Delancey and Price decided to visit the WNC Nature Center on a muggy Sunday afternoon in mid-August. Fluffy clouds hung low over the Blue Ridge Mountains and resembled caterpillars crawling across the rolling green. Asheville had been home for three months, and while their short-term rental was lovely, a home to purchase had not materialized. The paralyzing fear of not owning before the December due date was the sole occupier of Delancey’s mind.
“I loved the fixer upper off Merrimon, too,” Price said, veering onto 240 toward downtown. “But we weren’t even willing to offer asking, so we should let it go.”
“I know,” Delancey said, “I wanted to put in an offer on the Blue Bird place, but I can’t get in touch with Ariana. Whose realtor takes a four-day trip to Abu Dhabi?”
“To be fair,” Price considered his words. “You could have put in an offer with her colleague who showed the place. You weren’t exactly sold on it.”
“I never said I wasn’t sold,” Delancey responded. “I’m conflicted. It’s still available. I told her to message if there was another offer.”
“She’s not even our realtor, I doubt she’s concerned with it,” Price said. “I’m sure there have been offers.”
Delancey scoffed but immediately checked her phone. After a prolonged silence, she said, “Oh my God, it’s under contract,” and began to weep.
“This market is worse than Denver,” Price said. “People listing garbage at absurd prices and getting it. At least in Denver, I could rationalize the cost.”
Delancey’s tears subsided but her mood remained so grim a heavy air of forlorn ballooned inside their 4Runner. As they floated down the off-ramp Price asked, “Do you even want to go to the nature center anymore?”
“I don’t know what I want,” Delancey responded.
Before Price and after a pair of unfortunate one-night stands in college it was only Trent for Delancey. Trent of feathery locks, broad shoulders, and soft hands. Trent of calm disposition who could effortlessly ride out her emotional waves. They were together eighteen months, and each month was better than the last and then Delancey came home and found Trent dead on the lawn by the still running mower.
Trent’s death was result of a freak complication from an undiagnosed irregular heartbeat. The coroner called it one in a million. Delancey left her finance job and Seattle to move back in with her parents in rural South Carolina. She couldn’t stay in the apartment they shared. She could no longer take the fog and rain. She could not drink another cup of coffee associated with Seattle.
On the one-year anniversary of Trent’s death she met Price at an outdoor market in Denver where she’d flown after seeing a cheap ticket pop up on her online travel club. She saw meeting Price as a sign. He had, something. Maybe it was his willingness to accept her for what she’d become. He wasn’t bad to look at, and he took charge and reminded her what it was like to be alive again. To be touched. To be yearned for. Maybe that was all that mattered.
A month later she returned, and they moved in together. For a year they lived happily in Denver and then the baby news and Delancey wanted to be closer to family. Asheville was agreed upon and off they drove.
The Nature Center parking lot was nearly full. Parents with small children milled about. A couple pulled a stroller from their trunk and argued over whether to bring a diaper bag. Price and Delancey strode somberly toward the entrance.
“Well,” Price said. “If nothing else this should offer a window into the endless hell we’ve created for our future selves.”
Delancey wasn’t listening but performed an uninspired eyeroll when she realized Price was awaiting a reaction.
Before them, in line a disheveled man wrangled two small boys. He produced a Nature Center membership card, but it had expired, and this revelation proved almost too much for him to bear. Sensing this, the stately woman behind the glass allowed him entry without pay under condition that he would renew his membership.
“Is it weird that we’re here?” Price asked, noticing all the families that seemed to be closing in on them.
Delancey glanced around and a sort of terror struck, “Maybe we should go.”
Price nearly acquiesced but realized his anxiety had gotten the better of him and if they left there would be nothing to do but return home and dwell, or find a restaurant and eat a quiet lunch, ruined by trying not to discuss the obvious while having little else to discuss. Then home to dwell.
It had seemed, so often as of late, that finding places to go, new breweries and restaurants, new trails to walk the dog, had become exercises in distraction from the realities of their impending family life. Since Price had long considered those activities vital to his happiness, their recent triviality found him questioning his entire adult life up to that moment.
“No, let’s stay,” he said.
“Fine,” Delancey shrugged.
The first exhibit was a makeshift barnyard stocked with goats, sheep, and donkeys. Delancey stared at a sheep lying on the ground, shaking as if it were cold, but it couldn’t have been as it was the dead of summer. The sheep haunted Delancey, and she wondered why she’d wanted to visit the nature center to begin with. She’d thought, naively, that since it was called a “nature center” it might be more preserve than zoo.
“Look at these jackasses,” Price said, approaching the donkeys.
Not far from the barnyard an enclosure held two black bears, male and female. The male was walking away from the female and Delancey imagined they’d just gotten into a minor quarrel.
Price watched Delancey stare at the bears for an insufferable length of time, “Delance, everything is going to work out,” he said.
“It’s sad watching them.”
“It’s not so bad,” Price said. “Besides, I seriously doubt they could survive in the wild now, maybe never could. We don’t know where they came from or how they arrived here.”
Though she knew Price was probably right, sometimes Delancey worried about his half influence on the child. She imagined the child becoming a know it all who became frazzled and unable to admit when they were wrong. Who frowned upon her impulsiveness. Who simply accepted the walls of their cage.
The next two enclosures held pairs of red and gray wolves, respectively. The canines were sprawled out on the ground and could have been mistaken for common house pets. After that, a bobcat slept perched on a raised bed. It was double the size of a domesticated cat but didn’t seem that dangerous. The same could not be said for the cougar that slept in the next cage. The Cat was at least 150 pounds with sharp claws and powerful jaws.
As they continued, Delancey fell into an almost trance. She barely noticed the Red Pandas or the reptile house where Price delighted in searching the aquariums and terrariums for hidden reptiles amongst their unnatural habitats.
Delancey thought she’d completed the gauntlet but when they circled around to the end the caged birds appeared. It was the red-tailed hawk that did her in. A great predator with nowhere to fly and nothing to prey upon. She wanted to free the hawk, but that was impossible, still it was what she wanted and because she could not, she screamed out.
“Babe, what is with you?” Price said, concerned.
Delancey trudged toward the exit.
The child was trapped inside of her and only she could free it. When born was the child trapped with her or was it her who was trapped with the child? She knew she would love the child and hated such thoughts but was powerless against them. She would be a good mother. Price, a great father. Together, excellent parents. They would get into the daycares they were waitlisted for. The preschool. The charter schools. They would survive the sleepless nights. The breastfeeding would go off without a hitch. The child would, sooner than later, be like them. Chill, calm, curious. A tinier and slightly more helpless third accompaniment to their traveling duo. Everything was going to be perfect.
Price had fallen behind and Delancey stood by the car waiting for him to unlock the doors. When she heard the beep, she climbed inside.
Price had downloaded TikTok at some point, even though he’d sworn he wouldn’t. This occupied his mind as he zombie-walked out of the Nature Center. He’d held out admirably, but something compelled him, be it an interview on one of the political shows he watched or a podcast with a scientist or artist he respected. While he did find the app mostly ridiculous and categorically depressing, he could not deny that, at times, he enjoyed the mindless scrolling. It was possible to find snippets of interesting interviews or footage of various exotic cities he’d never visited. He hated to admit it, but he would also occasionally stop to admire the beauty of a barely dressed woman or to experience the excess of some unfathomably rich influencer whose names he was starting to remember.
If he could go back and not do one thing, it would have been watching whichever nature video he lingered on that showed one animal eating another. They made him feel sick, yet he could not scroll by. Lions and hyenas and wolves hunting and scavenging in the wild he could handle, even if he always rooted for whatever prey they were chasing to escape. The reptiles, on the other hand, disturbed him. He was especially concerned about Komodo Dragons and felt something should be done about them. Vicious, monstrous things, and though they weren’t fast, they never gave up, focusing on the scent of their prey and pursuing them with robotic persistence.
The video that really stuck with him, though, was of a deer with a boa constrictor wrapped around it. The deer was just lying there, resigned to its fate, and the boa kept prodding at its head as it waited for it to die. Annoyed, the deer kept headbutting the boa away with little conviction.
Price couldn’t get the video out of his head and the feeling it gave him was so base, so depressing, that he could find no way to analyze it, or its effect on him at all.
“Where’d you go to, crazy?” Delancey asked, as Price climbed into the 4Runner.
Price said nothing and pulled away and they rode in silence.
Delancey never mentioned Trent to Price, odd as it was. Once, they were at Burial Brewing when Price mentioned the name Trent while they were discussing the possibility of a boy, which caused Delancey to gasp and choke on a hot wing.
“Not a fan of Trent?” Price laughed.
“It’s these wings,” Delancey mustered.
Delancey didn’t feel she had to keep the secret but felt no desire to share it. What good could it have done to have that burden upon them? And what would Price think of her for hiding it?
What disturbed Delancey even more were her memories of Trent, which, despite her best efforts, always skewed sexual. She wanted to remember him in wholesome ways and in so many ways did. Their intimate nights cohabitating most of all. They were get in bed at eight and watch TV types. Trent bringing bowls of popcorn or ice cream from the kitchen. Or so many wonderful Pacific Northwest hikes. Candlelit dinners. Cross Country road trips or flights to Tahoe or Big Sky weekends. But what it always ended in was the loving, but unbridled sex. Effortless and safe. Like they were caveman and woman in the cave. Their lust the fire. The paintings on the wall where they’d been and what they’d done.
It wasn’t as if what she had with Price was bad. Though in so many quiet and somber moments, she pined in solitude for what she’d lost. Never did she think she would lust so visceral for a man no longer living, but so many mornings she was powerless to stop the ghost of Trent in sex dreams from shuddering her awake.
On the way home they stopped at Bharami Brewing. Price preferred Burial, but there was something about going there that Delancey pushed against. Bharami was overrun with tourists, like so many places in Asheville, but the beer was excellent, and the food was solid. The thing about Asheville was that it wasn’t a place where anyone seemed to live. Price discovered this so many mornings driving into downtown from West Asheville around 8:30 to do his UX writing from a coffee shop and never encountering rush hour traffic.
They found a table outside and Price went inside to order. Approaching the counter, he passed a couple who were so young and beautiful they didn’t seem real. The woman, especially, was so inconceivably attractive that, for a moment, Price felt like a mere extra in the backdrop of the internet ready conception of their life. He lamented their very existence but could find no reason behind it other than a genuine disdain for himself.
At the counter, he ordered a double IPA, 9 percent, and the lone NA beer for Delancey. The line behind him was considerable and the beer tender, a tattooed woman in her mid 20s, rang him up with such disinterest that he almost felt compelled to say something, but he had nothing to say, so he took the drinks and left.
Despite the seemingly perfect, planned, and tranquil destination they’d arrived at—child on the way, new house looming, new city, bright future—Price couldn’t help but see what hadn’t yet occurred as a regrettable past. He wanted everything coming but didn’t actually want to experience it. And what he couldn’t push out of his mind was the top part of the beer tender’s tattoo, which was barely visible below her navel and above her jeans. There was no way of knowing what it was, but the curiosity sent his mind on fantasies that were so sordid he almost felt alive again. To do the things he’d done when he was younger. Would he ever escape the memory of his former self? For a moment, he was utterly convinced that was all growing older was.