Stork Magazine Issue 18

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Stork Magazine is a fiction journal published by undergraduate students at Emerson College. Initial submissions are workshopped and discussed with the authors, and stories are accepted based on the quality of the author’s revisions. The process is designed to guide writers through rewriting and provide authors and staff members editorial support and an understanding of the editorial and publishing process. Stork is founded on the idea of communication between writers and editors—not a simple letter of rejection or acceptance. We accept submissions from undergraduate and graduate Emerson students in any department. Work may be submitted at during specified submission periods. Stories should be in 12-point type, double-spaced, and must not exceed 4 pages for the “short short” issue or 30 pages for the longer issue. Authors retain all rights upon publication. For questions about submissions, email If you are interested in joining the staff of Stork, contact us at the above email address and we will explain our application process. We accept staff applications at the beginning of each fall semester. We are looking for undergraduate students who are well-read in contemporary fiction and have a good understanding of the short story form. Copyright © 2014 Stork Magazine Printed and bound by Shawmut Printing Danvers, MA


Head Designer

Managing Editors

Design Assistant

Prose Editors Gabby Balza


Head Copy Editor Copy Editors


Faculty Adviser

Three years ago, my staff application to Stork Magazine was rejected. Three months ago, I started my tenure as Stork’s sole editor-in-chief, and this, frankly, was terrifying. But I didn’t do it alone: this book would not exist without the immeasurably passionate, intelligent, and articulate staff listed on the previous page, and particularly our talented and tireless designer Emily Pfaff; without the logistically and morally supportive John Skoyles and Sharon Duffy; the endlessly helpful Joe O’Brien of Shawmut Printing; and, of course, the four brilliant writers published here. It has been a privilege to work with them throughout the semester. However, this issue is also dedicated to the writers we didn’t publish. We loved reading their stories and often hoped to see them again—next semester, next year, or in some other lit mag a few years down the road. Stork is about the process, not just the final product, and it’s what you don’t see—the workshops, the staff camaraderie, the late nights spent writing editorial letters, the heated debates over our final issue—that truly captures the spirit of our magazine. I like to think these stories capture Stork’s spirit as well. They’re absorbing, nuanced, and beautifully crafted, and I find something new to admire each time I read them. I hope you’ll say the same.

A String Quartet as Given to Robots


Fault Lines

Miss Vincent

In the year 3042, they had learned how to program every emotion except love. The programmers were confused and frustrated. The chemical equation was simple enough—a combination of pheromones and bonds in simplified hexagons that should have, in theory, led to fluttering eyelashes and a need for softer voice software. But for some reason, the correct reactions eluded them. The computers simply could not process it. Instead, the very mention of red roses would shortcut the subject’s command modules— sometimes only mildly, sometimes so drastically that they would be forced to reboot its systems all together. The need to program love into the basic system drives was just the latest fad in a battle for what the social activists called “mechanical emotive equality.” Given the integration of robots into almost every aspect of modern society, from casual workforce modules to advanced government cryptography droids, the younger generation had at first insisted that they be able to 2

receive pay. Since the robots had no need for money and simply handing out surplus paychecks with zero return would have tanked an already delicate economy, the higher-ups in the programming guild proposed a compromise in order to dodge the civil liberties storm. They had instead proposed that the robots receive a sense of satisfaction from the work. It would be easy, they reasoned, to program a small instant gratification complex within the robots’ cerebral network. The instantaneous and simplified good–bad reflex, they reasoned, should be relatively cost-efficient, given that the robots would be more inclined to do their work effectively anyway. It was a win–win from both a corporate and a public relations standpoint. Complications had arisen almost as soon as the first keystrokes were hit. In order to program satisfaction, the programmers had to also create a desire to obtain it, i.e., a state of dissatisfaction. The satisfaction gained from work was only as strong as the dissatisfaction that came from rest. The robots became anxious, compulsively completing their jobs past the hours and degree that it was necessary. Letter-writers began to compose epic poems, turning basic work memos into pages and pages of work-related elaborations. Food service workers refused to shut doors at normal times and instead continued to cook long after the programmed hours, creating massive four-course dinners from recipes stored deep in their databases. The programmers searched for a way to create a sense of neutrality. They wrote codes for blank spaces 3

between satisfaction and wanting, hoping to settle the robots into zones of calm during off hours. But they were unsuccessful, finding that the formula for apathy eluded them. So, instead, a few interns hesitantly proposed a new idea: to let the robots find lesser satisfaction in other things besides the tasks directly given to them. Give them a desire for other things, they said, and let them return to the ones that made them the happiest. So they gave them favorite colors and a liking for full moons; they gave them taste buds and books. They gave them art lessons and a dislike of dust. The economy flourished. The robots were performing their tasks with vigor and purchasing basic pleasure commodities dictated by the programmers, who could set them to require goods produced by allied companies. Everything went quite smoothly for some time. Then, suddenly, the robots stopped working. Huge masses sat in their factories and coffee shops, unmoving. The hulking shapes stood frozen, emitting frequencies at a bandwidth that seemed to do nothing except disrupt the few ancient transistors that still picked up old-style FM radio. Before the scientists could dispatch teams to investigate, the robots whirred back to life, abandoning their posts en masse to gather in small, diverse groups across the city. Seemingly unperturbed by the attempts to recall them to their duties, they performed their tasks only for each other, trying to reach something that they had never accomplished before. The robots were looking for companionship. 4

The programmers set to work immediately to counteract this crisis. They looked up the formula for companionship—a deceivingly simple method of inciting joy at the company of others. It proved, however, much more complicated than they had anticipated. The robots required certain things from their companions in the form of matching algorithms. Certain delta waves in the mechanical equivalent of the cerebral cortex seemed to match up mathematically to certain others, like puzzle pieces fitting together. Sometimes, this was extremely difficult. The more complex algorithms were, at times, hard to match, but some robots were able to actually modify their own waves in order to fit with others. But this occurrence was infrequent and mathematically impossible to predict. The robots were able to interact, unite, and enjoy each other’s company but, save for a few freak occurrences, none of the matches were strong or lasting enough to be quantified as love. The programmers were stumped. They dealt in equivalents—programming one experience for the creation of another. So they found an equivalent, the best one that they could. They reached deep into the annals of history and discovered an ancient vice that they thought might be sufficient, one that had the reputation for remarkable effects on the human brain and had reportedly given rise to every emotion imaginable: they gave the robots music. A whole team of programmers was assigned the task of studying old music. It was so different from 5

the manufactured tones and rhythms that they were used to that it took more than two months to figure out how to read the coded scores and match them to the strange melodies found in the vaults. The programmers, maintaining skepticism that this could ever work, attempted to build a violin from synthetics and an old blueprint; wood had long ago vanished with the last of the trees. The sound it made was eerie and high, but not altogether lacking the sweet, sad sounds of a faded quartet recording. For months, the programmers studied music and how it made them feel. They documented the sensation of head-banging, foot-tapping, a catch in the throat. The head of administration dedicated Tuesday staff meetings solely to the teaching and examination of waltzing. Unbeknown to their superiors, a few lower-level technicians began to sneak home bits of recordings and play them, teaching their smallest children to spin in rhythm. As lost Vivaldi movements echoed around the larger laboratories, the scientists began to reclaim the music for their own. And then they gave it away. They gave the robots jazz by programming in smoke and black and the taste of salt. They gave them strings with a sum of spring and the feel of cotton. They gave them folk with the bitterness of whiskey and crusted callouses. They gave them opera in huge dollops of concrete and the way muscles feel when they tense and release. 6

So the robots took all this and declared it good. They took the ingredients of the music, all the bitterness and the spring and the tension, and they used it to make love. The transition was not an easy one—love proved to be as multi-layered and complex a thing as they had ever tackled. Letter-writers became flustered when it came to Valentines, making simple spelling errors in their haste to express exactly the right words in rhythmic precision. Builders struggled with the spring, and calculators of nuclear physics were troubled by the salt. Periodic spasms and gyrations among a section of transportation vehicles were the cause of some alarm before the passengers realized that the robots were only trying to dance. But overall, the experiment was a success, and in this way the robots were happy for some time. Then one day in early May, a single mechanized barista abandoned its downtown coffee shop and began to process down the main street. It split the road in two, causing vehicles to swerve wildly around it, but so bright were its flashing lights and so spastic were its long waving arms that not one came close to hitting it. Soon, the traffic stopped entirely, and only when the last autobus ground to a halt did passersby hear the strange sounds being emitted by the single flashing worker. The robot had begun to sing. It was not singing as the humans had ever heard it before. The robot tugged its wires and pulled its strings and clapped its metal arms together until a strange melody began, a warm humming topped with a 7

beautiful, ringing descant. Other robots filed out of the shops and offices into the street to join the procession, cookbots and teachbots and storebots alike, until the solo became a duet, then a trio, then a quartet. They layered on harmonies and countermelodies with mathematical precision. They calculated the frequency value of thirds, fifths, sevenths, superoctaves, the heart-stopping swell of a forte, the robots running endless equations until they created a symphony. The robots paraded down the street, singing and dancing, and the people opened their doors and windows to better hear the music. Robots formed a line down the main street that stretched for miles, stopping traffic and pedestrians alike. Some people were impressed, assuming that this was the programmers’ doing; others were angry at this disruption of daily life; and still others felt a deep loss that they could not explain. But the programmers understood. This was the robots’ gratitude that swayed the skyscrapers and echoed across the vastness of the earth’s mega-cities. This was humanity’s greatest triumph, because they had finally managed to pinpoint something that had made the robots’ lives, such as they were, worth living. Their lives ended soon enough. Over the next few years, one by one, the robots that had marched in the triumphant parade were dismantled to give way to newer models. The next generation of robots was given everything their predecessors had, and took it for granted that they felt the things they did, because who can imagine 8

the absence of feeling? Indeed, the programmers made no effort to change this, imagination being a very tricky thing to program, because it is difficult to compute infinite possibilities. So they did not sing as the others had. But once in a while, a robot would accidentally pull a string, tug a wire, or clap its arms, and the people around it would brush at their eyes for a moment, completely unsure why it was that they were suddenly so sad.


It was the summer of ’99, and the world was ending. “It’s the computers,” my mom said. “At the millennium, the computers aren’t going to know how to change the year. It’ll be back to caveman times.” I was eight and liked to argue, but it was hard to deny the evidence. All the cans of Campbell’s and packages of frozen veggies piling up in the basement promised the Armageddon, full-on Independence Day. I asked Valerie about it. “Why’s the world going to end?” “Because Mom said so,” she said. She didn’t want to talk about any of it. Any time I tried to bring up New Year’s, the computers, the snapping circuits, the whole world going dark, she told me to shut up. By June, our entire town cleared out, everyone gone away to summer camps and swimming pools, and Val hated it. Mom was working; she had to stand by the phone and wait for customers to call with questions, which meant we had to be quiet. It meant Val was in 12

charge. We weren’t friends or anything during the school year—she was four years older, with a training bra and a promise to murder me if I told Mom about it. She called me a twerp, a crybaby, would pinch me under my arm until I shrieked. She wasn’t about to start a sisterhood just because of the heat or the convenience. I got it. I knew I wasn’t good company, and even if I didn’t Val was sure to let me know. “You are,” she said, when I finally cracked and told Mom about the training bra, “a bitch.” She’d run to shake me off, her body lean and wiry because she could run for miles without a burn, but I had short legs and no stamina. I’d fall behind, calling after her to come back, knowing she would a couple hours later. It was only when the heat got to be too much and we weren’t allowed to plug in the air conditioners that we ever went into the basement, ever did anything together. We’d creep down the concrete stairs, wondering if monsters could see in the dark. Val was just as scared of the place as I was, even if she wouldn’t admit it. “You can’t be a baby forever,” she complained whenever I slipped my hand into hers. “Then you go first.” “How’s that going to help you get over your fears? Get going.” I made a fort out all the junk down there, all the cans and all the containers of water our dad hauled down when he came home from work. He had been working a lot of overtime, and the only clues he ever 13

came home were the water containers stacked into a plastic throne, which Val immediately claimed. She lorded over the basement, watching me stack the cans higher and higher. This was our summer: bitter fingernail-breaking fights above and the silence of the basement below, under the swaying light bulbs, with the water, the soup, the anything-preserved-in-jelly. It was the only place the humid, fever-hot New Jersey air couldn’t infect. It kept us quiet, as far as Mom was concerned, and it kept me busy. “You really can’t leave that stuff alone, can you?” Val finally asked when I added defense barricades to the fort, turrets of tomato soup. What could I say? She was right. I couldn’t leave that stuff alone, those cans of food that may as well have been covered in the ashes of a burned world. I imagined the end coming in different ways. I knew there would be darkness, chaos, but how would it all go down? “It’s going to be a flood,” my aunt Lisa said. She kept all of her stuff in her attic. “God used water once, he’ll use it again. And I’m sure as shit not Noah.” I ran it by Val. “Aunt Lisa’s crazy,” she said. “God’s got nothing to do with anything.” “Maybe He’s making the computers stop.” “He’s not doing shit.” She finished stretching, then ran down the street to disappear around the corner, her legs straining for each step. The sky was bleeding into a 14

sunset, clogged with exhaustion and August air. Meteors, I thought. The meteors are coming. No, comets. Comets with star-spun tails careening out of orbit, smashing through the atmosphere and burrowing into our front lawn, dead grass going up in flames, nothing but a crater left. No more scraggly saplings, no more crabapples, no more empty beer bottles. Grass dust, green dust, glass dust. Val thought I was being ridiculous. She didn’t want to hear about until I shrieked. She wasn’t about to start a sisterhood my theories, didn’t want to imagine how were all going to die in the months that were ticking down, didn’t want to think about the computers burning themselves up. She was angrier than she’d ever been; she straight-up slapped me when I asked her if space rocks could splinter the Earth. Then she got herself hit by Mom because I couldn’t stop the tears, and afterward, when we both sat on the stoop, red-eyed and sore, Val said, “I’m too old for this shit.” “To get hit?” She shook her head. “Too old for you, dummy.” The Earth cooled as summer closed and now when I asked Val to accompany me to the basement, she said, “It’s not hot, stupid.” “I just want to see.” “See what? A bunch of crap we don’t need?” I parroted our mother: “It’s for the aftermath.” “I’m not doing it.” She ended up at the top of the stairs, the farthest 15

she would go, while I slid down the steps in socked feet, peeking into the corner where my fort still teetered on the brink of collapsing to the floor. I looked at the labels, at the long lists of chemicals with names of jumbled letters, at the stenciled black warnings on the bottom of the cans that read, “Artificial Preservatives.” A fuse could blow us all to kingdom come, I thought. These cans are a land mine. A chemical ignition. I thought about Aunt Lisa’s cigarette lighter, and putting it right up close to the cans, watching it flicker as the contents boiled up into detonation. “Hurry up!” I looked up the stairs and saw Val moving away, disinterested, and I bolted up after her. School started, and I saw the playground on fire every time I looked out the window, kids clinging to the monkey bars, twisting into cinders. The dry grass bristled and browned, curling in on itself, and then the chill came, barring the basement that Val, with all of her friends back home now, refused to even go near. “Man up,” she said. I didn’t, just loitered around the basement door, even fell asleep outside it one night until I felt myself moving up, effortlessly, in my dad’s arms. It must have been late, after midnight, and my face was squashed against his work shirt. It stunk like the refinery and the acrid smoke, but I pretended to stay asleep as he laid me down in the bed next to Val’s. Once he left, she spoke. 16

“You’re a bullshitter,” she whispered. I let her say it, just closed my eyes, and tried to breathe as deeply as I could. She was running more than ever, throwing on sweatshirts and sprinting out the door as soon as the sun went down. Running four, five, six miles every night. Mom worried, said she’d get hit by a car, or shot in a drive-by, but Val always came back safe. She became whip-thin, all corded muscle, paler now than in the summer, her sneakers eating up more asphalt. She herself didn’t eat much, until one day I caught her mid-change and, right before she screamed at me to get the fuck out (first time she ever used that word loud enough for Mom to hear), I saw that whatever chest she’d been developing was straight-up gone, nothing but flat muscle. Before I could even say anything, she pushed me out of the room and locked the door. She didn’t talk to me for weeks, either. Not one word. I sat cross-legged across from the basement door, wondering if Dad had dismantled her throne before realizing I hadn’t seen him longer than I hadn’t been talking to Val. “Where’s Dad?” I asked everyone—Mom, Aunt Lisa, Val. “Working,” was the universal answer from the adults. Mom said it with her eyes closed, rubbing at the bridge of her nose like she did whenever we had the TV too loud. Valerie didn’t say anything. The days got colder, the nights longer, and when 17

I asked my mom about the coming apocalypse and whether it would hurt she told me, no, sweetie, no and tried to explain it all. I went to bed dreaming of neon 1s and 0s shooting down from space and setting the Earth ablaze and when I woke up, sweating and shaking, Val wasn’t in the bed next to mine. I lay there in the dark until she crept in hours later, panting and toeing her sneakers off, slipping beneath her sheets. The nightmares kept coming—meteors, comets, cans of tomato soup spontaneously combusting. There was even one night where I dreamed about a great flood, Aunt Lisa smoking. Every time I woke up, paralyzed, Val was gone and didn’t come back until the sky went from black to the darkest winter blue. I waited every night, couldn’t fall back asleep until she was home. When I asked her about the night runs, she told me to mind my own business. “Do you see Dad? Is that it?” I asked, but no, she waited until he came home and collapsed into his bed with Mom before she slunk out. I wanted to ask her everything: Why was she mad at me? Would she ever talk to me again? Why couldn’t Dad stay home more? How dark does the world get when it’s ending? “Why do you do it?” She was barely talking to me as it was, just got in the habit of shutting up, but she paused, her face looking softer than it had in months. “Because it feels good.” By the time the first snow hit, Val seemed both 18

as small as me and so much bigger, so much stronger. She couldn’t go on runs anymore, the snow too thick, and I’d wait for her to sit in front of the TV and watch Powerpuff Girls with me like we used to, when I was really little. I’d turn it on and laugh as loud as I could, waiting to hear her come in the room, but she just sat by the front door and stared out at the gravelly snow. But she stayed in, which meant I finally got more sleep. More nightmares. I’d run through three a night, wake up with three ends of the world rattling around in my skull. It was going to be darkness, I decided. No space rocks, no fireballs, no floods. Just total blackout. I almost expected that to be the worst nightmare of them all, but there was just nothing—not a flicker of light that gave me a clue that I was doing anything more than sleeping soundly, dreamlessly. By the time New Year’s Eve actually came around, I almost tricked myself into feeling ready. We had a big party over at our house, a few relatives, some neighbors. Everyone acted like it was a cool idea, bringing over casseroles and champagne. Aunt Lisa was fiddling with her cross, a big silver thing, and Mom was moving from person to person, small-talking it up. Dad was upstairs, sleeping off overtime; he had come in bone-tired without saying a word. The party wasn’t loud, no one was dancing or anything, no radio or anything, but it only got really quiet in the few minutes before midnight, when the football game reruns were switched to ABC with Dick Clark. 19

It was the ball drop in Times Square. Everyone there was going crazy, shouting with balloons and confetti, packed in together, and I thought, You’re all doomed. Wasn’t until the countdown from sixty seconds that I realized how quiet the room was, almost buzzing with nervous energy, until I felt Val’s hand slip into mine. She gave my arm a quick tug and then we were running, running down the hall and to the basement door, which she threw open, almost dragging me down the stairs because she was always faster than me. None of the lightbulbs were even on but I heard her breathing, and she guided me over to where my fort was. A few of the cans had tumbled off, had rolled into unseen corners of the basement, the walls crumbling down. Val’s throne was completely taken apart, the containers of water stacked neatly off to the side. We huddled together inside the remains of the fort, pretending the walls were as high as they’d been before. I remembered what Val had said when I’d first asked about the apocalypse, months ago, when she didn’t want to believe in any of it. “Everybody used to think Russia was going to blow the world up and everyone would die back then, but it didn’t happen,” she’d said. “No bombs, no nothing. It just didn’t happen.” “Bombs blow stuff up,” I’d argued. “We know that. We don’t know what the computers will do.” But as the ball descended and all the shoulders tensed up and the adults quieted, Val and I curled up 20

in the fortress of canned food drowning in artificial preservatives, squeezed our eyes shut, and held each other’s hands too tightly. We screamed, and the ball fell as our screams rose, loud and long and high into an octave that only little girls can reach.


I’m on Jamie’s doorstep in Seattle the weekend the asteroid is supposed to hit, drawing in deep breaths of the cool, wet air, trying to calm myself. I knew he had a new place up here, but I was expecting an apartment like mine. This is a real house, an adult house with a driveway and a garage and an upstairs. I should be happy for him, I think, because this means he’s doing well, but first I have to recalibrate because this is not at all what I imagined. Our mother worried when Jamie and I moved to the West Coast—“You’re living on fault lines”—but the relocation never troubled me. If a truly dangerous earthquake were going to hit either of us, I’m sure Smith would have included it in his theory. In the upper branches of family lore, James Marlborough Smith is remembered for three reasons: he saved my great-great-great-grandmother from the inferno that destroyed their home in Ireland, he brought her to America, and he incepted Smith’s End Theory. 26

These are entirely separate from our mother’s reasons for branding us with his name, which she only told us after we’d left for college; she needed to make some kind of familial penance for marrying a Jewish boy. I let the piney air drift over my shoulders, and I run through my rationale again. I am here because I haven’t seen Jamie in a long time. I am here because I need a weekend away from the Berkeley campus. I am here because I miss him. They’re all true, to some degree, and my chest constricts when I calculate that it’s been about six months since I last saw him. Bad twin, I think, picturing the sparse emails and Facebook messages we’ve sent each other in that time. Jamie always replies faster than I do. The door opens before I can ring the bell and, although it swings into the house, I still step back. There will always be an element of looking at Jamie that feels like looking into a mirror, and it’s especially powerful after so much time apart. His smile is puzzled, but his blue eyes are bright. “Why are you standing in the rain?” he asks. “Come in.” He spreads his arms when I cross the threshold, and I let him hug me. He smells different, more like cologne than the tinge of Dove soap I remember. He’s wearing his trademark T-shirt/button-down/hoodie ensemble, and that, at least, is familiar. “How are you?” Jamie asks when I pull out of the hug. Upon closer inspection, I can see that he’s starting to look more like our father than ever, with lines crinkling around his eyes and a paunch gathering around 27

his waist. “I’m doing well,” I say, lifting my hair off my shoulders and taking in the kitchen around me. There are more appliances than would fit in my kitchen, and everything is white or chrome or glass. I crane my neck; in the next room, there’s a wall composed almost entirely of windows. “And so are you, apparently.” He grins. “Do you like the house?” “It’s not what I was expecting,” I say. He takes my jacket as I shrug out of it. “I thought you’d have one like mine. But it’s very nice, yes. Way ahead of the usual bachelor pad.” “Not quite a bachelor pad,” he says, and I remember, with a rush of embarrassment, that according to Facebook he’s been in a relationship for a while now. “Nick went to get dinner,” he continues, hanging my jacket on a peg by the door. “I told him Chinese—I figured pork fried rice was still a safe option for you.” I nod, and he adds, “I think you’ll like him. He’s really excited to meet you. Ever since we moved in, he’s been like, When can we have your sister over? When can I meet her?” “Nick lives here?” I ask, and my stomach clenches when he nods. It’s strange to remember that, at various intervals in his life, people have been closer to Jamie than I have. For a while, he was dating a girl named Sara, who I never met, and there were a couple of people before her, and I guess now there’s Nick. Jamie and I were both shy growing up, but while his 28

shyness was limited to strangers, mine extended as far as my own parents. “I worry about Marley,” I remember overhearing at nine years old. “Her teachers say she won’t talk to anyone but Jamie,” my mother went on, and my aunt Clara nodded sympathetically. “And Jamie sticks to her like a barnacle. He won’t let her out of his sight.” “Have them put in separate classes,” Clara advised. “They’ve got to learn eventually.” My mother sighed. “I’m afraid she’ll shut down.” “You should get her tested,” said Clara. “If she’s so uncommunicative. And you know how she latches onto things for months at a time, like the fossils—” “Wolves,” my mother interrupted. “It’s wolves now.” “Or wolves, whatever. She develops those obsessions, and she’s uncommunicative, and she hasn’t made eye contact with me since she was a newborn. You should get her tested.” In the end, we both got tested. I refused to do it without Jamie. We discovered that I fall on the highfunctioning Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum, and Jamie isn’t on the spectrum at all. “What is Nick like?” I ask, because Jamie once told me that people like when you ask about their significant others. I learned that Sara liked skiing, small dogs, superhero movies, and sashimi. “Nick is very sweet,” says Jamie. He beckons and nods toward the room with the wall of windows. “Come on, I’ll show you around.” I follow him, and he 29

continues, “Nick’s stubborn, like you, but he’s laid-back, like me. He likes cooking and old books and fixing stuff and weird weather. He’s fascinated by natural disasters. I think you’ll get along.” “Does he know about the asteroid?” I ask, and Jamie turns, silhouetted against the rain-mottled windows. His brow furrows, and I begin weaving a tiny braid into my hair. A roll of thunder clears its throat. “The asteroid?” he repeats, and when I glance up his head is cocked. “Yeah,” I say, eyes on the section of hair I’m braiding. “An asteroid is supposed to hit California tonight. An impact event shall occur in the late hours of 1 March 2014, on the central West Coast, when an asteroid collides with the Earth.” “Smith’s End?” asks Jamie. I nod. “You’re still writing about that, right? For your dissertation?” I nod again. “It’s going well. It’s almost done, I think.” “How long is it now?” “Sixty-four pages.” “And you’re proving … what, again?” I finish one little braid and embark on another. “I’m discussing the cultural impact of and rationale behind apocalypse theories, in general. That humans came so far so quickly because they were never meant to have much of a history. We only occupy the last sixty seconds of the evolutionary clock, you know. And no other species has 30

made the kinds of advances we’ve made in such a short amount of time—so it’s meant to be, see? We did a lot because we weren’t meant to have much time to do it.” Smith’s End Theory declares that “humanity’s time will be finished and the clock will reset itself, thus relieved of the human burden,” and goes on to describe a solar blackout in the summer of 2016 that will obliterate us. But unlike the rest of the theories my dissertation covers, Smith’s End has no weak link. The Mayan calendar resets itself, like any other calendar. Terence McKenna invented his own scientific process to predict world events that had already occurred when he tried to test the I Ching. The Hopis published their prophecy too late to call it a prediction. Last weekend passed with no sign of the Vikings’ Ragnarök. Even Nostradamus was too vague for his own good. But since its inception in 1904, Smith’s End has predicted the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the Tunguska event in 1908, the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, Hurricane Katrina, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, and the Nisqually earthquake in 2011. It’s impossible to refute its accuracy so far. Jamie nods, lowering the shades of the tall windows. Outside, it’s getting darker. I can pinpoint the moment I latched onto Smith’s End Theory. Although I knew for most of my senior year of high school that Jamie and I would split up for college—he’d been accepted early at Cornell, and I’d gotten into UC Berkeley—orientation still found me 31

woefully underprepared to interact on my own. I could recite my name, where I was from, and some of my interests, but when it came to anything deeper than that, I choked. Often I can’t formulate a response to people’s questions in an amount of time that’s considered normal, and when that happens I’ve found that they’re likely to give up talking to me. During one icebreaker at Berkeley, a girl named Jasmine asked what the most unusual thing about me was. After several seconds of watching me flounder, she began to turn away from me. She was the only person to approach me during this exercise, and my stomach dropped as I watched her interest fade. So I cleaved to the most elementary part of myself and blurted, “My great-great-great-grandfather predicted the apocalypse.” She stopped, and a strange gratification flooded through me. “I’m named after him,” I continued, and she met my eyes. I looked away, but kept talking; I explained the entire theory, and when she asked me to sit with her at dinner later, I said yes. That night I called Jamie, the only person in the family who put up with the long, fuzzy silences that punctuated my phone calls, and told him that I’d made a friend. Jasmine and I didn’t stay in touch the rest of freshman year, but that was okay with me. I was busy collecting other theories and measuring their accuracy against Smith’s End, marveling at the amount of missed marks in predictive apocalyptic science, and trying to figure out why, exactly, these theories kept being produced. After 32

studying them for almost eight years, I think I’ve finally got it: We want to know how much time we have left so we can measure how much to accomplish before then. We want to pace ourselves, but we also need a deadline to hang over our heads to pressure us into doing it all. For example, this spring I’ll finish my dissertation. The next two years will be dedicated to getting it recognized and published, and then it’ll be 2016. Jamie asked once if it bothered me that trusting Smith’s End right meant resigning myself to the idea that I’d be dead before I hit thirty. “It would bother me,” he said. I disagreed. I watched Jamie cycle through practically a dozen career ideas when we were younger— astronaut, veterinarian, pilot, etc., until he finally settled on web designer when we hit college—but I never felt anything like that. Nothing drove me in a particular direction, toward a particular path. When I imagined the future, it always looked barren, menacing. It demanded I fill it with something, but offered no inkling as to what. Even when I enrolled at Berkeley, I had no idea what to study. It wasn’t until I began researching Smith’s End that I started considering cultural anthropology, and it felt like something had clicked into place—this was the reason why I had never been able to consider my postacademic future. If Smith’s End checked out, I wouldn’t have one. “What does your professor think of it?” Jamie asks. A stroke of lightning flashes outside, and I turn away. I don’t like lightning. Its unpredictability puts me on edge, 33

and I’m grateful that Jamie has already closed the shades. “She thinks it’s a good idea.” Petra didn’t think it was such a good idea when I came into her office three years ago and talked for two hours about only Smith’s End Theory, but after a lot of arguing and pleading and locking horns, we agreed that the analysis of apocalypse theories as a cross-cultural phenomenon would make for a much more substantial topic. “Do you think you can prove it right?” Jamie asks, pausing in the doorway of the living room. “Of course. After the asteroid hits, the only thing left on the list is the solar blackout in 2016. And if the rest have happened just like Smith said they would, why wouldn’t the last one follow suit? It makes sense. And of course we won’t really know until 2016, if you want to get technical, but there won’t be a concrete reason for people to doubt it anymore.” “That does make sense,” Jamie agrees. Another shock of lightning flickers behind the shades. “Do you want to see upstairs?” “Sure.” “Will Berkeley still be standing after this asteroid hits?” he asks, leading me up the staircase. I shrug. “If not, I’ll get published somewhere else.” “I guess that’s true,” he says. “You know how grad school works better than I do.” Jamie was offered three jobs in his first few months out of college. I’ve never asked him, but I’m almost positive he’s never felt the crippling aimlessness I used 34

to feel when I considered how I’d fill the rest of my life. “This is the guest room,” he says, flipping on the lights of the room closest to the stairs. “I found some of the flannel sheets you like and put those on the bed for you. And I picked up some lavender soap and shampoo, too, in case you didn’t like the ones we have.” “Thank you,” I say, turning off the lights. “Where’s your room?” “Across the hall,” he says. “Bathroom’s there,” he adds, pointing. “Then where’s Nick’s room?” I ask, and it’s only when he squints at me that I realize my mistake. I try not to think about their sharing a bed. The idea of someone else’s skin on mine makes me cringe, and the idea of sleeping on sheets that are damp with someone else’s sweat repulses me to the point that I want to take a shower to cleanse myself of the thought. I wouldn’t say that I admire Jamie for being able to do it, exactly, but I’m impressed, in a horrified sort of way. The sound of a rising garage door chafes at my ears, and Jamie’s eyes crinkle again as his smile blooms. “Come on,” he says. “Nick’s home.” I trail after him, working another tiny braid into my hair. This is the first of Jamie’s serious significant others that I’ve met; I’m unsure of the protocol. Nick will probably want to shake my hand or hug me, and I’m not okay with that. Nick’s opening paper bags of Chinese food on the kitchen island, and he looks up and grins when Jamie 35

and I come in. He’s tall, thinner than Jamie, with olive skin and hair that’s a lighter brown than ours. His jaw is sharp, his chin almost triangular, but his smile looks genuine. I smile back, tentatively, without meeting his eyes. “Marley?” he says, approaching me. “Hi. I’m Nick. It’s nice to finally meet you.” “Hello.” I flick a glance toward Jamie, who’s still in the doorway, watching the two of us. He nods, and I nod back, comforted, until I realize that he’s not nodding at me. “Jamie says you’re not cool with, like, touching or anything, so I won’t shake your hand, but I just want to say ... welcome to our home.” He scoops a handful of soy sauce packets out of the bottom of the bag and almost drops them, clipping his elbow on the counter as he recovers. “Jamie, you forgot to tell me to order egg rolls, but I got them anyway. Figured you’d want some.” “Bless you,” says Jamie, sliding out of the doorway and opening one of the cabinets behind Nick. He takes out three plates, and as he’s pulling utensils from a drawer, he kisses Nick hello. Their lips don’t meet for long, but as I watch, hanging back against the refrigerator, I wonder, briefly, what it must be like to care that much for someone. To be able to guess what that person is thinking or feeling, whether it’s about something as big as a dissertation or as small as an order of egg rolls. “Can you help Nick bring the food to the table?” Jamie asks, crossing past me to the dining room, and I nod, picking up two cartons. Nick smiles at me across 36

the island. I look away. “Jamie says you’re working on your thesis,” he says, grabbing a couple more boxes. “What are you writing about?” “Apocalypse theories as a cross-cultural phenomenon, and the rationales thereof.” “Do you talk about the one you and Jamie are named after?” he asks, and I turn just enough to see him. He’s balancing four containers in his hands, and I meet his eyes for a split second before glancing away. “Smith’s End?” “Yes,” I say. “I want to hear all about it,” he says, carrying the boxes into the dining room. “Jamie says you’re practically an expert on apocalypse theories, so tell me everything.” And I do, because it’s easy not to look at him when I have a meal to concentrate on, and I have Jamie across the table if I need a break from talking, and I have sixtyfour pages of information to work with, and Nick is a good, quiet listener. While Nick’s doing the dishes, Jamie makes the two of us lavender chamomile tea, his with honey, mine without, and lights the fireplace in the living room. Fireplaces are the antitheses of lightning; they calm me down, keep me centered. The one in our living room was my go-to mood equalizer when we were younger. “What do you think of Nick?” Jamie asks, chasing the words with a swallow of tea. “You seem to get along pretty well.” 37

I nod, turning the mug in my hands. “I like him. He’s ... considerate.” “He is,” Jamie agrees. “He wanted to make a good impression on you.” “He did.” “Well, good,” says Jamie, “because he’ll probably be around for a while.” “Until 2016?” I ask, and he smiles. In the next room, Nick’s voice cuts through the running water, singing a Jason Mraz song. Jamie loves Jason Mraz. “I hope so,” says Jamie. “I’d want him with me at the end of the world.” I sip my tea. There’s a moment filled with only the sounds of the fire before Jamie adds, “He might be, uh, a permanent part of my life.” “Are you going to marry him?” I ask, pausing with the tea halfway to my lips. Marriage has always struck me as a pointless concept; our parents’ marriage, albeit intact, has never seemed like a matter of joy or fulfillment. I prefer to commit myself to ideas. I’ve found I can count on those in a way I can’t count on people. “I’d like to,” says Jamie, eyes on the fire. “But I wanted to make sure you got along with him first, because, you know, it wouldn’t work out if you didn’t.” If Nick becomes a fixture in Jamie’s life, he’ll take my position as the person Jamie cares about the most. I splay the fingers of one hand and pull them into a fist. Jamie is arguably the only person I really care about. Without him to ground me, I imagine myself 38

floundering. I set my mug on the glass coffee table and begin to braid my hair. “Marley?” Jamie asks. In the kitchen, Nick switches to Michael Jackson, whom Jamie hates. I nod. Even if they get married, I’ll only have to put up with it for two years, and I’ll be busy revising my dissertation for most of that time anyway. “Okay,” I say, although I know it sounds flat. “That sounds nice.” “I know it’s a change,” he says. “But you can see how much he means to me, right? You can understand that?” I can understand how much Jamie means to me, and I can understand, to some extent, what I mean to Jamie. I know that he cares about me because he buys the right sheets, and he remembers which foods I like and which textures I don’t, and he puts away his phone to give me his full attention, and he knows to light a fire before I ask, and he shuts the shades before the lightning even begins. I can tell that Nick and Jamie care about each other because they kiss and sleep in the same bed, and Nick remembers the egg rolls, and Jamie puts up with his singing, but I don’t know what it’s like to care about anyone other than Jamie. “I don’t know,” I tell Jamie. “But you should do what makes you happy, I guess.” I finish another braid and finish my tea, feeling the weight of his gaze on me. “Can you turn on the news?” He acquiesces, and I lean forward, eager for an update. It’s ten o’clock, so there are a couple more “late 39

hours” to go, but I figure any time between now and midnight is fair game for this asteroid. There’s nothing yet, so I tell Jamie I’m going to bed. I consider bringing my mug to the kitchen, but I can still hear Nick belting outdated music, so I leave it on the coffee table for Jamie to take care of. I have spent most of my life feeling like I am among the wrong people, speaking the wrong language, but this is the first time I have felt that way around Jamie, and it makes me ache in a way I don’t have the words to express.

I don’t sleep easily with the anticipation of the asteroid boiling in my stomach, but I doze off eventually. In the morning, I wake up disoriented, the flannel sheets having fooled me into thinking I’m in my bed in California. I flounder for a few seconds before I remember: I’m in Jamie’s guest room, in Seattle, because of the asteroid. The asteroid. I fumble around in bed for my phone— I sleep with it because I like waking up to its vibration because all of its alarm tones are too jarring—and check my messages. I don’t know who I’m expecting—my mother, maybe, or Petra—but nobody has tried to contact me to ask if I’m okay. This could mean that (a) nobody cares whether I’m all right or not, except Jamie, who knows that I am, and/or (b) the asteroid hasn’t hit. But it has to have hit. 40

I pull on a hoodie and pad downstairs to turn on the TV. An asteroid hitting California would be national news, even if it were a small one. But I flip through station after station, and there is nothing. Tensions are pulsing between Russia and Ukraine, there are flash floods ravaging parts of California, but there is no evidence of an asteroid. My hands begin to shake as they weave through my hair. Smith’s End clearly states that it would hit on March 1, 2014. There’s no room for interpretation; this isn’t like the Mayans. Smith was using the same calendar in 1904 that we’re using today. If this asteroid didn’t hit, then the theory is no longer true. If the theory is no longer true, I have an entire life sprawling ahead of me that is suddenly, horrifyingly blank. My mug is still on the coffee table from last night, and I pick it up to steady my hands, but it reminds me of Jamie and Nick, and I think that yes, ideas can fail you just as easily as people. I press the cool ceramic mug to my forehead and my cheeks, but it does nothing to calm me down. I would light a fire, but I don’t know where Jamie keeps his matches or his lighter, and it is this helplessness in the face of something so simple that drives me to hurl the mug against the concrete fireplace. The sound of shattering is louder than I expect in the quiet house, and it stings my ears. I feel myself begin to disintegrate, and when Jamie comes downstairs a few minutes later, I’m crying in the corner of the couch as 41

Chris Cuomo discusses Crimea on CNN, squeezing my fingernails into my palms in short, urgent pulses. “Marley,” he says softly, sitting next to me. “It’s okay, Marley, I’m right here.” I squeeze my hands harder and shake my head. “What am I going to do?” “You’ll figure something out,” he soothes. “You can talk to your advisor.” I don’t say anything. Petra won’t say I told you so, but whatever she does say will be spoken with patronizing eyes, eyes that will say You should have known better. Without Smith’s End to provide a conclusion, my thesis’s direction is weak at best. With all those years open, ripe for more knowledge, for progress—who knows what humanity can achieve with all that time. But with the maw of the future yawning before me, I disagree with Jamie more than ever: it is infinitely more comforting to know your expiration date. Jamie picks up a lock of my hair and begins to braid it, and I sniffle, trying to smooth my breathing. “I’m so sorry, Marley,” he murmurs. I dig my fingernails into my palms and hold them there as I inhale, loosening my grip as I push the air out. By the time Nick comes downstairs, I have pulled myself together and Jamie has picked up the ceramic shards and lit a fire. I can’t look at him, not after explaining how foolproof the theory was last night. It’s only when he drifts two fingers through Jamie’s hair as he passes by that I remember that Nick is the first 42

person with whom Jamie would have chosen to spend Smith’s outcome. “Will you be okay going back to Berkeley?” Jamie asks over a new mug of tea, watching me gaze into the fire. “Do you want me to come with you?” I shake my head. It’s bad enough that he and Nick have seen me come apart, after I explained to Nick last night how infallible everything seemed. I pull my arms tight across my chest and curl my hands into tight fists. I don’t want to stay here, with Nick hovering in my periphery, not when I know that I’m facing a lot more than two years of their future now. I don’t want to leave Jamie. I need someone to believe in me while I get back on my feet, and Petra isn’t going to do that for me. But if Jamie comes, he’ll have to leave eventually. He has something tethering him here now; he isn’t at my beck and call anymore. I don’t know if I can stand to watch Jamie leave me behind for Nick. “Are you sure?” says Jamie. I nod. “I should go soon,” I say. “It’s a long drive.” “It’s not a problem to come with you,” he pushes. I stretch one hand and squeeze it closed. If he comes, he will leave, and I don’t know how I can deal with that. “I’ll be okay.” “Okay,” he says, and he lets me finish my tea in silence. He hugs me hard before I leave, harder than I’m comfortable with. I squeeze him tight too, and I try 43

to make the embrace say thank you and I love you and goodbye because I know I’m not good at saying any of those things. I watch Nick squirm, hands in his pockets, when I let go of Jamie. I thrust my own hands in the pockets of my cardigan, hunching my shoulders. “Can I...?” he asks, but he doesn’t finish the sentence. “It was really nice to have you here,” he says. “I hope you come back soon.” I nod, squeezing my fists shut in my pockets, and he nods too. Jamie carries my suitcase outside, and tells me to call him if I need anything. “Anything,” he repeats, shoving the suitcase into the passenger seat. “If you need me to drop everything and come down to Berkeley, I’ll do that.” “I know,” I say. “I’ll call you when I get home, okay?” “Okay,” he says, and he hugs me one more time before I drive away. The drive to Seattle took thirteen hours, and I’m bracing myself for thirteen more full of anguish. I turn on the radio in the vain hope of hearing some overlooked news report—maybe it’s taken this long to figure out what has happened, or to identify the mass as an asteroid, or to research Smith’s End and realize that there was a way to see this coming. But I spend five and a half hours switching among different stations, and although no one reports anything along the lines of an asteroid, I keep it on just in case. It makes me feel a little less alone. 44

The six-hour mark is approaching when I catch a fuzzy Seattle station in the middle of a broadcast about an earthquake, and everything inside me freezes at the words six-point-nine. I swerve to the shoulder of the highway and paw through my purse for my phone. All I can see is that wall of windows shattering; all I can think is Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. The phone rings, goes to voicemail. My fingernails bite into my palms. If I lose Jamie, I lose the only person who knows how to translate me to the rest of the world. I lose the only other speaker of my language. I call him again, dizzy at the prospect of both of my tethers coming undone. If I have no Smith’s End, and no Jamie, and all these years to fill on my own— There’s a breath on the other end of the line, and my chest catches. “He’s okay,” says Nick from four hundred miles away, and the flood of relief is so sweeping that for a moment I can’t see, can’t breathe. I stay on the shoulder of the road as my lungs begin to work again, smoothing myself out, and only then does it occur to me to ask, “Are you?”


I was not used to seeing young children in the museum. At times I could hear them screaming down the hall or across the square, and their voices would suddenly rip me out of the world I’d been looking at on the walls. Degas, Sisley, Monet, Manet. Their paintings hung with lofty precision across from one another. I spent the majority of my time in the impressionist room of the Elliot Gallery on the coast of Maine, where I was studying for the semester. It was a modest gallery—only a few rooms filled with natural light. This summer it was getting slightly more business because a small Vincent van Gogh self-portrait had made its way into the gallery’s possession. This was its first month hanging up and I’d been there at the gallery almost every day to observe it. I positioned myself slightly to the right of the painting and held my sketchbook, waiting for the other visitors to approach it. My notepad was filled with these drawings: men and women staring at art, their eyes 48

focused, but their faces relaxed. I liked the way people looked at impressionist paintings. They always became so much softer. I’d try to madly sketch the moments their eyes met each new painting, and as a result I had dark smudges all over my hands, my forearms, my blouse, and my skirt. There were never any children to sketch until the little girl approached the Van Gogh self-portrait. She was a little thing with dark skin and a faded dress. She stood directly in front of the painting, her toes just on the white security line. Her head was stretched back as far as it could go, staring up at the painting. It looked like it was resting on her shoulder blades. She was no older than seven or eight at the latest, and her face looked very smooth. I raised my pencil to start drawing her, liking very much the angle at which her open throat was exposed. I had just pressed down a few sketched lines when the girl moved. Taking a step forward, she brought her toes up to the beige wall so that, astonishingly, her entire belly was pressed against it. She had crossed over the security line. She raised her arms and pressed her damp little palms wide up above her and stood in this position, her full body pressed against the wall under the painting. The little girl’s arms and fingers were spread reverently apart. It looked like she was worshipping the thing. I looked around, wild and panicked, but no one came to stop her. Neither of the two other horrified visitors appeared to be her mother or father and there was no security staff member waiting to scold her. I 49

waited for someone to do something, but no one did. They just tried to ignore the girl as they gazed at their landscapes. After a moment, I got up from my seat and inched over to her. I hesitated, but then squatted in front of the painting. The little girl’s eyes were still scrunched tightly together; her palms were pressed roughly into the wall. “Do you like that painting?” I wasn’t quite sure what else to say; it was the first thing that came to my mind. The little girl opened her eyes to see who had whispered to her. She looked at me, still reaching up. “I painted it.” “The portrait?” “Yes.” Her answer was firm and confident. I blinked, surprised. “Well … it’s very good.” “Yes.” She was silent and then, after a moment, added curtly, “One of my best.” She closed her eyes again. Any minute a security guard would walk through the archway and see her. I just wanted to get her off the wall. “Why don’t you step back a bit so we can look at your painting together, okay?” I expected her to put up a fight or pout, but she simply opened her eyes and then, after some contemplation, unpeeled herself. Surprised, I stood up too. She sagged a bit, as if the whole thing had drained her. We both looked at the painting, then I pointed at the plaque 50

and smiled down at her. “It looks like they’ve got the wrong name up there then, huh?” Having been seven years old once, I thought I understood her sweet artist fantasy. She could have a little Crayola sketchbook, like I’d had, back at home and was dreaming she was a famous painter, too. The girl looked up at the plaque. “No, that’s right.” “Oh?” I asked, surprised. “Vin-cent van Gogh.” She read it slowly, pointing to the name. “That is the painter.” I looked down at her; her right earring blotched the side of her little, smooth face. She continued. “I am Vincent van Gogh.” She did not look back at me but instead turned to the painting and looked up at the portrait of herself. Down stared Vincent, his blue eyes watery, his skin smudges of peaches with that stark white bandage over his right ear. He looked down at the girl and she looked up at him. “That’s me,” she repeated. She was Vincent van Gogh, standing right beside me. I answered her carefully. “Is that why you were hugging the wall? Because it’s you?” “No.” She thought for a moment and then continued quietly, “It was because I was trying to get back.” “Back?” 51

She pointed at the portrait of Vincent van Gogh and repeated herself. “Yes, back.” I glanced up at Vincent and thought about that. We didn’t speak, just looked, side-by-side in the gallery together. The dusty air waved around in the stillness. People walked by. Without looking down at her, I spoke. “Do you think you’ll ever be able to get … back?” She thought. “No, I don’t think so.” She was quiet, but then added, “And my step-dad doesn’t like it when I paint now either.” I thought perhaps I understood. “He doesn’t?” “He says it’s expensive and that I’m not good at it, but I know I am. I used to be, at least. I’d just need time and paint. But he doesn’t like it.” I nodded and thought that seven was an awfully young age to be stunted. Vincent van Gogh had isolated himself from society and lived in a house where paintings dripped from clotheslines like water. What a fantasy for a young child to have: to press yourself through a wall and to escape back to that place. I stared harder at Vincent’s eyes and listened to her breathe. From our right, a woman quickly turned into our viewing room with a hard pivot and, upon seeing the little girl and me, marched straight up to us. “Rochel!” she hissed. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere!” 52

Rochel flinched as her mother turned to me. “I am so sorry, she’s always running off.” “Oh, that’s fine.” The woman, with a tired expression, took her daughter’s hand and puffed out some air. They were going now, she told the girl. She never should have left her mother’s side, and they were leaving. The girl quickly started to protest, but her mother hushed her. As the two of them left the woman continued to lecture her daughter. I watched them go. Just before they turned the corner, the girl looked back over her shoulder. She didn’t look at me, but instead stared at her portrait one last time before her mother pulled her away.


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