Someone was trying to eat her valise. She awoke in her tent to the sound of licking and gnawing, and in her dreamy state, she thought it was Gimli, the English bulldog she’d had as a teenager, making love to a rawhide at the foot of her bed, leaving white stains of rehydrated meat juice and saliva on her comforter. As she awoke, she found that she was an adult, and that a man was trying to separate a piece of leather from her travel bag using his teeth and a box cutter. She didn’t know where he’d gotten the box cutter.

Her publicist’s response was that a trip to a refugee camp, while dangerous, would be a great way to get the media’s attention right before the new movie.

When he realized she was watching him, he did not stop, but looked at her with bulging eyes, black at the center and yellow and dented as moons all around that. There was a granola bar in her purse she could offer him, and she dug for it a moment before she realized that giving him a granola bar might have nasty consequences. The sugar could poison him somehow, his body unaccustomed to processing anything richer than a handful of yellow grass, and she would have killed him. Or the other refugees might see the treasure and try to fight him for it.

Instead of the granola bar, she pulled from her purse a Swiss Army knife and a tube of lip balm. She moved slowly, on her knees, toward where he still knelt, frozen, still holding her valise with one hand and brandishing the box cutter with the other. She tried to decide if he looked insane, the sort of insane that would allow him to slit her throat, and determined that despite the moony eyes and fierce grip, he looked too empty for murder. Psychotic killers, she had heard, had “vacant expressions,” but his face had a quality that transcended vacancy.

He watched her as she slowly began cutting strips of leather from the bag with her knife, his eyes on her wrist in case she took a mind to stab him. She demonstrated how she wanted him to use the lip balm, coating the strips of leather with the tube, miming the licking of it, and then demonstrated how she did not want him to use the lip balm by miming biting and chewing it, then clutching her belly, falling to her side, and pretending to vomit. It was an elaborate show, but she needed to get her point across.

“Understand? Yes?” she whispered.

He offered no indication that he did, except to hold out his hand. She gave him the strips and the lip balm, and he left like a ghost, not even disturbing the sand beneath his feet.

Virginia just wanted to help, she had told herself at first. She’d seen them in pictures, coiled in their blankets like snakes that had recently swallowed a random selection of human bones: a hip plate here, a femur there, a fistful of fingers.

Her publicist’s response was that a trip to a refugee camp, while dangerous, would be a great way to get the media’s attention right before the new movie, predicted to be her breakout film, in which she played a widowed shepherdess in a sort of feudal France. This comment from her publicist was aggravating, because her desire to go had nothing to do with her career, or her image, or politics, or the refugees themselves. In fact, she realized when she got on the plane that she really had no idea why she wanted to go. There was the vague compulsion to help them, to assist them in uncurling and getting back on their feet, but she was a realist, and she could see that this was impossible, that whatever she could give them, it wouldn’t be enough. So his insinuation that he knew why she wanted to go insulted her and made her feel ugly.

When she stopped for her layover in Spain, she expected to meet a handful of American paparazzi there, and possibly a European journalist or two. (She was staying the night, not wanting to press on to the next leg of the trip until she’d gotten a good night’s sleep. She would continue on a private plane.) Twenty minutes before landing she popped a purple pick-me-up pill that her doctor had given her to decrease the sensation (and cosmetic ramifications) of jet lag. She brushed shadow on her eyelids and put a scarf on her head to hide the oily sag of her yellow hair. She didn’t feel dishonest about doing these things, as some people acted like she ought to. It was unreasonable for people to expect her to get off a plane with pillow head and mascara under her eyes, even if it made her seem like a “real person.” She wasn’t a “real person.” Real people didn’t take vacations to refugee camps.


She called her brother from her hotel room and made herself a twenty-dollar martini at the mini bar.


“It’s me.”

“Ginny? You in Madrid?”

It was eight in the morning in California. Scott was probably just pouring himself a cup of coffee, pulling the frying pan out of the dishwasher and examining it for the residue of yesterday’s breakfast before cracking today’s into it.

“Yeah. I’m exhausted. But I can’t sleep because of all the fucking speed I took before I got off the plane.”

“Dr. Frank wouldn’t give you speed. He knows your itinerary. It’s just a little caffeine.”

“It’s trucker speed.”

“I’m sure it’s just caffeine. Otherwise you wouldn’t still feel tired.”

She sighed. Scott sighed back at her. “I don’t like this,” he said, as if making the admission for the first time. Scott was one of the world’s beloved “real” people. He was a doctor in Los Angeles. Not a plastic surgeon, but what her parents called a “family doctor,” the type that diagnosed ear infections and gave physicals to high school football players. He had told her he thought the idea of going to a refugee camp was dangerous and would accomplish nothing. This seemed true to her. So while she considered being real overrated, she knew that having a real person in one’s life was invaluable for orienting oneself in a situation.

“It’ll be fine. It’ll be good for me. At any rate, by the time I leave the embassy, I’ll have a twenty-man entourage. If the refugees get violent, I’ll start throwing translators at them. They hate translators.”

Scott didn’t laugh. “Call me when you get there,” he said, “and don’t forget to wear sunscreen, all right? You’re going to fry like a piece of bologna out there.”

Virginia hung up the phone and opened the french doors to the balcony, which overlooked the hotel pool. She was in the dead center of the country but she could swear that the breeze smelled like it had blown in off a cool ocean. Perhaps the pool had that effect. She lit what she hoped was a secret cigarette. It was nine in the morning in California when she finished her martini and crawled between the sheets of the tall hotel bed. Before she fell asleep, she imagined her brother’s day, beginning with the greeting of his first patient as he warmed a stethoscope in his palm and ending with the kiss he pressed into her nephew’s round cheek before eating a salami sandwich and joining his wife, Penelope, who complained that he made the bed smell like a deli.

The morning after her suitcase had been gnawed and she rewarded the gnawer with his strange gift, she was awoken by a man in a khaki vest. She had been dreaming of something that had happened in Malibu, or that, in the dream, had happened in Malibu. It was a poorly put-together dream, a hack attempt at a postmodern short film with the same five or six images flashing in looping succession: a woman spreading her beach towel beneath a sky bulging with storm clouds, a bottle of white tablets next to a soggy clove cigarette. If it had been a film, she would have said it was trite and full of overwrought images and mean clichés.

The man in the khaki vest was a reporter. Meme, their guide, had sent him to wake her up because she knew the reporter had been on television, and that Virginia was in movies, and she figured it was basically the same thing, so they ought to know each other. “I can see the logic but it’s not like I’m Ted Koppel,” he said, as they walked toward the big tent for breakfast.

“Who are you, then?” she asked.

“Some freelance nobody from Michigan. I don’t do television anymore. I’m here for a magazine,” he said.

“I meant, what’s your name?”

“Karl,” he said, and shook her hand.

The refugees were sitting in a clump under a shelter made from reeds and thatched grass. There were approximately thirty of them, all crouching, draped in bright colors. Karl waved good morning to them, but they seemed not to notice. They were all concentrating on something they were doing with their hands, but she couldn’t tell, with their brisk motions shrouded among all those colored wraps, exactly what it was.

In the meal tent, which consisted of a table and four chairs, a fire pit full of charcoal briquettes, a stack of tin flatware, and a large, silver chest, a woman was making their breakfast. It was like camping, Virginia thought. She had not been camping since she was very little, but she had vague memories of beef jerky and black marshmallows that were ash on the outside and creamed on the inside, and of pretending to play pioneers with her brother.

The woman making their breakfast was Meme, whom she had met the day before. Meme was a thin, dark woman with cattish eyes who was not unpleasant, for a government employee, and spoke a little English. When she saw them enter the tent, she poured them each a cup of coffee from a pot that had been simmering over the fire pit.

“I feel guilty having all this food,” Virginia said.

“Yeah. They only have the sorghum,” said Karl.


“It’s like a grain. They make, I don’t know, some kind of porridge or something out of it.”

“Oh. They aren’t starving?”

“Not in the literal sense. And we’ll be moving on to the big camp in a day or so, where they’ll get some dry fruits and meats. Really, don’t feel too guilty. What are you making today, Meme? Toast? Toast and peanuts?”

Meme smiled, showing her large, astonishingly perfect teeth. Virginia wondered if you just had to be born with teeth like those, because she’d had Invisalign twice and had her front teeth capped to make them larger and her mouth was still not as excellent as Meme’s.

“See? We don’t get a lot of nutritional variety either. It’s the water you’ve got to worry about here. But we’ve got plenty of that.”

“We do? Do they?”

“More or less. When we move on to the big camp, it’ll be fine. We’re waiting for the word that they’ve cleared a space for us. Or for them, rather.”

Meme brought them toast with warm strawberry jam and a handful of peanuts on a tin plate. She sat with them, still smiling.

“Why didn’t someone just bring me to the big camp in the first place?”

Karl shrugged. “This is a good experience. These guys need exposure, too. It’s not like the big camp is the only place people are suffering.”

She was inclined to believe him, if only because he had that trusted news anchor look. The way his head nodded slightly when he said “good experience,” his bland handsomeness, the graying hair just above his ears, all made him seem earnest. He sipped his coffee.

“You’re awful fair,” he noted. “You better keep yourself covered up out here.”

After breakfast, they walked past the refugees again, who were still crouching. This time, Karl didn’t bother to wave, but forced a cordial nod in their direction and walked to his own tent. They had their hands folded now and held them below their lips as if praying. She noticed that some of them were wearing leather wristbands and suddenly felt stupid for helping the man slice up her valise. Of course they weren’t starving. Not all displaced people were hungry; that was a myth of Hollywood, or of some other place where myths were manufactured. She searched their faces, looking for the one that had been in her tent the night before, but she couldn’t pick him out. They were all unnervingly thin and dark, with uniformly short, stiff hair. From where she was standing, she couldn’t have picked the men out from the women. They also moved as a collective, which didn’t help at all in differentiating one from the other.

She realized that she was returning their stare, and, feeling rude and awkward, affixed her eyes to the ground, where her hiking boots kicked at the dry earth. Things will be easier when the translator gets here, she thought.

The horizon surrounding the camp was uninterrupted, with the exception of one small, gnarled tree in the distance. There was no breeze. The heat seemed to oppress everything, weighed so heavily on the landscape that it had crushed it flat. Somehow, in spite of the heat, she still felt chilled looking out onto the acres of gold desert. She went to her tent to cover herself in sunscreen.

Squeezing the lotion into her hand, it occurred to her that, since the translator had never shown up, no one had talked to the refugees—not even Meme, who spoke some English but not a single word of the language of the neighboring country from which the refugees were fleeing. And so they had no idea what she and the newsman and their guide were doing there, or who they were, or why they were part of their exodus at all.

Meme was very good at origami, especially birds. She sat in the meal tent nearly all day, every day, and after she made food and scribbled in her notebook, she would sit at the table and fold sheet after sheet of square paper, creating swans and cranes and chickens and doves. After three days at the camp, Virginia and Karl interrupted her folding to ask when they would start moving toward the “big camp,” the one that was actually a part of civilization.

She looked up only momentarily from the plumage of the peacock she was folding and shrugged, smiling with her incredible teeth.

“No one say so. No space,” she said.

“Well, can you radio the embassy and ask when they might have space? Or maybe tell them to send a translator?” asked Karl.

“The translator coming.”

“When will he get here, though?”

Meme shrugged and made a noise like naya-aya, which was meant to imply she didn’t know. Virginia looked at Karl, wondering if he found this all as unsettling as she did. In the last three days, nothing had been accomplished: without a translator, Karl wasn’t able to interview any of the refugees. He was also unable to photograph them. None of his film equipment was working properly, they assumed because of the sand. In all the digital photographs he took, the refugees looked distorted, like they were made of melting wax.

Virginia had been following Karl around, not knowing what else to do. She had imagined holding malnourished babies while the media swarmed around her, making a hype that would lead to the start of her own charity foundation. But the media, like the translators, never showed up. There was just Karl and his broken equipment.

“So sorry,” Meme said finally. “You’re disappointed, I see this. I can make coffee.”

“No, it’s fine,” said Karl, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Virginia, I’m going to walk out and climb the tree to see if I can get a cell phone signal.”

She nodded at Meme and followed him. They passed the clump of refugees and ignored them, walking out onto the desert savannah toward what she and Karl had started referring to with mock reverence as The Tree, because it was the only one around. They’d never gotten close to it before, but from a distance it looked like a giant piece of licorice someone had started to chew, thought better of eating, and spat out. It stuck upward from the ground, gnarled and rejected. The licorice was Karl’s metaphor. He was a smart person and she liked him, had gotten to know him over the last few days because she had nothing better to do and was afraid to be alone. She slept in his tent not because she had a sexual interest in him (he had a wife and little girl in Michigan with matching mother-daughter dimples) but because she was afraid to wake up to another refugee in her tent, staring at her with wide, empty eyes, ready to shuck another one of her bags.

She and Karl walked and talked about the kind of hell they would raise back at the embassy with whomever was responsible for this debacle. She told him the entire plot of the film she was going to be in, the one in which she played the widowed shepherdess, and they still hadn’t reached the tree.

Karl wiped his forehead. “Well, that’s an optical illusion. Looks a lot closer, doesn’t it?”

“It does. Do you mind if we rest for a moment?”

“Why don’t you just sit right here for a second, and I’ll run up ahead and check it out.”

She hesitated. She wanted badly to be able to call her brother. He’d know what to do, and would make everything seem mundane, like she was stuck at an airport on Easter Sunday and getting home was only a matter of talking to the right people. But she had little faith that climbing a tree would get them a cell phone signal anyway, and her legs felt brittle. The sun seemed only to go down for a couple hours each night, and it constantly made her eyes water. She got a shade tanner each day, even though she wore gobs of sunscreen and stayed in a tent the majority of the time.

“Okay. But if you get a signal, wave your arms wildly in the air so I can come join you.”

She plopped down on the ground, shielded her eyes from the sun, and watched Karl walk ahead. Her stomach rumbled and she distracted herself by scooping up handfuls of sand and then moving her fingers slightly apart. She brought her face close to one cupped hand and saw it through the lens of an imaginary camera. If she did special effects, she thought, this would be a good way to design a desert-sucked-down-into-the-earth scene. Except one wouldn’t want to use this rocky, irregular sand, but soft, homogeneous sand, like the kind in Malibu.

Her stomach resumed its rumbling at the thought of white sand. Something had happened there, in Malibu, not just in her dream, but in real life. Nobody was quite sure what had happened there, though. She could remember the events, but she couldn’t remember their cause, or even say to herself, That means this, or, I need to change _______ (eating habits, exercise habits, antidepressant dosage, personal relationships). The events were this: She brought her family to the beach for a week-long vacation, something they hadn’t done together since she was an adolescent, and never in a place so luxurious. She did it because the studio had just offered her a ton of money to be a widowed shepherdess, and if the film turned out to be the success that everyone seemed to think it would be, she wasn’t sure what would happen to her after that.

They played at least a dozen games of Trivial Pursuit at night on the hotel veranda overlooking the beach. Her dad smoked clove cigarettes and asked for each plastic pie piece in a different accent. Her mother squinted at him and begrudgingly handed over his winnings. “You goddamn know-it-all,” she muttered, and Virginia and Scott laughed so hard they blew soda out their noses and injured themselves jerking in guffaw, elbowing each other in the sides. Their mother shushed them by smacking their shoulders and reminding them that her daughter-in-law and grandson were sleeping, curled like cats on the overstuffed hotel furniture.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said her brother, “Penny and Miles can sleep through anything.”

Another event she remembered was her mother lying on her belly, naked to the waist, with hot stones on her back. She had gotten her roots done that day, and her hair was uniformly its original honey blond, lying in thin, soft waves around her head. Virginia told her they were heading down to the beach and asked if she wanted to come. Instead of answering, her mother smiled without opening her eyes, and groaned, extending her arm out to her daughter. The sun made the little hairs on her mother’s arm look like filaments of light.

Then, there was her brother on the beach with his fruity cocktails, bright, frothy, toy-colored drinks from the hotel bar that he sipped between rounds of an elaborate beach-ball game he played with Penelope and Miles. Scott asked if she wanted to play too, but she was unsure about the rules, which Miles seemed to make up as he went along, so she sat quietly in her brother’s chair, sucking in her stomach in case any photographers happened by, eating the fruit from Scott’s cocktail. All three of them were golden, sweating, her little nephew like a cherub in his swimming trunks, with his uncontrolled giggling and pudgy belly.

She watched her family, angelic with happiness, their cheeks glowing with tan every night at dinner. She feasted on their joy, her mother and Penelope drinking water from crystal glasses and looking serene while Miles fell asleep on a plateful of lobster carcass. At a dinner toward the end of their stay, her family toasted her generosity. She said “Oh, it’s nothing, stop. Toast Mom’s manicure.” It was nothing. It was no sacrifice to bring them there, not like when her family took vacations and afterward dessert would disappear suspiciously for about a month, and no one could go to the movies, order pizza, or make long-distance phone calls. “No, this is wonderful. It’s been amazing, Ginny—don’t you tell me it’s nothing,” her mother said.

She had begun the week feeling like a member of the family, but as the days went on, it became clear that she was mostly the observer of the family and, finally, in the end, its benefactor.

It was then that things started to get disorienting, like she was looking at the world through the lens of a camera operated by a hack. The camera operator kept breaking the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree rule, and she would find herself looking at her brother, then at herself, seeing herself in an entirely different room, and then she was standing on the beach and it was the ocean she was seeing, and the sky behind it filled with mountainous purple storm clouds, an avalanche of storm clouds rolling right toward the shore. She remembered thinking that she could not leave Malibu, because it would be a permanent goodbye.

Something about the fullness of the clouds, how fat they were, how they took up the entire sky, which only hours earlier seemed infinitely open and blue, made her body feel strange. She ran her hands over her form, and, as she had feared, discovered she was hollow. She had no bones, no organs, no fat, no muscle. She had no idea how she was still able to stand with those things missing.

Next, her palm was shoveling a handful of sleeping pills into her mouth. But she didn’t stop there. She wasn’t—she swore up and down to her brother, her psychiatrist, everyone—trying to commit suicide. She was just trying to fill herself up, and she grabbed what was available. Yes, she had swallowed the pills, but she had also swallowed other things she pulled from her tote bag: a roll of Smarties, a mouthful of sunscreen, and a banana. It had started to sprinkle. Her mother had left a coral ring on the table of their beach encampment. Virginia swallowed that too.

Then there was nothing left but sand, and she set to work on that. The last thing she remembered was putting her fingers in the damp sand, and Scott suddenly standing next to her, saying, “Ginny, it’s raining. What the hell are you doing?”

So that was that. And certainly it was easy for her psychiatrist to write on her evaluation that she had attempted suicide (probably for attention) because she felt she had lost her connection to her family, which was (in her own words) “the only thing I love.” She hadn’t tried to convince the doctor otherwise, because she feared that he was wrong, and that whatever caused her to behave as she had in Malibu was the symptom of an even more profound sickness, worse than a suicidal impulse; something that would eventually make her one of those owl-eyed Hollywood madwomen, and that if anybody knew she would be told to stop working and take care of her disease.

She opened her eyes and saw the tree in the distance, bending. The wind was whipping up sand, making miniature tornadoes that skidded back and forth along the ground. How long had she been sleeping? she wondered, not able to remember when she had fallen asleep or what the sleep had been like. She was waiting for Karl, she recalled, but he was nowhere to be seen.

As soon as she sat up and her waking senses returned, she felt her skin burning. At first, only her face felt hot, then her neck and chest, then her whole body. She looked down at her arm and saw that it was a dark, purplish red color. The moment she fully felt her pain, she started to cry. It was like nothing she had ever felt before; other pains, like migraines and ulcers, came in waves, but this burn flooded her brain with a constant recognition of its pain, like hearing a scream prolonged indefinitely. All she could do was be as still as possible, and even then, the sand in the wind cut at her.

Her stillness was almost immediately interrupted by yells coming from behind her. She knew even before she turned around that it was the refugees. They were running in her direction, screaming something unintelligible, a swarm of bright colors and dark limbs, moving so fast they seemed, like the dust devils, to be animated by the air. She could hardly recognize them as the same refugees who had crouched soundlessly in the grass-thatched shelter all week.

Had it been a week? Had it been two? How long had they been here?

Still, there was no Karl.

They were coming right toward her. She stood. Her head swam. She felt she was inhaling nothing but sand. Her skin stretched over her body as if it were no longer connected to her form but simply something tight she was wearing. It was dead, the living organ that had been her skin, burned to death.

As she fell, she saw Meme, standing apart from the refugees, and even from a distance, Virginia could see her lips part and the perfect white teeth in her mouth, her canines seeming elongated like tusks. Lying on her back, Virginia saw the grey sky, voluminous black clouds, literally black, and thought how horribly it would hurt to be rained on.

The refugees were close enough now that she could make out what they were screaming: Umm siysiy, umm siysiy.

She didn’t need a translator to understand them.

The tree, they said, the tree.

She woke in the meal tent, her skin hot and bubbling with blisters on her shoulders and scalp. She lay for a moment with her eyes closed, remembering that she was somewhere she didn’t want to be. A woman was singing in a low voice and Virginia smelled something sickeningly sweet. The smell and the rushing return to consciousness caused her to suddenly feel nauseated. She forced her eyes open and fixed them on the opposing wall of the tent to keep herself from throwing up. The smell, she soon realized, was coming from a sticky brown substance that Meme had spread on her body. She was still at work, covering Virginia’s arm, singing to herself.

Virginia jerked her arm away. Meme’s touch repulsed her, and for a split second she thought that Meme was preparing to feed her to the others.

“Where’s Karl?” asked Virginia.

Meme shrugged. “Don’t know. He go home, I think.”


“Yesterday. When you got fired,” said Meme.

She opened her eyes again. “Fired? Who fired me? You mean from The Shepherdess? How do you know?”

As she asked this, she realized the tone in her voice was only a reflex; it was fake indignation. She didn’t care that she’d been fired, only that while she was asleep Meme must have had some sort of contact with the United States, with a person she knew.

Meme looked confused. Gently, she put her fingers on Virginia’s red arm. “I mean, fired.”

Virginia looked at her skin. “Oh, I see.”

Meme nodded. “Okay, then. I get coffee.”

She walked to the other side of the tent and rummaged through one of the metal boxes. Virginia tried to get up off the cot, but found that, even though the poultice Meme had spread on her kept her from serious pain, it still hurt to move. She managed to prop herself up on her elbows.

The refugees were outside the open front flap of the tent. They were milling around, seeming anxious, whispering to each other. Again, it occurred to her that they might be waiting for her to die so they could eat her. But that was unlikely.

“Meme? Why were they running after us earlier? The refugees?”

Meme brought a cup of coffee, which was lukewarm with milk. An origami bird peeked from the pocket of her cotton blouse.

“Well…what I think is, they want you staying here.”

“I don’t want to stay here. I want to go home.”

“Yes? How many babies at home?” Meme gently parted Virginia’s hair and dabbed her scalp with honey.

“None. Well, my nephew. I don’t know. I wanted to help but I don’t know what to do. Should I have some food sent? If I could just call someone—”

“Food never come here, sweet. No translator, no nobody. Just people like you, like the man. They come and they go. Or they don’t go.”

Virginia closed her eyes and imagined staying in the camp forever. She would find nine yards of bright yellow fabric and wrap it around her body, and her skin, after being burnt, would continue to darken, and she would get thinner and thinner until she was another one of them, moving in unison with them, her eyes vacant. She would become a refugee, stranded in between home and a safe place, and she wondered if that was the real reason she had come here, to be between.

Meme popped one of the blisters on her scalp, and it was as if she’d lit a fire in her hair. As a reflex, Virginia lifted an arm to push her, but it hurt too much and she let her arm drop. “God damn,” she said, her eyes welling up, “I just wanted to help.”

Inside of Meme’s pocket, the bird fluttered its paper wings, making a crinkling sound that made the hairs on the back of Virginia’s neck stand up.

“No,” said Meme, “you don’t help us. We help you.”

The night was short, only a couple of hours, so she would have to run. Meme was snoring on the ground near the fire pit, as if anticipating someone might need her to get them a cup of coffee before the sun came up. Virginia swallowed three painkillers, put on a pair of pants, and, with effort, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. Around her waist she wrapped two cotton scarves to cover her face and neck when she needed them. She left her valise in the tent, but brought her purse, which contained her cell phone, all her credit and identification cards, and a half-gallon jug of water. The cell phone, which she had turned off when it failed to find a signal, only had a little bit of charge remaining. Stepping softly, she made her way to the front flap of the tent and went outside into the desert. She looked up at the sky, anticipating clouds, but it was clear and full of white stars.

The refugee was standing at the edge of the encampment, as though waiting for her. She walked toward him. When she stood squarely in front of him, she stopped. She showed him her cell phone.

“I have to go to the tree so I can call my brother. Umm siysiy.”

He stared at her.

“I left my valise in my tent if you want that. It’s got clothes. Lotion. Socks.”

He moved closer to her, then a little closer, until his face was inches from hers, as though he was going to kiss her. She could see the pores on his face and the shine of the stars on his skin. Strangely, though, she couldn’t feel his proximity, the heat from his body or his breath. There was only one thing she could feel radiating from him, and it was longing, the same emptiness that she had felt in Malibu. He filled her with it. She wanted to drop down right there and start eating the sand, the rocks, everything in her purse. Her legs felt weak and she reached for his red tunic but missed.

“Please,” she said.

If she started eating, she wouldn’t stop—she wouldn’t make it to the tree, she wouldn’t be able to call Scott, she would never leave the desert. She didn’t want to be in between, crouching in a tent. She wanted to be a benefactor. She would be loved. Differently, now, but loved.

She turned from him and ran. Her shoulders itched and burned, rubbing against the fabric of her shirt. She didn’t turn back to see if the refugee was chasing her.

Her legs ached from running and she could feel the blisters throbbing on her scalp. She was slowly getting closer to the tree; it was hard to get a good stride going against the loose ground and around the brittle little bushes that grew here and there. Her breathing became steady and deep and she didn’t stop to rest once, not even when the sky paled and the stars faded. She saw the sun rising in the distance, distorting the horizon and making the landscape look somehow gelatinous.

Black birds covered the branches of the tree. Virginia stood at its base, momentarily stunned by their sheer number; hundreds it seemed, all oily black with beaks hooked like crows, but cooing at each other like doves. Their eyes, rolling in their sockets, looked like gray pearls.

Dangling from one of the branches was the frayed red strap from Karl’s camera. It looked like the birds had been pulling threads from it for their nests. She checked around the tree for the camera itself, but didn’t find it.

She climbed. The birds didn’t fly away, only inched over enough for her to grab hold of branches and plant her feet. On the highest, thinnest branch that would hold her weight, she turned on her cell phone. The blue bars that gauged satellite reception lit up. She dialed Scott’s number. She had no idea what time it was in California, whether he would answer the phone as it rang in the car on his way to the office, or if he would wake to it as it rang on his nightstand. Either way, she knew he would answer.

“Hello? Ginny?”


His voice made her sane. She was real.

“What happened to you? I told you to call me when you got there.”

“What’s been going on with you?”

“Oh, man, everything. Everybody in the state’s got a respiratory infection. Forest fires. I’m working sixty-hour weeks here.”

“You have to come and get me.”

“What do you mean? Where are you?”

Virginia heard a rustling and looked down. The refugee stood at the foot of the tree.

“I don’t know.”

“I can’t come get you if I don’t know where you are.”

“I love you.”

“Ginny, how the hell do you not know where you are?”

“They never told me. They didn’t send any translators, either. Which is just great, because now I don’t have anyone to feed to the refugees.”

“What do I do, then?”

“Call the embassy in Kenya. When I left Madrid, I remember they said Kenya. If you don’t have any luck there, try calling Karl Ratterman.” She paused to scroll through her saved contacts, then gave him Karl’s number.

“This is scaring me to death,” her brother sighed.

“You’ll find me.”

She heard Miles in the background, asking for something, but she couldn’t make out exactly what. The birds were moving toward her, cautiously, their little claws scratching lightly on the bark as they stepped in her direction.

“Okay, Ginny, I love you. We’ll be coming for you. Hang in there.”

“I’ll see you soon,” she said, but her phone dropped the call before she could get the words out of her mouth.

She took a long drink from her water jug. The refugee was staring up at her, so she stayed in the tree. The sun was already hot, making her clothes stick to her raw skin. Her blisters were getting tighter, the yellow liquid beneath their surface beginning to seep as her body warmed. Scott made her feel real, but she did not feel better—the real Virginia was in a tree, far from home, sun-poisoned, dehydrated, and surrounded by scavenger birds. Scott’s voice had not affirmed that she would be delivered by talking to the right people; it only forced her to consider the fact that the desert might kill her before she even knew why she was here.

She felt the branch beneath her tremble and looked down to see the refugee as he began to climb. With steady motions, he gripped one knot with his hand, another with his curled foot. His eyes were fixed on her. As he ascended, she could hear his soft exhalations. The sound surprised and relieved her, and she found herself smiling.

He climbed until he shared the limb with her and the birds. Virginia wondered how long he had been at the camp, and it suddenly occurred to her that the other refugees might not be his relations, but just the bodies that surrounded him. His family might be somewhere else, alone, wishing he would return. Or maybe they were dead, and had spent their last seconds of life remembering him and a moment when they were all together, playing a game or passing warm plates from hand to hand.

“Where do you come from?” she asked.

He made a noise. She wasn’t sure if it was a word. Then his fingers were touching her hand. He pulled her, insisting she move, come with him. His skin was rough, his fingers heavy and intrusive, but she was glad to have him there. Tears stung the corners of her eyes.

One of the birds hopped up on her foot, turning his pearly eye toward her. The refugee waved the bird away, but Virginia was not afraid of it. It had warmth, a benevolent quality usually only associated with mammals. The birds were becoming brave, climbing on their legs and shoulders. The refugee brushed them away, his strokes becoming increasingly more desperate and violent. He put his long arms around her and tried to pick her up, but he was too weak. She felt the thin ropes of his muscles flexing and releasing, but his body had been nourishing itself with the meat of these muscles for many months, and her body was too heavy and cumbersome for him to lift.

When he gave up, Virginia squeezed his hand. The translator had never come, and she had no words that he could comprehend. She could not tell him that she wasn’t able to move, that she was too hot and tired and in too much pain. She could not tell him that she understood that he wanted to take her back to the camp to keep her safe, and that she was grateful for his help. She could not tell him what she really wanted to tell him, which was what her father smelled like, and what the arc of her mother’s back looked like, and how it felt to camp with her brother and peel charred shells off toasted marshmallows.

He let her touch his hand, though, and stared at her with a sad frustration—perhaps he knew the things she wished to say. He stayed with her for a long time, until the birds became restless between them, shifting and pecking, and she had to release his hand. The sound of his feet hitting the sand as he ran back to camp was nearly buried beneath the rustling of the birds, cooing curiously and softly flapping their wings.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 | Single Page