They meet on Anne’s third day at the Fallon Naval Air Station, a pancake of corrugated metal buildings and asphalt airstrips sizzling in the Nevada desert an hour north of Reno. Anne first sees the woman outside the base’s health clinic, standing alone and abrupt like a juniper in scrubland, slender and tanned, a menthol cigarette tipping between two fingers like a stage prop. Smoke winds above her in the afternoon heat, her only motion the languid wiping of a palm over shorts cut off an inch higher than they should be.
Anne can’t help but stare as she approaches the clinic; the woman seems to operate in slow motion, an eddy in the stream of hurried soldiers, military doctors, and private contractors with security badges dangling from lanyards. The woman appears oblivious to the movement around her, including Anne as she enters the double doors close enough to breathe in the sagey scent of the cigarette. When Anne leaves the clinic nearly an hour later she is surprised to find the woman still lingering near the doorway, still exhaling smoke—as if she has merely been dragging on the same cigarette the entire time.
“Everything OK in there?” the woman says abruptly as Anne passes. “At least tell me the doctor had warm hands.”
Anne stops, the vulgarity of the comment just starting to register. The woman’s dry lips thin around her cigarette into an ambiguous smile.
Anne shields her eyes with a handful of pamphlets the Navy doctor had given her on the way out of the examination room. This is the only other civilian to speak to Anne since she’d moved into the married housing barracks with Eddie on Tuesday evening. The only person who isn’t wearing a shirt with their last name emblazoned across their left breast, who hasn’t ended a sentence with the word “ma’am.” She’s taken off guard by the woman’s informality, by the inappropriate intimacy of the question.
“New, yeah?” the woman says. Anne nods, and the woman lets out a guffaw, scratching the ass of her shorts before slapping Anne on the shoulder. She drops the last of the menthol onto the blacktop, snubbing it out with a battered athletic shoe. “Let’s go, girl. Unauthorized tour.”
Her name is Cassie, Anne learns as she follows the woman through a labyrinth of aluminum hangars and chain-link fencing. Her father had a passing interest in astronomy, the woman explains—or perhaps Greek mythology—and so they’d named her “Cassiopeia.”
“It’s a constellation,” the woman says, pointing up into the midday sun. “But nobody calls me that. Not anymore, anyway.”
They climb a three-story watch tower next to an empty field, look out over a grid of buildings. Overhead, slate-colored Harrier jets scrape against the desert sky, dipping low to strafe target ranges built out over the dried beds of Lake Lahontan, the great inland sea of North America that vanished at the end of the Pleistocene.
“See that town out there?” Cassie says, pointing out across the playa to a stand of dark buildings. “It’s a fake.”
“I went out once, on a date. It’s just empty buildings, supposed to look like some place in the Middle East. Just walls. Nothing inside.”
She grew up as a Navy brat herself, Cassie tells her. Had sworn off military men until she’d been knocked up by a Petty Officer Third Class during her senior year of high school.
When Cassie tells her this, the two women are standing at a chain-link fence at the border of the base, looking out west at the brown hills backlit by the late-afternoon sun,. She’s lit another cigarette—her third since they’d begun their tour—and she taps the plastic lighter against a metal post.
“You have a baby?” Anne asks. She’s surprised; Cassie has a girlish lankiness, and it’s the first time she’s mentioned a child since they’d met an hour earlier.
Cassie lets out a braying laugh, an unrepressed ugliness to it that Anne admires, then holds her hands up to her eyes as if they are a pair of binoculars. The tip of the cigarette, still pinched between Cassie’s fingertips, bobs dangerously close to her forehead, the ember curling the fine, sun-bleached hairs at her temple.
“Yeah, I got one,” she says, peering through her fists. “But not that one.”
Anne feels herself step away from the fence, a breeze passing over her in the desert heat. Cassie turns to face her, still looking out from the small aperture of her fists. At the end of the dark corridors formed by her hands, Anne sees the turquoise glint of Cassie’s eyes, and then notices Cassie’s sly smile below her fists.
“I’m sorry—” Anne begins to say.
“So what’s your old man do, anyway?” Cassie interrupts.
“We’re not married,” Anne says.
Cassie raises an eyebrow; it’s the first time that afternoon that Anne seems to catch her off guard, and Anne revels in this bit of information, in the idea that she might hold mystery as well.
“What?” Anne says. “You think I’m just another tag-along Navy wife, right? Trailing spouses, isn’t that what we’re called?”
“Nah,” Cassie says. “You just seem—I don’t know, girl. A little proper, I guess. Besides, you got one coming, right?”
The question arrives like a jolt. Overhead, a miniscule fighter jet shrieks and banks; Anne remembers the hollow whumping of the baby’s heartbeat echoing out of the sonogram earlier that afternoon, the sudden proof of life transmitted through this disembodied voice.
“You’re, what?” Cassie continues. “Maybe two months?”
Anne begins to say no, but stops herself. It’s information that she hasn’t been able to fully grasp herself, that she hasn’t even told Eddie about yet. He’ll be delighted, she knows. The sequence of events that would begin that evening, when he’d returned, feels at once enormous and mundane: he’ll ask her to get married, she has no doubt. He’ll insist. She imagines the call on speaker phone to his mother, the packages of box store maternity clothes that would soon arrive from his sister in Washington.
“Don’t bullshit me, girl,” Cassie says, before Anne can fully get her denial out. Anne feels herself smile, caught in the lie, and before she knows it she is laughing with the weightlessness that comes with the unburdening of the deepest secrets.
“Anyway,” Anne says. “Eddie’s a pilot.”
Anne feels a strange sense of pride as she says this, though it’s not exactly accurate. It’s close enough to the truth—Eddie had been a computer engineer before being promoted to the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program in San Diego eight months earlier. Though he is prohibited from speaking about his specific duties, she’s learned in the last year that the drones launch from shadowy bases in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. They fly intelligence missions in the mountains of Pakistan and drop Griffin and Hellfire missiles on militants in Afghanistan and Iraq, desert landscapes much like the playas and alluvial fans of the bombing range she now lives next to.
She thinks of the artificial city she’d seen earlier, wavering in the afternoon heat. The two women lean back against the fence, the galvanized metal cool against their palms, Anne’s shoulder just barely touching Cassie’s bare arm.
“Alright, then,” Cassie says as they stare out into the endless expanse of bitterbrush and greasewood.
They begin to meet every few days, and then every morning, Anne stopping in at Cassie’s apartment just a short walk away, the door already open. Anne had expected the apartment to reflect Cassie’s impulsiveness, but was surprised to find the apartment always tidy, uncluttered to the point of emptiness. The only exception to this spareness, Anne notices, is the collection of rocks and minerals that line each windowsill: pale, fist-sized chunks of basalt streaked through with iron veins, pink quartz crystals clustered together like spears of asparagus, pieces of cracked amber the size of gamblers’ dice.
The child is nearly three years old, a squat, chalk-complected boy with white hair, incongruous with Cassie’s tanned lankiness except for the deep topaz of their eyes. He is most often quiet, almost somber—playing austerely with one of the few plastic toys that Cassie keeps in the house. The two women deal endless games of gin rummy with a deck of cards that Cassie is especially proud of, the face of each card a gallery of men in various states of undress, cowboy hats tilted back over tanned and toned stomachs, girthy cocks hanging lewdly among backdrops of fire hoses and sweating iron anvils. They spend entire afternoons at a foldout table next to the open front window, during the boy’s afternoon naps and even through the boy’s crying, Cassie flipping her hand dismissively in the direction of the cries.
In the mornings after Eddie leaves the apartment, Anne waits impatiently until ten, the earliest that Cassie’s door will open. In these hours alone she wanders aimlessly through the Internet, reading news or checking email. She searches for articles on the wars being played out in deserts thousands of miles away, the occasional mention of US casualties suffered by IED explosions or enemy fire, but most often by accident: a malfunctioning helicopter rotor, a friendly unit mistaken for one adversary or another. There is a neverending list of towns that fall or are regained, a give-and-take that has achieved a predicable rhythm.
To kill time, Anne often wanders the bends and jags in military buildings until she arrives at the chain-link fence that Cassie had first brought her to, along one of the base’s four tarmacs. It’s been a month now, and the two women have explored nearly the entire base; she knows it better than the backroads of the Southern California subdivision she grew up in, she realizes one day. In the early morning sky, she watches Navy jets jousting in simulated dogfights or slow, heavy supply tankers list left and right before finally touching down. She hears the high-pitched hums of faceless MQ-4C Triton and GA Avenger drones returning from the practice range having dispelled their payloads, naked and awkward now, outside their natural, lethal states.
She wonders if these are the same drones—UAV’s, he would have corrected her—that Eddie has been stationed at the base to operate for the next eight months. Can he see her down there leaning against the fence, she wonders. It is the one secret that Eddie seems to still withhold from her, and the only one that she cares about. Does he spend his day flying training runs in the middle of the Nevada desert, bombing imaginary towns and enemies? Or is he flying surveillance missions high over faraway warzones, or delivering medicine to remote outposts in the mountains of Afghanistan? Or is he doing something entirely different—do the same fingers that skim her neck in bed when he returns in the early hours of the morning also press buttons that discharge AGM-114 Hellfire missiles that destroy enemy safe houses in the faceless desert towns Anne reads about on the news sites? Has he killed men, or worse?
These are the questions that she longs for answers to, that she scours his notepads and drawers and search histories for, though she doesn’t know what answers she is hoping for. Almost in retaliation, she finds herself withholding information of her own; it has been four weeks since she learned of the pregnancy, of the thing living in the world of her womb that is exactly half-comprised by Eddie, by this person who has or has not destroyed life. It’s a secret that only she and Cassie share.
“You tell him yet?” Cassie says, one morning in late August. Cassie has left the boy with another Navy wife, a Hispanic woman from New Mexico who occasionally babysits. As they’ve done a few times, Anne is driving Eddie’s Honda sedan off-base, into the nearby town of Fallon, where personnel from the Naval Air Station do their grocery shopping at Raley’s, their drinking at Boomers, and play their quarter slots at the Fallon Nugget.
Anne shakes her head, her hand resting lazily at the top of the wheel. It feels like a spring afternoon in high school, when she’d ditch classes for the beach in Carlsbad. Outside, they pass dusty trailer parks and signs advertising farming equipment, skeletons of ironwood trees and tufts of wild rye, the occasional dark-green pasture of alfalfa. Cassie doesn’t seem surprised; she drops her seat back and puts a bare foot up on the dash, her big toe leaving an opaque smudge on the windshield.
“You still thinking about it, then?” Cassie asks.
“Thinking about what?”
In the corner of her eye, Anne sees Cassie lip the cigarette in her mouth, the unlit tip bouncing happily to the jostles of the road.
“If you’re going to keep it,” she says. “What else?”
Anne shakes her head reflexively. It isn’t a thought she’s been able to give words to, but there’s a reason that she hasn’t told Eddie yet, isn’t there? The two women ride in silence, the cracks of the two-lane highway ticking steadily under their tires as they approach the town.
“Hey,” Cassie says finally. “Want to see something?”
When Anne turns to look at her, Cassie is tapping a ring against the glass of the window, her face contorted in the equivocal smile that precludes her most outrageous comments, her most off-the-wall ideas. It is the thing about her that Anne most admires, and most fears.
“It’s worth it,” Cassie says. “I promise.”
At Cassie’s direction, Anne steers Eddie’s car off the highway and onto a dirt road a mile or so before town. They pass a few trailers and an old homestead with its windows shot out, gravel popping against the undercarriage of the car. Soon, the car crests a small hill overlooking a large playa, the alkali of the dry lakebed radiating whiteness against the azure sky backgrounding it. Anne slows the car to a stop at a rusted barbed-wire fence near the edge of the playa.
“Pretty,” Anne says. She rolls down the window, a late-summer breeze carrying the heavy scent of sage and dried mules ear into the cab of the car.
“Oh, this ain’t it,” Cassie says, opening the passenger door. Anne watches her skip to the fence, her long figure silhouetted against the white floor of the playa. When she reaches the fence she untwists a length of baling wire that stretches between two desiccated fenceposts, then bends down to undo the remaining two wires. Pulling back the section of fencing, Cassie swings her arms in a circular motion the same way the ground-control men at the airstrips on base do, motioning Anne through the gap in the fence and onto the flat, powdered surface. In the side-view mirror, Anne watches Cassie skip back to the passenger side door.
“That-a-way,” she says, pointing theatrically out across the empty expanse.
When Anne doesn’t shift the car out of park, Cassie reaches across the gearbox and puts a hand on Anne’s leg, her long fingers gripping the inside of her thigh.
“Almost there,” Cassie says. “I promise.”
Anne reluctantly presses on the accelerator, feels the softness of the desert floor as it slides under the tires of Eddie’s car. She drives slowly at first, before trusting the flatness of the lakebed. As she accelerates it feels as if the world is revolving underneath the wheels of the sedan, the rush of warm air through the open window, muffling Cassie’s mannish laugh.
When they reach the far side of the playa they pick up another dirt road heading south. Anne follows the road to a crease in the mountains where a trickle of water runs, the small area on either side of the spring carpeted a mantis green by foot-deep grasses. The hillsides, steep pitches of broken basalt and rusted granite, are pocked by massive divots the size of Eddie’s small sedan.
“Old bombing range,” Cassie says, nodding toward the scars. She steps down from the passenger door as Anne slows the car to a stop near a deep berm where the road ends, the ground still moving beneath her feet. Anne looks back from where they came, their two tire tracks weaving slightly across the alkali flats. She gets out of the car, jogging to catch up with Cassie, who’s followed the creek out of sight around a bend.
When she rounds the bow in the mountainside she finds Cassie bent down, stripping off her shorts at the edge of a small, clear pool of water, its sandy bottom a ghostly milk color. Anne watches Cassie continue to undress, pale faultlines of stretch marks extending away from the dark thatch of her pubis.
“Wait there,” Cassie yells, already up to her knees in the water.
Anne thinks that she must have misheard her. By the time she reaches the small pile of denim and cotton at the edge of the pool Cassie is floating on her back, the whiteness of her breasts peeking from the water like two hilltops reaching out of some prehistoric lake. Cassie flaps her arms gently over the surface of the water until she’s made her way over to where Anne squats in the grass.
“What is this?” Anne asks, reaching her hand into the water. It smells faintly sulfurous, the scent of gunpowder in the air after the Fourth of July. She is surprised to find that the water is slightly warm, that there is a faint viscosity to it. Anne turns her head away as Cassie slides naked from the water and onto the grass next to her; she feels warm drops of water flick across her forearms as Cassie shakes her hair next to her.
“Oh, honey,” Cassie sighs happily. She reaches into the breast pocket of her shirt on the grass next to her, finds what she was looking for. Anne hears the flick of the lighter, breathes in the chemical smell of the cigarette.
The pool is actually a crater, Cassie explains, a keepsake left behind by the Navy during the Korean war. But there’s always been a warm spring here, according to the old woman who first showed Cassie the place when she was in her last year of high school, an old rock hound who sold geodes or Paiute artifacts to pay her bar tab. Cassie runs her fingers through the white dust next to her, unearths a few opaque slivers of obsidian that had been flaked off of rough arrowheads a thousand years before.
“The old Paiutes knew about the place,” Cassie said. “Back before the white settlers arrived. They called it smoky waters.”
“Why smoky waters?” Anne asks.
“You ever heard of Lourdes?” Cassie says. She pronounces it “lurds,” and Anne doesn’t know if the word is English or French or Paiute.
Cassie takes a deep drag from her cigarette, then passes it to Anne. “Supposed to be a place in France where water comes from the ground just like this. People go there from all over because the water’s supposed to fix you if you’re hurt or crippled.”
“So it’s like that?” Anne says absently. The story seems vaguely familiar. She holds the cigarette between her thumb and her forefinger carefully, thinking about the sound of the sonogram as it reverberated through the doctor’s examination room three weeks before, the roar of the fetus’s heartbeat on the monitor. She reaches out through the grass at the edge of the spring, trailing her fingers through the warm water. She imagines a hidden energy flowing through her fingertips, along the highways of her veins, making their way to the dark world of her womb. Cassie shakes her head.
“There were years when the pine nuts wouldn’t come in,” Cassie says. “Or when there were no mule deer, and the bands would go hungry.”
Anne flicks the spring water from her fingertips, then puts Cassie’s cigarette to her lips and inhales tentatively. She feels smoke curling into her lungs, the mild head rush that she hadn’t felt since high school. She drags again.
“You couldn’t afford to have children in a year like that,” Cassie continues. She rolls onto her belly so that the paleness of her ass floats in the air, foregrounding the alkali flats of the playa. “There just wasn’t any food. So the squaws would come to this place, and they’d drink the water.”
Anne feels the cigarette slip from her fingertips into the grass. She sits up abruptly, watching Cassie next to her. The dried desert grasses have left small welts like tiny fingernail scratches across the curve of her buttocks.
“What do you mean, ‘they drank the water,’” Anne says.
Cassie rolls onto an elbow, her lips pursed in a humorless grin. She reaches over, plucks the cigarette from where it fell.
“They drank the water, and then in a couple days,” Cassie makes a flushing noise, flicking her free hand down as if wiping a leaf from her lap. “No more baby.”
Anne sits silent for a moment, then reaches over to pick the cigarette from the grass. She thinks of the pale boy they’d left at Cassie’s apartment, how far away he seems. Her head lists from the drag she took, and she stares at the red ember that glows dimly in Cassie’s hand.
Cassie laughs next to her, shakes again the water from her damp hair. Anne watches the last of the spring water evaporating into milky rings of dried minerals against the deep tan of Cassie’s shoulders, her body a microcosm of the prehistoric basin in which they now find themselves, which had once held entire oceans. Overhead, the screech of two fighters banking in the afternoon sky shakes down onto the desert floor. Cassie lays languidly back on the rough grass, arms and legs spread open as if to welcome it all, as if trying to consume the hot afternoon breeze, the hiss of the grasses against the sage.
The morning after their trip into the desert Anne finds the door to Cassie’s apartment closed, the cloth blinds drawn, a half-dozen small rocks from Cassie’s collection pushed against the glass. Anne walks the half-block back to the apartment she shares with Eddie. Opening their laptop, Anne checks her email, finding a message from her sister, another from a real-estate website she’d signed up for months ago, advertising houses for sale in Southern California. She skims the listings, lots the size of volleyball courts that she can’t imagine ever being able to afford. When the late-morning nausea sets in she goes to the refrigerator for a piece of bread to settle her stomach. She opens the front door of the apartment and gazes over the balcony railing as she eats, hoping perhaps to catch Cassie on her way back home. Two men in tan jumpsuits drive a small electric cart along the sidewalk below, but the street is otherwise empty. Returning to the computer, she types the address of a news site that Eddie likes to tease her for. Liberal nonsense, he says. You’ll turn into your mother if you keep reading that shit.
She scrolls through the day’s headlines—a high-profile corporate merger, the review of a new Smartphone app, box scores of early-season football—until she arrives at the international section, a scattering of pictureless articles buried at the bottom of the page. She pauses on a headline, hovers the mouse over the link for a moment before finally clicking.
It is a fifteen-line AP article, another dispatch from one of the many far-off wars. The piece describes yet another of the tragedies that seem commonplace now: an airstrike that mistook a wedding party for a military convoy. Eleven civilians—including the bride and groom—killed. US Navy drone, the article reads. Intelligence lapse. A statement of regret from a government official, and then the article’s abrupt end.
Anne closes the laptop and stares vacantly across the living room toward the door. She reminds herself that the military has thousands of drone operators—UAV’s, she corrects herself. She walks to the bathroom mirror, pulls Eddie’s gray Navy t-shirt over her head and into a cardboard box that they’ve been using as a hamper since they arrived. Naked from the waist up, she examines herself in the mirror. She runs fingertips over the white expanse of her stomach, stands sideways in the way she sees her friends do in photos online, but still sees no evidence of the thing that is supposed to be growing inside her. She wonders if there might be something wrong with her, if she might lack some fundamental component of motherhood to still feel so alone. She craves one of Cassie’s cigarettes, wants to get off the base for the afternoon.
But Cassie doesn’t answer her door that morning, or the next. The only proof at all that Cassie existed is the collection of minerals still jammed between the window and the closed blinds. And so Anne stays home. She waits for Eddie to leave for duty in the dark of night, odd hours that correspond to the schedules of faraway countries. Left alone in the apartment, she hunts for clues about Eddie’s work, about the scope of his duty. A flight plan, a departmental briefing, anything. With a prosecutor’s hawkishness, she searches for a way to connect Eddie to the article she read. To pin the deaths of the wedding party on him directly. Eleven dead.
She observes him carefully during their infrequent meals together, asks leading questions that go ignored or unanswered. She rifles through his briefcase, listens at night for him to divulge something in his sleep. What is it she’s looking for, exactly? she wonders. Facts, or proof of conscience?
After a week with no sign of her, Anne gives up on Cassie’s return, though she casts long looks at the closed door of Cassie’s apartment each time she passes. She goes once more to the health clinic, hears again the supernatural thump of the baby’s blood, sees the dim flicker of its heart in the sonogram’s monitor. Three days later she tells Eddie, and he responds as she knew he would. He sees the world in uncomplicated ways, without the ambiguities and hidden moralities that consume her, and so he filed the baby under “good news,” just as he might have filed the deaths of eleven innocent civilians under “bad news.” His mother in North Carolina begins calling her daily, sending letters and clothes and books on pregnancy.
Three weeks after their trip to the playa, Anne wakes to a sharp knock on the door.
“Up and at ’em,” she hears Cassie voice say from the other side of the door. “Your tits better be pressed and your ass tucked in, or you’ll be balls deep in cleaning duty, soldier!”
Anne leans against the door, deciding whether to answer. She felt betrayed by Cassie’s absence, more than she wants to admit. She’s wondered if she would have even told Eddie about the child, had Cassie been around—Cassie had seemed to fill an emptiness, but in her absence Anne had been left to fend for herself. And now she mistrusted the intimacy that she’d felt with Cassie, the complex questions that Cassie prompted in her, rather than the simple answers that Eddie always seemed compelled to provide. After Cassie disappeared without warning Anne had wondered, occasionally, if Cassie even existed or if she’d been a figment of her loneliness, an imaginary friend who’d disappeared as abruptly as she’d materialized. For all you talk about her, Eddie had once said, you’d think I’d have at least met her once. She feels Cassie’s knuckles strike again against the hollow wooden door.
When Anne opens the door she finds Cassie exactly as she left her, leaning against the railing of the apartment walkway, smoking boredly. She’s wearing the same stained cutoffs, the same faded cobalt halter top that she’d worn the afternoon they’d driven across the playa.
“Come on,” she says, reaching for Anne’s hand. “I shouldn’t leave the kid alone for too long.”
“Where’ve you been?” Anne finally manages to ask, interrupting Cassie’s perpetual monologue as they near the open apartment door. The blinds are drawn back again, yellow sunlight filtering through the silty apartment air.
“What do you mean, honey?” Cassie says, still holding Anne’s hand as she leads her into the apartment. She looks bewildered by the question. “I told you we were going back to Oregon for a couple weeks. My cousin Carl was getting married.”
Anne nods vaguely, though she doesn’t remember Cassie ever mentioning Oregon or a cousin Carl. “Oh yeah,” she says. “Maybe so.”
As Cassie retrieves two cans of diet soda from the refrigerator Anne wanders the inside of the apartment, inattentively scanning the collections of antlers and rusted metal and desert detritus that line the bookshelves of the apartment. Cassie shuffles through a drawer in the kitchen before producing the deck of cards with the familiar, lewdly undressed men. Looking through an open door into the bedroom, Anne sees the boy sprawled naked on top of the neatly made bed, his hand cupped lightly over his crotch. She feels Cassie come up behind her in the doorway.
“Almost cute, isn’t he?” Cassie says.
“Are you supposed to leave him alone like that?” Anne asks.
Cassie lets out her loud, coarse laugh, then sits down next to the boy on the bed. The boy stirs, but doesn’t wake.
“We’re on a Navy base, honey,” she says. “Safest place in the world, if you ask me.”
Cassie strokes the boy’s hair lightly, whispers something into the air above him. When she turns to Anne, she is smiling that wicked grin that both exhilarates and frightens her.
“Want to see something?” she asks.
Before Anne can answer, Cassie cups her long fingers together and places them over the boy’s mouth. With her other hand, she delicately pinches the boy’s nose. For a long moment, the room is consumed in a weighted, panicked silence.
“Cassie,” Anne begins to say, stepping forward into the room just as the boy’s turquoise eyes flash open, consumed with a primitive, animal terror. In the next instant, the bedroom erupts with the simultaneous sounds of the boy’s shriek and the deep sound of Cassie’s ugly laugh as Cassie releases her grip.
“It’s just a game, baby,” Cassie laughs, holding the boy’s pale head to her chest. “Momma’s just playing.”
“Hey!” Anne hears Cassie call to her as she leaves the apartment. Anne slams the door closed behind her, gooseflesh flashing across her forearms in the late summer heat.
When Cassie comes by her apartment later that day Anne cloisters herself in the bedroom with the lights off, the television muted. The following morning, she again ignores the knock at the door, Cassie’s calls through the windows. She lays on her bed pouring over news websites for further information about the drone strike gone awry, waiting up late into the night for Eddie to return home from another fourteen-hour shift. Not only can’t she find any additional information about the accident, but she can no longer find even the original article. It seems to have disappeared entirely, and she is left, yet again, to wonder if it had ever existed in the first place. When she finally gets up the nerve to ask Eddie about it the next day, he shakes his head noncommittally. I’d have heard about it, he says simply.
The morning before their three-month checkup, Anne wakes alone in the apartment. Eddie left at three that morning, as he often did, heading away to a hidden barracks where he would stare at computer screens showing black and white images of vast, faraway deserts, of small, insect-like processions of militants and civilians who conduct their lives as they do every day, unaware of the unmanned planes passing invisibly miles above. Anne makes coffee and waits for Cassie to knock again on her apartment door; for the first time in a week, it never comes, something that Anne realizes with both relief and sadness.
Late in the afternoon she retrieves the pack of cigarettes that she hid in a shoebox in their bedroom closet, sits on the toilet and blows the smoke toward the open window. Finishing the cigarette, she grabs the keys to Eddie’s sedan, and a half hour later she is on the cracked asphalt highway toward Fallon.
The sun is already dipping toward the western foothills of the Sierras when she pulls off the highway and onto the dirt road that leads to the old bombing range. Small rodents skitter in the road before her, a coyote lopes languidly at the edge of the sage. She arrives at the edge of the playa and unhooks the barbed-wire fence, then drives across the dried lakebed toward the crease between two bruised purple mountains where the spring waits, the weaving tire tracks of her last visit long since blown away by the desert winds.
As Anne walks to the spring she can smell the sea that once covered the place where she now stands, the alkali dampness of the ocean floor. The sun begins to set behind the bald mountains and the sky is a violent blue, the first stars beginning to arrive in the moonless night. Cold air slips through the thin folds of her shirt, and she begins to shiver.
Sitting next to the spring, she stares out over the expanse of desert. She scoops from the pool, the water warming her hands. It is right there, she thinks. A world.
The earth vibrates slightly below her, and she imagines absurdly that she is feeling the deep percussions of bombs that exploded across the desert range sixty years before, leaving craters and pockmarks long since grown over by desert sages and brushes, by dust and ash. Closing her eyes, she sees the flash of the missile that created the pool next to her, can hear the sound of the explosion. She feels the earth kick underneath her, the detonation spraying the pale clay of the playa forty feet into the air. She breathes phosphorous and bromide, iron and clay and the fractured churt of Indian spearheads lifted from the desert floor. She feels the great laws of the world butting up against one another, of darkness and light, of life and death.
Gripping the newly discovered roundness in her abdomen, Anne lets out a scream into the desert night, feels a tearing and rendering inside her, as if this new life within her has suddenly come to be. The desert floor spreads out around her, military jets fracturing the jumble of constellations broadcast across the iridium night sky. The deep scents of time fill her head, the violent passing of ages within and beyond her. And above, hovering like a glittering “M,” like an interstellar mountain range, the cluster of light that was Cassiopeia.