We were all there that day at the farm, gathered around the table in the kitchen, arguing as usual about the temperature in the house, which was pleasantly warm, and about which channel to switch to on the television, and about which station to turn to on the radio, and about whether or not phones should be allowed at the table. Forks clinked against plates. Spoons scraped against bowls. Wisps of steam rose from platters of food. We had always been an average family, but over the past few years tensions had been rising between us, a vicious enmity, and that night at the farm there was a feeling that maybe we’d have to kill each other before the meal was through. Glancing around the table warily, we eyed each other as we chewed. All of us had contributed to the feast spread across the table. The turkey, a playful intelligent creature with emotions and memories and a unique personality whose throat had been slit with a knife. Mashed potatoes that had been made with olive oil instead of milk and butter, a surprisingly tasty recipe that had the wonderful bonus quality of not including ingredients that had been reaped by groping the teats of enslaved cattle. Gravy that had been heated in the microwave, which the scientific community had determined to be perfectly safe for human consumption. Corn that had been genetically modified, which the scientific community had determined to be perfectly safe for human consumption. Yams whose natural sweetness had been spoiled with a topping of marshmallows. Stuffing that had been ruined with too much salt. A cranberry relish that among other ingredients contained city tap water, which by all known standards for testing was perfectly safe for human consumption. Out in the lavender twilight beyond the windows, a herd of deer that maybe had been created by god through evolution were grazing for grain among the brittle stubbles of wheat in the field, breathing clouds of steam over the frosted dirt, and then headlights of a car appeared in the distance and together the deer looked and froze and then bounded off toward the woods, silhouettes vanishing into the dusk. The headlights shimmered and brightened and expanded and then abruptly disappeared as the car sped past the farm, burning petroleum, contributing nothing whatsoever to any rise in carbon dioxide that may have been naturally occurring in the atmosphere of the planet. Chemtrails were streaked across the sky, contaminating the air with experimental chemicals designed to tranquilize the population of the country, glowing ominously. On the screen of the embarrassingly old television shimmering in the family room, a newscaster was delivering a report about the bizarre ailments of the staff at an embassy in the tropics. Jazz was playing over the radio on the counter. Pierce cracked a bitter joke about the climate change emergency, dipping a roll into some gravy. Shaking pepper onto a dollop of mashed potatoes, Eleanor made an inflammatory remark about the hypothetical shadow government that supposedly controlled the country, and then she reached for a knife. Madison glanced down as her phone buzzed with a news notification in the pouch of her hoodie, Carter glanced down at the pocket on his oxford as his phone lit with a news notification, Nancy glanced over at the wall as her phone chirped in a purse hanging from the hooks by the door, Bill bent his head to eat a bite of the string bean casserole that everybody loved. Grant drank a sip of grapefruit juice, sitting at an empty plate, still attempting to purge imaginary toxins by fasting. Hannah drank a sip of cream soda, still wearing the necklace with the crystal, which the scientific community had determined to have no effect on human health whatsoever aside from the placebo benefits for gullible naturopaths. Zack drank a sip of root beer, wearing a commemorative sticker on his t-shirt announcing that he’d recently received the flu vaccine, which honestly wasn’t that heroic considering that getting injected with a vaccine was approximately as risky as taking a couple of aspirin. Florence drank a sip of ginger ale, still wearing the necklace with the crucifix, which like any religious article was worthy of respect regardless of personal belief. Xavier drank a sip of cherry cola, wearing an aloha shirt with some smokeable cancer tucked behind his ear, despite that he refused to get vaccinated out of an alleged fear of poisoning his body. Reagan glanced down at her phone on the table as her phone trilled and illuminated with a news notification, and then she swiped the screen with a finger to clear the alert, frowning. Beams creaked in the ceiling as the ghost moved through the attic. Looking distressed, drawing in a puddle of cranberry syrup with the tip of a knife, Tyler suddenly blurted out about a dream he’d had the night before, a nightmare about a black cat dripping with blood that purred and hissed and then suddenly froze and cracked apart and revealed an empty body glittering with quartz, which like all dreams was a message projected into the collective subconscious of the human species by a race of shapeshifting reptilians with frighteningly superior technology. Over on the television, the news suddenly cut to footage of the president, the patriot, the champion, once again sending carefully coded messages about the cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles plotting against the country, and then the screen cut to footage of the former president, the disappointment, the patriot, who’d been elected in a moment of hope that now seemed so distant, and then to footage of the secretive prison camp in the tropics where a bunch of ragheads had been imprisoned for over a decade now without trial, and then to footage of camouflaged soldiers patrolling a desert overseas, state-sponsored murderers gripping assault rifles, and then to footage of the justified terrorist attack on the towers. Flames exploding as a holographic missile hit a tower. Crisis actors fleeing in terror as a tower collapsed. A report about an act of vandalism at a memorial to the most horrific genocide in the history of the human species. Earlier that month a military veteran dressed in a trench coat and a ski mask had walked into a bar armed with smoke grenades and a handgun and had murdered eleven strangers before committing suicide in the manager’s office, yet another vanload of body bags dumped at the morgue in an ongoing mental health crisis that the government was ignoring. The ticker at the bottom of the screen flashed dates that adhered to a false timeline distorted by phantom time, and the lamp in the kitchen briefly flickered as the power surged, and then the light was steady again. There were no wind turbines out near the farm, which was maddening considering that wind turbines had no effect whatsoever on human health and were so beautiful and compared to fossil fuels were a breathtakingly clean form of energy production, and no solar panels out near the farm either, which was comforting considering that solar panels had no effect whatsoever on human health and compared to fossil fuels were a breathtakingly clean form of energy production and were so beautiful, and soon the nuclear plant out by the lake was going to be shut down, which was a disgrace considering that statistically nuclear power was both the safest and the cleanest form of energy production that the human species had ever invented. All around us in the house, electromagnetic waves that the scientific community had determined to have no effect whatsoever on human health aside from the psychological maladies of paranoid technophobes were streaming invisibly through the air, radiating from phones and the television and the radio and the router jacked in next to the computer in the office. Beams clacked in the ceiling as the ghost moved through the attic. Michigan in autumn. Out in the darkness beyond the windows, among the stars glittering in the sky, a satellite was drifting over the peninsula, glowing ominously, transmitting intimate data about the populace of the country to enrich a mob of sociopathic corporations. Mercury was in retrograde, a purely visual phenomenon that would have no effect whatsoever on life for the human species aside from the superstitious impulses of delusional astrologers. Americans had never walked on that moon shimmering above the farm. Earth was round. We sat there in the light of the lamp, citizens of an evil empire whose riches had been amassed primarily by exploiting the natural resources of a land stolen from indigenous peoples and by manipulating and bullying and invading other nations and who incidentally claimed to be a champion of freedom and liberty and democracy and yet regularly supported homicidal dictators and terrorist militias when doing so would be strategically profitable, a profoundly flawed but nevertheless special republic. The jazz playing over the radio was interrupted by an ad begging listeners to take action before the climate was irreparably damaged, and then an ad promoting a new airline, and then an ad hyping the coal industry, and then with a smooth burst of sax the jazz returned. The air in the house was still pleasantly warm. There was a sudden pounding on the door.
We all stared at the door together.
“Now who could that be?” Stephanie said.
We looked around at each other, but all of us were there.
“Who else would be coming?” Olivia said.
After a moment of silence there was another burst of pounding, with enough force this time that the glasses rattled in the cupboards.
“I guess someone should get that,” Nancy said, and then she rose from the table, shuffling toward the door, and the rest of us stared from the table as she twisted the knob.
A gust of wind blew into the kitchen as the door swung in. A stranger stood in the light out on the stoop. He looked suspicious. He was wearing an orange parka and jeans and muddy combat boots, clutching a wool hat in his hand. For a moment we worried he might be a communist. His hair was damp and his face looked flushed and sweaty and he seemed breathless, panting for air with his nostrils flared. A bulge in the pocket of his parka seemed vaguely shaped like a revolver.
“Please help me,” the stranger said.
His voice was strange. A trickle of blood dripped from his hair onto his forehead. He collapsed onto the cement.
Nancy gasped in shock, covering her mouth with her hands, and together the rest of us rushed over to the doorway, murmuring and exclaiming and helping the stranger onto the stool in the kitchen. Now that the stranger was in the house we could see that like all human beings he did not emanate a visible aura. He seemed to have blacked out momentarily after collapsing, and even now that he was conscious again he still appeared to be somewhat disoriented, sitting there on the stool with his hands on his knees, blinking at the floor. He had on a deodorant that smelled like bergamot.
“Here, you look thirsty,” Ian said, handing the stranger a glass of water.
“If you’re cold we can turn up the heat,” Eleanor said.
“How could anyone possibly be cold in here?” Hannah said.
“Does the heat even have a higher setting?” Florence said.
“You want a plate of food?” Bill said.
“He looks chilly,” Eleanor said.
“Maybe we should give him some space,” Lincoln said.
Victoria dramatically announced that she was a homeopathic doctor, a grossly misleading statement considering that homeopathic practitioners were not actually medical doctors, and then offered the stranger a remedy that like all homeopathic remedies had no basis whatsoever scientifically.
“Would you like that?” Victoria said in a strangely erotic voice, squeezing his shoulder.
“Maybe?” the stranger said.
He was still holding the glass but hadn’t yet taken a sip, probably smart enough to realize that the well water out here might be contaminated with pesticides. We wondered if he was on any medication. He seemed to be in a daze.
“What’s your name, anyway?” Yasmin said.
“Do you happen to know the score of the game?” Bill said.
“Where’d you even come from?” Madison said.
“Can you remember what happened?” Carter said.
The stranger gazed at the floor, speaking in a tone of shock.
“A coyote was in the road,” the stranger said.
“Please don’t say the coyote is dead,” Reagan said, covering her face with her hands.
“I swerved,” the stranger said.
“Shoulda just hit the fucker,” Jackson said.
“Then the car flipped,” the stranger said.
“Damn, rough night,” Quentin said.
“And hit a tree,” the stranger said.
“Goodness, child, you’re lucky to have survived,” Eleanor said.
“Must’ve been wearing a seat belt, which you might be surprised to hear not everyone in this house is smart enough to do, believing the seat belt requirement to be an oppressive law instituted by a tyrannical government,” Yasmin said.
“If you’d had on a seat belt you probably would’ve been strangled, amirite,” Wilson said.
“You can thank liberals for all the coyotes around here,” Stephanie said.
“You can thank conservatives for the condition of the roads,” Olivia said.
“A year ago there was this crash almost exactly like that that was actually a hit job by the deep state,” Derek said.
“There’s tracking devices in all of us,” Alice said.
“If you have any back problems from the accident, any issues at all, you should absolutely go in for a visit with my chiropractor, who’s terrific,” Ian said.
“Unless you want to visit, you know, an actual medical doctor, which a chiropractor is not,” Kennedy said.
“I just realized my psychic totally predicted this would happen,” Nancy said.
The stranger was staring at the floor with a frown.
“Oh!” the stranger said.
The stranger looked at us with an expression of horror, as if suddenly remembering something.
“My daughter is trapped in the car,” the stranger said.
For a moment all of us stared at him, processing this information, and then there was chaos in the kitchen as together we yanked on boots and stomped into sneakers and grabbed coats and windbreakers and jackets and rushed out of the house, some of us still only in socks, others altogether barefoot. Standing out in the frosted grass in the yard we could see flames in the distance, a vehicle on fire, and as we ran toward the blaze we could smell the pines and the firs and the cedars and the smoke on the wind and then an odor like burning plastic. As we got closer we realized with a sense of bewilderment that what the stranger had referred to as a car was actually a motorhome, a massive rusted‑out vehicle lying overturned in the road with the wheels facing back toward the farm and the roof facing off toward the horizon, and then all of us were gathered around the motorhome together in the frightening light of the flames. The hood had been crushed by the impact with the tree and the windshield had shattered and by now the fire that was spreading from the hood had engulfed the seats in the cab. A marshmallowy scent was rising from a puddle of transmission fluid leaking across the pavement, and the brake lights were still glowing, tinting wisps of smoke neon. Embers sparked through the air. Seeing into the motorhome from the front was impossible because of the flames, but there was a window on the back of the motorhome, and we huddled around the window, peering into the motorhome together. A child was slumped against the ceiling of the motorhome, sitting among scattered pans and spatulas and whisks and ladles and the ceramic shards of shattered dishes. She looked about eleven years old, wearing an aquamarine dress and moccasins and a baggy motorcycle jacket, with her hair in a messy bun. She seemed like the type of child who might have dreamed of intentionally crashing a drone into a flying saucer. Her eyes were shut and her face was smudged with what looked like ash and smoke and she didn’t seem to be breathing, sitting there motionless with her hands limp. For a moment we thought she might be dead, but then her eyes fluttered and her hands twitched and we realized that her ankle was twisted in a direction that looked grotesque and as she turned toward the window we saw that her face was splattered with blood and her forehead was gashed with a cut so deep that what looked like a pale strip of bone was visible beneath the split flesh. Grant, who was probably in a state of hypoglycemia after refusing to eat solid foods for a month, immediately fainted. Quick swiveling away and squatting over the road with her head between her knees, Reagan puked onto the pavement, vomiting up a disgusting slop of partially digested turkey and corn and yams and the string bean casserole that everybody loved. Bill shrieked at an embarrassingly shrill pitch. Taking out a phone, Eleanor called the emergency hotline, begging the operator to send an ambulance and the fire department and the state police, but even then we knew that emergency services would probably be too late. The child looked frightened, cradling her elbow as if her shoulder was dislocated, glancing toward the flames in the cab. Stephanie hurled broken slabs of asphalt at the window, Olivia beat on the window with a broken branch, but the window was made of plastic, wouldn’t shatter. Scrambling up onto the side of the motorhome that was currently facing the sky, Derek attempted to stomp out the windows up there, but those windows were made of plastic too, and the windows were probably too small to squeeze through anyway, and that side of the motorhome had no door. The only door to the motorhome that wasn’t completely engulfed by flames was the door in the side of the motorhome that was currently facing the pavement, pinned against the road, and as we registered that information, we realized that the only way to rescue the child in time would be to flip to motorhome upright again, back onto the wheels. Daunted, we stared at the motorhome for a moment, contemplating the size of the vehicle. We understood that flipping a vehicle that size would be almost impossible, but we were terrified that when the flames reached the fuel tank the motorhome would explode, and none of us was willing to abandon the child, and so with hardly any discussion whatsoever we decided that we would flip the motorhome together or that we would die trying. Derek hopped back down to the road, Stephanie dropped a lump of asphalt, Olivia flung aside the splintered branch, Pierce stripped off his jersey, Yasmin peeled off her blazer, Grant rose from the pavement still wobbly from fainting, Reagan wiped some vomit from her mouth with the back of her wrist, Madison tied her hair back, Carter put away his spectacles, Ian tightened his belt a notch for extra back support, Quentin flicked a toothpick into the grass, Bill spit into his hands, Nancy took a deep breath, and then we gathered around the roof of the motorhome, bending and crouching and kneeling and grappling for purchase, gripping the roof, struggling to lift the motorhome from the pavement. Never before had we been so aware of the almost godlike power of the force of gravity. The weight of the motorhome was staggering. Even timing the heaves so that we were all pulling upward on the roof simultaneously, we couldn’t raise the motorhome from the pavement. Kennedy grimaced, grunting as she strained. Zack cursed. Xavier swore. Wilson prayed aloud, begging for a divine intervention, down by the cab of the motorhome, nearest to the flames. Squatting over the pavement in mismatched socks, Tyler winced and whimpered and then raised his foot and brushed a stone from the bottom of his sock, and then he planted his foot again, grabbing the roof with both hands. Hunched over the motorhome in her overalls, her thighs quivering, Alice sneered at the pain of the steel lip on the roof digging into the flesh of her palms. Lincoln tilted his head back with his jaw clenched, his throat bulging at the collar of his turtleneck as he strained. Heaving on the roof down by the back of the motorhome, Victoria slipped on some loose gravel, and as her flip-flop skidded on the pavement her foot snapped the thong from the sole, and she kicked the broken flip-flop aside and then she crouched over the roof again, straining. Hannah coughed on smoke, Florence batted away fumes, Jackson blinked through stinging eyes. The fire had begun to spread from the cab into the back of the motorhome, the flames flickering on curtains and carpeting and scattered gossip magazines and the cushions that had tumbled from a sofa during the crash, and the child was weeping, and the motorhome still wasn’t moving, and some of us began to cry out in desperation at the colossal weight of the machine. Still on the phone with the operator at the emergency hotline, Eleanor looked at the rest of us struggling, and she hesitated and frowned and scowled and then she tossed the phone into the grass, striding over to the motorhome, where she knelt beside us, shoving the sleeves of her cardigan up onto her forearms, gripping the roof of the motorhome so tight that veins bulged in her wrists. Then all of us were there, heaving and straining and struggling to lift the motorhome from the pavement, together, as a family, and in the silence we could hear the frightening crackling of the flames, and the motorhome still wasn’t moving, was just dead weight on the pavement, and then there was the horrible moment when all of us understood that even together we weren’t capable of lifting the motorhome, that we weren’t strong enough, that we were too weak, that we weren’t going to be able to save the child, a terrible desperate moment when we only continued to struggle to lift the motorhome out of a sense of utter despair, and then we heard a sound like horses stampeding through a nearby pasture and with a sense of astonishment we felt the roof of the motorhome tremble and shudder and then rise into the air. Surging with adrenaline now, suddenly daring to hope, we gasped and yelled and adjusted grips on the motorhome, and then we heaved with a primal ferocity, groaning and lifting the roof of the motorhome higher into the air, lying under the motorhome with bent knees and feet flat on the side of the motorhome and pushing upward, squatting under the motorhome with bent knees and backs flush against the side of the motorhome and thrusting upward, stepping back and then lunging forward to ram the motorhome with lowered shoulders, shoving the motorhome, slapping the motorhome, punching the motorhome furiously, screaming vocal cords raw, and then with a tremendous thud the motorhome tipped back onto the wheels, bouncing once before settling onto the pavement. The door was unlocked, and we stepped into the smoky haze in the motorhome and kicked aside broken glass and shattered china and bent to lift the child from the floor, and then we carried the child out of the motorhome into the night. We’d just stepped beyond the light of the flames when the motorhome finally exploded, blasting all of us with a wave of heat. A hubcap clattered off down the road, vanishing into the darkness.
“I’m alive?” the child said, and then began to laugh hysterically, gazing back at the inferno with a look of awe.
Sirens were approaching, and then an ambulance was there, and then medics were helping the child onto a gurney as we stood together by the ambulance, trembling and panting and wiping sweat from brows, leaning on each other for support. Only then did we become fully aware of what we’d accomplished. Arms slung over each other, smiling and grinning and heads shaking in amazement at what we’d just done, we were suddenly struck by a powerful feeling, a sense of intimacy and camaraderie and solidarity with each other, of gratitude for each other, of pride in each other, a feeling of love so familiar that just looking at each other we were overcome with joy. We could remember that we’d once felt that way years before, all of the time, hosting garage sales together, and cracking up laughing together in restaurants, and volunteering at fundraisers together, and rowing boats together, and pitching tents together, and riding toboggans together, and splashing around in hotel swimming pools, and clapping and whistling and cheering at graduations, and dancing at weddings to pop music and rock songs and country ballads under the glittering shimmer of disco balls, and posing for photos at ballparks and ski resorts and carnivals and barbecues and under the colorful streamers at birthday parties, and laughing over board games with steaming mugs of cocoa, and blowing kazoos, and lighting sparklers, and carrying taped boxes and suitcases and furniture to help each other move into new dorms and apartments and houses. We’d forgotten how wonderful the feeling was.
“You’re good people,” the stranger said, gazing at each of us with tears shimmering in his eyes.
And then, after bowing in thanks, the stranger climbed into the ambulance, sitting beside the gurney, looking down at the child tenderly, holding the child by the hand, and the medics shut the door.
Standing there behind the ambulance in the colorful glow of the lights flashing along the roof, all of us were reminded then of the last time an ambulance had visited the farm, and of that week we’d spent at the hospital together. What she’d said to us that night at the hospital as we’d gathered in her room. We could remember the scene vividly. Rosie would die only a day later. Lying there in the bed, propped up against the pillow, she had worn a faded maroon sweatshirt and her pearl earrings and her eyeglasses and her wristwatch and her nails were painted pink. She had just refused to eat a turkey sandwich. Out in the darkness beyond the windows, snow was flurrying. A pencil was tucked into the pages of the book of crosswords on the nightstand. We had painted her nails for her and the pleasant scent of the polish had already faded from the air. The room was uncomfortably chilly.
Suddenly seeming alert, she reached with trembling hands for the guardrails on the bed, feebly gripping the bars, and for a moment her jaw made a movement that was almost like chewing as she struggled to speak, and then for the first time in days she managed to summon her voice, gazing at us with a determined expression where we were gathered around her.
“Always love each other,” she said, speaking in a tone that was both stern and pleading, “and cherish the truth.”
And then, exhausted, she sank back against the pillow, and her hands dropped back to the bed.
She had loved family dearly, and had devoted her life to nurturing us, longing for us to care for each other, to delight in each other, to support and respect and appreciate each other, hoping for the family to stay together forever, even after she was gone. But she had died back before reality had fractured. There had always been differences between us, disparities in perception and memory and knowledge and belief and understanding, but while once those differences had seemed amusing to us, even endearing, over the past few years the differences had become overwhelming, a dizzying nightmare of overlapping realities that was terrifying to behold, and as we stood there together watching the lights of the ambulance shimmer and shrink and vanish into the darkness, the truth was that the momentary sense of unity we’d felt was already fading, and we didn’t know whether the family would survive. There was a hate between us now. We’d rather go to war with each other than allow the planet to be destroyed by a generation of crybabies and narcissists too pampered and spineless to do whatever was necessary to ditch fossil fuels once and for all. We’d rather spill blood then and there.