Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

End of the Sleeping Girls

1

All winter, the sisters make their beds in fruits. Ingrid sleeps in a pomegranate, Yasmin in a persimmon.

At night they enter the cocoons they’ve carved from each warm globe. The flesh conforms to their flesh. Mornings they emerge sticky, and Yasmin, the smaller one, coats her legs in a lotion of persimmon pulp. The pulp is like soft, wet hair. Ingrid thinks this style flatters Yasmin, as if she’s wearing fashionable stockings.

Ingrid, on the other hand, emerges like she’s been caught unawares in heavy rain. She’s claggy and irritable; her hair goes stringy. As such, she’s discovered pomegranate is a poor leave-in conditioner. She rolls in the ferns each morning to brush off all she can. She scrapes the excess on trees.

There is no way to say it other than this: Winter ends and Ingrid is growing larger, swollen with spring. She wishes she were comfortable taking up space. Yasmin can cry and not be called dramatic; she’s a little thing, and the forest thinks her fragile and leaves her alone. Ingrid is lumbering in comparison.

She begins to dread sleeping. She watches Yasmin crawl into her persimmon and waits till she’s so tired she’s dizzy. She can’t bear for her sister to see her in this state, can hardly stand to witness it herself. She gnaws on bark and this becomes a habit. Only then, hours into nighttime, swimmy with fatigue, will she brave the pomegranate she’s started to outgrow.

One morning, after Ingrid wakes, she watches Yasmin slip from her persimmon and smooth the pulp on her legs. Ingrid marvels at how strange and large the fruit still looks against her sister’s body. She swallows the thought that two Yasmins could easily fit inside.

It’s spring, she announces. She tells Yasmin to go picking for food. Mushrooms, maybe, also berries. Raspberries, boysenberries, even gooseberries later in the season. Any edible flower.

Yasmin flutters; she remembers gooseberries from last spring, she says, remembers the pie they attempted. Yasmin had insisted on the gooseberries, so Ingrid stewed them carefully, tipped in spoonful after spoonful of sugar. Yasmin ate almost the whole thing, come to think of it. And so she goes off to forage, the miniature basket waggling at her elbow. Ingrid watches her slip into the alcoves of the forest: she turns hazy and then disappears under some foliage.

Only when she’s positive that Yasmin is deep and away does Ingrid approach the persimmon.

At first she regards it as a sort of experiment. One whole lap around its perimeter. Ingrid drags a hand along it, feels the gooseflesh of its skin. It is not terribly tall; it is not all too large around.

Ingrid leans till her nose almost touches. The smell coming off the rind is awfully bright, sweet enough to make her sick. She flicks out her tongue to taste it.

But now she’s stalled all she can, and so, well, she edges in one foot and then the other. The persimmon slicks up her ankles and calves. The fit grows tight and she’s only at the middle of her thighs. How can her sister be this small? When did she grow so large? Despite the cool inside the persimmon, a new burn—some unfamiliar shame—rises up inside Ingrid. It is a feeling she wouldn’t wish on anyone. It makes her feel panicky and spiteful. The persimmon is snug on her hips. Somehow, by a miracle, it fits up to her waist. But she has no delusions about what will come if she continues to push.

When she gets to the puff of her navel she hears a soft, nauseating sound. Her toes are cold; they’ve punched through the other side—she gasps, wriggles her toes—and then the persimmon shreds open around her.

She rolls around, woozy and sated. She is not yet afraid of what Yasmin will say. Something in the glib dark deep of her smiles and thinks, I am too solid to be challenged. And after all this, she’s too tired for empathy. She goops the persimmon into her hair, musses it to dissolve the trace, and squeezes back into her own bed.

She rests on one hip, grows uncomfortable, and eases to the other. Curled around herself, she falls at last to sleep in the muted red glow of her pomegranate canopy.

Not long after, she wakes to the silhouette of a hand thumping on the pomegranate rind. Ingrid pulls herself out and finds Yasmin. Looped around one arm is a small basket brimming with berries. Behind her are the tatters of her persimmon bed.

It happened while neither of us were watching, Yasmin wails. Who would have done such an awful thing?

Ingrid’s first instinct is to hug her sister, who breaks into wretched sobs. Her second is to dread that her hair smells like persimmon, and to hope Yasmin doesn’t notice.

The light is already waning; the days aren’t yet longer. And neither girl is hungry.

May I sleep with you? Yasmin asks.

Ingrid considers saying no. She’s nauseated at the thought of cramming two in a bed unfit for herself alone. The squeeze is disorienting. Seeds are blurry, homogenous a millimeter from Ingrid’s face; they encroach on her body from every angle.

Of course, she says.

So Ingrid enters first, feeling with her toes back into the channel she’s worn. A few seeds have lately looked close to bursting, and she’s careful not to poke them.

She senses the shadow of Yasmin’s legs spindling in. It’s too close a fit to see much more. The fruit strains with extra mass. Yasmin jabs her elbow into a seed and it ruptures.

Ingrid shouldn’t have destroyed Yasmin’s persimmon. Now that she’s slept on it, she can feel that guilt in her stomach like a sack of rocks. She can feel her blood heating in her face, thickening in the veins of her arms. Yasmin can’t help her growing—rather her lack of it—any more than Ingrid can.

She combs a hand through her hair—much easier to navigate, since persimmon’s a fine detangler—and rakes the pulp under her fingernails. She forces her fingers at Yasmin’s nostrils, practically picks her nose.

Persimmon, Yasmin says. It’s a sad little heave, a flatter reaction than Ingrid expects.

Bad sister, Yasmin says. Betrayer.

The words bounce off each seed. Yasmin’s eyes look like perfect gooseberries.

Ingrid is sorry, so sorry; how possibly can she explain this mess of feelings all pressing out of her at once?

The pretty one screams and bunches her fists. She batters them against Ingrid’s strong chest, her full arms. The squeeze is so tight there’s no space for momentum. This fight is like a yelling match done all in whispers. This fight is a wrestle soft as mushrooms, but with tears and teeth and fingernails. Yasmin rakes a scrape along her sister; the pomegranate juice seethes in Ingrid’s wounds.

And Ingrid fights back! She knocks the heel of her palm on Yasmin’s jaw, can feel the teeth rattling from impact. Yasmin brought her persimmon’s ruin on herself, by not filling out when Ingrid couldn’t stop.

Ah! Yasmin cries, driving one bony knee into Ingrid’s gut. The knee takes her sharply, so Ingrid can feel the organs there bruising. They’ve dug out quite a space for themselves in this jeweled pocket.

Everything is red and seedy. One or both of them is bleeding. Ingrid’s angry, so angry, feels strained to the point of bursting with all this new emotion. She twists to avoid Yasmin’s knee again.

Then a rumble echoes around them; several more seeds burst open. They feel the vibrations transfer into their skin. Ingrid bares her teeth to bite. But the pressure on their bodies releases as the pomegranate sheers away from itself. The two of them cry out, wrestling on the ground between the fruit’s still-rocking halves. Ingrid wonders what awful damage each sister has inflicted on the other. She bites Yasmin anyway.

2

A bear invites the sisters for formal tea. On the way they practice politeness. How terrible they must be in social contexts, to need to practice politeness. But each girl is the other’s only friend. Each has felt stifled, lately, and too solitary.

He met them at a forest mixer—which they had been loathe to attend—and made them gooseberry sours. He was handsome in that tall, dangerous way. They weren’t sure if they should have loved or feared him, even then. These types can be so magnanimous, and two-faced. They kept watch of him after the invitation: Did he tip a secret vial into anyone’s drink or pour a double when a double wasn’t wanted? No, none of these.

But what to say at a formal tea?

Compliment his coat, Yasmin suggests, joking.

Ingrid says, Your coat is the most lovely I’ve seen; will you share what conditioner you use?

Yes, Ingrid says. That’s exactly how I’ll phrase it.

The journey isn’t far but takes several hours; their little legs can only move so fast. No matter how they grow, the forest stays enormous and hard to navigate. It’s so dense and creaky it conceals the outside noise. Drones and helicopters pass overhead, more than usual, shadows like prehistoric birds of prey. But for the most part the forest doesn’t notice. The forest turns inward, considers itself more important. Forget the outside. The girls prefer it this way. Summer has come with sugary heat, and Ingrid feels her clothes growing sticky; her thighs have met each other and become new enemies.

Stop walking that way, Yasmin says, picking one pretty foot and then the other over a root.

Yasmin shouldn’t be so rude, of course. And Ingrid’s perfectly aware of her bow-legged walk, which keeps her thighs from chafing. But nothing in her body works the way it used to; her braid catches in her underarm and she feels off-balance. She’s determined to master all these changes.

The sisters are trying to avoid the same bad thought. There—well, there might be another reason the bear has invited them over. There is no way to say it other than this: They’ve heard whispers before of traps laid for girls, and they have no way to know if they’re walking into one. Sharp-toothed beasts and girls in frocks; we all know how this ends. But the girls—especially Ingrid—are polite above all, and a little lonely. And they like the idea of a friend much larger than they. So they don’t want to offend him by refusing. Make a friend, yes, and also be smart and be safe.

The cottage is a little thing with a chimney and no smoke, because who would start a fire in this oppressive heat? The bear takes several beats to answer the door.

He opens it with a kitchen knife in paw. I’m in the middle of making scones, he says, but do come in.

His teeth say, I’m so glad you’re here.

His eyes say, I ate the first batch of scones.

He settles them in the sitting room with gargantuan mugs, so big the sisters could swim in them. From his kitchen drawer he produces two flexible straws made of biodegradable resin.

The tea display is a lazy Susan with more tiers than Ingrid can count. The sisters deliberate at length, and finally Yasmin selects a chamomile pomegranate, Ingrid an oolong persimmon. This is a less fraught choice than you might believe; they’ve been sleeping, together, in a pineapple.

A pineapple, the bear says. Must be painful on those little bodies, no? The citric acid? His eyes glisten when he says it.

Ingrid wonders if this, then, is why he invited them over—such an exotic story, he must think, to know sisters like them with such strange bed habits. Ingrid wonders if they are just a story to collect, if this is how the bear will consume them.

Yasmin looks perfectly content, doesn’t she? She doesn’t seem to be thinking of ulterior motives.

You know what they say about pineapple, says the bear. That when you eat it, it eats you back! He seems to search their available skin for signs of citric corrosion.

Their lavender frocks fit them differently; on Yasmin it covers her knees, looks loose and bohemian. But the hem hardly reaches Ingrid’s thighs. She tugs it constantly.

Desperate to change the subject, she comments on his coat and asks about his conditioner.

He delights in the question, spreads a smile so wide all his razor teeth show.

You won’t believe it, he says, as if the secret tastes nice on his tongue: I order it special. The bottles are so small, and there’s so much of me, that I have a running order every Wednesday. It’s very expensive, you know.

He scrapes a claw idly along one arm as he talks. Ingrid, of course, is mystified by him, beguiled, more than a bit jealous. Here is a body occupying all the space it can, straight and large, not crouching. As unconscientious of being big as Yasmin is of being small. Ingrid’s not angry about it. Not anymore. It’s just a sad stone she carries in her pocket. Under her frock drags a single bead of sweat. Outside, the yard drops into shadow. Another helicopter comes over them; this one’s close enough to hear the whoop whoop whoop of its rotor.

Yasmin is standing on her tiptoes to suck the last dregs of chamomile when they notice that the bear has begun to cry. When he wails, the whole house rumbles. Saucers rattle on the table.

I’m sorry we’re not better company, Ingrid coos, backpedaling, wondering what she could have done to so upset him. And then there’s the matter of still being alert. Is this all part of a setup?

It’s all too much, the surprise and the fear, for Yasmin, who also begins to cry. Because the world still loves her, because she is fragile and the natural center of attention, the bear rushes over to tend to her. He holds the mug under her chin to catch her drips.

There, there, he says, and takes a scone to dab at her cheeks. The batch turned out dry, and the raisins come back to life with her tears.

His furry face is streaked with salt. I’m so sorry, he says. It’s just I thought some new acquaintances would distract me from the news.

What news? asks Yasmin through tears, so it comes out ha-wha-whud nu-noose?

An acquaintance in the Speculation Bureau, says the bear. She says not to be surprised if the forest comes down in Autumn. And she could get in mighty trouble for having told me; none of the plans have yet gone public. I suppose I’m still hoping it’s untrue. You met her, actually, or should have, at the mixer. She was the one with twigs for hair? Tall, good proportions, drank four gin and bitters. She likes to stand at the edges of crowds to observe. Or. Well, speculate. Works under the National Executive, though I don’t know how she can stand him.

He sets the mug on a saucer. He sniffs and runs a claw under his nose, catches the skin accidentally and begins to bleed. Gooses! he cries, and apologizes for the rough language. And look what a mess I’ve made! He dribbles blood all the way to the kitchen, and returns with a wadded towel pressed tight.

I’m afraid I’ve ruined our tea, he says.

Out the window stand long crooked trees, webs of moss, everything good and dark and quiet about the world. Ingrid figures the bear is trying hard not to use the phrase the end of an era. It would be too sentimental, and the bear has more decorum than that. Yasmin can’t be thinking it, and neither can the bear, but Ingrid is: The forest has never once considered that it might be taking up too much space. The forest has never once wondered if others consider it unruly and large.

3

Two sisters who used to sleep inside fruits are considering buying a mattress. Winter’s come, unstoppable, unaware the world has changed around it. Of course it has. But how dare the ground sharpen with frost, and how dare the air grow brighter? The forest came down weeks ago, is now sour and smoky and inhospitable to life.

The whooping of the helicopters has tapered off, for now, since no one can withstand the noxious air. It’s even done a number on the air pressure, so drones have trouble, too. Still, the sisters spot the telltale four-fanned silhouettes above the jagged ruins, a few on any given day.

What else they can see when the smoke curls off the wind: New structures have started to crystalize, like flecks of mica, out of what used to be woods. Charcoal stalagmites have risen like a new copse of trees. They crackle unsurely for hours at a time. Others say this is what ice sounds like when it fissures. But this is not the sound of the natural dying off—this is the next stage settling in. Greasy fog wanders in itinerant strips. Sometimes the sisters can’t tell what’s smoke and what isn’t, but all that matters is everything’s dead. Those who have visited say even the lichen is gone. But those accounts don’t come firsthand or often; a lungful of the stuff is enough to kill. It felled the trees in a matter of seconds. Yasmin and Ingrid escaped just ahead of fumigation, arrived in town sticky and covered in pulp.

The bear offered them some money, but they politely refused, did not want to be indebted to him. Instead they found jobs at a corner laundromat. It was enough, with a payday advance, to start renting a tiny apartment.

At first their apartment was lovely. They draped armfuls of moss across the windows, and in the sink they rinsed each morning’s bed off their skin. They’d hired movers to lug a pumpkin up the stairs, and slept like normal, inside it, when each night came dark and free from noise. They picked a street without much traffic. But now in the morning they emerge—not into dewy grass and the sunlight—but into fluorescence and the white stripes of window blinds. The cars outside start up again. All at once the pumpkin reminds them, much too forcefully, of the home from which they’ve been evicted.

The good news is they don’t need much room in a bed; after all, they’ve been sleeping together in a pumpkin. Down the block stand three mattress stores in a row, all empty of customers, all—somehow—still in business. They make no purchases in the first, none in the second. In the third they approach the salesman directly. He has wet eyes and a lick of hair at his forehead.

We are looking for a mattress, Ingrid says.

Yasmin is running her hands along the elastic of the nearest fitted sheet, printed with sunflowers and the most enormous gooseberries.

The salesman says, Of course you are. At one time or another everyone comes looking for a mattress.

And then he leans over the counter and sizes them up, like targets. Look, he says, there is no way to say it other than this. We carry nothing for ladies such as you. See—here he runs his tongue over his teeth—we only have mattresses for. Well. What I mean is these will all be too big for you. You’re both so little, after all.

Ingrid believes he means it as a compliment. She realizes after a moment that he thinks this an adequate method of flirtation; calling them small is like calling them gems, or calling them sweet. Perhaps he will ask one of them to dinner.

Their relative size has been an accidental benefit of the move; others, here, consider Ingrid small. Smallish. Certainly not so small as Yasmin, whom people regard as a toy. So Ingrid represents both of them, which is a role she’s grown into and would very much like to discard. But without her, how will anyone take them seriously? Yasmin is still wild, and too unserious.

I’m sure we’ll find something, Ingrid says. Take us to your children’s section.

She hopes to make the salesman uncomfortable. They insist on riding the mattress cart; it gets them to the back much faster than they could have walked.

Yasmin has used pumpkin guts as hair gel this morning; her hair is wild, spiky, a little orange. It smells like dirt and holidays. Last week Ingrid told her she was terribly immature.

It’s like you haven’t grown at all, she said. Not at all.

Yasmin had shrugged, picked a gooseberry from the carton and popped it whole in her mouth.

But I’ve always been the little one, she said.

That’s not the growing I mean, Ingrid said.

But Yasmin wasn’t interested in hearing. Not then or now. Yasmin feels a little famous, likes being a curiosity. Ingrid can’t shake the feeling that it’s all too fragile, that their minor celebrity will come tumbling down on top of them, and soon. All day, mattress salespeople have regarded Yasmin with wonderment; see how she is untamed. How she is not one of us, and how easily we could hurt her. This they seem to mean in two ways: first with delight in their own power to conquer, even if they never plan to wield it, and second with fear, as in, she’s so breakable they’re afraid of touching her.

On one mattress they lay their little bodies; Ingrid’s rises higher off the surface than does Yasmin’s. Then again, Yasmin hardly stays still enough to measure.

The salesman stands just far enough away to seem polite. He runs his hand up the cowlick at his temple. And then he asks just like she figured he would: Will Ingrid accompany him to dinner?

She says she will not. His face goes stormy for one second, two seconds, and then clicks back into something appropriate for customer service.

Over here, Yasmin says, not paying attention. She’s already moving on to the next one: She crosses her arms and pretends to be dead. Then she tests it by bouncing.

Ingrid says, This one is too soft. And, look, that one’s too hard.

Yasmin’s already jumping on a third child-sized mattress. How about this one, sister?

The sisters agree: This one will do.

So they buy the third mattress from the third mattress store. Ingrid negotiates a lower delivery fee with the salesman she’d like to be rid of already. They buy the sheets with the sunflowers and gooseberries. Outside the glass, they see, far off, the smoke coiling off what used to be forest.

It smell out there today? the salesman asks, fumbling for conversation. She knows he’d have said something nasty if not for the commission he was sure to make off them.

Not as bad as normal! Yasmin says, oblivious to the charge in his voice.

The chill’s dampened it, but still the smell persists—they’re almost used to it now—like diesel and something else, harder to identify.

They ask the delivery woman, when she comes, to take the pumpkin back downstairs, and she does it for free. The pumpkin is too painful a sight in the little fluorescent apartment, but for now they keep the mossy curtains. They cannot let the forest go entirely. They can’t let the city harden all the wild space inside them. That moss dapples the light; it dampens the sound of traffic; it scents the apartment like topsoil, which helps to lull the girls into almost-comfortable sleep.

4

The end is coming. Don’t pretend no one expected it. Ingrid and Yasmin see it on the news while washing their clothes in the laundromat. They’ve learned in recent months that their small arms are especially good at finding quarters lost under the machines. They pay for most things in quarters. And they get laundry for free, so long as they wait till night, when everyone else is tucked into their mattresses and sheets.

Yasmin is growing big for the first time. They worry she’s pregnant. Never mind how they didn’t think it when Ingrid first grew a belly. For Ingrid, growth was inevitable; on Yasmin, it must be a condition.

They first noticed the change the day they heard about the bear. He’s mineralizing from the inside. This, turns out, is what fumigation does: Everything turns to grease and ore, everything hardens, all life wrings out. And now it’s been months, and some signs of spring are showing. Do seasons matter any more? Yasmin once asked, meaning how they’re always inside now. Ingrid has been thinking about the question ever since, and still doesn’t have an answer.

When they noticed, Ingrid feared the bear had assaulted Yasmin. She couldn’t help the thought, which arrived fully formed like an anvil in her chest. She had no proof the two desired each other. Where else would her mind have gone first?

Yasmin shook her head and said her sister worried too much—why was she always so dire and vigilant? The forest was a fun place to live, up to and including sex. It was an unruly place; they should have taken more advantage while it lasted.

But she hadn’t told Ingrid any of this before. None of it. Ingrid hadn’t known her sister to be capable of relationships, casual or otherwise. And she hadn’t noticed the bear as especially flirty toward Yasmin, nor her to him. She’s squirmy against her own imagination of the two of them together. Not the least of reasons being: Yasmin and the bear must have hung around and not invited her along. What had Ingrid been doing so she didn’t notice? And the more dire thought, almost viral, clinging to the surface of all the others: When had she become someone to leave out?

This conversation crops back up when Ingrid least expects it. Yasmin is pairing socks and tossing them at the basket. After a few she fumbles one. And her new round belly makes retrieving them more difficult.

Here, says Ingrid, picking the socks up herself. They’re hers anyway, a little pair with decorative red stitching. Yasmin had balled them up badly. Her fingers trail a bump in the tile, just big enough to cast a tiny shadow. She’s thinking of grass, how the blades caught sunlight. Back when grass still existed.

She pulls the socks apart and re-pairs them properly.

Thanks, Yasmin says. You can do the rest of these if you want. She abandons the laundry in search of quarters for the vending machine.

The tile glows, reflecting the televisions. All those televisions shift color in unison, flicking through news images.

The National Executive is responsible for what’s happened to the forest, and what’s worse, he’s proud of the change. There is no way to say it other than this. The fumigations were by his order: So he says, the forest was susceptible, more than the city, to disease and to military ruin. So he says, the creatures who lived there—meaning the sisters, meaning the bear—were unruly. Who knows what they were up to, under cover of dense flora? Better to keep everyone in one place, under the same watch. One size fits all protection. By turning it all to charcoal, by felling the trees and driving everyone into the city, he’s made us all safer. See how safe everyone is! No more of the dense woods to infect, and no foliage for enemies to hide in.

This is a stupendous blow to residents of the forest. The day they heard, both Ingrid and Yasmin were inconsolable. They called the bear, whose vocal folds were too crystalized to talk, who needed his friend the rabbit to translate from his bedside. The rabbit cried with them. They were so, so angry. What was there to do?

But now they have a more pressing problem. A coalition of all the world’s flying, buzzing things—even many of those that live here—are planning retaliation. It sounds dire, terrifying. They talk of plans, though vague, in the open where anyone can hear them. They claim not to be worried about counterintelligence because we cannot be ready for whatever they’ve got in store.

Yet many still believe the National Executive and think they’ll be perfectly safe. Don’t worry, the news programs say. We’re protected here. And then the newscasters change the conversation to hydroponic berries and the rising price of mattresses.

Ingrid calls her sister’s name, strides over to where she’s lodged herself halfway in the vending machine, reaching up for a package of chocolate-coated pomegranate seeds. Her feet pedal in the air.

Sister, she says, grunting with the effort of pulling Yasmin out again, you must be more careful than this. And in your state! Really. Try at least to act like you’re grown.

Oh, Yasmin says, because you’re mature and that makes you better than everyone.

It’s not like that, Ingrid says. You’re being unfair.

Yasmin thumps against the vending machine with the flats of her palms, like she beat on the rind of Ingrid’s bed so long ago. The package slips neatly from where it was caught, and Yasmin leans in to retrieve it.

Face it, she says, chewing fistfuls of chocolate with her mouth open. You’re practically like our forest. All this seriousness has tamed you. All your fun and wilderness has washed out. You have stony insides.

Ingrid can’t muster a response to that. She turns from her sister to hide her rising flush.

The televisions have switched programs to a talk show, one of the few willing to disagree with all the rest about the buzzing and the safety of the city. Ingrid zones into the program to pretend she isn’t crying. In the program, two scholars are debating about underground bunkers. One of them takes a long sip off her coffee, sets it back, says, Everyone can bury themselves. But we’ll have to resurface eventually. And what will be left?

Outside, the lampposts guard the parking lot from total darkness. Moths used to answer to that light, but quickly the moths are dying out. What will be left, Ingrid says out loud, trying her mouth around someone else’s rhetoric.

She aims the question at Yasmin, to Yasmin’s baby, to herself: What will be left, tell me that.

5

The bear succumbed to fumigation and has finally died. Ingrid and Yasmin’s new friend the rabbit is there to mourn with them. The rabbit has done an enormously brave and decent thing, has snuck away from the emergency shelter and returned with a bottle of red and a wine key. He got these at the supermarket before it shuttered its windows with plywood. Ingrid’s suspicious he stole them, but she wouldn’t dare complain. This beats the emergency rations everyone’s been eating, the white bread and beans and occasional tin-wrapped packet of butter. Everyone’s evacuated in recent days to a number of airtight shelters; Yasmin, Ingrid, and the rabbit made a perch up high in the bleachers of a converted football stadium.

Very quickly the country changed its mind; it cannot withstand an attack such as this.

Here is what we know: What is coming is organic. It is unstoppable and irreversible. It is backed by an unconscionably large swarm, furious to see the wild here so desiccated, mobilized against the country that let it happen. The natural has reared up against intervention into the natural. And everyone will suffer for it.

The dizzying noise of the swarm masses from every direction. It’s begun to shadow the edges of the horizon. At sunset the sky turns the color of garnets and jam, filtered through so many translucent wings. The buzzing is so close now that it vibrates in the sisters’ feet when they stand still. They refrain from leaning on walls. No one is getting any sleep.

The rabbit accordions his little hat—the one with holes for his ears—in both his paws. What a pity, he says. But maybe we deserve it. Anyway, we certainly deserve this wine.

The three of them wrestle to open it. Ingrid leverages one foot on the bottle and both hands on the corkscrew. The rabbit and Yasmin pull from the other side. Yasmin grunts with effort. When the cork releases, they all sigh in relief.

The rabbit situates his tail in a crack between two flats of concrete. His eyes flick from Yasmin’s belly back to the wine. But Yasmin doesn’t register the look, and why would she? She’s never touched the boundaries of what others consider indelicate or unbecoming, and so those boundaries to her remain invisible. Even now, with the belly.

Ingrid notices. But her sister’s fine to be drinking, and turns out they needn’t have worried all this time. Or they should have worried, but not about a baby. This is one of those miracle phantom pregnancies. The baby was an imagination of the body.

The doctor says her belly will deflate again with time, and no baby will come. Yasmin feels like she’s lost a part of herself. She’s been heartsick and comfortless; this party with the rabbit is the first time she’s perked up.

Ingrid is sympathetic, but only to a point—she has Yasmin, after all. No need to add another tiny creature that requires her attention and care. The point on which they both agree is that this phantom pregnancy seems a loss somehow to the bear. They will feel his absence greatly. There will be nothing left of the bear except memories.

The rabbit, oblivious, whizzes into a story about a time he and the bear rambled into town to steal a box of bees.

You see, he says, the bear only wanted honey to sweeten his tea. The rabbit twitches an ear at the memory. Oh yes, the bear felt tremendously sorry to steal.

The rabbit dribbles wine down his front. They’re all drunk now, especially Yasmin. Even Ingrid’s loose; she’s resolved, in the end of days, to live a little.

He says this was all back before they had money. This happened a number of years before the sisters met the bear or the rabbit. And I confess, he says, I didn’t feel quite as bad as he to be thieving.

A big drone buzzes past the shelter. They’ve learned to distinguish drone noise from the general sound of the accumulating swarm.

I would have helped you get away, Yasmin whispers. She has a burst of hiccups, and then the hiccups stop. She smiles. All that sounds terribly exciting, she says.

Were you ever caught? Ingrid asks.

The rabbit notices the spill on his gray front for the first time. Oh, we were caught, he says. We couldn’t hide the sorry shape we were in—the bees stung us so badly we puffed up like buttons!

Everyone laughs at that. When they quiet, the rabbit wipes a tear. His whiskers twitch.

Lucky I didn’t die, actually. Well, he says. Well. Anyway.

Ingrid is still thinking about Yasmin and the bear, the private time they must have stolen away from her. Maybe Ingrid could love someone like that. Maybe she could love the rabbit.

The rabbit has started back into the wine; his dainty slurping makes his whiskers shiver.

No, she thinks, pushing the thought away. Ingrid does not love the rabbit. She’s just imagining having someone. The closest is what she feels for Yasmin.

Yasmin looks up through the screen of plastic over the stadium dome. The sky is darkening at the edges with what looks like television static. In one direction stands the concrete mausoleum of what used to be their home, their real home, the dense and lush one, the dead one. In the other direction is a strip mall; the stadium overlooks a parking lot and a coffee chain. The endless drive-thru of cars used to remind them of a stream. By now the cars are permanently logjammed, abandoned by panicked drivers at those first sinister noises.

She says, Well, I’m happy he won’t see all this.

She means the swarm. The buzzing has piled at the edge of every landmass, like a siren heralding disaster. This is why all three of them drink—even more than the bear’s death, though they do miss him, and dearly.

They all have different pictures of how it will happen. The rabbit figures they’ll go out in a flash of heat and light. Yasmin suspects it will be a powerful rebuttal of the noxious fumes that wiped away the forest. This magic gas will bring down all inorganic structures, will breathe life back into the woods, may not even kill us after all. Ingrid doesn’t have the heart to argue with this childlike hope of her sister’s. What has been done to the forest cannot be undone. She recalls once seeing images of mammoth mosquitos stalking thawed tundra, how the wings clogged the noses of livestock, flooded their eyes, forced their bodies down animals’ throats to choke out light and air. This is what will come for them. Oh, yes. She would bet the last of the wine on it.

In her belly she knows what is good and dark and quiet about the world has already gone woozily to sleep. It will not wake again. Make no mistake, her belly tells her: The swarm will ride nearer, and then it will overcome them. It will gorge itself on them. The question is no longer if. Any day now. Any week now. The end has already begun, is here, is over. There is no way to say it other than this.

Molly Gutman

Molly Gutman’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in GrantaOne StoryAlaska Quarterly ReviewBlack Warrior Review, and elsewhere. Molly’s working on her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; she earned her MFA from the University of Nevada, Reno. She’s also a fiction editor at Cream City Review. Find her at mollygutman.wordpress.com or say hello on Twitter @mollyegutman.