Being a father was the single most amazing thing that ever happened to me, but it had its ups and downs. In the pitch dark, windows taped over with newspapers and blankets, I sat and listened. Her tiny coos under the swell of rumbling outside. Hordes of undead who didn’t know we were on the second floor. They followed our neighbor, Chester Lime, who let all those yellow-headed dandelions grow until they were white whispers floating into our yard.
We heard him yelling, pounding; we heard his fingers scrape the boarded dog door. They tore him to pieces. He was calling, “Howie.” In a panic he sounded like a coyote. That was what I told my wife, Reba. It was just a dog. A simple protection, that lie. Like the old days, when I believed misogynistic courtesy was a luxury.
The next morning, I peeled back a triangle of paper from the window. I turned the flannel I had worn for a month inside out. Slid my arms back into the sleeves. A superstition from football. Never launder a jersey during a winning streak.
Reba half-nursed a half-asleep Lucy Pearl in our bed.
“I’ll go out alone,” I said, like an old routine: I’ll clean the gutters. I’ll rake the leaves.
“We’ll come.” Reba scooched herself out of bed. Slid a bowie knife into her sheath.
“You’re not taking her,” I said. “Make me a grocery list. Remember that? What do you want?”
Reba smirked. “Equal rights?”
“That’s a blast from the past,” I said. “But I won’t risk her. Or you.”
“You think that matters—this chivalry, or whatever it is?”
I used to look both way in traffic for her; I used to pay for her dinner. That was part of the past I longed for. Things weren’t right, but things were alive.
“I’ll stay,” Reba said, “for her. Not ‘cause you said so.”
I lumbered halfway down the stairs.
“It’s too warm for that shirt,” she called. “If they chase you, you’ll wish you didn’t wear it.”
Maybe she was right. Maybe the lucky flannel wasn’t lucky. Maybe it was the beard. I left the flannel bunched on the stairs.
The future is female. I had that bumper sticker on my car. Before Lucy Pearl, before all this. But the future was surviving. I knocked on the front door with the flat end of the splitting maul and put my ear to the wood.
“Yoo-hoo,” I said. “Anybody out there?”
From the top of the stairs, Reba said, “Quiet. She just fell asleep.”
“I’m opening the door.”
Her voice jumped. “Follow the rules.”
I checked the peephole. Saw Chester’s house and the horde of a hundred thousand dandelions in the yard.
“Now I’m opening the door,” I said.
The parting brought a rush of warm air that lifted the hair on my arms. Blue sky and clear roads. Even in a world of shit beauty never died. I heard Reba on the stairs. Her rumble. I saw the panic in her face; then I saw what was left of Chester. Legless and snout down on the welcome mat.
Reba was halfway down the staircase when her feet twisted in the lucky flannel. Arms flung out to brace her fall, Lucy Pearl suspended in space. She thudded on the linoleum in the foyer inches from Chester. Reba struck the floor, too. A coyote-yip of pain.
“Grab her.” Reba cradled her arm.
Chester’s head lifted only to snap against the floor like a rat trap. Reba scrambled for Lucy Pearl, and I drew the maul over my head. Clopped it across Chester’s neck. Splitting half-way loose. Another windmill chop freed his head completely.
I can’t say why I booted him, but I kicked Chester’s head, and it ricocheted from the wall, recoiling back into Lucy, tummy-down. One bite. Two red crescents tattooed her crown. And I leapt into the air. Landing heavy. Chester’s jaw split. Imagine a ripe fig. Breaking all his teeth like the seeds decorating pink pulp.
Stiff muscles, excessive saliva, fever, nausea. Those were the initial symptoms. Then the spasms. We thought Lucy was going to break every bone in her body until we swaddled her.
“We need to lock her in place with leather belts.”
“Baby’s don’t need that,” Reba said.
“We don’t know.”
“You’re going to do what you’re going to do.”
“Yes, I am.”
The metal buckles rattled all night. When her eyes lightened, a glacial blue, she was one of them. Her jaws now ever chomping.
Reba blamed herself; I blamed myself. But all the blame in the world wouldn’t change Lucy back. She watched us, cried for us. But now she wanted to consume us.
Reba expressed milk into a bottle. Held it to her tiny blue lips, but Lucy wouldn’t drink. She spit it up and panted until she gagged on empty breaths.
“I can’t take it. She needs to nurse.”
“If you release her, you’re going to kill us.”
“Now I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”
Reba unstrapped Lucy Pearl and brought her to her tit. Tiny arms clawing at her face. Lucy’s toothless maw gnawed Reba’s dark nipple. Pink gums mashing Reba’s skin, mouth around her areola. Milk dripped from her lips. We were never happier than tonight.
For two months, Reba nursed our undead girl, and I scavenged the neighborhoods. The hordes had followed the meat to Portland and Eugene. There was no one here except us, farmland, houses, barns, and pantries. Pantries brimming with cans of red beans, ravioli, tuna fish, cranberry sauce, pinto beans, and fruit cocktail with cherries. And we had tools and gasoline and hunting rifles. There wasn’t any reason we couldn’t live in Shangri-La forever.
But Lucy Pearl’s mouth had a problem. Reba’s nipples were swollen, the skin bruised. I used my pinky to feel insider her mouth. Her once round gums peaked.
“Did you feel this?”
“She can’t break the skin.”
“Are you suicidal?”
Lucy was five and a half months old. We sat in the dark and planned her future.
“What about cotton balls?” I said.
“You can’t tape inside her mouth. Maybe a mouth guard.”
“They don’t make ‘em for babies.”
Reba put her face into her hands. “I’m trying my best.”
I rubbed her back. “Other people have to have this problem.”
She drew her hands down her face, cheeks stretched under the tension. “My mother used to tell me she’d loop a string around my tooth and tie the other end to a door knob.”
“And she’d slam the door,” I finished.
“What if we just yank it out?”
The Hyacinthus bloomed in September. At dusk the world was purple mountains. Gray barns falling in on themselves, but pink skylight snuck through holes like playful snakes.
We ate dinner on the porch, Shepard’s pie with pheasant meat. Shared a bottle of Chester’s Yellow Tail shiraz.
“You ever imagine this?” I said, and sipped. The wine left no legs on the glass; I couldn’t help but think of Chester on our welcome mat.
“More,” Reba said, gulping hers.
I missed the old world. Paying twice the worth of a bottle of wine at a restaurant. Waiting an hour in line for brunch. Those horrible half-year reviews at work.
“I’ve been pulling nails from a board,” I said. “Practice.”
Reba said, “Do you remember getting circumcised?”
We heard Lucy cry like a wild animal, and the bottle of wine was empty.
“We should do it now.”
In every world there were rites and rituals. Like smoke drifting off of censors in church for the souls they were meant to save. We lit tea candles, and Reba placed Lucy on the table, a spread of instruments before her: needle nose pliers, channel pliers, scissors, a needle, and thread.
“I should do it,” Reba said. “It was my idea.”
“I can do it.” I took hold of the needle nose.
Reba set her hand on mine, restraining the pliers. “You need to stop trying to protect me.”
“I know,” I said, re-gripping the pliers.
Reba guided the pliers from my hand. “I need you to stop, or we’re not going to make it through.”
“It reminds me of back then.”
“But this is now,” Reba said, and she pried Lucy’s lips apart with her fingers. “And you’re going to stop.”
I was never ready for this world. I had lived too long in the old days. I remembered too clearly. But I said, “Yes.”
“Then count to three,” Reba said. “But count up. I never liked it down.”
Today had been like every day: morning, noon, and night. In the moment that followed the silence began. But then it swelled.
I held Lucy Pearl, and she suckled the cold pliers. Being a father had its ups and downs. We stood in the candlelit dark, windows taped over with newspapers and blankets, as the silence grew louder and louder.
DESCENDANTS OF THE CROW
The girl in the blue bikini hurled herself from the ledge of Crow Creek Falls. She was number six. The only remaining evidence was the white ribbon in her hair, now wrapped around a reedy branch protruding the river’s glassy surface. All girls, but no bodies found. The mystery I was called to.
Then Jessalynn—fifteen years old, freckled with strawberry blonde hair—seconds later, sprinted toward the edge. She was number seven.
The Crow Creek Falls theories began with the pressure kids faced in school: ACT and SAT scores, potential scholarships, and how many social media followers they had—as if the absence of a viral video on their YouTube channel by the age of fifteen justified vaulting themselves to their doom.
The move from Chapmanokoma County happened a month earlier, and I was assigned to the Crow Creek Falls cases. My brother, Gary, still lived in Chapmanokoma Hamlet. Gary was a good guy, three years older; but he ate too much, and he drank too much. His cholesterol bumped 215, and if he stroked out someone would take care of him. I told myself this to make the seven-hour drive apart seem okeydokey.
Gary texted me a picture of his swollen leg—ankle the color of a baked ham hock, skin bloated like it was about to tear apart.
Does this look infected? he wrote.
It was common for Gary to text me about his health: the obvious gout, or some drunk-related self-inflicted infection, food poisoning from two-day-old unrefrigerated chicken wings, or the almost-always sky-rocketing blood pressure results.
You need to go to the ER, I wrote, but I knew he wanted me to write, No. it looks fine. If I responded with anything other than a joke, he went silent.
You’re going to die if you don’t do something, I wrote. You there?
Then I wrote, Are you ignoring me?
Then I stopped texted too.
Jessalynn was the most recent vanished; I started my interviews with Crane, her boyfriend. Said he saw the whole thing. Crane was sixteen-years old: blonde hair and alarming zits. I sat across their kitchen table, yellow doilies under the mugs of weak black tea his mother, Doris, made.
My phone vibrated in my jean’s pocket. “Excuse me,” I said, but I didn’t recognize the number. “What was that now?”
Crane said, “She was standing right there, but she was somewhere else, if that makes sense.” He scratched a yellow-headed zit, and he tore the skin. “Then she was just gone.”
“You mean she jumped?” I asked, and I handed him a napkin.
“No,” he said, and he dabbed his zit with the napkin, releasing it when tears tripped across his rutted skin, and he wiped his face with his hand. “She looked destroyed. Like she was on another planet. That’s when she jumped.”
I offered him the same napkin again. “You saw her jump, but what do you think happened to her body?”
Crane squeezed the napkin in his fist. “It’s a vortex like mirrors and sandpits,” he said. “The river goes somewhere else. You don’t know that?”
I sipped the weak black tea Doris had made, as she watched us from the kitchen doorway.
Doris said, “The man’s here to get answers, not to hear about those other dimensions.”
“It’s okay,” I said, and stood to excuse myself. “These things aren’t easy. And we’re all looking for answers.”
Every interview amounted to the same thing. They began with a group of teens going to the bluffs to party, soak up the sun, drink, and make out. Until someone stopped talking, their eyes drifting off, looking defeated, and then dashing off the cliff.
Only Crane talked about some other dimension. Everyone else was certain the body had been swept beneath by the handsy undertow from the water letting out a mile upstream at the Conklingville Dam.
The next weekend I drove back to Chapmanokoma Hamlet. Parked outside Gary’s yellow house. I could see him on the couch through the window from the road. Maybe he was watching a TV show. All the lights on inside. His arms moving like in molasses, slowly forcing sip after sip of vodka down his throat.
I texted, How you feeling tonight, bud?
He looked down at his phone.
I texted, I’m just concerned, but I’ll stop bothering you.
He looked concerned, concentrating maybe.
A text flashed on my phone. In another world, I’m vegan and I run marathons. Don’t worry about me. Believe me.
He must’ve drunk an entire liter of vodka before I started the trip home. Before I left, I wrote, I’d like to meet him—Gary the Vegan.
Number seven’s mother preferred to be called Ms. Ambrose. She had Jessalynn’s laptop password. Showed me her full Google history.
That was how I found the online forum.
Mrs. Ambrose said, “Jessie always talked about the Descendants.”
She paced in her living room, and I sat on the couch; but every time Mrs. Ambrose started in a new direction, I began to stand thinking we were going to another part of the house, but she’d reverse her course every time.
She told me, “They weren’t a cult or a religious group but strangers who had stories to tell about crows. Phobias, run-ins in the wild, stories of them attacking dogs or this one time a child at the playground.”
“They said it was all about the ancient Greeks who thought the crow was Apollo—a sort of prophecy. You can read their comments. It’s all the same thing.”
“And this is what Jessalynn talked to her friends about?”
“They were obsessed,” Mrs. Ambrose said.
It was beginning to come together. Crow Creek Falls, the Descendants of the Crows, the jumpers looking into the sky before leaping—as if speaking to some visible-godlike crow. But the wacky theory of a phantom crow was not enough to bring to my boss.
I wasn’t a tech addict, but I was addicted to the information. Needing to know when I needed to know was a problem. The internet on my phone meant knowing the batting average of Willie Mays, or the number of time zones in the world, or at what temperature bacteria is killed, or when Gary gets my messages and why he doesn’t respond. It meant instant knowledge, instant reassurance. It meant I knew everything. That was godlike.
I watched Gary for decades drink himself to death, and I’d been ready to get that call.
I texted him, Just curious. What dimension would you be vegan?
He responded, Pluto.
That’s a planet.
Then I’m vegan on another planet.
I wrote, Why can’t you be that here?
But he was silent.
I asked Siri when my brother would die, and Siri said, “I don’t see brother in your contacts. What is your brother’s name?”
They say our dead are never dead until they are forgotten. But can be alive if no one knows your name? Maybe Gary was already dead to the rest of the world.
The bluffs at Crow Creek Falls peaked two hundred feet above the river. The parking lot crowded with cars a decade old. Stickers of high school mascots, punk bands, and silhouettes of pornographic Disney cartoons.
The lawn on the bluffs a patch work of blankets and thin bronze bodies. I didn’t feel my age, but if I closed my eyes, I could be one of them. Still, they did not see me—the old, invisible man. Every one of them with a smart phone. Texting and scrolling.
I stepped over a girl with beer can in her hand. Unphased. Drawn into the intent world in her palm.
“Pardon,” I said, to a boy in the same state. He didn’t answer.
I clapped and shouted, “Hey.”
Fingers curled around my pistol grip. I imagined that could take aim, but they wouldn’t see me. Would they? Too suppressed by information. Where infinity does not mean everything but nothing. They were buried in nothingness.
I said, “Do you know about the jumpers?”
A girl, maybe Jessalynn’s age, in yellow cat-eye reflective-lens frames looked up. Did she see me? I was there in a white collared shirt. This was my face. See me?
But she raised her phone to the sky and took a selfie.
It seemed like they were gone—ghosts into another world. The internet was the fifth dimension. No past, no present. I looked at the sky. Crows flying in a circle, a ring of black knots. But crows don’t fly in circles.
I texted Gary, You’ll never believe what I’m seeing.
We were inseparable as kids. I’d crawl into his bed; he’d tell me he’d take me with him everywhere. To different states, different countries. We’d fly all over the world. But he was in Chapmanokoma, and I was here.
In the water, the crows made a circle like a portal. Maybe to where Gary was vegan. Maybe to where the girls were alive. Maybe I could go too.