• Till It and Keep It

    Carrie R. Moore

    Spring 2024

    In the beginning, there was her sister’s breathing. Which meant neither of them had died.

    It was faint, a slip of sound in the truck’s stillness. But it reached into the front seats and nudged Brie awake. She lay over the console, an ache in her ribs, sweat on her eyelids. Against her wrist, morning light fell in a thin orange beam. So she could see colors again, which meant the illness was fading. She’d been smart to pull off the road—sometimes, rest was all you needed.

    “Harper,” she said, “wake up. We’re still a long ways out.”

    Her sister’s breathing quieted. Brie felt behind her, arms weak, neck too stiff to turn. If she could just touch Harper, surely she’d wake, too?

    This was hardly the worst they’d been through—unlucky as they were, born into prolonged summers and floods rushing deep into the coast and dwindling federal relief. There was the land they’d worked in Low America for years, the trees more branch than fruit. The miles of brown fields after they’d fled Randall’s farm and the masses of white tents clustered outside silver cities and along freeway exits. On more than one occasion, thin-hipped walking men eyed their truck as it sped past, but who knew if they carried viruses or meant them harm: any kindness had to be carefully doled out. When the sisters had long passed the health inspection at the Arkansas line, they’d stood in a shallow creek while Brie shaved Harper’s deep honey curls. The green city lights wavering in the distance made Harper’s hair shudder on the water’s surface. “I don’t care what it looks like,” Harper had said, gripping Brie’s elbow. “Just so I don’t feel his hands in it.”

    “I got you,” Brie murmured, tying a wrap, red as a caul, over her handiwork. “It’ll look good.” She finished just before the outage drowned them in darkness.

    In the truck, Brie finally twisted to glimpse Harper in the space between the passenger seat and door. The wrap fell over her sister’s cheek, flattened against the backseat. Who knew anymore, how a virus would go. Some filled your lungs with fluid and made your muscles go liquid for weeks; others made your skin ache even in moonlight. This one had made Harper break out in hives once they were well into Tennessee, then start asking why the sun looked brown as the trees. As she drove, Brie said, “Just hang on. We’ll stop soon,” and passed her sister a silver canister of tea leaves to chew. But whatever was ailing Harper hit Brie too. As the hot pressure spread through her skull, she eased off the road, into woods blurry as gray flames. She cussed. Then prayed: Lord, cover us. It was different from her usual prayer: Lord, let us get the chance to taste something green.

    Brie repeated her sister’s name. They hadn’t survived so much for her to lose Harper now.

    Then she saw the orange and green shapes just outside the window. The orange globes, dimpled and striped pink. The green, a sharp tip. It took her a minute to recognize them, long as it had been since she’d seen such fruit.

    “Harper,” she said. “There’s peaches out there.”

    As if he’d heard, a man appeared at the window, the peaches vanishing behind his brown face. He opened the door, cool air rushing in. Then he lifted her against him, and her whole body split with pain. Her neck couldn’t hold her head, which tipped over his arm. “God almighty,” he said. “There’s two of you.”

    She sank her teeth into his shoulder. Held tight until she felt his skin break.

    He cussed. She felt him grip her thighs, trying not to drop her. Then his grip was gone, and so was everything else.

    She woke in a wooden shed that smelled of grass and sweat. In the bed beside her, Harper slept curled against the rose-patterned sheets, her fingernails gray in the moonlight falling through the window. When Brie woke again, it was to the sound of splashing: the man stood at the sink, scrubbing her patchwork jeans with a bar of soap. She yelped, fearing her own nakedness before him. Then he was moving toward her—or toward Harper—the lone lightbulb swinging above his low curls. She aimed her fists at his forehead, striking once before he caught her wrists. His hands were cool and damp, and this brought her back to her senses. Someone had dressed her in a thin blouse.

    “Nothing’s going to happen to you,” he said, though he didn’t let go. His shirt had slipped in the tussle, exposing a white patch covering his shoulder. “Go on back to sleep, and I’ll get Lauren in here soon as I can.” But Brie didn’t sleep, not for a while. She studied the scythes and rakes hanging on the door he’d closed behind him. Beside her, Harper’s fingers twitched once.

    She woke the third time to a white woman bent over her, kneading her calves. The woman had a gray braid that swept Brie’s thighs, her knuckles bony and blue-veined as mountain ridges. When Brie moved, the woman adjusted the bandanna over her nose and mouth, then turned to two steaming mugs sitting on a crate. She offered one to Brie and moved to the bed’s edge, far from where Harper slept with half-parted lips.

    When Brie sniffed the rim, the woman said, “It’s just tea. And it hasn’t killed you yet.”

    After the woman introduced herself as Lauren, Brie asked, “You live here?”
    She shook her head. “Got my own to take care of.”

    Her own, Brie thought. It could mean a sibling, spouse. So many ways to have a family. She took a careful sip, the brew bitter and piping hot.

    “Mind if I work on your friend while you drink?” Lauren asked.

    Brie let Lauren massage Harper’s thighs, thin above the sheets. “Who lives here, then?”

    “You took a bite out of his shoulder. May want to apologize for that. He took a lot of risk, letting you stay here. And quarantining you.” Lauren’s hands pushed and pushed against Harper, stuffing life back in. “Seems like whatever you had makes a real mess of your nerves. But I figure you’re out of the woods now.”

    Brie lowered her mug to her stomach. “My sister—” She breathed deep and touched Harper’s shoulder. “Will she be alright?”

    Lauren’s eyes flickered. Of course she’d doubt they were siblings, comparing Harper’s yellow skin to Brie’s mahogany. Lauren was older than their mother had been, old enough to remember a time before most people were brown, either by sun or by blood. “She’s—making it,” Lauren said, and lifted Harper’s arm toward the ceiling, working her thumbs into flesh that went pink under the pressure. “Between the two of you, you got the stronger genes.”

    Brie felt for Harper’s free hand. When they’d been girls in east Texas, she’d gone under the floodwaters, dry leaves plugging her nose. Harper had yanked her into the boat by the armpit, the skiff swirling in the chaos: “You’re not allowed to die, you hear me?” Water streamed down her sister’s face. Then she rowed the two of them to something like safety, to drier ground some twenty miles from the government complex where their mother had died with her lover.

    “Don’t worry,” Lauren said—and when she patted Harper’s arm her hand was hot with her exertions—“You’re both safe here.”

    The whole place was a dream of green. The farmhouse with its clean white panels and long windows, the surrounding shrubs like woolly-haired children. That evening, she took dinner on the porch steps, a plate of venison and beans on her knees. In another time, she’d have avoided the meat—who knew what it carried?—or eaten slowly to disguise her hunger, but there was already so much her mind couldn’t swallow. The trees bending in the breeze, threatening to drop their fruit. The soil dark and loamy enough to hold a footprint. Even the men on the far edges of the porch relaxed as they ate. They sat with their backs to her, dirt settled on their shoulders. Had she not known she and Harper were somewhere in Tennessee—and had it not been for the cloud of heat—she would’ve thought they’d made it to Maine. Which meant Harper had been wrong when she said Low America was finished, that—if the cities would not let you in—you had to get north to have a home that would flourish and last.

    Behind her, someone said, “You looked better passed out.”

    When she turned, the man with the patch on his shoulder was toweling off his face. “Calmer, at least,” he added. He must’ve come from around back, too close to the shed where Harper slept. It was thirty seconds away. Twenty, if she didn’t let her full belly slow her down. She kept her hand on her fork. Said, “Only a crazy person would say somebody looks better passed out.”

    “Bad joke. Didn’t mean anything by it.”

    He flopped the towel over the railing, then leaned on it with one elbow. The men behind him murmured greetings, gratitude for the meal. Had this happened on any other farm she’d worked? The owner feeding them? The men called him Colton.

    “Where you two headed?” he said, when his attention returned to her.

    Brie, chewing, kept her eyes on her plate.

    “Fine,” he said. “It’s none of my business.”

    She looked over his shoulder. Up the dirt road, a few mares grazed, their tails flicking in the air. Their black coats were so shiny it made her eyes prickle. “How’d you come by this farm?” she asked.

    “My parents, who got it from theirs. Prices weren’t so high, once.”

    And it had survived all the storms. “But how do you manage to keep affording it?”

    “We treat the soil right. Grow no more than we can handle and shield during freezes. Take help, if the right sort of people come along.” He glanced at the men behind them, still intent on their plates. “Not saying we don’t get trouble like everyone else. Or god-awful weather. But we get by.”

    He moved closer, and his shadow touched the knee of her jeans. She tightened her grip on her fork. “I won’t hurt you,” he said, brows relaxing. “I just want to sit. Right there, next to you.”

    She didn’t protest. He smelled the kind of clean that meant a bath every day or every other. Waste of water, Harper would’ve said, but Brie let herself enjoy it for a few breaths. The money some people had.

    “You know,” he said, “my shoulder’s kept me out of the picking three days.”

    She ate a sliver of deer so fast her fork barely met her tongue.

    He sighed. “Listen, we won’t get anywhere like this. Your truck’s still on the edge of the farm, ’bout a mile off. Maybe you’ve got ten miles of fuel in there. Been forever since I’ve seen anything not electric.”

    “Didn’t really have a choice.”

    “Not judging you. I know a guy with a fuel reserve. In town. I can get some for you.”

    Around her, these trees, bursting with life. A man could be tolerated, if he had all this. “We’ll work for it,” she said. “I’m guessing those peaches’ll rot if you leave ’em too long.”

    His whole body became an apology, head dipping down, smile hanging off his face. The spots on his forehead put him anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, given how Momma once said people aged faster than they used to, the sun being what it was. “I wasn’t asking for anything. The guys’ll haul a few gallons over tomorrow, so you don’t have to worry yourself. You and your friend—”

    “My sister. I’m telling you, I’ll work. ’Least ’til she’s awake.”

    Her eyelids lowered. Imagine. Time spent on this place as rich as something out of Momma’s old photographs, the previous century with its regular crops, its more manageable seasons. Just wait until Harper saw it. Maybe Maine could wait, a little while.

    When she looked back at him, the dark color in his eyes gave way, like the earth easing beneath her boot.

    On the first day of work, she waited in the orchard, calves quivering. She’d arrived earlier than anyone, before the sun would drain her further, and she thumbed the bark of a tree as she tried to contain herself. Then she gave up and grabbed a low-hanging peach. It burst in her mouth, its juice stinging her tongue. When she turned, Colton was a few feet away, studying the trail on her chin. She wiped it, clutching the rest of the fruit. Then he approached with a small jug and rinsed off the peach’s remains until her hands were soaked. “You’ve gotta clean ’em,” he said. Then he grabbed a peach from a branch near her cheek. Rinsed that one off too. Bit in.

    The second day had all the hard work of the first. It was May, and the laborers had long developed their routines, leaving behind families in camps to pile into electric sedans or ride three to a horse or bike the full five miles to Colton’s farm. All eleven of them went right to work, reaching into the trees. Because her legs were still weak, Brie stood below Colton and made a tent out of a blanket, catching the peaches he tossed down and carefully lowering them into crates to avoid bruising. His wound bled through its dressing and onto his shirt.

    On the third day, they traded places. He had to steady her on the ladder, his thumb pushing into the back of her knee, his flesh a damp circle beneath her stiff shorts. Imagine being hungry for touch, of all things. “You know,” he said, “for a while, there was just my family to help out with all this. Either we killed ourselves or a lot went wasted.”

    He was waiting, she knew, for her to ask more. But she wouldn’t. When she was fifteen and Harper twelve, their mother had begun whatever-you-wanted-to-call-it with the new water monitor. Sex. Convenience. Love. William had appeared out back of the government complex, where Momma pinned a sheet to the community clothesline and Brie and Harper played cards on the AstroTurf. He knelt beside the filtration unit and installed new canisters, all the while looking back at them. Above her playing cards, Harper rolled her eyes, though she went still when he said to Momma, “Decades ago, I had my own house around here. Though I have to say, you look better than my memories of that place.” “That might not be saying much,” Momma said, though the lines in her face went softer than they’d been in years. Nights later, from the bedroom allotted for the teens, Brie and Harper heard Momma and William laughing in the den, louder than the other adults. Beneath the door, candlelight flickered. “Didn’t they assign him his own unit?” Brie whispered, and Harper answered, “Who cares. Momma promised we’d head out before the next hurricane anyway.”

    Against Brie’s knee, Colton’s thumb sweated. Or she did. In the distance, she saw Lauren heading toward the shed, preparing to tend to her sister.

    “I can manage,” Brie said, and he let her go.

    On the fourth day, Lauren returned to cook for the workers. Three miniature chickens and corn hash stewing over a fire, which stretched toward the sunset like it was kin. Brie had learned by then that the men never stayed late, wanting to get home to their families before full dark. By the time the sky turned pink, they’d stacked their empty plates in neat piles, and the ones who had to walk plunged their faces into the water buckets so they’d be cool for the journey back. She watched from the front porch until Lauren’s laugh floated through the house’s open window. Brie turned. Lauren stood with a man in the kitchen, his mouth mashed against her neck. So her family was her husband. His hair was gray, and his red-spotted hands pulled her against him. No wedding band, but then again, it was smarter not to. In the complex, everyone crammed together on their assigned floors, anything valuable could become someone else’s. Once, when the mess hall had run out of proteins, she and Harper had slipped a silver necklace out of a newcomer’s backpack. Easy to bribe a café worker with something so flashy. “We might have the chance to pay her back for it,” Harper had said as they picked at their hard-boiled eggs, icy from the back of the fridge. Though of course the newcomer had been gone days later, already checked out of the complex and on her way elsewhere.

    “What you thinking ’bout?” Colton said, sitting beside her. She shook her head, and he said, “Hey, now. Your sister’ll be fine.” Her heart pounding, she let him maneuver her into the tender pad of his shoulder. His breath caught. Could’ve been pain. Or the closeness.

    The fifth day, she saw the damage she’d done. She’d knocked at his front door, waiting for the usual breakfast of eggs and toast, and he’d come out with his shirt half askew, his wound exposed. Bridges of skin stretched from one raw side to the other. “Come in?” he said. “Cool off?”

    Four chairs at the kitchen table, only one pulled out. A pair of leather boots, about his size, by the door. It was already marvelous, that landline plugged into the wall, a sign of what else he could buy. Probably he had a cell phone stashed away somewhere, one of the nice, expensive ones from a company that could afford to keep its data centers cool.

    But God, this air-conditioning rushing over her. So long since she’d been in a real house, not a shed or barn attic or truck.

    She allowed herself to sit in one of the chairs, slow. If she leaned against its pillow, would she smear it with grease? No matter how many times she scrubbed herself, dipping her sponge into the bucket of soapy water outside the shed, she was dipping into her own filth. He placed the eggs before her and took his own cup of coffee near the stove. She asked, “You live here alone?”

    “If I answer that, you’ll answer one for me?” When she nodded, he said, “Yeah, alone.”

    She let her fork break the yolk of her egg. Finally, he said, “Where’d you and your sister come from? And where you headed?”

    Two questions, but she let him get away with it. “Left Texas after Hurricane Bev. Spent a few years working farms in Mississippi. Just earning what we can ’til we get to Maine.”

    “What’s in Maine, aside from crazy winters?”

    Permanence, she thought. Water. Greenery. She said, “Well, what’s here?”

    He twisted toward the window, and something in her knew his body often leaned against the sink this way, waiting, his gaze on the road. After a beat, he said, “What’s not?”

    On the sixth day, when she returned to the shed, her body reeked of peaches. There it was: Harper turning on the mattress at the scent. All the fear that had clutched Brie’s heart uncoiled.

    “You?” Harper murmured. “You were gone?”

    Brie rushed toward her sister. With her cleanest fingers, she pulled back the sheets, then retreated.

    Harper’s chest rose and fell. “Why are you way over there?”

    “I don’t want to get anything on you.”

    “Like . . . I care about that.”

    “I’m filthy. You just can’t see.”

    Harper squinted at her. Then said, “I can see it” and closed her eyes.

    By the time Harper fell asleep again, everything was bright, everything a peach, even the sun, half-crushed against the horizon. Brie closed the shed door behind her and walked toward the house, limbs alight. The men were gone when she mounted the stairs. There was only Colton, sitting on the railing, reading a big leather Bible. “Thought you were in for the night,” he said.

    “Harper’s awake. And I want to hug her but—” She looked down at her hands, then the rest of her body.

    “Oh,” he said, lowering his Bible. “I see.”

    The bathroom was far nicer than the ones in the complexes, the tile mint instead of gray, the shower so hot it burned off her dry parts, flakes of skin and dirt swirling down the drain. She could feel the soap foaming on her scalp, lifting the crusted sweat so her hair fluffed. She showered for as long as she could stand it, half-wondering if he would come upstairs to remind her about the water regulations. But he didn’t.

    On the doorknob, he’d left a black dress with four pockets and a bra a size too big, like hands hovering over her breasts. Leftover from some cousin or sister or somebody else? A wife? A woman who had things. Brie clothed herself, then sat at the top of the stairs and tucked her chin on her knees until the sun went down. In its fading light, she could see the hairs curling on her arms. When Colton appeared beneath her, at the stair’s foot, she sat up to regard him. They remained there, considering each other in the gathering darkness.

    “I have to go up now,” he said. “To bed.”

    She said, “Show me.”

    When they lay beside each other on his mattress, not yet naked, he touched his shoulder’s ruined skin and said, “I’ll have this scar for the rest of my life.”

    “Guess it’ll match the others.” So hard to be sure of him or of this long-suppressed heat inside her. But there was no denying this mattress. It was even softer than his chest.

    “You mean this?” he asked. “This one’s from where a dog nipped me. And I’ve got this one near my ear from when I was out on a delivery. This desperate kid with a knife.” As he spoke, she pressed her ear to his heart, letting only half his words enter her. She shouldn’t have mentioned the scars; she didn’t need to know about them.

    “Can I?” he asked, his fingers tilting her chin toward him.

    They kissed and she thought, This too, is rest. Soon, he removed her dress so she was naked and clean against his own clean body, and she remembered how she’d purposefully forgotten this: to have somebody other than Harper.

    On the morning of the seventh day, she returned to the shed and found Harper standing beside the bed, both her arms outstretched, like two wings, for balance. Brie wiped the grime from her sister’s forehead.

    She thought: Well, I guess we have to go now.

    She said: “Harps, I tried. But we’re low on fuel, and we can’t leave ’til we can pay for it.”

    To be safe and headed nowhere, for once. The illness left Harper’s skin stiff with sweat, and Brie helped her shower with the bucket outside the shed. With the towel, she made a fuzzy curtain, shielding her sister from the house and its fields.

    “Shit, shit, shit,” Harper said, laughing, her blond eyelashes damp, “promise when we get to Maine we’ll make sure our farm’s got warm water. No more freezing like this.”

    “You want to shower in the house?”

    Harper shook her head. Cleaned herself furiously, cold water flying off her hands and slapping Brie’s feet. Harper’s body was all bones and caverns. Like some long, slender rodent lost to time, the hairs on her legs like quills. “I must look god-awful,” Harper said.

    “You should’ve seen yourself before.”

    “At least you look good.” Harper exhaled, scanning the rows of peach trees. It was Sunday, no picking, and maybe this would make it easier for Harper to appreciate the beauty.

    “You see the colors?” Brie asked. “How bright the peaches are?”

    “Sure.” Harper shrugged. “I see them.”

    They ate Lauren’s chilled sunflower soup, which did nothing to stop them from sweating. Then they walked, Harper’s body sharp as it leaned against her. Brie talked about Colton and the harvest schedule, keeping her voice neutral. Almost two weeks they’d been here, and maybe two more would get them what they needed. It was about a quarter mile to the dirt path that ran right up to the house, then another quarter mile on the other side. By the time they’d finished, Harper was panting.

    “God, I’m sorry,” Harper said. “I wasted so much of our time.”

    “You didn’t.” Brie wiped her forehead, felt a drumbeat of shame. Being here was the best time she’d had in a while—and what did that say about her? “If the High checkpoints are as strict as they say, you wouldn’t have passed, sick like that.”

    “Still, if he’d hand over the fuel, we could be on our way. But somebody’s always bargaining.”

    Brie pressed her lips together. Colton was coming out of the house. He paused on the porch and pulled at his collar, the heat getting to him all at once.

    “That him?” Harper asked.

    “Yeah.” She squeezed her sister’s shoulder. “You know I bit him? At the truck, I thought he was coming after you, so I took a chunk out of his shoulder.”

    “Look at you,” Harper said. Then she shook her head and laughed until it sounded like crying, so loud you could believe it—and not the wind—stirred the trees. She quieted only when Colton approached.

    “Glad you’re feeling better,” he said to Harper. His hand hung in the open air between them. “We both worried about you.”

    “Well, you wouldn’t know, but I always make it.”

    “I believe it. House is ready, whenever you are. I’ve got extra rooms.”

    Yes, Brie’s body said, but Harper went, “We’re fine in the shed,” and tugged her away.

    They had the whole afternoon before them, all the laborers having returned home to their families in the camps. Possibly, the bright emptiness was even better than being permitted into the cities, because inside Dallas or Little Rock or Nashville, you would have reliable water systems and sturdier infrastructure and your own space, though it would not be this much. Brie and Harper lay on a blanket in the orchard and let the peach trees shelter them from the heat. Colton hung around, standing over the blanket so they were in his shadow. He was trying to win Harper over with talk of how his family had been Tennessee natives for centuries—slaves, then sharecroppers, then farmers, then Low America nationalists and, blessed, for now, from disaster, though when Harper kept complaining about the gnats, he quieted. “And your family?” he asked. Neither Brie nor Harper answered. He picked at his shirt, mumbled something about dinner, and retreated into the house.

    “What makes him think we want to know about his life?” Harper asked. “His family didn’t have the sense to move north, and he doesn’t either, apparently.”

    “I don’t know. This farm’s not nothing.”

    “It’s peaches, Brie. And who knows if they’ll even grow next year.”

    “Not just peaches. Sweet potatoes on the other side. Okra. Tomatoes. Not to mention the chickens and everything Lauren’s got at her place.”

    “He still eats chicken? Gross.”

    Brie folded her hands across her stomach, which rose fuller than it had in years. She couldn’t admit that she’d eaten chicken alongside him. Pork, too, with everyone else, and no one had gotten sick. But it was always Harper who did their imagining: Leave the complex. Take the electric trains. Get work on farms when they could. Save and work and save and learn until they could get to Maine and buy land at least worth the impossible price, until they could choose a life that gave them a chance. Even the uncertainty of High America had to be better than here, which was always hot and had the tornadoes and floods and mosquitoes and viruses to prove it.

    “Place is nice, I’ll give you that,” Harper said, grabbing her hand. “But even Randall’s was nice, at first.”

    The next morning, when it was time to resume picking, Harper refused to join the others. “Tell Mr. Man I’ll be with Lauren in the kitchen today,” she said as she shrugged on her denim overalls, newly washed. The color in her face was returning, though she’d eaten around the pork on her breakfast plate.

    Brie didn’t tell Colton. Instead, they spent the day at opposite ends of a row of peach trees, keeping all the men between them. Was he being sensitive to what she needed, letting her wear out her fingers like everyone else? Only days before, when they’d lain together, he’d mumbled into her ear, “I think I might love you.” Which felt absurd, unless he meant he could see his way to something like love. With her. Even her own body opened to pleasure around him, some ancient room inside her unlocked. Though—it was also like they fit only because he was a man and she was a woman and they were in this beautiful place.

    Her sister would say, One room ain’t a whole house. Or something like that. Once, at seventeen, a boy from the complex had been assigned to plant onions beside her in the communal garden. He wasn’t special, aside from the fact that he hadn’t been sick in the past year and didn’t let his temper get the better of him in the heat. It was one shiny coin of a moment: rocking with him in that storage facility. When she told Harper, her sister paused sewing the arm back onto a jacket. “You know what they used to do centuries ago, when they wanted to keep slaves on plantations?” Harper said. “They let them get married. Or let them call it that anyway.” Her sister had never taken to William, whom the other women couldn’t lure from Momma’s bed for long.

    Brie descended the ladder before her allotted tree, then wiped her brow with the back of her hand. The day was ending, and when she turned, Harper stood in the house’s doorway, that wrap on her hair, her body a red-tipped match at the edge of the fields.

    Come dinner, they ate with Lauren in the kitchen, the men outside. Lauren and Harper had made soybean casserole with pepper and dehydrated herbs, which they ate at the kitchen table. Don’t you miss this, Harps? Brie thought. It had been forever since they’d eaten someplace that didn’t require sitting cross-legged in a dry field or in a truck’s cramped cabin. But Harper only nibbled, leaning toward Lauren, which was always how Harper got with women.

    “Your place must have a lot, too,” Harper said. “You don’t come here every day.”
    “I wouldn’t say a lot.” Lauren smoothed the cap of her hair to where it tightened into a braid. “It’s only the two of us.”

    “At least you don’t have kids.” When Lauren laughed, Harper blinked. “What? There were so doggone many in the complex.”

    “It’s nothing,” Lauren said, and her newly soft voice made Brie press her foot over Harper’s; you could never tell what people had lost. “You’d manage, if you had them.”

    “Maybe we want more than managing.” Harper freed her foot and cleaned her plate. Brie wondered if there was more casserole. It’d be careless to ask for meat in front of Harper.

    “How long you two planning on sticking around?” Lauren said as she skinned a peach.

    “Just ’til we earn fuel,” Harper said. “Get our truck going.”

    “Who’s got fuel?”

    “Colton knows somebody,” Brie murmured. “We’re just working off the cost to him.”

    The peach skin Lauren pulled away wrinkled like her mouth. “He’s honest. He’ll make good on whatever he told you.” She said nothing else for a while, and Brie felt caught in the net of her stare. “But in the meantime, I’d appreciate help with the canning. We’ll wrap up harvest soon, and whatever doesn’t get sold in town will need preserving. Think you’d be interested?”

    “We could be,” Brie said. Harper studied an ant wandering over her plate.

    That night, as they faced each other on the shed mattress, Brie said, “There’s a lot we can learn in a place like this, if we both work.”

    Harper curled her fist under her cheek. “We been working and learning for years. At some point, you just have to go.”

    Brie rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. There had been cobwebs in the rafters that morning, and now they were gone.

    “I don’t think peaches grow in Maine,” Harper said, her voice softer. “But maybe apples? Potatoes? Would that make you happier, staying through the canning?”

    Brie did not return to Colton’s room that night, but she thought about it during that third week, as she and Harper joined the others in the peach orchard. It felt wrong to think about his shower, his plush bed. Anybody else would be making sure their sister didn’t tip over during the harvesting, given how Harper yanked the fruit hard enough to snap branches.

    Colton didn’t approach her in the fields until midday, the sun overhead a white, unflinching eye, the others taking lunch and Harper gone to use one of the outhouses. His knuckles brushed the loops of her jeans. “You’ve done enough now,” he said. “I’ll get the fuel tomorrow.”

    “Still too much to do. Like the canning. And probably more.”

    His shadow nodded on the tree in front of her. “You know you’re welcome to anything in the house. Whatever you want. Whenever.”

    That night, as Harper slept, Brie went to him. She showered and slipped into a strawberry-print dress he’d left for her, though she ignored the bra. From Colton’s bed, she imagined the woman it once belonged to moving down this hallway, her feet gentling against the floorboards. Brie sat on the bed and looked out at the pristine dinner plate of the moon. When Colton crawled in beside her, she chose to stop thinking about anybody else.

    After, she asked him to show her around, and he obliged. A series of rooms: an office with piles of papers, a bedroom with a blue gingham comforter and sewing machine on a round table, one entirely empty room that he closed the door on, quick. The hallway had a long table covered in a yellow quilt and glass figurines of animals she couldn’t identify, ghostly in their long-necked translucence. A photograph of a grinning, gray-haired couple stared back at her, their arms extending from the frame as they angled the camera toward them. Behind them, a city of canals.

    “My parents,” he said.

    “You must be ancient.”

    “I wouldn’t say that. A lot of people wouldn’t.”

    She lifted a teacup, its trim curving silver in the moonlight. In the complex, what little she and Harper owned had been lost. They’d waded knee-deep through the partially drained floodwaters, where everything shelved had been coaxed out: the R&B records their mother inherited from her parents, Brie’s baby shoes curling with pink ribbons, the framed photograph of their family eating quesadillas at the canteen on Harper’s twelfth birthday. All of it ruined.

    “Yours,” Colton said, and closed her fingers around the teacup. “If you want.” She nodded. In the distance, she heard a horse’s wet neigh. “Will you tell me how old you two are?”

    “I’m twenty-four.” She wouldn’t tell him Harper’s age. No part of me is any of his business, Harper would say.

    “That’s about what I thought,” he said. “Though I wish I hadn’t needed to spend so much time guessing.”

    She didn’t ask how old he was. Nor about the woman who had lived here before. “I’m thirty,” Colton murmured, releasing her fingers. “I need you to know I’m not ancient.”

    They’d been there six weeks when the picking ended. By mid-July, the summer fleshed out and the laborers had fleshed out too, growing partners and children who appeared on the horizon for the final, celebratory dinner. Lauren and Harper had spent hours on the knotted rolls of bread and creamed potatoes and the pig, slaughtered and then garnished with peaches, though this last task had made Harper vomit on the back steps. A mess of a gathering, at first. The cast-iron pots and pans jumbled on the table. People knocking against each other as they filled their plates. The children working their way from lap to lap, only to scramble back toward their parents. These families, vibrant under the string of yellow lights buzzing on and on.

    They’d figured something out, something different from the thrown-together families of the complexes, where everyone belonged to everyone, no room for it to be any other way. But here a laborer with hair only a shade redder than his face had two wives, their trio occupying one corner of the long wooden table. A pair of men in identical plaid shirts, who arrived and left together daily, lay on a blanket, the taller man’s arms around the shorter one. And then there were the endless man-to-woman couples, chasing their children down the dirt road, dust coating their hair.

    On the porch, Brie watched as Harper’s wry half-smile settled into wary amusement. Even in Brie’s earliest memories of her sister, Harper was this watchful. Eleven years old and studying their mother parting the pale, heart shells of the crabs that washed up after Hurricane Sharunda, her callused hands exposing their tender pink flesh.

    “Makes me think about William,” Harper said. “That night he taught us how to do that dance from the cities.” They’d never known why Momma attached herself to him. He couldn’t find a crab on a doorstep. He took most of the money for who-knew-what and ate more than his share of their rations. Maybe he was simply a source of warmth that first winter. And he did dance.

    Brie remembered: the four of them in the common area, her own voice providing the bass of the old music, Harper’s soprano carrying the melody, their mother and William harmonizing as they rolled their feet against the floors and wound their arms in the air. But she couldn’t speak about it, not with how much she was already holding inside. One of the laborer’s wives, a sun-kissed woman with brown curls haloing her face, began singing, “My old man sleeps with one hand on his gun, the other ’round my heart.”

    A surprise, when Harper started singing too, her voice unfurling like a cool mist. The woman smiled at them, and Brie thought for sure Harper would stop, but no, Harper rose, swaying, her wrists fleshier, her fingers pulling the air’s invisible strings.

    The woman moved her hips, raised her fingers too. But Harper closed her eyes, her lashes a veil to another world inside her: their old bedroom shared with the other teens, the sketches of the solar-assisted cities copied from the common room television, the packed classroom where they wrote out their plans for something better. Brie closed her eyes too, let the swirl of lights fill the darkness. Maybe Maine will be like this, she thought, when we get there.

    By the time Brie opened her eyes, the woman had lost interest in Harper, settling against a man in a wooden chair, his grin lost in the tangle of his beard. Across the yard, in a huddle of other men, Colton’s eyes met hers, as if Harper’s dance, the arc of her arms, plucked a taut string between them. He mouthed something: Stay, maybe. Or, Wait.

    Her sister was turning, dragging one boot in a circle through the dirt. She stopped. “Just dance with me,” she said. “For Momma?”

    When they were back in the shed, they splashed water on their faces. Harper unwound her head wrap, and Brie fought the urge to even out her hair, which stood up in spikes and looked so much worse than it had that night at the river. Harper picked at the flyaways as she studied the teacup resting on the windowsill. “That’s pretty,” she said, and Brie splashed the water harder.

    “Something’s on your mind,” Harper said when she was combing out Brie’s tight kinks.

    “You seemed happy tonight.”

    “Guess I was.”

    “You ever think about just staying here? Even beyond the canning?”

    The comb met a knot. Harper pulled hard, then gentler. “Hey,” Harper said, and the brightness in her voice wasn’t what it should’ve been. “Don’t ask me that again, alright?”

    Brie dug her nails into the mattress. Stupid, to forget the point of all this. In the silence, the laborers called out last goodbyes.

    “You remember that little garden snake we found in the complex that time?” Harper asked. “I would’ve fed it forever, if Momma hadn’t made William kill it.”

    “She was afraid. Can’t really blame her for that.”

    “That’s what I’m saying,” Harper said. “You were scared too, at first. But you got over it.”

    She supposed so. Harper’s fingers were in her hair, tentative, searching.

    A few nights later, when Colton pressed his own fingers to her scalp, she shrugged off his touch. She’d snuck out and lost herself under him, but now his sheets felt thin, her shoulders cold. He rolled toward the other side of the bed.

    “I wasn’t telling you to go away,” she said.

    “Truth be told, I’ve got no idea what you want, half the time.”

    She sat up. Slid both legs over the bed and toed the tops of her boots.

    “See?” he said. “There you go.”

    When she turned, his face was more crushed than she was expecting, his wrinkles drawn out. “I’m trying,” she said, and he set his chin on her shoulder and said, “At least tell me what happened to you two. The whole story.”

    She made herself inhale. What rushed into her body felt like a flood itself: William saying, “There’s no better place to be,” even when they were the last ones in the complex, the common area empty after the calls to evacuate. They had a shaky peace those first hours, playing cards on the concrete floor until the power went out, then quietly wondering where everyone else had hunkered down, until the wind outside grew louder than their voices and Harper shouldered her emergency pack and said, “I told you,” and climbed the stairs to the adult quarters on the second landing, then the teens’ on the third. “Just get some rest,” William said, as they each took a bunk, the gray walls around them shuddering and Momma, beside him, pulling the blankets overhead. Hours later, sleepless, Brie twisted on the mattress and her arm draped over its edge and met warm water, already rising toward her shoulder. Her scream was silent inside her, and she would’ve sat inside that silent scream forever if Harper hadn’t pulled her away, leading everyone through the hollering wind and the waist-high water up the next flight of stairs to the storerooms with cans scattered over the floor, then up the escape ladder to the roof, where the emergency boats were chained. “You can’t release it ’til after you’re in it,” Harper shouted to William and Momma through the fury of rain, but either William didn’t hear or he’d grown desperate because the second boat was loose and slowly sliding away from him and Momma, then blown out of reach and over the edge, the way their bodies would’ve blown over if they weren’t on all fours. Where, Brie whispered, had her attention been at the moment of William and Momma’s vanishing? The water rose too high too fast, already dragging her from Harper, then sealing her beneath. And out of that black water and screeching wind, Harper reappeared, grabbing her wrist and hoisting her into the safety of the boat, which rocked against its chains then shot away the instant Harper unclipped them, away from the patch of roof where Momma and William had once been. That roof soon vanished entirely, just like the other roofs across the development, the lightning flashing against the black water hell-bent on clearing the earth.

    It did not make her feel better to tell Colton. Nor did it make her feel good to explain what came after: The government acknowledging that, despite the flooding it would cause to adjacent regions, they’d had no choice but to release the water from the reservoir, which could not keep up with the rainfall. The promise she and Harper made never to depend on anyone but each other, to get all the way north before settling down. Still, she talked. Of the farm work that bent her back like a blighted tree, the money dwindling from the cost of food and water. Of the viruses that didn’t kill them but took them out of commission for weeks. Of how Mr. Randall’s farm hadn’t been so bad, until Brie saw him pull Harper against him in the cornfields, one large, pale-knuckled hand gripping the hair long and wilting as wheat. They disappeared into the stalks. Brie raced to his truck, which was parked outside the barn, and after gunning the engine, raced toward the bodies in the field, honking the horn until Mr. Randall leapt up, his glasses lost in the dirt. “Enough,” she’d yelled while Harper climbed in, covering her face in the swirling dust. In the rearview mirror, Brie could see him shouting after them as he ran, obscured by the dust until he was out of sight. Brie’s hands shook as she drove, swerving out of the fields and onto the road. “I was supposed to kill him,” Harper said, and it was the first time Brie had ever heard her sister sound unsure. “I told myself I would, the next person. You grow up, you get older, and you think—” Brie clutched Harper’s hand, and the two of them drove, drove, drove into distant states, none as far as they wanted to be.

    Brie stopped. How long had Colton been holding her arm?

    “Let me come with you,” he said. “Make sure you get to Maine alright.”

    “Why would you leave all this?”

    He pulled her against him and squeezed. She closed her eyes. God, to love her sister and still want this comfort. When she looked out the window, she saw that the land was still green, even after its trees had been picked clean.

    The next morning, Brie couldn’t look her sister in the face, as if, in telling their story, she’d removed all their clothing. She stood with Harper on the porch, her mind aware of Colton watching them as he fixed breakfast in the kitchen. She’d let Harper borrow her teacup, but it was hard not to read into her sister scowling at the gray haze over the farm and its promise of rain. It came as they sipped their tea. So did the woman on horseback.

    She was a white blouse and straw hat in the distance, a ghost floating on the horse. Brie, alert, noticed Harper stiffen. The woman was too tall and dark to be Lauren, and anyway, she did not wave. Instead, she reached the front of the house, slid off the horse, and hauled a drenched canvas bag over the dip in the animal’s back, before it shook rainwater from its mane and trotted off to a soggy patch of grass. Only then did the woman’s gaze flicker over them—then return once more. She opened her mouth, slow, a tiny hole appearing at the very center of the world. Finally, she called, “Col,” and the intimacy of the sound made something in Brie tip over completely.

    From inside came Colton’s approach: a collection of footsteps, the fumble of the doorknob. Brie breathed in deep; Harper’s brows furrowed over the teacup.

    When the door opened, he said, “Alice,” his hands flexing beside his thighs. The woman stood on her toes and kissed him quick on the mouth, and Colton went still.

    Brie thought: I let you all the way in.

    “This,” he began, not looking at her. “This is my . . . ”

    But Brie knew. She stepped away from him, deeper into the porch’s shadows. The woman tipped back her hat and studied—what? Her outfit? That strawberry print dress, the fruit dark with rainwater.

    “Looks good on you,” the wife said.

    Brie thought: How did I ignore it? In the kitchen, Alice took off her hat and laid it on the table. Shook out the short, fuzzy dreads that jutted over her ears. Kicked off her boots and left them in the middle of the floor. She went through the cabinets and pulled out bread and a jar of peaches Lauren had canned only the day before. As she ate with her fingers, she said, “These are better than I’d have expected.”

    Colton couldn’t decide who to angle his body toward. The four of them sat at the kitchen table, a kettle of tea at its center. Because Brie couldn’t look at him—everything, after all this time, belonged to this other person—she turned toward Harper, who, for once, was relaxed, even inside and even without Lauren. Harper rested one wrist on the table, the other against her face. Brie’s mug burned her fingers.

    “You tired out your horse,” Harper observed.

    “Had to, with every camp leader flagging me down for water packs.”

    “Where were you?” Colton said. He still hadn’t touched his mug.

    “Outside Etowah,” Alice said. Then, more quietly: “Then outside Valdosta. Hillsborough. ’Bout a four-month trip.”

    “More like two years,” Colton murmured. And Brie felt his words hum in her ears. He meant them for her.

    “I meant this leg. I was checking on some farmers we knew.” She pushed one of her dreads out of her face. “Before that, I . . . spent some time in Nashville.”

    “You survived their so-called ‘quarantine’?” Harper asked. Her lips failed to hide her smile. “How’d you get them to let you in?”

    “They’re trying to grow peaches inside their nursery.” Alice smiled a little, a warmth rising through the wrinkles in her face. “And a few other things I could help them out with.”

    “You didn’t leave here ’cause you wanted to help out somebody else,” Colton said.

    “No. I suppose I didn’t.” Alice pursed her lips. “Don’t worry, I just need a place. At least for a little while.”

    Colton pushed away from the table, and the tea shook in their mugs. He’d almost made it to the stairs when he paused and said, “What do you mean by ‘farmers we knew’?”

    Alice folded her hands. “Know. The Rogers stuck around. And the Tanners.”

    “Jesus.” He pulled hard at his chin. Then his eyes said to Brie, Come? And he went upstairs.

    Brie didn’t move. Alice leaned back in her chair and licked her perfect, yellow teeth. “How long you two planning on staying?” she said.

    “At this rate,” Harper said, and leaned in, “who knows?”

    How long would she have to stand it? Sitting there listening to Alice talk about how much rain there had been near Bristol, how much harder it was to find a hotel with reliable power? Harper goaded Alice on: How far north have you traveled? How strict were the state checkpoints in High America? Why would you ever leave a city, given its resources and healthy populations? “Even those won’t last forever,” Alice said, and inside, Brie felt some seedling wilt within her.

    When Alice had finally gone upstairs, Harper following and asking more questions, Brie rose, her ankles loose. She thought of how much she’d told him, this man she’d only known seven weeks, and this was what he’d held back? She was almost outside when Colton grabbed her arm. “Please,” he said, his hand a band of heat. “I never even thought I’d see her again.”

    She yanked her arm away and stomped down the porch steps. In seconds, she was soaked.

    “How was I supposed to know?” he shouted.

    Later, the shed where she lay beside Harper was boxed with the scent of rain.

    “She’s lovely,” Harper said. She sat on the mattress and picked at the hairs on her legs. “No idea why she’s with him. If they are together.”

    Brie grabbed the sheets beneath them. “It’s been a long time since I met somebody who talked that much.”

    “Is that all you have to say?”

    Brie turned so her hair, dense from humidity, covered half her face.

    “Wow,” Harper said. “I don’t think you’ve ever tried to hide anything from me.”

    The rain didn’t stop for five days, a sheet of water walling them in. The phone rang, and when she answered, Brie could hardly make out Lauren’s voice: Will come when—. Rain too—.

    “Wait ’til the connection’s better,” Harper said, and padded barefoot into the living room.

    Since Alice had arrived, Harper had stopped asking about the fuel. When Colton appeared in a room to find Brie, he’d speak her nameIf he caught her alone, he asked questions: Will you just come back upstairs? Don’t you know that she’s not even sleeping in my room?

    In the meantime, Brie scalded, sliced, and jarred the peaches, using instructions pieced together from Lauren’s calls. At some point, she let Colton stand beside her. He stirred the syrup, then poured the finished mixture into sterilized jars. There was the prolonged, quiet gaze of their shoulders. Don’t, Brie thought. Don’t you dare. She was wearing her old jeans and the plaid shirt she’d worn upon arriving. Only once had she been alone with Alice. The two of them were making breakfast together, and Alice touched her back and said, “Oh, honey, he’s just a man” and flipped a pancake.

    Harper always curled up with Alice on the couch, propping herself on one elbow. Or else she sat across from Alice on the ledge of the living room window, swinging her legs side to side.

    What happened, Brie thought as she looked at her sister, to our own talking? Then again, people needed . . . some shining link to other people. Or at least they told themselves this.

    Halfway through a Tuesday that turned the fields to lakes, the crops covered, Alice nodded at Harper’s head wrap and said, “You must get hot under that.”

    “Not the hottest I’ve been.” But Harper untied the wrap, and that awful hair emerged.

    Alice tugged at her own locs. “I’m thinking of cutting mine that short. Practical.”

    “Yours isn’t so bad. Not so long you’ll waste water getting it clean.”

    To Brie, Alice said, “How do you keep yours from tangling?” and Harper answered: “Me.”

    It was the kind of comment that used to make one of them touch the other in affection.

    At the end of the rain, the sky a thin gray, Alice and Harper made their way into the flooded fields, heading toward the empty peach groves. Brie watched from the kitchen window, how Harper kept covering her patchy scalp with her arms. Alice caught Harper’s elbows and brought them down, until the tufts of hair were exposed. Which was maybe alright. Maybe Alice could make Harper understand how easy it was to long for certain things. Even if it made you foolish.

    She felt Colton behind her, a coolness that pricked her neck.

    “Did I say it?” he asked. “That I was sorry?”

    Brie watched Alice and Harper pause near the trees. Fireflies circled their shoulders in a queasy green. She and Harper would have to go soon. Nothing here belonged to them.

    Colton breathed above her hair, the strands rushing from his mouth. “Alice is just one of those people,” he said. “You know what I mean? They never have enough, and so they go and you let them. That’s not my fault. This whole time, I’ve never lied to you.”

    Standing here with him. In this house. All the water out there. For so many nights, before they came to this place, she’d shivered under such weather, and for a time, the truck cabin felt like enough—was dry at least. If she and Harper had left for Maine already, they’d have been caught in this torrent, the cabin smaller than ever.

    Her body surprised her, turning toward him: Touch me now, it said. While there’s time.

    Because she and Harper had gone so long without speaking honestly, Brie did not immediately worry about Harper’s absence a few days later, when the fields had dried. She woke in the shed with room to spread out, Harper’s side of the mattress empty. When Brie did not hear the splash of the water bucket outside, she assumed Harper had already started the day’s work.

    She began her own tasks, packing the jars and listening as Colton talked to men who’d come in from town, gray-suited government suppliers who wanted to know about getting some chard. True, Harper’s head was absent from the orchard, but Alice was gone too, and there was Colton to think about, how they’d lain together three times since that evening the rain stopped.

    Harper’s absence alarmed her at lunchtime. Even the cool pleasure of the kitchen couldn’t dispel the strangeness of the empty chairs.

    “She’ll be back,” Colton said when he saw her face. “Alice probably took her on a walk.”

    They both heard it from the house: the low growl of a truck with too many miles on it.

    Brie went out to the porch. Their truck, that old blue beast, plowed down the dirt drive, growing louder as it approached, as if eager to move on. She felt Colton behind her and spun around. His eyes were already widening to hold hers.

    The driver’s door shot open and Harper hopped down, legs steady. In the passenger seat, Alice made a visor of her hands.

    “We got the fuel,” Harper said. She walked up to Brie, her gaze so intent it was like their foreheads were touching. “Alice traded the horse in town. And got enough to get us a long way.”

    “To Maine?” Brie asked.

    “Or close.” Harper looked over her shoulder, past the house. She licked her mouth’s dry corners. “We can head on now. Don’t even think I have much to pack.”

    Harper walked toward the shed; Brie did not realize she’d followed until they were inside. “I think,” Harper said, sweeping her backpack over her shoulder, “we can at least make it near Richmond today.”

    Brie looked around the shed. So many things were hers now: the dresses, the extra underwear, the teacup. Slowly, she filled her backpack until it no longer drooped. Her wooden comb rested by the sink, and when she didn’t move to collect it, Harper dropped it inside her backpack for her.

    When Brie got to the truck, she expected Alice to climb down from the passenger seat. But Alice didn’t. She leaned over a map on the dashboard, whispering to herself.

    Brie hesitated. Tried to understand what it meant for the three of them to be going. Maybe Alice knew the checkpoints or had ways of getting into places. Or maybe Harper simply pulled people along. In Brie’s hesitation, her backpack dangling from her fingers, Colton lifted her from behind. He crushed her upward into him, so her feet left the ground. Like he was trying to say goodbye. Or to lift her into the truck himself.

    She said, “Hang on.”

    Harper tossed her own backpack inside. Extended a hand for Brie’s.

    “I can’t,” Brie said, and clutched her sister’s hand. “Go yet.”

    Harper gestured with her fingers, impatient. Alice looked up from her map, eyes fluttering. “Brie,” Harper said. It was not a question.

    Colton lowered her to the ground, one inch at a time. Her toes pressed into the soil. “Later,” Brie said, and stepped back until her head met Colton’s neck. “I’ll meet you later.”

    Harper’s face flushed. She opened her mouth, closed it again. “What about one more night?” her sister said finally. “And we leave in the morning?”

    “We can come back for her,” Alice said. “Some other time.”

    “Come back and get me?” Brie asked. “I’ll be ready, by then.”

    Harper didn’t answer. And that look on Alice’s face: the boredom everywhere but the tight mouth. Brie rummaged through her backpack and pulled out the old tea canister, the teacup sharply silver in the sunlight. “Take these. In case you get sick again.”

    Colton walked up to Alice, who shook his hand, then bent to whisper into his ear. After a moment, he said, “Yeah, you too.”

    Alice said something like, Don’t I always. Or maybe it was, It’s a long way. Brie couldn’t tell. Harper pulled her into an embrace. “I’m not watching this happen again,” she whispered. “Don’t be fucking stupid.”

    “I’m not,” she said. “No hurricanes here, right? And maybe—you’ll find a good phone. In the meantime.” She kissed Harper’s shoulder so hard it hurt her teeth. Then she pulled away. She pressed her backpack to her chest, over the warmth Harper left.

    She stared down until Harper’s boots vanished and the truck door slammed and rattled. When Brie turned to face Colton, she saw his relief.

    Though she might as well have looked behind her. When Harper and Alice drove off, the truck was louder than anything.

    Inside the house, Brie was alone with him. She wobbled as she walked into the kitchen and set her backpack on an empty chair. I live here, she thought, looking at the white cabinets.

    Colton put his hands on her arms. Then let them fall. “Your sister,” he said.

    “She was—” She sat down in one of the empty chairs. It was like the backs of her knees had been scooped out. “We found her. At the complex. This group brought in from another part of Texas, this town that had run out of water. Momma and I, we’d gone to pass out food and Harper had nobody. Was just sitting in a tire with her knees up. And so we kind of made her ours. But she was never—” Her fist loosened. She couldn’t even believe the sentence enough to finish it. Harper had refused food for days, snarling at the adults, throwing dirt at the children. But not at her. She’d approached Harper with an onion. Polished it on her shirt and took a bite before offering it. Harper watched her. Then held out her fingers.

    “Oh,” Colton said, his shoulders relaxing. “So you’re not really sisters then.”

    When he saw her face, he stepped back. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “We can’t start like this, with you looking at me like that.”

    For the long months after, when the phone rings and she hears the inhale on the other end, she waits for the caller to speak. “I’ll swing by?” Lauren will say. Or one of the laborers will go, “Y’all need somebody?” She tells them to come on. Surely, if someone can call, Harper can too, whether she got ahold of a phone in some city or reached a Maine cell tower not destroyed by a storm.

    For now, Brie thinks, there’s the work of living for the life she has. Going into the fields, sometimes with Colton and sometimes without him, all the crops to rip up or plant anew. Evenings with Lauren and her husband across the kitchen table, bellies delightfully warm from roast or nauseous from the latest vaccine, the power flickering around them. Nights where Colton thumbs her navel and talks about the land surviving, bountiful forever. She wonders about children. She has never had to have her own answer, about whether or not to have them.

    In other moments, her mind reaches elsewhere. She’ll twist from the kitchen sink and study the phone, always waiting to be called to life. What if it were the very beginning of the world? she imagines Harper saying. You’d choose me then? Easier to think of that than the days after Harper’s leaving. She’d gone walking, and something crunched in the dirt beneath her boot. She’d stooped. Found a piece of the teacup, a jagged slice of white and silver, her gift hurled against the trunk of a peach tree.

    Maybe Harper would ask nothing, would return with no warning at all. The truck kicking up dirt. Harper leaping down, her hair grown back and landing around her shoulders. She’d holler across the green space. Come rushing toward her so fast the wind would meet her before they collided.

    It’s hard not to come up with such stories. The waiting, long as it is. It’s long enough to remember how eternal a love she had once. Of how difficult a time it’ll have finding a way back.

    Carrie R. Moore's fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, Virginia Quarterly Review, For Harriet, the Southern Review, and other publications. She has received scholarships and fellowships from the Community of Writers, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

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