Lena Derwent had worked at Mason’s for less than a week when they started making fun of her.
“Well hi there, handsome,” they said when she was out of sight. “My name is Lena, and I come to you from the 1980s.”
“She looks like an art teacher,” said Gemma from sales. “Don’t you think? Kinda over the top? Kinda demented?”
And Joe from payroll laughed, as he often did when Gemma spoke, because he knew Gemma was unkind, but, but what if she were to come unfurled, be private, tender, alone with Joe—what then? So it embarrassed him to live on the same street as Lena Derwent, and to have recognized her as soon as he saw her at Mason’s, with her large, fuzzed hair; her slipped lipstick; her cleavage. She was the middle-aged woman in number twelve, who was out every Saturday weeding in her garden, whose large backside hung above her low front fence like the face of a sunflower. Sometimes she stood up from her gardening and said, “Morning, sweetheart!” as he passed with his dog. Joe, smiling, polite, was never sure if the “sweetheart” was aimed at him or the dog. And if she was still outside when he returned from his walk, he might smile again as she made some exaggerated motion: wiping her perspiring forehead with one arm, or pretending to bark at Groucho. She had a friendly bark—Groucho always replied, seeming to like it. Once she asked Joe in for a cool drink and some water for the “pooch,” and Joe stammered something out, said he had plans, tried not to walk that way again. So when Lena arrived at Mason’s and said right away to Joe, “Hello, stranger!” it became necessary to laugh when Gemma spoke, when she was unkind.
“How do you know her?” Gemma asked, and Joe explained that they were neighbors.
“Oh, out there in Murder Town?” she said, and he smiled; he disliked that name, but it was the only private joke they shared. It was their only currency.
“Right in the heart of Murder Town,” he said.
A shudder passed through her: outsize, fastidious. “Beats me how any of you can live out there.”
“Pure balls,” he said. Gemma laughed, and someone called her name, and so she went.
Joe lived in Murder Town because his parents had lived there, once, before they died not of murder but of natural causes, and now he lived in their house. This meant he had to drive to work and back each day along a highway that cut through a state forest. The trees of this forest rose up around his car: long, lean eucalypts with their loose leaves and their bark littering the greenish ground. The real name of Joe’s town was Barrow. A man called Paul Biga had lived there, too, and this man would drive the same highway—up and down for hours—to find a person, any person, who looked far away from home, standing with a backpack at a junction or a bus shelter or just walking along the road or waiting with a thumb out for a ride, and this man would offer them a ride, and if they accepted he would kill them and take their bodies to the forest. Or he’d take them to the forest and kill them there—Joe wasn’t sure. Paul Biga was caught and had been in prison for several years. Joe drove through the white-green forest, and there were no longer any hitchhikers on this highway.
Not long after she’d started at Mason’s, Lena approached Joe as he sat in the park eating lunch—seemed to appear before him, really; she was very stealthy for someone so large—and said, “Mind if I sit?” She held a thin, stained sandwich.
Joe gave his Saturday smile.
Her sandwich, unwrapped, was spread with something green, which he knew would get in her teeth and stay there.
“Now tell me,” she said. “I’ve been thinking of getting a dog. You have that gorgeous, clever little guy. How old is he?”
“Around five or six, I think. I don’t know for sure. He’s from a shelter.”
“Aren’t you a darling,” she said, biting into her green. “Is he part bulldog? He looks it. That’s what I’m after. What I want’s a guard dog.”
“A guard dog,” said Joe. He finished his own lunch with a certain flourish. The park was visible from Mason’s.
“Can’t be too careful, right?” said Lena, conspiratorial. “Anything could happen. Considering where we live.” She licked her thumb. “Pesto,” she said. “I grow the basil myself. I’ll bring you some.”
“No, no,” he said, raising his hands as if he were about to push some flat, heavy object away from his body. “Don’t worry.”
Lena didn’t appear worried. She smiled as he stood up, lifting her face to him; and because she was looking into the sun, her eyes narrowed. Her smile was placid, drowsy, flecked with green. “It’s not for everyone, is it,” she said. She closed her lips and ran her tongue along her upper teeth.
“Bye,” said Joe, and Lena gave a happy little shrug.
She never came to him at lunch again. On occasion, he saw her sharing a bench with Jenny, the receptionist, who was having marital trouble and would talk to anyone. Gemma said Jenny sometimes cried in the toilets, poor thing. Lena made overtures to others without success. No one was rude, exactly, but she began to spend her lunch break reading at her desk. She was careful about her break, Joe noticed. She started it whenever Mason went out for lunch, and though he was always gone at least an hour—a fact of which his previous PAs had taken full advantage—Lena was back at work after exactly thirty minutes. No one wanted to drop things off for Mason while he was in his office, for fear that he would stir behind his desk, peer around the doorframe, and ask them in to “have a word.” No one wanted to have a word with Mason, with his nicotine teeth and his “call me Bob.” So they came when he was out for lunch, and they all saw how Lena spent her break.
“It’s always true crime,” said Gemma. “The books she reads. Have you noticed?”
Joe hadn’t. He preferred to go to Lena when Mason was present, despite the threat of being drawn into the office: its wood paneling, its yellow light, as if it were perpetually Sunday afternoon in there, in the 1970s. Joe risked all this so as not to seem as if he’d approached Lena herself, alone, with some neighborly affinity.
Lena became part of the office soon enough. They just came to expect her, cheerful in the mornings, reading out the horoscopes, watering the plants; behind her back they called her Luna, until one day they started saying it to her face, and she looked pleased to have a nickname. Joe’s at first had been Josephine. He knew better than to resist, and when Josephine didn’t appear to bother him they moved on—now they called him Jam for reasons no one could remember. There were theories that Lena and Mason were having a hot affair; Gemma acted it out once with Stuart from distribution, lots of heavy breathing, faux buttons faux popped, rocking desks and buoyant legs. Joe found himself turned on. His attraction to Gemma dimmed outside the office—its full force seemed to steal up on him each morning, as he drove north through the forest, and dissipate as he drove back south. If he thought of her while jerking off, she tended to blend and merge with someone else of roughly the same shape and color, but after she and Stu panted on the desks he saw her clearly: her lifted legs, her head thrown back.
So things pressed on at Mason’s. They all went to the pub on Friday nights, and there, one sticky evening, Gemma—light on her weekend toes—kissed Joe in a dark corner, and for weeks afterward exhibited a sweet, surreptitious pity but no further inclination; Mason went shouting to hospital with a kidney stone and returned subdued; and Joe walked Groucho in any direction that wasn’t Lena’s.
One morning, Lena arrived at Mason’s late, flustered, raucous—her car, she announced, broken down, at the mechanic. Indefinite! Stranded! Explained while flushed and laughing, also teary—but then her eyes were always a little moist, as if she were poised to be moved by the world at any moment. She spoke of this breakdown as a glorious event—glorious in the sense that it was unusual, made her unusual, and she seemed to believe that everyone should hear about it, even Mason, who listened to the whole story and wanted to know which mechanic the car was at so he could call and be urgent with them. “Relies on her car,” said Mason over the phone, “lives out of town,” and Lena bubbled and smiled, billowed with gratitude; but still, by the end of the workday the car wasn’t ready, and she really was stranded. Speculation began that Mason would take Lena home with him, time to meet the wife, talk of a threesome amid giggles and grimaces, and Joe—disliking this but not brave enough to stop it, Joe whose heart was private, who was reverent of bodies, who valued tenderness above all things—went to Lena and offered her a ride.
“You darling!” she cried.
Joe left the office a step or two ahead of her but surrounded by her bustle.
Lena in the car was larger than ever; she overflowed her seat by means of bag and hair and skirt. The skirt was a bright, lifting yellow and got caught around the gear stick.
“Pure silk,” she said, gathering it in. “Have a feel. It’s lovely.”
Joe had no intention of having a feel. “Sorry about the dog hair,” he said.
“I like a messy car,” said Lena. “Shows personality.”
He imagined the interior of her car: zebra-print seat covers, scattered CDs, novelty dice. She looked like the kind of person who’d own many items to which the word novelty could be applied, who’d cover her fridge with magnets that joked about wine and cats and housework.
Joe drove carefully with Lena beside him, as if she were there to test him on his ability, and so they sailed out of town.
“I have a feeling,” she said, “a little sneaking suspicion that you and I are the same. You feel things deeply, don’t you? And you always know how other people are feeling.”
He considered the fact that he had no idea, ever, how Gemma was feeling, not even while she was kissing him.
“Anyone can see you’re a sweetheart, but it’s more than that. You knew just how I felt today about my car.”
Joe peered ahead. Everyone in the office knew how Lena had felt that day: she’d told them.
They entered Barrow State Forest, and now the light flickered as it angled through the trees. The trees were all the same width and height, the same smooth, pale gray, and the sky was a narrow ribbon over the road.
Lena cleared her throat, as if the thing she had to say was clotted and deep and must be summoned. “Tell me,” she said, “do you know what an empath is?”
“Someone who feels empathy?”
“More than that,” said Lena, solemn, rummaging in her bag. She pulled out a tiny packet of tissues. “More extreme. An empath feels other people’s emotions exactly as if they were her own. It’s a gift. I’m an empath.” She snapped a tissue from the pack. “And you’re an empath, too, Joe. I’ve known it since the minute I saw you with your precious dog, which—remember—is from a shelter. Classic empath.”
She turned her head toward the window and blew her nose with a discretion that seemed unlike her. Joe almost said, “Bless you,” as if she’d sneezed.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Old? Well, I’m twenty-nine. The big three-oh next month.”
“I was thirty-seven, maybe thirty-eight, before I really understood my gift. You have plenty of time.” She plunged the used tissue deep into the well of her bag.
They were now entirely enclosed in the white-green light of the eucalypts. On their right, there were still flashes of sun where paddocks had been cleared close to the forest’s edge; but on their left, the bush lay in a thick, bright shade. The gums were very straight until, near their tops, they branched and drooped with pale-green leaves.
“Have you been in?” asked Lena, gesturing at the forest.
“All the time as a kid.”
“You grew up here!” she said, not asking a question but stating a delightful fact.
“And what about since—you know?”
Since what? There were any number of moments in Joe’s life that might qualify: first sex (in Barrow State, as it happens, on a Friday afternoon, with Philippa Kremp, in their sports uniforms; he was chewing gum and, lost to himself, swallowed it), leaving for uni, moving to London, his mother dying, moving back from London, his father dying. But he knew what Lena meant: since we all found out that a man called Paul Biga was burying bodies in the forest.
“Not for years,” said Joe.
“I wonder,” wondered Lena. “Could we go in there?”
“Into the forest? I suppose we could. Sometime.”
“Why not now?” She turned in her seat to face him; from the corner of his eye, he saw her flat, creamy face above the white of her shirt and the yellow of her skirt. A cracked egg, he thought, and tried to unthink it.
“I know everything there is to know about Paul Biga,” Lena said. “I’ve read all the books. I have a kind of connection to him.”
Joe looked with great attention at the road ahead.
“I’ve never been brave enough to go in there alone, but I know just where I want to look.”
So she was a tourist. Joe’s dad used to call them that, in the days after Biga’s arrest: all the people who drove to Barrow, rolled through the streets, asked for directions at the post office and the petrol station. Taking photos of Biga’s house. Cruising through Murder Town. They had folders full of newspaper clippings, they marked things on maps in red pen. Tourists seemed a cruel word, considering many of Biga’s victims had, in fact, been tourists. Still, Joe understood his father’s disgust, though Joe was in
London at the time, and this talk of murder in his little town seemed too unreal.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Just around this corner is a fire trail. Do you know it?”
Of course he knew it. Fire trails were for teenagers: bored, bursting, smoking, fucking, spooking each other, showing off. Philippa Kremp lifting her green shirt over her head and handing it to him as if he’d understand what to do with it. God, what a golden mystery. She was married now and lived in Perth.
“Here, stop here,” Lena said, and Joe did, startled into compliance, but there was also something in the filtered light that had the feel of adolescence, of being young and horny and frightened, and of wanting to show a girl he wasn’t. Which was too simple a way of putting it, failing to account for the heavy burden of those days, the demand for proof that the world wasn’t terrible, he wasn’t terrible, his parents weren’t terrible, there was no such thing as terror; yet evidently there was and had to be, in order that life might be vast enough to include Philippa Kremp, who grunted gently on the forest floor, who bit her lip, who said afterward, “I knew you’d be nice about it,” who hadn’t swallowed her gum.
Now Lena Derwent was flowing in her yellow from the car. She was plunging into the forest. It was simply a Thursday, and here he was—following her into the trees.
“Lena,” he called, half-heartedly.
She turned to him with a radiant face, bright at the cheeks; she raised one hand to her ear and said, “Do you hear it?”
Joe listened and heard the beat of insects, of cars on the highway. “What am I listening for?”
Lena shook her head, smiled fondly, turned away, and continued down the fire trail. It was wide and sandy at this point, unassuming, a practical channel into the scratchy green.
“Look out for snakes,” he said, which is what they’d said as teenagers. You conjured a snake by warning against it: the girls pressed close and squealed, Adam and Eve stumbled with their ciggies through the garden, the snake yawned and smiled, the fruit hung low, oh in the surging morning of the world.
Lena didn’t stop or speak or acknowledge the warning in any way. She seemed to float down the track, and when it grew narrower she pushed undaunted through the branches.
“Again, what exactly are we looking for?” he asked, and she swatted with one forearm as if to say, Wait! Wait! Her head appeared enormous from behind, expanded by its fizzing curls, even as it ducked and weaved expertly through the tightening scrub. She’d gathered her skirt into a fist to stop it snagging.
It didn’t matter how far they walked—the forest was never dark. The light fell white through the slender trees. The low scrub became thicker, and they were heading downhill; soon they would reach a creek Joe knew, where the ferns grew huge and hairy along the banks.
But before they did, Lena stopped. She gripped his arm.
“Here,” she said.
“I think we should head back.”
“No, no,” she said, quiet, urgent. “We’re very close.”
“Close to what?”
Joe listened to the thin, sharp pipe of hidden birds. “It’s just that I need to feed Groucho.”
“Fifteen minutes,” she said, and now she pivoted sideways, away from the track and into the scrub.
“Wait,” he said. “You’ll get lost in there.”
Lena stepped in one smooth motion out of her skirt, tossing it to Joe. She wore a petticoat underneath, in the same aggressive yellow, with lace along the hem; it was
the kind of thing Gemma might wear without anything to cover it.
“Um,” Joe said, but Lena clicked her tongue.
“See that branch?” she said. “Tie the skirt up there, we’ll never miss it.”
And she moved off. Joe tied the skirt and continued after her. Looking back, he saw the yellow in the tree, limp and flashing, a soft flame.
Lena called distantly, “Hansel and Gretel, baby!”
How was she moving so fast? He would put her age at fifty, minimum.
She called, “The bark on the trees, so pale! A bit like flesh, isn’t it?”
He was breathing hard.
She called, “Nearly there, Joe, I can feel it!”
He thought of bushwalks he had suffered as a kid, his parents drumming him through the forest, and Joe thinking, What if none of this ever ends?
“Here!” Lena called. She was waiting for him around a corner, drenched in yolky light, her face serious. How did she create corners in a forest?
“This is the place,” she said. “This is where she is.”
“Where who is?”
Lena took a deep breath, like someone about to launch into a speech long suffered over. She said, “There’s another body. One they haven’t found yet.” Joe felt his heart behind his ears.
“Can’t you feel it? Her final minutes? It’s so powerful.” Lena, deferential, looked about her. “The trees. Connect with the trees. They record intense emotion. Connect with the trees, and you’ll connect with her.”
“I’m going back,” he said.
She extended her arms as if balancing on a narrow beam. She closed her eyes.
“We’re here, honey. We’re here. Help us find you.”
“This is crazy.”
She opened her eyes. Her expression was one of infinite sadness, as if, of all her trials, Joe’s betrayal was the least expected.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” she said.
“We can give her five more minutes, can’t we? You don’t have to do anything. You just stay right here and give me five more minutes to look around.”
Then Lena was moving away, though the yellow of her was always visible among the trees. He recalled a painting he’d studied in an art class, sitting behind Tracey Rowe (Tracey, whom he’d thought of with a brief, deceitful spasm there among the leaves with Philippa Kremp): a painting of a woman in a blanched Victorian dress lost in the bush—and someone saying, “It’s weird in the bush how the trees seem really far apart but when you’re inside them they’re heaps thick,” and the trees were, yes, both far apart and thick. Joe was afraid even to glance into the spaces between them, so he watched a trail of ants ascend the nearest trunk. They made a busy line on the bark. They made the tree into a world, and the world was terrible and full of sourceless noise—at any moment, some active animal could run across his foot with a finger hanging out of its mouth. He felt heat in his face and knew the fear was making him blush. He knew, too, that Gemma, were she here, would laugh at him and join Lena on her stupid hunt.
“Joe!” Lena called, off to his left, detectable in her yellow but only just. “Joe!”
What if I leave, he thought, just go back, find the car, and drive away?
“Joe!” she called again, and now she was coming for him, heaving through the trees, erupting at his elbow. Her face was luminous with fear or passion or something like both. “You have to see this,” she said, and pulled at his arm and turned away, and so he went with her—followed her—knowing all the while it was a mistake. The forest tightened around them; Lena lost her way a little, then altered her urgent path.
“It’s right here, right here,” she said from behind her hair. Her arms groped at branches. Then she stopped and said once more, “Right here,” and gestured to a tree ahead, an ordinary tree with the same smooth sides as all the others, the same pale bark, the same darker knots like navels in the naked trunk, and beneath them its roots curling and rotting and renewing, and far above them its branches moving in their own shade. But this tree—there was a length of orange tape around it, quite low down. Lena put a soft hand beneath Joe’s elbow and walked him toward it. He wanted to laugh.
“Police tape,” she said.
“Isn’t police tape yellow? Or maybe blue?” He reached out to touch the tape. It had a honeycomb design and was iridescent in the way some flies are iridescent: beautiful, he observed, but for reasons that had nothing to do with him.
“Joe, Joe,” said Lena. She placed a palm against the tree and closed her eyes.
“Don’t you see what this means? It means they found her and didn’t tell us.”
“This tape looks pretty recent,” he said. It was a relief to be rational.
She nodded. “Then they found her recently.”
“And why just one piece, around one tree?”
The tape was fastened with a firm knot, which Lena deftly untied, and then the tree became, again, like all the others.
Joe said, “We can head back now, right?”
“Right,” she said.
Lena led the way, and that seemed natural—this was her forest now—and also just as well, because Joe was unsure of the direction of the path. The tape fluttered in her fist. It occurred to him, walking behind her, that when Biga was here with the woman Lena had been looking for, he would have made her walk ahead of him. Biga behind and woman ahead. To keep her in his sight. And he’d have been saying something like, Just walk, do what I say, go left now, just walk. Maybe kicking at her if she stumbled or fell. The trees watching. And a fly at his face. Saying, just walk. Also, laughing. And a growl spreading out down his throat and spine, a rising from his gut and his legs burning, between his legs. Making noise the whole time, sometimes random things, songs,
bicycle built for two,
stairway to heaven,
and also talking, just to fill the spaces between the trees, just to press back at the scum that was the world saying, you’re scum
a raving in the trees
talking to the girl like, you filthy, fucking cunt you ugly bitch you stupid whore you dead cunt just walk
shut up shut up shut shut the fuck up
and walk, the trees watching, the world roaring the girl ahead spilling over spilling out the world lurching up in green and white to say,
yes, you’re here
the world saying, there she is now take it back and fuck you, fuck you,
stairway to heaven
and telling her to stop here and she’s moaning like a bitch in heat
and her face is wet and she’s wet and Joe
Joe bending at the waist his palm against a tree a fly at his face and throwing up a small puddle, yellow green, which soaked immediately into the earth.
“Oh, honey!” said Lena. “Oh, no!” Joe, still bent, tried to ward her off with a hand. She crouched beside him. “Can you stand?”
His throat gaped, but nothing more came up. He stood too fast, and the world tilted; he leaned against the tree. There were ants on this tree too. They seemed attentive to something he was unable to detect. They retreated from him, but that was only natural. And Lena touched his arm, which she mustn’t do; he pulled his arm away.
“I’m fine,” he said. The world righted itself. The green-white world stood back from him. But it watched.
Lena spoke to him gently, guided him through the scrub, and there was her skirt as promised, foaming golden on the branch; he untied it for her and, passing it over, enjoyed how soft and fine it felt; the path was waiting, then the car. In the car she gave him water to drink, tissues from her tiny pack, a rattling box of mints—“Keep it,” she said—all this from her bag, which seemed full of everything, of all he needed. She offered to drive, but he refused. He was embarrassed now and couldn’t understand what had made him sick.
They were both quiet on the ride home, though Lena hummed a little. When he pulled up in front of her house, number twelve, the sky was close to dark, and in the final light the garden had a strange, wet, tossed look to it, as if it had just sailed up from somewhere far away. Joe saw how pretty it was, how much care she took with it.
“Come in for a minute,” said Lena. She had one foot outside the car already; she clutched her bag and smiled at him, showing big, round teeth. “I know I could do with a drink. Come in.”
Joe agreed, though what he wanted most was to be in his own house with his dog. Still, he wanted to be in Lena’s, too, because he thought he knew what it would look like inside and he needed to find out if he was right. He needed to be assured that the world was orderly, that people advertised their true selves, that they were knowable. That there were few surprises.
And yes, inside, the house was painted in warm colors, oranges and pinks, and there were plants everywhere in pots. They curved and trailed in corners and along walls, and in the lounge room a lily on top of the television bore three red, waxy flowers. Lena turned on lamps—not overhead lights—and look, there was a novelty feather boa draped over a shade. Joe was grateful for its vehement purple. The furniture seemed heavy, overstuffed, burdened with cushions, and yet to float a little way off the floor. Every fabric surface glittered with secret mirrors. It was overwhelming to look at all at once.
In an awkward rush, he asked for the bathroom and found it clean and neat, with pale-green tiles and just one frothy fern on the windowsill. A small Japanese picture of a mountain hung above the toilet, as if placed to provide a scenic view for a man of Joe’s exact height. Something deep in the toilet made it flush dark blue and released the violent smell of berries. He rubbed some toothpaste on his teeth.
When Joe came out of the bathroom, Lena had just finished lighting a number of candles. He thought of love scenes in movies and some of the blurrier porn he’d seen, which had always made him wonder, Who owns so many candles? Who takes the time to light them? They embarrassed him, their effort and their optimism embarrassed him, but Lena was practical as she shook the flame from the last match. She poured wine into glasses with chunky, colored stems. She made him sit on the couch, and as she moved in front of a lamp and sat beside him, he could see the shape of her legs through the yellow, silk skirt. And the wine was yellow, the room was yellow, and her hair—with the candles behind it—golden at the edges.
She drank from her glass and said, “I sometimes think there’s a kind of suspicion about people who live alone. That other people look at us and think we’re all Paul Bigas in waiting. Know what I mean?”
Joe nodded. He was unsure of what he knew. Lena put her wineglass on the floor, and seeing this, Joe did the same. He leaned forward so that her face loomed up, her eyes half-closed as usual, a little damp, a smell of something coming off her—a mix of summer and talcum powder—her trembling cleavage, the nervous volume of her hair, her mouth upturned, her hands upon his shoulders, and in the background, candles, candles. He went to kiss her.
“Oh my God,” said Lena. “Joe, honey, oh, oh no.”
The hands were on his shoulders to ward him off, the mouth upturned in disbelief to stop him, and now—God, she was laughing. The world swelled and spat and said, stupid bitch old ugly fat ugly.
“I’m sorry,” she said, one hand pressed against her chest. “It isn’t—I mean—you lovely thing.”
He smiled. What else was there to do? But he knew how he was floundering, how red his face was and his neck; his hands had never felt so empty.
“My God,” she said, more sober now, but merry. “We’ve had a shock, haven’t we? It’s natural, when you think about it. You gorgeous thing, with all your eyelashes.”
Lena was standing up, and so was he. She patted down the front of her skirt. She bundled him toward the door and was still talking as she waved him down the path. He walked home, and Groucho, greeting him, licked his fingers, his palms, up his forearms, and finally—as Joe lay upon the couch—his face.
The next morning, Joe found a note pushed under his front door: Car sorted, no need for lift, thanks!!! xo L. He took his time preparing for work. He drove slowly through the forest, and when he reached the fire trail he pulled over, without having planned to do so: just saw the opening in the scrub and slowed the car. But he didn’t get out. He had the peculiar feeling that the trees didn’t want him. He thought he saw, in two or three places, a scrap of orange. A magpie sang out of its wet throat. He drove back onto the highway. At Mason’s, Joe saw a gathering of people in the reception area but, conscious of being late, walked directly to his desk. Gemma broke from the group to follow him.
“Jam!” she called. He turned to her.
“You’ll never believe this,” she said. “Luna went into the forest on her own.”
“What forest?” he asked, and it was a genuine question—what forest had Lena been to on her own?
“ ‘What forest’!” said Gemma. “Barrow State. What other forest is there?”
And because she pulled him to the reception desk—put one hand in his and kept it there—he went.
Lena seemed unperturbed by his presence. Her voice was lowered and her shoulders hunched.
“I walked for hours,” she said, “and I knew I was getting close to something big. You want to hear the strangest thing?”
The listeners nodded. Stuart from distribution was there, with his rugby shoulders and his brutal face. He leaned closer to Lena with all the rest.
“The birds,” she said. “No birdsong. Not a sound in that whole place. Birds know evil. They can sense it.”
The listeners inhaled.
“And look,” she said.
From a pocket, she drew the orange tape. It startled Joe with its brightness.
“Police tape,” said Lena.
The listeners extended their hands to it. “No way,” said Stuart, as if pleading softly with some awful god.
Gemma let go of Joe’s hand and put her arm around him, so that he felt one breast against his upper back. She spoke close to his ear. “Hey, Jam?” she said.
She smelled of flowers, but not real ones. She wore her fair, straight hair in a little knot on top of her head. She carried something with her, some future promise; it rattled with the thin, bright bangles on her wrists. She would have laughed in the forest, and huddled close when he said “snake,” and stepped out of her skirt, and when she saw him leaning up against the tree with the green-white world spitting in his ear she would have seen and hated and been afraid, as she should.
“What about a drink tonight?” she said, with her breath behind his ear. “Just you and me?”
He might have said no. But he didn’t.