ANGIE SIJUN LOU
When I wake up my eyes are crusted shut. When I wake up under a cotton candy sky my eyes are crusted shut. When I wake up to a cotton candy sky my eyes are crusted shut and I can see that Lukas is sitting there next to me.
His head is ivory as the sun, and there are 13 scars on his lower arm like a shallow tomb. He’s looking at a tiny black rock in the palm of his hand.
I asked him yesterday what it was like to smoke smack and he said that most of the time it feels like some kind of meditation, but other times his eyes get glazed over like mirrors, or jelly donuts, and it’s hard to talk.
He smooths down a sheet of tin foil, holds a flame under its belly, and sucks up the smoke from the rock with a hollow pen. I knew it was bad but I liked it better when he was high. He was less anxious and didn’t scratch at the scars on his arms so much.
I roll over so that my back is towards the ocean. I watch it lick at the shore, leaving its saliva all over driftwood limbs.
“Do you feel it yet?” I ask him.
“I mean, yeah,” he says, exhaling and closing his eyes.
“Are you high?”
I can hear the seagulls crying as the tide comes in. I point at the rock melted in a layer over the tin foil. “It looks like some kind of Tylenol remix.”
He looks at me. “My mom gave it to me last week. She said it was so intense it felt like a cartoon, like being inside a CD-ROM drug tutorial, or something.”
I laugh, and his smile shines from his cavity-stained teeth to the whites of his eyes. In the three months I’ve known him his has hair grown long and shaggy, and now it’s tied in a copper knot on the back of his head just like his father’s.
“Do you want any?” he asks, holding out the burnt sheet of foil.
“Uhm, it’s okay.”
He says ok and then repeats the ritual, this time holding the cloud in much longer and facing the sun that beat against his forehead. His freckles look like frog eggs shining in the dim light.
“Should we go soon?” I ask.
“Yeah. I think the ferries are about to start.”
Three years ago I never would have been out on the docks all night like this because three years ago I made my high school D.A.R.E. project about the dangers of Puffing the Magic Dragon (that’s what my gym teacher called it). It was so good that they kept mine as an example for the class. But these days I’ll lay down in the parking lot of 7-11 to look at the sky, and my inky hair drapes down all the way to the small of my back.
“I think I have to go back to my house to do some shit for my dad,” Lukas says. “You can come, if you want.”
“Like this?” I look down at the neon blanket stolen from Walmart that I was wearing around my neck as a cloak. I take it off and try to finger-comb my hair.
He laughs. “They don’t care about shit like that.”
It struck me as strange that after all these months I’d never asked him what his family is like. I only knew strange details about them: his mother bites the bottom of her lip so much that there’s a spot where it’s permanently chapped, and his father eats spoonfuls of Spam straight from the can. The way he talked about them made me wonder if they were real or if he just made them up in his head.
“I guess we still don’t want to look like tweakers or else they won’t let us on the bus,” he says. “The 168 comes from Chinatown; I forget how to get there but if we just walk parallel to the highway I feel like we can find it.”
He packs away his pen and lighter in a hidden compartment of his backpack, and I can hear the rocks tinkling in the glass cylinder. We met up yesterday evening—I walked out of my shift at the restaurant and saw Lukas sitting there cross-legged and smoking a cigarette at the edge of the fountain. A security guard was telling him this was private property as he shined a light into his pale blue irises. I showed the guard my ID and told him he’s with me, no he’s fine, yeah we’re leaving now. When I took Lukas by the forearm I saw his eyes looked like tiny planets shrouded in saran wrap, and he wiped the saliva from his mouth like a bunny frightened by the moon.
“I had the weirdest dream last night,” he said.
“Yeah? Tell me.”
We walk briskly side-by-side with our backs against a sullen purple sky. Lukas puts the hood of his jacket on and brushes his henna bangs over his face.
“I don’t remember most of it.”
“What parts do you remember.”
“I guess just the end. I was walking through the woods; it was dark and wet like some kind of moth-infested purgatory… I kept thinking I was being followed, but every time I turned to look all I could see were different kinds of lichen crystallized on trees. Do you know what lichen is?”
I shake my head.
“It’s a lot like moss, except dehydrated and pastel like seafoam. I’ll show you next time we see some. So soon enough I’m walking as fast as I can until I see the ocean. It must have been morning by then because the tide was so far out it blurred into the sky. And I guess I felt I wasn’t alone. There was someone else out there with me, a woman walking parallel to the shoreline. She was wearing a black scarf that covered Her face; you couldn’t even see Her eyes but I knew She could see me. And here’s the weird part, ok? It’s that She wasn’t wearing anything else. It was so cold that Her nipples looked like shards of glass. And… I guess She was reciting some kind of hymn, but it was so windy I couldn’t hear.”
“Yeah, it was like this lullaby my mom used to sing to me as a kid. I don’t remember.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well I tried to walk towards Her; slowly, at first, but She kept getting further away from me. Then all at once I was running… The tide kept retreating over the sand and soon She was this black dot in the horizon of this ocean-sky, but I could still hear Her laughing, almost, like the cry of a mermaid. I was so tired and heavy that I didn’t know what else to do, so I laid face down in the mud and waited for the tide to come drink me up.”
“I don’t remember what happened after that.”
I’m silent for a moment. “Don’t you think that’s, like, disturbing?”
“Yeah I mean I guess it’s a little fucked.”
“You should have taken a screenshot.”
He laughs. A fat cloud of dust hangs over the sun, and the red arch of Chinatown looms over the ash-colored buildings. It feels like waking up to a crimson stain of blood between the sheets.
“I knew we could get here by walking along the water,” he says.
“I didn’t not-believe you.”
“You looked hella doubtful.”
An out-of-service bus lays parked on the sidewalk. Oil drizzles from its exhaust into pools all over the concrete. A man with a yellow dog calls out to us, asks if we can spare a dime or nickel to get on the bus. Sorry man we’re broke as shit too, that’s ok take care of yourselves out there, yea man hope you get wherever you need to go. His dog sleeps with his face burrowed inside the blanket.
A bus pulls up to the signpost. Lukas slips me his transfer ticket and sneaks in through the backdoors as they close. I distract the driver by asking if this bus passes through Covington, then I hand him the expired ticket and walk all the way to the back.
I look at myself in the blackness of the glass, the acne growing on my cheeks like tiny sea anemones. Outside I see old women sitting on buckets, playing cards, chewing on dried seaweed. I close my eyes, thinking about the swamp lotus growing inside them.
“Wake up,” a voice says.
I look up.
“You fell asleep. Our stop is next.”
“Oh.” I rub my eyes and blink at Lukas’s shining face. “Did you sleep too?”
“No I’m still faded.”
I yawn. “I’ve never been to your house before.”
“Yeah, I try not to go back there unless I have something I have to do.”
“I just have to water the plants and load them into the truck.”
It seems vague, but I don’t press him anymore. I squint at the sun gleaming between the branches of evergreen trees, thousands of dense clusters all straining to touch the sky. It must be noon by now, and the bus is an empty vessel except for Lukas and me.
“I usually fall asleep on this route,” he says. “It’s embarrassing because the driver always has to get on the intercom and announce it’s the last stop like I’m not the only one still on the bus. I just wipe the drool off my face and get out.”
I laugh. We exit from the back as we come to a halt over the train tracks, a rusty trail extending into an emerald purgatory. The power lines hanging over us look like rows of black pillars in the shade of the sun.
“Here, let’s walk on the tracks. It’s closer, and you can hear when the trains are coming.”
“This feels like a Lostprophets music video.”
He chokes a little bit on his water and spits it out. “Or Brand New.”
“Shut up.” I kick a pebble at him. “Do you remember the last time it rained?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been sleeping outside the past couple weeks, but when I wake up I
can’t tell if it’s rain or dew.”
The last time I remember it coming down for real was the night I met Lukas. A friend from high school asked me to come swimming at the lake, but when I got there the only person who wanted to go in the water was a strange lemon-haired boy I’d never met before. I remember thinking his limbs looked like they had been stolen from a cicada. By the time we were up to our thighs in inky water, he turned to me and said Hi, I’m Lukas. Alice, right? That’s a nice name for a dog. It’s ok for a human too. The rain fell like floodwater that night, and I could barely see him in that wet lagoon.
“I heard on NPR that there’s a wildfire in the peninsula,” I tell him. “Maybe that’s why it looks like someone spilled wine all over the sky.”
We walk slowly, in silence, till I see a metal fence hidden in ivy. Lukas sticks his hand through a hole cut through the center and I hear a key clicking inside a lock.
“Did you make that hole?”
“No, my dad did after some kid took a knife out on me last summer. Now I only sell weed to strangers when they’re on the other side of the fence… Try not to step on the wires; yeah, just stay on that side of the path.”
That seems strange to me—the idea of making a silent trade with someone when both people know nothing about each other. I imagine two people standing there, raw and timid, combing through each other, looking for something. “Do people you don’t know come here?”
“Yeah. The other night I saw someone standing here and calling my name, but I couldn’t see who it was in the dark. I just turned off all the lights so it looked like no one was home.”
“That seems sketch.”
He shrugs. “It’s not that weird.”
We walk down a dark gravel lane and emerge over a hill. In the horizon I see a black shed, a tree fort buried in moss, and a one-story house dyed indigo. I stumble after him, feeling the wind whip my greasy hair against my face. The grass is as tall as my thighs and dyed saffron from the sun. I think about a younger Lukas standing there, unable to see over the tips.
“I can give you a tour. This is the Lukas residence. That’s my dad’s truck. He used to have a construction company a few years ago. A lot of rich people wanted swimming pools back then. I remember waking up when it was still dark out to come help him in my pajamas. Sometimes I’d be so tired that I’d fall asleep in the pool while he drilled around me, but he didn’t mind.”
I laugh. “Is he home?”
“Maybe. He might be in the shed taking care of the plants, but he doesn’t like it too much when I take people back there.”
I look over at the black shed shrouded in wildflowers. It’s glossy metal coat is beginning to rust, confessing its true interior. It looms over the property like an unforgiving god.
“Let’s go inside and say hi to my mom.”
He leads me towards the concrete back porch, wading through the meadow. I follow reluctantly. In a maze of empty soda cans, we come across a black cat standing in the center of the doorway. Its eyes are neon green, like algae shining on a lake.
“Hi Akilla. It’s weird that she’s here; these days she only ever comes home at like 5 a.m.”
“Her name is Akilla?”
“It’s cause I thought she was a boy at first, but I think she might be pregnant. Look at her belly.”
I crouch and turn my head upside down. I see three pink nipples protruding from the swell of her charcoaled fur. They look like tiny mountain summits jutting into an otherwise starless night.
“Sometimes she sits very still and stares at me like she wants me to help her give birth, or something. It makes me feel weird. I usually get up and leave.”
I laugh. “Why do you think that’s what she wants?”
“Look at those eyes. I don’t know what she’s seen in all her past lives.”
Akilla’s tail coils and uncoils on the ash-covered floor, her belly black and fleshy with life. Lukas shakes his head and steps over her to open the back door.
Inside, his dark kitchen reeks of sweat and sugar cane. Fruit flies linger over a plate of spare ribs next to the sink, glistening with barbeque sauce and saran wrap. The wallpaper is printed with cartoon roses.
“I was supposed to clean the kitchen,” he says, reaching for the switch above his head, “but I fucked up and haven’t been home this week.” His sleeve falls down his lower arm, and I see 13 scars shining in the overhead light.
“Lukas! That you?” a voice yells.
“Yeah, Dad. I’m home.”
A man emerges from the basement. His boxer shorts hang all the way down to his knees, lower than his jean cutoffs. The laugh lines on his cheeks look like craters carved in the moon.
“Dad, this is Alice. I think I’ve told you about her.”
“Yeah, yeah, your friend from the shelter?”
“No, I met her at the lake.”
“Oh, well it’s nice to meet you.” He shakes my hand. It’s smooth and calloused all at once; a bed of barnacles growing on blackstone.
“Is Mom awake?”
“Nah, she’s sleeping now. She was up all night. She had a strep throat so I boiled some ginger water, but she wouldn’t drink it and kept ashing her cigs in the bed.” He shakes his head. “She left you something on the table, though.”
Lukas laughs as I follow him to the living room. There are photos of her hung crookedly all over the walls. Her bangs are a dark veil that shades her eyes. I always thought it was eerie the way family members look just like each other. I can tell by the way she looks at the camera that she was beautiful, once. Side by side with Lukas, it looks like all the features on her face could be transposed to his.
He finds a package on the coffee table and tears it open. Inside there’s nothing but a tiny jar of charcoal leaves. He looks again to make sure.
“Dad!” Lukas yells. “Did she say anything about my birth certificate?”
“What?” he says from the other room.
“Never mind,” he says. He holds the jar in his hands, feeling the weight of something lost lolling in the back of his mind. He turns away and walks through the doorway to the kitchen, pressing his hands against the mildew of the wallpaper.
We walk outside the same way we came in. A gust of wind blows through, and the grass coils like the hair of a mermaid. I run to catch up to Lukas across the acre-wide yard. The shed stares at us as we cross its path.
“Do you want to see the treehouse?” he asks without looking at me.
I want to ask him what happened back there, but I stay quiet till we reach a dark corner, shaded by a sea of pine trees. They stand so tall that even the sun cannot seep through and touch the floor. There’s a moldy wooden structure built layer upon layer, barely held together by the rusted nails pounded into it.
“Sorry it’s kinda sketch. I built it when I was 14. Here, hold onto the rope when you’re climbing.”
I take the frayed thing from his hands and use it to lift myself to the top, feeling the wetness of mud encrusted on wood. From up here, Lukas’s house looks like an abstraction of itself. His father, who chops pinewood in the distance, is no larger than an insect.
“Have you ever smoked salvia?” he asks me.
He laughs a little. “No, salvia. It’s just this concentrated hallucinogen. It just feels weird for like 15 minutes, and then it’s over.”
“What kind of weird?”
“Uhm, once I saw God in a pile of puke in a toilet at Wal-Mart.”
“Ok. I guess that’s fine.”
We sit down side-by-side, cross-legged on the boards. He takes out a glass pipe and begins filling its basin with the contents of the jar his mother gave him. I squint at the sunlight staining the treeline like blood on cloth.
“Just inhale when I say so. And try to keep it in your lungs for a few seconds.”
“You look a lot like her.”
“Her. Your mom.”
He pauses. His fingers are black and musty from the charcoal on the leaves.
“Yeah… Sorry I got mad for a second back there.”
“Why did you?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been asking her for my birth certificate these last few weeks, and she just keeps telling me that she’s looking for it. I think it’s in the shed but she doesn’t want me to go in there for some reason. I need it to apply for a Social Security Number so I can get a job doing something real instead of growing weed forever, you know? My brother moved out a few months ago. Now he’s packing boxes for the graveyard shift at Costco. I wanted to go too, but I can’t just dip like that.”
“You don’t have a Social Security Number?”
“Yeah. I guess it never struck me till recently that I should have some kind of ID. I’ve never crossed the border, been arrested, or gone to school. Those seem like the main things you’d need an ID for… I guess my mom was supposed to homeschool me, but I don’t know shit like why the ocean’s blue or how to add fractions. But I could tell you all about witch gods and how to find the right vein.”
“That seems alternative.” I think of all the nights I snuck out my window after my parents went to bed, but Lukas carries a toothbrush in his backpack because when he leaves he doesn’t come home for days.
He stops packing the bowl and looks at me. “I don’t want to be alternative. I want proof that I was born.”
“Why do you think she can’t find it?”
“I’m not sure if I was born in a hospital. I’ve kind of only ever been here.”
Lukas squints his beady eyes and a drop of sweat rolls down the sunburn on his face. He holds the pipe to my mouth and motions for me to suck. Before I can ask any more questions, he lights it and I inhale as hard as I can before I cough it back up in a fit.
“It’s not really her fault, you know? She had me when she was 16. She woke up one morning and her parents were gone. They called her a whore because she didn’t know who the daddy was… She said when she finally popped me out I was so fragile and bloody that I looked like a lotus flower coming out of her uterus.”
I’m coughing so hard I can barely hear him. I want to say something back, but all I can do is lay down on the floorboards and close my eyes. The sun feels like it’s raining pin pricks down all over my face. And overhead, the clouds are like tired panther gods reclining in the sky.
Later that night, I lay face down on Lukas’s twin mattress stowed underneath a staircase leading down to the basement. I see clusters of wild mushrooms growing in the space where the wall and the carpet meet. He told me that he once had a room upstairs but his father turned it into a storage unit. Mine was the darkest room, he told me, and the plants need to be in the dark.
I thought that was strange, but no stranger than the moon that hung like a decapitated head. Akilla sits on the windowsill watching it bob up and down in the black milk sky.
“I think there’s a burn mark on your pillowcase.”
“Oh. That lamp next to the bed is just really hot and one time I accidentally left it on all night. It irked me because Akilla mostly sleeps in my bed, and I came back in the morning and it smelled like this weird synthetic fire.”
“That’s cute. Sleeping with the cat in your bed.”
“No I mostly sleep outside. My dad likes it when someone keeps watch over the plants in the shed.”
“Like a babysitter?”
He laughs. “No, because of that time someone came looking for me. He just doesn’t want someone to wander in. He wants to make sure the gate stays shut. Pigs are allowed to come in without a warrant if it’s unlocked, and lately I’ve been waking up and the gate will be wide open. Maybe the wind is just really strong, or something. I can’t stop thinking about that time someone was just standing there—”
Upstairs, a door slams, reopens, and then slams again. Some incoherent yelling echoes down the staircase.
“Sorry. I think she just woke up. We should go if she leaves. If she leaves it’s bad.”
I realize this entire time I haven’t been able to stop asking questions. My mom always warned me about kids that came from places like this, but Lukas is my best friend. When I first met him I could tell that he didn’t come home much. It was in the way he carried everything in his backpack, and the way he knew all the kids on the street. “Do they fight a lot?”
He leans back against the wall. “Kind of. I think they fight about stupid shit and never really talk about what’s under the surface. He wants her to stop shooting up cause it turns her into a psycho. But she’s sketched because he’s made our house into this weird underground marijuana plantation.” He laughs faintly. “She says she gets scared every time she looks at the shed. But I don’t think those are the real reasons, honestly.”
“What are the real reasons?”
“I think it’s just the longer you’re with someone, the more resentful you become. Because of all the love you’ve given them, you know? Like it’s still not enough to cure them, or something.”
“That sounds kinda fucked.”
He shrugs. “Do your parents fight?”
“Uhm, they used to a lot when I was growing up, but not anymore. I think they just forgot that they don’t like each other much.”
He laughs. “You know that weird dream I told you about the woman on the beach?”
“That wasn’t the first time I saw Her. There was another dream, a long time ago, when I was 12.”
I can see the tiny hairs growing on his face as he sits there, rinsed with orange light, legs crossed on the linoleum floor. For the first time I notice that he’s a little cross-eyed, like a salamander.
“What happened in it?”
“I don’t know if I want to remember cause it’s weird.”
“You have to tell me.”
“..Ok.” He wipes his runny nose on the back of his hand, and I see some of his saliva glistening in the light. A prism of color shines in the wetness, like the fluorescence of an oil spill.
He coughs. “So I was in the parking lot of McDonald’s drinking a Slurpee, and there was no one else there. I was standing in the center and the lines painted white on the concrete were stretching on around me… You know how sometime they try to plant trees in parking lots, to make it look like you’re not where you are? They didn’t do that this time. I remember the sky almost blended into my Slurpee when I held it up above me—that’s how blue it was. So I started walking, parallel to the white lines, like how someone might try to walk in a single direction if they were lost in the woods. And then I saw something, it looked like a dark blue minivan parked in the shade of a willow tree. I thought it must have been a mirage, you know? Like if I was dying of thirst in the desert and I woke up inside a lagoon.”
“Did it feel like you’d been walking forever?”
He shrugged. “No, I mean, it was a dream. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as time inside of dreams. I got closer to the minivan and I looked inside the window. They were all open but the inside smelled like vinegar and vomit. It was dark, but I could see the body of the beach ghost in the passenger seat. Her face was covered with this black scarf, but otherwise She was naked. I remember Her pubic hair was thick and black like moss, and Her lower stomach had a dark scar across it, like someone had performed a C-section on Her with a pair of scissors.”
“Was She awake?”
“I think so, because then She motioned for me to get inside the driver’s seat and start the car. I kept asking Her where She wanted me to go but She just looked out the window instead of at me. So I started driving faster and faster, parallel to the white lines until they were this blur passing underneath me. I had to hold my breath, it reeked so much of vinegar. She had her legs open wide over the dashboard and Her seat reclined all the way back. Then, in the distance, I saw this swimming pool. It stretched on so far in every direction that I couldn’t even drive around it. I stopped the car and got out to look inside it, and I could see all this mist rising up from the top in fat cotton balls of fog… I guess that’s when I felt Her presence behind me. I turned around and She was so close to my body I could almost smell the moistness of Her breath.”
“Did it taste like vinegar?”
He laughed. “A little bit, or maybe like the ocean. But then She reached out and pushed me into the pool.”
“Yeah, and then She held my head down underneath the water with her hands. That’s when I started thrashing, but I must have seemed so pathetic because She had me down by my hair, which was so oily that Her fingers kept slipping through. And then I opened my eyes and looked around me and there were thousands of pink jellyfish floating around me. They were all moving in unison, these tiny bulbs opening and closing… like lotus flowers…”
“…So She drowned you?”
“I don’t remember. I woke up after that.”
Upstairs, a door slams, and a car starts.
“Fuck,” he says, getting up.
Akilla pounces from the windowsill onto the floor. Her pupils are only slivers and her fat spherical belly swings underneath her like a pendulum.
“I think we need to go to Moose’s,” he says. “You should bring your stuff.”
“His name is Moose?”
“Uhm, I don’t know what his real name is, everyone calls him Moose. He’s really nice, he lives in the garage of his mom’s house and lets anyone stay there for as long as they need.”
Outside, through the window, I see a pale orange light coming up from behind the shed. It glows like some sort of nebula underneath the evergreen trees, or a lighter held up against the moon.
“Do you see that?” I point.
He looks at it for a moment, then runs closer to the window and presses his face against it.
“Oh my god, fuck—I think the shed’s on fire.”
He pushes past me hard and disappears up the stairs calling out his father’s name. I stand there watching, petrified and useless. Through the window I see two black figures running towards the August flames with the hose trailing after them like a snake.
I don’t know what to do. I follow after him up the stairs, past the kitchen, the living room. I feel for the light switches, the wallpaper peeling against the palms of my hands, but none of them turn on. Maybe one of the circuits sparked an electrical fire, I think.
I stumble out the doorway into the night; barefoot, sleeveless, blinded by the paleness of the moon. The path to the shed is paved with gravel, and I can see the embers scorching the roof steadily and relentlessly. The silhouette of Lukas’s father climbs up a ladder leaned against the collapsing side, waterfalls gushing from the hose and dripping down the side of the shed. The crickets are drowned out by the cracking of the fire as I run towards him.
“What should I do?” I scream. “Where is Lukas?”
He yells something incoherent and points to the entrance of the shed. The craters carved in his face move in unison with his mouth, each one glinting with pools of sweat. I cough while running to the entrance, the black smoke filling my lungs like water. The doors are open, but the clouds of grey vapor become a curtain shielding my eyes. I grope my way inside the crimson corridor screaming his name like some kind of prayer.
“Lukas! Come out! You need to come out of the shed! What the fuck?”
I squint and shield my mouth with the palm of my hand. Through the red haze, I see dozens of rows of dark green plants, their leaves fine and tapering like razorblades. Each one is so perfectly spaced from the last that it is psychedelic, almost crippling. They look like they are lost in some kind of archaic slumber. The plants need to be in the dark.
And then there’s Lukas. I can see the patches of his chalky hair moving through the glass jungle like a panther trapped in a terrarium. He looks up at me. His cat eyes shine through the smoke. He shoots me a gaze of hatred, but then it morphs into a pathetic kind of sorrow. I feel shameful, like I’ve interrupted a cat looking for a quiet place to die.
A pillar of ember falls to the ground next to me, and I watch numbly as a row of plants catch fire, one by one, like a stone skipping across a lake. I can feel the water falling on my neck, my face, stinging my eyes. I look up and realize that the water that Lukas’s father is pouring on the shed is seeping through the cracks in the wood.
Suddenly Lukas’s hand grabs my wrist, his nails digging deep into my skin. It tears me out of the crimson corridor and brings me back out into the night. My body crashes to the dew-encrusted ground and Lukas’s falls on top of me. For a moment I can’t feel myself at all. I wonder if this is what it’s like to leave the womb.
Still writhing, Lukas crawls off of me and collapses on the ground breathless. I look at his face. He looks like the same person I saw when I woke up this morning. I want to ask him why he was in shed, but he answers by holding out his hand for me to look inside: a handful of black seeds with tiny white sprouts protruding towards the sky. They look like a sea of sperm swimming through his palm.
“What are they?” I ask.
“Seeds. So we can start over again after the plants are dead.”
Overhead, the stars swirl in circles and look down at us like they are laughing at a cartoon. The gate is wide open and I can hear the rumble of sirens coming closer.
“Are they coming for your father?”
He looks at me. “Alice… shh. Go through the back and climb over the fence. Walk until you see the tracks. The bus comes from there. If anyone sees you, crouch down in the grass. And don’t tell anyone your real name.”
He pushes me away and disappears into the brush. I lay there for a long time feeling as tired as the shore must feel after the waves have crashed into it all day long. I get up, slowly, and drag my numb body to the train tracks. My hoodie gets stuck in one of the chain links of the fence. I take it off and leave it so that he will know I was here.
I didn’t see Lukas for a month after that. I called his cell phone every day; sometimes I’d sit on my bedroom floor and dial his number over and over with my eyes closed. It became some kind of meditation. His voicemail was always full so I could never leave a message. The past few weeks began to fade out, and I wondered how much of it happened for real. Sometimes I could still feel Lukas’s bleary-eyed salamander gaze on me. It seemed like I could just reach out and touch the baby skin on his face.
One day I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.
“Whatthe fuck, I’ve been looking all over for you. Are you ok?”
He laughs. “I borrowed some tweaker’s phone so I can’t talk for long. Can you come meet me?”
“Ok, I guess.” I get up and start pulling on my jeans with one hand.
“I’m in a hostel in Chinatown. It’s called the Panama Motel. Just come up the stairs, I’ll be there.” Then he hangs up without saying another word. It seems pointlessly cryptic, but I am no longer worried. Now I’m mad that he seems ok and didn’t tell me sooner.
At the hostel, I approach the man at the counter and tell him I am looking for a friend. He speaks to me in broken English through a barrier of plastic with a hole cut through the center. A sticker tells me that the register carries no more than $50 in change after dusk.
I move through a glass door, a narrow staircase, and then a sea of beds. Some of the beds have bodies sleeping in them, and some of the bodies have white sheets draped over them.
At the end, I see Lukas’s silhouette looking out a panel of open windows. He hears my footsteps and turns and smiles at me. I feel dumb for being mad at him now. I acted like an old man who is angry at the ocean because it makes too much noise at night.
“It looks like it might rain soon.” He says this as soon as I sit down at the base of the bed.
“Yeah. Maybe those wildfires on the peninsula will finally be extinguished.”
“Maybe sheds filled with weed plants will finally stop burning down.”
We laugh, but then he shushes me and points at the sleeping bodies. “We have to be, like, library-quiet.”
“Ok,” I whisper. “Where have you been?”
“Uhm, a lot of places… My father made me leave. I wanted to stay but then the cops would have just taken both of us. I haven’t seen him since the night it happened. I still can’t figure out who started the fire. My mom and I stayed at Moose’s for a long time, but then we kept seeing this car drive by in front of his cul-de-sac. There are a lot of other people at Moose’s, mostly runaways who don’t want to be found. So we left in the middle of the night, but we had nowhere to go… Sorry I didn’t call sooner. I wanted to, but I lost the piece of paper with your number on it.”
“Did you find it again?”
He shakes his head. “Nah, I realized today I had it memorized. I just forgot it at the time, cause things were so fucked. It’s strange how memory works, right? I knew I had your number in my brain except I wasn’t looking in the right place… I guess sometime after that my mom took a bus to Spokane. She said she had a friend there who would give us a place to stay, but I didn’t want to go. I got the sense that maybe she was fucking him for a bed to sleep in. Seems like her whole life has just been a traversal of different beds of strange men; don’t even know how many of them I’ve called Daddy… Why are you looking at me like that?”
I realize I’m about to start crying and I look away.
“Yo, Alice, stop it. You don’t need to feel bad for me. I’m alright. A man who works at a hydroponics store in Chinatown gave me a job. It’s under the table cause I don’t have an ID or anything, but he’s paying me to start growing a few plants in the back of the store. I just walked in and showed him the seeds—the ones I saved from the fire.”
He puts his arm around me and I bury my face in his shoulder. He reeks of pine needles and gasoline.
“I’m going to save up some money and start taking classes at Green River. I’m going to study biology and learn how to read faster, maybe even divide some numbers and shit. You can help me. Aw, Alice—can you please stop being sucha pussy.”
I laugh a little in between sobs and push him off of me. “Don’t call me a pussy.”
“Ok, I won’t if you’ll stop acting like one. Do you want to hear about the dream I had last night?”
I nod and wipe the mucus off my face.
“I think this is the weirdest one so far.”
“They’ve all been weird.”
“I dreamt that I was walking on the piers and the city was deserted… The highway was still roaring from the sound of the cars, but there were no people sitting inside them. For some reason that didn’t make a difference to me. I guess when I’m walking around the block people already look at me like I’m a shade. I guess that’s ok.”
This is the first time I notice how often Lukas wanders in tangents when he tells stories. I glance down in the darkness and count the scars on his forearms. Still 13.
“Then I came across Her laying there on the dock in all these puddles of pigeon shit. The tide was up so high that the dock was almost underwater. Her face was still covered with a veil, but Her body looked so tranquil that I didn’t want to come any closer in case I’d wake Her up. She had Her legs spread wide open facing the ocean, like She was waiting for something to enter, or maybe leave Her. Her pubic hair was this dense black forest that blended in with the plankton on the lake. And Her thighs, they were covered in pus, and stretch marks… Can you believe it? That’s how beautiful She was.
“I think that’s when She noticed I was there, watching. She motioned for me to come closer. I waded ankle-deep in the water until I saw what She wanted to me to witness. There was a tiny jellyfish struggling to crawl out of Her vagina, and She was cutting off its umbilical cord with a pair of scissors.”
“What the hell.”
“Yeah. I don’t know if I’ll see Her again, I think She was trying to say bye to me.” He sighs and leans back in the bed. Droplets of rain fall down in clusters on the window. They look like amoebas leaving their insides all over the glass pane. I think of Akilla. Her eyes are sharp like mirrors, or razorblades. His property is deserted but there are baby kittens prowling all over the burn marks on his pillowcase. She’s teaching them how to adapt to the blackness of the night.
“I think you’ll be ok without Her.”
He closes his eyes and forgets I’m there. “Yeah. I mean, of course. I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok.”