“I feel like I was abducted,” Isobel said.
“What, by humans?” Michael deadpanned, and Liz smiled. The three of them were down in his lab, but productivity had tapered off for the day, and now they were mostly sitting and drinking, passing around a bottle of tequila from Michael’s endlessly replenishing supply. They should probably do something about that, Liz thought vaguely, an intervention of some kind. But as long as Michael was upright and functioning and directing the full force of his genius brain towards the task at hand, she was reluctant to get in his way. After they brought Max back, maybe, they could try to put Michael back together.
“There are so many points in my memory that are missing, like a black—like a hole,” Isobel said. “It’s been bothering me a lot lately. Increasingly. And I’m so tired of feeling like this, like I’m always missing something. It makes me nauseous, to be so slippery and dark inside. So bad.”
“You’re not bad, Iz,” Michael said sharply, putting his arm around her. “You’re not responsible for anything that Noah—”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Isobel snapped. She shook off his arm. “You don’t have holes in your memory from when you were possessed by a psychopath. You weren’t lied to—by your family—for ten years. You remember everything that’s ever happened to you, Michael.”
“Yeah, and it’s fucking spectacular,” Michael muttered.
Liz intervened before they could get into it properly. “I used to feel something like that,” she told Isobel. “For years, after Rosa. I used to get some kind of heartburn, probably from eating too much whitepeople food in Denver, but I couldn’t shake the sense that it was actually, like, emotional heartburn, crazy as that sounds. The acidic feeling trapped in my chest, burning its way up my throat, that made me kind of throw up in my mouth a little, and whenever it happened I felt so sad, like I was about to cry.”
Grief had a short half-life; she had learned that, too, after Rosa. You were expected to cry at a funeral, in the days and weeks that followed a loss. But five years down the line? Ten? Move on, lighten up.
She never could. She never had. Not until Rosa had come back, and now it was Max who was dead.
“Categorically, a lot of people who report alien abduction encounters also demonstrate PTSD symptoms,” she said.
They both looked at her. Isobel, brittle, crackling with pale fire; Michael, burning, burning, burning through the sky, almost too bright on the eyes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” There was a note of warning in Michael’s voice.
“People who claim they were abducted, their experiences—” Liz fumbled for the words “—well, those experiences, whatever their ontological status, are real in their effects. Something, even though we don’t know what, has happened to these so-called abductees, because it left a mark on them.”
Neither Michael nor Isobel said anything for a moment.
Then: “Do you think it’s possible to uncover the facts of an event you can’t remember, based on its effects on you?” Isobel asked. “Can you literally re-member a moment, like put its constituent parts back together if—”
“Not necessarily,” Michael said. “Alex—” His voice cracked, and Liz wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him—cabrón estúpido, get your head out of your ass and fix it— “Alex can’t remember the explosion, or what happened before. It’s just gone. Or hidden so deep that his mind will probably never access it. And, like, maybe that’s not such a bad thing, you know?”
“Of course it’s a bad thing,” Isobel insisted.
“Why should you try to remember something that you forgot about in order to fucking survive it?” Michael demanded, eyes blazing. “Why—”
Liz sat next to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He flinched. “It’s okay. You’re not alone here, Michael.”
“Don’t touch me right now, Liz.”
“We understand,” she reassured him. “Of all people, we understand what you’re—”
“I said please don’t touch me—”
“Fine!” Liz retracted her hand and moved away. Smarting from the rejection. Every time she got to thinking how much closer she and Michael had grown, how if Max was her soul mate then maybe Michael was her soul brother, he’d do something like this. Shove her away. Blow up their common ground.
“What’s the matter with you?” she wanted to know.
“You don’t understand shit,” he said.
“I’m trying to help, if you’d let me.”
“But you just assume, Liz. You never ask.”
“I literally just asked what’s the matter with you, Michael.”
“Forget it.” He sighed. “Forgetitforgetitforgetit. Let’s all put our thinking caps on and get back to necromancing, shall we?”
“Alien abductees club,” she said. “It has a ring to it.”
Isobel laughed quietly.
Michael glowered. “What, you want me to drink to that or something?”
He was an asshole, a—
“Careless alien borracho bastard!” Liz shouted, staring at the wreck of her titration system through tear-filled eyes. “That took me hours to set up.”
“It wouldn’t have worked anyway,” Michael said defensively, slouched against the wall. “I told you a thousand times, you can use the pod material as a solvent, but you can’t reduce it any further. Waste of time to—”
“How dare you show up like this? Falling over drunk, crashing into—just get the hell out, Michael!” she raged, dumping out the remains of her experiment. All wasted—
“This is my lab,” he pointed out.
“You are disrespecting me with your behavior, you are disrespecting Max—”
Michael laughed, his face twisting into an ugly sneer.
“Don’t come back till you’re sober,” she ordered.
He marched over to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water. He unscrewed the lid and dumped the entire contents over his head.
“What the hell—”
He strolled back to the table, shirt soaked, hair dripping. “I’m sober,” he said.
Michael shook his head like a dog, sending water in all directions. “Stone cold sober.”
He got back to work. Liz watched over him like a hawk, tracking his every move. But he remained quiet and focused, his hands perfectly steady. For a long time, the only noise in the bunker was the soft clinking of their instruments and the regular plop of water droplets as his curls drip-dried. Liz thought he must be miserable and freezing in his soaked shirt; she rather hoped he was.
“Pendejo,” she muttered under her breath.
Michael’s gaze flitted up to her face, then back down to the crucible he was heating.
“I really think you’d kill me if you could,” he remarked.
“Who on earth says I can’t?” she demanded.
It happened sometimes, that a torrential hurricane of grief would just rip through her without any warning. She was mortified when it happened in front of Michael. One minute she was pipetting iodine into a test tube; the next she was clutching the table and howling.
Michael jumped and whatever he was working on shattered. He was at her side in a second. “What happened?” he barked. “Did it get in your eyes? Move your hands, lemme see.”
Liz shook her head hopelessly. She was making these awful noises, yet her voice was nowhere to be found.
“For fuck’s sake, Liz, talk to me!” Michael yelled, but she couldn’t, she couldn’t.
She couldn’t. Language failed her.
She had mourned Rosa in Spanish, but she didn’t know what language to grieve Max in. To grieve solely in English left so much untouched; the precision of her grief in English was deceptively finalized, as if she could sum it up and leave it behind. More than half of the world’s population considered itself bilingual, she’d read that somewhere. More than half of the world’s grief, then, existed in more than one language.
“D’you need me to call Valenti? Drive you to the hospital?” Michael asked. He wasn’t yelling anymore. He’d been holding her upright; slowly, he lowered them both to the floor and sat her against the wall. He crouched beside her, and she realized he was holding her hand.
Slowly, Liz shook her head. No, she didn’t want Kyle, she didn’t want the hospital. She wanted—
She cried harder.
“Just a panic attack, that’s okay,” Michael said. “Squeeze my hand. As tight as you need. It’s gonna be fine. Everything’s gonna be fine. It’s all right. It’s all right now…”
“You don’t like talking about Max, do you?” she said.
Michael tensed. He ran a hand through his hair, wincing when the curls tangled around his fingers. “I guess I don’t,” he admitted.
“’Cause it hurts too much? Is that why?”
“I guess? I dunno, Liz, things had gone sour between Max’n me years before you came home and started shaking the apple tree.”
“It’s just, you knew him better than anyone, except maybe Isobel. And… it’s hard for me. To spend so much time with you down here and feel like I can’t talk about him. Like it’s taboo to even say his name? ’Cause, Michael, I need to talk about him, or else I get that heartburn feeling in my chest and—” She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. “Sorry. Sorry, Mikey.”
“Let’s go up,” Michael said. “We won’t have any results till tomorrow, and it’s getting late, anyway.”
I’ve pushed too hard, Liz thought dismally, climbing the ladder after him. Pushed too hard, been too pushy, pushed him away…
But when she emerged into the biting night air, she saw Michael sitting in one of the chairs by the pit. He patted the empty chair beside him. Surprised, she sat down, just as the logs caught fire.
“Cool trick,” she said, stretching out her hands to warm them.
They sat quietly for a moment, listening to the flames crackle and pop.
“Max’s favorite poet was Charles Bukowski,” Michael volunteered suddenly.
Liz felt tears spring to her eyes.
“As a feminist, I feel obliged to point out that Bukowski was a real sonofabitch,” he went on, “but, according to Max, Bukowski ‘really cuts away all the bullshit.’”
She laughed and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
Michael drew a flask out of his jacket pocket and offered it to her.
She accepted the flask and drank. Returned it to Michael, who took a long pull and stuffed it back in his pocket.
“Bukowski has this one poem that Max really loved. He had the whole thing memorized; I’m kinda surprised I don’t, for all the times I had to listen to him recite the damn thing. But it’s about how like there are some people who go through life pretty easily, you know, without much conflict or drama. They sleep well at night, and they’re happy with their families. They feel good most of the time. They die easily, usually in their sleep. And the poem ends with the narrator saying something like, ‘I am not one of them, I am not even near to being one of them. But they are there and I am here.’”
“Oh.” She sniffled. “What’s the name? Of the poem?”
“Believe it or not,” Michael said, “it’s actually called ‘The Aliens.’”
They both laughed.
“Thank you,” she said, after they’d stopped giggling.
“How’s the heartburn?” Michael asked, but he asked it seriously, not like he was making fun of her.
“Better. It’s better.”
“But not gone, huh? Well, you can ask me whatever you want, but it’s a limited-time offer.” He shifted in his chair, long legs kicked out before him, fingers worrying a hole in the knee of his jeans.
Liz wracked her brain. Things she wanted to know about Max—there was so much, ten years’ worth, and Michael was opening the whole library to her…
“Why did you get so angry, that day you and me and Isobel were talking about trying to recover bad memories, and how alien abductions were like PTSD, and whether it was better to forget or—”
“I thought we were talking about Max,” Michael interrupted.
“We—we were…” She trailed off uncertainly.
“You wanted to talk about Max,” he reminded her.
“I did—I do. But… I also want to know what happened to you, Michael. ’Cause Max is there but you’re here, and I—I want to know.” She nodded to herself, pleased at having worked out the question she’d meant to ask all along.
“You want to know,” Michael echoed, with awful precision. His eyes were wide, the firelight reflected, duplicated, in his pupils.
“Yes.” But she was beginning to feel afraid, a little.
“Gimme your hand, then,” he said roughly. “I’ll show you.”
“You won’t feel anything, I promise.”
Slowly, she extended her hand to him. It was shaking, she noticed.
His palm glowed red when he pressed their hands together. And then her eyes closed and Michael’s memory played out like a movie on the screen of her eyelids, and in the pit of her stomach.
There is a shadowy figure looming over him. Carrying a belt by the leather end, the buckle glinting as it swings just above the floor. Michael, no more than eight or nine, takes off his shirt and his t-shirt and folds them neatly, because he doesn’t have the clothes to spare. His stomach convulses and he swallows violently to keep the vomit down. The figure is surrounded by pulses and flares of dull red light. He says in a low dangerous voice, “You little shit. You fucking freak.” He doesn’t say anything more, except when he has turned the chair against the table. He says, “Get over.” Michael does. He lays his arms in front of him and rests his head on his arms. His hands feel as if they are burning.
I will not use my powers. Whatever happens, I will not give myself away.
Michael sets his teeth, and waits.
The world is full of dazzlement, jewel beams, fires of crystal splendor.
He is on fire.
The wood gnaws on his body. He pushes up against the hand that pins him down, and he is thudded back into the teeth of the wood. Sprawling across the table. And it isn’t a belt anymore, it’s a hammer, rising high into the air, glinting on the downswing.
The lights and the fires are going out like dying stars.
He weeps for them.
A drone like angry flies grows louder, and the world goes away.
“Dios mío. Dios, Maria, y José—”
She was almost hyperventilating.
“No crying, and no puking,” Michael told her sternly. “I mean it, Liz, don’t make me regret this.”
Fine. Fine. She took a painful, stabbing breath. Fine. She could cry and puke later, on her own time, after she went home.
“Wh-what was all the stuff I saw?” she stammered. “Like bright fires and stars and shapes…”
“I promised you wouldn’t feel anything.” He shrugged. “That’s what it felt like, transliterated into images. I remember lots of things that way, ’cause it doesn’t hurt so bad. Or, it hurts in a different way, I guess. Kind of a necessary ploy, when you’ve got a perfectly intact memory, the way I do.”
Liz leaned over and recaptured Michael’s hand in hers, staring earnestly into his eyes. “Lo siento. Me siento tan estúpida por todo lo que dije ese día. No entendía, pobrecito. Ojalá que tú me perdones—”
Michael blinked. “That’s nice of you to say, but, like, why are you apologizing to me in Spanish, Liz?”
“It’s the language I grieve in,” she told him simply. “And I am very sad for you, Michael. Not sorry—” she cut him off before he could interrupt “—I’m not sorry for you, ’cause I know you don’t want that. I’m sad for you and your fucking terrible childhood, and so I am grieving for you. In Spanish. Is that okay?”
Slowly, Michael nodded.
“Quiero abrazarte,” she said. “Puedo?”
“Uhhh, okay? If you want.” His tone was dubious, but he stood up when she did.
She closed the short distance between them and hugged him. It felt like wrapping her arms around a bundle of static electricity. Michael wasn’t quite as tall as Max, but his energy was more forceful, more kinetic, somehow. He hugged her back, gingerly at first, but then he warmed up and clung to her so desperately Liz wished she had offered a long time ago.
“Look at that big ol’ fuckin’ sky,” Michael said, after they’d sat down again.
Liz tipped her head back and looked. The night was overcast, the moon nowhere to be seen. Only a few stars glimmered through the dense cloud cover. “Looks heavy,” she commented.
“Heavy’s the word for it,” he agreed. He took out the flask again, and they passed it back and forth a few times. “I feel it all the time. The sky. Sometimes it lifts me up, and I imagine I’m going home to my planet, wherever that is. And sometimes it’s so heavy it’s like I’m being crushed under the weight of it, you know?”
“Hmm.” She wasn’t sure she did. But then, she was an earth sign, at least according to Maria. Michael was probably a fire sign.
A pair of headlights appeared in the distance, accompanied by the sound of crunching gravel. Michael sprang to his feet, and Liz was only half-surprised to see Alex’s car pull up in front of them. She stayed in her chair as Michael loped over meet him, watching them through the dancing flames. Their bodies rippled, distorted by the heat. Light refracting back and forth, hot air mixing with cool. She saw Michael slide his hands into Alex’s hair and kiss him, and then he was grabbing Alex by the arm and towing him over.
“Hi, Alex,” she said, giving him a meaningful look that said, we’ll talk about this later, pendejo.
“Er, hi, Liz,” Alex said. Twitching a little. He might have been blushing.
“Lots to catch up on,” she said sweetly. Like the fact that neither of you assholes thought to mention you were back together. She turned to Michael, raising her eyebrows. “Right, Mikey?”
Michael ignored that. “Alex is gonna drive us home,” he announced.
“Home?” she repeated. “Michael, you are home.”
“I go home with him now,” Michael said, sliding a hand into Alex’s back pocket.
Alex smiled at her, sheepish.
“Well, good for you,” she said.
Michael extinguished the fire and the three of them got in Alex’s car.
And she was happy for them.
Happy, as she watched Michael’s hand creep over the center console to rest on Alex’s thigh.
Happy, as she watched their profiles incline towards each other, silhouetted in darkness.
And lonely, unbearably lonely, lonely till she ached with it, and she understood what Michael had meant about the heaviness of the sky pressing down. And only a small hope, a fool’s hope, to push it away with.