Words By Scott O'Connor, Art By Alyssa Menold
When we were girls, we would lay in the cool blue orb of the above-ground pool in the back yard, our bodies flat across the surface, heads down, arms out, lifeless, what we called Dead Man’s Float, five minutes, ten, lifting our chins only for quick gulps of air, then back down, eleven minutes, twelve, counting in our heads and waiting for our mother’s voice from the kitchen window, calling, Girls? then a pause, and in the waiting silence we could feel her watching, her straining concentration, squinting into the sun toward the pool, then calling again, this time with a small note of panic in her voice, a tight, electric trill, Girls, are you all right? still holding our breath, cheeks full and lungs burning, listening for the sound of the screen door clacking shut, the frantic swish of our mother’s bare feet running through the grass.
We played Dead Man’s Float, we played Prisoner. Meg curled on the floor of the aluminum shed, her wrists and ankles bound with silver duct tape stolen from our father’s workbench. A rough rag in her mouth, a blindfold. Tell me what you know. I paced the warped wooden floor, poking her ribs with my big toe. Pasadena summers in the mid-fifties; twenty years ago now. The interior of the shed hotter than hell. An Easy-Bake Oven, walls scalding to the touch. Both of us soaked in sweat, our skin reeking with chlorine. Tell me the truth this time. Meg thrashing and moaning or lying preternaturally still, her body going slack. Dead Man’s Float out of water. Frustrated by Meg’s will to silence, tired of asking questions, I’d release her and we’d switch places, the tape around my wrists and ankles now, the rags in my mouth, over my eyes. Meg pacing the shed, the whispered interrogation. My turn to withhold, to try not to break. But I was never as skilled a prisoner; I couldn’t hold out nearly as long. I gave in to the ache in my arms and legs, the choking panic of the gag filling my mouth. I wasn’t able to go inside like Meg did, the full withdrawal from questions, from the shed, the world. Occupying some distant interior space, there but not there, not really.
I sit on the bench by the window in the visiting room, waiting for the orderly. The floor is tiled terra cotta red; the doorway is set within a high, smooth arch. The hospital was designed to resemble one of the classic Spanish Missions dotting the California coastline. The windows, though, are modern and institutional: thick glass shot through with wire mesh. Outside in the courtyard, the thinnest branches of the sycamores sway gently in the ocean breeze.
The door opens and the orderly comes through, holding Meg by the arm. Today’s a bad day, I can see it in her face. She’s gone in. The blank retreat. The orderly leads her to the bench, waits for her to sit. He looks at me, nods. Meg moves away from him and sits at the other end of the bench. The orderly walks back to stand by the door.
Meg stares intently at the floor tiles. I smile, trying to draw her attention. I ask how she’s doing. The orderly clears his throat, then raises his eyebrows in apology for the disturbance. He’s Chicano, maybe twenty-five, big and soft-faced, his hair slicked up and back from his high forehead. Once, on another bad day when Meg had folded completely within herself, he’d told me that he was in a punk band. They played down in L.A. sometimes, a couple of bars in Chinatown. I should come check them out, he’d said. I didn’t hold the self-promotion against him. He was just trying to break the silence. How many meetings like these did he chaperone every day? I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hear some semblance of normal conversation in the room.
I turn back to Meg, about to speak again, when the speakers up on the opposite wall begin to hum. A woman’s voice follows, slightly muffled, paging one of the doctors. Meg’s eyes widen. She lifts her face toward me, leans in.
“Do you hear that?”
A harsh whisper. She isn’t talking about the announcement. The announcement is over. But whoever spoke has forgotten to switch off the microphone, leaving a low electric hum in the room.
“Yes,” I say.
“Those little voices.”
This is how we’ve been instructed to respond, how we’ve been advised by her doctors. Try to agree, to normalize the situation. Of course I hear the voices, Meg. Everybody does.
“They’re just little voices,” I say. “Like kids playing. Just ignore it. I’m going to ignore it, too.”
The orderly clears his throat again. I think maybe he’s sending a signal, but when I look over he’s staring down at the toes of his work boots, tapping one, then the other, pantomiming kicks to the pedals of a drum kit.
There’s another click from above, the microphone channel finally cutting out, closing the room into silence. Meg lifts her head toward the speakers, but her eyes are still on mine. Scared now, almost pleading. I start to move closer on the bench but her face hardens quickly, shooting me a warning. She turns back toward the speaker, one ear cocked.
“That,” she says, insistent, anguished. “Do you hear it?”
Meg started hearing things when she was ten. Voices, animal noises, a high-pitched tone that traveled in a stereophonic phase, one ear to the other. Through my brain, she told us. It’s going through my brain.
Our parents took her to get her hearing checked. Everything was fine. Our pediatrician said it was probably an overactive imagination. Invisible friends. Give it time, he said. It will pass.
Back to the hearing specialists when she was eleven, when she was twelve. Nothing turned up. She had a hard time concentrating at school. Her grades suffered. We visited doctors up in Thousand Oaks, in Valencia, our father’s colleagues at CalTech. They ran tests, asked questions. There was nothing physically wrong. It seemed no one wanted to discuss the alternative. Everyone bet on time. Give it time. Our house became a tense space, hours or days of normalcy always felt precarious, waiting for that silence from Meg that would upset the fragile equanimity we worked so hard to maintain. Everyone sitting for dinner at the kitchen table and Meg turning to the radio mounted under the cabinets, saying, What? Meg in her pinwheel dress, her thin body covered in multicolored spirals. KFAC on the radio, Mahler or Bartók or Holst’s Planets, our father’s favorite, strings and horns swelling but Meg hearing something else, standing from her chair and taking a step toward the speaker, her voice rising in accusation. What did you say to me?
And then it seemed to go away. She had just turned thirteen, and she stopped responding to these phantom callings. Our parents thought we were clear. It was only a phase. The doctors had been right.
But I knew. I spent the most time with her. Two grades ahead but in the same school. Seeing her in the hall talking to a friend and then stopping, right in the flow of kids moving this way and that. Meg stepping to the side, out of the stream, putting a hand to the wall to steady herself. Looking behind her, looking up. That helpless, fearful expression on her face. I saw it, but I said nothing. I was afraid of returning to that place of fear and uncertainty, the doctor’s appointments, our parents’ arguments. I didn’t want her to drag us all back there, and so I kept silent, too.
In the desert, I walk the newly paved streets of the colonists’ neighborhood, past earth-toned ranches and bungalows, 1950s Fords and Chevys in the driveways, wooden mailboxes standing at rigid attention, flags raised. This is what the future looks like, at least the movie-future: comforting and sentimental. In the script, settlers from Earth have come to colonize this barren planet, and the governing corporation has built a mid-century American suburbia to help ease their shock on the alien world.
My designs are based on our old street in Pasadena. The neighbors’ houses and cars, the corner market with the butcher’s cleaver on the sign over the door. The main character and his wife live in our old house, a bark-brown bungalow with green shutters and a roll-back swing hanging on the porch. The house is empty inside, but parts of the interior have been dressed so that from certain angles, looking through the windows, it appears inhabited. That was our couch; those were our drapes. Through a bedroom window you can see the same knock-off Tiffany lamp I had when I was a girl in that room.
The only noticeable difference between the real and the recreated is that there’s no pool in this back yard. When the movie begins, water still has to be shipped in from Earth. The plot then follows the construction of an enormous machine that will create the water necessary to colonize the rest of the planet. The machine is my design, too—a gleaming, monstrous, city-block-size cephalopod squatting in the desert, its pipes like tentacles reaching deep into the sand. The scale model sits in a soundstage on the lot in Culver City, waiting for its shots.
In the movie, they call the planet Thalassa, Greek for sea, as if the act of naming something can force it into being, can make the thing conform to the name itself, the story they want to live within. Of course, it doesn’t end well. None of these stories do. A religious cult sabotages the water machine and ends up flooding the planet. The final shot follows a single emergency pod fleeing into space, the main character’s wife and young son inside, the only survivors. The camera pans back then to show Thalassa from an increasing distance, its red skin slowly drowning in blue.
Our shed is out there as well, in the back corner of the Astroturfed yard. I don’t know why I included it in the design, or why I insisted on its exact style and color. There aren’t any scenes set back there. It might make its way into the blurred background of a shot staged in front of the house, or an overhead view of the colony, but it isn’t a necessary component of the film.
Meg once told me that the first time she heard a voice was while we were playing Prisoner, as she lay taped and gagged on the floor of the shed. I was asking questions, demanding that she tell me her friends’ secrets, where she hid things in her bedroom, when she heard a man speaking to her, just below the level of a normal conversational voice. She had to strain to hear. She tried to tell me to shut up so she could listen but the gag was in her mouth. She started thrashing on the floor, struggling to get free.
I remember that day. At first I thought she was playing, but then it was obvious something serious was happening. I untaped her, pulled the gag. She staggered to the wall, her back against the hot metal. I started to say something but she held up a hand for silence. She was listening, her face pinched with the effort. What? she said. What? I didn’t know who she was talking to. It looked like she was going to cry.
“Did you hear that?” she said. Breathing like she’d just run a race. “What did he say?”
We never set foot in the shed again. For the rest of our childhood, through all the tests and doctor visits, neither of us said another word about it. We ignored it like an unwanted or embarrassing relation. A silent, scary uncle who sits brooding at the far end of the dinner table. Don’t look at him; don’t catch his attention.
When I was sketching the initial designs for the film, the shed was the first thing that I drew. It was there on the page, suddenly, forming under the tip of my pencil. Reemerged. For whatever reason, I found that I couldn’t go any further with the rest of the design until I had its likeness just right. The shed came first and everything else followed.
Out in our reconstructed back yard, I tap a finger on the aluminum doors, listen to the familiar hollow metal pang. I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if our roles had been reversed that day, when Meg heard the first voice. If I had been on the ground, restrained, helpless, and she had been standing above. If I would have heard it instead, as if it was an objective event, a lightning strike, and that’s all that would have mattered, who was where in that moment.
When Explorer 1 launched from Cape Canaveral, our mother threw a party in the back yard. Our father had helped design the rocket carrying the satellite, which would be used to detect cosmic rays. If all went well, the satellite would stay in orbit for just over a hundred days, sending data back to Earth until its batteries ran dry.
It was January, and too cold for the pool, so we spread blankets across the lawn. Our neighbors and some of our father’s colleagues reclined looking skyward while our father grilled burgers and our mother stepped unsteadily between bodies and striped cotton squares, pouring drinks. Meg and I staked our blanket at the far end of the yard, right by the shed. Our father had given us a star map and binoculars, had unstrapped his wristwatch so we could keep track of the time change from Florida. Meg was far more interested than I in the astronomical component of the gathering. I’d just turned twelve, and spent most of the night in the corner by the fence, whispering with my friends about the neighborhood boys in attendance.
Finally, about an hour after sunset, Meg stood from our blanket and announced that it was time. Our mother went inside the house and shut off all the lights. Kids smothered flashlight beams. We all lay back on our blankets, passing binoculars, looking up into the darkness. I could hear whispers from some of the kids, murmurs and giggling from some of the adults. Meg shushed everyone, as if the lack of light required an absence of sound as well, an absolute stillness in which to see. After a number of false sightings, she finally pointed out a tiny orange glow climbing through the field of stars. There, she said, that’s it. Silence again, until one of the men from the other side of the yard said in hushed, almost solemn confirmation: It could be. We all sat quietly then, watching until the orange light disappeared.
Later, long after our parents had gone to bed, I was awakened by a sound from Meg’s bedroom. I stood looking through the doorway across the hall to where she sat on her bed, her flashlight beam pointed down at the star chart unfolded across her sheets. Her finger traced the rising arc we’d followed a few hours before. Her face, though, was no longer full of the wonder I’d seen earlier in the back yard, but was now tightened with anxiety. She followed the rocket’s route over and over, her expression shifting from tension to horror, as if she was confirming something beyond belief, the explanation of a great and awful truth. I thought of asking her what was wrong, but I didn’t. I was tired and foggy with sleep. I don’t remember going back to bed, but I must have, leaving Meg alone and awake in the night.
About a week later came that morning in the shed, when she heard the first voice.
By her fourteenth birthday, it had become obvious that Meg really hadn’t gotten any better. She started talking back to the radio again, arguing with the TV. She used her allowance to buy a jar of foam earplugs from the hardware store on Green Street, little bright orange buds she’d seen on construction workers, men paving the freeways. She wore them everywhere. People thought she was deaf. The four of us would go out to dinner on Friday nights, and the teenage hostess at the front counter would see the neon blobs in Meg’s ears and smile uncomfortably, self-conscious in the presence of the handicapped. Once, an old man at the library came up and started gesturing in sign language, delighted to find another who might understand, but Meg grabbed me when she saw his fluttering hands, her grip tight on my blouse, pulling me back toward the doors, as if he was some kind of dark magician casting a spell.
“Don’t you know what he’s doing up there?”
Sometimes I’d wake to Meg’s whispers in the night. Turning on the Tiffany lamp, I’d find her on her hands and knees beside my bed, having crawled in from her own room.
“Dad and those men,” Meg would hiss at me, “shooting those things into space?”
Not long after she’d begun hearing voices and noises, she’d decided that our father was responsible. She’d drawn a line from his rockets to the things she heard. In Meg’s mind, one came directly from the other.
“Go away!” I’d yell, covering my ears. “Leave me alone!”
My concern for Meg had started to be overshadowed by the disgust I felt at her accusations about our father. I didn’t want to hear her ramblings about him, the insinuation that she understood something that my mother and I refused to acknowledge.
Kneeling beside my bed she’d pull at my covers, trying to drag me down with her.
“They can find us anywhere from up there.”
“Mom!” I would call. “Dad!”
“Cate, please!” Her fingers clutching my sheets as the hall light snapped on and our parents came through the door. “Don’t you know what they’re doing?”
It was back to the doctors, the hearing specialists; finally, a psychiatrist. Things seemed to stabilize for a while, but Meg took a turn when she started high school. She began cutting her arms and legs, trying to bleed microwaved impurities from her body. She found the same roll of duct tape we’d used to play Prisoner and wrapped long lengths around her head, covering her ears. Hair and skin came away when our mother pulled it loose.
Then one afternoon the summer before her sophomore year, we got a call from the police. They’d picked her up over on Lake Avenue, handing out mimeographed flyers to rich ladies trying to shop.
Hello my name is Margaret Rose Yates and I have been bombarded with signals and instructions since I was a child. These are direct attacks on my brain and thoughts. My father works for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and this is where the signals originate. I am very sorry to interrupt your day but I am asking for your help.
Her psychiatrist called our parents to his office. Meg and I stayed home. I was packing for my upcoming summer job as a camp counselor up in Big Bear. I rummaged through drawers and my closet, deciding which clothes to take along, while Meg packed some things in her room, ready to move into mine, as she always did while I was away. She seemed fine again that afternoon. Back then it still happened that way—Meg switched quickly from a girl who passed out flyers on Lake Avenue to one who chatted with me from across the hall. I tried to convince myself that things would be okay, that she would now settle back into this version of herself. The summer would pass uneventfully, and the next year I would move away to college. Meg would finish high school and come to live with me out in Chicago or New York, wherever I had begun my adult life, and we’d get an apartment in the new city, a place of our own where we’d talk like this again, back and forth through our open doorways.
We heard the car pull into the driveway. I looked out my window and saw our parents coming toward the house. Mom had been crying. Dad looked stunned, weak and lost, as if all certainty had been sucked from his body. I heard Meg call from the other room. She was at her window, too. No! she shouted. I thought she was shouting at them, but then I realized she was shouting to me.
Keep them away from me! Don’t you see, Cate? Here they come! Keep them away!
There’s a bench under a fig tree in the hospital courtyard, where I sit with Meg on her good days, and where I sit alone on her bad. Today is a good day, so I tell Meg about the movie I’m working on. I show her designs, sketches and watercolors. That’s our house, she says. That’s the Robinsons’, the Robecks’. That’s Dad getting into his blue Customline in his matching blue suit.
She asks me for the movie’s story, and so I tell her about the settlers, and the water machine, the cult and the flood. About the single escape pod rocketing back toward Earth. She nods, listening, her eyes closed again.
I watch her face, seemingly at peace. I sit back on the bench and close my own eyes, careful, trying to share the borders of Meg’s rest. I want to tell her another story, in the hope that the act of telling could make it true. Two girls, sisters, play Dead Man’s Float, play Prisoner. I could show you drawings, Meg. I could show you watercolors, photographs from the set. The girls play in the shed in their back yard and when they’re finished or hungry or their mother calls out to them, they reemerge into the sunlight, hand-in-hand, unchanged.
After the flyers, Meg wasn’t even allowed to finish the school year. My parents drove her up to the hospital, where they were told she’d only need to spend the summer. This became a repeated refrain, season by season. She’ll only need to spend the fall, the winter. Eventually, the doctors stopped promising, and we stopped expecting a return.
Right after Meg went away, just before the end of the school year, a boy named Donnie Rush stopped me on the way to Calculus. Donnie was an awkward, overgrown boy, a friend of Meg’s. I tried to push past him, afraid of what he might say. Our official story was that Meg had gone to live with our aunt in Vermont, to study art at a special high school there. But the truth had begun to seep out. Whispers in the school halls, in the aisles of the drug store, the corner market.
Donnie continued to block my path, and finally steered me into a classroom doorway. He wanted to show me what he had under his jacket. It was one of Meg’s flyers. He said he’d found it stapled to a telephone pole on Lake Avenue, while he was shopping with his mother. I grabbed it from him, and he looked offended, backing away to the row of lockers. I brought it here to give it to you, he said. I didn’t want someone else to see it up on that pole.
I went straight to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall and flushed the flyer down the toilet. Pushing the handle again and again to make sure it was gone. The bell rang out in the hallway for the start of the new period, but I stayed in the stall with the water whooshing down through the toilet, as if with each flush I could push it farther away.
We all visit separately now: Mom, Dad, me. Our parents divorced a year after Meg was admitted. Looking back, it’s possible to believe that the tension she created in the house was what held them together. Without it, a line had been cut, finally freeing them to fall in opposite directions.
There were years when Meg wouldn’t come out to the visiting room if our father was present. That seems to have passed. He describes her now as resigned toward seeing him. They don’t talk much. He brings her books, poetry mostly. He has an idea of poetry as beautiful and harmless. Long-form greeting cards. A few times I’ve had to call and tell him that Sylvia Plath and John Berryman may not be the best gift-giving ideas.
Once he called me near tears. I’d never seen or heard our father cry, but he had just come back from a visit where he’d told Meg that he’d retired, that he no longer had anything to do with the lab, with rockets and satellites. He said he didn’t know where the impulse had come from, he’d just said it, and that she’d looked at him with such heartbreaking relief that he’d had to admit it was a lie.
It’s impossible not to make things worse, he’d told me on the phone that night.
Another year passed before Meg would see him again.
A couple of months ago, I got a phone call from Donnie Rush. I hadn’t seen him since high school. He was living up in Thousand Oaks, he said. Married, two kids, girls, three years apart. He’d gotten my number from another old classmate I was still in contact with. He said he hoped he wasn’t intruding.
He asked if I thought it would be okay if he went to visit Meg. He thought about her a lot, he said, wondered how she was. He’d had a crush on her back in school, even after he’d found the flyer, though the flyer had scared him. She was so beautiful, so smart, he said. And then she was gone.
She would have been a great beauty. Our mother often tells me this after too much to drink at one of our dinner dates in Santa Monica or Malibu, seafood with an ocean view, walls of glass on the water. I always snap back, defending Meg, as if this is a frivolous observation, malicious even. Mom, really, you’re being unkind. But she’s right. There was an undeniable beauty there, the full waves of sandy hair and those eyes, deep reddish brown, the color of good, rich earth. It was a beauty almost from another time, something close to nature. But it had all been shadowed by the fear that starved her face to skin and bone, that drove her to pull handfuls of hair out by the roots.
What do you expect, Mom? I say, staring back through the windows at the waves lashing the beach. How should she look? She’s afraid all the time.
I told Donnie that he was welcome to visit, that it might be good for Meg to see an old friend. I had to stop myself from sounding like our mother, telling him to temper his expectations, the picture he had of her from twenty years ago.
She has good days and bad, I said, and he told me he’d keep that in mind.
In a production meeting out at the location, the director’s assistant tells me they’re going to tear down the shed. It’s in the way of a shot, and has no real use in the film. I argue to keep it, surprising myself with my vehemence, nearly shouting at him across the conference tent. When he gives in, I go back out to our reconstructed yard and stand in the space where the pool would be, looking at the shed. I know why I wanted it here. Maybe I always knew. Building the shed was an act of narrative erasure, like flushing Meg’s flyer down the school toilet. Even when I first sketched it, I could imagine sitting in a theater with the finished film, waiting for the final shots after the water machine explodes and watching the planet, the neighborhood, the yard, the shed, flooded, splintered, swept away.
Donnie Rush called again after his visit. Before seeing Meg, one of the nurses had given him the usual instructions, to keep his voice low, to agree with whatever Meg said. And so he had, sitting on a bench in the visiting room, corroborating for Meg that there were voices coming from the PA speakers, electrostatic waves shooting down from passing planes. He said this seemed to calm her, but that then there was nothing left, they just sat there in the shared fiction.
What more did you want? I said.
I just wanted her to talk, he said. His voice was so much deeper than I remembered, a man’s voice, a father’s voice.
I always found Meg so interesting, he said. I just wanted her to talk so I could listen.
Our mother doesn’t use the term. The diagnosis. She doesn’t think it’s helpful. She’s worried, I think, that it has some talismanic power, that saying it aloud will make it truer than it already is.
We’re sitting at another table by the windows. Mom’s through most of a bottle of wine and I’m staring out down to the beach, the rolling purple dark. She’s talking about Meg’s missed opportunities, all the things she could have done, could have been, a teary litany, if only this curse hadn’t befallen, the evil spell, the mental weakness, whatever it might be in all its mystery. Suddenly I’m standing, I find myself on my feet, though no one else in the restaurant is looking, not even Mom. Her eyes are fixed on the stem of her wine glass until I shout it, the term, the diagnosis, as loud as I can. It sounds like I’m making an announcement, calling out a door prize, someone’s a winner, and now there’s silence in the dining room and all eyes are on me, even Mom’s, heads turned and chins raised. The word is in the room now. Who wants to claim it, who wants to reach up and take hold?
It’s a bad day, so we’re in the visiting room, on the bench by the windows. Meg looks like she hasn’t slept in a week, her face haggard and terror-struck.
I’m talking about the movie, a couple of new scenes the screenwriters have added, watching Meg’s expression as I babble. I tell her that it turns out we might build the pool after all, that the writers now want a scene where the kids stand out in the arid heat and stare longingly at its empty shell.
There’s no change in her face, so I push on, talking about our pool now, our real pool, filled with cool water on a summer afternoon. Remember Dead Man’s Float, Meg? Remember that feeling? The held breath, the silence underwater, like time had stopped all around us. Then Mom’s panicked voice pulling us back to the world of light and air.
Come up, I want to say, reaching across the bench. Meg, come back. It should be so easy to come back. But she flinches at my touch, regathering herself in. My hand drops to the wooden seat.
There’s no cure for any of this. No mother’s call, no alien planet fantasy, no retelling of a childhood story that will change things. There’s no explanation, no logic. Two sisters in a yard on a summer afternoon. Only one will ever leave that place. Only one will make it safely away.
There’s a crackle of static from the speakers up on the wall, an electronic throat clearing, then a woman’s voice paging a doctor. Her voice ends, but she’s left the channel open and now there’s a low buzz coming through, like the drone of an insistent bee. Meg’s eyes broaden, bringing some life to her face.
“Do you hear that?” she says, looking toward the speaker.
I think about all the visits, all the hours in this room. Our mother, our father, Donnie Rush. Everyone sitting, as Donnie said, in the shared fiction.
“Cate,” Meg turns to me, her eyes on mine, desperate. “Do you hear that?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t. Tell me about it.”