Short Story The Tremendous One
Pui touches his nose to confirm he’s still there. He’s alive and, surprisingly, grateful.
The city pops its joints. Cracks and snaps bursting against the ground’s swelling groans. Now the city shakes. He spits toothpaste, runs to his bedroom, and huddles under a table he’s nailed to the floor. Nothing will knock him dead unless the whole building collapses. But it probably won’t. It has survived many earthquakes, the tremendous one included. When the more gut-whipping shaking stops, he clutches his phone and crawls out through the three-feet-high hallway, a casualty of the tremendous one, not fully caved in, just lowered. He, Pui, lives on the second floor. The third and fourth don’t exist anymore.
Paco, Pui’s first-floor neighbor, won’t come outside to wait in case their building finally gives up and collapses, but Pui always knocks anyway.
“I’ll live,” Paco screams.
The morning sun slams Pui’s face. He squints. A breeze flutters his pajama shorts and sneaks up his T-shirt like it wants to wake him up. He’s up, but the earthquakes usually excite him more than this. A motorcycle roars by, dodging mounds of old debris, too fast for this narrow street with barely a sidewalk. He jumps back. His ears pop. And still, the giddy electricity that this chaos should rapture him with doesn’t come. It hasn’t come in a while. He motorboats his lips. A brisk fluttering that could, maybe by some tiny miracle, expel his malaise. A boy dressed in a red romper stares at him and tugs at his mother’s hand. Pui stops motorboating. The boy’s mother mumbles: “It’s okay. It’s okay.” Nothing around them seems to have newly collapsed, though it’s hard to tell in a city that’s already rubble. After the tremendous one, a third of the city dead, most left, leaving behind those who couldn’t afford to leave and those who, like Pui, gave their souls to the city, their lives so indelibly dreamed up in this place that leaving would make them husks. The ground quits groaning, the buildings steady, and the city, synced up by its constant tremors, sighs in relief. He cherishes this sigh, but now it lands too lightly, deprived of catastrophe. Maybe catastrophe can’t be catastrophe if he craves it. The woman pushes her son up a ledge of broken stairs and into the leaning building next to Pui’s. The boy moves nimbly on all fours, a red-rompered goat who doesn’t care how flimsy the terrain is. Other neighbors climb back into their homes too.
Paco appears outside, lights a cigarette, and offers Pui a puff. Before the tremendous one, Paco was already in ruins, an old, wispy recluse Pui had only met thrice. The building’s tenants, Pui’s friends, joked-lamented-waited for the day Paco would splinter and get blown away in flakes by a careless gust of wind. But Paco still stands. Rubble props rubble, Pui thinks. It’s all it can do. Pui walks to the market. He’s in pajama shorts, flip-flops, his toenails are long and mucky, and he’s feeling undone like a song cut just before the chorus. Market stalls set up atop the ruins of one of the neighborhood’s tallest buildings, one that collapsed straight down, forming a raised esplanade that’s improbably flat. He climbs a jagged staircase formed by debris, the steps fuzzy with moss. Ferns explode along the edges while other greenery, new to the city, rockets out through the cracks. His favorite mushroom stall is run by a handsome mushroom hunter with a patchy beard. He wears a green apron, grayed with dust, and is on his knees picking up puffball mushrooms that have scattered all over. Pui picks up a handful and places them in a crate.
“Not too bad this one,” Pui says, his voice a croak.
“Caught me setting up.”
“Not your fault.”
The mushroom hunter throws the last bunch of tumbling puffballs into their crate. He’s less handsome today. Like he’s decided, out of modesty or some other unfathomable pretty-person logic, to shed some of his glamorizing varnish. Other stalls retie collapsed tarps, arrange toppled tables, gather merchandise. The sun shines, but it’s not too hot, just enough to believe the world is kind. Safe. Boring. The handsome—but not-so-handsome-today—mushroom hunter arranges chanterelles, pink and black oysters, indigo milk caps, chickens of the woods, shiitakes, cauliflower and button mushrooms, and portobellos in rustic wooden crates. Portobellos, he once told Pui, are button mushrooms too, only mature.
“What are those?” Pui asks him.
The abundance of dead cityfolk, dead pets, and other varieties of decomposing organic matter has turned the rubble into a perfect environment for fungi, their tendrils extending miles across the city, their mushrooms sprouting all over like hands waving. Pui thinks fungi must be lonely to want to pop up from the ground and say We exist! even knowing that people will eat them.
“Mushrooms are wonderful,” he says.
He can’t tell if it’s their loneliness or optimism that makes them wonderful, but he savors the first feeling of wonder of the day, of several days, weeks, like curtains parting to—what? Not sunshine. Something better. Something like—dammit! The feeling’s gone. He’s about to repeat himself to resummon the wonder, but his phone vibrates.
“Are you alive?” his sister asks.
Pui grabs a tiny wooden basket and fills it with black trumpets.
“I need you to come ASAP.”
“How soon is ASAP?”
“I’m buying mushrooms.”
“I don’t want you in the city.”
His sister is not in the habit of chatting. Not that she doesn’t care about his life. When she cares, she asks him concrete questions like “Why didn’t you leave the city with [ex-boyfriend]?” Or “Why are you so fucking stubborn?” Or “Is your loneliness a lifestyle choice, and, if so, is it worth it?”
“It was a tremor,” he says. “Barely felt it.”
“It’s Martina. She’s . . . it’s an emergency!”
At least once a month, his sister tries to get him to visit with fake emergencies. This emergency could be real—she hadn’t yet used his niece as bait—but he despises leaving the city. The mushroom hunter offers him a handful of coins as change.
“I love you,” Pui says.
The mushroom hunter stares, unsure if Pui’s speaking to him or the phone. Pui stares back so that he knows it’s him. The mushroom hunter could say “I love you” back and kiss him. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Or he could laugh and punch him. And though less wonderful, that would still be something. Instead, the mushroom hunter turns to sift through a box of enoki mushrooms. Some of his gray hairs stick out, shining. Once, Pui tried to count them. Today, their ordinariness—it’s only depigmented hair—makes him look away.
“I love you too,” his sister says. “So, you’re coming, right?”
He could tell his sister he has work to do, but yesterday he finished sculpting a full upper denture and a molar piece with adjacents, and now he has nothing to do except go back home and check for fissures. There was a time when his sister lived only five blocks away from him and she wouldn’t have to insist he visit. He’d simply show up. Or she would.
“I’ll come,” Pui says.
“The city seems reluctant to keep me today.”
“Good. Great! There’s a bus leaving in an hour.”
He finally asks what the emergency is. Martina is missing.
“Missing!” he screams into the phone as he steps away from the mushroom hunter, who doesn’t seem to register how squeaky his voice gets in distress.
The bus leaves the city and rides past fields and farmhouses. Pui sits by a window with the basket of black trumpets on his lap and an overnight bag on the empty seat next to him. He believes people are lonelier out here than in the city; there’s too much open space without any rubble to burrow into. Where do they hide if there’s no chaos? After an hour, the bus reaches a forest and, for the next two hours, climbs up winding mountain roads. Then it descends into a valley where fleecy clouds with pompadours float low and pleasant. The air is candied here. No dust. The bus vibrates lullingly over cobbled Main Street, past squat shops with summer flowers, coffee houses with tiny tables where people drink lattes in athleisure, past bees and fluffy dogs and SUVs and sunglasses and everything warm and welcoming if he decided to forget himself in it. But he won’t. Like hypothermia, it would kill him.
His sister waits outside the peach-colored station, which is as long and tall as the bus itself, grimacing at each of the passengers that descend before him, rude that they aren’t Pui. She hugs him. Last time he was hugged was also by her, more than a year ago, here. She yanks his overnight bag from his hand as if he were still her little brother able to carry only the small basket of mushrooms.
Away from Main Street, the valley is all houses, large and larger, with squared shrubs and plotted gardens, a small town his sister and her neighbors, rich city deserters, call a city no matter that they’re small, prim, and tucked away among mountains.
His sister drives fast, and he holds on to the overhead grip.
“Martina’s giving me a fever. Here.” She takes his palm and places it on her forehead. She’s cool, not even sweaty. “Right? Fever!”
“The road.” Pui points ahead of them.
“Don’t tell me how to drive.”
She’s right; he almost ran over a stroller the last time he drove.
“You said Martina was missing.”
“She’s at the mall.”
“So she’s not missing?”
“You wouldn’t have come unless I upped the drama.”
“There are no malls here.”
His sister’s town prided itself on having no malls, strip malls, chain or big-box stores, leaving the tacky eyesores for neighboring villages, past the peaks that guard their enclave. “It’s a new monstrosity. She goes there with those two.” His sister swerves, avoiding a girl in overalls riding a red tricycle. Pui waves at the girl. She waves back and scoots farther into the middle of the road, confident that she is too darling to get run over. “I’d be madder if she weren’t the ringleader. You’d think she was holy the way those two follow her around. ‘Martiiiiiina,’ they squeal.” His sister smiles. She cracks herself up. “And those getups. Why?” She swerves more brusquely, and Pui’s thrown against the passenger door. She parks, a squealing stop, and, before he’s able to compose himself, she’s out of the car, heaving his bag and striding up the path to her front door.
His brother-in-law lifts a greeting hand from among flowering bushes. He wears a curled straw garden hat and puffs smoke from a wooden pipe, a man caught in the wrong century. Pui lifts his hand and bows. They are both in their midforties, but his brother-in-law elicits an ancient reverence as if he’d once met God. His sister sets his bag down by the entrance, next to oodles of shoes, where Pui takes a breath before encountering the massiveness of her house, made more massive by how much smaller her place was back in the city.
“Flip-flops?” She studies his feet as if he had developed hooves.
“I considered sneakers, but I couldn’t find a good enough reason to wear them.”
In the kitchen, she hands him a glass of water and a banana though he hasn’t asked for either. A rack of silver bangles clinks on her wrist. Pui drinks the water as she screams for her husband, her voice bouncing from the walls until it gets trapped in the high ceiling. His nephew appears, a bulbous-headed six-year-old who reminds Pui of himself as a young boy, except he’s blond like his father and not dark-haired like Pui and his sister. He’s a child of this valley, and like the valley, he’s eerily prim.
“HELLO, UNCLE. IT’S GOOD TO SEE YOU.”
As a loud tiny person, who seems to believe words deserve full and defined shapes, he now asks for JUICE. His mother hands him a juice box. He sets it on the kitchen island and climbs on a stool. He snaps the straw from the back, sets it next to the juice box, tears the box’s round opening with his pinky finger, and squirts juice into his mouth. Pui would think this is the cool way his nephew and friends drink their juice except, according to his sister, he has no friends.
Pui asks him why he doesn’t use the straw.
“STRAWS.” He sets his juice box down with both hands. “STRAWS ARE INJURIOUS TO THE ENVIRONMENT.”
“Injurious.” Pui tries sounding out the word with the same relish.
“IT MEANS BAD .”
Pui grabs the straw. His nephew follows it with his eyes. “Even if you don’t use the straw, it’s still injurious.”
His sister groans and pinches the bridge of her nose. His nephew stares at him, contemplating. Pui has made a mistake, but he’s not sure what the mistake is. His sister screams for her husband again, and both Pui and his nephew jump, startled. Pipeless, her husband walks in from the backyard and rests his elbows on the table. He keeps his hat on like a wonky-haloed saint, reaches for the basket of black trumpets Pui has brought, and gives Pui a thumbs-up. His brother-in-law has a recipe for them.
“It’s time to stop Martina’s nonsense,” his sister says. “She’s been leading this . . . I don’t know what it is.” She turns to her husband, expecting him to finish what she started. He says nothing. His brother-in-law belongs in a place where stoicism is a great achievement and silence is a virtue. Maybe a farm, among the deeply religious or the extremely cold. Or, possibly, this valley is perfect for his brother-in-law—it’s his sister who needs to go back to the city with Pui. “She goes to the mall and proselytizes,” his sister continues.
“I sure fucking hope not!”
His brother-in-law shakes his head with closed eyes.
“Sorry, darling.” His sister pats the air in front of her son, the kitchen island too wide to reach him. “Truth is, we don’t know what she does. She and her groupies intercept people like they’re selling something.”
“How do you know this?”
“IF I DON’T USE IT,” his nephew says, fingers stroking the straw. “WHY WOULD IT STILL BE INJURIOUS?”
“Because . . . ,” Pui says. “The only way it wouldn’t be injurious is if you sent it back to the juice people, and they reused it.”
“I CAN SEND IT BACK!”
“They’d just throw it out, kiddo. Some things can’t go back.”
His nephew blinks repeatedly. “THAT IS SAD.”
Pui shares his sadness. A crusted emptiness that threatens to cave in. He squeezes the back of his nephew’s neck.
“It’s okay, darling,” his sister says. “Why don’t you go play?”
“I WANT TO LISTEN TO MUSIC.”
“Fine. Then go do that.”
His nephew walks his juice box to the recycle bin, stares at the straw, considers throwing it out, but then slides it into his shorts pocket. His father tousles his hair as he walks out. “I’ve been tailing Martina,” Pui’s sister says.
“She’s a teenager,” her husband says.
“Exactly! A monster.”
“Not a monster.”
His sister’s eyes dilate. “I know teenage girls.”
“Maybe she’s meeting friends,” Pui says. “Making out. I don’t know.”
“If only. You’ll see when you go get her.”
“If her father or I go, she might run away for real. She loves you.”
Martina did love Pui, before the tremendous one, when he lived with [ex-boyfriend] in their yet-unlowered apartment, underneath two still-existent floors inhabited by friends, also artists. His sister lived only five blocks away, and [ex-boyfriend] made Martina fly by whirling her. Pui still made art, large creatures built out of felt that Martina believed were alive. Pui was a wizard. Martina loved him before sculpting dental pieces became his sole profession. Before his sister took her away to this made-up town and [ex-boyfriend; once love-of-life] abandoned him for another made-up town. Safe, they said.
His sister will drop Pui off at the mall. She believes Martina has started a cult—or worse, joined one—and wants him to infiltrate it. She doesn’t believe Martina escaping to the mall every day is simply teenagehood. Her daughter has to be engaged in something more tenebrous and far more extraordinary.
By this point, Pui’s characteristically regretting his visit and bringing an overnight bag, which sends the wrong message: I can stay! No problem! But, today, he’s also overwhelmed by an unmooredness that not even the idea of burrowing back into his rubble relieves.
Today, he’s also overwhelmed by an unmooredness that not even the idea of burrowing back into his rubble relieves.
The Green Glade Palisades is swanky with expensive-looking boutiques, fountains, an unjustifiable amount of glass, heavy air-conditioning, and echoes ricocheting everywhere. Pui clashes in his overworn T-shirt, pancake-flat flip-flops, and hovering glumness. He moves slowly, grabbing on to his pajama shorts like a parachute’s harness.
Martina is standing by the food court holding a clipboard. A girl and a boy flank her, both taller and boxier, a kind of build developed by, Pui supposes, contact sports. In contrast, Martina is short, plump, and glowy. She has cropped and straightened her hair into an ugly bob, same as the tall girl, the boy in a tight side part, all of their hair dyed the exact same hamster brown. They don’t speak but stare straight ahead with modest smiles, like androids doing their best to pass as human. Or like missionaries. They wear baggy sand-colored suits, too-short pants, mustard shirts buttoned up to their necks, white socks, and black brogues. Everything is so ugly on them Pui wonders if this is a kind of beauty he’s witnessing.
Martina intercepts people while the two others remain frozen-smiled by either side of her. She speaks to each person briefly: a young man flipping car keys in his hand, a woman pushing a stroller, an old man holding a large paper bag with a minimalist logo. The young man laughs; the woman hurriedly pushes her stroller away; the old man pats Martina on the shoulder before shuffling in the other direction.
“Hello.” Pui stands in front of Martina.
“Pui,” she says. Pui has nothing to do with his given name, but she dubbed him Pui from the moment she started making sounds. “Are you here to drag me home?”
“I’m here to join,” he says. “If there’s an opening.”
Her friends look at each other.
Cult seems too ominous, club too childish, group too blah, band too musical. “Your troupe.”
Troupe sounds like the circus.
“Who are you?” the boy asks, his android smile gone.
“My uncle,” Martina says, her eyes fixed on Pui. “What did Mom tell you of our . . . association?”
Martina silences the boy with a flick of her hand. His head is too small for his shoulders, his legs too long, and his expression bewildered. Pui’s mesmerized by his hair, its unnatural beige and its coiffed side part like a wig. Is it a wig? Are they all wearing wigs? The girl sneaks sideway glances at Pui.
“Pui, you’re not ready,” Martina decides and walks away.
The girl follows. The boy studies Pui, his expression morphing into satisfaction, as if Martina’s rebuff was exactly what he needed. Then, in two strides, he falls back in line with Martina and the girl. Pui follows too, trying to imitate their swinging-arms walk. With them, he doesn’t feel so out of place.
The group settles outside a department store, a mirror to the perfume samplers who accost customers coming in and out.
“Do you love outer space?” Martina asks a man holding a little girl’s hand. The man ignores her, but the girl pulls him to her. “Are you aware, lady and sir, that you could travel to space this afternoon?”
“Yes!” the girl says.
“We have a spaceship in the parking lot.” Martina swivels her clipboard to show them something Pui can’t see. “You agree outer space is more exciting than this mall.” The girl jumps up and down. One of her pigtails comes loose. The man tries to lead her away, but Martina leans in and whispers to him.
“Half an hour,” the man says.
“Half an hour,” Martina says and holds out a hand, inviting the man and girl to walk ahead.
The day remains perfectly summery: warm, bright, and full of birds. Too many birds. Multiplied. Maybe mutated. All a screeching twitter. Martina leads them to a white van in a secluded part of the parking lot. On the side of the van, a cardboard sign reads SPACESHIP in black marker.
“This is not a spaceship,” the little girl says.
Martina gestures to the boy, who slides the van’s door open, revealing an interior furnished like a cockpit. Pui’s too far away to make out the details, but there are blinking lights, aluminum foil, and faint beep-boops. The little girl throws herself inside. The father sits next to his daughter. The boy closes the door. Martina climbs into the front passenger seat. Music starts. “2001: A Space Odyssey.” At Martina’s cues, her assistants rock the van and turn a large crank sticking out from the back.
Half an hour later, the boy reopens the van’s door.
“Fun?” Martina asks.
“Again!” the girl shouts.
The father carries his daughter out of the van, shakes Martina’s hand, and they walk back to the Green Glade Palisades. Martina and her assistants get into the front of the van. The girl drives. Pui runs and, just as they’re pulling out, bangs on the side of the van. The boy stares at him from the side-view mirror.
“Your uncle,” he says.
They get out of the van.
“Pui, I forgot about you.” Martina seems amused.
“I want to ride your spaceship.”
The boy looks at Martina as if this were indecent.
“Sorry, Pui. The spaceship makes only one trip per day.”
He’s desperate, possibly pitiful.
The boy shrugs. The girl asks, “Is he okay?”
Pui’s not sure if she’s asking if he’s a good candidate for a spaceship ride or if he’s okay overall. Okay as a human. He’s ridiculous cityfolk. A joke to the rest of the country, clinging to ruins, a subspecies of human too fearful or stupid to escape. But it takes smarts and guts to live in the city, tending to what others have forgone. He clenches his sphincter, trying to push out the magic Martina once saw in him. Show her there’s still a Pui she can love. He too deserves a spaceship ride.
“Okay,” Martina says.
After they reset the spaceship for a new trip, the boy opens the van, and Martina ushers Pui inside. The middle row of seats has been removed to allow for a boxlike contraption made to resemble a control panel. He sits in one of the two seats at the back covered in metallic fabric and straps into a harness devised from salvaged seatbelts. She hands him a purple papier-mâché helmet with an acrylic visor sturdier than the helmet itself. With daylight streaming in, the control panel looks stolen from a middle school play: a crooked cardboard box painted black, bottlecap dials, glued whiteboard screens with graphs and gauges, a lever, lights covered in cellophane blinking in no discernible pattern, and a soundtrack of beeps and boops seeping out from under the box.
The doors close. Sunk in darkness, the control panel suddenly gains an eerie realism: backlit screens, glow-in-the-dark dials, not slick but as if the spaceship has been lost for eons, outdated, bedraggled, and hurtling through space. The lights and beep-boops turn serious, indicating mechanisms struggling to function. He becomes anxious, a bit claustrophobic, and has to remind himself he’s in a parking lot outside a mall.
Pui’s not sure if she’s asking if he’s a good candidate for a spaceship ride or if he’s okay overall.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven . . .” A countdown in an old-timey voice. “. . . three, two, one. Blast off!”
The spaceship shakes. A roar fills the cabin, so loud his marrow shakes too. His stomach shrinks and hardens. His heart pumps so hard he feels it in his tonsils. He shuts his eyes. The roar gets louder, the shaking so violent he’s convinced the ship will implode on him like a building during the tremendous one, finally deciding not to spare him.
He groans in order not to scream.
The shaking subsides, the roar quiets, and when the last rumble leaves the ship, the lights go out. He hears nothing. He lifts his hand up to his face but can’t see it. Has he been stranded? Is Martina pranking him? Where are the beep-boops? Maybe he has died. Pui touches his nose to confirm he’s still there. He snaps his tongue to hear something. He motorboats his lips. Pui’s alive and, surprisingly, grateful.
The darkness becomes emptier—very outer space. Pui undulates his arms to relish how light he’s become, how easy. How easy it is to breathe too, despite the helmet, or maybe because of it, providing him with oxygen. He laughs, enchanted. If he unstrapped his harness, would he float? A light comes on with a boop. LEVER , a screen shows. In this small light, the spaceship materializes again. Pui pulls the lever. On his left, a blind rises open to reveal a circular window lined with a tube of tiny blacklights. Behind the window, drawings glide by: white glowing stars, lopsided neon moons, full and crescent, faraway planets with craters and rings, all incandescent against the dark. “Starman” by David Bowie begins playing. Is Bowie just for him? Pui used to play Bowie for Martina in the city, an attempt to make her otherworldly like Bowie was, like Pui thought he himself was.
Pui cries. He hasn’t cried in years. He takes the helmet off, presses his eyes, and attempts deep breaths to stop the crying. He’s scared he’ll dissolve, the tenuous filaments that hold him together melting like spun sugar, chunks of Pui plopping to the ground. But he can’t stop crying. More neon planets and stars sail by the window.
Pui can’t find his breath.
An enormous planet with three neon rings in pink, yellow, and blue fills the window, as if the spaceship were ready to land. But Pui flies past, and the planet vanishes. Pui blubbers. He’s lost. Hurtling. He looks for a distress button. An SOS. Someone to come rescue him. But there is no such button.
The spaceship reaches almost total darkness again, dotted only by faraway stars. Pui is about to scream, but he can’t muster his vocal chords.
A car alarm wails outside.
Pui catches a trembling breath. The first breath after almost drowning, a breath so vulnerable, so filled with relief and lingering terror it makes him cry even more. He uses the back of his hand to clean snot and tears. A cluster of large, bright stars flies by, and he hiccups.
Pui rides back to his sister’s with Martina and friends, the four of them crowded in the front of the van, silent because no one knows what to do with a puffy, just-cried man. At dinner, his sister asks if he was able to infiltrate Martina’s cult, not caring that Martina is sitting right next to him. He tells her exactly what Martina and friends explained the whole spaceship thing is about: a school project. His sister doesn’t believe it; it’s summer and Martina isn’t in school. Martina refuses to say anything. He tries to weave a better lie, saying it’s an extracurricular over-the-summer project, something that will one day be good for college applications.
“A spaceship?” his sister asks. “What has that got to do with anything?”
Martina eats her mayonnaised corn on the cob in large gleeful bites.
“And why those getups? At least take that thing off at dinner.”
“It’s part of the experience,” Martina says foggily, brushing her wig hair with the tips of her fingers.
His sister refills Pui’s wine and her own. His brother-in-law cleans his mouth with a folded napkin.
“Was it a nice ride?” he asks Pui.
“THE MOON IS A ROCK. NOT CHEESE.” Mayonnaise globs line his nephew’s mouth.
“Why would it be cheese, my love?” Pui’s sister asks.
“You’ve never heard that before?” his brother-in-law asks.
“That the moon is made of cheese?”
“I believe it comes from a fable.”
“IN CARTOONS SOMETIMES IT’S CHEESE. BUT CARTOONS ARE NOT REAL.”
“Some of them can be,” Martina whispers.
His nephew drops his standard door-to-door-salesman-who-can’t-sell-enough-to-make-rent demeanor and lights up. “WHICH ONES?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
“Don’t upset your brother, Martina,” Pui’s sister says and drinks wine. “I don’t like you doing this spaceship thing. Whose van is it? I don’t know these kids or their parents. No. No. You’ve had your adventure. No more spaceships, vans in malls, whatever. And luring people! Children! People will think you’re some kind of deviant.”
His nephew burps. Martina stands up. The muscles on the side of his sister’s jaw twitch. Martina smiles, not a fake smile but a tender one that seems directed at herself, drops her napkin onto her plate, and goes upstairs.
“You’re not done!” his sister screams, but they all know Martina isn’t coming back. His sister swallows the rest of her wine.
Pui stares at the ceiling in his sister’s guest room. It’s two in the morning. He walks out of the room. Maybe he’ll go outside. Maybe he’ll roam the valley until he’s never found again.
“Pui?” Martina stands in shorts and an oversized Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, his sister’s.
“Why are you up?” he asks.
She pulls him to her room and shuts the door behind them. Her bedside lamp shines a pinkish light. Her room is a hybrid between childhood—a village of watchful stuffed animals occupying two bookshelves and a corner of her bed—and teenagedom—posters of sci-fi movies and metal bands he doesn’t recognize.
“Why do you stay in the city?” Martina asks. She seems younger without her wig, her curls large and frizzy, flyaways glittering.
“I can’t really go to space, can I?”
Martina grabs a stuffed bunny with floppy ears longer than its body and sits cross-legged on a chair.
“Mom says you want to die.”
No, I don’t , Pui moves his mouth to say, but his throat won’t sound the words. He tries laughing, but that also feels untrue. What about Yes ?
Yes won’t come out either.
Martina reaches for his hands and studies them; maybe they are better at explaining why he stays in a crumbling city, even after everyone has left him.
“You loved the city,” Pui says. “Do you remember?”
“I remember it being colorful. But it’s not. It’s gray, isn’t it?”
“It’s much less gray now, with mushrooms growing all over, and all kinds of plants and weeds. Moss. Some of the debris is turning bright orange. Did you know? Some sort of chemical reaction.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Maybe.” He shrugs.
Martina lets go of Pui’s hands and smiles, not with pity or exasperation, but curious, as if she wants to see the city like he does.
“Why a spaceship?” he asks.
Martina plops faceup on her bed. “I was bored.”
“IS THIS A SLEEPOVER?”
Martina and Pui jump. His nephew stands at the door in checkered pajamas. “MAY I JOIN?”
Martina pulls him inside and closes the door. He carries a pillow and a stuffed giraffe. “Don’t talk,” Martina tells him.
His nephew scuttles to the far side of Martina’s bed and pats the side so Pui can lie next to him. Pui sits. His nephew takes his arm and hugs it with his giraffe trapped in between. He falls asleep.
Martina lets go of Pui’s hands and smiles, not with pity or exasperation, but curious, as if she wants to see the city like he does.
“I didn’t expect I’d be going to space today,” Pui says. “Your spaceship is the most extraordinary thing to happen to me in years.”
“It’s okay, I guess.”
“It’s more than okay.”
Martina inspects a strand of her hair.
“Come stay with me in the city,” Pui says.
“You’ve never asked me before.”
“I didn’t think you’d want to.”
“Mom wouldn’t let me.”
“I could convince her.”
His nephew mumbles loud, unintelligible words, fiercely engaged in a dream conversation, his arms tight around his giraffe. Martina cuddles next to him and stares at his ear. He lets out a high-pitched yelp. She laughs and looks up at Pui. He laughs too. Martina rubs her brother’s tiny shoulder, and he quiets. Pui places a hand on each of their heads, a touch he can summon later.
Next morning, his sister drives him to the bus station just as the bus is pulling in. “Should I be worried about Martina?”
“She’s doing fine.”
Pui squeezes his sister in a hug.
“You want to stay? Stay. Why do you have to go back? Stay, will you?”
He shakes his head, grabs his bag from her, and boards the bus.
He goes to the market. The mushroom hunter is helping a couple choose mushrooms. He is handsome again, but Pui can’t figure out how to make his beauty spark new fantasies. He waves. The mushroom hunter doesn’t see him. Pui goes home. Paco smokes outside, standing next to a flourishing cluster of indigo milk caps that has taken over half the street, the sidewalk, and a chunk of their building’s wall.
“I was worried you left too,” Paco says. “More people are leaving. We’re the strong ones, yes?”
“You can’t leave,” Paco says.
Pui can’t tell if he’s pleading or simply stating a fact.