My brother finishes his deployment the summer I enlist and wants to play he’s gone full PTSD. “Lock up this feeling,” he tells me. “You won’t be coming back so sweet.”
He’s standing behind the couch with that Navy posture, watching me and Trina’s staring contest. I say, “Don’t worry, Harris. You were never sweet.” I can see him with the side of my eye drinking one of his green drinks. Takes him a whole bag of groceries to make those things.
Trina’s cheating, walking her fingers on my knee. The staring contest is for who chooses the DVD, but Harris has to leave the living room before I’m watching anything.
Something traumatic’s happened, at least to the way he talks. “When we’re erratic, depressive, whatever—we’re who we’ve got. You know I’m there for you down the line.”
Trina’s eyes are green with little sunflowers. “You were a line cook on an unsinkable aircraft carrier,” I say, staring in. “You wore the same paper hat they wear at KayJay’s. You had grease popping at you. That was your war.” She doesn’t blink.
Harris describes in his new vocabulary how it feels, how you come home, and your house, your neighborhood, no one knows you, how you don’t belong any more.
“So take your GI to college, baller. That’s what I’m going to do. How often did you get your dick wet on the USS Truman?”
Trina doesn’t flinch, just mouths it back at me, slow and silent (dick…wet…) and I roll backward off the couch. Breakfast Club again.
Harris reaches to help me up, but I slap his hand and stay sprawled. “I promise to stay away from the griddle, don’t worry.”
“Did you even read my emails?” he says.
“And you turtle-waxed the drones? Harris, I’m here for you. You’re my brother by all reports. But tonight—every night till Trina leaves for school—is date night. So, remember what you said about feeling like you don’t belong?”
An hour later Harris is back in the living room and says the reason he made his little speech was that he’s taken a job as third engineer on a Dutch cable ship, running fiber optics along the Indian Ocean floor. “I bus out tomorrow,” he says.
I wish Mom or Dawn, or Amelia even, would come in and cry about it—that’s probably all it would take to make him stay. The way my heart is, there’s only RAM enough for one thing at a time. All it can feel is Trina leaning back on my chest. I swear there’s a soul of some kind making loops through our two torsos. Out my chest into her back, down, and back up my belly through me, like we have our own inner northern lights.
“You can have anything left in my boxes,” he says. “My army surplus is in there, my telescope.” Then he takes the painting he made of me when I was a boy off the wall and hands it to Trina.
“I remember this little man,” she says, but it has that sound of when, more than speaking, you’re listening to yourself speak.
Harris says, “You take that. For your dorm. While he’s serving.” I can feel the northern lights getting nervous somewhere. “Look at it sometimes for him.”
“Harris, you know Mom’s not letting that out of the house.”
“You’re lucky if Mom notices you’re gone.” He laughs, he knows he’s right. Mom loves us, but she’s basically asleep.
The painting’s from when Old Max—that’s our dad—ran off, not even a month after Mom and him adopted Amelia and Dawn, and Harris and I spent the year pretty much outside, in our yard or nextdoor at the Golds’. In the painting, my hair hasn’t curled yet and I’m sitting still as I can for Harris, a sad piece of candy in my mouth. Harris said, “You keep moving, I will take you up and throw you off the roof,” but you can tell he spent forever on my hair.
I wait for Trina to say, “I shouldn’t. I can’t take this,” but something happens in me when she does. I say, “You’re a mean little pecker, you know that, Harris? You know exactly what you’re about. You want me to feel sorry for myself or something?”
The northern lights freeze, shade out, I don’t know where they go.
Harris says, “You’ll need someone thinking about you.”
I say, “Trina can think about whatever the fuck she wants,” but my heart’s pounding her on the back, like help, help, let me in. Trina’s looking out the window, and Harris is almost smiling at me. I think maybe now he won’t have to go. We’re all frozen like that, DVD on pause, till Gold’s plane comes in over the house and we look at each other—Dr. Gold is going blind.
We listen for a crash, anticipating it together, but he lands on the runway and pulls the twin-prop into its hangar. We know every whine of it by heart.
Mom, Dawn, Amelia, and I take Harris to the Greyhound the next day, and he hugs us without compromising that Navy posture and steps onto the bus that takes him to his plane. I’ve never even heard of cable ships before, but how else would an Internet get built?
He really leaves.
We go for drive-thru—no one cries—and scatter for our rooms when we get home.
Harris used to threaten to throw me off the roof because I’d told him I could fly. I thought I could. I could remember it, not jumping off of anything like he assumed, just slowly floating up over my bed, the house, sustained by something in my chest. It seemed like I’d done it often, but when I went to try it on purpose—stood in the yard and held the hose so I wouldn’t float away—I guess my heart had gone weak.
It wasn’t blind Dr. Gold flying his plane. I’m over at Gold’s for work that afternoon, all ready to chew him out, but he says it was the CEO of some spice company taking a test flight.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean a company that runs stores that sell cinnamon sticks.” Gold admires himself as a pain in the ass.
“You’re selling the twin?”
“Seemed not, not the way he was talking. I had to throw in the Cessna too.”
I don’t know why I thought he would keep them, but the whole neighborhood feels different with them gone. “Didn’t I tell you I’m taking a plane for if I’m on the Truman? So I can duck home to Trina, land on the quad, like, Oh hey, girl. Wanna get malts?” I say Truman because it’s the one boat I know.
I’m Dr. Gold’s assistant for fifteen dollars an hour until I report to RTC in October. I also get him pot and mark it up about one thousand percent. Gold’s main career was land survey, but he’s done aerial photography longer than I’ve been alive. I’m organizing the photos for after he’s fully blind. I scan them and retitle them something descriptive his computer can read back to him—Toxic Reddish Sinkhole. Gold doesn’t understand tags, so I copy every photo into five or six files, by place and date if I know them, and by anything else I can think of to help him find it without his eyes. His drives are clogging up with folders like Landfill Fires and Quilty Looking Fields. The photos aren’t really about what they’re of, but I wouldn’t know how to file them by feeling. I’m also building him a better website. Gold thinks I’m the Pelé of HTML.
When I was a kid, Dr. Gold let me and Trina draw chalk floorplans of our mansions on his runway, life-size swimming pools and home theaters. I’d fling worms and the rest of it, but I loved her already. I was always like, “Naw, I don’t need to draw mine. I can just draw a room at yours…”
Gold’s place is the original farmhouse for Cedar Farm. Once he paved his runway, Gold sold the rest to a cheapo developer. Kit homes, ranch grass, and planters. Gold’s place has a whole bedroom for framed insects he collects through the mail. And he has so many fish tanks you don’t even need to turn the lights on with the glow—especially a blind man doesn’t. Sometimes he’ll give me some piece of clutter that was Mrs. Gold’s to give to Trina, a compact mirror or a quartz watch. She died, slow and dry-mouthed, when I was six, which I wish to God they hadn’t let me see.
I’m scanning pictures of pit mines all afternoon, and Harris is out of sight, out of mind. I can only think about three times a minute how I’m wasting it not with Trina. It’s already late July.
Gold’s at the other computer, which he has speaking to him from some game or something he’s playing. “You are in the Desolate Citadel. Crumbled glory surrounds you.” It’s not like him, and I’ve been hearing crap like that all week.
“You slaying dragons?” I say.
“I’d be happy just to meet a dragon. I’d be happy to meet a lizard. There’s nobody in the whole place.” He shakes a toothpick from the shaker and says, “Come see,” but he sounds kind of slugged.
Gold dresses like a cowboy, except instead of a pistol he wears a mini radio on his hip and instead of a Stetson he has a shiny, bald head. He likes sheepskin collars. He limps from an infection he had in his knee. When he raises his eyebrows at you, which he likes to do, the wrinkles make him grow a half an inch.
I get the stool and look over Dr. Gold’s shoulder. It’s some truly ancient Internet. No browser—just a Telnet connection running in Terminal. “What’s this, a chat room?”
“It’s a wasteland,” he says and types east.
>You travel east on the crumbling aqueduct wall and enter The Frog Garden. Croaking fills the air.
>You see a small pond formed in a ruined corner of the citadel wall. The mud at your feet jiggles with tadpole tails. Frogs balance on old stones and croak in rhythm.
>You see brown frogs with green spot and green frogs with brown spots.
>say, Hi frog
>You speak to yourself.
>You travel east on a mud path, away from the ruins and enter The Bowling Green.
>You see clean thin grass extending in all directions. Balls, pins, croquet mallets, and glasses of Pimm’s are discarded all around you. A hammock hangs from strings extending endlessly into the sky.
>You are the only Territorian here.
“Somebody stand you up?” I pat him on the shoulder.
“This was a thing Ella liked. She would chat with people and build new rooms or what have you. It was beyond me. I’m just flying survey.”
I say it without thinking. “You’re not looking for her, are you?”
He looks back at me. I can see the white clots roping over his eyes. It scares me sometimes how smashed he seems. “I’ll use my headphones if you’d prefer.”
“Your house, you be pathetic as you want.”
Back at my desk, I write DONT BE A ASSHOLE with ballpoint on my arm. Then I change it to DON’T BE ANASSHOLE, which looks stupid, so I go to the bathroom and scrub it off. “Fuck you,” I say to the mirror and screw my face up.
At my computer, the chat’s popped up.
Trina: I’ve eloped with a beautiful Spaniard
I stretch the window so I won’t have to see Gold’s desktop picture, a black and white of barefoot Ella Gold walking on mud.
Dirtbird: aw shoot
Trina: His chest hair is tight black cursive
Trina: His ass is as hard and round as Dr. Gold’s head
Dirtbird: he has genital warts
Trina: We’re making love on his horse right now
Dirtbird: his dick is cheddar cheese
Trina: as the horse gallops us on I cling with my thighs to his
Trina: resolute manhood
Trina: Oh, how the pampas are trembling!
Dirtbird: Please dont
Trina: Give me the riding crop, Antonio!
Trina: Now faster, Estebancho! Fly, fly!
I sign out. From Dr. Gold’s desk, I hear, “You are in the Dungeon. Cold iron manacles hang from the stone walls. You are the only Territorian here.” I breathe the blood out of my ears and sign back in.
Trina: You OK?
Dirtbird: Trina wins.
Dirtbird: Sorry. I’m at Gold’s.
Trina: I know. I usually can’t get you that easy. Are you freaking?
Trina: Here. How Shall I Love/Bone Thee? Let me count the ways:
Trina: 1. Internet phones. 2. Internet texts. 3. Internet emails.
Trina: 4. Nasty Skype.
Dirtbird: i know.
Trina: Sexy patience?
Trina: Are you scanning photos right now?
Dirtbird: Supposed to be
Trina: …so? Get me going
Dirtbird: lol i’m not scanning it for you
Trina: bawk bgawk
I get back to work, watching the scanner squeegee across a photo, scraping off what it needs—not a rock beach, not an image of a rock beach, just a measurement of changing light. “You are in the Bubble Chamber. Strong pink bubbles large enough to lie in lift you up.” Gold’s holding his face inches from the screen even though the computer’s speaking to him, like he’s waiting for Mrs. Gold, twelve years dead, to lean out the monitor and kiss him.
“You do realize that place has cyber-semen all over it.”
He looks over.
“Just seems you should know. The giant lily pads and hot tubs and torture chambers? People built those for, you know, doing the dirty qwerty.”
“You’re worried about me?” he says.
“You’re sniffling the sheets, Gold. It’s making me sad.”
Gold sighs, pushes up from his desk, and takes the aviators off his bald scalp. I decide if the calcified bastard wants to kick the crap out of me I’ll let him, but he limps off to the other room and comes back in a minute with something in his hand.
It’s his bowl. He hits it and stares at me.
“Goddamn it. I’m sorry—” I start, but he interrupts: “Harris didn’t stay home long,” he says.
I’d rather talk about Ella Gold than Harris. “He’s just pissed. All those years and he’s not a hero or something.”
Gold’s stare still pushes on me, even if it’s blind. I say, “Harris would rather be missed than happy.” Meanwhile, the phone in my pocket is filling up with more of Trina’s texts.
Gold asks if they’re going to drug-test me, and I tell him there are tricks. We pass his pipe, wood stem and stone bowl, listening to the computer fans. It takes all my willpower not to peek at my phone.
“Did you write letters or telegrams or what when you were Air Force?”
“Mostly I dropped bombs.” He faces back at his computer for a while. “I wish,” he starts—it takes him so long to say what he wishes I figure he’s not going to. “I wish just one of my photos could’ve had some air in it. I wish I could’ve taken one picture of the actual air.”
Some moments are moments, others are the whole summer passing. I ask and he says Trina can come over to help me sort through his boxes of prints in the storage shed. I text her and she walks down. They tried to make Cedar Farm Road look like real suburbs—sprinkler, doghouse, trampoline, shrub—but there’s also Gold’s runway running through the back of it all and no city to be suburban to. Gold’s storage shed used to be a chicken coop, and there’s a root cellar, a rusty tractor, a few other eroding remainders of farm.
I watch Trina through the windows, coming around to the back door. The pockets on her jean shorts are so small her lipgloss is sticking out. You can tell from the way Dr. Gold says hello without getting up that he’ll be leaving us alone.
We smoke a little, in the storage shed, blowing it out the chicken ramp. I can taste Trina’s lipgloss on the glass piece, and for fun I imagine we’ve never kissed and I’m stealing a taste of her lips already—but somehow it’s a sad feeling, I don’t know.
We find a box marked Cedar and start laying out aerials, trying to make a map on the floor. Our houses, the town road, the river, some from lower or higher—we mosaic it with coop dust peeking through.
“I can see us,” she says, pointing.
I take the print. “Where?”
“Right there, under my trampoline. See the outline? My back, your legs…remember?”
I remember it under the trampoline—the mat not really shielding the rain just slowing it into fat black drops—but I can’t see any…
Then I hear the game of it in her voice: “The Andersons’ backyard—see your shoulder blades in the treehouse window? That was bad of us. And there, in the bed of my dad’s truck.”
The town spreads as we open the box. I point to the swings at the elementary school. The middle school roof, where I scuffed my butt black on the tar paper.
Trina takes a photo from a different box. “Here we are at—whoa—at a big hot-air-balloon expo.”
“We’re in that pretty blue one there, making the basket swing.”
“Oh, how the pampas are trembling?”
River islands, rice paddies, peninsulas of ice—we travel a few.
I wait till I know it’s time. “And here”—I point—“here’s us in the photo storage coop. What exactly are we doing in there?”
“Well,” she says, and she comes and sits over me, the lip gloss pushing even farther from her pocket. The skin on her thighs is smooth and tan, sun warm.
I find all the brads in her cutoffs with my fingers. I lean into her breasts, to feel sad, just one sip of sad where she can’t see. Then I breathe at her neck till it quivers.
It’s the whole rest of the summer passing. I watch Trina’s lips, not pursing, just their shapes getting soft and full. I watch myself waiting forever for them. And when they finally touch mine, I watch the play of it slowly turn till we’re saying something through it, something easy and soul-spoken moving torso to torso between us. The more we say it, the more urgent it is to say, and the more urgent, the slower we move, so slow that the whole summer passes. I’m there and I’m high overhead in a single engine plane, watching it go. My little self, barely eighteen, not a hope.
Sex lets you know there’s an outside to the human body, but it doesn’t let you get there. Like how they say the northern lights are sliding through everything all the time, but only certain skies will let them show. It doesn’t have to be dark or even far north. I guess it comes in where it wants to, weather from a star.
Cool, Trina’s skin is as smooth as well water, but the heat makes it grab. I wait for that. I don’t do anything, just wait for it to grab my hands and take them. Or sometimes it grabs hers. I love that, her one hand on my chest, the other on herself, while I just keep her close. The lights draw their big bamboo-brush calligraphy between us, letters I don’t know. When she comes, I can come too, without one touch if I want. I’m not embarrassed. I think it’s magic—like, See, I’m there where you are, too.
I’m with her, but I’m also high where I can see my whole life passing. The treehouse, the pickup, the storage shed. The USS Truman in the Persian Gulf. She’s leaving in two weeks, one week. Tomorrow. She’s gone. Her smell’s on all my shirts. Then summer done, laundry run. And I’m back in this body here.
The first time we manage to Skype, Trina’s already through orientation and into her second week of classes. She didn’t want me to help her move in, but she carries a laptop around 208 Alpert Hall, shows me the room, the roommate, Melody. “Mel wore pants with stirrups to a party last night,” she says. “Got more attention than she knew what to do with.”
“It’s because ‘stirrups’ is one of the words guys know,” Melody explains to me, landing next to Trina. “If they can say, ‘Are those stirrups?’ they think they’re flirting with you. You pretty much have to write their lines.”
What am I supposed to say? She has curly hair crowning out of a headband and a chin that, no offense, belongs on a climbing wall. She seems like a fine roommate, but I wouldn’t flirt with her.
“They were just working me to get to Katrina, but—” Melody draws an X on her heart, “she responsibly declined all male attention.”
I try to tell Trina the latest—my mom’s back on narcotics for her hip thing. Dawn smells like menthols. Amelia’s been kicked out of school already.
“What? What happened?”
“It’s okay. Never mind.” I can hear Melody opening a coke. I wait for her to get the hint.
“Should I eject for a while?” she says offscreen. “Maybe I’ll go rape Cameron.”
I wait while the door with its fire-escape map swings closed. “She’s special.”
“You’d love her. What’s up with Amelia?”
The camera’s weird—my face feels self-conscious. “Back on the spectrum. She was touching it in class,” I say. “They couldn’t get her to stop.”
She laughs. “She wouldn’t stop?”
“She would, but then she’d do it again the next day. She didn’t realize she was doing it.” I grin. “In Ms. Reglind’s class.”
“Oh my god, Reglind,” she says. “She’ll tweak! She’ll end up back in her neck brace.”
“I miss you.”
“What’s a hand down the pants anyway? It’s comforting.” She pats. There’s a photo of us parrying milkshake straws over her bed. I look like anyone’s idea of a high school boyfriend.
“Show me something,” I say. It sounded sweet in my head, but aloud I can’t tell—it sounds maybe hurt or demanding.
“Show you something?” she says. “Like what”—coy—“my new hole puncher?”
“Okay. Start with that.”
“Oh, you mean like a boob?” she says. “But I really shouldn’t. It’s Melody’s laptop. I forgot to tell you the camera on mine definitely doesn’t work.”
“Fine,” I say. But then she does it anyway, automatically. Pulls her shirt up, folds the cups down, and I get a lonely sick feeling I don’t understand.
She bounces them in her hands. “The boobs,” she announces. “The boobs say Amelia is just getting to know her body.”
She’s happy and beautiful and herself, goofy and real and not even so far away, but I can’t sense her. She covers up again.
“We haven’t been doing stuff,” I say.
She smiles, but I know the one. Usually it’s for other people’s moms. It’s hard to get privacy, but, well, what would I like? She says it warm and natural, locks the door, and kneels on her bed with a book. “Total genius, by the way,” she says, pointing at the cover before she slides it under the laptop. She settles back onto her heels.
She squeezes herself, half joking, trying to be generous with me. But it only gives me a lump in my throat.
“What do you want?” she says again. “Rule: I’ll do anything, but you have to ask for it. You have to say it first.” She does arm stretches, neck bends, pretending nothing’s weird. “Shorts off,” she says. “I want to watch that dick get hard.”
I alt-tab into a different window where I won’t have to face her.
“Uh oh,” I say. “Can you hear me?”
“Sure,” she says. “Did you say something? Did you ask for a little—”
“Can you hear me?” My voice cracks. “You’re frozen. I think the Wi-Fi’s maxed out.”
“Yeah, I can hear you fine, but—”
“Can you hear me?” I say. I don’t think I’ve ever lied to her before. “Hello?”
“Hellooo…? Earth to cocktease…” she says.
I yank out my wireless card and the call fails. I’m in my room again. Ella Gold’s quartz watch, Harris’s flint and steel, yellowing surge protector with half the room plugged in.
I power off my phone, wait five minutes, and listen to her voicemail. “Hello, this is tech support. We’re horny.”
Call her back. But I don’t. I turn on the TV, five hundred stations, and not one is on the war.
Mom finds a half-day public school program Amelia can go to in Quarter Horse and goes part time at the bank so she can be there in the afternoons. I try to be there for my sisters in the meanwhile. I read their mermaid stories and tell them, yeah, I like it, it’s good, which makes them so happy I wonder how mean I am most of the time. “You going to miss me when I’m on the Truman?” I ask Amelia.
“On The Truman Show?”
“On the dang aircraft carrier.”
“On the dang aircraft carrier, starring Jim Carrey?” She giggles like nuts.
I find the cigarettes I’ve been smelling on Dawn and chew her out. “You’re twelve. You think grapefruit juice tastes bitter. You’re not credible with a pack of Camels.”
“So? Why shouldn’t I smoke?”
“Oh, you haven’t heard that part?”
“You’re not Harris. Stop trying to be Harris.”
“Don’t be a dick,” she says, like an expert.
I want to ask Harris if I’m supposed get a physical or anything. Do I cut my hair or do they do it? I want to do it so I can hear Mom mourn my curls. She keeps reminding herself to sign me up for life insurance through the bank. I look at the USS Truman’s Facebook page, but it’s boring. Talent-show pictures interspersed with all-caps OPSEC reminders: POST NOTHING ABOUT WHERE WE’RE GOING OR WHERE WE’VE BEEN. I email Harris what’s up on the indian? He sends me back the weirdest emails: The cable spools and all day splits the wake. 13% pornography. 3.5% salt. One could grab the line and swim forever. I was checkers king in Durban, electric, incorruptible. They drank in every language, which gave sobriety a holy bleakness. To Gwadar, if I make it. To Corbin, via satellite.
I tell Mom Harris is cracked or at least wants me to think so. She says, “I had a dream about Harris. He was so much taller than me.” I write him to be careful and he doesn’t write me back.
Trina is taking the maximum load they allow first-years and joining everything there is to join, like yoga that meets in the courtyard of the commons, and auditioning for a play about the Irish Republican Army. She’s busy when I call, but I’ll wake up to texts about how much better the weed is at college or weird excerpts from her night, TREECLIMBER OF THE MONTH! or Well hi there Corbin, which means someone else was playing with her phone. Trina is hot. And her, I can picture it, wrestling with the guy, angry and smiling, to get her cell phone back.
On my lunch break from Gold’s, I ride my bike in to see Mom at the bank.
I put my finger in the belly of my hoodie and say, “Teller, this is a robbery.”
Mom looks at me like maybe it is. “Do you need something, Corbin?”
“Gimme all your Dum Dums.”
“You need lunch money?” She isn’t listening to herself. Banks are supposed to look like you couldn’t just blow them down, but hers is all plasterboard and kooky cat clocks. Mardi Gras beads are still in the nylon ferns.
“I need you to wake up,” I say.
“What? I’m at work, honey.”
“I know. We’re not on the phone. I’m here too.”
“You’re funny, Corbin. But,” she whispers, “don’t stick your finger under your shirt like that. There might be silent alarms.”
I tell her I need the car. I can make it to State and back in eight hours, plus a one-hour visit, I’ll be home before she’s in bed. “Can you take my bike home today?”
“Your bike?” she says. “Someone has to get Amelia.” She smiles. “Want to see the new hundreds? They’re counterfeit-proof.”
I ask her if she wants to at least do the salad bar, and she says, “I do my eight-hour shakes, honey. You know that.”
Back at Gold’s, I watch him bumble around his basement, feeding his fish, shaking the flakes by his ear to distinguish them. I think of asking him what’s wrong with Harris, but I don’t. I drive him to the grocery store so he can reload on pizzas, hamburger, coffee beans. He announces our progress from the passenger side, “Lisbon Street? Brick house on the left? Three elms and two chimneys?”
I ask, “Do you picture it from here or overhead?” He nods, like there’s no difference, and catalogs everything we pass—KayJay’s All Day and Night Diner, the water tower, the Mormon church.
That night, far below, the young man in my room texts his girlfriend.
8:45 PM I’m in Drew Barrymore’s Airstream
8:47 PM she wants me to hump her tits
He strips naked, does a hundred push-ups to get pumped. He lays his lamp behind his hamper to get the lighting right.
9:25 PM soft as flour
He takes pictures of himself in his mirror. He deletes them. Takes new ones. Puts the new ones in an email. Deletes the email. Deletes the new ones off his phone.
11:01 PM still humping
11:13 PM starting to chafe actually
He goes to the bathroom and spits into the sink for a while like he wants to yak. He stands up, sailor-straight, holds a salute. The northern lights feeling keeps refluxing in him, but there’s nothing to puke.
1:42 a.m. she texts him back: Sorry! Was taking a nap.
He waits for her to add with the rugby captain, with my history prof, but she doesn’t. She isn’t playing. Trina wins.
The room goes dark when the phone goes dark, and it might as well be his gray, painted-metal berth. There might as well already be warplanes parallel-parked overhead. He searches the dark for something to assure his body of where it is, but there’s nothing.
1:44 a.m. the room returns: Miss you too.
>Your room, 3:37 a.m. Two and a half weeks before you leave.
>You see Ella Gold’s quartz watch, Harris’s flint and steel, a yellowing surge protector with half the room plugged in.
>Sweatpants, flip-flops. You leave your room. You leave your house.
>You walk through the clod grass till you stand on the runway that cuts through your neighborhood.
>You see long edges of dead landing bulbs. Weeds in the concrete cracks. A lot of sky.
>Back fences, TV dishes, a lot of dim sky.
>There isn’t any more. There’s a Gatorade cap.
>You kick the Gatorade cap.
>You kick the fucking earth.
A hundred stalls line The Imperial Stables. A high, circular window lets moonlight down on the horses’ backs. I pat the Percheron and the Bay and try talking to them and riding them, but they’re not set up for anything like that. It says, “Don’t try that again!” or “Wanna take that back, buddy?” when a command does not compute. In The Mud Baths, I wade into the cloud of purplish steam, listening to the mud bubbles’ loud smacks, and descend through the hot mud into Gob’s Headquarters, a dim underground poker lounge. I blow out the gas lamp on the table and the room, it says, goes dark. From Gob’s, The Diminishing Tunnel runs north till I tumble out of a laundry chute onto a mound of tablecloths in the basement of Lala’s Dollhouse. Lala’s Furnace leads nowhere. I climb the basement stairs and exit the dollhouse living room to a pea patch that seems normal-sized. North of The Pea Patch is a charred launching pad. North of the launch pad, tetherball.
I hit the ball. I hit the ball. After I hit the ball six times, I win.
At the edge of the world, I build a runway. I put the blue landing bulbs along the length and build the old chalk mansions room by room. The commands are easy to learn, but it’s tedious. I build Gold’s hangar and planes. The Andersons’ north of Trina’s, the Kellys’ north of them. I walk through the yards, jostling up the lightning bugs. My mom’s old tank is in our driveway. Inside it smells like melted Carmex. On the back dash, there’s her pocket guide to American fauna. The floor is covered with Dawn’s and Amelia’s bobby pins and hair ties, snagged with shiny, loopy knots. I walk around the house. I build the scrub of red currants next to the garbage cans. Raccoons maraud the bins. Driveway gravel is sprayed all through the front.
I need no sleep or food here. I log in and find myself standing at a doorway, minutes the same as days. Welcome! You are in The Irrigation Ditch, it says.
I walk in the dry ditch south, past Gold’s sandbags, over bleached wood boats, under the plank bridge behind the Kellys’. Standing low in the weeds, I look beneath the fence slats into Trina’s backyard. I see the trim green lawn her dad keeps, the trampoline he drags ten feet each week to spare his grass. I build the fence, choose its verbs—climb, jump, squeeze through. Barefoot on the grass, I build the trampoline and crawl beneath it. It’s raining and fat black drops are dripping through.
>You see no new messages. Last text to Trina: nvm yr nasty skype. i made us something.
>@text Trina, call me
>You are at Gold’s, not doing what he pays you to. You hear him upstairs creaking the floorboards back and forth. The higher pitch as he nears the edges of his rooms. Familiar sound of a house ached by its bodies.
>You see Territoria’s rectangular cursor waiting. Behind the small window are folders of Gold’s unsorted scans. Stacked TIFF files still named with the eight-digit string the scanner assigned them. In there somewhere, Comstock Road giving up dust, the L-shaped roof of KayJay’s Diner, the baseball diamonds, home plates locked in dry mud.
>say, Yo Gold I’m going home!
>You travel through the side door and across the dirt to your backdoor.
>Dawn is blaring her workout dance videos in her room. Amelia is at the unlit kitchen table looking at a glass of milk.
>say, Not thirsty?
>It’s room temperature, tastes glum.
>say, Little sister? You there?
>Amelia leaves the room.
>say, Bye then
>You travel upstairs and enter your room. Your same junk. Dawn bangs around below you. Your laptop fan wakes, complains.
>@say Dawn, STOMP STOMP STOMP!
>Dawn sings, “…into the groove…prove your love to me.”
>Out the window, you can see the raccoons have gotten the garbage again.
>No messages, no calls. You see the date and subtract. Ten days.
>You travel downstairs and out the front door to gather up the blowing trash.
In Gold’s Photo Coop, I brush the warm dust from a box and flip through—river islands, rice paddies, ice coasts. It’s quiet. The old cardboard feels soft and smells sweet. I enter The Hot-Air Balloon Expo and hunker in the swinging basket as the flame plows upward through some ripple in the air. Blue air passes straight through the wicker. The blast valve spits out its measured roars and the red balloon plumes up, twisting slow. Lying back, I watch higher balloons rotating around the bright baffles overhead.
I drift, maybe I sleep, and waking, I stand to see what’s now below. The USS Truman? Its endless complex of valves and dials? Or The Trembling Pampas? The Quad, The Chem Lab, Mayner Hall? No matter how weak the Navy Internet is, it could have handled this. There’s a fog beneath the basket. The wicker is slick, and it’s dark enough to permit some stars. I lower the balloon and sink through the haze, squinting at the unbuilt space that now comes rising.
A car, a shiny blue Acura I’ve never seen before, is pulling in.
>Trina. Trina is here.
>You are standing on the front porch, facing west. Grackles pick seeds out from the dirt in the front yard. Towels are hanging on the rail because Dawn and Amelia were doing the Slip’N Slide, which is still in the grass. Boxelder bugs are stuck together on the planks.
>Hard to say. You haven’t heard anything about a blue Acura. She gets out and shuts the door like a TV cop, tired and decided.
>say, Whose car is that?
>Trina says, “Maybe let’s talk in your room?”
>@look kitchen window
>Mom and Dawn are in the window, stricken already.
>say, You didn’t need to come home to do this.
>Trina says, “I know.”
>Trina says, “Let’s go to your room.”
>say, But that’s how it’s going to go?
>Trina says, “Let’s please go to your room.”
>say, Just answer me.
>say, I think you should go.
>Trina says, “Don’t you want to know?”
>say, Do I?
>Trina says, “It isn’t like that.”
>You see a few cheap homes on foundations that go a foot or two into the dirt.
>Trina says, “This is our chance. I want to leave things right.”
>say, Everything’s right. It’s fine. I’m fine. I’ll be ten thousand miles away.
>Trina says, “Be safe.”
>say, Fuck. Just go.
>say, Just please go.
>Wanna take that back, buddy?
>You see the blue Acura drive past her house and continue.
>Don’t try that again!
>You need to specify a direction.
>You are the only Territorian here.
The day before I ship, Dr. Gold says he’ll take me out anyplace so long as it’s KayJay’s. I’m the one driving his Range Rover and it’s noon, but he leans at the windshield and says, “Might got a headlight out.” I don’t laugh.
KayJay’s All Day and Night Diner closes at 2 p.m. The coffee iridesces because the plate grease gets into the mugs in the steamer. There’s a strip of something sandpapery at the edge of all the booth seats because the old folks slide off the vinyl. “Do you actually like KayJay’s?” I say.
“It’s what we have,” he says. He’s memorizing the jukebox—17-01 for “Walkin’ after Midnight,” 08-01 for “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died.”
He gives me a dollar for “Corrina, Corrina” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues.” “Heart medicine,” he says, but I’m not in the mood. I walk away, put the bill in the leukemia jug, and return. “Might be a lot queued up already,” I say.
He asks what Mom and Dawn and Amelia are doing for me tonight, anything special?
I say I think we’re watching a movie.
“Whatever’s on. The Truman Show and some pizza bites.”
He nods. He orders us dinner-plate cinnamon rolls.
I tell him I’m sorry I haven’t finished his website yet. I can do it in my down hours, no problem, so long as my laptop holds on.
“So’s it feel like the end of the world?” he says.
I poke my coffee a couple times and wait for him to keep going.
“Like she neutron-bombed you?”
I say it’s all right and tell him look out, she’s refilling your mug.
He waits awhile for me. Then he says, “You’re going to war, Corbin. Have you realized that yet?”
“I’ll probably be at a computer the whole time. I doubt they’ll even bother teaching me guns.”
“They’ll teach you war one way or another.” I see him thinking whether or not to let me in on some Vietnam shit, how it feels to lift the latch that drops an Mk 81.
“I thought you just wanted to buy me lunch.”
“All I know how to do. But I did want to say—” He stops for his voice to pitch back down. “I wanted to make sure you knew you didn’t fool me, writing that stuff into Ella’s Internet thing.”
I don’t know what to say. I couldn’t explain anyway.
“For a second or two, yes, I thought she’d wrote all that. And for a little longer than that, I was going to murder you for starting my heart up like that. But it lets me see the neighborhood again.”
“In case you need a map,” I say. I don’t care what he thinks. I’m never logging in again.
He gets his breath back. “Funny to see it how you do. You show Harris? It might be a care package for him out there, whatever’s going on. Let him add on how he remembers things.”
“Fuck Harris.” I’m surprised how hard it sounds. “Seriously. Fuck him whatever he’s got.” I get glances. I look out the window at the cabled-up patio chairs.
“Think about it.” He smiles. “How many years has Harris been sleeping on water?”
I’m sweating. “I’m sorry. I know you feel like talking.”
But he doesn’t let that stop him. He yarns one out about the time he couldn’t land because while he was gone a snowstorm had buried the runway. “You didn’t even have your learner’s permit, but you did a handsome job with the plow. I remember watching you, thinking, I’ll be damned, the good-for-nothing neighbor kid wants me to make it home.”
The CSS Ariadne where Harris works is a big slow ship that holds four thousand miles of communications cable in coil tanks. It floats on giant rotating thrusters, and as it goes, the cable works its way up from the tanks, through a bell mouth, and off a pulley block at the stern. The cable’s a little thicker than a garden hose and toughened up for seafloor pressure—polyethylene, then steel wires, a copper tube, petroleum gel, and I forget what else, but the inner core, barely a centimeter thick, is a two-way stream of pure light. That’s your World Wide Web, zapping along the bottoms of oceans, unless an earthquake breaks it or a fishing trawler drags it up. Then they have to patch it. There’s Harris, I think, third engineer, a.k.a. turd engineer, sailing New London to Penang, laying line. Sky and ocean a calm steel blue, half moon sinking. He’s watching his coffee totter between the sides of a Styrofoam cup, trying to picture how the moon pulls on the water, and the water on the ship, and the ship on his coffee and him.
That’s how I imagine it. There haven’t been any emails for a while.
The yard is mud when I go out for one last look before I ship away. Dawn and Amelia are already in the car, and Mom’s yelling through her cracked window that I’m going to be late…and the girls have to get to school…she has to get to work. “What are you doing?” I pretend I can’t hear her over the rain.
As if I could guess what I’m doing anyway. I’m trying to see something as well as I can see it, but I don’t even know what it is. Gold’s open hangar with no planes in it. The chicken shed, the trapdoors on the root cellar and the well. The runway, the driveway, the dirt I used to draw in, the place the dog picked out to die, the junk alcoves where I’d go off to sulk.
“Corbin, we gotta move it,” she’s shouting.
I stood right here with the garden hose the time I tried to fly. I wrapped it around my arm and held on as tight as I could so that when I drifted up over my life I’d be able to hand-over-hand back down. And when I couldn’t float up—when I just stood there, beating my heart, my feet still stuck to whatever there was to lose—I still squeezed the rubber in my fists. “Please,” Mom’s shouting, “let’s go.”
Excerpt from the collection Aerialists, to be released by Bloomsbury USA in February 2019.