Bear picked up some acid: he burst into their room at two a.m. to tell them the news.
“Everyone’s in—we’re taking it tomorrow,” he announced in the dark, breathless, stinking of adrenaline and sweat. “It may be the last sunny day.”
Dot and Milo murmured groggy affirmatives and Bear whooshed out, the air renewed and tingling from his exit. Curled under the cover, Dot hooked her knee around Milo’s thigh and dreamt of the day ahead. The plan was to take it on Mount Tabor in the afternoon. Mount Tabor used to be a volcano. Or that’s what people said.
They left after breakfast, five housemates with full stomachs and greasy hands. Frank led the pack in his scuffed purple roller-skates, his polyester green soccer shorts exposing hard, hairy thighs. Everyone else biked. It was a short ride with minimal traffic, the start of the Saturday afternoon lull. A curl of fat dipped over the top of Dot’s denim cut-offs, and she marveled that their vegetable and egg diet was enough to live on. Something must have been working.
They met Pete in a meadow on the mount, twenty yards off the path. He was already spread out on the ground by his bike, which he had built himself. Legs long like a Keith Haring drawing, head capped with a faded black baseball hat: blank, no team logo. He waved when they approached, freckle-faced and sun-drunk.
They sat together in the grass, bikes and backpacks flung around them, the sun hot like giant hands on their backs. Bear had already divided the tabs, delicately wrapped them in tiny pieces of foil, handing one to each person with the care of a teacher passing out snacks at recess. Dot unwrapped hers and dropped it on her tongue, careful not to touch it with her fingers. Milo had tried it once before, at some party in college before he and Dot met, and he’d warned her not to handle the it, said it would come off on her skin. It tasted like nothing, like paper. Dot hadn’t eaten paper since she was in first grade and would hide strips like secrets in her mouth until they became soggy clumps that she could swallow.
Everyone smiled, looked around.
Dot reached into her backpack, a strappy canvas one she’d found in a free pile, and pulled out her jug of water and her Canon A-1, Brian Wilson. She fell back and looked through the lens at the cotton ball clouds, the shards of grass like crisscrossing mohawks, and Milo’s profile, the slope of his intelligent nose. She was forcing herself to keep taking pictures, even though she had failed to find a job doing it.
It was her dad, Rob, who’d taught her, gotten her into it. He even went so far as to name her Dorothea, after Ms. Lange herself, whom he claimed was the photographer who most influenced him, although his own work was commercial. He let her use his equipment and look through his different lenses and filters, the ones he used for jobs, the fancy expensive stuff he would clean and organize at the kitchen table every Sunday. Can of Blatz safely on the floor, to avoid spilling on the goods. Always within reach, though. Dot called it his “adult juice.”
“Just housekeeping,” he would say, and Dot’s mother Lisa would make a face at him as she scrubbed the counters and washed the dishes and did the actual housekeeping, orbiting around him. It started off funny, like a joke—maybe she found him a little lazy, but she loved his passion. At his peak, he was a busy freelancer, his photos appearing in magazines and newspaper features. He was always buying new flashes and light boxes and lenses, and the developer and fix weren’t cheap, either. She had to take on an extra shift to make it all work, but Dot didn’t see why that was such a big deal.
Eventually, Lisa stopped making faces at all, because her face was always set in a sad kind of grimace, like she might cry or shout at any moment. Rob stopped trying to make jokes to her and would only talk to Dot if she came into the kitchen.
“Come here and watch how I do this,” or “Sweet pea, could you clean these for your old dad?” He showed her how to polish lenses, spraying a special cloth with cleaner, holding it over two fingers, rubbing the glass gently, in tiny circles. Distracted and like they were doing the most important business in the world, even after he had stopped getting much work and everyone else had converted to digital.
Lisa would bang around, never speaking. Toward the end, she started a grease fire out of spite. Even then, Rob and Lisa refused to talk to each other, as the flames rose and crackled and the fire alarm blared. Lisa left the room quickly, satisfied. Rob sat by his equipment, dazed, a little too tipsy to do anything. Arthur barked and barked, agitated by the noise and the smoke. The house would have burned down, with all of them in it, if Dot hadn’t done something. It had reached that point, the point beyond reason. She stood on tiptoes to reach the telephone. A crew of firefighters came within minutes, stomping into the kitchen in their yellow suits, snuffing out the blaze with a fire extinguisher while Lisa, Rob and Dot stood on the grass outside and watched through the window.
Dot was coming up. That’s what they call it, coming up. Everyone was talking quietly around her, laughing softly in conversations that were both sped up and slowed down. She ran her fingers through the grass, each blade silky and sharp. Pete and Eve wandered off together. They bounced like tiny cartoons, receding into a horizon made of green pipe cleaners. No, pine trees. Smells mingled: lighter fluid, and the grass, fresh and clean from rain the night before, and Dot’s ineffectual deodorant mixed with sweet-smelling sweat. She pulled a spiral of hair across her eyes and everything turned red. Then she curled it above her lips like a mustache. Next to her, Frank smiled, shook out his dreadlocks like a lion’s mane.
Milo held a dandelion inches from his face, examining the intricate seeds that burst out joyously, a firework pausing.
“This is the most beautiful thing—”
“No, really. Look at it,” he said, thrusting it at her.
“It’s sweet. So many small parts. What a happy flower.”
She squinted until she saw a face, two tiny eyes and a row of petal teeth. They were crooked, sharp and pointed. It would have needed braces.
They blew the dandelions at each other, their hair coated in white fuzz. Some were tiny and some huge, with fat hollow stalks that leaked flowery pulp. They searched around, stooping over like hunchbacks to pick them, then chasing each other. Sometimes when Dot blew, she accidentally spit. No one noticed.
“It’s kind of like seeing what we’ll look like when we’re old,” Frank said, “when our hair is all white.”
Everyone laughed. Dot snapped a portrait of each person, so they could see them later and remember how they’d be in forty years. Growing up had never seemed simpler.
Pete and Eve came back with handfuls of acorns, and Bear juggled them while they lay below him and watched the pieces fly. Dot slowed the shutter speed so the acorns made blurry arcs. The ground was warm and wet and alive, like it was ticking. No, it was her watch. Eve made a daisy chain and put it on her head like a wreath, and then she made Dot one, too. Dot wore it around her neck like a string of pearls.
Milo headed off with Pete.
“Going to explore,” he said, an afterthought. “We wanna see some birds. There are starlings, apparently.”
The sky tinged purple and if there were starlings around, they were going to come out then. Starlings sounded nice to Dot, but she was enjoying the field.
Oscar sneezed. Dot didn’t have a tissue but she said “Bless you” anyway. She lay in the grass and then sneezed, too, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. There must have been something floating around, all the pollen from the dandelions buzzing and heavy with late summer heat.
As she pressed its narrow bridge, coaxing out another trapped sneeze, she felt not her nose but his. She’d inherited his eyes, too—that yellow-green, upturned slightly at the corners like a cat. Her smile was Lisa’s, though—small straight teeth, and a pale freckle on the bottom lip that classmates made fun of when she was little. An uncomplicated smile: neither could stifle a grin when happy. Rob was better at concealing his feelings.
“Thank God you didn’t get his teeth,” Lisa would say, especially during Dot’s teenage years, when everyone else was dealing with gaps and overbites. “His parents had to take out a loan for his orthodontia.”
It felt strange to look so much like someone who was so gone. Dot hadn’t seen him in seventeen years; they hadn’t heard from him, and he hadn’t paid any child support, as Lisa often grumbled. He took all his camera equipment except for the Canon, a wide-angle lens, and a weathered leather bag—with a patch of a Hollywood dancer stretching under a palm tree—which he left for Dot.
“Sell these when you’re older,” Lisa had said. “They’ll probably go up in value.”
The other thing he left: a handwritten letter on ripped notebook paper saying that he’d always love his little sweet pea, that he wanted her to learn to use the camera. He was sorry he couldn’t keep teaching her, he wrote, and sorry he had to go.
Such a stupid lame excuse for a note, but she saved it anyway, tucked into the back of Charlotte’s Web. He didn’t write Lisa one, but even at age five, Dot knew not to mention hers. Lisa said he must have called for a taxi in the middle of the night, gone to the bus station or airport and shot off as far away from them as he could. She said he cancelled all his credit cards, so he was not trackable, not traceable. It took a lot of planning to disappear so completely, especially for a drunk. Lisa told Dot that she filled out a Missing Person report but nothing came of it. They don’t do milk carton ads for adults; grown men generally leave because they want to.
Years passed and the sadness hardened into a growing curiosity. Dot memorized the plastic-sleeved photos in the albums. She wore out the old home videos, and also Lisa, asking questions she didn’t want to answer. How did they meet? (At the Steak House: she was a waitress and he came in for a drink). Did he love Dot? (Yes, very much. With all his heart). What did he like to do? (Take photos. Drink). What was his favorite movie? (Oh, why did it matter).
Sometimes, when she would walk into galleries, she half-expected to see his work hanging on the walls. She imagined him running around America, away from something and toward something, taking photographs, breaking into high school darkrooms across the sleepy bulk of the country to develop them. She hoped he left for something really profound—something worth it.
“Are you sad?” Frank asked, plopping down. Dot was feeling a little cold and prickly. The sun was nearly gone, the light in-between and their faces glowed blue and sparkly. Everything tingled.
“No, I’m okay. Thanks, though.”
“I’m really glad you moved in. You and Milo.”
“Thanks,” Dot said. “It’s great. Green House is great.”
The moon popped out, an electric circle.
“Is that the moon?” Bear asked.
“Street light,” Frank said. “Has to be. It’s so bright.”
“There wasn’t a light there before.”
“Oh. Guess it must be the moon.”
“It’s really something, isn’t it?”
They looked at it for a minute, satisfied with their proclamation—it definitely was the moon. Then Milo and Pete came back, soaking and cold. No starlings, but they had found a pond and gone swimming. It was time to leave. Dot wanted to hang back by herself, and while they protested at first, she assured them that she’d be fine. That she just needed a few minutes. She told Milo to go ahead and watched everyone bike back, Frank trailing on his skates. She walked her bike on the dirt path through the darkening trees, down and off the mountain, back into the city with its lights and its people. She was sober enough to bike, but she craved the stillness that walking allowed, the slowness and the space to think.