Nothing Gold

Alaina Symanovich

At one o’clock Nikhil found himself, dumbfounded, idling outside the Lovington First Presbyterian Church. He tried to swallow the anger carbonating in the back of his throat. Patience; he knew Macy needed patience. But something about sitting outside the funeral irked him. Maybe it was the shock of the intimacy—like opening a bathroom door to find a stranger unpantsed on the toilet. The jolt of exposure. All he knew was, one minute he was navigating forested back roads, vigilant for deer; the next, he faced a mass of mourners all in black.

Macy had given no clues. She’d emerged from the store smelling of cold, had winked at him as she settled into her seat.

“Supplies,” she said, wagging a new bottle of gold spray-paint in front of him. “And that’s not all.” She fished inside her coat pockets, found two seed packets and dropped them in his lap. “For you.”

“Marigolds,” he read, fighting to shade the smile lighting his face. The flowers in the seed-packet pictures blazed like suns, and as he hunched over them Nikhil decided he didn’t care that Macy hadn’t returned with a bag, or receipt. He hadn’t cared where she wanted him to drive, either—just kept nodding as she instructed turn right or it’s the next left. With so many marigolds and suns kaleidoscoping his mind, thoughts of the funeral never occurred to him.

“Should I…?” he gestured toward the church, tensing his stomach muscles as if preparing for a punch.

“It’s best if you don’t.” She paused for a moment, her grip slackened on the door handle. A shadow tinted her face a new shade—sadness, or regret, Nikhil thought. He almost told her not to go. But the moment passed and as the passenger door slammed, he chided himself for being stupid. Of course she would, should, attend Austin’s funeral. And of course he would wait for her.

More guests coursed through the double doors, a black vein that didn’t trickle dry for fifteen minutes, until the service must have started. What kind of person, Nikhil wondered, walked into a funeral late? And then the thought splashed him with shame. Maybe the stragglers were Austin’s childhood best friends, football camp roommates, fellow Boy Scout sufferers. Maybe they’d cried under the shower spray that morning, had remembered too late that their black jackets needed ironing, had stubbed their toes on their way out the door and collapsed to the floor in tears. Maybe it was a miracle they came at all. Maybe he didn’t know anything.

And then Macy was back at the passenger door, her whole torso twisting as she wrenched the handle. When he unlocked the door, she fell into the seat, trembling. “Drive. Fucking drive,” she commanded, splintering like balsa wood as she lowered her forehead to her knees. The church doors snapped open and she screamed at him again, an electrocution he felt all down his legs. He started the engine and lurched backward out the parking space, too flustered to check the rearview mirror. He swerved onto the road, not allowing himself to look back at the receding building.

“Faster,” she said to her kneecaps. “Just go. Anywhere.”

Her back arched with each breath, the comb of her spine undulating across the landscape out her window. She’d left her jacket in the church, Nikhil realized. He cranked the heat and drove faster, hugging the road’s sinuous turns and praying no deer would materialize around its endless curves.

He eased the Escort off the road at the rough-hewn sign for State Game Lands 176. He wriggled out of his coat and held out the bundle for Macy.

“I want to show you something,” he said, already maneuvering out of the car, letting in a snap of frigid air. She followed, keeping the coat cradled in her arms.

The wind pricked small razors against their cheeks, in their eyes. He didn’t squint, and she didn’t surrender to the coat. Leaves shuddered like fallen soldiers beneath their tramping feet as Nikhil accelerated, guiding Macy around a rock-studded turn and up a hill.

“My dad took me here as a kid,” he said, his voice startling against the dense quiet. “He’s a botanist, so he’d quiz me on all the trees.”

Macy clutched the coat tighter to her chest. “Did you have a favorite?”

Even as his eyes teared, Nikhil smiled. “The tree of heaven. It’s really gross, actually. The whole thing stinks—kind of like bad peanut butter.”

“Maybe it got kicked out of Eden, too.”

Nikhil raised his eyebrows. “And that was its punishment? Instead of the curse of childbirth, the curse of peanut butter?”

Macy stopped and pulled the bottle of spray-paint out from the wads of his coat. He tried not to look surprised. “I need to do something.”

She struggled to pry the lid off the bottle; eventually, frustrated, she clobbered it against the trunk of an oak. Its metallic cap arced through the air and landed, a strangled star, in a bank of dead brush.

“It’s no tree of heaven,” she said, swiping out the familiar letters, “but it’ll do.”

Fuck him: one tree, two trees, three trees. She scribed it in cursive, in print, striping some trunks with candy-cane swaths of words, writing lengthwise up others. The words smeared into illegibility.

Finally she stopped, turning to him and tilting her head. “No more Eden.”

Nikhil shrugged. “Well,” he toed the dead leaves, “maybe the rain’ll wash it away? Someday?”

She glared at him. “Some things don’t wash away,” she said, and the frost in her voice sliced him deeper than the wind. “I didn’t cry, you know. My own cousin’s funeral and I didn’t even cry.”

Nikhil blinked, fuzzy from the spray-paint’s fumes. “You really loved him.”

Her mouth curdled, suddenly ugly. The way the tepid light toyed across her face made Nikhil want to back away. “I hated him.” She shook her head, hard, the way she’d shaken the bottle before each long spray. “Fuck it, I hated him. You don’t know—” She shook her head again.

“Just take me home,” she sighed, starting back down the hill. Nikhil hurried to keep pace, his legs pipe-cleaners clambering over the rocks. As they rounded a bend near the bottom of the slope, he noticed a small pond, iced over and shrouded by a pine grove. From his vantage point above the pond, no sunlight seemed to glint its surface. The ice masqueraded as a patch of clouded night on the afternoon landscape, disconcerting him as Austin’s name had earlier.

Nikhil assumed Macy followed his gaze because, the next thing he knew, her gold bottle was rocketing through the air, skittering across the ice. It rolled and bounced, then lay stranded in the center of the pond. She clomped the rest of the way downhill, indifferent, and Nikhil imagined what his father would say if he could see the scene. His lips would staple into a frown; he’d elaborate on the toxicity of spray paint, on the devastation it would bring to the pond’s ecosystem. When it would happen—when the temperature would rise enough to conquer the layer of ice—was impossible to predict. But someday soon, sunshine would subdue the cold, and the bottle would leach chemicals like secrets into the murk. The fish and their eggs would die; the bushes fringing the shore wouldn’t flower with young buds in spring. The vessel would poison the pond, would sink to the bottom, and the brown trees would weep gold.

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