Pine Barrens by Billy Middleton
Billy Middleton’s “Pine Barrens” is the third-place winner of the 2022 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, guest judged by Alan Heathcock.
Married couple Dieter and Norah and their boyfriend Jeremy make up a throuple in crisis on a vacation in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. They discuss politics and philosophy and aliens. They watch TV and go to the beach. This is a story in which nothing much happens and everything happens. The pervasive mood of unnamable dread, with touches of profound tenderness, is palpable and compelling as these three try and flail and try again to find love and connection in a world in which they’re aliens, even to those they love, and maybe even to themselves. —Alan Heathcock
“The 2024 election will be all about Taiwan,” our boyfriend, Jeremy, says. We’ve turned off all the lights except the one over the stove in the attached kitchen, and now we’re getting high on the plaid sofa in the living room. Jeremy lies stretched across us, his feet in my wife Norah’s lap, his head in mine. When he told us he wanted to bring us down to his parents’ cabin in the Pine Barrens, we expected something more than a double-wide trailer with a wraparound deck.
Jeremy’s dad inherited this cabin and the land it occupies from his parents, lifelong pineys, and has vague plans to tear it all down and start from scratch. In the meantime, Jeremy likes to come down here two or three times a year. His parents, who got slightly rich from some clever real estate deals at the tail end of the Great Recession, rent him an industrial loft in Downtown Jersey City, but sometimes he prefers the quiet, low-class charms of a place like this. I wonder if that’s also part of our appeal.
“The pro-Taiwan candidate will be all presidential bluster,” Jeremy continues. “Must honor our commitments, specter of communism, all that stuff.” With each phrase, he pounds his fist on his thigh like it’s a podium. “Meanwhile, the other candidate will just go up to the podium, say, ‘Fuck Taiwan,’ and win in a landslide.”
Jeremy likes to think he understands the world in ways other people don’t. He buys into all the conspiracy theory greatest hits. Antivax, flat earth, election fraud. He claims he’s simply “challenging our biases,” but we know he’s a true believer. Sometimes we try to argue with him, but he’s stubborn and we’re in love, so we always back down.
Our situation is unsustainable. He’s not yet thirty, and Norah and I are both in our early forties. Someday he’ll want more than we can give him. Until then, we’re pushing back against the clock. He comes over to our place and we behave like children. Drinking games; paper airplane fights; charades, but what we act out gets more and more suggestive as the night goes on. The sex is good. He makes us young again. If it were any combination of just two of us, they’d call it a love for the ages. With all three, I don’t know what they’d call it. But our feelings are genuine, which means they can hurt us. When I share these concerns with Norah, she says, “Jesus, Dieter, quit worrying about what might happen,” but what else is there to worry about besides what might happen?
Norah turns on the television and flips through the channels until she finds a show about the 9/11 Museum. She mutes and unmutes several times before realizing there’s no sound. “TV’s broke,” she says. The camera shows a high-angle shot of one of the reflecting pools, people milling around touching names on the plaques. Jeremy asks if we’ve ever been, and Norah shakes her head.
“Seems kinda ghoulish to me,” she says.
“I think they did it tastefully enough,” Jeremy says.
The camera cuts to the gift shop, close-ups of a pair of Twin Towers earrings, Never Forget coffee mugs, reflecting pool mousepads. A boy rolls a toy firetruck with flashing lights back and forth on a countertop. “That’s tasteful?” Norah asks.
“It’s nostalgia,” Jeremy says. “People are allowed to be nostalgic for bad times too.”
“That which was hard to bear is sweet to remember,” I say. “Seneca said that.”
“Well, sounds to me like Seneca never had to bear very much,” Norah says.
We watch a while longer as a smiling tour guide, her teeth too white to believe, shows off exhibits. Eventually, Norah glances at her phone and says she needs to get ready for bed. Jeremy slides to his feet to let her up, and she disappears into the bedroom. He turns off the TV and starts toward the back patio door, pauses next to the half-wall between the living room and kitchen, and glances back at me. I follow him outside, where the air smells like mud and wet leaves. We each fall into one of the low-slung deck chairs and prop our feet up on the railing, trying to keep our heels out of the bird shit. A half-moon and a sprinkle of stars punctuate the sky. The black of the woods is broken only by a porch light visible through the trees some distance away. The astronauts on Jeremy’s socks glow in the dark.
“See that house over there,” he says, pointing his vape pen at the distant porch light. “I was friends with the kid who used to live there. Todd Morgan. My dad hated Todd. Thought he was a bad influence. He kinda was. We’d send his GI Joes on all kinds of dangerous missions, and when they got back to base, the survivors would celebrate by fucking. But Todd didn’t have any of the girl GI Joes, so we’d pretend the ones with the helmets over their faces were the girls. He taught me that the first time you fuck is a freebie, but the second gets her pregnant. I grew up thinking as long as you’re never with the same person twice, you got nothing to worry about.”
A mosquito flies near my face and I swat at it. Jeremy leans over and switches on the bug zapper on the table between us, bathing our faces in sickly green like in celebrity sex tapes. The glow makes the stars harder to see, which is a shame. The lack of light pollution is the only thing I enjoy about the woods.
I tell him about my version of Todd Morgan, who died when I was nine. He and I would go bike riding on summer afternoons, but I must’ve been grounded one day or something. He was doing wheelies alone off an embankment in the woods near his house when his front wheel got tangled up in a vine. He landed upside down, broke his neck. I pause and ask for the vape, take a hit, pass it back. “Fucked me up for a while there,” I say. “I didn’t know anything about death before that. I thought I was gonna live forever.”
We’re both quiet for a minute or so, then Jeremy nudges the side of my leg with his big toe. “You didn’t learn about death until you were nine? You never had a pet die or anything?”
“My parents were evangelicals. When I was six or seven and my hamster died, they told me Charlie was waiting for me up in heaven.”
He takes another hit from the pen, blows the vapor out into the night, and says, “I don’t really think death is anything to worry about. The first time I did ayahuasca, I saw that the universe is all one big consciousness. When we die, our awareness is recycled. Not, like, reincarnation. I don’t believe in that stuff. Just somewhere in the universe, something new becomes aware of itself.”
Normally, I’d tell him it’s an interesting theory and I’ll need to think more about it. But for some reason, tonight I’m particularly annoyed by how conventional his beliefs are and how convinced he is that they’re not. We shouldn’t be encouraging him. He’s still young enough to be moldable, which is part of the appeal for us. We like the fact that we can try to shape him in our image, but at the end of the day, he isn’t really our responsibility.
“Bill Hicks said something similar back in the eighties,” I tell him. “Before him, it was Terrence McKenna, Ken Kesey, Aldous Huxley. Before them, it was somebody else. Everyone who does drugs winds up there eventually. It’s an old idea, Jeremy.”
“Well, it’s not old for me,” he says. “I just came up with it.”
“You didn’t come up with it at all.”
I can feel his eyes boring into me. For several minutes he doesn’t speak. Eventually, he slaps at his neck and grumbles about the mosquitoes. When I don’t take the hint, he announces that he’s going to bed and asks if I’m coming. I tell him I’m going to stay up a bit longer, enjoy the night. We don’t get crickets or stars in Bayonne.
He stands up and tries to pass in front of me, but my legs are still propped up on the railing. I lower them for him, and as he starts past me, I raise them again like a tollgate, trapping him.
“You’re under arrest,” I say.
He shoves past me and stands next to the chair, looming over me. I imagine him slugging me. I think he might if I really pushed him. I kind of want him to. Sometimes in hotel rooms, if the cooking and housebuilding channels have nothing good on, Norah and I watch Cops reruns instead. The ones where they answer domestic abuse calls are the best. The men are handcuffed in their front yards in their boxers and holey T-shirts, yelling at the cops, yelling at their wives who stand in the doorway watching. I want to spark that kind of emotion in somebody. Norah and I used to spark it in each other, but now we’ve become boring. We know each other’s ploys and gambits too well. I glance up at Jeremy and think about what I could say that might set him off, what I could say that would soothe him. In the end, I decide to say neither. He opens the patio door and slides it shut behind him. The light in the kitchen comes on, spilling out onto the back deck, then it goes off again and I’m left in the dark. I turn off the bug zapper and wait for my eyes to adjust.
We’re on our way to the shore in our olive RAV4. Norah is driving, I’m in the back seat, and Jeremy is in the passenger seat with his shoes off and his feet on the dashboard. A Jackson Five song is playing on the radio, and Norah and Jeremy are discussing whether it’s still okay to like Michael’s early stuff. They don’t ask my opinion on the matter. They’ve been ignoring me all day. When Jeremy found me this morning on the couch, he shook me awake and told me to go to bed. I crawled into bed next to Norah, her wiry black-and-gray hair spread out over the pillows, and slipped my arm around her. After maybe five minutes, she slid out of my grasp, gathered up her clothes, and pulled the door shut behind her. I couldn’t tell if she was mad or just ready to wake up. I still can’t.
We decide to stop at Whole Foods for snacks. A line of masked shoppers extends around the corner of the building. Behind us in line, a burly dude in a shirt that says White Hat Hacker coughs into a surgical mask. It’s crazy how normal pandemic life has become, and how little time it took. A strong wind whips our hair and clothes in every direction. Storm clouds are forming off to the east. I suspect our beach day will be upended.
Inside, Jeremy and Norah get distracted by the supplements aisle. She holds up a jug of collagen powder and shows it to him. “Look,” she says, and he smiles. Some inside joke between them. In the snack foods aisle, they take bags and boxes off the shelves, read the nutrition labels, put them back. They’ve identified what is mutually important to them in a snack food. I watch her navigate the aisles with him, and I think to myself, What are we doing? What happens when this implodes? Who ends up with who? Norah and I have been married for eighteen years, since I was twenty-four and she was twenty-three. Our entire adult lives, basically. We’ve been with Jeremy for two. It should be easy to say who would end up where, but it isn’t.
At the beach, the sun starts to cut through some of the clouds, and I begin to think we might get a reprieve. Jeremy is down in the water diving into the waves, letting them roll him back to shore. At one point, he’s tossed into a mother and a couple of children, who fuss at him and wave him away. Meanwhile, Norah and I are sitting on towels on the beach next to each other. She’s reading a book about string theory.
“Are you going to be a grumpypants this whole trip?” she says.
I shut off my phone and look up at her. She’s been staring at the same page for ten minutes. A note written in the margin with a ballpoint pen reads, “Penrose—CCC?”
“He says he tried to open up to you and you shut him down. He says it’s a pattern.”
“Shut down is a bit strong,” I say. “And it’s not as much of a pattern as it should be.”
I glance over my shoulder at the boardwalk behind us. We haven’t walked along a Jersey Shore boardwalk since our last trip to Atlantic City in 2016. I ask if she wants to, and she holds her book up in front of my nose and slams it shut. I flinch, which makes her smile. We dust the sand off our asses, and she stuffs her book into her canvas bag. We leave our belongings on the beach and walk over to the boardwalk. I take her hand in mine as we walk. The food stands have their wooden flaps lowered and padlocked. All the shops are closed.
“How long do you figure this can last?” I ask her.
“I guess until we get everything back under control,” she says.
She’s answering the wrong question, but her answer could just as easily apply to the one I am asking. “I meant about our situation. You know what I meant.”
She stares at her sandaled feet, trying to avoid stepping on the seams between the planks. She’s done a better job than me of remaining childlike. “Was our situation better before?”
It wasn’t, but I like to imagine it was. Norah and I fought about everything in the years before we learned to bottle up our emotions. We fought about children. I wanted them, she didn’t. Money. Those are the two main subjects people fight about, I suppose. Also religion. She’s Greek Orthodox and fairly devout. When I was younger and meaner I used to tease her about it. She attends services every Sunday morning and occasionally on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Sometimes she wants me to go with her. One morning when I was hungover and wanted to sleep in, I told her we’d both burst into flames the second we walked through the door. She started to tear up, wiped at her eyes. Apparently, she’d been harboring guilt. She gave me the silent treatment for a couple days, locked herself in her home office. Avoidance is how she handles conflict. Jeremy yells. I drink too much and withhold affection. None of us deals with it healthily. Recognizing our problems should be the first step to changing them, but it won’t be.
“I actually think this is right,” she says. “Young people should date older people. I think in your twenties you should be assigned an older person who can show you the ropes, and in return you provide companionship. Then when you get old, it’s your turn to have a companion.”
“Where does marriage fit into that framework?”
“I haven’t figured that part out yet,” she says. “Still doing the research.”
I glance over at her. She’s gotten a bit grayer, wrinklier, gained a pound or two, but so have I, and she’s done it more stylishly. We almost never make love just the two of us anymore. We used to be pretty good at it. I ask her if she remembers that time on the couch, and she smiles. It was a few years ago. We got a little drunk, a little high, and she’d tried to set the mood with an apple cinnamon candle and an indie R&B playlist. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe the mood, maybe both, but we were in sync in a way we’d never been before and never have since. Everywhere she guided my hands along her skin, I felt them on my own.
“That’s a good memory,” she says. I wait for her to say more, but she leaves it at that.
We walk for a while longer before returning to the beach. Jeremy is stretched out on my beach towel, drying off. He’s wearing Norah’s cat-eye sunglasses and has his fingers laced behind his head.
“Thought you two might’ve abandoned me,” he says.
“I never would’ve left my books,” Norah says.
We feel a drizzle that soon turns into fat raindrops, so we pack everything up. On the drive back to the cabin, the rain starts to come down hard, and when we get there, we dash through the knee-high grass of the front yard and still get soaked.
Inside, we change into dry clothes and move to the kitchen. Jeremy moved some salmon steaks to the fridge last night to thaw, and he and Norah begin to prepare them. They have a routine going, moving gracefully around each other as they chop vegetables and season the steaks. I’m graceless in the kitchen, so I open a bottle of red wine for Norah and find some salted caramel vodka in the back of the freezer for Jeremy and me. Then I sit at the dining table and watch them go.
After everything is in the oven and cooking, Norah leans against the counter with her wineglass in hand. She glances into the sink and picks up one of the packages the salmon steaks came in. “Did you know these were farmed?” she says. Jeremy asks what the difference is, and she says, “Wild-caught is healthier and more humane.” She explains that farm-raised salmon are crowded by the hundreds into tiny enclosures until they go crazy and fight each other. They’re fattened up with an unnatural diet, and after they’re butchered, the meat is dyed pinker to make it more appealing.
“Wild aren’t perfect either,” I say. “They can have parasites, like anisakis.”
Jeremy wags his finger back and forth between us. “You two are gonna make me lose my appetite,” he says.
“Yeah, but anisakis is super rare, though,” Norah says.
“An-i-sak-is,” Jeremy mumbles, savoring the word.
After the food is ready, we move to the living room and find an Anthony Bourdain marathon. There’s still no sound. Bourdain is in Tokyo hanging out with a famous sushi chef. Later, he tools around the city sampling the nightlife. I’ve always wanted to take Norah to Tokyo. I have this image in my head of her face lit up in neon at Shinjuku Crossing. I know if we ever go it won’t be so romantic. People will jostle us, cars will honk at us. It’ll be too hot or too cold, depending on what time of year we go. But until then, I can imagine. Before the pandemic, we used to travel a lot. Norah works for a travel metasearch company and gets tickets for reduced cost. We’ve been to Stockholm, Paris, Prague. On a whim, we once flew to Rio for a sixteen-hour vacation that ended with us samba dancing at Rio Scenarium until three in the morning before catching a six a.m. flight home.
Jeremy and Norah are lying tangled up on the couch. He starts kissing her neck, slides his hand under her shirt. I’m not in the mood yet, and I don’t know when I will be, so I slip out onto the front porch. They don’t ask where I’m going because this is not uncommon behavior. Maybe I’d like them to ask me to stay, but I’m not the kind of person people ask to stay.
Outside, the sky is still overcast, hiding most of the stars. I guess it’s about twelve-thirty, one o’clock in the morning. I left my phone on the coffee table in the living room. I figure I’ll stay out here until they move to the bedroom. Enjoy the woodsy air, the stars, scant as they are. I remember one morning maybe six months into this thing with Jeremy. I’d been up all night, which is pretty normal for me. I have a flipped circadian rhythm. They were in the bedroom of our house in Bayonne asleep together and I was in the living room watching a rerun of MTV’s The Challenge. It was past dawn, approaching full morning. The sun hadn’t yet burned away the clouds, and I was feeling some kind of way about that flat gray sky, so I went out onto the back porch. It was summer but chilly. My arms stuck to the damp wood of the railing as I stared out at the houses and yards around me, messy with toys and kiddie pools, unfinished cars surrounded by parts, old furniture, patio tables with grimy umbrellas. Everything felt calm and peaceful. We were a family in a weird sort of way, and all those people in all those other houses had their own weird ways of being families too.
I try not to think too hard about what’s going on inside the cabin as I fish my keys out of my pocket and hop in the RAV4, pull a three-point turn in the front yard, cutting ruts in the tall grass, and drive down the long gravel trail out to the narrow road. Beyond the cone of my headlights, the world is buried in the dark. The roads are confusing and unmarked, so I try to memorize each twist and turn to find my way back. I have no particular destination in mind.
As I drive, I think about what it might be like to break things off. Every couple months or so, one of us threatens to break up with at least one of the other two. She’ll get mad at him for having naked pictures of other women on his phone and hop back on the dating apps, which is where we met him in the first place. Or he’ll get mad because we disagree with his politics or because we condescend to him, which we do frequently, though he doesn’t always realize. Even I’ve tried to end it a few times, but we all know I don’t have the leverage they do. She introduced me to Jeremy a couple months after they started seeing each other, and he quickly became my best friend. Other than Norah, it’s probably safe to say he’s my only friend. He and I argue politics over dinner, sometimes calmly, sometimes heatedly. We watch soccer, though he calls it “the footie” like the Europeans do. We debate who the best players are, the most overrated. These moments matter more to me than the physical stuff. I can’t imagine how it’ll be when they’re gone.
I get myself lost on the twisty backroads and end up in some creepy little community. A couple gas stations, several residential streets. There’s a Shipley’s Donuts, a place called the Pall Mall Diner, some dilapidated sheds and barns behind chain-link fences. No lights on in any of the buildings, no cars on the roads. This town could be completely abandoned for all I can tell. I do a U-turn at an intersection where the light never seems to change from red to green and leave town again, but now I’m completely lost. It ends up taking me nearly two hours to find my way back to the cabin.
Inside, I find Norah sitting on the couch with a gray woolen blanket thrown over her legs, messing with her phone. She looks up at me as I enter, stretches, says hey. “Where’ve you been? I called you, like, eleven times.”
“Didn’t have my phone with me,” I say, pointing to where it lies face down and silenced on the coffee table. “Why are you out here by yourself? Where’s Jeremy?”
“What do you care?” she says. “You left.”
“Did you even care that I left?”
“Of course. I always care. Hence the eleven missed calls.” She points at something on her phone. “Come here, take a look.”
I go over and see her watching a video of some cocky-looking pencil-neck onstage in a black turtleneck and jeans. She has the volume off on her phone, but a grid of identical earths occupies the big screen behind him. “I don’t get these people,” she says. “If you’re a scientist, you’re supposed to be advancing knowledge, not getting famous.” She turns off her phone, tosses it on the table next to mine. “But, hey, multiverses are hot right now, so may as well cash in, right?”
I pick up my phone and turn it on. It’s mostly dead, but it powers up just long enough for me to see that her estimation was precise. Eleven missed calls.
“Anyway, I’m mad at him,” Norah says.
“Who? The geek?”
“Why? What’d he do now?”
“The usual shit.”
I sit down on the couch next to her, give her that stern look she can’t take seriously. Trying not to laugh, she purses her lips, and the lines under her nose become more pronounced. When she used to smoke, I warned her it would age her faster, but she said it didn’t matter. We’d all reach the same place eventually. Who cares if some of us get there faster? She points over her shoulder toward the back patio. “He’s out there,” she says.
I go out back, where Jeremy is sitting in his deck chair from last night. The bug zapper on the table next to him casts his right arm and his face in pale green. I lean on the back of the deck chair next to his.
“Everything okay?” I ask.
Jeremy clicks his tongue, says, “Ah, she’s just being her usual self.”
As if in response, Norah comes out and falls into the deck chair I’m leaning on. She gives Jeremy a sour look, and I can tell something has gone down between them, something that isn’t my business.
“You’re a real fucking jerk, you know that?” she says.
“I know. I’ve tried not to be. It never sticks.”
The way she looks at him, it’s clear she’s in love with him. I’m in love with both of them. Maybe it’s true that no one can get everything they need from a single person. Or maybe I’m a fool and a cuck and the two of them are falling more and more in love by the second, and someday they’ll leave me with nothing but the house in Bayonne and my memories of them in it.
Jeremy fishes his phone out of his pocket, starts scrolling through his feeds. “You see these UFO videos the Pentagon released?”
“Well, I mean, they’ve only been all over the place the past six months,” Norah says.
“What do you think is going on with them?”
Norah rotates her body in the deck chair, swinging her legs over the arm. She drapes them across the table, almost knocking over the bug zapper, but I catch it. “The pilots just misinterpreted something,” she says as she places her feet gently in Jeremy’s lap. “Weather balloon, drone, something like that.” I notice she’s wearing the astronaut socks now. The sky has softened to the color of ripe plum.
“Bird droppings on the camera,” I say. “Faulty radar.” I haven’t seen one second of the footage they’re talking about.
Rubbing Norah’s ankles, Jeremy stares out at the woods behind his house, at what used to be Todd Morgan’s porchlight. I move behind him and put my hands on his shoulders. He leans his head back and looks up at me with those green eyes. He has an expression on his face I can’t read. Sometimes when he looks at me, I feel I hardly understand a thing about him. “No way, man,” he says. “You don’t get it. They’re preparing us for something.”
BILLY MIDDLETON currently teaches creative writing, first-year writing, and film studies at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. His work has been listed among the notables in Best American Essays and has most recently appeared in J Journal, Santa Monica Review, River Styx, and many others. Find Billy on Instagram @Absurdprof.
Featured image by Emma Frances Logan courtesy of Unsplash