A feathery song about a prom queen started to play in the room across from mine. The singer's voice sounded strained, like he was being squeezed out of a tube. Something about it made me feel nostalgic even though my own prom had been so boring that I drank vodka from a strange girl’s dirty flask just to get through the night. By the time commercials came on, I’d become convinced that I’d wasted all my youth at eighteen-years-old.
It was freshman move-in day. Throughout the women’s residence hall, families were helping their daughters unpack. I arrived at the college alone with no luggage, only a lingering resentment for my mom. I wanted to go back to Sonoma so bad but, even today, I still can’t. Instead, I spent the day lying belly-up on one of the bare vinyl mattresses in my shoebox-sized double.
I’d never desired anyone but myself until I remembered Ken Lee and how my little sister Kaleigh decorated her bedroom walls with candid shots of him she’d found online. She had pictures of other boys who, unlike him, were more famous than infamous—singers and actors mostly, typical celebrity crushes—only I couldn’t remember their names. I sometimes forgot these cherubic boys, men, were all around my age because they seemed to attract mostly little girls like Kaleigh.
I still couldn’t believe Highland, Ken’s parents’ farm, was so close to campus, five minutes by car and fifteen by foot. The soil there was so fertile that it used to bring dead things back to life: wilted flowers, carcasses, human corpses. The fields generated their own heat year-round from some unknown source that science still can’t explain. I felt a connection to Ken and his family’s farm, and not just because of Kayleigh. I’d been born right after the discovery of Highland’s powers like he had in his second life. We were both new students at the same eastern liberal arts school, just barely young enough to still be calling our classmates girls and boys. We were getting older together. I already didn’t understand people who mentioned the 50s and meant our lives—the 2050s—instead of our great-grandparents’.
Back home in Sonoma, I’d floated through my teenage years blankly, unaffected by boy bands and the handful of just-above-average-looking guys from high school. I used to fantasize about having sex with ghosts—not like the ones from that super old movie with Whoopi Goldberg Mom liked where they all make pottery but rather an invisible force I could will away each time I finished in the tub.
The summer before college, a heatwave of 110 had cooked my hometown. The sun was so intense that even Mom, the darkest in the family, burned when she hung out by the pool too long. She made Kaleigh suffer indoors because of the poor air quality. The marble house we grew up in sunk into the earth of Dad’s vineyard like an ancient tombstone.
I read out on the breezeway with the ceiling fans on full blast during that hot purgatory that separated my childhood from my very first semester of college. I was determined to go to my college in New York even though Mom didn’t want me to. The professors there won Nobel Prizes and didn’t believe in letter grades or the GOP. I thought that the Podunk the campus was in was closer to Manhattan than it actually was.
Dad was the one who broke the truth to her. He did it casually as they talked in the kitchen. He’d just come home from the dermatologist’s. The asymmetrical moles Dr. Wren removed from his bone-white skin were probably still hurting him in spite of their absence.
I eavesdropped from the top of the stairs. According to the tabloids, Ken Lee, the son of Highland’s owner, was going to the same college I was, but I already knew that—Kaleigh had told me about a million times.
“The farm there’s pure evil,” Mom said. “They fund the whole town, you know, including that school. And the things that grow there—it’s not normal. And why would you pay for her ticket behind my back like that? Right after enrolling her—like forty-thousand dollars for just one semester means nothing to you.” She paused to take a sip of something strong, probably the cognac she kept squirreled away in the wet bar for guests that never came. “They’re all living off of slave labor you know.”
Highland’s unpaid laborers worked six days a week for a chance to one day rebirth their deceased loved ones. They sowed cadavers that grew into babies after nine months, tending to the crops with water and compost. The hungry earth ate up the old flesh and memories of the dead, replacing everything with new life. Altogether, it brought back a couple thousands of dead people.
She exhaled loudly. “How can you support something like that?”
“Ask your daughter. She’s right up there.”
I tip-toed back to my bedroom. As calmly as I could, I sat on my bed and waited for Mom to come in like she had all the other times I did something wrong.
Mom didn’t trust the type of miracle that kept blooming hot and wild underneath someone’s feet in the dead of winter when the sun wasn’t around. The alcohol strengthened her voice so much that I could still hear her just as clearly as I could Dad's natural baritone.
She was saying that she’d stopped believing in trust because of this aunt of hers who died when her husband beat her into a coma. The words stumbled out of her. “And then,” she kept saying. She cleared her throat. “And then he tried driving her all the way to Highland because he felt bad. He passed by five different hospitals. Five! And the whole time she’s just bleeding out half-frozen under a tarp in the back of his flatbed. Of course, the cops pulled him over too late. So useless. We had to pour concrete over her grave so he couldn’t dig up her body when he got out of jail.”
“Is this the aunt with the marital rape claim? Your mom said she died from a brain aneurysm.”
“Because he beat her.”
“Why don’t you put down that glass, Colleen. You’ve had enough.”
My whole body was trembling. I'd viewed violence with cool detachment, having believed I’d only really experienced it in movies until now. The obvious fact that it could exist in real life, in my life, made me curl up inside myself.
I tried looking up the name of Mom’s aunt on my phone, but her generic name was impossible to find among those of all the other dead women just like her. After an hour, I fell asleep on top of my favorite duvet, the flamingo-motif one with the quarter-sized bleach stain hidden on the reverse side. I had a dream that I was a little girl again and that Dad was moving us to Highland. In it, I was sobbing into the palms of my hands, which had become child-sized. I looked up and saw that his face had no features. It was smooth and concave like an alabaster spoon.
This is what me and the rest of the world knew about Ken back then: that, in his previous life, when he was my age, he tried to see how deep he could dig on his dad’s tulip farm; that the hole he dug caved in on him, swallowing him; that, months later, after reporting him as missing, his dad R. Lee came across a baby’s face poking out of the ground; that he and his wife raised the strange child themselves, too afraid to tell anyone what he’d seen at first; that it took them a year to realize that their land had given their son back to them, right around the time his pigment started setting in; that the whole family went from selling flowers to human life shortly after.
Though I didn’t go out of my way to learn these facts, they diffused into my brain the same way Kayleigh’s favorite showtunes had whenever she belted out patter songs each morning just to be annoying.
After a lifetime of being overbearing, constantly checking up on me throughout each day, badgering me to put on sunscreen or a coat depending on the season, Mom stopped talking to me. I found her angry silence so disturbing that for a while I tried extending Kaleigh’s imprisonment to include me too. I stayed indoors, pretending I was still entirely my mother’s, like Dad did each time he kissed her on her pursed lips until she acquiesced and kissed back. I wanted her to talk to me again. I hadn’t thought of saying something to her first until it was too late.
Kayleigh would make faces at me when she slipped out through the laundry room door to meet up with her friends at Sugarloaf, always informing me that I wasn’t invited. She believed only she had the right to be pissed at Mom. To her, I was a boring homebody who’d never traveled far from Dad’s property, skirting around Mom as if I were still a child. She didn’t understand that I didn’t like feeling trapped when I chose to do nothing.
When they visited on the Fourth, my older sisters took turns retelling the saga of Mom’s depressive-young-mother phase with a callous tone. Their personal favorite part was the one where she drunkenly tripped on a pair of my Fisher-Price roller-skates and pretended to have a heart attack on the floor to get back at us for being messy. Mom used to drink a lot more than she did now. I could only barely remember that part of her life through the eyes of a little kid, a funhouse mirror that made my fifth birthday party more memorable than the flooding of lower Manhattan.
Though my sisters rarely came by, they weren’t bitter. They called Dad's home movies reruns, laughing nonstop when we watched footage of old birthday parties in the sunroom with Kaleigh, the prettiest among us, sandwiched in the middle. They carried their memory of Mom’s past like Purple Hearts, rolling their eyes as if they were having seizures when she walked into the room with plates of fancy cheeses. Sometimes she tried convincing them that their childhood hadn’t been all that bad. Usually she said nothing, placing the serving tray on the coffee table and leaving.
When they left, I tried to cherish what little time I had left with Kaleigh. We spent the rest of our summer doing little kid stuff she liked. We put together puzzles with missing pieces. She found an old paint by numbers kit and made a mess wetting the dried-up palette with water from the tap.
We were making friendship bracelets that spelled out anagrammed curse words and discussing all the strange ways one could get kicked out of college—eating the frogs in a bio class, peeing pants to get out of a test—when she brought Ken up again.
“What if you’re in the same dorm?” she asked me.
“Then I guess I’ll be able to tell people at parties I used the same gender-neutral toilet he does.”
Kaleigh only cared about Highland because of Ken Lee. For some reason, his subtle handsomeness had become hot to her, and her only, around middle school. The mystery around his personal life only made the obsession worse. She loved Ken with such an extreme intensity I’d never experienced myself that I was convinced I was just as jaded as my older sisters, most of who were already divorced. She used to show me the fanfiction she wrote about him falling in love with her after years of being her sworn enemy. No matter what, she’d always make the character she was supposed to be die at the end.
“What’ll you do if he hates you?” she asked.
“What kind of question is that?”
“It’s harder to get someone to like you if they’re super important. You’d have more luck getting him to hate you or think you’re weird. One of my friends says that if she were dying anyways, she’d throw herself off a bridge right in front of this guy she likes. That way he’d have to remember her forever.”
“My friend, not me. And we both said it would only be good to do if the disease was one of those super painful cancers where they have to take away a bunch of your skin like they did with her cousin.”
“Come on. You said you liked him, and now you’re saying he’d make you jump off of a bridge.”
“I do like him, which is why you have to visit Highland for me.”
Kaleigh was an expert on Highland, alchemizing her desire for an unobtainable boy into useful knowledge about the farm. I listened to her explain it to me as if this were the very first time. She broke up the majority of its customers into two categories: those who wanted to work on Highland Farm and those who actually did. As winners of the online work lottery (which they’d all entered and re-entered, spending thousands on entry tickets) Highland’s fifty-one farmhands would be able to regrow the people they loved if they could maintain its fertility.
“But R. Lee’s always firing people,” she said, “especially the workers trying to suicide themselves so they can get reborn.”
Rich customers took up most of the land, renting out of pocket by the acre. There was that one billionaire who’d lost his daughter to a genetic illness that would always be a part of her DNA, killing her over and over. And also that CEO who’d brought back his abusive mom just so he could dole out the same cruelty she’d inflicted on him when he was a kid. Kaleigh got sad when she recited their stories, sighing as if she knew these people personally, as if their demises were still fresh and not years-old cases that predated her birth.
At a school friend’s pre-deployment party, I hung with the only girl from my graduating class who’d stayed devout in that blind, literal way only the little kids from our Adventist k-12 school were. She kept asking me if I thought Highland was a portal to hell.
Me and what felt like a million other people were clustered in the host’s grandparents’ unfinished basement during one of the rolling blackouts. The host used an illegal generator to keep the dated AC unit going. No one wanted to go back to their hot houses. Air conditioning was a luxury few could afford.
I sat on top of the washer machine with this girl I’d known since pre-k. She wouldn’t stop pressing me for answers.
“What if it’s demons?” she asked.
She was already engaged and planned on taking general studies classes at the local community college. I rolled my eyes at her even though we were both equally ignorant on the matter. The heat dissolved all the nostalgia I’d had for her as a pig-tailed second-grader asking me to play Barbies with her. Still, I tried to be nice because she was my ride. It hurts to think of how cruel I could be.
“Who knows,” I said, taking a sip of lukewarm jungle juice.
The fact that the Lees were thousands of miles away on the opposite coast never stopped everyone in Sonoma from talking about them like they were right next door, because in a way we were. Highland had come to feel as real and immaterial as home did when I watched the latter dissolve into the horizon from the school bus each morning. I saw pieces of it in everyone around me. It felt so banal that I forgot it existed outside of the minds of other people.
I couldn’t stop yawning. Someone turned up the music. Heavy electronic bass made the whole ground thump.
I remember the summer heatwave well, but only bits and pieces of the wildfire that resulted that August. I remember hearing Kaleigh sneak out of the house around dawn and the hot air turning hellish soon after and the cold stinging feel of the pool where I hid with my parents for over an hour. And I remember Dad forcing my head underwater as flames consumed miles of hissing and exploding fruit. I remember Mom yelling something—I don’t know what. When the fire died down in our area, I saw what little remained of the house and suddenly became aware of the burning feeling still simmering in my lungs.
After the evacuations, me and my parents moved into separate suites at a boutique hotel further north. The fire raged on throughout the month; it shrunk, expanded and multiplied, refusing to die out completely. Kaleigh was put on a list of missing persons that included our neighbors the Awads, Mom’s spin instructor, and fifteen people from my old school. Though the days wore on and the impossibility of her survival thrummed in the back of my head, I couldn’t make myself believe that my sister could really be dead. Accepting fate would mean knowing that I’d willingly let her run out of the house to her death, and I refused to do that. I wasn’t being immature. Only little kids believed that anything not right in front of them is gone forever.
All Mom and Dad did was watch the news about the evacuations on the TV in their suite. I avoided them as best as I could, believing that their shared sadness was contagious. I could hear them through the wafer-thin wall that separated us. My sisters rung up their room constantly, demanding answers to questions they didn’t know yet about the old life we’d only just lost. Mom cried all the time. Dad scared me when he started praying. Neither of my parents had ever been genuinely religious, having only gone through the motions of Easter and Christmas services at the old mission-style church.
The idea of being stuck in my own misery like them felt unbearable to me. I spent all my free time reading library books in bed. We forgot about each other. I ignored Dad when he knocked on my door. To drown out their murmurs, I played Spanish TV as background noise. My struggle to comprehend what was happening with my schoolgirl Spanish comforted me a million times more than the hotel's thin monogrammed quilts.
At the end of the month, I woke up early for school. My old world was gone, so college was the only thing I could escape to. All I could think was that I had to get to the airport in San Francisco before five if I wanted to make my red-eye and begin a new life. I took only my wallet with me. I had nothing else; I hadn’t bothered buying new clothes, instead washing and rewashing the old ones I’d fled home in with shrinking bars of complimentary hotel soap. I learned to ignore the odd smell of my elastic-waisted chinos, which had gone stiff from soot and lavender-infused chemicals.
I turned in my key to the front desk and bought a bus ticket at the Greyhound station at the end of the block. I didn’t want Dad driving me, too afraid of Mom’s mouth to go into their room asking for a ride. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. I only wanted to forget about my past and the mounting probability of Kaleigh’s death. I was desperate to start a different life to avoid the pain of my new one even if it made my parents cry.
The handsomest man I’d ever seen sat next to me on the bus.
“It’s like the apocalypse out here,” he said. “Climate change, man.”
He said he made 100k a year managing a startup in the same city I was going to. He had a muscular body that showed through his dress shirt. When I told him where I was going, he rattled off a list of people he knew who’d graduated from my college.
When we made it to the freeway, I called up my parents’ suite with his cracked iPhone XXTI. The world zoomed past us. Dad was the one who picked up. Without saying hello, I told him I'd be wasting his money if I didn't use the plane ticket he’d already paid for.
Dad cleared his throat, then asked if I wanted him to put Mom on the phone. His voice started cracking.
Smoke cast dark shadows over the windows even though the fire was miles away. It mixed in with the smog, worsening the already terrible air quality. We were all breathing in the ashes of the dead, I realized. The bus driver ploughed right through them.
“I can’t,” I told Dad. I wasn’t sure if I was lying again. “She doesn’t want what I want.”
“Okay,” he said.
Dad understood in a way Mom never could. When he married her, he’d done the same to his family that I was now doing to mine: leaving for something better. He thought I could be as strong as him. I could sense the sad pride swelling underneath his even tone. He said he’d put money in my account. We weren’t destitute, he promised, not yet; we still had our savings plus the money we’d get from the insurance payouts. In a way, the fire was a blessing. His crop had been suffering from the increasingly hot summers.
All I wanted was to avoid the inevitable shame Mom would put on me, but when I hung up the phone I still felt guilty. An excruciating misery I’d never experienced before expanded, flooding the inside of my body.
My roommate Marpessa came on the train the day after I moved in. She was a queer Haitian American girl from South Florida who possessed a model-like attractiveness that made cheap clothes look good on her. Her parents worked for the World Bank and her not-dead set of grandparents owned a banana plantation near a place called Marmelade.
The school put me and her together at random because neither of us had bothered taking the Res Life survey that matched people up. She told me many times that she was afraid of rooming with someone she cared for in case they turned out to be a secret slob, ruining her image of them, so we stayed together. The slanted walls smushed our beds so close to each other that I could see the odd strands of grey on her peroxided head refracting the sunlight that filtered through the roller shades each morning. I liked that she didn’t ask me what was wrong whenever I cried and hated how her friends sat on my bed without asking.
The college, an arboretum surrounded by the Northeast rustbelt, made the news three times during that first semester: once because of Ken; another time for a rape at an off-campus party; and then again in a list of America’s most liberal colleges, where we ranked fourth. I was at that party and would have said more about the rape, but I’d been too drunk to remember. All I know is that me and this other girl were on the verge of passing out in the bathroom. I saw shadows spirit her away, and blacked out completely.
In October, Dad called to tell me they’d finally found Kaleigh’s remains—he never specified who “they” were, giving off the impression that something more ethereal than a search party had found the bits of her bone and teeth buried up in the mountains. My parents finally moved into a new place shortly after: an unremarkable bungalow Dad started calling home even though it was literally the farthest thing from it, an hour’s drive from the old vineyard.
I didn’t go “home” ever, not even for the funeral, a lack of action that Dad said made Mom a million times more disgusted with me than she already was. I spent all my breaks living in a co-op with hipster white kids from the music conservatory. I very briefly tried going to therapy when one of them threatened to report me for self-harming, but stopped showing for my appointments the day that the burden of all the scheduling and co-pay deadlines became too much. I let my memories dictate time, melding the past with the present so that there was no structure to my life. One day, I came across the memorial pages of five of my classmates, and deleted all my social media so that I wound up feeling more like a ghost than them.
I wanted to believe that Kaleigh was still alive, and avoiding her absence made it easier for me to pretend that she was like my parents, inaccessible but alive nonetheless. I replaced my innocent daydreams of my sister with much more intense ones that featured me and Ken in a shower.
Other than school, Ken and me shared nothing in common. He studied physics. I never got the chance to declare a major. He got to live in one of the college-owned townhouses with the upperclassmen because there weren’t enough dorms. I was always cooped up in the women’s dorm, lying in bed long after my roommate left until my back grew sore or I convinced myself to go to class. He was on the soccer team, wrote for the school paper, and worked at the homework hotline that the mathematics and education departments had set up for local schoolchildren. The only thing I had to look forward to every day was going back to bed. The short distance between me and all my dreams—him, the school—made them seem somehow more unattainable.
“A farm girl,” Ken said, pointing at the tiny AFBF pin I’d placed and forgotten on the tongue of one of my boots years ago.
We were sophomores now. It was the beginning of the fall semester again. We were in the dining hall, standing around waiting for the student workers to put out more watery plates of beef stroganoff. The room was loud and overcrowded. I told him my full name, Aviva Benton, when he asked, even though he probably knew already. It was impossible to pretend to be a stranger at our tiny college.
“Viva,” he said, even though I’d stopped using the nickname myself a year ago. “It’s an interesting name.”
I thought Ken might have been following me around until I remembered just how small campus was and how that the resulting claustrophobia was supposed to be a good because it meant you could feel like you knew everything about everyone. When you became aware of someone at the college, they immediately became omnipresent. You started seeing them constantly. They began popping up at the overcrowded dining halls, on Main Street with its rundown strip malls and empty lots, from outside the windows of all the conical spired residential halls and ivy laden academic buildings and even the women’s dorm that sat on the very edge of campus, the end of the world.
“Has anyone told you how interesting you look?” he asked me. “Like I feel like I’ve seen you before even though I know I haven’t because this town is whiter than white.”
“What’s so interesting about me?”
“You’re like ugly-pretty. Like, a Picasso or something. I don’t know what to make of you.”
“I’m sorry. That was rude.”
“Yeah, but I don’t mind.”
“You probably should.”
“But I don’t.”
I smiled at Ken and waited for him to walk away from me. I ate alone by the salad bar like I always did. My heart wouldn’t stop racing the whole time even though he was gone.
Of all the people in the world, he was the last person who should’ve been talking about beauty. Highland’s fields had gotten so hot these last few months that nothing could grow on the surface anymore without burning up. Experts on the news said climate change had woken up some secret part of the earth, angering it, while televangelists insisted that hell was splitting open. Last year’s harvest had been a failure. Amputees had emerged from the soil with leafy twigs for limbs, their blood vessels intertwined with rotting xylem tissue. The previously disturbed remembered bits and pieces of their past selves. Those who had PTSD suffered through nightmares, screaming all the time until they got big enough to speak again. Tourists who hung out around the farm’s perimeter had been the first to take notice of the lack of life, posting pictures of the field's barrenness all over the web. They grew in numbers, hungry for drama. They wanted to know what would happen next in this strange old mill town that survived off of the past.
The morning after Ken first approached me, Marpessa woke up screaming. She told me about a terrible dream she had where she fell off a high building. She trembled for hours before the memory of it finally evaporated from inside of her, leaving her frail and sweaty. I got out of bed for her. I tried offering her my freshly filled water bottle, but she turned me down.
Marpessa asked if I’d ever been to Highland. I said no. She thought I was lying, unable to believe because surely even I couldn’t be that cloistered off from the rest of the world. She went on a tangent about the farm. She said she was obsessed with it because of her favorite movie, a blockbuster that’d come out a while ago about a woman rebirthing her lover, another woman.
“I didn’t realize I was gay until I saw it,” she said. “I found the DVD at a yard sale. Before that, I didn’t even know you could even be a lesbian.”
For the first time in a while, I looked at her face. She was pretty in a childlike way that clashed with her husky, phone sex operator’s voice. She looked back and my eyes dropped to the floor like weights. She was everything boys wanted, I thought, softness and sex. Though she didn’t want them, she seemed to thrive underneath their gaze. An international student from Hong Kong once told her she looked like one of his favorite white actresses only painted black, and she’d laughed at him, incredulous, yes, but also smiling triumphantly like she did whenever she looked in the mirror.
Marpessa bragged about having a special relationship with Ken that took place almost exclusively over text. I asked her how, and she said, taking off her silk bonnet and unraveling the bobby pins from her hair, “It’s because we’re so different, but in a good way.” She said they felt at ease spilling their guts out to each other, the comfort of their radically different home-lives and friend groups providing them a freedom they could only feel with each other. They respected each other for being the smartest people in their Bayesian Statistics class where they’d first met.
Apparently, R. Lee used to make him kneel atop grains of uncooked rice for talking back. He went numb thinking about how much worse things must’ve been in his previous life, the knowledge of which his dad taunted him with, selectively revealing horrid details as proof that Ken’s lot had improved.
“If he hates his dad so much,” I asked, “why does he still mooch off of him? Just leave.”
“Because he loves him. Ken’s a very passionate person. You wouldn’t leave someone you loved, would you?”
I told Marpessa how Ken had started giving me amused looks because of some rumor about me, something so well-guarded and so undoubtedly untrue that even I couldn’t guess as to what it might be about. When he saw me, his eyes would widen, triggering a primal part of me that made the school feel even more up-close and claustrophobic. He walked up to me one time just to compliment my shoes, Bean Boots that, at the time, were popular among the Manhattan kids who’d probably never done an ounce of hard labor in their lives.
“Ken likes you, Viva,” Marpessa said.
“Did he say so?”
“He told me to my face last class. Ugh, I swear Stats is becoming the bane of my existence. The TA is so useless she’s basically just there for decoration at this point. But yeah, he was talking to me about love and all that deep stuff while the professor just droned on about things we already learned in Multi.
“But we were talking about girls we like. He’s actually super deep. I think he views women like queer women do. He told me he sees women as more familiar than, like, you know, overly mystical goddesses of love or whatever. Something about your aesthetic turns him on. He told me—oh crap, what was the word he used again? Oh yeah. He said you looked ravaged but in a good way. He mentioned the way you dress.” Marpessa sighed. “He told me he’d take us all to the farm if you agreed to come with.”
“So d’you wanna go? Yes? Oh come on, Viv, please. We can both enjoy it.”
“I need to think about it.”
I thought about the girl who’d been raped, how powerless she must’ve felt being carried away by those two guys whose Instagram posts were still liked by over a hundred people at school. I’d assumed being attractive to someone meant wielding complete power over them. I tried to remember her face—the girl had deleted all her social media when she left—but, like with a dead person, I could only recall a vaguely colored outline: flaxen hair, bony arms.
All the other black students seemed either annoyed by or indifferent to me. I couldn’t keep track of the white kids who rolled their eyes because so many of them had always been standoffish. I’d had the opportunity to reinvent myself and already I’d failed.
“I feel like I don’t belong anywhere,” I said.
“Maybe you should try doing something to fix that. You’re always in the room all the time like a shut-in. I’m going to be honest and say you’re super self-destructive. Someone like Ken can help you.”
“So that’s what people are saying about me.”
“No one’s forcing you to be broken, Viv.”
I didn’t have the strength to tell her how deeply her words cut. For a second, I thought she’d somehow found out about my family’s breakdown. I’d never told anyone at college about Kaleigh or the fires, but somehow, like palmists, the world could tell everything about me by my body alone.
Marpessa got ready first. She told me goodbye. I sat alone listening to birdsong through the opened window until I had to get ready for class too. Her voice kept echoing in my head as I thought of how people seemed to only get meaner once they became aware of their cruelty.
On the way to the humanities buildings, I saw Ken hanging out with his roommates at the college-owned terrace apartments. He sat on a rattan chair out on their portico. His roommates, all of whom were girls who went by some variant of Elizabeth or Catherine, were playing cornhole barefoot in the grass. I waved to test their hostility and one of them rolled their eyes while the others stood around with confused looks on their faces.
Ken waved back. He wasn’t ignoring them. Their reaction encouraged him. His stare felt more intense than theirs, which made it worse. I remembered the children’s books about social justice Mom used to read to me growing and how they’d claimed that love was stronger than hate, a thought that scared me because surely a force even greater than war or genocide would destroy the world with its power alone. Even when I was little, I knew that passion and goodness weren’t the same.
My skin was boiling with rage and desire. I wanted so badly to be unfeeling that it was making me go mad. I didn’t want to go to the farm with him, but I knew that I would anyways. There was no point in fighting desire, even if it didn’t feel like your own. I finally let go.
Ken was nice only because people allowed him to be. He was blessed with the good, inoffensive looks of a Disney Channel star, a self-effacing personality and the type of quantitative brain that allowed him to understand important things like row equivalent matrices without introspection.
When the politically active students protested the farm, their hatred of him seemed to be more cordial and intellectual than whatever people felt towards me. They criticized him for living off the backs of mostly widows and grieving mothers and then—nothing. I’d never seen them slam doors in his face like people did me. He had real friends. Boys like him were allowed to be morally dubious.
I went to my class on the Great American Novel and sat in the very back row. Almost all of my attention went to the ouroboros tattoo of the boy sitting in front of me. The green snake coiled around the nape of his dark neck, devouring itself. I wondered if it hurt him. I’d read somewhere that the human body treats tattoos like an infection, releasing special cells that absorb the ink so that they wind up lasting longer than they would without the immune system fighting them.
Dad called again to tell me more about the social club for bereaved parents that he and Mom had recently joined. There was going to be a barbeque. They’d been put in charge of the desserts and had to find recipes that used neither nuts nor dairy. Something about Dad’s voice depressed me. Even his happiness felt melancholic.
I’d just gotten back from my class, too lazy to get up from Marpessa’s dusty oriental rug. He tried bringing up Kaleigh again, but I stopped him. My heart started beating fast. I made him change the subject.
“We’re having another baby,” he said.
“You’re just trying to replace Kay.”
He went silent. I waited for an answer, but he only sighed heavily.
“Tell mom that she should just go to Highland if she really wants her back.”
I hung up. I didn’t know why I ever bothered answering his calls. Even the innocuous ones made me feel like a balloon was inflating inside of me, taking up all the room in my body so that I couldn’t breathe. My parents’ aversion to loneliness was what kept them together. I always thought Mom would call one day, but she never did ever since I’d first left.
I blocked Dad’s cell number and the landline. An hour passed where I did nothing but stare at my hands.
What I’d said to Dad was so silly and cruel, but I didn’t care. Everyone knew you needed a person’s full corpse to bring them back, otherwise their remains would rot just as they would on any other plot of land. Besides, Highland itself was already dead.
I fantasized about Ken’s lean body. I told myself again and again that I couldn’t be like Dad because Ken’s family were some sort of ethnically ambiguous PoC, each of them possessing the same terracotta skin tone as the lighter-skinned Mexican families from home. I didn’t want to think of who Mom’s baby would wind up looking most like.
Marpessa came into the room. When I told her that I wanted to go to the farm, her face became pure light.
She started texting him right away. It was as if they were in love. It didn’t matter that we both weren’t supposed to like Ken’s type—a rich pretty boy, babied but also abused by everyone else’s obsession with him. She was a gold star lesbian and my only desire was to be empty of all feeling, especially for someone like him. I watched her dance around our room. For the first time, I felt a connection between us growing.
I could already see the vague shape of my destiny forming before my eyes based on how apathetic I felt. I was becoming less and less like the person I used to be, though I couldn’t recall who that had been. All I knew was that the valedictorian girl from NoCal had burned away a lifetime ago.
It’s easy to fill in the details of my predictions of the future now that I’ve lived through them. I’d stop talking to my family and dropped out at the end of the school year. Dad would keep sending me money anyway, which was the only way I could know for sure that he was still alive. I’d do what basically everyone at my school did when they graduated or gave up and move downstate to Manhattan. Highland would get shut down and Ken would go on to make partner at some law firm years later. When the mounting heat of the farm began spreading, singeing flora and fauna and melting Metro North tracks, inching its way closer and closer to the city, I’d get engaged. I’d send out wedding invitations to Marpessa’s and Ken’s home addresses from the old student directory just to see what would happen and cry when I received no response from either of them, believing that true indifference had to be malicious and purposeful, that they must hate me. A divorce would follow soon after, my husband’s decision.
Ken Lee was waiting for us in the front lot of the dorm. He was in his car, a white Mercedes his dad had no doubt bought him. He drove us to Highland with the windows all rolled down. I rode in the backseat while Marpessa sat upfront with him. They only talked to each other for the entire trip. Sometimes I caught him glancing at me through the rearview mirror. I remember their conversation being about the jobs some of the seniors in their class had already gotten.
The sky was dark with bright stars. The farmhands had all gone home by the time Ken led us out to the pitch-black fields, so now Highland looked especially empty. I felt a strange heat as soon as we walked through the heavily guarded front gates. Marpessa winked at me and wandered off into the darkness, using her phone as a flashlight. She became just a circle of light in the distance, then nothing. My skin was boiling again, this time for real. Whatever had caused so much life in the ground was growing in intensity, mutating.
I went to lie down under a dying poplar tree on the edge of the property. Ken followed. An even greater warmth that I couldn’t help but embrace overtook me. His hand slithered underneath my skirt and the elastic of my underwear. I kept thinking of how, one time when we were little in Sonoma, me and Kayleigh used to try and cook eggs on our exposed bellies one summer. My whole body felt like the yolks when they ruptured yellow goo onto our matching J. Crew two-pieces.
“Oh Ken,” I told him. “I love you.”
He drew away. “That’s a bit melodramatic.”
“It’s fine. It’s just that love’s kinda a strong word.”