Summer Vacation at the End of the World

An excerpt from "A Children's Bible" by Lydia Millet, recommended by Jenny Offill

INTRODUCTION BY JENNY OFFILL

There is a trope in apocalyptic literature known as the cozy catastrophe. The world goes to hell in a handbasket, but in a few protected places the disaster still registers faintly. “Did you hear that?” the lucky ones ask as they sit outside beneath a blue sky with freshly mixed drinks in their hands. The thrill of such stories is watching the thunder come closer and closer until, at last, the torrential rains begin.

Lydia Millet gives the cozy catastrophe a startling and perfect twist in her brilliant new novel, A Children’s Bible. This time not everyone in the sheltered enclave is oblivious. The children of the lucky ones know terrible things are coming, but they don’t bother telling their parents their dark suspicions. They know from past experience that they won’t protect or shelter them, but rather will drink and drug themselves silly, ignoring the increasingly ominous skies. 

In this excerpt, which is the first chapter of the novel, the kids sensibly build an alternate society for themselves, one in which no one will admit to belonging to any of the assembled parents and in which they punish and reward each other according to their own hilarious and unsentimental moral code. 

When the ecological disaster they’ve been waiting for comes, they know better than to ask the ridiculous adults for guidance. Instead they plot an escape from their families so they can wander through the beautiful and terrifying wreckage on their own. 

Jenny Offill
Author of Weather

Summer Vacation at the End of the World

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A Children’s Bible (Chapter 1, Excerpt)
by Lydia Millet

Once we lived in a summer country. In the woods there were treehouses, and on the lake there were boats.

Even the smallest canoe could take us down to the ocean. We’d paddle across the lake, over a marsh, down a stream, and come to the river’s mouth. Where the water met the sky. We’d run along the beach on a salt breeze, leaving our boats on the sand.

We found the skull of a dinosaur. Or maybe a porpoise. We found skate eggs and shark-​eye shells and sea glass.

Before sunset we’d paddle back to the lake, returning for dinner. Loons sent their haunting calls across the water. To wash the sand from our ankles, we jumped off the dock. And screamed. We dove and flipped as the sky turned violet.

Uphill from the dock, deer ambled onto the sweeping lawn. Their grace was deceptive, though: they carried ticks, and ticks carried disease. It could make you crazy, steal your memories, swell your legs. Or droop your face like a basset hound’s.

So when they bent their elegant necks to nibble the grass, some of us shouted taunts. Sprinted toward them, flailing.

Some of us enjoyed seeing them panic. They’d bolt in a high-​kicking flight toward the trees, frightened by our power. Some of us cheered as the deer fled.

Not me. I kept silent. I was sorry for them. The ticks weren’t their fault.

What are you? asked his ears. And oh. What am I?

To a deer, people were probably monsters. Certain people, anyway. At times, when a deer saw a man walking in the forest, he might prick up his ears and stand still as a statue. Waiting. Wary. Meaning no harm.

What are you? asked his ears. And oh. What am I?

Sometimes the answer was, You’re dead.

And the deer crumpled to his knees.

A few pets had come with us for the summer: three dogs and a cat, a pissed-​off Siamese with a skin condition. Dandruff. We dressed up the dogs in costumes from a wicker chest, but could not dress the cat. She scratched.

One dog got makeup applied to its face, lipstick and blue eye shadow. It was a white-​faced dog, so the makeup showed up well. We liked to have an impact. When we were done, the lipstick went back into some mother’s Fendi handbag. We watched her apply it, unaware. That was satisfying.

We put the dogs in a play and invited the parents, since there was no one else to be an audience. But the pets were poorly trained and failed to take direction. There were two soldiers and a fancy lady we’d dressed in a frilly padded bra. The soldiers were cowards. Deserters, basically. They ran away when we issued the battle cry. (A blaring klaxon. It went hoh-​onk.)

The lady urinated.

“Oh, poor old thing, she has a nervous bladder!” exclaimed someone’s chubby mother. “Is that a Persian rug?”

Whose mother was it? Unclear. No one would cop to it, of course. We canceled the performance.

“Admit it, that was your mother,” said a kid named Rafe to a kid named Sukey, when the parents had filed out. Some of their goblets, highball glasses, and beer bottles were completely empty. Drained.

Those parents were in a hurry, then.

“No way,” said Sukey firmly, and shook her head.

“Then who is your mother? The one with the big ass? Or the one with the clubfoot?”

“Neither,” said Sukey. “So fuck you.”

The great house had been built by robber barons in the nineteenth century, a palatial retreat for the green months. Our parents, those so-​called figures of authority, roamed its rooms in vague circuits beneath the broad beams, their objectives murky. And of no general interest.

They liked to drink: it was their hobby, or—​said one of us—​maybe a form of worship. They drank wine and beer and whiskey and gin. Also tequila, rum, and vodka. At midday they called it the hair of the dog. It seemed to keep them contented. Or going, at least. In the evenings they assembled to eat food and drink more.

Dinner was the only meal we had to attend, and even that we resented. They sat us down and talked about nothing. They aimed their conversation like a dull gray beam. It hit us and lulled us into a stupor. What they said was so boring it filled us with frustration, and after more minutes, rage.

Didn’t they know there were urgent subjects? Questions that needed to be asked?

If one of us said something serious, they dismissed it.

MayIpleasebeexcused.

Later the talk grew louder. Freed of our influence, some of them emitted sudden, harsh barks. Apparently, laughing. From the wrap­around porch, with its bamboo torches and hanging ferns and porch swings, moth-​eaten armchairs and blue-​light bug zappers, the barks of laughter carried. We heard them from the treehouses and tennis courts and from the field of beehives a slow neighbor woman tended in the daytime, muttering under the veil of her beekeeping hat. We heard them from behind the cracked panes of the dilapidated greenhouse or on the cool black water of the lake, where we floated in our underwear at midnight.

I liked to prowl the moonlit grounds by myself with a flashlight, bouncing its spot over walls with white-​shuttered windows, bicycles left lying on the grass, cars sitting quiet on the wide crescent drive. When I came into earshot of the laughter, I’d wonder that any of them could actually have said something funny.

As the evenings wore on, some parents got it into their heads to dance. A flash of life would move their lumpen bodies. Sad spectacle. They flopped, blasting their old-​time music. “Beat on the brat, beat on the brat, beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh yeah.”

The ones with no flashes of life sat in their chairs watching the dancers. Slack-​faced, listless—​for practical purposes, deceased.

But less embarrassing.

Some parents paired off and crept into the second-​floor bedrooms, where a few boys among our number spied on them from between the slats of closet doors. Saw them perform their dark acts.

At times they felt stirrings. I knew this. Although they did not admit it.

More often, repugnance.

Most of us were headed to junior or senior year after the summer was over, but a few hadn’t even hit puberty—​there was a range of ages. In short, some were innocents. Others performed dark acts of their own.

Those were not as repugnant.

Hiding our parentage was a leisure pursuit, but one we took seriously. Sometimes a parent would edge near, threatening to expose us. Risking the revelation of a family bond. Then we ran like rabbits.

Hiding our parentage was a leisure pursuit, but one we took seriously.

We had to hide the running, though, in case our haste betrayed us, so truer to say we slipped out quietly. When one of my parents appeared, my technique was: pretend to catch sight of someone in the next room. Move in a natural manner toward this figment of my imagination, making a purposeful face. Go through the door. And fade away.

The first week of our stay, in early June, several parents had mounted the stairs to the rambling attic where we slept, some of us on bunk beds but more of us on the floor. We heard their voices calling out to the youngest. “Coming to tuck you i-​in!”

We hid under our covers, blankets pulled over our heads, and some of us yelled rudely. The parents retreated, possibly offended. A sign went up on the door, parent free zone, and we spoke to them sternly in the morning.

“You have the run of the mansion,” said Terry, calmly but forcefully. “Your own private bedrooms. Your own private attached baths.”

He wore glasses and was squat and very pretentious. Still, he looked commanding as he stood there, his short arms crossed, at the head of the table.

The parents sipped their coffee. It made sucking noises.

“We have one room. For all of us. One single room!” intoned Terry. “For pity’s sake. Give us our blessed space. In that minuscule scrap of terri­tory. Think of the attic as a reservation. Imagine you’re the white conquerors who brutally massacred our people. And we’re the Indians.”

“Native Americans,” said a mother.

“Insensitive metaphor,” said another. “Culturally.”

“One of the mothers has a clubfoot?” asked Jen. “Huh. I never noticed.”

“What is a clubfoot?” asked Low.

His name was actually Lorenzo, but that was too long, plus he was the tallest one of all of us, so we called him Low. Rafe had coined it. Low didn’t mind.

“It drags,” said Rafe. “That shoe with a thick heel. You know? That fat one’s Sukey’s mother, I bet.”

“Sure, sure. Is not,” said Sukey. “My mother’s way better than that shit. My mother could kick that mother’s ass.”

“It can’t be no one’s mother,” objected Low.

“Well. It could,” said Sukey.

“There are some single ones,” pointed out Juicy. He was called that because of his saliva, which was plentiful. He liked to spit.

“And childless couples,” said Jen. “Sadly, barren.”

“Destined to die without issue,” added Terry, who fancied himself a wordsmith. His real name was Something the Third. As if that wasn’t bad enough, “the Third” translated to “Tertius” in Latin. Then “Tertius” shortened to “Terry.” So obviously that was what they called him.

He kept a private journal in which his feelings were recorded, possibly. The possibility was widely mocked.

“Yeah, but I saw the fat one in the kitchen groping Sukey’s father,” said Rafe.

“Untrue,” said Sukey. “My father’s dead.”

“Been dead for years,” nodded Jen.

“And still dead now,” said David.

“Stepfather, then. Whatever,” said Rafe.

“They’re not married.”

“A technicality.”

“I saw them too,” said Low. “She had her hand right on his pants. The package. Right on there. Guy had a raging boner.”

“Gross,” said Juicy. He spat.

“Goddammit, Juice. You almost hit my toe,” said Low. “Demerit.”

“Your fault for wearing sandals,” said Juicy. “Mega lame. A demerit to you.”

We had a system of accounting, a chart on a wall. There were merits and demerits. A merit was for an outrage success­fully committed, a demerit for an act that should bring on humiliation. Juicy got merits for drooling into cocktails undetected, while Low got demerits for kissing up to a father. Probably not his own—​Low’s parentage was a well-​kept secret. But he’d been spotted asking a guy with male-​pattern baldness for wardrobe advice.

Low was a baby-​faced giant of Mongolian descent, adopted from Kazakhstan. He was the worst dresser among us, rocking a seventies look that involved tie-​dyed tank tops and short-​shorts with white piping. Some made of terry­cloth.

We wouldn’t have been able to keep the parent game going if not for the parents’ near-​total disinterest. They had a hands-​off attitude. “Where’s Alycia?” I heard a mother say.

Alycia was the oldest of us, seventeen. And already a freshman in college.

“I’ve barely seen her since we got here,” went on the voice. “What is it, two weeks now?”

The mother was speaking from the breakfast room, out of my field of view. I liked that room a lot, with its long, oaken table and glass walls on three sides. You could see the bright sparkle of the lake through the glass walls, and sunlight shifted through the moving branches of an ancient willow that shaded the house.

But the room was teeming with parents every morning. We couldn’t use it.

I tried for a voice ID, but when I edged into the doorway the conversation had turned to other matters—​war in the news, a friend’s tragic abortion.

Alycia had gone AWOL to the nearest town, hitching a ride from a yardman. The town was a gas station, a drugstore that was rarely open, and a dive bar, but she had a boyfriend there. Some decades older than she was.

We covered for her as well as we could. “Alycia’s in the shower,” announced Jen at the table, the night she left.

We checked the parents’ expressions, but no cigar. Poker faces.

David, the next night: “Alycia’s in her bunk with cramps.” Sukey, the third: “Sorry, Alycia’s not coming down. She’s in a pretty bad mood.”

“That girl needs to eat more,” said one woman, spearing a roasted potato. Was she the actual mother?

“She’s thin as a rail,” said a second.

“She doesn’t do that puking thing, does she?” asked a father. “With the vomit?”

Both women shook their heads. Puzzle unsolved.

“Maybe Alycia has two mothers,” said David afterward.

“Two mothers, possibly,” said Val, a tomboy who didn’t say much. Mostly she parroted.

Val was so small and slight it was impossible to tell her age. Unlike the rest of us, she was from somewhere in the country. She mostly liked to climb. High and nimbly—​buildings or trees, it didn’t matter. Anything vertical.

“Kid’s like a goddamn monkey,” a father once said, watching her scale the willow.

A group of parents were drinking on the porch.

“A gibbon,” said another. “Or Barbary macaque.”

“White-​headed capuchin,” offered a third guy.

“A pygmy marmoset.”

“Juvenile black snub-​nosed.”

A mother got fed up. “A shut-​your-​face,” she said.

We were strict with the parents: punitive measures were taken. Thievery, mockery, contamination of food and drink.

They didn’t notice. And we believed the punish­ments fit the crimes.

Although the worst of those crimes was hard to pin down and therefore hard to punish correctly—​the very quality of their being. The essence of their personalities.

In some arenas we had profound respect. We respected the house, for instance: a grand old fortress, our castle and our keep. Not its furnishings, though. Several of those we opted to destroy.

Whoever had the most merits, at the end of each week, got to choose the next target. What object would it be? Choice Number One: a china statuette of a rosy-​cheeked boy in knee breeches, holding a basket of apples and smiling.

Choice Two: a pink-​and-​green sampler embroidered with a dandelion and, in a swirly script, the words Take a Breath Gently. Blow. Spread Your Dreams and Let Them Grow.

Choice Three: a plump duck decoy with a puffed-​out chest and creepy blank eyes, sporting a weird painted-​on tuxedo.

“It’s a fat faggot duck,” said Juice. “A bowtie duck. A faggot, like, crooner duck. A Frank Sinatra duck faggot.”

He giggled like a maniac.

Rafe, who was out and proud, told him to shut his trap, homophobe idiot.

The winner was Terry that week, and he chose the apple boy. He fetched a ball­-​peen hammer from the toolshed and smashed in its head.

The house itself, though, we’d never have harmed. Rafe enjoyed setting fires, but limited his arson to the greenhouse: a pile of hockey sticks and croquet mallets. He also burned stuff in a clearing in the woods—​immolated a garden gnome. Its melting plastic gave off thick smoke and a disgusting smell. One of the parents noticed the smoke rising above a stand of pines and elected to stay on the porch, nursing a dry martini.

The smoke dispersed, after a while.

We respected the lake and stream and most of all the ocean. The clouds and the earth, from whose hidden burrows and sharp grass a swarm of wasps might rise, an infestation of stinging ants, or suddenly blue­berries.

We respected the treehouses, an elaborate network of well-​built structures high up in the forest canopy. They had solid roofs, and ladders and bridges were strung between them to make a village in the sky.

Crude drawings, names, and initials had been etched into their planking by previous vacationers. Those old initials could harsh my mellow fast. Maybe the offspring of the robber barons them­selves had carved them—​the scions of the emperors of timber or steel or rail, long since turned into baggy triple-​chinned matrons of the Upper East Side.

I’d sit up high on a platform, now and then, with others sitting around me, swinging their legs, drinking from soda cans or beer bottles. Idly throwing pebbles at chipmunks. (The little boys put a stop to that, citing animal cruelty.) Braiding each other’s hair, writing on each other’s jeans, painting their fingernails. Trying to sniff glue from the so-​called rec room we didn’t use. It never gave you a high.

I’d stare at the initials and feel alone. Even in the crowd. The future flew past in a flash of grim. The clock was ticking, and I didn’t like that clock.

Yes, it was known that we couldn’t stay young. But it was hard to believe, somehow. Say what you like about us, our legs and arms were strong and streamlined. I realize that now. Our stomachs were taut and unwrinkled, our foreheads similar. When we ran, if we chose to, we ran like flashes of silk. We had the vigor of those freshly born.

Relatively speaking.

And no, we wouldn’t be like this forever. We knew it, on a rational level. But the idea that those garbage-​like figures that tottered around the great house were a vision of what lay in store—​hell no.

Had they had goals once? A simple sense of self-​respect?

They shamed us. They were a cautionary tale.

The parents had been close in college but hadn’t gotten together as a group since then. Until they picked this season for their offensively long reunion. One had been heard to say: “Our last hurrah.” It sounded like bad acting in a stupid play. Another one non-​joked, “After this, we’ll see each other next at someone’s funeral.”

None of them cracked a smile.

Anonymous, we put descriptions of their careers in a hat. It was a collapsible top hat from the toy closet, where many antique artifacts were kept. (We’d found the klaxon there, and BB guns and a worn-​out Monopoly.) We wrote the job titles in block letters so that the handwriting couldn’t be easily distinguished, then pulled the papers from the hat and read them out.

A few were professors, with three-​month summer vacations. Others went back and forth between their offices and the house. One was a therapist, one a vagina doctor. (A raucous laugh from Juicy, then a quick kick by Sukey to his knee. “You got a problem with vaginas? Say it: vagina. Va-​gi-​na.”) One worked as an architect, another as a movie director. (The slip of paper read making gay movies. “Demerit for homophobia,” said Rafe. “When I find out? Major demerit to the closeted queen who wrote that. Followed by a beating. It better not be you, Juicy.”)

Went without saying: our parents were artsy and educated types, but they weren’t impoverished, or they couldn’t have afforded the buy-​in. A great house didn’t rent for cheap. Not for a whole summer. We figured there were probably a couple of charity cases, or at least a sliding scale. David, a techie who dearly missed his advanced computer setup back home, had let slip that his parents rented. Received a demerit for that. Not for the lack of home ownership—​we hated money snobs—​but for getting soft and confessional over a purloined bottle of Jäger.

Drink their liquor? Sure, yes, and by all means. Act like they acted when they drank it? Receive a demerit.

For it was under the influence, when parents got sloppy, that they shed their protective shells. Without which they were slugs. They left a trail of slime.

My own parents were: mother scholar, father artist. My mother taught feminist theory and my father sculpted enormous busty women, lips, breasts, and private parts garishly painted. Often with scenes of war-​torn or famine-​struck locations. The labia might be Mogadishu.

He was quite successful.

Our younger siblings were a liability in the parent game, constantly threatening to reveal our origins. These belonged to Jen, David, and me.

Jen’s eleven-​year-​old brother was a gentle, deaf kid named Shel who wanted to be a veterinarian when he grew up. He suffered a bout of food poisoning just one week in and had to be tended by their parents, so that ID was made. The mother had adult braces and droopy shoulders, the father a greasy ponytail. He picked his nose while talking. He talked and picked, picked and talked.

We’d thought you grew out of public nose-​picking in grade school, but in his case we were wrong. It was actually mind-​boggling.

We felt bad for Jen.

And David was toast too. His sisters, IVF twins named Kay and Amy, were straight-​up brats and had no interest in the game. They’d sold him out on day two, grabbing and caressing their mother—​even going so far as to sit cuddled in her lap, nuzzling her neck. Whispering sweet nothings.

My own small brother, Jack, was a prince among boys. When he contracted poison ivy he came only to me, refusing to ask a parent for assistance. I felt proud. Jack had a sense of duty.

I ran baths for him and sat beside his bunk holding cold compresses to his legs. I smoothed on pink lotion and read to him from his favorite books. He barely complained, saying just, “It does itch, though, Evie.”

Jack was hands down my favorite person. Always had been.

Still, he was just a little guy—​I worried he might slip up. Vigilance was required.

And at a certain point we made a collective decision: we had to tell the parents about the game. It was getting too hard to evade them through tactical maneuvers alone.

Of course, we’d put a positive spin on the thing. We didn’t need to reveal why we’d been playing in the first place. It didn’t have to be spoken aloud that our association with them diminished us and compromised our personal integrity. It didn’t need to be mentioned that direct evidence of our connection had been known to make us feel physically ill.

We needed a project, we’d just say. Hadn’t they deprived us, for the whole summer, of our most dearly beloved playthings and lifelines? Hadn’t they confiscated our cell phones, our tablets, all of our screens and digital access to the outside?

We were being held in an analog prison, said David.

The authorities were most receptive in the magic hour before dinner, when they were lightly, pleasantly buzzed. Earlier, they tended to be cranky and might refuse. Later, they might be shit-​faced and not remember the next morning.

Drinking and talking time, they called it.

It was then that we broached the subject.

“We’re playing this game,” said Sukey.

“A social experiment, if you will,” said Terry.

Some parents smiled indulgently when we explained, while others resisted, trying to master their annoyance. But finally they said OK. They made no promises, but they’d attempt to avoid incriminating us.

Also, we planned to camp on the beach for a few nights, said Rafe.

Practicing self-​sufficiency, added Terry.

“Well, now, that’s another ball of wax,” said a father.

One of the professors. His specialty was witch-​burning.

“All of you?” asked a mother.

The youngest ones nodded—​except for Kay and Amy the IVF twins, who shook their heads.

“Good riddance,” muttered David.

“But we didn’t bring tents!” said a second mother.

That mother was low in the hierarchy. Wore long, flowing dresses, in floral and paisley patterns. Once, drunk-​dancing, she’d fallen into a potted plant. Bloodied her nose.

I sensed some condescension coming toward her from the other parents. If they were being hunted, she’d be the first one abandoned by the herd. Sacrificed to a marauding lioness whose powerful jaws would rip and tear. Next vultures would peck indifferently at the leftovers.

It would be sad, probably.

Still, no one wanted that mother. We pitied the fool who would be implicated, down the road.

“We’ll handle it,” said Terry.

“Handle it how?” asked a third mother. “Amazon Prime?”

“We’ll handle it,” repeated Terry. “There are tarps in the toolshed. We’ll be fine.”

Jen, impressed by Terry’s masterful attitude, consented to hook up with him in the greenhouse that evening (we’d piled a nest of blankets in a corner). Jen was strong but had notoriously low standards, make-​out-​wise.

Not to be outdone, the other two girls and I agreed to play Spin the Bottle with David and Low. Extreme version, oral potentially included. Juicy was fourteen, too immature for us and too much of a slob, and Rafe wasn’t bi.

Shame, said Sukey. Rafe is hella good-​looking.

Then Dee said she wouldn’t play, so it was down to Sukey and me. Dee was afraid of Spin the Bottle, due to being—​Sukey alleged—​a quiet little mouse and most likely even a mouth virgin.

Timid and shy, Dee was also passive-​aggressive, neurotic, a germaphobe, and borderline paranoid.

According to Sukey.

“Suck it up, mousy,” said Sukey. “It’s a teachable moment.”

“Why teachable?” asked Dee.

Because, said Sukey, she, yours truly, was a master of the one-​minute handjob. Dee could pick up some tips.

The guys sat straighter when Sukey said that. Their interest became focused and laser-​like.

But Dee said no, she wasn’t that type.

Plus, after this she needed a shower.

Val also declined to participate. She left to go climbing in the dark.

This was while the parents were playing Texas Hold ’Em and squabbling over alleged card counting—​some­one’s father had been kicked out of a casino in Las Vegas.

The younger kids were fast asleep.

Spin the Bottle was a weak choice, admittedly, but our options were severely limited. All the phones were locked in a safe in the library. And we hadn’t cracked the combination.

I was apprehensive, but since Dee had pulled out I had to hang tough. And as it turned out, I got lucky. I only had to French-​kiss Low.

Still, unpleasant. His tongue tasted like old banana.

We set out the next afternoon. Packing and loading the rowboats had taken hours.

“Lifejackets!” screeched Jen’s mother from the lawn. She held a wine bottle by the neck, a glass in the other hand, and wore a white bikini with red polka dots. The bottom exposed her ass crack and the top was pretty funny: her nipples showed through the white of the bra cups like dark eyes.

“Make it stop,” said Jen, wincing.

“Put on the lifejackets!”

“Yeah, yeah. Christ on a cross,” said Sukey.

We didn’t bother with the lifejackets, generally. Except for the little boys. But we were under scrutiny, so I brought a pile of them—​bright orange and spotted black with mildew—​from the boathouse. They scratched our skin and were bulky. Once we were out of sight, they would come off. Most certainly.

When we pushed away from the moorings various parents waved from the porch and others clustered on the dock. We rushed, worried that they’d betray us with last-​minute asinine chitchat. Sure enough, one dimwit yelled: “Did you remember your inhaler?” (Two of us were asthmatics.)

“Shut up! Shut up!” we implored, hands over ears.

None of us wanted to see a man go down that way.

“And what about the EpiPens?” shouted the low-​status mother.

I’d been reading a book about medieval society I’d found in the great house library. It had a dusty paper smell I liked. There were peasants in the book: serfs, I guess. Using the filter of that history, and with reference to her flowing-​dress wardrobe, I’d come to see her as the peasantry.

We ignored them and rowed with all our strength. Damage control.

“Damn they are imbeciles,” cursed Low.

I was looking at him with my head cocked, I think—​musing. Remembering the taste of banana.

“Mine were cool as a cucumber,” boasted Terry.

“Mine didn’t give a flying fuck,” bragged Juice.

The parents were still trying to communicate with us as our boats drew farther offshore. A few made exaggerated gestures, flapping ungainly arms. Jen’s father was doing some sign language, but Shel turned away from his waggling fingers. The peasant mom dove off the dock—​in hot pursuit? Taking a dip? We didn’t care.

We reached the creek and shipped our oars. Coasting along to the ocean. This was a narrow water­way, and often our vessels would bump the banks, lodge in the muddy shallows and need to be freed.

The water carried us: we were carried.

We lifted our faces to the warmth, closed our eyes, let the sunlight fall across our eyelids. We felt a weight lift from our shoulders, the bliss of liberty.

Dragonflies dipped over the surface, brilliant tiny helicopters of green and blue.

“They live ninety-​five percent of their lives underwater,” said Jack helpfully. He was an insect fan. A fan of all wildlife, in fact. “In nymph form. You know, larvae. Dragonfly nymphs have big huge jaws. They’re vicious predators.”

“Is that interesting?” asked Jen, cocking her head.

Not mean, just speculative. She hadn’t decided.

“One day they come out of the water, turn beautiful and learn to fly,” said Jack.

“Then they drop dead,” said Rafe.

“The opposite of humans,” said David. “We turn ugly before we drop dead. Decades before.”

Yes. It was known.

The injustice floated over us with the dragonflies.

“We have been granted much,” announced Terry from the prow.

He tried to stand up, but Rafe said he’d flip the boat. So instead he sat down again and made his voice hollow and self-​important like a preacher’s.

He pushed his glasses up on his nose with a middle finger.

“Yes, we have been given many gifts,” he projected. “We, the descendants of the ape people. Opposable thumbs. Complex language. At least a semblance of intelligence.”

But nothing was free, he went on. Watching the parents in the privacy of their bedrooms of a night, he’d been struck by the severity of their afflictions. They had fat stomachs and pendulous breasts. They had double asses—​asses that stuck out, then sagged and bulged again. Protruding veins. Back fat like stacks of donuts. Red noses cratered by pores, black hair escaping from nostrils.

We were punished by middle age, then long decrepitude, said Terry mournfully. Our species—​our demographic in the species, he amended—​hung out way past its expiration date. It turned into litter, a scourge, a blight, a scab. An atrophied limb. That was our future role.

But we should shake it off, he added, suddenly trying to wrap up his speech with an inspiring takeaway. We should summon our courage! Our strength! Like Icarus, we should rise on feathered, shimmering wings and fly up, up, up toward the sun.

For a moment we considered this.

It sounded OK, but was devoid of content.

“You know it was his own fault the wings melted, right?” said David. “His father was a genius engineer. He told him not to fly too high or low. Too hot up high, too wet down low. Those wings were baller, man. Icarus totally ignored the specs. Basically, the kid was a dick.”


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