Artwork by Chris Green (@mumblethief)
At Martin’s wedding, Tina smiles at me from across the crowd. She’s wearing a white tee and jeans. I too am wearing a white tee and jeans. In fact, the only people not wearing a white tee and jeans are Martin and Kara. For this special occasion, Francis Wembley – who was a tailor back on Earth – has sewn matching green and brown outfits from the bark of a Boknax tree and the hide of a Quaguar. The couple looks vaguely Elven, like the sexy androgynous tree-dwelling people in those old movies about the ring.
As Wembley – who is also officiating the ceremony – pronounces them man and wife beneath the ragged Chuppah, I get something in my eye and start rubbing like crazy. Once they’re married, everyone gets another glass of terrible moonshine and we lift the couple up in chairs as they dance and hold hands, floating on a sea of merry-makers.
Neither Martin nor Kara are Jewish, but they wanted to get hitched Jewish style. Pretty much everyone in the colony is atheist except Tony Ziegelman who thinks he’s a friggin’ prophet. Kara went to a Jewish wedding back in the good old days and she remembers it being a hoot. They’re supposed to break a glass or a plate or something, but all the tableware we have is from back home and there’s a scarcity as it stands. As a bachelor I eat most of my meals out of my hands over the compost cannon in the yurt I share with Martin.
A band comes out with untuned instruments and starts playing Springsteen covers. Everyone is wiggling their butts, all drunk on moonshine as the singer croons:
You can’t start a fire, you can’t start a fire without birch bark
This surgeon needs pliers, even if we’re just dancing with the shark
I’m pretty sure those aren’t the lyrics, but I can’t remember the actual words. No one can. Tina comes over and puts her arm around me. She’s very small and already drunk from the moonshine. “I saw you crying during the ceremony,” she says. “I never realized you were so sensitive.”
“I had something in my eye,” I reply.
“It’s okay,” she says. “He’s your only brother, your only family in the whole universe. It must be hard to let him go.”
When she says that, I start crying in earnest and let her console me.
Tina and me are the only two teachers at the school, so we’re pretty close. I teach humanities, she does math and science. Some parents think it’s stupid to teach the humanities on account of the abysmal failure of our civilization. Harold Bronson’s dad even went so far as to suggest that if humans had all learned science and left “that namby pamby Shakespeare crap alone,” maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with.
One secret that nobody knows is that I screwed up big time before we even left Earth. When I was assigned teacher, I went through the EEEE (Electronic Encyclopedia of Everything Ever) bookmarking all the pages that I thought would be useful in the new world. Problem is, there’s no internet here. I guess I thought we’d bring some sort of Cloud technology with us on the Joe Biden, but I was wrong; we got nada, zip. Tina, being scientifically minded, backed up all of the math and science files from the EEEE on a stick the size of a Halloween candy bar.
Everything I teach the kids is from my memory, which is terrifying, but also kind of fun. I get to rewrite literary classics and invent history – a pretty great job considering we live in a post-collapse colony with limited amounts of oxygen and foodstuffs. So far no one has detected my elaborate ruse, but even still Harold Bronson’s dad has started a petition that I be fired and re-assigned to hunt Quaguar with Zeke Barlow and those goons. Mr. Bronson is head engineer at the oxygen plant, so he draws a lot of water.
At the wedding, Zeke Barlow and those goons bust into the tent with a gigantic, freshly killed Quaguar. Martin is the best Quaguar butcher in the colony, but since it’s his wedding, his apprentice Hank Lieberman takes care of it. Lieberman’s pretty hammered on moonshine though and once he’s scooped out the brains, he puts on one of the Quaguar’s four heads like a helmet and does a crazy dance to Gherkin on the Highway. Zeke Barlow cold cocks him with the butt end of his laser-knife and butchers the Quaguar himself.
The fragrant scent of grilled Quaguar wafts through the tent. Zeke Barlow trots over to Tina and me with a big smile on his stupid, handsome face. His white tee is covered in purple alien blood.
“Hey T, looking good,” he says, winking at Tina. “Hey Frobisher. You look like you’ve been crying. Fucking pussy. Just kidding buddy, hahaha!” He puts me in a headlock and noogies me so hard I think the rest of my hair is going to fall out.
“Come on T, let’s shake a leg,” he grabs Tina by the hand and leads her to the dance floor acting out the Quaguar hunt for her with his big gruff hands as they go. I can tell that Tina is totally into it, which is balls. I go over to the bar area and ice my head for a bit. Then I eat a plate of Quaguar (think burnt octopus and under ripe pineapple) and fill up on moonshine.
Eventually Martin comes over to hang out. “Hey Mikey,” he says. “You must be pretty relieved to have the yurt all to yourself. Now you don’t have to pretend you’re snoring super loud when you wax the carrot.” He strains to smile. I’m bummed that he’s moving out and he knows it. “I need to talk to you about something serious though,” he says, lowering his voice. “Hank Lieberman’s kid has been hanging around the shop talking about your class. I know the Lieberman kid isn’t the coldest beer in the fridge, but some of the stuff he says you said… well, it smacks of Mike Frobisher.”
“Well like what?” I ask, nervous and curious.
“Well like, when you taught The Tempest you said that the wizard was called Gandalf and that Luke Skywalker saved Miranda from Caliban by doing a Tokyo drift in the Millennium Falcon.”
“So I got some of the names a little messed up, so what?”
“Luke doesn’t even fly the Millennium Falcon you moron.”
I blush; Martin’s always been the more literary brother. “What’s worse is your history,” he goes on. “You taught those kids that the Mongolian Empire fell in the 20th century because their horse archers couldn’t stand up to Europe’s tanks and planes.”
“Look," I say, "I don’t have fancy books and internet resources like our teachers did, okay? I’m doing my best. No one remembers anything anyway.” It’s true, by the time the collapse happened, reading was pretty much kaput. Humans were so reliant on the EEEE that they basically shut off the part of their brains that retained information. It became commonplace for folks to pull out their phones for reference at job interviews and even at quiz night.
“When did the Mongols fall anyway brainiac? Seventeenth, eighteenth century?” I say. “So I was off by a couple centuries. In a few generations the handful of humans living on this awful rock will be dead and forgotten anyway, just like the stupid Mongols.”
“You seriously don’t remember. Think about this for a second, it’s important. I’ll give you a hint: Dad.” I stare at Martin for a bit and then take a long sip of moonshine. I can’t remember anything.
“Get your shit together Mikey, or Bronson’ll have your ass fighting Quaguars out in the jungle swamp.” Martin B-lines it back towards Kara.
I just sit there drinking for a while, looking alternately at the big silver symmetrical moon and its squat distorted brother, tinted puke green from space gas. I look around for Tina, hoping for some emotional support, but when I find her she’s sucking face with Zeke Barlow behind one of the gravity modulators.
I go back to the yurt and stare at the marks in the dirt where Martin’s stuff used to be. I ate the grilled Quaguar too fast and drank too much moonshine so I end up blowing chunks into the compost cannon. The cannon is ram slammed with the pits of Boknax fruit and Quaguar bones and now my puke, so I haul it outside and fire it into the stratosphere, weeping gently. Usually I love lighting off the cannon and watching the fiery ball of garbage disappear into the distant sky. Tonight, however, it makes me think of the potato gun that dad helped me build with Martin and this memory gets me even more upset. I get in my hammock feeling pretty damn lousy as the tune of Fungal Land drifts through the air. I feel an intense pain in my head and then I remember the sound of a gruff, tortured voice coming through dad’s record player:
Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge,
Drinkin’ warm beer in the soft summer rain
Jungle Land, not Fungal Land, I think, hoisting this solitary victory up against a day which, studied as a whole, has not gone very well.
In the middle of the night I awake in a panicked, cold sweat. In the 13th century, a vast alliance of European knights fell to the Mongolian hordes in Hungary, allowing them to pass through Serbia and Austria and into the Holy Roman Empire. When word reached the invading Mongols that Genghis Khan had died, they turned around, allowing a wound to heal that they would never be able to re-open.
“You can conquer the world from the saddle, but you cannot rule from it.” This was one of the last sentences our father ever said to us. The night he said it, a massive earthquake ruptured the Pacific Northwest, killing millions. Several other massive disasters occurred that day, leaving the world depopulated and pretty much uninhabitable. It seemed like the Earth was fed up with all the abuse we’d heaped on her and basically threw a fit, trying to buck us off like a wild bronco.
The greatest minds remaining in the world (which frankly were probably not all that great) devised this plan where we’d fire a bunch of rockets filled with people through random wormholes, hoping that one or two of them would find habitable planets. It was a pretty dicey gambit, but Martin and I always dreamed of being space explorers so we were totally gung-ho.
The next day at recess Tina is looking pretty haggard. She’s trying to talk to me but I’m watching Harold Bronson cream the Lieberman kid at tetherball and pretending I can’t hear her. I’m still mad about the Zeke Barlow face-sucking incident. Finally, she elbows me in the ribs, hard. “Frobisher, are you listening? I said I found a baby Quaguar in the limbo zone. It’s sick or something and I can’t figure out how to make it better.”
The limbo zone is the fringe of the colony where the oxygen thins out on account of the swamp gas and the gravity modulators aren’t 100%. Tina’s always screwing around out there looking for specimens. If anyone found out she was keeping a baby Quaguar as a pet they’d go friggin’ batshit.
“Why don’t you tell your boyfriend Zeke Barlow about it,” I say without looking at her. She grabs my shoulders, turns me towards her.
“Frobisher, stop being a jealous asshole,” she says. “I was drunk last night okay? That was a one-time deal. Anyway, Zeke got all handsy I sprayed him in the face with Blak-Shade concentrate. Not that it’s any of your business.” The thought of Zeke Barlow in pain immediately lifts my spirits. “Meet me after class,” she says. “I want you to come see this thing with me. It’s important.”
Tina heads for the washroom looking kind of green. I stand there watching Harold Bronson whack the tetherball against Lieberman Jr.’s head, not really registering what’s happening. On one hand, I’m excited to spend some alone time with Tina. On the other hand, this business about hanging out with a baby Quaguar has got me stressing. Everyone in the colony is terrified of Quaguars. Also, they’re our main source of food. Tony Ziegelman’s always saying that the spirit of Satan animates the Quaguars; everyone knows he’s full of it, but Quaguars do sort of look like hell spawn. I go over and break up the fight and then cream Harold Bronson at tetherball to relieve some stress.
After school we head over to the limbo zone, making sure that no one sees us. Around the fringes of the colony the air gets thinner and I get a little light headed as we go. The gravity doesn’t work that great either so I keep drifting up, which is super disorienting. The terrain gets pretty swampy, there are vines hanging down everywhere and giant plants burping gas.
Eventually we come to a clearing in the shade of a huge Boknax tree. At the base of the tree lays a little four-headed monster. Tina’s made up a bed for him out of sticks and leaves and he’s lying on his side breathing heavily. It’s not looking good for the little guy. I feel bad, but I’ve also never seen a live Quaguar before so it’s pretty exciting.
Quaguars look a lot like what we called Jaguars back on Earth, except that they have four heads, hence: Quaguar. They grow to about twice the size of earth Jaguars and they’re sort of reptilian, with long forked tongues and dark green scales. Fully grown Quaguars look terrifying, but this little guy is cute as button. Tina and I sit on either side of him and take turns petting him. He nibbles on my finger, causing me to bleed, but I don’t mind too much.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask Tina.
“I can’t get him to eat,” she says. “Zeke told me that they they’re carnivorous, that he sees them tearing swamp goats to shreds all the time. I snuck some goat samples out of the Bio-Lab for him, but he won’t even look at it.” Frankly I don’t blame him; swamp goat tastes like old cold cuts and gym socks and has a brainy texture. We tried eating them when we first arrived but it was almost impossible to keep down. More often than not they’d absorbed too many toxins from marinating in the swamp. A couple people died.
On a hunch I gather up some Boknax fruit and squeeze it into a pulp. I cup my hand next to the little fella’s heads. The head on the far right gives the orange mush a sniff and then leans back uninterested. Two seconds later the third head from the right seems to take control and flips the body onto its legs. It dives into the Boknax pulp and goes to town. Tina is blown away.
“Maybe you shouldn’t believe everything Zeke Barlow tells you,” I say, savouring the victory. The Quaguar still doesn’t look 100%, but his breathing improves and we get him to drink some water. I notice that the third head from the right (the one that had the good sense to eat the Boknax compote) is totally wall-eyed, just like my dad was. We hang over the baby, cooing and cuddling him in a strange imitation of parental affection. Eventually he falls asleep.
I guess it’s true that watching a man care for a helpless creature really pushes a lady’s buttons, because Tina and I end up making love right there in the clearing next to the sleeping pup. It’s pretty awkward in the low gravity because our bits are sort of floating around, but on the other hand the weightlessness gives our world-weary bodies the false appearance of youth; an antigravity lift and tuck.
The sex is good, and because of the thin oxygen we both fall asleep for a bit afterwards. It’s by far the deepest, most peaceful sleep I’ve experienced since I left Earth. When I wake up with Tina’s head on my chest, there’s a solid thirty seconds where I’m totally confused and think that I live in some sort of pre-historic paradise and life is perfect.
When Tina wakes up she says we should give the Quaguar a name. She says I should choose it, since I sort of saved his life. I’m quick to name him Leroy, after my dad. We crush up some more fruit and I coddle him for a bit. In addition to being wall-eyed, it appears that something has ripped off most of his tail (probably a hermaphroditic swamp beetle), so he’s just got this little phantom tail stump, which is sadly comical when he wags it. Leroy’s clearly had a tough go of it out here alone in the LZ. Finally, we say goodbye to him and hoof it back to the colony.
Throughout the week, we return to the clearing after school to make sure Leroy’s eating. By Thursday he’s looking lean but healthy. By Friday he’s gone; presumably he had enough strength to head out into the thick of the jungle swamp and rejoin his own kind. Obviously this is for the best, but it still makes us sad. Leroy made me feel all warm and paternal inside and reminded me of my dad. I fight back tears and when Tina tries to console me I start crying in earnest.
At dinner that night Zeke Barlow sees that I’ve been crying and tries to make fun of me, but Tina plants a big, showy kiss on me right in front of everyone, which shuts him up good. Usually I hate public displays of affection, but I guess it’s different when you’re part of the display. Especially when you’re a mostly bald bachelor who everyone thinks is an a-sexual milquetoast.
The next few months are amazing. Tina and I become an official couple and I feel like a new man. She helps me organize my life and I start to recover memories from Earth. As my memories become clearer, I feel my teaching getting stronger and the kids become more engaged.
We start eating dinner with Martin and Kara every night. Kara is pregnant now, and although there’s an uneasiness regarding the future of the colony, within our small clique the prospect of a new life comes to signify hope. Martin and I become closer than ever. We often play tetherball and try and piece together dad’s history lessons as the fraternal moons appear in the evening. The prospect of becoming a father has turned Martin philosophical.
I grow complacent and start to feel invincible in this new idyllic life, and that’s when I screw up big time and blow it. I’m in class teaching the kids about aerial warfare, about the bombing of Dresden and the horrors of firestorms when Harold Bronson’s hand shoots up.
“Were the Germans allied with the Mongols?” He asks. “This map is confusing. You said that that the Mongolian Empire fell during this era but I don’t even see them on the map.”
I decide to come clean. I explain to the kids that I’d been mistaken, that the Mongolian Empire grew and then collapsed between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, leaving six hundred years of Mongol free Europe before the dawn of mechanized warfare. Half the class doesn’t even realize that I’ve contradicted myself, but Harold Bronson and some of the brainier kids murmur mutinously.
At dinner that night Harold Bronson’s dad and Zeke Barlow jump me and place me under citizen’s arrest. There’s no official police force, and the only weapons belong to the Quaguar hunters so I’m pretty much S.O.L.
Bronson’s dad denounces me as an uninformed impostor who’s been misleading the colony’s children. Martin, Tina and Kara speak up in my defense, but the force of public sentiment swiftly muzzles them. The previous consensus had been that the humanities were a luxury. The new consensus is that the humanities, taught incorrectly, are a force of evil. My teaching post is terminated and I am publicly shamed. Tony Ziegelman starts screaming that I am the devil’s instrument, which is balls.
Bronson’s dad declares that I am to join the Quaguar hunt under the close supervision of Zeke Barlow. For the time being Tina will be the only teacher at school.
Later that night I go over to Martin and Kara’s yurt with Tina. We drink some leftover moonshine from the wedding – except for Kara who is incredibly pregnant – and lament the situation. I explain to Martin why I was terminated and he says he’s proud of me, that I did the right thing, telling the kids the truth and setting the record straight.
It makes me feel better when he tells me this, but it also sucks that doing the right thing is so often correlated with a negative reward. Like that time in grade school when I told my teacher that Sally Schmaltz wasn’t wearing any underpants and she gave me detention for a week. Detention! For trying to help Sally maintain her Goddamn dignity! People are so incredibly shortsighted.
Once we’ve had a few Tina and I leave. She says she needs some space, that it’s been an intense day and she doesn’t know how she’s going to handle forty students at once. I plead with her to stay over, but she denies me. Back at my bachelor’s yurt I sit outside looking at the moons and weep gently to myself. Tomorrow I’ll be hunting Quaguars in the jungle swamp with that dick Zeke Barlow. I get into my hammock feeling sorry for myself.
I’m rudely awakened early in the morning by a bucket of cold water sloshing all over my face. Barlow is standing above me with his big toothy grin.
“Ride or die Frobisher,” he says. “No more telling lies to kiddies all day. No more smoochy-smooch with Tina in the teacher’s lounge.”
“We don’t even have a teacher’s lounge,” I reply indignantly. Smoochy-smooch? Are you fucking kidding me?
I go with Zeke and meet up with the rest of the Quaguar hunters. Just shy of the limbo zone we suit up inside the Joe Biden. Beyond the LZ the air is fouled up from toxic gas, so we have to wear spaceman suits with helmets and everything. I’m issued a laser knife and a freeze ray but encouraged to keep them holstered at least for this first outing.
Everyone is assigned a buddy; I end up with Tony Ziegelman which annoys me at first, but on the long walk he tells me stories from the Bible which helps the time pass. I teach him some history in return and by lunchtime we’re pals. He even apologizes for calling me Satan’s instrument, which touches me.
The jungle swamp is pretty nasty, but we’re well insulated in our suits. The gases emitting from the filthy, tepid waters mingle to create colorful, psychedelic patterns as they float up into the atmosphere. There are wild herds of swamp goats roaming around, feasting on hermaphroditic beetles. As we go deeper and start up a long embankment, a dense forest of ancient Boknax trees blocks out the multicolored sky.
We’re trekking up the embankment for what feels like forever. Ziegelman swaps me Noah’s ark for the fall of Rome; the book of Job for some thoughts on Martin Luther; Samson and Delilah for the Dreyfus Affair.
Finally, we come to a cave and Barlow hushes us, throws up a halt signal. He powers up his laser knife and leads us inside. The cave is narrow and deep, with massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling. There’s a network of waterfalls running through the cave at various points, creating disorienting white noise. We’re shuffling along behind the faint light of Zeke’s laser for a while before the cave opens up into a big dark chamber.
From the invisible depths of the chamber eight sets of glowing yellow eyes shine out on either side of our crew, moving at a clip. I almost blow chunks from fear. “Quaguars!” Barlow yells. “Attack!” the cave is suddenly lit up by a plethora of laser-knives. These are by far the biggest Quaguars any of us have ever seen. They leap in tandem, bounding ten yards, and take down two seasoned hunters each. Me and Ziegelman are bringing up the rear so we’re not in any real danger.
Zeke Barlow and another hunter, a jacked old man called Greybeard, act quickly, neutralizing the beasts with well-placed shots from their freeze rays. They’re quick to slice their blades across the beasts’ throats, splashing massive pools of purple blood around the stalagmites.
In the aftermath, everyone moves quickly and efficiently, patching up the wounded and loading up the Quaguar carcasses. Me and Ziegelman slink off to the side; I’m trying really hard not to barf and he’s praying incoherently. Some of the human blood has mixed with the alien blood creating this pinkish, beet soup looking goulash. I throw up in my mouth but manage to swallow it; I really don’t want chunks in my spaceman suit.
Just as I’m calmly guiding the chunks back down into my stomach, something tackles me from the side. I fall onto the cavern floor, expecting death, but as I open my eyes I see tongues licking the front of my visor, like going through a carwash back on Earth. The licking abates for a second and I catch site of Leroy’s cockeyed gaze. He’s grown bigger, but he’s still a pup, I reach up and rub his side, I’m so happy to see him I could cry. I start to cry.
Then I see Ziegelman raise his laser-knife up behind Leroy to stab him and I freak. I reach for my freeze ray and blast him point blank, but he doesn’t freeze; instead he starts wriggling and making these awful gulping noises. When blood starts dribbling from his mouth, I realize I’m holding a laser-knife, rather than a freeze ray. I ease Leroy off me and lay Ziegelman on the ground, my knife stuck deep in his abdomen.
“Tony, I am so sorry,” I say. “We’ll get you fixed up, I swear.”
“I’d like to retract my apology,” he whispers through shallow breaths. “You are Satan’s filthy instrument.” Unfortunately, those end up being his last words, because he dies right there on the floor of the cave.
It’s been so chaotic up until this point that none of the hunters noticed the commotion, but when Leroy sees his dead parents and starts to whimper, it draws Zeke’s attention. “Heavens to jet-ski!” He yells, running towards me. He unholsters his freeze ray and levels a shot at Leroy. I do a Bruce Willis style action dive and take the hit.
The shot cobwebs out through my nervous system and I start to turn into a statue. I look into Leroy’s lazy yellow eye and use my last free movement to jerk my head towards a dark tunnel. I’m grunting loudly and urgently as I do this and my face ends up freezing in a terrible sneer. Leroy understands and bounds away into darkness and safety.
The hunters go berserk. Zeke leads a crew down the tunnel after Leroy. Greybeard and a few others start kicking me violently even though I can’t feel anything at all. They scream that I am Hell spawn, that Ziegelman was right all along and that I killed him to silence the truth. Hypotheses are put forth that I am in league with the Quaguars.
It’s sort of funny that a moment like that can end up being liberating. My mind disconnects from my body and I float up over the scene. I see the crazed look on my face and old Greybeard with his mountainous trapezius muscles punting me with his space-man boots.
I see myself fishing with dad and Martin in the woods near our house; grilling burgers and watching fireworks on the 4th of July; the first time Sally Schmaltz let me feel her boobs: all staples of the North American dream. And here I am now, with my fractured intellect and broken heart, paralyzed and beat up on the floor of a cave on some weird planet.
Barlow and his goons return out of breath. It looks like Leroy’s escaped successfully, much to my relief. Then Zeke says that since the filthy animal got away, someone else is going to have to pay for Ziegelman’s death. He says that novice hunters are prone to having accidents and no one would be surprised if I had myself an accident. He puts it to a vote and the hunters unanimously vote for me to have an accident.
I’m still floating above myself, so I watch the proceedings of the kangaroo court as if it were a film. I watch Zeke fire up his laser knife and raise it over me, but it’s too gruesome to watch so I turn and float down the tunnel where Leroy escaped. I float fast over the back of the embankment, down into a valley and catch up with my friend.
When he sees me he raises up on his hind legs like he’s dancing. I do the same, and then we both crouch down and pounce on each other, biting at each other’s necks and faces playfully. We tear through the jungle swamp like kings, eating goats (which now taste like seasoned rib eye), wrestling and swimming in the thick, milky water. The confidence of a Quaguar is total confidence. My human anxieties are washed away and replaced by an easy enjoyment of each passing moment and movement. Far from the colony, light-years from the Earth, me and Leroy race and wrestle into the night in a perfect, endless rhythm.