KR OnlineFiction

Pillars of Creation

The Wright house is pretty much at the end of civilization. So it makes sense that the place is basically a fortress. Three stories of stone blocks fit together snug. Lead veins each small window. An actual turret stands in silhouette against the winter sky. Sturdy columns protect a detached garage that’s bigger than our entire rental in Austin. Clark says the compound is an architectural gem that the Wrights scooped up for a song. If you ask me, no one deserves praise for pouncing on a foreclosed property in a depressed market. And the view from the porch leaves a lot to be desired. Across the street is a snowmelt lake in a muddy field. A train whistle frightens the waterfowl drifting atop the placid surface, and the whole flock takes to the air, flying through a white goal post. Only then do I recognize where I used to play soccer as a child.

I ring the doorbell while Clark is still fishing around for the holly plant in the backseat. A totally unnecessary gift, but I didn’t protest when he pulled into the Kroger parking lot. We’d already gotten into it over Pillars of Creation. Clark insisted on taking me to the company’s newest construction site, and even though he’d spent his afternoon there, he still got lost trying to find the place again. Clark attended the Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning Program at the University of Cincinnati, so he’s not completely at sea. But I’m the one who grew up here. I kept reminding him of this fact as the GPS led us across one overpass after another. When we finally pulled up to an earthen pit flanked by two enormous excavators, we were so far behind schedule there wasn’t even time for me to get out of the car.

Not that I’m in a hurry to get to this party. We should be at the hotel Clark booked, wearing complimentary robes and watching Trading Spouses. We normally spend the holiday sleeping on the shag carpet in my parents’ living room, so the suite was a welcome surprise. A splurge, Clark said, for our babymoon. I’m only six weeks pregnant, too early to share the good news, but far enough along to gorge on room-service fries and cable. At least that was the plan before Evan Wright started dragging Clark on tours of the Pillars of Creation sites. Some completed, like the luxury lofts forged from a turn-of-the-century hotel, or the brewery that took over the old YMCA. Others, like the riverfront boulevard and the upgraded School for the Creative and Performing Arts, still in progress. And then there’s the dirt pit formerly known as Washington Square Park. But now, Clark promised, we only have this party to get through. After that we can hole up in our suite and forget the Midwest winter, where romance goes to die.

• •

I can’t tell if the woman who answers the door is Evan’s wife. Fit was the first word Clark used to describe Hana. Then intelligent. Then well-spoken. But he never said anything about her being Asian.

“Sorry to keep you in suspense.” Clark reaches around me to present the holly plant.

The woman says, “You had us on the edge of our seats.”

“Driving in this wintery mix,” I say. “It’s a total death trap.”

Our hostess laughs a little too loudly and I scoot past her into the foyer. An arched doorway frames the living room, where I see Evan Wright standing next to the wall, tracing a seam of silver mesh in the plaster. Crammed on the beige sofa are two other couples nodding along while he waxes poetic about the virtues of galvanized metal lath.

Before I can take a step into the actual house, the hostess throws out her arm to bar the way. “Shoes,” she chirps.

Clark puts his hand around my elbow, and I look down to find him standing in his socks.

“Fuck me running.” I hurry to unlace my heeled boots. “Sorry, Hana.”

“Hah-nah,” corrects Clark.

“Shit, my bad.”

Hana smiles. “Most people get it wrong the first time.” She reaches to steady me as I balance on one bare foot, and Clark lets go of my arm. By the time I add my kicks to the pile beside the door, he’s joined the group admiring our host.

Evan has moved to the brick hearth. From his new perch, he explains why his estate was built outside of the downtown river valley. He’s in the middle of detailing the 1918 pandemic of Spanish flu when, from somewhere deep in the house, comes the tremulous wail of an infant.

Evan glances at Hana and then goes on with his story. She pivots, hurrying down the hall, past a long dining table with a tall metal pole as the centerpiece, and through a swinging door that opens to the kitchen. For a minute, I listen to Evan go on about how this particular strain of influenza was so severe that many survivors had to relearn how to walk. Then I follow Hana to the kitchen. One of the men on the sofa shouts after me to bring the six-pack of home-brew beer in the fridge when I come back.

It’s warmer in the kitchen, a narrow room lined with open shelving that reaches to the ceiling. The marble countertops are black, a nice contrast to the cream-colored SMEG fridge and Heartland stove. The shelves are filled with hand-carved cutting boards of oiled teak. Hand-thrown platters and plates. Hand-blown carafes and goblets. Everything is arranged by color and texture and size. All except the lone Mason jar on the counter, which I decide to use as a water glass.

With the kitchen this tricked out, I can only imagine how much the rest of this reno is costing the Wrights. Clark will never earn that kind of dough with a PhD in landscape architecture, but I can hear him discussing home improvement with Evan in the other room. Assessing wood varietals. Bandying about tools. Knee-deep in their favorite subject, the last five years slip away and they’re college roommates again. With the same loose black curls and close-trimmed beards, a person might even mistake them for brothers. But naked, Evan looks nothing like my fiancé. Clark’s body is thick with muscle where Evan is all bone. When we spooned, I was always the tree to Evan’s vine. The ridge of his spine pressing against my stomach. My hand resting in the hollow where his ribs come together.

“We have real glasses,” says a voice behind me.

Hana is standing in the doorway with an infant cradled in the crook of her arm. I set the jar beside the farmhouse sink and turn to the shelf I just examined. Ceramic crocks, stoneware bowls, more Mason jars. I look to Hana for guidance, but she’s occupied with a large aluminum pan. After she tries and fails to peel back the foil one-handed, I offer to take the baby from her. “We won’t run off together,” I add when she hesitates. “Promise.”

Hana relents, and I’m just getting a good grip when one of the baby’s kicking legs sends the Mason jar flying. It lands on the wood floor with a thud but doesn’t break.

“Fuck me,” I say.

Hana shoots me some serious side-eye then stoops to mop the spilled water. “You don’t have kids, do you?”

“Someday,” I say, adjusting the baby in my arms. “Maybe.”

Hana stands and realigns her suede button-front skirt. “Which is it?”

“We haven’t quite penciled it in,” I lie. No way am I jinxing my pregnancy by telling Hana Wright.

“You can’t always plan these things.” Hana takes out a stack of linen napkins and begins folding them in elaborate shapes. “I only met Evan on New Year’s Eve. And Madison arrived in September.”

“You conceived on the night you met?”

Hana smiles without looking up from her napkin origami. “We think so.”

“So you’re telling me that Evan’s basically Attila the Hun. I mean, he didn’t miss either,” I add after Hana frowns at me in confusion. “Like one in every two hundred people is his direct descendent.”

“My husband’s not that much of a stud.”

“As far as you know.”

Hana holds up a napkin folded into a flower. Then a crane. Then a boat. Madison delights in each equally. “Evan and I tell each other everything.”

“Maybe he doesn’t know either.”

“I guess we all take that risk when we meet someone. Unless we stick with our high school sweetheart.” Hana dumps a drawer of silverware on the counter. “But then you’d be the one married to Evan.”

“We didn’t date in high school.” I squeeze Madison until she whimpers. “That came later.”

Madison’s mewling escalates into a full-blow wail. Her mother rushes over, making shh sounds.

“She’s fine,” I say, which is true. As fast as the crying started, it’s stopped.

Hana spends a moment fussing with the tiny shearling slippers encasing her daughter’s feet. Then she goes back to separating forks from knives. “So, you actually worry that your guy has a kid who might show up some day.”

“Clark’s way too careful for that.”

Hana cocks an eyebrow. “Evan isn’t?”

I look at her for a moment. Then I jiggle Madison until I make the baby scree with delight.

• •

The oak dining table has benches spanning both sides and a Shaker chair positioned at each end. The party is supposed to be Festivus themed. But the only nod to the sitcom holiday is the metal pole, polished and gleaming beneath the illumination of a chandelier fashioned from antlers. Everyone has a ramekin filled with lime wedges, a terracotta tortilla warmer, a place marked with a nametag atop a tiny succulent. Straddling the threshold between the kitchen and the dining room, Hana passes out platters heaped with fajita fillings. She extolls the freshness of Katie’s vegetables and the tenderness of Kat’s beef. The two other wives at the party are both named Katherine. Their bearded husbands are both Scott.

“It’s actually venison.” Kat sits in the chair nearest the kitchen. “Shot and butchered by my guy.”

Her guy, who goes by Scoot, grins, strokes his chinstrap beard. “Yeah, I had a pretty good season.”

I point at the antlers overhead. “So that’s where those came from?”

“Not that good,” Scoot says, and everyone busts out laughing.

“Seed to Sown’s creations are always incredible,” says Hana, now dispensing wine from a decanter. When she bends to serve me, I put a hand over my goblet.

“Keep talking,” says the other Scott. “We need the good publicity.”

Kat sighs. “This again.”

“Sorry Kitty-Kat.” Scott takes another bottle from the six-pack on the table. The hand-drawn label reads Scott’s Scotch Ale. “But it is what it is.”

“They let that chicken sit out for god knows how long.”

“Can’t control what people do in the privacy of their own homes.” Scott runs his fingers through his own beard, which is full and copper-colored.

“Look,” Evan begins. He’s sitting directly across from me. “Even if Seed to Sown did give the Fridhofs salmonella, it’s just a stomachache. No harm, no fowl, right?”

I’m the only one who smiles at his pun. A silence falls over the table. Evan smiles back at me, and I shift so that I can tuck one of my freezing feet under Clark’s thigh.

“I took Mary to see the progress downtown,” says Clark, placing his warm hand over mine while he describes our trip to the Washington Square construction pit. He gives my fingers a squeeze before he jokes about how I refused to get out of the car. “Even a hint of snow is a deal-breaker after three years in Austin.”

“I don’t have to come all the way to Cincinnati if I want to see a mud pit.”

Clark makes an exaggerated shrug. “I told her it has to look worse before it looks better.”

“Actually, there’s quite a bit of archeological interest in the site,” says Hana. “We had to sync up with the Cincinnati Historical Society before we could even break ground.”

“The park was a graveyard,” Evan adds. “Back in the day.”

“That’s why I didn’t want to get out,” I say to Clark. “If I fell in, they wouldn’t know which body was mine.”

“It wasn’t the hole that scared you, honey.” Clark massages the pressure point beneath my thumb. “You wanted to lock the car before we left the hotel garage.”

I pull my hand away from his touch, return my foot to the floor. “Something wrong with not wanting to get robbed?”

“And what about the ghetto Kroger?” Clark uses air quotes to cordon off the word. “Mary wouldn’t get out of the rental when we stopped to buy the holly either.”

“Everyone here knows which store I’m talking about.” I look around the table. “The one by the car dealerships?”

One by one, the Katherines and the Scotts nod. Then Hana jumps in.

“I’ve never heard anyone call it that.”

I smile at her. “That’s because you didn’t grow up here.”

“Actually, I did.”

“Outside the beltway,” Evan puts in.

Hana folds her arms over her chest. “It’s all Cincinnati.”

“Well, in our Cincinnati, people got jumped for their Starter jackets before homeroom,” I say. “Did that ever happen at your high school, Hana?”

Hana returns my smile. Then she asks if anyone is ready for more wine.

“It’s a whole new ball game in Over-the-Rhine these days,” Evan says now. “Private contracts have doubled every year for the last half-decade. And with the push for urban renewal, that number is only going up. In fact, we just won the contract for the security tower at the new school site. They’ll be able to monitor the entire campus.”

“Doesn’t make it any less hood,” I say.

“Plus, the roof is covered with solar panels,” Clark adds. “Which is a fantastic example of environmental engineering.”

“You’re pretty up on this project,” I say. “For someone who doesn’t work for Pillars of Creation.”

Across the table, Evan frowns and shakes his head. He obviously doesn’t like where I’ve taken the conversation. But Clark keeps talking, spilling every company secret he’s learned in the last week. He tells us about how Washington Square Park will have the same solar panels on top of every public restroom. How those panels will generate so much excess electricity they’ll be able to sell it back to the grid. How, in a decade, the venture will actually pay for itself.

“And it’s all thanks to Hana. I don’t know where we’d be without her zoning know-how.” Evan slings an arm around his wife. “She’s basically taken over logistics. Which frees me up to focus on the action at the sites.”

Hana grins. “No one’s easier to work with than Evan.” She cups the back of his head. “The only thing we’ve ever disagreed about is the name of the company.”

“That was before I explained it to you.”

Now Evan launches into a monologue about a star factory in the Eagle Nebula photographed by the Hubble telescope. With her fingers tangled in his hair, Hana contributes to her husband’s story without saying a word. Nodding here. Widening her eyes there. Laughing at all the right moments. I can totally picture them running this routine on every investor and subcontractor and city councilman who comes over for dinner. Evan and Hana Wright as the perfect couple. Destined to improve anything and everything they touch. The sort of people you could trust with taxpayer money. The shtick is so obvious. But no else at the table sees it. The longer the Wrights go on, the deeper everyone falls under their spell.

“I’ve seen that Hubble documentary,” I interrupt. “In fact, I think I was the one who showed it to you, Evan.”

“Maybe.” Evan’s grin doesn’t waver. “It was a long time ago.”

“Maybe you forgot how it ends. This supernova wiped out the nebula. The light hasn’t reached us yet, but what the photographs capture is already long gone.”

“Why let the facts get in the way of a good story? The point is that we take raw materials and give them structure. Just like the nebula.”

“Over-the-Rhine isn’t empty space.”

“But the area doesn’t exactly belong to anyone either. Over-the-Rhine was settled by Germans, then African-Americans—”

“And now white hipsters.”

Clark jumps in. “There are ways to develop responsibly.”

“Thank you, Clark,” Evan says. “Feel free to take point on this as the newest member of our team.”

“And what team is that, exactly?” I ask.

“Nothing’s set in stone,” Clark says, looking at everyone around the table except me. “Evan offered me a spot with the company this afternoon, and it’s looking like Pillars of Creation is the best option for us,” he adds. “Especially now that we’re expecting.”

After that, everyone starts talking at once. The Scotts joke with Clark about holding out for paternity leave, and the Katherines bombard me with information about safe neighborhoods and solid school districts. I smile and say nothing, trying not to let on that I just got blindsided. I’m only a volunteer at the Austin Animal Rescue, so we agreed we’d go wherever opportunity took Clark. But even with the uncertain academic job market, we never discussed the possibility of him working for his old college roommate in Cincinnati.

“It’s a fantastic offer, Evan,” Clark shouts over the din.

“Talent like yours doesn’t come along every day,” Evan shouts back.

“Clark is talented,” I say. “And that’s why we’re waiting on an offer from a university.”

The room goes quiet for a moment. Then Scoot says, “Those who can’t do, teach. Isn’t that what they say?”

“Teaching at this level is a plum gig,” I say. “That’s why it’s so competitive.”

“Mary isn’t wrong,” Clark says. “Opportunities for candidates in my field are slim.”

“I see we’ve come to the Airing of Grievances.” Evan reaches out to flick the metal pole in the middle of the table. “What’s next, Feats of Strength?”

“You aren’t like other candidates,” I remind Clark.

“And most university interviews happen in January. Which is only a few weeks off. We need to be realistic,” he adds, placing his hand on my back. I jump at his touch, banging my knees against the underside of the table, making the silverware rattle on the plates. Everyone is staring at me. A cold sweat dampens my armpits, collects between my legs. Both arms clamped at my sides, I stand up and say something about going to powder my nose. Then I hurry out of the complete and total nightmare that this dinner party has become.

• •

In the half bath, I discover that my underwear is soaked with blood. I fish around under the sink for Hana’s tampons. Then I bury the soiled panties in the trash can and curse the day that Evan Wright fertilized my hostile womb.

I hadn’t heard from Evan in over a month when I took the store-bought pregnancy test. So I decided to take care of the situation on my own. I swallowed one capsule at the clinic and transported the second dose to my apartment. Huddled on the toilet, I stared at Evan’s number in my phone.

We were never official. And Evan never once took me to his place before he ghosted me. But he had called out my name while standing beneath my window, letting everyone on my block know exactly who he was there to see. The whole scenario would give anyone whiplash. Trying to work through it, I didn’t even notice the blood clots plopping in the water. And I was thinking about Evan still when someone began pounding on my front door. Startled, I dropped the second pill, and it rolled under the radiator. I got down on all fours, pressed my cheek to the hexagon tile, and raked my hand through grime. But the pill was gone.

I sat back on my heels, and that’s when I noticed the blood trail. I picked up the spotted bathmat and crawled over the lip of the claw foot tub. I cranked the shower and rinsed the bright red commas from the rug. The crimson tributaries from my thighs. I was toweling off when I heard the pounding start up again, a ruckus bigger than the elderly woman I found at my door. She was cradling the bright shards of a broken taillight. Her own, she explained. She’d backed into a dumpster down the block, and didn’t have insurance. Plus she’d just gotten in from New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina had destroyed everything she owned. She was hoping I could donate some funds to help repair her vehicle. When I told her I’d spent all I had on the pills, the woman turned to leave. But I called for her to stop. “I just want you to know,” I said, “that I’m actually planning to head south to volunteer.”

This was a lie. Although I had always wanted to help people. In college, I was a physical therapy major. I liked learning the names of the body parts I sketched in figure-drawing class. Enjoyed studying how muscle moved in concert with ligaments, tendons, and bones. But then I started shadowing actual practitioners and dealing with real patients. People who ignored instructions. Who gave up at the first setback. Who just didn’t want to get better. So I switched to veterinary science, and found work after graduation at an animal shelter, where I led dogs and cats to the death chamber. Final moments I tried to make pleasant. Rubbing bellies and backs. Rumpling the skin behind ears. Small comfort for animals about to die for no good reason. After two years of that, I was more than ready for whatever new direction the universe saw fit to provide. New Orleans filled the bill.

The old woman pressed my hands between her own and studied me for a long time. Just as I was about to pull away, she took my face in her hands and said, Bless your heart. I shut the door, dropped my towel, and slithered into bed. By morning, I’d bled through the sheets. The mattress. The box spring. Standing over the rusty stain on the floor, I texted Evan and told him I needed money for an abortion. I didn’t even feel bad about it until his letter came in the mail. His vigorous handwriting—the optimistic curve of his r, the confident swoop of his t—made me want to tear up the check. I didn’t, though. I sent him another text to say I got the dough. I also let him know I was going to New Orleans. He hit me back right away. His old college roommate was in charge of something down there, he said. And if I needed the hook-up, he’d be more than happy to facilitate. I didn’t respond.

New Orleans was crawling with volunteers in stiff new work boots and gloves. They smiled brightly when I said I wanted to help, and then stuck me on a building crew. I expected to swing hammers, erect new walls, lay shingles. Instead, I hauled waterlogged furniture out of homes destined for the wrecking ball. At the end of my third day, I texted Evan and asked if he could send me the number of his friend after all.

That evening I met Clark at the gates of an aboveground cemetery in the Ninth Ward. He was playing Frisbee golf with a few other volunteers, slinging discs into the porticos of stone monuments. “I know how this looks.” That was the first thing Clark said to me. Then he told me that he’d been on the job since right after the hurricane hit and that nearly everyone who showed during those first days had long since burned out. Each new recruit required training and paperwork, which was time and energy better spent on actual humanitarian efforts, so he’d devised activities like cemetery “frolf” to let off steam. He was willing to risk offending the dead, he said, to keep the living focused on the work that desperately needed them.

I fell for Clark right there. His straight white teeth flashing in the sun. His powerful arm snapping the small discs high into the air. The way he could motivate people without being insufferable. He was also the first person who listened when I rattled off my qualifications. I was hired to help draw blueprints, and we worked side by side in the headquarters tent, often late into the night.

Clark departed for grad school in Austin at the end of the summer. A month later, I headed to the Texas capital myself. I spent mornings in the dog park and afternoons volunteering at the animal shelter, where I dropped hints about a paid position that would never materialize. Clark let me crash on his couch. Two weeks later, I moved to his bed. By the middle of the fall term, I was late and Clark proposed. We decided on a December ceremony, before my bump popped. But I lost the baby the week before Thanksgiving. When I told Clark the look on his face was pure relief, so I started packing. You’re off the hook now, I shouted, wrestling my suitcase from the closet and then shoving my belongings inside. Nothing to hold back your brilliant career. Clark rescued each item from the overflowing suitcase, carefully folding my crumpled T-shirts and wrinkled shorts before putting them back into his chest of drawers, talking me off the ledge while he worked. We had plenty of time, now, to plan a proper wedding, he said. And there was no reason we couldn’t get pregnant again. UT was a top program, with a stellar record of placing their graduates. He’d have no trouble finding work to support the family, if that’s what I wanted.

I did want to try again. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d made my body inhospitable to life. I visited specialists who told me half-abortions didn’t exist. That the pill I took left no lasting damage. The doctor who’d helped me through my miscarriage offered the same diagnosis. Not all pregnancies took, he told me. And most couples didn’t conceive right away. My cycle might not be regular, but a fertile woman in her twenties had nothing to worry about. We needed to keep at it.

And for the better part of three years, that’s just what we did. Clark trusted the doctors and their assurances. But he wasn’t privy to the whole truth. I never told him about the pill I’d taken back in Cincinnati. So I couldn’t tell him the real reason why conceiving again was so difficult. Not without revealing what Evan Wright had done to me. Planting his seed like a conquering force. Leaving me no choice but to burn down my own city and salt the earth.

• •

There’s shouting when I come out of the bathroom, and everyone is gathered around the brick fireplace. I detour through the dining room and fill a wine glass to the brim. Then I stop at the living room threshold and ask what’s going on.

Scott says, “It’s definitely dead.”

“Or just playing dead,” his wife adds.

“The better to suck your blood!” cries Evan. He lunges at Kat, who shrieks with laughter.

Clark looks at me, his eyes immediately settling on the glass of wine in my hand. I shrug, then smile. There’s a silver lining here. We have no reason to move now. We can afford to go back to Austin and wait for a better option than Pillars of Creation. But Clark doesn’t look relieved as he goes to the bar cart against the wall, leaving my view of the fireplace unobstructed. That’s when I see the bat clinging to the hearth. A furry brown patch just above the floorboards.

“Everything’s under control,” Evan says in a voice that’s a little too loud. The voice I use with terrified animals at the shelter.

“Doesn’t look under control,” I say.

“What species is that?” wonders Scoot, kneeling to bring his face close to the creature.

Scott claps his hands, which sends Scoot scrambling for the safety of the entryway. Laughter ripples through the group. But the bat does not budge.

“You think that’s funny?” Hana calls out. She’s circling the dining table, collecting dirty napkins and stacking abandoned plates. “You should have been here when they came through the walls.”

“A bat colony.” Evan gestures toward one of the holes gouged in the plaster. “Comes with the territory when you buy an old house.”

“Even an architectural gem like this?” I take a generous sip of wine and feel the warmth spread though my chest.

“Pro tip,” Evan says. “Before you tear open a colony, block all the exits except for the one you want the bats to use.”

Hana clatters the plates down on the table, making the Festivus centerpiece wobble and then fall over with a thong that causes both of the Katherines scream. “Or you can just fumigate the whole house and then pay someone to deal with the carcasses.”

“You wanted those bats gone just as much as I did, Hana.”

“I didn’t want them dead.” Hana picks up the Festivus pole and points it at Evan. “That’s the one thing I asked of you.”

“It’s not my fault they couldn’t find their way out. They have radar for god’s sake.”

Hana comes to stand next to me. “Fine,” she says, now pointing the metal pole at the bat. “Then I want you to make sure this one gets a personal escort to a safe place.”

Evan laughs. “A single bat doesn’t stand a chance on its own.”

“It’s still a living thing,” I remind everyone.

“Didn’t you say it’s your job to gas animals?” Scott says.

“It’s a no-kill shelter. Austin is civilized.”

“Nothing about Texas is civilized,” Evan adds.

“It’s less segregated than Cincinnati. Tell them, Clark.”

But Clark is shaking his head. “It’s like we were talking about the other day,” he says to Evan. “Every city has its faults, but Cincinnati is the kind of place where you can actually raise a family.”

He goes on, talking about how almost every neighborhood in Cincinnati is affordable. Safe. Quiet. You can let your kids run down the block for Bomb Pops. Walk to tennis lessons at the swim club. And there are no tech vultures blotting out the sun with high-rises. I want to interrupt, to shout that none of this is set in stone. But I’m suddenly so cold that I have to clamp my teeth together to keep them from chattering. I fold my arms over my chest and hunch my shoulders. Which does nothing to stop the chill running up my arms and down my legs. My feet feel like cement blocks. Clark keeps going, egged on by Evan. And hearing them together, I finally get what should have been obvious from the beginning. Evan didn’t seek out my fiancé. Clark asked for the job. I can practically hear the pitch he used on his old roommate. After all, I was sitting right next to him when he Googled Pillars of Creation. Listening to him go on about living architecture and biodiversity enhancement. Agreeing when he claimed that holistic approaches to urban development were the future. I did all of this without a thought to what Clark was really after. The plan he probably set in motion well before we actually got pregnant again. And now, even though we’ve lost this baby, too, he is going to see it through to the end.

Clark and Evan are still singing Cincinnati’s praises when the bat suddenly takes to the air. The Katherines scream, and the Scotts shield them with their stout bodies. The bat swoops from the mantel to the wall and back, searching for a way out.

Evan grabs the Festivus pole from Hana. The end knocks against my wine glass and it slips from my fingers, shattering on the hardwood. Evan doesn’t even look back. He stalks across the room, hands choked up on the pole like a baseball bat. “Don’t you dare,” Hana hisses in the moment before he swings.

The bat smacks the wall and falls to the sofa. Everyone freezes, waiting to see if it will take flight again.

“Are you proud of yourself, Evan?”

“That thing was a menace.” Evan pokes at the bat with the pole. “It could have flown into the nursery and bitten Madison.”

“Bullshit,” says Hana, crouching to pluck pieces of broken glass from around my feet.

I stare down at the straight white line parting her dark tresses. The layer of powder dusting her nose. The rosy port-wine stain birthmark peeking out from her neckline. This whole time, I thought we were different. That she had something on me. That she ended up with Evan for a reason. That she was the one he chose. But there’s nothing special about Hana. The only difference between us is that I didn’t have Evan’s baby. If I had, I’d be the one married to him now. The one living in a bat-infested house in a godforsaken part of a godforsaken city.

I put my hand on Hana’s slight shoulder. She tilts her face up at me, smiles. Then comes the sound of the baby’s keening. Hana looks at her cupped palms full of broken glass, then lifts her head and stares at Evan. He turns away, tossing the pole up in the air, catching it again.

“Let me,” I say.

She nods. “You could use the practice.”

“Absolutely,” I say. I can’t manage to tell Hana what she should be able to see in the wine splattered around my feet. She doesn’t have time for the truth of my situation in the face of a crying baby, a murderous husband, and a slain bat. So I start carefully down the hall, holding my new secret like it’s a glass that might break and flood the house with sorrow.

• •

The nursery is stifling and smells of the spit-up on the blanket draped over the radiator. The corduroy rocking chair is piled with chunky books. The changing table heaped with cloth diapers. Underfoot, toys rattle and squeak. At the far end of the room, there’s a set of curtained French doors. I draw the muslin aside and open them. Cold air rushes in from the mud porch, where heavy coats hang above a jumble of boots. The back door holds a pane of leaded glass that glows with the light of the winter moon.

I pick up the crying baby and press her against my chest, rocking her back and forth. Madison’s screams immediately wane to whimpers. In the soft glow of the nightlight, the baby doesn’t look anything like her mother. She has Evan’s narrow face and nose. His generous mouth. His large eyes. She even has a poster of his Eagle Nebula hung over her crib. Already indoctrinating her with the family myth. But Evan’s company is built on a lie. Let everyone else erect shiny structures atop the bones of what came before. Let them pretend this is as natural as gravity forming the stars out of dust. The ugliness will eventually surface. The pillars will fall.

Madison has stopped crying and is out again. I place her back in the crib and bracket her swaddled body with rolled blankets. This will be the first of many times I watch this baby sleep, once Clark signs on with Evan. And maybe it is the right decision. Maybe a shift in the wind will steer our sails in the right direction again. Like when I headed to New Orleans. Or followed Clark to Austin. A course correction. The future resuming its upward trajectory. In Cincinnati, we can finally make it official. Have a wedding in one of the local parks. Buy in a city where you can still afford a great house on one salary. Build the perfect environment to raise the child we will create if we just keep at it. And since sorrow sweetens joy, we’ll know how lucky we are when we do get pregnant. We certainly won’t bring up the baby in a house that’s total death trap, with windows that leak heat and walls besieged by flying rodents. Our infant will be prized. Protected. Cherished.

From the other room comes a chorus of shouting that wakes Madison. She smacks her toothless gums, then opens her eyes and looks right at me. Her skin is porcelain white in the dim illumination. A single tuft of black down tops her head. The shouting booms again. Another bat. Hopefully this one will make it out, but I doubt it. I don’t need to go back in to know what’s about to happen. To a bat or a child living in this environment.

I pack a bag of diapers and wipes. Throw in onesies and caps, toys and books, the formula in the mini-fridge, and the bottles laid out to dry on top. I cradle Madison against my chest and slip into a pair of Evan’s fleece-lined boots. Button one of his heavy woolen coats over us both. Take the car keys hanging beside the back door. Turn the knob and step out into the frigid air.

We will drive all night. To Austin, maybe. Or New Orleans. Someplace where the warmth is real. If stopped, I’ll tell the police that Madison is mine. That Hana’s the delusional woman who wants to take someone else’s child. See, I’ll say, holding Madison up to the light. She doesn’t even look Asian.

I round the side of the house and open the door of the Subaru Outback parked in the driveway. I buckle Madison into the car seat, cover her with a crocheted blanket. The windshield wipers work against the sleet as we back into the street. We pass the field and I see that the snowmelt lake has iced over. The ducks cannot return. They will have to flock south. Waft away on a draft of arctic air. Navigate the distance with the earth’s magnetic fields. Survey the frozen ground below and wait for the thaw they know will come.

Hillary Stringer
Hillary Stringer lives in Texas with her husband, writer Matthew Davis. She holds a PhD from the University of North Texas, where she was a Toulouse Fellow, and is currently at work on a novel.