Conjunctions:74 Grendel’s Kin: The Monsters Issue

We Are All Breakable, Ready to Break

After the bites. After the appearance of what, under one of the wobbly lamps in the employee dressing room/lounge, looked like three welts on T.’s forearm and two little ones on the webbing between S.’s index finger and thumb. After they (zombie fans all of them, horror fans all of them, gore fans all of them) whooped for October 1, whooped for the whole damn month, whooped for another year at the Haunted Farm, which was the only thing they loved in otherwise miserable Olney, Maryland. After they complimented each other on their costumes, even more detailed than last year: zombies, all of them, with fake gashes and rashes and torn clothes and flaking skin. After they decided the biter must have been a deranged coworker, some new bozo they hadn’t met. After they said, That was fucked up, but gave him props for getting into character. After they passed a bottle of whiskey around (a few of them still underage) to loosen their fingers and joints and help paint their moans. After they tried some of those moans together. After they critiqued them. After they talked about what they’d do in a real zombie apocalypse and said they hoped for one and admitted (some of them) that they’d prepped, stashed a little food and a few rudimentary weapons. After they agreed the world deserved it now more than ever (and also agreed, though they left it unsaid, that their movie knowledge and their job at the Haunted Farm in pathetic Olney, Maryland, and the love between them, the strength of their friendship, would be what kept them alive as the Hoard consumed almost everyone else). After their manager poked his head in (that boring haircut) and sent half of them to the cornfield and half to the barn. After they worked for a couple hours, stumbling and lurching and teeth gnashing. After they scared some kids and even made one cry and generally had a pretty good time. After T. and S. met in the dressing room/lounge during a break and compared their bites again and convinced themselves the swelling wasn’t swelling. After they said, I’m OK, you OK? After their manager (that haircut again) pointed them back out. After, on the walk over to her spot, S. thought triumphantly that zombies didn’t really haunt, couldn’t. After T., from his position in one of the dark corners of what used to be a stable, sighed about Maryland’s obsession with horses, cursed the Preakness (the mistreatment of animals, the use of animals for show, the torturing of animals, essentially). After S. felt something snap in her hand. After the surface of T.’s underarm prickled and then opened like a zipper. After S. thought, What the hell? and wondered if her makeup was defective, had gone gloopy, was causing her skin to burn. After T. plunged his arm into a slant of light jutting dramatically and decided pus wasn’t quite the right word (but there was no other word he could think of). After the pus began to bubble. After T. panicked. After he told himself he didn’t care and abandoned his post to search for S. After he tripped in the dark and flailed, hugging for a clump of cornless cornstalks as if they’d be enough to keep him from falling, as if they wouldn’t just fall over with him. After he moaned S.’s name. After he began to want. After that want, which started out hazy, began to sharpen, and found its way into his teeth and tongue. After he pushed himself up and lurched toward a group of teenagers and grabbed the hand of one and got a wriggling finger into his mouth. After the kid’s friends wrenched the kid free. After one of them called him a pervert, and the kid he’d bitten said, He bit me, he really bit me, and another said, This is awesome, this is too fucking real. After T. felt the instant ecstasy from the bite, and relief, and then disappointment, and the same want he’d felt before, even stronger. After the shock (which wasn’t the right word exactly). After the horror (which wasn’t the right word either). After he stood there, the taste of blood in his mouth, for seconds that felt like minutes or hours. After his throat locked and he couldn’t breathe. After he thought, But I should be dead, but I must be dead. After he thought, But I’m putting everyone in danger. After he thought, Quarantine, quarantine. After the want drowned everything else and he forgot the pain and forgot the fact that he was bleeding and forgot the desires he used to have, which were fairly normal desires of a twenty-year-old and had to do (mostly) with trying to be who everyone wanted him to be (whoever that was), trying to be himself (whoever that was), trying to hang out with his friends and to get drunk, and trying to figure out how to finally kiss S., whom he’d liked since they were little. After, far on the other side of the haunted cornfield, S. heard a shot and another (there was no shortage of guns in Montgomery County, Maryland; there was no shortage of guns anywhere), and a scream and another, and a splatter (an unhumanlike splatter, a splatter no human body should have made), the violence barely violence (all body, no soul), and she watched it the way she would watch it in a movie, almost laughing, and she understood there was no before for her now, and she and her friends hadn’t been smarter than everyone else, hadn’t helped each other, hadn’t escaped, but had, in fact, been the first victims of the apocalypse they had imagined (jokingly, but still), and she stumbled forward, not mindless exactly, but with a mind that only went so far, trapped inside its new want, its new desire, its simple need to join the Hoard and spread and spread.

In praise of the sandwich M. says has a face. In praise of the face M. says is the face of Jesus. In praise of us, who were able to see that face, eventually, if we looked just right. In praise of the sandwich’s immortal power. In praise of M., who, at the bidding of the holy sandwich, found the strength to help us, cupped our fears in his left hand and covered them with his right and pulled his hands apart like a magician. In praise of M., who makes simple what seemed complicated before, who says, simply, that strength and love are the same, and the strength it takes to love is also the courage it takes to accept love. In praise of prayer, which the sandwich, through M., its translator, tells us we must do three times a day, same as eating. In praise of the ritual the sandwich has called, to which we arrive single file, wearing the colorful robes we’ve stitched. In praise of M.’s mustache, aflame in the candlelight, brilliant in the candlelight, dancing like another flame above his lip. In praise of the way we remove our robes, our nakedness not vulnerability anymore, but, together, an armor. In praise of M., who readies his hands around L.’s neck, and of L., who accepts those hands with his head thrown back, his eyes shut, his skin unblemished and pure. In praise of M.’s thumbs, which press L.’s neck harder, until L. tries to take a breath and can’t and his thin shoulders shudder. In praise of L., who calms after a few seconds and opens his eyes and lets them roam from face to face to face. In praise of the beauty of it, the sacrifice, the muscles in M.’s arms, long, so long, healthy, so healthy, his veins flowing and all of him flowing like a kind of electricity into L. and through the great triangle and through the sandwich and through us. In praise of M., who releases L. just in time, opens his hands, and of L., who falls to his knees, heaving as if he’s come alive again, as if he’s been resurrected. In praise of L.’s body, naked in the candlelight, his face inches from the floor. In praise of how seeing him closer to death helps us appreciate life. In praise of how we are all breakable, ready to break. In praise of the end of the world. In praise of the world’s end, which the sandwich says is not far off. In praise of us, who have survived families casting us out, or survived leaving our families, or survived our families dying, leaving us. In praise of M., who says, See, girls and boys, see, all we need to do is stay together, all we need to do is become one. In praise of this beautiful farm on the outskirts of Dawsonville, Maryland, where we grow our food and live. In praise of the books M. has given us, even if we haven’t read them. In praise of the games M. has given us, even if we haven’t had time to play. In praise of the chapel M. built in the shed, the room for rituals on the second floor, the cyanide waiting and ready in the crawl space below. In praise of all of M.’s weaknesses, which are many, but which we salve by taking them into ourselves, where he can’t see them, where they’re out of sight. In praise of the phrase “in praise,” which the sandwich requires we use at the start of every sentence, every thought. In praise of the phrase “in praise,” which has made us more grateful for each word and each breath that carries those words. In praise of L., who turns over now so he’s on his back on the bare floor, and of M., who takes the holy sandwich off its plate and holds it up for G. to kiss and then places it gently on L.’s stomach, the depression just under his ribs. In praise of the candlelight, swimming. In praise of our bodies, swimming. In praise of us, free and inflamed. In praise of M., who takes the sandwich again and returns it to the plate and covers it with a napkin. In praise of G., who covers L. with his robe. In praise of us, who slip our robes on again and tie them and leave L. alone to reflect and feel. In praise of the doubters, who whisper and point out that our holy sandwich is starting to smell pungent, dark, almost eggy, its bread growing spots of green, with hair. In praise of the doubters who wonder if the sandwich is going bad like any sandwich, if the face is disappearing, if there ever was a face at all. In praise of the doubters who say, This has happened before, hasn’t something like this happened before? In praise of M., who says the doubters keep us strong: doubt being the same as belief and therefore the same as strength and therefore the same as love. In praise of the neighbors who have noticed us through the trees, of the one who came over to call us monsters. In praise of V., who told him that if we are monsters, it is only because we love too much, are overbrimming. In praise of us, who did not have voices before, or had them but nobody listened, and who now want to be heard, even if we’re still deciding what we want to say. In praise of the sandwich, which says through M., its unlikely messenger, that it is time to go. In praise of our hearts, which start to beat hard. In praise of the world ending in seven days, just as it started. In praise of us, whom the sandwich, and M., have chosen to ascend. In praise of us, who take our clothes off for the last time and put on our robes for the last time and walk single file, holding a candle each. In praise of the basement, where M. has unrolled a carpet on the concrete floor and placed the sandwich close to one of the edges. In praise of us, who, from practice, form an effortless and humble triangle. In praise of the sandwich as one point and M. as another and G. as the third. In praise of the paper cups, one for each of us, the juice in that cup, the cyanide in the juice. In praise of the sandwich and M., who both say we have no obligation to drink or to remain part of the group or to ascend. In praise of heaven. In praise of the beyond. In praise of passing the sandwich around one more time, each of us taking a bite until it is consumed, gone, until a little part of it is hurtling through each of us. In praise of living and dying, which should not cause fear because, as M. says, they are the same, and are therefore the same as belief and therefore strength and therefore the same as the love we found courage to give and only wanted to receive all along.

Imagine the end of imagining. Imagine how, without it, there would be no monsters. Imagine that, instead of fantasies, your wants are curated, played out on the screen. Imagine watching yourself take any drug, touch anyone or anything, go to war in any century and fight and die and reboot and fight and die again. Imagine how that might free you from your own dark thoughts, from the fear all humans used to have of acting on that darkness, of being capable of it, of passing on that darkness and fear, of spreading it as quickly as fire or disease. Imagine hell, which has always been a simulation anyway—written and preached and painted and reconstructed on film—that place dreamed by humans to punish themselves for the monsters they were sure they were—that place where humans could imagine suffering at the hands of devils and demons, the way they were sure they deserved. Imagine that though hell still looks much the same now, we visit it only when we want to, watch the monsters stab us and burn us and stuff us with grapes until we swipe over to some bathtub or breezy terrace or beach. Imagine only knowing where you actually are from a pop-up in the right-hand corner of your screen—mine says Montgomery County, Maryland, close to Washington, DC—and imagine that place meaning little to you, meaning only where you left your body before you ascended to HEAVEN! and after. Imagine being guaranteed a spot in HEAVEN!—which is always written in caps, always with an exclamation point, always copyrighted, trademarked, registered. Imagine how this happened—how it really was inevitable—how as humans it was always our nature to invent ways to make our lives easier. Imagine how this used to take one great imagination or the imaginations of the collective, or both, and patience, and eons of trial and error. Imagine how, little by little, we tamed fire, developed better tools, taught ourselves to farm. Imagine our brilliant, stupid brains going into overdrive as soon as we had access to energy, real energy—oil, nuclear, coal. Imagine how we produced, breakneck, tools that could circle the world, transportation that could take you anywhere, all the fat and salt and calories you could eat. Imagine how, once humans beamed electric lights into every dim corner, they defeated the monsters that lurked there, and the hoard split, almost evenly, half looking for utopia, half pining for the past, one side making devils and demons of the other, even if, in the end, both sides wanted the same thing. Imagine politicians falling prey to lobbyists falling prey to greed falling prey to lack of imagination. Imagine that you are there, right there, in the moment of that split—because you are—and imagine our callousness, the jokes we send about our brilliant, stupid ancestors—when they became too much for the world, when the world became too much for them, when it all came so close to ending. Imagine that, just at the last moment, against all odds, humans saved themselves, not through innovation or cooperation or harmony, but simply under the pressure of their own dull claws, their division becoming numbness becoming fatigue, and they returned to their love of ease. Imagine yourself as part of it—because you are. Imagine fitting a pod around your body, strapping on your headset, setting your Tangential Life Mechanisms, slipping out of your life and finally, fully, mercifully, into your screen. Imagine that you will soon shift the burden of inventing to the computers. Imagine how much better at it they will be—without sentiment, without selfishness, without the fear of change. Imagine consumption going virtual. Imagine energy going clean. Imagine warming leveling out. Imagine us, inside our pods now, enveloped by the pleasure of receiving any bit of information, any byte, any image at any time, any text. Imagine how good it feels, how easy it is, like gorging on pizza or cheesecake every minute of every day. Imagine how if you saw us, you would think of us as monsters, so disconnected from our bodies, but imagine that we get to watch ourselves eat at the best restaurants every night, watch ourselves go to Mars or the moon, watch ourselves go to the Uffizi or Rijksmuseum or Louvre and hang paintings we made—paintings the computer painted for us—right next to a Michelangelo or Rembrandt or da Vinci. Imagine our friends and relatives living forever, bytes now, stored in HEAVEN!, a simulation so real we might as well call it immortality. Imagine the pure pleasure of not having to imagine. Imagine the relief of not having to think about any of it. Imagine the end of fear, the end of darkness, and how, now, we control the monsters—or our screens do—deciding when and where they come. Imagine why we chose this, even if we had to give everything up to get everything, and how it wasn’t a choice, not really. Imagine someone from my time writing to someone from yours as I am writing now—the computer writing for me. Imagine this note as a how-to for the past, a warning, but also an everyone-calm-down-humankind-is- going-to-be-OK. Imagine me sending it, or imagine my screen simulating that. Imagine me watching you—a simulation of you, whoever you are, reading. Imagine how I can see your demons, even those you cannot and even those you are sure you feel but are not truly there. Imagine that, at first, you will not quite be able to imagine. Imagine that you will deny it, will turn away, but imagine you will also realize you still have time to imagine something else, that you might be the one to imagine what saves us.

Considering my marriage to Joel. Considering the different names we’ve had during our century together. Considering the beautiful house before us: a Craftsman like ours, with a stone chimney like ours, but bigger, much bigger, and in the most sought-after part of Takoma Park. Considering why I feel so competitive walking up. Considering that the two of us, Joel and I, are wearing vampire costumes, me in a corset that is tight enough to pinch, him in a nice vest and a puffy-sleeved shirt, both our faces powdered to make us paler, our coats still with store creases in them, our hands deep in our pockets imitating claws. Considering that we once wore clothes like these for no other reason than they were in fashion. Considering our survival has always rested on the ability to fit in. Considering that we’re nervous, considering that we’ve never done this before, considering that we’ve become parodies of ourselves. Considering the exposed rafters over the house’s front porch, which are pretty, the rounded rafter tails, the paneled door. Considering the sign that says, You Are Invited, Please Enter, written in the red crayon of one of their kids probably, red drops dripping from the letters to look like blood. Considering this won’t be enough. Considering Joel tries anyway, and pulls his hand back from the handle, his fingers smoking until they heal. Considering we must now wait on the porch for another couple in vampire costumes, must pretend we’re taking the vampire rules seriously when we ask if they’ll go inside and ask us, formally, to enter. Considering my humiliation. Considering the man’s slippery glance. Considering Joel’s eyes on his feet. Considering that we have no reason to be afraid or ashamed. Considering we’re immortal. Considering how we ended up here, with Joel working for the government and me for a nonprofit that supports DC- and Maryland-area poets. Considering that we’re bored and have been trying to convince ourselves that it’s a good thing. Considering why, after ten years, nobody’s seemed to notice we haven’t aged. Considering how small the world’s gotten and that there are fewer and fewer places we haven’t been. Considering how things were easier before everyone knew about the garlic, about the sunlight and the stake, before everyone knew what our bites looked like and what something drained of blood might mean. Considering the disgust or disappointment on Joel’s face when I suggested a few months ago that we try a marriage counselor. Considering that, when you’re as old as we are, you’re always considering. Considering that half of what I eat is blood. Considering that long ago, before I met Joel, he drank from humans regularly. Considering my shock when he told me he would do it again, could probably do it again, almost kind of craved it. Considering that if he did, in this age of information, in this time, it would mean almost certain death. Considering the party we’re at, which Joel found by lurking around online like some less dignified monster. Considering the hierarchy of monsters, and that we, the vampires, have always been at or near the top. Considering the house’s front entryway, full of candles that urge us toward the room to our left. Considering that room, where four vampires sit on the sectional and four more sit on chairs dragged in from the kitchen. Considering the different ones: some Anne Rices or Bram Stokers like us, a couple of Coppolas, a few hipper and leather-jacketed from Buffy or Lost Boys or Blade, one actually scary Nosferatu, and one in a thick Nordic sweater from Let the Right One In. Considering we feel our costumes don’t match up. Considering we feel underdressed. Considering that some of these people may have gone more goth than vampire, though, I admit, the line is hard for most to see. Considering that we and the other couple are the last vampires to arrive. Considering it is, just as we knew it would be, a swingers’ party. Considering that, in real life, vampires aren’t as sexual as the movies make us, aren’t as magnetic, are kind of, actually, the opposite. Considering that’s one of the few things pop culture gets wrong about us. Considering the woman who gets Joel leads him promptly out of the room. Considering I draw the Nosferatu, who wants to stay on the couch a while and share a bottle of red wine. Considering that my job is the only thing I can think to talk about until I realize this is the one place where I can tell him what my life is truly like. Considering the man’s tongue on my neck. Considering his teeth on my neck. Considering his question: what if vampires brought about the end of the world, and my flabbergasted answer, Vampires would never do that, how would we eat? Considering the angle of the Nosferatu’s eyebrows. Considering all I can do is stand and stumble to find Joel. Considering he’s behind the cracked door of the third bedroom on the first floor, his mouth on the neck of the woman, his fangs in her skin, her moaning, him moaning, her smile almost wicked, his smile almost wicked too. Considering that when I grab for him, I get his hair, and I pull, yanking his head and mouth away. Considering his howl, which shatters something deep inside me, something already cracked, now in pieces. Considering how the two of us run, flee, first together but then apart, away from Maryland, away from the United States, to South America and then Europe and then Asia. Considering that immortality is never really immortality. Considering how, when you have to drink blood to live all you want is an easy way to eat. Considering that, when you’re loved and feared as much as a vampire, people lose track of the difference. Considering how the same world that believes in you, insists on you, is the world that also makes you impossible, also makes you wonder if you were there at all.

As if someone else might finally pay for A.’s steak, especially today, when he was pretty sure he deserved it. As if walking across DC in the summer would ever feel like anything other than walking across the ceiling of a sauna. As if A. wasn’t already molten under his suit. As if telling himself he’d soon be in the air-conditioning might stop the sweat, might save him from another leap of faith with the dry cleaner. As if the sign over the crosswalk on Constitution could count down any slower. As if the tourists might, for once, just once, resemble anything other than aliens who had recently landed their craft. As if they could ever keep their elbows and shoulders and wide eyes and giddiness to themselves. As if they could walk an entire block without careening left or stopping for no apparent reason. As if they could ever dress without looking like people who looked like they’d put on their clothes out of town. As if A. could pass that ugly fountain between Pennsylvania and Constitution without someone yelling at him, accusing him of being a vampire or troll or zombie, or accusing him of selling his soul to the Man or to Satan or Lucifer or Beelzebub. As if the shouter might ever be someone other than a graying hippie, the saddest thing, or a Jehovah’s Witness on an overturned crate or a homeless man with his eyes tuned to different channels than his teeth or a feminist with smiley-face pasties and a sign filled with curse words or sex puns or both. As if A. could just ignore it. As if he could just walk by without the anger swelling up, without thoughts along the lines of, If I’m a monster, I’ll show you what a monster can do, without the images that came, so violent and fucked up and horror movie, his breath caught in his throat and a wave of shame that followed, doubt, and thoughts along the lines of, Maybe they’re right, maybe I am, maybe I’m becoming one. As if A. had gotten more than a few steps closer to the relief of the Capital Grille. As if his friends weren’t already inside, drinking, ready to shake his hand and punch him on the shoulder and bring up his “chance” meeting with the senator. As if word of A.’s triumph hadn’t already spread over the Hill and to the White House. As if his friends wouldn’t want to hear if from him anyway, wouldn’t ask him to repeat exactly what he’d said and how he said it. As if A. wouldn’t happily remind them that the senator had been wavering, his stance on oil and coal weak after that hurricane crawled over his state, and A. had brought the senator back around, the light coming back on in the senator’s eyes, the flicker. As if lobbying didn’t often feel so much like a game. As if they weren’t so fucking good at it. As if the lobbyists on the other side, the environmentalists, the greensters, the greenies, had any chance against them. As if trolls could make the arguments they did in one-minute or five-minute or seven-minute bursts. As if vampires could love anybody the way A. loved each of his coworkers and friends. As if zombies could return that love the way his coworkers and friends returned it. As if A. could ever, just once, catch the light at Pennsylvania perfectly. As if he could ever cross without stepping over fast-food bags ripped like soldiers at war or pizza-box sarcophagi leaking their uneaten crusts like bones. As if, A. thought, it isn’t really just the city that’s the monster, DC mutating everyone to monsters inside it. As if he could just get to the restaurant, just cool down for a minute. As if he didn’t already know his order: a medium-rare New York strip, half a dozen raw oysters, clam chowder so good it reminded him of his mom’s, roasted mushrooms, au gratin potatoes, dessert. As if he wouldn’t eat it all, ravenously, insatiably, like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. As if someone else might actually pay. As if the DC traffic might just part for him on his drive home, all the way up Connecticut to Chevy Chase, like a magician pulling his hands apart to reveal something impossible. As if, after that, he’d have time to scan the blogs and see who was talking about him and check email to see who was reaching out, and, when his eyes got tired, to do what he never did and close his laptop and go out to his backyard to sit alone in the heat and sip some whiskey and listen to the suburban quiet as pool lights swayed across the fence. As if, A. thought, in the middle of Pennsylvania now, stalled on the island between one direction of traffic and the other, there could be anything more unfortunate than wanting to sell your soul and failing to do so. As if there could be anything worse than putting on your best clothes and going outside and looking down past your feet and announcing that you are ready, finally ready, but you don’t even get a puff of smoke, and Satan or Lucifer or Beelzebub or whatever he calls himself, doesn’t come, doesn’t even flash his red cape, and you think, Maybe he’s busy with other soul sellers, maybe he just didn’t hear, but after few more minutes, after repeating your intentions a couple of times, you start to understand he doesn’t want you or he sees you as worthless or he knows your soul is already destined for hell and he can already feel it in his claws. As if, after coming up with that, A. could keep himself from wondering whether it would happen to him. As if, he laughed, soul sellers couldn’t just go online now, check whether they were preapproved, make their soul payments securely through PayPal or Venmo. As if selling his soul might finally, fully, break the DC heat around him, might cause his dry cleaner to return his shirts crisp and clean and undamaged, might compel one of his friends to cover his dinner and the right bloggers to mention him and the president to give him a shout-out and, most importantly, might clear the rush-hour traffic. As if, A. thought, a family on his left speaking a language he didn’t know and a couple to his right speaking a different one and a red Capital Bike missing his foot by an inch, selling his soul might bring him even greater relief than all that. As if it might save him from suspecting, as he had lately, that being paid to talk didn’t mean all the talking he did was true, that having what he wanted, success and attention and love even, didn’t necessarily mean he had done anything to deserve them. As if selling his soul might actually empty him of the emptiness. As if it could clear his conscience by erasing it. As if it could turn him into a vampire or zombie or troll, or, better yet, turn him, with all his anger and doubts, into nothing, nothing at all. As if, A. thought, entering the cool air of the restaurant and seeing R. and F. and O. waving, calling him over, as if.

Therefore, the door that appeared in the Lowe’s parking lot, across from the Panera Bread, catty-corner from the Michaels and the Whole Foods. Therefore, all of us, ten years younger then, dazed from the early exultation and sleeplessness and constant worry of new parenthood, were a bit out of tune with everything past our front lawns, caught in the immediate wants of our babies or toddlers, those little monsters, we called them, affectionately, absorbed by our immediate want to fill those wants. Therefore, we sensed a get-together for the first time in a long time, a gathering. Therefore, we didn’t even hesitate. Therefore, we strapped our children into their car seats, loaded up the diaper bags, folded the strollers, and went. Therefore, the circle we made that first afternoon and the time we spent staring at what was just a freestanding frame and a closed door inside it in the middle of a great stretch of concrete. Therefore, we should have grabbed soups and sandwiches from Panera and gone home, but we didn’t, mostly because the door was old, a little weathered even, not newly built and definitely previously used, and, on the Lowe’s side, it had five etches or scratches that could have been made by something as simple as a key, but looked like they’d been made by the claws of a hand about twice the size of a human’s. Therefore, the door stood with what I can only describe as a kind of unsettling confidence, like it knew it would soon become a great part of our lives. Therefore, the joke I repeated a few times back then, that the door was the same as the monster that had scratched it, reaching out to us and saying, I am not friendly but I am going to live among you, I am going to force you to be my friend. Therefore, as dusk settled on the door a few days after, and D. saw the neon from the Lowe’s slant across those scratches, he went to the woodshop he’d built in his garage and made two signs, one to hang on the Lowe’s side of the door that said, Do not open, and one to hang on the Panera side that said the exact same thing. Therefore, the Door That Must Never Be Opened became a tourist attraction in our little city of Gaithersburg, Maryland, with T-shirts and a festival and food stands, and tourists coming up from DC, and maybe even people coming down from Baltimore, though I have no idea what people up there do. Therefore, they eat an excellent falafel and line up to take photos of themselves with their hands pretending to turn the knob. Therefore, they had to open another Panera on the other side of town because the original was always too crowded. Therefore, all of us in Gaithersburg know how doors work, chassis to spindle to latch. Therefore, the schools in Gaithersburg spend a few days on the door every year, and our kids, now twelve and ten, are always handing us waivers to sign for field trips, and we’re always asking where they’re going, and they’re always saying, We’re going to see the door. Therefore, as was inevitable, imaginations clicked in, stories sprang up, fairy tales basically, the kind, I think, people write together about whatever occupies them or as a way to understand something or explain something or place them in time or distinguish where they live from everywhere else. Therefore, in Gaithersburg, we don’t remember how the stories started, or exactly when, but they were probably a way to have fun and scare each other a little and make our city feel special. Therefore, the happy stories alongside the darker ones alongside the ones with the monster or a group of monsters poised to do what they could with teeth and claws. Therefore, one of the most famous, about how our door holds up the sky over Gaithersburg and how the sky over Gaithersburg holds up the sky over the rest of the world, and if the door were opened, the sky would fall, crushing our city first, and then everywhere else. Therefore, the story about a man named Z., who came close to opening the door and ending it all, confusing it, on his way home from the bar, for his own front door, calling through it for his wife and son, growing distraught when neither answered, thinking they were punishing him with silence for staying out too late and thinking he deserved that punishment, and he took his hand off the knob and slid down and slept with his back to the door and, in the morning, realized what he’d almost done. Therefore, the story about a scientist named C., an academic and born skeptic from College Park, who invented some machine to test the air around the door and take measurements and readings, who concluded, when the machine came up with nothing, that the door was just a door, that the etches were probably made by some prankster with a kitchen knife, and she put her hand on the knob and turned it, heard the latch rattle and release, pushed until the door creaked open, and a light that science couldn’t explain filled the crack, and she heard whispers and voices and growls, and watched a giant hand fly out and grab her wrist, yank her in. Therefore, our kids love these stories, the mystery, the mythology even, but I’ve noticed they’ve developed, almost sadly, almost disturbingly, an honest fear and an unwavering belief, despite what we tell them, that opening the door could actually release these monsters, could actually bring about the end of the world. Therefore, the photograph my son took, where the pocked knob looks exactly like a full moon. Therefore, it’s up on our fridge. Therefore, it’s the most artistic thing he’s ever done. Therefore, the meeting in the Gaithersburg High School auditorium a few weeks ago with parents active in the community, where we all blurted out our unease until we exhausted ourselves, which, I’ve noticed, is the way concerned parents tend to do it, working ourselves up together before hopefully bringing ourselves down. Therefore, we talked about the trauma our kids might face if some tourist actually turned the knob or a rogue wind happened to push the door open or, what has become common belief in our little city, that the monsters or demons, or whatever might live beyond the door, decides to open it. Therefore, some of the parents launched into a long description, a very vivid description, of these monsters or demons spilling out into the Lowe’s parking lot and into the Lowe’s and messing up the Michaels and trashing the Panera Bread, and killing, of course, and, of course, killing. Therefore, in that moment, in our meeting in the Gaithersburg High School auditorium, I, and probably some of the other parents realized that, without trying, we’d passed our fears onto our children and our children had kind of incubated them and made them stronger before passing them back, and we’d done this despite our good intentions, because we loved them and didn’t want them to be afraid, and the monsters had filled the unfilled spaces around us and the unfilled time, the way they should have done only in the dark ages or in the old days or whenever people didn’t know any better. Therefore, I raised my hand and said something to this effect, put it quite well, I thought. Therefore, we discussed the solution of putting a guard on each side of the door and putting some mostly harmless weapons in those guards’ pockets or hands, and someone pointed out that it might help our kids but would annoy the tourists, and someone else said that it might not help our kids, but might, actually, cause them to think that the stories they’d come to believe must be true. Therefore, a compromise, no guards yet, but an empty chair on either side.

Lucas Southworth’s first fiction collection, Everyone Here Has a Gun (University of Massachusetts Press), won AWP’s Grace Paley Prize. Recent work has appeared or will appear in AGNIAlaska Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XLVI (forthcoming in 2022).