Mail told it first—a box at roadside, flag down, not one letter taken out. Carriers on a rural route used to know the people they delivered to, Trish had heard. But she had only got the call when the postal service ran short of room to cram and her newest hire, first on scene, had grown uneasy. “People do take trips,” Jack had said over the radio. “They move away. But something’s not right.” So she took a trip of her own. Views on the drive always gave her heart—deep forest, bold Pacific silvering the air. Cliffs rose and birds kited at fallen pillars in the surf. The through route had moved years back, beach towns left all but empty.
Trish had grown up on that same coastline though much farther south. Thirty years ago she had begun to feel an ache for sparser parts—fewer people, not less life. Now and then a cash-poor climate did visit troubles upon an officer of the law—downright strange ones up here—but as Trish saw it these were fair swap. And years with the badge had lent a story or two, which helped run down clocks with the locals.
The woodlands were full of settlements, unincorporated, twenty or so neighbors to each with maybe a bus bench to share. This was one such, built athwart a creek in long naves of redcedar. Jack’s car would have been hard to miss, the only car there, road or shoulder. Pulling up she saw what her deputy had meant. Roofs showed in the narrow glen below the roadway, and to a one these wore more moss than shingle. Some were bowing to the deadfall, and on one a widowmaker had driven itself plumb.
“Sheriff,” for a hi.
“Deputy.” Trish had a look at the box, one in a cluster aside a driveway. Roofs were hard to make out through the rampart. Redcedar grew wide and tall. “Ring the bell?”
“Knocked, pounded, gave a shout, the whole enchilada. Oh—sorry.”
“Weirder that you notice.” Trish was white but up in the realm of bigfoot and peckerwood a last name like Mendoza carried a whiff. What a nose for otherness they had in rural Oregon. Never mind that Mendoza was a Basque name where folks took Basque for transatlantic Mexican. The mailbox was blank. “Who’s on the letters?”
“I can look?”
“You serve the greater good, pal.”
He opened the box to unstick those topmost. Springing the wedge left several on the ground. Trish saw forwarding labels before Jack picked them up. He looked at two, a third. “Must’ve—” The adjacent mailboxes had names, most faded, many left partial by paint and labels shed to weather. But there was enough to piece it out. “Yeah. Neighbors. But they’re sent ahead. Doesn’t seem necessary. If it’s for vacation—neighbors being neighborly—all the boxes are right here for pickup.” Trish was glad to see she had not put a liability on payroll. Jack sorted envelopes. “Hopper. Alice Hopper.”
“Like she married the rabbit. Doubt we’ll need the name or the knock, but you never know.” Jack was looking a mite green. “I’ll go in,” she said. “I’ve been there.”
“No, no, Sheriff. Best to get unhappy firsts out of the way.”
“You sound like my prom date.”
Chain and padlock kept cars from rolling in but on foot this was an easy skirt. Short walk down, and upbeat considering they were about to find a corpse, and surely one that was plenty ripe. Sunlight was tipping in through the canopy high above—ramps in spectral alignments as far back as Trish could see. The creek narrowed to a riffle and a tune. There would be trout in that water, even chinook and steelhead back from sea.
The house was greening toward oblivion but the roof was still intact. Bungalow style, with an upstairs room instead of attic space and a broad window casement looking on the creek. Trish took this for the master bedroom and felt a shiver pass. The unseen view for the unseeing eye. Judging from the thinness of the duff in front someone had been sweeping and weeding not so long before. The upkeep was about comfort, as Trish saw it, and not the cash draw of the real estate. Jack knocked for her, and she gave the shout. “Ms. Hopper? County sheriff. We’ve come out to check on you.” She gave the door the minute it deserved and tried the nob. Locked, but the condition of the frame told her that a heel would beat the latch cold.
No charnel stenches. That was good. The insides were well ordered if shabby: faded rug on the entryway, coat rack, framed picture opposite, all kept tidy. The rest downstairs was the same, old but functional and clean. All books were on the shelves, every drawer shut. There were a couple of dishes in the sink and scattered crumbs and a jam smear from a piece of toast. Plants on the windowsill had perished of thirst.
“Ms. Hopper? County sheriff.”
In short time they had to take the trip upstairs, and twice on the creaking treads she announced the climb. Dead or not dead, there were courtesies. At the base stood a walker, and the rail of a stair lift. There was carpet underfoot and small pictures on the wall. No kids. A smell built, but not of the worse sort. The lift seat was up top, no second walker close—it would be at bedside, or in the bathroom, maybe overturned.
At first Trish only saw the window scenery—a bright vista. Glass free of dust let one of those beams come down aslant. Forest view, creek music audible though muted. A song—rasping, no less faint—played out slow to match the sound of water. Eyes adjusting, Trish said, “Jack, make the call,” and her voice told the kind.
On the night stand was a tall bottle of water and box of snack bars. Wrappers, three bars eaten, had fallen to the floor, and the drinking glass was upset at the foot of the upstairs walker. Alice Hopper lay in bed at a diagonal on bed linens soiled in one spot but neatly made. Eyelids so thin Trish could see the color underneath, long white hair in a careless fan. But the mouth was agape, a narrow drop, and the drawn features around it seemed on the verge of a slip. Whether or not the old woman could hear a word Trish began to speak, to tell her help was on the way and that she was safe.
EMTs got her stable, on cell with a physician. Jack had cut the chain for the ambulance. Trish told him to search the house for an address book or, given the tenant’s age, a Rolodex, though of course given Jack’s own he had been unclear on the concept of any dataset built on pen and paper. Whether the bag was glucose or saline or a dopy cocktail, the drip brought some pink back. Cardiac beeping on a portable fell from quick and shallow to something like a casual rhythm.
Hopper opened her eyes to a squint. She began to whisper. It was just as well that Jack had not yet found a means to contact next of kin. One of the EMTs had been leaning close, and he waved Trish over. Hopper spoke. Hopper slept.
On the walkie Trish told Jack to stop. She went downstairs. “Don’t touch anything else. Not yet. This might be a crime scene.”
He glanced about. Shopworn tidiness, lace doilies on all the furniture.
“Or the neighbors. But yeah.”
Next door did not mean a romp around the hedge like one took in suburbia, though for country the houses were close. Trish sent Jack one way. She went the other.
Lucky her. Even from the lane she could see something posted on the first door she came to. The yard here was more overgrown than Alice Hopper’s—needles laid deep, faded tan, seed cones sown about, sorrel breaking through—and the house was in worse shape. But not yet a proper ruin—windowpanes were whole, the roof ridge straight, no backbone slouching to visits of rain and snow. Moss was thick atop and creeping up the sides. Boards had warped out at the bottom and ferns were breaking down the foundation slab. No car. Come to think of it there had been none at the Hopper house. Approaching the porch was an intrusion. Trish felt it keenly. Each soft step was the progress of a thief, and the quiet got much quieter.
“Here lies Emily Macdonald,” she made out on the note, and a lengthy span of dates. The sign was written out in blue Bic and fed into a Ziploc bag—poor man’s lamination. But pushpins at the corners had let in damp and the ink had bled to a wash. An epitaph jotted on a cheap pane of sky. “Good friend, wife to Chuck, first to pass. Too used up now to put her with him and the rest. So sorry. Please see to her bones. Alice, one over.”
“Jesus Christ,” Trish said to the sign, and to the radio, “Head back this way.”
“Got a winner?”
“One, for a start.”
A finger too long on transmit gave up the selfsame lord and savior. She waited for Jack—not in fear of tricks, traps, or ambush but for the sake of procedure. In truth she might enjoy the conversation. Once Jack had caught up with a read she tried the door. Shut, but unlocked. Windows inside had been left open, screens taken down, in a repose below the sills. Moss and weeds were growing just inside. She stepped on a rug to a crunch of dry woodlice. On to the living room. There a sharp hiss met them—and a face, black-eyed, flat, ghostly. A white form reared up. Barn owl—a fatty old timer—swooping out the broadest open window. Trish and Jack caught enough breath to share a laugh but the stink wrecked the mood. Roosts for smaller birds were marked up with their daub. Nests had built atop the wreckage before the owl had jumped the claim. Pellets littered the floor about its spot, commas of bone and fur. Wreckage was inapt—decay, a musty air, but for all that Trish could see another house kept neat right up to the end. Nothing ransacked, everything in place—a bookshelf had fallen over, true, and water damage had drawn reliefs high and low. But a home, and everything had only just begun to fall apart. It would have been some time coming. Three empty years at least. The smell was animal but underneath that was the nastier one, if faint, preaching caution.
“Sorry, Jack. This’ll be memorable.”
A swing clock struck the floor. They both jumped but only Trish’s hand had gone to the sidearm. Chimes and a mainspring ran down from a sour chord. Spooking herself—she would have to watch that. Shifting floorboards, or the bat of a big white wing. Where the clock had hung lath and dry rot showed through the plasterwork.
“Well, the floor’s still good but let’s watch our step.”
“Okay,” Jack said, without hope of a quip.
This house was ranch style, so this time there were no stairs to mount. The bedroom door stood open on the side of the corridor away from the sun. Beneath heavy covers—bedspread, quilts—a long shape lay on the bed. For tribute a yellowed wedding dress had been laid out atop the mound. Meadow flowers, too—bunches gone dry and colorless. Candles had melted down on the night stands. There was a framed picture of a couple from wartime, the man in uniform. A Bible had been left open, a string of beads to tell.
The bedspread was twitching, and before Trish could warn him Jack rushed up. The cover flew to a loud hello as rats fled the skeleton, glancing off their shins and ankles. Flesh had been gnawed clear—every last stitch of it and of the bedclothes—but the mattress held the bygone form like a rough brown die. Torn, sunken, the shape of a human being, still of some profit to scavengers. No reproach as Jack took a corner.
“Sorry,” he said, wiping his mouth.
“For what?” She had already brought her phone out for pictures. Each flash left takes on the room floating in their vision. “There’ll be another. In another house.” Puppy dog eyes, but Jack kept professional. Trish quoted Alice Hopper. “‘Please get the last two in the ground.’”
“And the note on—”
“Yeah. ‘The rest.’ So more than two. It’s just that one or more are buried instead of ... this. The bright side is you’re pretty good at investigative procedure.”
“Even the puking?”
“Mos def. We’ll get the cruiser—look for a second note. No sense in getting too much exercise today.”
“Your car or mine?”
So Trish was not the only one up for company. “I keep Tiger Balm in the glove box. We can draw on little mustaches. Saw it in a movie once. But first the photoshoot.” The coroner would take his own for county records, but you never knew.
Just up the road where a culvert fed the creek was a second chain in need of cutting. But first they exhausted every possibility along the nearer bank. There were two footbridges, one in a bad list and ready to come apart. And it was much the same with the remaining houses. Those with the most neglect—longest vacant—had saplings in their yards. Slumping walls, roof frames, all the lumber gone black and soft, but no note on a door. The oldest ones had broken out in fungus, and that hung on her mind—pale brackets like scale. Ms. Hopper had been taken, the ambulance gone, and Trish had called one of her other three deputies straight down. In short time it would become all hands, but Kelly had the dog. Gordon would sit bedside and Matthew go to fetch the coroner.
Kelly took the briefing at the first driveway mouth. Shemp looked on from inside the SUV, ears high. By eye alone Kelly made the same sort of gesture. “Seriously?”
“We’ve already gone through on this side. Take him on a walk.” Shemp was good for people, live or not, but more often was brought in to find a stash. The coroner pulled up, Matthew behind. “That was quick. Well, I guess first we’ll show Dennis what he’s won.”
Cracking a lot of jokes, she saw—she would have to watch that, too. But Trish could not deny that the errand had got to her. What on first glance had seemed like woodland haven now wore a mask. She and Jack made a slow round on the far side and it was much the same: all houses derelict, some gone to ruin, the forest taking back the lots. “It’s everyone,” Jack said, and Trish felt the selfsame crawl. “It’s every last home.”
They spotted the note near the end, the house second to last. This door was not upright and the house was not safe to enter. From deep in the trees a tall snag had given up and swung down. The frame on one side had been taken out, a thousand pounds of dimensional lumber clouted into deadfall. Trish looked through a broken window while Jack had a look at the note. He tore it off the fallen door leaf and brought it over.
“Jack, you don’t—”
“Can’t make out most,” he said, “but read the last part.”
Again a plastic bag. Words came up through the dirty face of it, and neither the handwriting nor the voice behind the words was like that read before. Part of a name—Fritz—and the opener on a lifespan from deep in the prior century. And again a memorial—praises caught in part, a superlative or two, mention of a fly fishing knack—and then “not strong enough no more to get him to the rest hes due. Sorry. His longtime friends, Alice and Emily. Crost the water near the road.”
On pickup of the call she had him well pictured. Her oldest deputy and most likely replacement, in time, would be sitting in a folding chair on the ICU. She marveled at his ability to doze off in that hinged posture. No less impressive was the way he could snap back awake at the least change in the air—no grogginess, no hesitation. If a nonagenarian was going to lam it Gordon was whom Trish would want on post.
“Tough old broad,” he said atop ward noise. “Dehydration. She nearly died of thirst in bed. And the med says she still will. Her kidneys aren’t coming back. She’ll pass inside the week.”
“She hasn’t spoken at all?”
“Nor shown a wakeful eye. But it’s sleep for now, not dying. What went on?”
“Hell if I know,” Trish said. “But I’ll debrief in the a.m. so we can all be confused together.” She put her phone in a pocket, switching to walkie. The three deputies on scene were on a circuit to flush out any further weirdness. She was leaning against her car near the Macdonald house, waiting on the coroner. A diesel jenny ran and a cable went through a window frame, but she could not see any glow from the lamps set up. It was the afternoon. They would put up the yellow tape on the driveways to replace the chain. But not a single civilian vehicle had driven by and she doubted the site would be disturbed. “Kelly, anything?”
“Shemp ate an owl pellet I’ll regret, but it’s just another dog day. If there are more remains out here, they’ll be old ones—no scent aside from the dirt they turned into.”
Dennis walked out. He had brought Jr. along to help set up the lights. They shared a mustache, though the coroner’s was gray and the nose above it red from modest alcoholism. One wore a polo shirt, the other Slayer. “Osteoporosis,” said the Dennis with a collar. “Shrunk bone. That was one old lady. And I only got lady from the note.”
“On what, the box springs? There’s nothing left to poke at.”
“Cause of death?” She weathered a stare. “Give me something to work with.”
“My line. Trish, look, it’s bones. There’s no reason to think the bone owner did anything but die asleep. For theatrics and a whiteboard pass it on up.” The state medical examiner, that meant—a forensic pathologist with a team, a lab, and access to volunteers at the state university. “But then the troopers might swoop down. Steal your thunder.”
“This is never like TV,” said Dennis Jr., switching off the jenny.
Jack’s voice came on channel. “Need Shemp.”
The same directions led Trish across the creek as the Dennises drove away. Past the end of the far drive, the remnants of the homes, to where the deep woods began. She left her car at a trailhead aside Jack’s and Kelly’s, and the walk was short. Redcedar was high canopy of course, with a bole too broad for six pairs of arms. But Trish saw foliage towering behind it. She came to a glade circled by trunks. These were not much broader than those behind but had a much redder bark and stood taller by a third. The gap was the bottom of a well, blue sky a ragged hole far above. The base was a depression, yards wide, two deep—a throw from a tree fallen long ago, every last vestige of it gone to soil. This lone stand had grown where dropped as seed cone, the generation that remained. Four hundred feet, three thousand years, and well out of range for their kind.
“Giant sequoia,” she said, and bent a neck. Jack and Kelly did not correct her. They had stepped down into the bowl and were chin deep in understory. Trish heard Shemp running through the lower brush. Twitches at the tops showed her where. He would have been barking at a scent, but scent or no scent something held his interest. The growth should have been higher. Tree throws peeled the humus back to leave a sterile pit. But in time material would fill it up, enough to nourish saplings. Plant food had come late here, and had been spread unevenly. Without conscious knowledge her mind ran the math, found the sum, and the crawl came back.
“Got another,” Jack said.
“Me too,” from Kelly. “Lots of them—looks like roots pushed them out.”
Trish has not stepped down just yet. “Lots of what?”
Shemp ran up, wagging hard. In his mouth was a femur, green on bleachy white and sharp at one end from a break. The fetch set down, he gave a smile and did the forepaw dance. Trish scratched at his jowl and waited for the fear to settle.
Matthew came up behind. “Wha’d I miss?”
None could fault Alice Hopper for impatience. She had no uses for a hospital, not at so late a stage in the lifespan, but that did not make her any less kind. Sight had grown hazy, the vantage narrowing, but everything she had ever been was still in place somewhere up the tunnel.
The cardigan seemed to agree. “You’re sharp for your age,” loud and slow. Answers had grown measured, it was true. Talking was work, as was listening. Alice had to wait for her brain to search a script, find the word, but whatever she truly was aside from a brain and a recombinant alphabet knew the lag for a lag. There had been other progress to rue. As of a week ago she could no longer stand up, not on her lonesome. And in the leadup to that, her ambit had shrunk so fast—rounds like visiting the circle of giants, the beats around the neighborhood, checking the mailbox, sweeping the porch. Her fastest gait a shuffle, she had no longer left the house. Even taking delivery from the general store—her lifeline—was near to ordeal. She had prepared for winding down—stocked up on canned soup, left food and water by the bed, meaning to write a note for herself as she had done for poor Emily Macdonald. No comebacks. Yesterday she had asked for a wheelchair, and a different slow talker had shown up to tell her why bed was a nice to be. This young woman had brochures. Alice knew the subject of those pitches far better than the shill. Poor kid—hard job to do. Alice waited for another question. Instead came the spiel. “It’s comfortable up there. Like a bedroom but with lots of places to sit. Couches, armchairs, a window with lots of sun. Friends can come and visit. Family. Lots of room.”
Lots of lots—a hospice ward. “Told you.” Alice’s voice was a frail scratch.
“People from church?”
“Atheist.” Off the truth, but for keeping it short closest to the point: gods were their own trouble. Bah and humbug.
“No children. No grandchildren. Great grandchildren?”
“How would they have got there?”
It took a minute to state but was worth it for the face. Alice caught her breath. The cardigan made another face, no less awkward, trying for a smile. She did not know what to say or what else to ask—that was clear. Alice had her own thankless task—to make a changing cast of strangers feel okay about her demise.
“Mrs. Hopper—is it missus? I know where you’d rather be. And if it were me I’d want to be home, too. So it’s not that I don’t want to help you get there. We can’t release you to your own care, not alone. We have a home hospice program, visiting nurses, volunteers, but someone has to be near for you around the clock. Somebody has to show you out.” How true—but the cardigan looked away. She had meant from the hospital.
Alice smiled and readied a breath, though she knew what she said would not be taken for a joke. “What was the name of that grocery boy again?”
Home she was never alone. Sometimes friends and neighbors paid a visit of sorts, even her husband, though Brian was the longest gone. Visit—put better there were times when Alice knew they had never been away. Just for instance after her last breakfast, before the final ride upstairs, Alice had looked down on crumbs in the sink and had been with Emily—that flutter of a laugh that could only crack her up. She had thought on it many times, that sly reminder, always catching you off guard. Pattern, like being same. The unseen was not supernatural. Just the opposite—it was more here and now than here and now, and all too close. Crumbs in the sink were planetary, wholes in leasts. She could not name what that was, but it was, and that brought only comfort.
Alice looked up, and the cardigan had become a uniform. No, this was another person—a sheriff. Fiftyish, broad on the beam.
“Hi, I’m Trish Mendoza,” she said. “You’ve met my deputy Gordon.” The man leaning from behind—deep gray mustache, twinkle-eyed—did look a mite familiar. “We’re going to get you home.”
The transfer was in an ambulance, and Mendoza rode along. That would be pricey, Alice knew. She realized she would never pay the bill, and she began to chuckle. Down the years, so much paper in need of answer—county tax assessments, mostly—forwarded to her address. No one had ever noticed who was paying, or who was not, even as the pool of them had dwindled down to one. Tend the machine, the machine ran on. Even that clockwork, that indifference, could be made to serve.
The sheriff leaned in. “Could you help me out, Ms. Hopper?”
“Alice,” behind the oxygen mask.
“Trish. You don’t owe us anything. This isn’t tip for tap. We already figured out you’re no culprit. But it would be good to confirm just how many are in the gap.”
Alice liked that—gap. The open and the shut of it. “Thirty-three.”
“Plus two. Adds up. Funny seeing it from on end instead of from a side. I did the grunt work—went through records. Boring old paper was what told the story. Thirty-five left to return to nature in a place where they usually aren’t. I brought that uneasiness in with me. I put it there. Stare from one angle and life turns into a massacre.”
Alice thought about that and had the best last laugh.
“No laws got broke, or none that matter much to anyone. You all let it wind down, you and your neighbors. You wanted real property to go back to the world—to be too much of a loss to get back on market. None of you had children, or on the books. We’ll never know why you made those decisions, but now we know what the decisions were.”
“Campground,” Alice said, and meant the rule. She did not have the breath for more. Sixty-odd years before, Brian had been stationed in Italy. They had gone to the Venetian lagoon. Striking as that was—the Palace, the Isle of Glass, long rides by slipper boat—what stood out most afterward was the cemetery isle, San Michele. So much wrought marble in it, lovely once but grown unearthly over time. Tombs cracked, mosses grew, and crosses shed their beams. Angels wore down to furies. On mausoleum walls she had seen tintype images, and as pigments faded and verdigris streaked few of those beloved dead had been left with a human face. Instead there was an unmade shape, a hint of eye and mouth, dressed up in early century portrait clothes.
Funerals were for the living. Anything left to mark ground, preserve the body in hopes of a forever, was a terrible mistake. Return delayed, love became a horrorshow.
When the ambulance had pulled up to her house they brought the gurney out. Alice put up a hand, or just the fingers—enough gesture to call for a stop. Her breath was shortening. She had spotted cars across the creek—people in a flock. “Who?”
“Those are graduate students. Archaeologists someday.” Trish patted her wrist. “I’m sorry they can’t leave the bones be. But you know what? That university has a forestry department. Training for careers in both Parks and Agriculture. That stand of big trees is like treasure to them. Coast redwood, they say, oldest on record—and that it doesn’t belong here. Word’s already spread. Even if somebody was keen to snatch up the plots—build here again—they couldn’t. There’ll be protection. Off limits for good and ever.”
Alice had trouble following. The gauge had narrowed.
“What’s that, Alice?” Trish leaned up to the mask.
And now. Trish left a hand on her shoulder. As each breath shortened to a sniff the creek played on the stones. From deeper in the trees a woodpecker preached in call and rattle. Sunlight was beaming through and winking where the thinnest branches shifted to the air. “Pretty,” Alice tried to say, and it would go on being so, told or not.