Until two weeks ago things were perfect.
It was just Michael and me on this very small planet. Our life was simple. All we had was a post office and a topiary. We had free reign over how we pruned and shaped and molded the topiary, and every other Sunday we would show it off to anyone who came on the Tourist Shuttle. We didn’t get many visitors—an occasional elderly couple on their last tour of the outer moons and planets, or rarely, a family celebrating someone’s birthday. They’d fly down to get lost in the mazes or take pictures of each other standing next to the bushes sculpted to look like predatory lions. But our planet was on the outskirts of the galaxy and topiary arts had fallen out of fashion, so for the most part we had the whole place to ourselves.
Growing up, my home life was chaotic—lots of brothers, thirteen boys raised by my grandmother in a tiny apartment where none of the doors shut all the way. You can imagine how lucky I felt having this whole planet at my disposal. And of course I felt lucky to share it with Michael. Michael, who grew up in the Inner Galaxy on an estate. I think if we’d met in another context he wouldn’t have given me the time of day, not because he was a snob, but just because his world would have filtered me out.
We had a routine, Michael and I, a routine I became very attached to:
Every morning, when the bell on the Post Office clock chimed I prepared our Breakfast Packs, while Michael went jogging. He did a full lap around the equator, running through the night side of the planet and back into day. Then we got to work. Michael’s parts of the topiary were more abstract—ornamental designs and intricate mazes—while I usually did animals, people, scenes, that kind of thing.
One of the last pieces I did was a scene from a fantasy of mine. In it Michael is playing a baby grand piano, while I lie across it seductively, turning his sheet music and brushing his hair out of his beautiful eyes. I wish my topiary sculpture could have done his eyes justice, but carving a bush has its limitations. And really, that was probably for the best, because when Michael saw it I don’t think he suspected even for a minute that the two tuxedoed men in the sculpture were me and him, he just marveled at the details of his favorite nocturne on the sheet music.
When the clock chimed a second time, we put down our sheers and bags of fertilizer and ate our Dinner Packs on the back steps of the post office. If we had any communications from the outside worlds we read them, though the service had been spotty for a while. Then, after dinner, Michael and I crawled into our sleeping bags in our respective tents and we talked for hours through the nylon walls. All day I’d look forward to our evenings, giddily coming up with stories for him.
“Tell me again about the one in the hallway…” Michael would say and rustle around in his tent.
He liked it when I told him stories about girls from back home.
“About Sadie? The one with the lisp and tits out to here?” Since he couldn’t see me I didn’t bother moving my arms out in demonstration.
“Yeah, that one.”
“Well, Sadie and I are in the hallway in my old apartment building. We’re standing real close. The cats are out—the stray cats—and they’re walking up and down the hall, slowly rubbing up against our legs. I lean forward and breathe gently into her ear, press her up against the wall. ‘Yeth, Leon, yeth,’ she groans.” The rest I would make up, pieced together from things I’d read in my grandmother’s Pleasure Novels and seen in my little brothers’ dirty movies.
The story would end when Michael gave a satisfied whimper from his tent. It was my words that were doing this to him and usually this was enough for me, though of course I wished I could reach through the tent walls and stroke his hair.
This had been our routine almost every day, until two weeks ago when the Tourist Shuttle arrived and Mavis waddled out. She looked exactly the same except for a new but equally unflattering haircut.
I escaped before she had a chance to see me; I ran into the night side of the topiary and hid there. Perhaps this was not the best way to handle the situation, but I don’t do well under pressure. For hours, until the bell chimed, I crouched and crawled through the bushes, trying not to think about the things Mavis could tell Michael about me. How cruel and unjust it all seemed, since the “me” I had constructed over the past few months had come to feel more real, more deeply true, than the “me” of fact.
So, I waited for the end of day bell to chime, which would mean that Mavis would be back on the Tourist Shuttle, none the wiser, and things with Michael and me could continue on undisturbed. I walked back to the tent area, ready with an explanation for my sudden and abrupt departure. I was going to tell Michael that I had been seized with inspiration for a sculpture, and I’d apologize for leaving him to give the topiary tour all by himself.
I grabbed two Dinner Packs from the storage unit and went out back towards our tents. “Oh, I just got carried away trimming—” I stopped.
There was movement in Michael’s tent, the familiar sounding moan and also a high pitched squeaking, like a box of freshly hatched chicks being crushed to death by a bowling ball. I took my meal into my tent and huddled over it not daring to make a sound.
Eventually Michael scratched on the mesh opening. I repeated the line I’d practiced, but I couldn’t stop my voice from shaking.
“You were so right,” Michael said eagerly as he crawled into my tent. “This has been amazing.”
“It’s against regulations, having visitors like this,” I said.
“But the shuttle never came.”
The shuttle always came an hour before the bell rang. It was never late. What he was saying made no sense.
“It never came. We waited, and then, well, I guess, we took it as a sign.”
“She can’t stay here. It’s against regulations,” I was having trouble wrapping my mind around what he was saying. “And, how are you not revolted by those fleshy arms?”
Michael drew his knees up to his chin. “I thought you’d be happy for me,” he said.
I took off my glasses and wiped the lenses with my shirt. It was easier to talk to him if I couldn’t see him. “She can sleep here tonight, but I’m not going to be shipped off to mine asteroids or work on a factory planet if the Tourist Shuttle catches you in the morning. My family wouldn’t be able to get me out of it.”
Michael looked sad, and I immediately regretted saying the last part.
The next morning the Tourist Shuttle didn’t come either. When we crawled out of our tents, the stacks of outgoing mail were untouched, and we didn’t get any new boxes of monthly supplies. Michael introduced me to Mavis and she smiled, all pink gums and tiny teeth, and we both pretended not to know each other. I even thought, relieved, that perhaps she didn’t remember me. Perhaps she did not remember way the older boys had ripped out everything I planted by the root, or thrown flower pots at me, or the way people called me “The Teeth,” “Ginger Spazz,” and “Leon the Terrible,” and how I had lunch every day with the teachers because they felt sorry for me. But then, when Michael went for his morning run she turned her lumpy face towards me and said: “Leon,” and the way she said it, we both knew the truth.
Then she said something that made no sense at all. “I’ve missed you.”
That day as I warily pruned and trimmed, I watched Mavis drag Michael back to his tent. I listened for the hum of the Tourist Shuttle, but the sky was silent. I was so worried about Mavis and getting her out of there, that at first I didn’t give much thought to the other implications of the Shuttle not coming.
At lunch, my uneasiness grew.
Michael, bred for optimism, didn’t seem worried. “They probably just changed the schedule. We’d have no way of knowing things like that all the way out here.” He and Mavis were holding hands as they ate, but she kept trying to press her thigh against mine.
I moved my leg away until there was nowhere left to move it. Maybe Mavis knew more about the Shuttle situation than she was letting on?
“Is the spaceship driver’s union on strike? Are there fuel shortages? A new war?” I asked her.
“I don’t mind a little vacation,” was all she said as she wiped the corner of my mouth with her napkin.
The next day, Michael and Mavis had abandoned all modesty and were fornicating in the open behind a cluster of trees carved into the shape of ampersands. She positioned herself in full view of me and we locked eyes several times. I tried to stay calm by imagining that the fertilizer I was spreading on my lions would make them come alive and eat her, then I would comfort Michael in his grief, wipe away his tears, etc.
The day after that, things got worse. Mavis seemed nervous and chatty, the reality of the situation was setting in. She trailed behind me, narrating what she would have been doing at any given moment had the shuttle taken her back to her job as a bank teller:
“Right now I’d be sorting the deposit slips,” or “right now, I would be comparing people’s signatures against their checks.”
Whenever Michael turned his back she would cling to me, her warm damp hands gripping at my neck.
As another week went by, her hysteria increased. I watched in alarm as she ate through our diminishing supply of food. In the evenings I would have to pry her hands off of me, while Michael sadly looked on. Several times I’d found her lying in my tent, crying, and I’d have to drag her out of there by her ankles. I gave up working on the topiary, and the sculpture of Michael, me, and the piano grew together into one unformed mass. I was spending most of my time in the post office, where I wrote letters that couldn’t be sent and tried to find hiding places for the food. Michael continued working as though nothing was wrong, but his mazes became all dead ends and no right angles. The fertilizer ran out, and soon all the leaves turned brown and fell off. Now the branches look like skeletons. They sound like bones in the breeze.
Today, I walk into the post office to find the food drawer open and a bulgier Mavis trying to seem casual as she shuffles towards the door. I follow her and she begins to run; several Dinner Packs fall out from under her shirt. My fingertips nearly touch the back of her greasy head. I herd her into the mouth of the big maze. The dead leaves crunch under us as we run. The sound is deafening. She’s faster than I thought, even in those shoes that look like they serve some sort of corrective purpose. She squeals loudly, escaping my grasp, and unwraps a Dinner Pack. She shoves it into her mouth and tosses the empty wrapper over her shoulder and into my face.
Eventually the walls of the maze narrow into a point. She’s trapped. She stops abruptly and begins shoving what’s left of her stolen supplies into her mouth. I punch her in the stomach and the face and the legs, but she keeps eating. I punch her for eating all our food, for following me out here, for ruining the one good thing I’ve been given in my whole life. Her shiny underwear glints in the shadow of her thick thighs as she tries to crawl away from me. I grab her face and shove it into the ground, and even as I’m grinding it into a pile of dead leaves her jaw is still moving. I think at first she’s chewing, but she is saying something.
“I’ve missed you,” she is saying over and over again. I hear her only when Michael pulls me off of her. He throws me into the hedge, and the branches scrape my face and knock off my glasses.
“I’ve missed you,” Mavis cries into Michael’s pant leg.
“She ate all of our food,” I say, though nobody is listening to me.
We sit in the spot we usually have dinner, but we have nothing to eat. My glasses are broken, so I squint at Michael, at the dead bushes, at Mavis’ wobbly face.
“Everything was fine before she got here,” I say.
Mavis’ carp mouth opens and closes as she cries silently.
“You just don’t like women,” Michael says.
“I like them fine,” I say.
“No, you don’t. It’s probably because your mother is an octopus,” Michael says it matter-of-factly.
I feel myself blush. “What, did Mavis tell you that?”
Mavis shrinks away from me. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.
“Well, isn’t she?” Michael asks.
This isn’t something I like to talk about. I don’t know my mother very well, though I do have a vague memory of her lifting me and my brothers up with her tentacles and shaking us violently.
“Mavis is disgusting,” I say, steering our conversation back on course. Mavis sobs, and Michael rubs her back and says nothing else to me.
Tonight Michael stops by my tent. He is holding a branch from one of the bushes in his arms.
“Here,” he says, and breaks me off a twig. He is being kind, but he can’t quite look at me. “If you just grind your teeth over it you’ll be able to swallow it eventually.”
For hours, I lie silently in my sleeping bag, gnawing on the stick and listening to the sound of the dead branches of the topiary clacking against each other. Mavis and Michael breathe quietly in his tent. I am hungry and very alone. The loneliness feels like a leak dripping into a bucket, and now the bucket is full and I can’t take it any more. I crawl to Michael’s tent and unzip the nylon door.
“My mouth is full of splinters,” I whisper into the dark.