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Author Q&A: Brian Lott

Brian Lott was born in Houston, Texas in 1973, and has since lived throughout the South. He graduated from Florida State University in 1996. His writing career includes time as an associate producer in TV news, a product information writer at the Home Shopping Network, and a senior communications coordinator for a Florida electric company. He lives in Tampa with his wife and daughter.

Author Q&A: Brian Lott

It has been our pleasure to work with Brian Lott, a writer and frequent contributor to TBL.  We have been able to work with him on several occasions, publishing some exceptional short stories. Since his work has gone through our Free Editing Program several times, we have asked him to share his experience with working with us. Also included are links to several drafts of a story we worked with as an example of our process.

What are some of the ways the editing process helped develop your story?

With everything going on in life already (day jobs, family, etc.)—before we even get to the point where we’re writing something that other people might actually read—if we’re lucky—we need encouragement. That’s the first and maybe greatest thing TbL gave me: simple encouragement. Beyond that, the edits I received were the perfect combination of specific and general, which was hugely helpful. The feedback did a lot to help me tighten the pace of the stories I submitted. And TbL paid great attention to detail with my submissions, catching little things I never would’ve seen on my own. (Do they read these stories out loud? It almost seems like it!) TbL simply wanted the best possible product, and so did I—that’s the inherent pact between the writer and the publisher, I guess. And it worked tremendously well. It’s no overstatement to say that the editing process that TbL shepherded has made me a better writer. In the end, you ideally end up with two things: a better piece of writing and a writer who knows why and how that piece is better—and can use that new knowledge on the next story.

How did having an outside perspective influence your work?

It was more than just good; it was critical. For such a solitary activity, writing—the finished product, at least—certainly is a group effort. I’m not sure how well it can be accomplished without other perspectives to help shape and edit it. TbL’s editors always accepted the weird idiosyncrasies of mine that worked and those that hit with a thud (at least if you’re outside my brain, a place where I imagine rainbows turn to gluten-free jellybeans). TbL wasn’t that bored friend half-listening to the general outline of my story at the bar up the street—apologies to my bored friend, and sorry I stormed off in that cab, flipping you off as we pulled away (it was an accident, I swear!). No, the perspective from TbL was engaged, informed and fully committed to creating a great story out of the initially shoddy materials that I’d tried so hard to assemble. The bottom line is that every writer needs an outside perspective, but we need it from people genuinely committed to the best outcome possible. That’s what TbL provided. And this is coming from a guy still a little heartbroken over the Matrix sequels and Star Wars prequels, which I assume were partly (if not wholly) the result of otherwise brilliant creative minds that simply weren’t entertaining outside perspectives. We have to feel some kind of emotion when we write, and the best thing we can hope for, of someone willing to edit us especially, is that they feel invested in the story too. There was never any doubt about this as I worked with the staff of Tethered by Letters.

What did the editing process look like for you?

When, to my surprise, the story was accepted, I learned that it needed edits. Okay, right, I expected as much. The edits came in, and with “The Dragonfly’s Necessary Demise,” I learned it was going to have to be cut down by about 40 percent. I needed a little time to think about this, to be honest. (I think too much, I admit, but I’m considering seeing somebody about it.) Coincidentally, around that time I had an excuse to take the ferry down from Ft. Myers, Florida, to Key West, to meet up with my wife, who was visiting friends. So there was the helpful gasping and nausea on the ferry, the wandering around the Key West historic district in a kind of summer daze, a large portion of it spent wrestling with this new image of the story in my mind. Forty percent’s a lot…but it’s amazing how much, and how quickly, it made perfect sense: too much world-building in the story, not enough tension. It was genuinely enjoyable to go through the story, paragraph by paragraph, and subject it to some kind of brutal test to determine whether this line or that line was important enough to keep. After that first round, we went back and forth, narrowing down the changes, which went from moving a paragraph around, maybe, to line-by-line edits using the Track Changes option in Microsoft Word. I always had an open conduit for questions if I had any. I received an email or two to check in on how things were coming along over the course of a month or so. It was like a tiny version of me, sitting there on my shoulder, helpfully whispering that it was time for an oil change. (The car is the short story in this analogy, and it was running much, much better when TBL was done with it.)

By receiving notes and going through revisions, what did you learn about your work and about yourself as a writer?

That’s a great question! D.M. Hedlund, it’s no exaggeration to say, is a genius. Her feedback was teeming with things that I needed to know—things that would benefit any writer. And so I learned a little about how much growing I needed to do, and how much I wanted to do that. The editing process was more involved than anything I’d experienced, and even if I haven’t put much stuff out there for publication, I’d say some other things I learned were: 1., I use too many adjective phrases (but I’m better able to correct that now!); 2., I’m a more critical self-evaluator now (does that paragraph really need to be there?); 3., You can say anything to anyone about their writing but send them off with a smile—I guess I’ve long known this at my day job, which involves corporate promotional writing, but when it comes to fiction, the care with which we provide feedback is all the more important because it comes from someplace deep within the writer—and for reasons other than getting a paycheck and advancing the goals of a giant corporate entity. I guess that’s a long way of saying that the editing process reaffirmed how much I value hearing encouraging (but definitely constructive) feedback—and how important it is to take that approach with others. The world’s too crazy and upsetting to add to that with bad feelings you create in someone else about something they poured their heart into (or, in the case of writers I work with at my job, something they at the very least poured their time into). Let’s celebrate someone’s heart and hard work—but first, let’s find ways to get the best result.

How would you say the main idea of the story changed throughout the revisions? In what ways is it the same?

In the cases of both of my stories published by Tethered by Letters, the story is a tighter version of what I submitted (which made edits a lot easier!). The biggest changes were with “The Dragonfly’s Necessary Demise,” starting with the title (originally it was “Unexpected Moments in a Time of Upheaval,” a nod to Don DeLillo, but a nod he doesn’t need). The 40 percent or so of that story that I was asked to cut down involved eliminating stuff that I initially found compelling from the standpoint of world-building but that dragged down the pace considerably. The finished product removes a number of tangents and a backstory here and there—and since the story is dystopian, this adds to the eeriness, I think. I guess it’s possible that something as significant as the main idea of a story might change through the editing process, but in my case, the editing process stayed true to my original vision. In fact, my dialogue with TbL through the editing process compelled me to really articulate the main idea—something I kind of knew but hadn’t really put into words. After the journey was nearly complete, in a sense, I was finally able to draw a road map.

What was the most helpful/ your favorite aspect of the editing process for you?

Probably the encouragement I received through it all. If you’re a nobody like me, with a busy job, child, all that, getting anything done beyond what I absolutely have to do feels like a major achievement. But the people I worked with at Tethered by Letters kept me focused and moving forward with a sense of…well? Optimism, I guess? That there are people out there who value fiction enough from non-established names that they’re willing to help that person develop as a writer through the development of his or her stories? It starts with ideas you can’t shake, but as everyone knows, ideas can just as easily die on the vine. You have to have the drive to write and then perfect it. And if you’re not planning to be all Henry Darger about it, you need input. What you really need is input from people committed to what you’re doing. I hope it doesn’t sound anything but positive to say that TbL was almost like some “Extreme Home Makeover” crew that descended on my home, did its professional, thorough work in a friendly, knowledgeable way and then departed – leaving something I felt comfortable in that looked far better than it did before.

How was this kind of editing process different from other editing experiences you’ve had?

I write for a living, for a company that wants to impact customer perception, using writing to announce and remind them about our work in the community. The editing from TBL spoke my language—it connected with me in a way that made me know that we shared the same goals: to take some idea, if it hopefully coheres, and fashion it into something compelling. Something that reaches people in a way that they might find hard to describe. That’s the beauty of writing that isn’t driven strictly by capitalism. The ideas are the writer’s own, and maybe inconvenient, and not necessarily in service to the idea of profit. But, at the same time, if those ideas strike some kind of chord in readers, they could generate profit, conceivably, even if it’s just some kind of emotional profit. Does this give some sense of how edits from TBL were different for me? It felt like they were emotionally invested, and I don’t know if I can say anything more positive about people—the incredible editors I worked with—willing to read something I wrote. Tethered by Letters should feel as proud of the work they’ve shepherded as the writers who wrote it.

Halfway through the sweaty tedium of clearing vines from his parents’ house, Charlie encountered the biggest bug he’d ever seen.

“Shit!” he nearly choked on his spittle.

A dragonfly—quivering translucent wings about three feet across, metallic green-purple torso—had clawed into the wood above the stucco siding. It was mostly still in the afternoon breeze, passive and taunting.

Charlie stepped quickly away, fear spilling frigid through his brain. He ran a hand over his damp forehead, shaggy hair, bristly goatee. He paced in the foot-high tangle of weeds and straw-like grass that circled the house, watching errantly for snakes and wasps and whatever the hell else. Whatever.

Fuck it, whatever.

“Shit,” he spat. “Shit, shit, shit.”

Goddamn bug had to end up here, messing up Charlie’s day and doing whatever the hell else it did.

He let out a long sigh, dirty hands propped on the hips of his jeans. Now what?

You don’t let that fucker just sit there. Charlie glanced around suspiciously.

The house—one story, a crown of warped brown wood—sat in a cradle of shaggy, half-dead shrubs. Curling alongside and around back was the pockmarked crumble of a stucco wall that extended down a house-less street to the shadowy secrets of a great bent oak. Charlie’s was the only house here, the model home in a stillborn neighborhood, plots and plots of empty lots amid a network of decaying asphalt streets, arteries and capillaries in search of a face. Cedar Run (was it a name or a command?) had grown out of the housing boom, which by 2008 was over, and now, so many years later, all that remained was a single weary structure and the ghosts of neighborhood kids who never were, bicycles that never spun, parents and pot-lucks and block parties that never thumped and flittered with friendly disco. Or whatever the hell people played.

Out across the expanse of grass, away from the neighborhood, a rusting white trailer squatted beside a black pickup. Coming and going, just glancing out the window, Charlie’s eyes drifted to the trailer. He was stricken, stuck thinking about what hid away inside: Katherine, her gorgeous aura like spectral fog, and those who shared her tiny space. The baby and the boyfriend. Charlie imagined Katherine often, her would-be escape with him, the crazed, frantic buzz of tossing duffle bags into the station wagon Charlie would steal from his family. Setting off at night, alone and determined with a beautiful woman and a child, things he could never have without a fight.

But this dragonfly. Goddammit.

Quick decisions; it’s about quick decisions. Charlie had attended a seminar once about making quick decisions, a lifetime ago in a convention center with a water-stained ceiling. What the fuck had they said again? It took three days to get to the point.

He paced in the lawn. A net—he needed a net.

He lunged through the grass to the pile of trash on the side of the house. Here, a net at the end of a long stick, useless in a backyard pool that was now a pit of disintegrating appliances in rust-colored murk.

He clutched the pole, scrunched its peeling rubber in his dirty palms. Getting a sense of the tool’s weight and dynamics. Okay.

Back around to the side of the house. Net out like a hunter or badass gatherer (he liked the thought), he glared at the dragonfly. Okay. Stepping slowly closer.

Easing closer, channeling fear into tense muscles. Just…about…

A swipe of the net and he had it, struggling for a moment with its darting agitation until he smashed it against the house with a crack, on the ground, again, his fury, kill it, kill it, bash its brain and damn it to hell!

Finally the damn thing fell still.

Charlie breathed. Okay.

Now what?

Seriously—now what? He swallowed, glaring down at the mangled mess.

What had he just done? Shit.

Get a box! He hoisted a cinderblock from under a shrub along the house, setting it atop the point where the pole met the net. He spun around, looking, thinking, a box, anything. The porch? Around back!

In the debris between the pool and the dirty work shed he found an old postal box and a dented aluminum garbage can lid. He hurried back to the dragonfly, nudged the cinderblock off the pole with his boot, swept the net off the bug and slammed the box down over it. On his knees, sweating and wincing, he maneuvered the lid under the box,

feeling the quivering within. Gradually, carefully, he stood.

Now he had the dragonfly. He let out a stuttered breath.

He carried his prize awkwardly around to the shed, sliding the door open with his elbow and clamoring inside the musty confines. Finding his way through the dim daylight streaming in through cracks to his worktable. He swept aside the parts and pieces of abandoned projects and dumped the dragonfly on the table. In near-panic as almost an afterthought, he scrambled for gloves, wriggling into a filthy pair he found on a shelf. He gingerly fingered the end of the dragonfly’s tail, pinching it into the vise to his right, which he screwed tight to hold the creature in place. A battery here, wrench there—he placed both atop the wings as the damaged bug vibrated with stunned tics.

Charlie stepped away from the table, needing to see the scene before him with a gulf of separation. Okay. Okay. Along the shed’s back shelves, he searched for a visor amid the boxes and appliances congealing into a mass of damp dust. He wiped off the visor and slipped the strap behind his head. Face protected, he eased up to the dragonfly, sinking atop his squeaking swiveling stool.

Fascinating, the bug in greater detail. The intricate plastic sections, smart skin that tightened and relaxed depending on the weather. The segmented eyes that hid its devices. Charlie put a rag over the bug’s head. With tweezers he picked along the underbelly. Of course, find the power source, along the torso, gotta be—

“The hell?!” Teddy hollered hoarsely, Charlie banging his head on the table light.

“Jesus,” Charlie rubbed his scalp. “Try knockin’!”

Teddy barreled into the dim shed, look of puzzled concern on his boyish face, and

he glowered tentatively over his older brother’s shoulder at the bug.

“Thatta—?” he gasped, turning to Charlie. “What the fuck’s this?!”

Charlie shrugged.

“You captured that shit?!” Teddy hissed. “Oh fuck,” he waved away a made-up cloud of stink and hurried back to the entrance of the shed. “You are fuckin’ stupid,” he pointed accusingly to Charlie with his right hand, his fake hand, with its middle finger permanently erect. He’d worked at the garbage plant for years until one day the machinery pulled his arm inside and shredded it. Agony and angst ensued briefly. His replacement arm was supposed to have a fully functional hand, but since it was purchased secondhand, so to speak, the warranty never carried over. In fury with his family, life, people he met, Teddy messed with the circuitry to engineer the perpetually extended middle finger, which he typically found a way to give someone daily. Drinking to the point of oblivion by the pool shortly after the accident, Teddy had mumbled to Charlie that he mangled his arm on purpose (or at least he wasn’t one bit upset about it); he wanted to get the insurance money, ditch his job, escape having to join the army.

Charlie rubbed his brow tiredly. “I don’t need this shit, okay?”

You don’t need this shit?” Teddy was exasperated. “What about us? Think we need this? They arrest people for this shit! You can’t damage these things! You gotta call somebody t’collect it!” He shook his head. “God, how could you be so stupid?”

“You didn’t see this fucker on the side of the house?”

“I don’t go on that side of the house.”

“Well I do, ’cause I pull my weight around here. And I ain’t gonna sit there while

some fuckin’ bug listens to everything we say, okay, records everything we do.”

Teddy’s glower was sinking into petulance. “Fine. You deal with this shit. They

self-destruct, y’know. You talk to the owners when they show up.”

“Oh come on,” Charlie moaned. “This ancient peesashit? This shit’s from fuckin’ nineteen-ninety or something. They got roaches and gnats, okay—they wanna watch us, they got ways. This is…I dunno what the hell this is. This fucker got lost from his scrap heap hive or something. They’re flyin’ around all over the place. Settle down already.”

You settle down. Somebody rejiggered it. What happened to that guy in Polk County? Huh?! Wanna end up like him? It’s your deal. I’m gettin’ dad.”

Charlie let out an irritated gust and rolled his eyes as Teddy retreated. Dad? Please. Teddy—what a fucking baby. Charlie turned back to the dragonfly. He hated it more than ever. Because Teddy wasn’t wrong. Nobody asked for this, but here it was. Some stranger’s excuse to find them, drag Charlie from his home, drive him somewhere. Question him, beat him, worse if they wanted. Whatever they could get away with.

He clenched his eyes shut, half-swallowing his sadness and dread. He’d known what he was doing when he caught the damn bug, sort of. He was just too depressed to care. That was the nature of this terrible age—a bug landing on your home was awful; destroying it was awful. So what do you do? You become a fatalist is what.

But when he picked up his tweezers and gazed close at the bug again, a strange notion settled over him. He felt slowly disarmed. At the brilliance, the beauty, the polysynthetic alloys that added up to the mosaic of creature before him. Somebody’s knockout idea, surely earned ’em millions. Yesteryear’s genius. Bugs like this had weapons, immobilizing agents, self-destruct triggers. Didn’t they? And here was Charlie, right next to one.

He put the tweezers down. It was hard to concentrate now that this was a family

matter. Another family matter. They seemed to crop up weekly. Charlie was the proud owner of the latest one. He took off his mask, sloughed off his gloves.

His anger wandered to the trailer down the street. An impenetrable fortress of flimsy aluminum. A precious ecosystem inside, Katherine and the baby, protected by a looming mass of muscle that she supposedly loved. But did she? The dragonfly made Charlie feel weak. Smashed and captive, it somehow dominated him. If he was victimized by this bullshit, how could he stand up to anything else? To him?

From outside the shed came the sound of a door creaking shut. Then the clang of dull metal and the struggle to stay upright. Teddy was talking to dad, a low conversation steeped in accusation. Charlie sat back on his stool, tensing.

Teddy poked his head inside a moment later. Charlie craned to see his dad in his wheelchair. A jowly mass of balding flesh, Melvin squinted into the shadows.

“What’s this I hear ’bout a bug?” Melvin rasped. “You safe in there? No mask?”

Charlie shot a look at Teddy. “Under control. I got it, it’s done. Stuck to the side of the house for who knows how long. Okay, I can’t abide by that.”

“Well, we got ourselves a situation,” Melvin said.

“Damn right we do,” Teddy muttered.

“You got a plan there, Charlie?” Melvin asked. “What if it blew up?”

“Probably woulda self-destructed when I caught it,” Charlie shrugged. “Look, I’ll take it to the depot tomorrow morning, okay? First thing.”

“They’ll be askin’ questions, y’know. You got answers?”

“His answer’s ‘Hey, I’m a dumbass!’” Teddy blurted.

“Shut the fuck up,” Charlie snapped.

“Stop it!” Melvin heaved with a labored breath. “We’ll talk to mom and Lex when they get home. I don’t like this.” And he struggled to wheel himself backwards as Teddy, making sure to give Charlie an ugly look, remembered to help his dad.

Charlie waited until he heard them go back inside to haul himself off his stool. He glanced over the dragonfly one last time, back to feeling disgust. Where was the fusion of morality and technology that meant nothing you invented could hurt anyone? No designer viruses, no atomic bombs, no manufactured bugs? It was all a fiasco, it was banal and out of control. No one could stop it. Charlie least of all.

He wandered out of the shed, sliding the door shut behind him. A heavy truck roared past on the state road. Beside the toxic swimming pool, he sank into a molding lounge chair and leaned back, crossing his arms behind his head under the warm opaque sky. He sat like that for a long moment, feeling the muted warmth of a malevolent sun. He couldn’t help it, glancing to his right, through the shrubbery and the rubble of the stucco wall where some kid in a sports car had crashed many years ago. The kid, drunk, had survived; his girlfriend had not. In his younger years Charlie had scrutinized the jagged point of impact, wondering if streaks of brown here and there were hints of blood.

From where he’d positioned his chair, he could see Katherine’s trailer in the distance through the hole. Pickup parked outside. What was happening inside? Baby crying, husband grumbling, anything on TV? Did Katherine yearn like Charlie did? For some cosmic fork in fate to appear, to set the nation and the world or at least their little lives off on some other trajectory—obstacles they could somehow face together?

Charlie thought often about the day he met her. He couldn’t not think of it. It was maybe six months ago, about two months after he lost his job at the outdoor shop, a ramshackle place tucked into the trees against the river, a rustic hut stuffed with bright-colored bait and life vests, fishing gear and guns. The owner, Sparkman, was a stout, balding guy with a combover who hired Charlie on the spot when he learned about his success with the 2016 Eagles wrestling team that went to state.

Charlie worked the front counter and handled the canoe rentals. The customers were mostly older men, serious types, some with bad jokes, guys on their second or third wives who needed nature to set their thoughts at ease. Sometimes it was kids, trim with new haircuts, grinning through sunglasses, here with their gently amused dates. (Who were these people who lived life and smiled?)

And every now and again there’d be shady figures, muscled men, often in twos, who didn’t like to talk. Headed with duffle bags for some rendezvous up the river. Maybe government, maybe gangsters, maybe some union of the two.

It was this last group that did Charlie in. He’d checked in a couple men—tall and

thick, dark-haired and trading glances—who carried a bundle of leather bags. But once they’d left, shoved off curtly in their craft in the speckling water under the canopy of trees, Charlie noticed they’d left a bag behind. It just sat there, black leather slumped defeated against the counter. There was policy for this. Charlie took the bag into the back office, a cramped space of file cabinets and a desk piled with paper.

Was it boredom, nihilism, the incessant fluorescent lights? Charlie had no excuse.

He hoisted the bag on the desk chair and undid the zipper. Inside, under a bundle of rags: money. Stacks and stacks of hundreds, bound by rubber bands, paisley classic designs like enlightenment fantasy, proud and monochrome. With a tingle he pulled out a wad, held it close to his face, his nose. He smelled clean ink, a whiff of fresh chemicals.

Just to see it up close, clutch it, money in abundance for once.

It was a setup. The way the world exploded, guns attached to people bursting in, a half-dozen firearms trained on his face as they wrangled Charlie to the rubbery gray carpet, jamming his cheek into the mold and clenching his hands behind his back. The march to the unmarked car, mug shot, the whimpering call to his parents. Sparkman said he’d pleaded with the authorities to drop charges, which meant that Charlie, while he avoided jail time, simply had no way to get another job. (At least with the quota cycle satisfied for the year, he could avoid the army for a little longer.) In his private drunken moments, Charlie wondered if he wasn’t taken out of the picture, kicked out of his job, because he’d seen too much. “Too much.” What did that even mean? Strangers going to secret places in canoes? Every goddamn thing in life was too much.

Katherine’s trailer had been around for a couple months before that but no one knew who lived there until Charlie’s mom, Mary, pulled up in the driveway one day—this was a little after Charlie got fired—with the young mother, the young mother’s baby, and handfuls grocery bags.

Mary was a tiny woman, short gray hair, soft voice, a presence that was barely there. How had she birthed three big sons? But she had, and here she was in the dim, stale TV room, meekly introducing Katherine to Charlie, Teddy and Melvin, who were watching some sports trivia game. The air immediately froze and prickled in the presence of a beautiful woman, grinning clumsily, balancing a bewildered baby on her hips.

“Can I?” Mary reached for the baby as Katherine complied, the older woman’s face warming with eyes-shut compassion, the delicate heartbreak of flooding memories. Mary nestled the baby boy against her shoulder, mouthing something gentle and silent.

“He’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mary whispered. “Oh baby boy…”

Katherine clasped her hands at her waist with a shy smile. “He’s a sweetheart.”

Mary’s eyes slipped open. “One of you boys wanna show Katherine the solar?” She glanced at her neighbor. “That okay? I’ll just rock your little man for a minute.”

Katherine shrugged, grin never slipping. “You can.”

“I will,” Charlie said, almost involuntarily. He could feel Teddy’s scalding silent glare, knowing what it looked like on his brother’s sour handsome face, the same animal drive for whatever this rare moment with a woman represented. Melvin presumably looking on with what—admiration? Regret at this meaningless competition between his sons? Ancient echoes of the same lust Charlie and Teddy felt at that moment? But Melvin had landed Mary, decades ago, when surely landing someone was easier.

“Okay,” Katherine smiled at Charlie, the complicated warmth of someone possessed by a generous spirit and maybe the spark of the opposite sex.

With self-conscious stiffness, Charlie beckoned Katherine with him through the dusty darkness to the front door and outside. He was a little surprised that she’d let his mom hold her baby. Not because his mom had anything but goodwill for the child, but because who actually trusted anyone anymore?

Katherine was small and freckled, sandy shoulder-length hair pulled back into a limpid ponytail. Almond crescents for eyes that sat atop pale pillows of cheeks, dimpled with her smile. She wore an oversized gray sweatshirt that was threadbare in the elbows, blue jeans with hints of stains on the thighs, loafers that were weatherbeaten and scuffed. Each detail arrested Charlie’s breathing a little more, glimpses as they passed through the dim entry to the littered porch. She was incredible, breath-stopping, perfect.

“Sorry, meant to clean up a little…” he trailed off.

She chuckled. “God, you should see our place.”

In the taupe afternoon light he led her around to the side of the house—the place

the dragonfly would eventually land—and he pointed to the roof, to the mirrored disk of the solar cell array pointed skyward. She seemed impressed and he felt momentarily confident. “Works pretty good,” he said. “This’s one of the better models. They say it pulls the sun right outta the clouds.”

“Really?”

“Say it can pull the sun right offa the moon at night.”

“Wow! We need to get one.”

“Got better ones than this out there now. Look for Friedman—that’s the brand I like. Good warranty, easy to install.”

She folded her arms, intrigued. “Really?”

“So easy a baby could do it. Hey, you gotta baby, right?”

She laughed.

“I ain’t kidding,” he said.

“Okay!” Her voice held the tint of her grin. “You live here a while?”

“Yeah, since…jeez. Long time.” He glanced at her inquisitive face. “You like it where you’re at?”

She shrugged. “I mean, if we could move up to something better, I’d be all for it.”

He beckoned her along with him, away from the house, toward the street. “I’ll show you somethin’ to think about. Few things, actually.” As they tromped through the front yard grass into the street, he swept a hand absentmindedly toward the wasteland before them where houses were at one point supposed to go. “This here?” he said. “Got all the old lines for redundancy, gas’n electric, but redundancy costs money. You want it, though, you pull that trailer of yours right over this way.”

Did he just say that? What came with it, with the trailer and Katherine?

“Neighborhood’s got the infrastructure,” he said quickly. “Just nobody ever got

around to the structure, you know? Just the infra, pretty much.”

She looked around at the grass. “That’s good to know.”

“Yeah,” he said, feeling the pinch of nothing to say, revealed as the fraud he may very well have been. But this! This woman, this chance to talk to her, beauty here before him, spectacular and wanting!

They wandered up the street, around potholes and missing plugs of asphalt, the fuzz of fraught tension building with each passing instant of quiet.

“You wanna stay on the streets, though,” he cautioned finally. “Lotta snakes, scorpions, stuff like that in the grass.”

“Oh. Really?” She tightened her posture, hands in her pockets. “I guess I’m always walkin’ around outside our place all the time. Barefoot’n everything.”

“Ah, y’know what they say. More scareda us’n we are of them.”

They were strolling, hands in their pockets, eyes on the dead landscape as they walked. Moving away from the house, from the trailer, from the forces sitting just back there like gigantic magnets when they were nothing but paper clips, flimsy things that held other things together, probably, and Charlie wondered if this was something they shared. What to say? He had to say something. Think of something!

“Whatta you guys do for fun?”

She let out an almost-laugh. “I have surgeries, I guess.”

“Oh yeah?” He was struck by her light tone. “Y’get sick?”

“I got in an accident.”

“Oh.”

“I go back every few months. Nice place.” She chuckled. “Good drugs.”

“Yeah, my brother, he…” Charlie started and then fell quiet. The slightest breeze was drifting over them. “I guess I got an idea how it works.”

“It’s alright.” She looked around.

“Yeah, yeah.” He swallowed and pointed to the lot ahead. “This here,” he began. “This’s where I imagined a house would be with, like, a banker and a veterinarian, somebody like that. Specialty veterinarian. Emus and stuff.”

She laughed. “Which one of em’s the veterinarian?”

“The spouse?”

She laughed again and things were picking up, a warm momentum.

“I imagined this whole neighborhood one time. Remember when everybody got the flu a few years back?”

“I was in Panama.”

“Okay, well, that’s interesting, and we’ll get back to that,” he said, watching her smile unfurl again, and he went on. “I was sick for six months. Remember that? People were—everybody was…it was bad, right? But I built this whole neighborhood in my head. House here? See, here you got an Air Force guy, retired, and his wife’s thinkin’ about opening up a bakery but he’s not so sure. They gotta son in high school and a daughter in college so, y’know, expenses. Guy over here? This’d be a colonial-style house, I figure. The guy’s got some kinda contraption he’s workin’ on in his garage that has to do with the weather. His wife, she breeds small dogs, puts ’em in contests.”

“Actual contests?”

“Oh yeah, hell yeah. Y’gotta guy over here, in his ranch home, retired architect. Really gets into Christmas decorations. I mean, this guy goes all out. Reindeer, Santa’s doin’ some kinda bobbin’ thing with cookies’n milk’r whatever? Whole deal. Everybody talks about it. Wife’s a former librarian. Kids’re grown, two of ’em. One had some kinda bone disease, but he’s better now.”

“I’m so glad to hear that.” She folded her arms as they walked, genuinely amused. “Wow, sounds like a good neighborhood.”

“Oh yeah. Coulda been the best. Well, y’know, the best til the next one down.

Halloween, though’s, what really coulda been great. Just imagine it. Trees all grown up and big, it’s dusk and cool out, decorations up. Kids in their costumes, parents with the little ones. Just precious, y’know? What’s your little guy gonna be?”

“You mean if they have Halloween again?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. “What’s popular? I don’t even know. I guess he could be a ghost. We could do a sheet with holes.”

“Ghost, okay.” He thought about it as a car sputtered past on the road beyond the crumbling stucco wall. He wanted to ask her about Panama, the hint of a whole universe, tears and passion and maybe escape, but he stopped when she paused, a blank curtain of uncertainty slipping over her face. Hands still in her pockets, she turned.

“I guess we should…” she began.

He turned to see what she saw, the sleet in her tone, and there he was.

A distant figure, tall and bold and dark on the backdrop of dead grass. A face too far away for Charlie to make out, framed by long hair, an almost confrontational slouch, jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. A prevocational pose, hands on hips, and Charlie felt suddenly hollow, standing here with another man’s wife. (Or girlfriend? Which was it? How did he not know?) Katherine seemed pulled forward, back toward Charlie’s house, pulled by this figure who could’ve been a giant, standing stark and strong and alone on the landscape, looming between the trailer and the neighborhood. Charlie studied his own distance from Katherine as she walked, suddenly wary of being next to her, giving her the lead, off to the side and ahead. The man in the field finally turned to stride back to the trailer, satisfied. Charlie said nothing more except “Everything cool?”

And Katherine just nodded. A torrent of blood swam through Charlie.

The words were prying open his lips and escaping before he could catch them:

“He tellya how it is?”

“I do,” she snapped.

He swallowed, stayed quiet, caught up to her to open the door of his home. Inside she seemed calm and cordial. Mary dabbed a parting kiss on the baby’s forehead and with generous basket arms the women exchanged the infant. Katherine cradled him with a buoyant smile, saying she needed to get home. Charlie mumbled something in farewell as Mary walked her to the door. Words that earned a glance back from his neighbor, the tiniest fleeting smile that heated Charlie’s chest like a neutron bomb.

 

 

#

 

“Hey asshole.”

Charlie jerked awake in the pool chair, squinting. His older sister Lex stood over him in the dusk with a grimace.

“Shit,” Charlie rubbed his eyes.

“Let’s figure out this stupid bug situation,” Lex said, motioning him inside.

Charlie trudged behind his sister into the dull orange shimmer of the dining room, the rest of the family there waiting.

“How come you let me sleep so fuckin’ long?” Charlie yawned.

Melvin pointed to a chair at the dinner table, where two pieces of a large pizza sat in a stained cardboard box. “Saved y’some.”

Charlie sank into his chair, next to Teddy, with a slump. “Supreme, huh?”

“Supreme fuckup,” Teddy blurted.

“Teddy, I’m disgusted!” Mary pleaded from the edge of the light at the kitchen doorframe, tensely hugging her tiny torso, looking sick to her stomach.

Lex slid the glass door shut. She walked around to the other side of the table, standing tall and worried in her crisp white uniform, a short sleeve button-up with her nametag over the breast. She shared her brothers’ dark brow, her brown hair teased and long to her shoulders. She was in mid-transition, a journey to becoming fully female that she’d undertaken with the assumption that she could finish it at her current job, as a floor manager at the Getit-While-U-Can SuperStore. Then the policy changed and she learned she’d have to pay to finish the transition surgeries herself. She was dedicated, though, and the only family member with a decent job. She had a wife and son out there somewhere—Nebraska, last anybody heard—relics of a long-gone life. Lex tried to get Charlie a job at the superstore but the latter’s criminal history was inescapably damming.

“Alright,” Lex sighed. “We gotta work this out.” She watched as Charlie self-consciously maneuvered a sloppy, greasy droop of pizza slice into his mouth, hearing his own squishy chewing as his family watched him.

Teddy let out an exaggerated gust of air. “Bullshit.”

“Whatcha got goin’ on tomorrow, Teddy?” Lex asked.

Teddy went through a list of chores—cleaning the back bathroom sink, straightening his room—as Charlie chewed his wet pizza and rolled his eyes.

“Okay, alright,” Lex droned, unimpressed.

“Look, everybody except you has time, Lex,” Melvin cautioned. “What’ll mean the least amount of grief? I can do it—can’t get much more harmless than me.”

Lex shook his head, pacing. “Harmless is no protection. We all know that.”

They were going back and forth about schedules as Charlie scarfed down his pizza, feeling guiltier with each bite. Might as well eat, he figured. He thought about wandering the aisles of Getit-While-U-Can, a tall cavern of blazing lights, rows and racks of clothes and pointless electronics. In the sports room he’d perused the guns, the ones that fired in low concussive bursts, the ones with hit interactive shows in the gunsights (even if you shot the wrong person in reality, you could still earn fantasy points based on the avatar you killed in the gunsight screen). Through lawn equipment and kitchenware, past a plastic curtain, was Adults After Dark!, the section with panel after panel of ecstasy on the shelves, naked women with heads thrust back, sweating and gasping and clutching bedsheets. A sultry female voice somewhere in the ceiling announced specials: Threesome Tuesdays, Back-to-School Blowjobs, etc.

Charlie shoved the last piece of crust into his mouth, chewing as the family finished going over its meaningless schedules. The room was grim.

Lex put up a commanding hand. “Fact,” she intoned. “We have a bug out in the shed. Fact: That bug was on the side of our house. Unknown: How long it was there.”

“Wadn’t there long,” Charlie muttered. “Jesus, fucker that big? We’da noticed it.”

“Fact,” Lex continued, “These things record and transmit information. Supposition: This thing wasn’t doing that because it’s really fucking old.”

Teddy sputtered. “If you say so.”

“Fact?” Melvin put up a hand. “Who knows if it’s running off its original programming or if somebody else reworked it?”

“Well, Charlie smashed the shit out of it,” Lex said. “There’s that, at least. Whatever it was doing before, it’s not doing as much of it now.”

“Thank you, Charlie,” Mary’s voice trembled from the shadows. “And Lex.”

“Fact,” Lex went on. “You can’t destroy these things without a penalty. Or jail.”

Charlie swallowed.

“Fact,” Lex said. “The bug’s owners may come find us. They may not be happy.”

Teddy thrust his middle finger at Charlie. “Fact—fuck you, Charlie!”

“Middle finger, huh?” Charlie mumbled. “Real original.”

“Okay, stop already!” Melvin said. “What’re we gonna do?”

“Fact,” Lex paced in the dim light. “People deal with these things two ways.

They lure them away from the host site and destroy them quickly and thoroughly so as to

avoid implication. Or they take them to the exchange depot. Where they have to answer questions. Where people can be in bad moods. And they have more guns than we do.” He frowned, a heavy pause. “Fact—there’s what happened to that guy in Polk County.”

“Oh…” Mary gasped, the slightest intake of air.

The kitchen was still. Charlie sniffed, rubbed his nose, felt a deep trembling in his chest. A stiffening in his spine. A closing in his throat.

“Charlie found the damn thing,” Teddy folded his arms defiantly.

The words hung there. Charlie let his own words creep out methodically: “The implication being, one of us sees something, like a fuckin’ bug stuck to our house, listening to every last thing we do, we should keep our mouths shut, huh?”

“Fact,” Lex said quietly. “They wanna record everything here, they can do it. But see, supposition: That’s why the damn dragonfly is bullshit—we were bound to see it. Which leads one to believe it’s on its last legs.”

“Then let’s burn the fuckin’ thing,” Teddy said. “It’s probably gotta self-destruct,

right? Fact—that’s what I think we should do, y’know? Charlie can do it!”

“Goddamn it, Teddy, you’re a shithead, y’know that?” Charlie spat.

“Please,” Mary whispered.

“Fuck you!” Teddy screamed at Charlie, Melvin yelling quiet down, the kitchen in chaos now, Lex waving her hands, shouting.

“Stop already!” she said. “Stop! Jesus Christ. I’ll take the damn bug to the depot tomorrow when I go to work. I gotta job, right? It looks better. I’ll just say the truth.

With a little embellishment mixed in. We ran over it with the car. And here it is.”

“What if they check’n find out that’s a lie?” Melvin hissed.

“It’s what I was told,” Lex said quickly. “How’s that? It’s what I know is true.”

Glances found their way around the kitchen.

“How can they argue?” Lex went on. “They really wanna dwell on this? If things get heated…” He swallowed. “Look, there’s no reason for things to get heated.”

Charlie opened his mouth to say something but fell silent. He could see the men at the depot, bored and dirty and heavy-suited, grimy with guns, yanking Lex from her car, guns in her face, hating everything she tried to say, shoving her behind the dumpster…

It was too hard to think about.

“Oh Jesus,” Charlie moaned, head in his hands. “I’m fucking sorry, okay? Okay?

“This is our family,” Mary spoke up. A pause as silence settled around her. “We can’t just…we have to be together!”

“Yeah, a family field trip ain’t gonna help,” Teddy said.

Slowly Lex nodded. “We appreciate that, mom. It’s okay. I’ll take it to the depot. I’ll have the gun. If we can spare, what, five hundred bucks? I know we’re tight. But if, y’know, if it comes to that. I don’t think it will.”

“Anything could happen.” Mary whispered.

“Anything can always happen,” Lex said calmly. “That’s just a fact.”

A stark quiet settled over the room. Gazes shifted downward, postures changed, Charlie rubbed his brow and swallowed. Mary looked stricken.

“Then that’s that,” Melvin said flatly. “Lex, thank you.”

Charlie put his dirty palms on the table and pressed himself up out of his chair as

the room’s occupants spilled with quiet resignation through the house.

 

#

 

“Dream it off, okay?” Lex said to Charlie later that night as they passed in the dim hallway, heading toward their bedrooms. With a slight, sad formality, as if divesting herself of personal belongings, she gave her brother a tiny plastic vial from the superstore pharmacy: Dreemitov. Sleeping pills designed to produce good dreams. Charlie accepted them with a weak thanks and went to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him. He put the pills on his dresser, no interest in using them—they made sleeping nice; waking was a disappointing surprise. He sank to his bed fully dressed, exhausted, still in his sweaty T-shirt, jeans and work boots. Staring at the ceiling, at the humming churn of the fan.

He was drunk. After the family meeting, he’d hidden himself away in a cluttered, dusty corner of the kitchen. The lights stayed off at night to save energy in the house, a non-maze of shadowy spaces. A shrinking figure in the dark, lit by the glowing game square in the air before him, Charlie spent an hour playing Hindenburg’s Revenge. He steered his blimp around the power lines just fine; it was the second barrage of alien attack ships that left him huffing off to get another beer. He drifted out to the pool, hanging back half-realized in the darkness as Teddy railed to Melvin about the situation in Europe. Just kill everybody making trouble, Teddy said, and Melvin barely bothered to argue. Charlie listened, offering a little context here and there, occasionally grabbing one of Mary’s old hair salon magazines with page after page of pretty people and their haircuts. This was usually the sign that he was dead tired or dead bored or both, and finally he stumbled to his room. It was a small space, too small, a shrine to a boy who once had dreams. Who posed on one knee for baseball photos, who won trophies for

wrestling, who marinated in the expectations of the past that still imprisoned him.

He imagined enclosed spaces, things happening at that moment. The dragonfly in

the shed, stupid and broken, twitching and quivering. Lex’s sad face haunted Charlie. Lex, who would go to the depot tomorrow. Like the guy in Polk County, who with his wife had brought in a bug he’d found on his home. The guys at the depot pulled them from their car, raped the wife and tied the man’s arms and legs to trucks, his wife clutching him, as the trucks drove off in opposite directions. The depot thugs claimed self-defense. A lawsuit brought by the victims’ families was winding through the system.

Charlie thought about Katherine. And the man who was her protector or captor, maybe both. Give Charlie the chance and he’d spend every ounce of his energy making that baby smile. Did the baby’s dad do that now? Charlie could; he would. He had to find a way. He imagined Katherine’s soft, naked warmth beside him in bed. Her absence hurt.

Fuck it. Okay. It’s how it should be.

Charlie would take the bug to the depot.

He had to. He’d deal with the brutes. They could hurt him, they would hurt him because they could, but so what? It needed to be him. Lex had a job she needed to keep. Charlie had nothing to lose. Charlie always woke up before Lex left for work. He’d do it again tomorrow. He’d take the stupid bug, argue it out of Lex’s grasp and be done with it.

He drifted off to sleep thinking of their escape, him and Katherine, her baby, the three of him, and as the darkness of the room dissolved into dreams, the dragonfly was chasing them on the road, huge and gaining, growing bigger, just about to grab them—

 

His eyes fluttered open in the dark. He was still dressed.

A subtle orange light mingled on the ceiling, wavering. He sat up with a groan.

His head—Jesus. Painkiller. Get some painkiller and go out to the shed. Yes, the body instinctively knew when to wake. Grab the bug and go. Sneak it out.

He stumbled down the hallway toward the kitchen. The orange glow on the ceiling again. He squinted, unsure he was really seeing it, turning the corner.

“Oh!” Mary flinched across the room, her face pale with frazzled exertion.

Charlie’s flinch released into a long exhale. “Scared the shit outta me, mom.”

“I was—” she stood by the screen door, guilt and surprise etched for a second in her face, arms folded across her tiny frame in her sweater. “I dunno, I…” as her gaze betrayed her, drifting out the window, the pulse of muted light on her skin.

Charlie swallowed, easing beside her, looking where she looked.

His heart convulsed and he opened his mouth but nothing came out.

A distant inferno crackled across the field, beyond the destroyed stucco wall and the dead grass. A structure engulfed in flames, the trailer, its boxy form swallowed in a churn of orange and black.

Charlie pushed his way outside, into the cool air that hung thick with smolder of synthetic things. His eyes watered, welling, his breaths growing short.

“Oh god…” he stumbled forward. Fist on his mouth to contain his coughing.

“They went in different directions,” said Mary from behind him. Her dispassionate tone hid something like stunned grief. “Pickup, the motorcycle.”

Charlie didn’t have to check. But doing so would confirm it. The dragonfly was gone. Dying away in a blaze in the remains of the trailer, its garbage. A fire begun by the bug itself or perhaps by him, the looming muscled protector.

“She can do better,” Mary said bitterly in almost a whisper. “I never liked him. He cheated! Did you know that?”

Charlie’s eyes were caught in the flames, fixated on an undulating blur. A

wrenching sadness had replaced his fear. This was something else entirely. Bottomless

loss, something you can’t forget. Even if it doesn’t last long.

He blinked. But was it? Mary put her hand on his shoulder and he shuddered,

shutting his eyes. Sensing something he’d always known. How the world, for some time now, no longer accommodated lovers—just mothers, maybe, as people who loved others. Like a mother who clutched tiny infant Charlie when the world collapsed into dust and rolling shockwaves, the mother who ushered him at age six into a car as the storm ate whole cities, one disaster after another, the horror that followed Charlie and his brothers and the whole world so relentlessly. Back when Melvin was in his wilderness years, with the lover who’d leave him when the force of impact turned his legs lame on the interstate.

Mary, a mother still acting on impulse.

Perhaps a rendezvous was out there, decided upon but not guaranteed. Things were rebalancing, growing new forms in great spaces, the wide-open road and the dark speckle of two headlights racing, a mother and her baby, heading out into the night.

Halfway through the sweaty tedium of clearing vines from his parents’ house, Charlie found the biggest bug he’d ever seen.

Translucent wings about three feet across, metallic green-purple torso, it had clawed into the wood above the stucco siding. It was mostly still in the afternoon breeze, passive and taunting.

Charlie stepped quickly away, fear spilling frigid through his brain. He ran a hand over his damp forehead, wayward hair, bristly goatee. He paced in the foot-high tangle of weeds and straw-like grass that circled the house, watching errantly for snakes and wasps and whatever the hell else. Whatever.

You see shit on the news. Finally it happens to you.

Get a net!

In the backyard he found a net that long ago cleaned the copper-hued swimming pool, a recreational space turned toxic. He clutched the handle, scrunched his grip.

Creeping in slow, careful steps toward the bug. Its perch. Closer…

In a lunging swipe he had it, the darting creature in the net, smashed on the dirt, stomped for good measure, he cursed it and spat and stomped it again.

You show that fucker who’s boss.

Behind the house, in the debris around the shed, he found an old postal box and a garbage can lid. He set the box atop the bug, its crumpled wings. He maneuvered the lid underneath, flipping the whole jangle upright. Wincing, he steadied his hands under the box, feeling quivering within. Gradually, carefully, he stood. Now he had the dragonfly.

He let out a stuttered breath and carried his prize awkwardly around to the shed, sliding the door open with his elbow and clamoring inside the musty confines. He found his way through the dim daylight streaming in through cracks to his workspace. Swept aside the parts and pieces of abandoned projects, dumped the dragonfly on the table. Went back to shut the shed door. As an afterthought he scrambled for gloves, wriggling into a filthy pair he found on a shelf. He pinched the dragonfly’s tail, pinning it into the vise, which he screwed tight to hold the creature in place. A battery here, wrench there—he placed both atop the wings as the damaged bug vibrated with stunned tics.

Just to behold it. Like that guy in Polk County. And look what happened to him.

Wait. Charlie went to the shed door, peeking outside, glancing around. No, whatever. Nobody. At least nobody he could see.

His house—one story, roof of warped brown shingles—sat in a cradle of shaggy, half-dead shrubs. Curling alongside and around back was the pockmarked crumble of a stucco wall that extended down a house-less street to the shadowy secrets of a great bent oak. Charlie’s was the only house here, the model home in a stillborn neighborhood, plots and plots of empty lots amid a network of decaying asphalt streets, arteries and capillaries in search of a face. Cedar Run had grown out of the housing boom, which by 2008 was over, and now, so many years later, all that remained was a single weary structure and the ghosts of neighborhood kids who never were, bicycles that never spun, parents and pot-lucks and block parties that never thumped and flittered with friendly disco.

Out across the expanse of grass, away from the neighborhood, a rusting white trailer squatted beside a black pickup. Coming and going, just glancing out the window, Charlie’s eyes drifted to the trailer. He was stricken, stuck thinking about what hid away inside: Katherine, her gorgeous aura like spectral fog, and those who shared her tiny space. The baby and the boyfriend. Charlie imagined Katherine often, her would-be escape with him, the crazed, frantic buzz of tossing duffle bags into the station wagon Charlie would steal from his family. Setting off at night, alone and determined with a beautiful woman and a child. Things he could never have without a fight.

Back in the shed, he found a visor amid the boxes and appliances. Face protected, he eased up to the dragonfly, sinking atop his squeaking stool.

Fascinating, the bug in greater detail. The intricate plastic sections, smart skin that tightened and relaxed depending on the weather. The segmented eyes that hid its devices. Charlie put a rag over the bug’s head. With tweezers he picked along the underbelly, looking for the power source. Shit—to be in this spot. Looking for power sources.

Whose old, stupid bug was this? It was dangerous to tamper with these things. It was some stranger’s excuse to find them, drag Charlie outside, drive him somewhere.

Question him, beat him. Worse if they wanted.

He clenched his eyes shut, half-swallowing his sadness and dread. He knew what he was doing when he caught the damn thing, sort of. He was just too depressed to care.

But gazing at the bug again, a strange notion settled over him. He felt almost disarmed. At the brilliance, the beauty, the polysynthetic alloys that added up to the mosaic of creature before him. Like some invading alien culture’s vision of love.

Enough. He hauled himself off his stool, wandered out of the shed, sliding the door shut behind him. A heavy truck roared past on the state road. Beside the pool, he sank into a molding lounge chair and leaned back, arms crossed behind his head under the opaque sky. He basked in the muted warmth of a malevolent sun.

From where he’d positioned his chair, he could see Katherine’s trailer in the distance through the crumble of stucco wall. Pickup parked outside. What was happening inside? Baby crying, boyfriend grumbling, anything on TV? Did Katherine yearn like Charlie did? For some cosmic fork in fate to appear, to set the world or at least their little lives off on some other trajectory—obstacles they could somehow face together?

Charlie thought often about the day they met. He couldn’t not think about it. It was maybe six months ago, shortly after he lost his job at the outdoor shop. A ramshackle place tucked into the trees, against the river beneath a speckled oak canopy, it was a rustic hut stuffed with bright-colored bait and life vests, fishing gear and guns. Sparkman, the owner, was a stout, balding guy with a combover who hired Charlie when he learned about his success with the 2016 Eagles wrestling team. He let Charlie go as he dissolved the business, stuffing merchandise into his SUV. Thanks for the help, gotta find the wife, no time to talk. For a moment Charlie was convinced it was finally the end of the world, a sick pit of acid sinking in his stomach. As Sparkman’s truck sputtered off, Charlie found his bike on the side of the building. He pedaled home, ten miles. So. Without a job, he had a year before he had to join the military. If only he could meet someone. A woman.

Katherine’s trailer had been around for a couple months down the street from Charlie’s house. But no one knew who lived there until Charlie’s mom, Mary, pulled up in the driveway one day with the young mother, the young mother’s baby, and handfuls of grocery bags.

Mary was tiny, short gray hair, soft voice, a presence that was barely there. How had she birthed three big sons? But she had, and here she was in the stale, dim-flickering TV room, meekly introducing Katherine to Charlie, his little brother Teddy and Melvin, the boys’ dad, all three seated. The air immediately froze and prickled in the presence of a beautiful woman, grinning clumsily, balancing a bewildered baby on her hips.

“Can I?” Mary reached for the baby as Katherine complied, the older woman’s face warming with eyes-shut compassion, the delicate heartbreak of flooding memories. Mary nestled the baby boy against her shoulder, mouthing something gentle.

“He’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mary whispered. “Oh baby boy…”

Katherine clasped her hands at her waist with a shy smile. “He’s a sweetheart.”

Mary’s eyes slipped open. “One of you boys wanna show Katherine the PV?” She glanced at her neighbor. “That okay? I’ll just rock your little man a minute.”

Katherine shrugged, grin never slipping. “You can.”

“I will,” Charlie stood, almost involuntarily. He could feel Teddy’s scalding silent glare, knowing what it looked like on his brother’s sour handsome face, the same animal drive for whatever this rare moment with a woman represented. Charlie swallowed his regret. What was he supposed to do, anyway? Teddy had worked at the garbage plant for years until one day the machinery pulled his arm inside and shredded it. Agony and angst ensued briefly. His replacement arm was supposed to have a fully functional hand, but since it was purchased secondhand, so to speak, the warranty never carried over. In fury with his family, life, people he met, Teddy messed with the circuitry to engineer the perpetually extended middle finger, which he typically found a way to give someone daily. Drinking to the point of oblivion by the pool shortly after the accident, Teddy had mumbled to Charlie that he mangled his arm on purpose (or at least he wasn’t one bit upset about it); he wanted to get the insurance money, ditch his job, get out of fighting.

And Melvin—this burly, fleshy form in a wheelchair, gray tufts of hair jutting above his ears—he looked on with what? Irony at this meaningless competition between his sons? Ancient echoes of the same lust Charlie and Teddy felt at that moment? But Melvin had landed Mary, decades ago, when surely landing someone was easier.

Katherine smiled at Charlie, the complicated warmth of someone possessed by a generous spirit and maybe the spark of the opposite sex.

With self-conscious stiffness, Charlie beckoned Katherine with him through the dusty darkness to the front door and outside. He was a little surprised that she’d let his mom hold her baby. Not because his mom had anything but goodwill for the child, but because who actually trusted anyone anymore?

Katherine was small and freckled, sandy shoulder-length hair pulled back into a limpid ponytail. Almond crescents for eyes that sat atop pale pillows of cheeks, dimpled with her smile. She wore an oversized gray sweatshirt that was threadbare in the elbows, blue jeans with hints of stains on the thighs, loafers that were weatherbeaten and scuffed. Each detail arrested Charlie’s breathing a little more, glimpses as they passed through the dim entry to the littered porch. She was incredible, breath-stopping, perfect.

“Sorry, meant to clean up a little…” he trailed off.

She chuckled. “God, you should see our place.”

In the taupe afternoon light he led her around to the side of the house and pointed

to the roof, to the mirrored solar cell array. She seemed impressed and he felt momentarily confident. “Works pretty good,” he said. “This’s one of the better models. They say it pulls the sun right outta the clouds.”

“Really?”

“Say it can pull the sun right offa the moon at night.”

“Wow! We need one.”

“Better ones than this out there now. Look for Friedman—that’s the brand I like. Good warranty, easy to install.”

She folded her arms, intrigued. “Really?”

“So easy a baby could do it. Hey, you gotta baby, right?”

She laughed.

“I ain’t kidding,” he said.

Her voice held the tint of her grin. “You live here a while?”

“Yeah, since…jeez. Long time.” He studied her inquisitive face. “Y’like it where you’re at?”

She shrugged. “I mean, if we could move up to something better, I’d be all for it.”

He beckoned her with him, away from the house, toward the street. As they tromped through the front yard grass he swept a hand absentmindedly across the wasteland before them where houses were at one point supposed to go. “Got all the old lines for redundancy, gas’n electric. Still costs money. But y’want it, pull that trailer of yours over this way.”

Did he just say that? What came with it, with the trailer and Katherine?

“Okay, that’s good to know,” she said optimistically.

“Yeah,” he said, feeling a sudden plunge in his stomach, the need to say something, a towering chasm he had to cross when there was nothing to step out onto. This woman, this chance to talk to beauty here before him, spectacular and wanting!

They wandered up the street, around potholes and missing plugs of asphalt, the fuzz of fraught tension building with each passing instant of quiet.

“You wanna stay on the streets, though,” he cautioned finally. “Lotta snakes, scorpions, stuff like that in the grass.”

“Oh. Really?” She tightened her arms at her sides, scanning the ground. “I’m always walkin’ around outside our place. God, barefoot even.”

“Ah, y’know what they say. More scareda us’n we are of them.”

They were strolling, hands in their pockets, eyes on the dead landscape. Moving away from the house, from the trailer, from the forces sitting just back there like gigantic magnets when they were nothing but paper clips, flimsy things that held other things together, probably, and Charlie wondered if this was something they shared. What to say? He had to say something. Think of something!

“Whatta you guys do for fun?”

She let out an almost-laugh. “I have surgeries, I guess.”

“Oh yeah?” He was struck by her light tone. “Y’get sick?”

“Accident.”

“Oh.”

“I go back every few months. Nice place.” She chuckled. “Good drugs.”

It was a statement that deserved a little space. The slightest breeze was drifting in.

It was clarifying, somehow, cool and composed, and he took a deep breath. Here they were, together in his phantom neighborhood. A neighborhood with infinite stories he’d conjured up over the years, in drinking spells and fever dreams. Like when he had the flu for six months, the one that nearly killed everybody.

“Panama,” she explained.

“Oh yeah?” He squinted at her and glanced out over the weedy fields. “I wanna get back to that. What I’m sayin’ with these houses that shoulda been here, I guess… Gotta understand. They’re based on a long time ago.”

“I’m with you.”

There was the veterinarian who treated exotic pets; the retired Air Force guy and his wife, who wants to open a bakery. There was the quiet fiftyish couple with a huge oak in their yard, the lesbian couple with six adopted kids, the midlife crisis guy with the red Corvette. Once Charlie let himself plunge into his ideas they simply flowed, funneled right out. The guy who went all-out with Christmas decorations, giant inflatable Santa, great glowing snowmen and joy-faced elves and a manger. The mid-level toothpaste exec, chasing some dream. His wife wanted a big family.

“Kinda like Family Ties—’member that show? Kid in an orange vest with a briefcase? Runs this family? Fires ’em when their earnings don’t meet expectations?”

She laughed. “Guess I’m too young.”

He wanted to ask about Panama, the hint of a whole other universe, but he stopped when she paused, a blank curtain of uncertainty slipping over her face. Hands still in her pockets, she turned.

“I guess we should…” she began.

He turned to see what she saw, the sleet in her tone, and there he was.

A distant figure, tall and bold and dark on the backdrop of dead grass. A face too far away to make out, framed by long hair, an almost confrontational slouch, jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. A prevocational pose, hands on hips, and Charlie felt suddenly hollow, standing here with another man’s girlfriend. (Or wife? Which was it? How did he not know?) Katherine seemed pulled forward, back toward Charlie’s house, compelled by this figure who could’ve been a giant, standing stark and strong and alone, looming between the trailer and the neighborhood. Charlie studied his own distance from Katherine as she walked, suddenly wary of being next to her, giving her room, off to the side and ahead. The man in the field finally turned to stride back to the trailer, satisfied.

Charlie cleared his throat, voice low. “Everything cool?”

And Katherine just nodded. A torrent of blood swam through Charlie.

The words were prying open his lips and escaping before he could catch them:

“He tellya how it is?”

“I do,” she snapped.

He swallowed, stayed quiet, caught up to open his front door for her. Inside she was calm and cordial. Mary dabbed a parting kiss on the baby’s forehead and with generous basket arms the women exchanged the infant. Katherine cradled him with a buoyant smile, saying she needed to get home. Charlie mumbled something in farewell as Mary walked her to the door. Words that earned a glance back from his neighbor, the tiniest fleeting smile. It heated Charlie’s chest like a neutron bomb.

 

“Hey asshole.”

Charlie jerked awake in the pool chair, squinting. His older sister Lex stood over him in the dusk with a grimace.

“Shit,” Charlie rubbed his eyes.

“Let’s figure out this stupid bug situation,” Lex said, motioning him inside.

Charlie trudged behind his sister into the dull orange shimmer of the dining room, the rest of the family there waiting.

“So,” Charlie conceded. “Y’found it. How come you let me sleep so damn long?”

Melvin pointed to a chair at the dinner table, where two pieces of a large pizza sat in a stained cardboard box. “Saved y’some.”

Charlie sank into his chair beside Teddy with a slump. “Supreme, huh?”

“Supreme fuckup,” Teddy blurted.

“Teddy, I’m disgusted!” Mary pleaded from the edge of the light at the kitchen doorframe, tensely hugging her tiny torso, looking sick to her stomach.

Lex slid the glass door shut. She walked around to the other side of the table, tall and worried in her crisp white uniform, a short sleeve button-up with her nametag over the breast. She shared her brothers’ dark brow, her brown hair teased and long to her shoulders. She was in mid-transition, a journey to becoming physically female that she’d undertaken with the assumption that she’d finish at her current job, as floor manager at Getit-While-U-Can SuperStore. Then policy changed and she learned she’d have to pay to finish the transition surgeries herself. She was the only family member with a decent job. She had a wife and son out there somewhere—Nebraska, last anybody heard—relics of a long-gone life. Lex had tried to get Charlie a job at the superstore without luck.

“Alright,” Lex sighed. “Let’s figure this out.” She watched as Charlie maneuvered a sloppy, greasy droop of pizza slice into his mouth, the sound of squishy chewing.

Teddy let out an exaggerated gust of air. “Bullshit.”

“How’s tomorrow lookin’, Teddy?” Lex asked.

Teddy went through a list of chores, domestic nonsense, until Melvin interrupted.

“Everybody except you has time, Lex,” Melvin cautioned. “I can do it, alright? Can’t get much more harmless than me.”

Lex sighed. The room was grim. “Harmless is no protection.”

As Charlie finished chewing, Lex put up a commanding hand.

“Fact,” she intoned. “There’s a bug in the shed. Fact: That bug was on the side of the house. Unknown: How long it was there.”

“Wadn’t there long,” Charlie muttered. “Jesus, fucker that big? We’da noticed it.”

“Fact,” Lex continued. “These things record and transmit information. Supposition: This thing wasn’t doing that because it’s really fucking old.”

Teddy sputtered. “If you say so.”

“Fact?” Melvin put up a hand. “Who knows if it’s on its original programming or if somebody reworked it?”

“Well, Charlie smashed the shit out of it,” Lex said. “There’s that, at least. Whatever it was doing before, it’s not doing as much of now.”

“Thank you, Charlie,” Mary’s voice trembled from the shadows. “And Lex.”

“Fact,” Lex went on. “You can’t destroy these things without a penalty. Or jail.”

Charlie swallowed.

“Fact,” Lex said. “The bug’s owners may come find us. They may not be happy.”

Teddy thrust his middle finger at Charlie. “Fact—fuck you, Charlie!”

“Middle finger, huh?” Charlie mumbled. “Real original.”

“Okay, stop already!” Melvin said. “What’re we gonna do?”

“Fact,” Lex paced in the dim light. “People deal with these things two ways.

They lure them away from the host site and destroy them quickly and thoroughly so as to avoid implication. Or they take them to the exchange depot. Where they have to answer questions. Where people can be in bad moods. And they have more guns than we do.” She frowned, a heavy pause. “Fact—there’s what happened to that guy in Polk County.”

“Oh…” Mary gasped, the slightest intake of air.

The kitchen was still. Charlie sniffed, rubbed his nose, felt a deep trembling in his back. A stiffening in his spine. A closing in his throat.

“Charlie found the damn thing,” Teddy folded his arms defiantly.

The words hung there. Charlie let his own creep out methodically: “The thinkin’ being, one of us sees something, like a fuckin’ bug stuck to our house, listening to every last thing we do, we should keep our mouths shut, huh?”

“Fact,” Lex said quietly. “They wanna record everything, they can. I mean shit, they got roaches. But see, supposition: That’s why the damn dragonfly’s bullshit—we were bound to see it. Which suggests it’s on its last legs.”

“Burn the fuckin’ thing,” Teddy said. “Gotta have some self-destruct feature! Fact—that’s what I think we should do, y’know? Charlie can do it!”

“Goddammit, Teddy, you’re a shithead, y’know that?” Charlie spat.

“Please,” Mary whispered.

“Fuck you!” Teddy screamed at Charlie, Melvin yelling quiet down, the kitchen in chaos now, Lex waving her hands, shouting.

“Stop already!” she said. “Stop! Jesus Christ. I’ll take the damn bug to the depot.

Tomorrow when I go to work. I gotta job, right? It looks better. I’ll just say the truth.

Little embellishment mixed in. We ran over it with the car.”

“What if they check’n find out that’s a lie?” Melvin hissed.

“It’s what I was told,” Lex said quickly. “It’s what I know is true.”

Glances found their way around the kitchen.

“How can they argue?” Lex went on. “They really wanna dwell on this? If things get heated…” He swallowed. “Look, no reason things’ll get heated.”

Charlie opened his mouth to say something but fell silent. He could see the men at the depot, bored and dirty and heavy-suited, grimy with guns, yanking Lex from her car, guns in her face, hating everything she tried to say, shoving her behind the dumpster…

It was too hard to think about.

“Oh Jesus,” Charlie moaned, head in his hands. “I’m fuckin’ sorry, okay? Okay?

“This is our family,” Mary spoke up. A pause as silence fell around her. “We can’t just…we have to be together!”

“Yeah, a family field trip ain’t gonna work,” Teddy said.

Slowly Lex nodded. “We appreciate that, mom. It’s okay. I’ll take it to the depot.

I’ll have the gun. If we can spare what, five hundred bucks? I know we’re tight. But if,

y’know, if it comes to that. It won’t.”

“Anything could happen.” Mary whispered.

“Anything can always happen,” Lex said calmly. “That’s just a fact.”

A stark quiet settled over the room. Gazes shifted downward, postures changed, Charlie rubbed his brow and swallowed. Mary looked stricken.

“Then that’s that,” Melvin said flatly. “Lex, thank you.”

Charlie put his palms on the table and pressed himself up out of his chair as the room’s occupants spilled with quiet resignation through the house.

 

“Dream it off, okay?” Lex said to Charlie later that night as they passed in the dim hallway, heading toward their respective bedrooms. With a slight, sad formality, as if divesting herself of personal belongings, she gave her brother a bottle from the superstore pharmacy: Dreemitov. Sleeping pills designed to produce good dreams. Charlie accepted them with weak thanks and went to his room, shutting the door behind him. He put the pills on his dresser, no interest in using them—they made sleeping nice; waking was a disappointing surprise. He sank to his bed fully dressed, exhausted, still in his sweaty T-shirt, jeans and work boots. Staring at the ceiling, at the humming churn of the fan.

He was drunk. After the family meeting, he’d hidden away in a cluttered, dusty corner of the kitchen, drinking and playing games that glowed in the air. He eventually wandered out by the pool, where Melvin barely bothered to argue with Teddy’s hurricane of anger—talking points from the news—about the latest downed jetliner. On a rotting poolside lounger, Charlie flipped through Mary’s old salon magazines, page after page of pretty people and their haircuts. Finally he stumbled back to his room. It was a small space, a shrine to a boy who once had dreams. Who posed on one knee for baseball photos; who won trophies for wrestling. Who marinated in expectations.

He imagined enclosed spaces. The dragonfly in the shed, twitching and quivering.

Lex’s sad face haunted Charlie. Lex would go to the depot like the guy in Polk County, who with his wife brought in a bug he’d found. The depot workers pulled them from their car, raped the wife and tied the man’s arms and legs to trucks, his wife clutching him as the trucks drove off in opposite directions. The depot thugs claimed self-defense. A lawsuit brought by the victims’ families was winding through the system.

Charlie thought about Katherine. And the man she lived with. Her protector? Her captor? Maybe both. Charlie would spend every ounce of his energy making that baby smile. Did the baby’s dad do that now?

Charlie could. He would. He imagined Katherine’s soft, naked warmth beside him in bed. The dry, cool smoothness of her skin and scars. Her absence hurt.

He let out a long, heavy breath, a gust from the base of his stomach.

Charlie would take the bug to the depot. It’s how it should be.

He had to. They could hurt him, they would hurt him because they could, but…

It needed to be him. Lex had a job. Charlie had nothing to lose. Charlie would wake before Lex left for work. He’d take the stupid bug, bundled in garbage, to the depot.

It coulda just flown away on its own…

He drifted off to sleep thinking of their escape, him and Katherine, her baby, the

three of them. And as the darkness of the room dissolved into dreams, the dragonfly was chasing them on the road, huge and gaining, ever bigger, just about to grab them—

 

His eyes fluttered open in the dark. He was still dressed.

A subtle orange light mingled on the ceiling, wavering. He sat up with a groan.

His head—Jesus. Painkiller. Get some painkiller and go out to the shed. The body instinctively knew when to wake. Grab the bug and go.

He stumbled down the hallway toward the kitchen. The orange glow on the ceiling again. He squinted, unsure he was really seeing it, turning the corner.

“Oh!” Mary flinched across the room, face pale with frazzled exertion.

Charlie’s terror released into a long exhale. “Scared the shit outta me, mom!”

“I was—” she stood by the screen door, guilt and surprise etched for a second in her eyes, arms folded across her tiny frame in her sweater. “I dunno, I…” as her gaze betrayed her, drifting out the window, the pulse of muted light on her skin.

Charlie swallowed, easing beside her, looking where she looked.

His heart convulsed and he opened his mouth but nothing came out.

A distant inferno crackled across the field, beyond the destroyed stucco wall and the dead grass. A structure engulfed in flames, the trailer, its boxy form swallowed in a churn of orange and black.

Charlie pushed his way outside, into cool air that hung thick with smolder of synthetic things. His eyes watered, welling, breaths growing short.

“Oh god…” he stumbled forward, fist on his mouth to contain his coughing.

“They went in different directions,” said Mary from behind him. Her dispassionate tone hid something like stunned grief. “Pickup, the motorcycle.”

Charlie didn’t have to check. But doing so would confirm it. The dragonfly was gone. Dying away in a blaze in the remains of the trailer, its garbage. A fire begun by the bug itself or perhaps by him, the looming muscled protector.

“She can do better,” Mary said bitterly in almost a whisper. “I never liked him. He cheated! Did you know that?”

Charlie’s eyes were caught in the flames, fixated on an undulating blur. A wrenching sadness had replaced his fear. This was something else entirely. Bottomless loss, something you can’t forget. Just like that.

She’s gone.

He blinked. Mary put her hand on his shoulder and he shuddered, shutting his eyes. Sensing something he’d always known. How the world, for some time now, no longer accommodated lovers—just mothers, maybe, as people who loved others. Like a mother who clutched tiny infant Charlie when the world collapsed into dust and rolling shockwaves. The mother who ushered him at age six into a car as storms ate whole cities, one disaster after another, the horror that followed Charlie and his brothers and the world so relentlessly. Back when Melvin was in his wilderness years, with the lover who’d leave him when the force of impact turned his legs lame on the interstate.

Mary, a mother still acting on impulse.

Perhaps a rendezvous was out there, decided upon but not guaranteed. Things were rebalancing, growing new forms in great spaces, the wide-open road and the dark speckle of two headlights racing, a mother and her baby, escaping into the night.

Halfway through the sweaty tedium of clearing vines from his parents’ house, Charlie found the biggest bug he’d ever seen.

He stepped quickly away to appraise it from a safer distance, fear spilling frigid through his brain. The dragonfly had clawed into the wood above the home’s stucco siding. Its translucent wings, about three feet across, quivered just slightly, fanning out from a shiny, purple-green torso.

Charlie ran a hand over his damp forehead, wayward hair, bristly goatee. He started toward the backyard. Think of something! But whatever this meant was interrupted by images of grainy videos he’d seen, fluttery shapes, bugs feeding on the corpse of a roadside accident victim, flying off in a scatter as the camera drew near. It’s shit like this, shit you see on the news. Then it happens to you.

Get a net!

In the backyard, he found a net that long ago cleaned the copper-hued swimming pool, a recreational space turned toxic. He clutched the handle, scrunched his grip.

Slowly, he went back around to the side of the house. Okay. One shot at this. Miss and it’s mayhem, the bug darts and swoops in a panic, an agitated ricochet, coming right at him. He swallowed. Creeping in slow, careful steps toward its perch. Closer.

Closer…

In a lunging swipe he had it, the creature in the net, fighting its momentum, an instant that seemed like a minute. Finally he smashed it on the dirt, stomped it for good measure, cursed it and spat and stomped it again. A breathy grunt escaped his lips.

You show that fucker who’s boss. He dropped the net, anchored by the pole, and scrambled to the debris around the shed, where he found an old postal box and a garbage can lid. He set the box atop the bug, covering crumpled wings. He maneuvered the lid underneath, flipping the whole jangle upright. Wincing, he steadied his hands under the box, feeling quivering within. Gradually, carefully, he stood.

He carried his prize awkwardly around to the shed, sliding the door open with his elbow and clamoring inside the musty confines. He found his way through the dim daylight streaming in through cracks to his workspace. Sweeping aside the parts and pieces of abandoned projects, he dumped the dragonfly on the table. He shut the shed door. As an afterthought, he scrambled for gloves, wriggling into a filthy pair he found on a shelf.

He pinched the dragonfly’s tail, pinning it into the vise, which he screwed tight to hold the creature in place. A battery here, wrench there—he placed both atop the wings as the damaged bug vibrated with stunned tics. An ancient tarp sat balled up in a moldy mess in the back corner of the shed. He unfurled it as it crinkled in protest, carried it over to the table, and draped it over everything.

There. The dragonfly was stuck. Trapped. He had it.

He let out a long, stuttered breath.

But any hint of fleeting relief suddenly gave way to another thought. These things sometimes flew in packs. Were more of them out there? Hiding? Waiting?

Charlie went to the shed door, peeking outside, glancing around.

His house—one story, roof of warped brown shingles—sat in a cradle of shaggy, half-dead shrubs. Curling alongside and around back was the pockmarked crumble of a stucco wall that extended down a house-less street to the shadowy secrets of a great bent oak. Charlie’s was the only house here, the model home in a stillborn neighborhood, plots and plots of empty lots amid a network of decaying asphalt streets, arteries in search of a face. Cedar Run had grown out of the housing boom, which by 2008 was over, and now, so many years later, all that remained was a single weary structure and the ghosts of neighborhood kids who never were, bicycles that never spun, parents and pot-lucks and block parties that never thumped and flittered with friendly disco.

Not that the neighborhood was completely empty. A shiver struck him in the heat.

What could other bugs do to those unprepared to capture them?

Out across the expanse of grass, away from the neighborhood, a rusting white trailer squatted beside a black pickup. Coming and going, just glancing out the window, Charlie’s eyes drifted to the trailer. He was stricken, stuck thinking about what hid away inside: Katherine, her gorgeous aura like spectral fog, and those who shared her tiny space. The baby and the boyfriend. Charlie imagined Katherine often, her would-be escape with him, the crazed, frantic buzz of tossing duffle bags into the station wagon Charlie would steal from his family. Setting off at night, alone and determined with a beautiful woman and a child. Things he could never have without a fight.

Nothing came without a fight. Not Katherine, not any dull-eyed girl working the counter of a stupid store in a desperate world. Not the women in bars, with their schemes and accomplices in the screaming serrated music. The ones who always wanted things—medicine, money, maps that showed the way out. What was it about Katherine?

It was proximity. There she was, her essence daily in that flimsy box. No…it was more than that. Who did she remind him of? This was deeper. The reincarnation of some crush from elementary school? Someone he’d met in passing so long ago?

An envoy from a time when people smiled?

Stop stalling, Charlie.

Back in the shed, trying to remind himself he was unafraid, he found a visor amid the boxes and appliances. Face protected, he pulled the tarp off and eased up to the dragonfly, sinking atop his squeaking stool.

Wait—no. What business did he have poring over the device’s smart skin, looking for power sources? Surely these things couldn’t read minds, right? At any rate, it was dangerous to tamper with them. Here was some stranger’s excuse to find Charlie, drag him outside, drive him somewhere.

Question him, beat him. Worse if they wanted.

Enough. He needed psychological space to figure out a solution. He eased back, draped the tarp back over the bug. He hauled himself off his stool, wandered out of the shed, sliding the door shut securely behind him.

A heavy truck roared past on the state road. Beside the pool, he sank into a rotting lounge chair and leaned back, basking in the muted warmth of a malevolent sun.

From where he’d positioned his chair, he could see Katherine’s trailer in the distance through the ruins of the stucco wall. Pickup parked outside. What was happening inside? Baby crying, boyfriend grumbling, anything on TV? Did Katherine yearn like Charlie did? For some cosmic fork in fate to appear, to set the world or at least their little lives off on some other trajectory—obstacles they could somehow face together?

Charlie thought often about the day they met. He couldn’t not think about it. It was maybe six months ago, shortly after he lost his job at the outdoor shop, a ramshackle hut stuffed with bright-colored bait and life vests, fishing gear and guns. Sparkman, the 60-something owner, abandoned his business when the latest panic convinced him this was it, finally—the end of the world. It wasn’t, of course. But now, without a job, Charlie had a year before he had to join the military.

If only he could meet someone. A woman.

Katherine’s trailer had been around for a couple months. But no one knew who lived there until Charlie’s mom, Mary, pulled up in the driveway one day with the young mother, the young mother’s baby, and handfuls of grocery bags.

Mary was tiny, short gray hair, soft voice, a presence that was barely there. How had she birthed three big sons? But she had, and here she was in the stale, dim-flickering TV room, meekly introducing Katherine to Charlie, his little brother Teddy and Melvin, the boys’ dad, all three seated. The air immediately froze and prickled in the presence of a beautiful woman, grinning clumsily, balancing a bewildered baby on her hips.

“Can I?” Mary reached for the baby as Katherine complied, the older woman’s face warming with eyes-shut compassion, the delicate heartbreak of flooding memories. Mary nestled the infant against her shoulder, mouthing something gentle.

“He’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mary whispered. “Oh baby boy…”

Katherine clasped her hands at her waist with a shy smile. “He’s a sweetheart.”

Mary’s eyes slipped open. “One of you boys wanna show Katherine the PV?” She glanced at her neighbor. “That okay? I’ll just rock your little man a minute.”

Katherine shrugged, grin never slipping. “You can.”

“I will,” Charlie stood, almost involuntarily. He could feel Teddy’s scalding silent glare, knowing what it looked like on his brother’s sour handsome face, the same animal drive for whatever this rare moment with a woman represented. Charlie swallowed his regret. What was he supposed to do, anyway?

Teddy had worked at the garbage plant for years until one day the machinery pulled his arm inside and shredded it. Agony and angst ensued briefly. His replacement arm was supposed to have a fully functional hand, but since it was purchased secondhand, so to speak, the warranty never carried over. In fury with his family, life, people he met, Teddy messed with the circuitry to engineer the perpetually extended middle finger, which he typically found a way to give someone daily. Drinking to the point of oblivion by the pool shortly after the accident, Teddy had mumbled to Charlie that he mangled his arm on purpose (or at least he wasn’t one bit upset about it); he wanted to get the insurance money, ditch his job, get out of fighting.

And Melvin—this burly, fleshy form in a wheelchair, gray tufts of hair jutting above his ears—he looked on with what? Irony, at this meaningless competition between his sons? Ancient echoes of the same lust Charlie and Teddy felt at that moment? But Melvin had landed Mary, decades ago, when surely landing someone was easier.

Katherine smiled at Charlie.

With self-conscious stiffness, Charlie beckoned Katherine with him through the dusty darkness to the front door and outside. He was a little surprised that she’d let his mom hold her baby. Not because his mom had anything but goodwill for the child, but because who actually trusted anyone anymore?

Katherine was small and freckled, sandy shoulder-length hair pulled back into a limpid ponytail. Almond crescents for eyes that sat atop pale pillows of cheeks, dimpled with her smile. She wore an oversized gray sweatshirt that was threadbare in the elbows, blue jeans with stains on the thighs, loafers that were weatherbeaten and scuffed. Each detail arrested Charlie’s breathing a little more, glimpses as they passed through the dim entry to the littered porch. She was incredible, breath-stopping, perfect.

“Sorry, meant to clean up a little…” he trailed off.

She chuckled. “God, you should see our place.”

In the taupe afternoon light, he led her around to the side of the house and pointed to the roof, to the mirrored solar cell array. She seemed impressed. “Works pretty good,” he said, his voice growing more confident. “This’s one of the better models. They say it pulls the sun right outta the clouds.”

“Really?”

“Say it can pull the sun right offa the moon at night.”

“Wow! We need one.”

“Better ones than this out there now. Look for Friedman—that’s the brand I like. Good warranty, easy to install.”

She folded her arms, intrigued. “Really?”

“So easy a baby could do it. Hey, you gotta baby, right?”

She laughed.

“I ain’t kidding,” he said.

Her voice held the tint of her grin. “You live here a while?”

“Yeah, since…jeez. Long time.” He studied her inquisitive face. “Y’like it where you’re at?”

She shrugged. “I mean, if we could move up to something better, I’d be all for it.”

He beckoned her with him, away from the house, toward the street. As they tromped through the front yard grass, he swept a hand absentmindedly across the wasteland before them where houses were supposed to go. “Got all the old lines for redundancy, gas’n electric. Costs money, but if y’want it, pull that trailer of yours over this way.”

Did he just say that? What came with it, with the trailer and Katherine?

“Okay, that’s good to know,” she said optimistically.

“Yeah,” he said, feeling a sudden plunge in his stomach, the need to say something, a towering chasm he had to cross when there was nothing to step out onto. This woman, this chance to talk to beauty here before him, spectacular and wanting!

They wandered up the street, around potholes and missing plugs of asphalt, the fuzz of fraught tension building with each passing instant of quiet.

“You wanna stay on the streets, though,” he cautioned finally. “Lotta snakes, scorpions, stuff like that in the grass.”

“Oh. Really?” She tightened her arms at her sides, scanning the ground. “I’m always walkin’ around outside our place. God, barefoot.”

“Ah, y’know what they say. More scareda us’n we are of them.”

They were strolling, hands in their pockets, eyes on the dead landscape. Moving away from the house, from the trailer.

Slipping away, if just slightly, from the grasp of the forces sitting back there like gigantic magnets when they were nothing but paper clips, flimsy things that held other things together.

Charlie almost voiced the idea, wondering if this was something they shared. What to say? Don’t be disrespectful. But he had to say something. Think of something!

Finally Charlie thought of something: “Whatta you guys do for fun?”

Katherine let out an almost-laugh. “Surgeries, I guess.”

“Oh yeah?” He was struck by her light tone. “Y’get sick?”

“Accident.”

“Oh.”

“I go back every few months. Nice place.” She chuckled. “Good drugs.”

It was a statement that deserved a little space. The slightest breeze was drifting in. It was clarifying, somehow, cool and composed, and he took a deep breath. Here they were, together in his phantom neighborhood. A neighborhood with infinite stories he’d conjured up over the years, in drinking spells and fever dreams. Like when he had the flu for six months, the one that nearly killed everybody.

“Panama,” she explained.

“Oh yeah?” He squinted at her and glanced out over the weedy fields. “I wanna get back to that. What I’m sayin’ with these houses that shoulda been here, I guess… Gotta understand. They’re based on a long time ago.”

“I’m with you.”

He hesitated, inhaled a nervous breath, not sure he wanted to go into it. What if it was all meaningless and stupid and laughably naïve? But he had to tell her. And so he launched into it, the daydream about the neighborhood residents that could’ve been and never were. The veterinarian who treated exotic pets; the retired Air Force guy and his wife, who wants to open a bakery. There was the quiet fiftyish couple with a huge oak in their yard, the lesbian couple with six adopted kids, the midlife crisis guy with the red Corvette. Once Charlie let himself plunge into his ideas they simply flowed, funneled right out. The guy who went all-out with Christmas decorations, giant inflatable Santa, great glowing snowmen and joy-faced elves and a manger. The mid-level toothpaste exec, chasing some dream. His wife wanted a big, bustling household.

“Kinda like Family Ties—’member that show? Kid in an orange vest with a briefcase? Runs this family? Fires ’em when their earnings don’t meet expectations?”

She laughed. “Guess I’m too young.”

He wanted to ask about Panama, the hint of a whole other universe, but he stopped when she paused, a blank curtain of uncertainty slipping over her face. Hands still in her pockets, she turned.

“I guess we should…” she began.

He turned to see what she saw, the sleet in her tone, and there he was.

A distant figure, tall and bold and dark on the backdrop of dead grass. A face too far away to make out, framed by long hair, an almost confrontational slouch, jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. A provocational pose, hands on hips, and Charlie felt suddenly hollow, standing here with another man’s girlfriend (or wife? Which was it? How did he not know?). Katherine seemed pulled forward, back toward Charlie’s house, compelled by this figure who could’ve been a giant, standing stark and strong and alone, looming between the trailer and the neighborhood. Charlie studied his own distance from Katherine as she walked, suddenly wary of being next to her, giving her room, off to the side and ahead. The man in the field finally turned to stride back to the trailer, satisfied.

Charlie cleared his throat, voice low. “Everything cool?”

And Katherine just nodded. A torrent of blood swam through Charlie.

The words were prying open his lips and escaping before he could catch them:

“He tellya how it is?”

“I do,” she snapped.

He swallowed, stayed quiet, caught up to open his front door for her. Inside she was calm and cordial. Mary dabbed a parting kiss on the baby’s forehead and with generous basket arms the women exchanged the infant. Katherine cradled him with a buoyant smile, saying she needed to get home. Charlie mumbled something in farewell as Mary walked her to the door. Words that earned a glance back from his neighbor, the tiniest fleeting smile. It heated Charlie’s chest like a neutron bomb.

* * *

“Hey asshole.”

Charlie jerked awake in the pool chair, squinting. His older sister Lex stood over him in the dusk with a grimace.

“Shit,” Charlie rubbed his eyes.

“Let’s figure out this stupid bug situation,” Lex said, motioning him inside.

Charlie trudged behind his sister into the dull orange shimmer of the dining room, the rest of the family there waiting.

“So,” Charlie conceded. “Y’found it. How come you let me sleep so damn long?”

Melvin pointed to a chair at the dinner table, where two pieces of a large pizza sat in a stained cardboard box. “Saved y’some.”

Charlie sank into his chair beside Teddy with a slump. “Supreme, huh?”

“Supreme fuckup,” Teddy blurted.

“Teddy, that’s disgusting!” Mary pleaded from the edge of the light at the kitchen doorframe, tensely hugging her tiny torso, looking sick to her stomach.

Lex slid the glass door shut. She walked around to the other side of the table, tall and worried in her crisp white uniform, a short sleeve button-up with her nametag over the breast. She shared her brothers’ dark brow, her brown hair teased and long to her shoulders. She was in mid-transition, a journey to becoming physically female that she’d undertaken with the assumption that she’d finish at her current job, floor manager at the Getit-While-U-Can SuperStore. Then policy changed and she learned she’d have to pay to finish the transition surgeries herself. She was the only family member with a decent job. She had a wife and son out there somewhere—Nebraska, last anybody heard—relics of a long-gone life. Lex had tried to get Charlie a job at the superstore without luck. But she’d gotten the home’s PV and Teddy’s replacement arm at a significant discount.

“Alright,” Lex sighed. “Let’s figure this out.” She watched as Charlie maneuvered a sloppy, greasy droop of pizza slice into his mouth, the sound of squishy chewing.

Teddy let out an exaggerated gust of air. “Bullshit.”

“How’s tomorrow lookin’, Teddy?” Lex asked.

Teddy went through a list of chores, domestic nonsense, until Melvin interrupted.

“Everybody except you has time, Lex,” Melvin cautioned. “I can do it, alright? Can’t get much more harmless than me.”

Lex sighed. The room was grim. “Harmless is no protection.”

As Charlie finished chewing, Lex put up a commanding hand.

“Fact,” she intoned. “There’s a bug in the shed. Fact: That bug was on the side of the house. Because that’s where they land, right? Unknown: How long it was there.”

“Wadn’t there long,” Charlie muttered. “Jesus, fucker that big? We’da noticed it.”

“Fact,” Lex continued. “These things pick up sound and transmit information. Supposition: This thing wasn’t doing that because it’s really fucking old. Like 1990 old.”

Teddy sputtered. “If you say so.”

“I do, and I’d appreciate if you’d let me state facts without interjections,” Lex said tersely. “We’re trying to deal with something here.”

“They, uh,” Charlie straightened. “They say they can read brainwaves. The bugs.”

Lex opened her mouth when Teddy interrupted: “Bullshit,” the youngest brother barked, “they gotta touch your head!” He seemed momentarily proud of his knowledge until the frowns around him sullied his expression. “Shit, it’s just what I heard.”

“Fact?” Melvin put up a hand. “Who knows if it’s on its original programming or if somebody reworked it? That government isn’t even around anymore.”

“Well, Charlie smashed the shit out of it,” Lex said. “There’s that, at least. Whatever it was doing before, it’s not doing as much of it now.”

“Thank you, Charlie,” Mary’s voice trembled from the shadows. “And Lex.”

“Fact,” Lex went on. “You can’t destroy these things without a penalty. Or jail.”

Charlie swallowed.

“Fact,” Lex said. “The bug’s owners may come find us. They may not be happy.”

Teddy thrust his middle finger at Charlie. “Fact—fuck you, Charlie!”

“Middle finger, huh?” Charlie mumbled. “Real original.”

“Okay, stop already!” Melvin said. “What’re we gonna do?”

“Fact,” Lex paced in the dim light. “People deal with these things two ways. They lure them away from the host site and destroy them quickly and thoroughly so as to avoid implication. Or they take ’em to the exchange depot. Where they have to answer questions. Where people can be in bad moods. And they have more guns than we do.”

She frowned, a heavy pause. “Fact—there’s what happened to that guy in Polk County.”

“Oh…” Mary gasped, the slightest intake of air.

The kitchen was still. Charlie sniffed, rubbed his nose, felt a deep trembling in his back. A stiffening in his spine. A closing in his throat.

“Charlie found the damn thing,” Teddy folded his arms defiantly.

The words hung there. Charlie let his own creep out methodically: “The idea bein’, one of us sees something, like a fuckin’ bug stuck to our house, recording every last thing we think, we should keep our mouths shut. Sound about right?”

“Fact,” Lex said quietly. “They wanna record everything, they can. I mean shit, they got roaches. But see, supposition: That’s why the damn dragonfly’s bullshit—we were bound to see it. Which suggests it’s on its last legs.”

“Burn the fuckin’ thing,” Teddy said. “Gotta have some self-destruct feature! Fact—that’s what I think we should do. Charlie can do it!”

“Goddammit, Teddy, you’re a shithead, y’know that?” Charlie spat.

“Please,” Mary whispered.

“Fuck you!” Teddy screamed at Charlie, Melvin yelling quiet down, the kitchen in chaos now, Lex waving her hands, shouting.

“Stop already!” she said. “Stop! Jesus Christ. I’ll take the damn bug to the depot. Tomorrow when I go to work. I gotta job, right? It looks better. I’ll just say the truth. Little embellishment mixed in. We ran over it with the car.”

“What if they check’n find out that’s a lie?” Melvin hissed.

“It’s what I was told,” Lex said quickly. “It’s what I know is true.”

Glances found their way around the kitchen.

“How can they argue?” Lex went on. “They really wanna dwell on this? If things get heated…” She swallowed. “Look, no reason things’ll get heated.”

Charlie started to say something but fell silent. He could see the men at the depot, bored and dirty and heavy-suited, grimy with guns, yanking Lex from her car, guns in her face, hating everything she tried to say, shoving her behind the dumpster…

It was too hard to think about.

“Oh, Jesus,” Charlie moaned, head in his hands. “I’m fuckin’ sorry, okay? Okay?

“This is our family,” Mary spoke up. A pause as silence fell around her. “We can’t just…we have to be together!”

“Yeah, a family field trip ain’t gonna work,” Teddy said.

Slowly Lex nodded. “We appreciate that, mom. It’s okay. I’ll take it to the depot.

I’ll have the gun. If we can spare what, five hundred bucks? I know we’re tight. But if, y’know, if it comes to that. It won’t.”

“Anything could happen.” Mary whispered.

“Anything can always happen,” Lex said calmly. “That’s just a fact.”

A stark quiet settled over the room. Gazes shifted downward, postures changed. Charlie rubbed his brow and swallowed. Mary looked stricken.

“Then that’s that,” Melvin said flatly. “Lex, thank you.”

Charlie put his palms on the table and pressed himself up out of his chair as the room’s occupants spilled with quiet resignation through the house.

***

“Dream it off, okay?” Lex said to Charlie later that night as they passed in the dim hallway, heading toward their respective bedrooms. With a slight, sad formality, as if divesting herself of personal belongings, she gave her brother a bottle from the superstore pharmacy: Dreemitov. Sleeping pills designed to produce good dreams. Charlie accepted them with weak thanks and went to his room, shutting the door behind him. He put the pills on his dresser, no interest in using them. They made sleeping nice; waking was a disappointing surprise. He sank to his bed fully dressed, exhausted, still in his sweaty T-shirt, jeans and work boots. Staring at the ceiling, at the humming churn of the fan.

He was drunk. After the family meeting, he’d hidden away in a cluttered, dusty corner of the kitchen, drinking and playing games that glowed in the air. He eventually wandered out by the pool, where Melvin barely bothered to argue with Teddy’s hurricane of anger—talking points from the news—about the latest downed jetliner. Teddy was always angry. He had no other setting, going back to the womb. Mary had lamented her mental state when she was pregnant with her youngest child, the crescendo of her fear and fury with the world at the time, funneled so fluidly into the tiny being within her. It was obvious. Foregone.

On a disintegrating poolside lounger, Charlie flipped through Mary’s old salon magazines, page after page of pretty people and their haircuts. Finally he stumbled back to his room. It was a small space, a shrine to a boy who once had dreams. Who posed on one knee for baseball photos. Who won trophies for wrestling. Who marinated in expectations.

He imagined the dragonfly in the shed, under the tarp, twitching and quivering.

Lex’s sad face haunted Charlie. Lex would go to the depot like the guy in Polk County, who with his wife brought in a bug he’d found. The depot workers pulled them from their car, raped the wife and tied the man’s arms and legs to trucks, his wife clutching him as the trucks drove off in opposite directions. The depot thugs claimed self-defense. A lawsuit brought by the victims’ families was winding through the system.

Charlie thought about Katherine. And the man she lived with. Her protector? Her captor? Maybe both. Charlie would spend every ounce of his energy making that baby smile. Did the baby’s dad do that now?

Charlie could. He would. He imagined Katherine’s soft, naked warmth beside him in bed. The dry, cool smoothness of her skin and scars. Her absence hurt. She was so real, the closest thing to fate, to proof it existed.

He let out a long, heavy breath, a gust from the base of his stomach.

Charlie would take the bug to the depot. It’s how it should be.

He had to. They could hurt him, they would hurt him because they could, but…

It needed to be him. Lex had a job. Charlie had nothing to lose. Charlie would wake before Lex left for work. He’d take the stupid bug, bundled in garbage, to the depot. Katherine could know what he’d done, lustfully admire his selfless resolve.

It coulda just flown off on its own…

He drifted off to sleep, thinking of their escape, him and Katherine, her baby, the three of them. And as the darkness of the room dissolved into dreams, the dragonfly was chasing them on the road, huge and gaining, ever bigger, just about to grab them—

***

His eyes fluttered open in the dark. He was still dressed.

A subtle orange light mingled on the ceiling, wavering. He sat up with a groan.

His head—Jesus. Painkillers. Get some painkillers and go out to the shed. Grab the bug and go.

He stumbled down the hallway toward the kitchen. The orange glow on the ceiling again. He squinted, unsure he was really seeing it, turning the corner.

“Oh!” Mary flinched across the room, face pale with frazzled exertion.

Charlie’s terror released into a long exhale. “Scared the shit outta me, mom!”

“I was—” She stood by the screen door, guilt and surprise etched for a second in her eyes, arms folded across her tiny frame. “I…” Her gaze betrayed her, drifting out the window, the pulse of muted light on her skin.

Charlie swallowed, easing beside her, looking where she looked.

His heart convulsed and he opened his mouth but nothing came out.

A distant inferno crackled across the field, beyond the destroyed stucco wall and the dead grass. A structure engulfed in flames, the trailer, its boxy form swallowed in a churn of orange and black.

Charlie pushed his way outside, into cool air that bulged thick with smolder of synthetic things. His eyes watered, welling, breaths growing short.

“Oh god…” he stumbled forward, fist on his mouth to contain his coughing.

“They went in different directions,” said Mary from behind him. Her dispassionate tone hid something like stunned grief. “Pickup, the motorcycle.”

She seemed to playing back her words in her head, realizing something else had to be said.

“Safer if they split up!” she suggested with the slightest hint of hope.

Charlie didn’t have to check. But doing so would confirm it. The dragonfly was gone. Dying away in a blaze in the remains of the trailer, its garbage.

“She can do better, anyway,” Mary said bitterly in almost a whisper. “I never liked him. He cheated! Did you know that?”

Charlie’s eyes were caught in the flames, fixated on an undulating blur. A wrenching sadness had replaced his fear. This was something else entirely. Bottomless loss, something you can’t forget. Just like that.

She’s gone.

He blinked. Mary put her hand on his shoulder and he shuddered, shutting his eyes. Sensing something he’d always known. How the world, for some time now, no longer accommodated lovers—just mothers, maybe, as people who loved others. Like the mother who clutched tiny infant Charlie when the world collapsed into dust and rolling shockwaves. The mother who ushered him into a car as storms ate whole cities, one disaster after another, the horror that followed Charlie and his brothers and the world so relentlessly. Back when Melvin was in his wilderness years, with the lover who’d leave him when the force of impact turned his legs lame on the interstate.

Mary, a mother still acting on impulse. Charlie’s heart broke a little at the image of her struggling with the bug in the tarp, in the shed and then as she rambled in the dark over the grass, with all its deadly secrets, gasping as she let the mass in her arms tumble into her neighbors’ trash, staccato heartbeat as she shuffled quickly home, sweating.

And shortly thereafter, the fire that she ignited, the only option she knew, taking root. Self-destruction passed on to others as self-preservation, desperation to get away as the dragonfly burned through the outlines of abandoned lives. A necessary demise. Perhaps a rendezvous was out there, decided upon but not guaranteed. Things were rebalancing, growing new forms in great spaces, the wide-open road and the dark speckle of two headlights racing, a mother and her baby, escaping into the night.

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