“Now notice, Maddie, the subtle ways they compete, even when there are no females around.” My sister hands me the binoculars and takes a drink of her Gatorade and vodka.
Oh, but there are females around; the poor things just don’t know it. I adjust the focus on the binoculars and out of the haze a boy’s head appears, dripping wet and shaking from side to side, sunlight flashing off his neon-blue goggles. Meg dubbed this one The Canadian because the first time we saw him he wore a Detroit Redwings sweatshirt, and, you know—hockey. He runs his hands through his soaked hair. The bare skin of his back glistens in the sun.
My sister and I are boy-watching, lying on our stomachs on a rocky knoll, looking over the edge of a cliff. To our left a series of rapids cut through the rock face before shooting over the side in a foaming waterfall, feeding a giant pool maybe twenty feet below us. And this is where the boys are: doing cannonballs into the water from the stony bank, splashing each other in the shallows, lounging on their backs in the middle of the pool. The forest rises up around them. The tall, stately coniferous appear indifferent to the occasional maple and beech, trying to steal the show with their autumn flash of red and gold.
Out here, in the Adirondack Mountains, we have to keep ourselves entertained any way we can. Only ten minutes ago Meg was holding up a water beetle by one long, slender leg, asking me how much I’d pay her to eat it. Our little brother, Sam, had been willing to do it for free, but I made them let the thing go. Then we’d heard the shouts and laughter. We left Sam situated by a little pool with his bucket to search for crayfish, and made our way downstream to the edge of the cliff to investigate, keeping low so we wouldn’t be seen.
Now, Meg puts the bottle down and rolls onto her back. She places an arm over her eyes to shield from the sun and asks the inevitable question: Which one? I scan the options one more time.
Our specimens aren’t new to us. They arrived three days ago, pitching their tents in the clearing across from our campsite: twelve teenage boys with two older guys. We’ve even seen these two up close, when on the night of their arrival they’d come over to our camp to introduce themselves. Zach is tall, with long blond hair and a beard, like a surfer’s version of Jesus; Micah is short and clean-shaven. Even standing five feet away I could smell his cologne. They told our dad they were heading up their church’s end of the summer youth retreat, but not to worry, they’d make sure the boys weren’t too loud. Dad just nodded and frowned, and we kids looked at our feet; somewhere along the way we’ve become shy around strangers. But once they left Meg and I began staking them out with Dad’s extra pair of binoculars. We watched them sing worship songs around their fire every evening, Micah or Zach read aloud from the Bible at breakfast. The boys we reviewed methodically, considering each one’s relative flaws and merits.
My favorite is the one we call The Albino, a thin boy with green eyes and hair so blond it’s almost white. It’s his smile I like—sly, knowing, like he’s got this very funny secret but won’t tell you what it is. I watch him now, sitting on a large flat rock, watching his friends play in the water. I wonder what I would have to do to land one of those smiles.
“So what’s your decision, Madison?” Meg’s been using my full name lately, with an almost ironic lift to her voice. I don’t like it. The only one who ever called me by my full name was Mom. “Madison Ave,” she used to call me, sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee in the morning before I left for school, or calling up from the stairwell when she got home from work, “Where’s my Madison Ave?”
It’s my turn for a drink. I put down the binoculars and I take a sip from the bottle, grimacing. Meg’s made them too strong again. All the Gatorade does is prolong the burn of the liquor. Not for the first time I wonder what Dad would do if he knew that the night before he took us with him to the mountains, Meg and I snuck into the basement and raided his stash. In our tent we mix it with juice or soda. We bring it with us on our hikes or sip it while sitting around the campfire. Sometimes—like when Dad asks me to collect kindling but I’m finding it hard to even walk straight, or when Meg lets out a potato-laced burp at the fire that sends us both into hysterics—I don’t see how he hasn’t noticed. But then apart from the birds, Dad doesn’t notice much these days.
“The Albino, huh?” Meg asks, her arm still over her eyes. In a pair of shorts and a swimsuit top the sun is beating off her perfectly flat, tan stomach. “I’ll bet he has a small dick. I’ll bet you’d be doing it and he’d be like ‘Oh Maddie, Oh Maddie, Oh Maddie,’ but you wouldn’t feel a thing.” I giggle. The hot sun and vodka makes me feel like a bloated slug. I slap lazily at her arm. “Shh!”
“They can’t hear me over the water,” she says.
“Yeah, but Sam,” I say, but when I turn my head to check on him, he’s not there. I prop myself halfway upright to look around. A stab of pain shoots through my head. “Where’d he go?”
“Oh God,” I hear Meg hiss. She’s pointing back down at the pool—there’s our brother just below the waterfall, perched on an outcropping of wet rocks, leaning out over the pool to look at something in the water. I hear myself call out his name before I even know I’m doing it, loud as I can over the roar of the falls. And then two things happen at once: the laughter and shouts from the boys stops short, as they look in our direction, and Sam, startled by my sudden scream, loses his balance, slips on the rocks and tumbles into the pool.
Since we came to the Adirondacks a week and a half ago, days have run together the way the mountains do on a foggy morning. It’s all one long, rolling haze of repetition. We went out exploring today because we couldn’t stand the boredom, but mostly we spend our days lounging around the campsite, listening to music on our Discmans, blowing seeds off dandelions, unwashed, ungroomed. We’re hippies at Woodstock, nymphs in the woodlands, not lazy so much as robbed of energy. But every now and then something sharp and exciting cuts through the monotony and fills our lives with color, if only for a few minutes. Like the second night after we arrived, and a black bear came grunting out of the woods within twenty feet from our campsite; like when Meg and I drank too much vodka one evening and had to rush away from the fire to go puke in the trees. We talk about these moments in the following days, wringing as much life out of them as we possibly can, until the memory is completely dry and useless, and we have to wait for the next one to come. This is what Meg is trying to do now, as we tramp back through the woods to our campsite, with the fact that only twenty minutes ago, our little brother almost drowned.
“God, that was totally insane. That current was so strong. Sam, you have to be more careful.”
I’m not having it. I whirl around on the trail, so sudden Meg and Sam almost bump into me. Sam is wrapped in a giant towel, his hair slightly wet and tousled. He looks almost glamorous, like a Hollywood star in one of those old movies Mom and Dad used to watch together. “This isn’t Sam’s fault,” I snap. I’m furious—at who or what exactly, I can’t say. “He could have drowned.”
Meg’s face is hard. “I would have got him.”
I open my mouth but I can’t come up with anything. Because the thing is, when Sam had fallen in, for a moment I had completely frozen. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe. But Meg hadn’t hesitated a second, hurling herself out over the edge of the cliff and into the water. Still she hadn’t been the one who rescued our brother. Both Zach and Micah, who’d been sitting on a rock watching the boys, had leapt into the pool an instant after Meg, and by the time I had charged around the falls and down the steep embankment to the shore, Sam was already standing on a large, flat rock, and Zach was draping a towel around his shoulders, asking if he was okay.
Meg waded to shore a second later. Micah offered her his hand, but she ignored him and rushed to Sam. She knelt beside our brother and pulled the towel around him, rubbing his arms. “Sam, you can’t wander off like that, okay?”
Micah chuckled. “Aw, he’s okay. Just a little wet, right Sam?”
Zach, who had his hands on Sam’s shoulders, shot Micah a look. With his long wet hair and bare chest he looked wild and fierce, a Celtic warrior. He turned to Meg. “You know, these rapids can be dangerous. If he’s going to be out here with you, you really gotta keep an eye on him.”
Meg didn’t answer or look up at Zach; she kept rubbing Sam’s arms. I was still standing at the edge of the woods, not sure what to do, when Micah noticed me and waved. I came closer, feeling stupid. By now all the boys had gathered around and were watching us curiously.
Meg stood up. “Thanks,” she said to Zach, not looking at him. “Do you want your towel back?”
Zach shook his head and took his hands off Sam’s shoulders. “Does your dad know you guys are out here?”
Meg pulled our brother over to her and met Zach’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Okay, but like I said, it can be dangerous out here and–”
“I got it under control,” Meg snapped, but when she saw the look of surprise on Zach’s face she hesitated. She seemed to realize for the first time that everyone was looking at her. Her soaked clothes were clinging to her skin, her hair was free from its ponytail and falling down to her shoulders. And my sister, who has a way of shifting things—the mood in a room, the tenor of a conversation—quickly and without warning, suddenly gave Zach a shy smile and stretched one leg out in front of the other. “I’m a big girl,” she said.
And now, I think, maybe this was what had actually made me angry: the way all the boys had stared at her, without giving me a second glance. But it’s hard to stay angry in a forest in late afternoon—everything is hanging in a long yawn of laziness. While Meg and I scowl at each other insects drone in our ears. The clean air smells of pine resin. And in the trees, all around us, you can hear the birds singing.
Suddenly Sam bursts into tears. “I’m s-sorry! I didn’t m-mean it!”
Meg is kneeling in front of our brother again before I’ve even figured out why he’s crying. “It’s okay, buddy. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was our fault.” She lets him wipe his eyes on the sleeve of her sweatshirt, then takes him by the hand. “Come on, Dad said he’ll set up the grill tonight. Ready for hamburgers?”
Sam sniffs and nods.
“Hamburgers!” Meg shouts, raising his hand high. “Say it, Sam, say ‘hamburgers!’”
Sam grins. “Hamburgers!”
“Your turn, Maddie,” Meg calls back to me as she and Sam begin down the trail again. “It tastes better if you announce your meal first.”
I trot after them. “That’s impossible.”
“Maybe,” says my sister, “but it’s true.”
The grill isn’t set up when we reach our campsite. Dad is sitting in his old beach chair in the shade of the camper, drawing in his notebook. I was four when my parents bought this camper. Over the years we’ve taken it to all the usual suspects: The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Niagara Falls. Dad always said our house in Ithaca was our base, but wandering was our family’s natural state of being. When I think of this now, I think of Mom.
Dad doesn’t look up from his book until we are almost on top of him, and when he does there’s this moment of confusion in his eyes, like he doesn’t recognize us. It’s over in a second, but still it freaks me out.
“Oh, there you guys are.” He holds up his notebook. “Look, a tanager and a crossbill! Both this afternoon. Usually, you have to catch them in the morning.”
I know I shouldn’t encourage him, but his watery blue eyes are so desperate for approval that I can’t help but fake interest in his sketches of birds. I nod, I say, “Great, Dad!” like he’s six and I’m going to pin his pictures on the refrigerator. Meg gives me a look of disgust and then surveys the campsite. “Dad, you haven’t set up the grill.”
“Hmm?” Dad blinks. “Oh, yes. Didn’t realize it was getting so late. I wonder if you three wouldn’t mind taking a raincheck on the burgers? I’ve still got a lot of work to do here. Tomorrow, for sure.”
It’s not Sam’s disappointment that breaks my heart, it’s the way he tries to hide it. He works his face fast, blinking back tears, hardening his mouth, determined to show Dad that it’s no big deal.
Meg takes him by the hand again. “Come on, let’s get some cereal.”
Used to be we were only allowed junk cereal on rare occasions, and even then Mom monitored our intake (“Didn’t you already have a bowl?”), otherwise it was buttered toast and organic eggs for breakfast. Tonight, in lawn chairs around our fire we eat a dinner of Fruit Loops for the third time this week. A few days ago, when we left the park and Dad drove us into town for groceries and supplies, he let Meg and I do all the food shopping. So now we’re living off the stuff Mom would never let us buy: instant coffee, potato chips, boxed mac n’ cheese, Little Debbies, Oreos, sugary cereal, white bread and peanut butter, bags and bags of candy. I’ve spent the last couple days in an extended daze, my head light, my thoughts skipping and sputtering, like a radio station cutting in and out. I can’t keep anything in my head for too long. My shit has turned a new color and smells so bad it’s almost mesmerizing.
If we stay here much longer I’ll grow fat and stupid. I’ll devolve permanently into a tangled-haired vagabond, strung out on vodka and Skittles, waiting for Dad to finish playing Audubon.
Our dad is searching for birds. He wants to capture them all in his notebook with his cute little sketches, document when and where they were sighted. I remember when he first told us about the project, earlier in the summer. Meg had said wasn’t there like a hundred bird books already, not to mention the Internet, and why would they possibly want another one? Dad had struggled to make us see the significance of his idea, why his book would be unique. Something about the scientific fact merging with the “personal aesthetic.” A truly personal bird guide that would have his, John C. Fielding’s, fingerprints on it. We didn’t get it. We still don’t. But gradually we realized he was serious. Although nobody had commissioned it, although nobody at his college was on board with it, he’d taken a sabbatical anyway. Gradually we realized he really was going to take all three of us with him on his travels, no matter what we said.
Talking with Dad now is almost impossible. It’s weird, but the stranger his behavior becomes, the more he uses logic as his defense. When I told him I didn’t think this trip would be good for Sam, he’d launched into a detailed and fact-filled argument for why I was wrong (how natural sunlight was important for young children, how the absence of technology would stimulate creativity); when he caught me crying in our tent the first night of the trip, he’d sat down next to me, but only to give me a lecture about how extreme emotions were merely chemical imbalances in my brain. He’s like a new person, shuffling around in his shorts and safari hat, forever craning his neck towards the trees, to watch for birds. Because to actually do this, he tells us, he needs to see them all for himself—every last bird in the state of New York. There are 476 types of birds in New York, I found when I Googled it.
School starts next week. “He’ll have to get us back in time,” I’d said to Meg the other night, lying in our tent, listening to the contest of crickets and bullfrogs vying for audible supremacy. “They’ll come after him if he doesn’t.”
“Yeah,” Meg agreed, and paused: “Eventually.”
At our campfire Meg freezes while eating her cereal, narrows her eyes and then slaps at her arm. “Gotcha!”
I look up from my bowl, the milk now a sickly green color, soggy O’s bobbing on top like buoys. There’s a small streak of red on Meg’s arm.
“The trick is to let the mosquito bite you,” she says, “then it’s too focused on its meal to notice its impending doom.” She wipes the blood off her skin with her bare hand.
Sam laughs and I roll my eyes. Across the clearing, hugging the periphery of the woods, is the boys’ campsite. They’re having dinner now too; I see them gathered around their fire. The smell of charcoal and grilling hot dogs is in the air. I dump the rest of milk into our small fire and it gives a weak hiss of protest. When I stand up Meg fixes me with a sharp look. “Where are you going?”
“To the tent.”
“To do what?”
I shrug, but I know exactly what: to sprawl out on my sleeping-bag with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Probably I’ll put on my headphones and listen to the CD I bought for five dollars at a gas station on the way here—80s Superhits. There’s one song, “Heaven,” by a band called The Psychedelic Furs, that I play over and over, while I daydream that I’m Esther Greenwood, going crazy and getting sick on crabmeat in New York City.
Meg used to like to read too, but ever since Mom I haven’t seen her even open a book. Now, she glares at me. “It’s not even six o’clock,” she says. “Sit down.”
I scowl but do as I’m told. I don’t know why, but I always listen to her.
Across the clearing, I can hear the boys. Every burst of carefree laughter seems to take another chunk out of the hole that’s been growing inside my chest. “Zach’s waving at us,” Meg says, looking in their direction. She gives a short but animated wave and grits her teeth. “That guy’s such an asshole.”
“He was just trying to be helpful,” I say wearily, knowing this might lead to an argument that I don’t have the energy for.
But Meg only looks at me for a moment, and then tells Sam to fetch some more kindling for the fire. He obeys instantly. Since Mom, our brother will obey any command without protest, like he’s terrified of offending anyone. It’s sad, but I’ve exploited it too.
Meg brings her bowl to her mouth and downs the rest of her milk. Then she wipes her lips. “I’ve got an idea,” she says.
The third night in the mountains, Meg and I discovered if you combine the right amount of instant hot chocolate, coffee, warm milk and vodka, you’ve got yourself an amazingly sweet, chocolatey concoction in which the alcohol goes down completely unnoticed. Tonight we fill a giant thermos with our drink and sit around the fire until Dad and Sam go to their tent to sleep. Dad downs some Nyquil every night to ward off his allergies. Within ten minutes we can hear him snoring.
The thermos is heavy so we each grab a side of the handle, carrying it between us. Above us, the sky is overflowing with stars. The warm night breeze plays through our hair. We each took a drink before setting off across the clearing and now my brain feels like it’s wrapped in a hot towel. I’m not really thinking about what we’re doing, just enjoying the feel of the wet grass beneath my bare feet and swatting at the mosquitoes with my free hand. This warm, comfortable feeling lasts exactly until we reach the boys’ campsite and they stop midway through the song they’ve been singing to stare at us.
“Hey!” Meg says, slightly breathless from carrying the thermos. “We thought we’d bring you some hot chocolate. We made it ourselves.”
It’s a small group around the fire, just Zach and six boys. Micah and the rest of them must have already gone to bed. The boys look uncertain, and for a moment so does Zach, staring at Meg like she’s just told a riddle he can’t figure out, but then he grins. “Hot chocolate? Well, we can’t say no to that, can we, guys? Pull up a log, girls!”
We just stand there stupidly until one of the boys jumps up to help us with the thermos, another runs for some cups. I see The Albino across the fire but it’s a boy with curly hair and freckles on his nose who finds me a seat. I sit down next to him, pulling my knees tight together and hunching forward towards the fire, making myself as small as possible. I watch Zach strum on his guitar. His eyes are on Meg; she and a tall boy wearing a wooden cross neckless have set the thermos up on a big flat log, and now they’re pouring everyone a drink and giggling. When we’re all served Meg pours one last steaming cup and walks around the fire to present it to Zach. I hold my breath while he takes a sip, his face illuminated by orange flame. Maybe we made it too strong. But he only licks his lips. “Man, that is good. What’s your secret?”
“If we told you we’d have to kill you,” Meg says, then she spins around, puts her hands in the back pockets of her shorts and comes to sit beside me.
When my sister announced her plan to bring these boys a thermos of spiked hot chocolate, I had imagined us merely dropping off the gift and stealing back to our own fire, to laugh over our little prank. I hadn’t imagined us being asked to stay. I hadn’t imagined us sitting around their campfire while they shared dumb but funny jokes, told stories, made s’mores. I hadn’t imagined that as I laughed along with the rest of them when Zach imitated celebrities, as I let the boy beside me teach me how to roast the perfect marshmallow, I would begin to feel bad about what we’d done. It wasn’t really the alcohol—they probably would hardly feel it—it was the fact that we’d lied to them. Why couldn’t we have just made them hot chocolate?
When Zach picks up his guitar again my heart lurches. If they start singing songs about Jesus I don’t know what I’ll do. But instead he plays “Yellow Submarine,” and sings in a silly, off-key voice, and we all join in for the chorus. While Zach makes pretty convincing underwater sounds The Albino smiles at me from across the fire. I feel myself go red and grin. I can’t tell if it’s the drink that’s making us so happy and unrestrained, or if maybe Christians are always this way, and it’s just contagious.
I’ve never been to a church before. Mom used to say God was for people who couldn’t deal with real life. I remember once, even, her being unhappy when I’d brought home The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from the library. “Madison, this is just religious propaganda,” she’d told me, frowning at the cover. But I had liked the book—the talking beavers, the witch who turned things into stone—and hadn’t understood what was religious about it. I’d cried when they killed Aslan the lion.
After finishing the song Zach slaps a hand on the side of his guitar and looks at us. “So, Megan and Madison: what brings you girls to the mountains?”
“Our dad’s a biology professor,” I say. “He’s doing research on birds.”
Zach seems impressed. “Hey, very cool.”
I’m nodding in agreement when I hear my sister: “Not really. All he’s doing is drawing stupid pictures.” I look at her questioningly; she’s gazing into the fire, her eyes distant. “Our dad’s being going crazy… ever since our mom…” she trails off.
After all our songs and jokes the sudden silence is almost scary. I hear the spit and crackle of the fire, the heavy groan of the crickets in the forest, wind rustling the tops of nearby trees. In a very careful voice Zach asks, “Did your mother pass away, Meg?”
Meg looks up and into his eyes. “Our mom just disappeared. We woke up one morning and she’d left us a note, saying she was leaving. She didn’t want to be part of our family anymore. No reason. She wasn’t depressed or anything, there wasn’t another guy. It didn’t make any sense.”
No one says anything. All the boys’ eyes are wide. I have to stare at the fire. I’m furious at my sister. We hardly talk about Mom to each other; why has she suddenly decided to share our lives with complete strangers?
“When was this?” I hear Zach ask. I concentrate on a heap of purple embers.
“A year and a half ago,” Meg says. “She’s living in Buffalo now. Our dad’s tried to talk to her, to figure out what’s going on, but he hasn’t been able to get anywhere. She didn’t even stick around long enough to get a real divorce.”
I’m thinking Zach will say something stupid, like some of my teachers and parents’ friends had done back in Ithaca, right after she left, trying to be helpful, but when I look up I see him shaking his head sadly. “Hey, listen girls,” he says after a moment, “would you mind if we prayed for you?”
I glance at Meg; she looks surprised but then gives a short shrug. Zach looks at me. “Madison?” I try to answer but find my voice has deserted me. I have to cough before I croak out an okay.
Zach puts down his guitar and stands up. We watch him as he takes his mane of brown hair and ties it back in a ponytail, then he walks around the fire and behind us. I feel a hand on my shoulder. My arm hair tingles and stands on end.
I only hears bits and pieces of what he says. I’m too conscious of all the boys around me, their heads bowed and eyes closed, wondering what they’re thinking. I’m too conscious of my own self, hoping I’m not breathing too loud, hoping my posture is correct. More than anything though, I’m conscious of Zach’s body behind me, the smell of him, thick and sweaty but somehow not unpleasant; the feel of his large hand, pressed firmly on my shoulder; the sound of his voice, which has become low and musical as he prays.
It’s not the way I would imagine people praying. He talks to Jesus like he’s talking to an old friend. He uses my name and my sister’s like Jesus knows exactly who we are, and only needed to be reminded. He says Jesus will never abandon us or let us down; all we have to do is ask for his help. He asks Jesus to give us faith, faith to believe he’s there, faith to believe he loves us. He asks Jesus to give us patience and understanding; life might seem confusing now but we have to trust that it’s all part of a bigger plan.
Since I don’t know how to feel about what’s happening, I concentrate on what my sister will say about it later, how she will laugh and roll her eyes, or imitate Zach, or drag her hands over her face: “God, that was so embarrassing.” So when Zach says amen, I open my eyes and look at Meg. For a second I think it’s just a trick of the fire, but then she wipes her eyes and sniffs—my sister was crying.
It must be close to two in the morning and I can’t fall asleep. Moonlight pierces through the blue nylon of our tent, casting shadows all around me. I listen to the chant of crickets and bullfrogs, I hear the questioning cry of an owl. Beside me, my sister snores gently.
After Zach ended his prayer I wanted things to go back to how they were before. I wanted Zach to pick up his guitar and sing another silly song, I wanted to keep making eyes with The Albino across the fire, for everyone to just forget about what had happened. But a moment after Zach said amen somebody called out his name. We turned to see Micah standing outside the tent in his pajamas, blinking.
I felt the pressure lift as Zach’s hand suddenly dropped from my shoulder. There was a faint quiver in his voice. “Hey Micah! Look, we have visitors.”
And then Micah craned his neck up to look at the stars. He said that it was getting pretty late, and we should probably all turn in. He sounded almost embarrassed. Meg and I hadn’t spoken on the way back to our camp.
Now, I’m lying on my stomach in my sleeping-bag, my face pressed into the hot cotton of my pillow. I keep drifting in and out of consciousness, sinking into sleep but pulling reality down with me into my dreams, then waking up and bringing my dreams up into reality. I’m back in my old bedroom but the owl has followed me home; I can still hear his call. I’m in the tent again and there’s my mom beside me, perched in a yoga pose, but wearing her pretty linen scarf, eyes closed, smiling serenely.
I’m not sure if I’m awake or dreaming when I hear the footsteps approaching. A shadow appears outside the tent, tall, standing motionless. I should wake up Meg, I should sit up and start shouting, but I don’t, because I’m probably asleep, so I just lie there, transfixed, staring at the shadow. Then I hear a sound. It’s over in a moment but I know exactly what it is: a belt being unbuckled. Another sound, one that continues for much longer: breathing, fast and shallow. In and out, in and out, like a panting dog. And something else I can’t name: a rapid, rhythmic beating, like a fish flopping around on a wet table. It goes on and on and I lie there frozen, listening, and just when I think I can’t take it anymore, it stops. The belt buckle again. Footsteps receding. The shadow is gone.
When I wake up the next morning, Meg isn’t in our tent. When I poke my head outside our tent and look around camp, I don’t see her anywhere. It’s a gray, misty morning, clouds hanging low in the sky, mosquitoes already buzzing around my face. I wrap a blanket around me to keep off the bugs, and step outside and walk over to the fire pit. Sam is already there in his pajamas, wearing a dazed expression, staring at the heap of ash and charred coals.
I sit down next to him. “Where’s Meg?” he asks.
I shrug and take a stick and start poking at the coals, trying to stir them back to life. I look up across the clearing and see nothing but the woods. The boys’ tents are gone, their fire dead. They have already cleared out. I don’t remember them mentioning last night that they were leaving.
A headache is already creeping around my temples. I reach under my lawn chair and grab two pop-tarts out of the soggy box (even after the bear we don’t put our food away). Sam and I eat our breakfast cold around our smoking fire.
“Where do you think she went?” Sam asks me. Crumbs from his pop-tart are falling onto his lap.
“Sam, I don’t know!” I snap. When I see the look on his face I feel bad, but I don’t apologize.
The second Dad steps out of the tent Sam tells him Meg is missing. A shadow passes over his face, but only for a second before he blinks it away. “I’m sure she just went for a walk,” he says, and goes about making a cup of instant coffee.
Thoughts begin racing through my head, not stopping long enough for me to hold them up for examination. I should tell Dad what happened last night outside our tent; maybe whoever it was came back after I fell asleep, maybe they took Meg. But then he would ask me why I didn’t wake him up, why I didn’t do anything. I wouldn’t have an answer. And I’m not even sure if what happened last night actually happened, or if it was only a dream. And there’s another thought hurdling through my brain, somehow even scarier than my sister being taken—she left; she ran away from us the way Mom ran away from us, except she didn’t even leave a note. I have a vision of her and Mom speeding across the country in a red convertible, the sun on their faces and the wind in their hair, heading somewhere golden and warm. I know this doesn’t make any sense, but I can’t shake the picture out of my head.
Dad sits in his chair with his coffee and his notebook. I want to leap up and wrench the stupid thing out of his hands. “Your daughter’s gone! She left us! Don’t you care at all?” But looking at him, I see that he’s distracted. Hunched over his sketchpad he keeps pausing, looking up and around, as if Meg will suddenly appear. Suddenly he looks so old. Sam is staring vacantly at the fire that has died again, before it even came back to life. I stand up, walk out into the clearing and sit down in the wet grass. In the surrounding woods the birds are singing.
People talk about how beautiful birdsong is, how calming, but here in these mountains I’ve grown to hate it. It’s a constant chatter, hammering against my skull. It’s an endless chorus of laughter, mocking me. The air has grown hot and humid, and the birds sing and sing around me, from every direction, but unseen, their separate calls coming together to form one billowing cry that seems to rise and rise, building up for a crescendo that never comes. Wings beat inside my head. I want to scream.
I’ve got my eyes closed, fingers pressed to my forehead, head bowed, when I hear Sam cry out her name.
I open my eyes and look up. Meg has emerged from the forest. She’s sauntering towards our camp when she collides with Sam. He launches himself into her arms. “Where did you go?”
“Just for a walk, buddy,” Meg ruffles his hair. “Dad, guess what?”
Dad stands up and speaks in the stern voice I forgot he even had. “Megan Fielding, what did I say about going off alone without telling anyone?”
I don’t remember him saying anything, but I find I’m actually glad that he’s upset. For a second we feel like a normal family again.
“I know,” Meg says quickly, “but wait till you hear about this bird I just saw. It was huge! And so cool. You have to see it, Dad, and put it in your book.”
“Really? What did it look like? Where did you see it?” Dad’s eyes are suddenly mad with curiosity. It’s the one topic he can’t resist. I’m wondering if Meg has just come up with it as a ploy. I try to catch her eye but she won’t look at me. She’s describing the bird to Dad. “It was a big bird, like a hawk or something. But with a huge beak… I’d know it if I saw it again.”
Dad grabs the giant bird guide that he keeps near him at all times and hands it to Meg. “See if you can find it.”
I’m suddenly angry. Just like that Dad’s anger is gone and we’re back to searching for birds. And why did Meg go off alone in the first place? We always take our walks together. And why won’t she look at me? Still, I can’t resist coming over to see. Dad, Sam and I hover over Meg as she flips hurriedly through the book, past warbles and wrens, sparrows and swallows and eagles and falcons. Finally she stops and points. “That’s it! That’s what I saw!” She’s got her finger on a large, white bird with long, broad wings and a bright yellow spoon-like bill. “I saw it by the lake,” she says. “It was really cool, Dad.”
“A white pelican,” Dad says slowly. “They aren’t found around here.”
“Well, that’s what I saw,” Meg says proudly. She beams up at Dad. “Won’t this be great for your book?”
Dad shakes his head. “No, Meg, you don’t understand. Pelicans don’t live in New York at all. See the map? That can’t be what you saw. Here, maybe it was a heron or…”
He tries to take the book but Meg jerks it away. “Dad, I’m positive this is what I saw.”
Dad doesn’t say anything, just puts his hands in his pockets and blinks.
“You don’t believe me?”
He waits a moment before replying. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, Meg. It’s just not possible to see that bird here.”
“I’m telling you that’s what I saw.”
Dad’s voice suddenly grows sharp. “And I’m telling you, you didn’t see a pelican. So just forget it.”
Meg shakes her head. “I don’t get you. You drag us all around these stupid mountains, and when one of us actually sees something cool, you ignore it. It’s insane!”
“But Meg, pelicans don’t live—”
“Well, I saw it anyway!” she shouts. “And what the hell do you know about it? You aren’t even supposed to be doing this! You aren’t a real naturalist. You’re just a stupid man with a notebook whose wife left him!” Meg throws down the book, jumps up and begins walking away, her arms crossed and her head down, back towards the woods.
Sam charges after her, and a second later, Dad follows too, shouting for her to come back and talk. I’m left in the clearing alone.
I was the one who first learned the news, the morning that it happened. I came downstairs and saw the note on the kitchen table. But what I’ve never told anyone is that before I even read it, before I had even looked to see what it was, I knew. I knew that Mom was gone. I felt it certainly, the way you feel yourself falling, the way you feel a bucket of ice water being poured over your head. And here, in this clearing, I’m stuck in another state of clairvoyance. I know Dad will eventually agree to look for the bird, but even though he does his best, I know he’ll never find it. I know my sister will stubbornly maintain that she’d seen a pelican, but eventually, years later, when her memory fades and her convictions dull, I know she’ll start to doubt herself. Before Dad dies, sitting by his bedside at the hospital, she’ll tell him he was probably right, she was mistaken, and I know this will break my heart. And I know I will never tell anyone about the shadow outside our tent, although for years I’ll wake up in the night thinking that it’s there, beside my bed, breathing heavily. Because in the end, really, who would I tell, and why would they want to know?