e find a place between the two cities, where tree after tree groans in the moonlight. Those twisted up things have been sucking wild dirt a long time—long enough they’ve thrown off whole wrecking yards of limbs, bashed up and strewn all over, gurgling down in a sea of moss. Jess always takes a while to get it together when we’re someplace, and Chad’s still in the front seat, fondling the two good sixers he made me buy to drive us out there, so I have to take off to measure the place myself.
Not a problem, because we have to slap ours up quick and get breeding. And I’m not ready to let Jess in on the other, non-beer part of the deal I had to make with Chad.
‘I’m gonna pile your crap by this tree!’ Chad shouts at my back.
I’ve never been out in a real forest. My ears are used to hearing a lot more things, more than just trees. It makes me a little nervous. I can’t get over the way the ground bounces and squelches. I keep stopping to check for dog shit, but the smells I get are good and more complicated, like crushed vitamins.
Sooner than I want I find the cinder block sky-high wall that holds back our city. I never thought that place would miss me. But now I feel the thuds of my own heart being sucked up with the horns blitzing, and the late night shouts and the crackling lights spiraled high. The wall seems to lean over me. The whole thing’s so tall, it could be a booby trap for the sun. And if it is—rise or set, now we’ll be front row to watch the death struggles.
I turn around and take off running, slamming my way through the trees when I have to. I palm Jess’s butt as I cannon by.
The good air in my lungs, pumping and pumping.
All the way to the electric fence of the other city, without losing my breath. This is it. This is how far we have. We have to work fast.
But I have to quick at least eyeball this humanscape. I owe it to Jess. As long as I’ve know her she’s talked it up. It fascinates her. Living there, she says, you’d never be swallowed in shadows, like in ours. Which is like a mausoleum. It took all-fuckall to talk her into coming out here where you can hack up any pile of sticks you want to build a crib, instead of going over there, where there are people and people get pissed if you even eyeball their scrap lumber. And, whatever—over there they aren’t going to die any slower. From one of the double-wides backed up to the fence, a big ass white light glares shadows at me. I shield my eyes: jungle gym pushed in a hole, dirt piled around a barbecue with a bunch of broken shovels, half-buried kiddy cars and toy guns, amputated plastic dolls. The whole thing smells like a cigarette put out in an old carton of milk. All up and down the fence, to where it bends back the horizons, diapers and plastic bags are wedged and stuck. Right near my knee is a flayed squirrel—what’s left of it.
And even as I stand there, the hairs on that squirrel’s back slowly spread apart as the city grows, and the fence bulges. I want to wet my finger and touch the fence. I wanted to show all the urbane fuckers everywhere we are out here in the wet end of summer, in the wild and we’ll make it.
I’ve known Jess three months, and already she’s said wait, we gotta wait, about seventy, a hundred times now. Ten times just yesterday. Of course I can respect that. She has to know I really want her. What can I say? You don’t know until you do. But thinking about her swelled out is just fine with me. Really I was glad when my paranoid but in-the-know uncle told me the big shit was finally coming down. No question.
So: you ram through the living putty of arc lights, ripping out of the ninety million volts that you thought was hair-triggered all up and down your spine. You cannon thoroughfares. Your head pounds. You tear ass. Cuts and skews through housing tracts spewing gutter slime at flat neon children with SLOW tattoos. You gnaw at the steering wheel, or the seat, if someone else is in control. Finally, a tollbooth—you hurl coins and squeal away into the dark. But before you go too far, before you’re on the other mainline, you hang a turn and bust straight through the guardrail, or bung through the ditch, or however it was Chad got us off the fucking tarmac, fishtailing all over the first fifty feet of nature, huge green black leaves slapping as he eyes us two in the rear-view and blasts reggae at Jess as she kneads lichen spores into my leg and at me as I hold her other sweaty hand and keep ignoring goddamn Chad and say into my woman’s ear—soon baby soon.
The trees call me back. There’s no wind at ground level, but up high a whole nother thing’s happening. I’m thrilled sick—I never heard such a sound. So lonesome it scares me closer.
Chad is chugging a beer on the hood of his old sedan when I get back. An oily thinness spritzes out of the grill.
He tosses his empty at me.
‘Hey Jess!’ he yells in some direction. ‘She’s out lookin for you, loverboy.’
I don’t care, I’m happy. I don’t care about Chad or where he’ll go after this. It’s me and Jess from here on out, and pretty soon a little fella. With my service pistol, two tarps, a frying pan and a box of lighters, we’ll be set for a while. After the worst is over, we can raid both cities for blankets and candy bars when we have to, until someday, we’ll probably have enough little monkeys around to lash up a city of our own.
‘Stuff’s over there,’ Chad says.
‘Is the tent out of the back seat?’
‘You think I want that thing?’
‘You got about two safe days to get out of that place, I’m telling you.’ I have told him, a hundred times. I’ve told everyone what my uncle told me. A bad, bad bug is out. An accident? Intelligence? Who cares, bloated blue meat is bloated blue meat. Even when you’re tossed in a heap of company. My formerly top-brassed uncle: schitzo as hell, but still in the know.
I don’t think Chad’s got over the night he passed out in my room and woke up with me choking him—or so he said. He hit me on the head with a chair to wake me up. I remember that. It still makes me mad. Marks on his neck as dark as ink.
Jess comes back. When I see her, I get excited. I stomp up and down in the leaves.
‘Okay, okay,’ she says.
‘It’s nature!’ I tell her.
‘I know, sweetie.’
‘Look how much there is,’ I say. She comes close, and does some of the soft things she does, to teach me.
Chad throws another bottle at us. ‘I got twenty minutes!’ he says.
‘You got about forever!’ I pick up the bottle and toss it in the bushes. ‘Give it up, man.’
‘I found a good spot,’ she says quietly.
Chad is leaning back and through the window and flicking the lights on and off at us.
‘We have to do something here,’ I say.
‘What–’ it takes her a minute. ‘You mean—in front of Chad?’
A gust comes down and cleans out the space between us. I can see her face coming alive, like a puddle you’d thought was a smooth rock.
‘I had to promise him.’
‘Are you kidding?’ she throws a look back at the car. ‘Chad, what the hell?’
‘Come on, Jess,’ he says. ‘I’ve got nothing, you know? And it’s the end of the fucking world.’
‘We can do it quick,’ I say, making my voice sweet. ‘Maybe that’ll help get you pregnant.’
‘People do way worse shit all the time!’ Chad’s angry now, and on his fourth beer. He pulls off his jacket, tries to ball it up and jams it behind him, then leans back and covers his face with a hand.
‘You already bought him beer,’ Jess says flatly.
‘I won’t look till you start,’ Chad calls over.
‘It’s tonight, honey, baby,’ I hold my voice down, ‘I know it has to be tonight.’
‘Let’s put up the tent, at least.’
I start pulling off my pants. ‘We’re never going to see him again.’
She lets out a little laugh. ‘Never?’
‘We’re never going to see anyone again.’
‘I just can’t… that’s too much,’ she says. She wants me to say something. But I’m getting so nervous, being in the spotlight, and I have to sit. To get my legs out.
‘This is fucked up,’ she says.
‘Come on,’ I say, ‘come on, come on.’
Jess is what you’d call a grounded girl, robust and hairy-legged, and so much smarter than me that I don’t know how I got her. Her body, like the rest of her, is pretty complicated. Good stock for kids—but I already know that to get up the gumption, I’ll have to think a little about someone else. Even now, our first time.
And she worries some people, because she always argues there’s no such thing as death, only born again. She gets pretty worked up about it. I just let her think whatever. Anybody who thinks there’s something other than dying, who’s scared as shit if there isn’t, to me that’s a miracle.
I poing my socks off, one in each hand, and toss them.
‘Easy there,’ she says.
‘What’s he doing?’ says Chad.
Jess kneels down and puts her hands on my knees.
‘Do you really want to do this?’ she asks.
‘Because I told him…’
‘No, I mean why do you want to make a baby?’
Her hands feel like low-powered electrodes. I can’t think what I told her before. I’d meant it—I mean everything I say to her—and I could say it again. But now, everything I’ve ever said to a woman seems like a secret to me. Her hands keep warming my flesh; moss grows like God around my ass. Chad all bent and lonesome on his hood. The wind ripping leaves. ‘I’ve got all these ideas,’ I say. ‘If I don’t have a kid…’
‘What? Yeah—if we don’t do it, then who am I going to tell all this shit to? I got plans to make… things to work right. I can’t spend my life in a gas mask chugging Syphirin, can you? That stuff turns you into a human jack-o-lantern.’
She reaches over and strokes my hair.
‘It’s not that bad,’ she says.
I close my eyes and try not to strain for the sound of the cities on both sides of us.
‘Don’t you want to know why I want to?’ she asks.
‘You already said you would, that’s all I need.’
She takes hold of my chin and waits till I look her in the eyes. Jess never cries about things that happen to herself. So I don’t know what to make of it now.
‘I’m doing it because you want me to,’ she says.
‘Okay,’ I say.
She shakes her head at me slowly.
‘What’s going on?’ says Chad.
‘Maybe I’m doing it because of the way it smells out here,’ she says to me.
‘Great,’ I say. She starts shaking her head again, and I push her hand off my face, and she puts it right back.
‘Rob,’ she says quietly.
‘Need a hand, Jess?’ asks Chad.
‘Kiss my ass,’ I say to him.
‘Rob listen, listen,’ she smoothes my cheek with her palm, and I realize I’m digging my fingers into her waist. Her touch feels good. It’s a reason I wanted to be out here. ‘Do you really want to know why?’ she asks.
‘No,’ I say. I’m suddenly scared of her answer. I’ve never been so scared of anything.
‘Fine,’ she sighs and stands up. She pulls her dress over her head.
‘Get up Robby,’ Chad says excitedly.
Jess’s bra and underpants are thin and grey as city water. They’re like a sickness, like scabs. But she slips them right off. Something twists in my chest.
She moves back a few steps. She takes a breath and brings her hands above her head. I can’t hear my own breath. Or Chad’s, or the forest’s. Jess stands there like she’s diving into the treetops. And, I start feeling them whooshing towards us. A shiver flings ice from my back. The leaves fan down. Millions of them. They swarm and slurry. And then I blink, and for a second it’s like nothing—and then they’re fanning and shimmering, down and down…
Until she hits the surface. Then, with her whole arms, she pulls a deep arc of air.
‘I guess I’m not going to tell you,’ she says.
She turns, and begins to run.
‘What the fuck?’ says Chad.
‘She’s going for the fence,’ I say, scrambling up.
I take off after her, my bare feet slipping everywhere. Chad shouts something. He smashes a bottle.
I can see her ahead of me, dodging trees with the thick motions of a baby new to its feet. I know I should be able to catch up to her. I’m bigger, stronger.
Not until I’ve run short of breath do I realize, she isn’t heading for the fence, or for the wall, but straight down the forest, the way I hadn’t measured.
‘I’ll get the tent!’ I yell. I can’t see her anymore.
Far behind me, Chad’s engine sputters to life. He’s jamming at the pedal, roaring and sputtering mud. His dingy lights crack open in the havoc of the trees as he gears the car around. Chad and me—we’ve had times. We’ve seen and done things. Now he guns, guns, finds a bearing, busts up, kicks off.
I start to run again. I run, and slam hard. I have to stop for a second. My chest hollows, and my legs are a mess of jitters. I listen for Jess. There’s all this racket from the trees and the sky. But I’m following. I start picking my way. My hands are out to feel for things. I slug into drifts of limbs. An ocean. I have to keep going some other way, a way that my feet sink into and grit and shards slit them.
My hand holds me up against one of the trees. In every direction, all I can hear now is their groaning. I wrap my arms tight as I can around the one next to me, trying to get at least that one to stop.
But this is their place, and their time. They have a lot to say.