Let me tell you how the voices of my family drifted up from the first-floor living room, bringing odd words, snippets of sentences, and sometimes a whole paragraph of explanation from the visiting doctor, who described this fairy-tale version of me sifted into categories. As I sat alone on the hard step, I thought: It was a long time ago, in a world still dry and green, when I sat at the top of the stairs, hearing them list my ailments, as if I were made completely of words and following a prescribed arc. I will ask you the question first: How do you show others the shape of the future before it happens?
The narrators left pills on my dresser in all shapes and sizes: anti-depressants, social-anxiety suppressants, and mood enhancer psychotropics designed with beautiful names you might give a horse: Zanatar, Celebratex, Annotol, and Sirrus. The star-shaped pills gave her vertigo and turned the top of her head numb for a week; the oval pink ones induced a state of invisibility, a languorous immobilized blankness that only a Buddhist could love. The weirdest pill resembled a small ice cream sandwich, with creamy orange outside and a pure white vanilla inside. This delicious beauty combined the first two effects with sleeplessness, nausea, and tasted vaguely of apricots and vanilla. She would not take them again.
A few more murmurs of dissent and negotiation came from downstairs; father’s voice raised out of the ambient HVAC hum: "She won’t allow any rational debate . . . thinks some event is going to take place. She is preparing herself and says that we are in denial." Dr. Issacs, a long time family friend, a practical and good-hearted pusher of cures, argued weakly for patience. After that, the talk faded to occasional whispers; the only sounds were the rattle of a spoon on a tea saucer and water drawn through the pipes into the kitchen.
Mr. Patois sat in his third story bedroom window with the lights off. His house was directly across the street from the house the doctor was visiting. With his various night-vision binoculars and spotting scopes, he was able to follow the drama, even catching an occasional phrase simply by reading lips. He thought he was invisible in the darkened room, but the girl had waved to him on more than one occasion. He had not waved back, but had moved the glass away from her probing eyes and over to the spot on the sea that she always seemed to be looking toward. He watched her silhouette where she sat at the top of the stairs, her bedroom window blinds were open and he could see all the way into the top floor of the house. Her hair was tied back, and he admired the way her nose held a small uplift. The girl he imagines in the glass rarely leaves the house, and does so only at night, walking with the delicate steps of someone protecting a painful spot. The way she holds her arms splayed out and trying to stretch her back made his friend, Mrs. Kammerman, speculate that she was pregnant, but no roundness has appeared in her belly.
Dr. Issacs’s voice came from the sidewalk, saying goodbye, blowing kisses to my mother, then the unfortunate starter whine sparking the engine of his Camry to life. The television below my room came on as father watched the sports recap and sipped on a whiskey and soda. Newspaper folded in his lap and reading glasses perched on his nose, he read during commercials. I heard when he reached for and drank from the heavy cocktail glass because it hit the cherry side-table with a resounding thud. Father wasn’t a drunk, he just liked to drink a bit after work, a couple of martinis here and there, then he was as reasonable as an old dog. My mother and sister would be sitting on the stools at the kitchen counter, huddled over cups of herbal tea. What were they going to do about her? In a few minutes, someone—probably my sister—would knock softly on the door and try and coax me out with a cup of tea.
"Can I come in?"
"Is there some way you could make it a little easier on Mom and Dad?" She brought in a cup of chamomile with honey and set it down on the nightstand. I stayed at the window watching for another glimpse of the harbor. Did Mr. Patois hear how the sewers were filling up with seawater? Was he at his window looking for visible signs of what she knew as a tingling on her skin, sometimes a shudder through her nervous system like the signal for impending danger? My sister sat on the edge of her bed, hair pulled back into an elegant yet matronly bun. "Really, I can understand your feeling some dissatisfaction with the way the world is going, but Mom and Dad are from a different time. They got up and went to work every day without complaint."
"Something’s growing on my back," I said. "You’ll see what happens."
"Terra, the doctors haven’t found anything yet." Who knew what it was, this scratching, irritable sensation she felt all over her back, as if something were forming there. Her mother liked to mimic both the tone and pacing of television health reports: "More and more people are being diagnosed with environmental malaise, a condition becoming increasingly common these days. Unfortunately, for most patients, HMOs want more research before designating the condition as a legitimate pathology." Her mother made these pronouncements while staring blankly into the room, as if she were actually on-set and speaking to the cold blue glare of a television camera. Mother never made eye contact. She never touched her, even a small squeeze of the hand.
"Listen, this story you all insist on following will make you obsolete. You’ll all founder and sink." She glared, but did not move. "I want to be left alone. Please leave." My sister left slowly, as if she were waiting for a last minute retraction. I remained at the window until the spot of silver on the horizon disappeared with the moon.
The device he wears around his neck allows him to sit and look through the night-vision glasses without holding his arms up. The neighborhood is full of unseen animals on the prowl. Who would believe his story about the rats moving together like a company of soldiers, moving down the street, with little patrols flanking the gutters to investigate every opening into buildings. He watches the young woman come and go from the house each day, a beautiful girl lost behind big sweaters and hair that is always in her face. "A woman on the edge of discovering something," Mrs. Kammerman said. "A little troubled, probably by men or her lack of them." Mrs. Kammerman is also alone, and uses the deli at the grocery store as her headquarters. "Why does she stand there undulating like that?" Mrs. Kammerman asks when she comes to his apartment for gin rummy and beer. "She’s doing something with her body. Like she’s floating in the air." The girl waves at Mrs. Kammerman and smiles, "Like she’s mocking me,"she thinks at first. "She thinks it’s cute that I’m in your apartment," Mrs. Kammerman said, as she wanly returned the girl’s greeting. "What an extraordinary girl. She looks like she is from some other time." What other time? He asks. Mrs. Kammerman doesn’t know what other time it might be.
Out beyond the suspension bridge a cloud of light floated, an evanescent void; maybe an illuminated underwater city, only visible to those able to hear the water moving in the pipes. Their character, his vision, my idea imagined glow-in-the-dark beings would appear, a diaphanous rescue party sent from an aquanaut city. These gilled beings were half mammals, who struggled as they walked through their heavy burden of atmosphere. They did not speak a known language, only came to prove they were available, and just beneath the surface. The smallest drip in the pipes—water moving at any speed—I heard with the heightened sensation of a someone alone at night in an unknown woods. The itching on my back increased in direct proportion to the clarity of the sound of the approaching water.
I lost my temping job in New York when it became too difficult to sit at a computer. The itching was so intense that I took to rubbing my back against the doorframes in the women’s room. The vending machine buttons in the lunch room worked the best, except my co-workers kept catching me in the act and laughed at first, but grew sullen, distanced, when I refused to stop describing how they would soon be enveloped in the warm waters. When I tried to read the documents I was entrusted with typing and translating, the words on the screen turned hieroglyphic and abstract. The itching and the growing bulge made it impossible to sit correctly in a chair. The mental health people settled on displacement—some phobia-induced delusion—which Dr. Issacs told them meant they did not know what was wrong with me. I was as patient as I could be with them. I didn’t need test results to prove them right, nor did I expect their devices would be able to record what I knew was only an irritation, a buffeting by a slow, on-coming current.
The structure the protagonist felt emerging was not at all malevolent. After I hung my drawings, made carefully with pen, my sister called what she saw in them your pod problem. The drawings showed a bell-shaped structure, filled with a thin, fibrous honeycombed membrane that extended along my back. It was around that time that I began to lose words, easy ones like car, dog, house, keys, television, and eventually the names of my family. Perhaps it was my sister’s patent-leather slip-ons with faux-croc patterns, the tan riding pants and sheer black blouse that blinded me from remembering her name. She—what’s her name—asked if I would really be able to manage to kill off myself, without warning. Yes, I said immediately, more out of boredom than real conviction. How had my sister turned into such a monstrosity?
"Terra said, don’t worry," I said.
"I have a weird sister who talks about herself in the third person."
"I have a weird sister, too." The nameless sighed, then shifted her weight around, and simply stared out the window.
"Remember when we both wanted a pet and mother wouldn’t let us?" The protagonist’s sister had softened her glare. "We used to take turns being the dog, remember?"
"I was always the dog," she said, feeling the name of her sister right there at the edge of consciousness: Buck, Sparky, Spot, Shasta, Beauty, Brunhilde.
"We traded back and forth. You used to like being taken care of. You even drank water from a bowl." It was true that I ate the biscuits and learned to bark. I played dead and stood on my hind legs. I was the wonder of the block, a true spectacle. When I shoved my hand into the Gravy Train bag and ate it like candy, I became a hero to the boys, who normally thought of me as invisible. I ate dog food and acquired a specialty in life. Later I would try streaks of dye in my hair, hats worn with a triumphant awkwardness. I became a star.
"Come on, Terra," she said, "don’t you remember that stuff?"
"I’d like to be completely honest right now." The protagonist’s sister put on a sincere look and nodded. "Honestly, and this comes without malice, but can you tell me your first name? I’ve completely forgotten." She stood, held herself upright with fists that tapped at the sides of her riding pants, then she bolted from the room, mumbling at first, then she went down the stairs, barking so loud the windows rattled in their panes.
The MRI scans did find traces of something odd. What the doctors referred to as the honeycombed abnormality, or, the non-malignant cellular event, was only a spectral haze floating about my original flesh. My mother was certain she had passed on a bad gene, or inadvertently drunk and smoked while I was no bigger than a peanut, a zygote. This much I knew: there was a wave coming from a great distance, curled up on itself and moving quickly toward us. I understood this the same way that a gardener saw the future shape of the tree she was pruning.
The pod grew and spread out, forming a distinct bell shaped hump that ran the length of the protagonist’s back, extended above my head and formed an arch made from my own accommodating skin. The structure developed a honeycombed structure made up of tendon-like bands that remained taunt but entirely elastic, moving when I moved. I could no longer sit at all, or lie on my back to sleep, and I slept less and less anyway.
When the narrators were asleep I wandered the house from window to window, trying to gain a better view of the rising water. The old floorboards cracked and sighed beneath my feet, making explosive noises throughout the house. One night, as I rounded the hallway heading back to my room, I was startled to find mother standing in the doorway of the darkened bathroom. Nothing about her face said she recognized me. I had become an unreliable presence in their version.
Father brought devices to my bedroom: a television and DVD player, all gleaming with stainless steel and fake cherry highlights. "We thought these might help you stay connected," he said, trying not to stare at me. I was aware of a breeze entering the room from the opened door, a garbled message, direct from the sewers, came blasting through the pipes as if the sink drains were really microphones. I covered my ears to silence the static, forgetting that my father was still in the room. He looked at me with eyes that were at once understanding, yet remained cold, offended.
"Please, Terra, under the circumstances, we’re doing the best we can." Father kept the presents coming. Here he was dumb in the face of any aberration, now reduced to wandering the malls in search of a device that might soothe his daughter’s unnamed affliction. He brought box after box, unpacking a computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse. At night a blue light emanated from the far corner of the room until I covered it with a blanket. The pod ached and itched—sometimes it throbbed. It was not the competing magnetic fields of the collective devices, the pulsating flicker of images, or the substance of the reports that caused the discomfort. It was all of the sounds of water, gaining in volume and intensity, the certainty of how, inch by rising inch, it would eventually overtake us.
When it rained I hung onto a bedpost, such was the force of the water as it rushed throughout the neighborhood, thumping like a bass drum inside the growing pod. I heard the water now as more of a white noise—rather than the soft gurgling of before. All the sounds came at once: water moving through the houses, trickling drains and errant toilet valves, the ice maker going about its robotic chores, water filters altering the chemical structure. There were other things: rain did not tattoo . . . it hissed instead and slapped against metal, wood, asphalt as it wore away in micro layers . . . drummed. My beginner’s attempts at sonar sent all the dogs in the neighborhood into a spasm of barking. Sparrows fell from the trees and spun around in the dust like tops. Even the rats heard the aquatic pulses and grew silent and attentive. I had a whole new language of sensation, but no way of communicating it to the people still living outside the door.
My ears became so attuned to the sound of the waves that I no longer heard cars, trucks, airships, stereos, or radio voices, just a noise like the hiss of a million tires on the roadways during a rain. Over time the sound changed: instead of the high, sharp treble, it was flattening out. Water dripped quietly over retaining walls, collected in back yards in giant puddles that slowly crept toward each other. The ground around the house turned to mud, the streets were awash and the sewers clogged and visible only by a brown spiral trying to find the fastest route to the sea. But the city and the ocean had merged, or so it seemed from my vantage point, now obscured by low hanging clouds. Abandoned cars covered the streets near my house and people who were outside in the rain walked solemnly in knee-high water swirling with debris.
The notes the narrators left beneath my door were so soggy from the humidity that the letters bled and faded into a blue-black abstract patterns. I studied these manuscripts as if they had been made on purpose, by certified geniuses, to show how beautiful the world can be when reduced within a white rectangle. For a while the narrators continued to bring food I no longer felt hungry for. They sat outside the locked door pleading with me to talk, then, dejected by my silence, they spoke in long monologues—spilling themselves out. The father was increasingly drunk when he came to sit in the chair outside the door. Drunk and certain there was no longer a God. We are just electrons sparking blue in the ether, he said, as if speaking through a megaphone from a great distance. How do you think it feels to understand that we don’t really matter, that we are, in fact, obsolete? Instead of words only crackling noises, squeaks, came from my throat.
"Why are you barking in there?" came the protagonist’s mother as she pounded on the locked door. "Please stop it, dear, you’re going to drive us all crazy." What was her name, this woman I still knew as mother? Oh, I know that her real name sounded comforting and placid—it was the word my aunts called her, something like Squirt, Pantene, Fanta, or Corolla.
"Was I making noise?" I asked, thinking that maybe in my brief voyage I had called out.
"Sounds terrible, those noises."
"Sorry, I was only talking to myself." The voice behind the door sounded like sonar.
"Try talking in human."
"Yes, it sounds like Flipper is in there with you. All that crackling and the whizzing noises. You’d think you were playing with a shortwave instead of speaking to your own mother."
"A mermaid," she said to the narrator.
"It’s mermaid talk," I repeated.
"I can’t take it, really, be serious."
"Mermaids are always serious."
Mr. Patois saw her leave the house on the day she went missing. She walked slowly now, around and around the house as if a current were holding her in place. Her bewildered face turned to the sky, as she stood on the lawn, soaking wet from walking circles beneath the trees. She then sang as she lay on the lawn in the rain, her body leaving heat trails in the wet grass. The radio claimed that the storm had turned into a giant spiral, a rain engine they called it, that submerged roads and shut down the city. A green mold started to grow on the inside of their windows that had to be cleaned off each day in order to see out with the binoculars.
Mrs. Kammerman reported that she saw Terra on the day she disappeared. The discussion and the deli grew soggy, more desperate with each day of passing rain. The customers, usually wearing high rubber boots and covered in mud, complained of similar nightmares: the neighborhood and the distant city had become like a flooded forest with its buildings like skeletons of rotten trees, the streets open canals. Or they dreamed that it was not raining at all; they dreamed that it was hot and they were always thirsty. Outside they burned themselves touching ordinary things. Mrs. Kammerman said that Terra was carrying around a piece of wood, "hanging onto it as if it were afloat, as if she were adrift." Like so many others who had vanished, she was listed as missing and quickly forgotten.
I will describe how, after a long period of underwater dreams, a period when there had been no movement in the protagonist’s house for days, I unlocked the bedroom door and swam throughout the rooms, but they were empty of recognizable shapes. The narrators had obviously abandoned any attempt to continue with their version of the story. What was left of the old world was only sounds and smells, an occasional echo of artificiality.
How could it be so hot? As I moved steadily away from the house, the sky remained overcast, a gloom of low-hung clouds and drizzle, the only sound was the sloshing of my own body. The city was empty, the life that remained consisted of treetops sticking up out of the water, many of which had turned white like bones, and bore no leaves. I barely noticed the change between night and day: there were no birds, sirens, no motors running. The water had risen nearly to my chest, but the weight of the pod kept me from floating free, and made it impossible to swim.
When it broke free from my back, the pod bobbed to the surface of the water with a splash that made my body vibrate with pleasure. There was no pain. Only the terrible itching remained, as if a giant scab had just come off my back. So as to not be swept under the water, I swam over and grabbed onto the sides of the floating pod, which moved beneath my hands like flesh. Pulling myself over the edge, I slipped into a sitting position inside the vessel. It fit my body perfectly. As I moved out toward open water, the sound of a human voice drifted into and out of my mind as if the momentary shift of wind mimicked a whisper.