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Lip Reader Alone in June

             The Leader was gone. The Hunter/Gatherer was gone. The Cultivator was gone. The Master of Defense was gone. The Navigator was gone. The Medic was gone. Only the Lip Reader remained. He alone didn’t think the mosquitos were such a big deal. It was late June and the group had set up their trial camp deep in the game preserve. Of course there were plenty of mosquitos. The Leader had warned him that there would be plenty of mosquitos. But the mosquitos had been too much for everyone else. The others had fled one by one, leaving their tents and most of the communal supplies at the trial site, hiking through the woods to the trail, from the trail to the dirt road, using their cell phones to call for assistance from a society on which they had turned their backs mere days before.

               So The Lip Reader was alone. He had the trial site all to himself: seven tents to choose from, a substantial store of freeze-dried meals, a water purification bottle he could dip in the nearby stream whenever he was thirsty. The plan had been for the group to spend two months in the game preserve as a trial run before departing for somewhere truly remote, somewhere many miles from civilization where they would establish a long-term off-the-grid community. That plan seemed to have failed. It seemed to no longer exist. The Lip Reader wondered what would become of the money they had pooled to cover the travel costs for their eventual trip to the permanent location. What would become of his share, specifically? Not that he needed it. Not at the moment, anyway.

               The Lip Reader intended to stay. For the entirety of the trial period, anyway, the full two months. But with his survival fairly well assured – barring a disaster, of course – he didn’t really know what to do with himself. He ate when he knew he should, drank when he knew he should, and walked around in the woods without straying too far from the trial site. Sometimes he just hung out in one of the tents, lying atop someone’s abandoned sleeping bag and staring at the colored Nylon roof, letting time pass unopposed. He liked it when it rained. The tents had reliable rain-flies. They had been pitched on patches of ground where the water didn’t pool. The Lip Reader had no trouble staying dry. The storms made the temperature cool enough that he could enjoy burrowing inside one of the sleeping bags without getting sweaty. He could lie there and listen to the rain and thunder. Sometimes a distant tree – or not-so-distant tree – would succumb to the wind, creaking, cracking, crashing down.

               Not everyone had been in favor of The Lip Reader joining the group. The Cultivator and The Navigator, the only married couple in the group, had been especially opposed. The Cultivator had been the most vocal in her opposition, but The Navigator supported her. The Cultivator’s main complaint regarding The Lip Reader’s inclusion in the group was that the group didn’t have much use for lip reading. She didn’t think The Lip Reader would contribute anything of real value. She said she could imagine certain very distinct situations in which having a lip reader might be useful, but that these situations were unlikely, bordering on fanciful. But The Leader didn’t agree. He felt strongly about including The Lip Reader. He’d been the one who had talked The Lip Reader into joining the group in the first place. The Lip Reader himself had been skeptical of his own utility, but The Leader had convinced him, although his arguments had been more vociferous than rational. The Lip Reader had been persuaded by The Leader’s passion. It felt good to be wanted.

               In truth, The Lip Reader hadn’t found his ability to read lips very useful even in his daily life as an on-the-grid citizen of Multioak. If he could get an unobstructed view of someone’s lips, he could usually hear them, too. Or he caught such fleeting glimpses of their lips that it was hard to assemble those few words into coherent thoughts with any degree of certainty. And there would be even fewer people in the off-the-grid community in the wilderness. Fewer lips to read. And now that everyone else had given up, there were zero lips to read.

               One night, while The Lip Reader lay in the tent formerly belonging to The Medic and listened to the rustlings of nocturnal wildlife in the bushes, it occurred to him that “Leader” could be a portmanteau of “Lip Reader.” This realization gave him a sliver of pleasure.

He wished there had been an opportunity to demonstrate his potential for helpfulness before the others left. Something to justify The Leader’s belief in him. The Lip Reader had endured the mosquitos better than any of the others, but he didn’t think there was any way to connect his endurance to his ability to read lips.

Losing track of the days complicated The Lip Reader’s situation, then simplified it. He was initially disturbed that he wouldn’t know when he had completed the two-month trial period, but then decided he didn’t care, he’d just stay in the game preserve until he couldn’t anymore. Once the food was gone. Assuming he didn’t figure out how acquire more. Or once it got too cold. Assuming he didn’t figure out how to keep warm in sub-freezing temperatures. He’d told his parents, his friends, and his boss that he was leaving forever. He had assumed the trial period would be a success, then the group would head straight for the permanent location without time for another round of goodbyes. He wasn’t eager to prove the skeptics right. Not that anyone he’d told about the plan had been openly skeptical. But he could tell that some of them were privately skeptical. Like parents hiding their smirks when their child tells them he’s going to run away from home and starts cramming his stuffed animals into his school backpack. The fact that The Lip Reader had outlasted the rest of the group would only make him appear the least pathetic of a group revealed to be very pathetic overall. It wouldn’t read as a big win for The Lip Reader. Better to just stay in the game preserve and forestall review.

On another night, lying spread-eagle in The Hunter/Gatherer’s tent with his whole skin humidity-dampened as if licked all over by a motherly animal, The Lip Reader imagined the arrival of a mute survivalist, a man or woman who could fulfill all of the important roles for a new group of two while The Lip Reader could fulfill the role of understanding what the mute survivalist was saying, of following the mute survivalist’s instructions without requiring slow or confusing hand gestures, of providing the companionship the mute survivalist would require to keep the stresses of off-the-grid living from driving him or her mad. The Lip Reader almost cried when he made a rough calculation of the odds of a mute survivalist showing up at the trial site. He knew it was even more unlikely than the unlikely situations to which The Cultivator had referred, bordering even more so on the fanciful.

One morning, The Lip Reader followed the nearby stream farther than he had before followed it and found that it emptied into a secluded pond covered in algae and lily pads. He walked around its mushy perimeter, muck sucking his boot soles. On the far side of the pond, The Lip Reader plucked a thick stick from the underbrush and used it to clear an oval shape in the algae on the surface of the water. He leaned over and looked into the oval, saw his face reflected back at him, dirty and prickly. He mouthed words at himself and knew from the movements of his lips exactly what he was saying. Of course, he also knew the words he was saying because he was the one saying them. Was that an unfair advantage when it came to reading his own lips? Others would say it was, he knew. The Cultivator would say it was, The Navigator would agree with her. Even those less biased might agree, though perhaps not as forcefully, not as nastily.

 For a while, The Lip Reader worried that members of the group might come back for their gear. He didn’t need to rotate between seven different tents, but he enjoyed the variety. His routine didn’t offer many other opportunities for choice. It would be worse if they took the freeze-dried meals or the gas-powered portable stoves, The Lip Reader’s sole means of nourishment. But no one showed up. He guessed that they didn’t want to face their failure, that sacrificing some camping gear was worth not having to think about how short-lived their grand scheme had turned out to be. The Lip Reader wondered if any of them suspected that he was hanging tough. Like, had The Leader checked in with The Lip Reader’s family to see if he’d come back? Then it occurred to The Lip Reader that unscrupulous former group members such as The Cultivator might be attempting to control the narrative back in Multioak, that she might be telling people that the trial site failed because of The Lip Reader, that his lack of practical contributions had made him dead weight that ultimately sank the experiment before it could really get going. He knew he shouldn’t care what society thought about him since he’d turned his back on society, but The Lip Reader really hoped people wouldn’t believe The Cultivator’s lies, even with The Navigator inevitably affirming her version of events.

The woods were full of animals, but they didn’t speak, many of them did not have lips. All the birds, for example, had only beaks. The Lip Reader observed two deer observing him as he sat on a rock ripping burrs from his socks. Both deer chewed something in a way that made it appear as if their lips were forming words, as if they were speaking silently and simultaneously. The Lip Reader could even discern the words their lips appeared to be forming, he was that good. But the deer weren’t speaking, they were chewing, he knew that, he knew they weren’t forming words, merely grinding and tearing food with their teeth. Only a fool would accept meaning from the accidental words formed by the lips of chewing deer, and only something worse than a fool would seek to extract validation for his role within a defunct survivalist group from that meaning. And The Lip Reader was neither fool nor something worse than a fool. He was better than a fool. He stood and headed back to camp, socks accumulating burrs the whole way.

The Lip Reader didn’t make fires very often since he didn’t need the heat and a camp stove was more convenient for food preparation. But sometimes he did it for the sake of the task, and for having something interesting to look at. He was not an expert at making fires, but it wasn’t difficult to gather some dry sticks, pile them inside the circle of rocks the group had made in the middle of the trial site that first afternoon, squirt the sticks with some lighter fluid, and then light a match and toss it on the pile. And then just keep feeding more sticks into the fire until he was tired of it. Dowse it with some water before he went to bed. That was it.

On a warm, overcast night with zero stars visible overhead, The Lip Reader gazed into the depths of one of his better fires and wondered if there were an herb or mushroom or certain kind of moss that might, if he ate it, elicit a mystical vision. And if so, he wondered if that mystical vision might feature a mysterious figure imparting crucial information in a voice beyond hearing, and if the vision might also afford an unobstructed view of that mysterious figure’s lips. But The Lip Reader was too scared to experiment. He might eat poison. He might eat something that tasted bad but elicited no vision. He might elicit a vision in which the mysterious figure used sign language, which The Lip Reader had never learned even though many people had told him he should, that it would be a good complementary skill for a lip reader to have, that it was a skill more useful than lip reading. A vision like that would make The Lip Reader feel bad, inadequate. He didn’t need any of that!

During an idle afternoon, The Lip Reader strayed too far from familiar parts of the woods around the trial site and got lost, then it started drizzling, then the mosquitos got worse than they’d ever been before. The light rain frenzied them. It felt like they were trying to get inside The Lip Reader’s body through his ears, his nostrils, his tear ducts. He swatted and screamed. He crouched and pulled his arms and head inside of his t-shirt, but there were too many entrances, the mosquitos came right in. He stood and broke into a run, but was he getting closer to the trial site, farther from the trial site? He didn’t know. And for all the mosquitos he ran away from, he ran toward just as many, and they received him with ravenous joy. From swatting and screaming, he devolved to flailing and shrieking. If he could have returned himself to his old life by force of will, he would have done so, he would have fled like the others, but he was lost, he was lost, he was lost, he did not know, in that moment, how to flee, how to give up.

Plunging through the undergrowth, caroming off of tree trunks, The Lip Reader’s shrieks became enraged roars. His eyelids formed two slits through which to direct his blurred vision. A cloud of mosquitos encircled his troubled head. Many more drank from the flesh of his arms. Had The Lip Reader chanced upon a pit of lava, he would have dived in directly. Instead, though, he chanced upon a shack, tilty and narrow, perhaps more shed than shack, but it had a door and the windows were intact. The Lip Reader availed himself of its shelter, slamming the door closed behind him, bolting it, and then he set about slaughtering the mosquitos that had accompanied him into the shack with his palms, slapping, smacking, clapping them dead.

When the killing had reduced the mosquitos in the shack to a tolerable number, The Lip Reader calmed. He investigated his immediate surroundings and found that the shack was empty. The door by which he had entered fit in its frame with remarkable precision. There was no space around any of its edges through which a mosquito could squeeze. The windows, one to his right and one to his left, were sealed, locked, painted shut. Mosquitos clambered all over the outside of the glass, but they could not get in. The Lip Reader pressed his ear to the door and heard high-pitched buzzing just beyond it. They were waiting for him. How long would they wait? Would they settle down when the rain stopped? How long could their tiny brains focus on their desire to bite him?

As The Lip Reader sat down on the floor and leaned on the shack’s blank back wall, he felt the wood give against his spine. He turned and knelt to investigate, finding a hatch set into the wall. The Lip Reader tried to pull the hatch open but he couldn’t get any purchase around its perimeter with his fingernails. Then he pushed it and the hatch swung silently outward. Beyond the opening – just large enough for him to worm through – The Lip Reader saw a tunnelish gap leading fifteen feet through thorned greenery to the open forest. He saw no mosquitos. This was his escape route.

The Lip Reader did not hesitate. He slithered right through the opening and down the passage, kicking the hatch closed behind him. He led with his head and kept his arms tight against his body to avoid being pricked. When he reached the end, he crawled out of the bushes and stood, turning to look back at the shack. He could still see the mosquitos keeping busy at the windows. They were probably still at the front door, too. None of them had seen The Lip Reader slip away. They had been outsmarted! Not by The Lip Reader, he was willing to admit that, but rather outsmarted by whoever had made that shack. Probably long gone, dead and rotting, name forgotten, never to be recalled or sought, but The Lip Reader was grateful.

He was glad he hadn’t succeeded in wishing himself back to his previous life.

He was glad he hadn’t thrown himself in a pit of lava.

He soon found the trial site, zipped himself into the tent that had belonged to The Master of Defense, and tried to mind-over-matter his itching.

Illness descended. From the mosquitos? An invisible odorless miasma in the shack? A failure of the filter bottle?

The Lip Reader was plagued by an image of a family – father, mother, son, daughter – with their lips sewn shut. They tried to communicate with their eyes, packing as much feeling into their stares, blinks, and eyeball movements as they could, but it was no substitute. This was why God made mouths and rimmed them with lips. Eyes alone could not get the job done. Then The Lip Reader remembered he had a knife, he could just cut the threads holding theirs lips together. At this epiphany, his fever broke. He rose, cooked a freeze-dried meal on a gas-powered camp stove, and ate heartily.

At sunrise of a different day, The Lip Reader awoke in his own tent and tried to recall the last time he’d spoken actual words. He was not the kind to talk to himself. He’d grunted many times, he knew, and he’d screamed a lot during the mosquito assault while he was lost, but never words. He’d mouthed words to his reflection in the pond, but only mouthed, nothing audible. When The Leader had left the trial site and The Lip Reader had said his farewells, that had to be it, the last time he’d spoken. He wondered how many weeks ago that had been. He wondered if he should say a few words now, just to hear his own voice. But really, come on, what would he say? It was a stupid notion. He squashed it, he slept again until the sun was much higher overhead.

Stumbling across a dead squirrel made The Lip Reader think about winter. Food-wise, no problem. The group had brought enough freeze-dried meals and gas for the stoves to last seven people for two months, which meant there was enough food to last one person fourteen months. More than enough to get The Lip Reader through the winter. Freezing to death was the thing that worried The Lip Reader. The heaviest article of clothing he’d brought with him was a light jacket. The other group members, despite leaving their tents and sleeping bags and most of the communal supplies, had taken their personal items home with them, so The Lip Reader didn’t have their clothes to choose from or layer. For the first time, he considered the possibility of trekking into Multioak. Not to abandon the trial site like the others, but with the goal of prolonging his stay at the trial site. It wouldn’t be a very off-the-grid solution, but then again, this site had only been intended as a two-month trial so no one had packed cold-weather gear. The trial site hadn’t been about proving their ability to survive in the wild in all conditions. It had been about proving their ability to work together, it had been about establishing the functions of their specialized roles, it had been about getting used to not seeing loved ones, missing favored TV shows, and life without toilet access.

And The Lip Reader wasn’t going to fashion a heavy coat out of animal furs. That just wasn’t going to happen. Maybe The Hunter/Gatherer or The Master of Defense would have done something like that, but it wasn’t a realistic option for The Lip Reader. This was a clear cut example of a survival situation where lip reading was not useful.

So maybe he’d walk into town and get a coat. Maybe some long underwear. He didn’t figure he needed more blankets. He could always pile the sleeping bags. Maybe some gloves. Maybe a stocking hat. But he had no money. He’d contributed the entirety of his paltry savings to the travel and supply fund for the group. There was cash in his wallet, but his wallet was at his parents’ house along with his driver’s license, his library card, and a few loyalty cards for local businesses. But he couldn’t go there, he couldn’t let his family see him, he couldn’t let anyone recognize him. That would break something. Break the spell, break the pattern, break the momentum, break the focus. They would talk to him, right up in his face, projecting their voices, assailing his ears with words even a blind man could process. He would need to acquire the winter clothing stealthily, he would need to steal it. But he could not get caught. He could not be tracked, traced back to the trial site. He couldn’t be photographed, he couldn’t appear on surveillance video. He couldn’t be confronted, questioned, opposed, not even mildly.

As The Lip Reader’s pulse quickened under the lash of his mounting stress, the squirrel he had thought was dead twitched, gasped, and began to drag itself along the forest floor toward the nearest tree. It was in terrible shape, but alive. The Lip Reader’s knees nearly buckled beneath the wave of relief. He didn’t have to think about winter after all. He could just continue as he was and see what happened. A much more palatable risk. There would be no more worrying about the future, there would be no efforts to mitigate possible or probable forthcoming crises.

Sometimes night felt hotter than day. The Lip Reader, tolerating a night in this category, diverted himself by stargazing. He was bad at seeing known constellations, but not as bad at inventing his own, connecting the dots all out of order so they formed shapes both distinct and nonsensical. They were blobs, but they were his blobs. This night, by accident, he formed a recognizable shape: a pair of lips, pursed, forming a “b” sound, or maybe a “p” sound. But the stars would not move, not in The Lip Reader’s lifetime, so there would never be a follow-up form to interpret. Maybe the star-lips were forming an “m” sound.

An hour later, The Lip Reader realized that with seven tents, if he had kept a consistent rotation by sleeping in a different tent every night, he could have easily kept track of the weeks. But starting now would do nothing. It would only help him keep track of the weeks since he’d started keeping track of the weeks. Thinking of the plan too late for it to be useful was a relief in the same way as discovering that the dead squirrel was not dead. The fewer constraints on The Lip Reader’s whims the better.

A plant growing near the stream developed a head that was all mouth. The Lip Reader had noted the plant when it first sprouted and had watched its development with interest, not knowing exactly why. And now it could almost be said to have lips. A part of him must have suspected the potential for these lips to appear. But those lips were only for fly-trapping, and The Lip Reader chuckled ruefully. He would not talk himself into reading the lips of a mindless plant. Then his blood chilled. What if The Cultivator had seeded this plant along the edge of the stream before she left? That was her area of expertise, after all, the planting and nurturing and tending of growing things. Was it her intention to lure him into an attempt to read this plant’s lips? Did she think he was so desperate for lips to read in the context of his solitary trial site life in the woods that he would stoop to reading the near-lips of a plant? Did she hope that in so doing, he would commit an act so self-evidently farcical that his position in the original group would be retroactively delegitimized? The plant’s mouth flapped open and closed like a puppet’s, but slower. It could have been begging for its life. A fly landed in the plant’s mouth, but it did not snap closed. The fly, after poking around for a few moments, flew away unharmed. The Lip Reader decided to spare the plant. Its mouth flapped anew. Thanking, taunting, involuntary spasming, all the same, all the same.

It would have been nice to watch a movie with the sound off. Just one more time. Why did The Lip Reader feel like he’d never have another chance to do that? Why did it feel like everything was going to go on like this forever? How did such a mild existence so effectively negate any future unlike itself? Why had he never attempted a long-term project? Why had he never climbed a tree? How come not one other human being had stumbled across him? The group had deliberately chosen a spot for the trial site where other people would be least likely to stumble upon them, but no one? Not one person? No bird-watchers, no fishermen hunting a secret spot, no lonely teens seeking to exist unscrutinized for a few hours, no flustered retirees chasing an escaped dog’s trailing leash, no criminals in hiding, no visor-wearers after mushrooms for frying?

The next time The Lip Reader went to cook himself a freeze-dried meal, he found that there were none left. All the duffel bags in which they had been stored were empty. Had someone stolen them while The Lip Reader was away from the trial site? He’d seen no evidence of an intruder, but then again, lip reading didn’t help with that kind of thing, he wasn’t sure he’d know evidence if he saw it. A strange thought occurred to him, then, or rather a memory, or series of memories, a recollection of an impression he’d had every day stretching back over many previous days, an impression of depletion, a dim awareness of the dwindling of the freeze-dried meals. But it hadn’t seemed possible, especially last night when he’d eaten the last one, because there was no way it could be the last one. He had eaten only two single-serving meals a day. They should have lasted him fourteen months. But it had only been…well, he didn’t know how long it had been. But it couldn’t have been fourteen months because the season had never changed. The weather had never gotten colder, the days hadn’t gotten shorter, the leaves hadn’t changed colors and fallen.

Looking inside the large, black garbage bag where he put the empty meal wrappers, The Lip Reader tried to estimate if there were enough to account for all the freeze-dried meals the group had purchased for the trial period. It seemed possible. But he would not count them. He no longer preferred exactitude and hadn’t for a long time. He tied the bag closed with a primitive triple knot and crawled into The Navigator’s tent to relax for a while. Why had The Cultivator and The Navigator had separate tents when they were a couple? The odds that the correct answer was interesting were very slim.

The good news was that The Lip Reader was not hungry. He had only tried to eat a freeze-dried meal because it was the time of the day when he normally did that. It was hard to worry about starving to death while he didn’t feel hungry. When the hunger kicked in, he would consider some options, but not before.

The Lip Reader didn’t feel hungry that night, didn’t feel hungry the next morning, didn’t feel hungry that night, didn’t feel hungry the morning after that, and came to the conclusion that he was either going to starve to death without ever feeling hungry, or else he didn’t need food. He continued to drink water, though, since his filter bottle still worked and the stream still ran swift and cold. But he doubted he needed that either. He began to think that he had eaten fourteen months’ worth of freeze-dried meals by himself after all. But not because of improper rationing, no, he had been strict with himself, had never been tempted to eat more than his regular allotment. Two per day, that’s where the meals had gone, but what those days had added up to, he didn’t know.

Not a loop, no verbatim repetition, nothing frozen, petrified, suspended. Just a perpetual deciduous woodland June. Not a bad place to be, except for the mosquitos, but what else could you expect? What else could you reasonably expect? Of course there were mosquitos, it couldn’t very well be a perpetual deciduous woodland June without them, could it?

Back at the lake, The Lip Reader discovered that all the algae was gone, though the lily-pads remained. The middle of the lake reflected the sky and the edges of the lake reflected the surrounding trees. It was less difficult for The Lip Reader to find a portion of the lake to reflect his face. He was surprised at how recognizable he looked. That was still him, sure enough, right down to the eyebrow density, the pock marks, the ear shapes and ear sizes. He mouthed a few words at himself. And was shocked when he didn’t know what they were.

He mouthed the words again, concentrating on his lips. This time he was able to decipher most of them. There were just a few he wasn’t sure about. With context clues, yeah, he could probably guess, but he wanted to be certain, he wanted to be accurate. He mouthed them once more, exaggerating his enunciation of the tricky parts. And this time he got them all, knew each word from beginning to end. Not that they amounted to anything super profound or insightful or even beautiful, no, but who else out here was going to figure them out?

They were the only lips around. Who else was going to read them? Who else even could?

Discussion Questions

  • What would you say to yourself if you didn’t know what you were going to say?

  • Would you dedicate yourself to a long-term project if you existed alone in a perpetual deciduous woodland June? If so, what would it be? A monument? An epic poem? A bathtub? Something else?

  • To what degree would becoming a skilled lip reader improve your life?

  • What happens to solutions to your problems when you don’t try to find them?

  • Vividly describe your exact threshold for mosquito tolerance, please.