London, 2017, pens on paper.
When the long drought comes,
scorches the hands of the healers
will we bandage them
with clean white gauze
so they can continue their work
and when kindness faces starvation
will we look into our pantries
and gather, quickly
to feed her
when the winds come
raging and spitting
and buildings begin to buckle
at the knees,
will we rush to the labs
swing open all the cages,
release the macaques and chimps and baboons and dogs and rabbits and mice and rats
and will someone run
and free Adam Capay
and all the others
and all the plexi-glassed
and when the sea’s belly
swells and lifts us up
above rooftops and eagle nests
will we grab hold of anything we can
and hold its head up—
try to save it
Someone who’ll forgive me,” the ghost captain said.
Gilly wasn’t sure what kind of answer she’d been expecting. What was usual, for ghosts? What were they likely to be looking for?
Silent, she studied him. Her head came level with the middle of his chest, and his limbs were broad with muscle; her kind of ship called for a dancer’s lightness, and his for someone who could stamp and bellow. He wore a dark blue woolen shirt, salt-stiff and sweat-felted, with one elbow roughly darned with hemp twine. Conscious of her grey skinsuit’s smoothness and the transparent membrane covering her face, Gilly wondered what he thought of her.
“Forgive you?” she asked.
He nodded. “Hear my whole tale, told truly, and forgive my deeds, and all before the sun rises.” A callused hand fended off the low eastern hills. “It’s only this single night in a hundred years we make port, my ship and all my crew and I, to seek someone who’ll hear my story and the way I damned us all. And you—” now his look turned frankly appraising, “lovely creature that you are, seem to be the only one here.”
“Things have changed some,” Gilly said.
“They have,” the captain agreed ruefully. “The last two nights before this I could find no-one to speak to at all. My crew had begun to wonder if all were gone, and our hope of rest gone with them.”
“Not quite all,” Gilly said. “Not quite yet.” Over the captain’s shoulder, spectres crowded the wooden rail, jostling for place. She counted fifteen men, all with their own faces; they were part of this, themselves, she guessed, and not just background for the captain’s suffering, though none of them seemed able to speak. “Is that what you hope for, then? Oblivion?”
He gave a short laugh. “We’ve no hope of Heaven, any of us. And as for Hell, well, what should we hope for there? Unless this is Hell, and all our hope for release merely a torment—” He broke off, looking askance at her. “Do you know those words? Heaven, Hell—”
“I’m well read,” Gilly said dryly. “Yes, I know what you mean. Punishment or joy, forever.”
“That’s well.” The captain looked relieved. “The language changes, you see. This curse grants me a gift of tongues, to tell my story the better as the generations pass, but what use are the words when the ideas behind them are missing? I spend half the night explaining whaling and adultery and England and murder, and there’s scarce time left to plead for mercy. No knowing of murder, can you credit it? There was a woman one time, many nights ago—” He trailed off, and was silent for a long moment before giving a sudden shake of his head. “Pardon me, do. I maunder.”
“It’s all right,” Gilly said. She put out a hand as though to lay it on his arm, then thought better of it and drew back. To her eyes he seemed solid, and to her other eyes as well, but she was reluctant to make the test. “It is, though, truly. There’s time. This night will be long.”
“Are they getting longer?” the captain asked.
“I thought they might be.” He sounded dubious. “Hobson, my second mate—he’s made observations with the telescope, he’s kept records. I brought him some books once that someone gave me ashore, children’s books, you know, that this little boy had—marvelous things like glass scrolls, they were, that told all about the sun and stars. There are ships up there, you know,” he added parenthetically, with grave wonder. “Marvelous— And Hobson said the sun was getting warmer, or closer, or some such thing. I thought he might be mistaken, it’s hard to take observations at sea, and time moves so oddly sometimes. But you say it’s true.”
Gilly nodded slowly, wondering how much to tell him. At last she said, “I’ve been out there, on those ships. Your crewman’s right. The sun is—well, it’s very old. When suns die—” She gestured around them, at the distant shadow of the hills, the stone pier where they stood, the shingled beach below and the frozen sea. The ancient vessel bobbed at anchor in an incongruous patch of shining water. It looked like moonlight, Gilly thought; Earth had had moons—one moon, at the time this ship had sailed. Old light, old shadows. “You can see what’s gone.”
“There were trees here once,” the captain said. “I remember it. This was a green place.” He frowned. “There was a rain of fire while we were at sea, some time ago. Some of us thought it was Judgement Day come at last. But it passed, and we were still afloat. Only after that, there was no-one here when I came ashore.” He scuffed at the stone with the toe of his boot. “This is the third time since then; three hundred years, it must be. I thought the trees might have grown back.”
Gilly shook her head. “They won’t. The air itself is burned away, now.”
“Hobson said he thought the stars were clearer.” The captain gave his short bark of a laugh again. “I suppose we didn’t notice. The air, truly? But you’re breathing still.”
“With this.” Gilly touched the interface at the base of her throat. “It’s a sort of machine. It breathes for me, and the shield keeps my skin from the cold and the vacuum—the lack of air. Actually, down there, the sea—that’s the air that’s left, that ice. I’m not even sure how I’m hearing you, to be honest.” She saw that he wasn’t following her train of thought, considered explaining, and decided a lecture on physics wasn’t the best use of their time. Physical law only seemed to apply sporadically to him and his crew anyway. “Well. I came protected.”
“How marvelous.” The captain glanced back at his ship. “Then you don’t live here.”
“No-one does,” Gilly said. “I told you I’d been on starships; in truth, I fly one.” Not truth, exactly; but that explanation would be even more difficult than frozen air. “I only came here for a little while, to do a task. And to see.”
“Then I should tell you my sordid tale now, before you have to leave again,” the captain said. “Before the sun rises.”
The sharp stars hung over the hills, their light giving edges to everything. “This night will be longer than you think,” she said.
“You told me that before,” he said. “How long?”
Their eyes met, and locked.
“The sun is dying,” Gilly said bluntly. She hadn’t been sure, before, how much to say, but she couldn’t remember now why she’d wanted to hold back. Pity, perhaps? This body had been troubling her with stray feelings since it had come to her, and she was still sorting them out. “This world is dead already. When suns die, they grow swollen and kill their planets in their dying. Then their fire recedes, and they shrink to a kind of ember. The world can’t turn as it did before; it becomes tidally locked. Do you know what that is?”
“I—no. Tides I know, but—well, go on. I’ll follow as I can.”
“The world slows,” Gilly said, “and then it stops. One side faces the sun, for always, and the other looks outward to the stars.”
“Forever,” the captain said slowly.
“For as long as the sun burns at all. This night won’t end, Captain. The sun isn’t going to rise.”
“I must tell Hobson,” the captain muttered. He started to turn back toward his ship, then stopped. “No, what am I doing? Forgive me, fair one. I need to tell you my story. But if you—if the sun doesn’t rise, if the night—” He shook his head, bewildered. “What happens to us now? Do we sit at anchor forever? Do I keep telling my tale to everyone who comes here, without sailing in between?”
“No-one else will come here,” Gilly said quietly. “I’m sorry, Captain. That’s the rest of what I have to tell you. I’m the last. I’ve come to dismantle the gate here, now that Earth and Mars are dead, and take it elsewhere. T-space gates are valuable; we can’t build them ourselves, only scavenge the ones that exist already, and no-one wants to leave a gate here when it’s so badly needed elsewhere. Not even the species’ first home is worth that much, not as a monument alone.” She was surprised at the bitterness her voice betrayed. Feelings, on and on. “Forgive me, Captain. My people’s politics aren’t your problem.”
“They very much are, I think,” he corrected her mildly, “if they determine my crew’s future, and my own. And you’ve yet to answer my question, lovely one. What happens to us now?”
“Now—” Gilly shook her head. “Captain, I confess, I have absolutely no idea.”
“Can you stay for me to tell my tale, at least?” the captain pleaded. “You may be my last chance.”
“I may,” Gilly admitted, “but I don’t think I can give you what you need.”
“Try, at least,” the captain said. “If you’ve any mercy at all in you—”
“I truly don’t.” Gilly saw his stricken look, and added, “That’s not a slight against you; I mean it literally. I’ve no mercy, no, nor much else in the way of feelings. You perhaps noted that I showed no surprise at seeing you, when your ship appeared.”
“I wondered at that,” the captain admitted.
“In a way, I’m a ghost as well, though not like you,” Gilly continued. More difficult than frozen air, indeed. “This body, this young woman whom you call fair, suffered an accident that killed her mind but left her flesh intact. When that happens to someone, we have a use for the bodies, we ships. It was given to me to be my other half, to give me—flexibility, you could say. My mind, my self, my continuity, is a machine. This body, with its feelings and its wants, is peripheral; I can pity you, I can care about you, through this part of me, but it’s transient, not part of my core. It would only be the feelings of the dead. I’m not sure I can help you, captain. I can listen to your story, I can decide whether I think you were justified in what you did, but I don’t know that that would be forgiveness. And even if I feel as though it is—well. Coming from me, I don’t know that it would count.”
Silence, while the waves lapped the pier in that circle of otherworldly sea. “But you must try, fair one,” the captain said. “Fair machine person. Whatever you call yourself. You must. Even if you are a, a ghost of sorts. You’re all we have.”
“That isn’t so,” Gilly said, and all at once caught up with herself, and knew why she’d decided to explain after all. “Not to my thinking. If the forgiveness of a ghost is enough, and I don’t deny it might be—then can’t you forgive each other?”
The captain spread his hands helplessly. “How could that be? We were there. We know what happened, what I did, what they did. I’ve carried it so long—”
“And have you once,” Gilly inquired, “in all your wandering, asked your crew to forgive you? For leading them to this?”
“They wouldn’t,” the captain said, but uncertainly.
“They might,” Gilly said. “Ask them.”
“But if I go back aboard,” the captain said, “I may not be able to return to you. I may not get a second chance. I should—”
“Hedge your bets?” Gilly finished gently. “I never believed in ghosts, Captain; all I know of them is stories. But the logic of stories tells me—that’s not how this kind of thing works. You need to make a choice. Trust, captain. That’s where this goes. Laying your story on strangers—maybe that was never going to work. Let your crew judge you, and forgive you, and move on.”
She saw the agony of indecision chase itself across his face. He looked back, over his shoulder, at the blurry figures clustered along the rail. How much could they hear, or see? The captain looked solid, unwavering, fully in the world to everything her flesh eyes and her sensors could determine. Except the world was an airless stone, cold as space, and he stood before her in his mended sweater as though it kept him warm enough.
“I don’t think I can,” he said.
Gilly shrugged. “Then tell me your story,” she said. “If that’s your choice.”
“I don’t—” He stopped, shaking his head. He couldn’t choose, Gilly thought. All these billions of years, these billions of nights doing what he’d been told (by whom? she wondered) was his only hope—he’d gotten well out of the habit of volition.
She was guessing, as she always had to guess when things moved beyond verifiable data. But she was more sure than was usual for her, when logic failed. This body, this latest one in the long line of corpses she wired herself into because human brains dealt so much better with fragmentary systems than her core self did—with this latest body she’d found a new confidence in stories, a closer and clearer sense of the narratively appropriate; and how else, after all, did one deal with ghosts, except through story? It made no sense, and complete sense, and on that thought Gilly found herself turning back toward her landing site.
“Wait, fair machine, wait,” the captain called after her, reflexively, she thought. Not true choice. She would choose for him.
“If I’m wrong,” she said without turning, “forgive me.”
Her feet crunched on the frozen ground as she walked, sending little shocks of vibration up her legs. The ship, the rest of her, glowed coral-coloured on the ridge. He didn’t follow, or couldn’t. If she was wrong, she thought, perhaps she’d be condemned herself, in narrative symmetry, doomed for her hard-heartedness to wander the endless stars.
But that was her fate regardless, she thought, as light spilled from the airlock and she welcomed herself home: to wander endlessly, and to be alone. The missions changed, the planners changed, she was rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt. Perhaps it was only that the latest body was mad, or broken; but she had begun to wonder, lately, if she was lonely.
Perhaps that’s the fate of all ghosts, she thought.
The ship rose up and left the world behind.
Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. This podcast will feature very occasional poetry, fiction and essays from the journal, plus interviews with the authors. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher, and also the editor of Reckoning 2.
This is our second episode, and it’s long. If you’ve got a couple hours’ drive ahead of you, preferably over forested hills wrapped in summer haze, this’ll be perfect. Here’s Jess Barber reading “Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing”, her novelette from Reckoning 2, with musical assistance from Gillian Grogan.
Jess’s bio is below; to learn more about her vocal accompaniment, try gilliangrogan.com.
I defy you to listen to this, or read it, and not find the title come back singing in your head every once in awhile, reminding you there’s still beauty in the world.
This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.
Woke up today, like so many other days, aching on a riverbank, hair sticky with mud, arcane patterns fading from my skin.
This time, I really thought I was gonna make it.
It’s a cool, wet morning, and I’m sprawled on my back, my field of vision filled by the uniform grey of the sky, a frame of wet black reeds. A cloud of gnats circles overhead, curious, growing bolder. “Ain’t dead yet,” I tell them. It only comes out a little slurred.
I put my energy into the task of sitting up, fighting against the mud suctioning my limbs and the uncomfortable awareness of my own fragility. I always feel like shit after, bruised and swollen and tender to the touch. I’m used to it by now, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant.
I’m not too far from the highway—I can hear, faintly, the rumble of passing cars—but I’m shielded from view, tucked down into a little gully. This is part good luck, part practice. I don’t always manage to make it somewhere so convenient, but my hit rate is better than it used to be. My clothes, too, are in a crumpled, hastily shed pile only a few feet away: another hard-won skill.
I manage to get myself over to my clothes, wet clay blooming up between my fingers as I crawl. I’m caked in mud. I try to use my hoodie to scrape off the worst of it, but mostly just smear it around. Fuck it, I decide, and stuff my filthy self into jeans and a t-shirt that are damp and stiff with morning dew.
Before I set off to find my car, I jam my hand into my back pocket to double check: Psalm 91, still there, crinkling protection.
For all the good it’s ever done me.
I find my car tilting on the shoulder of the highway. It’s still unlocked, the keys in the passenger seat right next to my cellphone. The car and the phone are both pieces of shit, but it’s pretty good luck nobody took off with them on sheer principle. My phone starts buzzing as soon as my ass hits the seat. “Told you she’d pick up for me,” I hear Junebug’s voice say, once I’ve gotten the phone flipped open. Then, “Where are you? Jack’s here to pick you up for practice. He’s been calling you for fifteen minutes.”
Fuck. “What time is it?” I ask. It’s freezing in the car. I fumble to get the keys into the ignition.
“Five ’til seven. He’s gonna be late, now.”
The engine coughs reluctantly to life. “Shit,” I say. “I’m sorry. I’m not going to make it today, okay? Tell Jack sorry I didn’t tell him ahead of time. And sorry I made him late.” I chew on my thumbnail. “Get him to make an excuse to Coach for me if he’s not too pissed.”
“Lanny,” Junebug says. “Where are you?”
“Uh.” I’m surrounded by scrubby trees and little else, indistinguishable from thousands of miles of highway that snake through southern Appalachia. “Not . . . sure? Somewhere near Barwood, I think.” That’s the last town I remember passing, anyway. About sixty miles west of home.
“Lanny Boykin.” I wince. There’s the sound of a door slamming, and the background noise changes timbre. “You really don’t know where you are?” Junebug asks, quieter. “Are you alright? Do you need me to come find you?”
God, I love Junebug. She would, too. She’d steal Jack’s truck and start driving, even with no real idea where to go. She is and always will be my best friend in the whole world, and probably the only thing I’ll really regret leaving behind.
“I’m fine,” I tell her around the tightness in my throat. “I’ve got my car and my phone. Ain’t even nekkid.” I put on a little extra redneck twang to try and make her laugh. She doesn’t. I let my hands slip down curled onto my thighs. I’ve got big hands, for a girl, oversize knobby knuckles and chewed cuticles. If I squint, I think I can see the outline of scales near the webbing of my right thumb and forefinger, but it’s hard to tell with the flaking mud. “I think I’m still on the highway,” I say. “I’ll call you if I can’t get my bearings.”
I hear Junebug exhale, harsh. “You’re an asshole,” she says.
The line goes dead: Junebug hanging up on me. Which I probably deserve.
I crank the heat and wait for a big enough gap in the traffic to pull a u-turn and point myself back facing east. The western stretch of road now behind me is tempting as always, but my skin throbs and prickles, warning me against it.
A road sign pops up: Now Leaving Haycombe. Something warm flares in my chest. Haycombe County, at least twenty miles farther west than I thought.
This is good.
This is really good.
If trying to escape ends up killing me, at least I’m getting a little farther every time.
Junebug’s waiting for me when I get home. We’ve been next-door neighbors our entire lives, double-wides shoulder to shoulder, front lawns spilling weeds into one another. Junebug’s parked in the metal frame porch swing her folks keep in the front yard, bare toes knuckling into the grass as she pushes herself in a gentle arc. She’s a little thing at the best of times, and right now she’s all but swallowed up by the enormous hoodie she’s wearing. Probably one of Jack’s. She peers out of the dark cavern of the hood, calm as a monk.
My car crunches to a stop on the gravel, and I climb out. “You been waiting for me all morning?” I ask.
Junebug gives me a disparaging look. “I’m enjoying the beauty of nature,” she says. “You can go fuck yourself.”
I eye our surroundings in disbelief. Actually, it’s not so bad. There are plenty of trees, anyway, the forest that surrounds our neighborhood always waiting to take over again. But the effect is kind of ruined by the neighbors: cars on blocks, weeds growing up through busted plastic toys, the smell of someone frying something.
Junebug gives me a hard look over. “You smell like old fish,” she says finally, hopping off the porch swing. “Go take a shower. Come over when you’re done. I’ll make coffee.”
I do as I’m told, let myself into my empty house and head for the bathroom, shedding muddy clothes as I go. I stand in the shower, kneading suds into the short bristles of my hair. There’s a little square of window set into the side of the shower, the sill a grimy shelf where deflated bottles of store-brand soap vie for space. The patch of backyard visible through the window is brutally overgrown, a riot of wet green weeds. Farther out, in the distance, Callaway Mountain rises, tall and ponderous. I turn away from it while I let the water sluice the soap away, finish scrubbing myself soft and clean.
I should go straight to Junebug’s after I finish my shower, but I make the mistake of going into my bedroom first, and am all of a sudden swimmy with exhaustion. The unmade tangle of my bedclothes is the most inviting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Just for a minute, I think. I climb into bed and wind myself into a cocoon of wrinkled sheets.
I dream of water.
The first time, I was thirteen, and my mother had just left me.
My body was a foreign territory then. I’d grown ten inches but hadn’t filled out yet, limbs long and stick-scrawny, all awkward angles like I’d sprouted extra joints and hadn’t learned how to control them. I ached all the time. I’d wake up nights, twisted in damp sheets, chewing the insides of my cheeks ragged.
It was hot that night, air like wet gauze, and I woke up choking on it, hurting and too disoriented to figure out why. I remember the whole thing like I was sleepwalking through it, swinging my legs over the side of the bed, the bright sparkle of pain when my feet hit the floor, like I was stepping onto broken glass instead of the flattened pile of my carpet. I remember hauling open the sliding glass door, heavy as the slab of a tomb. I remember stumbling into the night, the shrieks of cicadas assaulting me from all sides.
I remember heading for the river.
Crooked River used to be a narrow, wild thing, once upon a time. It got dammed up back in the forties, by the power of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now there’s a reservoir there, wide and placid, and that’s where I headed, pulled by something inexorable. I stood there on the bank, momentarily lucid enough to wonder what the hell I was doing, and why I hadn’t put on shoes before doing it.
And then I was in the water.
I don’t know what happens exactly, when I change. Something in my head changes, too, something that makes reality feel warped and liquid. I get bigger, and strong, monstrously so, almost too much for the river to contain me. My skin ripples outward, armoring itself with scales. Ridged back and pale underbelly, fins and fangs and gills.
The rest I might be making up, but I’m pretty sure about the gills. Once I go under, I don’t come back up until it’s over.
I wake up to the radio blasting static and morning sun lighting up my windows.
I slap my alarm reflexively, but it takes me a moment to figure out where I am and what’s going on. Home, I’m home, and I must have slept all day Saturday and on through the night. My alarm is going off because it’s Sunday, and I need to get ready for church.
I roll over and press my face into my pillow. I feel sleep-sticky, could happily spend another eight hours in bed. But I never miss Sunday service, so up I get, scrounge for clean enough pants and an unwrinkled button-down. I could probably use another shower, since I feel sour from being wrapped in my bedsheets for twenty solid hours. But it isn’t like I’m going to make the folks at church think any worse of me than they already do.
I head for the kitchen. The door to my dad’s bedroom is shut, and I try to move quietly so as not to wake him. I’m scarfing down a granola bar and trying to shove my shirt tail into my pants when I hear Junebug’s knuckles rattling the front door.
“Coming,” I whisper-yell, stomp into my dress shoes and tumble out onto the front porch.
Junebug, predictably, looks sweet as a picture, blonde curls and a floral print dress, guitar case hugged up against her chest. “You get some rest?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry. Passed out.”
“S’okay. You got crumbs on you.”
I try to brush granola dust from myself as we head for my car.
Our church is one of those classic down-in-the-holler affairs, smallish, white shingles, steeple sitting slightly lopsided. Never enough parking. I manage to find an empty space and get out to help Junebug wrangle her guitar. The flow of parishioners into the church is like water through a pebbled stream, splitting and branching to get around cars, whirling into small groups that babble with gossip. I struggle to dislodge my gym bag from where it’s trapping Junebug’s guitar, hunch my shoulders and feel like a stone, awkward and immovable.
“Got it,” says Junebug, as her guitar pops free. She reaches over to squeeze my wrist. “Gonna go set up. Find me after?”
I wave her off as she ambles away to join the rest of the choir.
Used to be, I’d come to church with Junebug and her Gran. It was Junebug’s Gran who dragged me along in the first place, Junebug’s Gran who gave me the slick printed sheet torn out of her own psalter. Psalm 91, an invocation of protection: I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. “You’ll need this, I think,” she’d said. She wasn’t wrong, though whether it’s helped any is a different story.
You’d think by now I’d be used to sitting alone at church, but I can’t get the hang of it. It just feels like such a familial time, is all, and I stand out like a sore thumb. I park myself in one of the last pews as usual, and try to look unobtrusive.
Pastor Chris is a short, round fellow with a red face and bristly walrus mustache. Climbing the steps up to the pulpit winds him a little, but even so he manages to look . . . calm. Content, somehow. Grace, I guess you call it.
“I’m so grateful,” Pastor Chris says, in his deep mountain twang, once everyone has settled themselves, “that you all are here today with me on this beautiful morning to share in God’s love, and His message. And I’m even more grateful than usual, because I know, no matter how you feel about what’s going on around town, that with so much uncertainty in the future, these are trying times for us all.”
I manage not to slide down in my seat and groan. I am so sick of hearing about the damn mountain.
“Today, continuing our discussion of the seven churches of Asia, I’d like to talk to you about Smyrna, a little church that was purified by suffering. I think there’s a lot we all can learn from Smyrna, here today. But first, let’s sing together. Please turn to page thirty-four, and join me in ‘How Great Thou Art’.”
There’s a general rustling of hymnals. Up in the choir box, I catch Junebug’s eye, briefly. She gives me a little grin before tilting her bright head down over her guitar and strumming the opening chords, accented by the chiming of the piano beside her. Oh lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, comes the swelling murmur of song from the congregation. Consider all the works thy hands have made. I close my eyes, and do my best to let it wash over me.
“So the meeting starts at seven,” Jack says, bracing his hands against a post to stretch his skinny brown calves. “The city council and then a representative from the mining company will talk for a while, and then they’ll open the floor to comments. I’m going to go over a little early to put my name down to speak, but I can pick you up if you want to come with. Junebug is gonna come, unless she ends up having to babysit.”
It’s Monday morning, and Jack and I, along with the rest of the cross country team, are crowded under the stingy shade of a pavilion, warming up. Which feels a bit redundant: it’s eight AM and the temperature’s already crawling toward ninety, the sun blazing clear and unfettered in a washed-out blue sky. I reach for my toes, and rivulets of sweat reverse direction, trickling back down my scalp.
“Sorry, man,” I say into my knees. “I got work. Otherwise I would totally come.”
I would totally not come. Jack is great, but his do-gooder tendencies can get a bit wearing. Even Junebug thinks so, and she generally thinks Jack can do no wrong. I would put money on her tragically ending up having to babysit her little brother tonight, even though I know for a fact her mom’s off work, and it’s not like her dad ever has plans.
Jack’s face falls, and I contemplate feeling guilty for about a second. “Oh,” he says. “Well, that sucks. I’ll tell you sooner next time, so you can be sure not to miss it.”
I fake a smile. “Awesome.”
“All right, circle up,” Coach hollers. “Five mile loop today. Manning Street down through Pleasant Hills. I’ll be at the halfway point with Gatorade. Take it easy, stay hydrated. It’s already hot and we’ve got hill loops tomorrow.” We all groan in unison. “Yeah, yeah. Let’s get a move on, everyone, chop chop. Oh—Lanny.”
“Yes ma’am?” I ask, pausing as the rest of the team drifts away.
“You get your long run in this weekend?”
“Uh,” I say.
Coach points a stern finger at me. “Twice around the loop for you, young lady.”
“Yes ma’am,” I agree, and head off to catch up with everyone else.
I tend to vie for the top spot on the girls’ team with two of the other juniors, Alicia and Caitie. Since we’re close in speed we end up running together, which always feels like a game of “one of these things is not like the other”. They’re both several inches shorter than me, pretty, whip-thin. When they run together, their ponytails swing in time like entrained pendulums.
“AP Lit for sure,” Caitie is saying as we lope down Manning Street, blowing past the Burger King and a now-defunct scrapbooking shop. “And I’m signed up for AP Calc, but I think I might switch out. It was way too much work last year.”
“For real? Oh man, wait until I tell Tyson. He’s gonna be devastated. He was telling Luke just the other night that he couldn’t wait to have a class with you. That boy is smitten.”
“Ugh, nooo,” Caitie protests, giggling, then seems to catch herself, sliding a concerned glance my way. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. Tyson is a total sweetheart. He’s just not my type, is all.”
I manage not to roll my eyes. Tyson is not Caitie’s type because he’s black, and it’s basically unheard of for a white girl, especially a popular one, to date a black guy at our school. But then Junebug’s dating a black guy, so people assume I must be all progressive by some sort of transitive property.
I’m not. I just don’t give a shit what Junebug does, as long as it makes her happy.
Caitie and Alicia are both looking at me like I might break into a lecture—I’m pretty sure I’ve never broken into a lecture in my life—so to cut the tension I say, “Yeah, I hate smart football players with perfect bodies too.” This sends Caitie and Alicia into a gale of giggles seriously disproportionate to the quality of the joke. I slow my pace so they can keep up while they catch their breath.
“Oh my god, Lanny, you’re so funny. That’s what I like about you, how funny you are.”
We turn off Manning Street and into Pleasant Hills. Pleasant Hills is one of the nicer neighborhoods in town, two-story brick houses with big lawns and careful landscaping. If I were by myself I’d probably hop the curb and kick up somebody’s grass—just a little.
“So,” begins Alicia, sly, as we pick up speed again. “What about you, Lanny? Any summer love so far?”
I have spent the first two weeks of summer break alternating between getting drunk with Junebug and waking up in ditches after attempting to run away from home. “Not yet,” I say. “But the summer is still young.”
“That’s the spirit,” says Caitie, leans over to bump her shoulder against mine, our biceps sweat-sliding against each other. “Hey, Luke’s parents are gonna be out of town in a couple of weeks. He was talking about having a party. You in?”
“Sure,” I say, before I can think better of it.
“For real? Awesome!” says Caitie, grinning. She sounds surprised, which I think is unfair. I mean, I’m a little on the antisocial side, but I try to get out sometimes.
“We should all get together before,” decides Alicia, “to get ready.” She turns to look at me, pursing her lips. “Lanny, you should really let me pluck your eyebrows for you. We should probably do it a day ahead of time, actually, so all the redness and swelling has time to go down.”
Jesus. “Great,” I say. “That sounds just great.”
Even though sometimes it feels like Caitie and Alicia are speaking some weird secret language, the second loop of my run is way more of a slog without them. Usually I prefer running alone, but I tend to pick more scenic routes. The last mile stretch brings me uphill on a highway, sandwiched between the rush of cars and baking strip mall parking lots. By the time I make it back I am sunburned, sweat-drenched, and raw-lunged from car exhaust. I want nothing more than to take a cold shower and maybe inhale a plate of pancakes.
Pancakes turn out to be a little outside the range of things I feel capable of. I’m home and shoveling my second bowl of cornflakes into my face when my dad comes in.
The thing about my dad—okay. I know he doesn’t have the easiest time of it. His job at the paper mill sucks, and he can never get enough hours so we’re always broke, and when my mom ran off he got stuck with me, which I’m sure was and is no picnic. And I am grateful, I am.
None of that changes the fact that he’s kind of an asshole. Case in point, today, him, opening the fridge: “You drank all the milk.”
I swallow a half-chewed bite of cereal. “Yeah. Sorry. I’ll pick more up this afternoon.”
He stares at me as if I’ve just told him I killed his dog. “You think I got money for another grocery run this week?”
I bite the tip of my tongue, hard. “I get paid today,” I tell him. I work as a waitress at a diner down the road, which pays enough to buy the occasional extra gallon of milk, anyhow. “I can get it.”
No arguing with that, I guess, so he changes tactics, turning a baleful eye on my running clothes. “Seems like if that school of yours is gonna make it so you need to eat enough for three girls your size, they could at least feed you.”
With me working we’re not actually broke enough anymore to qualify for shit like the free lunch program, and even when we were, Dad was way too much of a hardass to think about applying. I know better than to bring any of this up, though. Instead I force a tight little smile, like he’s made a joke. “Yeah,” I say.
He stares at me for another minute, then slams the fridge closed and disappears into his bedroom, slamming that door too. I’ve got half a bowl of mushy cornflakes left, and I want nothing more than to dump it in the trash. I force it down anyway.
Work is a place called the Boatyard Cafe, which is, I shit you not, a combination diner and bait store. Eccentric, as far as business models go, but they’ve been open for like thirty years, so I guess it’s working okay. I’ve been working there long enough to have graduated from scooping night-crawlers to waitressing full time, even though I’m pretty sure I’m too surly to really be cut out for the service industry. Waitressing pays better, but sometimes I miss the night-crawlers.
What I lack in charm I make up for in efficiency. So on Monday afternoon I’m doing my thing, maneuvering between tables at top speed, two hot plates balanced on each arm, when Mick fucking Cain snags a finger into my apron pocket and stops me short.
Mick Cain is a doctor, which puts him well above the median income in our little town. What’s worse, he’s a city councilman, and thus one of those fuckers you just cannot escape from. I’m pretty sure his business cards say “Mick Cain, pillar of the community”.
“Lanny!” says Mick, smiling in a way designed to show off his prize-pony teeth. “Slow down, sweetheart. I haven’t seen you in ages. Enjoying the break?”
I manage a polite smile. “Been good so far, Mr. Cain. Hey, looks like you’re running a little low on your coffee. Let me set these plates down and I’ll get you a refill.”
I try to step away but he refuses to take the hint, keeping his finger tucked firmly in my pocket. My arms ache under the weight of the plates, and I bite down on the urge to tip them all into his lap.
“You’re gonna be a senior, right, sweetheart?” he asks. “Where are you thinking about for college?”
I have to imagine Mick Cain is perfectly aware that I’ve never had any chance or intention of going to college. “Haven’t given it much thought, Mr. Cain. Probably just going to stay close to home.”
A lie, hopefully. Mr. Cain adopts a thoughtful expression.
“That so? I always kind of took you for the sort to run off to California once you graduated. But it’s probably for the best. Lotta weirdos out there. Dykes, y’know. Girl like you oughta stay home and take care of her daddy.” With that and a wink, he releases my apron and turns back to his meatloaf.
I take a deep breath, exhale slow, try to envision tension draining from my shoulders, and go to deliver my plates.
Six months after the first time I changed, my dad tried to take me on a trip to Nashville. He’d bought some equipment off someone there, and he needed to go down to pick it up. I was just shy of fourteen, certainly old enough to be left alone for a night, particularly with Junebug’s family right next door in case of emergencies. But I think he was worried about me.
I’d been morose, twitchy, a real pain in the ass to be around. He probably figured it was angst over my mom ditching us, which certainly didn’t help. But really, I was worried I was going crazy. I’d managed to convince myself the first time I’d turned had been a hallucination, which is not half so comforting as you might think. It hadn’t happened again, but I was certain that I was on the verge of a psychotic break.
Either way, my dad decided we were going to Nashville.
We made it about three miles outside town before the change started to hit.
It doesn’t start with anything visible. Lucky, I guess, otherwise someone probably would’ve put a bullet in my head by now, the way folks are around here. But what happens first is I get a desperate compulsion to get to the water.
My dad must have thought I was possessed. One minute we’re riding along in our traditional silence, the next I’m bent over double, shaking like a leaf and begging him to pull over, God, please, please, pull over now.
Actually, what he probably thought was that I was about to be sick all over his upholstery, because he did pull over, and good thing too, because in another ten seconds I would have yanked the door open and tucked and rolled anyway.
I remember him asking if I was alright, but I was too far gone to answer. The second my feet hit the ground, I was off running.
My dad was furious when I stumbled home the next morning, barefoot and filthy and draped in a stolen XL men’s t-shirt. He was terrified someone would find out, that they’d decide he couldn’t take care of me without my mom, that I’d get taken away. To me, all that was a background buzz compared to the horrifying suspicion thudding in my skull: oh my God, what if I’m stuck here.
The house is dark and quiet when I get home, which is good luck. I never have any idea when Dad is going to be around these days. I’ve got a thick roll of bills in my back pocket from cashing my paycheck and a half gallon of milk dangling from my fingers. The fridge is empty except for some expired hot dogs, a withered head of lettuce, and a few beers. I toss the hot dogs and the lettuce in the garbage, shove the beers in my backpack, and replace them with the milk. It looks pathetic, sitting there in the fridge all alone. Good. Seems like an appropriate goodbye fuck-you, on the off chance I make it out of here this time.
I throw in some granola bars and cans of soup along with the beer, then swing by my room to grab a couple handfuls of clean socks and underwear. I am slamming the lid of the trunk when the driveway floods with light.
I startle, momentarily blinded by the washed out brightness of Junebug’s porch light. Junebug herself is a black silhouette against a bright halo, surrounded by the weird effervescence of insects making suicide runs at the lamp. I blink until her face resolves from a dark muddle.
“Hey,” I say, not at all sheepish.
Junebug’s mouth is doing that thing where she can’t decide if she’s angry or just tired. “Again?” she asks. “Jesus, Lanny, what’s it been, four days? Can’t you give it a couple of weeks, at least?”
I open my mouth to respond, then snap it closed again, hit by the sudden certainty that I am going to cry.
I have no idea where this is coming from. I’m really not a crier, usually. The palms of my hands prickle with heat, and I clench them into fists, sit down hard on the bumper of my car and try to get my jaw to unfreeze.
“Aw, Lanny, Jesus.” Junebug is beside me in an instant, finding my hands and sliding her fingers in between mine. “Fuck, I’m sorry, okay? What’s wrong, what happened?”
“Oh my God, nothing, it’s not—” I cut myself off, take a couple of gulping breaths in an attempt to get hold of myself. “Sorry,” I say, “it’s nothing, it really— I just had kind of a shitty day, is all, it didn’t— nothing even happened, I just—” I make a frustrated, abortive gesture, flinging my hand out to try and encompass—everything, our stupid shitty overgrown lawns, the fridge with its lonely half gallon of milk, the cut of the mountains in the distance, hemming us in. The way my skin, dry and brittle and stretched too tight over my bones, threatens to split and burst under the pressure of whatever this thing is I have trapped inside me, weighing me down, tethering me here.
God, God, I hate this place.
“Hey, hey. Come on, Lanny. It’s okay.” Junebug keeps my hand trapped in hers as she comes around to sit next to me, tucking herself up right next to my side. She squeezes my fingers tight and ducks her head, peering up at my face, forcing me to look at her. “It’s gonna be okay, you know? You don’t—you don’t have to do this, running off half cocked in the middle of the night.” She reaches up to brush a finger along my cheekbone. “Shit. I mean, I’m pretty sure you’ve still got some scales from last time.”
That surprises a laugh out of me, even it if comes out kind of wet sounding. I run a hand over my wet cheeks and dripping nose. “Pretty sure that’s just a zit.”
Junebug digs an elbow into my side. “Come on. Fuck this shit for tonight, okay? You wanna come in, watch a movie or something?”
“Can we go somewhere else?” I ask. “I’ve got a backpack full of beer, if that helps.”
“Definitely,” says Junebug. “You wanna go down to the bridge and get drunk?”
“Yeah, good idea.” I scrub thoughtful fingertips against my scalp. “You wanna call Jack? You know his feelings will be hurt if we go without him.” This is true—Jack loves climbing the bridge—but also Jack’s presence will keep Junebug from drilling me too hard about my feelings. From the narrow look she gives me, Junebug knows exactly what’s up, but she just says, “You sure you don’t mind?”
“Call him,” I say, and go unload everything from my backpack that isn’t beer.
The Crooked River Bridge crosses the river at its narrowest bend, about a mile’s walk from my house. It’s an arch support bridge, the top of it—the road portion—spanning the water about a hundred feet above its surface. Below that, the arch plants one fat concrete foot on the northern riverbank, swoops up to kiss the bottom of the bridge in the middle, then angles back down towards the southern bank.
The arch is the part that you climb.
The tricky part is swinging yourself up, a dangerous moment’s work of being suspended out above the sharp tumble of rocks and rushing water, but once you’ve gotten your footing on solid concrete you’re home free. You can edge yourself past the pillars holding the bridge up above you, past the shitty graffiti and discarded beer cans, until you reach the apex, tucked up tight below the bottom of the bridge, cars rushing thunderously over your head, and a hundred foot drop to the water below.
To the east, you can watch the river disappearing away into the forest, a bright silver ribbon wound through heavy green darkness. To the west, the dam curves against the water in the reservoir, swollen and shining with artificial light. And beyond that . . . well, for now, Callaway Mountain rises up, slow and stately, the distance blurring the covering treetops into something homogeneous, a soft ruched blanket holding the mountain safe.
It can be beautiful here. But I don’t think I’ll miss it.
Junebug goes first, hopping across the gap light and sure, then braces herself outstretched at a dangerous angle to grab her guitar as I pass it up to her. I go next, the bottles in my bag clanking as I fling myself through empty space.
The concrete is cool and gritty under me as I crawl up to meet Junebug near the apex. This late at night there isn’t much traffic, just water below, the quiet susurration of wind through the trees.
“Beer please,” says Junebug, so I unzip my bag and pass her a bottle before retrieving my own and doing my best to get comfortable, scooting around so I’m lying on my back, knees drawn up and head pillowed on the unforgiving concrete.
“So what was—” Junebug begins, before she’s cut off by the rumble of a truck passing overhead. It’s hard to make out her expression, but I’m sure she’s scowling.
I grin at her, can’t help myself, and by the time the truck has passed Jack’s showed up, scaling the arch with the ease of long practice, a grin lighting up his face, too.
“I brought a blanket,” he says, “and more beer,” and all thought of continuing to discuss my shitty day dissipates into the night.
We spread out the comforter and arrange ourselves on it in a haphazard pile, Jack pillowing his head on my thigh, me using Junebug’s shoulder as a backrest. We sit there in companionable silence for a few minutes, slurping our beers, listening to the occasional car roaring overhead.
“Did you see,” Jack asks, apropos of nothing, “that they started setting up camp and bringing in mining equipment, down below the dam? Earthmovers and shit.”
“Seriously?” asks Junebug. We both sit up, craning our necks to look where Jack’s pointing. Sure enough, there’s a little base of operations set up there, backhoes and office trailers glinting in floodlights.
“I mean, what the hell,” continues Jack. “There are still two more hearings, and I know for a fact they haven’t filed all their permitting yet. Just—the nerve.”
“We should blow up the mining camp,” I say.
“We really, really should,” says Jack, a little too enthusiastic.
Junebug pings a bottle cap off Jack’s temple. “No plotting eco-terrorism tonight,” she says. “Too depressing.”
Jack raises a hand in surrender. “Fine,” he says. “But then you gotta sing for us.”
Junebug doesn’t ever need too much encouragement. She cradles the guitar in her lap and plucks a few disconnected notes, fiddling with the tuning. She pauses, thoughtful, then a grin curls the corner of her mouth, and she starts to sing. “He’s had more bad luck than most men could stand, the mine was his first love, but never his friend . . . .”
Jack groan-laughs, and Junebug’s grin widens. It’s a dumb idea to be making so much noise up here, but Jack and I can’t help ourselves from joining in on the chorus. “Black lung, black lung, you’re just biding your time. Soon all of this suffering I’ll leave behind, but I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind to send such a devil to claim this soul of mine.”
Our voices echo together across the water, sweet and out of tune.
The sun’s long up by the time we stumble home, loopy from sleep deprivation and prolonged drunkenness. We trudge the mile back to my place in good cheer, me and Jack bracketing Junebug on either side, arms looped around each other’s waists to help keep ourselves upright, Junebug’s guitar case thumping hollowly with each step. I’ve kicked off my shoes to feel the asphalt warm and silky underneath my toes, and the sun is hot on the back of my neck when we turn into the driveway and are confronted with twin blank stares: Junebug’s mom and my dad.
The three of us exchange confused looks. It’s not inconceivable that Junebug’s mom would be waiting up to scold us for spending the whole night out drinking. It is inconceivable that my dad would care enough to join her.
“Mom?” Junebug asks carefully, extracting herself from my and Jack’s arms. “What’s going on?”
Junebug’s mom’s face is schooled into something like gentle concern. “Oh, sugar,” she says. “It’s nothing, sweetheart, it’s just . . . .” she flaps a hand. “We got letters about buyouts from the mining company this morning. Called it a good-faith effort. Looks like if they get their permitting pushed through there’s a good chance we’re gonna be right in the middle of a runoff zone.” I realize she and my dad are both holding torn-open envelopes, clutching them like nervous kids with a report card.
“Seriously?” Junebug demands. “Mom. What are you going to do?”
Junebug’s mom shakes her head. “I still think this whole thing is going to fall through. And if not, well, hell. I’m sure not going to make it any easier on them than necessary.”
My dad’s been silent this whole time. I feel something cold settling in. “Dad,” I say.
My dad frowns. “I got to get ready for work,” he mutters, turning to head into the house.
“Dad,” I say again, rush to follow him as he shoves his way through the front door.
He ignores me, tosses the envelope onto the table, yanks open the cupboards to pull out coffee and filters and lets the doors slam shut in his wake.
I wrap my fingers around the edge of the counter and try to keep calm. “You’re not thinking of selling the house, are you?”
“You got any particular attachment to this place?”
“No,” I say, “I just—” I stop, shaking my head. “I mean, what are we going to do? Where are we going to live?”
“Nashville,” he says.
My stomach drops out of me. “Nashville?”
Dad dumps coffee grounds into the machine and flips the thing on. It gurgles to life, exhaling the warm aroma of coffee. “Right outside of, anyway. I got a buddy said he can get me a job lined up there, if I want it. Full time at a machine shop.”
I feel light all over, like I’m watching this conversation from far away. “Dad,” I say. “I can’t move to Nashville.”
The coffee isn’t done percolating yet, but Dad yanks the pot out anyway to pour himself a cup, a thin stream of liquid spattering down to hiss and evaporate on the hot plate. “And why the hell not?”
Eldritch horrors, mostly, I manage not to say aloud, and wonder dimly if I’m becoming hysterical. “I’ve got—school, cross country. Work. I mean, I’m about to graduate.”
“Lanny,” he says. I’m expecting him to be angry; instead, he just looks tired, scrubs a hand over his forehead and looks up to the ceiling as if asking for strength. “It’s over for this town, you got that? Shit, there hasn’t been enough work around here for years. You think it’s gonna get better once they start dynamiting? You think anyone’s gonna want to live where the water’s all full of coal ash? You think the mill is still gonna be open in another five years?”
I pull my shoulders in, stare at the tabletop. “They still might not get the permitting,” I mutter.
I see my dad’s knuckles whiten around the handle of his mug, and for a second I think I’m gonna get hit. But he just exhales. “God dammit, Lanny,” he says. “This isn’t up for discussion. You understand me?”
I nod, once.
He shakes his head. “I gotta get to work.”
“Yeah,” I say.
He pauses, as if he’s trying to figure out something else to say, and then pushes his way out the door.
I bury my face in my hands and try to figure out what in the hell I am going to do.
How to run the trails at Callaway Mountain:
Hike or jog up the access road to avoid the parking fee. The attendant in her little booth will roll her eyes but wave you on through. Worn wooden signs mark trail heads like gameshow mystery doors, each beckoning you their way. Lake Loop, short and flat, overpopulated by little kids out on an adventure and young couples stopping for pictures. Fire Tower Path, the steepest and most difficult, full of serious hikers looking to cut another notch in their belts. Pick something in between: today, Hollybush Loop, where the path is narrow, overgrown in spots, where you’ve got a chance of finishing the loop without encountering another human soul.
I pause at the trailhead to take stock of myself, my surroundings. The sun is just sinking past the tree line, a warm glow bursting through the gaps between leaves. I’ll make it back before it sets properly, and I’ve got a headlamp tucked into my pocket in case anything goes wrong. Water in a bottle, strapped to my belt, leaving my hands free in case I take a fall. Muscles in my legs warm and loose from the hike up and the late afternoon sun. The thud of my own heart, the pulse in my veins, strong but steady, hard to believe any part of me can be so stable, so sure, I’m ready, I’m ready.
I take a deep breath and start running.
Hollybush starts with a hard uphill. I like that, gets straight to the point, no fucking around. Downhill feels easier but is more treacherous, gravity giving you speed you didn’t earn, exacts its toll when you miss your footing and go careening into emptiness. Uphill is harder but simpler, nothing to do but tuck your head and keep pushing. Push even harder when your legs start to feel like lead weights, take bigger leaps, make it to that rock this time, that root over there, farther than seems possible with each step. The woods around you, silent and golden, the churning engine of your heart, sweat that stings like absolution.
Every time I run this trail, I think I’m not going to make it, and then I burst into the clearing that means I’ve reached the trail’s summit, and the world spreads out in front of me: small white homes nestled safe into the green valley, stripes of asphalt carving between the trees, the sun, fat and low, gilding everything with copper.
There are so few good things in this godforsaken town. I don’t understand why they want to tear apart this one, too.
That night, home, sprawled on the couch and halfway to sleep, I can hear Junebug practicing her guitar. She’s working on “How Great Thou Art” again, and even though I can’t hear her singing, my mind supplies the same verse over and over: when through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
“He’s saying August,” I tell Junebug, resting my temple against the metal arm of the porch swing, watching the branches overhead dip in and out of view. It’s a hot afternoon, the sky bleached pale, the grass underneath our bare toes crunchy and dry. “That’s when they want him to start. We need to be out of the house anyway, so.”
Junebug’s doing all the work of keeping us moving, one slow leg tilting us back and forth, back and forth. Creeeeak, goes the porch swing. “Hell, Lanny,” she says.
I make a noise that isn’t quite a laugh. “Yeah.”
Junebug’s leg keeps working, moving us in a gentle arc. “You could come live with us,” she says.
I bite down on a smile. “I suggested that to him, actually. Or that if I dropped out, I might be able to make enough at the diner to get a shitty apartment somewhere.”
“He threw a bottle at my head.”
“Yeah.” I blow out a long breath. “In his defense, I don’t think he gets why I’m being such a pain in the ass about this. I mean, I’m pretty sure he knows how much I want to get out of this place. I think he thinks I’m just fucking with him to be difficult.” I shrug. “Worst case scenario I figure I’ll just get as far away as I can, hide out in Haycombe or something for a few weeks until he’s gone. It’s not like I haven’t been planning to run away for years, right? And I turn eighteen in like four months. I don’t think he’s gonna call the cops to come drag me off to Nashville.” I frown, digging at a tuft of grass with my big toe. “I figure he’ll be at least a little relieved to be rid of me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” says Junebug, unconvincing.
The cicadas are loud today, their droning chatter punctuated by the whine of the porch swing.
“We’ll figure something out,” Junebug says at length. “We’ll figure out a way for you to stay. Don’t worry.”
I don’t point out that the idea of staying is exactly what’s worrying me. It’s not like Junebug doesn’t know.
If I’d thought before that people in this town couldn’t talk about anything but Callaway Mountain, nothing could have prepared me for the relentless tide of gossip once the mining company begins to move in earnest. “Coal’s got to come from somewhere,” a constant refrain, like setting a spark to black powder, sure to send up any room. At cross country practice Caitie and Alicia get into a screaming fight over Superfund sites and acid mine water, Caitie: “do you want my dad to be out of a job,” Alicia: “I want to maybe one day have a baby that isn’t born with flippers,” and the two of them don’t speak for days.
“I went over to Farwood Mountain a while ago,” Mrs. April tells me at the diner, sipping at a cup of coffee with pursed lips and pinkie extended. “They’ve reclaimed the top of it now. Looks real pretty. It’s a real sweet little park. Nicer than before, if you ask me. They’ve got a little pond up there and everything. You never hear the environmentalists talk about that.”
In my head I hear Jack talking about grassland monocultures and invasive species. “You never do,” I agree, smiling sweetly and aggressively not giving a shit. I’m going to find a way out of here. It’s not going to be my problem for much longer.
A few nights later, me and Junebug are at her place, lazing all over the floor of her living room, shoveling corn chips in our faces and half-watching old cartoons when Junebug shoves herself reluctantly upright. “I should probably get to bed,” she says. “I told Jack I’d go over to Pearson County with him in the morning.”
I blink. “The fuck for?”
Junebug grimaces. “Protest. They topped Black Mountain a couple years ago, haven’t kept up on the reclamation work.”
“Oh, Junebug,” I say, reaching out a hand to feel her forehead. “They got you, too.”
Junebug bats my hand away irritably. “Shut up,” she grumbles. “I’d make you go, too, if it weren’t for.” She pauses. “You know.” She makes a ‘monster’ face, wrinkling her nose and screwing up her fingers into claws.
I throw a pillow at her. It nails her square in the temple. “Trust me,” I say. “Ain’t no way in hell I’d go, even if it weren’t for—” I mimic her expression.
Junebug lobs the pillow back at me. “You wanna stay here tonight?”
“Was already planning on it.”
Sleeping at Junebug’s is as familiar as sleeping in my own bed. We strip down to our underwear and squeeze into her narrow twin bed, cocoon ourselves in the blankets. Junebug sprawls on her back, flings a leg over mine. I bury my face in the pillows and drift instantly to sleep.
I wake up to the smell of coffee and the sight of Junebug hovering. “Out of bed, lazy,” she says, shoving a steaming mug at me. I wrap my hands around it out of reflex. “You’re gonna be late for practice, and Jack and I gotta get going.”
“Urgh,” I say, taking a mincing sip of too-hot coffee. “If you come back smelling like patchouli, it’s over between us.”
Jack, of course, isn’t at practice. Alicia is conspicuously missing as well, and I wonder if she’s at the demonstration, or if it’s just coincidence.
Coach has us running the reservoir today, a seven mile loop past the dam, flat and easy on a shaded packed-dirt footpath. Caitie and I take it at a gentle pace, both of us still a little sleep-sluggish, quiet in the dappled early morning light. I revel in the feeling of my limbs warming and loosening up, slow spreading heat.
On my hands, scales flicker into view, then disappear.
I stumble to a halt, staring down at my arms in horror. Caitie pulls up short a few steps ahead, wheels back around towards me. “Everything okay?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. No, definitely no. Something is roiling under my skin, itching to burst free. “Just—cramps,” I say, wrapping my arms around my waist in an effort to hold myself together. “I’m gonna sit here a second. You oughta go on.”
Caitie chews her bottom lip. “You sure?” she asks. “You need me to call Coach or something?”
“Be fine in a minute.” My voice is tight. “Got my phone if I need it. I’ll catch up with you.”
“Are you—” Caitie begins.
“I’m sure,” I snap, meaner than I intended. Caitie shrugs and turns tail, disappearing down the path. I sag in relief, stumble off the path and collapse against the base of an enormous maple. I pull my legs up to my chest and rest my forehead on my knees, sucking in long shaking breaths. This is severely not right. I haven’t changed for no good reason for over a year.
A long spasm pulls through me, and I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to fight against changing. The water of the reservoir glitters in front of me, smooth and inviting. I’m not going to last much longer, I’m panicking, I don’t know what to do.
So I call Junebug.
I clutch the phone to the side of my head like an anchor, listening to the sound of ringing with increasing desperation. Come on, I plead silently.
“Hello?” says Junebug’s voice.
“Junebug. Junebug, something’s wrong, it’s happening, I’m not—I’m here, I’m right by the dam, I don’t know—”
“Okay,” says Junebug. “Okay, we’re coming back right now. Just sit tight, okay? Jack’s turning the truck around.”
“Okay,” I manage. I don’t know why I’m so relieved. It’s not like she’s going to be able to do anything for me, it just—it helps, to know she’s coming for me.
Junebug stays on the line with me while I sit there curled in the leaves, white-knuckling the phone against my ear. I can hear the muffled sound of her giving instructions to Jack. “Doing okay?” asks Junebug, sudden and clear. “You still with me?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Still with you.” I flex my legs and am surprised to find that I do feel better, a loosening in my muscles, a quieting of my heart. “I—I think maybe it’s getting better?”
A pause. “Really?”
“Ye-es?” I’m almost scared to say it, like doing so will make everything come surging back. It’s like trying to identify whether a headache is lessening, hard to pinpoint in the absence of it.
“Gimme a sec,” says Junebug. I hear her telling Jack to pull over, the sound of a door slamming.
“So what the hell did you tell Jack?” I ask, trying to make it a joke, but my voice comes out shaky and weird. I swallow it back down.
“That you were feeling really sick and we needed to come get you.” I can almost see her shrugging. “He’s used to you being a total freak. Don’t worry about it. You’re really feeling better?”
I unwind myself carefully, stretch out my legs in the dirt, wiggle the toes of my sneakers back and forth. “Yeah,” I say. “I mean, I still feel shitty, but not—not at all like I’m going to change any more.”
Junebug exhales into the phone. “This is really weird.”
“Tell me about it.” I push myself to my feet, take a few steps. I feel perfectly normal. I laugh shakily. “What the hell? I mean, I’m by the water, but not really near where it happened the first time. Do you think it’s just some weird fluke?”
“I hope you don’t expect me to have an answer for that,” says Junebug. “Okay. I’m headed back to the truck now. We’ll be back in like an hour, okay?”
“Yeah. Wait, no.” I shake my head. “No, that’s stupid. I mean, it was a false alarm, right? I don’t wanna fuck up your whole day. You guys should go on.”
I can practically hear Junebug chewing on her lip. “You sure?”
“I mean, unless you want to use this as an excuse to escape from the hippies.”
Junebug makes a little noise of amusement. “I don’t wanna leave you all alone. What if it happens again?”
“Then I’ll call you again.” I scrub the heel of my hand over my forehead, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “Look, you oughta go. You’ll break Jack’s heart if you bail.”
“Yeah,” says Junebug. “Yeah, okay, fine.” Then, forceful: “You call me.”
“Cross my heart,” I say. “Have fun with the treehuggers.”
“Asshole,” she says, and hangs up.
I give myself another few minutes, let my heart rate come down a little further. I’d think almost turning into a horrifying lake beast would warrant skipping the day’s workout, but I’ve got to get back to my car somehow, and so with a minimum of mental whining I set off again at a jog.
I make it about a half mile before it hits me again, and I go to my knees in the middle of the trail.
“God fucking damn it,” I say aloud, twisting my fists into the weeds that line the path, bringing them up by their roots as I grit my teeth and try to ride it out. It passed last time, I remind myself. Breathe through it. It will get better.
I drag myself over to the side of the trail, clawing my phone out of my pocket as I go, sit there with it wrapped in sweaty fingers. I don’t wanna call Junebug unless I absolutely have to. I feel stupid enough for bothering her in the first place, wanna let her and Jack get on without always fucking things up for them, but I keep waiting for it to peak and recede like it did before, keep waiting and it’s just getting worse, and I can’t help but picture Junebug, sitting there in the car next to Jack, laughing at something he’s said, sweet and carefree, and all the while getting farther and farther away—
Junebug picks up right away this time. “Lanny?” she says. “Is it happening again? Is everything okay?”
“Where are you?” I bite out.
“Where are you?”
“Um,” says Junebug, flustered. “Just shy of Haycombe. About ten miles. Why?”
Out of nowhere, the skin on my arms ripples, bursts into muddy green scales. “Turn around,” I say. “I need you to come back. Please. Turn around right now.”
“Jack, turn around. Turn around!” I hear a squealing of tires. “Okay. Okay, we’re on our way back. We’re coming as fast as we can. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Give me a minute.” I close my eyes, picture Junebug barreling back down the road towards me, picture the tight knot in my stomach unravelling, loosening. A shiver runs down my spine. When I open my eyes, my forearms are once again smooth.
“Oh my God,” I say, half laugh, half sob.
“What? Lanny, what is it?” comes Junebug’s voice, half hysterical.
“It’s you,” I say. “What I’m tethered to. It’s not the town. It’s you.”
“What—” Junebug says, the beginning of a sentence, not a question. “What?”
My insides are spun glass. If I move too much, if I fall into hysterics, as I am on the verge of doing, I’ll shatter into a million pieces. “Think about it,” I say. I sound so much calmer than I feel. “Every time you turn around and head back, I start to get better. But as soon as you get too far away, I start to change. Every time you get too close to Haycombe.” I press a hand to my forehead, close my eyes. “That makes sense, doesn’t it? Tell me I’m not going crazy. Crazier.”
“It makes sense,” Junebug says, slow. “Fuck, Lanny, I—”
“Yeah. Look, can you—is there any way you can get Jack to turn around again? To head west for just a couple miles, so we can test it, be sure?”
A beat of silence, then Junebug sighs. “Jack,” I hear her say, “you’re gonna think I’m nuts, but . . . .”
It’s worse, sitting there waiting for it to happen, like opening yourself to a punch and trying not to flinch. At least I’m not waiting long. Less than two minutes later and I feel it, that tightness, that sick pull beneath my sternum. “Yep, yes,” I say, strained. “That’s definitely a thing that’s happening. Feel free to turn around at any time.”
“Fuck,” says Junebug, as the ache begins to recede.
I laugh humorlessly, taking stock of myself, sweat-grimy limbs and trembling hands. “Yeah,” I say. “Pretty much.”
Junebug meets me a couple hours later, up on the arch of Crooked River bridge. I’ve been lying there for thirty minutes, still rank and sticky in my running clothes, having been unable to handle the rest of the trek back to my car. Lying on my back, letting the rumble of traffic vibrate my bones, I’ve basically achieved a sort of Zen oneness with the underside of the bridge, so I don’t notice Junebug climbing up until she drops a backpack square on my chest, knocking the wind out of me.
“Oof,” I say.
Junebug rolls her eyes. “Brought you something.”
In the backpack is most of a handle of cheap vodka, sloshing around in its plastic bottle. “You have the best ideas,” I say, unscrewing the cap and taking a healthy swallow, grimacing against the taste.
“I figured we were gonna need it,” says Junebug, taking a swallow herself and doing her own little grossed-out shiver dance.
We sit like that for a while, passing the handle back and forth, until we’re warm-bellied and fuzzy-headed enough to want to start talking.
“So,” Junebug says, breaking the silence. “What do you think? Magic? Like we’re under some kind of curse?”
I blink, slow. “I mean, that’s what I always kind of figured anyway.”
“What else would it be?”
Junebug waves a hand. “I always figured it was something more sci-fi. You know, the Incredible Hulk or something.”
“I don’t remember injecting myself with any super serum recently.”
“Something in the water, whatever. Come on, don’t be a pain in the ass. Like it’s any fucking weirder than magic.”
I loll my head back and forth, letting the world go blurry at the edges. The vodka works, apparently. “I still think it’s a curse.”
Junebug makes a humming noise. “You know,” she says, “my gran always used to tell me that my great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess.”
I snort. “You and every other lily-white asshole in this town.”
“It could be true,” says Junebug airily. “Your family has been around here a long time, too. Maybe my great-great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were star-crossed lovers. Maybe your great-great-grandfather broke my great-great-grandmother’s heart, and she put an Indian curse on him.”
“Even unto the third and fourth generations?” I pause, counting in my head. “If we’re talking great-great-grandparents, that makes me the fifth generation. Shouldn’t that shit be timing out soon?”
“So gamma rays are better.”
“Maybe.” There’s a thread coming loose from the bottom of my t-shirt; I pull on it to watch it unspool from the fabric. “I actually always kind of thought it had something to do with the reservoir.”
“How do you figure?” asks Junebug.
I have never voiced this theory aloud, and I feel stupid doing so now, though I’m just drunk enough to get through it. “My grandpa—my mom’s dad—he worked for the TVA. Back when they first put the dam in. He managed the whole project, actually.”
Junebug frowns. “So?”
I shrug, supremely uncomfortable. “So he flooded out half the town to form a giant lake, and I turn into a giant lake monster.”
“So it’s some kind of vengeance wreaked by Mother Nature kind of thing?”
My cheeks flame. “Well it isn’t any fucking stupider than gamma rays.”
There’s a long pause. “If you think it’s because of something your mom’s dad did, do you think that this . . . whatever it is . . . did something to your mom, too?”
I hunch my shoulders. “I don’t know. It would make sense, I guess.”
Another silence. “Do you think that’s why she left?” Junebug’s voice is gentle, and I can hear in it all the ways that thinking these things makes me a stupid, desperate child.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think it has anything to do with that at all.”
We set out to test our magical new link the following morning.
“This is kind of a dumb idea,” says Junebug, not for the first time. “At the very least we should be waiting another day or two. Until you stop looking like you got run over by a truck.”
“I’m letting you drive, aren’t I?” I ask, fiddling with the lever that adjusts the passenger’s seat. It’s set to fit Junebug, far too close to the dash to suit my much longer legs. “Don’t you want to get this over with?”
“Sure,” says Junebug. “I’d just prefer for you to not pass out while we’re doing it.”
I get where she’s coming from. I look and feel like shit, an exacerbated version of what usually happens when I change, presumably due to being played like a freaking yo-yo the day before. The hangover isn’t helping. If this doesn’t work—if I end up changing the second we hit Haycombe, as I half-expect—I am going to be completely wrecked.
But if we put it off any longer, the nerves might actually kill me. So: “I’m fine,” I say. “Drive, will you?”
I’ve daydreamed before about taking a road trip with Junebug, a fantasy constructed from movies and TV shows: me driving, Junebug sprawled next to me, smiling out the window while we squabble over radio stations and whether or not it’s time to stop for snacks. The destination never seemed important. The beach, maybe? I’ve never been to the beach. It sounds nice.
This drive, we’re mostly quiet. I watch the landmarks tick by as we make our way out of town. I don’t realize I’m bouncing my leg at a frenzied pace until Junebug reaches over to cup her hand over my knee, steadying me. “Stop, okay?” She says. “You’re fine. It’s gonna be fine.”
“Yeah,” I say, putting a concentrated effort into keeping my leg still. It takes me another five miles before I realize I’m chewing my thumbnail bloody instead.
“I’m gonna turn on the radio,” Junebug says.
Junebug twists the knob to some country station, Dolly Parton warbling at us. I wrinkle my nose in token protest but don’t have the energy for anything else.
We crest a ridge, and the “Welcome to Haycombe” signs looms up into view.
Junebug cuts a look my way. “You okay?” she asks. “Is it happening? Do you need me to pull over?”
I shake my head. “No. No, I’m fine. Keep going.”
Junebug nods and bears down on the accelerator. Familiar sights slip past us, a Burger King, a row of churches, a strip mall parking lot. I try to remember to breathe. A nursing home, another string of fast food joints, and my ribcage is going to crack under the pressure of my heartbeat. “Now Leaving Haycombe,” the sign says, and we are surrounded by woods once again.
All the air rushes out of my lungs at once.
Junebug is still driving like we’re being chased, but she risks a glance over at me. “Did we make it?”
“Um.” I stop to swallow, blink prickly heat away from the corners of my eyes. “I think so? I mean. This is farther than I’ve ever gotten, for sure.”
Junebug eases off the gas pedal, just a little. “Seriously? And you don’t feel at all . . . .”
I shake my head. “No. Not at all.”
Junebug exhales. “Wow. Well, okay. That’s . . . wow.”
There’s a pause, me thrumming with relief and adrenalin, unsure what to say into the silence. Junebug shakes her head and flicks on the turn signal, aiming the car for a little patch of sandy soil off the side of the road.
I blink. “What are you doing?”
“Turning around,” she says. “I mean. We figured out what we came out here for, right? Is there something else?”
Dolly has been replaced by the quiet jangling of a mandolin, played low and sweet. The woods around us are dense and silent, changing light filtering through the leaves, mottling everything green and gold. I look at my hands, the shifting pattern of shadows on them, then the highway in front of us, disappearing in a dark tunnel of foliage off to the west.
“What if,” I begin. My mouth is dry. “What if we didn’t go back?”
“Lanny,” Junebug says. “This isn’t us running away together.”
I nod, reflexive, I know, but, “We could. I mean. I know it’s not perfect, but we—we’d figure something out.”
Junebug presses a hand to her forehead. “Like what, Lanny?” she asks. “Honestly, what? Two high school dropouts with a trunk full of dirty clothes and fifty bucks between them? What the hell would we do?”
“Anything is better than back there,” I say.
“Lanny,” Junebug says, “I’ve never wanted to leave. You know that, right? That was always just you.”
“Don’t make me go back,” I say. There’s something like panic rising in my stomach. I slide a hand into my pocket and crumple the psalm in my fist, trying to get a handle on myself. “Junebug, come on. I’ve never made it this far before. Don’t go back. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” Junebug says. “I’m sorry.”
“So,” says Jack, Friday morning while we’re stretching at cross country practice, “are you and Junebug like . . . fighting?”
Hot again, muggy and overcast, but with a tantalizing undercurrent of cool air that leaves me aching for fall. A thunderstorm brewing, maybe.
“Not so far as I know,” I say.
“Hm,” says Jack. “Seems like you guys haven’t been hanging out much the past couple days, is all.”
It’s been four days, which I’m pretty sure is some kind of a record for both of us. “I’ve been busy. Junebug and I are allowed to have other friends, you know.” Jack’s eyebrows are disbelieving. “What? I have other friends.”
Caitie, bless her heart, chooses that exact moment to scoot over next to us. “Hey,” she says. I shoot Jack a triumphant look. “Party at Luke’s tomorrow night is definitely on. You guys coming? I can give you a ride if you want.”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” I say.
“Awesome,” says Caitie, nudges my calf with the toe of her sneaker, and scoots away again.
“See?” I tell Jack. “Packed social calendar, is all. Junebug and I are fine.”
“If you say so,” says Jack. I reach for my toes and ignore the worry in his voice.
I’m waiting on the porch swing when Caitie shows up, the old pickup she drives crunching on the gravel of the driveway. She looks incongruous behind the wheel of the truck, perfect arched eyebrows and pink painted lips, hair piled in a complicated curly structure atop her head. She grins at me as I haul myself into the seat next to her.
“No Junebug and Jack?”
“I’m pretty sure they bailed to go bang somewhere,” I say.
“Predictable,” Caitie says. “You look nice.”
I’m wearing ripped jeans and a too-large t-shirt with some bank logo peeling off it. My eyebrows have decidedly not been plucked. “Fuck off,” I say. Caitie laughs and throws the truck into gear.
Luke’s place is a shabby two story suburban, one of those houses that feels crowded and maze-like in spite of its impressive square footage. I’ve been here once before, for a party a lot like this one. I mostly remember losing badly at beer pong and then waking up in the backyard. With any luck, tonight will be a repeat performance.
The party is well on its way when we arrive, cars crowding the curb in front of the house, the thud of a bass line audible from the front yard. A cheer of acknowledgement goes up when Caitie and I enter, largely from a subsection of the boys’ cross country team playing flip cup on Luke’s parents’ dining room table. “Lanny’s on my team,” someone hollers, pressing a solo cup full of cheap beer into my hand, and I am happy to oblige.
“It’s fucking bullshit,” slurs Kevin, peering miserably into the depths of his solo cup. Kevin is a dimply, curly haired kid who tends to bring up the rear of the JV team. He and Caitie and I are sprawled in a circle on the back porch, flip cup game abandoned, the party beginning to quiet down around us. “I don’t—I don’t wanna fucking leave, you know? This place fucking sucks, but at least let us make it to college, am I right? Fuck!” He shakes his head as if he’s just delivered a great truth and takes a long swig of beer.
I’m flat on my back, planks of wood cool and rough beneath me, watching stars swim in and out of visibility. It’s possible I’m very, very drunk.
“I just don’t get why everyone’s so sure the mill is gonna shut down,” says Caitie. She’s sitting upright, more or less, though she’s rolling her head back and forth against a fence post as if she can’t help but find the movement fascinating. Still, she sounds more sober than I am.
“Mine’s gonna buy it,” says Kevin. “Buy it and shut it down. That’s what my mom says. Figure she knows.” I have the booze-clouded recollection that his mom is a pretty senior executive over at the mill. He tilts his cup up, frowning into it comically. “Out of beer,” he declares, pushing himself to his feet. “Be right back. You girls,” he points a stern finger in our direction. “Be good.”
“Asshole,” I mumble.
“Seriously,” agrees Caitie, sighs and flops down so she’s lying next to me, our heads inches from each other. “Fuck, Lanny, I can’t believe you’re moving to Nashville.”
I blink, surprised. I honestly can’t remember telling her, although considering the bent of our conversation with Kevin I suppose it makes sense that I must have said something. Fuck, I must be drunker than I thought. “It’ll be okay,” I assure her. “Don’ worry. Gonna figure something out.”
“Yeah?” says Caitie, levering herself up on her elbows and looming over me, peering down at my face. Her hair has come loose from its bun-thing, and it spills down in long dark curls, the ends of it just brushing my nose, ticklish.
“For sure,” I agree.
“Good,” says Caitie, and then she’s kissing me.
I freeze, too shocked to do anything else, going stiff and still beneath her. She tastes like cheap beer, her mouth slick and wet with it, hints of cinnamon gum. Her lips are really, really soft. When she realizes I’m not moving, she pulls away, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“What—” I fail at swallowing. “What are you doing?”
The frown deepens. “Kissing you,” she says, like it’s obvious.
“Don’t,” I say.
Caitie stutters backwards at that, falling back ungracefully to sit on her haunches, staring at me, mouth a thin line of confusion. I push myself up onto my elbows, stare back. “Sorry,” she says, “I didn’t . . . .”
“I’m not,” I say, when she trails off. “I mean, I know . . . .” I know what people around here think, because of how I dress, the way I cut my hair off. But I’m not.
I’m expecting her to apologize, or try to laugh it off, but instead her shoulders are closing in, drawing up near her chin. “You don’t have to lie to me,” she says. “I mean. Everyone knows you’re in love with Junebug.”
Everything I’d been thinking of saying rushes out of my head. “What?”
“And I get it, I do,” Caitie says. “But Lanny, she’s with Jack, she isn’t—there’s no reason you shouldn’t, is what I’m saying.” She looks shy now, head ducked, curls tumbling over her forehead. Even in the low porch light I can see her face is flushed with color. “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
My head starts hurting, something insistent thudding hard right at my temples. “I need to go home,” I say.
“Now?” Caitie actually looks concerned. “Lanny, it’s four a.m. I’m wasted, I can’t drive you anywhere.” She shakes her head. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? Let’s drop it. Forget I said anything.”
The hammering in my head has moved directly behind my eyes. “I know,” I say, “it’s not . . . it’s just that I need to get home. Sorry,” I say, scrambling to my feet. “I’m sorry.”
The sun is coming up by the time I trudge up my driveway. The urge to crawl into bed is almost overwhelming, but if I do I’ll never wake up in time for church. I force myself to shower instead, stand under the stream of water until it gets cold. Dress, stumble to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, and hover there pouring myself cup after cup until I realize that church starts in ten minutes, and Junebug hasn’t come to bang on my door.
I make my way over to Junebug’s in a daze. Junebug’s mom answers when I knock, wearing a bathrobe and a puzzled expression. “Lanny?”
“Hi Mrs. Clark,” I say. “I was gonna pick up Junebug for church . . . ?”
The puzzled expression deepens. “She’s with Jack,” Junebug’s mom says. “Down by the mining camp. There’s a demonstration today.”
“Oh,” I say. “Okay.” I turn to head for my car.
“Honey?” Junebug’s mom calls after me. I ignore her, climb into the driver’s seat and pull the door closed.
I mean to head to church. Instead I find myself pointed toward the dam.
There’s a bigger crowd than I expected, probably a hundred people clustered around the mining company’s base of operations, ringed by a maze of parked cars. I pull in next to a shiny new SUV and slide down in my seat, trying to take stock of the situation without being seen.
It looks like it’s mostly protesters, waving signs and chanting something I can’t make out. A few men wearing hard hats and button downs, looking sour; a bulldozer, trying to inch forward toward the mountain, but thwarted by the press of people. Five or six cops hovering around and looking nervous and unhappy.
In the middle of it all, Jack and Junebug, clutching each other’s hands and staring down the encroaching bulldozer with twin expressions of resolution and fury.
Something happens that I can’t see, but which sparks a roar from the crowd. The chanting picks up volume, loud enough now that I can hear it: Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
I can’t take it. I twist the engine back to life, slide out of my space next to the shiny new SUV, and turn back onto the road.
I head west.
Driving this stretch of highway is like trying to get past a video game level you just can’t kick, the scenery, the motions of it déjà-vu familiar and tooth-grindingly repetitive. I know how the game ends and still my adrenaline keeps kicking up with each landmark, the pitted green highway signs and their well-rehearsed litany, seventy miles, seventy-five, eighty.
I fling myself with all my might against the invisible barrier that separates me from the western edge of Haycombe County.
I come awake to darkness.
I’m lying on something hard, ridged, swaddled in a heavy wool blanket that smells like wet dog. Everything hurts in a general, ill-defined way, the scratchy fibers of the blanket rasping painfully against my over-sensitive bare skin. Ah, I’m naked. Good. This is looking real good.
I sit up, even though I know I’m going to regret it, bite my tongue against the way the weight of my skull seems too much for the fragile stem of my neck. “Shit,” I croak. God, I’m thirsty.
Warm hands close around my left arm, and I jerk in surprise. “Stop,” says a voice, choked sounding. “You’re gonna hurt yourself.”
I blink, eyes finally adjusting enough to resolve shapes in the darkness. “Junebug?”
Junebug’s face, a pale smudge in the gloom, eyes huge and dark. “Hey,” she says, smiling a wavering smile.
I finally realize where we are: the bed of a truck, pulled off the side of the road into a little copse of trees. “Did you steal Jack’s pickup?” I ask, then wince. My voice sounds like I’ve been gargling broken glass.
“Here, wait.” Junebug roots around the tangle of blankets and pulls out a thermos, twists off the top and hands it to me. I take a careful sip: tap water, room temperature. It’s fucking delicious. I take another tiny swallow, restraining myself from chugging. “Better?” Junebug asks.
I nod, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “Junebug,” I ask, “what are you doing here?”
“What am I doing—Jesus, Lanny.” Junebug’s lips pinch into a bloodless line, her gaze turning skywards. “You were gone for three fucking days. Phone off, nobody with any idea where you’d gone— I spent twelve hours traipsing around the backwoods of Haycombe searching for you, I find you face down in a ditch—” her voice goes high, cracks, and she ducks her head and covers her eyes with her hand.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, my throat hot and tight. I’ve never been able to watch Junebug cry.
She shakes her head, then sniffs, sits up. “I brought something for you,” she says, fishing around in the back pocket of her jeans. She pulls out a folded piece of paper, wrinkly from being sat on, and hands it to me, not meeting my eyes. “It’s probably stupid,” she says. “I can’t—I’m not going to leave with you, but I just, I thought—maybe this might help.”
The ink’s a little smudged, but I can still read Junebug’s careful, curling handwriting just fine: “fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity . . . .”
My eyes well up, blurring my vision, and I choke on a hiccuping laugh. Psalm 37, for uncrossing—for the removal of curses. It’s a joke, almost, except for how it’s not.
“I lost the old one, I think,” I say. I don’t have any pockets, so I just fold the psalm back up and clutch it tight between my fingers. “I dunno where my jeans ended up. Probably at the bottom of the river.”
Junebug smiles a little. “Do you think it will work?”
I take a deep breath, not sure how to confess this. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m going to need it.”
Junebug’s gaze snaps to mine, brow furrowing as she tries to decide whether to be elated or worried. She must see the answer in my expression, because her face crumples, just a little, before smoothing again. “You need me to drive you home?”
“Please?” I say. “I think there’s something I need to do.”
The reservoir is quiet at night, protesters and mine workers alike gone home to bed. Junebug and I stand near the edge of the dam, watching the moon sparking off the surface of the water. Down below, the mining company’s base of operations, silent and empty, millions of dollars of equipment, all built for destruction, huddled near the edge of the narrow post-dam river.
Sixty years ago, it would have all been underwater.
I’m still wrapped in the heavy, scratchy blanket; Junebug helps me unwind myself from it until I stand there naked as the day I was born. We stare at each other for a minute, burnished in the pale glow of the moonlight.
“You should probably go,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Junebug. “You know I love you, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I love you, too.”
Junebug nods, blinks a couple of times, hasty. Then she turns, picks her way back down the path to the car, and disappears from sight.
I wait a few minutes, until I’m sure she’s well out of the way, then I slip into the water.
It’s warmer than it ought to be, comfortable against my bare skin. I float effortlessly, motionless and alone in the middle of the silent expanse. When I tilt my head back I can see the Milky Way spilled out above me, so vast and glittering that I can almost forget there is anything else in the world at all.
I close my eyes and let the change overtake me.
It’s easy, this time, doing it deliberately. A natural slide between two states, like it’s never been pulled out of me unwilling and cruel. I feel myself growing, shifting, water sloughing away in great waves as I displace more and more of the reservoir. My fingers curl, become claws. I kick what used to be my legs and move through the water like I was born to it. I know exactly what I am, this time. I know what I can do.
I dig my claws into the concrete foundation of the dam, and twist until it begins to crack.
I’m on the side of the road with Bun Lai, the chef at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, and he’s telling me how to eat knotweed, an invasive species. It’s a chilly day turning into a warm day, and around town, it being May, there’s talk about whether the weather is acting like May or not.
We still have our seasons here in southern Connecticut. Winter is cold and wet, and spring is warmer and wet. Summer is hot and dry, and fall is cooler and dry. But in the past fifteen years, we’ve had stretches of summer during the winter, and stretches of winter in the spring and fall, and stretches of spring all summer. We’ve had two hundred-year hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, within a couple years of each other. The seasons don’t cooperate like they used to, and people talk about how weird that is, but also that maybe we can start talking about how weird is the new normal. And then there are the people annoyed by the phrase the new normal, because the whole idea is that there isn’t going to be a normal anymore.
“You know climate change is coming,” Lai says. “What are you going to do about it?”
This is the same man who, earlier that morning, answered his door by telling me I was there on the wrong day, that I had to come back next week. But this time he isn’t kidding.
By running his kitchen on the concerns of adventurous eating, nutrition, and environmental sustainability, Bun Lai has become one of New Haven’s culinary treasures. He jokes that he’s probably lost more customers just from people looking at the menu than any other restaurant he can think of, but the truth is that the creativity he pours into the food at Miya’s has won him far more fans than he’s lost. Miya’s is pretty much always crowded. There are people who drop $89 for a full tour of the menu and people who squeak in after 10 o’clock for the late-night specials, $6 for a plate of sushi or a hefty bowl of ramen. They come because at Miya’s you can eat things you can’t eat anywhere else. There’s a sushi roll called Tyger Tyger that combines yellowfin tuna, goat cheese, apricots, avocado, pickled radish, and berbere spices. Another involves albacore tuna, avocado, asparagus, pickled radish, cayenne pepper, roasted sesame, and anise. The roll itself is crispy wild salmon skin. A third called Bone Thugs-N-Broccoli has salmon bones—yes, bones—and broccoli stems. If the idea of taking out a couple invasive specimens appeals to you, then you can eat knotweed pickled in kimchee and fried in garbanzo-bean batter, or sushi with Asian shore crab, or carp sashimi topped with citrus tamari sauce, green onions, and roasted black soldier fly larvae. He calls feral pig “one of the top ten most destructive species in America, and delicious.” It’s thanks to Lai that I’ve eaten raw venison—a response to deer overpopulation—and sauce distilled from the parts of the fish that he can’t use in sushi. It’s because of him that I now eat some of the plants that grow in my yard that people consider weeds, like dandelion greens, wild onions and garlic mustard, and they are all very tasty.
Why does Lai make food like this? Here’s how he puts it in the menu:
In the year 2150, people will be eating in a way that is healthier not only for their bodies but also for our whole planet. People will be eating fewer animals, since they will have learned that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat; they will hunt and farm animals in a way that is more humane. At Miya’s, you will experience a kinder and more caring future, where sushi has evolved to become a way of eating that honors and celebrates all life on Earth.
Not far away, in another part of the menu, is a section of sushi for dogs. The heading for this part of the menu is Doggy Style. This is important. Lai’s looking toward the future, wringing his flavors from ideas about scarcity and sustainability. He pays attention to where his food comes from. Some of it he forages himself, from the shoreline, from the woods, from the pasture near his house. He figures out how to use what he gathers to make things that are delicious in unusual ways. And he does it with a keen sense of humor.
There’s a message in that. As I write this, Houston and the west coast of Florida are still figuring out how bad the damage is from hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The news outlets are using words like “hell” and “uninhabitable” to describe the devastation wrought in the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria has destroyed Puerto Rico. There are people studying how water shortages are fueling wars in Africa and the Middle East, people using the phrase “climate change refugees” to talk about the displacement of millions of people over the next few decades from Bangladesh alone.
We can stand on the coastline and brace ourselves. We can wring our hands and say there’s nothing we can do. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work, chasing one calamity after the other and helping everyone we can. Lai’s food suggests still another path. It suggests that once we have a chance to breathe, maybe we can start looking further ahead. If we’re creative and adaptable, the story of dealing with climate change doesn’t have to be just a litany of tragedies. It can be a story of ingenuity, of accepting change, of grieving, understanding and moving on. Maybe even with a sense of humor.
But Miya’s is just a proof of concept. As Lai himself has said, we can’t feed millions of climate change refugees on $89 sushi platters, or even $6 bowls of ramen. Can the ideas driving Lai’s food be scaled up? Can we change the way we eat and save ourselves? What might that future look like?
The Milford Laboratory, which is part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, is nestled in a cove just down the coast of the Long Island Sound from New Haven. It got its start in 1919 with a single researcher, and was the first lab to figure out how to grow oysters in captivity. The facility now has a staff of 32, counting scientists, technicians, administrators, and maintenance, and it continues to do research, learning more about how to cultivate fish and shellfish for food.
I got the idea to bug Gary Wikfors, the chief of the lab’s aquaculture sustainability branch and its lab director, about Miya’s and its vision for the future because of an idle comment he dropped on social media about how Miya’s does “everything right” from a sustainability perspective, and because I happen to know him socially as a musician. He plays multiple instruments with great skill, and has been ascending the steep learning curve associated with playing a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. The name translates to “key harp”, and it’s pretty much, as the name implies, a horde of strings that you play using rows of keys and a short bow. Once you get good at it, the tone it produces, like a viola’s eerie cousin, is worth it. But it’s as hard as it sounds to learn, and it tells you a lot about Wikfors that after years of mastering other instruments, the nyckelharpa still calls to him, and he has answered.
Wikfors told me early in my visit to the lab that Lai had visited five times, peppering him with questions about aquaculture. “He wanted to be convinced that this is a sustainable approach,” Wikfors said.
Wikfors also practices fika—the Swedish coffee break, which in the lab means making coffee in one of the sinks and gathering his colleagues around. Surrounded by scientists from all over the world, I was about to ask them, to put it bluntly, whether we could save everyone on the planet by feeding them carp sashimi.
I braced myself to be shut down. It occurred to me that I should have done a lot more homework, that I should have brought a scientist with me to ask better questions. I was expecting them to tell me that Lai’s ideas might be a great idea for a cutting-edge restaurant, but they were simply not practical at a large scale.
Was large-scale aquaculture, enough to feed millions of people, possible? What might we grow? And how might we make that sustainable? Rather than pointing out the problems as insurmountable, the staff of Milford Labs brimmed with solutions. Wikfors explained that creating sustainable aquaculture was about changing tastes as well as developing technology. A lot of Americans in particular have a taste for the predators near the top of the food chain. From a sustainability perspective, that was a little crazy, because predators use way more resources than their prey. “We don’t eat a Bengal tiger, but we do eat haddock, which is the equivalent,” Wikfors said. On the other hand, “we can be very proud of shellfish, because they’re vegetarians.”
Here the scientists all began talking at once. We didn’t need to keep eating shrimp from Asia; we could eat things that grow much closer to home. And we could each a much wider assortment of animals. In Asia, plenty of people eat jellyfish (which eat plankton) and sea cucumbers (which are bottom feeders). Introducing them to the United States might just be a matter of presentation (which made me think of Bun Lai). Same went for fish that people catch all the time and don’t normally think to eat, like sea robins, another bottom feeder. The tail might make for good eating; one could imagine the meat being very tender. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived near the shore would have eaten slipper shell, a type of sea snail. “Out of necessity comes diversity,” said microbiologist Barry Smith. We hadn’t even touched on aquatic plants.
Moreover, as Wikfors explained, China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam already “are doing aquaculture on scales many, many times larger that we do it, so it’s in our future, especially as we move offshore.” Later in the day Wikfors would show me what that meant. An offshore shellfish farm from the surface might not look much more like rows of buoys floating on open water. But below the surface would float lines coated with shellfish, growing and ready to be harvested, enough to feed much more than one restaurant’s eager customers. Reaching that future would involve some changes in how we use the ocean, tipping the balance away from recreation and toward farming. A tough sell, but not impossible. Korea, Wikfors said, was “miles ahead of us in terms of zoning.” He told me about standing on a peninsula and seeing farms stretching out to both sides of him, all in active production. “The amount of food that comes out of a small country is astounding because they prioritize it,” he said. And because all those farms were offshore, you could still go to the beach.
My brain swam with ideas. “You all sound a lot more optimistic than I expected,” I told them.
“Do we have any choice?” Wikfors said.
Hurricane Irene was technically a tropical storm by the time it hit New Haven in 2011, but it was enough. Steph and Leo—my wife and son—and I were visiting my parents in upstate New York that weekend. We were glad to be out of harm’s way, and I was glad to be visiting my parents, which I hadn’t done enough of, even before my dad had his cardiac arrest.
Then Steph, who’s a pediatrician, was told she had to be back in town for the storm. We didn’t want to go back. Steph resisted the order but was overruled. So we cut our trip short, packed our things, and headed out, threading through the Catskills, listening to the news on the radio when we got good reception.
Crossing the Hudson River on the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge, we saw a wall of clouds to the south and east, the first fingers of the storm. The thought occurred to me that if the storm moved in fast enough, we could come home to find a tree through our house. It was all too easy to imagine, the trunk of a giant old oak splitting our home in half, the branches tangling in the shattered rafters, shingles sprinkled like confetti. I thought of sifting through the wreckage. I knew there was no way to really prepare myself for that kind of thing. But then I shot a glance around the car. Steph in the passenger seat. My son Leo in the back. We had a few days of clothes. We had our wallets, our phones. I even had a couple instruments with me, because I’d played a gig in my hometown with an old friend, and I’d played for my family.
I’m all right, I thought. I have what I need. I convinced myself that I meant it.
The news told us all to stay inside, so we did. At first Irene was just a rainstorm, then an intense rainstorm. Then the wind picked up. It only reached 50 miles an hour. Like I said, it was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, but it was enough. The first blast of wind came at night, and the sounds of tree limbs breaking woke me up. I ran to the window and saw that one of the big, old oak trees in a neighbor’s yard was now a different shape, a triangular crown, missing its other half. For several hours of a warm fall day, I watched as the young trees we’d planted in our yard a few years ago, which were already about as tall as the house, bent over until their tops were parallel with the ground. The power flickered out and came back on. I sat on the porch and watched the much older trees thrash around, moaning and howling, moving much more than I thought big trees like that could move.
When the storm passed and the sun came out, we walked around the neighborhood. There were tree limbs down everywhere, power lines down, a couple houses cut in half. Much of the greater New Haven area lost power. The coastal parts of town flooded. For a little while, parts of Morris Cove, a neighborhood that juts out into the Sound, were cut off from the mainland. A couple houses were dragged into the water. Several months later, they hadn’t been rebuilt.
I don’t know why we still had power. Most of the neighborhood didn’t. Which meant that in the evening around dinnertime, our friends in the neighborhood congregated at our place with all the food they had that was going to go bad, and it was our job to try to figure out how to use it. Everyone was ready to celebrate. Everyone was really hungry. I was chopping vegetables as fast as I could, but knew dinner was an hour away. To cut the edge off our appetites, I pulled eggplant cutlets I’d made a couple days ago out of the refrigerator and made them into little stacks of five. I chopped up tomatoes, basil, and garlic someone had brought, sprinkled them with cheese someone else had brought, and stuck them in the toaster oven for a couple minutes. I threw them on the kitchen table and told everyone to have a snack, and then turned back to making dinner. Mmmm, I heard behind me. Mmmm, this is delicious. I turned around. The eggplant was gone.
“You have to make this again sometime,” Steph said.
We do now, a couple times every summer. We call it Eggplant Irene. I don’t even remember what else I made that day. But we eat it and we talk about the storm. Leo, who has now been through Irene and Sandy and remembers the town mostly without power for a week twice, people coming to our house to store food, to charge their phones, to use the shower, thinks of these 100-year storms as merely unusual. And I try to hold on to that small revelation in the car crossing the Hudson River, that as long as I have my family and a couple changes of clothes, and maybe a musical instrument, I really do have everything I need.
To me, Irene was the future calling. I look at the model projections of rising seas—or, for that matter, big storm surges—and mentally redraw the map. Sometimes the future looks a little like the past. The train station used to be on the coast before a huge swath of land was created in the 1940s and 1950s, filling in part of the mouth of the harbor to build the intersection of I-91 and I-95. If the Big One hit the city, the station could be on the coast again.
But some parts of the future imagine a whole new coastline. The islands off the coast now could be underwater. Morris Cove could become a new set of islands. Parts of Fair Haven, a vibrant Latino neighborhood, could be submerged. The marsh of the Quinnipiac River could become open water. Fingers of ocean could reach into the city as far as a couple miles.
There’s a park in Fair Haven on a spur of land that’s like the uvula in the mouth of New Haven Harbor. The Quinnipiac River and the Mill River, which have been weaving their way for miles through the giant swamp known as Connecticut, come together at last. To the right are the tall buildings in New Haven’s downtown, and to the left, a cluster of white petroleum storage tanks. The Q Bridge that carries I-95 along the shore arcs over the water and leaps into the tangle of overpasses that make up the junction with I-91 and the exits to the city. On evenings with good weather there are soccer and basketball games on the fields and courts, and the road along the side is lined with food trucks selling tortas, older men playing dominoes in the slanting light, families in plastic lawn chairs with tinny radios tuned to reggaeton.
Ever since Irene, I go to that park and imagine the hurricane coming in and all the land around me flooding. The abandoned power station becomes a lighthouse. The oil tanks spring leaks. If the wind and waves are strong enough, maybe they manage to take out a piece of I-95. It sounds dramatic, but it wouldn’t have to be much of a piece to sever the connection. To cut off New York from Boston. To suddenly make New Haven harder to get to, harder to leave. All the food we get would have to come from the farms to the north of the city, or from the ocean to the south of it. But maybe it can.
Let’s say the biggest storm anyone’s ever seen knifes up from the south and cuts a path of destruction across Long Island before smashing into the harbor. The bridge that took a generation to build wobbles on its pylons and collapses into the water. The remains look like the ends of bones that have been snapped in half. The wind turbine set up near the bridge is twisted until it looks like a propeller from an airplane crash. The roads in and out of town are washed out, strewn with trees. And the coast is a whole new shape. There’s no arguing with it, no way to put everything back the way it was. We can only adapt.
Now fast forward six months, a year, three years. Say we decide that rebuilding the highway is too costly. Fast forward another twenty years. Say we decide to move farther inland. Say we decide to take things a little slower. We don’t look as far afield for things to eat. We cherish tomatoes and strawberries in the summer and then can and freeze them once the power’s back on, and we eat root vegetables in the winter, that and the meat from the fat animals we slaughter. And we start eating more from the sea—not more in volume, but variety, whatever we happen to find. We figure out what we can eat, and then figure out how to make it taste delicious. We pull flavor from unlikely places—from weeds, from fungus, from animal parts we used to throw away—and then it just becomes the way we make food. And maybe in the summer, we go back to the park, now in a boat because the park is under water. We jump in up to our waists and have a water fight. We make stupid jokes about crabs, because, come on, crabs. Then we we pluck sea robins and weeds from the shallows and turn them into soup that we spice with dried chiles. So many people died in the storm, but we survived, and we celebrate that. It was a catastrophe, but we’re still here.
We can’t leave town because the roads are blocked and the power keeps going out. So we visit each other. We build fires inside in the winter and pack the house with people to stay warm. In the summer it’s too hot to be inside, so we all go out. We go downtown where the streets are lined with candles and lights hooked up to generators, and there are parties along the curb. The musicians in town—that’s me—throw together bands that play on the sidewalk with battery-powered amplifiers, and we eat the ice cream before it melts, drink the beer before it gets warm. It takes longer to get home because it’s hard to see where we’re going. But we get there, and sleep in a star-strewn darkness we can’t imagine when the streetlights are on.
In a very small way, it’s already happening. It already has happened.
Between New Haven and Milford Labs, there’s a state park called Silver Sands. It was created in 1955 after Hurricane Diane killed 184 people across eight states from North Carolina through Connecticut. In Milford, the storm destroyed 75 houses along the coast. Instead of rebuilding, in the end the state acquired more than 300 parcels of land, and in 1960 it opened as a park. The original idea was to fill in the marsh between the dunes and the mainland. The idea now is to leave the marsh and the dunes be.
I went to Silver Sands with my parents, Steph, and Leo on Independence Day weekend. We drove down the skinny beach roads to the long line of houses packed along the coast, some of them up on stilts, the ocean on one side, the marsh on the other. We parked the car and ate at a little Greek joint, then walked to the end of the road where the houses stopped and the park began. The lifeguard was off duty, but it was a hot evening and the beach was still crowded. A family under a pop-up tent spoke in soft Spanish and cooked on a little portable grill perched on a wooden picnic table. Another family lounged with a tinny radio playing reggae. Three young men were practicing basketball passes on the beach. It was high tide and the land bridge to Charles Island, where they say the pirate Captain Kidd might have buried treasure before he was caught and executed, was underwater, but people were still walking out on it, thigh-deep with fishing rods. A man in bicycle shorts prodded a dead horseshoe crab, a shirtless surfer walked on the rocks, and kids scrambled out along the jetty. A mother and daughter in matching red, white, and blue flag-print dresses were getting their picture taken at the edge of the marsh.
We walked along the boardwalk in our street clothes, over the grass and the water still coming in, where girls looked for shells in the sand. The sun was turning the air orange, and a thousand voices called to each other across the sound of the surf. It had been over six months since my dad had survived his a sudden cardiac arrest, and you never would have known it happened. My mom asked Steph, Leo, and me to stop for a picture, and my son climbed up my side and pretended he was about to bite me. If this was what living with the change could look like, then maybe we didn’t need to be so afraid after all. The ocean that flooded us could feed us, too.
First, we made sure the world was devoid of sentient inhabitants.
Its turquoise skies grew greener (we thought) as summer waned.
On the wine-dark sand we drew diagrams and planted pennants:
a cultural center here, a spa or hotel there, on an imaginary beach.
At least one of the suns was always rising, and the light perfect
for filming, as if the planet were a vast, floodlit stage. Shadows
radiated and swung like compass needles in a geometer’s dream.
Our shielded clothing and the protective coatings on excavators,
fabricators, and constructors faded quickly under the incessant
illumination. No one could agree on what the colors had become,
but we tried to name the new shades anyway: peripatetic, swelter,
welkin, shudder, grudge. All our off-world concepts lost relevance—
something about the fluctuating solar spectra. Estimated project
completion was indefinitely postponed.
The spire grew from a tight mesh pushing out of the deep cracks of the street, converging into a pillar that loomed above the squat buildings, clipping one at the side. Alice circled high over the rising structure and the abandoned remnants of Krakow while her ship spit out the usual scans with a faint hum and stutter. This nanotech Grey was polite for such a big one, it didn’t extend defensive barbs into the air and showed no obvious toxicity.
The other collectors preferred passive flare-ups like this, but Alice found it hard to destroy something that didn’t fight back. Jake never seemed to care, but she thought a passive collection skirted the edge of cowardice.
“No use waiting then, Old Pig,” Alice whispered to her ship.
Alice had Old Pig throw out one of its sample collection probes, a pointless ritual to confirm the nanite aggregate. But protocol was protocol, and part of the reason the Grey kept coming back.
The probe returned as the spire sealed the small dimple created by its offending distant cousin. Old Pig opened the probe’s collection pouch and spilled the twitching machinery into his quarantine chamber. Extending the remotely controlled robotic arms and manifold tools, Alice dove into the sagging handful. Such a small sample rarely revealed anything important, but this was one of the best parts of the job, to see the Grey’s newest evolutions in such detail. This first look was the only reason Alice didn’t skip the initial probing entirely.
The sample’s outer tessellating microstructure folded into layers of protecting tightness. Each surrounding sheet grew into shapes evolved from the simple patterns at their central sheet, convolving into a blossom of wild elegance. Tough skin growing into sensitive flesh.
The Grey often came up with unusual strategies among its twisting symmetries and convoluted molecular designs. She had seen so much over the years, but every time it was new and terrifying. Certainly useful to the few who bothered studying the Grey anymore. Occasionally even profitable, when she managed to squirrel away something novel for her Duster friends.
A Grey as complicated as the spire below would usually be much smaller, easy to corral into the ship’s small autoclave until Alice could haul it back to the Black Drop. But she doubted the autoclave’s pressurization assault would work even if she could pack it all in. This sort of Grey would just hyperevolve its way out. She had once nearly lost her ship when a much simpler Grey cluster managed to escape and veer Old Pig into an evacuated building.
Time for Protocol again, but this time a sensible one, land and extend the secondary sensors. Call for backup.
Old Pig yawned in relief as the burdens of flight slacked around him, turbines wheezing still and landing gear moaning.
“Central, I have a T-40 here. Request reinforcement.” Audio only, hoping Fabrizio wouldn’t open the visual.
“Sorry, Alice.” No such luck, there he was on the screen, grinning and vacant. “Everybody’s out, even the off-duty. Lots of big ones popping up all over.”
“Sir, I strongly suggest diverting to this location. My target exhibits advanced tertiary structure and exponential repair. Sending preliminary data over now.”
There was a pause in his crass attempts at a flirty smile as he read the report. Then he bit into his thumbnail. “Um,” he finally replied to fill the awkward pause. “I can send you Takashi and Krin in about an hour.”
“Their ships are not equipped for this category, sir. I need two other class threes, minimal.”
“Let me get back to you.” Of course, she thought, you go find somebody else to tell you what to do.
Not wanting to wait, she began the next data collection phase, reaching out to the growing spire with an uncoiling sensory proboscis. Slow and unthreatening, Old Pig’s snorting and snuffling nose touched the spire’s surface, then burrowed in when he encountered no adaptive resistance.
That was how you dealt with the advanced nanites, careful and deliberate. The old self-replicating identicals would just burn themselves out when they ran out of local resources. Sometimes they even encountered something that could wipe their whole population with surprising ease. Once, in Venezuela, she’d watched beetles by the thousands gorging on pink nanite nets that stretched over a full square mile of farmland.
“Unit 14, standby for emergency communication.” Startled, Alice adjusted the volume of the UN direct com channel. It was only the third time it had been used since she got Old Pig, and this didn’t seem to be just another transmission test.
“This is Commander Sherman of the United Nations Nanomachine Defense Commission. Multiple nanite flare-ups have been detected across the globe, many of similar composition. This appears to be a coordinated assault. Eliminate your assigned target at all cost. Reinforcement will be sent as resources become available. Repeat, eliminate target at all cost.”
So it was really starting, just like Jake had predicted. Alice sat back and tried to take in the spire, reach across the gap of chemical incompatibility, timeline, and scale. Plunge into the heart of the living machine, if only to ask what it was doing, what it wanted.
In the beginning, it was easy enough to toss Grey into the Black like so much inconvenient garbage. The Grey would clump and fray as they tumbled down before reaching the event horizon, their final throes fixed in timelessness.
The varied fireworks of the dying Grey became something of a show. People brought their children to crowd the stadium that was built below the miniature black hole. They sold hot dogs and booked popular concerts. It brought in some tidy revenue for the Commission and was great at advertising the need to keep funding nanite cleanup.
A report lit up from a holodisplay, a tumbling bauble of jagged edges over splitting bulges. It was a cross-sectional representation of the spire, its layers and inner folds. The bulky lower tiers were packed high-energy polymers, followed by skeletal struts thinning into to bewildering complexity at the top. Not just structure: the telltale whispers of function.
Alice began the analysis, extrapolating expansion rates, available intermolecular free energy and evolution probabilities. These used to be enough, but now they were often wrong, sometimes dangerously so. This time they made no sense at all. This spire shouldn’t be growing so quickly. At its current size it actually had a negative free energy score and should have collapsed by now.
Well, it was time to earn her pay.
“Old Pig, load the Thierry-Malt function.”
Alice struggled with the formatting errors that often sprang up with new functions like this, but soon enough she worked out the kinks. The program churned to detect the free energy of each compartment subsection at the molecular level, the streaming pentabytes straining Old Pig’s processors.
What would this Grey burn into when thrown into the Black? Perhaps it would flash with rainbow colors and abstract shapes to woo the crowd, or maybe leer down with blood-shot eyes extending from massive sheets of billowing flesh, arms and legs and mouths and sex, almost human.
Alice preferred the latter, the deathknell that thinned the crowds as people realized they were watching an execution. Only the hardcore Dusters watched anymore, but they knew from the beginning what they were seeing, didn’t need for it to be spelled out with the grotesque.
Fabrizio beeped at the com. Alice ignored it, hoping he would just give up, but it came up again, then again. She finally opened the damn channel.
“Alice, this operation is getting too hot! They are popping up all over, there’s even talk of Q-strikes if we can’t contain them all. Please, if you can’t get rid of yours just get out of there, I’ll cover for you, just get out!”
“Thank you for your concern, sir.”
Then he just stared, his mouth partially open as if there was something really important he wanted to say but couldn’t quite find the words. He looked like a lost puppy.
“I have to go, sir.” She shut off the channel.
Always with the overreaction. The Grey showed up as something big and scary and it suddenly became a problem. People so easily forgot that nanites filled the air and seeped into the earth. Even in the fulldome cities, where nanite surveillance was maximally paranoid, every breath of air had at least a few hundred, if not thousands, of stray nanomachines. Remnants of true Grey dead-ended into particulate oblivion, sure. But still there.
Old Pig’s sensory extensions deep within the spire started to report large-scale shifts in isomerization and structural integrity. The gap between the high-energy compounds at the base and the complexity hubs above started to increase, filling with a tight honeycomb structure.
This was developing faster than she expected. Soon enough, nothing Old Pig had would touch it. Alice leaned forward and turned on the torches, but they didn’t even singe the outer shell. A burst of liquid nitrogen also had no effect, just slid across the surface and pooled into a slowly sublimating puddle on the cracked street. The sensory module died as the spire snapped against the umbilical wire connecting it to Old Pig, sealing the module within.
Alice ran through a few calculations and hedged guesses, then struck with a combination of acids and other caustic chemicals, again to no effect. She tried shooting the spire for good measure, Pig’s Gatling snout blazing red and yellow as it fired explosive rounds. The first barrage looked like it caused some damage, but the second barely scratched the surface.
The next option would be the PQB cannon. Alice wired Command for permission, but found it was pre-approved. She put some distance between Old Pig and the spire and unfurled the cannon from Pig’s underbelly. An invisible high-energy beam burst from it, tearing at the air, the ensuring thunder toppling the nearby three blocks of the dead city.
The spire listed a bit to the side as the building it rested on fell, but righted itself, the soft, melting surface that had taken the brunt of the blast clawing back up. Old Pig had enough charge to fire a second blast, but Alice decided to save the fuel.
Just last year, a routine geological survey broke into a massive cavern housing a Grey construct of over fifty metric tons. It fed off the magma flowing near its undulating edges, the fingers it dipped into the molten rock fine and glassy. It was written off as a fluke, but Alice knew better; the Grey probably extended into the very planet’s core. Imagining worlds upon worlds below teeming with Grey made her feel like a simple woodland animal staring at a busy campfire from the distance, the bustle of artificial tools and light incomprehensible yet strangely alluring.
Well, the UN did say at any cost. Alice touched the small metal circle at the side of her neck and called Smitha. Good old Silver, as she liked to be called now.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasure! Always glad to see you, my dear.”
“Hello, Silver, are you out?”
“Of course! Isn’t all this activity just wonderful? I’m in North Africa collecting an entirely unmolested quad growth, a neat little cube, harder than our best boson-tethered lattice.”
“I have something better here for you, highest complexity. If you help me take it out you can have the remains.”
“Now, now, are you finally switching sides? No longer Uncle’s nice little girl?”
“I have full leeway on this assignment. They’re a bit desperate.”
“I can imagine, I’ll break atmosphere and be at your position in a few minutes. Hold on tight!”
“Will do. I’m sending you the data.”
Together, they fired and cut. The unpainted metal bulk of Old Pig appeared crude beside Smitha’s sleek, jet-black Sagittarius. It was the newest model reentry collection and disposal craft, the kind the UN commission couldn’t afford to buy. Another product geared at Dusters selling illegal nanotech to companies too lazy to do their own R&D. Alice just hoped Smitha never tried to sell her wares off-world. Getting caught breaking the Earth quarantine net held a long prison term. Whatever it took to keep the colonies clean of the runaway nanites.
“Hey, Alice, this isn’t working.”
Alice agreed, so they paused to hover within sight of the spire, discussing which models to apply and calling on increasingly tenuous industry and academia contacts for advice. They were all aware of the coordinated Grey flare-ups. Everybody could smell something big, but, as usual, nobody knew what to expect.
“Silver, heads up.”
“Wow. So cool.”
The spire had started to shift, its top building in volume into a large sphere sitting on a narrow stalk. It looked like a starved fungal colony, dying cells rising into a suicidal pillar to elevate a bolus of spores meant to burst into the wind. The bolus quickly grew to almost a mile in diameter, by far the largest Grey Alice had ever seen.
A message came from the UN channel, not a general report like before, but a personal one.
“Unit 14, orbital satellites have detected accelerated growth at your location, we are sending a quantum-yield drone to your target, maintain pressure until it arrives.”
Another lifeless crater swallowing up the remnants of an old city. The responsible subcommittees claimed the fallout wasn’t so bad on the new Q bombs, but humanity would still lose more ground, crowding ever more tightly into the remaining fulldome cities with viable scrubbers. As if Earth was just a contaminant to be locked away and kept from spreading.
“Ouch. I’m sorry, Alice, but I should head out before they unscramble my serials.”
“Wait a minute.”
Alice hated going to him for help, but this had become more than just another collection. She took off her VR interface and got up from her immersion chair, calling out for Jake. Old Pig was no longer projected around her, replaced instead with her apartment’s small living room.
Jake sat at the kitchen table, a handful of books neatly stacked to the side, his computer terminal lowered as he looked up to Alice in the doorway. She squeezed past the oven and put her arms over his shoulders, letting the incredible heat of his body leak into her. He smelled of fresh coffee and pine.
“Hello, darling,” he said, “welcome home.”
She hugged his chest and neck until she could feel his skin shift underneath. Alice enjoyed how it wavered between resisting her pressure and giving in.
“You know what’s going on with the spire?” she asked.
“Yes, I saw. Do you need help?” He looked up with his pale blue eyes, trying to smile.
A pause as she considered what she was about to ask.
“The inner segment of the base is not a supporting matrix or compressed raw materials, it’s an explosive store, high density. I don’t know what the top is, it won’t speak to me. But if you detonate the explosive in an uncontrolled way, the structure will collapse. The rest is too far gone to revert and rebuild, so it will probably scatter. Want me to upload some suggestions to Old Pig?”
“Thank you, Jake, your insight is more than enough.” Alice got up and turned back to the empty doorway, letting her hand linger on his shoulder.
“I love you,” he offered as her hand slid off.
He lied, of course. Jake enjoyed the quiet study in her tiny New York apartment, the crumbling books and ever-amusing human knowledge he hoarded while building himself with all the awe and giddy joy of a child learning about sex for the first time. But it was a strangely captivating mimicry, pointless and obsessive in equal measure yet still exhilarating.
“I love you too.” Alice looked back with a smile, knowing what the word meant and not lying.
With a step through the threshold she was back at her ship, the small cockpit inviting and warm, as if Jake’s heat followed her back.
“Silver, check your com for my plan. I hope your PQB cannon beam is narrow.”
“As a virgin butthole. All right, let’s do this thing!”
Alice got near to the base of the stalk, where it expanded into a large rectangular square. She detached her incendiary blaster, but waited. Then Silver fired her cannon, focusing the blast on a meter-sized area on the Spire’s base, Alice’s craft barely shaking from the aftershock. Alice knew Silver’s newer model PQB would be much better than hers, but didn’t expect such a stark difference.
The hole it left on the Grey was rapidly closing, but Alice had enough time to shove her detached torch inside, right next to the remnant cord of the sensor module that had first entered the Grey when it was still a spire. She quickly reprogrammed the sensor so its transmission and motility wire grabbed onto the torch and drove it deeper into the Grey, right where the explosive reservoir met the stalk.
“Payload set! Back off!”
Old Pig and Sagittarius rose up several miles above the Grey, then waited as the remote program turned on the torch. Alice held her breath in a pregnant second of blind inactivity, then another of shiftless anxiety, then another of fear that something had gone wrong.
A bright flare erupted from the Grey, saturating all detectors, pushing against their ships with an angry shockwave.
“Is it down?” Alice asked Silver, knowing her sensors would recover faster.
“Yes! Yes! It’s keeled over and half-chewed up at the bottom, looks like it’s dispersing!”
Alice leaned back as Silver dove to start collecting the escaping Grey. In the distance, a small triangle turned and disappeared, perhaps the called off Q-bomb drone.
With no small sense of professional pride, Alice sent a summary of her strategy to the other collectors, directly as well as through Central. She even thought of forwarding it to the UN commission, but didn’t. That would be a bit too cheeky.
The UN channel beeped. Not a message, a live feed. She turned it on. A graying man in a tight military uniform leaned into the cam, displacing the young communications officer turning away from his station.
“Collector Alice, superb job out there, we appreciate your effort. Please collect as much of the remaining Grey for study as you can, particularly remnants of the large terminal sphere. An advanced collection team is on its way, but whatever you can get right now would be of great assistance.”
“Yes, sir.” She replied with practiced detachment, wondering what the devil was going on. The Commission would never stoop to debris study. But before she could rearrange her wits well enough to ask, the soldier shut off the transmission.
“Silver, I just got a very strange call from the Commission. They ordered me to collect some of the Grey.”
“Well, come on down, sister! There’s more here than I could ever pack in my rig anyway.”
“Silly, just load up the net, it’s all over the place. Things are going to get real interesting now.”
First Alice lowered Old Pig to begin the collection, but then she checked the public web. She immediately found what Smitha was talking about.
Hundreds of static and full-VR vids showed propulsion contrails rising from the ground with plumes of billowing orange and yellow. Each drove up a sphere similar to the one she’d just destroyed. Vid after vid showed dozens of spheres rising from multiple horizons to charge at the sky.
The reservoir was not a lateralizing explosive or digging apparatus, it was fuel. Alice stared at a leaked orbital video of countless Grey spheres spreading away from Earth, then personal snippets from Dusters and vacationers gazing at the comets passing their ships, drunk in the experience of the first extraterrestrial Grey excursion.
Several of the Grey spheres crashed into the quarantine grid and were destroyed, but most punched through. Layer after layer broke up in their wake, the shrapnel burning up in the atmosphere, leaving Earth naked again for the first time in almost fifty years.
Alice knew she was supposed to fear this and tossed that aside; she hoped the Grey would find a home for themselves. Not just in the asteroid belts and terraformed moons but in the places humans were too frail to enter. She wished for them to taste the far reaches of dark matter clouds, the burning atmospheres of gas giants and the very surface of suns.
Her hands trembled on Old Pig’s controls, not out of fear or apprehension, but at the sudden and overwhelming realization that she no longer wanted to be a collector.
The next day she would abandon her earthbound ship and purchase a Duster craft with her illicit savings from selling Grey on the side—one large enough for both her and Jake. They would chase after what they could only access through distorted mirrors and abstract mathematics, artifice desperate for artistry, Jake seeking the human and Alice the machine, each reaching out to distant fires not of their making.
You should have seen this, Rowan.
From the observation platform on the converted oil rig, I watch the giant conveyor lift the chunks out of the ocean, see them climb to the coastal plain, see the freeway width of the belt disappear over the horizon, and feel like a Lego figurine in a life-sized industrial zone.
The solid wall of noise makes me sweat as much as the heat does. The shouting, the mechanical roar of the conveyor, the screaming crunch of the ice, and the shattering splashes of the chunks crashing back into the ocean make it hard to think. So I don’t think, but let the memory of you pervade me, a bittersweet sensation I love and dread.
While I was still trying to fight the greenhouse effect, lobbying for emission agreements, investing billions in sustainable energy, strengthening sea walls around the globe, you were way ahead of me. I called you a pessimist when you said global warming was a given, the inevitable result of humanity’s carelessness. You told me nothing we could do to mitigate our mistakes would have measurable effects on any useful time scale. You argued that it was too late to fight causes, that all our influence and wealth were better spent dealing with the consequences. I called you fatalistic, mocked you for a harbinger of doom.
In the end, you relented, chose our marriage over your beliefs. This keeps me awake at night, that you gave in, relinquished your conviction to support my follies instead. Is that what love does to us?
I should have listened to you.
Another iceberg drifts stately into the bay, propelled by a trio of power pushers and its own embedded engines, into the maws of the Nutcracker. You would have loved that name. The enormous steel jaws rise from the waves and squeeze together, seeming to stop dozens of meters from the tip of the iceberg. Under water, the automatic drills deliver their charges, and the berg shudders with muffled explosions, the jaws recommencing their unrelenting squeeze until the ice shatters into house- and car-sized chunks. As the nutcracker opens, the sweeper ships move in, herding the chunks deeper into the bay. For all its violence and chaos, the operation runs smoothly, and in fifteen minutes, the first chunks rise from the ocean to be conveyed inland.
The explosions, the waves, the rumbling of the conveyor travel through the rig until my chest vibrates. Sweating, I climb the stairs to the ancient waiting Chinook, its twin rotors attempting to overwhelm the symphony of shudders.
This is how the dyke shook before it collapsed.
We were there at the breach when The Netherlands were lost. The worst south-western storm in the history of Western Europe took giant bites out of the Dutch dunes even as the Zeeland Delta Works succumbed to the onslaught. The evacuation of the country, which I had fought to postpone because the sea wall would damn well hold, wasn’t even halfway complete.
Was it guilt that kept me hauling sand bags? Was it love that kept you by my side? At least I know what it was when the dyke crumbled, and you were swept away while I was dragged to safety, screaming your name.
That was punishment.
I’m making amends now, Rowan. Don’t mourn what’s already lost, you told me. Deal with what’s left. You’re gone, my love, but I’m still here.
“They’re going to melt,” you said, shrugging. “Both of them, north and south. There is no way you can reverse that process now.”
“But if you’re right, if that’s true, sea levels will rise by as much as six meters. Whole coastal regions will be lost, millions of lives. You think I’m just going to sit by and let that happen?”
You shook your head and smiled. “They’re going to melt. The question is: can we let them melt where a gazillion gallons of freshwater will do some good?”
The Chinook passes over Nouamghar and follows the conveyor belt. On either side, the scorched sands of the Western Sahara stretch to the shimmery horizon. From up here, the conveyor looks like a foot-wide black strip loaded with crushed ice. But I know its actual width, and my mind locks up trying to calculate how much water is traveling inland.
We’re already raising the water table, Rowan. It took the fortune I amassed with sustainable energy and draws every Gigawatt of solar power from the Algerian farm, but it’s happening.
Sixty miles inland, melting station A feeds the Benichab irrigation hub. From the helicopter, I look down upon the slowly expanding circle around the hub, the green land, wadis that used to be dry most of the year now supporting dates and coconuts and meadows.
You should have seen this.
for Rabindranath Tagore
At the dawn of the 21st century
in this era of war and deaths
my soul seeks refuge in poetry
though no one writes like Wordsworth
or Keats because lakes have dried
and daffodils do not bloom to inspire
the poets—the sylvan vase no more
impresses them to find a seam
between truth and beauty
Once the world of innocence
the world Blake portrayed in his poetry
was the world readers would dream
to build—now experience fraught with
greed flares up all over
We have witnessed world wars
and read The Waste Land
still millions have taken the road
Frost declined to pass through
Now we write elegies for Aylan Kurdi
for thousands of other children too
We write poems on mass migration
on Syria, Palestine, Myanmar
on chilling Charlie Hebdo tragedy
and Manhattan massacre
or on Rana Plaza disaster
But what else should I take refuge in
if not poetry, if not the words
written for a world free from war
and violence and blood?
Sitting under a tree without leaves
by the bank of a river without water
near a field without grass
I see a young poet writing a new poem
after 100 years on tree, field, river
and flower in imagination—
imagination indeed creates poetry
From this heated globe
from the world of the dying
with this bleeding heart
I send my love to the young poet
my best wishes for a better world
Many things will be extinct after 100 years
Forms will transform
Even the deathless will be forgotten
but words will continue to live