She found the deer skull in the shallow brook in the woods where she used to take the dogs back when she had dogs. At first it revealed itself to her as something else: a stone broken into the false shape of a human face, a thing worth taking a second glance at and that’s all.

But then as she moved closer it became the real face of an animal looking up at her from the water. She didn’t hesitate. She jumped from the footbridge, moved closer and bent down. The water was cold and flecked with snow and she had to strain to free the skull from the mud. The spine rose in a long sinewy line, like the root of a difficult turnip, ending in a cluster of spiked bone. She let it drape between her hands and it reminded her of everything all at once—a broken machine, a weapon, a puzzle—except for the thing it used to be. Her shoes were soaked and she had a two mile walk back to the car, but she didn’t feel stupid in the least. The simple fact that others had noticed this grotesque treasure but decided to leave it alone did not occur to her until later. No, she was the first to see it, nobody else, and how special was that?

That’s what made her call Peter. Why else but to tell this story?

And yet, when she heard his voice on the line it was the other stories that came back to her: the loss of her job in the tough economy two years ago, a marriage and a divorce, the death of the dogs they had owned together and treated like children, one following the other quickly like an old married couple. She wanted to speak to him as a traveler returning from a long journey.

Eight years since they last spoke and even the memory of his features had worn away, but the old habits remained. He spoke first and then she asked gentle probing questions, feigning interest until that interest became genuine. She waited for the right moment to tell him about the skull that now rested in the basement sink, although she didn’t understand why this particular story should be the one to break their long silence, except they had walked their dogs down those trails. She had walked there many times since though, by herself and with other men, with her ex-husband, in fact, who was the kind of man to tell her, “Leave it alone,” if he had been there when she spotted the skull peering up from the muck. He would have stood on the footbridge, arms folded imperiously, and watched her. She would have felt that judgment—that sense of indignant piousness—resting on her back as she crouched, and some part of her would have enjoyed it. It would have made her feel young.

Now, as Peter talked, she thought of time as a practical joke, because how odd that he would be telling her about his young children, two of them now, and his own divorce, and the bald patch at the back of his head. He still owned the same car, the plucky Subaru they had once driven across country, and he still ran marathons. He was training for one now, would be heading out as soon as they finished this phone call. The weather was beautiful in Portland, Oregon, dark and cool with a light drizzle, perfect for running, and he didn’t have the girls this weekend. “Was it someone I knew?” she asked.

“What?” She heard the familiar catch in his voice. He was trying to decide if he should lie or not. It would not be a lie, really, not like before. This time it would be a fib, something to protect her feelings. But it had been eight years. Why would she have any feelings? She couldn’t even imagine his face, although she could picture his thick legs, his body moving through that wet Northwestern weather.  Of course that would be the thing to remain, the constant in his life and in her memory of him. He said, “Yes. I’m sure you remember her. It’s the strangest thing. It really is. That girl who used to work at the food co-op.” He laughed a low, guttural laugh, a noise disconnected from the rest of him, the kind of laugh one might hear on a sitcom soundtrack as the ridiculous plot of the thing arrived at its climax. “It’s not what you’re thinking. It really isn’t.”

She found herself moving through the house, from the kitchen into the living room and then upstairs to the office she kept on the second floor. His voice followed her. He was explaining that he still didn’t quite believe it. She had been the one they always complained about because she packed the bags all wrong. They had mocked her dreadlocks, her dazed stare, even her Earth Mother breasts. “That’s why I’m out here now,” he said. “She has family out here. And guess where she’s working? A food co-op.” This was supposed to be a great joke but neither of them laughed. She sat down at her desk and tilted her neck to hold the phone, both hands moving over the keyboard. But all the old pictures were gone. That was two computers ago. These photos were more recent. In one of them her ex-husband sat in the bathtub reading the New York Times, his hard-on clearly visible like a boat half submerged in water. That had been a joke too.

The next one showed a sunrise, geese rising from a lake in crazy hundreds. But the photo didn’t capture the noise of that thing or her own joy as the birds sprayed above her head. He was still talking about the girl when finally she interrupted him and said, “I have to tell you something, Peter. It’s important.” She began to move again, down the hall toward the bathroom, and then to the bedroom, where the sheets sat in a stupid clump, her book open, her coffee grown cold. She thought of the catch in his voice, the split second decision of his to tell the truth, to just let it happen, and she tricked herself into thinking—just for a moment—that she was doing exactly the same thing. She said, “Things are very difficult right now. There’s been a diagnosis.” She picked up the cup and walked it to the bathroom sink, turned it over and emptied it out. “This is why I’m calling. I don’t mean to interrupt but it’s important.”

He said, “I understand,” and she remembered the accident when he had appeared in the hospital emergency room. Her torn hand had been wrapped in a bloody towel and he had unwrapped it, looked at the wound the way a doctor might, with cool detachment. Love and knowledge—even if it was fake knowledge—was exactly what she had wanted from him and that’s exactly what he had given her with the careful unwrapping of the towel, his unflinching expression.

“I have breast cancer,” she said.

“Jesus,” he said, because that’s what a person should say and then nothing else.

She added, “It’s been a battle.” She stepped downstairs with the clean mug, back into the kitchen, and in the center of the room, where she began telling him about the surgery, the radiation, and the more she talked the more true it seemed. She was telling these things to herself too, and the more she told it the more momentum it gained. She couldn’t stop—it was a rock rolling down a hill—and she wondered if Peter was already in his running clothes, if the rain was coming down harder out there. How far away was he? Thousands of miles. She said, “I’m sorry. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this,” which was the first truth she had uttered in the last five minutes. The second came right on its heels. “I knew this would happen. When you left me, didn’t you tell me that doom followed me around like a golf caddy? Those were your exact words. You were in the driveway of the old house and I was on the porch and I thought you were going to say something sweet. And then that came out of your mouth.” It was her turn to laugh, with the bitterness of someone who really was ill, a person counting the days. “A golf caddy. It’s like you had prepared it.”

She was trembling. The kitchen smelled of something burning and she remembered she had left a slice of leftover pizza in the toaster oven before making the call. The cheese was dripping and she remembered her ex-husband’s admonishment about that kind of thing, his use of the word filthy. She said, “I’m going to be all right. The worst is over.”

He said, “Listen. I want to talk about his. I really do. I’m glad you called. I’ve been thinking about you lately. I really have. Can I call you back later? I have a window of time here. What are you doing tonight? I can call you back.”

“Right,” she said, and she coasted along a wave of resentment, the righteous anger of the wronged and the cast aside. Her face was hot and wet and the kitchen surrounded her. Every bit of it seemed flimsy and dumb, the pan on the stove, the spirit catcher in the window, the tiles on the floor. She tried to calm herself by fixing on a single point on the wallpaper, a flower identical to all the other flowers in a sea of bad taste, and then, as her mind came back to her, she discovered that she had said goodbye and placed the phone on the counter right next to the morning’s mail.

She had wanted to tell him that other story, the true one, so much. Now she knew why—the knowledge hit her like a complicated math problem that, once explained, became the most obvious thing in the world. She called him because it was something he would have done. First he would have noticed the skull as they crossed the bridge, stopped her in whatever she was saying, and changed direction. Then he would have plunged his hands into the icy water and pulled it free.

She woke in the early morning to the buzz of her phone on the nightstand, the humming little rectangle of technology colored bright as candy and containing so much of her life. She let it make its appeal as the fragment of a dream sank down into whatever place had birthed it. She had been standing in front of a room, toasting someone. The table had been surrounded by family, many of them dead, hands reaching for food. The banality struck her as horrifying. Then even her disgust was gone as she reentered the world. She noted that the windows were still dark and then she reached across and silenced the hum. She expected Peter’s voice rushing out several apologies:  the first about not calling back the night before the way he had promised, the next about the earliness of the hour. Another voice made the apology though, the woman from the collection agency, and the tone was not apologetic at all, but stern, almost professorial. It spoke from far away but also right up against her ear, and for a moment she found something erotic in the sternness: the clichéd teacher fantasy, the disciplinarian. “I apologize for the inconvenience,” the voice said, and then, midway through the next sentence, she ended the call with a push of her thumb and set the phone back on the nightstand. It began ringing again as she left the room.

The coffee shop at the corner overflowed with the business of life. A man called out orders to the back room in a booming voice and the ceiling fan clattered above the heads of the crowd. Reed sat imperial in the usual booth, hands cradling a mug. Today she glowed green: earrings, scarf, and belt. “Sorry I’m late,” Francis said as she slid in across from her. “I had a rough night. I just woke up.”

Mentioning her own discomfort was such rudeness—such absolute bullshit—in the face of Reed’s life, but Reed gave no sign of the insult. She had purchased a coffee for Francis, added milk to it and probably sugar too. The shop clamored around them and Francis raised her voice to be heard. She made a stupid joke about her own crusty sweatshirt, her wet boots and Reed’s face arranged itself into a neat smile.

“I’ve never felt so black,” Reed said.

What did that mean?  

“I think I understand,” Francis said, and she pulled her cup into her body.

“Well, growing up in Detroit and then moving here,” she said. She pivoted her eyes to indicate the rest of the room, the white faces, each one its own puzzle of expressions, each one hungry but happy. “I’m telling you. Sometimes.” She chuckled, possibly a way of saying present company excluded. “But since Estrella got sick. The island got even smaller. It’s another country I’m living in, Francis.”

Francis had thought of Reed’s skin color many times, and that difficult upbringing in Detroit but only as something that made her stronger in that Nietzschen way. The image of Estrella rose up between them, sitting up in her hospital bed, and then the surgeon, the one Reed said showed no emotion, whose whole face looked like a knife as he had told them about the process: the barb penetrating the hard little tumor, his finger moving forward through the air in slow motion. He had compared it to fishing, she said. Hooking the smallest fish, the barest hint of a fish. Reed told that story often.

The coffee tasted perfect. She thought of Estrella and Reed in their own country, the size of a small town, a building, a room with EKG and television. It shrank as she considered it. The room around them swirled with fresh activity as another group entered and joined up with some others. One of them, a big man, was laughing and holding up his hand. Something seemed very funny about his fingers. The  others laughed too.

“This is good,” Francis said as she sipped from the edge of the cup. “Thank you.”

Reed said, “Jonathan’s sister called me the other day. She said what they always say. ‘How do you do it?’ Like she wouldn’t do the same thing if our situations were reversed. Would she just break down? Run away? It’s not like I’m making a choice.”

All of this spoken with the flat tone of someone discussing her job or her mother-in-law. Out of the corner of her eye Francis could see him, the man at the other table, his hand held aloft, fingers together like a flipper. He was telling a story too, the story of accidentally gluing them together with super glue, a model plane and something about booze. He held his hand as if it were not a part of the rest of him—just a thing gathered in from the street and shown to his friends. A few of them were standing. There weren’t enough chairs at the table. Reed spoke through it, pushing through the noise as if through a fog. “If the situations were reversed I suppose I’d be asking, ‘How do you do it?’ too. But it still pisses me off. It’s a commercial for kitchen cleaner. That’s what I’m reminded of. Two people in a kitchen with a spotless floor and one asks the other that question.”

“What question should they ask you?” Francis said and she wondered if Reed could detect the sourness. She had asked this question too, many times, especially in the early days of the treatments.

“Don’t fucking ask me anything,” Reed said. “Just leave me alone.”

Francis nodded and could not think of a thing to say. She knew talking about the day before would cause much more harm than good to Reed, to Francis, to their friendship. Someone was trying to pry the man’s fingers apart. A voice called out for olive oil. They would pay for it. The cook must have some in the back. “We don’t have a cook,” the barista said. The tin ceiling above them began to make its clattering sound. It was beginning to rain. Francis loved this sound—for some reason it reminded her of childhood—and sometimes she sat alone in the shop listening to the noise. But today it was one noise too many. The man’s hand had gathered interest from other tables. He began to repeat his story, but more elaborately, with added details. He was speaking to the back row of the audience. Reed crouched, as if down into a huddle, and said, more softly, “You know what I did on Wednesday? I took all the bean casseroles and soups and I had Jonathan hold a trash bag and I just dumped it all. The banana bread from that hag down the street? I dumped it. The crappy fig squares? Dumped them. All that stuff from people who’ve never even said hello to me as long as I’ve lived in that neighborhood. Someone had sent macaroni and cheese in a big copper bottom pot. It’s not my job to eat other people’s food anymore. It’s not my job to make them feel good about themselves, like we’re part of some community now. Like we’re coming together in a moment of crisis.” On this last thought her voice rose in competition with the other performance. Neither noticed the other. He raised his arm in a weird sort of triumph, his hand a torch. His own stupidity had become a point of pride. A bottle of something appeared from the back room. They began to slather it across his skin. Someone said, “What a waste. What a waste.”

“Stop looking over there,” Reed said. “Look at me. Look in my eyes.”

“I’m not looking,” Francis said. By that she meant that she could not help to look. And it was so loud. The joy exploded off the people.

“Least you could do was listen. I bought you a coffee after all.”

A joke. But not a joke. But yes, it was Francis who usually bought the drinks. She had for a long time. It seemed the least she could do.  “I am listening. I’m always listening, Reed.”

“You sometimes listen,” Reed said. “But do you want to know why I don’t tell you everything? Because when the worst of it comes up you try to think of anything else. It’s obvious.”

Just the week before Reed had called her up at midnight and Francis had listened to her for more than two hours. The Sunday before that they had walked along the beach in silence, but Francis had been ready. She had set herself up like a foot soldier at attention, waiting for the order, even though the only words exchanged were about the whitecaps.

They had separated the two center fingers and the man still held court. He was doing an imitation of Spock now but talking about sex, sex with aliens and sex with machines. Some people had lost interest but others had joined them. She wondered if pretty soon someone would ask him to shut up. Reed said, “For example. What’s her name, the one with the mountain bikes. Her daughter was a raging bully to Estrella. And I know where she gets it from. Her mother is a bitch. But she was actually crying in my driveway. Crying for me.  And I had to put my arm around her. Can you believe it? I had to comfort her. I put my arm around her and then I started crying too. The both of us just sobbing away out there in the cold. And this is a woman I hate.”

How had they arrived here? Obviously she had said something else too, just a moment ago, a missing piece, but there was no way to get back there.

This was all they talked about. Francis longed for the day Estrella would be completely better—the idea that this day would never come, that a different kind of day was fast approaching seemed an impossibility—and when Estrella was back in school and Reed was complaining about her again that would be the day her friend would return to her from that other country she now occupied. They’d talk about what they used to talk about, although what had that been? Reed had talked about politics and the death of downtown and underrated Marvin Gaye albums. Francis had talked about men. She remembered them in a bright succession, not the men themselves as much as what they became when she shared them with Reed, who was always smirking, always telling her to slow down. That’s when she had seemed to be the one traveling. She said, “I think I know who you mean. The woman with the two Volvos. Yes.” She was trying to catch up.

“Not here,” Reed said. “The other one. Her friend.”

She couldn’t imagine her but the image of the two of them hugging nudged her toward jealousy.

“Please,” Reed said. “My eyes. Look here.”

“I am,” she said.

“No you’re not.”

“I am.”

“No,” Reed said, and there was a soft snarl in her voice. She leaned forward across the table as if to touch her face, as if to kiss her, but then her face just hung there.  “I’m right in front of you.”  

“I’m not one of them,” Francis said. “I’m on your side.”

The rain came down harder and mixed with the noise of the other tables. Where had the man with the flipper hand gone? He had been there just a second before. “I threw out your homemade apple sauce,” Reed said. “I threw away the meatloaf.”

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. It had been buzzing. She was aware of it as a low purr, something ticklish and sexual, but also annoying, a bug, an intruder hugging her close. Was it him? He had said he would call back. He was worried. The tin roof clattered and any other time it would be profound but now it was noise. She told herself, this is a bad dream I am having. She found it out there and then she said those stupid words to him and now everything was different, even the sound of the rain on the roof. Now she was crying, but not really. Her face twisted into a new shape. She could feel it. It was hot and wet. But she also stood outside herself, from a safe distance, scanning herself with pity and disgust. Reed said, “Everything is okay. I’m just talking. It’s just words. I don’t mean any of it.  I’m just a hurt animal.”

She thought of her own dogs, the blindness, the way they snapped at her in those last couple of months. She had let them live too long and called it love.  That’s what her ex had said. Reed was still talking. It seemed like she might never stop. At first the country had seemed small but now it was huge. It stretched on forever and it was made of whatever words her friend threw at her from across the table. The phone stopped and started up again. “I’m not a bad person,” she said.

“I know you’re not,” Reed said and their hands touched across the table. They squeezed and then separated, retreating back into the snugness of their own private spaces, her on one side, her on the other. The rain sounded torrential but the window showed that not to be true.

“You are my best friend,” Reed said.

Outside in the rain Francis checked the number. It was the woman from the collection agency again. She no longer left messages. She’d call again. That’s when Francis noticed the man from inside, the flipper hand man, smoking a cigarette and watching the traffic. His hand seemed fine and he did not seem especially happy, deep into the process of smoking and watching. His wet hair draped across his bulky forehead, coat open. He didn’t seem to care. Francis called out to him, “Asshole,” and when he turned she stared him down. “Like the rest of us care,” she said, but the man didn’t send her rage back to her. He just looked confused, apelike, distracted from his important work. He seemed to decide that these comments weren’t meant for him and his head pivoted back to the traffic.

And then again as she was walking up her front walk. That sexual hum. This time she answered, willing it to be his voice even though the number was that other one. Francis said, “Stop calling here. Stop it,” and then threw the phone on the couch as soon as she shouldered herself inside. The voice spoke to her from there, a tinny, powerless plea. Her houseplants needed watering and clutter filled the front hall and her mail was soaked.

She had to fix this. The smell filled the front hall and reached into the kitchen too. At first Francis assumed it came from outside but then she remembered the bones in the sink. When she opened the basement door the smell hit her with extra force and she had to brace herself before heading downstairs. It had browned in the night, lost its exquisiteness. She imagined the phone ringing again upstairs but it would be too late to get it and this time it would be him, fresh from a run maybe, or lonely, or at least concerned, and then she could imagine it better, the dumping of all of it into the trash, every bit of it, and then the throwing of the bag to the curb. She lifted the skull with a rag and gray water sluiced from the eye holes. She thought of that time she had bought an expensive coat on a whim and then been shocked by its ugliness in the mirror at home. The person at the returns counter had asked no questions when she returned it. Dealing with other people’s regret over stupid decisions was her job, after all. They filled out the form, slid the credit card, and that was that.

But she had hurt no one. That was clear to her. Nothing important was happening.

She needed to throw herself back into routine: check her email for freelance work, do the laundry, but first she poured bleach into the right sink and then passed the skull from right to left. More bleach. She didn’t bother with gloves. That smell replaced the other and she thought of a long swimming pool, the clean stretch of blue water, maybe a single lean body shooting through it like an arrow. She was trying to calm down.

Then it was a dream and Peter was there in the corners of it telling her about himself, his new life, and then he became somebody else, a stranger, and he was talking about her laptop. He was telling her that her laptop was not very good and she should replace it. He could give her advice. There were all sorts of good, affordable models out there. She felt bored and sleepy in her dream and that didn’t change when the stranger began running his hands along her body. When she awoke this is what she remembered—the drowsiness—and she wondered what would have happened if she had fallen asleep in her dream, down deeper into a second layer of sleep. She woke up and the phone was still on the side table. The rain had stopped and the silence pervaded the space like the smell and the dark and the vibrations of her own small life.

Nothing was happening. She sent that thought out as if to search the space, probe it and then return to her. The dogs used to do that in the middle of the night: leave the bed and scramble room to room and then skitter back to her.

She followed the thought into the darkness and then she was down by the basement door, the boring dream following her in small fragments, falling off her as she forgot it piece by piece.

The brains had come out through the bottom. She lifted the skull and it all came away in a pink stream of flesh, as if a small creature had been hiding there and finally revealed itself to her. She wondered if it was warm or cold. The whole thing was supposed to be easy and now there it was at the bottom of the sink, still attached to the skull by strands of mucus and pus, a snail clinging to its shell. It was revealing itself to her, opening. She lifted the skull higher—she held it with her bare hands now—and still the flesh didn’t come loose. The dream was almost gone now but she held onto it the way the sticky flesh held onto the skull. She remembered the boredom, the hands on her chest. And then she remembered too that the figure had been angry. He had grown rough with her. And somehow that had been boring too.

The call came in from the same number. Her again, but this time Francis made her promises that she would take care of it. The wet mail contained more bills, half a dozen notes from charities she had given money to as well, all of it turning to a moist lump. The woman said, “I can take your routing number right now. That would help,” and she said sure, she would do that, and made up some numbers. She recited them as if from memory and then they kept going, ten digits, fifteen, and twenty. It became a joke. She laughed and she said she had to go.  How easy was it for her to disconnect from her own troubles. All she had to do was switch them off. The screen went black and then she replaced it with a list of songs. The first one filled the silence. She stood there listening.

What would he say if he called? First he’d apologize for his lateness, the lateness of his call, he’d say, just like the woman from the agency, and then he’d ask her questions, the ones he didn’t have time for that first time when she told him. When do you go into surgery or have you done that already? Have you started radiation? Who is helping you? Are you satisfied with your care? How are you holding up? Can you talk now? Did I wake you? Are you okay? Do you still care about me? Who are you and what are you doing? Why do you do what you do? What time is it there again? What can I say to make you feel better and how should I say it? Are your hands shaking again? Am I bothering you? Are you bothering me? Are you terrified? Does this voice sound like me? Does it sound strange? Hello, can you hear me?

At the café she waited but this time Reed was the late one. She ordered the drinks, slid the teabag in, and arranged the saucers and spoon. She arranged herself, her shoulders and face, the attentive expression of the best friend. They talked about the ticking machinery, the stately procession of specialists, and the evenings, her holding hands with Jonathan in their big bed and speaking out into the dark about who would vacuum the carpet, who had strength to call the insurance company. The noise buzzed around their intimate moment. A politeness had returned to the proceedings. Days passed and the food kept arriving, wrapped in plastic and tinfoil, some of it still hot. The skull went into the trash along with those other things. Days into weeks. The phone kept ringing and the story faded, nestling into that same deep space the dream occupied. Everything was okay, everything was fine.

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