‘There’s room for expansion,’ Otto said over breakfast, reading the thin-paged free newspaper the organic people sent out to all the farms. He tapped an article with his thick finger, and Peter noticed that Otto’s nail was colored black with nail polish, or a marker. Or maybe it was only a blood blister.
‘We draw a leaf or some shit on our label,’ Otto said, squinting at the page. ‘Even if it just kind of looks like this. People wouldn’t know the difference.’
Heddy simmered slices of lemon at the stove, poking at the pan with a chopstick. She’d changed into a sweater dress and her legs were rashy. Every morning since she found out she was pregnant, she’d been drinking hot lemon water. ‘It corrects your pH levels,’ she’d explained to Peter. She used the hot water to wash down all her prenatal vitamins, big dun-colored pills that smelled like fish food, pills that promised to soak the baby in minerals and proteins. It was strange for Peter to imagine their baby’s fingernails hardening inside her, its muscles uncoiling. The unbelievable lozenge of its heart.
Heddy pursed her lips sideways at her brother. ‘That’s kind of stupid, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘I mean, why don’t we just get certified, the real way?’
Otto fluttered his hand. ‘Got a few thousand lying around? You’re certainly not contributing.’
‘I’m broadening my mind.’ She was starting her first semester at the junior college in town.
‘You know what broadens after that?’ Otto said. ‘Your ass.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I had to hire more people and that costs.’
Peter had seen these new workers: a bearded man and a woman, who’d moved into one of the trailers a few weeks ago. They had a young boy with them.
‘It all costs,’ Otto said.
Heddy narrowed her eyes but turned back to the pan, intent on fishing out the lemon.
‘Anyway,’ Otto continued, ‘we can still say “natural” and all the rest.’
‘Sounds good,’ Peter said, trying to be enthusiastic. Otto was already shuffling the pages, on to something new. He seemed to like Peter as much as he liked anyone. When he found out that Peter had gotten Heddy pregnant, it was his idea that Peter move in and work for him. ‘I guess she’s eighteen,’ Otto had said. ‘No longer my worry. But if I see so much as a bruise, I’ll end you.’
Heddy put her hand on Peter’s shoulder: ‘He’s teasing,’ she said.
Peter had moved into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages, and tried to ignore the fact of Otto’s room just down the hall. Otto managed the hundred and fifty acres of orchard surrounding the house. The land was near enough to the North Coast that great schooners of fog soaked the mornings with silent snow. When it rained, the creek outran its banks, a muddy, frigid surge that swamped the rows of apple trees. Peter preferred it up here, the thousand shades of gray and green instead of Fresno with the sameness of heat and dust.
By the time he and Otto had finished breakfast – eggs from the chickens, fried in oil and too salty – Heddy had gone up to their bedroom and come down with all her things, her raincoat already zipped, a canvas backpack over her shoulder. He knew she’d already packed it with notebooks, a separate one for each class, and her chunky cubes of Post-its. No doubt she’d devised a color-coded system for her pens.
Otto kissed her goodbye, making a lazy swat at her ass as he headed out to turn the heater on in the truck, leaving Heddy and Peter alone in the kitchen.
‘Heddy’s off to Yale,’ she announced. She tightened her raincoat hood and grinned at him from the circle within. With her face isolated by the hood, she looked about twelve, the blooms of color on her cheeks tilting even more cartoonish. She slept through most everything – the dogs, the rooster, thunderstorms – and it seemed like proof of her greater moral center, something Peter could imagine existing as whole and real in her as a red apple. An innocence coupled with a strange knowingness: when they had sex, she kept looking down to watch him go inside her.
‘You look pretty,’ Peter said. ‘Done at four, right?’
Heddy nodded. ‘Home around five,’ she said. She loosened her hood, pulling it back to expose her hair, the tracks from her comb still visible.
Peter and Otto spent the day in near silence, the seats of Otto’s truck giving off vapors of leather. Otto drove the orchard roads, stopping only so Peter could dash out in the rain to open a gate, or chase down the ripple of an empty candy wrapper. No matter how much time they spent together, Peter couldn’t shake a nervousness around Otto, a wary formality. People liked Otto, thought he was fun. And he was fun, the brittle kind of fun that could easily sour. Peter hadn’t ever seen Otto do anything, but he’d seen the ghosts of his anger. The first week Peter had moved in, he’d come across a hole punched in the kitchen wall. Heddy only rolled her eyes and said, ‘He sometimes drinks too much.’ She said the same thing when they saw the crumpled tail light on the truck. Peter tried to get serious and even brought up his own father, dredging up one of the tamer stories, but Heddy stopped him. ‘Otto pretty much raised me,’ she said. Peter knew their mother moved to the East Coast with her second husband, and their father had died when Heddy was fourteen. ‘He’s just having his shithead fun.’
And they did love each other, Otto and Heddy, living in easy parallel habitation, as if the other person was a given, beyond like or dislike. They surprised Peter sometimes with their sentimentality. Some nights, they watched the movies they’d loved as children, colorized films from the fifties and sixties: orphans who could talk to animals, a family of musicians that lived in a submarine. The movies were oddly innocent – they bored Peter, but Otto and Heddy loved them without irony. Otto’s face went strangely soft during these movies, Heddy on the couch between Otto and Peter, her socked feet escaping from under the blanket. Peter heard them talking, sometimes: they carried on long, sober conversations, their voices sounding strangely adult, conversations that trailed off whenever Peter came into the room. He’d been surprised that neither Heddy nor Otto cared that much about nudity, Otto striding naked down the hall to the shower, his chest latticed with dark hair.
When Peter talked to Otto, it was only about yield. How many tons of almonds per acre, what kind of applications they’d make to the soil in a few weeks, after harvest was over. When they drove past any of the workers in their blue rain ponchos, up in the trees on ladders, or gathered around chubby orange water coolers, Otto would honk the horn so they jumped. One man held up his hand in silent greeting. Others shielded their eyes to watch the truck pass.
They were mostly seasonal pickers, moving from farm to farm, and a few students on leave from fancy colleges. The students accepted produce and a place to live as trade, an arrangement that Otto found endlessly amusing. ‘They got college degrees!’ Otto crowed. ‘They email these fucking essays to me. Like I’m going to turn them down.’
The new guy Otto had hired was different. Otto didn’t even ask him if he’d work for trade. He had already asked for advances on his salary, accompanied by careful lists of his hours written on the backs of envelopes. Peter knew Otto had let the guy’s wife work, too. Nobody seemed to care who watched their boy, except for Peter, who kept his mouth shut.
Around noon, Otto pulled the truck off into a grove of stony oaks. They left the doors of the truck open, Peter with a paper bag between his knees: a sandwich Heddy had made for him the night before, a rock-hard pear. Otto produced a bag of deli meat and a slice of white bread.
‘The kid from Boston asks if he can take pictures while he harvests,’ Otto said, folding a slice of meat into the bread. ‘What for? I ask him.’ Otto paused to chew, then swallowed loudly. ‘For his website, he says to me.’ He rolled his eyes.
‘We should get a website,’ Peter said, unwrapping the pear. ‘It’s not a bad idea.’
It had actually been Heddy’s idea. She’d written about it in her notebook. Heddy’s notebook wasn’t expressly secret, but Peter knew he wasn’t supposed to read it. It was for her self-improvement. She wrote down business ideas for the farm. Kept itemized lists of the food she ate, along with calorie counts. Wrote down what days of the week she would wear her teeth-whitening strips, what days she would jog around the orchards, ideas for baby names. She’d written the beginnings of bad, sentimental songs that confused him, songs about pockets full of rain, men with no faces. One page she’d filled with his name, over and over in ballpoint pen. It took on a new life, his name, repeated like that. The inane embroidery.
‘A website,’ Otto said, stuffing the ham into his mouth. ‘Freeman Farms on the Web. Get one of the college kids to do the thing. With photos. Apples you’d want to fuck.’
Otto laughed at his own joke. Under the far grove of trees, Peter could see the workers, clustered together for their lunch. Since it had stopped raining, some of them had hung their dripping ponchos in the branches, for shade.
Otto and Peter spent the rest of the afternoon in the office. Otto had Peter handle the phone calls to their accounts. ‘You sound nicer,’ he said. After Peter finished up a call with the co-op in Beaverton, Otto jabbed a chewed-up pen in his direction.
‘Go find out who’s gonna make our website,’ he said. ‘I want flashy shit, too, blinking lights and video and everything.’ He paused. ‘Maybe a place for a picture of us, too. So people can see who they’re doing business with.’
‘That’s a good idea.’
‘It makes people feel safe,’ Otto said. ‘Doesn’t it? To see a face.’
Heddy had taken his car to school, so Peter drove Otto’s truck out to the trailers, the passenger seat full of the cartons of extra eggs from the chickens. The workers lived in five aluminum-sided mobile homes, the roofs tangled with wires and satellite dishes, yards cruddy with bicycles and a broken moped. He could tell which cars belonged to the college kids, who needed even their vehicles to be blatant with opinions: they were the cars scaled with bumper stickers. Otto had let the college kids pour a concrete slab by the road a few months ago; now there was a brick grill and a basketball hoop, and even a small garden, scorched and full of weeds.
As he approached, Peter saw a boy out in front of the first trailer, the boy from the new family, bouncing a mostly deflated ball off the concrete. He must have been eleven or twelve, and he stopped playing to watch Peter’s truck approach. There was a shadow on the boy’s shaved scalp; as Peter pulled up to the trailer, he realized it was a kind of scab or a burn, black with dried blood, thin and delicately crackled. It covered a patch of the boy’s head like a jaunty cap.
A woman – the boy’s mother, Peter assumed – opened the door of the trailer and stood on the concrete-block stoop, not closing the door fully behind her. She was in slippers and men’s pants, cinched at the waist with a belt, and a ribbed tank top. She was younger than he would have guessed.
‘Hi,’ Peter said, stepping out of the car. He ran his fingers through his hair. It made him uncomfortable whenever Otto sent him to talk to the workers. Peter was twenty, the same age as some of the college kids. It wasn’t so bad talking to them. But the real workers, the older men – Peter didn’t like giving orders to them. Men who looked like his father; their red-rimmed eyes, the hunch of the manual laborer. Peter had harvested garlic in Gilroy during high school summers, had driven in the morning dark with his father, the cab stinking of the magenta grease they used on their Felcos. He remembered the way the group went quiet when they saw the foreman’s truck, how it was only after the truck had fully retreated that they turned the radio up again, like even the meager pleasure of listening to music was something that had to be hidden.
‘Otto said we could finish at three,’ the woman said, picking at her shirt hem. She was kind of pretty, Peter saw as he walked over to her: long black hair she’d braided, the blurry edge of a badly done tattoo creeping over her shoulder. She reminded him of the girls in Fresno. ‘It’s after three,’ she said.
‘I know,’ Peter said, sensing her worry. ‘It’s fine. Otto just wanted to know if someone knew about computers. Like, how to make websites. I’m supposed to ask around.’
‘I know computers,’ the boy said, picking up the ball. The ball was marbled in a trashy pale pink, and the boy pressed it between his hands so the ball bulged.
‘Zack, baby,’ the woman said. ‘He doesn’t mean you.’
‘I know a lot,’ Zack said, ignoring his mother.
Peter didn’t know what to say. The kid seemed sick or something, his eyes unfocused. ‘Otto wants a website for the farm,’ Peter said, glancing from Zack to the woman. ‘I’m Peter, by the way,’ he said, holding out his hand.
The woman let the door shut behind her, walked over and shook his hand. ‘I’m Steph,’ she said. She seemed to get shy then. She put her hands on her son’s thin shoulders. ‘Matt’s my husband,’ she said. ‘The beard?’
‘Otto likes him a lot.’
‘Matt works hard,’ Steph said, brushing lint off Zack’s T-shirt. ‘He’s at the store.’
‘Does he know anything about computers?’
Zack said, ‘Matt’s dumb.’
‘We don’t say that, baby,’ Steph said. She shot Peter a look, gauging his expression, then tried to smile. ‘Matt’s not great with computers. One of the younger people might be better,’ she said, nodding her head at the trailers with the hammocks strung up in the yard.
‘I’ll ask them,’ Peter said. ‘Oh,’ he remembered, ‘I have eggs for you.’ He walked back to the car and got a carton from the passenger seat. ‘From the chickens,’ he said.
Steph frowned. It took Peter a moment to understand.
‘Just extras,’ Peter said. ‘It’s not payment or anything.’
Steph smiled then, taking the carton, and shrugged. ‘Thanks,’ she said. The tattoo on her shoulder was a kind of vine, Peter saw as she came closer, thick and studded with black leaves. Or maybe they were thorns.
Zack let the ball drop to the concrete and reached out for the eggs. Steph shook her head at him, softly. ‘They’ll break, honey,’ she said. ‘It’s best if I hold them.’
Zack kicked the ball hard, and Steph flinched when it hit the metal siding of the trailer.
Peter backed away. ‘I’m just going next door,’ he said, waving at Steph. ‘It was good to meet you.’
‘Sure,’ Steph said, cradling the eggs to her chest. ‘Say goodbye, Zack.’
Steph couldn’t see, like Peter could, how Zack’s face had tightened, a look of concentration fleeting across his face. Zack let one hand rise up to graze the edge of his wound. He scratched, and a quick filament of blood streamed down his forehead.
‘He’s bleeding,’ Peter said, ‘Jesus.’ Steph let out a harsh breath of air.
‘Shit,’ she said, ‘shit,’ and she huddled Zack in her other arm, still clutching the eggs, and started pulling him toward the house. ‘Inside,’ she ordered, ‘now. Thank you,’ she called over her shoulder to Peter, struggling to get Zack up the steps, ‘Thanks a ton,’ and then the two of them disappeared inside, the door snapping shut.
Heddy came home breathless from her day; kisses on both of Peter’s cheeks, her bags tossed on the counter. She used the office computer to look up a video on the Internet that showed her how to cover her books using paper shopping bags, then spent half an hour at her bedroom desk, dreamily filling in the name of each class, smudging the pencil with her fingertips.
‘That’s the only way to get a realistic shading,’ Heddy explained. ‘Like it?’ she asked Peter, holding up a book.
‘It’s great,’ Peter said, naked on top of the bed covers, and Heddy’s eyes scatted down to study her drawing again. He had planned to tell her about his day, about Steph and Zack. That horrible wound. But it would make her sad, he thought, and she cried so easily now. Worried even when she had a bad dream, as if the fear would pass through her blood somehow and affect the baby.
‘Le Français,’ Heddy said, slowly. ‘I got to pick a new name,’ she said. ‘For class. I’m Sylvie,’ she said. ‘Isn’t that pretty?’
‘It’s nice,’ Peter said.
‘I got to pick second from a list. The girls who had to pick last got, like, Babette.’ She erased something with great concentration, then blew the remnants away. ‘I have to get special shoes,’ she continued, ‘for salsa class.’
‘Salsa class?’ Peter sat up to look at her. ‘That’s a class?’
‘I need a physical education credit,’ she said. She smiled a mysterious smile. ‘Dancing. Good to know, for our wedding.’
He shifted. He wished suddenly that he was wearing underwear. ‘Who do you dance with in this class?’
Heddy looked at him. ‘My classmates. Is that okay?’
‘I don’t want some asshole bothering you.’
She laughed. ‘God, Peter. I’m pregnant. Think I’m safe.’
He decided not to tell her about Steph and Zack.
‘We’re going to make a website for the farm,’ Peter announced, lying back against the pillows.
‘That’s great,’ she said. He waited for her to say more. To say it was her idea, not his. He sat up and saw she was still bent over her books.
‘A website,’ he repeated, louder. ‘One of the workers knows how to make one. He can set it up so people can order off it.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ she said, finally smiling at him. ‘I’ve always thought we should have one.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I had to convince Otto. But everyone else has one. It makes sense.’
‘Exactly,’ she said. She left her books on the desk to come to the bed, to lay her head on his chest. Her scalp was pure and clean through her parting. Her weight against him felt nice, the press of her tight belly, and he kissed the top of her head, her hair that held the cold of the air outside and smelled like nothing at all.
Peter propped the front door open with a brick and lugged cardboard boxes of canned food and plastic bags of bananas from the car to the kitchen table. He’d been in charge of grocery runs since Heddy started school. Rainfall was the heaviest it had been in twenty years, everything outside crusty with wet rot, and on the way to the house Peter stepped over a neon earthworm in the wet grass. The worm was slim, the color of bright new blood.
Peter cleaned out the refrigerator before putting the groceries away, throwing out the expired tub of baby spinach he’d bought on the last run, the leaves matted into a wet stink. He was still learning how to buy the right amount of food.
He could hear Otto moving around in the office. Otto had been working with one of the college kids to build the farm website. They had figured out the domain name, and there were some photos up already, a form to submit orders that was almost finished. The college kid spent a lot of time out on the porch, talking on his cell phone, his fingers pinched girlishly around a cigarette.
Peter watched now as the college kid walked back to the trailers through the gray rain. In the distance, greasy smoke was rising from the brick grill. He thought of Steph. Peter had seen her a few times, working alongside a man he assumed was Matt. She hadn’t acknowledged him. Peter hadn’t seen Zack outside the trailer again, even on sunny days.
Peter bought a notebook for himself on the grocery run. He’d meant to write in it, like Heddy did. Record his ideas, his thoughts about the world. He splayed it across his knees and waited with a pencil, a glass of water. But there was nothing he wanted to say. He wrote down what Otto had told him about living well on an acre, what plants to buy. What trees could grow from cuttings. What sort of drainage you’d need. He would need to know these things when he and Heddy got their own place. He let himself imagine it: no trailers crudding up the property. No Otto leaving commas of pubic hair on the toilet seat. Just him and Heddy and the baby. He put the notebook aside. The water in his glass had gone stale. He picked an apple from the bowl on the table and flicked open his pocket knife, making idle cuts in the apple’s skin. It would be hours before Heddy came home.
Soon he started carving designs, words. It pleased him to get better at it, to let whole sections drop cleanly under his knife. He carved his own name over and over in loops he linked around the core. Liking the reveal of wet flesh against the red skin. He lined up the finished apples in the refrigerator, where the rotting spinach had been.
He napped on the couch and dreamt about Heddy dropping a glass, the two of them watching it explode blue and low on the ground. He jerked awake. It was dark already. Otto came into the kitchen and flicked on the light. He opened the refrigerator and burst out laughing.
‘You are losing your mind.’
Peter looked up from the damp couch. Otto swung two apples by their stems, Peter’s cuts withered and browning, wrinkled at what had been their sharp edges.
‘Do you work only with apples? Or is there room for expansion? I’m talking oranges here, pears,’ Otto said. ‘I’m so proud you’re keeping busy.’
Peter got up when he heard the car outside. His shirt was wrinkled but he tucked it in as best he could.
‘It’s freezing,’ Heddy said, hurrying through the door without a coat on. Her hair was dripping onto her shoulders, her raincoat bunched in her arms.
‘Look,’ she said. She held out the raincoat. ‘Mold,’ she said, flinging it to the floor. ‘Crazy, huh?’
She didn’t wait for Peter to answer.
‘I’ll have to get a new one,’ she said, kissing him quickly. She tasted like chlorine. She’d started swimming after class in the school exercise center. ‘Low-impact exercise,’ she called it. She said it was good for the baby. Peter tried not to think about her body exposed to strangers in her swimsuit with the high-cut legs. How the seat of her swimsuit sometimes wedged itself into her ass. She got home later and later these days.
‘How was swimming?’
‘Fine,’ Heddy said. Her hair was dripping all over the floor and she didn’t seem to notice.
‘You’ve always sucked at swimming,’ Otto said to Heddy. He tore one of the plastic bags of bananas open with his teeth. He tried to peel a banana, but just mushed the top. Heddy reached over and grabbed the banana from Otto.
‘It’s easier to open it from the bottom,’ she said, pinching the banana at its stubby end so the peel split cleanly under her fingers.
Otto narrowed his eyes at her, snatching the banana back. ‘Thanks, genius,’ he said. ‘Glad to know you’re learning so much. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi and all that shit.’ He laughed, then turned to Peter. ‘Sam fixed the home page,’ he said. ‘All the pictures load now.’
‘Good,’ Peter said. ‘I told the co-op they could start ordering online in a week or so. They seemed happy.’
Heddy ignored both of them, kicking her raincoat in the direction of the trash can. Peter watched her while Otto kept talking. Each time she parked on campus, it cost ten dollars, and Peter knew she kept meaning to buy the parking pass that would save her a hundred bucks. Last week she told him, finally, that the pass was no longer a good deal. She seemed to feel this had been a great failure on her part, the failure to buy the parking pass in time.
Heddy set water to boil for her tea, cleaning her fingernails with the nails of her other hand, and then arranged herself at the table to do her homework. She’d gotten a bad grade on her first French test, and had seemed perplexed and hurt ever since. Peter didn’t know how to help her.
Otto was telling Peter some story about one of the workers, some RV they wanted to park on the property.
‘And I tell him, sure, be my guest, if you can even drive that thing,’ Otto said.
‘Can you guys go outside?’ Heddy said, finally looking up at them. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I just – I have to call someone for school. On the phone.’
It was cold on the porch, the air gusting with the smell of wet earth. Peter hunched into his coat. Otto was still talking, but Peter wasn’t listening. He looked up at the sky but couldn’t orient himself. When he tried to focus, the stars oscillated into a single gaseous shimmer and he felt dizzy. Even on the porch he could hear Heddy inside on the phone. She was speaking halting French to someone she called Babette, and she kept breaking into English to correct herself. He felt ashamed for suspecting anything else.
‘I know,’ Heddy said. ‘She is très mal.’ Her accent was clumsy, and he felt bad for noticing. Through the windows, Peter saw her pacing the kitchen, her familiar shape made foreign by the pocked glass.
Otto paused his monologue to study Peter.
‘Where’s your head at, brother?’ Otto said. ‘You look like you’re off in space.’
Peter shrugged. ‘I’m right here.’
Inside, Heddy said a final ‘Bonne nuit’. Peter watched as she gathered her books and headed up the stairs, her shoulders a little hunched. Her rear was getting bigger, a humble sag that moved him. She turned out the lights as she left, like she forgot anyone was even out there.
Peter had thought it was coyotes, the whooping that woke him up. He stood at the window of their bedroom, feeling the cool air beyond the glass. The ragged calls filtered through the dark trees and had that coyote quality of revelry – his father used to say that coyotes sounded like teenagers having a party, and it was true. He hadn’t spoken to his father since he’d left. But Peter had Heddy now. A house of their own that they’d live in with their baby, the curtains for the nursery that she’d want to sew herself.
The idea pleased him, and he glanced over. Heddy was still sleeping peacefully, her mouth open. The salts she liked to dissolve in her baths were still in the air, and a dark stain spread across the comforter from her wet hair. There was something new in her face, though, some cast of resignation, since the bad grade in French. At least she was still going to classes. She made a face when he’d asked about registration for next semester, as if even that was uncertain, though classes would end a month before her due date.
A dog had been killed a while ago; Heddy swore it had been a coyote, so Peter knew he would have to go downstairs to make sure the three dogs were tied up, that they hadn’t left any of their food uneaten. He pulled his boots from under the bed and found his hat. Heddy turned over but didn’t wake up.
The dogs were fine, up on their hind legs when they heard Peter coming. They whined and pulled their chains, dragging them heavily on the ground.
‘You hear the coyotes?’ he asked them. Their food bowls were empty and silver, smelling of their breath. ‘You scared?’
The noise came again, and Peter stiffened. The coyotes were so human-sounding. He whooped back, crazily.
‘Ha,’ he said, scratching the dogs. ‘I’m scary too.’
But the noises doubled then, and Peter could make out, in the mass of the cries, what sounded like whole words. He could see, far off in the orchard, car headlights turn on abruptly on one of the dirt roads, casting a smoldering wash of light on the surrounding land.
‘Fuck.’ Peter looked around. Otto’s truck was gone; he was probably in town. Peter hurried to his own truck and started the ignition, then jumped out to untie one of the dogs, an Australian Shepherd that Heddy had named, to Otto’s disgust, Snowy.
‘Up,’ he said, and Snowy leapt into the cab.
Heddy had taken the truck to school, and it smelled like wet clothes and cigarettes, the radio turned up full blast to the staticky dregs of the country station. She hadn’t told him she’d started smoking again. Peter knew she wasn’t supposed to smoke – pregnant women couldn’t smoke. But suddenly he wasn’t sure. Because Heddy wouldn’t smoke if it could hurt the baby, he told himself. So maybe he had it wrong. Peter fumbled with the volume knob, turning the radio off, and took the ranch roads as fast as he could without headlights.
The strange headlights he had seen were still on, but the car wasn’t moving. As Peter got closer, he slowed the truck, but he knew whoever it was had heard him. His heart beat fast in his chest, and he kept one hand on the dog.
Peter was close enough that his own truck was lit now. He parked and felt around under the seat until his hand closed around a short piece of broken rebar. ‘Hello?’ Peter called from the truck. The headlights of the other vehicle hummed steadily, and specks of bugs swooped in and out of the twin columns of light.
Peter climbed out of the truck, the dog following.
‘Hello?’ he repeated.
It took him a moment to understand that the other truck was familiar. And before he had understood it fully, Otto walked out from the darkness into the bright room made by the headlights.
He was drunker than Peter had ever seen him. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He looked to the air around Peter’s face, smiling. Like an athlete in the stadium lights.
‘Peter,’ Otto said. ‘You’re here.’
Behind him, Peter saw two women giggling in the orchard. He could see that one was naked, a plastic camera on a strap around her wrist. He noticed the other woman’s T-shirt and see-through lavender underwear before realizing, in a sickening moment, that it was Steph, her dark hair sticking to her face.
‘Steph and I made a friend,’ Otto slurred. ‘Come on,’ he said to Steph and the woman, impatient. ‘Hurry up.’
The women held on to each other and stepped gingerly through the grass toward the trucks, the woman with the camera plumper than Steph. They were both wearing sneakers and socks.
‘I know you,’ said Steph, pointing at him. She was drunk, but it must have been something else besides alcohol. She couldn’t quite focus on Peter, and she smiled in a strange, fanatic way.
‘Hi,’ said the plump girl. Her hair was blonde and worn long with jagged edges. ‘I’m Kelly. I’ve never been to a farm before.’
Steph hugged Kelly, her small tipped breasts pressing into Kelly’s larger ones. She said loudly into Kelly’s ear, ‘That’s Peter.’
Otto kept licking his lips and trying to catch Peter’s eyes, but Peter couldn’t look at him. Snowy ran up to the women and they both shrieked. Steph kicked at the dog with her dirty tennis shoes as he tried to nose her crotch.
‘Don’t kill ’em,’ Otto said to Snowy. ‘I like ’em.’
‘Come on, dog,’ Peter said, patting his leg.
‘You aren’t going, are you?’ Otto leaned against his truck. ‘Help me finish this,’ he said, the bottle in his hand sloshing.
‘Don’t go, Peter,’ Steph said.
‘I told them they’d only drink the best,’ Otto said. He held out a bottle of grocery-store champagne to Peter. ‘Open it for the girls.’
The bottle was warm. Snowy was agitated now, circling Peter’s feet, and when Peter twisted the cork and it shot into the dark, Snowy yelped and took off after it. Steph took the bottle from Peter, the bubbles cascading down her arms and frothing into the hem of her underwear. Kelly clicked the shutter.
‘See?’ Otto said. ‘That was easy.’
‘Steph,’ Peter said. ‘Why don’t I drive you back to your house, okay?’
Steph took a long drink from the bottle. She regarded Peter. Then she let her mouth drop open, bubbles and liquid falling down her front. She laughed.
‘You’re a disgusting girl,’ Otto said. Snowy came to sniff at his boots, and Otto gave him a heavy kick. The dog whimpered. ‘A disgusting girl,’ Otto repeated.
‘Hey, shut up,’ Kelly said, meekly.
‘Fuck you,’ Otto said, smiling hard. ‘Fuck. You.’
Peter started to move toward his own truck, but Otto came over and pushed him back, one hand steady on his chest.
‘Come here,’ Otto said to Steph, his hand still on Peter. ‘Come on.’
Steph turned her back on Otto, pouting. Her buttocks through the netted underwear were shapeless and crisscrossed with impressions of the ground.
‘Oh fuck off,’ Otto said. ‘Come here.’
Steph laughed, then took shaky steps toward Otto. He caught her and shoved his mouth against hers. When they pulled apart, he clapped at her ass. ‘Okay, now kiss him.’
Peter shook his head. ‘No.’
Otto was smiling and holding Steph by the hips. ‘Kiss him, babe. Go on.’
Steph leaned over so her chapped lips brushed Peter’s cheek, her body pressed against his arm. The shutter clicked before Peter could back away.
‘Listen,’ Peter said. ‘Why don’t you guys go somewhere else?’
‘Really?’ Otto laughed. ‘Go somewhere else. Interesting suggestion.’
Peter hesitated. ‘Just for tonight.’
‘I own this fucking property. You are on my property right now.’
‘Otto, go home. This isn’t good.’
‘Good? Don’t you work for me? Don’t you live in my house? You fuck my sister. I have to hear that shit.’ He pushed Steph away. ‘You think you know her? Do you even realize how long Heddy and I lived out here alone? Years,’ he spat, ‘for fucking years.’
Heddy was still asleep when Peter came into the bedroom, the room navy in the dark. He took off his clothes and got in bed beside her. His own heartbeat kept him awake. The house was too quiet, the mirror on Heddy’s childhood vanity reflecting a silver knife of moonlight. Could a place work on you like an illness? That time when it rained and all the roads flooded – they’d been stuck on the farm for two days. You couldn’t raise a baby in a place like this. A place where you could be trapped. His throat was tight. After a while, Heddy’s eyes shuddered open, like his hurtling thoughts had been somehow audible. She blinked at him like a cat.
‘Stop staring at me,’ she said.
He tried to put his arm around her, but she’d closed her eyes again, nestling away from him, her feet soothing each other under the sheets.
‘We need to get our own place.’
His voice sounded harsher than he’d meant it to, and her eyes startled open. She started to sit up, and he saw the shadowed outline of her bare breasts before she groped for the blankets and pulled them tight around her. It struck Peter, sadly, that she was covering her breasts from him.
He took a breath. ‘I could get another job. You could be closer to school.’
She said nothing, staring down at the covers, pinching at the fake satin border.
He suddenly felt like crying. ‘Don’t you like school?’ he said, his voice starting to unravel.
There was a silence before she spoke. ‘I can just work here. For Otto.’ She started to turn from him. ‘And where am I ever going to speak French anyway?’ she said. ‘You think we’ll take the baby to Paris?’ She laughed, but it was airless, and Peter saw the tired hunch of her shoulders and understood that they would never leave.
The next morning, Peter woke to an empty room. Heddy’s pillow was smoothed into blankness, the sun outside coming weak through the fog. From the window, he could see the dog circling under the shaggy, emerald trees and the trailers beyond. He forced himself to get up, moving like someone in a dream, barely aware of directing his limbs into his clothes. When he went downstairs, he found Otto on the couch, his shoes still on, fumy with alcohol sweat. A pastel quilt was pushed into a corner, and the couch pillows were on the ground. Otto started to sit up when Peter walked past. In the kitchen, Heddy had the tap running, filling the kettle.
‘And on the couch, you’ll notice my dear brother,’ Heddy said, raising her eyebrows at Peter. There was nothing in her voice that indicated they’d talked the night before, just a faint tiredness in her face. She shut off the faucet. ‘He smells like shit.’
‘Morning, Peter,’ Otto said, coming into the kitchen. Peter worked to keep his gaze steady and level on the tabletop as Otto pulled up
Heddy padded toward the stairs with her mug of lemon water, glancing back at them. Otto watched her go, then went to the sink and filled a glass with water. He drank it down, then drank another.
‘I’m in hell,’ Otto said.
Peter didn’t say anything. A band of pressure built around his temple, a headache coming on.
Otto drank more water in huge gulps, then opened the cupboard. ‘Do you forgive me?’
Otto closed the cupboard without taking anything out. He turned to look at Peter, then shook his head, smiling. ‘Shit. “Sure,” he says. Listen,’ Otto continued. ‘I’m meeting these guys today who’ve been emailing. They want to work. You have to meet them too.’
The headache was going to be a bad one, a ghosted shimmer of the overhead light starting to edge into Peter’s vision. ‘I don’t think I can,’ he said.
‘Oh, I think you can.’ Otto said.
Peter couldn’t speak, so Otto went on. ‘So we’ll meet here. Or do you want me to tell them we’ll meet in town?’
Peter pulled at his collar, then let his hand drop. ‘I guess town,’
‘Easy,’ Otto said. ‘Wasn’t that easy?’
They finished their breakfast in silence. The room got soggy with quiet, the air pressing in, a stale vapor that seemed a hundred years old. Heddy stooped to kiss Peter goodbye, her bag over her shoulder. Peter forced himself to smile, to kiss her back.
Heddy stood and Peter noticed she had put on slashes of dark eyeliner that made the whites of her eyes brighter. The faint smell of cigarettes lingered in the air where she had just been. Her hair was pinned up off her neck. She had on a light jacket instead of her old raincoat. She looked like a new person, like no one he knew.
Photograph © Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images