In one tiny part of one of the new bubbles emerging from the bubble that is our particular universe, there is a place and time where you might exist and I might exist where I have a daughter named Janine. Perhaps, in that tiny bubble, I may have been lucky with sports and found some success. As quarterback in high school, I’ll have converted to a tight end in college at the University of Minnesota, where I’ll bang heads and block like a demon, catching most of the passes they throw my way.
Ellis Neider met his soulmate. The End.
That’s his story. The rest is annotation. We would almost skip that part, were it not for the stone knowledge that any love story not about masturbation does require at least two characters. The object of his affection does deserve something approaching equal time. Ellis was a guy. Some men are guys, other men are dudes. Ellis was a guy. As a child, he was a little guy. As an adult, he was a bigger guy. Like most guys, he gave off the vibe that he knew the universe operated by a certain set of rules.
The runoff had broken the sandbags overnight; by the time Davis got to the office, somebody was skimming dead carp from the top of the pond. The rain was pissing down and the big nets must have been borrowed to shore up the sandbags, because the soldier was using a hand skimmer. Davis watched her sluicing the net hypnotically back and forth, piling up hundreds of bodies, scraping the oil off whenever it got too heavy to lift or too slippery to hang on to anything.
It came to Javi in a vision while he was at Burning Man. There was something calling out to him, and he’d hoped an ayahuasca ceremony would help him figure out what it was. It was during the ceremony that she appeared to him. Isla. In his vision, she was a temple priestess and he was laid out on a sacrificial stone table. She was literally eating his engorged heart out of his chest cavity. It wasn’t as frightening as it sounded. It was only when the vision disappeared that he felt an aching in his chest. Isla, come back.
The tomb of the Empress has breath, and bone, and muscle. I can feel her shiver and moan beneath my hands, and though my fingers tremble I know the vibrations are more than my own weakness; they are a pulse that runs deep to the caverns of her far-off ventricles and atria. The tomb of the Empress lives, and we live inside her. There is one window before which the Empress’s coffin lies at rest. The coffin is gold, the only bright embellishment amid the hall of grays and silvers and coppers.
“The death of Fire Station 10 affected me deeply. She had not been the smartest building, but she had been a friend for as long as I can remember. She was one story tall, the sole holdover from a much earlier time in the neighborhood—a piece of cinderblock nostalgia, of high-maintenance wood and plaster from an earlier age. Her brain and smart utilities were a retrofit, cobbled onto the cinderblock building later, in a clumsy addition on the back. When she was built, buildings had no minds.”
It’s midnight and I can smell the new moon through the cracks in the concrete. This organism in my womb has heightened my senses in unnatural ways. I can hear the Council’s hushed arguments through the walls of my cell as they contemplate my death, their words carried by the night wind through the cracks in the concrete that constitutes the community prison. Old habits die hard. We’ve been on this planet for less than ten years and a prison was the first building we constructed.
The pink frost coating my face shield is, evidently, my own blood. The gas jetting from the pea-sized hole in my wrist spins me around, and for a panicked moment, I wonder if I have somehow been shot. I think I am screaming, but that would alert Station, and Ocampo is silent. Evidently, I am holding my breath, only wanting to scream, like the nightmare of being on the wrong side of the airlock. Now the hissing has stopped and pain nails me to the ice.
Two things were wrong with the Spasskaya assessment. The first was the painting: a tiny square in a simple frame, something I barely noticed at the time, but which would go on to cause us so much suffering. The second was the woman. Wailing greeted us when we arrived, almost at midnight. Assessment teams had to come without warning. Snow fell in great marching waves, helpless in the hands of the wind off the Moscow River.
It’s the lollipops that break you. The thought of your child sucking on one during a lockdown drill carries enough cognitive dissonance that your brain has trouble actually comprehending it. You know the purpose—the methodology behind it all—lollipops in their mouths will keep preschoolers quiet, and surely the sugar can’t hurt. But the fact that your preschooler needs to know how to behave in case there’s an active shooter is so disturbing that you wish there was a way to retreat into your shell, like a defiant hermit crab.