All manner of critters lurk in the Enchanted Valley, bobcats and coyotes, bear and beaver, slugs and hornets, and Ken feels like a lurker too, a confused critter sluggishly wandering-standing in front of the chalet with Maggie, his devoted girlfriend of eight years sitting on a downed tree behind him, dressing the hotspots on her heels with moleskin, while Alissa, his best friend and current lover, chats up her boyfriend Jay, the local ranger who is spending the summer in the chalet admonishing hikers to use bear bags to hang their food or regaling them with precise statistics about the aforementioned critters while Ken spends his time fucking Jay’s girlfriend, and it’s the first day of their backpacking trip along the Quinault River, Jay invited them, insisted they come, even helped plan their trip, and it is beautiful, July and the Olympic Peninsula roaring green and lovely in its summer lushness, and Ken wanted to refuse, knew it’d be awkward, even potentially calamitous, secrets seeping out in front of the campfire, but he loves these women and they both insisted and his continued reluctance might have been its owns sort of admission, he loves Alissa, especially her smell, smokey-sweet, whereas Maggie has a sour Birkenstock pong about her, an musk brimming with pheromones, and they’re both beautiful, without a doubt, Maggie with her curves, a big soft ass to sink your teeth into and, as his lascivious uncle had proclaimed upon meeting her, child-bearing hips, and Alissa thin, narrow-hipped and broad-shouldered, a finely-muscled back, strong and lean, a climber’s build, a climber’s powerful grip, albeit with a smile a tad too gummy, and now Jay is working bag balm into his large hands, calloused from climbing and splitting wood and other sundry manly competencies, and he is staring at Ken’s throat for he never makes direct eye contact but his stare is nonetheless penetrating, even more so, perhaps, for its evasiveness, and Ken suspects Jay’s gaze is worming into him, using Ken’s throat as an opening, a window into who Ken really is, all the lies given voice there, deceptive, deceiving, charming, horny, frightened, lost—human, Ken thinks, and is that so wrong? “Something wrong?” Jay asks suddenly as if he is indeed reading Ken’s mind, reading the secret history of the last five months, since he and Alissa have gone from friends to more than, Ken shakes his head though something is wrong, he is wrong, a critter lurking in the valley of wrongness, and Alissa has given him multiple ultimatums that he’s ignored, choosing instead to fuck Maggie at home and Alissa abroad, in the world, in bathrooms, cars, lean-tos, tents, all over God’s creation, and he likes this, treasures this, these adventurous fucks—“Quite an adventure you’re all on, no?” Jay says, again causing Ken to wonder if he’s reading his mind, “How do you mean?” Ken asks, and Jay says, “The three of you exploring the Olympic Peninsula,” and Ken wonders about the words three and exploring and the challenge in that tacked on no but he’s also recalling those adventurous fucks with Alissa as a necessary and refreshing counterpoint to the domestic stability of fucking Maggie at home, on the couch, two bodies cozying into each other, the warm glow of the tv screen flashing the opiate of nostalgia over them, a grounding counterpoint, equally necessary and refreshing, to the clandestine fucks abroad, and Alissa says, “Mt. Duckabush,” to Jay as they look at a map but Ken hears the erotic promise and emotional threat in each landmark, “Pyrite Creek,” a topography of his infidelities, “O’Neil Peak,” the little secret joys they were and are, and behind him Maggie asks, “Does anyone have extra bug spray?” and Ken doesn’t need a map to tell him he is at a crossroads in this Enchanted Valley, he’s twenty-nine and thirty is looming a mere four months away but he’s in love with two women, in need with two women, in fear of two women, and he’s a libra incapable of finding balance and his parents cheated on each other in poisonous, retributive cycles and they moved seventeen times over four years, a hurly-burly of ducking out on landlords and dodging debt collectors and moving their car each night to outfox the repo men and he blames his indecision, his poor decisions, the hurt they are causing and will cause, on these facts/events/memories/happenings, and he’s had a recurring dream since he discovered he is allergic to bees, since one hornet landed on the back of his left hand while he was picnicking in Volunteer Park with Maggie and texting Alissa and his hand blew up, turning into a swollen red itchy paw and Maggie tended to him, ran for Benadryl, took him to urgent care, picked up his newly prescribed EpiPens at the pharmacy, but Alissa did too, later, that night, while Maggie was at work, holding his hot bloated hand to her small cool breast, a recurring dream where he’s Diogenes roaming dark lands but not with a lantern looking for honest Athenians but a bug zapper to exterminate bees and in his dream both Alissa and Maggie are there, Maggie and Alissa, wielding stiff wire brushes and helping him clean the screen of scorched dead bees so he can keep advancing through the next swarm, sizzling these stinger-assed little fuckers, and now the mountains behind the chalet are wreathed in a fog, a mist, as if they’re merging with the clouds, the distinction between earth and sky uncertain, inverted, erased, “Duckabush,” Alissa says again, looking at Ken now, her eyes penetrating him, cracking up some coldness in his chest, and maybe Alissa is sky, lightness, vastness, the unknown, and Maggie is earth, stability, fertility, familiarity, but what does that make Ken? The tremulous horizon between them? and then Jay looks at Ken’s throat and his look dries the saliva in Ken’s mouth, a desiccating look, withering, and Maggie’s hand is on his neck now, picking off stray pine needles that had clung to his sweaty skin, and of course polyamory isn’t an option, Maggie is a devout Catholic, traditional, even prudish at times, and she’s only slept with three other men, boyfriends all, and has been agitating for marriage for a year, and Alissa isn’t a prude but she’s possessive and is tired of sharing Ken with Maggie, with anyone, and he finds this possessiveness arousing but scary too, because he’s not self-possessed, how can anyone possess a self, even, especially, their supposed own? He has only ever understood himself as with someone, seen himself as someone to a someone, son, friend, employee, customer, boyfriend, lover, defined by these roles, stuck on the predefined and delineated and trodden trails of these roles, and Jay says, “There are a lot of side trails to explore too,” again with the mindreading, the mindcreeping, mindplumbing, and Ken swallows dryly and Jay is talking to him, right at him, their eyes meeting for the first time, the menacing glare of four corneas, and Jay says, “I have a spare bug spray in the bear storage bin a quarter mile down this trail,” pointing with his wide, lanolin-greased finger at a narrow footpath winding around the chalet and into the mist, “help yourself,” he adds, and Ken screams inside, “myself! How can I help it? What is it? Help me!” and Maggie says, “great, yes, Ken, go grab it, please, my feet are killing me,” and the earth has spoken and Alissa says, “I could use some too,” with the authority of the all-encompassing sky and though the scales are still unbalanceable, Ken’s legs are moving, carrying him forward, “Yes,” he says, “much obliged,” and he marches off, his body loping along the trail like a coyote, rumbling on like a bear, leaving Maggie and Alissa and Jay to—what? Share trail mix? Conspire? Come to an understanding? Break into a brawl? The enchanted air is damp and fresh as Ken hoovers it in, eager to absorb its magic, but his breathing is labored, heart not racing so much as trapped in traffic, speeding ahead only to slam the brakes at the next red light, pads burning hotly on the rotors, and all the lights are turning red and the road leads nowhere but he must drive it, that’s the point, the rub, the inevitability that he seems incapable of accepting and he sees the brown metal bear storage bin ahead but three yards before it he feels a prick in his left calf, followed quickly by another on his right, then one above his left knee, then one on the back of his neck, as if the very air is composed of needles, because he’s walked onto a nest of ground hornets and they’re pouring upward from the earth into the sky and swarming him and he’s allergic and afraid and alone and confused and what role is this, now? Victim? Prey? Penitent? He turns, scrambling back towards the chalet, towards the EpiPen in his pack, towards his two loves, his one enemy—did Jay know, somehow, about the severity of his allergy? About the hornets? And he’s growing panicked now, woozy, his vision blurring, his skin a red blaze of hives, his breath coming fast and shallow, the world whitening, and he stumbles out of the trees, manages a stifled scream as his throat closes, falling forward, his right foot slipping, his left hand reaching out, grasping at nothing, his brain only-half interpreting what his eyes are seeing: Alissa and Maggie standing together, those shoulders, those hips, facing the opposite direction, trying to compare some feature in the misty distance with the map in their hands while Jay stands behind them, one large hand on each of their shoulders, offering them friendly encouragement, making his knowledge available, guiding their gaze forward and sparing only the briefest glance backwards to confirm Ken collapsing, a blip barely visible between earth and sky, a critter dissolving into the horizon.
Jon Doughboy is a suffering jukebox in a happy town. Turn him up loud before he breaks down @doughboywrites