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The Wilding

by Benjamin Percy

Hardcover, 258 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $23 |


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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Wilding


A Novel


Copyright © 2010 Benjamin Percy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55597-569-2

Chapter One


His wife, Karen, works as a dietitian for the school districts scattered throughout central Oregon. She spends her days designing new lunch programs for the cafeterias, sitting down with obese diabetics to ask them about their eating habits, and giving PowerPoint presentations to auditoriums full of bored children, telling them about the food pyramid and how they might incorporate it into their lives. At this time she is pregnant with their second child. She drinks orange juice every morning and what seems like gallons of water every day, but no soda or alcohol, not even to sneak a sip from Justin. She stays away from fish and red meat and spends the extra dollar on organic free-range chicken. And so on. Every precaution in the world—and none of it stops from happening what happens next.

Justin comes home from work to find a design of bloody footprints on the floor. He stares at them a long time as if to decipher their message. Only then does he pull out his cell phone. He shut it off earlier in the day so that it wouldn't go off when he was teaching. It reveals three new voice mails—one from the hospital, the next from his in-laws, the last from his wife.

He finds her in her hospital bed and she seems to have shrunk. Really, she has, her belly caved in, suddenly empty.

She is, she was, five months pregnant. The doctors tell her she has preeclampsia. Essentially her body came to recognize the baby as an allergen and expelled it from her. When she tells Justin this, her voice slurring from the Vicodin, she seems to be looking inward and outward at the same time, lost in dark thoughts in a too-bright room.

When the nurse comes to check Karen's vitals, she asks if Justin wants to see the baby, a baby girl. He does and doesn't. When his son, Graham, was born, he had looked so shiny, as if polished by Karen's insides, a precious gem they clutched to their chests and passed back and forth with the greatest care. That's how this baby looks, too, only smaller, bluer.

In the weeks that follow, Karen walks around as if bruised. She shrinks from Justin's touch—his, but lost to him. He finds her often in the office, the office they converted into a nursery. On one side of the room sits a rolltop desk stacked with ungraded papers—and on the other, the varnished pine crib, decorated with Winnie-the-Pooh bumpers and a mobile that plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," the song sounding so eerie now, when Karen turns the knob, filling the empty crib and seeping through its slats to echo through the house.

When they finally make love again, five months later, she starts crying and when he asks if he should stop, she says, "What do you think?" A line comes to run down the middle of their bed. Neither of them crosses it.

He can't remember if they were having problems before. He tries to remember the last time they went on a date—a real date, without their son—white linen, lit candles, wine in goblets, their feet touching beneath the table—and can't. He tries to remember the last time he bought her jewelry or flowers. He tries to remember the last time she took him in her mouth. He tries to remember the last time they read novels on the couch, their legs intertwined, sharing favorite passages. Years. It's been years, hasn't it? So much of his memory is hazy, chunked up by memories of work. He can recall her frequent headaches—her full-throated sighing—her desire to be alone. He remembers putting away laundry, finding an enormous pink dildo shoved to the back of her underwear drawer, and feeling somehow betrayed. Maybe these are only the warts that naturally grow out of a marriage moving forward. Or maybe he and Karen have been in trouble for some time and only now does he notice it. He wants to blame the baby, but maybe the baby has only turned up the volume on what was there all along.

She takes up running. Every morning she pulls on pink shorts and a white tank top and laces her Nike cross-trainers and runs five miles. All the fat she accumulated during her pregnancy melts off to reveal hard-plated muscle that looks like the exoskeleton of something that lives at the bottom of the ocean. Her feet develop thick calluses. Her calves jump when she walks. Her forearms are a lacework of veins. Even her ears look skinny.

Sometimes Justin sees her on his drive to Mountain View High School, where he teaches. Her hair will be pulled back in a ponytail to reveal a red and compacted face. Her teeth, bared in a snarl. She pumps her legs and swings her arms wildly. She looks like a madwoman. He always beeps his horn and waves at her, but she never sees him, lost in the heat and rhythm of her run.

Normally she is gone by the time he showers and dresses and comes down to the kitchen for breakfast. But sometimes they run into each other, as they do this morning, when he finds her standing in front of the sink, looking out the window and drinking a short glass of orange juice. He says, "Hi," and she says, "Hey." He asks her if she heard the news, and when she says, "What news?" he tells her.

Last night—on Z-21, the NBC affiliate—the ten o'clock news reported a bear attack at Cline Falls. These girls, two teenage girls from Prineville, left their food and cooking supplies out, rather than washing them and bagging them and hanging them from the highest branch of a juniper tree. In the springtime bears possess a terrible hunger, having slept through the long winter, and this one was no exception. One slash of its claws parted the nylon like a zipper. Their screams didn't scare it away, only encouraged it, as it fit its jaws around the head of one girl, chewing her, her scalp finally sliding off her skull. The other, in trying to save her friend, was hurled against the canyon wall, then mauled. They played dead or fainted in their pain and after so many minutes the bear abandoned them. Now both are in critical condition at St. Charles Memorial in Bend. "They say they think it's a grizzly."

"There are no grizzlies in Oregon."

"That's what the Forest Service guy said, but then this other guy said—"

"I gotta run." She sets her glass down on the counter with a click. Yellow bits of pulp cling to its inside.

"Okay," he says and opens the cabinet and pulls a box of Cheerios from the shelf to rattle into a bowl and splash with milk. "Have fun. Watch out for bears."

"Don't worry about me," she says, already running, on her way out the door.

He teaches English. Several years ago a sophomore named Jimmy Westmoreland, after downing a twelve-pack of Budweiser, flipped his Camaro and died. Everyone gathered in the gym the next day. The principal—a leathery-looking man who dyed his hair jet black and kept it styled in an "Elvis"—stood before them all and muttered a few kind words about Jimmy. There was a chair next to him and it had a boom box resting on it. "This one's for Jimmy," he said and hit the play button. From the speakers came the drawling voices and disorderly guitar licks of Lynyrd Skynyrd. They sat and listened to "Free Bird." Eight minutes and twenty-three seconds had never seemed like such a long time.

This is the kind of school they are. Wranglers and Levi's. F-10s and Firebirds. All of old Bend send their kids here—while the Portland and California refugees, in their tight designer jeans and brightly polished SUVs, end up at the new high school across town. Justin prefers Billy Joel to Skynyrd—and Starbucks to Folgers—and finds himself identifying more with what Bend is becoming than what it once was. He often thinks about applying for a transfer, or maybe even going back to graduate school, maybe teaching at the college level or doing something else entirely.

There was a time when he enjoyed his job greatly. And then something happened. The same thing that happens to many teachers, he expects. The work begins to rub away at your heart. The exhaustion doesn't come all at once, but steadily, incessantly, like waves wearing away at rock. You get married. You buy a house. You have a kid. And then one day you realize ten, twenty years have passed, and during this time you have grown tired of the low pay, the endless piles of paper, the football players who sit in the back row and cross their arms and seem perpetually amused by everything, a smug smile never leaving their lips.

Sometimes, during the middle of a lecture, he feels strangely distant, separate from himself, as if he is hovering above the classroom, carried there by the drone of his voice. And when from above he looks down on everyone, when he see in their eyes—as he saw in his eyes—a dreamily veiled boredom, it gives him a general feeling of inconsequence, as if nothing he says or does matters.

This morning, during an exam, he glances out the window and sees a gaunt animal, what could be a dog or a coyote, slinking along the edge of the football field. It stays low to the ground, as if it has caught a scent, as if it is stalking something. And then it vanishes into the shadows between the trees. He leans forward and tries to follow it farther, but it is gone, so suddenly he wonders if he imagined it.

The door opens and startles him from his half dream.

The secretary stands there. She is a leggy blonde who spends all day forwarding calls while paging through the latest copy of People or Us Weekly. Today she wears too bright a shade of lipstick that makes her mouth appear like a bleeding gash. "Mr. Caves?" she says. "Your wife is on the phone. She needs to talk to you."

He looks at his students and his students look at him for a long twenty seconds. Then he says, "I'm in the middle of class. What's this about?"

She examines her nails as if they were a point of curiosity. "How should I know? I only know it's an emergency."

He looks about the room, his stomach like a stone, while digesting this. Dust rises in the sunbeams coming through the windows. The clock clicks its way toward three. Someone in the back row snaps their gum, the noise like a broken branch. "You have five more minutes," he tells them. "When you finish, lay the test on my desk. Don't cheat. And remember, for homework tonight, Heart of Darkness, pages fifty through one hundred."

He makes his way down the hall, to the lounge, certain something has happened to his father. Perhaps a stroke. He feels oddly calm, as if he has been waiting for this phone call all day. But this soon gives way to panic when he brings the phone to his ear and listens to his wife tell him about their son.

"It's Graham," she says. "He's missing."

She drove to Amity Creek Elementary, where Graham is a sixth grader, to pick him up. But he never emerged from the swarms of backpack-toting children, never met her at the top of the roundabout where she always waited, engine idling. Fifteen minutes passed—then twenty. She cut the ignition and got out of the car and tried to keep her walk steady in its pace as she approached the school, certain there must be a perfectly logical reason for his absence. Probably Graham had misbehaved and was now serving detention, clapping clouds of chalk from erasers or writing "I will not fire spitballs" again and again on a lined tablet of paper.

Though she knew better. He had never received a detention and likely never would. He was one of those children who took great pleasure in doing exactly as he was told, always saying please and thank you, never speaking out of turn. He favored chinos to jeans and wore his collared shirts tucked into them. Justin wasn't sure how this had happened, how Graham had become this self-possessed little man, and in fact Justin encouraged him to live a little more adventurously. When Justin was that age, he used to collect frogs along the riverbanks and carry them to the nearest road so that he might throw them high into the air, enjoying the sound and sight of them splatting against pavement. It was horrible, but boys are supposed to do horrible things. It's in their nature.

But Graham is different. He is the type of boy who prefers books to BB guns, who makes his bed every morning and plays computer games after he finishes his homework and never begs for the candy stacked next to the cash register. Exactly the type of boy, Karen was thinking, who might climb into a car with a stranger if told a convincing lie, not wanting to offend.

She found his teacher, Mrs. Glover, in her classroom, working her way through a stack of math quizzes. And no, she hadn't seen him, not since the final bell. Together they searched the school grounds and found no trace of him. With every room Karen peered into and found empty, a wind grew stronger inside her, until it felt as though there were a cyclone tearing loose everything she thought was securely nailed down.

She tells Justin this as they drive around Bend, poking their heads into the video arcade, the pizza parlor, the cinema, the library, all the places Graham knows. They have called the police. They have called everyone in his class. Now there is nothing to do but look and wait. They randomly zip up and down the streets of Bend, their heads swinging back and forth as the world flies past the bug-speckled windshield. Karen has her cell phone cradled in her palm. Her mouth incessantly quivers as if only just holding on to a scream. At one point she grabs Justin's arm and squeezes it, once. He can't remember the last time she touched him—really intentionally touched him. Her warmth lingers there after she pulls her hand away. "I can't do this again," she says.

"Don't worry," he says. "Everything is going to be fine."

Justin is a man with neat hair, parted clean on the right side, cut tight above the ears and along the neck. He brings a hand to it now, tidying it, part of him thinking that as long as every hair stays in its place, everything will be fine.

It is. Someone spots Graham at Lava River Lanes, bowling with a strange old man in a leather-fringe jacket. Within minutes, two squad cars pull up with their lights flashing. The deputies race into the building, past the pool tables and arcade games, through the clouds of cigarette smoke, to lane nine, where they find Justin's father, who decided on a whim to pick Graham up from school and teach him a thing or two about how to throw a hook ball.

When Justin arrives, his father is waiting for them in the parking lot, leaning against a squad car with his hands in his pockets. "Can't a man spend an afternoon with his grandson?" he says.

"Of course, Dad. It's just—"

"Just what?"

He goes on. Talking about how Justin needs to let the boy have some fun this, and how he ought to cut an old man some slack that—and so on—while his hands, big brown things, busily rake through his beard like paws through rotten wood, seeking grubs, worms to eat. Lately he has grown wilder and Justin has become more fearful and hesitant to challenge him.

Karen holds Graham to her chest, pressing him into her with a pained look on her face, as if he were a lost organ she wants to force back inside her.

Through the window comes a rectangle of moonlight, brightening the floor and the bottom of the bed. In the distance he can hear elk calling to each other. Their big booming voices spiral through the air, as if blown from a conch shell. He goes to the window. A cool juniper-scented breeze blows, making the curtains billow around him. In the distance he can see the Cascades. They glow in the moonlight, white-shouldered with snow and bearded with forests that look more black than green against them. In their foothills a small light flares, catching his eye. It vanishes a moment later and he is left to wonder about its origin, so far from the city—with no streetlamps or neon signs anywhere near it—a speck of glass caught in the folds of a vast black cloth.

His wife is awake as well. He can tell from her breathing. She showered before bed, scrubbed her skin pink, and shampooed her hair into a silky blackness. These past few hours, every time she readjusts her body, trying to find a comfortable position, a puff of air carries the smell of her cleanness.

He crawls into bed with her again. She has the sheet tucked over her chest and under her arms. She sighs in a way that means she is about to say something. And then she says it: "That man needs to be put in his place."

She is referring not only to today but to other days as well. Last week, for instance, when they went out to the cabin for lunch, his father took Graham into the backyard and Karen later found them hunched over a shallow hole, cheering for a scorpion they had pitted against a black widow spider.