And in the Dark They Are Born, Part 1
"HNK 1 IF FAR, HNK 2 IF CLOSE, KEEP DOORS UNLOCKED." (1 of 12)
CONTENT WARNING: This novel contains explicit language, as well as references to, or depictions of, violence, sexual assault, disordered eating, suicide, and addiction. Please read with care.
There’s a note on the door. The size of a playing card, its center has been stapled, its wind-crinkled edges left free to flap in the night.
Vitri stands among the weeds that have overthrown his front lawn, squinting at the note. Save for unraveling the scarf from his nose and mouth, he does not move. He waits. He listens. For the creak of a car door. For some wild cry. For a piston to fall from any of the gutted SUVs and sedans still along the street, their tires extracted and rolled off, axles flat on asphalt. But there is nothing. No movement whatsoever. No unfamiliar scent, no sound but that of the flapping paper. Each house still stands like his: stripped of its paint, reduced to shades of sand and khaki, to patches of rot and mold. All windows: boarded. All lights: out.
Vitri walks to the front door, eyes not wide but scanning, right hand gripping the 9mm pistol from his waistband, an idea that fades as he surmounts the four steps before him and shuffles along his porch. So as not to damage the note, he pries the staples from the door with his pocketknife. He brings the paper close.
JOIN US OUT BACK
The note, Vitri assumes, is an arm of his wife’s anger, but one without hands, without fingers—a stump wishing it were whole, able to reach, and grasp, and wring. A desperate reach. A miscalculated reach. A futile attempt to choke answers from a throat that has only questions.
Vitri folds the note carefully and shoves it into the breast pocket of his grey thermal shirt. Pulls the house key from his pants pocket and sighs. He anticipates that that’s all there will be on the other side of this door: sighs, and statements. Months-old sighs, months-old statements. I alone am not the cause of this world’s crumble. I alone am not at fault for the vacancy of our street. I alone cannot jolt it back to life. Blank stares from their son as the interrogation ensues, a debate of place emerging, the same debate of place that had grown stale long before the blackout.
GET US OUT OF HERE, Vitri thinks the note should’ve read. It’s what it all can be pared down to; it’s what this home has been for longer than he’d care to admit.
Inside, light breathes on the living room walls. Photographs are back on the mantle, the plastic crates from which they’d been plucked stacked near the sofa. Candles burn on the end tables and the hardwood floor, saucers beneath to collect wax. More candles are on the dining room table, beside place settings for three, empty ten-ounce glasses and ceramic plates, salad forks and spoons. Two burn on the kitchen counter, near the rack of scrubbed dishes and utensils, candlelight flickering off and on the refrigerator and cupboard doors.
As much as he prefers how it looks now to how he’d left it that morning—with clothes and debris strewn from front door to back, with soiled dishes all along the counters; the scent of sweat, dead skin and rotten food fusing with the odor of the excrement drums—Vitri, just feet inside, cannot stave off his confusion. After turning the lock of both deadbolts, his steps are slow, tempered. The candlelight plays tricks. His skin appears darker than it actually is, his beard more black than grey. There are smudges of soot across his forehead shaped like commas; there’s an exclamation point on the bridge of his thin nose. What the light cannot conceal is the leaping of Vitri’s eyes: from floor to table, from dining room to kitchen, from candle to candle, frantically attempting to make sense of this crossing over, from one world to the next, from the present to the past.
Vitri considers his wife’s anger once more, wonders into what exactly it has evolved. Self pity. Resentment. Hatred either masked or illuminated by a scene such as this. It’s as far as he allows his mind to stretch before surrendering to his senses. He inhales. Almonds. The candles. Her favorite. It’s been so long; months feel like years. In shutting his eyes, he is thrust back to a scene he revisits often while out and alone, scavenging, a scene before the boy, before these dark days, a scene his memory says is the last time these candles were lit: a long, bright hallway, a half-shut bathroom door, these very candles along the sink, his wife’s slender figure engulfed in steam, shampoo bubbling on her soaked hair. The Shouting Matches plays from the in-wall dock. Always The Shouting Matches. A distorted F chord. A hoarse hum before diving into the first line. She never sings along, though, not a word, not once, not ever. But she sways, and her long, heavy hair gently whips from shower wall to shower wall. And over time the sway expands into a twirl, into a glimpse of breasts and pubic hair, of calves and buttocks flexed with and by the raising of her toes, the ballet lessons she’d taken as a child paying off in the unlikeliest of spaces.
As for his part in the scene, Vitri cannot remember. He cannot remember if he keeps his clothes on and stands in the steam and watches her, if he tosses the store keys on the floor, strips, turns the music up, or down, or leaves it the same, or if he just walks out, unaware that it all can expire—the music, the twirl, the water, the light—unaware that not even his imagination will be able to place him.
But Vitri wants that. That scene. He wants this—the tidying, the candles—to represent her half of the apology. If it means they’ll make love again, he’ll say whatever needs to be said. He’ll even tell her what he saw today, what he always sees out there—the catfish remains washing ashore, the dozens of infant-shaped blankets heaped in the alley behind the ALICO building, the naked man stumbling on the other side of the Brazos, the rings around his neck, the dark scabs from sternum to groin. If she again insists on truth, as brutal as it may be, he’ll say it. He’ll tell her to pack the truck. He’ll tell her that half a tank of gas can get them farther than she thinks. He’ll tell her it’s finally time to leave Waco, that he can finally see that it just won’t recover, not even in the boy’s lifetime. Because he misses her. The feel of her. Her collarbone beneath his lips, her breasts in his hands. He wants to kiss her, actually kiss her, like he hopes teenagers still do, unconscious of their missteps, teeth clanging periodically, passion far outpacing form.
That, he hopes, is what these candles signal. That, he hopes, is on the other side of the door, in the back yard, waiting for him. They are waiting for him. Her. Their son. All that he is supposed to need. All that he is supposed to want. Vitri takes another deep breath. Opens the door.
Outlining the yard are lit tiki torches, lawnchairs methodically placed between them as if an audience had been expected but was running late. In shadow, two scrawny coyotes stand snout to snout, front paws plunged into a shallow hole, back paws searching for traction. He watches them. Doesn’t step closer. Just watches. Their coats are gone from the belly up, remaining fur in uneven clumps along the spine. Vitri can see ribs. Can see torsos at work. Gnawing. Tugging.
But it is soundless as he watches. It is senseless. His vision blurs. Blackens. His hands and feet tingle. The scent of almonds is replaced but by what he has yet to classify. And then his vision comes back. Sound too. And he watches as one yanks on a tendon with its teeth, spreads it thin like dough. Listens to the other lap from a blood puddle. He stands like this for two seconds, for four seconds, for ten, for twelve—
—then takes the 9mm from his waistband, straightens his arm, and fires. Once, twice, flash-flash, so fast it is difficult to tell if either coyote has been hit, or if the bullets were close at all. The coyotes sprint north together, across the lawn and into another until they either fall in defeat or blend into the night.
Vitri brings the pistol back to his waist. He knows nothing can be gained by walking to that hole, but he walks there anyway. He knows a fixed gaze cannot regenerate neck and facial flesh, but he gazes nonetheless. The boy’s right eye is a cavern, his cheek a canal, blood and pus smeared across the nose and jaw. The index finger of his wife’s left hand has been reduced to bone. Fatty strips of cheek and forearm lay on the dirt like stray puzzle pieces.
But the coyotes did not dig this hole. They did not light the tiki torches. They did not pull the trigger of the .22 pistol in his wife’s right hand.
And there it is, the only emotion that Vitri will remember processing in this moment: relief, that the boy’s fingers are near his chest, the entry wound inches behind his right ear, at an angle impossible for his wrist. As if his mother had whispered for him to stare at the moon.
Vitri pries the pistol from his wife’s hand and tosses it on the grass. He retrieves the nearest lawnchair, sets it by the hole and sits down. Takes it in until the bile reaches his throat, until his body begins its rejection.
Despite the volume of inanimate objects—bike frames, pots, pans, toasters, dresser drawers, phone chargers, corporate keyboards, wardrobes on wheels towering over pillaged suitcases, pants, empty hangers on bent rods, objects left by those who fled on sidewalks and public transit platforms, objects left for the stubborn to sift through— Calypso Street is clear of what Reyn has been instructed to scan for: Life.
Any sign of it is to be indicated by sounding the Jeep’s horn. Honk for sedans skidding out of alleyways and onto the street, honk for tweakers squatting beneath unhinged shop signs, honk for starved Rottweilers pawing through tipped trashcans, honk for small birds falling like rain, honk for their feathered pools of blood. LOOK FOR LIFE, her mother has re-written on the dashboard with a black permanent marker, the initial characters faded over time. Beside the phrase: HNK 1 IF FAR, HNK 2 IF CLOSE, KEEP DOORS UNLOCKED.
The small chunks of asphalt chiseled out of the street either by hand or by storm do not require the horn. Nor do the trees, bare, bark paling as if doused in bleach, nor do the shards of glass glinting near the parking meters. Here, on Calypso, Reyn has decided that IF FAR means somewhere near the riverfront, near the grey and blue buildings that once were hotels and whose foundations have since been reduced to floodwalls, should the river rise again. She’ll honk twice, then, if threats appear in the dollar store parking lots, or lurk among the shin-high grass of the St. Francis campus. And all Reyn can do is hope that her mother will hear it, somewhere in that hospital, whichever floor she is on, whichever staircase, whichever wing or operating room.
Reyn has been inside St. Francis before, at the age of five, for a second opinion on the best approaches for navigating deafness. She remembers her mother as comforting that day, strong and stoic for her daughter but fragile enough for love. Eyes forward. Straight back. Legs crossed; a bouncing knee. They’d held hands that day, in the elevator, in the waiting room, even while the doctor, a gangly man with a parched scalp, glanced incessantly at Reyn’s mother, then leaned back, inhaled, and explained what his examination foretold.
“ deaf mute. different insurance, very little we do. I’m sorry.”
Once home, Reyn’s mother, so healthy then, so colorful—a jade sweater with sequins, pinpoint eyeliner, sun-hugged skin—had laid on the couch, on her back, and waved her daughter over. She then grabbed three of Reyn’s fingers and placed them on her throat. And she’d hummed there, some slow, jazzy tune, on that blue couch, in that unkempt living room on LaFontaine.
It’s this moment that Reyn wishes she could step back into now. She thinks she’d tidy up the living room, stack the coffee table’s stray magazines, straighten the bunched rug, tilt the television so that sunlight no longer interfered with daytime subtitles. She’d then approach her five-year-old self, take her free hand and lead her into the kitchen, sit her down at the lone bistro table and write. Let her know. That she will never hear the kitchen sink drain. That she will never hear her father’s heel-driven footsteps, nor the sizzle of his famous crab cakes in the cast iron skillet. That touching her mother’s humming throat is not to be thought of as a game that one day she will win—correctly pinpointing the source of the vibration as a music student would locate notes from plucked harp strings—but only as an exercise of reduction: to smell, to sight, to touch and taste. She’d write that the words and phrases her five-year-old self will soon feel swelling in her gut, that jagged ball working its way into her throat, those beginnings, those embers, will surface only as a written question: WHAT DID IT SOUND LIKE?
Reyn hates that she will never know what the Jeep’s horn sounds like. She hates that it is this Jeep that connects her and her mother now, not that house on LaFontaine Street, nor that sofa, nor fully-functioning fingers latched to a fully-functioning throat. She hates that it is her deafness that keeps her here, in the driver’s seat, while her mother scrounges for what has replaced everything that she claims has been lost: FOOD, DRINK, MEDS, WORDS.
Day in, day out, these are the items they search for. They are why Reyn spends so many hours in this Jeep, outside of hospitals and pharmacies. Of course there they’ll be upon her mother’s return, in her possession, all four, in spades, positioned within the duffel bag just so, atop loose syringes and those rainbow-tinted vials of Ohapila as if Reyn’s mother were still trying to hide the addiction from her daughter. As if she hadn’t carelessly stabbed her forearm for the past nine months and plunged the drug into whichever vein she’d struck. As if her eyes wouldn’t then widen and immediately yank shut for hours, leaving Reyn, whose lessons in lip reading had come to as abrupt of a halt as everything else, to watch her mother talk. As if those conversations weren’t elaborate, as if her head did not roll from side to side, speaking her daughter’s name.
“ Reyn .”
“ Reyn .”
It’ll happen again tonight, Reyn knows, miles from here, on some rural road’s shoulder. She’ll point at CAN WE TALK? and her mother will point at NOT NOW and proceed to open her door far enough for the dim interior light to kick on. And she’ll go on with it. She’ll shiver. Her stained teeth will grind. She’ll cringe when the needle breaks skin. And, once her eyes shut, Reyn, as she always does, will tap her mother’s shoulder, her face, as much out of curiosity as it is out of concern, an attempt to understand the drug, the pull it has on the only person in her life. And she’ll once again think to herself how sad it is to sit idle and watch someone change so drastically. She’ll consider filling a syringe of her own and lying down on the back seat. She’ll picture her fingers filled with denim, and digging for more, yanking, struggling to drag her mother out of the Jeep and onto the road. Driving off, leaving her there for someone else to find and claim. Some other junkie with whom she could die. Staring into the night, she will contemplate exiting this forever—the Jeep, her mother, her home—being free to choose something better, to choose someone better.
Why she doesn’t act upon these thoughts is no mystery to Reyn. It’s fear. Fear is why she sits in this passenger seat, scanning Calypso Street. Fear is what drives Reyn to exit the Jeep each night, and walk to the passenger side, and use her shoulder to shove her mother’s legs in far enough to shut the door. Fear not of herself, nor of her mother, but the fear of being left with less than no one. She is deaf. She is dependent. A helpless parasite, she feels, that can only go as far as her host.
Survival, Reyn believes, hinges on that junkie in St. Francis, that junkie that once was a mother, a good mother who, when not leaping from job to job in pursuit of pay and benefits her associate degree from Louisiana Delta rendered elusive, made it a priority to compensate for the one instructor Monroe Public Schools issued to thirty-three disabled children; after her morning shift serving coffee—for a regional chain who, due to a last ditch effort to expand, was forced to drop its reputable benefits program—and before her night shift—at a nearby distillery she hoped would eventually have enough room for her on their marketing team; the graphics department, she hoped—she’d teach Reyn how to read, how to write, how to COMMUNICATE WITH THOSE EITHER UNABLE OR UNWILLING TO SIGN. She’d sit across from Reyn at the bistro table and mouth vowels, consonants, one-syllable words, then two, and three, and four, checking Reyn’s accuracy on dollar store legal pads. She’d spend hours guiding Reyn as she copied onto those same legal pads whole passages from her favorite books, and even more hours going over the reading comprehension questions Reyn would answer and leave on her pillow for evaluation when the distillery shift ended. All of which, as Reyn has thought often, would’ve been better explained had her mother at some point in her life been an educator. But she hadn’t. She wasn’t. Zero training. She’d even admitted time and again to hating school as a child. To hating reading. And yet her mother guided her. She supported her. And, above all else, her mother conversed with her. THEY WON’T TEACH YOU TO MAKE YOUR OWN DECISIONS, her mother wrote more than once, on the rare occasion that Reyn would express frustration or disinterest, THIS WILL. Another time: YOU’RE SO MUCH SMARTER THAN I WAS, THAN I AM. And another: I’M SO PROUD OF YOU. Her mother asked her questions, but not just any question. She asked the right questions. Instead of HOW WAS SCHOOL?, she’d ask, WHAT DID YOU LIKE ABOUT YOUR DAY? If Reyn was frustrated with something, or someone: HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO HANDLE THE SITUATION? Upon awakening, on a Saturday that she took off from work: HOW DO YOU WANT OUR DAY TO LOOK?
And Reyn wants that woman back, those questions, that concern. She wants to feel important again, important to the only person in her life. Wants her to know that she yearns for the day that they can once more cuddle on the sofa and watch Little Big Man, Reyn attentive, her mother nodding off. Wants to tell her how those reading lessons didn’t work, that instead of independence they fused within her a need of approval she hoped was satiable. JUST ONCE, Reyn wants to write on the dashboard, JUST ONCE CAN WE TALK? Just once, can they go back? Can they pass one of Reyn’s three TIME magazines back and forth, each of them underlining not just their favorite words, but a message—circled syllables of headlines, underlined sentences, a starred slogan? Can they create a code that only the two of them can decipher? Can there be something deeper than this Jeep to bind them once more?
But she is alone. Her mother is gone. Reyn is alone, and she is sweating. She removes the cat-clawed purple and gold LSU sweatshirt her mother snatched last week from a Goodwill whose roof had caved in, and tosses it on the back seat, leaving her in the baggy white v-neck whose off-brown stains still smell of stale coffee. The sweatshirt drops to the Jeep floor, settles atop an unplanned pyramid of empty bottles and cans. Quaker State bottles, Aquafina bottles, bottles of rubbing alcohol, bottles-bottles-bottles, and eye drops, and nasal spray, those that aren’t empty marked of its contents either by obvious color, or with OIL, SOAP GAS, WATER, or MED in the same black permanent marker scribbled across the dash and center console. Also strewn across the Jeep’s floor, atop a rusted toolkit Reyn’s mother has used only to break windows, are batteries—D, double A, triple A—torn pages of magazines and newspapers to use as toilet paper, rattier clothes than those Reyn currently wears, the occasional dry pen or stubbed pencil, assorted bandannas, one pot, one pan, a sack of brown rice clamped by a hair tie.
Because, for reasons of scope, she has tilted them at the most extreme of angles, Reyn cranes her neck to view what each Jeep mirror reflects, which is, as it has been for the past hours, nothing but asphalt, the tops of buildings. Intact ruins. She shifts in the seat, tilts her eyes downward momentarily, at her hands, at her forearms, now exposed, oily but bare, save for the smeared ink near the bone, remnants of a gel pen tattoo she gave herself out of boredom. Just her name, in capital letters. She rotates her hand, examines the clear fingernails she liked most when they were turquoise, the hints of dirt packed into her uncallused palms. Reyn hooks her fingers and thumb around her bony right wrist, paying particular attention to the overlap of the two, how her index finger is firmly atop her thumbnail. She does this every day. A tick of some sort. But she also does it because she worries about how emaciated she has become. She can run her fingers over her stomach and count the notches of her abdomen. When the rearview mirrors aren’t so severely angled, Reyn can see the knots of her triceps tighten as she grips the steering wheel. She can see just how large her eyes have become.
Reyn releases her wrist only when she sees a side door of St. Francis creep open. She straightens her back, hovers her left hand over the horn. The other is over the gearshift, foot at the ready. She has thought of this moment often, of a threat approaching, not intimidated by the horn, not turned away, but instead sparked by whatever noise it does produce, hoisted into a furious pursuit. She has pictured a man of indescribable height and girth dragging her limp mother out of these hospitals by the hair. She’s wondered if she could ever leave her mother in a scenario like that, drive off and debate over when it’d be best to return. Has wondered if she has it in her to gun it over the curb, across a sidewalk and lawn, pursuing from the seat of power she does hold, feeling the quick squish of the indescribable man beneath the Jeep.
Please be her, Reyn thinks, please be her.
Other than glancing at the ink-covered dashboard and gauges—half a tank remains within the Jeep—she keeps her eyes on St. Francis’ door. What appears first, seconds later, is an orange duffel bag, stuffed so full and rigid it looks as if it could pass for an antique trunk. Following, and nudging the duffel bag along with her shins and calves is Reyn’s mother. That black stocking cap. That faded pink jacket. That struggle—in each hand are canvas bags she must’ve found, misshapen by objects testing their elasticity. She sets them on the grass. Straightens her back, puts her hands on her hips. Squints at the sun. Catches her breath.
Reyn snakes the Jeep through waves of abandoned vehicles—sedans left windowless on the shoulder of the road, pick-ups angled across each lane, a tipped semi-truck, moonlight bleeding onto its intricate chassis—eventually passing the SHREVEPORT 14 sign and reaching the most open stretch of Highway 20. And there the masked are. Men and women emerge from each treeline as Reyn accelerates, and make their way to the road, topless bodies defined, muscle and tendon swallowing what fat remains. Each face is concealed. Mustard-colored welding masks. Gas masks splattered neon. Trailing are the children. As young as three or four, as old as eleven or twelve, all facsimiles of those they follow: frail bodies, yellow masks, bare feet, spines curved in prowling pose.
For three months now, Reyn has bore witness to this, to them, this emergence. For three months, she has driven this very stretch of highway, and for three months she has looked at her mother at this very moment, and for three months she has seen the very same reaction, a placidity she has yet to understand. Her mother’s shoulders do not tense, nor do her hands. She maintains her slouch. She keeps her eyes forward. Blinks. Again. Again, and again.
An exchange, that’s what this is. Trade. Of pills and plastic jugs, of rubbing alcohol and peroxide, of bandages and batteries and beakers, rubber-banded bundles of tongs and forceps, baggies of cotton swabs and iodine, all that currently bulks the duffel and canvas bags on the Jeep’s back seat. They do not want the magazines. They do not want the brochures. They don’t even want food. Medical supplies are all that the masked desire. In return is gasoline, and oil. In return, freedom is granted—to roam the stretch of highway they have claimed, to search, to resupply, to approach as they do now without the onslaught that Reyn pictures happening to unknowing passersby, a blur of yellow swarming tighter and tighter, releasing only when the intruder has been immobilized, corralled to the nearby exit ramps. In return is the only thing Reyn’s mother seems to truly desire: Ohapila.
As Reyn understands it, these yellow-masked men and women are its creators. Small bands of them venture into emptied cities each day to scrape paint, rust, and aluminum into buckets that they then lug back and dump into what her mind tells her are giant black cauldrons. She pictures the rubbing alcohol dumped in next, the peroxide, the iodine, ingredients of an imprecise process, an unbalanced blend stirred and boiled for hours over an uncontrolled flame far out in the woods, consistency and color a foreign idea, some vials smooth and the color of copper, others choppy and closer to maroon. Imprecise, Reyn has thought, because the masked need not care; if there are more like her mother—and there are; she has seen them—there is demand. They need not travel, they need not promote, they need not risk. All will come, and all will pay, and all will return.
For three months, they have returned. Three months, and Reyn still can’t help herself from sitting up just that much straighter, from gripping the steering wheel that much tighter, from feeling as if this somehow won’t continue, this trade, how the masked allow their Jeep to approach. They’ll turn soon, Reyn thinks. There will come a day where the deaf mute and her mother are no longer needed. Either deemed dispensable, or converted: stripped, fitted with a yellow mask, given a weapon—a claw hammer, a wrench, a hatchet, a screwdriver, a rusted knife—and then a tattoo, of the state, of an eagle, of a gator, of a family tree, a barbed wire or illegible character, any other symbol that stretches across these masked adults, these masked children, across chests and hips, arms and shins. Escorted to a tree, or ditch, or valley, shown their new home, their new life. It’ll happen, Reyn is certain, because progress will deem it so.
Progress: when Reyn’s mother first guided her to this outpost, there were ten yellow-masked men and women upon arrival. Now there are seventy, including the children, there are over eighty.
Progress: just two weeks ago, the masked began construction on their shelter, standing one hundred feet from the highway, between hand-sawn tree trunks. Now, it is the width of a basketball court, and it stands ten feet tall, a skeleton in place to make it taller, to add a second floor. Now: semi-lit by lanterns placed on surrounding stumps, Reyn can see that windows have been found and cut and set aside to wedge into allotted slots.
Progress: Reyn has never seen a pistol in the hands of the masked until this moment, when she pulls the Jeep parallel to the shelter and two backlit silhouettes emerge. The shorter of the two holds the pistol. He is stout despite the living conditions, and wears a yellow with black specks on its cheeks shaped like teeth. His torso jiggles with each step, belly spilling over his belt loops. The other is tall, torso chiseled, with risen veins that run from wrist to bicep, from hips to ribs. He wears a yellow hockey mask tight against his cheeks, across of which has been painted the bends and curls of black serpents. As they have done in the past, together they surmount the gentle slope leading to the road. Leaders, Reyn understands.
Progress: the gauntlet converges on the Jeep.
Perhaps, contrary to what they were instructed to do at the start of this relationship, Reyn and her mother are now to exit the Jeep. Maybe Reyn isn’t supposed to shut the vehicle off. Maybe they aren’t to sit, and wait for the leaders to come to them, negotiating and executing trade through an open window, squishing bags through the frame, contorting both bodies and objects. Maybe Reyn and her mother are no longer welcome here.
But, under her mother’s direction, Reyn does not deviate from what has become routine. She rolls down her mother’s window, then shuts the engine off. And she stares, first at her mother, who has twisted herself to reach for one of the canvas bags, and next at the tall leader, who has stepped in front of his pear-shaped counterpart and now stands feet from the vehicle. His torso looks to Reyn like what one would find beneath the hood of this very Jeep—power and torque compacted into tubes and parts, into reservoirs and wires. She stares. Even as his eyes find hers, she stares. Even as he tilts his head, as he lowers himself to her level, masked face in the center of the window’s frame—she stares.
Reyn’s mother hoists the canvas bag over the center console, into Reyn’s line of sight. But then she stops. She looks at Reyn—two seconds, three seconds, four—until her message is clear. THAT’S ENOUGH. She then glances down at Reyn’s crotch, at the weeks-old bloodstain on the driver’s seat. Embarrassed, Reyn bows her head, until the stain is all that she can focus on. To her, it is the only evidence of her change since the blackout, and she is ashamed of it, of her mind’s inability to control her body. It shouldn’t have happened here, she thinks. It should’ve happened in a different world, in a bathroom, on that blue couch, at a cousin’s house where her mother would be called to pick her up, and they’d drive home, and they’d eat frozen yogurt together, and they’d pass notes back and forth, Reyn’s of confusion, her mother’s of assurance, of encouragement. A mother would do that. A mother would welcome her daughter into womanhood, not ignore requests for tampons or pads because NOT WHAT WE’RE HERE FOR. A former version of her mother wouldn’t write that.
Reyn lifts her head when her mother reaches for the second canvas bag. The gauntlet stays put while the leaders step closer. The muscular one grips the windowsill with his right hand, which Reyn can now see has been marked by black ink—JOHN, from left to right, one letter on each knuckle. And she can see his eyes now, or some semblance of them through the mask, flickers, and then nothing. She watches her mother address him. Watches her jaws stretch. Watches her mouth. Watches JOHN take the canvas bag from her mother and, with planted feet, with so much bend in his torso, pass it to his counterpart. He then points at Reyn. Clearly points, at her.
And back to the stain Reyn’s eyes go. The stain. Nowhere else. The stain that she is. The dependent. The parasite. She imagines her mother telling JOHN about her flaws, about her ears, about her tongue and vocal cords. How difficult it has been. How much time she has devoted. How much it still costs her. How she manages. How much better off she’d be if things were different. Ohapila. Back to Ohapila. Back to blackout. Back to comfort.
Reyn the Deaf.
Reyn the Mute.
Reyn the Burden.
A light kicks on. The passenger door is now open. Reyn’s mother is stepping outside. Reyn taps the dashboard, fingers not aimed at any particular word, phrase, or command. Her mother turns around, skin like ash under the light, stocking cap already off, hair matted. She looks at Reyn not with malice, or concern, but with apology. For what? Reyn wonders. She raises her hands to ask. And then her mother’s eyes dim into what Reyn interprets as a sad admittance, that where she is going, that what she is about to do, will scar them both.
Her mother scribbles her hand in the air until Reyn provides her with a pen from the center console. She leans so her wrist is flat on the dashboard and, when she is done, she caps the pen, and points at what she has written.
SHUT YOUR EYES
Reyn reaches for her mother, but it is too late—she backs her way into JOHN, into the night and, before closing the door, mouths to her daughter: “It. Will. Be. O.K.”
And then there is once again darkness, and a panic eased within seconds, as Reyn swivels to see her mother open the rear passenger door of the Jeep. The light comes back on and, after passing the pistol to a skeletal man nearby, in climbs the fat man, who, as he slides to the driver’s side, sends forward scents of smoke and wood, sweat and paint. Once settled, he frantically nudges his hand beneath his gut and tugs at the button of his pants. Reyn turns around. She does not want to see it, him, his, this. She has seen penises before, but only the bloated penises belonging to dead men stripped of their clothes, color nearly the shade of the alleyways and sidewalks upon which they rested. SHUT YOUR EYES. And, yet, she looks in the rearview mirror as her naked mother, on hands and knees, climbs atop the backseat, puffed eyes like strangled ovals, ribs like foothills to the valley that is her stomach. Only after JOHN follows, only after JOHN shuts the door and strokes himself hard in the darkness, only when he and the fat man are thrusting at opposite ends into her mother does Reyn shut her eyes. The Jeep bounces with the thrusts. Shakes, sways.
And Reyn’s mind bends into the afternoons she’d spy on her mother, seated before the open armoire in her bedroom, sun glaring on the makeup kit in her lap. She thinks of the fear she had of being caught, how silly it’d been to be so afraid, but how much more interesting it had made the scene, how intensified it all was—the swiftness of her mother’s wrist, the calm, the precision, the faith in the finished product. She thinks of all those times her mother still hoped to impress her father after his long days in that torrid kitchen.
Reyn opens her eyes. The masked men and women have advanced on the Jeep. A pair of tall men peer into the driver’s side window while four others have gathered on the passenger side, hands shaped like magnifying glasses, extensions of their eyes. Ahead, there are women and children dancing, their weapons piled on the road, arms free to flail. And flail they do, as if their shoulders do nothing to connect one to the other, up-down-around, up-down-around. They stomp. Left-left-right-left-right-right. They jump, they bounce, they slap their thighs as if they are drums. And Reyn feels it. Transmitted to her are synchronized thumps and thuds that soon disband, bleed left, bleed right, left, right, left-right-right-left.
The Jeep continues to sway—continues to shake—continues to bounce.
Reyn turns around. JOHN’s tattooed right hand grips her mother’s breast. He no longer thrusts, but half-stands-half-sits, propped by the bent left leg upon the seat. Reyn’s mother, seated now, strokes him. Fast, hard, faster, harder. Mirrored on the other side of the backseat is the fat man, masked face tilted back as if searching the Jeep’s ceiling for some kind of answer. Small. Stiff. Faster, harder.
The sharp vibrations from a man open-hand-slapping the Jeep’s quarter panel forces Reyn’s eyes to cross into her mother’s line of sight. Her forehead is damp. She does not blink. When she knows Reyn will not look away, she mouths: “Shut. Your. Eyes.”
Which Reyn acknowledges. Which Reyn obeys. She turns around. Closes her eyes. Absorbs all of it. What follows are visions of yellow masks floating through the night sky, slow, then fast, then slow again, and circling, yellow masks searching for faces, hovering over the Jeep at their own will, crashing into the windshield, jabbing at tires, redirecting the headlights to a faceless crowd of half-naked men and women staring, just staring at Reyn in the driver’s seat, one in the distance sculpting a mask with a blow torch, molding it to an infant’s cheeks. And the infant grows, evolves rapidly before Reyn’s eyes into a woman content atop a lookout tree, happy to stand outside of vehicles like this, and watch events like this, and celebrate moments like this, and stomp to moments like this, and dance.
There is a tap on Reyn’s shoulder. She opens her eyes; wakes. The interior light is on. The spectators have vanished. Her mother, clothed now, but looking as if she weighs more than she ever has—shoulders slumped, unable to lift her neck—passes a bowl of stew to her across the seat. Steam rolls onto Reyn’s cheeks. Within the stew are potatoes, carrots, strings of pork. Reyn turns to the back seat. In place of the canvas bags are eight meal-sized cans without labels and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. On the seat, atop the emptied duffel bag, are five large jugs of gasoline, a bundle of loaded syringes between, wrapped in twine. Before sitting in the passenger’s seat and closing the door, Reyn’s mother points to a note she has set on the center console, which Reyn grabs and unfolds:
THEY ASKED FOR YOU
Reyn again snakes the Jeep through the vehicles strewn across Highway 20, back the way they came. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees her mother tying off her arm with a shoelace. The Jeep reaches a more open stretch of highway. Reyn, feeling more comfortable in taking her eyes off of the road, watches her pull a fresh syringe from the bundle they’d just received, and inject every last drop of it into her forearm. It only takes seconds for the effects to take hold.
Dead eyes. A tiny grin. Soft limbs.
Reyn’s mother savors it for only a moment before easing the used syringe out of her arm, untying her arm, and grabbing another one from the bundle. Reyn holds up her right hand. Waves it quickly, back and forth, back and forth.
Mom, no, she hopes it communicates. That’s too much.
But if Reyn’s mother registers her daughter’s hand at all, she ignores it. She proceeds to tie off her other arm. So Reyn becomes more aggressive in her approach. She raps her knuckles on the dashboard. And when her mother, high as she is, turns, Reyn repeats the motion. She even mouths it: That’s too much.
Reyn’s mother speaks, angrily, and Reyn reads her lips: “What do you know?” She keeps on talking—talks and talks and talks—but she moves her face this way and that, to the point that all Reyn can make out are syllables. Reyn’s mother then holds up her thumb and forefinger, an inch or so between them, as if to say, I’m just going to have a little bit.
And she isn’t lying. Reyn’s mother doesn’t inject the entire syringe. Only a third of it. Like before, she blisses out. Closed eyes. A tinier grin. Even softer limbs. There’s no way for Reyn, from where she’s sitting, to detect that her mother’s breathing has become labored, but it has. Until it’s clear that her mother is convulsing, there’s no way for Reyn to know anything has gone wrong at all.
Reyn slams on the brakes and the Jeep finally comes to a full stop beneath an overpass. Out from the driver’s side Reyn bursts, running around the Jeep to the passenger side. She opens the door and stands there, paralyzed, watching her mother continue to convulse. Seconds pass before Reyn readies herself. She waits for the perfect moment to steady her mother’s arm with one hand and use the other to—there it is—pull the syringe out. As Reyn unties the shoelace around her arm, Reyn’s mother falls forward, toward Reyn, and out of the Jeep, crashing on the asphalt.
Reyn grabs from the glove compartment a bundle of tongue depressors. She rolls her mother to her side, takes one from the bundle and forces it between her teeth. And, she holds her.
She holds her until the convulsing subsides. She holds her as she loses consciousness. She holds her as she urinates on herself.
Reyn sits in the passenger seat of the Jeep, door open, interior light on. Her mother still lies on the road, unconscious.
Reyn stares ahead until she sees her mother start waking up, then steps down from the Jeep and walks over. Looking down from above, Reyn sees her mother speaking.
“Glenwood,” Reyn makes out. “Gotta save those babies. Take us to Glenwood, Reyn. Take us there, girl.” There, Glenwood—a hospital they’ve picked clean many, many times.
Reyn crouches and works hard to help her mother stand, summoning as much strength from her legs and torso as she can. Her mother puts forth zero effort. Skinny as she is, her mother’s dead weight is too much for Reyn and they tumble to the asphalt.
Unaffected, Reyn’s mother turns to her side and falls back into a deep sleep. Reyn kneels beside her and shoves her—hard. Over and over and over. She feels a wave of rage in her sternum.
Just help me! it’s saying. Please just fucking help me.
She doesn’t know what to do with it all, this rage, where to put it. She shoves her mother once more, then buries her face into her mother’s shoulder, where the wave can crest in the form of a sob.
Finally, Reyn’s mother stirs. When she does, Reyn does notice from the driver’s seat, but she makes no move to help her. Instead, she takes the smallest amount of joy in watching her mother struggle to push herself off of the asphalt. The sun is rising. They’ve been here for hours.
Reyn barely moves her eyes as her mother sits in the passenger seat and touches her hand to her head, where she’d scraped it on the road. From the pity overtaking that small amount of joy, Reyn offers her mother a canister of water. Her mother nods her thanks.
Reyn then points to a message on the dashboard. YOU OKAY?
Reyn’s mother shakes her head. She points at Reyn as if to ask, Are you?
Reyn shakes her head. She’s not. She hasn’t been. She can’t remember the last time she would’ve said she was.
Her mother points to, I’M SORRY.
Reyn nods, because she doesn’t know what else to do.
Once she’s done rubbing her temples, Reyn’s mother points to GLENWOOD on the dash. SUPPLIES, she points to when she’s met with Reyn’s confusion.
JUST THERE 2 DAYS AGO, Reyn writes.
“Just drive,” Reyn’s mother says. Slowly. Clearly, lips and eyes and nose all aimed at Reyn. “Just fucking drive us to fucking Glenwood, okay?”
Back here. Back to West Monroe. Back to Glenwood. Where they were two days ago, where they were the week before, and the week before that. The same Glenwood Regional swallowed by ivy. Reyn doesn’t understand why, if her mother had been at all successful on any of the previous visits, they’ve come back. She pictures the place stripped of anything deemed useful. Food: gone. Water: gone. Meds: gone. Just a junkie wandering through empty halls, rummaging through empty cupboards, standing in empty operating rooms.
Yet Reyn writes nothing. She steers where her mother points her, to the ambulance lane. Once parked, she unbuckles her seatbelt, and waits. For something, for anything.
But, instead of grabbing the duffel bag and exiting the Jeep, Reyn’s mother blankly stares at the glove compartment and twirls her hair. Which leaves Reyn to wonder what it is she’s thinking of—whether the sacrifice of her body needed to be, whether they got enough in return, whether or not they could’ve high-tailed it west and found an exit far away from the masked that led to a more hopeful life.
A fresh young girl is what they’d wanted, Reyn knows. A tight young girl that wears no mask. I should’ve been told, Reyn has thought. I could’ve done it.
How much could they have gotten then? Reyn has been wondering. Ten jugs of gasoline? Twenty cans of food? Two-dozen lighters? New tires? One pistol? Permission to drive anywhere they pleased?
Where could they be headed right here, right now, if it were Reyn who’d been in the backseat with JOHN and the other man?
And what of Reyn had her mother’s actions protected? What, really? What was actually left of her to protect?
SHUT IT OFF, Reyn’s mother finally finds on the dash. She taps it to get Reyn’s attention. SAVE GAS.
After Reyn complies, Reyn’s mother opens the door, steps out into the morning light, and slumps toward the nearest Glenwood entrance, a gaping hole in a once-automatic glass door. Before stepping through, Reyn’s mother turns around. She faces the Jeep, finds Reyn’s eyes, and raises her hand. Raises her thumb, her index finger, and her little finger.
I. LOVE. YOU.
The hours crawl. Clouds merge in the sky, then unevenly peel themselves apart, and curl, and thin, evaporating eventually to blue.
Open on Reyn’s lap is her favorite issue of TIME. A commemorative issue whose hard cover states, PEACE AT LAST just beneath a photograph of the USS Bataan, the oldest in the fleet, and upon whose topmost deck are men and women with their arms in the air, celebrating the end of the Iranian conflict. In the distance, miles from the aircraft carrier, is the coastline, a semi-elevated city with clay buildings aflame, thick grey streams of smoke unraveling into the sky. 19 SEPTEMBER, 2027. She has read it, several times, from cover to cover—the detailed timeline of the conflict, each and every headline, each and every block quote, each and every word of the personal accounts from soldiers, sailors, and SEAL teams, from the wives and children. None of that, however, is what keeps Reyn returning to this particular issue, the oldest in her collection of three. Words are not what keep her turning its glossy pages.
Near the back of the issue is the smallest of photographs—DADDY, COME HOME, its caption reads, and in it is a camouflaged father of twenty-five, both of his light-haired daughters in his arms, wet cheeks against his clean-shaven neck. Though she has flipped to this image hundreds of times before, Reyn intentionally prolongs the process now, one page at a time, hoping that doing so will recapture the feeling she had that first time—the smile, the joy, the empathy, the escape. One page. Another. Another. Blindly flipping. Losing interest in blindly flipping. Past an advertisement for headphones, past another promoting the TIME app, past a cartoon with suited men being dropped into a soup bowl of oil by a grey hand three times their size. Another, another, past the American flag, past a flavored vodka ad, two at a time, three, three, three-three-two, until Reyn skips ahead and grabs the back cover, closing the issue altogether.
She reaches beneath the driver’s seat and pulls out the others. Calmly places PEACE AT LAST atop the 14 APRIL, 2029 issue, atop WHAT APOCALYPSE?, atop the enormous drill that makes the men working on it look like mice, their heads a third of the VANCE STEEL logos hugging the cylinder. She shoves it all back where it belongs.
084BART: NEW JERSEY
XGZK628: NORTH CAROLINA
The Idaho license plate on the Ford pickup aligns with what Reyn remembers her father’s last postcard looking like: mountains, beautiful mountains in a false blue, jagged and with white peaks. He’d written carefully, letters curled where they needed to be, sentences relatively straight across the back of the card. I LOVE YOU, he’d written. I’M SORRY. XOXO.
Reyn remembers the day she walked out to the mailbox and found that postcard. The earliest days of what would become the blackout. TV stations out, yes, cellular towers inoperable, yes, internet connection down, yes, but weeks before the landlines had been uprooted and heaped over asphalt, weeks before buses were hijacked mid-route by men that had just looted local gun stores. Weeks before and, yet, her mother had been voluntarily bed-ridden, quilt to chin, blinds shut. She remembers walking that postcard into the house on LaFontaine, sitting on the couch, and digesting every syllable again and again over a span of hours, thinking of how odd it was of her father to declare his love from a distance, and then apologize for the distance, how odd it was for Reyn to fondly remember his deep slouch, his crooked smile, how odd it was for her to actually miss him.
She remembers waiting days before attaching a sticky note to the postcard that said, WE CAN GO, and delivering it to her mother, who, hours later, arose, walked down the stairs and proceeded to toss the card into the kitchen sink and drown her husband’s last words with the last of the tap water. She remembers the next time her mother came down the stairs, when, as few as six blocks down the street, men and women in grey coveralls and surgeon masks surrounded fled homes, putty knives in hand. She remembers her mother not even bothering to write a note, but immediately packing up the Jeep, ushering Reyn to do the same. She remembers obeying, blindly obeying, climbing into the passenger seat at twelve years old, unaware that her mother’s only intention would be to drive around, unaware that on her thirteenth birthday she would be shown how to operate the Jeep, unaware that it would be the place that she’d become a woman. Unaware that, in the beginning, she would look at the license plates of abandoned vehicles and hope that whomever its owner was had somehow made it safely home amidst the chaos, with their high-powered flashlights, with quarter-sized candles in their palms. Unaware that something incomprehensible within her would turn, that she would eventually look at these license plates and think only of herself. Where they could be right now. How far out of Monroe they could’ve gotten.
A lone pigeon bobs awkwardly on the sidewalk, pecking at debris as the breeze tumbles it by. The way it moves hints at injury, the majority of its weight on one narrow leg. Its breast is closer to bone. When the sun hits it just right, there is a pea green shimmer on the remaining feathers, a dark red gloss to its left eye. The pigeon stops and thrashes its head in a series of diagonals.
Reyn looks at the knuckles on her left hand. REYN, they read, one large, deeply shaded letter on all but the thumb. She then stares at the hole in the glass door, where her mother entered the hospital. Not much else of the building’s interior can be seen from the driver’s seat; darkness, mostly, slivers of light illuminating ten feet inward, making clear only the tile floor.
Any minute now, Reyn thinks. Any minute now, her mother will walk through that hole, goods in tow. So many things, Reyn hopes, things they’ve proven they don’t need, but things that’ll make them each smile, that’ll make them each forget, forget it all, if even for a moment. Plastic containers of peanut butter, jelly and honey anchoring the bottom of a bag her mother lifted, bruised but edible apples and kiwis between. Another bag in the other hand, this one full of toilet paper and tampons, bars of soap and bundles of books—actual books—shampoo and chewing gum. Any minute now, she thinks, any minute now, any minute now.
LOOK 4 LIFE
HNK 1 IF FAR
HNK 2 IF CLOSE
KEEP DOORS UNLOCKED
THEY ASKED FOR YOU
KEEP DOORS UNLOCKED
HNK 2 IF CLOSE
HNK 1 IF FAR
LOOK 4 LIFE
Reyn steps through that hole in the Glenwood Regional door. Once past what had been visible from the Jeep—that initial burst of light—Reyn sees that each of the forking hallways before her are strewn with bodies. Still bodies, child bodies, adult bodies, rotting bodies, black bodies, white bodies, naked bodies, bodies cut open, bodies with surfacing bones, bodies whose legs and backs and faces are pressed to the walls, a small path between bodies to walk upon, an arm here and there to step over.
The smell alone causes Reyn to vomit. Scavengers have been dragging them, stacking them, manipulating them to ensure mobility. Syringes populate the path, a few sticking out of forearms like diving boards over taut pools of grey. Once the vomiting is over, once her body allows her brain to resume its function, Reyn can’t help but wonder if each and every place that her mother enters is like this, an incinerator awaiting heat. If so, she cannot fathom how her mother has done it, how she has gone so long without saying so, and has instead absorbed the assault on her senses and re-entered the Jeep looking the same as when she’d exited.
Doing her best to not look at the bodies, Reyn begins down the left hallway, which, of the two, holds more daylight. Head up, eyes up, she passes examination room after examination room, each either with its door partially open, or with shotgun holes as doorknobs. Within these rooms, Reyn can see, are anatomical diagrams, clear jars of tongue depressors and cotton balls. And more bodies. Far fewer than the hallway but three or four to each, some scattered, some stacked near, or against, the respective door.
At the end of the hallway, adjacent to a pair of elevators, is a doorway cleared of bodies, but also void of its floor directory, reduced to a rectangle of dry glue. Reyn opens the door. Dim light from the hallway seeps into the dark room, a breath long enough to see the staircase, wide enough to see that ten feet from the bottom step crouches a naked man with eggshell skin and scraggly hair the color of rust. Reyn looks to the floor. Diarrhea splatters on the tile, onto the blue and pink cloths over his feet. The man twists at the torso, rotates his gaunt face toward Reyn. Somewhere in that beard are his lips, somewhere he is saying something to her. But Reyn, only seeing the red blade of the scalpel in his right hand, lets go of the door. She sprints up the stairs, sprints-sprints-sprints, the room growing darker and darker as she goes, as she tackles another flight, her hand dragging across the wall, hoping to find a door handle. Once she does, she quickly flings the door inward and steps into a hallway just as dark, save for a haze of daylight at its apparent end, one hundred feet away. There is no time. She steps toward that light, telling herself that the bearded man will not follow, that, if he does, he will not find her, that he will not grab her with jagged fingernails, that he will not shove her face onto the tile and rape her.
As she’d done on the stairwell, Reyn extends her arm to the wall and feels her way forward, first at a walk, but then, as she becomes acclimated, stalking faster and faster and faster, fingers grazing dried splotches of something she refuses to inspect. Every few steps, she turns around, expecting a shape to break from the dark. Faster, faster, almost to a jog now, and faster, and faster, until she no longer can step, but only slide. She falls to the floor. Liquid splashes onto her neck, onto her sweatshirt. Smells of vinegar. She quickly removes her right foot from the bedpan but, in so much of a hurry, Reyn trips once more before sprinting to the hallway’s end, arms locked to brace her impact with the wall.
The daylight comes from windows along another hallway. On the windows, on the bits of wall between, are red handprints, red streaks to the bottom. To Reyn’s immediate right is another staircase, this one’s floor directory intact. There are four floors altogether. There is no reason to go up, Reyn thinks, no reason at all. Her mother has left by now. She is outside, at the Jeep, locked out and waiting. Make your way down. Hurry. Yet, in nearing the windows, Reyn can see that the red handprints are still slick. She looks at the tile floor. More red. More streaks. More handprints.
And so Reyn follows the trail down the hallway. It grows thicker as she approaches an open door. She looks up. To the left, behind an entire wall of glass, are newborns still bundled in their blankets, color-coded by sex, some faces nearer to skeletons than others but most like mush, soft flesh caving in on itself. Untouched, in rows, elevated as something sacred.
The trail of blood extends further into the room, past the first row of babies, past the second, and proceeds into a curve, which Reyn follows. There, at the end of it, is her mother, curled and bloody. Reyn does not hurry to her, nor does she drop to her knees. But she approaches. Once there, she crouches. She examines her mother. Sees the puncture in her throat; thinks of the scalpel in the man’s hand. Taps her shoulder. Places the back of her hand against her cheek. Warmth leaving her skin. Eyes, chest: motionless. Reyn pulls her hand back but remains crouched. Looks at her mother. Looks elsewhere, at the floor, at the blood, at the babies, at her feet. At the glass enclosing all of this, wondering when the bearded man will come, wondering how long she has with her mother before she’s forced to sprint.
Continue Reading And in the Dark They Are Born
Listen to Part 1 Author Commentary
Peek behind the scenes of Part 1 with author Garrett Francis.
Cover illustration of And in the Dark They Are Born is by Jorm Sangsorn.
This is great! Your style is really refreshing. It’s fast-paced but not simple. It’s clear you’ve put a lot of effort into actual sentence construction and I really appreciate that. It reads beautifully. Well done!
Very well constructed. The intensity is always palpable. Haven't finished it all but will get back to it.