One day in the spring Olivia’s mother made vichyssoise and black bread with butter and she was allowed a half glass of wine, and afterward her parents led her into the den. There were places, her father said in his gentlest voice, where entire populations were without symptoms of allergic rhinitis. They were backwaters, remote parts of Africa and the Pacific Isles where the eradication of helminths had never even been attempted. Allergies, he said, were evolved as an immune response for expelling parasites, and the hookworm had evolved to shut that response down. You couldn’t get them in the States, but if she wanted, they would take her to Ethiopia or Burma or Papua New Guinea and she could get them there. It could be their birthday gift to her. Thinking bluntness his ally, he explained the process of transmission, which begins when worm larvae enter the feet of someone who has gone without shoes through a place where a host has defecated on the open ground. From the feet they move through the vascular system until they reach the lungs, where they are coughed into the trachea, swallowed, and passed to the lower intestine. There they rivet themselves to the walls and fill up with blood, sending their eggs through the excrement of the new host. Olivia, nonplussed, replied that she would rather die.
The season took root. Angelfire and nettle bloomed. The air was saturated with pollen. Olivia was bound to the indoors, and from the smooth-finished countertops and the waxed and sanded floors a wilderness of desire arose. All her visions of love left her exposed in yellow meadows and flowerfields, grasslands in the surge of thunderheads, leaves stuck like ribbon leeches to Billy Loomis’s skin.
She allowed Billy to kiss her in his urgent way under the stairwell, but whenever he swept his thumbs up her belly or pressed the front of his jeans against her thigh she would step back and announce that she knew where to find the ice cream maker, or whatever it was they’d been pretending to look for. Maybe in the fall, she said, if there was an early frost, she would let him take her to the dunes. When her birthday did come, in the middle of July, it was Billy who brought the mask.
It was wrapped in a white box with a lid tied down by a big white bow, nestled inside with yellow chiffon stuffcloth, an Israeli civilian gas mask. It was a relic from the years of the Iran-Iraq war but the filter was in date and the rubber was uncracked. She pinned up her hair and pulled the harness snug until the chin pocket kept a seal. The eyepieces were round, like a fly’s. The filter hung like a proboscis. She could feel the strain in Billy. She let him press her shoe into his crotch.
They met that night by the trestle, where Billy still associated the oily scent of creosote with the magazines he’d been bringing there for years. Olivia couldn’t smell anything and she wanted the dark woods, so they picked their way downriver to a path through the scrub pine until they came to a clearing on the edge of the old growth. Here the grass was long and the wind brought it down in waves. They undressed. Olivia lay down and the grass blew over her. It was ticklish in an itchy sort of way and when a gust subsided it drew back trembling.
The ground was lopsided and hard. There were ants. They got up and moved to a different spot but there were ants there too. She couldn’t not think of them, the hills flattened underneath her and the tunnels crushed. The panicked melee for the eggs.
When it was done Billy went to look for a place where they could stay and watch the stars without ants. Olivia left her clothes in the clearing and walked with the long grass under her knees. She hadn’t meant to go far but she was pimply with hives and in the effort to distract herself she soon reached the river. The water was silver where the moon hit it and depthless black in the shadows. She stepped in and let it curl around her shins and she stayed like that for a while.
Two boys on a night float came on, innertubes black on the black water, moving as smoothly as satellites. She stayed, and they saw her, but nobody said anything. The boys rotated their faces as they kept steadily on, and that was all.
One of the boys would tell the story many times, about the girl in the gas mask, buck naked, a mile from nowhere in the middle of the night. It illustrated a point he would come to make in his work as a finance adviser, that there were no guarantees, only probabilites. If he stopped off with a client to invest in Johnny Walker, he’d say, there was nothing to stop them running into a yeti eating spaghetti. What he could offer was the calculated odds that they would not.
The other boy, the younger, never told anyone. But he would evoke her image without meaning to, at all the wrong moments, on the Blackfoot when the steelhead struck before the lines could slack, on the crisp night when his team won the Series. For every thing that clicked and coupled there were a hundred of these, bug-eyed products of incalculable events, accidents impossible to anticipate, that left things inside out and backward, love ruined, money burned. His friends said he went around with a black cloud over his head. That was how it had always been and you could point to bad planning, poor decisions, it was no big mystery. But he saw her each time as though from the blue, all tits and blisters in the poison air, augered in his path, still as a stone.
Nate Ochs lives in Missoula, MT, where he works as a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service. He is from Minnesota.