“I feel like you’re not listening to me,” Gen says.
We eat our lunch at the well in the center of town, as we have so many days before.
“I’m paying attention,” I say. “You were talking about the road being out. How you worry no one can get to us.”
“It’s unfair, your memory. You don’t even have to pay attention all the way,” pouts Gen.
“I don’t know who you’re imagining would want to get to us,” I say. “No one ever has. Why would they come? It's cold all year. It never rains. That’s why everyone lives in the south.”
“And it’s not like there’s anything much worthwhile here in a long-term sense,” I continue. “The men are only here for as long as there’s money. They’ll mine out the mountain, they’ll leave, and we’ll be left with their mess and not much else. The only reason to worry about clearing the road is that maybe we can leave with them to somewhere good.”
“It was only conversation,” she says, and I know I have committed her number one crime: I have made her feel dumb when she wasn’t trying to be smart. She gets up from her spot, balling in one hand the kitchen cloth that wrapped her lunch. “I’m going back to work.”
“Gen,” I apologize, but she is not deterred.
There is nothing left to do, and because my mother is still sure I am coupled up with Gen, she has emphatically refused my help at home, giving me afternoon leave for what she has teasingly called my “quality time.”
The library is warmer than it has any right to be, being underground, and I wonder if this is just how rich men live, every corner of their houses lit and warm, plush carpet and thick paneled wood. I am sitting at a roomy desk with a leather top, reading by a green glass lamp. It is nearly the end—another history, a careful account of the discovery of our continent, the first people to arrive, the cities they built, their battles for territory, their eventual spread. Their relationship to the rest of the world, their economy, their philosophy, their prosperity, their ascendance, their influence.
The publication date is twenty-five years ago. Not so old. I flip the index to ‘J.’ Jebel Creek. Jervis Bay. Jet: Excavation of; Mining industry; Trade. Jewelers. Jewelries.
Maybe spelled wrong. Judiciary. Juefish. June Campaign. Junon Harbor.
I did not mistake it, then—the mention of a great many towns, but not of ours.
Another rather whimsical account of the journey of the three men with their pickax and donkey. In the center of the book are glossy pages with photographs. They don’t tell me anything I haven’t already read, but they are mysteries in themselves—I have of course seen photographs, but they are not something anyone in town has ever had the equipment to make. The men are big, pyramid-chested men, or at least their clothes make them look so. They are not the lean, straight up-and-down men like the ones who work on the mountain. They are unfamiliar-looking to me, foreign. In every picture they wear the same expression, or at least they all have mustaches big enough to hide their smiles if they had them.
I wonder if they look like what my father looked like, if there were a photograph taken of him. What a photograph taken of him and my mother would have looked like. Or me. Me and Gen.
There is something familiar about the last photo. It is a photo from far, far back of the three men, and, at some remove, a fourth. Four miniscule figures, just close enough to the camera to be distinct, each holding a hand up to block the sun, and the base of Mount Navassa in the background. The way it looks if you go to the edge of town, where our road used to lead, where the men’s barricade blocks it off. The way the mountain looks at the end of the day, at sunset. “To the foot of Mount Navassa,” the caption reads, “where no humans have ever trod.”
When I was younger, I used to relish finding errors in a printed book. This one fills me only with dread.
The night descends. Long shadows creep across the basement floor. There is only the light from my lamp—the rich man’s lamp. But seeing as I use it and he does not, perhaps it is fair to claim it as mine. And the book as well—if I am the only one to read it, and there is no one in the house, there is nothing stopping it from belonging to me.
Only for a night.
I slide the book onto the high ledge of the basement window and clamber up, the window falling shut after me. I am not careful enough. Its clatter is terrible, sharp. Almost the second it sounds, a light comes strafing across the lawn, flickering through the bushes.
I look for a place to cower and find a poky row of hedges just across from the window. It’s a poor hiding spot. The light approaches, trained on the basement window I just left. I sit curled around my knees, head tucked low, chin pressed into the hard cover of the book I stole, careening in my head through every childhood story of covetousness and greed, sure that this is the moment the rich man or his kin have chosen to come home, and I will meet my punishment.
The reckoning passes directly over me and onward, undaunted, toward the basement window. I see in the lantern-light who it is that’s come.
“Gen?” I call out.
She shrieks, jumps, the lantern rocking.
“Shh.” I rise to calm her. “It’s me.”
“I know it’s you,” she growls, laying a smack on my upper arm. “Who else would it be?”
And this makes me feel a little stupid for being scared.
Gen stares at the book in my hands. “Did you steal that?”
“I don’t know that it’s stealing in this circumstance.”
“You shouldn’t have taken it,” says Gen.
“What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Reading,” I say, swelling with exasperation.
“This whole time?” she says. “Do you know how late it is? Your mother’s scared to death. You’ve never skipped out on her during dinner.”
I forgot about dinner. It registers suddenly, that constant in my day ever since the men arrived. I am mad at myself for missing it, and mad at the men for how easily and freely my time passed without them, and mad at Gen for knowing I forgot, for knowing I am not a work skipper. She knows my guilt and has come here to bring it to me.
“This is more important,” I argue. “I’m making an effort to learn things. We deserve to know why we’re alone out here on this mountain, why no one comes here, why we don’t get anything good. We’re not even on anyone’s map, Gen. We don’t exist, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. So tell me how I’m supposed to make anything of myself. Tell me how I’ll ever amount.”
“So you’ll just start stealing his things.”
“I did it for you.”
This confuses us both. Softly, a little tentative, she asks, “What do you mean?”
And as she says it I hear that she already knows. And more: that she pities me for the response she is going to have to give me.
“Well, I’m staying,” I growl. “Tell my mother I’m at your house.”
Gen shrinks from me, eyes shadowed by her lantern. “I’m not telling her that,” she says.
“Fine. Don’t tell her anything, then.”
“Should I say you’ll be back in the morning?”
I slip back through the basement window. I flip the lights, then turn them back off. Better that no one can see I am inside. Better that she thinks I am gone.
I can see her lantern’s glow on the frosted glass; I can see her shadow shifting. She waits, and waits, and finally goes away.