Today is my eighteenth birthday. Tomorrow I swear off love.
It’s absurd. I’ve never kissed a girl, never asked anyone out. I’ve never slipped my arm around a waist, hoping for encouragement to let it stay. I’ve never danced entangled in another’s limbs, never flirted in a hallway or teased someone and walked away.
And yet tomorrow, when I give up love, everything will change. I’ll still be Ander—blond and pale, immune to illness, able to blend into any background—but I won’t be me anymore. I won’t be what I am today.
Because for as long as I have known Eureka, my love for her has defined me. And though she knows nothing of my existence, I’ve known her all my life. My secret dies in the woods tonight, along with a thousand smaller passions. The Passage is what matters, not the life I’ll lose.
A knock on my door startles me. My uncle doesn’t wait, enters my dark room.
“Are you packed?” Albion closes the blinds above my bed, erasing the knife made of moonlight that was splitting my chest in two.
Albion makes a room feel cold. Like all my relatives, his movements make no sound. He has no scent. His voice is clear but somehow never disturbs the silence. Only his shape and his effect on the temperature tell me that I’m not dreaming. I pull my blanket higher.
In the twin bed across the room, my uncle Critias stretches stiffly and sits up. His na**d body is muscular, strong. He looks younger than Albion, though both of them are thousands of years old.
Albion looks at him. “He isn’t packed yet, is he?”
“Are you packed?” Critias asks me.
“I’m packed.” I glance at the backpack I’ve been filling slowly for months. It’s only one night in the woods, but I will take my entire childhood with me. Then I will leave it there.
“Get up, then. Get going,” Albion says.
On a slanted plank between his bed and the wall, Critias begins his hundred push-ups.
“Happy birthday,” he tells me, lifting into number thirteen.
The Passage is a walk in the woods. You go in a boy; you come out a man. Every member of my family goes through this ritual on the night we turn eighteen. When I complete the Passage I’ll be a Seedbearer, like the aunts and uncles who raised me. I’ll know the secrets that have always swirled around me, vapors I’ve been forbidden to inhale. I’ll begin to live forever.
My dog, Shiloh, sleeps at the foot of my bed. When I rise he nudges me with his damp nose. I rub the spotted crown of his head. “I’ll miss you, too.”
“Shiloh’s going with you,” Critias says, his voice slightly muffled as he drags a sweater down his torso in the dark.
For a moment, I’m elated. Then I remember the rules. “Why is he coming with me?”
Critias slides a broken silver watch onto his arm. “You know why.”
I close my eyes in pain.
“Stop it,” Critias snaps. And he’s my kindest relative. “I’ll be waiting in the car.”
I enter the darkened kitchen, where my aunts Starling and Chora are debating which brand of rattrap is best. Starling is willowy and frail. Chora is shorter, stout. Their faces, like my uncles’, are easy to forget.
We never turn on the lights. We keep the blinds drawn all the time. We live on the northwest corner of Lafayette in an abandoned farmhouse on the edge of an overgrown wheat field. You can’t see our house from the road. No one knows we live here.
“I made the cake.” Starling points to a foil-capped clump on the table. Someone’s taped a box of candles to it.
“Are you hungry?” Chora asks. Alligator sausage hisses in a frying pan behind her.
“No.” I don’t want to have to put down and pick back up my heavy backpack. It feels like it’s cutting lashes into my shoulders.
“Best to get on the road.” Starling stuffs a canvas satchel into my backpack, adding to my load. “Sleeping bag. Sandwiches. Insect repellent. Fire starter.”
“And the cake.” Chora hands it to me like a quarterback.
As they eye me I wonder if they’re thinking of their own Passages, centuries ago. What private agonies did they forsake? What passions did they know when they were on the other side?
“See you tomorrow,” they say in unison.
The car has been running for half an hour. Exhaust blossoms in the inky air as Critias waits in the driver’s seat. I know from his serene expression that he is listening to screaming AM talk radio. Shiloh sticks close beside me through the front door, thrilled to be included. I drop my backpack and my cake into the trunk.
Inside the car it’s close and warm. Shiloh licks the window. A gray sun edges over the cypresses behind our house, and I think of the time I ran away from home. I was eight and Albion had just told me the reason I was being forced to watch Eureka.
One day you will be the one to stop her, and the world will credit you for its salvation. Forever.
I remember how sick I felt. I knew I had to flee that destiny, but I only made it into the indifferent arms of an ancient cypress tree at the edge of our yard. I stayed there an eternal evening, my unfed imagination powerless to think of anywhere else to go.
As my family searched for me, I heard Starling say, “What if he left us, like the last one?”
“He is not like the last one,” came Albion’s calm reply.
He was right. I climbed down for dinner. They never told me who “the last one” was, and I knew better than to ask.
A tap on my window startles me. Critias turns down the radio and I roll down the window. Albion’s face appears in the cold square of darkness. He hands me a large, sturdy envelope. I’ve never received a birthday card before. I slip my thumb under the flap but stop when Albion slaps me across the cheek. I inhale sharply. A sea of red washes over my eyes.
“Open it tomorrow. Inside there are things you know but do not think you know.” Albion looks at Shiloh. “First thing you do, get rid of the dog.”
I swallow and don’t look at anyone.
Critias puts the car in drive.
“This is not a game, Ander,” Albion says, as if I have ever played one.
The drive to Kisatchie will take two hours. I’ve camped there twice but never alone. I’m considering running away a second time, when Critias takes a wrong turn.
“You missed the ramp,” I tell him.
Critias looks straight ahead. “I want to show you something.”
He drives downtown through short streets and turns into the parking lot of the Pancake Barn. I know why we’re here.
Because she is here.
Eureka sits at a window booth with her mother. She’s so lovely I can’t breathe. Her sweater and her hair are golden. Her eyes are alive with the story she’s telling. Her hands never rest when she speaks. Her mother, Diana, catches Eureka’s orange juice just before it spills.
Eureka’s funny. Laughing, Diana, puts up her hand, begging for a chance to swallow. I can’t resist tilting my head a little, entranced as a wild bird.
A waitress delivers a can of whipped cream. Eureka swirls a white tower onto her pancakes. I’ve seen her do this many times, like an angel building a cloud above an island. I wonder if clouds taste like whipped cream to angels. Eureka licks her fork.
She waves at someone by the door, then jumps up from the table. A brown-haired boy approaches. Brooks. I feel sweat on my temples as she embraces him and slides to make room for him in the booth. Brooks picks up her fork as if it also belongs to him. I want to kill him.
“Tell me what you see,” Critias says.
“Danger,” I say.
Critias nods. “Your work with the girl will feel different when you return.”
Never, I think, hoping my uncle might be right. Unrequited love is the deepest misery I have ever known. Maybe the Passage will free me. Or maybe, I fear, I will climb above all desire for pleasure—every intense emotion in every sphere of my life—and yet will not find the strength to slow down my love for her.
Critias moistens his lips. “No, ‘feel’ is the wrong word. It will simply be different.”
“But my being is so full of feeling.”
Critias starts the car again. “You will understand tomorrow.”
Night falls early, sealing off another day. Eureka sits in my mind like a patch of sun in winter. Every now and then, the way she looked this morning diverts me from the burden I carry.
In the gray-brown dusk Shiloh leads me along the snaking bayou, beyond the oaks’ canopy, into a quiet, starry night. I am surprised to be surprised by the spreading darkness.
Shiloh shakes out his fur. He looks at me. Which way?
I don’t know where we are. My vision adjusts and I notice a stand of trees around a small, flat clearing. It’s as good a place as any to make camp. Though everything is wet, I begin to gather wood. The air is brittle, as if I could snap it into pieces and make an arsenal of knives.
In my mind I see Eureka, back at the restaurant. Her head falling back, eyes squeezed shut, her mouth wide open. What made her laugh like that? Maybe she was laughing because it was the last time I would love her. Maybe she was laughing at me and everything I’ve done.
I curse Critias as I drop wet wood onto the wet earth. Did my uncle know I would consume Eureka’s image until she consumed me, until I disappeared into the darkness like a dwindling match? Only now do I hear the drilling sound of a nearby woodpecker, the slosh of the bayou below.
I can’t remember anyone ever speaking frankly about what happens on the Passage. But I’ve always known what’s expected of me: a renunciation of pleasure, of memories I hold dear, of anything or anyone whose appeal borders on dependence. Tomorrow, when I appear before my family to prove that I’m completely free, they’ll open the Seedbearers’ secrets to me. They will have nothing more to hide.
Critias gave me a map that marks the spot where I’m supposed to meet them. It’s twenty miles from where he dropped me off. Why am I rushing toward them? I wonder. I’ve always told myself I want to escape.
“The idiots in this town,” Albion has said at the dinner table. “They tell each other, ‘Wish upon a star, be an idiot, chase your dreams.’ ”
How would I even begin to chase my dreams? I have no more idea of where I could go now than I did when I was eight.
In the darkness I remember the fire starter Chora gave me. I toss the artificial log on the wet wood and light the yellow wrapper. The paper lights, but the wood doesn’t catch. I rub my hands together, angry at the cold, until I remember once seeing Albion whisper a breath into a reluctant fire. “Wind is the Seedbearer’s to wield,” he said.
Softly, I blow into the flame.
The orange tendril dances from one wet log to another. I have made an impossible fire. I laugh, which inspires a great burst of flames. Shiloh leaps around the conflagration, delighted that something has made me happy, that something is making him warm.
I’ve never felt at liberty to test this kind of power—either normal people are nearby or there’s an elder at my side who is more expert than I think I will ever be. For the first time, I allow myself to feel alone, inhaling, exhaling, manipulating the fire with my breath as if it were a burner on a stove.
I leave the fire roaring and open a can of beans. I set it on a stone near the flames. Shiloh cozies up to me, curling his body around my leg. He sighs and rests his chin on my lap. I scratch his head and remember that I’ll never spend another night with him.
I draw my leg from under him. He nuzzles into me again. Something dark is rising in me. I want him gone. I want to forget I ever loved him. The urge is so strong I begin to shake. I give Shiloh the beans to make myself disgusted by the way he eats. He devours them sloppily, licks the can for a while, then turns to me.
“Okay.” I swallow the familiar “buddy” before it has a chance to fully form in my throat. “Time to go.”
Shiloh rises to his haunches and sits at my feet. His spine is erect, his eyes alert. His ears are cocked because the tone of my voice suggests a command.
It’s time for me to do this, but I don’t know what this is.
“Go on.” I point into the black woods.
Shiloh stares at me with wide brown eyes. After a moment, he lies down. His paw finds its way onto my knee.
I push it off and stand up.
“Get out of here.” I wave my hands, scaring him. “You’re not my dog now. I’m not your owner. You’re on your own.” I pause. “You’re free.”
He whimpers, gets up and strides in a small circle, then sits down again.
“I said go.” I lift my foot as if to kick him. He doesn’t flinch. He waits for a moment, then begins to lick my trembling fingers. The darkness that was rising dissipates. I wonder if my family knew how hard it would be to leave him. I wonder if they mean for me to kill him to stop him from following me.
“Fine,” I tell him. “One more night.”
We assume our earlier positions, my legs extended toward the fire, Shiloh sprawled across my knees. I reach for my backpack and unzip it.
I look inside at the worn blue blanket I slept with when I was young, the baseball I taught myself to catch on endless afternoons alone in our backyard. There’s a heavy photo album one of my aunts must have made. I haven’t seen it before, though I’m the only one in the pictures.
Pictures of me as a baby, a toddler, a little boy—always alone. No one ever taught me to smile, so I’m not smiling in any of the photos. They end abruptly, dwarfed by blank pages where more life should be.
I pull out the primers with which I learned to read and write. A deck of cards with na**d women on them; a BB gun I used to shoot at doves, robins, squirrels. I find the only CD I’ve ever owned—a burned copy of Bunk Johnson from the free bin at a garage sale. I listened to it once in Critias’s car when my aunts and uncles were asleep.