Everything That Rises Must Converge
My mother was a Catholic-abiding woman who did her rosaries and fully obeyed the term “you reap what you sow”. Whether I ate a second chocolate chip cookie, or didn’t want to go to church, whether my shorts were too short, or I talked to a boy too long in her sight, she would tell me I was planting the roots of my own destruction. This was a frustrating philosophy to instill into a tomboy who wanted to wrestle in a muddy field until I or my opponent got hurt. I always felt judged by my feminine, prudish mother, and felt superior to her because despite doing everything traditionally right, she was treated like garbage by my father. An aloof, solitary man, he would often leave the house on long business trips, to get away from her or I, or both of us.
One night, my mother, a naturally skinny woman whose post-pregnancy weight clung to her abdomen like clear wrap, cooked in the kitchen. We were both angry with one another. I can’t recall the incident, but I was in time-out, my ears reddened by pinches and slaps I felt I didn’t deserve. I heard a cry from the kitchen--my mother had burned the front of her wrist on the hot licks of the stove fire. My time-out finished instantly, I went over to her and inspected her forearm and her subsequent wails as she washed her arm out under the cold water of the sink. I resisted the naughty urge to repeat her oft-mentioned “sow what you reap” line. The Daring Book for Girls, a book I read as religiously as my mother read the Bible (another reason why I didn’t respect my mother, who never read anything but the Gospels), mentioned a fact about butter and burns. Butter and burns, I thought, and said out loud.
My panicked mother was alone in the house, except for me. She took a stick of butter from the fridge and rubbed it like lotion against the red welts on her arm. I felt a little uneasy, butter and burns, what was the connection with butter and burns?
The next day, her forearm was horrifyingly black. We visited the hospital where she was diagnosed with an underlying skin condition, aggravated by the burn. Later, I reread the section from The Daring Book of Girls which warned against using butter for burns. My mother didn’t make the connection and placed the blame solely on her skin condition.
It’s June. Or December. Time doesn’t really matter anymore after you stop working--days and months are simplified to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Plain granola crumbs, brown salad, cheap overcooked chicken.
I emerge outside. The weather is hot, or maybe cold. Either way, I’m pale, malnourished. During the many months of quarantine, I manage to graduate college online. Virtual graduation. I throw my fake hat up in the air and the Dean shakes my digitalized hand, squirting a glob of hand sanitizer as he moves on to the next video caller.
I don’t have a job--perhaps I won’t have one for years. I emerge outside, in the tentatively buzzing city, as someone who will need to beg for someone else’s job. On my hands and on my knees. I’ll be wearing gloves and knee pads, obviously. The guy telling me no will wear a mask, and I will pretend that I didn’t understand him. Thank you, I will say. I really needed this.
My college girlfriend breaks up with me. Frankly, it is straight out of nowhere. She is quarantined in her apartment and I am quarantined in mine and we Facetime constantly, repeating to ourselves that we are stronger than the virus. “I’ve never wanted you so badly,” I remember saying.
A long pause.
“I think,” she says, “I’m learning to live without you.”
I know that most college relationships are destined to end, but it’s supposed to be messy, drawn out; someone moving to the other side of the country, an affair, a secret-- not a clinically clean cut. I drive to her apartment at two in the morning during quarantine and she refuses to let me in. It isn’t safe. I could be infected, or maybe she is. Perhaps she is afraid that we would both get sick, unable to care for one another. Dying together, apart.
I emerge outside, and the streets are clean, not out of love, but out of fear. Nature is beautiful; the parks are exactly the same. Someone had maintained the bushes, the wild grass. Roaming about, I visit the cemetery. I feel bigger than usual, painfully aware of every step I take.
My grandmother is dead, years ago from cancer, before the pandemic. I kneel at her tombstone which is cleaner than anything else on earth and find myself afraid to touch it. Who else might have touched her grave? What horrible bacteria is stuck to the engravements of her name?
I leave after an hour, ashamed. It’s raining. Or maybe it’s snowing. I have no idea the month, the season, or the year. If I should be carrying an umbrella or wearing a parka. Only people with jobs and girlfriends and grandmothers are capable of keeping track of these things. I am unprepared for the weather. My body is naked in my unknowing. I have no control, yet in a way, nothing has control over me. It is a maddening feeling. I emerge outside, in the clean streets of the city, and search for the things that can control me.
Chapter 1 (first half)
The Orange Flatdraft was the best at being the place to be, the ultra cool, uber chic, hang out spot that denied entry to none and was loved by all. It was a movie theater house on the right side of the county, ten minutes walk from the local school, ten minutes drive from the mall, a bright brown and red building that looked like a grand mansion and smelled like a buttery candy shop. It was a chain of movie theaters, and like all chains, it spread excessively throughout the country. Only one managed to worm its way into Winkel County.
Winkel County, as any resident loved to mention, was #1 in cheapest movie tickets, #2 in best schools in America, and #3 in diversity. It was also #1 in most dangerous counties to live in but that fact, according to Winkel's mayor, should not detract from the three dollar movie tickets and special popcorn discounts. Unfortunately, that didn't stop people from leaving either.
The Andrews, who hailed from India, had decided to emigrate to Winkel, America, in fall of 1999, despite their close friend’s and relative’s protests.
“Why not New York?” Mr. Andrews’s father would ask. “Massachusetts? Even New Jersey?”
“What if you have children?” cried Mrs. Andrews’s mother. “Think of their future!”
Despite the well-meaning warnings, the lure of good opportunities could no longer deter Mr. Andrews, a highly prized zoologist, so he and his wife settled down quietly in a safe, well-known suburban neighborhood in Winkel. Mrs. Andrews, being a doctor, had a conveniently high number of opportunities as well and waved these concerns to the back of her mind. Only a year later, when their first child was born, a brown, dark-haired, well-behaved girl, did Mrs. Andrews begin feeling queasy. Her husband tried to reassure her. Don’t worry yourself like this he would say, after she had confided in him, Winkel was safe enough and what were the odds that their daughter, little Janet, would be in any danger? Not entirely convinced, Mrs. Andrews nonetheless put her misgivings aside and resolved to be as careful as possible. So they lived together as a family did, doing the best to raise Janet in the weird little county of Winkel, as family after family left at alarming rates.
As she grew older, her parent’s decision suited Janet Andrews just fine. She could find no fault with Winkel, other than the slightly than larger death toll, and the less people in Winkel, the less people in line to the Orange Flatdraft, and the faster she could get in.
She sped up in the movie line quick as a fly, leaned into the ticket counter and said, "One ticket to the Orange Flatdraft, adult ticket, please". The AC from the small ticket window blew a strong, cool current in her face and she waited patiently for Bill, the ticket clerk behind the glass wall, to take notice of what she said.
"Which movie, ma'am?" Bill was a prematurely balding young man with square green glasses and a pleasantly clashing neon orange uniform. Andrews had heard Bill's horsey, honking voice, magnified ten times through the ticket speaker, for as long as she had been attending movie specials.
"Blue Grunting Building, please." Andrews eyed him, wondering if he had noticed.
Bill sighed long and hard through his nose and clacked the keyboard monotonously, clicking an invisible key that sputtered out a small, slightly thick rectangular ticket stub.
"Adult ticket," she said, leaning closer towards him on tiptoes. "Adult!"
"Three dollars, please."
She handed him crumpled one dollar bills through the window. "Yesterday I needed a child's ticket."
He combed through the money carefully, meticulously straightening each bill against the counter.
"A bummer I have to pay another dollar just cause I'm fourteen." Bill was still counting. Andrews continued, "You know, two dollars for child's ticket, one extra for adults? Bummer I'm turning fourteen today, what a waste of money."
Bill ignored this.
"One ticket for 5:55 p.m. Orange Flatdraft is not responsible for mishaps, mischief, and fatal injuries. Popcorn comes with a free beverage, a guard is posted at every movie entrance, pretzels are an extra two bucks with a family meal plan. Thank you for choosing Orange Flatdraft and enjoy your movie."
Bill slid the ticket across the counter and then said, "Next, please!" even though no one was behind her. Feeling outraged, she walked away and sat down on the street curb, facing away from the ticket stand and Bill. She should go inside, it was dangerous to be out here alone, but the three dollars missing from Andrews’s purse made her feel like she could handle herself. If the Flatdraft considered her an adult, then, by the by, she considered herself one too.
It was the winding down time of the day, when the sun was beginning to fade, and when most people living in Winkel, after spending a reasonable amount of time at home to recuperate from the day's work, left their houses to enjoy a night out. Families were already shuffling out of over sized sedans in the parking lot, kids leading the flocks towards the ticket stand, making Andrews infinitely glad she had already bought her ticket. The neon sign flashing ORANGE FLATDRAFT overhead buzzed softly, vibrating the air.
The exit doors on the right side of the building burst open and a small crowd bustled out, talking and laughing. A movie seemed to have ended. Friends busily swapped jokes with each other and Andrews overheard two teenage boys analyzing the last scenes of Blue Grunting Building, a wildly popular film with a terrible ending. She watched them making their way through the parking lot and absently wondered if they bought IMAX or regular.
Behind her, Bill welcomed visitors with his usual inviting tone and suddenly, like a bird sensing a predator, Andrews jumped up. A tingling sensation tore across her back and as she touched her arms, she found them crawling with goosebumps. Skin along her back spine, the long, skinny area she had never paid much attention to, became unbearably itchy. She looked around in nervous panic, feeling a little foolish. No one else seemed to have noticed anything strange. What was wrong with her? Perhaps she should go inside after all, fourteen really didn’t seem like such a large number anymore, and the three dollars lost was starting to look a lot like a gimmick.
Before she began to flee inside however, she spotted a dark blue van expertly sliding its way through the parking lot and parking itself in the reserved lane. Andrews let out a relieved breath, put the incident aside (it really was nothing), and smoothed her shirt down guiltily. At least her friends had finally arrived, although she knew well enough that Darby, the speeding driver of the blue van, would not be happy with her. And soon enough, out popped two girls, one brown haired, freckled, and smiling and another much taller and older, more woman than girl, deeply frowning. The former spotting Andrews instantly, ran across the lot and hugged her tightly. Andrews winced, because despite the skinny arms, her friend was painfully strong.
"How could you walk to the Flatdraft alone?" her best friend, Hidalgo demanded, grinning nonetheless. "Oh man, Darby's gonna kill you!" She grabbed both of Andrews's shoulder and shook them. Mary Hidalgo, who attended Florin Middle School, alongside Andrews, was her best friend in the entire county.
"I can't believe you didn't wait for Darby!” she said. “Oh yeah,” she added. "Happy birthday!”
Andrews grinned, her mood rising. “Didn’t you already wish me at school?”
“Well, yeah. But it feels different now that we’re out of school, doesn’t it? Like it’s really your birthday now. Oh, I almost forgot.” She shoved a hastily wrapped present into Andrews’s hands before she could say another word. “I got your present from my locker.”
"Wow, thanks!" Andrews said, pleased. "You didn't have to do that."
Hidalgo brushed her aside and looked around eagerly.
“So, see anything crazy yet?” Hidalgo teased, though her eyes looked a little serious.
Andrews opened her mouth, debating whether or not to tell her friend that strange sensation she had felt, or hadn’t felt; but, whatever comment that began forming between her lips faded away as soon as she saw the frightening figure heading in their direction.
Another set of hands grabbed Andrews, this pair larger, meatier, and quite closer to her exposed neck. She looked up at the furious face of Darby Fields.