CW: suicide, death, violence, firearms, workplace harassment, sexual harassment, sex, drugs, alcohol
Dog walkers were first to find each day’s dead. Crinkled limp lumps in the sand under a cracked wooden playground structure, or half-swallowed in the weedy grass by the bike paths. Wrists split, or glutted on sedatives. Resting fingers on empty drain cleaner bottles, or dangling by improvised ropes from monkey bars. Hardware stores stopped stocking matches after the CEO of the hardware conglomerate lost two sons who’d collected match heads until they had enough to die by swallowing them.
The neighbourhood was riddled with absences like some eye was dragged across it, spreading disappearance wherever it looked. Essin guessed those vanishings (like everyone listening) would add their notches to the tally. Information Control disclosed that investigations were underway, but findings never reached the public. Some citizen’s committees met in living rooms around greasy grocery store cookies and undertook investigations. They vanished, too, but people like them returned several days later— hollow-eyed and mum about where they’d been.
Only the underground presses had anything to say about it, and dubbed the wave the Suicide Spring, but even they had their hands too full to report on it with any clarity. Quiet nights were pierced by gunshots, bangs made by doors kicked in. Fires leapt suburban rooftops to jab the blank-bellied sky. When they had the opportunity, the underground’s pundits pointed to a similar phenomenon that happened ten years before, a suicide tsunami that carried off fifty-seven children. Its cause was never determined. Investigators had been unable to establish links between the suicides and though the age distribution was different among this recent batch it seemed the city was experiencing a revival. Speculation usurped observation— exegeses detailed social manias echoing over decades.
Essin knew these claims were incorrect. They’d been outside a lot that year, going to and from work, and saw no children wearing masks except kids playing Animal Controllers, so the two waves couldn’t be tied.
And anyway other calamities rose that presented plausible alternate explanations— though they’d emerged with scant comment outside illicit scientific editorials. Days were entangled in disastrous threads. It had been a year since graduation and time moved on quick, jittering lines. The suicides were swift forgotten, less relevant than other things. Essin stowed their brooding thoughts away and pressed on to their shifts.
And they thought, at first, that what they saw was crushed crab apples from a backyard tree on the path, pulverized by bikes and walkers.
Then remembered it was too soon in the season for crabapples.
It was twenty to five AM. He wasn’t well-cooked though in some spots he’d been gnawed to the ribs. His jacket was melted and turned to warted bubbles and burnt here and there to nylon scabs. His open eyes looked like egg albumen twenty seconds after being dropped in boiling water.
A dog collar jangled.
Essin looked up startled and for a sec worried they’d be cooked and eaten too. They hadn’t seen her. It was a frizzy-haired woman with a narrow gray dog. She was sitting in the grass by the margin. Her old greyhound sniffed at a haggard dandelion patch where a puddled mucus from the lady’s gut cooled in the morning air. She looked like’d she’d just hobbled free from a burning car. Raised a phone in her hand like it was normal to own a phone. “Called it in already.”
“Oh,” Essin said.
A Schiaparelli D28 flechette projector rested crosswise on her lap. (Perhaps it was a Rattlemore? Essin hadn’t paid attention in armaments class and didn’t keep up on gun stuff as much as they thought they ought to. Weapons seemed to them like dangerous safety blankets, the people who clung to them did so for the same reasons nervous children cling to moldy plush polar bears.)
The dog whinnied, vaguely despondent he wasn’t still walking.
“You see what happened?” Essin said.
“Just the aftermath, Rifle here scared off the new rabbits.” Essin wasn’t sure if she referred to the dog or the gun. “Where’s your gun? They’re still around.”
“Oh,” Essin said, “In my bag.” They hefted the green fabric Dollarama bag that held only a mass market paperback they’d fished from a book store dumpster and taped together, and a shitty homemade poke bowl in a tupperware container.
“You should probably keep it out. I don’t think they were done eating. They scattered but god knows they’re quick to reorganize. I’m just going to stay here and watch this guy so more of him doesn’t get chewed up. They probably didn’t go far.”
Essin wasn’t certain what to say just then so they just said, “Thanks.”
“No problem,” said the lady. “Hey are you going to get your gun out?”
“I promise,” said Essin. “I’m just in a hurry.” They smiled a bit blearily with what they could muster at a point in the day when the dawn’s blue hadn’t even thought to reach for daylight gold. And started walking. “Stay safe!”
“You know I will,” said the lady.
They were dressed head to toe in black, shoes lacquered in a sugar scum, spilled milk, coffee grinds. It was humid. Morning had turned balmy now after lucid, patient April rain. That early their work clothes felt like kilns for nausea. A few cars roamed, and through the neighbourhood’s arteries, the morning’s first scouting buses and last stray night routes carried shift workers to and from the corporate boxes where they kept their hours, bumpers bouncing as their treads hit crumbling gray asphalt that had bubbled and split, smiting hopeful weeds. The gunners on the back-mounted bus-turrets lolled but didn’t wake, scarfed in black exhaust.
Essin liked to dodge the main routes since earlier that season a gunner had spooked and nearly blown their leg off when they were cutting through some bushes. They’d found a shortcut through a park tucked away in the residential labyrinth. It was a reach where the houses weren’t worth so much and often many people lived together under dubious legality. They’d dug pit barbecues in their front yards, and chairs (pillows sun-faded to pastel) lined porches overlooking weedy gardens decorated with dollar-store plastics, where dead leaves matted the nutritionless soil. Toys sat on lawns without fear of theft.
Trees here were older than in the newer suburban teratomas. One elm rotting from its insides had its boughs piled on a rusting trailer the city hadn’t collected in years. Its wood showed pale wounds where storms had torn its arms from their joins. Essin pressed through a low pine brush that had the puke-y smell of cedar resin. Orange needles stuck to their dew-wet shoes.
A fog sheet floated over the park and from the east flank the rowed trees shattered the sun so its gold fell in slats on the fog. It looked like a piano made from clouds and without really thinking Essin stood with it there, looking, stock-still and picturing their hands running over those hazy keys, which tore and settled and seemed far too solid to be burnt away.
The new deer lifted its head.
In their life Essin had rarely seen animals in the suburb except squirrels and seagulls that infested parking lots like mangey cigarette butts. New animals hadn’t even had much luck. Animal Control peppered the night with gunshots and mopped up before morning, painting asphalt in blood-splatter that would be hosed away by noon.
And yet here was the new deer.
Its antlers— pale pink petals— shifted, drinking sun. Translucent as a rat’s ears and where light hit them, Essin caught the fractal circulatory web— more like a leaf’s than an animal’s. Limp cilia dangled from albino fur among grey round warts like distended sunflower seeds that Essin guessed were blood-stuffed ticks. It fixed them with its cycloptic crimson eye— a huge jelly, tiered lenses shimmering glassily and mica-reflective nodes in necklaces around its many pupils. Almost the full orb bulged from its socket, and instead of blinking the deer sucked it into their head and extended it again. Its frilled proboscis was still down and dissolving the grass in the fog. Light bled through points where its flesh thinned— it had almost no muscle, ribs wrapped in tick-pebbled velvet.
Essin relaxed. Let bones slip to eased positions and muscles limp and watched the eye that watched them watching it back. Public Information had confirmed not two weeks earlier that what was rumored to be the case for so long was true: the new deer had perfect insight into the future. Animal Control had no luck catching them and less luck exterminating them, though with careful and meticulous strategic planning they could be herded (you had to plan so that the nature of the plan wasn’t visible even once it was executed— someone had detailed this on the news when laying out Animal Control’s schemes for new deer management).
They eased over. Shoes shush-shushing in the wet grass and all stress within themself dismantled. Sunlight brushed the fog away.
They reached. Spread fingers gently on its fur. It was greasy. Wiry. And the ticks in their multitude— their eyes cracked open: they were all the same color as the deers’, and this close up Essin spotted tadpole nubs that would be legs and flaps that would be membranous antlers.
They were new fauns.
Cilia among the new deer’s fur tasted Essin’s palm, and they stood like that, slack, breathing, while the deer ate, and watched them.
Until it stamped its hooves, and Essin pulled their hand away. The new deer sprang, leapt three times through the fog and into the brush and yards and houses beyond. Perhaps on its way past the neighbourhood to the woods and farmlands outside the city.
Essin was giddy as hell. They tried to stamp it out as they jogged to the mall.
“Sleep in?” Their manager, Honey, stood with her back to the Starbucks door smoking, a revolver drooped in her hand and a shotgun strapped to her back.
“No,” said Essin. “New animal run-in.”
“On the bus?”
Honey was described by every employee as a ‘sexy librarian’ though she didn’t have much interest in books and was, like about four-fifths of people who managed a Starbucks, a part-time fitness instructor. She looked as though she could pop a skull like a caper between her absurdly muscled thighs. She passed Essin the shotgun. It was a simple two-barreled bit of cheap jank that most Starbucks issued to their opening staff.
“You should take the bus,” said Honey, jangling with the keys. “Don’t forget to keep an eye on the ditch. Two kinds of gophers were replaced yesterday afternoon.”
“I will. It’s so expensive, though.”
“What’s it at? Six dollars per trip?”
“I make twelve an hour.”
“True, I guess,” Honey was struggling with the lock.
“Fucking hell. They need to fix this thing.”
“I’m saving up to move to a new place.”
“Just move in with other people. It’s cheaper.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
The key clicked in the lock. “Okay, ready?”
Essin cracked a yawn that fell to a, “Yep.”
“Go,” said Honey. The door squealed on its hinge and the chime sounded. She was up with her pistol, moving to the alarm. Unset it. Essin made for the bathrooms with the shotgun— nothing had emerged from the toilets though last night’s closers had left unswept toilet paper pieces all over the floor. They yanked open the supply closets and nothing but paper towels and cup sleeves toppled out, so they shoved them back in place with their shoulder. The atrium was empty. Nickels silvered the quiet fountain bed. Checking the cash terminal showed no parasites.
Honey hollered from the back room. “Check the fridges?”
Essin pried open a fridge door by wedging a toe against the gasket. A milk bag had leaked so the other milks sat in a thin white puddle. Essin checked all eight fridges and checked the cupboards where nothing was stored but tetra packs filled with synthetic lemonade. It had only one pack that had fallen on its face.
“We’re clear!” Essin shouted. “A milk exploded. We’re running low on lemonade.”
“We have one.”
“Shit. We’ll deal with it later. Check the drive-thru garbage will you?”
“Then get started on the pastry case.”
Honey, on her knees, pawed through silver bags stuffed with coffee beans, stooped to check under the steel wire shelves. The drive-thru garbage had been ransacked and there were cups and paper bags and fast-food trash everywhere. The brush behind the bucks had been scorched along the top, black buds popped and new leaves crinkled. Something left a cherry-red blood trail slinking up the drive-thru and at last around the fence, and Essin followed it and checked behind the fence to ensure nothing was there. There was something, but it looked like a barrel of cranberries shot out of a cannon into a concrete dam. Brass casings gleamed from the gray-gold grass.
“What took you?”
“I didn’t hear any gunshots?”
Essin stabbed open pastry boxes with scissors. They were still cold from the fridge and Essin marked them with water-soluble tags and jotted dates with peel-back pencils while Honey fiddled with the Mastrena’s pieces and waited for the safe to open. Essin laid out biscuits, and sweet biscuits. They tallied the scones, all four varieties, pumpkin pepper and blueberry coulee and cheddar herb and apple cinnamon melody, and felt vaguely despondent that the pumpkin ones were fewer than the others (which meant they likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to steal one before their break, which meant they’d run out before they could steal one).
With slithering horror they laid out the vanilla and chocolate sconelets like malformed larva and set the assorted cake-pops upright with paper stems in their plastic block display brick. The apple fritters (a lot like chowing down on deep-fried thumbtacks) were arrayed, and Essin halved the sacrificial breakfast sandwiches, one of each, and when the oven was done heating they roasted the halves and with skill evaded the molten cheese compounds that burned even through plastic gloves and these they swaddled in sandwich papers and skewered with labels. They added the butter bars with oats in them the yoga ghouls paired with their skinny beverage subspecies, and with iron will overcame the determined nausea now nudging their throat-bottom as they one by one shucked the dinner-plate-vast cookies from their clear plastic jackets and aligned them in rows— sparking ginger molasses sugar and dark chili chocolate chunk and outrageous mocha cinnamon chocolate and wretched oatmeal raisin.
And before they were anywhere near done, Honey unlocked the front door and passed Essin a drive-thru headset and had them punch their card on the drive-thru cash.
“Want a coffee?” said Honey.
“I’ll take a tea.”
“We’re out,” said Honey. “We’re also out of Astral Mist, Interstellar Bergamot, and English Breakfast.”
“Uh. That too.”
“God these delivery issues are murdering us.”
Bings sounded in Essin’s ear and milk screamed and the gossipy morning crew arrived and over the headsets continued their single year-spanning conversation about people Essin had never met. Essin shifted huge tureens and dumped liter after liter of just-barely not fresh coffee down the sink. People in clean foreign cars fussed over the foam percentage of their lattes, which for some had to be zero percent, which was a feat when it came to drinks made with aerated milk. Time had begun the day transparent— its events preserved with the perfection of seeds in ice— but broke down into an oversweet, lactic sludge. It mixed with suburban syrup and was shattered by the morning’s whirling blades.
Children played in the fountain. Cheerios bobbed on its surface and parents arrived with strollers and sketchy Francophones monopolized the ethernet plugs on the gibber terminal and the day crashed through itself— then began to crawl forward, sluglike, grinding, with continental patience and tectonic increments measured in fingernails. Essin had hoped to fast through their first break but their guts roiled with wet hungry bubbles so they bought the overpriced store oatmeal and snuck three packets when Honey said they could make it themself.
Sunlight edged through the drive thru window. Carved its light on the steel fridge fronts. In the short lulls Essin leaned out the window so their cheeks touched day. Traffic roared up the road to the mallplex.
Ears vibrating from the headset bings and feet sore and skin scummy from aerosolized milk— when their shift was done Essin had earned a few new cuts on their knuckles from the razor-edged ice box door and for probably about the sixth time they had the epiphany that restaurant poke bowls were only filling because they doused that shit in quasi-Asian mayonnaise. Leaving the bucks to see the world in full daylight felt like looking at a sere noon flat with salt rubbed in your eyes.
Basement empty and quiet when they got home. Nothing but desolate air-vents rattling as they carried cool air to the landlord’s living room. It was freezing down there and smelled a bit like fried pork. Essin kicked off their work shoes and shunted them into their narrow closet corner. A long time past, the landlord had lanced at finishing the basement, sheathing its meaty insulation in drywall and laying out carpets across the bluish concrete. His determination strayed after he bought supplies, but before much was done. His thrust at finishing the basement left only a bathroom, with a shower stall and a toilet jammed between it and a tiny sink, blinds over the small window that looked out at the street. The mirror was still speckled with white paint. The rest was gray concrete dotted with rings from where paint cans had been stored, broken bicycles and inert barbecues— corner usurped by a disheveled drum kit and a long work bench piled with hardware and a board where pliers and wrenches and hammers were mounted on red-rubber-dipped hooks. It wasn’t legal for him to store stuff down there but it was the only place a reasonable distance from work where Essin could afford to live alone. The washer and dryer sat in an oval of diffused light from the basement window that faced the back yard. Essin had tried to wall off a nook with clothes hung from hangars on the ceiling pipes, which hid their desk, mattress, and little bookshelf.
They stripped. They pressed through their dangling shirts and fell blearily on themself in the shower and thought about being destroyed by someone who was not Honey to pretend they weren’t sexualizing their boss (but honestly). Their nads were soaped up and the cheap suds mingled with steam and though the soap was meant to smell like strawberries and watermelon it only really smelled like whatever they put in lollipops to flavour the overwhelming sugar. From sheepishness they always did this in the shower and so masturbation smelled like bottom-shelf shampoo.
For a while after they came, they rested crumpled on the shower floor, yellow stars in their eyes and gums numb from dehydration and steam and heat. Their hair felt over-wet. It hadn’t been good but it had been loud. They felt over-clean and knew their skin would be over dry as they toweled off. A thumping came from upstairs. The landlord was home and he was fucking somebody. Picture frames rattled against the wall and you could just hear her voice sounding distant and tinny through the silver vents on the basement ceiling. Essin crawled into the dampish crumpled sheets on their mattress and wedged their head between two pillows against the noise.
It wasn’t necessary. They slept.
Partway through the afternoon Essin rose from dreams about interminable rusting museum districts and shaking trees over prairies where people gathered to sell elephant bones. The basement smelled like steam from a big and ritzy Chinese place downtown— it bubbled, rice air and pork and aromatics. A laugh Essin could only describe as womanly answered a baritone chuckle. They slipped back into sleep. When they woke fully the floor upstairs was silent.
They boiled instant noodles on their hotplate in the kitchenette jammed in a corner. It was close enough to dinner time and they intensely regretted lunching on a shitty poke bowl. Finished and readied themself for the party that night. They picked out something vaguely frilly and painted their nails with black polish and oily mirrored glitter and packed their knapsack with water and money and a few snacks and schnapps. And then read until dusk.
For weeks, when they weren’t working, they slept. A party was an aberration and even if they knew nobody there it was fine to go alone. They walked the neighbourhood. Slurpee cups and chip bags skittered grittily across asphalt, wind-pushed down coiling streets. At work they volunteered to take out the garbage, so while they slung trash sacks into dumpsters they could briefly watch the morning clouds grow and pile together into roving mountains whose peaks and tails interrupted the light. Sometimes the clouds drifted out to the hills, other days they turned to fierce bouts of short and furious rain whose residues on the parking lot cars were blinding mercury points in the afternoon sun. Between the rain, arid windstorms yanked porch umbrellas from strip mall bars. Even if its mutations were obvious, there was still something comforting in the outside when they worked like that and slept so much.
When she came in the first time, Essin recognized Lacie but though they frantically fished for it, they had no name for her and no idea where they’d met her before.
She’d been a barista (“coffee gibbon” she joked) for the company some years past, so she was less of a condescending prick. She lacked the hideous air of the bored and privileged, though it oozed from every wall and every object in the store. She spoke with a gentle sarcasm that bloomed from her spine and her belly. Something reflected from the marrow. She worked at the Chapters downtown, and came in to grab her coffee before catching the cross-city express. Essin started hanging out with her on their break. They sat together on the patio and people-watched the customers. One day she caught Essin taking out the cardboard garbage and followed them to the dumpsters.
“I love smashing boxes. Once when I was a kid, I emptied all the boxes in the basement just to smash them,” she said. Then, “May I?”
Essin popped the condensed ones to their original shapes and Lacie leapt up and stomped on them and kicked them and screeched. Her voice sounded on the blank walls behind the strip mall. An old mop handle jutted from a dumpster and she pulled it out and thrust it into the boxes, punching some in and punching through others and grinning wild as blood flushed to her arms and her cheeks and then in a fury pounding on the side of the fat rusty green dumpster until the wood dowel snapped and spun away to clatter on the winter-warted asphalt.
“You… God… damned… bastards!”
She dropped the splintered wood. Her shoulders heaved as she breathed. Sweat jeweled her neck, slipped down her collar. She turned to Essin, flush filling her cheeks, a jackal laugh drily lurking in her throat, watching from the epiglottis.
Essin’d been out for too long. They started heaving garbage bags pregnant with coffee grinds into the wet dumpster, upsetting the fly colony. Something wriggled in their chest and they wrestled to hide their rising blush.
She watched. Sweat grains pasted her bangs to her forehead. Some ferocious happiness rode her face.
However strongly Essin felt it then, arms oozing between them, tasting each other as they stood alone in that place, it seemed as though the potential links, baseless and unstable, would pass, and Essin would return to their barren comfort.
They gulped. Stopped hucking garbage and watched back.
And as if to sweep away the thing that prickled each and every hair on their neck and back and forearms, Essin furrowed their brow like they didn’t understand, because it’s difficult to admit you understand something between, even and especially when it is something you both understand.
“You okay?” they said.
She frowned. She wiped her forehead.
“Yes,” her half-grin flattened. “It’s nothing.”
And then thought, It’s safe to go back now.
“You can have my partner beverage,” Essin said. “I just want water.”
“I should go,” Lacie said, and left for the bus-stop without grabbing coffee.
Essin walked along the gravel margin. The old corn fields still lay fallow with weeds clambering up last years’ brittle brown growth. Past where the city made paths and the only place to walk was beside the road, hair ruffled by trucks and bellying winds— white feathers flying from caged sides as they bore chickens to abattoirs. Here the houses turned their backs to the horizon, and hid their back windows behind slender trees. The Walmart hunched and the cinema’s extravagant silhouette splayed bright against the dusk. Night watch planes, roving, tossed blurred shadows on the stores’ grime-streaked plaster walls.
This far out, Essin could spot the Animal Control fortplexes clearly. Concrete slabs whose few windows were curtained and never lit, even at night. They couldn’t have told anyone then just when the neighbourhood’s first fortplex popped up, but it was well after they’d started recording memories. Even so, each had the look about it of something old as any building in the city. Close-up their concrete was spotted with radiating lichen dots and moss-bearded as a brick-sized tombstone on a pauper’s grave, letters eroded to nothing.
The lowering sun struck the fortplexes and cast their windows in gold.
After a while Essin reached a place where the ground had been scalped by backhoes. Boulders had been piled in the center of the flat and its puddles were sterile, with velvet-silt bottoms. Trees showed their soles: uprooted bottoms like jagged suns flaring from carrion feet. The night lagged. By degrees evening lurched its pieces into place. The sun faded on the dirt parapets and trenches that marked future streets and basements. A few preliminary houses had been constructed— pale wood and white tarps beating the air, doors stapled with cheap paper signs to warn kids they were on camera when obviously no cameras monitored the dead construction site. Essin’s feet half-sank in the soil. Light rose from the satellite neighbourhood. Found the cowpath to the lingering scraggled woods that opened onto the old landfill.
It had begun already and smoke hit them: a bonfire spiking already higher than the gently shaking canopies. Speakers pelted their sternum and skin tingled in anticipation at curling marijuana plumes. Lasers crisscrossed the tree trunks. The grass was trampled and already littered with water bottles and gum wrappers and cigarette foils. The crowd wasn’t huge but the space felt busy, people heading to the group and out to the bushes to smoke. It was too bright even this far from the suburb for starlight and so an indigo blankness accepted the fire.
A few drunk teens shot off their guns in the air when the bass dropped. Schnapps fired Essin’s tongue. They pushed to the crowd.
Her face was shattered by jagged strobes. Lacie. An animated person seen through a zoetrope. Essin’s head was numb and wooly from liquor and heat. Sweat pressed against them and so did she. She smelled like cheap shampoo: berries, sugary synthetics. Essin shuddered when their noses brushed. It was loud. It smelled like fire and organ meat frying in a wok. Some dude nearby whooped as her tongue intruded on Essin’s. She reached, and kissed like a bite. Her nails were in their hair and one hand scooped past their belt down to an asscheek and her tongue tasted like ashtray, which was something Essin liked. More guys had gathered, rich guys— white phone lights glared as they filmed the couple. Essin’s neck bent back, and they felt the cricks and cracks faint along their spine. This person’s hair and cold saliva on their upper lip. Jaws started to get sore. Teeth bumped and a blood-taste flooded from their lip where it gently broke. A hand had drifted from back to front.
“Yo this is dope!” some dipshit shouted. Essin opened their eyes and a spectator had his dick out and was masturbating and dead-eyed, hand working a shrimpy cock.
Essin recognized him too. He came into the store so often that they remembered he ordered a tall pike— like that, “tall pike.” He wore a giant shirt— the same giant shirt, most days, though sometimes he just showed up in an undershirt and some days he wore a rain jacket. It was bright, five different colour patches, red, green, blue, yellow, and white. He looked somehow clownish since it hung so loose from his scarecrow body. He had wide, watery eyes that crouched on addled perches in his sallow, balding skull.
He showed up at their store every morning. He pretended to read the paper while leering at the women baristas and the yoga ladies in yoga pants. Essin had never noticed until that moment but— yes, he did leave the store moments after Lacie picked up her coffee. This struck clear, through the alcohol. He did sit out on the patio whenever they were hanging out with Lacie. And sometimes, when they’d seen her, from a distance, at the bus stop, he was standing just a few steps away.
Lacie grabbed their face. They didn’t know if she’d seen. It was a thing like a smile. Coloured lights green yellow and magenta flicked against a wall in the dark sinks that were her eyes. Dragging their attention back. She brushed a stray bang from their brow. Essin pushed into her hand as she nipped their neck. Electric ripples flew where tooth touched tendon. Essin spluttered, hips quivering.
“Holy shit!” the same dipshit bellowed, loud enough to sound over the bass, the electric racket nothing but dim, fluctuating volume. “Are you fucking seeing this?” to no one in particular, “This is insane!”
Some dude wearing nothing but hot pants and a suede vest had gotten on his knees and was sucking the masturbator’s dick and he didn’t seem to mind the tanned twink at him now, gripping the guy’s gelled blonde hair.
“This is crazy!”
Essin broke. Like wood frame shattered on rocks they shivered and at last heard their own quiet moans break to something audible. Someone passed Lacie a joint and they exhaled smoke down Essin’s throat. They fell to their knees. Head against this half-stranger’s stomach. She kneeled to kiss some more.
“Yo dude you’re fucking a faggot!”
“He’s good at this shit,” said the guy getting sucked off. “Fuck yeah. Aren’t you, faggot?”
Lacie, wet-fingered, led Essin to the clearing’s edge. The pair pressed through the crowd and away from the light and fell together in the wet leaves where tree trunk knuckles knotted against their backs.
Fire stink clotted the air, and sweat. It wasn’t quite so loud. Lacie rode their face, one hand against tree bark and the other gripping their hair while Essin’s tongue worked her clit. They drank schnapps and water.
Dozed together spooning in the underbrush. At some point in the night Essin felt Lacie’s lips and hot breath by their ear. “Sorry about that. I didn’t realize we had an audience.”
“That’s fine,” said Essin. “That was fun.”
Essin turned and rasped into her ear. “That was fun. I had fun.”
“Good.” She nuzzled closer. “I think I’ll keep you.” She raked fingers down their back. But though this gesture was one that from any lover obliterated everything that wasn’t a need to unify their body with someone else’s, Essin only partly noticed.
Their eyes had wandered again to the sky, a place where the webbed tree branches broke.
Perhaps they said something like, “What the fuck?”
If the phenomenon had been predicted by Public Information astronomers, it hadn’t been posted to the gibber or announced on the news.
It was green. It had tails by the dozen and they were all writhing like scum-wrapped weeds in a current, blasting back from the comet’s head. Its core was a radioactive eye as it marched above, and against light from Walmart parking lots and night parties and houses and roads its glow grazed the midsummer refuse, the mud fields and territory flayed, drawn, and quartered by developers for their insolent growth. The comet’s ribbons stretched back farther than Essin could see and it seemed low enough that if they’d waved, an interplanetary passenger could have spotted them and waved back.
As long as Essin would live their memory would distort this moment. Some mental editor, wizened and pale from a lifetime in a dark room bathed in fumes adjusting things according to their own sense of how a story flows without consulting anyone clipped this moment from its spot and set it at the beginning. As if Essin had seen it before the first new animals arrived, and it was somehow an omen, trumpeting their coming.
Lacie didn’t mention it, later, never brought it up even when they were on the train to ocean, the Colonel howling that they were off to see the comet where it had fallen in the sea.
That astral slash drifted south. Like it was steered by high altitude winds and not the momentum gravity carved through the seething void. Together the fresh couple watched it. Lacie reached up and spread her fingers and closed them again and again as if to catch it.
At some point they were walking home, sky blank except in places where urban brushfire stippled its gut. Clouds rolled in. Tomorrow it would rain.
“I’m sorry about that time,” said Essin.
“With the boxes. I’m sorry about that time with the boxes.”
“There was a thing happening in that moment and I tried to keep that thing from happening.”
She clutched her backpack. Essin had wanted to hear her jackal laugh, but she offered a confused and gentle snort. It felt like something opened between them like the guts of a sacrificed sheep.
“Did you ever dissect foetal pigs in high school?”
“I didn’t finish high school,” she said.
“Oh,” she said, “Reasons. Why do you ask? I mean about the pig.”
“Oh,” said Essin, “I dunno. There were people in my class who were naturals at it. They held their scalpels like pens. There was a girl in my group who cut the heart open, perfectly, so you could see all its chambers.”
“Yeah,” Essin felt as though they waddled through their thoughts, anxieties stuck like burrs, “I think… I just thought of it because… it seemed like something you’d be good at?”
She laughed. The laugh was real, this time. Dry. Sharp. Yeah, it said, yeah, I would.
“Why did you quit?” Essin said.
She pulled back. Like she’d been hit. Terror bit her, just for a moment, a wince as though Essin’d unexpectedly called her a cunt or something and she’d expected so much more from them.
“Starbucks. I mean, you don’t get the benefits we got there at your new job, right?”
“Oh,” she said, cackling, “Oh. Oh that.
“One of the closing staff had called in sick in a store in a different district. He’d been shitting blood for days and finally decided to tell someone about it. They needed someone to cover it.
“I bussed out. It was the Pinecrest store which is super busy. The staff was all peppy. All the guys on cash were gay and laughed and talked to each customer like you’d talk to an elementary school teacher you hadn’t seen since you were six. A lot of people came through: French-speaking bureaucrats working late at the government offices and girls in Walmart sweaters and ball caps heading out to the movies and middle aged chai ladies with very, very specific orders.
“The manager put me on bar, but, like, it was easy enough to zone out. And I started thinking: here I was, a borrowed person, replaceable by anyone. It was like a secret none of the customers knew. I realized that I had nothing to do with it: the company, the store, the people, their lives. I spent time there, but it was just a second sleep. Anything I did was an act in a dream and would be lost when I woke up.
“And somehow this made me remembered exactly how it felt to kiss someone. I mean, it almost seemed like I felt the physical sensations. And not just someone who kind of turned you on but like someone who wrecks you with how much they turn you on.”
She squeezed Essin’s hand.
“I understood what this was: it was the store, the newness of the store. That was what it felt like: the first time tasting someone’s saliva.
“At close the supervisor sent me outside to collect the patio umbrellas. That store is right next to the Queensway, and the night clouds were pink from city lights. And I thought that each car was as unattached to any give position. That was what made life possible. Being attached to nothing.
“So I quit.”
*** They were well into the neighbourhood by then and Lacie still walked beside them. They were laughing about yakuza tattoos, cutting across the high-school football field. Wind hit them then and Lacie tugged Essin to the ratty wooded remnant that divided the school from residences. The trees rushed, outlines swaying against an indigo suburban dark.
They curled up together in a clearing made in an elm-tree’s ruins— something had happened to it. It had been dismantled by the city. Its heart had been burnt out so chalky black scales lined its hollow. They nuzzled each other, clothes making sandpapery noises as they pressed their torsos together.
“What do you know about the new animals?” she said, schnapps on her breath, voice originating from a point at the centre of Essin’s brain.
They squeezed her. They worried briefly about what was on the ground: a litter of beer caps and old condoms and crushed cans and foot-rubbed roots. Saying nothing by way of response (it seemed to take too much effort) Essin fell asleep breathing into her cheek—
And woke to crashing in the brush. In the faint light from backyard lamps that bordered on the woods, they saw paired wild eyes. Five bright-coloured patches. The guy was there. The man in the pied shirt. The dude from the patio, from the party. Essin hadn’t seen him since they’d last glanced at him getting sucked off but somehow he’d arrived.
His hand was around his dick. He squatted like a troll, frantically masturbating in the undergrowth, confusion twisting his face.
It’d been hot in the crowd but now Essin felt like a small bird trying to loose itself from a tar pit.
Laura stood. She was drunk and on wobbling legs. Essin was sure, certain that she was going to leave them there, go with him, suck his dick, collapse in his bed with him. It was a certainty as sure as the sun would rise tomorrow. They would never see her again.
She screamed. She fucking howled. It wasn’t terror but hate, hate that seemed half-genetic, a pure evolutionary bloodthirst against all its host’s enemies. She looked fifteen times bigger than Essin knew she was. Her biceps bulged, it seemed as though her hair rose on its ends like a cats’.
What’s the opposite of a mask? Something you wear under your face, or that wears your face, itself representing nothing. A skull?
And her voice when she spoke was hissed and cool and thin like a scentless, gaseous poison seeped from some unseen underground fissure.
“You fucking shit,” she spat, “You know what it’s like to be stalked by a fucking piece of shit like you?” She stepped towards him, cackling, “I hope you die, and that it takes a long time, a long, long time, and that something in your brain fucks up so when it hurts it will feel like it hurts for fucking ever!” He edged back. His fist stopped churning and Essin might have been hallucinating but it seemed his wang went limp in seconds.
He struggled to do up his pants.
Her voice echoed: “You dumb motherfucker. You fuck right off and die.”
His pants slipped down. Essin heard the man trip and fall in the sticks and litter.
Then she was on him. She kicked. She howled. He made no sound. He tried to stand but she kept kicking him over. Drunk as she was, her blows were quick and sharp and would not be deflected. When he at least stumbled up, his pants still cuffed an ankle and he shuffle-ran as his pale, hairy ass vanished in the dark.
“I hope some fucking monster is waiting for you out there,” she called after him.
Not vicious now, but the voice of someone calling farewell when parting with a group of friends.
Gentle leaves prickled above. Lacie stilled. She turned to Essin, teeth flashing in the dark. She marched back to the clearing and fell on them. Tongues on each other, spit and beer and Lacie felt like a new species, a person unparalleled as an upland moa or tuatara.
She pulled her mouth away, set a hand on Essin’s forehead, grabbed their hair, yanked it and twisted their skull into the dirt. She pushed her fingers between their lips and teeth. They tasted salt and soil beneath her nails. Her breath rushed happily as she hooked her fingertips around to Essin’s throat.
At some point they were still lacing fingers together with Lacie’s and guiding her down the stairs to their apartment, hiding shoes in a closet corner. They were nude and soap was slick between them in the shower. They were together and sleeping, guts sick and scoured with fatigue on dampish sheets.
“It’s cold,” she said, cocooning herself in the duvet and pressing close to the person she’d snagged at that night’s happenings.
Near dawn klaxons sounded over the parking lots. Guns rattled the night and airplanes roared over suburbia, shrilling as their bombs fell on some new animal incursion from the fields. But sleep had imploded over them and the outer war couldn’t reach their bottomless and empty dreams.
And a monster was waiting for the stalker.
The coyote had changed into the new coyote that very night.
Gray literature file 8888.112/2XXX, “Formal complaint against Colonel Hudson Ashbrecht”
Complainant: Dr. Emmanuel Pendleton
* JCO Code of Conduct Violations
* Ornery behaviour in official proceedings
* Confessed use of narcotics in the course of executing duties
* Physical assault on a colleague
Comments: Col. Ashbrecht threw an ashtray at Dr. Pendleton after after it came to light that doctor believed Ashbrecht’s views were “unscientific.” The ash tray was glass and Dr. Pendleton has suffered a concussion.
Look, guys, I’ve thought long and hard on this one, and I’m not in a mood to mince words— the idea that this phenomenon reflects some kind of global sentience acting up against us is insane. Nature isn’t a thing. We made it up around the same time we plucked the forbidden fruit and it taught us how to make concrete and calculators. (I’m not being literal. A fruit didn’t do that. We did that.) And I don’t mean just conceptually either— we made the natural world what it is physically through killing things and farming things and doing the stuff we as people do by being alive. Just like all life. There isn’t a man vs. nature— that ‘Gaia hypothesis’ a bunch of musty assholes have been floating as a way to conceptualize a physical world system going into absolute revolt is so ludicrous I can’t believe we’re discussing it— in a serious conversation— with a JCO advisory board.
You’d just have to prove too many things to show that the ecosphere is somehow sentient in a way that’s separate from us to account for this phenomenon. I’m not being a stupid turn-of-the-millennium Dawkinsian cunt about this. Frankly what offends me isn’t the mother earth idiot buggery of the idea— though that is, I’ll say, extremely stupid. No, it’s the lack of sophistication. Like the only way we can think about this fucking world is ‘what if it was just like our brain but bigger?’ As if somehow our noggins are the blueprint for the universe. Fucking stupid.
Yes. The phenomenon centers around population centers. Spreads from them like cracks a bullet might make in a mirror. That doesn’t make us the target— it makes us the center. Assuming that the center is the only factor in a phenomenon is so just fucking stupid I can’t even explain it to your stupid asses. It’s like saying a hurricane’s eye is what drives the storm. Just pick up a fucking book once in a while, one that wasn’t written by some fuckwit with a management degree. Other species have caused massive ecological changes before. Tremendous ones. We wouldn’t be breathing the fucking atmosphere if they hadn’t done it before. No, no— we aren’t the victim of a planet getting revenge or cosmological antibodies attacking us or some extraterrestrial intelligence— we’re embedded in the process. A component of it. Inseparable from it.
Why are they targeting us? Please listen to what I’m saying. They aren’t.
What about the new polar bears?
Look— to get a provisional understanding— to get close to a provisional understanding— of what’s going on here, we need to get back to first principles of the study of nature. No not natural selection asshole. We had ten thousand years before that crock’s interregnum of ideological torpor. No, team, we’re talking about first principles. We’re talking about ritual.
Intoxicated? I’m high as fuck. I don’t understand how or why you insist that I need to be sober for these idiotic luncheons when if you used your fucking eyes I wouldn’t need to explain a thing to you.
What was that Pendleton? Grow a notochord and say that over your breath. I need to know what I’m working with.
DETERMINATION: No disciplinary action needed.
Notes: We kindly ask all members of staff to not waste our time with reports of Colonel Ashbrecht’s behaviour. Please be patient. His work is important and his behaviour is the product of a difficult upbringing. Thank you for your understanding.