"That means we killed those poor people for less money than could pay a parking ticket."

Dear Readers,

In the grand scheme of things, the really basic stuff is all that really matters. You know, like eating and sleeping. That complicated stuff, those issues, which we agonize over daily, doesn't really mean much at all. We're monsters in the long run, since all we can think about are monstrously unimportant matters.

I'm a monster, you know.

I've brought together this story just for you, and I've distracted you from the stuff that really matters. I feel awful for it, and yet I cannot help but pass along this information. I know what it will do for you. I absolutely do.

Anyway:

Before you read, I make this one, humble suggestion. Close your eyes and just listen. If you can't hear very much at all, that's perfectly normal. That's life—not much at all. If you can, however, hear such complicated things as music or your neighbors shouting to each other through some open window, then relish the moment. Why? Because that's honest—that's real. Take it for what its worth, and be grateful that you can hear life in its more honest state.

Then, once that's over, open up your eyes again and let them fall upon the page. I won't ask you to be unbiased or understanding. I'll ask you to be willing to expand your mind and then contract it again—like the universe. Yes, make your mind a universe. You don't have to believe any of this; you just have to observe it.

Sincerely,

Arlie Stanton

Chapter One: Boneless

I don't think my cat was made up of any bones. What I mean is that it could lay any which way without ever looking uncomfortable. She's the type of cat that's all fur and all attitude, the sort of cat you never really pet unless she came looking for you. She was a disappointment, really, and I know that's a terrible thing to say about a living creature, but there isn't a girl alive that wants a cat she can't come to for comfort.

But she was really something to watch. It's like all there was under her mass of mangled fur was nothing but softness and tissue. I don't even think she had organs, but that's just because she didn't eat very often. Have you ever met a cat that didn't eat very often?

The only person she really liked was my brother, which was what bothered me the most. My parents got her for me, three years ago, in fact, and yet she always took a liking to him. She would follow him around and swat at the hem of his pants (he tended to have high-waters purely because he grew too much too quickly), and she would sit in his lap whenever we watched movies together as a family. She wasn't one for sleeping with people at night, but I knew full well that she went to him before she went to anyone else.

I knew she at least tolerated me, because she would come to me every week or so and expect to receive all the tender love and care that she felt was due to her, but as soon as she was satisfied she expected me to stop. I never knew when, of course, so I have a few scars on my right hand where she had informed me that I was done.

She was all the disadvantages of having a cat, like brushing out the clumps of dirt from her long, long fur, scooping her unmentionables from the litter box, removing the remains of some poor mouse that she discovered in the backyard from the windowsill, or simply breaking up whatever fights she may get into in our front yard. It's like having all of those things, miserable and unwanted though they are, and never getting the advantages, like having a companion who will love you unconditionally merely because she cannot understand what you're talking about.

Now that's one thing I like in a cat. You can spill your guts to a cat, and there's no way she'll tell. It's one thing that at least my cat will allow, and that's just because she likes to sleep in my bedroom. When my friends aren't around, she's at least there (well, when she isn't busy tyrannizing the small population of rodents and reptiles in my backyard).

I guess I wish I were like my cat for all those reasons. It's not the great vastness of her sleep or the way in which she got away with everything because it's believed she knew little else—it was the way that she just doesn't seem to have any bones. You could do anything to that cat, and it probably wouldn't hurt her. I want to be like her. I want to be boneless, shapeless. I want to be malleable.

Of course, there's little chance of that.

I must be one of the few people in the world that hate summer time. I mean, I like the principle of the season—the coming together and doing whatever your heart wants for nearly three months. I just hate the season itself. I hate the heat. I hate it so much that I wish I could sleep through the summer months until it's winter again—or at least fall. That would be so much better.

Though, I'd probably miss a lot.

This story begins in the midst of the very thing which I hate—the summer. My brother was and always will be three years older than me, and that summer he was getting ready to go to college. My brother, the fool who used to pretend to be Diaper-Man in junior high. My brother, the fool who once convinced his English teacher that he was deathly allergic to the dye used to print the blue lines against notebook paper. I had no idea it was so easy to get into college.

He's the kind of person that's easily missed, though. I knew that even as I reached up to hug him, that big oaf with the outward appearance of a football player and the inward appearance of a comedian. He wasn't always there for me, but he was there when he really needed to be. I loved him for that. I loved him for all his flaws. He was the only person in the family that I could talk to without much effort.

"You're going to drive everyone there crazy," I told him with a smile on my face as he pulled away from the hug and threw his backpack into the open car. "They'll kick you out in a month, I promise you that."

He laughed, because he knew it was partly true. But he had fun with it, elaborating the joke and making it even more amusing. "Nah. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there that are far worse than me. There's probably some kids there that call themselves Shit-Man. Not even Diaper-Man. I bet I'll befriend every professor in sight, and soon they'll call me," he paused to pose, his hands on his hips and his head flung up so that it was high and dignified, "Honor-Roll-Man."

I chuckled. "Only if their standards are very, very low. And," I titled my head to the side and shrugged, "considering your grades in high school, they must be."

"Thanks." He walked over to our mother and pulled her into a hug. She was a small woman, and I often wondered how she managed to have a son like him. I understood how I came to be, since I was and always will be small and frail and prone to illness (much like in many, many ways), but, compared to the giant that was my brother, she was a dwarf, feeble and meek. He could have easily crushed her while they hugged.

"You promise to be on your best behavior?" my mother asked my brother tearfully. She had her arms tightly wrapped around him, and it really looked like she wouldn't ever let go. "You promise me that you won't get hurt, won't do anything stupid?"

"You're asking too much," I pipped in from the other side of the car.

My father, who was already inside, waiting to see his son off all the way to the college, which was really only one hour away by car, chuckled. "That's what mothers do, Arlie."

I leaned against the door and sighed. "What'll she do without him to worry about all of the time?"

"Worry about him all of the time twice as much, since she won't be able to see him do stupid things," he replied. He looked up at me through his driving glasses and grinned. "And then she'll worry about her daughter, who won't have an overprotective brother around her every passing moment. They're the best kind of babysitters, you know."

"Thanks."

"Oh, it's true." He put the key into the ignition and started the car. It was the better car of the two, and it started up without any sort of complaints. The engined hummed deftly as it waited for it to be put to some real use. "Hurry up over there!" my father hollered from inside the car.

That was my brother's chance to pull away from the hug. He let our mother squeeze his hand, and then he hurried over to the passenger-side door. He opened it up and sat down, bringing that side of the car down a whole foot. It wasn't really made for someone of his bulk.

"See you two later!" he said from inside, and then he shut his door.

I pushed off from the car and leaned in through my father's window. "Promise you'll drive safe, m'kay?"

"Of course." He smiled up at me once more, squinting slightly because of the heat and the brightness of the day, and then he put the car into drive and began to roll down the driveway. My mother and I watched them until they were out of sight around the bend in the street, off to the freeway, then the highway, and then clear out of town.

"I should have gone with them," she said tearfully, though she wasn't actually crying.

"And get motion sickness?" I wrinkled my nose at the prospect, for we both suffered from the same affliction, and then I shook my head. I walked over to her side, put my hands in the pockets of my shorts and stretched my shoulders plaintively. "I don't envy their task. I hate how my legs stick to that leather in the heat."

"We really shouldn't have gotten leather," my mother agreed. But she sighed and shrugged her shoulders—it wasn't much to complain about. "Come on. Let's get inside before the heat kills the both of us."

We retreated into our cool house and tried not to think about our energy bill. I went into my room to read a book I never did get the chance to finish, and my mother called up her friend from out of state to talk about their twenty-five-year reunion for high school. I could hear her laugh loudly from time to time, perhaps start talking fairly loudly because she was getting excited, and it had a sort of nice feel to it—those sounds.

It made it feel like even the heat could not stifle the life indoors.

And did my city ever have the worst summers. We were lucky, at least, in that the air was dry (humidity is a terrible thing to endure), yet that was the only respite we had in a world so void of comforts. It could easily break past 100 degrees and reach even to 115 degrees there. Facilities were opened up for the elderly and the financially troubled merely to offer free air-conditioning, and hoards of old folks would die from heat stroke, simply by being in homes that were too warm.

I would always try to imagine those facilities whenever I heard of them. I had never actually been, since, as I mentioned, my parents took particular care to keep the house cold, so had to rely purely on my imagination, though I would often base the images off of stereotypes of old people and community centers. I imagined that the room with be packed to capacity with old people, all of them stripped down to their undershirts and some over-tight, too-high pants. Some of them would be wearing shorts, much to the horror of those present, and all of them would somehow smell of milk.

I could just imagine the sounds that they would make—a room filled with steaming, sweating, suffering old people. There would be a few children mixed in, and they would all be crying, because that's what children did in the heat. Some would even be screaming. Together, they would be an individual mass that would increase in density near the vents from which the cold air streamed.

A farting, coughing, choking, laughing, crying and screaming mass that smelled something fierce.

I vowed that I would pitch in if my parents every said they couldn't afford the air conditioning.

The heat was a killer. It was worse for me, too, since I was so easily affected. Our nights were warmer than most peoples' days.

Of course, it wasn't all bad. It made inside feel so much better. Sometimes, whenever I was feeling warm at my desk or on top of my bed, I would go outside and stand in the heat for a while, just soaking up and absorbing how awful it truly was. Then I would head back to what I was doing or to bed, and I would feel so much better.

Things are like that when you put them in perspective.

My cat wandered into the room for a while during my book. She was something like a commercial, and she advertised her hunger with a flick of her tail against my exposed back (through the slats in the wooden chair I currently occupied). When that did work, she mewed a few times. After a minute, she got bored and hopped up onto my bed on the other side of the room. She circled my pillow for a few minutes, pawed at its soft essence, and then she lay down amongst the fluff and her own fur.

She feel asleep quickly.

Every once in a while, the house would moan or pop from the expansion caused by the extreme heat. It was particularly bad in the evening, since it would cool the wood and metal, causing it to change its mass, and it took a long time for everyone in the household to get used to it. The only one who was not accustomed was the cat, and that was simply because such creatures have an innate ability to forget anything and everything that does not pertain to food.

Randomly, one of the supporting beams in the house let out a fierce crack, which sent my cat flying out of the room and in the direction of the doggy door (which a dog had never had the pleasure to have known).

I chuckled to myself and watched her go, and then I laughed even harder when I heard my mother exclaim, "Jesus H. Christ!" when the cat ran past her, perhaps through her legs from where she stood in the kitchen.

"Serves you right," I said. I suppose I always envied her ability to sleep so often.

Save for the popping and the yowling and the screaming, it was a quiet house. I could hear the sound of distant traffic (since there was a large street not but a few blocks away), and I could hear the soft sound of music. Someone was listening to some awful pop song that was popular a year before.

It was pleasant, despite the heat. People managed to survive and even to thrive, and there was a general feeling of calm. I didn't for a moment think that there was anything wrong with the world, which was, of course, wrong, but sort of true at the same time.

For that moment, I was fairly ordinary.

In those quiet moments, I could hear my mother easily. She was probably wandering the house while she spoke, sitting at the table, on the sofa, leaning against the kitchen counter, wandering the hallways. She was probably picking at things, dusting random things that looked like they hadn't been dusted in a while, observing that my brother's room needed vacuuming. It was a Saturday afternoon, and my mother had nothing to do.

There was a point when my book got boring, and I stopped reading for a while. I dog-eared the page, since I always managed to lose bookmarks anyway, and then I leaned in my chair and looked up at the ceiling. I saw faces in the rough surface—saw something that looked like the Mona Lisa, something that looked like Mikey Mouse. I always marveled at our ability to see faces when there clearly weren't any, and I always tried to find the same face twice. I never was able to.

I unconsciously began to listen in on my mother's conversation, but I didn't hear anything interesting for a great long while. Just the usual, drab, one-sided gossip about people who had long since grown fat or ugly since their high school days. It was pretty funny, though, to hear how much she could be like all the other girls despite her years.

I guess everyone's essentially the same.

"Oh, you wouldn't believe what I saw her wearing just last week, Molly. You just would not believe it!" She put particular emphasis on those words, which was pretty funny, too, since I was pretty sure I knew who she was talking about. She was this fat, old, cow of a woman we saw one day while shopping, and my mother stopped her to say hello. Once they had finished talking, she told me everything—that she was the captain of the cheer squad in high school, that she dated the cutest boy, that she said the meanest things. "It's karma," my mother had declared. "Purely and utterly karma—at its finest." Anyway: "She looks like a hippie gone wrong, and she talked like someone had kicked her vocal chords in. I can't wait to see your face when you see her!"

Molly said something, and my mother was quiet for a few moments. She laughed a few times, and then she replied. "Well, you'd think that she would have put some effort into her appearance, but I guess, when you grow up believing you're the most beautiful thing in the whole wide world, you forget that you can actually age—actually get ugly. Anyway, it'll be a big shock for you, since you left town when you went off to college. Most of them are still here, you know. It's completely different for me."

Her friend said something again. "No, yeah—I know. Trust me, darling, I know! I keep on wondering if I've gotten as ugly or as fat as them whenever I see them. I say to myself, 'Have I really gotten that old?' It's terrifying! But, with a husband like Frank, it's difficult to think that you're hideous. That man is all complements all the time."

Molly said something, probably along the lines of, "Sometimes I feel the same way, but my husband does little to make me feel better."

"Well, we'll just have to whip him into shape! He can't have his woman feeling down!" My mother boomed out laughter at her own semi-joke, and then she listened to Molly speak.

A few minutes of, "Uh-huh," and, "I see," and the like passed, and then my mother cut her old friend off. "Oh, hold on, Mols. Someone's got me on the other line."

That caught my interest just because it was a change.

"Hello, Stanton residence?" My mother listened for a moment, listening to whatever was being said.

"Ah—the news?" She hurried over to the living room and turned on the television. "Yes, it's on. They're talking about a farming family who—"

Whoever was on the phone cut her off.

I got up from my chair and went into the living room. "What's going on?" I asked.

My mother glanced at me and then her waved her hand as if to say, "Not now." She pointed to the television screen and then backed up until she was within sitting distance of the sofa. She did not, however, yet sit down.

I watched what was happening on the screen, and I saw that it was a prerecorded segment that held little if any interest at all. It was the sort of thing they put on when they were stalling or had a lack of material to work with, and I always figured that they only people that honestly watched them were the same sweaty, old people who huddled into the air-conditioning centers to stave off heatstroke.

And then, in a heartbeat, the tone of the news changed. It went from the pleasantries of sheer B.S. to stark reality of the world. An areal shot of a pile-up was dashed across the scene, and the strained voice of a female news broadcaster filled the room.

"We take you now live to a pile-up on the I-99 nearest Bakersfield, California. As you can see, the accident appears to have involved upwards of twenty vehicles, most of them in flames."

My mother nearly dropped the phone for all her horror. She caught herself before she could do so. "I've got to go!" she barked into the phone. She pressed the "end" button, and then she dialed "4" on the speed dial, which took her straight to my father's cell phone.

The moments in which it took for that phone to ring had to have been the longest in my life. I don't think anything could be more gut-wrenching, and I don't think any news could be more horrifying.

In my state of delayed shock, I began to wonder what it must be like for the woman announcing the news as it happened. She didn't sound too upset, so there was no way that anyone she knew was driving up the I-99 that day. She probably couldn't care less what was happening, though she might feel a bit bad about it when she got drunk that night. She probably thought that they were just faceless strangers, without lives and without emotions. I doubted that anyone who worked at such a thing (at telling to the stories of the world to the masses) could easily be afflicted by the misery of others.

I wondered if she understood that my brother and father were driving down that road.

I wondered if she understood that it could be her brother or her father.

I wondered how many times his phone would ring before he picked up.

Or before it went to the voice mail.

When the ringing was spent, my mother looked to me in abject horror. Her mouth was agape, and her face was contorted with sorrow and fear that had not been there only a few minutes ago.

"He didn't pick up," she told me. "He didn't pick up."

That's the thing about tragedies. They happen just like that—suddenly and without warning. There's no such thing as prolonged tragedy. It's always sudden, and it's always a surprise, and it always happens at the worst possible time.

Of course, when is a good time for death?

My mother attempted to call my father, as well as my brother, for the rest of the day. We sat in front of the T.V., staring at the colorful, bright screen, and we waited for good news. We didn't wait for bad news. We knew that our family would come walking into the house at any moment. There would be no bad news.

My father was alive.

My brother was alive.

We knew it. We just did.

He didn't pick up.

We sat in that room, my mother stiff and rigid, me limp and faint, and we stared at that television screen. The day grew into night, and the darkness crept into the room slowly, until all we had to guide us was the ever-glowing screen of the television. Commercials whizzed by and told us to buy this and that, and stereotypical dramas persuaded us to become a different kind of human. No one inside that broad-casted world had any idea that we were sitting on pins and needles.

But there was just no way that either of them could be dead.

He didn't pick up.

I scorned the world, even though the world wasn't the one to blame. Every time my mother called, and every time my mother was forced to hang up and dial once more—every damn time, I felt like a chunk of me was being hacked away by some horrible, unseen reaper of bad, bad news.

He didn't pick up.

It was maybe eight or nine when the doorbell rang. It was probably the worst sound I had ever heard, purely because neither my father nor my brother would have rang the doorbell.

My mother got up from the sofa like a robot. She left the phone on the cushion, right beside me, and then she stumbled through the darkness to the front door. I stared at the rectangular manifestation of communication in silence while the officer dealt her the bad news.

"I'm so very sorry, ma'am, but there was an accident."

I wondered what it was like to deliver that news, too. It was definitely a job I could never do. Even if I could save a million people by my service, having to tell a distraught, lost woman that her husband and her son were dead would utterly destroy me. There's no going back from something like that. How do you sit down and eat dinner? How do you sleep? How do you even take a shit?

Nothing's normal once you become the bearer of bad news—once that becomes your god-damn job description.

After that, everything was mechanical, forced. It was vague and dreamlike, and there was no substance to it. I felt like I had become like those television programs, scripted and performed. All appearance and no life. I fell asleep that night hoping to wake up the next morning and find out that it had all been a dream.

He didn't pick up.