They almost saw me during the reception. We were dancing. I smiled wrong; I couldn’t remember the right smile, so I displayed a fake, scrounged from clouded memories of expressions. I’m empty where emotions were, so I impersonate. Sometimes I even wish they would notice.
Bee’s final memory of her parents was of them silhouetted in the cracked doorframe, Dad standing, Mom kneeling and holding Bee’s hands. In the dim room behind her waited the family Bee was going to live with: Aunt Val, Uncle Greg, and Grandma Margaret. None of them had greeted her – Uncle Greg was watching news and Aunt Val was knitting. At least Grandma Margaret smiled a little, though she didn’t seem to be smiling at anything in particular.
Mom whispered her last words to Bee: “Don’t trust them. We’ll come for you.”
Then Bee was alone, staring at the people who Mom had said were family but who stared back at her with haughtiness that didn’t feel like family. Besides, who could you trust if not family?
But she still trusted Mom, so Bee waited for the day her parents would come back for her, like they promised. Mom and Dad were treasure hunters, and no matter what Aunt Val and Uncle Greg said, Bee never doubted her parents’ love: she’d seen the kinds of dangerous artifacts they recovered. They refused to take her on their expeditions, though. “Not ’til you’re 16,” Mom always said, usually over the top of a sealed and warded crate she and Dad were hauling.
Her aunt and uncle didn’t believe Bee’s stories – they supposed Bee’s parents just wanted to travel the world without their child. This attitude did not result in them showing Bee anything resembling love, though.
So Bee turned 16 uneventfully. Her only card was from Grandma Margaret, who wrote “Happy Birthday Beatrice” in shaky cursive. Her parents didn’t send anything, not even a message in Mom’s mirror-journal. Her notations of their finds – “Tier-4 cryptid remains, CD ~250/260” – appeared in Bee’s copy of the journal. It told Bee they were still alive, and Bee could tell from the frequency of notes that they were not only alive, but they’d found something huge.
Huge enough to make them forget her birthday, apparently.
She stayed up late reading the journal, hoping for a last-minute birthday message. They’d found three more high-level cryptids and encountered a Remnant, which fled when it saw them. Bee hoped they’d find another, maybe speak to it.
Finally, more lines appeared. Her heart leapt, but the words were boring – just cataloging relics. Still, Bee watched, just to know Mom was there. Then:
“2nd Con relic, steel-?? alloy, Abyssal? CD ~18 ”
Bee waited for the rest to appear. The Second Conjunction had been over a thousand years ago and its artifacts were incredibly rare, usually grouped where the Conjunction had flared strongest: France’s northern coast. The magic in the artifacts soured and strengthened over time – was that why Mom stopped writing? Had the artifact hurt her somehow?
She waited: three breaths, four. The date remained incomplete. Something had definitely happened to them.
Bee didn’t hesitate. She stuffed her backpack with water bottles, her dig tools, and food from the kitchen. Only when turned to leave did she realize Grandma Margaret was sitting at the table, alone in the dark kitchen.
“Where you headin’, kiddo?”
Bee stood straighter. “I’m going to find my parents.”
“They’re in trouble! They didn’t wish me a happy birthday, which – fine, whatever – but Mom’s been writing about cryptids, big ones, and then her sentence ended half-finished and I have to go!”
Margaret flicked on the lights. She was squinting up at Bee. “What tier cryptids?”
How did she know about the tiers? “Four and five. And they found some…old artifacts.”
“Hmm. All this is in that journal of hers?”
Bee nodded, stupefied.
“Let me see.”
Bee hesitantly handed over the journal. Margaret flipped through the pages, frowning, occasionally muttering “reckless” and “fool girl.”
“Well,” she said finally, handing the journal back, “that’s a Wholenuther problem.”
Something about the inflection confused Bee. Margaret smirked at her expression. “I don’t recommend him often,” she said. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants your folks deal with. But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”
“He calls himself Wholenuther?”
“And his price is puzzles. Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.”
“How do you know – ”
“Who do you think gave your mom that journal?” Grandma tossed her her sweatshirt. “Now get movin’ – Wholenuther likes flowing water, so start at the creek.”
“And Bee,” she called as Bee reached for the doorknob, “happy birthday.”
The rain returns Saturday night. I wake to the smell of it as the first drops fall late at night: the scent of creekbeds, of unfurling grass, of cool stone.
Across the continent, Heather Heyer is already dead.
We planted a new rhododendron in May. It hasn’t bloomed yet, but its tag promises delicate pale pink ruffled flowers. It’s a double; when it blooms, it’ll be especially beautiful.
But the summer has been hot. Seattle breaks its record for days without rain. The rhododendron turns brown, dries up.
What has happened since May, anyway? Events whip past like slaps; people with more grit than I have are cataloguing them. I look it up: Yates testified, the House voted 217-213 in favor of repealing the ACA, Comey was removed.
Tiring, isn’t it?
That was all before May 10th. The rhododendron was still green, content.
Sunday morning is cool and gray. The rhododendron looks stronger. Its leaves are no longer limp, though many are still worryingly brown.
I see #HeatherHeyer in my Twitter notifications and I know without having to click who she is and why she died. I’d like to go to church, but I’d also like to never have to speak to another human again. To force a smile and say everything is fine, I’m great, how are you? feels like a crime.
I don’t go to church. I get coffee with my sister. We talk about everything but.
I spend the rest of the day feeling anxiety, something I’m usually spared. It feels like a tangible thing that’s crawled inside me and steadily inhales my hope, leaving me hollow. It sits heavily in my gut, making my heart race, layering over my vision with a veil of nihilism. How often can we stand up and push against this rotten, creeping wall of hate? What’s the point?
Would there be such an outcry if Heather Heyer had been black, asks my friend on Monday. We’d already wondered that ourselves, and we already knew the answer was a whispered no.
It’s very easy to condemn hate when it makes itself obvious. There’s no gray area when men with Confederate and swastika flags are shouting “Heil Trump” and that’s the mildest of their slogans. How much convincing will it take to stir up this sympathy next time a black person’s name becomes a hashtag?
How are there still people who need to be talked through the concept of humanity?
We go to a vigil Sunday evening. Around 70 people are there, some older, some with young children. Their signs are written with everything from “F*** Nazis” to Bible verses. I brought a candle in a jar. The organizers brought candles for the end of the vigil, but for the majority of that hour, I’m the only one with a candle instead of a sign. The gusting wind catches at the flame; twice it needs to be relit.
A few people speak. A representative from the NAACP says, “It’s time to start talking to each other.” I know he’s begging us to finally start listening.
A boy on his father’s shoulders leans down toward me. “What’s the candle for?”
“It’s for hope.”
The only other time I’ve ever carried a candle is for Christmas Eve. When I bend to blow out the candle at the end of the vigil, I remember the verse that always closed those services: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I always thought that particular translation was interesting: “has not,” compared to “couldn’t” or “can never.” It’s not particularly inspiring, the way it reminds us that the wall of darkness is ever-present, but it is comforting: the light still shines, vulnerable but unyielding.
Maybe it’s the size of the crowd, or the presence of children who are learning a better way, but the thing in my gut fades away. The only way we force that wall back is by keeping pressure on it, and we take turns pushing. We aren’t alone.
Monday morning is cool and gray. There’s dew in the grass when I walk the dog. The rhododendron is surviving.
We dig deeper. We relight our candles. We grow, upward and outward, until the day the wall erodes, falls, and is forgotten.
The beach that night was noisy and drowning in the billboards’ neon glare. Makoto and his friends arrived first; Willow arrived alone.
“Where’s Padma?” I asked, catching the burger box she tossed my way.
“Stuck at work. She texted from the print shop – a big job came in and she has to stay late.”
“What kind of job?”
Willow shrugged. “She doesn’t tell me that stuff. She just said she’d get here when she could.”
We set up the tiny grill on a patch of undesirable, rocky beach, the only area where we could get more than ten feet from the nearest cluster of teenage boys taking shots of their older brothers’ moonshine. Out here, the glare from the billboards wasn’t so irritating; if you turned your back on them and looked out to sea, you could see the vibrant flashing lights illuminating the waves and the sunken glassy spires of Old LA.
“Carmen? You want a burger?” Willow held out a napkin-wrapped burger. “Makoto forgot the buns.”
“Thanks. Hey, have you heard from Padma?”
“She must be really busy.” Padma was vocal about her inconveniences: the group chat we all hung out in was flooded by funny and often wildly inappropriate images whenever Padma was stuck on a crowded train, kept late by work, or irritated by the latest political news.
“I’ll send her a pic of that sunset,” Willow decided, raising her phone. “Maybe that’ll inspire her to hustle.”
The sunset was pretty spectacular – gold and fuschia clouds gleaming under the cool white and blue flashes of the billboards – but Padma’s absence was nagging at me. Something felt wrong.
Under the pretext of taking my own photo, I checked the other group chat, the secure one Padma and I were in.
The feed wouldn’t open.
I tried to stay calm. Reception got spotty out here, especially on crowded nights like this. There were plenty of harmless reasons for the chat go down.
“Oh, Olivia’s here!” Willow jogged away, leaving me gripping my phone and the rapidly cooling burger I could not stomach. I set it down on the shell of a rusted-out car.
The feed finally refreshed. A single message from Padma appeared, almost two hours old.
It was a single skull icon.
With shaking fingers, I powered down my phone and pried it apart. The casing would go unnoticed among all the other litter on this beach; the card I’d have to destroy and dispose of somewhere safer. I scooped up a couple large rocks and threw them out into the darkening waves, one at a time, so it wouldn’t look suspicious when I hurled my phone, too, so far that it almost struck one of the old skyscrapers. The nearby boys kept hollering, oblivious.
The single skull was a relief, but that relief was a well of hot shame. Two skulls would have meant our whole group was compromised; three would have meant that most of us had probably already been taken or killed, and whoever was left to see those skulls should run.
One skull meant one agent down: Padma. She’d had enough time to erase her tracks and protect the rest of us, then signed off with that single skull.
The waves around me were washed in red as a new message appeared on the billboards.
“Carmen!” Willow was pale, her hand shaking as she pointed up at the huge screens. Padma’s defiant face smirked down at us from the glowing red arrest notice.
“Terrorist? Anti-capitalist? Padma?” Willow stared, horrified, at the announcement. “I know she had her opinions, but…”
Everyone hated the skyrocketing costs and labor abuses that markets and governments permitted worldwide, but Padma did something about it: she’d run materials for activist groups after-hours at the print shop. And if “terrorism” included protesting the collapse of a state-run apartment tower by shattering a Nuevos Angeles billboard with shoddy rebar from the wreckage, Padma and I were both terrorists. She remained full of love and hope; I was amazed at her mountainous courage.
And she’d given herself up so the rest of the agents could be safe.
Willow was crying; everyone else looked stunned. They’d never know the risks Padma had taken to defend them.
It was never about keeping our network safe, I realized – it was about protecting everyone else, even the ones who’d never know it.
I picked up another rock. “She wasn’t alone.”
I took three steps closer to the billboard, brought my arm back, and let fly.
5:32pm. Monday. I’m walking to the subway when she’s struck by a car.
“I didn’t see her!” The driver is frantic.
The woman reaches for me as I kneel next to her. The lab coat she wears is torn and bloody. No one else has come close – they watch from the sidewalk, some taking pictures.
“Please,” the woman whispers hoarsely. “I’m in an accident.”
“You’re going to be all right,” I say, squeezing her hand. “Help is coming.”
“I’m in an accident,” she repeats. Her eyes are wide and stunned, but I feel like she doesn’t quite see where she is, like she’s looking around for something.
Then her eyes aren’t seeing anything at all.
12:04pm. Tuesday. I’m in the grocery store buying a pathetic boxed salad.
And there’s the woman, the one I watched die yesterday. Her basket is full of batteries and she’s frowning at the calculator in her hand. She shrugs and tosses five more into her basket.
“Ma’am?” I ask tentatively. Some hair has fallen out of her bun and she looks exhausted, but she’s alive, her lab coat only lightly creased. I look down and see that she has covers on her shoes, the kind you wear for a realtor at an open house – or in a clean room.
She looks up at me, eyes wide. “Yes?”
“Did you – I thought I saw you –“
“Possibly,” she says wearily. “I’m in an accident. I have to go.”
She hurries with her basket to the self-checkout. I see her leaving shortly after, weighed down with four dozen batteries and her calculators.
I come across her abandoned bags between 12th and 13th, in front of a coffee shop. The reclaimed-wood tables are full of twentysomethings conversing over their phones. If a woman disappeared in front of them, they don’t seem very bothered by it.
I have to get back to work – goodness knows I see weird stuff daily in this city – but I also have to know if I’m going crazy or not. I approach the tables.
“Do any of you know how these bags got here?” I ask. “Did you see the woman who was carrying them?”
They glance, almost in unison, from me to the bags and back. “I didn’t see anyone,” one man says.
“No one’s been by in a while,” a woman adds. “And I’ve been watching – I’m waiting for someone.”
I debate taking her purchases with me – if she can come back from the dead, maybe she’ll find me again – then decide to take them inside and leave them with an employee. There’s crazy, and then there’s anticipating-being-haunted crazy.
I regret my decision before I’m even out the door. I already feel a certainty, like a prologue to déjà vu, that I’m going to see her again. I look over my shoulder, expecting to see her lab coat billowing.
But the sidewalk is deserted.
I return to work.
6:37pm. Wednesday. I was stuck late, I’m hungry, and the crowds going down to the subway seem worse than usual. I have no new texts, no emails worth reading. I’m scrolling through a collection of makeup I can’t afford when I catch white out of the corner of my eye.
It’s her, again, but she looks different: her bun is tidy, her makeup simple but professional, her coat pristine. The shoe covers are gone.
She catches me staring. “Can I help you?”
It’s the icy tone we usually reserve for men being creeps and I look away, flustered. “Sorry. I just feel like I’ve seen you before.”
“You might have,” she says. “I’m in an accident. But I’ll get it fixed, nothing to worry about.”
The train arrives, screaming past us and dragging the first few strands from her bun. Her coat whips against my arm. “The machine just needs more power. I’ll get it fixed.”
We get on the train and she sits, hands folded, calm. It was the last seat; I stay standing and grab a strap. The crowd flows around me, packing the car. I almost don’t notice the usual jostling. What machine? Is she crazy?
“Ma’am?” A man catches my eye and points. “There’s a seat if you want it.”
The woman’s seat is empty.
I sit slowly; it’s still warm.
I’ll get it fixed.
The feeling of déjà vu is gone. I won’t see her any more – but I have seen her again, last week, last month, in my childhood.
Then she is gone.
“Can you see anything?”
The streets are scorched. The buildings we once inhabited are gray shells. The ashes fall lightly on me. I pretend it’s snow.
“There’s nothing to see.”
They knew they were losing, and they couldn’t tolerate us returning to our homes. First they stole our resources, then our people, now our futures.
Our son lifts a case from the rubble: Grandmama’s seed stash, overlooked in its humble box. Inside, the colorful packets aren’t even singed.
“Isn’t that something.”