Auggie woke as the cold light of morning hit her face through crooked blinds in a cheap motel. A flash of hard sun struck her eyelids. Bright red. Blood red. A faint hope rose in her that this day would not be like the others.
Auggie felt Meg's breath hot on her back and reached behind her and to pat Meg's thigh. Meg's arm rested stiffly on Auggie's hip; she lifted the arm gently, placing it flat on the warm space her body now slid away from. The room was colder than it had been the night before, and Auggie wondered if the motel had lost its heat again. This time, she would not complain. The management, a stout, mustached man with pockmarked cheeks, seemed not to care. Only two of the twelve rooms were occupied, the other by an old man who played Billie Holiday records. Auggie saw him walk around the parking lot once a day, a full circle, then turn around and head inside.
Auggie pulled the thin yellow blanket off of the other bed and wrapped it around her, the acrylic scratchy against her skin. Her bare feet felt every cigarette scar in the rough carpet as she made her way to the window. The blinds refused to close all the way and let in a slash of light that divided the room into uneven halves. By the time Auggie opened the blinds, the sun had ducked behind clouds, leaving the world covered in dismal gray. The same view she looked at every morning for the two weeks previous. Through the gentle sway of leafless trees, Auggie could see the drowsy flow of the Housatonic River. Each day, Meg suggested that they should take a boat out, but pretended that the weather worked against them, leaving the two relegated to this dreary room.
Auggie heard the squeak of the mattress as Meg rose from the bed, but did not turn around.
Goosepimples rose on Auggie's arms as Meg kissed the nape of her neck.
"Good morning," Meg whispered.
"Does the sun ever come out around here?" Auggie asked.
"You know what they say. Tomorrow."
"I used to row this river every morning," Meg said, as though she had never told Auggie this before, her arms clasped tightly around Auggie's chest. Meg still had rower's arms, strong and lean. The babies had made her thighs spread and her hips a little wide, but underneath still lived the power it took to traverse this river.
"How long will we stay here?" Meg asked.
"I paid through the end of the week." Auggie bent to the floor and picked up Meg's pack of cigarettes, half-empty, discarded carelessly during ravenous foreplay. Meg took the pack and put a cigarette in her mouth.
"Those things will kill you," Auggie said, lifting the corners of her mouth into a weak smile.
"So will a lot of things." Meg pulled the book of matches out of the pack, and struck a match, the orange glow lighting her face ever so briefly. "I thought we were leaving soon."
"The end of the week is soon."
Meg accepted this answer silently, kissed Auggie's cheek, and shuffled to the bathroom.
Two weeks they had stayed in this room with warped wood paneling, stained sheets, and four channels on the TV. And for two weeks, Auggie couldn't have imagined any place she would rather be. She found comfort in the bareness of the room, the solitude, Meg's soothing voice and soft skin. She forgot about the world outside of this stretch of dying riverfront, seemingly forever on the verge of being rebuilt. As she looked out into the gray morning, she wondered whose luck it was that she and Meg had found each other.
Meg was good enough to take Auggie in when she had just arrived in Boston with no friends and no other place to stay. Auggie's family money provided for her well, but she enjoyed the company of strangers. She had been on the road for over a year solid, drifting back and forth across the country. It felt good to have a home again, someplace to unpack her bag, someone to come home to and wake up with. One morning, over coffee and Eggs Florentine, Auggie asked Meg to get clean. Meg said yes right then and there, without hesitation. After weeks of cold sweats and diarrhea -- the vestiges of addiction -- Auggie offered to take Meg away from Boston for a while. Auggie hoped that they would make it to South Carolina at least, that they could travel together down the coast and feel the seasons change, maybe make it Florida, and lie on a sun-drenched beach. But the three-hour drive to Connecticut was far enough for Meg to go.
The water rained down on the floor of the tub, thumping rhythmically. Auggie closed her eyes and listened as Meg's body interrupted the flow, her singing voice dancing around the drops of water still falling at her feet. The singing stopped, then the water.
"What's the matter, baby?" Meg's voice cooed from the corner of the room.
Auggie turned to see Meg, wet, walking towards her, leaving a faint path of footprints on the rug. Meg raised her hand, warm from the shower's downpour, to Auggie's face and Auggie kissed her palm almost instinctively.
"Nothing's the matter, Mama," Auggie whispered. "Just hungry."
They ate breakfast at the diner downstairs, as they had each morning since they arrived at the Dew Drop Inn. The diner was a small place that never seemed clean, staffed by waitresses who never seemed sober. Between refills of coffee, the waitresses sat at the counter, shooting the women full of disparaging looks. Auggie ordered what had become her usual: two eggs, toast, and sausage while Meg ordered hers: coffee, into which she would add whiskey from her flask.
"Silver," Meg said. "Graduation present."
Auggie nodded and sipped her coffee.
"Don't be so quiet, baby. You're freaking me out." Meg lit a cigarette, her hands shaking. Her hands were always shaking.
"Sometimes I like to be quiet."
Meg took a sip from her flask.
"You really should eat something," Auggie said. "You haven't had anything since breakfast yesterday." Auggie started to raise her hand to summon one of the brooding waitresses, but Meg stopped her hand, then kissed Auggie's palm.
"I don't need anything," Meg said, but Auggie thought that the hunger must have been eating at her belly, ignored and filled by the burn of whiskey.
Auggie studied Meg's face for a moment, sallow and marked by deep bags under her eyes. Despite all this, Meg looked better than she had three weeks before, when Auggie held Meg's body tightly against her to counteract her chills and tremors. "It's okay, then," Auggie said, and pushed her scrambled eggs around her plate a bit before taking a bite.
"Where should we go from here?" Meg asked. "Do you want to go back to Boston?"
"We just left Boston."
"We don't have to go back now. But I've got to go back sometime."
Auggie knew that Meg would have to go back. She had a past in Boston, an ex-husband, three kids -- a suburban life she had given up to fuck women, do heroin, and other things she wished she had done in her twenties. Now, she sat before Auggie as a thirty-six year old woman who didn't know what she wanted, but for the moment believed that whatever it was, it included this woman, a girl in her twenties with orange hair who called Meg 'mama.'
"I've got to get my kids back," Meg continued. "Stay straight, get my kids back."
Auggie reached across the table and touched the skin of Meg's arm, soft and pale, now quivering almost imperceptibly. "You'll get your kids back." Auggie knew this was a long shot; in the months she had known Meg, she hadn't seen the children at all. Meg got photographs or drawings in the mail almost weekly, but her ex-husband had full custody and a new wife, which most likely trumped Meg's newfound sexual liberation and insolence toward societal mores.
"You'll like them. The youngest, Lena, after Lena Horne, she's almost five now." Meg looked out of the window. "She's so smart. You'll like her."
"I'm sure I will." Auggie turned to see what Meg watched so intently through the grimy windowpane. Nothing. Just the passing of the sparse traffic on Route 34. Trucks and Saabs and SUVs each on their way somewhere different, crossing paths in this particular moment.
"We should have gone somewhere with a pool." Meg sighed and drank down the last dregs of her coffee.
"It's fucking November."
"A pool is still nice." Meg's eyes remained fixed on the windowpane.
"Look like rain today?" Auggie asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yeah. Looks like rain."
"You used to row in the rain, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I guess we did." Meg smiled and lifted the flask to her lips.
Auggie and Meg ventured farther from the Dew Drop Inn than they had since arriving there. Lake Zoar welled up just down the river, spilling over a dam into a meek stream. The beach was empty and quiet, save for a few pick-up trucks parked outside the Lake Zoar Grill. Meg negotiated at the boat rental booth for a better price on a rowboat and the proprietor pretended to put up a fight, even though it was obvious there would be few takers that day. Auggie and Meg strapped the boat to the roof of Meg's Volvo wagon, which, like Meg herself, was just beginning to show its age, just a few years past its prime.
"A few years ago," Meg began as she turned the key in the ignition, "a man from around here killed his wife, put her in a woodchipper, and dumped her in this lake."
"How did they find her?"
"They found pieces of her: teeth, bones, a finger. But mostly she just..." Meg raised her fist and opened it, "disappeared."
"Maybe. Maybe to the bottom, sucked God knows where."
Auggie pictured the woodchipper wife washing up on shore, her pulverized limbs indistinguishable from pebbles or driftwood. Washing up, then washing back out, no one the wiser.
The cigarette lighter popped out, and Meg held the orange tip up to her cigarette, cupping her hands like the lighter was a match about to give way to oncoming breeze. "I used to row this river every morning," she said.
"Oh yeah?" Auggie said.
"You ever done this?"
"Not since I was a kid. Sleep-away camp." Auggie rolled down the window to let some of the late autumn air in. Winter would come early this year; she could smell it. Auggie had a knack for knowing these things, when the seasons would change, when the first snow would fall, when the deer carcasses would start piling up on the shoulders of lonely country highways.
The car followed the winding road from the lake, back along the bank of the river, hugging closely to the rocky hillside. Meg pulled over to a clearing on the side of the road, and the two of them carried the boat down a path to the muddy shoal. Auggie got into the boat first, Meg pushing it a bit farther out into the water before getting in. She took the oars in her hands and pushed and pulled the boat out to where the water was deep. Auggie felt paper thin as the cold air moved right through her, chilling her hair and skin and bones. She pulled her jacket tight to her body, and watched Meg row. When they reached the middle of the river, Meg put down the oars, letting the boat pitch and heave with the current.
"I used to live up there." Meg gestured toward the hills hulking over them. Rocky crags giving way to evergreens intermingled with spiny branches, all dark gray against the sky. "Eighteen years I lived up there. And when I went to college this is where crew rowed."
"So this is home to you."
"How long's it been since you've been home?"
"One year, ten months, and twelve days." Auggie recited these facts and tried not to think of the last words her mother said to her: "This life you lead is beneath you." At the time Auggie figured that she was twenty-two years old, old enough to choose a path that fit. "But it's not long enough, I guess." Auggie laughed gently, looking up at the bare branches of the quiet trees.
"Wouldn't you like one of these?" Meg pointed toward the small houses that lined the river, each with their own boat landing. Meg reached into her back pocket and produced the flask, holding it out to Auggie. "Graduation present," she muttered, barely audible.
Auggie took the flask and drank deeply from it, thinking the whiskey could warm her from the inside out. "I don't know that I could live here."
"I could do it." Meg rubbed her hands together. "The kids would love it. You'd be perfect out here."
"It's the middle of fucking nowhere," Auggie said.
"This is Connecticut, sweetie. There is no 'middle of fucking nowhere.'"
The momentary warmth of the liquor faded, and Auggie once again found herself chilled to the bone, wishing for gloves or a hat, or something besides Meg's old barn jacket, three sizes too large. Meg opened her hand in front of Auggie's face, presenting her with a joint.
"Light that up for me, baby." Meg smiled as Auggie took the joint from her hand, then picked up the oars again, pushing and pulling along the river's frigid skin.
Auggie almost posed the question, but decided against it. Meg answered anyway. "I saved it for a special occasion."
"This is special. You and me. On my river. Me telling you that I love you."
"Is that you telling me?"
Auggie opened her mouth, then paused, finally saying, "Then I'll tell you, too." She took the lighter from her pocket and lit the joint, inhaling and holding in the smoke before letting it out of her lungs. The smoke hung, suspended a moment, then faded. She leaned in and held the thin roll to Meg's lips.
"It's settled, then. I love you and you love me." Meg let the words out in small puffs.
"Sure, Mama." Auggie agreed that it was true enough. That she loved Meg as much as Meg could possibly love her, that maybe they could start a life together, if not on the banks of this river, somewhere else.
"And we'll go back to Boston soon?" Meg asked.
"We'll go back to Boston."
Meg smiled broadly, and let Auggie smoke the rest of the joint herself. Auggie felt her body sink into itself, pictured her flesh dissolving into the boat and leaking out through the bottom, into the water that would soon be frozen over, solid enough to dance on. Children would play games on the frozen river, have snowball fights, overestimate its strength, and die in this river.
Auggie stood at the window in their room and watched the afternoon fade into darkness. She watched the old man walk his circle and go back inside.
Meg's breath felt hot on Auggie's skin as the strong arms once again held her tight. Auggie held her body taut.
"What's the matter, baby?" Meg murmured, her lips against Auggie's ear.
"You hungry again?"
"I got something for you. Just a taste. Saved it for something special." Meg let go of Auggie and rifled through the suitcase, finally pulling out a small velvet pouch. "Just enough for you and me. One last time."
A small pang of disappointment swelled in Auggie's chest. She tried to shove it down, push it away. "You know I don't do that."
Meg sat on the bed, a small plastic bag laying flat in her hand. Auggie turned back toward the window.
"Have you had that the whole time?" Auggie asked.
"It's just a little. You know how I was hurting."
"I know." Auggie turned to look at Meg again, and she was smiling. "Do you know that you'll die?"
"This is the last of it," Meg said. "I won't die on you."
Auggie watched Meg as she bent over the glass tabletop of the nightstand, thin white lines disappearing into her nose. Meg rolled over on the bed, and patted the space next to her. "Take my hand, baby." Auggie climbed up next to Meg and took her hand, now cold from the lack of heat in the room. Meg opened her eyes and Auggie could see the hungers collide -- hunger for her children, another high, for love.
"I'm hungry. I'll go out and pick us up some dinner."
Meg kissed Auggie's hand. "I love you, baby."
"And I love you." Auggie nestled her face in Meg's hair, and kissed the cool, damp skin at the nape of her neck.
Auggie picked up Meg's keys from the dresser, feeling the weight of them in her palm. She heard the mattress squeak and turned to see Meg amble into the bathroom. Auggie closed her eyes and felt herself being sucked back into the circle, the cord of desperation that Meg had woven for herself. Nothing would change. Auggie folded two hundred-dollar bills and set the keys on top of them on the dresser. She walked out of the door, down the fluorescent-lit stairs and out onto the road without looking back. She walked down the winding road, resisting the urge to stop a moment to catch her breath, fearing that any pause would make her change her course. She kept moving until she reached the dam that separated the lake from the river. Streetlights beamed down on her as she looked into the dark expanse of the water.
Auggie stood, out of breath, looking over the edge of the dam, feeling the loom of the surrounding hills, listening to the water rush beneath her in the darkness, imagining the fall, the impact, the cold water in her lungs. She imagined her body settling with the fragments of other women gone, disappeared, nestled in the muddy depths of the lake, only to rise up unannounced one day, on this shore or some other.
Auggie heard the grumbling of a tractor-trailer behind her amid a steep row of pine trees; she turned around, stuck out her thumb, and took a few steps backwards to let the streetlight catch her full on. Truckers had always been good to her.