1. MYSELF & THE CITY
My name is Folsom and the most important fact of my existence, as determined by others, is that I survived the Kindergarten Massacre. I am one of eight. My memories of the event are minimal but precise, as I have been made to recount them countless times over the years: Fisher-Price, safety scissors, smell of smoke, exploding sounds, hair flying, bloody carpet, I can’t tell you any more. While the rest of them ran, I managed to climb into a cubbyhole and black out, and so saved my life.
It has always been believed that the only witnesses were myself and the seven others. In the years since, we have been studied and analyzed, but what we recall is truncated and unreliable: no one has been able to surmise the reason for the sudden violence that swept through our classroom. It remains a case unsolved, motives undetermined.
The City is at the bottom of a small valley, surrounded on all sides by large hills, with one road leading out. For months after the massacre, cars paraded there, slowly uphill, as parents—mine included—packed up homes and offspring and left for safer places. The City was nearly evacuated; what remained was a small but dedicated contingent of developers, doctors, and city officials who believed in municipal loyalty, and us, the surviving children, who waved good-bye as everything emptied and our homes became ghosts. We were, it should always be noted, the first forbidden to leave.
There is a mandate against leaving the City. After the emigration, the officials announced The Rejuvenation Act. The primary clause: It is permissible to enter into a larger home if there is an expansion in the family, but for growth purposes it is illegal to move beyond the City Limits.
For the years since it has been just Sharon and me in the house. Sharon is always near comatose in her bedroom in front of the television, and she does not act as a functioning consumer in the City, because she buys all she thinks she needs off the television, and what she thinks she needs are ceramic Dust Bowl dolls and medieval rape fantasy paperbacks, and so she has been discounted as a citizen—they sent a letter, officializing it. If I were an ordinary citizen, I too would probably be discounted by now.
There are eight of us Survivors, four men and four women, once four boys and four girls. We are expected to stimulate the City; it is incumbent upon us to generate, to populate, and there are generous rewards if we do. Over the years the City has managed to lure in other young people and families, via various promotions and incentives, and eventually the population line did begin to crawl upwards on the display charts. Nevertheless, the Survivors retain a marked status, an irrevocable relationship to a particular dwindling history. As I want nothing to do with any of them, I am disliked, and blamed heavily, and present a frustrating municipal problem.
Once, naively, when I was younger, I told an Official that I believed myself to be sterile; that I’d been having intercourse constantly, trying my hardest, and was just unable to get pregnant. He sent me immediately to a doctor, who determined, after an examination on a cold table and a series of blood and urine tests, that not only was I a virgin, but an extremely fertile one at that.
And several times I have run to the edge of town, toed the border, fixed my eyes up the hill, and leaned forward until my upper body was actually leaning over the snaking yellow line. But I could not go any further—I needed a certain permission.
2. VETYL & THE RABBITS
On that day—the final day—I woke from a dream of a birthday party at the pond, where there were picnic benches and a balloon contortionist. We ran and made mud balls, we splashed about, there was an old log to play on and I dove off, my small body craning through the air, and I hit my head on the shallow rocky bottom—it was this that woke me, shot me upright in bed, and there, as usual, were my neighbors.
When I wake in the morning they are directly outside my window, making their funeral floral arrangements; this is their job. After each bouquet is orchestrated the fat wife stands in a housedress in the yard and holds it before her. Her husband then wraps a swath of cheesecloth around her head, and her ruddy arms clutch the flowers, the white silk batting and the bows. He arranges her and steadies himself; crouching, he takes picture after picture, recording their work for future reference. She stands faceless, still but for the slightness of her breath; the cheesecloth puffs and sinks.
As with every other day I watched them as I dressed, but when I left the house to carry on my daily trudge, I did something I had never done before: I waved to them. He seemed startled, and held up his camera in response. She, shrouded, could not see me through the wrapped gauze hood. I smiled slightly—I hadn’t done so in weeks—and went on, into the City, to head toward the school. This was the day she had chosen—she had notified me via postcard, cryptic—and though I did not know what to expect, my heart teetered on the brink of a manic joy.
I walked on, and soon came to the pond, the one from my dream, the place where I played as a small child. The people of this town insist on calling it “the Lake”—it is far too small for such a title. I went to its muddy edge and stared across to the other side. The nature of this pond is a roundness, a closure, that is guaranteed and disconcerting; it reflects a certain terror. I cannot help but wish for the pond to open to ocean; then I cry as I know it does not. On that morning this sentiment seemed particularly urgent, and I wished and cried at the lip of the dumb pond, the cruel body that lets me briefly imagine I can swim away. Now I can remember seeing a figure on the dock across the pond; but then I was blurry-eyed, and self-absorbed, and did not realize that it was she.
I left the pond and continued on. I came to the beginning of the length of grass that runs down the middle of much of 2nd Main St., and I saw two rabbits sitting perfectly still. They were organized such that the black rabbit sat adjacent to the white rabbit, and directly between them a dark shadow fell, that of a rearing elm, and it fell so precisely between the two creatures, casting the white rabbit in darkness and bathing the black one in bright light, that it caused me to freeze. The white one kept its head cocked away from me, so that I could not see its right eye. Looking back I understand them to be a sign, or, since I don’t believe in signs, as an advertisement for what was to come—for Ms. Blank’s plan, for the rest of our lives. But at the time I didn’t process them as such. I just knew their arrangement, their mere placement, to be utterly defiant. Within that hidden rabbit eye I felt the first fissure in the day.
I then continued on 2nd Main St. to Shopping Row, a series of “unique boutiques.” To get to the school it is necessary to walk through here; to get almost anywhere in the City it is necessary to walk through here. The stores on Shopping Row all sell the same things—scented candles and angel trinkets and mugs and sticks—though people act as if this is not the case. Their principal activity is to mingle and merge, to stroll the street and exclaim over the new items, which are not new at all, but are rearranged or placed in a different part of a different store, so that there is this perpetual illusion of fresh goods. It is civic duty to shop; it is the complement to childbirth. When we give to the City, and buy from the City, the City gives back, by being our home.
Immediately upon arriving there I saw Vetyl, my arch nemesis, the super citizen, the most productive Survivor. She walked toward me, pushing her massive multi-unit stroller, shopping bags everywhere. I thought to hide but her approach was quick. Everyone is so proud of her new babies; she accepted the offer of fertility drugs and gave birth to four boys, with the help of Survivor Bo and his hulky tilted body. She was paid well for her contribution; the City presented her with this luxury carriage, with its GPS and gilded edges. I stood still as she came near. Her skin was waxy, her jewelry shiny. There was only one baby in the stroller and it was lying prone and still, with its small fat arms crooked and splayed on either side of its round head. Its left fist was clenched and mashed into its face, so that it appeared to be punching itself.
“Hello, Folsom, good day to you.”
“Where are you off to?”
“Right. This is Phil, one of my new sons.”
“Mm. Where are the other three?”
“Well, we’re headed to the Lake.”
“Lake. It’s Celebration Day. You know that. For babies and children. There’s a piñata, a clown, water fights, sugar.”
“They’ve promised the World’s Largest Sheetcake. They will be expecting your presence, you know.”
“You are required to go, Folsom.”
“By law, Folsom.”
“As a survivor—”
“Why can’t you just participate?”
And I stepped off the sidewalk and walked around her. From my vantage point the carriage was filled completely with sunlight, and the baby seemed bodiless, its head shadowed beneath a collapsible hood—an image of natural decapitation. Vetyl gave it a push and they rolled away, superior and awful. I continued on, thinking of school, the pond, and my dear, dear Ms. Blank.
3. MS. BLANK & THE BASEMENT
She came to town one year ago; the day was warm and the winds whipped around the valley, failing to rise up. After fifteen years the Education Council had made the decision to finally reinstate kindergarten, and, following a secretive nationwide search, had selected a teacher. Everyone gathered in front of City Hall, holding signs on sticks that said things like WELCOME. The other Survivors were lined up in tall chairs on a stage, their children propped in semicircles at their feet; I was in the back of the crowd, hiding, lurched against a stone wall with Sharon, who had left the house for this special event. I could see Vetyl sitting high and straight.
After a speech and the anthem and some loud fanfare, the Mayor introduced her: Ms. Dayna Blank, our new kindergarten teacher! Several small fireworks were set off, and she appeared on the stage. Her back faced me as she waved kindly at the crowd, but I could make out her black suit, her sensible heels, her smooth brown hair pulled into a fat knot at the base of her neck. The mayor escorted her into a convertible, and as she walked down the petal-clad steps she turned her head and squinted into the sun.
I was trying not to crane my neck and gawk like all the others, but her face was information that I absolutely had to have. I lifted up onto the balls of my feet, and was suddenly overcome with the will to push through the bodies before me, the rows of cheering families. I elbowed my way up there, ignoring the hissing voices, until the metal barrier pressed against my chest. I was just in time for the approaching car. As she rolled past she took the time to look right at me, right into me—the sun was still spilling over her face, and I could see round tears on the edges of her eyes, slipping down toward a thin strand of pearls. In that instant I knew she knew me, I knew I needed her, and quick as it happened she was gone, subsumed by the crowd as it surged into the street to snatch the free candy that spilled out behind the procession.
For many months after I watched her daily from my secret spot on the school roof. In her classroom—once my classroom, the cubbies long gone and replaced with bright plastic crates, the room softened with soothing round edges—waving her arms to signal snack time, holding a book up high to show the pictures, stepping gently around napping bodies, still and dreaming on the floor. And though she was always smiling, her mouth moving to shape kind words, I began to sense a shift, a change in the way she occupied her space. The way she stared out the window, eyes wide and tight, that sweet hope slipping into something like fear.
The first day she spoke to me I didn’t see her coming. She was stealthy in her approach and I jumped at the sound of her voice. I was sitting on the roof, eating peanut butter.
“Hi,” she said. “How do you like it here?”
I looked at her—the nicest face you’ve ever seen. Her hair was out of its knot, spreading wild around her shoulders.
I replied quickly, my mouth full. “I don’t.”
“I know that. What I mean is how do you do it?”
“I don’t know. I daydream.”
“Tell me one.”
“I remember my family in an airplane, I am three, we fly through the air, I want badly to eat clouds, we are going to Disneyland, Disneyland is huge, my mother buys a Minnie Mouse doll for me, in Tomorrowland ¬she crosses a small wooden footbridge, it is wet, there is an earthquake, the earth is shaking, she falls and drops Minnie Mouse, Father picks me up and runs, she follows, my head is crushed into his armpit and I squeeze my eyes shut—we are all evacuated—I am carried across a hot parking lot—we huddle with others and wait to be rescued. The next day we fly home, I watch the ocean from the airplane window, I see a dark object and think it is my Minnie Mouse, the turbulence is like more earthquake and I bury my face in Father’s lap. I never leave the City again.”
She crouched down to my level slowly. I felt all young again.
“Have you ever tried to leave, Folsom?”
“How do you know my name?”
“Just tell me. Have you ever tried to leave?”
I whispered, “I can’t.”
“You have to.”
“Do you want to?”
“Why are you here?”
She pulled me in, and her grey eyes transfixed me. Her lips warmed my ear as she said, “I am building a body—do you want to see it?”
That day after school I went to her house for the first time. It was a circular ranch-style building at the foot of the hills, at the edge of the border. Rabbits hopped freely around her yard, eating grass and little plants, nibbling on pellets or twitching in corners.
She met me in the yard and we walked slow into the house. She wore cutoffs, a faded T-shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat pulled low. The walls were painted red, and a small framed photograph propped on a window ledge caught my eye: at the end of a wooden dock a woman was running. So fast she was a blur, her hands waving a meaty blur, a cloth or something, a towel, a flag. It was unclear whether she was running toward or away from the camera, and her face was obscured by the bright light that cut through a grove of trees to her left. Behind her was a body of water.
I was quiet for a while. Ms. Blank made us a snack of cinnamon toast.
“Ms. Blank,” I finally said, “how did you know I was up on the roof?”
“I’ve been watching you watch me.”
“Oh.” I felt my face grow warm, and hoped she didn’t see me redden.
“And that is where I used to sit.” She handed me a mug of milk. “When I was in school.”
I sipped slowly and with my finger traced circles in the sugar bowl. “You lived here?”
“Years ago. This is where I grew up.”
“Really? Were you here when—”
“Did you see—”
“Were you sitting up there?”
“So you saw—”
Her hands tensed around her mug and she dug her nails into her skin. Her eyes turned red around their edges, and she came to sit beside me at the old Formica table.
“Do you remember?”
“And. Recess had ended. I didn’t want to go back into class. It was such a perfect day.”
“So I went to the roof. And then I saw—”
“And I couldn’t—I didn’t—I was just frozen there, watching, and I wanted to run and get help but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even close my eyes.”
We sat quietly, the only sound the rabbits, their claws scratching the wooden floor.
“And you’ve never said anything.”
“Not a single word.”
“Ms. Blank…did you see me?”
She bowed her head and I began to worry she would never speak again. But she did.
“You were wearing a striped turtleneck, Folsom. You went—you went into a cubby,” she whispered, shaking. “Come downstairs.”
I followed her down narrow steps to the basement, to a workshop with walls of thick cool stone. The only light came from a small bulb in a glass jar. I could make out tools spread across the floor, hammers and nails and wrenches and such, wires and wheels hanging from the ceiling, sacks of something stacked in one corner. And in the back against a wall stood a headless figure, propped up on a metal frame, a body so terribly real that I caught my breath and stumbled back, reaching out to grip her arm. Its presence was horrific and awesome, and I stood and stared and tried to take it in. Tall and solid, yet soft, shaped like a woman with arms and legs and hands and fingers so true and I was shocked when I reached out to touch it and felt its firm, warm surface. I then looked down and saw it, sitting on a workbench, tilted up toward the light so that I could see clearly the carved beginnings of every detail—except the eyes. Everything else was there: the thin bridge and crooked tip of her nose, the bitten lips, little chin, flushed pink cheeks—even the teeth, white, tiny, perfect, yes. And all of it framed by shining strands of wild hair that had to be real. It was Ms. Blank’s face, lacking only the eyes, lacking only her blood, lacking only a body beneath it.
Before I could even ask she spoke.
“I never wanted to leave this place, Folsom. I was young when it happened—older than you, yes, but still so young. When my parents packed up I begged them to let me stay. I wanted to remain here so bad, I loved this City, I did. I remember lying on the grass strip on 2nd Main, letting the sun hit me, or the moon, the rain even. My ear to the ground, listening to the damp ground breathe. Or going to the lake with my grandmother, floating on my back all day, making mud balls, so happy. Children should always be like that, I want to make them all that way.”
As she talked my heart pounded, and the chilled mildew of the basement made my skin tight. I was sure she could hear the excitement rushing through my veins. The bulb flickered slightly and the body’s shadow moved against the wall.
“I heard about the teacher search from my mother. I overheard her, actually—she was speaking to a friend she has here, still, on the inside. I asked her about it and she screamed at me. Why would I want to come back? What was wrong with me? It’s been fifteen years, Dayna, get over that wretched place. But I had to come here, I had to find out what had become of everyone, of all of you. I did the whole thing in secret—the interviews, the applications. They seemed so excited to have me back…”
“I’m excited,” I said. “No one ever comes back.”
“I know that, Folsom. I mean—now I know why.”
And for a moment I felt like I imagined Sharon must feel—dissociated, empty, unaware of anything but gravity and air.
“They want me to do more than teach. They say the population is becoming a problem again, some people aren’t…participating.” She looked directly at me then, pointed and disgusted. “They want me to help. With the future, they say. They made me sign a contract...to stay for the rest of my life. To help the population grow.” She bit her bottom lip and her eyelids fluttered a bit. “I—I had no idea it had come to this. They won’t let me leave. I cannot leave. They never—this was not in the job description.”
And without thinking, a little laugh escaped my lips.
“Do you think this is funny?”
“No, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Sometimes I laugh when I shouldn’t. It’s just—what you just said made me realize…that is my job description. They’ve made it my job. Being a Survivor is my full-time occupation.”
Ms. Blank nodded, her left hand stroking the hair on the fake head, her right hand rubbing the base of her neck.
“When you were a child, Folsom—before it happened—what did you want to be? When you grew up?”
I closed my eyes and saw the drawings that I’d do, over and over, with nubby gnawed-on crayons—crude yellow stars and a big round moon. A tiny earth in the distance. “An astronaut. What about you?”
And in the dim basement she grabbed my hand, squeezed it tight, and led me up the stairs, away from the body.
On my way out I saw an article that was stuck to her refrigerator with a knife-shaped magnet. It was about the tallest man in the world. He lives in a small village in the Ukraine and he never leaves. To get on a bus would be to him like a normal man climbing into the trunk of a car. His friends hope to raise money to take him on a trip to some nearby mountains to show him that there are things in this world bigger than he. He lives with his mother, crouching through the days, and feeds the cows and chickens. To relax, he cultivates exotic plants and pampers his tiny pet bird with his huge hands, cradling it close.
4. MS. BLANK & THE POND
I did not speak to her for several weeks after that visit; I sat on the roof and watched her, as usual, but after her classes she hurried away before I could catch her. She would not answer her phone, and the first postcard she mailed to my house told me only to “Be ready.” I understood, though—on the walk home from her house I was watched and followed by a series of men who didn’t seem to care that I knew they were there. In an effort to disorient them I took pains to move in the most illogical of patterns; I walked in circles, semicircles, zigzags, and squares. I went to the pond and built a sand castle; I dug my hands into its turrets and hurled clumps of wet sand at their binoculars; I took a nap on a bench and stayed there all night. During each subsequent day I felt the eyes of the City upon me; no longer was I semi-invisible and incidental. I had shifted my status by meeting with Ms. Blank—it seemed the City knew that my job was in jeopardy.
But on this day, this final day, my path was direct. Something was coming, something Vetyl knew nothing about. She could have her sheetcakes, her celebration. She headed toward the pond, and I for my rooftop, scanning the trees for cameras, sneering into bushes and mirrors.
As I approached the school my gut seized. It was midday, but the small buildings huddled, beige and alone, under a domed silence. There was no one there; the middle of the day and there was no one there. She had told me to look for a sign—I trust you will know what to do when you see them, said her last postcard. But there was no them—there was only me. I ran to the school’s center, where the round kindergarten building sat empty, surrounded by the rose bushes that were ceremoniously relocated in a gesture of protection, to maximize comfort. It was the closest I’d been to the building since that day—it looked so much smaller, and for a moment I felt an unblemished nostalgia for the tiny drinking fountain, so low to the ground. I glanced down at my feet, as if to remind myself of my size, my age, my growth—and I saw it. I was standing on the children’s most recent art project—it was beneath my feet and all around me, and it sent a wave of horror and nausea through me, for they had traced their bodies, creating chalk outlines of small jagged figures in varying innocent poses—and as I lifted my gaze from the ground I saw the rest of them. In the windows hung construction paper bodies, cutouts of more body tracing, many with ponytails or cowlicks sticking out from the heads. The nausea passed, and I found myself laughing, suddenly and darkly pleased by Ms. Blank’s activity planning. How could she give such an assignment? How long had she been planning this? And oh—how soon would she be mine?
I turned around and around alone in the center of the school, at the site of my trauma, the chalk bodies sprawled beneath me. Bands of hapless seagulls swooped above my head, piercing plastic bags and aluminum wrappers with their beaks, ripping soda cans in midair. They remind me of the sea, the seagulls, and I am always at a loss to understand why they are here, preying on school lunch debris, when they could be skimming the ocean, snapping silver fish from rising waves. I imagined grabbing onto their yellow legs, being lifted up and away over the mountains, dropped somewhere safe, somewhere terribly free.
The quiet that consumed the air was broken then by the wail of distant sirens. The gulls cried; I stared at the kindergarten building and saw the thorned flowers bend back, saw the paper bodies shaking, saw that the pet rabbit cage inside the classroom was open, empty, and though there was no discernable breeze, tufts of black fur swirled past my feet.
The momentum of the world seemed then to be creating me, or I was creating it, and I ran, and each step I took was the consequence of an unseen circumstance. Something was following me, and something was slipping in just ahead of me. Something pressed down from above, and at the same time, something pushed me forward. Each step was a new rapid gesture, and my heart expanded so that my whole body beat. I had never felt so ready.
I ran, my feet smacking the cement with each wide step, and the Shopping District, like the school, was devoid of people—they were at the pond, of course, for Celebration Day. The seagulls seemed to follow me as I rushed down 2nd Main St., past the long strip of grass that no longer hosted the two rabbits, and at last I reached the pond, where the ambulances swarmed, and the mothers with their toddlers and babies stood in the street, terrified and confused in their bright triangle party hats. Vetyl stood sobbing, her carriage overturned, her coffee splashed on the ground; Phil was on the ground, speckled with cinnamon foam. The clown stood with a fish-shaped piñata, the sheetcake was overturned in the dirt; the cacophony was immense, the chaos amazing, everyone murmuring “not the lake” and “oh my god what happened.” Police and rescue workers lined the banks, the City Officials hovered like wasps, and the husbands stood in clumps, flexing their calf muscles and coming up with answers. In the center of the pond was a small rescue dinghy—it ran in tight, tiny circles, its red light whirling and flashing.
On the edge of the throng of watchers was Jam, another Survivor, who had two of her wailing babies slung across her front-body in some sort of tan sack. She looked distraught.
Over the noise I shouted to her, “What’s going on?”
“We think we saw a body.”
“In the pond?”
“In the Lake, our Lake!”
She covered her babies’ ears and glared at me.
“Yes, dead. Someone has committed—suicide.”
“Who? Who is it?”
“I don’t know, Folsom. What do you care anyway?”
At that the entire crowd seemed to turn and stare at me, this sea of slit eyes and pursed lips, a unified front of self-important civic heroines. Their faces blurred until they seemed transparent and I ran on, letting my laughter build in my chest. I knew what was in that pond, and I knew what I was to do.
As I came to my house I saw my neighbors quickly preparing a new bouquet. It was all purple wisteria and sprays of foul agapanthus.
Then I saw Sharon standing on our porch, uncharacteristically out of her bathrobe and bedroom. Her white skin seemed to glow in the alien light, and she waved a vague hand in the air as she spoke.
“Folsom! They think they found a body in the pond!”
“I know,” I panted.
“Where are you going?”
“To see my teacher. I love you, Sharon!” And I meant it.
She nodded, breathed deep, and asked me nothing else. I closed my eyes and imagined Ms. Blank’s perfectly crafted inanimate twin swaying in the deep water, her beautiful hair twisted with fish, a brilliant spectacle of distraction. I envisioned her real body waiting on the other side, calm with arms held out; that image told me yes, and I ran as fast as I could.