This selection was guest-edited by Ryan Call, author of the killer “Knot”. Below is what he had to say about “Mosquito Fog,” by Mike Young, appearing here in a magazine for the first time and collected in the book Look! Look! Feathers. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
In “Mosquito Fog,” I found a man striving to understand loneliness. He certainly hadn’t invited it into his life; instead, it began its slow work on him one terrible evening three years ago. Now, with his daughter finally leaving town, he’s left to fend for himself, a lonely widower. Nights he spends driving the mosquito truck, spraying a poisonous fog into the air, alone with his thoughts. When he’s not on shift, he reaches out to whomever he can, however he can, in the hopes of making some connection. I’m pleased to present Mike Young’s “Mosquito Fog,” and I hope you enjoy the story.
When Russell drove the fog truck, he didn’t use the siren. Lights only, an orange throb, while the smoke to kill mosquitoes gusted from a nozzle in the truck bed. Nights that Russell drove, people slept right through. But he didn’t feel kind. More selfish. All that fog to himself, a cloud to drag along. He liked to drive the levee, see the fog nestle in the digger pine and sycamore. Bats careened. Fog bunched up above the Feather River, then thinned into a dark smog between the moonlight and the water. Russell didn’t even mind the smell. Like honey and hand sanitizer. No one knew that Russell was the best mosquito fogger; he was too fast and good. One September, in a bout of squeamish heat, he fogged almost every night. Mosquitoes plunked in droves. Dragonflies got fat off the corpses. Russell wore a gas mask.
Before his shift, he’d some nights take his daughter to supper. Ashley was getting an AA in web design at the local JC. She had a lip stud. Russell had seen her websites. One for the local bike shop, especially. Pretty spiffy, Russell thought. Interactive trail maps. Ashley was dating the bike shop’s owner, Trevor, and Russell believed himself okay with the guy, Trevor. But that September, over fajita skillets at Casa Verde, Russell learned that Ashley and Trevor were moving to Portland.
He blew on a green pepper. “You don’t graduate until spring.”
“It’s just a thing they mail,” Ashley said. “The AA. No ceremony. But anyway, we’re not out until summer.” She picked a lone beef strip off her plate, doused it in hot sauce.
“So,” Russell said. “Am I best man material?” He tilted a grin.
“There’s a huge bike race every July. Like the Olympics of bicycles. Trevor wants to move his shop there. Do just racing stuff.” She ate the beef. “You wouldn’t be the best man, that’s not how it works.”
“Well, your mother and I got married at the clerk.” He waved his fork, shrugged. “I guess you knew that.”
“Officially what you do is, quote, give me away.” She rubbed her neck and looked at the food. “For now it’s really just the move, Dad.”
“Hey, I can roll. I’m a roller.”
Ashley forked all her onions to the gutter of the skillet. “Figured I would give you fair warning.”
“Well, we’ll email. Bet we can even video talk or something, right?”
“Right,” she said. “You never go out. I mean, like bars and stuff.”
“Ashley,” he said. He rubbed his chin. Before their dinners he always shaved. For his 50th birthday, Ashley and his wife, Claire, had given him a bottle of expensive Canadian whiskey, the kind that came in a velvet pouch. Ashley was 10. She’d made a bunny out of a plastic spoon—chenille stems for ear—and tucked it inside the pouch. Once or twice a year, at otherwise insignificant suppers, Russell would grab the bottle and pretend to make the bunny drink. Ashley always laughed and asked him when he’d finally drink the stupid whiskey. Russell would wink at Claire and say, “Once in a moonbeam.”
Claire had been a blackjack dealer. Though she wasn’t tribally affiliated, she was popular with casino management. She could kick awake bum Keno machines. They were loosely coiled people, Russell believed, the kind of family who likes to park on the dam and eat peanut butter crackers. Once, channel surfing on a night he and Claire both had off, all three of them together in the living room—meatball subs on TV trays, yakking and joshing, Ashley high-pitched about some fresh saga—they came upon a country music video with a violin, mustached singer alone in a phone booth, surrounded by sleet and neon. At first, Russell didn’t understand why the singer had such a strange face. Then he realized the man in the video was not happy, was play-acting some idea of despair, and Russell changed the channel, unnerved by the blindness of his own happiness. His luck. He felt defensive and scared, then—after mulling all this and looking for the right feeling to calm down by—blessed.
At the beginning of Ashley’s senior year of high school, Claire came home from the casino complaining that the pit had been too cold. A few hours later, she collapsed in the bathroom. Russell heard. When he ran in, she was clutching her temples. Said her eyes hurt like somebody was pounding nails in. Around dawn, she died. The doctors talked about the aorta, the walls of the brain. Ashley stayed home for two months, until Russell finally stopped erasing the vice-principal’s answering machine messages. Three years. That was three years ago.
Russell took a sip of Coke. He cut a black bean into halves, thirds.
“What about model airplanes?” Ashley said. “What about four wheeling? The guys at work?”
“Drive a truck all night’ll make you not so into trucks,” Russell said.
“That’s not true.”
“I’d rather have a cane than a truck.”
“Dad,” Ashley said quietly.
The waitress came to collect the skillets. Russell pulled a credit card from his back pocket and slid it across to Ashley. He didn’t feel like talking to the waitress. Ashley took the card and asked the waitress for the check.
“Should’ve asked for more chips,” Russell said when the waitress left. “Chip dessert.”
“I’m not saying it’s about you.” Ashley poured hot sauce on her finger. She wiped it on the table. “I feel like, heartless. Like a bitch.”
Russell winced. He leaned back in his chair. “I know it seemed—” He squeezed his forehead. Then he said “I know it seemed like we always wanted the same thing. But the thing was, we were just too tired. We had a joke. Once you moved out, we’d start fighting. That was the joke.”
“You did fight. Then you’d play computer golf, and Mom would lock herself in the bathroom with her Walkman.”
Russell closed his eyes. Casa Verde had a radio on, but it wasn’t music. Some kind of Mexican comedy. Goofy boinging noises and exaggerated ¡Aye!¡Aye! ¡Aye!’s. “When there’s a thing underneath,” Russell said finally. “Things on top just sort of float away.”
Ashley bit her thumb and looked at the table. “Sometimes I’ll still be up and I’ll get my phone out because I know you’re driving. But I don’t want to, like, interrupt you, so I—” She trailed off. Russell watched her face work. When the waitress came back with the credit card, Russell swiped the pen from her hand, signed the receipt, and asked her to read his name back.
“Is that an R?” the waitress said.
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.” He grinned. Ashley snorted and wiped her eyes a little. The waitress looked between the two of them. She left and turned up the radio.
The next day, Russell installed a way to video chat. He kept his computer in the kitchen. Next to the keyboard was a coffee mug of cranberry juice. For breakfast, he’d made a pot of Kraft Dinner and peas, ate standing up, then washed the pot. The kitchen smelled like butter. There was a Cheerios box full of coupons atop the refrigerator, Claire’s idea that Russell kept. A little cabinet-box of pills sat behind his computer, medicine sorted into days. Russell opened Sunday, closed the box with the mug and took the pill with cranberry juice. “Let’s hear it for the stomach,” he said. He wasn’t much for music or talk radio, but he liked to leave the TV going in the living room, and he’d speak to whatever lights he turned on. Out the window was the fire escape, sunlight relentless, avocados squished on the sidewalk, and the churn of a riding lawnmower from the eye doctor’s office across the street. Russell thought they mowed too much. After the video chat installed and asked him to reboot, he got up and opened the freezer and cracked an ice cube to suck. He emailed Ashley to let her know about the video chat. He clicked Send. He sucked ice. Waited. After an hour, he cranked his volume all the way and left the computer to watch college football on mute.
He awoke on the couch, computer bleating. When he stumbled into the kitchen and shuffled his mouse, he saw that Ashley was inviting him to chat. He clicked and they popped up, Ashley and Trevor, squinting at him from their bedroom. On the wall behind them hung a poster of guitar chords. Ashley sat at the computer, Trevor leaning over her shoulder. Both looked pretty grainy, which disappointed him.
He tried to button his shirt. “Sorry,” he said. “Just got up.”
“Where are you?” Ashley said.
Grainy Trevor pointed at him. “Look on the lower right. There should be a box with your face in it.”
“It’s black. Blank, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Trevor said. “We can’t see you.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” Ashley said. “We can hear you. We can only talk for a minute.”
“Got to do this tour the town thing,” Trevor said. “First Sundays, round the levee and back. People look at the murals, you know. We tell ‘em town stuff. Nature stuff.” He had a tuft of hair below his lip. What do they call that, Russell thought. A soul patch?
“What exactly do you tell these people?” he said.
“You know,” Trevor said. “Local stuff. Did you know that there are opium tunnels under the town? Right under. The Chinese, the rail workers, used to run smuggling rings.”
“They got a mural of that, huh?” Russell was going to add that maybe opium fell under the guise of nature stuff, but he realized they couldn’t see his grin.
“They’re really fun,” Ashley said. Trevor put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. Ashley said, “All the ladies have these really terrific sun hats.”
“They play frisbee golf,” Trevor said.
“Frisbee golf,” Russell said.
“Are you on Facebook?” Trevor asked. “They have a group on there. The Gold City Giddy-Ups.”
Russell leaned back and scratched his stomach. He stuck his tongue out at the computer. He slapped the monitor. Then he said, “Well, sounds like they know how to have a good time. I’ll look ‘em up.”
“Maybe we can come by later,” Trevor said. “Try to fix your webcam.”
“Ashley told me about Portland. Rains a lot up there, I hear. Lots of bums.”
“You seen the lake lately, Dad?” Ashley said. “Little bit of rain might hit the spot!” She looked at Trevor and laughed.
Russell stood and turned away from the computer. “I’ve seen the lake.”
“Really a lot of good stuff in Portland,” Trevor said. He squared his shoulders. “It’s not like it was, you know, a few years ago.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Russell said. “Opportunity ain’t about to stand around and wait for you to fix your doorbell. You know what they say: even Custer couldn’t sleep in Little Big Horn.”
Trevor laughed and crossed his arms. Ashley said, “Who says that?”
“Well,” Russell said. He flourished his hand, trying to whip something up, then he noticed his hand and stopped. He sat and rested his hand on the monitor, covering the video window. The kitchen was too hot. There was a bottle of Pine Sol on the stove. Russell could name everything in the refrigerator. Bologna, corn tortillas, half-empty cans of green beans. Whenever he didn’t finish a can of something, he left the can in the refrigerator, open. Across the street, they’d stopped mowing. For some reason, Russell recalled a TV show about the nature of sound. In rooms of total silence, claimed the show, with all sound engineered away, you can still hear two things: blood circulation, which makes a low thrum, and the nervous system, which makes a kind of weak mew. “I don’t know,” he said to the computer. “People just say things.”
After Ashley and Trevor logged off, Russell joined Facebook. All the dialog boxes and prompts reminded Russell of a jogger with a cell phone, one of those no-hands jobs. He couldn’t understand why young people found it fun. But what the hell, he made a profile. Left a lot blank, including Relationship Status, Birthday, Looking For—too private. For “Favorite TV Shows” he listed a few sports and added “proud fan of cal football 30+ years & strong.” He uploaded an old photo of himself at the Forebay, thumb-steering an R/C boat, Claire and Ashley picnicking in the background, back from when he still smoked cigarettes. Then he searched for the group Trevor had mentioned. Gold City Giddy-Ups.
Most of them were grandparents, with pictures of cargo shorts and holiday parties. Whole photo albums named after vacation spots, shots of them looking winded near ruins, beaming next to dark-skinned tour guides and propping one foot on a ledge, wide shots with plenty of frame space for the views stressed in the captions. These Giddy-Ups had healthy lists of interests, links to their children’s and grandchildren’s profiles. Many seemed to take surveys (“How well do you know your garden?”) or post “gifts” on each others’ profiles, which so far as Russell could tell were all doodles with irrelevant labels.
Ashley was a member of the group. Clicking through her pictures—punk shows in the tire shop scrap yard, bowling with Trevor—Russell felt weird, snoop-ish, but he reminded himself that Ashley had chosen to share all this. Besides, nothing on her profile shocked him. She wasn’t a secretive girl. Several of her status updates said she was tired. He clicked “Add Ashley as a Friend,” then he posted a message on the main wall of the Gold City Giddy-Ups.
howdy everybody. my daughter ashley told me about this group. good to see people out and about. <g> i’m a born and bredder. class of ‘68. drive trucks for the rec district. still on my feet, still like a little bit of mud. kayaking and so on. my dad used to say “there’s life and then there’s strolling for crawdads” and i think he had a point. lookin forward to “hanging out.” not sure what else to say. <g> hope everybodys friendly as they look!!! take care, russ
It didn’t take the Giddy-Ups long to comment. Lots even clicked Like, which made Russell grin, until he realized that everyone on Facebook seemed to click Like all the time, a sort of enthusiasm whack-a-mole. Still, the Giddy-Ups were friendly. Men told him they were glad to see another fellow in the group, joked about being chased with cast iron pans. And all the women seemed to know Trevor and Ashley, kept complimenting Russell’s photo and rattling off dates to upcoming get-togethers. Russell spent the whole day adding friends and commenting, browsing for old high school buddies, taking quizzes. By the time he looked up, it was dusk, and he’d skipped his pre-work nap.
Fogging that night he thought about how odd it was, all those retired people clicking in their dens, firing away at the computers their kids had taught them how to use, finding one face after another to stay in touch with. Even people they’d just seen. Go out for doughnuts every Thursday, drive home and post on the group wall: “Doughnuts were swell this morning, gang! Can’t wait for—” and then whatever they did together. Racquetball. Bocci ball. Mostly Russell watched TV. He knew his way around the computer. He’d even post, now and then, on ESPN’s college football message boards. Anonymously. And suppers with Ashley, right? Sometimes she and Trevor came over, brought brownies. He tried to remember the names of the other foggers. Winston? Wichita? He used to know, but they clocked and retired, and he’d let the names drift. There were faces, sure, all those pancake breakfasts that the Rec. District threw. Faces and vats of batter.
At the end of his shift, he idled on the levee to watch the dawn. The ridge paled into brightness. Hills like chalk being unerased. Leaves and needles braised in sun, silver blinking on the river. When he drove back into town, he passed the Bedrock Tennis Courts, saw a cluster of older folks hitting blurs of yellow fuzz, chuckling and volleying. He stopped the truck, but then he remembered he was wearing overalls. His gas mask rode shotgun. Besides, Russell thought, they figured he was the guy from the lake photo, cigarette cocked. But that photo was 15 years old. At least.
That had been such a fun picnic. Such a fun little boat. Claire snorted when she saw him steer and chew his Marlboro. “Henry Bogart strikes again,” she said. But she was smiling. She got a park ranger and made him snap a photo. Put Ashley on her lap. Told the ranger where to stand. Russell was impressed at how sharp the photo turned out. Claire must’ve envisioned exactly how to do it, saw just how far and how close everybody needed to be.
Russell rolled down the window and heard somebody yell “Out!” Somebody else yelled “Out my ass!” and everybody laughed. Russell left the window down and drove away.
Two weeks later, he’d begged off every invitation from the Gold City Giddy-Ups, but he couldn’t stop wasting time on Facebook. Facebooking. He’d get off his shift, check Facebook, slump to bed, blear up at noon and log on. Pretty soon, Russell had a couple private exchanges. One with a man named Orrin, who wasn’t in town. He was on a permanent R/V vacation with his wife, and loved to recount minor adventures—missives, he called them. Russell told Orrin he’d been in the Air Force, which wasn’t true. But Orrin didn’t seem to notice: he yammed on about himself.
Another exchange was with a woman named Delilah. She worked at Foodglow, a local 24-hour grocery store. There wasn’t much on her profile, which comforted Russell. Just a few pictures—reindeer sweater, cotton sundress—and a few favorites. Agatha Christie novels, microbrews. She had a link to a NASA live feed of the moon, which Russell found strange, but only a little. Delilah was married. Her husband’s profile was private. He was not a member of the Gold City Giddy-Ups. After a few messages, Russell and Delilah began to live chat. Delilah was a fast typer, and she asked a lot of questions.
what does <g> mean?
grin. it’s pre-internet stuff. guess i’m just an old computer nerd <g>.
oh ok. i just can’t keep up with all this stuff! i’m still trying to figure out smiley faces..
heh, that’s okay. here i’ll try one: =)
welcome to the 21st century lol!!
oh boy! not sure if i like the sound of that, hehe.
Delilah wanted to hear about the crawdads, then his high school tailback career. She’d grown up in a different town. All her exclamation marks buoyed his confidence. So he talked about his family, peanut butter crackers on the dam. Even hokey stuff, the ho-hums of bug fogging. Each story came easier than the last. Pretty soon the chats turned to Claire, and something about the compression of the chat box and letters that popped up quick as his fingers could pepper them, but not so quick as his mind—more patient, malleable, forgiving of revision—made him frank. He typed to hear the clack. One thing about Claire would come, then he’d admit that probably wasn’t what he felt at all. He joked about Trevor and his bicycle brigade, bragged about Ashley. Delilah didn’t have any kids, but she loved to hear about Ashley. So Russell talked about her website designs, told stories of her as a kid: trying to ride her tricycle into the lake; burning her hand one Easter and calling 9-1-1 by herself; wanting a bunk bed when she was nine but being too scared to sleep on top. One night, Russell typed for a long time, letting his seat go numb, eating ramen noodles cold so he wouldn’t have to interrupt himself, and he typed until he was typing about how blessed he used to feel, and how such a feeling struck him now.
like i was so busy feeling blessed and thanking my life for being itself;; that i didn’t feel enough of it…. like i was keeping my life so good that i didn’t know how good it was.
but it was good. that’s the point.
sorry. i wish i could say the right thing.
aw, del. don’t sweat it. youre doing great.
you’re being so honest and amazing and i’m just an old bump on a log! i mean, i just sit around at home all day while michael’s in the offfice. helps to have somebody to talk too.
pass the time. i hear that.
hey russ! pass the time!
hahaha. you pass the poatoes and ill pass the time.
can i ask you something?
yes. not only yes but please do.
that’s not a question!!
haha okay. it’s about ashley.
what about her?
she’s moving to portland, right?
come on! spit it out.
you keep telling me you’re happy for her. but i dunno. tonight your talking about,,,, are you really happy for her??
Russell tapped the space bar. Then held it down. The kitchen was dark, and he wasn’t sure about the hour. What he knew was the chat window read Russell is typing, and as he held the space bar for longer and longer, he began to wonder how long Delilah would wait for his answer, if she’d grow bored and leave her computer, pat her cheeks with lotion, crawl into bed with her husband.
Then she typed something:
sorry, russ. that was a bad way to put it.
He backspaced a few of his spaces, but before he’d deleted them all she typed again:
you’re a good dad. <3
When he realized the <3 was a heart, Russell didn’t type anything. After some time, he clicked Log Out. Then he powered off his computer. He flipped on the lights in the kitchen, the bathroom, all the bedroom lamps. Outside, he could hear crickets and drunks. He poured a glass of milk, drank one sip and dumped the rest down the sink. On the TV, most stations were garbled. But he found one playing an action movie: Harrison Ford scrunched into a ventilation duct, staring out the grate at the bad guys’ boots. When Russell turned up the volume, he realized that the voices and mouths weren’t in sync. He grabbed his jacket, left the house, and drove to the Rec. District garage. He used his key and climbed into the fogging truck. In the darkness, he planted his feet between the pedals. Then a sluggish glow clouded the garage, and he heard somebody clomp over and tap on his door.
It was one of the night crew, a Hmong in khaki overalls. Russell opened the door and the Hmong fluttered his eyebrows, grinning and peering. “You decent, Russ?”
“I was just about to go on shift—just trying to sort through these numbers—” he tapped the dashboard.
“You’re off tonight,” the Hmong said.
“I switched shifts. I’m filling in for—” he opened the glovebox, but there was only a gas mask.
“Wool? You’re filling in for Wool?”
“Sure,” Russell said.
“Well, the good news is that you’re not due until three, but if you want an early start—” he shrugged. “Just make sure nobody’s walking around, I guess. Don’t want to spray any joggers or whatever.”
“Joggers? This time of night?”
The Hmong laughed. “Stranger danger!” He laughed again and inspected the truck’s fog nozzle, then he started shuffling back to the office. Russell felt bad not knowing his name. “Hey,” he called. “You got a TV in there?”
“Wile the night away,” the Hmong called.
“There’s this Harrison Ford movie,” Russell said. “Not bad, you know. Not one of his best.”
“One verdict, over easy,” the Hmong said. “Guess you better get out there and start choking some stingrays.” He grabbed his throat and bulged his eyes, pretending to gag, making a joke at the other end of the garage.
Russell finished before three, but he didn’t feel like saying howdy back at the garage, so he drove to Foodglow. Just as he parked, something clanged into his truck. Shopping carts, a long caravan. The kid pushing them waved an apology. Then he wrestled the carts through the parking lot and slammed them into a larger row outside the entrance. The carts nested into each other, front baskets folding up, and Russell remembered how Ashley had never wanted to ride in the basket like she was supposed to, insisting always on the bottom.
Inside, he found an open tin of snickerdoodles. Right on the counter at the bakery, nobody working or watching. The cookies tasted fresh. Russell wandered in the staunch fluorescence. Jets misted toy-colored produce. Janitors dragged yellow buckets, shaggy mops. All the prepared food was swathed in plastic sheets. Hardly anyone was shopping. Those who were shopping held baskets sparsely filled: eggs, tater tots, pints of generic ice cream. Now and then someone would be standing in an aisle, holding one thing—a carton of lemonade, a can of chickpeas—staring at that thing as if it were a snow globe. There were more WET FLOOR signs than people, but Russell felt anxious, like there were shoppers he couldn’t see ducking into the aisles he’d just left, wandering past the groceries he’d just touched. When had he last gone to Foodglow? Claire had never shopped there; even food needs beauty sleep, she’d say. Russell toured the whole store several times before he allowed himself a can of chili.
Then he saw Delilah at the checkout.
His first thought was to put the chili in front of his face. His mind stuttered. Did she always work this late? How was she on Facebook earlier? He hung back and watched as she bagged soap and vegetables for an old lady in a nightgown. After Delilah had bagged everything, she stooped and gave the lady a hug. She was taller than she’d seemed on Facebook. When Russell finally walked up, Delilah smiled.
“Delilah,” he said.
She kept smiling.
He waved the can of chili. “Howdy.”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Russell looked at the beans on the label of his can. “It’s Russ,” he said. Even after everything he’d typed to her, especially that night, he still couldn’t bring himself to finish: Russ from the internet.
“Did you say lilacs? Are you looking for lilacs?”
Russell set the can on the conveyer belt, and Delilah pushed the belt’s stop button. “Can I help you?”
Russell was wearing overalls. His mouth felt dry and huge. “Delilah? With a D?”
“Oh!” Her face softened. “Sorry. My name’s Linda.”
Russell stared at the chili. He stared at the chili. He stared at the chili.
“Do you want me—” Linda said. “Maybe I can page her?”
Russell waved this off. He stared around for a minute before he spoke. “It’s the computer,” he said. “Playing tricks with my brain.”
Linda nodded and picked up the chili. “Ring this through?”
Russell shook his head. “Hell, I don’t even like that brand. Would you believe that? Here I am, and that’s not even the right chili.”
Sweet and gently distracted, Linda looked just like her Facebook photos. But not her photos, Russell thought. Delilah’s. “You like chili?” Linda asked.
No one else was in line. Most people were too asleep to need groceries. As he stood there, Russell felt like he and this strange woman were the only people awake in the whole town, maybe the world. He felt like grabbing this lady and dunking her in blue paint, dying her the color of the website surrounding those photos. Come back, he wanted to say. I told your photos everything. Your face has to know me. The moon’s in your profile. You’re Delilah. Where did you go? “Chili’s fine,” he said. He pointed to the can Linda held. “But not that one.”
A girl sat in the fog truck. Teenaged, wearing a Foodglow apron. She sat in the passenger seat with the straps of the gas mask tied around her wrist. Her face had ripples of acne caked over by makeup, and her hair was yanked into a braid. She spun the mask by its straps. When Russell tapped on the window, she jumped, and the mask hit her in the face like an errant yo-yo.
Russell opened the door. “Don’t play with that.”
The girl untangled the mask from her wrist and let it clank on the floorboard. She clamped a hand over her heart and kept swallowing instead of breathing.
Russell stayed outside the cab, one foot on the rocker panel, arm balanced on the roof. He couldn’t remember whether he’d locked the truck. He’d told Linda to keep the chili, and he felt gray. Flatlined. “You lost?” he asked the girl.
“I didn’t think—oh my God. This would be your truck? There’s a lot of trucks. Trucks!” She giggled, a splatter of wheezes.
“It sure ain’t yours,” Russell said.
She turned to Russell and didn’t meet his eyes, pointing between him and her, a kind of eeny meeny. “Right? Oh my God. It’s. You wouldn’t. This was totally not—” Her eyes watered, and she shoved her knuckles in them. “I’m sorry. I have to stop. Oh God I’m stupid. I’m a fucktard.” She covered her face with her apron.
Russell bounced one foot on the rocker panel. Behind his knees, he felt the ache of all his lost sleep. “First we need to calm down, okay?”
“You must think—” she sighed and tried to catch her breath. “Wow. I am so awesome at just fucking everything up. If I were good at shit, this would be like, totally different. But I saw the truck and it was like, I never see one of those trucks, right? So I thought I’d wait and see if it was you, but then I was like, wow, that’s such a retarded idea. He’s not gonna be like, ‘Hey! Awesome! It’s you!’ He’s gonna be like, who’s this weird bitch in my truck. But then I thought what if it’s not you, what if it’s, like, one of your buddies, right? And I could ask them, ‘Hey, where’s Russ hang out?’ But then I was like, oh my God, some random dude? I’m sitting in some random dude’s truck? What if he, you know, does something weird? So I’m like, okay, I’ll put this mask on, but it’s like duh, it’s a mask, it’s not gonna—listen. You know me. Please. We’ve talked.”
Russell stepped back off the rocker panel. He clasped his hands on his head. The night was warm and quiet. A Jeep banked the curb in front of Foodglow, emergency blinkers flashing, and two teenaged boys stumbled into the store holding hands. Sometimes people talked of meeting themselves in their dreams, but Russell never did that. His dreams were always him being him, not through his eyes but a little above his shoulders. Which was how he imagined this girl, slumped in her bed with a laptop. “Right,” he said. He felt like he should laugh, but he couldn’t.
“Do you get it?” the girl asked.
Inside her apron, Delilah seemed to melt. When she spoke again, she whispered. “There’s a song. It’s stupid. You haven’t heard it?”
Russell shook his head.
“It’s about this girl in New York,” she said. “It’s catchy, but it’s not, like, a real name.”
“Isn’t it from the Bible?”
Delilah fiddled with the glovebox handle. “I guess. The song wasn’t around when I was born, so maybe it’s from the Bible, I don’t know.”
He could leave this girl in the truck. Call and quit his job. Move to some new town outside Portland, close enough to Ashley that she wouldn’t worry. He’d put his computer in a garbage bag, bind the bag with twist-ties from Claire’s endless stash and leave it on the curb under the avocado tree. In a few hours, the garbage man would heave the bag into a truck that never bothered Russell because he never slept decent hours. He’d lie awake. Then he’d hear the racket of the eye doctor’s lawnmower, and he’d leave his bed. In the refrigerator, green beans. On the table, a gap in the dust. One less screen to worry about. More time for the other lights, which Russell knew was what he’d say to himself when he turned them all on.
“I’ll drive you home,” Russell said.
Delilah shook her head. “I’m on shift.”
“That makes two of us.” He laughed and stared at the asphalt. “You want to know something? I lied to take this shift. After you typed that thing. It’s not even my shift.”
“I was late,” she said. “I had to leave for work, but I didn’t want you to stop.”
Russell climbed into the cab and shut the door. “Hand me that gas mask.”
She held it out to him, and he didn’t look at her, just took the mask and set it on the dashboard.
The radio squawked. “Hey rumblefish forty-five.” It was the Hmong. “Loved the movie. Me and Wool both. Can’t say we fall in your camp on this one. But we do need that truck back, 10-4?”
Delilah was shivering. Russell felt exhausted. Weren’t they buddies? All that typing back and forth. Sure, okay, she’d turned out to be some acne-fried teenage girl, a liar in a claptrap with an old fogey, both of them wrong to sit like nothing was creepy or untoward, but didn’t they trust each other? Or didn’t she know how to be somebody he trusted, at least? The sane thing, he knew, was for her to snap up and scamper off, fun over, old dude sufficiently messed with. But she just sat there. Jammed with guilt, maybe. Afraid of what Russell might do, how he might punish her. But he was too tired to care about any of that. He wasn’t a country singer in a phone booth. He didn’t want to foist his pain on anyone. He unplugged the radio. Fastened his seatbelt. All he wanted was his friend. “You want to wear some gas masks?” he said. “Well, let’s wear some.”
“I found this list on the internet. The loneliest people in the world. It was a joke. Like, #1 was God, and then there was, like, people who bake cookies for talk show hosts, pilots who fly cargo jets for FedEx Overnight, stupid stuff like that. It was pretty funny, though, and when you started getting into all the really depressing stuff, I thought, well, I’ll send it to him. But there was this line in the beginning that made it seem—I don’t know, it didn’t seem as funny.”
“There’s websites for that?”
“Well, I mean, who thinks up a list like that?”
“That’s what I’m saying. The line at the beginning was like ‘blah blah, just like you might suspect, most of these people involve night.’ It didn’t seem—you know. Helpful.”
“And here we are,” Russell said.
They drove the levee, fog gusting. Still an hour or so until dawn. Russell wasn’t sure how much spray he had left, but he didn’t care. As they drove, he pointed out where the Sierra Club had installed placards to explain about endangered flowers or rattlesnakes. Delilah clutched the gas mask. She didn’t open easily, but Russell didn’t prod. Just drove. Delilah talked about her mother, a nurse, practicing with her sphygmomanometer on Delilah’s arm.
“That’s the thing to get blood pressure,” she said. “You only need the second-lowest setting, I think, to get an accurate reading. But she used to crank it all the way up. She thought it was funny.” Delilah looked out the window at the river. “I never would’ve told you that online. Even if I was like, being the real me. I don’t know how to spell sphygmomanometer, so I probably would’ve just kept my mouth shut.”
“Seems easy to look up.”
Bats zigged from tree to tree, frenzied when they passed through open air.
“I carried Claire into the ambulance,” Russell said. “I wouldn’t let them put a stretcher under her. Ridiculous, me doing that. Does this look like manual labor? I didn’t have the arms for it. But nobody was gonna touch her but me. And she held on. Believe me. She didn’t want to let go. Only time she let go was when she had to touch her head because of the pain.”
Delilah rubbed her thumb on the eyeholes of the gas mask. “My mom used to make me take quizzes for her. Pain’s one tiny part of the brain trying to clue you in. And then the rest of the brain is just sort of working on whatever’s messed up. So the pain is just to let you know that your body’s, like, on the job.”
The truck rumbled and clattered over potholes.
“How did you hack the site, anyway?”
“Linda’s pictures were on my computer. I was helping her learn to use her camera—” She tapped the mask against the window. “You’re the first person I really talked to from that group. I thought maybe you wouldn’t catch on.” She grinned shyly. “I really did love your post. I thought you sounded like—full of stories.”
Russell laughed and sighed. “Full of something, all right.”
Delilah turned and looked out the back of the truck. “You can’t even see anything.”
“Yes m’am. Dead mosquitoes.”
“Is the gas, like, bad for everything? Or just mosquitoes?”
Russell pointed at the gas mask in Delilah’s hands. “Let’s find out.”
He parked. They got out. Delilah wore her Foodglow apron and the gas mask, and Russell kept a handkerchief over his nose and mouth. They walked the levee, kicking cones the size of raccoon skulls. Catkins and acorns lay scattered, littered off the oaks. Bullfrogs somewhere close, cars not much farther. Digger pines loomed gaunt and crooked above them, branches so wispy they blurred. Below, the river was a gurgle of murk. They waded through mosquito fog. “I don’t see anything,” Delilah said.
“Listen,” Russell said. “You’re crunching ‘em.”
“I don’t hear any crunching, either.”
Then Russell’s lungs began to burn, and he stepped out of the fog. His chest felt fuzzy and his ears held a weird ring, but he breathed in. He couldn’t help himself. He liked the smell.
“Where are they?” Delilah said. The fog was beginning to thin.
“Look for their wings,” Russell said. “Sort of see-through.”
Delilah got down on her stomach. She bumped the gas mask against the ground. “If they’re see-through,” she said, “how am I supposed to see them?”