NEXT TO NOTHING
(Originally published in CONJUNCTIONS: 60; selected by Jennifer Egan for BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2014)
The Soros sisters’ eyes are the blue of lunar seas, their complexions cloud white, and their identical pageboys well-bottom black. The term “beautiful” has never been applied sincerely to either sister, though Ivy, the youngest by two years, might be deemed the better looking, because she has detectable cheekbones and a waist narrower than her hips. Isabel has very little in the way of body fat, but is square-shaped from almost any angle. Even her face is square-shaped. It’s been that way since birth.
As soon as Isabel and Ivy slam the doors of their white van, three people in front of the pharmacy stop talking. A man whose metallic gray pickup has just bleeped and flashed its lights feigns acute interest in a parking meter. No one looks either sister in the eye as they approach along the solitary block of the town’s main street. No one raises a hand, or says “Hello.” But once the sisters have begun to recede in the opposite direction, all four heads turn to watch. Significant glances are exchanged, but not words. There’s no need.
The whole town loves Isabel and Ivy’s parents, who retired there twelve years ago, when their father had a stroke and had to give up his orthopedic surgery practice in the city. Dr. Soros is floppy of foot and eccentric of speech, but can be counted on for a lopsided smile whenever he is spotted in public. Hilda Soros has the perpetually startled expression of a woman with too many worries, but perhaps for that very reason, with her every smile—timid, then radiantly blooming—she seems to be discovering joy for the first time in her life.
Her daughters, however, seem never to have discovered joy. They bypass even the friendliest greetings with the indifference of a bulldozer flattening a picket fence. In the rare instances when small talk is unavoidable (on the checkout line at the Foodworld, on the diving raft at the lake), they terminate it in twelve words. Or five. Their brows are always wrinkled, their mouths slot-straight. They make the townspeople feel erased. They make the townspeople feel like a variety of woodlice.
SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT
Isabel and Ivy are sociologists, and thus the beneficiaries of lengthy academic vacations. They have spent every July and August in their parents’ white clapboard house ever since each bore her first child: daughters—both eleven now. Isabel’s husband is an executive at a food processing company, and Ivy’s an investment banker. The two men cannot be in the same room without getting drunk and turning every topic of conversation into a theater of mutual disparagement. Their visits to the town never overlap, and are, in fact, so fleeting and rare that many people believe the sisters are lesbians, and that their children—six of them now; evenly divided—are the products of artificial insemination. Isabel and Ivy each have their own room, and a double bed, and their children sleep in an attic that reminds everyone of the dormitory in that old house in Paris where Miss Clavel looked after Madeline.
Tonight it is Ivy’s turn to read to the children. She is sitting at the end of the aisle between the two rows of beds in a sage green easy chair, the arms of which are frayed to their cotton batting. The children are all upright in their beds, staring at her expectantly. Although Ivy’s parents are brown-eyed and both her husband and Isabel’s have eyes the color of wet charcoal, each of the twelve irises turned toward her is the all-but-white-blue of a lunar sea—a statistical anomaly that Ivy finds more than moderately disconcerting.
“I don’t like that story,” says Gwenny (Isabel’s oldest child).
“I haven’t even started it yet.” Ivy lifts the picture book from her lap and looks at the cover, though for no particular reason.
“I don’t like it either,” says Jen (Ivy’s oldest).
“Me too,” says little Jerry (her youngest).
“We hate that book,” says Gwenny.
“Okay.” Ivy puts the book down on one side of her chair, and picks a new book from the pile on the other.
“We hate that one too,” says Paulette (Isabel’s middle child).
“Okay.” Ivy puts the second book down, and picks up a third. She doesn’t care what she reads. They all seem stupid to her. But the kids hate that book too, and the next.
“Tell us a story,” says Gwenny.
“I’m trying to, but you won’t let me,” says Ivy.
“No, make one up!”
“Yeah,” says Jerry. “Make us up a story, Mommy.”
Ivy begins to sweat along her hairline and under her arms. For a long moment she sits in the chair, silent, swollen-looking—as if she has been stuffed. Then she sighs heavily.
“Once upon a time,” she says, “there was a little princess… or she might have been a prince—“ she looks at Jerry “—only you know for sure.” Jerry sticks his thumb into his mouth and slides down in his bed so that he is looking straight at the ceiling. “Anyhow,” says Ivy, “the princess lived in a castle on the beach. It was a sandcastle. And it had a dungeon. That was where she kept her toys.”
“What kind of toys?” asks Paulette.
“She had exactly the same toys that you have,” says Ivy. “One day she went down to the dungeon to play with her toys and there was a dragon there. He told her, ‘This is not your castle. It is my castle. You have to leave now or I will turn you into a cinder.’ ‘But I’ve lived here all my life,’ said the princess. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ said the dragon. ‘You have to go. You can take one toy with you.’ So she picked up a toy and she left.”
“What toy did she take?” says Jen.
“What do you think she took?” says Ivy.
“A teddy bear,” says Jen.
“No. It was a plastic teepee.”
“A teepee!” says Jerry, his thumb still in his mouth.
“It was her favorite toy. But as soon as she was out of the castle, she put it down on the sand and a wave washed it away.” Ivy waits for a response from the children. When none comes, she continues. “For seven nights and seven days she walked, and she got so tired and so cold—because it was snowing—that she came down with a fever, and fainted on the old man’s doorstep.”
“Which old man?” says Gwenny.
“The blind old man who lived in the cottage in the forest. He made her a bed in front of the fireplace and gave her medicine, but it was the wrong kind of medicine, so she didn’t get any better.”
“What kind of medicine?” says Gwenny.
The children make ripping noises with their lips and teeth.
“Anyhow,” says Ivy. “A prince was walking by the cottage, and when he saw the princess lying in front of the fire, he decided to go in and kiss her. The prince was so quiet that the blind man didn’t even know he was there. The prince bent over the princess and kissed her on the lips. But when he lifted his head, he saw that she was dead, so he crept out of the cottage as quietly as he had come in.”
“That’s horrible!” says Paulette.
“Did his kiss kill her?” says Gwenny.
“Nobody knows,” says Ivy. “But she was probably dead when the prince walked into the room.” Ivy puts her hands on her knees, and stands up. “Okay, everybody—time for sleep!”
It is hurricane season. A week ago, newscasters spoke urgently about Hurricane Gigi’s devastation of Haiti. Then tropical storm Henry earned an afternoon and evening of coverage. But now the coiffed heads on every news show talk about nothing but Hurricane Ivy, which is rolling up the Eastern Seaboard like a massive ninja star, and is predicted to pass over the town as a category four storm the day after tomorrow.
“Brace yourself,” says Isabel, sitting with her laptop at a picnic table under the shade of an enormous willow. A small brook meanders just behind her, making a noise like ping-pong balls sliding down a plastic chute. Mosquitoes hover unsteadily around her head. She doesn’t care. She takes Benadryl every night to get to sleep, so mosquito bites have no effect.
“For what?” says Ivy, who is standing directly in front of the table. A mosquito has sunk its proboscis into her left shoulder. She slaps and lifts her hand: a starburst of blood.
“You know: Your name.”
When Ivy still doesn’t understand, Isabel adds, “Jokes.”
“Oh,” Ivy rubs the starburst and thready mosquito remains away with the side of her thumb. “I don’t think that’s anything to worry about.”
Silence falls and eyes avert as Ivy walks into the Foodworld.
The checkout clerk looks at the name on Ivy’s credit card, but only says: “Paper or plastic?”
Back outside, the sky is festively sunshiny, though gigantic clouds mount in shades of cream, blue and gold toward the upper edge of the troposphere. One can look at those clouds and imagine monstrous forces of nature stirring within them. Ivy doesn’t. The clouds are just weather.
The Foodworld has been emptied of candles and size D batteries—the two main objectives of Ivy’s expedition. She leaves the store with twenty-four cans of tuna fish, twenty-four cans of peaches, a dozen boxes of vacuum-packed milk, two giant boxes of Cheerios, and one plastic jar of yellow mustard—all items on her mother’s shopping list, which bears a title: “EMERGENCY.”
In the Foodworld parking lot, a young blond woman asks Ivy if she has been saved.
“What are you talking about?” says Ivy.
“Saved!” The young woman’s smile brightens distinctly. “You know,” she says, “have you found Jesus?”
“There’s no point in talking to me,” says Ivy.
When the young woman only blinks and ups her smile volume, Ivy says, “I don’t believe in God.”
“Because I know that I am entirely insignificant, doomed to complete extinction, and I see no reason to pretend otherwise.”
ISABEL TRIES OUT DIVINITY
Isabel is six, Ivy four. The sky above the buildings outside their apartment windows is the color of a dusty chalkboard, and the light coming down onto the street is exactly the color of boredom. Nothing can move in that light. Nothing changes.
“Do you love me?” Isabel asks. Ivy says nothing. “Will you do what I tell you to?” Isabel asks. Ivy picks up a plastic frying pan and puts it on the pink cardboard stove. She is not looking at her sister. “Do you want to play a game?” asks Isabel.
“What?” says Ivy.
Isabel has to think about raw liver to keep from smiling. Merely from the way Ivy’s moon-bright eyes look up at her from the floor, Isabel knows everything that will happen.
“Hide and seek,” she says.
Ivy looks back at her frying pan. She makes a tick-tick-tick in the back of her throat, which is the sound of the cardboard burner lighting. But Isabel knows this is only a diversionary tactic. Ivy loves hide and seek.
“Only this time,” says Isabel, “we will both hide.”
Now Ivy looks at Isabel. In the faint pursing of Ivy’s glossy, plum-red lips, Isabel sees hope. And in the check-mark crinkle of Ivy’s right eyebrow, Isabel sees curiosity. These are weaknesses: hope and curiosity. Isabel almost feels sorry for her sister.
“You’ll hide first,” says Isabel. “And while you’re hiding, I’ll hide too. Then you count to twenty and try to find me.”
“I want to hide first,” says Ivy.
“You will,” says Isabel. “That’s what I just said.”
“No. I want you to find me.”
“I will. As soon as you find me, it will be my turn to find you.”
The pursing of Ivy’s lips intensifies. What was once hope is now determination. Isabel has to move quickly or she will lose her advantage.
“I promise I’ll hide in this room,” she says, “so it will be easy to find me.”
“Okay,” says Ivy.
“Where do you want to hide?” Isabel asks. “Under the bed? In the closet?” These are the most boring places in the world. Isabel only asks to give her sister the illusion of choice. “What about the trunk? You could also hide in the trunk.”
The trunk is on the floor at the end of Isabel’s bed, and it is the place where their mother keeps clean sheets and pillowcases. Also, at the very bottom, is a trove of Ivy’s baby clothes. It is the baby clothes that so endear the trunk to Ivy. She likes to climb inside, lie on the bedding and cover her face with one of the tiny velvet dresses she wore as a newborn. When she does this, she says she is taking her “secret nap.” Sometimes she closes the lid of the trunk; sometimes she doesn’t.
“Okay,” says Ivy.
Ivy curls up inside the trunk. Isabel closes the lid and sits on top of it. “Are you counting?” she says. When Ivy doesn’t answer, she adds, “I can’t hide until you start counting.”
Isabel hears Ivy’s naptime voice counting. She waits until Ivy misses thirteen, which she always does, and then she says, “You forgot thirteen.”
“You’re not hiding,” says Ivy.
“Yes I am.”
“You’re sitting on the trunk.”
“No, I’m not. I’m hiding. I’m in a special place. I bet you’ll never find me. Finish counting and then come out and try to find me. Don’t forget thirteen.”
“Thirteen,” Ivy says in her naptime voice. “Fourteen.”
When Ivy reaches twenty, nothing happens. Maybe she has fallen asleep. “Come and find me,” says Isabel.
Ivy’s knees or elbows clunk against the trunk’s side. Isabel feels the upward pressure of Ivy’s hand against the lid just beneath her right buttock.
“Get off,” says Ivy.
Isabel says nothing.
“Get off!” Ivy shoves the lid harder. Isabel feels the pressure, but it is entirely ineffectual. The top of the lid bulges a bit, but the lid’s edges do not lift off the trunk’s lip.
“Get off!” Now Ivy is shouting. She shoves again, still no effect.
Isabel is smiling, and working hard to keep from laughing. “Come and find me!”
“You’re not hiding. You’re lying!”
“I am hiding,” says Isabel. “And you will never be able to find me. Never ever.” Now she is laughing, but she doesn’t care.
When Ivy flips onto her back and uses her feet to push up against the lid, it rises a quarter inch off the lip of the trunk, so Isabel reaches down and pulls up the hinged brass lock, fastening it. Now Ivy doesn’t have a prayer.
Isabel sits Indian-style while her sister screams and kicks, all to no avail. After a while Ivy stops kicking, stops saying anything. Silence accumulates. Isabel thinks: “When she starts to cry, I will let her out.” And a little later she thinks, “I will let her out because I am merciful.”
ONE LEG IS BOTH THE SAME
Isabel and Ivy’s natural tendency is to see human society as a pointlessly complex mechanical device of no use to anybody, and most likely broken. They know, however, that theirs is a minority opinion, and so, from a very early age, they have compared what people actually say and do to what it would be reasonable to say and do, hoping they might discover what it takes to feel at home in the world. These efforts—disappointing from the get-go and worse over time—nonetheless endow the sisters with certain intellectual habits that propel them through college, sociology graduate school, and into tenure track jobs: Isabel at a university in Nebraska; Ivy in Indiana.
Ivy’s primary area of study is the financial futures market, where traders make billions by buying and selling absolutely nothing. Isabel investigates apocalyptic cults, and is particularly interested in the notion of the apocalypse as moral reckoning. The thesis of her book, Revenge: The Ethics of World Destruction, is contained in its opening sentence: “As the extinction of life on earth will have no positive or negative effect on the rest of the universe, it is an event entirely without moral significance, and it is precisely this insignificance that inspires the moral furor of apocalypse cultists.” Revenge has been submitted to seventeen university and academic publishers, and so far has no takers.
“Too many mathematical formulae,” says Ivy.
“Maybe you should tone it down a bit,” says her mother. “After all, some people will care if the world ends. That’s an effect, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” says Isabel. “No people, no effect.”
Her mother touches the index and middle fingers of her right hand to the ear stem of her glasses, as if she is listening to a secret message. Then she takes her glasses off, shrinking her eyes to the size of kidney beans. She blinks and doesn’t seem to know where she is.
Now it is Isabel’s turn. Her mother insists that they have at least one set of D batteries for their solitary flashlight, which, at present, casts a faint, coppery illumination, undetectable after a yard and a half. The mission is hopeless, of course, but Isabel has undertaken it because actual failure is the only way of shutting up her mother.
Isabel is standing in front of the Foodworld holding a plastic bag containing twenty-four cans of tuna fish, two Snickers bars and a packet of black pantyhose. The parking lot descends partway down the hillside forming the northern edge of a valley big enough to contain an entire county—which, in fact, it does. On the valley’s southern edge, blueberry and plum-colored mountains rise to Isabel’s eyelevel and higher. And, above those mountains, bulbous gray and slate blue weather is stacked so precariously high it looks as though it could topple into the valley at any minute.
“Excuse me,” says a smiling young woman.
“Yes,” says Isabel.
“Are you saved?” The young woman is wearing a tee shirt with the word “GOD” over one breast and “ME” over the other, and a red heart in between, more or less where her own thumping, pumping, flesh-and-blood heart is located.
“In what sense?” says Isabel. She has taken a professional interest in this young woman.
Something like the momentary disintegration of a digital image transpires on the young woman’s face, and her smile intensifies. “Did I talk to you yesterday?”
“No,” says Isabel.
The sheer confidence of Isabel’s denial causes another disintegration in the area of the young woman’s lightly freckled nose.
“’Saved’ in what sense?” says Isabel.
“You know: Have you been saved by Jesus?”
“No, I haven’t.”
This answer seems to restore the young woman’s confidence. Her smile engages in a delicate pas de deux with the sympathetic and sorrowful uptilting of her eyebrows. “Would you like to be?”
“What would I have to do?” says Isabel.
“Just let Jesus into your heart!” There is no sun out, but sunbeams ricochet off the young woman’s whitened teeth.
“Is that difficult?” asks Isabel.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world!”
“Are you saved?” Isabel asks.
“How do you know?”
The sunbeams disappear from the young woman’s teeth. Her uptilted eyebrows sink and collide. “I just do.”
“What if I told you that I know that you are not saved?”
The young woman is silent. The whole time she and Isabel have been talking, she has been clutching a stack of glossy brochures in her right hand. The brochures depict periwinkle blue skies, white doves flying, a steeple and the faces of happy children. The young woman lifts the brochures to cover the inscription across her chest.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” she says.
“You’re not disturbing me. I just want to know what you think.”
“If I were to tell you that I know you are not saved, what would you think?”
“I would think that you are wrong.”
“But how can you say that? What makes you so sure that what I ‘just know’ is any less reliable than what you ‘just know’?”
The young woman straightens her back and lifts her chin. The closest she comes to smiling now is a sarcastic curl in the corner of her mouth. “If you have to ask me that question, then I feel sorry for you.”
“Why?” asks Isabel.
But the young woman has turned, and is walking toward the other exit of the Foodworld. She is wearing periwinkle sweatpants, with a single word across the twin grapefruits of her buttocks—a word that would seem to render a rather intimate detail about the condition of her genitals.
FORCE OF HABIT
Isabel and Ivy’s father is a tilted man. His left eye is lower than his right; ditto the arrangement of his shoulders. And no matter what the right side of his mouth might be doing, the left is always downturned, flaccid. He is sitting crookedly in a wing-backed chair, looking at Ivy with his cow brown eyes. Her mother sits in an identical chair, back straight, head upright, hands clutching the chair’s upholstered arms, as if she is on a rollercoaster waiting for the ride to start. Her eyes are the color of kidney beans.
“I don’t understand what you are saying,” says Ivy’s mother.
“Fact!” says her father. “Fact! You question fact!?”
“I’m not questioning it,” says Ivy. “I am only saying that, from a statistical point of view, the odds of all six having such pale eyes are so staggeringly low that, sometimes, when I look at the children, I have to fight to convince myself that they are not hallucinations.”
Isabel is sixteen. “How did you do it?” she asks. Ivy is fourteen. “It was easy,” Ivy says.
Isabel and Ivy are sitting on a bench in Carl Schurz Park. Through a row of vertical wrought iron bars they can see horizontally gradated strips of bluish, yellowish, and gray—with the gray being the river. Isabel is not looking at Ivy. She can’t because Ivy does not look like herself. Ivy is smiling the way teenage girls smile in tampon ads.
“I knew right off the bat it had to be a loser or a nerd,” says Ivy. “Neil Madbow would have been nice, but I had to be practical. Of course, I also had to be sure he was straight.”
“Couldn’t you just take your chances?”
“No,” says Ivy. “I didn’t want to waste any time. So I came up with a test.”
“A test?” Isabel looks sideways at her sister. Her eyes are like two ice balls that have rolled downhill and gotten clamped under her brow.
“Yeah. Gay guys like shoes. So I started carrying around that issue of D-Tox with the picture of Jessamine Duff on the cover. I figured if I showed it to a guy, and he started talking about her shoes, I’d go find someone else.”
“How did it work?”
“Well, I only tried it on Vince Lopez.”
“Vince Lopez!” Isabel opens her nostrils and crinkles her brow. All the girls call Vince Lopez “Thermometer” because he is so skinny and his whole face is just one red zit. Isabel thinks of saying something, but doesn’t.
“Yeah.” Now Ivy is the one not looking at her sister.
“Did he pass?”
“Of course he passed. I wouldn’t be telling you this if he didn’t pass.” That tampon smile is back on Ivy’s face. Isabel looks away.
“So then what?” says Isabel.
“I asked him if he thought Jessamine Duff was wearing thong panties.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything at first. Then he said she probably was. So I then I asked him if he liked thong panties. He said he guessed he did. ‘Why?’ I said. And he said he didn’t know, he just did. So then I asked him what was his favorite part of a girl’s body.”
“Don’t you think that was a little too obvious?” says Isabel.
“I did worry about that a bit. Especially when he laughed and said that was a stupid question. But I decided it was too late to turn back, so I said, ‘No, really, I’d just like to know.’ And he said, ’Which part do you think?’ And when he said that— You remember that book we found in Aunt Tessa’s drawer? The one about the cowboy?”
“The Hot Gun?”
“Right. Remember that line about how his gaze locked with hers?”
“No,” says Isabel.
“Well, that was exactly what happened. When Vince said, ‘Which part do you think?’ his gaze locked with mine. I couldn’t believe it.”
“So then what did you do?”
“I asked him why he liked it. And this time he didn’t laugh. Just looked a little sick. Then he said, ‘Because it feels good.’ ‘How do you know?’ I asked. ‘How do you think?’ he said. ‘Have you ever done it?’ I said. He looked like he didn’t know whether to vomit or run away. So I decided I had to make him relax and feel better. ‘Well I never have,’ I said.”
“Did it work?”
“I guess so. He started smiling then. So, of course I had to go. I’d been thinking about all this for a really long time, and it was clear to me that, even though it would have been simpler to get everything over at once, the only way I was really going to get him to do what I wanted was to make him suffer. So I said I had to go to history. That was lunchtime. I saw him again last period when he was on his way to gym. He gave me this big smile. I gave him one back. But I made sure to get out of school the instant the bell sounded, because I had to make him wait twenty-four hours or it wouldn’t work.”
“How did you know?”
“It’s obvious. Just look at any book or movie—the ones in which the boy is the hero, I mean. The boys always have at least one sleepless night before they get the girl. Anyhow, the next day I saw him in homeroom and he looked miserable, like he was afraid to look me. I didn’t say anything to him then, but when I ran into him in the hallway I told him he had a nice shirt. He didn’t know what to do. His red face just got redder. ‘Bye,’ I said, and I walked away. Then after school I walked by his locker as if by accident. ‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Hi,’ he said. ‘What you doing?’ ‘Nothing much.’ ‘Me neither.’ After that it was easy. He pretended he was inviting me up to his apartment so I could listen to the Misfits, but he’d already told me his mother wouldn’t be home until dinnertime. The only problem was he didn’t know how to get it into me. I finally had to grab hold of it and stick it in myself.”
“What was it like?”
“Well, it was really different than I thought it was going to be. It hurt more. But still, it was interesting. I’ll probably do it again. They say you don’t really get the full effect until you’ve done it a few times.”
Isabel doesn’t say anything for almost a minute. Then she asks if she can borrow the D-Tox. The next day she does everything that Ivy did, and it seems to be working perfectly. But then, when she is alone in the boy’s room, and her panties are already around her ankles, he tells her he doesn’t want to take advantage of her.
“Maybe that’s the problem,” Ivy says later that night. “You can’t do it with a nice guy. You have to choose someone who’s a real jerk and doesn’t mind taking advantage of you. That’s why I chose Vince. Not only is he a nerd, but he’s a total asshole.”
Isabel keeps trying, but she can’t get anyone to take advantage of her until she is twenty and she meets Walter Tedesco. Ivy does it three times with Vince. After that, she figures she’s gotten the full effect, and doesn’t do it again until Isabel announces her engagement to Walter. That very night Ivy goes to a frat party and shows her D-Tox to a business school student she has never met before, Paul Henberry. He doesn’t want to take advantage of her either. But eventually he changes his mind, and six months later he and Ivy are engaged. The sisters arrange a joint wedding.
THE END IS NEAR
Isabel and Ivy have a private language. You might not notice at first, but if you pay close attention you will find that many of their words only resemble English. “Hope,” for example, is a profoundly embarrassing word to both sisters, and “discipline” has the cozy feel of a puppy asleep in front of a fireplace.
Their language does contain wholly invented words, however, the earliest being “lubby,” a noun for a tiny part of their bodies that—when they were five and three—they thought no one possessed but themselves. (“Lubby” also refers to the feeling evoked by touching that part.) In elementary school, they invented “humpless,” a word for that condition—experienced most intensely at birthday and pajama parties—of not knowing who is crazy: everybody in the room, or you. A related, but more recent term, is “herd dreaming,” which refers to a mass of people being possessed by the same delusion: fainting epidemics, or nationalism, or the craze for teeth whitening. The sisters also apply this term to the peculiar phenomenon of grown men and women—repositories all, ostensibly, of the capacity for rational thought—sitting in the dark, watching light flicker through strips of celluloid, and gasping, laughing and weeping, not merely as if they are witnessing the tribulations of real people, but as if they are actually living those tribulations themselves. The sisters always feel ridiculous when they accompany other people to the movies. And bored. Though Ivy sometimes also feels panicky.
To Isabel and Ivy, the approaching hurricane is nothing so much as an intense instance of herd dreaming. In a part of the country where hurricanes rarely do more than blow the dead wood out of elderly maples, flood a few basements, and leave a solitary street without power, people are hurriedly X-ing their windows with duct tape, and filling pasta pots, buckets and bathtubs with water. Pick-up trucks loaded with sandbags, plywood and jerrycans of gasoline are Dopplerizing day and night, up and down along the two-lane road in front of the Soros house, and everyone is telling hurricane horror stories: a woman is pulverized when a willow falls on her car; a farmer is electrocuted by the high-tension cable writhing in his field, spewing blue-white sparks; a six-year-old is lacerated by an imploding window. People’s faces are dark with seriousness as they tell these stories; their voices are urgent and low—and yet, they are elated. You can see it their every word and gesture. It’s the same all over town. People dart in and out of stores with the lightest of steps. No one seems ever to have had a cynical thought; not a single heart has ever been touched by sorrow. Even Isabel and Ivy’s own parents look a decade younger, and their father has regained the capacity to distinguish T from D when he speaks, and S from Sh.
But if either sister even hints that catastrophe might not be looming, people’s brows ding with irritation. “Have to run,” they mutter. “No time to talk.” Or they say, “Better safe than sorry.” Or, “You can’t be too careful.” Or sometimes they just regard the sisters with slack-jawed incomprehension.
THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE
Little Jerry is standing in the darkness beside Ivy’s bed. The house is like a cardboard box in the middle of a field in which a pack of wolves is having a silent wrestling match. The sound of the wind against the sides of the house is exactly like the sound of wolf fur against cardboard. The sound of the wind in the trees is exactly like wolves breathing through their teeth. The big branches falling onto the roof and lawn sound exactly like the thumping of paws as the wolves tumble, pounce and rear. For Jerry, barefoot on the bare floor beside his mother’s bed, there is next to nothing between the darkness where he stands and the frenzy of the universe.
“What are you doing here?” Ivy asks in her sleep.
“Because the wind is scary.”
Ivy is not asleep now, but she has not moved from the position she was in when she was asleep. “Were you brave enough to come down here all by yourself?”
Jerry doesn’t answer.
His answer is too quiet for Ivy to hear. She tells him so.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Of course you were brave enough to come down here all by yourself. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. And if you are brave enough to come down here all by yourself, you are brave enough to go back up to bed and go to sleep.”
“I want to sleep in your bed.”
“You know that’s not allowed.”
Jerry says nothing. Ivy cannot see him, except as a thumb-shape of perfect black in the gloom of a moonless night.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” says Ivy. “It’s only the wind.”
“Is this the hurricane?”
“No. The hurricane won’t be here until the morning.”
“Are we going to die?”
“Of course we’re going to die. But not in the hurricane. The hurricane is nothing. The hurricane is just a way for the television stations to expand their audience so that they can sell advertisements for more money. It’s also a way for people who have boring lives to feel that their lives are not boring. It’s a fairy story, that’s all it is, and fairy stories aren’t real. So go back to bed.”
“Paulette says the trees are going to fall on the roof and we are all going to die.”
“Paulette is an idiot. Go back to bed.”
Now Ivy is sitting up. She is breathing in a way that is not unlike the breathing of the wolves. “Listen, Jerry, we’ve been though all this before. Some children allow themselves to become afraid because of irrational ideas. But you’re not going to be like those children, are you?”
Jerry makes a very small noise in his throat, but it is nothing like a word.
“Fear is an entirely useless emotion,” says Ivy. “And, if I were to let you come into my bed, I would be acting as if there actually were something for you to be afraid of, wouldn’t I? And, on top of that, your being in my bed with me would not change one single thing. It would still be the middle of the night. The wind would still be blowing. And whatever is going to happen would still be going to happen.”
“But if the trees fall on the roof, they won’t hit me if I’m down here with you.”
“The trees are not going to fall on the roof.” Ivy had been speaking in a fierce whisper, but now her voice is loud enough to be heard in other rooms. She doesn’t care. “Go back to your bed this instant.”
For a long time Jerry does nothing at all. Then there is a shifting in the darkness, and she can hear his sweat-sticky feet making kissing noises along the floorboards. The door opens, then closes softly. The latch slides back into the doorplate with a minute sproing.
Where Jerry was standing, there is now a larger thumb-shape of perfect black. It is Ivy’s mother in her nightgown.
“How could you treat your little boy like that?” says Ivy’s mother.
“I’m doing it for his own good.”
“I never spoke to you so heartlessly,” she says. “I would never have done that in a million years. I was always careful to be sure you and Isabel knew I loved you with all of my heart.”
“Do you think that made any difference?”
For a long time the only sounds in the room come from the wind against the walls. Ivy closes her eyes. When she opens them her mother is gone.
THIS IS THIS
Isabel and Ivy’s father slides his left shoe along the floor as if it is filled with sand and stitched to the bottom of his empty pants leg. He moves his left arm mainly by whipping it with his shoulder. He can push the power button on the radio, but he can’t turn the knob to tune in the signal. That’s why the announcer sounds like he is talking through wax paper. “Hear that?” her father says, as Isabel comes into the room.
“Hear what?” says Isabel.
“Floods,” he says. “Listen.”
But that is the exact instant the kitchen light flickers, goes brown, goes gold, platinum, then permanently dark. The radio is silent. Some motor that is always on in the house is not on now, and the absence of its low, continuous hum makes the wind outside louder.
“Floods,” says Isabel’s father. “Floods, they say.”
“Not here,” says Isabel.
“Everywhere,” says her father. “The whole county.”
“But we’re on high ground,” she says.
She goes to the window, and sees that water in the stream is racing, white-capped, and the color of her lips. It has already embraced the roots of the willow, and is lapping the southernmost leg of the picnic table where she likes to work on her computer.
“The lights are out,” says Paulette, who has just entered the kitchen in her red pajamas with the feet on them and the hatch in the back.
“Go back upstairs,” says Isabel, “and put on your clothes. Tell everyone that they can’t come down until they are in their clothes. Shoes too.”
“The wrath of Ivy,” says Isabel’s father.
“That’s a stupid joke, Dad.”
“I mean the hurricane.”
“I know. But it’s still a stupid joke.”
It is an hour later and Isabel and Ivy’s mother is sitting at the table, an empty bowl of cereal in front of her. “What are we going to do when the food goes bad?” she says. Her hair is turban-shaped and the color of shredded wheat. Her kidney bean eyes are made huge and concave by the thick lenses of her glasses
“It’s not going to go bad,” says Ivy, wiping Jerry’s mouth with the kitchen towel. “You are such a slob,” she tells him. “The fridge will keep the food cold for days,” she tells her mother.
“What about after that?”
“Tuna fish,” says Dr. Soros. “Lots of tuna fish!”
“Guys,” says Gwenny, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.
“I wish you had gotten some batteries,” says Ivy and Isabel’s mother.
“Guys,” says Gwenny.
“What?” says Isabel.
Gwenny doesn’t answer, just looks over her shoulder into the living room.
A braid of lip-red water is flowing across the hickory floorboards. All at once everyone can hear the sound of a cow urinating somewhere in the living room.
“It’s coming right under the front door,” says Gwenny.
When Dr. Soros panics, he loses all ability to coordinate his left side, so Isabel has to carry him in her arms out to the white van and buckle him into his seat.
As the family exits the house, the flood is flowing ankle-deep through the front door. Gwenny, the last to leave, tries to pull the door shut behind her, but the water forms a small mountain against it, and the door flies open again and again. Finally, she gives up.
Ivy is in the driver’s seat. Isabel rides shotgun. The rest of the family crams into seats beside and behind Dr. Soros. The van’s side door slides shut.
Ivy steers the van through the river that has covered their driveway and half their lawn, and is flowing through the house. “Where should I go?” she asks.
“Up,” says Isabel. “Where else?”
The road in front of their house is covered by a hissing, pinkish sheet of water. But after a few yards the road is only rainstorm wet, and pocked with leaping, gray drop-splashes. Ivy heads east, then turns west, then east again, then west—uphill all the while.
“We’re away from the worst of it,” says Isabel and Ivy’s mother.
Paulette is sitting with her neck upstretched, and her eyes fixed on the back of her grandfather’s head. She is making swallowing noises. Warm tears mix with the raindrops on her cheeks.
Isabel and Ivy say nothing. Even through the closed windows they can hear a roar so forceful and low it is more like the shuddering of the earth than an actual sound. Where normally there is only a cattail-clogged trickle, an avenue of red surf pours down the hillside. This is the very stream that has subsumed their yard and is rearranging the furniture inside their house. As the roar becomes louder, the sisters trade glances, but still say nothing. They round a bend, mount a crest, and at last can see that the bridge crossing the stream has held. Water shoots in a pink spume out of its downhill side.
Both sisters have been holding their breath. Now their throats unclamp; air flows from their lungs. Ivy smiles, and accelerates.
A tree trunk as thick as an oil drum and as long as a salad bar bucks, rolls and tumbles through the lip-red water. It is approaching the bridge at the exact same speed as the van. The trunk reaches the bridge first, its rooty end striking one side of the culvert, its snapped-off end slamming into the other. The torrent makes a sound like a lion clearing its throat, because now almost all of the water is prevented from flowing under the culvert, and the water that does flow there rockets over the tree flank in a blade of froth. The water blocked by the tree dithers and roils for the second or two it takes to mount the riverbank, then it surges across the road exactly where the van is driving. Had Ivy’s foot depressed the gas pedal by even one more quarter-inch, the van would have made it onto the bridge and to the safety of the high ground on the other side.
Ivy is rendered useless, as are the van’s steering wheel, breaks, gas pedal and motor. The van is swept sideways across the road, tailwise down the embankment, and then sideways again through a cow pasture that is now a red ocean. For a very brief moment after the van has been swept back into the streambed, where the current flows most forcefully, it is pointing in the same direction that the water is flowing, and this allows Ivy to feel that she is driving on the red surf. Then the van hits a steep-sloped pyramid of rock the size of a garage and is anchored there, nose-upward, by the current, which roars pinkly around its lower half, smashing all the windows and sweeping away four of the children and both grandparents before Isabel and Ivy, in the front seat, have a chance to look around.
Ivy’s eyes are moon-bright and blind. She is shouting something, but Isabel cannot hear what it is. The sound of the water has grown very, very large, and Ivy’s voice has grown mouse-small. The door next to Isabel is gone, and so is the sliding door to the back. Or maybe the sliding door is just open. For some reason Isabel finds it impossible to tell what has happened to the door, and she will never possess more than a shaky hypothesis.
Gwenny—her own daughter, her eldest child—is clinging to the post between the front and back doors with both arms, her cheek bleeding from a row of triangular punctures, her eyes also moon-bright. Isabel pushes Gwenny’s ribs. “Let go!” Isabel shouts. “Let go! Get out of here!”
At first Gwenny looks at her mother as if she doesn’t know who she is. Then recognition dawns, and with it, that sort of pliable stupidity which is a form of trust. She lets go, slides away from the van, but at the last second Isabel shoves her with such force that she lands against the pyramid of rock with half her body out of the water. Her elbows (pointing skyward, angled like grasshopper legs) waver back and forth as she lifts herself out of the water. Then she is kneeling on top of the rock.
Little Jerry has climbed from the back seat, where he once sat next to his grandfather, and is clutching his mother around the neck. Ivy can’t unfasten her seatbelt. Isabel does it for her, then unfastens her own. When she slides out the door and into the water, she finds that, in fact, it is easy to clamber up onto the rock. Gwenny has vanished. There is a dense wood of black sticks and shining leaves behind the rock. Gwenny is there somewhere. Isabel knows that if she looks again, she will see her.
Ivy and Jerry slide toward the door. As their weight shifts within the van, the van shifts on the rock. They both reach for Isabel, who manages to grab one hand of each, and, as the van slides out from under them and rolls with a groan and a heavy sigh into the current, she pulls them onto the rock—but not quite. The river takes hold of their legs and, in an instant, they are dragged back into the red water—Isabel too, still holding onto their hands.
All is roaring and bubbly dimness.
Then Isabel feels gravel beneath her feet and finds that she can stand, her head and shoulders out of the water. She is not sure at first, but soon she sees that she is still holding Ivy and Jerry’s hands, and they are both looking at her with the terrific seriousness of the mortally ill. Isabel realizes that she has been swept into an eddy behind the rock, and that the water is only swirling idly around her pelvis and legs. Ivy and Jerry are still in the racing current, however, and Isabel is leaning backwards to keep them all from being pulled downstream.
Isabel realizes three things in a single instant:
1.) She is not strong enough to continue to hold her sister and her nephew; the exhaustion in her shoulders and hands has reached that point where it is searing pain.
2.) Even as she is constantly stepping backwards in a sort of reverse pedaling, the gravel beneath her feet is constantly giving way and she is being pulled inexorably toward the current.
3.) If she lets go of Jerry, Ivy might still drag her into the flood, whereas if she lets go of Ivy, and continues to hold on to Jerry, there is a chance that she might be able to lift him to safety and then climb up after him.
Isabel conveys all this information to her sister in a single glance.
As Ivy slides away on the flood, her eyes are locked on Isabel’s with complete comprehension. Ivy’s face grows smaller and smaller atop the current, and she seems to be shooting backwards in time: not thirty-nine anymore, but thirty-five, then twenty-eight, then seventeen, twelve, five—until, just before she disappears over a falls some hundred yards downstream, her face seems to journey through something other than time, because, as small as it continues to grow, it never looks remotely like an infant’s face, but more like that of an elf, then a fairy, then the bride on a wedding cake, and, finally, like a dotted face on a pencil-tip eraser.
Then Ivy is gone.
Isabel’s back is against the pyramid rock and Jerry’s back is against her chest.
“Mommy!” he cries, clawing at the red water with both hands.
“Hush,” says Isabel.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Jerry strains helplessly against the rigid rings of Isabel’s arms.
“Hush,” says Isabel. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
“Come on,” she says. “We have to get onto the rock, or we’ll get washed away too.”
“Mahhhh-meeee!” screams Jerry. “Mahhhh-meeee!”
“As soon as this is over, we’ll come back and look for her,” says Isabel. “I promise. But we have to go now or we are going to die.”
“Noooo!” shouts Jerry. “Mahhhh-meeee!”
Isabel has to fight the urge to let him go too. And then she wonders if that wouldn’t, in fact, be the best thing to do.
* * *