I was the one without powers, the keeper of notes, but I was the one with a car. Back then it was a gleaming Toyota, given to me by my father upon acceptance at Vanilla University, a leafy, liberal arts school in a town of $5 parking tickets.
Now it is a pile of tin with no back bumper and a broken headlight. On the morning of the hummingbirds, Charles for the umpteenth time insists I junk it. Next to his BMW in the garage, it is an ugly scraping thing: a pirate with one bad eye. We live on Dorothyville Road near Vanilla University. There are two Dorothyville Roads in Vanilla: ours is the wider. I tell Charles I need that car, but I don’t tell him why.
Charles prefers people call him Charles, not Chuck, Charlie or Chaz. Vanilla is Charles’ place to shine and he owns it figuratively – especially The Vanilla Mall, which he owns literally. You’ve probably visited us or, at the very least, received our latest circular. Charles made sure it was distributed widely. It features a picture of us posing at the carousel: Wild horses won’t be able to drag you away from our bargains!
Today he traverses The Vanilla Mall’s two levels, trying on gloves at Leather, Etc., sampling a Jell-O smoothie at Joyful Juice, “stealing” free samples from The Butterscotch Brigade. Watching him I am put in mind of a king in town. A short king. A discounted town that smells like soft pretzels.
Take your time, he winks, as I weigh the merits of cotton cargos at Old Apparel. I know the owner.
Near the fountain, the girls at The Earring Pagoda sigh as Charles walks by and click their piercing guns. He approaches their hut, performs a silly cha-cha-cha then leans in to commence charming the snot out of them via puns. Their voices coo and flirt.
What doesn’t Charles have? A pretty wife. The glittery eyelashes of The Earring girls flick from him to me. How did we meet again? one asks.
Oh girls, never underestimate a man’s desire to rescue. I chuck penny after penny into the fountain, always the same wish — no traffic on the way home — as the girls “try” silver hoops and chandeliers on him. Charles would never cheat on me. Not because he is loyal but because he is boring as milk.
Then one of the Earring girls says, Hey, look, it’s some kind of bird, isn’t it? She and Charles shade their eyes toward the second level (Eternally Young, The Umbrella Store, Horatio’s Pretzels) where a natural, flying thing enacts erratic circles above the heads of the pretzel eaters, who take large bites and nudge one another to look.
The other Earring girl covers her head. A bat!
It ducks into The Umbrella Store. We hear yelps from within. Charles is on his walkie-talkie, summoning security men from deep inside the mall’s infrastructure. The flying thing emerges from The Umbrella Store and resumes its circling routine, so small that on some trajectories it appears to have vanished. Then it plunges through the open air between levels. It is heading toward us: This fact hits Charles, the girls and me simultaneously. We gasp. The girls are immediately devastated. They vanish under the counter. The thing (bat? bird?) question marks then speeds through the air. It reaches Accessory Village and halts above The Earring Pagoda. It pumps, double hovers, beats in mid-air, and reveals itself to be a hummingbird.
In a place inside me I thought was dead, a bell rings.
From under the counter, one of The Earring Girls screams. What’s it doing?
From unseen hatches on the first and second floors, other hummingbirds emerge, pulse, hover and double hover. The shoppers on the upper level are in mayhem. One of them launches an extra-large shopping bag over the banister. It makes a slow arc through what could now be considered the melee of birds. It hits the ground near the fountain; whatever it contains makes an upsetting metal sound.
The original hummingbird registers the crash with a twitch of its oil-slick wings. The other hummingbirds join it. They bob and flash near our heads, their eyes on me. There can be no mistake: I am its program.
My husband pats himself down for a gun he does not carry. The lead hummingbird beats its wings, it double beats, it beats beats beats. It stares into my widened eyes, its own a shade of blue the color of my old Toyota.
My husband’s voice in the walkie-talkie: Will all units join him for a situation occurring on the first floor?
I hold out my hand and the bird rests, its soft wings batter against my palm.
Minutes later, I am being pulled from the fountain, the contents of my purse floating like a universe of butterscotch stars. Above me, Charles’s face and the faces of The Earring Girls come into focus.
Charles voice is controlled mortification. You fainted, he says.
One of the girls holds my hand. You totally did, she agrees.
Where are the birds? I say.
They disappeared when you fainted, the other Earring Girl says.
Her face is replaced by a mall paramedic demanding know what year it is, who is president, what my husband’s name is, what my name is.
My husband’s name is Ian, I say.
It is the wrong answer; their faces make this clear.
* * *
Charles drives home from The Vanilla Mall, hunched forward, his fingers strangling the wheel.
It’s just one of those things, I say about the hummingbird. Charles ignores me, glares into a red light. Birds have disgraced him where he works. This is how a man like Charles sees it.
We park the BMW in the garage. He pins my hand to the console when I try to get out.
I want to know, he says, if you have been in contact with them. He does not look at me but through the windshield so it is as if he is asking the lawnmower.
I pretend to not know what he means. With who?
He turns to me. His face is AP Calculus.
I squirm on the heated seat. No, I say.
Don’t lie to me. He holds my hand so hard I gasp.
We’ll die from asphyxiation, I say.
That’s if the car is on, Vanessa. He sighs because I am dumb and beyond hope.
* * *
Corrina had the power to make small objects disappear. Marigold could move things through space, and Ian could control birds with his mind.
It was the night of our freshman year’s first snowfall. Corrina and Marigold were trekking through the snow when in the quad they encountered lacrosse boys, Chris and Dan. According to our school’s newspaper The Vanilla Wafer, Chris and Dan were “twin bastions of force” on the field. Seeing Corrina and Marigold, Chris cleared his throat, cupped his hand around his mouth and delivered one perfect note: faggot. Corrina and Marigold paused in their argument about the unsung hero in R.E.M., as if they sensed their name being called. Chris sang again, this time accompanied by Dan: Faggot.
Except for the four of them, the quad was empty.
Are they talking to me? Marigold said.
The snow kept snowing.
Corrina and Marigold continued their trek to the southeastern most point of campus to join Ian and I in the room he shared with a bifocaled boy who was always rolling his eyes and leaving.
Corrina said, We have to hit back, quickly and hard.
Corrina said, Van, take notes.
We stayed up all night in Ian’s room, planning. I made a list in my flamingo journal. I wanted to draw a picture of the indoor lacrosse field but none of us had seen it. We weren’t people who attended sports events. We drank red sodas. We lay four on the bed: Corrina with her head on Ian’s stomach, Marigold with his head on Corrina’s. Ian said as a little boy he helped his mother dye her hair out of $3 boxes. He and Marigold did shots of tequila. Michael Stipe, lead singer of our favorite band, was singing we should suspicion ourselves, and not get caught.
This was after they had realized their powers got greater when they were together: Corrina could make bigger things disappear, Marigold could transport bigger things. This was after Corrina had changed Sam’s name to Marigold and my name to Van, but before we had heard of Katie Freeman or the rotten kidneys that would ruin our lives. Sam, she said, was a dumb name and Vanessa, she said, was a fat girl’s name.
I am a fat girl, I had said.
Bats! yelled Corrina. No, seagulls!
Bats are dicks, said Marigold. They’d come with their own agenda. And, seagulls aren’t scary enough.
I crossed out bats. I crossed out seagulls.
Corrina held one elbow behind her head and stretched. Marigold put on a record then decided against it. Corrina said: Crows! Like Hitchcock!
Can you do crows, I asked Ian.
I can, he said, but it might get messy. His mouth was red from the soda. I crossed out crows.
We debated. Ian’s roommate appeared, rolled his eyes and left. I went to the bathroom down the hall. Passing the open doors on the long hallway, I heard Chandler forget which of Joey’s sisters he slept with. It was 1996, and everyone in America was watching “Friends.” When I returned Ian said, We could just do nothing. He was skinny and fearful, not a boy who got offended on his or anyone else’s behalf.
At 6 a.m., with the help of the morning sun, the snowfall reappeared outside the window. We had figured it out. That’s that, Corrina said, her voice hazy, her hair distracted. We considered rejoining the jigsaw puzzle. We fell asleep, four on the bed.
Would Vanilla lacrosse be able to bypass Seneca University, throughout history its staunchest rival? The Wafer called the following week’s game “a deciding, mid-season match up.” Pretty girls in soft-looking spectator wear gnawed the tips of their French manicures. Athletes from other disciplines attended to show support, entering the stadium like princes from distant kingdoms. Old timers pumped the hands of current faculty. The arena smelled like the hot peanuts everyone was eating out of paper cones.
Corrina wore her blue star sweatshirt that hung low over one shoulder. This is devastatingly boring, she said. She was a girl who existed in extremes. Vanilla wasn’t dull, it was mind-shatteringly pedestrian. The album “Murmur” wasn’t great, it was wondrous.
We sat in the first row, on all sides of us five feet of empty space.
At game time, a current rap hit exploded out of the loudspeakers and a young coed’s voice trilled: Ladies and Gentlemen, your Vanilla and Seneca University Lacrosse teams! The crowd clapped and weee-ed. Led by Chris and Dan, the teams jogged out, then sat on their benches and became serious as stone.
Whistles blew. Boys took the field and pranced with their sticks. We watched. We ate peanuts. The peanuts were not bad. My roommate Sara, who wrote for The Wafer, sat nearby with a group of journalism majors, notepads on each of their laps. I waved. She did not wave back.
Toward the end of the first quarter Vanilla was up 2-0 thanks to a power play by the Twin Bastions. Chris sat on the bench squirting water into his mouth and nodding to his coach, who pointed things out on a clipboard.
That’s when the first wild turkey appeared.
It stayed on the sidelines at first, throat quaking, head in constant negotiation, watching the game like anyone else. A few people noticed it and tittered.
Concentrate, said Corrina.
A passing player’s toss seemed to act as a cue for the turkey, because it leapt onto the field like a player freed from the penalty box and launched into a series of frenetic dances. A few minutes passed before all sections of the field caught on. The players near Seneca’s goal continued their formations oblivious to the wild turkey rubbing its long neck into the turf on the other side of the field. When they did realize they paused and idled, swishing their sticks and waiting for someone to do something.
A referee whistled, dragging his foot in a line around the turkey.
Turkey! He cried. Turkey on the field!
Chris watched from the bench, emotionless. He had come from junior lacrosse teams in the poorest part of the state where maybe he had to battle wild turkeys every day. In any case, he seemed barely interested. He retied his shoelace, no doubt assuming this disturbance was temporary and his way to glory would once again be cleared by one of the nameless blurs that orbited his life.
He wasn’t wrong. The refs corralled the turkey and led it out of the arena, playing up the escort for yuks. The crowd laughed, tilted their heads to tap the last of their peanuts into their perfect mouths. Someone near us said, that’ll make the goofy reel. The game continued.
Seneca U rallied. Toward the end of the third quarter, they led Vanilla by one. One of the girls near us wondered aloud if a loss would interfere with the sorority mingle later that night. Her friend said, No way.
That’s when the turkey returned. This time the referees weren’t amused. But this time, the turkey wasn’t alone. At several points of entry on the field, other wild turkeys appeared, necks trilling, feathers alighting then settling, alighting then settling.
Chris and Dan were in the midst of a power play near Seneca’s goal, alone except for the goalie and two earnest-looking members of Seneca’s defense. This time, Chris and Dan couldn’t ignore the turkeys because they were bobbling and jogging toward them in a semi-straight line.
That they can really haul is what most people don’t know about wild turkeys. The turkeys were halfway across the field and still no one had stopped them: They easily out-legged the refs who tried.
The Seneca players fled with no pursuit, the turkeys having no issue with them. Now Chris and Dan were alone, the number of people between them and the squawking mess exactly zero. Out of Chris’ net, the ball fell and thudded against the fake grass.
Concentrate, said Corrina.
The Twin Bastions did what you would expect successful college boys would do when faced with genuine opposition: They ran. This thrilled the turkeys. Their efforts tripled: they pursued faster, yawked louder. Any ref or old-timer attempting to intervene was attacked with a full-winged advance and a heart-splitting SQUAWK.
Chris and Dan ran toward the other side of the field. They were Division I fast, but the turkeys had skills. They split ranks: One rank continued the chase, leading the boys directly into the path of the other that stood, outstretched wing to outstretched wing. The boys wheeled around. They were trapped.
The salty-throated crowd watched in horror as the turkeys struck. Amidst the wartime sounds of the onslaught, we could see enough to know the turkeys had gotten the boys down on the ground. Dan’s stick like a burp flew out of the fray. The necks of the turkeys made a rhythmic unified motion. The boys yelped and flailed. Now that the birds were distracted, the refs and old timers were able to pull them off the boys. One by one, the turkeys were carried or dragged out of the arena. The last turkey, scrappier than the rest and possessing no apparent fear, led a few refs on a chase before relenting.
Go turkey, go! Corrina cheered.
By this time team medics had reached Chris and Dan and were administering salves and bandages. Their legs were hacked in several places and they were too hysterical to finish the game. Since they had been winning at the onset of the turkeys and because league rules mandate there are no rematches in Division I games, Seneca was declared the winner. This decree was met with half-hearted hoorays from Seneca’s confused bench and with more yelling and blame-throwing from Chris and Dan, whose blood had begun to soak into the alarming green of the field in dark pools so stubborn that the next year the field was replaced completely.
Good game, said Marigold.
* * *
After the hummingbirds, our afternoon is mostly normal. Charles watches highlights from that day’s Vanilla basketball game then performs a quick three miles on the garage treadmill. At 5 p.m., I serve flat, innocuous chicken. The only difference is that our post-dinner lovemaking, urgent and impersonal, is conducted on the floor of the dining room instead of in our bed. This is Charles’ fuck you to the hummingbirds. When it is over, he naps on the couch while I clean the kitchen.
Normally, I like to do the dishes and watch the backyard fill with late-afternoon light. I take my time and run the towel over each plate again and again. Tonight my head is filled with ghosts. I decide it will be a night I drive to Vanilla’s campus and chain smoke while I listen to all of the old songs. This is why I like my old car. It still has a tape deck and the lighter gets hot in seconds. A plate slips from my hand into the soapy water. I pick it up only to lose it again.
Charles’s snoring drifts in from the other room. What if it was the snoring of a man I was crazy about? How is this my life? I soap the bowls, wash them clean, then soap them again, just to stay at the window. The yard grows dark.
I secure a sheet of aluminum foil over the leftover chicken and when I straighten up there is something in the yard. I lose my grip on the platter: It hits the ground and comes apart. The breasts of chicken launch then land dully under the dishwasher and cabinets. Gravy splashes onto my calves. The clattering awakens Charles who stumbles in. He looks through the glass patio doors and halts.
Don’t go out there, I say. Something in my voice roots him.
We stand at the doors and look out over the yard.
Hundreds of deer gaze back at us. Deer and deer and deer and deer and deer. Their blue chests heave in the dark. Their trembling, cotton throats. Each pair of eyes is trained on us. Charles turns off the kitchen light. Now we too are in darkness. The deer blink, shift footing, work their small jaws around.
Charles stammers. I thought the Dorothyville Association took care of all the deer.
That is totally what he would say, I think.
He looks from the deer to me and back again.
They’re staring at you.
I know they are but I say they’re not.
He moves away from me. The attentions of the deer do not waver. He pulls me into the kitchen, out of sight, and returns to the door. Yes, he says, you.
He wants to know what is going on and I say nothing. He doesn’t believe I haven’t heard from them. If I were him, I wouldn’t either. I say, Check the phone bill and he sighs, because he already has.
I pull the drapes across the windows and flip the kitchen light back on.
Strange things happen to animals in the summer, I say.
Charles looks doubtful and worried. I’m calling the association in the morning, he says.
Good thinking, I say. Your nerves are shot, go to sleep.
My nerves are shot, he admits. He delivers a dry peck to my forehead. Goodnight, my wife.
It’s what he calls me when he has recently had an orgasm. The closest thing to a nickname for me is my station in his life.
He goes upstairs to bed. I hear his footsteps above me on the second floor. I return to the window and pull back the shades. The deer are gone. I stand there shaking with what feels like cold.
The following week’s Wafer had an explosive lead story: Twin Bastions Brutally Bushwhacked by Brazen Birds!
My roommate’s first story, several pages in, was a profile of a fortunate-looking Vanilla girl. Only child of Robert and Jessica, Katie Freeman’s kidneys had been ravaged by disease. She needed new ones, ASAP. In the accompanying picture, she sat waiting to die in her Vanilla bedroom, decorated with Barbie everything.
Corrina read over my shoulder. I’m not going to start with how fucked up the Barbie thing is, she said. She snatched the paper and lifted its front page high above her head. Look at our heroes! She pointed to the picture of Chris and Dan, screaming at the medics on the field, a lone turkey feather hanging in mid-air over Dan’s shoulder.
We were in my dorm room. Ian entered with ice cream. No. Ian entered, upset that he hadn’t started his ethics homework but wanting ice cream. Marigold said, What’s the project? Or Corrina said it. We were already eating ice cream. Or pizza. Or pixie sticks. Marigold said, I miss my sister so much, we used to sleep under the bed like cats. Several streets away, Katie Freeman’s kidneys enacted dramatic exit monologues — whether it is nobler to burn out than it is to rust. Ian said the project was: BUILD SOMETHING. None of us had ice cream. I was in the shirt I always wore. I put on one of Ian’s winter coats and wrapped a scarf around my neck. I said, You’re on your own fellas, I’m going to Church! Corrina said, I can’t believe you still do that and I said, Don’t knock it ‘til you try it and Corrina said Maybe I’ll try it. She put on one of Marigold’s winter coats and one of Ian’s knit hats.
On the walk to Saint Vanilla Cathedral, we replayed the ruckus at the lacrosse field. We had been reenacting it all week. Every turkey scream. We took turns being Chris or Dan or the turkeys.
Saint Vanilla Cathedral held the collective hush of a sports arena. We sat in a middle pew. The organ blew. Bells rang. Mass ensued.
Who are those guys? Corrina pointed to the altar.
Corrina looked around and said in a tone I was beginning to recognize: Where are the altar girls?
After communion, Father Frank asked the congregation to keep Chris and Dan and Katie Freeman in its prayers. Then in fits and starts, the young congregation vacated the pews and emptied into the gray Vanilla afternoon.
Corrina approached Father Frank. I have a question, she said. Father Frank looked pleased. His real name was Frances but he used Frank in the hope it would make him more approachable to girls like this girl and questions like the one this girl was about to pose.
Ask away, he said.
Why are there no altar girls?
Father Frank chucked Corrina on the shoulder. Corrina’s shoulder, bony and normally encased in some equation of yarn, was unaccustomed to being chucked. She stood unblinking and waited for an answer.
Look. His smile waned. You’re not the first girl to ask.
He turned to a family of parishioners who upon achieving his attention, held out a round-faced baby.
Maybe if he had attempted a semi-valiant answer what happened wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if he hadn’t treated her like a 5-year-old asking for a bedtime story. Maybe is what my mind says when I, in the half-light of Charles’ snoring, can’t sleep.
We walked to Ian’s room where a structure of spoons, bike wheels and assorted pieces of trash had grown. The project was BUILD SOMETHING. What Ian had decided to build was a Rube Goldberg machine; a structure that uses an unnecessary amount of steps to accomplish a simple task, like flipping an egg or pressing a key on a piano.
However, Marigold said, this machine will only accomplish keeping itself going. The last step will trigger the first.
We spent the rest of that afternoon building.
We ordered sandwiches. Ian’s roommate came in with his dour-looking girlfriend, rolled his eyes, rooted through a stack of CDs, plucked out the one he wanted, and left. Ian said, I feel we’re not using the egg carton as creatively as we can. Corrina said, My Mom is a civil rights lawyer. She was always off fighting other people’s battles. Let’s listen to “Document,” Ian said, or Marigold said it or I said it. A pair of pliers on the windowsill disappeared then reappeared in Marigold’s hand across the room. He used them to secure each paper clip on the paper clip ski lift. Through the window, a sparrow longed for Ian. We forgot we ordered sandwiches until they arrived. We made the delivery guy stand in the doorway as we dug around for money. Marigold knew him from class. They exchanged vague hey’s. What’s that, the delivery guy said, pointing to the machine. I said, In English class I learned the word for what my parents are. Updike-ian, I said. We ate from the bags of potato chips that were free with the sandwiches. Shoo, Ian said to the sparrow. The sun, faced with no options, went down. We admired our finished machine. It clicked and chugged in front of us. A set of keys dropped onto a scale that tipped, hitting the egg timer that triggered the paper clip ski lift that triggered the…
Ian got a C-. The Ethics professor explained, the assignment had been: BUILD AN ARGUMENT.
This is an argument, Ian said.
As an Ethics professor, she was accustomed to debate and readjusting her opinions. For what, she said.
He said, Let me think about that.
* * *
In winter of our sophomore year, the administration of Vanilla University, helmed by Father Frank, opted to disband WCVU, the college’s small radio station, and reassign its budget to a fledging campus group, the Young Republicans. The Wafer quoted Father Frank as saying, music lovers can continue to enjoy music from any of the city-based radio stations. WCVU is how we kept in touch with the members of R.E.M. and the freaks from other schools. It was a barking chain of indie music through late-night radio wires. Its disbandment was the final affront for Corrina: The Church would have to go.
Temporarily, she said, to prove a point.
Van, she said. Take notes.
They had been practicing every day and their powers were growing. Maybe one day Marigold said, he could transport something not just through space but through time, like a dead person from the afterlife. Maybe one day Ian could not only control birds, but other animals, like rabbits or horses. Corrina had been wondering if she could make something really big disappear and said now was our chance to find out.
That is how we came to be standing on Nietzsche Field near dawn on December 15, the week before Christmas break, wincing up at the immense porcelain structure of Saint Vanilla Cathedral. Our breath puffed out before us. We each wore a crocheted hat from a box Marigold’s mother had sent the week before.
Concentrate, said Corrina.
We bowed our heads. One moment the Church was there and the next it wasn’t. That’s how it seemed to me, though I hadn’t been part of the training session where Corrina told the guys to picture their mind as a chute: a way of getting intention from here to there. This was the way to transport an idea to the physical manifestation of the idea, she said. If they could all do it at the same time.
One moment it was there and the next it wasn’t. With it, the objects inside vanished.
We did it, Marigold said.
Holy hell, I said.
Corrina said, Mary Mother of Fuck I didn’t think we could do it.
Ian’s eyes were scared. I don’t know about this.
It’s still there, it’s just cloaked. Corrina walked to where it had been. She extended her arm and knocked twice: two loud thumps.
We could see the ground underneath the cathedral. Fuzzed-out dirt and twigs. We could see through it to the drab buildings on the other side of the field, above it the night sky.
Better view of the stars now, Corrina said.
We walked to the office of The Wafer. Marigold used a bobby pin to jimmy the door open. Corrina slipped an envelope into a box labeled Letters to the Editor. Then, we walked across campus to my room. Ian was nervous and kept looking behind us.
Look, Marigold said, pointing to the sun coming up over South campus. We stopped and passed a cigarette around.
When we reached my room, we startled Sara, who was leaving for class. You guys look like you’ve been up all night. She left and we shut the blinds and laid four in my bed.
Marigold said, what do you think Michael Stipe is doing right now?
Eating a sandwich, I said and Ian said, Helping a dragonfly get out of a spider web.
Shut up, Corrina said, her eyes closed. I’m wrecked.
We had only been sleeping for a few hours when we were awakened by a siren that seemed to come from the core of the world.
Outside, other sleepy Vanillans rubbed their eyes and asked each other what the emergency was. Something is wrong with the Church, a girl in pink pajamas said. We walked with the crowd to Nietzsche Field where the Church had been deleted. People gasped. We were silent. Ian squeezed my hand.
A group of priests and faculty stared up at what wasn’t there. One of the teachers walked directly into an unseen wall. She clutched her nose, glared, then walked into it again. Jesus! She moved a few steps back and then, to our disbelief, did it again.
How many times do you think she’ll do that before she catches on? Corrina said.
Vanilla police arrived. The baffled teacher and the other faculty members were ushered away to stand with us. The officers used police tape to cordon off their best estimate of the Church’s location. One of the cops felt along the exterior wall until he halted with a bleat of discovery.
I found a door, he cried.
Two other cops joined him as he turned an invisible doorknob and pushed. The door creaked. His fellow officers drew their guns, covering him as he felt along the interior of what must have been the vestibule. He stopped. The lights! he said. He flipped an unseen switch on and off.
Does he think he can turn the Church back on? said Marigold.
The officer climbed a flight of disappeared stairs. We watched as he rose in the air until he was several feet above the ground. He looked back at us and seemed to get scared.
Don’t look down! One of his buddies yelled.
He inched into the main chamber of the cathedral, diminishing in size as he got farther in.
I can feel the pews, he yelled, but I can’t see them!
A whistle went through the crowd. What the fuck, someone said, is this?
The other two officers began their own explorations. One ascended what seemed like a steep side staircase to the choir loft. His counterpart followed, taking each step one by one, gun drawn, eyes wide. In front of us, a tableau of three officers, suspended in air. There was a multi-tonal blast as the officer in the choir loft found the organ.
At the base of the Church, Father Frank led those of us who had gathered in prayer. Finishing up, he said Amen into a microphone that had been placed under his bowed head by a Wafer reporter. At the edge of the crowd, Sara scribbled into a notebook.
The next day she had her first cover story: SAINT VANILLA CATHEDRAL DISAPPEARS! In it she espoused theories as varied as climate change and chemical reaction to the Church’s recent paint job. Farther back in the paper, an anonymous letter to the editor contained a different theory. Perhaps if the Church didn’t treat women, gays and music-lovers like they were invisible, this wouldn’t have happened. The letter was signed, a concerned sophomore.
Then it was time to go home for Christmas break. We stood in the main parking lot and said goodbye. We wore variations on tweed and yarn. Marigold got on a bus that would take him to a plane to California. Corrina’s parents picked her up in a Volvo station wagon. They got out and rushed her, petting her hair while they shook our hands.
Stop, Corrina said, clearly pleased.
What trouble have you gotten into, her father said.
Corrina held up her hands and shrugged. No trouble!
Too bad. He frowned.
They said they were happy to meet us and they drove away, smiling.
It was just Ian and I. I readjusted the strap on my shoulder bag. He shifted from foot to foot. When his beard grew in it had patches of red. He would not be returning to his kingdom, but staying at the dorms, just him and the janitor Lamar, who had steadfast opinions on the right way to clean a bathtub.
My parents pulled up in their expensive car. My father’s window descended and he said hello, Vanessa.
I said, this is Ian.
My mother said, hello, Ian.
Ian and I looked at the trunk, which had ascended. Ian loaded my bag into the back. Then, he hugged me.
Those are my parents, I said, getting into the backseat. Last chance to come with me.
Hey you, he said.
I said, What?
He said, Just checking.
In the back seat sat my little sister, belted. I haven’t mentioned her because for the majority of my life, she has been pointless. She gave me a sour look. Did you gain even more weight?
My father drove away. My sister turned around and faced what we were driving away from. Your friend is waving, she said.
* * *
What I did that week or any of the time I returned home during college doesn’t matter. I was itchy and restless without them. I listened to “Dead Letter Office” on my headphones and ignored my family. The only thing that mattered happened on Christmas morning, when through the haze of present opening and the clinking of my parent’s highballs, a phone call came from the Vanilla dorms.
Ian said, People are camped on Nietzsche Field. People are losing faith. This isn’t funny.
I know, I said. I’ve been watching the local news.
If Corrina was our mouth, and Marigold our sense of humor, Ian was our conscience. Call her and tell her to knock it off, he said. Tell her even if we don’t agree with them we should leave them alone. It’s Christmas.
Corrina answered the phone by saying, get me out of here I’m dying.
Ian is upset about the Church.
Who cares about the Church? I can’t take any more family togetherness, Van.
He’s saying people are losing faith and freaking out. He wants you to call it off.
There was a pause. I heard singing in the background. They’re singing again, Corrina said. Like the fucking Von Trapps.
I was silent.
Fine. She hung up the phone.
That night I watched the news in my father’s den. The newscaster joked about a local contest to see whose dog made the cutest Santa. Then, her face turned sober as she reported on what she called the ongoing situation on Vanilla University’s campus. A live shot showed the field, a handful of religious campers praying. Inside the cathedral, two Science professors researched in mid-air.
A pointy-nosed reporter interviewed one of the campers who said, I can’t see it but I know it’s there.
Behind her, the Church flickered then reappeared. The group of campers Oh-my-God-ed. One yelled, It’s back!
The reporter turned around, her hand flying to her earpiece that was suddenly burdened with instructions from her studio.
After Charles is asleep, I put the Toyota in neutral and reverse it, lightless, out of our driveway. I drive past the venerable stone houses of Vanilla, onto Vanilla’s campus, to Nietzsche Field. I pull up to the southeast corner of the Field, where I can see the Science Labs, the Business Building and, like a glowing pearl anchor, Saint Vanilla Cathedral. I light a cigarette, suck in the first drag then let it out slowly. This creates the emptying out of my mind I hope for. I listen to an old mix tape.
The field is infused with mist making the night seem malleable, like I can do things to it: tear it in half like a sheet of loose leaf or gather it into a ball. On my tape deck Michael Stipe sings about standing on the shoulders of giants.
I watch the mist change shape and in the shape-shifting mist, something moves that is neither mist nor the trunk of any tree. I focus on it until I am certain it is not a trick of fog or night. Someone is sitting on the field.
He raises his hand in greeting. I understand I should get out of the car and cross to him but my fingers slip on the handle. I try again. I get out of the car. He waits.
When I am halfway across the field we exchange a wordless salute. By then I know it is Ian. God and time have left his boyish face alone.
It’s been thirteen years, I say.
He stands. I would have come sooner but there were difficulties.
A laugh launches out of me, too loud. I reach out without thinking then stop. Can I touch you?
I don’t know, he says. Try.
You’re cold. We both look at my hand on his arm. Have you seen the others?
Corrina. She’s in California. South of San Diego.
I think of her there. Cactus, bright sun, dust.
Do you know how long it takes to drive to California? He stares at me in the way he has that tells me the question he is asking is not the question he is asking.
From here? I say, not understanding.
He smiles. It would be fun.
Let’s go tonight, I say, playing an old game. I’ll drive.
The tree’s light cuts diamonds onto his face.
Have you seen Marigold, too? I say.
He nods. He’s who got me here.
From a pocket of his hooded sweatshirt, Ian pulls out a small card and unfolds it. It is the Vanilla Mall circular. On the front, Charles beams while behind him I use thigh strength to stay on a carousel horse near the second-level food court. Wild horses…
Ian shakes his head. I can’t believe you married that douche clown.
You know what they say about life not always turning out the way you expect.
No kidding. He laughs, it is Ian’s giggle, and then there is no more distance. Marigold said I should find you and knock some sense into you.
It was hard, I say. After you all left.
I specifically told you not to get jaded, Ian says.
We can talk about all of this on our way to California.
For the first time, he looks sad. In the light of Vanilla Cathedral I see dull paunches under his eyes and chin. I wish, he says.
Let’s stay here then. I sit down on the grass.
Let’s. He sits down.
I say to myself several times before I say to him: Can I hold your hand?
He says, I would be offended if you didn’t.
The air smells wet like autumn but it is brick hot summer. We face the other side of the field where my car is parked.
I love that you still drive that thing, he says. He says, It’s your turn, Van. This one’s for you.
I’m fine, I say. I don’t need anything.
Stop punishing yourself, he says.
Stop telling me what to do.
We sit in silence, not looking at each other. I am afraid any change in posture or the pressure of my hand will make him go away. After a while he says, this is really nice, but other than that we are quiet.
* * *
Toward the end of our junior year, The Wafer reported that although they said before Katie Freeman was about to die, she was now, like, really about to die. That’s when Ian had the idea to transport a kidney. Where do we even get a kidney, Marigold said, and Ian said they could find a matching one on someone who just died but wasn’t an organ donor. The Freemans would be so thrilled they wouldn’t ask questions.
And we know it’s a match because we’re all doctors?
Practice, said Ian. Spells.
That’s stealing, said Marigold
They had never transported anything like this before, but Ian figured if they could control a pack of wild turkeys and disappear a Church, they could move a kidney from one place to another. He wanted to make up for launching what he called a collective crisis of faith. Corrina pointed out we had also inspired what The Wafer was calling a modern-day miracle. Along with Best Looking Campus that year, we were voted Most Holy.
Please? Ian said. We did the turkeys for Marigold, the Church for Corrina, this one could be for me.
Then, the next one is for Van, Corrina said.
They were kind enough to include me even though I had as much power as a can of soup. We were a unit by then, known around campus. I knew we would always be friends the way I knew R.E.M. would never break up. I took notes as they figured out how to find and move an organ through space.
All we have to do is set up a mental formula that can identify the kidney for us, Corrina said. If that, then this. A divining spell of sorts.
The next afternoon, Ian burst into my dorm room where I, Corrina and Marigold were arguing over ordering pizza or sandwiches and said he had found a kidney. Its location had come to him in a dream. It’s in Seattle, he said, and belongs to a nurse who died in a three-car pile up.
Pizza, said Marigold, or I’m fucking out of here.
On May 15 of my junior year, Jessica Freeman, PTA organizer and mother of Katie Freeman, owner of the much-discussed and prayed-for organ, opened her freezer to fetch that night’s dinner. Instead of a Cornish hen, she found a cooler that contained a kidney. She fell into an unconscious heap on the floor.
Of course doctors at Vanilla Presbyterian subjected the kidney to a battery of tests, all of which it passed. They consulted every kidney list in America and found not one missing organ. They gave up trying to figure out where it came from because, as Ian predicted, they were too thrilled.
Unexplained things happen all the time in Vanilla, reasoned Jessica Freeman in a three-page spread in The Wafer, it is after all America’s Most Holy Campus. The Freemans signed off on having the kidney sewn into their daughter.
The Wafer, led by my old roommate Sara, who was now a senior reporter, conducted “Katie-Watch,” chronicling the girl’s journey to transplant. On the day she was wheeled into surgery, Sara snapped a picture of Katie giving the thumbs-up sign. The next day, when Katie emerged from the recovery room, Sara snapped a picture of the girl’s joyous thumbs-up. Katie was a thumbs-up kind of girl, incapable, it seemed, of taking a picture without giving one.
The next day, we stayed in the room Ian and Marigold now shared and drank beer, got high, ate candy, played board games and congratulated ourselves. We were secret, important heroes. On the second day, when Corrina insisted we play Monopoly instead of Scrabble, Marigold said, Surprise, Corrina is telling us what to do and Corrina said what begins all fights: What is that supposed to mean?
You’re a bully, said Marigold, ripping a piece out of his fruit roll-up.
Corrina turned to me. Do you think what he thinks?
Ask your puppy dog, said Marigold, that’ll be an accurate read.
Hey, I said.
Ian said, Hey.
Marigold said, Corrina wants to have a Church vanish, it vanishes, she wants to hack a couple lacrosse players half to death, it happens.
That was for you, Samuel. Corrina rescinded Marigold’s nickname when things were dire.
Guys, I said. How about we cool it.
Van, how about you put yourself on the line, once, for anything? Marigold said.
Alright, Ian said, let’s go outside, Mar.
Corrina rolled her eyes. Give it a rest, Ian.
Give what a rest? Ian said.
Corrina looked surprised at herself and seemed unwilling to elaborate. She and Marigold exchanged glances as if they had reached an agreement on something they had discussed without us. Corrina said, Why don’t you two just make out and get it over with? The whole fake friendship thing is cloying and inauthentic.
You’re high, said Ian.
Being high doesn’t change the truth, Marigold said.
Here’s a stand, I said to Marigold. You started a fight. Now you’re trying to misdirect.
Why don’t you cry and write your feelings in your journal, Vanessa?
I keep notes for you jerks in that thing.
Corrina said, Everyone is high. We need to calm down.
Corrina! Telling us what to do again. How terrifyingly shocking. I am petrified with shock. I am heart-wrenchingly shocked!
Guys, said Ian.
If I didn’t guide us, Samuel, you would be stoned and sleeping through college.
Guys, said Ian, louder. We looked over. He was slumped against the bed, holding his side. Something’s wrong, he said. I think I ate too much candy.
Ian was admitted to Vanilla Presbyterian in the middle of the night on May 25 of our junior year. Corrina, Marigold and I sat in the blue-lit waiting room for two hours, our worry every so often interrupted by the sliding doors of the ER, revealing a new patient, or one of us back from a cigarette.
Marigold said, He probably has mono or, like, appendicitis.
Corrina said, Mono. Her eyes had not left the doors to the back hallway since Ian disappeared behind them.
The woman above us on the swiveling TV said, I’m tired of losing confidence over static cling.
Should we call his Mom? Marigold said.
No one answered.
I don’t just write about my feelings, I said.
Corrina put her hand on mine. I’m sorry I try to run everything.
Even if you did just write about your feelings, Marigold said. That’s fine. I’m a jerk.
At 5 a.m. Marigold and Corrina were asleep on each of my shoulders when a furrowed doctor stood at the lip of the waiting room and surveyed it for anyone relevant to what he had to say. We were the only people there.
We asked him to repeat it because at first it felt like too big of a coincidence; kidney failure. The doctor said Ian’s kidney was too damaged to function, having been weakened over time by stress, alcohol, genetics and other cumulative external factors.
We blinked at him, confused. We were still wearing winter hats though it was May, our pants with busted hems, our shirts stapled.
The doctor frowned. It’s too much for one kidney to take.
Kidney? Marigold said.
The woman on TV was ecstatic. Now I can join my co-workers without a care in the world!
I won’t know the extent of the damage until surgery. I’d like to get him prepped immediately.
Corrina sat forward. But what about his other kidney?
The doctor seemed to make several corrections in his tact before speaking again. You are his family, right?
We said the word yes together.
Ian only has one kidney, the doctor said. And that kidney is doing its best; it is high-kicking like hell and busting out those diseases and pizza bagels that Ian makes late at night and boy-oh-boy is it giving the old college try, but not this college, some other college, where people fail out and sports teams get beat into the ground.
Pardon? I said.
Ian only has one kidney, the doctor said.
On the swivel television, the talk show host delivered an end-of-program sermon, summing up key points.
Sometimes in our life, she said, our partners expect us to breathe for them. We should not let them coop our breath. She said, He needs to have surgery immediately to repair what we can of the kidney. You can speak with him now but not for very long. She said, His mother won’t be able to get here in time. She said, Now let us take a few moments to pray for Katie Freeman, whose family and friends are in need of a gift from God.
Ian’s room was quiet considering the chaos in our minds. He was under a blanket, staring at the wall. We hesitated in the doorway, a recent fight and grave illness had made us all strangers. He looked over and smiled.
About that kidney, he said. I didn’t find it in Seattle.
We moved to his bedside. I was too stunned to be anything else but stunned.
Corrina’s face was dumb with tears. You have to have surgery now, you asshole.
You guys look petrified, he said. It will be fine. The doctor said I can live with one kidney so long as the damage isn’t that bad.
You lied to us, I said.
The doctor returned and told us we did not have any more time so whatever we hadn’t yet said would have to remain unsaid. The room smelled like antiseptic and gym socks. Marigold leaned down and put his head near Ian’s.
Oh, Samuel, Ian said.
Corrina took Ian’s face in her hands. I’m mad at you, she said.
Yell at me later, he said.
Corrina and Marigold left to call Ian’s mother. My mind seized. I couldn’t say anything so Ian spoke for me.
Do you want to kiss me? He said.
I said, I do.
A moment passed.
Don’t get jaded, he said, when I was halfway out of the room.
I turned around. Me? I said. Why would I get jaded?
We returned to the waiting room. The television was still on, another episode of the same talk show host. Every television in every hospital: same show. We called Ian’s mother from a payphone in the lobby. She said it would take her five hours to drive from the Northeast Kingdom but only three had passed when the doctor emerged, his surgical mask making a hollow scream on his neck, to tell us that our friend had not survived, that there was a world with bridges and bread and logic and Ian was no longer in it.
Vanilla authorities connected Ian’s death to Katie Freeman immediately, though they could not figure out the specifics. We were questioned several times but our interviews yielded nothing. Who could ever believe the truth? That there was a boy with special gifts who wanted to help a stranger?
Hundreds of students attended his burial. When it was over, Corrina, Marigold and I went to the room Corrina and I now shared and made a bong out of an apple. We were super high when Sara stopped in to say that she was sorry Ian was dead. Behind her, a rugged ROTC major shuffled in flanked by girls from the softball team.
Look at this douche clown, said Marigold.
He introduced himself as Charles Locke. On behalf of the Young Republicans, he said, I want to express our condolences.
Thanks, Chuck, said Marigold.
It’s Charles, Charles said.
I introduced myself and we shook hands.
He said, I thought I knew everyone on this campus, but I don’t know you.
Later, I realized my journal was missing. We looked everywhere.
Poetic justice in a way, Corrina said. The end of an era.
* * *
Sara’s article was the cover of The Wafer the next day.
The turkeys, the Church and the Freeman girl — my journal linked us to everything. Though they couldn’t figure out how we could be responsible for it, our involvement was enough reason to blame us for everything. Plus, we had been known to sit on the wall around the Cookie and sing “Talk About the Passion.” Plus, there was that we dressed weird. Corrina was expelled. Marigold was expelled.
I was allowed to remain. This was because, the administration said, my notes proved without question I had no abilities. I should be thankful they had decided to act from the most forgiving part of themselves. This is after all, they said, America’s Most Holy Campus.
In senior year, I bore the glares of campus alone. I felt I deserved it. It was punishment for being powerless, boring as milk, for getting my friends expelled. When Charles Locke crossed the invisible picket line against me to ask me out, I bore him too. He considered himself a man of the people. On our first date, he told me he planned to own a place where all people could go and feel safe.
Like a library? I said.
The night before Marigold and Corrina left town, we parked on West Campus under the Willow Trees. We sat on my hood and watched the track team compete in the last event of the year. Bright pennants, yells, over-laughing.
Corrina would do her senior year at a girls’ college several hours away. Marigold was taking a gap year. He would spend it on the floor of his sister’s dorm room in California, surfing and getting tan.
Corrina didn’t want to hear me say I was sorry anymore. Don’t agonize over it, Van. It was a matter of time before they pinned us. The journal just sped up the inevitable.
Marigold lit a cigarette. It’s probably better to leave like this than to have to go through the trauma of Vanilla graduation.
Corrina stood up on my hood. She cupped her hands over her mouth and in the biggest voice she had, yelled: Hey! Vanilla! You can go down on me!
No one heard or looked over.
Marigold said, does anyone else want a motherfucking drink?
I’ll drive, I said.
* * *
Sometimes I drive to Erie, Pennsylvania to go to Freeman’s Bookstore on the lake. I like to talk to the owner, Katie Freeman, who opened the store a few years after graduating college. She says she likes that the town’s reference point is the lake: the moments after sunset when it shimmers like a flat plane of stars. She never thought she’d get to do anything like go to college or open a bookstore because of what she only refers to as childhood health concerns. I don’t press her for details and she doesn’t ask why I never buy anything.
The day after I sit with Ian in the field is the last time I visit her. When I enter, she waves to me from behind a crowd of tourists. I consider several books on California before choosing the one that seems the most friendly. Katie rings me up.
I’m going to California, I say and she says, Good for you.
It’s about time, I say, I took a trip.
How long will you stay?
I think I’ll stay for a while. I look out the window to where my two packed suitcases sit in the Toyota.
She’s a good winker. Brave, she says.
She hands me the receipt and the change. The change is in my hand. The book is in the bag. She is on one side of the counter and I am on the other. We smile at each other. She says, Good luck.
In my car, I pull the seat belt over my shoulder. I wait for cars to pass so I can enter the highway. For a moment in my rearview mirror, I watch Lake Erie have a conversation with the sky. I choose a tape and slide it into the player. The music hasn’t started but already I want it louder.
* * *
It was my second day at Vanilla University and up until that point my journal had been filled with such non-shocking observations as My roommate is a journalism major from Michigan and, The milk dispensers in the cafeteria look like cow udders! All I knew about Vanilla was what I found in the introductory pamphlets they sent incoming freshmen. A town of 10,000, Vanilla experienced humid summers and snowy winters. Its most notable feature was Vanilla University, from which it gained its name.
He was reading under a tree on Nietzsche Field and I was walking by, wondering how long it would take me to feel comfortable in this new place and wishing I could be someone who said to cute boys, hello, what are you reading?
He called out to me: What are you doing?
I’m just taking a walk, I said.
He said, just taking a walk. What I had thought was a pear near his elbow was a hummingbird. He said he was from a place called The Northeast Kingdom in Vermont and I said it sounded beautiful and he said it was mostly just fields like this one, only bigger and lonelier. He told me he was waiting for two people named Corrina and Sam, that they had been thinking of going for chocolate-chip pancakes.
Nietzsche Field was overrun with late-season marigolds. He said, Someone should make a bracelet out of these. I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t know where Vermont was. I had never eaten chocolate-chip pancakes. I hadn’t even known you could put chocolate chips in pancakes but it suddenly seemed so obvious. I wanted to eat chocolate-chip pancakes with him and his friends. It felt strange to have overwhelming desire center around a group of people I didn’t know.
Do you mind if I sit with you? I said.
He said, I’d be offended if you didn’t.