“You ok? Need me to go first?” Barbi wriggles out of her seatbelt and shoves the door of my old Mustang, Georgette, open.
“What? No, it’s just… It’s been a long time since I was here. It’s eerie.” I take her hand and lead her up to Grandma Marie’s front porch. Useta be Grandma Marie’s anyway. The driveway and front steps are covered in dead leaves and other detritus. The porch boards creak under our feet. A quick jiggle of the knob proves the door is locked, and the key Gran kept under the second step is long gone.
I cup my hands against the window to peer inside. It’s dark as hell, what with the no electricity and it being night out and all. The wind is picking up, and a handful of leaves skitters across the porch. I look at Barbi. “We could just go…”
I trail off. I’m starting to feel a little reckless. I don’t know if it’s the wind or the night or the being here with her.
“Or we could try the window.” She puts her hands against the window frame, pushes up. It’s unlatched, unlike the door. The wind blows a puff of dust into the dimness of the house. Barbi peers past my shoulder.
“Geez, how long has it been since anyone lived here?”
“Not sure. Somebody musta bought it after my grandma died, but I don’t know if anyone actually lived here. Wanna boost?” It’s not that she can’t climb up herself, of course. It just seems rude not to offer a leg up when breaking and entering.
“Yeah, sure, I can give you a hand in after.” She steps into my laced fingers and shimmies through the window, then reaches back to grab my hand.
“Can I just lift you in? There’s nothing in here to climb on.”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” I take her hand with both of mine, brace myself.
She pulls. I can’t even see her muscles flex, but she lifts me into the house as easily as I might boost that little kid, the one that follows his big sister around like a baby duck all the time. I scramble over the sill, slipping a little on the dusty floor.
“Hang on, let’s see if I still have the knack of making light, kay?” In the dimness I can see her face scrunch up, and then that low glow that I remember from the tunnels starts up.
“I am never going to get used to that,” I say. I keep my voice low. It seems wrong to speak loudly.
Barbi’s light is lovely, though, and makes her look even more angelic. I let the light play over my hand.
For a minute I forget to even look around.
It’s not as dusty as it should be, if nobody’s been here since my grandma died, but it’s not clean, either. Little fluffpiles are in the corners, like someone’s keeping a cat here, but I don’t see animal tracks (not that the floor’s that dirty) and it doesn’t smell like animals.
“It’s so empty.” I don’t mean the lack of furniture. The house had always been sparsely furnished. Gran hated clutter. I remember coming up here after she died. The smell of disuse. The lonely smell so unlike the rubbed-pine scent that she cleaned with. The few pieces of furniture that were left after I took the rocker are still here. I had to take Georgette’s top off by myself for the first time to get that chair home, and I can still feel the way the rust flaked under my fingers.
“Are you sure somebody bought it?” It even sounds empty when Barbi talks.
I think about that. “No,” I say, finally. “I mean, I think she left the house to her sister, and Eleanor hated the place. I just assumed she’d sell, I guess.”
“It just… I mean, it looks like maybe there’s a caretaker or something, but nobody’s been living here for years.”
Which is when the man walks out of the doorway to the kitchen.
Correction: walks halfway out of the doorway to the kitchen.
And as I think “that man is walking out of the doorway to the kitchen” I realize he is doing exactly that: no part of him is in the kitchen at all. He stops dead and tries to walk back into thin air, then something shoves him and he sprawls through to land on his hands and knees.
“Is that how you really feel?”
It is the final earthquake. The cat, watching from Misenum, sees tephra hanging in the air, lapilli of memories. I send a messenger: Pliny, old friend, hurry.
“I guess so.”
The words collapse into the space between our bodies, pyroclastic. The messenger turns back; Pliny’s ships are useless. The door opens on a small tsunami in the Bay of Naples.
I turn my face up to wait for rain. The ashes fall lightly on me.
“What would’a happened, d’you think, if you hadn’t’a gotten out of Todd’s car?” My spoon clinks against the metal bowl when I drop it. I pick up my glass again just to give my fingers something to do.
“I don’t know. I’d be at the party, I guess.” She takes a bite of ice cream, sucking gently on the end of the spoon to get the last little bit clean. “I’d have a red Solo cup full of mystery punch and the music would be too loud – we’re not in college any more, darn it – and Todd would keep trying to pull my skirt up cause it’s funny. Do you think that’s funny?”
She looks like she’s genuinely trying to figure it out. My eyes involuntarily drop to the hem of her skirt, where it’s riding up. I drag them away and look her in the face.
“Funny? No.” Not that I don’t want to do it myself, slide my hand up between the fabric and her skin. But not to be funny, no.
“Because, you know… people laugh,” she goes on, taking tiny sips of sherry like a hummingbird, poised delicately on the edge of her stool, her knee perilously close to mine. “And so I laugh, too. Only sometimes I wonder if it’s the right thing.”
I press my palm against the porthole. It leaves a smudge like my prints on the enlistment paperwork. In the span between my fingers the station diminishes, compares itself to Triton’s bulk and loses. I imagine Ema inside, impossibly small, with her own hand against the isinglass windows mirroring mine.
I came upon a general marshalling her headlines. They stood in neat rows with their boots and buttons polished and their umlauts on straight. When she sent them forth they marched all together and saluted.
My words escaped years ago and fled to the hills crying Revolution!
When the dictionary fell, it was not to those soldiers in their crisply serifed Times New Roman but to the guerilla words, slipping from mouth to mouth in the cover of night, between the bars of cells and the pages of letters. Freedom. Equality. Love.
When I was seven, my mother pried me away from the porthole. They had told me Uncle Ezi was gone among the stars. I did not understand then that they meant he had died. I wanted only to hold the stars.
At twelve I learned the stars’ names, which ones belonged properly to the Alliance and which had gone colonial. Colonial was a dirty word, low-caste and anxious. We walked the line, miners, stealing from planets too small for the name, among stars marked firmly Alliance on the maps.
You can have the stars, now; I’ll take the space between.