It was April 29 and the streetlights were flickering in and out. And yet—little miracle—power was still on at Fowler’s house. Barely. He still had water. Heat. The clock on his stove was blinking, so at some point in the night he’d lost electricity. Briefly. His house might go dark again. Would go dark. It was out of his hands.
The flood had come on hard yesterday, the answer to a season of mountain rain. They’d seen it coming, and all the clay-faces had been crying about it on the news. Whimper whimper out of their omen holes. Everybody run for the hills. But you couldn’t force people from their homes. According to law. You could scare them to higher ground, another town, a school gymnasium outside the flood zone. You could conjure the odds of survival, showing the footage of past disasters, a child’s sock in a ditch, the imprint of a little person in the grass. Most people would relent. They would scatter.
Most people. Excepting his truly. Fowler the Last, since there would be no heirs. He’d waited out the evacuation because certain projects flourished in an empty neighborhood. Houses hollow and without people. No one around to see. Most of what was really urgent to do necessitated a near total absence of the living. Hell yes, he was relieved, but there was a sack of undesired emotion inside him. His blood was on notice. It happened. Instincts boiled up, even in idiots. That was just his body. His body could be scared and so what. Fuck it. Death to all feeling soon, right? R.I.P. and whatever, because darkness forevermore. He wasn’t in charge of his feelings. It was kind of a relief. Just see where the secret engine pulled him and don’t show your goddamn cards.
It wasn’t yet morning. From his doorway Fowler could see a distant light burning in the hills. Given what he knew about the terrain, a light of that sort didn’t really compute. There were mud barriers up there, rock dams, and lookout blinds, sometimes with little huts attached. There was what was called a sluice. He’d been to a few of the huts. He knew the hills pretty well. You could enter a hut, go to sleep. No one bothered you. You could think of it as your own home when you wanted to. But there were no power lines at that elevation. Not even animals, really. He didn’t really like the word hideout. It had obvious problems. Connotations. You pictured a shootout. You pictured an old dirty bed with handcuffs on the floor, a shit stain on the wall. But he used it to himself as a kind of code. He knew what it meant. He could call it whatever he liked.
He found it hard not to worry. A light pulsing in the hills as if someone had just plugged in the eye of God where there were no plugs, no spotlights, no people. Was there a work crew dug in up there, and did that mean there’d been a significant mudslide, bringing a hut down with it? Which had suddenly necessitated some emergency work? With some daylight he’d have perspective. Shapes would come out and show themselves.
He held something of value in the hills, is why he cared. That was a safe way to think about it. Holdings. A lean. A claim. Nothing on paper, of course. Never that. You had to keep yourself from even thinking of these things in any detail. In case of what? Men, women, and children, first of all. Spies of varying skill sets, which was more or less the human race. Just anyone and everyone. People who were not whole. Certain citizens, just a mush of sadness on the inside, ached and pined and agonized unless they could lick your insides for whatever you knew. They had to sniff you over like you were a dog bowl and tear off a piece of your special core and just rub it all over themselves like a cream. Not that there were people who could stethoscope your thoughts. He wasn’t stupid. But the operating wisdom now was that you didn’t know who could hear you, see you, know you. Weren’t you the ultimate fool if you thought you had a secret free from detection?
He could drive into the hills now, is what he could do, to check things out. Make sure his, uh, hideout was intact. Not that the roads would hold. Not that his truck could even manage. Did it matter? Was he going to die if he didn’t know? There would be a checkpoint, and a conversation to navigate with whoever was policing the area, given the flood evac. Troopers in storm gear, waving their flashlights. The whole thing was moot, due to the roads, which at this point were probably washed out.
At sunrise Fowler stepped outside his house, closed the door gently so as not to disturb his wife. It would be pretty hard to wake her, he laughed to himself, because she wasn’t home. Hadn’t been for a good while. How funny that he kept doing that, tiptoeing around, being so careful, so quiet, because she always said his steps were too heavy. And not just that. She could hear him breathing in the next room. She told him he coughed too loudly, and once she said that when he coughed like that, with such a rumble, she felt threatened.
Threatened like he was going to hurt her?
She wasn’t sure. She said she didn’t control her own reactions. How was she supposed to just pretend it didn’t scare her? Did he want her to do that? She could try to do that. Would that make him happy, she asked, if when he did something she found frightening, she kept quiet and calm and acted like it did not upset her?
He didn’t want to smash her head in. Nothing like that. He would know if he regularly had thoughts like that. He wasn’t really that way.
Fowler wandered the waterlogged neighborhood, mud spilling over his Bogs. What a strange vacancy all around him, like everyone just had to get off the planet.
He wanted to be able to look up into the sky and see a stream of people, just slashes and dark marks, from this distance, shooting off and away from here. A proper evacuation. Just a full-on abandonment. That wasn’t something you got to see.
From Burdock Road to the Deering radial there were uprooted trees drifting by like canoes. The people who had left later in the day yesterday had left badly. Doors to some houses were still open, lights shining inside, which, if he didn’t have something else to take care of right now, he could be a good neighbor about and switch off. He bet there were cats. People often left a cat behind. During calamity. Fowler could pick a house, and go on in, and run into a cat or two. See who wore the crown then, who owned the planet. He didn’t really know who kept cats. You had to be a regular in someone’s house before you knew if they kept a cat. He got the occasional invite, but mostly he knew these houses from the outside. Sometimes the cats never came out when someone strange was over. The cats had an idea of their own safety and they practiced it carefully. People less so, which, well. A different attitude towards safety. Someone comes to your house, and you happen to be in the other room, you come out. You don’t crawl under your couch, mostly because of being polite. That would be a good chart to look at. Just all of the creatures and how they supervised their own safety. Strategies against harm, real or imagined. Success rates. Accurate or inaccurate view of a threat. Good choices, bad choices. How was the species doing overall, in relation to its enemies? So many charts he’d like to examine.
Anyway, if this all kept up for a few days—rain in the hills, loosening slabs of earth, which would hurl down upon them—he’d start to know who kept cats, and had left them. He’d hear them.
It was funny. To have waited so long for this opportunity, a time when no one was around and he could do as he pleased, go straight to the designated location, which he would not name to himself, and grab those items of interest, which he would neither name nor picture.
But the going was hard outside in the water. And something seemed wrong. Which, well, of course.
Waders. He had them at home. He should have them on now. The mud was pretty high in places. You couldn’t see through it. Walking through dark water, you had no real idea what you kept running up against, what was under your feet, what bumped your legs. Half of your world was blind. In reverse that would really be something. Sheer darkness above the belly. Moving through a cold, thick mass, unable to breathe or see, your legs kicking freely below as if dangling in space. That’d be a ride he’d pay for at the state fair.
Maybe he should return home, have lunch, and think through his plan again. He pictured himself at the table, his waders folded over a chair in the mudroom. Half a person with the bones removed. If only he’d already taken care of his errand, crossed it off his list. He had to do it now.
Slowly he aimed himself towards the girl’s house.
It was at the block party a year ago when his plan started to grow a sort of awful hair, and leak, and sort of slobber on him no matter what he did or where he went. Regarding the girl. The girl, the girl, the girl. Who created this inadequate language that rubbed all of the detail off a thing and still ruled supreme as the primary currency people hurled at each other to make themselves known and whatnot?
A block party last year. What the fuck. There was a fire engine parked on the street, and there were food tables, and the neighborhood association had rented a dunk tank.
Every so often, a great big splash sent water hurtling over the crowd, and a fat, shirtless man climbed out of the dunk tank, laughing.
Fowler came around to talking with some of the men gathered in the street. First he waited in line for a sausage roll. The one they gave him was sweaty and soft in his mouth. Something like a bone seemed to run the length of it.
“You caught yourself a beauty, there,” one of the men said to him.
Fowler looked down at it. In these situations, you could eat, and people understood you wouldn’t be answering right away.
Men were easy, in that as long as you showed you’d heard them, you could go a very long time without saying anything back. It was a mercy.
He knew that it was a little bit of an accident that he was a man. It would have been an accident of a different kind had he been a woman. It was a small accident, really, that he was a person in the first place. A chart of all those little accidents, along with drawings of his bones, adding up to who he was. Worth looking at, probably.
In his little group, the men were talking about hunting, even though only one of them seemed to do it. The others got by on saying how much they would like to do it, or intended to try it, once certain conditions were met. A season was beginning, the hunter was saying, or a season was ending, and then something else about traps. Where you put them, when you checked them, and how you baited them.
“Really, now,” the hunter said, “I just load the fuckers up with candy.”
The men all chuckled.
Fowler looked at them, one by one, and very nearly saw through their faces into something more. Punishing insights. Understandings. But it clouded over. He lived in an unpromising time; that was just a fact. A time of terrible ignorance. Too little information about what mattered the most. There wasn’t, as yet, a good tool to get a clear picture of exactly what others were thinking. This ability was probably on its way for people, a hundred years out, maybe. One hundred and fifty. Things would open up, in all sorts of ways. A method of getting in there and knowing something. But Fowler would be dead before such technology came along.
On his deathbed, even though he knew there would be no bed—he’d probably die in the wild—he wondered if he’d want to be told what was really in store for people, or if he’d rather not know. Deathbed. That was a joke. There’d be no bed. Fowler could picture himself, all too convincingly, running through trees, scrambling up a hillside, taking bullets to the torso. They’d itch going in, he figured. Itch and burn. He hadn’t been shot before, but it didn’t tax the imagination to picture it. It came to him sometimes almost like a memory.
The hunter went on about traps. You had to clean them after each use, and the process sometimes needed a hose, or even this thing, and he tried to make a drawing of it with his hands. He said one thing he saw in a trap was something he’d not forget. An animal eating candy with a jaw-clamp of knives sunk into its haunch. Almost happy. Going through the candy pretty slowly, sort of relaxed.
You heard a version of this story as a kid. Animals caught in traps chewed off a leg to escape. Fowler had to wonder. Obviously it hurt a little bit. You wouldn’t hope to get caught in a trap so you could have an excuse to chew off your own leg. That wasn’t something anybody would really want. But if you did have to do it, and you found yourself, as an animal, chewing into your own flesh, tearing it away, trying to gnaw through the bone, which was when the project got serious, was there ever a moment, even just for a second, when you felt like you’d been born to the job? A kind of pure calling? The slow destruction of oneself with one’s mouth? You’d be smart leaving room around categories like that, he thought. Just being careful not to believe that you know what there is to be known. You don’t.
They were standing in a circle, eating. Some of the men held little glass jars of beer. Fowler kept away from that. He took in all the liquid he needed at night.
The kids were out today, because everybody said that the block party was really for them. You did this kind of thing for the kids. And then you also took part in it, maybe also for the kids. You went to work for the kids. You cooked dinner for the kids. You cleaned up for the kids. When you had kids, according to the people who blasted Fowler with their views, what you did you did for them. Even when you had more kids, you did it for the kids you already had, and when you struck one of them in the face, everyone should know whose good it was for. Whereas if you didn’t have kids, like Fowler and his wife—despite a verbal project that circled the possibility, but had long since faltered—what you did you apparently did for yourself. Or maybe no one. To hear the parents talk, without kids you were nothing, a quarter person, a kind of costume that could be hung on a hook. You powered down in the evening and your body deflated in the corner. Someone could kick you down the street like a trash bag.
Some young people at the block party were making a disturbance. Fowler caught sight of the girl pretty quickly. The girl—this wasn’t really how he thought of her. It was just that the usual words had not been ideal when it came to the girl. They didn’t fully seem to function. There was too much slippage, like an electric short that kept them from sticking. He knew her name, but he wished he didn’t. In Fowler’s view the name didn’t suit her. It was like a small lie that needed to be owned up to. He had come to an arrangement with himself not to use it. He’d been to her house, watched her sleep, but she looked different out in the wild. Outdoors, on her feet, in motion.
The girl had on what looked like men’s pants and a sort of circus sweater. The pants were high waters and the sweater, too, but on her arms, like maybe she’d gone swimming and her clothes seized up, tried to vanish off her body. A creature who fell asleep for a very long time and woke up too large for her clothing. Her hair was piled in some kind of bundle as if her crafter had dropped it on her head from the sky. Because she was not ordinary. She had not been made in the normal way.
She was singing or she was shouting, and maybe what was making all of her friends laugh is that they weren’t sure which one. In a group of creatures, regardless of the species, there is sometimes one who seems to control the blood of the others.
Fowler tucked deeper into his sausage roll and saw all the men looking at her, not hiding it, their faces made of rubber and their eyes scratched from their heads, like in a picture.
As the girls walked by, the men turned small and strange. No one breathed. They just waited for the girls to get clear and then you could feel them catching up on their breath.
They again gave each other glances. Just a significant exchange of silence, trying not to break into pieces.
“Well, thank god I don’t shit in my own backyard,” one of them finally said, shaking his head.
“Hell, I don’t shit in my own toilet,” someone replied, and they all laughed.
A slight concern. The girl looked different today. Fowler had seen her asleep last week, a month ago. You didn’t keep records for things like that, because of course. He’d stopped in, taken a look, snatched some of her stuff, trucked it up to the hut, where a certain kind of situation was taking shape. A residence, a place, a grave. Today her face seemed filled with air. He squinted so she could be blurry. He hadn’t counted on this.
A bit more chatter happened, everybody seeming to silently agree that they wanted to destroy what they’d seen, that they could remove all the small parts of their bodies and make a pile there in the street. For someone to find later. Someone smart, a sort of scientist, who could look at it, throw his hand into it, and have a close enough idea of just what had happened in this place.
Then the men tensed up. “Shut up, shut up,” someone said, “here they all come.”
It was the wives, bombing at them from the other side of the street. They closed in pretty fast and acted like they’d missed all the fun.
“What are you all laughing about?” One of the wives turned to Fowler.
The Shebster wife, the Coramper one. He didn’t remember. Those sounded like fake names to him, like they had all lied about who they really were. It wouldn’t matter once their bones were exposed. He wanted to keep eating. A tough bit of cartilage was lodged in his mouth. He was almost done chewing. He’d do anything not to look at the girl. You had to follow a ration.
This wife was really on him.
“Tell us what these guys said or we will torture you,” she shrieked.
Fowler saw where this woman would be buried and he saw the weather for it, her children crying at her grave. If he really strained he could see the children themselves get old and bloat with fluid until they burst.
She touched him and he stopped eating. “Are you ticklish?” The men all watched.
Fowler was occupied with the larger question of how many ways the girl could look, doing different things, even long after she’d died. As bones, as powder, at night, having all of the different feelings, and if any of those ways would change what he felt should happen—that she and Fowler should combine themselves in a remote location. Even the girl’s father, whom Fowler had seen, and once spoken to, had, buried in his face, something that drew Fowler in. So it wasn’t the girl in particular, was it? Maybe the father would do, or the mother, or, if it were possible, ancestors going back further, if you could arise out of where you lived and drift into the past, to make selections. Because the attraction—even though that was the wrong word, really—was just the cells, and the blood. Just such a precise arrangement of them, regardless, really, of the carrier, rendering her face and body just so. Maybe the girl herself didn’t matter, even if she seemed to hold a more concentrated level, as if a strong dose of it had funneled down into her for the time being. He couldn’t ignore that. He’d be lying to himself. Barring new technologies, the girl would get old. She wouldn’t always look this way. What would he want from her as an old woman? It was a problem.
The tools didn’t really exist for him to scrape what he needed into a bottle.
“Marjorie,” the woman called over to Fowler’s wife. “Hey, Marjorie, I caught myself a big one!” She’d grabbed Fowler now and he started to sway, eating his sausage again, trying to smile in just the right way for the guys.
The other wives looked down and laughed. The laughing had changed. It didn’t make him feel good to hear someone say his wife’s name. It never had. Early on, when they were first just getting to know each other and he hoped to show her some of the paths in the foothills, before they had embarrassed each other with nudity, he wondered if that meant they should not be married. Her name wasn’t entirely her fault.
Marjorie was nearby, in a circle of people, and she didn’t seem to immediately notice she was being called out. When he saw her he could tell she didn’t want to look up—she had on her do not disturb face. She’d be gone in three months, leaving with no argument, the two of them nearly shaking hands. He wanted to keep these people from bothering her. But she looked over at them anyway.
“What do you say?” the wife asked, pointing her finger right into Fowler’s body. “Is this one ticklish? Your husband! Is he?”
Marjorie shrugged, and it was like they all suddenly felt the same thing, with this woman’s finger pressing into Fowler, as if she knew what she was looking for, when really she had her hand in something she should not be touching. The group quickly fell quiet. Maybe each of them, in their own way, was picturing themselves being launched off the street, as Fowler was, and propelled high up into the air, rapidly hurtling through space. Their faces spreading in the wind as it rushed by them, and all of them looking down at their whole neighborhood, where everything had turned so small. Killable, dismissible, unreal. There wasn’t really such a good word for how it all looked from up there where he was.
Now Fowler was out in the neighborhood, just where the block party was a year ago, and everyone was gone, evacuated. He could do what he liked. The streets were empty. Yesterday some vehicles had lifted in the muck and floated off. The biggest things, in the right weather, were suddenly weightless, beautiful. Should not people, on occasion, float past one another, weightless and rolling? The problem with the laws of physics was repetition, dullness. There was a kind of deep insult buried in the way the world was designed.
Pretty much everything was hidden by a rumbling flow of mud. Some houses were seeing damage. Was it the worst thing ever? Mud, they all knew by now, because you heard it on the news every time the rain started, slid down from Moyer Creek, which nearly ringed the town from above. Nearly. From space the creek might look like a broken circle, a circle with a tear in it, where some beast had maybe broken through. But today you couldn’t really look into the hills and think the mud was coming from just one place anymore. Someone long ago had named the area a basin. Not a scientific term. In the neighborhood they called it a bucket because it did fill right up.
Stupid to put houses in it. Stupid to put people there. True of any place if you took the long view. Pretty much any location anywhere featured its own notable extinction. Sudden death for all involved. But people did not exactly get to see a list, for example, of all the people who had died in the place they were thinking of living, in the exact coordinates where they happened to be standing. Plus how they died, going back a good enough ways to give them the picture they really were entitled to have. Probably it would be unbearable to know. Who died here. And here. And here. How they died. When. Probably no one would care to know. But still, freedom of information. If you felt yourself to be strong enough, you should be allowed to know.
There was probably an ocean here long ago. And before that, what, maybe hot plains, they said, too hot even to stand on. Jungle, too. And sharp beds of coal. A meadow of knives, Fowler had read somewhere.
Fowler had to figure that, throughout history, one animal had hunted another in this very spot. What were the larger observations one could make, in terms of who escaped, who was caught, who was eaten? You could think that you walked down the street in your town, but you didn’t. You participated in something else entirely.
A chart depicting every creature who passed this way, going back to the beginning. Did they know they were in danger? Did they intend harm to others?
When he got to the girl’s house, it didn’t take him long. Her bedroom was off the kitchen, and not upstairs with the other bedrooms. Nobody was home but Fowler couldn’t help calling out. He instantly regretted it. What if there were a recording instrument? They’d have captured his voice. Except nonsense. That was nonsense and he knew it. In the entryway, dripping mud, he debated between boots or socks. Which sort of footprints were called for? A pair of clogs in the shoe rack solved the problem. Belonging to the girl’s father, no doubt, owing to their size. Perhaps for gardening, or cooking. He pushed his mud-caked feet into them, then clomped to the girl’s bedroom, the same way her father must have done many, many times.
It had taken a little bit of hiding to be able to stick around yesterday, when the patrols came through on bullhorns. Men at the door pounding away. Everyone barking in animal voices. You shouldn’t have to take cover in your own house. But the county had learned its lesson from last time, when no one got out, no one was scared enough, no one wanted to be troubled. It was last year’s flood that had them all crazy. The bunch of little people they’d lost to it, just around the corner from here. The Larsen boys and their friend whose name Fowler always forgot. Everyone acted like their own children had died. You had to be prepared to discuss the matter, and be silent about it, too, when that was called for, for a long while after that. So no one was fooling around this time. They were going to scoot off and play it safe.
Not him, though. A couple of items could get scratched off his to-do list if he sat this one out and had the place to himself. He’d squatted under a window for most of the day, crawling here and there for supplies, and clocked a good bit of the mayhem going on outside.
It wasn’t as if a monster had stormed through town. But, still, that was something out of a movie yesterday. The Baldwins could sure hustle. Sometimes it was good to see other families, like the Baldwins, just fall over on their own lawn, squirming in the rain. He didn’t mean that it was good to see the Baldwins suffer. He wasn’t like that. He didn’t enjoy a family down on their front lawn like that, not especially, with one of them resorting to words. Very nearly coming to blows. That wasn’t something he was aware he enjoyed.
It was just that there were certain people you have known for a long time, since before there were children between them. The Baldwins, when he’d first met them, always seemed to have such hot, red skin. They were always exercising. But then, of course, winter, fall, winter, illness, accidents, another winter, years and years of rain, all told, and then whoever had been working on the Baldwins, crafting them just so, seemed to have finished the project and moved on. The Baldwins were complete. Tag ‘em and bag ‘em, he thought. But still alive, of course. He wasn’t imagining them dead already or anything like that. You could picture someone dead without wishing they were dead. Those were two different things.
The point being, even though you didn’t realize it, you’d come to a very fixed opinion of the Baldwins. A threat assessment. Mrs. Baldwin, for instance, had not seemed capable, in all the time he had known her, of making those sorts of sounds, which yesterday traveled easily into his house, as if she were standing right next to him, and also what she did with her body to her children. It had helped him, watching from the window, to realize this. A creature has a secret. You should never think it doesn’t.
Surely his neighbors had likewise watched Fowler out in his yard, shoveling the walk, washing his car. He painted the house every six years. He cleaned the chimney every fall. He didn’t shingle his own roof, but he was out there when the roofing crew staged their scaffold, and he could huddle and confer when it was called for, participate in various tribal formations. A certain message had been sent. He controlled the evidence. His neighbors must have felt they had a pretty good idea of him. Their sense of what he could do.
The question was, did Mrs. Baldwin know everything there was to know about herself? Or had she been surprised?
In some sense, the person doing the crafting—whoever crafted the Baldwins—almost owed it to them, to let them know their full capabilities up front, so there weren’t just these sudden surprises in terms of anger or actions that the person had maybe long ago ruled out for herself. Obligations should be met. It wasn’t right that a person should have a hidden feature and not know about it.
Luckily he’d found a backpack to stash the stuff in. If the girl cared for the backpack, which he figured she must, since it was on her bed, then that was one more thing she’d be pleased to see.
When he got her up to the hut. After he’d solved some of the logistics. Acquisition. Transport. If the hut was even there anymore. So far, when he pictured it, he could not summon any shapes out of the darkness. The visualization was proving difficult. One’s imagination often failed.
Fowler walked home, the backpack raised over his head. He was careful not to get anything dirty, impossible as that was. If anyone came along, it’d be a sorrow, but he could sink the backpack into the mud. Objects like that seemed to reappear in the girl’s room over time, in different colors and shapes, so he could always fetch them again, but, well.
At home, Fowler stashed the girl’s backpack, peeled off his mud-stiffened clothing and dropped himself into the hot bath. He warmed a soup for lunch, then dialed into the news. A water volume report was coming up later in the hour. Numbers on the flood so far. How much of it there still was to come down. To rise up. That would be a good number to know.
The news never reported on the mountain roads. Too few people lived up there. Possibly no one. A crushed hut wouldn’t make the news.
The girl’s diary listed her top 10 favorite things. Some of them were people. Her mother and dad. But they weren’t invited. They had spent enough time with their daughter. Time’s up. Other items could be crossed off the list. If a hut came down, and its contents spilled, what would they find? A girl’s pillow. A basket of stuffed animals. In the backpack today was a poster he’d had to fold. When it went back up in the hut, with a thumb tack, it would have creases. There were four little guys in the poster. No names. They looked stunned, like they’d opened up the wrong door. One of them held a raccoon.
A set of markers and a pad. A blanket with a picture pattern of some people Fowler couldn’t place. Certainly they were famous. More stuff from that top dresser drawer. He would just reach in and see what came back out. He tried not to interpret it. What you did on a dig was you collected artifacts and kept your own ideas out of it. Your own ideas almost always led to trouble.
He could just as well take a sliver of wood from the floor in her room. A divot of Sheetrock from inside her closet. All throughout the house, her yard. He could scrape enough pieces to where, at the mountain hut, there would have been enough. Where did it stop, and why not her father, her mother, her friends? All of them brought, in pieces or whole, to the hut, which could never hold it all. It was all getting too crowded already, but there was no way to know where it ended.
What you’re trying to do is make yourself whole. Which it’s stupid to think another person’s bones can’t help you with. And then the thing of not shitting in your own backyard.
In the same way it didn’t pay to say the girl’s name, it didn’t pay to think about her. It didn’t pay to go into her house. It didn’t pay to leave her house alone. It didn’t pay to know where she went to school and what her schedule was each day of the week, when school let out and practice began. Band or sport. Musical instrument or study group. Nothing paid. You got an answer and nothing broke open. Something still felt closed off, unfinished. Was it an imperative to seek out what did pay? Was there an obligation to be met?
Two creatures, built of cells, fueled on blood. A system of bones at the core. If they died in the same area, or were buried together, and then, hundreds of years later, were found by archaeologists, the archaeologists might easily think that they had stumbled across the remains of a single creature. There would be a way to reassemble these bones, of him and the girl, for instance, if they had died or were buried together in the same area, into one beast on their wire frame. There would be redundant bones, two of each, but a bigger and a smaller, and it would be just as easy to tell a story about this creature, to create an exhibit, to show it to children, or whatever they called their young, who could stand and look at it in awe.
The carcass of a single creature. It was just that the bones of this creature had gone into scatter, and they needed to be gathered up. Put in one place.
At around dinnertime, a trooper came to the door.
The sun was going down. A disgusting spectacle. It wasn’t a given that the sunset would be something universally considered beautiful. At the outset of things, when that feature was put into place, he didn’t think it was at all a given.
There were two troopers when Fowler opened up. One right there on his doorstep, the other leaning against a Jeep down in the street. Water to his knees.
“Evening rounds,” said the trooper. “Safety check. Passing through. Saw that your lights were on.” The trooper squinted past him into the house.
“OK,” said Fowler. “All’s well here. We’re doing fine.”
Lots of lights on all over the neighborhood. Was the trooper going to every house?
They stood talking on the steps.
A bad spot of weather, they agreed. Too much rain collected in a place that couldn’t hold it. So down it came. Pretty fast, actually. The trooper had once used his speed gun on a flash flood, he told Fowler. Clocked it faster than a car. And if the ground was too warm, and too goddamn loose, then forget it. Too much of the mountain peels away and you can’t stop it.
Fowler agreed. He had often stood with another person, discussing recent phenomena, and found agreement on everything that could not be done. It was shameful to bond over powerlessness. Shameful. Here he was doing it again.
“Anyone else home?” Asked the trooper. “Wife?”
“No, Sir,” said Fowler. “She’s up in Rooneville.”
“Not yet.” Fowler crossed his fingers and held them up. Wish I may I wish I might.
Just words in his head he would not share.
“OK, well,” said the trooper. “I’m supposed to do my best to talk you folks out of your houses. That’s my best. I’ve done it.”
“Oh yeah, other people stuck it out?” Fowler asked, looking up the street. He’d seen no one today. Heard nothing.
Witnesses, was the worry. Except what had he really done? Just the one home invasion, although that was a strong way to name it, with no one being home.
“A few folks. Here and there. Holed right up like you, no doubt. But look, we could get you to dry ground, no charge. Pack a bag real quick. Better safe than sorry.”
“Right. Or both.”
“Safe and sorry.”
Well, he should not have said that.
“Sorry about what?” asked the trooper.
He couldn’t find an answer. This man sure could talk and now here Fowler was, answering.
“Just a lot of suffering,” Fowler said finally. “For the people who suffer. I’m sorry about it.”
The trooper gave Fowler a pretty long look.
“Anyway, good thing you’re up here on this rise.”
“Good luck for us,” agreed Fowler. “Plus the stilts.”
“Got the house up on stilts. Even last time with, what was it, six feet of it coming right through town, we kept it pretty dry in here.”
“Good for you,” said the trooper. He looked around. “You’ve got a nice little situation. You all take care.”
“We had the work done when we bought the house. Never could have gotten a mortgage without it.”
Stupid to keep talking. When someone leaves the conversation, you let them go. That was obvious. Never keep talking. Just let them go. If he ever had to write a manual, for how to be a person, that would be in there, right at the top. Just look for the silence and be the first to seize it.
The trooper turned back. “So, no children in the house, huh?”
That seemed to be a funny way to ask. Fowler looked at the trooper and tried to make the question go away with his face.
“No,” he said. Simple was best. It also happened to be true, which made him more uneasy.
Fowler saw himself doing unspeakable things. That didn’t mean he’d do them. He’d come to terms with that difference a long time ago.
“I had to ask,” explained the trooper, waving as he left.
Had to ask. Fowler knew the feeling. He thought of all the things that he had to ask, too, and that he never would ask. The things he wouldn’t say. The things he wouldn’t think. Statements waiting inside him, if only the right listening device were deployed.
He couldn’t sleep so well that night. Rain and mud and rain again, and then a shudder in the house, a kind of low thunder that shook the room.
Weather like this could peel back a mountain. A hut had no foundation. It sat on rocks. When the earth softened to mud, and the rocks shifted, then the hut was nothing. It was merely another grave, unearthed, sliding off, with no bodies in it yet. No one questioned an empty grave. It was often just mistaken for a hole. No one noticed that empty graves were everywhere, inside houses and out, on mountains and right in town. Areas being readied for the dead. All areas.
Fowler had to feel it didn’t matter. He was in his grave already. They both were. He and the girl. Their graves were on the move. The question was how best to stop them, fix them in place. That was the question.
When he finally got out of bed, in pure darkness, he confirmed that his power was down. Streetlights, too. Nothing in the hills. No light, and too little sound. Water and heat and everything, finished for a while. How he had kept power this long was a mystery.
How big the outage was, along with its long-term forecast, would remain unknown for a bit. He had a radio that took batteries, but the men who spoke on the overnight broadcast had little to say. Farmers and thinkers and worriers. Sensibilities from another time. Imaginary creatures with old sad voices whose message, perhaps, had never been clear. If they ever had information he could use, he’d found, they withheld it from him, in ways that could seem intentional. A promise of what they might be discussing, which they never did discuss.
He had a flashlight. He had a telephone land line that used to work, though he hadn’t checked it in a good while. Phone calls were not his specialty, though he was capable of receiving them should one come along. He’d be ready.
Probably he had candles and matches if he wanted to go and look. This was the sort of thing you did when you had a partner in the darkness, a blackout friend, Marjorie used to say. Light up some candles and make a home out of it. Marjorie had always been pretty good about keeping a kit for times like this. She’d get him to fill the tub with water, to help the toilet along when the pump was off. You’d want to move that water out of your home. Keep a little bucket by the tub. Sometimes the bustle and panic was for nothing, and sometimes he was grateful that she’d thought of it.
For a minute he wondered if she was out of power wherever she was, too, but then figured that it wouldn’t be too likely. Not that he knew for sure. Rooneville was just a town name he’d given the trooper. There were lots of good town names, each of them as likely as the other. Each the name of some place you went to die. You could give them out and they seemed to work. She was asleep somewhere, he would bet, unless she’d gone and leapt a time zone, which wasn’t really like her. She was safe and warm. She would wake up soon and make tea. He could see it as if it was happening right in front of him. He could hear her voice anytime he wanted to.
Probably what he would do was sit up and wait for morning. The time right now was unclear. It could be midnight or it could be 4:00 a.m. Something might have happened and he would not know it. Something big. He hoped it was closer to day. Waiting wasn’t his specialty. From his kitchen window he could look to where the sun would be, expecting advance notice of some kind, but right now there was nothing out there, no lights in the hills, none in the sky. The power outage would seem complete. From far away was the whole planet dark? He’d wait a little bit, then get up and look, then wait again, and then, maybe, if things seemed stuck out there, in terms of the sun, some kind of rupture, he’d move his chair to where he wouldn’t even have to get up. He could sit there looking for it, be the first to see it, a front-row seat.
Some people, apparently, suffered a mental disturbance where they were afraid the sun wasn’t going to come up. It was a fear and it had a name. His wife had read about it. She said these people had to be consoled at night, but you couldn’t console them. There was a kind of therapy for it, but she didn’t remember what it was. Supposedly it didn’t much help. They were as certain as you could be about anything. They fought you off and yelled.
Fowler pictured these people in a dark house, holding each other, trembling. When the sun finally came up they stood and shook themselves, relieved. They’d be embarrassed, apologizing to everyone. What a lot of fuss over nothing. They kept looking out the window to make sure the sun was still there. Weeping and hugging each other, shaking their heads, feeling foolish. Then the day, of course, advanced, took a left turn, deepened, the afternoon came on strong, and they felt a pull again, a terrible suspicion. They went outside, staring and pointing, and they watched and wept, holding each other as tightly as they could, as the sun went down again, for what genuinely felt like the last time on earth.
A fear like that doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Some people always knew, ahead of all the others, what to be watching out for. One day, sooner or later, those people wouldn’t be wrong.
And where would he be? He wondered. Would he be complete? Would he have done whatever it took, no matter what, to make himself whole?
Ben Marcus is the author of several books, including The Flame Alphabet, a novel, and Leaving the Sea, a collection of stories. His work has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. Most recently he is the editor of an anthology, New American Stories.