Plain China

Every Star in the Sky

by Alex Zimay · Knox College
Dreamscape III, Meagan Dwyer · Rice University

“If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” Mike asks.

“Superpower?” Art’s brow wrinkles. “What, like x-ray vision or something?”

“Yeah, man. Like Spiderman, or Superman. Something like that.”

“Ah.”

Mike is prone to questions like this. Always during their smoke break, always when he knows that Art is too tired, his feet too sore and back too tight to ignore him as he usually does. Art exhales smoke and watches it melt into the haze of the afternoon.

“Actually, that’s a stupid question,” Art says lazily and bites back a grin when Mike bristles. He knows full well that Mike has spent the last few hours wracking his brain to come up with a decent Question of the Day. In between the clattering plates and Vasquez’s radio that’s always cranked and playing Mexican rap full blast, even with Vic, their boss, snapping at them to hurry up on food prep, Art still caught snatches of Mike testing the question, running it over and over again in his head. Mike tried real hard with this one, which says volumes about his imagination.

Now, Mike is scowling. Coupled with his frizzy, dyed blue hair and the multiple gaps where he’s missing teeth, the effect is not quite as intimidating as he might hope.

“It’s not a stupid question! You can be such an asshole, Freeman. You just ruined my whole fucking day, man. Seriously.”

“Sorry,” Art says and actually kind of means it. He exhales his smoke, breathes in Mike’s. “Hey, why don’t you tell me? What would your superpower be?”

“No.” Mike folds his arms. He stubs out his cigarette and glares at the opposite wall of the alley where they’re slouching. From inside the kitchen, Art can hear Vic ranting; in the restaurant beyond that, the first customers are settling in for the evening rush; beyond that, the traffic on Halstead, as it encircles them, horns blaring. It’s Friday night and Art can sense the energy in Chicago, feel the quiver of a thousand minds closing in. It’s as oppressive as the late summer heat and Art’s not sure which is making him sweat.

“No,” Mike says again, because he’s a drama queen like that. “I ain’t saying until you do.”

But Art already knows Mike’s answer. He’s known since Mike stumbled onto it while chopping peppers. Mike chews on his bottom lip and Art hears the words in Mike’s head as clear as if he’d spoken them aloud.

I’d want to read people’s minds.

***

For as long as Art can remember, it has never been quiet.

            When he was little, he used to wait for night to fall. He waited patiently as his mother tucked him into bed, until she turned the lights out and shut the door and everything around him went black. He closed his eyes, the rest of the world would melt away, and the voices would come. They were loudest at night. Art felt them, one by one, emerging and unfolding in his mind. They never spoke to him but they seemed to want him to listen, in the way they echoed in the hollows of his skull. They rested in the place just behind his eyes, trembling, like an electrical pulse. In the dark, he heard Mr. and Mrs. Cranston next door laughing as they played their nightly game of Scrabble. He heard his mother downstairs, reading to herself, the soft monotone of her voice lulling him to sleep. Down the street the Silversteins argued, and Art tried his best to ignore them unless Mr. Silverstein was out of town on another of his business trips. When Mrs. Silverstein was alone, her thoughts would shift, her anger smoothing over, her voice like water as it clouded Art’s ears.

            In first grade, his class read about satellites, big machines that were sent all the way into space until they could scan the whole planet. The book explained that satellites could see everything on Earth, every cloud, every ocean. In the dark, alone and cold, a satellite could see every star in the sky. Art was the only one who paid attention as Mrs. Schutz talked. He studied the glossy pictures in the book, of huge hunks of machinery that floated above and connected everything: his TV shows and the songs on the radio and his mom and dad’s phone calls when his dad was very far away. Because everything streamed into a satellite, and everything streamed out of it. In the silence, a satellite could hear the entire world.

            And so Art practiced. On the street, during the day, he snatched at anybody as they passed him. The best times were when he was still, when he was alone in his room. He could stretch his mind so much further. If he just waited, he could hear the neighbors and the house beyond them and the house beyond that. At school, if he concentrated, he could hear anybody in the building. So he sat still and let the sphere of his mind widen. When they were angry, and sad, the voices seemed to need him most. They rang out and they reached for him, pulling him back again and again.

When Art was six, his mother was side-swiped by an SUV. The driver, a middle-aged woman in massive sunglasses, sped off as his mom tried uselessly to scribble down the license plate.

            “Gosh darn it,” she hissed. Art listened instead to the litany of words that poured through her head: each one hot and red like the pots he sometimes accidentally touched on the stove.

            “Bitch,” he supplied helpfully, picking one of her words at random.

            “Arthur!” His mother craned her head around to stare at him. Back then, his teachers were always telling him that he looked just like her. Her skin, only a few shades lighter than Art’s own, was flushed. A line of worry cut across her brow. Art felt himself shrink in his car seat. “Where did you hear a word like that?”

            “From you. I heard you say it.”

            “I never said that.”

            “You did,” Art insisted. “Just now. You said it in your head.”

            He couldn’t remember the moment that the voices started but he remembers this one. He remembers the way her face changed, the way her eyes narrowed, just a little. Her mouth, gaping, folded itself into a pale line. Her thoughts were a jagged edge, and for the first time in his life, Art was afraid to reach out to her.

            His mother hesitated, a second too long. “Art, baby. Don’t mess with me. Where did yo hear that word?” She smiled as she spoke. It was a smile he’d seen a hundred times, the same smile that comforted and laughed with him. But there was a sharpness to it now that he’d never noticed before. She smiled at him, and Art wondered if it had always been such an effort for her to do so.

            He muttered something, about hearing Mr. Silverstein say it sometimes, which wasn’t a lie but felt like one. His mother relaxed. A little. She called their insurance agent on the phone and laughingly explained about the car.

She watched Art in the rearview mirror when she thought he wasn’t looking.

***

            “You like Queen?” Mike asks. They’ve only walked a block or two but Mike’s already sweating, jogging to keep up with Art’s stride. He’s shrimpy for being almost twenty-three, his shoulder blades jutting out at alarming angles beneath his t-shirts. They pause as the light changes, and Mike, panting and pale, fumbles for his cigarettes.

            “Is this the Question of the Day?”

            “Stop calling it that. You make me sound like Alex fucking Trebek.”

            “No. I’m not a big rock fan.”

            “Rap?”

            “Because I’m black?” Art asks wryly.

Mike blinks up at him, expression grave. “Dude, no. That’d be racist.”

            It’s been eight weeks since Mike started working at the restaurant and seven since he began slowly, inevitably attaching himself to Art. His presence is constant: hovering, always nudging just at the far corner of Art’s mind. It’s impossible to shake him. And it should bother him more, Art supposes. It would, if Mike’s thoughts ever went beyond the itching need to smoke, beyond the occasional pondering of the weather or if he should cut his hair. Sometimes Mike tries to balance his checkbook and sometimes he tries to form a grocery list. Most of the time he sings to himself to fill the rest of the empty space in his head.

            They reach the station. Art hesitates. Mike watches him expectantly.

            “Well…see you?” he tries. Mike’s face lights up, his head bobbing. His hair flops from side to side.

            “Yeah, definitely! See you!”

            Mike waves and heads back the way they came. In his head, he sings along off-key to “Killer Queen.”

            On the train, Art sits between a construction worker with a broken heart and a secretary who’s having an affair. On the bus, he listens to a yoga instructor convince herself that the mats at her studio are giving her athlete’s foot. There’s a pretty white girl sitting across the aisle from him: blonde hair, green eyes, a heart-shaped face. She keeps glancing at him and then flinching internally and it smacks hard and blunt against Art’s brain. Her legs press together tightly, and she fists her hands in her lap, her fear smothering him. Art slouches lower in his seat and keeps his eyes closed and pretends to be asleep for the rest of the ride home.

            In his apartment he peels off the bomber jacket that his mom hates and changes out of clothes that still smell like burned meat and grease and onions. Mrs. Gonzalez rants next door for the third time this week about her deadbeat husband. He turns on the shower, the rushing water drowning the miserable musings of the go-go dancer who lives above him.

               I’m never going to pay these bills in time. Mr. Wilson down the hall flips through the payments on his wife’s credit cards and does the calculations in his head since he’d majored in math. Once he wanted to teach, he always wanted to teach, but now all he does is count other people’s money, like a machine.

            When he gets home from seeing that puta with the big ass, yo juro que lo voy ahorcar—

            What the hell am I even doing here?

            I should have vacuumed last week. Christ. Is that mold?

            The shower is not a solution, but it is white noise at least, and Art turns the water to a punishing temperature. He lets the pain anchor him, savors the burn and the pocket of silence that swallows the building, the block, the neighborhood whole.

***

 

            “He has trouble speaking to people. He won’t look them in the eye.” His mother wrung her hands.

Art focused on the way her long fingers flexed and wound together. She stood on the opposite side of the room, and Art was grateful for that. At this distance, she couldn’t touch him. It was always stronger—worse—when people touched him.
            “Mrs. Freeman,” the doctor began rather wearily. “You and I have had this conversation before. Your son is almost ten years old. If he were autistic, we would likely have known it by now.”

            But there’s something wrong. I know it. I’m not crazy. His mom smiled, the way she always did when she was about to cry. The doctor barely noticed, too preoccupied with counting calories and contemplating his emerging potbelly, and whether or not he really should have eaten that breakfast burrito this morning.

            Art stared at his mother’s hands, so much like his own: smooth and brown but for the whiteness of her knuckles. She wasn’t wearing her wedding ring today.

            She hadn’t touched him in nearly two weeks.

            When they returned from the doctor’s, his mother retreated to the kitchen and called his father. She slammed pots on the stove, and Art welcomed the noise. He grasped at small cacophonies even then, anything to interrupt the voices for just a moment.

            “No,” his mother snapped. “I—well, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. God, Richard, do you even care?

            Art wandered into the living room, returning to the pile of Legos and the construction project he’d left unfinished. Two days ago, he’d begun to build a wall. He would sit at the center, and with each brick the wall would slowly encircle him. When he wasn’t building it, Art thought about the wall. During the car ride to school and the classes where he tried desperately to pay attention, he would picture it, the wide arc of it closing around his mind. Sometimes it stopped the headaches and the automatic clenching of his teeth. It had almost silenced Mrs. Cranston’s sobbing the morning that the ambulance came to her door and Mr. Cranston was carried out beneath a white sheet. Sometimes it could shut out the bus driver, filling his head each morning with image after image of Art’s mother naked, and Art wouldn’t puke on the steps and have to stay home for the day.

            That night, his mom pulled the covers tight around him and turned off the lights in his bedroom. She lingered in the doorway. Art studied her silhouette; her worry gnawed, nipped at him. Art tried not to flinch.

            “Your father and I love you very much,” his mother said. “You know that, don’t you, Art?”

            He couldn’t see her face. It made it easier to ask the question.

“Mom? Are you scared of me?”

She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. They both already knew.

Sometimes.

            Art lay very still. At length, his mother sighed and closed the door.

            In the dark, Mrs. Cranston was weeping. It was their anniversary today, and she set the table for two places, bought roses, champagne. She was drunk, and her favorite dress was stained, and she curled up on the floor beneath the table. Art stared at the ceiling as tears that weren’t his slipped down his face.

***

 

               “By the way,” Mike informs him as they’re boiling mountains of broccoli for a table of eight. “I figured out what your problem is.”

            “No kidding. Do tell.”

            “You gotta have more fun in your life.” Mike twirls his knife, grinning smugly, and Art resists the urge to roll his eyes. Like this is some big revelation, like Mike hasn’t been keeping him in suspense for the last two hours. “You are, like, the saddest sack of shit I’ve ever known. All you do is work and sleep. That’s no way to live, man. We gotta figure out a way to change it up. We gotta, like, resuscitate you from the dead.”

            “I don’t do fun. I’m a soulless prick. Remember? You said so yesterday.” Art tries for a laugh, even as he watches the plan take shape in Mike’s mind. It is an utterly wretched plan, and Art bites down on the inside of his mouth to stop himself from saying so.

            “There’s this club that just opened a few weeks ago,” Mike says. “Not far from here. We should check it out. Maybe see if we can meet a couple girls.” Mike leans in close, abandoning the pot of broccoli on the stove. His breath is putrid; he hasn’t brushed his teeth in a week. “I’m just saying,” Mike whispers, and Art does not inhale through his nose. “You need to get laid.”

            “I’ll think about it,” Art lies. “Broccoli’s going to overcook.”

            Mike scurries for the stove.

            Dinner service clears. The kitchen slows. Vic finally stops looking like he’s about to drop dead of a heart attack. A mop is shoved in Art’s hands, a broom in Mike’s. They wander aimlessly around the kitchen, swiping at imaginary spots of dirt.

            “You know,” Mike begins, “Vasquez says you’re like some kind of genius.”

            “Vasquez is full of shit.”

            I heard that, Vasquez thinks irritably, trapped at the sink and up to his ass in dirty dishes.

            “Really, though. You weren’t always chopping shit and cleaning up diners.” Mike is watching him. Art keeps his back turned and refuses to return Mike’s gaze.

            “He said you used to be a doctor or something?” Mike already knew that, and it makes Art want to smack him for phrasing it like a question, for making conversation into a game like everyone else always does.

            “Kind of. I was studying to be one.”

            The broom falls still.

            Wow. He must think I’m really stupid. Mike’s thoughts go heavy and Art nearly staggers. In Mike’s mind, the weight doesn’t feel right, doesn’t belong there. Art turns before he’s even sure of what he’s doing.

            “I don’t—” He clears his throat. Mike leans on his broom and feels small, but Art can’t tell from looking at him. He’s still just grinning in the same goofy way that he always does.

            “What’d you say, man?”

            “I don’t…” Art’s grip tightens on the handle of the mop, and he feels sick even as he makes himself smile back. “I mean, I don’t, uh…think I’m doing anything next Friday. If you want to go somewhere.”

            It’s almost worth it, just to feel the lift of Mike’s thoughts.

            “Okay. Cool.” And then Mike’s smile widens a little more, breaks into a laugh. “Shit, man. A doctor. And you smoke too.” He clicks his tongue disapprovingly. “You should know better.”

***

They cornered him after school: one ugly and bulky, one handsome and tall, both dumb as rocks. Art shifted his backpack and felt the brick wall hard and immovable against his back. His cigarette smoldered, dripping ash.

He’d seen this coming, the danger, the intent of it lurking over him like a shadow. Even without his powers, he should have expected it. High school, contrary to what his father told him during their last stilted phone conversation, was not the greatest time of his life. To Art, high school was a threat, a place where he could drown in a flurry of test questions and the hangovers of his homeroom teacher. Sex oozed from everyone’s mind into his and forced him to drape his sweatshirt across his lap during class, face burning. White kids hated him for being too smart and being too ghetto with his giant hoodies and loud headphones, and black kids hated him for being too smart and for sitting alone instead of at their lunch table, and teachers looked at him with narrowed eyes and called him Difficult, Dreamer, Problem, Uppity, Typical.

 “May I help you?” Art asked the two of them politely and then felt absurd for it.

            “‘May I help you?’” one of them repeated mockingly. Bryce. The handsome one. Light-skinned and tall and bristling with a dangerous energy. Behind Bryce, the goon—Ryan—laughed and cracked his knuckles.

            “You’re a freak, Freeman,” Bryce continued, stepping closer. “You know that?”

            Art almost laughed. “I’ve noticed.”

            Bryce’s jaw went tight, and Art felt his thoughts, rattling and trapped in the cage of his mind. He sensed it coming, how badly Bryce wanted to beat his motherfucking face in,and Art thought, Don’t. And maybe just for a moment it seemed like Bryce had heard him, because he faltered before lashing out, his arm a blur, his fingers closing around Art’s throat.

            “Listen,” Bryce began. Like this, Bryce was closer than skin: Art could feel the quake of his hands, the tic of a thousand nervous habits. He heard everything, the hate, the confusion that spiraled endlessly, and he fell deeper as thoughts gave way to memories as they always did when someone touched him, flooding his brain. Art choked and he knew all the places on Bryce where the bruises lingered, from when his older brother Bobby would pummel him, Bryce never strong enough to fight back, and Art could feel the phantom of Elizabeth Grady’s palm so small and white, pressed against Bryce’s much darker hand as they sat together in Bryce’s car and she told him how she was going to the doctor’s, she wasn’t going to have his baby, and Bryce sat there silent and helpless and looked at her flat stomach and realized he’d never even know if it was a boy or a girl—

            Bryce let go of him. Art took a deep breath, in and out. He looked down at his sneakers and watched from his periphery as Bryce stepped back.

            “Let’s get out of here, Ryan,” he muttered, unwilling to look at Art, unable to explain to himself why.

            Their footsteps trailed off. Art stood still. He stared at an unraveling shoelace, at the concrete, at the trail of ants that paraded around the tip of his sneaker.

            “I’m sorry,” he said aloud, to no one in particular.

***

The white girl at the bar in the tight black mini dress is smiling at him. She’s been smiling like that, sneaking peeks at him and twirling the umbrella in her drink for the past twenty minutes. Art is sweating like the untouched glass of beer still sitting in front of him. Already he can feel the pulse of a migraine wedging itself neatly between his eyes.

            Mike digs his elbow into Art’s ribs.

            “She wants you, man. Holy shit. She wants you so bad.” Mike’s eyebrows waggle up and down; Art watches them rise and fall and feels dizzy. Around them the club pulses, and the music weaves itself around him and rattles his skull and his ribcage, and Art wishes desperately that it was only just a bit louder, that it could fill his head and drown out the rest of the noise. It was a mistake coming out. Everything’s too close in here, too full. Art always avoids crowds, for the way people’s thoughts jumble up and trip into his, interrupting, cutting, driving their way into the narrow space of his skull.

            “Gofor it, bro.” Mike is drunk, and his hot breath heaves hot across Art’s face.

            Down the bar, the girl leans forward a little more so that her cleavage is on display. Her eyes are charcoaled and wide. Her hair spills over one shoulder, and she watches him with hope because he looks like a nice guy, like he could treat her right, like this one won’t hurt her, he could be so nice, if he’d just smile, if he’d just look at her—

Art bites the inside of his mouth until it bleeds. He doesn’t realize he’s stood and turned to go until Mike grabs for his shoulder, until Mike’s voice is in his ear: “Dude! Dude?”

            Art moves out of reach. He stumbles backward into the crowd, stepping on toes and crashing into wayward elbows. “I gotta go,” he shouts hoarsely over the music, willing Mike to hear him, willing Mike to stay in his seat at the bar and not follow. “I’m okay, I’ve just gotta go, I’m okay.”

            He forces himself across the dance floor—the hell’s his problem, Kinda hot, Spilled my drink, What do you expect—and keeps stumbling for the door. Mike’s thoughts trail after him, but Art can barely hear them, thank God. He grabs his coat and takes the stairs two at a time. The cold night air hits him in the face. He stands there a minute, feeling his heartbeat slow and the blood pounding in his ears, and in that moment he senses Mike suddenly behind him.

            “Hey! Art. Where you going?”

            “I gotta get home,” he says again, “Don’t worry about me.” He starts walking and doesn’t stop. Mike presses after him, as he always does, his voice ringing out high and anxious.

            “Art. Wait a second, man, just—” And then Mike grabs his wrist.

***

“So, what are you studying?”

            Art dragged the prongs of his fork through his untouched mashed potatoes and forced a smile. It was a weak smile at best but it seemed to convince his father and that, Art supposed, was good enough.

            It was the first time in three years his father had managed to make it home in time for them to eat together as a family on Thanksgiving. Despite this, Art’s father sat at the head of the table as though he belonged there, stiff in his neatly tailored suit. He wasn’t a big man but looked like he should be, with his broad shoulders and big hands that swallowed the cutlery whole. Somehow he took up space, made it difficult to breathe.

            His father cleared his throat and fixed Art with a meaningful stare over the rim of his glasses.

            “Well?”

            “I mean, I’m only a freshman….Dad,” Art added clumsily. “They don’t really expect you to declare right away.”

            “This is an important decision, Arthur. This is where the rest of your life begins.” His father slammed his palm against the table for emphasis. Across from him, Art’s mom started and dropped her fork. She hadn’t taken a sip of her wine or water yet, and Art knew she was trying not to smudge her lipstick. After his father called that morning to tell them the good news, she went to the bathroom and fixed her hair and applied makeup and studied her face from every angle. She must have stood there for hours.

            “I know,” Art muttered. “I know. I’m really…I’m trying to figure it out.”

            I’m not paying $65,000 to Northwestern for nothing, boy.

            “You’re not eating, Art,” his mother prompted quietly. Art took a bite of his turkey without tasting it. His father drummed his fingers against the tabletop. He hadn’t sat still for the entire dinner. His mind jumped, scattered, left Art dizzy.

            “I like biology,” he blurted out. His father’s fingers paused; his mind sharpened to a focused point, like the tip of a knife.

            “Science is good,” his father said.

            “Maybe physics,” his mother suggested and Art felt her memory prickle, because she still recalled the way he once brought home the science articles in first grade. In her mind, he was still small and sticking stars to the ceiling of his room, consulting maps of the sky to create proper constellations.

            “Biology, huh?” His father chewed at his lower lip. “Have you considered med school?”

            “Med school?” Art asked faintly. He made himself smile again to ignore the dread crawling down the back of his neck. He imagined in vain what three more years of school, six more years, nine years would feel like. Med school meant lecture halls. Med school meant hospitals.

            His father was still staring at him expectantly, that focus still held his mind. All of his attention was fixed on Art for the first time that Art could really remember, and it made him breathless and his head spin faster.

            “You could be a surgeon,” his dad was saying, “or an oncologist.” In the back of his mind, a spark lit. Art felt a flicker of something like warmth.

            “Maybe,” he managed at last.

            “Think about it. I mean it. You want to study something practical. You don’t want to end up an art major like your mother.” His dad chuckled and resumed eating his turkey. The spark went out; his thoughts turned back to unfinished business, and Art sensed himself being crossed off, another item on an endless list.

            His father chewed with gusto. “This is delicious, Mary.”

            Across the table, his mother studied her plate. Art watched her push her food back and forth. Every once in a while, he saw the paintings come alive in her mind. On nights when they both couldn’t sleep, she sat alone in the living room and her thoughts melted into watercolor. Art watched them swirl and form; they filled his head in spirals and clouds, blues and greens and whites. She dreamt most often of the prairie and Missouri, where she grew up, and he remembered the way it felt as the yellow-orange of the grass and the purple in the sky streaked across his mind.

            She hadn’t touched him in almost two years, and sometimes Art had to remind himself not to reach for her.

***

            Mike grabs his wrist and everything in Art shudders. He can hear Mike talking as he tries to tug them back toward the club, and Art stumbles and struggles to get free.

            “Art, what’s wrong? Dude, it’s okay—”

            Art pulls hard again but it’s too late, and Mike’s fingers dig into his skin and Art can feel himself fading at the edges of his mind, disappearing into Mike and into memories and Mike is small, always small, even at eleven years old, skulking and hanging close to the wall to avoid being noticed and it never helps and the house smells like cheap beer and old trash and Mike hunches, pain exploding in the side of his face and his dad is screaming, “You stupid little shit,” and there’s blood in his mouth and a gap where his tooth used to be but he’s not going to cry, just don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t—

            Art rips his hand from Mike’s grasp, and when Mike tries to reach for him again, Art shoves him hard into the side of the building.

            “Don’t fucking touch me.” He means to scream it but it come out as a plea.

            Mike stares at him, wide-eyed and tiny eleven years old, please don’t hurt me, please don’t leave me—

            “Stop it. Just stop it!”

            The bouncer is watching them. The underage girls still trying to get in are eyeing them, skittering nervously in their heels. Down the street there’s another fight breaking out in another bar. Art presses the heels of his hands into his eyes until light explodes and he feels like he’ll go blind.

            Mike is silent.

            “I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Art says, shaking and wishing he were anywhere but here. “This was such a bad idea. Which, you know, big surprise, every idea you have is terrible. You’re so stupid, Mike,” but he’s not sure if it’s him talking anymore or Mike’s dad. When he opens his eyes, Mike is staring at him. His blue hair hangs greasy flat, his mouth full of holes from when his dad beat him so bad it knocked his teeth out and he just stands there, waiting, his mind so, so quiet. Art’s eyes sting and he closes them again, the memory of Mike still in his head—don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t let him see me cry— and Art steps back, back, back.

            At some point he starts running and he doesn’t stop until he’s two blocks away and he hears a police car pulling around the corner up ahead.

            He rides the train home by himself. Beyond the windows the city is dark. Art presses his forehead to the glass and tries to imagine the city blurring just like the watercolor of his mom’s paintings.

***

            The supervising doctor was lecturing and Art studied the charts but all he could concentrate on was the man in the bed before him. His skin hung sallow and yellow and an IV dripped life into him. Even now, as he sat propped up by pillows as the virus ate him from the inside out, hate rolled through him. The man looked at Art and bit back a sneer and thought, I ain’t letting some monkey play doctor with me.

            Three years of college all leading up to this, to starting med school, to his first day inside a hospital. He sent his parents a picture a classmate took of him in his white coat. ‘You look so handsome’ his mom texted him back. His dad never answered.

            Three years of sleepless nights and searching for solace in medical textbooks and working. He’d been planning for this day for years. Stood in front of his mirror the night before and told himself that he could do this, he could do anything he set his mind to. In the morning, Art stood at the front doors of the hospital and promised himself it wouldn’t go bad. He sang old songs to himself and told himself just to listen to the melody in his mind, the thud of the bass, his mom’s favorite song—Just the two of us, We can make it if we try—and now he stood there and felt furious and felt helpless and felt shabby in his white coat and oversized shoes. He’d been keeping the walls up all day, keeping them at bay even as they bore down on him, but in that split second, his attention lapsed.

            The walls wavered.

            In the Burn Unit on the floor above, a little girl was crying for her mother; a former beauty queen, set on fire by an ex-boyfriend, stared at herself in the mirror, at the shiny scars and the empty gap where her right eye used to be and thought, Now I really am his, I’m all his. No one will ever want me ever again. In the next building over, in Oncology they reached for him, and laughter rushed into his ears and made his lips twist in a smirk, the chemo patients cracking bitter jokes and waiting their turn to puke, their exhaustion pawing at him as they asked him to take it away, just please, just help—

            Art scrabbled for control but in Emergency a man studied the stump of his left thumb and waited to call his wife, searching for excuses about just what the hell he was doing with the lawnmower, and a boy crumpled with a burst appendix, agony rippling through his brain, and the head nurse’s shoes were cutting into her ankles, only half an hour until break and she had a baby at home to check on, didn’t trust that sitter anymore, not since she found a bruise on the inside of her son’s pudgy wrist last week—

            “Mr. Freeman,” someone is saying. “Mr. Freeman.” Art realized his eyes were closed but he couldn’t bring himself to open them. If he just stayed like this, if he stayed in darkness, maybe he could disappear. Just the two of us, he sang to himself even as his voice grew fainter and fainter. We can make it if we try

            If I get lime Jell-O one more time I’m going to throw it at the wall—

            What’s taking them so long—?

            Said it was going to be a simple procedure—

            The voices grew, louder, more numerous. Bile rose in his throat, and Art’s stomach heaved and he was going to be sick. His feet moved and he was running someone still calling his name. Art didn’t look back. He raced down halls, searching for a way out, and people cleared the way to let him pass, Must be a real emergency, Think somebody’s dying, God, I hope that’s not Phil’s doctor—

            In the psych ward, anorexics counted their jutting ribs and call their nurses Bitches and when Art paused to catch his breath, he could hear a woman in the room next door, paralyzed and twisted in her wheelchair from too many strokes. Her body was broken but in her mind she was screaming and screaming, forever trapped—

            Help me—I can’t pay for the operation if—What if he doesn’t make it—Help me, help me—

            In the emergency room they were wheeling a man in, his brain ablaze. His daughter clung to his hand, sobbing, and he wanted to comfort her but the only thought that drifted out of the fire and the pain and the blistering fear was Please. Please.

            Art ran and they followed and pried him open and clawed their way inside one by one and their voices raged and hurt and shrieked and spat and wept—

I don’t want to die—hope he dies—damn kids if they hadn’t been—swear to God I’ll—doctor just wants to—can’t take this—can’t even take a shit alone—I’d give anything if I could just—stitches again?—not going to be an easy procedure—help me— want to walk again —afford more pills—don’t leave me, please don’t leave me—gonna be sick again—Mommy—help me—

            His professor found him curled up in a bathroom stall, forehead pressed against his knees, vomit on the front of his new coat.

            In his dorm room, he washed the dried sweat from his face with trembling hands and didn’t look at himself in the mirror. He called home and sat on his bed listening to the phone ring, staring at his suitcase already half-packed.

            “Art?” His mom sounded so much older over the phone, or maybe it had been too long since he’d heard her voice. He wasn’t sure anymore.

            “I’m quitting,” he told her. He blinked once, twice, wondered why his vision was blurring again. “I’m not going to be a doctor, Mom. I can’t. Don’t tell Dad.” There was silence on the other end of the line. “I’m sorry,” he said, to fill in the emptiness and the hundreds of miles that stretched between them.

            “It’s okay,” she said quietly. “Art, it’s okay.”

            “Okay,” he said, as if he were seven years old all over again. It had been so long since she held him and he tried to remember what it had felt like, when she wrapped her arms around him and promised he would be all right. He pictured her: standing in their kitchen, alone in their big house, her hands flecked with paint from the projects she still attempted every once in a while. At this distance, over the phone, he couldn’t read her thoughts.

            “Okay,” he said again because it was all that was left to say.

***

            Mike has work off on Monday. Art minces garlic and Vasquez cracks the same dirty jokes he’s told a hundred times before. More than once, Art catches himself staring at the space Mike usually occupies. He takes his smoke break alone, gazing up into dull blue sky until his cigarette burns the tips of his fingers.

            He gets Mike’s address from a grudging Vasquez and when he gets off work, he stops at a gas station to pick up a six-pack of Bud Light. It takes him walking up and down the same street twice to get the apartment building right and when he hits the buzzer next to Mike’s name, there’s no answer. Art can hear him, though, thoughts stewing and singing along to “Another One Bites The Dust.” He circles around to the back of the building, finds Mike on the fourth floor, sitting on the fire escape, legs dangling over the edge.

            “Hey,” Art calls and Mike jumps.

            “Hey,” he calls back. Art feels Mike’s nerves jitter and he holds up the beer in offering.

            “I come in peace,” he jokes. He thinks he sees Mike smile but he can’t be sure. Art shuffles and kicks at a chunk of broken concrete. “Can I come up?”

            Mike’s apartment is a collection of narrow corners, his life compressed into piles: junk mail, old comic books, bags of trash that haven’t been taken out, dirty dishes, dirty clothes. The fridge is almost empty. The walls are blank. On the coffee table beside the pull-out couch, Art finds a single weathered photograph of a teenage Mike and an old man, smiling wide for the camera. The rest of Mike’s clothes spill out of a battered suitcase. Art thinks about Mike coming home alone from work to this. He thinks about him falling asleep each night on the sagging couch.

They sit out on the fire escape and sip beer that’s rapidly going warm in the August air.

            “About the other night,” Art begins and then realizes he doesn’t know what else to say. Mike wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

            “You got like an anxiety thing? Is that what that was?” Mike guesses. Art hates the way he can feel Mike’s thoughts adjusting, rationalizing, trying to understand.

            “Kind of.”

            “My grandpa had something like that. I lived with him for a bit when I was fourteen. He used to get these really bad attacks, just like you, and sometimes he couldn’t even breathe. Sometimes I just sat there with him until they were over to make sure he was okay.” Mike fiddles with his empty beer can. “Dude, you should have told me.”

            “Maybe, yeah,” Art agrees. Traffic rushes past on the next street over. Mike sighs and there’s a click as he lights a cigarette. “I’m sorry about what I said,” Art mutters. Mike exhales smoke and shrugs.

            “It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it.”

            “You know that, huh?”

            Mike hunches his shoulders. “You’re a really good guy, Art. I can tell. You care. Even with someone like Vic, you really fucking care. Did you know you’re like the only one at work who ever talks to me? I mean, really talks to me? Everyone else there just thinks I’m stupid.”

            Art does know. He says nothing and he thinks about the emptiness he always sensed in Mike’s head, the way he seized on it with a kind of ugly satisfaction. The beer goes sour in the back of his mouth.

            “I mean, even though I’m not.” Mike isn’t looking at him anymore, staring out at the city. “I’m not stupid.”

            Stupid, a voice in Mike’s head jeers that sounds just like his father. Dumb. Dumbass. Shit for brains. Retard.

            Art opens his mouth to apologize again, to reassure Mike that he’s not an idiot, to explain that he’s a freak, that Mike scares him and everyone scares him and sometimes it’s all just too much. Instead he says: “You know. I was just thinking the other day. You never did tell me what superpower you’d want to have.”

            Mike’s eyes light up. He starts to answer, then reels back and punches Art hard in the arm.

            “What the hell?”

            “No way,” Mike says. “I told you, Freeman. I’m not saying until you do.”

            Art resists rolling his eyes. Instead he looks up. There are no stars visible in the summer sky; it’s not quite full dark. He thinks about the sky and about space. In first grade his teacher read them an article about satellites, about how in the atmosphere above Earth they could hear everything. He wonders now if he drifted far enough, high enough, how quiet the world would really be.

            “I’d want to fly,” he says. Mike tilts his head back and considers the sky, considers Art’s answer.

            “I’d wanna read minds,” Mike says, as Art knew he would.

            “Why?” It comes out sharper than he intends. “I mean, wouldn’t that suck after a while?”

            “I don’t think so.” Mike pulls his knees into his chest. “I mean…the way I see it, we’re all alone. No matter what we do, no matter how many people love us, in the end we all end up that way. Alone. Everybody knows it. But, like, I think if I could read minds…I don’t know. I could hear everyone. I’d always know if there was someone who needed me and I could always be there for them, even if we didn’t know each other. I could help them. I could just listen. And I would be connected to everybody in the whole world and they’d all be connected to me. And then we wouldn’t all be so far away from each other. We’d be just a little bit closer.”

            Mike runs his fingers through his hair and offers Art a smile that’s all crooked and missing teeth. Art can’t help but smile back.

            “Good answer.”

            “Fuck yeah, it is.” Mike snorts. Art starts laughing first and then Mike joins him. At one point, Art spills the rest of his drink down the front of himself and the fire escape and it makes them laugh even harder. Mike’s mind is bright and limitless, fitting to the far corner of Art’s own mind as he always does. On the floor below them, the woman who lives there turns a page irritably in her book and thinks to herself, Damn drunks. The landlord in his kitchen is bent over the stove, struggling to remember how to make aguadito de pollo the way his mother used to. A businessman passes in his car and wishes that the summer would last forever. 

About the Author

Alex Zimay · Knox College

Alex Zimay graduated from Knox College with a double major in Creative Writing and Political Science. She currently works as an Assistant Editor at Sourcebooks in Naperville. An avid lover of fantasy and science fiction, her work focuses primarily on the space between fantasy and reality, and how the two intersect and in turn shape one another. "Every Star in the Sky" first appeared in Quiver.

About the Artist

Meagan Dwyer · Rice University

"Dreamscape III" first appeared in R2: The Rice Review.