"Soon,” said the contractor.
Carmen felt her heart wilt. “It’s not anywhere near done.”
“So soon, you will not believe.”
They stood near the entry that no longer held a door. A plastic tarp hung down, blocking cold mist. Two men splattered with paint and plaster slid past them. Then the carpenter shifted into her peripheral vision. Gervais was small and wiry, his eyes a disconcerting green. Imploring. Last week he had asked her to read his novel.
The contractor had laughed. “He works on that stuff on breaks. In the bed of my pickup. He’s crazy but he’s a good carpenter.”
“Better get going,” she muttered, pushing through the tarp.
“He said ‘soon,’ right?” Tobin stretched out on the couch.
“He says we won’t believe how soon.”
“Well, he’s right about that.” Tobin turned a page, pen tapping.
They were staying downtown in Tobin’s parents’ vacation condo during the remodel. Tobin was from here, but it was her first visit. Four months earlier, they’d first seen the house on a day silky with unseasonable light and warmth. They’d laughed about it, how she was being ensorcelled by the weather. Their whole honeymoon had been like that. Brilliant sunlight, Mount Hood in the distance, crisp as a paper cutout. Nights of piercing air, filled with spring. True spring. Not like in Miami, where spring nudges toward the doomsday of Florida summer.
Carmen tried to return her focus to work—an inch-high stack of manuals.
“Was Gervais there?”
A little blast of rain passed through her bones. Gervais’s manuscript took up one corner of the table. It irritated her that he’d asked her to look at it. “This is what I do for a living.” She riffled the edge of a manual. “People pay me to edit their work. Is that so mysterious?”
Tobin turned a page. “Did you tell him about your idea for a novel?”
Carmen shot him an icy look. “Why would I do that?”
“It’s good to be friends with the contractors.”
She scowled. “I feel like those guys followed us here from Florida.”
“No.” Tobin smiled. “They’re everywhere.”
Her boss back at SunState Software had cousins who lived in Hillsboro and he’d warned her: Y’know, sometimes they don’t get any summer up there at all. Nothing. But she’d made up her mind. Before they’d moved, more than one person had said, imploringly, take me with you.
Carmen turned toward the house through the mist. This was July? When she pushed through the tarp, the place smelled of creosote and wet laundry. Gervais was scraping a wall. Another man walked past carrying planks. Several walls were stripped to the studs. The contractor waved a sandwich at her. “Soon!”
She and Tobin had taken in the house in a single, blissful glimpse before making an offer. They dashed back to Florida and started packing: it felt like they were drunk on champagne. Intoxicated with the thought of a home. For Carmen, it meant striking out; for Tobin, return. She hadn’t noticed the stained ceiling, the odor, the termite frass. She hadn’t seen the winding thorns—blackberries, she was told—that circled the house like the razor wire around used car lots. They only knew the price seemed good for that area. Now they knew why. When they’d reached their new house—the two of them unwashed and light-headed, ears ringing from the highway—the front door opened, and—
“We can fix this,” Tobin said.
Now the contractor pointed. “The wiring’s all messed up. It’s a fire hazard. And the plumbing. Come over here.” He showed her how they’d pulled tile out of the bathroom, heaps of cement chunks everywhere. “These pipes....”
He led her around, tape measure slung over his neck like a doctor with a stethoscope. He showed her disemboweled light sockets, dangling wires. How could such a small house have so many problems?
“It’s nearly August,” she said. They stopped beside a sink on its side in the dining room. “My in-laws want their condo back. And we’re out of money.”
The contractor scratched the top of his head with his thumb. “Look at this.” He showed her a series of crusty welts along the outside of his forearms. “You ever see anything like this?”
She swallowed air. “Have you gone to the doctor?”
He scratched the back of his neck. “I think it’s something growing around here.”
“Doctors are for rich people.” The words came from the kitchen. Gervais smiled at them from over his shoulder, a trickle of plaster sprinkling down.
The contractor pointed out additional wreckage in the kitchen.
When she was about to leave, Gervais approached her quietly. “My pages. Have you had a chance?”
“I started,” she lied. “I’m really sorry. It’s just been—” She couldn’t look at him. “I promise. Soon.”
Just let them work, Tobin coaxed. But Carmen went every day. Mist clung to her skin. The contractor showed her another gaping hole: “This door was crooked and two inches too high.”
“Can you just give us an idea….”
“The way this works,” the contractor said. “Demo is slow and painful, but when we start the finish work? You’ll be amazed. It will just come together—” He clapped his hands, a puff of dust.
Carmen rubbed one hand over the knobs at the top of her spine. Last night, she’d dreamed of spiders that ticked as they scrabbled over her, spilling from a clock. Gervais was there too, pointing to his neck. She was trying to tell him something, choking out words: eat something.
“Really, don’t you think this is getting ridiculous?” she asked the contractor. “We hired you guys in April. Maybe we need to bring in new people, if this is too much for you.”
He gazed at her as if waiting for her to complete a sentence, then scratched at a forearm with the edge of his clipboard.
The house stood empty and open, only the black tarp to keep out the elements. For a week, there’d been no sign of Gervais or the workers. Each day Carmen visited the desolation, the air gritty, like some internal convection spun dust in a continual whirl.
“These guys have other gigs, they’re always juggling jobs.” Tobin stared at the computer on his lap. “Ugh, this script.”
“This is a nightmare.” Carmen threw up her hands as she paced the condo. “It’s five months. Don’t they even care? They said a few weeks. Don’t you even care?”
“We’re small potatoes, Car. They do the big jobs first. That’s where the money is.”
“Then we should get someone else.”
He glanced at her. “We can’t afford to start over with someone new. It wouldn’t help anyway—they all flake out.”
After a moment she said more quietly, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. About estimates.”
She flopped on Tobin’s parents’ bed, pressed the heels of her palms against her eyelids so fiercely she saw lights. “I hate it here. I hate it. Nothing gets old. Nobody works. They just hang around.”
Tobin came in and sat on the edge of the bed. “Who do?”
“I saw this guy today? 45 years old on a skateboard? Adventure Time tattoos all over his body.”
“How’m I supposed to get anything done?” She could hear herself winding up. Tobin was trying to respond but she couldn’t hear over the noise in her head. “I want to write books. I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said. “I want to go home.”
It was what she’d tried not to say for weeks. But it was exactly what she wanted to say.
“A huge mistake,” Carmen told her mother. “Temporary insanity,” she told her best friend. Come home, they crooned. Her mother would send money for a ticket.
She got out the big suitcase, threw half her clothes into it.
She felt lighter on her feet, astounding relief. No more house. When Tobin tried to argue, she put her hands over her ears. They ate in silence, not discussing the half-packed suitcase. She hunted for ticket prices online.
She didn’t leave right away.
She couldn’t let it alone. Each morning she woke planning to buy a ticket. But first she would “swing by” the house.
Tiny stones crunched underfoot in the entry. She called the carpenter, listened to the voiceless click, not even a message, just a sudden bleat, then crackling silence. “So hey. It’s Carmen. Again. Anything happening? Like, where are you? Really. Like, what’s going on? Are you ever coming back? Haha, situation critical!” Outside, rain wasn’t falling so much as hanging suspended in place. She gazed out at it. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled before ending the call.
Late one night, Carmen sat at the table piled with untouched manuals and picked up the manuscript. The Wonder.
Her shoulders sagged. So she’d failed to start her novel and the carpenter had written one. So what? At first, all she could see was a thicket of broken grammar. But gradually, the story took hold. She began to drift lightly through the pages, reading, toes skimming the ground.
It was about a couple on a tropical island. The man was crafty—a sort of witch. He might have enchanted his woman. They lived in a house in the center of a city with views of a distant, jewel-like sea. It emerged that they’d lost a young son, a wonderful boy, who’d been asphyxiated when one of them had forgotten to turn the oven off. As the novel unfolded, the man’s witchcraft began to seem less like imprisonment than a form of mercy, protecting the two of them, buffering their shared sense of guilt.
For hours Carmen read, transfixed. When the woman stops eating and then the man stops as well, Carmen thought, there is no good way to end this. It can’t be ended. At 4 a.m., the pages ran out, in a section where the couple lay entwined in bed, too weak to rise.
Carmen checked the envelope for more pages. Empty.
Carmen heard the whine of power tools as she walked up to the house and her knees buckled a little. She lifted the tarp. Men moved through the rooms, gray with concrete dust. In the back of the house, Gervais was hammering. “Jerry’s been in the hospital,” he said.
She started to say “Jer--?” then, “Oh, I hope he’s OK.”
“He’s allergic to something.” Gervais talked around a nail in his teeth.
Carmen stared at his back for a long moment. Her eyes traveled past him to a paper bag on the floor filled with blackberries. She said softly, “So, the little boy—in your novel?”
Gervais pounded in the nail. “It’s just a story.”
“It’s not just a story.” Her body tightened, then relaxed. “It’s your work.” She closed her eyes. “You have to end it, you know. The book. You can’t just leave it like that, hanging. The pages just run out.”
He held another nail. “Maybe you end it for me?”
Carmen settled on a ledge that used to be a windowpane. “It doesn’t matter which of them actually left the oven on. They have to let go—a bit.”
In the background, she heard saws, an electric drill.
“You find the ending in the beginning. You have to structure it, like—a house. It all has to fit together to make sense.” She took one of the blackberries. Its sweetness like a dark stain.
“From your vines.” After a moment, he positioned a nail. “Three more weeks.”
She stared at him. “You swear?”
He nodded, pounded the nail, then slipped the hammer through a belt loop. “Really? You liked my story?”
She took more blackberries.
She was ready to get back to work.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of Life Without a Recipe (W. W. Norton & Company).