by Silas Crewe-Kluge
Your world is small now, restricted to the boundaries of a memory. The memory is green and tan and brown, the trees only just starting to yellow and whither for good. It’s not the memory you intended to make a world of. In your training—during the short, bright few days between your evacuation order and sliding into stasis—you were told to focus on a memory you wanted to dream of during your cold journey into the dark. In what you thought of then as foresight, you chose a movie theater. That way, you thought, you could dream movies. You spent hours imagining the blue, faux-velvet chairs, popcorn-smell mingling with the citrus scents of last night’s cleaning products. The soft, perfect screen is like a flat cloud. The movie theater was a real place, blocks away from your first apartment. A beloved place, easy to conjure, something to remember the world by as you sped irrecoverably away from it.
You woke up here instead, in the forest preserve with the campground, and here you’ve stayed. You’re grateful to be with your brother in your dream-memory, though you’re both younger than when you last saw each other, by nearly two decades. The memory is of the day and night you spent at this camp, with twenty other children, the lead camp counselor, and his two teenage assistants. All their names
are gone from you. The scenes blend and fade into each other, repeat. Time is liquid and dynamic in the dream. This doesn’t bother you. Now, here, there isn’t much that bothers you. In moments of half-awareness, you’re grateful for that.
You squint, fold your hands, try to sit still. The lead counselor, the same age and shape as your father, with the same brown patches in his white hair, is demonstrating use of a firesteel. He scrapes a flat tab along a rod of black metal, the length of a short pencil with a handle, and real sparks jump out, dissolving harmlessly into the damp air. The camp has a theme: survival. Preparedness and resourcefulness are values paramount to you at this age. Secretly, you’ve sensed what you think might be the decline of the entire world and being sent to this camp makes you feel safe. Lucky.
You are right, of course. About the decline. But your method of survival won’t involve starting fires, purifying water, keeping animals out of your camp. It will be unfamiliar, almost lifeless, passive. The ship will do the work of rocketing in a chosen direction until, maybe, it finds a place to land. All you have to do is lie down and dream.
The firesteel is passed around the big circle of kids, and each child practices dragging the slip of steel down the stick with varying levels of success. The sparks fall in small showers, white-and-orange snow, gone as soon as you see them. You’re nervous, and your hands are shaking by the time the tool is handed to you. But the scraping motion comes easily, even under supervision, and you watch the sparks spatter, then fade to a faint blotching of your vision. It feels like they vanish when you look at them directly. Or like they were never there at all.
The other kids are your age and older. Boys and girls. The distinction between the two is just coming into focus now. It’s happening from the inside out. You were so small your whole life up to this point. Now, your body stretches out in places you’ve only really noticed on other people. You’re learning how to conceal yourself with a painful hunch and clothes you’ll grow into. You’re trying to ignore yourself, focus on
more important things. Like survival. Here, in the forest, you believe you’re preparing for the deep, hidden future, and that comforts you against the Jupiter’s Eye of anxiety writhing in the pit of your gut. You won’t know what survival actually means for many years—in the time after forests—after you step onto the ship and go to sleep. In the years in between, you’ll think you remember how to use a firesteel, and that will soothe you. The soothing will be enough.
The scene shifts. The counselor is gone, and so is the more severe of his two assistants: a straight-haired and muscular girl who frowns deep premature lines into her cheeks. The other assistant, a blond, sunburnt boy, probably seventeen or eighteen, sits with you and a handful of other kids around a small campfire. He’s holding a can of OFF!, and after glancing around to confirm no one is watching, he holds the can out from his body and sprays it directly into the fire. The bug spray bursts into a horizontal pillar of flame. He lets go of the button, and the pillar disappears. The other kids shriek in delight, and some whisper curse words, awkward and unpracticed. You mash your lips together and watch. The boy holds a finger up for silence, glaring. He sprays the repellent into the fire again. You can hear it roar, burning. Then it stops, gone out from under your eyes. You feel responsible, like you’ve put the fire out yourself. The kids cheer again, and you look away, a blush warming the skin of your face.
For a long time after this day–eons actually–you will conjure the boy. On the impossible edge of sleep or staring unfocused out the window of a moving car at the trees that get barer and barer each spring. When your mind rests, it fills with him. The fire is bigger when you imagine it, engulfing, and you are strong, lifting the collapsed boy under the back of his neck and knees. You are the same size and shape as him in your vision, and his head rolls against the smooth, soft expanse of your chest. You’ve spent so much time with the vision that it makes this part of your dream, the origin at the campfire, comforting. At the campfire, and in the vision later, you think that all you want is to be as beautiful as him.
And you think all you want is to be as beautiful as the girl who becomes your friend a few hours after the fire, trudging up a gentle hill in the yellow light of the sinking sun. She is bigger, taller, younger than you–all only by a little–and she wears thick glasses that make you want to wear glasses, too, though you don’t need them. She reads the same kinds of books as you, and you tell each other the stories you
remember best. As you walk, your heads bent and eyes on the scarred dirt trail, you think the inside of her brain must look like yours because talking to her is so easy. She came to camp with two of her friends: slight, stoic girls who have yet to acknowledge you. The friends are somewhere else now in the loose throng of children, with the counselors ahead and the lead counselor at the rear like a patient sheepdog. The girl talks, and you listen, walking uphill, feeling something other than awkward around another person. A relief.
Living in this memory means living in your body and own thoughts, as you understood them at the time. Despite the long stretch of time before the first time through this day—back when you lived it for real—the thoughts and worries feel familiar, and you easily settle into their well-worn grooves. You know there is nothing wrong with being a girl, that it’s a beautiful and powerful thing to be, as the women in your life tell you. You wish you could explain yourself. You believe them, but you know something about you doesn’t fit together right. Like misaligned bones. The other girls can tell, you’re sure, that you’re not really one of them. Sometimes, you think they avoid you. But this girl, your friend on the hillside, looks at you and looks away, and if she can see the unalignment inside of you, it doesn’t seem to bother her. It’s as though you were both younger, barely forming memories, accepting the world as it comes to you. A great comfort.
And beneath the comfort, something else. An understanding that you’re part of the world as it comes to you. That you might not be able to change to suit the world better. A lapping wave of fear, but you focus on your friend, recounting the plot of a fantasy novel you haven’t read, and the fear fades into the clarity of the evening air.
She leaves you to sit with her friends at dinner. You sit with your brother, scooping ground beef and shredded cheese into your mouths with stale tortilla chips, balancing paper plates on your laps. You and your brother still look the same. It’ll stay that way for the next year or so. After your body distinguishes you, you will reminisce on the times you were mistaken for your brother by his teachers, even close friends. As you eat, your brother doesn’t look at you. He seems uncomfortable, like he thinks he knows you, but can’t quite place you, and so sits with his back slightly turned, like he’s getting ready to leave. He’s made friends with a cluster of boys sitting on his other side, where he’s turned to. You’ll have to sleep in tents tonight, and you wanted to be in a tent with your brother. You are used to the faint snoring from his bedroom across the hall from yours. You’ve only slept without it a handful of times. But you can’t sleep in a tent with the boys. It’s a rule the counselors told you in the parking lot. You’ll be sharing a tent with three girls you don’t know. You’re nervous about that, but in the end, they’ll go to sleep before you crawl into the tent, and you won’t have to talk anyway.
In moments of half-awareness, when you find yourself both at the camp and in your capsule on the ship, you think this should be more painful. You run your kid-fingers across your chin and jaw, feeling for the faint, hard-won stubble of your altered, adult body. You find nothing, not even the peachy down you’ll grow later in your adolescence. It hurts, but not in the way you thought. You live in a world where the facts of your body haven’t fully reached you yet. The “not fitting together” isn’t a problem, just a strange shape your thoughts make. A lot of girls don’t avoid you. Some love you. You love being loved. It makes you feel lit up from within, like a jack-o-lantern.
You wish you could look away from yourself and look back again, watch the shapes resolve into clarity. You want yourself to understand sooner. But you won’t. You can’t. You know that now, after so many cycles through the dream.
Time blinks. It is after dinner now, and you are pulling yourself out of a shin-deep marsh onto a blueish rock still warm from the day’s sun. You hardly notice the shift. You’ve been dreaming this dream for a long time, worn the spine of it thin and soft with use. Dripping freshwater, you spot a skinny black leech on your ankle, identify it out loud with excitement. The grumpy assistant counselor stirs, then stands, readying to come over and offer perfunctory comfort. But you’ve already pinched the hairlike animal between your fingers. You pull, harder than you think you have to, until it pops off your ankle, leaving two pinpricks of blood to swell out of your clammy skin. Seeing your blood like this, you feel a pang of affection for yourself, a resource on the verge of scarcening, extinction. The assistant counselor watches you drop the leech back into the water. She doesn’t tell you what you’ll learn later, that you might’ve hurt the leech by pulling it off instead of letting it fall away on its own. You never would have pulled so hard if you’d known. As soon as you let it go, it disappears. You don’t even see it hit the water. It is invisible to you now that it has separated from your body. It probably can’t see you either. It’s like neither of you really existed, except together. You turn to look for your brother to tell him about the leech, and he isn’t there. In the end, you’ll never tell him about it. You’ll forget to.
And in the end, your brother wasn’t on your stasis ship either. Probably. There were many ships, a fleet shot up from many points on the planet’s surface. All heading the same way, you were told. You wondered, shuffling up the gangplank in a tight crowd of strangers, you wondered if you knew anyone on your ship at all. There is no way to know now. There is only the yellow sun, the wilting but intact forest, the sweet, high rhythm of birdsong that makes you feel like you are a part of something everlasting, intricate, alive. Maybe, if you were awake, you would still feel that way. About the ship, the fleet. All the strange, sleeping bodies, evacuated by desperation and a burning, shared desire for air and water less toxic than what you knew. Shot off without a destination, only a decided direction. And all the bodies back on the planet. They couldn’t send everyone, not all at once. Or wouldn’t. You didn’t know you’d be going until you were picked up in an unmarked vehicle in the still-dark morning. They delivered your evacuation order as they packed you into the back of the car. You had your few days at the bright facility, like a hospital.. You were given supplements—medicine that soured your stomach permanently—and told to focus on a memory. You didn’t ask many questions. You could feel the questions, almost think of the words. You can still feel them, looming static and dark just beyond your thoughts. But they still can’t reach you now, in the Forest.
The sky gets darker. In the dim light, you can’t see the tiny garnet scabs on your ankle. But you bend and brush a fingertip over them, feeling the tacky surface of the set blood. You don’t see your brother. You see one of the assistants, the boy, scratching his stomach through his shirt. Then he moves, and you can’t see him either. You and the other kids are directed to stand in two parallel rows, facing each other. The girl with glasses is your partner for this exercise and your friend again(for now). You can see the flash of her teeth as she grins. You are learning about Troxler’s Fading, an optical illusion; a reason to keep your eyes moving in the dark, the lead counselor explains gravely. You digest this advice before the exercise begins, flitting your eyes between the shadowed figures and trees and your friend, over and back again. Preparation, practice for some nebulous, future bad situation. It subdues the storm in your stomach.
The dream will reset soon: return to the morning, your mother dropping you and your brother off in the forest preserve parking lot. The duffle bag bouncing off your hip as you walk. After all your cycles, even the coming reset is familiar, fills you with affection. Each second you live with—as—the smaller you on the brink of adolescence, the tighter the two of you are knit together. Before the dream—before stasis—your younger self was a confusing, unsettling ghost; a cold presence living in the dark behind the rich voice and redistributed fat of your adult body. You never thought you would love this person, this little you. But now you do, and the love is loud, vast, almost violent in its force. You’re grateful. You have always loved being loved.
The exercise goes like this: you and your partner, ten feet apart, stare at each other in the dark. Troxler’s Fading happens when the human brain blocks out unmoving stimuli while the eyes stay focused on a point. The way your eyes can disappear something by looking at it: looking near it. You stare at the girl, and she stares back. You stare, and your vision splotches gradually over: red, green, silver, and black. The girl disappears in parts, transforms into a multicolored shadow, a living empty space. Maybe this should scare you, but it fills you with awe. And you realize your own body is disappearing under her gaze. You think you can feel it, a pins-and-needles sensation.
You are changing, becoming something beautiful, blank, green.
You can feel it even before the other girl starts talking. She’s not supposed to be talking, and the severe assistant counselor shushes her repeatedly. In the dark, in the forest, in the dream on the ship, the girl talks anyway, excited, almost loving. Almost. She says, “Your head is gone. You have no legs! You’re just hands now…you’re gone. You’re gone.”