It was odd how quickly nature reclaimed the land. Emily stepped
out of the car and headed into the grass. Where the house used to
be, there was only meadow now --- her family's own piece of rolling
Ahead, the trees stretched black and bare against the sky.
Though it was the end of October, she'd hoped to catch at least a
few scarlet maple leaves and pick the last apples of the season.
She glanced at Clay, wandering aimlessly with his hands in his coat
pockets. There was something about the way he looked, angled
against the wind in his wool jacket, that reminded her of an old
Bob Dylan album her dad used to have. Dylan if he were half-Korean
and had come to New York for a finance job instead of rock and
roll. Her hair blowing across her face, she started toward him,
then stopped as her eyes fell on a rusted metal rod sticking up out
of a block of cement.
Trying to orient herself, she began slowly mapping out the first
floor: were the walls still standing, she'd be in the kitchen right
now. She could see the whole room in her head --- the big wooden
table, the fireplace, the old fridge --- could practically even see
her brother, Thomas, slicing mushrooms at the counter. What would
he think of that guy over there? She saw herself leading Clay into
the room. Hey, her brother would say, wiping his hands on his pants
before reaching out to shake, really great to meet you. Thomas
would set Clay at ease immediately, and before she knew it the two
of them, her brother and her boyfriend, would be cooking together,
experimenting and laughing at the stove. At some point, her mother
would come in all aflutter, carrying a basket of herbs and flowers
from the garden. My God! When did you get here? I never heard you
pull in --- trying to mask her surprise as she registered Clay's
Asian American features. Your father's upstairs, of course,
working. Don't bother him just yet.
According to the laws of science, neither mass nor energy is
created or destroyed; the total amount in the universe always
remains constant. And fundamentally, Emily understood this. But, as
she moved through the knee-high grass, which used to be the kitchen
and used to be animated by four lives --- one of which was no
longer being lived --- she could not fathom where it had all gone.
Was the energy still there? And what of Thomas? How did the laws of
conservation apply to him?
Following the pattern of cement blocks, she circled the
periphery of the house, mentally rebuilding and refurnishing each
room. There was the bathroom with the pedestal sink, where she'd
fallen and chipped a tooth while she and Thomas were horsing
around; her bedroom where she retreated to write poetry and listen
to music, but mostly to get away from her mother; and the living
room with the couch in front of the fire.
For the first time, the actual destruction of the house didn't
have the feeling of something that had happened to her personally.
It felt instead like an epic or a myth. And it was mythic, really,
the way her father had destroyed everything: his house, his family,
and of course most tragically, his son. In retrospect, it all
seemed inevitable, as if fate had destined things to be so and had
never offered the possibility of them happening any other way.
"So, I guess we'll put the reception tent here. Right?" Clay was
standing several yards away, sweeping his arm to include the
relatively flat area where they were both standing.
She looked at him blankly. There was something incongruous about
the sight of him on this property. He didn't seem to belong here,
and that concerned her.
"Sure. That makes sense."
He watched her for a moment before coming over. "What's up? Do
you want to wait for your mom?"
"I don't know." She gazed up the road and shivered.
He wrapped his arms around her, rubbing his hands up and down
her back to generate warmth. She looked into his face. She loved
that face, she knew she did --- the soft curves of the nose and
chin, those beautiful eyes rimmed with thick black lashes. This is
an amazing person, she told herself, a unique and amazing
They'd come here the first time a few years ago, after they'd
been together about a year. She'd brought other boyfriends before
Clay, and something about being on this property with them had
forced her to stop lying to herself about them. But with Clay, it
was the opposite --- a sure sign that what they had was real. He
hadn't felt the need to act formal and somber as they walked up the
hill and through the woods, nor had he felt a compulsive need to
lighten things and make her laugh. He'd simply been himself, which
meant what it always meant: letting her be without leaving her
She watched him walk away and lower himself to the ground.
Exactly a week ago, she and Clay had been strolling through Central
Park. It was a perfect fall day, crisp and bright, and the entire
city was reveling in it. But when the two of them arrived at the
Alice in Wonderland sculpture, they found themselves alone. Clay
suggested they climb up on the mushroom as they often saw children
do, and laughing, she agreed. As she began to pull herself up,
however, she noticed that he hung behind, jangling his keys in his
"Don't worry," she told him, "nobody's going to see you."
He looked at her with a funny smile. "I'm not afraid of looking
dumb. It was my idea in the first place."
Once they were both up there, lying back on the bronze surface,
they stripped off their jackets and used them as pillows. After a
couple of minutes, he took her hand and slipped a delicate pearl
ring onto her finger. He watched her face with anticipation.
"Emily, will you marry me? I would kneel, but . . ." Indicating
the absurdity of their location, he gave her a quick apologetic
"What?" she said, still stunned. "No way."
"I hope that's not your answer."
She laughed. "Yes!" she said, kissing him. "Of course I'll marry
you. Definitely yes."
They had spoken about marriage many times, and for a while now,
whenever they spoke of the future, they spoke of their being
together as a given. But still, this was a surprise.
"Oh my god," she said, admiring the ring. "How long have you
been planning this?"
"I didn't plan to do it here. I've been carrying the ring around
for a week, trying to figure out something really imaginative. And
then this just seemed better somehow."
"If the ring isn't right, there are lots of others. I talked to
the woman at the store --- "
"Clay, stop," she said, grabbing his hand. "I love it. Really."
She gazed up at the clouds moving slowly across the sky, thick and
lumpy in their centers, thinning out and breaking up around the
edges like flour sifted onto a blue counter. Right then, out of the
corner of her eye, she saw something flapping --- a plastic deli
sack caught on a bush, thank you printed over and over in red down
its wind-crinkled side.
Even now as she thought back on it, the ugliness of that sack
dominated her memory of the day. She looked over at Clay, partially
hidden among the weeds, contentedly fiddling with a piece of straw.
Why had they talked so much about the ring? It was such a trivial
detail. They'd clearly both been nervous. But why?
Car wheels scraped on gravel, and Clay stood up as the silver
Mercedes pulled in next to their Honda. Her mother and Earl
eventually got out of the car and made their way toward them. Earl,
in a tweed cap, looked ready for a grouse shoot on the Scottish
moors. Laura was carrying a shopping bag, which Earl took from her
as they leaned on each other and carefully picked a path over the
ever so slightly graded ground.
"Sorry we're late," Laura said, girlish as always with her
unstyled hair and baggy sweater. She hugged Emily and then
"How was the drive?" he asked.
"Oh." Earl stopped for a moment, panting a bit. "It was all
right." He hugged them both, surveying the property through
squinted eyes. "Nice to be here, though."
"Mom, you might want a coat."
"I'll be fine."
"You sure? It's pretty cold. Look." Emily made a hushed ho
sound, and a cloud of white vapor drifted out of her mouth.
"Boy, look at that," Earl said.
"I always forget how much cooler it is up here." Laura took the
bag from him and handed it to Emily. "I got you this in Paris. A
little engagement present."
"Thanks," Emily said, taking the bag. "That's so sweet."
"It's a little something I found for you at a lingerie store. I
"Ooh." She raised her eyebrows at Clay. "Luck y you."
"Yeah." He laughed. "A present for me, I guess."
"I also have a bottle of Late for you at home."
"Mom . . ."
Laura gave a coy shrug. "Well, you can't drink it for some time
"Yes, but I don't drink at all."
"Come on. Don't you think it's fun to have a bottle of wine that
was released the same month you got engaged?"
Emily looked at Clay, incredulous. There was an awkward
"We were thinking we could put the reception tent over here,"
Clay said, motioning toward the area behind them.
Laura nodded. "Seems like a good place for it."
They all grew silent and business-like as they focused on the
"Have you decided where you want to do the ceremony?" Laura
Clay shook his head. "Not yet."
"I know where we're going to do the ceremony," Emily told
Clay gave her an inquisitive look. They all waited in vain for
her to take the next step.
"Do you want to show us?" he asked. "Or are we supposed to
"I'll show you," she said, starting out across the grass. The
strawlike strands grew taller and thicker as they moved up the hill
so that her shins were eventually plowing through waves of
vegetation, the shopping bag making a swishing sound as it skimmed
along the top.
Halfway up the hill, the land leveled off as if to serve the
cluster of apple trees that dominated the even plane. She stopped
in the center of the orchard and turned to wait for the others.
Clay was patiently making his way up the hill in a pair of
slippery-soled loafers. Her mother and Earl followed slowly, her
mother's hand grasping onto his elbow.
In the far distance, a few developments had sprung up over the
years, but for the most part, everything within twenty miles
remained unspoiled. Her parents had been lucky --- they hadn't
realized how lucky at the time --- to find a property that was
virtually surrounded by state-owned nature reserves, protected from
the encroachment of real estate developers and urban sprawl.
Clay smiled up at her. "I can't believe I didn't think of this.
Of course it's the perfect spot." As he arrived beside her, he
added, "for so many reasons."
She took his hand. "I'm glad you think so."
Her mother sighed, suddenly looking much more tired than the
climb justified. "You want to get married here?"
"Well . . ." She put her hands on her hips and gazed off into
the distance. "How do you think you're going to fit all those
chairs up here?"
"I was thinking people could stand."
"Stand? " She said this as if there had never been an occasion
on which people had stood for a good thirty minutes beneath these
Her mom was looking everywhere but at her. After a while, she
gave a tight, forced smile, and Emily could see that there were
tears in her eyes.
"Oh, Mom," she said, putting her arm around her. "It's not a sad
"Yes, it is," her mother shot back. "It's a very sad thing."
Emily dropped her arm. "What I meant was . . . I wish you
wouldn't see it as a sad thing to be having the ceremony here. I
like the idea that he'll be here for it. You know?"
Her mother's lips began to tremble, and she brought a fist to
Emily put her arm around her again.
Clay cast a glance at Earl, then said, "Maybe the two of you
would like a few minutes up here alone."
As the men started to walk away, her mother pulled herself
together. "We won't be long," she called after them.
She gave Emily's hand a couple of friendly pats to signal that
she could remove the arm from her shoulder. "Have you told your
It took a moment to adjust to this new line of conversation. "Um
. . . No. I mean I haven't had the chance to speak to him yet." She
didn't feel like mentioning the appointment tomorrow in Dr.
Shepherd's office. If all went well, she'd probably tell him
"Oh," her mom said, reaching over to a nearby branch and
twisting at the stem of a lone brown apple until it released into
her palm. She examined it and then tossed it down the hill.
They both watched it roll and hop and roll again until it
eventually disappeared into a tall mound of grass.
"How was Scotland?" Emily asked.
"You know . . . It was okay. Of course, shooting isn't really my
thing. But it was very pretty, and Paris was fun."
Emily nodded, and they stood there quietly for a moment.
"What are we going to do about bathrooms?" Laura asked.
Emily's face fell. "I hadn't thought about that."
"I still don't see why you refuse to get married in the
"I want to do it here."
Laura rubbed her hands up and down her arms. "I should have worn
a coat. Are you ready to go back?"
"You go ahead. I'm going to stay a little longer."
Her mother peered at her apprehensively. "I hope you're not
upset with me."
"No. Not at all."
"I was only trying to be realistic about the problems you're
"Don't worry. We'll make it work."
She smiled to let her mom know she appreciated the sentiment.
Then, as Laura started down the hill, treading carefully on the
path the four of them had cleared on the way up, Emily sat down and
stared up through the bare apple branches at the sky. There was no
symphony of insects, no rustle of leaves --- just the sound of the
wind blowing cold upon the wood and stroking the tops of the grass,
a white noise interrupted by nothing but the occasional squawk of a
One clenched, brown fist of fruit hung directly overhead. The
wind moved the twigs around it. The branch itself even swayed a
little. But the apple did not budge. It held strong and willfully
still. She thought of how her brother had become a part of these
trees, every rainfall and every snowmelt encouraging his ashes to
be drunk up by the trees' roots, climbing from there high into the
trunk and out through each limb to the buds, flowers, fruits, and
She wished that her brother would descend from the branches and
come and sit beside her for a few minutes. He had always been the
one to provide her with a sense of perspective, to let her know
when she was being unreasonable, and to nudge her gently back
toward her own version of equilibrium. She had never been able, and
would never be able, to achieve that extraordinary level of balance
which, for Thomas, was simply status quo.
Lying back on the grass, she closed her eyes. In the blackness,
she could feel her brother stretched out beside her, propped up on
an elbow, his head resting in his hand. It was as if they were
lounging on a picnic blanket as they had done so many times over
the years no matter whether it was sunny and warm or drizzling and
I think you'd like Clay.
Even Mom likes him, miracle of miracles --- crazy about him, in
She imagined Thomas listening as he had always done, waiting
until she'd said everything she needed to say before giving any
sort of response. He remained still, expecting her to proceed.
He's such a good person. Really nice, solid . . .
Goddammit, the wind was relentless. Wiping a bit of moisture
from her cheek, she shut her eyes more tightly. She wanted to keep
talking so that the conversation would not end, but she couldn't
think of anything else to say. The only response she got was from a
crow way off in the distance. She lay there for a little while
longer, trying to hold on to the image of Thomas lying beside her.
But he was back up in the trees, out of reach.
Excerpted from THE EMBERS © Copyright 2011 by Hyatt Bass.
Reprinted with permission by Henry Holt. All rights reserved.