Image from page 328 of "Bell telephone magazine" (1922). Via Flickr.

It is the first day of second grade and Lonny is determined to make a friend. Not because he cares about being alone at recess or whatever—he doesn’t, he’s used to it, and it’s much better anyway than coming up with stuff to say to someone lame or boring—but because his mother is worried. And after everything she’s been through lately, the last thing he wants is to add to her worries. So when she hugged him and said, “Lonny, sweetie, I just know you’re going to make so many friends this year,” he told her he was going to Space Fair tomorrow with his new best friend. Then he got on the school bus quickly before she could ask him for a name.

The bus heads through the suburb. The segmented grid stretches out fat on either side of Mainline Avenue. Lonny remembers reading in a pamphlet about local history that this part of town was designed before planners realized people were happier living on curving, looping roads and in developments with lots of cul-de-sacs. That’s why he doesn’t have friends. Among other reasons, of course. He is the kid who reads pamphlets and remembers facts other people find boring.

When the bus pulls into the drop-off lane, Lonny sees him. The new kid. Can a second-grader be cool? He is dressed in gray from head to toe and sitting on some sort of bucket—like an upended joint compound bucket left behind by the crews that come and fix up the school every summer. The kid is wearing sunglasses and headphones. In his lap is a tattered book. He doesn’t appear to notice as the buses line up and vomit children.

Lonny, from his seat in the back, is one of the last to exit. Instead of heading for the doors, he finds himself making a beeline toward the kid. He stands there, still, in front of the bucket. After a minute or so, the kid looks up from his book, glares at Lonny. And Lonny knows this is the moment to say something, anything, but his mouth feels like he just filled it with cotton balls, and he fears that if he talks he’ll sound like there is something wrong with him. Which maybe there is, but it’s not the kind that means you have to go to a different school. The boy goes back to reading, ignoring his bespectacled stalker. And as the cotton balls melt, as Lonny realizes that he could ask something, like, Hey, what are you reading? or, Hey, where’d you get this barrel? or, even, Hey, you’re new, right? I’m Lonny, he also realizes that there’s something nice about this moment. It feels like they’re sharing space without having to give up any space to the other person. And, sure, Lonny might be crazy thinking this, but he isn’t: the kid looks up again, closes his book, puts it in his backpack, and says the weirdest thing. He says, “Thanks for waiting.” Lonny, stunned, does something he means to be a nod, like, Sure thing, but it comes out more like a shrug. And then they start walking together in the direction of the main gate. Kids dash by them: noisy, chaotic, stumbling kids. Lonny notices that the boy strolls at the same steady pace as he does. Lonny thinks of his mother and tries something out. “These neighborhoods,” he says, “were laid out before studies found that Americans are happier living on curving streets and circles.”

The boy looks over at him and cracks a smile for the first time. “Yeah,” he says.

The sea of grade-schoolers continues to flow around them. Lonny ignores it all and continues: “People also like cul-de-sacs. It turns out that straight lines and corners depress the happiness quotient.”

The boy draws a square shape in the air with his hands. “The funny thing is,” he says, “grid plans were used in most of the ancient civilizations. Egypt, Rome, Greece, Asia… Pretty much everywhere there was organized society. There just weren’t a lot of right angles in the early American colonies because of the crude wagons people attached to their horses. So in the US people think of grids as sort of ‘modern’”—here the boy makes quotation marks in the air with his fingers—“and curves and circles as, I guess you might say, ‘quaint’ or ‘cozy.’”

Lonny stops walking. He looks into the boy’s face. The boy stops, too.

“How do you know this stuff?” Lonny asks. And then the boy surprises him again: he pulls a red ball from his pocket and throws it sideways. Somehow, it arcs over the stream of kids. The boy dashes after the ball, beckoning to Lonny to run with him. The ball makes it all the way to the big pine tree near the playground. Lonny gets the ball first, and he’s laughing—when was the last time he laughed with another kid?—and the boy is laughing and jumping for the ball, and Lonny is holding it as high as he can. And then the boy jumps on him, and Lonny doesn’t mind, and they fall over together, and the boy wrests the ball away from Lonny. Lonny pushes his glasses back up his nose.

Then the boy says, “Hey, look,” and he shows the ball to Lonny. The ball is no longer red. It has a sort of dull orange-y tint, distinctly different than just seconds ago.

“Whoa,” Lonny says, and his eyes open so wide they must take up half his face. “How’d you do that?”

The kid smiles like he’s about to share a secret, or maybe a joke; Lonny can’t quite tell. “Magic,” he says, and throws the ball again, this time in the opposite direction. And then he walks away.

He doesn’t go to the school, it turns out. He doesn’t go to any school. He is Messiah. He is everywhere and he is nowhere.

*

Messiah needs Lonny. He’d never admit that, but he appears over and over again. Lonny learns to feel when he is near. Tonight he climbed soundlessly through Lonny’s window, slouched on Lonny’s rug, and produced—from who knows where—a bowl, already packed. He doesn’t need a lighter, of course. He inhales, passes it to Lonny. “I need a break, yo,” says Messiah, exhaling. “I can’t deal with all the pressure, all these refuckingsponsibilities.” He rolls his shoulders, cracks his knuckles. “I’m like, dudes, I’m like a kid. I should be jerking off and playing Guitar Hero.”

Lonny imagines it must be hard. Shit, senior year is about to start and Lonny’s already freaking out about the SATs. And that’s nothing compared to what Messiah has to deal with every day. Lonny takes a pull from the bowl. With Messiah around, he doesn’t need a lighter either. “Can’t you take a vacation or something, man?” Lonny coughs. He rubs his eyes behind his glasses.

“Aw, you’re so cute,” says Messiah. He blows Lonny a fake kiss. Lonny gives Messiah the finger. Now Messiah is standing at Lonny’s laptop, scrolling through his newsfeed. Lonny has given up on having any privacy. He tries to imagine his life without Messiah. It’s impossible. “Dumbfucks,” Messiah says. He’s reading the posts and looking at memes. “Idiots, but I gotta love ’em.”

Lonny laughs. He takes another hit. That was one hit too many, he thinks as his brain jiggles like Jell-O. He has to lie down. Messiah regards him. “You’re blazed, bro.”

Lonny coughs again.

“You need to skate.” Messiah grabs Lonny’s skateboard from the corner, and his own materializes in his other hand.

*

Some people see Messiah. Most don’t. When Lonny is out with Messiah—skating to the park like now, or flipping through vinyl or smoking on the rail train wall or whatever—the ones who can’t see Messiah tend to be drawn to Lonny. Girls want to talk to him. They touch Lonny’s shoulders and look into his eyes. Bigger, older guys steer clear. It’s as if Lonny absorbs Messiah’s energy. It’s the only time Lonny ever feels powerful.

Messiah and Lonny have been skating for an hour when the too-high feeling begins to fade away. Lonny does his drop ins and shuvits, and tries a new kickflip and fails. Yup, not very cool, he thinks. The sound of the boards on the wooden ramp reminds Lonny of some clattering spaceship breaking warp speed. Messiah can, of course, do any move he wants; Lonny knows he’s holding back because he doesn’t want to freak out the skaters who can see him. Messiah hands Lonny a water bottle—who knows where it came from—and says, “For your dry mouth, yo.”

Then, just when Messiah is about to drop into the half-pipe again, he turns and skates away from the park. Lonny follows. Messiah hangs a right on Washington and stops midway down the block, across from the post office. He stands there—he looks like he’s waiting for something—and Lonny stands next to him. “What are we doing here?” Lonny asks as a silver SUV speeds through the light at the corner and a mail truck pulls out of the post office driveway. A green pickup truck brakes too fast and spins, crashing into the SUV. The mail truck collides with both of the other vehicles. The SUV then flips, one and a half times, and lands on its roof.

Maybe it’s because he’s still a little baked, but the accident seems to happen in slow motion. There’s something spectacular, elegant even, about the way the SUV sails through the air. Then things begin to accelerate again, and Lonny hears the echoes of bending, scraping metal. Messiah is no longer next to him. Lonny sees him now, his best friend, walking calmly toward the wreckage. The mailman gets out first—his truck is the least damaged—staggering a little, rubbing his palms together. And that’s when Lonny realizes: there are people in those cars. Yes, he knew that, of course, but now he understands that their soft, fleshy bodies and vulnerable bones and organs aren’t made for moments like this. Lonny drops his skateboard and steps closer, peering into the cars.

In the upside-down SUV, two young women dangle behind deflating airbags. He can hear the driver calling for help and banging on the window. Her passenger looks like she’s passed out and has an ugly splotch of blood on her forehead.

Lonny hears sirens.

Messiah approaches the car. He opens the passenger-side door first.

Lonny watches Messiah lay the passenger on the grass. Her chest is rising and falling—she’s alive. Lonny’s eyes well up; he hadn’t known how scared he was until now. Through the scrim of tears, Lonny studies Messiah’s face. He looks worried, too. Lonny has never seen him this way before. Then Messiah stands again, and goes back to help the driver. He gets her to sit on the curb. She’s shaking and emitting these little gasping sounds. She’s beautiful (yes, Lonny notices, he can’t help himself) with wide-set eyes and large, soft breasts. She’s wearing a low-cut shirt; her chest is red from the airbag, and welts are beginning to form where the seat belt cut into her skin. Messiah kneels in front of her. He’s trembling. He puts his hands on her arms, squeezing, pressing them close to her body. Lonny sees Messiah’s body expanding and contracting with his breath, just like the passenger lying on the ground.

Lonny will be at the mall a few weeks later when the beautiful young woman approaches him. She’ll be walking with a cane. “Thank you,” she will say, “for helping me calm down.” The bruises will be dark blue and green by then. She didn’t see Messiah, Lonny will know. She will remember Lonny forever as the boy who took care of her.

They did go to the Space Fair in the second grade. Lonny thinks about that afternoon now, with his head sinking into his pillow. His mother dropped them off. She looked so healthy that day. “Thank you, Lucille,” Messiah said, like they were colleagues. And Lonny felt self-conscious then about the word “Mom,” so he just said, “Yeah, bye.” But he turned around as they were walking away, waved, and gave a quick smile.

Then the two of them walked up and down the aisles together, looking at telescopes, model rockets, and astronaut suits. Lonny didn’t notice then how most of the grownups thought he was alone.

“I love Mars,” Messiah said to Lonny, though, that day, Messiah was still just the mystery boy. “It’s cold, and the air is thin, and you feel so light walking across the sand.”

“You’ve been to Mars?” Lonny said. He stopped twirling the gyroscope he’d picked up off a display table.

“It used to be much warmer on Mars. A long time ago,” said Messiah. “I used to go there before I was born.”

*

“Before I Was Born” is part of Dead Is the New Alive, a collection of linked stories Oria and Reifler are writing together.

Nelly Reifler

Nelly Reifler is the author of See Through and Elect H. Mouse State Judge. Her work has been published in McSweeney's, jubilat, Lucky Peach, and Story, among others, and read aloud on Selected Shorts and at Audible. She has been a Rotunda Gallery grant recipient, a MacDowell Fellow, and a Western Michigan University visiting writer. An editor at Post Road, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

Shelly Oria

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently she coauthored the digital novella CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Oria's fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and elsewhere; has been translated to other languages; and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. Oria lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she codirects the Writer’s Forum at the Pratt Institute and has a private practice as a life and creativity coach.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *