By Jason R Jimenez
“You shall find me again, and you shall lose me…” - Marcel Schwob, The Book of Monelle
We might be crowded in cells. Who’s to say? There are no walls. No edge to reach. The guards snatch us from the green darkness. The victims wail and plead. When it’s my turn, I hear your voice again: Remember everything and find me.
Jennifer and I set out the telescope for the kids the morning Orpheus would be visible. While we waited for Angela and Emily to wake up, Jennifer and I took turns looking up at the morning sky. “This is historical,” I exclaimed. “We’re part of history.” Jennifer set down her coffee and scooted me out of the way. She adjusted the telescope and stood still for a moment. Her mouth dropped open. “I can’t believe what I’m looking at right now. It feels unreal.” “What are you seeing?” “It’s blue,” she said shakily.
The girls appeared at the sliding glass door. “Good morning, Em!” I swooped our youngest into my arms. “Are you ready to look at this new planet?” Angela went to her mom. “I wish Ryan could see this,” Jennifer said. Emily looked up toward the tiny shimmering dot. “What if the people on Ominous—” “Orpheus…” Angela corrected her. “Yeah, whatever, what if they were looking back at us?” It wasn’t a totally ridiculous question. NASA had said there were signs of life on the planet, but no indications it was life like ours. As I explained this, I watched Jennifer fall back onto a deckchair with a deep sigh. We caught each other’s eyes. I’m fine, her face seemed to say.
“Pass me a beer, mijo,” Aunt Maria said from the front-seat of Mom’s green Pontiac. I pushed my little sister Rosa’s sleeping head off my lap and passed the ice cold can to the front. “Where are we, Mom?” The car lurched slowly left then right and back again, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. “We’re almost there, mijo.” Mom’s eyes sparkled in the rearview. “I’ll give you a lemon drop if you stop asking.” “I want one,” Rosa whined, now awoken. “You’ll get one if you stop begging.” Rosa squirmed up and pressed her face to the window. The trees were black and red. Bolts of sun flashed between the canopy of fragrant limbs.
Mom and Aunt Maria spoke in whispers. “Has he called you?” my aunt asked. Mom shook her head. I stared out the window and caught Rosa’s and my reflection. She’d fallen asleep again.
I was out on a jog approaching Casper’s Cafe. The road and air were all mine, new and hot from a late fall heatwave. My legs and lungs might have conquered the world. The previous nine hours of hunching over car engines existed in some other life. I got to 16th Street and watched the sun set behind the university buildings.
Up ahead my friend Paul, who it was rumored might leave school early to play for the Warriors, stepped from his lime green Charger, and as I approached, stuck his hand out to give me a high five. As our hands were about to meet I heard screeching tires and then there was sudden darkness. When my eyes opened, I saw my legs tangled up between aluminum spokes and a body splayed out over me. Paul lifted the person up. “Are you alright?” he asked them. Then looking down at me, he said, “Robert, don’t move yet. Hang on.” He bent down and carefully moved my legs away from what I realized was a bicycle. “Shit, man…it looks bad.” My right foot was badly twisted, bleeding, and already swelling. “I think it’ll be okay,” I lied. The pain was only partially overshadowed by the rising anger I felt for this stupid person who had run me over with their bike. I couldn’t even bring myself to look up at them. Until I saw her. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I was looking at Paul and thought he was waving at me, and I just didn’t see you.” In an instant, my anger drained away. Even the pain disappeared. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. She swiped her long brown hair from her face and hid a slight laugh. “Are you laughing?” I asked. “No, sorry, this isn’t funny. I feel terrible.” One of her socks had fallen from her knee down to her ankle. I pushed it back up, for a moment touching her golden brown skin. But that was enough. I was in love.
“You’re not going out like that!” Mom shouted at Rosa from the kitchen. “You haven’t even seen what I’m wearing…” Rosa was in the front living room with me. My room away from my room as I nursed my broken leg. Rosa was dressed how she typically dressed: torn black jeans and dirty white sneakers. She had tucked her Clash t-shirt into her jeans and over that she had a black leather jacket, pins and patches and spikes covering it from collar to collar. “I can smell that leather from here!” Mom shouted. Rosa sat at the opposite end of the couch as me. “How’s your leg feeling?” “How do you think?” I tilted my head back, miming the agony for her. “Stop. You’re faking…” Rosa slumped further into the couch. “Mom said I can only go if you drive me. She has to stay here for her friends.” “I can’t drive like this.” I pointed at my leg propped on the chair. “Robert,” she begged. “If you don’t take me, we’ll both be stuck here for her party. Do you really want that? You wanna play cards all night?” “No, I’m going to watch TV until my eyes fall out—” “You’re not going unless he takes you, Rosa!” Mom shouted again. My sister and I marveled at how Mom somehow stayed part of the conversation without actually being close enough to hear us. “Where do you have to go?” I asked. “We’re seeing the Looters at the Golden Garage.” “They let fifteen year olds in there? You know it’s a strip club—” Rosa shot up and threw a pillow at my head. “Sshhh…she’ll never let me—” “Robert,” Mom shouted again. “You’re taking her. And stay out. I don’t want you ruining my party if you’re going to sit on that couch all night being lazy.”
“Bad Girls” was on the stereo when I got to Paul’s house for his New Year’s party. A gaggle of girls surrounded him in the kitchen. “Robert,” he smiled. “Good to see you, man. How’s the leg?” I shrugged. “It’s funny you came actually.” “Why’s that?” Paul threw his arm over my shoulder, spilling some of his beer, and turned me around. “Because Jennifer’s sitting right out there…” He pointed toward the backyard. “Who?” “The girl who hit you, man…”
I clumsily pushed my way through the crowd, my heart racing, hands sweating like you wouldn’t believe. She was sitting in a plastic lawn chair beneath the yellow porch light, staring toward the back fence. “Would you like to dance?” I said. She shook herself out of a daze and looked up. Her eyes were red. “I don’t feel like—” She stopped. “Robert? How’d you find me?” “I’m friends with Paul.” “I know, but I meant…nevermind.” She wiped beneath her eyes. “Sorry, I don’t know why I’m here.” She looked up at the sky. “I’m really happy to see you again.” She grabbed her rainbow-colored shoulder bag with a sad looking daisy pinned to the strap and started to leave. “Wait, no,” I stopped her. It took me a while to think. “Do you have a ride home?”
Thankfully, Casper’s Cafe was still serving food, though I’m sure the waitresses would have preferred the night off. “Let me buy you something?” Jennifer asked. “I feel terrible about your leg.” I waved her off. “I can’t let you do that.” I looked down at her bag and noticed the sewn-on patches. I pointed at the peace sign. “I like that one.” “Oh…” She picked at the patch and blushed. “We don’t have to stay…” For a split second, I feared I had offended her. Or maybe I had embarrassed her? With too much eagerness, I blurted out, “No, I want to stay. I could eat a horse, I think.” She laughed. “A horse?” She searched Casper’s menu above the counter. “I don’t think they serve that here.”
We ordered hamburgers and waited for them at a booth near the front window. Sixteenth Street was filling with college kids readying for the countdown. When our food came, Jennifer took the meat from her burger and set it on the edge of her plate. “You don’t like meat?” She dipped the bun into ketchup. “Not all the time. Do you want it?” I took the patty and placed it on my burger. “So do you go to school with Paul?” “Yeah, this is my first year…” She paused to sip from her soda. “…Paul’s in my accounting class. How do you know him?” “High school. Are you studying to become an accountant? You don’t look like an accountant.” “What do I look like?” “I don’t know. Dancer or some kind of artist?” She crinkled her nose and sipped from her soda again. “Honestly, I hate accounting. I don’t know what I’m there for yet. I’m really the worst student. What year are you?” She waited expectantly now. I had known this question would come up, and though it didn’t bother me at all I wasn’t in school, I was hesitant to tell her. “I actually don’t go to school. I’d be in my second year though, like Paul.” “So you work then? Where do you work?” “At an auto shop—” “And you run…” “Yeah, I used to.” I faked a frown and nodded toward my leg. “I’m so sorry. You have no idea how terrible I feel. Are you on a track team?” “Well, yeah…cross country team. The Club Championships were last month but I missed it obviously.” I knew there was bitterness in my voice but I wished there hadn’t been. “Our team did fine without me so it wasn’t a big deal.” I lied. We had actually been ranked in the top ten but without my low score, and because it was unseasonably warm the morning of the race, we finished closer to last.
Jennifer stared at me, on the verge of saying something, but then she stopped and turned to look out at the street. “Listen,” I said. “You seemed like you were crying at Paul’s. I don’t want to intrude, but if you wanted to talk, you know, I’m basically a stranger, so it might be easier to talk to me about whatever’s going on.” She slumped in her seat and toyed with the straw in her glass. “I don’t think you’re a stranger.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a small red book with library tape disintegrating across its spine. She leafed through the pages randomly. “I shouldn’t have gone out really, but my roommate said I should.” She breathed slowly, her eyes glossy with tears. “My aunt died last week. That’s it. I was—I am just sad.” “Were you close to your aunt?” “My Aunt Carolee, yes.” She was still flipping through the red book but then stopped. “Have you read this?” She pushed the book over to me, but I couldn’t make out the title. “What I wanted was to read poetry. So first, I borrowed this book by Oscar Wilde. Then, a few weeks ago, as I was reading it, I realized I had no idea what he was even talking about because he’s always referencing gods and goddesses. So I went back to the library and asked the librarian about the Greeks, and she gave me all these plays by Plato and Aristotle…” I recognized the name Plato and looked down at the book. “Have you read any Plato? That one is the Phaedo. I really don’t understand it at all. I want to, but I just don’t. And it really irritates me because when I started school, I just wanted to read something beautiful. I wanted to hear a poet’s voice in my head and feel what they felt—” She stopped with an exhausted sigh. “Maybe you should write the poems.” Jennifer considered this for a moment and scribbled quickly in the margins of the Phaedo. “What are you writing?” “Just what you said.” She finished and returned the book to her bag.
From the kitchen, the workers started the countdown. Jennifer leaned over the table. “So what’s your resolution going to be?” Her eyes stayed on me, waiting for my answer. I detected in them a faint suspicion. As the workers’ countdown reached 1, I knew I had missed my chance to say anything remotely smart or romantic. What seemed most important to me then was not my plan for the future, but my wish that the countdown would not end. That we could stay suspended in the countdown for any amount of time longer.
Jennifer poked her head over the second floor landing. “Hey, could you turn the TV down a little?” I grunted and grudgingly turned the volume down. But, as soon as I heard the door close, I turned it back up and laughed to myself. A few minutes later she came downstairs and went into the kitchen. I could hear her pacing around, opening and closing cabinet doors. She washed the dishes then came out. “What’s your deal lately?” “Give me a break…” I muttered and turned the television off. Jennifer stood in the kitchen doorway with her arms crossed. She was breathing heavily, sucking in her lips. “Why do you always stare at me like that?” “Jesus Christ…” I threw my hands up and rubbed my face. “I’ll be in bed in a few minutes. I just want to watch some TV.” “You know I have to get up early tomorrow. I shouldn’t have to come out here—” “Then don’t fucking come out here…” “I have to drive all the way to San Francisco tomorrow, you know that.” Jennifer turned for the stairs, stopping at the first step. “You could come too, if you wanted.” Her voice had softened. “I have work.” I picked up the remote. “I’m not one of your hippie friends that wants to protest the war.” Jennifer stomped up the stairs and slammed our door closed. I held the remote in my hand, weighing it, and tapping it against my leg. Why were those people wasting their time? Nothing they did would make a single difference. I hoped they’d all be arrested.
Jennifer wove in and out of the graves at the Old Blue River Cemetery. It seemed like we were traveling back in time the deeper we went: Zsoka 1968 Morgenstern 1957 Joby 1940 Roydon 1911 Knaggs 1882 Hall 1874 Specht 1861…and then to the gravestones so blackened and hidden by moss, there was no telling who was buried beneath, nor in what year they died. “Why’d you take me here of all places,” I said jokingly. “Quiet! You said you’d let me take you anywhere…”
We reached a part of the cemetery forgotten by the caretakers. A small iron gate whined its welcome as we entered the enclosed plot. “It’s the oldest part of the cemetery,” Jennifer explained somberly. “Some of the original settlers were buried here. Before there was Blue River, they called it Sutter’s Town, after an old miner-turned-shopkeeper. He’s buried over there. Indians killed him—supposedly.” Jennifer dropped her shoulder bag atop the decaying leaves and pine needles. “This is it,” she said. “Sutter.” She ran her hand over the small and insignificant stone marker. “How you know it’s his? You can’t see his name or the dates.” “It was in a brochure for the cemetery. Came with a little map.”
We sat near the grave without talking. At first, I had been uncomfortable with the tombstones. Death had always seemed like a frightening thing to me. And why not? Statues of the Stations of the Cross lined the walls of Saint Ursula’s, and I very clearly got the message that dying was an awful and terrible experience. I never wanted to die, or be anywhere near death. But, there in the cemetery with Jennifer, the solitude and quiet of the place was not scary at all. Even the dead needed company.
“Would you mind if I did something?” Jennifer already had her hand inside her bag. “I wouldn’t mind. They might though,” I nodded at those beneath us. “Okay,” she said, pulling out a stack of cards. “These are my tarot cards.” She spread the deck out on the ground and looked them over. “What do you do with them?” She paused and closed her eyes. “I’m asking them a question…” After she opened her eyes, she reached out and grabbed a card at random. “Oh…” Her mouth hung open. “What does it say?” She passed the card to me, and I turned it over in my hand: Two of Cups. “What does this one mean? What did you ask?” Jennifer took the card back and set it before Sutter’s marker. “Jennifer? Tell me!” I pinched her blouse and wrapped her in a hug. “It told me I was right.”
“What are you working on?” I asked as I shut the door to our room. Jennifer was hunched over her books and papers on the desk my mom had taken from the airbase. Jennifer had painted it emerald green and added silver stars and pink and purple swirls. “Well, I’m trying to figure this poem out,” she yawned and leaned back to catch me as I fell behind her onto our twin bed. “Is the poem for a class or is it one of yours?” I looked down at my hands and picked at the car grease beneath my nails. Now that I had been promoted into the office, I wasn’t going to be coming home so caked in dirt. “I should shower before dinner.” Jennifer turned and gathered up the papers. “It’s one of mine. I didn’t like some of them so now I’m cutting them up and taping them back together in different orders.” She held the taped up sheets of paper for me to see and then laid down on the bed, tugging on my shirt and breathing in. “I don’t want you to ever shower. I love how you smell.”
Even though I was in the backyard, I could hear Jennifer’s car pull into the garage. She was returning from her double shift at the hospital. I watered the lawn, pulled the last of the weeds and tossed the clippings into the green waste. A little later I went inside, tired and thirsty. “Jen?” I called into the house. No answer. I changed out of my work shoes and went up to the second floor. Jennifer’s office door was open, and I could see the back of her head facing the computer, the news scrolling by. “Hey, what’s up?” I leaned against the door. She was still in her scrubs. “Reading,” she said flatly. Then swiveling in her chair, she faced me. “Why are you staring at me? I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on. Do you mind?” She reached down and pulled out a stack of paper from her bag. “Why do you have to talk to me like that? I just came up to say hi.” She started writing something on the papers. “Talk to you like what? I’m busy.” There was no point in trying to talk to her when she was in a mood like this. I backed away and turned to go back downstairs. She called out, “Can you shut my door?” I pretended not to hear her and continued downstairs.
Later that night when she came to bed, she lay next to me and in the darkness said, “I won’t be home until really late tomorrow because of the election canvassing thing.” I swallowed and grunted, “Okay…” “Okay…so you need to pick up Emily from cheer practice and make sure they get dinner.” She knew I would. There was so much I wanted to say to her, but it was easier to say nothing and let her sleep. Tomorrow might be different.
Emily was in tears as she spilled through the front door. “What is it, Mom? What happened?” Jennifer and I jumped from the kitchen table, where we were having a hard time looking over our finances. “What are you talking about, Em?” I said. “Something happened up there, on the planet. I saw it on my phone—what channel’s the news?” She ran to the TV and turned it on.
On the screen was what appeared to be an image of the surface of Orpheus, blue and shimmering. The reporter’s voice came on: I don’t know if you can see this, but this image, these satellite images have been given to us by PanGen, and they’re saying it shows in real time some type of explosion at or near the surface of Orpheus. The images are remarkably clear. You can see an object crossing into the frame here, and then a moment later, this bright green flash.
Jennifer comforted Emily and tried to explain that everything would be okay. Maybe that wasn’t right? There was still so much we didn’t know about this explosion, yet what I found myself wondering was why had the images been provided by PanGen? Where was NASA?
We were married at the Blue River court house but had the ceremony in her parent’s backyard. We didn’t have a wedding party. Just us in front of our closest family and friends. Jennifer’s Aunt Sofia recited a poem and my best friend Victor read a verse from the Bible.
It was the middle of July so I didn’t bother wearing a tuxedo. Instead I wore a pair of white linen pants and a coral blue v-neck from The Fashion Barn. Jennifer wore a white cotton dress with a braided leather belt cinched around her waist. She insisted we go barefoot so we could experience as much of the world as possible. Her hair was long and golden brown, a bouquet of the tiniest forget-me-nots and other wild blooms as her crown. She smelled like the summer and like every common school boy, I prayed the summer would last forever.
Near the end, Jennifer and I sat down in the grass beneath an apple tree her dad Jerry had planted years before. We watched our families and friends together, laughing and kissing, saying their goodbyes or whatever else they were saying. I noticed Jennifer had something in her hands. “What is that?” She passed the thing over to me. “I don’t know. I just found it right now when I sat down. I think it’s a bookmark.” I studied the long and flimsy piece of paper. “This looks old.” Jennifer took it back. “It probably is. Look, you can’t even make out where it’s from. It’s probably one I left out here, who knows when…” She laughed at herself. “I always read out here. You can throw it away.” I took the bookmark again, sliding it into my back pocket, and breathed in the summer night.
Jennifer was waiting for me at the door with our baby boy straddling her hip when I got home from work. A fresh dribble stain on her jean shorts. “Thank god, you’re back,” she started. “Can you take him? I need to finish this exam before my class tonight.” All of her free time went to school those days. She would attempt to read the stacks of novels she checked out from the library, but the fines accumulated and accumulated.
I took Ryan and kicked off my boots. “What’re you doing today, buddy?” I kissed his head and tickled his feet. Ryan never wanted to be without her though. He cried and reached out for Jennifer. “No, buddy. Momma has work.” I set Ryan on the ground to let him crawl and chased him around the living room for a few minutes. He chewed on the TV, the carpet, a red plastic toy Jane had given him, his own hand. Through the back slider, I could see Jennifer sitting cross-legged at her emerald green desk on the porch, which she had turned into an office. The desk spent half the afternoon in the sun, so it was nearly bleached out. I had thought about repainting it but neither of us had the time. She’d splayed out her thick nursing books, circling and highlighting. Ryan crawled up to the slider and banged on the door. “No, buddy, come back over here.” I swept him up and took him into the kitchen. “Let’s make Momma some food.” I set him in his chair and tossed a few blueberries on his plate. I sliced a tomato and cucumber. Toasted the bread. Added sprouts, which she loved. We didn’t have pickles, so she would have to go without. Once I drizzled on the oil, the sandwich was complete. I left Ryan in his chair and took the sandwich out to Jennifer. But she had stopped working. Her head lay on the desk, pencil still in hand. She was asleep.
James moved around the officer and stood near the school’s office exit. He was small for a middle schooler, dressed in pants four sizes too big, a white shirt that had clearly been yanked on. I was picking him up because he had just been suspended for pulling a knife out during a fight. He looked to me exactly like his father. Nothing like my sister.
When we got to my truck, Ryan didn’t say anything but Angela was elated to see her treasured cousin. As soon as James climbed in the front, he turned in his seat, smiling, and made Angela giggle with laughter. As I drove, I couldn’t think of what to say. Our kids were so easy. Jennifer couldn’t even convince Ryan to skip school on her days off when she wanted to take Angela and him to a movie. Finally, I stopped in the parking lot of a McDonald’s. “I don’t wanna eat here,” James hissed. “Your mom’s really worried about you, you know—” “I don’t fucking care. She’s a bitch.” “Hey!” I shouted and slammed my fist on the center console. “Watch your goddamned mouth!” James hung his head and picked at his overgrown fingernails. I could feel the air being sucked right out of the truck. Ryan was shocked, and Angela was on the verge of tears. I started the truck and pulled forward to the drive-through. “If she cared,” James said, “she would have come herself, instead of sending you.” “She couldn’t get out of work—” “She doesn’t work, she’s a loser…” I threw the truck into park, reached over the seat and grabbed James’ shirt. I was about to slap him but his face was too serene. He wasn’t reacting, not even a flinch. It was as if he wanted me to hit him.
Three weeks after we found out James had been killed in Fallujah, we received his last letter to us. Ryan never received the other letter, or if he did, he never told us about it or what it said.
July 6th 2004
Uncle Rob and Aunt Jenny,
Hi, you guys, what’s crackin’ in good old Blue River? Is it hot yet? It’s hot as hell here. No joke. We just had a Fourth of July BBQ party. It was probably the best food I had in a while. I wanted to thank you for the letters and packages you been sending. I know I probably don’t deserve much but I dunno I still appreciate it. Tell Angie and Em I say hi. I sent another letter to Ry. Hopefully, he gets it. Things are mostly okay here. I’ve seen some weird shit and a lot of times it’s really stressful, like when we have to go out with the private contractors from PanGen. They’re a bunch of A-holes. Capital A. I’m with a good group of guys though. We look out for each other. I only have to be here 7 more months and then I come home. I’m excited about that. I was thinking I would go back to school. Dunno though. Didn’t work for me last time. I just wanted to tell you guys how much I appreciate what you done for me. Sometimes I didn’t listen or whatever but I know what’s up. I guess you could say if I had it to do over again I would have done it different. Okay thanks again for everything and stay cool. Love, James
Mom’s new apartment was disorganized and cold. Nothing like how she kept house in our old place. The dishes sat dirty in the sink. Piles of mail stacked up against the phone and microwave. It angered me to see her living like this.
Ryan hugged Mom and kissed her on the cheek. “How’s college, mijo?” She said, kissing him back. “I graduated last year, Nana…” I set Ryan to work on the bathroom and then took to the kitchen. When that was done, I sat Mom down at the dining table and dropped a stack of mail in front of her. “What is this? I don’t know what any of this is, Robert.” She ticked her tongue. “You don’t know what your mail is? It’s the bills. You have to pay your bills.” I grabbed the first envelope. “Like, what’s this?” I tore the edge of the envelope and slid out the sheets of paper. “This is for your utilities. It says you haven’t paid last month’s bill.” She took the envelope from me and stared at it. “I can’t read this. I don’t have my glasses.” “Where are your glasses?” She looked up but not at me. She seemed lost. “Mom, where are your glasses?” “I don’t know…” She looked back down at the envelopes and sifted through them. “Robert?” she asked, in a near silent whisper. “What is it?” She raised her arm up and pointed toward the front door. “Sshh…don’t you see him?” “See who?” “He’s right there. Oh, no, Robert, he’s here,” she cried and covered her face with her hands. “Who’s here? No one’s there, Mom.” “No, he’s here. He’s burning. My poor baby’s burning.” I didn’t know how to tell her he wasn’t real.
Angela happened to show up at the hospital that day. “Here,” she said, handing me her iPod. “Ms. Alcott told me when her dad was in the hospital, it made things easier for him if he could listen to his favorite music.” I looked at the tiny metal object in my hand, unsure of how to turn it on. “Why aren’t you at school? How’d you even get here?” I asked. Rosa, who had fallen asleep in a chair near Mom, roused awake. “It’s Saturday, Robert.” Angela frowned. “I took Mom’s car.” “Oh—” I paused. “Nana’s not really awake so you won’t be able to say hello to her.” “I know, Mom told me.” I noticed she hadn’t gone to the bed or even looked at her nana. I could sense she was upset. Angela had never been stingy with her affection. At that time, I could think of nothing else but holding Jennifer and the kids close to me. I wanted to wrap my arms around them, shield them, press them into my own body, but Angela’s anger resisted that. “I don’t know how to use this thing,” I admitted, holding the iPod out to her. She took it, tapped its screen, then held it back out. “It’s just these buttons. I’ve already loaded up everything.” For the first time in her life, I wasn’t sure if I should hug my own daughter. “Well, I think I’ll leave now,” she said, turning to the door. “I just wanted her to have the music.” Rosa called out to say goodbye but it was already too late.
I went to Mom and placed the headphones near her head. The surgeons had shaved most of her hair away when they removed the tumor. A rippled cut spread from one ear to the next. She was sedated but not unconscious. Feeling my hand close to her face, she dropped her head toward me. I waited for her to say something but her mouth didn’t move. Her doctors had told us it would be unlikely she would speak again. I clicked the iPod awake and scrolled to where Angela had shown me. All of Mom’s favorites were there. “What do you want to listen to, Mom? Oh, how about this…you’ll love this.” I clicked on Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Spanish Eyes”, and as soon as the music started, Mom turned her head toward the sound. Rosa sat up from the chair and laid her head on Mom’s arm. “She loves this song.” I wanted to believe Mom smiled but I couldn’t be sure.
Jennifer was turned on her side but I could feel her body shaking. For the last few years, but especially since the explosion on Orpheus, I had been afraid of speaking to her. Afraid I had wronged her somehow, afraid I had done something, or worse, afraid I didn’t know what I had done. Was I supposed to ask if she was alright? I didn’t know anymore. I waited in the darkness, listening to her cry. Before too long, I couldn’t handle it and reached over to turn on the light. “What’s going on?” I sat up on my elbow. Jennifer sucked in a breath. “I’m exhausted.” “Take a sleeping pill,” I offered innocently. I knew when I said this something heavy fell over her, over both of us. She was silent and still for a moment. In the quiet, we could hear Emily in the living room talking to her friend on the phone. Knowing Emily was close gave me a sense of comfort I never realized I had until much later. “—are you even listening to me?” Jennifer said. My stomach flipped. I had been listening to Emily and had not realized Jennifer was talking to me. “Yes, of course.” I lied. “You have this weird look on your face.” Her eyes narrowed. In that moment I realized, somehow, I didn’t know my wife any longer. “What’s your problem with me?” I barked. She was annoyed and pulled the blanket over her shoulder as she turned away. “Look, I’m all ears now. If you have something to say to me, then say it. I’m tired of your moods. We shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around each other…” “My moods?” she asked angrily. “Whatever, you know what I mean.” Jennifer half-turned. “Can you just turn out the light? I want to go to sleep.” “No.” “No?” “Tell me what’s going on. I told you how I feel—” “Telling me you don’t like my moods is not telling me how you feel—” “Okay, sorry, I’m not good with words. I didn’t go to college like you. I work every day to support us…” “What are you even saying, Robert? I’ve worked every day the same as you.” “That’s not what I meant—” “What did you mean then?” She stopped. “Wait…stop. I don’t want to argue with you. I don’t have…I’m not upset with you about anything. You haven’t done anything wrong. I don’t want to ever argue with you about anything. Not this…” “Not what?” “Ah, fuck it…” She rubbed at her eyes. “I can’t be married to you anymore.” I reached my hand out to find hers above the sheets. “No, stop. Are you understanding what I’m saying?” “You’re just tired. Let’s go to sleep and we’ll figure it out in the morning.” “No, there’s nothing to figure out.” She slid her legs from under the sheets and readied herself to stand up. “Wait,” I said, though I was nearly out of breath and the room had started to spin. “Wait a minute…wait a minute.” Jennifer sat with her back to me. “Robert, I will always love you. We will always have the kids, but I can’t be a part of this. Not with that thing—” “But why? What did I do?” I could feel my own desperation. Like I was drowning and Jennifer was high and safe above but I couldn’t reach her. “You didn’t do anything. This is just what happens. I’ve felt like this for a while, I’ve held it in, I’ve tried to make it better, but it can’t be made better. If you were honest with yourself, you would say the same.”
Suddenly, our door opened. It was Emily, phone still in her hand. “Em, honey…” Jennifer said. “No,” Emily shook her head. “I don’t know what you guys were talking about, but I’m telling you, you cannot. Whatever it is. You stay in love.” Jennifer stood up and walked with Emily down the hall to her room. I was alone, and Jennifer never came back.
Clearly, I had blacked out. How else could I be running barefoot through the streets, rivers of sweat draining from every possible orifice. My feet stung and burned from the asphalt. Up ahead I saw a park. I stumbled toward it and collapsed in the dried out grass. I gulped for air and turned on my side to vomit up my breakfast, though I couldn’t remember what it was exactly. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had done anything. Jennifer had moved out with Emily and for the last few months had been staying with her parents. The streets and businesses surrounding the park seemed fairly dead. But then I actually didn’t know if it was a weekday. Maybe they were closed for the weekend? Had I missed a holiday? Who knows…who cares?
I stared up at the sky. Only a few slivers of the moon were still visible. No one could figure it out. NASA and PanGen had sent probes to investigate. The moon was still there, the actual thing. But from down on Earth, we could see less and less of it. Some people thought it had to do with the radiation from the explosion on Orpheus, but NASA didn’t say.
The last thing I remembered was opening the mail. Jennifer had sent me a package. I had sent her two books, a collection of Oscar Wilde and another called The Book of Monelle, which had been recommended to me by Ian and Mina, the bookshop owners. She had returned them both, rewrapped in the silvery tissue I had used. I could see her words written in the sky.
Robert, I’m returning these because I know I will never read them. I appreciate the gesture and your kindness.
She had placed our wedding bookmark in the Oscar Wilde.
I cannot imagine my life without you in it. I need only see Emily, Angela, Ryan to know without you they would not be here. But it would be wrong to act as if I found contentment in our marriage. I thought for a while I could be happy, but the longer it went on, something inside me told me it wasn’t right. The world is obviously more than what we had thought. Just look up and you can see that. There is more to me than being a mother and wife. I’m more than a nurse too. You are also more than what you think. I hope you can see that. It’s just like you to give me something I love. But, if you remember, I’ve read all of Wilde’s work. Maybe some day I will go back to him, but not today. It’s just not what I see in the future for me. The worst thing I can think is for me to stand in your way. And I know I won’t allow you or anyone to stand in my way. We will always be soulmates. In this life and the next and the next…
I heard Angela’s voice. “Dad? Hey, come on, wake up…” She had a flashlight and was shining it right into my eyes. “Hey, what the fuck? Get the light out of his eyes,” she shouted at someone. “You can’t sleep in the park overnight—” another voice said, with the dismissiveness only cops could muster. “Do you not see that I’m getting him up? Don’t you have some unarmed kids to shoot somewhere?” I could feel Angela’s arms going under mine. “Come on, Dad. You need to stand up.”
I startled awake. “Oh shit.” I looked at my phone. Fifteen minutes late. There wouldn’t be time to shower. Unfortunate, because it was my water day. As I pushed on my boots, I saw the message on my internal network. I already knew it was PanGen notifying me I was 5 minutes late, but I had to click on the message anyway or else my biopass wouldn’t work. “Thanks for the update, you fucks.”
Usually I would take the elevator but I was so late I took the stairs. My neighbor Arwin was coming up as I was going down. She seemed to struggle up the stairs, exhausted by her 14 hour shift. I wanted to help her, but we had never actually spoken in person. I gave her a wide berth as we passed. Later, I knew, she would message me. We only ever talked on the network. A few times I considered asking if she wanted to come to my apartment for dinner or coffee, but she was at least 20 years younger than me and probably not interested in making friends.
It was a quarter after midnight. The air was heavy and thick with heat. Beneath the ever-present scent of PanGen’s grain, there was the smell of the vector repellant, like bleached melons. And like everything they made, sometimes it worked but most of the time it didn’t. The surviving insects darted at you or swarmed the lightposts leading to the packaging facility. I had to spend half my pay on ointments and creams from the bites. When I went through the security doors, the alarm went off. Two helmeted security officers pulled me to the side. They scanned my phone, my network, and then ran a wand over my body. Of course, nothing was amiss. “Report to your workstation, immediately,” one of them said. So I did.
Angela, Em, and I rode in a shared van to the protest in Walnut Creek. Ryan had said he would meet us there, but Em hadn’t heard from him since three days before. Angela sat in the front with the driver, interviewing him for an article she would later post on the community network. “Please, don’t print my name,” the driver said quietly. “If they found out I was here, they’d arrest me and send me back.” Angela assured him she wouldn’t. Em shifted in her seat and fanned herself. “Dad, can you ask the driver to turn on the AC? It’s too hot.” “The window doesn’t open?” She half-heartedly pulled on the van’s window. “No, see, this clip doesn’t work.” “No AC,” the driver said from the front. “Sorry, sorry, it’s not mine. Company car. I’ve got the windows down up here. It’s the best I can do.”
Outside, the silky gold of California’s foothills was gone. Wildfire after wildfire had burned acres of open land. All the farms were gone. Not that they could grow anything. In their place were the smoldering ashes of the golden state. We had joined cities like Mumbai and Bordeaux as sites of permanent fire. The news called these places the Firelands.
When we reached the facility, the protestors were already confronting PanGen security guards and the police. Our driver took one look, apologized, and said he wouldn’t be able to stay. The group we had shared the van with groaned and said something about already paying for the ride. “Asshole,” someone from the group muttered. Angela shot them a look. “You paying $40 to get a ride is not worth his life. So shut up.” Em pulled Angela away. “Come on. Mom’s here. She said she’s on the left side near the stairs.”
A splinter group had taken over the walkway leading to PanGen’s parking garage. It was far enough away from the security guards, everyone could meet and regroup without being bothered. It would only stay like that until the police helicopters came in. But for now, there was a somewhat peaceful reprieve.
As my girls and I walked up to join the others, Jennifer smiled at us. I hadn’t seen her in over a year. I was surprised to see she was sitting next to my old neighbor Arwin. But when I got closer, I realized it wasn’t Arwin, it was you—though I didn’t know that yet. I caught Jennifer’s eye. She shrugged and tapped her pen suggestively on the notebook in her lap. She wanted to write.
That’s when the alarms went off. Then a crack.