Theory I: Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound
Everybody at her wife’s family reunion had too much to say about babies to talk to Wren. Cass had no siblings but seven cousins, all married in the heterosexual style, all bearing newborns, expecting newborns, or eager to conceive. We’ve been trying, we’ve been trying, the guilty parties said. Wren wrinkled her nose. Nobody asked Cass and Wren how often they copulated, and they did, often. Nobody asked for their opinions on the ethics of bringing children into a dying world. Nobody called Wren an aunt. On the last morning of the visit, a cousin with a fragile smile joined Cass and Wren in the corner and asked what they knew about midwives.
In the car, Wren plucked a hair from her head, wound it around her finger, watched the skin turn purple. “How’d she know we knew about midwives?” she asked.
Cass took an end of the box-dye blue strand and unwound it. “Easy guess,” she said.
In the late afternoon, at the edge of Los Suelos, California, something under the hood of Cass’s car emitted an audible croak. The hatchback muttered to a stop on the side of the road, not far from a late-seventies model sedan which faced the other direction, now a red bloom of graffiti and rust. Neither had cell service, but Wren had keen eyes. Fighter pilot eyes, her crew cut dad said years ago, when he thought he had a son on his hands. She crawled onto the roof and spotted a garage.
“Well,” Cass said. “Shit luck’s better than no luck.”
“Town could be full of cannibals,” Wren said.
“We’re still west of Donner country.”
Cass offered a hand, and Wren indulged her chivalry. Wren cupped her wife’s jaw, eyed her lips. “In case we get eaten,” she said. Cass eased an arm around Wren’s waist and pulled her close. When they kissed, as always, Cass thumbed circles on Wren’s lower back, and Wren’s breath rasped. She bit back her wanting. Not there on the roadside. Not with the other car, abandoned as it was, to watch.
The mechanic puffed out his ruddy cheeks when he had bad news to bear. Before he towed the car, he popped the hood, stared, and puffed his cheeks. “My sister’ll put you up for free,” he said. He handed Cass a folded note. “Runs the Tomatotel.” He pointed to Cass’s facial piercings. “Those hurt?”
“How long’s it gonna take to get the part in?” Cass asked.
The mechanic puffed his cheeks.
By the time they squared away the necessary matters at the garage, night, purple with stars, seeped up from the northeastern hills, and a murmur of light pollution followed. Cold wind cast dust and dead insects along the parking lot, a quiet, constant howl. Wren crossed her arms against the chill. Cass handed her her sweatshirt, merchandise from a death metal show the two attended when they were just dating. Then Wren heard it, beneath the scrape of the wind. An old organ recorded on cheap equipment. Only someone who watched as many horror movies as Wren would have plucked it out from the chitter of animals.
She glanced toward its source, to the faint glow near the hills.
Theory II: Great Valley Sequence
In the middlemost day of the previous century, a farmer named Tobias Richter, to his grandfather’s dismay, sowed his first almond crop. “Jesuit litter, those nuts,” Tobias’s grandfather, a fearful Lutheran said. “They’ll betray you as the gold veins betrayed me.” But a young man had to make his fortune, and almonds promised profits to those who tended them. With his first bite, Tobias discovered his almonds had the texture of hard-boiled eggs. Tobias’s closest neighbor also grew almonds that season, and his crop all had enamel shells, white as teeth. When shaken, they rattled, but—though Tobias and his neighbor tried every way they could imagine—they remained impossible nuts to crack. “What’s in there?” the neighbor would ask Tobias. “What’s in there?”
Tobias didn’t care. Under the hot sun, his almonds rotted. The reek of it made Tobias Richter wretch hot bile. Putrescence sank into his wooden home. His grandfather wailed with laughter, a high, terrible sound like a child in pain. Tobias burned the crop, the house, his grandfather. But the smoke. He breathed in so much smoke that day.
Locals called it a crop failure, but the almonds grew, didn’t they? In abundance, they fruited.
Another story, perhaps.
The land formed as a consequence of subduction. The oceanic crust sank beneath the California continental margin. Down, down, down she went. The fossils here belonged to sea-dwelling things. How could a geologist say no to such a pretty face? Unlike peers who brought their families west with them, Dr. Esther Mire came to the research facility in the Bolt Gun Hills alone. Years later, Dr. Esther Mire, alone, watched the families leave when the facility closed. When she drove out of town, her sedan died on the outskirts.
Now she watched the two women arrive at the Tomatotel in Los Suelos. They did not notice her in the dark beyond the parking lot. Too distracted by the enormous steel tomato, like everyone else.
The mechanic’s tiny sister gave Wren and Cass salad for dinner and fruit for dessert. “All grown just down the road,” she said, a hand pointed nowhere in particular.
A faded nametag on her chest read Miracle Bell.
The mechanic’s tiny sister failed to give them silverware. In their room, they ate the salads with their hands. They ate berries from each others’ palms. Cass carved wet apple slices with her pocket knife, that antler-handled flea market find, and the lovers ate the flesh from the blade.
Cass kissed her wife, bit her neck, palmed her crotch, her erection. We’ve been trying, the guilty parties said.
Before the USGS facility closed, Dr. Esther Mire theorized that a geological electromagnetic phenomenon caused the high rate of spontaneous system failure in automobiles. “Why just cars?” a lover asked. She couldn’t say, but together, at night, her and her sick lover walked the scrub land outside of the town to count the abandoned vehicles. “Some people say it’s gremlins,” the lover said. “Like those old bomber pilots saw on their wings.”
Dr. Esther Mire had seen this story before, but the stranded couple did not always love each other. Dr. Esther Mire thumbed the dirt from under fingernails. She stepped down into her knee-deep hole.
Two days after he burned his almond crop, Tobias Richter, tumescent in a hospital bed, muttered to himself. The government doctors who flew in didn’t want him left alone, so a young nurse sat in the corner beneath a lead-lined blanket. Richter turned from the window and stared at her. “That smoke,” he said. “Tasted like that river we forgot about. The one down there.” Then his tongue swelled, and he choked to death.
Theory III: Pareidolia
Wren would find breakfast. Cass had essays to grade. They covered the bed. Wren dressed. She hid the strap-on and the lubricant in the duffel bag. Cass raised an eyebrow. “Think we’re the only ones in the whole motel,” she said.
“That woman might try to clean.”
“Feeling alright?” Cass asked. “You look pale.”
Wren snorted. “I am pale.”
Outside, the sun left the world in dusty relief. So bright Wren’s vision faded, as if an annihilating fog surrounded the parking lot. Her stomach murmured. She felt bloated. Sometimes, on long drives, the carsickness didn’t catch her until the next day when the still world dizzied her, acclimated as she was to every point of reference passing by. She clung to the shadowy strip by the wall all the way to the front office. Her hand on the doorknob, Wren saw at the edge of her vision, where the pale light swallowed the world, a woman in a dusty white coat. She squinted, but it did nothing. She opened the door.
A country song crooned from an old tape player on a stool in the empty room. Wren eyed the bell on the counter, waited, then dinged it. The office door opened, and Miracle Bell scurried out with a plate of muffins. “Well, look at you catching me on my way to pay you a wake up call,” she said. “I can’t think of a better way to start the day than with fresh blueberry muffins made with fresh blueberries. Here, try one.” She held up the plate to Wren. A blossom of almond slices lay atop each one.
At the smell of them, Wren vomited on the plate.
She stared at the yellow slime. Sweat dripped from her hairline. “Oh,” Wren said. She blinked. The vomit remained. “Oh.”
The woman set the plate on the counter, took Wren by the hand, her free hand on Wren’s back, and hurried her through the office and into the bathroom, all the while clucking and cooing like a sympathetic school nurse. Wren sobbed. Not for the pain, but for the muffins, how carefully the woman must have arranged each petal. An awful thing to ruin. She knelt in front of the toilet. “I’m sorry,” she said. She vomited again. The tannic stink filled the little bathroom.
“Have you told her?” Miracle Bell said. “Your—the woman you’re with?”
Wren couldn’t speak. She glanced up, eyebrows raised. The mechanic’s tiny sister smiled with more of her face than Wren had ever seen anyone smile.
“About the baby, dear,” she said.
Wren stammered, but before she could explain, the woman took Wren’s wrist, guided her hand to her own stomach. Even the slightest touch felt tender.
A limb kicked against her palm.
The mechanic’s sister crouched in front of her, her face a mask of comfort but her eyes scuttling all over Wren. A furtive inventory of her eyebrows, her chin, her narrow hips. She sucked breath through her thin teeth. “Oh I know, dear,” Miracle Bell said. “Blessings can be scary when we don’t expect them.”
She pulled Wren to her feet, rubbed her back, gave her a basket of fruit. Wren walked out into the sun, stumbled on a crack in the asphalt, wrapped a hand around her stomach on instinct. Then she saw her again, the woman in the doctor’s coat at the edge of the glare.
Wren took a step forward, but then she saw it wasn’t a woman at all. Just a ratty lab coat left on a twisting tree, slender branches in the sleeves.
Theory IV: The Stray Dogs Here Still Cry For Buck Owens
On the other side of the country, a geologist paused from her work. An old illness, as it sometimes did, lurched through her but subsided. She remembered that, decades before, in a summer of government field work, she had a lover, but now she could not remember that lover’s name. The geologist, Dr. Alma Salazar, remembered the hole in the ground. She remembered it smelled of water. She remembered her sickness made everything taste like silt. She tongued the back of her teeth and spat out black grit.
Another story, perhaps.
Remember, as Dr. Salazar did at that moment, the consequences of subduction. Consider what consequences might bloom if a sea creature, a fluke in evolution perhaps no larger than the geologist’s little finger, had no capacity for death. Imagine it buried in the Central Valley. Dr. Salazar imagined it so often in her time in Los Suelos she almost died of sickness. She drew it on every piece of paper she touched, often without realizing it. She would look down and see it, that rind. Even now, decades later, Dr. Salazar kept a drawing of the creature in her desk. A living miracle in a sedimentary tomb. It must hate us. Perhaps in an effort to alleviate its hunger, it drew sustenance from anything that set down roots. Surely such a creature would do all it could to prevent anyone from leaving its domain.
That summer in Los Suelos, Dr. Salazar and her nameless lover went on walks at night. The cool air alleviated her continuous fever. One night, the pair saw two naked children, so pale they reflected moonlight, run past on all fours, bundles of cut wire in their teeth.
In the Tomatotel, Cass and Wren sat in silence. The half-graded essays lay all around them. Half an apple browned on the dresser, the pocketknife still buried in its side. Each time Cass blinked, Wren’s pregnancy swelled. When the growth struggled against the confines of Wren’s clothing, Cass undressed her. “Does it hurt?” Cass asked.
Wren shook her head.
“Good,” Cass said. She clasped her hands behind her head. Outside, coyotes yipped for the evening, and somewhere near the hills, that organ music started up again. “We have to leave, Wren.”
Wren said nothing. She placed a hand on top of the bump, traced the strained arteries with her finger. The lamplight made the blue look green.
“Wren,” Cass said. She knelt in front of her partner, fished for her gaze. Wren wouldn’t look up. Shadows pooled in her shallow cheeks.
“How’s she gonna get out?” Wren asked.
Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.