Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

Advertisement

Fiction

Soccer Fields and Frozen Lakes

Dear Sara,

The official verdict that I am no longer classified as human arrived in a windowed envelope bearing the return address of the Bureau of Lineage Affairs. There is one envelope for me and one for you, although I haven’t opened yours. Except for the return address, these envelopes look like something from the bank, or perhaps an offer for home insurance, the kind we throw away. Inside mine is a letter folded in thirds, and on it something like a death sentence, although a very formal and polite one. It’s here beside me—I’ve read it many times already. It breaks the bad news without much ado, then goes on to list the names and numbers of several organizations to which we may apply for further information and support. This is strongly encouraged. There is also a number to call if I feel a mistake has been made. This is not encouraged at all. Somewhere in there I’m given my identification number, which is 73281. This number is mine for the remainder of my life. Worse than all of this: They provide the numbers that have been assigned to our children: 73282 and 73283.

These facts and numbers, stated simply on plain white paper, fill me with dread—a human emotion. I’m tempted to write the BLA. “I’m terrified,” I could tell them. “Therefore I cannot be what you think I am.”

That would get my name on a list somewhere, and not the good kind.

The fact remains: Yesterday I was human—today I am . . . something else. Less than human? More than?

I wonder what your letter says.

• • • •

It’s very late. The kids are tucked away and you haven’t shown your face in almost five hours. Our bedroom door is closed, but there’s still a light on in there, despite the hour. I’m certain you’re not sleeping. Did you lock me out? I’m afraid to check. How degrading, to be locked out of one’s own room. All my things are in there. All my socks and underwear.

I considered throwing the letters away before you got home, mine and yours both. Not just throwing them away, but ripping them up and pushing them deep in the kitchen garbage, beneath the banana peels and crumpled napkins. Better yet, ripping them up into tiny pieces to disperse in trashcans throughout the house. But what would have been the use? On that paper is written truth, and truth can neither be destroyed, nor hidden. Not forever, at least.

I drank a beer instead . . . and another. I was on my third (fourth?) when the boys barged through the front door. They don’t know how to move quietly, those boys. They are incapable of sneaking and cannot whisper. They know only stomping and shouting. I hid my beer beside the couch and leaned forward to meet them as they pounded into the living room engaged in a screaming conversation. Ryan’s backpack, too big for such a small boy, dragged behind as he plowed toward the bedrooms.

Cole, seeing me on the couch, veered my way. “Dad!” he shouted. Throwing himself beside me, he shoved a fistful of colored pages into my hands.

You weren’t far behind. Not two seconds through the door and already busy closing, straightening, and collecting debris in their wake. You are disaster control, our own household FEMA. Halfway through the living room, you pried off your heels and dropped your laptop case on the recliner. Two steps later, you’d peeled off your stockings, hardly stopping.

“It’s hot out there,” you said in my direction, then vanished up the hall.

After straightening Cole’s stack of loose pages, I tried to focus on the vivid scrawls of color. They might have been monsters, but could just as easily have been superheroes. “You did all these?”

“In school.”

“Very nice. Very good.”

He guided me through his stack of monster-superheroes, each bearing a name of his own invention. Weapons, powers, and alliances were explained in detail. Though I listened to him closer than ever before, I couldn’t repeat a word of it now. I heard only his voice. I saw only his excitement, his vitality. His hair is the lightest blonde—like yours when you were a child, and too long. I wanted to gather him and his brother up and not let go. I want to go into their room now, while they sleep, to smell their hair and kiss their fingers.

These are our children. It will kill me to lose them.

• • • •

I didn’t open your letter. I left it on your dresser, in plain view where I knew you’d find it. Cole had rushed away with his stack of drawings by the time you returned. You dropped onto the opposite end of the couch and gestured for my beer, which I surrendered gladly. After a quick drink, you tossed your folded letter between us.

That’s a relief,” you said. “Where’s yours?”

I produced it from the snug place between my thigh and the armrest and placed it on top of yours, then went for another beer so I wouldn’t have to watch your reaction. In the kitchen, I stared into the open refrigerator and listened to the boys arguing distantly about whose turn it was, or who had which thing first.

I still marvel at how human they seem.

“Oh my god,” I heard from the living room.

A pit opened wide in my gut. Everything I am—everything I was—emptied into it. The suddenness of it left me breathless and stunned. I tightened my grip on the refrigerator door and shut my eyes against the vertigo. Weightless, the voided husk of me stood in the cool air escaping the refrigerator. When I could breathe again, I turned to find you standing there with my letter held out in front of you as though contagious. And then, as though you had followed me into the kitchen to tell me this, as if I hadn’t heard you the first time, as if the words hadn’t already gutted me, “Oh my god.”

• • • •

Dear Joanne,

You should have called first. At least you brought pizza, which makes the silent judgment you serve with it tolerable. The pizza’s not the issue, though. The bathroom is the issue. I don’t like you cleaning it. You would have done my laundry too, if I’d let you—scowling all the while over the deplorable condition of my life. I know you believe that’s what big sisters are for, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I’m not helpless.

Listen to me, griping like a codger. Forget I said anything. Who am I to deserve such a doting sister? I love you dearly, Jo. Thank you for bringing pizza and for cleaning my bathroom. Thank you for watching Cat while I’m away. I’m sorry I lost your nephews.

You might wonder why I’m addressing an entry in this journal to you. Truth be told, I’m not. You’ll never see this. It’s just that writing comes more naturally with a target in mind, and at the risk of sounding mean—you’re an easy target. You might also wonder why the earlier pages are stapled shut. It’s because I don’t need the temptation of reading those past entries, not after everything that’s happened. Nor do I have the heart to tear them out. Staples seemed a reasonable compromise.

But let’s talk about different things.

You dropped by tonight to wish me a happy trip tomorrow. After cleaning the bathroom when I wasn’t watching, then trying to do laundry, we sat in the living room with the pizza between us.

“Where’s Cat?” you asked, peeling away a slice. You twisted to look behind your chair. Finding nothing, you leaned forward to peer under the coffee table, as though any self-respecting cat would hide in a place so obvious.

You tried summoning him with that thing you do, “Ps-ps-ps-ps-ps!”

And I reminded you yet again, “That doesn’t work on him.”

“I’m starting to think there is no cat, Chris.” It felt like a subtle warning. Leaning back in your chair, you toed a Taco Bell bag with distaste. “Let me clean up in here, will you? You’ll get ants.” You overturned a paper bag onto the coffee table, yielding: napkins, crumpled wrappers, lettuce shreds. A mint? “I’ll save all the packets of stuff. Promise.” You dumped another sack to reveal a hot sauce I’d missed. “There: the sauce. Sauces?”

“They’re good on—”

“They’re not, Chris. They’re not good on anything.”

So we argued. First in a lighthearted manner about the merits of hot sauce on ice cream, then more seriously about why I can’t be bothered to clean the apartment. But then one of those current events programs came on, and a roundtable of talking heads began a heated debate over the proposed sites for the new hybrid reservations, and how we’ll be relocated again. You caught me by surprise when you said that you think we should go willingly, that it would be a good thing, then acted shocked to hear that the very idea sickens me. We enacted our own debate, in greater volume and far more colorful language than the talking heads, and by the end of it, the televised debate was over and we were both exhausted. Only then did we penetrate to the heart of the matter.

Drying an eye, you said, “I would go with you, you know. If you wanted me to.”

“I know, Jo. But I drink a lot out there.”

“I can drink a lot, too.”

“The hotel is terrible.”

“It’s one night.”

“And the ducks, they’re always so pissed.”

“Okay, Seven-three-two-eight-one.” And with that, you retreated to the freshly cleaned bathroom. It hurts you, I think, being barred from this part of my life, so you take the cheap revenge shots when you can. Returning ten minutes later, you dragged on your coat and gloves as though it was them you hated. I stood to watch, hands in pockets, feeling guilty for the bad air between us.

“There’s just nothing for you there, Jo.”

The look I earned for that line is still with me, dear sister. You were thinking, There’s nothing there for you, either. And that’s fair. Still: Thanks for having the decency to not actually say it.

Pulling on your knit hat, you checked pockets for keys, then called around me towards the bedroom, “Bye, Cat!” You held still a moment, head tilted, then perked at some imagined sound. “Was that him?”

“No.”

“I think that was him.”

Give it up, Jo. The animal just doesn’t like you.

And on that unfortunate note, it’s time to throw the old duffel in the trunk of the ugly coupe and kick off the yearly pilgrimage into the dreary suburbs of Chicago. This will be my sixth trip to see the boys since the event. They would have been ten and thirteen this year—which makes me realize that I never took them to Disneyland. Or the ocean. My boys have never seen the ocean. Does that make me a horrible parent? Maybe this year will be different. Maybe this year I’ll actually get to see them.

• • • •

Dear Joanne,

I’m writing this from a rest area on the Iowa side of the Nebraska/Iowa checkpoint. The crossing, as always, was a grave disappointment. Getting through a checkpoint is, at first, a triumphant event, quickly dampened upon realizing that over here is no better than over there—worse, in fact. Because now you’re in Iowa. But it’s not about what’s over here, or what’s back there. It’s about freedom of movement, and how that freedom is no longer ours.

But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because I want to apologize for the things I said last night. Calling you “willfully ignorant” wasn’t productive. But you called me a “societal hypochondriac” first, which doesn’t even sound like a real thing. All morning I’ve been replaying our fight, and I think that what it boils down to is that you trust, whereas I do not. You believe (and sincerely) that everything happening is for our protection and benefit. I believe we are being managed toward extinction.

I remember saying this, “It’s like you want to help them. You’re making it easy for them.”

You laughed at me. “Easy for them to do what, Chris?”

Are you really so blind? They already have us classified and symbolized. Watch the news—any channel—to witness the process of our dehumanization. To them we are a blight and a plague. Why do you refuse to see how they stack all the plights of the world on our shoulders? The chasm between them and us widens every time the militant members of the Hybrid Rights Coalition take another pure human hostage, every time another bus in the city is torched, or another hospital terrorized. It spreads when the police quell hybrid riots with tear gas and smoke grenades, with cudgels and the heels of their boots. Classification, symbolization, dehumanization. Those are steps one, two, and three, sister. Do you have the patience to hear the rest? I think no. And what would be the use? The rest is coming soon enough, whether we recognize the steps or not.

Meanwhile, you accept their ever-tightening restrictions with a thankful smile. You accept their marked license with its colorful hybrid hologram. Will you wear their armband, too? Will you sit still for the serial tattoo on your neck, so that there’s no hiding when step seven comes? To make it easy for militias sanctioned by our own government to drag you from your car by the hair, to murder you in the street in the midst of jeering crowds? I wonder if any Jew ever had an obstinate sister who admired herself in the mirror—dazzled by the pretty gold star stitched onto her lapel. The time will come, sister. To think anything else is—yes, willfully ignorant.

Now that it’s written, I realize this letter is nothing like the apology I intended. But it did remind me of a joke:

What do you call a thousand hybrids burning at the stake?

A good start.

Isn’t that funny, Jo? Aren’t you laughing?

• • • •

Dear Super 8,

Your hotel in Palatine stinks. Two checkpoints and twenty cramped hours in an ugly coupe and this is my reward? Flat pillows, unwashed sheets, and a coffee maker that can’t be bothered to make coffee. At least the heat works. The light is gray here at the desk by the window, just like everything else in these despairing suburbs. The sun’s up there somewhere, but you wouldn’t know it. It’ll be dark by 4:30, which is just as well. Who wants to see any of this? My whole day serves as one long excuse to climb between those questionable sheets and numb myself to sleep with television.

But you don’t care about what’s done in this room, or what I endured to get here, do you? So just forget I mentioned it. I’ve slept on dirtier sheets, and I know where to hunt coffee. I’ll save my complaints for someone who cares.

• • • •

Dear Joanne,

Indeed, there is nothing like bourbon to make a dismal hotel room feel a little less soulless. Bourbon demands ice, but the ice machine was broken (hardly surprising) so I fashioned my own ice-balls with snow from the parking lot. And why not? That’s called “depth of flavor.”

I deserve this bourbon. I’m exhausted. It used to be I could make this trip in twelve hours. These days it takes upwards of twenty. Six years ago, the checkpoints were nothing more than a forced rest area. Pull in, have some Funyuns and a stretch, get your passport stamped by some bored contract security officer, then move on. Things are different now, Joanne. Things are far more serious. Now the checkpoints span the interstate at every state line, windowless behemoths squatting over all those lanes of traffic like prisons of red brick and razor wire. The rented security officers have been replaced by squadrons of BLA agents. The grounds and halls are roamed by attentive soldiers in battlefield fatigues. Inside the building, you’re directed to wait in this line, then that. Take this paperwork and sit there, answer every question. This is important, because it’s not unusual for hybrids to disappear while traveling, sometimes entire families. It made the news when it first started happening. Now fewer people can be bothered to care. Elsewhere in the building, hourly employees in blue latex gloves rummage through our things. They make notes and phone calls, enter data into terminals—process us. We don’t see these things happening, but we feel them. My name is called, and I step up to a window behind which a weary teller holds her hand out for my passport. It’s the fourth time I’ve been made to produce it.

“Destination?” she asks.

“Chicago.” It’s all in the paperwork, all properly authorized and notarized months in advance. There’s never any need to ask.

She checks something in my passport against something on her screen. She initials in the margin, stamps an open space. “What’s in Chicago?”

“My kids. I’m just going to see my kids. I go every year.”

There’s more cross-checking, initialing, stamping. At last, she slides my passport back to me and actually makes eye contact. “Have a nice trip,” she says.

Wasn’t that kind of her? If this were a story, it would be called “My Nice Trip.”

I’m done writing for now, Joanne. Mainly, I just wanted to let you know that I arrived safely. One night, one day, then I’ll be on my way home. I’m going to put off that apology I owe you. Right now I just don’t have it in me to make peace with anyone over anything.

• • • •

Dear Chicago,

You might remember me. You might remember my name, and the names of my two sons, although I see no reason why you should—my tragedy is no greater than that suffered daily by many of your citizens. Still, it’s important to me that you know I’m back again. I promise not to stay long. I’m in my hotel now, the Super 8 on Dundee, my home away from home for one night every January.

It’s 10:20 a.m., and I’ve been awake almost six hours. I didn’t set the alarm—no need to be at the lake until after 11:00. It’s just that sleeping is hard for me here in Chicago, so close to the kids. It’s fair to say I’ve wasted the time. I got dressed—so easy when you sleep in your clothes. I finished off the watery dregs of last night’s bourbon, abandoned in a plastic cup near the sink, which only left me thirsty for more. No snow left in the bucket, so I took four fingers neat. For a while I stood at the window breathing my own noxious breath reflected back at me from the cold pane. I sat in front of the muted television without really watching it. I thought about brushing my teeth, but the bourbon wouldn’t allow it. In the full-length mirror by the door I saw myself: yesterday’s hair, yesterday’s clothes, yesterday’s bourbon. Everything about me is from yesterday, last year, another life.

And now here it is almost time to leave, and me wishing for more time.

What if I broke tradition? What if I did something different this year? There are movie theaters. There are restaurants and parks. How easy it would be to shed the clothes and watch television from the bed—to drink bourbon until the short day drains away to nothing and it’s no longer the anniversary of anything anymore. But I can’t do that. Because what if this is the year they come? What if they’re already waiting for me?

From the window I look down on my car in the lot. Will it even start in this cold? Part of me hopes not. It looks so barren out there. Not a day for spending outside. But there’s my bag, already packed. And here’s my coat, already on. I should go. And I will. I always do. But first, let me explain what it is I want out of all this:

I will drive myself to Palatine in the post rush-hour traffic. Within ten minutes, I’ll be navigating a warren of middle-income suburban streets. Big trees and old hedges, sun so low and bright it draws tears. I’ll park curbside a few blocks from Douglas MacArthur elementary school because that’s the best access to the lake—but also because I don’t want people thinking I’ve come to pester the real children, all of whom are inside where it’s warm, seated pleasantly at their desks. Unless it’s Saturday. Is it Saturday? I don’t know anymore. If they’re in there, I can’t help but wonder how many of those kids are human. Do they even let hybrids go to public school anymore? If they happen to glance out the windows, they’ll see me crossing the lot and skirting the playground for the path that circles the lake, which is really more of a large pond. I will walk around from the south bank—where my life included two small boys and a bag of groceries, to the north—where I have nothing.

Before I lost them, the boys were eating Doritos from bright little bags, their fingers orange with chip dust. They were smiling, I remember that. And in remembering, I am shocked again—and forever—by how frozen lakes under snow look so much like empty fields. So much alike, in fact, that unless you’re paying close attention you can’t hardly tell the one from the other. You’d think it would be simple, but it isn’t—not when you’re new to the area because you just lost your wife and your house and barely five months have passed since the BLA declared you and your children non-humans. Add to that the relentless confusion over what exactly happened and how fast, and it’s just now beginning to sink in what with the endless coverage on television and in the papers, and it’s all anyone ever talks about anymore: forced relocation to remote reservations, embedded chips and tracking devices, deportation and the disappearances and deaths and murders that some radicals are already calling “cleansing.” And maybe you had more to drink that morning than usual, even though it was only 10:00 a.m., because the news just keeps coming. News from not-so-distant places—alarmingly close places—where people just like you are being dragged from cars and shot in the streets, at their desks, in homes. You’d think it would be easy to see the difference—but it’s not. Sometimes you can’t tell the soccer field is a lake until it cracks open beneath you and swallows everything you have.

Stop stop stop. That’s not the story I’m here to tell. That story has already been told to death. If you must know the details, visit the archives of the Palatine public library. Find the newspapers from that cold January six years ago. Look for the tragic story of two young boys and their stupid, stupid father.

I was talking about hopes. Mine is to sit by the lake with my knees up and my bottle between my feet. Across the lake and the soccer fields the school bell clangs. A little while later I hear the shouts of children, but I don’t see the children themselves. I drink and I wait. A breeze comes off the lake, but it’s a mild breeze. Today would have been a good day to walk to the store for groceries.

It’s not long before I spot him a little ways down the shoreline. He looks to be about seven years old still. His hair is too long because his mother liked it that way. Even as cold as it is, he’s coatless—just a t-shirt and jeans. His feet are bare, as though it’s summer wherever he is. I don’t think he’s seen me yet, occupied as he is with skipping rocks into the lake. They skitter across the ice, spinning to join a host of others.

These encounters are fragile, so I hide the bottle beside my thigh and refrain from looking directly at him. It would do no good to frighten him now. His search for good rocks brings him closer, so I turn my head—my head only—to better watch him. This is when he notices me.

Brushing his bangs out of his eyes, he calls, “Hey.”

“Hello,” I answer.

It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been waiting for this, and how many words I’ve planned—even in this wishful version I find myself utterly lost for words, falling back to something inane, like, “Aren’t you cold?”

To which he shrugs, and says, “Not really.”

He throws his last rock. Instead of looking for another one, he closes the last steps between us and sits near me. Not next to—just near. With him comes the lingering aroma of Doritos and oranges.

“You seem happy,” I manage.

“I am happy.”

“And you’re safe?”

The question seems to amuse him. “Sure,” he nods. “Safe.”

I find I can’t look directly at him anymore. He’s shivering in my vision, so I turn to the far shore. And then I have to ask—it’s what I’ve come for, after all, “Are you still angry with me?”

He leans forward to better look into my face, and when I’m brave enough to look, I see he’s smiling for me. “We were never angry, Dad.”

I don’t know if that counts as forgiveness, but it’s all I ever wanted to hear. Something happens in my chest. The hurt that has been pinned in there for so long with a nail that runs straight through me and some nights won’t let me breathe comes loose. The dull ache bleeds fresh, and feels not like old pain, but like new. And I welcome it—I want it. But still it makes a mess of me. I cover my face with my hands, because a boy shouldn’t have to watch his father crumble. Then I remember how fleeting such encounters can be. Take your eyes off them, even for a moment, and poof—gone. And maybe you don’t see them again for ten years, or twenty. Maybe you never see them again.

I look, and he’s still there beside me. Still smiling. “Where’s Mom?” he wants to know. Because even ghosts can’t understand how a mother could abandon her children.

“Where’s your brother?” I ask him instead.

“He’s right here.”

That’s when two small, bare arms slip over my shoulders and around my neck. His skin is warm, and he laughs in my ear. His hair tickles my neck. “Carry me,” he says. And his breath smells of oranges and chocolate.

• • • •

Dear Joanne,

Things never go the way we want them to.

What really happened is this:

Untucked and unbrushed, I dragged my disheveled self downstairs to check out. The ugly car started reluctantly. On the way to the school, I stopped at the Shop & Save for a bag of Hershey’s Kisses and oranges—same as every year. Bourbon under coat, I trudged across the soggy soccer fields to the frozen lake and the place—near as I could tell—where I stepped onto the ice with two happy children. The sky was gray, the water black. The wind was eager to use its teeth today. The ducks converged almost as soon as I arrived. These are not nice ducks, Jo. They come at you in small gangs, from the sides, adamant and bold, but change course when confronted directly. They’re smart enough to keep just out of kicking range. (Oh, yes I would). Keeping to the gravel path that runs around the lake, I searched the shallows for bright coat sleeves among the cattails, for pale hands wrapped in weeds, for little drowned faces.

On the far side, where the bank slopes up toward the sleepy neighborhood and finally to the grocery store, our destination that day, I sat in the mud and opened my bottle. The bourbon brought heat: heat to my mouth, to my throat, and to my gut. My eyes leaked for a little while, so I drank more, because that’s what’s done for leaky eyes. I screwed the bottle into the mud between my feet and tore open the Kisses with my teeth. I devoured the entire bag, making little silver balls out of the foil wrappers before flicking them waterward. This is a wretched place, Joanne. There is nothing beautiful about here, nothing redeeming. It is a place of stubborn, persistent unpleasantness, a place that traps oranges, and sometimes children, under ice. My litter can make nothing worse.

I was already sick by the time I got to the oranges. I tore into one anyway—all part of the ritual. I ripped away the bumpy skin in long curls and ate them like apples, a few bites from each, then into the water. I washed it all down with as much bourbon as I could stomach, then leaned aside to vomit it all into the slush.

The little foil balls, the oranges, the bright rinds scattered all around: These are ghost-bait. The retching is just me expressing the hopelessness of it all.

To have it all out was a relief, although my throat is still raw. By that time the ducks were congregating again, drawn by all the shiny foil and colorful peels. Such bossy creatures. They came to remind me it was time to act like a man again. Go home, pathetic drunkard, your ghosts didn’t show. They forgot, couldn’t make it, or were otherwise engaged. Any of these could be true. And I’m not even angry. How could I be? I love those boys too much.

I’ve been sitting here in my ugly car for hours now, freezing. I’ve thought about turning on the heat, but I don’t feel I deserve it. I’d like to go back to the hotel for a shower and a long sleep, but I can’t do that—I’ve already checked out. The fact is: I don’t know what to do. My boys are here, Jo, and a father should be with his sons, don’t you think?

• • • •

Dear Joanne,

You’re angry with me, I know. I can see you sitting on my chair in the living room, legs crossed, fingers drumming the armrest, fuming. You’ve been staring at the door a long while, waiting for the rattle of my keys, which should have happened so many hours ago. You’ve called me a dozen times and left as many messages. You’re brimming with angry words—words like “irresponsible” and “reckless.” But I know you’re only angry because you’re worried. Please don’t worry, Jo. I’m safe. I’m happy. While you’ve been sitting in my chair, I’ve been driving my ugly car southeast, all the way to a place called Glasgow, which is in Kentucky. I can hear you protesting, “Kentucky is not on the way home, Chris. Why are you driving the wrong way? Where are you going? What happened?”

Let me tell you:

After leaving Palatine, I made it all the way to the Illinois/Iowa checkpoint, where I submitted myself once more to the long ordeal of processing with the rest of the non-humans. We were herded from one waiting room to another, all of them identical: sparsely stocked vending machines, clunking water fountains, uneven rows of crooked plastic chairs. In one room was a television bolted into a high corner. I don’t know who changed the channel, or why, but one minute we were absorbing the numbing scenarios of a laugh-tracked sitcom—the next we were facing a well-suited evangelist on a studio set. There he sat on the edge of an elegant chair, imploring his studio congregation (in which we were now forcefully included) to heed his words. So drained were we by the weight of our surroundings that our protests manifested in little more than private groans and slumpings.

“What we must remember, brethren,” the evangelist explained in earnest to his congregation, “is that the very word ‘hybrid’ is part of the deception. Despite what our governments would have us believe, there are no hybrids. There are humans, and there are non-humans. But because they look like us and sound like us, some of us are deceived into believing they are us. This is a great and terrible lie, brethren. While the idea of partial humanity is physically possible, it will forever be a spiritual impossibility. In the eyes of God, a thing is either human, or it is not. Hybrids—if we must call them that—are not. Recall that God’s laws governing offspring do not follow the simple rules of addition. In the case of a human paired with a hybrid—one soul combined with no soul—the result is not a child with half a soul.” He shook his head, scornful of the very idea of such fallacies. “You must remember that in God’s eyes it is multiplication that governs the laws of reproduction, as when God commanded Adam and Eve, ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ So you see: A human/hybrid pairing—and I refuse to call it a marriage—although capable of producing offspring, can produce no human offspring. Even children understand that the product of any number multiplied by zero—any number, brethren—will always be zero. This is truth. This is what was meant by our Savior when He told us that a little leaven leavens the whole bunch. Evil begets evil, brethren. Insert but one monstrosity into the bloodline, and the whole line is obliterated forevermore. And what then? What happens when all of humanity—all but a small remnant—has been supplanted by monstrosities? What happens to our world when all nations have become as a stench to God?”

Not far from me, one of my fellow watchers made a small sound of disgust and leaned away, but did not stop watching. “Change it,” someone else complained wearily. Some of us looked around to see who would act on this, but no one did—or could.

The evangelist was leaning forward to better hear a question coming from his studio audience, then joined his palms together and spoke quietly, but with the greatest conviction. “Everywhere we look, we see unions such as these producing children, and my heart breaks at their suffering.” He placed a hand over his heart to prove it was so. “And I say to you now—as I always have: It is tragedy of the worst sort that hybrids are capable of breeding with humans. As agonizing as it may be to do, I encourage believers to separate themselves from their non-human partnerships. As the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians, we ought not be unevenly yoked.”

Again he listened to a question from his audience, tilting his head. “You need have no worry for their souls,” he explained. “For they have none. As for yours,” he added with a smile, “remember that the soul comes from the Father, and to Him it returns. Ecclesiastes twelve seven. It is not ours. It is who we are, but it does not belong to us. It is a gift from God to a being conceived by a man and a woman—a human man and woman.” And here he looked through the television, sending his explanation into the audience to seek its targets. “Anything else has not been sanctioned by God. It is without soul. It is an abomination.”

There were more questions. More answers, too, I’m sure. But I heard my name called with the brisk impatience of someone who might have already called it more than once already. An agitated woman with stooped shoulders and a clipboard stared at me as I crossed the room.

“Destination?” she asked at my approach.

“I made a mistake,” I admitted to her. “I have to go back to Chicago.”

She scowled at her clipboard. “You’re coming from Chicago.”

“No, I have to go back. I left something important.”

Still frowning, she laid a possessive hand on my arm, as if she feared I would bolt, and that this would keep me in place. “Come on back,” she said.

“I don’t need to go through,” I repeated in my most reasonable voice.

But it was against the rules. I was processed despite my objections, and my agitation only peaked their suspicions and raised more questions: Where will you stay in Chicago? Who will be with you? What will you do? I endured, and was eventually released. I turned the car around at the next exit and went right back through again. Back to Chicago, and back to Palatine. Back to the lake in the dark because I couldn’t bear to leave them there another year. I promised them I wouldn’t drink anymore, and to prove it emptied the remainder of my bourbon into the mud. I told them I would take them to Disneyland. I promised them the ocean.

They didn’t answer right away. In fact, I wondered if they’d heard me at all. But when I got back to my ugly car and opened the door, I knew they’d decided to trust me. They fill the interior with such smells. Is this only my imagination? What of the orange peels on the back seat? The smudge of chocolate on the steering wheel? Are these make-believe, too? And now, as I sit here at the little table writing by the flickering light of old black-and-white television, I hear the creak of springs as they wrestle on the bed. Is their laughter not real?

And now here I am in a ratty motel in Glasgow. Same unwashed clothes, same unbrushed teeth. In all honesty, I can’t remember a time in the past six years when I’ve been happier. The first thing I did after locking the door behind me was remember the chapter and verse quoted by the television evangelist. I found a Bible (surprise!) in the bedside drawer. It says: “Then the spirit returns to God who sent it.” But that’s not what the evangelist said. He said, “The spirit returns to the father.”

I think the evangelist had it right. But he also told a terrible lie—which is how all the greatest deceptions are delivered—hand-in-hand with pleasing truths. He would have us believe that we hybrids lack souls. But we do have souls, Joanne, and in abundance. Our souls return to the father from which they came, just like humans, and I am happy to receive them if God will not.

The boys are losing interest in the television now. I’m taking too long, and they want my attention back. Please take Cat home with you (if you can find him). And take anything else you want from the apartment. Take everything. We’ve got a lot of things to do, the boys and I, and I don’t know when we’re coming back. I don’t know if.

Tomorrow I intend to fulfill my promises. If we keep off the beaten path, we can avoid the checkpoints all the way to Florida. We’ll race the clouds to places with names like Clearwater and Kissimmee. Places where maybe they haven’t started checking identification papers before seating you in their restaurants. Where I can still pretend to be human. And it won’t matter if we’re stopped before we get there. It won’t even matter if I disappear. They can’t take the boys from me now. They’re out of the water, living in my bones and in my blood. I lost them once, Jo. I’ll not lose them again.

• • • •

Dear Sara,

I forgive you, if there’s even anything to forgive. I have no right to hold grudges, not after what I’ve been forgiven.

I’m writing to ask a favor of you. Please come to Florida. Our children are asking for you, and it’s not my place to keep you from them. I told them you had to leave us, but not why. It hasn’t changed their minds. They ask for you every day, and they’re confident that if I ask, you’ll come. They miss you. If you come (and I hope you do), you can tell them your story in your own words.

We made beautiful children, Sara. And they will always be beautiful.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Greg Kurzawa

Greg Kurzawa

Greg Kurzawa studied theology at a small university in east Texas before taking a career in information technology. He is the author of the bleak fantasy novel Gideon’s Wall, which he self-published in 2006 to learn the process. He learned it pretty well except for the marketing part, which is hard. Since then his short fiction has appeared in various print and online venues, and he has completed his second novel, The Sickness of Silas Traitor, for which he is seeking representation. Greg has two kinds of favorite stories: tragic ones, and ones that don’t give up their secrets without a fight. He currently lives in Omaha with his wife and three children.