During the two weeks they were in the cabin, Andi painted everything grayscale. The lampshades were salt and pepper and the rotting floors were charcoal. She made murals of black on white brick. They sat on flaking used furniture that looked and felt like concrete. Every morning, when Shot brought in wood for the fire, Andi sprayed it down until all the pieces turned to fog. The two stayed warm huddled around a wisp of a white flame, covered in chessboard blankets of raw wool. They breathed sharp paint chips beneath a perfectly overcast ceiling.
When the sky was blue Andi hooked sheets over the windows. She cooked meat until it was black. While Shot slept she powdered his cheeks with fireplace ash. When they walked about the cabin they looked like subjects in pencil sketch flipbooks, skin brushed gray over a monochrome background. Sometimes Shot would track in mud or some paint would flake, and Andi would be there with a can to police the evidence.
“You spray that shit like Febreze,” Shot once said from the off-white kitchen. He had been sneezing all morning. The house made him feel like a ghost, and he found himself doing ridiculous things like trying to put the teakettle in the microwave, or ignoring the existence of glass. Once or twice he even cozied up to a wall, held still, and disappeared completely. It was good sport, especially when Andi came looking for him.
They made love frequently and mostly out of boredom. Ash would get in their teeth and in their skin. The friction made them feel like they were being ground to dust. Afterward, Andi and Shot brushed one another with ash from head to toe, covering up the pink and tan that exposed itself in their compulsions. Then, if it was warm enough, they’d walk around naked, looking small and translucent.
Shot approached Andi’s behavior as a horny god would approach a prayer; it was there, but he hardly noticed it. There were more important things to pay attention to, like the way she bit her lip when she painted something with detail, or how she looked when she bent down to add gray sticks to the fire. What she was doing seemed pointless and rather cumbersome. He didn’t like what she was doing, but he liked the way she did it.
It also didn’t hurt that, while he was with Andi, those days that for ages had been going by more quickly, seemed to slow down. Instead of feeling like he had all the time in the world, Shot felt like he had all the time in the world, and that he was using it.
They explored each other’s bodies. Andi had hair that grew in a tornado spiral and Shot’s skin was callused but still looked young. He had a tattoo of a knotted tree that trailed the length of his back. Everywhere it looked dead except for tiny tufts of rough needles at the branch tips.
“What is it?” she asked as she powdered in the green needles with black.
“Who gave it to you?”
“Wovoka. A Paiute.”
“It’s great. Can I meet him?”
Shot gave a small smile, “It was a while ago.”
Some days Andi swore the tree on the boy’s back had only a few needles, and then some days she swore it was covered. It tricked her like a song that gradually fades into nothing. With little else to do, she observed the tattoo over time, catching glimpses of it as Shot turned over in bed or passed on his way to the kitchen. Like seasons it seemed to go through phases.
She took to forcing him to let her cover his back multiple times daily. The pine needles had a bothersome habit of shedding her fireplace ash as soon as she finished brushing. Little contrasts of green would show on the boy’s charcoal body. Annoyed, she eventually gave up on it.
As she was brushing Shot’s forehead one afternoon, Andi said, “Your eyes are pitch black. You match.”
So Andi started wearing sunglasses. When she was younger, she imagined life was like this before they invented color. Her hair was poorly dyed the color of a shadow in a parking lot, and occasionally she used the paint as hairspray. Then she pulled her crisp hair apart while she sat by the fire. During those weeks she continued drifting through the cabin with a clicking can in hand, making some rooms feel like caves and others like hospitals.
The empty cans piled up in the living room. A sort of shrine to reality. A pyramid that proved foul play, and she knew it.
“Get those out,” she said.
“I kind of like them there.”
“They don’t fit.”
“There’s plenty of room.”
“With the décor. They don’t fit with the décor.”
“We might need them, but you can put them out if you really want to.” Andi sighed and added more wood–already the color of coal–to the fire. “Let’s take them outside and watch the sunset,” Shot said.
Andi didn’t respond.
She looked different from when he had met her. It was only little more than a month ago, but the girl regarding the pile of spray paint cans was a child’s caricature of the girl he had met in the city.
He had asked to join her at the table outside a downtown café. It was one of those places that stole wi-fi from the Starbucks a few doors down. It had a red awning and turquoise ceramic mugs.
When he sat down, Shot noticed that Andi was looking at the colossal mural across the street. As if on the sidewalk, a stenciled girl in school clothes was paused mid-run, looking over her shoulder. She was life-size and vibrant. Her orange hair tossed behind her as she ran. Her dress was navy and her tie was neon red. Behind her, a silhouetted, thin figure towered three stories. Two dots and a line created a simple visage of anger, as the giant watched the girl flee. He was holding up the windows.
Shot puffed out his lips at the mural, “Not bad.”
“I did it. Last night.”
Andi nodded, observing the passersby with interest. Some stopped to look at her work, others didn’t seem to notice. “I’m fast.”
Smirking and regarding the girl stuck in her run, Shot said, “She has your eyes, you know.”
“How old are you?”
“Fifteen and a half.”
A toddler on a leash tried to say hello to the painted girl. He was pulled along before he realized the girl wouldn’t be able to introduce herself.
When Andi didn’t say anything, Shot hesitated, then said, “I’m old for my age.”
Their nights in the cabin were spent reading books they found in the cabin paneling. Since novels were being used for insulation, all one needed to do was pull off a chunk of rotting wood to find Poe or Faulkner or McCarthy. Of course, the covers were sprayed white before they could be opened.
Shot had already read most of the books they found, so he sat in silence watching Andi read, trying to recall memories. Since their first day there, the place made him uneasy. Something churned in his throat, brought on by a curious nostalgia that sparked when he chewed Andi’s burnt dinners, or heard the water heater click on, or did so little for so long that he started thinking critically about his elbow. Even through the acrid paint fumes, the place smelled like an ex-lover.
It sounded like nothing. Occasionally they listened to music on a slow phonograph painted stark white. The only warped record they had skipped and cracked over ancient scratches until it simply snapped in half. Eventually the place went completely mute. No longer was there a sound of friction when Andi turned a page, or the crack of fire as it burned on the hearth. The microwave didn’t beep and the springs on the bed didn’t creak. That’s why on the night the two heard a sound, they both jumped. Andi was reading Fennimore Cooper and Shot was just about to place a memory when it happened. The sound was alarming only because it was alone, and they had both been inside for so long that the other side of the walls was easy to forget.
Shot smiled, “There’s a deer on the roof.”
Suddenly the tiny fire was crackling, and they realized the microwave had been beeping for hours.
“How do you know it’s a deer?”
“I think I’ve met him before,” Shot replied. “Come outside. I’ll introduce you.” “To a deer?”
“Sure, but you can’t paint him gray.”
“I think I’ll stay inside.”
Shot let the door close behind him as he exhaled the color of cinderblock and inhaled the color of pine needles. Instantly he felt more like himself. Even with snow on the ground and a heavy wind chill, it seemed warmer out here than inside. He walked a few paces from the cabin and turned around. The snow was thin and so were his soles. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but then he saw clearly the ten-point buck standing by the chimney.
Motionless in balance at the roof’s spine, the buck inhaled the cinder smoke as it rose from the white fire. When he exhaled the air popped golds and violets and reds like tiny fireworks. He eclipsed the moon and seemed to pulse blue, rippling the air like a still pond.
“Deer, if I am old, how old does that make you?”
Hearing clearly, the buck caught the boy’s eye for less than a second, before jumping from the cabin roof and disappearing in the winter bark.
Shot walked inside.
He shivered when the door closed. Wondering if this is what it felt like to be dead, he asked Andi if she wanted some tea. The kitchen was a tarnished old photograph. It was frictionless as Shot floated to the stove.
The steel kettle was the color of brick when they arrived, but now it was slate. He remembered their first day in the cabin when she sprayed it down. Andi had told him that she left her parents’ house after high school to paint. When he asked why she wasn’t going to college, she said life was short. This made Shot laugh.
As he picked up the mute teakettle, filled it with white mountain water, and placed it in the microwave, Shot imagined telling Andi everything, imagined her not believing him, imagined how incapable she would be of understanding the concept of eternity.
Three minutes. Start. The microwave switched on with a buzz.
Shot floated back to the cabin living room, ignoring the crackling of sparking metal behind him. The stark environment made his heartbeat echo.
Behind her sunglasses, Andi was captured in the lined world of words. She looked like a mouse. Even when the teakettle started to crack and boom, she didn’t take the time to look up. The white flame on the hearth had all but gone out.
“Everybody seems to step on fallen branches in this book,” she said, maybe to herself. “They should learn to walk more carefully.”
“How old are you?” Shot asked.
Her face still covered in soot, Andi seemed to be pulled forward a layer. She was now, at least, back in the cabin. “Seventeen.”
“You’re young for your age.”
A warm pulse began emanating from the kitchen, and the banging and cracking was now the muffled sound of hungry, licking flames. The sterile smell of dried paint was replaced with musty smoke.
“What did you do?” Andi asked. “I lit the house on fire.”
“What the fuck.”
“The deer told me to do it.”
The flames wrapped into the living room. They grabbed and tore at the black on white murals with orange ferocity. It smelled toxic. Andi and Shot watched without expression. The fire spread along the flaking floor and they could see down the hall that the bedroom carpet was aflame and was now eating at the bedframe legs and skirt. Sparks drifted between them. A hungry flame licked at the stitching on Andi’s chair.
Shot met the girl’s eyes, “Ready to go?”
“One more chapter.”
Andi turned to the flames. Her colorless face was dry and coarse, and her sunglasses reflected the flashing bursts of color. It was difficult to breathe. Above them, the ceiling beams were starting to splinter under their own weight.
“You’ll burn orange,” Shot said.
The flames ate at the novel insulation and the window sheets and the salt and pepper lampshades. The paint curled like the world’s longest finger nails. Everything creaked and groaned. It felt like a sinking ship.
Andi sighed. She threw her book into the burning kitchen and stood. “And I was just getting comfortable.”
Taking her hand, Shot said, “Comfort and death are too good of friends.”
They were outside, crunching over sticks along the frosted path. Soon, Andi would tell him that stars aren’t white. They’re subtle shades of purple, blue, red and orange, and this is easy to see if you try.
They stared at the fire like hypnotized children. Hand in hand, Shot and Andi watched pieces of gray paint drift with sparks and snow steam to the east. The house crumbled like scratch paper.