Friday, 1 August 2014

Vanishing by Michelle Donahue

Mother raised a red plate from the sink and threw it to the ground. It shattered, scattering a mosaic of small red shards and soap bubbles on the white tiled floor. Lori stopped yelling. Soap bubbles covered Mother’s hands like white doctor gloves.
“Jason is tutoring you in Freshman Bio. Period.” Spittle had gathered at the corner of Mother’s mouth. Her skin hung dull and faded.
Lori slinked from the kitchen and fled to her room. She took refuge beneath the comforters of her bed. Her parrot, Pete squawked in consolation. Hello, he said. Goodbye.

The next day, at four p.m. sharp, Jason knocked on the door.
“Punctuality is a key trait,” Mother said to Lori.
Jason lived next door. It wasn’t hard to be on time when you only had to walk three steps. Lori hid in the kitchen. She opened her biology textbook and read about something in DNA called telomeres. Large, stringy diagrams decorated the page.
Jason walked into the kitchen. With his casual sweater and neat, dark jeans, he looked so cool. He was a sophomore and radiated a nonchalant charisma that Lori couldn’t hope to exude even on her best day. Gel spiked his dark hair and black plastic specs framed his baby-blues.
Cute, nice, smart. The trifecta.
Lori was cute. She was mostly nice.
Jason sat next to her. Lori heard her mother shuffle upstairs. Jason smiled at her, perfectly straight-toothed.
“So, biology?” he said.
Lori wondered what Mother had told him.
“How’s football going?” she asked. She ran her fingers through her auburn hair. “You were awesome last Friday.”
“Uh, thanks.” He slid the book so that it sat between them. She tugged at the sleeve of her sweatshirt and wished Mother would let her wear more makeup.
He said, “So, DNA replication?” He took a water bottle from his bag, took a sip, and placed it on the table. Lori felt awkward staring at him, so she looked down at her feet. The shoelace of her left Converse was untied. She looked at the floor. White and hard. Stained with years of spilled coffee and cat vomit.
Then the floor vanished. And they started to fall.

About a week ago, Lori had walked home from the bus stop. It was a six-minute walk, but it was all uphill, a steep incline that made her Converse threaten to slip off her heels. Weighed down by her book bag, which bulged with her biology text, she opened the door slightly sweaty and tired. Her biology test was crumpled in her hand, her pencil marks a little smudged, but the red score at the top still blaring. 55%. Lori had studied; she even skipped cheer practice the day before because she knew this grade was important. She’d barely scraped by all semester and now, late-November, she had suffered too many scrapes to keep going. Mr. Heggleson said he would have to talk to her parents if she didn’t score at least a B. And if her GPA dipped any lower, the school wouldn’t let her cheer.
Lori softly shut the front door and walked on her tiptoes. Her Converse clunked. She approached the open kitchen door and saw Mother standing in the middle of the room. All Lori wanted was to sneak past the kitchen, up the stairs, and hide in her bedroom with her parrot, Pete. He always made her feel better. She had spent long hours trying to teach him to talk. He couldn’t say much, only hello, goodbye, and the newest phrase, it’s not my fault. She trained him to say this in response to crying. Soon they’d have a baby in the house, and Lori thought it’d make Mother laugh if Pete said this in response to the baby’s cries.
         In the kitchen, her mother looked down at the floor, so if Lori was careful, she could slip by. She inhaled quietly and then held her breath. She took one dangerous step, then another.

The kitchen table fell high through the sky. As Lori watched clouds rush past, all she could see was thick blue and wispy white beneath her.
“So first, do you know what DNA is?” Jason asked. Wind licked his hair, the force of it so thick it threatened to overpower the gel and dislodge his perfect spikes.
“A bunch of letters strung together? Letters that spell out a secret code?”
Sweat dripped from Lori’s brow. The sun was intense in the mesosphere. She liked the heat, liked sunny days spent at the beach, but this was too much. She squinted at the biology textbook.
Jason said, “DNA has two strands. They bind together and form what’s called a double helix.” He pointed to a diagram in the book. “Those letters are called nucleotides.” The hood of Jason’s sweatshirt fluttered in the wind.
 “How’d you get so smart?” Lori asked. She laughed, high and shrill, like Mother.
Jason took a sip of water from the bottle he’d brought. When he set it back on the table, the water danced as they plummeted. 
“Do you know when DNA replicates?”
She didn’t. “Are you hot? It feels hot up here to me.” Lori took off her sweatshirt and let it flutter into the wind. She watched it shoot straight up, carried by a strong gust.
         “Your body needs to replicate DNA for lots of reasons,” Jason said.
Lori’s sweatshirt spiraled to the sun where it burst into flames.
“Your body makes new DNA when it needs to produce more cells, maybe so you can reproduce, or when your body is hurt and you need to heal.” Pieces of her charred red sweatshirt rained down on them from the sun.
“Cool,” Lori said.
“Sometimes you need new DNA because your cells just get old and die.”
“Hey, how’s your dad?” Lori asked.
Jason flicked a burning piece of sweatshirt off him.

Roughly two months ago, Jason was pulled from his fourth period class and told that his mother would be picking him up.
The office secretary, with her cat-eyed, bejeweled glasses, just shrugged. His mom came ten minutes later and scooped him into a hug. Her eyes were bleary red.
“Mom, what happened?” She shooed him out the office and into the damp outdoor air. He had forgotten his jacket in the classroom. He told her, but she didn’t seem to hear him. Her pumps clicked hard on the asphalt.
“Let’s just get in the car.”
As they made their way to the car, light rain began to fall. It hit the pavement in small droplets, the beginnings of puddles. Water slid off the shiny surface of his mother’s shoes. His cotton tee grew speckled. He wished he had his jacket. His mom beeped the car open and shook the handle of the driver’s side door. The lock stuck when it was damp and refused entry unless you caressed and shook it just right. Jason clunked into the passenger seat. He threw his backpack into the backseat and waited. His mom rattled the latch of the door. She yanked and pulled as the rain continued to drip down her face and flatten her coiffed hair.
Jason crossed his arms over his chest and looked at his mom through the window. Pull, push, push, pull. Finally, she hit the right combination, and the door opened. She threw her purse between them. It bulged like a balloon and threatened to fall onto him. He wondered how heavy it would be.
His mom said, “Your dad’s coming home early.”

Jason’s seat rocked a little as they fell. He gripped the seat with both hands until it steadied.
“DNA polymerase is an enzyme.”
“A what?”
“A protein. It helps make new DNA.”
Lori looked down. She could make out hints of land. She saw muted yellow and rolling green. Perhaps a mountain peaking.
“So why does DNA need two strands?” Jason asked.
 The clouds grew denser, so thick in areas that certain patches below looked solid and white.
“Do you like to dance?” Lori asked. Sadie Hawkins was soon and she heard that, besides Prom, it was the best dance of them all.
When they hit the stratosphere, a cold gust of air shook the table. Lori’s left hand gripped the edge of the table, next to where Jason’s right hand held the edge. For one hot moment their pinkies touched.
“DNA polymerase needs a template strand to build new DNA,” Jason said. He looked at his right pinky.
Lori asked, “So, what is DNA replication?” She bit her lip, laughed, and then bit her lip again. The air grew cold now that they had fallen farther from the sun. Her skin prickled.
 “In DNA replication, DNA reproduces itself. Think of it like DNA having a kid. Except that kid should be exactly like the original DNA. Like if you looked exactly like your mom.”

Lori continued to creep past the doorway to the kitchen. As she did, she looked at Mother, who was still looking down. And then Lori looked down too. On the tile, blood spread thick like spider webs. It pooled around Mother’s feet. Flecks of gelatinous debris, like small kidneys, floated in the blood.
“Mom!” Lori ran into the kitchen. Her shoes slipped in the blood and she fell hard on her back. The air bulleted from her lungs and her vision grew fuzzy as she lay gasping. Mother’s face was sheet-white, her wide eyes, glassy and slick. Lori’s crumpled biology exam lay on the kitchen floor, pages beginning to dissolve in the blood which now seeped into Lori’s jacket.

The land grew closer. Lori could make out shapes. Squares of agriculture. Meandering circles of blue. It felt like they were falling faster. Below, in the fast approaching troposphere, birds screamed. Lori looked forward to seeing the birds.
“Why do you care about DNA? You’re so good at football,” Lori asked. She was not very good at cheer. She couldn’t really do many flips.
“My dad says it’s important.” Jason furrowed his brow deep into the textbook.
“You’re good at track too.”
“Running isn’t everything.”
The table grew increasingly unsteady. The book pages fluttered and flipped. When the book settled, a diagram of a human skeleton lay open.
The wind kicked up. Jason’s gelled hair was turning soft. He looked like a duckling. Goosebumps surfaced on Lori’s arm. The table shook, their chairs shook, they lay themselves flat on the table and held on.
“Are you okay?” Jason asked.
“Are you okay?” Lori asked.
They whipped downwards, wind howling in their ears.

Jason and his mom waited in the dismal gray airport until his dad appeared, bedecked in army green. He walked with crutches. Jason didn’t think you could even call it walking. It was more of a strained hop. They hugged awkwardly with the metal crutches wedged between them.
“I’ve lost weight,” his dad joked. His skin was yellow, his eyes bleary. When his dad clasped his hand around Jason’s, there were hard calluses.
As they walked slowly to their car, Jason tried not to look down, not to ask. He looked up at his father’s face. One step, then another. He wouldn’t ask. He shortened his stride. He closed his eyes and listened to the patter of their shoes and the crutches’ hard clatter. And then the question came brimming up anyway. “Does it…hurt?”
His dad grimaced, moved his crutches forward. Slow, methodical, jerky like a robot. Jason couldn’t help it. He looked down. Right leg: strong, muscled, ending in a shoe. Left leg: thick thigh and then the pant leg dangling loose. No knee, no shoe, just fabric flapping in the wind.

Birds surrounded them. Lori could make out some geese and crows, wings beautiful and powerful, curved by wind. She loved birds. She thought of her parrot, Pete and how much he would love it this high up. The birds around them cawed and cried. It’s not my fault, Pete would say.
Lori looked down and saw individual roads, the small boring boxes of buildings, slate gray parking lots. Her eyes met the skeleton in the book.
“Know anything about bones?” Her chair rocked violently. She shrieked and tried to grab hold of the table, but her fingers, wet from the clouds, slipped. Jason grabbed her. He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled. She held onto his hard shoulders.
“So what’s the difference between the leading strand of DNA and the lagging strand?” he asked.
Lori’s chair continued to tremble. His sat steady. Lori thought, really thought about his question. She had read this. This was simple English. Leading. Lagging. Her chair swung out. She clung onto Jason as her chair whipped into the wind and then fell down, down, down. The birds swooped out of its path. Jason quickly pulled her onto his lap. Her body shook from fear. She buried her face into Jason’s chest and couldn’t contain her cries. It’s not my fault, Pete would say. Jason held her tight.
Lori tried to conquer her tears quickly. She sat back, took a breath, wiped her eyes. Their bodies sat perpendicular, but she turned her face to look at Jason straight on.
“Well this is awkward.”
He could barely hear her over the wind. The ground was coming up fast to meet them. It began to rain.

Since the blood-incident, Lori kept sneaking glances at Mother to check that she was still there, still solid. Mother did everything with a violent energy. In the kitchen, she moved like a thunderstorm. Plates clattered, knifes went thudding into wooden cutting boards. She pulped and pureed everything.
Lori walked on tiptoes. All that blood had blotted everything out—her biology test had gotten lost in it. But she knew it would surface soon. Mr. Heggleson would be calling home. Lori whispered in the house. She tried to curl up, take up as little space as possible.
Now, Lori was alone, would be alone forever, sole child of the family. She talked to Pete. It’s not my fault, he said. She studied the indecipherable pages of her biology book. In the kitchen, she caught glimpses of Mother whirl-winding. But sometimes her motion stopped and Lori saw her silent and small, looking down.

Lightning sizzled around Jason and Lori. The biology book shot upwards, but Jason, reflexes honed from football, caught it. Lori felt precarious but warm in his lap.
“DNA replication is imperfect. Do you know what telomeres are?” Jason asked.
The ground beneath them sprawled like a quilt. Lori saw cars zipping along the freeway. She wrapped her arms around him.
Lori thought for a second. “Don’t telomeres protect all the important DNA from being lost?” 

Since his dad returned home, Jason couldn’t stop pacing. He wore the carpet thin in his bedroom as he walked corner to corner. His dad knocked and Jason stopped and stood stock-still. His dad opened the door but didn’t move.
“Don’t you have football practice?”
“Uh, yeah.”
Jason imagined running around on the field, feeling free as a bird. He remembered last Friday’s game when he scored a touchdown and the crowd thundered in applause. He had looked at his dad sitting in the stands, while everyone else stood on their feet and cheered. His dad smiled, had tried to rise to his feet, but his crutches slipped. He had tried once more.

Thunder rumbled through their bones. The sound of wind, rain, thunder, and traffic surrounded them.
Lori said, “I remember. When DNA replicates the telomeres get shorter.”
Jason held Lori close as they plummeted. She was steady on his legs. He kissed her cheek, leaving a trace of his heat on her skin.
They both looked down. They saw large roofs, streets, the tops of short trees.
Lori saw people walking on the sidewalks. 
“We’re close,” Jason said.

About the Author: Michelle Donahue is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State. She was the managing editor for Flyway and is currently a fiction reader for Revolution House. Her fiction has appeared in Whiskey Island, Paper Darts, NAP, and others.

Image: (c) jah~