Everett had no idea how long his parents had been standing outside his bedroom door. He hadn’t heard them knock or try the knob, hadn’t heard them call out. But by the time he opened the door his father was kneeling at the lock with a screwdriver in his teeth. His mother stood just behind, clutching her elbows.
His father removed the screwdriver from his mouth. “Well?” he said.
“Well what?” said Everett.
“You didn’t hear us out here?” said his mother.
His father stood, joints popping. “We’ve been pounding on your door for five minutes.”
“I’m sorry,” said Everett. “I must have had the record playing too loud.”
“What record?” his mother said.
The question confused Everett. The record playing: “Travelin’ Light” by Johnny Mercer. But then the hiss and thump of the needle became audible to him, and he saw that his old tabletop had finished playing some time ago.
“I guess I was distracted,” he said.
“Distracted.” His father turned and shot his mother a look. “Well whatever you were doing, you ought to put on some clothes. It’s almost one o’clock.”
Everett looked down and saw that he was wearing only a loose robe. He closed the collar and tightened the belt, trying hard to concentrate.
“Are you sure you’re all right, honey?” said his mother.
Everett presented a smile. “I’m great.”
“You don’t have to be great, yet,” said his father. “You’ve been home a month. You can be anything you want.”
“Evvy,” said his mother, “if you’re feeling up to it, we have something we want to show you.”
“Right now?” said Everett.
“No, next week,” said his father. “Yes, now. How are your marks?”
“Are you using your ointment?” said his mother.
He told her he was. Everett could feel himself coming back; the sensation was like being poured slowly into his own body, his feet and legs taking on weight, his chest filling.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see on that one,” said his father. “Now put on some clothes.”
“Right,” said Everett. “Will do.” He went to close the door, but his father blocked it with his foot.
“No more locks.”
“At least for now, okay?” said his mother.
“Okeydokey,” said Everett, gently closing the door. As he dressed, he was careful to avoid the mirror; he was feeling a bit better now, sharper, but he knew that the sight of his bare skin would distract him again, draw him back into his thoughts. Once his body was covered—letterman sweater on, trousers belted—he afforded himself a quick peek, and there he was, himself again: an average-looking nineteen-year-old. A little thin, a bit lanky, but broad enough in the shoulders to hide it. He smiled, inspecting his teeth, poking at the muscles of his face. After a moment of hesitation, he leaned closer to the mirror and opened his mouth wide, sticking out his tongue. Cautiously, he peered down into his throat.
“Ev?” his father called from downstairs.
“Coming,” Everett said.
He found his parents waiting for him in the backyard. On the grass in front of them lay a steel pod, nearly six feet long.
“Well,” said his father, “what do you think?”
Everett’s first thought was that the object was a bomb. His parents had lost their minds and somehow purchased a 10,000-pound cookie. They stood over the thing, smiling, waiting a reaction.
His father knocked on the steel hull with his knuckles. “I thought we could work on it together.”
“Like a hobby,” said his mother, rubbing his father’s shoulder.
Confused, Everett examined the steel hulk more closely. He saw that, in fact, it wasn’t a bomb, but a fuel tank from a light fighter airplane. He’d served on a destroyer, not a carrier, but he’d seen enough fighters up close to recognize a belly-tank. The thing had come from a P-51 or 36, he figured, and then the picture suddenly became clear to him: his father wanted to construct a race car together. It was an idea they’d joked about before Everett had enlisted. Maybe when he got back they’d buy an old Ford, supe it up, then drive it out to the playa. The town sat less than five miles from one of the largest dry lakebeds in Southern California and had a long tradition of drag racing. As long as there were automobiles, the people of Boilerville had been driving them out to the desert and racing them across the flats.
“This is the new trend,” Everett’s father said. “Everyone’s using these things to make their racers. It’s easy. I was talking to Hal. Mr. Water-heater guy. He built one. Stuck on a chassis, loaded it up, and whoosh. Got the sucker up to 110 miles an hour. Can you believe that?” His father gave a little laugh.
“Wow,” said Everett.
“You could just use a regular car, though,” said Everett’s mother, waving away the fuel tank. “If you’re not comfortable.”
“Of course he’s comfortable, Margot,” said Everett’s father, his eyes fixed on Everett. “He will be, at least. Once he’s zooming across the desert in this thing. Right, Ev?”
“Right,” said Everett. He was thinking of that scream a Hawk 75 made as it flew by, the strange, hysterical shriek it gave off that caused a ship’s cables to shiver. He wondered how much energy it took to make a plane go that fast, how much power, and before he could help it, the heat in his gut was back, like an oven blazing to life. Panicked, he tried to think of cold, still things: a frozen lake. An iceberg—his iceberg, floating on the Atlantic. But the flames were reaching up through his chest and neck.
“So how about some lunch?” his mother said.
The blaze was in Everett’s throat now, a roaring heat just behind his tongue. He nodded, keeping his mouth clamped shut as tight as he could.
He could feel a transformation happening deep inside his body, down in his muscles or bones, maybe even deeper, on a chemical level, cooking inside the tiny pans of his cells. Something was changing, and each step of the reaction left him drained and exhausted. He would get excited and flare up and then a whole day would pass while he moved through town in a kind of haze, feeling empty and light, looking down at his arms and legs from a great height, as though his body was a stream of rain falling from the cloud of his head. Who was he supposed to be? Who had he been before? The sidewalk drifted past, far, far below.
But then suddenly came moments when he was himself again. He took a bite of sweet-potato pancake at Gyp’s and the taste sparked a chain reaction, little explosions of recognition. This was what he liked to eat. Of course! And coffee, he loved coffee with lots of sugar in it.
Or he’d be at the drive-in with Langley, arm over her shoulders, feeling half-there, the wash of gray light from the screen making him so tired. The actors spoke but their words arrived in hollow, watery echoes. But then lemon! The smell of Langley’s hair triggered something in him and he was awake and buzzing with energy and he would look at her and all of sudden things were so simple.
See that face? Remember the feel of her lips on your lips? The feel of her tongue?
He kissed her harder, pressing himself on her.
“Hold on,” Langley said, turning away from him. The leather of the backseat creaked beneath her. “Ev.”
But he wanted her so badly now, wanted back with her. He ran a hand in between her thighs, trying to part them. She was wearing a skirt and he could feel the heat of her through her cotton panties.
“Wait!” She pushed him off of her.
“What? What’s wrong?”
She sat up and straightened her skirt. “It’s just a little fast, Ev. That’s all.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping the sweat from his face. He’d stripped to his undershirt, but the inside of the car still felt unbearably hot to him.
“It’s okay,” she said.
They sat in the humid silence for a moment. Everett hadn’t been paying attention to the feature, and he saw now that it was some kind of horror story. A small, oily guy Everett thought he recognized from Casablanca was batting away a severed hand trying to strangle him.
“You were gone for two years, Ev.”
On the screen, the man finally managed to pry the hand from his throat and hurl the thing to the ground.
“We’re just getting to know each other again. We’re dating. It should be fun.” She touched his face. “Hey. Look at me.”
He turned to her.
“So, Everett Batson,” she said. “Tell me about yourself.”
“Tell you what?”
She gave an exaggerated sigh. “I don’t know. Impress me.”
“My father bought me a fuel tank today,” Everett said.
“He’s excited about building the race car,” said Langley. “He’s been talking about it for weeks.”
She moved close to him and he put his arm around her. She’d always been pretty, but while he was away she’d become beautiful. When he’d first seen her again, he’d thought the change was something physical, the natural sharpening of her features. But it was more than that; there was something new about her face, a hidden face behind hers that was tough and wise and a little sad.
On the screen, the battered hand was making its getaway, hiding inside a woman’s purse.
“So if we’re dating again now,” Everett said, “how many dates in are we?”
Langley closed one eye and thought about this. “I don’t know. Maybe, five?”
“So if I asked you to go steady, it’d be too soon.”
“I guess you’ll just have to ask.”
She kissed him, gently at first, then a little harder. He went slow this time, simply enjoying the feel of her body against his, firm and hot and strangely giving.
The evening before Everett shipped out, Langley’s parents allowed her to spend the night at his house. The two of them had already done some things in his parents’ car. She’d let him touch and kiss her breasts five times; twice she’d felt him through his pants; and once, in the heat of things, she’d even let him take off her panties and kiss her down there for a good thirty seconds before she’d regained her composure and coaxed him up. But Langley had made it clear when they started dating that there would be no actual sex for a long time. Maybe not even until marriage. So he’d put the notion out of his head. He took each new intimacy as a gift. Certainly he hadn’t expected much in the way of sex that last night. He figured she would be too emotional—likely he would be, too. And up until two or three in the morning, there’d been only crying and hugging, kissing and that slow, deliberate touching, with fingers like tiny microphones, trying to record the details of each other’s bodies, listening through the skin.
“We still smell like gasoline,” she said. Earlier in the evening, they’d gone together to the hot rod races, out on Boiler Lake.
“Speak for yourself,” Everett said.
“Shut up,” she said, giggling.
He nuzzled her. “It is you. You grease monkey.”
Laughing, she wriggled out of his grasp and got up. She walked over to her bag and began rummaging inside.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said.
“Lang, we made a deal.”
“I know, I know,” she said.
“No gifts. Now I’m a jerk.”
She pulled out an envelope and hopped back into bed. She was wearing his basketball jersey as a nightgown and as she shimmied up next to him, the hem hiked over her thighs. He reached, but she yanked the sheets up over herself before he could touch her, then kissed him on the nose.
“You’re a jerk anyway,” she said. “Open it.”
“You want me to read it right now? In front of you?”
“It’s not a card.”
She laughed. “It’s not a photo either. Especially not that kind.”
“A boy can dream,” he said, opening the envelope. Inside, he found a certificate of some kind. And clipped to it, a photograph of an iceberg.
“Congratulations,” Langley said. “You’re the proud owner of an iceberg.”
He looked at her, confused, then back at the picture. “Thanks,” he said.
“I saw the ad in the back of an Archie. See? You can buy an iceberg for someone, and the company will send you a picture and a certificate with all the iceberg’s statistics. Its height and depth and things. This one is yours.”
“It’s beautiful, I guess,” he said, studying the iceberg in the picture. And it was majestic, a giant diamond floating in the ocean.
“I want you to have someplace to go,” Langley said, snuggling closer to him. “For when things get bad. A place you can go in your head, you know?”
“My iceberg,” he said, suddenly very touched by the gift.
“Your iceberg. You just imagine yourself there whenever you want, far away from everything.”
“I’ll picture you there, too.”
“You don’t have to. It’s for you. Like a private island.”
“You’re my private island,” he said, leaning in to kiss her.
They’d kissed for just a short while when she reached down and slid off her panties. A moment later, she was on top of him, rubbing against him.
“Langley,” he said, holding the backs of her thighs. He couldn’t take much more.
Then she surprised him by reaching down and tugging at his boxers.
“I want to,” she said.
It took him a moment to understand she meant actual sex. For weeks all he’d fantasized about was having sex with her, or making love to her, or even just fucking, in the back of the car, in the shower, facing each other or him behind her, slow or fast, right there, in his tiny bed; he’d pictured it a thousand ways, but now, lying with her, he suddenly felt afraid. Not afraid of her, or her body, but of the act itself; he felt a crushing reverence for the intimacy of sex; he would be inside her body; he’d be the first to know her. She’d be the first to know him. No matter what happened, they’d always share that. And he was leaving in less than six hours. What would that mean? Would she be able to let go of him more easily? Would he end up missing her even worse than he expected to?
“Don’t you want to?” she said, her breath warm in his ear.
“I do,” he said, but already he was moving her off him.
In Texas, he’d kept the picture of his iceberg inside his footlocker, taped to the bottom of the lid so that it was right there when he flipped the box open. In Honolulu, the humidity was bad enough that he’d gotten the photograph laminated at a local print shop. The statistics he copied by hand on to the back of the picture, creating a kind of baseball card for his iceberg, and from then on he kept the card in the breast pocket of his jumper. By the time his destroyer pushed off into the Pacific, he knew his iceberg in and out, the intricacies of its shape, the peaks and deep blue ravines, the odd gray stripes at its base, water-notches from countless cycles of freezing and melting. He knew its statistics: its core temperature (–20 degrees Celsius), its weight (143,000 tons). He could conjure the iceberg up at a moment’s notice, and it wasn’t long before he did start using it as a refuge, a quiet place to go in his mind when things became too terrible to bear. When the ship had its bow blasted off in the Coral Sea and was nearly sunk. The terror as the stern began to rise, the sight of burning bodies poured into the sea. When, on a clear, peaceful day, no planes in sight, a Japanese pilot fell from the sky, flailing and screaming, and exploded against the ship’s deck.
At times like these he went to his iceberg, but he also went there when he was especially homesick, when he missed his family and friends, when he missed Langley. She wrote him letters every week, detailing what she’d learned in school, the small goings-on among their friends. She was always pressing him to write more, to tell more about what he was seeing. I know it must be awful, but you can say. Really. But he couldn’t say. Other guys, like his good friend Davey Minor, passed the time reading comic books or betting on cockroach races behind the mess deck. Everett wrote letter after letter, sometimes every day. But how much was he really telling her? He wrote about how the stars looked at night; the way humpback whales sometimes nudged the ship in the morning. He wrote about the thousand shades of blue the ocean went through in a single hour. But the helmet he and his friends played soccer with on the deck, the one with the Japanese pilot’s head still inside—for this he had no words. Or for the soft hum a torpedo made, the way a 92 Mod or a 97 Special sounded like a young girl singing as it came racing at the hull.
Toward the end of his first year, Everett knew they were starting to drift apart. He began noticing other boys’ names in her letters. Just little mentions, nothing out of sorts. He hated himself for not sleeping with her that last night, for making more of it than he should have. He worried constantly that he’d poisoned things by making her feel unwanted. Some nights he found himself rereading her letters in his bunk, combing through older ones by the light of the tiny red emergency bulb.
But suddenly the war was over. Some new and terrible bomb had been dropped on Japan, and in less than a year he’d be going home, maybe as early as the 4th of July. A surge of hope overcame him. He’d made it through. He and Langley would rekindle things. When he’d enlisted, he’d hoped his time in battle would refine him, scald him down to some better, purer version of himself. He’d wanted to return home improved, but now he just wanted to return home, to be the person he’d been before leaving.
There was just one last assignment. It had come down the pipe right after the Nagasaki drop. The ship was requested to assist with some kind of weapons test near Bikini Atoll. The mission was supposed to last a few days, no more. A pit stop to help keep the area clear for whatever new version of the bomb was being tested. Traffic cop work. Maybe he’d even get to see something impressive, a final, giant firework before heading home for good. Something he could tell Langley about.
“The marks,” said Langley. “Something’s happening.”
Above them, the movie was nearing its end. The hand was holding a pistol to the head of the desperate, trembling hero, who slowly lowered a saw blade to his own wrist.
“Sshhhh,” Everett said, kissing her.
Langley pulled away. “Ev. Look!”
He looked down at his chest. He’d been wearing his standard naval crackerjack during the bomb test—full white, except for the three navy stripes at the cuffs, the three more running down each side of the collar. The eagle perched above the double chevron on the left shoulder. In the heat from the blast, the dark dyes had absorbed enough energy to tattoo Everett’s skin: the ghost of his uniform emblazoned on his body.
“The marks,” said Langley. “I think they’re glowing.”
A pang of fear hit him. He hadn’t been careful enough; hadn’t controlled himself. The heat was in his belly again, churning. The blue stripes on his wrists and collarbone had begun to sparkle with a faint, twinkling light. On his shoulder, the eagle shimmered.
He looked away from himself, up at the screen, and tried to think of his iceberg again, to picture himself there, but the heat was already rising in his throat.
“It’s normal.” He sounded panicked to himself. “The doctors said the marks might become inflamed.”
A scream issued from the screen.
“Inflamed,” she said. “They’re glowing, Everett. They’re giving off light.”
“That’s what they meant,” Everett said, lying now. “They said the marks might do that, because of the chemicals in the dye. It’s like satin or something. It catches the light.”
“The doctors told you this.”
“And they said it’s okay? It’s safe?”
“Yes, all right? Jesus, why can’t we just have a good time together? Why can’t we just go back to how things were?” He threw on his shirt. “I mean, why can’t we just fuck?”
Langley deflated a little at this. “That’s really sweet.”
“This is all because we didn’t do it before I left, isn’t it?”
“We can’t just pick up where we left off,” she said. “Things are different.”
“You mean I’m different. The marks, the problems I’ve been having concentrating. You think I’m damaged goods.”
She put her hand on his, comforting him. The gesture repulsed him. “No, that’s not what I mean,” she said.
“I’m going to get a soda.” He pulled away and shoved open the door.
“Ev,” she said.
He stepped out and threw on his varsity sweater, careful to pull the cuffs down over his marks.
“You need to start talking to me, Ev,” she said. “What’s going on in there?”
“Going on in where?”
She looked confused. “In your head. What do you think I meant?”
“Nothing. I’ll get you mints.” It took effort to keep from slamming the door. He told himself to calm down, to keep it together, but as he wove his way through the parked cars, he felt the heat in his chest intensifying. The marks pulsed with light. He could almost see the eagle shining through the sleeve of his jacket. By the time he reached the concessions stand, he was terrified. A searing energy coursed through his veins, radiating out from his chest, down his legs, his arms. He half expected to look down and see his entire circulatory system glowing through his skin. Worst was his throat, though; his gullet felt like a furnace, a whirling cauldron of flame.
He hurried past the concessions stand and out to the back lot, where the older crowd milled about, men and women in their early twenties, sitting on their cars, kissing and laughing, drinking beer from paper bags. Some had set up makeshift barbecues in the trunks of their cars and were cooking burgers or kebabs. Scattered among the crowd were some of the town’s finest hot rods. Most were built from the bodies of antique Ford coupes and roadsters, ’32s or ’37s, stripped and louvered and fitted with big 670’s in back that angled their snouts down, close to the dirt. But a few, newer rods were designed from belly-tanks like the one Everett’s father had bought. These cars were sleeker and smaller, like teardrops aimed sideways. The cars all had names painted on their sides: Torpedo. El Niño. Mama’s Moonshine.
Everett pushed his way through the throng, moving as quickly as possible toward the lot’s far end, where the dunes began.
“Everett. Finally.” Someone caught his shoulder.
Everett brushed off the hand and kept moving, but it grabbed him again, harder this time. “Whoa, whoa.”
“I have to go,” Everett said, keeping his teeth clenched as he spoke.
“Hang on, buddy.”
Everett turned to find Paddy Loughlin holding him. Two of Paddy’s friends stood behind him, both with three beers dangling from each hand, like fish just caught. And behind them sat the Iguana, Paddy’s drag racer, a belly-tank model painted to look like the lizard, its body covered in bright green scales, a mouth full of sharp teeth stenciled beneath the headlamp eyes.
“I just want to welcome you home,” Paddy said. “Langley said you were back, and well, here you are.”
Everett gave a tight-lipped smile.
“So how’re you doing?” said Paddy. He was a grown man, nearly thirty, but he had a boyish look to him—a soft, freckled face and bangs that fell in his eyes. A clubfoot had kept him out of the war. His family ran a successful chain of furniture stores, locations all across Southern California, and he’d recently hired on as manager of the flagship store, there in Boilerville. Paddy was also Langley’s boss. She’d been working for Loughlin Home Furnishings for over a year and a half now, which meant that Everett had to talk to him.
“Fine. Good.” Everett spoke quickly, but even so he could feel the heat seeping from his mouth, rising past his face, making his eyes sting.
“We missed you. Some more than others, but still.” Paddy laughed and gave Everett a pat on the shoulder, right on the eagle mark. Immediately Paddy jerked back his hand.
“What the fuck?” he said. “You’re burning hot. You have a fever or something?”
“Yes,” said Everett, blinking. “I should go.”
“Well tell Langley hi for me,” Paddy said. “She’s doing swell at work, you know. Just swell.”
“You bet,” Everett said, already moving away. He could feel Paddy and his friends watching him as he hurried off. Eyes watering, he ran past the edge of the lot and into the dry lowlands. All he could think about was getting away from the drive-in, the noise and light and people. He needed to get somewhere dark and cool. The area was bordered by the Mohave, rising and falling in low gray dunes, dotted with creosote and sagebrush. Everett ran, his whole body burning.
Finally, he saw what he was looking for: the thin black stream of the Mohave River, winding through the wild grass. And there, just to the east, Turtle Shallow, a small natural pond at the river’s bend. Everett bolted toward the pond, panting, arms pumping. He was still a hundred feet from the edge when the marks on his skin ignited his shirt, and for a terrible moment he was on fire, flames licking at his face, but then, before he could even tear off the shirt, the cotton had burned to nothing. He wasn’t going to make it. When he looked down at his arms, the skin was dark as night. Terror shot through him. His whole body was pitch-black, except the stripes on his wrists and collarbone, the eagle on his shoulder—the marks, which burned with molten light. He ran faster, but with every breath, bright clouds of heat issued from his mouth. He was going to lose control. He was going to burst, or explode, or burn, like his shirt, to nothing.
But then he was diving into the pond. The water felt so good against his skin, too, so cold and black. As he sank, he opened his mouth as wide as he could, breathing in water, letting it rush down his throat.
The pond water boiled for three full days. The story ran continually in the local news, eventually getting picked up by neighboring towns. When the water finally cooled, bystanders remarked on the clusters of odd-looking rocks on the pond’s bottom. Upon closer examination, the rocks were found to be turtle shells, boiled clean; of the turtles themselves, and of the pond’s aquatic life, nothing was left.
For days afterward, Everett moved in a sluggish daze. Finally, when his mind began to clear and he felt some vestige of himself return, he went back to his medical records. Again and again he combed through them. There was little help in the pages, though. Plenty of lines were blacked out, and the ones that weren’t told him what he already knew: he had suffered trauma while stationed at a nuclear test site off the coast of Bikini Atoll. Head injuries, internal injuries. Exposure to radiation. There were other things he knew to be true, too; one was that out of the thirteen men who’d been standing on deck at the time of detonation, he was the lone survivor. This he knew because the senior chief petty officer watching over him at Canacoa Hospital in the Philippines had told him so, most likely out of sympathy, or a belief that Everett would surely die soon, making the transgression moot. The other sailors had been incinerated, charred beyond recognition. But for some reason that no one could discern, Everett’s body had managed to absorb the energy from the blast.
Sort of like a sponge, said one doctor. “An energy sponge.” But what kind of energy? What was a nuclear bomb? There was no information for him.
Out of desperation, Everett went to speak with Dr. Frizzel, his high-school physics teacher. Frizzel met Everett in the lab early in the morning, before classes began. How strange it felt to Everett, to be back inside the school, walking the empty halls, past the rows of lockers, the bulletin boards tacked with flyers for upcoming events—bake sales and pep rallies and after-school study sessions in the library. And tacked right in the board’s center, the list for Friday detention: DANTE WILLIAMS, SCOTT TUFT, the names penned in towering, accusatory letters. Everett smiled, remembering how devastated he’d been the one time his name appeared on the list, after he, Scott Saley, and George Stein were caught looking at Stein’s father’s copy of Esquire behind the cafeteria dumpster. Everett still remembered the woman smiling brightly out from the page; she was lying on her back in a red silk nightgown, one knee clutched to her chest, the other bare leg extended, a cherry red slipper dangling from her toes. Everett pulled a pen from his pocket (he’d brought a pad, too, to take notes from Dr. Frizzel) and wrote his own name at the bottom of the detention list. The other names were red, his black, but still, he liked the way it looked up there.
Dr. Frizzel was cleaning up the lab when Everett arrived.
“So you’re interested in nuclear energy,” he said. “In what way?”
“In what it does to you, I guess,” said Everett.
“As in radiation?” said Dr. Frizzel. He was sponging the blackboard. The sun was just coming up, and with each swipe of the sponge, more reflected sunrise was revealed on the board.
“No,” said Everett, squinting into the light. “As in an explosion.”
Frizzel paused and looked at him over his shoulder. “You mean you actually saw a nuclear explosion over there? An atomic weapon.”
“I don’t know.” Everett kicked at the linoleum. “That depends.”
“Depends on what?” Water from the sponge dripped down the board and into the chalk gutter.
“On what a nuclear explosion is, I guess.”
Dr. Frizzel studied him a moment, then invited him to sit. He had his tie stuffed in his pocket and his glasses atop his head. Without these accents in place he looked strangely unmasked to Everett, naked.
After a sip of coffee, Dr. Frizzel explained to Everett, to what he said was the best of his knowledge, how a nuclear bomb worked. “The idea has been around for years,” he said. “What you’re doing, essentially, is taking a really heavy atomic particle, one that’s already packed full of stuff, and firing even more stuff at it, so that it can’t handle the load and breaks apart. The pieces it breaks into hit other heavy particles and do the same thing to them. Understand?”
“So the particles explode because they get too full?”
“They’re already too full, and then something hits them and puts them over the edge.”
“Like the final straw,” said Everett.
“And these particles,” Everett said, opening his pad. “The ones that get too full. What if they don’t want to explode?”
“I’m sorry?” said Dr. Frizzel.
“Even if they’re too full of bad stuff, can they stop from exploding? Can they empty some of it out?”
“Sure. That happens naturally. It just takes time. The heavy particle slowly gives away the stuff it doesn’t need, until it becomes a more stable particle. It’s called nuclear decay.”
“How long does nuclear decay take?” Everett wrote decay on his pad.
“Different particles have different half-life periods.”
“What’s a half-life period?”
Dr. Frizzel put his glasses on and leaned towards Everett, resting his chin on the backs of his laced fingers. “Everett,” he said. “What happened to you over there?”
Sometimes, in dreams, the explosion came back to him. He was on the deck of the Passaic with his shipmates. It was early summer, 1946, and they were all leaning against the railing, relaxed, excited to be done with the war, just weeks away from heading home. They laughed and joked, the protective goggles turning their eyes into miniature cannons.
When the countdown came over the wire, they all whooped and jumped up on the cables.
T minus nine. T minus eight.
The water was a warm, tropical blue-green, full of nets of sunlight. In the distance, two bottlenose dolphins sparred like fencers.
T minus four.
The men counted along, Everett, too, leaning out over the water. What a ridiculous sight they made, Everett thought, with their goggles on, arms thrown over each other’s shoulders. They were warriors; they’d killed people. But just now they looked like a row of children cut out of paper.
In the distance, a tiny flash, like a match struck. And then something was rippling out at them, an invisible tidal wave.
The next thing Everett knew, he lay crumpled on the opposite side of the ship. Heaps of sailors littered the deck in various states of undress. Everett looked down and saw that the blast had knocked him clean out of his shirt. His pants were torn and one shoe was missing.
Everett propped himself up on an elbow.
Davey Minor was wobbling toward him, naked from the waist down. “Thomthing’s wrong with my mouf, Ev.” He came closer, starting to cry now. Everett saw that nearly all of Davey’s teeth had been knocked out, his mouth a bloody hole punched into his face.
“Whath’s wrong wif my mouf?”
But then Davey’s back was on fire, and his hair, and his bare legs, and the sun was crashing into the ship. This made perfect, terrifying sense to Everett at the time; the thread holding it in the sky had snapped and now the sun had landed on top of them.
His next memory was of being underwater. And all around him, blackened bodies, not swimming or sinking, just hanging there, suspended three or four feet beneath the ocean’s surface. An underwater sculpture garden.
The salt stung his eyes, but just then a beautiful light spread across the sky. Maybe it was sunrise, he thought, and so he looked up through the water and saw what looked like a vine sprouting from the ocean, rising higher and higher, towering over him. Maybe he could scale it, he thought, trying to swim toward the thing. The vine was huge now, curling up through the clouds, opening wider and wider, blooming across the whole sky. He bet if he could just get a foothold, he could climb straight back to Boilerville.
All through the month of October, Everett stayed close to home. He stopped going into town, stopped hanging out with friends. Langley he kept at a distance, seeing her twice a week at most, always in public places: at the soda counter, the municipal park. He believed that the key was to dodge any kind of excitement. Anything that might get a rise out of him, he avoided. No late-night parties out in the dunes with his old friends, no drunken bonfires. Because Dr. Frizzel’s explanation felt right to him somehow: his time overseas had turned him into a nuclear man, someone packed with too much bad stuff, who could explode at any minute. All it would take was a little knock, a nudge. And boom. If he could just wait it out, though, if he could hold on for a while, he’d eventually go back to being who he used to be. Someone solid and stable. He just had to be patient.
He began a strict regimen of working on the hot rod. Day after day he spent out in the garage. The labor was not hard; the belly-tank was already designed aerodynamically, sleek and lightweight, and required hardly any alteration. All Everett had to do was affix a chassis to it and load up an engine. The parts were easy enough to purchase, too, with Orlando’s, one of Southern California’s biggest junkyards, just on the edge of town. For under $120 he had what he needed. Hell, the paint cost nearly as much as the axles.
Everett’s father had recently begun semiretirement from the telephone company, and two workdays out of five, he tinkered alongside Everett. At first, Everett was nervous having his father there for so much of the day. Now and then his father encouraged him to get into town more, to see Langley, his friends. He was always gentle about this, though, simply mentioning encounters he’d had with people Everett knew—how he’d bumped into Everett’s friend Roger by the bike shop, or Langley’s sister over on Arlington Street, by the church.
“She asked about you,” said his father. “But, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to say.” This was three weeks after the drive-in. He was holding the steering wheel steady so Everett could tighten the screw plate.
“What do you mean?” said Everett.
“I mean I wasn’t sure how you were doing.”
“I’m fine.” Everett tested the screw, making sure it was tight.
“It’s still okay if you’re not, but you’re getting there?”
“I’m getting there,” he said.
As the days progressed, his father prodded him less and less. By mid-November, the two of them had fallen into an easy rhythm, rarely talking about much except the car. His father took to bringing the old Philco out to the yard by extension chord, sitting it on a stool beside the car so they could listen to the local hillbilly music station or whatever baseball game was on. Sometimes, in the late afternoons, his father would bring out a couple of Harbinger’s beers, and hand Everett one, and the two of them would clink a toast to the car.
In the evenings, Everett played basketball in the drive by himself, or read in his room. His father invited him out to the lakes to watch the races a few times, but Everett always declined. Most nights he spoke to Langley before going to bed, telling her about his day, asking about hers. But the family phone was located in the hallway leading to the master bedroom, so for any privacy Everett had to stay up until well after his parents had gone to bed.
“So when do I get my boyfriend back?” Langley said one night, nearly seven weeks after the drive-in.
“I’m here,” said Everett. He was sitting against he hallway wall, rubbing alcohol into the navy stripes on his wrists. By now he knew they weren’t going away, but he still had hope that over time he might find some way of making them fade a little.
“Sure you are,” said Langley.
“It’s going to get better,” he said. “I just need some time.”
“Ev,” she said, whispering now. “When are we going to fuck?”
He glanced at the dark doorframe to his parents’ room. “Langley.”
“I’m sorry I put you off at the movies that time,” she said. “I should have let you.”
He told her he loved her, and that he had to go.
That night, he lay awake a long time, focusing on his iceberg. He pictured himself encased deep in its dark blue center. Thick slabs of ice separated him from the outside world. One by one, the bad memories, the bad thoughts, they were coming loose from him, floating off. He was radiating warmth, melting the iceberg slowly, safely, from the inside out. And waiting for him just beyond the walls was Langley, patient and loving. She peered in at him, her pink hands pressed to the ice.
By December, the dragster was ready to race. Everett and his father had tested it five times out on Old Highway 6 and on every occasion the car performed smoothly. It wasn’t nearly as fast as they’d hoped—the Mercury V-8 kept maxing out at around eighty miles an hour—but it was a thrill to drive anyhow, small and squat and slightly ridiculous-looking, a little pod puttering across the desert. The silliness was part of what made the project so exciting to Everett, though; he felt like a kid again, piloting the hot rod down the empty road, sand pinging off his goggles. Or laughing at his father’s turn, the way the old man clung to the wheel so tightly, hunched over, holding on rather than steering. So what if they had no chance of winning? Racing their own car out on the great dry lake would be reward enough. All that was left was to name the thing.
“How about Harbinger?” his father said as they rolled the car down Fourth Street. It was too loud to drive in the neighborhood, so as soon as they hit Piñon Avenue, they had to put it in neutral and push the rest of the way.
“Too goofy,” said Everett.
His father wiped his brow. “What’s wrong with serious? Strike fear into some hearts?”
“Fear is hard to strike at seventy-five miles an hour, pop.”
Bevo Newman saluted them as he collected his mail, and the Batson men nodded to him.
“Well, what does it look like to you?”
Everett studied the car, the plump oval of the tank. “What about The Thirteenth Egg?”
His father snorted.
“It doesn’t look like an egg to you? I’m serious.”
Little Presley Turner raced by them on his bike, still training-wheeled.
“It’s an expression that Langley uses,” said Everett. “Like the egg that won’t fit in the carton.”
“You seen her lately?” said his father.
“We talk on the phone.”
“Uh-huh,” said his father as they turned the car onto their street.
“I needed some room,” said Everett.
“But you don’t think you do anymore.”
Everett considered this. The last few weeks had been his happiest in a long time. Working on the car, doing chores around the house, reading comics, exercising—his regimen was steadily working; he now went days in a row without an episode: no sudden heat surge inside him. Which meant no glowing marks. No subsequent blackouts or hazy periods. He was feeling like himself again (knock on wood), at least to some extent. He still had bad dreams occasionally, he had moments of worry, but for the most part, his mind felt clear and open.
“I’m feeling good,” said Everett.
His father reached over the driver’s seat and shook Everett’s hand. “Well welcome back to the land of the living, you bum.”
The residents of Boilerville had different guesses as to what made the surface of the dry lake so flat. Some people believed the answer lay in the dirt, the salty blend of calcite and gypsum, while others pointed to the quick-shifting wind patterns in the area, the way the gusts blew back and forth across the land, smoothing it until the lakebed lay pale and even as an ice rink.
Everett’s father waved a hand at the horizon. “If you look close, you can see the curve of the earth.”
“You don’t say.” Everett was bent over the Egg, polishing the wax. People crowded by, ogling the hot rods scattered about the grounds. The cars were built in all sorts of configurations: there were classics, converted coupes and roadsters with their engines exposed; there were trucks, flat panels and pickups with exhaust pipes jutting out from the cabs like chrome tusks.
“You heard that one, huh?”
“Only about fifty times,” Everett said. He smacked the car with the rag and stood up, scanning the crowd for Langley. She was supposed to meet them by the registry. The races were organized in heats, according to make and model. Everett and his father were entered in the third heat, devoted to belly-tankers, so they had about half an hour before they’d need to move the car to the starting area, and Everett wanted to use the time to tell Langley some things. The anticipation of seeing her now filled him with a nervous, joyous energy.
Everett stepped on to the car’s seat, raising himself above the crowd.
“I’m sure she’s here,” said his mother, just back from the concessions cart, carrying three red-and-white-striped boxes of popcorn.
“Looks good, huh?” said Everett’s father.
“He looks better than good,” she said, handing Everett the box of popcorn.
“I think he meant the car, Mom,” said Everett.
“Oh,” she said. “Better than good, too.”
The design they’d settled on was simple; the tank’s body was a smooth egg-cream white, with little orange cracks painted on the nose. Langley had been pushing him to tell about the car, what it looked like, what they were calling it, but he wanted to surprise her.
Everett scanned the heads again. Beyond the crowd, the lakebed stretched into the distance, its surface a bright, space-blue in the moonlight. A mile to the west burned a row of red sparks: flares laid out in the dirt to mark the finish line.
“Langley!” said Everett’s mother. “There you are.”
“Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Batson.”
Everett looked behind him and saw Langley wrapped in his mother’s arms. She winked at him over his mother’s shoulder and Everett felt a tug in his chest.
He winked back and hopped down from the car’s seat.
“Wow!” said Langley, examining the car. “It looks amazing.”
“Notice anything?” said Everett.
“The Thirteenth Egg,” she rested her head on his shoulder. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“We’re going to get some more popcorn,” said Everett’s mother, still carrying her box.
His father pointed at him. “I’ll meet you at the on deck area in twenty, Roger?”
Everett tipped him an imaginary cap. “Wilco.”
“Ev,” said Langley, “the car was your guys’ project.”
“I know. The thing just looks eggish.”
She inspected the nose. “I like the cracks.”
“I even put some yellow there, like yolk.”
“It looks great. Really.”
“You look great,” he said. “Really.”
She squeezed his hand, and he leaned in and kissed her, long and soft, coaxing her lips open. When she began to break away, he held on to her, kissing her more deeply. There was so much he wanted to tell her. First, he’d explain that in the past few months he’d done some serious soul-searching, and had come to realize certain things, the first of which was that he loved her. A lot. He loved the hell out of her, in fact. So much that he wanted to get married. He knew that this would take time, that they should go slow, go steady first, spend more time together, and he was eager to do all this. Regardless, though, she should know how deeply he loved her. She had been there for him from the beginning, waiting for him to come back home, then waiting for him to recover, to collect himself. And now, he wanted her to know that he was here. He’d said it before, but he meant it now, with all of himself. He was here, Everett, in front of her, and he would not disappear again. He would wait for her this time. Finally, the crack of the gun split them.
“Whoa,” Langley said, blinking. “Where did that come from?”
“I’ve missed you,” said Everett.
She looked away, at the crowd, then back at him and took his hands in hers. “We should talk, Ev.”
“I know I’ve been a bad boyfriend. I was gone, and then I was gone again even after I got back. But I want you to know that I’m better now. I’m like I was before everything. I’m here, you know?”
Langley turned his hands over, examining the marks on his wrists.
“They might still go away,” he said.
“Listen. I know you’re trying to be this . . . this guy,” she said, “this guy you were before you left, but no one’s asking you to be.”
“But I want to be, for you.”
She tightened her grip on his hands. “Well I don’t want you to be him.”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“I mean I don’t want that guy anymore,” she said, sounding angry all of a sudden. “I never did. I’m not the same as I was then. I don’t want to be, either.”
“Everett!” his father waved to him through the crowd.
“Just a minute!” said Everett.
“You should go,” Langley said. “They’re lining your heat up.” She squeezed his hands again and then released them, but he held on.
“We can figure this out, Lang,” he said. “I know we can.”
“We can talk more.” There were tears in her eyes.
Everett held her hands tight. “Just give things some time. Please. Langley.”
She nodded. “We’ll see, okay?”
“What does that mean, ‘we’ll see’?”
“Ev, you have to go.” She pulled away before he could grab her, and disappeared into the crowd.
“Hurry up, Everett!” called his father.
Everett hurried over to the Egg and hopped in. With a turn of the key, the old Mercury roared to life. Everett turned on the lights and slowly crawled the car through the crowd. As he maneuvered toward the on-deck area, people complimented him on the Egg.
“I wanted mine hard-boiled!” said Joe Beeley, patting Everett’s shoulder as he passed.
A girl he recognized but didn’t know ran a hand over the hood. “That thing is prime!”
Everett looked for Langley but couldn’t find her. He understood why she was upset, he did, but he would make it up to her. He knew he could, if it took weeks, or even months. He’d show her what she meant to him.
When Everett arrived, five belly-tankers were idling on the line. Two he didn’t recognize, but the three closest to him were driven by Paddy Loughlin, Pat Loughlin, Paddy’s father, and Paddy’s friend Ben Lewis. Both Loughlin cars were done up in lizard motifs. Paddy’s the Iguana, his father’s the Komodo Dragon. Ben’s car was designed to resemble a Cuban cigar.
“An egg!” Paddy yelled over the noise of the engines. “Threatening.”
Pat Loughlin laughed. “No omelets out there, kid, okay?”
Everett smiled this off.
“Langley see that thing yet?” said Paddy.
“Hope not.” Ben Lewis laughed.
“Yolk’s on you when she does, buddy!” Paddy made a splat sound, prodding the whole gang to laughter. “I’m just saying. If that doesn’t get her to finally dump you, I don’t know what will.”
The comment stunned Everett. “Yeah, well,” he said after a moment, “I was going to paint it to look like a club foot. You know, with the toes all gnarled up in front. Like so?” Everett balled up his fist. “What do you think?”
Paddy and Ben stared at him, saying nothing.
Everett knew he was supposed to be nice to these people, but he was feeling too excited for the bullshit, too eager and confident and frustrated. “I could name the car The Gimp. Or The Paddy Wagon. That has a ring, what do you think, Mr. Loughlin?”
“That’s your manners, eh?” said Pat.
“We’re just in it for fun,” said Everett’s father, standing behind him now. “No trouble here.”
He patted Everett on the shoulder. “What’s going on?” he said into his ear.
“Nothing’s going on,” he said. “Right, Paddy?”
Paddy glanced at Pat, then back at Everett and smiled. “If you mean between Langley and me, wrong.”
The comment bewildered Everett.
“She still hasn’t told you, has she?” said Paddy, blowing the hair from his eyes.
“Don’t listen to them, Everett,” said his father. “Leave him alone, will you? I said we’re here for fun.”
“That’s right, Evvy.” Said Paddy. “She didn’t put that in any of her letters, did she?”
“You’re lying,” said Everett.
“You should have taken better care, son,” said Pat Loughlin.
“Shut up!” said Everett’s father. “Both of you. Or so help me God.” He turned to Everett. “Ignore them.”
“They’re lying, though,” said Everett, “aren’t they?”
“You were away, Ev.” His father gripped his shoulder. “You’re back now.”
Everett shook his father off. “So she was fucking Paddy, and you and Mom knew?”
“You weren’t talking to her, asshole!” said Paddy. “‘Jeez, the water’s so pretty! And the whales in the morning. Golly! Oh, and did I mention how pretty the water is?’ What kind of letters were those?”
The thought of Paddy Loughlin reading his letters to Langley ignited a ball of heat in Everett’s belly.
Just then Sheriff Gilgoff appeared, holding the checkered flag.
“Now as an officer of the law, I’m obligated to warn you that these races are illegal, and should you participate, you shall be committing a crime against the town of Boilerville.” He turned to the crowd. “Now let’s race! Third heat up!”
“Everett,” said his father. “You were away. We all missed you, not just Langley.”
Everett pulled on his helmet.
“Ev, come on.”
The helmet’s padding muffled all sounds from the outside. But inside his head, a rumbling had begun, a low, churning wind. He rolled the car up to the line.
His father was still talking at him, but he couldn’t hear. Paddy was calling to him, too, trying to say something. His face looked oddly pained to Everett. Maybe he was trying to apologize?
Sheriff Gilgoff was talking now, the flag raised over his head, and then he was counting down. Three, two, one.
Everett stomped on the gas. The Egg rocketed forward. The dry lake spread before him, flat and blue as the Pacific. He could hear nothing but the hiss of the wind stewing inside him.
He kept the gas pressed to the floor. For a long while no one else existed. But then the Iguana came rushing up to his left. And just behind it, the Komodo Dragon, skimming low across ground.
Everett pushed the gas harder, but the Egg maintained its speed. Paddy looked back at Everett as he pulled farther ahead. His expression was hard and determined, but soon Everett saw it change, crack open in terror.
Pat looked strangely horrified, too. He was yelling something at Everett now, pointing and gesturing for Everett to back off, to stop, something.
Everett looked down at himself and noticed that his clothes were gone. Heat was coming off his body in shimmering waves. And his skin, it had gone pitch-black. Amused, Everett examined his hand. The fiery markings of his sailor’s uniform were his only discernable features; he’d become a burning silhouette.
The Iguana pulled farther ahead. But Everett didn’t want it to. Because he hadn’t had a chance to finish his conversation with Paddy. He stepped hard on the gas, but the Egg did not speed up. Paddy was probably right, he thought now, his mind strangely calm. He should have talked more to Langley. He should have told her everything. Paddy, too, since he was reading the letters. So if Paddy wanted to know what he’d seen over there, Everett should just tell him, shouldn’t he? He could tell him right now.
The beam did not so much shoot from Everett’s mouth as materialize. The purest, whitest light, it moved so quickly it seemed to appear in the night, like a line connecting Everett and Paddy, already there, revealed rather than drawn. When Everett closed his mouth, Paddy was gone. The Iguana was gone. The chassis wobbled along, glowing pink-hot in the dark. Drops of liquid steel fell from its melting beams. The tires had disintegrated; the frame bounced on its axles until it slipped and tumbled over itself, cartwheeling in a cloud of sand.
Everett turned to Pat. The old man’s eyes were fixed on what was left of the Iguana, even as his own car raced across the sand. Hadn’t Pat told Everett that he should have written to Langley? Here, Pat, Everett thought. Let me share with you what’s on my mind. Tell me what you think, before I put it in a letter.
He opened his mouth again, wider this time. A snap of light, and the Komodo Dragon was gone. Scraps of molten steel spun across the ground, turning the sand to black glass.
Everett felt better now; he felt good. He turned around in the car to measure his lead. No other cars were visible to him. In the distance, though, across the moonscape of the dry lake, the lights of Boilerville twinkled. The town looked so tiny from here, he thought. A few sewing pins stuck into the ground. A pang of sadness hit him. He wanted them all to know, to see how fragile things were, how precious.
He felt his jaw unhinge. His mouth opened wider and wider, impossibly wide, until it hung gaping. A thick trail of golden steam billowed out into the night sky. It was what they all wanted, he thought, Langley, his mother, his father, Dr. Frizzel, the whole town. They wanted him to talk them through it all. They wanted to see. So he would show them.