CW: apocalypse, IRL climate apocalypse, cognitive decline, divorce, parental abandonment, totalitarianism, information suppression, paranoia, body horror, disabling injury, death, dissection, impersonation/replacement, sexual intercourse (mildly explicit), sex with power dynamic (teacher-student)
“What scares me most about the new atmosphere— and it’s already here— is the chemistry we’ve infected it with makes it harder to think. We’ve made air that literally makes you stupider. I don’t believe we can just think ourselves free of this problem but I know we won’t be able to fight it if we can’t use our f***ing heads."
-[OMITTED — KH NEPTUNE], personal interview, CBC News Hour, July 5, 2XXX
Essin’s mother discarded suburban life in the night.
For a long while before, something icy glistened in her rationed gaze. She watched the sky or rippling tree-leaves for an age muttering about unseen roving wind-carved geographies— but looked at Essin so rarely that even as a child they couldn’t have told you, with certainty, the colour of her eyes.
One five AM Essin woke sleep-numb from easy dreams to the downstairs door thumping softly shut, then suitcase wheels rattling down the driveway to a waiting taxi. Neither parent granted the divorce bureaucratic legitimacy— they weren’t interested in wasting time with legal grappling as they detached from each other’s lives.
Perhaps in moments caught by sudden recollection, Essin wondered what wedge split their parents. They’d loved each other enough to bring about Essin’s life, but not enough to collaborate on it. Neither offered explanation and it never occurred to Essin that this was something a child might want.
What arrived sharp, when they remembered, was their mother’s tobacco slipping under their bedroom door on the nights she was up until the sun broke in the study, clattering on the keyboard.
Back then Essin often slipped from school. During the jostling return from recess, they hid in bushes or behind a hill-crest until it was safe to bolt. Sometimes they’d just sit on empty park swings and watch babysitters herd tottering children, and sometimes they’d drift around the neighbourhood, follow breezes, find shortcuts, crouch by ant-hills to watch the ants’ chaotic engineering. Hooky high-schoolers adopted them some afternoons: they’d give Essin cigarettes, buy them a freezie, ask them lewd questions and laugh at their answers. When nobody claimed them, Essin spent afternoons sitting on ridges or in fields, watching the sky. And now and then they went home.
The walkway stones were dyed algal green, the garden overrun by luxuriating weeds. Their mother sat on the porch on her lawn chair, sunlight-freckled through a swaying dogwood. She wore her tracksuit pyjamas, her ratty baby-blue slippers set on the rough straw doormat like chew toys crusted with slobber from a geriatric dog. Big glasses goggled her face, and she held her body in crosses, arms crossed, legs crossed, toes crossing and uncrossing while she monitored the progress of the clouds. Her fingers gently scissored a shrinking cigarette, the other hand wetted by the condensation on her gin and tonic. A dead leaf clung to her shirt. Her thin neck seemed to impossibly support her giant head at an awkward angle.
Many heartbeats passed after she had to have heard Essin coming up the path. When she did look at them it was like she had to assemble who she was seeing, and after recognizing them her gaze returned to the sky.
“Oh," she said, rubbing her left eye with a knuckle, “It’s you. What’s up?"
Essin looked up to try to see what she was seeing.
A crow overhead plucked dry laughter from the air.
“Nothing much," said Essin.
“What day is it today?" she asked.
“Fuck," she said, “I was hoping it was Thursday. Tuesday? Seriously?"
Essin nodded. She set down her g’n’t, removed her glasses, thoroughly rubbed her eyes with her wrists. Her brass watch had migrated halfway down her forearm, and faced in. She blinked at it.
“Is school out early today?"
She puffed her cigarette. Glanced around the weed-infested garden— clovers and thistles carpeted the soil. Digger wasps were widening their holes with tiny stones— she’d shown Essin once, pointing it out, Even insects use tools.
“Where’s your bag?"
She nodded, flicked the butt hissing into a coffee-can half filled with filthy rainwater and pulsing young mosquitos.
“Let me brush my teeth, and we’ll go get your bag."
In the car, she lit another cigarette and rolled down the window before backing out the driveway. At red lights she half-heartedly neatened her frazzled hair with a pinkie.
“Did you have lunch?"
Essin shook their head.
“Wanna go to Tim’s?"
“Sure," they said.
She took them to the neighbourhood’s edge. One day the bulldozers would arrive and churn the cornfields and in that churning attract grey gulls who’d fall in the backhoes’ wakes on the unearthed grubs and from this excavation would come condominiums and plaster boxes where orthodontists would correct the god-given configuration of children’s teeth and suburban entrepreneurs would quest after that zombie state America’s delusions by opening cafes that specialized in one hybrid pastry or another— each new constructed layer hunching in on the last as if everything had a need to face away from the outer lands, their woods and marshes, the farmer’s fields with their rippling soybean crops that painted the miles between this city and its satellites. For a few years more, corn would rise through the summer and turn gold in the fall, so high and close to the road that crosses populated the ditches, marking where cyclists and motorists had sacrificed life for speedy transit.
Essin looked out across the mud fields, where lingering elms and ashes marked farmland edges. They were young enough that the passenger side still felt new. The soil and its corn as distant as the moon, and like the moon visited only by specialists in special rovers.
Essin ordered a bagel, sesame seed with cold cuts, and a chocolate milk. Their mother, a wrap and an iced capp. They turned back to the fields to go to the school, but partway out she cocked her ears and pulled over to the gravel margin.
“You hear that?" she said.
Essin looked at her, gripping the paper bag that held their sandwich.
She popped the car door, stepped out. They leaned against the side of the car, faced the brown fields. Trucks and vans rushed past them, but at that time they didn’t go through so often and wind had time to gutter to silence.
“Listen," said their mother.
She set her drink on the car roof and droplets pearled its side. She lit a third cigarette and smoke rags whipped around her cheeks.
And Essin heard the frogs.
They were unseen— in the meadows? The ditches? Perched on leaves or leaping in puddles? It was day, and they were peeping and whooping and bellowing, amid the crickets and cicadas, loud throats across and over the still-brown-turning-green— their song thick as glass encasing all points from there to all horizons.
Essin tasted the sweetness of the bread, the crunching lettuce and bland tomato. They looked down to the ditch, which was an opaque murk. But here and there where its water touched the slope up to the field, its gray surface rippled in rings and squinting Essin saw two dark eye-beads, a snout pressing the meniscus.
Their mother sipped her drink. When she finished her cigarette, she flicked it into the ditch where it hissed. A truck roared and filled the air with a smell like pungent, fresh-cut wood: its back was laden with logs and emerald ash-borers sprayed from its side. Essin, half-conscious of the act, brushed one from their hand.
They listened to the frogs while the sun tilted down to the land.
After Essin fetched their bag from its cubby, the vice principal talked to their mother. They sat in a waiting area in front of a busy secretary. Though the women looked completely different, their mother and the VP, the scene of them through the glass to that room reminded Essin of a betta fish in a pet store vexed by its own reflection.
When they went back home their mother told Essin to fix a snack if they got hungry. The study door swung shut with a muffled thump. Her keyboard began a steady clatter that would last until dawn. Essin spent the afternoon on the floor with a magnifying glass, trying to see dust mites in the carpet. They thought about the frogs. Life clambering and invisible that filled the world with sound. Animals improbably abundant, laid in a clear gel, that lived one life, then lived another.
Throughout the years after she left they sometimes went on sprees, watching interviews with her, until they realized it was probably bad for their mental health and stopped. The last they heard from her, their mother was on the west coast studying a phenomena where something corroded the structural integrity of a starfish’s core. This central weakness meant as its legs travelled after food, each leg pulled the starfish apart.
Lacie lingered through that day and night and into the next day. At some point she said don’t worry, nobody’s waiting for me and didn’t elaborate. Around four they ordered a thin and stringy roast chicken from Swiss Chalet.
Essin learned her body by daylight. She was freckled, muscular. She started mornings with pushups and yoga. Her armpit bristles smelled sweet and her sweat was cut with something like the salted Japanese plums Essin once bought having read they were a breakfast food in Japan. She dug through the laundry baskets where Essin kept their clothes and cocooned herself in their flannels, which were huge so she curled up the sleeves. They talked, and napped, and read, legs tangled. Lacie called in sick to her shifts. When Essin returned to the basement from frothing milk and stuffing blenders with syrup and ice, Lacie said she’d been, “Gnawing on books all day."
At work Essin thought about Lacie tying their hands together with a bind improvised from a pillow case. On break thinking on it the fever drove them to the bathroom to touch themself and they missed eating lunch and were quivery until their next break.
She grabbed their arm. Pulled it towards her. Licked syrup crystals from the hairs.
On Sunday when Essin got home Lacie was gone.
For three days they shook, calling in sick and burying their face in clothes that still held her smell.
Until the door knocked. Lacie stood outside, a hefty duffel bag hung from both hands.
“What?" she said. Essin studied the veins in her eyes. She wore the blue and green plaid flannel shirt they’d assumed had vanished with her. “I wanted to come into work and ask but you weren’t there."
She added her clothes to Essin’s, and wedged her few books between theirs so just from looking you couldn’t tell whose books belonged to who. She plugged her weighty, beaten-up laptop (a laptop! How’d she get a laptop?) into a jutting outlet with a cracked plastic front. On a dusty, paint-spotted radio older than either of them the CBC muttered through a static jitter. They were interviewing the Chief.
“The new," he said, “Is uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t scare us. We need to take these challenges for opportunities. Thrive on change. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable."
The broadcast transitioned to indie pop stuff laced with fiddle riffs. Lacie wrestled a basement window open with a wooden crack. Loamy air rolled in.
“When’s the last time you washed these?" she rubbed the sheets between two fingers and heat rose to Essin’s cheeks.
“Are you okay? You haven’t said a word."
They didn’t want to answer.
“I figured," said Lacie. Trailed off. “I don’t know."
The pillowy doorstops keeping Essin’s mouth shut stayed softly in position.
“We interrupt our regular broadcast for an emergency announcement from the Office of Information Control. At fifteen twenty-two today, Animal Control confirmed that cardinals were replaced late on the night of June 23rd. Studies are underway to confirm whether new cardinals present a threat to human safety."
“We’ll need to think up an origin story for us." She half-whispered. Essin felt a need to say something but couldn’t place where— “Hey, come here. Are you mad? I thought you’d be happy. Wait, were you worried? I said I wanted to keep you."
Essin sat on the bed next to her. She set a hand around their hip and nudged up their black pajama t-shirt where it worked free at their hips. They worried about how much they smelled like someone who worked at Starbucks who hadn’t showered since their shift three days ago.
“I was thinking," she said.
“Recreation Control urges that the public avoid wooded areas until the danger level is established and Animal Control applies population demolition solutions."
“What about," she said, “What about if we went to elementary school together? Isn’t that romantic."
When it broke they weren’t sure why.
“Middle school," Essin said.
“No idea," Essin scrabbled to grip some fading mental image. “It feels accurate though."
She looked up and scrutinized the ceiling. Footsteps thumped on wood from the landlord’s boots. The same radio broadcast echoed tinny through the dry silver ducts from elsewhere in the house.
“And we met again at your work and started catching up," she continued.
“Yeah," they said.
“We didn’t fuck in front of strangers in a landfill."
Fingers on their neck, nail brushing cheek-down. They really did smell.
“We remind our listeners to report any new animal sightings. The Joint Control Office cannot protect the public without your help. Do not attempt to fight any hostile new animals on your own. You will die. Animal Control thanks you for your cooperation."
Lacie leaned over and set her tongue on a dot of mocha syrup on Essin’s knuckle.
A lawnmower motor bellowed with ludicrous mechanical volume outside.
All Essin’s tender arsenal detonated at once.
And they plunged into July.
They expected sensation to fade but it instead struck with mounting force: when they watched Lacie immersed in a book or when she tied them up in the boiler room for the night and they rested happy mapping and memorizing the hairline fractures in the concrete floor or when she picked the last bits of food off her plate and wiped the grease from her fingers on her pants or when her hair was disheveled as a drunken robin’s nest and then with a few hand movements was crisp as a master folder’s origami toad.
She had them leap the backyard fence by climbing up on the compost bin (flies stirring blind in the night) to suck on joints on the path behind the house. Watch the road. The yellow moon like a cleanly-cut crescent from a thumb shaved by a deli slicer.
It was occasional at first, something that surfaced like a seal girdled in white surf that disappeared before you knew for certain what you’d seen.
“I read the other day that they’re still looking into the change mechanism," she said. “Though like, we’re not supposed to know it’s unknown and just assume that it’s too technical for us to understand, you know." Essin didn’t know. “Don’t repeat that in public."
She sometimes alluded to a mysterious editor friend who’d been subject to an accidental weapons discharge during a control action by IC. Unease wormed near Essin’s bones. “So everyone’s kind of panicky."
It was clear that Lacie didn’t like the government, but when the government started giving classes on new animals she insisted that they go together. Partly, she said, she wanted to expose Essin to this facet of the world which (if they were being honest) they hadn’t paid attention to and seemed about as real to them as magic crystals or reality TV shows where tacky ladies help ghosts pick their daughter’s wedding dresses.
She brought them to class at the Sportsplex. She carried a dollar-store notebook and a gnawed mechanical pencil with the clip missing. They went to a grey, windowless room off the lobby. The presenter half-heartedly cleared her throat, then launched into a speech:
“This course is part of series provided by Information Control on recent natural phenomena. As such, it is approved by Information Control using only the best information available to the National Research Council. All information learned at this session is to be considered authoritative. The content of these sessions is government property and should not be discussed with people not attending Information Control-sanctioned public education programs. Anyone sharing information learned in these classes agrees that, by learning this information, they have voluntarily accepted any legal repercussions caused by their own unauthorized dissemination of that information. Information Control may periodically provide you with false information for the purposes of gathering data." She sighed, smiled in a meek way that didn’t touch the bland expression from her nose up. “The Joint Control Office: Control is in Our Name!"
While she talked, Essin scouted out the people in the room: A hippy type spangled in cheap, handmade, vaguely-ethnic jewelry and a shifty pale guy in a black t-shirt that read: “All The Happinesses Are Blossom In Love" with katakana under it and near the front a wizened lesbian couple with clipboards, wearing t-shirts given out to people who volunteer with NGOs. Beside them sat a middle-aged guy, wedged uncomfortably onto the chairs in a sports polo with a buzz-cut who looked like in his prime he could have torn the axels off an eighteen-wheeler, glancing anxiously at the group around him between pretending to pay attention to his iPad, which even though it was an antique must’ve cost a mint in import fees alone.
And as the presenter fiddled with the portable projector that they clearly hadn’t practiced with, Essin caught someone sitting among the others who’d slipped through their first noticing.
It was cloying hot outside and air conditioning in this part of the building was weak and yet she wore long sleeves. She was maybe twenty-three, no twenty-six? But weathered. Thirty? Thirty five? Behind her pimples and her rat tail she had this subtle air like she lived in the woods on a house that roved on bird legs, and soared by moonlight in a flying mortar and pestle. She’d seated herself (deliberately, Essin was sure) in a reach near the middle-back that never get called on. Essin’d used the same trick to slip through high school. It was a disguise, they knew, from the half-defiant way her eyebrows twitched when the video started.
It began with the bright acoustic alternating chord garbage that plays when infomercial narrators rattle off the devastating side effects of boner pills, lively as an electrocuted cadaver. The video was followed by interviews with people wearing inoffensive, semi-professional clothes, representing major ethnic demographics, introducing themselves and telling their stories about the new animals and their new animal journeys. New animals touched their lives and they prospered. Economic boons rose from the new animals: skins and secretions for refining petroleum, hormones and serums for pharmaceuticals, glands and pigments for cosmetics, new animal jobs bursting in industry, agriculture, research, and control.
Giddiness flooded Essin but when they looked to Lacie she had an expression like she was being reduced to a cube by a trash compactor. At intermission she grabbed their hand as they rose to talk to the strange woman in long sleeves.
“Golden," an interviewee was saying as the presenter struggled to pause the video, “We have a golden opportunity, an opportunity to make a golden future from these new animals. All we have to do is seize it!"
The two stood in an abandoned nook for half-empty snack machines. Lacie breathed. The machines hummed. Her throat bobbed as she fought something down. Gold is the buzz-word, Essin thought. They leaned to where she was veiled by her hair and tried to look into Lacie’s half-watering eyes. She glanced up. “I’m fine."
The Chief streamed his pressers on the gibber and spoke on the radio.
“Gold horizons, folks. Horizons of new animals. Beasts of new industry, of the new world we’re all making here. Jobs and economic growth, right here folks, in this country. The people before me sent the jobs away. Well, since Sunny Sunday, we know that was the wrong call. What happens if the sun shines again like it did that Sunday? More debt, that’s what. More needing to rely on foreign aid to get the economy jumping. But animals can’t be killed off so easy by the sun. That’s the ticket. Our journey’s just beginning. All aboard!"
The Chief loved scrums and seemed to almost get off on having mics shoved in his face. He didn’t have a single bad angle. Rallies had been the millennium’s political fad so far, but instead he stood outside parliament every day and met with people face to face, a redundant security detail leaning on the parliamentary parapets. Assurance trickled from his mouth.
“Me and all the other world leaders have been talking about this. We can’t allow the natural world to force us from the course. This is a challenge, and like all challenges, it is really just an opportunity, a golden opportunity, to create growth and support our nation’s families. To that end, we have some of the best brains on Earth working around the clock to make our journey a fruitful one."
Smooth as a lake on a stagnant August day, sheathed in the comforting exoskeleton of a yokel uncle with a deep wisdom about money. Something mediocre in its goals and unimaginative in its vision for the world that had mastered the art of pursuing beige dreams with the conviction reserved for zealots.
A tiny moving picture of the man on a lap top screen chatting to bushels of microphones cracked Lacie’s cool. She fell on the bed as if bit by a snake and pressed the balls of her palms to her sockets. She yelled.
And gulped air for protracted screaming into pillows.
A pause in the clink and patter of the landlord’s cooking upstairs said he’d heard it.
“He could be telling the truth," Essin said.
“No," she said, “No he can’t."
The Chief let off a zinger and a spray of chuckles sounded from the press brigade.
“Look!" she said, pointing to the laptop, “There isn’t a drop of sweat on him! How can people be so cool? The world is fucking ending!"
Upstairs the stove fan roared on. Their landlord’s slippers peeled from the kitchen’s linoleum tiles.
Essin looked at the screen, news coverage switching to a panel of pasty, smiling commentators. Looked back at Lacie.
She wore one shirt every week when she was at home, changing into it when she got back from work. That week’s was white, collar and armpits stained a faint grey. Essin didn’t understand what it was about this, the stains she left on her clothes, like the callouses where the tender ankle met her foot-soles, that made them shudder. Nausea touched them when they realized they were fixed on these details and not what she was saying. They pillowed their head on her stomach. Her voice box crackled through her guts like frogs croaking over fields, the long low rhythm of her lungs like the high wind over late spring stubble, the gurgle in her gut not in truth like anything but closeness to another person.
“They don’t know shit," she muttered, “If they do know shit, they’re lying. The people who definitely know shit are terrified to talk about it. Fuck."
With their head against her stomach, Essin felt like they must have a telepathic connection that would make up for how little they listened, and they thought they saw the shapes in her mind that were so like the billowing dark venomous bells of jellyfish in the sea. They thought about it and then did it, slipping their fingers into her shirt. Their tips dipped gently towards her belly button, lingered on a big mole they had seen many times but hadn’t jotted down in memory until just then.
The Chief rolled on with his presser while she wriggled to their circling fingers.
“We’ve got plans, folks. Yes they are ambitious, but I’ve never been a person to step down from ambition. We need to watch out for cargo-culting ourselves. When things get new, we get new. Yes folks, prosperity. Gold, we’re talking. These are golden times for us, a golden age, if we keep our heads screwed on right. Stay the course. Stick with the Chief, stick with the right guy to lead you on your journey."
Yet Lacie insisted on going back to the government class the following week. What else can she do? was the extent of Essin’s feelings and they were just happy to be with her even though each class cost enough to cover both their groceries for a week.
She’d snagged them in the intermission between classes by the snack machines. Essin’s Baba Yaga. At her wrist they saw the vertex of something that could be mistaken for a mole but was a tattoo peeking out from the gap between her watch and cuff.
“I’m Lacie. This is my partner."
“Essin," said Essin.
“Pretty dull classes, eh?"
“They aren’t telling us anything," said Lacie.
“I know, right? But I keep coming."
“Knowing something is better than knowing nothing at all," said Lacie.
“That isn’t strictly true," said Amelia. “If you have no information and you’re just assessing what’s going on you’ll often react better than if you’ve internalized the wrong information. ‘Knowing stuff’," she threw up scare quotes with her fingers, “Takes up space that should be dedicated to using your head."
“Yeah I guess you’re right," Lacie said.
“That said," she lead them outside, cigarette over her ear, and hit a crossbar with her butt. They stepped out into the smell of parking lot minerals in summer and her rattail flew on the dry wind. “The best thing to have is the truth."
“For sure," said Lacie.
For a moment Amelia said nothing. She pulled her cigarette from over her ear and took it in the corner of her mouth. Dusk crept over the neighbourhood, and a few stray magenta-stained clouds marbled a corner of the sky. She fished a lighter from her pockets.
“If you’re interested, we’d love if you could join us this Sunday," and pulled out a half-crushed leaflet as well, passed it to Lacie. Like a Mormon thing, with airbrushed humans, bright-clothed, playing and embracing in short-grass pastures with bears and sheep and deer. Something was off. Essin squinted. The animals were wrong. The deer on the cover wasn’t a regular deer, but a new deer, pink petal antlers sipping from a holy sun. The bear had a human face. The sheep, at least, were normal.
Her grey smoke dispersed on the summer air.
“Think about it."
Essin woke the next morning with a guttering feeling, like they were the fire on a Dollarama scented candle toyed with by a winter draught. To say it was “dawning" was to discredit the beauty of the dawn and to say it was “falling" was to discredit the thrill in the fall. No, it was like someone had freed starving minks into a kettle barn where the chickens are fat, de-beaked, and bow-legged. New animals spun in their mind, rumours and pictures and stories stinging the canthus, like dry mucus flecks on a day when you haven’t washed your face.
They recalled a story about a kid mauled by a tornado of whirling mandibles (the new wolverine), and sitting at Andrew Hayden park for a work picnic, looking out at the river seeing chitinous insectoid yachts (the new water strider), and hadn’t they been online at the library and scrolling and seen blurred images taken from the inner sanctum of a chittering maze (the new jackal)? When had work started demanding they burst into their own store with guns and check closets for creatures?
And from the tops of the green hills at the dog park, or spotted squinting through the haze as they stood at the neighbourhood’s edge on a walk after work: the lumbering two-legged wooden titans amid the distant trees, the engines assembled by new beavers. Animal Control helicopter spraying their backs with firebombs, and even though Essin could hear the chitter and screech of the new beavers on the wind, the smoke off the wicker colossi’s writhing back seemed no stranger to them at the time than a fallow field’s controlled late-summer burn.
It had been background racket, sirens and birdsongs and traffic. Classes were useless but Amelia had catalyzed something. Like when they’d been taught the differences between flies and bees and suddenly recognized half the garden creatures they thought might sting them were mimics. Before, they’d drifted through the new animals like they’d drifted through the Exxeon Fossil Gallery at the Museum of Nature, eyes hooked on the petrified shells and whorls, beings that luxuriated in time before death cradled them in rock palms and all their complexity became flat traces smeared on shale eucharists.
Lacie had become laconic. She was stiff when they nuzzled her and her fucks were mechanical. She spent hours immersed in her beat-up old laptop typing and when Essin asked what she was doing, she said, “Working on something." She finished dinner quick and went back to the bed and her laptop while Essin worked the dish pile. They weren’t sure what her silence meant and the feeling they’d stumbled left serpents writhing in their gut, sharpening whenever they saw it: the church leaflet Amelia had given them. It had grown more crinkles, its folds white and frayed, corners warped from thumb-sweat.
In that vertiginous moment Essin pressed their face to the down of Lacie’s neck, heard a distant mouth that might have been theirs mutter the phrase, I’m so scared, a voice so choked that it became nothing but each S striking the letter next to it.
It amazed them that such slight sounds, heard by the right person, were enough.
A half voice answered back, “We should go to church."
“That lady. Amelia. Her church. We should go. They have Bible classes."
Essin said, “Bible classes?"
Lacie said, “Don’t worry about it. The minister is a man named Charles Darling. He’s a zoologist."
Lacie said they had to hold hands, “So it looks like we’re just out for a walk."
Since meeting at the landfill they didn’t often touch each other in public. Essin was concerned about the significance of this but was more worried about bringing it up. It was nice, for a while, to feel like fifteen-year-olds or those elderly couples they sometimes saw walking hand-in-hand to their coffee.
They left the newer developments, heading for the neighbourhood’s decrepit center.
The trees were broad-trunked, tall, and dying. Ferns and saplings burst from rotting detritus accumulated in eavestroughs. As a kid drifting through the neighborhood they’d called this quarter Moss Land: grey lichens spotted lamp-post cement, green mosses spread like comforters across rooftop shingles, lawns a weedy green fur shaded by stout but structurally-dubious trees, bark bearded and hoary. Above it all crisscrossed power lines, cell phone towers, and satellite dishes, black wires garnished with dangling sneakers or white bird shit flecks. Stale water, puddled in random bins or driveway potholes, was ubiquitous. Black-winged damselflies gathered around it, feasting on midges.
Tricycles and secondhand play structures presided over sandbox shovels and dollar-store balls all sun-bleached on one side, but since it was supper time, all the children were indoors or in the backyards where their parents fanned seared meat smells through the streets.
Lacie led them down to a cul-de-sac to a house whose empty driveway was littered with white petals the shape and size of printed commas.
With the nail of her index finger, she tapped a pattern on the white, rust-freckled door. Essin’s palms leaked enough sweat to saturate a sponge. They didn’t know why.
That’s a lie.
She wore an Exxeon Fossil Gallery tyrannosaurus skeleton tee over a grey long-sleeved shirt. They glanced at her forearms.
Her shirt had been neatly rolled to her elbows. Essin’s eyes skipped across rings, watch, bracelets, scars that gestured to some rough shit gone by. Tattooed sleeves swept up from her wrist, across her forearm, past the elbow, disappeared in her shirt where, Essin had no doubt, colors swept over her entire body. It was a tessellation. Like those prints by that geometry-obsessed artist they’d seen in the National Gallery on a school trip. Interlocking yet distinct creatures Essin didn’t recognize. At first they assumed they were extraterrestrials, since they had distended brains rendered whorl by whorl with the most delicate jabs of a tattooist’s needles.
“New ants," said Amelia.
Just then they caught with a horrible bottoming feeling that they’d stared at the tattoos longer than was socially acceptable.
“Oh, sorry, sorry."
“It’s fine. Good you could come." But didn’t step out of the way. Lacie glanced at Essin and then back to the woman in the door. “Church is cancelled this week, unfortunately."
“Um… I read the ad in your pamphlet."
“Ad?" she said, “What kind of ad?"
“It took me a few hours to read it."
(Lacie later mentioned that it was written in a baroque, multi-stage cipher.)
“Good," Amelia nodded. “Come in. Lock the door behind you."
The blinds were drawn. The lights were off. The group padded up a short hall. A door gently brushed over clean carpet and Amelia gestured down to a basement where soft light glowed.
An old gigantic tube TV sat on a dark wood cabinet, its blank blue screen staring at the room. By that eery blue and one dim floor lamp, a handful of people sat with their legs half-crossed on a cheap rundown rug half-covering concrete. Essin tried to scout out who else was in the room and saw their class had been transposed: the hippy type spangled in cheap, handmade, vaguely-ethnic jewelry and the pasty guy wearing a shirt that read “Happy Happy Spongey Spongey," with katakana referencing some gibber toon and the old lesbian couple with their NGO shirts and the hulking middle-aged body builder. There was a new kid who couldn’t have been a day older than fifteen.
Nobody greeted each other or acknowledged their mutual recognition. No notebooks or clipboards. The older guy didn’t have his iPad.
“Dump your shit and any writing materials you brought there," she gestured to a side table where bags had been piled.
Amelia slid over to where a baroque assembly of adapters tethered an archaic beige PC to the television, tapped a few keys to bring up the first slide of her Powerpoint and stood in front of the group.
She spoke without hesitations, pauses, or clearing her throat. Her words flowed from her diaphragm so her voice carried clear to the back.
“Hello," she said, “Welcome. My name is Amelia. I’m not certified by the government or any institute of higher learning, but I studied under some of the biggest names in underground zoology— Rondelle, Thrush, Javier, Terry, and, of course, the esteemed Charles Darling. My area of expertise is new ants. I’ve collaborated on over forty underground papers on new ant physiology, behaviour, and religion. In the course of my experience I have suffered clinical brain death on eight occasions. Above my qualifications as a neo-myrmecological psychopomp, I know how to survive new animals. That’s all you need to know about me. Time for ground rules.
“Don’t leave early. If you try, there will be consequences.
“Don’t write anything down. Not even after you leave. Listen and remember. Information control can steal your notebooks, but all their brain scanners can read is childhood fears and things that make you horny. They use those to make you think they can extract anything from your brain, but if you stick to your guns it won’t do much good in a knowledge audit.
“Our location changes every week. You’ll be given detailed directions at the end of every class. Memorize them. Share them with nobody. If you share them, expect consequences. This means that you don’t miss class. If you miss even one, you’ll never find us again.
“The fee is five dollars per class, payable at the start of class, every class. Otherwise, expect consequences. All proceeds go to feeding me and funding Darling’s research into new animals.
“There will be no handouts. You must find your own texts during the week. These are Charles Darling’s Friendly Field Guides and finding them is your sole homework assignment. The underground press stashes them around town. I can’t offer you any tips or hints on where to find them because that’s information I don’t have. Use your heads.
“Don’t ask to see Charles Darling. If you ever end up seeing Charles, it means you’ve ended up in a scientifically-interesting situation. Scientifically-interesting typically means fatal. If you are in a situation you believe may be of scientific interest, you may call the Darling hotline. I’m going to show you this number with my hands now. Memorize it.
“If you have an emergency, or see a new species of new animal, or have any pertinent Animal Control activity to report, dial this number. Don’t worry if Information Control has your house bugged, the number goes through a new muskrat we’ve secured in high orbit. You may hear voices. These aren’t recordings, but you should disregard them, since they won’t respond to you. Say as much as you can about the situation. Hang up when you’re done. Don’t call again about the situation. Darling will show up or he won’t. Be prepared to manage on your own.
“Don’t share this number with anyone. We will find out if you do. Expect consequences.
“Yes? This isn’t kindergarten. If you have a question just spit it out."
The scraggeldy fifteen-year-old dropped his hand. “Is it ok if I ask what smells like smoke?"
“Yes, and what do you think smells like smoke?"
“I don’t see ashtrays anywhere. Is the oven on?"
“The oven isn’t on."
“Is that a question?"
“I was about to say something nice. Fine." Amelia was standing in front the cabinet supporting the TV. She balled a fist and thumped on a door and it sprang open. Tension hit the room like dust fanning from a city-crushing titan’s footstep. People leaped for the stairs.
“Remember what I said about leaving early!" she barked.
It was new. A new. Essin wasn’t sure what and it seemed clear that nobody could tell and they didn’t calm even when they saw that it was penned up in a hamster cage on a pile of shattered crockery. Something like an emulsified salamander if each bubble was an amber eye and somebody had repeatedly stretched its skin out on a board with nails. Sooty smoke issued steadily from cysts along its spine.
“Calm down," said Amelia, like someone wrangling children who’d just seen a hornet. “If you’re safe when you’re learning, you aren’t learning shit. Even so, this guy can’t get out from this cage. He’s mesmerized by horizontal lines, see?" Essin looked. It hadn’t moved and was bristling in terror at the bars. Its padded toes shook where they clutched its potsherd bed. “We Darlings use a system of provisional classification for when we don’t know what something’s originating species is. Animal Control uses the same system. They stole it from Darling when somebody broke class rules. We name these animals after the names people gave animals back when we thought the Earth was both flat and the center of the universe. We’re calling this fella and his ilk the prester. Does anyone know what a prester was purported to do back when books were made by flaying fields of cows? Any takers? No? Okay. It does this."
She thumped the other cupboard door. It creaked open.
What fell from it reminded Essin of papers spilling from an overfilled locker until they saw a shape like a gnarled fingernail. It was a gnarled finger nail, and it was connected to a thumb that was connected to something like if a human body underwent the process by which wasps turn dead wood into paper nests. The corpse flaked. It bounced politely on the concrete floor and dissolved a bit down the middle.
“Bathroom’s that way if you want to puke. If you can’t deal with this, though, you aren’t going to be able to take what’s coming." The group stayed pinned to their seats. Amelia rummaged through her pockets until she found a blue cigarette packet. She pulled out a dart, probed it between the cage bars until it touched the prester’s skin. It caught. She dragged and silver smoke joined the prester’s scenting the room.
The ninth-grader put up his hand.
“Put up your hand one more time and I’m using you for science," said Amelia, flicking ashes onto the tissue-paper corpse.
“All good," said Amelia. “But you’ll want to make sure you adapt quickly. What’s up?"
“I told you. Somebody took notes. Not only that, but somebody passed those notes along to our colleagues in Information Control. And in spite of receiving my good advice on multiple occasions," she coughed, something phlegmy stuck to the ribs. “Somebody didn’t expect consequences."
She drew out the cage. The class shuddered. “If you just fuck up, nobody will kill you, but Darlings don’t take kindly to snitches. Okay, so today we’re going to be looking at the prester, how to avoid them, and how to treat their contact venom before it can do that to you. That being complete exsanguination. Soon as the venom hits your system your blood becomes an extension of the prester. Right now our best research indicates that this is part of its reproductive cycle. If anyone sees a blood chrysalis around, give me a shout— it used to belong to this guy and I’m researching prester imagos. Once they’ve touched you, you’re going to want to draw a cold bath and get yourself a lot of milk. Like, we’re talking multiple big jugs."
Essin’s nails scrambled to gain purchase on the brick that pulled with a gritty shuffle from the corner store’s back wall. Inside a brass Buddha quietly presided over a heaped nickel congregation. The alley smelled strongly of pizzeria back room and garbage juice and the gravel was greasy behind the decrepit plaza. Lacie fished a dime from her pocket and set it in front of the Buddha and pulled out the folded field guide between two fingers. She opened it immediately. Essin’s head darted to either end of the mall and then up at the rooftops over the hedge behind it but they didn’t see either a new starling or anyone who might be an IC auditor, though it occurred to them that they might be monitored through some aperture under a window too small to see.
“It’s about Presters," Lacie said.
“That was fast."
“They still don’t know what it is. Listen to this:
“Presters: Standing theory is that they’re a new snake, but God only knows what they were. My money’s on a new tarantula, something that arrived in a crate of plantains. You can see these mothers, zipping around like blazing pinballs. They never stop going, just keep moving, thundering around, quick as can be, steam frothing from the corners of their mouths. Unless you’ve caged the thing. Horizontal lines, friend, they can’t make heads or tails of horizontal lines and are libidinously pulled to piles of shattered pottery so they’re easy enough to trap in hamster cages. You don’t even need to close the cage door! They won’t run out. Too petrified. Don’t let them touch you though. That contact venom’s ugly as hell."
They were on their way out to a bridge over a ravine at the neighbourhood’s edge and on their way down the couple stepped over piled human turds and a cat skeletonized by something that left its bones perfectly assembled. Amelia swung over the group like a dark moon in a clearing. While waiting for the class to assemble the hippy was flashing fistfuls of jellybeans at her then hiding them again. “Eighteen!" she shouted. They counted and the palm had, indeed, held eighteen jellybeans. “New bulldog ants. Your prize for surviving the sting is that you get good at sorting and numbers. Despite the continent’s reputation, Australian new animals have so far been relatively benign."
If she was happy, it did not show in smiles. Essin felt as though were they to see her smile they’d be faced with a grin composed of fish-hooks. Attending class made them feel adventurous. They couldn’t shake the feeling you get when you wander off the trail in a forest, and too late you catch sight of a faded orange fluorescent PRIVATE PROPERTY sign and you have no idea how far you’ve drifted onto that property. For a moment blessed with illicit presence. Though in a sense their freedom was illegitimate, they held it being out of place. Lacie’s taciturn period ended. She glowed again. Found new and subtle punishments for Essin. And they learned.
They learned the steps to dodge amphisboenas, which if you fucked it up, would instead induce the amphisboena to copulate with your sternum. They learned to improvise new hummingbird veils fast enough to prevent the new birds’ phasing through you and scrambling your organs. They learned to detect a new rabbit variety #3 ambush from the way leaves around the new rabbits flipped to show their pale bottoms like they did before a rainstorm.
And they found another batch of guides under a rock in the forest behind the sportsplex, a gray lump with pink rose quartz exposed to the air. Lacie secreted it a pocket she’d sewn between her pants and legs and read it to Essin in the basement:
“The old pet trade’s going to fuck us all! Can you even picture the diaspora the new will have? No chaos like maximum chaos. Anyhoo, the fanged new leopard geckos have only recently escaped from breeder terrariums. Their perfume causes the brain to invert perspective, so corners that seemed close are actually far away, and vice versa. They exploit the confusion this causes to attack the veins in your ankles (when they’re charging you it’ll look like they’re fleeing) where they’ll attach themselves like leeches and then try to extrude themselves under your skin. This is benign but the resulting exposure to the new gecko perfume causes a permanent inversion of perspective. It’s pretty nifty if you’re trying to throw someone off. I keep a jar in my backpack to keep the fuzz off my tail."
Essin wasn’t sure why but Lacie’s readings made the basement feel like a woodland. They expected to hear tumbling leaves and smell electric autumn petrichor through wood living and decayed. As their eyes wavered shut at sleep’s edge imagination expanded over wet-warped paperbacks, dated electronics, mildewy scrap lumber. Lacie fucked them in the half-finished bathroom in the corner with its tiny shower stall. They were crammed with the landlord’s junk, and all the old brown things Essin had been able to afford at the Sally Anne. They tacked their pages of doodles from the government classes to the boxes, squirreled snacks in old furniture, hung their clothes from curtains on pipes and wires and strings so that you had to part your way through shirts and jeans and underwear to reach the bed. Lacie liked to leave the window open and now and then cats hopped into the window well to mewl and press their toes to the screen.
In the early morning when their ears were near the wall, the landlord’s somnambulant diatribes pulled Essin from sleep. He launched into lengthy trenchant arguments with the people in his head, but sometimes he shouted like he’d shout at an unruly pet, “Get off of that! Stop it! Shoo! Shoo!" He patrolled the house, his journey logged in creaks and thumps on the overhead floor until shouting didn’t work and he threw plates and cups and beer bottles, screeching.
“He should buy plastic plates," Lacie said.
They were late to class.
Amelia’s knife hit the lintel over their head hard enough to embed the blade to the hilt. She’d occupied a half-constructed house in a new development at the suburb’s fringe. It smelled very strongly like a hardware store.
“Be on time!" she said, “New rule."
Lacie yanked the knife from the wood and passed it to Amelia before finding her seat. Amelia grasped the handle with the lightness and gentle dexterity a paintbrush felt in the hands of a Dutch master. She passed out papers and jars holding new aphids. The class began its practicum drawing new aphid colophons. They tipped the pinky-big lard-colored lumps onto their pages and began frantically scribbling. Amelia stalked the class, checking peoples’ work.
“We covered this last week. There’s only one thing you have to do. What’s the one thing?"
“Remember," said the kid.
“Do you want be sucked into a new aphid singularity?"
“Then stop fucking around and use your fucking heads. Don’t forget your stroke order! It needs to be precise."
Their new aphid was sniffing Essin’s sheet where the ink bled across the pulp. The sharpie quaked, trembled in their fingers. They watched the new insect. It was split with a narrow hip down the middle like a dumb-bell and its eyes were unreadable glittering flakes. A pore opened in its side and a branching tongue flowed onto Essin’s lines. They dwelled on Darling: The new aphid feeds by sudden and explosive matter integration. They briefly become a singularity. Now I’m not a new physicist, but I do know having a black hole erupt in your face will turn you to noodles and I’ve never met a person in my life who could survive being turned into noodles.
The old body builder’s breath was heaving and sweat pooled in the wrinkles on his brow.
“No. Like this." Amelia spoke gently, leaned over his shoulder, took his sharpie, “You’re writing. Not drawing. Right to left. Bottom to top. Don’t think of it like a picture, think of it like a letter." She rose, kept patrolling.
New aphids are intensely covetous of certain asymbolic patterns we deduced by trial and error. Well, we think it has symbolic significance to new aphids, but in any case these colophons, drawn in any medium, on any surface, as long as they are legible, will—
“Wait—" Amelia turned to the old guy, “No, you were supposed to continue, not replicate! Get a fresh sheet, quick and—"
He looked up, eyes the eyes of someone who has done nothing wrong but hears someone yelling in the distance and isn’t sure if they’ve yelled his name or just a name that sounds like his when yelled from far away.
The room roared. Silver light blanked all alternative perception. And ended.
“Keep writing!" Amelia yelled, “And remember what you’re told in class! Christ." The old body builder thrashed on the floor like his bones were chained to fifteen trucks driving in fifteen directions. From his right shoulder to his hand the arm had been turned to vermicelli. It was pink near the mulched bone and grayish-blackish precipitate where the long threads fanned around the new aphid. His face magenta and he winced so hard a front tooth chipped with an audible snap, the fragment striking a wall and skittering along the floor to land on Essin’s sheet.
Amelia stood over him. Her hand was clapped to her face, thumb brushing the thin fuzz on her upper lip as she pondered.
After a while she loosed a sigh and lowered her hand.
“Well," she said, “This is what we in the biz call an information hazard."
His eyes were open and glassy and seemed to wrestle with what she said as though they couldn’t make heads or tails of fundamental sense. She clucked, sucked air through her teeth.
“Guys," she said, “You need to be careful, ok?" And kneeled by his side, yanking off her own shirts and knotting them into pillows under his head. The tattoos did spread over her body, a full tessellation of the power-brained new ants, and even swept down and vanished under her belt’s meridian. She didn’t have a bra on. Her stomach tats gave way for huge scars on her gut Essin thought were like forested fault lines where you might find a frog species that exists nowhere else on Earth.
“All right. Now typically I’d just say we’ll find a place to dump you near some new aphids where somebody will find you but as everyone has just witnessed their singularities are difficult to miss. That’s the kind of detail Information Control always catches. So good news is you aren’t going to die in an IC closet, bad news is we’re going to have to scramble your arm again." She fished around in her pocket, pulled out a fat pink pill pinched between two fingers. He struggled up on his free elbow to open his mouth while she offered the lozenge. “You’ll have to dry swallow this, but it’ll make the pain go away." She pressed it into his mouth, then abruptly clapped her hand on his chin, holding it shut. He spasmed. Struggled to open his mouth. His noodles flailed and he went bug eyed, then limp. His eyes still fixed on the ceiling. She closed them.
She looked over her class. The stares.
“Oh don’t worry. He’s still alive," she said. “Lucky guy. If his chest had been half a foot closer the new aphid would’ve spaghettified his whole torso. But his memory will be completely glitched out." With a few quick strokes on the page she pacified his new aphid and re-jarred it. And then returned to doing her rounds, inspecting the class’s colophons.
She stooped over Essin to flick away the tooth chip. “You’re lucky too. This stroke’s in the wrong place. Your guy seems mostly curious about it."
She checked Lacie’s. “Good form. Don’t fuck it up."
Charles Darling’s Friendly Field Guides took no specific genre: some were broadsides, some were just newsletters, sometimes they were written in photocopied pages from kids’ books with letters blotted out. Some delivery jockeys had the chutzpah to stick them under windshield wipers or tuck them behind ads for chakra workshops on the community bulletin boards at fast food restaurants, which is where Essin often found theirs.
The hunt for homework materials drove Lacie and Essin outside the house, alone or together as their shifts allowed. They walked. The summer skies fermented to sludgy thunderstorms that lashed the city with slimy winds. Hats blew away, torrential rain tumbled pebbles down sloping driveways. Their shoes soaked. They sweated through clothes in incredible heat. This lasted for weeks, then passed as July at last bellied out into August. In the early evening the neighbourhood parents and retirees sat with beers and cigarettes on their lawn chairs and porch rockers, chatting, smiling, supervising children that biked and ran up and down the streets firing toy guns and swinging nerf swords and forcing each other’s faces into the lawn under the low-hung clouds painted pink and green by the lurid sunset. Adults rested their hands on rifles and flame-throwers, heads twitching alert when an unexpected silence rippled through the rhythm of the hissing leaves or pulsing garden insects. Very nervous parents never took their eyes from the clouds, because the peach-pink and mauve sky of early sunset was the perfect camouflage for new cardinals, a lesson the neighbourhood had learned from a rash of vanishing backyard dogs.
Gunshots as the sky grew dark testified to distant violence. Adults ordered their kids inside. Animal Control emerged from its fortplexes. Amelia had said those things stretched underground like termitaries, that the reason you never saw anyone go in or out was they used hidden exits and entrances in a vast network that spread under the whole city: the mycelium— a word sometimes heard shaking on the wind near where—
The controllers appeared. They stood at the corners, in the parking lots, walking leisurely in pairs or small groups down clotted streets, clad in heavy boots, black armour, and rubber kilts, toting high-calibre hollow-core-bullet spitting rifles repurposed from foreign wars. As the last children retreated indoors and blinds snapped shut against the dying light, now and then Controllers stopped to wave.
Essin thought a lot about their hideous masks—
It hurt to dwell on. And they touched the thought. It reminded them of. And. Just after. In middle school.
—silver and shaped to anatomically-exact human skulls. Each was moulded from steel that Animal Controllers etched with a running tally of their kills. Swiveling multi-lensed electric goggles jutted from their sockets like a chameleon’s roving eyes. Each dusk cued their nightly Halloween. The dark hours belonged to them, like in the past it belonged to ghosts and wolves and criminals.
As their field work ended Lacie and Essin snuck over to the narrow patch of ragged forest where they’d spent their first night together. Essin remembered the year before, gathering in this place with covens of other high schoolers to whisper over weed and mickeys. Lacie pulled them down below the nettles in the gully by the football field. She put her hand on their neck and her fingers in their mouth and afterwards they’d slept outside until morning. Essin hoped to wake up with mosquito bites. They’d itch, reminding them of the night as they ground out drive thru orders.
Lacie put itching cream on her bites while Essin dressed for Starbucks.
And a night arrived when as Essin brushed against dreaming Animal Controllers came crashing through the bushes.
At least a dozen stood over them. By a faint yellow light cast from the backyards nearest to the woods, each tooth on each mask gleamed. They spoke in one voice, robotically garbled, pitched high and low, interspersed with clicks and whistles, sentence swapping back and forth between speakers as though they represented some cyberpunk bullshit version of an old Greek chorus:
“Six zero seven. Notified."
“How old are you?"
“Eight zero four one curfew violation investigation in effect."
“Owl Pellet six zero six one five investigation confirmed."
“We asked how old are you kids?"
“We have three new raccoons at two hundred meters and closing."
“Cephalon confirms. Commence reinforcement after curfew violation investigation is concluded."
“Please confirm your age?"
“Sixteen," Lacie said. Amelia had said controllers went easier on minors when the kid asked about the penalties he’d face if caught going to class.
“Owl Pellet six zero six one five. Minors."
“De-escalating. Reprioritizing. Reinforcement imminent."
“You kids using protection?"
Amelia said their mask’s sophisticated lenses could easily see through flesh on higher settings. It seemed to Essin as though the controllers watched their innards, secret hormones and enzymes rushing from one place to another beneath their skins.
The class debated names. They weren’t allowed to use their real names and Amelia was opposed but caved, eventually, on the condition that everyone only used code names. The old gay couple went by Gris and May.
Amelia warned, “If those names have any poetic significance or personal references to you IC will have no trouble sniffing it out and you can expect consequences if they do."
“It doesn’t mean anything," Gris said. “Just names we liked."
“Good. All right—"
They were quiet but diligent, they didn’t have too many questions but May was skilled and Gris somehow stayed more or less cheerful even up to her elbows in a new boar’s squirming guts or when Amelia was waving around a human skull studded with new ladybug polyps explaining the new bugs’ baroque reproductive cycle.
Then one day Gris walked in. Her face was gray, bags sagged under her eyes and she smelled like clothes that have been worn nonstop for a week. May walked in after. And something walked in after them: furred, a pair of pink, bulging eyes huge as those goldfish so fancy their eyes often popped when scraped against aquarium walls. They were fixed on May and as soon as she settled down the gremlin began probing and sniffing around her thigh and attempting to scramble up her body, attempts she batted away with a limp hand the gnome dodged without much trouble. She was dead-eyed and vexed.
“Ah, class," Amelia said, striding over to them, “Today’s plan was to talk about new newts— and are they something— but it looks like an object lesson just walked into class. This here is a new groundhog. If one of these mothers makes eye contact with you— which they will try very hard to do— it’s too late to help. You’re bound. There’s nothing you can do. It will follow you forever. Until it dies or you die, the new groundhog will spend all its energies trying always and as hard as it can to breath directly on your face.
“As far as we’ve been able to tell, the new groundhog feeds on the discomfort caused by its creepiness. You become bound by looking it in the eye. Even if you look at the eyes in a photograph or a video, if the groundhog isn’t bound to someone already, it will find you and stare at you with these swollen, unblinking walleyes, and breathe on your face whenever it can. You’ll note that they universally have a severe case of halitosis— come here. Don’t worry, it’s bound to May. Give it a good whiff— like garbage juice in a heatwave. See, there’s an incentive to pay attention in class if ever there was one.
“You’ll note the new groundhog never blinks. It never looks away. It will always find a way to be in the same room that you are. It can squeeze through any crack. Your door might be closed and locked, the window might be shut and the blinds drawn, you might be on a cruise ship or an airplane or on the International Space Station or seven miles underground in a concrete bunker behind twelve code-locked titanium doors guarded by explosive landmines, but the new groundhog will figure out a way to be there, as close to you as possible, staring at you, breathing in your mouth."
She waved her hand between it and May and the new groundhog manoeuvred frantic around Amelia’s fingers to keep staring.
“They don’t sleep. They don’t get tired. And whatever you do, don’t kill this creepy bastard. Go to therapy, cover your eyes, get used to that smell. But. Do. Not. Kill. It. That’s most of what you need to know. You can find a more detailed guide to their physiology and the really fascinating microfauna in their gizzard responsible for that reeking breath in Darling’s field guides. Now—"
And they returned to class, glancing now and then at the new groundhog, which found a perch on May’s shoulder as soon as she gave up and was breathing onto her cheek.
The next class Gris walked in, even more exhausted, and May lurched in after. Thirteen new groundhogs came scrambling in a parade behind them, fighting one another for the best vantage point from which to watch May.
“Oh for Christ," said Amelia. “You killed it, didn’t you?"
“I didn’t mean to," said Gris, “I thought I’d just hit it with a golf club. Just injure it."
“Why did you kill it? I told you not to kill it. You need to listen to what I say."
One class was set in a storage unit in a warehouse downtown and Essin was cutting open a new rabbit’s microwave organ with a paring knife. They had a sudden, ultra-vivid sensory memory of the reeking formaldehyde they’d smelled dissecting foetal pigs in high school, of the perfume of the girl in their group who wanted to be a nurse and how they felt vaguely horny for the muscular twink who was a dancer. They’d cut out the unborn pig’s testicles, unwound and measured the intestines, held its jellied brains with their latex gloves. Essin compared what they found then to the New Animal components arranged in ways that were unrecognizable in relation to anatomy as they understood it. Many had mechanical components and organs that resembled computer chips, complete with fine conducting ribbons and capacitors. Other structures were regular geometrical solids— the new damselfly family had silicon icosahedrons buried in their spinal lattice.
What nudged Essin’s thoughts, the thing that pierced all other perplexity, was that Amelia began discussing the edibility of new animals.
She started butchery courses. The knife she used for dissection and intimidation became a knife used for disassembling new animals and pointing to which parts they could eat.
“If you swallow bits of a new animal willy-nilly, it’ll eat through you like a hot coal through ice. But there are a few organs or muscle groups or tissues that aren’t so corrosive, and if you’re really in doubt, the marrow is almost always safe. Almost."
(Curled up on the bed while galaxies filled their eyes again. In those moments they saw their knowledge swirling— the fucked-up illogical guts of the news, colophons and veils, cloying formaldehyde, purple fascia and paring knives embedded in basement drywall, those tattooed arms so like a carny’s that somehow kept all that juggled knowledge airborne. Typhoons struck the museum in Essin’s skull. Why eat new animals?)
Amelia had brought half a dozen plastic grocery bags full of pill bottles and gave them to everyone. They were all labelled as antidepressants. “We’ll be starting your supplements. The changes will in part be physiological but you can expect to see psychological side-effects as well."
The pills caused cramps. Essin puked the first three nights. After a while the pills made them shit these blue and pink jelly marbles that left the toilet smelling like rosewater. At work Essin ran to and from the washroom so often that their boss sent them home early.
And then the dream. It was a single dream, Essin and Lacie both had it:
You approach a campfire in the woods. It’s surrounded by chimera-people, amalgamations of all the different lovers you’ve had and all the people you’ve wanted to love but haven’t and even sometimes people you ogled from afar, drawn from throughout your whole life. A person with many arms and legs, men with breasts and extra eyes growing form their scalp, usually one or two people with genitalia instead of faces. They were telling stories to each other, and they invited you to listen, because the stories were about you. They weren’t fabliaux, though. They were epics. Your odysseys and iliads, amazing stories about your acts in life. You spent the entire dream listening to these stories, a chimaera periodically rising to feed a log to the blaze. Attempts to interject or ask questions were shushed. And though you listened closely, and though on waking you could recollect how the stories felt, the dreams’ details melted with the morning, leaving only sensations, like a vacation in a distant childhood. You only knew that, for a time, back then, you went to a different place.
The dream struck eight or nine times in a week. It was infuriating. Essin tried to jot down what they heard in the dimness with a notebook they left open, to try to pin its poetry, but their pen hovered over the grid paper and never made a mark.
“What about the new coyote?" it was the kid, he’d put his hand up at the class’s end.
“The new what?"
“Coyote," he said. “I was doing some research and I heard— well, like, is it true?"
“It is," said Amelia.
“About the mazes too?" he said.
“I’d rather not discuss it."
“So it is true?"
“We aren’t discussing this further. I’ve been there and I don’t want to talk about it. Just avoid the shit out of them."
Yetis swamped the Muskokas and massacred tourists. The yeti became a quick favourite among the new animal stan community, there were stuffed animals and t-shirts, and Animal Control had a new classification prepared, a new division ready to roll out, until someone shot a yeti and it turned out the creatures were just ordinary flesh chameleons that had fed on albino gorillas.
In a malt factory abandoned for sixty years the basement still stank like yeast. Light from studio lamps hooked up to a generator glowed on decrepit walls. Amelia explained the flesh chameleon thing. She had a juvenile in a bottle, tiny springs and gristle gears pulsing beneath milky and translucent skin. It slipped its palps over a chicken nugget and chewed it in its crablike mouth. Within a few minutes the chameleon had become something like a toddler’s plasticine approximation of a chicken.
“Give it another hour and this thing will be indistinguishable from the real deal, an actual chicken." The class looked doubtful— it had too many legs and wattles were proliferating on its neck. Amelia watched it lovingly.
Then Amelia entered the room, carrying a crowbar. “Motherfucker."
“What the fuck?" said Amelia, backing away. “Hey, class, she’s—" But the second Amelia bellowed with berserker fury and ran across the room with the crowbar raised and brought it down, her whole body swinging to plunge the wedge into the first Amelia’s skull with thwaps like a hammer landing in a cantaloupe. Where the first Amelia’s body broke, springs and gristle gears dribbled out along with yellowish transparent blood.
Amelia stood, panting, over the ruined other Amelia.
“Okay, class. So— Wait, just a sec," she wiped her brow, discarded the crowbar with a metallic clatter on the concrete floor, and pawed through the murdered mimic’s clothes, muttering, “Motherfucking lighter swiping fucker— ah ha!" Pulled out a cigarette and struggled with the lighter she’d found in her duplicate’s pocket for a while before it caught. She leaned against the wall. Smoke oozed from her lungs. “This is what happens when a flesh chameleon gets a hold of a human toenail. They are, indeed, clever enough to lock you in a closet, as it turns out. Who knew? Well, we aren’t entirely clear on how they pick up your behaviours and mannerisms and everything you know, but hey. They do. Lucky us, they don’t have an agenda other than usual animal stuff, mating, eating, surviving, but there’s no telling how many people are actually flesh chameleons. Funny thing with this guy is that they’re a sub-variety of new leopard frogs. Go figure."
She flicked her butt onto the dead fake Amelia. Spat.
“Look, most people are in denial about this stuff— and I don’t mean the new animal truthers. Just write them off. You won’t convince them of shit. A new animal is not like an animal. It’s not a pest or a spectacle or a kettle-farmed meat container. You can’t just throw it out, you can’t just call the exterminators. Animal Control is an oxymoron. The new grizzly bear could reduce the most bloodthirsty Blackwater babyfucker to a weeping child with its gift of atonement. A new walrus could generate a glacier through its relentless, snowy resolve. The new grasshopper builds six-story stone cairns on any darkish surface it encounters and might well make highway travel impossible. Sure, we have bombs, we have industrial slaughterhouses, bulldozers, backhoes, greenhouse-gas-gushing foundries, guns, chemical spills, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, harpoons, poaching, introduced species, and dynamite. But we don’t control the animals. We can’t control the animals. We’ll never control the animals. You must overcome your disbelief.
“Do you know what disbelief is? It’s you. You are disbelief, that thing you’re all holding near the core of yourself, that still thinks you’re walking home in the same neighbourhood, that the sky is the same sky, that those birds on the lines are the same birds just reskinned to look weird and some other bastard than yourself is going to be the one who gets their brain ossified by a new woodpecker. Listen: we adapt or we dinosaur. We do it now, or we’ll never get the chance. Humans are total fucking shit at convincing themselves to believe in looming, distant facts, unless, that is, they know they’ll be saved. Then it becomes all you think about. The only way for you to believe is for you to know that you can save yourselves from whatever comes next."
Another prop had stood behind her on the folding table next to the flesh chameleon’s jar that night. A terrarium, dirt bottom just visible through the glass, a yellow towel over top of it. A faint scurrying sound, like chinchillas taking dust baths, came from inside.
“Professor Darling’s lessons," she continued,"Are like nature itself. The facts may offend any notion of sense you had about the world but there’s a reality at its core you have to accept. What you know already is your enemy when it comes to things like this. Some of you might be thinking by now that this is a scam, or a ponzi scheme. After all, what have you learned? How to cut a few things open. Which bits are edible if you boil them for a day and a half. A couple survival tricks that you know in your heart of hearts won’t save you from what’s coming. You’re skeptical. I hope you’re skeptical. It would be stupid not to be. The stuff you’ve prepared to find and eat are the least toxic parts of the animals. You’ll be able to eat them for years without the animal killing you. It’s possible that your body will adapt entirely, especially if you keep taking your supplements." At this point, she set a hand on the terrarium, tapping the cloth with her fingers. “A few of you will have skipped ahead and had the thought, ‘Well, if we can’t eat the new animals, why don’t we just go vegetarian?’"
At which point she tore the towel from the terrarium.
The thing inside was like a thistle. Twitching prickly parts like stick insect legs sifted through a sandy substrate. A flower-- it gave the impression of an eye if an eye were pressed into the shape of a rose— swiveled at its peak to look at the class.
“What’s this?" she said.
There was silence.
“A new plant?" said the kid.
“Bingo. Its leaves are coated in cnidocytes— that’s jellyfish stingers for those of you who’ve been slouching on your field guides. Brush a leaf, and it’ll launch needles right through your skin. You’ll drop whatever you’re doing to start humming lullabies to it. Enough of a dose, and that’s all you’ll do. You won’t eat. You won’t drink. You won’t sleep. You won’t get up to go to the bathroom. If you’re lucky, someone will rescue you, but even if that happens, the withdrawal symptoms result in a permanent condition similar to late-stage Parkinson’s."
Essin felt a pin in their neck. They swallowed. They nudged their hand towards Lacie’s but didn’t move it further when her finger didn’t shift.
“What kind of new is it?" said Lacie.
“It’s a dandelion," said Amelia, “A new dandelion. Lucky us— a genetically-modified subspecies existing on only one Monsanto experimental farm in the United Dakotas Special Economic Zone. It hasn’t spread to all kinds of dandelions. Word is, new potatoes, new tomatoes, and new plantains have appeared on the heirloom farms. We don’t know much now, and we won’t know much for a bit, but aside from any abilities they might have, new plant flesh is as toxic to humans as the flesh of new animals. Sometimes more."
She stretched her arms up. Stretched her neck from one side to the other and back. “I really wanted to continue classes you know. Even though you’re a bunch of fuck-ups, you’re doing okay enough to maybe not die when the time comes. That said, I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut your education short. Use your heads, and you’ll be fine."
“What?" said Gris.
She’d been showing up alone to classes for weeks.
“I just said to use your fucking head," said Amelia. When it was clear nobody understood, she sighed. “My doppelgänger wasn’t as fastidiously stealthy when sneaking through the neighbourhood as I am. We’re busted."
Machines whined on distant doors upstairs. Sparks crackled as saws shrieked on steel.
“I’m going to buy everyone some time," Amelia fished some kerosene from her bag, lifted the lid from the terrarium and doused the new dandelion. She pulled out a matchbook. Lit a match. Dropped it on the bug-plant-thing which scrambled and tried to uproot itself to get away from the fire.
“What about you?"
“What about me? Head out that way and make sure you disperse fast once you’re outside. They’re just after me and the plant but they’ll take any of you if they can. If you get nabbed, well. Expect consequences."
The new dandelion was scrabbling up its terrarium walls, but couldn’t find purchase. Its little claws slipped. It fell weaker as fire chewed its leaves. Boots thumped on the half-rotten wooden steps down to the factory basement. Amelia grinned and grit her teeth.
“Run, fuckwits!" she shouted.
And the group was running, filing up the steps she’d indicated. But Essin was last and they looked back and saw her.
She peeled off her shirt and stripped off her pants and she stood nude as a snake in a fresh skin. The new ant tattoos ran straight down to her ankles, wrapped a buttock, covered every part of her from the neck down but her hands.
And the tattoos opened. Their edges peeled up as though each was a scale yanked away by some rough wind. And Essin saw they weren’t just tattoos. They were hatches, flush with the skin, and as each flapped up insects flooded out— huge-brained, winged, tottering, a writhing swarm that dripped from her body so she became dressed in incredible, stinging sand: her new ants a robe spreading across the floor.
“Pretty cool, right?" she shouted to Essin. “Last lesson for the road. Symbiosis trumps predation. Now get the fuck out of here."
Rams thumped on a far door. It opened with a bang. Animal Controllers drove in, guns up, swarm rising to meet them and them swatting away and shooting their guns with terrific booms into the new ants that flooded the basement, as the new dandelion squealed and smoke and new insects swaddled the room in unanimous writhing gray.
In their last year in high school insomnia captured Essin’s nights. It usurped good sleep with whirling thoughts and because such fears were new to them, they hadn’t given them a name, hooked them to reality, and speculated while unsure how to cope with the products of their own speculations. One thought erupted from the others: What if somebody were to dream forever?
They didn’t mean this as a playground philosopher’s, “What is real?" question that leads to teenagers rediscovering solipsism. They meant something more like, if someone made the conscious decision to dream forever, would they be morally culpable?
And the question came back when their classes ended. The malt factory burned. Its black smoke soared over the neighbourhood, bellowing from holes in the concrete walls and collapsing what was left of its corrugated roofs. Amelia was gone and with it their path to knowing how to live through tomorrow.
Would humanity be culpable if they all gave up to dream at the same time, if it would get the species out of a mess like that? It wasn’t inconceivable. Everyone could all escape, and in the time between when they started dreaming and when they starved to death they could lead something strange and short, something intense and perfect, without the numbing dullnesses, fear’s long laudanum.
Would that be wrong?
Would that be the wrong thing to do?
Would it be wrong to the people who loved you?
Would it be wrong to the planet that brought you into being?
Could they have asked their mother this question, and if she understood it, how would she have answered?
A few classes earlier they’d gone over new June bug riddles which could be used to shepherd the neobeetles, which projected screens of darkness and as such were practical for hiding from Controllers.
“Stay after class." Amelia said, as she was ripping parts from a computer and running a silver pill-shaped magnet over the chips to scramble the class materials. She’d explained it was used originally to fish metal from cow guts. “You two."
She gestured to Essin and Lacie with the magnet.
The classroom had emptied— and it was a class room that week. Amelia’d broken into a half-abandoned technical high school that had become a whatever center when the neighbourhood’s young population had faded. It yawned. Its halls were huge, empty, gray. When the room cleared Amelia said, “Do you two remember Sunny Sunday?"
“Not clearly," said Lacie, sitting up on a desk. “A teacher came into our class to let everyone know why their phones wouldn’t work. I think that was the last time I had a cell phone. The TV wasn’t working when I got home. They had to wheel in white boards to do the teaching for the rest of the year and we learned math and shit from the terrible drawings all the teachers made. It was like they’d never held a pen before."
“I thought," Amelia looked up to the tiled particle board ceiling that Essin had spent their school years glancing up at and seeing patterns in (though they never saw patterns in the clouds): faces, wild dogs, grinning lizards. “I thought of it like a lash from the sun, punishing us for our dependence on its light."
“Yeah," said Lacie, “It’d make sense to see it that way."
“The sky itself was a hostile thing," she said, “I remember coming home and people still looked forward to cloudy days and rain. They just felt more comfortable and predictable. But it’s stupid, like children hoping to hide from monsters under blankets, as though blankets could deter monster talons. I still prefer rainy days."
“Yeah," Lacie’s voice was breathy, shrinking, “I remember that too."
“Everything we’d been told was our important accomplishments for a century was wiped away by solar dynamite."
“We didn’t even have radios for like three months."
“I thought it was four."
She was done smiting reason from the computer’s guts. It was an outrageous thing to do, kill an old computer. Perhaps that’s why she thought of it. She put down her magnet. When she crossed the room it was with strides, the strange interdependence of her schlubby appearance, her zits, trashy haircut, and requine efficiency jolted something in Essin’s groin. A confidence uncut by geeky goofiness submerged all spiking doubts.
Amelia set her hand on Lacie’s cheek.
Lacie’s breath sounded audible though Essin stood halfway across the room. Her tongue touched the teacher’s index finger where it rested by her lower lip and Amelia gently twisted her hand to slip index middle ring between Lacie’s teeth. Her neck crooked back. Eyes almost closed save for whites still clear in lower crescents. Vowels vaguely meandered from inside her.
Amelia’s kiss was forceful. Essin had slumped on the floor and watched with their hands limp on either side of their thighs at first then knotting quickly in their clothes. Fingers frantic. Kneading. Lacie was supported entirely it seemed by Amelia’s pressing against her. When she drew back from her kisses (lip trailing for a moment pinched in Amelia’s teeth) she seemed to scrutinize Lacie’s face like a lepidopterist manipulating a flayed moth on a slide to get a better angle at its organs. Lacie was clawing her shirt. Amelia sunk a thumb into her throat and she pulled up at the tee with the layered long sleeved shirt underneath and their teacher shucked her top entirely.
The tattoo glowed. Its rigid tessellation like a detailed leaf-bed, its regimented creatures shuddering with the movement of the muscles underneath them. Essin smiled. The word blessing repeated like this: blessing blessing blessing blessing blessing in their skull in a way that hopped and looped like insects darning the air over a meadow’s tall clovers.
They saw in the half-dark room the fluorescents clarified where a new ant tile was punctured by a mole on Amelia’s back and where their lines were squashed by Lacie trying to put as much breast into her mouth as possible. Nothing seemed lost about Amelia. No words or moans or whispers came from her. She hooked a hand down into Lacie’s pants and worked there for a while, and after a while undid her belt— the tattoos ranged down her buttock, tessellation spreading down thighs and wreathing a cock that bent just slightly to the side— and fucked Lacie on the desk while her fingers clawed at the pied back: spine, ribs, skin-sheathed scapula all shifting the colors under them while Essin’s hands fell still.
They were walking home. Night had fallen and with it rose cricket song from suburbia— chittering summer bats swam through the humid night. Lacie slipped a hand into Essin’s butt cheek pocket.
“You really liked that didn’t you?"
Essin grinned. They knew it was big and uncontrollable and felt a touched embarrassed but also realized they didn’t need to.
“She was weird. She just sort of stopped around when I’d had too much. Like, I don’t know if that was about her or about me."
Four gunshots sounded far off, then five, then machine gun rattle.
“New pillbug? Do you think?"
“Waxing gibbous," said Essin, pointing up to the moon where it leaned pale on the balmy summer night. “They’ll all be underground."
“Ah," Lacie said. “You’re right."
“It’s probably people," said Essin.
“Shit," said Lacie. And stopped to listen to the wind. But no more gunshots followed. “Do you want to stop at the corner store for ice dream?"
“Yeah," said Essin. “That’s a good idea."