by Christopher DeWan

The Signal

They interrupted our TV show to deliver a news announcement: scientists had discovered alien life.

It came in the form of a radio signal, they said, from a star system they were calling Kepler-442. The signal was unlike anything they had ever encountered. It came in patterns that they were still trying to decode. It almost certainly wasn’t natural in origin.

It’s hard to describe those first moments of excitement we felt: we all called family and friends and felt our early skepticism gradually give way to pure giddy awe.

Over the coming days, we stayed glued to our TVs and learned more about Kepler-442, which scientists were now calling “Iris.” Iris was a blue dwarf star, smaller than our Sun. It was an invisible dot inside the constellation Libra. It was approximately 1,120 light years from Earth.

We bought telescopes during those early days, or visited with friends who had. All of us became more nocturnal, taking up stargazing and growing more adept at identifying Libra in the night sky. In the mornings, we all had tired eyes and craned necks.

A parade of experts came on the news stations to explain what they knew about the signal: it had been discovered by an amateur radio operator and confirmed by MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Groton, Massachusetts. It was broadcasting at 95GHz, a signal we use on Earth mainly for experimental microwave weapons. It broadcast at intervals and its content was different at each interval.

 It sounded, when played through speakers, like a baby’s heartbeat.

“We are hard-pressed,” the MIT scientists said, “to think of a natural cause for signals such as these.”

The experts were all working hard to understand the content of the signals, but they said that until they could find a more regular pattern, they were at a loss to know what its message was, or if it was a message, or if it had been aimed specifically at us.

In the weeks that followed, we changed.  The discovery of these signals made us different. We were excited and humbled and afraid, and we felt these things simultaneously, all of us, as a species. While we pushed our carts at the grocery stores, while we stood in line for our coffees, while we sat through meetings at work and dressed our children for school and lay in bed, we were bombarded invisibly by radio from alien intelligence, and we knew it. We had this in common. We looked up to the sky and we knew with certainty that we weren’t alone.

This change in us didn’t end war. It didn’t solve world hunger or poverty. But for a while, people seemed kinder to one another, more patient, more eager to come together to solve problems. Our world leaders agreed to simple things that had previously seemed intractable: repairing roads, funding hospitals and schools, helping the less fortunate.

The scientists made no progress decoding the signal. Its content wasn’t random, but it was too varied to discern any pattern of language. Top mathematicians, linguists, and encryption experts worked with the world’s most powerful supercomputers, but no one was able to crack the code. Instead, they reminded us that this signal was being sent by a civilization whose way of apprehending the universe was almost certainly vastly different from our own: their thinking was, by definition, alien, and we might never understand the signal’s content.

Additionally, the scientists pointed out, this signal had been traveling through space for more than a thousand years. It was created during a time that humanity had been in the Dark Ages, centuries before our invention of the radio: this signal was very likely not aimed at us at all, but had only found us by accident.  The messages that we were broadcasting back at Iris (which scientists had reverted to calling “Kepler-442”) wouldn’t reach the star for another thousand years.

The aliens had no reason to believe that we exist.

That’s when things started to turn on Earth. Instead of making us feel less alone in the universe, the signal made us feel more alone than ever. A worldwide malaise set in. People gave up on the little things: We stopped recycling. We didn’t bother with our kids’ soccer matches or school plays. Many of us stopped showing up at work. Birth rates went down. People took up smoking. Religions grew stronger, more dogmatic, and more hateful. We bickered and fought. We had trouble sleeping at night: we dreamt about the vast emptiness of space.

Then, the signals from Kepler-442 stopped, just as suddenly as they’d started. The radio telescopes could no longer detect any trace of them. We didn’t know what this meant, any more than we’d known what the original signals had meant. There was plenty of conjecture, but there were no facts. All we knew was that we were alone again, in the quiet, with nothing but one another.


Christopher DeWan is author of the book HOOPTY TIME MACHINES: fairy tales for grown ups. He has published more than fifty stories in journals including Hobart, Juked, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and wigleaf, and is chair of creative writing at the California State Summer School for the Arts. Learn more at http://christopherdewan.com.


by Kate Doyle

That Is Shocking

College. Early evening. Winter. Afterward, I showed up at Tom's door to relate the events as they had transpired. He said, That is shocking, and sat me on his extra-long twin bed, and produced blue Kleenex after blue Kleenex until I had somewhat calmed down. I said, Maybe if the scones had not been heart-shaped? I would not feel so, I don't know.

It had happened, no less, on Valentine's Day.  

A few days later, Charlotte came across a red, heart-shaped cookie cutter, while scrounging for an instant cocoa packet in the kitchen of the dingy student house where she and I were roommates. Squinting at me through its empty center, homework spread out at our elbows on the dining room table, she said, with a blurted, wry laugh: Margaret do you know what this would be great for making? Shh, I said, because he lived there too.  

If you decide to end things with someone on the grounds that you are too busy to see her, materializing to say so with a plateful of heart-shaped scones you've spent the entirety of an afternoon preparing may fail to convey the fullness of your schedule. 

It is such a stupid story of course, but it is one of those that stays with you, at least if it happens to you. Forgive me, people affect me. 

That semester I was in a writing class. It was how I'd met Tom, who was a poet. He said, Let us begin a collaboration of mournful lyric essays, compiled from incidents like this one of yours, and each one will conclude that is shocking! He added, I wasn't going to say so in case it all worked out, but honestly, at the age of nineteen, this guy is definitively beginning to bald. So let's not proceed as if he were a loss. 

I thought this was unkind and very funny. 

But I said how it was not about loss, rather about humiliation, about being so disposable, about human kindness, and also how it isn't fair to tell someone you're "breaking up" in those words precisely when you have not, in fact, really been dating, you have only done things like make out in the back stairwell of the dingy literary co-op—the stairwell where we kept the communal vacuum cleaner, a stairwell, he said, No one ever uses, which did not even turn out to be true. Natalie from the third floor appeared, descending, on her way to make oatmeal cookies in the kitchen. I was unable to get my feet untangled from the hose of the vacuum. 

Frenetic, intent, I was known for being tightly wound. Calm down, people would always say to me. There is still, at this college I went to, a hole in the wall in an obscure corner of the English department, kicked there by me. That's unrelated, but illustrative. 

What got me about the heart scones is how I was unable to stop it. 

Whereas most people seemed able to end their romantic things so tidily.  

Take Charlotte. At one point, she'd been sort of seeing this friend of ours, Jamie, and though they were no longer together, they were still friends, and he still came around. No problem. Just a little earlier on Valentine's Day, I had actually seen them in our kitchen, making pasta, heating marinara on the stovetop, and it had seemed impressively normal and fine. 

The worst part, I said, stretched next to Tom on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, was how after the text that said Happy Valentine's, can I come over, I have a present for you and my text back Oh thanks sure, see you soon, I spent a good half hour feeling guilty, not having any Valentine to give in return. The sun was going down outside my window. I contemplated running to the college bookstore, in falling darkness, for a chocolate bar. 

After we cleaned up my wrinkled clumps of tissue, Tom and I crossed the quad to the dining hall in the cold. Here, under the high ceiling and bright lights, we ran into Charlotte, making a quesadilla in the Tastes of the World line. She said, What's wrong why do you look so sad? I said, I'm not, these were tears of indignation and rage, not tears of sadness. I am, sad-wise, unaffected. 

The next time I ran into him I said, I have your plate, but he said, with a smile, Oh I just took it from the dining hall once. The plate is not so important to me, you can have it. I said, I am not going to keep your plate. You are absolutely taking it home. So he obliged, and came down the hall, and waited in my open doorway for me to give it back. 

Tom didn't approve of my living there. I write poems, he said. I don't need to be in some club that confirms it. He was sitting cross-legged on top of the washing machine, open notebook in his lap, and I was on the floor, trying to feed quarters to a jammed dryer. He started to compose some lines, saying: I'm writing an ode to a beautiful old house, where everyone living inside it is weird. Don't worry, he said. You're exempt.  

Charlotte was rapidly stirring her cocoa. Listen, I was saying. Using the term "break-up" when you are explicitly not dating is like saying you're definitively abandoning your career in the ballet when you've been to class maybe two to four times ever in your life, and all those times you just talked about how you really weren't sure about ballet. Charlotte said, You said this to me yesterday. I said, I did? 

Reactions to the scones tended to divide, in the aftermath. Some people would say the scones were tainted by betrayal. Others would say, But perfectly good scones! And you didn't even eat them? On the night with the cookie cutter, our friend Jamie was there again, working on his translation thesis at the far end of the table. He said, one elbow planted in the spread-open spine of his book, pen slid behind his ear, But how were the scones? Charlotte slung the cookie cutter across the tabletop at him. She said, Margaret threw the scones in the garbage, of course. She threw them all away. 

Jamie, contemplative, said, I don't know. Perfectly good scones? I might have eaten them.

I was admittedly not so offended by this, compared to Charlotte. But then I had always had sort of a thing for Jamie. So maybe I was forgiving. He had cut his hair and shaved his beard during a trip home over Presidents Day. At the far end of the table, he frowned his new, clean-shaven frown over the Russian-English dictionary. I lifted the heart-shape and looked at him through it. 

Sometimes in retrospect I can't make sense of myself. Like how in the moment it was happening, one lamp lit on my desk and the sun setting red outside my window, behind the lined-up dark, bare, veiny trees on the far side of the parking lot, I kept picking up the plate of scones while he was talking and trying to give them back, then thinking this was petulant and setting them back down. I was at one end of the bed and he sat at the other, closer to the door. He still wore his coat. He had one hand easily gripping the bedpost, and the whole room was lit very beautifully. Outside the dusky sky shaded soft, electric blue, and I was like a puppet with this plate, just lifting it off the dresser and returning it to the dresser, again and again and again and again.

I remember him once saying with merry concern, taking his hands out of my hair: I'm not looking to be with someone, like in a dating sense. We were just inside the doorway to the abandoned common room. Late January, 3am. My cardigan flung, heaped and shadowy, on the floor. In one corner, the fake Christmas tree still stood, plugged in and blinking. 

Another detail Tom wanted to include in the collected That Is Shocking was my story about Danny from the second floor, who once took me on a much-anticipated date and then talked mostly of an ex-girlfriend, still in high school. That's icky, I remember saying, pushing salmon roll around the dregs of my soy sauce. He said, It isn't, you don't even know her. He said, You don't know. 

At one point, again putting down the scones, I said, You're too busy to keep seeing me? He said, Yes. I was cognizant of being a little fixated on his fingers, washed in yellow lamplight where they held the bedpost. That semester he was chairman of Waffle Sundays at our literary house and a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team. I said, You're aware I'm busy too? He said, in his friendly way, so benevolent, thoughtful: No, that's how busy I've been. Too busy to notice that you're busy. 

Fuck that, said Tom, writing joyfully, as the dryer, finally, started to rumble. He said, I'm actually allotting a whole stanza for this guy. 

I kept having to see him, because we both lived in that house. One morning, for example, I encountered him in the kitchen. It had snowed all night and now it was sunny—a blinding, sparkly day. Light streaked in across the littered countertops. None of us washed our dishes here. He said, Oh hey I've been wanting to give you something. I did not say, Whatever it is, it had better be shaped like a heart. He knelt and rooted in his backpack, and I watched the noon winter sun catch the bald part of his scalp, glow rosy in the soft rounds of his earlobes. Finally, he turned back and offered up to me in his cupped hands an ugly tangle of bobby pins. Taken one by one from my hair the night he'd stayed. Tenderly? They looked like bugs, jumbled together this way. Ungracefully, I clawed them from his palms. 

The bobby pins had been the unexpected source of an actual nice moment. How many of these do you wear? he'd said, incredulous. Kissed my neck hungrily, affectionately, in the exquisite darkness of my room. 

The fact is that within a few years, Jamie and I would be living together in New York. By then Charlotte and I were no longer in touch. 

In the midst of that breakup, I threw a glass across the kitchen into our sink, where it broke into pieces. Jamie looked embarrassed as he picked the larger shards from the drain. I said, Tom and I swore years ago we'd write a book about terrible endings. I want you to know when I put you in it, I will be unforgiving. Jamie had this big piece of glass pinched between his thumb and forefinger, his shirtsleeve rolled up. He said, Tom? I said, Unforgiveable. 

Tom had gone on to do sort of well, writing-wise. I would go see him do readings at bars. He won an obscure award for a chapbook he did, and a prize for a late revision of the old-house-weird-people poem. Drunk at a reading on the Lower East Side, not long after Jamie moved out, I pressed my hand to Tom's forearm and said, Remember our collaboration? He said he remembered the title being important, but that it escaped him now. I put my empty beer glass down on the bar and said, That is shocking. 

Holy shit, he said. That's amazing. He said, I really forgot. 

We determined we would actually write it. We started meeting at my half-empty apartment on weekends. We would lie in my bed drinking coffee, and he would write, and I would write, and we would compare our notes. Once, after I read a bit aloud to him about it being shocking I'd started dating my best friend's boyfriend in the first place, he said, face pressed to one of my pillows, Whatever happened to her? Are you still friends? I said, You don't remember?  

I felt humiliated and betrayed, is what I used to say about the scones.

Internet photos implied Charlotte had also moved to New York. I had invested significant mental energy, pre-breakup, inventing a succession of surprising and horrible ways Jamie and I might bump into her—as, for example, we once encountered Danny from the second floor on a Brooklyn-bound L. Pleasantries having been exchanged about everyone's jobs, Danny had detailed his revived relationship with the girl from high school, now 22. 

Jamie had taken our duvet cover, the big plant, the most light-giving lamp. The blue ceramic French press that was actually mine. Most of what had been hanging on our walls, though not the picture hooks, of course, which stayed behind—eyeing everything unkindly from their multiple floating vantage points. Above the sofa, over the toilet, next to my nightstand. Dead-center on the expanse of wall dividing living room from bedroom. Four of them, vertically, on the narrow strip between kitchen door and bathroom door. One Sunday, Tom picked through all the bracelets and necklaces I kept in a bowl where the nightstand had been, and then went around the apartment, draping his favorites from the hooks. I'm trying to fill up all these weird gaps, he told me. He moved some of my books into the spot where the plant had been. 

We needed more coffee. Tom was brewing it in the inferior drip coffeemaker, and I was on the kitchen counter, kicking my heels, one-two one-two, against the lower cabinets. I said, I should have known about Jamie the moment the words "perfectly good scones" passed his lips. I said, My litmus test going forward will be, anyone I'm inviting into my life in any way gets told the story, and only people who would not ever eat the scones are permitted anywhere near me. Friends, lovers, colleagues, I mean it.

Holy shit, I forgot about scone guy, said Tom, washing out a mug for himself. I totally forgot. 

He said, Do you ever feel weird this still bothers you? 

He said, Where even is he these days?  

I said, Let's pretend I'm the sort of person who wouldn't keep track of him. It is possible, by then, I was crying. I took out my phone to text Jamie the French press was mine and I wanted it back. I wrote, I can't wait until tomorrow. Bring it here now. He said, I've been drinking too much coffee anyway, Margaret, the French press is not so important to me. He texted me, It's fine. He said, You can have it. But I'm not going to come over there now, he said. Just calm down, okay? He said, Take it easy.


Kate Doyle received her MFA from NYU and was a graduate fellow at NYU Paris. Her writing has appeared in the Franklin Electric Reading Series, Meridian, No Tokens, Lamprophonic, and the NYU Emerging Writers Reading Series.


by Ron Riekki

Good

It was 3 p.m. Kenansville, Florida. I think. The heat was apocalyptic. All of the ambulances had left except for ours. They’d taken all the living people and left us with the dead. We were waiting for the coroner. I’m a part-time EMT and my partner is so part-time that he only does a shift once a month. They figured we couldn’t screw up with dead bodies.

We both already had headaches from the smell. I’m sure with all the car exhaust and random fires and such that cancer won’t be too far off for me.

We stood staring at the bodies. The road was completely closed off so that nobody else would have to see this. A few cops were nearby, jotting things down, but they left us alone. One cop who I knew walked up and said, “Hi, June” and walked away. June was the month when my first patient died on me.  I cried. Never, ever do that in front of a cop. Otherwise they’ll come up with a nickname for you that will keep reminding you of your first patient’s death.

The patients before us now didn’t die on me. They were already dead when we got here. There’s no need to do CPR if you see dependent lividity or rigor mortis, if you have incineration, if the body has already decomposed, or if they’re missing any of the Wizard of Oz organs—heart or brain. The car was upside-down. It was full of a family. They had a combination of incineration and other things that I won’t go into.

Before work, I went bowling with my girlfriend. I shouldn’t have done that. I should have slept in. Early in the shift, my partner had told me he’d been struggling with depression. You talk about things like that with your partner. You sit there for hours with nothing to do, waiting. Some partners just tune into their cell phone and pretend the world doesn’t exist; it’s amazing how intense they can get with the screen. Others talk. I didn’t know what to say. Staring at the dead bodies, I wondered if it would be a good time to say something. I tried to think, but I just wanted to sleep. Thanksgiving was coming up. I wasn’t going to be able to afford to go home. I’d been pretty depressed myself. It’s a minimum wage job.  I’d recently seen my first dead baby. This was in an E.R. A drowning. The baby was all wet and the mother was standing nearby, also completely wet, and I was shocked at how much the dead just let people do anything they want. The nurses were doing CPR on the baby and its arms and legs just wiggled uselessly. A nurse motioned me to step in to relieve her for CPR and I went to step forward but a medic stepped in front of me and took my spot, so I just stood there, useless. You could tell the baby wouldn’t live. They kept going with CPR for a long time and all I was able to do was close a curtain so patients in the E.R. couldn’t see what was happening. One of the E.R. patients caught eyes with me and she looked at me like I was a hero when all I was doing was moving a piece of fabric a few feet in a different direction.

My partner said he wanted to kill himself with his rifle he called “Big Medicine.” He’s a wild hog hunter. I know if people have a specific way they want to kill themselves, it’s much more likely to happen, but I also didn’t want to tell H.R. because my partner told me not to say anything to anyone.

I looked at the bottom of the car, its insect-black guts. Even the car seemed dead. The sky was all hazy and grey and wounded. Sometimes an entire day can seem injured, eviscerated.

On the way to the bowling alley we listened to an old Mitch Hedberg CD my girlfriend’d made me for my birthday a week ago. On the CD, Mitch says, “I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.” I replayed it like five times until she told me to stop. I’d been trying to make up jokes lately and tried some out on her, but she didn’t like any of them, except one where I said, “I don’t see what’s so hard about being a hostage. I could do that blindfolded. With two hands tied behind my back. In fact, that would make it even easier to be a hostage.” She said that one has promise. She’s from Lillers, France, and is a big Charlie Hebdo fan, from way before the attacks. She was in Paris when they happened and texted me that there were people hiding under tables where she was eating. Her restaurant wasn’t one that got attacked but she said that everybody was afraid and panicking. Verbatim, the end of her text said, “People run for no reason. It’s silly.”  She didn’t know what was going on. I thought about turning off the comedy CD and talking to her about it. Since she’s come back we haven’t talked about it at all. A son of one of her father’s friends was killed. I’m not sure if she knew the son well. I haven’t asked. I’m afraid to.

The coroner can take a long time to come. This is my second corpse we’ve been left with in the last two months.

Back at the base station, they like it if you tell jokes while waiting for calls. EMTs like to pretend to be tough so they tell a lot of racist and sexist jokes that they pretend aren’t racist or sexist.  I just watch sports on the old black-and-white TV and keep silent. I hate sports. The only thing I like about sports is the injuries. I like to watch old Youtube videos of players getting injured and try to think how I’d try to help them on the sidelines. I’ve always been like that. Even when I was a kid, if I saw someone fall on ice in a parking lot, I’d rush over to ask if there’s anything I could do. I like to help people, especially if they’re hurting really badly. As a matter of fact, I don’t really like to help people if they’re not hurting that much. It’s just a waste of time. With corpses, it puts me in a strange position. You can’t do anything for the dead.

In the backseat, you can see the mother and daughter. I think it’s a mother and daughter. Usually we try to take the patients out of the car, but when they’re obviously dead, you don’t bother. You wait for the fire department to do it, but they were busy with the living. You have to prioritize. In triage, it’s called black tag. You have to treat the red tags first, then the yellow, then the green. In triage, green means stop and red means go. There’s an intersection traffic light above us. It keeps changing. Even though no cars are coming. No one has turned it off. It keeps moving smoothly through the colors.

Black means you’re dead.

“I’ve been suicidal before too.”

My partner doesn’t respond to what I’ve just said. He goes closer to look at the bodies inside, crouching down. He covers his face. Maybe it’s the smoke lingering. Maybe it’s the smell of burned flesh. People, set on fire, tend to smell a lot like animals, like pork, in fact. I can’t go into barbecue places anymore. It reminds me of MVAs, multiple-vehicle accidents, the smell.

It’s never a good time to tell someone you’ve wanted to kill yourself. I remember I told two friends of mine once and all they did was catch each other’s eyes and look down at the table.

I go over and crouch down too. I don’t cover my face.

My partner nods his head yes.

Out of the corner of my eye I see what I think might be a dead crow. Licorice color with its wings in decerebrate posture, ready to hug sky. I actually consider going over to it and giving it CPR.

It’s 3:30 p.m. Kenansville, Florida. I think. The month of May on its final breaths.


Ron Riekki’s books include And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State University Press), Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Independent Publisher Book Award), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Michigan Notable Book), and U.P.: a novel (Ghost Road Press). Books upcoming in 2019: Posttraumatic: a memoir—essays & flash non-fiction on the military, prison, iggy pop, the devil, & writing (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle), The Many Lives of The Evil Dead: Essays on the Cult Film Franchise (McFarland, w/Jeff Sartain), Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice (Michigan State University Press, w/Andrea Scarpino).