Fiction 2011 / Volume 41

Perdido — John Thornburg


“Did you know that rain originated in the big bang?” Sarah asks me after Spanish Class. I tell her that everything originated in the big bang. She’s quiet as we walk to the cafeteria^she eats her lunch, a plastic bag full of romaine lettuce and another containing fruit loops. Senorita Frank wore a blue dress today. I often imagine Senorita Frank when I masturbate. En Espanol, she says in a voice drenched in my semen. Her hourglass body recites all the conjugations for llorar. To cry or to weep. I listen closely; I am her dutiful pupil. After schookySarah and I sit on the bleachers during football practice^ we’re waiting for my brother Lyon to get done with detention. He said something inappropriate during his English class. It’s raining. Sarah tells me something about the universe but I’m not listening because I’m trying to think in Spanish. I can’t think of the verb for to lose. I tell Sarah that our football team will lose all their games this season. They will all cry. Todos lloran. Maybe that’s right. Sarah holds my hand in the rain. We watch the football players squat and fidget and crash into one another. The universe forms in front of us and it’s yellow and red and green, our school colors like subatomic particles colliding over astroturf. Tigers. Los Tigres. Sarah tells me that she’s afraid every particle in the universe has a set patk/that free will is just an illusion. I’m too busy thinking in Spanish and I don’t know any words that will enable me to answer that question.

After football practice my brother Lyon drives Sarah and me home in my uncle’s Volkswagen Rabbit. We listen to the Rolling Stones. Lyon tells us a story about how his friend Vic Casey had sex with Stacey Somerston at a party out by Loma Donna. Pretty Hill. They completely destroyed the bathroom, knocked the clocks off the wall and broke them. Relojes. Clocks? I ask. Yes, says Lyon. Clocks. Relojes. Apparently Vic’s back was so covered in red scratches that Stacey earned the nickname Catwoman. Sarah doesn’t look at either of us when Lyon mentions sex. I look at my brother’s hands on the steering wheel. His hairy knuckles squeeze and tap rhythmically.

Sarah’s hair changes color in the fall, from glossy blond to dirty brown. We’ve been learning about seasonal affective disorder in Psychology. I wonder if Sarah’s hair has season affected depression. It’s been raining a lot. We drop Sarah off at her house by the cemetery, the one with tall trees, grouchy white pines. When Lyon and I get home Uncle Booch is smoking pot on the back porch. We ignore him and Lyon makes dinner, hotdogs cut up and added to ramen. Lyon wears his letter jacket while he makes dinner. He’s got this feathered flaxen hair that girls like, a perpetual five o’clock shadow that he inherited from dad or Uncle Booch or someone. I go outside and ask Uncle Booch if he knows anything about the big bang. Uncle Booch doesn’t believe in the big bang. He believes in God.

My mother used to have precognitive dreams. I wonder if it’s hereditary. I hope not. We lived in a small house over in Pine Glen, the suburbs. It got as hot as wolfs blood in the summer and the house had no central air conditioning. Mother would scold me for opening the doors or turning on the lights. She hung heavy curtains over the windows. Ventanas. It kept the house cool but it was so dark in there that Lyon and I would get lethargic. Sometimes she’d take us to the library or to the park, but mostly we played in the backyard with the neighbor’s dog. Perro. The dog’s name was Cowboy. Vaquero.  She always told the same anecdote when we had company for dinner, the one about her dream. In it, she’s driving. At first she doesn’t recognize where she is, then she realizes it’s New Heritage, Illinois, where she grew up. It’s Halloween and there are all sorts of children in costumes everywhere. She realizes she has a passenger, it’s someone she knows or used to know. Then she recognizes him, it’s Freddie Varek, some dude she dated in high school. About three years after having the dream, when she’s visiting her mother in New Heritage, she runs into Freddie Varek near her mom’s house while he’s taking his kids trick or treating. Everyone knows it’s just a story, that she’s exaggerating or that she heard that Freddie Varek was living in New Heritage near her mom and it got into her dream. My mom died because she was sick. She told me in the hospital that she wasn’t afraid; she knew what it was like to die. She had died in her dreams already.


After dinner, Uncle Booch offers Lyon and I each a beer. Cerveza. Lyon accepts his but I decline. Uncle Booch is being cryptic. He gets that way when he’s stoned.

“I feel like something’s gonna happen,” he says, “I can feel it in my meat tubes.” He connects his iPod to a dock and plays Kyle Gann. Kyle Gann composes songs for disklavier, an impossible piano. He writes pieces that you could not play even if you had six arms. Uncle Booch likes to listen to it when he’s high. Says that it’s the only thing that doesn’t make him paranoid, clean and precise like lightning. Structured chaos. To me, it sounds like crap. Lyon goes to his room and listens to Foghat and Hanoi Rocks (our dad’s old records). Sarah listens to soft rock, I think. Stuff you hear in restaurants and shopping malls, stuff that is good to listen to while taking a dump. Sarah and I don’t listen to music together. I send her a text that just says: Hey. On the floor of my room I start doing homework.

“Hey little brother,” Lyon says passing my door. Tedious fucking homework. La tarea.

I look out the window and think. There are some impressive pines in our backyard, as compared to the withering and derelict aspens. I can hear the wing beats of moths and the call of a barn owl. My father used to be an outdoorsman when he was alive. He used to take Lyon and me down to Yosemite to fish and camp. After mom died he and his rock climbing buddies started to do a lot more climbing, and even started doing free climbs. Dad fell eight hundred meters down a sandstone cliff in Utah, the most reckless climb he’d ever attempted. Sarah sends me a text message saying she wants to go to a national park sometime. I send Sarah a text that says: That sounds boring. Buenos noches.

The next morning when Lyon drives us to school the sun is shining but everything seems shriveled from the rain. Lyon tells me some story about how in Western Civ Matthew Brewer threw up so violently he knocked over a little black trash-can. He threw up because he was hungover. Lyon says this like it’s some sort of victory for Matthew and all other misbehaving seniors. When I see Sarah in the morning she looks shriveled and damp. I try to hug her but she shrugs away and mutters something about being late for Algebra. I walk to gym by myself, into the locker room that smells like puberty and deodorant deep-fried in rapidly boiling back sweat. In the only unoccupied stall I change into my gym clothes while attempting to ignore the unflushed toilet. When I exit, I feel lean and diseased. In the locker room there is some ruckus. Steve McCloud is tying his shoes when Derek Cantrell shoves him off the bench and onto the floor. Steve doesn’t even look at him, just sits up and keeps tying his shoes. Derek’s laughter bounces off the red and yellow lockers like a company of seals. I tell Derek to leave him alone. He shoves me against the lockers.

“Go to hell, Queeroy,” he sneers. His buddies high five him and giggle as they exit. I go to help Steve up but he hits my hand away.

“I don’t need anyone to stick up for me,” he says, his eyes round wet rags. I try to apologize but he’s left already. I’m alone. Soledad.

I hear Uncle Booch in my head. / can feel it in my meat tubes. What did he mean? Uncle Booch is my mom’s brother, I wonder if he can see the future, too. I wait by Sarah’s locker after school and when I see her, I smile.

“I have to believe that there is such a thing as chance,” I say. “That free will is real and not imagined. And so what if it is? What would really change?”

“Thanks, Leroy.” She kisses me on the cheek and she puts her books away. Her expression shows no sign of relief and I notice that her fingernails are dark with dried blood, their edges worn by worry.


Lyon has detention again so we go to the football field.   The coach is yelling at Stan Kline, the team’s star running back. I get the weirdest feeling when I look at them, some sort of deja vu mixed with heartburn and lightheadedness. Stan Kline is tan and has brown curls and lean muscles. He dates cheerleaders and is probably going to an Ivy League school next fall. He’s not looking at the coach; he’s drinking from a water bottle. I can see him in a tesseract of brandy-black shadows, lights cutting the evening air to ribbons over astroturf and tar balls. The winning pass arcs towards him and he’s running. The sound of cheering builds algorithmically. He turns to see the ball and speeds up: he’s going to catch it. His body pulses like a bronze automaton, his arms reach like pistons to receive the ball, but it just bounces off and hits the ground. The whole scene dissolves and I realize that Sarah is shaking my shoulders. I pull her away from the football field.

“What is it?” she keeps asking.

“Nothing,” I insist. “There’s nothing we can do.” Uncle Booch’s words from the previous night resonate in my brain. I’ve never feared death more than I did in those moments. For the first time I consider that someday I will experience death.

“About what?” Sarah asks, re: there’s nothing we can do.

“Never mind,” I say. “Hey I forgot something in my locker. Wait for me.” I leave her by the soccer field, and go into the school. When I’m inside I instantly regret leaving. Loneliness greets me from the deserted hallway, waves to me coolly. Soledad. I go to my locker and open it, look inside for a few moments, and slam it shut.

On my way back outside to find Sarah, I see Derek Cantrell and one of his buddies moving quickly. Derek has a bloody nose and holds his head as though he’s hurt; neither of them look at me. The next thing I see sends my vocal chords into my ass. Lyon has Sarah wrapped in a close embrace. He sees me and lets go. I turn around and head for the car. No one says anything the whole ride home. I get so angry that my fists are clenched and I don’t even notice. Sarah says bye and thanks Lyon when she gets out of the car; she says bye to me but I don’t turn.

“What’s eating you?” Lyon asks. He has a fat lip. When he pulls into our driveway he adds, “I’m here for you, man. I’m your brother.”

“You’re a fucking asshole,” I tell him. I get out of the car and slam the door. I get a text from Sarah that says: everything ok? I answer her: leave me alone.

Uncle Booch makes dinner, macaroni and cheese burritos. Uncle Booch turns on a shitty band called Gentle Giant. It sounds like what would happen if they had synthesizers in the middle ages. I poke at the burrito for a second.

“Can we turn this off?” I ask.

“What?” Uncle Booch asks. His teeth look luminous behind his brown beard.

“I asked if we could turn it off,” I repeat.


“Can we turn this motherfucking shit off!” I do not hold back. Uncle Booch drops his fork on his plate.

“Take it easy, Leroy,” Lyon says.

“Fuck you, Lyon.” Tears edge my eyes.

“I didn’t do shit,” Lyon insists.

“Fuck off,” I say. “I saw you.”

He puts it together.

“That asshole was picking on her, so I punched him in the face. She was upset so I was comforting her. I’d do the fucking same for you Leroy. She’s your friend!”

“You punched someone?” Uncle Booch asks.

“Shut the fuck up Booch!” Lyon yells.

“Both of you are fucking grounded!” he yells. Absurd. Uncle Booch couldn’t ground if it were right beneath his feet.

“Maybe if you spent a little less time smoking pot, maybe Dad would still be alive,” I say. Uncle Booch stares at me, moustache covering his lip, his chest hair poking out from his shirt. I push my plate away “These burritos were a stupid idea.”

I always leave that out of the narrative when I think about Dad. The fact that Uncle Booch used to be his rock climbing buddy; that he watched my father’s heart stop as blood stranded the sandstone.

In my room, I don’t cry. I just try to think. When that doesn’t work, I go to sleep. In my dream I see Sarah sitting on the top of a mountain.


The next morning I wake up early and bike to school. I leave a note for Lyon, telling him not to look for me. I have trouble paying attention, even in Spanish. I notice that Sarah isn’t at school. Eventually, I also notice that Lyon isn’t at school. Fucking typical, I think. Today I am Abel. I can feel God’s wrath thickening like jell-o in the refrigerator. Stan Kline passes me in the hallway after Spanish. I lock eyes with him

“You are going to drop the winning pass at the next game,” I say as he walks by. He doesn’t stop but I notice hesitation in his footfalls, his eyes widening. At lunch I eat by myself, I make sure to chew every bite as thoroughly as possible. Hambre.

I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Mr. Riley, the vice-principal. He’s stout and bald but possesses a benevolent red face. Except this time he looks stern.   Except this time he says there’s a call for me downstairs in the office. His hand doesn’t leave my shoulder the whole time. The call is from Uncle Booch, he says Lyon crashed the Rabbit on the way to school, speeding. He slid off the road by route 34, smashed into a tree. I duck out of Mr. Riley’s reach and before I plan exactly what I am doing my wheels have hit the road and I am pedaling as fast as I can. I realize that / am Cain. The hospital is too far. Home is too far. I pass Sarah’s house and kick the bike away from me. The door is unlocked.

“Mr. Miller!” I shout. “Ms. Miller!” The sun cuts through the screen door in the kitchen like a hot blade. The door to the basement is ajar, golden vines are creeping up the stairs. Each one ends in an orange flower with a wide black center. They smell sweet like almonds and honey. Miel.

“Sarah?” I venture.

“Leroy?” She answers from the basement.

“Thank God. I’m sorry about yesterday,” my throat locks up. “Lyon got in a wreck, I think he’s hurt real bad.”

I step down the stairs. The flowers twitch. The strange fauna thickens as I descend the staircase. There are leaves, too, big ones. I graze one with my fingers, it’s covered in a sticky residue that smells lush and alien. I call for Sarah again.

“What is this?” I ask.

“It’s growing out of me,” she says.

“Make it stop,” I tell her.

“I can’t.”

I push through the now dense foliage. It’s humid and I swear I hear bird songs. I find Sarah in the heart of the jungle. Only her head is visible beneath the branches and leaves. In the center of her belly there is a drooling orifice, something between wood and flesh. I look away.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she says. I look back. Its edges are pursed like lips, it breathes rhythmically, moist with the same dewy substance the leaves exude.

“What is that?” I ask.

“It’s a portal.”

“Are you going in?” I ask.

“I am already,” she responds. I need to be brave. Valiente.

“I’m going in.” I put a trembling hand forward and feel the opening. It’s smooth and warm like skin, firm like the trunk of a sapling. Effortlessly, I squeeze through. For a minute I’m somewhere similar to the inside of an asshole, then I’m slipping as though off a gentle slope. At first it’s like going off a slide on a playground, then off a slide at a water park, then gravity yanks me as though off a cliff and I feel how my father must’ve felt in his last moments. Gravity pulls me firmly to the ground and onto a bed of pine needles and gravel. I stand and dust myself off. I am in a clearing surrounded by a dense pine forest. The flowers are tall, orange with black centers. In the distance I can see milky mountain peaks, gun gray rock faces blurred by aerial perspective. The sky is the color of chocolate milk, and it’s snowing sparsely. I reach my hand out to feel the flakes, they aren’t cold.

“Sarah, where do I go?” My words plume visibly from my mouth, ghosts with short life spans. I lock eyes with the mountain. Obviously. Que obvio. I’m not sure if that’s right. I pick one of the flowers and carry it with me as I begin my ascent to the summit.


The branches forming the canopy of the forest intertwine in gnarled filigrees that filter what diffused light there is down to a beady darkness. The tree trunks relate to one another indifferently, they mark no path. I hear birds singing. I catch sight of them arcing between trees playfully, flickering motes of red and blue. My sneakers collect black dirt as I place them between roots and shrubs. I consider climbing a tree to get a better idea of where I am but I decide not too. The trees are too tall. My ears pick up a new signal. Rushing water. I go toward the sound and as I do I smell something. Something between a dumpster and a toilet. When I reach the stream the water is dark, and I can see a naked white body upstream. Maybe just half a body. I try as hard as I can to breathe through my mouth as I approach it; the stench is such that I can taste it on the corners of my tongue. The body has no legs. Cut off above the hips, the poor bastard’s entrails spill out like a slimy sea snake. I nudge it and it responds, heaving itself onto its back and looks up at me with eyes that lack pupils.

“Dad?” I ask. He squints at me.

“Hey son,” he says. “The fuck happened to you?” His exposed bowels glisten mutely. I think maybe I can see them steam a little.

“I’m okay. How are you?”

“I don’t want to bore you with my whining,” he winks at me. “What are you doing here?”

“I just sort of fell in,” I say. Dad flinches. Fuck, I think, try to be a little more sensitive.

“I wish you were here,” I add.

“I am here.”

“I mean really.”

“What’s the point?” Dad asks. “I guess it depends on whether or not you believe I was destined to die. Or if you believe it was one of the universe’s random events.” I try to say something but he interrupts me.

“In my opinion, random rules. In another universe that experienced different outcomes, maybe I survived. Just bad luck, son.”

“What’s it like to die?” I ask. He doesn’t answer, there’s no movement from his body. I hold my breath and carry on.

The sun begins to come out. I see laser-thin beams of it blasting through the canopy. After several minutes of labored walking I finally breach the tree line and enter onto jagged terraces of tundra and stoned. Clicking mountain bugs jump from weed to weed, rock to rock. They look at me with compound eyes. I hear a single voice. Female. I recognize it right away: the frequency is programmed into my chromosomes.

She’s sitting on a rock with her feet dangling into a little pond. The weeds around her bend in a wind that I do not feel. She’s holding a baby to her breast.

“Is that me?” I ask her. She shakes her head. It’s Lyon. “Is he hurt?”

She shrugs and rocks Lyon gently. She sings silently to him. I recognize the song, a lullaby version of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

“Mom? How do I get out of here?”

“The same way you came in,” she answers. “Through her shadow.”

I look up at the peak. It’s not far. With hesitant steps I start toward it.

“Eat the flower,” Mom calls after me. I look at it in my hands. It doesn’t smell very appetizing. I keep trekking. The air thins and the clouds build massive towers and tenements that stretch across the entire horizon. I wonder about altitude sickness and I look up at the sun. It seems so close I can feel its flames.

Sarah is sitting at the mountain’s peak. Her legs are crossed and her palms upturned, the lotus position.

“Sarah, where are we?” I sit down beside her.

“So it swallowed you, too.”

“Where are we?”

“This is my planet. I’m going to ride it into the sun.” She says it frankly; it’s no big deal. She’s made up her mind.

“Sarah. Lyon’s hurt, we need to go see him—”

“We can annihilate ourselves together, Leroy.” She places her hand in mine, “we can believe in nothing.'” The clouds around us are fussy; lightning splatters across them, high and clean. This is Sarah’s wilderness, her national park.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.

“For what?”

“For being mean. For not helping you. I’m not a very good friend.” I want to say more, but my brain is constipated.

“I don’t like your brother,” she says.

“I know. I just—” I hesitate. “Eat this flower.”

“Okay,” she takes a bite of it. So do I. It tastes wild like fur and tree bark. I take her hand and lead her into her shadow.


We plunge into bible-black darkness, a fractal of nothing horizons. I hold fast to Sarah’s hand. I do not let go. Suddenly I can see snow globe style motes falling all around us, like the contents of a room blasted to shreds and tumbling through the night. They gather and congeal. Sarah is yanked violently away from me with such force that my eyes close. When I open them again, I am on my feet and in a cold, well-lit hallway. The fluorescent bulbs shine with the faintest flicker above white walls and tiles. Nurses move busily from room to room. I can see Sarah sitting on a bench a distance from me. Her eyes are bordered with red and wet. Her arm is bandaged. She looks at me as I approach, my sneakers still covered in black dirt, my forehead still glistening with salt and sweat and dust. I can’t tell if her look is knowing or not. She bites her lip.

“Are you okay?” I ask. She nods. “How is Lyon?” Her body quakes at the question. She gives me something between a headshake and a shrug, she stands and buries her face in my chest. I wrap her in an embrace that lasts a few minutes, rocking her softly. We sit together and I see Uncle Booch approaching with a cup of coffee. He sits next to me.

“He’s busted to hell,” he says. “But the doctors say he’ll pull through.” I breathe a sigh of relief. Later I find out: three broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a shattered collarbone and a concussion.

When we get home Uncle Booch and I sit at the dinner table. He lights a candle for Lyon and we eat ramen sans hotdogs in reverent silence.

“We should pray for him,” he says. I nod and we join hands over the table. He turns off the music, the John Renbourn. (The middle ages without synthesizers).

“God,” he starts. “Thank you for not taking Lyon from us and we hope you can guide him to a speedy recovery. You know, Lyon’s done a better job of taking care of this family than I have.” He’s says this more to me than he does to God.

“Mary, Bill, if you’re up there, please forgive me. You trusted me with this task and I can’t help but feel like I’ve let you down.”

Los padres.

“Uncle Booch?” I venture. He opens his eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t blame you…for Dad.”

He smiles and sniffs, too much of a mountain man to cry.

I return to school on Friday. Uncle Booch says he doesn’t care if I skip again, but I have a Spanish test that I shouldn’t miss. Sarah’s there too. I still can’t tell whether or not she remembers our encounter in the wilderness.

“Do you want to go to the game with me tonight?” she asks. Suddenly I remember Stan Kline. My trials are not over. More than anything I want to say no, I want to slow down time so that the game never happens, so I don’t have to know that my prediction is correct.

“Sure,” I tell her. “I have to go to gym.” El gimnasio.

In the locker room I find the usual bullshit and also literal shit. Derek Cantrell is picking on Steve McCloud again. Harassing him as he puts his clothes in his locker. Calling him gay, calling him a little girl, saying that he fucked his mom. In a lightning flash, Steve winds up and forces his fist squarely into Derek’s nose, laying him out on the locker room floor. He turns back to what he’s doing like it’s nothing. The whole locker room is stunned into silence.

“Yeah Steve!” I yell. The denizens of the locker room all cheer and howl with me. Steve turns and I can see a smile hidden in the facets of his stoic expression. I high-five him, ignoring Derek’s groaning. For the rest of the school day I am in good spirits, until the bell rings and it’s time for the game. Futbol Americano.

Sarah and I sit hand in hand on the bleachers, just behind the loud cheering section. The universe is forming on the astroturf. Red and yellow particles mash with blue and white ones, repelling and attracting each other in sweeps and arcs. The do-si-do of creation. We score a touchdown in the first quarter. Cheering erupts as some player I can’t identify runs with his arms outstretched in victory. I lean and whisper to Sarah that it doesn’t matter, we’re still going to lose. The other team scores in the second quarter and during halftime a booming voice asks everyone to keep Lyon in their thoughts, that he’s been injured in a car accident. Sarah squeezes my hand. The other team scores again almost right away, but the kicker misses the extra point. His coach yells words that are almost tangible with saliva. I tell Sarah something about coaches and expectorating. She laughs. I hold my breath for nearly the whole fourth quarter. The coach calls a time out and I know exactly what he’s going to say, I see him miming the pass with his hands. I see Stan looking at the crowd until his eyes graze over me. The coach claps his hands and everyone runs onto the field. They are lined up on the line for what seems like an eternity, like an old photograph depicting an ancient sport ritual. I hear indistinct shouting and the players snap into motion, Stan’s running and the ball is airborne. He’s going to drop it. Per dido.

But he doesn’t. Stan runs into the end zone, the game is over, we win. The stands explode. Sarah and I sit quietly amongst the din of victory. Maybe what I told him motivated him. Maybe / changed the outcome of the game. Don’t be ridiculous.

“This is my planet,” I say. I will ride it into the sun.

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