—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I text Aunt Billie while stuck in traffic on I-90. So close to Chicago I can smell it.
And I can: car exhaust, hot asphalt, impatience.
Her reply: Your almost home!
I tell myself not to take a typo as a portent.
* * *
Here is something I don’t know about Chicago until I get to my apartment, look out the window, and then give in to the ever-present urge to do research:
The Sears Tower, according to a redirected Wikipedia page, is now the Willis Tower.
Nobody has ever heard of the Willis Tower, least of all Billie. So when she calls the next morning, rather than complain about my dirty, dusty apartment, I tell her I have a view of the Sears Tower. It rises like a black, modern monolith above the train tracks that run parallel to my street.
“Imagine that,” she says. “That’s great, Kay. Aside from the view, though, how is it?”
Billie is the only person left in my life who calls me Kay instead of Karen. “Hot,” I answer. “Like you wouldn’t believe. It’s different than the heat back—” I catch the word home in my teeth, and say instead, “Back in Washington.”
Every window in my apartment is open, all the ceiling fans on. I’m sweating just lying on my air mattress.
It’s quiet on her end of the line, with a slight echo, like she’s speaking from the bathroom. Here it’s loud. My apartment is spitting distance from the highway and the train. My walls rumble and tremble with the sounds of other people’s movements.
“Huh. Well, imagine that,” Billie says again.
* * *
The Richard J. Daley Library, at the University of Illinois–Chicago, is an ugly building on an ugly campus. It’s also my new place of employment. At least it’s air-conditioned.
I recognize the older woman at the circulation desk from my video-conference interview. She’s frowning down at the computer like it’s left a mess on her carpet. She’s still frowning when she notices me.
“Hello,” I say. “I’m—”
“Karen. The new hire.” Her voice is sharp.
“You must be Elsa,” I say.
“I must be. Nobody else would put up with this shit before nine in the morning.”
I can’t wait to tell Billie about this conversation.
“You want some coffee?” she offers. “I could use a fresh cup.”
Elsa leads me to a narrow kitchenette with a stained coffeemaker, a fridge, and stacks of books all over the floor.
She explains, “Hold piles for the staff. You’ll have to shove everyone’s crap around to make room for yourself. Which is a good metaphor for living in Chicago, incidentally.”
She pours me a coffee and hands me the cup. “Sorry, it’s been a weird morning. My soon-to-be-ex-husband sent me another drunk email last night. Writers,” she sighs.
I hear the jingle of keys and turn just as the door opens. A man enters—or a boy, rather. He has a round, open face, a spindly bike balanced across his shoulder, and a huge keychain attached to a belt loop.
“Morning.” He notices me. “Hey. You the new girl?”
“This is Karen Smith,” Elsa says. “She’ll be working under me in Information Services.”
“I’m Patrick Lin.” His front tire knocks over a pile of books as he shakes my hand. “Nice to meet you. Has Elsa already shown you the. . . .” He makes a sweeping gesture I can’t interpret. “You know. The thing?”
Elsa pours her own cup of coffee. “We haven’t done the tour yet.”
“Oh man, it’s awesome,” he says to me. “You’re gonna—”
“Patrick,” Elsa hisses. “You’re five minutes late. Go clock in.”
“Sorry, sorry.” He puts down the bike. Elsa squeezes out around him, and I follow her.
“Nice meeting you,” Patrick calls after me.
I wave, following Elsa over to the elevators.
“So that’s Patrick,” she says after the doors close. “He’s one of the MLIS fellows. Nice kid.”
“He’s definitely friendly.”
Elsa snorts. “You say that like it’s an incurable disease.”
All of my replies sound bitchy in my head, so I just ask, “What was he so excited for me to see?”
* * *
Here is the story she tells me about the name:
One afternoon two years ago, a student worker came running up to the circulation desk, pale and shaking. “There’s a forest in the old reading room,” he said. And the punch line: “A literal forest.”
I smile to hide the impulse to roll my eyes.
“We covered it with a story about a gas leak. We closed it off, and it’s been permanently remodeling since,” Elsa tells me.
“And nobody thinks that’s weird?”
“Well, this is Chicago,” she says, as if that’s supposed to mean something to me.
I say, “If a forest pops up in a library, and nobody notices—”
“Does it make a sound?” Elsa finishes. “You tell me.”
She takes me through a series of halls, down a set of stairs. The walls are a beige color that’s straight from 1977, the carpet red-brown. It’s cooler than upstairs, damper.
She stops outside a door with streaks of mud on the carpet in front of it, setting her coffee down on the floor and gesturing for me to do the same. Elsa fishes an old brass key from her ring. Its bow is shiny, as if she’s been worrying at it between her fingers.
I wonder what’s behind the door. A broom closet? A toilet?
Elsa opens the door and there is a forest. A literal forest.
She says, “You thought I was joking.”
“I absolutely thought you were joking,” I reply. “I thought this was a prank for the new girl.”
“Don’t worry, we have those, too.” She gestures for me to go through the door, into the forest.
The trees crowd closely together, their branches intertwining so thoroughly that I can’t see the canopy. It’s mostly deciduous trees surrounding us, interspersed with conifers. There’s a thick underbrush of ferns and shrubby evergreens. The air has a familiar quality of coolness that makes me think there’s water nearby. A river? A spring? I breathe in the smell of leaf mold and moss, the cool, damp air. Birds are singing. I want to fall to my knees and dig my fingers into the dirt. It smells like home.
“It’s something, huh,” Elsa says. “And look at this.”
She picks up a leaf and spreads it out in her palm. I look closer. What I took at first for veins are actually letters, tiny strings of gibberish.
I can’t think of anything to say.
“I’ve got the only key,” Elsa says. “The door is locked at all times. I don’t want any students knowing about it. I don’t want some idiot freshman sneaking in on a dare and getting lost.”
“Lost?” I say. “How big was the reading room?”
“Not this big,” Elsa says. “I know that much.”
We both look up, into the leaves and branches. I can’t see the ceiling.
“Have you explored it?” I ask. “Studied it?”
“No,” Elsa says. “And no. Neither will you. That comes straight down from the provost. If you talk about it or come in here when I’m not with you, you’ll lose your position and any chance for a professorship here.”
I’m still looking up at the canopy. Elsa puts a hand on my shoulder and turns me to face her. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Talk about it, get fired. Yeah.”
“Good,” she says. “Let’s go. I really haven’t had enough coffee for this today.”
I put the leaf in the pocket of my slacks, hoping it won’t crumble before I can take it home.
She doesn’t mention the forest again, and keeps me by her side for the next four hours. Just as I’m sliding into a low-blood-sugar stupor, she tells me to go eat lunch.
In the break room, I pull out my copy of Thoreau’s Walden with my sandwich. It’s the only book I have that’s not packed away or in storage. I carried it with me as I drove a U-Haul east to Chicago, read it in rest stops and motel rooms. It was probably an act of masochism to be reading about life in the woods as I moved to a big city. Seems ironic now, or prescient.
It’s hard to imagine that a few hours ago, I stood in a dark, impossible forest, stuffed inside an unused room in the middle of the city. I wish I could show Billie. She’d want to explore it immediately.
I wish I could show my father. The thought hits me sideways, out of nowhere, and it hurts. It always does.
“What are you reading?”
Patrick’s voice startles me. He’s holding a Tupperware container and a worn paperback. Its cover is laughably bad, floating eyeballs and galaxies and improbably dressed women. It looks like it was written by someone who’s fluent in more than one Star Trek language.
I hold my book in front of my face. “Thoreau. Walden.”
“Walden,” he repeats. “Cool. Do you like Thoreau?”
“I like how he writes about solitude,” I say, hoping he’ll take a hint and let me eat in silence.
He doesn’t. “What does he write about solitude?”
That it’s better company than other people, I think. But Billie expressly forbade me from being rude to my coworkers on my first day, so instead, I say nothing at all.
Patrick clears his throat and opens up his Tupperware, dumping its contents into a bowl and sliding it into the microwave. “So you saw it?” he asks in a low voice. “The old reading room?”
I put down my book and think of the leaf in my pocket, with its veins that aren’t veins but words.
“How did Elsa expect me to pay attention to anything else after showing me that?” I say.
“You’ll get used to knowing it’s there,” Patrick says. “I did, anyway. It’s cool and all, but it’s not like I see it all the time. Hardly ever, actually.”
“Does Elsa lead field trips or something in there? I thought she had the only key.”
The microwave dings. I keep quiet, waiting, as Patrick fusses with his food.
Patrick whispers, “She doesn’t have the only key.”
I stare at him.
“If Elsa finds out, she’ll fire me. And she’s on my thesis committee, so I’ll fail. Keep it to yourself, okay?”
“All right.” I take a bite of my sandwich. Try desperately to think of something else to talk about. “So. You like . . . biking?”
Patrick relaxes. “Oh, yeah. Chicago’s great to bike in. You just have to watch out for the cabs. And the pedestrians. And the potholes. And the buses. You should come on a ride with me.”
“I don’t have a bike,” I say.
“My roommate has, like, five. One of his will probably fit you. What are you doing Saturday?”
I open my mouth to make an excuse, but what pops out is, “I’ll go on a bike ride with you if you take me back into the forest.”
Patrick, panicked, looks around to make sure nobody heard. “Okay,” he says quietly. “Just a quick trip, though. And not right away.”
* * *
I call Billie when I get back to my apartment.
“How was your first day?” she asks.
I lie back on my air mattress. The apartment building trembles as a train goes by.
“More interesting than I thought it would be,” I say.
“What a thing to say,” Billie grumbles. “About the least informative answer you could give.”
I can’t tell her about the forest—even if it wasn’t grounds for termination, she’d never believe me—so I tell her, “There’s this one guy at the library. He’s kind of a dork. He invited me to go on a bike ride with him.”
“Oh, a bike ride? Is that what the kids call it these days?”
I groan. “Don’t, Billie. I’m not even a little interested in him like that.”
“You’re gonna have to get back on that horse someday,” says Billie.
Awkward silence. I dumped my last boyfriend when my dad got his terminal diagnosis. I haven’t been interested in dating since.
I listen to Billie breathe, and she listens to me. We’re both waiting for each other to speak.
She asks, “Is it still hotter than hell there?”
“Yeah. Still having a cool spell?”
“Can hardly call this summer,” Billie grumbles.
* * *
By the end of the week, I can find my way around the library. So it’s no accident that I wind up downstairs on the east side of the building, retracing the path that Elsa took me on the first day. Last night, I dreamed that I was following a river that led deeper and deeper into the forest.
Here is a thing I don’t tell most people: I got lost in the woods once, when I was young. Billie is—was—my father’s sister, and when my mom died, he sent me to spend a few weeks out at her place. I was thirteen.
Billie’s property in Bellingham abuts a state forest. I wandered into it one day, and stayed there for seven hours before I stumbled back out into the road and hitched a ride back to Billie’s. The drive took only about fifteen minutes.
Billie shouted at me for scaring her, then made me soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. I went to bed while the last of the evening light disappeared, my mind still wandering amid the trees until sleep took me.
Years later, I told my father. He said, “I always wondered if something happened. You seemed different when you came back.”
He didn’t answer, just said, “I figured it was because of your mother. Losing a parent changes a person.”
* * *
“Nice place,” Patrick tells me on Saturday morning. He’s brought an old Schwinn with him, and he adjusts the seat and brakes for me while I stand awkwardly by his side.
“How long has it been since you rode a bike?” he asks.
“It’s been a while.”
He looks skeptical. “We’ll go for a short ride.”
The short ride is still longer than any that I’ve ever been on, and more terrifying. We ride on the street, cars driving alongside us, music thumping through their windows. It’s a relief when we turn off the main road onto shady neighborhood streets.
Eventually we arrive at a little park in Chinatown that’s hemmed in by the river on one side and rows of brick duplexes on the other. There’s a red gate with Chinese characters painted on it in gold, and a pavilion. It’s mostly deserted, save for a few old men fanning themselves. The river is sedate, lazy from days of no rain.
“This is one of my favorite places in the city,” Patrick says. I can see why.
Looking south over the river, there’s the oddest bridge. There are two turrets on each bank, straight and made of steel. Connecting them is a big arch with what looks like a tiny house in the center of it.
“What’s that?” I ask, nodding at it.
Patrick follows my gaze. “I think it’s a drawbridge. The arch goes up and down.”
“And the house in the middle?”
Patrick smiles. “It’s probably just where the controls are.”
Maybe there are controls for the bridge, but maybe there’s something else, hidden behind the sooty door. Something secret and strange and impossible, an entire microcosm hidden away. If a library can have a forest, who knows what could be hidden in a house in the middle of a bridge?
* * *
“Tell me more about this boy,” Billie says.
“There’s really not much to tell,” I answer. “He shouted at some asshole who catcalled me while we were biking and then took me to a park by the river.”
“Sounds like love,” she sighs.
“I don’t want love,” I say.
“Everyone wants to be loved,” Billie says.
I let silence and static fill up the miles between us. I don’t want to be loved. Not like she’s thinking.
“Oh, Kay, don’t listen to me,” she says. “I just worry about you, all alone out there.”
“There are three million people in Chicago, Billie, I couldn’t be alone if I tried.” Even now, I can hear people talking loudly in the alley behind my apartment, cars and trucks on the freeway, busses on the street. There’s a child crying in an apartment below me, and a couple arguing above.
“True,” Billie says. “I don’t think I could put up with it, myself.”
I lie back on my air mattress. I imagine Billie’s house, nestled among the tall cedars. There, you only hear the trees creaking and the crows and jays. Wind. Leaves. Songbirds in the morning and at dusk.
Homesickness is an odd feeling. Every part of you curls up like a dried leaf.
I confess, “I don’t know how much longer I can, either.”
We breathe in sync despite the mountains and miles between us.
Billie says, “Kay, I know it was hard on you when your dad died.”
I suck in a breath. We don’t talk about him. Dad got sick suddenly but died slowly, and it was hard and awful and the worst year of my life.
“So?” I say to Billie. It comes out harsher than I intended.
“So I thought getting away from here might be good for you. That’s why I told you that you should take the job and go to Chicago. And you know he would have wanted you to take it.”
I’m glad that my apartment is dark. I don’t think I could hear this in daylight, or under the glare of a sixty-watt bulb.
“I should let you go,” I say.
“I love you. Bye.”
* * *
The leaf from the forest is paper-thin. I hold it carefully by the stem, trying to read the lines of letters that march up and across its ribs.
When the pain got bad, Dad liked to go to the back deck or window and watch the trees. He said it calmed him, staring up at the leaves as they swayed in the wind.
Washington’s Death with Dignity law has been on the books since 2008. I voted for the law during the election. My dad voted against it.
“It’s a good thing finer minds prevailed,” he joked when he told me what he wanted, the day we asked the doctor for the pentobarbital prescription. My dad was never any good at telling jokes.
He died in Billie’s backyard, wrapped in a blanket and sitting in a lawn chair, face tilted toward the crowns of the cedars, which were catching the last light of the day.
We spread his ashes in the bay. Billie’s neighbor took us out until the town receded to a thin line on the lip of the water. I dumped the ashes off the leeward side of the boat.
“There he goes,” Billie said, as they spread out in the water and sank. “He’s free, now.”
There aren’t many trees on my block. I have to close my eyes to see leaves and branches, shifting back and forth in the wind. When I open them, there’s only a tiny dried leaf in my hand, strings of knotted letters making up its veins. A tiny, mysterious memento.
* * *
“So it’s been a week.” Elsa leans against my desk, ever-present cup of coffee in one hand. “How are you adjusting?”
“To the job?” I say. “I think I’m doing pretty well.” I rest my hand on the stack of new books I’ve successfully wrestled into the Library of Congress cataloging system.
“How about to the rest of it?” she asks.
The heat was unbearable last night. I barely slept. I kept thinking of the forest: the cool shade and the smooth trunks, the river or spring that I’m inexplicably sure is there.
If a forest pops up in a library, and nobody talks about it, does it make a sound?
I tell Elsa, “I’m doing okay.”
“It’ll get easier when the students come back,” Elsa says. “They’ll keep you busy. It won’t feel like such a ghost town.”
“That’ll be good. Busy is good.”
“And it’ll storm soon. That should cool things down.”
The storm blows in a few days later, while I’m at the library. The rain comes down so hard that sheets of water slap at the window. Thunder rattles the windows and my bones. I’ve never seen such a storm. I’m terrified, but I can’t move away from the window. Lightning forks down from the sky, burning white. The sky is a sickly color, orange-green-gray.
“It’s awesome, isn’t it?” Patrick says.
I don’t know why we’re always in each other’s orbits at work. Well, maybe I know: he likes me, and I haven’t tried to learn anyone else’s name just yet.
I ask, “Is this normal?”
“Sure,” Patrick says. “Aren’t there storms like this in Washington?”
“Not my part of it.”
The rain falls and falls, until all at once, it tapers off to a manageable drizzle. Outside, the streets are flooded with puddles inches deep, lapping over the edges of the sidewalks. Leaves and branches litter the ground, torn from trees by the wind and water.
The rain keeps up for most of the night. The soothing sound of it muffles the rest of the city’s clamor.
The next morning, I don’t wake up in a pool of sweat. For the first time since I moved, I think I might be able to stay.
* * *
Patrick invites me to a bar in the neighborhood. It’s dim and dark inside, with a pool table in the back and a pinball machine. Soul music snakes out of the speakers above the bar.
The bartender recognizes Patrick, asks him how his thesis is going. He asks if I’m “the new girl.”
Patrick’s blushing. I shrug and say I started last week, then ask for a bottle of Pabst, which is the only thing I recognize on the menu. Patrick asks for his “usual,” and the bartender moves away.
“I may have mentioned you to Carlos,” he says self-consciously.
I consider pressing him about what he said. Instead, I ask, “What’s your thesis about, anyway?”
Patrick seems relieved by the change of topic. “Immigration narratives in science fiction, and how it ties into outreach into immigrant communities.”
“Huh. That’s pretty cool,” I say, surprised.
He smiles. “I was a geeky kid. I was always into the idea of new worlds. And my grandparents were from Hong Kong. I used to dream about what their journey would have been like.”
“You wanted to explore new worlds, but you don’t want to go back to the forest?” I ask.
I didn’t think that it had been on my mind, but I can’t forget the feeling of that air against my skin, the cool shade, the trunks of those impossible trees.
Patrick looks into his drink, stirs it with the narrow straw, and doesn’t answer. My stomach sinks a little.
“Do you actually have a key?” I say. “Or were you just trying to—”
“I wasn’t lying,” Patrick says, indignant. “It’s just—I’m not an explorer. I’m a librarian. Or I’m going to be, anyway.”
“Are they mutually exclusive?”
“Maybe not for some people,” he says. “They are for me.”
“Why?” I ask.
He’s quiet for a long moment, and when he does answer, he doesn’t meet my eyes. “I did go in once, after I got the key. I was gonna stay the night, whole weekend maybe. I brought a sleeping bag, a tent, food. But when I got in there, and I shut the door behind me. . . .”
“What? What happened?”
“Nothing happened. I just—I freaked out over how dark it was.”
Don’t laugh, I tell myself, and bite my lip until the impulse passes. Then I really think about it. The woods around Billie’s house are dark even during the day, and at night, the darkness eats the light of fires and flashlights, cuts it into ribbons, diminishes it to nothing within a dozen yards.
In the city, even alleys have lights shining in them. Light bounces off the clouds, precipitates down from the air. How would the darkness of the forest feel to someone who was used to that?
“Another drink?” Patrick asks, looking desperate to talk about anything else.
“Sure. Tell me more about immigration narratives in science fiction.”
We drink and play pinball and talk about postcolonial space operas and intergalactic refugees until midnight. Patrick walks me home, pushing his bike, expounding on Islamophobia in medievalist high fantasy. He gives me a one-armed hug at the gate of my apartment building.
“You smell good,” he mumbles into my hair.
“Uh,” I say.
“Sorry,” Patrick says, and pulls away from me. “I just mean. You smell like . . . somewhere. Elsewhere.”
I stare at him.
“Somewhere else,” he tries. “Like mountains. Sorry. That’s creepy.”
“It is a little.”
“I’m drunk,” he confesses.
“I know.” I am too.
“I guess I was trying to impress you,” he says in a rush. “When I told you I had a key to the forest. You just—when you talked about it, you seemed so different, and before you’d been all. . . .”
He looks at me like I might be able to help him find a descriptor. I can think of a few: standoffish, aloof, bitchy, lonely, friendless, orphaned.
“I have a massive crush on you,” he says. Which I knew, but hearing him say it feels a little like being pushed down a flight of stairs.
He waits, but I can’t think of anything else to say.
“Okay. Well. I’m gonna . . . yeah. See you at work tomorrow,” he says. He looks mortified. I probably do too.
I blurt out, “Maybe we can go for another bike ride this weekend.”
“That . . . that would be cool,” he says. He mounts his bike in one fluid movement and flees.
On the air mattress that night, I listen to the traffic moving on the nearby freeway, like blood moving through a giant artery. I wonder if it’s possible to make a life like I had in Washington, before my father died last year, before I stopped talking to all my friends, and everything in me went toward going to classes and doing homework and not crawling into the woods like a wounded animal to die.
I think of the forest hidden behind a door in the library. If it happened there—a forest unfurling and spreading through a single room in a single building, transforming bound books into tree trunks and ferns—could it happen anywhere? Are there other pockets where the wilderness has intruded onto the orderly architecture of a city of stone and concrete?
I think of the forest that swallowed me for seven hours when I was thirteen. That was more than half my life ago, but some days it feels like I just stumbled into my borrowed room at Billie’s, and I’m watching the light recede from the trees and the darkness emerge. Some days I feel like it’s waiting until I’m ready to come back.
* * *
Here is what Patrick says when he shows up at my apartment for our bike ride, after two days of terrible awkwardness at work:
“Can we just forget that I’m an idiot and that I made things weird?”
People in Washington never talk this way. It’s a surprise, but not a bad one. I tell him, “Okay. We can do that.”
“Okay,” Patrick says. “Bike ride?”
We bike downtown, where the buildings glint in the sunlight, hard metal and cement. Patrick goes faster than he did last time, like he wants me to work to keep up with him. We go underneath Lake Shore Drive, and Lake Michigan stretches out in front of us.
I always forget about the lake. Chicago is laid out on a grid, so rigidly angled that you sometimes forget that the earth underneath your feet is a gentle curve, defying generations of cartographers and their deflated two-dimensional maps. The lake is the only place where the land has its natural contours.
The bike path is crowded, the beach even more so. That doesn’t stop us from rolling up our pants legs and wading into the water.
“You used to live by the ocean, right?” Patrick says.
“Was it. . . . Was it like this at all?”
“Have you ever been?” I ask, though I’m already sure of his answer. “To the ocean, I mean.”
I look at the warm water swirling around my ankles and tell him, “It’s nothing like this.”
“Oh,” he says, and I understand that he was trying to give me something. I wish I knew how to tell him I appreciate the thought without sounding so condescending. Around us, kids shriek and splash each other, teenagers sunbathe on towels, families pass around drinks from coolers. It’s not so peaceful, but it’s where we are.
“I do like it here,” I say, and Patrick smiles a little.
We ride back the way we came. I think I’m starting to like biking in the city. It’s extreme meditation. The repetitive motion of my legs, the way my weight melds with that of the bicycle: it’s calming, not the way that watching the leaves was, but it sweeps the city’s jangling discordance out of my head.
I’m looking up ahead at Patrick, and not to my right, so the pedestrian coming out between the cars takes me completely by surprise. I swerve into the road, hear a loud honking, swerve again, and collide with a parked car, and I fall and fall for a long time.
I think of the way my father’s ashes fell into the water, pouring from the wooden box in my hands, drifting on the wind before they landed, then sinking piecemeal below the surface.
Before my father died, we went to the beach often. When my mother was still alive, she didn’t share his and my fascination. She’d shake her head as we hurried her along, and say, “It’s the same ocean it was yesterday, what’s there to get excited about?”
It’s always the same ocean, but it’s never the one you saw yesterday, or last week, or the day you dumped your father’s ashes into the gray water. It’s always there, and it’s itself. The ocean I left last month is not the one in my memory, and not the one that exists today, far away from me.
That’s the difference between the ocean and this lake, even if the horizon sits at the elbows of both.
There’s noise. There are people gathered around me. Patrick is swearing. The woman I almost hit on my bike is crying.
“I’m all right,” I say, but I’m probably not.
Patrick tells me, “The ambulance is on its way, so don’t move. Karen. Don’t move, okay?”
It occurs to me to tell him that my friends called me Kay, when I still had friends. Before my father was diagnosed, I was good at having friends. I lost the knack and nickname by the time he died.
Opening my mouth again makes me want to throw up. So instead, I let Patrick lean me against a parked car, and I breathe steady through my nose, trying not to gag at the smell of hot asphalt, exhaust, and my own blood dripping down my face.
* * *
Here is why I got lost in the woods at thirteen: a combination of stupidity and the desire to be found. I wanted to know that people would look for me. I suspected they wouldn’t. My mother had died in a car accident. My father had shipped me off to my aunt’s house while he dealt with his grief over Mom’s death. Billie was a near stranger, taciturn and quiet.
So I wandered into the forest. I kept going farther in, and then I looked around and realized that I had no idea what way I’d come.
When I was lost, time didn’t really matter. I didn’t have a watch, and I couldn’t see the sun to mark its passage across the sky. Not until it was nearly setting, and then it occurred to me that the forest bordered the highway on its western edge.
Did I want to stay the night in the woods? Did I want to stay lost?
Selfishly, I did. But I trudged out west anyway, continuing to walk even as it got dark around me, hoping I’d stay on track enough to get to the road.
* * *
I hate hospitals. They smell like slow death.
“Karen wanted me to tell you that she’s okay,” Patrick says into my phone. “She wanted me to tell you that first off. She’s all right.”
I’m lying on my side while the doctor cleans the gravel out of my shoulder. My head hurts too much to have Billie’s long-distance worry delivered right into my ear. Concussion. My doctor scolded me for not wearing a helmet, and I made a special effort to throw up on her. She was too quick for me, though.
“She wants to talk to you,” Patrick says, holding out the phone.
“Billie,” I say, loud enough that my voice should reach her. “I’m concussed and miserable. I’ll call you later.”
It was a bad idea to call Billie from the emergency room. She hates hospitals just as much as I do.
“She still doesn’t believe you’re really alive,” says Patrick.
“Take a picture and send it to her,” I reply.
“You sure?” Patrick asks. “You don’t look too great right now.”
I don’t care how I look. “Do it.”
There’s the fake sound of an imaginary shutter.
“I’m gonna apologize now,” he says into the phone. “But she insisted.”
* * *
“You look like hell,” Elsa says the next morning.
“Bike accident,” I explain. The painkillers make me feel slow and stupid.
“Patrick told me what happened,” she says. “Do you need time off to recuperate?”
I blink at her. Patrick insisted that I sleep at his house, in his bed, in case I needed anything. His bed was comfier than my air mattress, but I still slept terribly. Patrick seemed appalled when I told him that I was going into work. He must have called Elsa while I was on my way here.
“I feel okay,” I lie. “Besides, this place is air-conditioned.”
Elsa purses her lips. “Your work ethic is admirable. Still, you should go home. Take the week off and go easy on yourself.”
I nod, and wince. Most of the muscles in my neck and back hurt.
“I’ll call you a cab, too. It’s hot out there today,” Elsa says.
* * *
My apartment is heating up again. I look up the weather for the next week and want to cry when I see the heat index creep up to one hundred as the week goes on.
My phone rings. It’s Billie.
“I’m okay,” I say instead of hello. “I didn’t die of a concussion during the night.”
“Goddamn it, Kay,” Billie says. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“I’m okay, really.”
“Did you even look at that photo you sent me?”
“I sent you a photo?” I ask, then remember. “Sorry.”
“Why the hell are you riding a bike in that city, anyway? I’m surprised you didn’t get run over sooner.”
There are only so many ways to reassure Billie that I’m bruised but not completely broken, and I try them all.
“I hate it,” is how she responds. “I hate that you’re so far away and I can’t make sure you’re all right myself.”
“I am, though,” I say. “I’m all right.”
“I spent all last night looking up flights to Chicago.”
“Don’t do that,” I groan. “It’s not that bad. Besides, there’s another heat wave coming, you don’t want to be here right now. I don’t want to be here right now.”
“You can always come back,” Billie says.
I try to get some words out around the heavy stone of homesickness that’s materialized in my throat. Nothing comes.
“Forget I said that,” Billie says quietly. “Don’t mind me, I’m just. . . .”
“Well, whatever you are, I am too,” I say. “But I can’t go back, I haven’t even been gone a month yet.”
Billie doesn’t say anything to that. I listen to the static, the humming of the thousands of miles between us.
“I’ll be all right,” I say. “You can come visit me someday. Maybe in the fall. Or the winter.”
“The winter? I’m not coming out to Chicago in the winter, I hear they’re the worst.”
There’s a cheerful thought. “Spring, then. At the latest,” I say.
“I am proud, you know,” Billie says, and the way her voice breaks is what makes me cry. “Your father would be, too. You’re the bravest girl I know.”
* * *
But I’m not brave. I’m desperate. The temperature is climbing, and I’m stuck in my apartment with a fractured arm, a concussion, and a dwindling supply of painkillers. I couldn’t sleep last night, just fall into a thin doze like a fever dream. The literal forest intruded into my imagination, and the rumbling of passing trains and trucks became an earthquake as trees cracked through the foundations of my building, shooting up through the floor. Only it wasn’t the forest I remembered, but a sticky, hot jungle, and I stumbled through it, desperate to find the river I knew existed.
Patrick’s in the bathroom, and he’s left his keys on the kitchen counter with a bag of groceries he brought over. My fingers tremble as I look for a key that matches the one I saw in Elsa’s hand.
There are two keys that have the same bow Elsa’s did. They look newly copied, untarnished and smooth. Which could mean nothing. He might keep the key hidden away in his apartment somewhere. He might have thrown it out.
I get the two keys off the ring and tuck them in my sling, dropping the other keys back on the counter just before Patrick comes out of the bathroom.
Did he hear me?
Patrick smiles tiredly at me and asks if I want dinner.
“Sure,” I say.
Patrick picks up his key ring and clips it to his belt, not noticing the change in its weight.
* * *
I tell myself I’ll only go for an hour. Maybe two. One night, at the most, just to get away from the heat.
If a librarian disappears into a forest, and she doesn’t make a sound, will anyone notice?
The campus is still empty of students. I can hear the noise of the city, though, the perpetual hum of nearly three million people, all of them talking over each other, listening to music, laughing, drinking, coughing, sobbing. Somewhere in the noise, Elsa is typing out an angry email to her drunk ex-husband. Somewhere else, Patrick is sitting in his apartment, writing his thesis. Maybe he’s wishing he hadn’t told me about his crush. Or maybe he’s wishing that he had kissed me. Or maybe he’s not thinking of me at all, but of another world, and the journey it would take to get there.
I think of a river that I only saw in a dream. If a forest can be in a library, if books can be transformed into trees and ferns, a river isn’t impossible. There are so many possibilities, but nobody has mapped a single one.
The library is quieter at night, the silence as stifling as the heat outside. I lock the door behind me and walk through the foyer, down the stairs, through the hallways where the air is muggy and still. Soon enough, I’m standing in front of a door. I pull the two keys out of my sling, where I’ve kept them since this afternoon, pressed against my skin.
The first one slides into the lock but doesn’t turn.
The second one gives a little and, when I jiggle it, slides the tumblers free. I push the door open, and cool air washes over me. The noise of the city is muted, and I can hear birdsong, something beautiful and melodic. Maybe someone left a book by Coleridge or Keats in here when the forest happened, and it transformed into something winged and singing. What else is in here? What kind of ecosystem sprang from the inked words of authors’ imaginations?
I step inside and pull the door closed shut. The darkness falls like a cool blanket across my shoulders, welcoming me.
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago. Their writing has appeared in the Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Daily Science Fiction, Autostraddle, In the Fray, and Gozamos. One time, some angry guy called Nino a verbal terrorist, which made a great T-shirt slogan. You can talk to Nino about verbal terrorism, silly T-shirts, non-binary genders, bikes, otters, and anything else you can think of on Twitter or Tumblr.