Cassidy had finished watching the Miss America pageant—or had watched her fill of it, anyway—and left the living room to go sit in her bedroom, on her bed, in the dark and by the one window that looked out upon the road where all the other houses were gloomy-eyed with sleepy apathy. A streetlight glowed sullenly, cutting across the road and etching the bare oak tree and fence from the rural murk that spread like a black ocean farther down the neighborhood. Beyond the fence, the black hills rose up toward a star-spangled sky, and below it— lost in shadow—the interstate lay lurking, distinguished solely by the red and yellow and orange lights that sped along its heady darkness.
Cassidy’s mother was not home, and likely would not be home until the morning. She had another date with a man who smelled of car grease and had a greasy smile. Cassidy called him Greasy Greg, and tried not to think about him or his mother being out together. It just made her angry.
Miss Ohio had made Cassidy angry, too. When asked by the host what was wrong with the world, she had said, “Loneliness”. As if such a pretty woman knew anything about loneliness, Cassidy thought bitterly. Miss Ohio had hundreds of thousands of social media followers—people who adored her—and likely never had need of help or attention or friends. Cassidy didn’t even have a cell-phone, and didn’t have any friends. She knew people at Fairdale Middle School, but they were acquaintances, not friends. None of them called her on the landline at her mother’s rental house; no one wanted to know her phone number. Besides, people didn’t really talk on the phone anymore. Her classmates texted each other, both in class and out of it, and Cassidy came home everyday after school to an empty house, her mother working 2nd shift at the local gas station. And when her mother wasn’t scheduled to work, she had dates; dates with men like Greasy Greg. Cassidy understood why, however. Her mom had been alone for years since Cassidy’s father left— or “got hit by a train”, as her mother sometimes said bitterly—and now Cassidy was old enough that her mother could date again. Cassidy told herself that she did not mind that her mom was dipping into the dating pool again. She just hated the fact that her mother dragged the bottom of the sea when she went fishing, and often came up with slippery, slimy eels.
Cassidy was more often than not bored at home when her mother was away. Today she cleaned the bathroom and cooked herself some beans and rice for dinner. Cassidy was not anything if not productive. She received good grades in school, if for no other reason than she would spend her time reading her schoolbooks ahead of the teacher to pass the long hours of solitude. Consequently, she was bored in school— having covered the subject days ago— and would spend her time daydreaming in class, or simply watching her fellow classmates and trying to understand how they thought, who they were, and the dynamics between them. She knew which boys had crushes on which girls, and which girls had crushes on which boys. She lived vicariously through them, or so it seemed to her.
Cassidy’s mother could not afford an internet connection, and kept the cellphone on her person in case of emergencies. Cassidy was only ever supposed to call her mother’s cellphone on the landline if there was an emergency, and was berated when she would— at least twice a week—call her mother for no other reason than to try to speak about everything except what she wanted to honestly say.
And what Cassidy wanted to honestly say was that she was miserable.
A truck roared down the street, its bright headlights flooding Cassidy’s eyes and skull with obnoxious luminosity. Often she went to bed early— even on weekends— but sometimes she felt restless; her insides squirming with anxiety. Tonight she felt no anxiety; only a hollow numbness.
“Neanderthal,” she said absently, blinking as the afterimage of the truck’s headlights swam across her vision, like paramecia in a midnight pool. She continued to sit by the window, staring out into the black, empty night as the taillights of the truck disappeared into the darkness. She wished she could channel the radio waves and satellite signals that pulsed across the earth; that she could hear conversations between girls and boys her own age, and see their texts, and disdain them their presumably vapid conversations.
“They’re so shallow,” she said.
The silence answered her, and the numbness. She sighed, and fought the urge to go to the living room and call her mom. On some nights Cassidy would leave the tv on, with the volume up loud, so its chatter fended off the silence of the small rental house. She wished she had a dog, at times, or a cat, even if the house itself reeked of the previous tenants’ cats, her mother fumigating it daily with scented candles and deodorizing spray. Even now Cassidy’s room smelled like cat urine and lavender. She did not know which smell was worse, and would keep the window open on warm nights to let in fresh air.
Cassidy really, really hated Miss Ohio. Who was she to lecture anybody about loneliness? Who was she to receive applause for stating something like she did? To Cassidy it was as if a fully-abled person was preaching to a quadriplegic about being handicapped. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. The idiots in the audience couldn’t see how it was, but Cassidy could. Miss Ohio? More like Miss Sayonara.
Cassidy stared out her rented window toward the black hills. They rolled upward and downward like the body of a giant asleep beneath a blanket of shadows. There was a soft white smudge of light pollution from the distant city, cradled in the valley between the two hills. The water tower stood atop one hill, its red light atop its bulbous head blinking. Occasionally, the triangularly-arrayed lights of an airplane passed over it. A radio tower, too, blinked in the darkness, like a cyborg’s spine. Cassidy blinked, too, and felt something wet drip down her cheeks. She tried to concentrate on the tower, as if it was her own spine, its pulsing beacon her own mind. But silence and solitariness remained.
Cassidy stood up, wiping off her cheeks, and started toward the door. A light flashed at her back. Passing headlights through the window, she thought. She reached the door, then stopped. She did not have to turn around to know she was not alone. There was someone in the room with her. She turned around.
The light was gone, but silhouetted against the backdrop of the window was a figure. It was not entirely human. Its head was too large, its limbs too thin and winnowed. It wore no clothes, its gray skin slightly wrinkled. Large, dark almond-shaped eyes stared at Cassidy from a face pinched toward a small slit of a mouth. The eyes did not blink. They only stared. Cassidy stared back, inert with surprise and alarm. The light flashed behind the figure again— drowning the world in light—and Cassidy felt herself floating while a roar rose in the back of her brain, a roar louder than any truck or train or airplane, and she screamed silently inside her skull.
The flash of light consumed her, as did a whirling sense of languid vertigo, and when she came to rest she was immobile upon a table. Three figures peered over her, their overlarge black eyes unblinking. There was a distant pain— everything happened at a distance, it seemed— and she watched herself prone upon their cold metal table, simultaneously looking up at herself in the eyes of the creatures around her; as if she was both the reflection in the eyes and the black eyes themselves, looking down. Looking down.
Cassidy woke in her bed, blearily blinking at the cold, silvery dawn through her window. Her head throbbed and there was a sharp pain behind her left ear. When she rose from bed, a wave of nausea swelled from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat, spiraling. Staggering on wobbly legs to the bathroom, Cassidy bent over the toilet just in time to spew out last night’s popcorn and pretzels. Breathing heavily now, she righted herself with effort and went to the sink to clean up. In the mirror her eyes looked tired, circled with black rings to underscore her sleeplessness. Using a hand mirror, and the mirror over the sink, Cassidy attempted to look behind her left ear, pulling her long black hair up and out of the way. The area was sensitive and red, as if aggravated, but there was nothing otherwise unusual. No lesion. No scar. Not even a pimple or bug bite.
After washing her mouth out with baking soda, Cassidy went into the living room. It was a Saturday and her mother was not home yet. She had stayed at Greasy Greg’s house, it seemed. Cassidy wasn’t in the mood for food— her stomach was still queasy and her head spun like a top about to fall down—so she sat down on the old, faded loveseat to rest. She did not turn on the tv, but she did stare at her reflection in the black screen.
The black screen reminded her of black eyes, and how she saw herself supine in those black eyes, and saw herself laying down beneath those black eyes, as if looking from those void-like eyes. She shuddered and told herself it was all a bad dream. Maybe, she thought, this fear would vanish sooner or later, much like the hurt she felt last time she tried to talk to her father.
Cassidy heard her mother’s car puttering down the highway. It was just after nine when her mother pulled into the driveway. Her mother came in through the backdoor, probably thinking Cassidy was still asleep. Her mother was smiling, her hair disheveled.
“Morning, Cass,” her mother said, not even embarrassed. “Been up long? Hungry?”
“No and no,” Cassidy said. “Late night?” she added, more caustic than curious.
“Early morning,” her mother said lightly. She had that dreaming faraway look of love in her eyes that some of Cassidy’s classmates had when Peter Armstrong flirted with them, oblivious that he flirted with all of their friends.
“The car sounds pretty awful,” Cassidy said.
“Greg is going to fix it,” her mother said. She went to the fridge and took out a carton of milk, drinking straight from the container. Her mother was a pretty woman— most men said so—and she had blonde hair and blue eyes. She was even prettier thirteen years ago, before Cassidy was born. She could have been a Miss Ohio. Cassidy had not inherited her mother’s beauty. She had, instead, her father’s dark hair and brown eyes and wide jaw, along with several other things she never wanted from him, like his non-apologies.
“Greg is a Greasemonkey,” Cassidy said. It was not a question.
Her mother giggled, nearly spilling the milk. She lowered the carton and beamed at her daughter. A white mustache of milk innocently gleamed above her lips, mingling with smeared lipstick. The latter was not so innocent.
“He’s a keeper is what he is,” her mother said. “A real gentleman.”
Cassidy muttered. “If you say so.”
Her mother acted as if she did not hear her, chugging again from the milk carton.
He’s still better than your deadbeat daddy.
Cassidy gawped, dismayed and pained. Her mother could not have said it and yet her voice sounded in Cassidy’s head as if she had. Her mother was no ventriloquist, so Cassidy was confused. She dismissed it as a fancy of her imagination and her own anger. She went into the living room and read a schoolbook while her mother took a shower and went to bed.
“Wake me up at two,” her mother said as she wrapped her beautiful blonde hair in a towel.
Cassidy did what she was told, and kept her tears to herself.
Cassidy walked along the road that ran parallel to the interstate, divided from that deadly barrage of traffic by a fence, a rambling cluster of trees, and undulating land that changed from valley to hill, obscuring and revealing the afternoon traffic in turns. The road was fringed with ditchlines crowded with the dead wildgrasses of Summer, all tall and vividly colored like rusted orange. The fields were still green and lush, though they were yellowing in patches. Black trees stood stark in the warm blue sky, contorted and ugly in their nakedness. It was closer to the beginning of Winter than it was to the beginning of Fall, but the sun was bright and the air was warm and it felt closer to Summer than Fall.
This road led beneath the interstate overpass— beneath the large square columns of concrete— and on toward the gas station where her mother presently worked. Her mother did not like Cassidy walking that road alone. Kidnappers and murderous motorists sprang everywhere along that road, or so her mother seemed to believe. The last time Cassidy walked this road she went to visit her mother in the gas station. Her mother had made quite a scene, chastising her daughter and, ultimately, driving her home. At least her mother was talking at her, if not to her. It was better than the silence. Even so, Cassidy resented the lie her mother told her. Her mother claimed she was upset because her boss did not approve of children staying at the gas station while their parents were working. It was a “distraction”. But Cassidy knew it was because Greasy Greg was lingering there and her mother did not want her daughter scaring away her newfound beau.
As Cassidy walked the road, she looked at the houses and trees and trailers that she had seen a hundred times before. The houses were of the keenest interest for her. She always wondered how people of “fuller families” lived during the weekends. Sometimes she glimpsed children playing in their yard, or a father on his patio, grilling hamburgers, or a mother tending to her flowers in her garden. She rarely saw teens her own age. Either they were indoors and online or texting each other, or they were at the mall in the city, hanging out and being bored together. There were sometimes a few skateboarders by the abandoned granary, skating around and performing tricks and laughing at each other near the collapsed silos. The last time she looked at them they made obscene gestures and called out to her. She walked more quickly down the road, and was always hesitant to pass that part of the road, crossing instead to the farthest side and walking behind a clump of fat-skirted cedars.
Cassidy did not walk for exercise, nor to keep out of the small confines of the house. Those were benefits in conjunction, but not the primary goal. The primary goal was to glimpse as much life as she could that was not her own. The kids playing, the parents working, the birds flying and the cows grazing: such things did not so much as please her as distract her. She surrounded herself in a crowd of things held at a comfortable distance. It was the same as at school: surrounded, yet singular and apart. Birdsong, childish shouts, and the passing hiss of traffic along the interstate busied her brain with sensations so that it felt replete and occupied. She needed her mind full of something other than that inner voice that asked the same refrain every waking moment of her life: Why?
Cassidy was passing an old white vinyl house when she saw two little boys burst around the corner of the house, one chasing the other with a toy zapgun that blinked and whirred and buzzed; the other boy in front of him giggled hysterically. They were facsimiles of one another.
“I got you!” the boy with the gun said, still pulling the trigger victoriously to churn out lights and sounds of a cacophonic future world.
“I’m Superman,” his brother said, laughing triumphantly. “Bullets don’t hurt me!”
“This doesn’t shoot bullets,” the other boy said. “It shoots lasers.”
“Lasers don’t hurt Superman neither,” his brother said. He turned to face the noisy zapgun, his hands on his hips, arms akimbo, and his chest puffed up defiantly. He had a red towel hanging down the back of his blue pajamas. All of a sudden the two boys turned as one, gawping at Cassidy.
What does she want?
The twins did not say the words, but Cassidy heard them anyway. Their thoughts were almost as alike as their faces, stature, and hair. Cassidy hastened down the road while the twins went back to playing.
Farther down, a large elm stood at a street corner where a back-road ended at the highway. Beyond the tree a yard sprawled that was so large it might as well have been a field. A man sat on his lawnmower, cutting the grass. He had a hat on his head, headphones on his ears and dark sunglasses over his eyes. Even though Cassidy never really knew her father well, she knew enough about dads to know how obsessed they were supposed to be when cutting the grass. She watched him for a moment, wondering why the grass should matter so much. Behind him and his noisy lawnmower, his wife lay on a foldout lounge chair, sunning herself to a crisp brown. Their large brick house dominated the center of the meticulously kept field.
What a waste of puberty she’s goin’ to be.
The man’s voice touched her mind, though his lips did not move and she could not see his eyes behind his sunglasses. She knew he was referring to herself, however.
But at least she isn’t like that shriveled old prune, raisining in the sun.
Cassidy was so upset, and dismayed, that she decided to turn around and return home. She had not felt well since last night’s bad dream.
Her worst encounter that day was when she passed by the dilapidated granary again. Beforehand, it had been vacant. Now, however, the skateboarders had gathered and she was too discombobulated to notice, foregoing concealment behind the cedars and walking unwittingly in plain sight of that rural ruin. What they yelled at her was obscene, but it was what she heard from them when their lips weren’t moving that pushed her into a sprint homeward. By the time she dashed onto the driveway, she was ready to pass out from heat exhaustion, fatigue, and breathless terror. She staggered indoors, feeling the burn of bile welling up in her throat, and walked around, sobbing and breathing heavily.
It was during this emotional turmoil that her mind opened fully and she could hear the voices of billions of people all over the world and see the visions in their lives— all cascading over her mind like a tsunami of humanity that crushed her beneath its burdensome experiences.
The entity that had been known as Cassidy had become something else. She was a hub, a nexus, a radio tower. She did not need the internet, for she was the internet, and she was much more. Her mother found her later that night in a comatose state, passed out on the living room carpet. Her mother had nearly wrecked her jalopy twice while speeding to the hospital in the city. She carried her daughter into the ER and fell upon her knees, wailing like Mary over the body of Jesus.
The adolescent was put through tests. The hospital ran brain scans on her. Instead of finding limited activity, the scans revealed that the totality of Cassidy’s brain was accelerating its synaptic relays, firing wildly, the images showing a colorful jumble not unlike bioluminescent jellyfish all tangled together.
“It is not that she has little brain function,” the neurologist concluded, “but that she has too much. It is like epilepsy, but she isn’t showing the other signs of a grand mal seizure. There are no involuntary muscle spasms as a consequence of the bioelectric eruption. Her brain is overworking itself, and that is why she has lost consciousness. We must decelerate the brain activity with a suppressant.
Nothing worked. Cassidy’s brain remained a tangle of Christmas lights burning overbright. Yet the bulbs did not burst, and all the hospital could do was wait..
In the meantime, Cassidy was found to be dehydrated, so they put her on an IV drip and monitored hourly while her mother stayed in a chair beside her hospital bed. Questions from the doctor prompted Cassidy’s mother to give hesitant, shame-faced answers. She had to admit that most days Cassidy was left by herself while her mother worked. When asked if Cassidy took drugs, her mother vehemently denied that her daughter would do such a thing. When asked about Cassidy’s friends, her mother admitted that she didn’t know any of her daughter’s friends.
“Peer pressure can make the best kids do what they normally wouldn’t,” the doctor said.
“Cass wouldn’t do that,” her mother said, though doubt ate at the rigid timber of her tone like termites. “I don’t think she would. Would she?”
The series of questions continued, agitating Cassidy’s mother all the more until she could only sit and sob, trembling all over with grief and shame and fear. Meanwhile, the hospital staff began to have headaches—one by one—and so, too, did the patients.
Cassidy slid from one slipstream to another, connecting consciousness to consciousness in rapid, if not simultaneous, succession. Faster than light were the impressions of the lives that fed into her the stimuli, memories, and experiences of other people. Just as soon as she was a girl in Delhi, working a merchant stall, she was an old man in Japan treading through flooded rice paddies. The next nanosecond she was two hundred people— a bricklayer in Honduras, a schoolgirl in Italy, a mother of six in Brazil, a widower in a trailer park in Kentucky. She was her mother, too, crying over her daughter, and Greasy Greg, who was not a terrible man after all, and she was the skateboarders and the twins and the husband and wife, now in bed, making love to each other in the blind, accepting dark. She was even Miss Ohio, surrounded by people wanting her picture, her phone number, her smile and kiss and laugh—wanting everything but her. And among all those people, Miss Ohio was lonely, too; as lonely as Cassidy felt.
One world, so many people. One person, so many worlds. E pluribus unum. E unibus pluram. Her mind had to map the pathways to all of the minds. Once chartered, she could relinquish them and find the next thousand. In time she had mapped all minds, and soon mastered control, channeling one at a time, or ten, or more if need be. It was arduous, but became easier as her mind grew to an intuitive navigation of the psychosphere it had connected to.
And then her mind reached out to the beings that had changed her. They received her softly— over many lightyears—showing to her what they saw from their spacecraft: a lonely, burning star in a dark, deep, vast blackness, and orbiting that star like a speck of dust, the earth and all of its billions of lives being lived from brief moment to moment. Lives scarce and rare and precious in a cosmic void where so little sentient life prospered for long before succumbing to the indifferent natural forces that would snuff them out forever, without the dignity of malice or mercy to justify the abortion; as it had the planet of those entities that now showed Cassidy what she saw. Loneliness, she realized, was a sickness. It was a disease. It caused people to do terrible things.
In seeing this revelation, and understanding it, Cassidy woke up.
We are not alone, she told them. We have each other. But we’re all we’ve got. We do not have forever. We only have today. Beyond the horizon of Tomorrow there crouches a terrible thing that will silence all of us, so that not even our echoes remain. We must talk to one another now. We must acknowledge one another’s existence while we can. No one else will.