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I was flipping through the pages of one of those incredibly boring magazines in the dentist’s office, wearing my sky blue converse and half looking at the little boy sliding the wooden rings across the metal bar when I came across a paragraph about a field researcher whose body had been found in a bog excavation. The paragraph was squeezed between an article titled “How to Prepare Your Home for Thanksgiving” and an article about seasonal depression. The article didn’t say if the researcher was dead when he went under or if he sank into the bog and died down there in the belly of it. Either way, it’s a strange way to go. I think, that’s what happened to Summer though. I bet she was standing in the bog, examining a pitcher plant, checking for dead wasps and counting stamen. I bet she sank so slowly at first that she didn’t even notice until she was knee deep in the sphagnum moss. Then, the bog opened up like a hungry carnivorous plant and swallowed her whole. I bet that’s what happened to Summer Bertrum. And somebody forgot to notice that she was even gone.
I imagined Summer with fiery red hair tied tightly in a high ponytail and nails painted lady bug red, but her hands calloused and hard. The one thing I knew for sure about Summer was that she owed money. Women with slow bored voices called frequently asking for her. The conversations often went like this:
Collection agency lady: ….
Me: Um Hello?
Collection agency lady: Hiiii. (I always pictured the collection lady taking a long drag on her cigarette at this point in the conversation.)
Lady: This is Brenda from Carter-Jones Collection Service.
They always had some name like Brenda or Sarah or Amanda. A name so common it doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Lady: Is Summer there?
Me: No, I’m sorry. I think you have the wrong number.
Another long pause, probably to take another drag from her fictional cigarette.
Lady: Thank you. Have a good day now.
There were multiple agencies that called, never the same number twice, but always the same gravelly voice on the other end with some non-name that slipped my mind. I imagined Summer scribbling our number on bank forms and credit score generators. I pictured her laughing at me as she grabbed her credit cards and boarded a plane, heading anywhere. Once, I got a message from one of her friends, inviting her to a party and I wondered, did she hate that friend? Did she so desperately want to avoid her that she gave her this number? Or was it simply a mistake? Had she written our number down so many times that it came naturally to her?
It was about six months after the calls began that the thought occurred to me. I was standing in the grocery store, staring at the collage of pasta when it struck me out of nowhere. Could Summer be dead? Could she have been the predecessor to our – my – number? I took down a box of linguini, flipping it over to scan the ingredients. She couldn’t be dead! There must be some system in place to prevent this kind of thing. But, the thought kept nagging me, pestering me whenever the collection agent called, whining over the hum of her smoke laden voice. I couldn’t shake the image of her body crushed beneath feet and feet of sphagnum moss.
When I told my mom about Summer, she asked, “Why don’t you change your number?”
I shrugged. It seemed like a lot of work and the calls didn’t really bother me. Actually, I kind of liked them. I felt a little like Summer’s accomplice, helping her dodge the law. It was us, and our phone number, versus them and every time I claimed not to know Summer, I was keeping her secret.
The calls began the summer after graduation. Right after I had fallen out of love with research. I felt out of love in the same way Summer fell into the bog, slowly, and then quite suddenly our relationship was over and the bog swallowed me. People shook their heads at me (mostly my mom’s friends). “How could someone so bright amount to nothing?” They muttered to each other when they thought I couldn’t hear them. “She had that internship and worked with that professor, how could she let this happen?” I didn’t say this to them, but it is actually pretty easy to let this happen, even if you have worked your butt off to avoid it. First, you don’t apply to graduate school. Then you don’t apply to anything. Finally, to appease that nagging feeling that you must do something, you apply to a retail position in a bookstore that you are incredibly underqualified for, having spent the last years of your life extracting DNA, running PCRs and staring into a microscope. And then, you stop talking to your friends who are scattered across the country at different grad schools and research positions. You stop taking their calls and you sit around waiting for some lady from some collection agency to call you and she becomes the highlight of your day because she is the only person who doesn’t care what you do with the rest of your life. And for just a moment, you don’t feel like a failure, you feel like you are a part of a daring team, the kind you always wanted to be a part of when you were little. Briefly, you belong.
I didn’t get the job at the bookstore; instead one of my mom’s friends took pity on me and offered me a job at her restaurant. I worked twenty hours a week and lived with my mom. My boyfriend’s mom offered to pay my phone bill during the period of transition, but I had to switch to their plan. There were no calls the first few weeks of my new phone and then, it was a Wednesday as I recall, I had just gotten off work and saw that some strange area code was calling me. I answered excitedly, thinking maybe it was some long lost friend, or a rich relative or maybe I had won something. Her voice crackled over the phone. “Hiiii. This is Brenda from Creditors Collection Service. Is this Summer?” I could almost taste the smoke through the speakers.
“No,” I coughed. “I think you have the wrong number.”
The next day, Brenda from RDK Collections called and it just went on from there. They usually called midafternoon, sometime around 3. If I worked the morning shift, I could catch the call right after my shift ended, but if I worked the afternoon shift, the call would come right as my shift started and I would miss it. They never left a message. They just left the missed call from a strange area code sitting there waiting for me.
A few months later, my boyfriend, Jake, and I broke up. His mom, Jayme, and I stayed on good terms and she let me keep the phone. It was $5 a month for them to keep me on their plan and once every month, I drove over to Jayme’s house to give her the cash in person. She made passion flower tea for me every time. At first, I hated it. It was pink and smelled like soap. After a while, it grew on me, though and I would have two or three mugs of it each time I visited.
Jayme liked crisp bills straight from the bank so she was often disappointed when I handed her a crumpled wad of ones that were my tips. I didn’t like to think too much about where that money had been. But, sometimes, I wondered if somewhere out there, at one time or other, Summer had held one of these same bills. Once, a customer handed me a bill with a doodle of a ladybug on it. I tucked it into my wallet. It seemed like just the kind of thing Summer would draw. And really, is it so crazy to think that we could have both touched the same wilted bill? I mean, somehow we had ended up with the same phone number.
Jayme lived in the smallest house I had ever been in. It had three rooms – the bedroom/livingroom, the bathroom and the kitchen. She had a futon which was the couch in the day and the bed at night. The house was painted an olive green and there were flowers blooming in the garden year round. It was one of those houses that have a deep front yard but no backyard to speak of. I think she liked it this way because she could watch everyone who walked by while she gardened. Her partner, Melissa, was never around when I visit. She worked at the hospital and was such a deep brown that she was almost black.
One day in late spring, Jayme and I had our tea out in her garden. It was that mini season between spring and summer when the mornings are chilly and often blanketed in fog, but by mid-day the sun has beat away the fog and it is hot enough to go swimming.
Jake’s mom took the bills, frowning. “How are you, sweetie?”
“I’m fine,” I lied. “How about you?”
“Oh, I’m good. Just got Marley back from the vet. They think his tumors may be cancerous.”
Marley was a mountain of a cat. He was entirely black except for the tip of his tail which was a bright white. He liked to sit on the futon and swish his tail menacingly at newcomers. Marley and I got along all right though. I knew how to scratch him under his chin just where he liked it. I found the spot and scratched and scratched while his purring filled the air like thunder. They had two other cats, Thing One and Thing Two. They were wily calicos that hid under furniture and clawed at anything in their reach.
“I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” I offered lamely.
“That’s so sweet of you, but really we are just trying to keep him comfortable.”
I wondered what portion of him was made up of cancer cells and what part was really Marley. People always talked about cancer like some invader, but really it is just your own cells deciding not to follow the rules anymore and changing and multiplying. Sometimes, I felt like a cancer cell. I stopped following the rules. I stopped believing in the power of science. I questioned the unquestionable. The moment I knew I was done with research was in the midst of an ethics debate about a study that shot 60-120 black-throated-blue warblers. Shot them. I couldn’t help but picture the tiny birds exploding in a mess of feathers upon contact with the bullet. And the class decided, in the name of science and knowledge, it was ethically acceptable. So now, Summer, cancer and I are on the run, dodging ideas of what our lives could have been, not stopping in at the proper check points, and undergoing mitosis like mad men.
For a while, I went to a drawing class once a week. The first thing we had to do was draw a face from memory while blind folded. It was an hour long session. I drew Summer. When I took off the blind fold, she had three scribbly heads and a ladybug on one of her cheeks. I taped the picture to the wall above my bed, where I could see it every morning.
I didn’t notice right away when the collection agencies stopped calling. I knew something was different, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. I rearranged my living room; I moved my couch so that it faced the window instead of the TV. And then, I decided to get rid of my TV altogether and took it out to the curb with a bunch of junk that I had been meaning to get rid of. But still, something felt off. Days later, it hit me. No more calls. They had stopped, just like that. For weeks, I checked my phone obsessively, always keeping it within arm’s reach, but they never called. My phone vibrated during drawing one afternoon and I leaped from my stool racing into the hall to answer it, but it was just my sister inviting me to her housewarming party. I scrolled through my missed calls and tried calling all the numbers with odd area codes. An automated voice answered every time, “This number is no longer in service,” she said. And just like that Brenda was gone, taking Summer with her and I was left with only a phone number.
I got my own phone and stopped going to see Jayme and Marley and Thing One and Two. I heard through mutual friends that Marley passed away and I curled up in bed and dreamed about him. Half of Marley was a grotesque beast that I knew was cancer. Cancer looked like the collection lady’s gravelly voice. When I woke up, I didn’t cry, but my eyes ached like maybe I should cry.
I went to my sister’s party, but I didn’t bring a gift. I couldn’t think of anything she would want. As I was walking to her house, a man shouted at me, “Hey Summer!”
I turned, scanning the street. There was nobody else around that he could be talking to.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Oh. Never mind. I thought you were someone else,” he said.
“Summer?” I asked.
“Nope, although I did know a girl named Summer once.” And just like that I gave her up, confessing our secret to the world. I was no one’s accomplice anymore. It actually felt like a huge relief – I was no longer carrying our secret. I was entirely on my own. I could choose to do anything and go anywhere. That afternoon, I emptied my pitiful savings account and bought a one-way ticket to Minnesota. I wanted to see a sphagnum bog. I wanted to peer into the center of a pitcher plant. I wanted to feel the spongy sphagnum moss between my toes. I was going to stand in the bog and I was not going to let it eat me alive.