Cannot Swim stared out at the lake and wondered how he got there. It was still and there was a moon in it, and there were fish below the surface. Crickets were somewhere; their song was everywhere. Behind him were the kotchas that the Pulaski lived in, and before him was the lake and then the harbor and then the sea. He was tall, and his posture made him seem taller. His black hair was not tied back, but falling loose around his shoulders, and his feet were bare. He was sixteen.
America invented the teenager, but Cannot Swim was not an American and so was not a teenager. This mythical creature with no body fat and spending money–the teenager–was created on Madison Avenue to sell records and skirts. The teenager is the ultimate manifestation of capitalistic surplus: a demographic whose only purpose was to consume, and hang around outside convenience stores. The Pulaski had no convenience stores, and therefore they had no teenagers. Cannot Swim was still a boy until he completed the Assignment.
He did not feel like a boy at the moment. He did not feel like a man, either. Cannot Swim felt too big for categories, and too small to need defining.
“Why are you naked?”
Cannot Swim was also naked.
“You’re naked, cuz,” Talks To Whites Said.
“Where did you come from?”
“Same place as you.”
“Then you are my landsman.”
“Wow. What did the witch give you?’
“Yes,” Cannot Swim said, and waded into the lake with his arms stretched towards the floating moon.
The Pulaski had three names in their lives. The first was their family name, and that was generally indicative of when they were born or the weather at the time or the length of the labor. The last was their secret name, and this was given by the gods and would sometimes never be learned. The second name was their village name, and that was the name most went by throughout their lives. Your peers gave you your village name, and the Pulaski did not name people ironically. Cannot Swim couldn’t, and so his cousin followed him into the water and dragged him back out.
A hundred-pound hunting dog called Black Eyes watched the boys from the shore, thought about helping, didn’t.
The cousins laid on the wet, silty shore of the lake. Cannot Swim had been sure that the lake held meaning within it, and had struggled when Talks To Whites pulled him back. Dirt clung to their naked shoulders and legs.
“There was a hill,” Cannot Swim said.
“There are seven hills.”
“Not like our hills. Four flattened sides that came to a sharp peak. In a desert. It was the brightest white I’d ever seen, and there were kings inside. Do you know what they did to their kings?”
“No,” Talks To Whites said.
“Scraped their brains out through their nostrils. There was a long, skinny tool made from bone with a hook at the end.”
“They must have hated their kings.”
“It was the highest honor. There were streets made of even black rock. Thick and unbroken and uncracked with gargantuan buildings on either side. Up into the sky. And carriages that did not need horses.”
“What happened to the horses?”
“I do not know.”
“Did someone scrape their brains out through their nostrils?”
Cannot Swim was too high to understand sarcasm, so he said,
“I don’t think so.”
“And a field made of dead men. Smoke in the air and blood. Rifles that were a thousand rifles in one, spitting out bullets so fast you could not hear them individually. I saw the grand death, cousin. I saw that day is the dream of night, cousin.”
They were on their backs; Talks To Whites reached across his chest to pat Cannot Swim on the arm and said,
“Okay. Sun’s gonna come up soon.”
“Don’t threaten me.”
There were students along the firetruck’s route; they pointed and waved them towards the small Victorian house with two gables tucked away in the northeast corner of Harper College’s campus.
“Thanks, assholes. Thanks for pointing out the fucking house fire in the fucking dark. Didn’t see it ’til you pointed,” Flower Childs said from the passenger seat of the pumper truck.
“They’re trying to help,” Dwayne McGlory said as he rode over the curb and across the manicured lawn.
“I was talking to the dog.”
Ash-Nine was a dalmatian, and sat in the middle of the front bench. Her tongue was out, panting, and she was not paying attention to her humans. She was going to the Thing. Ash-Nine did not understand what fire was, or what a fire department did; she just knew that at random intervals, the people started running around and she got to ride in the truck, and then when she got off the truck: the Thing. It was always in a different place, and there were odors and so many people, some that were sad and some that were angry. Sad people smell different from angry people.
“Smart dog,” Flower Childs said. “Holy fucking shit.”
The glow of the fire had been in the front windshield, but as the truck crested a small hill they could see that the house was engulfed.
Pep Oneida was on the desk when the call came in, and he had the clipboard with the 302 on it. He thrust it over Flower’s shoulder, and she grabbed it.
“What the fuck is this, probie?”
“I wrote down what I was told,” he said.
She swiveled around in her seat to face him.
“You wrote down ‘Small fire.’ Four minutes ago.”
She checked her watch.
“No. Three minutes and 45 seconds ago. Does that look like a small fucking fire to you?”
Cespedes Bobble was the Dean of Harper College, and so he lived in the small Victorian occupied for so many years by Carter Spants and Molly McGlory-Spants. They were not using the house any more, as they were dead and buried out back. Cespedes stood watching the fire with his boyfriend Alphonse, a disgraced mailman who now made handcrafted espadrilles. They were both naked.
Dwayne shoved the truck into Park and the everyone clambered out in their gear, except for Ash-Nine, who was not wearing any gear besides her collar.
Flower towered over the two men; she was already sweating. She asked,
“Is anyone in there?”
The two men shook their heads. No.
Fire Chief Childs made the call. Fully involved. Defensive approach only. The windows had already blown, and a roar was coming out of the Victorian. Fire was already too big to enter, and the structure was lost. Her man would stay outside. Surround and drown: put as much water on the house in as little time as possible, and from as many angles as you had hoses. Nearest building was Harper Hall, only 200 yards away, and if the Victorian was allowed to burn then the roof might send out flaming shards.
She did not need to yell orders. That was the point of training, so you didn’t have to tell people what to do when you got to the job. She figured that if you’re yelling, you’re fucked. Connect the hydrants to the truck. Hook the truck to the hoses. When the lines charge with water, they will try to fling you into the air. Tuck them under your arm and lean forward. Lean into the fire.
“It happened so fast,” Dean Bobble said.
“We were in the kitchen having tabbouleh when we smelled smoke. So we checked all the burners to see if one was still on, and by the time we were done looking, the whole ground floor was on fire.”
“Yes. It was terrible.”
“Everything we own is in there,” Alphonse said.
“Yeah,” Flower Childs said. She was not very good at comforting people, but she figured: putting out the fires is my job; taking care of fire’s victims is someone else’s. “You were in the kitchen?”
“Yes,” Dean Bobble said.
She checked her watch. 9:07 pm.
The Chief looked the men up and down.
“We have a naked home. No clothes inside.”
“No. None at all. It’s a cleanliness thing.”
Flower Childs scrunched up her face in confusion.
“Naked isn’t clean. You’re putting your assholes on stuff.”
“Clean assholes,” he said.
“No such fucking thing.”
Pep Oneida was on the south corner of the house, Dwayne McGlory on the north, and Pedro Sanpedro was to the east. Each of them wrangled their hoses: Pep was shaking and shivering under the slippery power; Dwayne held the hose in one hand and directed the probie with the other. Ash-Nine protected the truck.
Cespedes and Alphonse were still naked.
Chief Childs said,
“You guys want some blankets or something?’
“We’re fine,” Dean Bobble answered.
“The human body is beautiful,” Alphonse added.
Cespedes Bobble had the body of a 51-year-old academic. Alphonse had the body of a disgraced mailman.
“Some. Some bodies. Not every fucking body.”
Dean Bobble tried to look outraged. He flared out his nostrils and puffed out his chest, but this had the effect of making his dick wiggle like a fisherman’s bait and undercut the seriousness of the posture.
“Chief Childs, our house is burning down.”
“Yeah, and all your students are standing right the fuck over there and you two got your cocks out.”
Human beings have invented 3D movies, and musicals by Stephen Sondheim. There are roller coasters that grant weightlessness, and men who have tamed lions. Most likely, a minor league baseball game is taking place somewhere near you. People come up with all sorts of bullshit to fend off boredom.
But nothing draws a crowd like a fire.
The whole campus was out and assembled in a broad semi-circle behind the truck. Dean Bobble turned around and shouted to them,
“The administration has nothing to hide from the students!”
“Who’s with me?”
“Fucking perfect,” Flower Childs said, throwing up her hands and walking back to the truck. The gabled roof collapsed inwards. The fire swelled and burst into the air; all the naked people went WOOOO.
“Dude, you’re gonna wake everyone up,” Talks To Whites said.
“My voice slaps against the lake,” Cannot Swim said. “It bounces on the water.”
“Awesome. Let’s try that out in the afternoon when the whole village isn’t sleeping.”
The two were still boys, but they were the size of men–Cannot Swim was the size of a larger man than Talks To Whites–and the sky had begun to turn indigo. The stars were fainting and the full moon was low in the west. Behind them was the village and the Segovian Hills, and beyond the hills was America.
Talks To Whites wore a tunic made of light, thin deerskin. His moccasins were also made of deer leather, but thicker than his clothing. There were bracelets on both his wrists, and his chin was cleft. Teeth a tiny bit too big for his mouth. Cannot Swim was naked and his feet were covered in mud and grass. Neither had a single hair on his face.
“They were visions, cousin. Not dreams.”
“What did Here And There say?”
“Nothing. She listened.”
“Really? She never shuts up,” Talks To Whites said.
“She listened in between speaking.”
“You’re talking about a conversation.”
“You do not know what happened. You were not there.”
“Dude, you don’t know what happened and you were there.”
Cannot Swim threw his head back. The Milky Way was a diffuse blurry wound across the night, and the Morning Star was in the east playing herald for the sun. His eyes watered, and tears ran back and hit his ears.
“Something happened. Something that was really something.”
“Okay, cuz,” Talks To Whites said.
He put his hand on Cannot Swim’s shoulder. There was a large hunting dog at their feet, snoring.
“You wanna put some clothes on?”
“Everybody’s gonna start waking up any second.”
“I have nothing to hide from my people,” Cannot Swim said, and then he spread his arms like the Christ and walked into the lake again. Talks To Whites blew a breath out, put his hands on his hips, considered letting his cousin drown. Then he took off his tunic and breechcloth, kicked off his moccasins, and waded in after him.
Part of the gear was a camera; it was stored under the back bench in the cab of the pumper truck. Flower Childs checked in with her men, and eyed up the fire–it was dying–and she took out the camera and began taking shots of the crowd. She was methodical and used the whole roll to snap everyone present. There were the students, naked, and the Dean and his boyfriend, also naked, and lookyloos from town, some naked and some not, and a group of preachers and priests from Rose Street, none naked. Chief Childs photographed them all while her men beat down the blaze.
It was midnight before they got back to the station. The trip was not four minutes long, but Ash-Nine still fell asleep on the naugahyde bench seat of the truck.
Dwayne McGlory hit the garage door opener, and the massive rolling door started upwards. There was a white envelope taped to the metal, and the Chief poked hard at the opener to stop the door. Once again to bring it down. The truck idled outside the house as Flower Childs climbed down from the cab and ripped the envelope loose. Held it in front of the pumper’s headlights to make sure it was not a letter bomb. Opened it.
The paper read : THE NEXT ONE’S GOING TO HURT – THE J OF I.
Flower Childs looked up and down Alfalfa Street, and then up at the video camera she had installed after the last note like this.
Pedro Sanpedro leaned out of the window of the truck and asked,
“Or her,” the Chief answered. She stepped out of the way, and Dwayne hit the opener again. The slatted door rolled up and then 90 degrees back against the ceiling, and the pumper truck fit in just perfectly next to the ladder truck. The Chief’s car was in around back in the parking lot, and the men and Flower Childs peeled off their stinking gear and dripping tee-shirts as if they had nothing to hide from each other. There was a 302 to fill out, and equipment to replace, and filth to wash off, and then there would be time to deal with the something that was happening in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.