Lux comes back to Earth flying in a crooked spiral, giggling as her breath escapes her with the sound of a high-pitched fart. The navigational buoy slides off her as she deflates and she rises, free, without control. High above the old soccer field her breath runs out and she falls slowly to the ground. She sees Mom and Dad running to meet her down there and all is right in the world.
She lands in Mom's outstretched hands and they form a cup around her, almost like a hug, and Lux can understand that, she must seem so tiny and soft and helpless to them in this, her weakest moment, of course they want to protect her. Dad joins Mom and they look down on her, friendly giants trying not to let her see how relieved they are, the sweethearts.
Now Dad picks her up and wets his lips and blows new breath into the hole in her tail fin. Her rubber skin tightens and the space between her eyes grow, shrinking the world, and her painted on mouth with its many sharp teeth straightens so she can speak.
'Did you have a good time?' asks Mom, now eye to eye with her.
'Oh yes, Mom', says Lux. 'I dug a hole in the dirt, well I started on one, it'll take days to get anywhere.' She shows Mom her dirty pectoral fins and makes a face that says these are no good for digging and Mom takes the rubber flippers in her hands with a knowing smile. Dad closes her up with a plastic clip and slips the buoy over her waist with a little double-pat on her back that says good to go and Lux starts floating through the air towards the house, wiggling to stay in the air. A gentle buff from Mom gets her flying over their heads and she coasts for a few seconds until she comes down to about shoulder height and starts wiggling again. Dad bumps her even higher and she floats happily, thinking how other kids just get their parents lifting them and swinging them around but she gets to really fly. A little.
Back in the house, Mom helps Lux wash, taking special care of the dirt on her fins. She scrubs them ever so gently with a soft sponge and inspects them closely, finding many tiny scrapes, bright against her black skin. 'No more digging before these heal', says Mom. 'We don't want you springing a leak, do we?'
'No, Mom' says Lux, rubbing her face against Mom's chest. Mom pulls her close in a hug that squeezes air into her face and tail and she squeaks happily, her whole body tight with love.
'You don't think I worry too much about you', asks Mom.
'No', says Lux, after some thought. 'I like that you look after me. I mean, of course I need it, but I like it anyway. Um, it's been almost an hour.' Lux begins to feel stale and used and when Mom opens her to let out the air she feels relieved not just from the tension of her rubber skin relaxing. She closes her large cartoon eyes so she can't see the world grow around her, and then shrink as Mom blows her up again. She shakes off the few water drops still clinging to her and flips lazily along the floor into her room.
And then Mom and Dad eat lunch while Lux draws. As always, she makes pictures of the world on the other side, trying to show it to Mom and Dad who can't go there. The digital pencils fit awkwardly in her flippers, but she's better than she was a year ago. Slowly, methodically, she draws a landscape on the screen with abstract lines on the dark brown ground, and reddish blobs signifying twisted trees under a burning orange sky, and dark squiggly lines crossing over it. With a frustrated grunt she drops the stylus and rolls around on the linoleum floor. If she could draw, maybe she could understand anything of what she sees over there, there's so little that makes sense, especially the way the ground curves.
'Will I ever get a brother or sister?' says Lux, making a little drum noise as she bounds onto the table between her parents. Her eager toothy smile meets with uncertainty, fluster and even a little fear.
'Well honey, it's, it's hard to say', says Dad. 'Lots of complicated aspects to that question, some that would be very hard for me and Mom to explain.'
'The short answer is we don't know', says Mom, putting a comforting hand on Lux's nose. 'The real question, honey, I think is do you want a little sister or brother?'
'Yeah', says Lux, trying to bury her face in the table to get away from the embarrassment. 'If there was someone like me it'd be more fun. I don't know.' Hidden from her view, the parents quickly exchange several frantic looks and find agreement.
'Let's sleep on it', says Dad, and they both kiss Mom goodnight. And as Mom walks upstairs to the bedroom Dad says, 'Well, now it's just you and me until evening. What do you want to do?'
'I want to draw', says Lux. 'But it's too hard.' She bounces to her room, restlessly, and Dad follows. He insists that her pictures are very pretty, and she tries to explain that you can't see what they're supposed to show.
'Tell me what this is', says Dad, flat on his stomach with his nose almost touching the screen, pointing at one of the tree blobs, so Lux tells him about the red trees, their fluffy round leaves and their branches that reach for her as she passes and that one time they held her and tickled her until she wiggled free. Dad then grabs her dorsal fin and rolls over on his back and pulls her close and she feels a shiver running through his body and figures she should have left that part out.
'Are there other things there that move?' says Dad after a while, when he dares let her go. 'You haven't mentioned anything like that before.'
'Hmm, the clouds move', says Lux. 'But nothing else. That I have seen.' And as she goes on about the trees, Dad takes her fin in his hand and guides her stylus, slowly, making light dreamlike lines and she watches amazed as an old, twisted birch with branches full of secrets and sadness grows on the screen before her.
And when it's done and Dad has changed her air he pats her drawing fin and tells her that she's learning, that she's soaking up skills and knowledge every minute of every day and getting bigger, and that one day she will be able to do anything she wants, and Lux bounces up and butts her head to his and he laughs and throws her to the ceiling where she bounces loud enough to worry about Mom waking up and he catches her and hugs her and all is right.
And after drawing and deleting a few more disappointingly sticky trees Lux decides she needs another look at the real thing. Mounting an expedition through the gate goes easily: First Dad helps her put on the navigational buoy, then he puts on a hat and boots, and they go out the door. The buoy is like an old friend. A rubber ring, inflatable like herself, transparent and covered with aerodynamic soft plastic fins. It weighs her down a little, but makes it easier to turn and to keep in one direction in the air. Outside the house, Lux likes to fly.
On the far end of the wild-grown grass field hangs the blue swirly thing in the air, with a pair of lawn chairs parked below, where the grass has turned a dark and bloody shade of red. As they get closer, Lux bobs wildly in excitement. Dad gives her fresh air again, and a kiss, and tells her to have fun, and that's all he can do. She disappears into the dancing light and Dad slumps down on a chair, checking his watch. He thinks about reading a book, or looking at that little crack in the hallway wall, or watching his wife sleep, but he knows he won't be able to focus until his girl comes home. The sun is nice and warm and he pretends to doze off for a while but he keeps counting seconds. Of course they wanted an adventurous child, curious and unafraid. So he waits and he can almost see the shadows moving, counting the seconds.
As always she comes back after just over an hour, sagging down on the grass as if she was exhausted, rubbing and squirming to open her air hole and let out her insides in a long wheezing exhale. Small and spent, she enjoys being cradled in Dad's huge hands for a moment, until he inflates her again.
'Did you see anything fun', asks Dad, with a hint of longing in the corner of his eye.
'I went straight up', says Lux. 'I wanted to see how far I could see. So I saw a whole lot. But it was all dull looking from so far away.' She falls silent, thinking about how to turn the pictures in her mind onto the paper. Silently, she bobs beside Dad while he takes a lap through the vegetable garden, picking out weeds, talking to the lettuce, watering the paprika. Lux butts her nose against a nearby sunflower and wonders what it smells like. She knows all about smells, except what they feel like when they touch your senses. 'There's no wind over there I think', she says, suddenly. 'There's always some wind here if you go high enough, but I never felt anything there.'
'Maybe you didn't go high enough', Dad suggests. 'The world there could be much bigger, for instance.'
'Yeah', says Lux. 'Maybe I could bring a helium balloon and watch how it flies, it'll go up faster than me and it won't have to turn back when it's half out of air.'
'Hey, that's a really good idea', says Dad, standing up and stretching his back. 'My brain must be crusty, I don't know that I ever try to think of things that we can bring through to there anymore.'
'Yeah, you should leave thinking to the younger generation' says Lux, tumbling over to poke him in the ribs with her tail. Her cheeks turn a bright pastel pink as Dad's praise sinks in and she giggles as he lands a slow uppercut in her belly that launches her several feet into the air.
'Come down here Missy', says Dad, shaking his fist. 'Children should not let their parents know they're smarter than them!' He laughs heartily and she joins him. Without warning Lux finds herself paddling hard to circle around the roof of the house while Dad chases her from the ground with big, lumbering steps and feebly grasping hands.
And in the evening Mom wakes up and Dad goes to sleep, as always, and for one breath Lux lies in bed with them and listens to Mom's story and it's almost like a regular bedtime for a regular girl. Except when the story ends Dad is the only one sleeping, and Lux heads down with Mom to look at the sunset. They sit on the grass, Mom with a mug of coffee in her hand, and watch as fire soaks through the clouds and the sky grows dark.
'Why is it always so pretty?' asks Lux. What she wants to know is how sunsets work and how she could draw one that would make Mom happy, but she's not sure if Mom could answer that.
'Why is there pretty things?' says Mom, musing. 'There's beauty everywhere, love. Or maybe we are made to see beauty in all things. Look at this grass.' She picks a blade of grass and holds it close to her face, and Lux leans on her shoulder to see, and she sees a great many things. The edge curves beautifully; the web of nerves trace a beautiful pattern on the surface; the color of the grass is a deep, beautiful green against the last light of the sun. 'There's beauty', says Mom, 'to make it easier for us to care about the world, to make it more important to us, more meaningful.'
'You explain things so different from Dad', says Lux and leans a little closer.
'Maybe things just look different in the night', says Mom, putting an arm around Lux' back and squeezing, tenderly. At these words something shifts in Lux's mind.
'Maybe it looks different to you since you just woke up', says Lux, hesitant, thoughtful. 'And if Daddy is up to see the sunset when he's really sleepy. . .'
'Yes, we may see very different things' says Mom, eyes twinkling with a mysterious smile. 'So who do you think is right?'
'Oh, I don't think you or Dad is wrong', says Lux. 'I like your explanations and his explanations. It can be both ways, can't it?'
'Of course it can', says Mom.
And the night passes, as all the nights with Mom, as far back as Lux can remember. Mom speaks in questions and riddles and lets Lux figure the answers out herself, and beams with pride and joy when she does, even though Lux thinks there's always something more than Mom lets her know, some deeper truth that would make Mom so happy if she could uncover it, and so she thinks very hard.
But the night is not all work. Behind the house, deep in the forest lies a little pond where mother and daughter goes for a midnight soak. Lux can't get under the water by herself, but Mom dives and pulls her down by the tail and when she looks up at the surface, glittering with slender slivers of reflected moonlight, with the water pushing her silently from every direction, Lux feels a thrill of danger and shivers, forgetting for a second about Mom. But then Mom lets go and Lux pops up out of the water like a cork and splashes and laughs.
When morning comes Lux can't remember how many times she has laughed.
And then Dad wakes up and it starts all over again.
That weekend comes a babysitter, and Lux hides in her room while they talk about her. It's better when Mom and Dad can prepare people, but it's always scary when she meets them for the first time. Lux has been on television a bunch of times and everything but still people can act so weird when they see her, like they think she's not real. The last time they tried to get a sitter the boy peed in his pants and screamed and ran. Some of them are scared, some are disgusted, some are fascinated, but it doesn't matter. It's always bad.
Lux lies on the floor with her laptop and draws to try to keep from thinking these mean thoughts, making something like a pudgy screaming baby face with angry sprawling lines all in red, until the stylus detaches from its clip and flies away in the middle of a particularly brutal stroke. There's a call of surprise and then a hand reaches in front of her holding out the plastic stick, and she looks up to see the hands owner, a strange older girl who's crouching down and breaking into a smile when she meets Lux's eye. It happens so quickly and easily. Lux stretches her painted lips in a smile and reaches both flippers out to take the pencil before she can think.
'Hi Lux. I'm Faye', says the girl.
'We'd like Faye to look after you for today', says Mom, standing with Dad behind Faye. 'If you think you can stand a few hours without us.'
It sounds like a joke, it's supposed to be a joke, Lux wants it to be a joke, wants to laugh away the idea of her being some kind of baby who needs her Mommy and Daddy all the time, but she can only produce a choked peep at first, and reflexively bounce backward, still holding the digital pencil like a shield in front of her.
'Ah, she's shy', says Dad, shifting as if preparing to run and catch her. Mom braces herself, unconsciously. But Faye sits still on her haunches, her smile untouched, her eyes still following Lux, and Lux decides meeting new people doesn't have to be bad.
'I'm just thinking', says Lux, and it feels like she's floating higher than ever before. 'I think it's fine. I think Faye and I can be friends. Hi, Faye.'
'Well, that was easy', says Dad, putting an arm around Mom's shoulder. 'Let's run while we have a chance.'
'Not so fast', says Faye. 'You still haven't drilled me on how to avoid killing your daughter.'
'Oh, she can tell you about it herself, can't you Lux?' says Dad, while making motions as if putting on his coat yet not actually making any progress.
'Now, honey, we should probably give the child a chance to practice before putting a helpless life in her hands', says Mom.
'I think they think they're funny', says Lux, with a note of scorn.
'They're a couple of olds', says Faye, badly hiding a smile behind a hand. 'Don't judge them too hard. Okay, I know about changing your air every hour, avoiding sharp objects, heat sources and solvents and I know where the hole patch kits are, is there something more?'
'Well, stay away from the swirly blue transdimensional portal. But that's more so you don't die. It's safe for me. I guess that covers the fundamentals.'
And Faye practices changing Lux's air and it feels strange. Her touch, her lips, even the force of her breath is soft, ginger, more careful than Mom's or Dad's. It makes Lux laugh. Faye bounces Lux on her fingertips while running through the house until she's out of breath and they both fall on the floor laughing together and Lux almost doesn't notice when the parents leave.
'Thank you for being here', says Lux, lying on the kitchen table and watching Faye assemble a sandwich out of half the contents of the refrigerator. 'I never had so much fun with a new person before.'
'But you're fun to be with', says Faye, rubbing a hand on Lux's head. 'What kinds of butts do you usually meet?'
'They can never just treat me like a normal human person', says Lux.
'Ten years old and already so bitter, damn', says Faye. She stops moving, turns, bends and rests her chin on the table, nose to nose with Lux. She looks sad, hurt. 'People are such assholes aren't they? To anyone who's a little bit different.'
'You're not', says Lux, nudging their noses closer together. She's so happy, it doesn't seem right her new friend should be sad. 'You never even blinked. Never even hesitated touching me with your mouth. It was, you are nice.'
'Maybe just cause people haven't been nice to me', says Faye. For a second she looks like she's about to cry, and neither of them moves or says anything, and Lux wishes she had arms long enough to hug with. Then Faye touches her hand to the side of Lux's face and laughs and stands up. 'Look at me oversharing. I just, I'm just trying to say it's nice meeting you too.'
'Yeah, it's, I want to talk to you about so much I don't know where to start, do you feel that too?' Lux weaves around Faye's head, too excited to steer.
'I do', says Faye, with her mouth full. 'Let's take turns asking questions.'
'Okay. Okay, um, is eating fun?'
'Well, I was going to say it depends on the food but I've never really thought about it. It's a, it's an experience. It's actually less fun the more you think about the stuff blending in your mouth, grinding under your teeth and turning into watery drool slush. But I like trying new food, new combinations. You know? You're out there exploring alien worlds, you like exploring, Lux?'
'Oh, yes. Seeing stuff no one else can see and all that. But it's a little sad too cause I can't even explain it or draw it for anyone else. It's too strange, it's outside all out what's the word frame of reference.'
'Man, and your parents let you out there all alone, not even radio contact.'
'Well, you kill any electronics –'
'Yes, I've read those papers about it, I'm just saying, I'm jealous. My parents don't even let me kiss a girl. That's too strange for them.'
'I'm sorry, Faye. But at least they let you come here right?'
'Actually, they think I'm going about town wasting money on candy and movies and things. With friends they think I have.'
With the sandwich finished, Faye browses through the kitchen cupboards. Lux bobs behind her and talks about Mom and Dad probably being scared of having any more children but maybe they can adopt Faye when Faye laughs, lifting a large square bottle over her head, the dark liquid inside making a dull clucking sound as it moves around which somehow sounds menacing.
'That's grown-up drink', says Lux, her dorsal fin twitching.
'That's alright, I want to grow up', says Faye, with a brittle smile. 'And no one will know if I take just a little sip. If you can do me the favor of not telling on me, of course.'
'I promise', says Lux, easily. It's an easy decision. Saying no likely isn't going to stop Faye. Drinking and smoking, she understands, has consequences in the future, but people do it anyway because people don't really believe in consequences. Even with a lot of training it's easy to forget about consequences because brains just aren't built for them. The threat of getting Faye in trouble would be just another consequence. Knowing the chemistry of addiction and how dangerous it is to a young developing brain as well. Faye could hurt herself or break stuff and have to pay or be found out and punished but Lux saying yes or no doesn't change any of that. But saying yes means they're still friends.
And, Lux thinks as Faye puts the bottle to her lips and immediately pulls it away, choking with a wide-eyed look of disgust, maybe Faye needs a little break from herself.
'Huugl', says Faye. 'You should be happy you don't have a tongue is all I'm saying.' Still she takes a bigger gulp and turns to the sink, rinsing her mouth under the tap.
'It looks terrible', says Lux. 'How does it feel?'
'The room is spinning a bit. There's like, tingling in my brain. That has to be just in my mind.' Faye laughs, without warning. 'It feels, I don't know, it shouldn't just make me happy, right? Like just flipping a switch? But I feel happy.'
'Well, this has been a good experiment for science I'd say.'
'I may have another one. It wouldn't hurt to change your air now, would it? I feel like, if I don't do it now I'll just worry about forgetting.'
'I'll remind you, but sure, if you want.' It always feels good to get fresh air. Faye takes two attempts to grab her tail and uncork her which makes them both giggle, and as the air begins to leak out Faye takes a big swallow of the whiskey, wipes her lips, struggles to keep her face still, wipes her cheeks and then blows a breath into Lux and pinches her valve.
'Oh', says Lux, as the room starts spinning gently. 'Ooh. Oh right, the fumes.' She realizes she feels something that must be the taste of Faye's air, stinging, hot. It feels the way the haze in the air looks above an asphalt road on a hot day. Far away, where the pavement looks slick and oily. Lux loses herself in the image, not noticing how she's drifting towards the floor until Faye picks her up in a large hand.
'Oops, let me do this properly', she says. Lux tries to make an acknowledging sound, but she can't really speak at all when she's deflated.
Faye quickly fills her with air and vaporized ethanol and they both bounce gently around the house in ecstasy, playing music loudly on the television. The thoughts about consequence seem to have turned into awkward shapes that don't quite fit in her head; the future is too far away, the now too great, to filled with brimming mindless joy. Lux wonders distantly if she can even form addictions without a brain. And how she can become drunk. And if the alcohol is dissolving more than a microscopic amount of her rubber. Her thoughts turn to a tangle weighing her down, and she comes to rest on Mom and Dad's bed, her mind still whirling and spinning but her body seeming too heavy to move.
'Are you okay?' asks Faye, plopping down beside her. For some reason Faye has taken her clothes off. She said they were hot, Lux remembers.
'You should call my Dad now', says Lux, remembering. 'Better try to sound sober.'
'Sober?' says Faye, with a smirk. 'We've been playing for a while, playing tag, dancing, I'm a little winded that's all.' She leaps to her feet and runs out and the music goes quiet and she returns, falling into the bed with a little sigh and holding a phone in front of her face.
'Hiya', says Faye, in a cheerful voice. 'Yeah, we're fine. Watching this rock classics marathon on teevee. Exciting stuff. Bonding. Do you want to say hi?' She holds the phone as if expecting Lux to take it, then makes a face and takes it back to look at the screen. 'Ah, there's the speakerphone', she says, thumbing the screen just as Lux dives on her belly, nose against her chin.
And Lux exchanges pleasantries with Dad and then Mom and asks if they can keep Faye and everyone laughs and Lux hates being a child. Eventually they hang up and Faye lets out a breath nearly hard enough to push Lux into the air.
'That was scary', says Faye, and hugs Lux, giggling and making her vibrate which makes the dizziness stronger. 'But thanks for reminding me.'
'It would have been scarier if they called you, I bet', says Lux, trying to wriggle free. Faye seems to misunderstand and hugs her more firmly. Not tightly, though. It occurs to her Faye is holding her as gently as a soap bubble and she must be scared of breaking her and it feels good to be so much cared for and she closes her eyes and lies still.
'Did you go to sleep?' says Faye, poking Lux's cheek with a fingertip.
'I don't sleep', says Lux, without moving. 'It's how I have learned so much for my age. Part of it.'
'Ah, I'd love to have eight extra hours a day', says Faye, her arms falling away. 'But um, what are you doing then?'
'Pretending you're my big sister.'
'Okay, we're sisters. Um. What do sisters do?'
'I haven't thought that far. I guess we go on secret adventures Mom and Dad can't know about.'
'And, uh, we respect and support each others' pursuits.'
'Hm, I don't even know that I have any pursuits.'
'What do you want to do right now?'
'I want to be a rock star. Or maybe just watch them.'
So they sit down in front of the television, for a little while. When Phil Collins sings that he can feel it coming in the air tonight, Faye plays Lux like a drum and it feels amazing to make such sound. By the time Gwen Stefani urges them not to speak they're both jumping and bouncing around and doing push-ups and singing their hearts out, without judgment.
And at some point after sending a voice mail to tell Mom and Dad everything is still fine they are swimming in the pond in the woods, all different and dreamlike in the daylight. Faye swallows a lot of water when she first jumps in but then seems sober. Bright, bold, laughing, caring Faye. She runs out of steam after about an hour and lies down in on soft moss bank, gasping for breath.
'You're not going to sleep, are you?' says Lux, floating where she keeps the sun out of Faye's eyes.
'I don't want to', says Faye, with a raspy voice. She clears her throat with a weak cough, and takes several deep breaths. 'Let me catch your breath. And then I'll catch mine. Not used to. All this moving around.'
'I think that's another thing sisters do', says Lux, her voice going down as Faye gently squeezes the air out of her.
'Exhaust each other.'
'But you're tireless', says Faye and fills Lux again, with her soft breaths. 'So are you just going to run me twice as ragged?'
'I like your air', says Lux. 'When it's not full of whiskey I mean.' She somersaults in the light breeze, full of new life and purpose, but then she looks down on Faye and sees how tired she looks and fills up with some sort of sympathetic fatigue and slides down to her side. 'No, it'll be nice to relax a bit. I think I am exhausted, mentally.'
Faye says nothing, but turns on her side and puts her arms around Lux and falls asleep with a small grunt, sun-warm and still damp. A lone drop of water runs down Lux's cheek and she thinks it feels like crying.