she

Peter stood outside the dingy, two-story colonial that was covered in mildewed siding and topped by a rotting roof and wondered what the hell he'd agreed to. The house had been Abby's idea from the beginning; an hour's drive from the city, nestled on ten wooded acres, it was a handyman's special. "Remember, I grew up in the country," she had said when they sat in their downtown loft and discussed the idea. "We've been here for ten years because it was close to your work, and you needed to be close to build the business."

Peter had nodded, "And I've always told you that I appreciate it."

"I know, but we don't need to be here like we used to. Baby, it's my turn. I want some place to plant roses."

"Roses, huh?"

"Yes, I know you're not a fan, but I've always wanted a rose garden."

Peter had smiled at her. A single strand of auburn hair had fallen across her face, and she'd absently brushed it back behind her ear. Her pale green eyes wrinkled at the corners as she'd smiled back at him. "Ok," he'd said. "You're right. It is your turn."

"Really?"

"Yes, though I'm not really sold on the garden," he had said with an impish smile.

"Oh my God!" She had thrown her toned arms around him and covered his face in kisses. He'd laughed before she'd finally found his mouth and had kissed him greedily. "Thank you so much."

"Well, I do love you, you know. You deserve to be happy, too."

Abby had spent days scouring the realty websites before she found one that she liked. "We can afford something new," Peter said when they had looked at the house the first time.

"Yes, but that's not nearly as fun, is it?"

"Fun, huh?" he'd said with a smile, "that's what I get for marrying an interior designer."

"Brat," she'd punched him in the arm and then had run through the foot of snow toward the edge of the woods. "Besides, look at all the trees! Aren't they wonderful?"

Peter hadn't been quite sure what to make of the trees. Having grown up in the city, and only occasionally spent time in the country, the thought of living amongst so much…nature had made him feel slightly uncomfortable. "They're something, all right," he'd said, looking around. He had been about to ask whether Abby was going to volunteer to mow the lawn when a snowball had hit him in the back of the head.

Abby had been winding up for a second pitch when Peter charged her, and they'd both gone tumbling into the snow, laughing.

They'd kept coming back to the house, and less than a month later it was theirs. By the end of winter, they had packed, sold their apartment, and were ready to move in.

In the chilly late February air, the oaks and maples that surrounded the house stood barren and lifeless, waiting for the snow to melt and the weather to warm. Here and there, a pine or spruce provided a colorful contrast to the grayscale landscape.

"Ugh, where are they?" Abby blew into her hands and rubbed them together as they waited for the moving van to arrive. She started to shiver.

"Come here," Peter said as he walked over to her and wrapped her in his arms.

She sighed contentedly and pressed against him, laying her head on his chest. "You're nice and warm."

"I was raised by polar bears, you know."

"I thought it was penguins."

"Well, my dad was a penguin, but he ended up running off with a seal when I was one."

"I bet that pissed your mom off."

"More than you'd think. The seal was supposed to be dinner." He rubbed her arms and broad shoulders. "Doing any better?""

"Nope, I need to steal more of your body heat, penguin-boy"

"Once the movers are gone, maybe I can really heat you up."

She looked up at him, licked her lips, and grinned. "You'd better."


Spring

When the snow melted, a patch of daffodils erupted near the woods at the rear of the house, acting as a harbinger of spring. As the days passed, the trees filled out, their buds unfurling into new leaves in the light of the morning sun.

The second Saturday in March, Peter sat down to pay the bills. He groaned as he added up what they were spending as they tried to fix up the house. Christ, he thought, we're burning through cash. At least we only have to do this once. He rubbed his temples. I hope.

Abby had gone shopping. "For accessories!" she'd exclaimed in delight. She'd done a wonderful job with their apartment in the city, but she'd had a limited amount of space to work with. Now that they had a house with double the floor space as well as an entire yard, she'd gone to work trying to fill it.

After an hour of entering receipts in to the computer, Peter's head hurt, and had to take a break. He looked out the window of the first floor room he'd converted into an office. A chipmunk scurried along the rail of the back deck, and a squirrel bounded through the patch of daffodils and up a tree. It looks like the yellow brick road, he thought. Maybe I'll take a walk.

I wonder what's back here? Oaks and maples towered above him, and he stepped over fallen branches, matted leaves, pine needles, and an occasional wildflower. Two minutes after he entered the woods, he glanced back to see that the house was nowhere in sight. Thank God I never get lost, he thought as he walked deeper into the woods.

After a few more minutes, the trees thinned out, revealing a shaded clearing where the necks of a thousand green violins poked out of the ground. Those must be the fiddlehead ferns Abby keeps talking about, he thought.

Neat. Peter smiled to himself and pushed on. The trees closed in around him, and he made a mental note of the landmarks he passed: a huge, overturned tree, whose root ball towered ten feet over his head; a rock outcropping that pointed toward what he was certain was true north; and a small creek with a two-foot-high waterfall.

Finally, the woods parted, and Peter entered a large, grassy clearing. Occupying most of the clearing was a large pond – nearly fifty feet in diameter. Next to it was an old tree stump that looked like it would make a perfectly respectable chair.

Peter sat on what was left of the rotted-out stump and stared at the surface of the pond. A lazy March breeze rustled the burgeoning leaves on the oaks and maples that stretched toward the pale blue sky. The surface of the pond rippled gently in response to the wind.

Birds twittered and squirrels chattered as Peter watched a trail of ants wind through the grass at his feet. It must be like a forest to them, he thought. The air cooled his face as it flowed over the surface of the pond, and he caught the scent of moist loam.

Something large rippled under the surface of the water, sending strong waves cascading toward the far edge of the pond. Peter stared at it suspiciously. Frog? He couldn't think of what else it might be. There are no alligators up here. He tried to remember. No, pretty sure there aren't alligators.

Wait, what if it's a skunk? He watched the water ripple again. No, skunks don't swim. I think. What the hell is it?

Then, as abruptly as it started, the waves stopped. He scratched his head. Huh. Suddenly, he had the feeling that he was being watched. He stood up and looked around. Oh, god, I hope there aren't bears out here.

"Hello?"

Only the chirping of birds returned his call.

"Anyone out there?" He waited for a minute, but the feeling still hadn't subsided. Ok, time to go, he thought. He didn't look back until he left the clearing, at which point the feeling of being watched faded.

That was fucked up, he thought. After a moment of contemplation, he began walking back toward the house. He moved deliberately, lest he trip over a fallen log or get caught on a broken branch, and he was relieved when he finally saw the patch of daffodils.

#

Later, after Abby returned from the store carrying two large terra cotta pots, they made dinner, drank a bottle of wine, and shared the events of their day. Peter mentioned the pond, but left out the feeling of being watched. He didn't want to spook his wife in their first month in the new house.

"You'll have to show it to me sometime," she said as she carried the dishes from the small bistro table over to the granite-topped counter.

Peter began rinsing the dishes in the sink. They'd never had a dishwasher in the apartment, and, even now that they had one, he felt strange using it. "Yeah, of course."

Abby set the bowl of mashed potatoes down and frowned. "These counters just don't seem to be at the right height." She pulled over a stool. "If I sit, they're just too high, and if I stand they're just too low."

"Well, we can buy new stools."

"Or put in new counters." She pulled out a plastic container and began scooping the potatoes into it.

Peter immediately thought about the receipts from the morning, and he rolled his eyes at the back of her head. "Yeah, I suppose we could do that, too."

She turned and fixed his gaze.

"What?" he said.

"This is our dream house." She put her hands on her hips. "A little support would be nice," she sighed as she went back to scooping mashed potatoes.

We already paid half a million, he thought, what's another hundred thousand. He grunted in response, and then gazed out the window above the sink. "Man. Look at the size of the yard. Tom's going to be so jealous."

"Are you ever going to stop competing with your brother?"

"This isn't a competition," he said with a smile, "It's a statement of how much better than him I am."

"Oh, you brat," Abby said before smiling despite herself. She stopped scooping, and then grinned mischievously.

"What?"

"Nothing," she said as she grabbed a handful of mashed potatoes out of the bowl.

"Oh, no."

"Oh, yes," she giggled as the potatoes sailed across the kitchen toward Peter's head. He ducked, and they splattered against the window over the sink.

He picked up the bottle of dish soap and aimed it at her.

"You wouldn't."

He smiled, then squeezed.

"Oh! You!" she squealed as the soap splashed over the front of her shirt. "Ooh!"

More mashed potatoes went flying, and this time she aimed lower. They caught him square in the chest. Peter dropped the soap and lunged toward her.

"Eeek!" she squealed as he grabbed her, pulled her toward him, and then smashed his potato covered chest against her. "Aaaah!" she cried as she grabbed another handful of potatoes and slapped them on top of his head.

"Aaah, you suck!" Peter laughed as he grabbed his new, starchy hat. He pinned her against the counter and moved to smash the potatoes in her face.

"Ah! No!" she giggled as she grabbed his arm. She was strong – a lifelong swimmer with broad shoulders and muscular arms, but he was stronger, and the potatoes inched closer to her face. "No! No!"

"Yes! Yes!" Peter said as he overcame her resistance.

"Ah!" she squealed as the potatoes covered her face, "You brat!"

"Ha!"

Abby wiped the potatoes from her eyes. She was breathing heavily from laughing. "Truce?"

Peter paused for a second to consider. Abby's eyes flashed green, and she gave him a look he had seen a thousand times before, but couldn't get enough of. She pressed her pelvis against his. He started to breathe heavily, himself. "Yeah, truce."

She ran her hands over his powerful chest, and then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close. A few minutes later, they discovered that the countertops were exactly the right height.

#

On Monday, Peter pulled into the driveway at six-thirty and parked in the driveway. They still had a pile of boxes taking up space in the garage, so both he and Abby had to park outside. As he got out of the car, he saw Abby emerge from the front door and walk toward him.

"Hey, baby," she smiled at him.

"Hey. Where are you going?"

"I'm going swimming, and then I'm headed over to Helen's to look at tile samples."

"Oh," he said flatly.

"Why? What's wrong?" she looked at him with concern.

He slipped his arms around her waist. Her auburn hair glowed copper and gold in the early evening sun, and the scent of her rose perfume drifted lazily through the air. "I was hoping we could test out the other counters in the kitchen tonight."

"Horndog," she giggled. "I'll have to take a rain check. I already told Helen I was coming over."

"Ok, fine."

"Maybe tomorrow?"

He sighed. "Sure. Tell Helen I said hello."

"Will do," she kissed him and then rubbed her nose against his. "Bye baby."

Oh god, so horny, he thought as he watched her climb into her car and pull out of the driveway. They hadn't had sex during the week since they'd moved into the house. After the long days, they'd been too busy unpacking or running errands to spend that kind of time together. The thought of waiting until the weekend made him queasy. Ah well, he thought, it'll work itself out eventually.

After he went inside and changed, he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his evening. He downed a sandwich while sitting in front of the computer. There were a handful of receipts to enter from the weekend, and he groaned as he saw the balance in their checking account. His head began to hurt, so he leaned back, rubbed his temples, and looked out the window at the daffodils glowing in the evening sun.

Hmm. He grabbed a flashlight from the closet and then stepped outside.

#

The descending sun painted everything in the clearing with a golden wash. The pond reflected the golden rays so that there were no shadows – everything glowed as though it were encased in amber.

Peter sat back down on the stump-chair and stared at the pond. After a few seconds the feeling of being watched returned. He looked around, craning his neck to see if he could tell what was looking at him. I bet it's raccoons, he thought.

He caught sight of a ripple at the far end of the pond, and he immediately swiveled around to look at it. This time, the waves did not subside. Instead, the source of the ripples began to move slowly toward him. As it approached, the feeling of being watched intensified, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up.

He was determined to figure out what was causing the waves, so he remained seated, though he braced himself in case he needed to take off running. It took a full minute for the waves to cross the pond, so whatever was causing them was moving slowly. Then, when the source was about ten feet from the edge of the pond, something broke the surface; a woman's head emerged from under the water. Peter opened his eyes wide and his mouth gaped.

She stood slowly, or at least it felt slow – Peter couldn't tell how long it took. She was voluptuously built, and her skin was a rich mahogany. Instead of hair, she had a mane of emerald moss, and her eyes were almond-shaped and completely green.

Peter stared, transfixed, as she waded toward him. When she drew near, he noticed that she smelled like damp earth, like the air just before a sunrise on a dew-covered morning or wet leaves after an autumn storm.

The air quivered in her presence. "I'm glad you came back," she said – every syllable echoing in his chest and rattling his ears."I've been waiting for you."

He couldn't figure out why running away screaming didn't sound like a bad idea. "What? Who? Who are you? What are you?"

"You couldn't pronounce my real name." She smiled and she leaned down and stared into his eyes. Her face was less than a foot from his. "So you pick one."

"What? Uh. I don't know." Names flew through his mind – old girlfriends, acquaintances he would have liked to have been girlfriends, coworkers: Katie, Kristen, Carrie, Mary. It was hard to think with her so close to him like this. Belle? No, too Disney. Eve? No, too cliché. "Uh, I, uh." Then, a single syllable entered into his head, "She."

"I like it," she said with a smile. "What's your name?"

He said nothing for a moment while his brain attempted to catch up to reality. Finally, he was able to mumble, "Peter."

"Hello, Peter." She reached out and lightly drew her hand along his shoulder. Her touch was electric – it felt like ants crawling along his skin where she made contact. "Do you like my home?"

"Yeah." He thought about looking away, trying to find something to distract her – a squirrel or a bird that he could point out – but he couldn't move his gaze. He was transfixed by her emerald eyes – little motes of light danced and flashed beneath the surface.

"I'm glad you like it, Peter." She smiled at him and tilted her head. "Why so sad?"

"What? I…" his brain felt like it was filled with cotton, "I don't…What do you mean?"

She sighed, and Peter caught the distinct odor of honeysuckle. "Darling," she said as she moved closer. He wasn't sure how she ended up in his lap, but when she continued, her arm was draped over his shoulder, "it's written all over your face. You're upset."

How does she know what I'm thinking? Peter thought. She made a sound that was somewhere between the hum of a distant motor and a purr, and used the hand that was not currently settled on his shoulders to trace the line of his jaw. When she moved, the lock on her gaze broke, and he, for the first time, noticed that she was completely nude: her full breasts hung pendulously over a supple belly and wide hips.

"You don't have to tell me about it. I can guess." She reached down, stroked his crotch, and then made that sound again. Peter felt electrified, and he groaned in response.

"Wait," Peter managed to stammer, though it took him what felt like an hour to form the word. "I…I…can't." He tried to stand, but realized that he couldn't, or wouldn't, move a muscle.

"Oh," she said, "it certainly feels like you can."

Peter groaned as she massaged him. Every hair on his skin stood on end and every muscle in his body twitched and jumped. Motes of light danced in the air in front of him as he began to hyperventilate.

He floated to the ground, the grass acting as a soft green bed. Then she was on top of him. She freed him from the constraints of his pants and then engulfed him. She was warm – warmer than Abby. Abby! What about Abby? Then the woman above him shifted her hips and the thought flew from his mind.

Oh, god, oh god! The world swam in front of him and he felt like he was falling into those green eyes. Oh god, it feels so good.

"Oh, Peter," the green woman groaned, and the earth beneath him trembled. The world shook and the ground broke open, and as he plunged, tumbling into the darkness, he was entwined with her – in her warm, comforting embrace.

#

Peter woke to see the stars through the canopy of trees. "What the fuck!" he yelled as he bolted upright. He looked around, saw nothing, and heard only the sound of spring peepers, singing in a loud, high-pitched chorus.

He ran back through the woods, crashing past the overturned tree, the sea of ferns, and eventually the daffodil patch. What the fuck was that? What the fuck was that? Oh my fucking god, what the fuck was that?

"Abby!" he called as he ran into the house. "Abby?" Shit, she must still be at Helen's. He looked at the clock. Nine thirty. Oh god, she won't be home for at least an hour. Wait. I can't tell her about this! I just had sex with...with…ohmygodwhathefuckwasthat?

He stared at himself in the hall mirror. He was covered in dirt and grass stains. He sniffed at his shirt, and realized that he smelled like honeysuckle and wet leaves. Shit! I need to shower.

As Peter stripped off his clothes, he noticed that he had scratches on his shoulders; it looked like he'd just gotten into a fight with a tree and lost. Oh my god, I can't go back there. I can't ever go back there.

Later, when Abby got home, she coated his shoulders in antibiotic ointment. "My poor baby!"

"Ow," he winced when she rubbed the ointment into one of the scratches, "careful."

"Sorry," she touched him gingerly. "What the hell happened to you?"

"I was taking a walk, trying to find that pond again, and a branch fell on me. A big one." He winced as she coated one of the deeper scratches.

"You need to be careful out there."

"I know," he smiled weakly at her, "I'll try and look up more."

"Jesus." She finished tending to him and then gave him a hug. Peter pulled her close, and was disturbed to find that she felt cooler than he remembered.

Summer

June came quickly. Peter had not returned to the pond, though he would, at least one night a week, lay awake trying to figure out just what exactly had happened. "Just stress," he told Abby when she inquired about his insomnia, "it'll get better once we get things taken care of."

The two had settled into a routine. Peter arrived home at six-thirty, and they made dinner together, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays when Abby was at the pool until nine, and Wednesdays when Peter stayed late in the city for a weekly card game with his friends.

"At least we get weekends together," Peter said as they'd made one of their weekly pilgrimages to Home Depot and the local garden center.

"Yeah," Abby frowned. "I guess I didn't realize how much work this was going to be."

"It'll be great when it's done, though."

"It will be, and it will be all ours!"

"We don't even have to worry about having loud parties 'till three in the morning."

"I just wish we had the energy to have sex more often," she sighed. She stopped, looked at him, and gave him a half smile. She reached up and wrapped her arms around the back of his neck as they stood, half shielded, from the other shoppers by a wall of shrubs. "We could always say, 'Fuck the yard.'"

Peter raised an eyebrow.

"It'll still be there next weekend."

Peter closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. A flash of green and dancing motes swirled on the inside of his eyelids. "No," he groaned as he pulled away, "come on. Think of how happy we'll be when this is all done."

"What's wrong?"

"Headache. I'll be fine," he reached out to take her hand, "let's go get the bushes."

#

As the days grew longer, the humid nights filled with the constant drone of crickets. Peter came home each day to find some new decorative element on the back deck. Abby had recently purchased two bentwood rockers and set them next to a small pine table, which gave them a place to sit outside and watch the stars.

Peter brought a bottle of merlot and two glasses outside, where Abby was curled up in one of the rockers. She had a large book filled with photographs of roses, and was flipping through it. Peter filled a glass for each of them, and then collapsed into his own rocker. "Ugh. Long day."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Want to talk about it?"

"Not really."

Abby sighed. "It would be nice to talk about something other than the house for once."

"Abby, I'm tired."

"I know," she reached out and placed her hand on his arm, "we just don't talk anymore. By the time we get home, we just grunt at each other all evening."

"Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

"You could try talking with me."

"Ok. You start."

"That's not what I meant. Forget it."

"But…"

She withdrew her hand. "No. Just forget I brought it up."

"Ok, fine." Peter closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the rocker.

Abby's eyes wrinkled down at the corners as she looked at her husband. After a long pause, she sighed again, and then asked, "What do you want to do for dinner?"

"I don't know. What do you want to do?"

"I was hoping you'd have a suggestion, since I picked the last three times."

"Come on, I had a long day. Give me break."

She shook her head and looked back at the roses. "What do you think about this one?" she said, pointing to a pink tea rose.

"Looks ok."

She pointed to a purple gaelic rose. "Do you like this one better?"

"Sure."

"Sure, or yes?"

"Yes, sure."

"Oh my God, you're so infuriating sometimes. I just want a definitive opinion."

"I don't really care that much."

"I know. That's the problem. You're going to be looking at these roses for the next five years. You're going to have to prune them and spray them and buy ladybugs to kill off the aphids that feed on them. You should care."

"We're buying ladybugs?"

"I'm not talking to you. You're obviously not taking this seriously."

"I am! Jesus." He filled his own glass and tried not to look at her.

"Ok. Ok. Sorry. I'm just finding this hard to do on my own. I would like your opinion, you know."

Peter sighed. A fly buzzed in his ear and he swatted at it. "Christ."

"What?"

"No, not you. A fly was bothering me."

"Oh."

The fly returned, this time with a partner. "God damn it," he yelled as he swatted at the bugs. "Now there are more of them."

Abby frowned at him. "You can just ignore them."

"Why can't they ignore me?"

She shook her head and flipped the page. "What about this one?" she asked.

"Um." A fly landed on his arm, and he slapped at it, bumping the table in the process. Abby quickly grabbed her wine glass to prevent it from falling over.

"Watch it!"

"Sorry! It's these fucking bugs."

"Are you?" she stopped and narrowed her eyes at him. "Never mind."

"What?"

"Nothing."

"What?"

"Nothing. Forget it." She set her wine back down and turned back to flipping through the book of roses.

Peter rolled his eyes and stared off into the woods, toward the pond. Then another fly landed on his face. "Fuck!" he exclaimed as he slapped at it.

"Jesus Christ." Abby grabbed her wine glass, stood up, and then walked into the house, slamming the door behind her.

Peter's head began to throb as he stared after her. Fine. He gulped down his wine, stood up, and walked off the deck.

#

He had intended just to take a quick walk to calm down, but as he walked toward the woods, he rubbed his head. God damn it, she gives me a fucking headache.

Golden fireflies swarmed through his vision, and the world took on a greenish hue. He turned toward the woods. Even in the darkness, he could find his way. The moonlight filtered through the trees, giving him enough illumination to avoid tripping over broken stumps and fallen logs.

"Are you here?" he called, once he reached the pond.

"Welcome back," she said as she emerged from the water. There was no wait this time.

"What do you want from me?" Peter asked as she stepped onto the grass. His head grew cloudier with each step she took toward him.

"The same thing you want from me, I suspect," she stopped and sat down on the rotted-out stump. One long leg crossed over the other, and she pointed her toes at him.

Oh god. "What's that?"

"Companionship. A warm body next to mine," she uncrossed her legs deliberately, and Peter began to sweat. "A warm body in mine."

He blinked rapidly, trying to maintain his focus. "Ok. Just. Watch the scratches."

"Ah. Too rough for you last time?" She smiled, then stood and took a step toward him. In the moonlight, her eyes looked like the sky above – dark, infinite, and filled with stars. His head swam.

"Yeah. I don't want my wife to know."

"Well then," suddenly she was next to him, breathing in his ear. The scent of honeysuckle overwhelmed him, and he was unable to think at all. "I won't leave a mark."

Peter woke up in the grass again, though he was certain that not as much time has elapsed as the last time – the moon hadn't progressed significantly across the sky. His head throbbed, and, as he sat up, he almost missed the bouquet of honeysuckle that lay beside him.

What's this for? he wondered. Though his head was still cloudy, he tried to think.

"I'll give you something to take back," she had said as she set his body alight. "But you have to promise to come back to see me."

"I will, I will, oh God, I will."

As he headed back through the woods, carrying the bouquet, he couldn't get the taste of her off of his lips; she tasted like nectar.

"Where the hell have you been?" Abby yelled as he walked in the back door.

"I was out taking a walk."

"A walk? It's nearly ten o'clock! What the fuck have you been doing? I've been worried sick." Her face was flushed and her eyes were red – she had been crying.

"Getting these for you." He held up the bouquet. "I'm sorry."

She gasped and covered her mouth with one hand. Her eyes began to fill with tears, but then she stopped herself and shook her head. "Put them in a vase. I'm going to bed."

Peter waited until she left the room, put the honeysuckle in a vase, and breathed in deeply. The scent calmed him, and he smiled.

#

The thunder brought them together. The next night, they were lying in bed – Peter reading the paper, Abby flipping through the latest issue of Architectural Digest – listening to the rain hit the roof when a massive thunderclap split the night. The air trembled, the house shook, and the electricity went out, leaving the only source of illumination the afterglow of the massive flash of lighting.

Abby pressed close – she had always been afraid of thunder – and he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. "Eek," she squealed as another clap of thunder sounded overhead. She hid her face in the space between his neck and his shoulder.

"It's ok, Abby," Peter said as he caressed her back, trying to calm her. He caught the scent of her rose perfume and felt a dull ache stir in the back of his head.

"I feel like such a dork," she said, even as she huddled against him. Another flash of lightning signaled another loud bang, and she jumped into his arms.

"Well, you are a big dork."

"So says the king of the dorks."

"I'm not a dork."

"Baby, you're an accountant."

"What's that have to do with anything?"

She was about to answer when another thunderclap drove her back to her hiding place. She giggled nervously. "At least you're a big, strong dork."

He chuckled, and squeezed her gently.

"Mmm, nice."

"Yeah?"

"Just as soon as I crawl back inside my skin, I'm going to crawl on top of you."

Peter kissed her on top of her head, and lay back at the ceiling. The thought of sex didn't sound appealing, and that disturbed him. They lay together for ten minutes, until the loudest of the thunder had subsided.

"How are you doing?" she sighed softly into his chest.

"I'm ok," he said, rubbing his head.

"What's wrong?" she lifted her head to look at him.

"Nothing. Well, no. I've just got a headache, that's all."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."

"You're not mad at me for something, are you?"

"No. No, nothing like that."

Abby raised an eyebrow.

"I've just got a headache."

A strong clap of thunder startled them both, and she let out a loud cry. Peter grimaced.

She kissed his forehead. "Sorry, baby."

"No, it's ok. Headache, like I said."

She laid her head back on his chest and pressed herself against him. After a half an hour, the rain subsided, and the thunder rumbled faintly in the distance. "Sleep well," she said drowsily.

"You, too," he kissed her on the back of her head and then lay back and stared at the ceiling. He closed his eyes and thought of the green woman -- of her soft lips, and of her warm embrace.

#

On Wednesday, Peter came home early from his poker game in the city. He'd busted out after only a few hands, so he downed the rest of his beer and called it a night. As he walked into the house from the garage, he heard Abby in the kitchen, talking on the phone.

"I don't know, Helen. I don't think he's cheating on me." She was pacing. She always paced when she was on the phone. "No, I'm not sure, but I think I'd be able to tell."

Peter set his laptop case down, leaned against the wall, and listened.

"Well, he did come home smelling like perfume, but then he brought me flowers that he was out picking."

Ah, crap, he thought, and sniffed at his coat. There was still a faint smell of honeysuckle that clung to it. I need to get this dry-cleaned.

"Oh god, Helen, am I not attractive anymore?" Abby paused and then laughed, "That landscaper? Yeah, he was kind of cute, but those guys will hit on anybody."

Peter felt a twinge of jealousy. Who's hitting on my wife? A sharp pain sliced through his temple, and he grabbed his head. Golden stars floated through his vision.

"This wasn't supposed to be this hard. This was supposed to be a good thing for both of us." Peter could hear her take a glass out of the cupboard and fill it with ice from the freezer. "Maybe I'm just overreacting. Once we're done with all of the work, things will settle down."

There's the faucet, he thought as he listened to Abby fill her glass at the sink. "No, he doesn't really want to talk about it."

Ah, crap, the stabbing pain returned, I need to lie down. He walked around the corner and into the kitchen, "Hey, I'm home."

"Jesus!" Abby jumped, "you scared me. I didn't hear you come in."

"Sorry," he said as he dropped his keys on the counter.

"You're home early," she pointed to the phone, "I was just talking to Helen."

"Hi Helen," Peter waved at the phone. "Yeah, I busted out early."

"Oh, that's too bad," Abby walked over to him and then stood on her toes to kiss him, but Peter pulled away.

"Sorry," he said as he shut his eyes and rubbed his head. "I've got a terrible headache. I'm going to go to bed."

"Oh," Abby looked hurt for a moment, but then her face relaxed. "Ok, go to bed, baby. I'll be up in a while."

As Peter exited the kitchen, he could hear Abby whisper quietly to Helen, "I'm really worried."

#

The next few days were filled with rain and slate gray skies. By Saturday, the world seemed drained of color. Peter moped around the house.

"Are you ok?" Abby asked that morning.

"Yeah, just the weather getting to me."

Abby shook her head and frowned, "Maybe you should go to the doctor."

"What for?"

"Well, you know, they have medicine for this sort of thing."

"What thing is that?" he asked, incredulous.

"Never mind."

"No, seriously, what thing is that?" he stared at her.

"You're depressed, Peter," she folded her arms and stared back.

"No, I'm not depressed. I'm stressed."

"God, you've been stressed for months."

"Yeah? So have you. Maybe you need medication."

"I'm not the one moping around the fucking house."

"That's 'cause you're never fucking home. You're always out spending money."

"What?!" she yelled, putting her hands on her hips.

"You're always out spending money." He backed away. Her rose-scented perfume was getting to him. God, why does she have to bathe herself in that stuff?

"Yeah, on the house. On us. What the fuck?"

"Never mind," he rubbed his head. He could feel the pain creeping up his neck and into the base of his skull.

"Fine. Fine!" she grabbed her purse and stormed out.

He waited until he heard the sound of her car disappear into the distance, and then he walked out into the dismal gray day. He tried rolling his shoulders and his neck to relieve the pain, but it only grew worse. Fuck.

The faint scent of honeysuckle drifted through the air. Peter inhaled deeply, and faint points of light seemed to glow at the edge of his vision. He made a beeline to the pond.

#

August was ready to give way to September; the hottest days of the year were behind them, and it regularly dipped into the sixties at night. On the last Monday of the month, they had cooked dinner, and shared a bottle of wine in near silence. Afterward, they stood in the kitchen, ignoring each other, while Peter washed dishes and Abby put away leftovers.

Abby frowned at the bowl of cooked carrots, folded her arms, squeezing herself tightly, and then looked at Peter for a minute. She took a deep breath and then asked, "So where were you this afternoon?" Her voice sounded an octave higher than her usual alto.

Peter had visited the pond again while Abby was out shopping. "What? Why?"

"I saw some shoes I thought you'd like, so I tried calling you, but you didn't answer." She shifted nervously.

"Oh. I was walking around the woods. We don't get great service out there."

"I thought you hated the woods," Abby looked at him suspiciously, "too many bugs."

"I'm getting used to them. I figure we own all that property, I might as well find out what's out there. Don't want any squatters camping out in our woods."

She sighed deeply and uncrossed her arms. She smiled as her shoulders returned to their usual position, and then grabbed a new bottle of wine. "Come on, let's go sit by the window."

"The window?"

"Yeah. That way I can watch the stars and you don't have to worry about bugs."

He smiled. "That sounds like a great idea."

She took the pillows off the couch and set them in front of the big bay window, then turned off the lights. "Come, sit."

Peter leaned back against the side of the window and stretched his legs out along its length. She curled up at the other end, her legs drawn up to her chest. She stared out at the rapidly darkening sky while Peter stared at his feet. Over the course of an hour, they drank more glasses of wine than they exchanged words. She briefly stepped away to bring back a new bottle – their third for the evening – and by ten, Peter was feeling very warm and relaxed.

When she finished the last of the third bottle, she frowned at her glass, and then turned to Peter. "Why don't you want to fuck me anymore?" Her eyes were slightly unfocused, and she squinted as she looked at him.

"What?"

"You don't want to fuck me anymore."

"Yes, I do."

"So why don't you?"

Peter sighed, "I don't know. We've been so busy, and with the new commute we don't even start eating until eight."

"This isn't my fault," she said and slammed her hand against the window. It reverberated with the blow.

"I'm not saying it is." He leaned forward and took her hand in his. "Look, things have changed. We'll figure it out. We've managed to figure out things so far."

"Really?" she slid toward him so she was sitting beside him.

"Yes."

She reached down and placed her hand on his leg, and then pressed her head against his chest. He took a deep breath as she moved her hand higher and began to gently rub him. "I want you to show me that you still want me."

He gasped, "Oh, I do."

She unzipped his pants and tugged at his waistband. He lifted his hips, and she pulled his jeans and his boxers halfway down his thighs. "You like that?"

"Yeah."

"Well, then how about this?" She bent down and took him in her mouth.

"Oh god, yes."

He fumbled with her belt, and she shifted her hips to give him access. He fumbled for a minute more, before she reached down, unfastened it herself, and then slipped her pants and panties down her thighs. Peter was able to remove them the rest of the way.

"I want you in me," she said as she pulled away, sat up, and pulled off her top. Peter mirrored her actions, and then reached out and pulled her toward him. She kissed him greedily as she straddled his lap, reached down, and then slid onto him.

"You feel so good."

"Baby, I love you. I love you so much."

Peter grabbed her hips and guided her as she thrust against him.

She wrapped her arms around Peter's head and crushed herself into him. She ground her pelvis against his, and moaned. After a minute, her entire body tensed, quivered, and then relaxed. She pressed her face into the space between his neck and his shoulder and half-giggled, half-sighed.

Peter squeezed her in his arms, and she returned the gesture by pressing herself against him. She kissed his neck, and began to move again. This time, she angled her hips differently than before, and Peter groaned, closed his eyes, and rested his head against the window.

"I know what you like," she whispered in his ear. "I know everything you like."

"God, I know you do."

"Nobody else has ever made you feel like this, have they?"

"No, nobody but you." God, that's such a lie.

"I want you to come for me."

"Yes, yes," he grabbed her by the hips and thrust as deeply as he could as the pressure finally released. "Oh God, yes."

She kissed him again, and as she brushed her face against his, he could feel that her cheeks were wet. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said as she began to sob.

"Honey, what's wrong?"

"I don't know," she cried.

"Abby, talk to me."

"What's wrong with us?"

"Nothing's wrong with us."

"Yes, there is."

"Well, ok. Whatever it is, we'll figure it out."

"I'm scared."

"Don't be scared. We'll figure it out."

"What if we don't? I don't want to lose you."

"We will. Don't worry."

Abby crushed herself against him and cried while he held her tightly. He wasn't sure how long they sat that way, but eventually she pulled away from him, wiped off her face, stood up, and pulled him to his feet. "Bed."

They stumbled upstairs, and then turned off the light. Abby was out within minutes, but Peter lay in the dark, listening to her breathe. He watched her chest rise and fall, watched her breasts shift with every inhalation, and her streamlined abdomen ripple with every exhalation. The moonlight that filtered in through the bedroom window highlighted the curves and angles of her body.

What the fuck am I doing? Oh, god, what am I doing?

#

Peter waited a month before venturing back into the woods again. The next morning, standing in the shower, he promised himself that he was going to try to make things better. He brought home roses that evening, and they made love on the kitchen counter. On Sunday, she surprised him with massage oil. Within two weeks, though, they had slipped back into their old routine, and the fighting was worse than ever.

On one particularly gray Saturday, it had been threatening to rain, and Peter didn't feel like raking leaves. They argued for an hour before Abby threw up her hands in frustration, jumped into the car, and left. Peter grabbed his head – a throbbing pain shot through his skull, so he downed ibuprofen and then stormed off into the woods. The sky opened up as he reached the pond, and he took shelter under one of the trees.

Peter pressed his back against the tree and pulled his knees in to his chest. Up above the slate-gray sky roiled – a monochromatic cauldron. The rain splattered around his feet, and, though the branches overhead protected him from the brunt of the downpour, the rain that did make it onto him left him cold enough to be uncomfortable.

"Looking for someone to warm you up?"

He jumped and then turned – She was standing right behind him. "God, I'm so angry." His head throbbed, and a sharp, stabbing pain kept shooting through his right eye.

"Come with me."

Peter noticed that her skin had taken on a red tone and her hair had darkened from a bright emerald to a rich pine. "What?"

"Come with me."

"Where?"

"Everywhere. I can show you the world. Every inch of it."

"I don't understand."

She knelt down beside him, and the pain began to transform into a cottony haze. He turned and breathed in honeysuckle and warm rain. "Summer has come and gone. The leaves are falling, my love."

He sighed. Love. The word made him euphoric. "So?"

"So, it will be winter soon, and I have to leave. I want you to come with me."

He emerged from the sea of endorphins that he was floating in. "What?" He began to panic. "You can't leave."

"I must." She pressed herself against him, crushing her breasts against his arms, and warming his entire body. "I can't stay here."

He shook his head. "But I need you."

Lightning flashed in her emerald eyes, and then she kissed him. The world exploded in a burst of green. He wanted the feeling to continue forever, but she pulled away and stood up.

"What?"

"If you need me, then come with me." She slowly backed toward the pond. With each step she took away from him, the euphoria faded, and he grew colder.

He stood up and walked toward her, desperate to regain the feeling she invoked in him. "I can't. I have a job, and a house. Shit – I have a wife, though I don't know for how much longer."

"You won't need any of those things, Peter. Come with me. Share your warmth with me. I need you." She put one foot in the pond.

"No don't go."

"Come with me; I don't want to go without you," she stretched out her hand.

"I…I can't," he began to cry.

She turned, plunged into the water, and disappeared. It took every ounce of his willpower not to dive in after her. He stood at the edge of the pond for an hour and cried. When she didn't re-emerge, he turned and walked back toward the house.

He came back every day for the next two weeks and waited by the edge of the pond for her to reappear.

Autumn

The brown, orange, and ochre leaves scurried across the yard, running in fear from the wind’s razor sharp talons. Peter watched as they made a valiant attempt at escape, before the wind swooped in and scooped up its prey. The breeze carried them in a slow circle before screaming off over the tops of the trees, where they disappeared for good.

Abby stood next to him, leaning on her rake. They had woken up that morning, determined to clean up the yard, but after an hour of yard work spent in silence, Abby had turned to him and said, "We need to talk."

Peter had set down the wheelbarrow, pulled off his gloves, and then looked off into the woods. "Ok."

"You haven't said more than two words to me in two weeks," Abby walked around him, so that she stood in his field of vision. "Don't you love me anymore?"

Peter was quiet for a moment, and then finally met her gaze. "I still care about you."

Her eyes immediately began to fill with tears. "That's not what I asked."

"Abby," he looked away.

"Talk to me!" she cried. "Why can't you talk to me?" She walked around into his field of vision again.

Peter scowled at her.

She rubbed the tears off of her cheeks with her sleeve. "We can move back to the city, baby. I know you hate the house."

"No," he rubbed his head. The scent of honeysuckle drifted through the air. "The house isn't the problem."

"Then what is the problem?" Abby began crying harder. "Do you know what Helen thinks is the problem? She thinks you're having an affair."

"Helen should mind her own fucking business," Peter threw his gloves on the ground and turned away.

"I made it her business because she's the only one who would talk to me!" Abby tossed the rake on the ground beside her. "The man who used to be my best friend won't talk to me anymore!"

Peter shook his head and then began walking toward the house. Abby screamed behind him, "I can't do this Peter! I can't do this anymore!"

"So don't!" he yelled over his shoulder before he slammed the door and disappeared from sight.

#

"God damn it! What the hell is wrong with you?" Peter was standing in pajama bottoms in the doorway of their bedroom.

"I want a divorce!" Abby screamed, standing on the bed.

"Fine!" Peter turned, slammed the door behind him, and ran down the hall.

"Get back here you son of a bitch!" Abby screamed through the door.

Peter hit the stairs running and almost slipped. He caught himself on the railing as the door opened at the end of the hall. "Come back here and talk to me!" Abby's voice was hoarse.

"Fuck you!" Peter yelled back as he opened the front door and plunged into the snowy night. The November air clawed at his bare skin; he immediately began shivering and his head exploded in pain.

The first frost had come and gone, and now there was a thin blanket of snow on the ground. He ignored the bite of the frozen ground on the bottom of his feet as he marched across the lawn. Behind him, Abby shouted after him, "God damn it, Peter! Where the fuck are you going?" He looked over his shoulder to see her slam her fist against the door jam and then disappear back inside.

Need to get away. Need to get away. Need to get away. Peter ran toward the woods. The light of the full moon cast an eerie glow through the trees. He hadn't been back to the pond, but he knew she would be there now. He needed her to be there.

He crashed through the woods, ignoring the branches that snagged his pajamas and scratched his skin.

"Are you here?" he whispered loudly, once he reached the pond.

She stepped out from behind a tree. "I'm so cold, Peter." She was shivering violently. Her skin had turned fallow, her hair was brown, and her emerald eyes were now dull – the color of pale sea foam. "I need your warmth."

He immediately rushed to her and wrapped her in his arms. She was cold – as cold as she was normally warm. He struggled to catch his breath as he felt her pull his body heat from him. "I need you," he gasped, his mind rapidly clouding. "I don't want to live without you."

"Come with me."

"Yes," he couldn't focus his gaze on her, but he nodded, "I'm ready."

She took his hand and led him toward the pond. He followed, and when his foot hit the freezing water, he gasped. "It will be ok, my love," she said as she led him deeper.

The water climbed up his legs, chilling him to the bone. When it hit his torso, he gasped. His breath fled from his chest. She smiled at him as she stepped further back, and then disappeared under the surface. She tugged on his hand from beneath the surface of the pond; he struggled to take a deep breath, and then plunged after her.

Under the water, the world changed. He felt warm, and relaxed. He stared at her smiling face as he began to breathe, and the water engulfed him and cradled him in a warm embrace.

He wasn't sure when the strong pair of arms grabbed him under his shoulders and pulled him out of the pond. He didn't know who the woman with the auburn hair was who blew into his mouth and compressed his chest. He didn't understand why tears were running down her cheeks, or why she kept screaming, "Don't leave me, you son of a bitch!"

As she leaned over him, her face was framed by the full moon, causing her auburn hair to burst into flames. Oh wow, he thought, she's got a halo.

#

When Peter regained consciousness, he realized that he was lying in a hospital bed. The clean white blanket was pulled up over his chest and tucked under his arms. Oh, god, I'm still here. He looked around – he was in a room by himself, though the wall directly in front of him had windows running from mid-wall to the ceiling. He could see Abby talking to a nurse.

She turned suddenly to look at him, and pressed a hand to her mouth. "Peter! Oh, baby…" She rushed into the room only to stop short.

Peter glared at her. "I thought you wanted a divorce."

Abby began to cry, wrapping her arms around herself. "You stupid idiot. I don't want to give up on us. I love you."

Peter lay back, closed his eyes, and looked at the ceiling. He sighed, and then said quietly, "I love you, too."

She walked over and knelt down beside his bed. "That's the first time you've said that in a month." Tears cascaded down her cheeks as she grabbed his hand and squeezed. "Oh, god, I'm so glad you're ok."

Abby's touch set his hand on fire and he wanted to grab it back, but she held it firm. "What happened?" he asked.

"You were convulsing and you fell into the pond. The doctors think you had a seizure."

"What?"

"A seizure. Don't worry about it now," she squeezed his hand even harder.

"You're hurting my hand," he said quietly.

"Sorry," she said, loosening her grip almost imperceptibly.

"When can I go home?" Where is She? I need to see her!

"Not for a few days. The doctors need to run some tests to figure out why you had the seizure."

Shit. The thought of lying in a hospital bed for days frightened him. There were too many lights and machines and freshly-scrubbed floors. There were no trees or shrubs or rocks or ponds. He couldn't even see a window from where he was. "Will you come visit me?"

"Of course I will!" she pulled his hand to her face and kissed it, over and over and over.

He crinkled his nose. "Do you smell honeysuckle?"

"What?" Abby looked confused. "No, it smells like floor cleaner in here."

"That's strange," Peter said as he pressed on his temples with his free hand, "my head really hurts." Suddenly, a pulsing green light overwhelmed his senses and the world disappeared.

#

"Arteriovenous malformation."

Peter rolled the words around in his head. It was a disorder that affected the connection between some of the veins and arteries in his brain, the doctor had explained, and it was likely causing micro-bleeds.

"It looks like a pile of spaghetti in your brain."

"Spaghetti?"

"More or less."

"Great."

"Now, in addition to the headaches and the seizures, it can cause a variety of other symptoms, including confusion and hallucinations. Have you experienced anything like that?"

Oh god. Peter ran his hands across his shoulders, over the faint scars that still remained from his first encounter with She. She. She? Oh god. It couldn't be. He looked over at Abby, who was sitting on the bed next to him. "I...yes. Well, maybe. Well, yes."

Abby's jaw dropped. "What?"

"I keep seeing these flashes of green and gold," he said. Among other things. "Sometimes, I find it really hard to think."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I…I don't know."

"Your wife tells me that you've been suffering from depression. It's certainly possible that this has been a contributing factor."

Peter looked at his wife and felt a sudden pang of guilt. "Oh, honey. I'm sorry."

"There's nothing to be sorry about."

The doctor nodded, "It's a congenital defect. You've probably had it for years, but just started to suffer symptoms."

"How do we fix it?" both Abby and Peter said in unison. Abby giggled and smiled at Peter, and he reached out and took her hand.

"Surgery. Then medication if you have further symptoms."

Peter stared at the ceiling. Hallucinations. Hallucinations. Hallucinations. It couldn't be. Could it? Then he looked back at Abby, at her smiling, green eyes, and felt like someone had just kicked him in the gut. Oh god, please let it be hallucinations.

#

Peter spent the week in the hospital and still felt woozy when Abby finally drove him home. As they drove out of the city, past the farms and fields, he began to relax. He smiled as he saw the snow-covered oaks, maples, and pines. "I love it out here," he said quietly.

The surgery had been a success, the doctors had said, and he should no longer suffer from headaches. While he couldn't tell through the haze of painkillers, he was hopeful.

"Abby?"

"Yes, baby?"

"Thank you for everything."

She glanced at him and smiled. "You're welcome."

"Are we going to be ok?"

She gasped, and put a hand to her mouth. "I don't know. Do you want us to be ok?"

"I want to find out." He turned and smiled at her.

The corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled back at him. "I hope that's not just the meds talking."

"Well, if it is, you'll just have to keep me doped up all the time."

She laughed, "I know a few questionable people. I'm sure I can arrange that."

"Are we there yet?"

"No, it'll be just a few more minutes. You can go to sleep if you want."

"Are we there yet?"

"Baby, are you ok?" She looked over at him. Her eyes were wide with concern.

"Are we there yet?"

Abby raised an eyebrow. "Are you fucking with me?"

"Are we there yet?" he chuckled.

"You brat!" She punched him in the shoulder.

"Hey! Walking wounded here!"

"Don't do that!" She giggled. "Besides, you're on painkillers, what do you care?"

Peter leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "I really want us to be ok."

Spring

Peter looked at the pond, sighed, and squeezed Abby's hand. He had held her hand as they wound their way through the woods: past the huge, overturned tree, whose root ball towered ten feet over their heads; past the rock outcropping that pointed toward true north; and past the small creek with a two foot-high waterfall.

"Why do you want to go back there?" she had asked on that breezy May morning.

"So that I'm not afraid of it anymore."

"Oh, baby, there's nothing to be afraid of."

"That's why I need to go. Come on, let's take a walk."

Now they stood in front of the pond, where he had nearly drowned – where he had drowned – where his wife had brought him back to life.

Peter smiled and looked at Abby. My angel.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" she said, her cheeks flushing. She looked away, and brushed a stray strand of hair from her face. She glanced at him as the hair fell back into place. She smiled, "What?"

"I love you," he said as he tucked the hair back behind her ear. He caught the scent of her perfume and inhaled deeply. Roses, he thought, how lovely.

Abby put her arms around his neck and pulled him toward her, "I will always love you. Remember that."

"These are our woods, you know," he said with a smile.

"What do you mean?"

"Well," he said as he gently ran his hand down her spine, "we're all alone out here."

Abby gave him that look that he had seen a thousand times before and couldn't get enough of. She pulled away from him, unbuttoned her top, and then sat down on the rotted-out tree stump. Peter mimicked her actions, until they were both wearing only the dappled sunlight that filtered through the green canopy above.

Peter took Abby's hand and lay her down on a bed of moss. She pulled him on top of her and moaned as his weight gently crushed her. "Oh baby," she whispered as he plunged into her.

They moved their hips in unison and Peter covered her face in kisses. "Oh, God, you feel so good."

After a few minutes, Abby wrapped her legs around his hips and squeezed as she climaxed. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" she cried.

"Yes! Yes! Yes!" he cried as he joined her.

Abby kissed him greedily until he rolled off and lay beside her, panting. As he stared up at the canopy of green far above, he once again felt the sensation of being watched. Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. It can't be! He crinkled his nose – the faint scent of honeysuckle floated by on the wind.

She can't be here! He turned, alarmed, only to find Abby staring at him. She was turning a honeysuckle blossom over in her hands.

"What'cha thinking?" she asked.

He sighed in relief and then burst into laughter.

"What?" she smiled, but obviously confused.

Peter shook his head, "Nothing. Everything is very, very good."

She sighed contentedly, then rolled over and kissed him. "I was thinking that we could transplant some of the honeysuckle into the backyard. You really like them, and they're all over the place out here."

Peter grimaced. "No. Honey, that garden was your dream. I want to help you make it come true."

"Really?"

"Yes." He took the flower from her hand, tossed it off into the distance, and smiled. "Let's go plant your roses."

a late aubade

Ryan’s day began like most days: early. He woke at four AM, which gave him a half an hour to talk to his subordinates in Texas before his daily conference call with the company’s officers. As a Junior VP of Sales for one of the largest oil companies in the world, his mornings were filled with conference calls. He slipped his earpiece on, rolled out of bed, and padded to the bathroom.

“Call the office,” he mumbled as he stood in front of the toilet, willing his bladder to relax. His headpiece happily beeped away as it connected him to a speaker phone in a conference room in a building an ocean and half-a-continent away.

The voice of his European sales manager greeted him, as it usually did each morning with a bizarre mix of French accent and Texas drawl. “Hello Pierre,” he said with a sigh, “What’s the situation in Europe?”

Pierre, the Frenchman who learned English while living in Dallas, began rattling off a list of sales prospects and opportunities in each of the EU nations in alphabetical order. Ryan sighed as he tried to picture babbling mountain streams and waterfalls. Waves, he thought, maybe waves will work.

He half-listened to the list of million dollar opportunities until one in particular caught his attention: “What do you mean Sweden won’t sign on? They can’t not sign on.” His bladder tensed up again.

“No, I know they’re concerned about global warming. It’s your job to sell them on it anyway.” He looked at the toilet, scowled at it, and then turned away.

“What do you mean, ‘What do you tell them?’ You tell them that global warming is a myth. It’s a goddamn myth.” Catching sight of his reflection in the mirror, he frowned at the dark circles under his eyes.

“I don’t care what their experts say. We have experts, too. Everybody has experts, and we pay ours more than they pay theirs. That account is worth four billion dollars. Do I have to spell that out for you? Four. Fucking. Billion.” He heard a buzzing noise, looked toward the bedroom, and saw a fly. Sonofabitch.

“What do you mean it could be worse? How could it be worse? You’re one step up from a retard, aren’t you, Pierre? It can’t be any fucking worse.” Ryan grabbed a flyswatter and ran after the interloping insect, swinging wildly. “If we lose Sweden that means that we don’t make our numbers this quarter. If we don’t make our numbers this quarter, then I don’t get my bonus. If I don’t get my bonus then I’m going to have to sell my condo, and if I have to sell my condo that means I have to move back to Texas. I hate Texas. I moved here to get away from the giant fucking bugs in Texas.” He knocked over a lamp with a backswing and then nearly tripped over a chair. “So no, you mongoloid, it can’t possibly get any worse. You get on that goddamn phone and you call them back and you tell them that global warming is a goddamn myth.” He stopped and looked for the fly. Where are you? There!

“I don’t care – fly our experts up there to testify. Send bonbons or fish or turtles or whatever the hell it is they eat up there. If you have to, you go up there yourself and you get down on your knees…” Ryan slammed the flyswatter against the side of his dresser and was rewarded with a satisfying crunch.

“No, not to beg. To suck. Now, whatever you have to do to get them to sign on, you do it!” He ripped off his earpiece and threw it across the room, where it shattered against the wall.

Shit. He looked over at the clock – 4:29 – one minute to the conference call. I’m going back to bed.

***

As a child growing up in Texas, Ryan had befriended a tree. He brought the sapling home from a school fundraiser in the early spring of his fifth-grade year, and his mother helped him plant it in the backyard. For the first month, he came home every day, filled his watering can from the lake at the edge of the property, and dutifully watered the ash.

Once the tree took hold, his mother told him he didn’t need to water it any more, so he spent his time playing with his toys near it instead. Some days, he would stage elaborate battles, setting up his army men in strategic locations around the yard, marching them and their tanks to and fro, but every few minutes he would look over to make sure the tree was still there.

The first fall, he watched, amazed, as the leaves turned a brilliant orange, gold, and red. He tried to collect every one, and he plastered the walls of his room with them, where they stayed for months until they crumbled into dust.

In junior high, when he thought he wanted to be an artist, he spent days drawing pictures of the tree. His mother would drag him by the ear inside and make him eat dinner, but as soon as he was finished, he would run back outside.

When his father died during his sophomore year of high school, Ryan spent most of his time sitting under the ash, staring out at the lake. He felt comforted by the leaves that hung overhead and by the sturdy trunk at his back. On warmer evenings, he would curl up and sleep underneath it; out there, by the tree, he couldn’t hear his mother and brother cry.

When, after college, he left Texas and moved to Hawaii, he realized that he didn’t spend much time missing his mother or his brother. He missed that tree.

***

After stopping by the electronics store to pick up another earpiece, he headed to the slopes. Over the past fifty years, Hawaii had become the skiing capital of the United States, and Mt. Haleakala was the center of it all.

The deep powder that covered the multitude of Haleakala’s trails and slopes was far superior to anything that Las Vegas’ myriad resorts could boast, and Aspen had been covered by a sheet of ice nearly twenty years earlier, so everyone who could afford to ski came to Hawaii.

Ryan waved his pass at the ticket collector and entered the line for the lift to the Black Diamond trail. He watched as the multitude of regulars and tourists passed by, on their way to the Green Circle and Blue Square trails.

He looked at his watch: ten o’clock. On cue, the sound of gourd drums suddenly began, and a group of bare-chested male dancers paraded out into the snow. They wore floral-patterned loincloths, shell necklaces, and lei. A crowd began to gather as the men began a hula which told the story of a great feast which welcomed the first visitors to the island.

Ryan watched the audience swell, and smiled in amusement as they clapped and cheered. He had to hand it to the dancers – they really knew how to sell their act. The hula continued for another two minutes, during which time the line for the lift progressed at a moderate pace.

Finally, the line of men parted in the middle, dropped to their knees, and gestured up-slope. The audience gasped in admiration as a line of beautiful women began descending the mountainside on skis. Each of the women wore a colorful, Polynesian, two-piece outfit, and trailed a long streamer behind her that billowed in the wind.

Ryan wasn’t interested in most of the women – just the one at the very end of the line: Amanda. She wasn’t Polynesian, but she looked the part with her long, black hair, tanned skin, and cocoa-brown eyes. Because she was an excellent skier, she had taken a job entertaining the tourists after she arrived on the island a year ago. When she reached the bottom of the slope, she looked over at Ryan, who was just about to sit on the lift, and smiled.

He waved as the lift moved forward. Amanda was a goddamn hippie, in his estimation – always talking about nature, and how man was destroying the environment, and global warming, and all that crap – but she was great in bed, drank like a fish, and, at nearly thirty years his junior, wasn’t interested in marriage. It was more than enough to keep him interested.

After relieving his stress on the trail, Ryan returned to the scene of the hula, where the men and women were handing out lei to the tourists. He sidled over to Amanda, who excused herself from her current mark and lassoed him with a lei.

“Hi Tiger,” she said with a wink.

“Hey gorgeous, are you going to grace me with your presence tonight?”

“That depends. Are you going to give up your job of destroying the natural world in order to line the pockets of rich white men?”

“No, but I am making my famous chili.”

“Well, in that case, how about eight?”

“Bring something sexy.”

She leaned in to whisper in his ear and lightly brushed his cheek with hers, “There’s nothing sexier than bare skin.”

She might have been a hippie, but he couldn’t get enough of her.

***

Ryan hadn’t returned to Texas in thirty years. He had moved to Maui after graduating from college, shortly after the snows began to fall and the bugs began to grow, and he had vowed never to return. When his mother died the year after he left, his brother took care of the funeral arrangements and sold the family home.

When he arrived in Hawaii, he possessed a philosophy degree and no marketable skills, so he took a job hawking cheap tiki statues to tourists. Once he realized that he was good at sales, he decided to make it his career, and he quickly became the sales manager at an electronics company before being recruited by Big Oil. Each bump in salary involved a move to a new dwelling, and eventually his efficiency turned into a two bedroom apartment, and then a flat, and then a condo.

For years, he thought little about anything other than work and skiing, but that had changed once he met Amanda. Now, he was cooking chili.

The market was crowded, as was usual, so he had to push past people to get what he needed: beef, chilies, beans. He had to resist the urge to start beating a woman with a can of beans when she ran over his foot with a shopping cart. After picking out several ripe tomatoes, he grabbed a six pack of beer and hurried to the checkout.

A runaway child smacked him in the groin with his elbow as he stepped out the front doors of the market, nearly causing him to drop his groceries. He staggered over to his car, leaned against it, and groaned. For crying out loud, he thought, kids are worse than giant bugs.

He set his bag down on the trunk of his car and tried walking off the pain. After a few paces, and a few deep breaths, he began to feel somewhat better, so he turned around to grab the groceries. There, sitting on top of the bag, was a red leaf. Huh? Normally, he would have ignored it, but something about it caught his attention. That looks familiar. The answer clawed its way out of the recesses of his memory. Oh right, a red ash. I haven’t seen one of those in years. I wonder where it came from?

He looked around, but didn’t see anything other than palm trees. Ah, well, he thought, probably came off some tacky tourist crap.

***

Dinner was consumed quickly, and Amanda and Ryan’s clothes were shed even more quickly. He wanted to feel her bare skin under his hands; even with as little as they had in common, there was something familiar and comforting about being in physical contact with her. Early on in their relationship, he had tried to figure out what that something was, but he quickly realized that he didn’t care.

The sex was, as always, amazing. Afterwards, lying on his bed, in the soft glow of the dozens of candles she had managed to insinuate into his life, he thought about that something again. She sighed and nuzzled his chest, and he smiled.

He opened his mouth to ask a question, but she spoke first, “Ok, so want to do something fun?”

“Like what, handcuffs?”

“No,” she rolled her eyes, “like something that doesn’t involve sex.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun.”

“You’re such a boy. Seriously. It’s something you’ve probably never done.”

“What, like shave my armpits?”

“Jesus.” Amanda rolled over and grabbed her purse off the nightstand. “No, it’s something I’ve been into for a while. It’s really illuminating.”

“Ok. This sounds like some new age crap.”

“No, not new age. Old age. It’s shamanic.”

“Right.”

“No, seriously.”

“Right.”

“Do you want to try it or not?”

“Ok, fine.”

“Hold out your hands,” she said as she reached into her purse and pulled out a large velvet pouch. After unwinding the golden cord that tied it shut, she tipped out a pile of large seeds.

“What the hell is this?”

“Baby woodrose. It’s called the ‘Brown Pill.’”

“What’s it do?”

“It takes you on a trip, man,” she laughed. “It’ll get you in touch with your natural side.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on. You’re not going to pussy out on me, are you?”

He frowned. He had never experimented with hallucinogens, even in college, but he certainly wasn’t going to let a hippie chick, much less a naked one, call him a pussy. “You’re such a fucking hippie. Ok, fine. How many do I take?”

She smiled, “All of them.”

“All of them?” There were at least twenty seeds, each the size of a hazelnut.

“All of them.”

He popped several of the seeds into his mouth and started to chew. “Mmmm, crunchy,” he mumbled.

Amanda giggled, and then leaned over and began kissing his neck. “You need this,” she murmured between kisses.

“I thought you said this wouldn’t involve sex,” Ryan muttered as he popped another few seeds into his mouth.

“Shut up and keep eating,” she replied as her hands traveled down his body.

***

Hours became minutes and minutes became hours as time twisted in upon itself. He couldn’t tell where one minute ended and the next began. For that matter, he couldn’t tell where his body ended and hers began. Colors flashed at the edge of his vision as the candle flames began a serpentine dance.

“Why?” he asked – his words buoyed by the effervescent vapors swirling through his chest.

“Why?” she replied as she smiled coyly.

“Why do you feel so comfortable, so familiar?”

“You probably don’t remember,” she whispered as she twisted her hips. He shuddered underneath her. “It was a long time ago, but we knew each other once.”

He closed his eyes and the flashing colors grew more intense: red and orange and gold. “Why are you here?” The vapors wound their way through his limbs, causing every part of his body to tingle.

“I missed you,” she leaned in closely, now whispering in his ear. He could feel the words crawl out from between her lips, parade through the air, and then dive into his ear.

“How could you miss me?” he laughed as the colors inside his eyelids multiplied. “We couldn’t have known each other that well if I don’t remember meeting.”

“Things were different then,” she said sadly as she sat back up.

Ryan opened his eyes and realized that the woman riding him had transformed: no longer the Polynesian look-alike, her face had taken the form of a red ash leaf. The gold and red and orange were leaves that swirled around her nude form, dancing and playing in the space between them.

“I’m not well, Ryan,” she said. “I need your help. I’m dying.”

For some reason, he wasn’t shocked by her statement. In fact, he was fairly certain that he already knew. “Yes.”

“I love you,” her voice became light and airy. “I always have.”

The air between them shimmered and he felt her entire body vibrate. He gasped as the flashes of light intensified, and then, within a minute, his entire field of vision exploded into a kaleidoscope of red and orange and gold leaves. The effervescence overcame him, and he giggled as his entire body dissolved into thin air.

***

He rolled over, expecting to drape his arm over Amanda’s warm body, but instead his arm hit the bare sheet. Huh?

He looked over at the glowing green numbers on the alarm clock – 4:29. Shit! Did she turn off the alarm? He jumped out of bed, grabbed his earpiece, and headed toward the bathroom. As he padded across the soft carpet, he stepped on something rough that crunched underfoot. Oh shit, a bug!

He jumped toward the wall, flipped on the light, and immediately felt nauseous. Ugh. Bright. He covered his eyes and looked down at what he had stepped on. A leaf? Am I still hallucinating? He looked around, and everything else looked normal, if excessively bright.

“Amanda, where the hell are you?” he said in a voice which felt a whole lot louder than he knew it was. Ow. “What the hell did you do to me?” He listened for a response, but heard none. “Amanda?”

He looked over at the night stand by the bed. Her purse was gone. So she drugs me up and then leaves. What the hell? He sat down on the bed as he fought off another wave of nausea. Oh god.

Something tugged at his brain. Oh, the leaf. He staggered back over to the floor and picked up the leaf. Where the hell did this come from?

His earpiece rang. Crap. “Answer.”

“Good morning, gentlemen and women. This is Ryan.” A cacophony of voices greeted him, which he ignored until he heard the voice of his direct superior, the Senior VP of Sales.

“Good morning, Ben, I’ve got good news on the European front…” he stopped as the voice interrupted him.

“What bad news?” His heart sank. That bastard, Pierre! That little frog sold me out. The voice continued.

“I’m sorry?” He dropped the leaf, which twiddled gently to the ground.

“No, I can’t. I mean, I can, certainly, but that’s short notice…” His heart began to race.

“Right. Dallas. Tomorrow morning. I’ll see you then.” The earpiece clicked off and he stood for a minute in stunned silence. Then, he ran to the bathroom and vomited.

***

As Ryan stepped off the plane after his eight hour flight, he had to fight off hyperventilating. He hadn’t been able to get in touch with Amanda before he left, and he realized how much he relied on her presence to keep him sane. You’re not going to get fired, you’re not going to get fired, you’re not going to get fired, he kept repeating in his head over and over.

Hoisting his bag over his shoulder, he walked briskly down the concourse. After fighting the crowds, he arrived outside and hailed a cab. He gave the cabbie the address and then closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the headrest. Goddamnit, this can’t get any worse. This just can’t get any fucking worse.

He opened his eyes and looked out the window to his right. Perched on top of a small blue and yellow brick building was a fly the size of a large truck; it fluttered its wings in the breeze and then rubbed its forelegs together. “Oh, Jesus!” Ryan screamed as he dove off the seat and pressed himself to the floor.

The cabbie laughed, “First time in Texas, sir? You’ll get used to them.”

“No, actually, I left thirty years ago to get away from them.”

“Oh, well, don’t worry, sir, that’s a house fly. It’s the horse flies that you have to watch out for.”

“Horse flies are demons. My father was killed by one.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Ryan was quiet for a moment. Then he carefully climbed off the floor and stared out the window at the giant insect. “No, it’s alright. I just haven’t thought about it in a while. He was a cop, you know.”

“Yes?”

“Yeah – it was just after they started growing big, after all the frogs died off.”

“Global warming has killed a lot of things off.”

“Global warming is just a…never mind,” he paused and took a deep breath. He stared out the window again as the building with the giant fly disappeared from sight behind another building. “So we lived on this big, fishing lake northeast of here, and frogs had just died off, and the insects had just started to grow to huge sizes, and my father was on patrol, and this giant horse fly just came out of nowhere. Bit his head right off.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”

“I was, too.”

He tried to call Amanda from the cab, but there was no answer. His stomach lurched. Did she say that she was dying? Did she really say that she loved him, or was that part of the hallucination, too? On the plane, he had convinced himself that it was the latter, but now he wasn’t sure.

***

After the cab dropped him off, Ryan spent a good ten minutes staring up at the office tower. Shit, he thought, finally. Might as well get this over with.

His boss’ secretary hustled him into the office as soon as she saw him, and the Senior VP of Sales shook his hand warmly. “Thanks for coming in, sit down.”

“Thank you, sir,” he said as he sank into the plush leather chair. His boss sat down at his cherry wood desk, flanked by a panoramic view of the Dallas skyline. Ryan glanced out at it for a moment, and it made him uncomfortable.

“Get you a drink?”

“Am I going to need one?” Ryan replied with a laugh.

His boss smiled uncomfortably, and then took a deep breath. “Ryan, we’ve been doing some thinking, and we’re going to take a different tack with this global warming thing.”

“Oh?”

“The European governments aren’t responding to the myth angle any longer.”

“Ok.”

“We’ve decided to acknowledge global warming.”

“What?” That idea ran counter to everything the industry had espoused for the last thirty years. “But we’ve spent billions on that strategy.”

“Yes, yes. But you know just as well as I do that sometimes you have to change strategies in order to catch your opponent off guard.”

“I know – but what about all of those experts, and all of the studies?”

“I’m sure they can get jobs experting something else. We’re planning on closing down the Institute for Climate Research at the end of the fiscal year.”

“Wow. Ok. Well, what’s our new strategy?”

“Well, our new strategy will be to offer compensation packages to these governments in exchange for long term contracts. Build them new refineries, clean up their shorelines – that sort of thing.”

“So, in effect, we’ll be bribing them.”

“Well, essentially, yes.”

“Well, ok. We can make adjustments. I’ll have to cancel the current marketing campaign, but I don’t think it’ll take too long to implement a new one. I’ve already got focus groups lined up…” A wave of his boss’ hand stopped him.

“Well, you see, Ryan, you’re part of the old guard – part of the old strategy, if you will.” He took another deep breath, “And we don’t see you fitting in to this new one.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed, “Who do you see fitting in?”

“Well, Pierre has already presented a very detailed and innovative plan. We think he has the vision to get Europe back on track.”

His chest tightened as he desperately fought the urge to vomit. “So that’s why you called me here?”

“Yes, I always find that it’s best to do these things in person.”

“I see.”

“You’ve made us a lot of money over the years, Ryan, so we’ve arranged a very generous compensation package for you. Think of it as an early retirement. Hell, I almost wish it were me getting this deal,” he said with a stilted laugh.

“Almost.”

“Almost.”

Ryan nodded and pressed his lips together. After staring out the window at the skyline for a minute, he finally replied, “Ok, thank you.” He stood up, shook his former boss’ hand, he wandered to the elevator in a daze.

“Call Amanda,” he said to his earpiece as the elevator descended to ground level. The line rang, but she didn’t answer. Come on, you goddamn hippie, pick up the phone. He exited the building and waited for her to answer. After twelve rings, he hung up. He stood there in the middle of the sidewalk, in front of the tallest building in Dallas; people rushed past him – the lifeblood of the city flowing through its veins.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a solitary leaf floating through the air above the crowd. It drifted lazily toward him, occasionally tumbling in the wind. Eventually, he was able to reach up and pluck it from the air: a red ash.

He stared at the leaf as people crushed past him. Finally, he drew a deep breath, clutched the leaf to his chest, and then stepped to the curb to hail a cab.

“Can you take me to Lake Lavon?” he asked the man who finally stopped to pick him up.

The cabbie looked at his watch, “Sure man, you can be my last fare of the day.” After Ryan seated himself, the cabbie pulled away from the curb, and then looked in his rearview mirror. “You going fishing?”

Ryan chuckled – the lake had been one of the most popular fishing spots in the area when he was a kid. “No, I used to live there. I want to go back.”

“Ah – you live in town?”

“No – right on the lake.”

“Oh,” the cabbie was silent for a moment. “How long has it been since you been back?”

“Thirty years.”

“Right on. I’m not sure how to tell you this, but they tore down all of the houses and raised the water level of the lake about a year ago. Said it was to hedge against drought caused by global warming.”

Ryan was quiet for a long time before he responded, “Well, just get me as close as you can.”

***

Two hours later, the cabbie dropped Ryan off near the new edge of the lake. He hadn’t been lying. They had raised the water level by about four feet, which meant that most of the neighborhood he had grown up in was now underwater.

He wandered for a while before he found a man who rented rowboats to the fishermen. “It’s getting late,” the man said. “Are you sure you want to head out now?”

“Yes,” he replied quietly, “I’m just out for some sightseeing.”

The man looked at him with a puzzled expression, but rented him a boat anyway. Ryan chose a small white rowboat and began to paddle out to where his house used to stand. A gentle breeze tousled his hair and brushed against his skin. It took him nearly an hour to reach his destination, by which time the sun rode low on the horizon, throwing long shadows over the lake.

An overturned, rusted-out tug lay on its side right where his house used to stand. He remembered watching the tug as a child as it made its near-daily runs to pull broken-down fishing boats back to the docks at the far end of the lake. Now, it was the one in need of rescue.

He dropped the anchor overboard and quickly climbed out onto the tug. As he stood on top, he looked out at what used to be his backyard. Everything was gone except for one thing: a lonely ash, devoid of nearly all foliage.  Water circled its trunk, a few yellowed leaves populated the high branches, and a single red leaf hung near the water.

He choked back a sob as the solitary red leaf fell from the tree. It bobbled on the surface of the water for a moment, and Ryan was about to jump in after it, but then it began a slow journey, floating toward him, carried along by the ripples caused by the breeze. He clambered down the far side of the tug, nearly loosing his footing twice, and grabbed the leaf.

For a long while, he cried. Two giant dragonflies danced over the surface of the lake in the distance as he held his face in his hands, sobbing. “I’m sorry,” he whispered over and over again. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

After he stopped crying, he sat in silence until the sun finished its journey behind the horizon, and then he slipped on his earpiece. “Directory assistance,” he spoke quietly. Thirty seconds later, a voice sounded in his ear.

“Lavon Lake, Texas, please.”

“Yes, you can help me by connecting me to a landscaper. I need to transplant a tree.”

###

This story was the first round winner in the 2007 Ceramic DM writing tournament.