First thing I do is buy an axe.
I realize how this sounds. But what am I going to do? Buy a gun? I can’t get what Tracy said out of my head, that I shouldn’t let the others know when I’ve arrived.
She didn’t call Oliver “crazy.” She said “dangerous.”
What’s happened out there?
I get the axe at Nuthouse Hardware on 29th. This on my way to Penn Station.
I’m taking the bus to Detroit.
I ask the guy at Nuthouse to wrap it as a gift. He smiles and winks. Like he knows it’s already dark out and nobody is buying an axe as a gift after the sun goes down. Like he’s almost rooting for something violent to come from our interaction.
Maybe it will.
The wrapped axe is almost all I got. That and a book. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I don’t know if I’ll be able to read on the ride or not, but I don’t love the idea of staring out the window, thinking of the urgency in Tracy’s voice, for close to twelve hours.
I don’t have enough money to take a plane. I suppose I could steal a car in Michigan. I might.
These are the things on my mind:
Ever. And talking to the police after. Telling them my friend hadn’t been himself lately. That I was worried sick and followed him downtown. I’ve never had to talk to the police about something like this and while they questioned me it was all I could do not to look where Ever had landed.
The call from Tracy: She sounded hurried, yes. She was using a phone that wasn’t hers. Okay. I don’t know what any of this means but I’m smart enough not to call the number back. Tracy asked me to come. I’m on my way.
She knows how long the drive is. She must believe she can handle (survive?) half a day. Otherwise, why tell me to come? Whatever’s going on out there, it might not be quite as dire as I think it is.
But how could it not be?
Ever’s story: the suggestion that Oliver drugged them. On one hand it’s unfathomable. On the other, I’m remembering nights out with Oliver. Acting classes where he argued with the instructors. Times on the streets when he bumped shoulders with people and didn’t think to say he was sorry.
Have I ever known Oliver at all? Has he always been an ornament for us? Our loose cannon? Every group of friends has one. They add an edge, a dimension the others couldn’t touch on their own.
What’s going on at his farm?
Donna in the barn: Jesus. What does that even mean? The way Tracy said it, it’s like Donna’s been kept in there. A prisoner these six months and I feel guilty as hell that I didn’t check on her once after their breakup.
At Penn Station I buy a ticket but I have to wait forty minutes for the bus. I’m starting to lose my mind. I want to write the others but Tracy sounded scared of them.
What do I do?
The image of Ever on the sidewalk is defining what I’m imagining is happening at the farm. I’m seeing Karen and Baum, Connie and Tracy, Morris and Rodney, all of them climbing to the top of a windmill, leaping to their deaths below. I can hear the thud, the crack I heard from Ever, as I turned away from the window, the image of him falling tattooed. I can hear that same thud for each of them, one by one, Oliver standing in waist high wheat, smiling up at his friends that he’s driven mad with…
A man tries to take the axe from me. It’s after hours at a bus terminal in New York City, so I get it. I’m so dazed and on edge that, for a second, I think it’s his. That’s how strange it is for me to even have it. Then I’m up and I grab his shoulder and rip the thing back and say,
“This is for my friends.”
We share a look and the man smiles and I think he believes I’m going to use this axe to kill someone and now that he knows that, he’s okay with it being mine.
Everything is colored by Ever’s death right now. Everything. The time I have to wait is the time it might’ve taken to talk him out of doing what he did. And when the bus finally does arrive and the handful of us board, I’m counting the empty seats, each a potential chair for my dead friend.
We wait another twenty minutes in the terminal. I’m starting to tap my foot, starting to feel like I’m too late, already, before leaving.
Then we’re off, the wheels are rolling, and late or not, I’m on my way.
I’ve got an open seat next to me and I talk to him. To Ever. And because it’s shadowy and we pass through tunnels and under overpasses and there are a billion lights in New York and New Jersey, it’s as if I can actually see him, sweater unzipped, barefoot, sitting next to me on the bus.
“Are we gonna make it in time?” I ask him.
“For Tracy?’ he says. And his question is punctuated with a thud. “No.”
“Oh come on, man. Why do you say that?”
The shadows move just enough to make it look like Ever shrugs.
“Because there’s nothing to get there in time for.”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s happening out there, it’s not a matter of stopping the bad guy. The damage has been done. Your friends are not your friends anymore.”
I look out the window. I watch the space between buildings begin to grow. Patches of grass. Trees. We’re leaving the biggest metropolis in America. Heading west. Into the country.
“But it’s good you’re going,” Ever says.
“Because who knows? You might do some good.”
I turn to him, actually reach my hand out to feel the empty space of the open seat.
“Tracy’s smart,” I say.
“It doesn’t matter what Tracy is,” Ever says. “It’s what Oliver’s made her into now.”
I know I’m getting all this from Ever’s story about their night on Oliver’s farm. All his talk about beliefs in jars, personality traits on a plate.
“You’ve got it wrong,” I say. But I don’t know if I believe that or not and I also don’t care. Tracy’s voice. God. So scared. The last time I heard Tracy talk like that we were climbing the steps to the house she grew up in in Maryland. I was about to meet her father for the first time and she said,
Oh, what if there are pictures of Mom?
I’d known her mother had died and I’d also known her mother was something of a monster. But I hadn’t planned on the fear I saw in Tracy’s eyes as she realized she might have to gaze upon the woman’s face. As if the ghost of her mother might leap suddenly from within the walls to fill existing hanging frames.
We’ll turn them around, I said.
She held my eyes, then started laughing. Just as snow began to fall.
Okay, she said. We’ll turn them the fuck around.
“This is gonna be a bit harder than that,” Ever says.
I wince at the sound.
“Why?” I ask.
“For starters, you can’t just make Oliver and the others stand in the corner, their backs to you.”
“What do you mean the others?”
It strikes me then that Tracy didn’t use one of our friends’ phones. Why not? Was she afraid to ask? I already know there’s reception out there.
Was Tracy afraid to ask Karen for her phone?
I imagine Karen leaping from a windmill. Landing in the dirt.
“I’m scared,” I tell Ever. Someone two rows ahead turns on a light. It’s an older woman. White hair. She opens a book. I can see a little less of Ever.
“You should be. It’s not right out there.”
“Jesus, man. I need to calm down.”
“No,” Ever says. “You need to be the opposite of calm right now. How you’re feeling is exactly how you should be feeling. In fact, I hope your anxiety builds the whole way there. Because when you arrive, Tracy’s gonna need you to be alert as you’ve ever been.”
Don’t let the others see you arrive.
I can barely sit still. I grip the wrapped axe. I reach up to turn on my own light. I need to read, do something other than sit here and think.
But when I press the button, Ever vanishes.
I press it again.
“You make it sound like there’s a monster out there,” I say to him.
“Oliver,” I say.
“No,” Ever says. “The land.”
I can’t handle this. I look out the window and realize we’ve completely left the city and its outskirts behind. This is an America I haven’t seen in a long time. The space is overwhelming. Like Oliver could be anywhere out there, secrets held behind his back.
“I can’t fucking believe this is happening,” I say.
“It happens to everyone,” Ever says.
But I don’t get what he means. What I do know is, everything was going so well. Friends partying into the naked hours. Conversations electric enough to run the heat. Dreams, ideas, goals. Failures, too, sure. But what tremendous flops those were! And then, suddenly, cut, one of us has to leave town. A crack in the wall of what we thought was forever. Soon after, worry spreads. Then, a visit. And now?
Tracy’s voice on the phone.
“I’m sorry about the kiss,” I tell Ever.
He laughs. Sounds like a body cracking against pavement.
“That was a wonderful thing,” Ever says.
“You really think so?”
“Of course. What’s more beautiful than an unplanned kiss?”
I look out the window. The world is dark now. And will be for the duration of this ride.
Can Tracy stave off whatever the danger is until I get there? Will I enter a farmhouse in the middle of Michigan to find streaks of blood? The blood of my best friends? As if we’d reached some unspoken maximum joy and exploded into viscera from the pressure?
“I’m overreacting,” I say.
Ever doesn’t answer. Ahead, the old woman flips a page.
I do feel like progress is being made. The wheels of this bus are turning. It’s delivering me to Michigan. Tracy needs me and I am on my way.
What more can I do?
“Everything is going to be okay,” I say.
Again, no response from the shadows of Ever. But when I look next to me, lights from the other side of the highway mingle with those shadows and I believe, for a second, I can see him looking back at me, eyes wide, shaking head slowly: No, it will never be okay again.
I think about Tracy in that barn. The bus passes the silhouette of one now.
“You ever mistake rancor for love?” I ask Ever.
“Of course. I witnessed Oliver and Donna, too.”
“Sure, but you never seemed put off by it. Not like we were.”
“I was different then.”
I think about the good times Oliver and Donna had, the tenderness I’d witnessed, almost in a sadistic way, knowing that a filmmaker could cut from one of these scenes to Donna, kept in a barn for what I’m guessing is a long time.
But I cut back, to the good stuff, yes, because there were evenings that saw the rest of us basking in the quietude of a couple we knew were capable of madness. They were living human bombs, or rather, a single explosive, the two of them one, always, it seemed, so that when they were comfortable or relaxed it was a thing of brief beauty. I wonder if the orderlies at mental homes would know what I’m talking about.
I remember one image, specifically, Donna laughing hysterically at something Oliver said, a little joke. We were on a rooftop, all of us, the sort of roof you weren’t supposed to be on, and the wind was blowing Donna’s dark hair from her face so that her smile was almost spot-lit, her face a stage, as if, in that moment, she was confirming a feeling deep inside herself that, despite all the anger, the fighting, the public embarrassments, she really did revere Oliver’s mind. I was a little stoned and I must’ve stared at her too long because I had enough thoughts to fill a small notebook and most of those hovered about the belief that I was witness to two very complex personalities, too many gears for an uneducated watchmaker to wind, and how sometimes the holes in one partner lined up with the pegs in the other, but more often than not the pegs, their pegs, left no room, causing friction and, often, stalling. But… not in that moment, that laugh, as Donna’s voice was carried by that wind like she’d tied it to a messenger pigeon and sent it sailing across the top of New York City for all the millions of dwellers to hear, to know, to understand that even dark love, even pitch black matters of the heart, might have keyholes through which you could spy something like happiness. I’ve always thought the loss of innocence is when you become aware of why you feel the way you do: you’re no longer just happy, you now know what makes you happy, you’re no longer just upset, you now know why. But that night, and certainly in the memory I retain of that moment, Donna was innocent once again.
Those moments were rare.
But I don’t want to think about the bad stuff. Or I’m just not ready to. I remember when I went alone with Oliver and Donna to a play off-Broadway, just the three of us, one of the only times our group was configured in just that way. I remember them holding hands the entire time. Both their faces sparkling canvases as they took in the show. I must’ve spent as much time watching them as they watched the stage and I thought to myself, Maybe this is love, after all. By then, Tracy and I were having problems, distance bubbling up from a source we couldn’t find. And I was angry, partly, that here these two, of all people, were able to maintain their relationship, despite the unhealthiness, the mania, the danger, while Tracy and I, conservatives by comparison, could not. I remember, too, how Donna said we ought to get drinks after the show and how readily I braced myself for another scene. Nine times out of ten that was how it went, of course, and so even as we entered the small Irish bar I eyed the distance from our table to the door in the event I was looking to avoid an embarrassment, leave them to explain to the staff whatever malice erupted. But I didn’t end up needing an escape route that night. Instead, the two of them sat shoulder to shoulder, across a small table from me, and, though we got drunk, the scales never tipped in favor of darkness. I can see that image, so vividly. Looking out the bus window, I can see them sitting shoulder to shoulder out there in the cave-black darkness of the country.
“You’re romanticizing it.”
Ever’s voice beside me is enough to make me turn, to see the old woman still reading, flipping another page. It’s late now and I wonder if she reads at this hour at home. I hope she does.
“But we romanticize everything from the past,” I tell him. “And, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. So isn’t it possible that the legends we make of things are actually what they were at the time?”
Ever is quiet but not because he doesn’t agree. I know he’s considering this.
Here’s a man, here’s a woman: Oliver and Donna, young and together, the big city backdrop. It strikes me that, like rock stars, they make just as much an impact when together in a story that takes place on a farm. Because there is no precise setting suitable to ill-crossed lovers. Not even a dungeon makes sense of the blackness they waded through, the blackness they dragged us through, the unbearable and constant sense of negativity that emanated from the pair at almost all times. Am I being dramatic? I suppose I am. But you might too if you’d gone through the same. Those happy islands were so pleasurable, so welcome, that they felt something like a drug themselves, a warmth that spread through the rest of us and even, sometimes, suggested there were such things as cosmic consciousness, a swamp Oliver and Donna had been to and, momentarily, come back. If I sound like we all had some degree of Stockholm Syndrome, I guess we did. Karen used to talk about how we needed to cut them off. How they were hurting our chances of succeeding with our dreams because our dreams required an almost militant positivity. The city was hard enough, she’d said many times, and we didn’t need to make things more difficult by partying with two black holes. But I know Karen felt the same way I did. I could see it in her face when those island moments floated into view. I could feel it in the whole group, the lot of us raised up by an unexpected, and unpredictable, easiness. I spoke with Baum about this once, told him I wondered if perhaps having a front row seat to the Oliver and Donna horror didn’t make the rest of us better lovers, more mindful of other people. I also suggested that we, the rest of us, seemed to exceed what we considered our own limitations when these brighter, rare, evenings came along. But Baum didn’t agree. He reminded me that while Tracy and I were floundering, Oliver and Donna were tied together, stuck, like two pirates roped together and tossed off the plank. They could use each other to float, take turns breathing, Oliver underwater, Donna facing the sky, then they’d flip, Oliver gasping for air as Donna drowned.
“That’s what I was talking about,” Ever says. “Baum was right. You gotta remember that even legends have down moments. Hard times. There’s no such thing as blanket positivity. All of your idols felt the same way you feel now. All the great myths describe miseries we’ve experienced, too. Are we living a legend, in real time? Sure. Always. But legend doesn’t equal the sun. And reality doesn’t equal the moon.”
I look up at the moon. See an open window in it. See a woman kept in a barn.
Tracy, I think.
“She was always yours,” Ever says. “And you’ve always been hers.”
It’s me who says this, of course, but it’s nice to hear it in Ever’s voice.
“Naw,” I say. “Sometimes lovers are actually just best friends.”
Ever goes silent and I can hardly make him out in the shadows beside me.
“Love shouldn’t be easy,” I say. “There should be some smoke in love.”
“Why shouldn’t it be easy?” he says, new energy in his voice. “Why do we equate passion with anger? Why can’t you be passionate about being level-headed?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “But I think it has something to do with reward.”
“Is everything so hard? Here’s a man: you. Riding a bus from New York to Detroit. You have an axe for Christ’s sake. And somehow, still, you’re able to think, to plan, to prepare. I’d think someone who believes everything is so hard wouldn’t be capable of doing what you’re doing. It’s time to redefine reward.”
“Okay,” I say, not wanting to do so.
Outside, in the darkness, I see an enormous silhouette of a man wearing a brimmed hat. It rises ten, fifteen feet above the hilly horizon and I know it’s one of those bizarre statues a quirky farmer puts in a field bordering a highway. A massive red cutout of a farmer for all to see.
Right now, it feels like it’s there to see me.
“I told you how Oliver was talking about ‘The Farmer,’” Ever says.
I’d forgotten about that. Felt like the smallest part of a very big story. An unrelatable character among my closest friends.
Who is The Farmer?
“I don’t know,” Ever says. “Sounds like a delusion, but I don’t think it is.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I guess I’m someone who believes he can tell when someone is telling truth. And not just their own truth. The way Oliver spoke of The Farmer, it rang deeper than just Oliver believing what he said. It rang like impossible fact.”
I pull the axe closer to me. I suddenly can’t think of anything except Tracy in a barn, some farmer coming at her, me busting through the doors with the axe, swinging it till she’s covered in blood, till she rushes into my arms, till bright music swells, indicating I’ve made the world right again.
The Farmer has been slain.
“That’s not the world you’re gonna have to make right,” Ever says.
The bus hits a bump and I actually grip the seat in front of me. Because we’re in total darkness now, it feels like we’ve hit an asteroid, a meteor in outer America.
“What do you mean?” I ask him.
“It’s the inner world, man. Pay attention. You can chop the head off any old man you please, and you can hold Tracy all covered in blood as that music plays… but inside Tracy’s head… she’s not Tracy.”
“But she called me. She must be something of herself.”
“Sure. But who isn’t always something of themselves? At my worst I’m still Ever. I could sink into a decades-long bitterness and I’m still me. I could leap from a building and still be Ever. You can’t change somebody’s core.”
“He changed yours.”
I look to him and see him staring ahead.
Or looking within.
She’s not Tracy.
I would write this thought off as totally ridiculous if it wasn’t for all the unparalleled change I’ve seen myself. Oliver. Ever. Yes, Tracy. Even the others staying out at the farm. Scant word from any. I suddenly feel very alone. Not in a self-pitying sense, but in a clear-cut literal way. If my friends have all changed… who are my friends? Am I, without warning, without friends?
The woman a few rows ahead flips a page and I can see she’s making headway in her book. The number of pages under her left thumb vs. those under her right have become my clock. How fast does an old woman read? How many friends has she lost to either change or death, and which ending does she prefer?
“Death is terrible,” Ever says. “And change is supposed to be gradual.”
“Good,” I say. “Then I’m not crazy. This is as wrong as it feels.”
“Oh, yes. There’s no doubt about it. That pit in your stomach, every time you imagine Oliver’s farmhouse? That feeling is right. You were smart to buy an axe and you’d be even smarter to listen to Tracy’s advice.”
“Not to let them know when I’ve arrived.”
“Come quiet and slow as a growing crop.”
It’s hard for me not to imagine a farmhouse that is the equivalent of the Oliver I know, a barn in the same condition as Donna. Both would be splintered and painted red, angry and, possibly, wounded. All the open space in the world, all theirs, a pair of edifices mistakenly built together. They should never have met. That’s the truth. A bad thing happened when they did; an unseen door opened in the middle of New York City, a wrinkled hand reached out to tap both on the shoulder.
Look at one another.
Be changed by one another.
And wasn’t I changed by Tracy? Before meeting her, if someone suggested I’d one day be riding a bus with an axe in hand, wouldn’t I have told them no? I realize I’m not espousing anything profound when I say we’re changed by every intimate relationship we experience, cherish, or endure, but some platitudes bear repeating. Ever’s insane description of a dinner that could alter a person’s personality… is it so crazy after all? Don’t all dinners with friends do that very thing?
“Pennsylvania,” Ever says.
We’ve crossed from one state into another and I’m starting to feel like I’m far from the city. It’s a good feeling and it’s a bad feeling. I haven’t sensed this much space around me in a long, long time. I’ve also never had cause to sense something lurking in that space, a fifteen-foot silhouette of a farmer, crazy friends turned crazier, the love of my life shaken to her core.
Oliver and Donna should never have met and we should never have met them.
I’m starting to get angry, justifiably blaming this whole thing on the fact that neither gave a shit about their peers, their supposed friends, anybody outside their sick sphere of codependency. Why did we put up with them? Worse, why did we herald their behavior as passionate when it was so obviously selfishness at work? Maybe they wanted attention, just as a run down farmhouse and barn ask to be fixed. Maybe they saw in us driven, intelligent, fun people who, more than anything else, could be easily duped into thinking their farce of a bond was where true love lies. You see? We’re actors. We’re dramatists. We live for the overblown, the weeping, the falling to one knee with shock, the long, delayed death scene, enough time to express every emotion we’ve ever felt before expiring. You can imagine what this couple looked like to us. At first they were living theater. A tragedy, no doubt, but we’d been living a comedy for so long maybe we thought we needed the balance. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s–
“Never agree to tragedy,” Ever says.
The bus rocks. The old woman flips a page.
I think of Tracy. And the horror in her voice.
I’ve been pushing the actual timbre aside. I’ve been replaying what she said while trying to erase the emotion from those words.
Tracy didn’t sound worried. She was scared.
It’s a bigger word than we give it credit for. We say we’re scared to give a speech, to go on a blind date, to start a new job. But there are very few words that do what that one does.
Scared changes you. Scared breaks your decision making and everybody knows life is a series of decisions and that two paths come with every one. Tracy was not only what Ever would call “not herself,” but she was also someone else entirely, a third person, the old her or the new her, both of them scared. And Scared spreads, doesn’t it? I tried to blame it on the poor quality of the connection (sounded like a landline), but the more I think about, the more I realize anything that worries me all came from her.
“What if she’s hurt when we get there?” I ask Ever.
The old woman pauses midway through flipping a page. Did she hear me? She doesn’t look back. Flips the page. She’s pretty far into that book now.
We’re getting closer.
“Then you call the police,” Ever says.
“Should I anyway?”
“I think she would have done that instead of calling you. There’s a reason she called you instead.”
“Yeah, but what can I do that the police can’t?”
Ever goes quiet.
Outside, the world is so dark it looks like the old woman, reflected in the glass, reads outside the bus.
Tracy, Tracy, Tracy…
Obviously things couldn’t have gone so terribly wrong between us. I’m the one she called, after all. Should this make me feel good? Well, it does. It strikes me that I’m heading to Michigan for her and her alone. The kiss in the theater lobby meant more to me than I even thought it did.
If Tracy had called from Finland I’d be on a flight there. I’d have found a way.
“And she knows that,” Ever says.
It’s easy to remember our downward spiral and the weirdness of witnessing Oliver and Donna maintaining while publicly hating each other and more. Sometimes I wonder if they infected us. If the two of them were a poison. They were supposed to fail, not us. But it was almost like we didn’t think our love matched the fire we saw in theirs. That’s the rub, isn’t it? We glorified those who had it worse, and never noticed how good we had it.
“There’s time for that,” Ever says.
“You think so? But what if she’s as changed like you said?”
“I don’t know. I’m the kind of guy who thinks there’s a good ending to everything.”
I see him on the building ledge. Staring ahead.
The world outside gets darker, the old woman flips another page. Another. I should be reading but I can’t. I can’t do anything but grip the axe and wait. At some point, Ever says Ohio but I’m so far into the weeds that I don’t grasp how much closer we are. The woman is halfway through her book. That’s striking. I wonder if she’s on speed. I want to ask her if I can have some. For bravery. For resolve.
“Now you sound like Oliver,” Ever says.
“Let’s say for a second that everything about your story is true,” I say. “Let’s say Oliver really did feed you personality traits, changed who you were. Why would he do that?”
“Because it’ a helluva discovery is why. And because he believes it was the right thing to do.”
“So you think he’s coming from an altruistic place.”
“No. I think Oliver is just like the rest of us. Behind that angry New York thespian punk front, he was glad to have friends and he was very scared of losing them.”
“When he moved away.”
“Imagine yourself doing that. Going from the biggest city in America to a Midwest farm. Imagine how lonely that must’ve looked. Then, imagine discovering a way to change how you feel about that. God, the relief alone would be enough to invite your friends over for some of the same.”
“I get it,” I say. “But I don’t think that’s what happened here.”
“You don’t know enough yet to say either way.”
“I don’t. Do you?”
“No. But if I had to play Devil’s advocate, I’d say Oliver was looking for control, found it, found profound change, then tried to exert it over his world. He’s acting no different right now than he did in New York. Donna and him, they didn’t give a shit about how they were changing the people around them, how many nights they destroyed, how many conversations that could’ve been productive became all about them. You know this. You just came to the same conclusion yourself. Oliver’s indifference has always been obvious. Only now he’s found a place to plant it.”
“Fuck,” I say.
Because now I’m thinking of a horror story. Eight friends living in an English Tudor, far from the road, the cityscape in view but not close enough to pollute their private heaven. They sing in there, they dine in there, they dance, they joke, they try in there. They love one another and they fail, too. They get angry and they get over it. They get jealous and they cheer. And they act. They play games in which some are the performers and some are the audience and they root each other on and they help one another get better. Then a knock comes on the front door. And it’s a dark and stormy night, a night when just such a game is being played. All eight answer together, expecting someone lost, looking for the city, someone looking for help.
But it’s hard to tell exactly what it is at first. The misshapen form in a basket looks to have clothes, a t-shirt, jeans, but whoever brought it here is not around to explain.
The eight friends stand above the basket, staring at what could be flesh, and bones beneath it, but also could be the ruins of a terrible thought, something half-created, a dream forgotten and left behind.
Life recognizes life.
There’s almost imperceptible movement from inside the basket, the quietest shuffle of a shoe. And the eight look up the road because they realize, oh no, someone has indeed left them Life, someone has placed this basket, this responsibility, in their care.
“Get rid of it,” one says.
“We can’t,” another says.
“What is it?” a man says.
“What’s its name?’ a woman says.
“Where did it come from?”
“We’re the kind of people who help.”
“Take it in.”
“Can’t leave it out in the rain.”
“We’ll welcome it to our party.”
“We’ll sing with it and drink with it and play games with it, too.”
They bring it in. They put in the living room.
Where it grows.
Small signs, at first. Someone asks if it looks bigger. Then it’s pressing against the basket. The basket breaks. The thing starts to unfold. Looks more like a person every day. Two arms and two legs. A head! A mouth on that head. One that tells them its name is Oliver. Oliver Carpenter. Thank you for taking me in. Thank you for being my friends when everybody else in the world didn’t want anything to do with me. Thank you for being fun people who saw in me either the potential to have fun, too, or the harmlessness that I wouldn’t steal yours.
Then he steals it.
“That’s a scary story,” Ever says.
It is. That’s right.
“Michigan,” Ever says.
Now my ears perk up. Is it getting lighter outside? Hard to say. The old woman is really far into her book. How long have I been gripping this axe, staring out the window, thinking about my friends?
There is some light in the sky. It’s distant, but I can see it.
I think of Tracy on a phone in a barn.
“You love her,” Ever says. “I’m glad.”
“I do,” I say. “And we shouldn’t have let it go.”
“That’s okay,” Ever says. “But remember: there’s more going on here than just your little love story. There’s real danger out there. Stuff that’s beyond your comprehension.”
“So what do you suggest I do?”
“Don’t try to understand it. Get in and get out.”
“With my friends.”
“All that can be taken, yes.”
I’m not tired. Despite getting no sleep, I feel as awake as ever. My head is clear.
By the time we can see Detroit, the sky is bright enough for farmers to ride their tractors, tend to their crops.
The bus pulls up under an awning and comes, at last, to a stop.
The light of this new day shines through the windows and I turn to Ever’s seat.
“Thank you,” I say.
Then I’m up, tears in my eyes, passing the old woman as she flips the final page of her book and reaches up to turn off her private overhead light.
I see she’s just read all of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
“Hey,” I say, genuinely excited despite the horrors I will face today. “I brought the same book.”
I pull it from my pocket, show her.
“Well, then I guess it’s not so lonely after all,” she says.
I look back to the empty seat, where Ever didn’t sit. But when the interior lights come on, flooding the bus, I’m momentarily blinded, and in that fading, gray, impression, I see him wave goodbye.
I do the same.
Then I’m off the bus, rushing to catch another I’m told heads north.