Up the sidewalk the two of them came, the boy ugly, the cat beautiful. Nita judged them an odd couple, opposites attached. The cat—a sleek calico, white with patches of orange and black—veered up the driveway toward her and she knelt to pet it. The boy slunk past.
“Pretty cat,” she ventured.
The boy kept going, as if he hadn’t heard, which gave her a chance to change her mind, to think better of reaching out to him. But she recognized something in his abject posture, a mood she felt from time to time but had stopped seeing in the mirror in the weeks since she’d begun to show. On her, pregnancy was a persona, a disguise.
It had gotten predictable. All the way across the country, at every stop, the fellow motorists she encountered, the gas station attendants, the convenience store cashiers and coffee shop waitresses and motel clerks—all of them had smiled versions of the same upbeat smile, reflecting back the glow she gave off, no matter how awkward or scared or snotty she might feel. No matter how displaced.
“Hello there,” she said louder, and the boy stopped, turned. “Your cat. What’s her name?”
Nita stood up and the cat rubbed its side against her ankles. “We could use some help here. Would you like to make some money?”
The boy leaned to the side and peered behind her, like she might be hiding someone. His gaze shifted onto her occupied belly. After all, she had said we.
She gestured with her thumb toward the stuffed U-HAUL parked in the driveway behind her. “My husband and I just drove this truck from California. We’re new to the neighborhood. I’m Nita.” She stepped forward, willing her hand to rise and open and touch that fish-belly skin.
Wright saved her. She slowed down when she heard him bustle out the front door and down the steps. He strode past her, reached the kid first and clasped the limp hand.
“I’m Wright,” he said to the boy, and Nita’s eyes shut in anticipation of the joke that came next. “Even when I’m wrong.”
The boy watched the cat jog down the driveway and across the street. Dank hair hung like seaweed from his head.
“Wright is his name,” Nita explained, pulling the boy’s eyes back to her. “What’s yours?”
“Ash.” The voice was clear and high, crisp as a struck bell.
“Nita’s named after a tree, too,” Wright said. “A shrub, actually. Manzanita? It grows out West.”
“How much?” the boy said.
Wright was the only man Nita knew who smiled when he was confused. She found this lovable. “Oh,” he said, “it grows pretty profusely in dry regions. It’s drought tolerant.”
Nita put her hand on Wright’s shoulder. “How much will we pay, he means.”
“God,” Wright laughed, “I don’t know. What’s a fair price, Ash?”
They studied the boy’s face for evidence of silent calculations.
“Why don’t we see how long it takes and then figure it out,” Nita finally said. “Don’t worry, Ash, we’ll make it worth your while.”
“Sure we will,” Wright said. “We’re used to Bay Area prices.”
If not for Bay Area prices, Nita’s little collection of hand-blown glass objects would be catching the morning light on a windowsill in Oakland right now, not swaddled in newspaper and nestled among packing chips in a crowded cardboard box. If not for Bay Area prices, she would have been drinking seltzer on her parents’ deck as the sun set behind Mt. Tamalpais yesterday evening, not talking to them on the phone from the empty living room of an ugly little brick house surrounded by weedy flower beds. One listen to Mom’s foggy purr, Dad’s wry laugh, and she knew they’d already smoked their evening joint. So their first grandchild would be born 3,000 miles away. No reason to panic.
She guessed Ash was thirteen or fourteen. Pinched shoulders, limbs like hanger wire, but still plenty strong enough to help Wright wrangle the heavier boxes, the mattress, and the few pieces of furniture from the truck. They set the lighter boxes aside for Nita to carry.
Nita’s nose, sensitive since the pregnancy’s first days, told her more about Ash than she wanted to know. His odor included scalp oil, sweat, stale smoke, and substantial amounts of plain dirt—a tamer mixture of the stench that leapt from the street people she was used to passing on Telegraph Avenue. There was another element as well, something dank and sewery that she couldn’t quite place. The whole house reeked of him.
Nevertheless, she was determined to feed him before he left. The truck was mostly unpacked when she went into the kitchen to fix some lunch. She pulled out the cold cuts and fruit that she’d unpacked from the travel cooler last night. She made more sandwiches than three people should be able to eat and set them out with fruit and potato chips on the square wooden table she’d bought at the Berkeley flea market several years before. She had stripped and refinished the table herself and it soothed her to have it here.
Little Hoover was Wright’s nickname for the fetus—such was the rapacity the growing creature stoked in Nita. Ash ate the way Nita wanted to eat. He hunched forward and wolfed the food fiercely, downing half-sandwiches with quick double-bites, gnashing chips, gobbling handfuls of grapes, and clearing the salt and juice from his face with swipes of his grimy arms.
Nita had opened all the windows the minute she got her first whiff of Ash. After paying the boy, Wright came in and found the little fan they’d brought. He set it up in the front doorway and turned it on high, looking to flush the house with fresh air sucked in through the back. Nita stood on the front steps, feet spread and hands on hips, taking deep breaths. The queasiest weeks were behind her now, but the fetus could still be fickle. With each exhalation, she urged Little Hoover not to evict the lunch.
“So,” Wright said, joining her. “Ash.”
That second syllable, released into the funky air the fan forced out, triggered a moment of truth. Nita bent over the edge of the step and surrendered her food to the weeds.
He lived next door to Wright and Nita’s place, in a two-story yellow-brick building with mold and ivy growing on its walls and rotten wood trim around its windows and doors. A crenulated parapet surrounded the flat roof, creating a haunted-castle effect.
There were two apartments in the building. The young woman on the first floor spent a lot of time on the sagging front porch. Nita figured Ash lived upstairs. The only other person she ever saw come and go from the building was a grizzled man who occasionally shuffled out or in wearing the spattered white clothes of a professional painter. The man trod gingerly in the mornings, as if his whole body hurt. He careened like a storm-tossed dinghy whenever she saw him late in the day.
The school bus stopped just up the street and Nita saw Ash get off it every weekday afternoon even after the summer break began for most kids. He had no backpack, but he sometimes toted a plastic grocery bag. Other kids would tumble off the bus in a gaggle, laughing and teasing each other. Ash was always alone. Most days, he’d veer off the sidewalk and head up the edge of the old railroad right of way that cut a diagonal green strip through the heart of Cleave Springs. The city had turned most of this right of way into parkland. The section across the street was a playground. Dog owners exercised their pets in the section that ran along the east side of Wright and Nita’s lot. The dog area continued for a good hundred yards and ended at a rusty metal fence topped with razor wire. A thick chain secured the gate in the middle of this fence, but there was enough slack in the chain that Ash could crouch down and slip through the opening in one fluid, furtive motion.
Peering from the edge of her yard, Nita watched him slip through on several different occasions before she asked Wright what lay beyond the fence.
“More right of way, according to the map. It goes on for another half-mile and ends at the highway.”
“Why is it closed off?” she asked, actual curiosity fortified by her desire to keep him at the dinner table. Renovation drawings occupied him every evening now that all the boxes were unpacked and the walls inside wore fresh paint.
“I’m guessing the homeowners whose lots back up to it asked the city to do that.”
“Probably. The pioneer mentality.”
“What do you think it’s like back there?”
“There’s one way to find out,” he said, rising from the table. “Let’s go take a look.”
In the dog area this evening, a young couple was exercising a big chocolate Lab. The guy, in his office shirt and tie, threw a tennis ball for the dog while the woman swayed from side to side, soothing the baby in her sling.
Wright and Nita held hands and picked their way along the edge of the dog area. Cicadas sawed in the branches above, a sound that grated in her Western ears. They arrived at the fence and peered through a narrow section that wasn’t completely strung with vines. The terrain beyond the fence was uneven, with clumps of thick vegetation growing here and there and the backyard fences of the first houses visible. Wright went to the gate and pulled it toward him until the chain grew tight. The gap was bigger than she had imagined—wide enough to admit not just a skinny boy, but also a pregnant woman. Passing feet had worn the ground beneath it bare.
“Shall we?” he said.
He smiled. “You scared?”
She had seen Ash slide through several hours before and thought he might still be in there. “If they wanted people going back there, why would they put up a fence?”
Wright stepped back and appraised the fence a moment, his face tipped slightly skyward, regarding not the thing that stood in front of him but a quickly forming vision of what that thing might one day become. The architect gaze, Nita called it.
“There’s no need for this fence anymore. It’s got to come down.” He turned and looked back the way they’d come. “That bike path along the right of way doesn’t have to stop at the playground. It could come up along the edge of this dog section and continue right through here to the highway. Before you know it, you’re riding on the path along the river.”
He fell quiet then, savoring this vision of connectedness.
“What was that?” Nita said. She thought the baby in the sling had cried out, but when she turned to look the young parents and their chocolate Lab were gone.
“You heard something?”
“A cry. Didn’t you hear it?”
“All I hear is cicadas.”
She stepped back up to the fence and looked through the opening in the vines. Ash stood between two clumps of bushes less than twenty yards in, the skin of his face and his bare arms luminous in the failing light. He held what looked like a half-empty jug of milk in one hand. Gazing directly at her, he raised the finger of his free hand and pressed it to his lips. She turned back to Wright.
“See anything?” he said.
A strange urge to protect the boy made her answer Wright opaquely. “It sounded like a child.”
Wright turned back the way they’d come and Nita sent one quick, searching look through the fence before she stepped away. Ash was gone.
On the way back to the house, Wright talked with great excitement about how close Cleave Springs sat to the greenbelt along the Potomac. The way this place linked them to the city and its hinterlands, to culture and nature and history, was one of the things he loved best about the neighborhood he’d chosen. For Cleave Springs was his choice. He had picked it on a scouting mission he’d conducted in the early spring, after his final interview with the Washington firm whose opening he’d filled.
Nita had never expected to settle so far away from her home ground. San Francisco Bay, and the hills and valleys ringing it, formed a big bowl that contained her whole life except for the past few weeks. Her parents had set up house in Mill Valley, at the foot of quiet Mount Tam, back when hippies could still afford property in Marin County. Their music school had prospered with the region. Time and responsibility had blunted the edges of their radical views, but hadn’t snuffed the old wild spark entirely. For as long as she could remember a cluster of handsome pot plants had grown in their back yard.
Art school had taken Nita over to the East Bay, where she was still living when she met Wright. To him, her parents’ story was proof that the Bay Area was over—at least for a starting-out architect and an artist-turned-designer. What they’d done, you couldn’t do now—not with all the tech moguls and investment bankers outbidding each other on properties and wrecking the market for everyone else. Charming place, the Bay Area, but that window was closed. Cleave Springs was just starting to open.
Nita knew he was right, but that didn’t make her first month in Cleave Springs any less lonely. It didn’t stop her pining for the predictable summer weather of home. She was used to an arid climate, rain rarely falling between May and October. Here storms could crash through at any time. This bugged her, yet she was starting to like the liberties all that rain encouraged. As she and Wright stood in their yard now, her eyes passed with satisfaction over the deep orange day lilies she’d planted in a side bed, the sedum and sweet woodruff she’d put in along the front walk, the hydrangeas whose round puffs of pink petals drew attention away from the wretched little house that had been cheap compared to Bay Area prices yet still a serious stretch for them.
Wright stood with his arm around her, wearing that professional gaze again, looking beyond her colorful plantings, past the actual house and into his preferred reality.
“Just wait,” he said after a while, sliding behind her so he could reach forward and place both hands on her bulging womb.
He pulled her close, pressing his front tightly to her back and talking softly into the side of her neck. “You won’t recognize it when I’m done.”
The full-scale renovation Wright was planning would have to wait a couple of years. In the meantime, small projects scratched his itch to make something. The first thing he built was a waist-high wooden fence to keep their child safely in the front yard. Never mind that the child wasn’t born yet.
While working on his fence one evening halfway through the second month, he struck up a conversation with Hannah and Jen. Wright and Nita got into the habit of chatting with Hannah and Jen as they walked back home from the right of way playground, where they brought their one-year-old, Jordan, to swing almost every evening. Hannah was a massage therapist, Jen an FBI agent who specialized in gang crimes.
Jen’s law and order manner put Nita off at first. But she was rich in neighborhood information and generous with what she’d gathered. One evening, after Ash moped by on the sidewalk across the street, Nita asked Jen if she knew his story. Jen confirmed that Ash lived in the second floor apartment of the sad building next door. The hard-drinking man in the painting clothes was the boyfriend of Ash’s mother. The mother, a junkie, never left the house. The boyfriend made enough money painting to keep himself supplied with beer and weed. The rest of the household income, such as it was, came from Ash’s grandmother, who sent checks from somewhere out of state.
“Who takes care of Ash?” Nita asked.
“Kid takes care of himself, basically.” Jen’s voice ran as level as the hem of the brown bangs on her forehead.
“He doesn’t seem to have any friends.”
“Flies solo, pretty much.”
The following Saturday, Wright and Nita had dinner at Hannah and Jen’s house for the first time. A big summer storm had moved through the area the night before, pulling mild, dry air from Canada in behind it. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to be outside celebrating the weather as Wright and Nita walked over to the 1920s bungalow Hannah and Jen had restored.
Wright was excited to see the house. Jen opened him a beer and poured Nita a glass of seltzer. Nita recognized the calico Hannah was holding—white with patches of orange and black. The cat looked heavier than she remembered. She reached out and stroked its head. “What happened to you, beautiful? You used to come by our house all the time.”
“Athena stays inside now,” Hannah said.
Jen held little Jordan on her hip while she gave Wright and Nita the tour. They had moved in eight years before and had done all of the indoor work first, putting a great deal of time and care into reversing decades of heavy-handed “improvements” and outright neglect, peeling back the layers, returning their Craftsman house to the simple beauty of its first days.
“Nice,” Wright said, noting the choices they’d made. “Of course. Yes. Oh, hell yes.”
“Why don’t you put the goddess down and take this guy,” Jen said to Hannah when the tour ended. “I’ll show them around outside while you get Jordan ready for bed.”
Jen had used her vacation time the year before to build a cedar deck off the back of the house. Nita stood by herself up on the deck as Jen led Wright down the sloping lawn to show him the shed she’d built a couple of years before. The deck was elevated such that Nita could see over the top of the back fence, which bordered on a dense stand of bamboo that grew not in someone else’s back yard, she began to realize, but in the fenced-off section of the right of way. She hadn’t guessed their lot backed up to this forbidden zone. The image of Ash standing inside the fence, milk jug in hand, finger on lips, flashed into her mind as goose bumps rose on her forearms.
They ate dinner on the deck. Nita set Little Hoover in motion with several bites of grilled chicken and Caesar salad before mentioning to the hosts that she and Wright were curious about the space behind their yard.
It had been fenced off for ten or twelve years, Jen told them. “You can’t blame people for feeling vulnerable. Cleave Springs was a lot rougher ten years ago. Houses got robbed all the time.”
Wright made his case for reopening the right of way and running the bike path all the way from Brimslea to the highway.
“Nice idea,” Jen said, “but most of the people back here won’t go for it.”
“The neighborhood’s changing,” Wright said.
“They’re not so scared anymore. They just don’t want to lose the space.” She turned in her chair and pointed. “Guy over here grows vegetables in the section behind his yard. Another family put a swing set in there for the kids. Personally, I’d be happy if the city came in and chopped down the bamboo behind our lot. It’s all I can do to keep that stuff from taking over my yard.”
“The Moores haven’t found Jasmine,” Hannah said. She’d been quiet all through dinner. Now she was leaning back in her chair while Athena dozed in her lap.
Wright smiled. “The Moores?”
“They live up the street,” Jen said. “Jasmine’s their cat.”
Hannah nodded. “They haven’t seen her for two days.”
“A few cats have gone missing lately,” Jen said. “Which worries Hannah more than it does me. She’s sweet on cats.”
Wright frowned. “I’m allergic to them.”
“Not me,” Jen said. “I just don’t like them. Ask the goddess.”
Hannah lifted Athena and made a show of cuddling the cat close to her bosom. “You’re hurting her feelings.” Nita couldn’t tell if Hannah’s scowl was real or not.
“Poor thing,” Jen said. “It’s tough to be an indoor pussy.”
“Fuck you, Jen.” Hannah got up with the cat and went into the house.
Jen sighed loudly and folded her hands behind her head. “Crap.”
Nita waited. When she was convinced Jen had no intention of going after Hannah, she pushed her plate away, hauled her body up out of the chair and went inside. The cat was curled up on an ottoman in the living room, but Nita didn’t find Hannah until she checked the front porch. A wicker couch backed up to the front of the house. Hannah sat on it sniffling. Nita sat down next to her and took hold of her hand.
“I guess I wrecked the party,” Hannah said.
Nita squeezed her hand. “Are you okay?”
“I just hate it when Jen pulls this kind of shit. As if we didn’t all know she’s the breadwinner.”
Nita cried so often at this point in her pregnancy that she always had tissues on her. She pulled one from her pocket and dabbed at Hannah’s face. “I’m sure you do plenty.”
“Taking care of a child is hard work, Nita. Everyone tells you that, but you can’t really know until you’re doing it. While Jen’s running around keeping riffraff off the streets of America, I’m with Jordan all damn day.”
“She must know that’s work.”
Hannah nodded. “But her job is so stressful. It’s scary, you know? How can being with a toddler and giving a few massages a week stack up against chasing thugs full-time?”
Nita imagined that Hannah gave very good massages. She was muscular through the arms and shoulders, strong enough to dig for the deep tissue. She carried herself with a kind of rooted grace. Her black hair was straight, her eyelashes long and thick. She smelled like vanilla. Nita let go of her hand and stroked her bare shoulder.
Hannah placed her hand over Nita’s. “Jordan’s been waking up in the night all week. We’re wiped out right now. Jen keeps herself together no matter what, but I let things get to me. I haven’t been a very good host.”
“I’ve had a lovely evening,” Nita said. They sat for a few minutes holding hands, their heads resting lightly against each other. Nita talked to her friends back home on the phone a lot, they emailed back and forth, but she missed the physical part of being with those women. Comforting Hannah comforted her as well.
She explained this to Wright in bed later, after he complained about being invited to a dinner party and having to witness a quarrel between the hosts. “I like Hannah and Jen,” she said, “and I’m glad they felt free to have a spat in front of us.”
“That was pretty nasty, what Jen said.”
“Well, she’s stressed out. They’re both tired. Jordan’s been up a lot at night lately.”
The droning air conditioner was silent for once, the bedroom window open to the cool night. They lay side by side, dry air caressing their skin. He reached over and placed his open palm on her belly. “Little Hoover, are you going to run your mommy and daddy ragged too?”
“We’ll be tested,” Nita said.
“We’re already being tested, aren’t we?”
An important question—the important question—formed into words on this night when a little storm in their friends’ house made Wright nervous about the weather at home. Nita waited. She wasn’t going to give him an easy answer.
“It’s not like you chose Cleave Springs,” he said. “It’s not like you had a job waiting for you here, or a really nice house to move into, or people you knew. Your parents are a long way away.”
He rose up on his elbow and looked into her face. “I know it’s a huge adjustment for you. There’s no guarantee this’ll work for us.”
“But you want it to work so much, Wright. I’ve never seen you so excited.”
“I am excited about the possibilities here. But it has to work for both of us, not just me. If it doesn’t, we can leave.” He gathered a corner of the sheet and dried her cheeks with it. “I’m serious, Nita. We don’t have to stay.”
She’d made love with some self-conscious men, partners who sought to please and perform, but she liked Wright’s unaffected presence better. Without being told, he accepted that making love with a pregnant woman was an unpredictable venture, subject to the momentary needs and mysterious chemistry of a body not entirely itself. As they fell to kissing now, touching each other in this blessed bubble of Canadian air, his hands stroked her patiently as his body moved around hers in a careful, exploratory way, eventually discovering a path into her that hadn’t existed yesterday and would probably be overgrown tomorrow.
Afterward he dropped quickly off to sleep while Nita luxuriated next to him, enjoying a contentment unlike anything she’d felt for months, Wright’s words making her feel free to end this experiment, yet the whole evening leaving her more positive than she’d felt so far about making a life here.
A noise came through the open window. A shrill sound, a cry like the one she’d heard that evening weeks back when she and Wright had stood outside the locked gate in the right of way. The wail of a hurt child, maybe. Or a cat.
On Monday, she made sure she was out in front of the house when Ash came off the school bus. She walked up the sidewalk to head him off before he could veer into the right of way.
“Ash, hello. I wonder if you could help me.”
“Wright says I’m not allowed to lift a shovel until after the baby comes. I wonder if you’d like to make some money digging a flower bed for me.”
“Now?” He glanced off in the direction of the right of way. The voice’s clean tone surprised her anew.
“Now would be best. Could you?”
He followed her across the street and into the back yard. She set him up with a shovel, showed him where to dig, and went into the house to get him a glass of water.
Ash was not lazy but he worked without any apparent connection to the task, handling the shovel like he’d never seen one before. While he whacked feebly at the ground, Nita walked around the yard with a big drawing pad, sketching her ideas for future plantings. Eventually she lost her patience and asked if she could borrow the shovel. She showed him how to place his foot on the butt end of it and concentrate his weight there, forcing the blade into the earth, then pushing down on the handle to turn and expose the soil. She was aware of his odor but not nearly as revolted by it as she had been two months before.
He made better progress after her demonstration. When he was more than half-finished, she went inside to find some cash and make sandwiches. She offered him a plate when the bed was all dug. They didn’t have any outdoor furniture yet so she invited him to sit on the back steps. She kept her distance while he attacked the food, coming close only after he’d cleared the plate and wiped his face on his arms. She stood across from the steps where he sat. His eyes quickly zeroed in on the fist that held the bills.
“You spend a lot of time in the right of way.” She pointed off in the direction of the fenced off part and he turned his head that way a moment. “You must like it back there.”
His chin dipped once, the slightest nod.
“I saw you in there one time. I think you saw me too.” A bead of sweat trickled down her spine. “Was that a jug of milk you were holding?”
“What was the milk for? You put your finger to your lips when you saw me. Is it a secret?”
He looked at the ground.
“You know why I looked through the fence right then?” she said. “Because I heard something. Did you hear it?”
He started digging at his cuticles and she noticed how raw they were.
“Can you tell me what I heard?” she said, and waited a moment. “Was it a cat?”
He raised his eyes again and held her gaze briefly before looking away.
“You know why I guessed it was a cat, right?”
“The milk,” he said.
“Listen, Ash, you’ve been really helpful to me and Wright. We appreciate that. I’d like to help you if there’s some way I can.” She heard Wright’s car pull up in the driveway; her time was running out. “It would be easier for me to help you if I knew what happened to that cat.”
He shook his head no.
“You won’t tell me?”
“Wouldn’t do that.”
“Not to them.”
Wright was whistling inside the house. Ash didn’t seem to hear him yet. He kept at his cuticles. “They need her,” he said.
“I’m not following you, Ash.”
His eyes rose and met hers again, more boldly than before. The weight of his spirit lifted briefly, like a window-shade rising.
Wright called out: “You here, babe?”
She watched Ash’s face crack a slight grin, dry lips parting to give her a glimpse of mossy teeth.
Wright’s firm was competing for a big museum commission and he buzzed about the concept nonstop as they made dinner and ate. He didn’t get around to asking about her afternoon until they were finished. “How’d it go with Ash?” he said. “Looks like he dug a decent bed.”
“After I showed him how to use a shovel. I don’t think he’d ever dug with one before.”
Wright shook his head, marveling. “He’s a teenager, right? How do you live that long and never use a shovel?”
“No one cared enough to teach him,” Nita said, and that was all it took to bring the tears that had threatened to gush since the moment Ash had stuck her bills in his pocket and left. “Treat a child like that and what do you expect? You think he won’t take revenge?”
“Whoa,” Wright said, coming over to her side of the table. He sat down and put his arm around her. “Where are we going here?”
When she could talk, she told him everything—about the first noise, when she saw Ash with the jug of milk, about the disappearing cats, about late Saturday night when she heard that sound come through the open window.
“Is that why you hired him today?” Wright said. “You wanted to ask him about all this?”
“Does anyone ever just talk to the kid, listen to him? I doubt it.”
“You’ve been keeping all this to yourself. How come you didn’t say anything before now?”
“I wasn’t even sure I heard something that first time. You were right next to me and you didn’t hear it. The second time you were asleep.”
“And when you talked to him today? Did he fess up?”
“Sort of. Not really.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, he knew exactly what I was talking about. He didn’t deny anything, but he didn’t exactly take responsibility. He almost sounded like he was covering for someone.”
“I’ve never seen him go back there with anyone.”
Wright knit his brows. “An imaginary friend?”
“Weird,” Wright said.
“What should we do?”
“Maybe we should get Jen’s advice.”
“I don’t know,” Nita said. “What if she sends the police to hassle Ash? Is that going to help him?”
“Look, if he’s murdering people’s cats he’s got to be stopped. Then we can see about getting him some help.”
Wright went into the kitchen and picked up the phone. Nita listened to him explaining the situation to Jen, the two of them bonding in defense of the animals they despised.
“The city police have an officer assigned to Cleave Springs,” Wright said when he hung up. “She’ll call him in the morning.”
Nita’s throat tightened. “That’s right, send the cops after him.”
“You have a better idea?”
“This whole thing just sickens me.”
Wright nodded. “The kid is creepy.”
“The situation, Wright, not the kid. You and Jen don’t care about Ash. You don’t care about the cats, either. You care about your precious neighborhood and what it’s going to be like one day when every house is beautiful and the right of way is a sanitized bike path and junkie women and their alcoholic boyfriends and their freaky kids don’t live next door. That’s what you care about. And that’s creepy.”
She left the table and went to the bedroom. Pretty soon she heard Wright clearing the dinner dishes. He was biding his time, waiting for her to calm down. Well, let him wait. She picked up the phone and called her parents’ house, wanting to go for at least a little while where those voices could take her, back to the bosom of old Mount Tam.
But they weren’t home. She opened a magazine and tried to find a comfortable position on the bed. She kept reading the same sentences over and over as she tracked Wright’s movements around the house. After finishing in the kitchen, he gathered up all the trash and went outside to take the big green bin and the yellow recycling tub down to the curb. He came back in and things got very quiet, which could only mean one thing. Outraged, she hauled herself off the bed and went to the doorway of his study.
“You’re working on your drawings?”
He looked up. “I know we’re not through talking. It seemed like we could use a little more time to cool off.”
“I don’t want to cool off.”
He pushed his glasses onto his forehead. “What do you want, Nita?”
“I want you to say what you said to me Saturday night.”
“When we came home from Jen and Hannah’s and you started fishing for some reassurance from me about bringing us here.”
“What I said about us staying, you mean?”
She nodded. “People say all kinds of things when they want to get laid.”
“Come on, Nita. I meant what I said.”
“Do you still mean it?”
“Two days have passed. Nothing’s changed.”
“For you, maybe.”
He had been talking over his shoulder, but now he swiveled in the chair to face her. “What’s going on, babe? Ash really got to you today, didn’t he?”
“We’re going to have a baby, Wright. You and me. Soon.”
He rose from the chair and approached, putting his arms around her. “And we’re going to make a nice home for it, and teach it how to use a shovel.”
“Don’t mock me,” she said, pushing him away.
Confusion brought the smile to his face, not contempt, yet his expression still annoyed her. “Quit fucking smiling.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“You think Ash’s mom tried to fail? You think she didn’t plan to take care of him?”
“Nita,” Wright said, “you’re going to be a wonderful mother. I know it.”
“And what if something happens to me?”
“I’ll be here,” he said, and studied her face a moment. “You doubt that?”
“There aren’t any blueprints for raising a child, Wright. There isn’t a code book you can memorize.”
“I thought you wanted to do this with me.”
His hurt tone told her she should reach out to him now, but she folded her arms over her belly instead. “It’s just that Ash, a kid like him—that’s what failure looks like. What it smells like.”
“Ash. Why are you so interested in him all of a sudden?”
“It isn’t sudden.”
Wright nodded. “I saw how he disgusted you that first day. You couldn’t even shake his hand. You barfed the minute he left the house.”
“But now look. We’re arguing about him like he’s part of our life. Like he’s not some random pathetic kid. Like he matters to us. Like he’s, I don’t know—relevant.” He snatched the glasses off his forehead. “I came here to succeed, Nita, not to fail. Why did you come here?”
“Because I loved you.”
She slept badly and woke up remorseful. All morning she imagined scenes that might be playing out in Ash’s summer school classroom, every one of them featuring a broad-shouldered cop with a crew cut barging in and jerking Ash from his desk. But then she’d remind herself that disappearing cats were probably not the police department’s top priority. She resolved to do her best to confess to Ash what she’d done as soon as possible, to warn him about what was coming and apologize in advance.
Wright called twice from the office, but she let him go to voicemail both times. It was too hot for her to putter in the front yard while she waited for the school bus. She stayed inside after lunch and kept a close eye on the clock. Ten minutes before the bus was due, the phone rang.
“Nita?” Panic roiled Hannah’s voice.
“What’s wrong?” Nita said.
“Nita, you have to help me. Athena got out.”
“A few minutes ago? I don’t know. I’m so stupid. Jordan slid the back door open and I didn’t notice until just now. Fuck. Fuck.”
“Listen to me, Hannah. We’ll find her. Don’t worry.”
“I can’t leave the house, Nita. Jordan’s napping.” She sobbed. “If something happens to Athena…”
“Calm down,” Nita said. “You stay there and I’ll find her for you. Any idea which way she went?”
“I didn’t see her.”
“The right of way, you think?”
“That’s where she liked to go when I used to let her outside. Before all the…”
“Hannah, listen to me. You’re going to stay there with Jordan, and I’m going to find Athena for you, and I’m going to bring her there. Okay?”
“Maybe you should stay with Jordan and I could go out.” Hannah’s voice sounded steadier.
“It’s hot out there, Nita. You should be inside.”
“No,” Nita said more firmly, and Hannah didn’t press.
She stepped out of her sandals, pulled on some socks and sturdy shoes, then went to the sink and filled a water bottle. Outside, she pressed her straw gardening hat onto her head and cut across the front yard to the embankment above the old rail bed. She descended the little slope at an angle and walked along the edge of the dog area until she reached the metal fence.
The gate swung back pretty easily when she pulled it. She paused before the opening and exhaled loudly, like she’d learned in birthing class. I’m not following you, she’d said to Ash yesterday. She crouched to pass under the taut chain.
The world beyond the fence was unlike anyplace she’d experienced before. Struggle and strife were everywhere, with grasses and bushes and vines and trees all vying for limited sunlight and space. A well-worn path led her into this riot of growth, then branched, and kept branching until she couldn’t tell the side paths from the main stem and had a hard time keeping track of her general direction. Some of the shrubs and trees and grasses she saw were natives, no doubt, old residents reclaiming habitat wrested away by people long before. But Nita was a stranger here, an exotic herself, with no way of knowing which plants had historic claims and which were invaders. She did recognize some of what she saw, trumpet creepers and wisteria and honeysuckle vines that had escaped from back yards and claimed sections of the right of way. Clumps of daylilies grew in a few spots, the last of their orange blossoms spread to the sun. The bamboo grove beyond Hannah and Jen’s yard was not the only such stand.
Here and there the frenzy of warring plants was interrupted by a square of managed ground where vegetables grew in neat rows, by a swing set and sand box, even a koi pond edged with river rocks. In two spots, she discovered falling-down wooden forts whose makers had moved on to other forms of play. As she followed the winding paths, the ring of Hannah’s panicked voice diminished in her ears and the image of calico Athena receded to the back of her mind. This feral space consumed her attention and occupied her senses. Shapes and colors clashed. Light shifted, scents collided. She wandered.
Yet as she wandered, dodging thorny briars, ducking vines, veering onto path after winding path, she sensed she was somehow progressing. So she was not exactly surprised when she reached the edge of a bright clearing and saw, across the heads of the tall grasses that grew there, the crisp profile of pointed ear and snout. Except for that ear and snout, and the bushy black tip of the tail, the animal was hidden in the grass. But she knew a coyote when she saw one. It stood no more than twenty yards from her, eyes and ears pointed forward, so locked in on the object of their attention that the coyote was oblivious to Nita’s arrival. Nita shifted her gaze right, following the coyote’s line of sight until her own eyes came to rest on Athena. The cat crouched on the far side of the clearing, lapping hungrily at one of several silver bowls.
One word from Nita—a sudden movement—would have saved the cat. But Athena was not the one she had come here to protect.
Drunk on free milk, her instincts dulled by too many nights in the bungalow, Athena never even sensed the attack coming. A short yowl of surprise, a scream of panic, and she was silent.
The coyote carried the dead cat by the throat, trotting light-footed back across the clearing until a breeze came up and advertised Nita’s presence. The coyote stopped, glanced right at Nita, fixing her with a pair of sober, appraising eyes, then turned and bounded off into the high grass.
“Ash,” Nita said loudly, “are you here?” She looked all around the clearing. “Come out.”
A jay shrieked behind her. She pulled out her water bottle and took a long drink, her eyes on the clearing. The boy emerged from the mouth of a little trail to her left.
“Where does it take the cats?” Nita said.
He led her across the clearing toward where the coyote had disappeared. Soon they were deep into the right of way’s network of paths, Ash guiding her swiftly from path to path, proprietary, confident, a master of this strange geography. Walls of vegetation cut off the view to either side, but she began to hear traffic up ahead. Eventually they emerged at the top of a steep, grassy embankment, at the edge of which stood a metal fence. The highway was just across the fence. Beyond the highway stretched a swath of open land, site of the long-defunct rail yard where, Wright had told her, every man in Cleave Springs once worked. Construction crews had recently broken ground for the vast box mall that would fill that acreage.
Ash pointed down to the bottom of the embankment, toward the dark round opening of a culvert. “She goes through that pipe to get across the highway. After that, she sneaks across that whole big job site. Her den is by the river. She’s got seven pups.”
Nita never suspected Ash could string so many words together. “How do you know?”
“I followed her. A few times.”
The smell rising from the culvert, all too familiar, quelled any doubts she might have about this claim.
“How’d a coyote get here?”
“I mean, I thought they only lived out West. Jesus,” she marveled, a classroom map of North America unfurling before her mind’s eye, scores of blue waterways spilling to either side of the Continental Divide and webbing the continent’s body like veins. The muscular Rockies ran from top to bottom, cleanly dividing West and East. The whole picture seemed temporary now, negotiable. “What’s that about?”
“Wolves lived here before people killed them off. A teacher said that.”
The boy had actually learned something in school. The possibility had never occurred to her.
“So,” she said, “there was an opening.”
They turned together, but she wasn’t ready to start back. “Ash, did you buy milk with the money Wright and I paid you?”
“Why do you do it?” she said. “Why do help her catch the cats?”
“Not for her.”
They need her, he had told her yesterday. “Oh, for the pups.”
It pleased him, she saw, that he didn’t have to spell this out to her. He pointed toward her belly. “Got a name yet?”
“It’s funny, Ash. I have this feeling that when I see the child, I’ll know.”
“Manzanita,” he said.
“A wild queen of a plant, my dad always told me, beautiful and tough.”
He lingered, kicking at the ground.
“Ash is such an interesting name,” she said. “Do you know how your parents chose it?”
“I didn’t know ash was a kind of tree until Wright said it. I went home and asked my mom if that’s where my dad and her got my name.” He looked over toward the culvert.
“What did she say?”
“She couldn’t remember.”
“Oh, Ash.” Nita stepped up and embraced the boy. She breathed in his atmosphere, stewing in the fearful odors of neglect as her hands clasped tightly against the ridge of his spine. Ash hugged her back.
Before they headed for home, Nita explained to Ash what was going to happen next. The police would come to question him about the disappearing cats, and he would swear he knew nothing about it. He would stay out of the right of way for at least the next two months. He would tell no one about the coyote, and she would also keep quiet about that. Together, they would figure out a safer way to keep the pups from going hungry.
They were quiet as he led her back through the bushy labyrinth, across the same ground where on nice days, a few years deeper in, she would ride her bike along a sinuous asphalt path through expanses of clipped green lawn, her little girls chattering in the trailer behind the bike, their names as much a part of them as the whorled patterns on their fingertips. Even then, her own house transformed into two stories of grace and light, the apartment house next door renovated and rented out to tenants of a different kind, Nita would never travel this section of the right of way without stopping briefly to free the girls from the trailer and lead them in a chorus of howls.