Dylan and Olivia have bad news for each other.
“You go first,” Dylan says. He is still deciding what to say, how to explain.
Olivia mumbles her news into her knees. She’s curled up on her bed, on the fluffy blanket that always leaves little pink hairs stuck to Dylan’s clothes.
“Oh,” Dylan says in return. “Okay.” He looks at Olivia to see if she’ll look at him, and when she doesn’t, he rests his hand on her middle back. “Do you want me to buy you a test?”
“No,” she says without moving. “I’ll do it soon.”
Dylan thinks Olivia is crazy: he would want to know immediately. He wants to ask how, when, why this could have happened, but there are too many possible answers. Neither of them is very good at being careful.
“What’s your bad news?” Olivia asks her knees.
Dylan shrugs. “Oh, nothing, just a weird family thing back in Virginia.”
Both of them are silent for a while, until Dylan peels his sweaty hand from Olivia’s back. “Do you want to go do something?” he asks.
“I just want to sleep,” says Olivia. “Alone.”
Dylan understands. On his way to his dorm, he thinks about what kind of parent he would be, if he had to be one. He really doesn’t want to be one at all right now. He throws up in a bush outside his building. In the morning, he is surprised to wake up, surprised that he fell asleep in the first place. He wants to stop by Olivia’s dorm and tell her how sorry he is he has to go out of town like this, and that he’s here for her. Instead, he packs his overnight bag and hits the road.
Dylan doesn’t like when he has to go home, but he’s happy that he’s at least by himself. Olivia might have insisted on coming with him if she weren’t committed to spending the week freaking out in her dorm room—and if Dylan had told her more of the truth. He isn’t glad about their situation, but he’s glad that she’s preoccupied. This trip is the kind of thing he ought to do alone.
In front of him, the road is becoming a coil, winding up the narrowing mountain. The only spots of sky left are between the breaks in the trees, the bare patches where the hill drops into the valley. In some places, the edge between air and road is so thin it’s like it’s not even there. There’s a strange excitement in knowing this; a chill runs through Dylan’s spine. He speeds up, just a little. He remembers learning to drive on these roads just two years before, and, two years before that, biking down them to catch the bus to the junior high all the way in the next county.
As he nears town, the road signs begin to brighten to hazmat-yellow. Watch for bears, they say. Danger. Some of them are inches away from falling down the mountainside with a pile of rubble. Dylan’s truck shudders forward and he’s glad that if he has a child, at least he doesn’t have to raise it here.
Olivia texts Dylan. She’s peed on two sticks. One of them said + and one of them didn’t. She’s walking to the drugstore, she says, to buy a third.
Okay, replies Dylan. Hoping for the best.
Olivia doesn’t answer.
When Dylan parks at the mountaintop, the ground is frozen again and the sky is purpling into black. Down the road to his left is the resort, with its red-brick clock towers, its pristine lawns stretched like skin over the rocky land, its gold-trimmed east wing and west wing and ballrooms and courtyard fountains. To his right, the peeling white building where the employees live—the lower-level ones, of course, like the maids and the doormen and the waiters and the bellhops. He’s been three of the four in his younger teenage years.
He climbs five flights of stairs to get to his mother’s old apartment. There’s a snakeskin on the second-floor landing, curled up and disintegrating into silver powder. Dylan thinks of the Christmas he could spend with Olivia’s family in their blue-shingled townhouse in Bethesda.
The door to the apartment doesn’t have numbers on it anymore, but he remembers which one it is. The greenish doormat still has that black stain that appeared there one night a few years ago. Dylan can’t remember what it looks like without it.
Olivia texts Dylan again. She isn’t pregnant. We should have been more careful, she says.
He agrees. He texts her back and tells her this, and then tells her why he really went home for the weekend.
I’m so sorry, Olivia answers. She is probably mad at Dylan, but he knows she won’t show it. Not now.
He replies, it was from an overdose, because he also knows she’s wondering. But he can’t bring himself to tell her anything else.
Dylan wakes up early the next day, surprised again and curled up on the moth-bitten grey couch, to a heavy groan—floorboards, maybe, or a person in the hall. Next to him, the kitchen table is still covered in crumbs, as if his mother had just eaten breakfast there this morning. There are also wadded-up napkins, cotton balls, shoelaces, and used matches. This is what he expected. He is careful to put on his shoes before he stands up.
It takes Dylan a while to find what he’s looking for. He tries his mother’s bedroom first, opening the drawers and pushing aside clusters of needles with a wooden spoon. He checks the medicine cabinets and the bathroom drawers, opening mismarked pill bottles when he can, shaking them to see if he hears a different sound inside, the soft rustle of paper. There is nothing under the bed but some trash, and the dresser is empty, save for his mother’s threadbare uniforms and a couple of jean shorts.
The kitchen is his last resort. He knows there’s a photo on the fridge, an old one of him and his mother and his brother Logan. He does not look at it while he opens the freezer, doubting that his mother had the sense to store the box in there, but at the same time, hoping he is wrong.
And he is: the box is there, frosted around the broken lock, wrapped in blue painters tape a few times around.
Olivia calls Dylan right around what should be lunchtime.
“I thought you might want to talk,” she says. “I know you’re probably super busy with your family and the funeral and everything. But… just making sure you’re fine.” Her voice is clipped, like there are other things she would rather be doing.
Dylan eats a granola bar and looks at the empty room, the thawing lockbox. “Thank you,” he says. “It is busy.”
Olivia pauses until Dylan doesn’t say anything more. “I’m sorry I was kind of hard to reach last week,” she says.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
There is more silence on the line. A mouse scratches at the wall somewhere behind Dylan.
“Well,” Olivia says, “I’ll let you go now.”
Before he leaves, Dylan double-checks the lockbox to make sure everything’s in it: Logan’s driver’s license. Logan’s social security card. Logan’s folded-up birth certificate. On his way out of town, he stops at the hotel to give the manager his mother’s key and ask about the funeral arrangements. Dylan, his mother had written into her will, is too young to make those.
It’s off-season now, and the resort grounds are quiet, except for a few couples on poorly timed honeymoons or budget vacations. The doorman isn’t even working, and Dylan pushes through the gilded great hall double-doors himself, wondering why he never got this kind of time off.
“You were always a good kid,” Mr. Satz says when Dylan knocks on his door and presents him with the key. “You didn’t get into stuff like other people did.” He slips the key into one of his dozens of desk drawers.
Dylan nods along because it’s easier than telling Mr. Satz the truth: people get into stuff a lot when they don’t have choices. He isn’t sure if he’s lucky to know this or worse off for it.
“Shame about your mother,” Mr. Satz adds. His bald head on his wide, round body looks like a small egg growing out of a larger egg. “You sad, son?”
“There’s sadness,” says Dylan.
Mr. Satz shakes his shiny, meaty head. “I wish we had some way to get rid of it.”
“Yeah,” Dylan says. “If only.” He remembers the times he tried the heroin, with his coworkers. He didn’t do it more often, but he doesn’t know why. He had every reason to. Logan once told him that home never really felt like home, but heroin felt like home.
And who could blame him? The resort was not theirs. The world was not theirs.
“Your brother, too, so sad,” Mr. Satz says, shaking his head. “He could have been so smart. Was going to promote him to front desk before he left. Shame.” He looks down at a stack of pamphlets on his desk: the truth about the Western Virginia black bears.
“Shame,” Dylan echoes.
“Hear from him ever?” Mr. Satz leans forward. “You think he ever tries to come back?”
“I don’t know,” Dylan says. “Maybe one day I’ll find out.”
“Eh, I wouldn’t bother,” Mr. Satz says, waving his chunky hand. His watch band threatens to pop on his wrist. “Gone is gone, eventually.”
Dylan remembers when he was eight and he watched Mr. Satz chase Logan through the kitchens, whipping his shirtless back with a piece of splintered, broken wood from the cellar stairs. “I don’t know,” he says again.
“Well, if you ever want to come back and work for us,” Mr. Satz says, folding his hands together and leaning back in his chair, “we’d welcome back the last Murphy boy with open arms.” He surveys Dylan, his eyes resting on the university sweatshirt.
“That’s okay,” Dylan says. “I have my own plans.”
Mr. Satz squints at him. “Funeral’s at two,” he says, his voice coated in saccharine. “You can say something if you want, but not many people tend to show up for the maids.”
Dylan texts Olivia when he gets in his car. I want you to know, he says, that I appreciate you so much. He can see her start typing in response—three grey dots pop up—but then she stops, and the dots go away. He waits to see if they’ll come back up again. They don’t.
He doesn’t remember the way as well as he thought, but when he sees the hazmat-yellow signs, he knows he’s getting close. The last time he tried to visit, he was sixteen. The first, twelve.
He remembers how Logan told him goodbye: “I need to get well,” he said, “any way that I can.”
He remembers their mother screaming at Logan: “Anything, please, but that! Anything is better than that!”
He remembers Logan’s response to their mother: “Even death?”
There are two hours left before the funeral when Dylan finishes circling the mountain and finds the spot. The sign marking the rocky, overgrown side road reads Western Virginia Black Bear Preservation. A few yards later, Danger: Do Not Enter. And then, a new one: Winter/Spring Construction – DELAYED.
He has the box in his hands when he parks and gets out of his car. He’s trembling, but he ignores it. “They don’t want to hurt anyone,” he once overheard Logan tell their mother, months before leaving.
Their mother had scoffed. Later, she shot up with their neighbors in 407.
They don’t want to hurt anyone, Dylan reminds himself. He walks up to the spot where the trees get thick, where a bright orange line slashes across them, where the signs that are still intact just say danger and nothing else. Beyond the line and the signs are just more trees, land covered in brown pine needles, piles of great grey boulders. Without pausing, Dylan crosses the orange line.
They begin to come out right away, as if a switch has been flipped. As big as the boulders and the car, their glossy coats are heavy in the thin, cold air. Most are fully-grown, but some look smaller, younger. And it’s not just bears—some of them are still people, or somewhere in between. Thick fur shrouds their bodies, and their dirty, shiny faces poke out from behind it like corn in a husk.
Dylan wonders which one Logan is. He might have been able to tell at one time, years ago, but not anymore.
He slowly approaches the circle of animals and puts the lockbox on the ground, crouching over it. The bears watch him with their eyes, and he moves slowly, deliberately. Can Logan recognize him? Dylan wonders. Does he still remember him? Or is his memory replaced with new scenes, the old ones simply not needed anymore?
For a moment, Dylan wants to stop, wave his arms, call out for his brother. He kneels over the lockbox, trying to imagine what would happen if he did. Though Logan had said the bears didn’t want to hurt anyone, he never said they wouldn’t, if they felt like they had to. Dylan thinks of Olivia—of how it might seem if he disappeared.
Dylan stands up slowly and begins to walk back to the orange line. The bears continue to watch him, their broad shoulders hunched forward, concealing their young or their own soft underbellies. Logan probably won’t need the things in the lockbox, but Dylan is glad that they’re here now, and not in the hands of the hotel or the lawyers or the for-profit activists, the people who make other people into examples.
When he looks over his shoulder, back on the other side of the orange line, the bears are gone, like maybe they’d never even been there at all.
Dylan calls Olivia as soon as he has service again.
“Yeah?” she says when she picks up.
“I’m sorry,” Dylan says. “I should have told you I’m sorry. And been more careful to start with.”
“Thanks,” says Olivia.
Dylan waits. She is silent except for the gusts of breath in the receiver.
“I really didn’t want to go home this weekend,” he says.
“You had no choice,” Olivia replies. “I understand that.”
“We will always be careful from now on, I swear.”
Olivia pauses. “We—we can talk about that when you get back.”
“Is something wrong?” Dylan asks.
“Shit,” Olivia says. “Let’s just talk in person. I know right now would be—is a horrible time. I hope the funeral goes well. I’m so sorry.”
“What?” Dylan asks, his voice rising. “Sorry for what?”
Olivia is silent again. “Some things just make you think,” she says. And then, “I don’t—not today. I hope the funeral is okay.”
Dylan arrives back at the hotel an hour before the funeral. He parks under the clock tower, in the middle of the entrance circle where hotel shuttles drop off guests from their day-trips skiing, ice skating, or sitting around in the hot springs. He cries into his steering wheel. His first and only tears so far.
Dylan’s mother is buried by the Catholic Church, eight miles from the hotel. “I couldn’t get any closer,” Mr. Satz says. “Those cemeteries are reserved.”
Dylan’s family, like everyone else in the town, has never been Catholic.
“That’s why they’ve got so much room—everyone’s a Baptist,” Mr. Satz explains. They are the only two people at the church, aside from the priest and the gravediggers.
Dylan says a few words about his mother that he doesn’t remember after, and then they all go outside—Dylan, Mr. Satz, the priest, the gravediggers, and Dylan’s mother. Dylan stares out at the slope of the land beyond the church while the gravediggers get the coffin in position. Up the hilltop, the tip of the hotel peeks out from above the tree line, a red-white blot in the green and grey. The sight makes his stomach sink, his heartbeat filling his ears. He thinks about the hotel, and what it might be like to the people who stay there. Maybe they’re excited by it. Maybe they find it rustic, beautiful, grand. Maybe when he graduates college, he’ll make enough money to stay there himself, if he wants to—but he won’t want to, of course, and he’ll use the money for something else.
“Here we go,” one of the gravediggers says. The wooden box is ready, poised over the empty space in the dirt.
Dylan gazes down at the casket as it settles into the ground, fixing his eyes on the dull wood. He wonders, if he were to look up, if he would see the broad-backed outline of a black bear, pacing between some faraway graves, swaying as it walked, its chest drooped in sorrow.
The gravediggers begin to fill the hole.