Owen watched Aubrey press her palm into a thick patch of speckled moss girdling the trunk of an old Douglas fir. The move was gentle and precise, how a mime might seek an invisible wall, and he couldn’t help but imagine her locked up in some dark basement, kidnapped, as he suspected she’d been as a child.

“Feel,” she said of the moss. “It’s so soft you could sleep on it.” She flinched and looked up. “Rain.”

The canopy was thick with greens and browns and had been dripping since they reached the small, uninhabited island that morning. They’d set off from Friday Harbor a few days before to tour the San Juan Islands by kayak. The trip was her idea. When crossing deep channels, he found himself fearing broad chested sea lions with swells of blubber on their necks. Then muscular pods of orcas. Rogue waves. Freak storms. Mindless currents. Water so cold hypothermia took only minutes to set in. Somehow, she found this sort of thing relaxing. Loved it. And he loved her.

They’d left their kayaks on the edge of the forest, bike-locked to a sapling. She’d called the lock absurd, but he could tell that she also found it endearing, as she did most of his other little obsessions. In that way, at least, love made sense: what failed lovers found annoying true lovers found comic.

“Maybe,” he said about the potential rain. “It’s tough to tell here in the woods.”

Aubrey looked around. Despite the summer warmth she hugged herself. “It does feel like we’re inside.”

*

The morning after they’d first slept together, he’d awakened in his downtown Portland apartment shivering and alone, wondering whether a window was open. He reached across the bed and found no warmth there, either. He thought perhaps she’d ditched him, but then heard a cough from the living room and slid out of bed. A chill rose from the hardwood into the balls of his feet. He cracked the bedroom door.

Drapes waved in the December breeze. Aubrey was in the living room, sleeping on the couch, which she’d spun lengthwise and shoved partway through the double doors to the deck, her head resting in the open air.

*

Aubrey thumbed the straps of her backpack looked around. “We should probably decide where to camp.”

“Why not here?” The ground was covered in cushy brown layers of dried fir. There were dozens of dry, flat lots spread between huckleberry groves and evergreen trunks. To him it felt almost cozy.

“Let’s find a spot on the beachhead by our kayaks.”

“We’re protected from the weather here. We won’t even have to use the tent.”

“It’s dripping.” She slapped her elbow. “And mosquitoes.”

“What if a storm sets in overnight?”

She scratched her elbow and scanned the forested roof. Wind hustled through its branches and the leaves murmured.

*

Evening neared. The rain had stopped and the air smelled of wet soil. They hiked a few hundred yards from camp to the southwestern shore to catch the sunset. Aubrey set up a collapsible easel with one of the small canvases she’d brought along.

The forest grew thick and burly to the edge of the shoreline; past winter storms had created a shelf of rock and exposed roots dropping a dozen feet to the sea. Resting in a dark blue inlet a few miles away was a cabin cruiser, anchored near another small island.

She pointed to the boat. “That’s my focal point. It will be a nice lonely piece.”

“Lonely?”

She leaned over and dug through her backpack and pulled out a clear plastic bag filled with metallic tubes of paint. “Ever stop worrying?”

“I could ask the same thing.” She was in her late thirties and wanted a family. After two months dating, she’d asked him straight up if he intended on marrying and starting a family within the next couple years. They’d gone ring shopping. The ring she’d chosen was at that very moment snug in the interior pocket of his backpack. He’d had it now for three months. Time was ticking. But her past concerned him.

Aubrey stopped organizing the paint tubes. “What’s up?”

“Nothing. Just thinking.” He scanned the water and rocked back on his heels. She looked distracted. It wasn’t a good time to talk. She wanted to be left alone to paint. “I’m going to try to find a beach.”

She smiled and returned to setting up.

He hiked away along the forest’s edge. Though he fought it, his imagination never stopped wandering unlit hallways and picturing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches slid under shut doors. He didn’t want to annoy her by prying. But was it prying? When you were talking marriage? Kids? Secrets between loved ones were perishable; if they remained hidden their rot might spread.

At the same time, it didn’t feel as though he had any right to force her to dwell in the trauma of her past. His gut told him the right thing to do was to respect her privacy and pain. It was callous and uncaring to demand that she share it with him. But there was this one problem: You didn’t get to choose who you fell in love with, but you did who you married.

*

A few months back, they’d visited her childhood home in Bend. In her room, he found her bed lying flush with the bay windows, as expected. Her paintings were realist scenes from the nearby Cascade Mountains: Three Sisters, Bachelor, Tumalo, Broken Top, Three-Finger Jack. Evergreens, snow, alpine lakes, wildflowers. But in nearly every landscape, often tucked in the corner, stood the burnt shell of a house or some other broken down dwelling. And she’d signed her name on the bottom right corner of some of them Beth Theroux.

When he’d thumbed through her yearbooks, he discovered that between elementary school and junior high she’d changed her name. But a quick search of her friends’ tributes revealed little more than variations of Stay cool, don’t change.

When he’d asked her straight up about the cabins, she’d said something about juxtaposing the enduring qualities of nature with the impermanence of human structures. When he’d challenged the name change, she’d dismissed it as the simple vanity of wanting to be called something more sophisticated than Beth.

*

Owen found a thin, carved-out section of the forest edge. Below lay a lone swatch of beach. He took off his shoes and shirt and waded. The water felt warm; the sun must have baked the rocks and sand before the tidewater rushed in and smothered it. He looked down the shore and could see Aubrey, up on the point, behind her easel, crowded by tan Madronas grown wild and distorted from the sea winds. She reached up and shook out her long, curly mess of hair.

He caught his breath. Lately, whenever he felt that clench of desire come upon him, it immediately turned to dull ache as he imagined what might have happened to her. He wished he could share that sorrow with her. That wish flickered to anger: she was hoarding it, and pushing him away in the process.

He wondered whether he was just afraid of commitment, and threatened by her silence because of it. He gazed at the sun shining over the outlying islands. The water was a mirror and what blue it reflected would have felt inviting to most anyone else.

He glanced up. Aubrey waved. He waded further into the lagoon—he felt like he had to, if only to prove that he wasn’t afraid. The cool water rose above his thighs. His breath quickened. There didn’t seem to be much current. He kept on. The water met his belly button, then his midsection. He counted to three and made a halfhearted dive. The chill socked his chest and his neck. He began to swim, first a couple of strokes, then a few more.

But when he tried to touch bottom, he felt only the formlessness of water. He turned, struggling for breath, feeling he might float away. The currents. He paddled as hard as he could toward shore, trying to keep his head above water. His lungs wouldn’t fill. There wasn’t enough air in the world.

He was about to call out to Aubrey for help when his foot scuffed the bottom. He surged forward until he was again standing, saltwater lapping at his stomach.

He turned and looked, panting. Again Aubrey waved. Perhaps laughed. He couldn’t tell.

*

Later that night, they were side-by-side in their sleeping bags, leaning against a downed fir. She’d fallen asleep after a dinner of freeze-dried linguini and oysters from the beach.

An enormous owl swooped by the fire, just over their heads, so low that Owen could see its serrated feathers and the stripes that marched out to the tips of its wings. He nearly screamed. His heart thundered. It was incredible how little sound its flight produced. It made him uneasy imagining that it had been up there in the treetops, secretly watching, perhaps this entire time.

He turned on his flashlight and began casing the branches.

*

After he’d seen the paintings from her childhood home in Bend, he’d searched the web for Beth Theroux and found nothing. High school, junior high, also nothing. But a search for her elementary school produced a few archived articles talking about three unnamed children who’d been kidnapped and taken to a small cabin in the wilderness accessible only by dirt roads. The children were found within a week. The kidnapper’s driver’s license photo revealed little save a severe crew cut and eyeglasses with thick frames. He was apparently convinced the world was on the verge of some apocalyptic event. He claimed he had enough stores to save three children and himself.

Owen tried to find out more information, but there was surprisingly little. After scouring caches of microfilm, he called the local paper, pretending he was a professor at Portland State working on a paper discussing ties between religious beliefs and kidnappings. The best he got was the number of the lead detective on the case. But when he inquired about the identity of the kids, and whether any abuse had happened, the detective got defensive. He wasn’t at liberty to share that information. These were young kids, now grown. It was theirs to share, not his.

Owen printed out the clippings and showed Aubrey. Played it off like he’d been researching the best schools around Bend, just in case they moved down there to be closer to her family if-and-when they had kids.

At first she didn’t seem to remember. Then, eyes locked on the pages, she said Wait, yes, this rings a bell…at least I think it does. Poor girls. Thank God they were safe.

But it was something you’d remember. Something everyone would remember. It was also the sort of thing that, if it happened to you, you might rather forget. The sort of thing that, years later, when faced with it directly, might cause you might rub your nose and shrug and not make eye contact with the person who was asking, even if you loved that person, even if that person loved you. And she’d said poor girls; the article hadn’t mentioned gender.

*

Owen was nearly asleep when a scattering of creaks distracted him. He sat up. He couldn’t feel the wind—only hear evidence of its busyness above.

Aubrey began to stir. Then she tensed up, startled, and shook loose her arms. She pushed up onto her knees. Her eyes were sharp. “Where are we?”

“It’s just me.” He tried to grab her hand but she shoved it away. “It’s me, Owen. We’re camping. On an island in the San Juans.”

“I can’t sleep here.” She began unwrapping herself from her sleeping bag.

“We’re perfectly safe.”

“I want to sleep on shore.”

“It’s fine.”

“Whatever.” She turned on her flashlight and began scanning the ground until she found her sandals.

“Wait. Let’s talk about this.”

“Nothing to talk about.” She corralled the sleeping bag into her arms.

“Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” It was out before he could stop himself. He stood up. “The thing is, I feel like—”

“Yes, I know.” She grabbed the bag tighter. “You feel like I’m hiding something. And you won’t let it go.”

“It’s just—”

“I love you, but I’m starting to wonder what this is really about.”

The fire popped and there was a rustling from the trees overhead.

“I just don’t like secrets,” he said.

She took a deep breath. The fire lit her eyes. “I’m not sure what you want me to say.”

He took a step towards her. “I just wish we could talk. Even the stuff we don’t want to.”

“And?”

“Okay. Fine. Were you one of those girls?”

“There it is.” She shook her head. “Look. I need to know that you’re okay with me.”

“Of course I’m okay. That’s the whole reason we’re having this conversation.”

She scoffed and turned and began walking. A bit of her sleeping bag dangled from her arms and crinkled as it slid along the ground behind her. “I’m not going to be some project,” she said over her shoulder. “Some mystery for you to solve.”

“But I love you.”

She stopped. “Then why don’t you trust me?”

“How can you even begin to talk about trust when you won’t talk to me about—”

She turned and left.

*

Owen circled the fire, kicking dirt over the gasping embers. He gathered his sleeping bag and walked through the still forest until the breeze began fingering in from between the trunks. Farther along, faint moonlight started to peak through the tree line, and soon he could hear gusts of wind rushing up against the island.

He shut off his flashlight once he reached the edge of the forest. He spotted Aubrey lying sideways near the tide line. He laid out his sleeping bag behind her.

She pulled tight her own bag and sniffed.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She didn’t reply, but turned over and looked at him, face puffy and wet with tears.

He pressed his hand into her shoulder. She trembled, and it occurred to him that her misery granted him relief. He dismissed the thought and looked out at the ocean. The wind had died down but he could still hear the dark waves crashing on shore.

“Come here,” she said.

He hesitated.

“Let me.” She reached out. “Please.”

He shivered and lay down beside her. She closed her eyes and rested into his neck.

Beyond were the sky and the sea, open wide. He couldn’t fathom why they comforted her. The wind would pick up and it would probably rain, and by morning they would be soaked. And that boat, lights beaconing in the dark; he would probably never know what she imagined was going on inside the cabin.

He could handle that, he decided. He would handle it. He reached into his pocket for the ring. He took her hand and pressed it into her palm. “Will you?”

She lifted up and studied his face. She laughed and kissed him hard.

Beyond, out in the channel, the deck lights of the cabin cruiser flashed. Its engine turned over a few times, but struggled to catch.

 

Photo by mypubliclands

Ross McMeekin

ROSS MCMEEKIN's stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road Magazine, Redivider, and Tin House online. He edits the literary journal Spartan, and has been awarded fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle.

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