When Allison came around the house she saw Wallace right away, sitting on his parents’ deck overlooking the fenced-in chessboard of neighboring backyards. His blond hair had been shaved almost to the scalp and he wore mirrored aviator sunglasses, and these things in combination made him look strange, unlike himself; he looked like a soldier, Allison realized. She could remember a time when he’d grown his hair out past his shoulders, had even toyed with the idea of dreadlocks. She half-expected him to stand and salute her, now; perhaps bark orders in impersonation of a drill sergeant. She would have liked a touch of humor, something to soften the unexpected severity of his appearance. But he didn’t move, didn’t even seem to notice her as she approached across the sloping green lawn, stepping carefully from one slab of slate to the next.
When she arrived on the deck he seemed to see her for the first time, and smiled. “Hey, Singer” he said, and “Hey, Wallace,” she said — the last names thing, a high school convention they’d never abandoned. He invited her to sit and instead of joining him on the upholstered glider she dragged an Adirondack chair across the wood. She’d forgotten her own sunglasses, and the brightness of everything hurt her eyes — the pale unfinished wood of the deck, the hot metal frames of his glasses with the sun reflecting in them.
“How’ve you been?” he asked. “How long you in town for?”
“Just the weekend. Surprised my Mom for her birthday.”
He offered her a cigarette which she declined. As he leaned down to light his, she stole the moment to study him — noting how tightly his T-shirt sleeves pulled across his upper arms, surprised and glad to see him looking so strong.
“Nice out here,” she said. The saplings that had been planted at regular intervals along the grass sidewalk borders of their childhood were now full-fledged trees, tinged with yellow this time of year and already starting to drop leaves. Some kids Allison didn’t know were playing on the swing set next door, the same one she and Wallace had made out on ten years earlier when his parents were out of town and he threw a party. His girlfriend at the time was Susie Eryman, the prettiest girl in their class, away at Softball Camp for the weekend. Allison could still remember how the metal rungs of the slide ladder had felt, digging into her back as he pressed her against it; how she’d ignored the discomfort out of sheer amazement at what was happening to her, at the more immediate sensation of his tongue in her mouth, the overpowering taste of rum. That was the first time she got drunk, the first time she kissed a boy; so many firsts, for such a brief interaction — someone had called to him from the house and he broke off and left her there, leaning against the ladder in the dark.
“Nice of you to come back once in a while,” he said. “City girl.” Then, in a slightly gentler tone, as if he wasn’t sure she knew: “Your folks sold the house.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Another reason I came back — to see the place one more time, say goodbye.” She regretted the words immediately. “You should come over,” she added. “They’d love to see you. Mom was just talking about you.”
Even with the barrier of reflective lenses she could feel his eyes on her, and became aware then of the dampness in her armpits, the slight paunch that rolled over the too-tight waist of her jeans. She wondered how she might look to him; if he might notice any difference, perhaps even guess about the baby. Her cheeks burned with an adolescent self-consciousness that surprised her.
“Your parents’ place looks good,” she said to deflect his attention. Since moving in some twenty-five years earlier the Wallaces were always doing something to their house — sunroom addition here, kitchen renovation there. It seemed to have doubled in size since Allison last saw it, less than a year earlier at Easter. Unlike her own parents, unlike so many of the people who came to raise children in the idyllic suburb of Fairmont, Illinois, with its nationally-ranked schools and state champion sports teams, before fleeing to retire elsewhere — the Wallaces made it a homestead, and put down permanent roots.
“I’ve thought about getting my own place,” Wallace said, “but you know, it doesn’t make sense right now. They go away most weekends. I have privacy.” He ran a palm over his smooth head. “Not much new with me. Besides the obvious.” She nodded, glancing at him and back at the yard. The kids had run off somewhere but the swings were still moving, jangling on their chains; she wanted to say something light, make a stupid joke, but nothing came to her. She was relieved when he changed the subject.
“Everybody mows in his own pattern,” he said. “Ever notice that? Everybody does it a little bit different. Some do diagonals, some do horizontal; some just go around and around.” He nodded at the expanse of neatly trimmed lawns.
“Interesting observation,” she said.
“I make a lot of observations out here,” he said, ignoring her teasing tone. “You can learn a lot about humanity in Fairmont, just the same as your fancy-pants Boston, or anyplace else. People in the ‘burbs are more interesting than you might think. Pretty fucked up, really.”
She felt a surge of affection then for what had always drawn her to Wallace: his strange philosophical musings. He’d once seemed to her the only boy in Fairmont who could conceive of a world beyond Friday night football games and keg parties in Hobson’s Woods. She’d always believed he was a secret poet; always hoped that one day he would share his secret poetry with her.
“How are you?” she asked at last.
“I’m here.” He craned around, turning his back to her. “Check it out.” A stitched-up gash stretched from the top of his neck to the base of his crown. The scar was white, bright as a lightning bolt. “They done fixed me up real good,” he said, in the jokey redneck voice he put on whenever things got serious.
Even after he faced her again, the zigzagging shape of the wound burned into Allison’s eyes like a camera flash. “I mean, you’re going to be okay?” she asked.
“Singer, it’s like this: I got good people working on me. They’re optimistic. But when it’s your time, it’s your time. You know? That’s all there is to it.”
For a moment she hated him. Underneath the bravado he was frightened — he had to be; he probably sweated through his sheets at night — and she was sick of the phony nonchalance. It seemed too dishonest now, too risky. “It’s not your time,” she said.
“Don’t be a baby.”
She realized how she must sound; Wallace hated whiners. “How’s the treatment going?” she asked.
“I had that procedure — the Minnesota guy? So next month we find out if it’s gone, or if it’s back. Just waiting now.”
He shrugged. “I’m feeling good these days. Plus.” He grinned. “Whatever happens, I can say I had sex with Allison Singer, so it’s been a pretty nice life.”
She couldn’t help smiling. Wallace was ridiculous like that; his knack for diffusing tension with an amusing anecdote near-legendary. Sitting beside him now on the sun-warmed deck, beneath the summer-blue sky, it was impossible to believe he was sick; impossible to believe that he, or she, or anyone else living would ever die. She imagined she could feel the baby moving inside her — the steady thrum of burgeoning life, the existence of which the doctor had confirmed just two days earlier; but that was impossible. She would keep the secret from Wallace for now, as she would from everyone; sole knowledge of it comforted her, as her trysts with Wallace had once, back when she was a lonely girl — so long ago they seemed now to have happened to someone else, to be memories from a different person’s life.
Her parents’ house was a maze of cardboard boxes. Over the past few months they’d been ransacking the attic, garage and closets, sifting through years of junk in an effort to decide which memories should be packed and stored, and which could be parted with when they headed to Florida for “The Decline,” as they jokingly referred to retirement. Already the house was foreign – sparkling clean, free of the debris and clutter Allison was accustomed to.
Realtors had suggested they take down family pictures, put away sentimental objects — allow potential buyers to envision themselves in the house—so Jackie’s watercolor of a fruit bowl, a long-ago Mother’s Day gift, and the ceramic frog Pete had made at summer camp were packed away along with the framed class portraits, family snapshots, even the sepia-tinted ancestral photographs which Allison had thought looked quaint and impersonal as it was — the people all strangers, dead before any of them were born. But, no; all traces of the Singers past or present had to be eradicated. Her bedroom now resembled a suite at a bed-and-breakfast, cheerful in a meaningless way, like a too-friendly waitress at a highway rest stop. Her ballet shoes, magazine collages and academic awards had been boxed and stored in the crawl space. A vase of silk flowers now anchored her white desk (still marked with crayon-scribbles) and a cross-stitch, something her mother had purchased at a craft fair, hung over the twin bed. The kind of thing a spinster music teacher might hang over a piano, rimmed with lace and embroidered flowers, proclaiming “Time Began in a Garden.”
In the den Allison’s father sat cross-legged on the floor, photographs strewn around him. On the television the weatherman was gesturing toward a map of the eastern seaboard.
“She’s a-comin’,” her father said. The weatherman was replaced by a satellite image, a swirling cloud-mass that covered the entire coast. Allison’s father turned to grin at her, lamplight glinting off his glasses. He told her people were buying everything in the supermarkets that wasn’t nailed down.
“Glad I made it out in time,” Allison said, sitting on the couch. Now a squinting, rain-soaked reporter stood before a line of boarded-up storefronts, shouting into a microphone.
“Lucky you got on a flight.” Her father nodded. “We’re so glad you came, Al. Best surprise ever.”
“Oh God.” She leaned down and plucked a photo off the carpet. “What a geek.” In the picture she sat on a carousel horse wearing blue-and red-striped tube socks and a pastel tie-dyed T-shirt, smiling an enormous gap-toothed smile. She remembered the shirt, an old favorite that she’d tie-dyed herself at summer camp.
“An adorable geek.” He patted her foot.
“What are you doing?” She watched as he sorted the snapshots into piles.
“These are going in albums, per your mother’s instructions.” The TV announcer was shouting about gale-force winds, inches of rain, the importance of battery-powered flashlights.
“You kind of wish it would hit here, don’t you, Dad?” She looked at the back of her father’s head. His hair was almost all white; it seemed the last time she had seen him, only a few months earlier on his visit to Boston, it had been darker. “You’ve always had that ‘natural disaster’ kick.”
“I haven’t seen a good nor’easter in a long time,” he admitted. Her father was a transplant to the Midwest, a native New Englander who still dropped his “r’s” and who had inherited a passion for storms. He’d told Allison and her brothers about times his own Pa would pile the family into the Buick during hurricanes to witness nature’s fury. He remembered Donna in particular — waves pounding against Bass Rocks, towers of spray washing all the way across the road ahead. When the storm was over, Pa had taken them back to see where the breakwater at Cape Hedge had been leveled; told them several fishermen had been lost at sea.
“I don’t miss the power outages,” he said now, “and all that hassle. No, sir. People die in hurricanes, you know, Allison. They drown in floods, they get electrocuted…”
She nodded, thinking that people died all the time, anyway, every day. A hurricane might even be a nice way to go — ripped off the ground in a hundred-mile-per-hour gust, carried away with uprooted trees, bricks and lampposts, all the earthly debris that had once confined her.
She used to like the idea of nature interfering with life — it had seemed until recently that nothing happened unexpectedly anymore. Her bills were paid automatically by computer, she worked a strict forty-hour week, took birth control every night at ten o’clock. In historic times, a heavy rain could wash out a dirt road, or a buggy wheel might break, delaying some important journey for days. When the big blizzard hit Boston last winter, while others grumbled — cars stranded, all stores closed — Allison stood in the alley behind her apartment with Cal, in several sweaters and her parka with the fur-trimmed hoods, catching snowflakes on her tongue. The sensation was something from childhood, the memory of making a snowman in the yard and looking up to see her mother watching from a steamed-up kitchen window.
She had watched from the window she shared with Cal, later that night, as the snow came down. The city had looked cleaner than she’d ever seen it — sacred, almost; its dark secrets baptized in fresh white robes.
She thought of the baby; her parents would want it baptized. They would want her married, first. She yearned to tell them about it, regardless of how upset they might be at first — but Cal had a right to know before anyone else. Cal: who was almost old enough to be her own father, Cal whom her parents didn’t like, Cal who had wooed her first at a gallery opening in Southie with his dark eyes and his strange ethereal drawings, later with his charcoal-smudged sketchbooks and the love he professed for imperfect things. Cal deserved to know, first — then decisions could be made.
She had time. As with a hurricane—you could learn when it was coming, make the necessary preparations. In Illinois the natural hazards were different — brief but vicious tornados flared up without warning, exploding through towns and fields and disappearing as suddenly. Afterwards there would be holes in the ground where roots were torn out, empty spaces where entire foundations had been stripped away.
She’d just stepped out of the shower that evening when her mother rapped on the bathroom door.
“Hon? Chad Wallace is here.” It was the high-pitched, animated voice her mother used whenever they had company. Allison pictured Wallace down the hall in the living room, listening to their exchange.
She wrapped herself in a towel and hurried to her bedroom. “Out in a minute,” she called, and before shutting the door heard her mother chirp, “Can I get you a pop, Chad — or how about a beer?”
In her room she pulled on jeans and yanked a comb through her hair. She’d awoken the night before out of breath, feeling as though someone was sitting on her chest, her head aching with dull awareness of dreams that vanished as soon as she opened her eyes. She’d lain there on her childhood mattress, listening to the sleeping house — her parents’ snores from the ground-floor bedroom below her, the whirring of some vent in the hallway, the just-audible drone of the refrigerator down the hall — and it seemed as if the whole place was humming with spirits, abuzz with the ghosts of everyone who had ever entered its walls.
On her bedroom ceiling were glow-in-the-dark stickers of constellations that she had arranged as a teenager. Even after so many years, the stars glowed brightly enough in the darkness that she could imagine the roof dissolving away into the night sky, into the emptiness of space. Last night she’d traced the celestial patterns with her eyes, the clusters and whorls of her adolescent imagining fanning out across the expanse above her, and was comforted by the endurance of her designs — by the idea that beyond the plaster and wood above her head was something infinite. Now, in fading light of late afternoon, she could barely make them out.
In a few minutes she joined Wallace in the living room in bare feet, her hair still wet. He stood when she entered.
“Hey,” she said, and flopped onto the couch beside him. “What’s up?”
“Thought I’d stop by.” He sat again and nodded in her mother’s direction. “Sorry, I forgot it’s your Mom’s birthday. Didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Oh, Chad… And I thought you’d come to visit me!” Mrs. Singer had known Wallace since he and Allison were children, but since she’d left for college had only seen him a handful of times. She regarded him now with a strange mixture of flirtation and maternal affection. “It’s so good to see you!” she went on. “Having you and Ali here — it’s the best birthday I could hope for. He looks wonderful, don’t you think, Allison?” Turning back to Wallace: “I think you look wonderful.” Wallace didn’t know that her mother said rosaries for him every Friday before the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Paul’s. “How about some champagne?” she cried, standing and leaning across the coffee table to slap him lightly on the thigh. “Come on, now! We need to celebrate. I don’t turn fifty-seven every day, you know. I’ll get it — you’ll both have some?”
Allison rolled her eyes after her mother had breezed out of the room. “Good to see you again,” she said.
“Yeah.” Wallace scratched his head. “Figured I should make the most of your time here. When do you go back? Monday?”
She nodded. “Taking the day off.”
“Slacker. Why didn’t your old man come with?” He spoke suspiciously about her boyfriends, like a jealous ex or a protective older brother. He didn’t know how old Cal really was.
“He had work to do,” she said. She pictured Cal, shirtless in bed with reading glasses on, and felt a throb of anxiety. “You’d like him. He’s a Cubs fan.”
“Whatever.” Wallace leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and spoke in a quieter voice. “Listen, I got news.” He didn’t look upset, but you could never tell with Wallace. “I’d rather talk in private.” Her fear must have shown on her face, because he laughed. “Calm down. It’s not bad.”
She could tell from the assorted thumps and clinks coming from the kitchen that her mother was about to re-emerge. “Do you want to tell me now?” she said. “Do you want to go for a walk or something?”
Her mother blew back through the swinging door gripping a bottle by its neck and balancing champagne flutes and a plastic platter of shrimp cocktail on a tray. “All right, let’s get the party started!” she crowed. “What do you kids say?”
“Sounds good.” Wallace’s words were directed at her mother, but his eyes were still on Allison. “Singer,” he said, “I think we should go to the Fling tonight. Survivor is headlining.”
She groaned, plucking a shrimp off the platter. “Survivor? Didn’t they just play here a couple of years ago? Nice to know they’re thriving in the Midwestern carnival circuit.” Her mother was squatting, bottle wedged between her thighs, preparing to yank the cork. “The good old Fall Fling. You want to go there, of all places? It’s so crowded.”
The cork popped and her mother lifted the foaming bottle. “Come on,” Wallace said. “Eye of the Tiger! I’ll even win you a toy.” He added, in a syrupy television-announcer voice: “That’s a Chad Wallace promise.”
Allison smirked at the reference to a local car dealership commercial they’d once made fun of. “Go on, Al,” her mother said, filling their glasses quickly so that they all foamed over. “You know we hit the sack early.”
“Fine, fine,” Allison said, trying to read Chad’s face for a clue as to what he had to tell her. “Fine. To Survivor.” She lifted her glass in mock tribute, realizing as she did that she probably shouldn’t drink — or did it matter yet? It was still so early; there was still so much she didn’t know. She imagined the fetus hiccupping, afloat in golden fizz, and let the champagne just touch her tongue before lowering her glass again. Then she watched as the bubbles rose swiftly to the surface, one after another, as if desperate to escape the confines of the glass for the great unknown beyond.
She was crouched on the gravel at the river’s edge that night, tossing the remains of her hot dog bun to the ducks, when Wallace told her about the baby. He was standing behind her on the brick walk holding the massive blue panda he’d won for her at a squirt-gun horse-racing booth. Calliope music drifted from across the river, mingling with the screams of Zipper-riders in upside-down cages, and the shouts of barkers taunting them from the game tents. The carnival had descended on Fairmont in a single afternoon, transforming the quaint riverside downtown into a chaos of neon and steel. Above everything the Ferris wheel rose like some monument to fleeting pleasures, its rainbow light reflecting on the river.
She brushed the crumbs off her legs and turned to look at him. “Are you serious?”
She climbed the bank toward him. “No way.”
“Way. My stuff works.” He chuckled.
“You’re really serious.” A crowd of carnival-goers surged around them. They stood planted like two stones in a stream.
“I’m fucking serious,” he said, and pulled her onto the grass off the path out of the flood of people. “I heard its heartbeat yesterday. For real.”
“Wallace, that’s… That’s great,” she said. “That’s amazing. Who — with who?”
“You remember Missy? Did I tell you about her? We broke up in June. She came back two weeks later, told me the news.”
“I know, right? She’s not bad, though. Not a bad girl. She’s pretty. Don’t know what kind of a mother she’ll make, but I guess we’ll see.”
“Are you sure…”
“Yeah, it’s mine,” he said. “So… that’s my news. Come on, the show’s going to start.”
She followed as he began to weave through the crowd. Without looking back he reached for her hand and she let him drag her along, staring at the scar on the back of his head, tracing its jagged edges over and over with her eyes, memorizing it.
They entered the concert pavilion, cordoned off from the rest of the park with orange plastic fences. “The Hill,” so named because it was the closest thing Fairmont could claim to one, was lit up and rimmed with beer booths and hamburger stands. The opening band had already played and people were gathering for the main event, staking spots on the grass with blankets and lawn chairs. Wallace stopped midway up the slope and sunk to the ground, pulling her down with him.
“I don’t know what to say, Wallace.” The grass was cold under her jeans. “How do you feel?”
“Doesn’t really matter how I feel, does it? Won’t change anything.”
He looked off down the hill at the town spreading below them. Roadies hurried across the stage, hoisting drums and unplugging amps. Just beyond the stage was their high school, sprawled like a sleeping cat; beyond it loomed the spire of city hall, beyond that the darkened shops closed for the night, and then the rows of historic homes with narrow picket-fenced lawns. Beyond the houses loomed an ocean of dormant cornfields, stretching on into infinity.
Allison looked at Wallace’s profile and thought of her first summer home from college and how, on the eve of her nineteenth birthday, she’d decided to lose her virginity to him. She’d been resentful — stuck in Fairmont for four whole months, slaving away at the stupid Bagel Shoppe, while her new East Coast friends were doing internships in New York or partying on Cape Cod as cocktail waitresses — bored, and ready for what she thought was maturity. Wallace was there, and willing to assist with her transformation. They’d come close a few times, the summer before she left for Boston, but never gone all the way.
Afterwards she lay naked in his bedroom, beneath the cool sheet, knowing she was changed. There was pain — more soreness than pain, really; an ache that reached deep inside her to a place she’d never physically felt before. She imagined an internal organ, like the appendix, something that functioned unobtrusively enough on its own until one day it gave you trouble, and made its presence known. She lay with her eyes opened to the dark and focused on the ache, squeezing her legs together to contain it as long as she could. She’d expected to awaken from innocence in a moment of fairy-tale magic, but Wallace held her crushed against him when it was over and then rolled onto his side, away from her. She’d felt the space between them then, the sliver of bed showing where his back ended and her breasts began, growing like a tangible thing, a shadow of moss and lichen and dust that spread to cover the warm wet ground they’d shared. The moment had arrived, turned old and passed away before she could catch it.
As he drifted to sleep he told her of his plans to move to the Caribbean. Since joining the swim team at Oak Meadows he’d fallen in love with the water, and was now taking scuba lessons at the Fairmont Y. He spoke in a low voice about coral fields, fish the colors of sunset, shark-shadows moving across rippling sand. “They’re beautiful creatures,” he said, looking past the ceiling to a distant white shore. “They’re more frightened of us than we are of them.” Allison didn’t believe him; she knew from watching nature programs that sharks never slept, that they could smell blood in the water from a mile off.
When he fell asleep, she lay for a while listening to him breathing. In the streetlight that sliced through the blinds she noticed a stencil of a starfish that someone, probably his mother, had painted on the wall; one of its arms curled outward and seemed almost to reach into three-dimensional space. She had the early shift at the Bagel Shoppe the next morning so she dressed in the darkness and left without waking him, slipping out the sliding door and cutting back through the neighbors’ yards to her own slumbering house. In the first morning’s light the neighborhood looked watery and insubstantial; she’d felt as if she were swimming, moving through a strange gray dreamscape. Later that day, on a bathroom break, she noticed the bloodstains in her underwear and only then was convinced that she hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
“Can I meet this girl?” she asked. “The mother?”
He shrugged. “Working tonight and tomorrow. Next time you come home.”
Allison didn’t know when that would be. Fairmont wasn’t her home anymore, anyway — didn’t he realize that? “Do you know if it’s a girl or a boy?” she asked.
“Surprise,” Wallace said. “She wants it to be a surprise. Just like everything else, I guess. Life is one after another.”
A cheer swelled around them then as the band took the stage. “How you doing, Fairmont?” the singer shouted into the microphone. Wallace shivered; he looked tired.
“Want to get out of here?” Allison asked.
“Nah! Gotta see what we came for.”
Dark circles under his eyes; how had she not noticed before how gaunt he was? “It’s chilly out here,” she said, trying to give him an excuse to leave. But he didn’t respond, his eyes fixed on the stage, and then an electric guitar ripped through the night and drowned her out.
They stayed for the whole show. Allison didn’t recognize any songs except one, a ballad somebody had nominated for prom theme the year she served on Student Council. Wallace seemed to enjoy himself, cheering when the front man made reference to local landmarks, elbowing Allison when she refused to join him, chiding her until she relented.
“When will they play ‘Eye of the Tiger’ so we can go?” she asked. She was bored and really getting cold now.
“You know they’re not rolling that out right away,” Chad said. “I bet it’s the last song they play.”
At last she heard the familiar opening strains — stuttering anticipatory notes, followed by a surge of cymbal-clashing power chords. The crowd rose to its feet and sang along. During the chorus, Wallace turned to her.
“You don’t know the words? Seriously?”
He leaned in, enunciating quietly in her ear. “It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the cream of the fight…”
“Cream of the fight?”
“Rising up, to the challenge of our rival, and the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night…”
She joined in for the final line — the only words she knew: “And he’s watching us all with the eye…”
Wallace squeezed his eyes shut, holding out the extended high note. She laughed.
“Eye of the tiger,” he said. “Bravo.”
Then the song was over. Was it just the harsh stadium lights — Wallace looked so wan, and older than she’d ever seen him. She leaned in and kissed his cheek.
The kiss didn’t seem to surprise him. “Your nose is freezing,” he said, putting his arm around her. She thought of Cal, the uncertainty awaiting her back in Boston — and suddenly her life there, rather than the memory of teenage frolicking with Wallace, seemed unreal and far away. Despite the night’s chill, there was warmth coming off of him; she could feel it through the things that separated them — her nylon jacket, his thin cotton T-shirt with a cartoon dog on the front. She let him pull her into an embrace.
“Cream of the fight,” she muttered, into his chest. “Stupid song.” And then he was squeezing her tighter, suffocating her — and then she wrestled free and ran, laughing, across the emptying hill away from him.
The basement was as she remembered, warm and dim and beige-carpeted, with a worn leather sectional couch surrounding a big-screen TV. Beyond the couch were the billiards and foosball tables and a wall covered with old-fashioned beer advertisements, autographed pictures of pin-up girls, and the kitschy Mr. T and Tom Selleck oil paintings Wallace had bought online during his fleeting pop-art phase. While upstairs the house was meticulously decorated in contemporary craftsman style, the basement was still Wallace’s domain.
Allison followed him to the bar in the corner. “Lots of good times down here,” she said — not meaning to sound flirtatious, not caring if she did. He handed her a beer. She cracked the can and licked the foam from her fingertips.
“Remember when you used to sneak out and come over?”
“Yeah. I always felt guilty after.”
Wallace swallowed and wiped his mouth with his hand. “You were a goody-two-shoes. You should have come over more.”
“Why think that way, now?” she said. “What good does it do?”
“I don’t know. I think about stuff.” He moved to the couch and she turned on her bar stool to face him. “Watching late-night TV. I sit down here and think about stuff.”
“Have you not been sleeping well?”
“I’m all right.”
Allison drummed her fingers on the bar, sipped her beer. “I go back Monday.”
Wallace stood and walked to a credenza across the room, rummaged in a drawer and came back to stand beside her. He slid a photograph onto the counter. “Check it out.”
After a moment she realized what it was—an ultrasound image of his developing child. She looked closer and thought she could distinguish a stubby hand, an unblinking eye, the curve of a forehead.
“Hey,” she said, looking up at him again. “Chad Junior.”
He laughed. “Something like that. Chad-ina, if it’s a girl.”
They stared at the picture, a swirl of blue-green against the white countertop — a map of some alien landscape, a representation of reality she still couldn’t grasp.
“Guess what, Chad?” He looked at her and she caught herself. “It looks like you,” she said. She grinned.
He didn’t laugh this time, but continued to stare at the picture, his mouth a tight line. She was horrified that he might start crying — but then he put the photo back in his pocket and took up his beer again.
“I’m going to Hawaii in December,” he said. “It’s been so long since I’ve done an actual dive.” His life’s dream had once been to become a diving instructor in the tropics, marry an island girl and live in a thatched hut on the beach. He hadn’t mentioned his scuba certification in a long time.
“Dad got the tickets,” he said. “We’re all going — me, my parents, and Jeff.” Jeff Howard was his next-door neighbor, best friend since he was five.
“I’m jealous,” Allison said. “Sounds great.”
“Yeah,” Wallace said. “I know he’s thinking, it’s something Chad’s always wanted to do, and this might be the only chance to do it.’”
Allison forced herself to smile. She looked down at his arms resting on the countertop, covered in bright yellow hairs. His hands were hairless, large and smooth, the nails neatly trimmed.
“I’m proud of you, Singer,” he said. His voice was hushed, as if he didn’t want anyone to overhear, though they were the only people in the house. “You got out of Fairmont, and you’re out there doing it. You left us all behind.”
“Shut up,” she said. She hopped off her stool and moved to the couch.
“What?” He followed. “You make us proud.” His words fell onto her like a sprinkling of dirt. “What’s wrong?” He sat beside her. “Why can’t I tell you I’m proud of you? Aren’t we at a point in our relationship where we can talk to each other like adults?”
She snorted at this, coughing up beer. “Our ‘relationship,’” she said.
“After I’m gone, you won’t remember me.”
“Jesus, Wallace. Stop.”
“I want to know — will you?”
“Will I what?”
“Remember me. I want you to think about me sometimes—”
“Christ!” She closed her eyes, shook her head. “Please stop.”
“Because I don’t like to hear you talking like these are your last words, or something. Like there’s all this stuff you never had a chance to tell me, and you want to tell me now while there’s still time. Please.”
He patted her knee and let his hand settle there. She gripped her beer and stared at the gray square of the switched-off television. The basement was so quiet she could hear her own blood rushing in her ears.
“Not last words,” he said, in some feeble attempt to take back what he’d really meant. “Just words.”
She turned to face him and he caught her then, pressing his mouth against hers. She was shocked for only an instant, then kissed him back. He took the beer from her hand and set it on the coffee table and then they fell back onto the couch, writhing; she wrapped her legs around his waist, he pressed his chest against hers and she clutched at his back, gripping his T-shirt in her hands. His mouth left her lips and traveled across her face, smearing a wet trail. He ground against her, the weight of his body smothering her into the couch, wedging her between the cushions. She ignored the discomfort — the bars of the slide ladder again, pressing into her back — and focused on his skin, the same skin she’d touched countless times on this same basement couch; the immediacy of the memories bowled her over. She gasped to catch her breath and he fumbled with his belt and she kissed him harder, almost biting, and slid her hand beneath the waist of his jeans.
He wasn’t hard. This had never happened, in all her experiences with Wallace, but she grasped him anyway as best she could. They clung to each other, emitting muffled moans and sighs, but even as she kissed him Allison was filled with sadness, tinged with revulsion — the feeling they were trying to revive something that had been cold and dead and buried for years. Wallace made angry, strangled sounds as he moved against her. After a while when he was still soft Allison let him go and slid underneath, kissing first his hairless chest, then his stomach, then under his navel—
He rolled off her onto his back. She started to ask what was wrong—then saw his face: pallid, stricken. His breath came in short, desperate gasps.
“Wallace,” she whispered. He groaned through clenched teeth — an anguished, terrifying sound, like nothing she’d heard before — and squeezed his eyes shut. “Do you want me to call someone?” she asked. “Do you need help?”
“No, no. My fucking head.” He sat up and covered his face — crying in short, stuttering sobs.
“Wallace. Let me call someone.” She started to rise from the couch but he grabbed her arm, pulled her back.
“No,” he said again. She waited, afraid to move or speak or breathe, until his breathing slowed; until at last he leaned back into the space where a cushion had been thrust aside, sniffled, and wiped his eyes.
“Sorry,” he said.
She leaned back, too, and let her head fall lightly onto his chest. “Don’t be sorry.” Under her ear his skin was damp and cool, his heartbeat insistent.
The night Wallace had first called to tell her of his diagnosis, Allison had sat in her Boston apartment, listening to the traffic-noises through the window screen, trying to imagine how the landscape back in Fairmont might have changed — as if the cancer erupting in Wallace’s brain was slowly eroding and unraveling his exterior world as well, the lumpy couch in his bedroom, the bookshelves lined with scuba manuals, the framed photos of tropical beaches. She’d imagined everything strung over with bandages, littered with empty medicine bottles, sour with the smell of disease.
“It’s good to see you,” she said, and felt him shift beneath her. The barrier was forming between them already — that embarrassed post-intimacy formality, along with a new and blossoming shame that made her want to weep. How weak she was; how close she’d come to ruining everything. She was the same girl she’d always been—she knew this now, as surely as she knew anything in the world: frightened and deceitful and destined, in the end, to find herself alone.
“I’d better get home,” she said, when the silence went on too long. Soon the night yawned through the sliding door, and she hugged Wallace once more before stepping out into the darkness.
“Come back and see us, y’hear?” he said in the redneck drawl when she paused at the edge of the patio.
“I’ll see you soon,” she lied. The air was frosty and she hunched her shoulders, wrapping her arms around herself. At the edge of the Steinbach’s hedges she looked back and saw him still standing in the lit doorway, watching her go.
Then she turned, stumbling away through the bare backyards, glancing up at the dark windows of houses she passed. Once she had known the people inside but they’d since died or moved away and now strangers lived there, buried in blankets or rising to get glasses of milk or to check on their sleeping children. The hush that shrouded the neighborhood was thick as a layer of soot, and Allison felt that even if she were to scream the sound would be muffled, sucked into a vacuum of silence.
Fear rose inside her, so acute it felt like euphoria. Her blurred in the cold as she broke into a run — past the evenly spaced trees and the neat rows of shrubbery, along the plane where the grass met the sidewalk and the sidewalk met the street. She moved in a steady, unbroken line like a shark, a silver dart propelled silently beneath the waves; traveling into shadows, sensing a distant struggle, knowing that somewhere above her a girl was floating, delicate, suspended at the surface of the air.