Isaac says she’s weird. Denver doesn’t like that word—weird. When she thinks of Isaac she thinks of the stars. That’s why she likes him so much. Denver tells him there once was someone named Isaac Newton who proved the sun was the center of the solar system by calculating the trajectories of comets. He tells her that’s a coincidence. She tells him it’s not. Circles are never coincidences.
She doesn’t think Isaac really likes her all that much. Stars may be easy, but faces are hard. When Denver tells Isaac about the synchronicity of the universe he asks her where she learns words like synchronicity. Denver tells him that she reads them, but he doesn’t believe her. He asks her to read things sometimes and she can’t do it. Reading isn’t like that. The letters get jumbled. Reading is the same as circles. You have to really work at circles. Usually perfect circles just happen, and you don’t actually make them happen. That’s what reading’s like.
Isaac found her in an old house about a year ago. She was seven when the tornadoes hit. Denver doesn’t really remember much before. Just a bunch of sound and noise. Isaac tells her that the tornadoes happened everywhere, things didn’t always used to look like this. He says that for a while people tried to fix things, but within weeks the money just ran out, no one had any supplies. The sirens never stopped going off. She doesn’t think he really understands it all.
They’re scavenging. Isaac tells her that she has to learn not to be a crybaby. The sirens hurt her ears, and she wants to go back to the silo. Denver’s only nine, but Isaac says that he was scavenging when he was ten, and he wasn’t such a crybaby.
“Can we stop soon?” she asks.
“Let’s just get to the silo.”
“But I’m tired. My feet hurt.”
He sighs. “Ok. We can stop for ten minutes. But then we’re going to the silo. We have more work to do tomorrow.”
They stop next to a milk truck. Isaac takes off his backpack, pulls out a water and hands it to Denver. She takes it without looking in his eyes. Eye contact makes her uncomfortable. The sirens continue to blare. Isaac looks at his watch, a relic from before the tornadoes hit. Denver keeps rubbing her foot in the dirt in a circle. She makes circles a lot. At night sometimes Isaac watches her move her feet in circular motions when she’s trying to sleep. Isaac doesn’t know that she sees him watching. It comforts her, calms her down. It’s because of the stars. She pictures the galaxy as one big circle, the planets revolving around the sun, the moon revolving around the earth, everything ineffable, unbroken.
It’s been fifteen minutes and Isaac tells her they have to go. They pick up their bags and start walking.
Denver doesn’t want to go out today. She has a bad feeling about the whole thing. But Isaac says they didn’t find enough yesterday. Just some old towels, an expired can of ravioli, and some empty water bottles. She looks at the house that Isaac says they’re going to search and hopes that they can’t find a way in.
The sirens are not quite as loud here but they’re still loud enough to hurt. The noise pitches up and down, up and down, a circle that never stops. Even at the silo you can faintly hear the circular scream of the sirens from the city.
When they get inside the house there’s trash everywhere. She doubts they’ll find anything. Broken table, broken chairs, broken fireplace, broken stairway, broken cabinet. A layer of dust and dirt covers everything, making it hard to breathe. Denver covers her nose and mouth with her shirt.
“Take shallow breaths and start looking around.”
She follows Isaac’s orders and begins searching. She opens cabinets whose doors are barely hanging on, digs through piles of rubble. The house groans.
As she searches, Denver thinks about Isaac’s horses. Isaac used to have horses at the farm. There’s just the silo left now. Isaac thinks his parents are going to come back to the silo. That’s why he doesn’t want to leave. He said they used to have all types of animals she’s never seen. He won’t talk about his parents, but sometimes he’ll talk about the animals. Denver imagines feeding a horse an apple, it breathing in her face, feeling its energy pulsing into her. She runs her hands along a dirt-covered armoire like she’s stroking a horse’s muzzle. Denver mirrors the hand motions she’s seen Isaac make when he gets caught up in his story and pretends he’s stroking a horse, too. She imagines what it was like for Isaac before the tornadoes. What it was like to have parents. Isaac carries a picture of his parents with him, but he’s never shown it to her. Denver took it from his pocket when he was sleeping once. His mom had the same curly brown hair as him. His dad’s eyes had those little wrinkles near the corners.
Denver searches through a pile on the floor. There’s ripped clothes, too dirty and tattered to be useful, a broken lamp, some pieces of unidentifiable metal, and a stuffed gorilla. The gorilla’s missing an eye. She drops it back on the pile. Something shifts under Denver’s foot, and the floor groans.
“Isaac?” He’s in a different room and doesn’t come immediately.
“Isaac?” Her voice rises an octave. Denver sees a snake squirm underneath a nearby ceiling beam.
Isaac runs in, nearly tripping over the leg of a broken chair. “Denver? What’s wrong?”
He stands still. They can hear the usual house sounds. But they can hear other things too. Denver can hear the sound of Isaac breathing. She can hear the sound of her heart, blood throbbing in her ears.
The sirens had stopped. Isaac runs outside; Denver follows. He looks up and down the street, up at the sky.
She hears a faint clicking sound and realizes it’s Isaac flicking his fingernails together. For the first time, the circle has stopped. In a silence that isn’t silent they walk outside, neither of them knowing what to say. They stand there for a while not talking, listening. Denver’s feet scuffle on the ground as she shifts. Sounds assault her. Like the sirens before. There are so many sounds. But these aren’t circular. These are memories. A small, dark room. The sound of her breathing. Every noise magnified.
Isaac speaks, and she jumps. “Come on. We have to keep searching.”
“Can’t we go back to the silo?”
“We haven’t even found anything.”
The silence is worse than the sirens.
“But the sirens.”
“It doesn’t mean anything, ok?” Isaac kicks a piece of wood on the ground, his mouth turning down into a frown.
They walk back into the house to grab their bags, each step scraping, dragging, scratching. Denver lifts her feet more carefully. Straight up, forward, down. Don’t drag. Don’t scrape. But Isaac’s footsteps reverberate in her head. Denver places her hands over her ears. Tears gather in her eyes.
Isaac looks at her, questioning. She can feel it in his gaze, thinking it – weird.
In space it’s quiet. Complete silence. Sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum. Even though not all of space is a vacuum. Humans just can’t perceive the sound traveling through the dense molecular clouds of gases left over from star formation. It can take anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million years for a star to form.
Isaac stops; Denver almost runs into him. He turns, grabs her and begins dragging her back towards the house. Denver lets out a small shriek before he clamps his hand over her mouth.
“Shhhhh. Quiet. People are coming.”
Voices. A man and a woman, moving towards them, getting louder.
Inside the house Isaac pushes her behind a fallen dresser. “Don’t move. Keep quiet.”
Denver clamps her hand over her mouth and nose so that she doesn’t breathe dust and sneeze. It’s dark, cramped. Her breath sounds louder than it should. She tries to take shallower breaths but she feels suffocated. Feels trapped. She knows Isaac told her not to move, but she has to get out. She crawls out from behind the dresser, her hands scraping along the wooden floors. She pauses, hears muffled voices.
“Isaac?” she whispers.
“Denver. What are you doing?” A whisper from her right. She sees him near the wall, peeking through a crack. He has his pocket knife in one hand, a gift from his dad years ago. She crawls towards him. She tries to be quiet, but her leg knocks over a side table barely standing from mold and decay.
“What was that?” The man speaking.
They hear footsteps on the porch. Isaac stands and grabs Denver. “Come on.”
There’s only one way out. The door is blocked by debris. They came in through a hole in the wall where a tree had fallen. Isaac has told her about the bad people before. He says that until the adults come back they have to be extra careful. The silo is far enough out that they don’t often get people coming through. But Isaac says he has heard people at night sometimes. She’s told Isaac that there aren’t really any bad people, that St. Augustine said all of nature is good since the Creator of all of nature is supremely good. That while the good in a thing can be diminished and that debasement is evil, the good can never disappear completely. So, everyone contains good in them. There are no bad people.
Isaac grips his knife and they run towards the exit. They reach the hole in the wall and round the corner. A hand grabs Denver’s arm. Callused, large. Isaac lunges towards the man, knife outstretched. The man pushes Denver to the ground and grabs Isaac’s wrist, twisting. Isaac drops the knife. He bends Isaac’s arm behind him. Denver pushes herself up onto her hands and knees, her hands scraped and bleeding. Isaac’s knife is on the ground, not far away. She crawls towards the knife. Before she can grab it, a hand wraps around her leg, pulls her back. She yells and kicks out, looks over at Isaac who is on the ground while the man holds a gun on him.
“Shut her up, Anne.”
“She won’t stop moving.” Anne’s breath reeks.
The woman drags Denver towards Isaac. Isaac seems dazed.
She pushes Denver to the ground. Denver catches herself and crawls towards Isaac. He doesn’t speak.
Denver remembers a woman, her mother, who used to push her. She remembers darkness and yelling. Her mother was always angry.
They’re watching Denver and Isaac as ifsizing them up to see if they’re worth anything. Anne’s hair is knotted. The man looks like he hasn’t showered in far too long and hasn’t taken any strides towards hygiene.
“Who you got with you?” the man asks.
Anne looks around nervously.
Denver looks at Isaac. He’s still dazed. Looks like he’s going to have a black eye where the man hit him.
“Our parents,” Denver answers him, a small voice. She wishes Isaac could answer.
“Yeah? Where’re they at then?”
“They…they went to search the house down the street. The one with…with the blue shutters.” She stutters. Doesn’t make eye contact.
They look down the street in the direction Denver points.
“Go look,” he says to Anne.
“I’m not going to look. It’d be two on one. Don’t know what kind of weapons they got,” Anne says. “You’re the one with the gun. You go.”
He glares at her, eyebrows sinking. “The little freak is probably lying anyways. Their parents aren’t with them.”
Denver’s back in the dark room. Her mother yelling at her. Freak. Her fists clench.
“Well if that’s what you think, give me the gun and go look.” Anne holds out her hand.
While they are arguing, the man drops his gun. Denver reaches behind Isaac and grabs a jagged length of metal lying on the ground. It’s heavier than she thought. She bumps Isaac, but he doesn’t move.
The man sees her moving and refocuses on Denver. “What’re you doing?”
He picks up the gun. She lunges. Denver’s slower than normal, the piece of metal heavy in her hands. She aims for the man’s knees. He pulls the trigger as the metal jabs his right shin. The bullet splinters the ground near Isaac.
The sound is so loud it echoes. Denver has never heard something so loud before. It’s louder than the sirens. She covers her ears, screaming.
Cursing, the man grabs the metal slat and throws it.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” He points the gun at Denver. She crawls backwards, crab-like, trying to get away.
“Let’s just take their stuff and go,” Anne says.
“Little shits. We should just kill them.”
“What about their parents?”
“If their parents are with them then why haven’t they come? Must’ve heard the girl’s screaming before.”
“Well they’re probably coming now since you shot the gun. Fuckwit.” The last word is whispered, barely audible.
“What’d you call me?”
Denver reaches over and pulls the picture out of Isaac’s pocket. Isaac grabs her hand, gaining awareness. She yanks away.
“Stop moving. What’s wrong with you?” the man yells.
She holds it out to him. He grabs it.
“Those are our parents. They’re going to kill you when they get here.” She doesn’t look him in the eyes, but her voice is cold, steady.
“Come on, Jim. Let’s just go. Really, they’re not worth it. They’re just kids. We can take their stuff and go. If their parents are with them, then they could be here any minute. Let’s go. Head towards Baltimore. There ain’t nothing left here.”
“I told you, we ain’t going to Baltimore.”
“We don’t got time for this Jim.” Anne glances down the street.
Jim looks at Anne, considering. He drops the pictures of Isaac’s parents on the ground, stepping on it.
“Fine. Grab their bags.”
She searches through Denver’s pockets. Nothing there. Searches through Isaac’s pockets and finds a box of matches. Anne shoves the matches in her pocket.
“That’s it. Let’s go.” The man shifts the gun, putting it by his side. He glances at them one last time. They grab the bags and run.
Denver picks up Isaac’s crumpled picture and shuffles towards him.
“Isaac? You ok?”
She holds out the picture and he reaches to take it.
“Just a headache.”
“They took all our stuff.”
He pauses. A beat too long. “It’s going to be ok.”
Isaac always says that.
They walk in the opposite direction the man and woman went. Heading farther into the city. Isaac says they have to keep searching. Denver protests, says he needs to rest, but he says he’s fine. They need to get supplies, he says.
Silent, they listen to the sounds around them. Something flutters to Denver’s left. A creak to her right. In the distance, more birds. The city has been overrun with birds since the tornadoes hit, every broken building full of nooks and crannies for birds to nest in. They hear more voices in the distance, but can’t tell which way they come from. Sounds echo. Their footsteps resound on the pavement. Isaac tells Denver to try to walk on the weedy parts to soften their footfalls. They don’t want to attract attention. They have to go farther into the city than usual to find buildings they haven’t already rummaged through. Supplies are getting harder and harder to find.
Denver worries that they should move away from the silo, but Isaac refuses.
They pass a hospital that was left mostly intact after the tornadoes. Isaac says they can’t go in the larger buildings. There’s too much chance that the whole thing could topple down on top of them and they wouldn’t be able to dig their way out. It’s safer to stick to the smaller houses and low-lying buildings. Other people are also less likely to have scavenged the smaller houses, skipping over them for the big buildings, thinking big buildings equal more supplies. Also, the hospital probably has squatters.
They try to stick to the sides of buildings as much as possible, stay in the shadows, just in case. Around one building it looks like someone set up walls. Jagged pieces of metal and wood from torn down buildings stick in the air. There are holes in the makeshift walls, like it hasn’t been kept up in a while. Probably no one stays there anymore.
It starts to rain. Denver can hear the patter of rain on the pavement. Soft at first then louder. Too loud. They are near what used to be a sandwich shop. The sign above the door reads “Sam’s Sandwiches.” Or used to, some letters are missing. It’s not ideal, but Isaac says they can’t risk getting sick in the rain.
“Come on. In here.” Isaac pulls Denver towards the shop.
When they get inside, Isaac heads towards the back. Denver follows. He wants them to get out of sight of the broken windows. Chairs are knocked over. In the kitchen, pots, pans, and silverware are scattered everywhere. There are still some cups and plates on the tables, but the place has definitely been scavenged already. All the food that would keep is probably long gone. Denver tries to avoid stepping on things, so the sound doesn’t hurt her ears, each vibration jarring. Isaac stuffs a pot and pan in his bag. They have a few back at the silo already, but a couple more couldn’t hurt. Denver walks around, trying to avoid making noise. She carefully digs through a pile of opened cans near the fridge. One can’s label says “sweet corn.” She’s not sure if she’s ever had sweet corn, tries to imagine what it would taste like. She keeps digging. Denver finds a lighter that doesn’t work, a book with most of the pages missing, and a half-melted candle. She grabs the book and candle and stuffs them in her bag. The place hasn’t only been scavenged, someone had apparently been squatting.
Denver looks over at Isaac. He opens a freezer door and a rank stench hits them. Denver covers her nose,gags. Isaac quickly shoves the door closed. He looks at Denver. “Sorry. Food’s gone bad.”
Returning to her search, Denver sees a piece of paper in a small space between the fridge and the cabinet. She reaches over and grabs it. It’s a photograph. Just like the one Isaac carries. In the photo, a girl sits on her dad’s shoulders. She smiles, grabbing onto his hair. They are at the ocean. You can see the water shining behind them and other people walking around.
The man looks familiar. Or maybe it’s the girl who looks familiar.
No. It’s the ocean.
There was an ocean over their fireplace. The house was always dark. The picture was dark. Not like this picture, sunny and happy. The picture over their fireplace was stormy. Like a hurricane was about to hit. The waves were choppy, harsh. She never knew the ocean could look so bright.
“Denver, you ok? Did you find anything?” His eyes linger on the paper in her hand.
“The ocean’s tide is caused by the gravitational pull of the moon.”
She hears Isaac coming towards her, but she doesn’t turn. He seems far away. She’s back in that dark house. The dark room. A closet. A woman, her mother, calling her a freak. Children shouldn’t know what you know. Hitting her. Children should listen, not speak. Pushing her. I wish you had never been born. Trapped for hours. Everything quiet. She’s hyperventilating. Her breath is too loud. She shifts position and it’s too loud. She can’t see anything. Feeling the walls around her, she curls into the corner. She cries for her mother. She wants to get out. After a while, drawing circles on the floor, Denver begins to calm down. The repetition slowing her heart. She rubs her feet together in a circular motion. When she wakes up there’s a loud sound. It’s everywhere. She covers her ears. A crack runs up the door, splitting the door in two. Through the crack nothing but darkness. She can see things flying around. A chair spins circles in the air. Within seconds everything is over. The sound recedes. Still loud, but getting quieter. Eventually all Denver hears is a siren. Up and down. Over and over. Never stopping. She pushes open the door and the house is gone. She can see the sky, and the stars open up before her.
“Denver?” Isaac’s voice is panicked. He grabs her shoulder, but she yanks away.
“Don’t touch me.”
“Denver? What’s wrong? What is it?”
She feels angry. Angrier than she’s ever felt. She pushes him. Denver runs out of the kitchen, back towards the broken glass windows in the shop front, picture still in hand. She hears Isaac following her but doesn’t stop. She picks up a chair and throws it through what remains of the window. Glass shatters. The sound is loud. It hurts, but she doesn’t care.
She grabs a piece of wood, a broken table leg, and hits anything that will break. Ceramic cups and plates left on tables, a cracked mirror.
Isaac watches, unable to stop her, not knowing what to do.
Eventually the swinging begins to slow. The crashes become further apart. Denver sinks to the floor. She sees Isaac across the room staring at her, and her anger rekindles. “Stop looking at me like I’m weird!” she shouts.
Isaac doesn’t respond. He stands there staring at Denver, at the anger on her face. He sees the picture on the floor where she dropped it, and unconsciously gropes in his pocket for his own.
He walks over to where Denver sits and grabs the table leg out of her hand. He turns and walks to one of the windows that Denver hadn’t thrown a chair through. There is a giant hole in the middle of the glass, like someone had chucked a rock at it. Isaac raises the table leg like a bat, and swings. He turns to the room and smashes every cup and plate that Denver missed. Shards of ceramic hit the wall. For once, he doesn’t seem to care about making too much noise. He drops the table leg, picks up a chair and smashes it over and over on the floor until it breaks. He’s screaming, Denver doesn’t know what. Just some unintelligible sounds.
Denver watches him.
When he finishes, Isaac falls to the floor next to Denver, breathing heavily.
Sometimes Denver wishes she was in the stars. Floating high above everyone. Looking down on the earth. The change of pressure in space would rupture her lungs, make her implode; her skin would swell as the water in her body began to vaporize, and she would become just another piece of the universe.
They sit there, each consumed in their own memories.
“It’s stopped raining,” Isaac says.
Denver looks outside and it’s dark. The storm clouds still hang overhead, but the rain has stopped.
She looks over and Isaac is making circles. He runs his finger in a circle, over and over on the floor.
He reaches across her and grabs the picture she dropped. Isaac looks at it, the father and daughter at the ocean. He turns to Denver.
Digging around in his head for a fact, any fact, something about the water, … “You know, the ocean has over 20,000 kinds of fish.”
He puts the picture in his pocket, next to the one of his parents.