Something is wrong.
He was lying in his bed. Twin bed. Pulled into the room. Pushed against the wall. Under the window. Beyond trees, he could see the stars. Bright and heavy.
Light travels at a constant speed of two hundred ninety-nine million, seven hundred and ninety-two thousand, four hundred and fifty-eight meters per second in a vacuum. The stars you see in the night sky are time travelers from thousands of years in the past.
Thoughts like these came to him occasionally. Sometimes he’d know what they’d mean. Most times he wouldn’t. It was easier when he couldn’t remember any of it. There was still a section of time he couldn’t remember at all. After the Blues but before Eric and Dean. That must have been when whatever it was hit him, hit him. Don’t want that memory, brain says no.
For a while, he couldn’t remember anything. Pieces were coming back. Broken, jagged pieces.
They didn’t use to call him June, beforehand. They called him Benji. Why did Eric and Dean call him June? Had they known him? Knew he carried his father’s name? Maybe it was something completely different. He couldn’t remember the two of them before they showed up that day in Austin. Maybe he wasn’t still in Austin but he was around there. The edges of the world had been fuzzy, sounds hollow and muffled like his whole head was caught in a pickle jar. He’d been starving. They’d had food. And then the pills. The pills made his head stop hurting. Or stopped him caring about the hurt. Or stopped him caring about anything.
Something is wrong.
This again. Something was wrong. The signals were coming. Getting all jammed up. Twisted. Something inside him was wrong? That was true, anyway. Something new? His stomach didn’t hurt. He didn’t need the bathroom. His toe sort of ached but that was because he’d tripped on a root the day before. That wasn’t it. The wrong thing.
Benji, we’re hosed. The entire planet.
That was Mig. They had been friends. They went to conventions together, sometimes wore matching costumes. Once, Mig had been Mando and Benji had been The Child. Mig’s Mando costume had taken him months. Benji’s costume relied heavily on green face paint. Mig never stopped being mad about how much more attention Benji had gotten.
June didn’t know if Mig was dead. Maybe he was only dead like Benji was dead, replaced with someone else. Probably he was dead for real.
It was the early days of the Blues. No one was even calling it that yet. It was just another flu strain, only getting news for popping up in the summer. Doctors had been making the rounds on cable news telling people the usual – wash your hands, stay home or wear a mask if you feel sick, only the very old or very young or immunocompromised are in any danger so check your temp before you go visit nana.
His nana was definitely dead. Stroke, years before the Blues. She smoked to the end and cussed like a sailor. Mom hated her. Her mom had still been alive, living that oil baron wet dream out west somewhere he couldn’t remember where but it probably ended in a vowel. All cowboy hats and boots and floral blouses and pearls always pearls you live the desert grandmother where are you getting pearls-
Something is wrong.
“They sent us a sample,” Mig is saying. He’s smoking. He quit smoking six years ago and hasn’t touched them since but he’s smoking now, and the smell is in his hair and clothes and Benji knows he’s been smoking for hours. “They’re sending samples to everyone they can.”
Mig works in molecular biosciences. Infectious disease. How lucky he has a friend working in a such a relevant area. Surely they are all saved.
“We’re hosed. The entire planet,” Mig says. He drags on his cigarette and flicks the butt. Pulls out the pack from his front pocket. “I’ve never seen mutations like this. No one has. It just…it persists. You think its over, think you’re clear…”
Mig shakes his head, as though he can see what’s coming. Maybe he can.
“What are you telling me?” Benji asks. Mostly he understands. But he doesn’t want to and he’s hoping he’s wrong.
“Can you get out of the city? Do you have a place to go?”
“No.” Maybe if he was still speaking to his parents.
“Then go home. No, go to the grocery store. Stock up on…fuck, everything. Water. Toilet paper. Those disgusting snack cakes you like. Take it all home. Lock the doors. Don’t open them for anyone.”
“I’ve got summer courses.”
Mig holds the cigarette away so there is no smoke between them and looks Benji in the eyes for the first time. Benji swears there are already new wrinkles around his eyes, white hairs mixed in with the black, and something else he has never seen on Mig before. Terror.
“Benji, I am telling you that you don’t. Courses are cancelled. Maybe forever.”
He’d been right about that. Mig had always been right. Benji had followed his advice to the letter. He was pretty sure he got the Blues at the grocery store.
Something is wrong.
His brain didn’t work right anymore and it frustrated Benji, so much he wanted to scream. He could remember these specific little things. Moments. Remember the look on Mig’s face. The summer heat pooling around them, testing them even as they sat in the shade. He could remember his research. He remembered the words and the concepts and what they meant.
Sometimes. Then it would all go away, and the words were just strings of syllables, if he remembered them at all. That wasn’t so bad. It was the other stuff.
Even when he could remember it all, he couldn’t speak it. He could barely speak little words. They were there, in his mind. He could think them, chant them, sing them all in his head. But when he tried to send the words to his mouth and tongue and lips nothing would happen. The signal was jammed somewhere, traffic jammed in a tunnel between his brain and his face and nothing would move, the letters would get made and strung together like the stupid pearls his grandmother always wore, always, so stupid
Something is wrong.
June threw the covers off and sat up in bed. This part sucked, too. Part of his brain knew something, but it couldn’t tell the rest of the brain what it is. It could only scream ominously, giving no details, and Benji was tired of it. He was tired. He wanted to sleep. But something is wrong so he couldn’t but he didn’t…know…what.
It wasn’t inside him. Whatever was wrong. The things wrong with him weren’t new. It was outside him then. Benji looked across the room. Birdie was asleep in her bed. There was enough starlight to see her face, her hand gripped around the blankets puddled at her chest. He watched for a few seconds, until he could see the rise and fall of her back. Breathing. That wasn’t it.
It was dark. As it should be.
Sounds. Were there sounds? No, no sounds. No one else was awake in the house. Outside the crickets chirped. Something moved in the brush, but now that the humans had been beaten back something always moved out there. Whatever it was sounded small. Rabbit. Squirrel. Nothing else. No sounds.
Temperature was normal.
June breathed deep.
Something is wrong!
The traffic jam in his brain broke. Signals went where they were supposed to. And June understood.
He crossed the room and began shaking Birdie awake.
“Huh? What…June? What time is it?”
Speak it. Say the words. Small words. One word.
First sound. Make the second. Come on, come on, make the sounds. I can think, mostly, and I can remember and I’m here but I can’t tell anyone because I can’t make the sounds!
June gave up. He slowly reached out and, after some effort, managed to touch Birdie on her nose. His fingers were almost as stubborn as his mouth sometimes. Almost.
“Did you wake me up to…to boop me?”
June shook his head. Tried to make the sounds.
He took a big breath through his nose, as loud as he could. She was still half asleep, not understanding. He tried to touch her nose again. Got her cheek. Tried again and hit her nose. Took another big breath.
Birdie breathed deep.
She was out of bed in a second.
“Smoke. Shit, June, that’s smoke!”
Birdie was in the window, leaning over his bed and out into the darkness.
“Lots of it. That might be close. Come on, we need to get John.”
Not bothering to change clothes, Birdie grabbed the floral robe hanging on the wall before flinging the door open. She was hustling down the hall, not bothering to check if he was following.
That was good. She’d been treating him like a baby, he knew. Hell, he also knew he needed it, at the beginning.
Hey, mister. Mister, I’m talking to you. Are you okay with these two?
You can stay here with us. We’ll fix you up and get you warm.
June had been so fogged and broken by the cold and the beatings and the drugs he’d barely heard it. But enough had come through. Maybe not the meaning of the words, not then even if he could remember them now. But the tones. The softness. The way John and Birdie had looked at him, equal parts alarmed and worried. The most compassion he’d seen in however long it had been since some great terrible thing had fallen out of the sky and hit the back of his head square.
June didn’t need that pity now.
He needed to find a way to break free.