First the radio in the kitchen (turned down so not to bug Clat) went from music to a horrifying robot-scream, followed immediately after by what sounded like a garbage truck exploding somewhere outside. The lights flickered off then and, standing open-mouthed in the new dim and quiet, Lori looked up from buttering a piece of toast to see the grey dawn-light already in the windows, spilling out across the floor. She saw that it was morning and that, once again, she’d been up all night making toast.
“Clat?” she called, waited listening for any more of whatever she’d just heard, the sound of Clat’s regular, unceasing work from behind his shut door the only response, the only sound since there weren’t even birds yet. Lori went to the window and scanned the field behind the house in the direction the sound had come from, narrowed her eyes at what she saw out there. “Be right back, Clat!” she said, and headed out.
The waist-deep grass behind the development dewed as she marched through it: Lori, a just-tamed stray, short and slim and wound up tight as a knot that no one would ever undo, her jaundiced eyes unblinking as she crossed the field from the development to the wall of the dike. Slowing then stopping still some ways back from it, she looked fiercely at the thing, rose up on her toes puzzling it, divided by her meth-head’s twinned instinct to either eradicate or submit to any authority in her sphere of awareness.
“Cop?” she asked it, loudly, checked wary all around her. “Are you a cop? You have to tell me if you are.”
Something had crashed into the dike, a ship. Lori could see that it was obviously some kind of ship. That, or a plane or a flying submarine or something else she’d never seen before. Long and wide as a school bus, black and shiny with no visible corners, the thing stood half-impaled into both the dike and the ground where the grass thinned to gravel at its base. Cracks in the mossy cement already spiderwebbed out around it, from which three or four faucet-leaks wept water down its smooth, black fuselage.
Lori stared at it all until she felt the air about her grow strangely heavy. A huge shadow covered her then and, looking up, she saw three enormous black helicopters pass directly above her, the pale grass falling beneath them as they flew side-by-side in eerie silence, not an oak-tree’s height above Lori’s head. She watched them pass low over the field, the dike, and the river, then continue on east toward the mountains, and was troubled watching them as they seemed to her too big, their blades to spin too slow to remain so aloft, suggesting to Lori that maybe they weren’t even helicopters at all but enormous, black flying beasts. She wondered who they were and how they flew so quietly, wondered what the crashed thing was in front of her, where it came from and what it meant. She eyed the cracks in the cement and wondered if the dike would now give soon, if the field would flood and the houses go, with she and Clat still down here and Clat’s work still incomplete. She wondered how long they had, watching the helicopters sail mysterious through the silence of the morning, wondering until, her flying beasts nearly gone, a noise from within the ship suddenly refocused her attention there.
Squinting into the dark of the thing, into its black, light-sucking hull, she saw what she now realized might actually be some kind of window or cockpit carapace, a compartment beneath glass so dark and thick that it at first had only appeared to be continuous with the rest of the thing. And in that place—there!—dimly but unmistakably, Lori’s already racing heart skipped as a single panicked grey hand slapped palm-out from inside the glass, causing her to leap back onto the balls of her feet, tensed and ready, instinctively raising the only weapon she then possessed. Never mind that it was just a butter knife from the kitchen, or that a half-buttered piece of toast still hung stale and congealing by her side in her other hand.
“—But I don’t think it’s cops either,” she told Clat, called to him as she rifled drawers and cabinets in the kitchen. Nothing was where she remembered putting it; nothing was anywhere, in fact, the drawers and cabinets all empty, those that opened at all and weren’t just cheap particle board panels nailed up to deceive her. She flipped the wall switch checking for power, opened cabinets, more drawers, flipped the switch again just in case. “Least not like any cops I ever seen,” she said.
Other than a few items—the toaster, the clock radio, her pipe and lighter and cigarettes—the kitchen was empty, she realized, empty and still dark as a cave but for the windows’ soft light. Then she remembered the half-dozen other identical empty kitchens that had preceded this one, that this wasn’t their house at all and that, in fact, they had no house. She remembered that she and Clat had actually been squatting this cul-de-sac for two weeks now, this never-sold development of homes built in the lowlands along the river south of town, staying just as long in each as it took Clat to strip it, Clat working tirelessly, devouring each house from the inside out.
She gave up on the drawers and began to search the walls, still talking to him, appraised fixtures, gripped the chrome sink spout but then frowned, not finding what she needed. Clat’s zippo scraped, lighting something behind the door, and she smelled solder. She pushed the bread around, frustrated, pushed two loaves right off the counter.
“I thought it could be your brother, actually, if you want to know the truth. That old thing with the money?” she said, leaning against the counter. “I don’t know how it could be him, but I thought of that.”
The sound of metal straining, giving way, muttered cursing. Clat was a workaholic, always had been, always would be. He could do an entire house in two days, plumbing, wiring, everything. Unsleeping, unthinking, unquenchable, he was more like fire or weather than a person. But he did like toast. So Lori had toted the entirety of her domesticity with them, her toaster and radio, with her few other cherished things from house to house, happy to toast bread for Clat whenever she could since, even before that morning, power had always flowed to the development at only sketchy intervals. And Clat wasn’t someone liable to sit and listen to you explain that the electricity was turned off, how a toaster worked; he wanted his toast when he wanted it. So, given the means, she’d happily toasted for him all night, toasting and buttering as long as the power had stayed on, happy just to sing quietly with the radio as she worked to replace two of the four loaves of 7-11 white-bread she’d bought with knotted-off bags of still-cooling, buttered toast, bags now curling on the dusty kitchen floor, clear plastic fogging and warm as living things. Clat didn’t understand things like toast running out, the finitude of toast or electricity or cigarettes or drugs, would not suffer to acknowledge the tendency of all things toward running out, toward nothing (even of Clat, eventually, probably, though it made her nervous just to think it). The whole idea ran contrary to his nature, a nature that Lori was relieved, grateful even, to serve and devote herself to, as it was in her own nature to do, the ecstasy of devotion near the only salve she’d ever known in her whole life, about fifty years, and all that time exactly as manic and relentless and distant to her as Clat. She would have been unable to devote herself to less.
“Even if we don’t hear from those helicopters again,” she said, “that dike is gonna be a problem. We’re in a bad place if it goes, never mind whatever that . . . that thing . . .”
Staring at first only idly out the window, Lori realized she’d already been looking right at the very thing she’d been searching for all this time, remembered leaving it there now, in fact, stuck in the chopping block two driveways down after using it to cut wood for a bathtub fire.
“Anyway,” she said, watching it as she rose to her feet, “figure I should go check it out one more time, just make sure. You keep working, though, baby. Keep it up and don’t you miss me because I promise I’m coming right back. Might even have a little surprise with me when I do.”
The axe, stolen from a Walmart, had been a real pain to sneak out. It was too big for someone as short as Lori, more than half her height, but she’d managed to keep it and care for it still, to keep it sharp, as Lori, like many devotees, had grown up hard, spent her cold seasons chopping firewood in country as wild as this place once had been, and so she understood that, when it came to axes, sharpness was the only thing that mattered.
Noah, Bryce, and Derik had also been up all night. They’d started off the previous evening playing video games at Noah’s house until his dad had got off work around midnight, at which point they’d fled to cruise empty Commercial Ave. in Noah’s rig, passing a blunt and shaking the empty storefront glass with stereo bass. They drove around until, bored, Noah finally decided what they should really do was go to Derik’s mom’s place and pick up Derik’s ninja sword.
“First of all, there’s no ‘ninja sword,’ okay? It’s for samurais.” said Derik.
“Oh yeah, hey, Derik,” Noah said, “how are your samurai lessons coming, man?”
“Yeah, fag,” said Bryce, turned full around to face Derik, “you get your samurai lessons off the internet like you get your ninja sword?”
“Ha ha, I don’t need samurai lessons to chop your dick off, Bryce!”
Fishtailing through another empty blinking-red signal, Noah pried his warring friends apart with the centrifugal force of a u-turn, smiling as he accelerated them toward their new destination: the apartments Derik lived in with his mom and sister.
“I’m glad we’re getting this sword you guys,” said Noah, nodding reasonably as he drove, ending the debate. “Let’s just get this sword and I promise you guys, we’re gonna have a good fucking time, okay? I’ll do what it takes,” he told them, still smiling as the roar of their engine parted the town and the night around it, “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Later, cruising rich peoples’ neighborhoods in the hills above town, they tested Derik’s sword against for-sale signs, vines, branches, above-ground cables, and pretty much anything else within arm’s reach of a speeding Cherokee’s passenger window, Noah and Bryce endlessly impressed by the ease with which the sword’s blade parted every substance they tested it against: first just maple branches and two-by-fours, but then later even whole thick wooden mailbox stands, cutting through apparently everything presented with barely more complaint than a paddle pulled through water. Even as Derik had despaired at its crude abasement, smoking grumpily in the back seat, he remained unsurprised.
“See one of you fucktards try and buy a ninja sword does that,” he said. “Hey Jesus Christ Bryce, watch—”
Spurred to carelessness by Noah’s elegant (and, impressively, left-handed) run of three mailboxes in a row, Bryce snatched the sword back from him and, cocking his arm too quickly out the window, caught the flat of the blade on a passing garbage can, causing its tip to bounce up, biting a neat, three-inch gash through his sweatshirt and up the inside of his forearm.
“—Fucking motherfuckers acting like it’s a fucking toy—”
Noah skidded the truck to stop. Engine ticking, the sword had not even yet come to its clattering rest in the street behind them
“How are you not already out there, fucking running to get me my sword? My sword that you probably just ruined? I fucking knew this would happen! I knew this would fucking happen!”
Their arguing voices muffling as he’d shut the door behind him, Noah walked across the cool, quiet night to where the sword rested in the center of a street-light’s halo. The stars had peered down curious above him through holes in the low-clouded sky, clouds pink from the lights of the town below, the town and the mill especially, its lights and fire and smoke unceasing day and night.
“Just gimme it, gimme. Will you let me see my fucking katana, please!”
Hearing the ignition scrape but refuse to catch as he turned the key, Noah appeared no more bothered that his truck would not restart than he had been by Bryce’s arm. Noah turned to them, that same funny smile on his face, and said, “Well guys, looks like we go on foot from here.”
Bryce raised his arm significantly then, face pale, “No, wait, hey Noah, please, serious, what am I gonna do about this? I mean, it’s not even, aw it’s getting all over my shoes! Noah!”
Noah reached out to Bryce and, without explaining, gently worked his friend’s sweatshirt up over his head. Rather than pulling the sleeve free of the gluing wound, he worked carefully around it as Bryce watched, wincing but passive as a child, improvising the sweatshirt into a kind of sling around Bryce’s neck, then knotting the empty sleeve around his forearm in an attempt to pull the parted skin somewhat together. Bryce cursed.
“Fuck yeah it fucking hurts.” Bryce said.
Noah gave the knot one more gentle tug. “Means you’re alive.” he said, smiling, “for now . . .”
Their wounded thus attended to, the trio set out once more, abandoning the truck amidst the orange and white-lavender lights of the residential street to cut between the sleeping or empty homes, motion-sensing porch lights activating as they passed, though with decreasing frequency the deeper they traveled into the yet-to-be-developed woods of the hill’s eastern face. Hacking at random ferns and blackberries as they tripped through the woods, their going was slow until, stumbling from the dark, they fell, finally, into the overcast pre-dawn light. Noah and Derik stood pissing off the side of a root-clutched precipice looking out over the old flood-plain and the south branch of the river visible below. Bryce hacked absent-mindedly at some random, innocent thing behind them, and all flinched when, sudden as a lightning strike, a large black shape cut a line across the wrinkled grey sky and, with deafening impact, collided with the base of the dike below in the valley below.
“Whoa,” said Bryce, nearly slipping as he ran to the edge the hill to join them looking. “What the . . . whoa.”
Dicks still in hand, Derik and Noah stood stunned as the collision’s echo dissipated across the valley. They waited for its source to dissipate, to fade from their eyes as well, but the thing remained.
“Maybe . . .” Bryce said, thinking very hard, looking at it, swallowing, “Maybe we should go check it out.” And Noah and Derik both laughed (Derik was relieved to laugh) because, duh, of course that’s what they would do. What else was there to do? Once again, Noah had not even looked surprised, it seemed to Derik. His friend’s naked curiosity, in fact, glowed hot as an ember behind his eyes and he nearly left them behind, tripping excited the rest of the way down the wooded hillside and right up to the edge of the field.
There at the edge, Derik saw Noah hesitate a moment before continuing on into the open grass, just long enough to suggest that they might yet turn around, and their fate might not await them out there after all, but then, just as suddenly, he was off again, parting the knee-high grass, jogging eagerly ahead toward the wall, the morning sky full lit now and looming.
Assembled before it, at first they only stared, saying little, until Bryce once more broke the silence.
“It’s a spaceship.”
Apparently untouched since its arrival, the ship—long, shiny black, about the size of a school bus—remained firmly wedged between the earth and the section of the dike where it crashed. A few leaking streams of rank river-water sizzled and steamed as they ran down parts of the ship. Seeing this, without hesitating, Noah walked up and reached his hand out and rested it gently, as gently as he’d ministered to Bryce, upon the hull.
He smiled, exhaling with pleasure. “It’s warm,” Noah said.
“Or, actually, it doesn’t have to be a spaceship, I guess,” Bryce said, sword still dangling from his good hand. “Actually, it’s probably one of those fucking government things, you know? That’s what I bet it is. The government. If you wanna know what I think.”
“Hmmm, yes, very interesting, Dr. Shithead,” said Derik. “Please tell us more about these things you . . . ‘think.’”
“Hey, fuck you, Derik! Why don’t you ever just fucking—”
His hand still flat against the ship, Noah’s expression lit up suddenly, sensing something. Excited, he placed his other hand beside the first, focusing, feeling to make sure. And indeed there it was, emanating from somewhere deep inside, a tremor or movement, regular but distant, like a pulse or the vibrating of tracks before an approaching train. Between his focus there and the noise Bryce and Derik made arguing, Noah did not seem to see right away the approaching woman, not even after his friends had seen her, had stopped fighting, worried, silent watched her progress toward them across the field.
“Hey, Noah,” Bryce said, watching her. “Hey. Noah.”
She seemed to come from the empty housing development on the far side of the field, houses where they and their friends broke in and drank sometimes. Her gait quickened the closer she came and they began to see that she carried something long and burdensome in her hands. She was small, old too, her pale hair thin and her skin seamed, clothes a motley of kid’s t-shirts and long-underwear, camo and pajama pants. And she talked as she came, talking a mile-a-minute in some vague and furious spell-language. At first they only caught pieces of it, words like “cops,” “motherfucker,” and “electricity,” her jog turning to a sprint before finally leaping into the air as she reached them, her burden now revealed to be an axe she had raised above her head to strike. It was beautiful, they saw, the way she did it, the grace and economy of movement, like she’d already done it a million times before.
“Get your fucking hands off of it!” Lori screamed as she landed, chopping Noah’s hand and four of his fingers clean off, burying the axe blade an inch deep into the hull of the ship. These parts of him landed with a plop in the mud at their feet.
“You get your filthy fucking hands off of it, you little monsters. This thing is mine, you hear? It’s fucking mine mine mine mine!”
From atop the ship she addressed them, shouting even as she struggled to pull the axe from where the ship’s hull had seized it. Blood poured from ends of Noah’s limbs as he stumbled back, staring incredulous at his transformed body, his expression ambiguous, saying only, “Oh God,” several times, quietly, his blood mixing with the mud. “Oh God.”
Derik looked at his friend, then up toward the woman, then to the trees behind him. Bryce, Noah, the woman. The trees.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” Bryce said, almost crying, “Why did you do that? Who—”
“Just get the hell away from it!” she said, “It’s mine! I found it and it came to me and that makes it mine so please—please!—just leave! Leave before you wind up like your friend here.” Her gaze softening as she considered Noah, even as she continued to struggle with the axe. “Your stupid fucking friend who didn’t know and didn’t listen and couldn’t just leave some things be! Couldn’t let somebody else have something, anything, couldn’t just—”
Noah tried to crawl somewhere, anywhere, struggled awkwardly on his elbows and knees to make his way through the river coming faster. Watching, Bryce seemed not to know how to help or even reach out to his friend, and so he only stood by, mouth open, shaking and shaking his head.
“Oh God,” Noah said.
Lori seemed as likely to cry as to maim him further, pity and regret mixing with her fear and anger as she stared down at him. “Why take it?” She did not stop, “Why? Why?!” She let go of the axe to plead openly with Noah crawling in the mud below, her yellow eyes wet. “Why try and take the only thing they ever gave me, that was meant for me alone? Why, finally, when someone gets something just for them, why do you people always have to come and try and take it?”
“Please!” Bryce said to her. “He didn’t take anything! How could we take something we can’t even move? What the fuck, lady?” he begged, hysterical. “Please, just . . . what the fuck?”
Lori flinched, seemed to see Bryce and the sword he held in his gesturing hand for the first time. Her words left her then. Growling, she crouched back, humanity swallowed up by new fear until all was anger again. Timeless, blind, narcotic anger. Her growl became a roar as she gave the axe a furious, final tug, pulling the wood handle clean free of the head. In the same motion, she leapt into the air, swinging the handle at the side of Bryce’s head. Bryce screamed and raised the sword up, cutting the handle in two, sending the top half pin-wheeling over their heads and leaving Lori now holding what amounted to splintered shiv in her tiny fist. She landed full atop him, crushing his bound arm and knocking him into the mud, the mud and water and blood mixed together everywhere now. She raised the splintered handle and, with a shriek, plunged it as deep as she could into Bryce’s shoulder, hitting bone. She wrapped her tiny hands around his neck and tried to force his head below the water. When he could find the air, Bryce screamed.
“Some folks get everything they want,” she said. “Why? Why should some folks get everything while others get nothing? It’s just not right. Why do you insist on taking from me the only honest gift I ever got?”
Floating facedown not far off, only the back of Noah’s head remained visible above the water. The water continued to rise.
“Those helicopters didn’t make a sound,” she said, her forearms flexing with the strain. “They didn’t make a goddamned sound.”
Derik did not look back, not even when he reached the trees, legs pumping, heart pounding as he fell panicked uphill through the trees and brush and vines, climbing cutbacks the long way around, never going slower than exactly as fast as was humanly possible, just barely fast enough to keep ahead of the scene he’d left behind, his memory of it in close pursuit.
Finally coming across a fire-lane, he jogged it exhausted the rest of way down to the port that served the mill and into which the river ran. Dazed, he walked the highway toward town, watching over his shoulder as he went for folks getting off the night-shift.
He wound up getting a ride from his cousin’s fiancé, Brit. Her ponytail still striped with machine grease, she leaned across the seat to push the passenger door open for him.
“Sneakers look a little muddy there, D-bone,” she said, obviously tired, but winking. “Don’t you know better than to not wipe your feet before getting into a lady’s truck?”
Derik tried to think of something normal to say in response as he climbed in. He was still thinking fifteen minutes late when she dropped him off at home.
Finding the apartment empty, Derik remembered that it was Sunday, and that his mom and sister had likely already left for church. He stood there in the dark apartment realizing this, stood swaying. He listened and heard nothing, nothing but the TVs and yelling kids of other apartments, listened for but thankfully did not (not yet) hear the past as it approached, the wall which held it back bowed but, for the moment, still intact.