Ellen goes outside. It’s October and the temperature is already turning against her. She suspects the girl belongs to the boarding school down the road, where her husband teaches history, but it’s hard to know for sure because the students don’t wear uniforms, which seems to Ellen like the mark of true eliteness: to be so elite that you do not need to announce your eliteness. People are supposed to just look at you and know.
“Hey you,” Ellen says.
The girl spins around. A black daisy head is clenched in her fist. She’s in jeans and a red windbreaker, the school’s logo printed on her chest.
“I didn’t think anyone was home,” she says.
“I’m somebody and I’m home.” Ellen is still in her cotton pajamas and slippers, even though it’s past noon. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“No one there is who they say they are,” the girl says, letting go of the daisy.
“Watch it,” Ellen says. “My husband works there.”
She is only sticking up for him, for his school, in order to have something to say.
The girl ends up coming inside. Ellen isn’t quite sure how this happens. She does not ask the girl in and the girl does not ask to be let in; she just follows Ellen through the front door.
“I’m hungry,” she announces in Ellen’s foyer.
“Can’t you go to the cafeteria?”
“I hate the cafeteria.” Her eyes are green and round. They sit deep in her skull, turning her expression watchful and wary in a way that reminds Ellen of the alligators that lurked in the wetlands of her youth. This far north, she is a long way from home.
She steps back and looks at the girl. The insides of her palms are streaked with the guts of daisies.
“You have a point about the cafeteria,” she says.
The girl trails her into the kitchen. Ellen starts opening cabinet doors and assembling ingredients for an omelet. A carton of brown eggs. The green tips of scallions. A block of cheddar. Black pepper. Normally Ellen can’t cook to save her life, but she can make a blue ribbon omelet.
The girl’s name is Ursula. She is a sophomore at the school. The second time she comes to the house, she once again winds up in the kitchen, eating an omelet with a spoon. Forks are too sharp, she explains to Ellen, like tiny weapons with those tines.
“Can I move into your basement?” Ursula looks up from her plate.
“What?” Ellen is scrubbing a frying pan in the sink, her fingers pruned from the water.
“I would only use it for sleeping,” the girl says, as though that should make a difference.
“You have a perfectly nice place to sleep already.” She turns off the water and puts the pan in the dishwasher instead, knowing her husband will look in there and be pleased, thinking she fed herself today.
“I already told you I don’t like it there.” Her face turns sad and pinched, but she doesn’t stop eating.
“What do your parents say about you not liking it?”
“They don’t say.”
Ellen knows she should call her husband and tell him what’s going on. One of their students is talking about sleeping in basements! She picks up the phone and steps into the hallway. She stands out there for a minute, turning the phone over in her hands.
Back in the kitchen, the little TV that sits on the counter is turned to the news. A broadcaster is talking about the new planet scientists have discovered. It emerged from a cloud of dust and gas. One day it will be bigger than Jupiter. It lives hundreds of light years away.
“What’s your favorite subject?” she asks the girl.
“Art,” Ursula says. “I’m going to be famous.”
“For your art?”
“I’ll be famous for something,” she says.
Ellen is still searching for the right way to describe what happened to her. Here is one place she could start.
Last winter, when she was supposed to be designing a parking garage for a luxury shopping center in McLean, she built a city instead. She got the idea when she was surveying the lot where the parking garage was supposed to go. In her leather pumps and peacoat, she stood on the flat expanse and looked out; the land was a deep brown, lightly marbled with snow. She walked the perimeter, her hands in her pockets, her heels sinking into the dirt, her breath a white cloud in the air. She felt on the edge of something.
The McLean parking garage would be her third, although it was by far the largest and most expensive. Still the scale of this project seemed small compared to the grandeur of creating an entire city, the parameters in which people would live their lives. A city had the power to change a person, to change the way they experienced the world. No one would be changed by a parking garage.
That night, she began a blueprint. A small city, she decided. She sketched a downtown, an unusual number of parks, a river that split the city in half. At first, the downtown was a tight fist of buildings. She added a single skyscraper that sprouted from the center. She liked the idea of a skyscraper existing in such an unexpected place, like a wayward tree growing through the roof of a house.
In January, she was scheduled to give her boss a presentation on the parking garage. Instead she carried a scale model of the city into the conference room. She placed it on the oblong table and started explaining the river and the parks, the logic behind the single skyscraper.
“You’re confusing your days,” her boss said. “You’re supposed to be talking about the garage. I don’t even know what this other thing is.”
“Please consider what I’m going to say next very carefully.” Ellen looked down at her city—still struggling into existence, but at least it was there, an idea made concrete—and took a breath. This was her chance.
Her boss leaned forward in his chair.
“Does Virginia really need another parking garage?” she began.
“Does this firm really need another seven billion dollar project?” he replied.
And there was her answer.
That afternoon, she was fired. She took her city with her. “You did what?” her husband said when she told him what happened, her half-formed city at her feet. They were standing in the living room, by the bay window overlooking the street. She knew she had been reckless. Their rent was expensive, impossible on a single income. What would they do now?
At her husband’s urging, she saw a therapist, who wrote a prescription. When you reach a certain age, you feel your possibilities begin to narrow, the therapist said, making a little tunnel with his veined hands. Some people panic. That was as close as he could get to an explanation.
In the spring, she had yet to find another job and when her husband announced that he wanted to leave D.C., to go back to New England, where he was from, she didn’t feel she was in any position to object. His solution was to take a job in Connecticut, in a town outside New Haven, and vanish into the lives of his students. Ellen was left to find a solution of her own.
That evening, her husband wants to know if she’s ready for Monday. They are standing in the kitchen and eating cubes of orange cheese. For weeks, she has been scheduled to visit one of his classes to talk about the construction of the Eiffel Tower. A good opportunity, he keeps telling her. He has been a teacher all his adult life and is used to having knowledge to impart. Ellen can tell that, with her, he is no longer sure what he is supposed to be imparting.
“One hundred percent ready,” she says.
He squeezes her shoulder. In the last six months, he’s gone gray at the temples.
“One hundred percent,” her husband replies.
Ellen’s husband is unaware that the city has followed them to Connecticut. During the move, she promised to throw the model away, but instead she packed it in one of the boxes marked ELLEN’S WINTER CLOTHING, concealed beneath a nubby pile of sweaters. In the house, she keeps her city hidden in the linen closet, behind a stack of Tupperware storage containers. When her husband looks in the closet, it’s the picture of order; only she knows what’s underneath.
At a hobby store in New Haven, she gathered the necessary supplies: tubes of paint and brushes with fine tips, plastic baggies filled with miniature people. The whole time, she felt like she was on a covert mission.
On Sunday night, they go to bed together. They read for a little while, they turn off the lights. She waits for him to fall asleep, so she can work on her city. Downstairs, at the dining room table, she goes slowly, paying attention to every detail, testing different colors on the side of the skyscraper until she finds one that looks right. She spreads out all the miniature people. She picks up a woman in a blue dress. Tiny Ellen, she calls her. She looks at her parks and her skyscraper and her maze of streets. She tries to find a place for herself.
She’s been working for an hour when she hears a noise in the basement. A clank, a rustle. She rests her paintbrush on a Styrofoam wedge. She walks over to the basement door and presses her ear against it. She doesn’t hear anything right away, but she knows something in the house has changed. She opens the door and creeps down the stairs.
From the bottom of the staircase, she sees the girl curled up on the basement floor, on a large sheet of white paper. She stops. A sliver of light from upstairs falls on Ursula, and Ellen can see that the paper is smudged with paint. The girl’s eyes are closed. Her hands are wedged under her chin. Her breathing is fast, indicating that she is not really asleep, that she is just pretending.
“Ursula,” she says.
The girl’s eyes stay closed.
On Monday, she walks into her husband’s classroom with the blueprint rolled up under her arm. She’s dressed in the kind of clothes she used to wear to work: black slacks, a red silk blouse, heels.
It’s a gloomy, damp day. The students are sullen and restless. She leans the blueprint against the wall and takes a seat at the front of the room, next to her husband, who’s wearing the same pale blue tie he wore for his interview at the school.
He introduces her and talks about her accomplishments for longer than he needs to—her schooling, her awards. When it is Ellen’s turn to speak, she picks up her blueprint. She asks a student for help. A lanky boy in a rugby shirt and glasses glances at her husband, who licks his lips and nods. The boy holds the top of the paper against the chalkboard while Ellen unspools the rest.
“This is my current project.” She describes the parks, how each one will be encircled by lush trees and have a small lake in the center, and the bridge that will connect the two halves of the city and the skyscraper that will glow silver at night. She wants them to feel the force of the beauty.
A girl raises her hand. She has clear braces and a headband. “Where will all the buildings go?”
“Nowhere yet,” Ellen says, trying to smile.
Of course, a city isn’t a city until you have a place to put it. The children shift in their seats. The boy in the rugby shirt drifts away from the board. Her husband begins to rise from his chair. It is a struggle to keep the blueprint up on her own, but still she will do it. She is prepared to defend everything. She is tired of being misunderstood.
The bell rings and the children begin to move.
In her husband’s office, Ellen can hear children in the arteries of the building: thundering up and down stairs, through hallways. She wonders where Ursula is right now. For hours she watched the girl sleep, unsure of what to do, almost afraid to move. She could be in our basement this very second, Ellen thinks.
The blueprint is rolled up like a scroll and leaning against the wall. She sits in the leather armchair across from her husband’s desk.
“The blueprint isn’t all that’s left, is it?” he says. “You brought the city here, too.”
She sinks deeper into the chair.
“Ellen.” She notices a small stain in the center of his tie. “You were supposed to move on from all that.”
Move on to what? she wants to ask him. Next he’ll want to sit down and talk about her city and what needs to be done.
Instead her husband smoothes his tie. He tells her he’ll be back in a few minutes, to wait right here.
When he doesn’t come back, she examines the dark-spined books on his shelves. She steps out of her heels. She opens his desk drawers. This is the first time she’s been alone in his office. On his desk, a small silver frame holds a photo of Ellen when she was very young—a freshman in college, not so much older than Ursula. In fact, it takes Ellen a moment to realize the woman is her. She is sitting in the crook of a tree, her legs dangling. She remembers the tree being tall and her threatening to climb it and her husband laughing; her strangeness was funny back then. Her hair spills over her shoulders. Her mouth is open and filled with light.
Finally she goes back to the chair and turns it toward the window, so she can watch the children trudge across the quad, their backpacks like turtle shells on their shoulders. She looks for Ursula.
It is from this window that she sees her husband standing on the quad, talking to a small, blonde woman in a quilted jacket and a plaid scarf. He is leaning in, resting a hand on her elbow. He points vaguely in the direction of his office and she tilts her head, gives him a nod. There is a certain kind of intimacy that a wife—even a wife like Ellen—can recognize and she is seeing it here, on this quad, surrounded by students and brick and browning grass.
Five days pass without her seeing Ursula. In the basement, she finds an empty juice box and flecks of orange peel that still hold the scent of citrus. She opens the dryer door. Someone has taken the filter. The paint-stained paper is gone. She feels like a detective gathering clues, trying to understand how they add up.
The day before Halloween, Ellen comes home to find Ursula sitting on her front porch. She’s slumped against the railing, her hair a pale swirl. Her knuckles are chapped with papier mâché.
“Why do you keep coming here?” This is the question Ellen has been wanting to ask for days and it comes out more abruptly than she intends, sharp and accusatory.
Ursula surveys the yard, the white fence and the mangled daisies. “This is the calm before the calm,” she says.
Ellen kneels in front of the girl. She places her hands on her knees. She’s never been a parent or a teacher, but she feels an obligation to attempt something like guidance. She needs to join a club, find friends her own age. She only has so much time to turn things around.
“What makes you think I haven’t tried those things already?” Ursula says.
Ellen sits back on her heels.
“Do you want to go to my sister’s Halloween party?” Plaster bits are clumped in the fine hair of her eyebrows. As it turns out, her sister lives in the next town over, which is poor and in general disrepair; Ellen is surprised to learn the girl has family nearby. She can already see the note she will leave on her husband’s desk: out for evening, scribbled on a white sticky that reminds her of a prescription pad. She can already see the items she will want at the Wal-Mart up the road: a black cape, white face paint, rubber fangs. She can already see herself placing the city in the backseat of the car because she is afraid of what her husband might do to it if left alone.
In the next town over, traffic lights sway on dark wires. Ellen’s car rolls over asphalt humps, the scars of potholes sealed over. She keeps an eye on her city in the rearview. The roads are gray and smooth. The bridge glints over the blue water. Everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be, pristine and useless. When they park and get out, Ellen leaves her city in the backseat.
At the party, Ellen counts a dozen zombies in half-assed costumes, a shredded T-shirt, a smear of fake blood. When she moves, she sweeps her cape dramatically and it feels good. There is dance music and liquor bottles on the kitchen counter and clear plastic cups. Not a shred of food, just booze. She picks up a cup and sees a fat black spider in the bottom and screams.
“It’s fake, silly.” Ursula plucks the spider from the cup and nests it in Ellen’s hair. In the driveway, Ellen zipped the girl into the Statue of Liberty costume she’s wearing. At first, she wanted to be a slutty witch, but Ellen talked her into the Statue of Liberty—the tallest iron structure ever built! How could she resist?
The girl vanishes into the party with her fake torch. The song changes. Bodies clump together in the living room. Ellen watches them stomp and thrash. A zombie sucks on a ballerina’s neck.
Ellen slips down the hall and into the bathroom. She turns on the light, locks the door. She sits on the toilet for longer than she needs to. She has to jiggle the handle to flush. Still she is not quite ready to go back out there with the monsters.
She takes out her cell phone and calls her husband. She doesn’t know what she’s going to say if he answers, but she’s prepared to say something. It rings once, then goes to voicemail.
When she’s ready to rejoin the party, she flips the lock. The door doesn’t open. She pushes her shoulder into it. She gives it a little kick, but it’s still jammed. She starts banging.
“Who’s that?” a voice in the hallway says.
“It’s Ellen,” she cries, struggling to be heard over the music.
“I don’t know any Ellen,” the voice says back.
She presses her ear against the door. She hears footsteps. She bangs and shouts.
Finally she retreats. She looks around for a window, but there is no window. In the mirror, she sways and watches the movement of her cape. She bears her fangs at her own reflection.
Ellen is startled when she hears someone shouting through the door.
“Do you think you’re the only one at this party who has to pee?” It’s Ursula’s sister.
“I’m stuck,” Ellen calls out. “The door won’t open.”
She listens to the slow gathering of voices. Someone yells at Ellen to get away from the door. There is a big thump and the door shudders.
A man in white face paint, a bike chain slung over his shoulder, crashes into the bathroom, his elbow thrust out like a weapon. He knocks the door off its hinges; it decapitates the shower curtain and lands in the bathtub. Ellen clings to the towel rack. The people in the hallway start clapping.
Ellen finds that she cannot breathe. Ursula emerges, in her green polyester gown and spiked headdress, and takes her hand.
“Thanks for bringing her,” Ursula’s sister, who is dressed like a mummy, says.
Ursula pulls Ellen down the hallway, toward the backyard. They pass through the kitchen. Ellen leans against her like a drunk girlfriend.
“You just need some air.” The girl pats her shoulder.
It’s cold outside. She looks at the dark sky and remembers the planet she heard about on the news, the swirl of dust and gas.
“They keep telling me that if I stay at the school, I’ll be able to have whatever I want. They say I owe it to them, to take that chance to have whatever I want.” She turns to Ellen, her arms crossed. “Does that sound right to you?”
“I think you need to think about what you want.”
“It’s confusing sometimes,” Ursula says. “Trying to understand what you want.”
Ellen wraps her cape around her body. She slides her fangs inside her mouth.
Here are some of the things she wants. To build something lasting. To remember what it feels like to be close to someone. She wants what is best for this girl, even though she has no real idea what that might be. She wants the RIGHT THING to reveal itself to her, to all of them, for it to become as solid as a pear or a basketball.
In the living room, the monsters have overturned the couch and are climbing all over the arms and back. Krissy is throwing handfuls of candy corn and a zombie is trying to catch them in his mouth. For once, she feels like the sane one.
In her Statue of Liberty costume, the girl has started to cry. She drops her torch and it rolls into the grass. Her headdress slips down her forehead.
“Hey,” Ellen says, touching the sleeve of her costume. This is the best she can think to do.
“Hey,” the girl whispers back. She wipes her nose on her hand.
“That city in the backseat.” She turns to Ellen, sniffs. “Is that yours? Did you make it?”
“Yes,” Ellen says. “What do you think?”
“It’s nice,” she says, nodding. “But you only have people living there. You’re missing all the animals.” She explains that in her art class, she is making papier mâché animals for her final project. So far she has only finished the heads. They are all sitting on a table in the art room. Sometimes she looks through the window and sees them all lined up there, staring back at her.
“Did you know an elephant has as many neurons as a human brain?” she says. “Did you know that they have nerves in their toenails that help them understand sound?”
“I didn’t know,” Ellen says.
The girl keeps going. That saying elephants never forget? It’s true. They remember everything. They can’t jump, but they can swim. They do not actually like peanuts. They are the largest land animal in the world. Even their hearts are enormous. Does she know an elephant heart can weigh over forty pounds? Does she have any idea how much that can hold?
Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collection THE ISLE OF YOUTH. Her first novel is forthcoming from FSG in 2015.