I’m walking the streets of Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, early morning, contemplating the change I saw in Ever (I’m days away from following him downtown yet), writing my friends, feeling crazy, worried about Oliver, worried about them all, when Tracy wakes.
She sits up, understands she’s outside, sees Oliver’s farmhouse from a distance. A voice speaks over her right shoulder.
“Don’t turn around to look at me. If you look at me I’m going to thumb your eyes out. I’m serious. I can’t be looked at. Not by you. Okay?”
“Connie…” Tracy says. But she does not turn around.
“And please don’t call me that. Not anymore. You need to hear this. All of this. Okay?”
Tracy is terrified. Memories of Morris by the fire, the old man in the upstairs bedroom.
How did she get outside?
“When you and Ever left,” Connie says, “we tried to put ourselves back together again. Okay? Me, Karen, and Rodney. The three of us knew something was wrong and we must have been served the right combination of indiscretion and deduction, because we knew to speak only to each other about it. We could tell Morris and Baum had no intentions of changing back. Okay? Do not look at me. I’m serious, Tracy. Do not turn around right now. The face you see will haunt you and the face I see will destroy me. Okay? Karen and I talked about it first. On the back deck. We drank coffee and tea and the boys went inside and she said, ‘We have to change back.’ There was no discussion about what she meant, there didn’t have to be. I’m curious, now, how long it would’ve taken me to come to the same conclusion, but I like to believe I would’ve got there on my own. And yet, that was many people ago. Okay? I’m not the same person Karen brought this up with on the deck. But I remember that person and she means something to me and that’s partly why I won’t let you turn around. I have too much respect for that girl for you to see what she’s become.”
“Enough with that. You’re still in shallow waters. You must’ve retained enough of the old you to get all the way back out here. The fact that Ever isn’t here tells me that he did not. Okay. Then Karen said, ‘We can’t speak to the others about this.’ I’m not sure how she immediately knew it would be dangerous to do so. Again, it must have been from something she ate. Caution? I don’t think so. Something more nuanced than that. Intuition. I can’t remember if I have a memory of Karen having had good instincts before coming here or not. It doesn’t matter. She said we weren’t to talk about it with the others and I agreed wholeheartedly. Obviously Oliver is dangerous. And the rest of us? Well, you could see it in their faces, that next morning, after you drove off and we all waved like Laura Ingalls Wilder, you could tell Morris wasn’t going to give up what he’d got for anything. He and Rodney didn’t think Karen and I could hear them, but we could. Through the living room window. Okay? Rodney was whispering about how wrong this was. Whatever this was. How we’d been violated or something like it and Morris snapped at him, in a voice that sounded nothing like Morris, as if Morris had been lifted to the lips of the Devil and used as a megaphone before being set back down again. Karen looked at me. We nodded at the same time. Okay. Rodney was feeling like we were. We could talk to Rodney. We finished our coffee and tea, we got up, we went back inside. Oliver was washing the dishes at the sink. Karen didn’t even look his way but I did. And I saw in his eyes that he felt no shame, no pity, no embarrassment, no regret, no doubt that what he’d done was the right thing to do. I smiled because I understood that Karen and I were covert now. We were on an island until we could talk to Rodney. She took my hand quietly and led me upstairs and in the room I found you in last night, we sat on the edge of the bed and she said, ‘I’m thinking.’ And I asked, ‘What about Baum?’ She shook her head no, then slapped a bug on her arm. It felt, to me, in that moment, that she had squashed not Baum, but the guts of what they had. Okay? Don’t turn around, Tracy. Do not. That would be a very bad thing right now. For both of us. Okay. So, we did talk to Rodney. It was easy to get him alone because Morris didn’t want anything to do with him. So while Morris and Baum sauntered out to the fields (yes, they were both extremely interested from the start), Karen nodded to Rodney and gestured to the front door and the three of us went out there and we talked. I kept my eye on the windows for Oliver but I wasn’t thinking. Didn’t know back then. Okay? I was on watch while Karen and Rodney tried to calm each other down, both of them well aware they had changed. You know. As if you were a teenager at night and woke up an adult. Right? So they’re talking, evaluating, trying hard to juggle the fact that all of this is impossible with the fact that it is, in fact, possible, and what then can be done about it. I’m watching the glass, watching for Oliver, but I didn’t think to look up, okay? I didn’t think of the upstairs windows because Oliver was downstairs when we went outside. Easy mistake. Except it wasn’t Oliver I should’ve been keeping tabs on. The fucking Farmer was watching us from the upstairs window the whole time, looking down on us on the front porch, the sun bright as hell, and all I had to do was look up but I didn’t think to do it until we’d been out there a long time. Okay. Why does this matter? We’re not sure. But we’re sure as fuck sure that he’s around every time we eat.”
But if Tracy thinks about it, she knows he is.
“Don’t turn around, Tracy. You almost did it. Just forget everything you know about me because it’s not there anymore. Okay? Karen, Rodney, and I agreed to wait till we had the kitchen to ourselves. Then we’d go into the pantry and eat what was taken from us. Okay? We didn’t have time to go over what that might mean. We were scared out of our minds. Stupid. We were stupid. And stupid with a plan isn’t any less stupid. But we pretended all day. Rodney read. Karen sat on the deck. I walked up and down the drive. We acted like we were examining the new us, okay? Acting like we hadn’t made up our minds yet if this was good or not. Late night, Morris and Baum were still out in the fields. You could kinda see them. Nowhere near each other. And then Oliver… went to sleep. Okay? He fucking fell asleep on the couch in the living room and Karen came and grabbed me by the wrist and grabbed Rodney, too, and then we were suddenly in the pantry, the door closed behind us. She used her phone light to shine on the jars and we read all these… names…. and that was when we realized we had no idea who we were.”
Tracy closes her eyes. What is Connie telling her? What did they do?
What did they eat?
“So we talked it out. Okay? We asked each other questions and based on those questions, and our memories of who each other used to be, we decided what to eat.”
“Yeah, well, turns out personality traits aren’t so black and white. Did you know that empathy mates with resentment? That while you understand how the other person feels you start saying hey why don’t you understand how I feel, too? Did you know that intelligence sleeps with indecision? Sometimes, when you know too much… Okay. Listen. I think we made poor choices because we were scared and we wanted ourselves back immediately. Rodney ate bravery. Because he thought he’d need it. Karen ate cunning. She wanted to come up with a plan to get everyone out of here safely. And I ate… well I ate some deception. Okay? I thought I needed to fool Oliver. Fool him right back.”
“You can stop saying my name. Honestly, just stop. Okay? Listen, as you can guess, because you’re smart, and you’re still something like Tracy, you can guess how all that went wrong. Rodney’s bravery led to him confronting Oliver outright. Karen’s cunning turned into her lying to the rest of us. And my deception made it so I didn’t help either of them out. All this after laughing like hyenas and falling asleep. Okay? We fell to pieces laughing in the pantry until we were on the floor and couldn’t, didn’t want to, get up. And while we were down there I saw a pair of bare feet that made me laugh so hard, Tracy, I thought I was going to puke. I wish I had. Instead I slept. We all did. And we all woke in our beds. Okay. So, next morning, all cropped up, Rodney went after Oliver, demanding he explain what was going on. Oliver kept brushing it off. Saying he had to do chores. But we knew. He knew. And Morris and Baum had been out in the fields for at least twenty-four hours by then. Karen went out there to talk to Baum but I don’t know if she ever found him. I haven’t seen her since. Morris came back eventually. Told Oliver what Baum had done out there and Oliver told him Baum had gotten into the bad crops. Rodney asked Oliver what that meant? How could we help? Didn’t we have to help? But Oliver only shrugged and said the only answer for bad crops was good ones. Okay. Well, Rodney lost it then, attacked Oliver. Grabbed him by the shirt and threw him against the wall and then Morris was suddenly on Rodney and I was yelling at them to stop, stop it, as The Farmer came into the kitchen, threw Morris off Rodney like he was a piece of paper, and dragged Rodney by his hair into the pantry. Went in there with him, slammed the door shut behind them.”
Tracy feels cold. Black ice.
“What happened to him?” she asks.
“Do not look at me,” Connie says. “It will not end well. Okay?”
“Okay. Morris was knocked out on the kitchen floor and I stood dumbly staring at the floor, listening to the sound of Rodney being force-fed crops in the dark.”
“Oh, Connie… we have to leave. We have to leave this place right now.”
“Really? As we are? I’m not leaving here until I put myself back together again. You can do whatever you want.”
Tracy looks across the fields, sees the farmhouse. Sees the barn.
“Where’s Rodney now?” she asks. Connie can’t help her anymore. Not beyond this conversation. The Connie that speaks to her, speaks over her shoulder, talks with a different cadence, a different compass. Tracy thinks she can hear a thousand traits at once: a discord of identity.
“I felt so bad for him, Tracy.” Connie is not crying. Has she lost the capacity? Did she eat that out of her system? “I could hear him laughing and then I heard him snoring and then I had to get outside. I paced the driveway, thinking, thinking, for so long that the sun went down and the sun came up again. When I went back to the kitchen, Oliver was long gone, and Rodney was just stepping out of the pantry. I don’t know if he recognized me but I’m sure he did not recognize himself.”
“Oh my God.”
“Ran up the road. That’s the last I’ve seen of him.”
“Yeah. And all through the house, Oliver walked around, saying, ‘You guys didn’t have to do that.’ He kept saying, ‘I’d already worked it out.’ Like he knew what was best for us. Okay? That’s what happened here, Tracy. Oliver thought he knew what was best for us because he believes he’s discovered what’s best for him.”
Tracy watches the willows ripple. She thinks of Connie’s face. What’s wrong with it? Did Connie go mad, put her face in the fire? Did she lose her mind in the pantry? Is there any face behind her at all?
She imagines someone eating so much perspective that their body boils, blood fills their mouths and eyes.
“I haven’t gone into the fields yet,” Connie says. “No matter what I eat, I can’t bring myself to dig for the unlabeled stuff.”
What did Baum eat out there? Who is he now?
Tracy freezes with a horrid realization, a thing so etched in fact that even a good liar couldn’t move it:
There is no end to this. There is no sick bed. There is no fresh air, water, and rest that will solve this.
No medicine, no therapy, no Time.
They are changed now. Tracy and her best friends. Never to change back.
“How much did you eat?” she asks.
Connie laughs and it sounds like the laughter of a stranger. An old woman. A waitress. A movie.
She says: “I’m not sure I’ve eaten anything else at all.”
Tracy turns around because she has to, because she must be strong and cannot allow the poor decisions of her friends decide a single thing she does out here.
She spins, fists up, in case Connie attacks her for looking.
“Connie…” Tracy says, lowering her arms.
Because Connie looks exactly the same as she always does. Because, on the outside, she hasn’t changed one bit.
“I told you,” Connie says, obviously rattled. “Unrecognizable.”
Tracy can’t stop the tears from coming. She wants Connie to be Connie, so badly. And can’t she be? Is it possible that Connie ate, at random, the exact combination of moods and perspectives, feelings and beliefs, to end up back where she started? Is it possible the subconscious is untouched, even by Carpenter’s Farm?
But Tracy knows that isn’t what’s happened.
“I love you, Connie,” Tracy says.
Now tears appear in Connie’s eyes, too. She shrugs. The two of them just friends sitting in the grassy farmland of mid-Michigan. Two women who bonded over similar aspirations, dreams, goals, ideas of fun, and, once, worldviews.
Yet, different or not, whatever Connie has eaten, whatever Oliver did to her, whatever Oliver has begun, she’s still the kind of person who would warn Tracy of danger.
Because that’s what this is. A warning.
“The barn,” Tracy says.
Connie shakes her head no.
“Absolutely do not go near it. Okay? Promise me that much.”
“Connie, what are we going to do about our friends?”
Connie says something so un-Connie that Tracy isn’t sure if it isn’t her friend simply surviving.
“Fuck em,” she says.
Tracy thinks. Maybe Connie’s right. Maybe it’s not worth putting her life in danger.
“You look good,” Tracy says, her voice warbling with tears.
The sun is high. The day is gorgeous.
Tracy looks to the farmhouse. She thinks of Rodney running up the road. Was he running for help?
“Where’s Oliver now?” she asks.
“Right there.” She points to the willows that block most the view of the fields that stretch to who-knows-where behind the house.
He’s under the hanging branches. Collared shirt rolled to the elbows. Fair hair blowing from a warm breeze. He waves.
And for a moment, he’s Norman Rockwell. And she’s Andrew Wyeth. Two painters whose most beloved works tell very different stories about the same subject. And while she wants so badly for this moment to be picturesque, all she can think of are the canvases these artists worked with. The empty, white, indifferent truths that support all false beauty.