Fiction from NER 43.2 (2022)
y student overdoses the morning I learn my sister has been using. My student dies. My sister will overdose, later, but she will survive, pulled through by Narcan and luck.
I am bleary-eyed in the sleet of a New England January morning. It’s the kind of day that reminds me why the animals retreat underground, wait out half the year, will themselves dull and gaunt rather than search for growth in the desolate landscape. Each autumn, the leaves go brilliant and draw tourists to these small towns, but they are an immolation, a surrender, and when they fall, the branches look like upturned cages in the sky.
This place resonates hurts and haunts—the puritan desire for reform echoing over stolen land, a landscape made by filling in the Boston Bay and paving over the garbage, the birth of a nation feeding itself on lobster and crab hoisted from the belly of the sea, feasting on the stink of those creatures, desperate and scuttling.
When I drive to campus, the small town gridlocks to circle around the awkward public square like a drain. In the rain, which is relentless this time of year, I wonder when I will simply wash away.
The square is oddly shaped and uneven. It’s impossible for traffic to flow. It is, legend goes, the shape believed by the town’s 1656 inhabitants to resemble Noah’s ark. The town will not remove this historical vestige, a reminder that the world was wicked. Noah’s refuge was also a banishment.
The university’s announcement about my student’s death, and emails from others in class who know—like I do—that she has likely overdosed, fill my inbox. She wrote about the drugs she used for twenty years, the way she felt like she couldn’t breathe, was drowning unless she was high. How to critique a narrative like that, the steady march toward death?
I stare at my phone in the parking lot, hunched and cold in the early morning dark, the screen illuminated with loss. My student is dead and the campus trees seem dead, like those in the forest surrounding the house I recently bought with my husband who says we will have a white fence but not a child. At night the woods echo with the sounds of predation and defeat.
My mother calls, her voice echoing across the line from California, where it is still night and raining. She says my sister is using. We wonder what can be done with a narrative like that as we each sit in our dark and watch the rising water.
The narwhal horn is frozen in shellac, resting beside the giant bluefin tuna and a great white shark, dead-eyed, mouth open in an eternal howl. Placards explain to museum visitors that the narwhal is real, a whale with a magical tusk that is a protruding canine tooth, the same kind we use to tear flesh. The creature is nearly extinct, due to hunting, another result of human failure to recognize our likeness.
Around the corner are a hundred animals shot on grand hunting expeditions a hundred years ago and stuffed for show. Despite the museum’s restoration efforts, their fur is matted and the seams show. Tigers and bears are frozen in implausible poses like a curation of living death.
I have nothing to say to my husband on this holiday of love, as other people’s children pool all around our feet, taking in the carcasses.
We walk the corridor of evolution, time transforming dinosaurs into fish, reducing everything to extinction or smallness. Disappearance is the reward for survival.
My sister runs into the sea at midnight because her brain is on fire, her body is on fire, the world is on fire. She runs into the Pacific, hands up as if to fly because she wants to feel surrender.
The cops find her soaking and dead-eyed. She is not thirsty, she says. She will never stop using. The seals bark dissent. She announces her dog is her medical proxy. She has ordered a thousand dollars’ worth of children’s books she will never read to the children she does not have. The unopened boxes make a maze inside her tiny home. Trash lines the counters, maggots in the fridge.
When she was a child, we played kitchen, made tiny hotdogs and fries. Now she cooks meth, crushes Adderall, snorts coke, eats psilocybin mushrooms.
Later, she uses a knife to try and gouge out our brother’s eyes.
When she is not running into the sea, cops find her running barefoot down highways. She is rushing against traffic as if to go back in time.
Manic again, my husband speaks a squall. Words turn faster than his tongue and he loses time. He is always going, gathering cloud and pressure, always moving further away.
We have bought a house at his insistence, though I dislike this place, the cruel winters and indifferent people. The house is seemingly idyllic—resting at the edge of a lake, surrounded by woods—but I watch ice form only to crack, reminding me nothing is permanent.
My husband wanders onto the ice like danger is an illusion. His father and sister have disappeared when manic, hurtled down random roads or through the sky in great metal machines leading nowhere. Sometimes they said where they were going, but often not.
This is partly why my husband does not want children. How can he rewrite a family narrative like that?
I am afraid my husband will leave me, run into the lake, down the highway, will drown us both in the rising waters of his madness. After more than a decade of these mercurial moods, sometimes I wish he would.
The red fox arcs like blood spatter through the snow. Its hunt for creatures beneath the snow is a reminder that things are living underground, buried and beating. Perhaps it is possible to resurrect the dead.
I fog the window with my wanting.
When the fox rises, a mouse dangles from the cage of its jaws. I imagine it alive, wonder if it is resisting or surrendering to the inevitable.
More than one student writes about self-harm. About the reassurance of pain. Like their missing classmate, they write about their wounds.
My sister, too, seems to be lost; the line is dead.
After class students scroll, heads down, as they stream into the hallways, stopping now and then like a clot. In the hour since class began the news has announced that an iceberg has simply given up, slid from the solidity of land to swirl into oblivion. Deaths are mounting overseas from a new virus. The university emails to report a lecture series along with the latest student death from drinking, other sexual assaults, this time a professor and several students.
At night when I walk back to my car in the dark, catcalls from the dorm windows sound like the coyotes that run through the woods around my house. I wake in the night to a pack screaming. Blood on the lawn.
Migraines from the low pressure of many storms feel like a premonition. The muscles around my neck tighten and coil. The space behind my eyes flashes. Agony pulses, reminds me that bodies exist to hurt.
It storms much of this fall and winter, leaving me roiling in the black and burst of migraines, which send me to a place that feels both real and otherworldly. It is impossible to escape the painful isolation of my skull.
I skirt the windows, desperate for the clouds to part. When the power goes out, like it does often on the East Coast, storms ravaging up the coastline like the tides, it goes so dark I see stars burst behind my closed eyelids, hear my frantic heart. I am startled by the noise of being.
And the intensity of the rain. The water fills up the wetlands that line the edge of my house, threaten to spill over.
When Harvey hit, a woman I knew watched the water come for Texas, Louisiana. She drove between and beyond those borders with the ease of someone who took a cruise after the destruction because her insurance covered the damage.
She had faith enough to bring supplies to those in need. She posed, posted photos of the ways she tried to save those facing disaster. Mercy was always possible, her church preached, baptizing even the dead.
But animals were not people, she said, when she was asked to look after a pair of dogs. Their owner was out of town and the water was rising.
She left. They drowned, like much of the town . . .
To read the rest of “Doomscroll,” order your copy of NER 43.2.