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I crawl through it, p.12
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       I Crawl Through It, p.12

           A. S. King
 
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“Don’t we all?”

  I picture the dangerous bush man in my head: naked, trench coat, letters. I wonder if she can see him.

  “I can see him.”

  I picture the bush, the lemonade stand, and the kisses.

  “What’s normal, anyway?” Patricia asks.

  “It’s not this place,” I say.

  We walk quietly again for a minute. The hill is steep. I wish the trees would help me breathe, like Mama always said they would.

  “Tonight you and Gustav will be debriefed,” Patricia says.

  “Okay.”

  “They’ll ask you things about the real world.”

  “Okay.”

  “They’ll ask if you know Kenneth,” she says. “You can’t tell them the truth.”

  “Okay.”

  “I’m going to pretend I have my period and stay home,” she says.

  “Why?”

  “I don’t like debriefings,” she says.

  I wonder if the dangerous bush man was ever debriefed.

  “He was. But he lied about us being in love.”

  “You’re in love with the bush man?” I ask.

  “Very.”

  “I thought you were married to Gary,” I say.

  She laughs. “Ha!”

  I wonder if the bush man was like Gustav when it came to love.

  “Exactly the same,” she says. “Never knew what to do with his hands.”

  “He’s a very good kisser,” I say.

  “Yes,” she answers.

  “He has the answers,” I say.

  Gustav is sitting high in a tree. I wave to him and he waves back. Patricia has gone to bed early because she has Lansdale Cruise cramps.

  As Gustav climbs down, he says, “They told me they never believed our story because of your lab coat. Who goes hiking in a lab coat? they asked.”

  He mutters to himself as he descends the final two branches and jumps to the ground in front of me.

  “They’re very smart,” I say. “Trying to turn you against me.”

  “Do you know where we are?” Gustav asks. “Do you know what this is?” He’s talking like Gary now. He has smug up to his knees.

  “I have a guess, but I don’t trust what they’ve told you.”

  “We’re in the smartest zip code in America,” he says. “No one here has an IQ under a hundred and seventy.”

  “We’re not in a zip code, Gustav. They don’t get mail here,” I say.

  “Who needs mail? I never got mail at home. Why would I need it here?”

  “You called it a zip code. It’s not a zip code,” I say. “Also, they already knew we weren’t hikers. It had nothing to do with my coat.”

  He’s agitated. I wonder what it’s like having a helicopter to build every day for months and then not having anything to do.

  “They told me they would have believed us if it wasn’t for you,” he says.

  “They lie better than Lansdale Cruise. Marvin told me. Patricia told me. There’s no other way to get here except the helicopter,” I say. “And no way out, either, except the bush man got out.”

  “Kenneth,” he corrects.

  “Yes. Kenneth.”

  “He got out. He told me how to get out. Except the fuel. He never told me about the fuel,” he says.

  “You didn’t tell them this, did you?”

  “No.”

  “What’s so great about a bunch of people with high IQs, anyway?” I ask. “Look at Gary. He may be smart, but he’s a jerk.”

  Gustav says, “Smart people often have social issues. It’s how we’re made.”

  “We?”

  “You have social issues,” he says. “I have social issues. So what?”

  “So neither of us are jerks,” I say.

  He says he needs a minute. “It’s hard to catch up. All this new information,” he says.

  “We lied from the minute we got here,” I say. “They don’t trust us.”

  “Patricia lied.”

  “But then we lied, too,” I say.

  “I just went along with it,” he says.

  “Maybe we’re not as smart as we thought we were,” I say. “Maybe we’re easily swayed. I don’t know. But I don’t like this place. I’ve been here for half a day and I don’t like it.”

  Gary whistles to us like we’re dogs. It’s time for the genius debriefing.

  “I’m going to tell them about the drills,” I say.

  “I’m going to tell them who’s been sending the bomb threats,” Gustav says.

  I take a deep breath. “There is no way you can know this, Gustav. Scientifically, you don’t have enough evidence,” I say.

  We walk toward the building where the dining hall is. As we walk, Gustav reaches over and touches my hand. I pull my hand away. Today has made me edgy. I wanted to come here. But now I don’t want to be here. Gustav wanted to come here and then leave, but now he wants to stay. We are two very confused arrivals.

  “It’s China,” Gustav says. “She’s untrustworthy.”

  I’m glad we’re not holding hands. I shout, “Where are you getting your information? Are you eating what insects eat?” Gustav looks shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at him before. “China is your friend. She deserves more from you!”

  Gustav stops on the path outside the building and looks down. “I apologize. You’re right.”

  “She’s the smartest zip code you ever met,” I say.

  “I wish sometimes that I had her words,” Gustav says.

  “No, you don’t,” I argue. “Because then no one would believe you, and people would call you untrustworthy because of bad luck. If you had your own words, it might be different. China can’t win. She can only eat herself.”

  “You know what happened, don’t you?”

  “I know.”

  “Will she ever recover?”

  “Do any of us ever recover?”

  “I don’t know,” he answers.

  “Did she ever tell you about Fuenteovejuna?” I ask.

  “No.”

  “When we get back, she will.”

  “Get back?” he asks.

  There are several rooms inside. It’s like a church, but with no god. In the room with Gustav and me are sixteen people. Marvin is here, no longer pressing on his/my theoretical guilt-free gland; Gary is here in his fog of smug. The others are all names I never even hear. They introduce themselves by telling us only what they do and where they learned how to do it. Physics, MIT; biology, UCLA; music, Berklee; neuroscience, Penn; law, Harvard; poetry, NYU; economics, Yale; abstract painting, Royal College of Art, London; architecture, Cornell; master chef, Culinary Institute Lenôtre; mathematics, Stanford; psychology, MIT; philosophy, Harvard; botany, Trinity; astronomy, Cambridge; chemistry, Cornell. After the introductions, we’re supposed to be impressed, I think.

  I’m not.

  Gustav is probably not, either.

  They ask us about our daily lives. We tell them that we don’t watch television but that most people do and that it’s not all bad, though most of it is. We tell them we don’t care about fashion or culture, and I point at my lab coat as an example. We tell them about the wars we’re in and I tell them about the war in Congo and they seem uninterested. They are similarly uninterested in the drug cartels in Mexico and the wars in the Middle East, one of them snorting at Gustav’s mention of Syria, and they are not at all interested in the tsunamis, the hurricanes, or the earthquakes. Not even the one that caused a nuclear reactor to melt down.

  They ask us about the Internet.

  Gustav says it is informative and a marvel.

  I add that it causes pain and is filled with pornography. The room laughs at this. The whole room jiggles its belly.

  “Don’t you have the Internet here?” Gustav asks.

  “We are the Internet here,” Gary replies. The room jiggles again. The walls laugh. The lighting fixtures make a clinking noise.

  “Well.” Gustav stops to choose his words well. “You can
t know everything the Internet knows.”

  Gustav and I bounce around like the Ping-Pong balls in a lottery machine. We are in a genius bouncy house. The sixteen residents still sit in their chairs, but we are thrown and sprung from floor to ceiling to wall until they contain themselves.

  As I float from surface to surface, I want to dissect all of them. Find their livers. Dehydrate them. I wish I had my Dealing with People You Can’t Stand book that Mama and Pop bought me for Christmas.

  Gustav has blood running down his face when we land. He wipes it with his finger and checks to see if it is blood or sweat. It’s both. I take a tissue from my lab coat pocket and press it on the small cut above his right eyebrow after gently wiping his forehead of the layer of frustrating sweat. It’s been an hour.

  They ask about school. We tell them about the drills.

  One asks, “Every day? The alarm goes off every day?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you go outside?”

  “Yes,” Gustav answers. I think of him under his black walnut tree. I remember that we’re resilient weeds. I look at the sixteen others. I don’t know what they are.

  “We have to do our tests there,” I say. “Even if it’s raining.”

  “It’s just water,” Marvin says.

  Another says, “I’m sure you pass them. You’re both competent.”

  “The tests aren’t for us,” Gustav says. “They’re for them.”

  I add, “For assessment.”

  I hear Gustav’s thoughts in my head. Just like now. We’re being assessed.

  “Who makes these assessments?”

  “A company,” Gustav says.

  The sixteen of them stare at us. We stare back at them. One of them presses a button on his chair and a wall drops down between us.

  Gustav says, inside my head, They can probably still see us. Just sit there.

  I say, “Okay.”

  He says inside my head, You can hear what I’m thinking?

  I think yes, but he doesn’t hear me. So I whisper, “Yes.”

  He looks concerned, so I say, “Don’t worry. I won’t pry.”

  We sit for three minutes. Gustav talks to me in my head as we sit.

  He thinks: These people aren’t exceptional. They’re cowards.

  I want to ask Gustav about fuel, but they can probably hear me through their secret genius wall, so I keep looking ahead. I fold my hands on my lap as if I was in a photographer’s studio in a shopping mall. We wait.

  Gustav says inside my head, Kenneth told me I was going on a mission. I didn’t know what kind of mission, but any mission was better than testing week. I thought this would be different. Maybe it is. Maybe we belong here. Maybe we don’t. I can’t tell yet.

  A click sounds and the wall lifts.

  Gary is standing up and the other fifteen are still sitting.

  Gary says, “Where’s the helicopter?”

  Gustav answers before I can say anything. “We crashed.”

  “Where?”

  “Three days from here. I don’t know what direction,” Gustav says. “Remember when we said we’d been walking for days? When we arrived?”

  “You have no wounds to indicate a crash,” Gary says.

  “The trees,” I say, thinking of Mama. “The trees saved us. Though I did twist my ankle climbing down, and Gustav got a small bump on his head from the impact.”

  Gustav rubs the side of his head.

  Gary contemplates. He says, “Our first job is to recover it. We’ll start searching tomorrow.”

  I hear Gustav trying to find a way to ask if they’ll destroy it, but before he can say anything, one of the others presses the button and the wall drops down again.

  Gustav and I sit there and stare ahead. I whisper, “They’re going to destroy it. I know it. We have to get out of here.” Gustav nods as if he might believe me.

  When the wall recedes into the ceiling again, the sixteen geniuses are gone. The room is empty. Gustav looks at me and holds out his hand. I take it and we leave through the front door, which opens as we approach it and closes behind us.

  Outside, there is a message meticulously hand-lettered on wood.

  It says, in red paint, THERE ARE NO DEPARTURES.

  China Knowles—Early Friday Morning—New

  For Stanzi: Reset. Reset. Reset. II

  There is a tiny hole

  and if you unbend a paper clip

  and insert it into the hole,

  the world resets.

  It becomes a walk

  to the bus station in

  the middle of the night

  when even the bush man

  is sleeping.

  It becomes a safe place for

  people

  like

  you

  because the monsters

  are getting

  required

  amounts of rest

  for testing day.

  I try not to run. I try to maintain control. Guts on the inside, me on the outside.

  I am new.

  I didn’t leave a note for anyone, not even my sisters. I’ll miss them, but now they can have Mom’s attention and they won’t have to share a room.

  I text Shane and he says that he’s sleeping at a friend’s house in New York City and that I should call him when I get there. First bus leaves at 3:45 a.m. and arrives at six. I text back that I will be there at six. I write, “If you want to meet me at Port Authority, that would be cool.” But I guess he turned his phone off because he doesn’t reply.

  The streetlights are a funny color. I never really noticed it before. They are a mix of amber and rose, and I feel like I’m walking through a field in the future. Maybe that’s what will happen to our orderly suburban development. Maybe it will regenerate, like a liver. Maybe it will eat us up and swallow us and make us feel the acid as it breaks us back down into molecules.

  Stanzi would know if that’s possible.

  I regret not leaving her a note. If she ever comes back, I want her to know I’m okay. She’s smart and will probably know where I went.

  I’m concentrating hard on staying right side out. With every step it becomes easier. I want to try talking out loud and look forward to getting to the station and purchasing my ticket so I can say “Good morning” to the cashier, so I can say “Hello” to my fellow travelers.

  When I arrive at the station, a businessman walks in front of me when I’m clearly in view. I think he’s going to open the door for me, but instead, he walks in himself and lets the door close behind him. I reach down and touch my forearm to make sure I’m here. It would be a shame to be invisible.

  He’s paying for his ticket at the counter when I walk in behind him.

  I say, “Good morning!” and he and the cashier look at me as if I have said something dirty.

  I don’t swallow myself. Instead, I try, “Hello!”

  The cashier looks at me and smiles the smile of a cashier at 3:35 in the morning. I might have just made his day a little better. I make a mental note about how this feels. It feels good to make a person’s day a little better by saying something simple. I make a mental note to write a poem on the bus called “Things That Make Me Feel Good,” but then it feels selfish to want to feel good.

  As I buy my ticket, I wonder if the cashier feels guilty about whatever makes him feel good. As I go to the bathroom in the tiny bus station, I wonder if my mother feels guilty about her basement of pain, if my little sisters feel guilty about eating ice cream or cookies or whatever makes them feel good.

  The bus arrives and as I hand my ticket to the driver he says, “Are you sure you’re not supposed to be in school today?”

  “I’m sure,” I say.

  He laughs like he wasn’t serious. I laugh, too, and my mouth has trouble forming the shape of laughter.

  I realize I haven’t laughed in ages.

  I think of Tamaqua de la Cortez and wonder why she can laugh. I think back to all of the ex-weathergirls. If Gustav
was here he could graph the data. If Stanzi was here, she could give me the physiological reasons for laughter and the lack of laughter. If Lansdale was here, she would make me cookies and they would taste delicious.

  “Are you getting on or not?” the businessman behind me asks. He even shoves a little, as if the bus will leave without him even though the driver is still outside closing the luggage doors on the side.

  I stop cold and turn to him. “Did you just shove me?”

  When we lock eyes, he seems genuinely sorry. When I was just the back of a girl, I deserved shoving. Now that I’m the front of a girl, I might be human, I guess.

  He almost makes an apology. I can see it right behind his eyes. It’s a banner like on those airplanes that fly above the beach in summertime. I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry.… Instead, he just makes the move-it motion with his hand.

  I squeeze to one side of the completely empty bus aisle and let him go past me. Then, when he sits down and settles and the bus driver gets on and I look at the sixty other seats in the bus, I walk right up to him and point to the seat next to him.

  “May I sit here?” I ask. I’m fully right side out now. It feels good.

  “What?”

  “May I sit here?”

  “Can’t you sit anywhere else?” he asks. “The bus is empty!”

  I sit in the seat directly across from him. I retract the armrest between the seats and I put my back against the cool window, extend my legs, and stare at him.

  Ten minutes later, he gathers his things and moves to another seat.

  Five minutes after he settles, I move to the seat directly across from him and stare at him again.

  This dance continues all the way to New York City. The businessman grows more and more annoyed. I stop staring long enough to write the poem.

  Things That Make Me Feel Good

  Looking at a stranger and seeing

  everything about him

  because he is

  easier to read

  than the instructions

  to prepare a packaged pizza.

  Knowing that when

  they slice him into

  even pieces,

  inside they will find

  a banner that reads

  I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry.

 
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