“Howl, fir tree; for the cedar is fallen; because the mighty are spoiled” (Zechariah 11:2).
The Watson girl had only been missing a matter of minutes, yet she could feel the tension mounting, the disaster taking shape. Her cousins were calling her name loudly, angrily, like she should reveal herself, but there was no way she was going to do that. At home she’d given up on hide and seek. All the spots in her flat Tulsa house had long ago been scouted and discovered. Her mother had to pretend not to know where she was, and that wasn’t any fun, so the Watson girl played other games. But here, in Mankato, Minnesota, in a game that sprawled her aunt and uncle’s two-bedroom apartment and the mortuary below, hiding spots abounded. At first, she’d wandered the showroom, running her hands along those shiny wooden caskets with their silken insides, considered climbing in. No, that would have been too obvious. So she pushed past the door her uncle had specifically said not to open, the only room in the whole place where she wasn’t supposed to go. It was obvious why, the dead woman lying on a table, her pores showing like caverns through unevenly applied foundation, her cheeks green despite the clownish pink blush. The girl gently poked the woman’s cheek. Then she tried to lift an eyelid, which didn’t come easily, until she saw why—a flesh-colored disc, spiked and holding it in place. She pulled away, the eyelid half raised to terrifying effect, the spiked disc poking out.
She climbed into the waiting coffin, which she assumed belonged to the dead woman, who was not old in the way of a grandmother, but middle-aged like the Watson girl’s mother and very slender in her pale blue skirt suit. The girl liked the color choice, the shade of sky, and it made her like the woman, and she told her so, “I like you,” before she closed the lid, marveling at the chill the white silken fabric pulled from her skin. She was alive, in a dead woman’s box, and she knew she shouldn’t be there. Still, she didn’t get out. She did, however, reach down and remove her shoes, placing them on her chest so she’d be the only thing they’d dirty.
She could hear her cousins, those giants. They were teenage, the girl a senior who played center on the high school’s basketball team and had colossal thighs, always in shorts. The boy was only a year younger and stocky, a football player and a bit of a lady’s man, she’d heard her aunt say to her mother over their afternoon cocktail. He liked to tickle the Watson girl, who was twelve and still had the arachnid legs of a child, to get on top of her and make her laugh until a little pee escaped, a type of torture. He was handsome in a mean way and she was afraid of him. She could hear them on the other side of the door, trying to decide what to do. They agreed to check the yard out front, and she heard them go, and she was glad.
* * *
Across the street, the neighbor watched from her window as those gawky teenagers came bursting out the front door of the mortuary, shouting and hunching around the yard. They talked awhile before running in opposite directions. One of them stopped, the boy, and watched the girl as she curled around the corner, before he continued on, shouting—what was he shouting?
Livewires, those two, like they burned extra hot, but maybe that’s what happens when you grow up with death like a daily to-do list. The neighbor worried they were overcompensating, that they’d blow out.
It was a thing that happened when she liked someone—she worried—and she liked those goofy teenagers in the same way she liked those astronauts, the ones on the space station who were rumored to have fallen in love. It was a first, everyone kept saying, but the neighbor knew that wasn’t possible. All those astronauts on the space station, often for years at a time? This just happened to be the first time they’d been caught. To help promote the space program, NASA had implemented a new feature: periodic livefeeds from various hot spots on the station. At first it had seemed like a frivolous expense, but when they caught Astronaut Jack in the tight Cupola, singing a heartfelt falsetto of Queen’s “Flash” while he grappled a resupply spacecraft with the robotic arm, the whole world fell in love. Jack, being handsome and a bachelor, received many proposals of marriage, death threats too—love is a vicious thing—but everyone tuned in for the regular livefeeds.
Most of the time, the astronauts performed their tasks mechanically, knowing they were being watched, but other times they were caught off guard, and in one such instance, they’d been captured in the dining hall. As American astronaut Pam reached into space to recapture the pouch of ketchup that had floated off in low-gravity, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Vasyuten gave her backside a good squeeze. While the tabloid media had a field day dissecting and zooming in on Yuri’s hand and Pam’s ass, what the neighbor most enjoyed was the smile Pam gave Yuri as she floated back down to her seat. It was just a micro-expression, but the neighbor had done her own slow-mo dissections on the computer her nephew Jerry had passed on to her, and she’d seen that smile, reprimanding but sexy—how had Pam managed it? It was powerful and alluring and of course everybody loved it, the story of transnational love, doomed to be short-lived, very Romeo and Juliet if you will. It wasn’t the neighbor who’d come up with that allusion, but she planned to use it on her sister who came for supper on Thursdays and would be there soon.
The neighbor checked the clock on her computer. The next livefeed was in four hours, from the dining hall, which was lucky. It’d mean a good chance that Pam and Yuri would be there together. Then she went to the window to see what the neighbor kids were up to. They were back—she could see the pair of them in the upstairs apartment, talking with their mother in the kitchen. One of them was crying, the girl, and she looked ugly when she cried, like a giant baby, and their mother, she was yelling. The neighbor couldn’t hear her, but she could see it, the way she barked out words. A strange woman was there too, arms crossed over her t-shirt, the shelf of flesh above her too-tight jeans. She looked furious and tired and unfamiliar—who was she?
* * *
The Watson girl listened as her mother stomped around, looking for her. Her mother’s worries were already many, so it wouldn’t take long before she lost it, crying and angry and there would be a beating, no doubt. Still, the girl did not get out. It was hot in the coffin by then, the fabric warmed to the temperature of her body. She adjusted, stretching a leg, finding new fabric to cool her.
The divorce was not yet finalized though the Watson girl held little hope. Her parents had been arguing for years, but only recently had she heard the breaking and crashing as she cocooned under her covers, her pillows—nothing would stop out the sound. She didn’t know what they were fighting about, didn’t want to know back then. And when her father moved out, she was not sad, not at first. Just as the feeling of missing him grew so big it felt like a corncob lodged in her stomach, he would come, giving her one of his wide white grins from the driver’s seat of his little silver Audi as she bounded down the brick walkway, hopped in next to him, and they were off, to some place that offered a buffet, where they would pile their plates with salad and baked potato and all matters of pasta and Mom wasn’t there to make them finish. They would see movies and play mini-golf and swim in the pool at the apartment complex where he now lived, and sometimes she would find an earring or a woman’s tiny tennis sock and she would ask her father who they belonged to, and he would grin and say, “Oh that must be your mom’s,” but her mother didn’t wear tiny tennis socks and that earring—a giant hoop of gold, gauche, her mother would have called it—the girl had never seen it before. She said to her father, “I’ll take it home, then,” and closed her hand around it, and he smiled again uncomfortably, tickling her until she returned it.
None of her friends’ parents were getting a divorce. “It’s not a thing Christians do all that often,” the school counselor had offered in their weekly session.
“My parents are Christians,” the girl said again—she was tired of saying it. Though her mother was from Mankato and a proper Episcopalian, her father was a French Catholic, born in Lebanon, and neither makeup made much sense to Tulsans. She liked to tell people that her father was from the holiest place on earth, where Jesus himself walked, and this made them all stop and listen. The popular kids would get jealous, try to trip her up with questions, “Oh yeah? What’s the capital city?” “Beirut,” she would answer, so ready. “Well, well, well,” they’d say, “someone’s visited Wikipedia,” turning the others with their tone, not a big deal, not even worth their time. Eventually they’d shift into side conversations, leaving the Watson girl with her memories, which weren’t even her own and were terribly holey. Her father was only seven when he moved from Beirut to Baltimore, and he didn’t like to talk about it. “Your father left because of a war,” her mother had whispered once over the dinner dishes, eyes so big the girl knew she wasn’t to ask another question. And so she didn’t for a time. And so she told her own stories. She did research, starting with Wikipedia, sure, but she liked the local travel sites best, with their broken English and quaint web design, their photos of smiling tourists in front of the Roman ruins of Baalbec or Aeropagus of the Elders, that ancient oak of the Druze sanctuary—a tree with a name! Through her research into the French presence in Lebanon, she learned the word occupation. Imperialism. Partition. Those were not nice words. Her father was quick to dismiss it, any talk of why he was there in 1982, when the occupation ended forty years earlier. Instead, he told her about their cedar, used to build the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. “In the Bible,” he said, and she chewed on that for a while.
“Of course they’re Christians,” the counselor had said, embarrassed. “I meant it’s not common practice, at least in these parts, so we’ve got to find our own way to deal with it, don’t we?”
But the Watson girl wasn’t embarrassed. Proud was more like it, like she had two homes, two lives, when all her friends only got the one. She was thrilled to leave her mother and rarely wanted to go back. “When can I stay the night,” she’d ask her father, and he’d say, “Ask your mother,” and she would, and her mother would say in a vaguely angry voice, “Someday, maybe, if your dad gets his act together.”
The girl would have a fit then, a real and good one. She had a way of letting her body loose, spinning out, stomping and slamming doors, and the shouting, the noise. She knew that was the worst of it, her mother’s face straining with the pain, the rage. Making a fuss, causing a scene—she could almost hear her mother’s inside voice that even then spoke through gritted teeth. The girl was too old for fits, and she knew it, and her mother knew it too, so they didn’t talk about it after. If she’d done it for her father, he would have held her tight and told her it would all be fine, and eventually he would have given her everything. Similarly, if she’d fitted like that for the counselor, the woman would have been so afraid, she would have written a note to excuse the Watson girl from any test or quiz or gym class that she just–sob–couldn’t handle right now.
Her mother was gone now, no doubt back up in the apartment, or on the street, looking still. The girl was amazed, really, that no one had come into this room. They had all taken her uncle’s dictum at face value, as if the room had been removed from their mental map entirely. She wondered: would they call the police, mount a search, put her face on milk cartons? Her socked feet tingled with the thought of it. Then she pictured her mother calling her father, getting his voicemail because he never answered. “He has to script his responses, you see?” Her mother had fastened onto the idea that he was a liar and wouldn’t let it go, but when the girl asked her what he had lied about, she got all tightlipped and turned, finding a chore to tend to. How would he take it, the news she was missing? She tried to picture him driving all the way there, but it seemed unlikely she could stay in the coffin long enough for him to arrive. Unless of course she died? She thought briefly about asphyxiation and lifted the coffin’s lid a few inches, feeling the cool flood of outside air, the new rush of chemicals. She could not see the woman on the table, but she felt her all the same and decided not to look. Privacy, they could each have that, couldn’t they? And she didn’t want to admit it, wasn’t ready to say it out loud, not even to a dead woman: my father is a liar.
* * *
The neighbor’s sister came for supper. This time she brought Jerry, the nephew. He was up from The Cities for the weekend and really raring to tell them about his new VR headset, how lifelike, how it nearly made him throw up! The neighbor yawned. She found him boring, his interests irritating. He worked in IT, he was always saying, which meant he liked explaining things to people, showing off what he knew. She didn’t like know-it-alls. He reminded her of her father and that was not a good comparison. Her father had always been conservative, but in his old age he became something of a zealot, hoarding guns and firewood and canned food for Y2K, keeping it all even after because the world had to end, didn’t it? No way it could go on like this for much longer.
The neighbor sighed and thought of Pam and Yuri two hundred miles above earth, only it wasn’t Pam whose buttocks he was squeezing, but her own. She felt her face heat and blush and shoveled a forkful of Southwestern hot dish into her mouth. She could not differentiate the ingredients, but she knew they were there—canned beans and salsa, pre-shredded cheese and a pint of cream cheese, a bag of Fritos—just as she knew the hot dish would stay fresh for a full a week, feeding her as she fed her obsessions. Muscular but shy Jack, cold and sexy Pam, and Yuri, that devil, always up to mischief. Lately it appeared his star was on the rise. It was his sense of humor, that mischievous grin, all those hilarious ESL issues. The neighbor had taught English as a second language when she’d lived in The Cities, so she was nonplussed by the tabloids’ bold quotes, highlighting those adorable misspeaks, like when he tossed a half-dozen apples into the low-gravity air and winked at the camera. “Look, I am juggler of balls.” Or when he told Jack, “You are bull!” Which everyone thought was an insult, as in, “that is bull shit,” or “you are full of shit,” though the neighbor reasoned out his true meaning: you are a stud. She could see it in his delivery.
“How’s the computer working out for you?” Jerry asked. He was nearing forty but still dressed like a boy, in band t-shirts and ill-fitting pants. His hairline was starting to go and he wasn’t even married. Not that it was the neighbor’s business. She’d never taken to marriage, to companionship. Sure, she’d given it a shot, even cohabitated once with a man named Cribby who had two cats and terrible food allergies. She’d hated the cats, hazing her world with their shedded fur, occupying the foot of her bed so that she could never stretch out. And all the specialized shopping, the restaurants they could never go to and cheeses she couldn’t eat because he didn’t even allow it in the house. Hives, she’d given him hives once by accident due to cross-contamination, and she should have known it then—she wouldn’t have the stamina—though she stayed for another three years.
She’d been with women too, why not? At her age, it would have been downright irresponsible of her not to at least try. But that hadn’t gone well either, not even with Eileen, who was athletic and milky skinned and liked cross-country skiing and ice-skating and oh, it was exhausting. The neighbor had tried, really, to keep up, but in the end it had proved too taxing, the world much better when she could have just a bit of it to herself.
“The computer?” Jerry repeated. “I wiped it clean, added memory—is it working out okay for you?”
“She uses it to watch those livefeeds from the space station,” her sister said.
The neighbor felt embarrassed, irritated, but her sister didn’t even see the glare she gave her, lost on her phone. Her long gray hair was tied in a loose braid, her face tense with concentration, fans of wrinkles forming at her eyes, her mouth, her forehead as she boldly typed and scrolled at the table. She had spent most of her life as a librarian, shushing people and reminding them to silence their phones, and it wasn’t until she retired last year that she finally got one of her own. Now she couldn’t be stopped.
“Oh yeah?” Jerry brightened. “I didn’t know you were interested in space travel.”
“She isn’t,” her sister said, “she likes those astronauts, that love affair.” This time she looked up, biting back a smile.
The neighbor wanted to shout: No phones at the table! But she was nobody’s mother. She wasn’t even the older sister. She was younger by two years and had never told her sister to do a thing. Her sister came and went when it pleased her, did what she wanted to do—it was both irritating and impressive. The neighbor realized that in her life she had given little advice or guidance, careful, very careful not to steer others into collisions. Being a teacher was one thing, with a subject matter, pedagogy to back her up, but advice? That was dangerous.
“When is the next livefeed?” Jerry asked.
“In forty-seven minutes,” the neighbor said.
“Perfect! We can watch together.”
She didn’t want to watch with them. She made her way to the front window, pulling the curtain aside. The police had come. Probably not a big deal, she reminded herself. It was not uncommon for the Mankato PD to come for missing cats and unkempt lawns. Still, her stomach churned with worry, counting family members, the mother on the stoop, speaking emphatically with her hands, the strange woman seated on the step next to her, her face swollen unpleasantly from crying. The kids—where were they? She felt a wave of nausea when she spotted the pair of them in the shadow of the mortuary’s awning, the relief making her reckless. Their mother saw her watching from the window, and glared like she was somehow responsible. The neighbor pulled the curtain closed and went back to the table where Jerry was going on about VR—he’d bring it over next time. You can peel a potato!
* * *
The Watson girl could hear the police officer out front, not his words, but the sound of his delivery, which even she, with little actual police interaction, recognized, most likely from television. She had to pee and was thirsty. But to come out now? They would all be furious with her. Was she afraid of their fury? She thought about what it would be like when her mother got her alone, and cringed. She would stay a little longer. She promised herself she wouldn’t wait too long, though, because even at her age, she still sometimes had accidents. Her father had always been nice about it, unlike her mother, who hated laundry and made the girl wear everything until it smelled. That was the one time she’d cried for missing him. She’d woken wet and shaking with a nightmare she couldn’t remember, and like always, tiptoed around her parents’ California King to her father’s side. Only when she saw his side still made up did she remember he was gone. He wasn’t there to help the girl stretch new sheets onto her bed, to tell her what he always told her when she had an accident: that as a boy, he’d wet the bed too.
After he moved out, her father would often take her on drives of the ORU campus. He liked to make fun of local hero and dead man, Oral Roberts. “The guy used to go on the TV and tell people if they didn’t donate, he’d die. I’m not kidding!” Her father would go extra slow as they toured the campus, all gold-gilded and honking co-eds in their convertible Rabbits. He always smiled at them as they passed, even the ones who gave him the finger. “Look at those hands,” he’d say, stopping to admire the great bronze sculpture, fingers pressed, like a giant had been buried underneath the earth, his hands all that showed. “The biggest bronze sculpture in the whole world, cast in Mexico if you can believe it.”
Could she believe it? He seemed fine to the girl, happy and doing good. She wanted to ask her mother, what am I supposed to see?
“Are you sick?” she asked her father.
“I don’t think so.”
She reached across the car’s inner island, put a palm to his forehead as he drove. “There’s something wrong with you,” she concluded.
She believed that lying was a sickness, the only treatment honesty. She wanted to help him. She thought if he told her his story that maybe he would get better, maybe he could find a way to cool her mother’s molten core. The closest he got was to tell her his father was a missionary. They were at Taco Bueno, devouring nachos in a booth.
“Where was your mother?” the girl asked. She could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, his brow knitted, his eyes on his office-smooth hands.
“She went back to Paris shortly after I was born. She wasn’t a true believer.” He said this last part with a tone she’d come to understand recently as sarcasm.
“Why didn’t you go with her?” It didn’t seem possible, a mother gone, a child left behind with his father.
“They agreed, my parents, that I’d be better off with him.”
He took a deep guzzle from his extra large cola and wiped his chin with a paper napkin and she could tell that was it; he was done telling stories. She looked at her father’s features, trying to find something foreign, unidentified, something he wasn’t telling her.
* * *
They pulled up three chairs to the computer, Jerry in the middle, manning the mouse. He was excited, talking about the last livefeed, when Jack had shown off the Space Garden.
“Growing plants in microgravity isn’t as easy as you think,” Jerry said, the know-it-all. “It’s more like an experiment than an actual food source, a way for them to learn about plant production in space so humans can someday move off world.”
But Jack hadn’t said that. He’d talked about the relaxing effect gardening had on him, how it kept his feet on the ground.
Over and over Jerry refreshed the page, and the neighbor had to stare at the carpeting to keep from getting sick.
“They’re late,” Jerry said. “Four minutes. They’re never late.”
Her sister was on her phone, typing and scrolling. She sucked in a shocked breath. “Turn on the television.”
The neighbor flipped through the channels, past old episodes of The Golden Girls and The Simpsons until she saw it, so familiar, the span of the space station, its solar panels like wings, the newscaster talking about an explosion, the oxygen generators, the crew unaccounted for.
* * *
The Watson girl could no longer ignore the relentless feeling of having to pee. Thirst, sure, hunger, fine, but her bladder had stretched beyond its capacity, becoming a thing outside her control. She was about to hop out, find a bucket or sink, when she heard her mother’s voice from the showroom, just beyond the door. She lifted the coffin lid to hear better. At first her mother was speaking through sobs; then she was quiet; then she hissed something in a low angry voice. The girl could not hear her words, but the spectrum of her emotions was easily identifiable. She closed the lid and urinated right there in the coffin, wonderfully warm until it was cold and there was the smell now, worse than the chemicals, filling up the air around her.
Her father. That’s who her mother had been on the phone with. She knew that tone, that specific tenor of anger—only for him. Her mother hated him, the girl realized. Her mother hated her father. And then she knew it: he would have had to have done something truly terrible to make her mother hate him so, for her to carry this much rage. The girl had grown afraid of her mother, whose hands were lightning fast when she was stoked. It didn’t take much, a roll of the eyes, the huff of a sigh, and crack. Her mother had never hit her before. The girl was starting to forget her mother’s laugh, the way her hair smelled, the electric feeling of lying side by side.
On the girl’s last night with her father before the move, they’d decided to order pizza in, play video games. Her father had a Wii and he liked the Mario games, said they felt familiar, so she raced circles around the Mario Kart track and drank too much cola, her heart racing with the caffeine, and it wasn’t until he was tucking her into bed—the first and last time she would sleep over—that she worked up the nerve to ask, “You said your father was a missionary, but what does that mean? What did he do in Lebanon?”
“He spread the faith.”
“Did he do good?”
“He spread the faith,” he said again. “Don’t you believe?”
Not for some time, she wanted to tell him, but she wasn’t ready yet to say the words aloud. Instead she raised her chin, not a nod exactly, but her father took this as a yes. He sighed. “I believed then too.”
“Why’d you stop?”
“Because we fled.”
She saw it now, the picture of his life, a missionary’s son, with friends and classmates and people who depended on him, only to come to Maryland where he wasn’t wanted—he’d told her it was so.
She had more questions, but he flipped out the light, commanded, “Say your prayers,” like reflex.
Her grandfather had died before she was born, so she had no memories of him, nothing to contrast her father’s story. He sounded like a coward, but somehow she knew that wasn’t the whole of it, that somewhere beneath her father’s story was another one, and below that another one still. She wondered if she had a grandmother. She realized now, in the dead woman’s coffin, never once had she asked if the woman who’d fled to Paris was still alive.
The girl let her mind drift, hunger carrying her off, to Mount Lebanon, cedars growing out of the rocks, stretching for the sky.
* * *
Her sister was busy futzing with her phone, Jerry searching the internet. Had anyone died? How much oxygen was left? There was no information, only more questions, and the neighbor went out the front door she so needed relief. It was quiet, the police car gone. The lights were still on in the apartment above the mortuary, but she could see no one in the kitchen. It was warm out, the mosquitos up. She slapped her arm, squashing one against her flesh.
“You didn’t see a girl,” a woman called in the dark, “twelve years old. She would’ve come out about three p.m. this afternoon.”
The neighbor squinted to see her, the stranger, seated on the porch steps.
“A girl?” She thought back, thought hard, “only the one who lives there, running down the street. Is she okay?”
The woman shook her head. “She’s fine,” she said bitterly. “My daughter. We’re visiting, moving here, actually. She went missing this afternoon.”
“That’s terrible,” the neighbor said, still not crossing the street, staying on her own lawn. “Is there anything I can do? Have you had supper?”
The woman dragged a palm down her face. “I ate,” she said, “thanks.”
“Are you sure you checked everywhere? I never saw her, not since you arrived.”
A car pulled up then, the hearse, and out came the father of those gawky teens. He had a lazy kind of permasmile, a sort of syrupy way of speaking that made her wonder if he drank or took pills. The woman stood, holding the bannister with both hands. “Nothing?” he called. She shook her head. He turned to the neighbor then. “Evening,” he said, permasmiling.
She nodded back at him and went inside, watching through the window. In a moment, he came out of the mortuary with his metal gurney, sliding a body bag onto it and carrying it inside.
* * *
The girl could hear her uncle as he retrieved the gurney, wheeling it outside. There was a moment when she considered running, but her legs were numb from nonuse and she was afraid, unsure of where to go, sort of hovering in a blank space. It had taken hours to get there, to nowhere, and even though she could hear him out there, her uncle, she was alone and drifting, and that was enough for now.
Just before the move, her mother had applied to have her legal name changed, the girl’s too. They would go back to the mother’s maiden name, stripping the girl of her father entirely. “Watson,” her mother had said, “it’s a common name, but it’s got kind of a catchy sound, don’t you think? Watson?” She wanted a fresh start and the girl could see she needed it, but still, she couldn’t help herself from fitting, the mother closing the windows, dragging her into the hall closet. She was tired of the girl’s fits, “Tired,” she said, “you can come out when you’re done.” But the girl did not come out, not for several hours, not until her mother opened the door and told her, muffled by their winter coats but clear all the same, “I’m never going to be sorry, never. Not for this.”
The Watson girl knew her father wasn’t coming. He’d agreed to the name change, the move, all of it, telling her it was best for everyone—what a lie. She knew it was best for her mother, but her father too? She couldn’t believe it, that he would be okay with letting her go, but he was—that part was true. She’d driven all those hours, those miles of flat highway, the fields and fields of corn and colossal clouds like bomb tests. They said nothing the whole drive, and the girl got lost in her silence and she figured her mother got lost in her own, and she had a feeling like forever stretching before her, limitless like those goddamned fields.
Her uncle came back in with the body. She couldn’t see him, but she knew it was so. She listened as her uncle examined the dead woman on the table. She could almost hear him adjusting her eyelid, see him turn to the coffin, which she knew he knew he’d left open. She heard him take a few steps, stop, wrench the lid open with a certain theatrical confidence, as if to say, I knew you were there! He looked down at her, not at all amused, and she was aware suddenly that he did not like her, and she screamed and sprang from the coffin, her shoes, which had sat on her chest unnoticed for some hours, falling to the floor. She called for her mother, crying now, the lights too bright, the air cold.
* * *
Yuri was dead. That was all the news offered. Yuri Vasyuten, age 29, has died.
“No,” the neighbor said, unbelieving.
“It’s awful,” her sister agreed, stabbing at her phone. She was looking for some other story, something to contrast this truth, which could not be. No one, not a soul on the planet, would want to believe it. “Poor Pam,” she said.
But the neighbor knew Pam would be fine. It was everyone else she was worried about.
“They’re all freaking out on Twitter,” her sister said. “NASA is fucked.”
“Maybe it’s not their fault.” Jerry had his phone out too. “Some people are saying Russian sabotage. Roscosmos Corp just dropped off supplies after all.”
“Stop,” the neighbor said. It was stupid, forming theories. Worse than that, reckless. It would all come out, or it wouldn’t. But she wasn’t going to waste her time, climbing the stairs and shutting herself in her bedroom. She was upset, trembling—she wanted to cry. No, she was crying, and she felt it, how dangerous it was to care for anyone, how much it hurt.
She heard a scream from the mortuary and went to the window, saw the shadow form of the father lurching around the showroom, the lights on upstairs. The strange woman was hunched at the kitchen table and alone. The neighbor saw the girl coming before the woman raised her head, before she stood just in time for the girl, running full speed into her arms. They held each other, and the neighbor clutched her chest, felt something like a pain there, no, only her thumping heart, heightened and her own, and she yanked the curtain shut.
Katie M. Flynn’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Joyland Magazine, Juked, Ninth Letter, Witness Magazine, and elsewhere. Her story “Island Rule” was named the winner of Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction. She has received a fellowship from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and the Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing and serves as fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine.