by Jeff McCrory
She talked a lot, and I listened. She said it was all speculation. Nobody knew where our friends were going to climb next.
“Nobody knows anything,” she said. “We just gotta wait for our time.”
She had scars on her face. She had her own mind.
The days unraveled.
I didn’t know where to start, so I just waited for her to come around to my place again. When she did, she talked a lot, and I listened.
“Our friends have been climbing the trees in Worthington,” she said.
Worthington was a town about fifty miles to the east. For some reason, the subject of our friends didn’t interest me at that moment, so my mind started to wander.
“Was Worthington named after Cal Worthington?” I asked.
“What?” she said, taking out her ponytail and putting it back in place.
“You know, the car salesman. Did the TV commercials. Cal Worthington and his dog spot. Except it was never a dog. It was like a chimpanzee or an ostrich. That’s kind of how our friends are. Say one thing, do another.”
“I guess,” she said. “I doubt it, though. Names are meaningless. They just hide the nothingness from us for a little while. They are climbing trees. That’s all that matters.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I just like wondering about things. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
She looked pissed, so I stopped talking. I was there to listen. That was just how it was.
One morning, she came around my place and said we had to go to Worthington, so I got into her car.
Why did I get into her car? I didn’t really want to. But I couldn’t help myself. She was in the driver’s seat.
I had been wrong. Worthington was closer to a hundred miles away. We merged onto the freeway just as the morning drivetime radio jocks were hitting their jokey stride. She smashed the knob to turn off the radio. The hum of the open road suited me fine. An hour later we pulled into a rest stop. I peed. The urinal was aluminum. My piss stream slashing into it had its own unique sound. And smell.
Back on the road, she asked me what I thought our friends were. It was a big question for her. She always returned to it.
“They climb trees,” I said. “Doesn’t that say it all?”
“For us, sure,” she said. “But imagine if you knew nothing about our friends. How would you explain them to yourself then?”
“I can’t do it,” I said. “That’s one of things our friends have done to us. We’re stuck knowing about them.”
She nodded at what I’d said. “I’d tell myself, ‘Stop trying to fit them into the old way of thinking. It can’t done. You have to think like them to see their vulnerabilities.’” She paused. Her lips were tight. “I’d also tell myself to stop clinging to her humanity. It’s a child’s teddy bear. It has to be sacrificed for the sake of survival.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I agree with that.”
“Oh you do, do you?” she said. “Glad to hear it, fuckface.” She was not actually pissed, just pretending to be for the sake of consistency.
Worthington clung to rolling hills of yellow grass. We drove up one if its main drags. It had two or three. It was middling in size.
We parked near a housing development. All the trees along the curving road were saplings.
We got out of the car and stood next to each other on the sidewalk.
“They’re nearby,” she said. “Can you feel them?”
I tried to feel them, but felt nothing.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Let’s find them.”
And what did she plan to do once we found them? I guessed we’d figure it out over the board. That was a chess term. When a Grand Master showed up to tournament without having done sufficient preparation, he or she was said to be figuring out the strategy over the board. I had never been any good at chess, but I’d occasionally played it online before our friends arrived. Games of strategy lost their flavor for me afterwards. I don’t know why. That was just how it was.
As far as I could see, she and I had zero strategy and only one advantage. We could still talk against our friends. Most people didn’t even notice that anything was wrong. Those that did notice the inconsistencies and contradictions usually bought into the myth that heaven was punishing the wicked for their sins.
Not us, though. We could still talk. She talked a lot. Me, less. The point was, we still could.
We passed a few joggers on sidewalk. She said hello to each of them. All but one said hello back to us. What was wrong with the exception? Was she stuck-up? Or was she afraid of us? It would be a lie to say we didn’t look a little scary. She had her plastic Halloween mask on. All the colors had rotted off of it. It was just a dented and dirty thing with eye holes. As for me, I was a giant among men and had the bad habit of staring at people for too long. I couldn’t help myself. That just how it was.
She spotted the tree house before I did.
“There,” she said.
I followed the line of her finger to the stand of fully-grown oak trees. The construction crew hadn’t needed to chop them down to make way for the new development. Not yet anyway. After a moment, I saw what she saw: the corner of a plywood sheet poking out of the branches.
We crossed the street and went down a grassy slope to the edge of the manmade lake. In reality, it was a very expansive puddle, two feet deep at its deepest point, but I supposed they dubbed it a lake for aesthetic reasons.
We started across the lake. My feet sank into the mud. If I weren’t careful, my shoe might get sucked off my foot. A person could easily lose a shoe in the mud.
So I went slow, and she got ahead of me. That was okay. I didn’t want to climb up the tree and sit in the plywood box. Full of splinters probably.
She waited for at the foot of the tree. She climbed up the ladder nailed to the trunk, and then I climbed. We sat together in the plywood box. We barely fit.
“We’re going to die today,” she said. “That’s what I think.”
I agreed with her that we probably would. I didn’t know why. I had never seen our friends climb trees. I had only heard about it from other people. I was the one who her told her about it. She didn’t believe me at first. Then she did. I never asked her what changed her mind. She wouldn’t have told me anyway.
“Hey,” I said.
“What?” I thought that maybe her eyes were closed, but I couldn’t tell for sure because my eyes were closed. The way she spoke, though, made me think they were closed.
“I think I know what I would tell myself,” I said. “You know, about our friends.”
“What?” Now her eyes were open, I imagined.
“I’d say, ‘Our friends are not really our friends, even though that’s what the name says. Names don’t really say anything. They’re just there for people to support or oppose. Names help us coordinate our efforts.’”
“That’s really good,” she said. “You sound like a philosopher. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“I’m sorry I’m a bitch sometimes. It’s because I’m still angry at you for telling me about our friends. Why didn’t you keep it to yourself?”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“I know,” she said. “Some things are just the way they are, and we can’t change them. You’re a philosopher, and that’s how philosophers see the world.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
It started a few minutes later. Nothing concrete can be said about it. It was like a toothless man’s toothache.
The water of the lake seemed to unhinge itself from its finitude. It no longer needed to be in one particular formation. I empathized with it so much, more than I could ever confess to myself, and would have happily stayed right there with it for the rest of an endless span of time had it not been for her voice.
“Our friends are climbing,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry,” I said, trying to remain calm. “We’re not dead yet.”
“Are you sure?” she wept, crossing her arms over her chest and clawing her nails into her bare shoulders.
“It’s too much,” I whispered to myself.
She ripped her mask off. Her canary yellow face was beautiful. It had been a long time since last I had seen it. Her skin melted upwards. Her eyes closed the wrong way. Her chin floated sideways. Finally, her body exploded into confetti.
I didn’t say anything. My hands became a brush and dustpan. I swept her up and put her into my right eyeball, which ballooned liked the beachball breasts of a cartoon woman getting pumped full of helium. I drove us home in her car.
I put her to bed and slept on the couch. I woke up the next morning and made coffee.
She came out of my room and poured herself a cup.
“His dog spot,” she said, pointing at the beautiful brown spot where my white fish belly used to be.
I looked down at it.
“His dog spot,” I said as agreeably as I could manage at that hour.
“His dog spot,” she said into her coffee mug, simpering a little, as if she were caressing the head of a sleeping kitten.
His dog spot, I thought.
Those were the only three words we had left, bits of flotsam from the time before the tree house. I could still talk to myself, but not to anyone else. That was just how it was. I assumed it was the same for her. Neither of us were human anymore.
A few weeks later, we got married at the courthouse.
Jeff lives in New Helvetia (New Hell, for short), which is a fictional city in California.