Damian Van Denburgh
The Orphaning Light
"We're sending you home this morning," Nurse Dena said, pulling the curtains back from around my gurney. "You healed up just fine." She paused. "Plus, we need the bed." Then she laughed her you-know-how-it-is laugh.
On a gurney just outside the door was Mrs. Barth, a tiny apple-sculpture of an old woman, curled on her side, her open, toothless mouth a blackened quarter moon.
Dena grabbed the covers on my chest and peeled them down to my ankles. The flimsy paper gown had ridden up on my thighs and I pulled it down protectively.
"Relax, hon," Dena said. "You got nothing left to hide. Same as any other dude. Now, pull that down off your shoulders for me."
They'd taken out most of the pellets but there were a few dozen in my lungs and one or two left in my heart that they decided against going after. Too risky. They were trying to save me, after all.
From a pocket on her scrub Nurse Dena pulled out a tube of salve. After squeezing a gray blob into her palm, she began dabbing it on the scar tissue on my chest and neck, none of which I'd had a chance to actually see, though she assured me it all looked normal. The cold of the ointment burned and I squirmed beneath it.
"I know, I know," she said. "But from here on out, you'll be doing this yourself. That might make it a little easier."
I tried to respond but nothing came out.
When she finished, she handed me the tube. "That's for you." Then after wiping her hands on the bed sheets, she walked back to the window, slipped out her e-cig and pulled a quick drag. She winked at me as she exhaled and waved the mist away.
"This doesn't bother you, right?"
She looked out the window. "Another day."
From where I lay, all I could see was a sky as limp and filthy as an old handkerchief. She took another drag and pocketed her device.
"Time to get you on your way."
I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and slid into an upright position. The floor was cold and hard beneath me, like something I could shatter against as easily as walk across.
Dena stripped the pongy sheets from my bed and dropped them outside the door. "I'll have somebody bring your clothes to you. Could you move to that chair?" She waved a tired hand at Mrs. Barth's gurney. "We need to get this new one set up."
I nodded and got into the chair.
"When you're dressed and ready, take the back exit," she said. "The bin's to your left when you walk out the door."
As promised, the bin was to the left in the back parking lot. Inside was a small brown paper bag, with the top neatly folded down, and my name written on it. Next to the bin was a strip of mirror leaning against the wall like a snapped-off piece of sky.
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The thing felt as light as filo dough. I put it on and within seconds it began to heat up. I could feel it forming itself on me, melting in around my hairline, curling down around my jaw as if it were implanting clear, microscopic roots. I shoved my hands in my pockets to keep them from tearing, and shut my eyes.
After a minute I could feel the heat dissipate, but the breeze I saw shaking the trees at the shoreline and mussing my hair couldn't reach through the new surface, only push at it. I stepped closer to the mirror and peered in. I rolled my eye around. (The other hole had been left open.) I smiled. I puffed my cheeks out Dizzy Gillespie-style until my sealed lips sputtered. I scowled. I grinned like a hyena. I stared at myself and fought down the urge to spit. I sang, or at least tried to, but all I got was a slight buzz around the upper lip, probably something caught on a bit of scar tissue. I pulled the cheek back tighter and that seemed to fix it.
I took the back roads to get home. I didn't want to see anybody. I didn't want to see myself.
She was kind to a fault, something she was always made to pay for. I didn't understand that about her life when we first got together. I couldn't read anything in her or us because I was happy. And that was because of her, too.
We'd met late enough in our lives that there wasn't much interest in either one of us about being coy or mysterious. We wanted each other fast and often and that was how it began. I was the first one to call it love. She didn't answer back right away, just folded herself against me instead as if to block out the sound of the words.
I've always been clumsy. But I could sing. Play a little guitar. That was what I did that mattered. The rest always belonged to somebody else.
Everything she set her hand to seemed to blossom beneath it. She could write, draw, paint. But so much of her talent and time went to helping other people. She was always looking ahead at the calendar to when she didn't have somebody else's deadline to live with. And I was always telling her to be more selfish.
"If I was more selfish," Strix would say, "we might not be together." And that was how she'd get me to be quiet.
I'd avoided any kind of relationship for years. Not up to it, not worthy. My mind full of ideas about love, all of them wrong. When I met her, I realized I didn't know anything. And she tried to avoid me once I met her, saying that she needed to get her work done, that she was supposed to be doing her work, that her work was what she was on this planet for. I told her, "We can do that. You and me and your work."
I couldn't wait to lose myself in her. To get away from the idiot of me.
I couldn't wait to lose myself in her. To get away from the idiot of me.
We jumped. Or, more likely, I fell and pulled her down with me. And when we finally landed, we became stupid with guilt. Glutted with it. We never did enough of this and we did too much of that. We held each other back or we thought we did. The work she wanted to do – her own painting – kept getting pushed to the side, while the random gigs I'd been able to score started drying up. If we started to blame the other, we stopped and said it was only because we felt selfish and moody and childish. When I tried to blame myself for all of it, she told me that was what love did. It made things better and it fucked things up. And it was what we chose.
Rosefield, our dustbin of a hometown, hadn't had much to offer in the beginning, which was perfect. We'd moved there separately, years earlier, both of us drawn to the quiet of it, relieved by its lack of self-awareness. It was gentle, overlooked by the city we'd both escaped from. Strix was known around Rosefield for her art and for her kindness. She'd painted murals at schools and restaurants. She'd taught art classes in the high school. And though that work was, she confessed guiltily to me, barely gratifying at best, she had a studio in town that doubled as a gallery for the work she really wanted to do.
And even the locals who had looked at us with contempt when we first moved in gradually softened to Strix and me when they saw what we did and realized that being an artist was really just a lot of hard, steady work, something actually respectable.
We were living together a few years before the first money-scented ones arrived, the pious millionaires who claimed they wanted to get away from all the greed and consuming that was destroying their souls. Soon enough, they drove down on us like a shower of locusts. Rosefield sunlight. Rosefield air. Rosefield dust. It was so cinematic. They loved it all so much. Then they surrounded it, held it down, and fucked it to death with their money.
The locusts brought culture to us hicks of Rosefield. They brought us outdoor film festivals. Artisanal food fairs. They renovated the Pantheon, the old, disused theater downtown and put it back to use. They were the money behind all of the good coffee and scones – they made sure to tell us on their chalkboards and hand-painted signs – that they claimed to make themselves. It seems we'd all been so impoverished, the compost heap of us with our soft mushroom heads nodding in the dark, before our benefactors came. And as happy as they were to redeem our ways with their lifestyle concepts, they also felt blessed to be able to do this work for our community. Because without those creature comforts they pumped into Rosefield, our benefactors would have died of boredom in their beautiful new homes. The whole of Rosefield became their stage, the new purchase they could show off to their visiting friends, to sicken them with envy before sending them back to the city they'd once called home. They branded themselves the new royalty and we got swept up into their process and became the "local color," existing in the background of their accomplishments.
The locusts were thrilled to discover in Strix a transplant who could help them buy a piece of unearned authenticity for themselves and the new homes they were refurbishing with the old junk the people around them were only too happy to sell.
Everything Strix and I did for them felt wrong. Hypocritical. They certainly kept us busy, though. Private tutoring. Concerts. Commissions. We painted half the new homes in Rosefield. Some clients found our childish poverty charming. And every time they paid us, it was an uncomfortable relief. We needed their money. But these people had a way of looking at us as they handed over the check, as they shook our hands and told us how great it was to work with us. There was a kind of hungry confusion there, a carnivorous urge that wanted to understand. You could see them puzzling: why didn't they like us more? Who were we to stand there in such superior skin? To live in such carefree promise? To be so accidentally creative, flaunting our tiny specialness? It was as if mere proximity and a cash transaction were enough to make them want to grab our talented faces and smash them through the floor.
The worst of what was imaginable ate the sky and pissed the rest into the ocean, turning it into a vast, broken television of churning filth, running down the earth's heart.
It was hard to tell where the outside started. When the worries that had once dreamed us every day were suddenly just there, around us and real, no longer contained but moving like traffic. But it happened, gradually and then quickly, in a flux of time and causality that we had never been forced to comprehend or reckon with before.
The planet itself was being murdered. And it was because of us. All of us.
The bees disappeared. The Monarch butterflies. The icecaps nearly melted. Sinkholes bloomed everywhere. The atmosphere became a poison-laced cloth wrapped around the planet. Seasons began disappearing. The planet itself was being murdered. And it was because of us. All of us. And soon we would be murdered by our planet, shrugged off the way a horse swats a fly away with its tail. Without a thought or a look over its shoulder. We heard about coastal floods in every hemisphere that washed in and never receded. Simultaneous and multiple hurricanes. Transportation infrastructures fucked. Food left rotting in ports all over the country until riots depleted or destroyed what was there. Further riots destroyed communities and restructured them into camps of the armed and the unarmed. Newspapers stopped appearing. Then television. The internet went dark. Phones finally died for good. Information from beyond your town was rumor, conjecture, a story somebody told to somebody else.
Strix and I began to talk about our own dying, about when it would happen and how. About how we wanted to be together when it happened. How suicide, under such conditions, was absolutely acceptable. We knew we weren't living right. And as we did it, as we talked over dinner, as we felt guilty for even having dinner, we continued our dying, cascading waterfalls of cells winking out in us as we chewed, as we looked at each other through glittering eyes.
But Rosefield thrived. Storms blew through but moved on. Our crops, meager as they were to begin with, continued to grow. The river rose and fell and never became a threat. Blight and ruin surrounded us in vast swaths but still, like some obstinate weed, Rosefield continued to push up new life. We woke to beautiful days. Our poisoned planet still fed us food and water, still gave us shade and a breeze. We heard that there were other outposts, tiny pockets of fertility that, thanks to unforeseen, unpredictable turns of weather patterns, had emerged and were becoming stable.
Strix and I and the other people of Rosefield were no better or worse than anyone else. The planet still owned us. We owned almost nothing. We were just lucky. And because of that, we felt morose and undeserving.
Then the locusts brought in their helicopters and their troops. And within a month, the compound was built.
It was easy to take us.
I remember walking to meet Strix at her studio one afternoon and feeling something beyond my sight, something huge. A machine somewhere, a series of them, stationed at different points on the horizon. Shaking the ground in steady contrapuntal thumps while faintly ringing in the air over me was a grave, almost judicial sound of metal meeting metal, resurrected from an earlier, industrial era of civil war, railroads, and slavery. The sky was hazed with kicked-up dust and my nostrils stung with a smell of smoke. But I couldn't hear a siren. What I did hear through the din was the occasional bouncing, wall-to-wall echo of gunfire.
That night we found out from our neighbors that the machines were triple the size of the biggest building in our downtown, and they were blocking out the horizon, rolling forward, one to lift and set a post, the other, a kind of pile driver set on tank treads hunched perpendicular to it, to pound it into the ground. And while they worked non-stop, the machines were watched over by a silent troop of uniformed men, bought and paid for by the locusts, and carrying guns.
They were building a perimeter wall. And it took them almost no time to finish it.
It was amazing to me how familiar it all felt, down to the weary sense of outrage, and the dutiful rummaging around in the long, silky laundry bag of my soul, as I searched for the purifying anger that I knew had to be in there somewhere. But if I was going to do anything, I already knew that I should have done it a long time ago.
After the perimeter went up, a census was taken. How many farmers. How many teachers. How many families with how many children. How many single folks. Who was white. Who wasn't. Housing stock was needed to accommodate the locusts from ruined towns and cities who were flooding in.
They identified us as "Creative."
They identified us as "Creative." A week after the visitation, we received notice that we were expected at a private party. Strix was going to draw portraits and caricatures, and I was to going to play music. They even included a fakebook for me from which I was told not to deviate. I was further instructed to expect requests.
It was unusually hot the day of the party, humid and overcast. They'd commandeered Kirby Anderson's farm and had set up an enormous tent in what had been his backyard for the occasion. There was a makeshift cupola for me to play in while Strix had to roam around with her sketchpad and ask people if they were interested in having their portraits done. As always, there were few takers in the early part of the day but the drunker people became, the more interested they became in both of us. After a couple of hours, Strix was surrounded while she drew, with several men standing behind her in a ring and making jokes about how old she was making all their wives and girlfriends look.
With the locust influx, it was impossible to know who these people were, no familiar faces or names. But they all shared a code of behavior, a kind of class understanding of which Strix and I were clearly not a part.
I'd played enough gigs and parties in my life to know how to handle the kinds of drunks who want to be your friend, who think that being a musician is the coolest thing a person can be, who stand too close to you after a show, hoping to be seen with you while also hoping that some of your talent will rub off on them. But these people weren't like that. They stood near while I played, half listening but mostly just staring at me, at my hands, my mouth, with an appraising glare. None of them clapped.
When I finished the first set, a sweating, blue-eyed man holding an ice-packed tumbler of gin planted himself directly in front of me and asked, "Anybody else here or are you it?"
"It's just me today," I said.
"No," he said, frowning, "I mean here. This little corner of the world." He swung his glass out in an arc. "Anybody else here play anything?"
"Actually, no," I said. "I wish there were but they're gone." I didn't want to say anything about the people I used to play with, or any of my students, or any of the rest who were killed trying to escape before the perimeter was finished. For all I knew, this guy had killed them himself.
"So you're it," he said. Then he looked into his glass, shook his ice down, and inhaled a mouthful of gin. "That's not good," he said, staring at me again.
I smiled. "Excuse me," I said, "I'm going to go find my wife."
"Good for you," he said. "Have fun."
As I stepped past him, he grabbed my arm, squeezed down through any muscle there until he found bone. He pushed his empty glass into my pulsing hand.
"Gin. Rocks. No fucking fruit." Then he shoved me in the direction of the bar.
A few hours later, after the party had distilled itself to a loud, argumentative scrum, he would be the man who would shoot me with Kirby Anderson's rifle that someone had pulled out of the barn. About a hundred pieces of birdshot in my face, my lungs, my throat. He would also be the man who would make sure that I was "fixed," my face replaced, minus one eye, and that Strix would be taken up and looked after while I recovered.
All this was in a note in my mailbox when I finally made it home from the hospital, nothing more. No information about Strix, about where she was or how long it would be until I could see her again. There was nobody I could ask.
Shops and schools were closed when the occupation began. Lou's gas station was enclosed overnight by a fifteen-foot-high fence festooned with barbwire and guarded by rotating teams of armed sentries. Same went for the bank. Once the grocery store was emptied out, it was converted to a ration station, and different sections of Rosefield were assigned different days of the week to line up and get their food. Any space, any enclosure or area deemed useful by the occupation was taken over. The displaced were moved to barracks – corrugated metal hangars with rounded roofs and a set of double barn doors at one end. Any personal belongings beyond clothing were heaped up and taken away in enormous trucks. Pets were confiscated. Those of us who still had a home lived in it with the expectation that it could be taken away at any time. The few who'd resisted in the beginning were shot on their doorsteps and, in many cases, simply tossed up in the back of the truck with the rest of their things.
The good weather that had graced Rosefield, the miracle we'd lived inside and fed off, had fizzled out during the last six months, almost with the start of the party. What we came to live with instead was dousing rain or strangling humidity, usually both. The standard crops that required the occasional dry spell to flourish, the crops that had supplied Rosefield with staples for generations, simply couldn't survive. Rations were enforced. Shipments of government-issue garbage began to arrive. Endless blocks of cheese. Rice, beans, powdered milk. Chipped beef. Freeze-dried fruit if we were lucky.
For whatever reason, the people who'd built the compound stayed. Their cables, which seemed to lack both a point of origin and a destination, continued to trail along our streets like copulating snakes. Their drones continued to hover and swerve in strange, lateral patterns, sometimes dropping down to confront you directly before lifting off and away, to remind you that you were still alive and that somewhere a stranger hated you because they were paid to do so. The laws and designs that had descended on us that had never been explained to anyone, remained in effect, becoming vaguely defined only when they were infracted.
From the scant people I'd had contact with, neighbors checking in mostly, the feeling I got was that nobody seemed to know what we were being kept alive for, especially after so many others had been killed so easily and unthinkingly. It was as if we were all being allowed to live, kept in reserve, almost. We'd become useful now, useful to have around, like firewood or trail mix. Just in case.
It was as if we were all being allowed to live, kept in reserve, almost.
And as life shrank, as routine took over every aspect of it, as every movement was plotted and recorded, I began trying to imagine what the point was. What was the purpose? What did it gain them to know how compactly they could crush us, make lightless, dead diamonds of our souls? Was there pleasure in this? The world was a desiccated ruin, a tumor without a host. The only enemy was the weather. Had the goal all along been to destroy meaning? To wipe away the salt and perfume and electricity of human existence in order to get a clearer picture of God's face? Any God? Did they think God was ready for them now? That their moment had finally come?
With Strix gone, I cracked.
Unable to do much of anything, I haunted our house. I buried myself in sleep during the day and stayed up at night, reading or playing my guitar or looking out through our windows into the new nothing. Some nights I'd leave the house with a flashlight and go look at the murals that Strix had painted until the drones drove me back in. I imagined talking with Strix, talking about the situation, about her not-being-there, about how we were going to get through that. We made jokes about how awful the government-issue food was, how it tasted like chemical ash. I played songs for her, wrote new songs for her, always gently and quietly, and lived in fear of breaking a string. I slept wrapped around her pillow every night. And I fought down a daily panic as her smell began to fade from her clothes still hanging in our closet or still folded in our dresser, as if I'd greedily inhaled it. As if it was me that had consumed and swallowed her out of my life. I turned the mirror in the living room to face the wall. I couldn't see myself when I saw myself anyway, just that new thing on me like a husk, and anytime I caught a glimpse I jumped like someone had broken into the place. I covered the bathroom mirror with pictures of Strix so that I could see myself in her, feel myself fused with her again.
Being alone when all you've been is alone is just some shit called your life. Being alone after you've been with someone, when that person has been taken from you, when you don't know where they are or when you'll see them again, is life without life. Life without living. Death.
My voice never returned. Just a croaking whisper combing across the surface of a tongue that lay in my mouth like a shoe-insert. For weeks I would get up, eat, stretch, and do my breathing exercises, thinking it was all just a matter of control, of aiming properly and punching that breath out and hitting my targets. Nothing worked. And with no one to talk to, I just gave up. I had run out of things to say, anyway.
The only thing I had that might have been mine was Strix. And she was gone.
Then I got a note telling me that they were going to let Strix come home, telling me when and where, and that I needed to come and pick her up.
Even with an early start, there was no way to avoid the heat. The trail ahead of me was clear. The river was quiet too, just a couple of rafts on it, a huddled, sleeping lump on one, and somebody I couldn't recognize, standing with her stick paddle trailing in the water, on the other. Even if I'd been close, she wouldn't have recognized me. My face. What it was now.
Barely 5:00 in the morning and already near 100 degrees.
I was grateful that it wasn't raining.
I was anxious about how insects would react to the material of my face. Nurse Dena had told me that some lab-coat types had worked bug repellents into the polymers – their idea of kindness. I'd packed an emergency kit, just in case. For some reason, I'd also brought my guitar. Maybe just for company. Maybe because it felt like protection, like a shell on my back.
A drone whizzed past me and sailed ahead. I saw it veer out over the river and head to the nearest raft. It hovered over the sleeping form there, circled it, and then zapped it with a light jolt before gliding back out of reach. Otis Ray, the former manager of Rosefield's State Farm Insurance branch, snapped up swinging, and the drone swerved behind him and zapped him again, two short blasts that made him bark and crawl and throw himself over on his back with his hands up, pleading. The drone got in his face and stayed there a full minute before moving on. Otis eventually sat up Indian-style and watched it fade.
Having nearly come even with him on the river while this was happening, I looked back down and kept moving forward. I didn't want him to know I'd seen anything. He probably wouldn't have recognized me anyway.
When the occupation had come, the riverside encampment had been largely overlooked. Life along the river had always been seedy, with a kind of apocalyptic atmosphere, an exclusive zone of local law and lore, and the people who lived there wanted it that way. They paid less and they got less. They didn't come out too often or mix with the rest of Rosefield, only when they had to. There were no families there, definitely no children. Just older folks, some married, most not. A few veterans. Survivalist types who'd already been killed in their souls. Nothing could get to them anymore.
I wasn't comfortable walking through but there was no other way to get to the compound where Strix was. There'd been a fabricating plant that sat near the river that had been taken over and made into, from what anyone could tell, a kind of lab. Lights were always on inside it and a grove of satellite dishes looked up from its roof. Access had been immediately cut off, except for this back route. I had no idea what Strix had been doing in there, what they had her doing. What they'd been doing to her.
At first I saw almost no one on my way beyond an occasional silhouette in a window or someone standing in front of their shack with a mug in her hand, looking at me like I was lost. I didn't know what I looked like to them. I'd turned my back to myself and whenever I brought my hands up to my face, my right eye a hostage on display, my left a shuttered storefront, I literally felt ugly. I'd since made an eye patch, a Hello Kitty head that fit the space nicely, but I still didn't want to know.
I kept moving, watching as my shadow grew shorter while the sun arced over me. I was the only one not in the shade, and more people along the river came out one by one and sat staring from their perches as I made my way north.
I was nearing the furthermost end of the encampment with about a mile to go before I reached the compound when someone called out to me. "You must be thirsty."
I'd finished my water about a mile back and had fallen into a kind of walking trance that pushed the fact of my thirst out of my mind and body. Her voice brought everything back to me, made me stop and turn to her. But when I tried to speak, nothing came.
She came toward me and stopped short. I could read the shock on her face, the mild revulsion, and I watched as it turned to pity, salted with a little curiosity.
"Are you okay?" was what she asked but what are you was what she really meant. I tried again, opening my mouth, and a parched groan came out.
"Are you okay?" was what she asked but what are you was what she really meant.
"Here," she said, reaching for my arm but not touching me, "come into the shade, at least. I'll get you a drink."
I followed her, ashamed to be looking at her body, her hair, as she walked ahead of me, ashamed to be breathing in the physical facts of her, clutching them to me like they were green, fragrant leaves I could soothe myself with, ashamed to be unable to stop myself from any of it. I stood in the shade of her tree, the coolness of it falling down around me like a shower. I took my guitar off my back and pulled my sopping shirt away from my skin. Rivulets of sweat ran down my body like racing newts. A shiver passed through me and I closed my eyes to its embrace. When I opened them again, she was coming toward me with a glass.
"Here you go," she said, handing it over but keeping an arm's distance between us.
I gave her what I hoped looked like a smile, nodded my head, and drank. It tasted like water purification pellets but they'd never tasted so good before.
"One more?" she asked, reaching for the glass.
I nodded and handed it back to her. Then I felt a dizziness coming over me and squatted where I stood.
"Come. Sit over here," she said, pointing to a battered lawn chair. She helped me up and I stumbled over and fell into it. "Are you okay?" she asked.
I nodded again, embarrassed now. I just needed a minute, I had to get going, but I couldn't explain any of that.
She went back inside and came out with another glass of water.
"Drink this one a little slower," she said. "You're probably dehydrated."
I drank, slowly and deeply, and let myself sink back in the chair. I was splitting, part of me back on the trail, racing to see my Strix again, another part of me sinking further and further into that chair, putting roots down through my feet as my head lolled back like a baby's and soared into the sky.
"Can you speak?" she asked. I shook my head.
"Are you from Rosefield?"
I nodded, choking on the inaccuracy, the incompleteness of that.
"Yeah," she said, with what seemed like no judgment. "Haven't seen you around here." I could feel her look pressing on the surface of my face, probing it. I hadn't been looked at by anyone for so long or with such intensity and it scared me, made me wonder how I'd ever been able to hold Strix's gaze or even return it without flinching.
She looked away. "Do you want some more water?"
I shook my head no and started to stand. I pointed up the river and made a wristwatch sort of gesture. Then I put my hands together in prayer and bowed slightly to her.
"Oh," she said, smiling and blushing. She put her hands together and bowed toward me. We stood and stared at each other for a moment. Then she said, "Jeez, you know, let me fill your water bottle. You're gonna need it."
I watched her go back inside.
When she came out, she seemed changed. There was a different energy to her, as if some inner object, some vital piece had shifted her balance. She stood in front of me, holding my water bottle and staring at me again.
"I can't believe I'm going to ask this," she said, "but do you think you could maybe play one song for me before you go? I know you've got to get somewhere but I haven't heard any music in so long, you know, like, real music? From a real person?" She smiled again, knowing that the light of her smile was melting me, was breaking me apart.
I held up an index finger.
She nodded at me, one quick nod, and waited.
I pulled up the warped milk crate that she'd been sitting on and took out my guitar. I started playing a song that I'd written for Strix, a new one that I couldn't wait for her to hear. I'd written lyrics for it but couldn't sing them myself. I was hoping she could sing them for me when we were together again. Within minutes, a few people from nearby had come over and stood watching. It was clear that nobody had heard music for a long time and I watched people open themselves up to it as I played. Some swayed side to side, others began to dance, climbing into the shapes of the sounds and riding them out to their ends. By the time I finished, there were a dozen people on the woman's lawn, remembering what it felt like to clap about something. As I moved to put the guitar away, I heard a voice ask for one more.
I was stuck and surrounded. I held up my index finger again and hoped that it would actually mean something this time. But I could feel that it was good for me to play for people again, to become that person I'd once been.
So many songs leapt to mind. I picked one of Strix's favorites, just to keep my focus. More people came. I concentrated on my hand moving up and down the fret board like an artist's model shifting through poses. I thought about being with Strix again, about holding her. About how we couldn't get away from Rosefield. I wanted to live but having her back again made me feel ready to die.
I must have closed my eyes.
He nearly pulled me off the crate when he took my guitar. A mass of a man, with yellow teeth and green eyes. "This is the fucking reason we're here now," he said. "This." He held my guitar as if he had no idea what it was.
Then he smashed it against a tree.
"We don't need this anymore," he yelled at the crowd. "The inheritance is ours. Everyone can follow the play." He stiffened his neck and sneered down at me. "No one knows the worth of innocence till he knows it is gone forever, and that money cannot buy it back."
Then he yanked me to my feet and shoved me sprawling back toward the trail. "I'll burn your tongue, shitlicker," he growled, as he kicked a cloud of dust at me.
Nobody went near him. The woman who had given me water stood near the door of her shack with her hand over her mouth. The other people who'd been listening, who'd been dancing, now stood with their arms dangling, their mouths open, their eyes draining of any meaning.
I continued up the trail.
The checkpoint at the outer gate of the compound looked like a phone booth. A drone hovered near it and as I approached, it swooped down behind me and herded me inside. A door slid closed behind me, and a screen flashed to life in front of me with my face on it.
A speaker set into the ceiling of the shed told me, "Do not move. A red dot will appear on your image. Keep your eyes focused on it while we run the biometric scan."
A bright red dot appeared on the space between my eyebrows. I stared. I hadn't looked at myself in months. I was filthy, my hair too long, and glistening with sweat. The Hello Kitty eye patch was gone, lost somewhere. Perforated green lines cascaded over my image, fanning out in faint waves and then back in as numbers around my eye, lips, and ears ratcheted up and down too quickly to count. Then the screen went blank. The mechanized voice told me I could enter.
The booth door slid open behind me, and a gate in the perimeter fence swung open. I stepped through and headed toward the compound building. I was the only one on the grounds. Heat billowed around me as I moved.
Stepping inside, I felt the floor squish beneath my feet. A sign posted on a wall read, DO NOT STEP OFF THE DISINFECTANT MAT. The entire floor was covered in disinfectant mats. A meringue of bright blue foam rose up around my feet everywhere I stepped.
Set in the middle of the room was a baggage carousel that jumped to life as I approached it. Motion-controlled lights overhead lit my way and then shut off behind me. A drone hovered. Air conditioning. I hadn't felt it in months. It was shrink-wrapping around my sweating body, burning its sick weather into me. Without my complicity in its supposed luxury, I'd become unseduced by it. It was their air, not mine. I couldn't wait to get out of it.
As I approached the carousel, the drone flew over and stopped near me, indicating that I should stop. I looked to my left and when I saw Strix, I ran.
Her skin, usually a warm, olive brown, glowed like a weak fluorescent light. Tiny jacks and ports had been inserted into and ran the lengths of her arms while smaller ones arced in clamshell patterns across the surface of her skull. A greenish-gray liquid seeped from the edges of each port and had discolored her skin where it oozed. She was naked beneath the hospital gown they'd put her in and a sour, feral scent rose up from her when I picked her up in my arms. She looked at me and panic flashed in her eyes.
You want to believe that if the time ever comes, your heart will speak for you. That the power of your love will make you known, even knowable.
You want to believe that if the time ever comes, your heart will speak for you. That the power of your love will make you known, even knowable.
She didn't know me. I said her name and nothing came out. I put her on her feet and looked at her. When I showed her my wedding ring that was when something changed, something got through. She folded in and dropped to her knees. A whole life together was becoming a disappearing, self-cancelling list of last, lost things. The end of the warmth of her, the last comprehending look from her eyes into mine, her last breath.
"I'm so tired," she wheezed. "I'm just so tired."
I pointed toward the open door and tried to nudge her in that direction. I wanted to see her in sunlight, wanted to warm up her skin. She listed toward me and I caught her, held her against my chest and rocked and patted her.
She whispered words into my head like old bottles and cans that I tried to redeem and turn into some kind of comfort. But nothing happened. I just kept my eye on that door, wanting, whenever she was ready, to take her away. She reached up and put her hand on my cheek but I couldn't feel it. A black liquid that smelled like sulfur pooled up in her ear and ran down her neck.
The drone swung down and a voice came through an intercom.
"Put your hands where we can see them and step away from the body."
I held onto her, tried to pull her inside of me, tried to disappear inside of her one more time.
The drone blasted me with a shock ray that sent me flying. Strix fell in a heap and the blue foam began boiling up around her, dissolving her down into the mats.
"Leave now," the intercom told me.
The drone lunged at me. I stood up, took a swing at the drone, missed. The drone blasted me again, flattening me and leaving me nauseous with pain. I got up slowly and walked out. The drone followed right behind me, buzzing at the back of my neck.
I returned to the house of water and music. I crab-walked down the short banks of the river where my guitar had been thrown and gathered up what was there. It was the strings I was after but I also took a slender scythe-shaped piece of wood that had snapped off from the front of the guitar. I tied the strings end-to-end with strong knots. I looped one end around my neck in a cinch knot and pulled it tight. I tied the other end to a tree at the crest of the bank. Then I turned to face the drone, raised the scythe and started digging at my face, starting where my eye used to be. Since they'd never properly sealed that spot, access was easy. I drove the point in and pushed down. I pulled the scythe forward, slicing the face open and making a flap and then I brought my hands up and began to tear it across. I heard a high-pitched whine, the sort a flash charger makes, and that's when I felt myself get jerked off the ground and blasted backwards down the bank.
The strings bit deep into my neck and I rolled to nil at the bottom of the filthy, final river.
Damian Van Denburgh's work has been published in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, Stone Canoe, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Storyscape, and most recently at Dark Mountain. He's the recipient of a NYFA fellowship, and has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Millay Colony for the Arts. He runs a memoir-writing workshop for people living with cancer at NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center, and has run similar workshops at the Creative Center and the NYC branch of Gilda's Club. He recently completed his first novel, Death & Change, and is working feverishly at his next one, Assemblage.