Rubble People

The local Partyville starts to peel apart around us: the booth, the ball pit, a video game and the netting between them, the pizza on the table and the table too. Shards of pressboard and plastic fly toward me while molding themselves into the form of a man. A couple of the other moms scream and their kids run to them. I didn't expect this, but I know what it is.

"It's David!" I shout at them. "It's just David!" I look at Lainey, three years old today and so much tougher than the adults behind her. She's seen this before. Whatever party we might have had is in a shambles now. But I don't care. David's here.

"Look, honey, Daddy's accumulating!" I say.

When they see Lainey and me standing our ground, the others calm down a little, but Gina and Dara still scoop their kids up and head for the door, sprinkling f-words like holy water. Marie's backed into a corner with little Farrah in her arms. Farrah's tiny face is splotched pink and shiny wet. Her mouth hangs open. Marie's does the same. They're too afraid to come over, too curious to leave. I feel a little bad (because everybody kicked in for the party) but not too bad, because they're being stupid.

David has finally come together. "I wanted to see my little girl on her birthday," he says. I pick up Lainey and the two of us hug this weird conglomeration of a man. I kiss David's pepperoni lips, taste his grease with a flick of my tongue. The broad orange booth tabletop is his chest and its base is one of his legs. He's got plastic balls from the ball pit and a sound card voice box from a videogame. He kisses Lainey, who laughs and wipes her hand in the new grease on her face.

"It's so good to see you, baby," I tell him. It is good, but it takes all I have to not cry on him. I don't want to waste the little bit of time we have together by bringing him down. It's my job to hold everything up. I'm not doing my job very well.

"You too, babe," David says. "I only have a minute before they look in on me again."

"Daddy, it's my birfday!" Lainey says.

"I know it's your birthday, honey! That's why I'm here. Damn, you're gettin' big!"

Lainey sticks her hand into her father's face and tastes it.

"I'm sorry, David," I say.

"For what?" he asks in his chiptune voice.

"For having fun sometimes. For being happy. For smiling. I feel guilty when you're over there, fighting."

I can almost make out the memory of his cheekbones in his pizza crust face. He says, "But I want you to do all that, Beth. I want you to have a good life. That's what I'm fighting for. I want you to show this girl she can have a good life even if some other people can't."

"Which other people?" For a second I wonder if he's talking about his buddies' husbands and wives.

"The people over here. Or over there. You know what I mean. Where we're fighting." He means North Africa, he’s just not allowed to say it.

The decision bursts out of me. I finally hit send on the projection unit in my head, but it isn't the courage that's been sitting there since I had it installed a few months ago that I pull out of myself. The transfer is P2P: psyche to psyche. The unit facilitates by making us hallucinate our own icons to manipulate. I feel a thick thread worming its way out of my left eyeball, one from my left nostril, one from my left ear. They weave themselves together and I yank at the cord. It feels like I’ve torn a piece of my brain out along with it. I don’t think it was supposed to work like that.

I've reached in and taken out the impulses, the memories, the ghosts of the neural nets that make up my compassion and my caring. I force them on him, plastering the sticky thing to the table bolt that punctures the orange formica and forms David’s nipple. And then it’s a part of him as if it always had been.

He leans back for a moment, like I shoved him. "Oh," he says, surprised. His salt and pepper cap eyes leak salt and pepper tears.

"Jesus, you shouldn't have done that, baby. You know I can't give that back." He grabs me tight in his plywood arms, the hard materials of his body somehow feeling softer when he squeezes them into me. He feels warmer, that's for sure. But I care less.

"I had to do something," I say. "I need for something to change. I need you to change and me and this whole goddamned situation. I've had enough of this."

"Jesus, I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. It's someone else's. I'm sorry. I'm doing this all wrong. I didn't mean to—"

"We'll do something," he says, and kisses us both. "We'll work this out. I gotta go now. I love you guys."

When he's gone, I sit in the wreckage of the booth, in the pile of junk that used to be a table and a lot of other things and also used to be my husband. Without the table to cover me, I can see my belly popping out from below the hem of my Goodbye Kitty T-shirt. White. Fat. Ugly. My outie gross as ever, like a curling pigtail that got squashed trying to escape.

The manager comes over. He says, "You're gonna have to pay for this."

I look him straight in the eye, not giving a fuck about him or what he wants. "Here," I say. I throw one of the balls from the ballpit at him. He takes it in his gut like it's a medicine ball. "You didn't have the balls to come over when my husband was here. See if you’ve got the balls to make me."

David remoted himself to the moon once. He didn't tell anyone but me. He doesn't think anyone else has ever done it. I look up at it sometimes, especially when it's full, and I think about him. Once, not long ago, a man made of moonrock walked on the surface up there, shuffling off gray dust. David might be the only one in the world who can go that far. I always knew he was special. He's incredible. And I'm lucky.

I couldn't even have kids before David. My parents died when I was young and I was sterilized at the orphanage. I met David before he enlisted and we talked about adopting. After he joined up, he found out a way to give me a maybe baby. It was a trick he learned in the army. On his second leave, he reached into me with that spirit part of himself, his radio flesh is what he calls it. While we were having sex, he reached into my womb and accumulated the tiniest part of me. He touched millions of cells. Chances were good one of them would be enough like an egg to take. It did. It wasn't enough like an egg to give me a completely healthy baby, but the doctors fixed that. I'm so grateful for Lainey.

David sneaks over sometimes, like at Partyville. He's not supposed to. He can get into a lot of trouble if he gets caught, but the minders turn the other way for a few minutes now and then. He figures they know that remotes need a little contact to keep from killing civilians outside of the designated war zone. There have been too many incidents involving the Formosa Strait vets. The minders don't seem as bothered about the civilians inside the zone, though.

On our side, the Turks and the Ozzies get the worst of it because they use real people. Their soldiers are tanked up like Iron Man, flesh and blood inside. But really, the worst side to be on is no side. David never wants to talk about fighting, but once in a while, when he's saddest, he'll slip and mention the kids or the women or the old people. Then he just falls apart.

I hold him, whatever body he's in.

I’ll have to remember the way I do that for next time, so it feels right to him and maybe he’ll forget my emotional amputation. The mutilations underneath the skin are easier to hide. In the short term, anyway.

I wonder, if there are ever astronauts again, if they might find what looks like a shattered statue of a man while they're on the moon. They'd freak. I wonder if he could go to the sun. I wonder if someday people will kill each other in those places, too.

I can't fucking deal with this anymore. I shouldn't have to. I wipe Lainey's red, running nose and the snot pouring over her lip. I have to call out again because daycare won't take her sick. I'm gonna get fired, I know I am, and David doesn't make enough to keep us going by himself. I'm letting the month-overdue rent slide so I can make the month-overdue car payment. I can't drive the house, but we can sleep in the car.

Lainey's screaming and miserable. I hold her against my old Bruins sweatshirt, pat her back, step around the toys on the floor and into the fruit punch stains on the carpet. She won't go down to sleep. She's got a fever and even if I had the gas money to get to the walk-in clinic, I couldn't afford the co-pay. I put a cold washcloth on her forehead and give her a second Flintstone chewable. I don't know what else to do. A sick baby eats you.

Even though I gave David my compassion, I still know I'm supposed to feel for Lainey. I know I'm supposed to take care of her. I'm trying to do what a person who feels what they're supposed to feel would do. I'm doing what I think I would have done a week ago in this situation. It feels strange. I had the projection unit installed in my head months ago during the war drive at the recruitment center because it got us $30.00 a month more on our EBT chip. We could’ve gotten more if I actually used the damned thing the way the army wants me to.

With the civilian units, we can't remote like soldiers do, just project pieces of our personalities. We can't get back what we send like soldiers do. I chickened out before the first send. What I projected into David at Partyville was the first emotion I ever gave away.

The army wants our determination, our positive attitudes. They want our courage. I'm afraid to give my courage. The ones who gave it wound up giving more than they expected. I'd seen other people, David's dad for one, give his courage for the war drive and then live in fear about everything that came down. He gave away his car, thinking it was a deathtrap. He gave away his sleep and can hardly function anymore.

I wish there was someone I could give my worry to. I wish there was someone I could give my fear to. This poverty. No one wants any of it. Not even the enemy would be stupid enough to take it.

I find twelve dollars in an envelope I was supposed to pay back to Gina, but I didn't see Gina on Tuesday like I was supposed to. She's being a bitch, still freaked out over David showing up at Partyville. But I'm glad she's being a bitch because twelve dollars is something. Add that to the money I scrape up from behind the crumb-covered cushions, from the sticky cup holder in the car, from the bottom of my pocketbook, from Lainey's glass penny jar, and I come up with fifteen dollars and thirty-eight cents. I can find something for Lainey in the cold and flu aisle at Sav-A-Lot for fifteen dollars and thirty-eight cents. I know I can. I have to.

In the store, Lainey's griping on my shoulder. She wants to be held everywhere we go. The most expensive stuff, anywhere in the store, is always on the shelf at eye level. I don't even know what's up there anymore. My eyes automatically go to the bottom shelf. I've been shopping the bottom shelf for a year and a half.

The cheapest thing they have is $16.99, a tiny bottle of some generic cherry-flavored cough syrup. It's made for adults. I read the bottle again. It says not to be taken by children under twelve, but it doesn't say why. Maybe if I just give her a quarter of a teaspoon, it’ll knock her out. I pace the speckled tiles of the cold and flu aisle with Aaron Neville singing overhead on the PA system and I wonder if the cough syrup would hurt her. And if I decide it won’t, how do I come up with three more dollars? Lainey screams in my ear and I look for a woman, because a mother should understand.

Two aisles over, it's a woman with dyed brown hair and curls the size of soup cans. She's in a long fuzzy coat, pushing a cart, and checking out the corn pads. "Ma'am, could you help me, please? My baby's sick and I just need three more dollars to get her some medicine."

She sighs, a little huffy, but there's no denying Lainey's a restless mess. She goes into her pocketbook, and I don't care if it's a hassle for her. I'm closer every minute to doing whatever it takes to get by. The world has kicked me around enough.

"Hold up!" comes a voice from behind me. I turn and see Gianni in his Sav-A-Lot vest. Shit. Gianni, the most vile human being I know, is out on the sales floor.

Gianni couldn't get into the army. Psychic deformity. He couldn't accumulate, couldn't function even in a supporting role, much less combat. He felt guilt over that. Dara said he tried to kill himself. Ran his electric car in the garage hoping to die from carbon monoxide poisoning. We used to call psychic deformity "stupid" when I was little. Now he's a fucking disaster with a name tag.

"Ma'am, please put your money away. I apologize. We have rules against begging." His finger’s in my face. "You're coming back to the office," he says to me.

Idiot Gianni grabs the arm I'm holding Lainey with and she almost tumbles to the floor. The lady says, "Oh!" and reaches her hands toward her. I catch Lainey with my other arm, the one that was waiting for those three dollars.

"What the fuck, Gianni! You almost made me drop her!"

I jerk the arm he has upward to hit him in the face but he pulls back and I only catch the end of his nose. He slams his open hand into my head and I knock skulls with Lainey.

"Hey, stop it!" The lady screams. Her hands are up, half to grab at us, and half to stop any fists flying at her. Lainey is outright crying.

"What the hell is going on here?" Gianni's boss, big Steve Arden, is pulling Gianni off of me. I know it's smart to pull back and act innocent, but I can't help kicking him in the leg while he's still in reach. Gianni spits at me and lands one on my hoodie while a couple of other stock boys run in and try to hold his swinging arms. He's crying too, and screaming incoherently.

"He hit her!" the lady says.

"I'm so sorry, Beth," Steve says to me, "You know the situation with Gianni."

Yeah, I know the situation. Gianni gave his courage to the war drive and he gave his determination. He gave his good citizenship, he gave his driving skills, his rock-skipping ability, his knowledge of boiling water. He gave everything they would let him give because he wanted to give something. He wanted to give everything, but they don't want all of it, only the good things. He's left with everything that makes him human trash, all the shit no one would ever want, with the guilt that sold off everything else sitting right there on the top of the pile.

He can't even be the greeter at the Sav-A-Lot. But Steve, who went to school with David's cousin, can't fire Gianni. Says the government won't let him. Gianni's a war hero as far as they're concerned, even though he's never fired a shot. Or maybe part of him has now. Steve has to give him at least four hours a week.

"I don't care what the situation is," I say to Steve, "That's assault and I want you to call the cops on him."

Steve stands a little taller, like he hadn't thought of that. "I'll be more than happy to do that. Don't you worry about a thing. Do you need to see a doctor?"

My mind races. "Lainey does. Gianni knocked my head into hers. She might have a concussion." I hope Steve doesn't think about it too hard and question if Lainey can even get a concussion. No, he's rattled, thank God. If not because of us, then because of this lady.

"All right, let me call 911, we'll fix this whole thing up. Are you all right, Ma'am?" he asks the lady.

"I'm fine. You need to fire that maniac."

"I hope I can, Ma'am."

"Thank you, Steve," I say.

I never would have guessed Gianni would be the best thing that happened to me today.

David says the locals have different names for remote soldiers depending on where they're fighting. When they see action in the desert, they call them sand devils. In the cities they're called rubble people. I think about rubble people every time I give Lainey another vitamin: Barney, Betty, Bamm-Bamm. I think about David accumulating in the vitamin factory, a man made of sweet pastel chalk. I like to imagine that Lainey would get better if she could take a big bite of him like that.

He says he can feel himself while he moves between bodies. His buddies say he's imagining it. They travel at light speed from human body to accumulated body and back. They say there's not enough time to feel anything in between. He says he takes his time and feels it and I believe him. The only thing that keeps the others from trying it is fear. The fear of not being able to get back to their bodies.

But anything can be our bodies. The whole world can be our body. I think I want to do it, be out of my body. But for longer than a microsecond. I want to fly without any weight, knowing I could never be heavy enough to fall.

When our men and women come home, our boys and girls, the ones that are still alive aren't only human. They've collected pieces of the world inside them and become unrefined, like metal being turned back to ore. A remote might go out and become a tree walker in Indonesia, a jungle soldier made of vines and unlucky monkeys. And when she comes back to the base, a tiny bit of her real body changes. Maybe a few cells of a blood vessel wall turn to sap. And maybe she wonders where that bruise came from and how much of her is still her. This is the first war where wounds can add to a soldier's weight instead of take away. They wear their tree bark skin, their concrete joints, their iron wounds, and they like to think they're stronger for it.

I wonder what David's going to bring back inside himself. And what he might leave behind.

Lainey's been deleted.

I can't understand this. I can't believe this. I keep going over it to remind myself that it really has happened. My life hasn't quite synced with reality, I guess.

Her eyes look like something from a taxidermist's sample, only soft. I can still see them through the steel door. She looked like she was getting better since the emergency room. They gave her antibiotics, the fever seemed to be easing up. Then this morning she stopped.

I can't afford the emergency room like Sav-A-Lot can. I call the doctor who grew the brain she shouldn't have been born with. He says that in Poland there was a baby like Lainey who had a fever. Her brain overclocked and it wiped her mind clear.

I ask him, "Could Lainey's mind have gone somewhere else, like her father's does when he's remote?"

"There's been no evidence to show that's the case," the doctor says. He sounds the same way I remember him. Gentle. Smart.

"Can you make another brain like her last one?

"We can actually salvage the brain she already has. That wouldn’t be the issue. The problem is we can't get her memories back. She’d be mentally like a newborn and the new connections and memories that formed in her brain would mean she’d be a different person, not the Lainey you knew. On top of that, I’m afraid Medicaid wouldn't cover the procedure."

"If I could find Lanie’s memories online or if her father can find them in North Africa, could you put them back?" The words sound crazier outside of my head than inside. His sigh rolls through the connection like a thick, tired fog.

"I think the best thing for you in this moment is to get some rest. I’m very sorry for your loss."

There are no police. There's no medical examiner, there's no funeral home. As far as the law is concerned, Lainey was stillborn three years ago. I don't have the heart to bury my own little girl. I don't want her waking up trapped in a box under a ton of earth. I didn't know what else to do. Her body's in the kitchen freezer.

I press my face against the freezer door. I can't ever open it again. On the counter are the freezer shelf and the ice cube trays and a box of frozen peas and my favorite flavor of melting ice cream. My face is hot and swollen and wet. I'm babbling. Telling her things I'd planned to tell her when she was older. I'm not supposed to shake like this, am I? I'm not supposed to feel as much pain as I do. I guess compassion isn't exactly love. It isn't exactly that feeling you have when another person was your whole life, sick and all.

"Daddy went through me once, with his radio flesh," I tell Lainey with my hand balling up against the door. I don't want her to be lonely in there. "That's how we made you. You were a miracle. Three years is more than I ever should have had with you, baby, and I'm so, so grateful for that. But am I greedy for wanting even more?"

There's nothing else to be done, but I keep standing here because what the hell else can I do? I haven't made a move in years that wasn't based around Lainey. Would I have tried harder if she was a real baby? I mean, she is a real baby. Was a real baby. Is there some maternal instinct I never got because she wasn't completely natural? Is there some part of me that would have done anything to recover her, even whored for the money, if she was like all the other kids? Is that the part I gave to David on Lainey's birthday?

For the first time ever, I hope David doesn't visit me. I can't be the one to tell him that his daughter is dead. He's going to blame me. I know he's going to blame me. I can't face that. I can't ever face him again. My whole life is fucked. It's all fucked. I think it always was. I was just too stupid to see it.

My eyes are burning. My face and the kitchen floor are wet. I have to get out. We used to go out all the time when David was here. We had more money then. I can't believe how many better days there used to be. I'm home more now. I have to go somewhere to just get away from the apartment and my life. To get away from the freezer.

I'm sorry, David. I didn't have what it takes to hold it together. I know I should admit I failed as a mother and as a wife and as a person, but, fuck, I'm sure I didn't fail. It was the world that failed me.

There are two ways this can go. Either way, it's the end. The one way, I can crumble. But I don't have what it takes to kill myself. I don't want to die, anyway. I want everything else to die. That's the other way. I can scratch at the eyes of God.

I'm going to go down to Second Street where the homeless lady with the cardboard sign hangs out on the corner and I'm going to give it all away to her, everything left that's good about me, just like Gianni did. Either Gianni is a real person and Lainey was a real baby and I was a real mother or none of that is true. I don't know which. I don't know if it matters and I think I don't care. I'm going to give myself away to the woman, give her everything about me that was ever any good. Except whatever murderous courage might still be in me.

The world will get whatever's left of me. The darkness, the destruction, the cruelty and the cowardice. It'll get what it deserves. The world declared war on me when I was eleven years old. My forces have been deteriorating ever since. This malformed society has whittled me down to a single atom and taken one last swipe at it. That atom is about to explode. I'm going to make this corner of America my very own North Africa.

I hope when David is a very old man and finally passes, they open him and are shocked to see a little sprinkling of moon dust inside of him. I hope that his radio flesh will still be alive there on the moon, young and unburdened by his rubble flesh here. I hope Lainey's there waiting for him and they live long, happy lives far away from this place.

I go outside to the car and leave the front door of the apartment wide open. I'm going to find my next body.

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