“Hold up, hold up: isn’t she that guy Link’s girlfriend?”
“Maybe she was.”
“Damn, John, you have to drop her–now! And go apologize to Link! What were you thinking about?”
“I was thinking about her fine–”
“Hey, hey, wake up and smell the stupid! Are you going to go let Link know you’re sorry or do I have to go apologize to him for knowing you? He’d kill me just for being friends with you!”
“I’m not afraid of that little freak.”
“Link’s a fucking ninja, man! Everybody knows that!”
“Yeah, I’m a big porn star too, did I mention that?”
“No, man, I’m not kidding! He killed like, three guys last year. He can breathe through his eyeballs. He can get through locked doors without even opening them! He can kill a guy and pull the body out of sight so fast it’s like the guy vanishes!”
“I can’t believe you swallow that stuff.”
“You’re gonna swallow one of those throwing star things if you’re not careful.”
“Listen, here’s what I’m going to do, you know, to clarify the situation. I’m going to go up to him at lunch and say ‘Hey, Link, what’s up? You don’t mind that I’m screwing your girlfriend, right?’ Then we’ll see if he kills me or not.”
“John, I swear to god I’m not kidding you, just think about this for a second.”
“If you think I’m afraid of some punk-ass kung fu geek with–”
“Hey, what the hell? Where’re you hiding? John? Shit, John? Oh, shit. Hey, Link, if you’re out there, man, I tried to–”
Esme only speaks once every ten years, on the first sunny day in October, usually in the middle of the morning when the light’s still gentle. At other times she’ll smile or shake her head or point or make a disapproving noise or even sing wordlessly, but only on those rare October mornings does she speak.
It’s traditional for the family to gather for these times, piling into the old house Esme shares with her daughter Julia and Julia’s girlfriend, Mish: all six of her children with their spouses or lovers, their children and dogs, sleeping in every available space in sleeping bags or on cots from the old hunting cabin. Mish makes Austrian pancakes in the mornings, and they have barbeques and softball games and they play canasta whenever it isn’t morning and sunny.
Most years a family or two is missing, but this time everyone is there, and even by-the-book Marshall has pulled his kids out of school, because Esme is dying. They all know it. This will be the last time.
It has rained for three mornings in a row, but today came up crisp and bright, and frost silvers the brilliant leaves on the maple outside the kitchen window. They make their way into Esme’s room early, bringing their plates of Austrian pancakes with confectioner’s sugar and preserves, their coffee and grapes and cranberry juice and scrambled eggs with paprika. When the room is full, more of the family settles down just outside, in the hallway.
Esme sleeps for a long time this morning, restlessly. When she finally opens her eyes and hush spreads across the room and out the door, she smiles so joyfully that the room seems to get brighter.
It’s Jackie she motions to, her youngest grandbaby, only eight years old. Jackie squeezes through to Esme’s bed and climbs up to lie down next to grandmama.
When Esme speaks, her voice is so soft and cracked, no one can make out the words except for Jackie.
Esme says: “You always ask me why, but it’s just that nobody used to listen. You see?”
And Jackie nods seriously. She does see.
Scott had been torn away in the middle of a kiss with his girlfriend, Lara, and he had been thrown about twenty feet off the ground, spread-eagled as though in mid-skydive. The pillar of light that had come down from the sky had smashed into the pavement with a warped rainbow of raw force that made the air shudder with its ferocity. Shattered glass from shop windows had been blown into the air in fragment clouds that shimmered in the brilliant glare of the blast, creating an illusion, for just that moment, that the whole world had stars in it, that everything could step free of the bonds of gravity, that everything was beautiful. This was the top of things, the most glorious thing Scott had ever experienced, with the thrill of the adrenaline already streaming into his blood and the hammer of cortisol not yet mauling his anxiety levels to the hysterical peak they would reach in the following ninety seconds.
Before he plummeted back down to crash into an upended Volkswagen; before his face was burned and permanently disfigured; before Scott’s panicked and painful flight from the rainbow-trailing attack ships that dropped down into the city like hungry pterosaurs, there was this perfect moment, this moment of wonder and beauty, completely mystifying to an unprepared human population.
In some ways, Scott thought, however horrible everything was that came after, didn’t that one startling moment make it all worthwhile?
No, it didn’t, he decided. Now, weeks later, he lined up the bug-like alien guard he’d been stalking in the targeting window of his stolen alien fusion rifle and fired.