Sophie is in the first grade when she finds it hiding in the rocks beside the koi pond. She has never seen one before. She reaches out to touch it with two fingers, the way she has been taught to pet animals at the zoo. It is slimy and soft, but not unpleasant to touch. It reminds her of a manta ray’s back, or the way a live fish feels when it tries to jump out of your hands. Its limbs wave weakly in response to her touch. Watching them, Sophie feels sick and slightly afraid.
Sophie goes inside to tell her mother what she has found. Her mother is eating a salad.
“I found something in the garden,” Sophie says.
Her mother drops her fork. “What did it look like?” she asks.
“Like a jellyfish in the shape of a person. It felt like the manta rays at the aquarium.”
“You touched it.” Her mother shudders and pushes her plate away. “Where did you find it?”
“By the koi pond,” Sophie says, wondering if there is going to be trouble. If this is like the time her bug collection fell over and worms and everything spilled out on the floor and her mother had to clean it all up.
Sophie’s mother walks to the back door and locks it. “Don’t play in the backyard any more today, Sweetheart,” she says. “Stay inside until your father comes home.”
Sophie’s father is a large man with sad eyes and broad shoulders. He sits in his favorite chair while his wife paces back and forth. “Those things give me the creeps,” Sophie’s mother says. “I can’t sleep with it in the yard. I keep picturing the way it must look in the moonlight, like an aborted baby in a piscine eggsack. The color of something that was born in a cave and never saw light.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?” Sophie’s father asks.
“I know better than to expect you to do anything.” Sophie’s mother crosses the room again. “What really gets me, you know what really gets me is the eyes. Those black beady eyes. And the way their limbs just sort of flop around.”
“They’re harmless,” Sophie’s father says. “Even if I could get rid of it, I wouldn’t, Lisle. It isn’t hurting anyone.”
Sophie’s mother sighs. “I can’t think straight with that thing in the yard,” she says.
Sophie’s father is an artist. He teaches at local high schools or wherever else he can find a temporary position. Any spare cash goes towards his paints and canvases, and in times when work is hard to find, he resorts to painting with leftover house paint from around the neighborhood, Kool-Aid powder mixed with water, Sophie’s old dried-up watercolor sets, his wife’s expired makeup. He experiments with crushed fruits and berries, jellies, jams, and fruit juices. His more organic creations line the backyard fence. Some of his concoctions grow mold over time. Some begin to smell. Over his wife’s objections he allows his blueberry jam painting to be overrun by fire ants. “Avoid that corner of the yard,” he tells Sophie. “They’ll stay where the jam is.”
Sophie’s mother is appalled. “It’s my yard,” she says. “It’s the yard my daughter plays in. Would you like it if Sophie tripped and fell onto an anthill?”
“Sophie’s a sentient being. She can avoid that corner of the yard.”
“I don’t want those ants in my yard,” Sophie’s mother says irritably.
“Where would you like them?” Sophie’s father asks.
“Not in my yard!”
That night, Sophie can’t sleep. She goes downstairs to get a drink of water. There is a pot boiling on the stove.
The next day, the anthill is smaller and smoother and soggier, and the ants are gone.
At dinner Sophie’s mother says that there have been more and more of them, and that no one knows why, or if they reproduce, or how they reproduce at all. They simply appear one day, she says, on a street corner or under a tree or in a body of water.
“This is happening all over the world,” she says “for no discernable reason. It’s like a plague of locusts or something. It’s created an entire industry of confused scientists.”
Sophie has seen three of them in her neighborhood, and one when she went to the grocery store with her mother, and one when her family went downtown for Sunday brunch. When her mother turns on the news, or leaves a newspaper lying around, she always looks for pictures of others.
They are limpid, floppy, and pale. They have small, dark eyes, and something that looks like it could be a face if it tried harder. But Sophie’s mother says that isn’t the worst part.
“The worst part,” Sophie’s mother says, “is that they behave in ways that we can’t explain with our current science. Some of them just lie there like blobs, and then there are others with these weird characteristics.”
“I read about one they found on the beach in Florida,” Sophie’s father says, “that appears when the tide goes out, but when the tide comes in and the water covers it, it’s completely invisible.”
“There’s that,” Sophie’s mother says. “They’ve found one near Madrid that grew to completely encase a tree. So there’s a tree in Madrid that’s covered with that filmy flesh, you know what they’re like. And one actually appeared near campus the other day, so we had it transported to the lab for experimentation. It fluttered about in the wind as if it were nothing, but when they lifted it, it was heavier than lead.
“Kim, she’s in the physics department, she’s going out of her mind,” she says. “There’s no way to account for the weight discrepancy. We’re thinking of performing a vivisection.”
“Don’t you hate looking at them?” Sophie’s father asks. “Why would you want to cut one open?”
“It’s important to know how they work,” her mother explains. “Either the universe is changing, or these things don’t belong in it. I suspect the latter.”
“It seems cruel to me,” her father says. “To cut something open while it’s alive.”
“If you can call them alive,” Sophie’s mother says. She shudders.
One appears on the blacktop at Sophie’s middle school. This one is ambulatory, which is new and disturbing. It is vaguely humanoid, but skeletal and distorted, all ribs and no skin. And dark, glistening dark, like an oil slick.
Sophie’s friend Brian claims a lunch table by the window so that he can watch the Pest Unit operate. Sophie isn’t sure she wants to watch the Pest Unit, especially while she is eating, but she wants to watch Brian watch the Pest Unit. When Brian is excited by something, the blood drains from his face and his eyes are striking.
It is ambling purposelessly around one of the basketball hoops. “Look at how it moves,” Brian breathes. “It’s like one of those wooden snakes with the notches in, you know. It kind of… slinks forward, look, it’s like it leads with its abdomen—can you call that an abdomen?”
“My mom uses terms from insect anatomy,” Sophie says, hoping this comment is useful. “The abdomen, and the thorax.”
“What’s the sense in that?” Brian asks, amused. “Insect bodies have defined segments. I can’t even tell what this guy’s skeletal structure is trying to do. It’s just ribs all the way down. What do you think it feels like?”
Sophie winces a bit, and regrets it immediately. “I touched one once,” she says. “It felt sort of like a fish, but without scales. Just the slipperiness of a fish in your hands.” Sophie looks down at her sandwich, tuna on white bread. It looks pale and cold. She takes a bite.
“I’ve touched plenty,” Brian says. “But they’re not usually black like that. They don’t usually look so boney. Do you think it feels like bone?”
“I don’t know,” Sophie says. The Pest Unit is fanning out in a circle. The principal and a few staff members stand well back from the scene in a tense cluster. The object of this intense scrutiny seems entirely unaware that anything unusual is happening. It continues its patternless ambling, always around the central point of the basketball hoop.
“What do you think they have eyes for?” Brian asks. “It’s like they can’t see anything. I’ve clapped my hands in front of their eyes—nothing. No reaction. But they never walk into anything, either.”
“It’s not like they can’t see anything,” Sophie says. “It’s like they see you and they don’t care.”
Brian smiles, and Sophie feels filled with flushed buzzing. “You know, I hadn’t thought of that, Soph,” he says, sounding slightly awed. “They’re looking at you, perceiving you, but they’re entirely indifferent.”
One of the men around the perimeter of the circle takes out a metal pole. He prods the thing, and it slinks away from the stimulus towards the direction of the schoolyard gate.
“Even a pigeon or a squirrel or something,” Brian says, “if you reach out to touch it, it’ll move away. Everything that isn’t domesticated lives in fear of us. Most species don’t want to be anywhere near us. If humans infiltrate an area, they’ll leave.”
Subject to continual prodding, the thing slinks a good eight feet or so from the basketball hoop. Then it blinks out of existence. Instantaneously it is standing directly underneath the basketball hoop. Again it slinks forward in its ambling way, unconcerned that it has just violated the laws of physics. Sophie can’t hear the members of the Pest Unit through the window, but she can tell that they are cursing.
“I don’t think they’ll be able to move it,” Sophie says.
One of the Pest Unit women walks over to the principal. The man with the pole continues to poke at the thing, and it ambles forward again until it crosses its invisible line and is transported back to its point of origin beneath the basketball hoop.
“Do you think they’ll kill it?” Brian asks. His eyes are blazing. Sophie doesn’t know what answer he is hoping for, and her hands tremble with desire and confusion.
“My mom says they don’t know how to kill them,” Sophie says, “yet. People are working on it.”
“Your mom is, you mean?”
Sophie glances through the window at the unfamiliar skeletal structure slinking forward grotesquely at each prod of the pole.
“Yeah. Her lab is.”
Brian leans forward. “She’s got test subjects?”
“I don’t know,” Sophie says. “She doesn’t talk about work much.” Sophie takes another bite out of her sandwich.
“What does she mean, they don’t know how to kill them? What happens if you stab them, or shoot them?”
“She says it leaves a hole,” Sophie says. “But they heal very fast.”
“Well, what if you cut them up into little pieces and scatter them all over, what happens then? Do all the little pieces keep moving? Do they try to find each other and connect back up?”
“I don’t know, Brian,” Sophie pleads. “I’m trying to eat.”
“Sorry,” Brian says. His eyes wander back to the window, where the thing is being prodded in the opposite direction as before. “I guess they’re trying to gauge the circumference of its territory,” he says.
Sophie puts the sandwich back in its plastic container. She decides to focus on the Cheetos instead. They are crunchy and dry and don’t look like they’ve ever been alive.
“They regenerate like starfish,” Sophie’s mother explains, “but it’s not really like starfish at all.” She carves a piece of roast lamb and places it on Brian’s plate. “They’re not very organized—they don’t have a skeleton or layers of fat or skin. The material they’re made of varies, but there’s no pattern to it—a bony, skeletal material might coat one appendage, for instance. And if you cut them open, you’re as likely to find soft, pliable tissue as you are anything resembling a skeleton.”
“Does that hold for the ambulatory ones as well?” Brian asks.
“The ambulatories are more structured, but we don’t understand how the skeletons they have support walking upright. That being said, we haven’t had a very good chance to examine one. They’re difficult to examine because they won’t stop moving, and there’s no way to sedate them.”
“For someone who dislikes these creatures so intensely,” Sophie’s father says, “you do seem to enjoy talking about them.”
“This is my work, Viktor,” Sophie’s mother says with a dangerous laugh. “If you talked to a detective I’m sure you’d hear all about the criminal mind. That doesn’t mean that detectives like criminals.”
“They must like something about them, or they wouldn’t have gone into that line of work,” Sophie’s father says.
“I sort of like them,” Brian says. “The creatures, I mean. They’re biologically unprecedented. You don’t find that just a little exciting, Ms. Engel?”
“I think they’re abhorrent,” Sophie’s mother says. “But I’ll give them this much—they’ve exploded the field of biology. Not to mention physics.”
Sophie’s mother talks about the structure of the creatures, the instability of their particles, the ratio of oxygen, carbon, and heavy metal particles in comparison to ordinary carbon-based life. Sophie begins to construct a tower of peas using her fork. It isn’t until her father stands up and leaves the room that Sophie tunes in to the conversation.
“We’ve found that anything acidic or corrosive will affect them,” her mother is saying, “but their bodies rebuild at almost the same rate as they’re dissolved. They heal at a speed that is quite literally unbelievable—it doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. But we’ve had some progress with nanoparticles, particularly reactive oxygen compounds, injected directly into the organism—”
“Excuse me,” Sophie says. “I think I’m finished eating.”
She finds her father in the backyard, his easel set up beside the koi pond. He has outlined the shape of the creature in translucent pink-white against the blue-green water and cool grey rocks, and he is dappling the creature and the water with flecks of light. Sophie looks at the painting, then she looks at the being again, startled.
“It’s kind of beautiful,” she says uncertainly.
“It is,” her father says. “But it’s not beautiful enough.” He mixes more gold into his paint. Sophie stands and watches.
Brian and Sophie are walking home from high school when Brian says, “Look, Soph.”
Sophie looks. She sees one nestled in the grass, naked and pink, like a baby animal.
“I bet it would fit in my backpack,” Brian says. He moves towards it, brimming with scientific curiosity. He prods it with the toe of his shoe. “If you tear a hole in them, they just grow back,” Brian says. “So but what if you distort them, like, do they just snap back into place, like a rubber band? Or do they kind of… slowly reform.” He lifts his foot. Sophie’s stomach drops.
“My mother would know,” Sophie says desperately. “Brian you don’t have to, my mother already knows that, we can just ask her. I bet she’s at home right now.”
“Your mother doesn’t come home until six,” Brian says distractedly. His foot is slowly lowering onto the creature’s head.
What there is of a head. Oh Sophie hates those things, she hates the way their limbs wave helplessly like something underwater, like a sea slug or a kelp plant drifting in a too-strong current.
Brian’s foot is lowering onto its head, and it is squashing, squashing it, and Brian’s face is tense with cruel concentration, measuring the sensation of the pressure exactly. Brian, stop. Sophie’s lips move. She has no voice. She is voiceless in the face of its appalling, distorted head that slowly gives way to Brian’s foot. Its distended pancake of a head, with only one eye visible, the other on the other side of the disk, fishlike. Its black, beady, unchanging eye and its waving limbs.
Brian swivels his foot. “Geez, these things are malleable,” Brian says. “Are they all like this?”
He lifts his foot. The head does not snap into place. For one horrible moment, Sophie fears that it will stay that way forever. But it billows out again, an object unrestrained by gravity or physics, lazily deciding to retain its original shape.
“They’re regenerative,” Brian says. “So if you tear off a limb, another will grow back, yeah? Like a starfish, but faster.”
“I have to get home, Brian,” Sophie says.
Brian kneels down on the grass.
Sophie walks away as quickly as she can.
“I’ve done it,” Sophie’s mother says. Her cheeks are flushed and she is breathless, as though she has been running. She’s forgotten to take off her safety goggles.
“What have you done?” Sophie’s father asks. He sounds tired.
“You forgot to take off your safety goggles,” Sophie says.
“Oh!” Her mother laughs and hangs her goggles on the coatrack. “We found a way to get rid of them today. We had been applying ROS in concentrated doses, and we had some positive results from that, but today we discovered that we can induce endogenous production! Their own overactive regenerative abilities can be harnessed to produce poison. It grows in them like cancer.”
“ROS,” Sophie’s father says. “What’s ROS? An insecticide?”
“It’s a reactive molecule that’s present in all forms of life, but in excess it’s incredibly damaging. And if an externally applied liquid can induce endogenous production of ROS, exclusively in the type of organism being targeted—this has wider applications than the specific pestilence we’re working with now. We’ve already started negotiations with a few pesticide companies, and this is going to be an incredibly lucrative enterprise. You know they still have that ambulatory on the middle school blacktop fenced off? And that’s just in our neighborhood, this is happening all over the world… imagine what the government of New York will pay to rid itself of the ambulatory in Times Square!”
There is silence for a moment. Then Sophie’s father says: “I’ve made spaghetti.”
Throughout dinner, Sophie’s mother continues to talk about the future—we will be able to vacation this year, she says, and not just Disney World, either. “We’ll go to Europe! Venice, Florence, Milan. Didn’t you tell me you wanted to see Venice before you died, Viktor, and I’ve done it!”
“Lisle,” Sophie’s father says. “Do you remember the day we had a picnic by the river?”
“Yes,” Sophie’s mother says, smiling. “We’d been dating for six months or something like that. I remember.”
“You brought Silent Spring,” Sophie’s father says. “You read passages out loud while we watched the river boats. You loved Rachel Carson.”
“I do love Rachel Carson,” Sophie’s mother says. She isn’t smiling anymore.
“What do you think Rachel would say about all of this, Lisle?”
“What do I know about what Rachel Carson would have to say about creatures who don’t obey the laws of physics, or chemistry—who don’t even seem to belong in this dimension,” Sophie’s mother says. “I have absolutely no idea what Rachel Carson would think about that, because she didn’t live in that world. We do.”
Sophie begins to eat her spaghetti as quickly as possible.
“You used to want to save the world,” Sophie’s father says.
“You used to want to be a famous and successful artist,” Sophie’s mother snaps, “and look how that turned out. Now I would love nothing more than to go save the rainforest, and when you start earning a salary that will put our daughter through college, that’s exactly what I’ll do. In the meantime, however, I have just participated in an earthshattering scientific breakthrough, and I come home, and I expect you to be happy for me at least this once, at least tonight—”
“That’s blood money, Lisle,” Sophie’s father says, and Sophie’s mother laughs shrilly.
“Blood money?” she says. “There’s as much blood in those things as you’d get out of a rock. What blood?”
“I’ve finished my spaghetti,” Sophie says. She puts her plate in the sink and goes to her bedroom and shuts the door.
Now when Sophie walks home from school with Brian she keeps her hands in her pockets and her eyes on the ground. Brian kicks a stone with his foot, catches up to it, kicks it again. The stone doesn’t roll straight ahead consistently, so Brian zigzags from one side of the sidewalk to the other. Sophie is walking behind him in a straight line, thinking, when Brian kicks the stone into the grass, wheels around, and looks Sophie in the eyes with an intensity that startles her.
“Yeah?” Sophie says, confused.
“Can I try something?” Brian says. “Like an experiment.”
He kisses her.
Sophie tries to pay attention to the sensation of his lips, tries to focus on their texture—soft, warm, wet, pleasantly strange—to the exclusion of all else. But she can hear Brian’s mind working, evaluating, measuring the kiss and adjusting the movement of his mouth. With her eyes closed, she can see the look of intense concentration on his face—the same concentration with which he had lowered his sneaker—
Brian pulls back. “Are you crying?” he asks.
Sophie lifts a hand to her eye. It feels wet.
“Geez, Soph,” Brian says. “What am I, Georgie Porgie?”
Sophie hiccups a sad, wet laugh, and then she begins to sob uncontrollably.
“Alright, alright,” Brian says, alarmed. “Sorry, Soph, I thought you’d like it. I thought you’d be into it—geez, Soph, what the hell is wrong?”
Sophie tries to speak between sobs. “You—can be so nice—Brian—”
“Well, that’s nothing to cry about,” Brian says, bemused.
“Things—could be so—good—”
“But I guess they’re not,” Brian says. He puts an arm around Sophie. He is warm, and she leans in towards the comfort. “It’s alright, Soph,” he says soothingly. “Failed experiment. You’re practically a sister to me, anyway.”
Sophie hiccups, confused and miserable.
At night, Sophie can’t sleep. She goes downstairs to get a drink of water. As she turns out the light, she looks out the window into the backyard. Her mother is kneeling beside the koi pond.
“Where is it?” Sophie’s father asks.
Sophie begins to push her meatball around with her fork, wondering how long she has to pretend to eat before she can excuse herself.
“What happened to it?” her father says.
“I got rid of it,” her mother says. “Why? Did you need it for something?”
“It might have needed itself for something,” her father says in a voice as calm as a dormant volcano.
“Ex—” Sophie begins.
“Those things don’t need anything,” her mother says. “Not food, not oxygen. They’re not alive in the sense that we understand the word. You’re wasting your sympathy.”
“My sympathy,” her father says.
“Yes,” her mother says, “Your sympathy for those things, which are now more important to you than your wife, your child? Where are your priorities?”
“Excuse—” Sophie attempts.
“Who’s making me choose? When did I say that you were less—”
“When is the last time you’ve asked me how work is going, Viktor, when is the last time you showed a shred of concern for me—”
“Why are we having this conversation at dinner,” Sophie says helplessly, and both of her parents fall silent. Their eyes lower towards their plates.
“I’m sorry,” her mother says curtly.
“Excuse me,” her father says. He opens the screen door and goes outside to the backyard.
Sophie and her mother finish their spaghetti in silence.
The next day, out of some morbid fascination or misguided sense of nostalgia, Sophie goes outside in the backyard to look at the koi pond. The thing is gone. But she finds, in its place, a painting.
Sophie’s mother’s company sells the ROS-inducing compound, ReOx Active, to a pesticide company. Large-scale manufacturers of ReOx Active spring up overnight, creating sprays and dusts for the purposes of pest-termination. Sophie knows that this is happening; she sees it on the news, on the new television that her father refuses to watch. She sees them take down the barriers in Times Square that marked the territory of an ambulatory. She thinks about leaving the room when her mother turns on the elimination of the one on Venice Beach, but she stays, and she watches its pale body that remains rooted in the same place on the surface of the water, regardless of the motion of the waves, dissolve into the foam. They shrivel and shrink like salted slugs. Each one dies surrounded by hostile spectators who cheer for the victory of humanity, or who silently observe and record the process. Every time Sophie’s mother turns on the news, another is being destroyed.
Brian is agitated. “We’re destroying them, and we don’t even know how they work! There are experiments left to be performed. We don’t understand their regeneration—what if we could harness that? These beings can teleport, Soph, and we’re killing them off haphazardly!”
Sophie doesn’t talk to Brian much anymore, and when she does, she feels a vague, dull ache where something wonderful used to be.
They are disappearing around her city, as well. The ambulatory on the middle school blacktop is gone, as are the two who lived in the hollows of oak trees she passes on her way to school. The scaly flounder-like one that flops in the grass in the Trinhs’ front yard. An intersection that had been closed off due to a thing that was tough enough to total cars is now open for the first time in years. And the bank of the river seems empty without the dozen bizarre creatures that had lain limply among the rocks.
Sophie’s walk to school becomes marked by places where they had been. Bare patches of grass, moldy spots on trees. She counts them off, without wanting to or trying to—the floppy, pale one who peered impassively out of the hollow of the oak a block from her house. The pinkish, opalescent one that always seemed to hold rainbows within its nearly translucent flesh. The tiny one that hid in the azalea bush in front of the Stampleys’ house and shimmered in and out of existence, wavering between visible and invisible. Every day, she silently marks each one missing, and the list only grows longer as even the most well-hidden are discovered by professional exterminators.
One day, Sophie walks past the Trinhs’ yard and realizes that the empty patch of grass is inhabited once more. Standing in the grass is a painting. Sophie blinks and approaches the canvas.
It is a painting of a being, smooth and radiant white, texturally distinct from the rough, green grass that surrounds it, both in the painting and outside of it. Its black, perfectly round eye is echoed in a second round shape—the reflection of the sun, gloriously refracted through the scales of an uncomfortably beautiful rendition of something exterminated.
Sophie kneels in the grass and looks. The sun passes overhead.
The paintings appear more rapidly than the beings had vanished. The neighborhood is spotted with paintings propped up like tombstones, and when one is removed or thrown away—as they often are—another rises to take its place.
Sophie moves through school and through her neighborhood feeling that the paintings are always being discussed just out of earshot, that conversations are hushed and halted when she enters the room. She finds herself missing Brian’s insulting directness. Brian would not be afraid to tell Sophie what people are saying about her father. But Brian now spends his days in the school’s chemistry lab with a group of boys who are equally fond of chemicals and explosions. Sophie feels no desire to seek out his company. So she continues to drift through halls and down streets, imagining herself the eye in a hurricane of conversation.
At school the silence is permeable, a thing that can be moved through. At home, it sits in the center of the table, and dinners are tense and heavy, punctuated by such phrases as “Please pass the potatoes,” “School was fine, thank you,” and “I’m finished eating, excuse me.” Sophie’s father’s face is lean; his eyes are bright and manic. After dinner, Sophie’s mother retires to her office, pointedly ignoring Sophie’s father’s return to the backyard, and Sophie goes to her bedroom to be told by textbooks that chemicals break molecules apart.
Sophie always tries to fall asleep before midnight, before the silence breaks and she is forced to lie with a pillow pressed over her head hearing snatches of conversations she isn’t meant to, shouldn’t have to hear. One night among others, her mother’s melodic voice rises to a sharp metallic octave that she never uses when talking to Sophie, and her father’s softer yet more penetrating voice pierces the walls of Sophie’s bedroom, accusations coming to her in fragments, like barely-remembered nightmares:
—Lisle, please. It isn’t right and I know you know, Lisle.—
—I don’t see you doing anything to help, I’m the one working every day to keep this family, and you never even, and it’s always me who—
—This isn’t the woman I married. The woman I married would never, ambition tempered with kindness, you always used to say—
—I’m not a work of art, I’m a person, I’m a human being and I change—
—When you said you wanted to save the world, I should have asked what you were going to save it from—
And finally her father’s voice, rising to a desperate break:
—I don’t care about the blasted creatures! It’s you, Lisle, it’s you, it’s what they’re doing to you…
In the morning, the house smells like blueberry pancakes. Everything’s alright then, Sophie thinks with relief.
They’ve made breakfast, and everything’s going to be fine. She whistles optimistically as she slides into yesterday’s jeans, and she bounds downstairs two steps at a time, fully prepared to do her part in pretending that nothing is wrong. Her mother is at the stove flipping a pancake.
“Good morning!” Sophie says brightly, in a voice that means last night never happened.
Sophie’s mother turns. Her eyes are red and sleepless. She is wearing yesterday’s clothes. “Good morning,” she says, and she smiles. She gestures towards the counter, where Sophie sees a stack of half a dozen blueberry pancakes, a dozen strawberry waffles, two large plates of cinnamon swirl french toast, and fresh-baked raisin bread artfully arranged among assorted seasonal fruits.
“What’s all the food for?” Sophie asks apprehensively.
“I couldn’t sleep,” her mother says, turning her attention back to the stove. Her shoulders shake. “Grab a plate, darling.”
“Mom?” Sophie steps forward. “Is everything okay? Where’s…”
“It was all made this morning,” her mother says in a small and trembling voice. “If any of it is cold you can—” She breaks off with a sob. Sophie’s hands rise to cover her ears. Guiltily, she lowers them again.
Sophie grabs a plate from the dishwasher and loads it with some of everything. She sits at the table and begins to shovel her mother’s cooking into her mouth. She eats it slowly. Methodically.
Sophie excuses herself as soon as she can. Her stomach curdles with the guilt of wanting to be away from her mother, but she cannot listen to one more broken, half-stifled cry.
As she walks to school, Sophie wonders where her father has run to. If he has gone to stay with a friend, or another woman.
If he is nearby, or if his car is still driving and will not stop until he is far away. Her ears still ring with the sound of her mother’s sobbing. She tugs at them angrily.
Out of the corner of her eye, she notices that the lagoon is busier than usual. Far busier than usual. The lagoon is surrounded by dozens of people, many of them holding the orange hoses that spray ReOx Active in its liquid form.
Later, she will try to justify it to herself retroactively. She will make up reasons about her father and her mother, about her confusion and her rage, and every time she replays the scene in her mind the reasons will be different. She will never know why, when she passed the extermination on this day of all days, instead of walking away with her head down, she walked toward it.
Most of the exterminators and spectators are concentrated around one knob of the lagoon, an area of shallow, still water that is known to be a friendly habitat for tadpoles and ducks. Sophie remembers catching frogs on its banks as a child. It is a large knob, but not unmanageably so, and at its narrowest part one can cross it by means of a bridge, which holds its own fair share of exterminators as well as a smattering of children. The goal, then, will be to corner the creature in this particular section of the lagoon, between the bridge and the banks of the knob, thereby cutting off any avenue of escape.
Sophie sits down beside the small children on the bridge. They are babbling and throwing small stones into the water, talking about the creatures they’ve seen and how they watched them die. “I saw one get shot in the chest,” a boy tells his friend, “like blam-blam-blam! He fell down like this.” Sophie hears the boy groan dramatically and fall to his knees. She grins, and immediately hates herself for it.
She is distracted by the sound of a motor. A small boat approaches the knob, carrying several men with ReOx Active hoses spraying full-blast. “We’ve got ‘em!” one of the men shouts. “Keep your eyes on the water!” The men are aiming their hoses so that the ReOx Active advances in a line. Presumably, the chemicals are pushing their prey towards the knob, and towards its certain death. But Sophie does not see what they are aiming at.
And then she does. It is only for a moment. It wavers into existence, pale blue and humanoid, and wavers out as seamlessly as ripples on water. “You see that?” somebody yells, and the men on the boat redouble their efforts, in which they are joined by the men and women on the bridge.
Sophie clenches her fists. Her nails press into her palms. She wishes that they would draw blood.
She glimpses it again, briefly. A waif of a being made from translucent jellyfish material, speckled lightly with what looks like scales. It drifts slowly away from the stream of ReOx Active. Sophie wonders if that is as fast as it can swim.
It is closer now. The men and women on the bank of the lagoon turn their hoses on and pump their poisons into the water. The creature is fully visible now; whether it was invisibility or camouflage that hid it before, it is no longer working. It drifts towards the center of the knob, as far as it can get from the hoses. Its limbs waver in the water like ripples, like a trick of the light. One limb is fully extended, reaching out for something. Sophie silently screams inside of her mouth.
When the second one appears, shimmering in and out of existence in the water, and reaches out to touch its companion, Sophie feels like she already knew. They reach for each other, wavering pitifully; they are falling into foam at the edges. Sophie clenches her fists tighter. The ReOx Active is clouding the water. The second being opens all of its limbs, wraps itself around the first one, shielding it from the cloud of poison. You can’t protect them from this, Sophie wants to shout. You idiot, you idiot, can’t you see there’s nothing you can do?
The little boy and his friends are shouting encouragement to the exterminators, shoving each other out of the way to try to get a better look at the water. One of the exterminators squints with cruel concentration, adjusting the aim of her ReOx hose.
Stop, Sophie thinks. Stop. Stop.
She opens her mouth.