Photo: National Park Service.

Old man Windson sends me up the mountain with a wagonful of food for Mr. and Mrs. Drake. He tells me that they have not been in his grocery since it happened. He also tells me that last time they were in, they did not stock up on nearly enough basic items to carry them through the past three weeks.

The weight of canned corn and two sides of bacon and rice and four and a bushel of peaches has me sweating by the time I make it to their house. I stand on their porch and huff and hope they will not resent my mothering. I know I should not presume, I know I have never been anywhere near where they are now, but I also know that everyone must eat. Everyone must have the strength to continue.

They let me in. “Bless you, Pickle,” they say. “You and old man Windson both.” I follow Mrs. Drake from the porch, down the hallway into the kitchen. She moves as though she is afraid of waking something huge. Mr. Drake unloads the wagon of food. We sip tap water in silence, though a couple of times Mrs. Drake opens and shuts her mouth. The only words that make it out are more ‘thank you’s. I wonder if perhaps she cannot say anything else. Maybe once you lose something so big, there is no point in holding on to little things like speech. Who needs it? What could it possibly do?

As I’m walking out, I notice a door of the hallway that is slightly ajar. Inside, there’s a long clothesline piled on the rag-rug, with clothes still clothes-pinned onto it. Little pink sweaters and polka-dotted skirts. Socks that would fit on my thumbs. A knitted hat with teddy bear ears.

The thunderstorms this year have been unpredictable. I imagine the Drakes standing on their porch, paralyzed with indecision. Do we leave the clothes out there to get drenched? Do we admit that it doesn’t matter? Or do we go out and take them down, touch them with our own hands for the very last time, because there’s not— there’s never going to be—

Carrying the whole clothesline in must have been a compromise. They didn’t have to touch a thing.

Some nights when I cannot sleep, I close my eyes and watch the cougar stalk the dark country of my eyelids. The cat is as big as the shuttle Davy drives. Its eyes glow gold and turquoise and green and a hundred other colors that exist nowhere else. Its front paws are human hands, and it is wearing bracelets. When it opens its mouth I see Phoebe Drake curled in its gullet, sound asleep.

* * *

I don’t mind playing delivery girl for old man Windson. With the valley so sparse, you snatch on any excuse for human interaction. And I pass the Drakes’ drive every day I head into town. Their place has the same feel as mine – both tiny houses, nestled back against the mountain, the huge quiet of the black rock and hemlock needles bearing down.

Except to be technical, I shouldn’t call it ‘my place’. Davy might take exception to that if he ever got wind of it. It’s unlikely, though. Eleven months out of the year he’s eleven hundred miles away.

Davy Drum. My wedding veil had not been in the closet for six months when he heard the call of the shuttling life and lit on out of town. It’s been five years since we lived together as man and wife.

The first week he was gone I made a list of qualities I would no longer tolerate in a man. One of them was Never Comes Around, and another one was Pees in Bottles While Driving. Since then our relationship has been pretty much moot.

It works out okay. When Davy comes through town he crashes with friends, and I get to play both ‘house’ and ‘independent woman’, as long as I don’t press for alimony. To be honest, if I could go back to my high school self, waving my pompoms and hollering as Davy plows the ball into the end zone, well, I might give some advice to certain people. I might burst a rosy bubble or two. But, you know. I can’t.

* * *

Mr. and Mrs. Drake are in old man Windson’s grocery, meandering down the produce aisle. It’s good to see them—I’ve been worried. They come up to me and say hello. I can’t help but wonder if they have some sort of vitamin deficiency. Their eyes have a yellowish tint. It gives me the shivers. My first thought is that something is terribly wrong. That’s not how it’s supposed to be at all. But it occurs to me that I have no idea how it’s supposed to be. Maybe when you’re grieving, your eyes are supposed to turn golden and glassy. Maybe all those with cloven hearts forget basic things, like the layout of their local grocery. Maybe when Mr. Drake clutched my arm and said, “Pickle, where is the meat cooler? We’ve been wandering around this store for an hour, please, where has it gone?” maybe his hands were supposed to feel cold and scaly.

And maybe those who encounter the grief-stricken all react in the same way too. Maybe all of them sleepwalk through the rest of their day, stumble home, get halfway through making a pot of tea and collapse on the linoleum, pressed up against the dishwasher, not crying but not really breathing either, trying to accustom themselves to the devouring hole that has opened up in their chests. That’s just how it goes. Right?

* * *

When old man Windson doesn’t need me for errands I wait tables in Eddie Squeak’s bar. Mostly it’s a watering hole for shuttlers passing through the valley, but we’ve got a decent cast of locals to round the place out. The mood since the cougar attack has been tense. The whole valley is sleeping with one eye open.

Mae Woods and her husband Clovis are in tonight, squaring off on either side of a booth.

“We’re getting the hell out of here,” Mae tells me. “This ain’t a place to raise children. This valley sold its soul to the devil. I’ve been saying it for years, and this mess with the Drakes is the last straw. We’re hightailing for the suburbs.”

I replace their empty beer pitcher. Clovis looks up at me with dog-tired eyes. “What we are doing,” he enunciates, “is evaluating our prospects in a rational and level-headed manner.”

“My sister’s got a condo next to hers that’s up for rent. Little patch of lawn in front of everyone. Perfect for a picnic supper. Can you imagine trying for a picnic supper in this valley? Forget cougars, the kiddies would wind up impaled on those awful black rocks.”

Mae was a year below me in high school. I can still feel the homecoming tiara in my fingers as I lifted it off my own head and set it on hers.

“Each condo’s got a one cute maple tree inside a fence,” she says. “That’s what I call family friendly. All these pine trees give me the willies.”

They’re hemlocks, I want to tell her. Clovis asks could he please get some ketchup.

“And this rain,” I hear Mae say as I walk away. “Good Lord, I can’t stand this rain.”

It has been raining a lot. But let’s be clear, at the moment she says that, the storm has broken, the clouds are parting, and if you look out the window the whole parking lot is bathed in moonlight.

* * *

The dead man shows up at my house that night. It’s been three weeks since he last came around so at first, I don’t let him in. If you think I am just going to twiddle my thumbs and wait for the mood to strike you, you have got another thing coming, mister, I tell him. I didn’t put up with that from Davy, I will not put up with it from you, understand?

“I’m deeply sorry.” The dead man spreads his hands before him. His eyes are wide. “Pickle, you must believe me. There were matters that required my attention.”

How can I resist? He is so contrite and so handsome. How can a man stay so handsome when he’s been dead two hundred years? He was a soldier in the war, shot through the chest by a man he had trusted as a brother. He told me this to explain why I didn’t have to worry, he would always be faithful. I understand the pain of disloyalty, he declared, kissing my hair. I have never been able to help myself when it comes to men, especially men in uniform. Even when I can tell they mean trouble.

We sit on the lumpy futon and he rubs my feet.

“You shouldn’t have gone away,” I admonish. “Who knows what could have happened to me. Did you hear about the little girl? All they found was one of her feet. How would you feel if the next time you showed up, all that was left was one of my feet?”

He bends around and kisses my toes. “I would be surprised, dearest, that the foul beast had deigned to relinquish such a choice piece of flesh.”

I could kick him in the face but I don’t. Who knows, his head might fall off and maggots might pour out of his body. I sometimes have a feeling that if I clutch him too hard or wrap my legs too wildly around his waist, he will collapse like he is carved out of dust. I’ve never figured out exactly what he is, or why he chose to come to me. Is he a ghost? No, there is heat under his flesh. Is he a zombie? No, he doesn’t smell like death.

Part of me envies Mr. and Mrs. Drake. They are both whole living breathing people who interact with each other on a daily basis. In high school, I anticipated a life like that. But I am no good at taking action. Like now for instance. What I should really do is just say, here’s the deal, dead soldier, no more sex until you tell me straight, are you a zombie or a ghost or what? But for some reason whenever he shows up the question goes clean out of my head.

* * *

Every so often I get dressed for work, I get my purse, I leave the house—but then instead of walking down the road I climb up the mountain. I can’t control it, or predict it, or explain it. I get out of breath pretty quickly; the mountain is steep. Where the rocks are bare they are slippery, and where they are covered the detritus conceals crevasses and loose scree.

I lie down on the ground. The rocks have heartbeats. They throb fast and irregular and infect me with their fear. When the wind blows the whole bulk of the mountain chain shivers and the trees whine. I don’t know what to do with such a big scared thing. Sometimes I hum parts of Lance Harbinger’s greatest hits but that doesn’t help much. I am no good at remembering songs.

Lying on the ground, I stuff my mouth full of pine needles. They taste sour and rotten and they teach me new kinds of yearnings. The yearning to decay. The yearning to collapse, to finally let go. They prick my throat, my tongue, my lips, and when I finally spit them out the ground is tinged pink with mouth blood.

I have to be careful to brush all the dirt and needles off me before I walk down to the valley. Otherwise old man Windson will shout to me, “Who have you been rolling around with, girlie?” and try to sweep me off with his long-handled broom.

* * *

Eddie Squeak is not bartending very well tonight. He has something on his mind. His grandmother just died and he received a package from her estate in the mail. It’s a tiny locked box.

“The hell am I supposed to do?” Squeak looks a little frantic. “Ain’t no keyhole. And no hinges either. How’m I supposed to open a box with no hinges?”

He leans against the bar and does not provide refills and doesn’t seem troubled when patrons leave “Fuck you”s instead of tips. I call Cristoff in to check on him. Cristoff is the bouncer.

“She had a fortune,” Squeak tells us. “You got no idea. She slept on the sheets of the Empress of China. She bribed gravity to let her house alone. And it’s in here. I know it. She wouldn’t have left it to anybody else.”

He clutches the object in both hands and drops his head between his arms. Cristof’s stony features rearrange themselves into an expression of concern. He looks at what Squeak is holding.

“All due respect?” Cristoff says. “That’s a chicken egg.”

It does look a lot like a chicken egg. But Squeak will not listen. In an icy voice, he reminds Cristoff that he is paying him to deter unsavories from entering, not laze around the bar and insult Squeak’s deceased family. Cristoff stalks away and Squeak turns to me. “I’m sorry, Pickle.” His mouth quivers. “Something’s happening to me. First the Drake girl, now grandma? There’s death in the air. I can feel it.”

I assure him I feel it too. When I finally get off work at two in the morning I pass him sitting on the curb. There are tears on his face. He is holding the white ovoid treasure chest up to the moon, begging it to give up its secrets.

* * *

In high school cheerleading my favorite move was the seven-quarter cradle. The base girls would put their hands under my feet, lock into a full extension, I would go tight and they would shoot me up, up, up. I’d tuck my body in and do two forward flips and for a moment at the apex, I was nothing. I had nobody. There was no up or down or past or future or ground or sky. Then I’d straighten out into a pike pose and drop into the arms of the base girls and they would catch me gentle as a baby bunting.

Davy said the seven-quarter cradle was his favorite too because when I flipped over he could see my panties. He told me that the night he proposed. “You know babe, that thing you used to do? Your legs up in the air like that? Well, first time I seen that? That’s when I fell in love.”

* * *

I get a piece of mail addressed to the Drakes. Normally I’d just put it back out for the mailman but I want a reason to check on them. The wood of their porch is rotting through. My foot goes through the top step and I catch myself on the railing. The house is dark. I’m almost convinced no one is home when suddenly Mr. Drake appears, beckoning me through the door, leading me down the hallway as silent as falling hemlock needles.

It’s hard to tell in the gloom but I don’t think he looks any better. His eyes are still yellow and he walks hunched over. He could use a shave. Mrs. Drake comes into the room and it’s hard not to jump because she is very successfully cultivating a unibrow. She used to babysit for me sometimes. She’s the one who taught me how to put on eyeliner.

They say things like, “Thanks so much, Pickle,” and “Darn postman!” and “You’ve been so kind these past weeks.” They bob weirdly up and down, their knees always bent, their backs never straight. Mr. Drake’s hands are on his wife’s shoulders, then her waist. She touches his jawline, his chest. They never lose contact with each other.

I say thank you, no trouble, really, and then there’s an awkward silence. Their sink is filled with brown water. The faucet drips into it. Plink. Plink.

They walk me down the hallway. The door to the room with the clothesline is shut. There are dark stains around the doorknob.

When I go to shut the front door behind me the hinges rip out of the wall—the wood is soft as tofu!— and the whole thing falls on top of me. I stagger out from underneath and it collapses on the porch. Paint flakes and rotting splinters pepper my blouse.

Mrs. Drake gasps, “Oh, goodness!” and Mr. Drake chuckles, “Nice catch, Pickle.” Neither of them moves to pick up the door.

* * *

We get a whole bunch of shuttlemen in the bar that night. The vestibule is full of rain-soaked shuttlesuits and helmets. The room smells like wet mustaches. At first, all they can do is complain about the storm, but then someone mentions Phoebe Drake. There is no talk of the parents, only the cougar. The shuttlemen were not aware that cougars still prowled these mountains. They are outraged. Arguments start up over how best to slaughter it.

“Smother the mountain with poison gas!” declares one. “Fill the woods with remote-control assassins!” shouts another.

“Now guys,” says Cristoff. “Let’s not get out of hand. It’s just one cougar, after all.”

This catches my attention. I look up at Cristoff but his arms are crossed and his face looks just as much like a double-bolted freezer door as ever. The shuttlemen fall over themselves in their hurry to disagree. The ones furthest along in their drinking fall over literally. How dare he say ‘just one cougar’! One cougar with a taste for manflesh—for little girlflesh, no less. It’s threat to the security of the good people of this here valley. It’s a threat to the dominion of good people everywhere!

The shuttlemen are experts at dominion. The shuttlemen’s union is lobbying for a highway to be built from the Earth to Mars. How disgruntled these shuttlemen must be, stuck shuttling goods through a dark and rainy valley across the lonely surface of the earth.

* * *

The dead man doesn’t come around nearly enough and I am no good at keeping the emptiness of the house in check. The rain drums and drums. The best I can do is put my Lance Harbinger cassettes into the tape player and crank up the volume. The DJ at my prom played four Lance Harbinger songs, more than any other band. One was a slow song, but at that point Davy had gone down to the moat to funnel a Budweiser with his friends. But he came back for the last song of the night, which was Jump, Lele, the one that kept Lance at the top of the charts for six straight weeks. He implored us all:

Jump, Lele, baby

            Jump with me tonight

            Jump through to morning

We’ll make it all right

And so we jumped. Everyone. It almost felt like we hadn’t jumped, like instead, the floor of the gymnasium fell out from under us. My ex-bestfriend Janet and One-Legged Cordelia held my hands, and I could feel Davy ’s breath warm on the back of my neck. We were screaming out the words. The disco ball scattered stars over our faces. We rose into the air.

* * *

As the bar is closing up I go talk to Cristoff. I’m not sure how to say what I want to say. He looks as though he were hewn out of a great pillar of black rock. I pretend I’m talking to the mountain behind my house. That makes it easier.

“I can’t get Phoebe Drake out of my head,” I tell him. He raises his eyebrows and nods.

“I know.”

He knows! I feel braver. “But I’ve got this awful feeling. I don’t know who to tell. I’m ashamed.”

“Ashamed of what?” The great pillar looks concerned.

“I—well—sort of—uh,” but there’s no way to get around it now. I have to spit out this viper coiling around my insides, and I have to spit it out to Cristoff. “Sometimes I—do you ever—feel relieved?”

“Relieved?” His eyes grow wide. “Yes, Pickle. I do.”

The pillar turns kind! I venture to discover the precise nature of my viper. “It’s like . . . who knew there were cougars left around here?”

“Exactly!” Cristoff thumps one fist against the wall with satisfaction. “No one expected it! We were all sinfully complacent. I’ve got a wife and three babies, did you know that, Pickle? And so of course my heart breaks for Mr. and Mrs. Drake. Of course. But when I think it could have been my own . . .” He shakes his head. “It’s a sinful feeling, Pickle, it truly is. But I am relieved. Relieved that when the wake-up call came, it spared the ones I loved.”

No. This isn’t my viper at all. My viper has a subtler venom. I say good night to Cristoff then, because I am suddenly afraid of what he might find out.

* * *

The rain turns into hail as I walk home. Even the thick blanket of hemlock branches cannot shield the road from hailstones big as mouse skulls. I’m passing by the Drake’s drive right then so I dodge up it. Maybe I can hang out in their house until the storm passes.

They haven’t replaced the door. The porch is about to fall off the house and hailstones bounce over the threshold into the hallway. I let myself in. It doesn’t seem like they’re home. Windows are shattered and green vines peek into the living room. The room with that clothesline no longer has a door. Inside it is a mountain of sticks and leaves. It looks like a huge bird’s nest. The clothesline and all of Phoebe’s clothes have been woven among the sticks. There are dark clumps jammed into the gaps. I lean into the room and squint. Hair. The dark clumps are hair.

Something small and dense unfurls pain in my head. Hailstones. There’s a hole gaping in the roof. I glance up and see white hailstones dropping out of the black, like I’m flying through space with stars speeding by.

I duck back into the hallway to avoid the hail. It roars inside and outside the house, but behind the roar I hear a noise. A creak, a keen—there is something in the kitchen. A faint clatter—a dark shape flashes across the hall. I take a step down the hallway. None of the lights work. The linoleum floor has peeled away and under my feet, there is only glue and grime and cracking wood. The scrabbling grows louder. And then the shadows in the kitchen coalesce and bound down the hallway toward me. It is Mrs. Drake. Her hair is a mat that hangs down her back. She lopes with her hands grazing the floor.

I leap away and trip and stagger out to the porch. Mrs. Drake skids to a stop in the doorway. There is blood on her mouth. Her upper arms have teeth marks in them, and shreds of skin hang down to her elbows like fringe. I run out into the driveway but something makes me stop and turn around. Mr. Drake has joined her in the doorway. The beard he was growing is gone; instead, his jaw is covered with oozing scabs. He wears one of Phoebe’s tiny sweaters on his head. The Drakes paw at each other. They fail their arms at me and keen deep in their throats. I flee down the road and the hail pelts my arms and the next morning I am dotted all over with little round bruises.

* * *

This valley sees very little of unrelenting grief. How was I supposed to know? How was anyone supposed to understand? We went to the memorial service and then went on with our lives.

The shuttlemen spend one evening in Squeak’s, but next evening finds them in Morocco or California or the asteroid belt. They cannot really comprehend those of us who remain within the mountains. They cannot be blamed for that.

* * *

The dead man says, “Does this satisfy you? I am here. And I have brought you a picnic supper.” But I’m not hungry and I’m not horny and I sort of wish he would leave. I bolt the door and yell through the window, “It’s amazing how you can talk so fancy and still be such an insensitive jerk.” But when I walk into the bedroom he’s lying on the bed. I scream and run into the bathroom. He says, “Pickle, dearest, I beg you, listen!” and flings out an arm to stop me from slamming the door. I slam it anyway and sever his wrist. His hand falls onto the bathroom floor and skitters across the tile, groping for my feet. Through the door, I hear him moan softly in pain. “Pickle. Help me.”

Trying to move silently, I climb on top of the toilet and hug my knees against my chest. I squeeze my eyes shut very tightly and recite: feet together, extend, left arm. right arm, tuck, pop! over and over again in my head. Eventually, I hear him sigh. His hand scrabbles back under the bathroom door. When I’m sure he’s gone, I sag off the toilet. I just manage to get the lid up in time before I’m retching, puking up everything in my stomach, heaving so hard I think I might flip inside out. Mae? Janet? Mrs. Drake? Can anyone tell me what this means?

* * *

In Squeak’s bar, the TV says there’s been a shuttle collision. Everyone rushes outside to watch the sky. What they say is, one shuttle on a routine atmospheric trip ran head-on into another one coming out of a time warp. “Cougars and time warps,” Cristoff nudges me, grinning. “Who knew?”

The newswoman lists off the casualties. The name that catches my attention is David Drum.

Oh.

According to the crowd outside, the time warp has caught the shuttles in some kind of loop. They collide and explode and a peach blossom ignites in the sky. The flower falls a little way, begins to flicker, until very abruptly it is snuffed out, and the collision reappears higher in the sky.

Holy shit, the shuttlemen say. Who’da thunk. Lookee there. But I don’t really feel like looking at all. Estranged or no, I’ve got no desire to watch my husband, my high school sweetheart, bloom and die over and over and over again.

* * *

Feeling their mortality, the shuttlemen tip well. I walk home with forty dollars in my pocket. The rain is giving the valley a rare reprieve and the sky foods with pink and gold. On the gravel road where no one can see me, I skip. I kick up stones and send them skittering into the bushes.

Something has lifted off my heart. It makes me want to do beautiful things. It makes me want to check up on the Drakes, one more time.

Their roof is completely gone. The walls have fallen away and lie mouldering in the earth. Whatever gestated in that house has finally sloughed off its cocoon of plywood and sheetrock.

The Drakes are still there, though. In what was once the living room, on what was once the couch but is now a mound of fibers and leaves. They are naked, bodies cupped, having marital relations out for everyone to see. His hands clutch her breasts, and the muscles of his back ripple, gleaming in the orange light of the sunset. She throws her head back, mouth open, teeth bared, exultation painted across her face.

In the driveway, I tremble. For some reason I flashback to junior year, when my ex-best-friend Janet spent several weeks believing she could become a veterinarian. She read to me from her animal books, wide-eyed, giggling, The penis of the male cat is covered by large, pointed, horny spines, or “papillae.” My body is shot through with heat, lines of fire that race from my chest to my groin.

They both freeze and stare at me. Did I make a noise? I didn’t realize. For a moment everything is silent. I am held in their golden eyes. Then they leap up with a wild noise, flinging their heads around, clutching each other’s hands. They scream at me.

Their screams pluck a note that first sounded when I was six and I lost my mother in a crowd. It sounded when Janet declared she was no longer my best friend, and when the tri-state cheerleading trophy went to a squad in the next valley. It sounded the night Davy left. But there are other notes playing as well in the raw and unchained throats of Mr. and Mrs. Drake. And the music is not sadness or anger or defiance or pain or anything else I will ever know. They no longer beckon to me. I will be left behind.

Far up the mountain, I hear something else. Other screams from other voices. Other creatures calling to Mr. and Mrs. Drake.

They watch me for one last moment. It’s okay, I whisper to them. Go. They turn and leap over the collapsed walls of their house, gallop up the mountain and disappear into the deep woods.

* * *

As I walk back to my house the rain begins again but I do not feel it. The mountain air enrobes me like a force field. Rays of light extend from my body out into the void. I imagine what it is like to give yourself over to pain. To become that porous. To have the mountain seep in everywhere. To wake up one morning and find your lungs replaced by two surging hemlock saplings. Your brain turned into a black stone covered with jewel-bright moss. Your dick transformed into the barbed apparatus of a mountain devil.

I am too full, I will burst. So I laugh. HA! The mountain thrums at the frequencies of my laughter. The trees  ring like a thousand bells.

* * *

Then I break up with the dead man. I chase him out of the house with a knife. His eyes are liquid with fear, not for himself but for me. “Pickle, please!” He speaks like I am a spooked horse. “I love you!”

Love, ha. As if. He has no heart. To prove this I stab him in the chest. He does not explode or collapse or blow away on the wind. His lips form a wordless cry of pain and his eyes well up. A single maggot wriggles out of the wound and drops into the wet grass.

I tell him, “I don’t want to see you here anymore. Get back under the ground. You have no place in this world. I have no place for you.”

Rain plasters his hair to his head. He extends an arm to me. What a fine arm it is; muscles neatly toned, nails clean and trim.

But I keep my face expressionless and stand with my arms crossed until finally, his shoulders sag, and he turns and leaves. My eyes follow him down the mountain until he has disappeared from view. Even then I don’t cry.

It seems cruel, doesn’t it? But I had to do this. I had to do this because I am pregnant.

The dead man is the father. We used protection, sure, but early on I noticed that the used condoms all had smoking holes blasted through the ends of them. Since then I’ve had a feeling this might happen. And no baby of mine will be born into a house filled with residues of gravedust and melancholy.

I will have a daughter. I will name her Lele, after the girl in Lance Harbinger’s number one single, because honestly that is the most sublime music I have ever heard. I will explain to her that her father was a liar and a traitor, who betrayed his comrades-in-arms and so was executed by them. Together we will come to forgive him.

I will take her out into the night when it’s raining. I will hold her up into the sky just like she’s about to do her own seven quarter cradle. “Lookee there!” I will yell, and thunder will crash and lightning will split the sky into a thousand feline grins.

Don’t say I’m nuts or anything. I’m not. I know this will make baby Lele cry. For each of her wails, I will wail louder. She will howl and I will scream. We’ll rend the air so terribly that the rain will be afraid to fall on us. The raindrops will stare at us as they go by.

If our lungs are strong enough our wails will carry up the mountaintops and the untamed things will pause. If we are lucky, Mr. and Mrs. Drake will prick their ears. They will remember the long-ago day when they blessed me and called me kind. We will pull them down the mountain, and the cougar too, and all of the windswept creatures with bright fangs and brighter eyes. All around us, behind curtains of rain, beasts will cavort and moan and tumble  My lawn will be churned into a black swamp. The mud will splash up on my calves as I leap up, to bring Lele closer to the sky.

That is how I will let her know. That is how I will tell her, my perfect child, just how far I would go for her. Because the truth is, there is nothing the Drakes did that I would not also do. We are all three human beings, after all. Maybe they would disagree, but I know better. I saw what they did and it is what humans do for each other. They tear the roofs off their houses. They peel bands of skin from their arms with their own teeth. They let themselves be penetrated by the giant thorny penises of wild cat-men. Because otherwise, what would we be? And what is love, anyway?

Later at night after I have laved the mud and rain and white fecks of animal spittle from Lele’s face, I will lay her in the cradle. I will pull the quilt to her chin and tuck her in. I will hum to her a gentle version of the song that bears her name. I will listen to her hushed exhalations and feel my heart expand, until she and I are all that exists in this tiny valley, ringed by these black mountains, on this desperate planet, under the trembling stars. I will stand in the doorway until she has fallen asleep.

I will not let her grow up in a world without fear.

*

An excerpt from Alien Virus Love Disaster: Stories, which will be published by Small Beer Press in August.

Abbey Mei Otis

Abbey Mei Otis is a writer, a teaching artist, a storyteller, and a firestarter raised in the woods of North Carolina. She loves people and art forms on the margins. She studied at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, TX, and the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and now teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio. Her stories have recently appeared in journals including Tin House, Story QuarterlyBarrelhouse, and Tor.com.

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