*Image: “Troutzilla” by Dave Petraglia
In the Bodies of Beautiful Fish
by Michael Minchin
When Quinn Meyers looks up from his cutting board, there are more fish moving along the conveyor: fat salmon, already gutted, or half-gutted, messy from the machines that cannot slice the fins neatly enough or strip the pink membrane from the cavity with the delicate swipe of a blade. The salmon are ice-cold, packed deep in the trucksized, metal hopper, and always there are more fish and more guts, and there is nothing to do but work and think, and since June, Quinn has been thinking about Amelia Bell. And after last night, there is almost nothing else he can think about.
He checks the grimy clock on the wall: two hours until the end of his shift, which is at midnight, when the sun will finally set. He cleans one fish, his hands already numb with cold. One hour and fifty-nine minutes to go. Then, as he is reaching for another salmon, the supervisor, the woman who wears the red fireman’s hat, taps him on the shoulder. She is looking for volunteers for the cleanup shift, which everyone hates. It pays a dollar an hour more but will rob him of the early morning, which he imagines spending with Amelia.
But because he is broke from his freshman year at college, he agrees to work the extra hours. He will see Amelia at breakfast, he tells himself. He doesn’t care that she burns the eggs or that the bacon tastes like bits of charcoal. He thinks of her long, strawberry blonde hair, petite nose, her freckles like so many tiny stars, which make her look younger than he knows she is.
When the work began, he checked off the days on the wall beside his bunk with a marker, wondering if his hands would make it to the end of August or if they would freeze permanently into claws. He wondered when he would sleep more than three or four hours at a time. But now it is early July, and as the fish rush in hoards from the hopper onto the conveyor and the workers holler for the operator to slow down, Quinn thinks the summer is going too fast. Strangely, he hopes the fish will never stop coming. Guts slide off his cutting board and down the drains onto the beach to be consumed by the rising tide or the bears, whichever gets there first.
In the dark hours after midnight, when most of the workers are asleep in the bunkhouse, Quinn scrubs the conveyor with solvent strong enough to burn holes in his flannel shirt. He has no eye protection, just a bucket, a scrub brush, and an aluminum ladder that reaches fifteen feet to the cannery ceiling where he slithers along on his belly, pulling guts out of the metal framework and rollers, all the while hoping he won’t splash chemicals in his eyes or fall to the concrete below. After he has removed most of the guts, he stands below and sprays the length of the conveyor with a hose, sending a rain of fish entrails onto his coat. He imagined he would get rich in Alaska, earn enough to pay for four years of college, but now, standing in the cold water he realizes this was something he made up or put together from rumors he had heard or thought he had. With overtime, he earns seven dollars and fifty cents an hour. So far, he has made enough to pay for his airfare and buy a few books next semester. But when he thinks of Amelia Bell, of the brief hours they spent in her shack, he feels a warmth flooding him and he can’t help but smile despite his exhaustion.
In the gray light of morning, Quinn walks the dirt paths to the bunkhouse. He wills his feet to move, but they feel independent of his body, as if they might walk off into the tundra on their own. He has to force his arms to open the heavy, wooden door, and when he lies down, he sleeps immediately, without undressing, and wakes soon after to boots stomping on the bunkhouse floor, the steady trudge of workers making their way to the mess hall.
At breakfast, he sits with Diego and some of the others who nod but are too busy eating to talk. When Amelia walks out with a steaming tray for the buffet table, she does not look at him. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail and she looks tired but somehow more beautiful for it. Her apron is stained every shade of blood. She works efficiently, but he can tell she is going through the motions like the rest of them, trying to earn a few dollars to survive on.
He has a pang of fear she won’t look for him, but when she turns from the buffet table, her eyes sweep the room and stop on his. He forgets to swallow and nearly chokes on a piece of bacon. He thinks he sees her smile, but there is something in her expression he can’t quite read, curiosity perhaps or disappointment. Then she is gone, into the kitchen, the saloon-style doors swinging behind her.
When the others are gone, he steps into the kitchen and finds her chopping carrots. An older man with dark, leathery skin is mixing something in a bowl by the far wall. He stops momentarily, then goes back to his work. Amelia looks up at Quinn but continues chopping.
“I was wondering if you wanted to hang out tonight,” he says, but his voice sounds weak in his ears, no more than a whisper, as if he has spoken only to himself.
“Won’t you be late for work? You better run.” She does not look up, and this makes him feel impossibly small.
“It’s okay,” he says, though in fact he has just ten minutes to spare. “I’ll be done around midnight.”
“You should sleep,” she says, setting the long knife beside the cutting board. “You look exhausted.”
“So do you,” he says before he can stop himself.
“Watch it, buddy.” She laughs, a high, clear sound that puts him at ease. She picks up the knife and points the end at him, her face softening into a wry smile.
“I know what you meant,” she says. “It’s all right. I didn’t sleep last night. The wind kept me up. Sometimes this place gets to me, you know.”
“Can I see you later?” he says, surprised at his boldness. He thinks of her warped futon where they sat just once in the early morning, drinking wine, sitting close, an image that comes to him like a pain in his chest.
She does not answer but digs through a drawer and then, finding what she was after, throws it at him: a chocolate bar. He eats this greedily while checking his watch. Three minutes to go. He can make it if he runs.
“I just thought—”
“It’s probably better we don’t,” Amelia says. She puts down the knife and looks at him. In her eyes he sees a sternness, a questioning, not the enthusiasm he had hoped for. She may as well have punched him in the stomach.
She is perhaps 35 years old, and he has just turned 19. It has occurred to him that she may not be interested, that the kiss they shared on her futon was a product of wine and tiredness and a general loneliness on both their parts. Or maybe it was something else entirely.
“We could take a walk,” he says, finally, though he has been warned the bear-tracked beaches and tundra are dangerous, especially after sunset, but she does not correct him on his foolishness. She balances the knife between her fingers. He wants to reach out and touch her arm, her hair, a single strand. He wants to compliment her, tell her she is so beautiful she is painful to look at. He likes even the way she frowns at him. He says, desperately, “I have some whiskey.”
“I don’t really drink,” she says. “At least not most of the year. Up here, I have a weakness for it.”
He turns to leave with two minutes to make it to the cannery. If he is late, he may lose his job, which means they will send him back to Maine, a thought that feels like a heavy stone in his gut.
Amelia walks closer to him, wiping the knife carefully with a towel, the tendons in her wrists flexing. She is compact in the way that badgers are small and yet terribly strong, and with her standing so close to him with such a long knife, Quinn feels himself tense.
“About the other night,” she says, meeting his eyes. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
He says nothing for a moment, tries to take this in. Then he says, “Oh,” and hears the hopelessness in his voice.
“Listen,” Amelia says, sticking the point of the knife in a cutting board. “I just need to say this, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way. I kind of like you. I mean, I do. But if you’re looking for a girlfriend, I’m not her. Okay?”
He says nothing, tries to hide his despair by looking at his watch.
“But if you want to walk the beach, we can.”
“What about the bears?” he asks.
“I have a lantern. I don’t think they like the light.”
He has no time left. He runs the dirt paths as if his hair were on fire.
The workers who taught him to clean fish, and who come back yearly from every part of the world, are never late, and they do not look at him as he steps up to his cutting board. He knows he has made it only just in time; the hopper is full of salmon and the conveyor has already started. The supervisor stares at him for a long second, then tips her hat and goes back to writing on her clipboard. He will see Amelia at lunch, he hopes, and if not lunch then dinner, and after.
As his hands work the cold fish, turning them over, slicing their tough fins, cleaning the entrails, he remembers leaning on Amelia, two nights ago when they kissed just briefly and he felt the world skip a beat. He feels it again now, the rush of excitement, everything new and fresh and possible. He fumbles with the knife and reminds himself to slow down so as not to cut his fingers off.
When the season began, he would see Amelia drinking tea on the wooden mess hall steps before breakfast. A few times, he stopped to talk and stare at the bay with her. At first it was nothing more than chitchat about the cool summer weather, the dense fog that covered the village most mornings, but soon she began to tell him of her life outside the village, snippets of her marriage gone awry, her minuscule apartment in Anchorage, her love of steamed milk with vanilla. She told him of her son, Jeremy, 10 years old and spending the summer with his grandparents, so she can work in the cannery. The rest of the year she waits tables and works in a bookstore. Her dream is to live on an island near Washington and spend her days sipping lemon tea and reading in a hammock. She laughs when she talks about this; it is a fool’s dream, she says. But already he has envisioned living with her on such an island.
He had little to tell of himself: a year of college spent drunk and high at parties that, while they had seemed momentous at the time, have diminished to vapid memories, so much so that he found it hard to talk about them with any kind of enthusiasm. He told her of high school, his cross-country team, odd jobs, but the memories felt fragmented and distant in this foreign place. After a few minutes of rambling, he stopped talking about himself with the sudden realization that he had in fact done very little of interest so far in his life, and he felt keenly aware that Amelia might find him boring.
Each day he hoped for some new glimpse into her life, and each day he looked forward to their minute or two of conversation on the mess hall steps. He liked the way she held her tea, as if it were precious, the way her face lit up in laughter at the smallest thing, a seagull pecking at a bread crumb, a quick crack of lightning that surprised them. He liked the way her presence, her lightness and quick joy, colored the grayness of the village. When he was near her, he felt himself simply more alive.
One night after dinner he lingered around the coffee carafe, pretending to refill his cup, though there was hardly a drop to be had. He stayed until she came out of the kitchen to lock the mess hall door, and when he turned to look at her he dropped the cup, shattering porcelain on the wood floor like the petals of a flower. Together they picked up the pieces, him trying not to look down her shirt and yet trying to, her telling him not to worry about the cup. She asked him if he really wanted coffee, and when he lied and said yes, she made them both a fresh cup and they walked the dirt streets, sipping and talking. And when they reached her shack not a hundred yards from the bay, they simply walked in together, still talking, and she poured wine over the remnants of their coffee. They drank, poured more wine, and, of course, more.
Now he flips over a salmon that was missed by the machines and lays open the belly, frees the guts, a motion as natural as breathing. Oddly, Quinn feels he was meant to come here, even though he made the decision while perusing drunkenly through the classifieds of Backpacker magazine in his dorm room. He ripped out the page with the job advertisement, and when he woke the next morning with a hangover, the page was stuck to his face with grape vodka. Thinking back, he sees that moment as the most important of his life. He cuts faster, almost as fast as Diego to his left, who works with his head down, ball cap low over his eyes, looking up only to take more fish onto his cutting board.
When the hopper door sticks, a song rises in Spanish. The workers pound the handles of their knives on their cutting boards and rap them on the steel bins, singing loudly. And though Quinn cannot understand most of the words, he sings along, pounding his knife, smiling, and for a few moments it feels as if they are a large family playing a game, having a grand time. But when the hopper door opens and a flood of salmon gush forth, there is instant silence and a sudden, frantic grabbing of fish, knives already slicing into meat.
They work overtime, every day, sleeping only a few hours, then waking, then coffee, then donning rubber gloves and cotton gloves and hairnets, earplugs, yellow raincoats and pants, and thick rubber boots before entering the clanging of the cannery.
Quinn has never worked this many hours a week in his life. One hundred and ten hours. One hundred and fifteen hours. His body feels as if it is hovering around him. He is reminded of sweltering days raking blueberries in Maine, a job he has done since the age of fifteen. He cannot decide which job is worse. It doesn’t matter. It is all work. It is kneeling in a blueberry field on one knee, or standing for hours on concrete, cutting fish. He wants it all to stop, tries to avoid looking at the clock, which has become a depressing, and alternately thrilling, game. But there it is on the blood-streaked wall, so he looks, hoping for the end of his shift, willing it to come every second so he can spend a few hours with Amelia.
When he is done, he showers in the concrete stall in the bunkhouse. The water is frigid and he cannot make it hot, so he shivers, washing himself as fast as he can. He checks himself in the cracked mirror, sees a wildness in his new beard and dark hair, which is now long enough that he can tuck it behind his ears. His face looks thinner and older with the beard. His arms are muscle and bone. For an instant, the person staring back at him looks like someone else entirely, some stranger he has never met.
Standing on the cold concrete, he has the sudden thought that his former life has ended in some significant way. Even college seems a false reality he can no longer imagine going back to. He sees himself living with Amelia, in her tiny apartment, after the summer. Nothing else makes sense.
He walks to Amelia’s just as the sun is setting below the bay, turning the sky shades of pink and orange and the water to flame. He passes the general store that is no more than a shack that sells fishing supplies and junk food. There is no bank to cash checks, hardly anything to buy except alcohol from the liquor store, which is a plywood structure no bigger than a tool shed. The streets connect the tiny homes but don’t extend beyond the small curl of smoke in the distance that is the village dump where bears feast day and night. Abandoned boats sit rotting in the ground, tilting at angles, as if battered by invisible storms. In the distance, the bay stretches out, dotted by green islands, and the tundra rises inland, rolling for miles until it lifts into a volcano on the edge of sight. It is strange to Quinn that this barren place feels like home.
He arrives just as the first purple hints of night tint the sky. He places a plastic flask of whiskey on the counter. Amelia has made lemon tea with honey, which she pours into a thermos. They put the tea and whiskey in a backpack and walk the short stretch to the beach below the village, and then, turning north, they walk beyond the cannery where the beach is narrow and rises in a steep wall of sand a hundred feet above them where it meets the ragged edge of tundra. By the time the cannery is out of view it is nearly
dark. There are so many bear tracks, they cannot avoid stepping on them.
“We have to talk the whole time,” Amelia says, switching on the battery-powered lantern, which casts a dull glow around them in the gathering dark. They walk close together but do not touch. “To scare the bears off,” she says.
“Right,” he says.
“Hey!” she yells, startling him.
“What?” He tries to see her face in the lantern light.
“I’m just letting them know we’re here.”
“Got it,” he says. “Hey!” he hears himself yell. She laughs that high clear laugh that cuts through the night.
“Don’t you want to drink beer with the rest of them in the bunkhouse?”
“I’d rather be with you,” he says.
She says nothing, just walks slowly, placing her feet in bear tracks, meandering the way the bears went.
“Why do you do that?” he asks.
“Walk in their tracks?”
“I don’t know. The way they move, every which way, it feels like freedom. I think bears must have good lives.”
“How long have you been coming here?” he asks.
“Too long. I came with my husband, my ex-husband I mean. I worked on his boat. But I always got seasick. I told myself I’d never come back. Now look at me.” She laughs again, but this time there is a note of derision in it.
He wants to tell her he is happy she is here, but instead he says, “Where is he now?”
She points toward the bay. “Out there somewhere, shooting seals in his spare time I guess. He doesn’t come here that often.” She stops walking, and for a few moments they both stand in the glow of the lantern, listening to the gentle pulse of waves touching shore. Then Amelia says, “Let’s not talk about him. Come on. I want to show you something.”
He doesn’t have time to ask what. She takes his hand and leads the way up the steep bank of sand where rain has carved a narrow trail, just enough to gain traction. In a few minutes they stand on the dry, wind-scoured edge of tundra looking out at the dark bay and the new stars above, the Milky Way so thick you could spoon stars from the sky.
“I used to do this a long time ago,” Amelia says, dangling her legs off the edge of the bluff, looking down at the beach far below.
“Do what?” he asks.
“It’s like sledding in snow, only your hair gets full of sand. Keep your arms out.”
“You mean?” he says, but she is gone in an instant, screeching her way down the sand toward the beach.
“Jesus,” he says. And then, leaving the lantern and the backpack on the bluff, he finds himself tumbling and sliding down the sand. He rolls onto the beach, laughing, but in part he is relieved not to be injured. “You’re crazy,” he says to Amelia, but she only laughs and helps him up.
Back on the bluff, they pour whiskey into the tea and talk of the bears they cannot see but sense are not too far away. They lie back and stare at the sky and talk nonsense about the universe, making up unanswerable questions. Will people ever live on Mars? Jupiter? Will humans be around in five hundred years? A thousand?
After the moon turns the beach to a silver ribbon below, they slide down the sand again, this time in unison, holding hands until they fall apart. Over and over they drop off the bluff and roll with laughter onto the beach until they are dizzy with exhaustion. It is a rush of pure joy, a weightlessness, and for a short time Quinn forgets about the work waiting in the morning, the plane that will take him away from Amelia Bell in a few short weeks.
This becomes a ritual. Some nights when he comes by her shack, she is already waiting for him with the backpack slung over her shoulder. He borrows ten dollars from Diego for whiskey because he is out of cash, but most nights they drink only tea. She tells him about her son, how she misses him, and Quinn wonders, but cannot imagine, what it would be like to be a father. It seems part of another life he may never reach. They lie together, shoulder to shoulder on the high bluff, and though they never speak of it, their hands come together, sometimes their tongues in the dark. Once Amelia says, “We shouldn’t be doing this,” but they do. They don’t talk of summer passing, but with each day Quinn wishes the nights could be longer, the summer eternal. When August comes, it surprises them.
One night Amelia does not answer her door when he knocks, and an unreasonable panic floods him. He knocks louder. He has decided to tell her he will quit college to be with her; he will forsake everything. He will sound foolish and overly romantic, he knows. Still, he has convinced himself he cannot live without her. Flying home without Amelia Bell would be the equivalent of stepping into a coffin—nothing is clearer in his mind. When she finally comes to the door, he is so nervous he cannot speak.
They become tangled in each other as soon as he steps inside. She begins taking his shirt off and then stops.
“Something’s wrong,” he says, searching for her eyes. But she is looking him over.
“You smell like a dead fish,” she says and smiles at him, kisses him once more, then pushes him away and holds her nose. She is wearing something loose and dark and flowing, unlike her usual jeans and sweatshirt. Because he came straight from the cannery, because there are so many fish and the supervisor has extended all the shifts, he did not have time to shower, and now he realizes he actually does smell like a dead fish, hundreds, thousands of them.
“You can shower,” she says, and he takes this as an order.
When he is done, he discovers there is no towel and calls for her. He hides behind the curtain and waits for her to toss a towel on the floor. When she slides back the shower curtain and steps in with him, he is speechless. She turns the water back on, and he tries to hide himself, but this is impossible. The stall is narrow, just enough room for the two of them.
“We’re not doing this,” she says, moving closer to him, wrapping herself around him. “I’m not supposed to be your girlfriend, remember. I want you to tell me if this is okay.”
“It’s—it’s okay. Yes. I mean it’s. Wow.” He is smiling so hard the corners of his mouth threaten to tear apart. They laugh, and strangely, for the longest time, they do nothing but hold each other and let the hot water roll over them.
Later, in bed, she says, “Are you okay? You seem a little, I don’t know, disappointed.”
“No,” he says, propping himself up on his elbow. “I was just…thinking, I guess.”
She stares into his eyes but says nothing.
Though he had committed to telling her his plan, he cannot summon the courage. They have already agreed he is leaving and she is going back to Anchorage, that whatever happens between them cannot last. There is no easy way to say what must be said. So, instead he says, “What do you do on weekends, with Jeremy I mean?”
“Oh,” she says, running her hand delicately along his thigh. “We go to the park and listen to music in the summer. Or we go to the playground sometimes. He likes to play catch. I’m not very good.”
“I bet you are,” he says. “I’d like to play catch with the two of you. I’d like to see where you live.”
“Quinn,” she says. But then she is quiet, looks away. “You’re going back to school.”
“I know,” he says. “That was my plan, but I’ve decided to take some time off.”
She sits up straight, pulls her hair back then lets it fall over her face so he can’t read her expression. “What are you talking about?”
He does not know what he is saying, not really. He knows nothing for certain, only how he feels.
“We shouldn’t have,” she says, standing up and pulling a T-shirt on. “I don’t mean it like that—”
“You regret it.”
She says nothing.
“I could get a job in Anchorage.”
“I’ll put your ass on that plane myself if I have to.” She points a finger at him in a half-joking way, but he can tell she is serious.
“I can transfer,” he says.
“You won’t be a resident, not right away. What are we talking about? I don’t feel so good. Tell me we’re not talking about this.”
He tries to hold her, but she pulls away. “We would be great together,” he says. “Am I wrong?”
She goes to the window and stares out at the dark nothing. “You’ll meet plenty of girls. You’ll find someone.”
“I already have.”
“I’m almost twice your age.”
“Why should that matter?”
“I have a son,” she says. “It’s not that easy.”
He says nothing.
“You have to understand. Bringing someone into Jeremy’s life is serious. Even if I wanted to, I—”
“Do you?” he asks. He reaches for her and gently turns her from the window. Her face is set, determined, but there is also love there; he can see this, what she is hiding behind her words, behind the tender way that, even now, she holds him. “Why does it have to be impossible?” he says.
She shakes her head, looks away.
“You think I’m too young,” he says. “You think I’m just a kid. Is that it?”
“You’re going to be happy one day that this didn’t work out,” she says. “Trust me.”
Though he had hoped he would be spending the night, he finds himself standing awkwardly in her kitchen, putting on his raincoat, which smells like death and is as cold as the inside of a frozen salmon. Amelia leans against the wall, and he can see the sides of her face are wet, but he does not dare go to her.
“Can I come by tomorrow?” he asks, holding the doorknob.
Amelia says, in a quiet voice, “I think it would be better if you didn’t.” But she moves toward him, reaches out. “Quinn,” she says, but he is already out the door, walking, now running through the darkness, with a rage that burns every molecule in his being.
For a week Quinn does little but work. He avoids the mess hall and instead survives on doughnuts, coffee, and what whiskey and beer he can get from the other workers. He volunteers for the cleanup shift to make a few extra dollars, money he imagines he will use to rent an apartment in Anchorage. He would live in a culvert if necessary, though he worries this may come true if he can’t find work in the city. He schemes and plans while pulling fish entrails from the conveyor and lying on the concrete floor under the car-sized machines, hosing them out in an endless spray of water that runs down his back and arms, making him shiver.
The following week the salmon runs slow and the nights turn colder. The cannery is closed by four most afternoons, leaving so much daylight the workers hardly know what to do with themselves. Evenings, they huddle in their rooms playing rummy, smoking joints and drinking cheap beer. Everyone is talking about when the first planes will come to take them away, and almost everyone is excited to leave the drudgery of the cannery. The lucky ones will go first, but one night when Diego wraps his arm around Quinn and asks him when he is leaving, his voice thick with joy and the scent of beer, Quinn lies and says he can’t remember, waves it off. In the morning there is no work scheduled for the first time all summer.
Amidst the noise of the bunkhouse, Diego says, “You and that lady. You like her.” He slaps Quinn hard on the back.
Quinn nods, accepts a beer, then another. In a short while he is talking about living in Alaska for the rest of his life. People come and go from the room, but Diego stays and listens. In his drunken rambling, Quinn feels as if he is already back in his dorm room, and this only makes him more miserable, so he drinks still more beer. When Diego’s cousin arrives with tequila, he takes long drinks from the plastic bottle that is passed around.
“You want to marry her?” Diego asks when it is just the two of them. Diego is leaning against the plywood wall, his feet hanging off the lower bunk, and for the first time all summer he is smiling. His dark, thinning hair is pulled back in the tightest ponytail, the graying end of which now rests on his chest.
“It’s not going to work,” Quinn says. The words come out slowly, one by one, and seem to solidify.
Diego shakes his head. “You give up too easily. Do something special for her.”
This seems too simple, and yet the more Quinn thinks about it, and the more he drinks, the more it strikes him as profound. He has a sudden idea, stands up, totters, then sits down again.
“Easy,” Diego says.
But in a moment Quinn is pushing open the door of the bunkhouse, which he slams behind him harder than he had intended, startling the workers on the porch. They laugh and cheer him on as he careens toward the mess hall through a gusty wind. He is wearing only a thin shirt and the night air chills him to his core and for a moment sobers him so that his plan seems ridiculous instead of romantic as it had only seconds ago. But there is no time to debate. Because she showed him once, he remembers where the spare key to the mess hall is and, amazingly, he finds it in the dark, reaching his fingers under the wooden steps.
Inside, he scours drawers looking for vanilla and sends an armload of spices scattering across the linoleum floor. When he finds the small, dark bottle he holds it up to the light like a mysterious potion. In a pan, he pours milk then lights the burner. There is no way to make a proper vanilla steamer, but he will do the best he can, and he will bring it to Amelia even though he will have to wake her. He burns the milk on the first try, then his fingers, and runs them under cold water. On the second try, he gets the temperature right, pours the concoction into a mug, then picks up the spices, swearing at them as they roll out of sight behind counters and sinks.
Amelia’s shack is dark when he gets there, and for a while he stands in the dirt street unsure of himself. He turns to the bunkhouse and listens to the clamor of voices and feels embarrassed by his drunkenness. He thinks of Amelia’s son, of the prospect of helping raise a child and tries to convince himself he is ready for this. He stands so long in the street he fears the milk will turn cool.
Finally, he knocks. Nothing. Darkness. The empty rattle of his knuckles on the aluminum screen door. Again he knocks, then looks to the sky, which is black with clouds and spits of rain. He would give anything to slide down the sand bank with Amelia one more time. He will tell her this. He will tell her, of course, that he loves her.
When Amelia opens the door, Quinn holds the drink up for her, but she only stares at it. She is wrapped in a blanket, and for a moment she seems not to recognize him.
“What are you doing?” she says, moving aside for him to enter. It is warm inside, and the scent of vanilla fills the air. He settles onto the futon next to her.
“I brought you something,” he says.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
“It’s still hot.”
“I’m not thirsty.” But she takes the mug anyway. “How did you make this?”
“I promise I didn’t make a mess.”
“I should be really pissed at you. I am pissed at you. If you had been caught—”
“You don’t have to drink it.”
“It’s good,” she says. “It’s very good. You’re something else, you know that?” She pauses, sips from the mug. “I was worried about you. Why don’t you come to the mess hall? What are you eating? You’re never in the bunkhouse.”
“I’ve been working. I’m eating fine.”
“You’re not. You don’t look fine.”
“I can’t do it,” he says, thinking of his plane flight. He feels too drunk to tell her he loves her; he fears it will sound false and sentimental, which it is not. But still. Instead he says, “I don’t know why we can’t try. I’ll make you vanilla milk every day.”
“You wouldn’t like living with me,” she says. “I watch TV all day sometimes, bad TV, old westerns, the worst stuff. I keep pistachio ice cream in the freezer, and if anyone touches it I go ballistic. You don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
“I want to know you better.”
“And my son would get to know you. And you will leave when you find a younger, more beautiful girl, and he will be devastated.”
“There’s no one more beautiful than you.”
“You’re such a liar.”
“I’ll change my flight,” he says.
“Quinn,” she says, but then she is silent.
Outside, strong winds batter the shack so that it seems to shift and move on its foundation. For a while they simply sit, Amelia sipping the milk, Quinn watching her hands, her face, every gesture she makes. After a time, she switches off the light and pulls the heavy blanket over both of them. In the dark, he can hear her breathe and feel the gentle rise and fall of her chest as she begins to fall asleep. There is nothing else to live for, he thinks.
“Doesn’t it feel like we’re moving,” she says. “like the wind is going to pick us up and carry us away.”
“Yes,” he says. “It’s like we’re flying.”
“I wonder where we’re going,” she says, wrapping her arm around him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says, “We’re going together.”
“At least tonight,” she says. “Tonight we can go anywhere we want.”
He is too tired to respond. Before he is out, he has the clear vision of the two of them stepping off the edge of the tundra above the steep sand bank, and for as long as he can stay awake he watches them slip into the darkness below, over and over, his hand in Amelia Bell’s, a moment of pure joy before gravity pulls them apart and he can hear only her laughter, a sound he will yearn for even when he is old.