C D Frelinghuysen
They summon me to my station early and when I arrive, a Paper Suit leads Hawkins by the hand.
"A near miss," the Suit says, gesturing to the bits of chalky black dust on Hawkins' jumpsuit.
"What a show!" Hawkins says. "I haven't seen fireworks in . . . how long ago is that?" He turns his stained face to me for help.
"Here you go," the Suit says, tearing off a soft cerulean sheet from his hip and handing it to Hawkins with a pair of safety scissors.
Hawkins shuts up and sits cross-legged on the ground as the decontamination team flamethrows the stained grass. At the first crisp snap of the metal jaws through the stiff bright page he closes his eyes and sways for a moment. It's a good one and I too reach down and run the pads of my fingers over the paper's felty grain.
"I'm not supposed to give these out, but you can take one for your shift," the Paper Suit says. The dusk breeze ruffles the hundreds of colored sheets down his body which hang like rainbow samurai shingles. I pluck one the color of almonds and press it between my palms. "They've finished moving your battery. I hope they don't have you zeroed."
"Right," I say.
The battery is modeled after the old flak guns. It gleams white in the meadow. Hawkins' sensory sack lunch sits just outside, unused. Vegemite on blue cheese crumbles. I bring oyster halfshells and Grapenuts, my usual, which tears at the insides of my cheeks but otherwise I'll drift.
The baskets come in single, lazy arcs. The first comes an hour into my shift and I send up a white flare, track the basket through fifteen degrees and blast it out of the sky. Ink showers down high above me in dozens of squidy streamers.
It does remind me of fireworks, like Hawkins says. Of course now there's a federal ban but I've seen them, real ones. A high school summer was the last time, when weekly over Lake Michigan the city launched a twenty-minute show of rockets, and concussives, and the ones that fizzled like the clatter of walnuts on my roof every time the wind swayed the branch too close, until a storm twisted the branch off, crushing the picket fence and the next morning Mom came in with bloody splinters in her palms from trying to pick —
"Come back, Kit," a voice says, in my headset.
I swear and snap my goggles back on. I've drifted off, but regain my bearings. Command has turned on the floodlights that crossgrill the sky. Ricardo, a mile away, lights up two baskets that have slipped through my sector and into his, already plummeting. We destroy them, the last of the wave, and I lean back against my seat. They flick off the lights and I'm left with my thoughts. On the back of my trembling hand is an angry blotch of ink, already soaking. I wipe it clean and burn the rag with the blowtorch strapped to my thigh, but too slow; the memories are coming fast now, like seizures.
Blinded by images of the walnut tree that flicker before my eyes, I fumble for the wooden brush strapped to the small of my back and release the catch of my barrette, relaxing only once the grippy bristles tug at my tangled hair. Even after the ends spring back curly I keep pushing it painfully down and down through my hair until my breath slows and I can see again what is before me: our planet under attack.
* * *
The obscure process of subduction, or the sliding of tectonic plates, is now a matter of national security. The same way that atmospheric currents whip up anvil-headed thunderstorms, circular forces underneath the crust are now ripping great seams in the earth, spitting out intrameteors of deep terrestrial origin. There had been no reason to assume them sentient, much less hostile, until the first one crashed into a preschool playground, drenching the toddlers with a black sludge. The police showed up, then the army, then the CDC. The public knows that they found twenty-one bodies. What they don't know is that they found no children, only adult mummies.
* * *
After a month Hawkins can accept visitors and I walk with him through the mock-up department store racks. Festive Paper Suits stand respectfully at the door in case of a relapse. The walls are covered with analog clocks all stuck loyally to the same minute. Strict yellow letters read: "Realis conjugations ONLY."
We don't speak until we reach the discount coats, which hang at shoulder level. Hawkins kneels a little and parts them like curtains. I follow him inside into a dark nest, with two stools tucked underneath a charcoal grey peacoat.
It's strange, being here. At the academy we'd traded our anchor memories and Hawkins had described this, where we are right now — the heavy taps of the wooden hangers against each other, all other sounds muffled by the phalanx of wool, which through invisible atomic forces tug the hairs on my arm and emanate warmth like a thick book. From the ventilation system they pipe in fresh pencil shavings, which smell wonderful. A nice touch. Even though this isn't my memory all my body is revelling in the moment.
"I bet you never thought you'd see this place again," I say, removing my shirt.
"For one good night's sleep," he says, unbuckling his belt. "I'd give back the Purple Heart and this whole damn place in a second."
I sit in his lap, both of us now naked. In the month of temporal therapy he's gained his weight back in his arms and his gut, which against my scrubbed skin is clammy and coarse. He lowers his head into the hollow of my neck and sobs, and his cold tears down my breasts raise twin ranges of gooseflesh, the Rockies and Appalachians of my warm unbroken body.
"You're not sleeping? Are you still drifting?" I ask, tapping his forehead with my nose.
Hawkins sniffles. "Dunno. A mess. For hours it feels like I'm still waking up, my eyes sore and my mind trying to corral the memory of what I'd dreamed — or imagined — or 'membered. I'm either exhausted or nauseated, all night."
We lie down in the darkness. I say, "Do you remember mine?"
"I can picture it like it's my own," he says, holding my hand. "A dining room on the top level of a rambler, on a hot summer evening. Your mother had turned off the lights because she thought it'd be cooler in the dark. You sit at the dinner table covered in a clear tarp that squeaks when your arm rubs against it. There's red pepper packets from the pizza place, and a cube of sweating Velveeta. The TV is on, over the back of the couch, and you are watching reruns of The Munsters. There might be a buzz, you're not sure, but without even taking your eyes off the TV you wave your hand over your plate of reheated ravioli. Then your mother starts crying. Because she presides over a home in which her daughter assumes there will always be flies on her dinner."
"You forgot the floss we used to cut the Velveeta," I say, and we're quiet for a few minutes.
Then he asks: "If you ever ended up in temporal therapy, why would you want to live in that?"
Before I can answer, a Paper Suit thrusts the coats aside and brandishes his baton at us. He hisses: "Watch your verb tenses!"
* * *
Not a week later a gunner in Calumet gets overwhelmed by ink, and a dozen baskets elude the grid and slam into the riverbank. I'm the first on site, equipped with a nitrogen tank and spray.
The red alert, booming up from the city behind me, is the sound of a record scratch.
The basket is sheer black volcanic rock, indicating its provenance from the asthenosphere. It sits in a foot-deep crater. It is featureless, but now a thin mouth of light appears around its waist.
I approach —
And am hit with a wave of nausea. I fall to my knees and clench the grass in my hands which I stain with my vomit.
The pod cracks open and its top half swings back. Something bounds out, a formless dark ooze, reaching for me, prone on the grass.
I stand — retch. The ooze crawls onto my face and into my pores, and whispers, "Nice to meet you. Let us remove that dimension for you."
For a moment after the ink obscures my sight a memory of Marco Polo buoys up. Me skulking around the edge of the pool, dripping. Waist deep in the shallow end, eyes closed, Sam strains to hear my wet feet slapping against the cement. "Fish out of water," she says, and opens her eyes to catch me.
Try again. I stood. I will stand. Twenty years ago I used to stand. I would stand. I should stand. There!
I should stand, unsteady. If I stand my earpiece will crackle with Ricardo's voice: "Run!"
If the earpiece should turn to static I run away but if so I would most definitely fall again with a head erupting.
English speakers would be hit hardest, deprived of that magical and flexible tense of Spanish or Finnish. In these languages the fluid mood of verbs can lubricate the mind against the new, invasive, un-American reality: the irrealis. This could form the basis for the popular aphorism coined about that day: El mundo gire pero ese día rebote. In less elegant English: the world may turn, but that day it may bounce.
With the dissolution of the present and past we may struggle to subvocalize our thoughts. Even one minor slip into concrete conjugations would paralyze one with a terrible nausea, like a corruption in the back of the brain. For some time I supposed I ground coffee in the morning and supposed I visited Hawkins who supposed himself more comfortable now that we supposed to live in his nightmare with him, even the Paper Suits that supposed to flutter around with lost expressions, tearing their sheets in frustration. For some time people may just lie shaking in the streets, retching.
So I supposed without verbs at all, a loophole past the sprawling desiderative into the perfect past: the past perfect, to avoid that now verboten word which to speak or even to think would collapse you in a heap for the remainder of the day. That word which could represent, in three letters, H-A-D, the entirety of our past, even beyond history into the cosmic facts of stardust and expanding galaxies. That word which for the Ink never exists and through our contact hoped to erase from our language. Again, the Spanish speakers should suffer this better because their verbs — self-contained rocks, only an appended imperfect "aba" or a subjunctive "ría" to invoke of the passage of all time or the uncertainty of the maybe infinite future, not needing recourse to the words that in one moment would course like an epidemic through English, annihilating in their sleep HAD, WILL, HAVE. Now MAY, WOULD, SHOULD, COULD, IF.
SHOULD — a strange word. It might contain not a spectrum of time but instead an entire moral directive. I should have been a better friend. I should not have left my mother there in my memory. I should fight this invasion.
SHOULD should lead every verb now, like a front shoulder. The Senate should already pass a bill for the calendar to be recast into one eternal month of MAY, MAY First to MAY Three Hundred Sixty-Fifth. But even so, who cares?
* * *
Obsidian baskets all along the highways and coastlines, our city transposed over Easter Island.
"Thanks for driving," Hawkins should leave the hospital, and the daylight on his withered pasty face: a white basking lizard.
"Anytime." Speaking (Wait! A gerund! I should inwardly protest, and the nausea may subside) a delicate operation. Especially while driving (not strictly a gerund, but I only might feel a tickle at the back of my head.)
Him: "Finally outside."
Me: "A different place, now."
Him: "Like how?"
Where do I start? The taping over of street signs and bumper stickers incompatible with the current language: Slow children ******* (participle). Jesus ***** (present). Don't blame me, I ***** for Kerry (simple past. "Blame" a prohibitive and not prohibited).
"Stop" and "Yield" signs still in place, not indicatives but imperatives. Herbert Walker would have been a fine President for these times, a man of terse commands and nouns. Read my lips: no new taxes. Weekend Prison Passes: Dukakis On Crime.
Downtown Michigan Avenue now: Hawkins' face an imprint of horror at the vista from my car window. I should explain to him why sequoias may overlap the thirty-story Carbide and Carbon building, not with broken windows and branches cracking up through granite floors, but just there together, elevator shafts within ten-foot trunks.
Could I explain that time is a series of cell doors, normally open only for one prisoner at a time but now all swinging free?
Further down the boulevard, the traffic lights: red, yellow, green, all at once. On our left, in the commemorative field by the lake, could lie the remains of the thousands who, unable to square their new circumstances, may have died from untreatable brain fever. Did I bury my mother there, too? After a weeklong decade spent by her gurney at County? Does it eat at me, that even in my thoughts, I can't put a period after the words, 'My mother is dead?' If I don't hide declaratives inside interrogatives all the clauses fall apart like Challenger and I lose my lunch.
Me: "Our prolonged contact with the ink may erase time from our language so it matches theirs."
Him: "Until we live in a fully subjunctive state." On the Skyway, now, high above receding Ice Age glaciers and Potawatomi skirmishers. "Simultaneously discovering fire and rocketing to Europa. How can we forget time, though?"
"Not forgetting. Out of reach. Like trying to draw what comes after line, square, cube."
In front of us now, the Field Museum and its new coterie of grazing stegosaurids. "I suppose not."
"It won't be long before that happens. When past equals future, when memory equals fantasy, what will happen to us?"
"No. That won't happen. I'm here with you, now." Does Hawkins bravely take the declarative hit and convulse? I would like to stop the car and hold him close. I should do it.
It turns out that when the ink finally covers the earth and abolishes time, I can think and speak again with indicatives. But the worse part is that it doesn't matter. We send rockets to Europa, yes. And to distant galaxies as well with ships powered with cold fusion, colonizing our first planet. But we wait forever for the pasta water to boil. We shovel the walkway to discover it's been July for as long as we can remember. Einstein holds the press conference.
"I never intended relativity to go quite this far," he says, stroking his white mustache with decomposing fingers.
There are no days, or months to mark the time. The sun continues to rise and set but is both eclipsed and full. The calendar on the wall says May fifty-third, and also Brumaire something, and KVII Kal. Sextilis with a cameo of Marius. Our Oldsmobile is covered in frost and I paddle a war canoe full of solemn braves down Lake Michigan under fleets of deafening silver zeppelins disembarking from Navy Pier. Barthelme becomes finally a bestseller.
Einstein finally says, "Don't think of it as all time compressed into one moment, but a cloud of all possibilities interchanging." And the nation from our sickbed screams, "What about our pensions?"
And eventually we forget what time felt like. We regress from cubes into static points.
I live in the split level with Hawkins and my mother. She cooks for us, and I attend her funeral. "Ravioli?" she asks us, picking at the rust on our can opener. Hawkins rests his arms on the squeaky clear tarp, staring at me in the dark room like he's got the worst case of déjà vu. So do I. Sometimes there is a fly on my food and I don't dare wave my hand but I do anyway since I already have done it. "I hate being poor," my mother sobs, no matter how many times I get up and soothe her.
I keep pulling shifts at the battery and in my secluded field I blast the same baskets out of the sky as Ink forms squish by and wave hello. The earthquakes never stop. I know there's no future uprising because there is no uprising.
We've lost the war but if I could just clear the cluttered past and future memories away I would remember what was at stake. I remember my old sensory training and find in my pocket the twice-folded square of stiff almond-colored paper, hold it up to my ear and tear it down the creases as slowly as I can. When the paper is torn into dust I close my eyes.
I sign up for one of the exploratory ships to Andromeda. It doesn't matter how far I run — the sick liberation is in my blood. But maybe, if I find a new planet, inhabited or inert, or like Earth, somewhere in between; without solids or gases but maybe instead pure energy or intention or love; without lifeforms but rather one pulsing Spinoza awareness brimming every horizon; no God, or God all; maybe — for a second, I could. Maybe maybe maybe.
C.D. Frelinghuysen is a writer in Oakland, and has fiction out in JMWW, Limehawk, Flapperhouse and DUM DUM Zine.