The degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system; the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity
WINTER, PRESENT DAY
Flo Masters was not a woman to deal with shenanigans. Her father had been a straight-shooter, as had her father’s-father and so on and so forth. When it came to business, running it, keeping it up, keeping the inventory interesting, she considered herself rather successful. Providence had been good to her in the past; it was the kind of town where you left your doors unlocked at night, the kind of place where you could leave your keys in your car (because Lord knows, you were always forgetting your keys somewhere inconvenient. Flo would’ve lost track of her nose if weren’t attached to her face.). So it came as a shock, the kind that left her skin prickling and her blood pressure tap dancing around that area her doctor fondly called “The Danger Zone,” when she pulled up to Eugene General to open up the shop for the day and discovered a pink and purple graffiti scrawled on the back of her building.
Petty vandalism, she could handle. A thrown-over trash can, some unwanted flyers stapled to the door every morning, the occasional broken window (which, to be honest, was only ever caused by Lou Hutch practicing his golf swing across the way. He’d been terrible at it. Flo thought he’d actually gotten worse with practice, but Lou’s wife insisted it was the only thing that kept him out of her hair, and Flo Masters was not a woman to get in the way of anyone’s marital issues), these were to be expected in Providence. But graffiti! The absolute nerve of scribbling whatever god-forsaken idiocy your little heart desired all over someone else’s building was just downright rude. And Flo Masters did not have time for rude.
Often even tempered, Flo found herself boiling over as she marched into the main market, making sure to slam the screen door behind her. August had already arrived for the day, and had helped herself to the nuts in the bulk aisle. “I’m going keto,” she’d explained before Flo had a chance to explode.
Flo had started complaining about what was wrong with people exploiting the concept of free speech all over her building, but seeing that August was fist deep in the cashew bin, she pivoted. “What in the actual Sam Pete is wrong with the youth of America?” she seethed, reaching into her fanny pack for an inhaler her doctor had recommended for such moments.
August popped a few cashews in her mouth, wiping the excess salt on her Day-Glo vest. “I don’t think it’s the youth so much as the economic strife and over-parenting that put us here. But sure, let’s blame the Gen Z kids.”
Flo fidgeted with her fanny pack, stuffing the inhaler back in and re-zipping it ferociously. “What in the name of our Lord and Savior is on the outside of my building?”
August stood, following Flo around to the back of the building to assess the damage. Flo paced back and forth behind August, who had to take in the artwork before her. “If I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure it’s a three-foot-tall anatomically accurate depiction of the clitoris.”
Flo paused, her face twisting in befuddlement. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, most people don’t think it’s actually that big. But yeah,” August’s voice was laced with bewilderment.
“It looks like a wishbone.”
August nodded, leaning in. “Something like that.”
“Well,” Flo huffed. “Get it off my building.” She turned on her heels and marched back inside.
“You got it, boss,” August sighed, impressed the perpetrator went to the trouble to be so text-book in the drawing.
August grinned as she popped in some ear buds to listen to the iPod Mark had loaned to her. The only music he had was from the late 2000s, a collection of hypersexual R&B and angsty pop rock. She felt conflicted that she knew all the words, but sang aloud as she scrubbed.
This time last year, she would have spent her Tuesdays leaving student’s term papers bloody and helpless with edits and criticisms, taking pleasure out of the edits and mathematical corrections that had earned her such a coveted position as assistant professor at Columbia University’s Applied Physics Department. If they could only see her now.
Abigail had moved out of the little house with the big front yard two decades earlier. Even before the divorce – a legal transaction carried out over the series of three letters and a bottle of whiskey she hadn’t been interested in drinking – Abigail had moved to a tiny ranch-style home the next town over, a veritable bachelorette pad where she was free to burn all the vegetables her heart desired. Abigail had not been back to the original Conrad property in more than ten years until the funeral, but it only took her a matter of hours to dismantle the place, tearing it into parts, into buckets.
When August arrived home from community service, she found Abigail tagging furniture with yellow and red stickers.
“How did you get in here?” August caught herself asking as she dropped her bag of supplies on the floor.
“And how was community service, August?” Abigail added a second yellow sticker to the standup piano in the hallway. “Were you able to clean up the highway before the snowstorm comes in this week? They’re always complaining about the trash they find after snow like that melts.”
Both women exchanged wordless stares. It had been quite some time since the two of them were alone, face to face. They had not known each other really, not in the way a mother and daughter ought to have. It was a little bit like not knowing yourself. Abigail was glaringly absent most of August’s upbringing, and, in turn, August had failed to build any sort of rapport with her mother besides one of indifference. August resented that, a bit, even still. She stared back at her mother, eyebrows furrowed. She knew she should not have expected anything different from the woman who gave her life, but she could not let go of the nagging feeling that perhaps she had deserved something better, warmer, maybe, though she had done little to deserve it.
“Did you need this?” Abigail broke the silence, gesturing to the sticker already on the rocking chair. “I assume you’re staying now and have no money to purchase home goods of your own.”
August thought she would have been prepared for this sort of matter-of-fact attitude, but face to face, three feet apart, she found herself disarmed. Next to her, Abigail was short, stout, her hair having grown a stark yellow blond rather than white with age. The skin around her eyes had crinkled a bit, but for a woman in her sixties, she was still in good condition.
August hadn’t needed to say anything about the email she’d received from the Dean of her school, the treasure in the front yard, the years of neglect she’d endured and why she’d battled those images on her 12-hour drive back; the probation and community service had been indication enough that she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, which mean there would be time to hash out the details, the feelings, the leftover stuff.
“I can leave some things for a bit, but it’s all got to go,” Abigail answered her own question. “If I were you, I’d start looking for a new place, probably a few pieces of furniture. We’re going to put the house for sale, August. So get a move on it.”
August nodded, stuck somewhere between hurt and panicked urgency.
“I’ll be back for some more things next week.” Abigail added as she led herself out the front door, which made a sucking sound as she opened it. “And don’t wear that lipstick. You look like a street walker.”
August waited until the front door had been closed before she scrubbed off the lipstick with the back of her hand, leaving behind an inky red stain that would linger through at least two showers.
She spent much of the evening in the front yard, drinking tiny portions of the bourbon Flo had given her from a coffee mug and while she stared at the woods. As she sipped, surprised that Flo had managed to procure such a spicy, leathery bourbon, she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with the task of finding the box her the Conrad ancestor had buried so long ago. It was the dead of winter, the woods were acres upon acres in depth, and despite the threat of selling the property, she just couldn’t motivate herself to even get started. And where could she have even begun? Perhaps she feared there would be nothing to find, that the prospect of having an easy out was almost as good if not better than knowing one way or the other. She took another sip from her mug and turned back to the house, making a note to ask Flo where she’d gotten the whiskey and who had been genius enough to age it so well.
As the weeks wound down towards the holidays, August found that carrying out community service was strangely soothing, and the proximity to Flo had won her a few opportunities to work under the table for cash. Running the register at Eugene General and scrubbing profanity of its walls was also the most cut-and-dried work she had ever performed. There were no equations, no subjectivity, no opinions; she sat, she stood, she collected the money, she washed the vinyl siding, she put the things in a bag, she repeated. Occasionally, she changed the song on the iPod to something made in the current millennium. The repetition was a welcome catharsis, the predictability calming.
Her friendship with Flo grew quickly. It was unexpected, and in another life, it would have been unwanted. Flo was single, nonsexual, and enjoyed cross stitch and hunting game with a compound bow and arrow. She wore a red nylon fanny pack in which she kept what August guessed was an insulin pump or pepper spray. Whispers around town suggested that she once took a bite out of the sort-of-still-beating heart of the first deer she killed. Flo would neither confirm nor deny this story, but she did give August a wink every time someone mentioned it. Flo had never married, never mentioned interest in children. The town was her family, people said of her, and that had simply been enough.
August left for Eugene General at seven each morning and returned twelve hours later with a tote bag filled with whatever was near expiration in the stockroom. Some days it was popcorn, other days it was produce. There had been an abundance of cabbage one week, with which she knew not what to do, so it collected in the fridge until she simply had to throw it out. Mark kept her company on occasion, and even decided stay at the house for a week, taking up what seemed like permanent residence on the living room couch. While there was a perfectly fine mattress in Mark’s childhood bedroom, he preferred the serenity of the local news at 2:00 in the morning and the musk of decades-old microfiber. The company had been appreciated, especially when Abigail returned every now and then to remove some other part of their childhood home for auction.
On Saturdays, Flo and August closed Eugene General early and spent time down in the Cellar. August savored a few plastic cups of contraband whiskey while Flo smoked a few hand-rolled cigarettes from the last local tobacco farmer. In between puffs and sips, they fielded visits from obscenely drunk high school kids who still knew about the place. August learned to play bridge and rummy, and figured out exactly what to say to an underage kid to make him run away from the Cellar drenched in sweat.
Over time, this camaraderie had afforded her a few bottles of bourbon. August didn’t ask who supplied Flo’s stash, or why her prices were so cheap, and Flo had no shame in sharing the goods. She suggested Flo perhaps make her own and sell that instead of importing so much, suggested that she keep the stash in the basement rather than risking her customer’s getting caught purchasing it.
“Rent them a booze locker, and let them pick what they keep in it. It’ll drive business into the Cellar, and you can make some extra cash just selling space,” August recommended one night, refilling her plastic cup. “Damn it, this is really good bourbon.”
“Like a speakeasy?” Flo looked around. “I’d have to get chairs.”
“I’ll buy you the chairs, Flo!”
Flo burst into laughter. “With what money, Lady Doll? The cash I already slip you under the table? Hell, I could just stop paying you, and buy my own chairs!”
The two women cackled together, Flo pausing only to cough for a moment and admit that she’d think about it, that it might be nice to spruce the place up. For the first time in months, August Conrad found herself smiling.
As mid-December approached, where otherwise she would have been buried in a mountain exam grading, August was due to hear about her whether or not she would be invited back to teach another semester at Columbia. She could not have accepted either way, being stuck in Providence serving some off-brand flavor of community service for another eleven months, but the curiosity was killing her. Mark had been right, all professors were crazy in their own right. Perhaps her crazy had been just the right balance of genius and insanity that would have kept her in the hearts and minds of the Theoretical and Applied Physics Department. She could always return after having served out her sentence. She could always continue teaching, just brush that whole manifesto-of-the-death-of-humanity thing under the rug.
Still without a phone, wi-fi, or a device on which to communicate with the outside world, August had to ask Flo if she could check her email during her community service shift at Eugene General. Flo had of course agreed, and made an appropriate amount of semi-impressed, “Ooo,” sounds as she stood over August’s shoulder while she opened her university email.
“You’re some kinda smart, ain’t ya?” Flo said, shimmying her shoulders for effect.
“Or some kind of crazy, you pick,” August replied, clicking through the stale emails about holiday parties, final grades, and updated exam schedules. Buried several rows down in her inbox, August saw the fateful email, subject line: We Thank You for your Services. A flash of electricity shot through her nerves as she clicked to open it.
Dear Dr. Augustus Conrad,
On behalf of the entire Department of Applied Physics, we regret to inform you that your position as Assistant Professor has been vacated. You will not be invited to return next semester. We thank you for your service, and wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
Dean, Department of Theoretical and Applied Physics
538 West 120th Street
704 Pupin Hall MC 5255
New York, NY 10027
“Well, that’s that.” August didn’t bother logging out of the email, just closed the laptop and excused herself from the stool.
Flo stayed hovered over the device, opening the laptop again to get a second read. She pulled her glasses from around her neck up to her eyes and squinted at the type face before zooming in so she could read. “Well, at least they were polite about it.”
August had wandered down the aisle where Flo stocked the holiday candy and helped herself to a box of candy canes. “I mean, it wasn’t like they were going to invite me back. Honestly. I mean, I literally plastered naked photos of one of their darling physicists all over the hallway and told everyone else in the department they could righteously go screw themselves.”
“Oh, my,” Flo stifled a laugh. “Well, good for you, being honest about your feelings. You’re better off anyhow. Who wants to work for a department that fires somebody over email? Honestly.”
August peeled open the candy cane. “Something like that.”
“You know, baby doll, I think there’s a sifter of bourbon down in the Cellar with your name on it. Maybe I crack that puppy open after close tonight. Just in case you want to wash down that wallowing you’re about to do.”
“I like where your head is at, Flo.”
In the past, this sort of professional dismissal would have been treated much differently. Her mother Abigail would have read over the rejection letter, printed it out, posted it on the fridge, and requested August take a few passes re-reading it to understand what steps she might have taken to be able to avoid that kind of fate in the future. While perhaps a sounds management technique for adulthood, that kind of eat-your-failure parenting hadn’t sat well with August and, she was quite certain, had set her up to generally dread any type of failure, for fear of having to face it full on.
A little bit like now, actually.
Judy Patti Boone, bred and born and raised in Providence, North Carolina, for the entirety of her life except those two weeks she ventured off to Alabama for Lord Only Knows What, frequented Eugene General not for the groceries – no, those she could still grow on her own – but for the freely available gossip. Providence, conveniently located close to nothing, had recently attracted a community of so-called Millennials who were looking to get away from city life. And with them they had brought their cigar stores and their gelato shops (Why couldn’t they just call it ice cream? That’s all it was. Honestly.) and their hip espresso bars that served smaller-than-you-would-believe baked goods that classified as something they called “gluten free” (The nerve. It was just cake. Teeny, tiny cake. Didn’t they know they were just eating cake?). Judy Patti was disgusted with and very much opposed to the reinvigoration of downtown Providence. They’d been getting along just fine, thank you very much, until the Recession had struck, and now look at the place. So yes, she went to Eugene General to get away from the Millennial crowd, their ridiculous food habits, and their mind-numbing whiney music (Oh, she didn’t mention the music? It was God awful. Just this slow, quiet, sad little music. Sometimes they played loud, upbeat music, too, but it was made with computers, not instruments. Honestly. What was wrong with real instruments?)
Flo didn’t seem to mind her presence, either, she sure did not. Judy Patti brought her home baked peach cobbler every once in a while, and Flo just sat there listening whenever Judy Patti wanted to chat, happy as a clam. That kind of friendship came especially in handy when the doctors down at the University Hospital in the Triad Region handed her that awful diagnosis.
“It was cancer. Flat out,” Judy Patti shook her head as she recalled the harrowing tale. “The doctor took me aside, and she said Ms. Boone, I have some bad news and I have some good news. Can you imagine?” Flo nodded and “mhmmed” in reply. “She said, now that there ache you’ve been having in your belly, now well that was cancer. I said, what now? I have what now in my belly? It was cancer!”
“You are mighty strong, Judy Patti,” Flo chirped.
That August girl, that fugitive from the North, was busy re-stocking something in the aisle next to her. Patti could hear her sigh with disbelief. Patti was so tired of people always sighing with disbelief. That’s what was wrong with the youth of today, they just didn’t believe in anything anymore.
“Well it sure was a big scare, now.” Judy Patti hummed. “And, oh my goodness, they made me stay in that hospital for days! I had emergency surgery right there on the spot. They gave me the best darn drugs, though, I was flying high as a kite! And wouldn’t you believe it, then she told me they’d gotten it out!”
“They did?” Flo answered with divided attention.
“Every last bit of it! And now I’m a cancer survivor. You know, they get the tumor out, but once that cancer is your DNA – that’s what they said it was in, it was part of my Dee-Enn-A – it’s always a part of you. But I tell you what, cancer has changed my life. There’s something about being a cancer patient that really, just, puts your whole life back into perspective.”
“You don’t have cancer anymore, Judy Patti,” August interjected from the aisle. “You stopped having cancer the second they took the cancer out of you.”
The absolute nerve. “Once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient.” Judyt Patti wagged her finger toward August.
“You had cancer a total of 15 minutes. They found it. They took it out. You didn’t even need chemo, Judy Patti. You are the luckiest woman on the planet.”
Judy Patti sneered. “Well, I don’t know about that.”
Flo, looking over the edge of her glasses, tried to smooth over the conflict. “Well, cancer or not, we are thrilled that the Lord has left you on this planet for a little bit longer.”
Judy Patti huffed, “Amen to that,” and grabbed a six pack of fat-free yogurt as she exited the store.
“Have a great night, Judy Patti!” Flo waved as Judy Patti about-faced and exited the store. “You come by any time and let me know how that cancer is going!”
As the door shut behind Judy Patti, August leaned over the counter and whispered to Flo, “She’s absolutely insane.”
Flo waved off the suggestion. “She’s just lonely.”
“I’d rather be lonely than listen to this music,” she reached down for Flo’s antique iPod, a first-generation device that still had a dial, four buttons, and a battery that could only hold a charge for an hour. Flo had queued up the Billboard Top 100 Christmas songs from the past half century, and August could not stand the boy band renditions of the Classics any longer.
The bell over the front door rang, and a cold gust of air blew past August. “Shut the door!” she yelled over her shoulder as she looked to the perpetrator.
Standing in the threshold, kicking clods of dirty snow off his boots, was Jordan Hall. He was holding the door open, trying not to track snow into the store. August normally would have spoken up, called any other guy an asshole and to shut the fucking door, but she was transfixed by the cranberry scarf around his neck, the popped wool collar of his pea coat, the expanse of his shoulders and the strong angles of his jaw bone and how they led to his cornflower blue eyes, as he finally shut the door behind him. He looked like his own kind of Christmas candy, the kind you’d find buried in the back of your sock drawer after spring cleaning. The kind you don’t wait until the holiday to unwrap.
August’s left arm pit, just the left one, started to sweat, soaking through her shirt within a matter of seconds. She became acutely aware of her breathing, her hair, whether or not she remembered to put on makeup that morning. She was torn between a childish excitement that Jordan Hall had popped up for the second time that month, and utter humiliation that he had witnessed her being arrested and now working the cash register at Eugene General. August’s jaw fell slack just a bit as he walked in.
Jordan smirked as he caught August’s expression, and her chest tightened. Before he could say anything, Flo rushed over and scooped him up in a hug, a show of affection August did not expect.
“Flo, what are you doing employing felons like this one?” He nodded towards August; she swore she saw him wink. “Is that what this town has coming to?” He paused as Flo took his face between her hands and planted a large grandma-grade kiss on one of his cheeks. “Is that why the food at Edna’s tastes like cardboard lately? Are we just employing ex-cons now?”
“This one,” Flo said fondly, releasing Jordan’s face. She glanced at August as if she needed to be warned. “Nothing but trouble.”
“Which one of us is that, Flo?” Jordan teased as he took off wandering through the aisles, as if his presence wasn’t shocking, as if this encounter happened every day. August leaned forward at the register to watch him as he tossed bags of tree-shaped peanut-butter-filled chocolate into his basket. Jordan glanced up and caught her eye. He grinned and continued down the next aisle. Her pulse surged in her forehead, her neck, her chest. August was careful to seem inconspicuous, glancing at her iPod, shuffling items behind the register, but Jordan wasn’t making it easy. He kept lapping the store, tossing a glance in her direction every time he passed the counter. This game was familiar, this game of knowing he was being watched but pretending like no one was looking. She wanted to roll her eyes, but she couldn’t peel them away from him long enough to do it.
When he finally landed at the cash register, he plopped the basket full of candy in front of her. One of the smaller bags hopped out onto the floor.
“Man down!” August laughed at her own joke, hoping he wouldn’t notice the flush in her cheeks.
“So it is true,” he said sweetly, rummaging around his back pocket for a wallet. “August Conrad returns to the town she forsook for the stars, boozes in public, spends a day in jail, and now, she works at Eugene General as a cashier. It could be the age, but I do believe my eyes deceive me.” The grin on his face hadn’t once dropped.
“Smug doesn’t look good on you,” August fired back, dragging the bags across her scanner. “Eleven eighty, please.”
“Everything looks good on me,” he beamed, tapping his wallet against the counter. “So is this place still cash only, or…?”
“Look around.” August gestured toward the aisles of discount product. “Of course it is.”
Jordan glanced around for Flo, then leaned over the counter closer to her. “If I give you a twenty, will you take me to the basement?” He flashed a few bills from the top of his wallet.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jordan Hall. The only thing in our basement is expired hand soap and that weird tabloid magazine Flo reads on her breaks.”
“Tabloid magazines?!” Jordan hooted and called out over his shoulder to Flo, who was still smitten with his arrival. “Not the Flo I know!”
This time, August rolled her eyes.
Jordan turned back to face August, his playful grin fading into one of sincerity. She caught the glare from a silver band around his finger, and she fought to keep from gasping. “It is good to see you again, August Conrad. It’s been a while.”
She had to look away, the familiar sadness of having had and lost, having been without, having been broken peeking out from the corners of her memory she’d tried so hard to bury. “Quite a while.” Twelve years, some months, a couple of days. A spouse, apparently. She’d finally stopped counting the hours when she’d solved her equation.
Jordan locked eyes on her as she fidgeted, took his money, handed him the receipt. “Well, we should do this again sometime, August Conrad. I’m in town for a while, holidays and all.”
She nodded in agreement. There was too much to talk about. Would any of it be worth bringing up in the first place? He was there, they were staring at one another. His hair was tousled the way it used to be when he was pondering some universal question about life or love or lunch. He apparently had expanded his family – where they in Providence? Was he alone? Did he have kids? She pushed away the sadness, perked up once again. “So, what do a couple of kids from out of town do when the only bar is out of business?”
His grin returned. “That’s never been a problem before.” That time he definitely winked at August, and her breath caught in her throat.
Jordan wished Flo a Merry Christmas as he left, even though Christmas wasn’t for a few more weeks. “And I’ll see you soon enough, August Conrad.”
That evening after close, August and Flo counted leftover candy cane boxes in the Cellar. This year, Flo ordered too many, and she pushed a massive armload toward August. She then opened the nice bourbon stash she hid from her customers and poured a small plastic cup out for August.
August grinned behind her stash and reached into her coat pocket, revealing two perfectly plump and brown cigars. “I got you something, too.”
She had no idea how to light them, cut them, or smoke them, but it seemed like the kind of day that deserved to be finished off with a cloud of smoke. Flo cooed, “Aw, Baby Doll,” and snipped off each end, carefully placing one into her mouth and lighting it. A dirty wet odor filled the space around them, and August coughed, waving her hand in front of her face. “That’s a damn good cigar,” Flo offered the lit cigar to August, who declined. Flo took a few more puffs as she leaned back against the wall. “Alright, Girlie, let’s talk about you.”
“Nothing to talk about,” she laughed, sipping the bourbon.
“Alright then, Ms. Conrad. Let’s talk about who walked into the store today.”
- - - -
Connecting the Conrad and the Hall properties was a small river that ran red with clay when the spring rains came. By summer, the water ran nearly crystal clear, and inquisitive explorers could follow the current to a much larger body of water where catfish thrived. August had never been a fan of catfish, believing fully that cats and fish had no business trying to become one another, but on occasion, Jordan’s mother would batter and fry them up, and she ate them without complaining.
They had both met at the wider part of the river on a mutual dare. Jordan didn’t think August was capable of showing up with the kayak, and August, in turn, didn’t think Jordan was brave enough to actually fake sick and sneak out of the house on a Sunday while both of their families were at church. Hauling the vessel had been a feat in and of itself, and nearly cost them the entire trip. As they walked, August began reciting the history of the universe.
“So, in the beginning, there was nothing. There was darkness and stillness and calm. Actually, we don’t know what there was, because time just did not exist back then, and not in a “Land Before Time” kind way like that dumb dinosaur movie. Something happened, and there was the Big Bang: chaos, explosions, tremendous violence, which ultimately blasted our universe into existence out of something called a singularity. For several hundred million years thereafter, there was nothing but a period of darkness before the first objects in this new universe were flooded with light. This early light was ultraviolet, and as it began travelling towards our own rock, that light grew, it shifted, it stretched out, and it became a lower-energy light. To this day, we are uncertain what the first instances of light were, whether they were stars or quasars.”
Jordan had zoned out, as he often did when she went on these lectures. He just kept reminding her to keep moving forward, that there was only two hours left in the church service, and they had to be back in bed before their parents got home.
August patently ignored him. “The first stars, Population III stars, which are much bigger and brighter than any in our nearby universe, are nearly 1000 times the size of our own sun and burn that much brighter. It was from these Population III stars that mini galaxies merged and evolved into mature, spiraling galaxies, much like our own. We can see these earlier galaxies as far as ten billion light-years away. There are multitudes of theories and laws speculating how and why we exist as a universe, what’s holding us together, what’s keeping us churning, what’s brought us together, but really we keep getting it wrong, or just not quite right. There are those scientists who think big, they look at the universe as a whole, and there are those who look to the smallest possible components of particles to understand and piece together the mystery. And all of this research, all of this understanding, is to help us figure out what to do next. Where else can we go? How else do we survive? Everything that has a beginning must have an end, and in understanding how we came to be, we can start to understand our own denouement.”
“Day-new-mont?” Jordan interrupted. He had only wanted to know how they were going about fishing, but she’d gotten lost somewhere along the way and started reciting astrological theory. They hadn’t covered that yet in science class, and he was dumbfounded as to where she’d been getting her information.
“Our descending action, our end, basically,” August matter-of-factly replied. “Death.”
Jordan’s face sank. “Like the death of the fish?”
August waved one hand in front of her face. “It’s not about death, it’s about the universe. It’s about a beginning. We’re just floating along in some cushy dark matter, but think about how we got here. Look at how the universe comes together. The whole reason we have light in the first place is that something, some star, some pulsar, had to explode, it had to reach a violent end as one form and take on another. And it took on light. It brought us out of the dark period and it gave us light and heat and warmth and existence. It gave us the sun. It gave us gravity. It gave us motion. We all have to end. We have to stop being who we are before we can become something greater. I guess I don’t think of it as death, I think of it as a transition of phase.”
Jordan’s mouth hung open as he searched for the words to reply.
“Just get into the boat, Jordan.”
He obliged, freaked out for only a few moments by his friend before reading aloud the instructions on how actually they were going to spend their afternoon.
To effectively fish with dynamite, an individual must obtain one of several types of explosive devices, including but not limited to a stick of dynamite, a homemade bomb, fireworks or some otherwise combustible ignition. The larger or the more abundant the source of said combustion, the larger the area the shock wave will cover and, therefore, theoretically, the larger the resulting catch, assuming the person does not kill everything within its respective radius.
When preparing your device, ensure that the fuse will have a long enough delay to detonate deep beneath the surface of the water. Once the proper length of the fuse has been obtained, light said fuse and toss explosive far from the boat. Please note, do not simply drop the explosive overboard; it is very likely this will result in explosion and subsequent capsizing of the vessel in which you sit. This may also result in your death or other unsightly, handicapping bodily harm.
After the explosive has detonated, and you will very much know when that occurs, the afflicted fish will float to the surface of the water. Maneuver your vessel through the water and, using a nylon net or scoop, remove the fish from the water and place them in a receptacle. Please do not use your hands.
A repeat caution to readers: this project may result in death or severe bodily harm. Perform only under careful supervision. Please also note that dynamite fishing is both detrimental to the ecosystem and extremely illegal.
Jordan held onto the side of their aluminum rowboat to keep his hands from shaking. They’d snuck the fireworks out of Eugene General over the Fourth of July, and somehow Flo hadn’t noticed. Adrenaline was coursing through every possible inch of his body. August, who was pretending to read the instructions again for a second time, paused when she noticed the white on his knuckles.
“We don’t have to do this,” August offered, though they’d already made it this far and neither of them would forgive the other for giving up at that point.
“Yeah.” Jordan nodded, prying a few fingers off the side of the boat, the color quickly returning to his freed digits. “Yeah, but there’s something cathartic about senselessly killing an entire population of sea life with one single blast.”
Neither set of parents were aware that their respective children had rented a man-powered sea craft and waded out into the catfish-infested river on their own. Mitchell had assumed August was buried in a science book. Jordan’s mother presumed he was off climbing trees, burning something, or finding out what color various bugs produced when stepped upon.
“I mean, I guess it is a little heartless.” August shrugged. Appearing like the more responsible of the two of them had somehow become her burden, but she desperately wanted Jordan to just go ahead and blow the river up already.
“Do you want the fish?” Jordan asked, unfurling a few more fingers from around the edge of the boat. "Would that make you feel better if you ate some of them?"
“I don’t think I like fish. I mean the eyes, the scales, the smell…Conrads are not fish people. They are very much cow people.” She shivered a little in the boat, grossed out by the thought of having to eat whatever they killed that day. “I mean, what do you even do with it? How do you scoop the guts out?”
"Yeah, I guess I don’t like them either,” Jordan said.
The two of them peered over opposite sides of the boat. It rocked a little with their weight, and August let out a laugh, thinking briefly they might fall in.
“So they’ll just…” Jordan pantomimed a mushroom cloud, sound effects included. “Boom, dead?”
August imagined this was how all worlds might end. “Duh, of course.” She reached in her canvas bag and produced a colorful umbrella. “Oh, hey, in case we don’t want to get wet.”
Jordan pulled the umbrella next to him. “Smart,” he said. “What else is in there?”
August, always planning ahead, had packed a Ziploc back of cheddar crackers and a giant Rice Krispy treat wrapped in cellophane. They split the just-sweet-enough Rice Krispy treat, balling up and discarding of the cellophane in the bag it came in. August, sticky with marshmallow goodness, smeared her sugar-coated fingers on the knee of his pants, prompting a quick and playful slap fight.
When they agreed to a truce, worried they might scare the fish away, August dug back into the bag for the contraband explosives and ignition. She held a small packet of matches between her teeth as she carefully unwrapped the fireworks, handing them to Jordan one at a time. The blood in August’s temples, cheeks, ears, extremities began thumping. Would the boat capsize? Would they drown? Would they get arrested? Would she kiss him? Should she? She felt her eyes darting frantically – Jordan’s face, matches, dynamite, water, face, face, face, fireworks.
He took the packet of matches from her mouth and struck one against the box, bringing it to life. As he held the tiny flame against the base of the fireworks, Jordan spit out, “What do you want to do before you die?” His eyes were beady, wide-open, his hand still trembling. She was caught up in the moment, the natural excitement and terror that came with the knowledge that she was about to obliterate an entire ecosystem. Her knee was bouncing wilding with anticipation. “Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, they all died at 27,” Jordan began, not really caring at that point if she was listening to him. The match was burning closer to his fingers, and August imagined he’d have to just shake it out and try again with a new one soon. “I don’t want to fizzle out with an overdose or anything like that. I want to die creatively,” he said. “I want to be remembered.”
August leaned over and plucked the match out of his hands, shaking it free of its flame and dropping it into the water. She pulled a fresh match out of the box, and prepared to light it herself. “We all want to be remembered. It’s ego.”
Jordan gulped, staring at the floor of the boat. She had not anticipated him being this nervous.
“I guess it won’t matter either way,” she said, running the match head across the ignition strip. “Whether or not we’re remembered, it won’t matter. When we die, it’ll be the end, right? Of us. It’ll be the end. What happens afterward won’t matter because we won’t be there to notice or to care or to disagree. There’s just nothing.”
Neither of them was looking at the other anymore. The boat rocked a bit in the wake they were creating. Jordan’s left leg was bouncing up and down, and he seemed to be chewing on his bottom lip.
August broke the silence, finally striking the match hard enough to produce a flame. “How about some fish then?” She looked at him smiling.
"Boom," he nervously laughed. August handed him the ignition.
As he lit the fuse, she began to laugh hysterically. “Oh my God,” she kept saying, over and over, “Oh, my God, Jordan!”
The fuse wasn’t quite long enough, and it was damp, but once it took, once he tossed the fireworks and the white-hot ball disappeared beneath the surface of the water, the two gripped the sides of the boat and waited for impact. At first, they thought the fuse might have failed, but just as they were going to row back to shore, a low, wide bubble of air began to billow up slowly, undulating at first. It was as if, for this moment, this collection of seconds, that time had slowed to impossible speeds. The river gurgled, sputtering and burping before finally opening up upon itself and spewing a geyser of hot brown water into the sky. Their umbrella did little to keep them dry, and they soon found themselves drenched. August screamed with pure joy, throwing her arms in the air as her hair quickly became clumpy with river clay. Breathlessly, they waited as the catfish, fat whiskers and belly-up, floated to the surface, first by the tens, then it must have been hundreds. Still reeling from the whole event, she pushed a clump of hair out of her face and commented that she thought they river fish would have been bigger. Jordan agreed. August reached out and picked up one of the slippery, lifeless fish. It was small in her hand, and much colder than she could have anticipated.
“It’s beautiful,” she gasped, holding the fish in front of him. She had not noticed, but tears were streaming down her cheeks, running through the clay and dirt that had caked on her face.