The weather was not cooperating. Last week, Beth reported a blizzard advisory for what turned out to be an inch of snow. The week before, sleet ruined what she had described as a clear winter day on the six o’clock news. Of course, no one understood how changeable the elements were, that the forecast was a prediction, not a guarantee. There were phone calls and messages sent through the mail. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT SLEET DOES TO SUEDE? read one in maniacal, hand-written letters.
In the studio, she watched the news broadcasters, Roger and Gloria, film a segment on a gang middle schoolers who had been terrorizing 7-11s in North Baltimore. A superintendent was on TV and blaming the harsh conditions of winter. She appreciated how Roger and Gloria were allowed to look disapproving when the news wasn’t good. They tilted their heads and frowned as they listened to the superintendent; their eyebrows jumped when a 7-11 owner said something unfit for TV. They were permitted to react. They were permitted that degree of humanness.
Broadcast meteorologists, on the other hand, were supposed to smile through everything. That was one of the first lessons Beth had learned. It didn’t matter if you were talking about heat waves or blizzards or forest fires. Mother Nature was never bad news! Nothing we can’t handle! Her first broadcast job was in Mobile, Alabama, and she had kept smiling as a Category 5 hurricane spiraled toward their coast, kept smiling when the TV studio went dark and the walls shuddered. It was exhausting, all that smiling.
Baltimore was supposed to have been a move up from Mobile. The dream was a big city with erratic weather, like Boston or Chicago. If she did well here, there might be a chance for something better.
When it was time for her segment, she stood in front of the weather map—which had started to look ridiculous to her, with its cartoon suns and lightening bolts—and read from the teleprompter. High of thirty-five. Ten percent chance of snow showers. A makeup artist had dusted her cheeks and forehead with powder; she felt the weight of the makeup on her skin. Just once she would like to break from the teleprompter, to make a joke or tell a story. In a meeting, she had brought up this idea of improvisation to the producer, Candace, who smoked electronic cigarettes and favored T-shirts with slogans that, Beth supposed, were intended to be worn with irony. Today’s example: I SUPPORT FALUN GONG.
“Remember how much technical crap you said when we let you do it on your own?” With an exhalation of artificial smoke, Candace reminded Beth of her first two weeks at WBALTV, before they decided the teleprompter was a good idea. “Cirrus clouds, condensation funnel, vorticity. No one knew what the hell you were talking about.”
Candace had a point. Early on the letters had complained about Beth’s inability to be clear about the weather, to speak the language of her audience.
In the studio, she moved into the weekend forecast. Both Saturday and Sunday were expected to be sunny and cold. She pointed to the cartoon of a yellow sun. To accurately reflect the low temperatures, the sun was shivering. She kept smiling. She was halfway through the segment when she realized her teeth hurt.
* * *
Some people would have called it a nervous breakdown, though Beth thought that might be overstating things. She distinctly remembered the edges of her life going soft. One minute they were out of focus and the next they were melting away. She stopped understanding what the boundaries were. In Mobile, she stood in the produce section and ate an apple without paying for it. She watched hurricane footage—flooded streets; families trapped on the roofs of their houses; trucks filled with National Guard—while sitting naked on her couch. At network meetings, she went on tangents about esoteric facts of weather, like how the Empire State Building is struck by lightning five hundred times a year. Once, while on the air, she started babbling about Hurricane Beulah, which caused a hundred and fifteen tornados in Texas in 1967; in the middle of her segment, the studio to cut to a commercial for cat food. Her boss wore a bowtie and had gray hair around his temples. When he suggested she take a break from the weather, he assured her that the storm had taken a toll on everyone.
Beth spent two weeks in her apartment in Mobile. She passed time by sitting in her linen closet and sniffing pillowcases. In the closet, it was dark and she felt less afraid. She turned off the air conditioning, thinking she could sweat out whatever was wrong with her. On the news, she saw a body being pulled from the water. She called the hurricane hotline and offered suggestions on what to do. She called the Red Cross and asked for help with her life. She stopped being able to remember certain things, like when to pay the light bill or buy more food. She stopped noticing time.
Her parents had spent their career in the Peace Corps, overseeing agriculture volunteers in Africa. Every few years, they settled in a different country: Tanzania, Guinea, Senegal. One evening, she found her international calling card in her sock drawer and tried their number in Kidira, where it was two in the morning. When their voicemail came on, she closed her eyes and pretended they were all in the same room. After the beep, she cleared her throat and told her parents that she had not been feeling well.
Two weeks later, a card came in the mail. It had been handmade by Senegalese schoolchildren. Inside the card they had written FEEL BETTER and then everyone had signed their names. She searched for her parents’ signatures and found them scrunched in a corner.
Finally her boss called and said he’d pulled some strings and gotten her a job in Baltimore. Beth was the same age as his daughter, twenty-four. No one could have predicted what this hurricane season was going to be like. There was little sense in letting one slip-up ruin a promising career.
“Next time you’ll be more prepared,” he said.
“My brother lives in Baltimore,” Beth replied. “His name is Ricky. We’re twins, but not the kind that look alike.”
“Terrific,” her boss said. “All the crab legs you can eat and family too.”
After they hung up, she went out onto her concrete balcony, which overlooked a parking lot. She squeezed the railing. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a meal and was feeling woozy. Her brother had moved to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins, but dropped out during his sophomore year. His major would have been computer science. His decision had elicited one pleading phone call from their parents, cut short due to bad cell reception in the Ethiopian Highlands. Their parents were very capable people. They could start a fire with twigs. They could spear fish. They could speak indigenous languages. They could build an irrigation system from scratch. Beth suspected it was easy for them to forget that their children were not so well-equipped.
In the fall, Beth met Gary at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he worked as a security guard. She had gotten lost in the Ancient Americas and needed help finding the bathroom. Now she visited the museum just before closing and when she strolled through his section, she pretended not to know him. In the modern art wing, thin strips of blue plastic hung from one corner of the ceiling. Visitors were encouraged to walk through the plastic and there was always one perfect moment where she could see nothing but color. She also liked to watch the video installations, which rotated monthly. For February, it was a looped image of a hibiscus dying and regenerating. One evening, just when Beth thought the video was hypnotizing her, Gary appeared behind her and squeezed her shoulders.
“Pardon me ma’am,” he said. “The museum is closed.”
“What is this supposed to be?” She waved her hand toward the screen, where the hibiscus was going dark around the edges.
“Art,” Gary said.
Later she waited for him in the sculpture garden, so they could walk over to The Book Thing, where you were allowed to leave books or take them, free of charge. The building was a concrete square, painted a cheerful pink. Inside there were books on every imaginable subject. She had taken home guides on learning Mandarin and building your own coffin.
They were deep in the stacks when Gary tugged her sleeve and held up a book called Why Can’t We All Go Outside? He was still wearing his navy blue guard’s uniform. If you got close enough, you could see the veil of freckles on his cheeks.
“It’s for people with agoraphobia,” he said.
Beth was flipping through a wilderness survival guide. One section advised that, if you encounter a bear in the woods, you should simply face the animal and say, “Hi, bear. I see you.” She imagined showing the guide to her parents, who would laugh at such ridiculous advice.
Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. The number was unknown. She always answered when the number was unknown. She couldn’t keep herself from hoping it might be a wonderful surprise.
“Who is this?” Beth pressed the phone to her ear. Gary shelved the agoraphobia book and started reading another on English gardens.
“You are fucking the sky,” the voice on the other end said.
“Stop calling me.” Beth clutched the wilderness guide to her chest. The people browsing around her—a man and his young son; a woman carrying an armload of books on pottery—turned and glared. The boy had a Dr. Seuss book that Beth’s brother used to love.
The calls had started around Thanksgiving. At first, they were infrequent enough for her to have forgotten all about them by the time another one came through, but then she botched a few forecasts and they increased. The voice was always the same. It was a man. Not very young but not old either. She couldn’t tell much more than that.
“Someone has to stick up for nature,” the man said.
“You asshole.” Beth was trying to keep her voice low. “You have no idea what the weather is like.”
“Do you mind?” the man with his son said. He gripped the child’s hand so tightly, the boy’s fingertips were fat and red.
Beth hung up the phone. Gary held his book open to a picture of an arbor surrounded by foxglove.
“Him again?” he said.
“There’s always a him,” Beth said.
* * *
Once a week, Beth visited the small clapboard house her brother was renting. He lived between several neighborhoods, but his exact area did not have its own name. He had been working from home for the last year, coaching people through IT problems over e-mail. He didn’t like to go out, though he wouldn’t have qualified as an agoraphobe if the book Gary found was to be believed. Despite the cold, they stood in his small, square backyard. They were surrounded by a high plywood fence. Beth balanced on her toes, but still couldn’t see over the top.
“I want to learn to fly,” Ricky said.
“You mean learn to fly a plane?’ She dug her hands deeper into her pockets. Even with gloves, her knuckles ached. Her brother wore a brown bomber jacket and a hat with a tassel. His eyes were such a pale blue, they sometimes looked translucent.
“No, not like that,” he said.
She shrugged. “Like what, then?”
He pointed at the black bird crossing overhead.
As it turned out, her brother had been reading all about human aviation. A man in Holland named Joren Smoot had made a pair of working wings from a backpack, a seatbelt, kitefabric, and homemade motors. They went inside and he showed her a video on his laptop. A man stood in a field with giant blue and red wings strapped to his body. He wore a helmet with a camera affixed to the top. He ran down a strip of grass. The wings flapped. Gradually he lifted off the ground and sailed over the trees for twenty-three seconds before landing.
“Neuromechanics,” her brother said. “It’ll take some time to figure out how all that works.”
“I wish you the best of luck,” Beth said. It was hard to believe two people who had shared the same space inside a human body could grow so far apart.
Her parents returned to the States every other Christmas. They subleted a condo in Rhode Island, where Beth and Ricky had grown up, and always seem surprised by how strange their children had become. She imagined them sitting around a table next winter: her brother with his bird wings; her and Gary with their books on English gardens and bears.
“How’s the weather doing?” her brother asked.
Through a window, Beth examined the sky. It looked like her weekend forecast was going to hold.
“It’s trying to cooperate,” she said.
On the way home, she thought about her first weather map, dotted with cartoon suns, all of them round and smiling. In college, she spent a summer doing a broadcast internship in Providence. Once a week, she brought éclairs for the camera crew, as advised by her meteorology professor. At the end of the internship, she talked a cameraman into staying after hours and helping her make a tape, which she needed for job interviews. A producer had to be able to take one look at her and know the weather was in good hands.
In front of her first map, there had been no teleprompter. No calls or letters. It was just her and the forecast. That same week, her brother had been admitted to a hospital. It was not his first time. Still, she kept smiling. She could remember the first words she said when the cameraman indicated it was time: “Good morning, Providence. Here is your weather.”
* * *
The weekend passed without snow, but blizzards were back in the forecast on Monday.
“Eight inches,” Beth told Candace, who was chewing on the end of her electronic cigarette. A prominent deacon had been caught breaking into a parish member’s home and stealing prescription pain killers. Beth had found her talking to Roger and Gloria about a segment on drug abuse in the clergy. The front of her T-shirt bore a likeness of Jim Jones. On the back, blocky text spelled out: DRINK THE KOOL-AID.
“Nobody’s going to be happy about that forecast,” Candace told her. “I’ll tell the mailroom to expect more letters.”
Later, as Beth read from the teleprompter, she pointed at cartoon snow clouds and explained—in layman’s terms—about cold air masses and fronts. She went through blizzard precaution tips: fill bathtubs with water; stock up on canned food and batteries; invest in a First Aid kit. She hoped viewers would look at other parts of the map and see that some people had it much worse. New England was expecting fifteen inches; Chicago was looking at two feet. She wanted to stop smiling, but did not.
In bed that night, Gary said if her forecast was right, the museum would close. They were at her place, on the third floor of a brownstone in Patterson Park. Gary lived in Waverly and had two roommates. One of these roommates had a ferret that he liked to walk on a leash. She’d never seen the inside of his apartment.
In Patterson Park, there was an enormous pagoda. If you went inside and climbed the spiral staircase, you could look out at the whole city. A weathervane sat on top of the pagoda. From her apartment window, she could see the copper arrow spin.
“At least someone’s happy about the weather.” She was topless. She pulled the sheets to her chin.
Gary propped himself up on an elbow and started telling her about a new exhibit. In one room, there was a white shirt on a hanger. In another, there were all these feet.
“The new movie is the strangest yet,” he continued. “All the guards watched it one morning. We couldn’t make heads or tails.”
Beth felt envious of these artists, of the freedom they had.
On the floor, her cell phone rang. She bent down and picked it up. Unlisted again. When Gary saw the number, he held out his hands and mouthed why do you bother? She should have known better than to answer, but all the snow was making her feel dangerous.
“What?” she said.
The voice didn’t say anything. Instead someone blew air into the phone. An imitation of wind. Of course, she knew it was him.
Ricky was undaunted by the blizzards. Beth checked his cabinets and found an absence of batteries or canned foods or bottled water, an absence of preparedness. Instead he had been hard at work in the garage, where there were dozens of kites: some brand-new and still in their plastic packaging; others cut to ribbons. A long sheet of red kitefabric was pinned to the wall. The floor was littered with sketches. She found him sitting on a stool with his computer balanced in his lap. He was watching another video and taking notes on the back of his hand. Joren Smoot was talking about accelerometers and gyroscopes.
“The tailwing is going to be tricky,” Ricky said.
“At least get some peanut butter and a few bottles of water,” Beth said.
“I’m allergic to peanuts.”
“You are not.”
He kept writing.
As children, they told each other stories about how when they were inside their mother, their fingers would glow when they touched them together, like E.T. Back then, their strangeness was a shared thing, but then they grew older and his strangeness splintered into something the outside world didn’t know how to manage.
“Don’t you watch the weather?” Beth pressed.
“No offense, but can’t I just look outside?”
She surveyed the three concrete walls and the rising garage door. “Do you see any windows in here?”
“It’s colder in the garage. The temperature helps me stay alert.” He abandoned his laptop for a sketchpad and pencil. A triangular ruler and a level sat on his desk.
“I’m worried about you.” The words came from Beth in a burst. She had to take three quick, deep breaths before uttering this simple expression of concern. She wanted to pull the sketchpad from his hands and put her arms around his neck. But whatever closeness they once shared was so far behind them. She didn’t know how to begin.
He looked up from the sketchpad. His eyes were red-rimmed and tired. “I’ll get some water or whatever, okay?”
He went back to drawing. She picked up one of the sketches. A tiny human figure was locked inside a set of enormous wings. They were not like regular bird wings; they looked massive and prehistoric.
“Terodactyl,” Beth said.
“Pterodactyl,” her brother corrected her.
* * *
Her brother was sixteen the first time he went to a hospital. Their parents grew worried when he started telling everyone—teachers, friends, other parents—elaborate stories about how he was actually fifty years old and had lived all over the world and just happened to look very young. He had detailed conversations with cats and trees. With a small hammer and an Xacto knife, he made a tangerine-sized hole in the living room wall. When their parents sat Beth and Ricky down to talk about the hole, he said he just wanted to see what was happening inside.
“What did you think was happening inside?” their father said.
“I don’t know,” her brother replied. “If I knew, I wouldn’t have needed the hole.”
Her parents always regarded Beth as the more normal child, the one who could stand up to the pressures of the world. Nobody knew that the only difference was her ability to keep what she suspected to be irregular thoughts and desires to herself. A nervousness about cold, for example, because she believed her bones were going to turn to ice and crumble; singeing herself with a hot curling iron to make sure everything inside her skin stayed sufficiently warm. When her brother explained about the hole, she thought his reasoning made perfect sense, but crossed her arms and chewed her lip because she knew that was what she was supposed to do. She wanted to believe that sanity was a practice and that if you practiced enough, something in your brain would shift. Sometimes she thought that the world of people like her brother and the world of people not like her brother were at war over her mind.
He went to the hospital when he sobbed for three days straight and couldn’t tell anyone why. For a while, he lay in a white bed with his eyes closed. Clear fluid dripped from an IV into his arm. When he finally opened his eyes, Beth saw a confusion and fear so familiar, it became impossible for her to keep watching.
* * *
Beth’s forecast was right. Baltimore was blanketed in over a foot of snow. The museum closed for two days. She and Gary crossed the street to Patterson Park and went to the top of the Pagoda and watched the snow fall. They were two months into the new year and already seventy people had been murdered in Baltimore, but now the streets were quiet and downy with white, peaceful as a village.
“Maybe this time people will send me love letters,” Beth said.
“Once I found a guide on writing love letters at The Book Things,” Gary told her. “It said that you should listen to romantic music and always make sure your stationary is nice.”
Sometimes she asked herself why she kept dating Gary. She looked forward to seeing him, but not intensely; she was not consumed with love, the way some people said you were supposed to be. But they appreciated the same activities, like the pagoda and The Book Thing. Also, she was pretty sure he was saner than she was but not so sane that she couldn’t relate.
The bare tree braches sagged under the weight of the snow. Above them the sky rumbled.
* * *
The snow kept coming. It was happening all over the Mid-Atlantic: Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania. She predicted Baltimore would get twenty-four inches, an unheard of amount for the area.
“Snowmageddon,” Candace said in a meeting, twirling a fake cigarette in her hand. “That’s what we’re calling it.”
They reviewed the dangers Roger and Gloria would discuss: cars should stay off the road; anyone outside would be at risk for frostbite and hypothermia; the winds would cause power outages; pipes would freeze; trees would fall. Roger’s skin looked unnaturally tan for winter. Gloria wore a blouse with a silk bow at the neck and pearl earrings.
“People aren’t used to this kind of weather around here.” Candace claimed to be from Canada, though she had no trace of an accent. “They need to be told.”
“The city is getting snow plows shipped over from Ohio,” Roger said.
“The Greatest City in America doesn’t have its own plows?” Gloria had made it clear that she thought Baltimore was second-rate. She would have preferred a job in Washington or Philadelphia. “What a surprise that is.”
Beth looked down at her notes. By tomorrow, the snow would be falling at a rate of two inches per hour. She imaged drifts covering the outside of her brother’s garage, sealing him and his wings inside.
“You’re lucky, kid.” Roger pointed his pen at Beth. “It’s a great moment in any broadcast career, getting to narrate the public through disaster.”
She picked up the glass of water in front of her. She put it down without taking a sip. The last time she narrated a disaster, it had not gone very well. Hi bear, I see you, she thought, to calm herself. When she taped her segment, when she realized she was surrounded by cartoon blizzards, she reminded herself to smile. She did exactly what the teleprompter instructed.
By the time she left the studio, the sky was black. Trees were bending in the wind. The schools would be closed for at least seventy-two hours. Her car skidded on a patch of ice. Snow was collecting on her windshield. She wanted to see how long she could go before turning the wipers on.
* * *
She drove by her brother’s house, to see how things were. She parked on the edge of the driveway. She turned off the engine and the wipers. Lights were on inside; he still had power, plus Joren Smoot and his bird wings for company, which seemed to be all he needed these days. Probably he had gotten some bottled water. Probably he had something to eat. He was an adult, after all. She tried not to imagine her brother doing the kinds of things she had done in her apartment in Mobile: sniffing pillowcases in the closet; eating grape jelly with a fork; calling hotlines to push against the loneliness.
She told herself to get out of the car. Instead she stayed in the driveway until her windshield was covered with white.
The call came when she was in the grocery, buying a spare flashlight and more bottled water. She wanted her old boss in Mobile to be right: next time, she would be more prepared. She stood in the aisle with her cart, one hand holding the phone, the other cupping a pack of batteries. The lights inside the store flickered.
“What if the snow never stops?” This was the first time he’d ever asked a question. “What will you tell us then?”
“It’ll stop by the end of the week.” She dropped the batteries into her cart, then went in search of canned sardines. “It’s all in the forecast.”
“Your forecasts aren’t always right.”
“Despite popular opinion, I can’t actually control the weather.” She found her sardines and steered the cart toward the checkout. There was no one else in line.
“I don’t understand,” the man said. “Why do you think I keep calling?”
“I’m not the person you’re looking for,” Beth said before hanging up.
* * *
The second call came in the middle of the night. She was home alone. Gary was at his apartment, helping his roommates prepare for the blizzard. When she went to bed, the snow had been too heavy for her to see the weathervane through her window.
She rolled over and plucked the phone off her nightstand. She thought it was the man, but it wasn’t. It was a nurse at a hospital, calling about her brother.
“There’s been an accident,” the nurse said.
* * *
There was no visibility. She drove very slowly. The wind slid her car around like a toy. The streets were dark. She didn’t pass any other drivers on the road. The hospital was two miles away, but it took her half an hour to get there. It was four in the morning in Senegal, so of course her parents did not answer their phone. When the voicemail came on, she told them that this was a real emergency. That they would have to do more than send a card.
In the shock and trauma unit, a nurse explained what had happened. Her brother was found lying in the show. He was wearing some kind of contraption, a pair of wings sown onto a backpack. He appeared to have jumped from his roof.
“Is there a history of mental illness?” the nurse asked.
Beth said that she would have to get back to her.
Now her brother was in traction. His right leg was in a cast. His arms were both in slings. White gauze was wrapped around his forehead. He had a cut under one eye, a green bruise on his cheekbone. She stood in the doorway for a little while before entering the room.
“It was all a hoax,” her brother said.
She pulled a chair to his bedside. She forced herself to look at the damage. Hello, bear, she began in her head.
“Joren Smoot,” he continued. “His wings never really worked. The video was faked.”
She remembered the footage of the man swooping through the air. It had looked real enough to her. “How do you know?”
“He admitted it on Dutch TV.” His face was red. His breath was shallow and fast. “It was just a practical joke. A stunt.”
“I called mom and dad. They’ll be here soon.” Of course, she had no idea where their parents were, or if they would come at all. She was just desperate for something that might make him feel better.
“Really?” He tried to sit up in bed.
His room had a window. She looked out at the curtain of snow. The thing that might really make him feel better, the admission that they weren’t so different, that she was barely keeping it together, was something she only knew how to hold inside.
“Why would you try to fly during a blizzard?” she asked instead.
“I thought the wind would help.”
It occurred to her then that it was possible her brother had been the one making the calls. It was hard to imagine what his motivations might be, but if he had jumped off his roof in a blizzard, if he had really tried to fly, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch. The caller’s voice hadn’t sounded at all like her brother, but there were ways around that.
“Have you been calling me on the phone?” she asked.
“I hate the phone,” her brother said. “The static.”
Beth was surprised when she started to cry. She was surprised by the damp heat on her cheeks. The next time she lost her grip on the weather, would she decide that she wanted to walk on water or dig a tunnel to China? Would she end up in a hospital somewhere? And if she did, who would come for her?
“I watch you on the news.” All of a sudden, Ricky was the one trying to console, which only made her feel worse. “You’re right about the weather more than you’re wrong.”
She wiped her eyes. Everything about the hospital room—the reclining bed, the dark TV mounted on the wall, the floors that squeaked when you stepped on them—seemed terrifying in its unnaturalness.
“You really watch me on TV?” she said. “What do you think?”
“You shouldn’t smile so much,” he said. “It makes you look nuts.”
* * *
In the hallway, she called Gary, even though she was not supposed to use her cell phone in the hospital. She stood in front of a vending machine. A bag of pretzels had gotten stuck in one of the metal claws. Down the hall, someone was screaming. When Gary answered, she could hear his roommates in the background. She imagined one of them leading a ferret around on a leash.
“Great job with the weather,” he said.
“My brother,” she began.
During Ricky’s first stay in the hospital, she and her mother would go down to the cafeteria for frozen yogurt whenever they needed a break from his room and The Weather Channel, which Beth would watch for hours at a time. When she and her brother started school, their parents had taken desk jobs with the Peace Corps and only worked abroad during the summer months, when their children could stay with an aunt in Massachusetts. Her parents always seemed a little wilted by the stationary life, like exotic birds locked in too small a cage. Beth felt guilty for how much she treasured this time in the hospital with her mother.
In the cafeteria, there was a soft serve machine. They each got a bowl of vanilla. They always sat by a window, surrounded by doctors in suits and white jackets and nurses in their printed scrubs. Beth thought she had a knack for telling which family members were getting the worst news by what they ate. If there was meat on their plate, it wasn’t so bad; if there were only vegetables, it was terrible.
Once her mother told a story about Beth’s father. They were in their twenties, on one of their first assignments in the Peace Corps. In Brazil, they were working with an indigenous group on shifting cultivation. She’d been married for a little less than a year.
“It was gradual at first.” Her mother took a small bite of yogurt. She was slight and blond, but stronger than she looked. You could tell by her hands, which were broad and calloused. “He started having trouble sleeping.”
Then he began showing up late for shifts and getting confused about his duties; he burned a fledging crop that wasn’t supposed to be burned, which almost got them kicked out.
She would find him eating plants without checking to make sure they weren’t poisonous. He would disappear at night and not come back until morning. In their tent, she would try to talk to him and he would jam his fist in his mouth. The other volunteers started ignoring them. She felt like she was standing on top of a mountain and watching a person fall toward the earth and knowing there was nothing she could do to help them in time.
“I was scared of him.” She stuck her spoon into her yogurt. “Newly married, in a rainforest in Brazil, and scared of the man I was sharing a tent with. Can you imagine?”
“What did you do?” Beth hadn’t touched her yogurt. It was melting and running over the edges of her bowl.
“One day it all passed and things went back to the way they were.” She pressed her fingertips over her eyes for a moment and sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I thought it might help you understand.”
Right then Beth’s father came into the cafeteria. He was on the opposite side of the room, standing by the instant coffee machine and filling a Styrofoam cup. Neither she or her mother called his name or waved. His hair was shaggy, his shoulders hunched. What was he like during the months he spent away from home? How did he change? To Beth he had always seemed far away—like he was forever working out a complicated problem in his mind—but he had never frightened her the way her brother was frightening her now.
She focused on the weather reports she had seen in Ricky’s room. Doppler Radar. Jet stream. Unstable air.
“You both came out looking just like him,” her mother said. “It was enough to break a woman’s heart.”
* * *
When Gary arrived at the hospital, Beth brought him to her brother’s room. They both stood at the foot of the bed. A clipboard dangled from the frame. The snow was falling harder.
“Gary, Ricky.” She gestured toward her brother’s suspended leg. “Ricky, Gary.”
“Who the fuck are you?” her brother said.
“I’m a museum guard,” Gary said. “Your sister is awfully worried about you. I’m going to take her out for a bit, so she can clear her head. How does that sound?”
“There’s a blizzard. Just where do you think you’re going to take her?”
As it turned out, Gary had borrowed his roommate’s truck. They left Beth’s brother in traction. They left her car in the parking lot. She didn’t say anything more about the phone calls. The truck was red and had huge tires. Beth imagined it roaring through the snow.
During a shift, Gary once intercepted a woman he caught drawing tiny stick figures on the corner of a very expensive painting with a black Sharpie. He wrestled the marker from her hand. Two weeks later, the painting was back on the wall, the damage erased. In the truck, it occurred to Beth that maybe she kept seeing Gary in hopes of witnessing his heroic side.
The snow was drenching the city in white. Even with those enormous tires, they could not go fast. They crept past drifts like small mountains and dark houses and an emergency plow nudging at mounds of snow. Beth peered through the window. From the top of the plow, a light flashed. She tried to see the driver inside.
“That snow plow probably came from Ohio.” She tapped her fingernail against the glass.
Gary turned the radio to the news. Sixty percent of the city was without power.
Her phone rang. It could be her parents or the hospital or the man, who wasn’t her brother at all, who was calling yet again to harass her about the weather. She didn’t check the number. She put the ringer on silent.
At the museum, he parked in the back lot. Outside they were pelted with snow. White flakes splattered against them like paintballs. She thought they might be carried away by the wind. They ran for a large, dark door, which Gary unlocked by swiping a card. Inside he punched a code into a keypad, to keep the alarm from coming on. They trailed ice across the marble floors.
They crossed the main lobby and climbed a staircase to the modern wing. Gary turned on the lights and took Beth into the room with the shirt on the hanger. It was a plain white button down, suspended from the ceiling. She touched the fabric. Her fingers were stiff from the cold. The material was strange. It wasn’t the soft cotton she was expecting, but something more like canvas. Alone in the room, the shirt looked like a memorial.
Next Gary showed her the feet. They were all over the room, these feet. Ceramic feet in many shapes and sizes, some painted light, others dark. She picked up a pair and pressed the soles against her ears. Gary chased her with a big pink foot. He pretended to clobber her on the head. They screamed. Their coats dusted the floor with snow.
“If it wasn’t illegal to do this, more people would come to museums,” she said.
She found a plaque with information about the artist, which she read aloud. He lived in West Virginia. He was forty-six years old. He wanted to find hope in simplicity. To challenge the viewer to think about what they really needed.
“Like do we really need someone to predict the weather?” Beth continued. “Do humans really need to fly?”
“Hey,” Gary said. “It doesn’t say that.”
“You’re right,” she said. “It doesn’t.”
The last thing was the new video installation. They sat in a dark, cave-like room. At the artist’s request, the video was never turned off, not even when the museum was closed. In the room, they could hear the terrible noise of the blizzard tearing away at the city. Beth imagined this was what it must be like inside a space shuttle.
In the movie, a woman stood in a green room with a pair of antlers on her head. Beth touched the peak of her skull and thought about how heavy those antlers would be. She thought about her brother waiting for her to come back, waiting for their parents to appear. How long would this snow keep falling? How long would the calls keep coming? What would she do if it never stopped?
In front of the screen, she mapped out her next segment. She would wish her brother, a snowmeggedon survivor, a speedy recovery. She would tell all the people who complained about the weather that they would never understand her life. She would not smile. She would let her eyes go dead. She would tell a bad joke about air pressure. When Candace objected, in some stupid Opus Dei or Save the Leeches T-shirt, Beth would tell her that it wasn’t fair, the way she was expected to grin through disaster.
“I’m a real person,” she said to Gary, who, in the dark, she was mistaking for Candace.
In the movie, a robot tapped its black finger against a white table.
“Of course you are,” he said.
In her line of work, it could be surprisingly easy to forget.
There was a field and the damp bottom of a stairwell and a train moving through the night. When they came back to the woman in the green room, she was sitting on a bench. She stared into the camera for a long time. She began to feel so real, Beth thought she might be able to step into the screen and sit down next to her. By the end of the movie, she was doing just that. She was sitting next to this woman and wearing her own set of antlers. She was looking out at herself and at Gary, who was trying so hard to save her. She wanted to hug everyone, but somehow, without language, the woman told her this was not part of the script. Together they clapped their hands once. Together they took off their antlers and placed them on the bench. Together they stood up and walked out of the room. Together they stopped being deer and became women again.