Today, you’re on the hunt. First step, armor. Strap on those sturdy sneakers, your favorite jeans, and most comfortable t-shirt. Next, weapons: cell phone, credit card, some cool tunes to drown out the battle cries of your enemies.
Now for the plan: you’re going to walk into the unruly wilds of the bookstore, stalk the shiniest literary journal you can find—maybe that green one with all the pretty gold and silver glimmer?—and when that little book is least expecting it, you pounce!
Next, you drag the carcass of your prize over to that nice comfortable chair in the corner—you know the one, by the window so you can keep an eye on your urban jungle. Finally, it’s time to devour your kill.
Okay, okay. I get it. Thinking of our modern day lives as razor-edge trials for survival seems…well, silly. We’re no longer fighting enemy clans for access to the one watering hole in the jungle. We aren’t hunting and scavenging for food. For most of us, it’s a given that we have a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and no predators in sight.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle to survive. When the old needs are met, our wrestle with survival changes.
For many of us in the 21st century, survival is no longer a physical battle. It’s an emotional, psychological, and political one. We’re facing new beasts—increasing corporatization, our decaying environment and institutions, the pressure to define ourselves when everyone around us has—or is at least pretending to have—it all figured out.
This journal explores all these weird new ways we struggle to survive. From a woman trying to repress her human angst by becoming an animal to a tale about the ultimate fight for humanity’s survival, this issue tells the stories of characters struggling against modern predators. We have cultures struggling to stay alive, illnesses drawing more blood than any beast, grief polluting the world around us. Because this is such an intimate fight, F(r)iction #14 has more creative nonfiction that ever before—exploring the fear of genetic mental illness, of cultural identity within warring nations, and of the simple struggle to find a space where we can feel valued.
Often, in today’s world, the biggest enemy of survival is ourselves. We are both the hunter and hunted, in a game of escalation that is veering dangerously toward mutually-assured destruction.
So, dear reader, we welcome you to settle into that comfortable chair and enjoy the spoils of the hunt. Hopefully, when you’re done devouring these stories and poems, you’ll think differently about your own survival, and how very complicated—and beautiful—it is.
Dani Hedlund Editor-in-Chief
running across the Sonoran desert at twilight, Oscar glimpsed a brilliant, unblinking point of light traversing the sky and couldn’t resist raising a hand upwards in salutation. He slowed his pace to stand, breathing deep on the hard-packed dirt, hands on hips, sweat streaming down his face. The International Space Station skated overhead, as anonymous as any airplane. A larger cluster of lights accompanied it, hinting at a sprawling structure in the rough shape of a dragonfly. The lights drew themselves steadily across the sky and passed beyond the far horizon in a matter of minutes. Caetano Nascimento was up there, he knew, along with a lot of other good people on the Ship. His reserve crew. The men and women of the Gaia.
“Did you spot it, Captain?” Ravik jogged up beside him, huffing for air. Both of them stood shirtless and slick with sweat. The heat of the day baked off the ground even as the breeze edged into coolness. A perfect evening for a run.
“She’s up there,” Oscar said. They both knew that by ‘she’ he meant the Ship.
The western horizon glowed with a spectacular wash of light, all along the spectrum of yellows, oranges, and reds, into the deepest purple before fading into black. It was standard sunset material, but amped up to a degree most humans had never seen before. The fifty-two nukes that had detonated in India and Pakistan three weeks ago were turning the upper atmosphere into a poison shroud, sifting radioactive ash across the surface of the globe like the after-effects of a volcano erupting straight out of hell. They regarded this in silence. When Oscar’s pocket buzzed, he reached for his phone and held it out at arm’s length to view the text. One word: TEL AVIV.
Stoic, he pivoted and held the phone out to show Ravik the message.
“Fuck me,” breathed Ravik.
Oscar stowed the phone and took a deep breath. “This is going to speed up the timeline, Ravvy.”
“Can your team make their selections in forty-eight hours?”
Ravik widened his eyes. “We were supposed to have three more months. We can’t get close to a balanced assessment in two days.”
“Let’s go then.” Oscar took off running, kicking up dust and sand along the path by which they’d come. The low bulbous BioDome lay in the lap of the arroyo as a cluster of lights amid the dark forms of cacti standing all around.
Twenty men and women assembled in the command center, which wasn’t much more than a conference table crammed into a storage room stacked full of supplies: potting soil in canvas bags, bolts of cloth, spools of wire, rolls of duct tape. Each person wore a white canvas jumpsuit, some dirtier than others, bearing a variety of patches depending on their division: Navigation, Medical, Botany, Archives. Ten men and ten women. They took their seats and settled their eyes on Oscar, who leaned against the wall by the white board, idly tossing and catching a dry-erase marker. Ravik, seated at the table, scanned the room, then gave Oscar a nod. “All accounted for, sir.”
“Tel Aviv is hit,” Oscar said. “You probably already know that.”
The room regarded him in silence. A few of them nodded their assent.
“This changes our timeline. We don’t have a contingency for that, but we do have a contingency for non-contingencies.” He allowed a tiny smile to pull at one corner of his mouth, but no one mirrored it, so he resumed his neutral expression. “I want us flight-ready in forty-eight hours. That means you need to select your teams and get them kitted out. If they’re not ready or willing to go on that schedule, then you go with your stand-by. Make that clear—no exceptions.”
The breath seemed to go out of the room as everyone absorbed the information. Heads turned to regard one another and confirm that they were all hearing the same thing. Oscar waved a hand as if to break a spell. “Speak freely.”
“Sir,” said Andriessen, the Chief Surgeon, “people have families. That doesn’t leave enough time—”
“They might not have families forty-eight hours from now,” Oscar said.
Andriessen watched him, her mouth hanging open.
Hwang, of Engineering, spoke up. “There’s already a skeleton crew on the Gaia, and in the ISS. It’s going to be a logistical nightmare to man stations and transfer duties with that many bodies. We may not even be able to accommodate so many people on board at one time. Have we planned for that?”
Oscar nodded, but not as an answer. He was pleased at Hwang’s use of ‘we’ instead of ‘you.’ It was one of the reasons why Hwang was here in the first place. “If we’re overcrowded, the overage bails like it’s a mission scrub. No one extra joins the manifest.” That didn’t exactly answer the question, but Hwang nodded and studied his folded hands.
Oscar let another minute pass in silence in case anyone else wanted to speak up. When it seemed the wait time had been enough, he concluded. “Forty-eight hours might be an extravagance. It’s a random number. Understand that this is the whole reason this mission exists in the first place. We always thought we’d have more time, but it turns out we don’t. That’s why we’re here.”
Ravik let a few moments go by before standing and sweeping his arms at the door. The group stood and made their way out, with low murmurs and freighted glances. Ravik turned back when he reached the door. Oscar was still leaning by the blank white board, still clutching his unused marker.
“Sir? Any special instructions?”
Oscar pointed upwards, beyond the ceiling. “Now’s the time to get right with whatever you think is up there.”
The BioDome was a mostly underground complex with six spokes extending outwards from the central greenhouse chamber. The greenhouse was the only part above ground, a lattice of skylights that soared thirty feet overhead and let in streams of sunlight that fell on the leaves of clustered palms and aspens. With nearly a quarter-acre of arable soil under the skylights, it would have been an ideal space to cultivate crops, but Oscar had elected to leave the soil beds empty. The BioDome was significantly different from the Gaia in fundamental ways, and Oscar wanted to maximize the experience to be as equivalent as possible. On the Gaia, there would be no cultivating of crops under natural sunlight, and so he arranged it that way in the BioDome as well. All the growing went on in custom-fitted modules arranged along two spokes under long banks of artificial light. If they couldn’t survive on the food they grew there, then the mission would be a failure before it ever got off the ground.
He paced the corridors when he should have been sleeping. The low bulkheads and metal grating underfoot gave the place the feel of a submarine. People worked in their quarters, hunched over computers or tinkering with equipment, doors open on the passageway in the unspoken acknowledgement that personal privacy was a feature of a world that none of them would live in again—at least, those who lasted. Schedules were purposely kept light; everyone had already trained for their jobs to the point that their reflexes were honed, and their bodies responded automatically to a whole spectrum of contingencies. This three-month stretch in the BioDome was about the mind. How idle could one be without going mad? Who had the capacity to overcome boredom with some kind of constructive activity? This was probably the most important test: character, not skill. Oscar paced the halls, noting whose hands were busy, and who had surrendered to nap time. Pausing while he paced through the bulkheads, he made careful notes in his tablet.
Without making a conscious decision about it, he was moving in the direction of the one place in the BioDome that offered a view of the outside: the far end of the due-east spur. He passed through the greenhouse pods where wide leaves dripped condensation into the folds of his collar as he ducked past, slipping through the hanging plastic strips that separated the segments. All the way at the end of the corridor, he stopped at the iron disc of the exit portal, with its single, cycloptic window offering a view of blackness.
Forehead pressed to the glass, he blotted out the reflected light behind him and allowed his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness outside. Crumpled mountains lay across a broad and flat plane where cacti stood like sentinels under the moonless wash of sky. Starlight, as faint as unheard music, lay across the land.
The old fear tickled him, still. The darkness and the emptiness added up to a kind of hum he could feel down in his bones, a familiar hum that took him back to childhood, staring out at this same desert, several hundred miles farther south from here on the Reservation. The evil that throbbed at him out of the night then was the same evil that throbbed even now, unseen and everywhere. He backed away and sniffed bravely. He’d made it this far by overcoming nearly all of his fears.
Wang dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin even though he’d only taken a sip of water from his crystal glass. A smile flickered at the corner of his mouth; it seemed to be a constant feature of his resting face. His eyes glittered as he leaned forward into the circle of soft light that lit the tablecloth, and said, “Oscar Running Bear. You have no idea how much of a fanboy you’re talking to right now.”
Oscar ran a hand over his black bristle of a brush cut and cast his eyes down, even as a smile stole over his face. “Oh, come on, Mr. Wang. You’re the one who’s famous.”
Wang refuted that by ticking a finger back and forth. “Fame among men is meaningless.” He raised the same finger in proclamation mode. “Accomplishment! That’s the real thing. Even if very few know about it.”
Oscar nodded and sipped his own water as a way of not having to reply. What does one say? And should he dab his lips with his own napkin now? Was that an etiquette thing he’d never heard about? He did it, and Wang burst out laughing.
“You quickly adapt to your surroundings, I see, even to the company of a ridiculous old man.” He held up a hand to ward off any protest. “Now regale me, Captain, before the food arrives, with tales of derring-do.” Twinkly eyes, flickering smile.
And Oscar, because he was being treated to dinner in the fanciest restaurant he’d ever set foot in, regaled him. He told stories of space walks and near disasters, micro-meteors that tore through the hull of the International Space Station like bullets through tissue paper, of oxygen fires in the hydroponic chamber, seat-of-the-pants equipment repair to head-off imminent death. Manual orbital insertion. Re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific, sinking in his spacesuit and nearly drowning three minutes after nearly incinerating in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Later, on the mic at Mission Control, talking a series of crews through their lunar landings and take-offs, never losing a soul or scrubbing a mission.
They were stories he’d told many times before, but never like this. His audience was usually another astronaut or specialist, someone who already knew the lingo and had already participated in their own share of exploits—the not-easily-impressed. With Wang, he was singing for his supper, and he heard his own voice going on and on in an uncharacteristic way. But Wang seemed to pull it out of him. When he used a jargony phrase, Wang would give a tiny nod to show that he understood, so Oscar found himself inserting more and more technical language into his story—which, after all, was the natural way for him to tell it. Wang stayed very still, watching him steadily, breaking his pose only to take the occasional sip of water—with the ritual napkin dab—and the calmness and completeness of his attention drew Oscar deeper and deeper into his own tale until he found he’d been speaking for twenty minutes without pause and Wang hadn’t said a thing. It was probably the longest speech he’d ever made in his life. When the lobster arrived, he trailed off and swept a hand over his buzzcut, shy again. “Sorry, Mr. Wang. I don’t usually talk so much.”
“Sorry? It’s a privilege, Captain, to experience these astonishing tales, even from a remove.”
“Yes sir. But it’s just Oscar. I’m not a Captain anymore.”
“If George Washington were sitting here with us, he’d still be Mr. President, would he not?”
“I don’t think there’s much comparison.”
Wang leaned forward. “I think there could be.”
Oscar tried to keep his face neutral, but he wanted to frown. He wasn’t sure where this conversation was going, but he didn’t like dealing with insinuations and unspoken messages. If he were with a peer, he’d say, “State your business,” but Prosper Wang was no one’s peer. Prosper Wang was one of the top five wealthiest humans alive, master of many puppets, and Oscar Running Bear was his honored guest. Which meant that his own professional authority, hard-won over so many years and missions, was an ornamental thing.
“As astounding as your exploits are,” Wang said as he tucked into the fluffy white meat of his burst lobster tail, “it’s your future that really interests me.”
A white Porsche and a black Lamborghini fought for position on the multicolored spiral of the rag rug under the dining room table, engines throbbing with the vroom-vroom soundtrack provided by little Oscar who guided the cars in their wheel-straining circuit at floor level. One eye squinted shut to tighten focus with the other, he pushed the cars in cinematic slo-mo, fenders bumping as they surged toward the Lego archway of the finish line. The white Porsche, if it won, would restore his father, Oswald Running Bear, to the leadership of the Ruling Council, but the black Lamborghini would empower his usurpers. The engines throbbed and the fenders collided and scraped.
“Oscar, shut the fuck up with the sound effects!” Rolly hollered from the couch as he rattled the last few drops in his beer can. “Rolly,” said his mother in a whisper and (Oscar was sure) a hand on his tattooed forearm.
Oscar dialed back the vroom-vroom sounds but not completely, and the anger that bloomed in him seemed to fuel the white Porsche in its final push around the last turn. It nicked the Lambo in the rear fender as it passed, sending the black wedge into an end-over-end tumble, a cascade of glass and metal and (Oscar could practically see) severed body parts and blood. All to the gravelly churn of saliva within the boy’s ballooned cheek. The Porsche zoomed over the line, victorious, as the crowd on the football game on the TV erupted in cheers over some auspicious play and Rolly blurted, “Fuck yeah!”
“Rolly, please, your language.”
Head lain on his arm as he one-eyed the triumphant Porsche in its slo-mo victory lap, Oscar whispered, “Fuck yeah!” Order and justice, at least in the land of Hot Wheels, was restored.
He insisted, as he did every night, that he didn’t need to go to the bathroom before bed. Some nights he really could hold it, and make it through till morning, but tonight his bowels were churning. He sock-footed down the hall, ducking behind the couch where his mom and Rolly sat sprawled with the television still playing—hard to tell if they were conscious or not—and then glided over the kitchen linoleum until he could peek out the window in the back door. He was ten, and tiny, barely at eye-level with the window. Outside, the desert lay in black-upon-black planes, all the way to the crumpled mountains. No moon. Dishwater starlight shining on the cacti all around. The outhouse was a dark monolith across the barren yard, thirty feet away.
At a run, he could cross the space in a matter of seconds. How fast or how slow he moved didn’t make any difference, because the yeenaldlooshi didn’t need any time at all to take a bite out of you. One moment there was nothing, and the next moment it would be there, in whatever skin it had chosen to walk around in this night: coyote, wolf, human, or something else. It was already there, within the shadows of the scrub grass and cactus, waiting. And it wasn’t even the bite that Oscar was scared of. All it needed was to meet your eyes, and you were done for. Swallowed up in the same curse that had made a shadow of it. His grandmother had filled him with the stories, confirmed in the grim nods and averted eyes of his uncles and aunts and cousins. Never go into the desert in the night, was the moral of the story. But to get to the outhouse? Did that count as going into the desert? There was no fence out there, no line between the wild and the yard, and not a single light shone anywhere beyond the weak bulb on the back porch.
Oscar creaked open the screen door and stepped outside, heart hammering. He stepped off the cinderblock that made for a porch step and set his sock in the red dirt. Nothing grabbed him from beneath the trailer. He walked quickly, elbows pistoning out to the sides, bee-lining for the outhouse door. Shadows stretched lengthwise away from him as he walked along the path of light thrown from the porch. Reaching the outhouse, he tore the door open and stepped into the funky pitch dark, grabbing for the battery lantern that sat on a shelf. It cast a weak light in the wooden space, and Oscar barely had time to get his pajama bottoms down and his bottom aligned with the hole before his bowels erupted in a burning blast. The stench he added to the stench that was already there was nearly chewable. He didn’t touch the magazines or the newspaper that lay folded beside the hole and stood to wipe himself as soon as he was done dribbling. Composed at last, he outed the lantern and peeped out the door at the way back. This was the worst part. Going back towards the light was always somehow worse than going away from it. It was all the darkness behind.
He set a foot in the dirt and slipped outside. The outhouse door thumped closed behind him. At the thump, he sprinted. His feet kicked out tufts of dirt that scattered behind him, as long-fingered hands reached out of the darkness for him. Halfway there, he twisted a foot in a divot and went down to a mouthful of dirt. All the breath whooshed out of him. Scrambling back up, he felt a hand closing around his ankle, pulling him back, but he yanked himself free and shot for the porch. He slammed into the back door, peeled it open, and threw himself onto the kitchen linoleum with a puff of red dust and tattered panting. Safe, and alive, but just barely.
“The fuck!” Rolly’s head rose up from the other side of the couch in the blue TV light. He was bleary-eyed and mush-mouthed, drunk and hungover at the same time. “Who the fuck is that!”
Oscar crept across the kitchen floor in the shadows, imagining that he could evade detection if only Rolly remained on the couch. But then a pot-bellied silhouette staggered into the door frame and Oscar understood that the real danger was not out there in the desert but right here inside the house.
Oscar turned the stem of his water glass between his fingers. He’d initially refused this dinner invitation when Wang had called him directly at his office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, not believing that it was for real. His childhood had trained him in unrelenting skepticism, and he never suffered from the weakness of feeling compelled to please others. On the contrary, he delighted in subverting the Rollys of the world. But the man on the phone who claimed to be Wang had promised to share details of a mission under development and had asked some very technical questions—”Does a rotating disc experience the same centripetal force at all points along a radius?”—to which Oscar had precise and definitive answers.
Now he saw that Wang had been playing on his vanity. Astronauts were famously past-centric: when you’d already been to space by your mid-30’s, what else could you do that would measure up?
Wang, forking food into his mouth without so much as a napkin dab, began a litany. “A generational starship, with a crew of seven hundred of the top experts in their field: astrophysics, orbital mechanics, astrobiology, nuclear fusion. But also, botanists, chemical engineers, geneticists, molecular biologists, linguists, psychologists, neurologists, surgeons, biomedical engineers. And poets, and painters, and writers, and musicians, archivists, librarians. Exponents of every human intellectual endeavor.”
Oscar watched him talking and eating. His own lobster was going cold.
Wang went on. “A library of all human culture and civilization. Banks of cryogenically frozen DNA spanning the spectrum of flora and fauna, all of it triple-redundant in reinforced silos. The whole ship traveling in a bubble of a magnetic field generated by an ‘ion lasso.’” He set his fork down, the lobster tail mostly demolished, his lips shining with oil. “And the propulsion. A moon-based particle cannon, sending a steady pulse into a vast nano-carbon magnetic sail, many hundreds of kilometers across. Not a drop of fuel on the ship, which starts out moving so gently you could walk faster—but accelerating exponentially. Pushed by a steady beam, it reaches a tenth of the speed of light before passing outside the focal range of the particle beam. And then the sail becomes a ramjet, scooping up interstellar hydrogen, collecting and compressing it in empty tanks, accumulating fuel for the deceleration burn. All of it feasible with existing technology. All science, no fiction.” Twinkly eyes.
Oscar waited to see if Wang was done. Then, “So you’ve read my work.”
Water sip, napkin dab. “I’ve done a lot more than read it, Captain. I’ve started building it.”
Oscar blinked. “You what?”
Wang pushed back from the table and enlaced his fingers over his stomach. “Production facilities are already up and running in Lagos, Johannesburg, and Buenos Aires. Technical specifications are factory-ready on the greenhouses and digital archives. People are already at work on selecting resources.”
Wang waited, smiling.
“This is a theoretical thing. I published that stuff as a way to get people thinking about possibilities, not as blueprints for actual construction.”
“Well, Captain, you got people thinking. Thinking very much.”
“It’s full of gaps, sir. It’s pie-in-the-sky.”
Wang raised a finger. “Not yet. So far, all our construction has been on the ground.”
“Well, see, that’s exactly the problem. No offense, sir, and I don’t mean to be negative or critical here, but you must understand—it’s a gigantic spaceship. You can’t build it on the ground, you have to build it in space. The expense of getting the components into orbit would be enormous, unthinkable, especially considering how dangerous launches can be. You could spend a billion dollars on a segment, then launch it and watch the whole thing go up in vapor before it leaves the atmosphere. I don’t care how much money you have, it won’t be enough to build your own interstellar spaceship.”
Wang seemed unperturbed. “Not many people have ever told me that I can’t afford something, so savor that.” He leaned forward. “But the reason I’ve been so successful, Captain, is because I’m very good at getting what I want without having to pay a lot for it.”
Oscar shrugged. He could feel himself getting angry. Was Wang messing with him? Was this a prank? No one had taken his work seriously; the only feedback he’d received on his starship project was from a Hollywood producer who wanted to use the design for a sci-fi movie.
“So, do you want to hear what my solution is?”
Oscar shrugged. “You’re buying NASA?”
Wang raised his eyebrows. “Is that what you’ve heard?” His lower lip protruded as he parsed his words. “It’s actually more like renting. But that’s not the real game-changer.”
Oscar stopped him with a palm held up. “Wait. You’re renting NASA?”
Wang nodded. “In fact, some of your own missions have carried my cargo. The last three moon landings? All part of the plan, and quite affordable, compared to all the ways to waste money here on Earth. But the real key is this.” He tapped the white table cloth with a fingertip. “I have a space elevator.”
“Mm-hmm. Based on an equatorial island called Kullatu, in the middle of the Pacific. A conveyor belt, straight into orbit, reducing the cost and risk of orbital insertion to a glorified train ride.”
Oscar pushed himself back from the table. “That’s science fiction.”
Wang spread his hands, palms out. “Captain, you of all people should be able to appreciate that when the science catches up, the fiction goes away.”
Later, at his computer in his tiny BioDome cabin, Oscar flicked through an album of uploaded photos. His mother leaning on the two-by-four railing of their trailer, half washed-out by the sun, a long tawny horizon visible off to the side where the desert trailed away. Another: himself, toothless and ten, kneeling on the rug with a scattering of Hot Wheels all around. Another: his grandmother, also toothless, stirring some steaming concoction in a stainless-steel pot in her cluttered kitchen. This was the photo he got hung up on. Her robe, a felt wrapping, showed thick threads at the seams—she’d made it herself. The turquoise pendant around her neck was also of her own making, dangling from a leather chord cut from a goat that she’d skinned and dried—probably a relative of the creature that had ended up in that steaming pot of hers in this picture. Oscar pictured her fingers, gnarled slabs, scooping the roasted goat’s eyeball from its socket and holding it out to him. The eye, milky and rheumy, fleshy as a peeled grape, stared at his ten-year-old self.
He’d known this was coming, and he’d prepared himself for the moment, refusing to let any degree of disgust or hesitation show in his demeanor. He took it in his palm, squishy as a mud ball, and popped it into his mouth. It burst and slithered over his tongue then slid down his throat. His grandmother peeled a face-splitting grin that revealed a landscape of bumpy gums stretching across her face. “Aren’t you a big warrior!” she exclaimed in Navajo, grasping his shoulders and shaking him even as the slime oozed down his throat. He swallowed again to get it all down. In fact, it wasn’t so bad. He might even eat the other one, if no one else wanted it.
Now, looking into her face across the years on his screen, he gave her a smile that was little more than the appearance of a dimple in his left cheek. “Every part of the animal,” he muttered. That was what his grandmother had taught him, and that was the operating philosophy of this whole mission. Every skill, every talent, every possible use of every resource. To survive the trip to another solar system, nothing—not a thread, not a scrap, not a thought, not a whisper—could be wasted.
It was only during the dessert course—creme brulé with espresso cortado—that it began to sink in for Oscar that Prosper Wang was being serious. With this realization, panic began to set in. His work on a generational starship over the last decade had been purely speculation. Based on current science and mechanics, yes, but with no intention of actually building anything. It was an intellectual puzzle with attractively concrete variables, a chewy conundrum for an engineer to figure out—how to transport a self-sustaining crew of humans to another planet so that their own descendants would be able to complete the mission. As a decorated astronaut and mission commander, he had access to all the finest minds of NASA, but only in the sense of picking their brains over beers, not actually operating within the parameters of a true mission design. He was spit-balling. The updates that he published on his blog were popular with hobbyists and nerds and sci-fi consumers. That a billionaire investor might find his designs and take his brainstorms literally had never even occurred to him.
Wang was in the midst of speculating about the best way to narrow down the crew selection when Oscar splayed all ten fingertips on the table cloth and spoke up. “Mr. Wang, look. This isn’t a real mission. NASA is developing actual scenarios for this kind of thing, but my stuff is just brainstorming. You can’t invest in someone’s pipe dream. It’s not going to work.”
Wang watched him over the rim of his steaming espresso cup. “Captain, with all the respect in the world—and who on Earth, quite literally, has earned more respect than you?—it’s not for you to say how seriously your own ideas should be taken.”
Wang went on. “NASA is paralyzed with budget restrictions and bureaucracy. The only successful missions they’ve attained in the last decade—including your last three missions—have been the ones I’ve bankrolled. The Indians are better at fresh thinking and initiative, but their budget is even tighter. The ESA is hog-tied with maintenance missions for the ISS. None of them are sufficiently mature to set their sights on a long-term mission. But there are people at each of these agencies who get it. People I’ve contracted, who have scrutinized your work, and the work of some others, and who have arrived at a consensus. We have the beginnings of what it takes to send a ship full of humans to another solar system.”
That last phrase sent a tingle of excitement through Oscar’s body even as he was shaking his head to reject it. “You might have the science for it,” he said, “but the political will isn’t there. A handful of scientists aren’t going to convince the world to invest in the most expensive project ever imagined.”
“They don’t have to convince the world,” Wang said, as his default smile stretched to show another couple of teeth. “They’ve convinced me. And I’ve got a trillion dollars to spend.”
“A trillion dollars? I honestly don’t think you’ve got a trillion dollars—no one is that rich—and it’s going to take a lot more than that, probably.”
Wang put his hands up defensively. “I didn’t say all the money was mine, I just said I have it to spend.” Twinkle, twinkle.
Oscar shook his head. “You’re a madman.” He heard the grudging admiration in his own voice.
Wang dabbed the corners of his mouth, then dropped his napkin on the table. “I’m going to give you some homework. First, social dynamics. Who procreates with whom? You’ve got seven hundred people on the ship, and you want to roughly maintain those numbers throughout the voyage. So, do you use family units? Do you create a pool of procreating females and a lottery system of partners? Do you try to preserve ethnicities, or crossbreed? How do you set it up, so the men aren’t murdering each other to get at the pussy?”
Oscar watched him, not reacting.
Wang went on. “How do you train two successive generations of astrophysicists who haven’t been born yet? How do you make sure your crew at planetfall is competent to complete the mission? What fail-safes can you build into the navigation system? How do you compensate for gravity in the parts of the Ship that aren’t rotating?”
Oscar muttered, “This is a lot of homework.”
Wang beamed. “I knew you’d say yes!”
The alert came in as he was going over a spreadsheet of mass-to-volume ratios. A message popped up on-screen with Wang’s tagline and his avi of a googly-eyed old teddy bear. It was against protocol to message with the outside world during the BioDome trial, but events were overtaking protocol.
>>clear out now
Oscar paused. Updates? he typed. Anything I should know?
>>no delay. evacuate and await helo pickup in 10.
His heart, so well-conditioned for stress and exertion, was now racing. Clarify?
>>could i be any fucking clearer? do it now
With that, the active icon next to Wang’s avi winked out as he went offline.
Oscar rubbed his hands together, focusing on bringing his heart rate back down. Then he reached for the microphone that fed into the public address system. He pressed the talk button. “Attention Gaia crew: all personnel prepare for immediate evacuation. Carry any personal effects you can gather within the next 60 seconds and assemble on the tarmac outside the east exit three minutes from now.”
From out in the passageway he heard a burble of voices even as the echoes of his announcement were fading. Then Ravik was at the door, peering in. “Sir? Is this a drill?”
“You heard me,” Oscar said without looking at him. Ravik hesitated a moment, then moved off. Oscar was clicking through the icons on his desktop, dragging a bundle of documents into a fresh folder. He allowed himself the same sixty seconds he’d given everyone else, and when the time was up, he dragged the folder over the DropBox icon and left it uploading. As long as the ISS and the Gaia were still operational, the crew up there would receive the plans and know what to do with them.
The progress bar that appeared informed him that the upload would take forty-five minutes. The helicopters would be here in ten, but as long as the electrical generators kept working, the upload would continue even after they’d evacuated—right up until whatever was prompting this evacuation happened.
The officers had gathered their teams in clusters, everyone in their jump suits with their bags at their feet. The cold desert wind scoured them, and the stars gleamed down. Oscar paced the stretch of asphalt as the crew murmured amongst themselves. He knew they needed an explanation, but he wasn’t in possession of any useful facts. Ravik came up beside him and spoke low. “Do we know anything?”
“They need to hear something.”
Oscar wheeled on him. “Put it together. Forty-eight hours was too much time, we should have gone right away. Now I don’t know what’s coming, but I can guess.”
From the south, a deep thudding rhythm announced the helicopters’ approach. The desert stretched in darkness all around, and the only light came from the LEDs embedded in the helipads surrounding the tarmac. The stars splayed overhead, a portrait of the universe. Oscar stared up at it, feeling that he was standing on the edge of a precipice and wanting to jump into the void, let himself tumble towards the stars. He yearned for it, and raised up on the balls of his feet, as if to push himself off the Earth. He even allowed himself to reach up, stretching, grasping at all the emptiness between this desert floor and the soup of sky. He sighed. “This is as good a place as any to remain,” he said quietly.
Ravik shot him a look of alarm. “Sir?”
Behind them, a flash bloomed against the horizon. They turned, all of them, to watch the light blaze beyond the sawtooth ridges. Another flash, then another, each as bright as a sun. No sound came yet, but clouds billowed upwards in knots of smoke and flame, pillars of hell. The LED lights at their feet winked out as the electromagnetic pulse killed them. In the nearer distance, metal crumpled and shrieked as the approaching helicopters fell out of the sky, crashing to the desert floor and then exploding.
The crew scattered across the tarmac in shouts and wails. Oscar stood his ground, breathing deep and keeping his eyes aimed at the stars. They remained immobile as they always had, impossibly far and now forever unreachable. A half dozen of those points of light were not stars at all. They described high arcs across the sky, tracing parabolas that carried them from the other side of the world to this side, to end it. Their movements were all but invisible against the backdrop of galaxies. One moment, Oscar Running Bear and his crew stood there on the desert floor, watching the stars, and the next moment they were all gone.
Riding Dinosaurs with Boys
When I made my avatar in Ark: Survival Evolved, I gave myself large breasts, full hips, and generous muscle mass, blessing myself with the physique of a voluptuous Olympic weightlifter. My hair was black and my eyes purple. My boyfriend, Monty, created an orange-haired goblin man. We awoke on the beach wearing rags. Dodo birds and Parasaurolophus grazed on shrubs near the edge of the forest. We gathered stone, thatch, and wood, crafted spears, then stabbed a Dodo to sate our flashing hunger meters. The meat—unseasoned and cooked on a fire in the sand—must’ve been as flavorful as a charred shoe sole, but it made us full, and we leveled up.
I tamed a Dodo, my first companion. The taming process involved punching it until it was unconscious, then feeding it berries until it was full enough to be my friend. I named her Froppy, after a character from mine and Monty’s favorite anime, My Hero Academia. She waddled by our sides as we walked the shore, gathering thatch for a home, admiring the soaring Pteranodons, the orange sunset saturating my computer screen. I looked at the map, a vast island with an array of biomes: forest, desert, tundra. I’d read online that every type of prehistoric creature inhabited the land. I filled my waterskin, excited to begin exploring—I loved a good adventure story, and in Ark, there’s no written plot. It’s a sandbox game, an open world where you create your own narrative.
“Froppy Has Died,” appeared on my screen. It was dark, and I couldn’t tell where our house, or even the beach, was located. I crafted a torch, which only gave me a few feet of in-game light. My screen was flashing red. Something, or someone, was killing me.
“Help me. I’m dying,” I said to Monty, sitting at his desk across from me.
“I’m coming,” he said, running toward my character, but he was too late. I’d been shot in the back and fell face down in the sand, the torch flickering in my unresponsive hand. Monty arrived in time to be killed too. We watched as another player looted our inventories, taking our crafting supplies and rare flowers. He hacked our bodies with a metal hatchet, harvesting the meat from our bones.
We respawned and went through it again—gathering supplies, building a house, taming dinosaurs—only to end up eaten by a wild raptor. It was frustrating, but the game gave me and Monty—whom I’d been with for three years—something to do together besides lying on the couch watching anime, which had been the extent of our romance for the last year. I was about to suggest that we try one more time, but he stood up and took off his headset. “I hate this game,” he said, shutting off his computer. “I’m done.”
I looked at my phone. It was 3 a.m. Four hours had passed since we started. I wondered if I should quit too and join Monty on the couch. It was early morning in the game. The sky was lavender, and golden rays shone through the clouds. It looked like a real sunrise I’d seen on a beach in San Diego, except wyverns were soaring over the ocean, mounted by the highest-level players.
My life was good. I had a job as a group fitness instructor. I had friends. I was twenty-three and fit and healthy. But Ark gave me the ability to leave my apartment and become an enhanced version of myself: someone who was more athletic and unrestricted by physical limits of the real world. I dove into the ocean and swam along the reef with Ichthyosaurs and Manta rays. And Ark gave me the ability to forget about my day at work, where my class did a bike sprint contest and I placed in the middle when, as the trainer, I should’ve won.
Over the next few days, I played by myself for a couple hours each night until I finally had enough resources to build a better house in the woods. I hunted with my newly-tamed dinosaur, a raptor named Gran Torino. A herd of Gallimimus sprinted by and I trapped one with a bola, then killed and skinned it for hide. Ark appealed to my inner-nerd because, other than a few fantasy creatures (griffins, phoenix, wyverns), the island was inhabited by real prehistoric animals. Their scientific names appeared when you got close enough. I could win a dinosaur-identifying contest thanks to my time spent in Ark.
Another player swooped down on his Argentavis, a giant bird. He jumped off and walked toward me. He was tall and lean, with muscular shoulders and a chiseled jawline. He was level 80 and wearing metal armor. I was level 30 and had just upgraded from rags to beaver hide. I jumped on Gran Torino and turned to flee.
“Cool raptor name,” he typed. “I love My Hero Academia.”
“Thanks!” I typed, hoping I could become friends with this guy and he could help me out.
“Is this all you have?” He walked around my small wooden shack.
“Ha, no point in raiding you.” He climbed back on his Argentavis.
“Wait,” I typed. “Let me join you.” It felt needy and pathetic, but I’d never accomplish anything if I kept playing alone. I needed someone to share a base with. I needed protection.
He took a minute to respond, probably considering whether I would be an assistance or a burden.
“Sure,” he typed.
I smiled at my computer screen.
“But I live far. You’ll have to leave Gran Torino behind.”
I took the saddle from my raptor, then shot it and harvested the meat from its body.
There wasn’t enough room on the Argentavis’ saddle for me, so he scooped me up in the bird’s talons. I was immobilized in its feet—all I could do was swivel my camera around, looking down at the forest, watching the monkeys (Mesopithecus) leap from tree to tree. A T-Rex fought a Brontosaurus, and a pack of Hyaenodons stood near, waiting to feed on the remains of the loser. We flew over a volcano, and I worried that this stranger would just drop me into the lava, leaving me to start all over again. But he held me safely in the bird’s talons until we arrived at his base, a modest two-story stone house in a clearing in the woods. He had a few tamed creatures sitting in a pen: a Baryonyx, a Triceratops, and a griffin. A sign was posted in front of his house: “New base. If you want me to move, just ask. Please don’t take what little I have.” Smart, I thought. Maybe I should’ve tried that.
He called me on Discord, a text and voice-chat app for gaming.
“Hey,” he said. “We need to gather metal.”
His voice was mellow but masculine, a little scratchy, comforting.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll get all the metal I can.”
He gave me a pick—one he crafted himself—and it was higher quality than all the picks I’d made before. I climbed the ladder onto the roof where his Argentavis sat and named it Dark Shadow, a reference to another character from My Hero Academia who looks like a bird. I hoped he would find it funny.
I ran toward the mountain, crouching behind trees to hide from Carnotaurus and eating berries for stamina. We were still on a Discord call but neither of us spoke. I wanted us to talk, but I didn’t know what to say. I knew he was an experienced player and I didn’t want to say something that made me seem like a noob.
“I like the Argy’s name,” he said, laughing.
It was a handsome laugh, not obnoxious or nerdy. I wanted to hear it again.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Shade,” he said.
“Shade?” I repeated, thinking maybe he’d said Shane.
I heard the clink of a soda can on his desk, the crunch of chips in his mouth. I walked back to his base, wondering if his real name was Milton or Herbert, and Shade was just what he called himself.
“Look in the cabinet,” he said.
Inside was a shotgun, a high-level weapon that I couldn’t build yet.
“That’s for you.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant even though it was the best gift I’d received in a game.
“I want to move someplace better,” he said.
“I’ll show you. Get on the griffin.”
I was relieved that Monty was working late. I didn’t want him to see me riding a griffin with another guy. I felt fuzzy inside, watching my character sitting up against him as we flew over a Redwood forest and through a valley of mammoths. We were like Harry and Hermione riding Buckbeak.
“How often do you play?” I asked him.
“Few hours a night. All day on my days off.”
“Oh,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound judgmental. I couldn’t imagine spending an entire day playing this game. “Where do you work?”
“A factory,” he said. I waited for him to elaborate, or to ask me where I worked, but he didn’t say anything. He steered the griffin down toward a cliffside waterfall.
“This is it,” he said, climbing up the rocks. “Come check it out.”
I stood beside him and we looked at our new land: rolling hills, weaving streams, mossy logs, a setting inspired by Middle Earth. My character pooped. He laughed and did it too.
“We’ll always have a fresh water supply. There’s plenty of metal, wood, and animals to farm. Some predators, but we’ll build a metal base. We can even have plumbing.”
“Sounds wonderful,” I said, admiring how meticulous he was. I figured that together we would become the strongest players on the server, but that didn’t seem important anymore. I just wanted to keep playing with him, whether we had a metal castle or nothing at all.
“Want to fly us back?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up straighter at my desk.
“Let’s pick up some obsidian before we go home.”
I blushed at the word “home.” I wondered what Shade looked like in real life. Some gamers, like Monty, created avatars with humor: wide-necked, stumpy-legged, stringy-armed monstrosities. Some gamers created avatars they wished they could be. But I—and I hoped Shade too—exaggerated my real physical attributes and applied them to my avatar. (I was athletic, but not Olympic-level, and I was a C-cup, not double-D.) I hoped real-life Shade was also lean and tall with a strong jaw and button nose, though I supposed it didn’t really matter—I could imagine him being as attractive as I wanted.
We made it back home, our inventories full of meat and obsidian.
“How do I land?” I asked him, awkwardly hovering the griffin next to the house.
“Press spacebar,” he said, laughing. “Anyway, I’m going to bed.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, feeling disappointed, even though it was 4am and I needed to sleep too. I’d been at my computer for five hours but my needs for hunger, thirst, and rest had all vanished. Monty unlocked the front door and walked into the living room, smelling like sugar and dough from his overnight job at the bakery.
I left my desk and showered, smiling as I conditioned my hair, thinking about the adventures Shade and I might have the next night. Monty walked into the bathroom. He lifted the toilet seat and started peeing. For the first time, I jerked the shower curtain open and said, “Couldn’t you have waited?”
All day, I thought about Shade. I imagined him, the version I’d created for myself: cute, mid-twenties, lean physique, freckly skin, bowl-cut brunette hair. An image of a portly fifty-year-old man momentarily appeared in my mind, but I shooed it away. I envisioned this cute Shade at the factory, pushing buttons on a machine that made dildos or condoms or crayons, blushing because he was thinking of me: the beautiful girl he’d found in the woods, another fan of My Hero Academia, clever and funny with the names she gave dinosaurs, a new light in his life.
I’d always had the benefit of being both attractive and nerdy—boys easily fell for me, looking down at my long curly hair, my fit physique, and back up to my light brown eyes, all the while talking about Yu-Gi-Oh!, D&D, The Elder Scrolls. Monty and I had met at the gym and played Magic: The Gathering on our first date. I’d wooed him by beating him with my Liliana, the Necromancer deck. But Shade was different because he couldn’t see me in real life. I shuddered, thinking that maybe he had envisioned me as a monstrous nerd girl. But I hoped that when he had heard my voice, he thought it was sultry, and that he was picturing me as a real-life version of my avatar, working at a bar or a hospital or wherever he imagined I worked.
When I got home from the gym, Monty was sitting on the couch, watching TV and clipping his toenails, dropping the slivers onto our coffee table.
“Hey,” he said. “Want to watch Full Metal Alchemist?”
The thought of spending time with Monty, whose appearance I knew and voice I heard every day, seemed unbearably boring. Normally, I thought our relationship was nice, secure. But playing Ark with Shade thrilled me—a feeling I’d forgotten and didn’t know I missed. Monty had made me feel that way when we first met, when we’d go out for sushi and talk about our families—how his had immigrated from Sudan and mine from Japan. Afterward, we’d lie in his bed, staring at each other, kissing each other’s skin and eyelids and earlobes. But I’d moved in three months after our first date, and now we just ordered in, often going days without talking or touching.
“I’m tired,” I said, picking up my laptop.
“Are you still playing that game?”
“Yeah—maybe,” I said, walking to the bedroom, quickly shutting the door behind me.
I logged on, but Shade was still offline. I went outside, walked around the pond, watching pastel-colored Dimorphodons circling in the air. I waited until two of them hovered near me, then shot them with tranquilizer darts. I thought Shade would be impressed, seeing I’d caught two dinosaurs known for their evasive flight pattern. I fed them raw meat, watching their taming meters increase. I heard Monty chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Part of me felt that I was wasting my time, that I should’ve been spending time with Monty, making an effort to enliven our relationship. But I wanted to woo Shade, to see if I could, to feel the pleasure of hearing him say that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. It’d been a long time since I felt desired, and I thought if I could get Shade to like me, it would make me feel good, even powerful.
Shade logged in. “Hey,” he typed. “Can I call you?
My heart fluttered, like we were on our first date at the movies and our hands had just touched.
I answered his call. “We have new pets,” I said, and called the Dimorphodons over.
“Oh, sweet!” he said. He sounded like he was smiling. I waited for him to say something else, hoping he’d say he had looked forward to playing with me all day.
Instead, he said, “We need silica pearls.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, googling where to get those.
I walked down the hill toward the beaver dams, listening to the sound of Shade chopping down trees. I thought of conversation-starters that he would like: What anime character would you be? or What’s your Harry Potter house? or What’s your favorite game in the Fallout series? But I felt like asking those questions might weaken the immersion of the game, that while we were gathering and crafting, we should only talk about our lives in Ark.
“Where did you live before you had this base in the woods?” I asked, shooting arrows at a giant beaver.
“I had a nice setup in the mountains, but it was always freezing. Then I got raided.”
I could hear his mouse rapidly clicking.
“Fuck! I’m dying,” he said.
Monty walked into the room. I tilted my laptop screen closer to me.
“Where are you?” I asked Shade, trying not to sound too concerned. Monty opened the dresser.
“Near the cave.”
I dropped all my rocks so I could run faster, trying to ignore Monty as he changed into his pajamas. Shade was being mauled by a Therizinosaur, a dinosaur that looked like a giant demonic duck with knives for hands, the Freddy Krueger of Ark. I shot it with an arrow to turn its attention toward me. It charged at me and I waited until it was close enough to shoot it with the shotgun, killing it.
Shade limped over to me, his chest bleeding. I gave him some of my Dodo jerky.
“Thank you. Nearly died back there. It got the Pteranodon I wanted,” he said, pronouncing it like “Pet-ra-don,” which made me laugh, but then insecurity crept over me as I realized that I didn’t know how to say it correctly either. We walked back to our base, carrying the Therizinosaur loot.
Monty ambled over and stood beside me, peering over my shoulder. I was outside feeding Dark Shadow. Shade was inside, crafting ammo. I hoped he wouldn’t come outside. I muted my mic, so Shade wouldn’t hear Monty talking and find out I had a boyfriend. Monty leaned closer to the screen. He had to know I was playing with someone, and I worried he was going to ask who it was, or even ask me to stop. Instead, he said, “Your base looks really cool. Maybe I’ll start playing again.”
“I don’t know,” I said, staring down at my keyboard. “I’m level 50 now, and you only got to level four.” I looked up at him. His eyes were big and dark brown, nearly black, one of his many features I’d always found attractive—and they looked even more beautiful when he was sad. “It’s not that fun anyway.”
Every day that week, I exercised vigorously to earn eight hours of sitting in front of my computer. My friends and I usually went to the casino on Thursdays. I cancelled. Monty slept on the couch, so I could have the bedroom to myself.
“I need my space to work on grad school applications,” I said, gesturing at my laptop and the books I’d taken into the room. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed, before slamming the door. I stared at the Ark menu, my cursor hovering over the play option, thinking about going after Monty. But I told myself that he would get over it, that he didn’t really know I wasn’t working on applications. And anyway, Shade needed me. I was probably his only friend, his only human connection. I hoped that his curiosity about me would lead him to Instagram, where he’d see that the real-life me was beautiful and fit and popular, and then he’d be even more enamored with me.
Shade and I successfully built a new house by the waterfall. It was a two-story metal home, with greater interior space than the stone one. We flew our griffin, Argentavis, and Dimorphodons to the new home, abandoning our other dinosaurs that were too slow to make the trek. We worked on building turrets around our territory. We finally had peace and comfort, which made me worry that we were running out of things to do and soon our interest would diminish. I secretly wished some other players would come and raid us. Then we would need to rebuild.
“Are you happy you let me join you?” I asked him, mixing berries and water to paint our house red.
“Yeah,” he said, yawning. “Probably would’ve quit if I was trying to do all this by myself.”
“Me too,” I said, smitten that I was his reason for playing the game.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, leading me to a pen around the corner. There were two wyvern eggs sitting on the ground, protected by a fence, warmed by torches.
“One’s for you. Our babies,” he said, laughing. “When they hatch, we’ll have to feed them every three hours in real time for two days. Are you free this weekend?”
“Yes,” I said, beaming. “I can’t wait.” I knew Shade cared for me; he wouldn’t have wanted to raise babies with just anyone. I figured that this weekend while tending the eggs, he’d ask to go on a walk by the waterfall, and he’d stand his avatar close to mine and ask if he could tell me something. I’d say yes and listen to him confess his adoration for me.
I logged in at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, expecting Shade to already be online. He wasn’t. I sat in front of my computer, reading a book, refreshing the game, refreshing Discord every few minutes for an hour. I felt awkward, like I was sitting alone at a restaurant, waiting for my date to show up. As the hours passed and he didn’t login, I figured something must’ve happened in his real life: someone called in sick and he had to go in to the factory; his grandmother died; his apartment burned down. But I was still hurt—if some tragedy had befallen me, I would’ve sent him a message letting him know I couldn’t play.
I checked the online players log Sunday morning. He wasn’t listed. I refreshed it on my phone all day. He never logged on. When I got home from the gym, I signed into Ark, hoping he’d see me online and would join. He didn’t. I sent him a message on Discord.
“Hey, what’s going on? Are we going to hatch those eggs?”
“It’ll take too much time,” he typed.
“Okay, well when are we going to play again?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m done. I’m bored.”
My chest tightened. I reread the message. I chewed my bottom lip, thinking he must have a girlfriend who’d found out about us and was making him quit. Or in just a moment, he would send another message saying that he was joking, that he could never be bored of me, of the life we’d created together within the game. But as the minutes passed and he said nothing, my skin began to prickle from the grim realization that he had never liked me. I gripped my laptop, unsure of what to do with it anymore. I felt nauseous, thinking of the possibility I wasn’t the seductress I’d thought I was, thinking of the seventy hours I’d lost over these last two weeks for a relationship I’d fantasized.
My character stood in the living room of our metal house, which now seemed hollow and inhospitable. I ran outside and flew the griffin to the beach. A new player was on the shore, gathering sticks and building a thatch house. I considered asking him to join me, so I could take him back to my base in the hills, give him a rifle, so he would think I was powerful and generous and beautiful, in-game and in real life, so he would think of me all day and look forward to playing with me every night—but it seemed as exciting as it did sickening. I clicked my mouse, killing him and his dodo. I shut my laptop and walked to the living room.
Monty was lying on the couch. I sat beside him, and he placed his hand on my leg. I rested my head against his chest. He put his arm around mine and I wrapped my leg around his. We laid there for hours, glowing in the light of the TV.
The Río Grande River between Paso Lajitas and Lajitas, 2015
Saraí rushes the water like it’s the Jordan, amid the thronging surge of weeping, laughing souls.
Doña Chata squints rheumy eyes, skirts gathered to her knee. She glimpses Saraí, notes braids rimed with unexpected age, the older plunges headlong heedless of muddy spray.
Madre e hija collide, euphoric embrace between here and allá, more than a decade of separation dissolving into tears.
Repeating up and down this stretch of the Río Grande— two communities, two countries, once weft and warp of love and tradition, a vibrant fabric, razor wires now partition: hate and fear and politics.
For an hour, watched through glinting scopes from rumbling jeeps, this divided family is whole
like a lost soul dipped beneath redeeming waters while a dove croons idyllic peace upon a broken sunbeam.
Near Brownsville, 1915
On my knees I beg for the love of God:
Mister Lawman, let me bury my son.
They say he’s a traitor, bandit, thief:
My boy was only working at his uncle’s side.
We said nothing when your people took our land,
Bought up our ranches, pushed us south of town.
We cast our eyes aside, picked up spade and hoe
To work the soil where once our cattle grazed.
Don’t strip this final dignity away, good sir:
Mister Lawman, let me bury my son.
All of you afraid of that plan
Hatched by rebels to cut you down as one
This isn’t Mexico. We’re Tejanos, faithful To our state. We seek no revolution.
Federal troops and Rangers far outnumber
These brown-skinned, Spanish-tongued neighbors.
A train has been derailed, I know. Bandits
Bolted back across the Río Grande.
In rage the troops returned to find my son at work
With his uncle and others on one of your farms.
Those calloused hands, would they ever
Lift a rifle, ever curl around your neck?
My son’s hands, even free of dirt, are not
White. Evidence enough for you. Each hanged—
A mother’s grief at the loss of her son—
Bereft, I traveled to that tall, bleak mesquite
Wept to see my brother dead, howled to see my son.
Rangers laughed. They would not let me cut him down.
His limbs swelled tight against his clothes.
They would not let me cut him down.
The sun beat down and blacked his flesh.
They would not let me cut him down.
The flies like smoke then wreathed him dark.
They would not let me cut him down.
The vultures swarmed and pecked and tore.
They would not let me cut him down.
Still he sways from that noose, creaking in the wind.
There are rites we must perform—our God commands.
Think of all these spirits, curdling in shame,
Think of vengeance brewing slow in the sandy soil.
Show me that you’re human. Even now there’s time.
By everything that’s holy: let me bury my son.
endless, blue so hot it edges
toward white, pitiless,
indifferent to the flat coastal
plain, dots of grey-bottomed
and alluring wet harried by
the gulf’s gusting breath—
meager, fleeting shadows
on the brown brush, the
turgid, wild river below.
or black, a sable cape slowly
bangled with glinting silver,
flung over the eyes of the
wide world to calm its
snorting rage, but ominous
and hinting at bleak endings,
raked at breath-taking
moments by the death
of blazing stars, tumbling.
behold its denizens, legends in flight—the cruel lechuzas, witches feathered by blackest night snatching naughty children from homey bosoms; the Big Bird, its prehistoric and craggy features snarling like a crazed ape as it dips its leathery wings our way;
la Llorona, drifting over water, moaning for her children, dragging stragglers into the depths— all the harpies, lost souls, thunderbirds and legless vampires of lore, criss- crossing that vastness, looking down at us.
The Lunatics’ Ball
I remember the name “Greystone” from my childhood in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, spoken in a thrilling whisper. It was the local “loony bin” for “nutcases,” “fruitcakes,” “whackos,” “crackpots,” “maniacs.” At slumber parties, our variants of the “man with the hook” urban legend ended with an escaped lunatic from Greystone, his hook dangling from the car door. And in fact, Greystone did house sex offenders and violent criminals under treatment for mental illness, and there were escapes, though I don’t remember any reports of crimes like the ones you see on all the TV shows.
Greystone housed well over seven thousand patients when the singer Woody Guthrie was a patient there in the nineteen-fifties. By the nineteen-nineties, it was largely abandoned, after reports of rampant patient neglect, sexual abuse of patients by staff, patient escapes, and suicides. The buildings were later demolished. “Gravestone,” Woody called it. He died—in another psychiatric institution—of Huntington’s, a neurodegenerative disease initially misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.
If she’d survived, would my aunt Maddy have been treated at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital or someplace like it? She could have stayed on the lithium, instead of detoxing on the advice of a quack chiropractor. Or had second thoughts as the carbon monoxide fumes filled the garage. Or been discovered in time to save her life, instead of three days later. She was only forty-seven.
My mother told a story about a lunatics’ ball that her mother attended in northern New Jersey in the nineteen-forties—or maybe the thirties. Lunatics’ balls for inmates, staff, and visitors were common in late nineteenth-century insane asylums, less common later. It must have been at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, not far from Mountain Lakes, where my mother’s family lived. Did her mother have a relative there? If so, my mother either didn’t know or pretended not to. Maybe attendance was considered entertainment by small-town middle-class housewives. Or a kind of civic duty.
My grandmother danced with a charming, good-looking man who she assumed was a doctor. The punch line to the story was inevitable: he turned out to be a patient. A big laugh from my mother, as if no one in her own family could end up on a mental ward one day. When her younger sister Maddy was diagnosed as bipolar, my mother’s main concern was that no one in town learn of it. Maddy’s later hospitalization was a secret too. As was mine.
My aunt was only nine years older than me, and I followed her everywhere as a child, besotted. Maddy was the sister I didn’t have, the mother I wanted when I was a teenager, generous with her time and gifts. How to describe her? Gorgeous, charismatic, wealthy, fashionable, outgoing, extravagant. High strung. Sleek as a greyhound. My mother was jealous of all the time I spent with her, of her good looks and fancy house and wardrobe.
“She brought it on herself,” my mother said after Maddy’s suicide, lips pursed, uninterested in statistics about bipolars and suicide. My mother didn’t believe in mental illness or “witch doctor” psychiatrists. She believed in moral judgment, particularly of those she saw as unfairly favored by good fortune.
“We’re the two crazy ladies in the family,” Maddy said to me once. We were drinking red wine at an Italian restaurant, laughing about something. I was in my late twenties then, working on my Ph.D. It was before I got sober, before my own hospitalization and bipolar diagnosis. Only my closest friends, my parents, and my brother knew about my week in the mental ward—by then, Maddy was already gone.
When I look at the sketchy family tree my father started for my mother’s family, there are so many names I don’t recognize, so much potential for secret afflictions. Who was my mother’s Aunt Blossom? Her Aunt Florence? I never met my mother’s Uncle Tommy, an alcoholic who died in a hotel fire, probably a Bowery flophouse for drunks, but she mentioned him sometimes. The family said it was the First World War that made him drink. “It’s a good man’s failing,” the Irish say, always ready to find a reason or excuse. When I got sober, my father told me about the funeral of a relative, a great aunt I think, where her daughter took him aside and said, “She was an alcoholic, you know.” He didn’t know and was surprised to learn it. Shortly before Maddy died, she did a stint in rehab, probably for the painkillers she was taking for her back, though no one knew for sure.
Bipolar family trees invariably include more than two crazies—many relatives suffering from substance abuse disorders, others suffering from depression and anxiety disorders, and from schizophrenia. Scientists don’t know why. My mother never acknowledged that sleeping for ten years was a symptom of depression. “I had a lot of colds,” she insisted. For a while Maddy stopped speaking to her, after my mother claimed to be the “only normal one” in the family. “Does she think ten years in bed was normal?”
Much later, my mother didn’t believe that Lewy body dementia might be the source of her hallucinations. “Thank God we don’t have any of that in our family,” she said. When she was moved from assisted living to the dementia ward, she believed she was one of the nurses. “We had our hands full today,” she’d say when I called her on the phone. “Unbelievable.”
Are there other delusional relatives buried in our family past? Alcoholics and addicts who self-medicated for depression and other mental illnesses? Relatives excused as eccentric? Madwomen sequestered in attics? Who might my grandmother have known at the Greystone Lunatics’ Ball? There must have been more of us, hidden from sight, or slipping off the family tree like leaves in autumn, unnoticed.
In my dream, they’re playing Woody Guthrie’s “Cowboy Waltz,” two patients sawing away on fiddles, as I dance with Maddy at the Lunatics’ Ball. The tables have been cleared away, the Greystone hospital cafeteria festooned with red and green crepe paper. The Hawaiian punch mixed with ginger ale in the large glass punch bowls is strictly non-alcoholic.
“Did you know that Bob Dylan used to visit Woody Guthrie here at Greystone?” I ask Maddy. “Woody said folk songs should comfort disturbed people and disturb comfortable people.” Maddy laughs when someone shouts “hee haw!” and the sedate suburban matrons scatter, clutching their Visitor nametags.
Maddy’s still forty-seven in the dream, beautiful, but I’m sixty-seven now, showing my age. “You should get a facial, try Botox, honey,” Maddy says. “Maybe a brighter hair color. Why not go blonde?” She’s always full of outlandish advice. “I love that red dress on you,” she adds. “You look like a ripe tomato.”
She holds my hand aloft and we execute a perfect turn before whirling across the dance floor. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. The other dancers are a blur.
“This is fun,” I say. “I should take a dance class. Now that I’m retiring from teaching.”
Is that my mother joking with the nurses by the door? Maddy pretends not to see her, but I give her a friendly wave from across the room. I think I see my red-faced great uncles by the punch bowl, Uncle Tommy slipping a flask from the inside pocket of his jacket. And my grandmother! Her companions have their backs to me and I can’t see who they are. At home with the lunatics, I feel like I recognize everyone.
“I should have come sooner,” I tell Maddy.
How many years has it taken me to join Maddy at the Lunatics’ Ball? Fear of our dark kinship held me back. If Maddy and I were the two crazy ladies, and she took her own life, what would my fate be? Could I risk joining her in public? What would happen if my colleagues and students and acquaintances knew I was bipolar too?
“Get a letter from your GP instead,” the department secretary whispered to me at my first job. “You don’t want a note from a psychiatrist in your permanent file.” A department chair in my second job counseled me not to tell. “When people know you’re bipolar, that will be your label. They’ll think of you as just one thing.” I worried too much. Let them think what they want.
Now that I’m finally here, I’m so glad to see Maddy again! The lights blaze, the Christmas decorations glitter, the musicians strike up a new tune on their fiddles. We twirl and spin, dancing, laughing. I’m not sure I ever mastered the box step, but it’s all coming back to me. I let Maddy lead.