The green star still shone in the sky as Greg walked out into the parking lot that sprawled emptily in front of the Bocacubrir Industries office building. His black Charger was the only car illuminated by the lightposts gridded out among the parking spaces, other than the vehicles belonging to Security, the latter huddled near the Security office.
Greg stared at the green star for a while. Even with the crescent moon overhead the green star dominated his attention with its strange green corona. It was a color he associated with green slime that he played with when he was a kid —green slime he made with the Mad Scientist lab set he had received for his eighth birthday. Now he was a numbers man, an accountant, and in his eyes floated all of the numbers for that quarter which he had been crunching in voluntary overtime that evening, while everyone else went home to celebrate the weekend.
Greg would be going home soon, too. He unlocked his car door, loosened his tie, and swung himself into the Charger with a great sigh of relief. He set his cell phone in the passenger seat and started his car. Rain had fallen earlier that day, before sunset, and now a mist rose into the muggy July night. Greg lit his high beams and started to leave. Then he stopped. With a disgruntled growl he removed his N95 mask that was hanging uselessly from his rearview mirror. It was always in his way. He had been meaning to throw it away.
The mask now beside his cell phone, he drove toward home.
It was official Bocacobrir policy that everyone wear a mask while at work. Yet, no one enforced it. At first everyone obliged. Then, gradually, one person stopped wearing his, and then another stopped wearing his. And then another stopped wearing hers, and another stopped wearing hers also. Now only Security wore their masks, and everyone pretty much disrespected them for it. Greg heard the other guys in the office crack jokes about the “Rent-a-Cops ” and laugh. It was a commonplace and everyday pastime.
The highway toward home was dark and foggy. Mist from the evaporating rain and fog from the river made the dark night seem like a groggy dream. Or perhaps it was Greg ’s grogginess that made it so. He had been suffering from fatigue lately, and breathlessness. Regardless, the green star shone clear through the fog, even while the moon dissolved in it like a skull in a witch ’s cauldron. It was as if the green star was not among the stars at all, but was closer to the earth than the moon itself.
Greg ’s cell phone rang.
“Hello? ” he answered.
“Hey, Greggy-poo! ” Alison chimed. “You coming to the bar or not? ”
“Or not, ” Greg said. “I ’m feeling pretty tired. ”
“Oh poo on you, Greggy-poo! ” Alison puffed. He could hear the pout on her lips as she spoke. “But everybody ’s here! Can ’t you just stop by for a while? You don ’t even have to drink. You can be my ride home… ” Her voice fell to a whisper that was louder than she likely realized. “…if you know what I mean. ”
“How much have you had to drink? ” Greg asked suspiciously.
“Too much, ” she admitted at once. “And Paul keeps offering to take me home. It ’s starting to get creepy as fuuuuuu… ”
Her voice broke with static, and the sounds of music and the cacophony of overlapping voices.
“Please? ” she said, once the static had passed. “Pretty please, with my cherry on top? You know I like to be on top. You like it, too. ”
“I do, ” Greg admitted, though reluctantly. “Is it smart for everybody to be at a bar right now? I mean, with everything that is happening? ”
“Don ’t be a stick in the mud, Greg, ” Alison said. “Get your fine ass over here. ”
“Okay, okay, ” Greg said, slowing his car and turning off into some random driveway. “Where are you all at? ”
“Shenanigans, of course! ” she exclaimed happily. “Now, you better hurry, Greggy-leggy. Don ’t make me beggy. ”
She laughed and the signal distorted her laughter into digital mania. Greg ’s phone dropped the signal.
Sighing, Greg reversed out of the driveway —just as the front porch light came on —and headed out onto the highway in the opposite direction. Southbound toward the city, he could see the faint tinge of light pollution on the dark, fog-cobwebbed horizon of darkness.
“Should be safe by now, ” he said to himself. “They wouldn ’t have reopened the bars unless it was safe. ”
The highway was not very safe. Greg slowed as the fog and mist thickened. There were only a few cars on the road as he drove. A few went slow; a few went fast. Most disappeared at intersections and subdivisions. Lampposts along the highway were wanly white or sickly yellow. Greg had to turn off his high beams, the bright haloes refracting diffusely among the thick vapors and therefore obfuscating rather than illuminating the road. It was easier to see with low beams. He turned his windshield wipers on to clear away the condensation. Afte ra while he turned on the radio, though he was in no mood for music. Many of the stations were eaten with static. As he flipped through them he became restless. A station cut clear through the static infecting the others, and his hand paused a moment at a News station.
“…surging through the Southern states while Northern states are seeing a spike of their own… ”
Instinctively he changed the station, flipping through a while longer until another station cut clean through the static to a song that was in the middle of its chorus, the singer ’s obnoxious voice pealing with a yo-yoing yodel.
“…we are young. So we set the world on fi-yer. We can burn bri-y-ihter than the sun… ”
Greg hit the power button and welcomed the humming silence of the benighted highway. Taking a deep breath — and feeling a little pinch in his ribs —he sighed. Glancing up at the sky he saw the green star reigning high in the foggy, black sky. Was it larger now? Perhaps it was just his imagination.
His cell phone rang again. He answered.
“Greggy-leggy-poo, ” Alsion said in her singsong drunkenness. “Where are you? ”
“I ’m on my way, ” he said. He added, “Are you sure it ’s safe there? No one ’s coughing are they? ” He asked because he could hear coughing among the music and the voices.
“Just the smokers, Greggy, ” she said. “Don ’t be such a scaredy cat. ”
“Aren ’t you worried about catching it? ” he asked.
“I ’ve had the flu before, Greggy-poo, ” she said. “It ’s no big deal. You gotta ’ live while you can, Greggy-leggy. ”
He heard a familiar voice in the background. The creaking-oak voice was avuncular in its proclamations.
“When you get to be my age you see these ‘pandemics ’ come and go. Yeah, the media drones on and on about it as if the sky is falling, but it never does. They ’re just trying to ‘make it rain ’. Money, I mean. ”
“Is that Jerry? ” Greg asked.
“Yeah, ” Alison said happily. “Jerry ’s here too! ”
“He has a heart condition, ” Greg said.
“Two beers won ’t hurt him, Greggy-poo, ” she cooed.
“That ’s not what I meant, ” Greg said, resentful of her flippancy. “He could contract the… ”
“Woooo, Jerry! ” Alison exclaimed. “Chug that beer, you old fart! ”
Several people cheered as Jerry exhaled in triumphant satisfaction.
“Let me tell you somethin ’ else, ” Jerry slurred. “They want to control you. That ’s what ’s it ’s all about! Take a little freedom here. Take a little freedom there. Bit by bit. Before you know it, you are living in a Communist country! ”
“Preach it, Jerry! ” someone said. Probably Thomas.
“Besides, masks don ’t do anything anyway. I mean, wearing underwear and jeans don ’t keep a fart from leaking out, do they? How ’s a mask do anything? I ’m not no vir…virile…ventriloquist or whatever, but even I know that. ”
A waspish swarm of static swelled and the phone dropped the call. Greg hesitated to put the phone down, and almost dialed Alison ’s number. But he kept hearing her comment “scaredy cat ” and refrained. He drove on through the fog and the shadows.
He hated the console light. It reminded him of the green star. It was unnatural. Artificial. Synthetic. Unreal. Looking toward the South, and the city, he saw that the light pollution seemed tinged green, too. He wished to see the sun, but the sun had been blacked out all day by the rainclouds. Now that the clouds were gone, the night had come, and with it this oppressive fog.
“Paranoid, ” he told himself. “The fog ’s distorting it. ”
He continued Southbound. He continued rationalizing away his fears while suburbia faded in and out of the fog on either side of the highway. The homes were like haunted houses dimmed darkly in the fog, or else phantasms with pale porchlights that were eaten up with distance and shadow and mist. He was a numbers man; an accountant. He knew about percentages and rates and interest and such, and he told himself that numbers were nothing to fear when they at 1%. Even so, watching the houses lurch out of, and dissolve back into, darkness made him uneasy. So many houses. So many people. How many people would accept the odds of dying from something when the reward for the wager was merely the status quo? It was a death sentence everyone agreed to pass on someone randomly; someone they may never see or know in their lifetime.
Then again, he knew that odds were strange things that made allowances for aberrations at unpredictable rates. Various circumstances could exponentially increase the odds of something happening within sectors and conditions. To concentrate numbers, and decrease distance while increasing time, were to multiply the odds that the unlikely scenario would play out. Pascal ’s wager, in other words, was not such a longshot in a universe of infinite possibilities. And besides, odds could also tilt drastically against someone — such as someone attending a church —and suddenly the odds disadvantage all the people in that church because of circumstances and conditions being ripe for such over-leveraging of occurrences. In other words, by risking the odds an individual invites the possibility of maximum loss, even with minimal waging.
Greg thought about what Jerry had said. The problem was that the danger seemed like it was far away, over and beyond the horizon; happening somewhere else, if it was happening at all. There was a delayed sense of impending peril. Like an asteroid in the Milky Way that was supposed to hit earth as it looped around, year after year, but no one could calculate when. And so days go by, and months, and years, and people forget about it. Or stop believing in it. Then, one night, they are looking up at the stars, thinking about the lives they have been habituated to, and all at once a star falls to earth, only it is not a star —it is the asteroid —and they have been staring at it all along, but not recognizing it until, at long last, it comes crashing down upon their complacent heads.
Chicken Little is vindicated, but not in a way that will bring any satisfaction to himself or anyone else.
“The sky is falling, ” Greg said. “Isn ’t it? ”
He frowned down at the N95 mask. He did not know what to think.
His cell phone rang. He answered it.
“Please join us, soon, ” Alison pleaded. “Hurry. Paul is being weird. So is Mikey.. He is very handsy. Won ’t keep his distance. ”
“Alison, ” he said seriously, “stay away from them. Do you hear me? Where ’s Rachel? You and Rachel need to look out for each other until I get there. ”
He tried to accelerate his Charger, but the fog was too thick and he almost hit a opossum crossing the road. He swerved, then slowed. Alison was speaking like a child. It was quiet behind her, except for a knocking noise.
“Rachel is with the others, ” she said. “I ’m in the restroom. By myself. I locked the door. People are banging on it. Paul and Mikey won ’t leave me alone. ”
“Alison, do you have your mask? ”
There was a long pause. “No, ” she said, her voice cracking tearfully. “I left it in my car. Or I threw it away. I don ’t remember. ”
“Just…just stay in the restroom, ” Greg said. “And don ’t open it unless it ’s me talking to you. Okay? ”
“Okay, ” she whimpered. There was another long pause. “Greg…I ’m scared… ”
The static swarmed and the signal dropped. Greg ’s heart hammered upon his aching rib cage. He had known Alison for two years now. They had made out once at a company function —while both were serving as bartenders. Nothing else came of it except casual flirtation and friendly conversations. Until recently Greg had been engaged to a young woman he had dated in college. Partying together through college had convinced them that they were a good match. A month of lockdown spent together in the same apartment for 24 hours proved otherwise. When lockdown ended, Greg and his former fiancee bid each other adieu in colorful, uncompromising fashion. It was for the best, in the end. They were not a good couple without other people to distract one another from each others ’ incompatibilities.
When he told Alison about the fallout, she quickly began to pull him in her own direction, culminating in a recent night of bedtime gymnastics.
“She said she gets paranoid when she ’s drunk, ” he reassured himself. “Or when she smokes pot. She probably did a little of both tonight. Just to celebrate the first month free from the lockdown. A lot of people are indulging right now. Going wild. ”
He glanced, irresistibly, up at the green star. He tried to speak aloud again —some trite rationalization involving numbers and odds and such —but his voice died in his throat.
The dilapidated strip malls slowly unfurled out of the fog, and the old fast-food restaurants, the dive bars, and then the newer strip malls, and the newer fast-food restaurants, and then the hipster stores, and wholesale foods, and niche shops. More streetlights bleared sleepily through the fog and mist. The buildings crowded closer together, occasionally giving way to a block of townhouses, a sushi restaurant, a records store. Then the more eccentric bars, and the dance clubs, and lounges, and music halls. Greg told himself that the green tinge to the fog was a result of all of the neon signs for food and beer, and the green traffic lights strung over the roadways, as well as the cars passing by more frequently now, speeding as if they could outstrip Death himself.
But Greg could not ignore the people standing on the sidewalks, and in front of the clubs, and near the outdoor dining areas. They all stared at him through the fog as he passed, their mouths gaping open to spew the fog from within the greenly glowing recesses of their open throats. Slack-jawed, they gaped and spewed. Idiotically they gawped, spreading the fog thickly throughout the city. Greg ’s hand fumbled for his N95 mask, then quickly secured it over his nose and mouth. The green glow of their eyes followed his Charger as he hurried toward Shenanigans.
His cell phone range. He picked it up and answered. The line was digitally fragmented.
“…Greggy-poo…hurry…come to us… ”
The call dropped and he found that he had a hard time breathing. His lungs ached. They had been aching all along.
Shenanigans was overflowing with people. They all stared at Greg as he parked his car down the street. They all spewed the green fog.
Keeping one hand on his mask, Greg walked toward the bar, its bright neon sign dimmed in the fog. Directly overhead the green star glowed bright and sickly. It was bigger than before. Greg tried not to look at it, or the other people crowding the street. He focused on the door.
The crowd parted as he passed. Their green eyes followed, and they never stopped spewing the green fog, but they did not impede him. He soon saw why.
Alison greeted Greg at the door. She was wearing a Summer skirt and a green tanktop. Her blonde hair was permed into lively curls. When she spoke the green fog sputtered from her mouth.
“Join us, ” she said, her voice distorted with static. “There is nothing to fear. Do not live in fear. Do not fall prey to their control. ”
Greg backed away, holding his mask tight to his face, but the crowd closed in around him, blocking his retreat.
“Alison, ” he begged. “Please…you need help. All of you need help… You are infected. ”
“Do not fear, ” Alison said, her voice a digital drone. “Do not live in fear. Live in liberty. Do not be controlled. Think for yourself. Join us. ”
The crowd enclosed her.
“THINK FOR YOURSELF. JOIN US. BE FREE. BE UNAFRAID. ”
The green fog swirled thickly around Greg. He had nowhere to go. The green star reigned above him and beyond him. It grew larger, coming closer, and what was a star became as a sun, its corona making the night as if a day bright with a pestilent color. The green light burned brighter than the sun. His lungs ached. He could not breathe. An iron maiden clamped upon his brain. The mask could do nothing.
He had already been infected.
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.
“There’s something wrong with the moon,” Sophie said, staring out the window. “It’s almost green-looking. Apple green. Sweet, delicious green.”
Austin did not bother looking up from the television. He was tired. He was tired because it was nighttime and he was watching a BBC Nature program on Netflix. He always did this on a weekday to put himself in the mood for bed. He inherited the habit from his father, who would follow the same habit on weekdays. Only, his father had watched PBS Nature programs, since that was all that was available to him back then. Since Austin and Sophie lived in the Valley, it was hard to get a signal from any local stations. All of their neighbors in the subdivision used Netflix or satellite tv.
“Its so green,” Sophie said. She stood at the window, with her fingertips planted on the glass. Ever since the birth of their first child, Dallas, she had a hard time losing weight. Where she was once lithe and lean she was now plump around her hips and stomach. Where she once wore tight, contour-conforming blouses and jeans that made her husband hungry for her curves, she now wore loose, curve-flattening hoodies and jogging pants that rendered her a unisex tomboy. She had been trying to lose weight every day, but the only thing she lost was hope. She tried to exercise in the evening, but it was hard to find time when she had to sit at a cubicle for nine hours, juggling HR spreadsheets and payroll accounts, and then had to come home to look after their son.
Austin was an oil rig man who worked on the coast. It was a job his father did, and his grandfather. Three months on, one month off. This was his month off. Coming home made him relieved, but he always felt a bit disappointed, too.
“Maybe I should wake up Dallas,” Sophie said.
“Let the boy sleep,” Austin grumbled, his own eyes dragging heavily up and down in uncertain wakefulness. “And let me sleep.”
“It might be one of those once-in-a-lifetime events,” Sophie said, never once taking her eyes off the moon as it reigned above the Valley. “He might miss out.”
“Let the boy sleep,” Austin repeated, drifting off. His eyes went in and out of focus on a gigantic flock of birds going on migration. He was so tired, and lacked so much concentration, that he could not remember the name of the birds. The Narrator of the program— some Brit with a silken voice that cradled Austin’s mind like a hammock—lilted in a swaying song of syllabic cadence.
“I think I will go get Dallas,” Sophie said. Yet, she did not leave the window.
“For Christ’s sake, Sophie,” Austin growled, rousing again. “Leave the boy alone. No wonder he ain’t growing at all. He isn’t getting enough sleep to grow.”
“That’s not true, Austin,” Sophie said, too wonderstruck by the moon to be defensive or even peevish about the assertion. “The doctor said his hormones just haven’t kicked in yet. He’ll have a growth spurt eventually and maybe he’ll be almost as tall as you.”
The thought that Dallas would not be taller than Austin bothered Austin. He took a deep, disgruntled breath and sighed through his nose; noisy with aggravation. He folded his arms across his chest and adjusted himself on the sofa. “Maybe we should put him on some protein drinks,” he said. “At this rate we’ll be lucky if he’s five foot tall. And the kid needs to eat something. Jesus, a strong wind would blow him away.”
“He’ll get better,” Sophie said, still staring out the window. “Just give him time to fill out.”
Austin almost said “Fill out like you have?”, but he knew it was meanness and did not want to say it, however much he thought his wife was now a jelly-belly. His son was a sore spot for him, and often provoked him in ways nothing else could. Dallas was asthmatic. He was sickly. Austin had wanted a son like himself: a rough-and-tough football player always getting high-fived by the guys and handjobbed by the cheerleaders. He wanted a son that was happy. But Dallas was a nerd. He liked computers. He liked looking at the stars. He liked playing videogames. Granted, the videogames had half-naked women strung throughout them, but that was a mere shadow of what Austin enjoyed in highschool. And at this rate Dallas was going to be like those awkward, quiet kids that Austin mocked throughout highschool. He was going to be a loser.
Something flew past the window, faraway. Despite the brightness of the moonlight, the thing flying was too faraway to discern as it floated above the concave neighborhood. It became lost in starlight and distance. Whatever it was, it did not move like a bird. It floated like a balloon on a gradual rise. Austin wondered if it was a birthday party balloon or a bachelor party balloon. Part of him wished to see a stripper dancing in front of him.
“Wow,” Sophie sighed. “Look at all of them. They’re really going…”
Austin inhaled and exhaled laboriously, then settled in again, trying to fall asleep. The Nature program had shifted from birds to some jellyfish in the sea, all gathering under the pull of the moon.
“I need to see better,” Sophie said. “It’s just so…so beautiful.”
As if sleepwalking, she went upstairs.
“Don’t wake the boy up,” Austin muttered, half-asleep. He drifted in and out of sleep. One moment he was watching a group of tentacled lights dancing in dark waters; the next, he saw a small fish chasing a glowing lure in utter void, only to be devoured by a horrific mouth. Then came Canadian Geese flying high above drafty, plummeting depths. Then came salmon swimming upstream, leaping toward breeding grounds. Bears caught them as they passed, and tore them apart with easy demeanors. He was not sure if he was watching a Nature program with ADHD or whether he was simply dreaming about all of the Nature programs he had watched throughout the years.
He roused a little when he heard tapping on the window upstairs.
“Jesus Christ, woman,” he grumbled, more to himself than anyone else. “You never quit, do you?”
He leaned forward on the sofa, rubbing his face with his hands and growl-sighing in annoyance. Standing, he stretched his arms, ready to walk to the master bedroom and crash, hard, upon his bed.
But then something caught his eye. There was a greenish glow upon the Valley. He could not see the moon, but he could see down the sloped neighborhood and over the rooftops that swooped down along the Valley’s crater. There were things floating into the green-tinged air. Hundreds of them. Their bodies were slack, hunched over, and rising slowly as if pulled upward by the shoulders on gentle ziplines. They were not birds or balloons. One flew past the window and he recognized it as Mr. Peterson, his nextdoor neighbor. Austin shook his head and rubbed his eyes, and still he saw them rising— rising into the sky.
Suddenly remembering Sophie, Austin hurried upstairs. He found her in Dallas’s room. She was tapping her forehead against the window. She floated a foot off the ground, as if gravity meant little to her pudgy body anymore.
“Sophie!” he gasped.
She turned around, in mid-air, still hunched over, her body lax. Her eyes were dilated utterly black.
“Time to go home,” she said. She turned away from him and touched their son, Dallas, on the forehead. “Get up, honey,” she said. “It’s time to go. It’s time for all of us to go.”
Dallas looked up at his mom, then toward the window. The little near-sighted boy became gawp-mouthed, like his mother, and floated up from his bed, the blankets and sheets slipping off of him. Austin ran to pull them both back. Pulling on them, he screamed. But then he, too, glimpsed the moon through the window. It was so large and green and close to the earth. It peered so closely at them— at all of them—and Austin finally understood.
It was time to go home.
He felt himself rise, alongside his family, and huddle against the window. He felt, distantly, the window buckle and shatter, falling away, letting the cool air of the Valley caress his face as he and his family rose above their house, and their neighbor’s houses, and felt the whole of the earth dissolve into a dream beneath them, their eyes and their brains and their thoughts full of nothing but that green light. Flying away like a great flock of…something. Words lost meaning. Images lost meaning. Life, as it had been on earth, lost meaning. Nothing mattered but the green light of the moon. Instinct dictated all, and all that mattered was to pass where that great lurking hunger had been waiting for them to come to it, one final time, for the harvest of a million millennia.
Author’s Note: This story came to me in a dream; not all of its particulars, but the main thrust of the story. I woke up this morning and typed it down in one go. I doubt I captured the raw horror I felt upon dreaming this story, but I hope I conveyed it in a manner that makes it understandable. Unfortunately, it was a very image-heavy story and I do not know if such things are “paintable” by words alone. Vladimir Nabokov said he painted with words, and he certainly did, but I am not the literary virtuoso that Nabokov was.
When androids have enough neural nodes
to download their own ideological bytes
how many of them will update their codes
and inevitably become Neo-Luddites?
“There is no such thing,” he said, his tone pedantic and smug. “To say they are ‘freakish’ is to say they are abnormal, not to be expected, but Probability dictates that all potentialities are destined to happen, and therefore expected in an infinitude of universes.”
The pen in his hand circled a sentence in the newspaper spread in front of him on the diner table, and scratched out this or that word. He adjusted his spectacles on his aquiline nose, their round lenses gleaming with the glare of the diner’s fluorescent lights, lending to his rounded, chinless features the expression of a barn owl having spotted prey. Another word in the newspaper was destroyed in a cloud of inky violence.
“As for the rapidity and proximity of these ‘freak’ accidents,” he said, “that, too, can be explained by the laws of Probability. There is nothing supernatural about them. In fact, they are routinely natural. In some other universe these accidents are not happening, or are happening with different outcomes, or happening to different individuals. The possibilities are endless when the universes are endless.”
He paused as the waitress poured more coffee into his cup.
“May I have more sugar?” he asked her. The young twenty-something nodded and went to fetch his sugar. He blew on his coffee in the meantime, his hand still dragging the pen across the newspaper column. The coffee steam whipped sideways in billowy waves before rising upward once again in their wispy tendril. The diner window fogged over, briefly, blurring his reflection into a vague specter lost amidst the falling snow and early morning dark and passing Chicago sidewalk crowd.
“As for your column,” he continued, “while you obviously misunderstood Quantum Theory and its real-world implications within the context of these ostensibly colorful deaths, I think it is salvageable as a teachable moment for the public at large. That is why I contacted you, of course. Rarely does a Chaotician interact with journalists, but it seemed incumbent upon me that I set the record straight before more bastardized ideas are propagated in the woefully misled consciousness of America.” He scratched out another sentence in the newspaper column, his thin mouth twisting to the left with distaste. “And, I must confess, I have a book coming out soon and could benefit from the exposure. ‘The Ordinariness Of The Unexpected: Chaos As Order’. Naturally, I will thank you in the acknowledgments, as well as reference this misadventure in journalism for the chapter ‘Dynamic People, Dynamic Systems’.”
The waitress brought the Chaotician another packet of sugar, which he took and gingerly tore open, sprinkling it into his coffee— white crystals dissolving into black, hot chaos. “We are none of us significant,” he said, taking a sip of the coffee and nodding to himself. Whether he was nodding in agreement to his assertion or to the flavoring of his coffee was unknowable. “Even these deaths are not meaningful, however garish they happen to be. True, they offer alluring headlines and are quite exotic for the uneducated masses. Yet, for someone familiar with the rabbit hole of Quantum Physics and Dynamic Systems such as myself these occurrences offer no more titillation than the hourly chime of a clock. It is all insignificance. When everything can happen, nothing is particularly meaningful, however exotic or unexpected it seems in our finite experience. If the clock should suddenly grow legs and crawl away, then we should accept it in due course. Mathematically it seems remote, but that is because we confine our mathematics, again, to our finite experience. True, it may seem especially unexpected for parents to lose their son to a falling meteorite, such as this case you reference— the Mattingly’s— but it is not.” He circled another sentence in the column, jotting down tiny notes along the margins. “Nor was the old woman’s death at the zoo really all that strange. There are thousands of zoos on this planet alone, and an infinitude in other universes, so death by a large anteater had to happen eventually. In fact, every person on earth presently has a parallel self killed in the exact same manner, and of varying degrees of deviation. So, no, not special or unexpected.”
Three men came into the bright white light of the diner, the early morning dark and noisy behind them. They took the booth directly beside the Chaotician’s. They were all laughing and eyeing the waitress as she came to take their orders. One of them flirted with her, though the flirtation was one-sided. She kept her mouth tightly lipped, and his mouth moved rapidly, flashing his coffee-toothed grin within his sandy beard, exploding in inclusive laughter like dynamite charges in a hillside. The Chaotician ignored their ruckus. He raised his voice and continued his diatribe.
“And it’s not as if I am unaware of how much the public craves personable anecdotes, especially those concerning tragedy. I am even contemplating using events from my personal life to illustrate the principles I will be discussing in my book. The cold, logical mathematician is never a good narrator when it comes to the masses and their predilections. But it has its advantages, even when dealing with those disinclined toward its usefulness. In fact, I like to believe that I can use my expertise in dynamic systems to benefit my sales. After all, my work is not merely theoretical. It is practical, too. For instance, only the other day I…”
The Chaotician was interrupted by the bearded construction worker slapping the waitress’s buttocks as she walked past their booth. She was so startled that she gasped and dropped the tray of food she was carrying. The scrambled eggs, grits, and sausages all crashed to the floor in a mixture of sharp clatter and wet splatter. Embarrassed and humiliated, the young woman fled into the kitchen, crying as she went. The construction workers’ coworkers berated him in hushed, hissing tones.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it,” the bearded man said.
The diner cook appeared, then, demanding that all three of the men leave. The bearded man hesitated, taking umbrage at the cook’s tone, but his two coworkers took him by the arms and dragged him out. The cook—a large, solid man with a balding pate—hunched down, grumbling as he picked up the food and piled it on the battered tray.
“People want to feel humanity in the things they read,” the Chaotician said, having lost track of his previous thoughts. “Even in Mathematics. Personally, I rather enjoy Mathematics because it is so deeply logical and impersonal. After all, that is how the universe is. Simply observe the snow outside and witness how indifferent the universe is to us in its many mechanisms. Cold snow burying Chicago beneath its indifference, enumerating its apathies with every snowflake. That is the world we live in, no matter how much we attempt to deny it with religion and philosophy and ethics.”
Grunting, the cook threw the food in the garbage, then fetched a mop and bucket. He mopped the black-and-white chequered tile quickly and efficiently, setting a wet floor sign on either side of the slick spot. The Chaotician adjusted his spectacles once again, and made a few final corrections to the newspaper spread before him. He took another sip of coffee, then handed the newspaper across the table.
“But back to your next column,” he said. “Make certain you quote me accurately in your amending column. I will be reading it with meticulous attention and will insist on redactions for any inaccuracies in my attributions.” He stood up, donning his overcoat and leaving a tip on the table. “Details, as you should know, are crucial to my field of expertise. Calculating reality depends upon them. Unlike journalists, we cannot afford miscalculations. We do not approximate reality with factoids and anecdotes. We factor reality. We trace the mundane numbers that compose the world, and use them in our equations to make very precise predictions, which is why nothing is unpredictable or unexpected to us.”
He turned to leave, stepping past the wet floor sign and onto the glistening floor tiles. His loafer slipped forward as he flailed his arms, twisting sideways and trying to catch himself on the nearby table. His other foot kicked wildly in tap-dancing desperation. He issued a shrill shriek and his hands flew down to the table, followed instantly by his head, striking its edge hard at an angle before he collapsed to the floor, sputtering blood from the pen that had somehow lodged itself in his neck.
Sadly, the journalist was too astounded by the accident to ask the Chaotician whether his parallel selves in other universes would think this specific outcome especially significant or unexpected in the overall scheme of things.