Leigh drove into Yellowstone National Park with her mom, Agnes, in a black box on her lap. She cranked the AC, pointing the vents down. The box was heavier than Leigh had expected ashes to be, and the leather was making her bare legs sweat. She could have buckled Agnes into the passenger seat. Still, the thought of stopping short for wildlife on the road and having her mom spill into every crevice of the car, onto everything she owned in the back seat, was too distracting. Plus, Leigh found that she liked the feeling of Agnes’s maternal weight holding her back in death as she did in life.
Leigh’s phone buzzed, and she sent it to voicemail. Since she’d skipped town three days earlier, pesky aunts and an army of female cousins called obsessively. The messages were all the same, though the tone grew angrier the longer Leigh and Agnes stayed away.
“How could you make Agnes miss her own funeral? You’re robbing us of our chance to mourn,” one aunt had complained in a nasal whine.
“Auntie Ag hated leaving home. What you are doing is cruel,” said another cousin.
Agnes did detest travel, but Leigh knew the only place Agnes dreamed of visiting was Yellowstone. Leigh hadn’t consciously planned on taking her mom to Yellowstone. Her hands had acted on their own accord, steering the car left onto the interstate when they should have gone right toward the country church overflowing with aunts and cousins competing for Agnes’s postmortem affection.
Leigh pulled into a general store that looked like a log cabin. She put Agnes on the passenger seat and rifled through the mix of her and her mom’s belongings in the back seat. Leigh removed the faded 1980’s Yellowstone guidebook from the middle of the pile. She cradled it reverently, like a sacred religious text. The book, held together with rubber bands and worn from overuse, had been Agnes’s lifetime obsession.
Agnes, a one-time biologist for a brief stint after college, had jotted crooked notes assigning the Yellowstone region’s animals to their correct Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Agnes’s armchair taxonomy knew no bounds—the margins and even the front cover were filled with classifying notes. Leigh remembered Agnes reading the guide each night like other people read bibles.
Leigh played the most recent voicemail. “Bring Auntie Ag back. She needs to be with her family,” another cousin said, a baby wailing in the background.
The feeling of otherness that Leigh periodically suffered settled into her limbs like stone. From the day each of them was born, this group of women knew Agnes on a level that Leigh would never experience. They spoke in feminine codes that Leigh could never crack, groomed one another in ways Leigh could never understand, and moved through the world confident in their sacred sisterly bond, though they were generations apart. They settled into their tiny Midwestern town within walking distance of one another and spread like a cancerous growth. Mothers birthed even-tempered baby girls that grew into even-tempered women that birthed more even-tempered baby girls. Leigh had always been an outsider because of the way she’d dressed, because she refused to hug when her anger simmered, because she shaved her head and rode a BMX bike instead of learning to drive, and most of all because she chose to leave for the west coast. But now, she’d had her last remaining title taken too. She wasn’t part of the family anymore.
Leigh got out of the car and stretched, her black funeral dress riding up her thighs. The late August air was sharp with an evergreen chill, and she had an overwhelming urge to find pants. It had been decades since she’d worn a dress, and she felt like an actor playing an uncomfortable role. She only donned the hated apparel for her mom’s funeral. Now that she was on the run, wasn’t part of the family anymore, she could do what she wanted. She eyed the mounds of garbage bags in the back seat that contained everything she owned, the sand of exhaustion gritting her eyes. She reached into the glovebox and took cash from Agnes’s wallet.
Inside, Leigh bought water, food, jeans, t-shirts, and hiking boots. She walked out of the store, shoving Wonder Bread into her mouth, and a man in head-to-toe khaki approached her.
“Looking for a tour? Full day if we start now, hundred bucks,” he said, handing her a card. Leigh shifted the bags in her arms, swallowed hard, and took his card.
“This only says Hayden,” she said. “That your name? This doesn’t even have your number.”
Hayden’s flush colored his translucent skin from his red hair down to his freckled hands. He grabbed the card from Leigh, clicked his pen, and wrote a number. “I’m between phones a lot. Like to write in my number instead of reprinting all the time.”
“Why you dressed for a safari?” Leigh asked. She felt a smile stretch her face and fought the urge to laugh or cry. Sleep deprivation was catching up to her. It would be nice to have someone else drive, show her and Agnes the sights. This twenty-something looked harmless, eager, and cheap.
“What’s wrong with khaki?” he asked. “It doesn’t show dust and doesn’t attract heat. Why you dressed like Morticia Adams?” His professional guide act slipped to reveal an abrasive quality that felt good against Leigh’s skin.
“My mom died,” Leigh said, digging through her cash. “Here’s one hundred. If you try anything funny, I’ll kill you. Let me get Mom from the car.”
“Over here,” Hayden called, standing by a silver ’94 Mazda Protégé with a red driver’s door. He opened the back for Leigh’s bags, but Leigh climbed in too.
“I was expecting a minivan or SUV with logos on the side,” she shouted to the front over the Miley Cyrus song, “Party in the USA.” “Not this broke-down relic.”
“Don’t speak of Cherry that way,” Hayden said, stroking the wheel. “She’ll get us to where we need to go, no problem.”
He pulled out of the parking lot, slowing behind a line of RVs. Leigh kicked off her heels and twisted to fight with the zipper on her dress before shimmying it down her chilly legs. She perched on the filthy bench seat, wearing only cotton underpants. Hayden watched in the rearview, barely keeping track of the traffic. She liked the way her near-nudity drew his attention and intensified his gaze.
“You’re always naked in public. Cover up!” Agnes’s angry whisper roared in Leigh’s head.
The complaint was so realistic that Leigh looked at the black box and then at Hayden’s gaze in the rearview mirror. His dilated pupils revealed only arousal, not a haunting. Leigh tore the tags off of her new clothes. Agnes was right. Nudity was a problem of hers, even at a young age. Her mom was always barking directives and chasing her with outdated clothing—sweater sets, pantyhose, and tea-length skirts. Nice girls don’t swim nude. Nice girls don’t sunbathe topless. Nice girls don’t show their bodies to strangers. What Agnes had failed to understand was that when Leigh got naked, it was for complicated reasons. She wasn’t showing off or trying to attract partners. She was fulfilling a need to appreciate her body the only way she knew how—through other people’s eyes.
“I’m just starting my tour company,” Hayden said, shifting in his seat. “You’re my first client, so thanks.”
“Oh no, thank you,” Leigh said, pulling on her jeans. “I’m on the run with Mom,” she patted the black box beside her. “I’m exhausted, and I needed a guide.”
Hayden scanned the box, tightening his jaw. “There’re strict rules around scattering human ashes here. You can do it, but not in the thermal areas or—”
“I’m not scattering,” Leigh said. “We’re road-tripping—family vacation.”
She pulled on her new boots, climbed over the console and into the passenger seat, and rolled down the window. The evergreens that blurred her peripheral vision when driving became more interesting now that she could stare directly into them. Taller, burned trunks stood naked above the newly sprouted pines below.
“The ‘88 fire,” Hayden said as if reading her mind.
“The year I was born,” Leigh said. She examined her short black hair in the side mirror, tracing her fingers along the dark circles under her eyes.
“Before the ‘60s, rangers believed fires to be detrimental to a forest, putting them out as fast as possible. But back then, rangers interfered with nature in horrible ways—nearly eradicating wolves, coyotes, and predatory cats.”
“Fires are good?” Leigh asked, feeling too exhausted to carry on a conversation.
“In a way, yes. These forests were overgrown and poorly managed. Fucking rangers,” Hayden added under his breath. “We’ll never see this forest as it was before. Imagine if all of the trees were as tall as the burnt trunks,” he continued. “Those new, shorter trees are Lodgepole. They’re first after a fire because their cones are opened in the explosive heat.”
Leigh, confused about Hayden’s strong feelings on park rangers, removed the rubber band and thumbed through the guidebook until she came upon Agnes’s Lodgepole Pines classification. She ran her finger over the entry, indented by her mother’s firm handwriting.
Genus: Pinus L.
Species: Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon
“Bison ahead!” Hayden said, sitting straighter. “This Yellowstone herd is the only pure genealogy left in the world. Sure, buffalo are everywhere. There’s even a herd in San Francisco, but their genetics have been mixed with bovine somewhere along the way.”
“My cousins too,” Leigh said.
Hayden shelled a sunflower seed with his teeth and spit the husk out the window. “How do you mean?”
“It’s a joke. My cousins are cows?” Leigh closed her eyes and waited for a courtesy laugh that never came. “Never mind,” she said. “Can we play a different song. I like Miley Cyrus, but her insistence on partying in one of the fifty states isn’t matching my mood.”
“Sorry, no can do.” Hayden lisped “sorry” in a way that sent pleasant shivers down Leigh’s spine. “The CD is stuck.”
He spit another shell and launched into a prepared speech about the Norris Geyser Basin. Leigh should have listened. Hell, she should be taking notes, asking questions, and snapping photos. She was due to start teaching a new sixth-grade class in the fall. The fact that she got another teaching job after being dismissed for a failed drug test was a miracle or a mistake in the paperwork. Either way, she needed to put her best foot forward and become a serious adult. She needed to go home, find a new apartment, and get all of her belongings out of her car. Instead, she pulled her mom onto her lap and let Hayden’s speech tingle her scalp and down her neck.
* * *
When Leigh woke, she inhaled a terrified breath and grabbed the dash, almost fumbling Agnes. Her sleep had been the obliterating kind, and it took long seconds to remember where she was and why she was holding the black box. The Mazda was parked in an unpaved pullout, facing a rolling prairie. She should be impressed by the landscape, but her eyes continued to seek the sky and the ever-changing cumulus clouds that danced on the horizon. Hayden hunched over a spotting scope by the river, red hair fanning around his strong jaw. Leigh exited the car, leaving Agnes on the hood.
“She lives!” Hayden said, standing straight and shouting to be heard over the river. “I mean you, not…” He motioned to the box on the hood, his face flushing.
“It’s okay,” Leigh said, waving away his faux pas. She was growing accustomed to the reactions death produced. People became uncomfortable. It manifested in odd behavior from too much physical contact to silence, running away with the remains, and skipping the funeral. “Never worry about offending me,” she added. “Where are we?”
“You conked out somewhere around Norris, so I turned us around and parked here at my namesake, Hayden Valley.” Hayden made a sweeping gesture with his arm as if proudly revealing something he’d created. “These subalpine meadows are home to the Yellowstone River and wildlife like bison, bear, and wolves. Let’s not skip the most interesting fact—I was conceived right here, by the river.”
“How do you know?” Leigh asked.
“My parents are park rangers. They tell the story in violent detail every October as a celebration of conception. Two minutes from seduction to orgasm,” Hayden said, holding up two fingers, “and my father seems pretty proud of that.”
Leigh laughed. Birds chirped, the breeze licked her neck, and she itched to remove her shirt, roll in the prairie grass and bathe in the slow-rolling river. However, Agnes threatened from the hood of the car, soaking up all the light around her with the black box.
“Agnes would’ve rather died than tell me about sex,” Leigh said.
Against her will, her mind flashed to her dad, tangled solidly in bed with her mom. Her dad had died when Leigh was five, so it wasn’t often she had to confront the unnatural phenomenon of Agnes having a sex life. It was easy to puzzle out why a young Agnes would have been attracted to Leigh’s Dad. Like all of the husbands belonging to the family tribe, he was picked by consensus of the aunts and grandmothers. They seemed to choose based on physical characteristics alone. The family ran deep with tall, dark, and handsome. What remained a mystery was why her father, an independent-minded bachelor, would succumb to such a prudish and nagging group of women. Agnes, even in her youth, was less breathtaking beauty than unremarkable, plain Jane.
“She’s like a buffalo,” Hayden said.
“Your mom, she’s the other type, only copulating in secret. Not like my parents. I see the male buffalo, ready for the rut, but I never catch a buffalo pair in the act. Not once in all of the years I’ve been in the park.”
“Actually—” Leigh started to contradict Hayden, to tell him that she noticed buffalo mating on her way into the park. However, her mind unwillingly flashed again to her dad tangled in the sheets with Agnes, and she lost her train of thought.
“They do it, though,” Hayden added. “Come spring, there will be a bunch of little orange babies running around out there.”
He applied lip balm, glossing his already red mouth. Stretching his arms wide, he showed off an impressive wingspan as he yawned his sharp jaw open. The height, the strong jaw, the ability to take up space—features Agnes and the family would categorically approve of in a male. Still, Leigh loved his red lips that tingled her spine each time he talked.
“Look, we’ve been parked for hours,” Hayden said, wading into the river to pick out empty potato chip bags. “Fucking rangers need to do their jobs,” he muttered, shoving the trash into his pocket. “I need to work on my speeches—bored you right to sleep,” he said, louder now. “It’s deep into the afternoon. Are you and Mom tired of the usual stuff?”
Leigh nodded, but Hayden hesitated as he looked at the black box on the hood. “Was it sudden?” He nodded to Agnes. “You don’t seem that sad, but what I have planned might be off-putting during bereavement.”
The question about illness and the word bereavement burned Leigh’s nostrils like hospital antiseptic. There’d been long weeks of waiting, matching her breath to Agnes’s ragged spasms as she drowned from the water collecting on her lungs. The aunts and cousins gathered, trimming Agnes’s nails, brushing her hair, and massaging her feet. Leigh, overrun with panic, had grown possessive. This was a long goodbye for the cousins and aunts, but it was the last chance at connection for Leigh. She fought her way to the side of the bed, grabbed the lotion, and pawed at Agnes’s hands. Agnes pulled back and used her the last of her watery breath to ask for her guidebook. It was as if a scab had been ripped off. For the rest of the afternoon, Leigh quit wondering what was wrong with Agnes but instead worried that something was broken and repulsive inside herself.
“She was sick for a long time,” Leigh said. “I’m the same level of sad that I’ve always been—Agnes was never mine to lose.” She grabbed the black box from the hood. “This is the most physical contact I’ve had with her my whole life.”
“I know where the rangers hide the carcass piles. Want to see?”
* * *
Back in the car, Hayden steered on the yellow center line as he looked into the sky for bald eagles to show Leigh. “Sorry about that,” he said, swerving back into his lane. “Are you married?” he asked, tapping the tattooed band on Leigh’s finger.
“Not anymore.” She studied the starburst of freckles around his eyes, and unable to curtail her impulse, touched the constellation. Hayden leaned solidly into her hand, and she thought of Rolo, her ex-wife, and the only real family she’d had besides Agnes.
Agnes had registered Leigh for taxonomy camp between her freshman and sophomore years of high school. Leigh had begrudgingly attended. She was sure the camp would be brimming with science nerds, but the promise of a summer away from her trilling packs of cousins was too much to resist. Leigh’s cabinmate, Brenda, was tolerable. The two classified animals by day and made sexual conquests of the boys in cabin B by night. It was casual fun for Leigh until she met the girl named after candy, Rolo, and fell into a deep infatuation that was more than love.
Rolo had tamed Leigh’s wild moods, elevating her into a constant state somewhere between happy and frazzled. Their first kiss was by the camp lake, and Rolo’s soft lips clarified Leigh’s ambiguous and drifting existence. This was what she was meant to be, in love, together with Rolo.
Three days into their love affair, Leigh had told Rolo all about Agnes—her distrust of ambiguity, her aversion to Leigh’s touch, her devotion to taxonomy over conversation and connection, even when it came to her only daughter.
“Even if she is not capable of hugging or whatever, it sounds like she loves you very much,” Rolo had said. “She’s trying to understand you better by classifying you.”
Leigh laughed, not sure why she’d expected more from a girl she met at taxonomy camp. She pressed her lips to Rolo’s, Agnes-related worries evaporating with the physical connection. Later, when they were caught in bed by a camp counselor, both girls were sent home.
Agnes was delighted by Leigh’s newfound lesbianism. She seemed to prefer innocent-looking Rolo to the middle-aged teachers and coaches that Leigh had seduced before camp, vile men who would never pass the family test. Agnes had asked once with her pencil poised, ready to scratch notes, if Leigh’s seduction of these much older men was a symptom of some trauma. Leigh had dumbly shaken her head, unable to express the complicated truth. Yes, she was putting herself in dangerous situations, but she liked the positive reactions to her body, and more importantly, she liked the heightened sensation of being on edge. It was fascinating to have people physically interact with her, even if it was inappropriately sexual. What Leigh couldn’t articulate as a teenager and what Agnes would never understand was that her trauma came from a cold and scientific mother. Leigh’s dad had died and left her with an observer in a lab coat instead of a caregiver.
Rolo represented something new for Leigh, something that garnered Agnes’s approval. She was dark and handsome in a masculine way, allowing Agnes and the cousins to overlook the tall requirement. Rolo had subdued Leigh into a categorically monogamous being, unable or unwilling to act on the sexual impulses that still fired through her brain. The pursed lines around Agnes’s mouth smoothed out that summer because she could finally classify her daughter solidly in the homosexual category.
When Brenda emailed Leigh, explaining that she was discovered in bed with a boy the same night Leigh and Rolo were caught, but that neither of them was sent home, darkness roiled across Leigh’s horizon. She left the house for a run but instead busted all of the windows in her mom’s car, the closest breakable item. Clammy tentacles of guilt spread in her chest even before the glass splintered and tinkled to the ground.
Agnes had eyed her from the driveway, calculating with a wry smile tugging her mouth, the new subcategory being angry lesbian. When Leigh laughed hysterically at the face Agnes made and broke into tears because she missed Rolo, Agnes arranged a battery of psychological evaluations. By the end of the summer, Agnes wore her wry smile again, Leigh’s categorization was completed. Leigh wasn’t diagnosable, just moody.
* * *
“I did a long-term relationship and then marriage, years on years, just to please Agnes,” Leigh rattled the box containing her mother’s ashes.
“Why’d you quit?”
“When you’re with the same woman since 9th grade, it feels like a marathon. Sure, it’s fun at first, but no one can run forever. I needed a break. Plus, Agnes is dead. I’m free to be…”
Leigh trailed off as she considered what this new freedom meant. She wasn’t categorizable, never had been, even to herself. Her moods, sexuality, and even her interests and tastes in music varied. Yet she kept it consistent for Agnes and eventually for Rolo, who had become a West Coast agent for Agnes.
“Free to be with men?” Hayden finished for her.
Leigh noted a tan line where a wedding ring must have sat on his left hand.
“Free to have explorative years,” Leigh said, feeling something verdant and wild unfurling within her. “My teens and twenties were taken by a wife and mother, adhering to what they needed me to be. They were zookeepers, and I was an animal they’d studied, classified, and tried to tame.”
“I hear you.” Hayden cleared his throat and straightened in his seat as if preparing for a long speech. “My parents are doing the same shit. They’re housing a pregnant girl, trying to make me marry her. Won’t even listen when I tell them it’s not my baby. They’re trying to make me work for their shady tourism company.”
“I thought you said they’re park rangers,” Leigh said.
“They are, but they’ve started this illegal side gig.” Hayden paused long enough for Leigh to imagine an elaborate marijuana grow operation. “They tour rich people around the backcountry while still collecting their ranger salary. We might run into them. The carcass pile is where they bait animals for their asshole tourists.”
Leigh considered pointing out that he was benefitting from the carcass pile too. She wondered if later Hayden would refer to her as an asshole tourist.
“It’s not my baby.” Hayden was on the verge of tears. “Shandra sleeps with everyone, but my parents don’t care. They act moral about marriage, but screwing the National Park Service out of money is no big deal. They’re honorable thieves.”
“They’re taking your freedom,” Leigh mumbled. “Putting you in a family with a husband and father title before you’re ready.”
“It’s why I left. Started my own company. Hang on to Mom,” Hayden said. He turned the car onto what looked like a dirt hiking trail. “This part gets bumpy in the Mazda.”
Agnes would have approved of Hayden’s tan forearm slung over the wheel and his superior sense of direction. Leigh appreciated different features—how his hipbones tore at his khaki pants like small animals trying to poke their way out, how his canine teeth looked sharp enough to draw blood.
Blood. Like the blood that had coursed from Leigh’s inner thigh where the hairy wrestling coach bit and sucked. Leigh had yelped, stifling a scream, and the man emerged from between her legs grinning, yellow teeth gone crimson.
Leigh took three deep breaths. She was irrational. Hadn’t she been comfortable with Hayden a moment before? Now she couldn’t control her spiraling associations of Hayden with abusers.
“See that clearing up ahead?” Hayden whispered, shifting the car into park.
Adrenaline surged through Leigh. “What’s a carcass pile?” she shouted into the dense silence. She clutched Agnes to her chest with one hand and put the other on the door handle, trying to steady her breathing. It only now occurred to her that going deep into the wilderness with a stranger might not be safe. She felt foolish at the panicked tone of her voice. Her instincts up until this point categorized Hayden as harmless as a stuffed animal. Agnes would’ve been proud that she finally came to her senses, even if it was a little too late.
“When bison die near the busy roads, rangers relocate the carcass to a remote area. The big predators feast on these dead bison—bears, wolves, coyotes, birds. Imagine the traffic issues such a spectacle could cause. That’s what the rangers say, anyway,” Hayden whispered.
“Why are you whispering?” Leigh asked, loosening her grip on Agnes. “You sound like a serial killer, right before he…you know.”
Hayden smiled, a beam of sunlight making his skin translucent. “You need to lower your volume, too,” he said. “The pile’s up ahead, and even the slightest noise can spook the animals. Also, we aren’t technically supposed to be here. We’ll hike in the rest of the way. Keep an eye out for rangers.”
He rolled his eyes as he said the word rangers, and Leigh understood he was referring to his parents. His long “s” sounds were stronger when he whispered. Leigh relaxed into the noise. She cursed sleep deprivation for clouding her judgment. Of course, she was safe with Hayden. He amounted to little more than a horny teenager, and she had plenty of experience thwarting unwanted sexual advances. It was the mind-control from women like Agnes and Rolo that she should be worried about.
Leigh grabbed Agnes and the guidebook and followed Hayden. On the short hike in, she was electric and alive, horrified, and exhilarated at the idea of seeing so many wild animals in the same place. The damp scent of evening dew amped her nerves. How many hours until sunset? Hayden looked like a ranger, but did he really have everything they’d need if they got caught in the dark?
Leigh’s phone trilled in the quiet. She dropped the guidebook and fumbled Agnes, the lid coming open and spilling a bit of grey ash onto the trail. ROLO flash across the screen, and Leigh accepted the call, mouthing “sorry” to Hayden.
“Hello? Leigh?” Rolo’s voice, deep and rich, almost sounded like she was in the forest. “Where are you? Whatever this is, I need you to think of your mom, of your family. Come back. I’ve talked to Reverend Thomas, and we can….”
Leigh zoned out, letting the sound of Rolo’s plans float on the breeze. She unfocused her eyes until the pines surrounding her formed a velvety green curtain. She imagined Rolo’s weak chin wobbling with concern and compared it to her aunts’ and cousins’ features, putty-like, rounded, not fully formed. Suddenly frantic, Leigh mentally listed the physical similarities between Rolo and her female family, from the coffee-stained teeth with encroaching gums down to the short torso and long legs. Bile rushed up her throat and Leigh swallowed it back down, holding the repulsive revelation in her acidy gut. Rolo resembled her aunts, her cousins, and Agnes. Leigh was grimy from swimming laps in the family gene pool.
Rolo’s demands grew in volume, and Leigh half-listened. There was something about wrinkled shirts; Rolo had been dressing Leigh for years. Leigh was relieved at the realization that she could wear what she wanted now. She tried to imagine sex with Rolo, but could only recall the way Rolo had patted her shoulder like Agnes did, the most intimate touch they’d had in years.
Leigh studied the spilled ashes. Even though it was an accident, and Agnes didn’t want to be spread, it felt like a sound decision, a decision Leigh could make, and Agnes, Rolo, the aunts, and the cousins would be powerless to refuse. Leigh hung up, stuck her shoe into the grit of the ashes, and spread them around her, feeling light with possibility.
“Do you need help?” Hayden asked. “There’ll be dirt mixed in, but we can get most of that back in the box.”
“No. I’m leaving it.” Leigh sounded more petulant than she intended, but she expected Hayden to argue and cite rules about dumping ashes.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” he said.
* * *
At the small clearing, a scattering of iridescent puddles steamed rotten egg stench into the air. Hayden sat cross-legged by a tree and drank from his water bottle, his swallows impossibly loud. Leigh stepped behind a skinny trunk and peered around.
“Don’t step too close to those pools,” Hayden said. “They’re close to two-hundred degrees when they shine like that. Idiot rangers pick a hot spot for carcass dumping. An animal could get hurt.” He licked his hand and held it in the air. “Wind’s perfect. We don’t have to deal with the smell,” he said, tapping the ground beside him as an invitation for Leigh to sit down.
“You’re too comfortable,” she said. “How can you run away if a bear comes?”
Hayden shrugged and pointed to the clearing. Leigh focused her eyes on the area in front of them, looking through the black swarms of flies. Three buffalo carcasses lay, lumpy brown islands in the yellow-green grass. A grizzly bear, Leigh knew by the identifying hump on his back, tore into one of the bison. He looked groomed and shining, too healthy to be wild. To ward off the sense of panic at being so close to a bear, she removed the rubber band and thumbed to the grizzly section of Agnes’s guidebook.
Species: U. arctos ssp.
“The bear must’ve eaten a lot,” Hayden whispered. “Wolves are edging in on that second carcass. They usually don’t tolerate each other like this, but it’s a buffet, they have no choice.”
“You have no choice,” Agnes had said, removing pumpkin bread from the oven. Leigh was sapped of the newfound sense of freedom charging through her. “No choice! You’ve invited her out here for Thanksgiving, and you are going to do right by this young lady.”
Leigh had sagged against the kitchen counter, stunned that ending a relationship with Rolo wasn’t just between her and Rolo. “Agnes,” she’d said, “I know you aren’t privy to how sex works between women, but I didn’t knock Rolo up if that’s what you’re worried about. Even if I did, this isn’t 1950. I’m not bound by some blood oath to my high school crush.”
“Isn’t that a bit immature, calling Rolo a crush? I happen to know you’ve committed acts with her that are sacred. It’s as if you’re already bound by matrimony. She’s family,” Agnes said, her lip trembling in a way that infuriated Leigh.
Agnes had just pronounced Leigh and her ex married from the comfort of her kitchen with only one bride in attendance. It was so ridiculous that Leigh giggled and then fell into a fit of wheezing laughter. Agnes cleaned flour from the counter, upper arms flapping from the effort, and her unformed mouth growing smaller and smaller in her doughy face.
“See how funny this is,” she said, hanging the towel. “You make up with Rolo, or I’m not paying for college. And I’ll know if you ever try this again. Rolo and I are very close. I can’t wait to hug that poor, sweet girl.”
Rolo had received Agnes’s affection, something Leigh had worked all of her life to earn, and that hurt more than the threat of withholding college. That was the only time Leigh had tried to end the relationship. It pained Leigh to examine her subservience because she was like the cousins she detested, seeking Agnes’s approval, and worse, her financial support. She was an echo of her father, an independent-minded bachelorette succumbing to a prudish and nagging woman. Leigh slid into a passive role, allowing Rolo and Agnes to navigate her life on a steady course that Leigh could have never managed.
Leigh crouched behind the tree and squealed as the roar of ATVs brought her back to the present. She peeked around the trunk at people across the clearing. The animals acted oddly, looking up but not dispersing. It was as if they were used to the noise, used to human activity. The breeze shifted, and Leigh swallowed the thick stench of rotting meat. She gagged. Hayden remained frozen, his face waxy and unwell.
Two park rangers dismounted from their ATVs, helping their riders off the machines. One of the riders, a woman dressed in a latex tube-top and stiletto boots, jangled from the gold bracelets stacked up her arm. The other, a muscle-bound action star that Leigh couldn’t quite place, wore spangled jeans that were so tight they impeded his mobility.
“Hayden?” the woman ranger said, crossing the clearing, walking uncomfortably close to the bear. “Baby, what are you doing here?”
Hayden scrambled to stand, speaking through a clenched jaw. “I could ask you the same thing, Mom. Why are my parents carting Hollywood assholes to the carcass pile?”
“Honey, let’s not argue in circles whenever we see you. Me and your dad need the income.” She gestured to the other ranger who was busy corralling the Hollywood tourists.
“Oh, my Gawd! He’s so fuzzy!” Tube Top shouted, her heels sinking into the ground with each wobbly step toward the bear.
“More to the right,” Tight Jeans said. “I’ll get the bears and the wolves in the picture. Now lift your arm—this is going to look like you are touching him! Get closer to that bubbling pool. Can you stick your heel in it?”
Hayden’s dad quickly waved, and Leigh noticed he shared the same pigeon-toed gait that gave Hayden his slightly feminine stride. “Don’t get near those hot springs!” he shouted at the wayward tourists.
“You know we’re saving to start our own tour company,” Hayden’s mom said, brushing pine needles off his shirt. “We’re starting a legacy, for you, for the grandbaby.”
Hayden’s face twisted into a mean smile. “That’s bullshit. You’re breaking the rules and taking money because you’re greedy. My company has zero start-up costs. Leigh’s my first client.”
Feeling like she was called upon by the teacher, Leigh stepped from behind her tree, keeping one eye on the bear. She nervously toyed with the rubber band around Agnes’s book until it snapped. The grizzly grunted and made a quick movement toward a different carcass, and Leigh startled, dropping the guidebook spine down. The pages ruffled open, looking like a fractured bird, and settled to the middle. LEIGH was penned in Agnes’s shaking writing at the top of the page. She bent down to pick up the book.
“What’s that?” Hayden’s mom asked.
“Nothing,” Hayden inserted. “This is getting worse—this conditioning of wildlife. I can hear more wolves back there. There are turkey vultures circling—you know how uncommon those birds are to this park. These animals are used to you, used to your goddamned motorized vehicles, and worse, they see you as a food source. I shouldn’t have to lecture a park ranger on the rules you are breaking.”
“Honey, Shandra’s been worried. Where are you staying?” Hayden’s mom asked.
Leigh ran her fingers over Agnes’s writing, her ears swooshing as if she were in a wind tunnel. She sank to the forest floor, forgetting about the ravenous carnivores and focusing on Agnes’s classification. “Straight,” “bi-sexual,” and “asexual,” were crossed out, and Agnes had firmly circled “homosexual,” but inserted a question mark next to the classification. Agnes had penned in various mood disorders, including “depression” and “bipolar,” which she lightly struck through. “Severe PMS,” “gluten intolerance,” “sleep disorder,” “substance-induced,” and others remained on the list. In the top right-hand corner, Agnes had recorded Leigh’s weight and height from birth until now, likely guessing at the adult numbers. She’d changed the black ink to red when Leigh dipped below 100 lbs.
Leigh pictured Agnes’s lined and jowly face, imprudently steering her daughter toward specific categories, categories itching to be circled in a fucking guidebook. She tore her page out, crumpling it in her fist, and did the same for the other wild things. Bison, brown bear, black bear, elk, mule deer—she liberated them all from Agnes’s classification. A sudden tide of relief washed over Leigh, happy to be free to embrace ambiguity. Leigh stood and began chucking the crumpled papers into a bubbling hot spring. It was undoubtedly the act of a teenager throwing a fit, but Leigh knew she had years to recreate the way she wanted.
“Young lady, please don’t litter,” Hayden’s mom said. “As park rangers, we spend the majority of our days—”
“Don’t!” Hayden shouted at his mom. “I’ve been picking up garbage for months now because you aren’t doing your job. Rangers are supposed to be good guys. You’ve sold out.”
Hayden’s mom twirled nervously at a shiny watch on her wrist, and Hayden joined in, picking up papers from Agnes’s guidebook and throwing them in the spring. He grabbed Leigh’s hand. She appreciated the firmness of the gesture, not the light shoulder touch she’d have received from Rolo or Agnes. “All okay?” he whispered.
Leigh looked at the unnaturally paunchy grizzly and the rotund wolves, props for the Hollywood assholes’ photos. She mourned their domestication and hoped they found their wildness again. “I’m okay. You?” she asked.
“Completely yes, but also no. I’m not okay at all,” Hayden said with a sad look that made Leigh wonder about his parents’ other misdeeds.
“Same,” Leigh said. As she threw the pages, the resentment toward her cousins, aunts, Agnes, and Rolo receded, and a new worry bloomed in her chest. She’d been using Agnes and Rolo as roadblocks, excuses for why her life wasn’t working. Now she was on her own with no one else to blame.
Hayden’s mom, still twirling the watch on her wrist, looked full to bursting. She probably wanted to parent from the sidelines, shout rules and regulations that she stopped following long ago.
“Lady Ranger?” Tube Top shouted. “I’m bored.”
Hayden’s mom turned and walked back to Tube Top as she spoke, and Leigh was thankful not to see her face. The deep sadness in her voice was almost too much. “Come home tonight, honey. We’ll sort this out.”
When Hayden didn’t answer, Leigh cleared her throat and squeezed his hand. “Help me scatter Agnes in this pool.”
Hayden looked at the steaming water, then the carcass pile, and back at the pool. He slowly grabbed the black box, and Leigh removed the lid. Together they sifted Agnes into the bubbling water. When Agnes was emptied, so was Leigh. New and raw, she threw the box into the spring and turned away from the carcass pile and Hayden’s family, brimming with possibility.
Melody Sinclair graduated from the MFA program in Creative Writing at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She’s been published at Heavy Feather Review, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Avalon Literary Review, KAIROS Literary Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, and more. She’s won the Denver Women’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest and was a two-time finalist in the Adelaide Literary Award contest. She’s on the Fiction Reading Committee for Carve Magazine. Melody lives in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, with her husband, dog and two kids. www.melodysinclair.com