The memory is all pine trees and beetles. Quédate, quédate. Back when they spoke their secret language to each other, before they learned it wasn’t a secret, but a real and well-known language they would both forget in the years that followed.
The memory is one of her favorites. They ran away. They packed fruit snacks and their stuffed animals into pillowcases. They were going to live in the forest forever, “forever” not something they understood at that age—she no older than five or six, and he fifteen months behind her. Babies, really, opening the latch of the back gate and closing it carefully behind themselves.
The memory pulses with a heartbeat of danger. Her brother dropped something and turned back, leaving her in the circle of pines behind their house. She kept moving, and he couldn’t find her again. He had been afraid, he told her later, wandering by himself between the tree trunks. Her own alarm lasted only moments. Guiltily, she remembers the unexpected joy of her aloneness.
The memory will get spliced with scenes from newspaper articles and from her own imagination—search teams clomping through overgrowth, flashlights scanning the tangled green, light caught in the mist, the rain. Their day was sunny, though, bright and warm until the shade of the trees thickened into coolness. Tell us what you saw. But no, no one ever asked her about it. No one even knew they were gone. They both returned to the backyard before their parents or their babysitter—whoever was in charge that day—noticed their absence.
The memory hops time and coasts and now these are her beetles, the ones she studies.
Only her brother knew she’d been alone in the woods. Te busqué, he said when he still knew how. I looked and looked, but you were gone. In the memory, he says these things in English because neither of them remember their Spanish anymore. They don’t even remember to call each other. Some evenings, with a glass of malbec in her hand, she sits with the lights off in her apartment and lets the trees grow around her, lets in the fog and the rain and the grizzled officers of the law who were never there, the distant echoes of her little brother’s voice, Amaia! Amaia! Had she heard him and not answered? They haven’t spoken in so long. She should call him.
The true significance of the memory is the rotted branch, the beetles scuttling and skittering beneath its pulpy mass when she peeled off a piece with her small fingers. Beetles! Mandibles and mouth parts gumming away the damp pulp of the fallen branch. Tubes of pitch erupting from the trunks of the surrounding trees like patches of fungus, pale folds of the trees’ failed defenses.
The memory hops time and coasts and now these are her beetles, the ones she studies. Mountain pine beetle. Dendroctonus ponderosae. She knows they are destroying the pine forests of the West, green expanses mosaicked with red and brown death, like autumn, but perennial. It is not their fault, though—the beetles, it is not their fault—and she loves them, their squat bodies and speckled black carapaces. A child only a mother could love. That’s what her mom used to joke about her. “Vomiting. Amaia vomited twenty-four seven, our Exorcist baby, no wonder she was always so small.” Her beetles are tiny too, and legion. Legion. She loves them.
Sometimes Hugo is ashamed of how predictable he is. When they were children, they assumed their lives would be an adventure. They would be explorers, travelers, scientists, inventors. And Amaia did become a scientist, turned a childhood fantasy into a life, but Hugo just grew up. He has a wife now, and a house in their hometown, an office job, and, finally, a child on the way—a fact that fills him with ambivalence, but this is the path, is it not? Job, wife, house, baby.
Hugo used to be interested in nature too—his sister reminds him of this on occasion. She deploys memories too specific to be fabricated, too generic to mean anything to him. They caught bugs in mason jars, created little habitats of twigs and leaves. They held perfectly still next to the creeping phlox until the butterflies landed on their shirts, wings beating as if in slow motion, as if they were already thinking better of where they’d perched. Amaia recalls with admiration how brave Hugo was when he got bitten by a horsefly. “Stoic,” she says. It’s a story she likes to retell. He remembers that day at the reservoir, but in Hugo’s memory he is not brave, he cries. In his memory, he is also not the one who was bitten, it was Amaia. “Calma,” she said as her shin swelled. “I’ll be okay, you’ll see.”
He wishes they could trade everything back and forth like they traded that memory, tossing it like a game of catch. Here, you take it. No, you. It lives and breathes between them like a magnetic field, pulling and repelling. When did they last speak? They are bound together in time and silence, in the work of imagination called remembering. She’ll come back. She’ll forgive him. Te busqué. I looked, but for how long?
Years ago, when she was interviewing at the university, she did not meet the Distinguished Professor until the reception after her job talk. He introduced himself, extended his hand. Despite that first touch—the way he held on a moment too long, lingering over her distal joints as though he considered not releasing her—and despite the little shiver of unsurprise, she followed him, plastic glass of wine in hand, when he offered to show her his lab. She knew his research. She had read the papers and seen him speak at conferences. She wanted this. She wanted this project.
They used the beetles’ own sounds against them, confusing and disorienting them with manipulated recordings spliced through with human sounds—music, talk radio—mixed signals. The insects mated at the wrong time, walked out of the trees instead of deeper into them. They went crazy. The Professor had developed the idea with his friend, a local installation artist who set up dark rooms with unsettling soundtracks. Amaia would later attend one of his shows with the Professor and decide she did not care for his work, would find she did not need art to “challenge her sense of spatial autonomy,” as the exhibition brochure put it.
In that moment, his eyes glassy and gleaming in the dark, she knew she would get the job.
The Professor flipped on only the panel of lights in the entryway. The farther they moved into the lab the darker it got, but they moved slowly, and Amaia’s eyes adjusted. Nothing unexpected—computers, microscopes, large glass aquariums with thick chunks of ponderosa and lodgepole pine, trunk slices threaded through with beetle galleries. The audio equipment was less familiar—thrilling and exotic: a metal rack stacked with plastic bins of wires, coiled and multi-colored. Wires and wires and tiny mics, receivers, zip ties to cuff the devices to tree trunks. The Professor opened a bin and lifted a fistful of wires like a knot of snakes in the dim light.
“Look at all this,” he said with a chuckle. “This part isn’t my area of expertise.”
The local installation artist was the guy who handled the audio. Some of the graduate students were also adept at the engineering aspect of their work. He, the Professor, managed the biological research, the data. He was an exceptional laboratory scientist and theorist, but he had never excelled at fieldwork.
“That’s where you come in,” he told her. “We’re an ideal match.” He was as excited as she was to have her join the faculty, and in that moment, his eyes glassy and gleaming in the dark, she knew she would get the job. The talk had gone well, as had her interview. Her postdoc research was well respected, and here in the shadows, the deal was clinched. He held sway, the Distinguished Professor. And he liked her. He gestured toward the exit.
“After you,” he said. “Watch your step.”
He turned off the light and pulled the door closed. In the empty hall, before they returned to the reception, he paused to tap the edge of his plastic cup against hers. “We’re going to do great things,” he said.
He was careful to tilt his cup so their fingers did not brush. He did not touch her.
Since that first handshake, in the five years they have worked together—late nights in the lab, long car rides to field sites, hours out in forests with spotty cell reception—he has never touched her.
Hugo only remembers Estelle announcing they should try for a baby. He does not remember discussing or agreeing. He never saw two lines on a stick—his first invitation to participate, beyond the months of her straddling him with clinical, metered urgency, is the doctor’s appointment when he sees the first staticky suggestion of what will grow into his child appear on the ultrasound screen. There are many appointments. Parenting books, childcare research, appointment, shower registry, appointment, appointment. After each frenetic activity Estelle waves him away, no need to linger, her mother is coming over, her sister.
Hugo retreats to the condo of a woman from work, an uncomplicated woman who likes him much more than he likes her. He is tender with her, showing an exaggerated solicitousness in bed, overcompensating for his sense of guilt, which is multidimensional and complex, the most interesting emotion he has. He is so bored by this woman, but this is as close to alone as he can stand to be.
“Have you talked to your sister?” his mom asks one evening as she and Estelle and his dad marvel at the latest ultrasound picture. The wispy shadow of the baby’s fingers, the pucker of her lips—they know by now she is a girl.
“I did. She sends her love. She can’t make the shower, though. It’s the end of the semester, she has finals and grading. You know.”
He is lying. He has not actually spoken to Amaia. They have exchanged texts.
Estelle is pregnant
Shower May 4
He cannot actually remember the last time he heard her voice.
Their mother is satisfied. She believes him. Estelle, on the other hand, rolls her eyes knowingly and doesn’t look sorry to hear it. Estelle has never liked Amaia. “She’s so sanctimonious,” Estelle says. “Judgmental.”
She isn’t wrong. Amaia can’t get through a conversation without bringing up fossil fuels, plastics, consumerism, climate change. Hugo doesn’t take his sister’s evangelizing too seriously. It’s the only way he knows how not to be bothered by her—though not being taken seriously makes Amaia crazy, pushes all her buttons. They are like twin moons, trapped in one another’s gravitational pull, roiling one another’s tides, inescapably.
Amaia does not believe herself to be a good teacher. She has never been a people person—she is a scientist—and when she lectures she watches her students’ eyelids drift closed at the unfaltering rhythm of her voice narrating slide after slide. Instars, phloem, colonization. They ask her repetitive questions, they aren’t getting it. Class after class, year after year, which eventually, she understands, means it’s not them, it’s her. She cannot comprehend their incomprehension, so she simply repeats the same explanations but slower, sentences slightly rearranged, and hopes they will put the pieces together.
It feels illicit, inviting these eager young strangers to her sacred place. Out there, Amaia’s blood rushes and her cheeks flush. She is alive.
No, she is not a good teacher, but she takes her students on field visits to nature preserves near the university, and this, to her surprise, she almost enjoys. The stumbling, chattering pack of young people disrupts the meditative quiet, but in the woods she finds their questions easier to understand, her own answers easier to formulate, as though the bright new oxygen swelling from the stomata of the leaves makes all their minds sharper. As if, in the crisp breeze darting between the trees, their neural networks are reaching out, threads of empathy making them suddenly legible to one another. And look at the relief on their faces! Maybe it’s the fresh air, the change of pace, but they are more animated out here too.
Twice now, with grant funds, she has taken graduate students and one or two luminous undergraduates to her own field site in the Sierras—to the pines, to her beetles. It feels illicit, inviting these eager young strangers to her sacred place. Out there, Amaia’s blood rushes and her cheeks flush. She is alive. She is exposed, too, allowing her students to see her, their robotic, droning professor emerging from her stiff pupa and revealing her true color. She is still reserved, but she knows something joyful and dangerous pulses out of her.
They camp together on those trips, and always in the intimacy of the campsite there are male students who are too familiar, who approach her as a peer. She is, after all, female and petite; how could they possibly be expected to remember her doctorate, her honors, her fifteen additional years of life experience? She remembers well her own student days, the hoary professors, the goateed postdocs, the way the nylon of a tent would strain and rustle at night, how she would wonder, then wouldn’t wonder. She would close her eyes and sleep.
She had been surprised the first time one of her own students stood too close, surprised at the failure of her alleged authority, but now she expects it. She is patient with them. Neutral smile. Small but perceptible step back to create space between them. “Doctor Lezcano,” she corrects when they call her by her first name. Dr. Lezcano, they repeat, while their eyes stay flirtatious, conspiratorial.
She knows the kind of men they will become, and they do not matter to her. She focuses instead on the students whose eyes brighten at unpredictable details, who tumble into unexpected fascination with a plant, a growth pattern, a shift in the wind. This one is interesting, she will think, I cannot see this one’s future. And she prefers the mystery, the unknown, the space opening before them for both pain and possibility.
She remembers none of their names.
He always knew she would look out for him. Espérame, dame tu mano, as she grasped his hand outside the playground at their elementary school. A few of the other little boys made ridiculous, garbled sounds in their direction.
“What’s going on?” Amaia asked.
Hugo flushed. It had been going on for weeks. They were imitating him and the Chinese boy in their class, the way Hugo called out to Amaia, the way the Chinese boy’s mother greeted him at after-school pickup. Amaia, ten years old, rolled her shoulders back, ready.
“Don’t,” said Hugo, tugging her arm. She would make it worse.
“Fine,” she said. “English only out here.”
Was that how they lost their Spanish? Or did it fade naturally as they went to middle school, then high school, and stopped being friends, as Hugo decided he was cooler than his sister, who was dreamy and preoccupied by things that bored him? Cloud formations, leaves changing color, mayfly larvae wriggling in the water. She was always outside. She must have loved bugs even when they were young, but it’s not like she had an ant farm or crawled around the baseball field following grasshoppers with a magnifying glass—thank God. Amaia was weird, but she wasn’t usually embarrassing, had at least been an unassuming dork and not drawn attention to herself and, by extension, to Hugo. Hugo was a grade below her, but he was on the baseball team of their high school, treasurer of the Future Business Leaders, attendee of school dances—an actual teenager, in other words. The normal one.
She went off to college and the silence swelled between them, bloating and expanding over the years.
And at the end of Amaia’s senior year it was Hugo who got invited to the graduation party thrown by a teammate of his. Seth hadn’t realized Hugo even had a sister—a senior too? Really, yeah, bring her along. They went to the party. Hugo wondered about filial code when he noticed Seth’s hand on Amaia’s arm, the way he stood too close and looked at her like food. Amaia was tough. She didn’t need her brother, her little brother, to defend her. Hugo gave himself over to the beer and the music and didn’t see his sister again until the sun rose, and they drove home together. She reeked like an ashtray, eyes half-lidded. Was she drunk-tired or something else? Amaia had always been hard to read.
Where did you go? he meant to ask her but didn’t and didn’t, and then the summer ended. She went off to college and the silence swelled between them, bloating and expanding over the years, her calls and visits less and less frequent. She’d come home last—three years ago?—for Hugo’s wedding. Have they spoken since?
He misses their childhood world, misses the feeling of not-aloneness. Sometimes Hugo watches Spanish movies with the subtitles turned off. Even though he doesn’t understand, the rhythm of the words is soothing and familiar and takes him back to their language, private and magical, as it had been when they were very small and still told each other secrets.
“We’re an ideal match,” the Professor said once. Later, often, “Working with you feels so good. We have a perfect rhythm.” She would phrase it differently, but he isn’t wrong. For all that he is pioneering and chaotic in his thinking, it is Amaia who knows how to make his ideas matter outside his mind, Amaia who understands the forest, the beetles.
“Our adversaries,” the Professor calls them as he watches male beetles mount other males, watches females dig their egg galleries, then leave instead of staying to lay. Tiny insect brains buzzing with sounds that overwhelm their own thoughts and drive them to irrationality. “Poor fools,” he says, and his smile looks menacing.
Amaia does not feel bad for the beetles. She does not assign them human emotions to be pitied. Knowing how to manipulate their behavior makes her feel closer to them—they might not recognize the kinship, but their minds are bound to hers. Amaia listens for hours to the stirs and groans, wet squeals like reeds rubbing together in a fierce wind. We’ll sing you to your deaths, she thinks as she presses play on the device in the lab, and it is a calm thought, a peaceful one. They skitter in maddened circles, she takes notes, and she loves them. It’s okay, you’re okay, she wants to tell them, the hum of her lie buzzing in the back of her throat. What girl hasn’t heard that lie?
Though he finds her actual presence draining, not knowing what Amaia is up to makes Hugo feel unmoored. He wonders about her and googles her name. Here, an academic paper. Only the abstract is free from the paywall, but what does it matter, even that he can barely understand. He finds a video of her teaching a class, nothing official, a student has propped their phone at an odd angle in a dim lecture hall, and his sister is a terra-cotta shadow haloed by institutional yellow light, her voice distant and tinny in the recording. Next the search reveals a flyer for a talk at a library, her expression in her headshot familiar, somewhere between irritation and surprise, and beside her is a close-up photo of a beetle. Spindly, hairy legs tucked under a squat body. Hideous.
The baby arrives—Fiorenza, little Fifi. Hugo looks at his newly birthed daughter with her splotchy red skin and gnarled limbs and thinks she looks like an alien life form. Estelle’s mother comes to stay with them, and three weeks later, instead of her mother returning home alone, Estelle packs a suitcase, a duffel of baby gear, the Pack ’n Play. “I need some space,” she says. Does she expect an argument from him? He does not protest. His wife and baby go.
He says nothing to the other woman about his floundering marriage, tells her instead about his sister. He speaks as though he knows what Amaia is up to because they are close, not because he found her teaching schedule and syllabus online. The woman says he’s lucky to have such a great relationship, and Hugo plays along. Imagines a world in which he and Amaia are still best friends, as they were in grade school, as they haven’t been in decades. He imagines himself a better man. He pushes away the moment—itching like fiberglass beneath his skin where it is buried—when he could have protected her and didn’t. He’d been a kid, sure, but he had known better, and what is he now? Failed brother, failed father, adulterer.
She is not afraid of the dark, which seems like hubris rather than bravery. She will tell her brother what happened. They will run away, pillowcases of toys and snacks. No, they are too old for that. They will hide in crevices below the tree bark, the beetles will welcome them into their colony. I was in the pines, she will tell her brother. I was in the woods. Come back for me.
Amaia is not out in the woods with the class that mid-October weekend when the girl makes the complaint. The girl—bold, smart—does not go to the university first, she goes to the police. The police dismiss her, there is not enough evidence for a criminal complaint, but their involvement rattles the university administration, lends credence and severity to their existing file, recalls to memory the one splashy incident now a decade old and quickly, quietly resolved. The girl has set off a chain reaction of bureaucratic processes that cannot be ignored.
Her participation is not mandatory but strongly encouraged.
There is a flurry of emergency department meetings, emails from the university’s Title IX office. They are particularly interested in talking to Amaia, who is, after all, the female colleague the Professor works closest with. She has yet to respond. She has been invited to give a lecture at CU Boulder. Besides, she herself has no evidence, she reasons, no personal experience to support the murmurings—a little too close, a brush of a limb in a crowded room, a palm to the low back as a girl in a white coat leans over a microscope. Amaia has nothing to add, nothing to say. She has a lecture in Colorado. She won’t be around.
Her phone rings, startling her. It’s her brother. She lets it go to voicemail, then checks the message immediately, eager, she realizes, to hear his voice—words slow and measured, as though he is selecting them so carefully even though he isn’t saying anything profound. He has always spoken like this. She listens to it twice and hangs on every syllable. She calls him back.
“Come for Thanksgiving,” he says.
“I’m giving a lecture.”
“Right now? On Thanksgiving? What are you saying?”
What is she saying? The Title IX office has emailed back, suggesting meeting times for after her lecture, when she returns to campus. Her participation is not mandatory but strongly encouraged.
“Come for Thanksgiving, please,” Hugo says.
“Good. I’m glad. It’s been—it will be good to see you.”
“I’ll be coming from Colorado.”
“Did you move?”
“No, the lecture.”
“I’ll pick you up from the airport.”
She wishes he wouldn’t. She can take a cab. Don’t be ridiculous, he tells her, they can catch up on the drive home. Catch up on what? she thinks. What is left to say?
The phone is still in her hand—she is going home, she is running away, she is going home—when the Professor comes into her office with a USB.
“Our latest recording. From inside a sugar pine.”
Amaia is a logical person, he knows this, but now he reminds her of it anyway. One error in judgement a long time ago does not prove another, he says. They are lucky to work with young minds, even if the young minds are excitable.
“Anyway,” he tells her, nudging the USB across the desk, “if you close your eyes, you’re inside the tree. They’re all over you.”
He is not a bad man. Who are the bad men? He places his palms on the desk and leans forward, waits for her to accept his gift, to remember the wonder of their work. The science—the science surely more important than these tiresome misunderstandings, these petty human feelings.
“Thank you,” she says. “I’ll listen on the plane.”
“I have a lecture. Then I’m going east, to see my family. I’ll be gone through the holidays. Until the start of next semester.”
“Oh,” he says.
His wistful expression hardens, he looks directly at her, the milky-blue of his eyes savage and knowing. He sees her, he sees something. His lip curls, and she shudders.
“A coincidence,” she whispers.
“Too bad.” He steps back. “I would have appreciated a friendly face around here.”
It makes no difference. The interview is short.
The team from the Title IX office will make this quick, they know she is heading out of town. Amaia, a scientist who can only speak from evidence, flips through her catalogue of memories. She brushes aside the unsettled feelings to find the facts—a space, always a space between them, pulsing and menacing but there. He has never so much as helped her shrug off her pack of equipment. Should she read malicious intent in his exaggerated caution? Has he made her an accomplice by design?
It makes no difference. The interview is short. Their questions are carefully phrased such that she must answer, “No, he never laid a hand on me.”
Hugo’s adolescence was marked by begging his older sister to get her license so she could drive them places, by cursing her for never going to parties or talking late on the phone and therefore giving their parents unrealistic expectations for teenaged behavior. She ruined everything. Then, to his shock and delight, on Amaia’s eighteenth birthday she agreed to buy him a pack of cigarettes. School was out by then, and they’d spent the first few weeks of the summer roving silently around the house, orbiting one another like lost asteroids looking for a gravitational center. She called him an idiot when she got back from the gas station with the Reds, but he caught the spark in her eyes, saw the shock of freedom—eighteen!—blistering through her. He gave her one, lit it for her like a cowboy gentleman, like he was old and wise and she his protégé. He expected her to cough and sputter, but when she let out only a modest choking noise he remembered the party, the wordless drive home, their windows rolled down because a heavy tobacco smell wafted from her clothes and hair. At the back door to the house, she had stopped.
“Go inside and get my bathrobe,” she’d said.
He tiptoed through the house and unhooked the robe from the back of her bedroom door. He handed it over, then turned around, turning back only to watch her stuff her clothes into the next-door neighbor’s trash can.
“Mom will kill us if she smells this,” she’d said.
Now, sitting next to one another on the curb, not the first cigarette for either of them, Amaia twisted her wrist around so she could contemplate the smoky tip before she brought it to her mouth again, and Hugo thought it was the only time she had ever looked cool. Smoking together became their thing until the end of the summer. They kept old sweatshirts and a bottle of mouthwash in a plastic bag outside, but when Amaia went off to college Hugo threw everything away without finishing their last pack.
She knows the girl’s name—of course she does, it is right there on her roster from last semester—but she does not say it aloud. She rolls the name over in her mind. Her tongue warbles silently in her mouth. A second language builds neurons, strengthens memory—what does a second name do? What will this girl’s name do to her?
The beetles are marching east. Scuttling, flying, in a swooping flurry of wings they are crossing the continent—Manifest Destiny! To the ocean! The winters are no longer cold enough to keep them back. As the beetles move east, so too does Amaia. They are looking for new territory; she is retreating. From what? The trouble at her university is no worse than anywhere else—young girls away from home, men with so much wisdom to offer, new worlds to reveal, like lifting a rock from the forest floor to find the millipedes and earthworms writhing beneath it.
As she sits at the gate waiting for her flight to board, she puts her headphones on and closes her eyes to listen to the audio recording. Clicking and scurrying, a recording done with specialized equipment inside a tree—a beetle colony chomping beneath the bark, pitch bubbling up and out as the tree fights for its life and loses, loses. She is listening to an execution.
On the airplane she listens again to the rub and grind of insect legs, her whole world reduced to the groan of the fibrous protein matrix of thousands of exoskeletons. None of her students or the other faculty approached her about the Professor before she left. Do they assume her to be knowing and complicit? Another victim? Or have they merely forgotten about her—small woman, boyish haircut, always off in the woods, what was her name again? She slipped away unnoticed as she has been training herself to do since high school, as she slipped away from her family, her brother. Her parents have visited her out West, have met her places—Canada, Minnesota, Florida—where she has lectures or conferences, and so they have not seemed to notice how long she has been away. It does not occur to them that their children no longer speak. Their memories of a little girl and a little boy, inseparable, are vivid enough to obscure the distance between their adult children. And now she is going home.
Hugo runs into Seth at the CVS not long after the baby is born and is surprised by how easily he recognizes the soft, middle-aged shape of this guy he hasn’t seen since high school.
“Hey, man, it’s been a while. How are things?” Seth asks.
He’s a new dad, Hugo says.
“That’s awesome, congratulations. Have any pictures?”
Hugo doesn’t want this man to look at his daughter, but he holds up his phone with the lock screen photo of Fifi.
“Beautiful. Congratulations. And how’s your sister doing? How’s Amanda?”
Hugo does not correct him. His sister is doing great. She’s happy. Successful.
“Cool,” says Seth. “She was cool.”
Hugo is so flustered he drops the box of condoms he’s been holding. Seth smirks.
“Glad you’re getting back in the saddle after the whole . . . ” He makes an obscene gesture meant to signify birth.
Hugo’s face heats up, and he races from the store. This is when he calls Amaia to invite her for Thanksgiving. He needs to see her. When she calls back, he pulls over to talk, hopes he doesn’t sound desperate, and when they hang up, he sits on the side of the road with his head on the steering wheel until a white-haired woman in a pastel ski jacket taps the passenger-side window to ask him if he’s okay.
She texted an arrival time two hours after her actual arrival, in hopes of sneaking into a cab, of appearing at the door of his house—Surprise!—but Hugo is right there when she exits the terminal.
“Arrival times are on the website,” he says, reaching for the strap of the messenger bag hanging at her side. “You shouldn’t have given me the flight number if you were trying to be sneaky.”
She leans away but lets him unhook the bag from her shoulder. At baggage claim, she points to her suitcase, and he heaves it off the conveyor belt and drags it out to the garage where his car is parked. He asks her about her flight and then goes silent. A relief at first, but then she is concerned. Not all silence is peaceful. Maybe it’s better to hear what’s coming.
Her beetles are not the lone culprits in the tree deaths, only the loudest. Inside their little jaws, creeping silent and inky, is blue stain fungus, which weakens the trees—chokes them, holds them back so they cannot fight. No matter how many times she plays the recording, the fungus makes no sound. The hidden accomplice. Mute and fatal. It’s not like her brother to be so quiet. Not the brother she knew, but what can she know? All these years. She should have called. She watches her brother watch the road. What kind of coward runs?
Their parents are due back from a road trip to Montreal tomorrow, so it’s just the two of them tonight. Amaia will be the first to see that Estelle is gone, the first to hear his confession of his marriage dissolving, and Hugo is not ready yet.
“Want to get a drink?” he asks her as they approach the city’s modest skyline.
By way of agreement, she points to the exit for downtown, the deserted streets ice slick and gleaming in the streetlights. They park in front of the only place open late the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Amaia sips daintily at a glass of wine, and Hugo gets halfway through his Jack and Coke before he speaks.
“Here’s the latest.” He slides his phone across the bar with a picture of him holding the baby. “Look how much hair she has. Mom says she looks just like you at this age.”
Amaia considers the photo. “You look worried,” she says.
“It’s natural to be nervous. It’s a big responsibility. Helpless human life and all.”
“And you’re happy about it?”
“I love my daughter.”
“Of course you do. You can love someone and not be happy about it.”
“What about you?” Hugo asks, rattled and deflecting. “You used to say you wanted to be a mom one day. How’s your love life?”
He is being mean, but Amaia, patient older sister, ignores it.
“When did I say that?” she asks.
“When we were kids.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, clock is ticking.” He speaks to the glass in his hand, not to her, but he can see her posture stiffen in his peripheral vision. The casual cruelty, he cannot help himself.
“It’s true,” she says. “Women don’t have time.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“You’re not wrong,” she says softly.
Why is she always so forgiving?
“They say it can take men awhile,” she says.
“To feel the way you think you should about the baby. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried, Amaia. I’m tired.”
“Of course. Of course you are. Why don’t we head back so I can meet my niece?”
“She’s gone. Estelle is gone.”
“For the weekend?”
“I know you never liked her.”
“Fine, you two don’t get along.”
The look of genuine surprise on his sister’s face—it’s just like high school. Jokes at her expense, the occasional innuendo that slipped by her, leaving Hugo irritated with her for being clueless. For making herself a target. Amaia is smart, but her blind spots shock him.
“She and Fifi are at her parents’ for the holiday. I don’t know if she’ll come back. I haven’t told Mom and Dad.”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
He knocks back the rest of his drink. “Let’s go,” he says.
Amaia pushes her mostly full glass away from her and takes the keys from his hands.
When they come to the tiny parking cutout next to Spicebush Swamp, he asks her to pull over. Some fresh air would be nice. They can stretch their legs. Amaia obliges, opens the trunk to take snow boots from her bag and pulls a small, bright flashlight from a zippered pocket.
“Really?” he says. “You packed a flashlight?”
“I have a Swiss Army Knife and waterproof matches too,” she says.
Wilderness ready, always. They walk around the pond and over the wooden bridge, veering left off the trail and into the unkempt, snow-covered space that was, in other seasons, an unkempt, weed-filled clearing. Icy, wet mud creeps up Hugo’s jeans. They march to the center of the clearing and stop.
Invisible to their left, through the skeletal branches of the leafless trees, are houses, one where Seth used to live. He watches his sister for signs of recognition. What is he doing, why has he brought her here? But she is not looking toward the houses, she is looking up. Above them, instead of stars, is the ash-colored smear of the night clouds.
Always in the forest she wears long-sleeved shirts, even in the heat of summer, because the sensation of leaves grazing her arms unnerves her. Fingers brushing her cheek, a hand without a body tucking her hair behind her ear. Hush, says the shadowing space where a mouth would be. Hush. Trust me.
There is no danger of forgetting her layers now, in the clawed cold of this November night. Why has her brother dragged them out here? He probably doesn’t remember the last time they were in this clearing. She shivers despite her down jacket. They should not be here. Her brother has so much on his mind. She should get him out of this place, away from its hauntedness.
The night of the party, he remembers Seth returning and returning to Amaia’s side. He watched him offer her a drink. She held up her palm, no, she had a bottle of water. Hugo could practically hear the click-snap of the plastic seal breaking—see, his sister was savvier than he gave her credit for. He saw Seth touch her hair, rub the hem of her T-shirt between two fingers, hover his palm over her low back as he guided her toward the back door. Hugo followed, on his way to the cooler in the kitchen anyway, looked out the window to where they stood at the edge of the patio, the glow of a cigarette in Seth’s hand, a coil of smoke barely visible in the dark as the lapis shadow of Amaia’s body leaned forward to try a drag. Hugo opened a beer. He flirted with Stacy Lyman, flirted with Kerri Gardner. He peered out back again but they were gone. They must have come inside. Alexis Lopez winked at him, and he forgot about Amaia.
Close to dawn, the party poured out into the woods behind the house, to the clearing of tangled grass. They were muted and wasted, speckling the ground with their loose limbs to watch the light well upward through the trees like spilled watercolors, their sweat mingling with the dew on the grass. High school was over for many of them, everything was about to change, and there was Amaia.
Had she come out with them or had she been there already? Hugo picked a twig from her hair.
“Hey,” she said, voice raspy with smoke.
“Where were you?”
“Party’s over,” she said. “Let’s go.”
It is the spare room in Hugo’s house, but for a moment she is in her childhood bedroom. The shelves are filled with her old books. Field guides, Baby-Sitters Club, Cam Jansen and Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.
“What’s all this?” she asks.
“Our parents were getting rid of stuff when they downsized. They said they asked you, and you told them to throw it out, but I couldn’t let them. So I packed up your room and moved it here.”
“We were close when we were little,” Amaia says.
Next to the real books is the Choose Your Own Adventure–style pamphlet they made together in elementary school. She remembers laying out plot points on the floor, taking over the living room with scrap paper and string while their parents were at work. She flips through her Peterson’s Guide to Birds of North America and finds a scrap of paper with a sketch of a tufted titmouse and a note from Hugo: To the awesomest big sister.
“We were close when we were little,” Amaia says.
What happened, she doesn’t ask, though she can see his mouth open to answer.
“Sorry,” she says. “I only meant, thank you. For saving all this. It didn’t seem important when they asked me, but I’m glad it’s not gone.”
The desk in the room is piled with Spanish workbooks. She points to them and cocks her head.
“I asked our parents to speak to Fifi in Spanish. Like they used to with us, remember? I want her to have that, what we lost. Anyway, I figured I might as well study up too.”
Amaia gives him a skeptical look.
“What, you don’t miss it?” he asks.
“It’s hard to miss something you’ve forgotten.”
Her brother looks wounded. He expected something different from her. He leaves so she can unpack, and she puts the Peterson’s back on the shelf, yellowing note still tucked inside.
She feels a tightness in her chest, a feeling she remembers from when they were in school, the sense of desperation—quédate. The word returns to her and she wants to call after him. She does not.
He goes out to the backyard and knocks snow from the wooden benches of the picnic table in the middle of the lawn. Amaia follows him and unwinds the crinkling plastic from a fresh pack.
“Jesus, Amaia, still?”
“Not all the time. Just special occasions.”
She winks, but his sister is not a playful person so the gesture looks gruesome. She is trying, though. He shouldn’t have said anything. He is the one who got her started smoking in the first place. Well, him or Seth maybe. That night. He gets up to fish an empty can from the recycling and sticks it into the snow on the table for her to use as an ashtray. She holds the pack out to him, but he declines.
“Never in the field,” she says. “Forest fires and all. And never in front of my students.”
What does she do, though, besides teach and do fieldwork? He wishes she would stop explaining herself to him. She owes him nothing. He owes her. But she counters, parries, she won’t let him make it up to her. He watches the weak white of his breath hover in the air and the cumulonimbus of hers roll skyward.
“I’m sorry about Seth,” he says.
Does she hesitate, or do her movements hitch because of the cold? “Who?” she asks.
“My friend. The one who—he had that party.” Hugo stares at his hands, clenched together in his lap.
“I thought your friend’s name was Dustin.”
“I had more than one friend.”
“The only name I remember is Dustin.”
He wants to shake her, but he cannot even look at her. “Dustin was a grade below me.”
“Didn’t he like to draw?”
“That was Brad.”
He turns his head enough to see that she is not looking at him either, she is staring at the cigarette between her fingers.
“I could never tell your friends apart,” she says.
Amaia does not usually remember her dreams, but images flash in her mind that cannot be memories, no, that never happened. She was never walking through a fog-laced forest just before dawn—were they pines or oaks, the trees that were never there? Never stubbed her toe on a lichen-crusted rock. Never a hand brushing the side of her neck. Never held her breath and watched leaves quiver above her. Works of imagination—dreams, they must be dreams, but she is awake, awake, awake.
Someone is singing—not someone but someones, the beetles, a colony clicking and groaning. Someone follows her into the pine stand, face streaked fungus blue, not a person, a shadow, wavering shades of darkness in the moonlight. Amaia! Amaia! she hears her brother call. He looked for her once. The night shivers and folds its arms around her. He will look for her again. He will keep looking