No light could work its way into Kelsey’s condo after four, so that’s when she held the baby and checked email. She never received much. Since she’d been living in Sun Prairie with her boyfriend, Nick, jobless, people had long since quit arranging to meet her in Milwaukee or Chicago, stopped sending updates about new houses they’d purchased, subtle brags about their salaries and offspring.
That April, Kelsey received a surprising email, offering exclusive subscription to Jill Martin’s private blog. Jill Martin had been Kelsey’s roommate at UW Stevens Point two years before. They’d pursued their passion for television, majoring in Communications alongside one another. Back then, Kelsey had been obsessed with Nick’s floppy hair and gummy smile. They’d bantered like good-looking characters on TV, their dialogue so clever that someone could have scripted them and made a million dollars.
“I want to run away with you,” Kelsey once said.
“To where?” Nick asked, already grinning.
“Somewhere easy. Like into the center of the Earth.”
He grabbed her around the waist. “What about into the center of you?”
Their best conversations shifted to wild, joking fights. They fake-punched each other, lobbed pillows across the room. They used opposite-day insults—Kelsey called Nick fat, or Nick called Kelsey stupid. Next thing you knew, Nick was slamming it in her against the wall, Kelsey’s legs wrapped around his scrawny, pimpled hips. She could never pull him in deep enough. Just remembering, Kelsey squirmed under the hot weight of the baby.
Jill’s blog was called Portage Events. Kelsey paid for a subscription and began reading at the maiden post, dated more than a year ago. Jill sounded shaky and shy, as though she wasn’t sure whom she was writing to. I’m really doing this. A blog! it read, under a photograph of Jill’s farmhouse, rickety, a smudgy white. Two years ago, Jill had returned to the dorm one evening after closing on the house, their room already packed up for graduation, and spread pictures on the floor between the beds. She’d explained the problems: insufficient insulation, bats in the roof—maybe rabid bats—the porch wood as soft as bread. Kelsey surged with inspiration looking at the blog—a feeling of possibility that she hadn’t felt since college. She’d save the rest of the entries for tomorrow. She’d have something important to do for once.
Too jittery to sit still, Kelsey prepared a casserole, combining the contents of different cans: mushroom soup, green beans, cocktail wieners. She scooped the mix with her finger and pressed it between the baby’s lips. He laughed, and she ran her clean hand over his silky head. She called the baby “the baby,” though his name was Tad, after Nick’s uncle.
“What does Tad even mean?” Kelsey had asked recently, though seven months in was late to complain. “It’s like a tadbit or something. Like a tadbit of a person.”
“That’s tidbit,” Nick said. “Jesus.”
She wondered if, as the baby grew, she’d revise his name. If he’d become the infant, the toddler, the child, the kid, the teen. The adolescent. The young adult. The thirty-something. That freaked her. Especially if, thirty years from now, she was still stuck here, in this cursed neighborhood: rows of developments set in stretches of prairie grass, one tree per mile. The only clue a unit was occupied might be a half-full basketball sunk in the grass or an Easter flag flopped over a door. Sun Prairie was ripe for an influx that would never come.
When Nick returned from work, he changed into baggy yellow track pants that made him look even skinnier than he already was. Kelsey fit the baby into the high chair and scooted him out of the way so she and Nick could enjoy adult conversation.
“What did you do today?” she asked when he sat down.
Nick’s bangs fell over his eyes. “Cleaned a horse’s ass and thought of you.”
Nick was the caretaker for a racehorse out at Token Creek. The horse—Spirit of the Day—was glossy and worth, Nick claimed, thirty thousand dollars. Though its owners weren’t racing it now, were only temporarily in Wisconsin, Nick exercised and groomed the horse, gave it eye drops and rectal suppositories, and trimmed its mane. Kelsey didn’t get why it took a full-time person to take care of just one horse.
Nick forked Kelsey’s casserole into his mouth as if it were a proper meal. “The goats snuck over from Green Ridge again.”
“What kind of goats?” Maybe that was a stupid question. Maybe there only was one kind of goat.
Nick shook his hair out of his eyes. “Damn, those goats are too much. They’re not neutered, so they go mental. They, like, leap around and shit.”
Kelsey longed to visit Token Creek, but since Nick never invited her, she made do with his stories about the horse’s moods, how its coat foamed when Nick rode it, how Nick replaced the wooden fence with an electric one because horses get addicted to a way of breathing with their mouths pressed against the wood.
“It’s like getting high,” he’d explained.
Back at Stevens Point, Nick had been high all the time. She didn’t have to worry about that now. Tyler, his old dealer, lived two hours away.
“I had a good day too.” Kelsey felt pathetic pulling stories from her hours alone. In college, she’d earned better grades than Nick, but when they had the baby, he said he’d be the one to get the job. According to Nick, Communications was too “artsy” to be practical. Kelsey argued, but there were few outlets for Communications majors in Sun Prairie, and by the time they graduated, it was 2008 and jobs of any kind were scarce. There was a radio station in town, but the entire staff was a single rubber-faced guy. When Kelsey stopped by to ask about a position, he leaned his meaty elbow on the soundboard and said, “I’ve got a position for you, sweetheart. A couple, actually.”
The baby cried, and Kelsey pushed his bowl of banana within reach. He dug in, coating his fingers in white slime. Sometimes the way he gripped things looked too adult, tiny muscles straining.
“Jill Martin sent a link to her blog,” Kelsey said. “It might be a good idea for a show.” The idea formed as she spoke.
“A show?” Nick looked up.
“You know, for my channel.” She and Jill used to discuss moving to Chicago or L.A. to pioneer their own local-access channel, a smorgasbord of inventive shows that would delight despondent housewives and sick schoolkids. When Jill had bought her farmhouse, all those dreams ended. But maybe the farm could be the stage for a show. Kelsey could rent a camera, the fancy kind like they had at school, which made her feel powerful as she hefted it onto her shoulder, striking buttons and dials without even looking. She could check out how Jill had fixed the place up, use text from the posts as voiceover: A blog! The panorama of yellow farm scrolling across the screen, Jill pulling weeds with her sunny-haired twins.
“I didn’t know you were still working on that,” Nick said.
“Yeah,” Kelsey said. “I’m working on the channel.” She liked how that sounded, authoritative and creative at once. And why couldn’t it be true? She’d make it true, tomorrow. That night, Kelsey tucked the hospital blanket around the baby so he looked like a soft, sleepy bean. Then she knelt on the wall-to-wall carpet and gave Nick a blowjob, remembering to rub his belly at the last second. She’d forgotten how effusive he was after, pulling her onto his chest, squeezing her breath out.
The next morning, sunshine pulsing on her forehead and the baby down for a nap, Kelsey approached the blog with a critical eye, as research. She pretended Professor Su had ordered a five-paragraph essay determining the marketability of Portage Events: which details were ripe for fictionalization, which characters would make for solid interviews. Professor Su would’ve been swept away by the calming, rickety boards of the farmhouse, their cobwebs and the crazing of the paint, the bright Wisconsin winter with its wash of periwinkle. But the heart of the show was its star. Anyone would love Jill, with her dishwater-blonde hair, her tired, bright eyes, her flanks that moved like a deer.
Scattered through the fancy serif font were snapshots of Jill and Ryan, holding their daughters in frozen fields or the doctor’s office or the TSA line at Dane County Regional Airport. Next stop, Rapid City! In Kelsey’s favorite shot, the girls huddled in a hole, mud spattered in sleeves up their arms. They looked like wild, tunneling animals, digging their way to the core of the Earth.
Kelsey had a kid, too, and a decent guy. She owned property. But there was something about Jill’s life, way out on that farm. Her kids were cuter, her husband looked like a real adult. All the photographs were set in the rich light of evening, like insurance ads. Kelsey would’ve traded her life for Jill’s, and other people would too. She was one of those people who made it seem like, with a little bravery and motivation, anyone could lease a farmhouse and paint it yellow, buy a dog and find happiness. Of course, the will to act wasn’t enough, not really.
Halfway through the blog, there was a low whine from the next room, mechanical. The baby, waking up.
Kelsey sketched ideas for scenes. The script format came back easily, and it felt good to know a technical skill. She barely heard Nick come home.
“Hey,” he said, sniffing the air. “Did you start a casserole?”
“Not yet.” She wasn’t hungry.
“Want to go out? That place on Columbus, maybe?”
Murray’s Fine Place was carpeted in green fuzz like a pool table. The appetizers were fried brown chunks that only varied by what was inside, and by the color of their dipping sauces. The same dipping sauces never accompanied the same chunks, and Kelsey imagined the prep chef grabbing at a line of bottles for white goo, peach goo, brown liquid, honey-colored gel. Kelsey and Nick went sort of as a joke.
“Or we’ll take the car somewhere else,” he said. “I don’t care.”
“What about the baby?” She’d been so busy that she’d hardly had the chance to play with him. He’d bounced in his playpen earlier, trying to clap.
“I’ll call my sister,” Nick said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Kelsey ran her finger across the keyboard, picking up dust. “I kind of have work.”
Nick looked at Kelsey, questioning. The baby cried in the back room. He’d been crying since before Nick got home, but he couldn’t be hungry so early.
When Nick opened the front door, she felt the cool air of spring. She wanted to follow him, get pizza. But she had to focus.
The next morning Kelsey called Jill from the landline. Cell service was poor in most of the house, and she didn’t want to lose the connection. She’d make a formal proposal, and they’d move on from there. While she waited for Jill to answer, she shook out a cloth diaper, which she rarely touched. She’d scrubbed it with steel wool, but the loose crotch was still shadowy. Why did they make them white? Brown would be more accurate. Not that the baby only pooped plain brown, but a whole continuum from cream to goldenrod to black.
Jill’s hello was so ragged that Kelsey double-checked the listing. “Jill Martin?” she asked, running her finger over the line in the alumni directory. “From Stevens Point?”
“Kelse?” Jill’s voice was diminished, as though the call required extra tubes and wires to carry it all the way from Portage. “How’s it going?”
“How are you?”
Jill breathed into the phone. “Okay, I guess.”
“I have a proposition.” Kelsey would cheer her with her idea the way Jill had cheered her with the blog invitation. She chose a pink block of Post-its. The only writing utensil nearby was a stick of eyeliner. “Remember Professor Su’s class?”
“The guy who farted quietly?”
“No. He made us, like, develop a TV show for a public-access channel.”
“Sure.” Jill didn’t sound like she remembered. But the class had only been two years ago. Jill’s final proposal had been a reality show featuring people who bred different species together to make new creations. Kelsey had pictured camels flapping eagle wings, badgers swinging python tails. Really it was subtler than that, like certain different types of mushroom. But still—Jill Martin was a TV genius.
“I want to make a show about you,” Kelsey said. “Like a reality show. Where it’s your life, and Ryan, and the kids.” Kelsey didn’t know the names of the girls, though Jill had been about to pop at graduation. That was sad. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
There was silence on the line. Jill laughed. She used her old laugh, throaty and fresh, and if it weren’t aimed at Kelsey, she would have been relieved to hear it.
“A show about me? Kelse, are you kidding?”
“Not really.” Kelsey’s palm went slippery on the receiver. She had to get off the line. She’d call tomorrow, when the idea had blown over. Then they could talk about regular stuff. She missed Jill.
“Hang on,” Jill yelled to someone in the background.
“I should let you go,” Kelsey said. “We’ll talk soon, okay?” Kelsey’s ears burned in shame.
“Oh, stay on. How even are you?”
“I’ll call tomorrow. Sorry. Tad’s crying too.” He was, now. Not that she wanted to deal.
“I can’t wait. It’s so good to hear your voice.”
When Kelsey hung up, she opened Portage Events and devoured every entry she hadn’t read. In the more recent posts, the tone shifted. Ryan had a tumor at the base of his penis. It’s benign, Jill wrote, so it’s fine and all. It’s just a little, I don’t know, strange. There were other problems. For one thing, Ryan liked something called golden showers. Kelsey Googled the term, but once she did, she wished she hadn’t, though she and Nick weren’t too vanilla. Sometimes Nick talked dirty in an aboveboard, sweet way. He told Kelsey what he was doing, what it looked like, how it felt, in plain language.
Jill wrote that she hadn’t minded the golden showers at first, but then Ryan started aiming at her outside the tub. Once, by accident, in front of the girls. Kelsey couldn’t believe Jill wrote this stuff on a blog, even if the access was private. As she read on, she appreciated Nick more and more. They still had sex, at least once in a while. He tended the baby when he could. And his salary was more money than Kelsey had ever lived on.
As the blog rolled on, Ryan vanished. The pictures showed either Jill with one twin, or the twins alone. Jill started talking about Ryan as if he were great all of a sudden, but only in vague terms. Ryan=dream husband.
Jill’s tone had been strained. Kelsey should have called back, ascertained that she was okay. Maybe the blog invitation had been a cry for help. Portage was only a few miles away. She could have driven over. She closed the blog.
For a moment, she stared at the screen. Then she opened Facebook. She had all this energy for a show, but Jill’s life was too dark. The baby grabbed for her, his hand blooming from the playpen like a sea anemone. She squeezed the rubbery pads of his fingers. She needed a concept that was accessible to everyone, a world arranged without pain. She clicked into Farm World.
Kelsey didn’t know what it was about Farm World that took her in. Perhaps the rolling brown fields. Though the landscape was flat and pixilated, and burned her eyes, when she stared at it long enough, it grew dimensions, hot horizons. She could squish her boots through the earth, press her face in the mounds, inhale a rich, body smell. Unlike the smell of the baby, which was sour no matter how often she washed him. No, the fields of Farm World smelled like gingerbread. She played all day, falling into another world. A world like Jill’s before anything went wrong.
When Nick came home that evening, he stood behind Kelsey’s chair as she clicked her mouse in a flurry, extending her irrigation system to the corner of her field.
“Farm World?” he said. “Seriously? You’re not on Facebook or something?”
“It is on Facebook,” Kelsey said. “It’s attached.”
“What, you pick up fake-ass cow patties?”
“You get animals and crops. You take care of them.” She didn’t want to explain.
He trailed his fingers down her arms. “Hey, sexy.” Her arm hair stood up, prickling under his touch. She didn’t want him to stop, but she didn’t want him thinking he could paw her anytime he wanted either. Just because she didn’t have a job didn’t mean she was always available.
“What happened to Jill Martin? I thought you were doing some show with her?”
“I don’t know.” A pang pierced Kelsey’s stomach. “I still am, probably.”
Her shoulders softened in Nick’s hands, her muscle giving way. She hadn’t realized how stiff she was until he started working on her. They hadn’t had sex in days. She let her head roll back, closed her eyes. The baby murmured through the door. He sounded like he was talking to another baby somewhere deep in the complex.
“Hey,” Nick said. “Why don’t you come with me to work sometime?”
“I have to stay with the baby.” Now that he was finally asking, it was too late. She had her own thing now.
“Tad might like it. And, anyway, you’re not doing anything here.”
“Yes, I am,” Kelsey pulled out of reach. “I’m figuring out my channel.”
He slouched against her. “Explain it to me.”
Hadn’t she already explained this? “I’m working on the show. Like, for local access.”
“About Farm World?” He sounded puzzled.
“Huh. I don’t know, Kelse. Sounds kinda lame.”
“I’m figuring it out, okay?” She squirmed against him.
“I have an idea,” Nick said. “Spirit of the Day would look great on TV. Maybe you could whip up a piece for that human-interest show—you know, like the cheesy little stories about pets or whatever? We have a real farm out there. That’s legit. And then you wouldn’t have to waste your time stuck inside with some dumb game.”
Kelsey froze in Nick’s hands. She actually had the capability to start a whole new TV channel, and what did he have? Some stupid horse he cleaned shit off of? Kelsey peeled away from the computer, faced Nick. His purple-blue eyes were dusky in the computer light. He looked like a kid, so skinny, with all that wild hair. The curls almost covered his acne, but even his pimples were sexy. What was this man doing in his midtwenties still popping pimples, rubbing his face every morning with chemically treated gauze? Kelsey wanted to growl at him—actually growl—like a bulldog, but the other half of her wanted, so desperately, to pull him into her arms.
“Come on.” His voice was sharp. “Let me fuck you.” Once the words were out he stood there, his mouth loose, like a kid who’d sworn at his mom for the first time. Like he didn’t want to say it, but had no choice. Kelsey thought of Jill and the golden showers.
“Get away from me.” She turned so she didn’t have to see his big, animal eyes. There was still a chance to save the moment before it turned toxic. “I’m going out with Tyler tomorrow,” Nick said, halting, nervous, like Kelsey would blow up in his face. But of course this would happen. She hadn’t been attentive. That he would be so bored and lonely as to stoop to Tyler’s drugs and shitty companionship was so pathetic and obvious.
“You don’t need my permission.” She tried to sound blasé, but she hoped that, now that he had a real job and a kid, he’d know better.
“Tyler Crawford,” Nick said. “Not Tyler Sandinski. Or that Tyler B. guy at the Piggly Wiggly.”
“I know which Tyler, Nick.” She tried not to picture Tyler’s uneven smirk, his dead tooth.
“Okay,” he said. “And the baby’s crying.”
Nick was gone all week, returning only late at night, the shine of cough syrup on his lips, chalky pill breath heating Kelsey while he slept, deep and untouchable. Jill Martin left voicemails every day that week. “Call me, Kelse, please. I’m sorry I laughed at you, okay? Let’s get together.” Kelsey played each message over and over. She pretended Jill was talking to her, live. She wondered why she sounded so worn out.
On Farm World, Kelsey was given an acre and some cash. She bought three packets of seeds. From thousands of options she chose tomato, onion, and avocado. She didn’t eat any of those foods in real life, but they seemed to go together. Like she could stuff them in a tortilla and they would taste good.
But her assigned climate was wrong for the avocados, and the moment the tomatoes matured they were devoured by digital deer. Then the onions got nematodes, whatever that meant. Kelsey spent her last three dollars on a pouch of corn seeds, after which she snapped at the baby for making a fuss. She had to master the game instantly. That would make a better story for her show.
Over the next week, Kelsey dunked her head under the thick water of the internet. She barely even ate lunch: just crackers whose crumbs wedged between the computer keys. Caring for the baby was more and more tiring. She stopped bothering to bleach the diapers, stopped trying new baby foods, counting on the flavors he loved: banana, banana-melon, and melon. She didn’t replace his teething ring, though she felt guilty whenever he shook it—a rainbow swirl that looked like it had been run over by a sixteen wheeler.
Babies didn’t need as much attention as people said. She could put him in his crib and work at the desktop in their tiny office—no window, and so small her back grazed the wall when she sat at her desk—and with the door closed she could barely hear his crying through the wall. Besides, he usually didn’t cry long. And wasn’t it good, some people said, to let them cry it out? Kelsey read that independence built inner resources. She still fed him, of course, and changed him, and washed him. But she gave herself leeway with some of the more mysterious needs that arose throughout the day.
Nick stumbled home every night that week, caustic grape floating through the house. She hoped he was taking care of Spirit of the Day, that the beast hadn’t collapsed in the straw.
Things got bad on Wednesday. After coming home, Nick stormed around in a rage, swearing nonsense under his breath. At one point, she was sure he’d come for her, but he just yelled that the baby looked like shit. “His diaper’s all wet.”
“You’re high, go to sleep,” she yelled back. But Nick was right. Something was wrong between her and her son. Peering into his face, she had trouble thinking of him as a person, though his garbling was starting to sound like real phrases. “Money pancake act it,” or “Bub bub in a weenie.” She would make something good out of her channel yet.
Kelsey’s corn grew high and healthy. She sold her first harvest at the trading post for two pigs. Soon she had a litter of piglets. She fussed over their soft, vulnerable stomachs, their floppy ears, spent hours watching the nursery stall to no productive end. Pigs were as smart as dogs, smarter than horses, that was for sure. She didn’t buy any of those.
Ten pigs, then thirty. Kelsey’s pigs had everything they needed to flourish, not just survive. She provided mud patches, grain, hay, protein. She read online that in some parts of the world pigs were used to dispose of corpses, and developed a taste for human flesh. Kelsey wouldn’t have minded had this come to pass. The farmer next door dragged his feet across his barren land, supervising empty fields.
Sometimes, after playing Farm World for a few hours, Kelsey remembered she was playing for the channel. She opened a document, took a few notes, then drifted back into the game.
Once, she forgot the baby’s dinner because he fell asleep early. The next day she felt so guilty that she held him on her lap as she played, but his crying proved too distracting, and ham production faltered. She couldn’t recover profits for hours. Kelsey thought of Jill out there alone on her farm, with two babies instead of just one. She thought again of driving over. But she didn’t want to find out that Ryan was gone, that Jill was worse off even than her. If she stayed away, she could will Jill’s happiness into existence. Think of all the land she had out there, for one thing, real land, more than Kelsey even had on the game. Jill Martin could develop a pig farm in real life. She could feed the animals scraps from the girls’ food, and it would keep her mind off her troubles. She could freeze ham.
Farm World was the first thing Kelsey had been good at since she’d left college, and she wouldn’t give up. She resolved to be better with the baby. She laid him on the table next to the computer. His feet kicked happily toward her. But then he pushed himself onto his stomach and swam so fiercely that he almost knocked over the monitor.
Kelsey listened to Jill’s message. “Your idea’s crazy, Kelse. But I don’t care. Come over. We’ll figure it out.” Kelsey pictured the farmhouse, so much bleaker, now: nails stuck up from the floor, the rubber swipe of bat wings. The girls wouldn’t dig holes in the mud anymore, or take airplanes to cities with strange names.
That night, she turned on the light to watch Nick’s body on top of the sheets. She spooned him, let his sweaty back press into her breasts. She thought there, in the bed, that she could resolve to involve herself, once again, in their life. Though she and Nick didn’t have a dog or a farmhouse, they could make a life that audiences would admire.
The next night, Nick came home so late it was almost morning. He cast a shadow over Kelsey’s screen. If she ignored him, he’d go away. She prepared feed for the pigs, mashing up the corn with protein supplement.
“Kelsey,” Nick said.
Kelsey loaded the feed in the troughs. This was her favorite time of day: the gleaming backs of hundreds of pigs cantering to the bright-yellow porridge.
The evening feed was her last business. But she couldn’t face Nick. She’d have to soon, but not yet.
She drew the bedspread up to the chin of digital Kelsey. The patchwork quilt was standard issue, but she liked to think her grandma had made it. Kelsey’s actual grandmother was a gambling addict in Reno who’d never attempted crafts of any variety, but digital Kelsey’s grandma could be wise and folksy.
Nick reached across the gulf between them and took her shoulder. A tremor ran from his fingers into her. He wasn’t massaging this time. He held on, his hands cold from the air outside.
“You’re my girl,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” said Kelsey. She tried to sound sarcastic, but she was scared. She hadn’t heard Nick sound so shaky and messed up since he was on drugs back at Stevens Point. Back then, things had been so good that Kelsey had overlooked the nights when Nick was fucked up, when he pushed for sex too hard. Back then, it was kind of hot.
“This isn’t fair,” he said.
“I’ve been ignoring you. It’s my fault.”
With a jerk he pulled her up so she was standing. Her back was to him. Sometimes Kelsey forgot how strong Nick was, because he was so skinny. But he handled her as if her insides were wool.
His palms were loose on her shoulders, but she sensed he’d bear down if she struggled. Kelsey clenched her jaw as though the tighter she closed it, the less she’d feel. Nick jerked her pants down, not bothering with the button fly. Kelsey had lost enough weight from her cracker lunches, now mostly dinners and breakfasts too, that her jeans slid easily down her hips. She focused hard on the computer screen below her: all that soft soil of Farm World, the tiny green heads of fresh plants, but she couldn’t numb herself to Nick’s hands squeezing her shoulders, his torso pushing against her. The baby mumbled. Kelsey tried to remember the last time she’d fed him. She had to feed him now. What had she been doing the last few days? She panicked. Nick slid up and down.
“Look at me,” he said. “Turn around and look.”
She couldn’t stand to see his face when he was acting like this. She remembered holding Nick’s wrists back, watching his skinny, stretched body on the sheets. She saw them kneeling together with the baby on a blanket, cooing. But then Nick pushed inside her and Kelsey was snapped back to the blue-lit living room. She turned and shoved him onto the couch. He stumbled, his feet catching in his jeans, and landed against the cushion. His dick was blood-colored on his hip. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” She wanted the words to come out angry, but her voice shook.
He wriggled on the couch, gaining purchase. “What are you doing, Kelse? Really. I’m scared.” He slipped on a cushion. He fell, hard, his cheek striking the frame. His face flushed and wrinkled, like Tad’s, his eyes going wet in the corners. He heaved in a ragged breath.
“You look like shit,” she said.
Nick laughed through his tears. He spat purple syrup on the carpet.
Nick would stop crying soon, he would get up. And then what? She had to get out.
Nick smeared tears off his cheeks. He tripped on the baby’s toy, a ball with a foxtail that was made for dogs. “Kelse,” he said. “I miss you.”
He reached out, hands pale and spidery. She didn’t know how long it had been since he’d said something so vulnerable and sweet. He was stubborn, so his words actually meant something. Her computer timed out and the blue light faded. She couldn’t see him anymore. She pulled up her jeans and ran.
She grabbed her keys, a jacket. Tad screamed when she touched him. She pressed him to her chest.
No one was on the road. Kelsey hadn’t been out of the house in so long that it felt like everyone had died in her absence. The sun would rise any minute—she willed it to rise. The smell of prairie grass on the wind rushed through the window, the shifting shades of black and blue in the sky. Her first thought was that the graphics were incredible. She laughed at herself.
Tad stopped screaming once the car was in motion. He watched out the window as the streetlights bobbed past. Kelsey drove slowly. She was crying, and she couldn’t see well. She only had a quarter tank. Nick hadn’t transferred much into her account since she’d stopped buying anything but groceries.
As she drove, she tried not to think about how she couldn’t stand the idea of never having Nick’s soft hair on her chest again. She tried not to think about money, and where she’d sleep. But she felt free for the first time in so long, like she could do whatever she wanted.
When Kelsey hit Portage, she stopped crying. She struggled to find the spot in the dark, and once she located it, she couldn’t find a driveway. So she just drove up on the land and got out, closing the door quietly so as not to wake Tad.
She crossed the field as if she knew it by heart, with confidence that she wouldn’t trip on a rock, walk into an electric fence, bump a dozing bull.
The horizon glowed pink, the farmhouse off-kilter, like it could tumble down any second. Wisconsin was beginning to stir to life, the air the warmest all year. Yellow flowers poked through the soil. Soybeans: she recognized them from the game. She couldn’t believe, with all the work of raising twins, her troubles with Ryan, that Jill had managed to grow a crop. Maybe she’d planted it in the fall, when things with Ryan had been good.
Kelsey watched Jill’s damaged farmhouse, the lightening sky, the rows of yellow flowers. She closed her eyes and inhaled, but she couldn’t catch the rich, cakey scent she’d imagined in the game.
If there had been a blog about her and Nick and Tad, Kelsey would’ve known her family was doomed. That Nick would inevitably find his way back to Tyler, that Kelsey wouldn’t be able to stand staying home all day doing nothing. Yeah, she’d seem naïve on paper, like Jill Martin. But if you could get into Kelsey’s chest somehow, on the forum of a blog, and learn what she felt in the most deeply buried kernel of her heart, you’d find a wild, reckless love.
When life stirred inside the farmhouse, she’d knock. She’d see if Ryan was there, if the girls were okay. But for now Jill Martin and the twins were tucked into their beds. Whatever problems they had, they weren’t thinking about them now. They were lying in the darkness between hard days.
Kelsey unclipped Tad from his seat. When she lifted him, he jolted awake, reaching his arms up, face lighting, like he hadn’t seen her in years. With his soft body pressed to her chest, she ran into the field. She stopped in a patch of creamy soil, a divot where extra water had absorbed. The idea was stupid, but she wanted to feel the earth, to dig like Jill Martin’s kids. She scooped out clumps of earth, so the mud lodged under her fingernails and sprayed her sweatshirt. Once she had a shallow hole she placed Tad inside.
When Kelsey pushed the mud back on top of him, over his toes and his velvety shins and his jumper, Tad got scared. His eyes crinkled in the corners. But by the time she got the mud up to his chest he was grinning, a gummy mouth with one tooth poking through the pink. Yes, this scene looked right—she smiled back at him, sealing the mud around his jumper, his fat arms waving. Streaks of yellow sunshine cut the clouds. Tad laughed, leaning into the light.
“Hi,” Kelsey said, and tried to see her kid. Tried to picture a future of loving and fighting and companionship. She studied his rubber cheeks and puckered, wet lips. Jill Martin had this rambling farmhouse and Nick had a powerful, expensive beast, but Kelsey had something too. The sun shone off Tad’s cheeks so they were almost magenta.
“Act pancake,” he said.
Across the field, Jill Martin stepped onto her stoop. Her posture was hunched as if ten years had passed since they’d last seen each other. Kelsey wondered if she looked bad too, crazy, with her baby laughing in the mud. But she didn’t care. She stood up. She waved.