When he was twelve, he broke his knee cap and the doctor in the little country hospital did not set it right. He walked with crutches for half a year, but in the photographs from that time, he always hides the crutches. Jeff smiled harder in those photos than in any others Ellie has seen - but she did not, herself, know him back then.
"I traded cigarettes for beet juice yesterday," says Jen. "It's refreshing, but it turns your poop red. And you feel like pooping all the time."
"Is it worth it?"
Jen takes a pen out of her hair. It is the type of hair in which a box of pens could be hidden. "I'll make the party list. When is Jeff coming home?"
"Why do you ask?"
Her face is red, too. "He's out for a run," Ellie tells her. "Every single day now since he became chief, sometimes twice a day. And yes, it's great. It really is." Jen smiles and attacks the list as though it is getting in the way of what she wants to say.
Jeff comes home at six. The radio is on. The kettle is whistling. And a breeze is attaching itself to the trees in the back yard, setting up for the night.
"Dan made a Penrose triangle today," she says. "It's an impossible shape, but you can make one with a 3D printer. He's going to use it as the logo in the new campaign." Jeff puts away his plate and comes back to the table. "How was training today?"
"Same. Some get it. Some don't. Some won't."
"And do you remember that we have a party in two days?"
"Of course," he says. "I even remember that I'm supposed to pick up the wine and beer. I put it in my calendar, Ellie."
"You figured out your device?"
"It's amazing, Ellie. I have all my meetings in there, with reminders. All my contacts. I even have yours," he smiles. "Three different phone numbers and four e-mail addresses."
Later, Jeff goes out for a run. He is usually gone for forty minutes. But today he is gone for almost an hour, and when he comes back, he says that he is sore and needs to sleep. He stands in the bedroom doorway, showered, naked. Perfect. He is looking at Ellie. "Do you need to talk to me about anything?" Ellie shakes her head.
"Is there anything I need to know about Dan?"
The next day, Jeff comes home early, and they eat on the front porch. They have one beer each. Ellie holds hers in a kitchen towel, in case the neighbors are looking.
"I invited the new couple, too," says Ellie. "The coloured ones."
"Don't use that word, Ellie. And do you really think we need to invite more people?"
"Sorry. Are all of your fireman friends coming?" He nods. "Okay. Do you want to help me with the cleaning?"
He looks at the road, at the spot where he turns in every day, the place where he's left tire marks because the traffic on the road is so fast. "I have to run. Have to get stronger to stay in my job. The chief pulls duty too, Ellie."
Jeff leaves. Jeff runs. She watches him jump between the tire marks on the road. He takes a left and starts to sprint, and then he is gone.
An hour later, he has not returned. Two hours later, he is still not back. Ellie is on the porch, swatting mosquitoes. She has a beer, but it is sweating alone on the railing. It is dark.
He has to run, she tells herself. He has to be strong. He has to fix the things that once hurt him so that he can do the things he is meant to do. She can picture him running, between the headlights, on the guardrails, leaping over ditches and scaling trees to shimmy the branches when he needs to cross a busy road. And if he finds a fire… God help those flames…
He runs. He is running. She eyes the phone, even picks it up to make a call. But then the headlights outline a figure at the end of the driveway.
"Can you bring some wooden spoons? I don't like using metal on salads."
"That's dumb," says Jen, on the line. "Okay. Wait a second, Harry's yelling at me… So half the town is coming to your party."
"It's Jeff's party. He made chief. They want to celebrate."
"Most popular guy around. He getting enough alcohol?" Ellie tells her that he's already picked it up. "So he was running until eleven? Isn't that a bit strange, Ellie?"
"It took him twelve years to make chief, Jen. He struggled for every bit of it. There are like five people after his job even now. He has to stay ahead of them."
"Jeff has to run," says Jen, and hangs up. For a moment, Ellie isn't sure what she heard. She packs her bag, and drives home.
Jeff is cleaning. "Where were you? I didn't know where you were."
"Said I was coming home around this time."
"Don't remember you saying that. Are you sure?" He is staring at her. Ellie nods. He gives her a kiss and tells her everything he's already finished. There is less to do around the house than she expected.
At three, he tells her he is going for a run, because he won't get a chance after the party. "Now?" she asks.
"Maybe I shouldn't," he says, as though reconsidering, but he is already stretching his calves.
"Forty minutes," says Ellie.
"Forty minutes," he confirms. And then he is gone.
Ellie gets to the cleaning. She plays music loud, her shirt rolled up above her stomach, a hat backward on her head. When she is done, she begins preparing the appetizers. From the kitchen, she can see the trees in the back yard, and the hint of moisture on the bark.
"Going to be fog tonight," says Jen, when she shows up. "Hi. Do you want me to pop back home and get you a hairbrush? Maybe you should buy one sometime. They're actually quite common."
"Shut up Jen," says Ellie, handing the kitchen to her. "White wine's chilled. I'm going to fix my hair."
Jen murmurs something clever about luck. Ellie takes a shower and dresses, the easy parts. The hair is harder.
When she returns to the kitchen, Jeff has not returned.
"Who runs for an hour and a half?" asks Jen.
"He does. Salad spoons?"
Jen sits at the island and drinks her wine, watching Ellie work. At five o'clock, the doorbell rings, and guests begin to arrive. They take off their shoes, and the first thing they look for - before even a drink - is Jeff. And he is not there.
"I'll go look for him," says Harry.
"The fuck you will. Give me that beer." Jen takes it from him and downs it. Though the look Harry gives Ellie might be clouded by alcohol, he jingles his keys as though that's the only way for him to say that he's ready to try anyway. Ellie squeezes his hand and goes to the porch. There are more people pulling into the driveway.
By seven o'clock, Ellie can't explain things to another person, can't tell them the why or the how or the what might be the matter. She goes to the kitchen and calls for everyone's attention, and asks them if it would be all right if she stopped the party a bit early. As though they have no mercy at all, someone shuts off the music halfway through her request, until her voice is the only sound in the house.
Ellie sees everyone out. She expects people to say that they will help look for Jeff, that they will scour the roads, the forests, the pool halls, the hospitals. But they don't do that. They just say their goodnights, as though they know they can't help her, as though they know where he is, what he is doing, why he isn't here. In the driveway, the line of cars looks like it's going to a funeral.
Jen is in a chair. Harry is passed out on a couch. "We'll stay the night."
"Go home. I can't handle cleaning up vomit tonight." Ellie helps carry Harry to the car.
Jen has the window down. "I'm sorry."
"Why? I knew what I was doing when I let him go for chief."
"You still think he's out running." But she doesn't want an answer, doesn't want to hear what Ellie will say to that. Instead, she says, "Call me in the morning," and drives off.
Ellie sits on the porch. There are still cars on the road. She expects Jeff to show up in the headlights, but then the cars stop coming.
At midnight, she moves to the back porch. There are no noises here. A breeze is stuck in the leaves of the trees, and the branches are eating it. Ellie watches the beading of water on the bark, the first signs of fog. But it doesn't come during the night. There is no fog. Jen was wrong, and so was she.
She could fall asleep at any time, but doesn't. How can she sleep when she is waiting? To pass the time, there is a moon to look at; there are stars; and there is an oddity of light through the trees, in some faraway place that Ellie has glimpsed in books, in the kindness of people, in the slow swinging of the front door, and in a million dreams that she has misplaced.
At the first hint of dawn, she is answered. Ellie's waiting is over. The fog is crawling over the trunks of the trees, growing like vines from the ground. It is circling them. Ellie stands up, trying to see where it is coming from, which direction. But there is no beginning or end to the clean, calm mat it puts over the land, and neither daylight nor answers come with this slow, silent brume that is slipping in from some far-off land.