Lucas Santos

A city of wooden block structures fills John Rusk’s two-bedroom apartment. The buildings are replicas both real and imagined. Castle spires brush the ceilings. Central Florida landmarks spread from room to room. John assembled the sprawl in recent weeks. The project has taken on its own mythology. If a single edifice should collapse, he fears the outside world will also crumble to pieces.

The phobia is a treble hook latched deep inside his amygdala. It’s best not to tug. Everything seems fragile with possibility. He whispers to his daughter’s memory, urges her to mimic his tremendous care not to bump or brush as they drift through the hardwood scents of the block city.

Why whisper inside his empty apartment? He cannot say, but it somehow feels right. His brief conversations with his daughter are always in hushed tones.

“We must tread gently among our responsibilities,” he says.

The need to fortify, to continue his building, nudges John outside and into the daylight. He has already emptied the block inventory from the three nearest toy stores, and a large home shipment isn’t due until early next week. He must drive to a big-box outlet that has a dozen block sets in stock. By the time John arrives at the shop and sends the clerk scurrying to fetch his order, the pressure in his bladder overcomes him. The sensation is a strange reminder he still has human form. He has no recollection of food or drink since yesterday. Only the tower of dishes that miraculously grows plate by plate in his kitchen sink.

At the bottom of the urinal, gray wads of chewing gum brine. A presence approaches the stall beside him. Clean cut in his pressed shirt and trousers. The store manager, John thinks, and the man begins to croon to himself. Overhead lights flicker before righting their tic. John cannot place the song, the drunken rhythm that sways in his periphery.

“I know you,” the man says, stopping to look at John. “You’re that liar from the school, aren’t you?”

The 24-hour news cycle rewinds. Backward speech slurs. Images of beautiful newscasters interrupt the reverse parade of death and destruction and commentary on the insanities of the day. Perhaps the bathroom interrogator is watching from the comfort of his living room, or hunched over a small screen in a darkened room. Who can mark for certain the origins of his disbelief?

An invisible wire trips—the news stops and plays back at normal speed. Aerial footage of the elementary school pans and zooms. Rows of children line the lot. Their morning shadows are chains of paper dolls. The image cuts to John being interviewed. It’s only ten days into the school year, and it’s still hot outside. Sweat glazes his face. He weeps on camera in this eternal digital recurrence. Three are dead inside the school, including the gunman. John’s daughter is the only student casualty.

John answers the questions the best he can, but his mind rests deep beneath the sea where prehistoric creatures scour the ocean floor. Their heft brushes against his thoughts, garbles each idea as it struggles to surface as words. He mentions his daughter didn’t like the way he’d done her hair that morning. She preferred getting ready on the days she spent with her mother. He had to bribe her with red licorice before she was willing to enter the school.

“Want to know how I can tell it’s a lie?” says the man as they both make their way to the sink.

There was a time, not long ago in the grand scheme, when John would have known how to handle this conspiracy theorist. But now his interactions follow the contours of despair, and all he can muster is a tepid, “No, I really don’t.”

“If something like that—a real school shooting—happened to my boy,” says the man, “I might cry on camera, maybe. But mostly I’d want revenge. I’d eat the guy’s heart like an apple.”

“Hard to get revenge on a dead man,” says John.

His daughter was killed. Of this there’s no doubt. There was a body and, a week later, a funeral. It’s the present that cannot be reckoned as fact. His ex-wife, Anita, is already late in her second trimester, pregnant with a baby girl by her new husband. John knows the child can never be a replacement. She swims in amniotic fluid tainted with loss. Her days will be measured in phantom events. Your sister would be twelve today. This is the year your sister would graduate middle school. High school. College. But at least there is a future, its outlines sharpening already. What is this liminal space, this mist, this nothing John now inhabits?

In the days after the tragedy, a handful of Internet trolls came out. Random threats appeared online, but the story didn’t garner attention for long. A lover’s quarrel where a lone student was clipped by ricochet was short lived in the collective conscience. The procession of news continued its march without so much as a backward glance.

On closer inspection, no nametag marks the interrogator. He doesn’t work at the store. He looks like a young congressman you might see on a political mailer. Beside him, his homecoming queen wife and their young son. A golden-doodle rests at their feet. Colorful flowers burst in the well-tended yard behind them.

“Are you even real?” says the man, jabbing his wet finger into John’s shoulder.

John swats away his hand. A flicker of rage. The man smirks for having riled the emotion, shakes his head as he exits the restroom.

While the clerk is ringing up the block sets, John hears his daughter’s laugh flittering deep within the store. Such hallucinations are not uncommon, but the girl’s voice is a jolting duplicate. He imagines his bathroom conspiracy theorist transformed into a Minotaur. Wet nostrils flare on the bull’s head as he roams the labyrinth of aisles in search of the laughing girl.

John pulls his car into the assigned parking spot outside his apartment. The crepe myrtles that dot the complex are shedding the last of their blooms. Purple flurries dust the grass and sidewalk. The teenaged neighbor kid, Sam, sits on the bottom of the breezeway stairs. Even from a distance, his stoned eyes are sea glass. Sam waves and offers to help unload the box sets from the trunk and back seat.

John feels bad for Sam, and for more reasons than the boy’s masochistic penchant for wearing all black in Florida. His mom works two jobs to keep them in the apartment, and he seems to be floating on some lonely current, desperate for attention. The day after the news of John’s daughter, Sam had cornered him in the stairwell and given him a long hug. He’d pushed a small vial of LSD into John’s hand, suggested micro-doses to fight depression. The kid was so earnest that John didn’t have it in him to refuse the gesture.

John agrees to the help unloading the car, but only to the front door. Sam barreling through the block city in his combat boots? It is not to be. Sam peers inside from the outdoor hallway as John lugs the boxes into his apartment, disappears into the shadows.

When John returns to gather the last package, Sam says, “What is all that you’re building?”

“A man in my position is allowed a little mental unraveling,” says John as he closes the door.

John unboxes the sets on his dining table. He loves the possibilities the blocks represent, the ordering of entropy. The buildings will be constructed with a paranoid exactness. For now, a moment of consideration consumes him. Will he summon forth the hospital where his daughter was born? A walled fortress from his imagination? Perhaps the Russian ballet studio where his daughter’s antipathy for dance was confirmed after only three classes?

John settles on erecting the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Block by block he forms the base. He shims the far-left corner where the apartment floor sags. As the model begins to take shape, he stands to fetch scissors so he might design cardboard overhangs for the center’s rooftop. His leg brushes the building and convulses its facade. A single block is dislodged and plummets from the top.

During the fall, John sees the end unfold.

It begins with a clamor of barks and howls, scatters of birds taking flight. A long silence falls. At the beaches, the ocean’s lace edge recedes into the distance. The occasional boat is left stranded and tilting in the mud. The water returns as a gathering wall that devours everything in its path. A tangle of corpses and debris floats in the tidal surge. Soon the land is a windshield cracked by a thrown brick. Objects leap from falling shelves. The reflected sky shimmers in skyscrapers that bend and tumble in an avalanche of cement and rebar, shattering glass. Burst pipes spew fog. The earth swallows up cars, roads, buildings and entire neighborhoods. A great cacophony of wreckage fills the air with ash and dust.

But, alas, the catch—John’s hand snatches the block mid-fall. He turns the smooth wood in his palm before returning it to its rightful place atop the model. Crisis averted. No gash is ripping across Earth’s crust. The outside world still stands.

John Rusk should be relieved for the lives he’s saved with his lightning reflexes. Instead, he thinks back to the Pulse vigil where the city gathered outside the Dr. Phillips Center. Those were the final days of his marriage. He and Anita were part of the masses, the candlelight trembling in thousands of raised hands. The church bells ringing out for each of the 49 victims. It had seemed the city was united in a resolve greater than its shared grief, and it was radiating out into every molecule of the atmosphere. He and Anita would mend their relationship and raise their young family in a safe new world.

Against his better judgment, he decides to call Anita. She was always better at navigating life’s difficulties and, even more so, its tragedies. He tells her about the moments he thinks he’ll walk into the other room to check on their daughter. How the split second of forgetting is worth the terrible aftermath that follows. He imagines a thousand scenarios where their daughter missed school that day, and they’re all blissfully unaware of this current existence. What he doesn’t mention is the blocks, his obsessive building. He knows how it will sound. His run-in with the conspiracy theorist also goes unspoken. He doesn’t want to scare her.

Anita lets John do most of the talking. When she does speak, her voice is faint with exhaustion. She tells him every other school-aged girl has the same blue dress from Target. The one their daughter asked to wear daily, even when it was balled inside a heap of dirty laundry. It’s like seeing her in an infinity mirror. The reminders are everywhere.

“We’ll always be bound to her, you and I,” she says. “I’m thinking about starting a foundation. It’s a project we could do together—especially getting the thing off the ground. This can’t all be in vain.”

“I used to think the world was capable of better,” he says, “but now I don’t know.”

Anita doesn’t respond. John cannot tell if she is muted with anger or disappointment. The quiet is a satellite tumbling through distant space. Back on Earth, Anita’s husband breaks the silence, whispers something indistinguishable to her.

“I have to go, John. Take care of yourself. I worry about you locked inside that apartment all alone. Try to go outside for a walk, even if you have to force yourself.”

A frantic knock at the door interrupts John’s building. Sam is trapped inside the fisheye lens of the peephole. His head darts around like a pecking dove. The darling weirdo is wearing pleather pants. John imagines the smells of body odor and plastic polymers. He inhales a deep breath and holds it before opening the door and stepping outside.

“Some creeper in the parking lot was asking about you,” says Sam.

“Straitlaced guy?”

“Like a fascist tax accountant.”

“Is he still out there?”

“He’s gone, but he asked a lot of questions,” says Sam. “Wanted to know how long you’ve lived here and if I’d ever seen your daughter. Seemed disappointed when I said you were with her all the time.”

“If he shows up again, don’t talk to him. Call the cops.”

Sam relays an intricate fantasy about firing a Taser at the guy and juicing him on the pavement. John has to calm him before he agrees to avoid future contact.

“Your daughter reminded me of my grandmother,” says Sam. “I know it’s a weird thing to say, but they had the same laugh. It’s hard to remember the sound without smiling.”

When John goes back inside, he’s thinking about the LSD Sam had given him. He has no intentions of ingesting the acid in any dosage. But it reminds him of an article he once read about trip sitters—people who belong to online communities where they help talk others down from bad drug trips. It was a beautiful spread accompanied by color photos of the sitters. There were portraits of teachers and delivery drivers and entrepreneurs who were interviewed for the piece. Whether through a play of light or photographer’s gift, each sitter looked exceedingly wise, and John is in the market for some thoughtful counsel.

“Let’s take a break from the building,” he whispers as he enters his daughter’s room and takes a seat at the foot of the bed. “Look at our city. But best not to touch. It’s far too delicate.”

After a quick search on his phone, he is downloading the trip sitter app. He creates an account under the handle Builder_John. A series of hashtags links to different chat topics. He selects #ontologicaldilemmas and accepts a warning about the site not dispensing medical advice. He waits to be connected to a sitter.

Rovelli4Lyfe: Welcome! You freaking out about existence?

Builder_John: How do you prove someone existed once they’re gone?

Rovelli4Lyfe: Is this a rhetorical question?

Builder_John: My daughter passed and there are people who don’t believe she ever existed. They’re seeking me out. What should I do?

Rovelli4Lyfe: Oh, man. I don’t know. Most of my time on here is spent helping people chill. Recommending ambient playlists. Stuff like that.

Builder_John: What would you do if you were in my position?

Rovelli4Lyfe: I wouldn’t worry about proving anything to anyone. I’d ignore them. And if that doesn’t work, I’d get a restraining order.

Builder_John: I’m in her room.

Rovelli4Lyfe: Do you have someone IRL you can talk to about this stuff?

Builder_John: I remember watching her from this same spot. I can still see her. She’s painting with watercolors at her toy easel. It’s a picture of me petting a giant ladybug. If I whisper to her, will she hear? Will she stop and turn to look?

Rovelli4Lyfe: I don’t think you should be alone. Is there someone you can call?

Builder_John: Sometimes I think I’m no longer real. The present me is some dead branch on the tree of possibilities.

John logs off and, as soon as the mobile app is closed, he regrets not reassuring the trip sitter that he isn’t suicidal. At least he doesn’t think he’s suicidal.

Two days of building pass before a new wave of enthusiasm overcomes John. He takes stock of the aging kindnesses gathered inside his apartment and decides it’s time to clean. He removes the sympathy cards that cling to the fridge. Creates a neat stack before dropping the mementos in the recycling bin. Tosses the brittle flower arrangements on the bookshelf. Rings of dropped petals crisp where the bouquets once stood. He brushes them into the garbage with the edge of his hand.

Floor space is at a premium. He must navigate the block city’s slender passageways to exit his apartment, garbage bags in hand. A great swirl of flies greets him at the community dumpster. But once he’s deposited his trash, the sunlight begins to melt away his worries. The sidewalk gleams like white marble between the narrow strips of grass. He decides to take Anita’s advice and go for a walk.

John travels far beyond his apartment complex. The walkway runs alongside a road that is barren of mid-day traffic. This is the first time in weeks his surroundings aren’t wrapped in cotton scrim, all the world’s colors and sounds muted. He is thinking how everything above—trees, buildings and even the occasional wisp of cloud—is as sharp as a magazine cutout against the blue sky. Who knows how long he is lost in the admiring before he notices the silver Toyota crawling along the street beside him?

The car window is down and the driver is wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. He looks like a military pilot behind the wheel of his sensible family sedan. It’s the incongruity that distracts John from recognizing the driver as his bathroom conspiracy theorist. Seconds tick by before John’s face clenches with understanding.

“Fancy seeing you again,” says the man.

John looks away, quickens his march. He is suddenly concerned with stepping on cracks, the re-emergence of an obsessive fear from childhood.

“You’re not going to move faster than the car, John.”

John isn’t surprised to see the man again, but something about hearing the man speak his name creates a terrible fizzing inside John’s skull. The mounting pressure threatens to foam out his ears, his mouth and nose.

“Come on now,” says the man. “Your name was in the paper. Your address is listed. It’s not like I hired someone to track you down.”

“I could call the cops,” says John.

“And tell them what? You saw me driving down the road?” He flashes the same shit-eating grin as last time. “I asked around about you. Turns out I may have been wrong. My wife was pissed when I told her about giving you a hard time in the bathroom.”

“Then you should take her advice and stay away.”

“My boy is on the spectrum. Goes entire days without speaking. But then he returns from wherever it is he disappears to, and he’ll say something that makes my world. I don’t know what I’d do if he never came back.”

The man kills the engine and his car rolls to a stop in the middle of the road. He reaches toward the passenger seat and his safety belt catches. He’s going for what? A weapon? He fumbles before leaning out the window with a piece of paper.

“I wanted to apologize in person. Sometimes I go online and one link leads to another until I’m at the bottom of an Internet hole. I found you while down there and, let’s just say, it may have influenced my opinion.” He flaps the paper, white as an egret against the car door. “This is the web address. Thought you might like to know.”

“You thought wrong,” says John.

“Take the paper. Line a birdcage with it for all I care. Once it’s passed from my hand to yours, we can both go about our lives.”

None of this feels right to John. The fizzing has overtaken his body as if Alka-Seltzer tablets are dissolving in his bloodstream. He wants the interaction to end. Somehow, neither fight nor flight resonates. Maybe it is worth gambling he will never see this guy again.

As John approaches, his miniature reflections grow within the interlocutor’s mirrored aviator lenses. He smells alcohol—something clear—as he takes the paper and stuffs it in his pocket. John imagines nips of vodka stolen from an aluminum water bottle between office meetings. With that, the man touches his hand to his brow in a lazy salute and drives away. John watches as the car disappears into the distance where the road is a boiling mirage.

John is constructing his daughter’s elementary school. It’s a task he’s hesitated to complete, but now he’s certain the building must exist, foursquare and enduring inside his home. The structure grows with meticulous care. At the same time, a mounting recollection—radio crackle and footsteps clatter inside the school’s tiled hallways. The security guard escorts John by his elbow to a classroom turned onsite headquarters. A heavyset policewoman delivers the news. When she hugs him (almost certainly breaking a rule), he wonders if she might absorb him into her softness. A voice, maybe it belongs to the policewoman, whispers that he will need to identify the body, but not at the scene. Not like that.

The building is nearing completion when a call from Anita vibrates John’s phone. She’s in the hospital for skyrocketing blood pressure. There’s no protein in her urine, but it could still be dangerous for the baby. The doctor ordered 24-hour surveillance to see if the pressure drops. It’s the stress, but bed rest is difficult. She needs to occupy herself. Books and movies aren’t enough. She craves movement, the velocity to outrun her thoughts.

When John offers to visit, she asks him not to come. Seeing him right now would be too difficult. Besides, her husband will be there soon. John knows she has found a good man. The knowledge is enough to break the last of him. He is certain that despite her protests he must get there first, if only to squeeze her hand before she chases him away.

Thick air greets John as he steps outside into the shaded breezeway. A smattering of vehicles are parked in the apartment lot. John’s car sits among them, bleeding graffiti in the glare-shocked morning. Spray-painted words mar the finish from hood to trunk. A naked doll on all fours overlooks the damage from the car’s rooftop like a scene from some apocalyptic vision.

John circles his car to read the messages. Most are iterations of fucking liar and perverse appeals to patriotism. One, a hasty improvisation, is a take on false-flag operations intended to deceive the masses: FalseFlag Father. The words are attempts at erasure, but John Rusk still stands. A city of wooden mementos honors his daughter, keeps the perilous world intact. His certainty will not be swayed.

When John calls the police to report the vandalism, he mentions his bathroom conspiracy theorist. Why hadn’t he thought to get his license plate number the other day? The officer who takes the report is sympathetic, but not much can be done without witnesses or hard evidence.

“Document and report any future incidents should they occur,” says the officer.

Insurance will not cover repairs to John’s car. He dropped his comprehensive coverage last year. His only hope is to remove the spray-paint himself. He purchases lacquer thinner and rags, and he drives to the nearest self-service car wash. Blasts from the pressure sprayer release flecks of paint that rain down to speckle John’s skin and hair. He applies the lacquer thinner to the remaining spray-paint before using the brush to scrub the areas clean. The rinse unveils slow progress. After three more cycles of washing, most of the paint is removed. All that remains of the vandalism are apparitions—subliminal messages for stoplight gawkers and, of course, John himself.

By the time John returns home, he’s consumed by anger. It takes some searching before he finds the paper with the website address. It’s a blog site. The kind most anyone could open anonymously. John and his daughter have their own page. Pictures snapped from a television screen appear between granite walls of text. One image shows grainy newspaper footage of Sandyhook, a red circle drawn around the blurred outline of a man in the background. The site claims it’s a photo of John in the distance. There’s also a picture of a girl about the same age as John’s daughter laughing in an advertisement for a board game. There’s a vague similarity between the children, but there’s no mistaking them for the same person.

The website calls John and his daughter crisis actors, says they work for the Department of Homeland Security. There are references to the stripping away of liberties. More false-flag claims. The specifics are hazy, handfuls of smoke that are impossible to grasp.

John is certain the content must violate the blog hosting Terms of Service or Content Policy. Within 24-hours of reporting the site, it will be replaced by a 404 error. Further research suggests he’s wrong. There’s no explicit hate speech calling for violence. A terrorist organization isn’t recruiting new members on the page. All the photos used are in the public domain. None are of his actual daughter. John can send a note to the site’s owner asking to remove his information, but that’s the extent of his recourse. He flags the site anyway, reports it as inappropriate.

He’s about to return to his building when it occurs to him the pages may have spread to other websites. He types his name into Google and hits search. The same crisis actor information fills the first page of results. He scrolls through the second and third pages. More of the same. He pictures a digital map of the United States marking the homes of each person contemplating his daughter’s existence. An outbreak of red dots blisters across the land.

When John’s boss Laura calls, it’s a gentle check-in. Up to this point she has given him what he most needs—space to process the tragedy, but he’s burning through unpaid leave at this point. Finances will necessitate John’s return to work.

Laura asks after Anita, and John suspects the two have already spoken. They’ve been friendly since his early days at the company. The two always sat next to each other at corporate events, laughing and sharing notes on John’s idiosyncrasies. Oh, that thing where he gets annoyed and rubs his left eye! The barrage of laughter that followed. Of course, Laura would also check on her. He used to like this intermingling of worlds. Now he’s not sure. If nothing else, he should have gotten sole custody of his boss in the divorce.

“When are you coming back?” she asks.

“I don’t know. Soon.”

“We miss you. Maybe you could try a few days next week?”

“I could do that, I think.”

When the call ends, John surveys his block city. It is dense with wooden structures. Narrow paths for passage to the bathroom, kitchen and bedroom exist. John is running out of space to build. He is considering scale—why didn’t he create smaller buildings? His need to build will soon starve for his lack of urban planning. In its place, the obsession with guardianship will grow. What if the maintenance man or pest control enters his apartment while he’s at work? How to maintain the fragile world that depends so much on what John has built?

Monday morning. John is clean-shaven and wearing a collared shirt for his return to the office. He nicked his chin with the razor. A scrap of tissue clots the wound. He experiences a moment of déjà vu before exiting his apartment. This is the real John Rusk—responsible, sane, a man who goes about his business as expected. He has stepped back inside familiar skin.

The breezeway is a shadowed tunnel, light slanting in at the entrance. The scuttle of an awakening world echoes in the distance. John approaches the new day with resolve.

A middle-aged couple mills about in the apartment parking lot. The man wears a khaki military-style uniform. He carries a bullhorn in his left hand. His polished boots are scarab beetles in the morning sun. The woman wears the same army trousers and a black T-shirt. Across the front of her top is an image of John’s daughter. He recognizes the likeness from his social media presence. Above the photo are the words $100k Reward. She takes out her phone and begins to record. Metal heel plates tap the pavement as the duo advances. They stop at John’s car, blocking the driver’s side door. The man raises the bullhorn and begins to speak.

“You are from below, and we are from above,” says the man. His voice is raised. The megaphone distorts the harmony, creates a chilling chorus.

“Why are you recording me without my permission?” says John.

“Because we can,” says the woman, her phone’s camera pointed at John. “We know our rights.”

John remembers the tissue scabbed to his face and wipes it away with his hand. A thin line of blood streaks his fingers. He senses a trickle on his chin.

“You pussy,” bellows the man. “Nobody’s even touched you and you’re bleeding.”

John’s head goes carbonated again. A million tiny bubbles pop against his brainpan. He asks the couple to move so he can get in his car and go to work.

“We’re not going anywhere without the truth. Jesus says the truth shall set you free. Stop lying to the world, John. You’re a false father with a false daughter. I’m offering a hundred thousand dollars to anyone who can prove she’s buried in her false grave.”

“You vandalized my car,” says John. “I reported it to the police.”

“We did nothing of the sort,” says the man.

“You’re lucky they didn’t string you up,” says the woman.

It’s clear the couple wants to provoke John on video, but he cannot reckon why. Their anger is sharp, honed with maniacal certainty. The man’s stare is latched to some far-off spot. John imagines taut threads connecting the man’s pupils to the distant horizon.

“Take a polygraph, false father,” says the man. “Prove you aren’t lying—.”

“It’s bad enough that you’re a liar,” says the woman, “But you also went and corrupted that little girl. The sad thing is she’s too young to know better.”

“I don’t have to prove anything,” says John. “I need to get to work.”

“Fucking liar,” says the man. He pauses to whistle to himself. “We offer you a hundred thousand dollars to prove your daughter was real, and you can’t even produce a death certificate. A toy?”

“Where’s the cash?” says John. “I don’t see a briefcase packed with bills.”

“Don’t you worry about the money,” says the man. “I sold my business. I can pay that reward no problem. I’m a man of honor.”

“I have a death certificate,” says John.

“Let’s see it then,” says the woman.

“It’s inside.”

John wants to challenge the couple with facts. Turn the tables and watch their mental contortions stretch and fold while they’re recording the altercation. He knows they’ll remain unconvinced. It’s impossible to see when you will not look. But if he goes back to his apartment it will buy him time to think. He can call the police and report the harassment. He will have to let Laura know what’s happening in case they show up at the office. John’s thoughts turn to Anita. How long before they come looking for her?

“Get it then,” says the man. “We’ll be here waiting. But remember we are from above. We can see everything you do way down below. We are birds of prey and, you John, you are a little field mouse.”

John back-steps toward his apartment, as if his movements are on rewind. He’s slow to turn his back to the couple. The pressure from that internal fizzing—all those bubbles—threatens to spread beyond his body. As he lets himself inside his apartment, he inspects his hands to confirm they’re still attached.

John’s first order of business is to call the police. The call is met with bureaucratic ennui. Is he sure this isn’t a prank? Does he know the couple? Are they angry relatives? After confirming the address twice, the operator dispatches an officer in the area. It could be up to half an hour before they will arrive.

John must navigate the block city to get a copy of the death certificate. He is aware the couple may have already left. But he’ll need the paperwork for their inevitable return. Among his buildings are memories made manifest. He passes the home he shared with Anita, the place of his daughter’s first words, her first steps. He drifts beyond the parking garage where he spent a rainy day teaching his daughter to ride her bicycle.

John is reliving lost histories when his foot strikes a building alongside the pathway. The kick lacks malice. It’s a slip in concentration. A few blocks scatter from the impact. Everything goes quiet. An expansive silence. More pressure builds as John inspects the damage. He knows this is the way the world ends—not with a bang, but a careless tap.

When he is certain he can no longer hold the destruction at bay, he explodes in a snarl of limbs as he kicks and punches his way through the city. Blocks leap at his touch. Their clap and clatter fill the air. Each strike demolishes a building. The act is a beautiful annihilation of self. Yesterdays and tomorrows dissolving in unison. John would burn the city if he could. Render it ash. As it is, he pummels everything in his path.

When all has fallen, John collapses in a heap among the wreckage in his living room. His heavy breathing is a pill-rattle wheeze. At least the exertion has pacified the carbonation in his bloodstream, calmed the places where his flesh threatened to erupt into vibrating molecules. His mind begins to clear. It takes a minute before his eyes can focus on Sam standing in the foyer. The boy saw the couple outside and, when he heard the commotion, thought someone may have broken in. Sam looks uncertain, afraid to move. Who can say how much he’s seen?

John looks at the strewn blocks, the destruction that surrounds him, and back again at Sam. No quake rumbles the building or fissures the earth. No great hole opens up beneath them to swallow the tragedies of this life. The boy’s expression pleads for reassurance. John Rusk opens his mouth as if to speak, but he cannot bear to say what is happening outside.

Instead, he recounts the moment of his daughter’s birth. She was slow to take her first breath. In response, the delivery room was chaotic with action. Medicines and mechanical ventilation were administered. Her arms and legs shifted as if reckoning between what came before this life and what would follow, both already blurring. John and Anita called out to her, whispered her name as one might an incantation—Ella Louise Rusk—until, with an inhale, she claimed it as her own.

 

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