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The Inevitability of Earth

When Michael was just a kid, Uncle Evan made a movie of Grandfather. He used an old eight-millimetre camera that wound up with a key and had three narrow lenses that rotated on a plate. Michael remembered holding the camera. It was supposedly lightweight for its time, but in his six-year-old hands, it seemed like it weighed a tonne. Uncle Evan had told him to be careful with it; the camera was a precision instrument, and it needed to be in good working order if the movie was going to be of any scientific value.

The movie was of Grandfather doing his flying thing — flapping his arms with a slow grace as he shut his eyes and turned his long, beakish nose to the sky. Most of the movie was only that: a thin, middle-aged man, flapping his arms, shutting his eyes, craning his neck. Grandfather’s apparent foolishness was compounded by the face of young Michael flashing in front of the lens; blocking the scene, and waving like an idiot himself. Then the camera moved, and Michael was gone —

And so was Grandfather.

The view shook and jostled for an instant, and the family garden became a chaos of flowers and greenery. Finally, Uncle Evan settled on the pale blue equanimity of the early-autumn sky. A black dot careered across the screen, from the left to the right and top to the bottom. Then there was a momentary black, as Uncle Evan turned the lenses from wide-angle to telephoto. The screen filled with the briefest glimpse — for the film was about to run out — of grandfather’s slender figure, his white shirt-tails flapping behind him, all of him held high above the ground by nothing more substantial than the slow beating of his arms; the formidable strength of his will against the Earth.

Michael groaned and lifted his hand from the cool plastic covering of the armchair. He reached over and flipped the switch on the old projector. The end of the film slapped against the projector frame and the light in the box dimmed. The slapping stopped and the screen went black, and the ember at the tip of his grandmother’s cigarette was the only light source in the basement rec room.

“I remember that day.” Michael’s voice sounded choked and emotional, near to tears, and it surprised him. He wasn’t an emotional man as a rule, and he hadn’t cried since … since who knew when? Maybe the day that film was made. It also dismayed him — sentiment was a bond, and he couldn’t afford more bonds. Not if he wanted to follow Grandfather.

“Do you?” said Grandmother. Her voice was deepened by smoke, surprisingly mannish in the dark. “You were very young.”

“It was a formative moment,” he said. “It’s not every day one sees one’s grandfather fly,” he said, and cleared his throat. “I should think no one would forget such an event.”

In the dark, Grandmother coughed, and coughed again. It took Michael a moment to realize she wasn’t coughing at all; she was laughing. “What is it?” he said irritably.

“Your formality,” she said, and paused. The end of her cigarette glowed furiously as she inhaled. “I’m sorry, dear — I don’t mean to laugh at you. You come to visit me here, and I’d hate you to think I’m not grateful for your company, after all these years without so much as a phone call. But I can see how you’d like to find him.”

“Can you?”

Michael felt a cloud of smoke envelop him and he choked again — this time, he thought, with more legitimacy. Grandmother was a rancid old creature, stale and fouled with her age; he’d be glad, finally, to be rid of her along with everyone else when he finally took to the sky.

“Yes,” she said. “The two of you are of a kind — you look alike, you walk alike, you speak alike. You, though, are a better man.” There was a creaking in her chair, and Michael flinched as her hand fell on his thigh, and gave him a vigorous pinch. “A better husband, yes?”

Michael flinched — he hadn’t told her about the separation yet, about the necessity of untying himself from the web that was Suzanne, and the things Suzanne had said to him on the doorstep; he hadn’t told anyone in the family in point of fact, because they were part of the web as much as Suzanne was. He patted Grandmother’s hand.

“Where’s Grandfather now?” he asked.

Grandmother sighed. “You must know, hmm, dear? No one else has his address?”

Michael didn’t answer. She knew no one else had his address; how many places, how many other family members he’d checked with, before coming here. It was Uncle Evan who’d finally sent him, told him the only one to talk to about Grandfather was Grandmother.

Your Grandmother has all the facts, said Evan, as they sat in the sunroom at his lakefront condominium. Gave her the notebook, the film, oh, years ago. She’s the family keeper, you know. She’s the one to talk to.

“All right,” she finally said. “Turn on the light and help me up — I’ll fetch the address while you wind the film.”

“If you tell me where it is — ”

“I’ll get it dear.” Her tone left no room for argument.

Michael leaned over to the floor lamp, groped up its narrow brass stem and pulled the chain. The room filled with a light yellowed by the dusty lampshade, and that light struck Michael’s Grandmother in profile. It did not flatter her.

When she was younger, Grandmother was reputed to have been something of a beauty, but from the time Michael could remember she had fattened to an ugly obesity. Some of that weight had fallen off over the past ten years, but it had not improved her. Gravity had left Grandmother a drying fruit, flesh hanging loose over the absent girth. It had also left her with diabetes and high blood pressure, dizzy spells and swelling feet. But for all that, she still wouldn’t let her grandson climb the stairs to the kitchen for her. Michael allowed himself a smile — he obviously wasn’t the only one “of a kind” with Grandfather in this family.

Of course, no one else would view it that way. Grandmother was the family’s legendary victim. Everyone had heard the story of how Grandfather had seduced her when she was young and beautiful, then cast her off with the birth of Michael’s father and uncle. The years spent raising them had taken that youth and beauty. He had done more, in fact: disowned the family, disappeared from view. But never mind that — the family’s umbrage was entirely directed to Grandfather’s shabby treatment of Grandmother.

Listening to the family stories, one would think Grandmother had been left in some gutter with nothing but the clothes on her back and a bent walking stick, not in a comfortable Etobicoke bungalow, with the mortgage paid and two grown sons to dote on her every need.

No, Grandmother had a power to her, a gravity, just as much as Grandfather had the will to defy that gravity. Eventually, the will was not enough — Grandfather would have been ground-bound, as he liked to say, after a few more years with Grandmother.

He’s understood that intimately, from the first night he decided to leave Suzanne. They had been married for just three years — and as marriages went, he supposed theirs was a good one. But as he lay in bed with her, feeling the Earth impaling him on bedsprings sharp as nails, he knew it could never last. Not, he thought, if he ever meant to fly like Grandfather.

Flight, Michael was beginning to realize, was essential to his survival. When his Grandfather had refused to take him in the air that afternoon at Uncle Evan’s old place, he had merely been hurt; but as the years accreted on his back — along with more hurts and disappointments, slights and insults and injuries — he began to realize his desire to fly was more than a desire. It was a need, bone-deep and compelling, like nothing else he’d ever felt. Once he’d defeated gravity, Michael was sure, nothing else could weigh him down.

“Michael!” Grandmother called from upstairs. “I found it!”

“I’m coming, Grandmother! For Heaven’s sake, don’t strain yourself!” he called, and started up the stairs. He was puffing when he reached the top.

Grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table, an array of envelopes and letters spread in front of her, cigarette smouldering in a brown-stained glass ashtray, a sky the colour of an old bruise framed in the window behind her. She held a small brown envelope close to her breast. She was wearing thick reading glasses, and her magnified eyes looked almost comically worried, or perhaps surprised.

Michael pulled out a chair and sat across from Grandmother, smiled at her. He extended a hand across the table, and Grandmother smiled back, her dentures white and perfect in the midst of her age-sagged face. Still holding the envelope close to her, she took his hand in hers and gave it an affectionate squeeze. Gritting his teeth, Michael squeezed back.

“I haven’t seen or spoken with your grandfather in years, you know,” she said.

“I know,” said Michael.

“It was …” she squeezed harder, and enormous tears appeared behind the lenses of her glasses. “… it was very painful between us. You cannot know, dearest Michael. The things one must do. Your Suzanne is such a lovely girl, and you … you are such a good boy. You are both so terribly lucky.”

“Yes,” he said. Grandmother’s hand was thick and dry, and its grip was formidable. If it had been around his throat, Michael thought crazily, that would have been the end of it …

“Lucky,” he said. “The address, Grandmother?”

Grandmother’s eyes blinked enormously behind the glass. “Is something wrong, dear? You don’t look well.” She let go of his hand, and it flopped to the tabletop.

“I’m sorry,” said Michael. He flexed his fingers. Although they appeared normal, they felt swollen, massive. “I’m just a little anxious, I guess.”

“To see your Grandfather,” said Grandmother. “Of course you are. Well I can certainly help you with that.”

They sat silent for a moment, regarding each other — warily, waiting for the other to move first. Michael felt himself beginning to squirm.

“May I — ?” he finally said, and extended his hand again, eyes on the letter.

Grandmother didn’t move. “There is a condition,” she said.


The envelope crinkled as her hand tightened around it. The flesh of her neck trembled like a rooster’s and her eyes widened to fill the lenses of her glasses. A weight shifted badly in Michael’s belly as she opened her mouth to speak.

“You must go to visit him immediately,” she said, “and you must bring me with you.”

Although Grandmother’s tone seemed to preclude argument, Michael attempted it anyway. He told her a meeting now would be painful — after all, the two of them hadn’t parted on the friendliest of terms, had they? He pointed out that he, Michael, hadn’t seen Grandfather for many years — and he was uncertain enough as to how the meeting would go in any event. Couldn’t he visit Grandfather once on his own, and then perhaps broker a meeting between Grandmother and her ex-husband for a second visit? Or perhaps he could convey a message?

“Michael,” Grandmother said quietly, “I’m afraid I don’t have time to wait for a second visit. Also, I’m afraid I don’t care to risk, if you don’t mind my saying, your good will on this matter. My condition must stand. I would like to make this trip as early as possible. Immediately.”

Michael almost laughed at that — the world was crushing him, and he had planned on setting out the following morning. Now, with the added weight of Grandmother’s condition on his shoulders, the pull of the Earth was so unbearable, he’d probably leave as soon as he got the address.

“Are you well enough to travel?” he finally asked.

“Wipe that smirk off your face.” Grandmother’s eyes narrowed and her mouth became an angry line. Michael felt his face flush — he hadn’t realized he had been smirking. “Of course I’m well enough,” she said. “I’ll get my coat.”

She stood easily, pushed the chair back underneath the kitchen table, and hurried off to the closet.

Some days, Michael felt the Earth knew of his plans to escape it, and reached up with an extra hand to hold him ever more firmly. It had been bad the day he left Suzanne — ironic, because that was the very act he suspected might liberate him utterly, not yank him closer to the ground he had begun to despise. Now that he was so close — to Grandfather, to his secret — it felt as though the Earth was actually pushing him down, driving him into itself like he was a stake.

God, he just needed some time alone with the old man! Simplification, isolation, was not enough — there was something else the old man knew, and Michael needed to know it too.

He remembered the day Uncle Evan shot his movie, the day he saw the miracle of his Grandfather’s flight. His father, genial sadist that he was, had built him up for it, on their way over to Evan’s: Grandfather’s a miracle worker, Mikey — just like Jesus. Maybe if you ask him nicely, he’ll work a miracle for you! He remembered his mother trying to shush his father. That’s not why we’re going; don’t get Mikey’s hopes up, she said, and to Michael: Grandfather’s not like Jesus.

As it turned out, Grandfather showed up almost four hours late, and Michael was the only child there — so of course the waiting had made him crazy. It had in fact made everyone crazy. Michael’s father drank too much, and wound up spending what seemed like an hour sick in the bathroom, and his mother paced, feigning interest in Uncle Evan’s movie camera, which he loaded film into, in a black cloth bag; or the notebook. It was filled with crabbed handwriting, mathematical equations, and an array of charts and diagrams Evan had assembled, to try and explain the phenomenon of Grandfather’s seemingly miraculous flights. She flipped through the book with Aunt Nancy, then called Michael over and made him go through it too, and finally shut it and put her fingers to her eye-sockets and shooed Michael away.

We’ll work it out, said Aunt Nancy, resting her hand on his mother’s shoulder. Once we’ve got it on film, we’ll work out what’s happening … Make it right. From the bathroom, Michael heard a retching sound and the toilet flushing, and his father’s drunken cursing that everyone in the living room strove to ignore. Michael had finally asked to be excused, and went outside to watch for Grandfather’s car, from the sweet quiet of his uncle’s garden.

The car finally arrived, and Michael watched as his parents and aunt and uncle hurried outside to meet him. Uncle Evan opened the driver’s door — which was opposite Michael — and at first Michael thought he was helping Grandfather out. But he wasn’t; an enormous, round arm reached out and grabbed his arm, and that was followed by thick, hunched shoulders topped by a head plastered with black, sweaty hair. There was some fumbling below the roof of the car that Michael couldn’t see, and finally the immense woman started toward the house, borne by two canes and dwarfing even Michael’s father, who Michael thought was the biggest man in the world. The woman, Michael realized, was his Grandmother — whom he had not seen since he was very small.

Grandfather emerged next. He was wearing a neatly pressed suit, and he straightened it as he stood next to the car. He glanced briefly to the house, where the family were all occupied herding Grandmother through the side door, glanced at the sky, and skipped — actually skipped — over to the garden, where Michael sat. He thrust his hands into his trouser pockets, and looked again at the sky.

Michael waved at him. Hello, Grandfather, he said. He waved again. Grandfather, it’s me! Finally, when the old man still didn’t respond, Michael reached out and grabbed the fabric of his pant-leg, and pulled.

There was a crunch, and Michael jumped back as Grandfather’s feet came back into contact with the ground. It was true! Grandfather could fly — he was flying just then, even if it was only an inch above the ground! Michael looked up at the old man with awe. He was like Jesus!

At the tug, Grandfather did look down, and his eyes, furious points of black, met with Michael’s. His lips pulled back from his teeth, in a snarl. How dare you! he snapped, and raised his hand, as if to cuff his grandson.

The hand lowered again, however, as Uncle Evan shouted hello, and strode over, camera in hand, to begin.

We’re ready to go, said Uncle Evan, and Grandfather straightened, pulled his suit flat. I don’t know why I agreed to this, he grumbled. You’re not going to send this to the television, are you?

Don’t worry, Dad — this is just for the family, Uncle Evan said.

Grandfather nodded, grudgingly satisfied. Where shall I stand? he asked, and glared at Michael again.

Michael trembled, and felt as though he was going to cry.

Later, Michael did cry. Michael’s mother held him, glaring at Grandfather’s back as he skipped back to the car, his flight finished and his corpulent wife re-installed in the driver’s seat, to bear him home.

You’re ground-bound, boy, Grandfather had said when he landed, and Michael had asked him if he could fly too.

Oh yes, Michael had cried that day. Ground-bound, Grandfather had called him, and he had been right — about him, Grandmother, about the whole pathetic family. They were all bound to the Earth; gravity hooked their flesh and winched it, inch by inch, year by year into the ground.

All of them, that was, but Grandfather.

Grandfather knew how to remove the hooks, free himself from the tyranny of Earth. He wouldn’t tell Mikey the boy. But he would sure as hell tell Michael the man.

“We must take the Highway 400,” said Grandmother as Michael started the car. She wouldn’t give him the address — she insisted, rather, on giving directions from the passenger seat, so Michael might better concentrate on the road. Michael backed the car out of the driveway.

“Will you tell me where we are going?” he asked. “At least generally? It helps me to know.”

Grandmother put a fresh cigarette in her mouth and fumbled with her lighter.

“Generally?” She chortled. “Generally, we’re going to see your Grandfather.”

The car filled with Grandmother’s rancid lung-smoke. Michael tightened his hands on the steering wheel, and thought, not for the first time, about putting them around Grandmother’s throat.

It seemed as though the drive took a day, the traffic was so heavy and the conversation so sparse. In fact, it was just barely over an hour before they reached the appropriate exit and Grandmother told him to leave the highway here.

“You know your way,” said Michael as they waited at the stoplight. It was snowing now — vector lines of white crossed the beams of his headlights, and little eddies swirled close to the asphalt. Now that they were stopped, Michael cracked open his window and savoured the fresh, clean air. “You must have been out here before,” he said.

“I used to drive here quite frequently, as a matter of fact.” Grandmother regarded him, cigarette pinched between two fingers. Her skin was yellow in the dull instrument lights. “You will turn left,” she said. “Then I must concentrate on the landmarks — the next turn is difficult to find.”

“I don’t know what landmarks there are around here,” said Michael. Ahead of them was nothing but November-bare fields, and town lights making a sickly aurora on a flat horizon.

“The light’s green,” she said. “Turn left.”

Michael made a wide left, and tapped the gas pedal, to push the car up the slight rise over the highway.

“It’s good you left Suzanne,” said Grandmother as they accelerated along the dark stretch of road.

“What?” Michael felt the blood drain from his face. “What did you say, Grandmother?” he managed.

Grandmother stared out the front windshield, smoke falling from her lips like water from a cataract. “Watch the road, Michael.”

Michael turned back to the road. As they drove, the darkness had completed itself — even the lights from the town to the north seemed impeded here, although Michael didn’t see the trees that might have blocked it at the edge of the roadway.

“What did you say?” he repeated. “About Suzanne?”

“Only that it is good,” she said, “that you left. I often wish your Grandfather had taken that route himself.”

Michael was about to argue — Grandfather had taken that route, hadn’t he? He’d left Grandmother, presumably to take to the skies and never look back. He opened his mouth to say so. But he couldn’t force the air out; the jealous Earth pulled it to the base of his lungs.

“Why are you slowing down?” Grandmother asked. “We aren’t there yet.”

“S-sorry,” he whispered. He glanced at the speedometer — they were down to 30 kilometres an hour. The road was posted at 80.

The car’s engine strained as he stomped the gas pedal, and he held the steering wheel as though clinging to a ledge. Grandmother laughed.

“I’m sorry, dear,” she said. “It’s just that I never thought I’d be urging my grandson to speed up. But never mind — go as slow as you like. We’re coming to the turn-off soon.”

They turned onto a narrow road of cracked pavement and stone and deep wheel-ruts. The sky was dark, but there was nowhere really dark on this land; there were no shadows, no trees to cast them. Nothing grew higher than a few inches here — so the town light reflecting from the clouds painted the landscape a dim, silvery green.

Michael was breathing better now, and he could speak easily again. But he still felt the Earth pulling at his arms, his feet. A filling in his molar ached mightily, and the pain of it leaked across the inside of his skull like a bloodstain.

At length, he broached the subject of Suzanne again with Grandmother. Had Suzanne called before he’d arrived? Or had she spoken with someone else in the family, who’d reported the separation to Grandmother? How had Grandmother learned of the situation with Suzanne? Michael was certain he hadn’t told anyone …

“I’ll tell you a story,” said Grandmother instead of answering the questions directly. “I met your Grandfather when he was in university. It was the Depression — 1933, and no one had any money, certainly not my parents. But his family was one of means, even in those times. So Grandfather was able to go to school. He was lifted by the toil of his father. Do you understand, Michael?”

“Grandmother.” Michael spoke in a low voice that sounded too much like a threat. He tried again, this time achieving at least a plaintive tone. “Grandmother, I understand. But — Suzanne?”

Grandmother motioned ahead. “Eye on the road, Michael. It’s difficult along here.”

Michael massaged the steering wheel, and looked ahead. The glow of his headlights illuminated cones of a complicated and undeniably damaged landscape. Keep his eye on the road? It was hard to tell where the road was in this jumbled plain of rock and asphalt. He let the car slow again while he peered into the dark, trying to make out a roadway.

“I met your Grandfather along the boardwalk by the lake, near the Sunnyside Amusement Park,” she said. “There was a dancehall there — it was called the Palais Royale, and the price of entry was too dear for any of us, my friends and I. Even should we have scraped together the fifty cents they demanded, none of us owned a dress fine enough for the gentlemen who would frequent such a place. None of us owned a gentleman who would make a suitable escort … But we coveted it, all the same — we stood upon the boardwalk, the lake at our backs, listening to the fine songs and the gay laughter. Wanting the thing we could never have.”

“Imagine that.” Michael muttered it, barely a whisper, but Grandmother heard anyway. She raised her eyebrows and the car ground to a halt. Michael felt his fingers slip from around the steering wheel. His hands pounded down onto his thighs, and he winced in pain. He bit his lip against the urge to cry out, though. The quicker Grandmother finished her story, the quicker they’d find Grandfather — and God, he needed to find Grandfather.

“Please — ” he shut his eyes and pulled his hands from his thighs “ — go on.”

“Your Grandfather also stood outside the dancehall sometimes,” she said. “Only nearer the lake; we would sometimes see him, a strange and mysterious man, staring out at the waters. On the night we met, in the midst of June, I remember my friends were late. It was still dusk when I arrived, and the music had not yet started — although the motorcars were already pulling up to the front door, the beautiful ladies already stepping from the cabs with their dashing escorts. And there he was, your Grandfather, standing in his place by the beach. Seeing me alone, he called to me. ‘Please, madam, I seem to require some assistance,’ he said. ‘Why, me?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘please come down now.’

“Were I with my friends, I should never have done so — imagine, an unescorted young lady, going to the side of a perfect stranger! — but I was alone for the moment, and curious; there was something odd about him.

“As I drew nearer, I saw he was near the waterline, his trousers rolled up and his feet buried up to his ankles in the sand. He wore a white dinner jacket, I remember, and held his shoes and socks in one hand.” Grandmother put her hand on Michael’s arm. “‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I’ve gotten stuck.’”

“Help me,” said Michael, who was feeling increasingly stuck himself.

“Yes,” she said distractedly.

Grandmother’s fingers squeezed on Michael’s arm again, and as they did, he felt a great rush of fresh, cool air swimming into his lungs. Grandmother’s eyes locked with Michael’s. “I felt myself sinking a little in the soft sand,” she said. “As though I’d just been loaded down with a parcel. My back bent, and my belly sagged. Then, easy as that, your Grandfather stepped out of the mud.”

Michael lifted his hand, flexed the fingers and drew a deep breath. He looked at Grandmother wonderingly.

“I must finish the story,” she said. “Grandfather stepped out of the mud, and onto the water.”

“You mean — ” into, Michael was going to say, but stopped himself. He could tell by her eyes that Grandmother had meant what she said: Grandfather stepped onto the water. Grandmother nodded.

“He walked out a dozen yards, and danced a little jig. I remember how his toes splashed the water so delicately. ‘Just like Jesus!’ he shouted, grinning like a fool. ‘And I couldn’t do it without you!’

“Of course, I was enthralled. As was he — for that evening was when he learned to fly,” she said. “Suzanne, bless her, has been spared the suffering — for you haven’t yet thought it through, and you’ve left her. Intact.”

“What are you talking about?” Michael’s voice conveyed threat again, but this time he didn’t bother to correct it. “Grandmother, this is a dreadful game you’re playing. Now answer my question, please — how did you find out about my, ah, situation with Suzanne?”

Grandmother’s smile was thin and cool.

“Why, Michael,” she said, “we have known about your situation since you were a small boy.”

“You can’t have known — Suzanne and I only just separated a month ago. Why didn’t you let on earlier? In your house?”

“Don’t take that tone with me.” Grandmother glared at him through wide lenses. Now something in her tone had become as threatening as Michael’s had earlier. “Suzanne is incidental. Your true situation is that you were a selfish, stupid boy then, and now you have grown into a selfish and stupid man. We decided you bore watching since the day we made this place.”

“You — made this place?”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you don’t recognize it,” she said. “It has changed since that afternoon.”

“This is enough,” he snarled, and opened the car door. Whatever spell had ensnared him a moment ago was gone now — he could walk as well as anyone, air came and went in his chest with ease, and his arms were strong and mobile again. He slammed his door, and strode around the front of the car, to the passenger side. Anger grew tumourously in his belly. Hadn’t he waited long enough? Grandmother had been playing games with him all evening — just one condition, she said; bring me with you; I’ll tell you a Goddamned story. And …

And now, she insulted him. Called him selfish, stupid. Then and now.

“Get out!” he shouted, pulling the door open and grabbing Grandmother by the arm, squeezing deliberately too hard. “You said you’d take me to see Grandfather, and now by hell you will do so! Is he even here?”

She came out of the car easily — almost too easily, for a woman of her size. Lifting Grandmother was like lifting a heavy coat, nothing more, and Michael stumbled back with wasted momentum when her feet landed on the ground. He regained his balance, and made a fist at her.

“I have to see Grandfather!” he shouted. “You’d better take me to him!”

She coughed again. Her eyes seemed enormous in the flat cloud-light. Infuriatingly, they didn’t seem particularly frightened. She regarded him levelly as she reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a package of cigarettes.

Michael managed to hold his rage in his fist while she dug out her lighter, lit the cigarette, while she puffed the cigarette to life, up until the point where the smoke came cascading from her lips — and then it was no good. The anger leaked away, and left only a crumbling kind of shame behind. Michael grimaced at it. He’d threatened his Grandmother — manhandled her! What could be worse, more base, than that? His hand dropped, open and empty, at his side. When he finally spoke, he did so quietly.

“Please, Grandmother,” he said, “I need to fly.”

At that, Grandmother let loose another coughing laugh. “Evan told me this would be difficult,” she said. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll take you to your Grandfather. He’s in the garden.”

“The garden?”

“You remember, dear — from the movie.”

At once, it came together for Michael. He looked around the landscape — now nothing but a flattened plain, mottled with stone and debris, but fundamentally equalized by the force of the Earth. In his memory, he drew up the past — the house, with its wide glass doors, and the trees and the garden, the chaos of greenery there. The memory of it floated over the ruined ground like ghost towers.

Grandmother walked through them easily — she wasn’t even using a cane — and Michael followed. After a time, the ground beneath his feet altered, and Michael realized he was no longer walking on gravel. The ground was brick now, smashed brick and masonry, mixed with the occasional splintered piece of wood.

“This place,” said Grandmother, “was an unfortunate side effect. But it was early, and we didn’t quite understand the forces involved. And we did have to act quickly — so I suppose we really can’t blame ourselves.”

“Why did you have to act quickly?” Michael thought he might know the answer already — as he looked around, as far as he could see there was nothing standing above ankle height. There was nowhere for Grandfather to hide. Not above ground.

Grandmother stopped then, and turned around — turning, Michael saw, as though she were standing on a Lazy Susan. Or floating above the ground, just an inch. She fished into her purse, and pulled out a coil of what looked like rope. She tossed it in the air, and it unravelled slowly, drifting to him as though floating in water. Michael reached out and caught it easily. As he held it, he saw it wasn’t rope at all — it was a length of plastic hose, ribbed with wire.

“If we hadn’t done something soon,” said Grandmother, “then your Grandfather would have driven us all into the Earth, with his foolish indulgence.”

“Where is Grandfather?” said Michael. “I have to talk to him.”

Grandmother smiled in a way that was not very Grandmotherly at all.

“Look down,” said Grandmother.

Michael looked down — and immediately realized his mistake. Gravity seized him with two strong hands around his skull, and he fell hard to his knees. He dropped the hose and put his hands out to break his fall —

And they sank into the ground.

Michael yanked back with his shoulders, but his hands wouldn’t come out. It was as though they were set in cement. He tried to lift his knees, but they were embedded in the ground as well.

“Help me.” The words came out as a whisper, but Grandmother heard them.

“Of course, dear,” she said, and then he saw her feet beside him. She bent down and lifted an end of the tube she’d tossed him. “I’m sorry — I should have explained. It goes in your mouth — that’s very important.” Michael felt a hand on the back of his head, and Grandmother’s other hand set the tube firmly between his teeth. “Clamp down,” she instructed.

Michael sank further — his groin was pressed against the ground, and as far as he could tell his thighs were almost completely submerged. In the distance, he heard the sound of a car engine.

Grandmother let go of the hose and his head, and moved further back. Her cold, strong hands pushed down on his behind. There was a crunching sound, as his pelvis slid through stone and wood and dirt. “You’ll thank me for this later,” she said. “It’s better to go down feet first.”

The car engine grew louder. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael could see the glimmer of headlights. Finally, they grew very bright, illuminating the ground beneath him like a moonscape, and the engine stopped.

Michael heard a strangled moan then — dimly, he realized it was his own, carried through the tube that began in his mouth and ended a few feet away.

There was another tube, he saw — sticking out of the ground, just a few feet in front of him. If he listened, he was sure he could hear the faint noise of breathing coming from it.

The car doors opened and closed, and Michael heard voices:

“Mother,” said one — sounding very much like Uncle Evan. “Are we too late?”

“You are late,” said Grandmother, grunting as she continued to work at Michael’s back, “but I am managing.”

“Well now you can take a rest,” said a woman — Aunt Nancy? “We can take over from here.”

“Very well.” Grandmother let go of Michael, and he tried to struggle. But he was at an odd angle — bent forward about forty-five degrees. He could thrash his shoulders, wave his head around, but that was as much as he could hope for.

Soon, he felt more hands on him. Together, they pushed down harder than Grandmother could — so very soon he was nearly upright, waist-deep in the ground. His breath whistled through the tubing, cut by sobs.

He could see the other car now. It was a big American sedan, a Lincoln maybe, and as he watched the back door opened, and a third person got out.

It was Suzanne.

He tried to spit out the tube, so he could speak with her, plead with her — but as quick as he did, Uncle Evan pushed the tube back in.

Suzanne’s feet crunched on the debris as she walked over to him. He couldn’t see her face well — as she approached, she became not much more than a slender silhouette in the Lincoln’s headlights.

“Do I have to do this?” Her voice was quavering as she bent to her knees, put her hands on Michael’s shoulders. Michael thought he could see the glint of moisture on her cheeks — and was absurdly touched by it.

“It is the only way, dear,” said Grandmother. “Don’t worry — he’ll be fine. The Earth looks after its own.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I thought we could work it out.”

Suzanne pushed down on Michael’s shoulders, and he felt himself sinking further — the Earth tickled his collarbone, enveloped his throat and touched his chin. Suzanne had moved her hands to the crown of his skull, and now she pushed down on that. Desperate, Michael spat out the tube.

“Suzanne! Wait! Maybe we can work it out!” he gasped, as the ground came over the cleft in his chin, pressed against his lower lip. “Help me up!”

Suzanne took her hands from his head at that.

“No,” she said — although her voice was uncertain. She reached down, picked up the tube, and jammed it into his mouth. “Your Grandmother explained what happens when I help you up.” And then her tone changed, and it sounded very certain indeed. “I can’t let you use me like that.”

Then she pushed once more, and Michael was into the ground past his nose. He sucked cold, stale air through the tube. All he could see now was Suzanne’s boots, her blue-jeaned knees, and the inch or so of space between them and the flattened ground.

“That’s enough, dear,” said Grandmother, her voice sounding far away. “The Earth can do the rest.”

Suzanne’s hands lifted from Michael’s head, and he watched as her feet, her knees lifted further from the ground. He heard laughter from above — liberated, unbound from the Earth — and then that same Earth came up to fill his ears. The only sound was the beating of his heart.

The beating of his own heart, and faintly, the beating of one other.

“Grandfather,” he said, but the words were mangled through his tube and must have sounded like a bleat to anyone who lingered above. His tears made little pools on the ground in front of him. Although it was cold and hard that night, tightly packed in its own formidable grip, the Earth swallowed them greedily.

Slide Trombone | Monstrous Affections | Swamp Witch and the Tea-Drinking Man