12 January, 2021
IT WAS THE FOURTH OF JULY, and when he showed up it was still early enough that the heat hadn’t reached triple digits. The dry lightning–sparked fires that had burned for weeks across the border in California were still smoldering, sending russet clouds into a bloodshot sky. The mountains were nearly invisible in the haze.
The parade hadn’t yet arrived at the park, and Lauren was still laying out the brochures: Choose Veg, Vegetarianism for Jews, This Is What Your Bacon Looks Like. The Fourth of July parade brought out all types—there was something for everyone. When the Christians came by, she’d hand them Was Jesus Vegetarian?; when made-up tweens walked by, she’d have Say No to Animal Testing at the ready, with its photos of skinless beagles and bunnies in guillotines.
But it was still quiet when she sensed eyes on her, and she turned to see him standing in the middle of the small booth. He didn’t look like the usual parade-goers— gray-haired couples dressed in red, white, and blue; families with kids in tow; we’re-too- cool-for-this teenagers. He was lean, tanned, and goateed but without the hemp and tattoos that would otherwise define the hipster-country type she usually saw around town.
She asked if he’d like to sign their petitions to help animals, and he held out a hand for the clipboards. He was left-handed, she noticed—she’d always had an inexplicable attraction to left-handed men—and she watched the bend of his wrist on the page, the upward tilt of his writing, the way the edge of his suntanned hand smudged his signature as he signed all six petitions. After he put down the last clipboard, he looked around. “Libby said to be here around noon?”
The new volunteer—she’d forgotten. Their group, Oregon Animal Rights, had added its first new member in months.
“You must be Mark?” she said.
He nodded, pushing his sunglasses into his thick brown hair, revealing hazel-green eyes.
“Um, what do you want to do?” she asked, wishing Libby were there. “We have these petitions, or you could—”
She heard the clang of metal from a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. He began setting items on the table, next to the petitions—a metal cylinder, a pair of pliers with a green band at the end, sharp metal clippers, and something that looked like a handcuff but had a sharp blade rimming one inside edge, covered with duct tape.
“Tools of torture,” he said. “Very educational.”
Lauren shrugged and let him continue setting up. She preferred the soft approach, which she knew didn’t always make her the best activist, especially in the eyes of those who were more extreme—like Mark, apparently. She’d never been the sign-wielding, marching type; she was more the letter-to-the editor type. She’d joined OAR mostly as a social outlet when she’d first landed here, jobless, knowing no one. Now, in her third year, she still only asked people to sign petitions, handed out literature, gave kids cute stickers of farm animals saying Don’t Eat Me.
“Do you know what this is?”
She turned to see Mark addressing a trio of teenage boys. They lifted their still-skinny shoulders, raised their chins, affected boredom.
“This is what they use to castrate calves,” Mark told them, holding up the device, tightening his grip, and widening the green band. Then he let go; the band snapped back to a tiny circle, too tight to fit around the tip of Lauren’s pinky. “This ring goes around the testicles,” he explained. “It cuts off the blood supply. And—well, that’s when body parts begin to fall off.”
The boys stepped away, as if Mark were about to grab one of them to demonstrate. The looks on their faces were pure disgust; one of them actually shuddered.
“This is where your burgers come from,” Mark said. “Scary, isn’t it?” The boys turned quickly, eager to escape, and Mark shoved Why Vegan? brochures into their hands. “Think about it,” he called out to their backs. “You wouldn’t want anyone doing that to you, would you?”
The boys didn’t look back, and Lauren watched as one of them let the brochure in his hand fall to the ground.
“Are you sure this is the best strategy?” she asked. “You have a better idea?”
“I’m just saying,” she continued, “if you freak them out, they’ll put it so far out of their minds it doesn’t help at all.”
“Or, if I freak them out, they’ll feel it in their balls the next time they’re about to order a Big Mac.”
Lauren let it go. A middle-aged woman stopped to look at the photo of a beagle in a testing lab, its torso red and raw, furless and bleeding. Lauren picked up the petition against animal testing and, just as she was explaining what animals endure to create eyeshadow, she heard Mark ask another young boy, “Can you guess what this is?”
She glanced over—the boy was all of ten years old and wore a Jesus Loves You T- shirt—and she felt a chill when the boy said, “Yeah, we use it on our sheep.”
“You do it yourself ?” Mark asked him. She could hear the surprise in his voice.
“No, I watch my dad do it.” The boy looked at Mark, then added, “We do it when they’re newborns, so they don’t feel it at all.”
“Really? You think they don’t feel it just because they’re babies?”
“It doesn’t hurt them,” the boy insisted.
The middle-aged woman asked about the other petition in Lauren’s hand—the one about seal slaughter—and Lauren handed the clipboard over. She didn’t hear the rest of the conversation between Mark and the boy.
After both visitors left the booth, Mark rolled his eyes. “God-fearing farmers,” he said. “Newborn calves don’t feel anything, so you can torture them all you want—but a fetus inside a human can’t be touched?”
Lauren said nothing, though she silently agreed. She pretended to busy herself by adding new pages to the petitions, and as she did, she found herself inspecting Mark’s handwriting. The pointy tops to the M meant he was a fast thinker. His script was small, tight, indicating concentration and focus; it was also straight, not slanted, indicating a person who thinks before acting.
She knew a lot about handwriting analysis; she knew a lot about plenty of useless things—from working in a bookstore, she told herself. But it was more like an attempt to fill her brain with information so that it would crowd out everything else.
Like the fact that she was drawn to this man, when she’d sworn off men. But how could she not like a man who cared about baby calves? Too few men, especially around here, thought nothing of animals other than what they were worth by the pound or in what form they appeared on their plates. Good-looking men weren’t scarce, but compassion was in short supply.
Having been an ER nurse in her other life, Lauren wasn’t squeamish, but she knew the extent to which most people were, especially when it came to animals. It was odd, the way most people slowed down to stare at a car wreck but couldn’t bear to look at the photos on display in the booth: the rabbit with its eyes seared by chemicals, the downed cow in the killing chute, the chickens so crammed into battery cages they hardly resembled birds anymore. Still, it angered her when they turned away and walked down the street to order a dead cow on a bun. She understood Mark’s approach even if she couldn’t bring herself to emulate it.
“Then their nuts fall to the ground,” Mark was saying to a young couple, snap- ping the green band on the castration device. The man blinked rapidly, while the woman looked on smugly. “I don’t eat meat,” she said, “but I haven’t been able to convince him.”
“You should work on that,” Mark told the man. “Too much animal protein can lead to all sorts of health issues. Heart problems. Impotence.”
The guy, still looking a bit shell-shocked, wordlessly accepted a brochure.
The sound of drums and tubas grew louder as the parade reached the plaza, and even as the high school marching band played on, Lauren could tell the parade had ended by the surge of sweaty bodies nudging their way through the park. Many of them wore paper masks over their faces, the thin kind that didn’t actually help against the smoke but did obscure most of their features, creating a dystopian effect among the crowds wandering through burnt-orange daylight.
Lauren looked up into the sky. The smoke had thickened, the sun a tight, crimson circle, fighting moonlike to emerge. She couldn’t tell whether the fires had progressed, or whether the smoke was simply settling into the valley. Either way, the turbid air and dimming light gave her a sense of being trapped, of waiting for something inevitable to consume her.
For the next two hours, the traffic was constant—some visitors were friendly, others hostile, many indifferent. Lauren tried to imagine what her own reaction to this booth would’ve been about five years earlier, when she’d been like nearly everyone here: carefree, blissfully ignorant. She’d probably have averted her eyes, reassuring herself that these people were extremists, that none of this was as bad as they made it out to be.
She wished she could still think that way.
When the second-shift volunteers showed up, Lauren was both relieved and disappointed. She felt drained, overheated, but she remained in the booth and shuffled a few brochures, stalling; she felt Mark’s presence on the other side of the booth, as if he, too, were lingering.
“Well,” she said finally, turning around, “it was nice meeting you.”
He looked at her with an expression she hadn’t seen on a man’s face in a long time. “Is there any place we can get a drink or something?” he asked. “I’m kind of new here, but I’m guessing most places will be packed.”
“I know a place,” she said.
She had a cousin who was a police officer in Cranston, and she remembered, after it was all over, that he’d once told her that you could tell someone was an imposter by their shoes. He’d learned this from a detective at his station: Imposters usually worked hard on the rest of the outfit, he said, but they always neglected the shoes.
That afternoon, when she took Mark to the bar she liked—a dive on a side street, one of the few places tourists didn’t wander into—she never thought to look at his feet. She’d noticed he was wearing khaki cargo shorts and a black cotton T-shirt with a Mercy for Animals logo on it. But was he wearing Teva sandals, like she was? Closed-toe running shoes? Or maybe he was wearing leather hiking boots—a dead giveaway. If only she’d looked down.
But even if she had, the leather could have been faux; she’d have had to kneel down to touch and smell the shoes to be certain—or worse, she would’ve had to ask. And if they were leather, all he’d have to do was lie about them, and she would have believed him. She knew already that she wanted to believe him.
The windowless bar smelled of cleaning fluid and stale beer, but the arctic air- conditioning made up for it. There was no food menu, but Lauren had made sandwiches she hadn’t had time to eat earlier, and this was the type of place that didn’t mind if you brought in your own food. After Mark bought them each a beer, she offered him a sandwich: Tofurkey, spinach and cucumber and tomato, spicy chipotle Vegenaise. As they ate, she looked at him in the dusky, neon-shadowed light. “You said you’re new to the Rogue Valley,” she said. “How’d you find out about Oregon Animal Rights?”
“A friend,” he says.
“Guy I knew in the Midwest,” he says. “He wasn’t a member or anything—but he has family in the area, sister-in-law or something, so he knows about you guys. Said to look you up when I got out here, ask for Tim.”
“Tim left a couple of months ago,” she said. “I know, Libby told me. Where’d he go?”
Tim had been more active than any of them, had come from an exurb of Portland where he’d done a tree-sit to save an ancient sequoia from being razed to make room for a new office building. Like so many who came through, he was only in town for a year; he’d come for the mountain biking, he said, then contacted them when he heard the local university’s science department was planning to build a new lab that would involve animal testing. Ultimately the major donor backed out, the plans for the lab fell apart, and soon afterward Tim left—apparently for bigger and better mountains, bigger and better protests.
Lauren shook her head. None of them knew where Tim had gone. “What brought you here from the Midwest?”
“I was doing undercover work for Humans Against Factory Farming. You know how it goes. Once you finish a campaign like that, it’s best to leave the state.”
She did know—about these investigations, about the ag-gag laws that labeled such undercover work domestic terrorism—but she’d never known anyone who’d actually done it. “What kind of farm?”
“Pigs,” he said.
A series of images flickered through her mind—the ones that had made her quit meat overnight years earlier—and she shook her head again.
“How’d you manage it?” To stay undercover, investigators had to do all the things the other workers did—in other words, everything they were against.
“Not very well,” Mark said. “I faked it as much as I could without getting found out. It’s fucking barbaric. Even little things were stressful, like eating lunch.” He held up his sandwich. “I constantly worried someone would find out I had Tofurkey instead of the real thing.”
“Two months.” He took a long drink of beer and sighed. “They haven’t used the footage yet. It’ll be part of a bigger campaign.”
“Two months,” she repeated. “Your family must’ve missed you.”
“There’s no one to miss me. Family doesn’t mix so well with disappearing for months.”
She looked at him, but his eyes, unfocused, were on the television over the bar. “How’d you get into animal rights?”
“It kind of found me,” he said. “I grew up with an alcoholic father. He taught me how to fight—but, without realizing it, he also taught me not to be the bully he was. I was in college when I saw a video of a cow slaughtered for meat, and I couldn’t eat beef after that. I looked into animal agriculture, and—well, you know everything I know. Bad for the animals, bad for the humans, bad for the planet. It made me want to do something about it.”
He straightened and turned around once on the bar stool, as if he were resetting an imaginary switch, then faced her again. “How about you?”
“I used to be a nurse,” she said. “I’d planned to go to med school, actually, but—” Here she stopped, not wanting to reveal too much. “Anyway, I didn’t get far. I used to love science—” She paused again. She’d once read a study that claimed women kept secrets for an average of forty-seven hours, and she almost laughed as she thought of it. How there are outliers everywhere. How even science can get things wrong. “I didn’t like the animal testing, the vivisection,” she said, settling on a half truth. “So I started over.”
He didn’t ask for details, and she was grateful. He looked at her empty glass. “Another?”
“Better not,” she said, not wanting to add to the buzzing in her head but also not ready to leave. She didn’t know how to keep the afternoon going, how long they could be together without talking, in this state in which they were both new and undamaged together, still all possibility.
“Yeah, I should go, too,” he said.
They stepped out of the dingy bar, the summer light blinding them both for a moment. The wind had picked up, and above, bronze-tinged clouds moved steadily west, shards of blue sky fading in and out behind a wall of smoke. “Maybe I’ll see you at the next meeting,” she said.
He nodded, and she couldn’t read his expression. “I don’t have a cell phone,” he said, rummaging in his canvas bag and pulling out a pen, “but if you give me your number, I’ll find a way to call you.”
It should’ve been another sign, but instead she felt charmed as he wrote her number down on the skin on the inside of his right wrist. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely insane not to have a cell phone; he’d been undercover, and lots of activists were also anti- consumerists. It was endearing, really, and reminded her fondly of her mother, who’d gotten her first mobile phone only a couple of months ago. The first time Lauren called, reaching her at the grocery store, her mother said, “How did you know I was here?”
Mark pocketed his pen. “See you soon,” he said.
She smiled and thanked him for the beer, then watched him disappear into the haze of the afternoon.
She’d left the air-conditioning set to eighty for the cats, and when she walked in she turned it down a few degrees. She felt guilty about the energy consumption, but on days like this, she told herself she deserved it—she lived alone, ate only plants, avoided anything involving plastic, and, other than her one-way trip across the country, never traveled. She had no children, and this alone guaranteed a small carbon footprint.
It had been more than three years since she’d come home to a human, and now that she had only the cats, she was all too aware of this. Last week, her mother complained about Lauren spending her weekends volunteering at the animal shelter when she should have been planning her wedding or making babies like a normal thirtysomething. But whenever Lauren came home and the cats meandered in to greet her, she didn’t want it any other way. Unlike the human she’d lived with, cats didn’t have dark moods. They didn’t belittle or judge. They simply were, and simply allowed you to be.
As she shut the door, they came forward in the same order they always did: Mickey, her tuxedo, whose hind legs caused him to stagger and sway; then Gloria, a dark-haired tortie who’d been adopted and returned to the shelter twice, once for “hiding” and once for not being “friendly”; and finally scruffy Clara Bow, still tiny at four years old, whose tawny fur never smoothed out as most homeless cats’ coats did after being in a new home.
Relaxed and lazy from the heat and beer, Lauren sat down on the couch, leaning her head back. Mickey sprawled in her lap, and Lauren scratched his head as she picked up Clara Bow with her other hand and held her under her chin. When her phone rang, buzzing on the kitchen counter where she’d left it, she didn’t move; she felt too peaceful to talk to her mother, a conversation that would begin pleasantly and then become a lecture on spending the holiday at an animal-rights booth instead of a backyard barbecue with eligible men.
She fell into a cool, dreamless sleep, and when she woke the cottage was dark. Outside, the moon was rising, blurred in the smoky air. When, after feeding the cats, she finally picked up her phone, she saw a message from an unfamiliar number and listened: Mark, asking if she’d like to meet for dinner that week. She looked out the kitchen window again, eyeing the jaundiced moon, the smoke heavy in her throat.
On the morning of her date, she stood in front of her closet trying to figure out what to wear. The town’s official dress code was new age–casual; she never had the occasion to dress up. She pulled out a flowy skirt, then realized that Gloria was sleeping on the shirt she usually wore with it. So she kept looking, digging among the clothes on the other shelf, leafing through the hangers, deciding finally on a faded blue sundress.
She and Mark were meeting at one of the local pubs after work; she liked that he didn’t invite her to one of the fancy restaurants that cater to tourists. It was a slow day at the bookstore, one of those days she hated because it left her with too much time to think. Her life worked best when she didn’t ponder what she’d left behind, what it might be like if she’d gone through with the wedding.
In the moments when her mind did wander, it slowed and stopped in one spot, as if she’d hit the pause button at the same scene in a film, a wavy and pixilated image of one of the last days on her journey west. After leaving the interstate, she’d stopped in New Pine Creek, a tiny border town half in California and half in Oregon. By then she’d come almost as far as she could, but she couldn’t decide between the two states. She stood in the middle of State Line Road, so she could plant one foot in each, and closed her eyes, waiting for something, a magnetic pull that would draw her in one direction or another. When nothing happened, she took a few blind steps, and when she opened her eyes, she was in Oregon.
Even now, as she stepped into the pub and saw Mark, waiting at a table near a window, she wondered what might’ve been different had she stumbled a few feet south instead.
When she got to the table, he held up a phone. “Cheap, prepaid,” he said, “but it’ll do the trick.”
They looked at menus, ordered drinks. When Mark ordered the tofu sandwich, Lauren said, “There’s milk in the bread.”
“Oh.” He scanned the menu again, then looked up at the waitress. “Is the curry vegan?”
The girl nodded, and Mark said, “I’ll have that, then.” After she left, he looked at Lauren. “Sometimes I forget to ask the right questions. I usually cook for myself.” He paused, then let out a short laugh. “Hope you don’t think I’m a bad vegan. A bad activist.”
“Yeah, I was just thinking exactly that,” she said.
“I hate having to special-order everything. It makes us all seem high-maintenance and fussy.”
“No one can be perfect,” she said. “I mean, you’re not truly vegan if you’ve ever taken an aspirin. Or had a flu shot. It’s just not compatible with how the world works.”
“True,” he said. “But every little bit helps.”
She heard the echo of another voice in her head. Why bother? East Coast accent, dropped r’s. You’ll never make a difference.
“That’s why I’m here,” Mark continued. “To do some above-ground advocacy for a change.”
“Why here?” she asked. “I mean, why not Portland, or even Eugene? Our group—the whole valley, really—is pretty small by comparison.”
“I heard you’re planning to fight the slaughterhouse,” he said. “That’s not small.”
“Well, we’ve been protesting it,” Lauren said slowly, not sure how much he knew.
The meat-packing company had bought the land a year ago—there were no local slaughterhouses—and it planned to break ground any day now. OAR had petitioned against it since its inception; they’d lobbied the county, state senators, members of Congress, even the governor—but the plan was still moving forward. The local farmers, all smugly boasting about their grass-fed cows and sheep, were tired of sending their animals out of town for slaughter, and they’d worked hard to convince residents that it would lead to more jobs, fresher meat; they even argued that it was more humane to kill animals locally. No one seemed to consider—as OAR was attempting to show—that a local slaughter facility would only lead to bigger, more inhumane farms—not to mention polluting to the groundwater, the air. And were grueling, bloody jobs in a slaughterhouse really something to covet?
Lauren looked at Mark, trying to figure out whether he knew something she didn’t. “What did Libby say to you?”
“Just that I joined at the right time.” He leaned forward. “So, tell me about you.”
Their drinks arrived, and she managed to find the right balance—as she had that day in New Pine Creek, one foot in each state—as she told him about the breakup, the cross-country move, the starting over. He was a good listener and didn’t ask a lot of questions, and by the time their food and her second glass of wine arrived, she found herself believing her own story, believing in the optimism of all that she’d done.
After dinner, they walked into the park. She led him up a steep path, a few wooden steps embedded into the trail, to a plateau with a bench among the tops of the pines. When she sat down, he joined her, his leg aligned with hers, and she felt the heat between them, a spark completely separate from the smoke-washed summer air. It felt as if the wildfires had reignited within her, feeding oxygen to dormant embers that had long been starved, and safe.
And then, when he placed a hand on her cheek and kissed her, her mind flashed back to the science she’d studied, to chemistry, to—yes, there was a word for it: philematology, the science of kissing—the endorphin rush, the surge of dopamine, the decrease in cortisol, the increase of oxytocin, the intoxicating com- bination of natural drugs so unlike anything else. She felt it first in her face—a quick kiss used two muscles, she remembered; a deeper kiss could use all thirty- four muscles of the face, but by then she wasn’t feeling it her face but in places she was hoping he would touch.
When they pulled apart, he said, “I’d offer you a drink at my place, except I don’t have one.”
“A place, or a drink?”
“Home is my car—for now, anyway.”
She looked at him, surprised. She’d offered to help pay for dinner, but he insisted on paying. In cash.
He seemed to understand her look. “It’s not about money,” he said. “Honestly, my car’s nicer than any of those motels by the freeway. I’ve got a few leads on apartments, but with the holiday weekend I just haven’t sorted anything out yet.”
One of his hands rested on her thigh, the other still loose around her neck, his fingers like hotspots flaring under her skin. “You’re not allergic to cats, are you?” she asked.
As they drove to her cottage—his car was maybe a decade old, but clean; she could see no evidence that he was living in it—she began to regret having invited a near-stranger to her home. But when she opened the door and saw Mickey limp right up to him, and when Gloria not only made an appearance but let Mark scratch behind her ears, Lauren led him to the bedroom knowing he was there to stay for as long as he wanted.
Whenever she thought of her ex, she wondered how living with someone for six years had somehow created more distance than closeness. They rarely strayed more than a few miles from each other, yet in the end she may as well have been living on another planet. In fact, he accused her of as much when she suddenly would not compromise, when she would no longer have meat in the freezer or milk in the fridge. It was after she watched an undercover video of calves taken from their mothers and shot, the wailing cows hooked up to machines and sucked dry of milk meant for their babies. She put her hand on her stomach and knew she couldn’t live the way she’d lived for the past thirty years. He didn’t get it. In the end, he wanted a baby, but she couldn’t bear to bring a child into a world that was falling apart.
She worried that connection with another human might be impossible, so it surprised her when Mark’s overnight stay seamlessly turned into days, into weeks, into months. The smoke cleared; the rains swept clean the valley, and the trees flamed red and orange. Mark found a job at a café and bought groceries, took her out for dinner a couple times a week. It was so fluid, the way he blended into her life, and unlike anything else she’d known in that they shared everything:
the books she bought with her employee discount; he read them all. The OAR meetings he attended, their discussions afterward. The only thing she didn’t fully agree with was his push for direct action on the slaughterhouse. “We’re not that kind of group,” she told him one night, as they sat in her small kitchen after dinner, a candle burning on the table between them. “We’re not Humans Against Factory Farming, with a big budget and thousands of volunteers.”
“You don’t need money, or even that many people,” he said. “In fact, with so few of us, it would make sense to be more aggressive.”
“What do you mean, more aggressive?”
“Petitions and protests are only effective in big numbers,” he said. “Other things—I don’t know, disabling construction trucks, burning building materials— don’t require a lot of bodies. Just a lot of courage.”
“The courage to go to jail, you mean.” “Every protest comes with that risk.”
“Nonviolent action is one thing,” she said. “Vandalism? Arson? Those are crimes.”
“Only if we get caught.”
She shook her head. “Libby would never go for it.”
“There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “And nothing’s been working.”
At the next OAR meeting, though, Libby proved her right. “Are you insane?” she said in response to Mark’s suggestion. “You think they won’t know who did it?”
“There are ways to deflect blame,” Mark said. “Trust me, I’ve done this.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Okay, fine,” Mark said. “We do it your way. But then what? We get a little media attention, our fifteen minutes. What happens at minute sixteen, when the bulldozers start up? What’s our Plan B?”
“He’s right, Lib,” Brendan said. “We’ve got to do something that counts.”
“Let’s give the sit-in a chance to work,” Libby said.
“What if it doesn’t?”
“We’ll see when we get there.”
Mark raised his shoulders and let them drop in a gesture of both impatience and surrender. “It won’t be enough.”
Mark kept talking about it, and on the night of the next meeting, Lauren stayed home, saying she didn’t feel well. It was true—she felt unusually tired, headachy and bone-weary—but more than anything she didn’t want to sit through the stress of another meeting. For a group of people who were all supposed to be on the same side, there’d been far too much arguing ever since Mark joined.
She was sitting on the couch with a cup of tea when Mark got home. He picked up Clara Bow, holding her against his chest as he sat down next to Lauren. Clara Bow nudged her wet nose against his ear, and she saw a weariness in his face.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“We got Libby to step it up, at least,” he said. “Chains and handcuffs and bike locks for whoever’s willing. It’ll be harder to get us out of the way, at least.”
“She didn’t go for firebombing, I take it?”
“We’re working on it.”
She put her tea on the coffee table. “Who’s we?”
“Me and Brendan.” He looked at her. “Are you going to the protest?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I?”
“When we talked before, you seemed reluctant.”
She laughed. “You were talking about setting fires. I can chain myself to a fence for a couple hours.”
“It’s still illegal,” he said. “We’ll be trespassing.”
“So? Even if they do call the cops, they’re not going to arrest anyone.”
“These things can escalate. I’ve seen it.”
“I’m not worried about that.” Then she noticed it was past eleven o’clock. “I didn’t know it was so late. Were you at the meeting the whole time?”
“We had a lot to cover.” Mark yawned. “Bed?”
She nodded, and he took her hand as she rose from the couch, the sudden movement making her feel momentarily dizzy. In bed, he wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close, and she fell asleep quickly. When she woke later, Gloria was wedged into the warm space between them.
She didn’t notice her period was late until the day before the protest, and she had only enough time to buy a pregnancy test, not to take it. It wasn’t until late that night, long after everyone had been arrested and released, that she stared at the two thin pink lines on the strip and knew for certain what she’d suspected that morning, just before everything got started.
She lay in a hot bath, steam rising, hoping the heat wouldn’t harm the baby as she balanced the test strip on the edge of the tub. She’d been up nearly twenty hours; they had set out before dawn, so by the time the early morning light was breaking over the mountains, by the time the first construction trucks arrived, six of them were chained to gates and fences; the rest bore signs and shouted hoarse chants. A television-news van and a handful of reporters and photographers arrived, taking video and notes and photos.
Still, her memory of the day’s events blurred—the angry voices, hurling words at protestors and into cell phones; a few of the workers roughly wielding bolt cutters to cut the protesters’ chains, ignoring Brendan and two others, stuck fast with bicycle locks around their necks.
Lauren watched it all through the dusty window of Mark’s car, into which he’d hustled her after she got dizzy and blacked out as he was handcuffing her to the fence. She wasn’t even sure she’d actually lost consciousness, but as Mark rushed her back to the car, she felt too weak to argue. Leaving her the keys, he returned to the protest, and as soon as he was out of sight, she leaned out the car door and threw up into a pile of gravel.
She lay on the backseat for a few minutes, then jolted upright when she heard the sound of an engine. One of the workers was in the cab of a backhoe, putting it into gear. If he moved forward, within a few minutes he’d be right in front of— or on top of— Brendan and the other two who were bike-locked to the fence.
The rumbling grew louder as the engine revved. Lauren closed her eyes, then opened them again when the rumbling slowed and quieted.
Mark stood in front of the vehicle, not moving, forcing the driver to stop. He stood silent as the driver shouted at him and then finally climbed out of the cab. Still yelling, he got within inches of Mark’s face, and Mark didn’t budge. When the guy took a swing at him, Mark blocked it, struck him in the face, and pinned him down.
Lauren heard the whoop of a siren, saw red and blue flashes of light, and turned to see a police car rush in, dust flying. She watched as the other protestors fled for their cars—and then Libby was there in the driver’s seat, shouting for the key, and three other volunteers crammed into the backseat with Lauren. They spun out of the driveway before she could see what had happened.
Libby updated her later: Most of them got away, except Brendan, Mark, and five others, who were arrested for criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. They were taken to jail, processed, and released with orders to appear in court to face the charges. Though Libby had called that afternoon, Mark hadn’t come home until past ten o’clock, and Lauren hadn’t yet asked him why.
From the bathroom, Lauren heard a door closing down the hall, the sound of footsteps on the hardwood floors. She let herself sink more deeply into the water. Silence filled her ears and drowned the sounds of Mark walking around the cottage. She let her hands float over her belly, and she wondered how, when—even whether—to tell Mark. She knew he believed that a world with fewer people in it was the only way humanity would survive—as she herself believed, or used to. Maybe, she thought now, the very act of having a child was an act of optimism, and maybe to be optimistic in the face of so much wrong was in itself a form of activism.
She emerged from the bath to find him making soup. She sat in the kitchen and watched him cut the plastic of the six-pack holder of the beer he’d bought, so that no turtle would ever grow into a deadly collar. She thought of how he’d checked to make sure there was no leather on the label before buying a pair of jeans at the consignment store a few weeks ago. How he’d walk into the street to stop traffic if deer or wild turkeys were crossing.
When the soup was ready and he poured them each a beer, she looked at her glass and knew she’d made her choice. When she told him, she wasn’t surprised by the blank stare, the moment of confusion. Then—a flicker of joy, a smile that lit up his eyes before he kissed her.
“No wonder you fainted earlier,” he said, and that was as close as they came to talking about the protest. Instead, he asked about the pregnancy, how she felt, when she found out, what he could do. They stayed in the moment—they didn’t speak about the future, the two of them, the baby—it was all about here and now; they didn’t even talk about the next day.
But that look on his face never fully vanished, that dash of uncertainty. And she was no longer sure what it was about.
The morning sickness was so severe she rearranged her schedule to work in the afternoons. That week, she and Mark went through their days in much the same way as before, but everything felt different. She slept late and he worked late; they rarely saw each other. When they did, she noticed he ignored the cats as they curled around his legs, and he never stayed in a room with her for long; he was tired, wanted to go for a run, had to check email.
One morning, she woke earlier than usual, the bed cool and empty beside her. When her phone rang, she answered it without looking, thinking it would be him.
“Turn on the news,” Libby said, her voice tense and clipped.
An explosion at the building site. Construction vehicles, hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of building supplies—all destroyed. Police weren’t commenting, but the TV station showed footage of their protest the week before. Flames pulsed behind a windblown reporter as she announced, “Members of a local activist group will likely be persons of interest.”
“Where’s Mark?” Libby asked.
“I don’t know. At work, I guess.” “I can’t reach Brendan either.”
“Well, I haven’t tried to reach him,” she said. “I’m sure—”
“He’s gone, Lauren,” Libby said. “They’re both gone.”
She didn’t want to believe it, but Libby was right. Mark didn’t respond to her calls or texts. The next day, she and Libby both talked to the FBI, separately— Lauren alone, Libby with a lawyer. Lauren could tell them nothing because she knew nothing. It didn’t matter what she said anyhow; they took her computer and phone and left her cottage in disarray, the cats hiding in the bedroom closet.
“They planned it that way, to protect us,” Libby said, when she came to the cottage that night. Lauren plugged in the electric water kettle and got Libby a beer.
Libby opened her beer and threw the bottlecap toward Lauren’s trash can and missed. She didn’t pick it up when it skidded under an overturned drawer. Lauren stared at the kettle’s clear glass top, watching the steam freckle the inside with beads of water.
Libby took a long drink before saying, “My lawyer said Brendan’s taking a plea.
Because he can give up Tim. Apparently Tim’s the one who taught him how to make the explosives. For the lab, back then.”
Lauren poured hot water into a mug and watched the tea stain it brown. “What about Mark?”
Libby let out a short, hostile laugh. “Lauren, there is no Mark. Everything he told you was a lie. He set us up. Just be glad he didn’t convince you to go out with him last night.”
Lauren was about to mention the baby but stopped.
“I think it was all about Tim,” Libby continued. “Did Mark ever ask you about him?”
Lauren wrapped the string around the teabag and squeezed. Then she shook her head.
“You can’t come back to OAR,” Libby said. “I’ll probably have to disband the whole group at this point. We just have to hope Brendan doesn’t lose his shit in there and flip on us.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“That was never the point, was it?”
“But the slaughterhouse—” She looked at Libby’s face and stopped. The first sip of tea burned her tongue, the roof of her mouth.
At first, Lauren didn’t know where she would go, but she knew where to start.
She drove through New Pine Creek without stopping, got back onto the interstate where she’d last left it almost four years earlier, and headed west. She stopped in a town outside Sacramento, where she found part-time work at an animal sanctuary. The region had been scorched by wildfires the summer before, and the landscape was so dark and dead Lauren felt as if she could still see smoke rising from the earth, as if it hadn’t cooled off completely.
“We got all the animals out just a day before the fire reached our property line,” the sanctuary manager told her. “Everyone thought I was crazy to evacuate, but I had a bad feeling. It took a week to find fosters and shelters, but we did it. The firefighters saved all but one of the barns.”
The memory of smoke was everywhere, or maybe it was the memory of Mark, still lingering in her body. She began to talk to the growing child inside her, as she often spoke to the cats—not expecting a response but feeling heard, somehow.
It was dangerous, this one-way conversation; it led her to thoughts she couldn’t repress once they arose: that even the most tender words and gestures between her and Mark had been false. That perhaps the very act that created this child had been part of his plan. That her baby’s father would never be anything more than a living ghost.
She made and cancelled three appointments at a local clinic before she scheduled a visit with a gynecologist. You’re half mine, she told the baby. For every one of him out there, there needs to be at least one of you.
Nola was born five months after they’d moved. The cats, curious, took turns watching over her as she slept, batting at the mobile Lauren had installed above the crib. One night she stumbled from bed after Nola’s crying woke her, only to find Clara Bow tucked into the space between the baby’s arm and chest, both of them asleep.
It happened when Nola was two years old, a golden-haired girl who looked so much like Lauren that it helped her forget what her father’s face had looked like.
She and Nola were in Providence, visiting Lauren’s parents. It was their first visit, after dozens of taut conversations in which she defended her decision to have a child on her own. She’d told her parents that she’d gone to a sperm bank and knew very little about the biological father. It was true enough.
Now, it was early spring, and the weather was clear but unseasonably cold. Lauren held Nola’s tiny mittens and hat as they maundered through Rhode Island’s first VegFest—another point of contention with her parents: raising Nola on plants. Lauren had just hoisted Nola from one hip to the other when she saw him and froze.
He was at a booth very much like OAR’s—animal-rights signs and pamphlets, volunteers calling out for petition signatures—but this time, he held not his tools of torture but a page of brightly colored stickers, which he was doling out and affixing to the winter coats of passing children.
Lauren stared, not quite believing it was him. She should have known to expect this one day; the animal-rights community is small, often far too small, and it wasn’t unusual to run into one another at such events, even across the country.
And, while she still didn’t have any idea who he really was, at the same time she was certain it was him. The tilt of his head, the way his sunglasses nested into the wave of his hair. The way he used his left hand to peel stickers and hand them to the kids.
Nola began struggling to get down. Relieved by the distraction, Lauren lowered her to the ground. The girl ran straight to Mark.
“Would you like a sticker?” Mark asked. Nola nodded, and Mark unfurled a sticker from the page and placed it on Nola’s coat, a bright red circle that read I ♥ Animals.
As he straightened up again, he looked at Nola’s face, and Lauren held her breath as he grew still, became a statue in front of her. Then his head snapped up, and he locked eyes with Lauren.
They held a look that said nothing and everything, and it was then that she knew how he’d recognized his daughter. What Lauren hadn’t seen, hadn’t wanted to see, was that he and Nola shared the same eyes: that inimitable speckled hazel, sea glass on a restless tide.
Her eyes still on Mark’s, she reached for Nola’s hand. “What do you say?” she prompted.
“Thank you,” Nola said.
“Do you want to sign our petitions?”
Lauren turned to see another volunteer, a rosy-cheeked twentysomething with dark red hair flowing down from under her winter hat, holding out a clipboard. “Sure,” Lauren said.
She could have—probably should have—walked away as quickly as she could. But a part of her wanted Mark to be in the presence of Nola for another few moments, to see everything he created, everything he left behind. The lifetime of everything he would miss.
She did not let go of Nola’s hand as she scrawled her name on the forms. She handed the clipboards back to the red-haired woman, who had her eyes on Mark, probably the same look Lauren herself had worn once.
As she and Nola walked away, Nola skipping and tugging at her hand, Lauren felt eyes on her back. Fueled by a sudden, misguided impulse, she turned around, but she kept her gaze downward, on his feet. He wore thick, laced winter boots that looked made of leather, though of course she could not be sure.