Mary had no trouble putting Juan down. Like a sick pet. A generous serving of water-hemlock salad, a brief period of unpleasantness, and Juan was gone. Or at least his soul was gone, to wherever souls go. He left his remains behind. Mary zipped these up in a cadaver pouch from her lab and bundled the pouch into the back of her van before Juan’s flesh had cooled.
Juan was not the first of Mary’s boyfriends to annoy her and not the first to be given a permanent brushoff. By midnight, she was carding herself into the university’s Taft Center for Computational Biology and Cancer Research, through the back door beside the loading dock. The building’s basement was dark. She rolled a gurney out to her van and loaded Juan onto it. Inside, she wheeled him down the hall to her department’s main laboratory and dragged him onto his own personal slab in the walk-in refrigerated holding unit. At the admin counter, she added him to the departmental cadaver database as a donated John Doe, using a fake bequest ID. Then she went home to enjoy some peace and quiet for a change. Juan. The guy just didn’t know when to shut up.
In the morning, she disposed of Juan’s belongings and went back to the university to teach an anatomy class. The beauty of parking Juan downstairs as a dissection specimen was that the students weren’t sophisticated enough to discover that he had been poisoned.
Two days later she dropped by the lab to see if Juan had been carved up yet.
“We sent four or five of the most recent arrivals over to State Pathology,” Grandansky told her. “They’re doing some intern testing and they were running short of stiffs.”
Mary knew that SP would immediately identify Juan as a murder victim. They’d come over to the university and check the database. They’d spot the time Juan was checked in, query Security, and discover that Mary had carded herself in at that hour. They’d be ransacking her home in no time, looking for any random speck of Juan’s DNA they could find. They might even ransack her. She drove over to the State criminal complex and looked up her friend Morse.
“I need a body back,” she told him. “Several of my students were working on him. He got sent over here by mistake.”
“No problem,” Morse said. “When are we going to have that dinner I asked you about?”
“Soon,” Mary said. This guy. One night in bed with him and she’d be ready to poison his oatmeal the next morning.
She left the complex with Juan in the back of her van. That was a first, she thought. Always something.
The day was beautiful. It made her forget the snow, the endless gray spring, the days when she couldn’t get out of bed until her anger grew so hot that she threw off the covers with a scream.
On impulse, she turned down Lincoln and swung by the crowd of laborers who hung out on the corner next to the Home Depot. She checked them out as they hustled over to her van. She pointed to a young, good-looking stud. He hopped in.
“Habla Ingles?” Mary said.
This one could babble all he wanted. As long as she had no idea what he was saying, it wouldn’t bother her.
“Como se llama?” she said.
“Buenas dias, Angel. Me llamo Maria.”
She took him home and introduced him to her lawn, her plantings, and her garden. Juan would have done well under the roses, she thought, but with a new gardener and a neighborhood full of dogs, that was out of the question.
She negotiated a day and a price with Angel and drove him back to his corner. Good. Young. Strong.
She thought about taking Juan somewhere private and parting him out, but it was a lot harder to remove a body from the departmental database than it was to enter one. She couldn’t rule out an inventory between the university and State Pathology, which would expose Juan’s missing status. So, back he went to his slab in the basement.
She wasn’t happy with him down there, however, not after his little outing to SP. Two nights later she wheeled him over to the morgue at the teaching hospital. Taft and the hospital were connected on multiple levels. At two in the morning, as with her Taft lab, she had the hospital morgue to herself. She swapped Juan with a homeless John Doe, moving Doe’s toe tag over to Juan. The tag was red, signifying that Mr. Doe was bio-waste, to be burned. She brought Mr. Doe back to the biology fridge and left Juan in the hospital to be incinerated.
In the morning, when Mary answered the door expecting Angel, a pair of Hispanic types stood there, both older and more worn than Angel. She could make out hints of Juan in the face of the one with a mustache.
“Where is Juan?” he said to Mary. “I am his brother.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Lady, my brother liked to talk. He talked about you. When you brought Angel here, he knew this was the place. Where is my brother? You had a fight with him? You called Immigration?”
Mary did not reply.
“I called his wife in Michoacan,” the man said. “Juan is not there.”
Mary started to close the door. Juan, always yapping, had never mentioned a brother. Or a wife, of course.
“If I don’t find my brother, I will make big trouble for you,” Juan’s brother said.
Mary stopped moving.
“Maybe I talk to your neighbors. Tell them how you like to do. You got a university sticker on your car,” the brother said. “You got a nice home. Maybe you are important. Maybe you don’t want trouble.”
“Come inside,” Mary said.
She sat them down at the table in the kitchen and served them whiskey in water tumblers.
“To get my brother back from Immigration, this will cost money,” the man with the mustache said.
“Listen,” Mary said. “Lo siento mucho. Juan got sick one night. It was in bed. He had a pain in his chest. I took him to the university hospital. It was his heart. He died. Juan is there now. He had no papers.”
If the brother were alone, Mary thought, I’d kill him right now. But two men, that was too risky. She still had Juan on her hands, after all.
“I don’t believe you,” the brother said.
“I’m not lying.”
“Where is he buried? Or did they burn him?”
Mary opened her mouth to say that he was cremated, but that wouldn’t get rid of the brother.
“He has not been buried or cremated,” she said. “His body is still at the hospital.”
The brother considered this.
“It is a good way to die,” his brother said. “Making love. Even to you. We will go get Juan now.”
His partner, who didn’t speak, watched Mary with interest.
She did not want anyone near Juan, not with someone else’s tag on his toe and a belly full of hemlock.
“Wait,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
In her bedroom, she called her friend Allison at the hospital.
“I’m short a couple of cadavers,” she said. “State borrowed some of mine for testing. Have you got any John Does I can have?”
“I’ve only got one and he’s infectious, so no. This one will get burnt tomorrow.”
Great. Now she had family trying to reclaim a bogus, poisoned corpse, and an infected cadaver for the students in her lab. The sooner Juan went up in smoke, the better. She returned to the kitchen.
“They will ask you to identify him,” she said. “They will want to see your papers. If you aren’t legal, they won’t give him to you.”
The brother frowned.
“I don’t trust you,” he said. “I want to see him. Tal vez my brother is not there. Tal vez el Immigration has him in that prison they keep.”
“No, no. I’ll take you to see him,” Mary said, “I’ll take you when everyone is gone tonight. I have friends in the hospital. I will arrange for you to take your brother. I will pay las morditas for this. Come back tonight and we’ll go together.”
The men left. Mary broke all the plates in her kitchen before her anger cooled enough for her to stop.
When the men returned after dark, she drove them to the Taft building and they trailed her through it and a connecting hallway into the hospital’s lower level.
On the way, they passed a janitor, who exchanged quiet words in Spanish with the two men.
The morgue desk was unattended, as on her previous visit, and Mary carded them in. She slid out Juan’s drawer and pulled back the plastic sheet. The brother stared down at the body, and crossed himself.
“OK,” he said. “We take him.”
“Not yet. I am showing him to you so you know he’s here. We take him tomorrow night. I must arrange it.”
“No, we take him now.”
“No. It is not possible. We would be stopped. Tomorrow we take him.”
The brother stood staring at the plastic-covered body. The red toe tag was partially visible, peeking out under the plastic. The brother turned to Mary and studied her. She kept her face blank. Finally, followed by his friend, the man walked out of the morgue. Mary exhaled and slid the drawer shut. Thank God Juan was still around to satisfy his brother. Thank God his brother had kept his hands off that tag. Now, please Lord, get Juan into that oven for me.
“We’ll come back tomorrow night,” she said to the brother, out in the hall.
He didn’t reply. Mary felt the suspicion radiating from him.
What have I learned, she asked herself. No more undocumented Hispanic workers for a while, that’s what. Who knew they kept track of family like this? Once the body was well and truly gone, up in smoke, the brother could mourn his loss without blaming her or Immigration for his bereavement.
In the morning, her doorbell rang. She hopped out of bed and pulled on a robe. Two men in suits stood on her porch. One held up a badge.
“Sorry to bother you, Professor,” he said. “We’ve got two undocumented Mexicans down at the station. They bribed a janitor to help them steal a dead relative from the hospital last night, and got caught. The body doesn’t match the hospital’s records for it. State Pathology is examining the remains now but the Mexicans claim that you can explain everything.”
I put down the mallet and stepped back. Stood looking at the skeleton of the boat I was building. My heart sank. I didn’t know what I was doing and the only men who could help me wouldn’t be around again for a day or more.
The children came out quietly and stood beside me.
“Can we help you?” Marcus said.
I shook my head.
“We want to,” Annie said.
“I know you do,” I said. “Thank you. I’m at a place right now where there isn’t anything for you to do. Why don’t you go play and I’ll call you when I can use you.”
“We don’t feel like playing,” Annie said. “All the kids are helping.”
“I know,” I said. “Thank you again. Maybe you can help Mom instead.”
They went inside again. The day was beautiful. All the days were beautiful in the summer season, until the storms began. The air felt like silk, warm, calming. The air felt like a friend. Palm fronds vibrated in the onshore breeze, almost purring. A day to savor. A day to savor life.
I sat down on the sand in the shade of my straw hat and counted to ten, to give my urge to drink a chance to pass. It didn’t. I pulled the flat bottle from my back pocket and took one long swallow, to hold me and to keep me balanced.
The surf boomed beyond the palms. After hearing the surf every day of my life, I react to the sound like I react to the clouds in the sky. Like the clouds, the surf tells a story, predicts. The booming warned of heavy weather to the west, up to a thousand miles away. Long rollers in lines made the ground vibrate as they broke on the beach. The rhythmic thump and hiss of the surf at night reminded everyone on the island that time was running out.
I walked away from the boat, or the wood pieces screwed and glued together that would never become a boat. I took a second swallow and followed the sandy path that led to the Johanson home. Sven looked up from his boat but kept working.
“I’m wasting my time over there,” I said to him. “Can I help you instead?”
He didn’t answer at first. Then he stopped and straightened up.
“One boat instead of two?” he said. “You know what you’re asking.”
“There’s only going to be one boat between us whether I help you or not. I’m hopeless at this. And one boat won’t be big enough to hold both families, so I won’t be in it. I know that.”
“I’ve never built a boat either,” he said.
“At least you’re Swedish,” I said. “Maybe you have some Viking blood in you. Were the Swedes Vikings?”
“Sure,” Sven said. “They went east instead of west like the Norwegians and Danes. Some say the Swedes founded Russia. In fact, the word ‘Russia’ comes from the Vikings.”
My first job for Sven was to go home and gather up my allotment of screws, nails, and glue, and bring it all back to him. Despite his claims to the contrary, Sven’s boat, much further along than mine, looked sturdy and well-made.
That night, June and I walked over to the progress meeting held every week for the island’s residents. June didn’t argue with me about giving up on our boat. She was a realist. Even if I could manage to stay sober, I was a man with ten thumbs, and our boat looked like it.
The meetings were held in the school cafeteria. All the adults were there. The teenagers were home taking care of the children.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard by now,” Anastasio said. “We still haven’t raised anyone with our communication equipment. No radio signals. Nothing. The world remains silent. We are alone. No one is coming to help us. As you probably also know, the rise in sea level is measurably accelerating.
“We’ve advanced the deadline for departure. A number of you have reported that your boats won’t be finished. As it stands now, there will be space for all the children and about half the adults. We need to decide how to choose who goes and who stays behind. How do we decide? Who decides?”
Most of us believed, or hoped, that the little fleet would make it to the Marcousa island chain east of us. A long trip, but the current was right for it. As long as a storm didn’t catch the boats.
We discussed the question of who would go, but in the end, couldn’t agree. The question was left open.
“We’ll have to tell the children in the morning,” June said to me as we walked home along the beach.
“I wish we could wait.”
“So do I, but all the kids will be talking about it tomorrow. Annie and Marcus should hear it from us first.”
We sat down with the children in the morning. Once they understood that only one of us would be coming with them, there were tears. I held mine back until later, while I lied to them about the chances of those who would stay behind, and about the trip to another, safer, island.
In the following days, I worked on Sven’s boat. When it was finished, I helped a widow named Naomi. Her boat seemed even stronger and more seaworthy than Sven’s. Everyone met again the night before the morning of departure. It was a quiet group. Handshakes, hugs, low voices.
“It’s time to decide who goes and who stays,” Anastasio said. “As I told you last time, there is room on the boats for all of the children and half the parents. Should it be women and children first, or half moms and half dads, with one parent from each family? Should we take special skills into account, or how well someone gets along with others, or how brave and resourceful a person is? Or should we use a lottery? Who will make such decisions? Who could?”
We voted by raising our hands. Most chose the half-moms and half-dads proposition, and a lottery. Then we waited for the board to write down each family name on a separate piece of paper.
“All the names go in this basket,” Anastasio said. “We’ll pull half the names at random and those will signify the moms who go. The remaining half will be the dads who go.”
One by one, Victoria pulled pieces of paper from the hat and read off the names. When half the names had been drawn, she stopped.
“If your family name hasn’t been called,” Anastasio said, “Dad is on the boat.”
“I’m sorry,” Sven said, loud enough to be heard by everyone. “I’m not going.”
His family name hadn’t been pulled. Neither had mine.
“Nor am I,” I said.
“We agreed,” Anastasio said. “We voted. We’ve drawn the names.”
Another father called out that he wasn’t going either, and soon, all of them did so. Husbands and wives argued.
“Listen,” I said, “we all understand that we need a mix of moms and dads on the boats. Every family must have one or the other aboard. That’s just common sense. But I couldn’t build our boat. I’m part of the reason we’re not all going. I’m not good with my hands. I have a drinking problem. I would never take a place when we have men with all sorts of skills that might be needed later on the new island. I wouldn’t take June’s place, either. That would be nuts.”
“None of us want to leave the mother of our children behind,” Sven said, “to drown.”
A storm of argument broke out. Anastasio held up his hands.
“We’re adults,” he said. “I agree that leaving this to chance was not a good idea, but no one wants to play God. I agree that we should look at each couple and choose the most proficient member of that couple to go, husband or wife, whatever ‘most proficient’ means. I propose that we do this right now. All of us together.”
Another burst of voices.
“Baker family,” Anastasio called out, holding up a slip of paper. “If the wife goes on the boat, hold up your hand. We vote.”
A long pause and then some hands went up. Victoria and Sophia Geraltos counted them.
“If the husband goes, raise you hand.”
“The Baker husband goes. Next, the Cooke family. If the wife goes, raise you hand.”
The vote was accomplished, couple by couple, with shouts and cries at first, and then deep silence. Most of us were in shock at what we were doing. June was voted onto a boat. So was Sven.
June and I walked home, to be with Marcus and Annie. I was satisfied that in our case, at least, the right choice had been made. June insisted that writers and artists were needed, but in the end agreed that a good carpenter would be welcome in the beginning.
In the morning, the boats all floated in the bay, sails furled, provisioned. Gustav and Clark, our two seafaring experts, such as they were, met with all of the ‘captains’ of the fleet. The boats looked so small, so insignificant. I wished again for one or two large ships, the kind we had neither the equipment or the expertise to build.
Marcus and Annie, and June, stayed close to me until Anastasio held up a red flag. I gave each child a final hug, kissed June, told them all that they would find a safe harbor at the end of their adventure, and managed a smile of some sort as they walked away. The beach was full of children with one parent, walking away from the other.
They were ferried out to their assigned boats in rowboats. Finally the beach was empty save for those of us left behind. The morning was perfect, of course. The boats would head east, away from the bad weather to come. Did we believe that our families would find a better island? They couldn’t stay here. That was enough.
Everyone was waving. Everyone on the beach was crying, now that the children couldn’t see them doing it.
After the boats were out of sight, I walked to the highest point on the island, a modest hill. I climbed to the top. From there I could just see the white sails on the horizon. I had a bottle in my pocket, which I pulled out and flung away from me. Once the sails were gone, I turned to face the west and sat down on the ground. There were clouds building and I watched them until the setting sun disappeared into them.
For more than a hundred years, our town prided itself on its Fourth of July fireworks. Unfortunately, the annual display grew increasingly expensive and three years ago, the town council announced that we could no longer afford it. We did without for two years and then a retired multimillionaire and a big-box store teamed up to resume the display.
The explosives are fired off from a small island in the slough west of town. Fred Rhenquist, a butcher, and Tom Uecker, a druggist, have handled the fireworks for years. They boat over to the island and set up the rockets where no one else will be at risk in case of an accident.
This year, Randy Cross and my brother Tim decided to sneak over and swipe one of the spare rockets. I begged to go with them but Tim said no. I kept after him, asking him how I could learn anything if he didn’t teach me, and he finally gave in. He said I could go but I had to stay in the boat.
We took off at dusk. We left from the old quarry dock and circled behind Goat Island so that no one would see us. Randy handled the oars and Tim knelt in the bow and gave directions. The water was so shallow, we felt ourselves scraping over the mud half the time. Birds began their night calls in the reeds. The sky spread clear and deep turquoise above us. We all wore dark shorts and t-shirts. The mosquitoes in the slough are large and lazy and slow and a breeze off the bay had discouraged them that evening.
Night settled in before we made it around to the back of the island. Shadows spread black from the marsh growth onto the water. The stars came out and the fireworks commenced. I sat in the back of the boat, craning up as the shells exploded overhead. I hardly noticed when Randy beached the boat. He and Tim climbed out, squooging through the mud, and disappeared into the scrub. They were back in minutes with Tim carrying a rocket in his arms. They knew that Mr. Rhenquist and Mr. Uecker would be too busy to spot them when they snuck up to the spares.
The rocket had Chinese writing on it. The only English words were Chrysanthemum and Made In China. We returned across the narrow channel in no time, while the explosions continued overhead. We could hear ohs and ahs from town, mixed with the boom of the shells.
We carried the rocket through the dark to Grinton’s abandoned service station on the edge of town. There was a storage room off the open service bay, filled with trash. We stashed the rocket under some empty boxes and then we sat out on the curb and caught the tail end of the show. Tim and Randy explained to me for the tenth time how important it was to keep quiet about the rocket.
“I know that. I’m not stupid,” I said. “Will they even know it’s missing?”
“They’ll know,” my brother said. “They may even see our tracks.”
“The rocket doesn’t have a fuse,” Randy said. “Did you notice that? How are we supposed to light it?”
“You use electronics,” my brother said. “It’s so you can fire off a lot of them one at a time by flipping switches. We’ll have to go into the city and buy a kit.”
“Forget that,” Randy said. “I hate projects. I don’t even want to work on my bike. Let’s just figure out how to light it and sneak out tomorrow night and set it off.”
“We aren’t going to do that,” Tim said. “Do you understand how powerful these things are? You could feel the shock waves hitting us tonight and that was from way up in the air. You could blow yourself up with this rocket.”
“We’ll make a fuse and stick it in the back somewhere and light it and run like the devil.”
My brother just shook his head.
“We should never have taken it,” he said. “I realized that in the boat on the way back.”
“Now hold on a minute,” Randy said. “We are not giving this rocket back. We are going to fire it off. If we need these electronics you’re talking about, this kit, let’s go to the city and buy it. Besides, if we give the rocket back, they’re going to figure out it was us who took it.”
I could tell by the look on Randy’s face that if Tim didn’t agree with him, he was going to come back and take the rocket for himself tonight or tomorrow.
“All right,” Tim said. “We’ll take the bus into the city tomorrow and we’ll buy what we need. We’ll fire it off tomorrow.”
“You’re real good at fixing things,” Randy said. “How much is this going to cost me?”
“Nothing,” Tim said. “I’ll pay for it. It won’t cost much for one rocket.”
That seem to satisfy Randy and we split up and went home.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Tim.
“We’ve got to let the police know where to find the rocket, but I don’t want Randy to think we squealed.”
“Can’t we just call the police station and disguise our voices?”
“No, because we’re the only ones who know where the rocket is. Randy would know we did it. He’s a little wild, but he’s my friend. I don’t want him mad at me, or blowing himself up either, so I’m going to take him tomorrow to buy a fuse.”
“I thought you weren’t going to do that.”
“It’s my excuse to get him away from here while you go over and move the rocket. We probably won’t find a kit, or it will be too expensive, but Randy doesn’t need to know that.”
“I’m going to move the rocket? You said it could blow me up. It’s almost like a bomb, Timmy. I’m scared of it.”
“You can pick it up and carry it out into the woods beyond the gas station and hide it under a bush. It won’t blow up. They transport these rockets in boats and trucks all the time. It’s trying to light them that could blow you up. Randy couldn’t fix a flat tire, never mind make a fuse. He’d kill himself for sure. Mikey, hide that thing in the woods. Then we’ll figure out what to do next.”
In the morning, Tim left to meet Randy. I walked back out to the old gas station. I wasn’t in any hurry. It was a quiet day and I had all summer ahead of me with no school and no plans except to have fun. This wasn’t the fun. Twice I considered turning around but I knew that if I did, Tim would be slow to invite me on any more of his adventures. This was the price I had to pay to be on the team.
I got to the station and stepped inside the open service bay. In the daylight, I could see coyote sign and the old, dried-out carcass of a cat down in the oil-change pit. I went to the door to the storage closet and opened it. I stood waiting for my eyes to get used to the dark in the closet. Just then, a hand grabbed my shoulder from behind. I jumped and screamed. The hand let go and I turned around and faced a homeless man dressed in too many layers for a warm day, with whiskers and strong smells of whiskey and body odor and other things I didn’t want to identify.
I was so scared I almost fell over.
“What are you doing in here?” he said.
I couldn’t find my voice. I couldn’t look him in the eye. I was looking past him and trying to order my legs into action.
Studying me, all of a sudden he looked a little scared himself.
“Kid, I didn’t mean to grab you like that,” he said. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to ask you what you were doing in here. I’ve been living in the office over there and it’s sort of like my home now.”
I had a quaver.
“Kid, look, I’m sorry. Please don’t go report this. I didn’t mean anything by it. You tell the police I grabbed you, they’ll lock me up and throw away the key. A town like this, they’ll be down here with dogs. You want to go, go. You want to use this place for something, use it. I’m real sorry I scared you.”
Now he seemed more scared than I was.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just… looking for something…”
“Go ahead and look. I don’t own the place. I’m just living here. I like it out here. The city can be dangerous. But you want me to go, I’ll go, if you promise not to report me.”
“No,” I said. “It’s OK. You can stay. I won’t tell. How do you get food?”
“From the dumpsters and the church. I do some odd jobs. I’m not lazy. I just value my freedom.”
“Well, I’ve got an odd job for you,” I said. “I can’t pay you, but I can bring you some food.”
“Sure,” he said. “Anything.”
I stepped into the storage room, pulled the papers and cardboard off the rocket, and stepped back out.
“Geez,” the man said. “What is that?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Never mind. Can you carry it out and hide it in the woods?”
“Is there a reward for it? Is it worth something?”
“No, but a big kid might come around here looking for it. I wouldn’t mess with him if I were you. Tell him you don’t know anything about any rocket.”
“Don’t worry. I’m moving out of here as soon as you leave… Is it dangerous?”
“My brother says no, if you don’t try to light it. But I wouldn’t drop it.”
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Hello, Mike. I’m Lester.”
He entered the closet and picked up the rocket. We walked out to the woods together, across the weed-filled field behind the gas station. We found a solitary tree by a boulder, a spot we could remember and describe if we needed to, and hid the rocket in the brush.
“Thanks, Lester,” I said. “I’ll go find that food for you.”
“Let me get my stuff and I’ll come with you. I’ll stay at the church tonight while I find a new place.”
We talked about this and that on the way to my house. Lester wasn’t a bad guy. Over the summer, he became my first grown-up friend.