"You didn't have to."
"It's not like I rolled my eyes," she said, approaching him. Cal did stink. She handed him a towel from the shelf of supplies and told him to wipe off.
He gestured to the holes out the open door. "These traps will be bigger than usual, I know. But those gophers are stupid. They're bound to run in there."
"But, babe, this isn't Robinson Crusoe. Do you even know how to build a trap?"
He removed his shirt, so he could clean off his pits. "I did it as a kid," he said.
Frida sighed. "For fun or for real?"
"What's the difference?" he asked.
"You're lucky you're so clever," she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
He'd been working so hard out there. Maybe the holes he was digging would also keep them safe from the bigger beasts: the coyotes, the bears, and the wolves, which they sometimes heard howling at night.
Cal had been designing the traps in his journal for a few days, the physics and all that. He said they had worked on his father's land when he was a kid, and they would work now. Frida wasn't sure what gopher meat would taste like, but Cal said, "Protein is protein," and they couldn't be picky. They'd eaten a snake onceBo Miller had cooked it for themand occasionally they craved that, especially in winter, after days of turnips and potatoes.
Frida took the towel from him. "I know you're dying for meat," she said. "I've heard gophers taste like steak."
He sighed. "If I could just stop wanting it..."
"If only," she said.
He was already on his way out again. Back to work.
"Wait," she said. Would she tell him now? Forty-two days, she thought.
"What is it?" he asked.
"August's supposed to come this week. Should we see if he's got soap?"
"He never has soap."
That was true. For over a year, August had been a fixture in the afterlife, something to mark the time by. He arrived once a month on his mule-drawn buggy with goods to trade and information to gather. He wanted to know how they were feeling, and he liked to share notes about the weather, too. Once Frida had a cold, and he'd asked her what color her snot was.
"Clear," she'd told him.
He'd smiled and said, "It's going to be real cold tonight, so bundle up."
Frida had once traded August an acorn squash for a dented tin of evaporated milk and, another time, her old cashmere sweater for a knife, recently sharpened. As he handed it to her, blade down, he'd said, "For cooking, or weaponry." A statement, not a question, for it was understood that all tools in the wilderness needed to be versatile.
August was a thin black guy, probably ten years older than they were, just shy of forty, and he wore the never-quite-faded desperation of a former addict. "A tendency toward the vampiric" was how Cal had once put it. August even called himself a junkie, and he was: he traded junk for other junk. He liked to say he was the last black man on earth, and he might have been; around here, all jokes looped back to sour.
"I want to try planting some garlic," Cal said. "Maybe he has some."
"There's that look again. What is it?"
"It's nothing. Go digging."
"Whatever it is you're worrying about, just don't."
She said she'd try not to.
Cal waved at her from the doorway.
"Breathe!" he called out behind him.
Frida exhaled. How could he tell?
He'd been saying that for as long as she could remember. He'd said it a lot during those first few months out here. He had kept her calm. Occasionally, his own nervousness about their survival spiked, and the air around him tightened, but most of the time, he seemed almost peaceful. It was as if he'd just returned from a monastery, his eyes gentle and open to the world, its good and its evil, the fair and unfair. Meanwhile, she could not even remember to breathe. It had taken everything to keep herself from saying, We'll die out here, won't we?
Excerpted from California by Edan Lepucki. Copyright © 2014 by Edan Lepucki. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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