A Field Guide to Deception

“Malone is back with another story that takes us deeper into the shadowy depths of the mind and heart with every twist of its plot . . . keeping the reader rapt all the way to the unforeseeable conclusion.” – Jane and Jane Magazine

“This gem of a book avoids the second-book blahs and gives us a poignant, real story of relationships and all they cost. Warning — not for those who want happy endings.” – OutSmart Magazine

“Malone maintains the narrative tension by giving each character a compelling and complicated past that is deftly woven into the relationship. There is a strong sense throughout the novel that something is about to break or turn or explode — whether it’s Liv’s prowling or Claire’s mounting pile of secrets.” – AfterEllen.com

TEASER

ONE – Sailing small boys

The boy had fallen into the water. Usually, Liv stood within easy grasp of him, but she’d stepped away to crush her cigarette, and as she’d turned, Simon slid right off the bank and into the water. His head hadn’t submerged, but his eyes went wide. She grabbed his shirt at his chest and heaved him out.

“Are you OK?”

He nodded, gasped. Nodded again.

She hugged him against her, both their hearts raging. Afraid. She’d been afraid. In the moment he’d slipped, she’d seen him dragged away into the current and lost. She’d seen him disappear. With the child pressed against her, she ran toward the house, up through the brush and the larkspur and the ugly meadow scrub toward Claire.

“I’m sorry,” she said, handing the child to Claire. All of them drenched now. “I’m sorry. He just slid right off the bank. He just slid. He was on the bank, then right into the water. He didn’t do anything wrong. He just slid right off.”

Claire undressed him, asked Liv to grab her a towel from the bathroom. Liv dashed into the bathroom and back. “It was surprising,” Liv said as she gave the towel to her. “He just slid right off.”

“It’s OK,” Claire said to Liv. “You’re OK.”

Simon hadn’t cried or shouted. He shivered now as his mother toweled him dry.

“Bath?” he asked.

“Would you like one?” his mother asked.

He nodded, hurried naked from the room.

Liv walked out to the deck, her shirt and pants cold against her, and wanted to scream. Her heart wouldn’t quiet. First the girl last night, shivering so hard that Liv thought maybe it was a seizure, and finally realized the girl was sobbing. When Liv stopped, and tucked around her, the girl clung to her and cried into Liv’s chest and kept apologizing, “This is so embarrassing. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

They were related, the girl last night and Simon this morning. Simon, only three years old, and drenched rather than crying, but they both needed her protection. They both needed Liv to help them. Now, in her sopping clothes, she felt herself crying and was paralyzed by it. She stood on the deck and wept.

In the house, Claire put Simon down for his nap. Comforter pulled over his head, he stilled almost at once, and she went outdoors, stood on the rapidly appearing deck, and waited, as Liv hammered slat after slat at a furious pace. Claire shielded her face with her arm, the buttons of her shirtsleeve pressed against her hair, and watched the woman on her knees. Claire kept looking for reasons to interrupt. Over the past month, she’d volunteered to help transport loads of wood, or roofing shingle for the garage, or wallboard and insulation; something always needed hauling. Claire kept asking the woman working for her to put her to work. She’d rather be out here, with Liv, than in that office alone.

Just this morning, she’d discovered that the last of her aunt’s research was missing. She’d riffled through all the papers in the office, frantic that she might have misplaced it. That she might have lost something else.

Barely June, still cool enough in the mornings for Simon to wear socks with his sandals, and already Liv was dark, her cheeks lightly colored with freckles. Claire imagined she could see those freckles now, though Liv’s head was bowed toward her work. Both women were small and dark-haired, athletic and quick, with remarkable definition along their arms, Claire’s from hefting Simon.

When Liv stood to grab more wood, Claire dropped her arm at her side. “He’s OK,” Claire said quietly. “He’s sleeping and he’s fine. Things like this happen. It’s not your fault. Neither of you did anything wrong.”

Liv didn’t speak.

“You’ve almost finished,” Claire said, looking at the deck.

“Yes.”

“Then you’ll start on the house?”

“The kitchen, yes.”

“I like that you’re here. I’m glad.” Claire turned and went back into the house.

• • •

When Simon came outside, after his nap, he squealed and ran around the deck. It had a railing now, like a little ladder, which he immediately clambered up. He could crow from here. He could drive his trains along the railing; it was like a high track, a mountain track. All Liv’s tools were gone, and in their place, recliners with cushions. Stretched on the largest recliner, he leaned back and stared into the sky. The cushion’s buttons pressed into his back. Near the railing, a butterfly fluttered like lint in the air. She’d built this. She’d built it for him. He scrambled down and walked through the fields, searching for Liv, but her yellow truck was gone.

Later that evening, Liv returned in time to watch Simon help his mother stack charcoal on the grill, and then the child climbed onto the railing while Claire lit the lumpy black hill.

“He asked for hamburgers,” Claire said, “and to eat outside, on the deck. Like a picnic.”

Liv handed him a long wooden dowel. “A sword,” she said.

The boy’s eyes lit. He ran into the yard and whirled around with it, smacking shrubs and the deck and the air until he was called to dinner.

“You can play with it after you eat,” Claire told him.

Simon laid the dowel on the table beside his plate, but kept his hand on it.

Liv took in the slices of tomato, onion, pickle, and the potato wedges, everything laid on plates like an offering. Simon dunked his quartered hamburger into the ketchup, and murmured as he ate.

As Liv fixed a burger, she asked, “How’s your work?” Still unsure what Claire’s work entailed. For several weeks, since the beginning of May, Liv had been living on the property, in her ridiculous pink trailer, building a garage to replace the shed and carport, and this deck, and could only say that Claire sat every day in front of her computer.

“Oh,” Claire said, and grabbed Simon’s glass of milk before it toppled. “I need to take a research trip, I think, west of here. I’ll camp and hunt. Take a few notes. My aunt’s notes are incomplete, or I’ve lost some.”

“Camp and hunt,” Liv repeated. “Tell me about your book again?”

“It’s a mycology field guide.”

Right. Mycology. Claire was a beautiful geek, Liv understood that much. At first, Claire had seemed evasive about her work, and her aunt, but tonight, maybe because of Simon’s calamitous plunge into the river, in an effort to reassure Liv that she wasn’t angry with her, Claire had answered a question about her work with more than four words.

Raised on his knees, Simon squeezed another pool of ketchup onto his plate, and Claire, in what appeared to be a single motion, stoppered the bottle before he flooded his plate, and righted his milk before it tumbled off the table. Liv loved these moments: the constant diverting of disaster. “I don’t know that word,” she admitted, dragging from her beer, “mycology. Your aunt was a doctor of some kind?”

“A mycologist studies fungi. My aunt specialized in mushrooms.” She stood abruptly, and said, “I forgot the watermelon.”

Simon ate two pieces of watermelon, and kept holding out his hands to be wiped.

“I missed the summers here,” Liv said, trying to remember the name of the pink flowering tree by the drive. Crabapple?

“Did you grow up in Spokane?” Claire asked.

“South Hill. We moved to Portland when I was in junior high.”

“I used to play on the hill. Rode my bike around Cannon Hill Park, played soccer at Manito, waded for coins in the pond at the Japanese Gardens.”

Liv nodded. “So you too?”

“My parents lived in Seattle, but I spent summers here with my aunt.”

“You were close with her.” Liv understood this was not a question, though it baffled her. Her aunts made quilts, went to craft fairs and Bible studies.

“Yes. We were close.”

Liv sipped her beer, asked, “What about Simon? Will you take him on your research trip?”

“Of course,” Claire said, “he loves camping: all those rocks to throw.”

If Claire took Simon, it would be easier to work in the kitchen, no one underfoot. Minimal cleanup. No little boy crouched over his trains, running them through the grass as Liv worked. No walks to the river with his hand in hers. No picnics on the deck.

While Claire put Simon to bed, Liv had started a fire in the ceramic backyard fireplace. Now, as Claire approached, her wine glass in one hand, and a plate of cookies in the other, she watched firelight play off Liv’s skin like tongues.

Extending the plate, Claire asked, “Do you want any?”

Liv ate her cookie, periodically flicking Simon’s sword against her pants’ leg as though it were a riding crop. “You worked as your aunt’s assistant?” Liv asked.

“That’s right.”

Her assistant, yes, Claire thought. Yet that word was wholly inadequate. It didn’t begin to explain this emptiness. Claire’s aunt had died suddenly in January: a heart attack during her morning run. Snow on the roadside had hidden the body for hours. Claire had driven along the road several times before she’d seen the tread of a sneaker. Simon, strapped in his car seat, pressed his boots into the back of her seat, munching on pretzels while Claire sat, willing herself to get out of the car.

“And you’re finishing the book from her notes?” Liv asked.

Except that some of her notes were missing. But Claire couldn’t think about that. “Yes,” she said.

“What will you do after you finish?” Liv asked.

“After I finish?” Claire drank her wine, held the deep tang a moment before swallowing.

“After you finish the book, what will you do?”

A fair question, Claire knew. The sort of question everyone asked. She’d contemplated modifying her field guides to other subjects: field guide to dynamic lunches, featuring the cheese sandwich, the peeled carrot. Especially popular with toddlers! A field guide to clearing out your dead aunt’s study. Denial and procrastination will help draw this pleasure out. You can move piles from one surface to another for months, and make absolutely no headway. After fourteen years, she had come to love her work, the mapping of their discoveries had become thrilling to her. Mushrooms, for god’s sake. Mushrooms had become thrilling. “I don’t know,” she said. And then to deflect the issue, she added, “Maybe you’ll keep giving me jobs.”

“Sure,” Liv replied. “You can be my assistant, working with you is like working with myself. I can’t even tell us apart.”

Claire grinned. Visitors to the house had mistaken Liv for Claire, then asked, after the confusion was sorted, if they were sisters. And Simon, upon meeting Liv, had stared back and forth between them as though it were a wondrous magic trick.

Claire thought Liv an unusual girl, quiet like Simon, contained in her movements and watchful like the child as well. She still hadn’t decided if she found their resemblance eerie, or if she were more disconcerted by the ease with which she and Liv moved around one another. The improbable simplicity of a stranger among them, in this house in particular, shielded always from external examination. Later Claire would marvel at that thought.

“How did your aunt like Simon?” Liv asked.

Claire started laughing. “You know the first thing she told me? ‘Please tell me you’ve scheduled an abortion.’ She thought I’d gone completely mad. My entire pregnancy she grumbled at me about how I’d ruined my life. And then he was born, and she cut the cord, and held him, and never wanted to give him back.”

“And has he asked?”

Claire stared at Liv, then looked away at the hover of mosquitoes, the darkened meadow beyond them. At first, she had been afraid that Simon wouldn’t remember Dee, that all of their adventures together would be lost to him, but now she was afraid that he remembered too clearly. He avoided Dee’s room just as his mother did. “In his way,” Claire said, “he still asks.”

“I have a canoe—stored at a friend’s,” Liv said, lighting a cigarette. “I’d like to take him out. Along the river here, or for a float on the Little Spokane.”

“Simon in a canoe.” Claire imagined his delight, his rapturous little face.

“He’ll love it.”

“Yes,” she said, and then, “Could I come too?”

Liv blushed, dragged from her cigarette, nodded. Wind through the trees hushing around them. In the meadow, two deer ambled through the scrub, down to the river, pausing often, wary.

TWO – The Ramones are punks

Simon woke and began running his trains along the side of his bed by the railing. Edward and Henry had slept with him, their wooden engines chipped of paint, worn down by Simon’s furious love. Through the window’s shade, light splintered. Simon hummed his warrior song. Engines were always going to war. Simon’s engines especially.

When he finally climbed from bed, he opened the adjoining door to his mother’s room and watched her sleep. Her arm tossed above her head, a furrow between her eyebrows. His mother’s long, thin nose, her shiny face. Simon tossed his trains onto the bed, and climbed up beside her. Before Dee went away, he would get up in the morning and visit her room; she was always awake and propped against the pillows, her hair wild like wolf man. They would eat Cheerios with raisins, and sip warmed milk.

“Simon?” his mother asked as he scrambled over her, and slipped under the blue down comforter. She curled into him. He placed his palm against her face, covering an eye.

Then he remembered they were going sailing. Liv was taking them on the river. Simon kicked his bare feet into his mother’s belly. Mashed his face against her face, his hands cupped around the back of her head.

“Simon,” she said again, and strained her neck backward.

Last night, Liv had brought him a special orange vest and let him wear it until he went to bed. It would make him float on the water just like a ship. She said he could wear it whenever they went to the river from now on. His mother had laughed.

The door from the hallway opened and Liv’s dark head appeared in his mother’s room. “Come on,” she whispered to him. “Don’t wake your mother.”

He scurried from the bed and took Liv’s proffered hand.

“Cereal?” she asked. “And milk?”

He squeezed her hand and hurried along to the kitchen with her. Liv was not Dee. But she was like Dee, even her wolf-man bed-head.

• • •

Liv let Simon carry two bottles of water. She had the cooler, packed with sandwiches and fruit, in the truck already, and towels, paddles, flotation vests, a change of clothes for Simon. Coffee, ordered from a stand, would be pure joy.

The previous evening, when Liv had stopped by for the canoe, Bailey wasn’t home. Her housemate, Sophia, had let Liv into the garage and helped hoist the boat onto the roof rack. While Liv tied the boat down, Bailey drove into the driveway.

“You, my friend, have a reputation already,” Bailey said, leaning through the window. Snug against the collar of her chef’s jersey, her hair wound into a bun.

Liv looked her over, secured the last knot. “How’s that?”

“You’ve forgotten this is Spokane. Small town life is all I’m saying. Just keep that in mind, right?”

“Sure.”

“You need any more paddles?”

“No,” Liv said, “I’m golden. Thanks.”

“Yeah. Have fun.” She reversed to let Liv through. Hollered after her, “Don’t fall in.”

If Claire weren’t up soon, she’d have to let Simon back in to wake her; Simon had mastered the wickedly effective pounce/ululation combo—as she herself could attest. Each time she’d been stalked and shrieked awake, she regretted teaching him to open the latch to her trailer. He hugged the water bottles to his chest, then solemnly handed them over when she asked. He was already wearing his life vest.

“I’m sorry to be so late,” Claire said behind them.

Liv jumped, dropped the bottles, Simon giggling.

“Sorry,” Claire said again. “Usually Simon wakes me at dawn. I brought your monkey hat.” This last to Simon as she pressed the hat over his untidy hair.

Claire wore short black trunks and a red camisole. Her brown eyes looked larger in the morning like a marmoset’s. They latched Simon’s car seat into the truck. When Claire squeezed between them, her thigh pressed against Liv’s. In a moment, the engine roared, sputtered, and died. Liv pumped the gas pedal, turned the engine over.

“Your stereo,” Claire said, tucking some of the wires back into the cracked console, “is supposed to go here.”

“We’ll just have to sing instead,” Liv said as the truck roared, vibrating so hard that the windows rattled as she reversed down the gravel lane. “Know any Ramones?”

“‘I Wanna be Sedated’ would certainly be fitting. Or we could just shout at one another.”

“Like a proper family outing. Now you’re talking. Say you want coffee,” Liv said, her mouth nearly against Claire’s ear as the truck shifted them.

“Yes,” Claire said over the tumult. “Oh god, yes.”

They slid the green canoe into the water. Liv held the rope and dragged the boat back toward shore. Hopping from foot to foot, Simon looked apprehensive, swallowed by his orange vest and Capri-length swim trunks. His mouth O-shaped.

“You’re in first,” Liv told Claire. “I’ll hand Simon to you.”

Claire nodded. An adventure at last, she thought, and nothing to do with field guides. Between Liv’s thick black belt—barely holding her plaid shorts at her waist—and her sports bra, Claire could see Liv’s belly tattoos, and a little thrill she thought she’d forgotten rushed through her.

To steady herself, she took Liv’s hand, and stepped into the boat. Simon exclaimed behind them, and rushed forward as though he might be left on shore. Liv dropped the rope and caught the boy as the canoe shot forward with the momentum of Claire’s boarding. Claire fell forward into the canoe, had to right herself and determine how to paddle back to shore.

Simon was crying, his eager little body restrained against Liv’s hip. “I’m OK,” his mother called to him. Paddling ineffectually, frustrated at her gracelessness, she suddenly realized that this was their first adventure since Denise’s death, and found herself near tears. She considered climbing out and walking the canoe back to them.

“Just lean into your strokes,” Liv encouraged.

Watching the girl on shore, and the small grasping boy, Claire felt a sudden, wild laugh climb through her body, and sang, Hey, ho, let’s go, as she leaned forward, dug the paddle downward, and moved the canoe infinitesimally closer to shore.

“Yes,” Liv said. “Look at Mommy, Simon. She’s coming. Look at Mommy.”

He stopped crying and looked: his mother’s face tight with strain; her arms muscled and fluid; the paddle deep in the water and suddenly airborne. In a moment, the canoe rushed toward them and he retreated as though from a monster.

Liv caught the canoe and grabbed the rope. Reluctantly Simon came forward and allowed Liv to hand him into the canoe. He gripped the rungs of his seat while Liv pushed off the bank. The Little Spokane River, narrow and sleepy, meandered through reeds and heron nests; the air dense with insects. Simon listened to the strokes of the paddles, watched his mother’s shoulder muscles flex as though they might launch wings.

Liv leaned forward to give him a drink of water. When he refused to relax his grip on his seat rungs, she braced his back and held the bottle to his mouth.

“Water?” she called to Claire.

And they glided: dragonflies sailing past them and skirting the water’s surface; occasionally the startling screech of a heron, its wings thrown wide as if in greeting; and the great looming trees. Simon held a stick over the canoe, adjusted its wake at will.

A field guide to floating, Claire thought. Remember to launch with spectacle. Anyone can push off a dock. Mosquitoes from the Pleistocene period—roughly the size of bats—will aviate along the river with your canoe. They will influence your velocity. Then Claire stopped rowing, took another swig from the bottle, enjoyed the soothing, umbilical tug through the water.

He fell asleep in Claire’s arms. Hiking back on the trail to get to the truck, she and Liv took turns shouldering the heft of him. On Liv’s upper arm, a thick scar in the shape of a star. Contemplating Liv’s large tribal tattoos, earth brown on her belly and shoulders, Claire wanted to ask the origins, but fought herself and kept walking. For the first time, she felt intimidated by this woman: the skill and silence and markings of her.

“Thank you,” she said, finally. Liv smiled at her, offered to take the boy.

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