Fiction

Penthelm

By Edward Wells

The river comes at Penthelm, in its depression, from the southeast. Before reaching the town, the river curves to the northeast around the natural levy of the ridge. It circles the town, back toward the southeast, slowly descending along the ridge before drifting off to the southwest.       Emily sat in Weston Hall, Penthelm’s library, on Saturday afternoons. On a Saturday in March a stack of four books and her respirator sat on the table. When she was cutting, she had at least two books in front of her. The top one concealed what she did to the bottom. She was looking at pages in a book about 15th century botany. She was interested in four pages with clusters of illustrations from texts around the world. When she had chosen, she laid the book on the table and took from her pocket what appeared to be a writing pen.

            Emily had removed the insides of the writing pen. As she unscrewed the cap, the blade of a hobby knife was revealed. She coughed, then listened. She looked around then slid a cutting sheet beneath the piece she had selected. She dragged the blade across the page. The line was clean. It dissected pictures and looped out to include details. Finally, it swirled back to touch itself. She quickly removed the piece and the cutting sheet and slid them into a folder. She flipped several pages in the book and placed the second book on top of it. She replaced the lid to the writing pen and returned it.

            The following Sunday, Emily sat at her desk in her studio apartment. She used the flat edge of a ruler to smooth a plastic bag across the desk. The bag was rectangular, made to hold a newspaper. It had been delivered the previous Sunday. She spread glue over a section of the plastic. She held a cutting, taken from a book, above the yellow plastic. She turned the paper to her right, then turned it back to her left. Emily lowered the paper into the glue. She spread the paper flat with the ruler’s edge. She worked at the assemblage until she covered the entire surface of the plastic bag.

            A crane from a collection of Li Po’s poetry was landing among lilies from the 15th century botany book in front of mountains from an atlas of Nepal. Above, a satellite from an aerospace encyclopedia was swirling through darkness, mottled with streaks and smears of light, which had been the end page of an anthology on modern psychology circa 1985.

            Emily left the assemblage to dry over one of the rods of a puppet rack she had mounted on her wall.

            In the early hours of Tuesday, Emily put away the mop and bucket she had used to clean the girl’s high school locker room. The steam and the smoke from the fires beneath the earth of Penthelm colluded to produce a whiteout. Above the whiteout was a full moon. Emily had hoped to climb to the ridge in its light and release her most recent fire lantern.

            Emily rubbed at the left goggle of her respirator. She knew it would not clear the condensation that often collected inside. She thumbed at her phone for the flashlight app. The light was a solid beam for three feet. Within the span of light, swirls, gaps, and planes passed in the whiteness and changed course. Emily stopped and squatted to the sidewalk. She felt her way into the warm, smooth pebbles of a lawn and sat at the base of an artificial tree. She leaned her head back, careful not to disturb her respirator’s seal. She watched the white move in the light until it was relentless chaos. Then she turned off her light and focused on the sound of her breathing.

            Emily heard something rub against the bark of the artificial tree she was leaning against. She held her breath. For a moment, she wondered whether to remain or scramble away. When the sound began to slide down the tree, Emily rolled away and froze. She tried to discern movement, a disturbance in the whiteness. She heard it rising, rubbing against the plastic bark.

            “Are your still there?” The words crackled at the upper capacity of a respirator’s tiny speaker.

            Emily did not recognize the voice. She waited.

            “I heard your.”

            There were short shuffles in the pebbles. Emily thought it might be an older person or someone without coordination. Then something bumped her foot. She saw the white swirl, and a hand was around her left ankle. She kicked with her right leg and the white crashed and plumed. Her foot never landed. She was shaking her left leg and scrambling with her arms. She had handfuls of pebbles when another hand clasped her right ankle. Emily slid. Her full hands held her head and respirator off the ground.

            “Why your fighting?”

            The large body fell on top of Emily. The hands leaping from her ankles and finding her wrists, before she released the pebbles. The person’s respirator was illuminated. As the light came close, Emily could see the face. It was an older face: dry with sallow cheeks and sunken eyes. The left eye turned out, while the right eye looked at Emily’s respirator.

            “Christ!” The word was an utterance, amplified to distortion. “I’m sorry. I thought your someone else. But they don’t have that kind of respirator.”

            They laid there for a moment. Their bodies relaxed.

            “I’m going to get off your. Please don’t hit or kick me. Okay?”

            He laid on top of her for a moment longer, his swollen abdomen listing slightly over her left side.

            “Please just tell me your won’t hit me. I feel safe right now. But I’m scared to let go of your hands and let your up.”

            Emily did not want to speak. The shift in the situation had given her a feeling she did not want to relinquish. She was smiling behind her respirator. “Yeah. Okay. I won’t hit you.” She watched the right eye, steady on her.

            As he began to struggle to dismount, the left eye writhed in its socket. Finally, with a bit of a gasp, he rolled off her to the left. She heard him roll several more times before grunting up and shuffling away.

            Emily felt her way to the sidewalk. She fumbled with her phone for the compass app. She moved to the South, toward her apartment. When she opened the street-level door to her building, the smoke and steam had begun to dissipate. Upstairs, she closed the door to her apartment and set her bag down, and removed her respirator. She went to the window.

            At the second floor, the white was permeable. She could make out some of the brighter lights of Penthelm’s low, sparse skyline. The point had always been to send the lanterns out, outside of Penthelm. That was where everyone was. She knew that was where they would always be. She went to her bag. All of the parts of the lantern seemed undamaged. She thumbed the darkness of the end page. She gathered the parts and put on her respirator.

            Emily could see what remained of the whiteness stretching over Penthelm from the four-story building’s roof. She smiled at the thought of being above it. She propped a metal chair against the door and slowly began to prepare the parts of the lantern. When everything was assembled, she placed the tea candle on the roof’s ledge and lit the candle. She held the plastic above the candle while the air in the plastic heated. The candle’s light passed through some of the clipped pieces reinventing shapes and colors. Slowly, it began to lift above the ledge. Emily felt reassured about her choice to try this new launch site.

            As the lantern moved above Emily’s head, she whispered “Chantal,” her mother’s name. Her mother had read poems to her as a child in the many towns they had lived in. There had been no Pokey Little Puppy. There had been Li Po. T.S. Elliot. There had been Charles Bukowski on particularly sober nights. Her mother had pressed on everyone a diminution of the edge of the interior, where people touch all outside of themselves. So, conversations had been expansive, yet inflective.

            Emily adjusted the strap on her respirator. Breathing in Penthelm was like thinking in a room with her mother while neither spoke. The bright dot of the lantern floated off to the southeast. Emily felt a tightening in her chest. She wanted to cry. She ran to the chair, moved it, and walked quickly to her apartment. She feared the lantern would not make it out of town. She feared that someone might know it came from her. She threw her respirator onto her desk and fell into her futon.

            Three years before, in 2017, the only bus line servicing Penthelm, stopped. Penthelm’s federal funding for participating in an interstate mass transit system ended. Since, the town has not been able to afford to maintain commercial weight certification for its sole bridge, which crosses the river north of Penthelm’s land access, designated as a conservation zone forty-eight years ago when Penthelm was founded.

            That loss of commercial certification has impacted Penthelm’s lone grocer. The truck the grocery distributor sends closest to the town is an eighteen-wheel long-haul heavy-load commercial truck; the grocer had to renegotiate delivery. Post renegotiation, the distributor has stopped at Penthelm’s interstate exit where the grocer waits with a box truck small enough to accommodate Penthelm’s bridge’s reduced certification. That renegotiated drop has resulted in only one vehicle regularly arriving and departing from beyond the interstate exit. That vehicle is a truck that carries Penthelm’s mail and moves books from library to library.

            Emily sat in Weston Hall. A stack of two books and her respirator sat on the table. She looked at a column in a book about Joan Baez. The column was about when Joan met Bob Dylan. The sentences were short. But the column was so narrow every sentence wrapped onto the next line. Emily liked the staccato content and the aesthetic of the column. She laid the book on the table and took out her hobby knife. Emily unscrewed the cap. She coughed, then listened. She looked around then slid a cutting sheet beneath the column. She dragged the blade across the page. The line was clean and maintained a ¼-inch margin around the text. She quickly removed the piece and the cutting sheet and slid them into a folder. She flipped several pages in the book and placed the second book on top of it. She replaced the lid to the writing pen and returned it.

            Emily sat at her desk in her studio apartment. She used the flat edge of a ruler to smooth a Sunday newspaper bag across the desk. She spread glue over a section of the plastic. She held a piece she had taken from a book, above the yellow plastic. She turned the paper to her right. Emily lowered the paper into the glue. She spread the paper flat with the ruler’s edge. She worked at the assemblage until she covered the surface of the plastic bag.

            A family of chimps from two books by Jane Goodall clustered around the column of text from the book about Joan Baez. Doves from an instructional book on painting fell from the sky above and around the chimps. There was a vast green from an end page of a book on baking Christmas cookies in the background.

            Emily left the assemblage to dry over one of the rods of the puppet rack.

            Early Tuesday, Emily put away the dust-mop head and handle she had used to clean the high school gym floor. As she walked home, the difference between the temperature at her shoulders and the heat emanating from the ground gave Emily a chill.

            The first auto-igniting peat fires were documented in Penthelm two years after the town was founded. Scientists who have studied the “albino forest” in the “clinker” cavern beneath Penthelm agree on its stable configuration. The methane fuel burns at a temperature just under the melting point of the calcium carbonate stalagmites, while burning away many of the impurities in the calcium carbonate. The result is what has come to be referred to as the albino forest. The cavern’s shell of clinker, stable and capable of withstanding the forest fire, was likely created by an earlier, possibly ancient, coal fire. One strong hypothesis notes that same coal fire could also have caused deep cracking, sometime during the production of the clinker, releasing stored methane, which is now the fuel for the cooler forest fire. The oven effect of the clinker dome generates higher temperatures at the top of the cavern. Those higher temperatures melted all stalactites decades ago, which rained down as nourishment on the forest below. This effect also heats everything above the cavern. Lack of ground moisture rather than surface temperature deters most anything, native to the surrounding area, from living outside within Penthelm. The persistent dangers to residents are in the form of escaping methane, smoke from the smoldering peat substrate, and periodic flash fires in the peat.

            No reputable scholar has ventured a solid response to the question of why people would have knowingly settled a town over an unending underground fire.

            There were attempts to explore the albino forest in Penthelm’s early days. Subsidized housing offers, comprehensive tax relief, and annual resident grants for those living in Penthelm longer than two years were established within six months of the initial peat fire documentations. While these compensations have become part of cover-up speculation that the exploration disturbed some stasis and caused the peat fires, the compensations and lack of interest from outside have kept most inquiry from developing into investigation.

            Emily rubbed at the left goggle of her respirator. She watched two people in front of one of the buildings. Their hands squeezed and caressed one another’s necks and shoulders. Emily thought the man appeared too tall and slender to be the one who had assailed her. Then she turned the corner.

            As Emily walked, she considered going to the conservation area the next Sunday.

            She moved to the south, toward her apartment.

            From her apartment’s roof, Emily could see several lights in windows of the buildings around. She propped a chair against the roof’s door and began to prepare the parts of the lantern. When everything was assembled, she lit the candle. She held the plastic above the candle while the air in the plastic heated. Slowly, it began to lift above the ledge. For a moment, there was a crack of pain. She thought she might cry.

            As the lantern moved above Emily’s head, she whispered “Brahm,” her only boyfriend’s name. He had been attentive. There had been nothing he would not listen to her talk about: school; work; what was wrong with the world. And he had made her laugh when she was done. Emily’s mother had confided in him on occasions.

            Emily adjusted the strap on her respirator. On the streets, Emily liked the anonymity her respirator afforded. Emily associated the feeling of invisibility with an ease of being. Brahm had preserved his ease, even as he pressed himself into the spotlight of the art scene at the community college where they had met. The bright dot of the lantern floated off toward the East. Emily felt the cracking pain again. Her eyelids flushed with heat. She walked to the chair, moved it, and went to her apartment. She wondered whether the lantern would make it out of Penthelm, whether someone might learn it came from her. She put her respirator onto her desk and laid on her futon.

            Marcus sat on the floor, his left leg stretched out in that direction. He was restocking cans of beets. He was the salary night stocker at Penthelm’s lone grocer, which was never busy during the night-shift. So, Marcus enjoyed the leisure of properly rotating stock. That entailed removing each can, counting them, adding the appropriate number of new cans to the back, then replacing the older cans on the shelf, in front. He looked up briefly as Emily walked by.

            She looked at Marcus on the floor and continued. She recognized his face from her Friday early-morning visits, but she did not know his name. Emily was on her way to the refrigerated cabinets at the back of the store, where milks were kept. She drank goat milk. She preferred organic goat milk. But with the changes in distribution and the limited demand for organic goat milk in Penthelm, Emily had resolved herself to drink non-organic, low-fat goat milk.

            Emily walked, with her milk, toward the front, along the chip and cracker aisle. She counted eating crunchy foods among her worst indulgences. Sometimes she would choose nuts, but generally, the low-cost convenience of chips won out. She had read somewhere that when people are nervous, eating crunchy food relieves stress. She did not doubt there was latent, lingering anxiety behind her desire. While she had managed to limit her consumption to one bag or can every two weeks, she had not pushed herself to attempt quitting.

            Francis was at the register. She smiled at Emily. Emily smiled back, unloading her hand basket.

            “How’ve you been, Francis?”

            “I been good, Emily.” She was swinging each item over the scanner in an exaggerated arc before placing them at the far end of the counter. “How you been?”

            Emily walked to the far end and began to place scanned items in her cloth grocery bag. “I’ve been good. How are classes?”

            “Classes are nearly done. I might go to Scantlin Beach for graduation.” She had turned and was facing Emily.

            “Scantlin Beach can be fun.” Emily looked up from the filled bag. “Who’s going?”

            “I don’t know. I’m just talking right now.” She took Emily’s money and turned to the register. “You still workin’ at the High School?”

            “Yeah. When are you coming over again?” She took the change from Francis and put it in her wallet.

            “I don’t know. We gonna watch another Spike Jonze joint?”

            “Yeah, Francis. We’ll do that, too.” Emily slid her respirator on without looking away from Francis. She adjusted the straps around her ears and over her short, black hair. “See you, Francis.”

            “Kay. I call you.”

            Emily walked out the door, carrying the cloth bag, invisible in her respirator, and not wanting to look back. She felt authentic and in control, though she dreaded becoming aware too much of the time of too much that passed between her and Francis. She dreaded finding it: the same roll of the eyes; the telling angle at the corner of the mouth; the deniable hushed comment. As she walked out, there had been something like a chuckle; or was it a giggle? So, Emily held her cool and walked out into the heat.

            The library truck rolled through town before dawn the last Saturday of each month. The truck was matte black with blackout windows. It did not bear a decal. The only distinguishing mark was the large chrome word ‘Diphen’ across the otherwise matte black grill and its government license plates. It backed up to the loading dock where library workers opened the back doors, removed the boxes labelled for Penthelm, and loaded the ones scheduled to disembark. Marcus had watched the process several times. He had never seen anyone get out of the truck. He was never able to see anyone in the truck. He sometimes went back and forth over whether to ask someone at the library about it at some point.

            Marcus leaned forward over his small faux wood coffee table, sitting between the sofa where he was, and the stereo, the sole adornment against the wall opposite in his living room. He was smoking a large joint. His stereo’s volume was at the number four dial.

            Marcus had moved to Penthelm as a sort of sustainable condolence prize to himself after resolving to enjoy a mostly unremarkable life. And so a duplex had struck him as neither too much nor too little. When he had moved in, he had set the stereo on three, playing the Beastie Boys’ song, You Gotta Fight, a song Marcus loved for no less than three reasons:—more when he was in the mood—first, that it rocked in a fashion transcendent of mood; second, that it had been the album that he took to Florida the one year that he made it there for spring break—an event that sustained him through empty nights even three years on—; third, that the song was played every time he got high, thus continually reasserting itself into layers of unconscious mind. Then he had gone into the shared enclosed porch, prior to getting high, and knocked on his neighbor’s door, the same neighbor who would later become his latest girlfriend, before she moved out of Penthelm for someplace “not located atop an eternally burning fire and with a better music scene.” He had smiled, introduced himself, and admitted that he hoped to never have a problem with any of his neighbors. He had explained that his stereo was placed at what he, and his parents for that matter, had always considered a suitable volume with one of his “crassest” albums. The neighbor had stood there for a moment. When her left eyebrow had begun to rise, Marcus interjected, with a thrust of his right arm that was peculiarly operatic to her, as she would later admit and he would go over in his mind and refine in mirrors after her admission, that he hoped they could stand at the wall and agree whether the volume was suitable. “Just getting shit out of the way,” he had said. She had smiled a bit at that, and invited him in to stand at the wall.

            When that neighbor had moved out, leaving him endlessly alone and burning, he had demurred from repeating the exchange. Instead, when the next neighbors, a pair of guys he had assessed as speed-freak academics, moved in, he set the stereo at five for the first week, and after no mention of it, he reduced the volume by one number something like each week later, until arriving at that level which he, his parents, and his latest girlfriend all had considered suitable.

            Marcus often felt completely lost at intervals when high, it was precisely as if his consciousness snapped at unconscious things, leaving a sometimes jagged and sometimes clean, but always decidedly gaping, cleavage between the moment he found himself in and the previous moment which he could recall, and he would sit wondering what he had been doing. He liked the rush that he felt at not knowing what was going on when he knew that he had been there the entire time, having gone to such lengths to investigate this as attempting to time the gaps by staring at a watch, though this led to a night of newly layered experience as he felt utter frustration at not being able to keep track of the ticks of time previous to the gap to compare to the ticks after the gap and laughing at the hilarity of the idea of monitoring time to measure a lack of awareness of the continuity of time—attempting to write down the ticks of time obviously did not succeed, but did compound the hilarity, though also the frustration, and finally videotaping himself to later review the gaps. He had found that he had to be very selective about who he got high around, as his experience had informed him that, some people could not resist messing with someone who lost track of reality. So, generally, Marcus preferred to get high alone.

            Tonight he speared the stub with a stickpin. The stub of his joint. The pin had a purple bead at the blunt end. The bead aided in holding the pin that aided in holding the joint—stub. The purple had an oily glossy sheen, so that swirls in it were at slightly different shades of purple, and some pinks and blues emerged toward either side of the swirls. The stereo was set at four. Marcus found himself recalling a Shakespeare poem about seeing the world in a lover’s eyes as he stared at the bead, looking at the ceiling corners of his living room.

            Then his consciousness snapped. He sat. He wondered what he had been doing.

            Marcus was wandering close to the library, the Diphen box truck was sitting in the loading ramp. His feet moved at a steady pace, but his stride swung a bit to the right, so that he drifted across the library’s pebble lawn at the corner of the block toward the loading dock. He wore, in his eyes, the revelation of the inner workings of his mind, and in his ears was the echo of his anthem of Spring, now five years back.

            For Marcus there was little originality in what those in Penthelm had to say of the river. They would activate the microphone on their respirator and begin with one of the popular opinions. They should dig a canal to connect the up and downstream at the point where they are a mere two miles apart. A town completely encircled appealed to many residents’ sense of mysticism. It spoke of protection. I’m surprised the river has never overflowed and flooded Penthelm. Many must have wondered, but none voiced, whether a flood might put out the fire beneath the ground of Penthelm’s depression. After a few hearty ascents to whatever opinion had been expressed and a few soft scoffs, everyone would turn off their microphones and return to what had held their attention before the topic of the river had been broached.

            Marcus imagined stealing the Diphen truck, driving to a weak point in the ridge, crashing the truck and breaching the levy, the water rolling down, the deafening hiss of liquid transforming into air, the squealing of the fire being squelched, hitch-hiking in a convertible with someone long, auburn-brown hair and sunglasses blacker than the windows of the Diphen, that reflected nothing, somehow. Then he thought about how it would feel each day as the earth beneath the feet of everyone in Penthelm grew colder, how jackets would come out, then how the grocer would have to order coats, which could float in by raft along the white-water tours which would begin up above on the ridge, ride the cascade down into Penthelm and drop their delivery to the grocer, before braving the dive into the cavern that the river had worn away as it killed the fire and washed away the hard dryness the fire had been perpetuating.

            Marcus decided to move to the sidewalk. Marcus liked the line of sight on this street, as seen from the sidewalk. He saw the Diphen truck rock gently, then he leaned a bit out over the street.

            The line of the street was damningly straight. 

            He could see from here to the high school, which sat near the edge of Penthelm. 

            He walked by the empty hull, which had been a coffee shop, a bagel shop, a doughnut shop, and a florist since the Florida spring break. It sat empty, all of its lights on. He wondered if he might open a record shop there someday. People needed music, he felt. But he could open a book store, he thought people must read a lot in a place like Penthelm. He was getting an erection; his jeans had been rubbing gently against his boxer briefs with each step. He wondered how the East Coast was just now. The sun must be over there, already, he thought. He knew she would have already showered and would smell like the citrus body wash she always used.

            But what if she doesn’t use that anymore, he considered, as a sort of reply to his previous thought which imagined his latest girlfriend vividly unchanged. He looked around wondering if it was repulsive, repugnant, or somehow telling of a deviance, that he considered masturbating right now, right here, provided no one would accidently see. Then contemplating that word ‘accidently’ he admitted that it did not seem bad that two consenting adults might have intercourse here—over there—on a lawn—behind an artificial shrubbery.

            Marcus thought again about the doughnut shop. They had been good doughnuts. He had eaten more than dozens. In early light after an unbroken night, they had appeared small, but somehow small in a delicious way. ‘Was I projecting onto the size of the doughnut an image of the things that I did not want in the doughnuts, the death of them… triglycerides or trans fats,’ he wondered. And then he knew again that he should get the pack of cigarettes and the six-pack from the convenience store and go to Francis’s house.

            Francis sat on the floor, legs crossed. Marcus sat behind her massaging her shoulders. They were wearing their respirators. Francis was born in Penthelm. Her parents had moved there just before the peat fires were documented. It was home. Her parents had had little vigor in their reaction to Francis’s decision to stay. They had helped her complete the paperwork for an apartment in the public housing complex. Then they had loosened their grip, welcoming her when she visited their Victorian style home, closer to the library than her apartment. But they seldom called or visited Francis outside of holidays and special occasions.

            Marcus rubbed Francis’s bare shoulders. He had found it odd that she had worked open a window the first time he visited. It was simple enough to close the window and turn on a vac fan and scrubbers—a few minutes and the window was sucked to a seal and the air was cleaner than in most homes outside of Penthelm. Tonight though, after the erection, after the thoughts of intercourse on the streets of Penthelm, the open window, the smoke against his skin, the respirators between them, it all struck him as fulfilling. Francis had grown up playing outside in the smoke. Being naked in the air, felt like a primal maturity to her. Intimacy in a town where you cannot kiss in the open air develops in a very different way. Forcing people who had grown up outside of Penthelm, like Marcus and Emily, to wear their respirators while being intimate put Francis at greater ease.

            Francis rolled her head, gently pressing and holding Marcus’s right hand fingers between her neck and shoulder. She felt his reaction told her a lot. Tonight his fingers lay there, except his forefinger poked gently at her neck. It was playful and sent a chill down her naked spine. She wondered whether her body would have developed the coat of short, thin, blanched hairs if she had grown up outside of Penthelm. She enjoyed the sensations they gave her. Standing attentive in her chill, now, each small breeze from the window raced across her chest and arms. She leaned back against him, and he let his arms wrap around her. The warmth between them grew.    The air of Penthelm subdues perspiration.

            Moisture came only where their skin pressed against the other’s.

            Francis flipped on her respirator’s microphone. She sighed.

            Marcus turned his respirator’s microphone on. 

            “You know Emily?” She had carefully rolled her head back over his left shoulder. “She come in the store the other night.”

            He leaned back and looked down. The window of his respirator was large. But he was only able to see the chin of Francis’s respirator. “The dark girl who chatted—who you chatted with?” He imagined Francis must be trying to look up at him in a similar way.

            “Yeah, she come like every Friday, early.” She moved to turn and face him.

            “Okay.” He helped her move toward him.

            Her legs straddled his and they slid toward each other on the carpet not yet touching groins. “Maybe me and her are going to Scantlin Beach.” She was looking down at where the curls of their pubic hair nearly blacked out the short brown fibers of the carpet. “You could come too.”

            “Yeah. When are you going?” He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her toward him. Francis smiled at the tickle of hairs mingling; their groins met. 

            She jerked her head up a bit, bumping her respirator into his before they both pulled away.

            After a breath and a moment, she laughed. “I don’t know. I’m just talking right now.” 

            “Okay.” He had the urge to pull her gently and press his lips against hers. He imagined her lips moist, a refreshing wet in her mouth, waiting. “Let me know.”

            She pressed her hands against his chest. He laid down on the carpet and she crawled atop him. He could see her face through the large window of her respirator, now. She was grinning, her eyes were closed, while above and around her head smoke churned.

            A swimsuit model and a person in a trench coat stood, a body’s width between them. The two were on a beach, grass stretched to the water’s edge. In the distance a glacier dwarfed them, and in the distance, seemingly between the two and the glacier, a lantern floated.

            “Don’t touch that.”

            Francis pulled her hand back and turned.

Emily was standing in the bathroom doorway. She had not bothered to dry her hair. “Did you want some chips?” Droplets glistened in the bristles. Emily moved to the cabinets.

            “Nah.” Francis moved to the two-seat sofa. She was wearing Marcus’s light blue long-sleeve button-up shirt. It hung below her light pink panties. “Are we gonna watch a movie now?”

            “Sure, we can do that.” Emily brought a bowl of chips and turned on the television. She began to browse the films.

            “I like it.” Francis was looking at the fire lantern. “Where’s that one from before?”

            “It’s gone. How about ‘I am Here’? It’s a Spike Jonze short. I can stream it.”

            “Sure.” Francis’s hands were hidden in the sleeves of the shirt. She flapped the cuffs. “Marcus is coming to Scantlin—“

            “I don’t want to go.” Emily lifted a chip to her mouth.

            “Do you know who Marcus is?”

            “I’m not certain.”

            “He’s the night stocker at the grocer.”

            “Yeah.”

            The movie had begun.

            Francis looked at Emily. “I want ya’ll both to come.”

            “No thanks. I’ve been wanting to go to the conservation area.” Emily refused to look away from the television.

            Francis relaxed into the movie. The costumes looked clunky; she felt detached from the characters. It moved along at a steady progression. She watched Emily for a moment and wondered what Marcus was doing.

            Skin is the largest organ. In addition to being a barrier, it is also a permeable layer. Your skin is known to both absorb and excrete liquids. Some instances of this action have life-preserving effects. Perspiration helps maintain body-temperature, for example. Your skin also absorbs and expels gases. This is not a commonly noted attribute. Three states of matter: liquids, gases, and solids can be absorbed by skin. The lack of mentioning plasma, and other theoretical states, should not be read to imply they cannot be absorbed by skin.

            After being outside in Penthelm for several hours, you become acutely aware of the skin’s respiration. Despite wearing a respirator, there is the sense that you “smell” the smoke. You might also develop a “taste” of the smoke. This may be a technical confusion of the senses, or it may be that significant quantities or potencies of chemicals absorbed through the skin circulate to the mucus membranes in the mouth, where they contact taste receptors. Inadequate research has been conducted to determine the mechanisms at work in this “taste” and other similar experiences. These experiences are eventually common-place, as they can occur daily for extended periods and repeat with high frequency.

            On the building’s roof, the candle heated air. It filled the lantern’s plastic bag, and slowly, the fire lantern lifted.

            On the streets, Francis walked to Marcus’s duplex. Marcus prepared his stereo, double checking the volume and the repeat setting.

            The lantern reached a remarkable height aided by a low pressure system and floated to the southeast. It would eventually fall in the conservation area along with the others Emily had launched from her roof.

            The conservation area is the only opening in the ridge and lined closely on both sides by the river. The result is a confluence of air from Penthelm and air from the outside world. It generates intense eddies.

            The lanterns rocked, the candles toppled or were extinguished, and the lanterns fell into the lush vegetation nurtured by the balance of water and heat.

            The air there is breathable.

            “I’m gonna go to my parents’ for dinner.” Francis exhaled a bit of smoke, turned to Marcus. “They want to explain some trust fund they made me.”

            Marcus watched, squatting at the end of the couch. He could see across the length of the couch, the edges of her eyelids had already become inflamed, and there was a puffiness swelling beneath each eye. He stood up and paced toward the far wall, touched it, and turned back.

            “You can come.” She laughed and took a quick, small hit. “They like you still listen to Beastie Boys.”

            “I can’t.” He squatted at the end of the couch again. “I’m high. I can’t be around people.” His mouth was hidden behind the couch’s arm. “I could never go to your parents’ house stoned.”

            Francis laughed. “I love my parents, man.”

            “Yes, but love has nothing to do with.” He stood up and spun around the couch’s arm only to sit. “Other consciousnesses—others; they are maddening.” He stood up and walked to the stereo. He bowed twice at the waist, leaning toward the volume dial. The dash pointed to “3.”

            Francis shrugged. She set the remaining joint in a small tray on the coffee table. “I’ll bring you left overs, then.”

            “Yes.” Marcus stood up quickly. He remained facing the wall. “Your mother’s food is excellent. I will be very hungry. They like that I listen to the Beastie Boys?”

            “Yes! You oughta come, Marcus.”

            “I do not think they would physically harm me, Francis.”

            “You know them, Marcus.”

            “Shh—I’m trying. I do not think they would physically harm me. But looks and sounds can hurt so deeply. And I can become so agonizingly lost when I’m high. It is utter exercise in awareness…or consciousness.” He looked around at the corners of the ceiling. He was thinking about the scrubber fans. They kept interiors free of dust—there was a micrometer specification in the scrubber’s documentation. Most buildings in Penthelm did not have insect problems either. The earth did not support a varied nor dense ecology. And inside, infestations could be eradicated effectively with pest control. Lasting clean: without unwanted accumulation. Sealing things: control. “We live in biomes. This is… being in space… on Earth.”

            “You gotta come, Marcus. I love when you talk like this.”

            “We can’t go anywhere without respirators.” The music stopped. For a moment, Francis’s presence raced away from him through time, fading to an echo of a shadow. The gentlest stream in his mind never stopped describing her immediacy. Its rivulets traced her own, and a soft plea grew in the undercurrents of his consciousness with each moment, do not let her voice become connected to the snapping, but the realization that he was not going deeper this time began to seep from some center in him. He was treading by autonomy. And then he began to rise. The music was fading in, and he was turning slowly to see her.

            She was staring at him, smiling, with half-hung lids, pillowy pink spread across her eyes, and supple, robust sex flushing her flesh.

###

Edward Wells is a writer and researcher/educator from America. They are enamored of the possibility of connection and the cool air that descends into a desert with sunset Their short work can be found in The Textand Octo-Emanations among other places. Their poetry manuscript meyond is available through Alien Buddha Press.

Categories: Fiction

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