U.F.O. Sightings At West Isle High
At nine forty-two A.M. on Tuesday, the same day Joanna Wriggly got suspended from West Isle High School, her eyelids sealed for only a fraction of a second in study hall. It was enough time for fire to be invented. That was the first major event of her day.
The third was getting suspended for calling Polly Beutal a reincarnated paramecium on meth. Polly had instigated the verbal abuse by calling Joanna some unsavory — and abhorrently uncreative — names, and everybody present knew it. Everybody present also knew that Polly’s daddy was the principal. Joanna was not particularly sensitive to harsh words; it was the vacuity of the insults that offended her. Joanna’s world regarded antagonistic name-calling as a sacred art form not unlike European Romantic poetry.
The suspension was issued at one thirty-four P.M. The day’s second major event, occurring at close to noon, was the more important one.
Joanna was late coming from phys-ed to Mister Glam’s (pronounced like clam) advanced history class the second time she saw the shapes. It was in the locker room.
The first time was in the cafeteria the previous week when Cory Liger goosed Stacy Harbingham, sneaking up behind her as she walked to the table to sit with the other cheerleaders, carrying a tray with a salad, a carton of milk and a bowl of red Jello. Startled, she managed to keep the salad and the milk from falling, but the Jello splattered all over the tiled floor. Balancing the tray on her right elbow, Stacy gave Cory the finger with her left hand. Joanna’s eyes followed the Jello to the floor, and she was the only one in that cafeteria who took notice of what the Jello did when it first collided with the floor, or at least the only one to acknowledge it.
Joanna had taken geometry from Miss Garrison her sophomore year. No shape Miss Garrison ever drew on her blackboard prepared Joanna for what the Jello did on impact. It hit the floor in a splash, reverting instantly back to its liquid form. The shape only remained for an amount of time such that she could have easily blinked and missed it, and then quickly congealed back into haphazard chunks of Jello.
The melting and re-hardening of the artificial red gunk happened in the space of time it would take a rubber ball to bounce off a wall. The shape was almost a star, but it had no triangular outcroppings. It was almost a circle, but it had no center — it had many centers in some kind of sequence.
Joanna wished somebody had snapped a photograph at the precise instant — she could see herself lying in bed for two hours or more looking at the picture and trying to reproduce it with a pen and paper. It had a series of straight lines arranged like spokes in a wheel, but the pattern was not identifiable as radial symmetry or any kind of symmetry. It seemed to grow larger as it went around the circle — a circle of multiple centers — like an oblong spiral. Like the petals of some rare flower that nature would never have the spare time to produce. And it was gone. That was last Thursday.
On this day, she saw it again in the locker room, when she turned on the faucet in the shower. The plumbing balked for a moment, and she was afraid she would be left standing there with her body covered in soap and no water, but then the showerhead spurted to life and she reflexively ducked out of the way. If she had not looked down right at that instant, she would have missed it.
By her feet, the same shape. She knew it was the same shape from the cafeteria. Despite her helplessness to describe it, it could not have been anything else, and it could not have been random nothingness, therefore it was what she knew it to be.
Joanna was not the type of girl who got suspended. She could hardly remember the last time she had endured any form of chastisement or even browbeating from an authority figure. The incongruity almost made it worth it; it was like watching a prom queen trip over a milk carton in the hall, only better, because self-mockery was always higher in entertainment value than the folly of others.
What made it funnier still was the fact that Polly, the victor in this case, held a position on the popularity food chain that was arguably lower than Joanna’s. In direct correlation to the hierarchy of predators described in Biology chapter eighteen, Joanna’s status was that of a muskrat, and Polly’s was only recently elevated to a cat on account of the relinquishing of her virginity. Both Joanna and Polly not only intuitively understood the food chain analogy, but employed it as an empirical modicum for risk calculation in their social behavior; incidentally, that fact placed them both in the unique position of being classified either as an academic overachiever — the highest echelon — or as a maladjusted geek — pond scum — except that neither of those categories befit their personalities, therefore the food chain did not apply to them. That made them aliens.
“You know when you nod off, or almost nod off,” she explained later to Chauncy, her best friend, “the mental cabinet that sorts out what’s real and what’s imagined runs out of gas, like the filing secretary showed up drunk and dropped all the day’s memories on the floor and just picked everything up and stuffed it into random files, after spilling coffee on it — the ditz would totally get fired — and daydreams start to look pretty authentic. Like, say you’re reading Chapter Twenty-Four in biology and you pull an acid crabwalk to the moon, then you shake frizzy and you remember finishing the chapter and doing the homework, but you’re not sure if you really did, so you have to check.” They were walking home from school.
The expression Pull an acid crabwalk to the moon, in their language, was the equivalent of drift off or zone out in the standard vernacular of their peers. Shake frizzy meant regaining full alertness in the present.
“Or Cory Liger will sneak up behind you, pinch your booty and run, and you have to stop and say, wait, did I imagine that this time? Even if it was hallucinated, it still warrants kneeing him in the balls the next time he passes you in the hall. But I digress. This morning I was pretty skhazzed-” (Skhazzed was their word for tired.)
“Complacent like a crustacean?” offered Chauncy.
“Soporific. And I swear to paid, for a moment in time I honestly, literally, casually believed that I invented fire, which requires me to have been around longer than fire.” Paid was an acronym for politically all-inclusive deity.
“How could you have invented fire?”
“That’s the whole point.”
“The logistics would be staggering.”
“Doesn’t matter. After inventing fire, for even one split second, the rest of the day looks pretty easy. Pop quiz? No problem. Polly Beutal tries to sass you? Pshh. And to know that your mind is capable of such an outrageously pompous yet dignified albeit nonsensical delusion when all censors are down, that’s pretty Buck Chesfield.”
“By the way, don’t get your hopes up,” said Chauncy. “Cory Liger does that to everybody. Sometimes even guys.”
“Donkey tits on parade, he’s on the wrestling team.” Donkey tits on parade, in their language, was the equivalent of Duh.
Buck Chesfield, used as an adjective, was a synonym for cool or far out. Buck Chesfield was a forgotten film actor of the early Nineties who primarily portrayed ranting homeless characters in exploitation zombie films. Buck Chesfield later went on to pursue a short-lived career as a lead singer in a heavy-metal band that never produced an album. The band was noted for one attribute only; their performances featured green U.F.O. marionettes hanging from the ceiling and thrashing around in a choreographed mosh-pit.
Joanna gripped hold of Chauncy’s shirtsleeve, as if her sleeve was the only stationary object around. Her words came out like each thought had legs and was trying to scurry away from the previous thought, and her sentences all kept speeding up but never quite could escape themselves. “Sleep deficit is a drug. Neurologically, they say it’s the same as like taking mushrooms or something. Because your brainwaves are at alpha, and they keep trying to slow down, but you’re in class so you have to fight it, but eventually you lose, and it’s like your eyelids want to have sex with each other. It’s totally addictive.” When she stopped speaking, the momentum of her rant pushed outward from behind clamped lips, forcing a smile that looked more like a docked boat bucking in a tidal pull than a human evocation of pleasure. Her grip on Chauncy’s sleeve tightened in a similar manner, fingers curling carnivorously inward.
They were walking past the old paint factory on Carr Street. The last school bus passed them by, followed by a gaggle of skateboarders who paid them little attention.
Chauncy licked Joanna’s knuckles and then laughed when Joanna’s hand sprung back in shock and disgust. The trick always worked. “Get a grip, girly pants.”
Joanna frowned, probably expressing disapproval for their lack of a customized idiom for get a grip. Then she looked up, probably trying to think of one.
“You alright?” Chauncy was genuinely concerned. The look was fashionable on her.
Joanna told her about the recurring shape in Jello and in the shower. She had not yet mentioned her disciplinary incident to Chauncy, and did not need to.
“You had a divine vision,” Chauncy said while applying black lipstick and looking intently at her tiny mirror. They were standing at the corner of Flarmody Street and Spark Lane. Her consonants all sounded like the letter H. “Happens all the time. It just means there’s a higher power that doesn’t speak English.” She puckered.
“How do you know so much about divine visions?” said Joanna.
The traffic light turned green and Chauncy dashed across the street. This was where they parted ways. They eschewed goodbye greetings because their friendship was bigger than formalities. They always parted in the middle of a conversation, sometimes even mid-sentence, knowing that the next day when they met again, the very same line of discourse would be un-paused like a video game.
Joanna filled her lungs with more air than was in the air, standing outside the door to her home. Jeff, her brother — who was, as he put it, soul searching — was home from college for a couple weeks, maybe longer. Maybe a lot longer. It was a sore subject.
Joanna was embarrassed for her brother not because of the irresponsible decisions he was making, but because he actually used such a banal term as soul searching out loud.
She could already hear every word spoken at the dinner table before she walked in the door. Mom would say, aren’t you going to finish it? Jeff would look down at the piecrust and soggy strawberry slices on his plate, and then realize that Mom was referring to his college education. He was majoring in psychology with a minor in sculpture.
Joanna would then break the silence with a cheese-filled sarcastic smile and say
“I got suspended from school today.” The dinner table rotated around her, each face reacting to what she said, but reacting to a different Joanna in a different position at the table. Spokes expanding outward.
“Did they catch you shooting up in the bleachers?” Dad quipped, after swallowing all of his natural reactions and stopping to think. Unbeknownst to the younger half of the table, Mom had been coaching Dad extensively on a method of laissez faire parenting that involved the halting of rage and criticism, followed by an injection of levity tinctured with crass irreverence modeled after the contemporary comedic icons who set the tone for teen discourse. Mom had warned Dad that it would come out sounding forced for a while, until he fell into a rhythm. He was a slow learner.
Mom slapped Dad on the wrist, shot him a not-now look and returned her attention immediately to Joanna. “I trust you make good decisions- we, trust your good judgment, we always have, and I’ve no doubt that-”
Jeff patted Mom on the back. “Let me help you out.” He turned to Joanna, communicating in a glance his gratitude toward her for voluntarily relieving him of the evening’s cross-examination. Joanna and Jeff had a language that was covert and silent, as well as efficient. “Mom is trying to pose the obvious question, but before she asks you to spell out the nature of your crime, she feels compelled to delicately tread around the perimeter of the question and search out any loose soil, because her worst fear as a parent is that, heaven forbid, we might start keeping secrets for fear of condemnation. Understanding that the fear works both ways, she aims to defuse it by emphasizing in every way possible to feel comfortable in the knowledge that you can tell her anything, she won’t judge, and if she overreacts for an instant, it’s only because she loves you.”
Dad pointed his fork at Jeff, grinning. “I appreciate your flowery college language — shows me where my dollars are going — but, young man, don’t think that you’re off the hook. Not by an eagle’s pubic feather.” He bussed his empty plate into the kitchen and called behind his back, “And son. Finish your pie.”
Joanna made a mental note to remember the phrase not by an eagle’s pubic feather and use it when the opportune context arose. She would, of course, have to modify it to make it her own — this would present no difficulty.
Mom folded her hands on the table. “So.”
Joanna wanted to role her eyes, but both pupils seemed stuck against rocks.
Dad yelled from the kitchen over running water, “What mischief did our straight-A no-tickling-before-marriage daughter get herself into?”
“It’s stupid and insignificant,” Joanna said quietly so that Dad could not hear. He would get Mom’s version of it later (Mom’s version of anything sounded miraculously better than Joanna’s). “I just got in a tiff with Polly Beutal-”
“The principal’s daughter?” Jeff snickered.
“Yeah, well, I know that now. Thanks, Dejh.” Dejh, short for degenerate, was Joanna’s most commonly used nickname for her brother.
Mom was filling with exasperation. Her face stayed the same, but her knuckles got whiter. “I’m getting that you had a personality conflict with a miss Polly Beutal. Can you be more specific?”
“Actually, I really can’t,” said Joanna. “Just your typical verbal jousting in gym class. She throws a basketball, hits me square in the face, she apologizes diarrhea like-” Mom and Jeff exchanged a look, both knowing full well that diarrhea like was a euphemism for profusely. “-I told her if she wants to confront her jealousy over Todd Yorik asking me to the junior prom — and her consternation over my telling the sleeze no — then she should stop with this passive aggressive oops-hee-hee-hee-totally-just-accidentally-pegged-you-in-the-face-with-a-rubber-masculinity-toy-I’m-clumsy-hee-hee act and tell me what she really thinks.”
Jeff interrupted to say, “I’m not sure consternation is the word you were looking for.”
“So she told me,” Joanna continued. “It involved more spittle than words actually leaving her mouth, and, being the verbose communicator that I am, projectile saliva bores me, so I threw in some words of my own, just to keep myself from falling asleep. Turns out Polly Beutal enjoys her own saliva more than she likes hearing the truth, so she went crying to daddy-pants and told him paid-knows-what, end result being, you get to have me at home for the next two days. But don’t like electrocute a cabbage, I’ve made provisions, I’ve got reliable friends to deliver me my homework every day, and-”
Mom made her stop-sign hand gesture, the only remaining physical tic of hers that Joanna still found intimidating. “I trust you. I’m going to need to process this. We’ll talk later, kay, hon?”
Joanna grabbed Jeff’s plate, dumped his piecrust and uneaten strawberry slices onto her plate and devoured every last bit. “Kay.”
Joanna’s altercation with Polly Beutal had reached its zenith in the locker room. Polly’s last words before storming out were, “Only you should be so lucky.”
As soon as Polly said it, Joanna knew with a knowledge that lived somewhere between her gall bladder and her spleen that she would soon suffer repercussions from the interaction that had just transpired. Her heart skipped across tiny explosives as she walked into the shower.
That was when the shapes appeared. Seeing them, she felt at ease.
On the night preceding Joanna’s first day of banishment from the school grounds, her finger paused on the switch to her alarm clock as if feeling for a heartbeat. It was not quite ten-forty. All her homework was finished. To set her alarm now would be purely an act of self-punishment. The fact that there was no reason to set her alarm clock was punishment enough. She also knew that her body would not allow itself to fall asleep without fulfilling her nightly routine; she had to set it. She had to wake up along with her thousand peers she would not see that day. Sleeping in was a celebration reserved for weekends and celebratory events, and tomorrow was an ordinary day, one from which Joanna just so happened to be excluded.
Lying in bed, her chest felt like poison that would grow more and more poisonous the more she moved, so she minimized her movements. She imagined her blood trying to form non-native shapes. She dreamed she was walking through town and encountered no faces. It was drizzling and just cold enough to wear her turquoise windbreaker. The sun was on autopilot. She could walk anywhere she wanted, cross any street and enter any building, only nowhere looked particularly appealing. Her mood was nonchalant and a little bit relieved, until she realized that she had been wandering through town for over a week straight and it was still drizzling. She woke up with a sticky, sore feeling, as if her body was a chew toy impaled on the jaws of a single emotion. Joanna was terrified.
After drifting in and out of dread with enough clarity to reinvent fire if she so chose, the wail of her alarm clock was as refreshing as cold water when cold water was badly needed. She lay in bed fully alert for an hour to think.
On her first day as a certified bad girl, school got unexpectedly cancelled. Chauncy called and babbled something incoherent about extra terrestrials over the phone, but she could not talk long, and people in the background sounded rowdy.
Joanna turned on the family television and flipped through news programs, but the news sounded just like Chauncy; discombobulated, rushed, trying to get it all out.
West Isle High was mentioned among a handful of other high schools and a dozen local businesses, on more than one channel. The fragments broadcasted had nothing to do with Jello or patterns of water in a shower room floor. In between clips of interviews with university professors in the field of space science, the news showed birds mostly.
Textbooks had slid across desks of their own accord. No news crews had made it inside the school to document this, but hearing it from the comfort of her home, Joanna found nothing about it at all difficult to believe.
Before anyone had had opportunity to observe the kinetic arrangement that the textbooks did not have time to form, the blare of the fire alarm flushed through the building’s audio currents like bile. Classrooms emptied and streets filled. The same was happening in factories and offices. Papers and raw materials were responding to a gravitational pull that had no celestial explanation. Probability was hijacked.
The news showed images of flocks of crows above upper Manhattan, maintaining a formation that would capture anybody’s attention. Mister Glam would probably spend several lectures talking solely about the shape phenomenon and the media’s reaction to it. He would surely overuse the phrase mass hysteria as if whomever invented the phrase had purchased advertising space in Mister Glam’s mouth.
“Divine vision, malign fission,” Chauncy said over the phone. “You just, well, you have a unique way of looking at things, is all. This is a hoax.” Listening to Chauncy without listening, Joanna wondered how Jeff was progressing in his search for his soul.
Joanna left the house and walked toward the athletic fields. She was looking for Chauncy, and instead found Polly Beutal. “Eat venom,” she said to Polly’s back.
Polly’s shoulder tensed before she turned around. They faced each other.
“Don’t look at me like I’m not supposed to be here,” said Joanna.
“And who is?”
Polly squirmed inside her skin. “What do you want?”
They were standing in the town commons where the entire high school’s population was getting drunk on the lawn, local businessmen with loosened ties joined them, and homeless men formed militias in the gazebos.
“Do you…” Polly began.
“Do I what?”
“You act like you know something the rest of us don’t.” Polly’s torso was at a ninety-degree angle from Joanna’s.
“That depends. How much do you know?”
Polly’s eyes reached around, generating the illusion that she was on a schedule and running late. “It’s a visitation. The real thing. I mean, intergalactic, it’s on. It totally makes sense if you think about it.” Polly hated that Joanna was the only person she could talk to who would share her point of view. Her hatred of that fact manifested in a transitory vein above her elbow — a pulsing blue warning light. “How else would you travel through space long-term, I mean, if you were like a way advanced species?”
“Is this what you know, or what you know?”
Polly pointed up at the air where a cloud of mosquitoes was settling into a wheel. “This is what intelligent life looks like. The most advanced vehicle, the most efficient way to travel, by not traveling at all — transmitting shapes. No fancy spaceships, just what you see. Waves of pure math-nerd shapes combing the universe looking for us, and they found us, and the authorities cancelled school because this is big. Like, history big. Geometry can move faster than light I guess, I don’t know.” Her body was no longer at a ninety-degree angle to Joanna’s.
“They probably have immense databases embedded in the shapes we see,” Joanna added. “Coded, as we would say in human vocabulary. I’ll bet that shape can store as much as a billion microchips, like radio digital DNA. And as you said, they’re searching. Reading all our minds at once, probably. Maybe they’ll find a way to grow organisms — diplomats — using raw genetic material in the Earth’s eco system, and communicate with us that way. Kind of de-romanticizes old sci-fi movies with fleets of flying saucers landing in New York City. No need to physically travel at all. No landing.”
Jeff, who was standing behind Joanna, said, surprising her, “You always look too far for your answers, that’s your problem.”
“What the daVinci’s testicles are you doing here?” said Joanna.
Jeff shrugged and brushed back his hair. “Where else is there to be?”
“Yeah.” Joanna looked around and slowly nodded. “Nice sunny spot to ride out the cosmic frisk.”
A helicopter hovered high above. On the evening news, an aerial view of the haphazard congregated mass of citizens at the town commons would display humans standing in what would measure the largest yet detected instance of the shape. Most of the unwitting participants would shut off their televisions and experience a shiver that would leave them gripping their ribs in unimagined pain.
A stealthy hand pinched and twisted Polly’s buttocks. It was Cory Liger. Both Joanna and Jeff saw him approach and knew what was coming, but had no desire to warn Polly. It occurred to Joanna then that reincarnated paramecium on meth was a bit harsh.
After two days, the shapes ceased. Joanna’s suspension was nullified, as a byproduct of the commotion. School resumed. No mysterious new species of organisms were discovered. Jello was once again merely Jello, and water water.
“Think we’ll ever…you know, make contact?” Chauncy asked, unapologetically waking Joanna up from her study hall nap.
Joanna stared at her best friend and said, “Not by an eagle’s libido.” Immediately, she wished she had phrased it better.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED