It starts with a drunken sprint to the creek. Avery reaches the water first, bounding across the surface so fast that for a moment I think she looks like Jesus. But then I see the stepping stones that carried her across. They shine dark in the midnight woods. I stop short of the creek and let Benjamin pass. He flings out his arms like a tightrope walker, one foot square in the middle of a slick rock, the other dangling in front of him until he plants it on the next rock. He looks so much younger than his thirty years. Cicada songs buzz around us and swallow my entreaties for Benjamin and Avery not to drown in the water that can’t be more than a foot deep. I remember, too, something about coyotes at night, here along the greenway. What to do if we encounter one now?
I guess I said this last thought out loud, because Benjamin tsks. “A coyote would be more afraid of us than we are of him,” he says. His arms flap again as he falters on his next step.
Avery waits on the other side. She waves Benjamin along. “A coyote would totally eat us,” she says, the end of the sentence swallowed in a giggle or a hiccup or both.
“How do you know the coyote is a him?” I cross my arms over my chest. The sticky summer air has gone thin and cool in the night; a breeze ruffles my hair, my skin, draws out goosebumps. “Women can be coyotes, too.”
Benjamin finally swings his whole body toward Avery’s muddy bank. She catches his hand and pulls him up and away from the water. They look to me now: my feet sinking into moss and dirt on the other side of the stream, the shadows of the house looming behind me. They expect me to follow. I lower myself onto the first flat, smooth rock. It shifts forward and back with my weight until I find a sort of balance. The next stone fits only one of my feet, so that I take two quick steps before landing on a larger stone halfway across. Avery stretches her hand out to me like she did for Benjamin, and I let her reel me in to the other side. The callouses on her broad palms brush against my fingers as she lifts me toward her.
Benjamin has moved on already. I cannot see him but I can hear twigs snapping under his shoes. Avery turns to me and tilts her head in the direction of the narrow trail. We walk one after the other, brushing off thin branches and thorns that cling to our shirts and pockets. I yelp when a stray leaf skims across my cheek. Neither Benjamin nor Avery turns at the sound.
We trip through blackberry bushes and tumble out on the other side of the sparse woods, into the open greenway. A part of me wonders if this is how Alice felt when she fell through that rabbit hole. A topsy-turvy arrival somewhere that looks familiar even as it scares you. Benjamin and I walk here some mornings, along the potholed runway, where private planes used to land back before the big flood shut down the airpark. In daylight, the sun touches everything: pink-wisped mimosa trees, honeysuckle blooms, and endless shades of green. Now, as Avery and Benjamin saunter forward, their shapes are immersed in the silver-blue shine of the moon, their shadows long behind them.
“Keep up!” Avery calls to me.
I double-time my steps. “Where are we going?”
“Does it matter?” Benjamin says.
We cross to the far end of the old runway, cutting corners to wade through thick grass, and I think of the small black tick I found on my back last week, how I extracted it myself and found half its body still embedded there. How Benjamin put his hands on my shoulder, then guided me to sit on the edge of the tub, how he dug into my skin with tweezers to yank the insect out.
But the tall grass yields to rocks and more moss and another dirt-packed trail, this one with a gaping mouth that leads into dense woods. There’s less moonlight to guide us here. The tree branches act like a veil, obscuring the glow. Avery stumbles and curses under her breath. I pretend not to see how Benjamin’s hand goes to the small of her back. I pretend not to see how it stays there as we fumble through the undergrowth.
No one warned us about the coyotes.
They came on our second night in the house, to the greenway behind the trees: a naked stretch of wild woods and muddy trails and purple-tipped reeds cradled against the high banks of the Cumberland, all heavy with a silence that insulates us from the neon honky-tonks and buy-two-get-one-free boot stores on Broadway.
The silence is what I first loved about the house. The stillness of the reeds at the end of our street, where black asphalt meets gravel, where Dutch colonials meet marshland. When we walk here, I feel the quiet reach into my throat.
That night, our house was still empty except for two mattresses and two warm bodies (three if you count our dog), plus knit blankets and cardboard boxes and the mini-fridge in one corner. The coyotes’ ghoulish yips woke me, and I lay still beside Benjamin, the quilt pulled to my chin and clamped under my fingers. Our wiry-haired dog lifted his head to whine and growl. I felt the quiver of his throat where he was nestled in against my legs.
And they came back on a pale winter day the color of washed-out blue jeans. Then again in shadows, in the black hour before dawn, and once cutting through rosy dusk as though their cries were scissors to fabric. Each time their baying rushed past us with the force of a locomotive: a rising clamor, a surge, until I could not imagine the number of coyotes by the sound of so many voices.
They yipped, then howled, then vanished.
Once when they came before dawn, I stood on the balcony to look for them. January frost burned the soles of my bare feet as I leaned over the railing to try and spot the animals, but they’d gone already before I ever stepped outside.
A solitary howl echoed from the other side of the street. When I craned my neck around the roofline of our house, turning away from the woods, I saw a human silhouette in a doorway. The woman yipped again, then went inside and shut the door.
I met her—Avery—four months later, on an April day when the scent of magnolias had coaxed all the neighbors outside. I sat on the edge of the wooden porch because we hadn’t bought the rocking chairs yet. Across the road in her garden box knelt the coyote woman with dark hair tied in a braid down her back. A mockingbird perched on her mailbox and chirped a song. The woman twisted around to look at it. When she saw me watching her, she waved. She peeled off her mud-caked gloves, then ambled over to our driveway.
“Been meaning to introduce myself,” she said. “We all kind of hibernate until spring on this street.”
I stood, offering my hand. “I’m Natalie,” I said.
“Avery,” she said. I noticed her callouses back then, too, as we shook hands. And her pale, freckled shoulders; her grass-stained knees beneath short denim cutoffs; the faintest beginnings of crow’s feet around her smiling eyes. “Do you like beer?”
“Benjamin does,” I said. “Uh, my partner—he’s not home, but—”
“I’ve seen him.”
“I never used to like beer. I’ve been more into it lately.”
“I brew my own. I just finished a new draught if you want to try it.”
Avery invited me inside. I sat on her vintage blue-velvet couch with my legs pushed together, my ankles crossed. She pulled two glasses from the freezer and filled them from a keg on her counter. “Sorry about the head,” she said as she lowered herself next to me, handing me the frosted glass.
I tilted the drink to sip past the froth. Then I swiped a finger over my top lip to wipe away the foam. “It’s good.”
“Thanks.” She grinned and took a swig from her own glass. “So. Where’d you and your husband move from? Ben, did you say?”
“Benjamin.” I sipped again, then said, “And we’re not married. Just . . . partners. We lived in DC the last few years, but I grew up here.”
“Oh, God, I didn’t mean to assume.”
“It’s really fine.” I took stock of the room. Vinyls stacked in the corner, next to a record player. A bronze Buddha on the mantelpiece. The faint, skunky, residual smell of weed wafted from somewhere down the hall. As I talked to Avery, downing two more beers after the first, I imagined the conversation curling between us like smoke off a joint.
“Why haven’t you married him?” Avery said eventually. “If you don’t mind me asking.” She tucked her feet up under herself on the couch.
“Marriage just isn’t our thing.”
Avery cocked her head. “Why not?”
“I belong with him, not to him. And vice versa.”
“How very enlightened.” She smiled, scrunched up her nose. “But what does that really mean?”
“We love each other. We live together, we sleep together. And if we want to sleep with other people, we do that too.” I took another sip before rushing to say, “It was my idea.”
Avery sat with my words. She gulped back more beer, then she smacked her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Interesting.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Maybe that was more information than you wanted.”
“Not at all.”
Later, when I spotted Benjamin’s headlights swinging into our driveway after dark, I padded across the asphalt with bare feet. He locked the car, and a hiccup escaped me as I wrapped my arms around him. “Where’d you come from?” he asked.
“Met one of our neighbors,” I said. “I think you’ll like her.”
I walked this trail in springtime once. Weeks of rain had bogged the ground, bloating the marshes that dot this part of the woods, swelling the miles-long lattice of creeks and runs until hard-packed dirt gave way to muddy sludge. My shoes that day squelched at every step, and when I reached home again, I peeled them off to let the wet clay dry in the sun.
Tonight the marshes and creeks keep their shape. I pause beside a cluster of trees that surrounds a tidy little pond. Even without looking, I know that Avery and Benjamin will amble onward without me. A soft moonglow touches the surface of the dark water, and I want to touch it, too. I squat low, one steadying hand anchored on a tree, my other hand outstretched toward the pond.
When my fingers graze against the water it’s not a cold, glassy surface they touch but a warm skim of murky algae. The feeling of curdled milk clotting against my palm. I pitch forward onto my knees; my stomach heaves from all those bottles of Blue Moon and that one glass of rosé and the tequila shot I downed with Avery. Pond water laps against my jeans while I hunch over and retch. Afterward, I swipe the back of my hand over my lips. The confining tree trunks around me seem to tilt as I raise myself on shaky legs. I try to spit the taste of bile from my mouth.
Tracing my steps back to the path, I listen for familiar voices. I strain to remember which direction we came from. Although the trail splinters off to my left and my right, I can’t help but think we came from somewhere straight ahead, not on the trail, but through the brambling undergrowth.
“Benjamin,” I call out. “Avery.” The sound of my own voice strikes like a dull mallet in my head. I wait for the reverberations to end, then I try again. “Benjamin!”
Something snaps and rustles above me. A tree branch groans nearby. I stumble and catch my shirt on a thorny twig, and instead of methodically unhooking myself from the thistles, I yank at the material till it rips. The new hole gapes open as I propel myself forward.
A construction crew spent the summer framing in four homes on the once-empty parcel of land at the far end of our street. Benjamin has driven past the construction site every day. Each time the crew finished one house and moved on to start the next, Benjamin dragged me over at sunset to walk through the newly framed-in footprint. On the night we visited the first house, we tiptoed like we might get caught, though the crew had long ago clocked out for the day.
Benjamin squeezed my hand and pulled me along beside him. We hoisted ourselves up through the doorway. “I wonder who will live here,” he said. “Maybe we’ll know them. Maybe they’ll be our friends, and we’ll be here all the time.” The smell of sawdust and wood shavings prickled my nose.
Benjamin guided me through the house. As he shuffled me into a corner and leaned into me against the raw wood frame, I thought how wrong and intimate it felt to see the bones of some strangers’ home, before they saw it all clean and painted and tied up with a bow.
And here we stood inside what might be their pantry one day.
We walked the footprints of the first three homes together as the crew finished them, then Benjamin took Avery to see the last one. As I turned onto our street with a car full of groceries, I saw them emerge from the final house. I saw Benjamin’s hand outstretched behind him, his fingers laced with Avery’s. They dropped themselves down off the front porch, the stairs not built yet. When Benjamin saw my car, he let go of Avery to wave. I lifted my hand an inch off the steering wheel, then kept driving till I pulled into our driveway.
I was shutting the trunk when Benjamin caught up to me at the house. He reached for the paper bag in my arms. “I can manage,” I said.
He stepped ahead of me to unlock the front door. “Are you okay?”
“Of course.” I shifted the bag to my other side.
“I’m sorry if it was weird to see us like that.”
We wandered into the kitchen, where I had left other bags on the counters. I hefted the last one onto the nearest ledge. “You’re allowed to hold Avery’s hand.”
“Then why does it feel like I’m in trouble?” He started unpacking produce.
I peered inside the bag in front of me, reached into it to pull out some cans. My shoulder brushed against his as I slipped past him to the pantry. “You went to see the last house with her.”
“I’ll go again with you.”
“That’s not the point.”
“I can’t read your mind, Nat.”
I leaned against the open pantry door, tapping my index finger against the top of a can of tomatoes. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
We put away the rest of the groceries in a weighty silence.
Somehow when I extricate myself from the woods, I am spit out behind the new builds, their sawdust-coated frames. That first one we walked through has siding now, a front door, glass windows. A street-side FOR SALE sign with its post puncturing the fresh green sod. I stagger across three of the four naked yards until my shoes thud in a familiar way against the asphalt road. A single lamppost lights our dead end. I remember Gatsby from tenth-grade English, and his green light—the beacon, said Ms. Calhoun. I walk toward the beacon.
Our house engulfs me with its shadows just as a peach-colored dawn starts to break behind the trees. Two shapes move on the porch. Benjamin rushes toward me while Avery hangs back.
“We were worried about you,” he says. “We couldn’t see where you went.” He splays his hands on my hips and catches a finger in the hole in my shirt. The tip of his finger skates across my skin. “What happened?”
You left me behind, I want to say. You forgot me. But the faint yellow glow from the lamppost behind me illuminates his eyes so that for a second I see him again, the boy who led me through the framed-in houses down the street. “I wandered off, I guess,” is what I say instead. “I got lost, and I threw up.”
“Oh babe,” he murmurs. “Come inside.”
He coaxes me across the doorstep, to the couch. Avery brings water in a tall plastic cup. They sit on either side of me, and we fall into each other: me leaning into Benjamin, Avery leaning into me, all of us like dominoes. When they both fall asleep, I cannot move. But I don’t want to move. Their weight anchors me.