knowing he probably wouldn’t be there, Reed just wanted to get through this exercise with a minimum of awkwardness. He was a bit startled when Paul opened the door holding one of the Otis’s laser guns and wearing a zombie mask. He said, “Mom’s in the back,” just as Reed looked up to see Mandy waving on the small patio, leaning forward in a lawn chair in front of her laptop, beyond which was a modest inflatable pool. “Aren’t you a little young to want to eat other people?” Reed asked him. Paul ignored this and clamored back down a set of stairs to the basement where Otis was probably rummaging through Paul’s mountain of toys.

“Sorry, my deadline’s tomorrow for this darn thing,” she said, half getting up now that the spell of continuity had been broken. She had begun doing articles for a website a few weeks before. “I hope Greta’s OK.”

“She’s fine. Just a little routine maintenance.” Reed gingerly slid the screen door open enough that they weren’t talking through a partition.

“Let me see if the demolition crew is ready to come up.” She moved past him briskly and in her jeans and loose blouse he couldn’t help but consider again that she was pretty in a different way than Greta was. Her walk was subtly more of a swaying motion, her arms swinging a bit more freely. And there was a slight measure of self-consciousness in her movements he found unexpectedly sexy, as if it mattered to her how she appeared. Reed wished that he’d had just a minute to talk to Mandy, if not directly about her blog, just to get a better sense of the person behind those observations. In all the times they had been together, he had never imagined she had this other acutely observant side, clever and trenchant. Now he vaguely worried if he might betray some idiosyncrasy, his habit of grabbing his left ear when things got uncomfortable maybe, that would be the subject of her next lampoon.

When they came up, Otis sported nearly the full array of his arsenal; handcuffs, blaster, magnet claws, night binoculars and light saber. His heroes were often eclectic. He had just attained the age when children begin to find fissures in their parents’ omnipotence. Reed hoped he wouldn’t be openly critical of him here and cause a scene. The night before he had made a mess of repairing the tangled lines of a Captain America parachute, another display of his manual ineptitude, and Otis had said in a very level voice, “You’re a good dad but a terrible assistant.”

“Hey Dad,” Otis said nonchalantly, somehow a combination of relief that he had not been abandoned and regret that he was being abruptly yanked back into the mundane world.

“Make sure he comes back soon, Reed,” Mandy said, “as long as they leave the house still standing.” Reed was preoccupied watching Paul and Otis signal their shy goodbyes and when he turned to reply, he was struck by the way Mandy was leaning her hip against the jamb and the rarity of her unalloyed smile, such that he could only shout “sure” and half stumble on his way back to the car.

 

Reed was often grateful for Greta’s social élan; without her he’d probably be forced to join some sad club of misfits. Yet she was withdrawing more and more into her photography and when she took a picture of some ordinary thing, a park bench or a plastic flamingo on someone’s lawn, keenly twisting her lens as if she were capturing the pyramids, he couldn’t help but smirk. It seemed every few months Greta would receive a condescending letter conveying that she had not won some contest or other, offering her some pathetic consolation like a discount on digital batteries. She did a valiant job of hiding her disappointment. A few times he caught her rereading the letter, after she thought he was asleep, by the faint light on the monitor, as if the words might somehow reconfigure themselves in her favor. Once in an attempt to bolster her mood, he said, “Don’t get upset honey. It’s all fixed anyway. As fixed as a fortuneteller at a traveling circus.”

There was a time when she would have felt lifted by this but lately such a remark would devolve into a ritual argument about Reed’s being too downbeat. His sense of the paths to disaster in almost any situation, accrued over a decade now, had shredded her innate sense of optimism. She once said that Reed’s glass was not half full—there were barely a few drops in it. Perhaps the trouble was that he had been raised in a family where kidding was like a never ending board game and to suppress this urge seemed to contradict his intrinsic wiring. It didn’t help that Otis had become a skilled mimic and appeared to be picking up some of his vices. The other day, after grabbing a coloring book, Otis had asked “Where’s the damn pencil?” as seamlessly as a longshoreman.

One day Greta got a call from Monica Remick in the old neighborhood asking them back for a birthday barbecue. She said she practically had to hire a skip tracer to track down their whereabouts. This seemed to erase all the intrigues that had sometimes plagued them and filled Greta with a buoyant nostalgia. But there was a maze of obstacles—a playdate scheduled for weeks, a slow leak in one of the Accord’s tires, tickets to see Barefoot in the Park at the summer stock theatre—so they had to pass. That evening, when Reed made a playful remark about the den starting to look like a “dust farm,” Greta started throwing things. She indiscriminately reached for any nonlethal object that happened to be nearby and could get airborne: magazines, couch pillows, the occasional paperback novel, then finally a bunch of bananas. These were not lobbed but hurled full force as an athlete might fling a javelin. Reed had never been violent by nature, so he merely ducked and weaved and protected his head like an overmatched boxer until her fury was spent.

One of the favorite regular summer events was the “long boat” party, where several of the pontoons would be linked up so those invited could migrate between them without too much difficulty, a hundred yards from shore. Every year someone managed to fall in but there had never been a drowning or a police report, so these peculiar social events became engraved in the calendar like some prehistoric custom. Reed and Greta had been invited this time and they went with the curiosity of people for whom bodies of water were an alien element, apart from the occasional trip to the beach or sunset picnic.

“Maybe we bring a small scuba tank just in case?” Reed said, as they strode down the pier where Rex Hartrich was waiting in shipman’s garb to ferry them out to the line of boats they could see were already full of chattering guests. Rex greeted everyone effusively like he was taking them on a voyage. Reed half remembered running into him at the local tavern one night when he insisted that at his demise, he wanted his body placed on the deck of his skiff, with the craft being pointed to the middle of the lake and set ablaze. His neighbor, Roy Winters, had said, “Why wait?”

“Don’t scare the fun out this for a change, Reed, OK?”

“It isn’t a bad idea to take precautions. Neither of us wants some kind of Natalie Wood kind of deal here,” he said, referring to the actress’s mysterious aquatic demise.

“That’s exactly what I mean,” Greta said, sweeping some windblown curls out of her vision, which with her longer hairstyle almost seemed a compulsive gesture. “It’s so relaxing with the gentle waves. I just loved Uncle Steve’s catamaran when I was a kid.”

“If I want the sensation of floating, that’s what bourbon is for, and you never need the Coast Guard. I hope they have enough life jackets.” Greta shot him one of her signature looks of minor annoyance that he understood was a warning to change the subject.

They boarded with a few other couples they didn’t know who displayed a mixture of excitement and guardedness with the principles of balance. Once deposited at the party, they took small steps and looked for someone they knew. The dimensions of the main pontoon were about the same as a boxing ring and there was a sign saying that at 11 p.m. this area was reserved as a dance floor. Reed took Greta’s hand so that they could shift and squeeze their way to the bar in the corner. Reed always felt better with a drink in his hand and once he passed an Old Fashioned to Greta, she turned to spot Gwen Meeks waving at her from the railing two dinghies down. Through some improvised sign language it was understood that they would converge in the one between them playing Sinatra tunes. Reed’s mild claustrophobia kept threatening to surge but each gulp of Jamesons seemed an antidote.

He didn’t really know Gwen at all but was glad for any hint that they belonged there, especially when the only escape involved a long swim. But after Greta and Gwen exchanged gleeful hugs and he was introduced, Reed quickly couldn’t stand the fact that his glass was empty and excused himself to remedy that, yet not before misjudging the wake from some distant speedboat and lurching against a set of ropes. He managed to stay dry and glancing back, he saw Greta and Gwen and a few others who’d noticed cracking up at the sight of him.

“Hey, stop rocking the boat buddy,” Brian said with a mock serious expression, appearing from the midst of the huddling crowd.

“I thought it was the other way around,” Reed said, just relieved not to have gone all the way down. “Except for the sharks circling us, it’s a lovely evening.”

“Don’t worry. We have plenty of harpoons.”

“Where’s Mandy? A trove of blog material here I would think.”

“You’ve read it? I’m a little afraid to.”

“Greta showed it to me once or twice,” Reed said, trying not to seem too interested. “She’s very good.”

“Maybe a little too good sometimes,” Brian said, quickly looking out in the direction of the buoys. “She’s a regular private eye.”

Before Reed could explore that comment further, there was a big splash to starboard and a woman yelled in a fake panicked voice, “Man overboard!” A roar went up from the cabin cruiser next to theirs and it tilted slightly in the lake as people leaned to get a view. Reed only caught a glimpse but it was clear that the whole thing had been staged as Dale Haney had a giant preserver propped under his arms and he held his highball aloft like he was carrying a banner at an Independence Day parade. Greta got a picture but in the twinkling light, Haney was hardly more than a silhouette against the water.

As the night wore on, more of the Island’s oddities were revealed. There was the recent encroachment of the coyotes with a few of them brazenly venturing down Main Street and the tennis courts as if these were merely features of a wildlife preserve. Down the block, Rick Lobsinger lost his job but managed to keep this a secret for six months. Every morning he would drive off at 7:30 with his game face and a nonexistent list of appointments. Where he went was anyone’s guess but he managed to keep the ruse afloat by stealing people’s checks and credit cards out of mailboxes. His Ambien addiction defense didn’t work and he was now serving four years for grand larceny in Mantino.

But most of the stories seemed to center around the menhirs. Various animals reportedly tended to congregate around them. Ruth Starlon was convinced that they were responsible for curing her lymphoma. Every Saturday morning, she would lay flowers or some other offering at the base of the one nearest her duplex. An archeology professor from the community college weighed in saying the tribe that had constructed them were nomadic and held ceremonies to figure out which way to head next. When one of the routers had to go in one of the clearings where a couple of menhirs stood, the history faction seemed to gather strength. It seemed inevitable when one Thursday the police blotter reported one of the routers’ gear boxes had been ripped off and scattered. Homes in a square mile radius could hear the furious complaints streaming out of their neighbors’ windows when there was only the snowy nothingness of a blank screen where a ballgame or a singing contest should have been.

It must have been about midnight when the real fireworks were detonated. Two guys few people seemed to know at the south end of the chain started arguing about the cable boxes and it quickly got out of hand. There was a barrage of insults and some shoving and Greta even overheard some woman say she’d seen a flash of a holstered gun, but the conflict died down as suddenly as it erupted. Reed had seen Brian escorting one of them out, speaking to him in a tense yet familiar manner, as they made their way beyond the cluster of masts in the harbor.

 

The weather could not have been better for the annual house crawl, on an unusually warm October night. Balls could be seen zooming across the sky like tracers or fireworks heralding the end of the evening’s glow ball tournament, which had kicked off the evening’s procession. Revelers advanced in a string of golf carts like some carnival ride, ferrying dozens of different conversations and cocktails in their sinuous wake. Some were armed with flashlights as if ready to form a search party if one of their derelict number should stray from the circuit. At the first house, the Nelligan family room was scattered with a myriad of exploratory mementos. There were photographs of astronauts, maps of the route around Cape Horn and a whole shelf devoted to the discovery of the source of the Nile. Still there was scant respect shown for their little museum. Shelly Moreno received an ovation for balancing a cheap Turkish vase on her head for thirty seconds and George Nix did a wobbly handstand before tipping over into a bust of Admiral Perry.

Reed and Greta’s contingent meandered to two or three more undistinguished bacchanals leaving a trail of disorderliness. The dwellings seemed to have only minor design variations, lending a sense of déjà vu. Greta seemed to grow ever more wayward as the night wore on. By her third margarita, she vanished with a group of women he barely recognized, though he could hear some of them cavorting to an ’80s dance number. Reed spotted Brian holding forth across the lawn, probably about one of the council votes. Mandy wasn’t with him, probably drawn elsewhere by the random eddies of the throng. Bill Hettinger, the real estate agent who had reeled them in, rested a huge arm on his shoulder, and peered down at him. “How’s everything buddy? I love these things. It makes me feel like everyplace is an open house. Like there’s no guesswork anymore.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” forcing himself to grin though he didn’t have a clue. Shortly after their purchase, Bill had taken them out to dinner in a sports car which he drove so fast, they’d thought at one point they stood a chance of flipping end over end.

“I heard our pal Brian has gone off the reservation, though. No open house there,” Bill said in his best conspiratorial whisper.

“How do you mean?” Reed said, just as Brian spied him and raised his glass toward him like offering a toast.

“He’s got a little action going on the side. It seems Brian’s somehow mixed up in all that business with the big stones too. One of the ringleaders I hear…Too bad, Mandy’s a nice gal. Sold her that big lot in ’98.”

Reed was stunned for a few seconds, trying to superimpose what he had just heard on the image of Brian. The information felt like magnets whose force naturally repelled each other, impossible to merge. Then someone hailed Bill from a golf cart that already had about five people in it just as he’d stuffed a chip full of salsa in his enormous mouth, so that as he moved toward them he had to point in their direction to signal his departure.

Greta had become separated again when another of her new friends dragged her away to look at one of Mitch Hampsted’s pictures of Beijing. That was the way it was at these rolling parties—you could lose track of companions for hours. Reed desperately needed to relieve himself and with the line at the downstairs bathroom and no nerve to venture into God knows what on the second floor, he headed outside for a deserted spot in the preserve along the edge of the golf course. After accomplishing his mission, he noticed a faint light further into the trees where it didn’t seem there should have been one. It was a moonless night and off the beaten path, as dark as a cave. Just as he paused to consider whether it was worth investigating, he saw someone strolling about 50 yards down the lake road. He decided it was time to trek back to the others and pulled out his cell so whoever it was wouldn’t be startled.

“Hey,” Mandy called out weakly, as if she had been a little frightened nevertheless. He recognized something in her voice before the rest of her slowly emerged from the background.

“It’s just Reed,” he said, figuring she hadn’t made out his face yet as she stood, neither advancing nor retreating. He had instinctively inserted the word “just” to emphasize his harmlessness with no one else around but the greeting felt strangely apt, one perhaps to use as a standard introduction.

“Reed,” she half shouted after an audible sigh. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re not the Boston Strangler.”

“We seem to have wandered away from the caravan.” He could see now that she was smoking a cigarette and speculated that she had wanted to do that far from the opprobrium of her neighbors. She was quietly dazzling in her tight skirt and heels, yet something in her face seemed weary of all the frivolity.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing out here. But if I see one more living room that looks oddly like mine…”

“I was just trying to decide whether to check out a strange phenomenon,” he said, avoiding his own reasons for being there, and feeling some indefinable sensation of being alone with an attractive woman, however forbidden. He wondered whether the rumor of Brian having an affair were true and if he might discern through the subtlest clue, the tilt of her head, the angle of her stance, which now featured one knee slightly pushing out the fabric of her long dress, whether she knew. He could count the times he had actually talked to Mandy on one hand but because of the blog, he almost felt like she had been a buddy’s steady girlfriend in college.

“Really, I’m afraid to ask what but I will anyway.”

“Over there. There aren’t any spotlights over there.”

“I see what you mean. Maybe we should wait for reinforcements.”

“Sorry, I can’t help myself. If you see any spaceships materialize, head back to camp.”

Without waiting for approval, Reed gingerly stepped down the slight grade into the acacia and weeping willow trees that grew over there and into a small clearing that hadn’t been apparent from the road. He saw immediately what it was. A few of the glow balls had been so errant at that bend of the dogleg that they had gone out of bounds over a chain link fence and settled there, pooling their fluorescence. It was only when he stepped closer to retrieve them, bounty from his little adventure, that he made out the menhir, rising like an altar near them. Somehow Mandy had followed him without his hearing and when he turned she was just a few feet away, where she looked from the graven image to him.

“They always seem to turn up when you least expect it,” she said, edging a little closer, with only the sound of the long grass. “At least for now. So long as they keep quiet and don’t get in the way.”

“Is it really like that?” Reed said, appraising the rough shape, its etching mostly obscured.

“They’re just out there like personal letters anyone can read if you know how to read them.” Mandy almost whispered, playfully as if it didn’t matter. “Which side are you on?”

“The past or the future. I wish I could tell you.”

Under the soft sky, a mild breeze barely stirring the branches, some thrumming charge from her proximity seemed to fill him, slowly at first and then more insistently, the kind of weightlessness he felt when the whiskey started to change the composition of his blood. There was a moment when they just stood close, waiting to be hurled one way or another. Then somehow they were down on the edge of the knoll, leaves bristling under their sudden weight, entwined like it were some instinct of survival, as if the weight of their disenchantment would otherwise crush them.

Perhaps it was the shots that rang out somewhere in the vicinity, abruptly punctuating the darkness with their power, that kept them from sinking further into the abyss of complication. But it had acted like an admonition, breaking the spell. It entered into Reed’s mind that someone was shooting at the menhir they were close to, and oddly, when the image came to mind, it was Brian pulling the trigger, chortling when a hunk of the thing was gouged off.

There was the palpable sense from the quickness with which they withdrew from one another that while the whole escapade was pleasant, it was now being thrown in reverse. They rose from the ground together somewhat at a loss and began drifting back to the clamor of the party. “It must be our celebrated spirits,” Reed said, jockeying for some kind of neutral position. But the look that passed across Mandy’s face, at least in profile amid the spectral traces of light, seemed unsure whether he meant the kiss or the gunfire. It was perfectly quiet for a moment as they gathered themselves, the great stone resting in mute witness like a sentinel. Then there was the sound of the carts’ engines rumbling, their raucous convoy once again on the move.

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