“I’d never seen anything like it. This huge bird just came swooping down on the highway—I swear its wingspan was broader than my car—then picked up a snake that must have been a good five feet long and dragged it up over the windshield. You should have seen this snake against the glass, its body perfectly limp, a thick black line that just kept coming. I remember thinking something like he must have accepted his fate, though looking back, all I wonder is how I kept from wrecking the car.”

Vonnie said nothing, waiting for the rest. They had been driving less than fifteen minutes, and already her windshield was covered with white halos from Karin’s breath. She glanced into the back seat at the baby, saw she was still sleeping.

“The first thing I did was look back at Anna in her car seat, make sure she was all right. Call it a mother’s instinct, since there was no reason to think she was in danger. But when I looked at her, it was as though she wasn’t even there. I mean, she was. I could still see her. But the shadow from those creatures covered her so completely, it was as though she had become lost in their black. I kept thinking, they’re going to absorb her into themselves, then carry her away.

“It wasn’t until I turned back and was looking at the road again, searching for a place to pull off, that I realized the shadow couldn’t have been there. The snake and bird were long gone. It was as if they had disappeared, but their darkness stayed.

“I kept looking for some other explanation but there simply was none. And then, for no apparent reason, no sudden change in the sky, no grand disbursement of the clouds, I looked back again, and Anna was smiling at me, her face completely bathed in the purest, pinkest light.”

Karin stopped talking for a moment and looked around her. Vonnie wondered if she was looking for something to show her, to give some idea of what the “purest pink” looked like.

“I felt at peace for a moment. Then I looked at that light and realized is was just as unnatural in its own way. And that’s when I became afraid, truly alarmed. I mean, first the shadow and then this bizarre light—they seemed as ungodly as the snake. And that’s when I knew it was something more, that a message was being sent telling me my baby was in danger.” Karin looked out the passenger window long enough that Vonnie turned her head, to see what she was staring at. There was a whole field full of longhorn cattle that looked oddly misplaced in the lush Pennsylvania farmland. Karin stared, long after the cattle were gone, then turned her head back.

“That was the first sign, the snake.”

Vonnie nodded, remaining noncommittal. She didn’t know much about Karin. They said now they had been friends in college, but that wasn’t really true. “On the verge of becoming acquaintances” would have been a more accurate description of their relationship back then. Vonnie had taken a couple classes with Karin’s roommate, had sat with her a few times in the dining hall. That was about the extent of it.

She had been taken aback when Karin walked up to her a little more than six months ago, hugely pregnant—as it turned out just days away from having her child—and sat next to her in a coffee bar, started talking to her as though the fifteen-plus years that had passed since they’d last seen each other had never occurred. Karin wasn’t necessarily what most people would call beautiful, but was striking in her own way, tall and red-headed, with a slightly ruddy look about her, a woman more at home in a Jeep than a Mercedes. Vonnie didn’t remember her, even after she explained who she was, but pretended to all through that meeting and a second chance one that took place a few weeks later.

She looked back at the baby again, thinking she wouldn’t be sitting there so quietly if she knew what this trip was about. Anna was awake, staring back, and she was struck again by just how much she looked like a caricature instead of a real child—face oval-shaped, not round like most infants’; forehead and chin curving back sharply. Going through one of those stages, was what she said to herself in more tactful moments, but the flat-out truth was that Anna’s appearance was almost startling.

She knew it was an awful thing to think but couldn’t help it. And she wasn’t the only one. She saw the surprised expressions that appeared on other people’s faces, the way they would quickly look away and then, when curiosity got the best of them, turn again with a stare they just didn’t seem to be able to stop.

Vonnie’s foot eased up on the accelerator, an unsettling thought just now occurring to her. If the baby had been born pretty, would Karin still be thinking of giving her away?

“Clarissa calls it all hogwash, but it’s a sign. I just know it. There isn’t anyone who can tell me otherwise.”

Vonnie had no idea who Clarissa was but didn’t bother asking. In their few times together, she had come to expect Karin’s conversations to be full of unanswered whos and whats. In fact, they knew so little about each other, she wasn’t sure why Karin had chosen her, of all people, to accompany her. But she had said yes right away. It was the kind of request you just couldn’t turn down.

“I mean, the whole world is communicating with us.”

Karin stretched out her arms, swooping them upward in a birdlike motion that practically consumed the entire car. A giant osprey, Vonnie thought, its wings flapping beside me.

“Every creature has its message. It’s just a matter of learning how to listen.”

Rocks have souls, the changing colors of leaves are a reflection of their personalities and nature creates its own paths, accessible only to those who truly know how to look for them. These were the lessons Karin had to teach, each of which she preceded with the expression “Don’t laugh,” a sure sign that someone in the past had. Her side of the conversation presented like a series of course descriptions for a community college catalogue, her personality a combination of Stargazing I, Self-Introspection II, III and IV (any instructor worth his salt would be able to tell in five minutes that she was advanced enough to skip I), Basic Floral Design—all that time living in the south had clearly left its mark—and, finally, Changing a Flat, because despite all her whims and flighty ideas, this was a woman who knew how to survive alone.

Most of Vonnie’s friends just raised their eyebrows when she described Karin and her assorted topics of conversation. Their lifestyles couldn’t have been more different.



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