It’s been six months since Gloria decided to keep the baby. It had been painful in the beginning, but we’d known the risk, taken the chance she might change her mind. And now we’re free! Sailing up the One, the ocean stretching blue into forever, hair whipping because we rented a convertible, why not? Gloria had to give the money back, which must have been a real sacrifice considering she’s nineteen and unemployed and lives with her mother. We only met her once before the birth, flying LAX to Logan, and she was too embarrassed for a home visit, so we opted for a diner instead, with blue vinyl booths and a server with ample cleavage. We went there to appear unassuming, wore jeans and knobby sweaters and glasses instead of contacts and Gloria ate a whole plate of bacon, guzzled a glass of skim milk, and we managed to smile and make small talk and avoid telling her about the hormones in her food, how they would surely taint the baby, not our baby, and most certainly not Abelyn—what we called her in private. The adoption agent and our therapist had agreed on the absence of the possessive—Gloria wasn’t to be reminded that the baby wasn’t hers, and it was most certainly not to be given a name.

“You have to love her,” she said, a cough catching at the back of her throat, no doubt due to the dairy. “You have to love her more than you love yourselves. More than you love each other. Can you do that?”

We’d nodded dumbly, then said it together, “Yes,” but she must have seen doubt in our eyes.

Of course we had intended to try, but it was hard to imagine that anyone, even a baby, even our baby could generate so much feeling. It didn’t seem possible to love someone else so much; we weren’t sure we’d have room in our WeHo two-bedroom.

Gloria lied then, or maybe it was the hormones, when she reached across the table and took our hands. “You’re perfect. I can’t imagine a more beautiful couple to raise my baby.”

We should have known. My baby. Our therapist had warned us it might happen. We’d fired her and rehired her and fired her again for it. When we came slinking back, she had the gall to tell us no, to recommend someone whom you might trust for the long-term, as if she couldn’t see our pain, or worse, she could and didn’t care to fix it.

We take trips instead, like this one, driving up the One to Santa Barbara, then cutting east in the rented convertible, stopping at every fruit stand along the way, eating figs and blackberries and walnuts and weaving our way through the wineries, sampling that too, barely making it to The Madonna Inn alive, the blue and gold room with its circle bed and shag carpeting and crystal chandelier.

We eat dinner at the hotel’s steak house, red meat oozing blood and baked potatoes slathered in sour cream and butter and cheese—we’re not pregnant—and we get terribly drunk and take a dip in the pool. It’s the kind with a gradual incline meant to mimic the ocean floor, and we descend, swimming laps and splashing and tugging at each other’s ankles, until we see him, the boy in the Jacuzzi who is decidedly high. We ask him what he’s on, and he smiles up at the hazy night sky and tells us about the mushrooms he bought for the Willie Nelson concert he’s going to tomorrow night at a winery in Paso Robles. “With my parents,” he says.

“Can we have some? We’ll pay.”

“I only have enough for myself, but if you want your own, find the downtown kids.”

“The downtown kids?”

“They’ll be under the bridge by the Mission.”

Under the bridge by the Mission. We are intrigued and go back to the room for clothes, to call an Uber, for a brief bathroom interlude, seven minutes of insufferable separation.

* * *

The bathroom is a place for peace, a place to regain one’s self, I often tell Evan when I shut the door in his face. Our bathroom interludes, he calls them when really they are mine alone.

“I have a voicemail. Client,” I tell him through the door. I can see his two-footed shadow on the white tile floor, but I ignore him, take the space I need, something our therapist in her perfectly choreographed outfits repeated often before she fired us. Her crisp shoulder-length curls never moved, not once in all our visits, her calm eerie and off-putting as she droned on about our attachment, our codependence, eyes on me as if to say, You’re going to have to do something about this. “But we’ve always been this way,” Evan would tell her, which isn’t exactly true. It’s gotten worse, his neediness, since the whole Gloria fiasco.

I listen to the message from Joel, one of the more successful screenwriters I represent. He has a hot new show about a man who escapes an alien invasion by sailing off on the ocean. Eventually, he gets marooned on an island, where he must fight off hostile locals. Really bad types. Cannibalism is insinuated but never shown. (The show gets a little racist here.) He lives alone until one day an alien ship crashes into the ocean, and he is joined by its pilot. Together, they fight the really bad types and hunt and survive and become friends, no, brothers (never lovers, not on a major network, please).

Joel says, “Glenda, you’ve got to help me. Glenda, they kicked me out of the meeting. You have to—”

I don’t listen to the rest. Babies, a whole world of them. That is what I picture as I’m seated on the toilet, a world full of babies, so many I couldn’t possibly care for them all. I don’t need one to claim as my own, do I? It’s enough to help my clients, those grown orphans toddling around LA, I tell myself.

“What was that?” Evan calls from the other side of the door.


The bathroom has a lousy orange light that shows all my wrinkles, the ones I’ve tried to erase with light therapy and electric pulses and a suction that sloughs off my old skin. Nothing can stop time. At least in my line of work the relationships and wisdom that come with aging are assets not a curse.

Still, I have notions of leaving LA, this plastic place where I learned I’d never be a mother, not of the biological variety, despite doctors and treatments and herbal tinctures and Evan with his fertility calendar. They extracted my ova and introduced them to Evan’s sperm in a $15,000 setup that “didn’t take” we were told, and all that was left was Evan, his arm around my waist, his breath on my neck, “At least we have each other.” I started looking into adoption that night.

I don’t mean to, but I think of Abelyn, six months old now. I can still remember her newborn smell, walking the little bundle around the hospital room while Gloria dozed. It was part of the agreement, that she’d have a few hours with the baby, a chance to meet her, to hold her, before she said goodbye. It made me nervous, Evan too, hovering and whispering in my ear, “We are parents. We have a daughter. Should we get some champagne to celebrate?”

“Yes,” I told him.

“Can we go together?”

“I’m not leaving her,” I said.

“We can wait,” he said, frowning and hovering still.

When Gloria woke, she said she had a dream. She said, “Can I hold my baby?” And I heard it, the shift to the possessive, felt it too—that it was over. I handed Abelyn back to her mother, never to hold her again.

“Uber’s here!” Evan shouts. I can tell he’s anxious, that this will be one of his missions, spending our night giving chase to his ever-shifting ghosts.

I decide not to call Joel back. I’m still a little drunk from dinner and he knows I’m on vacation and anyway Evan has designs on getting mushrooms, some plan involving kids who can be found under a bridge. I breathe deep, clip my phone into the holster at my hip, and open the bathroom door.

* * *

When the driver asks us to enter our destination we tell him to take us to the downtown kids under the bridge by the Mission.

He says he needs an address. He says he doesn’t know the area all that well. He says the system doesn’t work without one.

“Fine,” we say, “take us to the Mission. Do you know where that is?”

He types it into his phone. “There it is,” he says and we’re off.

Our Uber driver drops us off at the Mission, stucco-sided with an orange tile roof and a trio of bells nested in the belfry, backlit and black, like three men watching as we cross the empty plaza.

This place is definitely haunted, we agree, and hold hands, watching the Mission bells watching us, thinking about all those Indians, no Native Americans, no indigenous peoples, who suffered and died and surely they would have good reason for sticking around and tormenting the living.

We stop before an informational placard and shine a flashlight app from our phone so we can read about the cross that was erected in 1772 to mark the site of the Mission, the first mass celebrated by blessed Junipero Serra outdoors with soldiers and neophytes and his fellow priests. It must have been something, empty of people, grasses glowing gold, the bending limbs of coastal oaks, and grizzlies. The place was overrun with grizzlies, the placard reads, supply ships from Mexico delayed, a cold, bone-dry winter coming, cavernous hunger. We read on, about the great grizzly hunt, the soldiers carving up and shipping 9,000 pounds of dried and salted bear meat to the surrounding missions.

Gross, we agree and follow a path down to the creek lined with giant eucalyptus that block out the moon. On the other side is the back patio of a bar where drunk college kids flirt and paw at one another and snap pics with their phones. A reminder of how we met, at a Westwood college bar with our fake I.D.s in the butt grinding madness of the dance floor, and later, back at the sorority house, the linked legs and spilling of guts, a feeling like surgical alteration, of permanence.

We consider taking a shot like that first night, but no, we have a mission, those under the bridge kids. We follow the path and see an old brick footbridge spotted with base gray paint to cover graffiti. It’s not until we’ve passed under the bridge that we hear a soft ripple of laughter, see them, four, no, five kids dressed in many layers of black, sitting in a circle like some kind of séance and maybe they’re witches? Even better.

Hands locked together, we approach the kids slouching or leaning back in the grass, eyes saying leave us alone. It’s not danger we’re after nor comfort even but some heavenly middle ground, the space where things hurt and heal all at once. “Hello,” we call, “good evening.” The kids say nothing. “A friend of ours from the Madonna Inn told us you were the people to see if we wanted any mushrooms. Is that so?”

“Are you a cop?” one of them asks. Late teens, early twenties? It’s impossible to tell anymore. But young, with a faint beard of acne, a head of short brown dreads. “You have to tell me if you’re a cop.”

“We are not cops.”

“How much do you want?”

It is far too easy, as if divinely intervened, the Mission looming three-eyed behind the under the bridge kids.

“This place is creepy. Why do you hang out here?”

“We live here.”

“What about your parents?”

They laugh a collective laugh. It is a mean-spirited laugh. Some would even call it evil. Our hands, we lock them tighter.

It is not until we’re on the other side of the bridge that we open our mouths and chew up one mushroom each, tasting dirt and decay, kissing deeply.

* * *

It doesn’t feel good, buying mushrooms from teenagers, but Evan is happy and the effects, they’re kicking in, the world glowing a little brighter, tugging a smile from my mouth, the gorgeous feeling of a warm breeze on my skin. I don’t mean to, but I like it, and I look over at Evan who is still exceptionally handsome, with his over tanned skin and full head of brown hair, and the lean slightly muscled frame of a boy. I remember to feel lucky and link my arm in his and we walk away from the Mission, from downtown, wandering the rows of single-story houses with quaint front porches, me wondering at the families inside, Evan studying the landscaping. He uses graphic software to render his clients’ yards majestic, specs so uniquely designed that every yard he tends is a new experience. It’s something Angelenos require, uniqueness, and he is good at his job, the best—everyone says so. I used to try to keep up, always pushing toward originality. But when I’d showed up to my sister’s Hemet barbecue wearing a Joan Jetson dress with a glittering solar system and circle skirt, my niece, the one who would run away the following winter (three weeks in a downtown Riverside squat), told me I looked like an alien, and I knew she was right. My sister never left Hemet, which feels like another planet to me now, with its track homes and cowboy culture, but I knew I’d gone too far, that LA was turning me weird.

We hear the thumping bass of music turned too high and Evan comes up behind me, bump grinding my backside.

“Cut it out,” I tell him, and he says, “House party!” and takes my hand, tugging me in the direction of the music.

“No,” I tell him.

“It’ll be fun. Come on.”

“It’ll be embarrassing. I’m too old.”

“We are not too old. Come on!”

I learned a long time ago not to come between Evan and the things he needs, which seem to pop up all around him. The things I need are harder to identify, lurking suspicions like the baby. I have an urge to call Gloria, to ask to speak to Abelyn, but I am not so high I can’t see this is a terrible idea, some form of harassment, and anyway, it’s three hours later in Boston, the middle of the night. I let Evan tug me through the front door of a stranger’s house, the porch littered with college kids. I want to laugh at their doughy unformed faces as they watch us pass into the house, which is nearly empty save a few kids on the couch watching a horror movie, the third in that lousy series in which teens are gratuitously murdered by Death himself (who apparently doesn’t like teens, given his gruesome and creative ways of killing them). It’s unfortunate that I’ve grown to hate movies, given my line of work.

At least I hate the movies that make money, and those are the only ones the agency represents. Most of the screenplays I represent are contrived and predictable from the start, but occasionally I get a good story, and I have to watch them hammer away at it until it is like gelatin sliding down your throat.

I’ve thought of leaving, even gave my notice in preparation for Abelyn. I’d had to ask for my job back, and of course they gave it to me with an abridged contract, contingent on performance, which means hustling, and I’m getting too old for the hustle.

We follow the noise out back, where there’s a keg and a Ping-Pong table, boys in flat-brimmed hats, a gaggle of girls in tank tops that I recognize immediately as sorority sisters, the way they cling to one another as if for warmth (which makes sense given their lack of clothing).

“Do you think anyone will get date raped tonight?” Evan whispers.

“That’s not funny.”

“Some surveys suggest that up to one-third of men would date rape someone if they thought they wouldn’t get caught.”

“I know, Evan. You’ve told me.” It’s a figure he picked up in college and has never updated. But perhaps it’s the sort of figure that never needs updating, the kind of danger that never goes away.

“I’ll get you a cup,” Evan says and I linger in the shadows, ask a stranger for a cigarette just to have something to do. He’s wearing flip-flops and I stare at his too long toenails as he rummages in his board shorts for a pack of Marlboro Reds, eww, but I take one anyway. He’s quick on the draw with his lighter and as I cough out a cloud of smoke he asks me, “Are you a student?”

“You’re precious,” I say to him, and then I reach out and pinch his cheek like he’s a baby, and I can’t believe I did that!

He gives me a surprised smile and he’s got dimples, which make him even more precious, and I tell him so again, “You’re precious,” and he says to me, “What’re you on?”

“I ate a mushroom.”

“Got anymore?”

Evan is angry with me when he returns with my beer and I ask him for a mushroom for the boy. He mumbles, “They’re supposed to be for us.”

“He’s a sweet boy. Give him one.”

“Fine,” he says, clearly miffed, and hands the boy a mushroom.

“Thanks, dude,” the boy says and saunters off and I feel sad, no used, no sad.

My phone buzzes on my hip. Joel. “I have to take this,” I tell Evan.

“Call him in the morning,” Evan says and I don’t want to fight, not while we’re on vacation, not with another night in the hotel, the three-hour drive home on Sunday. It’s too late anyway. Joel is gone to voicemail.

* * *

The party is a bust, that boy stealing one of our mushrooms. We’re hungry again and find a pizza joint, eat slices of pesto over tabletop Ms. Pacman. The mushrooms—we took another on our walk over, and they’re hitting now and it’s getting late, kids tumbling in drunk, taking slices back with them to the bars before they close. It is unlikely there’s an after hours scene in this sleepy college town, but if we made friends? It is a thought, one we can’t discard too easily, not now that we are here, on vacation. We are having fun, are we not? The pizza is gone, Ms. Pacman dead. We debate about going back to the hotel, another swim, no the pool will be closed, the fun, it is here. So we walk. Toward the bars because there are only bars because this is a college town. We wonder about the families, their unkempt yards, no one landscapes here. We could move to this town, offer our services, live a small town family life if we had a baby.

It hadn’t made sense, the trouble we had conceiving, our babyless existence. Everyone said so. You are perfect and you’ll have a perfect family perfect kids a perfect life perfect. And it’s true, hop-skipping down the sidewalk in unison, past storefront mannequins in silken undergarment, as in love now as we were in college when we would share a burrito for dinner and have sex in the shower so we couldn’t hear the sorority sisters whisper-giggling in the hallway. We made promises: we’re going to love each other so hard for as long as we live. For a time it felt like a competition, not with others who we mostly ignored, but with one another. Until it stopped feeling like a game and just was.

We find an alleyway coated in wads of chewed gum, gross, and we run on, spot the under the bridge kids down a side street, slouched on a curb in front of a closed coffee shop.

“Oh hey, hello,” we call. “How are you all doing?”

They do not answer. They do not move or emote in any way. They stare stony faced, sober, so we offer to buy them some beer. The one who sold us the mushrooms says okay and comes with us to the corner store. “Our treat,” we tell him and he sort of smiles like duh and we ask him if he’s hungry, if he’d like a hotdog or a plate of nachos, though neither option looks particularly appetizing through the dirty glass case. “I’m vegan,” he says, wrinkling his nose, and we don’t say a word about the animal products that exist in many types of beer, purchasing a twelve pack and meeting his friends in the grass by the bridge where they’ve set up a tent.

“Are you sleeping here?” we ask the boy, the only one who will answer us.

“Well, yeah. We’re homeless.” He says the word homeless like he’s trying it on, and we share a look, wonder at his parents, probably two towns over and worried out of their minds. We ask him his name but he won’t tell us so we crack him a beer and crack beers for all the other kids and we sit in their silence and watch the Mission, which is dark now, the belfry’s lights gone out. Until we can’t stand it, their silence, and ask them if they’ve seen any ghosts.

A girl says, “All the time.”

“Are they Indian, sorry, indigenous?”

“How would I know? They’re angry. Sorrowful. They hang out mostly in the belfry.” Of course they would, the watching bell-eyes, it was more than a feeling.

“We felt them, when we were trying to find you guys.”

No one says anything. Teens are terrible conversationalists, goths the worst, our niece in that Hemet dump the worst of all, always making comments, making us uncomfortable, making off with our guilt money gifts, gone as we were to LA, a whole other world. We couldn’t have done a thing when she’d run off, even if we’d wanted to—Hemet is two and a half hours away, separated by a tunnel of traffic that might’ve been an ocean, by all those years spent scaffolding our own life. We hadn’t meant to build a wall, but there it was all the same.

“We want to speak to them.”

“Well then go speak to them,” the girl says.

“Are you coming?”

“Fuck no. I told you they’re angry.”

“I’ll go with you,” the boy who sold us mushrooms says and we clap him on the back but he doesn’t like that.

* * *

I am furious, standing in that plaza, staring up at the three bells of the Mission. Buying beer for minors? “What the fuck, Evan,” I whisper, but it’s like he doesn’t hear me. Probably the second mushroom he ate. Mine, I pretended to eat and pocketed, and now I’m nearly sober. He asks the boy, “How can we get in,” and the boy says, “It’s locked,” and Evan says, “But we have to.”

“Why do we have to?” I ask him and he says, “Because. Because we have to speak to them.”

“This is like the plot out of a bad Hollywood movie. You will get killed.”

He doesn’t listen, dragging a metal trash can loudly to the front of the building, leaving a long scar in the stone, and I want to run but I can’t leave him. He hops up onto the trash can. Then he jumps for the belfry, grabbing hold of the bell’s nested window, hanging there. It seems like he might fall and I don’t mean to but I take hold of the boy’s hand and he doesn’t let go and we’re hissing be careful, come down, don’t be crazy. As if Evan’s found a new well of energy, he pulls himself up, disappearing inside the belfry. He’s gone a long time, and the homeless kid lets loose my hand, tells me he’s sorry and bolts. I want to follow, but I wait, feeling alone, no watched, no definitely alone. My legs are tired so I sit down in the stone plaza and stare at the bells staring back at me in their inky black sockets, shivering in the middle of the night cold that’s hitting me without Evan to hurdle me forward. I bury my face in my knees, creating a closed cavern that I fill with my own hot breath.

I must have fallen asleep because I feel myself waking, feel a dream at the corners of my memory, see Evan right in my face and I remember where I am and I’m so relieved, resting my hands on his shoulders, holding him in place.

“What happened?” I ask him.

“Let’s go back to the hotel.”

* * *

It is dark in the belfry, lonesome, the pull to outside exceptional, the wind stronger up here. Inching forward, right hand on the cold metal of the bell, left hand swiping at the dark. The bell aches on its rope but otherwise it is silence and a terrible nothing kind of blackness, not even shadows to mistake for ghosts, only the mind’s makings playing like a movie, Gloria with the baby that is hers now and forever, formula feeding her and pushing solids too soon, certainly not co-sleeping, certainly not joining a mother’s group for early socialization and camaraderie, probably going out at night and leaving Abelyn with her grandma, who smokes. “Indoors?” we had asked Gloria at that lousy diner.

“We live in Boston. Of course indoors.”

The slow creep toward total ruination. Abelyn could have been well educated and well rounded, her sharp edges reduced to a smooth clean surface.

Forward, inching forward, swiping at the darkness until there’s the cool comfort of stucco, which we learned from one of the informational placards outside was mixed with manure for binding purposes.

We can’t help it, thinking of Abelyn as ours, worrying for her. We cleared out our home office, made room for her in our life, and now we can’t turn it back. Earlier, on the shag carpeting of our hotel room, before the mushrooms, before the under the bridge kids, before our bathroom interlude, we told her story in turns.

“She’s sitting up by now, working her way to crawling.”

“She’s said her first words.”

“She’s going to be walking before we know it.”

“She’ll need someone to teach her to ride a bike.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

That’s exactly how we got into this mess, and now it is darkness and unknowing and all that is scary, only us for comfort, only us.

* * *

It’s morning and all I want is to swim. Joel’s left me another voicemail. His voice is ragged—he’s probably been up all night chain-smoking and checking his email.

“Glenda,” he’s sobbing, “they’re changing the ending. The fucking ending! You know how much that means to me. You know it has to go like that.” I do know. I know that Joel wanted the alien to die, for the brotherhood to be dissolved, for the friendship to end. It’s the first season finale. Something big has to change to keep the second season from becoming reductive, a snake turning on itself. But this is a major network and the execs are going to bleed every last bit of life out of that pairing, which has proved wildly successful in both our focus groups and the ratings.

I should get back to him, my most lucrative client—there are other agents circling, waiting to steal him away from me—but I leave my phone in the room and head to the pool.

Evan’s bought a white pair of trunks to match my suit, and I’m embarrassed, walking into the water holding hands, like some dumb coordinated couple. Too far, I want to tell him, you’ve gone too far, as we descend into the water, gradual as the incline intends, heated so that it’s warmer than the air.

“What happened?” I ask him and he knows I mean the belfry.

He swims away from me, cresting off on his back. “We were on mushrooms.”

“Did you see anything?”

He hits the wall and pushes back toward me. “Just mushroom stuff. You?”

“Just mushroom stuff.”

As he’s passing, he says, “That was fun.”

“That was fun,” I agree and I remember my sorority sisters, their warnings, too intense, he’ll take you from yourself, he’ll make you want to run. Wrong, sisters, I say in my head, swimming in his direction, tugging on his white board shorts till he’s mine, twined in my arms.

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