by Corey Farrenkopf
It was gypsy moth season. Riley didn’t like to be outside when their wingbeats filled the air. They bounded off windows, leaving smears of dust against the glass. He had to keep his windows closed, even in the mid-summer heat. Otherwise they’d fill his rooms with their desperate scrabble against the walls, trying to find an outlet. When they got in, Riley scooped them up with a light palm, releasing them out the back door, towards the woods. From far off, at the point where lawn met pitch pine and hemlock, the insects formed a kind of mist, thousands of swollen bodies drunkenly bobbing between branches, searching for a mate.
Jill called. She wanted to meet by the pond where they used to row crew in high school. Riley’s pulse peaked. Whenever her name crossed his phone’s screen, a voice in his head whispered that today might be the day. He would deal with the constant pellets of moth dung and the repetitive thud of their collisions with his truck’s windshield. Where ever she was, whenever she called, Riley showed up. It had been that way since they were teenagers, Riley’s happiness hinging on Jill’s presence.
Jill sat on a blue beach towel next to the lifeguard stand. Her brown hair was pulled back. Her uniform polo from the garden depot was cuffed about the sleeves. From the parking lot, Riley could see her weaving her palms through the air above her head. Anyone else would think she was swatting moths as they brushed her skin, but Riley had seen her sketch the same motions a hundred times before. His stomach dropped. He hoped he would be past that by now. Jill traced invisible curves and angles everywhere they went. She outlined the cut of a jaw, the lobe of an ear, while they walked through malls and botanical gardens. In movie theaters and farmer’s markets she did the same.
At first, Riley didn’t know how to ask what she was doing. After a year of sort-of not-really dating, he noticed the pattern was the same each time, that Jill sculpted a singular face over and over.
“Who is it?” Riley asked at a Minor League baseball game in Chatham. The Anglers played the Mariners. Cape Cod was the second largest wooden-bat league outside the professional circuit. They sat on towering bleachers with a thousand vacationers, each craning their necks for a better view, the summer heat attracting mosquitos to damp flesh.
Jill paused in her movements, staring at her hands as if she hadn’t realized what she’d been doing. “Matt,” she answered before the batter connected with a pitch. Riley had hoped it would be his name she spoke. The crowd cheered as he tried to place the unfamiliar name. Jill only mentioned her ex once before, the ex who died in a car crash her sophomore year of college. That was the year she stopped calling him whenever she needed to talk, or had a problem with organic chemistry. At the baseball game, he asked if she wanted to talk about it, but she declined, eyes returning to the runner rounding third base, as if either of them cared about the game. The kind-of, not-really dating began when they both moved back to their hometown after college. The job market hadn’t been what they’d hoped it would be.
When Riley opened the door of his truck, two moths fluttered in, quickly colliding with the passenger window as if they expected the cab to be an open-ended tunnel. Riley would let them out when they were done talking. The pond was still. A black cormorant perched on a mooring ball a ways out, drying in the last of the sunlight. Sand was stiff beneath Riley’s shoes as he navigated between the waist high fence dividing parking lot from beach. He dropped down beside Jill when he reached her towel.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I can’t get it right anymore,” she replied, hands tracing contours through the air.
“Can’t get what right?” Riley asked.
“His face. I can’t remember his eyes, can’t get his jaw straight.”
“Well, it looks like you know what you’re doing,” Riley replied.
“No, it’s different. It’s not his face anymore,” Jill said as a gypsy moth collided with the back of her hand. It fell into her lap where it shook itself off and fluttered into the air. Its wings left a powdery triangle pale against her dark jeans.
“Is it someone else’s or just a random face?” Riley asked.
They had spent the last week together moving her stuff out of her parents basement into a studio apartment in Dennis, a cramped room above the vintage clothing store. She seemed anxious as they hung paintings and assembled her bed frame. She was glad to be out of her parents’ house, but something tethered her joy. Riley kept making jokes, but Jill drifted off, eyes moving to open windows, the last of the gypsy moth caterpillars dangling inverted from oaks outside. They hadn’t consumed enough leaves to enter the chrysalis stage. So they died, their elongated bodies creating a second furred skin on nearby trees.
“It’s someone’s,” she said, looking at Riley. She moved her hand, tracing the peak of his cheekbone. “It’s definitely someone.”
“Me?” Riley asked.
Jill nodded. “I think,” she replied, the curve of a smile forming. “Could you meet me at my place later?”
“Yeah, of course. Did you call me out here just to check?” Riley asked.
Jill shrugged. “See you in a bit.”
When Riley opened the door to his truck, the trapped moths flew past his face, escaping the gathering heat inside. Much longer and they would have ended up like the dozens of other dried carcasses lining his windowsills. They joined the mist of white-winged bodies over the pond’s flat surface, their reflection below creating the illusion of infinite moths reaching towards the gray sky.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his partner, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. His fiction has been published in Catapult, Redivider, JMWW, Slushpile Magazine, Third Point Press, Literary Orphans Journal, and elsewhere. His non-fiction can be found in The Coil. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.