table of contents
A Murder of Crows
“Where’s Mom and Dad?” Emile leaned in the passenger window, dark stubble catching snowflakes. The sound of the gate numbers droned through the airport curbside.
“They sent me,” Cleo said. “You’ve got coffee on your shirt.”
“I’ve always got coffee on my shirt. Trunk or backseat?”
Emile opened the backseat of his sister’s silver 2005 Honda Civic and shoved in two full suitcases and one duffle bag. They sat upright in their respective seats like human bodies. Cleo watched him.
“Jesus. Plan on moving back?”
“Pardon?” Emile opened the passenger seat and climbed in.
“Pardon?” she mimicked. “Lot of luggage for a week’s stay.”
“I like to have options. You have three shirts in the back seat—I’m sure you could say the same.”
“Nosy, are you?”
“It’s good to see you, too.”
Cleo’s forehead was shiny and dark spots were creeping through her cheeks. Her brown skin swallowed the light around her like the dark of a pupil consuming an iris. She was un-made up. Her face undressed. Tight dark braids were spun into her scalp. He hadn’t seen her this bare in a while, he thought.
“Will you get out of the car, please?” Emile said.
“Because I’d like to hug you. People hug at airports.”
“Fucksake, Emile. Just do it here in the car.” Cleo undid her seatbelt and cheated to her right.
Emile looked at the stoic brown of her eyes. Her wavering, cautious smile—teetering around a feeling she wouldn’t allow herself to access fully.
“Four years, Cleo. A proper hug, please.”
She stayed with her body towards her brother. “Hug me in the car or hug me at the restaurant.”
“Are we getting food?”
“I assumed you were hungry. That’s what you do, right? You pick someone up from the airport, then take them to a restaurant, and they tell you about the time they spent away.”
“I don’t think there’s enough time for me to cover all four years.”
A crossing guard in a yellow holographic vest began waving for Cleo to move.
“Then we’ll just eat.”
Cleo put the key in the ignition and began to pull out of the loading zone. She rolled down the window on the driver’s side, but just barely. November breeze crept across her bare forearms. It felt familiar, the cold. She’d grown to know it intimately. Emile sat with his shoulder pancaked against the glass of his window. His bare fingers were drying in Midwestern air, growing gray and chalking on his brown skin. The jacket of his ill-fitted navy suit tickled his wrist like an insect.
“Brilliant. Where should we go?”
“Ooof.” Cleo shook her head and grinned. “Not getting used to that anytime soon.”
He already knew where she was headed. “Can we please just— “
“Brilliant, mate. Brilliant. Are you mad?”
“It’s very normal to pick up on the vernacular of the country you’re living in.”
Cleo could feel his face twisting even while focused on the road. She had always enjoyed chipping away at him in this way; forcing cracks in his demeanor.
“Fair.” Teeth poked through her straight face. “Dottie must hate it, though. She marries an American boy, then he’s not so American anymore. It must lose its novelty.”
Emile shrugged and loosened his tie. “Dot’s fine with the way I talk.”
“I guess I can’t speak on behalf of Dot. Don’t really know her, anyways.”
“Playwriting,” Emile sighed. “Tell me about how that’s going.”
“Good. Working on getting a one-woman show funded as we speak.” Cleo turned right onto a long country road.
“I wasn’t sure one-woman shows were actually a thing.”
“Ever heard of Twilight Los Angeles, 1992?” Emile shook his head. “It’s a one-woman show about the LA riots. She’s this black playwright. It’s been nominated for a Tony and all that. Anyways, yeah— they’re a real thing.”
“That’s mad,” he said. Cleo resisted her urge to confront him for this. “What’s yours called?”
“A Murder of Crows.”
“About?” He fully took his tie off now.
“I can never describe my work as well as I can just write it. I’ll send you the script when everything’s touched up. Or you can just come see the production sometime.”
Emile began sifting through the glove compartment. “I’d like that.”
“Maybe Dot can come too. And the little one.”
“Little one’s named Milo.”
“I know my nephew’s name.” She turned her head to see Emile’s head fully ducked and cocked to the side, profiling the glove compartment. “Jesus. What are you looking for?”
“CDs.” He pulled one out. “You’ve always got the most obscure music.”
“It’s not obscure just because you don’t know it.”
“Don’t you have anything I know?”
“No, sorry. Did not plan for the one time you decided to come back for Thanksgiving. I’ll get College Dropout for next time.”
He ignored her. “What’s this?”
“Brotherhood. By New Order.”
“Hm.” He inspected the bluish cover. “Okay. Play me your favorite song off this.”
Emile slipped the CD into the disk drive and waited for a sound that wasn’t Cleo’s gritty car engine. “It’s kind of special, actually.”
“What is?” The car’s interior released mechanical noises as it tried to process the CD.
“Having CDs. Feeling music in your hands. It’s so personal.”
Cleo’s right shoulder met her ear in a shrug. “I’d like to think so.” The two of them remained in silence.
“You gotta give it a little—” Cleo banged on the dashboard three times with her fist, ejected the CD, then re-entered it. She clicked down to track six. “Bizarre Love Triangle” began to fall through the speakers. “There you go.”
Cleo and Emile sat quietly for a few moments, stirring in the eighties synths around them. Emile listened intently to his sister’s music. He realized he’d heard this song before, a long time ago. He imagined she was driving him to school back in his senior year. He hadn’t gotten his license until he was twenty. Cleo was in the middle of the same memory.
“Do you smell that?” Emile pulled his suit jacket over his nose and turned towards the window.
“Smell what,” she said, discreetly lowering the driver’s window a bit more.
“I don’t know.” He put his window down a bit too. “It’s not bad per se, but it’s like, lived in. Like Grandma and Grandpa’s basement.” He held the fabric more firmly over his nose like he was trying to pop a zit between his fingers.
Cleo turned the volume dial up a bit louder. “Why didn’t Dottie come? I was looking forward to—you know.”
Emile turned the music up a bit more. “Thanksgiving is an American holiday. She doesn’t see the appeal. I’m into this song, by the way. It’s good.”
“What—was it the mass genocide or the overeating that turned her off?”
Emile pulled his face out from his suit now, finally. His dark face scrunched up and pulled lines all around his eyes. His nose was as broad as a linebacker’s shoulders; it was the centerpiece of his everything. “Can we stop by your place before you drop me at Mom and Dad’s?”
“No time,” she said.
“We’re on a schedule?”
Cleo nodded. “If we waste another moment before getting to the restaurant, I’ll starve and die.”
Emile started sifting through the glove compartment for more CDs.
“It’s very fitting that you’re in the theater. The theatrics in everything you do, I just…” He pulled copies of The Sundalic Twins, Disintegration, and Skylarking out of the glove compartment. “Cleo.” He said this warily.
“What’s up.” She knew already.
“These all still have the security tags on them.”
“They do? That’s strange.” Her nerves pulled her mouth into a shaky grin.
“Is it?” He held the CDs in his hand like they were a bomb. Those nervous lines were back on his face. “Is it strange?”
“Not sure,” Cleo retorted. “Let’s both sleep on it and come to a consensus in the morning.”
“Cleo, are you stealing?”
Cleo drove past the Kroger by their old middle school— past the gutted remains of what was once their family’s go-to Chinese take-out restaurant, past the odd cluster of trees outside the guitar store where she had her first kiss—and into the potholed parking lot.
“We’re here. Time for your hug, I guess.”
When Emile looked up the two of them were facing a Diner. The bulbs in the “I” of the light up sign shorted out. Dner.
Cleo was out of the car as soon as it was placed in park. Emile pulled himself out of the car slowly, as if savoring every movement for a memory later.
Emile looked at his little sister. Her white t-shirt and blue jeans. The same black Chuck 70s she’d been wearing since before he’d gotten married and moved to England. The way the bridge of her nose came together like the peak of a mountain and fanned out widely at the bottom like butterfly wings.
Cleo looked at her older brother and thought that he looked more twenty-two than the twenty-eight he was. How poorly tailored his suit was—the pant legs rising far above his ankles. How there was a young, English-sounding Milo with his genetic make-up throwing blocks at a wall somewhere. How bare Emile’s left hand was. Too bare.
“Okay, hug me,” she said.
“Don’t make it a chore, kid.”
Kid, she thought. Cleo was instantly fourteen again.
“Please do it so we can just go eat.”
Emile walked over and hugged his sister lightly, awkwardly. Their shoulders brushed like repelling magnets.
“Must you make everything so difficult…” He pulled away and watched Cleo’s legs carry her into the restaurant. Her seamless, placid gait—like she was walking on the buffed wood of a bowling lane.
“Do you have your wallet on you?” she asked.
When the two of them entered the restaurant Cleo walked up to the hostess and leaned on her podium. “Table for two please.”
The hostess was wearing a Christmas-green vest and her name tag said “Jerika” on it.
“Are you two twins?” Jerika said this with two menus in-hand and a smile that reached her eyes.
“No,” Emile sighed. “She’s twenty-seven. I’m twenty-eight.”
“Oh. Well you could pass as twins if you wanted to. It’s the nose, I think. The eyes, too.”
“The Stillwater nose,” Cleo said. “A fucking curse if I’ve ever heard of one.”
The two of them were led to a table overlooking the parking lot. They could see Cleo’s car from their booth. Emile started working on his third coffee of the day. Light brown liquid distilled with mounds of cream and sugar dripped down his chin and onto his white shirt.
“Jesus. You’ve got so much damn coffee on your shirt,” Cleo said. She took a swig of her water and crunched the ice between her teeth. Her brother’s harsh adult features looked softer, younger in that moment.
“I told you, I always have coffee on my shirt. And stop saying the Lord’s name in vain. Mom and Dad’ll kill you.” He fell victim to another coffee stain.
“Fuck. I know. Sorry.”
“Stop swearing, too. You know them.”
“I know.” Her mouth was agape, as if more was coming, but she just left it there.
“Will you tell me what your play’s about?”
“I told you. It’s called A Murder of Crows. It’s a one-woman show. I’m working on getting it funded.” She chewed more ice.
“Okay, but what’s it about?”
“Is this you trying to find a reason not to come to the show?”
“No, Cleo. I’m just curious about your life. Can I do that? Can I be curious?”
“I’m curious about your life, too,” she said. Emile looked at her with heavy, muddy brown eyes, and neither of them turned away. She pushed her water to the side. “Should I just say it?”
“Say what?” He knew an instant after he asked.
“Your left hand. Where is it?”
“Fuck.” The panic flashed on his face as he dug around in his wallet and placed his wedding ring back on his finger. Cleo had never seen it in person. It was smaller in real life. Emile did his best to avoid eye contact.
“Profanity,” she teased.
“Please just leave it. At least for now.” He was no longer drinking coffee. The anxieties of the conversation had his heart in a marathon.
Cleo finished her water. “Just explain yourself to me. You don’t have to explain yourself to them. Just do it for me.”
“You don’t want to know.” His voice wavered like a waveform.
“Did she cheat on you?” He shook his head. “You cheat on her?”
“Gosh, Cleo—is that what you think of me?”
Emile’s eyes were studying the family sitting across the walkway from them; how all of them were on their phones. “I don’t understand why that’s where your mind goes.”
“I mean, I just—I just can’t think of other reasons.” Her foot was knocking ferociously against a metal pole under the table.
“People divorce for all kinds of reasons. Love is complex that way—it’s never been just one thing.”
“Explain the complexities of love to me, then. I’ve always wanted to know.”
“No, Cleo. Just give it a rest, maybe. It’s not fun.”
“Explain, Mil.” It was her childhood nickname for him. His chest tightened.
There was a pulse in his jaw. “It’s not fun.”
Cleo let her eyes bear into his in a plea; her face molded soft and true.
Emile shrugged. He looked out the window as he spoke. “I’m leaving her.”
Emile focused on a stop sign. “Because I don’t love her anymore.”
Cleo tried to pull his gaze but his eyes remained out the window.
“What do you mean, it? Is that not good enough for you?”
“No, no. It’s just…kind of shit, you know. You just stop loving someone, and then everything you’ve had just disintegrates. I don’t know. It’s just shit, I guess.” This was one of the few instances she wished she could lock away her bluntness in a dark room. Emile also wished this.
“Thanks for informing me. I didn’t know.”
“I’m real sorry, Emile— “
“—and I know you don’t want to hear this, and I’m not trying to kick you while you’re down, but—fuck. Mom and Dad are not gonna—”
“You’re so smart, Cleo. I wish I was as smart as you.”
The waitress stopped by their table. She read their faces. Emile said they were going to need a couple more minutes.
“I bet you’re glad you didn’t waste the money on getting me to the wedding.” She’d meant to say this as a joke but her vocal chords betrayed her. They wavered sincerely; the hurt seeped through. To distract herself, Cleo scanned the menu. Chicken tenders and fries were juvenile, yet reliable.
“I’m glad you just said it. I was tired of your discretion.” Emile was drawing towards the Caesar salad, knowing he would eat half the fries off his sister’s plate anyways.
All intended humor had dissipated. “Why would you have the wedding in England when your whole family lives here?” A side of broccoli, too, maybe.
“Because my fiancé lived in England. Mom and Dad came.”
“Mom and Dad could come.”
“You could’ve come.”
There was a warmness in her chest that was traveling upwards. “I couldn’t come. You had the wedding in England.”
“All you had to do was buy a ticket.” His voice echoed slightly in the air.
“I didn’t have any fucking money.” She closed her menu and waved for the waitress. “You knew that.”
“I didn’t believe you.”
A long pause hung between them. “You should’ve.”
“You’ve always…exaggerated. The theatrics, you know.”
Cleo felt her chest tighten, and just repeated. “You should’ve.”
Their waitress came over to their table and took their orders. There was no need to jot them down. She had an impeccable memory, she told them.
Cleo sneered when Emile ordered his salad.
Once the waitress left, Cleo reached across the table and drank the rest of her brother’s coffee. The waters inside of her stilled.
“How do you just stop loving your spouse?” This left her mouth with full sincerity and wonder.
“Just like any other thing: time and circumstance.” Emile looked down at his shirt. A muddy brown trail from neck to sternum. “Can I please stop by your house and change before we go to Mom and Dad’s?”
Cleo blew air out of her nose. “Why do you wanna see my house so bad?’
Emile lowered his face into his hands.
His voice muffled in his palms. “Everything’s so difficult with you. You’re my sister, that’s why. Because I wanna change my shirt, that’s why. Can you just answer a yes or no question with either yes or no for once in your life?”
“Sure. Ask me again.”
“Okay.” Emile looked up. “Can we please stop—”
“Why not?” Emile’s thumbs were tight in his fists.
She turned her head to the window and tapped on the glass right where her car was parked. “You’re too tall. It’s hard enough for me to change in there.”
Emile’s eyes traveled to the silver car and scanned the backseat where his bags were. He imagined his little sister sleeping back there in the cold of a Midwestern fall. He let the tension in his hands breathe. Emile wanted to apologize or give his sister money, but he knew how she was. Instead he said:
“Do Mom and Dad know?”
“Nope. They’d kill me.” Her eyes avoided his for the first time.
“They’d help you. You know that.”
“I don’t want them to.”
“They would’ve bought your plane ticket, too.”
“I didn’t want them to.”
“What did you want then? What do you want now even?”
She let this sentence sit for a while, draining the air. Cleo never pulled the veil back too quickly.
Their waitress returned and set their food in front of them. Emile reached over his sister’s plate and took a fry before she’d even gotten the chance to say grace. She dipped a chicken tender in barbecue sauce and chewed slowly. She still had not looked at Emile.
“I don’t know. I just wanted you to have the wedding here.” There was a long pause. “I want them to think I’m doing alright.”
The tension in Emile’s shoulders released slightly. “You are doing alright. You’ve written a play and you’re getting it funded. That’s more than alright.”
Cleo took a handful of fries and decided to chew them all at once. “Haven’t written.”
Emile was chewing on his salad like a rabbit. He wished he’d gotten what she’d gotten. “Pardon?”
“Pardon? I haven’t written it. I’m not working on getting it funded.”
“A Murder of Crows?”
“God—Emile, yes. Leave it alone.”
They ate for another five minutes with the rumble of the restaurant as their soundtrack. Emile would slip fries from Cleo’s platter. She let him.
“You should write it,” he said finally.
Cleo looked up at him, eyes slightly red. “Everything I write is shit. Rubbish, you might say.”
This dig tugged at him kindly. “I don’t believe that.”
“I’ve read the things you’ve been putting on your website. Your poems and essays. Dot, too. We think you’re quite good.” The sound of his fork scraping his bare plate made her itch.
“Glad someone thinks so.” She smiled internally at the thought that he’d secretly been keeping tabs on her.
“I’ll help you brainstorm sometime while I’m here. We’ll figure it out.”
“How long are you staying?” Emile just shrugged and pushed his clean plate further toward the edge of the table. “You haven’t bought a return ticket?” He shook his head. Cleo looked out the window again and at the many bags in her backseat. “Figures.”
“You know. Milo.”
“I know, okay. I’m shitty. People are shitty. People do shitty things. Just let me help you work on this play.”
“Fine.” She pushed her nearly empty plate to the edge of the table. The following words came hesitantly. “Did you—like—know this day would come? Like, with her?”
His sigh travelled upwards from his toes. “In a way.”
“Is that why you never brought them home?”
“You tell me.” His eyes were to the floor. “You’ve always known everything. I didn’t.” Cleo knew this wasn’t actually true, but in some ways that proved Emile’s point.
She looked back at the window and saw the translucent reflection of the two of them posing back. They really did look like twins.
“Do you think they would hate us if they really knew us?”
Cleo’s mouth grew dry when Emile said this. She knew who they were. Emile’s face was hanging so low, like gravity was beating at it with a mallet.
“Not hate,” she whispered, slightly unconvinced. Emile thought she might say more, but she left it there.
Their waitress returned and cleared their plates. Emile paid for the bill like Cleo had hoped he would, though she would never ask, not directly. They sat there while the orange leaves fell and painted Cleo’s car, while the tearful toddler a couple tables from them seethed, and while the waiters moved through the aisle like a conveyer belt. Cleo’s eyes were covered in a light film, dewed over like May grass. Emile’s white shirt was covered in artifacts of his previously eaten food like a young boy in a high chair. Emile wondered if Cleo’s pride may kill her one day. Cleo continued to wonder how you just stop loving someone. How anything in life could ever be that simple. She thought about their parents. Was anything really, truly, ever unconditional?
Emile watched a cluster of birds launch themselves from the top of a building and travel into the sky.
“Why ‘A Murder of Crows’?” Emile asked this as he moved to the other side of the table and sat next to his sister. His arm rested lightly on the back of her chair. She let it.
“Like, what do you mean?”
“Why that title? What’s it mean?”
“It’s the technical name for a group of crows. All bird groups have them. There’s an unkindness of ravens—or a congress of ravens—whichever you prefer, I guess. A group of swans is a bevy. Owls, parliament. Crows, murder.”
“But again,” Emile pried, “Why?”
Cleo began digging in her pocket for her car keys. The jingle of them was an omen. “It just sounds nice,” she uttered softly. “You just know that they’re looking out for each other.”
Emile stood up from his chair.
The darkness settled between monotonous strikes. The only lights were on their helmets, and to keep them producing a light source equivalent to a match in a warehouse, they had to rub the soot off with their thumb. Chunks of coal fell between their feet, and were either picked up by the man who broke them off the wall or anyone small and quick enough to reach down and grab them. They chipped away at the deposit, as though they were peeling away layers of some rock being. Each strike they moved closer and closer to its core, but by then it would be long dead. Ellison worked with the group, but not with the group. He wasn’t different; he ate the same way, prayed the same way, but he was new to them, and that was something to fear. Sikorsky spoke like a seer, leaning on his tool, observing Ellison. “New guys always slip.” They believed Sikorsky, excluding Ellison who had experience to argue otherwise. In light of these facts everyone wanted Ellison to fail, just to prove themselves right.
At lunch he had pone and a sliver of venison. Sikorsky led the other men to the far-side of the shaft to eat and play cards. Ellison wasn’t a part of the game, and he didn’t mind it at all. He sat and daydreamed, using their words to build a world he could understand. He imagined a place of anthropomorphic deer, though he didn’t know what anthropomorphic was or meant, he knew what it looked like. For the deer, food collection was like working in a mine. One of the new season’s bucks was outside the group while the others rucked between food picking. The deer daydreamed of Ellison sitting daydreaming of him. Ellison felt the exchange in full, as though they were two aspects of a coin. Between bites of his pone and the deer’s rucking against a tree, Ellison found some common ground.
“Back to work,” yelled someone down the shaft, though Ellison couldn’t see him, he knew he was standing in the dark yelling down even darker sections.
Ellison picked up the axe and went at it.
He worked till late into the evening.
Sikorsky stopped to take a drink from his canteen a few feet to his right.
Ellison struck, the wall shifted, sunk in, and a piece of slate shot out from the wall, just to Ellison’s right.
It went through Sikorsky and crushed into the far wall, decapitating him just below the chin.
His eyes looked at Ellison through the dark, and everyone took a moment to stop. One man picked up his emergency light and flipped the switch. Ellison looked away as a brute of a man picked up a hammer and smashed the slate stuck between the walls. The head met the body on the floor. Ellison thought of his paycheck as he took the man by the feet and helped drop his body into a cart. Someone gave the mule a whip, and it began to pull the man to the landing, then the lift, so he could go right back into the ground.
The man with the hammer patted Ellison’s shoulder, “Good idea moving your first day mistake on Sikorsky. Hated that pecker faced freak.”
Ellison looked into the man’s eyes, the light was blown out with someone’s last breath, and it wasn’t Sikorsky who did it, else the wick would still be hot. “I barely knew the guy, and I didn’t do anything. He was unlucky. Guess you could say we’re all lucky ‘til we run out.”
“Whatever keeps your head on your shoulders.” The man with no light in his eyes was Alan, Ellison would later find out. On the lift, the men said that as a boy he would wrestle the family bull, until one day the bull tried to gore him, and he killed it with his hands. If you asked him, Alan could show you where the horn entered his thigh. Ellison never asked him, but he could imagine Alan taking his hands to a bull’s neck. One hit and he may be able to split a vertebrae. He was a hulk of a man, and when he held coal in his palm it looked like pebbles, as though he was ready to skip stones.
Riding on the lift with all of the other men, Ellison felt like a line in a wood etching, a portion of the composite. They were picking on someone smaller than Ellison, younger maybe. They said things that Ellison tried to ignore. He tried to think of Sikorsky. Behind him, the chortle of a dying man’s cough created the landscape, and Ellison moved out of the shaft and into the impossible.
Ellison imagined that the funeral service for Sikorsky was held that night. It was short, and few people came: his tearful wife, his grandmother, the family dog, and his eight kids. He could name three of them, while he still had use of his vocal cords. The two oldest would work in the mine, eleven and twelve, respectively. The youngest stuck with it, the oldest ran from home, never straying from the shadow his father cast. In the snow of an Iowa river bank he would be shot six times by a marshal, for robbery. That’s how Ellison imagined it would go. As the man spit black phlegm at Ellison’s feet, he knew that wouldn’t be the case. Most men who worked in the mine died there, consumed by their work, devoured by their labor.
Ellison walked home. It was a coal mining town, so looking for your house didn’t help. Each was a copy of the last, and in the night, the few distinguishing features that existed were obscured by the thick veil of darkness. He had to find the number, and, in the dark, even that was difficult for Ellison, but his wife was always on the porch willing to help him find his way. From the far end of the street he could see her moving in the twilight, guiding light with her lamp. She was dumping out scraps in the pig pen, and as she walked back she turned and waved to him. Her name was Ines, and she was the only woman he ever loved.
Born on a reservation in Oklahoma, she had taken up one of the few skills the West provided: shooting. She became one of the best shots, a repeater and revolver were one and the same in her hands. Ellison had seen her take the ears off rabbits, and branches from trees from distances that he could only squint at. She stood by the fence and looked at Ellison. He had the look of a shaved gibbon covered in coal dust, and she loved him for it. “I made brown beans and corn pone.”
“My favorite,” Ellison said flashing his teeth, small stars in his astral form.
After cleaning off in the wash basin by the door, he walked into the kitchen and got out bowls and plates and set the table. He filled her bowl, then his and took a seat at one end of the table. She led the prayer, and they broke bread together. “What did you do today?”
Ines looked at him with warm eyes, “I got us another deer. We’ll have enough venison for winter. It’s out back hanging up in the shed. Thing was rucking a tree, and I put a shot clean through it’s lung, loaded it up, gutted it, fed the entrails to the pigs, checked the potatoes, fine, checked the peppers, fine, checked the sunflower, fine, and picked a few tomatoes. Then I went to the general store, didn’t buy anything, just looked around a bit.”
“You can buy anything you want, you know, don’t feel it’s not your money.”
“I know, but I didn’t see anything I really wanted. So, I didn’t get anything. What happened to you?” She began to eat her beans, the time she’d taken to tell about her day had let them cool off enough to eat.
“A man died today.”
“How’d that come about?”
“Piece of slate severed his head.”
“Lot of blood?”
“I didn’t look.”
“Be bad if there was, you hammering away at those rocks, you’d be bound to slip on some and then you’d be worse for wear. Have to be on the mend, get fired probably, they wouldn’t let me work, too scared to see how a woman would do it. Afraid of us sweeping up your shit is all, some men don’t maintain their space and the presence of a woman haunts them like a witch. It’s a civilized ennui. I once met a party who had shacked up in Rockies, they all did the same labor, they all cut wood, made food, read the same stuff. The fact that they needed every hand to survive opened their eyes to the idea that we’re all equal. But what do I know?”
“More than any of us ever could. They’ll probably cover it with saw dust, if there was that much.”
“Had to be instantaneous.”
“We could only pray.” They finished dinner and went to bed. Each night by light of kerosene lamp, Ines helped Ellison read. He never got a formal education on the farm, while Ines had found opportunities in her travels. They were reading Alice in Wonderland. It inspired a lot of Ellison’s dreams.
The next day Ellison stumbled outside to the outhouse. Inside, the coffee pot was on the stove. He couldn’t get back to sleep now, so he started his breakfast, his pre-work routine. The coffee was percolating when his wife came in, she was tired and took a seat in one of the chairs beside him. “Bad dream?”
“No. Could I hold your foot?”
“Yeah,” she lifted her foot and sat it across her husband’s lap. He rubbed the pad, ball, and each toe with his middle finger and thumb working along the bone. He felt a scar across the pad that he was amazed to find every time. She stepped on slate as a child and split her foot open, they said she was lucky to have it, but Ellison knew she had more than luck.
By the time the coffee had finished, Ellison was working on the second foot. She went to stand, but he gave a slight squeeze on her toe, turned and lifted the pot up and sat it on the table. He kissed her foot, once because he loved her and once for her luck beyond luck.
“You’re an odd man.”
He looked up while she poured his coffee.
“Would you have it any other way?”
Micky’s Happy Fits of Rage
Barry was the dad with the bike and he thought it made his son cool. His passcode for the bike lock was POOP. He didn’t have the money for the lock with letters, but his son Micky made a good case. Micky said, “Look, just think about this: poop. See?” and Barry was sold.
He rode that all-broken-speed to Micky’s school. “Yo, Barry!” said the crossing guard. “Don’t speed in a school zone!” Barry laughed and nodded, per obligation. He kicked a Nike out and braked among the fit of fourth-graders—Micky’s contemporaries. One plucked another’s homemade rubber-band Rolex and when the other cried, the one said, “Look, Scooter, that’s why they’re called slap bracelets.” Scooter said he was “‘bout to square up” when the crossing guard said “go go go!” Barry hitched himself up and was the first to go.
At the top of the hill sat Shakertown Middle School. Barry had paid eight years of his life to its bursar before spending just two at Shakertown High (when Barry decided he ought to get a refund for this whole “school” thing). He locked his bike at the post as he did yesterday and as he had many years ago. His Nikes tracked the hill’s mud, his jacket fanned like a cheap cape.
“Micky!” said Barry. “Hey dude, how was your day?”
Micky’s little arms guarded his chest, his black cowlick an offset crown. “Longer than others,” the boy said.
“Aw, dang, why do you look so sour?”
Out from the shadows of Shakertown’s doors stepped Mrs. K. Without realizing it (or possibly with realizing it), she answered for him. “Micky had another incident today, Barry,” she said. “Son, why don’t you tell Dad all about it?”
“Well,” said Micky. “I was insulted by this craney neck’d little—”
“Tabitha,” said Mrs. K. “Tabitha hurt our feelings today. At snacktime.”
“She insulted me. She—that’s not even to say, she touched all my food, my viktals.”
“‘Victuals,’ son. And none of that invites, justifies, or excuses the decision that you made.”
“Well what’d you do, Micky?” said Barry.
Micky tightened the grip around his chest. Barry had seen it before: a boiling look of disdain the important people make before leaving for anywhere else forever. It was not any cooler in the eight-year old’s thin body. “I threw Tabitha’s chair.”
“You didn’t hit her, did you?” said Barry.
“No, but I wanted to.”
“Micky,” said Mrs. K. “Micky, why don’t you go wait down by Dad’s bike. Say Hi to the crossing guard.”
Micky marched without a word of hesitation. He was resolved to say Hi to no one.
As the children fled, time gelled around the two adults. Barry fought the silence. “You know I’m pretty sure I did the same thing, Mrs. K. When I was in your class.”
“Except, I think I might have gotten switched. But you know that was alright, as long as Rob Johnson—do you remember Rob Johnson?—as long as he got switched with me, you know that was alright then.”
“Barry, do you know what I went to college for?”
“I went to school for childhood education. I’m trained to teach your kids. But with your son it’s not teaching anymore. It’s . . .well look at my pants, Barry. He knocked that chair right into my desk and it knocked over my coffee. He’s just unpredictable anymore.”
“I’m sure he’ll grow out of it like I did—”
“Take a look at the paper I put in his take-home folder,” said Mrs. K.
Barry knew what homework for his son meant for him. “You gave him more homework?”
“Homework for you,” said Mrs. K. “It’s a pamphlet for a local clinic.”
“Like a dentist?”
“Like a psychiatrist,” said Mrs. K. “For children. For Micky.”
“A shrink?” Barry laughed. “You want my son to go sip tea with a shrink?”
“Barry, last week I had a copy of The Stand on my desk,” said Mrs. K. “The next day, Micky showed up carrying a copy into class—and he was carrying it because it didn’t fit in his bag.”
“He reads! Isn’t that what you want?”
“That day I asked him, ‘Hi, how are you?’ He looked over the top of the book like he hated me. It’s as if he can’t stand the little things that keep people normal. It doesn’t matter how well he reads. If he doesn’t learn to socialize, that boy’s not making it through high school. Do you want him to be a dropout?”
Barry turned away. “I’m sure he’ll be fine, Mrs. K,” he said. “Thanks.”
Micky got on the spokes of his dad’s bike and they rode home. He was silent until he had the thought: “Hey,” he said.
“What’s up, dude?”
“Can we stop by the library?”
Barry wasn’t sure how to get his mind where it needed to go. He imagined himself looking ahead, stern: the picture of a father making the right decision. Then he thought of the familiar stains on the school doors and Mrs. K’s face. He hated how much she had aged, yet here he was just the same. He pedaled faster and said to his son, “Yes.”
Micky spread a copy of Duma Key and a much thinner dictionary in front of the TV. The librarian had said he couldn’t check out a reference text. Then she saw Barry walk in with a box of Little Caesar’s, realized the books were for Micky, and said, “As long as you bring it back.”
Barry watched cartoons with a slice of pizza and a Mtn. Dew. Micky held the first page of Duma Key open with his toes and flipped open his dictionary. C—Con—Contracting (Noun). “Ok, cool, contracting,” said Micky under his breath. H—Hun—Hunch (Noun). “Ok, Hunch.” P—Pocket. Pocket . . . ? Micky clapped the dictionary shut and Barry spilled some of his drink. “Why isn’t ‘pocket-rocket’ in the dictionary?”
“What rocket?” said Barry with a mouthful of cheese.
“What does ‘pocket-rocket’ mean?”
“Um, I have a guess, but I don’t think it’s right.”
Micky tried reading again but the words were wiggly, uncontrollable. He tied his attention to the text. It bucked away. “Can I play the Nintendo?”
“Well you tried to square up with your friends today.”
“Square up? I don’t think you can say that.”
“You say that all the time.”
“I don’t say that. You sound like—you sound like Scooter. I don’t like the way he talks.”
“I don’t like the way you act at school. So no Nintendo. Now eat your pizza.”
Micky swung his arms and his breath stuttered behind his words, leagues behind his thoughts. “But she was so mean, she was—veal. First of all, she put her hands all over my food, and second of all, she bent her neck all ugly and she said I was stupid.”
Barry stood up and turned off the cartoons; he realized this was the part to listen to. “That’s silly, Micky,” he said. “You know you’re not stupid—what’s stupid was messing with her when she was being a bully. We don’t do that, right? Don’t mess with the Mess Around, Micky, it’s easy, isn’t it?”
“But I hate Tabitha!”
“Micky, sit down. Eat something, Christ. If you want to play the Nintendo tomorrow, eat and get in the shower.”
Barry restrained himself from turning on the cartoons. Silence, he remembered from his childhood, was even more useful than a switch. It was too unwieldy for him. He broke it by ruffling through Micky’s backpack. The sharks on the homework folder bit at the calluses on his finger-pads. Micky’s thoughts burned in the silence of his mouth, so he went away to pee.
Mrs. K had stapled her note—a Post-It that looked like it had dried from being dunked in coffee—to a blue pamphlet. Barry saw where Mrs. K’s long nails smudged the otherwise spidery ink:
“Barry—it’s time to assess Micky’s behavior. Don’t throw away his future.”
On the front of the pamphlet sat a white, nuclear-sound family around a puzzle. Above them read Southside Childhood Psychiatrics. Barry turned the leaf, disgusted. In outpatient settings, we offer individual and group therapy to work with families and improve behaviors. Our psychiatrists are trained to work with your community and family doctor to . . . Contact us at . . .
Barry crumpled it all and smashed it against his forehead like a finished beer can. He stayed like that, hoping the right thoughts would come to him.
The apartment was on the highest floor. Neither Barry nor Micky cared for decorations, but Barry had bought some posters before Micky was born. Three hung above the TV: a profile of Al Pacino, Hunter S. Thompson, and one of Heath Ledger. Barry would wait for Micky to look up from his book to ask who the men were. Then he’d know.
Micky walked in, drying his hands on his pants. “You look sour, dad.”
“What? I was just thinking.”
“Ok.” Micky sat down to Duma Key.
Barry watched Micky’s brows cut a deep frown as he opened his dictionary.
“How about we pretend the power went out?” said Barry.
“I don’t want to do that.”
Barry switched off the lamp.
“Dude!” said Micky.
Barry switched off the kitchen light. The hallway light. He unplugged the fridge because it leaked light on the sides. He gathered some candles and threw them in Micky’s lap. “Light em up, dude.”
“I want to read my book.”
From his bedroom around the short hall, Barry hollered, “Society’s gone through the tubes, Micky!”
“This is a dumb game anymore,” yet he lit a candle and set it on the coffee table. “I’d rather be grounded.”
Barry rushed into the sphere of candlelight. His guitar had a gold finish and a strap that might have been dried in the Vegas desert. The candle burped arcs across the varnish.
“The whole world is burned to a crisp, son. You and me are the last people on earth. What should we do?”
“Are you going to sing?”
“There’s nothing anymore. No more TV, no more work, and no more bitch teachers. So what do we do, Micky?”
“There’s nothing we can do—” began Micky.
“—but bite our time and sing a rhyme.”
Barry’s left hand walked the frets and his right threw out the chords. Micky would fall asleep after crashing from a fit of jumping and dancing.
“I didn’t call them,” said Barry.
“You didn’t call them?” said Mrs. K.
“No, I didn’t. There’s nothing wrong with Micky. He’s healthy, he’s smart, and he reads fine.” Barry looked down the hill to his bike. “He’s reading right now.”
“He needs a diagnosis of something.”
“For what? Don’t you want him to like himself?”
“It’s not about what’s likable.”
“What’s the point of telling him that something’s wrong?”
“So we know how to work with him, Barry.”
“It’s just like school, isn’t it? You want some shrink to grade him. You want my son to be checked off on all these little boxes so he makes sense to you guys—”
“You have a cliché idea about psychiatry—”
“—and I don’t even have the money for all of that! So I’m not fucking up my kid by having a shrink tell him what his bad thing is.”
“Micky’s suspended for a week,” said Mrs. K.
Barry’s head landed. “Suspended? Suspended from school?”
“It’s in his folder. I caught him pinch Scooter and to my face he called me a bitch. I can only imagine where he heard that word.” Barry became hotly aware of the other parents, all much older than himself. “So you should take some time out and think about what’s really going to fuck him up. Because Micky has a shot at going somewhere and doing something. Think about that.”
Micky climbed on the spokes of his dad’s bike. Barry thought he seemed sleepy and resolved to pedal slower than usual. “Can I play the Nintendo when we get home?” asked Micky.
The crossing guard waved goodbye. “Don’t get ‘er too fast, you hear, Barry!”
“You bet, Micky,” said Barry. His eyes were lower than an animal’s with little left to guard.
Many before him have died in these vines but the jungle never scared him. He ran right on ahead, never flinching and never ever pausing. Crocodiles dripping with wet flesh lurched for his body and darts without origin all flew with the same target. He ran, jumped, swung, and right before he could slip behind the secret rock, he ate a boomerang and died.
Micky huffed and restarted the level. He had not immediately started playing Nintendo after school: he had tried to read. But The Stand and the dictionary had both been flung much farther away. Donkey Kong seemed like something he could get right and he turned it on without asking.
“Why don’t you just skip the bonus?” said Barry.
“You don’t get it. I want the golden coin.”
“You don’t have to be perfect. You just got to get to the end of the level.”
“No, I want the coin. You don’t get it.”
Barry bent his to see the kitchen clock, subtracted an hour in his head because it was fall. “You should get in the shower, dude. You have to go to work with me in the morning.”
“Why can’t I stay here?”
“Because you’re eight. And suspended.”
“I don’t want to go to the grocery store. What if the kids at school see me there?”
“At the grocery store? It’s a grocery store, Micky, there’s no crime in being at the grocery store.”
“I don’t want them to see me there. They’ll call me stupid.”
Barry’s patience tapered. “I told you—you’re not stupid. It doesn’t matter what the kids say, so forget about it.”
On his third time restarting the level, Micky hit up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start. He was invincible. “But they’re right.”
“You’re not stupid!”
“They said people with their names on the board are stupid. And my name’s always on the board.” Micky jumped on the head of a crocodile. “They all act so good just so I’m alone.”
Barry tried to grab Micky by his little shoulder, but it was mostly the back of his neck. “You’re not stupid. You’re my son, and I was a really smart kid in school, and you’re really smart too.”
“Scooter came up to my face and said, ‘Why’re you so stupid Micky?’ And he’s right. I am stupid.”
“Micky, shut up!”
“I can’t read the stupid books from the library and now I can’t go to stupid school anymore and I can’t win this level!” The screen flashed gold as Micky got the coin. “I’ve beat this level a billion times but I can’t do it without cheats.” The controller flew. “I’m stupid because I use cheats!”
“Dude, the TV!”
“I don’t want to go to the grocery store! You’re stupid because you work at the grocery store! I want to be a teacher like the real parents, not like you! I hate you!”
Micky ran down the short hall to his room. Donkey Kong’s victory lost form in the splintered glass.
Barry had bought the Nintendo from a pawn shop. “Could have been the same Nintendo I pawned when you were born,” he had told Micky. Without putting words to it, he had hoped the game would take Micky back in time, a time like tonight: Barry playing Nintendo alone. There would just be familiar characters and colored motion while everyone around him was displeased. Barry would hope that the child would know this exclusion and just fucking get it. Except now the child was older, displeased, and had truly become his son. Barry was lost and he too threw the remote at the TV.
Then, one at a time, he plucked the shards out of the carpet. He knew Micky didn’t like wearing socks at home.
As Barry scanned tangerines, Micky sat under the counter. He read The Stand and ate Twizzlers.
Barry saw the crossing guard’s neon garb five customers ago. He wondered if the old man had picked the longest line on purpose. Among other sugar free snacks, the crossing guard bought sardines, wheat bread, and Diet Mtn. Dew.
“Barry! How’s it going? How’s your bike?”
“It’s all good.”
“I heard Micky took some time off from school. Is he home?”
“No, he’s right here. Micky, say Hi.” Micky poked just his eyes above the counter and flicked a wave.
“Micky! How’s it going, boy?” The crossing guard broke off a can of Diet Mtn. Dew and dangled it over the counter. Micky said “thanks” and popped it open at once.
“Hey, man, he’s not supposed to drink pop.” Micky looked ready to fight for the gray and green can.
“Aw, lighten up, Dad. A little caffeine can help some kids calm down. It should help him read that big ol’ book.”
Micky turned to page ten, uninterested in the adult conversation.
“I guess since it’s diet,” said Barry, rolling the receipt around his hand as it rushed out. “How do you know that for sure? Did you read a book about it?”
The crossing guard laughed. “No, I don’t have the patience to read. I just heard it from the mom of some of the kids. You can learn a lot by just talking to people.”
The person behind the crossing guard, a busy mother herself, started stacking her boxed pasta onto the belt.
The crossing guard continued. “For instance, last week I was talking to a fella who had an intolerance to linoleum. Said when he took his shoes off at the doctor’s, his feet would get all itchy. I said, ‘Well, you know, my feet get all itchy at the doctor’s too.’ And it was only ever at the doctor’s, I could never figure it out. Isn’t that wild? Now I don’t walk on the floor when the doctor asks to see my feet.” The mother ruffled the candy bars as loud as she could. “Just talking to people was the same way I learned not to put lotion between my toes. It’s not good for diabetics, son—don’t put no lotion between a diabetic’s toes.”
“Wow, thanks man, good to know.” Barry began scanning. “I think you’re going to have to move your cart over so I can help this lady.”
“Oh, right,” said the crossing guard, gathering up his cart. “So try asking people about their day, son. People seem to do that less and less. Now you and Micky have a good one.”
Barry’s shift ended at two-thirty. He left with a six-pack of Diet Mountain Dew.
With just the two of them, there wasn’t much trash in the can. A few black TV dinner trays, receipts, pop cans. (Beside the trash can sat an entire television, but Barry tried not looking at that). The crumpled pamphlet for Southside was near the top. Barry threw the Post-It back in out of a bit of spite.
He read the rest of the pamphlet. Although he brushed over a lot of them, words like adjustment, consultation, and safe didn’t seem so threatening.
Micky drank Mountain Dew with his SpaghettiOs. Getting to bed was less eventful.
Micky asked, “Do I have to go to the grocery store tomorrow?”
“No, I took the day off.”
“Aw, cool, what’re we gonna do?”
“Well I was thinking, we could go to the doctor’s office.”
“Are you sick?”
“No, I’m not sick. You’re not sick either, but I’m taking you.”
“Well if there’s nothing wrong with me, then why am I going to the doctor’s?”
Barry sighed and waved his hand. He willed the right thoughts and was grateful that they were there. “It’s not that anything’s the matter. It’s just—the thing. It’s like—well I think everyone has things, like . . . maybe an allergy to the floor. We don’t have to say it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but we ought to know about it. So like, you know when to wear socks. If you do have a thing.”
Micky’s eyebrows looked to be over a puzzle with a lot of defects. “What?” he said. “I’m not allergic to the floor.”
“No—never mind. You have to go to the doctor’s tomorrow. It shouldn’t take long. Then we can go to the library or something.”
“You never go to the library.”
“Maybe you can show me the books you like.”
“I guess.” Micky still seemed suspicious, but he was losing patience. “But I hate the doctor’s. I—loaf it.”
“I know and I don’t care. But hey—do you wanna hear an old song I like?”
Micky unfolded his arms. He fell asleep on the floor to some rough improvisation.
“I told you it was real,” Jimmy said, and he took another hit of the dwindling joint in his hand. The radio on his nightstand was turned up as loud as the dial would allow and tuned into a grainy news channel. Where they lived, any connection (from radio to cell service) was never very reliable. Now that the power had gone out, the signal seemed to have gotten even worse.
“More and more photos of the planet are being released as we speak,” the announcer said, her voice distorted. Aaron, who was sitting on a beanbag chair next to the radio, tried to re-adjust the antenna.
“NASA scientist, Dr. Ea Atsumi, has been quoted saying that this may be the most important scientific discovery of the last 50 years.”
“You guys never believe me,” Jimmy said without venom and shook his head. His hair was curly, but it never stood up the way he wanted it too. If he could grow much of a beard, he imagined it would be curly and disappointing as well. He passed the joint to Dante, who sat next to him on the bed. Dante rolled his eyes.
“That’s ‘cause you always make shit up,” he said, tucking a braid behind his ear.
“I do not!” Jimmy protested. He turned to Aaron and Frank for support, but they weren’t listening. Frank stared at his dirty shoes, and Aaron stared at the radio like he needed to watch it in order to hear the story.
“It is estimated that with current technology, a manned spacecraft could reach the planet in 20 years. No news yet about a mission like that from NASA, but I’m certain planning is underway. There are—” The woman’s voice dissolved into clumps of static instead of words. It took them all a moment to realize they couldn’t understand it anymore.
“This shit sucks,” Aaron said, trying to adjust the antenna again. Dante passed the joint to Frank on the floor. “This whole town sucks.” Aaron was heavy and strong like a wrestler. He kept his hair around his shoulders and had several tattoos on his forearms. He said his dad was from Puerto Rico, but Jimmy had never seen him.
“Try the TV again,” Jimmy said, even though there had been no indication that the power was back on. He glanced at Frank to imply that he should turn on the TV because he was closest to it, but Frank just stared back and exhaled smoke. Frank usually looked a bit ill with his pale skin and sunken eyes. Jimmy sometimes worried that he didn’t eat enough, but Frank always assured him that he did. And, despite his appearance, Jimmy was inclined to believe him.
“Gotta do everything myself,” Jimmy muttered, and Frank grinned. He pushed himself off his bed slowly, feeling his heart beat all over his body. For a moment he stood there, trying to let his blood pressure reach equilibrium again.
He hit the power button on the old television, but nothing happened. Just to be sure, he pressed the button several more times.
“It’s not gonna work, dumbass, the lights aren’t back on,” Aaron said.
“I thought we turned the lights off,” Jimmy said. He sat back on the bed, struggling for a second to keep his balance. Aaron flipped the lamp next to the radio on, then back off, but nothing happened. He sighed.
“The storm’s passing,” Dante said, pointing to the window.
“Let’s go get food then,”Aaron said. He gave the radio one final smack, and the signal cut back in suddenly.
“Right now we are making calculations to land Voyager 4 on the planet’s surface. Its, uh, its cameras were not designed for close range photography, but we will hopefully get a clearer view of the surface,” a male voice said with a sharp Russian accent. He sounded breathless.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Jimmy said, reaching over to pat the radio. Aaron smacked his hand away to protect whatever balance he had achieved.
“Based on the pictures we have now, well, I’m seeing green,” the announcer said. “Is it possible we have vegetation down there?”
“Well, we originally noted the planet because it falls within the hospitable zone. I think there’s a good possibility something’s alive down there.”
“It’s possible that this life might not reflect life as we know it, but, based on the apparent content of the atmosphere, I’d say carbon-based life is not out of the realm of possibility.” By the end of his sentence, his voice was mostly static again.
The announcer’s response was unintelligible.
“Damn, we gotta see it,” Dante said. Frank nodded.
“They got a TV at Taco Bell?” Aaron asked. He finally abandoned the radio to finish off the blunt.
“Nah, but I think they got one at McDonald’s,” Dante said. Aaron shook his head and coughed violently. He hit his chest several times but couldn’t seem to unclog his lungs.
“Smoke much?” Jimmy laughed. Aaron flipped him off, then cleared his throat loudly.
“I want Taco Bell though,” he said.
“We always gotta do what you want,” Dante sighed.
“Shut up,” Aaron said.
“We can go to both,” Jimmy said, “It’ll take 5 minutes if we drive.”
“I’m not getting a DUI. I’m walking,” Aaron said. Jimmy didn’t blame Aaron for that, although he didn’t want to walk in the rain.
“It’s a mile, quit whining,” Aaron said.
Jimmy shook his head, “I didn’t say anything.”
The radio spit out several more clumps of static.
It was gray outside, but the rain had stopped for the moment. Jimmy looked at the clouds and tried to picture himself on another planet.
“Y’all think there’s aliens there?” he asked.
“Probably like, bacteria or something,” Dante said. Though it had poured, the street was still a mess. Bottles were crushed so fine that the fragments filled in the sidewalk cracks. Fast-food wrappers and styrofoam cups were soaked and smashed into the dirt. Aaron kicked at a bottle cap as they went.
“I mean like, Star Wars level aliens,” Jimmy said.
“Nah, no way.” Aaron let himself fall a step behind them to smoke a cigarette.
They walked for a while in silence.
“I guess it’s possible,” Dante said eventually.
“No way. If they were intelligent they would’ve blown up the probe.” Aaron finished his cigarette and tossed the butt behind him. Frank scowled at him, but he ignored it. “Or at least sent their own probe out to contact it.”
Dante shrugged. “You shouldn’t throw cigarettes around like that.”
“It’s gonna rain again,” Aaron said, pointing up to the dark clouds.
To get to Taco Bell they had to walk a small ways along the road, unless they felt like cutting through the woods. But even the grass and weeds along the road were too tall and muddy to traverse, so they walked along the shoulder next to the guardrail. As they walked, they approached a bloody mess on the road. It was a deer— a young male, with the nubs of fuzzy antlers on his crooked head.
“You know if you hit a deer, you own it,” Jimmy said. They meandered into the road, giving the deer as much space as they could.
“Who’d want a deer?” Dante mumbled, pinching his nose to try and avoid the smell.
“I dunno, a hillbilly probably,” Aaron said. He waved his hand in front of his face like the smell might dissipate.
A car came at them fast with the driver laying on the horn.
“Shit!” Jimmy grabbed Aaron and pulled him back towards the shoulder. Frank and Dante both grabbed Jimmy, pulling him over as well. The car blared by, swerving only at the last second to avoid the deer carcass. Frank looked like he might be sick.
“Motherfucker,” Aaron said. He spat into the road. Cars on the other side of the dividing wall sped by without a care. Jimmy watched an old woman roll her window down slightly and flick a cigarette out. They kept walking.
They reached a large hill in the road, over which Taco Bell would be just visible in the distance. Jimmy could already see the dollar menu in his head. Since he’d just gotten paid, he imagined getting one of everything. And, since in this fantasy he had one of everything, he made sure that Frank ate a lot too. A light, misty rain began.
“Aw, this all sucks,” Aaron said. He started to pull out his pack of cigarettes, but then shoved it back into his pocket. They passed through a pile of crushed beer cans and bottles. Jimmy wondered if someone had dumped them there or if people had actually hung out and drank on the side of the road. Aaron kicked one of the broken bottles into the road.
“Don’t be like that,” Dante said. “You’re gonna blow someone’s tire.”
“I don’t care.”
“Come on, that’s shitty, man.”
“It’s not my bottle!”
“Imagine if that happened to you. You can’t buy new tires.”
Aaron groaned. He knew Dante was right. He trudged into the road as the rain picked up.
“You’re like my fucking mom!” he yelled.
“You wish your mom was this pretty!” Dante called back, and they laughed as Aaron grumbled. Another car came speeding over the hilltop. It didn’t have time to stop or swerve out of the way.
“Aaron!” Jimmy yelled. The brakes wailed, and the car skittered sideways as it slowed down. Before Jimmy could see the driver’s face, he righted the car and sped away.
His body was a wet lump on the black road.
Frank stuttered on the phone with the police. The rain came down harder and harder.
“Did you catch the plates?” Dante yelled. Jimmy stood halfway between the guardrail and Aaron. He wasn’t sure if he could drag him to safety before another car came.
“Did you catch that motherfucker’s plates?” Dante yelled.
The planet news was on all the screens in the emergency room. There was a plethora of grainy videos that the probe had taken as it descended through the atmosphere. It reminded Jimmy of Luke Skywalker descending onto Dagobah. They’d been in the emergency room for hours, though, and they had started to recycle the footage. Jimmy could now distinguish the clips by their minute differences. There was one that seemed to be all smoke. One that looked like it was travelling through grey clouds. One where the clouds seemed more red than the others. Jimmy, however, didn’t take his eyes off the screen. If he did, he had to remember he was in a hospital and that Aaron was somewhere hidden from them, going through God only knew what.
A nurse came by to tell them that Aaron was going in for surgery and that, even though his condition was still serious, he was expected to stabilize once the procedure was finished. Jimmy wasn’t sure what to do, so he just nodded. Her presence made him look away from the screen and think about Earth and death and not the lovely new planet, and he resented her for that. Every part of him felt heavy and tired.
He looked around the emergency room. Though she didn’t work in town, he figured that Aaron’s mom would’ve been here by now. Maybe she went right to his room.
Next to him, Frank sniffled again. Jimmy was fairly certain he’d stopped crying, but his breathing still seemed strained. Jimmy squeezed his hand because he really didn’t know what to say. He’d still bought them food even though it was overpriced and from the hospital food court. The red bar at the bottom of the news screen said the Chinese government had announced a manned expedition that would depart for the planet in 2020. Jimmy wondered why it would take the next six years to build the rocket. The program finally cut away from the atmosphere footage to several people discussing this development.
“Damn, now it’s another space race,” Jimmy said to Dante. He turned before he remembered that Dante had left to make it home in time before work at least half an hour ago. Though he resented him for leaving, Jimmy was jealous that he had something so concrete to distract his mind with. He’d promised to send him any updates. With his free hand, he pulled out his phone and sent a short text: Going into surgery. Jimmy turned to Frank, who looked miserable with his reddened eyes, which focused on the TV nearest to them.
“You think we’ll beat them?” he asked in an attempt to distract him. He supposed the “we” was America. Frank blinked slowly, then moved over to rest his head on Jimmy’s shoulder.
“I guess it would be better if we did it all together,” Jimmy added.
“I don’t think we should go at all,” Frank said in his soft voice.
“What!” Jimmy raised his eyebrows. “A whole new world and we just ignore it? What if there’s aliens? What if there’s a plant that cures cancer?”
“That planet’s better off if we leave it be,” Frank said.
“Imagine, dude. We haven’t even explored the whole ocean yet. We have no idea what’s out there. Could be anything.”
“It’s not worth it.”
“What do you mean?” Jimmy almost laughed, but he knew Frank was serious.
“I just think that we’ll ruin it, is all.”
Jimmy frowned. He wanted to be excited about the discovery. Some part of him even wanted to travel to the planet, six years of rocket-building and twenty years of travel be damned, to be able to see it with his own eyes. But he thought about the day he’d had, and then the lifetime he’d had before that.
He shifted his weight so he could rest his head on top of Frank’s. He closed his eyes and listened to the nurses shuffling around and the phone at the desk ringing, ringing, ringing.
“Maybe you’re right.”
“You’ve been asleep for too long, open your eyes and come back to me.”
I was shaken out of my slumber. The world around me felt hazy and distorted as I tried to grasp at the fleeting images from my sleep. I was in a city. A large, loud city that glowed a dazzling silver from afar, but the closer it was to me, the dingier it became. I remember the feel of the dirt that covered the once-paved road beneath my shoeless feet. Someone might have been calling my name. I couldn’t remember exactly what they were saying, if they were saying anything at all. I remember being hungry and angry— really angry. Then, there was the woman in the blue coat and pencil skirt. She smiled at me and offered her hand. I didn’t want to take it, but she grabbed mine. Then I woke up.
I could see her on the other side of my confinement. She wore a long, grey coat with a dim, blue stripe down the front, and hair pulled back tightly. Her features were blurry. Something around me obscured her, but I knew it was her. As I watched her walk around me, observing the tablet in her hand, I wanted to scream and get her attention. She had to let me out of here. A sizzling jolt of heat assaulted my spine, and my eyes shot away from her. The sensation continued until I looked straight at the screen that appeared on the glass wall that confined me. It projected a glinting chrome tower with little vehicles darting from its open hangars high above the ground. The sun was rising from behind the building’s peak as the charismatic voice began to speak.
“Zenith is humanity’s guide toward the next step in our evolutionary chain. Nothing is impossible with Zenith; together we can make you the Human you’ve always wanted to be!”
The screen droned incessantly as the picture shifted and a learning module began. A young man appeared on the screen and spoke slowly, going over the speech lessons from yesterday. I didn’t know how much more of this guy I could take. Every day he talked to me like I was some idiot who didn’t know how to speak. The screen shifted to show the city with the Zenith tower at the center. Every time I saw that tower, all I could think of was that I was stuck in here, in a tube somewhere in that giant tower. In a stupid way, it was kind of funny. It reminded me of something I couldn’t really remember.
Edith circled the Augmented Reclamation Tank as she checked the reports on the metallic statpad. She pressed two fingers to her right temple and squinted as her eyes adjusted to the data.
“Bodily functions: normal,” she mumbled to herself. “Heart rate: slightly elevated. Neural output: elevated. Well, you just woke up and your module is going so that’s normal. Power and pressure look fine . . . and growth rate is steady. This all looks very good, Six. Zenith is proud.”
A thunderous thud startled her, and she looked to specimen Six. He continued to pound on the glass tank as his eyes remained glued to the telescreen projected on the protective barrier. Edith laughed at the thought of him hearing her and focused back on the statpad. She didn’t care if he could hear her, though she knew he couldn’t. That was fine. She just wanted someone to listen to her. She was tired of always being the one who listened.
“You’ve been quite active lately, haven’t you?” Edith swiped from his vitals to his rest analysis. She frowned as the charts that were usually a healthy green turned a bloody red. Six had entered into REM sleep several times over the eight-hour rest cycle.
“A little too active,” she corrected herself as she looked at the AR tank. Six had his fist balled and pressed against the glass as he focused on the screen that now displayed various words and letters. He lifted his fist to strike the glass again but stopped and convulsed. Edith had expected him to experience a shock sooner or later. The Pseudos aren’t supposed to move while their learning modules are active. She always thought the shocks to be a little much; the plexiglass tanks were already several inches thick, even Pseudos with augmented physical capabilities couldn’t get out of them with the restrictive fluid holding them back. It was just another safety precaution. Edith shrugged as she continued pacing around the tank.
“I’ll have to administer sedatives before he sleeps for a while. The same thing happened with Twenty-Two before – “
“Dr. Wren!” A gruff voice barked as the white doors of Six’s chamber slid open.
Edith turned to see Dr. Ahrst approaching her quickly. His pale face was covered in brown liver spots and featured a sharp, hawk-like nose descending from the center of his now reddened head. Edith deactivated her statpads screen and pressed her fingers to her temple.
“Sir?” she said .
“Dr. Yantz wanted all of the observatory personnel in the conference room ten minutes ago and you’re in here, just talking to the thing! Get down there now with your reports before I have you put in one of these damned tanks!”
Edith nodded and rushed out of the room without looking back at Six. As the doors closed behind her, Dr. Ahrst sighed and rubbed his wrinkled hands on his deeply lined forehead. His fingers attempted to ease the irritation and stress from the aged crevices of his skin to no avail. He inspected the room slowly, looking for the specimen analysis statpad.
“She must’ve taken it,” he grumbled as he walked toward the statpad embedded in the AR tank’s base. “What has she done to this? Ugh, what am I going to do with that woman?”
The power and pressure gauges on the tank were normal, but they were on the lower side of the security threshold. Dr. Ahrst began to slide his fingers across the statpad’s display as smaller screens popped up, changing the security settings as he pleased. The old man could hear his own labored pulse over his thoughts as he swiped out of the smaller screens. He had pulled up the electrical input and suspension matrix to tweak them when a reverberated explosion knocked him off his feet and jolted the statpad from its connection base. Landing painfully on his backside, the old doctor looked up to find the specimen smiling down upon him. The chromium reclamation cords descended from the top of the tank and writhed around his body, eventually attaching to his spine.
“You! You stupid little. . .” Words began to fail the old man as he scrambled frantically to his feet, “You think that was funny? Ha! The second I tell Dr. Yantz that I’ve observed aggressive behavior in you, you’ll be euthanized and dissected!” Dr. Ahrst smiled to himself before shaking his head, “Look at me, talking to these things like they can hear me. I feel like Edith.”
Specimen Six slammed his fist against the glass again, causing Dr. Ahrst to flinch and retreat. The doctor turned and left with his face even redder than before.
Edith hurried down the slender corridor that connected the various Pseudo growth rooms together. She pushed her hair behind her ear and let out a flustered sigh. She never did enjoy the corporate side of Zenith, nor did she care for the scientific side, but it paid well enough. Yet, the corporation itself was growing repulsive. It was too cold, too abrasive. The board always wanted what they couldn’t have when they couldn’t have it. Edith and the other Reclamation Specialists had only just perfected the domestic Pseudo. A wonderfully familiar servant that was docile, hardworking, and eager to pleaseーbut that wasn’t enough. Of course the board wanted more. They always demanded more.
I could leave this all behind, she thought to herself, they wouldn’t care. They would replace me within a day. The thought hurt her pride momentarily before rationality soothed her. That was how the world worked now: everyone was replaceable. She scanned the hallway for room six to finish off Six’s stats and to fix whatever Dr. Ahrst surely had changed. Edith always knew that Ahrst didn’t trust her judgement; he was too old to understand change and the fact that there were people around him who were smarter and more competent than he was. Although, he never critiqued Dr. Durachii, whose constant blunders and idiotic oversight brought about the Twenty-Two fiasco.
That’s the board’s problem, Edith thought as she hovered her hand over the genetic scanner for access to Six’s room, they take on too many projects without giving us time to perfect them. The experimental batches were originally intended for the corporation’s protection and to see how far we could push the human genomes, until the government’s spacing agency offered a bid too high for the board to refuse. The scanner produced a thin chime and flashed a blue light, allowing her entry into the sealed room. There’s really no helping it though, Edith lamented, all I do is grow the damn things. The thought of leaving Zenith behind swirled about her mind again for a moment before she pushed it away.
“Sorry I’m late Six, Dr. Yantz always drones on with his. . . his. . .” Edith’s words trailed off as she pressed her temple to focus her vision. Her ocular implants must’ve been malfunctioning, and she regretted not saving up for the organic replacement program. As her vision adjusted, her heart sank and she cried out as her fears were validated.
Six was free from his confinement, detached from his reclamation cord, and drying from the synthetic amniotic fluid he had been submerged in. Thick shards of glass piled around his feet as he walked toward her slowly with his hand out, reaching for her. Edith stumbled backward; her sense of balance abandoned her in the face of the Pseudo. In a single moment, her world was flipped. It wasn’t so much that he was out, even though that did terrify her. She could easily grab the command switch on the wall, press the auto-off button, and he would be pacified. It was his expressionー one of sadness and longing. His piercing yellow eyes were partially hidden behind the damp curls that dangled in front of his face. Six had always been an angry Pseudo; their natural emotions were always fixed by the reclamation cords upon their rebirth, but now his anger was gone. It was replaced by something else.
Purely out of fear, Edith pressed the button and held it as Six grabbed at his neck and screamed a primal cry of pain before crumbling to the floor.
Every inch of my body burned. There was a high-pitched grating from the back of my neck that ricocheted around my mind and the rest of my being. I felt the coolness of the white tiles on my shins as I knelt on the ground. I held myself in the hope that it would keep my body together while being ripped apart from the inside. Somewhere, some part of me had felt this before. There was a pressure on my forehead, right above my nose, that didn’t hurt. I remembered this pain, but without knowing why. It was like being dropped into a tub of liquid fire that filled my every cell, roasting me alive. But then, it stopped.
“How did you do that?” The woman stammered, “T-talk like that?”
I looked up at her. She was afraid. She held something tightly in her hand with her thumb hovering over it. I didn’t want her to hurt me again.
“We only teach you the basics in responding, you – you shouldn’t be able to initiate conversation.”
I pushed myself from the floor into a kneeling position and gazed at her. She looked much different from outside my confinement, but almost as I had imagined. She wasn’t the woman I had seen in my dream taking me away after all. She was different; I could read her name woven in the fabric of her coat. Edith Wren.
“Please…I can’t go back in. Please.” I struggled to speak through teeth that felt like they would vibrate out of my skull.
“D-don’t move,” Edith said as I blinked away the fading pain and confusion. “You aren’t supposed to be released until you’ve been taken to your work site. I have to call.” I watched as she squeezed her earlobe and whispered to herself. Work site? First, they torture me. Then they make me work? I moved slowly, keeping eye contact with her until I was kneeling, just as she was, and held out a halting hand.
“What do you mean work site? And who are you calling?”
“Didn’t you pay attention to your learning modules or did you only pound the glass to distract yourself?” she spat.
“Distraction.” I nodded.
She scoffed, “Pseudos are servants, workers, they’re things that perform the work that people don’t want to do. Pseudos like you are sent to Ganymede to work on sustainability projects. For humans.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
Edith just shook her head, looking at me.
“That’s what you were made for. That’s the only thing you’re supposed to do. That’s why you shouldn’t be out.” She was standing now, with her finger still trembling over the button.
If only I could take it from her, then I might not have to feel whatever she did to me again. I couldn’t bear it. She began to pace slowly without taking her eyes off of me. I could see her sweating. She seemed just as afraid as I was.
“If I’m only supposed to know that, why am I allowed to dream? I already know more than this,” I said as I motioned to the room, “at least sometimes I do. Like this floor. I’ve smelled something like this before. I’ve seen floors dirtier than this. I’ve had dirt under my feet and between my toes. I’ve sweated like you’re sweating now, and it was all before I was in there,” I said pointing to the tank.
“No you haven’t,” she laughed nervously, “just stay there and be quiet.”
“Yes I have!” I knew that what I’d seen was real. What I felt was real. I remember that empty city behind the shining tower that was Zenith. I could remember seeing it from those little dirt roads during the night. The silver skyscraper twinkled with gold lights as if the sun never set on it. I had been there. I knew it. “Kecarine,” I said, “I was from Kecarine city. I remember it now!” I laughed before I knew what was so funny. “I remember seeing Zenith from my house! It was always so far. So bright. I remember wondering why the buildings near me didn’t shine like that. They were old, dilapidated. Most of them didn’t even have power. The streets were never clean, either. I remember going with one of you; my feet dirtied the white seats of that car we got into.”
“What else do you remember?” she asked, moving closer to me. I could see that she was wary, still gripping that thing in her hand tightly. But she was more interested than afraid now.
“Not much, really,” I admitted. “It comes and goes in blips sometimes. I see things in my dreams, but I can tell they’re real.”
“I knew it,” she said as she shook her head. “Memories can never be fully erased. I tried to tell them that. It would regress the brain to unworkable states. You can’t empty a brain of all the content that makes it up and expect it to keep working.”
“Right,” I said, “I don’t really understand any of that, okay? All I know is that I don’t want to go to Gano – Gan –”
“Yeah, Ganymede. I just want to get out of here. Will you let me go?”
“I can’t,” she said. “Security forces are already on their way. I tried to call them off once you mentioned your memories, but they still have to come and make sure everything is secure.”
I could hear yelling outside of the room. My heart began to pound and the palms of my hands grew hot and restless. Edith turned and looked at the closed door.
“They’ll be here soon,” she said softly. “I’m sorry, Six.”
“Oh,” she chuckled, “that’s you. You’re the sixth augmented Pseudo we’ve made for the endeavors on Ganymede. There are hundreds growing now, you’re the first of many.”
“Then they wouldn’t really care if I got away, right?” I pleaded as I detected the sound of footsteps, “I’m replaceable if there are hundreds more like me.”
“That’s not how it works, Six. Zenith wants their products. They let them go only for the right price.”
The door opened quickly with a low hiss, revealing five men dressed in blue padded uniforms and toting heavy, black weapons while standing in the hallway. Edith faced them and stepped forward. One of the guards on the left aimed their weapon at me. Before I thought about what I should do, I was behind Edith. I grabbed her arm tightly and pulled her back toward me. I snatched the harrowing device from her hand and crushed it in mine. I felt a twinge of pain before a feeling of release emanated from the back of my neck.
“Pseudo! Let the Doctor go!” the guard in the front shouted. The men behind him fidgeted uneasily and cocked their weapons, waiting for the signal to fire. Without speaking, the guard turned his head and acknowledged Dr. Ahrst.
“Sir,” Edith shouted, “call the guards off! This one’s different from the others we’ve released. He has his memories! This could be a different type of breakthrough!”
“Shoot them,” he ordered coldly. “The Pseudo gets reclaimed and the Doctor gets disposed.”
I felt Edith’s arm droop in my hand. She shook her head slightly, then gave an unsurprised laugh. Why would she laugh now? Before I could try to understand it, one of the guards fired their weapon. Its sound was deafening, and produced a thin cloud of smoke that was whisked away by a vibrant, blue net riddled with electricity. I didn’t have time to think, all I could do was shut my eyes and cower as I waited to feel that approaching pain.
“Six! Six!” Edith exclaimed.
I opened my eyes to find her looking at me. I hadn’t been harmed. Had the net missed? I could still hear the sound of it sizzling nearby. Looking back at the soldiers, I saw the net spinning mid-air, like it had been nailed to an invisible wheel. Someone had stopped it.
“How did you do that?” I asked Edith as I stared at the terrifyingly beautiful sight.
“I didn’t do anything,” she said, ripping her arm from my grasp, “you did that. I told you, you’re augmented. You were made for more!”
“Why are you all just standing there?” Dr. Ahrst screamed from behind the safety of the guards, “Get them! Shoot them!”
A flurry of shots rang out and assaulted my ears. Just as easily as I thought about how much I didn’t want to get hit by those nets, each of them stopped in the air as if they were stuck to an invisible wall. I couldn’t just stand there and watch forever. I started to feel the strain of holding them up. My temples pulsed and a knot formed in my stomach. There was only one way out of the room and guards were blocking it. I envisioned the nets twisting backward and blanketing the guards in their electrical embrace. To my pleasant surprise, the nets mirrored my thoughts, wrapping themselves around the armored guards and the old screaming doctor.
Edith ran out of the room first and I followed her.
“Where are we going?” I asked as I tried to keep up with her. She ran faster than I had expected.
“You wanted to get out, didn’t you?” she huffed as we passed a doorway that read ‘Ninety-two’.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t let me go, now you’re helping me?”
“That was when I still had my job,” she explained, “but Dr. Ahrst was perfectly content with shooting me like I was one of you– the perfect reason to quit.”
One of you? “Won’t you get in trouble? For helping me, I mean.”
She laughed, “I’m already in trouble, Six. I’ve been in trouble. That’s all Zenith is.”
After a moment, she spoke again, “What you said before, about remembering… What else do you remember?”
Her question briefly stopped me in my tracks before she turned and motioned for me to continue following her. I thought about what I knew. It seemed that the longer I was away from my confinement, the more I could remember. Before, I would only see things in my dreams; quick images or thoughts that would envelop my mind and wouldn’t leave me even after waking up. They would only drain away once the monotonous learning modules began. But just then, I felt different. The smell of the air in the stairwell reminded me of somewhere else. It was musty and stale, like it had been cleaned years ago then forgotten about. It reminded me of home.
“I remember that where I lived was somewhere like this.”
“Like the Zenith building? You must’ve had it nice. We don’t really have–”
“No,” I cut her off, “like this,” I said gesturing to the stairwell around us. “I lived in a place that was older than everything around it. Somewhere forgotten. It was kind of run down, now that I think of it. And I could see the Zenith building from where I lived. It used to block out the sun in the morning when I would watch my mom head off to work…” I remembered that last part only as the words left my mouth.
“That makes more sense,” Edith said solemnly. “You were someone else before you were you, that’s why Zenith is trouble. All the Pseudos were children, very unfortunate children, before Zenith took them and re-made them. You’re not supposed to remember who you were. None of our other Pseudos do.”
I was stunned into silence for a moment before I blurted, “How many more people are there like me?”
“Pseudos,” she corrected, “and just one for now.”
“Who’s the other one?”
“A Pseudo called Twenty-two –”
I tried to wrap my mind around what Edith had said before I heard a symphony of doors burst open, followed by a chorus of footsteps charging into the stairwell. Edith peered over the edge of the stairwell and scowled. I didn’t have to look to know that they were close. As we neared the ground floor, I paused at the door labeled ‘1’. Edith kept descending. I glanced at the door and then at Edith’s back.
“Where are you going?” I called out.
“To the basement. There are more guards on the first floor and we already have enough trailing behind us.”
I turned to follow Edith just as a slimy splat sounded behind me. I looked back as I ran and glimpsed a blue mound of goop plastered against the first-floor’s door, where it sizzled and sparked as it spread out and thinned. The echoing yells of the guards above us signaled their arrival as their footsteps drew nearer. I had held us up.
“Hurry up, Six!” Edith urged as she descended the last flight of stairs and stopped by the large, grey double doors that led to the basement.
I ran in first and Edith followed, closing the door behind us. I barely took three steps before halting out of sheer shock. The room wasn’t a small space like the door had suggested. Though the ceiling wasn’t remarkably high, the floor extended farther than I could have imagined. Before me were thousands of people stuck in liquid-filled tubes, just like I had been. There were fifteen rows that stretched all the way to the back of the room. The pods confined infants, children, and globs of cells that descended from the top portion of the confinement chambers. I wanted to scream. Some of them woke up and looked straight at me; all of their eyes glowed a pale yellow through the clear liquid that engulfed them. Why would anyone do this? I could feel them scrutinizing me. They wanted to know how I got out. I wished I could tell them that I still wasn’t free.
“We have to hide,” Edith hissed as she ran between the large tanks and toward the back of the impossibly large room. The sound of muffled yelling grew behind us. She shooed me away toward the other side of the room before we both squatted down and hid behind the thick, metallic base of the tanks closest to us.
I heard the door slam shut and footsteps prowling slowly around the first row of tanks. I turned to Edith and saw that she was just as afraid as I was. She silently mouthed the word, “Exit”. It seemed no closer to us now than when we had first burst in. Before, I was almost sure that we’d be able to escape. Now, as I cowered here, I could feel the numb rush of despair filling my body.
“I can’t pick up any reading on my Audibio-sensors, too much interference from the other growths,” a female voice echoed.
“We’ll find them eventually,” the other responded. “Hear that? It’s only a matter of time now, Pseudo!”
Edith slipped forward and I followed suit. The Pseudos that floated in the tanks surrounding us were all adults. Some of them looked older than I was. They must’ve had some understanding of what was going on because none of them looked at me. There was a silver lift at the back of the room that could ascend the wall and pass through a small port toward the ceiling. Would it really be that easy? Just stepping on a platform and being free?
Startled, I turned to Edith. Why did she whisper? No, it couldn’t have been her. She was looking over her shoulder and watching the guards. But I knew I heard someone, someone close, as though they were right on my shoulder trying to talk to me.
Please. Let me out.
I hate it here, please help me.
That wasn’t a whisper. Confused, I looked up only to meet the gaze of a woman with lengthy black hair that floated above her head like a dark cloud. Her yellow eyes implored me as I cowered in front of her, searching for my own way out. It was her. I didn’t know how she infiltrated my mind, but I knew it was her. I closed my eyes and tried to push her voice out of my head, but it only grew and multiplied. I opened my eyes and noticed that more of the people around me had turned and began looking at me. They all pressed their hands against their glass tanks as if they were trying to push their way toward me. They all wanted to get out. I couldn’t stop myself from hearing them, from feeling their pain. It overwhelmed me – dozens of voices asking of me what I couldn’t even ask of myself.
Let me out.
I tried to tune them out, to push them back and imagine that there was a wall around me. It felt wrong, but it was all I could do to save myself. Edith was pressed against one of the tanks in the last row adjacent to the lift. I was two rows behind her. From her apprehensive stare, I could tell that the guards were dangerously close. I had to move now. Hobbling on my aching legs, I hunched forward like an animal past the last rows until I reached the tank that concealed Edith. Ahead of us, I could tell that the lift was small. Smaller than it had seemed from far away, which was unsettling. Edith swung her head around to look for the guards then quickly redirected her attention to me. She held out her hand and counted backward from three.
She darted first and ushered me onto the lift, where she whacked a dim, orange button on the wall. Immediately, the lift lurched upward and produced a loud, automated beep. Edith had jumped up, but the platform’s ledge was angled and smooth, causing one of her legs to slip. I reached out to grab her and hauled her halfway onto the lift before I heard the quick decompressing sound of a weapon being fired. This time, a projectile latched onto Edith’s leg.
“They’re on the lift going to the warehouse! Miza, up and around on the first floor!” the man yelled out as he fired another shot.
I yanked her up and out of his aim as the wall before us opened and cast us into darkness. With the last particles of light, I could discern the static, blue goop that had spread itself across Edith’s calf. The substance seemed to spread slowly, ripple, then shock her. She squeezed her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and stifled the pain with audible strain.
“Edith–” a wave of her hand halted my words.
The dim blue light pulsing from Edith’s injured leg softly lit up the dark corridor . We were being transported through a tiny metal duct lined with an automated rail system.
“I’ve only been in here once, but I know there’s an exit that leads right out into the city,” she muttered. “The warehouse is big, probably a little larger than the room we were just in, but usually it’s a little more empty unless we have shipments.”
Shipments. I knew that she meant children. The ones that were kidnapped from the streets and used as material. Edith claimed that they were re-made, but when I saw those tanks with globs of cells floating within the restrictive fluid, I knew that those children were murdered first, broken down, changed, and then manufactured into something Zenith didn’t classify as human. I tried to remember what I felt like before I became a Pseudo. It was hard. The memories were hazy, slippery, as if I couldn’t hold them in my mind’s eye for more than a second before they vanished. But I knew how I felt then, and could feel it, still: human.
“We’re almost there, don’t slow down now,” she warned as we approached the door.
“Where do we go after this? You’re coming with me, right?” I asked her.
She nodded, “Probably back to the lower east side of Kecarine. That’s where you’re from anyways, and from there we can get out of the city. No place is remotely safe from Zenith around here.”
Five more steps before I could grab the handle, throw the door open, and set us free. But I didn’t have to; the door opened for me. The city looked just as it had in the education modules. It was dazzling, each building taller than the last, but I knew that the tallest building was the one I was running from. The male guard from the basement stood triumphantly in the doorway, his face glistening with sweat as he grinned hatefully at the sight of us. The sunlight shining behind him nearly blinded me. He aimed his weapon and fired. I couldn’t do anything. I closed my eyes and shrunk away, waiting for the pain. I felt nothing but a heaviness on my right arm. I opened my eyes to see Edith tearing herself away from me. She was weighed down by four more splatters of blue goop that shocked her body relentlessly. Three globs of the substance floated in the air before me. I had protected myself but not her. I didn’t even think to protect myself; I didn’t think I had the strength left. Why didn’t I protect her? Edith shrieked as the substance riddled her body with shocks. She curled into a ball and let out blood-curdling screams. The guard aimed his weapon again. I reached out with my hand and grabbed the air; the guard’s chest was pulled upward while his feet kicked helplessly inches above the ground. I squeezed. A sound akin to the wet slush of the blue goop attaching to skin escaped him. I relaxed my hand and he dropped hard onto the cement.
“Edith,” I muttered as I tried to grab her, her body shocking me as I touched her arm.
“GO!” she shrieked.
I tried to grab her again only to retract my hands in pain. Her shrieks slowed to low wails of agony. I heard the swarm of footsteps rushing toward us. I could feel the warmth of the sun caressing the back of my neck. Freedom was so close, but I couldn’t bring myself to tear my eyes away from Edith. All I could see was her pain.
“Go, go, go, go, go,” she repeated slowly between the jaw-clenching bouts of shocks, “go, go, go.”
“Edith, come on! They’re coming,” I pleaded as I reached for her. She looked at me and grimaced, repeating herself over and over until her body shuddered and stopped. “Edith?”
“I’m sorry.” I croaked through the heavy lump in my throat, “I’m so sorry.”
I turned my back on the warehouse and ran. The image of Edith still burned in my mind. I passed building after building, hundreds of people on the street – some of them turned to look at me while others paid me no mind – and countless roads. I didn’t stop running until Zenith was a distant building, like it had been in my memories. I could still hear the hundreds of Pseudo voices around the city complaining about the mundanities of their life, but I tuned them out. I couldn’t deal with anyone else in my head. I stopped behind a short red-brick building and collapsed.
Goddamn, Zenith guards are everywhere out here. I’ve gotta get out of this city.
I sat up straight, feeling revitalized by the phantom voice echoing in my head. That thought wasn’t mine. That voice was unfamiliar. Smooth and cold, yet angry and full of apprehension. I sat down, confused, and listened to the voice spout its anger while I tried to figure out why I was still hearing it. I thought I had tuned the other Pseudos out.
I struggled to stand as I recalled what Edith had told me— there was another like me: Twenty-Two. I couldn’t ignore him like I did with the other Pseudos. I had to move on, move forward. I had to find Twenty-two. I didn’t know what Edith had in mind for us, but surely it wasn’t this. She’d be happy to know that I didn’t perish in an alley after everything. As I stood up straight and breathed deeply, I decided that I would pay her back. I had to. But how? I wracked my brain as I took my first step, guided by the firm voice in my head.
My first real step of freedom.