My darling, when did your eyes take on that otherworldly cast? When did your face become so beautiful? Could you have looked this way all along, and I did not have the wit to notice? If that is true, how could I continue to live with myself? My darling, if you had looked this way when you were alive, why did I never see it? And if this is the way that you look in death, would you not agree that I was justified?
This is the dream I had on the night of 10/14. No, I don’t know what it means.
There were eight of us that first day. We’d wanted to form a softball team, but we couldn’t get anyone else, so used to just hang out and play Frisbee and then go for a drink. That day it’d been hot and nobody really felt like standing on the asphalt and sweating. We were on our way to our cars when Gary called us back in and said “You’ve got to see this!”
“This” was a little steel marble.
“Okay, we’ve seen it. Can we go get a drink?” Phil said, clearly pissed at being dragged back inside for something that didn’t involve naked women or beer.
“No, check it out,” Gary said, and picked it up. He let go, and the thing bounced, once, twice, gaining momentum as it bounced.
“Whoa!” Bert said, as we all had the same realization.
It wasn’t just bouncing and gaining momentum. Each time it bounced, instead of describing an arc from one bounce to the next, it would loop, zigzag, double back on its path and bounce again in an unexpected place. Gary was starting to look a little freaked out, because it was also going faster.
“How do you catch it?” Jill asked, dodging as it went flying past her shoulder.
Gary had gone white. The proud, smug smile that had been on his face a second ago was gone, replaced with a bloodless grimace.
“I don’t know. It was…smaller when I caught it the first time.”
“What do you mean, smaller?” Phil asked.
“Like the size of a beebee.”
The thing was zipping around the office now, knocking things off desks, denting the wallboard. Pam and Jill ran into the break room to get away from it, and, after it hit her in the shoulder, Evie locked herself in the ladies’ room. The boys all stayed around trying to catch the thing, but it wasn’t like they could just put their hands out and catch it. It was the size of an egg and going so fast that it had broken the window of one of the offices.
Jill and Pam came back with a large metal bowl that still had the remains of jello salad in it. You know, the kind that looks like vomit. Pam took the plastic lid off the bowl, and Jill leapt around trying to catch it. She finally cornered it and it bounced into the bowl, and Pam shoved the lid on. She handed it to Gary, and he took the bowl in one hand and held the lid on with the other.
We looked around the office at the devastation. In five minutes, it had broken a window, put at least a hundred dents in the walls, knocked out one light fixture, and left not a single desk untouched. Before we could even talk about how we were going to explain it, Gary started to look panicked. He had one hand over the top of the bowl, but the ball inside was distorting the lid, stretching the plastic up toward Gary’s hand. The plastic was cracking, turning white even as Gary was trying to push the ball back down into the bowl.
Evie came out of the ladies’ room, looking around to make sure it was safe.
“Did you catch it?”
“Sort of,” Phil said.
I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before. Well, I mean, I know why, but, you know. We found a digital recorder, and Phil and Jill and Bert decided to make a funny car commercial. They had raggedy-looking steering wheels around their necks, and they did a silly little dance and talked about how we should all “Come on down to Bert’s Car Locker where you can still find a car that runs! Get ’em now before they’re all gone! HeeHEE!”
They did a stupid dance, and Pam and I laughed.
I looked out the window, but we were clear. Now that most of the buildings had been pummeled flat, it was easy to see it coming. There was nothing to hide the sight of a steel sphere the size of a van rocketing toward one. At first, we tried to avoid doing things to get its attention, thinking that if we wore the wrong colors or moved in the wrong way or exuded the wrong odors, it would be attracted to us and crush us flat. Some of us made effigies of it and made sacrifices and obeisance to it.
There was no way to stop it, save being encased in a similar sphere of your own. We tried making one, but it’s harder than it looks. Especially with plywood. Weapons didn’t affect it. Anything that didn’t hit it dead-on was deflected by its round surface. Anything that did hit it head-on made no impression whatever. Nuclear blasts had been aimed at it, and, other than making one side of it glow white hot for a while, no change was apparent to either its form or its movement. But I think the blasts made it hate us more.
Some people decided that it wasn’t sentient. There was no appeasing it, no angering it, nothing that they could to do alter its course. They developed a fatalistic mindset, going out just like they always did, living their lives as usual. Their ranks were thinning. Some relocated to caves and underground bunkers. They fared better, but we didn’t know much about them. Evie had decamped for New Mexico after Gary was killed when a movie theater they were sheltering in was crushed to rubble. I hope she got there. New Mexico must be a beautiful place, with horses and long, long rows of sausages, as far as the eye can see. And brown cars. I like brown cars the best.
We’re not sure now much longer we have. But that’s been true for as long as there’ve been people, hasn’t it? It’s still technically in our orbit, but it’s going fast enough that it could escape our orbital plane and establish its own. And yet, people still say that it’s not sentient. I’ve heard it thinking. I can hear its heartbeat. I can feel that it knows me. It’s wreaking havoc with the tides when it comes close, which is to say every month or two, despite the altars and offerings of the last of our frozen foods and hair. Its orbital period can’t be calculated, because it’s flight is as erratic as a bat’s. Nothing about it can be calculated, except its size, which has been increasing steadily. It’s now slightly smaller than the planet Mercury, but bigger than our moon. That’ll change by early next year, and in four years, it’ll be bigger than Mars.
I’ve chosen to call it Sama’el, and to make my offerings, and to accept my fate. In this life, can any of us do more than that?
I’ve done it. I’ve come out to the world. I’ve said it in public and can’t take it back now.
I can fly.
I’ve been able to do it for ages. It’s hard to describe how it works, really. You just sort of jump and then keep going. Steering is all about using your core. You have to have a strong core if you want to fly gracefully. Pilates helps. Fear of falling a very long way helps even more.
When I first told everyone, we’d been hiking all day and had made it to a spot on South Mountain from which you could see the southernmost reaches of Phoenix on the opposite side from downtown. You could actually see where the line of the city ends and the reservation begins. A stark line with slightly down-at-heel suburban stucco housing developments on one side and bare earth on the other.
We were taking turns taking each other’s picture on top of a rock overlooking the view and I said “Hey, guys! I can fly!” Of course everyone laughed, but Trudy did the stupidest thing. She pushed me.
It took me by surprise, and I fell a good 50 feet before I turned over and surged upward, describing a graceful arc back to where everyone else stood transfixed.
When I landed, everyone was stunned, but I was fuming.
“Trudy, what was that? If I had just been joking, you would have killed me. I would have gone tumbling off the cliff and died. Why did you push me?”
“Lighten up!” Dave said. “You weren’t hurt! You can fly! She didn’t do anything to you!”
“Hey, take me up! I’ll just climb on your back,” Perdy said, and came scrambling up the rock. I hopped down.
“I can’t carry anyone. You’re too heavy,” I said.
“I’m too heavy?” Perdy said, looking hurt. “Look who’s calling me too heavy! You’d think that if you can pull that carcass through the air, you could take little me.”
The rest of the hike back down was really uncomfortable. Trudy acted all hurt because I’d yelled at her, and everyone petted and coddled her as though she were the one who’d been wronged. They immediately treated me as though, by flying, I had done something mean and distasteful, like pulling a crude practical joke.
Lesson #1: People won’t be glad for you.
Flying feels wonderful. Having the wind rushing through my hair, being able to see for miles. That’s really nice. Then again, the higher I go, the colder it is. And when I’m really zipping along, the wind cuts right through my clothes. It’s also tough to find good flying clothes. If they’re too baggy, they flap uncomfortably against my skin. If they’re too tight, they restrict my movement. If they’re too heavy, flying becomes more chore than joy. I’ve settled on that high-tech long underwear that’s made out of plasticky miracle fabrics, and I only put it on when I want to fly.
I look ridiculous. I mean, there’s no disguising my big butt. And there’s especially no disguising it in something that looks like a Superman costume (minus the cape – what the hell was the cape for?). I already knew I looked like an idiot, but Trudy, Dave, Perdy and Karen were all happy to remind me.
I’d pretty much stopped hanging around them. They acted like I’d started flying just to have one up on them, and stopped inviting me out to do regular stuff. I was out flying around because I didn’t have anyone to go to the movies with when they spotted me. I was cruising close to the ground and I heard the familiar sound of their raucous laughter. I landed near where they were picnicking at El Dorado Park, and they immediately started making fun of my outfit.
“You look like 10 pounds of sausage stuffed into a 5 pound casing,” Perdy said.
“You’d think flying would be more aerobic, you know? I would think it would make you lose some weight,” Trudy said, taking a huge bite of sandwich.
I hadn’t said a word, and before the tears could spring to my eyes, I flew off as Dave was saying something I didn’t hear.
Lesson #2: Real people should not dress like superheroes.
It started with getting kittens out of trees. I did it for a while, too, until it was the same kitten for about the sixth time, and I was on my way to a hair appointment and the woman got really nasty.
“But she’s been up there for hours,” she whined.
“Then another hour and a half won’t hurt.”
“It won’t take you five minutes!”
“You’re ten minutes in the opposite direction from my hair appointment. Look, I can’t do it. And you know what? If you just leave her alone, she’ll get out of the tree all by herself.”
“Well, you’re the shittiest superhero I ever heard of,” the woman said before hanging up on me.
I stopped answering my phone after that. Who said I was a superhero? I certainly didn’t. I can’t carry anything heavy when I fly, so it’s not like I can fly up into the mountains and rescue stranded hikers or save airplanes from falling out of the sky. I’m not impervious to injury, as I find out practically every time I’m in the kitchen. And yet, because I can fly, people assume that I have a whole host of other unusual powers.
The chief of police asked me to infiltrate a drug ring. He wanted me to fly around the desert until I found where their big distribution point was, then tell the cops. I told him that I was scared of being seen as I flew around, and that the drug dealers would shoot me, if not right then, after I got home, since there’s nobody else I could be mistaken for. He told me I should turn invisible. When I asked him how I should do that, he acted like I was just being difficult.
The authorities have stopped trying to make use of my particular strength and have taken to just harassing me. I got in trouble for flying without filing a flight plan, but I beat that because I pointed out that the FAA regulates aircraft, and I don’t possess any kind of aircraft. Now they just hang around me when I’m doing normal stuff and ticket me all the time for things like parking too far away from the curb and going 36 in a 35 zone.
Lesson #3: If people can’t use you, they have no use for you.
I’m waiting for that part of my movie where the other people with superpowers show up and take me into the fold. I need someone to tell me how this works. How do I make friends with normal people again? How do I live a normal life? How can I make it through another day without feeling so lonely I just want to fly off the Earth entirely and die? Super my ass.
As I walk down Highway 9, I can smell the wet-redwood smell and hear the tinkle of the rivulets from the recent rain forming tiny streams that will trickle into the San Lorenzo River all of 20 yards away across the street. I feel awkward, unsteady on my feet, but otherwise fine.
I’m just passing the laundrette when a car with two people comes toward me from the south. The car pulls in, blocking the parking spots in front of the laundrette, and the driver, a woman in her 50s, smiles at me. Her passenger, a small man with a mustache, doesn’t look at me.
“You’ve been out long enough. It’s time for you to come back.”
I freeze. I don’t know this woman. I’ve never seen her before. I turn and run back the way I came. The woman has gotten out of the car, as though she meant to open a door for me or something, so she has to get back in and start the car back up. I run straight up the street, stumbling over redwood roots and clumps of foliage since there’s no sidewalk. Dashing across the street, I run down the driveway of a house set back from the pavement. The driveway slopes steeply downhill for about 50 feet and the entrance is partially obscured by redwoods, so I hope that the woman didn’t see me.
The morning overcast, compounded by the shade from the redwoods overhead, mean that the house is in shadows except for the kitchen. Through the open door, I can see a man at the table with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I don’t bother knocking.
“Help me!” I shout as I run across the threshhold and stop myself against the table. “There’s a woman chasing me! I’m afraid of her! Please, you have to help me!”
Cliff put his paper down. He was thin and slight, with a fringe of thin white hair that went from one ear to the other around the back of his head, set off by a deeply-tanned dome up top. He wore a vest and a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and had half-moon reading glasses perched at the end of his nose.
He looked across the table at the woman who had just burst into the kitchen. She was in her late 30s, maybe. Fit-looking, long, curling brown hair hanging lose around her shoulders, a face that would be attractive if it weren’t drawn with worry. She was screaming that someone was chasing her. He’d been expecting it. He put the paper down in front of him, exposing the photo of the same woman, taken at a time when she hadn’t felt under threat. I thought she looked pretty, but he didn’t care for her kind of looks. He was all eyes for his wife. I have a weakness for men who are in love with their wives.
Herb came in from the garage. He had heard the commotion and came to see what it was, and he stood in the doorway looking from Cliff to the woman, back to Cliff again.
When the second man comes in from another room, I feel like I have to start over in my story, although I haven’t really said anything. I can’t talk to the guy at the table because, in some ridiculous way, he reminds me of a shoemaker. The second one is fatter, with black, curly hair. The pink of his cheeks make him seem a little friendlier than the dour shoemaker.
“Help me. There’s a woman. She stopped her car in front of me and told me to get in. I’ve never seen her before,” I’m trying to create some kind of flow, some list of the facts that will make these two men understand why what just happened terrifies me, although the longer I stand in this cheerfully-lit kitchen in front of two men with quiet expectation on their faces, the less sure I am about why I was so scared.
“Who was she?” the shoemaker asks.
“I don’t know.”
“What kind of car was she driving?”
“A light tan sedan with white interior, but an older one.”
“Was she alone?”
“No, there was a man in the car with her.”
None of their questions sounds like they don’t believe me. They both look friendly and interested. I think if they thought I was crazy, they would look different, but I’m not sure how. I open my mouth to say something else, but I have no idea what else there is to say.
“I. I. I don’t think I’m … human.” I didn’t expect to say that. And still the men don’t look skeptical or condescending or even surprised.
Cliff pushed a button under the table. The bookshelf behind the kitchen table slid back to reveal a hidden niche with a phone in it. He picked up the phone and pushed its only button. “Gary? She’s here.”
Herb brought her a cup of tea and took her into the living room. He told her to take a seat on the sofa, handing her the tea once she was comfortable. He kept up a steady stream of soothing words, and none of them sounded like the kind of words one uses to keep a lunatic calm. They were more like the kind of words that one uses to reassure fellow combatants just before a battle.
“We’ll get through this. Help is coming. We’ve got a plan.”
Before anyone could talk about this plan, another woman burst through the now-closed kitchen door without knocking. The woman in the living room, hidden in shadows, froze, but Cliff and Herb regarded the new intruder.
“Hello! I’m sorry to burst in on you like this!” Her bright, cheery smile looked straight out of tv, and she pulled an iPad out of her shoulder bag. The screen showed the woman in the living room, in the same photo as the newspaper showed. Herb moved between the new woman and the kitchen table, and while he was obscuring the table, Cliff quietly folded up the paper like he was done reading it.
“A friend of mine is missing,” the woman continued. “I’m really worried because she needs medication and she’s missed several doses. She’s not well, and we need to find her before something bad happens to her.”
Neither man said anything, and both kept their faces pleasantly neutral, but as Cliff came around the table craning his neck like he wanted a closer look at the picture on the screen, he pulled a gun out and took a shot at the woman. His arm had been in motion and his shot went wide, the bullet hitting the wall behind her and to her left. The woman’s smile disappeared and she shoved her hand back into her shoulder bag, dropping the iPad and bringing out a pistol of her own, Herb had ducked behind the door to the garage and was shooting at her from there. Cliff crouched in the hall doorway. The woman was backing into the doorway she had just come in, but it was a mistake. She was exposed, and before a dozen shots had been fired, she was down. Where had the guns come from?
When the shooting stops, I get up off the couch. The woman’s body doesn’t look right. There’s whitish goo puddling on the floor, and swirls of oily black, and the skin around the bullet holes looks like burned fabric. The men are good shots – there are seven bullet holes in her.
“You okay?” the shoemaker yells from the hallway leading off the kitchen.
“I’m good. She grazed my arm, but it’s fine. You?” the fat one yells. I’m glad he’s not hurt.
“Never touched me. They’re lousy shots.”
The shoemaker comes back into the room and looks at me. “You should go back into the living room. There’ll be more of them.”
I bend and pull the iPad from the woman’s bag, but when I try to turn it on, the screen is locked so I can’t see it.
“Here, let me have that,” the fat one says, taking it gently from my hand and leading me back into the living room. I’ve just sat down when the man with the mustache comes in, gun drawn. I’m afraid to move, because I know that I’m in shadow, so as long as I’m still, he won’t see me.
The mustache man comes in, but before he can fire a single shot, the fat man, hidden in the shadows of the living room, shoots him three times in the head. Before he goes down, the mustache man turns and looks the fat man in the eyes, his face expressionless. He raises the gun, then falls over the body of the woman. I know that I should feel something about this. It’s not natural to be in a position like this and feel nothing. But apart from a confusion about who these people are and why they want to kill me, and I presume they do want to kill me, I feel nothing. I continue to stay absolutely still, and the two men talk so quietly in the kitchen that I can’t hear them.
From outside, more shots. It occurred to me to wonder how long it would be before the police showed up. The two bodies lay in the doorway, and Herb and Cliff had to sort of hop over them to get out the door. From inside I could hear voices, but because everyone was yelling back and forth, it was impossible to tell whether they were friendly or not. The woman was frozen, standing next to the couch, not even daring to turn her head to look around her. Only the occasional flicker of light against her moist, slick eyeballs betrayed their movement from the bodies in the doorway to the curtained window.
Through the window, only a sliver of the view shows through. The drapes are a golden color, and they frame the green of the shrubs outside like the filling of a pie oozing out when the golden crust is first cut. Flashes of color cut in front of the green and I get ready to duck, or to run, or to do whatever I will need to do, even though the woman is dead and I’m not sure that if someone I don’t know comes through that door I’ll know whether they’re friendly or not. Something nags at the back of my mind. Those things in the doorway. I can’t even call them “people” or “bodies” anymore because they look like nothing but machines. Am I like them? One of them? Are machines self aware? Does my computer miss me when I don’t open it up? Does my smart phone think I’m stupid? If I’m one of them, why did they want to kill me?
Did they want to kill me?
When Herb walked through the door, she almost burst into tears. She stumbled out of the living room, fell into his arms, stood there, weeping and shaking for a long moment. Once the crisis was past, he stood her back up and helped her sit down at the kitchen table. Cliff came in, followed by Gary. The men carried the bodies into the garage, saying nothing as they worked. When the bodies were gone, the woman stole back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She snuck the paper open, looking for the picture of herself. It was buried deep in the B section of the paper, on page 8.
I’m still not sure what I’m reading. I see my face, but I can’t make out the words. It’s like trying to read in a dream, where you know that it’s writing, but the letters morph, or they’re unfamiliar glyphs or they’re in nonsense configurations. But there’s my picture. It’s me. And I can’t understand why I’m seeing my picture and, at the same time, seeing me sitting at the kitchen table, looking at my picture. Is the me standing a few feet away being watched by another me who sees her seeing me seeing the picture? How far out does that recursion go?
The men aren’t back from the garage, and I can’t hear them talking or working or anything. I think it might be time to go. She folded the paper and left it on the kitchen table, shutting the door behind her as she went.
There’s the group of people you see at the baggage check-in. You scan the crowd, wondering how many of them will be on your flight. How many flights can one airline have leaving one airport at the same time, after all? There’s the young couple with a baby and far too much luggage, the rich older couple with no baby and far too much luggage, the gaggle of scruffy students, a whole herd of businessmen in indistinguishable rumpled dark suits, carrying either a laptop or the Wall Street Journal.
You move through the airport check-in process in this instacrowd of fellow-travelers, beginning to bond with them in preparation for the flight. Oh, good. The couple with the baby will be on this flight. There they are at the gate, handing the baby Cheerios which it flings onto the carpet in a 4-foot circle around them. Most of the students aren’t on this flight. This is the time of year they’re all heading toward somewhere coastal, and you’re not. But most of the businessmen are with you, ensuring that you will both not have to talk to anyone on the plane and that you will not get to use at least one armrest.
Now it’s a matter of narrowing down who’s going to sit near you. Not the baby. Please, not the baby. But it’s a couple. The man and woman each pull out something to read and talk neither to each other nor you. You sit by the window and put your jacket over your head and think that you might sleep for the two and a half hours it’ll take to get there. Maybe more. It’s raining now.
You won’t sleep. The plane jumps up and down in the air, a prop at the end of a string held by a small child bent on childish entertainment. The captain does not turn off the “fasten seat belt” light, and you wish that there were more straps to keep your head from hitting the seat every time the plane dips. The flight attendants can’t serve beverages and are still sitting in their fake little seats, their fake smiles rigid on their faces. The baby is hysterical.
The feeling of falling, powerful every time the plane dips, then less so as it recovers, comes on and does not stop, although no instructions have been issued by anyone. The sounds of the plane’s engines are being drowned out by the sounds of the passengers wondering what’s happening, gasping at each new jolt, someone near you has begun crying softly.
You take the jacket off your head and see that it’s the woman next to you who has put down her book and is now snuggled into her partner’s chest. He has wrapped his arm around her and is stroking her hair, looking around the cabin for someone to do or say something. The captain comes on the overhead to say that you’re experiencing “extreme turbulence” and that any passengers not in their seats should return to their seats at once and buckle up. He is going to land at the nearest airport.
The plane is going down. It’s below the clouds now, and you can’t see much out the window because the rain and ice are pelting it so hard that the windows are curtains of water. You hope there’s an airport below you to catch you.
There isn’t. The pilot announces that he’s making an emergency landing, and barks at the flight attendants to do something airplane jargony. The flight attendants do not move. There is nothing for them to do.
The jolts come harder and faster and it’s difficult to tell exactly when the plane hits the ground, except that the noise coming from the other side of the plane is the loudest thing you have ever heard. Even so, is this really happening to you? Things are being thrown around the cabin – women’s purses, paper coffee cups, magazines, and you wonder who will clean up the mess. The seats at the front of the plane suddenly seem to be going uphill, like you’re at the back of a roller coaster heading upward. People are screaming, but now the noise has a distant, tinny quality to it. Someone has gotten out of his seat, and he flies into the air and lands two rows back on top of three people who scream and try to push him away. A section of overhead bins toward the front cracks, breaks, falls onto the heads of the people below it who put their arms over their heads and scream. And now you’re wet and cold because the plane is sideways with a large hole in it where the rain whips in. You’re all still moving. The plane is still skidding along the ground, and it seems you’ve all been strapped to a bullet fired at the ground for an impossibly long time. You feel both weightless and leaden, and you can’t tell whether you’re breathing.
And then the cataclysmic noise stops, and all you can hear is the rain, and people crying. So many people are crying.