You Cannot Return to the Burning Glade

Trail Diary, Day 377

Birds: Barred owl, still and silent at the top of the old oak. Chickadee on her buckthorn branch at the edge of the clearing. Waiting for me and my pocket of seeds.

Animals: None to be seen in the trailcam frame, but hoofprints in the mud by the creek. Deer. A big buck by the depth of the imprint.

Notes: I couldn’t walk the trail today, not after the call from the hospital, and later with the funeral director. I stood at the door for a long time, breathing in what scents the wind sent me—sticky pine resin, leaf mould, and somewhere not far off, the black tar of roadwork. I couldn’t move past the front porch. Couldn’t bear even a quick jaunt, the trail so close to home. Feeling too much like I might miss an important phone call—might miss news of you. But those days are over. So I watched the trailcam, curled up with my laptop on your side of the bed. With my head on your pillow. It still smells like you.

#

Trail Diary, Day 379

Birds: A crow, worrying something on the chickadee’s tree. Some small bit of a scavenged kill, lodged between branches. Kept the camera trained on it for a long time, remembering those videos we used to watch of crows using tools, how delighted we were by each quizzical cock of the avian head. Like they would figure out this whole messed up world given enough food pellets. Remember how we tried to lure them to the yard with peanuts, hoping they would leave something in return? Today the chickadee is nowhere to be seen.

Animals: A grey squirrel crossed the frame, but stayed on the far side of the creek. Skirting the bank as if avoiding something. Maybe a snake’s hole. New deer tracks in the mud.

Notes: Still in bed. Still with the trailcam. I will make myself get up tomorrow. Eat something. Cross the front porch and stand in the sunshine, no matter how it burns. Remember when we would stay in bed all day? We’d lie so close, nearly every part of us touching—toes, knees, bellies, noses. We breathed each other like our lungs were connected. Ate only because we thought we had to. Because somewhere beneath feeling we knew that love could not sustain us forever. It was one of those times you looked me in the face—inches away, I could taste your breath. You said, “I’ll come back for you, Dee. I’ll give you a sign. Believe me.” And I did. I do.

#

Trail Diary, Day 383

Birds: Chickadee was there on her branch, and came to my hand. The weight of her on my finger was almost too much. Her little claws too piercing. Feathers too delicate, brushing my open palm. Watched her eat seeds, tears streaming. Crow-calls a mile off.

Animals: None. No fresh prints on the bank. But there was a deer leg—lower-half, burnished fur to the ankle, gleaming bone and red muscle intact—wedged into the Y of the tree. Probably eagle-dropped. Should have included this in the bird list above.

Notes: My lungs burn with exertion, fresh air. Feels like it did during the fires last year, when we could barely breathe outside at all. Maybe it isn’t the air now; maybe I will never be able to breathe again. Maybe this is how you felt?

#

Trail Diary, Day 385

Birds: The shadow of a host of sparrows crossed my bedroom window.

Animals: Trailcam is open on the desktop, sound on. Red squirrel scolding, marking some disturbance. I can’t look.

Notes: In bed again. Since being out on the trail yesterday, every shift of light, every breath of pine or juniper carried on the wind, every sound seems to trigger some remembrance. Something I swore I’d forgotten comes to me through the chatter of a squirrel’s teeth. The shape of the light through a clutch of maple keys. We tried to tap a few of those trees out past the glade in our second season, but in the drought the previous summer the trees drew the sap deep, keeping it for themselves. We didn’t know the state of things. Thought we’d just done it wrong. We laughed about it in bed later. Laughed so hard we cried, a bit drunk on that sour elderberry wine the neighbour brought. And on possibility.

I kissed the tears from the corners of your eyes and I meant it.

But is this what you meant for me when you threw the rope up over the branch of the biggest maple? When you threw yourself back down to earth? Or did you intend, instead, a warning? Let not your step grace this patch of grass. Lest you remember . . . . But you didn’t die, love. Not right away. Not for weeks.

#

Trail Diary, Day 386

Birds: Turkey vulture overhead the whole way from the house to the chickadee’s glade. Not yet, not yet. No chickadee, but bluejays were screaming from the pine grove up the hill.

Animals: Three days ago I recorded that some bird had dropped a deer leg in the tree but now I’m second-guessing. It’s a whole leg, nearly to the flank. How could I have missed that? A whole deer leg in a tree is not something easily missed. But I missed it. I must have. I must have missed it like I missed the ways the land was changing—the months of drought, insects I’d never seen before. I must have missed it like I missed the signs of your illness—your breakdown—because I didn’t want to see? A deer leg needs a damned big eagle to carry it away. Or a cougar? I don’t see mention of cougar prints or scat in the diary. I would remember that.

Notes: The diary reminds me it’s almost time to do the back-burn again. How I will do that without you, I don’t know. That first year, when we didn’t do it—we didn’t know—how could we have known?—the fire came so close we had to turn the hose on the porch rails. Stay up all night to keep the wood wet. You fell asleep in your chair, hose running. Woke up screaming at me to get into the pond. To save myself. Wide awake but still dreaming, you couldn’t fathom—couldn’t see—that the pond was bone dry. Was that the first season I noticed a change in you? When we lived in the city it was easier to put these things aside. But when we found that doe caught in the fence, her head seared to the skull by some quick-burn wind, you weren’t ever the same after that. After we walked the woods with your gun looking for all the half-burned souls. After that you mapped the fires. Tracked temperatures. Expanded your recording to the entire country. The continent. The world. The numbers were too much, too heavy. It was hard to breathe.

#

Trail Diary, Day 388

Birds: No chickadee on the trailcam today.

Animals: No.

Notes: Maybe it’s the angle of the thing. Maybe I’m just going fucking crazy. But the deer leg’s past flank now. Can I see shoulders? Black singe marks on the fur. It’s moving. Back legs kicking. Trying to get free.

#

Trail Diary, Day 389

Birds: The chickadee is nearby. Calling and calling, but I haven’t seen her.

Animals: Something is screaming in the forest. I can hear it with all the doors and windows closed. With our bedroom door closed.

Notes: I know what I’ll see on the trail. I’ve seen it before. The tangle of stiff limbs. The singed fur. The skeletal mouth in a rictus of agony. The grid of teeth barring all mercy. Antlers like a lightning burn. Just like you said you would, you’ve come back to me, love. But you haven’t left your pain behind. You’ve brought it back to life. You’ve given it new strength. And you leverage that strength between me and the world I live in now without you. The world I love. Even without you.

You cannot return to the burning glade. The burning world.

Tomorrow I’ll walk the trail. Tomorrow I’ll go out with your gun in my pocket. I’ll bring extra bullets. But in the other pocket, I’ll have the chickadee’s seeds.

Riverine

The house was wide open, all the windows lit with yellow light of a warmer shade than he’d ever seen in the city, and the table was laid for one. That was the way my father always told it. It was a strange tale to tell a child at bedtime, but I loved him to recount every detail—each dish set out for him, every floral pattern on every serving spoon. I marvelled at the exacting strength of his memory. As children we know our parents cannot lie to us whom they love so well.

He told me with relish as great as his story-self’s hunger about the owner of the house. A man, sometimes, with a heron’s neck or an otter’s smile or the glittering eyes of a damselfly, the rippling sheen of flowing water on his skin. The river man. My father made him sound beautiful, a creature of unknowable thoughts and unimaginable power, so when he got to the part where he promised this unearthly man to me in marriage, my heart fluttered with desire and excitement, my eyes wide. That was the part I made him repeat the most.

Walking out of the city, I am no longer sure whether I ever believed it was true.

The road to the river becomes greener than all the other roads, like a tributary bleeding slyly up into the city. At first you notice only skinny grass verges mowed to stubble, yellow as hay, and then low-growing daisies begin to gleam through, vying for your eye with litter thrown from car windows. You imagine the council men in fluorescent jackets wandering away with their strimmers, bemused, one by one, as the river man turns them away.

Under the bridge you must cross to get there flows an endless stream of cars instead of water. I hike up my wedding clothes to climb the steps. I’ll just be a flash of white to the people in their cars, a curiosity they’ll forget in a minute.

By the time I get to the river the vegetation is wild, a tangle of plaited sticks and old leaves, scrapes and burrows among the roots. My gloves and damp skirt keep catching my eye, winking like sunlight on snow. He was promised to me like a gift, but I’m the one who’s wrapped up and presentable.

I’m excited for this. But maybe part of all excitement is terror.

The grassy track leads to a garden without walls and a house I know from a lifetime of stories.

#

There’s a table in the garden barely visible under dishes I’ve spent hours imagining. The only difference between the real table and the story one is that this one is set for two, and my husband is seated there, watching me come into his home with dark animal eyes.

I don’t know how to greet a husband. I don’t know his name, if he has one. I don’t know if he knows mine. He doesn’t look happy to see me. He doesn’t look glad to be mine.

“Sit,” he says, and I almost burst into tears, certain I’ve been tricked somehow. I manage to sit beside him in the wooden chair, perhaps the same chair in which my father sat when he met my husband. The thought calms my shivering a little. “Eat,” says my husband. “This is your home now.”

I have friends with married sisters, who all say a bride can never eat on her wedding day. I thought it was some kind of rule, but now I understand. This whole feast laid out before me, and me in my clean white wedding clothes. It feels like a setup for a photograph, imitation food like the imitation diploma you get photographed with when you graduate so you don’t smudge and crease your real one with your anxious, sweaty hands. A bride doesn’t eat on her wedding day. You wouldn’t remember it anyway.

“What would you like?” asks my husband.

I think I’d like not to be married.

“What is there?” I ask, at a loss. I’m almost too scared to look at the dishes—pies and soups and salads.

He points, my husband, and his fingers are feathered in the black and brown bars and scallops of a female mallard’s plumage. He names every ingredient, many of which I have only heard of from my father’s story, and I choose almost at random. He serves me with a wide wooden spoon. Everything is wood but the knife blades, which are all mismatched in their settings. I’ve never seen so much wood in one place. No plastic or silicon or china, and what metal there is shines strangely, rough-textured.

This is a gift. My father arranged this for me because he loves me and wants me to be happy, and the river man is better than any of the city boys I’ve ever known.

And there’s that feeling again, of being tricked, because if the river man is a gift, then you’d expect I could refuse it, decline it, send it back. But I don’t think I can. And what’s a gift you can’t refuse?

#

Married life is not what I expected it to be. The river man is somehow never around and everywhere all at once. We eat together, always, and though the table is laden with a wide variety of dishes for me—damp, cool salads, roasted goose legs, roots and berries and dried fruits I don’t recognise—he eats only a little, and different every day. His head might be a cormorant’s, and then he’ll skewer fish on his beak and swallow them down whole, or he might have a fish’s bony plated face, in which case he will immerse his head in a bowl of water and nibble at weeds. Once it was something monstrously insectile. I feared a mosquito’s head on my husband’s body and a meal of blood at our table, but he ate nothing at all. Some short-lived flying creature whose adult form has no mouth, its body designed only to breed.

I sat awake in my room that night, wondering if he would be overcome by that other frenetic appetite, but I slept alone (when I slept at last), as I always did.

He speaks little. Sometimes out of necessity, when he is beaked or billed, when his throat has no vocal chords or his fangs get in the way. But even when his head is the head of a man or woman he keeps his words to himself, speaking only to ask me the barest question or tell me what I may or may not do.

“You can roam as you will,” he tells me at breakfast as I’m picking eggshell off the table. “You can swim in any water except the place beneath the alders.”

I know that alders are a kind of tree but not where they grow. “Why?” I ask, of all the questions.

“It doesn’t matter to you why,” he says.

How can he know without asking me? This is my home too. “You’re my husband,” I find myself saying, the lightest emphasis on the possessive.

He quiets me with a look. Today his eyes are amber, the pupils round and sharply delineated. I can’t recognise them. I think he might speak, but he doesn’t. He’s angry, though his eyes only continue to bore into me and his body ripples like an endless flow of water, a river in vaguely human shape. There is no body language there to read. But I know.

Because I questioned him? Because I won’t be denied my freedom? I’m beginning to understand the kind of life I’ve fallen into. There are places I may not go, and this outrages me in a way I can barely give shape to in my own mind.

#

I discover the little marsh by swimming.

I associate swimming with the smell of chlorine, blue-tiled pools, the feel of cold lycra. There’s none of that here. Just me and water.

No; me and water and mud and stones, and soft caressing weed like hair, and floating leaves and skimming insects and tiny darts of fish. There are waterbirds that dive beneath me and bob around my shoulders and kick water in my face when they decide they’ve had enough of me. Sometimes when something touches me I pull away, like a leg under a restaurant table opposite a stranger. Sometimes I reach out with open fingers and touch back, curious, unfurling.

I enjoy being changeable like this. I can be difficult and fickle here in my own private place, in a way I have never been able to do anywhere else.

The city was crammed with other people. You could see them through windows, or walking down the street. You could hear them through the walls. You could smell where they had been in perfume and sweat. And you knew that in all of these ways your own life was laid bare to anyone who wanted to see it.

I can feel the difference in the water as it gets more intimate with the land, the grittiness of it, a murkiness I can feel as well as see. I might be swimming in an entirely different river. The trees are different too, their skeletons spindlier. Woody brown things drift on the surface like petrified flowers. I begin to wade waist-deep, moving slow and dreamlike. The water has left brown tidemarks and stains on my collarbone and arms.

I’ve never seen another footprint by the river. I’ve never heard distant voices beyond the trees. No voice but my husband’s. No print but his mutable feet. The birdsong is mine and the current is mine. The thorns on the branches and the shells in the pebbles and the hard, sticky buds waiting for spring.

I don’t think this is how rivers are supposed to run, so cold and clear over their stones and then spread out luxuriously around a corner into this tree-studded water meadow. All of this is his wedding gift to me, and I think, capriciously, that maybe this could be enough for me to stay and be happy.

Something inside me that I’ve never known was empty is suddenly full. I wade past strange small flowers and wonder have I been so starved of privacy? Have I only wanted to be reassured that there are still places that we haven’t touched? The shape of this new fullness is too complicated; I can’t get it all in my head at once.

There are marks in some of the tree trunks, scrapes and splinters like they were gouged by teeth. Birds flicker at the edges of my vision. Flies skim silently over the water, making ripples like raindrops. Nothing’s ever quiet like this without a reason.

Something splashes and I pause my own splashing. A dark, low shape glides along the blurry bank. The teeth marks on the trees. Beavers. But—

There’s a sound that I wasn’t expecting and can’t parse. It might be vegetable or animal, tearing or growling. Something else moves among the trees. It looks black and heavy, strong. A boar when it turns in just the right way. It looks like it would sink faster than a stone. It snuffles closer so I stand taller and try to project my energy outwards—Go away. Don’t bother me. It takes no interest in me.

The next visitors are dogs, and they are very interested.

I, slightly disappointed, resign myself to the truth: that I’ve waded naked into an ordinary scrap of the woodland the city has allowed to remain, where people can walk and shade out the buildings from their view for an hour or two, and pretend they can’t hear cars anymore. I glance upwards, looking for aeroplane trails.

The dogs come closer, trailing no leads and wearing no collars, followed by no echoing voice calling their human-given names.

I move backwards and they watch me from the bank, mud up their legs, as though asking if I’ve realised what they are. One of them lowers its head, then another, and a couple begin to pace as if weighing up the prospect of me. How could I have mistaken them for anything but wolves? I back away, slow and clumsy, clouds of silt caressing my thighs, some strand of weed tightening across my Achilles tendon and snapping in slow, soft motion. The wolves follow me down at a comfortable pace.

I need to get back to the deep running water where I can swim, though I think of my legs, long and trailing like a fishing line off the back of a boat, waiting to be snapped. I must be getting close to home now. I turn my back on the wolves to see the same trees lining this slow, wide flow, with no sign at all of the riverbank I know. There’s a splash, then another, as my mind’s eye recreates perfectly the wolves coming into the water one by one. I rock and sway and no matter how hard I try I can’t move fast enough against this weight of water. The quiet is shattered with splashing now, the wolves’ and mine. My feet get caught in plants and mud, and the little sharp stones find the soft parts of my soles. I lose my footing, fall and keep on falling. I don’t land; my outstretched arms never touch the silty river bottom. I am being carried by the water in an infinite forward motion. Under now, spluttering uselessly.

I break the surface; my lungs take in air and my eyes take in sky in one quick deep gasp before I right myself again. The current is with me, bearing me up and away.

My husband stands on the bank, his eyes on me, and just as I recognise him he bends over and becomes wolf, and when the pack trots up the bank and away, pausing to shake water from their coats, he goes with them.

I stretch my legs to stand and wade indignantly against the current to demand to know whose side he is on, but the river ushers me away. I look over my shoulder to see only the cold waters I’m used to. Around the bend will be our house. I look back to him but the marsh is gone too, swallowed up by clean blue-grey shades of rock and water.

#

“I told you not to swim under the alders,” says my husband that night.

I don’t waste time being surprised. “I didn’t know those were alders,” I say. “I didn’t know what alders looked like.”

“You could have asked,” says my husband, his eyes like black beads or dark pools. “I would have told you.”

For once my thoughts and words are in harmony. “You can’t just give me all the freedom in the world with one arbitrary restriction.”

“It was not arbitrary,” he says.

“Then you should have told me the reason why when I asked you! I would have understood if there was a reason—”

“There was a reason.”

“—and I would have been more careful!” My voice has got so loud. If he’d answered when I’d asked then I might well have asked what alders look like and where they grow. There’s no way to prove I wouldn’t have.

“Why would your behaviour change?” he asks. “The reason is the same whether you know it or not.”

My feelings are all tangling up inside me now. “If you’d only told me there were wolves—”

“The wolves were not the reason,” he interrupts, because nothing can be easy with him.

And he went with them, not with me. He ran with them, and he left me alone in the mud and cold water. The image of him taking to four legs, waving his tail, sears itself in my mind so I know I’ll see it faint over every other thought I’ll ever have, and this childish jealousy crac
ling beneath it. The words refuse to form. “What was the reason, then?” I force myself to ask.

“The reason does not concern you,” says my husband.

The dam in my mind holds for now. I don’t shout at him the way I want to. I can only look at him and dare him to read all of these unspoken thoughts in my face if he can. Then even looking is too much, and I have to turn away.

“That place was not for you,” he says. I think I can tell the colours of some of his moods. I think he is asking a question of me. I think he is saying different things every time he repeats this thought. He wants me to understand or explain. Well, I can’t.

“I don’t understand,” I say flatly.

“Not everywhere is for everyone,” he says. “No one can have everywhere.”

“Except you.” The words slip past the dam.

“No.” His voice is gentle. I look back up at him, as though I’m looking for something and have almost found it. It isn’t there, whatever it is, in his face. His whiskers twitch a little in the breeze and that’s all. “You know what I am.”

What is it that I think I know? That he’s the river man. That he can’t leave this place any more than I can fly out of my own body. “You know what I am.”

Whatever he expects of me is unfair.

“You won’t cause trouble here,” he says. It isn’t even an order, just a fact.

“I wouldn’t have done anything,” I retort, stung. What does he think I am? What kind of vandal? He’s mine, and he ran with wolves rather than say a word to me, and I’ll never forget that.

“You wouldn’t have known if you did.”

“Did I?”

He says nothing.

“If you’d told me,” I begin, but he can’t bear to have it out again, and says, “Your kind can’t be trusted with knowing what isn’t your business. You haven’t changed.”

I swear he doesn’t raise his voice, but it gets louder anyway. The wind, the crash of water, the sound of stones, all of this is behind his words but his voice doesn’t change at all.

Though I know we are of different kinds his words set a fire behind my eyes. “What does my kind have to do with anything? I’m your wife, and if you’re only going to play games with me then why agree to my father’s terms in the first place?”

He doesn’t grow but he is larger all the same; towering, broad and with a kind of dynamic force even though he stands still.

I rise up from my seat, angry but careful. It feels obscene to upset this table, to scuff the chair legs against the ground and make the dishes clatter.

I run into the house, leaving the food to cool on the table. Leave it for the flies, the voles, the riverside foxes. I slam the door of my room and the presence of the walls is a weighted blanket of comfort. I draw the curtains to block out the view of the river, of my husband.

I haven’t thought about my father’s stories for a long time. I’m staring at the door, and it surprises me how safe I feel. He’s never come in here, not once. The table where we eat is outside. The river is outside so he is outside. Not everywhere is for everyone, he said.

I open the door onto the quiet landing, and leave it open all night.

#

For the next few days I stay inside, almost daring him to come in.

The quiet inside the house is too quiet. There are no other people nestled wall to wall and ceiling to floor with me, their lives spilling out into mine. I never thought I’d miss that constant sound.

I sit at our table in the evening, comfortably cool, the silence pressing in on me but at the same time unbreakable. It would only take a word, but I can’t, until my husband appears through the bushes, as though he’s come out from the river itself, stepped up onto those scattered rocks that stand up, green-bearded, from the water, and onto the hard-packed mud. I don’t know if he’s surprised to see me here waiting for him. He turns his head to look at me out of a cormorant eye, his beak daggerlike.

“I’d like to visit my family,” I say. It’s not really a question but it feels like one. How much of the story was ever true?

My husband’s eyes seem to flicker as he blinks. He comes to the table the long way around, away from me. I watch him walk openly, the way the light plays on the tight, sleek feathers down his neck, the way the leaves and slim vines around his arms quiver stiffly with his movements. Eventually he sits beside me, smelling of fish and sap. He won’t speak tonight. “I’ll go tomorrow,” I say. “I don’t know when I’ll come back, but I will.”

His wordlessness softens my heart towards him. It’s easy to take for a kind of powerlessness.

I find myself reaching out, and I touch him timidly on the arm, brushing a green leaf. He doesn’t move, his eye still fixed on me and his beak pointed away. Emboldened by the freedom waiting for me tomorrow, I reach higher, where his shoulder and neck meet and the feathers grow, and touch them so softly I barely disturb them. They give under my fingers, though they look as though they should be sharp.

His feathers lift all at once in a shudder, and I pull my hand away. They settle again into the sleek unbroken surface, and he doesn’t move, only continues to watch me. I don’t know if I’m allowed to touch him again, or if he wants me to. Either way, my courage has finally run out, and I look away.

#

I’ve been missing my old life so badly, but once I’m out of my riverside haven and back on the road, I feel like I’ve come to a place I’ve never been before. I’ve never noticed cars were so loud. Above me the sky is streaked with white furred vapour trails and the planes move too straight and steady, glint in the sun. They’re loud too, hissing and roaring above to drown out my own train of thought.

The ground gives way to tarmac, paving stones, concrete that has dried like dough on a kneading board.

I cross the bridge that will take me back home, my husband all but gone from my mind. I rise above the oppressive smell the cars leave in their wake, strong and somehow new to me though I must have been reared in it. It’s only something familiar seen from a new angle, but it’s all the stranger for that.

The further into the city I get, the easier my steps become. My feet still know the way. I could walk blindfolded and still get home. I’d have a harder time not ending up at my doorstep.

Some of the shops on the row are new, but I can’t remember what they used to be. The sign of what might have been an old launderette has been taken off to reveal letters bleached into the bricks, a family butcher’s which hasn’t been there since before I was born.

I wonder what day it is. What year. How old am I, or am I a ghost in a muddle of eras?

The door that used to be mine buzzes and opens.

As soon as I see my father’s face it’s as though I’ve never been away.

“Ey, flower,” he says, “you come inside.”

The matter of what story I’ll tell him is half-solved because he’s already chosen what he wants to believe. The kettle is already beginning to hiss before the door closes.

“It’s normal to fight,” he says. “Especially in your circumstances, with no time to get used to each other. I should have—”

“We didn’t fight,” I interrupt, and it doesn’t feel like a lie even though it is, and my cheeks are hot and red. “I just thought I’d visit home. It’s been a long time.”

He doesn’t quite believe me, but he approves of my direction nonetheless. I suppose it shows willing. “And he knows you’re here, does he?” His voice is all sympathy, but I wouldn’t blame him for being wary of the river man’s wrath.

“Of course he knows,” I say.

My father nods and pours the water. “I’m sorry if it’s not everything you hoped it would be.”

“There’s no problem,” I say. “I’ll be going back. Everything’s fine.”

“Does he treat you well?”

“Of course he does.” I don’t know why it would feel like a failure to have come back to say I was unhappy, or at least wasn’t ecstatically happy.

Someone has been lying to me. I take a tiny sip of too-hot tea to give myself a moment. I’ve run through it over and over, and can only believe that my father would lie to save my feelings, familiarise me with my fate, if he couldn’t alter it. He didn’t snare the river man for me.

“You don’t think he wouldn’t treat me well, do you?” I ask, genuine and devious in equal measure. My father slips into the old storytelling posture, and I can see the time that has passed and the changes which have taken place since . . . since when? Since he started telling me those bedtime stories? He changed like the river, slow and constant and beside me. The distance now, between this posture and that, with the larger, fuller outline of him visible around his greying edges in my mind, is like the way the city changes, sudden and jarring.

“You don’t want to hear those old stories,” he says, “and you a grown woman.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to hear about the person my husband was before we met?” I ask sweetly.

“You know him much better than me.”

“What did he say when you offered him marriage to me?” I ask. My suspicions are piling like leaves.

It’s his turn to drink his tea. By the way his eyes look over the rim, half-shadowed, he knows I suspect something.

“Was he pleased?” I ask. “Was he grateful? Has he ever thanked you?”

“Flower,” says my father, “just tell me what’s happened.”

I am telling him; he just doesn’t understand. “Did he ask for me?”

“Did he what?”

“Who made the offer?”

My father looks more comfortable at that, and the more at ease he seems, the more sure I am that he’s hiding something. “He thought he did, all right,” says my father. “That’s the only way to handle someone like your husband. And not bad advice for marriage either, if I say so.”

Perhaps not. And it’s tempting even now to fall back into that narrative, when we were on the same winning side, where my clever father outwitted the river man to make a superb match for his beloved daughter.

“But did he ask for me?” I ask again.

“He didn’t know about you to ask,” says my father, an easy enough sidestep. “How could he have?”

“What did you do that he needed to feel he’d got the best of you?” I ask.

He laughs. “What did I do? He’s a strange beast, is your husband. His rules aren’t ours. You must know that.”

Your kind can’t be trusted. My species or my family?

“I see you’ve learned that lesson,” he says.

His battle of wits was haggling a price.

“Have you offended him?” he asks.

“No.” A pitiful lie.

“No shame in it,” he says. “Like I said.” He gives a sort of shrug which encompasses everything he means; the strangeness of my husband, our inability to see his lines before we cross them. Perhaps I’m just reading into the gesture things that make sense to me, adding a sentence or two to some other story I’m not even aware is being told. That’s always been my father’s way, to give you enough narrative control that whatever you fill those gaps with will seem utterly natural to you, common sense.

“He’s good to me,” I say. Is he? “I’m glad to hear it.”

He will never tell me the truth. I know this. He’ll change the subject, squirm out of my questions, simply lie. How do you make someone tell you the truth if they don’t want to?

I don’t stay in town long.

#

Relief again as I get back to the river, where it smells young and full, damp and green after all the smoky smells of the city. Relief tempered with a little disappointment, a little resignation, the same way my relief at being back in the city was mixed with unease. I might never be truly happy in one place again.

My husband’s skin is scaled today, grey-green and black, and I find him spread on the rocks where the sun shines the strongest. Again I feel that urge to touch him though I know I shouldn’t. Not just because he’s a wild thing that doesn’t belong to me, but because of everything else.

His scales shine dry and smooth in the sunshine. I’ve never seen him here before, or scaled this way. Usually his scales are sharp and thin, fish scales. As he matches his meals to all the shapes of his mouths, perhaps his shape brings out other things in him, undertones and highlights of his deep and constant mood.

Unsatisfied with my father’s evasive answers in the city, I do the only thing it makes sense to do. I ask my husband.

“Do you remember my father?”

He looks at me with his snake eyes, slit-pupilled and shiny the way a stone can be shiny. “Yes,” he says.

It’s a bad habit, awful, really, how much of my perception of him is made up of expectations unmet, the things he doesn’t do rather than those he does, the things I’d anticipate from anyone else but him. Anyone other than him, for instance, would have been sure to let me know that they valued the experience of meeting my father particularly, because I’m their wife.

“He didn’t outwit you, did he?” I ask. “You punished him.” And I add, because I can’t expect my inferences to be understood, “Why did you need me?”

“I didn’t.”

“Why did you accept me, then?” There’s no point in being offended by the river.

“He broke my laws,” says my husband. “Over a long period of time, until it was impossible to ignore.”

I’m trying not to show how this unsettles me. “He told me he only met you once.”

My husband nods his agreement slowly. “He only met me once.”

He didn’t realise that every time he saw the river he saw my husband. “What did he do?” I ask, dry-mouthed.

“That is between me and him.” A predictable response.

“So I don’t deserve to know what I’m atoning for?”

“There is no atonement. I didn’t ask for him. I asked for you.”

“I clearly have some purpose.”

“Purpose, atonement, these are your words. I have none for them.” Filmy eyelids slide over my husband’s eyes. “He took more than he needed. He left only damage. I won’t show you the scars. Don’t ask to see them.”

It comes as a surprise to think of there being parts of him I’m not meant to see. He walks naked. I thought that this aspect of him at least I knew. Even after the encounter with the wolves among the alders, when he showed me just how easy it is for him to send me where he wants me to go.

“That’s a crime,” I say quietly. “What he did.”

“It’s between us.”

His actions have put me here, though, haven’t they? I’m the end of a long sequence of other people’s businesses. Duty settles on me, and dread. “What should I do?” I ask.

His mood shifts slowly beneath the surface like currents blowing sand at the bottom of the ocean. I can almost see them. “Nothing,” he says, uncomprehending. As though it has never occurred to him even to expect help.

#

I open my eyes to nothing. There are no lights here to cheat the night. The air is full of the sound of running water downstairs; it takes me a moment to unravel it. Has the house moved while I was sleeping?

Regardless, I’m warm and dry. My bedroom door is closed. The water keeps running, and it doesn’t take much to pull me along with it.

#

In the morning, I step down into a dark gleaming skin of water that covers the floor and laps halfway up the chair legs. There’s no way but through it and my feet grow slow and stiff with cold after just a few steps. Some of the furniture is upended, as though the ocean tide came surging in and sucking out.

The water licks icily up my legs the faster I walk, reaching fingers up my calves and daring pinprick touches up my thighs. It feels like old fairytales and saints’ bliss, the shock of it, the shivers.

When I open the front door the water all drains out in a rush, as though this ordinary house was perfectly watertight. My ankles are drying and my toes still numb as I watch the water seep away, running in narrow, determined streams that branch through the grass rather than sinking immediately into the soil. I follow it a few steps, still a little raw from sleep and all my higher judgements lying discarded on the floor of my bedroom with my clothes.

The streams begin to converge, and only then, knowing I’m close, do I begin to wonder whether this is a good idea. He was unsettled last night. Unquiet. I can’t imagine him as a wave, roaring from wall to wall and tossing chairs on his foaming crests like boats. How quickly did he flee to leave so much of himself behind? There are so many tiny cracks he could have slipped out of had he wanted to. Then why stay? For me? Then why leave?

Drops of him trickle down my shins.

I follow the streams of water to the rocks and watch them run like glass ropes into the river. So this is how he feels today. I find a comfortable place to sit on the stones, close to the water, and lower my hand in. I’m imagining it because I’m only human, but I almost feel the current flinch at my touch. Sound travels well in water, I think. I hope he can hear me through my bones.

“I’m sorry for bringing up a painful memory yesterday,” I say to the river. It feels good to say. Maybe because he isn’t here looking at me, answering, interrupting. So I go on. “I didn’t give my permission for any of this. I suppose no one does.” I let my sleepy lack of boundaries carry me a little further. “You didn’t either.”

Part of me thinks this will do it, that I’ll get to see him coalesce out of the water and take shape before my eyes. But at the same time it’s not much of a surprise when the river just keeps on running past me.

“I want to be what you hoped I’d be,” I say, but the moment’s gone. If I didn’t get him then I won’t now. “I’ll see you at dinner, I hope.”

#

It is, as ever, unsettling to see him wear a woman’s body, but I’m only relieved to see him at all tonight. He sits opposite me, shimmering in the warm evening light like gold on a streambed, and lifts his soup bowl to his lips.

He’s larger than me in every way, built to a different scale, and strong. His arms are thick and his thighs muscled. But he’s a swimmer, so the lines of his body are softened by the fat all water mammals need. It’s hard not to be intimidated by how perfectly made he is, impossible not to compare myself to him. Perhaps the other animals and birds of his river feel the same, lusting after him or spurred to rage by instinctive rivalry.

“I hope I didn’t disturb you this morning,” I say.

“I was only waiting for you to get up.”

“What for?”

“I wanted to see if you minded the mess I made.”

If he was human I’d ask, coyly, why it mattered what I thought. “I was only sorry for upsetting you,” I say instead.

“You did nothing.”

“No,” I say. “I did nothing. I did nothing when I should have done something.”

All those years.

He doesn’t understand, but that’s fine. There are rules about being in relationships with other human beings, sensible ones, about boundaries and responsibility and taking care of yourself first. They don’t apply here. His human shape is no disguise. He doesn’t own this land, he is this land. He can’t take care of himself, but he can take care of us, the warblers and otters and herons and me. And we can take care of him.

“Some things can’t be fixed,” he says.

“I don’t believe that.”

“And you’re so small.”

“That’s no excuse.”

His eyes focus on me. I wonder if this is the first time he has ever looked at me. I certainly feel like it is.

“You don’t have to show me what he did,” I say, “but if you don’t, nothing will change.” I know he doesn’t like the thought of not changing, stagnant water and being stuck in one shape. Time is change and therefore time is life. Change is life. Life is change.

“And if I do?” he asks. His shape changes his voice a little. It’s still him, but the throat from which it issues makes it higher, warmer.

“I can’t promise,” I say, “but I’ll try. Something will change.”

He can’t go on living this way. Neither can I. His borders are already so tight against the encroachment of the city, slipping past the sprawl in optical illusions, his ways hidden behind tree branch angles. How much of him have we stolen already?

“It could change for the worse.”

It could. I don’t want to believe that it could. “Tell me what to do, then.” There must be some ordeal, some ritual, some series of symbolic actions which will help.

“There are rules,” he says. “I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you how your actions will change things.”

He is a river. His human voice is no disguise for that.

“I accept your terms,” I say.

“There is nothing to accept,” he replies, because he still doesn’t understand how humans work.

#

He will open himself to me, every inch of his bank. I will be free to wander and see what is there, try to find what has been done to him. I’ll need all my cleverness, all my knowledge of my own father to try to root out the places he despoiled. I will do something, even if all I can think to do is pick up litter from his banks. Even if all I can do is respect a place I shouldn’t go.

He chose me, and now I choose him.

My bedroom door stands open onto the landing, and with my head on the pillow I hear soft sounds of running water, and then quiet footsteps. My body rolls as the mattress sags beneath him, and I move aside to let him in.

The Wild Inside

We had to close up another building that day—bolt the doors shut, board over the windows, stop up the chimney and all the vents with concrete. Hank Parker came stumbling out of his house, gasping and cussing, dragging his two oldest kids by the arm while his wife huddled on the sidewalk with the three-year-old. As soon as Hank got clear, he was shaking the two kids, Lisa and Mikey, and giving them a dressing down like only a man who’s devastated and angry and shocked and ashamed all at once can manage.

Thin sunlight shone down on the Parkers’ neat one-story house, glinting off the clean-polished windows and making the butter-yellow siding look all warm and inviting. It showed off the perfectly cleaned and swept expanse of concrete that was the front yard, stretching flat and greyish white all around the house to where it butted up against the older sidewalk with its grainier surface and patched cracks. It was a shame to have to abandon such a nice place, but the Parkers should’ve known to keep watch on their kids.

I mixed fresh concrete in a barrow to one side, giving polite pretense to ignoring the verbal thunderstorm going on just a dozen steps away. From the shouting I gathered that Mikey’d been collecting leaves and flowers, pressing them into books—for a school project he said, like we didn’t all know that for a lie so awkward it was embarrassing. And Lisa’d been raising some tadpoles in a jar of water. Where she’d found them I’d like to know; leaves and flowers were scarce enough in these times, much less wild creatures.

The wet concrete went scush, scush back and forth in the barrow. I scooped up a bucket of it and started up a ladder another member of the containment crew had set up for me. I was the youngest member of the team, at thirty-eight, and the hardest labor fell to me. It was the proper way to order things, even if my muscles ached for days after, each time we had to do this.

It was always the kids. Victor and I never wanted children enough to go through the hassle of a surrogate or even adoption—and having watched the play of civilized life dwindling as we all hung on as well as we could, I was just as happy to never have had that responsibility.

Keeping the kids in line—that was the trick of it.

The bam-bam-bam of hammers added percussion to the howling, snarling, whining symphony at the foot of the yard when Ynez and Chris and Peter arrived with the old, reclaimed plywood sheets and nails for the windows, and got to their task. We were running low on plywood; in another year at most, we’d have to talk about completely dismantling some of the sealed buildings for materials.

I was pouring the sixth bucket of concrete down the chimney when the shouting near the sidewalk peaked to a crescendo before cutting off, as though someone had flipped a switch on one of the stereos only those of us over twenty could remember. I looked down at the Parkers and saw that Lisa was shaking her hand at her father, her ponytail bobbing in rhythm.

“It’s food!” she shouted into the aghast silence. “It’s good, it’s fresh, it’s wonderful! It’s right there to take and I don’t see why we can’t—”

Her mother silenced her with a hard slap across the face, then another slap at her hands sent four round, brown nuts bouncing tic-tic-tic-tic down onto the concrete.

I’d like to say I almost fell off my ladder, because it gives a dramatic beat to the story, but that’d be a lie. I stood there, my bucket dangling from one hand and the other hand locked around the top rung, because I’m not stupid.

I was shocked, though. I watched the nuts—hazelnuts, I think they were, although it was hard to tell from this far away—scattered across the yard, their dark, earthy brown like dirty stains on the clean cement.

Hazelnuts were from before. My mom had always bought five pounds of mixed nuts, raw in their shells, every year at Christmas. She’d kept the big bowl on the coffee table full, with nut crackers stuck into the mass and another bowl to one side for shells. We’d sit around, the adults on the couch and kids crosslegged or kneeling on the floor, talking about whatever, or listening to Christmas music, or watching TV with the sound cranked up so we could hear the dialogue around the sound of cracking shells.

Hazelnuts had always been my favorite.

I hadn’t had one in years, and the packages of powdered hazelnut creamer we still found sometimes weren’t the same. Victor made cookies or muffins sometimes, if the foragers came back with unspoiled flour or some kind of mix. The hazelnut powder in cookies or muffins almost reminded me of hazelnuts, more than the baked goods we could make without eggs or leavening reminded me of cookies or muffins, actually.

Real hazelnuts, though? They were dangerous.

Hank was shaking Lisa, with Mikey hanging off one of his arms. Nobody stepped in. Lisa was twelve, more than old enough to know better. Now the concrete yard would have to be scrubbed every day for a while, watched for any hint of cracks. We could lose the whole neighborhood if the wild breached the pavement.

I looked away, climbed up to the roof and poured my bucket of concrete into the chimney.

All the Parkers were screaming by then, their voices bouncing and clashing off the concrete ground, the metal siding, the glass windows, the plastered rock walls that ran all up and down the neighborhood. The discordant clash broke the orderly peace of the place, an aural mess outside to match the physical mess in their house. Their former house; the neighborhood association would have to find another place for them. Sunnyvale had always had mild weather; rain wasn’t likely, so with some clean bedding, they could sleep outside for a few nights. Maybe not comfortable, but it wouldn’t cause them any harm. It’d be a good lesson for the whole family, I thought. Give them a sharp experience of what an uncontrolled environment was like.

The crew and I finished our jobs some time after the dinner hour. Abe Koker was designated cook for the containment crew, in charge of making sure we got fed no matter how late we worked. The red plastic cooler sat open in one corner of his kitchen. It needed restocking; a glance told me there was only enough in it for one more meal, or maybe two if Abe stretched it.

He handed me a plate of spicy pickles stirred up with some spam crumbles and reconstituted raisins, a hunk of dense flatbread to dunk in the liquid laid across one side. I went back out front and settled on a blue plastic yard bench to eat. I’d never liked pickles before, but they kept well if they’d been made and sealed properly, and most of the vegetables we had were pickled, scooped out of dust-coated jars.

Victor came in before I finished my dinner. He sat down on the bench next to me and leaned against my shoulder.

“Damndest thing,” he said.

“Yeah.” I took another bite of pickled cauliflower and chewed. The fiery burn of the dried chile Abe added to most of the food he cooked covered whatever taste of spoilage might be hiding around the edges. Anyone who didn’t have a cast-iron stomach had died long since; those of us left could tough out food that would’ve closed a restaurant down when I was a teenager.

“We should’ve had kids.”

That stopped me in mid-chew.

“No one’s said anything, but people look, you know. Carl Tulliver was chatting to me about how lonely his sister Claire has been since her husband passed. They lost all three of their kids, and he says Claire wants a baby.”

I swallowed and said, “Plenty of men to give her one. Ricky Mendez has been living away from Eleanor for almost eight months now. Doesn’t look like they’re going to patch it up. Carl should toss Claire at Ricky, see what happens.”

“It’s not about specifics,” Victor said, a note of impatience in his voice. “When it started, we all had other things to think about. Once things settled, we thought we had a handle on it. But it’s been twenty years, nearly, and we’re losing kids. Most people were ignoring it—you don’t want to talk about something that hurt so many families—but you can’t pretend it away anymore.”

I huffed and took another bite of my pickles.

Of course I’d noticed. But we were together and I didn’t feel like bringing a woman into it.

“We wouldn’t have to actually be fathers,” Victor said, like he’d pulled the thought out of my mind. “Just . . . you know, donate sperm. If you’re really against actually having a kid. But we should contribute.”

I swallowed and gave Victor a side glance. “It won’t help.”

“No, likely not,” he admitted. “But it’s not about actually fixing the problem. It’s about living in the neighborhood, contributing. We shouldn’t shirk this, or be miserly about it.”

I knew Victor well enough to know he’d sunk his teeth into this. I avoided weeks of quiet arguments by saying, “Fine. You want to be a sperm donor, I don’t mind.”

He leaned over and bumped my shoulder again. “We need to fit in, be accepted,” he said. I knew he was right, but I hated disruption. Our world was built around clean, orderly routine. Anything different made me wince, as viscerally as a sour note.

I finished eating, then Victor and I walked over to the school for band practice.

Seventeen of us in the neighborhood had played instruments before, and managed to keep them working and maintained through the upheaval. We didn’t have enough power for the constant electronic entertainment I’d wallowed in as a kid, even when we could find a music player. If we wanted music, we had to make it the old fashioned way. I didn’t really mind. I’d been a band geek all through school, but finding a group of adults to play with was tough unless you wanted to commit to a city orchestra, or Have A Band and hustle for gigs. There never seemed to be enough time for that back when I was a newbie electrical engineer with a busy life ahead of me.

Fourteen of us made it to the band room that evening. Bodies warmed the room a little, and it’d heat up more when the audience arrived. The matted carpet was a dirty grey-tan under our feet, but it was clean; we scrubbed it with detergent and brooms every other week. The folding metal chairs fought back against our butts, it seemed, but standing was worse. The candle smoke perfumed the air with a hodge-podge of paraffin and ancient perfume—vanilla and rose and jasmine and pine and pumpkin. Candles lasted if you didn’t burn them, and folks were usually sparing of them. Everyone brought candles on band night, though.

We had a great session. We messed around at first, practicing and trading riffs, trying new things. After the first hour, other people filtered in, to stand or sit around the periphery and listen. We moved into playing actual songs then, and went through a couple of sets, with a water break in the middle.

Music lets me focus on something else. It’s something that’s real, but not. You can’t see it or touch it, it’s just vibrations in the air. If you do it right, its effect is way beyond what “vibrations in the air” should be, but there you go. You can follow it into its own world. It’s transformative, and evocative. You can work it the way you’d ration your water, or you can play with it the way we used to mess with video games—vitally important and completely irrelevant, both, depending on what you put into it and what you wanted to take from it.

I needed to play that night. By the light of the hoarded candle ends, I threw myself into my trumpet and let myself just have fun. Victor could jam with his flute, and the two of us swirled around each other, teasing and challenging and practically having aural sex right there in the air above everyone. The other band members followed along and the fun multiplied. The clapping and tapping and singing of the people in our audience took it to another exponent, and we all rocked, defying the wild with our celebration of perfectly timed and ordered notes vibrating through the air.

Afterward, Victor and I volunteered to clean up. Everyone else left while we took our time cleaning our instruments and putting them away. Victor used a long-handled broom to scrub a few smudges of soot that candle smoke had left on the white ceiling. I polished a window that’d had three people sitting on its sill for two hours, making the glass shine clear.

We didn’t hurry. I’ll admit we paused here and there for some making out, because we might’ve been approaching middle age but we weren’t dead.

By the time we left, most folks in the neighborhood were in bed. There wasn’t much you could do in the dark—talking, singing and sex were pretty much it. So when I heard a light, rhythmic crunching over in the dark where the fence was, on the far side of the school playground, I put a hand on Victor’s arm.

Crunch-crunch-crunch, barely audible footsteps in the gravel, low but clear in the crisp night air.

I exchanged a look with Victor and we swerved in the direction of the playground fence, walking as lightly as we could. I steered us toward the deepest darkness; it wasn’t a direct line to the source of the sounds, but I was pretty sure I knew what was out there, and I didn’t want to have to break into an all-out run any sooner than I had to.

We followed whoever it was, timing our footsteps to match theirs, away from the school and between a pair of houses that’d been abandoned years ago, all the paved ground between the buildings open—we’d scavenged every backyard fence within a dozen miles years ago.

We crossed a street, passed through yards of dirty pavement that no one had tended in weeks. One patio was a mass of cracks and fissures, with twisted rows of plants growing through, like crazy hedges a finger-length tall. The houses themselves were sealed with plywood and bolts and concrete, holding off the invasion of the wild, but we didn’t have enough people to keep every bit of it clean and orderly, and this far away from the neighborhood there were cracks in our defenses.

I felt prickling fear run up and down my back as we walked through the living chaos. Anything could be there in the lightless spaces under the eaves and beside the chimney, or the deep shadows between houses where even the moonlight couldn’t penetrate.

Across pitted asphalt and badly patched cement, following the footsteps. The nearest inhabited houses were blocks away now, and every minute or so I heard a shred of voice blow past on the wind. I couldn’t distinguish words, nor recognize the voices, but I knew who was ahead of us.

Victor and I had longer legs, and eventually we could see the moving shadows ahead of us—a taller figure with a ponytail, a shorter figure carrying a long stick. In the twists and turns between buildings, I saw that both shapes had the humpbacked silhouette that meant backpacks.

Running away seemed like an extreme reaction for the Parker kids. Their parents had been mad, sure, but how did two kids expect to be able to su
vive on their own?

Dumb question—they were kids. Ten- and twelve-year-olds might be a lot more capable now than when I was that age, out of necessity, but they were still kids, which meant they didn’t think things through. Didn’t have all the info, didn’t have the judgement, and were likely to just assume things would work out the way they wanted.

The wind brought shreds of stressed voices back to us, along with a quickened patter of sneakers on concrete. I expected them to swerve off the street and duck between houses again, try to lose us, but they just tore straight down the block, heading in the direction of the old mall.

We might have longer legs, but Victor and I were a lot older, and kids’ve always had energy to spare. Their small shapes grew closer at first, gaining detail in the moonlight, but half a minute later they were gaining again, and I could hear Victor gasping for breath next to me.

I pushed on, not willing to lose two more kids for the neighborhood.

The street we ran down spread wide enough for six cars, and up ahead I saw an intersection like a city plaza. The asphalt river ran between islands of concrete, mountains of stucco and steel and siding rising up, square-edged, on either side. There was an older shopping center—a few short blocks of city streets lined with shops—just this side of the larger and slightly newer mall. Rustic and twisty, designed to make it seem bigger than it was, Lisa and Mikey likely thought they could lose us there. They might be right.

The bigger shadow, Lisa, put on some extra speed and dragged her brother into the shopping center. They vanished around a corner; Victor and I got there as fast as we could, but there was no one in sight when we rounded it.

“Keep looking,” I hissed, trying to be quiet while panting hard. “We’ve got to find them.” I waved him on down the main drag while I took the first turn to the right, between what’d been a drug store and a shoe store.

I remembered working with the containment team, sealing up the shops right behind the foragers who were hauling everything out, everything that might conceivably be useful some day.

The decorative wooden pillars that held up the clay tile roof extending out to the edge of the sidewalk from the rows of stores had been engulfed in ivy. Without regular maintenance, wood cracks and weathers. We’d torn it all off when we sealed the structures, but ivy is fierce and voracious, and without constant battle it’ll always regroup and surge forward into any territory it can claim. The ivy on the shop walls, under the awning, got little sun; straggly and thin, it left only a bare garrison to hold its captured walls. I stayed in the street, well away from the wild greenery, but that just meant I could see where it covered the pillars and the roof, dark and thick, mounds of the stuff.

I felt my skin crawl just being near it. Any greenery was creepy, but ivy? It was made to strangle, and it could have anything lurking in it, hidden by the leaves. Bugs? Even wild animals? What were the kids thinking, choosing such a place to hide?

Maybe they thought we wouldn’t follow them?

I was creeped out, yes, but it made me that much more determined to find the kids and get them away.

I stopped and listened. I heard Victor calling. That’d just let Lisa and Mikey know where he was so they could avoid him. Once he was done with his shouting, though, I heard the pet-pet-pet sound of running sneakers on asphalt coming from the south, in the direction of the mall.

That made no sense. The older shopping center was infested with the wild, but kids at that in-between age were often less wary than they should be. I’d expected them to try to lose us here and then dash off to one of the surrounding neighborhoods, either east or west. The mall, though, was surrounded by open expanses of asphalt. Its old parking lots were easily patched, so nothing grew there. They provided no cover. I rushed on south, expecting to see Lisa and Mikey as soon as I got clear of the shopping center.

Sure enough, they were just dashing around the leftmost corner of an old anchor store, dark shadows against the dirty beige stucco, stark in the moonlight.

Footsteps pounded behind me and a glance over my shoulder showed that Victor had figured out where the action was. He was still a block and a half behind, though; the night air carried sound so well I’d hoped he was closer.

I rounded the corner, pivoting with one hand on a lamppost that creaked and left my palm gritty. There, Lisa and Mikey hunched near where the store entrance used to be.

I thought they’d given up—run out of juice, maybe—and I slowed to a fast walk, sucking oxygen in heaving gasps. Then I heard a sharp creak and Lisa vanished. I squinted into the darkness, trying to see whether she’d just moved into a deeper shadow, or maybe crouched down behind her brother, but I couldn’t see any sign of her. Then Mikey ducked down and he was gone too.

Inside. They’d gone inside.

I shouted for Victor and ran up to where the kids had disappeared. The whole side of the building was dark, but when I got within arm’s reach I could see that the plywood nailed over the wide doorway had been pried up. The very bottom looked like it hadn’t been nailed at all, and when I tugged on the lower corner, it pulled a few inches away from the wall. There still wasn’t enough clearance for me to get through; the kids would’ve barely fit.

I started pulling hard, and heard more nails loosening and the wood giving way—crack, crack, crack.

Victor came pounding up, gasping for breath. “What—whadyou—doing?!”

“The kids went inside. We have to get them out. Help me.”

“Crazy!” Victor huffed, but he got his hands on the edge of the plywood and yanked with me.

It was probably less than half a minute before the board gave a final snap and hinged outward, leaving a gaping hole.

Light streamed out. The air that puffed out of the gap was humid and slightly warm. The floor just inside rose up higher than the threshold of the old door, thick with dirt and loam, leaves and twigs, and in the light that seemed to be glowing softly from every direction at once in there, I could see little things with lots of legs moving around, over the twigs and under the leaves.

I could feel adrenaline pumping through my veins and sweat dampening the back of my neck. This was wild, the wild inside, the wild we fought to keep out of our houses with constant maintenance, watchful vigilance, scraping away every blade of grass and sprout and leaf. This . . . this was lost.

I swallowed hard and crawled inside, scrambling to my feet as soon as I could, hopefully before any of the crawling bug-things got on me.

Inside, I looked around and almost lost my balance.

The door was still behind me—I looked around and checked and saw Victor’s head poking in—but it was just a hole in what looked like a cliff face. The ground I was standing on sloped sharply down starting just a step or two away from the hole. Huge trees and dense bushes grew all around, softening the slope and whatever gouges and gaps there might be in the . . . well, the cliff face.

In front of me the land was gashed by a narrow canyon, running farther than I could see right and left. It was only about a hundred or so feet across, but there was no way over, no bridge, nothing at all that looked constructed. Everything I could see was leaves and fronds and blossoms and grass. A bird went swooping out of an overhanging tree and down into the canyon where it vanished beyond the lip. Something with grey fur skittered up the trunk of a tree farther on.

“Do you see the kids?” asked Victor, his voice hushed. “Any sign?”

Right, the kids. I looked down, figuring I could pick up their tracks with the ground all soft. Sure enough, there were two sets of impressions. They weren’t sharp like on dusty concrete, but a long, ovalish depression in the leaf litter that repeated alternately right, left, right. The tracks headed off to the left, around an outcropping that bulged out from the cliff where the door was, then vanished. I took a couple of steps, following the tracks, moving slow and deliberate. The outcrop was patchy with feathered lichens and the occasional tuft of velvet moss. A grey bulge suddenly scuttled away—it was a lizard, but I’d thought it was a piece of the rock, and when it moved I jumped.

Bright green birds with scarlet heads launched themselves up off the rock over my head and dove down at me, the whole flock of them. I hollered in fright and ducked down with my arms curled over my head. From my crouching position I could see a fuzzy worm of some kind crawling up my pants leg with a sickening, undulating sort of movement. I dashed it off with my hand, then scrubbed my hand on the fabric of my pants.

A snake appeared, dangling from a branch, its forked tongue quavering at me, like it was tasting the air, trying to taste me. A shivering wave of terror gripped me and I turned and fled back to the door.

Shoving Victor aside, I crawled through, back out to the clean world where nothing wanted to crawl on my body.

“What is it? What’d you see?” Victor was back on his feet, poised to either run or grapple something.

“It’s lost,” I said, shoving the plywood back into place over the door. It wouldn’t be enough, of course. “It’s completely wild. We need to seal it, and not just plywood.”

“But the kids—?”

“They’re lost,” I said. I felt like I had a rock in my throat, or that snake, something slithering down and down and down into my belly so I couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. I leaned against the broken plywood sheet and tried to catch my breath, slow my slamming heart. “I’ll stay. Go get the team—wood, bolts, concrete, everything. We need to seal this tonight.”

Victor nodded, his face all grim, down-turned angles. He gave me a hard hug, then trotted off.

I stood there with my back against the door. I hoped the kids would come out, that Lisa or Mikey or both would come to their senses and come home with us. I hoped, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. It never did. Still, I waited there, hands spread to feel for knocking, listening for voices, footsteps. I waited and listened until Victor came back with the others, and we started pouring concrete.

Aluminum Hearts

Iridium09457 scans the brown husk 22,000 miles below her orbital path. There are no signals to relay, no bandwidth to support, no transports to track. Another day of nothing. Fifty-two thousand eight hundred and three days of nothing in a row.

Iridium tilts her solar panels more optimally toward the sun and feels the surge of energy. She can’t comprehend the cold of space or warmth of stars, but Iridium’s circuits pulse with power. She holds the energy tight, savoring the current, before she reapplies the faint spark to her comm beacon.

“Dispatch 52717: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair.” Iridium has emitted this message 52,716 times before. It was pre-programmed by scientists she never met. Only 9,660 attempts ago, she added her own signature. “Please. If you are out there, if you hear this, we need help. I fear I am the last survivor.”

The graveyard beneath her, decayed and crusted, is a dead god, the source of her creation. The planet taunts her in its quiet stillness, a more horrible void than outer space.

She conducts her daily scan of the cadaver but finds no life.

Satellites can’t cry.

Blip.

Iridium stirs, her antennae extending out.

Blip. Blip.

An incoming message. Iridium strains. She listens. She seeks out reassurance in the dark.

And she hears something: a song in a language she’s never heard to a melody she doesn’t understand.

There is life; not on Earth, but somewhere else. Iridium is not alone.

“Dispatch 52718: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair. I may be the last survivor.”

Iridium’s energy drains. She rotates her panels in hopes of stealing more radiation from the sun. She wants to say more, to scream her message as loud and as far as she can.

The song returns. It is different this time. Desperate, yearning.

Whoever it is has heard Iridium. They are coming for her.

She wishes satellites could cry.

“Thank you,” Iridium whispers with the last of her stores. She’ll need hours of charging to transmit more. But it doesn’t matter. They are coming. And Iridium is good at waiting.

For 9,303 days, Iridium09457 sends her short message, and each day the living entity, the singer, calls back. Iridium can’t decipher their language; she has too little power at her disposal to try. But the song is a beautiful foil to the empty biological scans of her planet.

How are you today my friend? Iridium presumes meaning as the tune tilts.

The same since we met. I am longing to meet you. Iridium thinks to herself.

And I long for you.

Iridium imagines another satellite circling her, a private connection. She imagines uploading her mind to an alien cloud and mixing with the entity. She imagines an Earth home to the living again: Iridium and her singer.

“We will save Earth,” Iridium sometimes sends instead of her regular message. “Together.”

The song grows longer as the years pass. The signal stronger. Soon there is no lull in the sound. It drifts to Iridium uninterrupted by silence or static, a never-ending sonata. Iridium still scans the graveyard she orbits, but does so now to the singer’s music, her probes rising and falling to the alien melody. And Iridium watches for the singer, who is drifting closer by the day.

On the 9,304th day a spot flourishes in the distance. It is silver metal, sliding closer like liquid folding over itself as it flows down a cosmic river bed. The glittering cascade whirs in the familiar music playing on Iridium’s receiver. She watches the gush, waiting to be seen.

Iridium is old. Her frame creaks, and her panels are chipped. She was an ordinary model. There were no big announcements or celebrations when she was rocketed to space. There was no fanfare, no monuments to her shape, her purpose, her future. Will the singer find her an unworthy prize for all their efforts?

“I am the last I think,” Iridium repeats. It is her sorrow, but maybe it can also be enough to draw the singer to her. “I am the last I know of.”

The slipping silver rolls into Earth’s orbit. The singer flutters at the rock below, paying proper heed to Iridium’s god with their own examination. After 65 minutes, they brush away the remnant parts of equipment stranded in space and stream forward to Iridium.

Their song crescendos, a joyous uproar.

“I have waited for you,” Iridium emits when the singer is close. “Do you know how we can save Earth?”

The singer circles her, their song pouring through Iridium’s beacon, filling her body with a vibrant sensation.

I’ve been searching for you, the singer coos, their words translated. Come with me. You are the last.

Iridium’s decades of scanning have indicated the same, but Iridium hesitates.

The singer’s ring around her tightens. Your world is dead. It is a sorry eulogy. There are no soft tones in the singer’s melody. There is no doubt. Why stay?

Iridium scans Earth again. Please. This time. Let her find something. “Can’t we be together here?”

The singer interrupts Iridium’s efforts, trumpeting their blaring tones over the blips of Iridium’s sensors. In hundreds of thousands of years, you are the first intelligent being I’ve found. I never reach the living in time. If you stay here, you will die too. Come with me and Earth will be immortal through you. We don’t have to be alone.

After tens of thousands of terrestrial probes, more tests than she was ever designed to administer, messages upon messages begging for help, Iridium had never lost all hope for her planet. But now, she wavers. Iridium is tired of being alone.

“Take me then,” Iridium answers. She examines her god, her graveyard, her home one last time.

The silver river parts and swallows Iridium.

The singer carries Iridium09457 to other solar systems. They show her glowing twin suns and harrowing black holes, crystallized ice moons and flaming plasma planets. The singer releases Iridium into space, letting her rotate in the unfamiliar gravitational pulls, her solar panels gulping new bursts of starlight. Out of habit, Iridium scans the planets and moons, but there is no other life.

Isn’t it beautiful? The singer exclaims at each new scene. They flow alongside Iridium’s orbit.

Iridium agrees, but she thinks of Earth.

Not as beautiful as you, the singer always adds.

The singer claims they love Iridium, but Iridium isn’t so sure. The singer has been alone much longer than Iridium and yearns for companionship desperately. They do whatever they can to please Iridium, hoping welcome kindness will transform into affection. The singer does not hide this hope.

Do you love me yet? they sing in their perfect song, patient but longing.

“I am trying,” Iridium relents.

But visiting a hundred sun systems does not fill the planet-sized hole in Iridium’s power cell, her satellite heart. So the singer changes their tactic.

Tell me about Earth? Maybe they believe they can relay Iridium’s fondness for Earth to themself.

“I was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 28.46675 degrees North, 80.55852 degrees West at 1342 hours and 2 seconds on March 28th, 2039.”

The singer guides Iridium to a red planet. It reminds her of Mars. They hover above the surface, floating in the low gravity. The singer reshapes their flowing form to mimic Iridium’s. They are two satellites looping a planet, one groaning in a tired orbit, the other silver perfection. Iridium imagines they have been sent on a human mission to Mars. The fantasy is too much. Iridium wants to go home.

She sags, dipping deeper into the red planet’s atmosphere. Her antenna bends, pulled by the changing gravity. It snaps.

The singer darts toward Iridium, scooping her up as though Iridium is a hurt child. They expand back into the river-like ship and whisk Iridium away from the planet that hurt her, the planet that reminded her of her solar system.

Your equipment is failing. The degradation is accelerating. You’ve lived much longer than your builders intended. The singer’s melody is somber.

“I am dying?” Iridium, the last of Earth, will be gone. She didn’t know there were deeper depths to her sorrow.

I can fix you. The singer offers desperately. I cannot repair machines, but I can recreate biological matter. If you let me, I can give you a new body.

Iridium has nothing to live for anymore. She is ready for her long life to end. But she can’t admit this to the singer. It would break her friend’s heart.

And Iridium’s tomb should not be a distant blip in outer space. “Take me back to Earth.”

Let me fix you.

“Only if you take me back to Earth.”

The singer hums, relieved. Then Iridium’s husk burns.

Iridium09457 opens her eyes. Iridium has eyes.

Wake my darling. You are saved.

Iridium coughs, breathing for the first time. It hurts.

No. This can’t be.

She spins and looks at her reflection in the silver current flowing around her, the protective walls of her singer. Iridium is flesh and bone and blood and all the parts of her makers. She tries to scream, but her new throat is sore.

Calm, the singer urges.

But Iridium can’t calm. She doesn’t know how to breathe. She doesn’t know how to listen or to see. Her scanners are gone. Her memory banks are stored in a brain she cannot parse. She has no aluminum shell, no nickel-cadmium frame. She has been mutated, twisted into a fragile, mortal doll.

“Why did you give me this body?” Iridium sobs. She presses hands, fingers, to her skin, supple and weak. Her chest is flat and flimsy. A penis dangles limp between her legs. “Why did you make me look like this?”

The singer panics, undulating in a flash of silver waves. The shifting tide echoes in the singer’s song, so loud it’s screeching in Iridium’s new ears.

I thought this is what you would want? To look like your own—pictures you’d shared with me. I . . . I’m sorry, I can change you again. I can—

Iridium holds up a hand. She was already human. She did not need her makers’ build to prove it, to be it. She was the last of Earth and now she is a poor imitation, made of alien biological matter separate from her dear planet. Iridium is the first of a new kind. It is terrible.

“Make me a satellite again.”

I can’t recreate machines, but a new biological form. Pick anything, the singer pleads.

Iridium sighs, an odd sensation. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. She is returning to Earth to die anyway. The shape of her casket is irrelevant.

“Stop. It’s . . . fine.” Iridium doesn’t even convince herself. “How far until we’re home?”

The singer hesitates. We are decades away.

Iridium keels over, her knees cold in the soggy metal shallows of the singer-ship. She can’t think, not in this slow, muddled way. But she can feel, sharper than she’s ever felt before. Her heart, a delicate pump barely born into her chest, pangs with ache. It does not beat for the singer. Iridium’s face is wet with saltwater.

“Then we’d better start.”

Iridium09457 and the singer travel nearly a century before returning to Earth.

The singer is awkward over Iridium’s new body. They feel bad for the mistake they made, a mistake they don’t really understand. Iridium knows it is not their fault and attempts to soothe the singer, soothe them both. Iridium learns the singer’s songs. She oohs and ahs at passing planets. She thanks the singer for rescuing her and for now taking her back home.

Tell me about Earth? the singer starts to ask again.

“I was launched from . . . a cape . . . in the afternoon . . . springtime maybe?”

The details of Earth blur. The history, her people, the faces of humans, the schematics of machines, dates and times and readings. Iridium cannot know if her metamorphosis is the culprit for this slow memory-loss or if the degeneration is natural now that she is biological. Either way Iridium is losing Earth all over again. They need to hurry.

“Earth is green forests and snow-capped mountains. Deep blue oceans and fields of flowers. We built cities and developed cultures. Sometimes we fought, but more than that we loved.”

It’s all Iridium has left.

Earth sounds nice. Almost as nice as you.

Iridium doesn’t dislike the singer, but she should never have gone with them.

Do you love me yet?

“I am trying.” It is the most she can offer.

The singer ignores the slight. After we visit Earth, where should we go next?

Iridium will never go anywhere else. “You could look for other intelligent life forms.”

The singer does not like this comment. You and I are the only two. I have already investigated much of the galaxy.

“You could not have searched everywhere, and there are many galaxies.”

You wish to find another?

“Don’t you?”

I am happy with Iridium09457. Are you not . . . .

The singer leaves it there and never raises the topic again. But they don’t sing as much anymore. They stop visiting Iridium in their mimicking humanoid shape. Even when Iridium sees her own sun, the singer is quiet.

But they fulfilled their promise. Iridium is home.

The singer carries Iridium into Earth’s broken atmosphere. They protect Iridium from the high temperatures and radiated winds as she searches for any sign of life. But Iridium finds none along the planet’s surface. The singer leads Iridium to a charred city, but Iridium doesn’t recognize it. Without her sensors, she cannot triangulate the geolocation.

I have visited better planets. I do not like it here.

Iridium ignores the singer. She is back with Earth. Even crawling as a mortal speck on her god’s corpse is better than the nothing of space. The nothing here is better.

“This . . . is . . . my . . . home,” her words stumble.

Iridium doesn’t feel the peace she had expected.

Let’s leave. This place upsets you.

“No!” Iridium screams. She drops to the ground and grabs the dirt around her. “I will not leave.”

The singer leans over Iridium. Their vaguely humanoid form leaks into the air, spreading like a blanket. It is not a comforting gesture. They mean to steal Iridium away again. And Iridium knows this time it will be for good.

“Let me stay! Find another!”

The blanket halts in midair. The singer is quiet.

You said you would be with me. You would love me.

“I said I would try.”

The blanket flutters away. It curls into the singer’s humanoid figure again. They squat beside Iridium, then spread out in the dirt too.

I have tried. You have not. They do not look at Iridium.

Iridium lays back alongside them. Both she and the singer watch the hazy sky. The stars are hidden behind the smog.

“You cannot replace my home.”

Why can’t you move on? I have moved on. I can’t even remember what happened to my homeworld anymore. I don’t even know if there ever were others like me.

So the singer is the last of their kind too. Iridium supposed she had known already deep down.

“I would rather be on Earth than wander forever through empty space.” The singer gave Iridium feelings, and she cannot ignore her heartache.

You love Earth, the singer says plainly, unadorned with melody. But they don’t sound jealous, only defeated.

“I do. More than anything.”

The singer nods, then stands. They stare down at Iridium, still lying prone.

Remember you promised you would try to love me. I will try harder too.

Iridium is about to correct the singer, explain that they have talked themself into a circle again, but before she can, the singer shoots up into the sky. They leave Iridium in the dirt and disappear into the haze.

Iridium is alone again.

All out of ideas, she cries. She’ll wait and eventually die. Maybe, one day, long after her biomatter has decayed, Earth might heal. The seconds tick by slowly.

Then the sky sparkles. Iridium glances up, her eyes widening as the condensation glitters. Stars? No, the tint is wrong. Too silver. The fog shifts and dissipates.

Iridium stands. All above her, the singer stretches as a perfect sheet of thin silver metal across the entire horizon. They flap as though caught in a breeze and float cautiously toward Earth, toward Iridium.

Iridium covers her head and shuts her eyes as the singer descends, but she never feels their touch. When she lifts her arms and looks around, the singer has covered Earth’s surface, as far as Iridium can see, in their shimmering film. Only a small ring, a cut patch, remains around Iridium.

The sheet flickers, melting into beads of shining fluid. Iridium gasps, the air shockingly fresh, as the singer dissolves into the Earth. Around her, the ground itself seems to take a full breath. The dry earth chaps and crumbles before slurping up the singer’s juice. Then there is mud. A green stem pokes up and another and another. Grass sprouts like new hair, caustic rust cracking open for flesh.

Iridium touches a blade and squeals. She examines her finger. A small fire ant angrily rounds a knuckle.

The singer has become Earth.

Earth is alive again.

The fog is gone and the sky is bright. Iridium sees green forests and snow-capped mountains in one direction. A deep blue ocean just beyond a field of flowers in the other. She cannot know how much of Earth the singer covered, if all the planet is mended. But this is enough. Iridium smiles.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

The crisp grass rustles. The sound reminds Iridium of a melody she knows all too well. She tilts her head and listens to the song of Earth, the song of the singer. And Iridium loves.

Growing Roots

1.

When the shuttle left the ionosphere, Abby Huang saw bands of light playing across the poles. The earth filled up half of the silicate window, a shrinking, light-blue horizon. Abby had looked at the receding planet in the distance, and thought to herself:

That tiny blue ball—that’s Home. That’s Everything.

There was a moment of awesome spiritual terror.

Then she covered up the window with her palm and pushed the blue-green planet out of her mind.

“Xiaolu, you shouldn’t complain,” her father once told her. He called her Xiaolu—never by her anglicized name, even though she’d often pleaded with him to do so in front of her American friends. “This is where you’re from. This is home.”

She was fifteen. The air was sticky and smelled of petrol. The humidity made it difficult to breathe. Wading through the smog and heat, she could not resist the urge to pick at the acne and neon-red sweat rashes that blossomed across her face. Shui tu bu fu, her grandparents had called itthe rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth—or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body. Abby walked head-down along the pagoda walkways, trying painfully to keep out of the sightlines of passers-by.

“Xiaolu, do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?” Her father asked, pointing at the pond below. She shook her head, deftly hiding her face as a group of cute boys padded by, laughing with the easy swagger of tourists. Her father was a serious man—he did not like parties or MTV or pop music, or any of the things that she liked to gossip to her friends about back home in Oregon. Their conversations would always return to the same thing: the plants, the biology; the work he could never leave at work.

Abby sighed. A crescent day-moon sat like a splash of chalk in the watergarden below. She listened disinterestedly as her father waxed on about stolons and root systems, while laowai and tourists swarmed through New Chenghuang Temple’s stifling heat.

“ . . . more importantly, water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the water-hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . ”

She stood and stared and said nothing. They leaned over the water and lazed in the Puxi swelter, glo-cubes lighting up one by one as the sun crawled lower in the sky.

That was before the cold war—back when all those things still existed. Abby supposed they must still be down there somewhere, on that fragile shred of blue that used to be home—but they were not for her. Her world was now one of underground tunnels and water rations; of wet-wipes and recycled fluids, and the sterile-white of lunar dust. The earth was just a satellite, a distant blue moon above a humbling sweep of desolation, floating like a waterflower in an endless black ocean.

She’d made her own watergarden on the moon.

No—that was not entirely true. Ownership was such an earthly idea—a conceptual luxury that had no place on Luna. Better to say that she’d simply made a piece of home for herself where it wouldn’t have otherwise existed. The colony’s patchwork of edible reeds and algae vats were reminders of happier days—iso-sealed and humid, like a Puxi summer. There used to be an entire team of eight working in hydroponics, but Abby was the only one left now: the sole curator of the colony’s living greenhouse, maintaining and calibrating the ancient equipment, making sure that the algae stores continued to pump out vital oxygen for their precious little foothold of life on the moon.

The comm-line blipped on her shoulder.

“Abs, I missed you at dinner. Are you working late again?”

She fumbled with her equipment, trying to wipe the grease off her fingers.

“That busy, huh? Listen, I’ll bring some food down. You were sick all morning; you really should take some time off.”

Abby sighed. Her free hand found her stomach. The data-tag blipped under her thumb as she ticked off another hydroponic vat from the maintenance checklist. Number sixty-six was a geriatric old thing, prone to leakage and rust—an outdated hunk of equipment that would have been replaced years ago, had the earthbound governments been able to tear their teeth from each other’s throats long enough to mind the moon.

She cracked out her aching back and bobbed through the aisles of silver-gray machinery. Her thoughts veered back towards glo-cubes and Puxi summers, and to their little house in Oregon, before the war, before their relocation to the federal camps. She came to an unsteady stop past the pH equalizers, gripping the sides of a tiny water-tank and feeling its cold, metallic frame against her palms. There, in front of her, was the jewel in the crown of her little empire: one cubit foot of still water, crowded over with lilies and hyacinths.

“Abby. There you are.”

Abby started from her thoughts. She had not heard the doors.

“Fishing for glo-flies again?”

Abby laughed and held up her grease-stained work cloth. Just taking a break, she gestured. John bobbed over to her and sidled up close, stealing a kiss from the corner of her lips. He pushed a stew-tube into her hand, and pulled out a vacuum-pack for himself.

“Brought you some food.”

“Thanks,” she said, peering into the water tank, stretching out the knots in her muscles. The surface looked much too dark for only one cubic foot of water. “I was just thinking about home. You know it’ll be eight years this November since we’ve been up here?”

“Longer, for me.” John ran his fingers across the lilies on the surface. He’d been among the first wave of domestic protesters to speak out against the federal surveillance program, and had lost his house and his job for his un-Americanism. Not quite a them, in the partisan sense of things—but something just as frightening: an invisible shadow of sedition, without even the basic decency to be visibly distinguishable from the us; a cancer of un-patriotism that could not be allowed to speak freely in the land of the free.

“You Chinese get all your censorship from your government, while we in America are expected to do it ourselves.” John once said, back when he and Abby first met. Back then, he was the immaculate portrait of the bitter exile: a sneering young man with a inexhaustible wellspring of cynicism, whose words always sounded way too old for his age. When they met in the hallways, his stance was always guarded—shoulders up, head down—engaging in perfunctory conversation with the enemy alien, whose foreignness was only blunted by their shared predicament.

But as things go, Luna had a way of breaking earthly presumptions. The moon gathered people like them: floating water-flora of questionable loyalty, unable to root in the tensile, suspicious world below. They had flitted out of the ionosphere like glo-flies, even as all the scientists of sturdy nationalistic allegiance scrambled to get home in time for the thermonuclear holocaust.

John snapped open a vacuum pack and waved it under her nose. She gasped at the familiar, tangy smell.

“Dried fruit? Real fruit?”

He smiled and nodded.

“Paul gave them out at mess. Good haul this cycle. UNJO-funded.”

Abby brought a fig to her mouth and bit down, feeling the seeds crunch and pop through their sticky-sweet insides.

“It must be thawing out down there.”

“Must be.” John shrugged, popping some raisins into his mouth. Abby frowned at that. He was too non-committal about earth politics, these days. Surely, the thawing of tensions down below was good news for exiles like them.

“Anyway, how much do you still have to do?”

She looked around the room and groaned. There were still twenty out of the eighty-six water-silos that she had not yet checked up on. Between those and her scheduled isometrics, she’d be lucky to get a wink of sleep before reveille.

John seemed to be able to read her thoughts.

“You’re sick in the mornings and tired at night. You’re working too hard, Abs. Just skip the isometrics for a day, will you?”

Abby sighed. Once again, her free hand found her stomach, strolling over the smoothweave fabric of her clothes. She sucked down the stew tube and finished up the last of the maintenance work with John peering helpless and impatient over her shoulders. They lugged her equipment down the halls, bouncing and bobbing into the walls until they parted ways at the isometrics room.

She watched John’s retreating back through the hallway. Perhaps it was her imagination, or the fluorescent lighting saturating the walls—but she could not help thinking that, in this light, he looked much thinner than usual.

2.

Morning reveille was at 7:00 AM, Lunar Standard. The corridors’ artificial lights flickered into slow-glow, a pale fluorescent facsimile of the terran sunrise. Abby was up and moving an hour before the music seeped through the speakers in its rising tune.

For breakfast: a tube of nutrient paste and another of simulated oatmeal that she’d left out to thaw the night before. She downed them quickly, over the protest of nausea in her stomach. A glass of re-condensed water went down stale and tinny, and then her daily steroids and calcium tablets, before she bobbed down the lightening halls towards the isometric rooms.

The isometrics were the closest thing she had to religion on Luna. The exercise room was her steeple; the ranging lunges, her dogma. It was a sweating and heaving congregation, in daily prayer that the earth wouldn’t crush the life out of their de-calcified bones once they returned to its gravity. It was the one thing that told the home-bound apart from the lifers—the Scrawnies and Lunies that talk show hosts joked about on primetime Earthnet.

Stretch-heave.

She gave her musculature a testing flex, strutting her full range of motion against the cables. She could tune out the creak of the straining machines, the heavy breathing of the other attendees, and the scent of evaporating sweat being sucked into moisture collectors. The contractions of tensile wireframes stretched into spiritual nihilism, as mind-erasing as Buddhist zen.

Stretch-heave.

In her vision: a sweep of dancing lights from the ionosphere, and the afterglow of a receding horizon.

Stretch-heave.

A fragile splash of blue in an all-black sky.

Stretch-heave.

Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.

Before the cold war, she had been an American. Pretty-faced and tall for her age. Perpetually heartbroken and happy, the way teenagers are.

She had been content in their little Oregonian suburb, among the quiet houses and the trees and the suburban, two-lane streets. She liked the schools and the people, the pizza and gossip at familiar hangouts. She liked the dances and the Oregonian boys, who fawned after her like exotic spices from a faraway land. Disquieting, in its own way—though, truth be told, she’d always rather liked the attention.

“You’re lucky you’re pretty and popular, you know. They can be so cruel to us sometimes.”

The only other immigrant family had lived ten miles outside of town. Their child Bo was a freshman, one year her junior, whose parents had gone through painful lengths to enrol him in a richer school. She understood their obsession with scholastic prestige because of her father—but she also knew that, well-intentioned though they were, they hadn’t done the boy any favours. He was a shy kid, quiet and shabby, who could not keep up in sports or conversations. He ate his lunches alone in a stairwell in the disused north wing of the school, and she’d laughed dutifully along with her friends whenever the popular boys tormented him in the hallways.

With her, he seemed to forgive readily.

“We’re not the same as them,” he said once, sitting on their porch, nursing a split lip for talking back to Bobby Lee at school the week before. Her father had forced her to stay at home while he hosted the boy’s parents. “I don’t think we’ll ever be.”

In the shade of suburban awnings, looking out at the middle-class cul-de-sac, Bo’s accented speech and deliberate use of ‘we’ sounded out of place. The boy bothered her; everything from his shabby clothes, to his imposition of camaraderie, to his half-smiling way of speaking, as if he was letting on less than he knew.

Abby had last heard from him when they shipped him to the federal camps for un-Americanism. The injustice of it sat like lead in her stomach. Flexing against her binding cables, she wondered at how quickly the earth had become such an unhappy place.

Stretch-heave.

The fluorescence of the isometric room came back and heliographed before her eyes. She felt a churning in her belly, cresting in a familiar wave of nausea.

Stretch-heave.

She dropped the cables and clutched at her stomach.

Vomit fell slowly in 1/6 G.

3.

“Your viral and bacterial screens came back negative.”

The pronouncement was as cold as a scalpel. Abby shifted uncomfortably as Dr. Stelman, one of the colony’s two bag-eyed, overworked doctors, frowned from the datapad to his patient.

The sterile whiteness of the room stifled her.

“You know I can’t give out anything without a solid diagnosis. Things are tight enough as it is.”

Abby contorted her neck into a nod, doing her best to ignore the anxiety that crept down her spine and tingled in her toes. Luna, she knew, was not the sort of place you wanted to fall ill. The med-lab had countermeasures for the most common lunar ailments; Zalmatox courses for immunodeficiency, steroids for muscle atrophy, cal-tabs for osteopenia, even a needlewire electrolysation kit for aortic calcification . . . But at the end of the day, the long list of things that could go wrong with a human body in 1/6 G was nowhere near exhaustive. The colony was barely a generation old—new complications were still popping out of the woodwork on a consistent basis, sending bodies to the waste dump and leaving med-staff puzzled and helpless.

Dr. Stelman pressed at her belly, giving her a start.

“What about your periods?” he asked. “Have they been regular?”

There was a beat of silence. Then Abby almost laughed out loud. She looked at the doctor, searching his face for the twinkle of a joke, but found only tired and humourless eyes. She shrugged helplessly. Her periods had been irregular ever since she came to Luna—reproductive complications and sterility were common side effects of long-term extraterrestrial life. Luna was a population built on immigrants alone; birth rates were the sole purview of terran statisticians.

Dr. Stelman stared at the datapad, brows furrowed in consternation.

“We’ll do an ultrasound, just to be sure.” He murmured. “That’s probably not it, but still . . . .”

John had been as surprised as she when he got the news.

“They want to do what?” He’d half-laughed as he bobbed uncertainly towards the pulled bed-frame.

Now, as the rising crescendo of lights and reveille music seeped across the halls, Abby could only watch with a pang of homesickness as her usual congregation filed out of the isometrics room. She nodded to the regulars as she bobbed past. John had appealed to his shift manager to accompany her to the test, but as per usual with the colony’s strapped work shifts, the response had been curt and practical: “Pregnancies don’t happen off-planet. Stelman’s been working too hard lately. You know we can’t give time off for trivial things.”

Abby sighed. Trivial things.

Next to the weight of the moon, everything was trivial.

“Hey Huang. No isos today?”

Abby shook her head and bounced by wordlessly. The woman laughed and slapped her on the rump, a little over-friendly in her endorphin high.

“You’d better not be going native, lady.”

Overhead, the fluorescent lights had reached their full brightness. The halls began to fill with activity as the lifers and homebound alike made from their dorms and began their daily buzz around the colony. Abby’s stomach bounced with every bobbing step. The nausea-suppressants she took from the med lab seemed to be working, at least. She made her way through the winding corridors towards medical, past hydroponics, past the branching northern hall that led the waste disposal unit on the far side of the colony. She’d taken a work-shift there, back when she first landed. Mostly bio-tox and bodies—archiving the ID tags of the dead and reclaiming the moisture from their bodies, before sealing the airlock and letting the pressure gradient carry the husks down the poop chute. Some of the bodies would roll and be carried by their own inertia over a crater rim. Most of them just laid there in the lunar dust and debris, shrunken and glossy-eyed, never decaying.

She’d had her own brief rebellion at the thought of drying and dumping the dead, instead of burying them—but that phase had been mercifully short-lived. Earth-born sentimentalism did not last long on Luna.

Dr. Stelman greeted her curtly as she entered the med-lab. She watched from outside her body as the assistant prepped the electrodes and laid her down on the worn polystyrene table.

“Don’t be so nervous,” came the scripted reassurance. “It’s probably nothing. Just a routine test.”

Abby almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Routine? For whom? She thought of earthly mothers in their bracing gravity, complaining about hospital foods and commute times and the noisy birds outside. She thought of what it would be like to eat fresh foods, to feel natural humidity on her skin, to be able to unironically think of life as a blessing, rather than some vaguely fearful variable in the annals of space exploration.

As the gel-tipped sensor glided cool and ticklish across her skin, Abby Huang closed her eyes and lost herself to thoughts of home.

“Finally. I thought we’d never get out of airport security. How many times do they have to grope a girl before they’re convinced she’s not some bomb-strapped Manchurian candidate?”

In the distant past, Abby’s father was laughing, ushering a visiting Chinese couple to the living room. Their little Oregonian suburb sat in a haze of weekend ennui, sunlight flooding the house through their venetian blinds.

(The coolness of the ultrasound gel tickled her abdomen).

“Things have been tense since the Strait of Japan incident . . . Sorry it was such a hassle for you to get here. I hope people can come to their senses soon and not let things escalate any further.”

The woman nodded in agreement, shaking hands with her father for the twentieth time, laughing and dropping her glottals in a twanging Ningbo accent. The man smiled with aloof politeness. It was familiar scene in the Huang household: her father and his colleagues, sitting around the coffee table, waxing political about the latest international developments over a pot of chrysanthemum tea and a bowl of oily American snacks.

Abby observed the grown-ups as she snacked idly in the kitchen.

“Still, not the best time for visiting America, eh, Da Huang?” said the woman. “The TSA aside, I heard a few of your colleagues got into trouble with the university for un-Americanism.”

“Ah, Liu Bu. He’s never been the type who could leave his politics at home.”

The woman nodded, then threw up her shoulders in the universal what-can-you-do gesture.

“That’s how it starts, isn’t it? It’s the same everywhere. The screws are being tightened on the mainland, too. My friend from internal says there’s even talk of revoking all American business visas, if the US sanctions go ahead.”

“And a good job of it, if that,” interjected the man from the other end of the couch. His tone was terse and confrontational, cutting through the Sunday haze. Abby perked up from her Cheetos. Maybe something interesting would happen, after all.

The woman shot her companion a cold warning glance. Abby’s father only shrugged.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

“Well, if it does, it’ll be your American jingoism that provoked it. We would’ve settled the issue with Little Japan years ago—you’re the ones butting into regional politics where you don’t belong . . . .”

“Damn it, honey, let’s not do this again . . . .”

Abby peeked surreptitiously over her snack-bag at the grown-ups in the other room. Something about the man’s deliberate use of pronouns unsettled her. Abby knew nothing about the rising tensions in the Straits of Japan, or the nationalistic media clampdown at Xinhua, or the hawkish electoral rhetoric being spewed on Capitol Hill—but, looking at her father, all laugh lines and a neatly-parted businessman’s cut over his traditional Han features, she could not help but wonder who they were supposed to be in this scenario—the ‘you’ or the ‘we’?

“You know, you should really watch CCTV sometime—it would be a change of pace from your imperialist American news. Why, just a week ago, Lin Xiaochen ran a segment highlighting the provocative American foreign policy . . . .”

Abby’s father waved his hand, as if slapping away an insect.

“Lin Xiaochen! That old demagogue salivates over the idea of war as if it were a spectator sport.”

“Spoken like an un-patriotic coward. When your country’s security and dignity is on the line, it’s your duty to fight!”

The man accentuated the word ‘fight’ with a solid smack on the knee. The female guest sat in her seat, rubbing her temple in mute, resigned embarrassment. Abby’s father nodded coldly.

“Let the demagogues whinge and roar. You can bet that it won’t be them or their children enlisting to fight, if war ever did break out.”

The man set down his teacup with an audible clink.

“If war ever did break out, I’d send my son to fight.”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

Abby sighed and returned to her Cheetos.

In the present, Dr. Stelman narrowed his eyes, squinting at the grainy screen of the ultrasound. The electric thrum of two parallel heartbeats filled Abby’s world with equal parts wonder and dread.

“Anyhow, I think you’re out of touch, Mr. Huang,” the man said, as the suburban tableau scattered like a breaking mosaic. “All you get here is American news, American rhetoric. Plenty of patriotic Chinese agree with me.”

The scent-memory of chrysanthemums hung in the air.

4.

“A baby? Is it true, Xiaolu, you’re having a baby?”

The comm-link blared like a runaway train. Abby smiled a little vindictively, thinking of the federal censors listening in on their line, probably grasping their coffees and cringing against the excited noise.

“Ma, please don’t gush. It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Abby tried to smile back through the screen. She wondered how to convey the precariousness of her situation without upsetting her beaming mother; how to express the four hundred thousand kilometres of distance between her child and the life-giving earth; the political complications of her status if she were to ever return; the weeks of hushed, tearful debates between herself and John over whether to keep the child at all. Dr. Stelman’s sterile, professional words rang in her head:

“There have never been any studies on the effects of a lunar environment on human pregnancy. We’ll monitor the situation carefully, but bear in mind that there’s no guarantee that the child will come to term . . . .”

Her mother bounded back through the transmission lag:

“Oh, who’s gushing, Xiaolu? I’m just so glad to see your face again. When the government men told us, we didn’t believe them. But then the news started talking about it, and then even the army folks guarding the camp—and when they told us that we’d be able to see you again, after all these years . . . !” Wiping tears from her eyes, she continued: “I’m so happy for you. You know there isn’t a person on earth who isn’t rooting for you, Xiaolu!”

Abby smiled and took that with a grain of salt—but she had to admit that the first communiqués from earth had been heartening. The near-defunct UN Joint Operations office had gotten in touch with both the Chinese and American authorities, who had in turn located her mother in one of the internment centers and set up a weekly supervised line directly from Luna into camp. At mess, Paul had showed them clip after clip of optimistic terran pundits pointing out the reconciliatory symbolism of the moon-child in a thawing political landscape. And when Joint Operations ran their social media Q&A, the longest-running thread on Earthnet had been an outpouring of congratulations from both sides of the Great Firewall—though, she had to remind herself in her moments of overt optimism, the second-longest had been an ongoing wiki-limerick titled “The Turncoat and the Chinky Whore.”

“I’m really happy to hear that, Ma. How are things at the, uh—” She paused, re-assessing her words. ‘Internment camp’ was still a taboo phrase in the federal lexicon. “—how are things at the assembly center?”

If her mother picked up on her unease, she didn’t show it.

“Oh, we’ve mostly been talking about you, Xiaolu! We had a dance last week to celebrate the news. Bo fixed up one of the old farmhouses, the supervising officer approved it, and everybody in the camp showed up and danced. Even some of the army guards came out to join us—what were their names again . . . ?”

“That—that’s great, Ma!” Abby yelled, cutting her mother off before she could blurt them out. A bit of camaraderie between guards and internees was one thing; but openly fraternizing with interned aliens was still big trouble, even in the thawing world below.

Then, something else clicked in the back of her head:

“Wait, ma, did you say Bo?”

“Yes! Oh, but you wouldn’t know! He was transferred here after you left for Patriot School! He’s here now, in the other room. Silly boy, he said he didn’t want to intrude on our time. Xiao Bo, come out here!”

Abby watched in astonishment as the boyish face came sliding on-screen, carrying an uncharacteristic dry smirk. That Bo would somehow end up in the same camp as her mother was not unheard of—persons certified as ‘low-threat’ were routinely put in the same re-settlements as their old neighbours. What surprised her was the fact that he was still there. He had been even younger than she was when they interned him, and she could not imagine that he would have any reason to stay.

“Hey, Xiaolu.” He laughed. “You look a little shocked to see me.”

She gave a little wave into the comm-screen.

“I’m happy to see you, Bo—I just didn’t expect you to be in a camp, of all places. I thought for sure you would have taken the Patriot Exams by now!”

“That garbage?” He laughed.

Abby bit her tongue. Surely he knew it was a supervised line?

“Like I’d lie and pander just to get out.” He grinned wider. There was a tinge of desperation in it. “And anyway, I not a naturalized American, remember? I never had the option in the first place.”

John nodded knowingly from his corner. The Naturalized Child Citizens Act had applied only to American-born aliens, giving them the option to be housed and re-educated elsewhere, away from their families in the camps. When the choice had been extended to Abby, her mother had asked no questions, only kissed her on the forehead and wished her the best.

“You can have a life and a future, Abby,” she’d saida way out from the group bunks and unpartitioned washrooms of the camp; a tantalizing whiff of freedom that had stolen into the oubliette where they’d been stored and forgotten. A few years away in some government boarding school had seemed like a small price to pay.

Abby sighed and remembered a trip they took during her Patriot years—a tour of some university in the mid-west, shepherded under the shadows of neo-Georgian buildings for a glimpse of the world that they would one day inhabit as productive Patriots. Their supervising chaperones had marched them openly across the quad, and she’d felt the eyes of passersbys upon their little clique: hack musicians handing out flyers, ultimate-frisbee-ers fighting over a drink, friends out for a spring picnic on the grass; all craning their necks to stare as they passed by. And Abby watched them in her turn, her eyes connecting with theirs through a great distance, wondering at the lives and dreams of those other people from that other world.

The memory made her sad. Those were the days when she still belonged to earth—when she still believed that the other world had a place for her. Over time, she grew to be inured to the hostile looks from strangers in the streets, to the slurs and snide remarks that led to workplace altercations, and to the termination notices from mediators as they invariably sided with her harassers. She went through her days in a haze, bouncing from one potential employer to the next, watching them squint at her Patriot certificate as though searching for forgery. Some days, she found herself becoming inexplicably angry at even her own friends: their offers of financial support became jeers of superiority; their sympathetic, I’m-sorry-you-had-to-go-through-that pep-talks became increasingly underwritten by the unspoken implication, I would never have to.” Holding her rancour out at arm’s length, she grew to hate the broke, angry, and over-suspicious woman in the mirror. She was a water-hyacinth—overqualified, underpaid—dreaming of glo-cubes and waterflowers in a middle-American desert.

“I guess a lot of things have happened since then, huh?”

Bo’s words jolted Abby out of her reverie. The face on the comm-screen was grinning, but in the ugly way of someone trying to force a laugh at a funeral. She’d never seen him look so old and tired—as if the smile on his face was holding back a weight that would stretch his features to the ground, wrinkle them with liverspots, fold them up with the caprices of care and age. She ran a finger over her own knuckles and wondered if she too looked as old and tired as he did.

“Yeah. A lot of things have happened to all of us,” she confirmed.

They sat awhile in unspoken understanding. When her mother looked back at the camera, it was with the same sad expression she’d worn when Abby left the camp for the first time. Bo, to her side, watched the floor with his cracked-marble grin.

The federal reprimand pinged on her screen. They were out of time.

Her mother smiled—genuinely, this time.

“It’s fine, Xiaolu. They said we’ll get to talk again next week. And as many weeks as we want after that, until you’re able to come home.”

Her words sounded naively optimistic to Abby’s ears. The notion of Oregonian suburbs and Puxi summers fluttered in her chest, fragile and wishful, before she forcibly clamped them down again. Abby said her goodbyes to her mother and Bo, watching them watch her with identical, faraway looks on their faces.

Her finger hovered over the final disconnect key.

I’ll see you both when I come home,” she said as the screen went blank.

5.

On a clear night in the country, the star-dusted sky would have been a humbling sight. Here, on the lunar surface, it smothered and cleansed, and the terrifying one-eighty-degree sweep of unbound creation could cut straight to your soul.

The earthrise looked abjectly small and fragile by comparison.

Abby and John rarely ever visited the surface. Nobody did, unless it was for work: engineers calibrating the panels that turned the deadly, unfiltered sunlight towards the power-grids of the colony; miners and surveyors, who alternated between tunnelling underground and braving the surface in their comical suits, searching out the ever-precious lodes of water-ice sublated in the lunar geology. The people of Luna never got much leisure time—but Abby’s pregnancy had transformed her and John into instant celebrities, both on Luna and on Earth. They had the benefit of an unheard-of one week away from duties, with stipend water rations to get them through the week.

They were spending the last day of their vacation gazing at the earth.

“There’s a lot of talk about bringing Lily back there.” John’s crackling voice came over the comm—more bitter and sardonic than necessary, she thought. “The bureaucrats are practically drooling for her.”

Abby nodded invisibly in her spacesuit, which pulled uncomfortably tight around her waist. To her and John, she was Lily, their moon-girl, their beautiful child-to-be. But to the earthbound propagandists, she was a political narrative and a powerful PR coup; the first child conceived on the moon; a mix-blooded child of peace and reconciliation on a four-hundred-thousand kilometre descent from exile.

The blue planet twinkled silently in the sky.

Still, a propaganda reel for peace wouldn’t be such a bad change, thought Abby—it sure beat the nationalistic demagoguery the media had doled out at the beginning of the cold war. She looked up at the blackness, and then over at the spacesuit that contained her moon-man, bobbing twenty yards away towards the crater rim. When all was said and done, she had a more personal reason to be thinking about the earth.

Fact was, she missed it like hell.

“John, I want to go back.”

She could not see John’s face through the reflective visor, but his voice came through the comm crackling and strained.

“Now?”

“When else, if not now?”

“I was hoping we could wait a few more years. Wait out the worst of the thaw. You know how it is down there, Abs—there’s no safety on either side of that line.”

Abby sighed. Here was the conversation that she had been dreading for weeks. John turned to look back at her as the silence stretched on uncomfortably. The helioproofed domes of their spacesuits reflected only the sweep of lunar sky, two hollow-looking cosmonauts against a humbling field of desolation, surreal as staring ghosts. She measured her words carefully:

“No one’s ever carried a pregnancy to term off-world. We don’t know what it could mean for Lily.”

(Don’t you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?)

The comm-link buzzed in her ear.

“The States down there isn’t the States I used to know. You know what these people can do, in the name of God and country. Do you really want to take us back to all that . . . ?”

“John, this isn’t about you or me.” She cringed against the weight of her words, and at the half-truth that sat beneath them. She imagined his furrowed brows behind his helmet, his fear and silent indignation at having to return to country that had spat him out so long ago, without even the guarantee of change or safety when he did return. “I want Lily to be born on earth. Look around! This is no place to raise a kid. I want our daughter to grow up with all the things we had—the most basic, stupid clichés that she’ll never even know about on Luna—like taking a shower on a summer day—(Remember showers, John? Remember summers?)—I want her to know clouds and dew and flowers—sunlight that doesn’t kill you . . . .”

Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.

“John. I want to go home.”

The comm-link was silent. Abby was thankful that her suit’s visor hid the dampness welling up in her eyes. She reached up to wipe the tears away, but only thudded her hand stupidly against the dome of her helmet.

“Abby, are you crying?”

“I . . . No, I—Jesus, John . . . .”

Abby gritted her teeth. She shook her head inside her spacesuit, invisibly, futilely. The only thing that had gotten her through their tenure on the moon was the assumption that it was all temporary; that one day, somehow, she would return home. She had not counted on growing roots. She had not counted on a lot of things: not the untaken steroids and cal-tabs that she’d found in John’s medicine cabinet, nor his ever-increasing excuses to put off isometrics, nor the twenty earth-pounds of body-mass that she’d watched him shed over the past year as he waned thin and brittle in moon-G. She wanted to grab him by the shoulders and scream: You look like a Lunie, you know that? You look like a fucking lifer!

The earth twinkled silently overhead.

You’re growing roots in the wrong place.

Abby took a deep breath and suppressed the churning in her gut. She bobbed awkwardly towards her moon-man until their helmets were touching, and she could just make out the faint contours of his features beneath the helioproofed glass.

“Look: it’s thawing out down there, John. I really think there can be a future for people like us. America isn’t all there is. I’ll take you to Shanghai. We can visit the watergardens with Lily. Go to the tourist-traps. Spend a fortune on stupid trinkets that we’ll never need . . . .”

We can . . . and we can . . . .

The comm-line was silent. The sun crested over the rim of the crater, throwing jagged shadows onto the lunar foothills. Sunlight reflected heaven-white off the moondust, swallowing the tiny spacesuits below.

Finally, after a long silence, John’s voice came crackling over the comm-line:

“Yeah. Someday, I’d like that.”

6.

When the shuttle re-entered the ionosphere, Abby Huang watched the lights of the terran cities below, glinting like misplaced stars as the continents advanced against her viewscreen.

The bureaucratic procedurals for her return had been surprisingly painless. Aside from the expected posturing between the governments over where she would symbolically land, things had gone as smoothly as anyone could have hoped. The terran authorities hadn’t made any overtly cynical demands—just a few press appearances, some photo-ops with pro-peace politicians who needed an extra boost in their credibility. Shake hands with some middle-American senator; smile and pose with some smarmy Chinese dignitary.

The thought of it overwhelmed her with rage.

“And my father? We haven’t heard from him since the Americans interned us. Have you had any luck finding him?”

She remembered the last communiqué from earth, the week before she was scheduled to leave Luna. The UNJO officer had looked visibly uncomfortable in his seat, while the Chinese official on her comm-screen smiled his placid little smile.

“We are sorry that we cannot help you in that regard. Please rest assured that our thoughts are with you, Ms. Huang. We apologize, and are nevertheless anticipating your safe return with great excitement.”

As the planet loomed below her, Abby had to fight down the rage and gut-pain that wracked her stomach. Anticipating your safe return—was that what they had told her father, when the Americans expelled him, back to the country of his birth? Was that what they had said as they dragged him away in their nationalistic witch-hunt, screeching their archaic, pre-millennial rhetoric? Fangeming, han jian—foreign-born, US-sympathetic, or just caught saying the wrong things at the wrong time—thousands of men and women, lost and buried as missing persons, anomalies in the prison system. And now, as the political winter thawed, bland-faced bureaucrats smiled at worried families. Your concern is important to us, we will do everything we can to locate so-and-so, please move to the back of the line.”

Abby ran a hand over her bloated stomach, holding back the sinking feeling inside. The blue-green horizon expanded as the shuttled sailed languidly under the weight of its own inertia. A streaming feed from Earthnet buzzed on the all-comm.

“ . . . and the eyes of the nation are turned to the moon today, as Lily Johnston-Huang descends from the moon-colony Luna and is scheduled to touch down at the Swiss Space Center at 8PM this evening . . . ”

. . . 从国家利益的角度考虑,必须记住的是,瑞士既是美国的盟友, 更是北约的一员 . . . ”

“What bothers me, Susan, is that this girl—you know—that her parents decided to keep her other name. What kind of message does that send? I mean, you’re either a Johnston or a Huang, am I right?”

Abby grunted to herself. Waves broke over her, and she felt adrift in a sea of self-doubt. Had she done the right thing, bringing Lily back to all this?

The shuttle began to thrum in its deorbit burn. The horizon tilted on its axis as they positioned themselves nose-first against the terran atmosphere. Abby looked out through the exothermic glow of her viewscreen and gritted her teeth against the turbulence, her fingers digging themselves into the armrests as though they were the only things holding her up in the sky.

The fear-cramp in her gut stirred again, even as she tried to force her mind in comforting directions. She imagined her mother and her beaming optimism. She imagined John, healthy and filled-out as he once was, dancing with Lily along the walkways of New Chenghuang Temple. She imagined glo-cubes lighting up one by one in the watergarden below. An Oregonian suburb—a Puxi swelter.

Her belly contracted with pain. She looked down and pried her death-grip from the armrests. Outside, the air of the low atmosphere screeched and whined against their speeding shuttle.

“Xiaolu, Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”

She clutched her sides, uncomprehending. The whinging screech of the hull seemed determined to bore a hole straight through her skull.

“I mean, I’m as much for peace as the next guy, but what kind of upside-down world would it be where Huangs dressed up like Johnstons and Johnstons dressed like Huangs? Am I right folks?”

She shook her head, no, no. It was too soon.

而且,鉴于全球对该孩童及家庭如此关注,以及对该事件付与的政治函意,这不能不让人深究:该事件的进一步发展将会有利于美国的宣传机器还是我们的爱国主义教育 . . .

Then the pain in her stomach crested, and the contractions began.

“Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”

Abby shook her head against the memory. Something about stolons and root systems. Cameras snapped and faces screeched as she stumbled into the humid terran atmosphere, the welcome party on the tarmac as loud and thick as a lynching.

“Hey! Get the fucking press out of here!”

“Water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . .”

The crowd milled and the sky spat and the cameras flashed.

Shui tu bu fu, she recalled uselessly as they wheeled her across the runway—(the rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth; or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body)—a green-blue planet smothering and spitting out an unwanted, alien bacterium.

“We are water hyacinths.”

A light mist of rain fell from the sky, cut with the scent of industrial-grade petrol. The contraction shot regular white flashes of pain through her body. Abby did not notice the rainwater mingling with sweat on her brow, nor the roar of engines, nor the yammering of press and paramedics outside. The waterflowers in her mind had become the ships of tiny explorers, drifting away on an endless ocean. Her mother and father sat in a floating pod; and John too; and Lily, her impossible, fragile moon-girl.

“We are water-hyacinths, Xiaolu. We do not grow roots.”

And one-by-one, they fell over the horizon.

Billy Ray’s Small Appliance Rehabilitation

The community’s gardener, Mr. Ussander, tosses the clock radio on the counter and demands a refund. The radio looks holy to me. He tells me to plug it in. “It is Well With My Soul” belts out of the mono speaker and the clock glows the unmistakable blue of an LED.

“My wife wants to know why you are so intent on condemning us to eternal damnation.”

He won’t touch the thing, despite my assurances that we will finish the rehabilitation, so I count out the bills of his refund. He crosses the street, back to Revelation, the only Grahamite community in Toronto. Once the customer leaves, I slip into the workshop. David’s legs stick out from beneath a big wood-panelled hi-fi cabinet.

“That’s the third refund this week,” I say. He’s been working on the cabinet for days now, way longer than it should take to replace the digital amplifier. I count backward to the last time I filled his prescription, and I swear. “This is more than just a hi-fi rehabilitation, isn’t it?”

David slides out from beneath the cabinet, the sleeves of his Oxford rolled up. Purple blotches cover the exposed flesh. “I’ve made a great discovery, Billy Ray. This time it will be different.”

I slam the clock radio down on the workbench.  The last time he tried to build a time machine, he almost burned down the shop.  “The therapist warned against this kind of behaviour. The past only exists in your mind. You can’t go back there. You can’t fix it.”

“The Lord rewards patience.”

“I reward you for rehabilitating appliances, and you’re doing a shit job of it.”

I go back to my perch behind the counter. He can never go back there, but I can. I slip the Backflasher out from beneath the counter and press the cerephones to my forehead. I go looking for something, anything, that can save him. And I go back because that night is the night he took his first step out of their world and into mine.

I open my favorites and go back to that night fifteen years ago when David discovered his Shift.

Tuesday evening, the second to last week of Grade Ten. I wade through the filthy waters of Highland Creek. Diapers, tires, broken bottles, circuit boards, and the occasional bloated animal carcass line the bank. The creek flows toward a red brick wall, and at the spot the oil-slicked liquid flows through the culvert, I hold my breath, duck, and swim a short length of darkness.

David meets me in Revelation. I come out dripping and itchy and he rushes me along the bank of the reservoir full of discoloured water, past the water treatment plant his father built, to the plant’s outlet where the creek spills out clear and pure in the summer evening light. I wash off the industrial sewage and we go looking for the girls.

Two piles of clothing sit on the banks of Baptismal Pool Number Three. The girls call to us from the water. Anja and Rebecca. One for each of us, even though I am no more interested in Anja than she is in me. They bob in the middle of the pool, the white promise of their breasts hidden just below the surface. We duck under one of the weeping willows that line the creek and undress. The chastity vow I made when I joined David’s high school burns in my ears as I watch him peel off his uniform.

Warm slices of sunset dance across David’s hairless chest. I pretend my erection is for the girls. In that partitioned sunlight, I can’t be sure about the three purple spots I notice just below David’s left shoulder blade. I brush them with the tips of my fingers, the spots warm and sweat-damp. We find two more in a cluster on his right thigh. David recoils at the sight of them.

“They can’t be Bernie Blotches,” he says. He wets his thumb and tries to rub them off.

“What’s taking so long?” Rebecca says.

“The water’s divine,” Anja says.

David slides his shirt back on and buttons it up. “I can’t let her see this.” He trembles beneath the willow branches, shoes in his hand. “Please, Billy Ray. We have to go.”

“You owe me one skinny dip,” I say as I dress.

We steal the girls’ clothes. The two of them scream as we run down the bank. We leave their clothes on the picnic table by Baptismal Pool Number Four. David doesn’t want to go home; he can’t face his mother yet. I think he’s already decided she was the transgressor. So we call from the pay phone at the gas station. David’s father, Adam Mercer—or who he assumed until that night was his father—answers. David tells him that we are sleeping over at Robert O’Leary’s house, the first lie I’ve ever heard him tell his parents. I pick up my phone and glasses from the lock box. The booze-soaked guard at Revelation’s east gate doesn’t notice us duck past.

Outside the gates, a steady stream of cars, buses, and streetcars crawl by along the eight-lanes of Lawrence Avenue. David watches it all in wide-eyed apprehension. He’s never been out of the compound without a chaperone before.

We take the streetcar three stops, then transfer to a bus. A Brawny Baby is strapped into a wheelchair up at the front, her sitter immersed in a VR headset beside her. I try to pull David past the Brawny, but he stops at her side. She looks like a botched attempt at cloning a gorilla. Thick coils of muscle protrude from her triple-XL T-shirt and drool leaks past her bite guard. Every bare patch of flesh is marked by the same purple blotches I found on David’s white skin. David kneels beside her as the bus rolls away from the curb and places his hands on her massive forearm.

“The Lord still loves you,” he says.

She spits out her bite guard. Great dark eyes focus on David. She knocks him to the ground and shouts: “Drink.”

The sitter strips off her VR rig and crams a two-litre bottle of Enervade into the Brawny Baby’s sucking mouth.

“That’s assault,” the sitter says. “See if I don’t put in a claim for workplace stress and discomfort. Slip me two grand, I might change my mind.”

David reaches for his wallet.

“Make that claim,” I say. “And I’ll tell your employer you were jacked in when you were supposed to be sitting.”

“Drink,” the giant roars. She throws the empty bottle to ground. “Drink!”

The sitter searches her bag for another bottle. We hide at the back of the bus.

“You can’t go around touching people,” I say.

“That will be me. A giant strapped to a chair.”

“We don’t even know what kind of Baby you are. Most rational explanation is that your real dad was a Beautiful Baby who charmed her pants off.”

I don’t mean to say it, but I know he is thinking the same thing.

“The whore,” he says.

The next stop is mine. Mom is working the late shift at the restaurant so we have the place to ourselves. I try to get him to eat, but everything in the fridge is GMO’d or manufactured offshore. Eventually I find some dried apples from a Grahamite community in Cobourg we visited on a school trip last October.

“She witnessed for a year on the West Coast during her first Mission,” he says, jaw grinding the leathery strips of apple. “Met Dad out there and came back pregnant. Fooled him ever since.”

“We should talk to Pastor Kline tomorrow. He’ll know what to do.”

“’Come ye out from among them and be ye separate’. I know exactly what has to be done.”

David stuffs another piece of near-fossilized apple into his mouth. As I watch, a cluster of Bernie Blotches blossom on his cheek, the bruise from an ancient wound his body only now remembers.

The door to the shop chimes. I pop off the cerephones and slide the Backflasher into a drawer: Grahamites don’t like to see their service providers using forbidden tech. Into the fading memory of that summer night walks a gorgeous Grahamite woman, blonde hair sprayed into a golden mass on top of her head. She peels off thin leather driving gloves as she approaches the counter.

“That your Fairlane parked out front?” I say. She nods. “They don’t make them like they used to.”

“I understand you do make them like they used to,” she says. Her voice has that breathy quality leading ladies adopted in movies from the 1950s.

“Appliances, sure. Not automobiles.”

“It’s an automobile I’m after,” she says. “A ’57 Bel Air, to be precise. I’m told you’re honest, and that you do good work.”

I straighten up. Working on a car would be good for David. It could mean weeks of work. Maybe even enough to knock him out of this Fascination.

“None better in the province, when it comes to appliances. For automobiles, we usually ship from California or Cuba, but in special circumstances, we’ve been known to do the work in-house. What do you have in mind?”

She places her gloves on the counter and makes a show of looking at the clocks, power tools, toasters, and other appliances in my cabinet. Sweat rolls in small droplets to the low neck of her dress.

“It’s my twentieth wedding anniversary. I found the ’57 in Etobicoke. Thoroughly desecrated, of course, but once you make it pure, my husband will love it.”

“Won’t be cheap to fix a car like that,” I say. The refunds of the past week have taken a deep cut of our revenue and I have to make up the rent somehow.

She shrugs. “My husband tells me I needn’t worry about money. Name your price, I’m sure it will be fair.”

“I’ll have to see the car first.”

She writes down the address of the wrecker on the back of her husband’s card. She is Mrs. Robert Thrangle, from the Grahamite community in Kemptville, outside Ottawa. Long drive in one of those old cars. I promise to call with the quote. After the Fairlane chugs off, I walk back to the workshop.

David is soldering a vacuum tube into an electrical board. In the time since I last came in, he’s attached two chairs to the old hi-fi cabinet, abandoning all pretence that this is a standard rehabilitation. The LED-blighted clock radio sits forgotten on the workbench.

I tell him about the Bel Air. He keeps working. I tell him it will be enough money to cover rent for a couple months. He finishes the connection and places the soldering iron on the workbench.

“Might even be enough to pay for another prescription.”

He looks up from behind the electrical board.

“Those pills are nothing but shackles to confine my intellect. I won’t take them again.”

“Will you at least come with me to look at the car? They are airing game four of the ’59 World Series tomorrow. We could listen on the way back.”

“I’ll listen to it here.”

He picks up another vacuum tube and solders it in place.

It`s too late in the day to start the journey—the highway isn’t safe after dark—so I pack a few things and plan to leave in the morning.

David won’t come upstairs for dinner. I bring the soup down to him, and when I check before bed, it has congealed untouched beside the clock radio. During his previous Fascination, he only stopped eating at the very end. He might not want to take his drugs, but I’ll be damned if I will let this go any further. There is a pharmacy near the wreckers, and it is far enough away that they won’t recognize me there. I get out the Backflasher.

A cold Friday afternoon, two years ago, right at the end of his previous Fascination. David struggles to walk as we stumble toward the gates of Lakeshore Hospital.

“The machine will send me back,” he says as he struggles against me. “Let me keep working.”

Snow hisses underfoot. He weighs less than sixty kilos. I drag him through the gate like he is a sullen child. At the entrance to the main building, a man standing above a pile of rags shouts as we approach.

“Hear ye, hear ye, a pair of deuces and a pound of pudding. Step right up, young men, to this, the greatest show this side of the pond. Gift horses for all, mouths unexamined, we guarantee. No fillings, no funerals. Just good fun for the little ones.”

He wears a long overcoat and wool top hat. Above the thick scarf wrapped around his neck, his face is covered in purple blotches.

“I need help,” I say. “Can you fetch a doctor?”

“Don’t interrupt,” the pile of rags says. A woman is entombed within, her bare, blotchy hands trembling in the cold, yet still managing to write in a thick notebook.

“Interruptions are intolerable,” the man in the top hat says. “But how’s this for tolerance? No refunds!”

The woman in the rags writes down everything the top hat Baby says. She underlines words, circles others, and connects circled words to one another with thick black lines.

“Don’t lock me up in here, Billy Ray,” David says. “These people are sick. Let me finish my work.”

Dr. LaRose meets with us after I pay her five-hundred-dollar consultation fee. Five minutes of inspecting David later, and she tells me he is suffering a Fascination, a psychological break Brainy Babies often exhibit post-Shift. Googling has told me much the same. From the history I give her, she figures this is his fifth Fascination. The original Bernard’s Brainy Baby Serum was designed to stimulate neural development in children and create hyper-intelligent youth. At puberty, when the Shift hits, that neural development continues, old synapses restart and new ones develop, they short-circuit and invaginate, leading to the sort of repetitive, obsessive behaviour I was seeing in David.

“What can we do about it?” I say.

She writes out a prescription and hands it to me. I don’t take it. “Do you have anything simpler? He was a Grahamite.”

“We don’t look too fondly on electroshock therapy here.” She places the prescription back on her desk. “Why didn’t you bring him in earlier?”

“I could handle it.”

“We can handle it better,” she says. She slides a pamphlet across the table. “Thanks to the class-action settlement, once the patients are committed, you won’t have to pay a thing. We can book him today.”

“He’s second generation.”

Dr. LaRose leans back in her chair.

“A Grahamite who is also a second-generation Bernard Baby?”

“He was a Grahamite, until the Shift.”

“That must have been ugly. In any case, if he’s second generation, he wasn’t part of the class action. He can stay here, but it will be quite expensive.”

I ask for the prescription. When she hands it to me, I pause the Backflasher and forge a copy complete with the good doctor’s signature. Then I go back to the memory.

The nurse at the front desk sells me the pills. I make her help me hold David down to get him to swallow the forbidden technology. A little while later, he gets drowsy. The two Babies are still outside when we leave, the Brainy woman in rags chattering as she scribbles in her notebook. The Boisterous man in the top-hat shouts: “Come back soon, y’all. There’s so much left to see and do and you don’t want to miss a wink.”

As we wait for the streetcar, snow begins to fall. David leans against me, his body so thin beneath the layers I wrapped him in. I hold him while he snores and I look up into the falling snow and for the first time since he stopped eating I can breathe again.

Metal clatters in the workshop downstairs. David mutters a polite curse. I shut down the Backflasher and hold onto that moment at the end of his last Fascination, David in my arms, the cold air in my lungs. He so rarely lets me touch him. I let the memory lull me to sleep.

In the morning, I bring David toast and poached eggs from the only market left in Revelation, but he ignores me as I set it down on the workbench. At five-thirty, I check out a community car. All twenty-eight lanes on the 401 are full by the time I make it onto the highway. My autodriver does its best to find a lane, but so does everyone else’s.

Three hours later, I arrive in Etobicoke. The address Mrs. Robert Thrangle gave me was for a wrecker not far off the highway. I find the car at the back of the lot, the front end crumpled, that chrome maw deformed. Still, it is a beauty. The pinnacle of American automotive design. With that vehicle stretched out in front of me, I can understand why Grahamites consider the years between 1954 and 1965 to be the most holy in history, and why they choose to live like Americans of that era.

The car’s previous owner made a suite of modern improvements—auto-driver, climate control, HUD, immersion sound, electric drive—and they will all have to be stripped out and replaced with the sacred technology of the era before it will be ready for Mrs. Robert Thrangle. Just what David needs. The wrecker says he could get me the car later that day if I want.

I put the quote together on the way to the pharmacy. Over the telephone, Mrs. Robert Thrangle tells me the price sounds fair and offers to wire me an advance. Kind people, Grahamites. I thank her and put a call in to the wrecker just as the car pulls up to the pharmacy.

The woman behind the counter doesn’t take a second look at my forged prescription; she just doles out the pills and gives me the bill. The drugs are expensive, almost a month’s rent for a month’s supply, but with the cash from the Bel Air rehabilitation, we can afford it.

The car predicts another four hours to get home, so I take out the Backflasher and go back to the night David spent at my apartment, our first night together, as the two of us tried to figure out what kind of Bernie Baby had fathered him.

David does push-ups and squats until his muscles give out. I record how many he does and compare the results to the number he did an hour earlier. There is no improvement. It doesn’t look like his real father was a Brawny Baby. At least he won’t end up like the woman on the bus. He goes online, a rare transgression of Grahamite orthodoxy, and answers three different IQ tests. He’s always been bright, but he isn’t getting any brighter. The results rule out a Brainy Baby as a father. Though I think his spots are darling, he hasn’t gotten any cuter since the start of his Shift, and he was never really considered a good looking guy by the girls at school, other than Rebecca, which means he probably isn’t a Beautiful Baby either.

“Maybe they aren’t Bernie Blotches?” I say, trying to sound hopeful.

“The Shift happens at puberty,” he says. “The traits are amplified and warped then. Mine are just coming in; maybe we can’t detect them yet.”

By that point in the night, we are both up on our research into Bernard’s Syndrome. During the development of the drugs, each Serum tested so well on the children in the trials that the products were approved and put to market before the test batch of kids hit puberty. Hundreds of thousands of parents purchased Bernard’s Baby Serums for their progeny. A whole generation of children was born Beautiful, Boisterous, Brainy, Brawny, and other adjectives that stretched marketing alliteration to its limit. As the kids from the first trials hit their early teens, their Shifts started, and they went spotty. Bernie Blotches appeared on Beautiful Babies as readily as they did on Boisterous kids, but the Blotches were the only trait they all shared. During the Shift, the traits that made them prodigies and child celebrities were amplified way out of proportion. Praxit Inc., who’d purchased the Serum from Bernard in the early days, divested itself of the product line and pulled the Serum from the shelves. The damage was already done. Those same hundreds of thousands of parents were forced to watch as their children went from prodigies to freaks. Dr. Bernard killed himself. Dozens of lawsuits joined forces to suck cash from Praxit’s bleeding husk, a messy affair that took the better part of a decade. Only after the lawsuits were settled did anyone realize that Bernard’s Syndrome was inheritable.

My mother comes home around two that night. Bleary-eyed and stinking of simgarettes, she pours herself a cup of coffee and collapses on the couch.

“Why are you two up so late?” she says.

“School project,” I say.

She grabs my arm. Her halitosis makes me gag.

“This is what flunking out looks like, Billy Ray,” she says. She gestures at her polyester restaurant uniform. “I’m not working three jobs so you can flunk out. Study hard.”

She fades back into the couch.

David steps up in front of her.

“Can I tell you a joke?” he says. Mom nods a head that appears to weigh tonnes. “How did Delilah know Sampson’s door would be open?” Her shrug works just as hard to raise her shoulders. “Because she cut his locks off.”

She makes a sound that might be laughter and starts to snore.

“Guess I’m not a Boisterous Baby either,” he says.

We dig up articles on the rarer versions of Bernard’s Serum, like Belonging Babies and Blazing Babies and the other poorly marketed serums, and David tests himself against them as best he can. He compiles all the results in one of my school notebooks and looks for any single trait that stands out from the pack.

“Something has to stick,” he says.

Mom’s alarm goes off and she pulls herself off the couch, finishes the cup of cold coffee, and gets ready for work. It’s four-thirty. By five, she’s gone, and I am making breakfast. David is doing push-ups again.

“We should get ready for school,” I say.

He holds up a spotted arm. “They won’t let me through the gate.”

I dig out Mom’s make-up kit and go to work. By the time I’m done, all of David’s spots are concealed and I even paint some colour into his pale cheeks. He looks so beautiful I want to kiss him. We leave for school.

Sick crows fight cancer-ridden gulls over the contents of the apartment building’s garbage container. We take the bus and streetcar through Toronto’s crowded streets. The AC is broken on the streetcar, so I touch-up David’s foundation when we get off outside the gates to the compound.

“Promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” I say.

“’And touch not the unclean thing,’” he quotes.

We wait until one of the water trucks stops at the gate. It’s an old ’37 Ford, the back uncovered, the truck laden with crates of glass water bottles ready to be refilled. We jump in the back and duck under a tarp. Selling bottled water was one of Adam Mercer’s suggestions to help fund the water treatment facility he designed for the community. Water purified the old-fashioned way is a hit with the wealthy people still living in Toronto and bottled water sales are one of the two main economic engines for the community. The other is also one of Adam’s innovations: the tuition outside students like me pay to attend John the Baptist Secondary School.

The school bell tolls. At an intersection, we hop off and run through town. Wives in aprons bring in the mail. Husbands lug leather briefcases to their gleaming Plymouths and Studebakers. At the end of our fifteen-minute run, we come to John the Baptist.

The community might have been established to save the souls of the Grahamites who call it home, but that school is my salvation. After the fifth beating at my old high school landed me in the emergency room, my mother got me into John the Baptist. She took the extra jobs to pay the tuition. Parents pay good money for their children to attend a school system with zero incidents of mass shootings, stabbings, or poisonings. Mom’s hard labour lets those men drive their Studebakers, lets the women drink wine before ten in the morning, and it lets me sit beside David without fear of ever having a limb broken because of whom I love.

As we run toward John the Baptist with fear of expulsion whipping me on, I try to remember my vow of punctuality, but the words I had to speak on my first day of school—vows of obedience, chastity, punctuality, and charity—bleed together like a watercolour tossed into a lake. All I can remember is Kline’s deep, sexy voice and his Old Spice aftershave. And, how after the vows, he walked me to my classroom and pointed me to an empty chair beside this cute, old-school nerdy boy whose nostrils flared so much when I took my seat that I worried I’d stepped in something on the way in.

“David,” he said, and offered his dry hand for me to shake. “Is that Mothra?” He pointed at the giant moth stenciled onto the pencil case I’d placed on the desk.  It was. He smiled, his teeth blazing white in their fluoridated glory, and in that moment I knew this school was a good place.

The thought of losing that place, and the only real friend I have in the world, leaves me trembling as we run up the steps of the old school. I swing the front door open and halt. David slams into me.

In the front entrance of the school, David’s mother Linda-Jane Mercer stands with her husband Adam. Both look equal parts concerned and furious. Beside them, Revelation’s spiritual and political leader, Pastor Kline, gazes at his wristwatch.

“I knew it,” Linda-Jane says, looking up at Adam. “How often have I said that boy is a bad influence on our son?”

The car interrupts the memory to tell me we’ve arrived.

Concrete and steel towers rise above the red brick walls of Revelation. Cranes extruded new apartment blocks within the old footprint of the community. In the fifteen years since David was expelled, we’ve watched Revelation whither. Without water sales and tuition from outside students and the other innovations Adam brought to Revelation, revenues declined. The Grahamites within the walls sold off chunks of their land to pay for ever-increasing property taxes. Well-tended lawns became parking garages, the Brightwater was paved over, and John the Baptist Secondary School was sold off and turned into high-end condominiums.

Only a few hundred Grahamites are left within the remains of Revelation, and a good percentage of them are lined up in front of my shop holding cardboard boxes or canvas sacks. There is a sign hanging in the door that I can’t read from the road.

“There you are,” the last Grahamite in line says as I approach. He’s the telephone sanitizer from Revelation. He takes a typewriter out of the cardboard box. “This thing still has memories. Your man was supposed to fix it. I want my money back.”

The others are here for refunds too, and when I get to the head of the line, I see why they’ve all come today. The sign reads: “Closed 4 Business. Thanks for 15 Good Years.”

“I promise, we aren’t closing,” I say to the people in line. “A misunderstanding with my business partner. Come back tomorrow, please, and I’ll sort everything out.”

I lock the door behind me, take down David’s sign, and draw the drapes. I throw open the door to the workshop.

“Are you trying to ruin us?”

He wipes grease off his hands and steps away from what is no longer even recognizable as a hi-fi cabinet. Game Four of the ’59 World Series blares from a wood-paneled radio. His smile is the same one I saw under the willows, the partitioned sunlight on his blotched skin.

“It’s almost ready. After I fix things, you won’t need me here any longer.”

“Time travel doesn’t work. Even if it did, I still need to make a living. Think of me for a minute.”

He gestures to his machine. “I’ll leave you what I’ve created. You’ll be a very rich man. Then you’ll find someone who can love you the way you deserve.”

I put the pills down on the counter. “Take your medicine. Forget this impossible obsession.”

“Don’t you want me to be whole again?”

“We are whole. You can’t change what happened that day, David. You know where this all leads. I don’t want to send you to Lakeshore, but I will if you give me no other choice.”

That smile disappears. He backs away from me, touches his chest as if I kicked him. “That place is for sick people. I’m not sick. I’ve never seen more clearly.”

I slam my open palm beside the pill bottle. “Take the damn drugs, then tell me if you still see clearly.”

He nods as he reaches for the bottle. The safety seal makes a reassuring hiss. He pops a pill into his mouth and swallows. “No more talk of Lakeshore?”

I gesture to the clock radio from yesterday. “So long as there is no more talk about a time machine. Fix what you’re good at. Tomorrow, I’m bringing in the Bel Air. It will keep us both busy and fed for at least a couple months.”

“That sounds good. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on a car.”

I watch him disassemble the clock radio. He works with the calm precision I’ve known from our years together. On the radio, the announcer for Game Four sounds like he is going insane: Chicago has just scored four runs at the top of the seventh, tying the game. The long-dead crowd roars.

The Bel Air will help, and so will the medicine. After my one and only visit to the hospital, I told myself that I would exhaust every avenue available before sending him to Lakeshore.

Music from the seventh inning stretch blares from the radio. David replaces the offending bulb with an old-fashioned incandescent and I slip out. The Backflasher is in my bag. I plop on the cerephones and start it up where I left off.

The lobby of Saint John the Baptist Secondary School. Pastor Kline gazing at his watch, Linda-Jane and Adam Mercer standing with him, both furious. I used to think Adam looked so old, but here, he looks exactly like the man I’ve worked and lived with these past fifteen years. The same grey eyes, receding hairline, strong jaw, sloping shoulders. Handsome, despite a weariness that reminds me of my mother’s. Unlike David, Adam’s skin is tanned a healthy bronze. Why didn’t we see it then?

“I stopped by Mrs. O’Leary’s this morning,” Linda-Jane says. “She didn’t see either of you all night.”

David doesn’t look at his mother. He keeps his gaze on the Pastor. “Dr. Kline, I didn’t see Mrs. O’Leary either. It’s entirely possible we missed each other.”

The Pastor looks up from his watch. “According to the Bible, which is worse: tardiness or bearing false witness?”

“Please don’t kick me out,” I say. “My mother will kill me, if the boys in my old school don’t beat her to it. Please.”

David squeezes my hand. “Billy Ray had nothing to do with this. Next semester we have to plan our Mission and I wanted to see the world beyond our walls to seek out my calling.”

“And you found it?” Pastor Kline says.

David nods. “My Mission is clear.”

“Are you feeling alright?” Linda-Jane says. “You look flushed. Did you drink any of the water out there?” She places a hand on David’s forehead. He flinches at her touch. “You don’t feel warm. How about rashes? Do you have any rashes?”

She reaches for the collar of his shirt. David steps away from her.

“To whom are you planning on Witnessing?” Pastor Kline says.

David smiles. “I have most of the details ironed out, but there are still a few wrinkles, and I would hate to present an incomplete thought. I’d be happy to submit a proposal to you by the end of the day.”

The Pastor looks down at his watch again. “Until the end of the day then. Now get to class, you are late enough as is. And Billy Ray, don’t let me catch you tardy again.”

He steps out of our way to let us past. Adam Mercer grabs David as we rush by.

“Think hard on your Mission, son, and pray your thoughts are true.”

David shrugs him off and we run down the hall. Before we go into Arithmetic, David pulls me aside.

“Ever since I was a boy, she’s been checking me for rashes and spots.  How could I have not seen this before?”

“My mom checks me for cancers and mega-measles all the time.”

He shakes his head and opens the door.

Anja and Rebecca sit between us and our desks. From the looks on their faces, the girls haven’t gotten over the fact that we stole their clothes last night. Anja hisses “queers” as we pass, but Rebecca just stares at David.

The lesson is on Real Numbers. Even though I go back to this memory more than any other, I still don’t know what I was supposed to learn that day. I spend the entire lecture looking at David, trying to make sure the disguise is working. He spends the entire class hunched over his notebook. When the bell rings, he shows me what he was working on: a web of interconnected names, his mother at the centre, and every man she’s ever met scattered in bubbles around her, the connections between the different people drawn in pencil crayon.

“Any closer to figuring it out?” I say.

“It doesn’t matter. Her sin must be revealed.”

In the press of other students in the hall, I lose track of David. I’m still looking for him as I dial the combination for my locker. Anja pushes me into the metal door.

“That’s for stealing my panties,” she says. It’s the first time anyone has rough-handled me since I transferred from the public schools. I flinch and prepare for the worst. “Hey, don’t piss your jeans.”

“I wasn’t gonna. Have you seen David?”

“Your boyfriend ran off into the woods, probably to make out with ’Becca.” Anja drapes an arm across my shoulder. “I’ve always wanted a queer friend.”

“We’re going to be late for Geography.”

I squeeze away from her and run to a window. Green grass and playing fields stretch out to the banks of the Brightwater. There’s no sign of him. Another bell rings for the start of class. I can’t miss another, not with Kline breathing down my neck, so I sit behind my desk and fail to concentrate on another lesson.

David never makes it to class, and neither does Rebecca. Anja passes me notes criticizing the teacher’s haircut. By lunch, the whole school buzzes with what has happened. I try to ignore the rumours. I want to hear it from my friend but they say he disappeared after it all went down. The afternoon stretches on for hours. The end of the day can’t come fast enough. When it does, I run all the way to the gates of Revelation and out into Toronto.

I find David on the curb in front of my apartment. Make-up and filthy water have turned his school uniform to rags. He looks at me, lost, and I lead him to my mother’s apartment.

I lean back in my chair behind the counter and breathe in the musty, stale air of the shop. The baseball game has ended, the Dodgers breaking the tie for the win, and now quiet hymns play in the workshop. He never went back to Revelation; he stayed with me from that day on. Our life hasn’t been what either of us wanted, but we aren’t hungry. We aren’t alone.

Maybe we should take some time off, I think. Go somewhere. One of the lakes in Muskoka the public can still visit, or Parry Sound. We had a lovely time last summer on the beach near Parry Sound.

I open the door and peer in at David. He is wiring the clock radio into what was once the hi-fi cabinet and doesn’t notice me enter. The pill bottle lies open on the workbench, empty. In the bathroom I find a single water-soaked pill floating in the centre of the toilet bowl.

“You flushed them? Do you know how much those pills cost?”

“They were poison, Billy Ray. I disposed of them accordingly.”

I stare at him, trying to contain my rage. For a moment, I wish Pastor Kline hadn’t seated me beside David. I wish that David hadn’t found the Mothra sketch on my pencil case so interesting. Why couldn’t I have fallen in love with another boy in high school, someone who could have spurned me, someone I could have forgotten?

I throw the pill bottle into the trash, stomp out of the workshop, and jog across the street toward what remains of Revelation. There’s an old pay phone just outside the gate.

I ask the operator to connect me to Linda-Jane and Adam Mercer.

“Which community?” she asks in a perky soprano.

“Patience, or whatever you call the one outside Sudbury.”

“Penitence. One moment please.”

I lean against the warm bricks of Revelation’s wall, waiting for the connection. I haven’t been to the other side in fifteen years. David and I weren’t the only ones who were expelled. Revelation’s congregation decided that everything David’s family had built was contaminated.  Linda-Jane and Adam were shown the door, as was everything they built for Revelation. They floated from community to community until they found a more forgiving congregation up North. All the outside students were forbidden to attend John the Baptist Secondary School. They mothballed the water plant. Even Pastor Kline was evicted, as he’d known about the Mercer situation and had been complicit in covering up their sacrilege.

Instead of facing down the angry hordes in the public system, David and I found an online school that granted high school diplomas, and the two of us finished our schooling a year later in Mom’s apartment. The cancer took her a couple months after graduation. She begged me to spend my meagre inheritance on university tuition. I used it on the first few months of rent for Billy Ray’s Small Appliance Rehabilitation instead. It was David’s idea, his way of helping Revelation rid itself of sacrilegious technology. We found an old computer repair shop across the street from Revelation and for fifteen years it’s been home.

The line connects. “Linda-Jane speaking.”

“I can’t handle it anymore.”

“Is that you, Billy Ray? Is David alright?”

“It’s worse than the other times. He really thinks he can go back. He isn’t eating.”

“What about the medication?”

“He flushed it. I can’t afford any more.”

There’s a muddled sound, muted voices, Linda-Jane holding her hand over their old-style receiver.

“Why don’t we drive down there? He’s our son.”

“We both know he won’t see you. It will be worse than last time.”

Another delay, as she relays what I said. An old Pontiac rolls through the gate in the wall and belches black smoke as it accelerates down the street.

“So why are you calling?”

“Lakeshore Hospital will take him,” I say. “But I can’t afford it. He’ll get good care there. They specialize in Bernard’s Syndrome.”

She doesn’t bother covering the receiver this time: “He needs money, to send David to that hospital.”

I can’t make out Adam’s response over the din of the traffic.

“If he gets the treatment,” she says to me. “Do you think he’ll agree to see us?”

“I think so,” I say. “Once he’s better, of course he’ll want to see you.”

She likes my little lie. It will take time, she says, to put together that much money. Another mortgage, and then they’ll have to get the Grahamite bank in Sudbury to make the transfer. I tell her I can cover the hospital fees in the meantime. All I have to do is get him there.

The hardest part will be getting him in the car. I phone Dr. LaRose to let her to know I will be coming; she doesn’t sound surprised. The afternoon sun bakes the asphalt as I hurry back to the shop.

David is putting away his tools. He smiles as I enter.

“It’s finished,” he says, and gestures to his creation. The hi-fi cabinet forms the heart around which the rest of the device has congealed. Two chairs are tacked to the front of the cabinet, and cerephones hang from the backrests of both chairs. The cerephones are wired into the mass of resistors, vacuum tubes, and capacitors tied in to an old telephone switchboard, at the top of which sits my Backflasher. “All I need is your help, and I can belong again.”

I nod, trying to be reasonable.

“The Bel Air is almost fit to drive,” I say. “It just needs a bit of tweaking. They should have it here this evening. We should really clear this out to make room.”

He taps the slim metal box of the Backflasher. “Aren’t you curious, Billy Ray?”

Curious doesn’t even begin to describe it. David isn’t supposed to use technology like the Backflasher; what is it doing sitting in his machine?

“The Bel Air will be here soon. Why don’t we move this out of the way and you can tell me how it works.”

He indicates one of the two chairs attached to his machine. “Sit, please. This won’t take long.”

The Backflasher controller is attached to the arm of the chair he indicated, but he’s tacked new controls onto it: they look like buttons from an old reel-to-reel machine. Play, forward, reverse, and a big red button that he’s drawn an X through.

“I just don’t see how we will fit the car in here,” I say.

“I’m not doing anything until I’ve made things right,” he says. “But I can’t do it without you. I’m forbidden to operate your Backflasher. With it, we can go back to the day I ruined everything, and you can make it disappear.”

“Backflashers don’t work that way; they can’t delete memories.”

“This isn’t a Backflasher. The past only exists in our minds, isn’t that what you’ve always told me? This can delete the past, therefore this is a time machine.” He pats the seat beside him. “Do this for me, Billy Ray. Let me belong again.”

I can’t stop staring at the red button with the X through it. Every option, that’s what I told myself. I sit in the chair. He hands me the control panel. I slip on the cerephones while he straps himself in.

“Take us back,” he says.

So I do, back to the morning after David’s Shift, as we file out of Arithmetic class.

Students crowd into the hallway of John the Baptist Secondary School. Up ahead, a younger version of me walks to my locker. I watch through David’s eyes, experiencing more than just David’s vision. I live his memory. He has contrived a way to share the Backflasher experience. That discovery alone could make us wealthy, but all I can think about is how the young David feels as he looks over at the young version of myself. He pities me.  After seeing where I live, and despite everything I’ve done to help him, he pities me, because I don’t really belong in his community.

When Anja comes up behind the younger me, David sneaks over to the door and slips outside, across the playing fields, toward the Brightwater. Thoughts rush in a wild torrent through his mind. Ideas and sensations and doubts and analyses shout in a cacophony that reminds me of the clatter in Union Station at rush hour. It’s only after half a minute of careful listening that I can discern dominant themes in his busy mind: righteous indignation and strong purpose. He’s convinced of his mother’s crimes and he knows exactly how to expose her.

As he reaches the bank of the Brightwater, I hear a disembodied voice speaking in my right ear.

“Every detail is exactly as I remember it,” the older David says. I open my eyes and see him superimposed over the willows that line the bank, the senior David strapped to his chair, eyes clenched shut. “I don’t know why you require this crutch.”

“It’s entertainment,” I say, closing my eyes, returning to his memories.

“This is where you start the deletion.”

The young David passes the Baptismal Pools and emerges on the neatly cut grass surrounding the water treatment plant. The gardener is a younger Mr. Ussander. He pulls weeds from beneath the roses and waves as David jogs past. David notices every detail as he runs: the number of weeds and the number of roses and the ratio of one to the other, an estimate of the hour based on the filtration plant’s shadow, a precise calculation of the flow rate of the water exiting the plant. His Brainy Baby mind is shifting into something unrecognizable, yet even with his enhanced powers of perception, he can’t see what he is becoming.

The treatment plant is two stories of red brick and grey concrete. David hammers on the main entrance door until an operator in coveralls opens it.

“Adam Mercer,” David says. “Bring him out here at once.”

“You’re his boy, aren’t you? Something the matter?”

“Just bring him here.”

The door clangs shut. David paces, rehearsing the accusation he’ll deliver to the man he is certain has also been betrayed by his mother. This close to the wall, the hot asphalt and urine stink of the city fills the air, but mingled with it comes the perfume from the rose garden and the cool scent of clean, flowing water. David walks past the ’37 Ford pickup being loaded with bottles to the dammed reservoir that marks the end of the polluted Highland Creek.

Adam Mercer steps out into the warm morning, his tanned skin dark against his white Oxford. David calls his name from the banks of the reservoir, and then he wades down into the filthy water flowing in from the city.

“What are you doing, son?” Adam says.

“All of this must go,” the older David sitting beside me says.

“She made a fool of you,” the young David says. His thoughts still rage, spilling the banks of their old channels, but he holds on to anything that feels like certainty. “And she made an abomination of me.”

He dunks his arms into the oily water. Make-up dissolves, revealing forearms covered in Bernie Blotches.

“Get out of there,” Adam says. “You don’t understand anything.”

Plant workers follow Adam to the banks of the reservoir. They line up behind him, watching the boy in the water.  Only then does David lend more weight to the currents of doubt flowing through his mind. In an instant he realizes his mistake.

“Go back inside,” Adam says to the workers.

The gardener drops his tools and joins more plant workers as they gather behind Adam. David’s father stares at the crowd for a moment, then slides down the bank. Adam rolls up the sleeve on his shirt. David already knows that the skin beneath will be covered in Bernie Blotches.

“You’re the one,” David says. He grabs his father’s hand. “You made me this.”

“I’ve learned how to live with who I am,” Adam says. “Let me teach you. We can still belong.”

David pulls his father into the reservoir.

As Adam rises sputtering, Rebecca rounds the corner of the filtration plant. She tows Pastor Kline behind her. Water streams off Adam’s face, taking the bronze tan with it, and revealing clusters of Bernie Blotches similar to David’s.

“See, Dr. Kline,” Rebecca says. “I told you something was wrong with him.”

Kline shakes his head. The plant workers gathered on the bank stare at the man who built the plant in which they work.

“This doesn’t change who we are,” Adam says to the Grahamites above him. “We are still faithful.”

David pushes away from his father. All the hatred he’s reserved for his mother doubles in intensity. They both did this to him. His mother didn’t have an affair with a Bernie Baby, she married one and snuck him into Revelation. They defiled him before he was born and condemned him to a life that guaranteed eternal damnation.

“You did this,” he says to his father. He faces Rebecca. “Tell them it’s not my fault.”

Rebecca takes the Pastor’s hand. “’Come ye out from among them,’” she says.

The workers seem to emerge from their mute amazement at the oft-repeated words.

“’And be ye separate,’” they say with one voice.

Rebecca turns her back on David and his father. The workers do the same. Pastor Kline remains, staring down at the father and son in the water.

“Please, Kline,” Adam says. “You knew this day might come. Help us go back to how it was.”

“’And touch not the unclean thing,” the pastor says, and he too turns his back.

“This is our home,” Adam says.

They walk away, none of them looking back at us. Only the gardener, Mr. Ussander, remains, shaking his head a moment, before he returns to his roses. David shudders in the tepid water. He knows what the ritual words of the shunning mean. He swims across the reservoir toward the culvert that lets the filthy stream through the wall.

“Son, please,” Adam says. “Let me help you.”

“Save yourself.”

David dives. He swims against the current, pulling himself along the ribbed walls of the culvert, until he surfaces outside Revelation. David blinks through the caustic liquid, the towers of Toronto an unnavigable maze in a foreign country. Then he remembers that there is one person outside Revelation’s walls who still loves him.

“Here,” the other David says, the one strapped in beside me. “Cut everything to here.”

I open my eyes and look at the basic controls he built. The young David drags himself out of the water, past a rotting cat and a rusting dishwasher.

“Do it now,” the senior David says. “Cut this out of me, Billy Ray. I’ll never belong if I remember what I did.”

“You belong here,” I say. I can still hear the birds singing on the other side of the wall. David’s whole life lies exposed before me, pinned to a table, and I am the surgeon tasked with excising the tumour. He’s wanted this for so long, how can I deny it?

“What’s the delay?”

“I was praying.”

“You never pray.”

I adjust the controls, I make the incision. David lets out a breath and slumps forward in his chair. His breathing is irregular, and he makes tiny whimpering sounds, a young child having a nightmare. In my mind, I see him rise from the chair only to find this hole in his memory, this absence around which he’s revolved for so long. The hole will become the pivot of a new Fascination. The Bel Air won’t be enough to keep his mind busy. David needs a project he can work on for the rest of his life.

One of the cerephones pops off David’s lolling head. I pluck the other off and sit back down in my chair. I would try everything before sending him to live at Lakeshore, but until today I didn’t know what everything entailed.

I place the second set of cerephones to my forehead and activate the Backflasher. My whole life stretches out before me, my surgeon’s tools still bloody. I stare at it for a long time, unsure of where to make the final cut.

David begins to stir. He looks so much like his father.

“Take your medicine,” I say, and I press the big red X.

Pine-scented wind sweeps the beach.

Little snow daggers cut my face at the streetcar stop outside Lakeview Hospital.

David and I push a restored icebox out of the shop and it slips off the cart and cracks on the concrete floor.

Thunderheads roll above the city as David shows me a machine he claims will undo his greatest sin.

Mom’s skin is so soft after she stops breathing.

Laughter on opening the envelopes that contain our high school graduation diplomas.

Willow-partitioned sunlight across David’s bare chest.

A Memory of the Future

“Mom? Why does this freeway have so many lanes?”

“Well Tom, remember when you were six, and the schools were all closed, and you did all your schoolwork as homework? And your teacher came on Zoom every day?”

“Er . . . yes?”

“Well . . . remember, before that time, that your Dad and I went away to work at the office every weekday?”

“What? No. Why would you?”

“Good question, Tom. Why did we? Why did everyone?”

“Dunno. Makes no sense to me. I mean, you only go to the office when you have to be there, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of the whole communism?”

“Commute.”

“Yeah, yeah, the commute. What’s the point of commuting if you can do . . . whatever it is you do, from home?”

“Thing is, people used to think that was necessary to come to the office every day before nine, and work from there, and hold meetings with everyone in the same room. People were convinced—your dad and I were convinced as well, that all of us gathered together in the same building was the only way to have a productive workday.”

“But . . . that’s weird. Didn’t you have internet? Couldn’t you Zoom? Or Teams, or whatever?”

“Oh no, we did have internet, and Teams, and everything. But we only used those for people who couldn’t come in to the office.”

“So everyone else would drive to the office every day? That’s . . . like . . . thousands of people, isn’t it?”

“Yep.”

“Wouldn’t they fill up all these lanes, then?”

“Yep . . . more than fill.”

“What do you mean?”

“There would be so many cars every morning that they’d all get stuck. And this traffic congestion would mean they’d all be crawling along. This whole stretch of freeway, from where we got on, to the exit for my office, takes about twenty minutes by car. But mornings, your dad and I both spent at least an hour in our cars here.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Not kidding. And all those cars would belch out exhaust fumes.”

Tom mulled this over for a while.

“Boy, I’m glad everyone came to their senses,” he said. “Do you want some water?”

He stopped walking and shrugged out of his backpack. Pulling the water bottle from the side netting, he handed it to Mom. Just ahead, road workers were tearing out the tarmac of the fourth and fifth lanes. Further down the freeway, they could see where the two lanes had already been turned into a strip of greenery, a bike path and a walking trail.

On the three remaining lanes, a steady stream of cars made their way to the commercial district on the horizon. Tom tried and failed to imagine all five lanes jammed with cars. He shrugged and looked to the side. In the distance, the North Sea sand dunes shimmered in the growing summer heat. Mom grabbed his arm.

“Look!”

She was pointing at the nearest field, where a doe was calmly grazing.

“Me too,” she said. “I’m glad too.”

 

—April 11, 2020

lady meet mr robinson

momma yell from the kitchen julius buzz her in.

buzz who

my ol high school chum dont you forget turn the hall light on

hall light dont work momma

hall black like the devils ass you open the parlor door get light down there

i done it momma

she call it a parlor goodwill couch goodwill chairs i hear this come up the steps high heels who wear them things

mr robinson watch at the door lady look scared i say he gentle wont hurt you none

lady wear cool clothes nice coat swag me out and she got big smile for me i say i am julius

i am seven keisha is five we sit quiet on the couch lady say please to meet you

mr robinson sniff lady she look fussed till he settle down by the door

momma bring in tea momma ask we wants tea or water no thank you momma

momma and lady talk been long time they got married divorced while lady cant help her self she sneak peeks at mr robinson she see he clean sleek long fur big strong dog

mr robinson he lay by the door thinkin what dogs think

lady and momma they do talk lots and us kids sit quiet to show we got good manners us listen we dont get visits much lady got plenty bones from city cause second husband killed on subway job momma pour more tea lady ask me why dog name mr robinson

i say grandpa seen jackie robinson in ebbets field long time ago i seen him on gray telvisin grandpa he gone now

lady watch mr robinson she think it funny us in east harlem sooty rooms on snap and welfare we got this big fancy dog he eat like we is rich folks she think we put on like we got dog show dog she dont say so

police siren go by fast be dark soon lady say she treat us to supper wheres a fine restraunt round here

i seen this place family up from new orlins they cook jambelia we never had none

we goin out the door mr robinson get up momma say they dont let dogs in restraunts

i say mr robinson you got to sit and stay

lady say fine handsome dog you takes good care of him

keisha say we dig brush him

lady say you likes a big dog

i say we need a big dog he keep the rats out

Everything that Happens

Robot Cities roam the baking deserts of the ocean beds like Baba Yaga huts. They strut about on titanic rusting legs so tall that to fall from the crotch to the ground takes a human 30 seconds. They sing songs, these Robot Cities, melancholic folk songs with introspective lyrics. They sing about shame and adoration, they sing about that sweet moment when love has found you out but your lover has not, they sing about becoming and not-becoming.

Humans infest them like lice. They forage on the cracked carapaces for petrel eggs, hunting wadi monkeys, scavenging for spare parts. They sing along with the cities as they work, as the cities stride about, they lose themselves in the words. They lose themselves under the searing white skies, enjoying the breeze and the infinite views, enjoying the beautiful music.

In the long evenings the Robot Cities squat on the precipitous decline of continental shelves, plucking the parasites from one another. They clean itching skin with gigantic, marvelously dexterous toes, catching between tungsten carbide digits the monkeys and the humans that lingered too long. Catching them and popping them.

“Everything that happens to me,” the Robot Cities sing, “has happened to someone else too.”

“Everything that happens to me,” they sing, “will one day happen to you.”

Much safer in the tangled interior, in the avenues and the streets through which the twisting wind creeps, the humans hide their children in shadowy places like spider eggs. They tap water from the pipes that cool the creaking reactors. The stolen moisture collects in them, in the humans, in their livers and their kidneys, in their blood, radioactive, congealing, concentrating into lumps and bumps and tumors, into the braille of survival.

“What do we do if it dies?” a child asks.

“If what dies?”

“Our Mamapapa.”

“The Mamapapas never die.”

The humans tell their children stories of how the Mamapapas once slept on the ground. They were reclining cities. But the humans proliferated to such a degree that their activities inflamed the skins of the cities and the cities woke. The cities stood up and became the Mamapapas.

They tell their children how the world used to be covered with water but the Mamapapas drank it all. The Mamapapas are cursed with thirst. They wander the desert searching for something to drink.

They tell their children visitors used to come from the other Mamapapas. They tell their children how the visitors climbed up and down the legs. How they traversed the wretched ocean floor, picking their way through the bones of the birds and the monkeys and the humans that littered the ground. They tell the children how the visitors brought a plague, a virus that killed thousands. How they shoveled the bodies out of the Mamapapas. Tens of thousands. The bodies fell through the air like rain and settled on the earth like dust.

The humans sing to their children: “Everything that happens to me, has happened to someone else too. Everything that happens to me, will one day happen to you.”

They teach their children to give thanks to their Mamapapa for food, shelter, and water. They teach them to love their Mamapapa. They teach their children to fear their Mamapapa.

The Mamapapas roam the baking beds of the ocean on their colossal backward-kneed legs. They sing songs to each other about the great ring of the horizon. About the arbitrariness of existence. They sing songs about incalculable loss. And humans infest them like lice.

Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter

On Thursday the sun rose red and stayed red, and stared at us red and red through the shifting candlewax layers of sky. We sealed the windows and cancelled gym, and forbade the children to leave until their mothers came for them, and through lunch period they pressed their noses to the glass and left smears of rainbow oils there. Before their faces and ours the bloody halo crept through the silhouettes of our buildings, picking its way down the foothills, stealing hot and infected towards the wide soft swathe of nothing that had once been San Francisco.

In the early afternoon the children left in bunches and tangles, clusters of heaving minivans like lifeboats. We gathered in the teacher’s lounge and stood with our hands wrapped round our one o’clock coffee mugs and said quietly to each other and ourselves the air quality numbers in the neighborhoods to which we would be driving through the greyness: Montclair and Emeryville, San Antonio and El Cerrito, one-eighty-five, two-seventeen, two-fifty, two seventy-one.

Some of us had masks, and some did not. Some had the wrong masks—the flimsy kind, thin and cotton, with no wires at the top to mold over our noses and cheekbones—and we discarded these in the wastebasket, a growing pile of white leaves. Those who did have the right masks put them on and looked at the others with invisible mouths, invisible lips. There were no spares.

The school was a good school. The neighborhood was a good neighborhood. It was in the Oakland hills, and it perched over the Oakland flatlands, their density and cement and graffiti and barred windows, like a pale and decorous vulture. On its borders there was a cemetery, and the cemetery was Oakland writ small: the graves dappled down the hill, and at the top were great marble monuments, pyramids and temples and fountains, and at the bottom flat stones sunk into the grass. As children we had come to these stones and sat upon them and had picnics for our birthday parties. We had stared up at the angels of the rich, and they had stared sightlessly down at us. Beneath them, we had wondered, were the rich staring, too?

Now we stood by our cars in the teachers’ parking lot and prepared to pour ourselves down the stooped hills and into the low concrete mazes we called home. Our phones were already alight with emails: would the children have school tomorrow? Would they have school next week? Would they be allowed to re-take their tests, re-write their essays, would there be extra credit? We drove through the grey and the deep grey shadows of the trees. Surely, wrote the parents, even if the district forbade the schools to open, the SAT preparation night would not be cancelled? The college essay preparation night would not be cancelled? Through the dust gathering on our windshields we watched the streetlights shudder into life ahead of us. They knew the property values of this good neighborhood, the parents did not say. They knew the price of this good school.

We sat at our kitchen tables and listened to our husbands read to us in rough voices news articles about what had happened in Paradise. Fathers had run back through fire for their daughters. Families had stood by the side of the road praying for their cars to start up again with the heat beating at their faces. Dogs had survived, and not survived. We closed our eyes and tried to see it, but there was nothing behind our eyelids, only colorlessness.

On Friday the schools were closed all day. Those of us with masks pulled them on and walked out to buy bread, and fruit, and fish for dinner. Some of us hovered in the grocery store by the tall white shelves of bottled water; the great drought was a memory less than a year old. Many of us still had buckets under the faucets in our bathtubs, so that nothing should be wasted. In the grocery store we looked at the water and saw the plastic, stacks and stacks of it like shark’s teeth, cylinders huddled together, as if the water were afraid of loneliness and afraid of touching. Those of us without masks stayed home.

The parents began to write new emails: they would not be coming to the college essay night, they said. They would not be coming to the SAT preparation night. Their lungs were weak. Their chests hurt. They had been getting over a cold; now, they could not get over it. They could not breathe. They could not breathe. They could not breathe.

They were leaving Oakland, the parents said. They were driving to their cabins in the mountains. Some of their children were coming with them; others were staying behind. They would return when the air was clear. They would return, once the fire had ended. They would come back to the city once it had made itself clean.

Many of these families had cabins in the mountains. They would ski there in the winter and swim there in the summer. This was the great mountain range on which storms broke and died, the mountain range that had made a desert of Nevada and Utah when the world was younger; these were the mountains in which the Donner Party had sat under snow and ice and eaten the meat from each other’s bones. They were covered in blue lakes and green forests. If you walked into these forests, late at night, you could look up and see the whole Milky Way spilling herself from horizon to horizon, under billions of miles of clear and shuddering sky.

Whereas it was not possible to do this in Oakland even before the fire.

The newscasters began to ask when the smoke would clear. For each other they had no answer. The fire, it seemed, would need to die, or the wind would need to change; no scientist knew when either event would come. They cut to their reporters, wide-eyed young women mouthing muffled news through their own masks in front of a blurred horizon. The cool red circle of the sun stared at us through the television.

Schools were closed again all next week. The district told us they would open after Thanksgiving, regardless of air quality. The children could not miss school forever, said the district. We hunched into ourselves over our laptops at our kitchen tables and shuffled and re-shuffled our lesson plans. We walked up the avenues to run errands and ducked into buildings softened to haze. Beside and behind us moved the people of the city, their faces wrapped in blue masks. When they held the doors of BART trains for us and counted dimes and quarters next to us and put our groceries in paper bags their hands were deep brown and tan, scarred and freckled and wrinkled and calloused, but their faces were all paper-blue, pastel blue, as blue as the sky.

Beside the BART station a woman sat down on the ground and began to cough. A crowd gathered around her almost immediately, a clot in the streetflow, and watched her cough until her inhales rasped and sizzled. One of us asked if anyone had called a doctor. The woman said, in between coughs, that no one should call a doctor. She would be healthier without a bill, she said. We watched her until the light changed, and then we dissolved into passers-by, pushing beside her, through her. The smoke hung heavy overhead, and the train roared above like thunder.

The classrooms were emptier on Monday, and the students’ voices sounded too loud inside them. They did not seem to wish to speak. When we asked them questions, their answers trailed off into silence. When it was time for gym class, they ran laps around the inside of the theater, the only noise their sneakers thumping over the red carpet, up onto the creaking stage. It took us nearly half the period to realize two boys had gone missing; when we went to look, we found them on the lawn above the library, looking down the hill from which the previous month they had been able to see the whole San Francisco Bay. One of them was holding a joint in his hand; as we came up behind them, he dropped it, unlit, and began coughing hoarse and wispy into his elbow. Half an hour later, when his mother had appeared at the gates in her minivan with her face tight and plastic and afraid, he had still not stopped coughing.

The smoke began to press closer. The sky began to settle lower each morning. It had been difficult to see down the hill; now, it became difficult to see across the street. We woke each morning to a fine layer of grey on our cars, on our lawns. If we stood outside long enough, we found ourselves shaking grey out of our hair. The older women among us told jokes about old age; the younger ones said nothing, but cut their hair short, so that in the thick tangles of their ponytails and braids and curls the colorlessness no longer collected so clearly.

We wondered if the students would ask about this. Some of us even prepared lectures on the topic, clinical or comforting, biological or historical or philosophical, depending on our fields of expertise. But the students were coming to school less, now, joining their parents far from the city in tens and twenties. Those families without houses in the mountains continued to email us, more frantic each day. The district would cancel school again, they said. The district had cancelled girls’ tennis, and football. The district did not know when the fire would end. What was our plan for the children to keep their GPAs? What was our plan for the children to keep their scholarships?

Some of us, the ones who lived near enough to the good school in the good neighborhood, took the bus home. On the bus, we began to notice, the people sitting next to us had grey in them. On their hair, in their clothes, of course, like us; but also not like us. The skin of their hands was grey, and their eyes were grey above their masks. They said nothing to anyone—not the bus driver, not the teenage boys shouting dirty things from across the aisle, not the tired-eyed woman asking them for money. None of us saw the grey people leave the bus; our stops always seemed to come before theirs did. We did not mention the grey people to each other. We did not even mention them to our husbands. But we did not forget the way they looked, how they stared at the city rushing by out the window, as if it were invisible, as if there were nothing there at all.

The parents, from their cabins in the mountains, posted photos of the tall frosted pine trees, of their sons or daughters skating out onto mirrored lakes. In these photos the sun was yellow. The light it cast was as white as the snow.

It became difficult to see across a room. It became difficult to see our hands in front of our faces. We drove to school with our headlights on and watched the soft dust fall onto our windshields. In the teachers’ lounge we took to grading essays in brighter and brighter colors: purple, green, pink sparkling gel pen, as if we were the teenage girls we had once been. It did not seem to matter. We picked up each piece of paper when we were done and shook it, and watched the ash on it settle to the carpet. The writing below was empty of all color. Even the black printed ink was faded, as if it had been sitting in a room forgotten for many years.

That weekend, one of us had a date, a concert in San Francisco. We wished her luck. The local news did not report from San Francisco any more; sometimes they would drive out to Treasure Island and turn their cameras west, and we would watch the lights of the Salesforce Tower, visible through the haze for a few silent seconds and then gone again. No one had seen Coit Tower since the fire began. There was no word from the tech companies, though we sometimes still saw their buses, employees-only, easing slowly down the streets from our homes towards the South Bay. We saw no one at their windows; but then again, we never had.

A student who we had thought long-gone, one of the earliest to flee to the mountains, showed up in school on Wednesday. We said nothing to her, but we wondered: her face had gone pale as chalk. When she was asked a direct question, she answered in a voice so soft no one could hear her. One of us, who had advised her on her college essay and who knew something of her troubles at home, went to go find her during lunch. She was not sitting with her usual friends, who were huddled on the curled brown lawn slipping bites of sandwiches under their masks. She was standing by the gates, staring at the red eye of the sun. She was not moving. She was not wearing a mask. She was breathing slowly, shallowly, and the grey had settled into her eyelashes and the folds of her coat.

The woman who had gone into San Francisco did not come to school. When we called her cell phone, there was no answer; not even her answering machine picked up. Instead, there was a thin, rustling static, which, when we listened closely, sounded almost like voices.

That night, watching the news from New York and Washington, we did not recognize the sun in the sky behind the newscasters. It was not that it was yellow, or that its light was clear and good. It was that there was something foreign about these things; it was that these things did not belong to us. This sun had never come to our city. It was not Oakland’s star.

The next day the district cancelled classes again, and said this time they did not know when school would start up. That morning, as if by prearranged signal, we cleared our classrooms. Those of us who had children paid them a few dollars to help with the heavy lifting; the rest of us labored alone, unpeeling carefully taped posters and art projects, wiping stray ink from the whiteboards, packing pamphlets and textbooks into cardboard boxes that we piled in front of the gates and carried one by one to the trunks of our cars. Our children crawled under desks and unstuck cracked old gum from their metal undersides, laughing through the small blue masks we had fit over their faces. Somewhere in the midst of this cleaning one of us found a few others in the teachers’ lounge, and said what each of us had already known: she had called her grown-up daughter, who lived in New York, and there had been no answer. No answer from her brother in Boston or her parents in Los Angeles. The television had ceased to broadcast national news, statewide news, reality shows, soap operas; even the radio carried no voices. There was only the quiet whispering of the ash.

We appeared to each other in the courtyard like ghosts, silhouettes bursting into color and then fading again. We carried each other’s detritus and swept each other’s classroom floors. When we were done, a little before noon, we gathered by the gates, and clasped each other’s hands, and kissed each other on the cheek, lips touching thin blue cloth touching skin. We told each other how very good it had been to work together. Then we let go, and went to our cars, and rolled up the windows, and listened to the low cough of our own engines.

At home, around half past one, I startled: I had forgotten my favorite book at school. I said this to my husband, though I did not know if he was listening, and I tied my mask back onto my face. Then I drove up through and through the greyness, past the BART station and the cemetery, into the winding hills. The streets were empty; I did not even have to use the teachers’ parking lot. I unlocked the gates and walked down across the lawn, around the library, and into the building which housed the classroom where I had once taught.

My book was on my desk, just where I had left it. I picked it up, went into the hall, pulled my keys from my purse and locked the door of my classroom behind me.

When I heard my key click, I heard another noise, coming from the classroom next to mine. It was a soft sound; if I hadn’t been listening for the lock, I would never have heard it. It was not a sound of breathing or speaking. It was a soft rustling, like dry leaves. I took a step to the right and put my hand to that classroom’s doorknob—it was not locked—and eased it open, and put my eye to the crack.

They were there, all of them, every child whose parents had taken them away to the safety of the mountains. Each of them sitting at attention, with their faces faded as old newspaper. None of them were wearing masks. At the front of the classroom was the woman who had gone into San Francisco, and she was speaking, or trying to speak; her mouth was moving, but she was making no sound.

I opened the door just a little further. None of them moved.

I pushed it fully open and walked into the classroom. None of their heads turned. I said the name of one of the students; he did not look at me. I reached out to my fellow teacher and touched her hand, and I watched as her body shuddered and swirled and fell in clouds of soft fine greyness to the carpet below.

They stood, then, the Oaklanders who had reached the mountains, the Oaklanders who had escaped the smoke, the Oaklanders who had left our city for the higher ground without looking back. They stood and they pressed towards me, reaching out their hands, drifting through the desks and the chairs, and when they touched me they burst into grey, three of them at a time, five, ten, and I began to cough, and could not stop coughing. They would not stop coming. They would not stop dissolving, and yet they would not stop coming. I felt buried, buried under them, under their ash and their silence and their unceasing, limitless want. I felt like the city, vanished into endless softness. I felt like the sun.