• Broadkill Review

"Trajectory" by Thomas Mixon



It’s April and it’s not yet sunrise and there’s a sudden screaming on the pond that makes me fall right off the bed (I don’t know why, but I always curl towards the edge, away from the wall). On the floor I am frozen in something I wouldn’t call fear since I quickly realize it’s just the loons, returned from their winter away. But I’m frozen, regardless. My body is heavy and I’m cold despite the hiss of the radiator. I pull open the curtains but it’s pitch dark, the moon has already set or it’s too cloudy or something else. This time of year is ridiculous. Everything has melted but then the mud freezes. Then it unfreezes and there’s a little green, which gets frozen again and trampled on by the returning wildlife.

I can’t see the loons, but they keep calling to each other, crying their crazy car alarm warning, already there’s territorial dispute, already conflict. And for god’s sake why am I so cold?

I’m about to close the curtains, when something bright green catches my eye, on the dock a couple houses down. It’s completely dark, but there is a persistent fluorescence atop the old boards. A flashlight? The summer renters aren’t here yet so it’s weird to see anyone else near the recently thawed pond. Especially in the middle of the night.

Opening the window is real stupid, because of course the glow points my way at the creaking sound, and I can’t see a thing again. I’m not scared, not due to any bravery on my part, but because I feel like (and I know how arrogant this sounds) I’ve seen so much in my short time alive, what can be a surprise anymore? We’re now in the second pandemic in under a decade. I’m thirteen, I was four during COVID in 2020, and now the new mutation has shut down everything again. What’s the point in being afraid of a flashlight?

Eventually the light moves out of my face, and straight under the chin of someone I’ve never seen before. They don’t say anything, but I can see the neon color isn’t coming from the LED they are holding. It’s their hair. It’s pointy and so beautifully wrong up here in the sticks it is actually the most right thing I’ve seen in a while. It disappears when they turn out the light and of course I’m not going back to sleep.

I log in and finish my async assignments for the day, just as the sun is coming up. My parents wake up and can’t stop talking about how wonderful it is, that the loons are back. When they see me getting dressed, unusually early/ever for me, they don’t even ask, they assume I care about the birds the way they do (/pretend to?) and ask me to take a picture if I get close enough. They don’t see that I’m not bothering to take my phone, that I beeline straight for our dock without dragging the kayak out, that I am waiting there until I see that someone again, and asking them why on earth they are here this time of year. And to please say they aren’t just here for a long weekend.

##

Before they tell me to call them Crayon, they’re eying the birds atop the water.

“There’s something wrong with your ducks.”

“Not mine.”

“No? They’re definitely not real.”

“They’re loons. Wait, how are they fake?”

“They exist, I mean we are definitely seeing them.”

“I agree.”

“But they are not natural. Look at how that one swims.”

Crayon stands up from the dock two houses down, swings an arm back to toss a pair of binoculars. I drop my thermos and coffee spills between the planks. There’s no way they can throw that far.

They smile and of course, they were never going to throw. I take everything too literally. Luckily the smile is kind, a smirk and shake of the head you give to a dog that falls for it every time, which is odd because we’ve just met, but it feels like they will get me every time, and that I won’t mind, and that they won’t be mean about it.

They tell me to call them Crayon, and go to shake my hand. I hesitate for a second, then do it.

“You’re not scared?”

“I used to dye my hair.”

“I mean the plague.”

Damn. I’m not even wearing my mask.

“It’s OK, we got tested before we came.”

Phew.

“Who’s we?”

“Rents, four-year-old brother I hope you never have to see or hear.”

“We moved here when I was four.”

“Maybe he will too. We rented the house through the summer.”

“You’re not in school?”

“Virtual.”

“Same.”

I don’t tell them I’ve always been virtual, that this little idyllic town, with plenty of second homeowners paying taxes, refuses to install a ventilation system. There are other reasons I’m fine with remote learning, but Crayon and I aren’t there yet. I don’t want to mess this up yet. I take the binoculars when they hand them to me and don’t ask how they can wear a tee-shirt in this weather, while I’m bundled up in two hoodies.

“There. See? Its movements. Stiff.”

“Loons are prehistoric, they’re legitimately prehistoric.”

“This is almost mechanical. Like it’s attempting to be a loon.”

“It is a loon.”

“Something that is not a loon, that is not an animal, trying to be a loon, an animal.”

“But you think not.”

“Not fooling me.”

“Then what?”

“Drone maybe. Droid. What country hates New Hampshire?”

“America?”

“Domestic surveillance, need I say more.”

I want to say yes, please say more. But I say nothing. They say nothing too, and instead we watch the loons dive beneath the surface, on the hunt. I won’t admit it now, but yes, there is something unusual about the pair’s movements. They dive but stay down much longer than I know loons can or should. They pop back up, ten minutes later, in the same exact spot, not having moved to catch a fish or whatever they eat. They do a little circle, a few head-bobs, then back down. Like it’s a pattern.

I’m about to extoll these observations to Crayon, when I hear a window open at our house, and my father’s loud voice, in that unnecessary mix of stern and polite, demanding I please say goodbye to my friend and come inside right now.

I look at Crayon’s face. What do they think about that, about that word, about friend?

I can’t tell. They tip an invisible hat and scurry back to their own dock. My father breathes loudly. I head back inside.

##

Even once I’m not grounded anymore, I don’t see Crayon during the day. It’s just easier. No, we meet at night instead, like the first time we saw each other. As spring turns to summer, I claim I’m going to bed early, then meet Crayon at their dock, as soon as it’s too dark to spy us out there together. Mom and Dad were suspicious at first, but I sell the lie by waking up early each morning, making coffee. They either believe me or like their French Press too much.

It’s catching up with me, though. We talk for hours, I sneak back home, barely sleep, repeat. By the time we meet up I’m probably delirious, and their ideas don’t help. Maybe we’re in a simulacrum, they say. Or we’ve evolved to believe we’re in a simulacrum. Or we are the ones operating a simulacrum without even knowing it. Which is why when they start talking about the asteroid, I’m not sure I’m hearing them correctly.

“A paw fish?”

"Apophis.”

“This year?”

“Yep, December.”

“And NASA’s not freaking out?”

“They believe their calculations. In 2021 they said no chance.”

They are wearing a tee-shirt despite the mosquitos. They are calm despite the world possibly coming to an end. They are talking to me, they don’t have to be out here, they could be online getting a whole lot more intelligent feedback than my paltry contributions to the discussion. I look back at my house. The moon is pretty full, I guess we could be caught. Through the closed curtains I can see the TV light dancing, shifting from scene to scene, my parents scaring themselves with some cop drama, some Nordic thriller. No wonder they are so anxious. They’re not chancing a glance outside, into the void.

While I was grounded I tried to tell them, tried to reason. Crayon has been tested, their whole family’s tested, they don’t go anywhere, they get the same grocery delivery we do. But as long as there’s a risk, even tiny, Mom and Dad want us on opposite docks, only on a windy day, talking through the phone. I tell them there’s a greater chance of getting into a car accident. But then I remember, they’re not driving anymore.

One of the loons hollers again, very close, shortly followed by a wailing behind us.

“That’s your brother?”

“He hates the loons.”

“Good thing they’re not real.”

“I know! I told him. Made him cry more.”

“What if they are waiting for the asteroid?”

Crayon whips their head to face me directly.

“Sam you’re sick. You’re a genius.”

“Well, that’s all I got.”

“No, you own this now. Elaborate.”

“OK. So the loons are aliens?”

“You tell me!”

“They’re something. Maybe they’re lost.”

“Already a show.”

“Yeah, my parents are probably watching it now.”

In the moonlight, I can see the loon clearly, a few feet away from the dock. Crayon and I both go quiet. The birds have swum close before, but not like this. I could, but never would, reach out and touch it. I swear Crayon is considering how far they need to reach, and it’s only because we both hear, very softly, a ticking sound, that they decide not to. Like the ticking of a clock, something with gears.

“Um. Sam.”

“I hear it too.”

The loon pays us no attention, has its back to us, goes about its nonsensical regimen, some force of instinct or computer program that will always make it alien in my book, even if it is of this earth. How it knows what it knows, its surety. I can never be that. I guess in this way, Crayon is alien to me. They stand up and I am flabbergasted they could decide to do that. It takes me hours to come to any resolution. I would probably go on sitting on this dock forever, especially since half of the loon’s body is opening up, like a DeLorean door, and another smaller loon, a baby, is exiting this heretofore hidden hatch. The amount of time it would take me to process this, if not for Crayon.

They sit back down, scoot towards me.

“What. The. Actual.”

I don’t say a thing. They are curled up against me and I am doing everything I can to keep this moment as is.

A window on my house opens. I don’t say a thing. Crayon grips my hand.

After a moment, another window. Mine. Nobody is calling for me yet. I am not moving yet. Crayon takes my other hand.

Both windows close. I do not let go of Crayon’s hands.

##

Getting caught just sped up the inevitable. The country gets used to the new threat, it becomes old, schools reopen for the fall. There’s talk of booster shots, maybe early next year. Before anything’s approved, before anything changes, it’s like we’ve already won. Restrictions are lifted, numbers climb. But, we’ve been through this before. It’s a story everyone has a place in.

Crayon’s family take their place back in Rhode Island, before August is over. We say goodbye through text. I’m worse at texting than I thought. At least my silences on the dock were mysterious. Could mean I’m wise and profound, silent genius, etc. I just needed to gaze at the stars. On the phone I’m monosyllabic, and worse: ellipses. Worst: sometimes I don’t respond.

They say they’re convincing their family that skiing is “super cool!” and needling them to come back up for Christmas. But who knows. October comes and the adult loons should be heading back to sea. But the ones on our water don’t.

Mom says, “Strange that they’re staying with the baby.

Dad says, “It’s like that little one sprang into existence.”

They continue talking at the table as I continue saying nothing.

“Did it ever ride on one of their backs?”

“I swear it’s stayed the same size, the whole summer.”

“Athena loon! Born out of the pond’s forehead.”

At this point who cares. “There was a latch, I saw it. No egg.”

They mistake my participation for encouragement and babble on like this the whole night. They don’t take me seriously. They don’t ask me if I want to go to real school, which I don’t, but why wouldn’t they ask? I swear they see me the same way they see that baby loon: unchanging, quirky and a little off, but, in the grand scheme of things, part of their shared reality.

I am not part of their shared reality. I try again. “I’m serious. There was a rattling. Like a clock. They’re not real.”

They think I’m so funny. I must be making jokes. I must be getting over not seeing my friend anymore. What was their name? Marker? Sharpie?

Hilarious.

##

November. I’m hot. It’s cold, early frost, but I am channeling Crayon, short sleeves on the dock, listening to the water try to turn solid. It’s a calm day, just below thirty Fahrenheit, unseasonable, but the ice is still a month or so off.

The loons run their dive sequence like it’s summer, stay under far too long, shout at nothing. The predators are gone. The kayaks are stored. The clotheslines are down. Everything is receding. Except the asteroid.

I’m burning. I peel off my pants and read through the latest on my phone, in my underwear. Whatever, all the renters are gone.

No new news. Apophis still scheduled to come close, but not too close. Closer than some satellites, but the Jet Propulsion Lab puts out multiple press releases. Yes, it’s a Near-Earth object. No, it won’t hit us. Yes, they’ve accounted for the Yarkovsky effect. No, they refrain from reminding us that they are literally rocket scientists.

Next week. Colder outside. I am a fire. No shirt. There’s been no wind. The pond is making the crazy sounds it does before it freezes, echoes that glitch the loons, interferes with their routine. They go to dive but only flip upside down, remain that way on the water for hours.

The adults help each other and the baby up. But when both adults topple over at once, the baby isn’t coordinated enough to pivot them the right way again. It swims between them, back and forth, raising its head to make a call but issuing a perverse silence. It swims left, then right, over and over until both the adults sink and don’t come back up.

I take off my underwear. I get splinters. I’m indecent. I don’t care.

The baby eventually takes its leave, returns to the far shore, on the edge of the conservation land, disappears into the shoreline brush.

I go inside. Shower at the lowest temperature.

At dinner my parents are relieved the birds are gone.

“It wasn’t normal.”

“Too many pesticides, probably.”

“At least instinct kicked in.”

“It always does.”

They finally look at me.

“Sam. You don’t look good.”

##

When Crayon texts me I can’t get out of bed. I have all the windows open, but I’m boiling. It’s maybe holiday break? I vaguely remember finishing all the required reading for the year, in a haze, answering all the multiple-choice questions with the letter C, clicking Next until the screen no longer prompted me. Either I’m all caught up, or my computer died and I didn’t notice/worry.

I try to answer their text, but can barely hold the phone. The best I can do is press the red button. The flash illuminates my black room, highlights the lack of panes, the crystals forming on the sill.

I’m not sure I clicked send until I am lifted off the mattress. I look up at spikes of silver and gold. And, a turtleneck? I’m not sure it’s them until they speak.

“No way I was letting you see this without me.”

“Your shirt.”

“Shutup. It’s winter.”

They carry me out and over the frame in the wall, all the way to the dock.

“See what?”

I turn my head and the asteroid is smaller than I thought it would be. Or I’m groggy. Or I like that Crayon is holding me, more than witnessing any once-in-a-lifetime event. I dutifully look at the sky, but nuzzle into their arms. They are lifting me the same way the baby loon is being lifted, now. From the distant vegetation, it floats slowly upward, blatantly not flying, cradled by some invisible hands. I feel the crook of a beautiful elbow hovering me higher. The loon defies known physics and drifts further and further away, until it suddenly shoots spaceward and disappears.

They half drop me as they fall on their knees, the planks worn smooth by years.

“No worries, it’s good practice.”

I must have apologized.

“I’ll be on my ass enough this week, thanks to you.”

“You’re here.”

“Of course. My mom bought me skis. I’m doomed.”

“You’ll learn.”

“You never do.”

I must have asked what they meant.

“Why else do you think I’m here?”

They kiss me and I kiss back.

##

Turns out, Crayon is a natural jock. They do well enough that they don’t protest when their parents buy them a season’s pass, promise to head back up most weekends.

They play it cool. Tell me they got a free lift ticket, that I am obligated to make a fool of myself as soon as I’m feeling better.

I’m feeling better, but don’t bother asking my parents. I look terrible. They take me back to Dr. Moreno. Things make sense one day, then don’t the next. Winter turns to spring. I text Crayon, tell them there’s no loons. They suggest I write down everything that’s happened, the world has to know about this.

Does the world need to know? Probably not. But you do. Which is why I’m taking your advice. Not for the world, but for one person in it.

Crayon, I’ve written enough bad poetry about you to outdo all the warnings your hairspray and bleach tiny letter themselves into infinity with. It’s hard to think of you as anything but my savior. You’ve changed my life. You’re still changing it, which is terrifying. I want you to know how important you are to me, but if I scare you away I’d retreat and become a wordless monk. What could you do with that, anyway, me telling you you’re my savior. That is an absurd weight to put on someone, and I don’t want you to feel it. I may be in love with you, but I know so little of myself that that statement is, at best, irrelevant.

Yet, here it all is. It’s past the equinox and the pond is quiet. I miss you. I miss the robot/interstellar loons. I’m back to being cold again. My parents are watching a new series on Norwegian murders. If you should surprise me again, use the basement door, there are locks on my window now. I do not have the key.

And as I’m listening to the abyss, about to describe the abyss, how it and I are intimate in an unhealthy way, in a way I know won’t work but which I secretly want for you and I, I hear, unmistakably, the screaming of what has to be a loon, actual or imposter, atop the just melted water, asking me in its lament what I will do, what I will do. What will I do? You know where I’ll be, awaiting your response.



Thomas Mixon is the voice behind the Half the Ark podcast, and has poetry and fiction in On Spec, EVENT, The Sunlight Press, and elsewhere.