Evidence of Harm

Holding his jaw rigid and pressing his tongue against his palate, Gavin bounded up the last flight of stairs. He paused for a moment to catch his breath then stepped out of the stairwell and followed the seam of the carpet in the direction of his office. For a moment he looked up, allowing himself a glance at the reception desk.

She had been fired six weeks ago, but he still looked for Tori there. She’d worn tight-fitting sweaters in saturated colors and chirped cheerfully about college, bars, and boys. She shared dirty jokes with the guys in the mailroom and tolerated the awkward come-ons of the cologne-soaked file clerk. But when one of the paralegals finally worked up the courage to ask her out, she’d demurred.

“I like you too,” she’d said, “but I don’t shit where I eat.”

Somehow Gavin had managed to become friendly with her; he even liked it when she teased him about his shyness or his frequent trips to the mailroom to make sure he had sent documents to the correct address. But one morning, Tori had turned up in the lobby an hour late and still drunk from the night before. Security took her badge and hussled her into a cab. Now, when Gavin passed reception, it was always Beverly—plain and middle-aged, with frizzy hair and large unfashionable glasses.

By mid-morning he had returned the most urgent calls and emails and sat in his office flipping aimlessly through his planner. Finally, he reached for the file he’d been avoiding all week; some petty, small town squabble. He sighed and set the folder in his lap.

The client was a homeowner’s association—really just a handful of cottages staked into the mud of a freshwater island. The previous spring, a carpet of spiny fronds had sprouted from the lake bottom, fanning out from the island and fouling the waterway for two miles in every direction. It lurked beneath the surface of the water, snarling the props of bass boats, stranding canoes, and tangling around the ankles of swimmers. Someone, the plaintiffs claimed, had put the weed into the water, and someone was going to pay.

Gavin shuffled through the stack of correspondence. The defendant, Mr. Henry, was a cantankerous and queeny old bachelor who admitted to ornamenting his water garden with a plant known commonly as hydrilla. The contrast between the hydrilla’s white blooms and the hardy muscularity of his orange-splotched koi fish was, in a word, sublime.

Mr. Henry assured his neighbors that he had taken every sensible precaution. To infect the pond, the plant would have needed to sprout limbs and throw itself over a retaining wall. It was more likely, he suggested, that the plaintiffs’ unruly children had trespassed in his garden and stolen one of the flowers. In which case, he observed, they had only themselves to blame.

At noon, Gavin took his lunch out of his briefcase and shut the door. He set the plastic container on his desk but didn’t touch it again. He wished Tori hadn’t been sent away. She could be so frank—even vulgar. He never had to worry about saying something that might offend her. In the shimmering stream of her chatter, interrupted only by the ringing of the telephone, there had been some relief from his anxiety. He opened his desk drawer and found the post-it where she had written her phone number. He stared at it for a minute but then lost his nerve and pasted it to the plastic frame of his monitor.

Just before five, he pretended to make a call. With the receiver pressed to his ear, he cracked the door and waved goodnight to the row of heads sheared off by the cubicle walls. Finally, the murmur of voices faded, replaced by the sound of a vacuum cleaner. He sat watching the rows of headlights climb the hill until the cleaning people moved on and the line of light under his door blinked out. Before he left, he peeled the note off the monitor and stuffed it in his pocket.

Instead of taking his usual route home, Gavin drove to a bar he had heard Tori mention a few times. The place smelled like bleach and stale beer, and little clouds of gnats winked beneath the track lights. He ordered a drink, and the skinny kid behind the bar presented him with a plastic cup of ice. The kid filled it halfway with McCormick and topped it off with a spray of flat tonic water. Gavin took wincing sips and pretended to watch whatever was playing on the dusty television. He drew the note from his pocket and flattened it on the bar. Would she be offended that he had taken so long to call? Worse, she might have given him the number as a courtesy, assuming he’d never use it.

He loosened his tie, then unbuttoned each of his sleeves, neatly folding them to his forearms. He was too old for her anyway. But a woman his own age, with a career, a life of her own—she would want marriage, a house, children. How could he manage all that? It took everything he had to keep his own life from flying apart. She probably won’t even answer, he thought, and dialed her number.

“You’re where?” Tori said. “I haven’t been there in forever.” There was laughter in the background, and someone was strumming a guitar.

“Maybe this isn’t a good time.”

“No, I’m in town this weekend. But I’m too trashed to drive. You’ll have to pick me up.”

An hour later Gavin pulled to the curb at the end of a row of run-down brick apartments. On the front steps, a group of kids in hooded sweatshirts were drinking beer and passing around a glowing joint. Tori trotted to the car, giggling and waving behind her. She yanked on the handle just as Gavin flipped the lock. The door stuck, and she pressed her face up to the window and rapped against the glass with her knuckles.

She was pretty, but her features were exaggerated. Her eyes were round and wide-set and her nose was a long, down-turned beak. It was a face like an early theater mask, made to convey simple emotions from a great distance. Even after he unlatched the door, she clowned at the window, cracking up and tapping senselessly against the glass. Finally, Gavin leaned across the passenger seat and shoved the door open.

As soon as she was inside, the car filled with the smell of cocoa butter and cold smoke. She flipped down the visor then flipped it up again.

“You should get a nicer car, the money you make.”

“It’s not that much.” Gavin turned the corner and came to a stop at a traffic signal. “Besides, I’m used to this one.” He was grateful to have someone else in the car, a witness to the absence of tragedy. When the light changed, she made an excited little noise and slid a cassette out of the tape deck.

“Someone make you a mix?”

“No, it’s nothing.”

“Did a girl make it for you?”

“It’s nothing, really. I mean, it’s blank.”

“You,” she said, stretching the tape towards the deck, “are a terrible liar.”

“No, don’t do that—” Gavin took one hand off the wheel and slapped the tape out of her grip. It made a flat sound against the safety glass. The car veered towards the curb.

“Jesus. Don’t be such a prick. Think I care what you listen to?”

Gavin righted the car, and for the next few blocks they were quiet. Tori traced little figures into the fogged-over window, a girl in a triangle dress and a boy with long, ungainly arms. She looked at them for a moment then scowled and wiped out the drawing with her sleeve

“It’s me,” Gavin said, “on the tape. Your worst fears, the things you’re most afraid will happen, you read it into a tape recorder.”

“Sounds twisted. You get off to it or something?”

“It’s not like that. It’s therapy.”

“Does it work?”

“I don’t know, a little.”

Tori sank low into her seat, folded one leg under her thigh and propped the other against the dash.

“So you’re pretty screwed up, huh?”

“I’m sorry I scared you. I can take you home if you want.”

“It’s okay. You always seemed a little tweaked to me. At first I thought you were one of those coked-up lawyer types.”

“I’m not. I just have this feeling all the time, like something terrible is about to happen—or maybe it already has and I’ve just forgotten about it. Do you ever feel like that?”

“Right,” she said, nodding. “Definitely not a drug person.” Her tone was decisive, as if she had two boxes for people and had just made up her mind which one to put him in.

When they got to the bar it was full of kids who wore thrifted clothes and canvas sneakers. The lights were down, and on the low stage a pair of tattooed girls shouted Ramones lyrics into a shared microphone. Tori ordered vodka mixed with Red Bull, and Gavin, not wanting to seem fussy, paid for another flat gin and tonic.

They mimed conversation, but mostly they talked past each other, shouting over the music and the din of the bar crowd. After a while, Gavin got change from the bartender, and Tori scrambled off her stool to play pinball. She was sloppy drunk and playing badly, but there was something enchanting about her frustration. Each time the silver ball slipped behind the flippers, she slapped the side of the machine with the flat of her hand and shouted—“Cunt!”

Gavin returned from the bar with more quarters. His arm was numb with dread, but he forced himself to overcome it. He reached out and rested his hands on the flesh between her shirt and the lip of her low-cut jeans. He was surprised when she turned her head and smiled at him. Emboldened, he pressed against her from behind, moving with her as she bumped her hips against the machine.

When they were inside his apartment, Gavin folded out the couch.

“You can sleep in my room if you want.”

Tori threw herself on the hideaway and kicked off her shoes. “This is fine.”

He lied down next to her and stroked her back under her shirt. She rolled on her side and draped an arm across him.

“I have a boyfriend,” she said, sliding a hand into his back pocket. “So I can’t let you fuck me.” She pressed her lips against his cheek then rolled over, pulling the thin blanket across her shoulders.

Gavin resisted the urge to huddle against her. Was he disappointed or relieved? He turned over and squirmed, trying to find a place on the mattress where the metal bar didn’t bite into his back.

He slept for a couple of hours then showered and dressed for work. His head was pounding, and a steady tone echoed in his ears like a distant car alarm. He left a twenty-dollar bill on the dresser with the number of a local cab company and went out to scrape off the car.

Days later, Tori was still buzzing in his ear like a high, whining feedback noise. It was the kind of thing that would stop on its own if he could just ignore it and turn his thoughts to something else. But when he considered the days, the weeks ahead, everything seemed ashen and grainy, as if he were seeing it through the eye of a security camera.

At work, he studied government reports on water quality and invasive plant species—page after page of bland, greyscale tables and rows of monospace characters ranked evenly at the margins. When he couldn’t bring himself to look at them anymore, he took up an article he’d ordered from the library, a feature in the journal Flora. The piece was a fawning profile of Liam Adderman, a professor at mit. The writer referred to Adderman as “the rockstar of botany,” and though Gavin couldn’t imagine what this phrase might mean, he set about drafting a message to Adderman’s assistant.

The rest of the week, as he tried to make progress on the case, fantasies about Tori kept intruding. On Friday, he called to make plans. He left a message, straining to sound casual, but she didn’t call him back. He waited through the weekend, resisting the urge to call her again. In the evenings, he ate pre-packaged dinners out of the microwave and tried to make headway through Adderman’s book.

The Perfect Weed was exuberant but opaque, part science and part crackpot philosophy. The prose was laden with jargon, describing the hydrilla as a “hyper-aggressive rhizomatic species” and marveling at its ability to “disarticulate extant organic assemblages.”

Gavin tossed the book on the floor and reached for the remote. There had to be a reason that she hadn’t called. He’d probably scared her off by talking about the tape. Before long, he turned off the television and took up the book again. The kind of woman Tori was, the whole situation—it made him feel ridiculous, like one of those men who fell in love with strippers or paid prostitutes to sit at the edge of the mattress and listen to them talk. He rested the book on his chest and resolved not to think about her anymore that night.

He had just drifted off when his phone began chiming. No one called him at—the display read two a.m. His first thought was that it might be the police, and he let it ring a couple of times before picking up.

“Gavin,” the voice said. “I need you to come over right now. There’s something alive in my apartment.”

An hour later he pressed the button next to Tori’s name, and she buzzed him in. When she met him in the hallway, her hair was a mess; she was dressed in loose cotton pants and an oversized bu sweatshirt. He’d driven across town in the middle of the night, and it galled him that Tori hadn’t bothered to make herself presentable. She had probably dressed that way on purpose, so he wouldn’t come on to her.

“Isn’t this the kind of thing your boyfriend should be doing?”

“I guess so, but he goes to school in Vermont.”

“So, he’s a scholar.”

Tori laughed and waved him in.

“God, not at all.”

Her apartment was spacious, but with the stink of smoke and the sink full of dishes, the unframed prints of waterlillies, it seemed more like a dorm room.

“He’s really dumb, unfortunately. I keep meaning to break up with him, you know, but he’s just so into me. Besides,” she said, looking over her shoulder, “he has a really big cock.”

“That’s great.” Gavin kept his face immobile and grabbed a broom from the narrow kitchen. “Now where’s the rat?”

Tori pointed to the bedroom. She stood at the doorway while Gavin probed under the unmade bed with the shaft of the broom.

“How could something like that even get in here?”

“Underground construction, I imagine. Probably displaced it.” Gavin followed a rustling noise to a pile of clothes in the corner, and Tori fled to the far end of the kitchen.

He crept to the edge of the pile, stalking a lump that bulged beneath a discarded sweater. He took aim before thrashing it hard three or four times. When he stepped away, a coldness swirled in his gut.

Why hadn’t he asked if Tori had any pets? What if a bird had flown in through the open window? A neighbor’s kitten could have slipped into the apartment. Was it the right size for an infant? It wasn’t likely, but what if—

“Did you kill it?” Tori called from the other room. “Is it dead?”

Gavin leaned the broom against Tori’s dresser, crouched over the pile of fabric, and lifted the edge of the sweater. Beneath the pastel shroud, he found a creature with grey-brown fur and a naked, scaly tail. It stared up at Gavin with bared teeth and blank, black eyes. He gathered the sweater around the thing and lifted it.

“I got him, but your sweater didn’t make it. Do you want to open the door for me?” Gavin deposited the sweater and its contents in one of the plastic bins in the building’s back lot. When he returned, Tori was sitting on her bed, wrapped in a blanket.

“Bathroom?”

She pointed, and Gavin turned on the hot water, rolling his sleeves to the elbow. He lathered and rinsed his hands.

“I don’t know about you,” she said, reaching over his shoulder to place a tube of hand cream back on the shelf of beauty products, “but I don’t think I can sleep now. It’s just so gross. Don’t you feel gross?”

“A little,” Gavin admitted, thinking about the limp, wet thing in the garbage. He was surprised when she took his hand.

“Let’s take a shower, then. I think there’s a robe around here somewhere.” She lifted one arm and started tugging off her sweatshirt with the other. “But you know, if we’re naked together, you’ll really want to screw me.”

“I have more self-control than that.” It was obnoxious, the way she toyed with him, but he couldn’t resist running his hand over her bare back.

They stripped and stepped into the warm spray. Gavin lathered her shoulders first and then her breasts. They were pulpy and lean, flattened a little from too much exercise. He knelt down to soap her legs and, steadying himself with a hand on her hip, pressed his head gently against her belly.

Tori washed him quickly and absently, the way she might wipe down a counter-top.

“I’ll let you take care of that yourself,” she said, grinning at his erection. He flushed as she handed him the sponge.

When they stepped out, it was cold in the apartment. The towel on the rack stank with stale sweat, and the hamper was empty. Tori cursed, and they ran, naked and dripping, into the bedroom. They bounded under the sheets and held each other, shivering in spasms and sharing their warmth. Their foreheads pressed together, they smiled stupidly at each other and laughed.

After a while, Tori sat up in bed. She took a lighter and a little pipe from the nightstand and smoked a bowl of marijuana. When she sank down under the covers again, Gavin put his arm around her and pressed against her backside.

“You better settle down,” she said as he squeezed one of her breasts. “I told you, I have a boyfriend.” The way she said it, though, it sounded like a dare.

He felt along the front of her body and traced the neat stripe of coarse hair that ran along her pubic bone. She was still at first, then squirmed and took hold of his wrist.

“I said, stop it.”

She let go and he drew his hand away. At first he felt alarm—imagined her telling everyone that he had tried to rape her. But, no, that didn’t make any sense. She was clearly playing some kind of game with him.

Hurt and annoyed, he turned over, wondering whether it was worth gathering his clothes and driving home. He had almost made up his mind to go when he felt Tori’s hand on his thigh.

“Just not tonight.”

He rolled slowly onto his back. Tori laid her head on his shoulder and he began to realize just how tired he was.

He had strange dreams that night, and Tori kept waking him up, asking if he had heard anything. Did he think there might be another rat? He stroked her hair and tried to coax her back to sleep. Sometime before dawn, she spoke to him again. She was sitting up now, smoking a cigarette.

“Gavin?”

“Um-huh,” he said into the pillow.

“Were you ready for sex?”

“Tonight?”

“Not tonight,” she said, stamping out the butt. “I mean when it first happened, the first time. Were you ready?”

“I guess so.” He thought about Brandi, the older sister of a school friend. She had been moody and stuck up, but would trade them beer for Ritalin.

Once, while the three of them were watching a porno in the basement, she had unbuttoned Gavin’s jeans and given him a handjob under the blanket. He remembered being amazed that she could just keep looking at the television as if nothing was happening. It made him wonder if it was happening at all. But then his pants were warm and wet, and Brandi was smearing her hand across his hairless belly. He had felt a rush of gratitude then, a feeling that he would no longer have to be alone.

Gavin rose up in bed, propping himself on his elbow. “What’s this about?”

“Go back to sleep,” Tori said. She snapped off the lamp, pressed him back against the bed, and settled her head on his chest. “You’re lucky, that’s all.”

The next day he was late for his lunch with the botanist. They’d agreed to meet at noon at a kitschy Asian place near mit, but as Gavin was driving through the narrow North End streets, he felt a sudden impact.

Probably just a pothole.

Still, he veered down a side street in a spray of slush, then took two more hard rights until the he was back at the site of the collision. He caught sight of a deep rut in the road and headed straight for it. The car jarred with the impact and the muffler scraped against the concrete.

He was relieved for a moment, but then it occurred to him that someone could have moved a body while he was turning around. An injured person could have crawled to the side of the road. He had to be sure. He circled back and hit the pothole two more times before it felt right to merge with the rest of the traffic and cross over the Charlestown Bridge.

By the time he arrived, the botanist was already hunched over a bowl of noodles, his knees wedged against the underside of a low yin-yang table. With his auburn beard and open shirt, Adderman gave the impression of an old-time druid. He would have looked right at home in a moonlit bog, holding a sickle and presiding over a virgin sacrifice.

Gavin sat down and outlined the case. Adderman nodded occasionally and slurped at his food.

“We need to establish that the weed infecting the lake came from the water garden,” Gavin said. “So, to start with, we need to know if there could be some other explanation.”

“Several, actually.” Adderman emptied packets of sweetener into a cup of bubble tea. “A bufflehead, or a canvasback, say, could have landed on the lake and kicked it off. A fisherman could have emptied a bait bucket containing water from an infected pond.”

“Is there any way to eliminate those possibilities, a test or something, to reconstruct what really happened?”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it’s a good deal more complicated than that. Even if you could isolate the event that sparked the initial infestation, the runaway growth has to do with environmental factors. You see, the hydrilla can only thrive on a steady diet of filth.” Adderman grinned, then stuffed a wad of noodles into his mouth. He chewed deliberately. “The people you’re representing, the ones who own these cottages, I presume they have septic systems?”

Gavin nodded.

“Then they’re partly to blame. Their discharges into the lake accelerate the plant’s growth.” Adderman drew a long string of tea from his straw and swallowed. “For that matter, they might as well sue the owners of the factories downstream. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that storm water had introduced chromium or magnesium into the lake. A hazard to you and me, but a delicacy for the hydrilla.”

Adderman drained the last of his tea and tossed his chopsticks into the empty cup.

“You must know, Mr. Bennett, we live in a toxic world. Your water gardener can hardly be blamed for that.”

The rest of the week, he waited. He had sent Tori an arrangement of lilacs and white lilies with a letterpress card: “May he rest in peace and never trouble you again. Yours, the Rat Man.” She didn’t acknowledge the gesture, and he let a couple of days pass before calling her again. He left a message, but she didn’t return it.

At first, all he could do was inspect the details of the evening, reviewing them over and over again, trying to determine if he done anything despicable. No, he assured himself, she wouldn’t have confided in him afterward. Still, she could have been offended that he had taken advantage of the situation, had tried to see how far he could get.

He could have gone on analyzing things or filling the space of her absence with daydreams, but work was demanding more of his attention. A neighboring town had gotten involved in the hydrilla case, seeking six figures in damages for lost tourist revenues and the cost of herbicide treatments. Gavin spent his days on conference calls and in meetings and depositions. In the evenings, he took home accordion files stuffed with documents, scribbled into legal pads, and plucked hairs from his thinning eyebrows.

But he no longer resented the work. Since his talk with Adderman, he’d taken a genuine interested in the hydrilla. The idea fascinated him, a tiny blossom sprawling out in such profligate abundance that it edged out every other living thing. He wanted to understand where it had come from and how it worked.

He had even begun to dream about the plant. For several nights in a row, the hydrilla pulsed beneath the membrane of Gavin’s sleep, pricking at it with spiny tendrils. Carried on a current of association, it punctured its boundaries, split apart, and multiplied.

As he proceeded deeper into the case, he found he was thinking less about Tori. There were moments, of course, when he couldn’t resist turning her over in his mind. He had the thought once that maybe she was just like him, only turned inside out, that in her brashness she was trying to talk over the same things he was trying to silence. At the time it seemed very important that he call her and tell her this. But he forced himself to wait until the end of the day, and by then the intensity of the urge had diminished.

Then, on a Friday night, while he was reviewing a water department report in his office, his phone began buzzing. The message was racing and garbled, but after playing it a second time he realized that Tori was inviting him to a party. He leaned back in his chair for a long moment then swept his briefcase from the floor. He pulled on his coat and left the office.

The pub was dark and cheerful, and Gavin squeezed himself into a space at the bar. Just as the bartender arrived with his drink, Tori appeared and threw her arms around him. She was made-up and dressed in a low-cut party dress. As she pulled away, the sharp edges of her earrings tickled his neck.

“I’ve missed you so much,” she said, her breath thick with whiskey. “Come on. You have to meet everyone.”

Tori’s entourage had pushed together a set of dark oak tables in the back room. He shook the hands and smiled at the faces around the table. Had he been an object of their gossip? Had Tori talked about him at all?

He sipped at his gin and tonics and downed the rounds of shooters someone kept putting in front of him—shots of Irish cream suspended in stout and spiked with Jameson. The rest of the night, Tori seemed to be holding three conversations at once, each revolving around some private joke shared in common with her friends. Gavin started saying his goodbyes.

“You can’t leave yet,” Tori said. “Come to the bar with me. I want to see if they have Chartreuse.” At the bar, she leaned in close to him, running her hands along the length of his scarf. “You’re mad at me, aren’t you? Admit it.”

“I’m not,” Gavin said. “Where’s your boyfriend, anyway?”

“I still sleep with him sometimes, but we’re definitely broken up.” The bartender began to approach them, then moved on.

“I really have to go.”

“You can’t be mad at me. It’s my birthday.” She put a hand on her hip in exasperation. “What do you have to be mad about anyway?”

“Nothing, I guess.” He turned away and waved the bartender over. “So, that night at your apartment, I guess that didn’t matter.”

“What didn’t matter? What do you mean?”

Gavin winced. She sounded incredulous, even innocent; it was impossible to tell if she was being thoughtless or intentionally cruel.

“I’m sorry, come back to the party.” She tugged on his scarf like a leash. “We can make up.”

“It’s late. I have to go.”

“Wait a minute at least. One minute. I’ll be right back.”

When she was out of sight, he paid his tab, pushed through the crowded front room, and stepped out onto the street. He was rummaging though his pockets for his keys when he heard heels clattering behind him. When he turned, Tori stumbled three steps, then pitched towards the curb. He moved to catch her. She went limp in his arms and the force of her body staggered him against the car. She giggled fitfully as he tried to set her back on her feet.

“Tori, what…”

She pressed her hand over his mouth. Her laughter bled into a chest-rattling smoker’s cough, and Gavin leaned her against the car.

“Seriously, what is this?”

“Don’t be like that,” she said, catching her breath and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “You’re taking me home, stupid.”

When he got to her apartment, he knew he’d made a mistake. They fell onto the couch and exchanged loose, clumsy kisses. Maybe it was the booze, but his caresses were bungling and ham-handed. To make it seem intentional, he gathered a handful of flesh from her ass and kneaded it.

She pushed him away, sat up, and fumbled with the buckles of her shoes. He took his shirt off and undid his belt, and then she was on top of him again. He slipped a hand under the fabric of her underpants.

“Tell me I’m a slut.”

“What?”

“I’m a slut,” she said, nipping his ear. “Tell me.” Her tongue was rough against his neck, and she ground her genitals against the heel of his palm. “Call me a whore.”

He felt a rush of fear and excitement. They stumbled into the bedroom, got out of the rest of their clothes, and found a condom.

With each jerk of his hips, he called her one of the terrible words. He wasn’t worrying about his performance anymore, just savoring how each obscenity tickled his throat, the particular shape it made in his mouth. A cold light gathered at the back of his skull, growing brighter with each pulse until it washed out even the vague shapes of things. His face drew back in a grimace of joy.

When it was over, he went to the bathroom to vomit and wash his face. In the bedroom, Tori was lying face down under the blankets, cuddling a pillow. He got into bed and curled against her, but she didn’t respond. She was folded into herself, either passed out or pretending to be.

Just before dawn, and still under the influence of a dream, Gavin slipped out of Tori’s bed. He wrote her a note and set out to find his car. Turning up his collar against the freezing rain, he had a sense that something peculiar had happened to him while he slept. He had dreamed about the hydrilla again, felt it straining to touch new thoughts, images, and memories. It had knitted them together with tiny filaments until his brain was embroidered with a mobile, alien design. It was time, he decided, to see this weed for himself.

For miles there was no other driver on route three. He let the ticking of hailstones against the windshield and the wipers’ measured prostrations lull him into a pleasant trance. The car drifted like a tidal flow towards, then away, from the guardrail. He didn’t come into focus again until he saw the first signs for Lakeville.

He parked in a public lot by the boat ramp and sat in the car with the heater running. His gut twisted with the urge to go back over his route or to call Tori and make sure she didn’t regret what had happened, didn’t blame him. But he knew it wouldn’t do any good. He stepped out of the car, shook his umbrella into form, and walked in the direction of the water.

In the distance, a few straggling ducks took flight from the lake and moved in confused patterns. He descended the hill to the empty beach, crushing blades of frosted grass under his feet, then shuffled through the wet sand to mount a tier of weathered planks. The ice was thickest near the shore, but as he crouched on his hands and knees at the edge of the fishing dock, he could almost touch the place where panes of thin-spun glass floated above the water.

Through the pinpricks of sleet that troubled the lake, he could see the hydrilla. Its sawtoothed stalks were brown and shriveled at the surface, dying away from the light and cold. But under the water, at a depth he couldn’t see, the base of the plant was thick and green, swaying to invisible currents. He knelt there for a long time. The sleet’s hiss and crackle fashioned a dome of white noise that sheltered him from the low whisper of the highway. Rivulets crowded to fill tiny channels in the ice. Water rushed to the shore, then shrank away.

As he stared into the lake, he began to lose his sense of scale. He felt dizzy and small, as if he were looking down on some post-human landscape—a vast, indifferent ocean, drained of oxygen and skimmed by frozen continents. Beneath the surface, a blind, purposeless hunger spread itself in every direction.

On the walk back to the car, he thought about what Adderman had said. The weed was there, the damage was done. That was a simple matter of fact. But what would it take to be able to say that one thing and not another—and not two or twelve together—had possessed the secret power to cause it?

In the end, a jury would decide. They would tell a story about how the hydrilla had come to suffocate the lake, and he would help them tell it. He would show them how to carve a crude border around actuality, one that would capture and magnify certain facts and exclude all the others. But wasn’t there something else, something he had felt at the edge of the lake? It was deeper than facts, beyond or beneath the world, something ultimately faultless and exempt from interpretation. He grasped after the fading image of his dream: a lightless vegetable cathedral, structured, but without strata; a smooth, seething, and centerless architecture.