(i hate this story now, but what
the hell. liz calls it "dirt fudge")
John Williams -=+=- GNP FAQ
An old person i didn't recognize was sitting at the bar when i came in the door of the Tavern, and i sat down one seat away from em. The Tav has a nice homey feel, at least in the daytime and early evening before things get too wild. Real wood walls from days when wood was still cheap enough to build buildings with. Fairly good food that you ordered from people instead of menu screens. The people didn't always get the order quite right, but that was ok. It's a good place to go when i feel lonely or bored and want to feel people around me.
The old person i sat near must have come in for the same reason, because we soon got into a conversation. Ey was a gaunt, pale man with a short stiff beard that was mostly white. Bulky, old-fashioned grey and brown clothing covered a body that looked like it had once been taller and bigger. I couldn't decide if ey was closer to fifty or seventy. Ey spoke kind of slowly, and the bartender would bring us a new round every once in a while.
I learned ey was passing through, driving up north somewhere. Ey was taking eir time and had stopped driving for the day. I told em what little there was to tell about the local area, and gradually ey took over most of the talking while i sipped my beer and listened. I had asked about where ey was heading. I don't remember now if ey ever mentioned the name of a town, but i gathered it was somewhere up on the Peninsula in Old Washington. Ey mostly talked about some relatives who had had some property there.
"Miles of green trees in every direction -- it was a beautiful place. Still is, some. Part of the land nearby got turned into a protected forest at some point so there's still lots of trees around. My uncle never sold the ones on eir lot so it's still got a lot of trees too, but they're all getting a little yellow and sickly now. The weather changes and pollution i guess. It's all grown up with buildings and people now; wish the no-growth laws had gone in earlier.
"When i was a kid i used to go up there in the summer and visit with my cousin Anastasia and my Uncle Alan. Well, actually they weren't blood relatives to us -- Alan had been married to one of my dads' half-sisters for a while e...our family's all tangled and complicated. Anyway, my parents got to know Alan better while Anastasia -- Ana -- was growing up, and i would sometimes go visit them and some other nearby relatives. Ana was kind of an odd kid. Don't think ey ever had many friends, and ey was scared of lots of things -- like cats, for a while, and loud noises. We were walking down to the little local store once and this car backfired -- these were all gas burning cars back then you know?" I nodded. I wasn't that young. "Well this car backfired, and Ana just jumped and started sweating and looking around everywhere for a few seconds. Ey stuck close to me for the rest of the trip; i was seven years older than em so we were kind of like big sib and little sib. Even after we grew up it was still kind of that way, up until the end.
"I think part of Ana's weirdness was because eir mother, Jeannette, abandoned them when Ana was only a year old. Took one of the cars one day and nobody ever heard from em again. My mom and dads told me about it all later. My Uncle Alan said Jeannette had been acting crazy for a while: leaving for days without saying why, starting fights all the time, mumbling about things, threatening suicide, getting drunk. Eir drinking must have really bothered Alan because ey never allowed any liquor in the house when i was there -- and ey probably wouldn't be too happy about this beer i'm drinking now if ey was still alive and here." The old man had actually been doing more talking than drinking, and now paused to drink some, then continued. "Alan used to drink before Jeannette disappeared. Heard he had a drinking problem too for a while. The shock of what happened to Jeannette must have scared em off it. Guess that's one way to quit.
"Ana missed eir mom, although i don't know how ey could have remembered em. Probably just wanted any sort of mom. Kept a picture in eir room and would ask me what i remembered about em sometimes. I never could say much -- only saw Aunt Jeannette a couple times, and that was when i was real young. I remember one night Ana kept asking eir dad about eir mom, saying things like 'why did mom go away' and 'when's mom going to come back'. My uncle just exploded after awhile and yelled 'Your mom is not coming back!' I was afraid ey was going to smack Ana, but after a pause ey just said, 'Now shut up and go to your room.' He was usually a really nice guy, but things could make em get that way sometimes. Ana started crying and went up to eir room, and after a little bit i followed. I always hate when people get in fights like that around me, you know? You just kind of pretend to be real interested in the coffee table or something.
"Anyway, the next day, Ana looked kind of excited all morning. I didn't find out what about until later in the afternoon when eir dad left to go do stuff in town. They lived about an hour's drive from the nearest big town so ey'd be gone for a while. As soon as the sound of gravel popping under truck tires grew distant, Ana grabbed at my t-shirt and said in an excited voice, 'Come on, let's go now.'
" 'Go where?'
" 'To see my mom!'
" 'But...Ana....' It didn't seem like ey was playing, and that wasn't really something ey would kid about. I didn't really say anything because i couldn't think of anything to say to something like that.
"Ana started getting impatient with me, and said, 'Come on! You told me you'd take me to see Mom today.'
" 'I didn't say that! When?'
" 'Last night!' ey sounded exasperated, and pulled at my shirt again to get me moving.
" 'I don't know where your mother--'
" 'Yes you do! You said ey would be waiting by the old blue car you found in the woods, and you'd take me there today.'
"I tried to convince Ana that ey'd been dreaming i'd said it, or i'd been talking in my sleep, but ey wouldn't listen: swore that we'd both been wide awake when i'd said it. And in fact i did remember an old abandoned car i'd seen when i'd been out exploring several years earlier, when Ana was just a baby. I think i'd been looking for a waterfall we could see sometimes up on the hill. Didn't find it, but i did follow trails for a couple hours through the forest, and i found an old burned-out car by a dirt road. There was still some turquoise paint peeling from the front of it, but a lot of it was black from the fire or rusty -- these were metal cars back then. At least the older ones. I think i remembered it because i accidentally stuck the stick i was walking with into a yellow-jacket hole there and they chased me and got me in a few places before i'd run far enough away. That, and i also got a hot rash or something later -- must have brushed against some plant. I remember wondering if the car had been left there because it had caught on fire, or if it had just been abandoned and then burned by some vandal. Maybe someone had stolen it and then burned it up there. Don't know. Maybe i had said something about it in my sleep that Ana had overheard. I had nothing better to do and Ana really wanted to go look, so we went looking. Maybe i thought Ana would stop thinking so much about eir mother if we found the car and ey wasn't there.
"I didn't really remember the way, so we set off in the general direction that my hazy memory pointed to. Everything was grown and different -- smaller than i remembered, mostly. The old barbed wire fence at the edge of the property was something i now stepped over instead of carefully crawling between the wires. Nettles caught us a couple times, making me wish we'd brought along a machete. Sometimes we found deer trails or people trails -- i couldn't really tell which they were. Maybe dog trails. My mind wandered as we walked, thinking about this and that. Sometimes i would wonder about Ana's mom, or try to remember what ey'd been like. I wondered if anyone had towed away the old junk car. I must have daydreamed about a lot of other stuff, because i remember suddenly realizing that i didn't know where i was or where my uncle's cabin was anymore. I'd been leading the way, but not really thinking about where i was going. Not that it really mattered, since i didn't remember where i'd seen the car anyway, but i didn't want to spend too long trying to find our way back. Ana kept asking me when we were going to get there, though, so we kept looking.
"We had been out for a good while, and i was getting tired of walking and getting bit by mosquitoes. I decided to start heading back to where i thought the cabin was without letting Ana know that's what i was doing. We left the little overgrown trail and tromped through some moss and old pine needles as i set off in a new direction that seemed to be the right way back. I started getting hungry, then worried as clouds moved in and the forest got darker. The last thing i wanted to do was to get rained on. And then i realized the sun might be setting in a few hours and we hadn't seen any houses or roads in a long time. My uncle had probably been back for a while, wondering where we'd gone.
"But there was nothing to do but continue on, with Ana oblivious to everything but looking for the car and eir mother and me searching for the way back to the cabin. Ana started to get hungry too after a while, and i was getting exhausted. Walking has always made me tired, more than you'd think from looking at me. I've always done a lot more reading than i have exercise. Another hour or two passed -- i wasn't been wearing a watch so times were hazy -- when we stumbled into yet another meadow. Grasshoppers flicked away in small swarms as we moved through grass taller than Ana's head. We were lucky and found a mass of blackberry vines with big perfect ripe berries on it. We must have eaten them for twenty or thirty minutes, and the vines got a few drops of blood in return because we were too tired to be careful with the thorns. The berries and the heat from all the walking made me a little sleepy i guess, and somehow i suddenly stopped worrying about being lost. We finished eating and just wandered on, following a deer trail that led out of the meadow. From that we hit an old road that looked like it hadn't been used in a few years. It wound on, up and down hills, but mostly up. The road was two dirt paths where wheels had packed down the earth. Tall grass and plants grew inbetween the ruts. It was getting cooler and slugs were coming out, leaving their shiny trails behind them while they looked for food. We wandered like that for i don't know how much longer -- like i said, i wasn't really paying attention to anything anymore -- but the sun had gone down and it was starting to get dark. The forest seemed quieter than usual, kind of somber. The clouds there can do that sometimes, even when you can't see them through the trees or in the darkness.
"We came to an old fallen tree that we had to climb over. I remember there was bracket fungi growing along it -- growths about this big that go out like a shelf from the side, with ugly wood-like tops but smooth powdery-white undersides. There was a large snail sitting out on one them -- not going anywhere, just watching us with its eyestalks. I probably wouldn't remember it now if it hadn't suddenly seen something i recognized on the other side of the log: a large sandstone boulder, all covered with growth. There were two trees on opposite sides of it, and one had been partly blown over by a windstorm long ago so that it touched and crossed the other tree thirty or forty feet up. I tried to remember where i had seen them, and then i realized that we were near the car! I became a little more alert, like i was waking up from a dream, and tried to remember more. I'd passed these trees on the road that led up to where i'd found the car and got stung by the yellow-jackets. The trees had been on the edge of a clearing, away from the road. 'Ana, we're getting close,' i said. Eir face lost the dullness that had crept over it, and anticipation brightened eir face again. I can still remember eir seven-year-old face smiling there in the dusk as we started to hurry again. Ey was a pretty girl when ey smiled.
"The other side of the boulder had grown up with saplings, but it wasn't hard to find the road. It was real old, with young trees starting to grow up in the middle and deep furrows across it and sometimes along it where years of running water had cut into it. I wasn't worried about what Ana would feel like when eir mother wasn't there. Seems like i should have been. We walked up the road and soon -- sooner than i expected -- we came to the car. It was off the side of the road like i remembered. Some moldy flakes of blue-gray paint remained, but it was mostly dark and rusty and covered with decomposed leaves and small branches. A great tree grew over it -- a maple -- and it's shadow had kept the growth down around it. Some tiny white mushrooms were still visible on the ground, and standing among them was Ana's mother. It seems strange when i talk about it now. Should i have screamed? Been shocked? Scared? Surprised? Run away? I didn't do any of these. Ever since we had found the blackberries i'd been in a kind of uncaring stupor, and when we found Ana's mother it changed to a kind of excitement and then a sort of feeling of completion. I felt a rightness in our being there.
"Anastasia and eir mother spoke while the darkness deepened. I don't remember most of what they said. Perhaps i wasn't listening, just watching the pale light of their faces as they touched and talked happily in the shrouds of darkness that surrounded us. The only words i remember now came after eir mother's voice changed to a serious one, and ey pulled away from Anastasia. 'You must go back now. Your father is worried about you.'
" 'But mom! I don't want to go! You have to come back with us!' Ana clutched at eir mother's hands as ey pleaded. Sadness was in eir mother's voice as ey answered.
" 'I can't go with you Ana.'
" 'But why not? I want you to.'
"Eir mother was silent, then said, 'You'll know someday, when you come back to be with me. Go back now -- that's where you're supposed to be. I'll see you again.'
" 'When? Can i come back tomorrow? I want to bring you something i made for you.'
" 'Not tomorrow. You won't see me for a long time. But keep your present and bring it with you the next time you come. You can stay with me then.'
"Anastasia might have pleaded longer, but Jeannette stroked Ana's hair and forehead and Ana grew calmer, serene. Jeannette brought em to me, and spoke eir first and only words to me, stroking my head once like ey'd stroked Ana's: 'This road will take you home.' We went then. The night had come and there was very little light. The moon was rising and sometimes it broke through the clouds and trees to help show the way. We must have mostly found our way by touch, following the rut in the road with hands out to keep from running into things. I was cold, but the place Jeannette had touched my head felt warm. There were many forks in the road after a while, and we always took the one that seemed to be going down, i think. It started raining at some point, and got so black that we had to hold on to each other and feel our way forward. It was a hard rain, not like the usual drizzle, and pretty-soon we were drenched. I felt like i was really waking up then -- my legs were aching, and the earlier exhaustion that i'd forgotten about returned and increased. The rain slowed soon and a little light returned, but the wet branches had bent down over the road so we had to walk in the center. The roads had been getting better. I don't know how much longer it was until we came out on the highway, maybe a mile from the turnoff to my uncle's property."
The man stopped speaking for a while, eyes staring over the bar lost in thought. Our beers had been refilled while ey'd been speaking. Ey noticed it now, and took a big drink. Ey looked over at me and gave a short laugh, "Ha! I know what you're thinking -- two starving delirious kids wandering lost for hours in the forest, hallucinating. Well you're smart to think that, because that's all that it could have been. Ana wanted to see eir mother so bad that when we finally found the car, see em we did. We were gone so long that eir father had called the sheriff, and they were planning on sending out a search party after us. You can imagine how my uncle must have felt. You should have seen the blisters we had from the crap that got in our shoes and all the walking. Our toes were all wrinkled and shrivelled from the water sloshing around our feet."
Ey sunk into eir thoughts again, and i took the opportunity to visit the men's bathroom. The tavern was kind of old-fashioned that way too: separate rooms for men and women. It was getting later in the day and i did have some things to do, so i tried to think of a way to politely leave as i walked back. Sharing all that with me moved me, but it also made me kind of uncomfortable. More people were coming in, and someone had taken the seat next to the old person. When ey saw me ey got up and waved for me to follow em to the booth in the back corner of the room. I hesitated, but decided i didn't really have anything too important. I took my mug and followed em. Ey began again as if ey hadn't stopped.
"Anyway, it wasn't long after that that school started again, and my parents drove up from Oregon to get me. Neither one of us did ever say what exactly we were doing out there. I went up a few more summers before i graduated and went off to college on the East Coast. Then i moved all over the place following my job, of course. Anastasia and i kind of got out of touch when i went to college. That was what? About fifty years ago? I didn't hear much from them until my uncle died three years ago, then i saw Ana at the funeral. Ana'd been sick, and eir father's death had been rough -- ey wasn't really close to anyone else. Not that Ana had ever been really close to eir father, but ey had been closer to em than to the rest of eir family during those years.
"Two hallucinating kids wandering lost in the trees, yeah. But there's more to that story. Guess i didn't really know how sick Ana was until i got a call from em last year. Eir skin was all sagging and wrinkled, and ey wasn't breathing too well -- little short breaths with a wheezing sound. I guessed that ey was probably in pain a lot. The sickness, whatever it was, was killing em slowly -- ey didn't ever tell me what it was, but i figured out that much. So many diseases nowadays. I used to think diseases would all disappear as i got older, vaccines found quickly for all the old and the new, and nobody needing to live in hell. But anyway, Ana called me and it looked like the sickness had scrambled eir thinking some, because ey started talking to me about eir mother as if ey was still alive and waiting out there in the forest. I knew in my heart that Jeannette had been dead for many years -- nobody anywhere had ever heard anything after Jeannette disappeared. Ey just had to have committed suicide somewhere, out of sight. People don't just disappear completely from one place and start living somewhere else, with no records anywhere to make the government or police investigate. Not normal people, anyway.
"At the time that i got the phone call, i had kind of forgotten about that night we hallucinated seeing Ana's mom. Not forgot, really, but all the details were gone and it wasn't something i'd thought about in a long time. Hearing Ana talk started dragging it all back into consciousness. Especially when ey said 'Gerry, you've got to take me back to my mother. I know ey's still waiting there for me.' My face must have looked the same as it did fifty years ago, as i tried to come up with some appropriate response to a statement that couldn't have one. I tried telling em that eir mother must be dead by now, even if Jeannette had been alive for a while when we were growing up. But Ana wouldn't listen, saying, 'Gerry! Please! You've got to take me back to mother now. You know how to get there. I've looked and looked but i can't find it, and i'm not strong enough anymore to keep looking by myself. It really is time for me to go live with mom. '
"Ana's face got bright suddenly, and ey turned from the phone and dug into a bag that was below the level of the camera, then held up an old thing so i could see it. It was a 'god's-eye', i think they call it, two wooden sticks wound about with yarn, starting in the center and working outward with different colors. This one was bigger than usual though, and Ana had used three sticks so it was a hexagon pattern. There were little white fluffs on the ends of the sticks, and an ugly orange swirl of yarn hid where the sticks crossed in the center. It looked a little worn and beat up.
"Ana smiled excitedly and said, 'See? I found it here in a trunk after dad died, when i moved in. I made lots of presents for mom, but this is the one i wanted to show em that night when we saw em in the forest. This is the one ey wants me to bring.' Eir voice had a sound of certainty, and Ana looked proudly at the thing. I didn't say anything, and ey noticed and started pleading again. 'Gerry! Please! You'll help me, won't you?' Ana's voice became sad and tired, and i could hear the sickness in eir breathing. 'You'll come help me, won't you Gerry? Dad's gone now and so are most of my friends and my work. I'm sick, i'm alone -- i don't want to be here no more. You'll help me, won't you?'
"What could i do? I loved Anastasia. Always had, even though we had kind of moved away from each other over the years. So, i told em i'd help." This last sentence was spoken in an unsettling way; a kind of darkness or pain seemed to pass over the old man's face. Ey -- Gerry -- finished another beer. We were both getting a little drunk, i suddenly realized. Gerry waved a waiter over to order two more for us, and ey started on eirs as soon as it arrived. I held mine but decided to not drink it. I noticed new smells from the kitchen in the back of the tavern; changing from sandwiches to the dinner menu. The noise level in the room had been growing, and people were starting to fill the tables. The smell of food made me hungry. But an uneasiness had come over me, listening to Gerry, and i didn't really feel like eating.
Gerry sat, lost in thought, for a while. Then ey looked up at me, and stared into my eyes with intensity, as if ey were judging me. This lasted a few uncomfortable seconds, then ey exhaled and looked down at the bubbles rising in eir beer. When Gerry spoke, eir voice was quiet, almost a gravelly whisper, and eir eyes returned to mine. 'Ana wanted to die, you see,' ey explained, dropping eir eyes again. Ey continued in a voice low enough to keep other tables from hearing. 'I don't know if i knew this on the phone, but i knew it in my heart by the time i got on a jet to go to em. That's what Ana meant by saying ey wanted to join eir mother. The pain and loneliness was too much, but ey couldn't bring eirself to say it directly. It's much more pleasant to think you're just going to live with your mother somewhere. Ey wanted to die, and i had agreed to help with it.
"I didn't really have a plan when i got off the jet. The airport was about an hour to an hour and a half away from the property, depending on the traffic and time of day. I decided not to call Ana right away to come and get me, and took a tram to the town center. City center i should say, really. All grown up like you wouldn't believe. I wandered around the city, and my plan gradually worked its way out. I probably could have thought of something better, but i was so nervous and wasn't really thinking as good as i could have. The first thing i bought was a bottle of sleeping pills, and the second thing was a gun. I was hoping the pills would do the work, but i had to make sure. I think the salesperson in the gun shop thought the bullets were for me, as sick and shaking as i must have looked. But suicide's a person's legal right, and my computer record checked out of course. Ey didn't say anything, and out the door i went. None of their business.
"I took the tram back to the airport, and called Anastasia. Ey was overjoyed, and came into town right away to get me. Ey was tired but happy when ey arrived. I drove back, once we got out of town and off the guide ribbon. We didn't talk much. It would have been best for my plan if we had started that evening, since Ana was already tired. But when i managed to make myself suggest that we start looking right away, Ana laughed and said, 'Now, Gerry, mom's waited there nearly sixty years for me, and i'm sure ey won't mind waiting one more day.' Those words -- that kind of thinking -- just sent shivers up and down me. Ana continued, 'And i want to look nice for mom; i'm still in my gardening clothes. Besides, i'm much too tired to go today. All this driving....' How could someone sound so sane and yet think eir dead mother has been standing by a junked car in a forest for 60 years?
"Well, we got to the cabin eventually. It was a little run down, and one of the corner rooms had sunk a few inches with the ground under it, but i guess logs don't wear out too fast. Can you imagine anyone building a whole house out of logs today? Not even cutting them into boards? It was a little unusual even back then, but some outfit was making them. Anyway, we got to the cabin, and i spent the night not really sleeping. I'm too old to not get sleep. Right around the time i really started to doze off, Ana appeared announcing tea and breakfast and urged me to hurry up and get going.
"I felt dirty and wanted to take a cold shower before going, to help wake me up. Soon we were off, me driving. Living developments had grown up all over, but the protected forestland was near the property so i knew it shouldn't be hard to get to.
"We'd both been too out of it that night when we stumbled out of the woods onto the highway to know later where exactly we had come out from. Didn't matter anyway. I picked a likely looking crossroad at random and drove down it. Paved. Little microcommunities on either side; sprang up before the zero growth laws passed. Ana asked me, 'Are you sure it's this way Gerry?' I nodded, and ey continued, 'I thought so! I've been down here before, but there's so many houses and turns and things now. I never knew if i was going in the right direction.' I didn't answer, but kept driving, feeling guilt pouring from the pack beside me on the seat, where i had the gun hidden, and the pills. We worked our way around the branches of the streets and gradually came to the gravel roads, and then the dirt ones. Trees replaced lit walls, and soon we dead-ended in a turn-around with a decrepit rusting bar gate that was welded shut. On the other side, i could barely see what was once a dirt road running off into the forest. To the side of the gate was a trail -- teenagers, not deer, judging from the type of litter along it. There aren't many deer around there anymore, of course.
"I put on my pack, and Ana got out. Ey was clutching the soft black sur-felt bag to eir chest, the one with the raggedy god's-eye in it. 'It's this way?' -- it was half question, half statement. Ana answered eirself a moment later, so i didn't have to. 'Yes....'
"We made our way along the trail slowly. Ana couldn't walk very long before having to stop and breathe for a while, leaning against my arm. I can't walk fast anymore either. I think i told you earlier that walking always makes me tired, but of course it's even more true now that i'm old.
"I wanted to get out as far as possible. We got to the goal of the teen-trail: a little campsite for getting away from parents, i think. The inside had a soft floor of needles and a couple stone circles with grills over them; they probably brought little gas cookers to put under them and cook hot dogs. Outside of the camping area was all kinds of trash -- beer cartons, condoms, poppers, portatoilet cases; recycling rights given to whoever might feel like cleaning it all up. Ana paid it no notice.
"We worked our way up a less visible trail that led off from the campsite. Ana started to get tired more often. After several of our stops, i took off my pack and got out the pills. I'd removed the label while waiting at the airport. I took three out and handed em to Ana, saying 'Here you go, Ana -- i brought these along in case you needed an energy boost. New pill they just developed. Not dangerous if you don't take them for more than a week or so.'
" 'Oh Gerry! You're so smart. I was actually starting to get kind of tired.' Ana took the pills, and the cup of thermos water i poured. After swallowing, ey said, 'What are they called?'
" 'Oh, uh...trypthalamaxylla-something i think. The label fell off while i was packing.' I got up and started on the trail again so Anastasia wouldn't see the tears starting in my eyes. Ey followed.
"Ey must have convinced eirself that they worked, because after a little bit i heard, inbetween labored breaths, 'Gerry...Gerry i can feel them...working!...how much farther?'
" 'Pretty soon, i hope.'
"The trail grew indistinct, and at some point it was gone and we were just slowly working our way cross-country in directions i chose at random. I didn't worry too much about finding my way back. The stalks and twigs we broke as we made our way would probably be enough -- but i wasn't really sure that i planned on coming back either. There was more than one bullet in the gun.
"Every once in a while Ana would start getting really tired again, and i'd give em a few more pills. Should have knocked em right out, i think, but eir belief must have been even stronger than the pills -- ey'd get a blast of strength every time, and we'd continue on into the growing heat of the day. Finally, i just had to stop. My legs felt shaky, and the heat and exhaustion were too much for an old person that hadn't had any sleep. Ana seemed to notice my distress for the first time. Ey'd been so wrapped up in thoughts of the coming meeting with eir mother. 'O Gerry! You poor dear, i'm wearing you out. Why don't you take some of those pills too? They really work wonders.'
"I froze; didn't know what to say. What if i took them and fell asleep? What if Ana found the gun in the pack while i was out? There are no dangerous animals out here so protection couldn't be an excuse. Ana took my silence as stubbornness. 'Come on now, here's three for you.' What could i do? I took them. Thinking back, i probably should have held them in my cheek and then spit them out somewhere, but my head wasn't in the best shape at the time. The short rest had helped, so i pretended the pills were working and set off again in a new direction.
"Soon, the pills did start working, and i felt a hot flush come over me. I stumbled a little more. Ana started to sound worried about me, and would ask things like 'Are you sure it's this way? It almost feels like it should be over that way....' Soon, Anastasia was leading, and i just followed the feet i saw moving in front of me. How Ana could do it with that sickness of eirs and all those pills in em, i don't know. I refused when ey tried to give me more pills, complaining that my stomach was cramping and maybe i was getting hit by some side effect from them. Ey replied, 'Yeah, my stomach feels a little strange too -- but maybe it's just from being excited about seeing mom again.'
"We labored on, and labored on, for how long i don't know. Probably not far for a young person, but for me it was devastatingly difficult to keep going. I stopped thinking about anything during that time, i guess. I was just a thing that plodded behind feet, with some half-remembered purpose. I hadn't wanted to use the gun until we were far away and the pills had knocked Ana out. We had passed through several meadows along the way, and we came to one where Ana noticed some berries growing. My stomach really was cramping then, and Ana brought me a handful of blackberries to eat while i rested and fought my eyelids. I motioned for em to eat some eirself, but Ana just said, 'No, i don't need to eat.' I don't know if the berries were any good.
We continued on after a little while. I forgot why i was there. I think the tiredness lifted from me some because i know i was walking faster. I started remembering summer days from when i had visited Ana as a kid, and then my memories got mixed up with what was going on around me. Ana was running ahead on the road, and i was behind, chasing em. I felt like Ana and i were kids again, and we were.
"The sky was blue and the sun was warm on our skins. We crossed the meadow to the road, where Uncle Alan's old blue car was parked. Ey was on the other side of it, digging a hole. Ey stopped working and smiled and waved at us as we came around, then wiped the sweat from eir forehead with a t-shirt. We skipped by on the dirt road -- i never did skip well -- and Uncle Alan took another drink of eir beer before getting back to work on the fenceline.
"Ana and i saw some white butterflies across the field and down the hill a ways, flashing reflected sunlight from their wings as they flew. The grasshoppers jumped away when we got too close. Some garter snakes were sunning themselves on the road, and slithered off into the tall grass as we caught up with Ana's mom. Ana found a lady-bug on eir blouse and showed it to eir mom, saying the Mother Goose rhyme in a sing-song voice:'Lady-bug, lady-bug,
fly away home,
your house is on fire,
your children will burn.'
The lady-bug flew off. Ana said, 'Hi mom. Gerry and i were trying to catch grasshoppers. What are you doing out here?'
"Jeannette had been holding a little green tree frog, and ey transferred it over to plant stalk, which the frog clung to. 'Oh, your dad got in another fight with me. What's that in your bag?'
"Ana got excited. 'Oh look! I made this for you.' Ey brought out a six-sided god's-eye and gave it to eir mother. I noticed the color rings weren't in the rainbow order. I would have put them in order.
" 'Oh, Ana, it's beautiful. Thank-you.' Aunt Jeannette held the god's-eye up so that the sun shone through the colored yarn. Ey liked it there in front of the lamp, and put a hook into the ceiling so it could hang there. Ey put the chair away then asked us, 'Well, what do we want to have for dinner tonight?'
"I shrugged, but Ana frowned and held eir hands to eir stomach. 'I don't feel good.'
" 'Oh honey, what's the matter?' Aunt Jeannette put a hand on Ana's forehead. 'Well, you don't have a fever. Just an upset stomach?'
"Ana nodded, and then got up and ran into the bathroom and started vomiting. I stayed in the other room while eir mom went into the bathroom with a glass of something and talked in low soothing tones to Ana. Eventually, they came out, and Ana looked a little better. Eir mom spoke: 'Well, Gerry, it's probably best that you're going home tomorrow so you don't catch whatever Ana's got.'
"Ana cried, 'Oh mom, does ey have to go home already? Why can't ey stay?'
" 'You know school's starting soon, and Gerry's family would miss em. Ey'll be back next summer.'
"Ana pouted, but didn't argue anymore. My Uncle Alan helped me pack my suitcase for the plane trip home. When i put my gun in on top of my socks, ey took it for a while and said, 'Careful there, Gerry. You know airline security doesn't like it when you have more than one bullet.' Ey took one of the bullets out, then put the gun back in my suitcase and started putting in my pants and shirts, and i loaded in my drawing paper and things. Ey was probably right, ey knew more about guns than i did. We finally got everything packed and Ana and i got out our sleeping bags. I usually slept on the floor of Ana's room, and Ana did too when i was over. Unless we were downstairs or out on the deck.
"Before we went to sleep, Ana crawled out of eir sleeping bag and came over to kiss my cheek, saying 'I'm going to miss you Gerry. I love you. Thank you.' That was really weird, because kids don't do things like that; at least not us kids. I rubbed the cooties off and was wondering why we were both the same age when i was supposed to be older, but then i fell asleep and was walking through the forest. It was a weird dream because i was a tired old person and i turned around to tell Ana about it but ey wasn't following me anymore.
"Anastasia wasn't anywhere.
"I turned around stupidly, gradually realizing i wasn't dreaming anymore. My old arms and legs were in pain, and i was so tired. The dreams came back to me, and i got all clenched up inside and my hair stood on end. You've heard that phrase, 'hair standing on end'? It really does feel like that. First time i ever knew that. I called for Ana, but ey didn't answer. I went through my pack: half a bottle of pills left, and one bullet. I sat there, holding the gun, for i don't know how long, thinking i don't know what. I came out of it when a breeze came up and a leaf from a plant brushed against my cheek. I looked around for Ana again. Ey must have vomited up all those pills. Ey might still be alive somewhere.
Was ey out there somewhere, still alive, maybe unconscious or unable to answer me? I searched around, but i couldn't find anything. The gun didn't smell like it had been fired. I didn't know if i should use the last bullet. I looked around for Ana some more, going back up from the way i had been walking when i woke up. I found them eventually -- the two trees by the boulder. The road was long gone, but i knew where the car and the great maple were. I slowly worked my way though the forest and found them too. Not much was left of the car -- it had decayed like old gravestones in cemeteries do, where the names of the people underneath gets weathered off; only lumps of stone remain to show that people had once been laid to rest there by others that loved them. Ana was nowhere to be seen, and it didn't look like we'd made it this far anyway. The only disturbance on the ground was from my feet. I headed back.
"Somehow, i don't know how, i found my way back to the car before night. I slept there, scrunched up across the seats and with my jacket around me not keeping me warm. I woke and saw some lights outside once -- must have been kids in a car thinking about going up to the campsite. I woke again in the morning, shivering and with aches and cramps everywhere, and cuts and blisters. I drove back to the cabin, and dug a hole to bury the gun and the pills. I wasn't strong enough to make it very deep, so i brought some junk from one of the sheds and piled it on top so it wouldn't look like there was a fresh hole dug there. The yard was cluttered enough so that nobody should have noticed. I spent another couple days in the cabin, too full of aches and pain to go anywhere. But i got better, and eventually i flew home.
Gerry stopped speaking for a moment, and frowned at eir empty beer mug. But at last ey smiled a bit and gave a little laugh.
"You might ask yourself how long it took people to notice Ana was missing, and to figure out who was responsible. I had plane tickets showing that i'd been there when ey disappeared, credit records showing that i bought the pills and all kinds of records from buying the gun. I'd made a call from the airport to eir house shortly after i'd arrived. Once they knew it was me, finding and digging up the gun would be almost a matter of course.
"But, nobody ever even looked into the possibility that it was me. Ana was officially missing and presumed dead. Most of the family thought it must have been suicide, with Ana sneaking off to die alone like eir mother had. I'm retired myself, and live alone, and nobody important had ever known i was gone. I'd left the cabin pretty much untouched, of course, and the car was still there; i'd hired a ride back to the airport. Nothing had been stolen so it didn't look like a robbery. And Ana had done things like give away eir houseplants and transfer eir dog license and dog to a neighbor -- things someone planning a suicide might do. It was a month and a half before i got a phone call from a distant relative saying that Ana was missing and they were worried. Hadn't been paying eir bills! How's that for family and friends, ey? Probably had dozens of people that might have tried to get in touch with em, say hello. All this technology --" Gerry waved vaguely at the row of vidphone terminals on the other side of the room, "-- see and speak with anyone anywhere in the world in a few seconds, and everybody's still alone. If Ana'd been the kind to use automatic deposit, it might have been months before anyone noticed ey was gone. Maybe ey liked getting the bills sent out every month, since nothing else came in the mail.
"Nobody else wanted the property, and i bought part of it from Ana's kin that had inherited it. Half of it had to be sold to pay the inheritance tax, but that's ok. I stayed down in my room in New Mexico for the last year, but i finally decided to go up and live in the old cabin. Been working my way up there for a week now, stopping here and there. There's something comforting about an old run-down wooden cabin -- i'm tired of white square walls and trademarks and logos on everything. Tired of living in places where a wet rag can wipe off any memories that might stain the counters and appliances. Well, here you go," Gerry said, stopping and standing abruptly, wavering a little from the alcohol. Ey dug out an old patterned leather wallet, and handed me some money. "Pay our bill, would you? Got to get some rest so i can get back on the trail tomorrow."