Alex slipped, landing on his knees and sliding down with both hands outstretched against the soil that rolled beneath his fingertips, a conveyor that he could not grab hold of. His father reached down to catch him but the boy gripped onto a hunched, protruding root and came to a halt. “Are you alright?” the man asked with wide iceberg eyes, curls of black hair dangling from either side of his cavernous cheeks. He was short of breath, face flushed, not by exertion but instead from the thought of his son’s tumbling and irreversible descent: how a single, fumbled misstep could so callously erase all the life that came before it.
“I’m okay,” Alex said, conscious of his father’s expression. “I’m okay.”
“You have to watch your step. This is a mountain. It deserves your respect.”
Alex nodded and mumbled a vague acknowledgement while regaining his footing. He pretended to understand the meaning of the word, respect. He knew it was important, something that adults used to demonstrate their virtuousness, to show that they were kind individuals. He could understand the meaning of the word when told to respect his Dad, to respect his elders. But when Alex’s father told him to respect a tree and its fruit, told him to respect a goat before it was slaughtered, told him to respect those insects that survive the most profound of life’s calamities—told him to respect a mountain—then Alex knew just to nod, to feign acceptance.
His father grabbed onto a dangling cedar branch and pulled himself up the exposed rock to avoid placing weight onto his bad foot. Every other step was abbreviated and yet he remained confident on the steep incline. “Come on,” he said, holding out one hand to clasp.
“I said, I’m okay.” Alex replied, scampering up on all fours. “Is it much farther?”
His father nodded.
Alex sighed, keeping both eyes on the red and withered needles beneath his feet.
“Trust me. It’s going to be amazing. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen”
“I know. I know.”
Alex thought he knew. He called it The Beanstalk even though he was fully aware that it wasn’t a plant and had nothing to do with the fairy tale. He’d analyzed pencil-sketched drawings on wrinkled white paper. He’d overheard the words of adults that described this enormous structure with vocabulary and allusions that didn’t make sense to a six-year-old boy. His father assured him that he needed to see it with his own eyes to appreciate its “profound scale.” And again, Alex’s thoughts would return to their copy of the picture book still occupying a narrow sliver of their living room bookshelf, yellowing lines of tape adhering the many tears that traced the spine and dog-eared corners on almost every page.
“So, what is it?” Alex asked, searching through the trunks of trees in hope of catching a glimpse of its profound scale. All he could see were other mountains. The entire world was an endless series of wrinkled peaks.
“I don’t know,” his father said, trying to mask his annoyance, not with the question, but with the fact that this had all been discussed numerous times before.
“But it’s not really a beanstalk?”
“It’s not really a beanstalk.”
“And they made it?”
“They made it.”
“When did they make it?”
“Before you were born.”
“On the Fourteenth of August?”
“Sometime after that.”
“And what does it do?”
His father forced another sigh into a chuckle. “You know I don’t know.”
“How come I can’t see it yet if it’s so big?”
“Because it’s so far away.”
“Farther away than those mountains?”
“Yes. A lot farther away than those mountains.”
“Can we stop and have a snack?”
“We must be close?”
His father didn’t answer. This was the third time in as many months that they’d attempted this ascent, each of the previous journeys concluding with Alex being carried down on his father’s back before reaching the peak. Alex lived his entire life surrounded by mountains and yet he clearly couldn’t appreciate their size, their profound scale, how he could hike for hours and still be told that there was so much left to climb. Perhaps that was what it meant to respect a mountain, he thought: they are big.
Although pleased that he was able to take a rest and eat as many dried blueberries as he wished, Alex knew what this meant. They were still a long way off. They’d been hiking since the first light of dawn, leaving their home long before the blue sky of day had smothered the last of the swirling, luminous nightlights. Alex was excited when he awoke; he could hardly sleep the night before. His father really believed that he was ready to make it this time. It just wasn’t fair that the trek took so long. Looking up the mountainside, the arching ferns and wrinkled tree trunks never seemed to extend much farther. They had to be close. And yet they weren’t. Every time they’d come across another pink plastic ribbon tied tight around the stalk of a lanky birch, Alex hoped that this would signal that the end was near. But there was always another. He wanted to admit to his father how weary his legs were, but it was too late to turn back. His dad would tell him that it didn’t matter, that he could do it, that he had to respect this mountain, or something.
Alex stood up, nodding with exaggerated swings of his chin to his father’s reminders of being careful, and grabbed a stick from the ground, his eyes drawn to the smooth bark and a clean snake-tongue split at one end. He held it towards his father. “Would this have made a good marshmallow stick?”
The man laughed, caught by surprise, “That would have made a perfect marshmallow stick.”
Alex turned back, holding it in the air above an imaginary fire, fascinated by the idea of a marshmallow. There were so many things that adults reminisced about that made no sense to Alex and that he had no intention of understanding. But marshmallows! As light as a mushroom and yet composed of pure sugar. Held above a flame, and the snow-white exterior would inflate to a crackling, golden brown. It was magic. Edible magic. Without looking back towards his father, Alex said: “We should try making marshmallows again.”
“I don’t think it would work out like you’d want.”
“But can we try again? Please?”
“What you’re going to see is way cooler than a marshmallow. Trust me.”
Alex nodded, not because he agreed with his father but because he knew that it would appease him. He banged the stick against a rock, looking out towards the distant peaks, recognizing only Skihist Mountian and hopeful that his father wouldn’t quiz him on the names of the rest.
A glistening black slug rested motionless on a bed of bloodshot cedar needles. Alex knelt closer, now able to trace its glistening, meandering path that originated from the bulging roots of a cedar. A pair of antennae searched through the space, two fingers feeling around in the dark, oblivious to the hominid that towered above, staring down. As Alex shuffled another step closer, the creature withdrew its protuberances and shriveled in defense. He poked it with his stick and the mollusk compressed into a dense mound. It could have been a fallen nut or a wrinkled, decomposing leaf. Prodding it further, the slug resisted Alex’s attempts to roll it over.
“What are you doing?” his father asked. “Just leave it alone.”
Alex sighed. He wanted to step on it. He still thought he might.
“It’s not hurting you. Come on, now. Let’s go before it gets too hot.”
The boy stared at the immobile creature, knocked it one last time with his stick, and turned to follow.
There it was. His father had limped ahead with excited steps and called out. “You can see it,” his voice breathless, his arm outstretched and pointing through the thinning trunks of trees. It didn’t look like a beanstalk. No matter what Alex had been told, he still visualized something green, a snaking weave of leafy vines that would extend into the shroud of clouds that capped the sky. Alex stopped climbing, grabbed onto his father’s outstretched hand without looking. It didn’t make sense. It was too distant for details, to have any discernable color. And yet it could not be missed: a great vertical shadow, snaking like a gnarled branch held upright into the sky where it radiated auburn against the hazy ceiling of the atmosphere, out into the cold dead of space. It made any one of these mountains that he’d spent the entire morning scampering up appear like a lone fern beneath a looming, ancient fir. Nothing could be so massive. It just didn’t make sense and Alex winced and rubbed his eyes as if it was a mistake. The entire southern sky was cracked.
“What is it?”
“I said, I don’t know.”
“Are there giants up there?”
His father chuckled. “It’s not a beanstalk, remember?”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
Alex kept squeezing his father’s hand. “I’m scared.”
“It’s okay to be scared.”
“Are you scared?”
“You’re not scared anymore?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
“I’m not scared.”
“Because I think we’re safe.”
“You think we’re safe?”
The man squeezed Alex’s hand and looked him in the eyes with a tender smile intended to make his forthcoming lie appear as genuine as possible. That same comforting, essential falsehood that his own parents had repeated to him, assured him, on countless occasions before their own vicious and untimely deaths.
“Trust me. We’re going to be fine.”
On a clear but muggy day in August of 2007, without effort and without awareness, Alex Maclean sliced through her left index finger with the piercing tip of a sturdy and inflexible chef’s knife. Sara was just across the hall pretending to nap. Caleb was in the basement pretending to practice the piano. The compact disc that Alex had been listening to came to its conclusion but she hadn’t noticed. She listened to the sequential patter of those same four keys that Caleb cycled through. The timing was off, his ring finger just a little too eager. Alex could visualize him leaning with his left elbow at the lip of the piano, his head resting in his palm. His eyes were probably closed, she thought, while his right hand tapped the keys like bored fingers against a desk. Alex didn’t know how to play the piano. All she knew was that the black keys sounded ‘off’ and the white keys were ‘on.’ Two years of lessons and this was all that Caleb could perform: four notes in an infinite and ill-timed loop. She wanted to tell him to stop. To practice whatever it was that Ms. Chen had intended. Three thousand dollars for a piano deserved more than that. But Alex didn’t budge, unaware of the blood running down her finger, over the cutting board, pooling about the julienned red peppers. She looked out over the sink and through the window towards the back fence. Caleb stopped. Her house was quiet. There was nothing to see. Nothing moved. There wasn’t even a squirrel or a crow. Blood dribbled over the edge of the scuffed wooden board and onto the speckled black granite countertop. Alex felt like an iron shaving quivering at the hazy edge of a magnetic field, the moment it trembles before hurtling inwards without control. She stared out the window and heard something drip. A leaky faucet. The eaves after a rainfall. She glanced down to her feet and saw a splattered pool of blood against the amber hardwood. She never wanted to keep those worn fir boards in the kitchen, even if they were almost a hundred years old, even if it gave their house the cachet of coolness that couldn’t be found in a modern build. Blood was trickling down between her bare feet from the counter above. She followed the trail upwards, a camera panning for dramatic effect, inspecting the narrow stream along the counter top, the cardinal puddle on the cutting board, a gleaming chef’s knife, and that deep, linear gouge within an index finger. The ridged edges of skin parted, revealing layers of milky tissue and dark violet gelatin. The finger twitched with each throbbing beat of her heart.
This was her finger. As if the magnet had been withdrawn and the iron shaving tumbled back into place, Alex realized that she was staring at her own hand. This was her own blood. She gasped a scream, already out of breath, and stumbled into the island behind her. There was blood everywhere. It was running down her finger and onto her tights. Caleb resumed playing the piano. She thought of yelling for help. She wanted to tell him to stop. She stepped forward and swatted the tap to unleash a torrent of cold water. Inching her finger closer, the stream pried apart her wound and a wave of nausea sprinted up from her stomach. “Caleb,” she called out, her breaths light. “Caleb,” she repeated, certain her son couldn’t hear her.
He was then standing above her as she tried to focus on the ceiling, his eyes wide, fearful that his mother was dying.
Alex waited for Hayden to make a joke about it. She expected him to do so not because he’d conclude that it would be prudent to lighten the mood, but because Hayden refused to accept the significance of his wife’s concerns. Alex wondered if Hayden took anything she did or thought seriously, be it her worries, her interests, her desires. He asked why there were bandages on her finger and she told him that she’d cut herself while preparing dinner—but there was more, she strained to impress upon him. She didn’t remember the act. For a moment, she was disconnected. When she noticed the blood, she just observed, not feeling a thing. It was like something inside her came unplugged for a few moments. There was that sensation—“An iron shaving being enveloped by a magnetic force,” were her words. She thought they were apt. She’d spent that afternoon searching for an appropriate analogy.
Hayden didn’t even nod. He looked at his phone (he never used to be the type of person to incessantly check for messages and updates, but this was not just any phone, this was an iPhone, the definite article of modernity and innovation; now his eyes were sure to droop downwards to the palm of his hand several times a minute) and nodded. She inspected his face, those long lines that traced the borders of each cheek, like finger marks in wet sand, and the quivering, clenching movements of his sandy eyebrows. In the fifteen years that they’d been together, it was only his eyes—a sunburst of silver that radiated out into a tanzanite blue—that never aged or changed. She could still get lost in them, taken back to when his hair was long, a uniform black that framed his expression like curtains pulled aside a stage. Now those eyes wouldn’t look at her, hidden behind the swooping curls of premature gray that hung past the ridged lines of his forehead. He was more interested in his iPhone than the fact that his wife should have acquired sutures for the wound. He walked past her and went to the washroom. So that he could spend more time on his phone.
At dinner, Alex was sure that Hayden would finally mutter some comment in jest. He’d agreed to keep his phone away at meal times—mostly because it was too great a temptation for Caleb—and this would be his way of passing the time. Back when Caleb was still an infant, both agreed that there would be no more dinners in front of the television. They would sit together as a family and eat, a prerequisite to a healthy household. And for nine years they kept it up, sitting together, waiting for the last person to take a seat, demanding that Caleb asked to be excused before exiting. Through all their hectic schedules and years of full-time work, they kept this up. And this evening—on that clear but muggy day in August of 2007—there was nothing being said. Alex could hear Caleb chew with his mouth open. She wanted to tell him to keep his lips together. Sara stabbed a stalk of asparagus with a fork and then grabbed a carrot with her fingers. Hayden looked up to Alex and smirked.
Here it comes, she thought.
“You know,” He put down his fork and looked towards Alex. “I didn’t realize you thought that we weren’t getting enough iron in our diets. Personally, I’d rather just eat spinach.”
Alex nodded with a grimace.
He laughed as if someone else had delivered the punchline. “You know, you didn’t have to cut yourself to—”
“I get it.”
He required a few more seconds to let loose those last chucking gasps. It was that amusing.
Caleb looked between his mother and father. “What’s funny?”
Alex answered: “Nothing.”
“It was pretty funny.”
“Then how come I’m not laughing?”
Hayden shrugged, his cheeks still dimpled from a grin. “I don’t know. Too soon, I guess.”
Alex shook her head.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Hayden held up his hands, which she knew was his attempt to diffuse the situation but only pissed her off further by implying that she was an irritable and combustive bitch in contrast to Hayden’s easy-going and diplomatic composure. After all, he was the first to throw up the white flag. But Alex knew that it was bullshit. Should something be a joke to Hayden, then it was a given that everyone else should find the topic equally trivial. But if Hayden was in a cantankerous mood, then one better not say a word, for there were pressing matters at hand. He was no longer Hayden but instead Dr. Maclean—and the good doctor had matters of pivotal importance on his mind. He would remove himself from the distractions of his family and sequester himself in his attic office or, much more likely, at the university. A location where real work was accomplished. Because this, right here, at the family home, was a place where only trifling events occurred. Matters of personal and familial importance, but nothing more. Nothing in that big scheme of things.
“Hey,” Hayden said, his expression now morose while intending to be conciliatory. “I thought it would lighten the mood, but I guess it was too soon. I’m sorry.”
Alex didn’t have a choice. Sara and Caleb were at the table. She had to assure him that no apologies were necessary and then move on. That was Hayden’s masterstroke, right there: he waited until the family dinner, that sacred Maclean family tradition, for him to make his stupid joke. She could not retaliate. She could not impress upon him that what happened was not just an accident. For a moment, she was removed from herself. For a moment, she wasn’t herself, she wasn’t anyone. She just stood there and witnessed her finger and the tissue underneath. She watched as the digit twitched like a broken second hand on a clock. She just watched. This was not normal. This was not something that just happens from time to time. Pinched nerves happen. Hemorrhoids happen. Kinked necks happen.
But this was a sign of someone losing her mind.
Housewife. What a horrid word, Alex thought. It implied marriage not so much to a husband but to the house, to the cleaning, to the cooking, to the errands, to arranging the knick-knacks, to having polite conversation with the neighbors, to dealing with temperamental toddlers, to chatting with the school teacher, to dealing with car-seats, to making sure everything was just right for when the husband returns home from work—work that requires years of post-secondary training, work that dictates the lives of other adults, work that offers growing sums of money as compensation. And it wasn’t just a matter of semantics. Alex didn’t want to be a stay-at-home-mother. This wasn’t the plan when they first spoke of having children. This wasn’t the plan when they had Caleb. But, “it just makes sense,” Hayden started saying. Opposition to the idea implied being irrational at best and selfish at worst. It just makes sense.
Alex used to do work that required years of post-secondary training, work that dictated the lives of other adults, work that offered growing sums of money in compensation. For years, Alex earned far more than Hayden. She managed teams in post-production visual effects, her name (Alexandra Kowalski) in the credits of motion pictures that grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. It was her job to keep teams of disparate personalities—aimless artists, introverted computer engineers and alpha (fe)male producers—cohesive and productive. She didn’t liken herself to being some essential piece of the puzzle, but instead she was the person who put that puzzle together. Without Alex, no matter the skills and creative genius of these people, they were scattered pieces within a box. She was the one who positioned everything together, the undulating teeth and grooves of each individual, the contrasting personalities and desires of dozens of colleagues. For more than a decade Alex was in a profession that demanded respect and admiration. And more than anything else, when people learned what Alex did, they said the same word: “Cool.” And they meant it.
No one replies that way upon being informed that you are a housewife.
But the entire motion-picture post-production industry is one of contract work. You are hired for a project. And then you move on to another project. There will always be movies, yes, but there will also always be another company willing to offer the same services faster, cheaper, (and maybe even better). Before Caleb, losing her job didn’t matter. She would find another. If she didn’t immediately, then she and Hayden would travel. After all, he was the perpetual graduate student; his schedule was not so much flexible as it was nebulous, and a near limitless pool of student loans could always be drawn upon with mere clicks of a mouse. After Caleb was born, she took a year off and then went back part-time. In those hectic weeks before a production deadline, Hayden would stay home. It just made sense. Then Hayden graduated with his Ph.D. in economics. Then Hayden was offered a tenure-track position at Simon Fraser University. Then Hayden started his own consultation business. Then Hayden had predictable and growing income. When Sara arrived (five years and one miscarriage later) and Alex was once again on the precipice of a concluding contract, it just made sense for her to stay home indefinitely. No need to pay exorbitant sums for daycare. No need for both adults to spend their weeks sprinting from one obligation to another without ever having time to relax with their children. They could afford Alex staying home. Hayden’s consulting company was getting work from outside the city and country (although Alex found it cruel and ironic how with her, it was contract work; with Hayden, it was consulting). He would need to travel more often, but he could afford his family having a comfortable life without Alex dealing with the fickle and frugal digital effects industry. “It just makes sense,” Hayden said, not even twenty weeks into her pregnancy with Sara. And Alex agreed—it made sense for Sara to stay home with her mother instead of going to daycare; it made sense for Caleb to get picked up and dropped off at school instead of going to some before-and-after center; and it really made sense for Hayden, for he could fly to any conference in any metropolis confident that his dutiful housewife was keeping everything together for him. Alex just wasn’t convinced that it made sense for her, but there she was again, being selfish.
Sara and Caleb were asleep. Hayden was upstairs in his office. Alex sat on the living room sofa with the late evening news on in the background, a nightly routine passed down from her dead father. The wooden floor between Hayden and herself was far too aged and shallow to muffle even the slightest movements and yet Alex hadn’t heard a sound from him in half an hour. She could imagine his blank expression as he stared at his laptop display, his eyes rolling past updated NHL statistics. Important work to be done. Normally, Alex would have a glass of wine at this point—another routine passed down from her dead father, although one she adhered to with far less enthusiasm—but Alex wanted to remain perfectly sober this evening. Maybe she’d been drinking too much over these last years? Maybe that was why her brain switched off in the middle of the day while slicing red peppers? It was impossible for her to avoid that same thought: maybe this was what happened when her father first started to lose his wit, his memories, his personality. Maybe it started with these skips in his cognizance, like a needle on an old vinyl record. Alex once again ran her fingers over the bandages, squeezing just enough to elicit a discomfort but not pain.
There was a story from China on the television. The entire populace of a village was found drowned in a nearby river. While impossible to determine the details, there was no doubt that at least two hundred people perished. The correspondent relayed vague rumors of an industrial accident and subsequent cover-up. But this couldn’t answer how everyone in the town would fall into the river. Chinese officials were denying claims but remained unable to offer their own explanation. The accompanying clunky and pixelated video showed empty buildings and narrow, gravel streets under the bright light of day before switching to limp, sodden corpses being aligned in rows along a muddy riverbank. The report was a minute in length, a minor story broadcast to acknowledge the social media interest that was burbling about this incident. But in the end, there was nothing to report aside from “something strange happened in a village in China.” The anchor then alluded to some great weather continuing on in the forecast before going into a commercial break.
When Hayden came to bed, he expected Alex to be asleep. He slid beside her in bed, back inches from her own.
Alex rolled over, “Did you read about that village in China?”
“You weren’t sleeping?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You’ve just been lying there?”
“Maybe I slept for a little. I don’t know. But I don’t think so. But did you hear about that village in China?”
“What village in China?”
“Then I guess you didn’t hear about it.”
Hayden sighed, presumably exhausted after working with such diligence for the last few hours. “What happened?”
Alex felt no pity. She knew that he’d spent at least fifty percent of his time looking at sports highlights. “This whole village jumped into a river. Everyone. They were found upstream.”
Hayden shrugged. This story lacked much of a plot. “Probably a cover-up for something?”
“What could make an entire village drown?”
“Is this what you’ve been thinking about while you’ve been lying in bed?”
Alex didn’t reply.
Hayden said, “You should get more sleep.”
“I’m not lying here thinking about this because I want to. It’s just what I’m thinking about.”
Hayden didn’t reply. He kissed Alex just at the nape of her neck and rolled over. “Well, I’m tired. I’m sure I’ll read about it tomorrow.” Alex looked towards the drawn horizontal blinds, feeling the nudging throb of her left index finger with each heartbeat. She closed her eyes, wishing that Hayden would kiss her in that spot just one more time. She couldn’t ask him. If she solicited then it wouldn’t tingle like before. Hayden didn’t move. Alex imagined a family—mother, father, nine-year-old son and three-year-old daughter—sprinting towards a riverbank. The adults have a look of furious intent. The son follows obediently. And the daughter is held in her mother’s arms, oblivious to her fate. First the father leaps in, then his son, and finally the mother and daughter. They plummet into the milky brown water with hardly a ripple. No one tries to swim. They descend to the bottom like rocks.
Alex could find no mention of the Chinese village in any of the news. What little she found through a Google query (search words: china village everyone dead) brought up nothing more detailed than what she’d seen the night before. She watched the midday news, then the evening news, keeping the television on in the background throughout the day. There was a hit-and-run fatality. A traffic report. A senior citizen unhappy in a care home. Weather highlights. People protesting a new condominium development. Alex would catch herself in the middle of a thoughtless trance, one hand squeezing the bandaged finger to the point of pain. She could be waiting for coffee to brew or a microwave to ding or for one of Sara’s terrible programs to end. And Alex’s mind would drift off a few feet out from where she stood. It wasn’t meditative or serene. It was just mindless. And then Sara would ask for another program and Alex would take a deep breath and feel that ache in her left index finger as her other hand compressed it. “I said just one episode, Sara,” Alex turned off the television. Alex loaded the washing machine, shut the door with an assertive thud, whisked open the tray for the soap and stared at the empty drawer, the wet white plastic glazed. She breathed in and out. Footsteps pattered from above. “Mommy,” Sara asked and Alex turned, blinking, not sure how long she’d been standing there for. It didn’t feel like seconds or minutes; it didn’t feel like anything. “Mommy,” Sara repeated, urging her to come upstairs. Alex wanted to reach down and pick up her daughter, hold her tight, tell her how much she loved her right then. But Sara just wanted her mother to intervene in a sibling argument. Alex smiled in a way that any adult would see through. But Sara just directed her upstairs.
Alex took off her bandages, expecting them to have stuck to her skin like hardened glue, but instead the tube of spiraled Band Aids slid off with ease, revealing waxen skin stripped of pigment. Pressing back the tip of the finger, the serrated edges of the incision parted. It started to bleed. She should have gotten stitches. She secured another trio of bandages around with such force that the exposed fingertip swelled plum.
Alex’s plans to see Tricia for a play date fell through mere minutes before she was ready to start the car. Caleb was already at soccer camp. Sara was already dressed. Tricia sent a text message that made it very clear that she hated cancelling but something had come up last minute. Although the details of this something were never explained, a colon and open-parenthesis were included to illustrate her disappointment.
Alex stood by the back door, watching the screen in the palm of her hand, doubting Tricia’s sincerity, wanting to tell her not to bother with the sad faces. Now what?
The phone hummed and the screen lit up livid. Tricia added: And crazy about Texas, huh?
Alex turned on the television. More than one hundred people in the suburban town of Deer Park had killed themselves. The first reports were of individuals jumping from the roof of a three-story office building. What initially appeared to be a suicidal act became a most desperate attempt at self-preservation, as if people were choosing to plunge from the top of the building as opposed to remaining indoors for another second. Witnesses assumed that there was a fire, that there was a terrorist on a rampage—that there was something—but when the first responders arrived, the building was vacant. Not a single person remained. Nothing burned. There were no signs of intruders. Chairs and tables were left upright. Doors were unlocked. Lights were left on. The air was clean and uncontaminated. Inside the bland stucco building, nothing was out of the ordinary. Outside, a rectangular ring of corpses outlined the structure. As Alex sat on the sofa in front of the living room television, watching with piercing focus, none of the authorities had yet to give an explanation. There was no known video footage of the incident. One eye witness driving past described the victims as lemmings—they did not hesitate as they approached the edge of the roof, stepping into the abyss with limp arms. Alex turned from one cable news channel to another, hoping for some scoop, some footage, some insight. But beyond the obvious fact that the entire populace of a suburban office building had leapt to their death, everything was conjecture. All other buildings in a two-mile radius were evacuated. When Sara demanded attention, Alex wasn’t ready to leave the sofa. She started a movie on the downstairs television and told Sara she could watch the whole thing if she wanted. Alex then returned upstairs, one hand massaging her bandaged finger, watching shaky news coverage of The Terror in Texas, as it had now been christened. A man on the street told a reporter that he believed that this was some sort of terrorist attack perpetrated by the Chinese, that the incident from a few days back was a trial run. This was an act of war, people assumed. Perhaps using chemicals. Maybe even mind control. The hapless journalists could confirm nothing and so seemed content to let the ideas of the uninformed run wild.
When Hayden came home, Alex was listening to a speech from President Bush. His eyes winced with a deliberate, steely gaze. He called what happened in Texas an atrocity. Even though he could not yet confirm what had exactly happened, he assured the American people that the government and military were exploring all possible angles. He alluded back to the attacks on September Eleventh, reminding his citizens that Americans were resolute under pressure.
“You must have heard about Texas?” Alex asked without taking her eyes away from the screen.
“Of course. Do they have any idea what happened yet?”
Alex shook her head.
Hayden was about to walk into their bedroom when he recoiled, staring at Alex, not the television, “Jesus Christ, what are you doing?”
“I’m watching the news.”
“No. Your finger.”