This is how Jack Blassel and Vanessa Pearson meet: When Jack is thirty-seven and Vanessa twenty-three, Jack kills Vanessa. They have little else in common. Jack has two brothers, and Vanessa, one sister. Jack never leaves his hometown of Buckeye, Arizona. Vanessa grows up in Milwaukee, travels to Kenya, then attends college and massage school in a progressive pocket of Buckeye. While Jack is homophobic in the usual way, Vanessa takes courses with titles like Queer Literature and Social Deviance: Human Sexuality Through the Ages. A love of women might have united them, except Jack is never sure about love. Vanessa falls and falls. A falling like flight. Like the summer she abandons her parents for a tent in the redwoods with a gender fluid lover named Jax. This is the joy that is better, even, than the sex. Before fall, Vanessa abandons the singular. Introduces themself as Firefly Pearson. Teachers note this on attendance sheets. This is Firefly’s first truth: freedom means slipping from self, but with love. Jack isn’t looking to lose or to find himself. He is looking to buy a ring for the girl that left him, another twenty-two-year-old also named Vanessa. This other girl, an esthetician, is called Vana, or sometimes, Vans. Jack calls her his sugarplum. Jack lives in his brother’s basement in what used to be their mother’s house. He owns nothing but the clothes on his back and a Ford F-150 Super Duty Powerstroke 6.7-liter turbodiesel V-8 with outsized Super Swamper tires. A truck called Tarzan. Vanessa Firefly Pearson has never owned a car. Though Buckeye has no bike paths, Firefly commutes on a banana-seated cruiser called White Lightning. Five days a week Firefly rides from their cabin just outside town to their liberal arts college. After graduation, Firefly decides not to move back to Milwaukee. Instead, they keep the cabin and White Lightning, which coasts them daily to massage school. Massage, they’ve been told, isn’t a plan for the real world. With graduation approaching, Firefly is lost in deep reflections on this phraseology. What world beyond the round confines of the skull? What realer than right now? When Jack talks about the real world, he means as opposed to Grand Theft Auto. As in “as if you could just walk into a police station and shoot everyone up. That wouldn’t happen in the real world.” Vana loves these games, too, and Jack watches her tenderly as she steals cars and blasts through warehouses, her fearless control. They make jokes about the reality of unreality. They decide the real unreal provides many opportunities. One day, Jack realizes he is happy, he and Vana playing games like children. Games that soften edges, result in insincere consequences. When Vana can’t stop vomiting, she takes the test. Vanessa Pearson is pregnant once, too, in high school. At least, she thinks she is. She sucks down Plan B and vomits for twenty-four hours while her mother holds her hair. This is a first lesson: the deep cost of creation. After this, she is always safe, with men, anyway. Jack doesn’t believe in safety, though he is often afraid. This is his first lesson, passed from his father: recklessness is the antidote to fear. Jack and his friends spend weekends mud dogging trucks and quads. Jack loves the way his Ford skirts the limitless without breaching it. A kind of flight. The delicate patterns of mud on Tarzan’s grey-green paint are maps of his courage. Mud dogging isn’t just about the beer or blowing off steam. It is about the kind of man you are. Which is why he imagines himself, when Vana gives him the news, as a father to a son. His son will be courageous in a way Jack pretends to be. In a way his father, who takes off when Jack is ten, is not. In his son, recklessness would cede to measured heroics. So when Vana says she plans to abort the child, he tries to man up. Firefly is manning up, a term they use ironically. They cut and spike their hair, don a newsboy cap, and gain fifteen pounds. They feel amazing. Like the goddamn miracle they are. It takes them until now, twenty-two years, to realize this. Though she is technically an only child, Vanessa Pearson grows up surrounded by foster children, takes in a steady diet of love and abandonment and new love. When the house is empty, she writes what she thinks are poems and later realizes are songs. Everyone tells her she soars with talent—she’s got the look, a waify natural blonde—but she feels suicidal. Years after his mother’s slow suicide, Jack finally feels recovered. Free lodging, a mellow job at the auto body shop, and his sugarplum. At first he is just messing around—a kid like that—but she leaves with the possibility of his son, and he thinks, maybe love? Though friends say he’s whipped, he cuts down on drinking. He saves for a diamond. He believes the country songs that tell him if only and for the love of a good woman. Vana is gone, but Jack is newly alive. He picks up extra hours at the shop. He thinks about the future. Whatever she’s done can be undone, he thinks, or done again. Firefly is done. Done with the uncertainty of adolescence, coming out, the near suicide attempt, and now, with “the system.” Firefly and their band play their own graduation party because music makes them one with the world. Everyone holds hands. This is a first communion: glass slivers underfoot and twinkle lights that bleach the stars. Firefly’s mother still calls her child Vanessa. She takes Vanessa’s hands and says, “You are my miracle,” and friends shout, “You beautiful Firefly you!” Gone is the shyness, the gazing in the mirror, wondering. An epiphany: Healing hands. They picture themself proffering the healing touch, making free music and helping shy, queer girls who may or may not agree to be girls. Though Jax is gone, Firefly sees themself through their former lover’s eyes, bathing naked in a calm stream framed by redwoods. Hips, thighs, breasts glinting with river water and sunlight. Firefly believes capitalism is bullshit, the music industry is bullshit, gender is bullshit, and love will change the world. Jack’s world is cozy. His basement, the autobody shop, and the parking lot outside Vana’s salon. He waits for her every day with a gift: flowers, chocolates, an oversized stuffed bear. To this last, she says, “What am I, a baby?” but she gives the bear a squeeze. One day in September, Vana gives in. Agrees to go for a ride up the mountain. This is sooner than Jack expected. He has some money saved, but not enough. Lately he is slacking off, buying more beer to help with dreaming. His imaginings of fatherhood prepare him for no more than endless, unrequited devotion. Now he has to recalibrate. He imagines taking her to the top of the hill to look down on Buckeye and absorb the world in their gazes. Their smallness helping them to be real. These are the dreams of first love: a wide-angle montage. All unfolds as he imagines, except first, Jack talks about his father. Then his mother. How when she is alive, his mother blames Jack for his father’s leaving, and now Jack blames his brother for his mother drinking herself to the grave. He is not sure whether he is whispering or shouting. His eyes dampen, but not noticeably. Vana is a good listener. She tells him hush, hush. Though he can’t yet see any evidence, Vana insists on the tiny human inside her. This turns them on. They have decent sex in the back of the truck, and then they smoke the tiniest bit of hash—all he has left—cheers to that new life. Before they go, he is hard again, and she blows him. The sensation is—out of this world. After, he feels light, sharper than sobriety. Hi-Def. “I’m going to marry you,” he tells her. He is driving back down the mountain. “My perfect, sweet-ass sugarplum.” “Don’t be so corny!” she says, teasing, but then, “If you’re going to marry me, you got to get out of your brother’s basement.” He hasn’t yet thought about this, and he doesn’t now. Instead, he winks at her, remembering the feel of her warm mouth on him just moments ago. This is a first penetration: his body pierced by joy. The sun is descending as they pass Safeway on Feldspar. He squints into sunrays and he can’t stop thinking of Vana’s lips stretched into an O. This is the sex that intoxicates. She says, “You know, it could be a girl.” Firefly has a girl, a new girlfriend. Someone from massage school. They link eyes the first day. This woman is several years older and has been out much longer. There is a love triangle. The new lover’s girlfriend begs Firefly to walk away. “Six years!” she pleads, “Six years of my heart!” Firefly wonders whether hearts can be measured in time, but no matter, the thrill of passion outweighs guilt. There is much to learn about a woman’s body: nipples that can be taught to harmonize with orgasm, soft lips that can be parted, and in parting, breathed and tongued, slow and deep. Firefly’s new lover will not call her by another lover’s discarded name, will not use the awkward plural pronoun. This is a first compromise: abandoning self in the name of love. Firefly releases the maintenance of words—overwhelmed by sensation. High on new passion, V is so bright people notice a shift in the light. After coitus, V runs late for band practice. V leaves the cabin braless, first taking a hit of organic weed and slinging on a newsboy hat, baggy jeans, and hoodie over a white tank top. V hums down the hill into town, blessed—blessed—by wind on face, by warm autumn weather. This is the love that assembles the light. V makes tiny figure eights on the side of the road, White Lightning whip whip whipping each time the track flips. The Safeway marks the end of the trees where V usually zips across the street to the sidewalk on the other side. Jack lifts his chin to get a better view. The light is green. The air hovers a green glow, as if it is still spring. Though the sun should be descendent, the road is suddenly bright, bright as the diamond he will buy his sugarplum, sweet as the dream of that golden ring, a dream as solid as the road on which he skates the truck forward, thinking this is even better than mud dogging, this is life. Suspended, he sees only sky, and light. This is the light that catalyzes. He is float-flying, propelled by orgasm, light, fearless, until he hears Vana shouting stop stop stop and he remembers—though it is still happening—a thump. He stops. In his rearview there is a fat boy with breasts crushed on the road. The body will soon be identified as his victim. Age, sex, vehicle. Twenty-three-year old female cyclist. The paper will first release the name as Firefly Pearson, reported by some schoolmates who happened upon the accident. This journalistic error will allow Mrs. Pearson her first tears. Died at the hospital, the paper will say. Jack will think: that means he lived until then, about seven miles. He will look it up. Seven point seven three miles. He will learn about the victim by reading the paper: college graduation, massage school, volunteer work in Africa. But he will think of Vanessa Pearson ever and only as the boy he kills. When the paper releases Jack’s identity, it will revise his victim’s: Jack Blassel, thirty-seven-year old mechanic, struck and killed twenty-three-year old recent college-graduate Vanessa Pearson. The shapes of the print of the ink will inform him: Witnesses say sunlight might have been a factor. This will be a first contemplation: the velocity of one human force absorbing another. Jack will lose his grasp on the meaning of the word fault. It will become entangled with unrelated meanings shed from neighboring words: flywheel, fortune, father. He will look it up over and over. Use the sample sentence feature: Faults indicate potential for rupture. This is something Jack Blassell knows, even now, before checking the rearview. Words don’t help the shuffling of his moments into the boy’s with breasts and bicycle in his rearview, or into twenty-three- year old cyclist Vanessa Pearson’s. Just after the accident, the cops will make him pace the distance from truck to bike again and again. Each time feels like the first. They will ask Which? and Where? He can tell them nothing. He will tell them, again, about the hit of hash and about the blowjob, too, as if this were also an illegal intoxicant. He will search for names appropriate to the situation: oral sex, fellatio. Love too obscene. The papers, timeless, say: a twenty-three-year old female cyclist was struck Friday, traveling west on Feldspar road just past the Safeway at approximately 4:53 pm. The print is rigid. Each line an iron rod, the shape of a moment. A tire track. An imprint left by Tarzan, though they omit the name. Jack’s name is known. His charge is manslaughter, which is downgraded to reckless endangerment. His sentence is time served. He is quoted as saying he never saw the bike, a white ghost, its rider erased. His defense says: this is the man that sought the joy, that catalyzes desire, but cauterizes no wounds, that intoxicate the body, punctured by joy, that kills the boy. This is his first plea: syntax fails to reveal his tragedy. He dons the senses instead. The grind and chaw of his truck. Bright penny copper. A fat boy with breasts, white teeth, and a guitar. The thin-printed newspaper sweeps up dropped letters, rearranges in Times New Roman—his story, squared by crisp creases, his story, resurrected in origami totems. He says: this is my story, my language, my truth, my redemption. He says: this is my house. But he doesn’t know its bones the way he knows the whitewashed wood of his mother’s house, as it stands when she lives, lined with the heads of tip-fallen begonias, brittle and almost still red.
Skye Anicca is the recipient of grants from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and from the Vermont Studio Center, and of a Dana Award in short fiction. She has been a fiction contributor to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the New York State Summer Writers’ Conference. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Santa Monica Review, Nimrod International Journal, Fairy Tale Review, and Passages North.