By Margot Singer
Featured Art: Rain Sculpture, Salt Creek Cañon, Utah by William H. Bell
It’s the end of summer and the neighbors have gathered in Evan’s yard, young mothers with babies lounging in the shade on the front porch, older kids racing around the lawn, the men clustered by the grill in back. It is dry and hot, not yet Labor Day, but across the street the upper leaves on the maple in front of Natalie’s house, that precocious tree, are already tinged with red. Natalie wishes it were May again, not August. She longs for the promise of summer rippling outward like the surface of a pool.
Inside, another group of women has pulled up chairs around the kitchen table, mothers Natalie recognizes from around the neighborhood but doesn’t really know, the wives of Evan’s friends. Natalie is still the newcomer, the outsider, Evan’s new girlfriend. The women are bent forward in conversation, a closed set.
“Oh my heck,” one of them is saying. “Here? Really?” She has dark hair with bangs and long-lashed eyes, like a doll’s.
Another woman waves her hand. “It’s public information. Just Google Megan’s Law, you’ll see.”
The screen door slams and a scrum of kids comes running through the house, Evan’s eight-year-old daughter Kelsey in the lead. They shove each other through the kitchen, shouting and giggling, before racing out the back door. The mothers roll their eyes and exchange long-suffering, proprietary glances. Natalie does not join in. She stakes no maternal claim on Kelsey. She feels rather sorry for Kelsey, with her divided parents, her two houses, her two bedrooms, her complicated life. Evan has Kelsey from Sunday to Wednesday every week. Of course, it’s complicated for Natalie as well. On the nights Kelsey stays with Evan, he insists that Natalie sleep at her own house across the street. “Just until we’re sure it’s serious,” he says.
The women shift and sigh. “I just don’t get how he can be allowed to live right here, a predator like that,” the doll-like woman says.
Natalie twists a Diet Coke out of the cooler on the floor and steps out onto the deck. The children are climbing on the swing set now, and the men are standing in a haze of smoke around the grill. Evan is prodding the hot dogs, laughing with the other men. His legs look skinny beneath his baggy shorts, and his hair curls beneath his baseball cap like a kid’s. There’s something about the way his T-shirt drapes off his shoulders, about the exposed, smooth skin along the back of his neck, that makes Natalie’s heart twist.
Thunderheads are building above the Wasatch, white billows gleaming like sails. Natalie loves this sky, these mountains, the dryness of the air, the sharpness of the light, so different from the Midwest where she grew up. She loves this neighborhood with its terraces of bungalow-lined avenues that stretch across the foothills from the Capitol to the University. She understands why Brigham Young looked out at the Salt Lake valley and said, “This is the place.”
It is only later, after the neighbors have taken their empty bowls and platters and gathered up their children and headed home, after the sun has dipped behind the Oquirrhs and the sky deepened to bluish-black, that Natalie switches on her computer back at her own house and looks up the Sex Offender Registry. The window above her desk is open, letting in the smell of grass, the vibration of traffic, the wail and rumble of a distant train. She takes a sip of wine, jiggling her foot as she types.
Seven orange numbers appear within the orange circle that marks a half- mile radius around her neighborhood like the reticle of a rifle scope. Seven names are listed on the right. She clicks on the orange number closest to her house and a mug shot opens: Chase R—, age 46, 5’ 11”, 180 lbs., cropped dark hair, brown eyes, graying stubble on his cheeks. He could be a lawyer or a professor, Natalie thinks. She scrolls down the page. Unlawful Sexual Activity with a Minor. Third Degree Felony. The conviction is three years old. The address is just a few blocks away. She’s probably driven by the offender’s house, passed him in aisles of the supermarket down the hill.
Across the street, Evan’s porch light is lit, but the upstairs windows are dark. Kelsey would be long asleep; Evan, too, is probably in bed by now. It would be easy to go over there and slide in next to him, spoon her body into his, match the rhythm of his breath. Instead she goes into the kitchen and refills her glass of wine. She drinks standing up, leaning against the counter, feeling the warmth spread.
Chase R—, she thinks. What did you do?
Coach Goodman is listed in the registry as well, of course. She looked him up once, a few years back. It was a shock to see his picture. Somehow, she hadn’t imagined him as having aged. He was over forty now, his hair threaded with gray, the skin below the outer corners of his eyes pinched into pleats. He was still living in Fort Wayne. She felt ashamed to see him there, after all these years, exposed.
He spent two years in prison, because of her. He lost his job, his reputation, his wife, his home, his kids.
At work at the insurance agency, Natalie evaluates hazards and exposures, perils, risks. She looks for signs of potential leaks or break-ins, pest damage, mold, improperly stored chemicals, missing smoke detectors, loose stair treads, unsecured windows, flimsy locks. It is her job to imagine the worst that could happen: the claims for stolen merchandise, flooded storage areas, injured customers or workers, roofs damaged or collapsed by storms. The insurance guys tell stories, cautionary tales, like the one about the plumber who was killed when a pipe sprang loose and crushed his skull on a worksite out in Draper, some sixty years before. They were still paying out on that claim to his widow, who was now ninety-three. Natalie’s colleagues are worriers. They worry about the weather, about the real estate market and the economy, about accidents and earthquakes and Acts of God. Natalie has learned to speak the fretful language of insurance, too: indemnity, subrogation, casualty, loss.
Natalie spends the morning out on sales calls, discussing policies with the proprietors of a strip-mall nail salon, a consignment shop, a women’s clothing boutique. At noon, she heads to the rec center for a swim. She doesn’t feel like dealing with the lunchtime chatter in the office, the tedium of meetings and email, the thousand little tasks that fill her days. It’s hot again today, the air so dry it burns her nostrils, and again she feels the tug of summer. For a moment, she misses the humidity of Indiana, the muddy wetlands, the sluggish rivers crossed by rusty spans. Here, the dry grid of the valley shimmers in the heat. To the north, the lake looks like a bead of mercury. The sky is so blue it hurts.
In the locker room, Natalie slides out of her skirt and wiggles into her bathing suit, the concrete floor cold beneath her feet. She inhales the chlorine air, the smell of childhood, of ten thousand hours spent in pools. She avoids the mirrors, the slide-weight scale, the sidelong glances of the other women toweling off or pulling on their underpants and bras. She tugs on her cap, tucks up her hair. The lanes of the pool stretch blue and straight, the water sloshing in and out of the gutters with the disturbance of the noontime swimming crowd. She adjusts her goggles and dives in.
The shock of the cool water brings her back to her body, the state of buoyancy a release. Even now, all these years out of training, she falls reflexively into her rhythm, her arms pulling long against the cadence of her kick, three strokes per breath, a steady roll. It is always high school she returns to in her body: those early morning workouts, endless miles of laps and intervals and sprints, Coach Goodman watching from the deck: quiet, expectant, intent. He had a way of indicating what he wanted with a simple word or gesture—arms or kick or breath—until she knew what she had to do before he even said it. She swam for him.
Swimming was the one thing Natalie was really good at. She had endurance and speed and an enviable kick. From the beginning, those early summer mornings at the town pool, she was hooked. She loved the buzz in the racers’ pen at meets, all the girls lined up in their caps and Speedos, writing “Eat My Wake” and “‘Fly or Die” in Sharpie across each others’ backs. She loved the high-fives from the older kids, the trophies that accumulated on her bedroom shelves, the feeling of the water streaming along her skin. Her shoulders broadened; her hair turned greenish from the chlorine. She dolphin-kicked beneath the surface and took flight.
Day after day, throughout junior high and high school, the alarm went off at five a.m. Day after day, her mother drove her through the silent, blue-black Fort Wayne streets, as Natalie huddled in the back seat, cold and stiff and half-asleep. It hurt to think about it even now, those first moments in the pool, the ache of her muscles and ligaments and spine, the prospect of two hours of pain ahead. All those hours and days and weeks of workouts that came down to milliseconds in a two-minute race. Go, Coach Goodman yelled, and she sprinted. The whistle blew and she did it again.
He was young, only in his twenties then, and cute. That was their word: cute. All the girls had a crush on him. When they were out of the water, he joked around, gave them nicknames. Nattie L., he called her. He called Caitlyn Dairy Queen. Once when Natalie’s mother didn’t show up to fetch her after a Saturday practice, he’d given Natalie a ride home. He drove a pickup and she sat up front, almost like they were on a date. A pair of miniature flip-flops dangled from the rearview mirror. He pulled up in front of the sagging Victorian carved into cheap apartments, with its Astroturf stoop and peeling paint and trim. He didn’t say anything, but she could tell he understood. He waited until she’d unlocked the front door and let herself in before he pulled away. She watched until his taillights disappeared at the bottom of the street.
It was just a crush, but at the time it felt like more. What was a crush, anyway? Sugar syrup over ice. A body’s weight on top of yours. Splintered bone beneath concrete.
On Saturday morning, she and Evan drive to Big Cottonwood Canyon for a hike. Kelsey is with Marta and Evan’s worked himself into a knot of rage. Marta’s so freaking clueless, he complains as he merges off of Foothill onto I-215. The sun is bright, too bright, above the rocky peaks, and Natalie pulls the visor down against the glare. Marta lets Kelsey watch too much TV, Evan says. She’s bought her an iPod and lip gloss and flimsy sandals with high heels. “What the hell does an eight-year-old need that stuff for?” he says. “What does she think she is, eighteen?”
Natalie has only met Marta a couple of times, when she’s come by to pick Kelsey up or drop her off. She’s taller than Natalie would have expected, with limp dark hair and a wide mouth and pale skin—almost pretty, but not quite. She is slender in a boneless sort of way, although she hides her figure behind dowdy button-up shirts and high-waisted jeans. Marta has a degree in engineering and works for a chemical company; maybe she is compensating by letting Kelsey be as girly as she likes. Marta grew up Mormon, and Evan says that doomed them from the start. Natalie takes some comfort in imagining Marta as uptight in bed.
They turn up the canyon road and Natalie squints at the old brown sign: You Have Just Crossed the Wasatch Fault. The fault line runs from the Idaho border down south of Provo, a 240-mile-long collision of tectonic plates. Natalie has never felt an earthquake in the time she’s lived in Utah, although she knows they happen—little seismic tremors, usually just enough to rattle doors and send bowls sliding across tables or knick-knacks skittering off shelves. But a big one will hit one of these days, the geologists say; it’s not a question of if, but when. Still, Natalie has a hard time selling earthquake coverage. No one wants to think about buildings collapsing like playing cards, the valley liquefying into quicksand. “Be better off buying lottery tickets,” people say, even those with property right on the scarp.
Up the canyon, past the S-turn, Evan pulls over and parks. Natalie gets out and stretches. It is cooler here at altitude, the air balsamy with pine. Evan buckles on his waist pack, adjusts his cap. He’s still fuming about Marta, Natalie can tell, and she wishes he cared less. She follows him to the trailhead, pulling on her hat.
They ascend above the road through aspens and evergreens, the shade dappled with light. The wildflowers are mostly gone by now, but Natalie keeps an eye out for a last glimpse of goldeneye or paintbrush or fireweed. It’s just as well Kelsey isn’t with them. She’d be skipping ahead or lagging behind, like any kid, complaining of fatigue or boredom or thirst, demanding distractions and bribes of candy treats. Natalie indulges her, making up silly stories, or teaching her the lyrics to tedious songs dredged up from childhood like “Hi! Ho! The Rattling Bog” and “The Ants Go Marching.” The things she’ll do to ingratiate herself with Evan, she thinks.
She had barely owned her house a month when she met Evan. It was a Saturday afternoon and she had just returned from the pool when Evan came across the street carrying a sack of peaches from his tree. Her hair was wet and dripping down the back of her shirt. She was not looking for a boyfriend. She’d bought the house, in fact, to prove she was getting on with things, not just waiting to get married like everybody else. She was tired of renting, of roommates who never washed the dishes, of her mother asking when she would be moving back. And then there was Evan holding out his offering of peaches, grinning his helpless, boyish grin.
Now there are the complications of Kelsey and Marta, the fact that Evan does not want another kid. Natalie’s girlfriends raise their eyebrows when she tells them she’s okay with that. “You’re only thirty,” they say. “You might feel differently in a couple years.” Lately, on the nights that Kelsey stays at Evan’s, Natalie finds that she can’t sleep.
The trail winds upward beside a stream through groves of silver birch. They climb until Natalie’s legs ache, turning west at the Desolation Lake fork and continuing upward until the trail opens out and then curves downhill to Dog Lake. The water shimmers with the reflections of the cottonwoods and pines and sky. Evan stops and wraps his arm around her shoulders. He smells of laundry soap and sweat. “Hey, you,” he says and kisses her, and all the words that have been eddying inside her head evaporate. They sit on the gravel shore of the lake and drink from their water bottles, and Evan pulls a camera out of his pack.
“Don’t,” she says, holding up a hand.
“I want your picture.”
“I’ll make a face.”
“Oh, come on, smile.”
She takes off her hat and runs her fingers through her hair, pushes her sunglasses onto her head, tries to compose her face into a smile. Now the moment has been transfixed. Here we are, Your Honor, Natalie thinks, Evan and Natalie, Exhibit A. How we loved each other then. Love, she corrects. We do.
Evan holds out his camera at arm’s length and clicks.
“When I was little,” she says, “my best friend Lex and I used to dress up as witches and make believe we could cast spells. One time I convinced her that if you crossed your eyes and made a face, you could shoot energy out your eyes like laser beams and no photographs would come out.” She pulls off her sneakers and socks and stretches her bare feet over the stones. “I really thought we had the power to break the camera, or at least to cloud the film. I can still remember the feeling. It was great.”
“I’ll bet you were one damn cute witch,” Evan says.
It is the wrong thing to say. “We looked like idiots in the pictures,” she says. She lobs a pebble into the lake. The ripples expand outward in concentric rings.
A couple with a toddler are walking along the shore. The child runs to the water’s edge and squats, then runs back to his parents, bringing them wet sand like a tiny pilgrim bringing offerings to a shrine. Natalie wonders if Evan came here with Kelsey when she was a baby, if he sat with Kelsey and Marta the way he’s sitting with her now. Probably there are photographs. The happy family, Your Honor. Exhibit B.
Now the toddler is waddling up the slope toward her and Evan, his fists extended, dripping watery sand. Before either of them can move, the child has released two fistfuls of wet gravel into Evan’s lap and hurled himself onto Evan’s thighs.
“Hey, little buddy, what are you doing?” Evan says, patting the toddler’s diapered butt. “Get up.”
The mother comes running, breathing hard. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” she says, although she looks less apologetic than alarmed. “He doesn’t understand stranger danger yet!” She pulls the kicking child off Evan and hauls him away.
Natalie laughs. “Stranger danger?”
Evan shrugs. “Whatever. People are weird.” He stands, buckling on his pack. Wet splotches stain his shorts. “Let’s go.”
A shred of cloud blows across the sun and the light dims. The distance has opened up again between them. Natalie reaches for her sneakers, words falling loose inside her head. Why did the baby choose Evan and not her? What did that woman imagine was going to happen to her kid?
Natalie drives by the sex offender’s house the next evening on her way home from work. She slows and cranes to see out the passenger-side window of the car. The confirming numbers are painted on the curb, two and nine and six. The boxy light blue cottage looks uninhabited, its windows dark behind drawn shades, like closed eyes. The neighboring homes are well-kept, with landscaped yards and expensive-looking wood and stone, but here there’s nothing but a dejected patch of grass, a few straggly juniper bushes, a concrete stoop. An old-style sprinkler connected to a hose lies coiled to one side. It looks like an old person’s house, the home of someone who has no future to invest in, no one to impress. Maybe it belonged to an elderly parent, Natalie thinks. Maybe this is all that he has left.
She tries to remember the face she saw in the mug shot, but what comes to her instead is that other face, Coach Goodman’s, his graying hair, the pinched folds of skin. He was not smiling in the photograph. He looked deflated, worn. Two years in prison. It was her doing. She was the one who brought down the walls and roof and beams.
It happened in her junior year of high school, a record year for the swim team, wins in meet after meet. There was nothing but swimming all that fall and winter, freezing pre-dawn practices, adrenaline running high beneath the fluorescent lights at meets. They leaped out of the water, pumped their fists, grabbed each other in group hugs after every victory. In the Districts, then in the Sectionals, Natalie placed in the 100 fly, the 200 medley relay, the 200 free. She loved it, she hated it: the clenching anticipation, the ache in her right shoulder, the thudding of her heart, the flooding post-race relief.
The night before the State Tournament, weather moved in, a wintery mix, first snow, then sleet that turned to freezing rain. Natalie’s mother drove her to meet the buses at 5:30 a.m. The ice-skimmed pavement shone in the headlights’ glare. A plow passed in the opposite lane, spraying salt, and for a long moment the windshield went opaque before the wipers scraped the white away. Natalie could feel the tension radiating from her mother’s neck, from her hands locked around the wheel. The defroster whirred; the wipers swished and thumped. Later, as the sky lightened beyond the windows of the bus, Natalie saw that everything—every twig and fence and sign and blade of grass—was encased in ice, like specimens in glass.
On account of the storm, they were late arriving at the natatorium in Indianapolis, their warm-ups cut short. The pool was huge, the pool noise reverberating in a roar. Blue and white lane markers stretched far into the distance, overhung with little flags. Whistles blew, coaches shouted, parents yelled and cheered. Natalie’s right shoulder ached. Go! Coach Goodman shouted, and she did.
She made it through the Prelims, although they DQ’d in the 200 medley relay after an early start, and later they found Caitlyn feverish and vomiting in the girls’ locker room and the coaches had to call her parents and withdraw her from the meet. Over the course of the day, the pain in Natalie’s right shoulder grew worse, to the point where she could hardly lift her arm after the second freestyle heat. On the bus ride to the hotel, hardly anyone spoke.
In her room, Natalie threw herself face-down onto the bed. The other bed was to have been Caitlyn’s. Doors slammed, and laughter echoed outside in the hall. Her shoulder throbbed. The room smelled of air freshener with an undercurrent of stale smoke. The bedspread was slippery against her cheek. Her mother would have told her to get her face off that dirty thing. Natalie had said she’d call, but what was there to say? Her mother would be driving up in the morning to watch her race. If she raced. If she could even swim.
There was a knock at the door. She pulled herself off the bed. Coach Goodman was standing in the hallway, holding a plastic bag of ice.
“Nattie L.,” he said. “How’s that shoulder doing?”
“It’s okay,” she said. But her voice came out sounding high-pitched and unconvincing, like a little girl’s.
“Let’s have a look,” he said. He stepped forward and the door swung shut behind him. “Where does it hurt?”
“In here, somewhere, deep.” She twisted her arm and tried to point and winced. How would she swim? She had to swim. She bit her cheek.
He told her to raise her arm above her head, to rotate it in a circle. He made her press her palms into the small of her back. He held up his hand and had her push against it. “Does it feel weak?” he asked. “Do you feel a click?”
She shook her head. “It just hurts.”
“I know. You took some Advil, right?”
She felt tears thicken in her throat and nodded.
“I’m guessing it’s tendinitis, not a tear. That’s a good thing.”
“Can I swim tomorrow? I have to swim.”
He shrugged. “We’ll see, I guess.”
She looked away. The carpet was blue with little dots. The heat fan hummed.
He was standing very close. “Hey, it’ll be okay,” he said.
Heat rose in her face. She would not cry. She would not blink.
“Nattie, hey,” he said. His voice was soft, a little strange.
They were so close that she could feel his breath. The air between them was thick and still and charged with ions, as before a storm. Her blood was rushing in her ears, or maybe it was his heart that she was hearing, so very near, just there, behind his ribs. He was so close he’d lost coherence, separated into his constituent parts like a pixelated photograph—breath, skin, muscle, bone. She was aware only of the rustle of his warm-up pants, his feet bare in his Adidas slides, the stubble along his neck. She too had blurred to grayscale, come apart.
There was hardly any space to cross at all. A man, a girl. The door behind them, closed.
Who was to say she didn’t step forward first?
The neighborhood mothers have been talking, it seems, and Evan is worried about Kelsey walking home from school alone. He sprawls on the couch in front of the TV, clicking through the channels, the volume on mute. Natalie sits on the uncomfortable chair, sipping her wine.
“It’s only a couple of blocks,” she says.
Evan pauses on CNN. The footage shows the previous day’s earthquake in New Zealand, streets heaped with rubble, slabs of smashed concrete. 7.0 magnitude, the closed caption reads.
“You don’t know what that guy did,” Natalie says. She doesn’t know what makes her want to defend him, the sex offender. Maybe it was the sight of his depressing house, the old person’s yard, that light blue paint.
“Whatever he did, it wasn’t good,” Evan says. “I know that.”
Natalie pours herself more wine. On a row of two-story townhouses in Christchurch, the exterior walls have completely sheared away, leaving the inside rooms exposed, like a doll’s house. In one unit, framed paintings are still hanging on the wall above a desk and chair. We were woken by a massive boom, the caption reads. Everything was swaying like we were on a ship at sea.
“You don’t know,” Natalie insists. She should keep her mouth shut, but she can’t. “Maybe he slept with some girl who lied and told him she was twenty-one. Maybe they were in love. Maybe she was the one who seduced him.”
Evan winces. He’s flipping channels again: football, a weather map, a Fox News talk show, cartoons. “So? He should have had better judgment, then.”
That’s what everyone had said in her case, too. He should have known better. No one cared about her judgment. What she had done or said or wanted were irrelevant; at sixteen, she was a minor, legally incapable of judgment, mute. All that mattered was that he was eleven years older than she, an adult in a position of authority. Pervert, they called him. Creep. That’s what Evan would say as well.
Evan stops channel-surfing and looks up. “Do you think you could maybe pick Kelsey up once in a while, if I can’t get away from work? If not, it’s no big deal.”
Natalie feels a knot of resistance. It’s not her problem. Kelsey’s not her kid. Still, she will not say no. They both know that. “Yeah, sure,” she says.
“That’s awesome, Nat, I appreciate it,” Evan says, which somehow makes it worse.
Back in high school, during those endless hours of practice, Natalie used to pretend that instead of doing laps she was swimming away from Fort Wayne, away from Indiana, out the St. Joseph or the St. Marys River, up the Maumee to the open waters of Lake Erie, or down the Wabash and its exotic-sounding tributaries—the Salamonie, the Mississinewa, the Tippecanoe—to the Ohio and the Mississippi and beyond. She added up the miles she swam in practice and worked it out. It seemed as if it would be so easy to merge into the slipstream and escape. And it might have happened, too—she might well have won a swimming scholarship out of state—but after the scandal broke, she quit.
It was one of the girls in the room across the hall who betrayed them. Who saw Coach Goodman go into Natalie’s room that night, and watched for him to come out again. Who told her parents, who called Natalie’s mom, who called the school. Natalie found out when she got home. “For shame,” her mother said, her shoulders shaking with tears or rage, Natalie couldn’t tell. They arrested Coach Goodman that same afternoon. Charges were pressed: one count of sexual battery and one count of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. Felonies in the third degree. Natalie never saw or spoke to him again.
It’s only recently, out here in Utah, that Natalie has started swimming again. She hadn’t known how much she missed it. She wants it back, that sense of liquid possibility, of feeling strong inside her skin.
She drives by the sex offender’s house again that week, and then again a few days later, until the steep route up the hillside to his block becomes her regular way home. Sometimes the sprinkler is out and flipping lazy arcs of water back and forth over the yellowed grass. Sometimes a gray sedan is parked in the driveway. The sedan has one of those old license plates, not a skier or red rock arch, but plain black numbers on white tin, that looks as if it really was made in a prison. Sometimes there’s a newspaper in a plastic bag lying on the stoop. Signs of life. Still, she does not catch a glimpse of him. She rolls slowly past, watching like a thief, but the windows remain unyielding, blank.
Now that school has started, Evan walks Kelsey there and picks her up on the days she stays with him. Natalie stops by after work on those days too, bringing treats for Kelsey—a gourmet cupcake, a giant lollipop, a sheet of stickers—and soon the treats, along with her willingness to sit and help Kelsey with her homework, are fixed into their routine as well. When Natalie arrives, Evan is usually on the phone, finishing up the day’s meetings—he has arranged to work from home two afternoons a week—and he sticks his head out of his office and mouths hello. If he has qualms about Kelsey becoming too attached to Natalie, there is nothing he can do about it now.
Kelsey is a fidgety child, quick to quit at the first hint of frustration, quick to whine, but she behaves when Natalie is in charge. It is clear to Natalie that Kelsey doesn’t know what to make of her. Is Natalie a fairy godmother, a bossy stepmother, a cool babysitter, a father-stealing witch? It is not difficult to win Kelsey’s affection; after all, Natalie never has to be the one to make her eat her carrots or turn off the computer or get ready for bed. Kelsey runs to Natalie when she arrives, tugs on her arms, begs her to play. Mostly Natalie finds Kelsey irritating. She wishes she felt an upwelling of affection, but instead little things unreasonably annoy her—the way Kelsey refuses to stay on her chair at meals, her obsession with Hannah Montana, the way her “r’s” come out as “aw” instead. There is something about the set of Kelsey’s wide mouth (Marta’s mouth) and close-set eyes (Evan’s eyes) that make her look more obstinate than she really is. It is unfair of Natalie to think this way, she knows, and she has to remind herself that Kelsey is just a little kid. Still, sometimes, when Evan’s not in earshot, she’ll scold or snap, and it frightens her to see how easy it is to cause her pain.
Would it be different if Kelsey were her daughter? Would she feel the same intolerance if she’d carried Kelsey inside her body, given birth, suckled her at her breasts? Late at night, alone in her house across the street, Natalie worries that she lacks what it takes to be a mother. Maybe Evan is right not to want another kid. Maybe he can sense the lack of space inside her selfish heart.
She takes her birth control pill with a long swallow of red wine, fingering the puckered blister pack, then sticks it back into her purse. She wraps her arms around her waist, tries to imagine a fetus swimming around inside her in the dark.
The gray sedan is parked in the driveway when Natalie passes by the house one afternoon in late October. She has left work early, claiming a migraine, and the fib has made her feel the way she did her senior year of high school when she and Lex would skip gym class and go sit by the St. Joe floodwall and smoke pot instead. The foothills have turned rust and yellow and already there are streaks of snow on the highest peaks. The play of light over the blowing grass and sage-brush makes her ache, though for no reason she can name.
She has nearly driven past the house when she senses movement. In the rearview mirror, she sees the driver’s door swing open and a man climb out. She brakes, pulls a U-turn at the end of the block, circles back. She pulls over across the street from the house, shifts into park.
The man is opening the trunk. He seems around the same height and weight as the offender, although she can’t see his face. She feels like a cop on a stake-out. What the hell is she doing? She twists around, but there’s nobody in sight. She takes her cell phone out of her purse and holds it to her ear, just in case—she can always pretend she had to pull over to take a call. But who will care? There’s no law against parking on the street.
The man lifts two paper grocery bags out of the trunk. He reaches up and slams the trunk shut, then carries the bags over to his front door, sets them down, fumbles with his keys. He has short dark hair, a windbreaker, jeans. He pushes the door open and steps inside.
Natalie waits. The front door stands ajar, the keys dangling in the lock. The bags sit on the stoop. He does not come back. She checks her phone. How long has it been? What could have happened? Did he get a call, fall down the stairs, or faint? What if he is hurt and she was the only one to see? She imagines crossing the street, entering the house, calling out his name. She imagines a dark hallway, old carpeting, smells of mustiness, cigarette smoke, Lemon Pledge.
A small boy is sitting on the front steps of the house next door to the offender’s place. Natalie squints. Has he been there all this time? He still has traces of babyhood in his taut, round belly and unmuscled limbs—he can’t be more than three or four, far too young to be outside alone. He is wearing nothing but a pair of underpants, the kind with a Spiderman or SpongeBob print. It is not a cold day, but it is no weather for being outdoors undressed. He’s twisting something in his hands—a Transformer, maybe, or a stick. He doesn’t seem to have noticed the house next door, the bags of groceries abandoned on the stoop, or Natalie in her car across the street.
Natalie has the sudden, vertiginous feeling you get when an adjacent car or train begins to move and you feel as if you’re sliding backwards even though you’re standing still. Should she knock on the door and tell whoever answers to take their child in? Should she call someone—the police? Or should she go and see what happened to the man instead?
Her cell phone rings and she startles so hard the seatbelt locks. She had forgotten she was still holding it to her ear. It’s Evan’s number on the screen. For a moment she has the terrible feeling that he has seen her parked here like a peeping Tom, and her face grows hot.
“Where are you?” he says.
“Just on my way home. What’s up?”
“Is Kelsey with you?”
“You didn’t pick her up?”
The bottom of her stomach drops. Was she supposed to? What day was it? How could she forget?
But Natalie hasn’t forgotten. Evan had gone to get Kelsey as usual, but when he arrived at the school, she wasn’t there. No one was there. It was an early release day, apparently, the kids sent home at two-thirty instead of three-thirty. Now it’s nearly four and Kelsey’s not at school and she’s not at home and she’s not with Marta. Marta is freaking out.
The little boy is still sitting on the stoop. The offender has not come back.
“Oh god, Evan,” Natalie says.
Kelsey’s school is only a couple of blocks away. Natalie drives slowly, scanning the sidewalks and yards, the quiet bungalows, but there’s no sign of Kelsey or of anything amiss. She passes a woman pushing a stroller, a teenager on a skateboard, a runner with two mastiffs on a leash looped around her waist. There is the hemlock with low, sweeping boughs that Kelsey liked to play beneath. Natalie pulls over in front of the school and goes in. The office is dark, but there’s a group of children playing board games in the after-care program in the multi-purpose room. The teacher is a heavy girl with a pierced eyebrow and too-low jeans. She shakes her head, tugging on her shirt. No kids were left behind after parent pickup, so far as she knows.
Natalie heads home, winding her way along the hillside streets. To the south, the mountains float, disembodied, over a band of cloud. Until she moved out here, she’d never lived any place where you could see for such a distance, where the dominant element of the landscape was not trees and fields but air.
Evan is standing on the porch, talking on the phone. Inside, the space already feels hollowed out. Kelsey’s orange juice glass from breakfast is still on the kitchen table, along with a cereal bowl filled with milky sludge, a napkin crumpled into a ball. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Natalie thinks, although for what she wants forgiveness, she doesn’t know. Upstairs in Kelsey’s room, she runs her fingers along the bedspread, the stuffed animals lined along the shelf, the nightlight shaped like a fish. All day long she tries to convince people that the worst could really happen, but there’s no insurance to protect you from situations like this. Miley Cyrus smiles coyly from the Hannah Montana poster tacked to the wall above the dresser, her blue eyes wide, one finger to her lips. “It’s our secret,” she seems to say.
Downstairs, Evan is still on the phone. Soon Marta arrives, followed by the police. Evan and Marta stand on the porch, answering the cop’s slow questions, the squad car’s blue lights flashing below them on the street. Marta is wearing a suit and heels which make her nearly Evan’s height. Evan’s voice is loud, too loud, angry-toned with fear. They are opening their wallets, handing photo- graphs to the cop. Natalie watches from inside the house. From here, they look like any married couple. She is just a bystander. Kelsey is not her kid.
It is Natalie, though, who finds Kelsey in the end. It is after five already, and Evan has pulled out the phone book and is going down the list of local emergency rooms. Marta has driven back over to the school. Natalie is sitting on the couch. They have searched the garage, the neighbors’ yards, the garden shed. They’ve called the parents of Kelsey’s friends. Later, Natalie cannot explain what makes her get up and go over to the downstairs closet and push aside the winter coats. There is Kelsey, asleep, curled beneath one of Evan’s ski jackets, way in back.
“Jesus Christ,” Evan shouts when she calls out.
It hadn’t occurred to any of them to look for her inside the house. They had forgotten that she knew where the spare key was hidden, beneath the flower pot in back. Why would an eight-year-old come home alone and hide?
Natalie thinks she understands. She sees it in Kelsey’s eyes as she crawls out of the closet, her hair a mess. She sees it in the way Kelsey hangs her head as Evan yells at her, his voice raw with relief. It is a look that Natalie has mistaken for obstinacy, but should have recognized as yearning. So often, she knows, desire is perverse.
Natalie drives back to the offender’s house at dusk. The front door is shut now and the bags of groceries have been taken in. The little boy in his underpants is gone as well. In the evening light, the neighborhood is as calm as the unbroken surface of a pool. The ripples have fanned outward, disappeared. Natalie idles at the curb, the windows down, the wind off the canyon tinged with the smell of leaves and smoke. The last streaks of pink and orange are fading over the mountains. The shades are drawn across the offender’s windows, although they’re rimmed with light.
Coach Goodman had two small children, a boy and a girl. Once, Natalie overheard her mother talking about his wife and kids. It was after the sentencing, after the story ran in all the papers and everybody knew. Her mother was at the stove, her back to Natalie, the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder. “She’s gone back to Dubuque, I heard,” she was saying. “That’s where she’s from, I guess. He’ll never see those kids again.”
At the time, Natalie had thought her mother meant that he deserved it, but now it seems just as likely that she meant it was a shame.
The newspapers reported that in his statement to the judge, Goodman had apologized for “having caused the victim irreparable harm.” Not irreparable, Natalie thinks. What remains is more like a glued seam on a piece of pottery, or a long-dormant fault.
She sits in her car for a long time that night, until the rim of light behind the window shades goes dark.
Margot Singer is the author of a novel, Underground Fugue, and a collection of linked stories, The Pale of Settlement. She is also the co-editor, with Nicole Walker, of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Denison University in Granville, OH.
Piece originally published in NOR 13.