The smell hits me when we’re in her yard—the yard that used to be mine, too—and I get that familiar, doomed feeling in my stomach, and it’s everything I can do not to run for my life.

    “You okay, Dad?” Kyle asks me, and I nod and grab his hand. He’s eight, the same age I was when everything happened. He doesn’t know about all that. He knows I don’t talk about my childhood, and that I haven’t seen my sister in seven years. He knows I can’t bear the smell of fresh-baked cookies and cakes.

    Lisa knows it too, which is why I’m frankly surprised that she chose to make gingerbread on the one day we agreed to be civil to each other, for Kyle’s sake, and at least try to act like a family.

    I’m sweating by the time we get to the door, which Lisa pulls open before I can knock. She looks slim and beautiful; she’s wearing a red velvet dress that grazes her knees. She takes the bowl of hummus Kyle is carrying and sniffs it skeptically.

    “I helped Dad make it,” Kyle tells her, and she gives me a dark look. I’m holding a tray of raw vegetables—squash, cucumber, carrots, radishes—and she ignores me and marches toward the kitchen, Kyle trailing behind her.

    Her boyfriend Gary is sitting on the sofa in the living room, wearing that ridiculous crown because God forbid anyone should forget he’s a prince. He raises his eyebrows at me and presses his lips together. This, I suppose, is his way of saying hello. His ermine cape is draped over the back of the couch.

    “I thought this was supposed to be family,” I say to him. “Screwing my ex-wife does not make you family.”

    “Lisa wanted me here,” he tells me, and fiddles with his crown. He should feel self-conscious, the little prick.  I feel certain that she met him before we were divorced. She must have found him down at the pond behind the Elementary School; I can imagine her, scooping up frogs frantically, putting her lips to them, wishing for someone—anyone—to take her away from the life we’d made together. 

    Or maybe he was somebody’s cast off—conjured into existence by a high school girl desperate for a prom date. And once the prom was over, she left him for someone age-appropriate, someone with a cool car who likes hip hop.

    In the kitchen I say, “I can’t believe you invited him!” I feel woozy from the cookie fumes. “And baking that stuff. My God, Lisa, you know what that does to me.” My eyes are stinging.

    “Oh, lay off,” she says. “It’s Christmas. We can’t eat raw carrots for Christmas.”

    “I brought more than raw carrots. I brought squash, too. And radishes.”

    “Kyle honey,” she says, “go take the ginger snaps out to the living room while I talk with your father.”

    Kyle casts me an anxious look. “It’s okay, kiddo,” I tell him.

    When he’s disappeared through the swinging kitchen door, I say, “What are you trying to do to me?”

    “Nothing,” she says. “This is what normal families do.”

    I think of reminding her that all she knows about families is what she’s seen on television; that if she came from a normal family of her own she wouldn’t have ended up stashed in the basement of the university’s history department for a century. I think of telling her that if she’s going to bring up my past, I can bring up hers.

    But I don’t, because I love our son and I don’t want him to hear us arguing. He’s heard enough of that in his life.

    The kitchen is a mess of mixing bowls and batter; there are raisins and chocolate chips strewn across the counter.  When we were married, when we loved each other, she wouldn’t even watch cooking shows on tv; we ordered Chinese take-out and made vegetarian lasagna together—I have no problems with lasagna—and spaghetti without meatballs.

    Once, when we were first dating, she ordered a steak at Bennigans and when she saw me go pale she asked what the matter was. I just shook my head. Still, she changed her order to a veggie quesadilla. It wasn’t until the night before our wedding that I could bring myself to tell her what had happened, how the smell of burnt flesh had followed me and my sister for miles through the forest.

    “At least you have the decency not to cook meat,” is what I say to her now. It’s meant to be a peace offering, a kind of thank you, but I know that’s not how it comes out. She pulls the oven open and the smell of gingerbread fills the kitchen.

     “Goddamn you,” I say, under my breath.  I  head down the hall to the bathroom and hold myself up against the counter until I can stop shaking.

“Your past,” she said to me once, “is what made you the man I fell in love with.”

    But she had been sleeping for a hundred years when I met her; all she could remember were her dreams. She had been watching soap operas to catch up on modern society.

    A graduate student had found her in the basement of the history department; she was spread out across a row of dusty file boxes. At first, he thought she was a grad assistant taking a nap, but then he got closer and saw the dust on her, and the damask gown, and the tendrils of hair coiling down to the hard floor. He kissed her—he was gay, but he hated to see somebody so pretty covered in dust—and for a while they were roommates until she got a job as a receptionist at National Semiconductor Corporation.

    That’s where she met me. We ate lunch together in the conference room—she thought it was funny that I brought peanut butter and jelly—and told each other about our lives, a little at a time, presenting ourselves in our best light, careful not to scare the other one off.

    I didn’t care that she couldn’t remember her childhood, and she didn’t care that I remembered mine too well.

    It all happened much too fast, the way these things sometimes do. 

    A few months after we were married, she started saying things like, “I wish Brent had never woken me up,” and once she moved out to stay on his sofa for a few days. She was tired of my vegan diet; she was tired of my sister calling at all hours. She was tired of waking up in the middle of the night to find me standing in the yard in my pajamas. Once, I made it halfway down the street.

    In the soap operas she taped on the VCR, the men ate steak and rescued women from atop windy cliffs and killed bad guys with their bare hands. Sometimes they came back from the dead. They never cried in their sleep.

    Sometimes I pretended to sleepwalk when I was really awake.

    And then she got pregnant with Kyle. She turned off the soap operas and instead read books about what to expect when you’re expecting. 

    When Kyle was born, we held our breath, waiting for an old woman with a curse, or an old man with a spindle, a queen with a grudge. But no one came.

When I go back out to the living room, Kyle is sitting on the floor, eating cookies, and Gary is pretending to be interested in the train cartoon playing on the VCR.

    “Did you tell Gary about the fort?” I ask Kyle, and ease down next to him on the floor.

    “You built a fort?” Gary asks politely, and un-crosses, then re-crosses his chubby legs in their purple velvet pants.

    Kyle nods happily. “We just started. We went to Home Depot, didn’t we Dad?”

    “You bet we did.”

    I’d like to see Gary try to build a fort. He’d probably get his cape stuck on a nail. The fort was Kyle’s birthday present last week; I wanted to give him something we could do together, something he could be proud of. Something he’d always remember.

    “Little snowy for fort-building, isn’t it?” Gary asks.

    “We probably won’t get much done until spring,” I tell him, annoyed. “But we bought a tarp. We’ll work on it when it’s not too cold outside. Then Kyle’ll have all the neighborhood kids over to play.”

    Kyle doesn’t say anything to this. He doesn’t have many friends; actually, I’m not sure he has any. He’s a quiet kid, like I was. I’m hoping when we get this thing built, he’ll be more popular.

    Lisa swings into the living room, her skirt swishing, her face flushed from the heat of the kitchen. She sinks onto the sofa next to Gary, gives him a kiss on the cheek.

    “If you kiss him on the mouth,” I say, “will he turn back into a toad?”

    She ignores this. Instead she announces, as if she’s just remembered it, “We got a card from your sister. Isn’t that nice?”

    “Where’s the card?” I want to know, and Lisa shrugs.

    Of course she’s lying. But why?

    My sister is a professor of clinical psychology in Toronto. She has met Kyle exactly once, when he was one, at our father’s funeral. Our father had been living with my sister—she took him in when he got ill—and she never forgave me for not helping out more. 

    “I have a family,” I told her. “I can’t.”

    “Don’t forget who saved you,” she said to me then. “Don’t forget who set you free.”

    She blames me for the bread crumbs. For not being smart enough to figure out what would happen. She hasn’t come out and said this, but it’s the truth, and it’s right there in her eyes, which is why I can’t see her again.

    “This is nice,” I say now. “Are we just going to hang out and watch cartoons? I’m fine with that.” I’m aware that my voice is too loud. I grab a carrot. “You should have told me Gary was going to be here; I’d’ve invited my girlfriend.”

    Lisa raises her eyebrows at me, and Kyle turns around and says, “Melinda?” and smiles. He loves Melinda. She’s technically his babysitter, but we’ve been sort of seeing each other. She’s twenty, and she thinks it’s cool that I only eat raw vegetables. She’s really into acupuncture, which isn’t my thing, but she’s sweet and she doesn’t ask me too many questions.

    “Melinda?” says Lisa. She remembers Melinda from when she first started babysitting, when she was about thirteen. “You’ve got to be kidding me. But fine. Call her up. The more the merrier.”

Before Melinda, I’d been seeing a woman from work for a few weeks, an engineer named Evelyn who was sexy as hell and didn’t seem to know it. She knew all about what had happened with Lisa—Lisa, thank God, was no longer working there—and she was the one who asked me out for drinks one night. We went out a couple of times, and she told me about her divorce and I told her very little about mine.

    The first time I introduced her to Kyle, something flashed across her face, a coldness I’d never seen in her before. Later, when I accused her of this, she cried and said she loved children, that I was imagining things. And maybe I was.

    But what if I wasn’t?

    I know what can happen to a good man when he falls in love with the wrong woman. I tell myself that I’m nothing like my father, that I would never let a woman turn me against my own child.  Things were different for me and my sister: our father was a poor woodcutter, not an electrical engineer. There was a famine. He married Ilsa after he’d been a widower for seven years. She pretended to like us at first.

    My sister thinks that anyone can be pushed to make the wrong decisions, under certain social structures and circumstances. She proves this over and over in her lab experiments. Mild-mannered college students will give each other painful electrical shocks; blue-eyed students will bully brown-eyed students; when given the chance, the brown-eyed students will bully the blue-eyeds. And so on.

    Melinda is happy to hear from me. “I’m just sitting here watching television,” she says. “I’d love to come over. Are you sure it’s okay with Lisa?”

    “Of course it is,” I tell her. “Lisa’s boyfriend is here. We’re all one big happy family.”

    “Really?” She sounds doubtful.

    I’m in the dining room, talking on my cell phone. In the other room, Lisa and Gary are laughing up a storm, and I suddenly understand what Lisa’s up to, with the baking, and mentioning my sister, and having Gary here. She hopes I’ll lose it—start crying, perhaps, or throw a vase across the room, or put my fist through the wall, the way I did on our last anniversary when she told me she was leaving. She wants a witness, someone to stand up in court and say I’m an unfit father. She wants full custody. And that’s not going to happen.

    When I go back to the living room, both Lisa and Gary are looking at me strangely. Kyle is gone. Lisa stands up, as if to make some kind of announcement, but she just stares at me.

    “What?” I say. “What’s going on? Where’s Kyle?”

    “I sent him into the kitchen to ice the cupcakes,” she says. And then: “Gary says you and Kyle are building a fort.”

    “Yeah, we are.”

     “Out of wood? With nails? Tell me about this fort. Tell me what it looks like.” She puts her hands on her hips. “Tell me.”

    You think that if you get away from the worst thing you can imagine, that once you fight for your life and win, you deserve to be happy. And maybe you do, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

    While Lisa stares at me, her face pale, I tell her about the carefully spaced wooden slats, and about the dirt floor. I tell her about the four foot high roof.

    “And the door?” she says. “The door that locks.”

    I nod. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder why a little boy would need padlock on his fort, or why the slats had to be just big enough for a child to poke his finger through. 

I slam out the back door and don’t stop running until I’m in the foggy woods behind the house. The air is thick and heavy and cold in my chest. The tire swing—which I made for Kyle two years ago—is covered in a layer of ice; the yellow rope is frayed and I remind myself to replace it so it won’t break off when Kyle is in mid-flight.

    When I showed Kyle the plans I’d drawn up for the fort, the intricate connection of slats and beams, he had grinned at me with such utter joy that I wanted to get started immediately, weather be damned. “By the spring,” I told him, “it’ll be done. All the other kids’ll want to come over and play with you.”

    Yesterday, when I was looking for Christmas presents in Wal-Mart, I ended up in the hardware section. I bought a padlock and a chain. I didn’t wonder why I needed them.

    There’s the foggy yellow glow and muted hush of a car moving slowly up the road; after a moment, I recognize Melinda’s Camaro. I jog further into the trees, running until I begin to sweat and the new snow falling from the sky burns against my face. When I stop, I can barely see the glow of the house through the trees.

    Somewhere, snow thuds from a branch and the frozen earth shudders. But this is no ancient forest; in a hundred yards I’ll be in the parking lot of a Rite Aid.  I can’t vanish into the wilderness this time. Even if I stand here for an hour, even if I watch the snow fill up my footprints until there’s no sign of them at all, there is no way for me to be more lost than I already am.

Becky Hagenston's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Mid-American Review, and many other journals. Her collection of stories, A Gram of Mars, won the Mary McCarthy Prize in 1997. She is an Associate Professor of English at Mississippi State University.

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Becky Hagenston