Ava leaned against the porch rail and watched Travis move among the little pecan trees. He stopped at the smallest one and held his palm under one of the tiny branches, studying the leaves as though they were some new part of his hand. All during their growing up she would have never guessed him for a farmer.
She crossed the cool, bright living room and went back into the bathroom. The three plastic sticks with their matching plus signs on were lined up on Travis’ bathroom counter, one from yesterday, two from today— just to be sure. Ava tapped the sticks with her finger, rearranged them, and thought about how bad things really did happen in threes.
When Ava told Travis she was pregnant, he sat down on the end of the trailer heavily, like his body was made of iron. Ava had been fretting all day, trying to figure out how to tell him. She knew giving him the news over a romantic supper or cuddled up in bed would not make any difference, so when she could not hold the fear and misery in any longer, she blurted it out when they were hot and tired from cutting brush from the fence row. He looked out over the pond and the pasture and the mountain of limbs and brush they had worked all day to pile up so they could burn it off. He looked over his shoulder at the old house they planned to renovate, then looked back at her and said, “We can’t do this.” His tone said that this was a simple decision, a matter of inopportune timing.
“It really isn’t a matter of whether we can or can’t,” she said. “It’s done now.” She yanked another pine limb off the trailer, lifted it above her head, and threw it forward onto the pile with all the force her muscles had left. Her arms were laced with what felt like a thousand tiny cuts from the branches and briars, all sting and itch.
“Ava, now, be serious.” Travis rested his hand on the last, biggest limb remaining on the trailer. “Having a baby will mess us up with buying the land. Besides, how are you supposed to do this and finish your last year too?” His hands and arms were stained with pine rosin and his face was flecked with dirt and sweat. “I thought getting your degree was the most important thing to you.”
“People do it. We’d just go on ahead and get married.”
“Are you not on the pill?” Travis looked at her; his blue eyes had turned glinting and sharp.
“Why yes.” Ava raised her voice and put her hands on her hips. The only thing she could figure out was the antibiotics she had taken six weeks ago for a sinus infection stayed in her body longer than she thought. “Are you saying I did this on purpose?”
“No.” Travis put his hands on his knees and looked down at the grass. “It doesn’t matter how it happened I guess. But we can’t be having a baby just yet. We just can’t.”
Ava walked over and stood between his knees. Their faces were close together and she could smell the pine trees and wind on his skin, in his t-shirt and jeans. “I’m scared to death too. I’m not saying it won’t be hard, but we can make it. We love each other, right?”
Travis looked at her. The crease between his eyebrows didn’t ease. His lips twitched, but he said nothing.
“I’m not getting rid of it,” Ava said. “I don’t believe in that.”
Travis glared at her and folded his arms across his chest. “Damn. Don’t act like you haven’t thought of it too. Hell, there’s a place in Chapel Hill. It could be over and done within a matter of days. I’ve got the money.”
“Yes. I did think about it. I’m not that naive.” Ava pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes that had been tugged loose from her ponytail. A breeze with a little winter left in it swirled across her face and neck. “But I can’t and I won’t. You of all people ought to be able to get that.”
“Oh hell.” Travis stood quickly and pushed her out of the way. He strode over to the burn pile and kicked at a limb. He turned around. “How did I know this was going to somehow come back to your mother?”
“You know as well as I do what it’s like to grow up without one.”
“If we go to the place in Chapel Hill that won’t even be an issue.” Travis rubbed his hand across the top of his head; his blonde hair rumpled and stuck up beneath the friction. “I can’t believe you’re being so simple-minded about this. You’re not some uneducated Bible thumper.”
“Who the hell are you to call me simple-minded?” Ava wanted to run at him, to push him into the pile of brush, grab the gas can from the back of the truck, and maybe just light him up right there.
“Like you don’t know anything about anything,” Travis pointed at her. “Just like your daddy and your granny raised you to be. And here I thought you were trying to get over that and learn to act like everybody else in the modern world.”
“I’m not worried about everybody else. That’s their concern.” Ava lunged forward. She heard her blood swish in her veins, felt stronger than herself, knew that of the hundred things she didn’t know or didn’t comprehend about this mess, she understood one. “I’m worried about you and me. How is it that you can’t get that if I, if we, were to do what you say, it doesn’t change the fact that we are still bound to this baby.”
“Shit fire,” Travis turned and kicked another pine limb, shoving it deeper into the pile. He faced her once again. “God, will you never stop obsessing about her? Don’t give me any of her karma crap.”
Ava grabbed Travis by the shoulders. “What in the world is wrong with you? Maybe my mother was right about one thing in her whole life. We are connected to this kid.” She shook him. “And maybe we don’t like it, but we can’t change it.”
Travis clamped his big hands around her arms and glared at her. Ava looked into his face and wondered if he would shake her back, so hard her head would flop and her neck might snap. He tightened his grip until she could feel the blood in her arms pooling beneath his fingers. “Get away from me,” he said. “Now.”
Ava charged into the house and slammed the bathroom door behind her. As she yanked off her shirt and jeans, pine needles and tiny chips of bark fell from her clothes into a jagged circle around her feet. Dirt clung to her legs and stomach. She reached to turn on the hot water, but sat down on the edge of the tub instead. A craggy sob broke from her chest and she slumped forward and cried. Rough and messy, grief ran from her nose and her eyes, and clogged her throat until she gasped for air.
Finally, she shifted down onto the floor, sat with her bare butt on the brick patterned linoleum, and leaned against the tub. The porcelain chilled her side and cooled her burning cheek when she laid her face against it. After a long time, she got up, stiff and aching, showered, and crawled into bed.
She must have fallen asleep long before Travis came in from outside. She did not wake up until he slipped into bed beside her, warm and smelling of Irish Spring soap. He pulled her up close to him and whispered into her hair. Didn’t she want the land too? There was no need in getting their families caught up in this, he had said. Only the two of them could decide what was right. They hadn’t even told their families about their plans to get married someday.
He was wrong about that. When he first said he wanted to get married, even before he officially proposed, Ava had called Nana up and told her all about it. She was too happy to keep that kind of news to herself.
Ava rolled over to face him. “I’m being punished.”
“Oh Lord,” Travis flopped onto his back. Moonlight seeped in the window and washed his side of the bed in silvery light. “They messed you up so bad.”
Ava sat up. “Well? If I’d listened to them we wouldn’t be in such a bind now, would we?”
Travis covered his eyes with his arm. “You aren’t going to hell because you had sex. You won’t go to hell over this either.”
Ava pulled her knees up to her chest and said nothing. None of them, her father, Nana, nor Lydia had ever come out and said it like that, but that was the gist. She didn’t believe that in most of her mind, but part of her believed it enough. The code for what good girls didn’t do and who good men wanted to marry had kept her mind wrapped tight as a chrysalis. Not to mention her will. Until Travis had told her he loved her and didn’t believe in all that. Ava mashed her face against her knees until she felt pressure in her eyeballs. She could think that believing the old rules that governed women was archaic and unfair, but it didn’t change the fact that she believed how she had been raised. Travis turned over with his back to her. Even in the dark she knew his eyes had gone hard, the muscles of his neck and shoulders rolled up.
Ava did not sleep any more that night. Travis worked on her, pleaded, and promised. They argued on and off for the next few hours, until finally he grabbed up his pillow and the bedspread and stomped out to the couch. Ava got up at first light and crept into the kitchen. She made a pot of coffee, and took a long sip of the strong, hot liquid. She shouldn’t be drinking this. Another sip, then a quick gulp before she threw the rest toward the drain; burning drops splashed onto her hand and wrist.
Travis rose from the couch, crossed into the kitchen, and reached into the cabinet for a mug. “So are you ready to be reasonable now?”
Travis slammed the mug on the counter. “Can you not see there are a thousand reasons why having a baby would wreck all our plans?”
Ava leaned against the sink, the sharp metal edge of the counter dug into her back. “Plans change.”
Travis crossed kitchen and living room in a few long strides. He re-emerged from the bedroom, yanking a t-shirt over his head. His jeans were open at the zipper. Ava could see the sky blue boxers she had bought him for Christmas.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. He zipped and buttoned his jeans, then surged toward her. “You are mistaken if you think I will be bullied into this. I love you…” Travis stood across from her now, holding her at the elbows. “And I want to marry you.” He rubbed his thumb across the skin of her upper arm. “But I don’t want this. Not now. I don’t want to see either of us tied down with a baby.”
Ava glanced down at his bare feet. They were pale from the winter and narrow, for a man. Then she looked up into his face. “I don’t think I do either."
He smiled. “See—”
“But sometimes you have to live with what you don’t want because it’s what you’ve got.”
Travis let go of her and stalked away. He stopped at the door and put his hand on the wall for balance as he shoved his feet into a pair of old tennis shoes. Halfway out the door he looked back at her and said, “You’re crazy if you think I’m going to let you get in the way of me getting the one thing I want the most.”
Ava closed her eyes and listened for the clink of his car keys as he picked them up from the table. She listened to the click of the door as he turned the lock, the calm thud as he pulled it shut behind him. She wished he had slammed it. Still in the shorts and Travis’ old t-shirt that she had slept in, Ava walked down to the dock and stared into the dark pond. A fish broke the surface and flashed in the sunlight. Her reflection rippled outward. Ava felt it would be cowardly, childish to run away, and not keep arguing with him until he could see her side of it, but she could not stay around any longer. She needed facts to argue with him. All she had was the feeling of should that hung on her as heavy as an old velvet curtain.
She looked back toward the house, faded brown and appearing worn and dented at the edges. It was old, asbestos siding, some dry rot underneath. The pasture was beginning to green up, but was more weeds than anything that could be called hay. He chose this place over her. He wanted it more than her. Loved it better. Anger churned in her stomach and made her hands feel hot and tight. Land that was not even his yet. Might not ever be. Would never love him back. She looked back toward the house. It would go up quickly and she could be five miles away by the time the volunteer fire department came. But she would be caught. Besides, the fire might take the pasture and burn through the woods to Mrs. Tucker’s.
Ava scanned around the yard, searching out something that was his, something he loved, something she could ruin completely. The only things on the place that were new and strong were Travis’ pecan trees. Twelve of them, each four feet high or so, planted in three neat rows in the corner of the pasture he was trying to reclaim as yard. At thirty dollars apiece they were an expensive experiment for someone who wasn’t sure yet if the land would be his. But he had bought them anyway, planting them like flags of ownership, like his saying something always made it true.
Ava marched across the yard and around the house to the back porch to where Travis kept his tools. An axe stood propped against the wall. Yes. She would hack away at the seedlings until they fell to the ground, oozing sap and withering in the sun. She picked up the axe and stepped off the porch. Wait. Chopping them down might take too long. She wanted to be gone when Travis came back. Get one final, sharp jab in and leave him alone just like he had done her. He couldn’t stand to be alone any more than she could. Let him sit here by himself on his precious farm and wonder what would happen next.
Ava set the axe down and quickly looked through the rest of the tools, paint cans, and bags of fertilizer. There was his chain saw, but she didn’t know how to crank it. Then her eyes fell on the green plastic sprayer. It was still nearly full of the Round-Up Travis had meant to spray that morning. Ava grabbed a pair of work gloves from atop a toolbox and slipped her arms through the straps on the sprayer. She walked across the yard with the sprayer on her back, the poison sloshing with her every step. As long as she didn’t get any on her hands she should be fine. At the first pecan tree she pumped the plunger and then aimed the sprayer toward the base of the seedling. The Round-Up came out in a fine mist, saturating the trunk of the tree. She pumped again and sprayed until the grass around the tree was wet.
Ava paused at the fifth tree, or the ninth. Its young leaves shimmered and fluttered in the breeze. She watched them for a moment, imagining the roots of the other trees pulling in the poison like water. Perhaps she should leave just one alive. Let him have one left to remember her by. But that would be stupid—he had already made it clear that she didn’t really matter to him. Besides, he would think of her plenty when he was digging up twelve dead trees.
She pumped again and listened to the liquid whisper through the rubber hose. The little tree seemed to shrink back from the first drops that dotted its bark and the grass beneath it. She smiled. The grass would die too, a dozen nice even circles. When she had doused each tree once, she walked among them, spraying at random until the nozzle sputtered the last drops and then, only air.
As she was taking her last shower in Travis’ house she kept her ears trained for the sound of him returning. She scrubbed her hands and body furiously, wanting to make sure none of the poison lingered on her skin. He wouldn’t immediately know about the trees. The damage would not be apparent for a day or two, and then Travis would wake up to see his baby pecan grove turning brown and lifeless.
By that time she would be home.