Ever feel like you care too much? After a breakup, after the funeral…it feels like the way to win at life is to care the least. That’s not an option for Dominga, an EMT who cares too much, or her drinking buddy Nico, who just lost his poor cat. Life hurts. They drink. They talk: Nico’s tired of hurting people. He wants out. Not suicide, not that — he’d just hurt everyone who loves him. But what if he could erase his whole life? Undo the fact of his birth? Wouldn’t Dominga be having a better night, right now, if she didn’t have to take care of him? And when Dominga finds a way to do just that, when she is gifted or armed with a terrible cosmic mercy, she still cares enough to say: I am not letting him have this. I am not letting Nico go without a fight.
“A coyote got my cat,” Nico says.
It took me four beers and three shots to open him up. All night he’s been talking about the breakup, what’s-her-name Yelena I think, and all night I’ve known there’s something else on him, but I didn’t know know—
“Fuck, man.” I catch at his elbow. He’s wearing leather, supple, slick—he’s always mock-hurt when I can’t tell his good jackets from his great ones. “Mandrill?” A better friend wouldn’t have to ask, but I’m drunk, and not so good a friend. “Your cat back home?”
“Poor Mandrill,” Nico says, completely forlorn. “Ah, shit, Dominga. I shouldn’t have left him.”
He only goes to the Lighthouse on empty Sundays, when we can hide in the booths ringed around the halogen beacon. I expect sad nights here. But, man, his cat . . .
Nico puts his head on my shoulder and makes a broken noise into the side of my neck. I rub his elbow and marvel in a selfish way at how much I care, how full of hurt I am, even after this awful week of dead bikers and domestics and empty space where fucking Jacob used to be. It’s the drink, of course, and tomorrow if we see each other (we won’t) it’ll all be awkward, stilted, an unspoken agreement to forget this moment.
But right now I care.
In a moment he’ll pull himself up, make a joke, buy a round. I know he will, since Nico and I only speak in bars and only when things feel like dogshit. We’ve got nothing in common—I ride ambulances around Queens, call my mom in Laredo every week, shouting Spanish into an old flip phone with a busted speaker. He makes smartphone games in a FiDi studio, imports leather jackets, and serially thinks his way out of perfectly good relationships. But all that difference warms me up sometimes, because (forgive me here, I am drunk) what’s the world worth if you can’t put two strangers together and get them to care? A friendship shouldn’t need anything else.
He doesn’t pull himself up and he doesn’t make a joke.
The lighthouse beam sweeps over us, over the netting around our booth, over Nico’s cramped shoulders and gawky height curled up against me. The light draws grid shadows on his leathered back, as if we’re in an ambulance together, monitors tracing the thready rhythm of Nico’s life. We sit together in the blue fog as the light passes on across empty tables carved with half-finished names.
“I’m really sorry.” He finally pulls away, stiff, frowning. “I’m such a drag tonight. How are things after Jacob?”
I cluck in concern, just like my mom. I have to borrow the sound from her because I want to scream every time I think about fucking Jacob and fucking I’m not ready for your life. “We’re talking about you.”
He grins a fake grin but he’s so good at it I’m still a little charmed. “We’ve been talking about me forever.”
“You broke up with your girlfriend and lost your cat. You’re having a bad week. As a medical professional I insist I buy you another round.” Paramedics drink, and lie sometimes. He dumped Yelena out of the blue, ‘to give her a chance at someone better.’ The opposite of what Jacob had done to me. “And we’re going to talk.”
“No.” He looks away. I follow his eyes, tracing the lighthouse beam across the room, where the circle of tables ruptures, broken by some necessity of cleaning or fire code: as if a snake had come up out of the light, slithered through the table mandala, and written something with its passage. “No, I’m done.”
And the way he says that hits me, hits me low, because I recognize it. I have a stupid compassion that does me no good. I am desperate to help the people in my ambulance, the survivors. I can hold them together but I can’t answer the plea I always see in their eyes: Please, God, please, mother of mercy, just let this never have happened. Make it undone. Let me have a world where things like this never come to pass.
“Nico,” I say, “do you feel like you want to hurt yourself?”
He looks at me and the Lighthouse’s sound system glitches for an instant, harsh and negative, as if we’re listening to the inverse music that fills the space between the song and the meaningless static beneath.
My heart trips, thumps, like the ambulance alarm’s just gone off.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he says, eyes round and honest. “I don’t want to get on Twitter and read about all the atrocities I’m complicit in. I don’t want to trick wonderful women into spending a few months figuring out what a shithead I really am. I don’t want to raise little cats to be coyote food. I don’t even want to worry about whether I’m dragging my friends down. I just want to undo all the harm I’ve ever done.”
Make it undone.
In my job I see these awful things—this image always come to me: a cyclist’s skull burst like watermelon beneath the wheels of a truck he didn’t see. I used to feel like I made a difference in my job. But that was a long time ago.
So I hold to this: As long as I can care about other people, I’m not in burnout. Emotional detachment is a cardinal symptom, you see.
“Did you ever see It’s a Wonderful Life?” I’m trying to lighten the mood. I’ve only read the Wikipedia page.
“Yeah.” Oops. “But I thought it kind of missed the point. What if—” He makes an excited gesture, pointing to an idea. But his eyes are still fixed on the mirror surface of the table, and when he sees himself his jaw works. “What if his angel said, Oh, you’ve done more harm than good; but we all do, that’s life, those are the rules, there’s just more hurt to go around. Why couldn’t he, I forget his name, it doesn’t matter, why couldn’t he say, well, just redact me. Remove the fact of my birth. I’m a good guy, I don’t want to do anyone any harm, so I’m going to opt out. Do you think that’s possible? Not a suicide, that’s selfish, it hurts people. But a really selfless way out?”
I don’t know what to say to that. It’s stupid, but he’s smart, and he says it so hard.
He grins up at me, full-lipped, beautiful. The lighthouse beacon comes around again and lights up his silhouette and puts his face in shadow except his small white teeth. “I mean, come on. If I weren’t here—wouldn’t you be having a good night?”
“You’re wishing you’d never known me, you realize. You’re shitting all over me.”
“Dominga Roldan! My knight.” There he goes, closing up again, putting on the armor of charm. He likes that Roldan is so much like Roland. It’s the first thing he ever told me. “Please. You’re the suffering hero at this table. Let’s talk about you.”
I surrender. I start talking about fucking Jacob.
But I resolve right then that I’ll save Nico, convince him that it’s worth it to go on, worth it to have ever been.
I believe in good people. Even though Nico has what we call “resting asshole face” and a job that requires him to trick people into giving him thousands of dollars (he designs the systems that keep people playing smartphone games, especially the parts that keep them spending) I still think he’s a good man. He cares, way down.
I believe you can feel that. The world’s a cold place and it’ll break your heart. You’ve got to trust in the possibility of good.
I dream of gardening far south and west, home in Laredo. Inexplicably, fucking Jacob is there. He smiles at me, big bear face a little stubbled. I want to yell at him: don’t grow a beard! You have a great chin! But we’re busy gardening, rooting around in galvanized tubs full of okra and zucchini and purple hull peas. Hot peppers, since the sweet breeds won’t take. The autumn light down here isn’t so thin as in New York. I am bare-handed, turning up the soil around the roots, grit up under my fingers and in the web of my hands. I am making life.
But down in the zucchini roots I find a knot of maggots, balled up squirming like they’ve wormed a portal up from maggot hell and come pouring out blind and silent. And I think: I am only growing homes for maggots. Everything is this way. In the end we are only making more homes, better homes, for maggots.
Jacob smiles at me and says, like he did: “I’m just not ready for your life. It’s too hard. Too many people get hurt.”
I wake up groaning, hangover clotted in my sinuses. Staring up at the vent above my mattress I realize there’s no heat. It’s broken again.
The cold is sharp, though. Sterile. It makes me go. I get to the hospital on time and Mary’s waiting for me, smiling, my favorite partner armed with coffee and danishes and an egg sandwich from the enigmatic food truck only she can find. For my hangover, of course. Mary, bless her, knows my schedule.
Later that day we save a man’s life.
He swam out into the river to die. We’re first on the scene and I am stupid, so stupid: I jump in to save him. The water’s late-autumn cold, the kind of chill I am afraid will get into my marrow and crystallize there, so that later in life, curled up in the summer sun with a lover, I’ll feel a pang and know that a bead of ice came out of my bone and stuck in my heart. I used to get that kind of chest pain growing up, see. I thought they were ice crystals that formed when we went to see ex-Dad in Colorado, where the world felt high and thin, everything offered up on an altar to the truth behind the indifferent cloth of stars.
I’m thinking all this as I haul the drowning man back in. I feel so cold and so aware. My mind goes everywhere. Goes to Jacob, of course.
Offered up on an altar. We used to play a sex game like that, Jacob and I. You know, a sexy sacrifice—isn’t that the alchemy of sex games? You take something appalling and you make it part of your appetites. Jesus, I used to think it was cute, and now describing it I’m furiously embarrassed. Jacob was into all kinds of nerd shit. For him I think the fantasy was always kind of Greco-Roman, Andromeda on the rocks, but I always wondered if he dared imagine me as some kind of Aztec princess, which would be too complicatedly racist for him to suggest. He’s dating a white girl now. It doesn’t bother me but Mom just won’t let it go. She’s sharp about it, too: she has a theory that Jacob feels he’s now Certified Decent, having passed his qualifying exam, and now he’ll go on to be a regular shithead.
And Mary’s pulling me up onto the pier, and I’m pulling the suicide.
He nearly dies in the ambulance. We swaddle him in heat packs and blankets and Mary, too, swaddles him, smiling and flirting, it’s okay, what a day for a swim, does he know that in extreme situations rescuers are advised to provide skin-to-skin contact?
See, Mary’s saying, see, it’s not so bad here, not so cold. You’ll meet good people. You’ll go on.
Huddled in my own blankets I meet the swimmer’s warm brown eyes and just then the ambulance slams across a pothole. He fibrillates. Alarms shriek. I see him start to go, receding, calm, warm, surrounded by people trying to save him, and I think that if he went now, before his family found out, before he had to go back to whatever drove him into the river, it’d be best.
Oh, God, the hurt can’t be undone. It’d be best.
His eyes open. They peel back like membranes. I see a thin screen, thinner than Colorado sky, and in the vast space behind it something white and soft and eyeless wheels on an eternal wind.
His heart quits. He goes into asystole.
“Come on,” Mary hisses, working on him. “Come on. You can’t do this to me. Dominga, let’s get some epi going—come on, don’t go.”
I think that’s the hook that pulls him in. He cares. He doesn’t want to hurt her. Like Nico, he can’t stand to do harm. By that hook or by the CPR and the epinephrine we bring him back. Afterward I sit outside in the cold, the bitter dry cold, and I can feel it: the heat going out of me, the world leaking up through the sky and out into the void where something ancient waits, a hypothermic phantasm, a cold fever dream, the most real thing I’ve ever seen.
I flail around for something human to hold and remember, then, how worried I am about Nico.
Don’t judge me too harshly. This is my next move: I invite Nico to game night with Jacob and his new girlfriend Elise. Nico is a game designer, right? It fits. I promised Jacob we’d still be friends. Everything fits.
It’s not about any kind of payback.
Jacob loves this idea. He suggests a café/bar nerd money trap called Glass Needle. I turn up with Nico (Cool jacket, I say, and he grins back at me from under his mirrored aviators, saying, You really can’t tell!) and we all shake hands and say Hi, hi, wow, it’s so great, under a backlit ceiling of frosted glass etched with the shapes of growing things.
“Isn’t that cool?” Jacob beams at me. “They do that with hydrofluorosilicic acid.” He’s growing too: working on a beard and a gut, completing the deadly Santa array. Elise looks like she probably does yoga. She arranges the game with assured competence. I wonder how many times Jacob practiced saying hydrofluorosilicic, and what their sex is like.
Nico tongues a square of gum. “That’s really impressive,” he says.
The games engage him. I guess the games engage me too: Jacob will listen to anything Nico says, since Jacob cares about everything and Nico pretends he doesn’t. “I love board games,” Jacob explains.
“I love rules,” Nico replies, and this is true: Nico thinks everything is a game to be played, history, evolution, even dating, even friendship. Everything has a winning strategy. He’ll describe this cynicism to anyone, since he thinks it’s sexy. If you know him you can see how deeply it bothers him.
It’s Sunday again. I worked eighteen hours yesterday. I’m exhausted, I can’t stop thinking about the swimmer flatline. Jacob looks at me with the selfless worry permitted to the ex who did the dumping.
If I weren’t here, I think, wouldn’t you be having a good night?
The game baffles me. Elise assembles a zoo of cardboard tokens, decks of tiny cards, dice, character sheets, Jacob chattering all the while: “These are for the other worlds you’ll visit. These are spells you can learn, though of course they’ll drive you mad. This card means you’re the town sheriff—that one means you eat free at the diner—”
Elise pats him on the hand. “I think they can learn as they go.”
We’re supposed to patrol a town where the world has gotten thin and wounded. If we don’t heal those wounds, something will come through, a dreadful thing with a name like the Treader In Dust or whatever. Nico’s really good at the game. He flirts with me outrageously, which earns a beautifully troubled Jacob-face, a face of perturbed enlightenment: really, this shouldn’t be bothering me! So I flirt back at Nico. Why not? He’s the one getting a kick out of meeting my ex and out-charming him, out-dressing him, talking over him while he sits there and takes it. And wouldn’t Mary flirt, to comfort him? To remind poor forlorn Nico that the world’s not so cold?
Only Nico doesn’t seem so forlorn, and when I look at Jacob, there’s Elise touching shoulders with him, which makes every memory of Jacob hurt. As if she’s claimed him not just now but retroactively too.
Even Elise, who’s played it a hundred times, can’t manage this damn game. The rules seem uncertain, as if different parts of the rule book contradict each other. Jacob and Nico argue over exactly how the monsters decide to hunt us, precisely when the Magic Shop closes up, where the yawning portals lead. Oh, Nico—this must be so satisfyingly you: You are beating Jacob’s game, you’re better than his rules. Even Elise won’t argue with Nico, preferring, she says, to focus on the emergent narrative.
It all leaves me outside.
I drink to spiteful excess and move my little character around in sullen ineffective ways. Jacob’s eyes are full of stupid understanding. I look at him and try to beam my thoughts: I hate this. This makes me sick. I wish I’d never met you. I wish I could burn up all the good times we had, just to spare myself this awful night.
That’s what I thought when he left. That it hadn’t been worth it.
“Can we switch sides,” Nico asks, “and obtain dreadful secrets from the Great Old One?”
“You could try.” Elise loves this. She grins at Nico and I savor Jacob’s reaction. “But your only hope is that It will devour your soul first, so you don’t have to experience the terrible majesty of Its coming.”
And Nico grins at me. “What an awful world. You’re fucked the moment you’re born.” Making a joke out of his drunken despair, out of dead Mandrill and his own hurt. Of course he doesn’t take it seriously. Of course he was just drunk.
I am everyone’s sucker.
“I think you can do that with an expansion set,” Jacob adds helpfully. “Switch sides, I mean.”
“Let’s play with it next time,” Nico says. Elise bounces happily. There probably will be a next time, won’t there? The three of them will be friends.
“I feel sick,” I say, “it’s just—something I saw on shift. It’s getting to me.”
Then I go. They can’t argue with that. They all work in offices.
Nico texts me: Holy shit we lost. Alien god woke up to consume the world. We went mad with rapture and horror when it spoke hidden secrets of the universal design although I did shoot it with a tommy gun. Game is fucking broken. It was amazing thank you.
I text back: cool
What I want to say is: you asshole, I hope you’re happy, I hope you’re glad you’re right, I hope you’re glad you won. I believe in good people, you know, but I used to think Jacob was a good person, and look where that got me; I just wanted to cheer you up and look where that got me. I pull people from the river, I drag them dying out of their houses, I see their spinal fluid running into the gutters and look where all that gets me—
Jesus, this world, this world. I feel so heartsick. I cannot even retch.
And I dream of that awful board, piled with tokens moving each other by their own secret rules. A game of alien powers but those powers escape the game to move among us. They roam the world cow-eyed and compassionate and offer hands with fingers like fishhooks. We live in a paddock, a fattening pen, and we cannot leave it, because when we try to go the hooks say, Think of who you’ll hurt.
So much hurt to try to heal. And the healing hurts too much.
The hangover sings an afterimage song. Like the drunkenness was ripped out of me and it left a negative space, the opposite of contentment. It vibrates in my bones.
I get up, brushing at an itch on my back, and drink straight from the bathroom faucet. When I come back to my mattress it’s speckled, speckled white. Something’s dripping on it from the air vent—oh, oh, they’re maggots, slim white maggots. My air vent is dripping maggots. They’re all over the covers, white and searching.
I call my landlord. I pin plastic sheeting up over the vent. I clean my bedroom twice, once for the maggots, once again after I throw up. Then I go to work.
Everything I touch feels infested. Inhabited.
Mary’s got an egg sandwich for me but she looks like shit, weary, dry-skinned, her face flaking. “Hi,” she says. “I’m sorry, I have the worst migraine.”
“Oh, hon. Take it easy.” The headaches started when she transitioned, an estrogen thing. She’s quiet about them, and strong. I’m happy she tells me.
“Hey, you too. Which, uh—actually.” She gives me the sandwich and makes a brave face, like she’s afraid that someone’s going to snap at someone, like she doesn’t want to snap first. “I signed you up for a stress screening. They want you in the little conference room in half an hour.”
I’m not angry. I just feel dirty and rotten and useless: now I’m even letting Mary down. “Oh,” I say. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I’d . . . was it the epi? Was I too slow on the epi last week?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” She rubs her temples. “I’m just worried about you.”
I want to give her a hug and thank her for caring but she’s so obviously in pain. And the thought of the maggots keeps me away.
They’re waiting for me in the narrow conference room: a man in a baggy blue suit, a woman in surgical scrubs with an inexplicable black stain like tar. “Dominga Roldan?” she says.
The man shakes my hand enthusiastically. “We just wanted to chat. See how you were. After your rescue swim.”
The woman beckons: sit. “Think of this as a chance to relax.”
“We’re worried about you, Dominga,” the man says. I can’t get over how badly his suit fits. “I remember some days in the force I felt like the world didn’t give a fuck about us. Just made me want to give up. You ever feel that way?”
I want to say what Nico would say: actually, sir, that’s not the problem at all, the problem is caring too much, caring so much you can’t ask for help because everyone else is already in so much pain.
Nico wouldn’t say that, though. He’d find a really clever way to not say it.
“Sure,” I say. “But that’s the job.”
“Did you know the victim?” the woman asks. The man winces at her bluntness. I blink at her and she purses her lips and tilts her head, to Yes, I know how it sounds, but please. say: “The suicide you rescued. Did you know him?”
“No.” Of course not. What?
The man opens his mouth and she cuts him off. “But did you feel that you did, at any point? After he coded, maybe?”
I stare at her. My hangover turns my stomach and drums on the inside of my skull. It’s not that I don’t get it: it’s that I feel I do, that something has been gestating in the last few days, in the missing connections between unrelated events.
The man sighs and unlatches his briefcase. I just can’t shake the sense that his suit used to fit, not so long ago. “Let her be,” he says. “Dominga, I just gotta tell you, I admire the hell out of people like you. Me, I think the only good in this world is the good we bring to it. Good people, people like you, you make this place worth living in.”
“So we need to take care of people like you.” The woman in scrubs has a funny accent—not quite Boston, still definitely a Masshole. “Burnout’s very common. You know the stages?”
“Sure.” First exhaustion, then shame, then callous cynicism. Then collapse. But I’m not there yet, I’m not past cynicism. I still want to help.
The man lifts a tiny glass cylinder from his briefcase, a cylinder full of a green fleshy mass—a caterpillar, a fat warty caterpillar, pickled in cloudy fluid and starting to peel apart. He looks at me apologetically, as if this is an awkward necessity, just his morning caterpillar in brine.
“Sometimes this job becomes overwhelming.” The woman’s completely unmoved by the caterpillar. Her eyes have a kind of look-away quality, like those awful xenon headlights assholes use, unsafe to meet head-on. “Sometimes you need to stop taking on responsibilities and look after yourself. It’s very important that you have resources to draw on.”
Baggy Suit holds his cylinder gingerly, a thumb on one end and two fingers on the other, and stares at it. Is there writing on it? The woman says, “Do you have a safe space at home? Somewhere to relax?”
“Well—no, I guess not, there’s a bug problem . . .”
The woman frowns in sympathy but her eyes don’t frown, God, not at all—they smile. I don’t know why. The man rolls his dead caterpillar tube and suddenly I grasp that the writing’s on the inside, facing the dead bug.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself.” He sounds petulant; he looks at the woman in scrubs with quiet resentment. “We need good people out there. Fighting the good fight.”
“But if you feel you can’t go on . . . If you’re absolutely overwhelmed, and you can’t see a way forward . . .” The woman leans across the table to take my hands. She’s colder than the river where the man went to die. “I want to give you a number, okay? A place you can call for help.”
She reads it off to me and I get hammered with déjà vu: I know it already, I’m sure. Or maybe that’s not quite right, I don’t know it exactly. It’s just that it feels like it fits inside me, as if a space has been hollowed out for it, made ready to contain its charge.
“Please take care of yourself,” the man tells me, on the way out. “If you don’t, the world will just eat you up.” And he lifts the caterpillar in salute.
I leave work early. I desperately don’t want to go home, where the maggots will be puddled in the plastic up on my ceiling, writhing, eyeless, bulging, probably eating each other.
Mary walks me out. “You going to take any time off? See anybody?”
“I just saw Jacob and Elise yesterday.”
“How was that?”
“A really bad decision.” I shake my head and that, too, is a bad decision. “How’s the migraine?”
“I’m okay. I’ll live.” It strikes me that when Mary says that, I believe it—and maybe she sees me frown, follows my thoughts, because she asks, “What about Nico? Are you still seeing him?”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“And?” Her impish well-did-you? grin.
“I’m worried about him.” And furious, too, but if I said that I’d have to explain, and then Mary would be concerned about me, and I’d feel guilty because surely Mary has real problems, bigger problems than mine. “He’s really depressed.”
“Oh. That’s all you need. Look—” She stops me just short of the doors. “Dominga, you’re a great partner. I hope I didn’t step on your toes today. But I really want you to get some room, okay? Do something for yourself.”
I give her a long, long hug, and I forget about the maggots, just for the length of it.
There’s a skywriter above the hospital, buzzing around in sharp curves. The sky’s clean and blue and infinite, dizzyingly deep. Evening sun glints on the plane so it looks like a sliver poking up through God’s skin.
I watch it draw signs in falling red vapor and when the wind shears them apart I think of the Lighthouse, where the circle of tables was ruptured by the passage of an illusory force.
I want to act. I want to help. I want to ease someone’s pain. I don’t want to do something for myself, because —
You’re only burnt out once you stop wanting to help.
I call Nico. “Hey,” he says. “Didn’t expect to hear from you so soon.”
“Want to get a drink?” I say, and then, my throat raw, my tongue acid, a hangover trick, words squirming out of me with wet expanding pressure, “I learned something you should know. A place to go, if you need help. If that’s what you want. If the world really is too much.”
Sometimes you say a thing and then you realize it’s true.
He laughs. “I can’t believe you’re making fun of me about that. You’re such an asshole. Do you want to go to Kosmos?”
“So,” Nico says, “are we dating?”
Kosmos used to be a warehouse. Now the ceiling is an electric star field, a map of alien constellations. We sit together directly beneath a pair of twin red stars.
“Oh,” I say, startled. “I was worried. After yesterday, I mean, I just . . .” Was furious, was hurt, didn’t know why: because you were having fun, because I wasn’t, because I thought you needed help, because you pretended you didn’t. One of those. All of them.
Maybe he doesn’t like what he sees in my eyes. He gets up. “Be right back.” The house music samples someone talking about the expansion of the universe. Nico touches my shoulder on the way to the bathroom and I watch him recede, savoring the fading charge of his hand, thinking about space carrying us apart, and how safe that would be.
I have a choice to offer him. Maybe we’ll leave together.
Nico comes back with drinks – wine, of all things, as if we’re celebrating. “I thought that game was charmingly optimistic, you know.”
“Jacob’s game?” He’s been tagging me in Facebook pictures of the stupid thing. I should block Jacob, so it’d stop hurting, which is why I don’t.
“Right. I was reading about it.”
The wine’s dry and sweet. It tastes like tomorrow’s hangover, like coming awake on a strange couch under a ceiling with no maggots. I take three swallows. “I thought it was about unknowable gods and the futility of all human life.”
“Sure.” That stupid cocky grin of his hits hard because I know what’s behind it. “But in the game there’s something out there, something bigger than us. Which—I mean, compared to what we’ve got, at least it’s interesting.” He points to the electric universe above us, all its empty dazzling artifice. “How’s work?”
“I’m taking a break. Don’t worry about it.” I have a plan here, a purpose. I am an agent, although which meaning of that word fits I don’t know. “Why’d you really dump Yelena?”
“I told you.” He resorts to the wine, to buy himself a moment. “Really, I was honest. I thought she could do a lot better than me. I wanted her to be happy.”
“But what about you? She made you happy.”
“Yeah, yeah, she did. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who—” He stops here and takes another slow drink. “I don’t want to be someone like Jacob.”
“Jacob’s very happy,” I say, which is his point, of course.
“And look how he left you.”
“What if I thought you made me happy?” Somewhere, somehow, Mary’s cheering me on: that gets me through the sentence. “Would this be a date? Or are we both too . . . tired?”
Tired of doing hurt, and tired of taking it. Tired of the great cartographic project. Isn’t it a little like cartography? Meeting lovely people, mapping them, racing to find their hurts before they can find yours—getting use from them, squeezing them dry, and then striking first, unilaterally and with awful effect, because the alternative is waiting for them to do the same to you. These are the rules, you didn’t make them, they’re not your fault. So you might as well play to win.
Nico looks at me with dark guarded eyes. I would bet my life here, at last, that he’s wearing one of his good jackets.
“Dominga,” he says, and makes a little motion like he’s going to take my hand, but can’t quite commit, “Dominga, I’m sorry, but . . . God, I must sound like such an asshole, but I meant what I said. I’m done hurting people.”
And I know exactly what he’s saying. I remember it, I feel it—it’s like when you get drunk with a guy and everything’s just magical, you feel connected, you feel okay. But you know, even then, even in that moment, that tomorrow you will regret this: that the hole you opened up to him will admit the cold, or the knife. There will be a text from him, or the absence of a text, or—worse, much worse—the sight of him with someone new, months later, after the breakup, the sight of him doing that secret thing he does to say, I’m thinking of you, except it’s not secret any more, and it’s not you he’s thinking of now.
And you just want to be done. You want a warmer world.
So here it is: my purpose, my plan. “Nico, what if I could give you a way out?”
He sets down his wine glass and turns it by the stem. It makes a faint, high shriek against the blackened steel tabletop, and he winces, and says, “What do you mean?”
“Just imagine a hypothetical. Imagine you’re right about everything—the universe is a hard place. To live you have to risk a lot of hurt.” You’re going to wonder how I came up with the rest of this, and all I can offer is fatigue, terror, maggots in my air vents, the memory of broken skulls on sidewalks: a kind of stress psychosis. Or the other explanation, of course. “Imagine that our last chance to be really good is revoked at the instant of our conception.”
He follows along with good humor and a kind of adorable narcissism that I’m so engaged with his cosmic bullshit and (under it all) an awakening sense that something’s off, askew. “Okay . . .”
The twin red suns multiply our shadows around us. I drift a little ways above myself on the wine, and it makes it easier to go on, to imagine or transmit this: “What if something out there knew a secret—”
A secret! Such a secret, a secret you might hear in the wind that passes between the libraries of jade teeth that wait in an empty city burnt stark by a high blue star that never leaves the zenith, a secret that tumbles down on you like a fall of maggots from a white place behind everything, where a pale immensity circles on the silent wind.
”What if there were a way out? Like a phone number you could call, a person you could talk to, kind of a hotline, and you’d say, oh, I’m a smart, depressed, compassionate person, I’m tired of the great lie that it’s possible to do more good than harm, I’m tired of my Twitter feed telling me the world’s basically a car full of kindergartners crumpling up in a trash compactor. I don’t want to be complicit any more. I want out. Not suicide, no, that’d just hurt people. I want something better. And they’d say, sure, man, we have your mercy here, we can do that. We can make it so you never were.”
He looks at me with an expression of the most terrible unguarded longing. He tries to cover it up, he tries to go flirty or sarcastic, but he can’t.
I take my phone out, my embarrassing old flip phone, and put it on the table between us. I don’t have to use the contacts to remember. The number keys make soft chiming noises as I type the secret in.
“So,” I say, “my question is: who goes first?”
Something deep beneath me exalts, as if this is what it wants: and I cannot say if that thing is separate from me.
He reaches for the phone. “Not you, I hope,” he says, with a really brave play-smile: he knows this is all a game, an exercise of imagination. He knows it’s real. “The world needs people like you, Dominga. So what am I going to get? Is it a sex line?”
“If you go first,” I say, “do you think that’d change the world enough that I wouldn’t want to go second?”
I have this stupid compassion in me, and it cries out for the hurts of others. Nico’s face, just then—God, have you ever known this kind of beauty? This desperate, awful hope that the answer was yes, that he might, by his absence, save me?
His finger hovers a little way above the call button.
“I think you’d have to go first,” he says. He puts his head back, all the way back, as if to blow smoke: but I think he’s looking up at the facsimile stars. “That’d be important.”
“Because,” he says, all husky nonchalance, “if you weren’t here, I would absolutely go; whereas if I weren’t here, I don’t know if you’d go. And if this method were real, this, uh, operation of mercy, then the universe is lost, the whole operation’s fucked, and it’s vital that you get out.”
His finger keeps station a perilous few millimeters from the call. I watch this space breathlessly. “Tell me why,” I say, to keep him talking, and then I realize: oh, Nico, you’d think this out, wouldn’t you? You’d consider the new rules. You’d understand the design. And I’m afraid that what he’ll say will be right —
He lays it out there: “Well, who’d use it?”
“Good people,” I say. That’s how burnout operates. You burn out because you care. “Compassionate people.”
“That’s right.” He gets a little melancholy here, a little singsong, in a way that feels like the rhythm of my stranger thoughts. I wonder if he’s had an uncanny couple days too, and whether I’ll ever get a chance to ask him. “The universe sucks, man, but it sucks a lot more if you care, if you feel the hurt around you. So if there were a way out—a certain kind of people would use it, right? And those people would go extinct.”
There might have been a billion good people, ten billion, a hundred, before us: and one by one they chose to go, to be unmade, a trickle at first, just the kindest, the ones most given to shoulder their neighbors’ burdens and ask nothing in exchange—but the world would get harder for the loss of each of them, and there’d be more reason then, more hurt to go around, so the rattle would become an avalanche.
And we’d be left. The dregs. Little selfish people and their children.
The stars above change, the false constellations reconfiguring. Nico sighs up at them. “You think that’s why the sky’s empty?”
“Of—aliens, you mean?” What a curious brain.
“Yeah. They were too good. They ran into bad people, bad situations, and they didn’t want to compromise themselves. So they opted out.”
“Maybe someone’s hunting good people.” If this thing were real, well, wouldn’t it be a perfect weapon, a perfect instrument in something’s special plan? Bait and trap all at once.
“Maybe. One way or another—well, we should go, right?” He comes back from the cosmic distance. His finger hasn’t moved. He grins his stupid cocky camouflage grin because the alternative is ghoulish and he says, “I think I make a pretty compelling case.”
Everything cold and always getting colder because the warmth puts itself out.
“Maybe.” Maybe. He’s very clever. “But I’m not going first.”
Nico puts his finger down (and I feel the cold, up out of my bones, sharp in my heart) but he’s just pinning the corner of the phone so he can spin it around. “Jacob definitely wouldn’t make the call,” he says, teasing, a really harsh kind of tease, but it’s about me, about how I hurt, which feels good.
“Neither would Mary,” I say, which is, all in all, my counterargument, my stanchion, my sole refuge. If something’s out to conquer us, well, the conquest isn’t done. Something good remains. Mary’s still here. She hasn’t gone yet—whether you take all this as a thought experiment or not.
“Who’s Mary?” He raises a skeptical eyebrow: you have friends?
“Stick around,” I say, “and I’ll tell you.”
Right then I get one more glimpse past the armor: he’s frustrated, he’s glad, he’s all knotted up, because I won’t go first, and whatever going first means, he doesn’t want to leave me to go second. He wouldn’t have to care anymore, of course. But he still cares. That’s how compassion works.
If I had a purpose here, well, I suppose it’s done.
“You’re taking a break from work?” He closes the phone and pushes it back to me. “What’s up with that? Can I help?”
When I go to take the phone he makes a little gesture, like he wants to take my hand, and I make a little gesture like I want him to—and between the two of us, well, we manage.
I still have the number, of course. Maybe you worry that it works. Maybe you’re afraid I’ll use it, or that Nico will, when things go bad. Things do so often go bad.
You won’t know if I use it, of course, because then I’ll never have told you this story, and you’ll never have read it. But that’s a comfort, isn’t it? That’s enough.
The story’s still here. We go on.
“Please Undo This Hurt” copyright © 2015 by Seth Dickinson
Art copyright © 2015 by Wesley Allsbrook