The first seven they bring us are blinded by the end of it. Even as the scales are stripped from their eyes, we find only white blanks beneath, seeking, swerving with no center. Jayla places the scales inside specimen jars, pokes at them with forceps, pushes them back and forth against the cold glass. The children out here don’t know what the sun is anymore. None of them were born this way, but they’ve spent too much time away from the light.
Two kids were found frozen the week before we arrived, trapped on the edge of a creek after it flooded, their hands pressed to their eyes, pulling at the stubborn flesh growing on their faces, the hard masses plugging up their sockets until the whole world shuddered into cold and black. The bodies were burned before we could take a look, make a diagnosis. Provide a why. The seven children we do see remain blind, their eyes leaking pus from the corners, reveling in the absence. The pupil is a center, a whole. In Crawna, the circle’s been broken.
“I want to send these scabs back to the lab, Mark,” Jayla says.
We’re done seeing children today, done explaining how the flesh has grown harder, faster, past any law of biology I can name. She drops another specimen into the freezer bag between her legs. Some of the first officials up here said it was something in the water, something like the mercury further south, poisoning the fish and the residents until they were all driven mad, loaded with tumors and bleeding from the skin into their sheets at night like meat on butcher paper.
It’s only the children, we tried to explain. Why wouldn’t it affect anyone else? Only those under ten seem to suffer. The suits handed Jayla a nondisclosure agreement, a binding contract. They said it could be solved given time, given the right minds. They said this in a warm office with no smoke stains on the ceiling, no motor oil pooling in the corner, no mothers asking if this was their fault.
“What will they do with it? Some more bullshit about advanced cell growth? Nothing benign about any of this shit.” My words come out louder than they should have, flexing in the wrong places, splintering the space between us.
Jayla sleeps in her snow pants most nights. She winces now and closes the freezer bag. “I just want to get a second opinion. I don’t trust what I’m seeing.”
It’s dark outside. Four in the afternoon and the sun is abandoning us again, fleeing from these kids who can’t even see it rise or fall. Only the occasional warmth placed on their cheeks reminds them that days come and go. I put my tools away. I will rinse them in the morning.
Jayla does not wait for me.
“Jacob was never like this before,” the mother says. Jayla is jotting down notes, her hands bright red inside the trailer. The boy is small, but his right eye looks massive. White tissue plugs half his face. His left pupil watches us, follows my hands as I examine his face. The mother confesses she let him go play in the woods. Most of the children here play outside—once the real winter arrives, they won’t be able to journey very far. As more of the kids begin to show these new deformities, the doors are starting to close. Even Jayla wants to add an extra lock to our door. I tried to tell her locks would not stop an ax from bashing through the wood. A lock would only trick us into feeling safe. “We are on our own,” I whispered last night. “We don’t need to pretend.” Dead leaves attacked the window, but neither of us moved. I tried to run a hand through her hair, but missed. She rolled over.
“He was out there with the dogs, and when he came back—well, I thought maybe it was just a burn or something. They look like burns, don’t they?”
“Not quite burns, but it does seem like a reaction to something. Had Jacob been playing with any of the other…?”
I run a bare thumb over the white flesh. There is no give beneath it.
“The ghosts? No. Even the dogs won’t play with them anymore.”
They call the children ghosts. I don’t argue with the definition. Crawna stands on the edge of nowhere, hidden from the world by massive pines which continue to hold up their dead brethren even after the roots fail. When the trees do drop, they come down in massive clumps of needles and deadfall. The dead hang among the living. Parents feed their ghosts, but they do not address them as alive. Each meal is more like a sacrifice to an old god.
“Not even the dogs?”
“They walk right by the kids, even if they’re holding food out to them. They treat them like they aren’t there. The dogs still listen to Jacob though. They follow him around.”
Someone shouts outside the trailer. I continue examining the boy’s face. The cells seem dead, but I don’t want to cut them off yet. We might try freezing them tomorrow, the same treatment you’d apply to warts. It won’t do anything, but all I can do is go through the motions. Jayla says we need a ritual to center ourselves.
The pupil in his right eye has already dissipated. Jayla and I have considered calcium building up around the eyes, behind the pupils perhaps. There are documented cases of people with mineral deposits gathering in tear ducts and along their eyelids, but nothing quite like this. Nothing so permanent. I tug at the ridge around Jacob’s eye, but he does not feel the pressure. The flesh is dead, but present. It refuses to rot. It lingers.
“Mark, I think you should take a look.”
The shouts outside are growing louder. Dogs join in on the chorus. Jayla says they don’t seem so friendly when you smell their breath. They smell like meat to her and meat is another sign of death. She never used to be this morbid.
I walk over to the window and press my hands against the foggy glass. Jayla has stopped taking notes. Some of the ghost children, the original seven, stand outside our trailer, running their hands up and down each other’s faces. They remain calm even as a small mob approaches, a woman stumbling in front of them, her clothes torn and her feet bare.
“She used to be the one running the school,” Jacob’s mother says. “Made the kids stay late all the time. Jacob used to say she was teaching them about the trees like they were people.”
There’s no wind outside, and the crowd’s voice blends with the dogs, yapping into the wind.
“They’re going to take the kids,” Jayla says. Her voice is terse—this is what she has expected all along. Even if this place burns down, it will be weeks before anyone notices the smoke.
“Do you want me to bring them inside? We can barely fit four people in here.”
Jayla doesn’t answer. Cold trickles in the room—the mother and Jacob are gone. The door bangs back and forth before I slam it shut. We stand at the window and watch the woman stumbling, the slow advance of parents, grandparents, teenagers. I don’t see any weapons until a glass bottle flies through the air. She turns back toward the crowd and it strikes her face, the blood immediate and bright, frothing above her eyes. She doesn’t wipe away the red mask, continues stumbling forward.
The ghosts linger along the sides of the streets, muted by the mob. I don’t recognize this woman. I don’t look away. Another bottle flies up and out of the crowd. Its arc is cut short by her spine, and she falls again.
“We’re going home,” Jayla says. She sits down and begins to pack up her jars, slamming her case shut. I don’t move from the window. The mob continues down the only street in this village, driving this woman into the cold dirt, toward the water. No one touches her with their hands. “We’re going home tomorrow, Mark. No one even wants us here. They’re going to kill that woman. You don’t want to be a witness.”
Her hand searches for mine and squeezes, but I want to see it all.
The bananas are brown and the smell fills our tiny kitchen, leaking into the bedroom. The walls so thin you can taste the peels. Fifteen dollars for a bunch this far north, but neither of us is hungry. The next plane will touch down in Crawna tomorrow. It might be the last one we’ll see for a month. Progress is non-existent once the cold unfolds up here. The sun will slouch across the sky in brief arcs, unable to maintain its place.
With only two of us, there’s no way to discover what’s behind this new disease. We’re just observers—Jayla and I have become the excuse, the first measure against any kind of culpability. Maybe it’s a poison in the soil, something the children have begun to ingest. Maybe it’s something in the water, but that wouldn’t explain the adults walking around with clear eyes (when they aren’t weeping).
“This is what happens when you have nothing,” Jayla says. “How are we supposed to help them if we can’t tell what it is?”
I try to pretend I am asleep.
“This is what happens when you abandon the rest of the world. They drowned that woman, Mark. We need to leave. We need to leave tomorrow.”
We didn’t see the woman drown, but I don’t argue with Jayla. She wants to believe this can’t happen in the city. I don’t tell her about the man I saw standing by the subway, a briefcase in his hand, three months before they sent us here. I don’t tell her I took out my phone to check the time. I don’t tell her when I looked back to see the train arrive there was only a briefcase and a crowd screaming. He made no noise himself. He was, and then he wasn’t.
“Well, what about the Jacob kid? It seems to be slowing down, whatever it might be.”
“He’ll be blind in two weeks at the rate we’ve seen this stuff progress. It doesn’t follow any of the rules, Mark. It doesn’t want us to figure it out. Would you let those kids into your house? How young are some of them? Five or six years old?”
“They won’t let them freeze,” I reply. “They’re just adapting to it, like any parent. You look for someone to blame. You look for the odd one out. You can’t predict how they’ll grow. They carry your genes. Just an immune system overreacting, you know? They’ll adapt.”
“You saw that tonight, didn’t you, Mark?” Jayla says. “They thought she was the one who brought the curse—over forty, living alone with no family around. No man. No family around. Same story all over the world, same story since the world started. Did you see her crawl out of the water? No, Mark.”
I don’t argue. I try to fake sleep once again. Jayla is still wearing her full snow suit beside me, even though it has yet to snow. I roll over and stare at the window, the single streetlight struggling to breach the growing dark.
“You can’t ignore it, Mark.”
I pretend she’s talking about the bananas in the kitchen.
Jacob pokes my face, feeling for my eyes. His hands are too small, too weak, to do more than probe at my eyelids. I push away the fingers and fling my arms out. The bed is empty beside me. Jayla’s suitcase is gone, but she’s left her sample case behind. Hangers litter the floor. I don’t bother looking for a note. All the words were laid out last night. I let nature take its course.
I didn’t want to interfere.
“How did you get in here?” I say. The cold embraces me as I step out of bed, stumbling into my boots and coat. Jacob doesn’t speak, but his hands are still searching for me in the room. The scales have spread across his face, but they don’t explain why he refuses to speak. Leaves and plastic bags are scattered around the kitchen. Jacob stumbles after me in a T-shirt and rubber boots. His scales bulge around his eye sockets, but he doesn’t stumble.
“Where is your mother?”
He follows me outside. Light is barely present. A few snowmobiles remain on the sides of the road. Scaled children sleep in doorways and on staircases, the dogs pushed out into the gravel. They roam back and forth, unable to close in on the boys and girls who don’t seem to feel the cold, whose skin is turning white. The dogs nip at one another. Little trails of blood run through the fur on their ears. Low sounds rattle their chests. My medical trailer farther down the road is burning. I was just the assistant. Jayla was the one with the degree. The flames don’t make a sound, but I can smell plastic in the air.
I follow the boy away from the main strip, looking for the adults, for someone to explain what happened. The flames will only spread. We walk toward the dead trees, the blankets of needles beneath our feet. Jacob does not feel the cold. My ears throb, the blood retreating to my brain, my heart, my stomach, all of them throbbing hollows. No creatures in the trees to mark our passage. Only the dog songs to say you’re alone and you’ll always be this way.
Some of the other blind children creep out from the trees, hands before them tracing the deadfall. The white has spread across their cheeks, a band of dead flesh like a muzzle spreading into their tiny, rotten mouths. Jayla is somewhere in the sky by now, I hope.
I watch them gather behind me, faces probing for heat of some kind. There is a guttural sound in these woods, a rattling from inside a wound. The place you were a moment before is now a void. The dogs have begun to howl back in the village, mourning for whatever new rot is pushing toward them. Animals understand what absence means. I reach out for Jacob’s hand, but he has scuttled ahead of me.
“There would be no children,” Jayla had whispered from within the cowl of her snowsuit, her lips shaking despite the heater on the floor. “There would be no contribution to our overpopulation.” I told her that was pride talking. I told her to count the days. They were only marks in the snow.
We step over the bodies of parents, bodies with little handprints wrapped around their throats, bodies beaten with broken branches, white willows stained with rust. Their hands are all reaching for the sky. The blind children stay away from me, but they nuzzle at one another, learn names through smell and sound. The drifts of needles quake with each step I take, and the smoke seems stronger here. The haze infiltrates the wood, slipping into my mouth. I push it out and crouch low, crawling beside Jacob, trying to ignore the face of his mother pointed toward the sky, half her face torn away by some beast in the night. I hope it was some beast.
There is a hole in the ground before me, steam rising in a constant stream from its mouth. The children gather around it, wiping tiny bloody hands over their eyes, wiping away drops of sweat and rust clinging together in their scales. I have given up on explanations.
Jacob stumbles forward, scrambling toward the hole, beckoning me. There should be fear here, a shot through my sternum, a wet stain spreading between my legs. I should be thrashing at the discoveries I’ve found out here in the woods, the parents, the branches, the woman they drowned yesterday. New voids in these woods. We never saw the woman drown, but Jayla kept saying her spirit was with us in the trailer, her spirit was there to remind us we failed. Fear rattled around somewhere inside that tin box too, but was too swaddled in the cold, trapped beneath a layer of something undone.
I do not believe in spirits. I believe in faults, in lines drawn and broken, in flawed designs. Our bodies are septic systems, our bodies are porous wonderlands. The steaming hole before me does not care if I do not believe. It does not let me deny its presence, its heat, its beckoning call. There is a wound inside the earth—that much I can see. It bleeds vapor, blinds the children, and turns their myopic brains on mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles—any who would stand in its way. It infects us through the eyes, through any attempt to see something true. We are easy to fool.
Jacob’s hand pulls me toward the edge of this heated sinkhole. Jayla won’t be able to hear me say it now, to admit I was wrong, surrounded by these creatures I might’ve called children before. She won’t see me dip my head into the steam, feel the cells within my eyes mutate.
There is something in this new absence, something in the white. I can hear the children breathing around me. We are something new. All our hearts are beating together, racking our chests, racking what’s left. A white void wrapping itself around each ventricle inside.
I listen for the space between each beat, but all I hear is static. All I hear is snow.