Dolor

In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew.

Isle McElroy’s debut novel, THE ATMOSPHERIANS...

 

I stood at the lip of the cliff watching the other kids bound off its edge. Behind me, Rig Nilsen started running from the tree line, like he did every time he leaped, convinced the running start let him gain a few extra feet in the air. He was a short, string-limbed kid with a waxy face. His older brother’s hand-me-downs were bunched on his body, flapping in the breeze as he ran—baggy clothes, he told us, helped prolong his time in the air. He jumped off the cliff.

He let out a warbling howl as he fell but went silent when he slammed into the ground. I hunched down with the others and peered over the ledge. In the rocky grass, about fifty feet down, Rig Nilsen lay on his back surrounded by the kids who’d already leaped. “It’s just the legs!” he finally shouted. Both bent out at the knees, his shins perpendicular to his thighs. Everyone rushed to drum on his twisted knees as his legs eased back to normal. Rig pushed himself to a stand, clapping and bouncing to prove he was fine—like we ever had doubts.

In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew. It took a few seconds for Rig to straighten to normal. Just as it had taken a few seconds, collectively maybe a minute, for the other children to heal from their injuries. Healing? Injuries? God, if I’d spoken like this on that spring afternoon, everyone would’ve thought I’d gone crazy.

Billy Logan leaped off the cliff and twisted his arm in the landing. Susie Cannavale snapped her left thigh into an L. Ty Donahue struck her head on a rock, creating a gash as deep as a fist, but soon her skull fused back together and Ty was laughing, asking the other kids to describe the wound, jealous she hadn’t seen it herself.

Then it was my turn. I often wonder what would’ve happened—to me, to Rig, to the entire town of Dolor—if I had refused. What if instead of leaping I stretched out in the grass and gazed at the sky, or walked back to the tree line, spent the afternoon hunting for berries? What if I had suggested we all go swimming? But I lived for these milliseconds of flight. I’d waited all winter—the rainiest in my thirteen years—for a day as brilliant and clear as today.

At the edge, I sprang off my left foot, flapping my arms like I might lift into the sky, falling forever. But I landed. Everyone always landed. Except when my left foot hit the ground, a terrible sound cracked out of my body. A strange sensation—I knew it only as a sensation, not as pain, or as agony, fear—fired through my body. The other kids started laughing. They thought I was playing a trick, imitating some deranged monster by yowling and screaming.

My left ankle bent in like a hook, the sole facing the opposite thigh. The cuff of my pants started to darken. Something slick and warm coated my skin. But we were miles from any lake. The ground was as dry as a dune. The kids swarmed around my discolored jeans.

Rig Nilsen grabbed my ankle—we loved touching the misshapen limbs—and the sensation spread to my eyes. “Don’t!” I yelled, rolling side to side, grays, greens, and blues blurring together.

“What’s wrong with Jackson?”

“It’s taking too long.”

“I need …” I shouted. What did I need? I needed the sensation to end. “Father … My mother.  Take … Me to … home,” I spit out.

“We should get someone,” Rig said.

“Move out of the way!” someone screamed from the cliff.

“We can’t!” Rig responded. “Jackson is … I don’t know.”

“His leg’s not going back!”

“Home,” I muttered.

“Can you walk?” Rig asked.

I assumed I could. Perhaps that was my problem: If I stood my leg would return to normal. But I collapsed when I tried. Chewed food spilled from my mouth.

“What the hell is that!?” someone said.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“We need to carry him,” Rig said. I appreciated his know-it-allism, then, his need to be the smartest person in all situations, traits that had, before that moment, made Rig insufferable.

Eight sets of arms slipped under my body and scooped me up to their waists. I was taller and heavier than most children my age, and their hands slipped and tensed underneath as they carried me from the cliff to the forest. Ferns on the floor of the forest brushed my back. I caught glimpses of canopy. I kept expecting the sensation to cease. Soon enough, my ankle would straighten and I would wriggle from everyone’s grasp, run back to the cliff, ready to leap.

As we closed in on Serenity Lake, splashing and laughing grew louder, the idle chatter of people who’d never known pain. The kids let me down in the sand. Adult faces replaced the children’s faces. I recognized the adults, and was relieved to see them. In Dolor, everyone knew everyone else—if not by name then by face—but these faces were poor replacements for the only two faces I wanted: my mother’s and father’s. In crisis, I would learn, we long for love to alleviate pain, for the familiar to suppress the intrusion of hurt. I believed seeing my mother pull her hair into a bun before leaning over to kiss my forehead would oust what had invaded my body, that my father’s calm baritone voice could alone silence this awful sensation.

“We’d all been jumping,” said Rig to the adults. “He didn’t do anything different. He landed and we waited for his leg to go back but it didn’t.”

“It’s the oddest thing,” said an adult.

“I see you put water on it,” another adult added. “Did that help?”

“It’s not water,” said Rig. He hand was pink at the fingers.

The first adult reached for my leg, ignoring Rig’s protests and mine. He squeezed the ankle. I screamed the loudest I’d ever screamed. The adult withdrew his hand.

“This isn’t for me,” he said.

“Not for me,” said another adult.

“I don’t like the look of it,” said a third.

“Maybe someone in town would know what to do,” the first adult suggested, trying to sound wise but clearly disturbed. He wanted only to do what he’d come to the lake to do: relax and swim with his family. The other adults wanted the same. They gravitated back to their chairs and their books and their snacks.

“One … Two … Three.” I was lifted again by the children. On the edge of town,  we passed the rundown shacks where the eldest community members resided, the old men and women who lived off small vegetable gardens rather than buying food from the Market. Only one person lived there now, Ginny Prentice, the oldest woman in Dolor. No one interacted with Ginny. She was months from Resignation and, we believed, she preferred to keep to herself, preparing for an eternity of unimaginable bliss in Fortune, the life we all received after this one. But that day she waited outside, leaning against her fence tapping the point of a picket. “Is he alright?” Ginny asked.

There was no time to respond.

We passed the school house, the market, the tennis courts where the balls thwacked against rackets. A football flew over my head. The sound of feet on grass became feet on concrete as we entered town square. They let me down on the steps of town hall. In front of me stood the statue of Henri Caton, the man who established Dolor more than a century earlier. He’d chosen this land for its beauty and safety—mountains surrounded the town. The outside world was shaded by constant suffering, while Dolorans—thanks to Henri Caton—had lives of love, leisure, and plenty, unthreatened by peril.

Governor Brase, the trusted and unfazeable leader of Dolor, crouched above me. “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” he muttered. He bent closer, his glasses tipping down the bridge of his nose. “And if I touch it …” I didn’t stop him. As Governor, it was his right.

His touch caused me to spit up more food.

“This isn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “We need to get him—it might be contagious. Have you kids felt anything?”

“Felt what?” Rig asked.

“Hey you,” said the Governor to Ty Donahue. “Kick him.” He pointed at Rig.

She kicked him hard in the thigh.

OW!” Rig said, confused. “It’s—what is—like a dull thing in my—”

“Annabelle! Get me six pairs of gloves!” the Governor shouted at his assistant. He and five gloved kids hauled me up to a restroom on the top floor of town hall. They lay me down on a bed of yellow towels. “We need to quarantine you,” said the Governor. “It won’t be for long.” He beckoned the other kids out of the bathroom. The lock clicked into place.

My mind went messy with hyper-sensation. The pain waned and strengthened. The cool tile offered me solace. I rested my cheek against it, then flipped to rest the opposite cheek, to distract myself from the pain. Finally, I passed out, and was awoken by a rubbery hand on my forehead.

My parents hunched above me. Puffy suits marshmallowed their bodies. They looked at me from behind bubbles of plastic. “Honey,” said my mother, as she stroked her gloved hand on my cheek. Her voice sounded abrasive through the mask.

“How you holding up, sport?” bellowed my father.

I flinched seeing them like this; the sensation spread. I shouted in agony. They held their hands to my shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay,” they said.

“What happened to me?”

“It was an accident,” my mother said.

“When will it stop?”

“Soon,” said my mother. She opened my mouth and placed two tablets inside. “These are from the Governor. Imported from beyond the mountains.”

“Swallow them whole,” said my father.

They tasted bitter but I swallowed.

“You’re going to need a doctor,” said my father.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a … I don’t really know. They tell me it’s someone who fixes bodies.”

“There aren’t any in Dolor,” said my mother.

“I’m broken?”

“It’s confusing for us, too, honey.”

My parents leaned down to hug me, but barely. “Can you take off the suits?”

“It’s for our own protection.”

“And yours.”

“We need to be one-hundred percent in order to help you.”

They placed a pillow under my head, a blanket over my body. They slipped into the hall.

 *

In Dolor, children played together in the streets, in the forest, at school, at the lake. Families went for long walks before dinner, commenting on the flowers and lizards and other creatures they encountered. Dinners were healthy and large and dragged deep into the night. Parents tucked their kids into bed, reading them the books that were read to them as children. In the morning, the sun provided its favorite rays. We deserved exceptional lives because we lived exceptional lives.  

But I had none of that now. There was only pain circling the edge of my body, waiting for the numbing tablets to quit. Screaming sounded in the hall. I wondered if it was the doctor. The door opened. Two people in marshmallow suits heaved Rig into the room. He skidded into the base of the sink but quickly stood, rubbing his back. He hobbled across the room, hugging the walls, to keep a safe distance between us.

“What’s it like out there?” I asked.

“Don’t talk to me,” he said. “I don’t want to get sick.”

“My parents said a doctor was coming. They’re the ones who fix things.”

“Doctors are just a myth to make people feel better.”

Footsteps sounded in the hall. We silenced ourselves. I looked at Rig, made a face like, See?

The door widened enough for a tray to slide into the room. It closed immediately. Rig raced for the door, but the lock had already clicked. There were two plates, two slices of pizza on each, and paper cups next to the plates: numbing tablets.

I asked for my share but Rig told me I didn’t deserve it.  “If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be stuck here,” he said. He stuffed half a slice in his mouth and struggled to chew.

       *        

On our third day together, Rig discovered a bar of soap under the sink. To pass the time, we tossed it back and forth. Once that became too easy, Rig wet the soap. We only ever caught it two or three times in a row, but the suspense gave us something to care about.

*

Five days passed with no sign of the doctor or our parents. Rig and I started to smell. He washed himself in the sink, rinsing his face and under his arms and—as I covered my eyes—his privates. Rig filled me a soup bowl with soapy water and I washed myself on the floor.

The pain decreased. Or, I got used to the feeling. My ankle doubled in size and resembled an eggplant. Rig loved poking the squishy expanses of flesh.

The fifth day became the sixth then the seventh. Our rapport splintered into something meaner and feral. “I need to get out of here,” Rig kept saying.

“I can’t go anywhere.”

“You’re not coming.”

“You can’t leave me here”

Rig had grown up in the same Dolor I had. We’d been taught to care for each other, to praise each other, to smile in the streets and to tell everyone how good we felt. This mindset had helped our community prosper. And it would help us prosper again.

“That’s all junk,” Rig said. “No one’s helping us. No one’s praising us. I’d rather get resigned. Secure the bliss waiting for me in Fortune.”

“What’s happening outside?” I asked, desperate to change the subject. “Who do you see?” Rig’s descriptions of people hanging out in town square had helped me endure our confinement. It had given me hope, because I believed I might one day be back among them.

But for the first time since I’d been put here, the square was empty. Rig stared out the window. “I don’t even see any birds,” he said. He leaned to the right, to get a better angle, then to the left. “Nothing.”

“It’s never empty.”

“Come see.” He helped me into a stand. I leaned against him, hopping on my right foot.

The streets were as empty as air. The statue of Henri Caton stood alone in the center of town. I pressed my ear to the glass, listening for children shouting or adults laughing, and what I heard was a wide sheet of silence. I slid down the wall to the floor.  

In the hallway, footsteps pounded faster than normal. A white suit flung open our door and tossed a large cardboard box inside. The door slammed shut. The box was packed with nonperishable foods, chips and cereals and dried milk and canned peas. Enough to last for a month.

Rig panted ferociously. He kicked the door and hammered the handle with his fists. “I need something heavy,” he said, and I suggested the porcelain lid on the tank of the toilet. He lugged off the lid, dragging it to the entrance. It took every muscle in his body for him to lift it, but when the lid struck the handle, it snapped off with a shuddering ting.

“You’re a hero!” I said. “Help me up.”

He didn’t even look back.

“Rig!” I shouted, until I could no longer hear his footsteps. I crawled to the sink and pulled myself to a stand, hopped out the door, where I could lean against the outside wall, hopping down the hall without putting weight on my ankle. I shouted “Hello” every few minutes, hoping someone might answer, might come to my aid.

Downstairs, I collapsed into a leather rolling chair at the front desk and wheeled myself into the empty world. I only lived a few blocks away, in a small cabin not unlike every cabin in Dolor—wooden and pleasant, with a wraparound porch and rich green shutters, a flower garden tiered with tulips, a row of stones cutting a path across the yard. As I wheeled through the streets, eyes washed over me. Blinds flinched shut when I looked at the houses. It took nearly an hour to get home.

I waited for my parents in the driveway, expecting them to rush to my aid. I called for them. Finally, I hopped to the porch and sat on the doormat, screaming for help.

People in the surrounding houses watched my pleading unfold. I had assumed my parents were busy hunting for doctors, but no—they were hiding at home, ignoring me. My mother pulled the blinds in the closest window.

“Honey,” she said through the glass. “You can’t be out here.”

“Let me in,” I begged.

My father appeared beside her. Red lines streaked their eyes. They seemed disturbed by my presence, or by what my presence suggested about them.

“This is terrible for us.”

“We really do wish we could help,” said my father.

“You abandoned me,” I said.

“We need to do what’s best for Dolor.”

“We wouldn’t know how to live with it.”

“Live with what?” I asked.

“You’re so much stronger than us.”

“And we need to protect ourselves.”

“For the good of Dolor.”

They started to cry. This gave me minor relief, knowing this wasn’t easy for them, but that comfort meant little beside their betrayal. “I’m healthy,” I told them.

“You’re contagious,” said my father. “And we don’t have a cure.”

They insisted they loved me. They insisted they felt for me. “We know what you’re going through,” they said, because they didn’t. People who’ve never known pain can never know empathy. Comfort had trapped them inside of themselves. They were caged by convenience and pleasure.

They lowered the blinds.

In the morning, a man in a marshmallow suit delivered a box labeled TUESDAY. I was awoken by the package thudding the porch. “Help me!” I said. But he strolled away, confident I couldn’t catch up. He delivered similar boxes to every house in the neighborhood. I opened ours, picked out an apple and a bag of almonds. I hopped back to the chair. Once I rolled out of the driveway, my parents stepped outside for the box and, as if I were going to school, they politely waved goodbye.

I wheeled into the center of town toward the lake, planning to return to the cliff. I thought if I jumped again it might fix everything. I didn’t care how long it would take to get there. I would crawl if I needed to. In the town square, the statue of Henri Caton had been toppled, and its extended arm, pointing—as the story went—in the direction of Dolor, was bent to a crooked V where it hit the ground. I touched the arm, and the metal pressed inward under my hand, the material cheap and pliable. There were scrape marks over the body and it smelled like an unflushed toilet. Beside the school, the tennis court nets had been shredded. A wavy metal sheet covered the face of the general store. I rolled closer, to see where the sheet had come from—normally, even at night, the general store windows were exposed, greetings cards and boxed cookies on display—and was surprised to see the metal had been lowered from above the windows, that it had likely been there the entire time. At Serenity Lake, the lounge chairs that once crowded the shore had been tossed in the water, stuck upright in the lakebottom, so they poked through the surface like fingers through the holes in a glove. As I rolled on, I felt people around me, the way you can feel someone is home even when they’re not speaking, but no one emerged from behind the school or the stores, no one shouted to me from the forest, or crept wetly out of the lake, waving to me. At the edge of town, though, close to the cliff, I heard an aged, gravelly voice calling my name. Ginny Prentice leaned against her fence. “You’re the hurt boy,” she said. Her face resembled an onion, round, with sprigs of hair on the top.

I nodded.

“About time it happened to someone.”

“Are you a doctor?” I asked.

She shook her head. “But I’ve known doctors. I can fix you.” She pushed me onto her property, rolling me up the walkway.

“Don’t you need a suit?” I asked.

“What’s the point?” Ginny said. “I’m a month from Resignation.”

At her porch, she bent down and I draped my arm over her shoulder. Together we limped inside. She fed me porridge and raisins and let me sleep on her couch. I flinched awake a few times from rolling onto my ankle but slept largely uninterrupted, my best sleep in a week.

In the morning, I bit on a towel as Ginny straightened my ankle. It hurt more than it had the first day. Afterward, she tied a T-shirt around the ankle and lumped ice over top.

Weeks passed before I could put any weight on it. Over that time, Ginny talked about the utter boredom of life in Dolor compared to the rest of the world. She fled Dolor once, in her teens, but returned home after two days, frightened by what she discovered: a world of risk and excitement and grief. She regretted not staying longer. She lacked the courage, she said, to ever go back. She was a Doloran. Whether she liked it or not. And she’d spent her life awaiting Resignation.

I didn’t like hearing her talk this way, didn’t like being reminded that very soon, on her sixtieth birthday, two officials would inject Ginny with a serum that would send her to Fortune, where population stability wasn’t an issue.

“Are you excited?” I asked her one day, hoping to slip some joy into our morbid conversations. “Fortune is supposed to be even better than Dolor.”

“It’s not any greater than here. Not any worse. It’s just an end. It’s called death—not Resignation. That’s a word you should know so you can accept it.”

“I’ll be all alone.”

“That other kid’ll probably show.”

“No way I’m letting him in,” I said.

“You’ll get lonely,” she said. And I knew she was right.  

The final week before Resignation, when I could hobble without the aid of a crutch, Ginny did what she could to teach me to survive on my own. She wrote out instructions for maintaining the garden, showed me how to fry an egg, how to sew a button onto a shirt and chopped an excessive amount of firewood for the winter—she said I was too young to learn to chop it myself.

I was slow to pick up new skills. And the low hum of pain still in my ankle made any physical labor exhausting.

Ginny pitied me. “You’re gonna die here,” she said, watching me mangle the tomatoes I plucked from the vine.

“Then tell me how to survive,” I said.

“They’re coming tomorrow,” she said.

“You’re too young,” she said.

“You’re gonna die here,” she said.

“Stop telling me that,” I said.

“It breaks my heart just thinking about it,” she said. “Now come, let’s eat some dinner.”

That evening, the night before her sixtieth birthday, we feasted on a platter of Ginny’s favorite foods: waffles, French fries, salted cashews, ice cream sandwiches, and a rich brown drink that burned and scraped in my chest. After a while, the burning softened, and I was all giggles and burps. We played backgammon until my eyes glazed over in sleep.

I woke up later than normal. My head was a pile of stones. The Resignation Officials always came first thing in the morning, before the sun even rose, and the sunlight pressing through the blinds made it obvious that I’d slept in too late to see Ginny again.

I hobbled to the kitchen, then to her bedroom, but both rooms were empty. I am going to die here, I thought, the idea coming to me in Ginny’s pitying voice. There were some leftovers in the fridge and, though my stomach felt spiky, I tried to heat half of a waffle using a skillet on the stove. I burned it so badly a sooty cloud of smoke climbed out of the pan. Ginny’s voice returned to me. It seemed like a guarantee, now. I would die here. She had died here.

Death—the word she taught me to use instead of Resignation. Death, a word that hovered in front of me. A word like a door I would enter. I hadn’t been awake for an hour and I already wished that Rig was here with me. I would’ve been fine to return to the bathroom if it meant I wasn’t alone. If my parents refused to see me, surely his had refused to see him. Ginny was right. He would find me. And I would welcome him in—I would beg him to live with me. Anything would be better than slowly starving to death on my own, if I didn’t burn down the house before he even arrived.

I limped to the front door planning to forage some fruit for breakfast now that I’d ruined the waffle. When I opened the door, however, Ginny was standing before me holding a deep plastic bowl filled to the brim with blackberries. “They must’ve forgotten about me,” she said. “But they’ll be here tomorrow.”

The next day, the officials didn’t arrive. They didn’t arrive the next day or the following week. It’s been a month, and every day we are waiting a little bit less, and a little bit less, and a little bit less.  

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