Read The Things That Keep Us Here Online

Authors: Carla Buckley

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The Things That Keep Us Here

BOOK: The Things That Keep Us Here
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For my sister, Liese

BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES (BIO)
ACTIVE FUNDING
OPPORTUNITIES
—————
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is urgently seeking research proposals related to the surveillance of avian influenza virus H5N1 among U.S. migratory birds. NSF is expediting solicitation, review, and funding, and will accept abbreviated proposals. Please consult the website for submission guidelines.
National Science Foundation

PROLOGUE

I
T WAS QUIET COMING HOME FROM THE FUNERAL. TOO QUIET
. Ann wished Peter would say something, but there was just the soft patter of rain and the wipers squeaking back and forth across the windshield. Even the radio was mute, reception having sizzled into static miles before.

As they crossed into Ohio, Ann turned around to see why Maddie hadn’t called it, and saw her seven-year-old had fallen asleep, her head tipped back and her lips parted, her book slipped halfway from her grasp. The first hour of their trip had been punctuated by Maddie asking every five minutes, “Mom, what does this spell?” Ann leaned back and teased the opened book from her daughter’s fingers, closed it, and put it on the seat beside Maddie. Kate hunched in the opposite corner, a tangle of brown hair falling over her face and obscuring her features, the twin wires of her iPod coiling past her shoulders and into her lap.

Ann turned back around. “The girls are asleep.” Peter nodded.

“Even Kate. I don’t know how she can possibly sleep with her music going.”

He made no reply.

“Do you know I caught her trying to sneak her iPod into the church? I don’t think giving her that was such a great idea.” When Peter remained silent, she went on. “It’s just one more way for her to tune everyone out.”

He shrugged. “She’s twelve. That’s what twelve-year-olds do.”

“I think it’s more than that, Peter.”

He said nothing, simply glanced into the rearview mirror and flicked on the turn signal, glided the minivan around the slower-moving vehicle in front of them.

It was an old argument, and he wasn’t engaging. Still, there was something else lurking beneath his silence. She read it in his narrow focus on the highway and along the tightness of his jaw. “You all right?” Of course he wasn’t.

“Just tired. It was a long weekend.”

A long, horrible weekend. All those relatives crammed together in that small clapboard house, no air-conditioning, Peter’s mother wandering around, plaintively asking everyone where Jerry was. “I’m glad your brother made it.”

“Yep.”

Not
yes
, or
yeah. Yep
. He never talked like that. He was throwing up warning signs, telling her to back off. But fourteen years of marriage made her plow straight through anyway. “Everything okay between you two?”

“Sure.”

So he wasn’t going to tell her. “Bonni said she saw you and Mike arguing.”

He glanced at her. So handsome her breath snagged for a moment—the strong, tanned planes of his face and the beautiful blue-green of his eyes that Kate had inherited. Now he looked drawn and older than his forty years. He returned his attention to the road. She wanted to cup her hand to his cheek, but he was sending out those keep-away signals.

She crossed her arms. “Mike doesn’t think it was an accident.”

“Mike doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“He has a point, though. It
is
strange your father wasn’t wearing blaze orange.”

“What are you suggesting, Ann? Suicide by hunter? Give me a break.”

She should have, but she couldn’t let it go. The questions piled up inside her, three days’ worth of strangers whispering, three days of Peter’s mother tugging at Ann’s sleeve. “Things have gotten so bad with your mom, Peter. I had no idea. This morning, she told Maddie that her parents must be looking for her and that she’d better run along home. You should have seen the hurt look on Maddie’s face.” Ann shook her head. “It just breaks my heart. We can’t leave her like this.”

“Bonni will check in on her.”

“Checking in’s not enough. She needs round-the-clock care.”

The rain had stopped. A watery sunshine glinted through the clouds. Peter switched off the wipers. “I don’t want to talk about it. Especially with the girls in the car.”

“You mean the girls who are sound asleep?”

“Ann.”

Maybe she
was
pushing too hard. She leaned her forehead against the window and watched a hawk spin circles high above. “You sure you need to go into the field tomorrow? Maybe one of your students can go in your place.”

“I’ve got no choice. Hunters are nervous enough right now without me sending in some twenty-year-old.”

“Because of the bird flu?”

“Exactly.”

“Do you think you’ll find anything?”

He shifted position. “Probably. But it’s not an isolated case that’s a problem.”

“It’s a cluster of cases.”

“Right.”

The hawk grew smaller and smaller, a smudged dot that eventually disappeared, no doubt to perch on a branch somewhere and watch for prey. “I forgot to tell you, things were so rushed Friday, but that interview came through.”

“At Maddie’s school?”

She nodded. “I go in next week to meet with the principal. I keep thinking, what if I don’t get the job? Then I think, what if I do?”

“You’ll be fine.”

“I haven’t worked in, God, twelve years.”

“How hard can it be?”

She flashed him an irritated look, but he was staring straight ahead. “It’s not finger painting and Popsicle sticks, Peter.”

“I just meant I know you can do it.”

“It’s theory and history, too. What if I teach above their heads? What if they’re bored? What if Maddie hates me being her art teacher?”

“There must be some part of you that’s looking forward to it.” Did she want to talk about this? “It’s the whole … thing. I’m not sure I can do it.”

“You mean art in general?”

“Exactly.”

He heaved a sigh. She heard the impatience in it. “It’s been a long time,” he said.

Nine years. An eternity. A blink.

“Maybe you’re ready, Ann.”

“In other words, I
should
be ready.”

He lifted his hands briefly from the steering wheel.
I give up
.

“Whatever.”

The hills undulated by, the woods fiery red and burnt orange. She caught glimpses of barns and houses set high and solitary. She wondered about the people who lived there, if they were lonely.

“It’d be good for you to go back to work,” Peter said. “A fresh start.”

She nodded, distracted. They needed the second income, what with two college tuitions coming up. And everything had gotten so frighteningly expensive, especially gas. It was costing as much to fill up the minivan as it was to take everyone out to dinner and the movies.

“Actually.” He cleared his throat. “We could both use a fresh start.”

She turned to him, worried by the strangeness in his voice.

“Okay.”

“Not okay, Ann. It hasn’t been okay for a long time.”

“What does that mean? What are you talking about?” But she knew. This quiet autumn day had suddenly become strange, queered by intensity and the feeling that something terrible was about to happen.

“I think we need some time apart.”

She stared at his profile, speechless, feeling her heartbeat accelerate. He was suddenly a stranger to her. The seatbelt slid down her arm, she was skewed so sideways. “You don’t mean that.”

“I have to.”

“I thought we were doing okay. Not good but … better.” Maybe this weekend had been the last straw. Was it just his father’s death? Or had he been thinking about this for a while? How could she not have known? How foolish she’d been, taking things for granted, being her clumsy, pushy self. She’d been too harsh about his father’s death. Maybe she should have been kinder, but she’d never really liked the man.

“Dad was sixty-two. Sixty-two.” Peter gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white. “There were so many things he never got to do. So many things he put off. Going to Gettysburg. Seeing the Vietnam Memorial. Finishing that tree house for our girls. I stood there and watched them put his coffin into the ground.” He leaned back and let out a breath. “I don’t want to be that man. I don’t want to live like he did.”

She put her hand on his arm, felt the warmth of his skin. “But … you’re not.”

He shook his head. “I’m just like him, living in suspended animation, watching everything go past.”

“Is this some kind of midlife crisis?”

He glanced at her. “I wish it were, sweetheart.” His eyes were gentle. “Ever since the baby died—”

“Don’t,” she said, hearing her voice sharpen, and took her hand away. She’d never forget walking into the nursery. Seeing William silent and unmoving in his crib.

“We can’t even talk about it.”

“This isn’t talking about it. This is telling me to get over it.” She twisted to look back at the girls, saw that they were still fast asleep. He didn’t want to discuss his mother with them sleeping back there, but it was okay to talk about the one thing they struggled every day to get past? She felt a spark of anger at his indifference. “Which is all you’ve ever done.”

“That’s not fair. You won’t let me in to do anything else. It’s like you slammed all the doors shut and threw away the keys.”

“I’ve tried.”

“I know you have.” There was that horrible kind voice again. “I’ve tried, too. Don’t you think it’s time we both stopped trying, and started loving one another the way we used to?”

She stared at him. “But we can’t,” she said, helpless. “We’re not the same people.” They couldn’t be that man and that woman who fell in love at that insanely crowded party; they couldn’t be that naive twosome who thought finding each other was the hard part. She tried again. “We
do
love each other.”

“I know.”

He sounded so sad. She hated this. Couldn’t he understand she was doing the best she could? Couldn’t he be happy with the way things were now?

He slowed to take the exit toward Columbus. They passed a cluster of gas stations, then a series of strip malls.

“But Thanksgiving’s next week.” A stupid thing to say. Who cared about that? She clenched her fists in her lap. It wasn’t about Thanksgiving. It was deciding whether to go with his mom’s traditional stuffing or her mom’s walnut-apple. It was picking out the Christmas tree, loading the dishwasher, and bringing in the mail. It was waking up in the middle of the night, hearing the person breathing next to you. About knowing you weren’t alone.

“We both need to move on,” he said. “We can’t live like this, two people afraid to be real with one another. I love you. I’ll always love you.” His voice was low but relentless. “I’m just not in love with you anymore.”

She didn’t want to hear this. She sat back and stared numbly through the glass. This was one of those hideous things that happened to other people. The fabric of her life shredded just like that, all the truths she’d clung to now melted into nothing. Everything she was or thought she was, everything she thought they were, had vanished as though they’d never been.

Another house appeared, tucked among the golden trees by the roadside. Someone was there, crouched and working in a garden. A woman. Ann watched as she straightened, lifted a hand to shade her eyes to watch them shoot past, the four of them entombed in a blue minivan and hurtling toward the unknown.

ONE YEAR LATER

 

AVIAN INFLUENZA—
SITUATION IN SOUTH KOREA

—————

Five more people have been hospitalized this morning in Seoul with avian influenza. Early tests confirm it as the same strain that killed two people in Singapore earlier this week. Health officials have been unable to determine how and where these people may have contracted the disease. To date, a total of 670 cases of human avian influenza have been confirmed worldwide, resulting in 328 deaths.

World Health Organization
Epidemic and Pandemic
Alert and Response

ONE

P
ETER HEARD THE LOW MUTTER OF A MOTORBOAT
somewhere out there in the cold fog. He rolled down his truck window and listened. The sound swelled into a grumble, someone evidently headed in to shore. Already? The sun wasn’t even up yet. He fitted his cup into the holder, reached for his toolbox, and climbed out of his truck.

A muffled hiccup as the engine cut off. Water lapped the wooden piles and unsettled the pebbles along the shore. The squeak of fiberglass against rope. Fog rolled back across the water, revealing the frosted grass beneath Peter’s boots, a section of pier stretching before him, patches of dark water, the thin, gray sky. Now he could see the motorboat and the two figures working within it.

One of them looked up as Peter approached. Broad face, small mouth, a curl of pale hair beneath a dark cap. The other man turned and revealed himself to be a younger version of the first, possessing the same mouth and squint but with brown hair instead of white. Father and son. They wore heavy brown camouflage jackets, rubber waders, thick gloves with the fingers snipped off. Peter had met so many people these past few weeks that they more or less merged into one wary, jostling group, but he remembered this pair. He’d examined their chocolate Lab, a big, slow-moving dog with white on his muzzle and tail, and a spreading rash across his ribs. “You again,” the son said. He tossed a rope over a pile and tied a knot. “The vet.”

More university researcher than veterinarian, but Peter didn’t correct him. “Any luck?”

“Not much,” the father replied. “Couldn’t flush any out.”

The son gave the rope a vicious tug. “The ones we did were crappy.”

The father rested his hand on the side of the boat and looked at Peter. “I suppose you want to see for yourself.”

Peter waited. He had no jurisdiction here. The NSF grant paid for lab work and his graduate student, but that was all. Hunters didn’t have to comply with his requests.

The man shrugged. He reached into the center of the boat, lifted out a bundle of feathers, and set it onto the pier. Peter crouched to have a closer look.

Four small ducks, all of them brown-and-cream with a telltale blue patch along the wing. The white crescent around the eye revealed three of them to be male. It was uncommon to find blue-winged teal in Ohio in mid-November. Usually by now they’d taken themselves down the Mississippi to South America or across the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay for the winter.

Their presence here was odd, and so was their appearance. Where were the sleek, domed chests? These birds looked deflated, their wings overlarge for their shrunken torsos. He opened his toolbox. “How were they flying?”

“Low and slow.” The father looped rope over a second pile and pulled the boat up against the pier. “Like they were drunk. Hardly any challenge.”

Teal normally flew fast and erratically. Peter snapped on a pair of gloves, picked up the first teal, and cradled it in his hand.

“Got to be global warming.” The son stepped onto the pier and squatted beside Peter.

“Looks poisoned to me.” The father was watching Peter. “What do you think?”

“Could be,” Peter said.

Botulism would account for the birds’ labored flying. Peter lifted tail feathers to check for signs of diarrhea and found none. He turned to the small tucked head and gently palpated. Here was a worry. Facial edema and, yes, petechial hemorrhage inside the eyelids. He laid the bird down, picked up another male. The edema was more pronounced in this one. He reached for his penlight from the tray of his toolbox. Prying open the duck’s bill and tilting back its head, he shone the beam of light down its throat. Blossoms of red against the pale membrane.

“What?” the father said as Peter put the bird down and reached for another.

The eyes of this one were almost swollen shut. Peter couldn’t imagine how he’d been able to fly at all. The female showed less swelling about her face, but when Peter checked the inside of one eyelid, he saw bright red. These birds had suffered. He ran a gloved finger along the female’s wing. The speckled brown-and-cream feathers were dull, as if they’d lost hope.

“It’s either a viral infection or exposure to an environmental contaminant,” Peter said. “I’ll have to run some tests.”

“That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?” the son said.

True, but he hadn’t thought it would be necessary. Naturally, he’d hoped for the opposite. Peter unscrewed a test tube. He peeled the paper back from a sterile swab.

“We can’t eat them if they’re poisoned,” the father said. “Can we?”

“I’m telling you, Dad—”

“You think everything’s global warming.” The father leaned back and put his hand on the gunwale. “You find anything the other times you been out?”

He was talking to Peter.

“No.” Peter dropped the swab into the test tube and twisted on the lid. No one had, not that he knew of. But it was still early days yet. Duck season was just gearing up.

“Poison.” Turning, the father spat into the water. “We should’ve left them where we found them.”

“Mind showing me where that was?” Peter said.

Father and son exchanged a glance.

Duck hunters were a unique breed, willing to endure freezing temperatures, sleet, snow, and bitter wind, and secretive as hell about their prime hunting spots. These two were worried he was going to steal their spot, though there was no threat of that. He didn’t hunt. Not anymore.

“I need to take water samples.” Peter made his voice mild and nonthreatening, the sound of the professor, not the hunter.

The son scowled at the horizon. The rising sun was beginning to thin the fog and cast a general yellow glow over the marsh. The father busied himself in the boat.

“We don’t find the cause, the whole season could be like this.” Peter indicated the ducks lying on the pier.

A quick glance from the father.

“You try that ointment I recommended?” Peter said. “For Gus?” He hoped he’d remembered the Lab’s name.

The son said, “Yeah. His rash is getting better.”

Peter nodded. “He should be able to get in the water in another week.”

Father and son looked at each other. The father rubbed his chin and then shrugged. “Come on, then. It’s a piss-poor spot, anyway.”

THEY MOTORED THROUGH THE REEDY WATER. PETER SAT IN
the middle, the father at the stern, steering. The son knelt in the prow. Once they were out on open water, the father revved the engine and they bounced across the polished silver surface.

Cold wind buffeted Peter’s hair. Spray whipped across his face. The shoreline opened up on both sides, lined by sycamores and red maples blooming gold and crimson and reflected between sky and water. Spangles of sunlight below, bright sky and a wisp of cloud above. Flapping geese lifted themselves from hiding, sounding mournful echoing honks. It was nice to be out here. Uncomplicated.

The son shouted something to his father, stretched out his arm and pointed. The father yelled something unintelligible back.

Peter turned his head and saw a distant dark shape. Another boat trolling these same hunting grounds. The father made a wide loop, watching the other boat as it chopped past, then opened up and headed north.

After a while the engine shifted into a lower gear, and their boat, turning, cut through the waves, rolling in its own wake. The engine slowed even further, thrummed. Around another curve, and there was the duck blind. Wooden poles rose from the water, their tops shrouded with branches, to form an unlikely tree house in the middle of the lake. The two men had taken care constructing it, weaving the branches in a dense mesh, leaving a space high enough to allow them to slide their boat inside.

They slowly circled the structure.

“See?” the son said. “Nothing.”

Peter unstoppered a tube and leaned over the side to dip it into the icy water.

“How’s it look?” the father said.

“I won’t know anything until I get back to the lab.” But the tea-colored water appeared clean enough. No scum or creeping algae that would indicate bacterial overgrowth, no white froth or oily bubbles that would suggest a chemical spill. Peter pressed the stopper on top, looked around. It was a peaceful, beautiful morning. Despite it, he felt a growing unease. “Where were the ducks when you found them?”

The son turned around in his seat. “Over there.” He pointed to where the shoreline bulged out into the water.

“Waited for two hours,” the father said. “And then those four showed.”

“Let’s take a look,” Peter said.

“It’s all the same lake,” the father said.

“There could be something over there, though, that’s not over here.”

“Like a dead animal?”

Peter shook his head. “Teal don’t feed on carrion, but maybe it’s a localized contamination, someone dumping something where they shouldn’t.” That’d be a welcome sight—a big old rusted barrel sticking out of the water and disrupting the delicate harmony between bird and environment. Even a discarded paint can would do.

The father brought the boat around and sliced through the marshy water.

“Fish look okay,” the son said, staring down into the water. “There’d be floaters otherwise, right?”

“Some things can affect one species and do nothing to another,” Peter answered. “There are plenty of diseases that are fatal to birds that pass right through fish. And vice versa.”

“Where again?” the father said.

“Around there,” the son said. “Careful. Water’s getting shallow.”

The engine dropped to a slow chug. Another tight turn. The engine stuttered, then stopped. All three men stared at the sight before them.

On the clear water, surrounded by golden reeds, bobbed a legion of blue-winged teal, hundreds of them, mottled brown and cream, every one of them silent and turned the wrong way up.

BOOK: The Things That Keep Us Here
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