Dan Chaon Recommends a Story About a Town Infected by Progress
“Alien Virus Love Disaster,” new short fiction by Abbey Mei Otis
AN INTRODUCTION BY DAN CHAON
Abbey Mei Otis was a student of mine back in the days when I was teaching at Oberlin College. She was one of those rare young writers who seemed mature beyond her years, gifted in both her insights into people and her ability to convey vivid, memorable images that linger with the reader.
There’s something of Kafka in it, something of Octavia Butler, something of George Saunders and Denis Johnson, but Abbey’s take on it is uniquely her own.
Now that she’s grown up and on the verge of publishing her first book, it’s exciting to see how those abilities have developed and deepened. She has perfected a particular, peculiar tone that I love — a kind of slapstick tinged with sorrow, an aching melancholy and dread wearing a mask of comedy. I’m not talking about gallows humor, either. I’m talking about something far more naked and vulnerable, a kind of singing and laughter that is also a kind of screaming. There’s something of Kafka in it, something of Octavia Butler, something of George Saunders and Denis Johnson, but Abbey’s take on it is uniquely her own, and perhaps unique to her generation, which has been asked to live with a different kind of doom than any generation previous.
The title story of her collection Alien Virus Love Disaster is excerpted here, and it takes a familiar SF horror trope and twists it into surprising shapes and plays beautiful music with it. I don’t want to say anything else, except that it manages to make me wince and chortle at the same time, from its stunning opening scene to its last chilling and yet somehow hilarious moment. The final paragraph literally makes me cry every time I look at it.
But I’ll let you read it for yourself. And I hope you’ll be inspired to buy the whole collection when it comes out in August. Abbey Mei Otis is an important new voice in fiction, a necessary one, and “Alien Virus Love Disaster” feels perfectly suited to our terrifying, heartbreaking, clownish times.
Author of Ill Will
Dan Chaon Recommends a Story About a Town Infected by Progress
Abbey Mei Otis
“Alien Virus Love Disaster”
by Abbey Mei Otis
What happens first is people in hospital masks come banging on our doors before it’s even light out. They herd us out of our houses and down the block to what used to be the football field of Paige Clifton Senior High School. They make us strip and pile our clothes on the bleachers. It’s August but the mist hasn’t burned off the morning yet and we shiver. Especially Mrs. Todd shivers, who’s eighty-two. There’s like two hundred of us, everybody who lives on James Row plus 12th Street plus whoever they could prod out of the Amorcito apartments. Megaphones all over blaring state of emergency, please proceed in an orderly manner, this is a matter of public safety.
They push us naked into the field.
Near me are the Naylors who never come out of their corner house, the Sherman sisters I’ve known all my life, Trini with her baby who always cries but is dead quiet now. People hunch like peeled shrimp with giant scared eyes. “Man, what is this bullshit?” asks Dean, my little brother, he’s twelve and I should smack him for that kind of language but that’s when they turn the fire hoses on us.
Everyone lifted off their feet, everyone hurled into everyone else. Legs hair ribs nails. Mrs. Todd folds in half. Dean goes facedown so hard his nose snaps on the mud. I want to scream but I think if I opened my mouth I’d be filled with water, windsock-in-a-hurricane style. Somebody’s wet foot tangles with my shin and I smack down into the wet earth. Mouthful of torn-up grass and grit and slime. I roll over. Lying on my back I can see past the wreck of water and bodies. Way above us the sun’s coming up. The rising spume fills the sky with rainbows. On a normal day I’d be awake by now. I’d be about to take a shower.
People stumble down next to me, over me. The hoses blast away everything, dirt, skin, memory. I’m starting to disintegrate just like the earth. My brain is going to mingle with the soup. Bye Trini, bye baby, bye Dean, you were so right, what is this bullshit? I for sure don’t know.
The hoses go off.
Your clothing will be incinerated, the megaphone says. You can fill out a form for compensation from the Office of Toxin Containment. You’ll get an information packet detailing Follow-Up Action in seven to ten business days.
We’re all shaky trying to get out of the muck. People pull on each other to stand and slip and drag someone else down with them. Everybody’s got a painted camo warrior face and some of us have red streaks where our noses bled or our skin flayed away. Someone is like, “Well, guess we better get cleaned up,” and someone else has the balls to laugh.
Where Dean and I live is the downstairs left side of a fourplex with linoleum floors even in the bedroom. They call it a fourplex but really it’s five because they put some plywood around the water heater in the basement and rented the extra space out to an immigrant family. The only window they have down there is the hole in our kitchen floor where sometimes I peek through and see them all clustered around a hot plate. What’s in front is weeds and the spot where Mrs. Todd couldn’t get any squash to grow and a Jobs With Justice sign some little guy came by and stuck in the yard five years ago. What’s in back is kind of a deck but the boards are sagging in the middle so it’s shaped like a U. You might think there’s more weeds under the deck but wrong: Just concrete. And beyond the concrete there’s some chain link and beyond the chain link there’s this enormous dirt field and way out in the middle of the dirt is the low-down grey building everybody calls the Magic Factory.
Why it’s called that is because that place puts on better shows than Fourth of July, I’m serious. Fourth of July only might be better because you always know when it’s coming: right after the third, duh. Magic Factory shows are always a surprise but once it gets going somebody will yell and then everybody comes out to watch. The Sherman sisters have a whole set up with folding chairs but mostly people just stand in their backyards or press faces to the chain link or climb it if they’ve got tiny feet. (You can’t climb all the way over because of the razor wire.) Back when Mom lived with us and Benning was sniffing after her, he’d lift me or Dean up on his shoulders so we could see better. The best thing was when someone was doing a cook-out the same night as a Magic Factory show. Like you’re chomping down, boiling hotdog juice squirting into your mouth, and then you look over and there’s glitter pouring out of the smokestacks on top of the building. I say glitter but every time is different. Sometimes big spreads of color that hover over the roof pulsing like heartbeats. Or sometimes just rivers of stars gushing up and up and spreading across the night and then falling. You clamp your hotdog in your mouth and stretch out your arms but just when the stars are about to land on your wrists they disappear, they always disappear.
Or sometimes you’ll be picking corn out of your teeth and suddenly the air is full of sound. Like music but no tune and no words so maybe not like music. Always it’s way too loud to talk over and it kind of hurts your ears, but also it kind of hurts your heart in a way I think everybody secretly enjoys. Like the most beautiful animal in the world is trapped in a cage somewhere inside there. And we are the ones who have to listen to it, and we are the ones who get to listen to it.
The day after they hose us down there’s a bunch of caution tape wrapped around the Magic Factory. And down on Marion Street there’s a big padlock on the gate that leads into the dirt field. The sign that said Property of the Federal Government, No Trespassing is gone and now there’s just one that says Decommissioned. I’m going to be honest there’s definitely no geniuses living on this block, but you don’t need to be a genius to figure out everyone who got hosed lives in a house that backs up against the Factory. I think probably you could even be a little, I know I’m not supposed to use this word but, retarded, and still make something of that.
What happens next is an email comes with a list of drug prescriptions and a pharmacy voucher for fifty bucks. Consumers in the listed neighborhoods may have come into contact with dispersed agents (see notification 103C). The following regimen is recommended but not endorsed by the FDA.
At the drug store the pills come to sixty-four forty so I start counting out change.
“You got a day off for these?” The drug store lady taps a bottle.
“This one’s gonna keep you at home for a day. How come everybody’s asking for these? Tell you what I don’t envy none of you one bit.”
“Like what do you mean?”
“You got a question you call the number. Number’s on the receipt.”
“What — ”
“Sweetheart there’s a long line behind you.” She points and it’s true. Old man and lady and a woman with a baby on each hip and everybody’s clutching their printed-out voucher.
So I’m walking out past them and I get this idea to be like, “Oh I think I remember you from somewhere? You were the one all muddy and screaming? Maybe you remember me, I was all muddy and screaming too?” But nobody laughs.
Little brother is on the sofa when I get back to the apartment. “Oh Dean I know you did not get sent home the first day of school.”
He rolls his eyes because obviously. “Mrs. Shipley lied. Mrs. Shipley said I was in the hall after bell but she saw me coming and she shut the door early. She slammed it in my face. Why does she hate me so bad?”
“You need to quit the excuses and start the explainings. Like now.”
“What she said was I was banging on the door threatening her. Like yeah Mrs. Shipley you think I care about your dumbass study hall? Like shit. She hates me.”
“I’m serious if you swear one more time — She doesn’t hate you. You’re making trouble for yourself.”
Instead of listening he gathers his limbs together in a gangly bouquet. He digs at the sole of his barefoot, peels off a big nugget of callus and flicks it onto the rug.
“Omigod Dean gross pick it up pick it up!” I smack his head with the bag of pills and he skitters into the bathroom.
Now I’m alone. The room is still. The basement family isn’t rustling around. Late afternoon sun turns everything gold, even the dead skin crumbs on the floor. I line up the pill bottles on the table. They all have long names full of Xs and Zs, and I know that’s how you trust something’s authorized scientific but it still makes me kind of nervous. The labels say something about don’t take on an empty stomach so I put two patties in the microwave. “Dean? Come out here. You got to take some of these.” He doesn’t answer so I count out pills for myself, line them up in my hand. Little blue moons, pink circles, orange-and-white ovals. One deep breath then they all go down together. I wash them down with red juice out of the bottle, so sweet I kind of stop being able to breathe for a moment.
“Dean? Seriously come here.”
The bathroom door stays closed.
There’s too much to do in the mornings. There’s do we still have enough minutes on the prepaid, is there enough money left in checking, where’s the credit card, the other credit card, does Dean have his bus pass, back-pack, shoes, homework. There’s has anyone messaged for a nail appointment, because don’t laugh but I’m still hoping this small business thing will take off. I can do all these things at once, I’m a multitasker like that, but it’s a dance, if I get messed up I can’t start again.
What happens this morning is, right in the middle of counting out a dollar for Dean: pain. No joke pain. Like someone tangled their hand deep in my guts and yanked. I shriek in Dean’s face and his hand that was held out for a nickel instead gets a big gob of my spit.
“The hell, big sister?” But I can’t do anything except double over and make noises like someone’s pulling saws out of my throat. There’s a fat python clenched around my insides. There’s a cat hanging by its claws from between my legs. I shriek and shudder again and see Dean staring at me, mouth open, still cupping my spit in his palm.
“Noma — are you — ?”
He looks younger when he’s afraid. There’s a seeping warmth in my underwear and I’m pretty sure I don’t want his help on this one.
“It’s okay. Get out of the way.”
Somehow I get into the bathroom and pull my jeans down and wow is my underwear a mess. Rust and pink and bright red jelly down my legs. All I can do is collapse on the toilet and hunch over my knees. The pain rolls through in spurts and I bite the heel of my hand so Dean won’t hear me yell. Spit slicks down my wrist.
I wrench my brain away from panic and try to get my breath to slow down. Blue light filters down from the high up window. There’s the plink plink of the sink leaking and the sigh of the toilet tank and no other sounds. It smells like how I imagine a cave smells. I lay my forehead against the cool of the toilet seat and peer between my legs. The cramps turn everything blurry like Vaseline smeared on a camera lens. Every task I was trying to finish falls away. Nothing to do except inhale, exhale, and watch the blood fall out of me in ropes.
When Dean inches open the bathroom door and peeks around I’m in a numb ball on the tile, pants still around my ankles. He puts his hand in my armpits and lifts me like a child.
“Dean? You missed school?”
He doesn’t say anything. He gets a washcloth and runs the water until it warms. He gathers up my ruined clothes and carries them away.
I sit in the tub until I stop shaking. Then I tell Dean to go get the bottles on the table. He still doesn’t speak.
“Just pour them in the toilet.”
He doesn’t ask why. The toilet bowl is scattered with pastel constellations. I think about how such tiny things can have such long names. I think about the constellations that rose out of the Magic Factory. I think about the spray from the fire hoses that made bruises on our bodies and rainbows on the sky. I push the lever and the toilet glugs and everything disappears.
“Like hell I took them.”
Trini and Trini’s cousin and Georgia Sherman and I sit on Georgia’s front porch, and I’m working on Trini’s cousin’s nail beds. Trini’s joggling her baby on her knee and explaining why she didn’t take her pills. “He’s still nursing, you know? Like I’m all about natural weaning. And I don’t ingest nothing unless my doctor says. And you know my doctor hasn’t called me back in a year, so.” She clicks her tongue and shrugs.
I’m thinking come on Trini, you were feeding that baby chicken poppers before he had teeth. But I like that she’s with me on the pill thing so I just keep pushing her cousin’s cuticles.
“Well I took them.” Georgia says it in her I’m-old-and-I-don’t-have-time-for-this voice. “Just to be on the safe side. They still won’t even say what happened to us. I think I’m having a reaction, though. I got this spot.” She pulls up her shirt. Above her hip there’s a red bump wide as a quarter. Trini is going “Uh, yeah, what’d I tell you?” but then she looks and goes “Oh. But I — I got one like that.”
Hers is on the small of her back, to the right of her spine. “That is so weird, you know?”
I stop in the middle of applying a base coat and ask can I touch them. The bumps feel hard and round like everybody’s got ping-pong balls buried inside them. Trini giggles. “Dang Noma your fingers are ticklish.”
Then I lift up my shirt and show them the three bumps on my stomach and Trini stops giggling. “Oh what. Oh what the. Oh wow.”
Trini’s cousin is from the coast and she’s looking at us like she doesn’t even want to know what’s going on in this neighborhood. I reach out to finish putting on her enamel and she hesitates before giving me her hand.
The sun is going down and painting the sky so pretty someone should put it in a museum. I make each of that cousin’s nails disappear under three strokes of Copper Wildfire. Nobody gets up to go into the backyard. Nobody looks for magic shows anymore. We never said anything about it to each other but we all just know.
So like you expect a lot of things to be hard in life. Like there will always be bills and always landlords and your mom’s always gonna have creepy boyfriends and fake friends are always gonna be stabbing you in the back. Like even when you get fired from the nail salon where you’ve worked for two years and you weren’t even ever late except that one time, even that isn’t too surprising. But having weird bumps sprouting up all over your body, and now there’s way more and they’re growing bigger — that’s the kind of thing you just don’t really plan for.
At this point I have nine and Dean has fourteen. I don’t know how many other people have because it would be weird to go around counting but I’m sure it’s a bunch. Hardly anybody sits outside on James Row anymore. Dean’s quit making up excuses for skipping school. I’m supposed to be mad about that but it’s like the mad part of me has shriveled up and blown away. Instead this afternoon I’m like let’s treat ourselves, why not. We walk down to the carry-out by the highway and get shrimp fried rice and wings and crazy fries and we don’t even wait to get back to the house to start eating. We shovel orange rice into our mouths with our hands.
Dean wipes his fingers on his shirt and rubs the lump swelling on his neck. Then he drops his hands to his sides and stares out at the eighteen-wheelers charging down the highway. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
His voice is so empty that I swallow a whole shrimp without chewing at all. I keep coughing for longer than I need to because I’m trying to figure out what to say back.
“Hey. You don’t know that. Maybe there’s some fancy doctor somewhere and all he does is study this. Maybe we find him and he fixes us.”
Dean doesn’t look away from the highway. “Seriously, big sister? You think I got lumps on my brain?”
“You shut up. I was just trying to think positive or something. I don’t know.”
We finish the fried rice without speaking. We start on the crazy fries. So many cars fly by. I wonder what would they think if they slowed down to look at us. What if they saw what was under our clothes.
“Naw,” Dean goes, “This is something new. We got to start thinking totally different about this.”
“Different like putting a fry in your nose?”
“What?” But he’s too distracted and I get one in each of his nostrils before he can duck, and then it’s just like when he was six and I was twelve and he’s yelling “Fry monster, fry monster!” and chasing me all the way home.
I lose him going up the hill, he’s still faster even with fourteen lumps, and so I’m walking and huffing toward home when I see a car parked on the corner of James Row and Marion Street. Little hatchback, shiny red like a toy, no exhaust pipe — nobody around here owns one of those cars. I stare at it for a moment but then Dean is yelling for me to come unlock the door, so I go on.
For a while Trini had this guy friend but now he says he’s not going to come around anymore. Just to be safe, he says.
“What a useless coward, you know?” Trini holds both her eyes open with her fingers. “No way am I going to cry over him.”
I pull her hands away from her eyes. I get out my little soak tub and set her fingers in hot water. “Honestly I think you’re kind of lucky. Like if I was betting on which of you was going to be giving out diseases, I would not put my money on you. Just saying.”
“What is that, supposed to make me feel better?”
“You know what Noma? You are pretty cold sometimes.” She’s tipped way forward on the couch because by now the lumps are all over her back like little mountains. “That coward said it was his ‘survival instinct,’” she goes on. “Said I couldn’t blame him for just following his survival instinct.”
The baby sits on the floor in front of her. He’s got just this one lump between his shoulder blades. It makes it look like maybe he’s about to sprout wings. I lift Trini’s hands from the soak and start to massage her wrists. I work my way over the tendons in the back of her hand, feel them shift over her bones. I’m standing up because the lumps make it hard for me to bend in the middle. Our skin is stretched shiny in the places where the domes grow. Sometimes I think I can feel them rasping against each other inside me.
“They’re kinda like elegant, you know?” Trini says. “Like better than some tattoo or something. And, I’m serious, way better than being pregnant. No offense baby.” She tickles the baby who breathes funny now that his lump is basically as wide as his whole back. I rub moisturizer into Trini’s knuckles, knead each of her fingers, our hands are fragrant with cucumber-melon. Then without really thinking I reach up and stroke the lump below her shoulder. Her skin slides just a little bit over the hardness. I imagine them all hidden in the darkness of her, baseball-sized diamonds buried in black earth. White hot lumps of star stuff buried in black space.
Now that I’ve seen it once I see it every day, that little red car parked on Marion Street. This time it’s right by the taped up magic factory gate, and through the back windshield I notice a silhouette in the driver’s seat, upright and still.
I walk up along the sidewalk and tap on the passenger window. “What you still doing here?”
Inside there’s a man looking like a lawn gone to seed. Wrinkled dress shirt done up wrong and stubble patching his jaw. His head jerks when I knock. “Huh?”
“Yeah, huh. What are you still doing here?”
His eyes are big and dark as holes and his mouth works soundlessly.
“What, you can’t hear me? How about you open the window?”
Long hesitation and then, without taking his eyes off me, he raises his hand and toggles the window down.
“That’s better. Look I was just curious, I guess. What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry.” He brings a thumb to his mouth and gnaws on the nail. He still hasn’t blinked. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You worked in there.” I jerk a thumb at the Magic Factory. “I used to see your car go in. Plus my girl Trini was first shift security guard, that little booth right there. But you know, it’s closed now. So why are you still here?”
He so slowly raises his hands, turns them palm up like he’s about to receive a present from the steering wheel. Then he methodically, mechanically lowers his face into those palms.
I hold on to the door rim and use one big toenail to scratch an itch on my other ankle. I wait.
He slides his hands down an inch. “I don’t know. I ask myself. I can’t — I can’t seem to let it go.”
“I was a researcher. I was helping to — ” Then his eyes change like he’s remembering other things about me, “ — But you know already. You must have seen.”
“We saw the magic shows, yeah.” I put my elbows down on the door rim and lean through the window into his car. “Tell me.”
He starts to laugh. “It’s all gone! Poof! I never worked here. Your memory must be tricking you. Check the records, there was never even a lab.”
He’s not really getting it. “Research-man I don’t have a lot of time.” I lean farther into his car and smell the unwashed smell. “You didn’t call it magic show, I bet.”
“We had longer words. We thought that meant we understood it better.”
“But you didn’t.”
“You didn’t know shit.”
He reaches for my face, stops his hand halfway across the distance between us. “Look at you. It glows inside you. Even I can see that.”
His dark hole eyes widen like he wants to take in every inch of me. I try to imagine him in lab coat, ironed, clean-shaven. Probably at one point he was the kind of person I’d be scared to talk to, which almost makes me laugh. Like imagine you spend your whole life afraid to look on the face of God, and then you finally do and it turns out he’s just one more eyes-nose-mouth combo, just another blur to be learned in a minute, remembered or forgotten without much work.
Instead I hiss. “If I dragged you out the car right now and stomped your head into the curb, would you fight me?”
He shakes his head and I can hear small dry things rattling in his hollow body. “No.”
“Would it change anything?”
His eyes meet mine and between us we hold the answer unspoken.
“Why don’t you leave us alone, then? You didn’t before. You could now.”
He flinches. “I — I wanted you to know. I had to tell someone. For whatever it’s worth. I’m sorry. It was a mistake. I’m so sorry.”
I don’t really sleep anymore. Kind of I just lie in bed and sweat and imagine shapes in the dark. Once in the deepest part of the night I hear a weird noise coming from the front of the house. A shivery kind of croon. I coax the orbs of my body into a standing position and feel my way to the living room. Dean sits up on the sofabed, shaking. I turn the lamp on and see his face shiny with tears.
“Little brother? You okay?”
He can barely get out words between sobs. “It was — just a dream.”
I haven’t seen him cry so hard since he was three. “Aw, shh. That’s right. Just a nightmare. It’s gone now.”
He’s still crying but he manages to shake his head. “It — it wasn’t — wasn’t a nightmare.”
“Oh yeah? What was it?”
“It was — so beautiful.”
“Oh. Well, like, that’s not so bad then, huh? What was beautiful?”
He snorks a big load of snot back into his head. Wipes his face on the edge of my t-shirt. “The things — the things that are growing in us. That are getting ready to come out.”
And it’s like all my insides have vanished which is good because otherwise I might throw up. “But I didn’t — but I never said — ”
His sobs have stopped and now he’s just laughing really quiet. “Noma I wish you’d quit acting like I’m in diapers. It won’t do you any good. Everybody can feel it. We’re the Magic Factories now.”
Next morning Dean is gone. He spends most of his time now by the dumpster outside the Amorcito Apartments, passing roaches around with high rise delinquents. I always thought those kids were kind of dead in the eyes but whatever, I guess so are we. I walk down there and find him laying into this pale kid with more lumps than anyone I’ve seen.
“What are you, sad? You think this is some kind of therapy session?” Dean kicks the dumpster to punctuate his sentences. “There isn’t a thing to be sad about. There’s never been anything like us. We’re the next stage. The whole world is going to pay attention.”
The wispy kid has a hard time stringing together a response. “I know. It’s just. It’s scary. Sometimes. When you think about it.”
“Scary?” Dean’s voice goes all smooth. “I know. But you can’t be scared either. You have to welcome it. Think how pretty a butterfly is.” I get shivers listening to him talking like an adult while his voice still seesaws between high and low. His voice that used to beg me to go to the splash park or call me over to look at some weird bug he’d found. He’s almost six feet tall now though he doesn’t look it. Just a jumble of elbows and shins and Adam’s apple and hair that hasn’t been washed in too long. It makes his lumps stand out even more. Now he reaches out and strokes the kid’s bumpy head. “When you see the butterfly, you understand why the cocoon rejoices as it breaks.”
Rejoices as it breaks, rejoices as it breaks, I start walking and the words churn around my brain, faster and faster as my steps speed up. I see the little red car parked by the lab gate and I head straight for it, blood rough in my ears. The passenger side door is unlocked, of course it’s unlocked, and I get in and slam it behind me. I stare straight ahead. Outside the sun is going down and the sky is a smooth creamsicle field.
After a moment he says, “Is something happening? Do you feel different?”
Yeah I knew he’d ask this, and I wanted him to, except now it only pisses me off. Out the corner of my eye his hands are folded in his lap; he scrapes the cuticle of one thumb with the nail of the other.
“Can you describe the sensations in your torso right now?”
Now I look at him. “You’re serious?”
“If you can tell me what you’re experiencing, I might be able to get some sense of the progression of — ”
“Jesus, mister scientist man, I don’t fuckin know.” I kick my sandals off and arrange my feet on his dash-board. “How about you drive already?”
He is still and silent for a moment, then he pushes the ignition. The car hums to life quieter than an electric razor. In the side mirror the Magic Factory slides away behind us. I don’t say anything until we’re coming down the ramp onto the highway. “You want to know how I’m feeling? I’m feeling like I want to see someplace pretty. You know anywhere like that? Take me someplace really fuckin pretty.”
We stand on the edge of a river. The water is cloudy and clogged with floating islands of sticks and muck and lost flip-flops. On the far bank the sunset licks the trees with copper. I exhale and feel something more than air flow out of me.
The scientist grazes my wrist with his bitten up fingernails. “They found it near here, you know. In a field. Not far away. Not out in space. It fell right here. And we thought we were so lucky — we got to name it. We got to do something wonderful for humanity. We weren’t bad people.” He twists toward me. “If you had the chance to touch something utterly unknown, something not of this world — wouldn’t you take it?”
I keep my eyes on those far bright trees. “I didn’t have a choice.”
Like he was struck, “Right.”
We stand next to each other for a long time. He keeps opening and closing his mouth. Finally he goes, “I wish you could have seen how beautiful it was.”
There’s something in his voice I recognize. His hunger chimes with mine. Like maybe if we devoured each other, deep inside the other’s gut, we’d both find peace.
He puts a hand on my waist, doesn’t flinch when he feels the lumps. He lays two fingers on my face. “You’re so beautiful.”
I start to shake. “You should get me home.” I’m feeling full of fire, I’m feeling untouchable, I’m thinking no, no, he couldn’t kiss me anymore than he could kiss the hot edge of a knife.
Our lips meet.
One of his hands slides between my legs. We both gasp. He kisses my neck.
“You don’t deserve pain,” he says to my skin, “you don’t deserve any of this. Let me — please?”
There’s some sad little part of me that thinks he’s offering to undo it all. The rest of me knows this is a stupid weak hope, not God nor Jesus and certainly no scientist has power like that. But still. The huge sweet-ness of this thought, I lean into it.
He peels off my clothes there by the river. I pull or he pushes us back against a tree. The bark scrapes my back and I shiver like way back on that cold morning in August. My heart is exploding blood through me. Every beat hurls the globes against my skin. He stares at me for a minute and I think he’s forgotten how to breathe. Then he pulls me to him, wet kisses down the center of my chest and each rib and my belly. His knees press into the mud.
“So beautiful, so beautiful.” His breath tickles my stomach. “I’m so sorry, so sorry.”
He kisses the lumps, lips brushing the crest of each dome. His kisses make them churn. “Whoever deserved to see beauty like this?” He lays his cheek against them, nuzzles them with his nose. “I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve this.”
I stare across the river at the trees though the sun is almost down now, their fire smoldering out. The river under its sluggish skin runs fast and cold. They brought me here when I was little, once, they taught us about the water cycle. The scientist enters me like a plea, like somewhere at my core lies the promise of his own absolution. He seeks it again and again.
What happens the next week is pale blue slips show up tacked to our doors. Properties in the indicated area have been designated unfit for habitation. Domain is hereby transferred to a redevelopment firm. Current residents have two weeks from notification date to complete relocation.
I know there was a time when I would have gotten mad about this. When I would have looked around at the apartment — the view through our window and the spot where Dean rollerbladed into the door and the Eiffel Tower picture I taped to the wall — and gone wild at the thought of leaving. But now it’s like someone’s yelling at me from very far away, almost too far for me to hear, and I just can’t see how it could be that important.
“They’re tearing down our houses?” Trini says from the couch. Trini doesn’t get off the couch anymore. Then she just starts laughing and laughing except her laugh sounds basically like a grunt.
Dean and I start to pack our stuff. At least I think we’re packing but I can’t tell if we’re really getting any-thing done. I keep putting things in boxes and taking them out and refolding them. Dean finds mom’s clothes crammed onto a high shelf and pulls them all down, fluttering avalanche of rayon and polyester over his head. He presses his face into her dresses, gasps in like he wants to pull the fabric into his lungs.
Out in the street we show each other the blue notices, we ask where are people headed, we shake our heads. One thing that’s changed is we touch each other more. Even people I barely know, instead of saying hi we just brush our palms over the hills in each other’s skin. We move like people who are sleepwalking, we move like people who are about to wake up.
The only person who doesn’t act like they’re dreaming is Dean. He stands on the bleachers in Paige Clifton field wearing one of mom’s old nightgowns. The dead-eye kids crowd the grass in front of him, reach up to touch his hem.
He howls, “We are the mothers of new creation! Do you feel the power growing inside you? Why do you think they want to drive us out?”
His face is unspeakable. More people pause at the edge of the field, listening.
“They fear us. They fear our children.” His voice climbs up to a shriek. “They may cast us out of here, but we will spread across the country! We will spread across the planet! When it comes it will come to all of us, and it will not be denied, and every place on earth will know our glory!”
Everyone listening starts to whoop and sway. A breeze picks up and Mom’s nightgown billows around him and fills with light and his bony lumpy body is silhouetted through the white fabric. Really I have no idea anymore, who can even say, he could be my little brother or he could be a goddess born in the center of the sun, come to walk with us through the fire of these last days.
On our final night in the fourplex I go out into the back yard. It really wasn’t that long ago that we stood here and whooped for the Magic Factory to get going already. There’s no glitter or glow anymore. Only the plain sky, filthy with regular stars. For every one I count, there’s one more. For every world that lets you down there’s another, and another, promising redemption. It’s strange looking up at them. They flicker and pulse and from inside me come answering pulses and I know without knowing that what’s inside me is the same as what’s up there. I’m flayed down to nothing but a thin boundary of skin between two fields of stars.
You know when I think about my life there’s not really a lot I got to choose. Mostly what I did was because we’d be evicted otherwise or because there was a coupon for it and I never spent too much time freaking out about that. But now I have this new feeling like something has loosened I didn’t even know was tight. Like the gentlest stream ever is carrying me away. Like I don’t have to worry anymore about anything, no regrets or what-ifs, because before I go, I’m going to make something beautiful.
Maybe I’ll be the sound, the music that was never music. People all over will hear me and freeze and just start crying where they stand. Or I’ll be the stars that gush up into the sky and rain down over the highway. All the cars will come screeching to a halt and everybody will reach out their windows for the lights falling around them and laugh and know that there is love everywhere in the world even where you don’t imagine it could survive. Or I’ll pour into a spring of clear shining liquid, I’ll flood the streets and wash away the sticks and trash and broken glass and you can come out and dip your Dixie cup in and gather me up. One drop on your tongue and your scrapes will heal, your teeth will straighten, your feet will soothe. One sip and your daddy will come home. A cupful and, come close now, no one will ever lie to you again. The world will be set on fire with justice. All the things you hunger for will fly close like tame hummingbirds. Just reach out — oh God — just take it.