It’s the crack of dawn; the yolk has spilled behind the long desert horizon, and the whites spread out across the sky, beginning to cook. You pull your truck up underneath this island, a chunk of land that floats in the sky like some kind of natural dirigible, tethered to the ground by a spun-cable guy-wire as big as a gnarled oak. You’ve seen it—it and its brethren—a thousand times, and still it takes your breath away.
It’s already hot. Your wife would insist on sunscreen; you can hear her barked sigh from here: “What if you get a melanoma? Then where are we?” But if you were going to get skin cancer, you would have gotten it by now; you’ve been doing this for the last five years—ever since the last guy disappeared—and before that you did construction for something like twenty? Most of your life. Though you might want to leave your windows cracked, at least, even if those are rain clouds that dot the horizon. This shouldn’t take much time. This island isn’t big. And it’s one of the easier ones; besides being little, it’s within the main cluster, a little lower than some—only about fifteen feet—so the wind doesn’t hit quite as hard. Though if it rains, things could get soupy. It’s all topsoil up there. And you forgot your gloves.
And you only brought the small ladder—the one you use for the lowest islands, the ones that are tethered at around ten feet. Why some are higher and some lower, you don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with function: the storage islands are leashed up around fifty feet, and then the residentials at about thirty, and then the agricultural, spanning the gap between ten and twenty.
Thankfully, the ladder’s ten-foot, and an A-frame that you can just leave up all day. The tether will keep the island steady enough. There’s still some give; occasionally you find a ladder canted at a bizarre angle at end-of-day, especially on the bigger islands—some of the larger residentials, and the storage islands, which hang blockily in the air like small warehouses caught daydreaming. There’s a rope ladder up top, too, but it’s hidden in a hatch off the side, always so hard to find. More of an emergency thing really. You might as well hang off the edge until you find your A-frame with your feet, pray you don’t collapse it. There’s a theory as to what happened to the last guy, the ones before him: their ladders closed on them, broke their necks—or worse, limbs, backs, leaving them alive as the sand slowly covered them over. It took almost a year for the brass to notice your predecessor was gone. All the valves had to be overhauled. One island got so low you could almost climb up onto it from the ground.
But no point worrying. With any luck, you’ll be off this rock by noon. And, worst case scenario, a seven-foot drop won’t kill you. Come on. Up you go. Daylight’s wasting.
* * *
From the top of your ladder, you can just see the surface of the island, with its meticulous topsoil rows (which remind you, oddly enough, of a prim little grandmother, hands patiently folded). It seems like the easiest way to do this is to press your hands onto this mottled plastic exterior shelf and just haul yourself . . . get your knees up . . . c’mon, push . . . are you even . . . there.
That was tougher than you thought, wasn’t it? Take a minute, catch your breath. When you’re ready. Look: there’s the topsoil grandmother; the work shed (patient like a Sphinx); the chains floating up into the sky, suspended by the hot air balloons that float these islands. The balloons are only half full; obviously—like lungs or airplane oxygen bags—they don’t need to inflate fully, though it’s always bothered you in a small way. Once, another maintenance man (a friend of yours by the name of Terry) opened up all the valves on one side of one of the residentials, and the balloons filled like blueberries grown ripe and juicy under the summer sun. You’d only just gotten that sorted out in time, before the whole thing tipped. Terry was long gone, the only real evidence of his presence the telltale boot prints in the flowerbeds.
The work shed is a mess; the tools lie in clusters, off their hooks and tangled into a nest, as if sometimes, when no one’s looking, these islands flip on their backs like cats trying to scratch an itch they can’t reach. Though obviously not that—all the dirt would fall off. There’s the garden rake. It’s always good to straighten up a bit before you work, at least all the stuff you have to look at. Helps with concentration. The rows usually take about an hour to rake, and then you should do a once-over of the island, check the chains for wear, and then there’s—
There’s a man between the rows. An old man, cross-legged, sitting like he should have a stick to poke a fire that’s not there. Or a beer. Some Cajun in a story by Mark Twain. He’s completely naked; dirty, coarse white hair grows over his tan, sunken chest and belly like crops left to die on a dry and dusty field. Even with all the effort it took you getting up here, he’s not looking. You clear your throat, to get his attention, or maybe because now you notice yourself—your physical being, your cluttered, dusty phlegminess.
“Excuse me,” you say, but he doesn’t move, doesn’t even react to the sound of your voice. “Excuse me,” you say again, letting a little peevishness slip in, like he’s inconveniencing you. And he is. Now you’re going to have to call somebody, file a report, move him, or else have to work around—
Unless this is some sort of test, some sort of critical thinking thing. Like you’re supposed to deal with him, or not deal with him. Is that what this is? But why would they test you after all this time?
Are they trying to get rid of you?
“Hey,” you say. “Excuse me.”
He still won’t look. He could be the most realistic statue you’ve ever seen. A monument, like the islands. Nobody lives up here. The birds avoid them, like they know something, and the land animals ignore them. Nothing grows, though some of them (like this one) were designed for it. They’re just examples of what could have been: bladeless wind turbines, abandoned for a lack of interest in clean energy; children with their parents’ trophies, uncalled on for show-and-tell. This naked man, just a joke someone’s playing.
Who? Terry? He’s next in line. He’s tried things before: once he stole all your ladders. Which hadn’t turned out to be a very good plan because (A) ladders are relatively cheap, and (B) he left his telltale boot print in white paint on your garage floor. He must have spilled it as he tried to maneuver the ladders out. You see him in your mind’s eye, sitting at home, watching television, one hand on the phone just waiting for that call. His boots already on. It seems like a bad system, doesn’t it? Only one active maintenance man, and his compatriots gunning to do him in?
“Did Terry send you?”
Nothing. The man hasn’t moved at all. He doesn’t even really seem to be listening. Stomp over there, try startling a response out of him. The topsoil mutes everything: your footfalls are like bags of wind hitting the underside of a zeppelin. You’re right beside him, and still he hasn’t looked. Hasn’t even flinched. Maybe he is a statue.
But he’s soft when you kick him. He grunts, falls over. Curls into a ball. Shit. That makes you feel bad. You should apologize.
“Well, you should answer when somebody’s talking to you,” you say instead.
He still doesn’t answer, lies all balled up, his eyes squeezed shut.
There are no boot prints up here except for yours.
* * *
He just lies there, wrapped around himself like he’s expecting a for-real beating. Like all he knows is sitting and getting kicked; you’re teaching him about the world. A real Doctor Frankenstein you are. Maybe you should pick the man up, brush him off, touch him gently, teach him also about kindness, about friendship.
Maybe you should call somebody.
But maybe this is the test. If you call, they might think you’re a quitter.
If you don’t call, they might think you’re stubborn, unwilling to work with others.
You call home.
“Do your job,” your wife says, not really listening. “Why do you call so early? I was asleep. I need my rest. I’ve got things to do today.”
She’s a corporate lawyer; she has some case she’s working on, something about a corporation’s rights. You don’t understand most of what she does. Though it could be your daughter who answered. What would she have to do today?
The yolk of the sun has already hardened and traveled fully into view. It’s after six. There’s at least eight hours of work up here to do. But if you get started now, you’re still good for early afternoon. If you just ignore him. Look—he could still be a monument, a truer one: Man Returns to the Womb—of Nature! Man Sprouts and Dies as a Fallen Stalk of Corn. It’s a metaphor, for manhood! For humanity!
This would probably be the test—not to fall victim to the trap of the old man. Not to fall prey to distraction. Do your work; move to the next island. Maybe next time you come through here, something different will be kneeling between the rows. Maybe a beautiful young girl, your daughter’s age, naked like this man is naked. Something to look at while you work. Maybe some piece of abstraction that you can ponder. Even this old man serves as a way to occupy yourself, his saggy butt the only part of him in view from where you stand, raking these rows back into their proper order. This is a good job—decent pay, benefits. No one comes to check on you. No one bothers you. No one comes out here. This field is separated from the city by a hundred miles of desert—your commute is about an hour and a half both ways—and a fence that spans the whole site with big “No Trespassing” signs every two hundred feet. Even the city kids, so into exploring abandoned sites—malls and grocery stores, tunnels and the like—are bored with this place: all the B&Es and graffiti happened years ago, long before you or your predecessor, or his predecessor, or his. The only reason anyone found out about your predecessor—the only reason these islands aren’t crouched on the desert floor like precarious boulders, so many beached and abandoned pontoons—is because someone drove through on a lark. Some technician, some would-be maintenance man, some sightseer, some looky-loo.
Which is to say, there’s not a lot going on out here: just you and these islands for hundreds of miles. And the work is pretty rote: sweep this, patch that, crank this, polish that. Once you’ve done one, as they say, you’ve done them all. But even then, each island is its own island, each day a new day. From this standpoint, you’ve already maintained over a thousand islands, each new, each exactly the same. Which is to say, it gets boring, tedious, these tasks menial. Your thinking gets pretty repetitive: lunch (tuna sandwich, a bag of carrot sticks in a paper bag in the truck, but who knows if you’ll—), dinner (last week’s tuna casserole should probably get eaten, but it’d be nice if—), upcoming break time (there might be some pretzels—), why your wife is angry (did you forget some task, some—), why your daughter won’t speak to you (though how many years has it been since you really talked—), why it only seems to get hotter out here, why the sun seems brighter some times than others, why the colors seem so much more dramatic at rise-and-set, why the stars—when you stay so late—open up in such a way as to say, look, there is more to the universe than these fifty-some floating islands (initially almost seventy) in this man-made desert at the edge of a world on fire.
Which is to say, it’s nice to have a distraction, something to study, to look at with an artist’s eye—as if you’re crouched in front of a canvas, grasping a piece of charcoal, instead of digging for valve-control-panel with trowel. The sun is climbing toward its apex. See: even now, the day is passing more quickly. It’s already mid-morning; by the sun (you don’t have a watch, and don’t care to pull out your phone), about three hours have passed, and you’ve still got maybe six hours of work left. You still have to check the control panel—which somehow you’ve missed completely in your digging—test the dials, type in commands and see how fast things respond. Then there’re the valves themselves, then a once-over of the balloons. After all that, you’ve got to reorganize the tool shed, and then there’s the cleaning of all the artificial bits. And then a final perimeter sweep, taking note of all the new wear and tear.
And then you have to find your ladder. You’d think that would be easy, this island only twenty or so meters across. But you always end up wandering the edge for fifteen, twenty minutes—half an hour sometimes—before you spot the corner of your truck, find the top rung propped against the plastic like just an extra piece of island. You should paint your ladders bright red so you can see them from a distance. And paint the hatches where the rope ladders reside, maybe repackage them in protruding boxes so you can see them from anywhere. Not that that’ll ever happen; when you’re here, you’re working, and when you’re home, you’re not thinking about ladders. Chances are, you’re thinking about the islands, all of them floating through your head like a sown field, these elephants the crops that will grow if only someone would let them, if only someone could figure out the proper maintenance. The dream: to find, beyond your trained, rote actions some magic, some inventiveness, some spell that would allow these islands to reach some further potential, to grow into being, to become whatever it is they yearn to become. You’ve tried planting a couple things—mostly on the residentials early on when you were trying to live in one of those McMansions, before your wife put her foot down. Lilies, roses, hydrangea—hearty flowers that could take anywhere—but nothing ever grew. You’ve thought about trying on one of the agriculturals, like here, where the soil seems designed for it, dotted with flecks of fertilizer, heavy with moistness, a loaminess to it. Maybe some corn, or beans, or. . . .
And then your wife is yelling about how you never pay attention or do the things she asks; you live on an island inside your head, one that she can’t reach, that you don’t want her on, or even around. Now she’s stomping out of rooms and slamming doors, or if not that, then she’s staring icily, or if not staring, then not staring, just as icily.
And now your daughter’s asking what the hell your problem is, and she is storming out of rooms, always, the book she was reading or writing in hanging from her fingers, her phone clutched in her hand like she might throw it, and only doesn’t because it would be your head she threw it at.
You’ve dug down deep enough now to find cables and wires running under the dirt, which you’re not supposed to do, not supposed to be able. They seem a bit science fiction—blue and chrome, veins, tendons, ligaments, connecting the musculature that flexes and pulls under the soil. They seem to pulse, faintly, with something like a . . . heartbeat?
Cover them over. They don’t matter. Listen, you’re falling behind. You need to try to fall back, at least, into your learned rhythm. Let your body do the work while your mind wanders.
* * *
The immediate problem being: there’s an old, naked man lying between the rows, clutching himself, prepared for the other shoe to drop. If it was just the island, any normal island, you would have no problem daydreaming the day away while the work was done by your hands as if by some preprogrammed machine. Which is exactly what happened: your hands and shoulders and eyes and feet were wired together at maintenance school. All you do is set them in motion, and the mechanics take over, run as they were designed, spurred on by the short horizon all around, the flatness, the singular tool shed in the middle of it all.
But not with this man in the midst. Every time your eyes wander across him, you come out of it, and there you are, holding some tool, in the middle of an action you can only barely remember how to restart.
Maybe what you need is to call someone who can understand, who can empathize. Not your family. But still not the Office; the test could very well be overcoming this obstacle on your own without having to ask for help. And sure, Terry is your replacement, and could very well be angling for your downfall, but he’s also your friend. He’d drive you crazy, sure, but he wouldn’t report you. You were roommates, for Chrissakes. You got through training together.
“A man, huh?” he says over the phone. “Right there between the rows?” You see, in your mind’s eye, his face squinching in thought, the slow, belabored shaking of the head, like the weight of the world rests on this very question. There is silence for a moment as Terry travels to a distant star. It’s a desired trait for the maintenance men: the ability to disappear from this world in order to travel through to the next.
“Hey,” he says, catching you in the middle of your own journey, “what about the old guy?”
The old guy?
“The other guy. The one you replaced.”
What about him?
“Didn’t he disappear?”
Well, yeah. What of it?
“Could this not be. . . .”
But don’t a lot of people disappear? Don’t, in point of fact, most maintenance men who didn’t quit spectacularly just, well, fade out?
“But it could be, right? I mean, who else could it be?”
Who else could it be?
“Hey,” you say, and though the man still doesn’t respond, doesn’t move even, there’s something . . . well, familiar there. You all went through the program together: you, the maintenance men. It just seems like maybe . . . yes, maybe you remember something. A snapshot of a man who was not this old—though time has passed, you’re all older—in an exercise you had to do, one of the emergency drills, something about three or more balloons failing while a maintenance man was still on an island. He turns to say something—
“But wait, they found him, right? Out in the desert, dry and crispy.”
Did they? You don’t remember that. In your memory, the guy just vanished like all the rest, one day out of hundreds just disappeared. Shit, the only way you know he existed at all is that these islands are still here, and that one weird memory in the middle of a drill when he turned to you, his leathery face pulled into a grin, and said—
What did he say?
* * *
Maintenance school was long after college, long after you’d established yourself as an electrician, worked for a fairly sizable firm that contracted out all sorts of construction work. You were reasonably respected in your industry, and maybe that’s why they recruited you. They were looking, as they told you, for experts. People who were the best in their fields. That was flattering, though probably untrue. They only pulled from the area. And the training was . . . less than spectacular.
It consisted of three months of seminars, What-If-This-Happened sessions, group discussions about various worries, thoughts, impressions—as if the program was so new (it was) they hadn’t had time (probably not) or the experience (that either) to come up with anything more than “sit in a circle and tell us what we should do.” A couple drills, rote repetition designed to focus your instincts, establish a kind of muscle memory, but even those delivered hesitantly, the trainers—greying men in lab coats—reckless in their confusion, with their incoherent visions of the future. So little of the program devoted to instruction, so little of it delivered with any tone reminiscent of authoritative, confident, competent, so that when you all graduated in a neat little certification-handing-out ceremony, it was with winks and barely concealed smirks all around. And when you finally got out here, some ten years later without so much as a refresher, it was your electrician’s training, your engineering schooling you survived on, until the drills finally came back like some form of hypnosis buried from childhood, designed to take over not at some word or experience but at that pure instance of comfort. Only when you no longer had to think about what you were doing did you finish a day and realize you had done things differently, and that these new things seemed strangely familiar: a resonance, an odd ritual, these things done less for function than in deference to some ancient, metallic God of the Sky.
Terry was there, of course, and your predecessor, and his, and his, and so on, and the manufacturers, and the bureaucrats, and even the Company President, the CEO, a few members of the Board. This was back when these elephants were New, The Future, Important. Every night, your wife asking about the job—how exciting, her husband, the Trailblazer. No resentment yet, just wide-eyed youth; the young couple, a step up in the world.
After fifteen years, the only evidence that anybody still cares is the phone call you received five years ago, and the automatic deposit that hits your and your wife’s joint account on the first and fifteenth of each month. You rarely talk to the Office. For all you know, all those smiling men are gone, on to bigger (maybe) and better (probably not) things, and the whole of this is run by uninformed machines in buildings that haven’t seen human habitation since the company nearly went bankrupt almost ten years ago. You’ve been in there, back before it went global. You’ve seen the rooms upon rooms of monitors hooked to cameras aimed—you can only imagine—at every conceivable angle of each island: a hellish wet dream of surveillance professionals and voyeurs, with the little wheely chairs you could—at the time—see filled with butt-digging middle Americans. But you can see them empty just as easily. Hell, if it weren’t for your wife and daughter—whom you see pretty much daily after work—and their stories of friends and neighbors and random people in random places, it would be easy to think, out here by yourself, that the only things out there are machines: at some point, when you weren’t looking—maybe while you were at work one day—humanity just wiped itself out. You’re the last one, and everyone you call is a series of blips and bloops recorded years ago and manipulated to sound like they actually care. Every physical interaction is a planted memory. You’re the subject of some bizarre experiment performed by half-sentient robots who have no clue about desired outcomes or reasons for testing, as they’re just clueless, half-cocked bureaucrats themselves. The only one who could have knowledge of an endpoint is you, you who were a product of something outside of this project, something outside of the purview of any machine, you the last human.
Well. You and this naked guy.
The point being, you were all together, all the maintenance men, you and twenty-eight other guys, hired in one push to get ready for the boom, these brilliant floating islands that would Change Everything: the way humanity Did Business, the way humanity Traveled, Lived, and Died. Soon, fossil fuels would be a thing of the past, as would overpopulation. Soon, islands would float across every sky. Sure, there was the worry that the ever-widening gap between rich and poor would be further widened, but had that ever stopped anybody? And think of the jobs that would come out of this, millions and billions of islands to build and maintain and work. And these twenty-nine men were the beginning of that workforce, the beginning of the beginning of a new world.
The point being, there was a camaraderie there, built on excitement and winking and chuckling at the ineptitude of superiors and after-work beers and shared grievances. Family picnics, your daughter out playing with your compatriots’ kids. A tiny spitfire, so curious, always toppling things, displacing them, breaking them open to see what’s inside. Torture to be away from her, but: the opportunity! Every little thing you missed, every irrevocable bit (and you know the other guys feel this way, too), was a sacrifice to the great machine of progress. That’s how progress works. You have to give of yourself. You have to give yourself.
It’s how you and Terry met, and he’s the best friend you’ve ever had. And sure, all the rest of you fell out of touch, haven’t spoken in years, but still you can remember them; you felt it when each one quit, or disappeared, vanishing as the islands themselves vanish every once in a while, leaving their tethers curled on the desert floor like discarded snakeskins, used condoms, while the islands ascend somewhere out of reach. It was like losing a part of your family, knowing that complete disconnect. Knowing that they were gone forever.
And that’s why this guy couldn’t be your predecessor. Because you don’t remember him. Do you? When you look at him, you feel nothing. Right? He’s a stranger, though he brings this vision. He’s human, so sure, you feel the pity, the sympathetic ache, the frustration that comes when you see a man down on his luck and not doing anything about it. No one likes to see somebody down on their luck. Or you don’t, at least. No, this is no one you know. Not at all.
* * *
It just seems important, is all, what he said in that ancient drill a million years ago. Was it some kind of message, implanted in your brain like the rest of your training? Perhaps cooked up by an early form of resistance, a small group of forward-thinking individuals that recognized the possibility of just such a machine uprising and so set into motion fifteen years ago a plan that would culminate in a naked man with no capacity for communication being dumped on this one island on this one day, which would, eventually, result in a call to Terry (who may or may not be involved) who would trigger a vision of a half-remembered comment made by a man (deliberately?) vanished some five years previous, not even really close to any anniversary of any such event?
The naked man lies here between the rows, his ribs showing. His flesh more like a light blanket that pools, yes, here and there, but covers nothing, really: some old bones, a stale breath or two, an eye that might have once brushed against the oily membrane of the world. If you touched him (you still haven’t actually touched him) he’d be cold. It makes sense: he’s naked; there’s altitude (a little); he’s paper on cardboard; he’s folded himself up, as if trying to shield what little fire there is left. He’s so still. Is he breathing?
“Is he breathing?”
You didn’t even realize you still had the phone pressed to your ear. How much did you say? You suddenly feel foolish, embarrassed like a boy in play with his friends. The rule: one must never show one’s insides.
You don’t know, you say.
“Well, shouldn’t you find out?”
Find out? What does that mean?
“Check if he’s breathing.”
Touch him, they say.
You find yourself creeping, tiptoeing, as if one errant step might set something off, some kind of (reality) bomb, that might swallow the whole . . . island, or something. Ridiculous. Like that.
“Hey,” you say, loud, maybe by way of jolting him into . . . existence, but again he does nothing, no movement at all, not even that shiver you might have imagined from earlier when you kicked him, like you gave him, with that lesson, the thrill of something like knowledge.
Is that a bruise there? Had that boot-toe-shaped, purplish, maybe-birthmark-looking—had that always been there?
“Hey,” you say again, softer, “hey, hey,” like a comfort, and you kneel there beside him, one knee sinking into the soil—you can feel the wetness through your work pants—and you put one hand to those ribs—so thin, piano keys—approach like maybe it’s your wife you are touching, your daughter (gently, gently, just hovering, hovering above) you can’t start this symphony without. . . .
He is cold.
He is not: breathing. His heart does not reverberate through this chest cavity like it should, like you thought it would. Those eyes: they do not stare. There is nothing in them to stare, unless it’s his insides they’re curious about. One final act: to try and find what has so recently gone missing.
* * *
You lean against the work shed and watch him. In death, he seems more relaxed. There was a tautness to him before, like he was constricting himself, a jungle snake, confused, partaking of that personal bounty. Now, he’s released. Not his bowels; his musculature. The way he lies there: you understand the poet’s insistence on death as sleep. It’s like, in a way, he just forgot to live. He lies down one day and forgets to rise, and so on and so forth until he can’t remember at all how that even works. Days come. Days go. A breath. A heartbeat. Syncopation; a missed entrance, forgotten, lost. Is this how the symphony ends? It’s not written. It’s not abandoned. It’s just forgotten?
Was he dying? Was this whole thing the action of a domesticated animal, an effort to disappear back into the wilderness to live out its last? He, the old maintenance man, done in years ago by the disease all around. The disease of technology, strung out by perpetuated (forced?) life, hopping from island to island, hoping to find peace. Had he been searching for you? Were you always his desired implement of death?
Did you kill him?
“What will you do?” Terry has asked, and in this one moment, you wonder if this really is all Terry, he the author, the composer of it.
“Will you call the Office?” he asks.
Will you call—?
This does seem the time. There was never life here. But now there is death.
* * *
“Thank you for calling Pharos Industries of the Future. We’re currently undergoing some restructuring. In order to help you more effectively, we’ve instituted a new Automated Messaging System. If at any time you’d rather speak to a representative, please say, ‘Representative.’ If you have a serial number for a malfunctioning device, please press or say, ‘One.’ If you have a question about a function of a device not covered in our comprehensive device manual, please press or say, ‘Two.’ If you believe you have received the wrong device, please press or say—”
“Representative,” you say.
“One moment,” and then some cloud-dotted, blue-sky music, and then another voice, this one more human, more bored, more—
“This is Janice, your Pharos Advisory Agent. How can I help you today?”
“Janice,” you say, tasting the word. Something’s not quite right. Something. . . .
“Uh . . . Janice, I’m . . . actually with the company, and I’ve got a . . . a bit of a. . . .”
You don’t remember a Janice, but you recognize something in that voice, that boredom, that sullenness. It sounds just like—
“Claire?” you say.
“Claire, it’s your dad.”
* * *
The egg whites have gone milky, so much heat pouring through them that they’ve gelatinized, creating one yellow-white lambent mold from horizon to horizon. It’s well after noon. It’ll be dark by the time you’ve finished everything. And here you are, still leaning against the work shed, wondering.
It’s not that she’s forbidden from working at the Office. But no one ever told you. It seems like a thing you’re supposed to know. Right? You would have liked to know. To be kept in the loop. Left out? Is that how you feel right now? Disconnected?
It’s home you call this time, your wife again, because there’s something in you that needs to hear her voice, even if—like before—she just ousts you back into the desert. It’s probably what you need, to be told to get off your ass and get back to work; you’re supposed to be back for dinner, even if you have to half-ass it and finish this island tomorrow—
But she doesn’t answer, after the traditional five rings, or even a few more, possibly imagined, tacked on in accordance with some universal pity, in order to give her time to get to the phone. Instead, it’s your voice that answers.
“We’re not here, and we’re probably never coming back. Go ahead and leave a message, if you want. Maybe some future civilization will get a kick out of it.”
Your idea of a joke. You almost scoff. That’s what your wife would do. You can see her grinding jaw, your daughter’s exasperated eye roll.
But they left it, didn’t they? What does that mean?
You realize you’ve been breathing into the phone for half a minute.
* * *
He lies out in the middle of the field like a movie death—posed, it seems—just as much a monolith, a monument (yes, it’s true), as these islands. Thunder in the distance; the clouds that had, this morning, clung to the rim have now invaded like polyps into the egg whites, which are less and less white now, rotting down into late afternoon, as if this sky were always diseased—from birth we are meant to die.
It’s beautiful out here. Notice that, for once. The other islands float several hundred yards out, hanging in the atmospheric soup, degrees of ledges and overhangs on an extradimensional mountain, height and width and time all one—competing forms of depth—stretching, maybe, eventually, into the sky. The advancing clouds just another form of island. It’s as if this Earth is reaching out, we humans perhaps just machines as well, cogs, microchips, invented and placed in attempt to reach the stars. Does our mother yearn to touch God? Does she desire to meet one who is similar enough to understand her, but other enough to be someone—something—else, not just a continuation of the self? Does she desire a greater, truer form of companionship? What is the myth? That in the dawn of time, God or creation ripped the perfect human form in two, so that each half searches eternally for its other? Would not the most satisfactory companionship reject homogenization? Would not the truly perfect companion resist assimilation?
Would not such a companion refrain, at all costs, from connection? Would we not spend our lives reaching out in errant directions, collecting the things and people who imperfectly match, those that either disappear too easily into the whole, or improperly align so that they skitter along the edge of consciousness, rejected but forever present, sandpaper rubbing against the mind as a reminder that the true desired outcome is impossible: we will die before we sacrifice it?
Fifteen years ago, in a drill designed by half-people trying to find the part of themselves that could make this project work, a man turned to you and said something. Today, a man—maybe the same man, in representation if not in form—appeared on your island, refused contact, died to keep from having that connection.
Who would survive if Earth and Sky merged? Even earth or sky?
The rain pelts down in the distance; you can see its shadow, a curtain that sweeps this way. Soon it will be here, and not too long after that will come night. There’s still time to crawl to the edge, locate your ladder, retreat home. As you should. The dead man will even help—the way he lies is a clue: remember how he knelt when you arrived, assign vectors of kick and fall, calculate angular displacement. It’s a physics problem. You trained for this.
On the other side of the equation, the shovel still hangs from its blade on the wall in the work shed. Like Peter, it has been crucified upside down. It’s a relic; no one’s ever used it. You’ve never needed it; the trowel was always enough. Even if something had been done with this place, it would have been someone else—another hired hand, another human machine—doing the real digging.
But in some way, shovel in hand—and you’re probably reading into things here, but—doesn’t it feel like you’re fulfilling some long-neglected truth? You’re living some(one else’s) dream, digging this hole in this field, overturning this dirt that even now glistens with some indefinable moisture, pockmarked by the same tiny, white fertilizer-pebbles you remember from your parent’s garden as a child. All the way down to the glistening wires—naked silver or with blue heat casings—running under the soil like maybe some sort of irrigation system.
And, as you pick up this old, naked man—just a husk, a seed casing—and lay him down in the soil, isn’t it a bit like . . . well . . . planting? Even as you fill in the hole, pat the dirt back into its row, the rain comes, fast and hard, as if called for in this moment, as if wrought in its recognition. As if from death comes life.
* * *
And now it’s raining, so hard you can’t see. The darkness is amazing; it came so suddenly, like the day was a lit stage and the storm a fallen curtain, its counterbalance cut so as to give the rough and hasty illusion of night. It’s too late, now, to find your ladder, or to search for the rope ladder’s hatch. Even if you got down, this is a monsoon. This desert hasn’t seen rain like this in months. Your truck will be stuck in the muck. You’ll be trapped in the cab; if it floods, you’ll be swept away, drowned as your vessel—not built for water—capsizes.
But this rain comes so hard you could drown just standing here. There’s barely space between the drops; your eyes, your nose, your very pores are filling with water. There’s only a bit of shelter on this whole island: the work shed. Run to it now, while you’re still able to run, before the soil turns semiliquid and sucks you under. Toss the tangled tools outside; they’re worthless at this point anyway. Close yourself in. Come: sit, here on this shelf. Pull your knees to your chest, lean back against the wall like you did in your parents’ house when you were a boy—like sometimes you catch your daughter doing late at night, staring up at the moon, the stars, like maybe there’s something up there worth knowing about, something to hear, to feel out in the universe that makes it all worthwhile. Close your eyes. Listen. These raindrops like shockwaves, carpet bombing, white noise: a pattern so complex as to be nothing, unknowable.
Is there something in that, something buried?
What is it?
What’s out there?
* * *
You’ve been sleeping for hours. Your wife will be hysterical. Your phone’s dead; it must have died in the night. You need to get moving. You’re a day behind already. They probably won’t notice. But this is how it starts. It’s just this one thing, and then there’s another, and another. Work-flow halts. This is how you get fired. This is how you disappear.
But the door is stuck, even when you push with your shoulder, even when you ram against it; it bends, it creaks, but it doesn’t budge. The mud must have mixed into a slurry, akin to concrete. Those tools must have mounded against the door, jamming it.
Don’t panic. This is a man-made object; there has to be another way out.
Sure enough, look at the floor: a hatch. Odd that you’ve never noticed that; the tools must have covered it.
Beneath the hatch is a rusty metal ladder, old, old, which falls away into darkness. Down, down. Much farther than you would have thought. Who knew the island could be so thick? You have been climbing for nearly a minute when your foot strikes floor, a material like granite, marble: smooth, slick. It’s pitch black in this . . . cavern? . . . you’ve found, but even as the thought flitters across your mind, a point of light opens in front of you, which flares like a flashlight in the distance, and then—
The horizon begins to glow. The sun is rising. Something has happened to the walls; something has made them invisible. It’s like they’re made of glass, like they don’t exist. You stand here in midair, the horizon spilling out in front of you like you’re watching the birth of the world.
The man you buried is here as well. He’s covered in topsoil, but the wires and tubes that protrude from the base of his skull and all the way down his spine, like a bird’s nest of blue and chrome, plastic and metal and silicon: they are so pristine. Sterile. He’s not moving, just hanging there. Is he alive? He’s turned away from you, and whatever noises you must have made in the descent haven’t alerted him. A part of you wants to reach out, to touch him, let him know you’re here. But then the whole thing—the whole island—drops, like an elevator with hydraulic breaks, falls just an inch. The scene slips slowly downward, and then a jolt—the tether, disengaging?—and now force, movement pressing down on you, the island picking up speed, sloughing off the burden of gravity.
And the islands fall, and the desert, the city in the distance chained to other cities by highways running off cliffs into the oceans. Soon, it’s all one mass, congealing, slipping away; the Earth is a ball fallen from your fingertips, shrinking with each passing second. All around stars, and void.
Suddenly, at that fleeing horizon: a pinprick, germinating, blossoming into solar flare, burst of light—a timid hand, a nervous kiss brushed against the whole of creation.
Benjamin A. Tyrrell is excited by the times. Authors like Kelly Link, Rivka Galchen, Jeff VanderMeer, and even Yiyun Li are taking the Weird to broader audiences, spreading it like seeds across a plain once thought too strange to be fertile, but which is proving to be very bountiful indeed. Benjamin is glad to spread the gospel of the Weird through publications at places like apt and Isthmus, and is happy to be involved in the glorious, genre-smashing mind-boggler that is Betwixt. He lives and works in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his roommate’s cat and his pots and pans.