When the last one leaves Eliza, she is dreaming of alien abductions. She stands in a cornfield, barefoot and alone, bright blue lights beaming down from overhead. She is topless, her breasts heavy with milk, her nipples chapped and sore. A friend once stuck cabbage leaves in her nursing bra to help soothe inflammation. She looked down to find a white apron is tied around her waist, the cheap kind found in drugstore French maid costumes around Halloween. If there’s a dress code for Martian kidnappings, surely she’s violated it. Flying saucer, she tries to say, but the sound doesn’t come. Flying saucer. What it is, the name of it—how absurd. Her body shakes with all the times she’s tried not to crack up laughing. The skin from her breasts starts to peel, falling to the ground in thin, green layers. A strong wind kicks up, tearing through the field, folding everything into itself like paper. Crumpled stalks, scarecrows with arms bent skyward in surrender. The earth rumbles and starts to swell, the ground vibrating like a tuning fork. She tries to run, but running turns into a river, which turns into drowning.
Then, the bright blue lights vanish; the wind goes too. The way it’s all gone at once, in a salvo of crude theatrics—Cue flying saucer exit!—a lever pulled backstage at a student play. Somewhere there’s a voice: When the green men come for you, your hands will be two fists that won’t open.
Eliza’s eyes open to a strange ceiling. Embers of blue light trailed in the darkness, the wind’s chill prickled her skin. She shakes her head free from her dream and looks over at the lump next to her. Charlie. Rolled up in a blanket, mummified in dreams. It scared her the way his body committed to sleep, radically, immune to middle of the night churn. She was the opposite—she couldn’t remember the last time she didn’t wake up during the night. On their first date he’d asked what superhero power she would most like to have.
Sleeping, she’d said.
Something buzzes under her head. Earthquake? Panic shoots through her chest. She and Charlie had just moved to Seattle, a city long overdue for a seismic catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. For a moment, she couldn’t remember if she was awake or if this was just Act II of the dream, the part where Charlie sits up in bed and unzips his face, revealing that he’s been an alien all along. That would explain a lot. His infinite patience, the way he picked her dirty clothes out of the laundry and smelled them, inhaling deeply. Another buzz, followed by a jolt. Then she remembers—James. She digs under the pillow for her phone. A quick swipe sends it flying off the mattress and clattering across the wood floorboards. Shit. She rolls over onto her hands and knees, frantically sweeping her arms in the dark. The mattress was on the ground—no bed frame, no pillowcases—a sheet draped lazily over the top in her and Charlie’s exhaustive state, arriving past midnight, after three long days of driving. Her phone buzzes again, close by, sending a faint tremor through the ground. She lurches toward the sound, a dull pain throbbing in her lower back. She waits for another quiver of the phone, but nothing.
The apartment is little more than a collection of her and Charlie’s conjoined possessions huddled in the dark, packed away in liquor boxes. In the dim light, they tower in silhouette like the skyline of a miniature city built by booze magnates. Jim Beam University, Bacardi City Hall. Slowly Eliza stands, her muscles cramped and achy from lifting and carrying stuff from the U-Haul up three flights of stairs. Staggering with her arms out, zombie-like, through the unfamiliar space, she feels around for clothes to throw on over her tank top and underwear. She stumbles over a pair of sweatpants—Charlie’s—and pulls them on and tightens the drawstring. She steadies herself against a tower of boxes and finds a T-shirt strewn over the top. She throws that on, too.
Turning around, she kicks a small object with her foot and it slides away. She bends down and her fingers find her phone. 2:20 in the morning; two missed calls, both from the same unknown number. Her eyes now adjusted to the dark, Eliza made her way to the bathroom, stepping around the boxes, careful not to wake Charlie. She closes the door quietly and flips on the light. Her eyes flinch against the brightness. Two toothbrushes sit in an empty Starbuck’s cup acquired at a rest stop off I-94. She splashes cold water on her face and tries not to think of the pressure in her abdomen. A balloon slowly swelling and pushing against her lower back. Droplets of water drip from her chin and snake down the drain.
“I’m pregnant,” she says to the mirror, knowing she wouldn’t be for long. She’d been through this before. This time she hadn’t bothered to tell Charlie—hadn’t bothered to tell anyone. But by saying it out loud, she announced its presence before it was gone, even if she was the only one to hear it. It was only right to acknowledge it had existed, this liminal clump of cells, however briefly. That it had been part of the world. A tiny flicker.
Outside, a damp breeze shuddered through the trees. Pine and spruce limbs swayed drunkenly, casting monstrous shapes in the night. It had been three months since her brother disappeared. But now, early October, was about the time of year he made his way up the West Coast to Alaska, an annual pilgrimage he never missed, no matter what the voices told him. Two weeks before she and Charlie left Indiana, James called from an unknown number to say he was heading to alien country. He’d met a guy online who was building a super telescope that could see all the way to Andromeda. James was going to stay with him for a while in a town just outside Roswell to help finish it. The plan was to take the telescope up to Alaska for meteor shower season.
She dials the missed call number, her heart pounding as it starts to ring. She and Charlie had found a rental in Wallingford, a quiet Seattle neighborhood lined with spacious craftsmen and Tudor homes. Yellow sconces with motion sensors light up garages and lawns as she walks past. The phone rings and rings, until the line cuts off and goes dead. Walking feels strange, as if her legs are stuffed with doll bunting. The red sliver on her phone screen shows 10 percent battery. God knows where she’d left her charger. She tries the number again, more ringing. Her stomach feels like a roof about to cave in. Eliza pushes it to a far corner of her mind. The spotting had started the day before, bright red blood. The real pain, she knows, won’t come until later. The phone cuts off again.
She gets in her car and starts to drive down the block, shoving aside the fact that she has no idea where she’s going. The dull orange glow of the gas light blinks on. Again, she dials. Each ring seems to stretch out longer and longer. Where the hell was she going? Her abdomen seizes and a wetness blooms into her crotch. She puts one hand down her pants and pull away a stringy red clot that clings to her fingers. She steadies the wheel with her elbow and reaches for a stack of Dunkin’ Donuts napkins from the glove box. At the next stoplight, she shoves them all in her underwear. Just then, the phone stops ringing. There’s a rush of air on the other end, and a man’s voice comes through.
Blinking is the first hello, the first magic trick. Everything here, then gone, then here again.
Each night, their mother hermetically sealed them into their beds. After two rounds of aggressive toothbrushing, she would scuttle Eliza and James to their room, their gums bleeding from her diligence. Their mother’s wool slippers shuffled along behind them on the hallway carpet, a beige runway pockmarked with stains: a comet of bleach near the washing machine, the grape juice accident of 1984 by the linen closet. Eliza would inventory each one as she passed, a permanent archive of their mistakes.
Their mother would cite the Lord’s Prayer as her fingers worked the mattress corners, her eyes bird-black in the dim light. Her hands shook as she stretched and tucked the sheets. No such thing as too tight. Even a little slack, and Eliza and James would slip away in the night. She smelled of mentholated cough drops and cold cream. She sucked on Halls to hide her cigarette smoke, but she and James could still smell it, a faint open secret. For all her praying their mother never said Amen, which always struck Eliza as funny. Wasn’t Amen the most important part? The part that made it all stick?
Afterward their mother would stand outside and listen until she thought they had fallen asleep. Through the crack in the door, she and James could hear the tiny rattle of cough drops against their mother’s teeth. They didn’t dare speak. They just lay there, motionless in the dark, pinned to their beds like asylum patients. She buried them alive, so they learned to play dead. Fraternal twins in identical twin beds, their room an external womb, their breath finding each other in the dark, syncing each rise and fall of their chests. Eliza stared up at the ceiling and practiced twin telepathy, sending her brother set-ups to jokes through a dizygotic phone.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
What do you call a cow with no legs?
For years she fell asleep waiting for him to return a punch line.
James did eventually start to receive dispatches, but not from her. He was bussing tables after school at a Greek diner when he got the first trans-mission from a packet of Sweet n’ Low.
James was bent over the counter wiping up a small pool of souvlaki grease when he heard a tiny voice emanating from the condiments. He looked down at the sugar caddy fanned with artificial sweeteners. The Splenda and Equals were silent. He leaned in closer. In a pink envelope of aspartame, a live wire crackled with static, like a radio station just out of range.
This is the 94th Aero Squadron, the voice said. Give them our names. Say we are among the missing.
“Hello?” The man has a baritone voice, a cowboy warmth.
“Yes, hello?” says Eliza. “I’m trying to get a hold of someone who called me from this number—my brother.”
“Oh,” the cowboy says. “Well, this is a pay phone and I don’t see anyone around.” His tone is sluggish, as if time moved slowly for him.
“Where are you?”
“Because I’m trying to find my brother.”
“He’s missing. He tried to call me from this number. I think. Twenty minutes or so ago.”
“What’s his name, this brother?”
“Please, can you just tell me where you are?”
The cowboy doesn’t respond. A car horn beeps twice in the background.
“You didn’t say his name.”
“James. My brother’s name is James.”
“You’re shitting me.” His voice brightens. “My name is James.” He coughs violently. Something dislodges and he spits it out. “Wait… who is this? Vera?”
“Oh Lordy.” The cowboy sighs deeply, blowing static through the phone. “There ain’t enough quarters in the world for that story.” A slight slur lapped at the end of his words.
“Could you please just tell me if you see a guy—pale and skinny, messy brown hair? He’s probably wearing a gray hoodie.”
“Listen, girlie. That’s about every hooligan I met since I been here.”
“Please. My brother—” Eliza bites her lip. “He’s not all there.”
The cowboy goes quiet for a minute. A rustle as he adjusts the receiver. “Tall kid, bit of a mumbler? Tattoo of an alien on his forearm?”
“Yeah, that’s him.” Eliza pulls over to the side of the road and sucks in a breath.
“I asked him about that—used to do ink myself, but that was…” he trailed off. “Saw him leave maybe ten minutes ago with another guy. Big, nerdy—looks like he speaks Star Wars.”
“Where are you?”
“Listen, you’re not gonna murder me or nothin’, are you?”
“It’s a joke, kid,” he says flatly. “7-Eleven parking lot up on Aurora, waiting for Triple A.”
She pulls the phone away from her ear, the power bar a speck of red. There would be no way to GPS the location in time.
“Can you give me a cross street, maybe a landmark nearby?”
“Ah, let’s see…7-Eleven just past the motel with the seal balancing a ball on its nose. Can’t miss it.”
She hangs up. Jagged cramps claw at her uterus. She lurches forward, gripping the steering wheel tight. Please. She sends out a transmission to see if anything comes back, to see if her dispatch gets through her brother’s crowded brain. Where are you?
The first attempt was with their mom’s Lady Bic. James didn’t get too far into the skin before their dad came in from mowing the lawn and found the bathroom door locked, and locked doors were forbidden in their house.
Still, seventeen stitches. Their mom blubbered in the waiting room, clutching her rosary; their dad stood in front of a vending machine for over an hour, rubbing coins between his fingers.
Eliza stood over James in his hospital bed, staring down at the tiny black knots in his wrists and forearms. “One for each year of our lives,” he said. James leaned over and blew air up and down the sutures. The fine hairs on his arms swayed gently. He smiled. “See, Lizard? Like birthday candles.”
“Why did you do this?” she asked.
He shrugged and looked away. Faded pink curtains dotted with palm trees lined the window. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” he said.
The first one left her and Charlie two years ago. They were at a bed & breakfast overlooking Lake Michigan, a little getaway thrown in its honor. She stained the sheets red in her sleep. When they returned from urgent care, she and Charlie put on matching bathrobes and sat in Adirondack chairs overlooking the lake, a body of water so big they couldn’t see the other side. Shouldn’t you be able to see the other side of a lake? They deliberated, passing a bottle of wine back and forth. Red wine. The liquid sloshed in the neck as they sipped, and Eliza tried not to think of the bloody sheets balled up in the closet of their room. They opened another bottle, still trying to make sense of the endless body of water in front of them. By the time half of the second bottle was gone, she and Charlie had upgraded the lake to a smocean—a small ocean. Sip after sip, the two of them carried the joke aloft, stretching its mileage until it was thin enough to form a parachute. They didn’t know how far the fall was, how high they had climbed in altitude over the course of two months, dreaming of their unborn child. They held onto anything they could to break the landing.
There would be another chance. Whatever this was, it was not meant to be their baby.
Good riddance, they’d said, drunk, full of feverish optimism. Who wants an asshole who ghosts at its own party? They laughed until the false bottom underneath cracked and split, dropping them into a dark silence that seemed like it would never end.
The second one left during a blizzard. More blood and a small piece of tissue the consistency of a raw chicken breast left behind in a Wal-Mart toilet. Eliza abandoned her cart outside the bathroom and drove for two hours to a town in central Indiana she’d never been to. She circled the parking lot of a T.G.I. Friday’s with the windows rolled down. She shrugged off her coat then fumbled her sweater over her head as she held the wheel, stripped down to a tank top. Snow fluttered into the car, pricking her bare arms and face in cold little stabs. She felt blood seep through her jeans onto the driver’s seat. Eliza promised herself she wouldn’t stop circling until her lips turned blue, until she could imagine two of them gone instead of one.
Another blighted ovum, her doctor said. The embryos attach but fail to develop. Then they just let go.
Now the third one is on its way out. Eliza never told Charlie she was pregnant—she couldn’t stand to see that look on his face again, the look that told her she wasn’t capable of holding onto a life. This time, it will leave only her. She wanted the silence of it to crush her, to grind into the mortar of her bones until she turned to ash. But keeping it to herself felt no different than when people knew, when Charlie knew. With certain things, Eliza thought, even when you tell, it never stops feeling like a secret.
“Our first language was wolf,” James said. “Do you remember?”
The second attempt is too many muscle relaxers. His body is riddled with small tremors that periodically quiver through his body. Aftershocks under the skin. A recovery side effect.
“What was my first word?” Eliza asked. Vertical blinds swayed gently in the breeze of an open window. Traffic hummed five stories below.
“It was more like an incantation.” He tipped his head back and let loose. “Owwwww. Out-out-out-out-out-out-out-oooooouuuut.” After the howl, James fell quiet and turned away. A twitch of lightning fluttered at the corner of his mouth. “From the beginning, that’s how I knew you would leave me.”
Rain starts to freckle the windshield. Aurora Avenue, a road she’d driven in the U-Haul, is pitch black and smooth, mostly empty of cars. The drops fall faster and harder. Eliza speeds up the wiper blades and watches them slide back and forth in frenetic arcs, a manic kind of hypnosis. A string of titty bars and Korean barbeque joints passes by in neon smears along the side of the road. Her breath starts to gather on the windshield, fogging the glass. She blasts the defroster and squints out the window, keeping her eyes peeled for a seal with a ball on its nose. She’d forgotten to grab her glasses, which are still resting on the milk crate next to the mattress, next to Charlie.
She pushes him out of her mind and focuses on the road. A few stray cars pass. The orange gas light taunts her at every stop. And then, there it is, just like the cowboy said: a motel with a neon seal balancing a ball on its nose, the Sea Pearl Hotel—no vacancy. Eliza turns into the 7-Eleven just past it and parks. As she jogs toward the entrance, the napkins bunched together in her sweatpants, scratching at her inner thighs. A scraggle of teenagers linger under the awning, waiting out the rain. A beefy guy in combat fatigues unwraps a fresh pack of smokes and climbs into a white pick-up. No sign of anyone who looks like he might be payphone cowboy. The teenagers part as she brushes past. When she steps through the glass door, a bell announces her presence.
She sets a box of maxi pads on the counter to pay, and asks the girl behind the counter—a raccoon-eyed blonde with bangs styled into a hairsprayed claw—if she’d seen her brother. The cashier looks Eliza up and down and considers the description of James she’d given her. Eliza glances down at what she’s wearing: stained sweatpants, Garfield T-shirt in tatters (used in a moving box to prevent wine glasses from breaking), no bra. She has on two different sneakers: one bright blue, one black; one hers, one Charlie’s. The girl nods lazily. “Yeah, I seen him in here just a bit ago,” she says, taking her money. “Fancied himself a ladies’ man. Mentioned he was staying at the Motel 6 up the street.” The cashier leans in closer. “Flashed his room key as he paid.” She snorts and hands Eliza her change. “Asked me if I’d ever seen a meteor shower, and I’m like, yeah, baby, shooting stars every night.”
James was planning to pass through Seattle the first week of October, right when she and Charlie were due to arrive.
“The three big beauties are all happening in the middle of the month,” he said. “The Draconids, Taurids, and Orionids—not to mention the Northern Lights. Big John’s almost there with the scope, but he doesn’t understand infrared radiation.”
“Well, why doesn’t he come to you?” Eliza tried to picture her brother’s online conspiracy theorist friends. A mobile of failed human experiments circled her imagination.
“You don’t understand, Lizard. Big John’s under federal surveillance by the FBI. He can only go as far as the Aisle 6 of the Pick and Save in downtown Lovington. He goes any further east, he’s toast.”
On her last day in Indianapolis, Eliza was supposed to finish packing up her life, run a dozen errands. Instead, she spent the morning pacing around the city, popping in and out of James’s old haunts. The comic book store on Warren Avenue, the basketball court behind the Glendale Dairy Queen. Athena’s, the diner where he used to work. Eventually, against all logic, she called the Lovington Pick n’ Save. A young woman picked up the phone in the deli.
Eliza asked her how many aisles there were in the store, and the deli girl released a world-weary sigh. “Listen, Frida, I don’t have time for this shit. I got twelve pounds of pastrami to slice before 11.”
“No, no—wait.” She grasped for a reason to keep her on the line. “I’m with Pick n’ Save Corporate. We’re doing an annual audit of all our stores’ square footage.” Eliza bit down hard on her lip and heard the girl cover the receiver with her hand.
She came back on a moment later, forcing a bit more cheer. “Shit, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m new, so I haven’t, you know, explored the whole place, but Rambo says we got seven aisles here.”
“Hello?” Suddenly another voice came on the line, a young male. “This is Wendel Sanderson III. I’m the deli manager.”
“Yeah?” he said, quietly.
She closed her eyes, immediately regretting the call, but she had to know. “What’s in Aisle 7?”
Aurora Avenue. Sad casino after sad casino. Prostitution watch zones. Used car lots with large inflatable dolls, Gumby-like, air continuously blowing through them to make their limbs flail like homicidal epileptics. Bright lights in the rearview momentarily blind her. A large truck rides up close to her bumper and then changes lanes. Something catches Eliza’s eye in the mirror. A streak of blood on her cheek, sweeping upward like a warrior’s mark. She hits a speedbump going a little too fast, and another pulse of liquid seeps from between her legs. The sweatpants belong to Charlie. They would need to disappear if she can’t get the blood out.
What if Charlie woke up and found her gone? What if he discovered one of his shoes missing along with one of hers? Eliza imagines him trying to piece together the disturbing puzzle of discordant shoes. She imagines blood trailing on the floor as he moves through the apartment calling her name, blood dripping from the moving boxes, the walls, a puddle by their apartment door, a flowing river leading to the outside, rushing around the block—a thick, red lagoon in the vacant spot where their car was parked. She imagines Charlie wading through it all, sweating, panicking. After a while, Charlie would inevitably give up, never knowing what happened. Charlie would move on, she tells herself. Yes, another woman would help him grieve. Her body would hold it all.
Eliza’s chest tightens. She wipes away a few tears.
Charlie would never know where she disappeared to. Sitting with his head in his hands, sobbing until there’s nothing left. Just two mismatched shoes in the darkness. He would eventually resign himself to the supernatural: she had simply melted into a pool of blood and vanished.
Number three was a sharper blade. A room with pale blue curtains frayed at the edges, James’ wrists bound to a hospital bed with yellow plastic ties. Eliza tried not to look at his bright yellow cuffs and think of Hefty bags, trash that needed taking out.
“Why didn’t you just devour me in the womb?”
She put her hands in the air and slowly moved toward the riot in her brother’s brain.
“Because I loved you.”
“Bullshit.” He turned to the window but the curtains were drawn. There was no view. “You didn’t even have a heart yet.”
Charlie found a job in Seattle and thought a move across the country would do the two of them good. He thinks they need a new start. He doesn’t tell Eliza that he thinks getting as far away as possible from Indiana is the only way anything can survive in her body. She doesn’t tell him that the leaky container of her womb might be a sign that she doesn’t get to have the kind of life other people are allowed to have, a life with kids and a house. A life with a family. She doesn’t tell him about James’s trip to Alaska, that he’s expected to pass through Seattle, like a comet, any day now.
Instead, Eliza told Charlie she was fluent in 55 endangered languages, all of them understood by only one other person.
“Your brother,” he murmured, a shadow crossing over his brow.
A U-Haul is the biggest vehicle either of them has ever been in. The rental came with its own Greek chorus for the driver: How much room do I have? Charlie guided the steel monster onto I-80, Eliza’s body as still as a statue in the passenger seat. She was afraid to move, afraid pieces of her body might break off.
She counted the mile markers they passed. As distance accumulated, she realized she had already lost the ability to speak one language: Why the Chicken Crossed the Road.
The Motel 6 is just off an unpaved road, up a steep hill. No one expects to see a Motel 6 on a hill, lit up like a star atop a Christmas tree. The effect is elegant but misplaced in reality, a continuity error. Eliza thinks of the big lake she could not see across, the lake that was really a small ocean.
The car lurches forward and dies. Out of gas. The world is so quiet it seems like it’s holding its breath. The rain has stopped. The black sky hangs loose and slack, a flat tire that needs filling. She steps out of the car and starts up the hill. She doesn’t know what she’ll say to James when she finds him. Draconids, Taurids, Orionids. The spidery names crawl around her brain.
She walks by gardens in the throes of fall, but the night, after the mist of rain, is warm like summer. It’s a season she does not recognize. Thick green stems are topped with fireworks in bloom. Much of tax-onomy is mysterious. She realizes she doesn’t know the names of things. One by one, she calls out to the unknown. No language can name the box of little things that will not make their way out. Bibs and blankets suffocating in plastic packaging. She does not know what to call the grief of tiny spoons. She’s lived among so much she’s never named, swaddled in artificial intelligence.
As she walks up the hill, she imagines climbing up a long ladder that cuts through the sky and keeps on going. She gathers the strings of all the things that are not hers and lets them go, strings of refugee cells fleeing blighted ova. The others she ties to her wrist. Mine, she says, tying each string. These are the things that attach. These I get to keep. Lizard, the nickname her brother gave her. What it took to leave Indianapolis. Blood, thick and patient, spiderwebs down her thighs, her calves. All the languages will eventually bleed out into extinction. No single body can hold them all.
She looks up to the roof of the Motel 6. A shadowy figure moves across the sky. He stops and starts to set up what looks like a telescope. He extends a tripod, sliding metal poles out of their sleeves into a triangle. But then something is reconsidered, and the man retracts the metal legs and slides them back into a bag. He picks up the bag and walks away. What if I lose him? Not now, not when she’s so close. She gathers her strength and starts running. She waves her arms. James! Look at me! She tries to shout but her breathing is too labored. No… not now. A few napkins ruffle out from the bottom of her sweatpants. She catches a glimpse of a dark wet stain as her foot passes over it.
Eliza watches the roof, hoping the shadow will reappear. A flash of light blinks in the sky, just above where he stood. A plane? A star? She will always be waiting for a certain kind of visitor. She pauses to see if it will flash again, and it does, but this time it stays bright. A tiny light. Here, then gone, then here again.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.