If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?
THE mother tried to explain, but she couldn’t. She said she didn’t know how the girl would’ve managed to get her hands on, let alone ingest, one hundred twenty milligrams of oxycodone hydrochloride. The girl didn’t have a prescription, and neither did she. She said both children had seemed normal all day. Normal on the sidewalk, waiting in line, bickering and kidding and normal until the girl had started to seize, foam, roll back her eyes, and overdose on the floor of the sliding-scale walk-in clinic, which claimed to be in the mother’s insurance network, but hadn’t been on that day for some reason, and so they hadn’t gotten the chance to get rapid tested, and she couldn’t return to work, and the boy couldn’t return to school, and the girl was in a coma in a hospital, which wasn’t in the mother’s insurance network.
The mother was frantic.
―I’m desperate, she said.
One of the detectives described her as an obese wheezing blur like she wasn’t in the room with them. She reeled, and they took it as pretense to restrain the mother and beat her body and face.
Teeth skittered across the floor.
The boy rocked on his heels. He crouched. His arms hugged his knees. He pushed his face in a corner, where the wall met cool cement.
The detectives said they were going to conduct an investigation, and they did.
The mother squirmed in the frame of a webcam mounted to a laptop her roommate had provided. The prosecutor rattled off words she didn’t understand. The judge nodded.
They broke for recess, a word the mother understood. It hadn’t been long since she’d been a child. In fact, had she not been a mother, some might assume she was still.
She’d drawn shapes on sidewalks. When time washed them away, she had again. As many times as it took. She’d never tired of graving lines over lines. Until one day she must have. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even seen chalk.
The judge deliberated over an acai bowl and forty-five minutes later found the mother unfit for parenthood.
People in masks came to the apartment, removed the howling boy from the mother’s roommate’s custody, and transported him in the back of a van without windows to a room with a desk and a metal-framed bed.
―Don’t you want to have fun, the people said.
The boy rolled damp lint in his hands.
THE boy was allowed to visit his sister at the hospital once a week. Machines fed out strips of paper with perforated edges, and the boy pulled them off and fanned the girl’s face.
Then the holidays loomed and the plague numbers surged. The schools closed again, and the boy was not allowed to visit for two months.
When he returned, the girl was awake, but she couldn’t walk yet.
―Was it lit, the boy asked.
―I dreamed about flying, the girl said.
The children laughed.
―How do you know you were dreaming?
The boy left.
The people in masks came to see the girl by her bed.
―Can you tell us what you remember?
―About my dream, the girl asked.
―Can you tell us about the pills?
The girl looked at the floor, gray and covered in specks.
―When can I be with my brother?
―We’re trying to figure that out, the people said.
The state’s Agency for Services Serving Families in the Absence of Guardians had been gutted. It was the governor’s decree that new foster care cases be outsourced via a nonprofit mobile app his cousin had recently launched.
The beta version went live, and the children submitted fingerprints, saliva and urine samples, and blood work.
A month later, they were sent from the city to a scorched valley town of an abutting state. There, the next two or three or six years of their lives unfurled.
AT first they didn’t see anyone besides the man and woman who lived in the house on the big empty field. Every day they wore masks.
―Are there cows, the boy asked.
―What about horsies? Sheeps? Goats?
The man shook his torso, chest and shoulders pivoting at the hip bone. His neck remained taut.
―Raccoons, skunkers, opossums?
He sat with effort and unbuttoned his trousers, running splayed, knobby, spotted fingers across pale bloat.
—Them we got, he resolved.
The woman helped the girl walk with two canes. She ladled food on plastic-dipped paper plates, and the children made up stories about the silhouettes left in the oil’s wake.
The man asked if they knew how to drive.
When school reopened, they were the only two children in their grade. They tried to explain they weren’t the same age, but their surveillance files said different, and the school closed again anyway.
The people in masks came to the house on the big empty field. The girl showed them her canes. They sat with the man and the woman.
―What do you do, the people said.
They made up the history of magnifying glasses. They pointed out pretend camels. The boy remembered a song.
―Don’t you want to have fun?
The boy shrugged.
The children got shots in their arms. They threw bread at mean geese. Little by little they wore their masks less.
The man spanked their bottoms. The woman pushed them outside, and they waded through reeds, yanking ticks off their bottoms with tweezers lying on their stomachs in twilight.
The man’s hand lingered on the girl’s. He cupped it, and swept further under and upward. Her sacrum was still tender. She suppressed a gasp.
Across the street ran a river, and before the river lay tracks. The trains issued mysteriously. Rattling, rusty, dusty, spraypainted.
The trains said, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, Maine Central, Maersk Sealand, Hamburg Süd, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Kansas City Southern Railway, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transport, Ferromex, TFM, TTX, PSWE, EMP, PanAm, Procor, Conrail, Hub Group, J.B. Hunt Intermodal, and Cryo-Trans.
But the children couldn’t read.
They wanted to know why they couldn’t look at their phones. The woman tried to explain there wasn’t internet. The man said it was coming, but had been delayed by the plague.
When the leaves turned to fire and dropped from the trees, the people came back. They gave them more shots and said the school wouldn’t reopen but instead they’d meet with a handful of other children every other day at the house of their new tutor, a guy with a Master of Fine Arts in poetry.
THE girl dreamed about the city.
She dreamed about asphalt painted purple and swallowtails in jars with holes in the lids.
She dreamed about jump rope and hopscotch and the trails left across the skies by rocketships.
She didn’t dream about the mother. She didn’t dream about the dad because she couldn’t remember him. She could remember the mother, but more often she remembered other things.
In their building a man used to stand in the shadows.
Every morning when they passed the stairwell, he startled her.
He said, ―Baby girl, do you want to fly?
She liked being called baby girl. She didn’t know why.
She dreamed about the stairwell. She dreamed about school. She dreamed about her favorite classmate. The girl with pockets filled with pills.
And she dreamed about the secrets all inside her she couldn’t put in words. She dreamed about walking without the canes. Mostly, however, she dreamed about flying.
THE girl rummaged through the guy with a Master of Fine Arts in poetry’s medicine cabinets. She spilled pills into pockets and squeezed them in fists. Let them slosh between knuckles, tickle fingertips.
All over the abutting state schools had shuttered. Communities opting for education by pod. This state’s governor said it was better, because citizens could directly influence local youth’s interests by hand-selecting their educators, and pay fewer taxes besides.
―You’re lucky, their new tutor said. ―I’m the most intelligent man in the county, plus I’m generous.
There were seven or eight other children. The guy made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hardboiled eggs.
―I’m allergic to peanuts, one child said.
―I’m allergic to eggs, another added.
―Then you can have her eggs, and you can have his peanut butter.
―I’m gender non-conforming, the second child said.
―What are you pronouns, their tutor asked.
―I can’t remember.
―Where’s my EpiPen?
A third child had started to cry.
The girl snickered. The boy elbowed her ribs. Their tutor sent them back to the house on the big empty field with an envelope, which they returned filled with laundry-worn bills.
He stood with his hands on his hips. He flourished matcha-spattered handwritten manuscripts. He told them to memorize what he intoned, and pinched their earlobes when they stammered or said the wrong thing.
―When can we learn to read from the paper, the girl asked.
―I’d like to see you after class, their tutor said.
A fourth child had a phone. He recorded video of the boy running in circles in the garden out back. The girl watched from a window. The guy squatted.
―Do you have something to tell me?
She wrung her hands.
The chalky friction of pills ricocheted.
―What’s that sound?
The girl shook her head.
THE girl dreamed.
The boy nudged her awake.
Their tutor was chanting.
He coughed into space.
―I’ve been working on a poem about Lot and his daughters, he said. ―Would you like to help?
The children hesitated.
―Repeat after me…
―Drones, their tutor said.
―Drones, the children echoed.
―Lies, their tutor said.
―Lies, the children echoed.
―Whores, their tutor said.
The children faltered. They mispronounced the repetition.
―Whores, their tutor harshened.
―Whores, the children said.
―Slutty, filthy whores of Gomorra… Oh, God, how will I make thee pure… My daughters want to fuck me… And I rue the saltlick left behind… The curt abandon… My wife’s forsaken puss…
Some of the children sat on their hands. Feet jiggled.
The fourth child who had a phone recorded video. He panned across the room to their sweating, panting tutor, who snatched the phone away and told the child to open his mouth.
Their tutor flicked his teeth.
The child yelped and cradled his lips and squirmed away. For the next hour or so they played hide and seek.
―Can I be excused, the girl said.
She hobbled canes-first to the medicine cabinet.
OUTSIDE their building there’d been a courtyard, where the men hung out and smoked. At night the floodlights buzzed. They exploded white lightning, and the men played music from phones and screamed at passing cars and went inside.
In afternoons, men from other buildings came and straggled through the courtyards selling flowers and pills.
―What do they do, the girl asked her brother.
―What do they do, the boy asked the men.
―Make you feel good, get you high, the men said.
―Like flying, the girl asked her brother.
―Like flying, the boy asked the men.
―Like flying, the men said.
The floodlights had letters on them, but the children couldn’t read. The letters were on cars and trucks. Sirens howled. The men escaped.
When her brother went to play, the girl would show the men her PiggyBankly mobile app.
―Is this enough to fly, she asked.
The men would laugh. They tapped her on her bottom. Shooed her. But the girl lived in the building. She couldn’t stay away.
TRUCKS rumbled and parked on the big empty field. They carried checkerboard reflective rectangles, wires, and springs.
The man directed them over the pollen-soaked dust. The woman looked nervous. The boy watched the girl sleep.
When she woke, the boy asked her her dreams. The girl said sleeping was her favorite thing.
The trucks said, Solar Urchins, but the children couldn’t read.
They watched the man scratch his neck. He worked the lift gate for the men who got on and off trucks. He fiddled with their equipment. They disregarded him. Focused on holes in the ground. It had once been earth, but that term was generous now.
A bulldozer drove into a barn. It crushed the stable to splinters. Mean geese flapped and honked.
When the people came back, they didn’t wear masks. They gave the children more shots and asked how they were feeling.
―Ouch, the boy sneezed.
―Do you like your new parents?
―They’re all right, the boy said.
The girl crawled under blankets.
―What do you want to be when you grow up, the people asked.
―She wants to sleep, her brother said.
―What about you?
―I don’t know.
―What kind of things do you like?
The boy shrugged.
―Don’t you like to have fun?
―Yeah, the boy asked. ―I made up a song.
―Can we hear it?
The boy didn’t know where to start. It started with the girl’s dreams. But he didn’t know which one. When he didn’t answer, the people changed the subject.
―Do you like your new new tutor?
―He’s okay, the boy said.
―What kinds of things are you learning?
The boy shrugged.
The girl slept.
―You’re better at giving shots than he is, the boy said.
THE people sent the boy a half-size acoustic guitar.
―Don’t go and spoil the child, the man warned.
The boy brought it to their tutor’s house, strumming along.
The other children in their pod were impressed. They clapped. One threw up.
―You must write an accompaniment to my ode to Lot, the guy with the Master of Fine Arts in poetry said.
Everyone was distracted. The boy didn’t notice his sister drift off. In fact, at the end of the day, he left her asleep in the loft.
―Bimbo bitch, the boy trilled.
He did a jig. The boy wielded the guitar like a gun and slid into a split. In their building there’d been a poster of a man with a guitar like him.
―Our Lil’ Hollywood Jones, the woman laughed.
The man cracked a beer and poured it on the boy’s head.
Their tutor didn’t find the girl until after sunset. She was whimpering twisted in a pile of rags in the dark brined with sweat. A steady trickle of pills had slipped out of her skirt. They’d dropped through fissures in the ceiling into the guy’s bath.
He crept up the stairs and lurched over her salivating. She felt his breath on her thighs. She stirred and yawned. She didn’t know where she was.
The guy lay belly down across the unfinished wood floor.
―Do you have something to tell me?
The girl cowered as he invaded her pockets, extracting jumbles of tablets, capsules, lozenges, thread.
The guy made a tsk-tsk.
―What else are you hiding, he said.
AFTER that the curriculum changed.
The guy fed each child a pill at the beginning of each day. They sprawled on the floor, twitching and nauseated. They played duck, duck, goose. Then he would select one to go upstairs, and the favorite would get to choose one more pill and descend the steps hours later raw and winded.
The girl cried on their walk to the house on the big empty field. The boy asked what was wrong.
―You’re never favorite, she blubbered.
―I know. It’s not fair.
Only one of the boys was ever chosen, and the next day, and those that followed, he didn’t return.
Then duck, duck, goose changed. Only their tutor got to be it. If you got goosed and couldn’t catch him, you had to take off your clothes and stand in the middle of the circle and have your picture snapped.
With canes to contend with, the girl was naturally doomed.
They turned off the lights and watched videos of pigs being stunned, bled, grated to hash.
―I’m enticed, the guy said. ―You’re very mature for your ages.
ONE day their tutor was mad. He said they weren’t good secret keepers. He wondered if he could trust them.
They had an hour to memorize a strange cluster of words, which he called the most important contribution to modern American verse.
When they all got it wrong, he made them race barefoot through the woods while he prowled with a pitchfork, reciting his poem.
Another day he confiscated the forth child’s phone. Mounted it in a high corner and said they were being filmed, and their tutor would see when they fidgeted, acted up, or talked out of turn.
He broke the girl’s nose during a lesson about a person whose name sounded like candy.
―He was the most important president, the guy hiccuped. ―He would’ve changed everything.
The girl got the whole pod excited.
―We want candy, they chanted.
When he reset the bones, blood gushed from her nostrils, oozed from the corner of her oral commissure, and their tutor told her to lick it off the floor and whipped up her skirt and showed the class what a word that sounded like organic meant.
That evening, he and the boy walked the girl to the house on the big empty field, supporting her by her canes. The woman met them at the door.
―Her brother hit her, the guy said.
The boy nodded.
When their tutor left, he shook his head.
He ran into the reeds and writhed and emptied his stomach. All weekend the girl slept.
IT rained so hard the street cracked. The river rose. Water lapped at the tracks. The empty field turned to mud, and the ground disintegrated.
When it stopped, their tutor’s house was abandoned.
The boy gave him a boost, and the fourth child unmounted his phone. They watched videos of themselves from above, like shadows in puddles, splashed and quivering across the distance with which they’d endured the guy’s whims.
They ransacked the medicine cabinets, but the pills were the only things he’d taken with him.
She didn’t want to sleep alone. He kept his sister close. He would do anything to protect her.
―Anything, she asked.
She repositioned his hands, his hips.
THEY walked the tracks to the bend in the river and threw dirt, rocks, and grass. Drones silently swept overhead.
They ran across other children from their disbanded pod. If it was the fourth child with the phone, the boy asked to watch videos.
Again and again, their tutor greased up a flashlight. Unbuttoned his fly. The videos ended, and they rewound and reran. The boy wanted to watch different, more videos, but there wasn’t internet.
―My dad says it’s coming, the fourth child said.
The girl scratched the silt.
The boy reminisced. He told the pod of the city. The tall, shady brick buildings. Sighing buses. Green glass bottles, wet walls, snarling dogs, sickly scents. Endless scrolls. Glaring screens. The soft hum of 5G.
―I heard they ain’t even got Biggie Gulps, the children wheezed.
The boy asked if they’d take him around the bend in the river, up the hill to unknown. The answer was always the same.
Legend had it a sorcerer dwelled there. Haunting a thicket of ash and evil. Appearing only to victims. A dark phantom of madness, conjure, and riddle called Hook Man Finger, who’d died in a fire, but still wasn’t quite dead.
―What’s the legend, the boy asked.
The children weren’t sure.
―Hook Man’s blacker’n night, they said.
―And got fangs like a viper.
―Suck your soul.
―Pierce your heart.
―Leave you blind.
―You feel hot when you burn. And then cold. And then hot and cold both at once, and then you feel something different.
―Like organics, but without the fun part.
―Yeah, just the flit at the end.
―Hook Man Finger’ll read your thoughts and replace ’em with videos of skeletons dripping with snot.
―He’ll go to give you a kiss and at the last second’ll trick you and eat up your lips.
―Then take flight.
―Like a dragonfly.
―Aw, you’re lying, the boy said.
―Nuh-uh, the children hissed.
―Hook Man Finger can fly.
―I seen ’em on wing.
―Moves like a jet-propelled innercity ballistic missile shot from a rifle a million miles a millisecond.
―Swooping through fog straight out the valley and higher’n all the mountains stacked on top of each other.
―I hear the old Hook Man flew into the sun.
―That’s how come of the fire.
―And why he’s plain dark.
―Oh yeah, Hook Man Finger got burnt.
―But didn’t die quite.
―’Cause he eats death for breakfast.
―And finishes off with, like, kids.
―The more city the kids, he can smell ’em and that’s what he likes best.
―Yeah, he hates city folk.
―I heard Hook Man’s a lady.
―Except girls can’t be that scary.
―They’re too scared.
―I’m not scared, the girl said.
―Yeah you are.
―Actually I think flying is cool.
The words flopped from her cavity dimmer and less secure over the course of their transmittal.
―You would be, the children taunted.
―Then take us, the boy begged.
―No way, the children rasped.
Inhalers littered the tracks and riverbank.
Trains banged by.
And one day the fourth child didn’t have his phone anymore. He pushed the girl, and she dropped her canes and twisted her leg on a rock, and the boy took the rock and knocked the fourth child on the back of his neck, and the phoneless lump of juvenile blood, lymph, and tissue screamed.
―It’s your fault! It’s your fault! You effing B-word! ’Cause of you my dad says I can’t watch videos ever again!
THE children slunk to the river.
The people came back.
They gave them more shots and tried to explain to the man and the woman that the guy with the Master of Fine Arts in poetry had been in cahoots with one of the world’s most profitable adrenochrome rings.
―Turns out we misjudged him.
The man nodded.
―Got picked up in Mexico and extradited in exchange for some terrorists. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a carton of eggs?
The man shook his head.
―Nope. Our chicks left. Handed in their resignations and hobbled reedwards. Nothin’ stays. Nothin’ grows. Used to be we had grass good enough for Queen English herself. Went fallow though. Either I made this here deal with the ’newable energy conglomerate or move on too.
―You fosterers got your fingers in all the right pies.
The children tried to slink past, but the woman blocked the door. She said she’d be their new tutor.
―What’s organic, the girl asked.
―A healthy thing.
The woman paused.
―Like fruit, she said.
―What’s the legend of Hook Man Finger?
The woman squinted.
Buzzards circled. Dropped brutal excretions. The woman spit in her hand and smoothed their hair to their necks.
WATER sank. They couldn’t hear the river, and the field turned red.
They kicked dust. Spread it over their skin to keep off greenheads. It caked the rectangles, wires, and piping in piles untouched.
Wind rolled, rending branches from trees. The boy and the girl stacked debris into wheelbarrows, and the wind thrust them over, and dust clung to their eyelashes and glued their eyelids together.
The wind blew so strong a train tipped. People gathered. The boy noticed a crack. Glowing sludge leaked through and into the street.
Men in blue suits tried to vacuum it up. They attached a tube to a truck, but the sludge sizzled. It crept toward the house. Seeped in the scorched ground and filled the hole the barn left.
The woman brandished a shovel. She confronted the sludge. Mucked it into green plastic trash cans, which she waddled to the field’s edge.
After that she grew weary. She ached and couldn’t reason through questions or lessons or speak. Pills arrived in the mail, and the girl tended them. She stayed with the woman. She hid pills under the bed.
RAPTORS soared over ice. With ensanguined hooked beaks they opened crumbling fish. The sun hadn’t risen when the girl scurried off to the bend in the river, up the hill to unknown with her canes.
There was nothing obscure about the first few thousand feet. She followed freezing train tracks.
By the time it was light, she’d seen reeds, shrubs, and trees, moldering railroad ties, caved-in television screens. She approached a sign. A warped piece of driftwood with four letters carved deep.
A word could mean anything to her illiterate awe.
She fingered the impressions. Scrutinized the bleached plank. The sign faced the river. Water groaned and creeped. The sign was nailed to a telephone pole, held loosely in sediment, tilting with the breeze.
The nail was loose. She spun the board. The pole choked. It started to fall, but was propped by a hollow, scarred oak.
The oak was soused in faint slime. Wires opened and sparked. Fungi wept from fresh splinters. Listless insects swarmed between failures in the bark.
The girl closed her eyes.
She smelled the rotting corpses of flowers and fawns the river swallowed inside. The rime crushed underfoot. And she followed the tracks with her hands out in front of her, like blind, searching reanimated flesh and plasma.
An airhorn sounded, and she lost balance. Tripped off the tracks and log-rolled into a thicket of moss, ash, and lichen.
The train suffered by. Wheels screeching, icicles fracturing arrowhead-like off their sides.
When it had passed, she warmed her hands on the tracks. Up ahead, a fake windmill. A gate swung on chains. She scrambled over and punted it open with a cane.
The gate framed a shallow plot of tombstones in its trembling release. Some adorned the old American flag. Two hundred and fifty immaculate points, thirteen wicked veins. Some were dusted with pebbles. Others glowed like the sludge. A candle flickered and burned on the smooth marble foot of one.
She edged closer. The profile of an eagle was etched into its face. Its eyes squinted, flashed yellow. It turned in a dimensionally-confounding motion to confront her straight away.
The girl wanted to shriek, but her throat caught in sharp, sticky, lesionish clogs, and she fled the cemetery.
The mountains sloped skyward. Daytime bats swooped and yelped. One pooped on her ponytail.
A sign said, ROAD NARROWS.
Just beyond it, another said, CHILDREN.
But the girl couldn’t read.
She sought shelter at the top of a hill in a festering simmer of embers and crumbs of roofing material. She dug through the rubble, searching for heat. But all she found were spent coals, perished rodents, gummy plaster, concrete.
Then the two yellow eyes reappeared cold and wincing. They veered to the left. The girl followed their gaze, which lit up a weak orb.
Pill, she thought.
But it was a sooty brass doorknob wedged firm in the filth. Flat on its side. Lever jostling like by its own will.
The two eyes looked lethargic. They blinked, and she retreated. She wrenched at the handle, the door mired, then gave, and she fell headlong forward into the black, webby basement amid a chorus of wails.
THE girl woke in a huddle of granite and grubs. Her knees swollen with bruises on the packed, frozen ground.
She’d been dreaming of flying, of course, and at first glance she thought she was looking at the dried buds of lost clouds.
When she inched closer, she discovered mounds of deceased ladybugs. Their spots whitewashed by time. Their wings copper dust. Above the detritus ceiling, drones silently swept.
The girl slithered upstairs backwards bumbling on the seat of her skirt. She rubbed her canes over her arms, trying to remember how to start a fire with fast wood, anticipating the worst.
But it was just a junked house, two charred and toppled brick chimneys, deserted, disintegrating, consumed by bygone inferno, and carbonized to its core. Two eyes flashed. Yellow darts.
This time she did scream. It erupted and died in an echoless thud and was answered in turn by a pitiful mew.
The cat emerged. Plaintively nuzzled between the girl’s canes and legs, performing figure eights in a tripwire-like fashion, intoning numb hunger, forlornness, and selfish desire in short, elegant bays.
―Com’ere kitty, the girl cooed.
She held out a hand and attempted to crouch. Her contused knees wouldn’t give. The cat approached and sniffed her fingers. Each one held a secret. It considered. Then recommenced mewling.
―Kitty, kitty, the girl sang.
She hobbled to the door, and the cat followed. The hill overlooked a flawless, useless expanse. Oatmeal tails of sick deer fluttered into trees out of sight.
The horizon was opaque. It rippled pea fog. Train cars loomed in the distance forever. Metal oxidized.
The girl shivered. She remembered something. Hordes of tormented masks. Light reflecting off prisms. The city, the mother. She forgot.
The day was not yet half over, but it rapidly dimmed as she and the cat descended the hill. The gnarled trees on the mountains penned them in.
A locomotive churned. All around them stretched quiet. Then the purl of the river. Ice rent in shreds. The cat whined.
The girl mounted the tracks, poked the animal’s little pink pinhole with the blunt end of a cane, and they pushed on to the house on the big empty field.
WHEN the snow melted, mud seethed. It spilled down the street. Pills arrived in the mailbox in cardboard mauled with fingernail lacerations and retaped.
The woman didn’t swallow when the girl tipped her glass. Liquid pooled in her frenulum. Dribbled down the neck of her dress.
The man and the boy wrapped the woman in paper, which they hoisted into a van. They didn’t see her again.
ULTRATHIN layers of transparent plastic peeled from the rectangles. Corners separated. Sheets pared off. They withered and foundered, led astray by the fragrant, dank breath of the valley.
Trucks rumbled and took the rectangles away. Different trucks brought bigger ones.
The boy collected pinecones. He wanted to use them to play checkers on the rectangles. He wanted to win the biggest checkerboard record award. Maybe someone would film a video about it.
The men from the trucks stabbed signs in the field. They said, Sunny Clout, and the boy said he could read them, but he couldn’t.
He watched them position the rectangles at angles. They attached them to wires, which they ran underground.
―Can I help, the boy asked.
―Where’s your sister, the men gagged.
The boy didn’t know. He hadn’t seen much of her since the night with the van. She’d crawled under the bed and mostly slept. In the meantime, he’d made up the line of a song.
The men dug a trench.
―The world was aflame and they couldn’t save me but you…
The boy whistled the tune.
―Hey, that’s not bad.
―Yeah, what’s your game, kid?
He knocked on the door to perform for his sister. The man edged him back out with a boot heel.
The boy faltered.
The girl’s silhouette looked down from a window.
―She’ll be all right, the man said.
THE cat lived in the house, but the man didn’t know. It kept to the corners, sucked juice from mice and toads.
The boy watched beams of headlights pass by, paint fleeting shapes on the walls. He couldn’t find his sister. Come daytime, he wanted to walk by the river, but the girl wanted to sleep.
―Organics, the girl croaked. ―Take a lot of energy.
The boy slapped her mouth. He peed on her feet, but she just covered herself with more blankets.
Once alone, she’d slither under the bed. Devour stockpiled pills and watch crinkles of sun play through failures in the blinds until it got dark.
She stayed awake with the man. He had promised to teach her to read but kept forgetting, and she kept getting him more bottles sticky with condensation from the fridge.
―Lemme check you for ticks, the man said.
The boy ran to the edge of the field and spit. Bubbles cratered the green trash cans’ contents. Sludge glowed in day and twilight alike, and the woods were illumined, and inside he could hear popping twigs.
Then two eyes appeared, and he thought Hook Man Finger, and sprinted for the river, where it was safe.
Loud nights the girl bawled. The man invoked the lord, and one morning he found the checkerboard rectangles smashed and vandalized with half-language attempts at spelled-out obscenities.
He chased the boy with his belt, but his pants wouldn’t stop falling down until he ran out of breath.
Trucks took the fragments away.
The boy hid in bitter currents up to his neck. He pretended to count passing trains.
The girl tried to explain. She had responsibilities. She couldn’t play. She was the woman of the house and needed to keep healthy for everyone’s sake.
She showed him how he could help. She put his thing in her mouth, and her neck tilted back, and she started to dream.
He took it out.
He was bored without videos. Without knowing it, he weighed loyalties. He remembered something, then forgot. The girl looked different.
―I need you to help me, she pleaded.
THE people came back and gave them more shots.
They told the man he’d successfully qualified for employment exclusion by way of the New Fosterers Act and National Association for Obsolete Agriculture, but if he still wanted internet, he’d have to apply for a Fiber Optics Appeal.
The boy walked the tracks to a gas station and borrowed the attendant’s phone. He entered the numbers like the people had said. The line rang three times, and an aide to a congressional representative of the state in question answered.
―Why aren’t you in school, she asked.
―It got stopped because of our tutor left.
―Which pod district are you?
―The one where we played duck, duck, goose and took pictures and ran around being chased.
The aide sighed.
―Yeah, she said. ―I heard about that. Why haven’t you enrolled in virtual discipline?
―We don’t have internet, the boy said.
The aide massaged the bridge of her nose. Ran a damp rag through her intergluteal cleft.
―The Fiber Optics supply chains are bottlenecked to eff all.
She belched in her office four hundred and twenty miles southeast.
―What kind of stuff can you do to make it worthwhile?
―Organics, the boy asked.
―Is that it?
―I can sing.
―Tell you what, the aide said. ―Work hard, study, for a year at least, belt, croon, throb, write an anthem, then hit my line, and I’ll see what I can do about hooking you up with an ISP provider.
A passing train sputtered. Spit black plumes in the gas station’s open window and irritated the boy’s eyes.
―Thank you, he said, and returned the phone to the attendant.
The aide checked her Rolex. It was ten minutes to noon.
―Eff it, she said.
It had been a weird week. In fact, things had been weird since the previous spring, when a bald eagle had alighted smoothly out of dim nothingness onto her shoulder and absconded with her late grandmother’s diamond ring, which she’d worn loose on a chain around her neck, none the wiser of its absence until how much longer who could say.
She tied off and plunged a CC of adrenochrome into her armpit. Discharged some pert emails and elected to use her frequent flier miles to attend a conference on annexation in the tropics, from which she could invoice time-and-a-half.
THE boy dangled his feet from a transformer. Kicked the doors with his heels and composed a ballad.
―It’s so weird what longing makes silly guys do… Never figured I’d be written about by a Jew… And never guessed I’d find a sister like you…
People gathered. Stomped boots, slapped thighs, clapped, hollered back.
―’Lil Hollywood Jones!
―Get this boy a celebrity contract!
He helped the girl in the late afternoons. Clenching and swallowing and stealing into the darkness before the man could partake.
The boy sang. He collected laundry-worn bills in a paper bag, which he stowed by the trash cans at the edge of the field.
The children from their disbanded pod caught wind. They waited at the river and compelled him to tell where the money was hidden.
He fought with rocks, teeth, and fists. He wished the girl could see, but she was being responsible.
―Your organics are by far the least awful, she exhaled.
―Thanks, he said.
They hugged and cried.
WHEN a year was exhausted, the boy rang up the state’s congressional representative’s aide.
―I’ve finished my song and saved twenty thousand smackers.
―That was the old rep’s aide’s hustle, the aide to the new state congressperson said.
―Where’d she go?
―She was a serial gaslighter, so we were forced to impeach. She’s awaiting a criminal trial.
―She told me if I wrote a hit song, she’d find a way to get my family the internet we crave.
―Can I hear it?
The boy did his best.
―Oh yeah, dang. Think I heard that on YouTube. Is it really you?
―Yep, the boy beamed.
―Dang, the new aide said. ―You should’ve called sooner. I just gave out the last of the Fiber Optics rations a couple minutes ago.
The boy returned the phone to the gas station attendant. He shuffled to the edge of the big empty field and secured the paper bag between his waistband. He stared at the silhouettes in the house.
By then the girl was rosy and fat.
The man reeked of yeast.
The cat waved from a secret window.
The boy crossed the street and leapt at a passing train. He fell and bled, waited for a slower one, and tried again. The car was filled with ashes, which he gathered into a pyramid. He rested his head.
He caught patterns in the corner of his closed eyes. Of school, internet, cement, a crumpled pile of bones, loose skin, wheelchairs, sidewalks, chocolate raspberry salad, an obese wheezing blur, of remembering something.
But before he could remember, a drifter drove an axe through his face, swiped the paper bag, and made like a tree.
THE drifter rolled off the train.
He cleansed the axe in the river, crabwalked through the reeds.
By night he’d found a highway and hitched a ride with a busload of roller derby chicks to the abutting state.
He sat front row at the international tournament and shacked up with the jammer. They ate good, their trust bloomed, and he confessed his sins.
She recommended a top notch facial reconstructionist. She said she used to be ugly too, but he didn’t believe it.
He paid cash and died on the operating table from an allergic reaction to a recently expired fast-tracked anesthetic the plastic surgeon’s firm had gotten three thousand doses of at one-time, act-now discount rate.
When the jammer heard, she hung herself with skate laces in the locker room before the championship game.
THE girl delivered the premature stillborn, if you could call it that, under the bed.
The deposit proved brothlike with a few ligaments mixed in. The man sneered. Leaked ireful breath.
He said she didn’t deserve the organics he gave her. That she’d grown aged and ragged-up and to bring him a bottle.
She scooped her mess in a plastic half-gallon bag, which she stored in the fridge. She knew the man to be tender shortly after his fits.
She gulped a handful of pills. She watched the light on the walls. She wanted to put the bag in the river like a ceremony and try again.
Before she could, though, a different girl came. The people gave her more shots and asked where her brother had got to. She hadn’t noticed his absence.
Her mouth stuck.
She ran out of pills and wasn’t able to sleep.
―I feel mixed up.
―Quit your wauling, the different girl teased.
―Is the internet coming?
―Ain’t your sister enough, the man answered.
He gave the different girl candy. They threw the plastic bag out the window, and the girl followed it.
Before she could get to it, though, the cat had it seized. Between its sharp, chipped, black teeth, it bolted across the empty field, past the glowing trash cans, and into the woods, never to be seen again by a character or narrator in this universe.
The girl crawled across burrs. Bits of flint split her skin. She couldn’t remember where she’d left her canes and slept in wires and leaves. Lightning groped the horizon. Clouds hemmed. The girl swallowed scant puffs from the littered inhalers of her long lost pod peers.
She regarded the tracks. Bent her face to the rails.
The gas station attendant noticed her breathing. Asked if she was all right.
―I feel mixed up. Do you have any pills?
―Oh, child, he said. ―Come inside.
THE gas station attendant warmed her stew, judged her soul. He’d been a minister, but he wasn’t one anymore.
When the girl had withdrawn, he tried to make her make sense. She tried to explain, but she couldn’t. Said there’d been an orange bottle on a chrome table with wheels. The boy had tipped out its insides. She’d kept it a secret until now.
―This doesn’t look like a hospital, the girl said.
―Yes it does.
―Where’s my brother?
―What’s he like?
―Shoes and socks.
―Sometimes a paper bag.
―Oh! You mean Lil’ Hollywood Jones? Boy, that boy sure could sing. Heard he hopped off to Nashville with two dozen thousand beans.
―Oh, she said. ―So he’s gone?
―Gone be famous ’fore long.
―Do you have any pills?
―Naw, the attendant purred. ―Nothing here but old stew, condensed air, and beach towels.
She was swaddled in towels.
―I’ve got to find him, she moaned. ―He might have some pills. Or know where to find… Something.
The girl tried to move. The gas station attendant held her shoulders and shook. She lost consciousness. He warmed her fresh stew.
SHE was wrapped up so tight she couldn’t wriggle a toe.
It had been warm when she’d lost her bag, so she thought. The girl was fairly unreliable, though. Ice pattered the gas station. Twisted in through the shingle siding. Pooled in drops on her forehead.
When the sleet turned to snow, the attendant drew a curtain, and they watched it accrue.
―Do you ’member the plague?
She stared at air.
―How old are you, child?
The girl swallowed. Tried to figure, but the numbers weren’t there.
―I reckon you ain’t from these parts.
―From the hospital?
The attendant chuckled.
―Your predicament reminds me of a fellow named Lot. He lived in a city of debauched hedonism, which exasperated our lord. Have you heard this already? Are you acquainted with our lord?
The girl trembled.
―The man called out to him.
―Well, that’s great. So did Lot. His neighbors’ poor taste made our lord burn the city and he had to depart. But his wife waxed nostalgic and got salty. So he and his girls left for a small place by the sea, which our lord had spared for them. But Lot got scared and tried to hide in the hills, which is where his daughters fell in love with him. And when the geomagnets reversed, the land inverted upon this valley. Thrust from the river five thousand years later, and a young couple was impelled to seek out its fruit.
―Organics, the girl asked.
―Uh, sure, the attendant shrugged. ―But the land was corruptive. Thus it burned anew. And as punishment, our lord promised no satellite dishes, GPS, or ISPs would ever ping a tolerable signal within its limits. And a sorcerer arose. A phantom called Toby, complex liaison of the voices of the living and dead, to protect the lord’s divine will.
―The Hook, the girl asked. ―The H-h-hook Man Finger?
―It’s complicated, the attendant intoned. ―Around here, we remember him as Toby and sing happy liberty, generosity, and thanks for the stimuli, more shots, please, no mentholated cigarettes, it’s okay not to vote, taxes suck, all for justice, and to all endless void. Now if that ain’t allegiance…
―My brother wanted videos. And he sang. Do you think he might’ve went looking for the Hook Man?
―Lil’ Hollywood Jones? So close to renown and nonstop sourdough? Why take the risk?
―He was bored, the girl said. ―And… And H-… I mean… Toby…
―Forget Toby. He’s but a broker. A middle man sucker. Only our lord can make the signals ping again.
―But… But can he fly?
―Hook Man Finger?
―Oh yeah, big time. That’s pretty much the only way old Tobe gets around these days.
―Then I’ll go and find him then.
―Ah, my child, this is the part where I advise the opposite.
―Then why tell the story?
―Sometimes I just yak.
Snow blurred out the window like it was obscene.
―I’m feeling better, the girl said. ―I think I want to leave.
―But I need you, the gas station attendant hissed.
His mouth contorted in dismal phlegm and bared browning stump teeth.
―’Member the plague? My followers forsook me. They all wanted to watch telecasts of the president spaced six feet apart. They moved a town over, where LTE comes through clear as rain. Together now, you and I must build a new covenant for our lord in order to rebuild my church…
Over the weeks she’d been bound, the girl had had time to think. She’d loosened a toe from the towel sheathe. The attendant sidled closer making a kissy face. Now or never, she thought, and wrenched roundhouse style, struck his brain stem with the quick flick of her digit and dropped him cold.
She flexed her body, like all the men she’d known had taught her, until the towels went slack. Smoothed out her skirt and filled her cheeks with stew gelatin.
It was thick, starless night. The girl mounted the tracks. Sharp cold clawed her muscles. She marched to the bend in the river.
Her jaw sagged. Ice laded the gape. She leaned into the current toward the hill to unknown and made way.
TIME is neither constant nor linear.
The girl approached the steep face of a slate-colored cliff. The river flowed faster. It cleaved through leaves and hoarfrost. The surface shifted from leaden to furious foaming white to tawny breakneck-speed spates, crashing hard against glacial runoff, abandoned beaver dams, wasted timber remains.
Soon, the course became garbled. Not slowed down, but plugged up. Encumbered by lustrous objects, muddy with carnage, slick red innards, grisled blood.
She crouched. Stiff and peering as the runnel spilled over a deluge of slayed, battered fish.
On ahead, the girl could make out the familiar whoops and guffaws of men.
Maybe they had pills.
Where the river engulfed a narrow, fast creek, two men had cast out a long, wide, tight net. They reeled it in with bare, crimson raw hands. Unloaded fish by the dozens onto a broad, depressed boulder, where they hacked with machetes, rifle butts, baseball bats, until the creatures were pulped, gills and fins mashed to ciphers, thrown back in the draft. Then they pitched out the seine and got to trawling again.
The girl witnessed the ritual. She wasn’t sure for how long. She waited for them to draw back the net and abscond. But the men kept on killing. The day ebbed. The girl balked.
If she didn’t find somewhere to pass the night, she would die from exposure. The sky yawned. She detected a trickle of stars.
The girl closed her eyes. She covered her face in the cloak. She hoped she’d pass by unnoticed, or mistaken for a tumbling jumble of rubber strips tossed by gusts.
Once directly behind them, the scent of entrails bulged. Involuntarily she lurched her neck and breathed through her mouth. She felt a sneeze coming. A nauseated eruption she withheld. Her eyes watered. She swallowed, and the gulp rang out between the girl’s ears like dubstep.
The men halted.
―What’s that, Cletus, one asked.
―What’s what, the other replied.
―What sound, Uncle?
―I think these fish is upset.
―Fish can’t think, Cletus wondered. ―Can they?
―Upset is different’n think.
Cletus wondered more.
―Hey you, fish, he beckoned to the outpouring of gore.
The girl pressed low to the tracks. Then a surge of oncoming action vibrated. Lifted her skirt in the wind, and she suppressed a gasp.
The men backed into the water as the train approached. She tried to judge if she could duck it, prostrate on the ice. She was chilled to her bowels. Knees distended. Muscles slop.
At the last second, she sprang up and dodged it. She skidded down the bank, ensnared in the net, upending the fishers, and winding up in their laps.
Uncle lifted the net.
The girl coiled and sobbed.
―That’s some upset fish.
―Guess you was right. Where’s the club?
Chum flopped in her crannies. She spit scales. Cletus raised an aluminum mallet.
―Lord forgive me, for I know not what kind of fish this is…
He hit her in the leg.
―Stop, the girl convulsed.
The men balked.
―Wait a tic.
―Lemme try, Uncle elbowed.
―I think that might ain’t be a fish.
―What’d I tell you about thinking?
―Fish can’t talk, Cletus said. ―I ain’t need to wonder ’bout that.
―Okay, true, deadass facts, Uncle acknowledged. ―But I still want to hit it.
―Please stop don’t, the girl said.
―’Scuse me, Cletus interrupted.
Cletus wore goggles so big the girl couldn’t distinguish his features. Uncle was covered in fuzz. Not much older than she.
―What are those, Uncle said.
The girl hesitated.
―I’m a girl, she said.
―You’re not our boss, lady. So don’t tell us what to do.
―I just don’t want you to hurt me.
―We ain’t here to hurt no one.
―Yeah, this here’s catch and release.
―Two hundred smackeroo fine if we took off with a game.
―You think we’d defy laws? Such fine laws as our government made?
―Jeopardize our 401ks?
―Then please, let me go.
―What you think, Uncle asked.
―Hold on, Cletus said. ―I gotta think.
―What’d I tell you…
Uncle shook a halfhearted fist in the air like a buoy. Their part of the planet had begun to fan night. Wan dusk gloomed to murk.
―I think them laws don’t apply… If it ain’t a fish like…
―Are you asking me?
―Can we take a girl with us?
―You mean catch and restrain? Ain’t you remember what befalled Old Cottonpants? Ain’t you got brains?
―But Cottonpants restrained fishes.
―And this here we’ve been fishing sure as it is day.
―But this one ain’t fish.
Cletus yanked the net. He clipped the girl with his wader. Mucus dribbled from her nostril.
―Whoa there, the man spurned. ―Spouting like a volcano.
―Listen, Cletus, Uncle said. ―How’re you to know this girl ain’t some kind of new fish we ain’t heard of.
―Like a… A…
―Like a mermaid.
―But I heard of mermaids.
―Not like this one. Say, girl…
They all waited. She realized they were waiting for her.
―I’m a mermaid, she whispered.
―Holy, Uncle spoke. ―How much you think we can get for her?
―How much you think?
―Hundred beans at least. Two hundred mayb’s. If we can make it out clean, beat the fine, it’s like two hundred doubled.
―Two hundred and two, Uncle beamed.
―Unless… You don’t think the fish tricked us?
―Dang, you think? Girl, you wouldn’t lie.
She tried to shake her head. In the squirm of suffocating fish and shriveled deceased fish parts, however, she only scrambled the net. She felt intricate wetness at her throat, nipples, and feet.
―What you worth, Cletus asked.
―I don’t know, the girl said.
―I mean how many beans.
―Two hundred, she guessed.
―Holy, Uncle said.
―Okay, empty this net and we’ll get her gutted and squeaky. Say girl, you got girl parts under your flippers?
Cletus pawed meat.
―Uncle, this girl sure is slippery. And she’s cold as the dicks. I bet we can keep her preserved a few nights at least. I take the slit, rear, mouth, sockets. You take the feet. Then we’ll pack her on ice. Sell her to the Museum of Sealifelore for a jacked-up exorbitant finder’s commish.
―We can share all the parts. If I pickle her rightly, she’ll last for two, twoteen weeks.
―I ain’t sharing with you. You never treated your drip.
―I already been over this. When I got diagnosed with the upsilon variant, doc said it’d cure my clap.
―But how can you prove it?
―Math, Uncle said.
The men hunkered down, doing figures with their brains. The girl sweated with fright. She tussled and struggled and got more tangled.
―One hundred plus twenty makes me clean.
Uncle pointed at his gray calloused palm.
―Okay, dump the fish and hogtie her. I’m hungry. I’ll go warm up the truck.
Cletus crunched out of sight. Uncle ogled the net. He took a step forward.
―Now how does this thing work again?
Uncle itched his head.
He tipped the net sideways. The air-smothered fish flopped to the boulder and slid. The girl tried to escape, but her struck leg was caught in the mesh.
―Please, she begged.
Uncle straddled and weaved. He swished the net with chafed fists.
―Harumph, Uncle said.
―Please, the girl nodded. ―Loosen me?
―Dang, girl. You getting me fired up. I can’t wait.
―My leg’s stuck, the girl said.
―You gotta spread ’em. Wait. Drip. Hold up open your jaw portal so I can see if I’m sick. If my winger’s still rotted, it’ll taste like fresh paint.
He swung a wart-laden inch of purple skin in her face. She thought she’d bite if he neared, then she remembered something.
―Sir, she said. ―Do you know what would make this more fun?
―Pills, the man answered.
The girl felt tender.
―That’s what I was going to suggest.
―Dang, he simpered. ―Wait here, I’ll grab Cletus. I think our pills’s in the pickup.
Uncle trudged through the dark.
The girl wrestled and vied. She heard an engine grinding, then catch. She couldn’t breathe for her sorrow. Then she heard the engine rev. It seemed to be encroaching, roaring, horrible, heavensent.
At least she’d have pills, she thought. You can’t hurt something numb. Maybe when they were through with her, she could ask about her brother. Maybe someone at the museum would know if he’d found Hook Man Finger. Or gone off to Nashville and recorded his hit.
But the pickup just drove off.
―I think we’re forgetting something, Uncle said after a while.
They were both extremely stoned, joyriding for fun.
―It’s catch and release, dippy. T’ain’t nothing to ’member ’cept not to take anything.
―But wasn’t there something?
―Uh… Like the pills?
―Oh, Uncle burped. ―Yeah, they gone.
THE girl waited. She moved her feet in the net. The water sank. Sun broke through the clouds, though she thought it was supposed to be night.
Had she dreamed she couldn’t feel her feet?
At intervals the water rose and fell again. It was a matter of time. Upriver, a hydronuclear dam malfunctioned. A gluten-free pancake wedged in a CD drive. The responsible party claimed not to have been trained in computer science.
Snow boiled off the riverbank. It turned to steam in the breeze. The net disintegrated, and the girl brushed skin off her legs. They looked bad, like muscle had detached from its corresponding tendons, and she limped to the tracks, picked a carcass from the rotting mass of aquatic sublife and suckled its intestines. She vomited in her mouth a little. She swallowed.
A van roared up with dark metal tanks on its roof rack. Men fell out, drew nets from their armpits. They scooped piles of freshly formed trout and flung them at the wan stream. Many flopped, never having learned the finer points of bathing. They struggled to lift themselves up on their back fins like men and asphyxiated in silty footprints in the strand.
Meanwhile, the van’s inhabitants ran a Chinese fire drill around the front. Gunned the accelerator and spiraled sweet smelling curlicue question marks of exhaust into pea fog, which settled upon the land.
The van said, CHASING AMY HATCHERY. Below that, a sticker said, SLUT FOR WEEKENDS. Another, BLOOD BROTHERS DON’T NEED UNION CONTRACTS. But the girl couldn’t read.
She didn’t know where she was. She tried to turn around, but each direction held no familiarity. Hostile backfire reports. Blinking, anonymous flames.
The girl hobbled into the skeleton of a tree.
Two galagos, imported a year prior by a nonprofit rescue animal sanctuary startup, which had folded before the primates made it through customs due to the entire workforce succumbing to the plague’s lamda variant, scrabbled deeper into it. They were surprisingly adept to the scorched valley’s climate. They were considering telepathically reaching out to their bush baby friends back in Africa, but they hadn’t decided if the potential cachet was worth giving up this new privacy.
The girl dreamed.
HER favorite classmate in the city had a nickname. The girl dreamed of the way the name looked when she’d heard it.
Jasmine and tar. Moth sheen.
The classmate with boyfriends of all ages. Soft contact in stairwells. Pockets filled with pills.
She’d tried to get her favorite classmate to give her a nickname too. She wanted to be called Baby Girl, but her classmate said no. It had been too close to her own.
The classmate showed her a pill like a stop sign. She showed the girl a pill in the shape of a lynx.
They took the lynxes before gym class, and they were so good. The classmate’s boyfriend showed her how to breathe when you want to forget something that’s happening.
―But what if I don’t want to forget?
The girl sprawled with her arms and legs in an X. She was tied up and heaving and blushed.
―You will eventually, the boyfriend said.
Her favorite classmate lived in their building, but inside her room the lightbulbs were green and red. She never met the classmate’s mother, but she met her dad. He gave her a bowl of pills crosschecked like waffles. He covered them in milk.
―What’s your brother’s deal, her classmate asked.
The girl showed her a picture on her phone.
―He loves videos, she said.
―He can run.
―He can sing.
A different boyfriend was with them once. He said he didn’t like her brother’s colors.
―What’s his affiliation?
―I don’t know what that means, the girl hesitated.
―Why’s he dress like that?
―Can we make a video for him, her favorite classmate asked.
The girl remembered.
The girl bounced on a bed.
―I’m flying, she cried.
The girl breathed to forget.
THE portrait of finding. The unforeseen act. The universal history of coming across that which is foreign to you, doesn’t belong in your world, and still by some uncommon measure, even unearthly, and incoherent odds, it is yours.
The possibility of that secret drives people. Reveals itself in our bowels. It’s how tales are forged.
When the fog lifted, the girl cleaved bark from the tree. She applied it as canes. She walked the tracks until they ended in an abrupt wrinkle. There, the pickup lay overturned in a ditch. Encircled in thick orange government tape.
Inside, Uncle and Cletus had vaporized à la ―Hey boss, what’s fra-gee-lay mean? ―It means French, you nincompoop!
No blood. No cut safety belts or signs of effort or grappling away. No biowaste. Solely empty spent casings. Broken down weapons missing traceable parts.
―Brother, the girl yawned.
She saw the sparkle of pills. Like teeth, undigested. Enamel diamonds. Crammed in the corners of fake velour upholstery.
Uncle had missed them, go figure.
She filled her skirt with her hands, eager to be displaced. She crawled inside, stuck out her tongue, crawled out, and crawled on.
A picnic area was threaded with neon tubing. Some of it spelled, BEAVER SWAMP ATOMIC COMPANY RECREATION ALLOTMENT, but the girl couldn’t read.
People grilled veggie burgers over LED coals, blasted post-reggaeton trance music from souped-up hybrid golf cart stereos.
The girl waved, but the people weren’t allowed to share.
―Does anyone have a phone I can borrow, the girl said.
The people pretended they couldn’t hear.
Drones swept overhead. The hatchery truck was covered in Realtree tarps doing reconnaissance. If someone lifted a fish from the river, the men inside had been deputized to confiscate and crossbreed it and restrain the perp indefinitely, depending on the violator’s race, of course.
The girl drifted up.
The atomic company was at the peak of the tallest hill in the county, hidden by dense woods. Outside it looked like an electronics store she couldn’t place.
And the other side of the hill opened to twin waterfalls.
They were there, and they were in two directions. Two parallel cascading parallelograms, leading to nothing. Meeting and subsiding.
The water didn’t continue in a creek, stream, rivulet, or river. It was distinct. It battered down, then lapped, limpid. It didn’t accumulate, but instead appeared to sink into something beneath her and them, something within. The ground, despite being finite, was bigger than she understood.
And the slick black water. Because it was slick and black, and because she couldn’t read the signage, or the fine print that appeared below the words FREE WILL FALLS, she’d no way to reason it was heavily contaminated.
The glacial remnants it capped and reshaped gleamed with striations of lilac and red. Oil and rust. Only scientists could determine the degrees of toxicity. And there were no scientists to spare. They were growing in number, but not in an undetrimental manner.
There were no scientists who could help this water, or, that being the case, the girl. Would the water make her sick? The answer wasn’t binary. It was a matter of time. Not how, but how soon.
She saw piles of hay and grass clippings, but no lawnmower or tractor or weedwhacker. She didn’t even see the bald eagle perched in the only living tree above her.
She took a drink.
Where do you go when there’s no more context to account for you? Kids these days. They don’t question much. They’re pretty, like… Removed. Or resilient. More or less the same approach.
She drank handfuls. Tongued clay in her cheek, just to know.
She turned around, fumbled up the hill and back down, located the pickup, and took all the pills.
A sign said, ROAD WIDENS.
Just beyond it, another said, ADULTS.
The girl found herself. She was staggering.
A gravel driveway snaked from the street to the top of a hill. It all looked familiar, in a hazy unreduced way. Like skin beneath a blister. Supple and flawless, intact through some filter of bedlam and snarled disarray.
A quaint colonial cottage, classically beautiful, painted white with blue shutters, sat alit at the end of the path. A figure stood with her arms crossed outside the garage scrutinizing the vista.
The girl limped. She stood quivering, confused. She peered at the windows. From what she could see the inside of the structure was complete. A whistling tea kettle. A mirror. Solar panels affixed to the garage’s rooftop. A rusting turkey-shaped weathervane.
―Can I help you, the figure said.
―Is something wrong, the girl asked.
―What do you mean?
―Did I do something?
―I’m… Tired. I’m sorry. Why are you looking at me?
―I don’t want to go.
―You don’t want to go where?
―Inside, the figure said.
The figure was a woman. She wore rain pants and a t-shirt and boots. She hugged herself and shivered, but she was sweating.
The girl felt like she was falling asleep.
She tried to speak.
―Is it burned down?
―What? Is it…
The woman looked away and spoke into the wind, which streamed through in circles. The girl felt. The weathervane stayed stationary.
―Can’t you see it right there, the woman said. ―Standing there? On the hill. It’s a house.
―But it was burned down the last time.
―The last time what?
But the woman interrupted without giving the girl a chance.
―I can’t be bothered by the past. I’m getting married. I’m engaged.
―That’s amazing, the girl said.
―Typical, right? Men.
The woman looked at her hands. They dropped sweat on the gravel. A ring slid off her ring finger, and the woman caught it before it fell.
―They get what they give.
―He gave you a diamond, the girl asked.
―And he got it, the woman said.
―But where is he?
―You’re all alone out here?
A beat happened.
―Can’t you see my Houdini? Can’t you see my sweet dog?
The girl shook her head.
―I’m not alone. We are fine. We’re okay.
The girl bobbed on her feet.
―He can perform magic, you know.
The girl nodded.
―I don’t know, the girl said.
―Soon you’ll know. We all can.
―Can you fly, the girl asked.
―We all can. It just requires a compromise. Like everything. That’s the secret of living. And not.
―We’re just miscommunicating, the woman said.
―What’s your name?
The woman turned her back, arms folded and onerous, sweating in the cold gloaming.
―I’m looking for my brother, the girl said. ―Have you seen him?
―Have you looked in your pussy?
―I don’t know.
―Take a look.
―The cat went away.
―All men want one thing, the woman said. ―You know what I mean.
―I knew a nice man. He called me baby girl.
―You know what he wanted.
―Is that why your fiancé left?
The woman turned around. She looked surprised. She twisted her ring over saline-tallowed nodes.
―Oh, no. He wasn’t like that. He was ideologically opposed to the sexuality industrial complex. We agreed on that much.
―Then why did he leave?
―He just wanted to be somewhere else.
The woman shrugged.
―It didn’t matter where. When we were somewhere before this, this is where he had wanted. Then he got distracted. He was a very good liar, but he didn’t know what to lie about. He just vanished.
―Are you waiting for him?
The woman laughed. Her face wafted with hues, as if under the compulsion of a pill effect. Purple, blue, green, orange cycled. Always moving and scrolling, gradienting into one another to mimic how everything in the universe remained in flux. The illusion of standing in place was anathema. They were hurtling constantly. It took drugs to remind you of reality.
And the girl could see her at every age all at once, the face of the woman, the one woman and her many faces, many colors, many hooks, from infancy to death, and to somewhere beyond. Yet to occur reminiscences.
―I’m sorry, the girl said.
―It’s okay. I know where he is. I still see him sometimes, though its limited. I’m compelled to return here. It’s my bidding. We all have responsibilities. As I’m sure you know.
The girl didn’t say anything.
The sky was dark and filled with stars. If they were just a little farther north, they’d’ve been able to make out the bright bands of the Milky Way. As things were, it was visible, but extra milky, in an unobliging way.
―I’m disappointed by life, the girl said.
―How old are you?
The girl shrugged.
―I was eight last I checked. Now I’m… More?
―You’ve got time.
―I don’t know.
―I lived to be almost thirty.
―It feels too late. I wanted to fly.
―But it’s not, the woman said. ―That’s exactly what’s left.
She took the girl’s hand, and the damaged feeling lifted. The girl’s legs felt unburdened. Her knees bent.
―Come with me…
THEY glided through the house on the hill like on skates. Like a series of tubes, and they were guests in its belly.
―Do you have videos here, the girl asked.
The woman looked like she was going to laugh. Her eyes softened and blinked. A tear leaked, drifted upwards and lifted a hair from her cheek against gravity before floating off.
The stairs needed repairing. They creaked and sank. The carpet runner was loose, and the woman pointed.
―Careful, she said. ―My fiancé and I both full-on somersaulted down these. The first month we moved in, I nearly broke my ankle. I was laid up on the couch for two weeks.
―I had an accident, the girl stammered. ―I’ve been feeling mixed up since we left the hospital. I think my brother came to find you. He wanted internet.
―I don’t believe we had the pleasure.
―He was nice.
―Yeah, the woman rolled her eyes. ―I’ll bet.
They made their way to an attic specked with cobwebs, dead ladybugs, various scat. A hatch was cut in the ceiling. The woman lifted it.
―How, the girl started.
The woman offered a hand.
She arose like the floor was rising up underfoot.
They mounted the rooftop next to the rusted iron turkey shape.
―Here we are, the woman said.
―What do we do?
―You’re in charge.
―I don’t like responsibilities…
―You just fly. You just go.
The girl gulped.
―You don’t need anymore.
―But aren’t you going to too?
―Sure I am.
The woman soothed. She ran her hands over the girl’s scapulae. She felt the wings bloom and crest. The deep feathery scent of fresh, delicate sheerness. And weight. She breathed slowly then, evenly.
―Focus your eyes on some spot in the distance, the voice supporting her said, and she did.
And she waited for change.
In the atmosphere. The humidity, current. The girl felt no slight pressure or push. She smelled flames leap behind her, licking and crackling and spouting out ash, and she curled too, like a hook.
―Is it you?
―Yes, the voice answered.
―Are you T-T-T-Toby?
―Some people think so.
The woman hiccuped.
―But I’ll let you in on a secret.
The girl held her breath.
―What’s your name, the girl asked.
―I don’t have one anymore.
―What’d it used to be?
A brief peal of barking.
―Hook Man Finger?
And at that, she felt the presence withdraw. The girl couldn’t tell if it had said more or not. Like in a dream. The words garbled, unspelled, and yet easy, discernible. She could read them like clouds.
The girl tilted. She twirled in the wind, quick and free. Picking up bits of ember and dust and scant insects, which collected in her eyes and her hair, and she didn’t mind because she was finally serene.
It was deep midnight, the girl realized. Utter and prompt. She saw train lights materialize from the horizon, barely pierce the dark.
And she was rising, rising, then falling.
She put out her arms. Her arms weren’t her wings, mind you, and she tried to reach out behind her, thwarted by the momentum.
Hastening flight. The ground grew closer. The planet closed. If the universe were expanding, like their tutor had promised, then she’d never run out.
Because the earth had stopped growing. Rather, it was wasting away. The more she approached it, the more space for it to move in the cosmos’s augmenting gape. So there’d always be someplace.
Say you got kicked out of wherever you were. The heavens and horrors. But if you believe in stuff… If you make an effort… If you know how to mitigate…
She clawed at her skirt. Pills spooled cyclone-esque. They pirouetted out, down, up, left, and right, back inside.
There were other directions, but she wouldn’t find them. The possibility of that secret doesn’t exist in language. It was a matter of time.
She grasped the swarm. Her spine. Her fingers bunched on themselves. She touched her lips. She closed her eyes.
THE mother was released on parole.
It took longer than they said.
On her cell wall, she’d tried to mark the days in chalk, which she’d traded a piece of for something she preferred not to think about. The piece had only lasted a few days. Plus she’d often lost track of when was supposed to be what.
First she was on Riker’s, but then it had shuttered and she was going to be relocated to a new facility in a basement complex owned by Grubhub as part of a pilot program for improving incarcerated persons’ living conditions by having them anonymously review restaurants on behalf of the corporation, but nobody took her there. By the time they figured out she’d never left the island, she’d missed her appeal date and as a result faced a great deal more red tape, opportunity for misapprehension, and most importantly, to her, not necessary in general, because generally the vast majority of people remained unconcerned, time.
She created a new social media account. To confirm her identity the app required that she submit photographs of her face from five angles, her blood type, and her maternal grandmother’s date of birth. She tapped around until she could remember her former roommate’s name, then reached out.
The ex-roommate texted right back. She was shacked up with a baby-faced guy in his early thirties, who was pretending to be a minor and lived in a hype house with more than a dozen other transient social media influencers, and who got upward of a dozen deliveries of promotional technical camping gear by drone every day.
The mother returned to their old building. There were no vacancies. She turned to the men in the courtyard.
―Time’ll fuck you up, they teased.
She didn’t dare reach out to her social worker, parole officer, or child protective services, which had been renamed The Department of Youth Sorting Consortium by the new governor’s decree.
The mother bought a rosé slushie from a takeout place and sat on a bench dedicated to someone she had never known by someone who was also forever gone and called her district’s state-level congressional representative and got the machine.
She left a message.
NINE months later, the mother was working remote on a refurbished tablet as a customer service agent, two months into a fifteen-month probationary period for a company that mailed vacuum-sealed sectional couches in boxes, approving customers’ falsified Salvation Army donation receipts for so-called unwanted furniture, which they intended to keep, when her device displayed an unknown number, unassociated with the job at hand, and knowing she could be docked pay for taking an outside call during her ten-hour, eat-your-lunch-while-you-exact-profit shift, she answered impulsively.
Her district’s state congressional representative’s aide’s assistant wanted to let her know that the foster mom under whose care her children had been placed had been confirmed deceased.
If she’d like, however, the assistant could connect her with the foster dad, who could presumably answer further inquiries on the status and availability of the mother’s biological offspring.
―Please, the mother said.
She tried maintain her composure. Her anus tickled. Tears burned in her forehead. She had to sneeze. Her ears rang. Her throat parched and tongue swole as the assistant at the other end of the line went through the careless motions of transferring the call.
It rang for a long time.
When it connected, it did so to an automated prompt about how she’d reached Solarythema Enterprises.
The robot voice, which sounded eerily cognizant, listed a series of instructions and associated numbers of buttons one could press, if he, she, or they so wanted.
The mother mashed her government issue flip phone’s touchscreen keypad.
It rang a while more.
The destination didn’t seem equipped with a voicemail function. And yet miraculously, eventually someone picked up.
An unconscionable male tone of choppy warpedness.
―Hi, the mother started to say. ―Is this…
She couldn’t remember the name the assistant had given.
―Do you have my children, her voice broke and collapsed in a bubblish mewl of protest and hope.
―Well ’scuse me, the man answered. ―New phone, who dis?
She tried to explain. Her daughter had been involved in an accident. A misunderstanding. She’d walked with canes. Her son was a talker, a singer, a shaker. They’d been sent away to the abutting state.
―I’m sorry, he replied.
The mother was dizzy.
―You must know who I mean…
She could hear a soft pawing sound emanating through the headset. Like he was scratching himself over thick, bristled hair in the raw. Like there were four hands. Feminine, folding over his folds and preening.
The man hacked for a while.
―Hold a tick, he said out of the side of the mouthpiece.
The pawing sound ceased.
―Lady, he said. ―We still ain’t got internet. I don’t know where you’re from, but we’re not so into the newest fangling in these parts. This is some kind of gameshow you’re hosting? Time ticking? Tick clock? We don’t get the new channels. My wife passed from train rot. But hey, I love kids. I’ll tell you what. You need someone to look after ’em, I’m your guy. I’ll bet your girl could use a good caning. Bring her up here sometime.
―But where do you live? Aren’t you a part of the foster care program?
The man thought for a moment.
―Now that you mention it…
The pawing recommenced.
―Yeah, I think they contracted that fosterers program out through some silicon orb mine. Something like… You gotta go through a app now or whatnot. Not that we can do shit here but wait. They say the internet’s coming to be lined through any day. Maybe then I’ll have answers. In the meantime… Oop, hold on. I’m getting another call. Hit me back in fifteen.
The line went dead.
The mother’s phone vibrated.
Her supervisor had texted her, WHAT TH FUCK DO U THNK UR DOIN ?!??!?!!?!?! followed by a train-like procession of profane, incensed GIF animations.
She looked out the window of the cardboard-walled apartment she shared with three women she hadn’t met.
The sound of warm flesh on glass.
A bird flew into it.