They’re called “The Tens.” Each red pill sends you back ten years, for ten hours. I heard about them through my cousin, Jack, who lives in Manhattan. They’ve become popular at these exclusive parties Jack tells me about. They’re hard to get, which makes them even more popular with the kind of top-shelf people he mixes with. I can hardly believe they’re sitting on my dresser. Here, in a tiny apartment all the way down in Louisiana.
“You can choose how far back you want to go,” he said. It was almost a year ago that Jack let me in on the big secret. Vague rumors flew around about something that could make you feel young again but everyone was highly skeptical. We laughed or rolled our eyes at the suggestion. It seemed too far off to be true, like teleportation machines or rocket cars.
“You take one to go back ten years. So, two would send you back twenty and so on.”
My leg bounced up and down under the kitchen table as he spoke. I must have banged it three or four times at least, judging from the deep purple bruise I was greeted with the next morning.
“What exactly do you mean by going back?” I envisioned little chubby kids instantaneously swallowed by giant suits, coat sleeves spread out on either side across the floor, enormous trousers left behind as children slithered out.
“Your mind. You know, you feel like you’re young again. You think like a kid, act like a kid. As young as you want, but only for ten hours. And it won’t work again for at least ten days.”
I thought about how young I’d try for. If I went back for ten years I’d only be thirty-two, which didn’t seem to be worth it at all. I could be twenty-two, a little better, but I was reminded how lost I felt then. Too old to be coddled by my mother and too young to know much about the way the world works. My twenties equaled a near-empty apartment and late night television. Not quite appealing. I’d have to go further back. I wondered what would happen if someone took too many and went back too far. Would they cease to exist? Was it possible to feel like you’ve gone back to the womb? Everything dissolving, ribbons of red and blue like dipping a paintbrush in water, swirling. Darkness and warmth, the body curling. Steady booming heartbeats competing, frantic.
It was all so intoxicating that I nearly forgot to protest and tell Jack that he was full of crap.
“Are you shittin’ me?”
“Would I shit you, Sophie?”
He wouldn’t and I knew it. Jack was always straight with me. If anyone else had told me about The Tens I would have told them to shove it.
“They’re all the rage at these covert parties here in the city. People plan for weeks for them. They decide on how far back they’ll all go, try to get people roughly the same age so that they all get to be around the same age when they go back. Someone has to supervise if they decide to go back far enough, kind of a designated watcher, someone to play Mommy or Daddy for the night.”
I saw rich people in pearls and Prada crawling around on the floor. A butler begging them to stop wiping their faces on three-thousand-dollar curtains.
“How do you know all this is true? Have you seen it?”
“Oh, I’ve seen it. And I’ve done it.”
I couldn’t get much out after that bombshell. I sounded like someone trying to come out of a coma. Rusty, unused vocal chords, trying to communicate for the first time in years. Jack took the cue and rolled into it.
“Can’t say I remember it all actually, but what I do remember was absolutely incredible. A little scary at first, I’ll admit. At first, I had that nauseous feeling I remember from dropping acid in high school, but it didn’t last long. I fell asleep, which apparently is normal, and came to a little while later like a completely different person. It was unreal! I went back twenty, which made me eighteen again. I didn’t have a goddamn care in the world. I felt so, well, you know… free. Like I could do anything.
I was just expecting a feeling or something, but I actually thought I was eighteen. I didn’t even know that I had taken anything. We were all so damn confused at first, in this fantastic apartment in New York with people we didn’t recognize. That’s when our Watcher came in handy. He told us the most insane story and we fell for it. He didn’t tell us what we really did. That would have ruined it, and probably would’ve sent some of us off the deep end. It wasn’t until it wore off that I was aware of what had happened.
I talked and talked about anything to anybody, you know? I didn’t feel inhibited or any of that bullshit baggage people have with each other when you get older. I felt like the whole world was open to me. I didn’t have a care in the world. No mortgage payments. No worrying about getting a job promotion. I was free.”
I couldn’t remember Jack sounding so passionate about anything in a long time. Just hearing him talk reminded me of what he was like when he was truly eighteen. He was the tall, golden boy with a swimmer’s body and a ticket out of the nowhere town we lived in. Everyone always knew that Jack would make something of himself. I was the scrawny, wire-haired one who always took the seat next to him, hanging on every word like a little sister even though I was older.
I called him back several times during the next few weeks. Every time he spoke about The Tens I would lose my train of thought and forget to ask him all the questions I had lined up. He never grew tired of talking about it. Jack tried to answer my questions but he didn’t have answers to all of them. No one seemed to know where they came from or exactly how they worked. People were so overwhelmed by what the pills did that these mysteries were swatted away like gnats.
I spent a lot of time daydreaming about taking The Tens, especially when the late afternoon rains gave in and left heavy, thick air in its wake. I’d sit on the floor of our tiny wrought-iron balcony, hug my knees, coffee mug at my side, close my eyes and take in the perfume of opening jasmine. No matter how old I am I can never get enough of my southern jasmine. I could open my eyes and be a child again, discovering it for the first time.
The Tens were highly scarce, outrageously expensive, and geographically beyond my grasp so my fantasies seemed harmless fun. I had my reservations about whether I would take them if I was given the chance. What would be the point? Then I would pick Jack’s brain and become convinced all over again.
That’s around the time we found out my husband, Aidan, was sick. He was always a bit of a hypochondriac so it’s hard to say when it really began. He couldn’t keep anything down. Most meals concluded with a mad dash to the toilet, his enormous hands clutching his sweaty blond hair when he’d collapse from exhaustion. He usually complained of vague aches and pains or general discomfort. This was something altogether different.
The doctor told him it was a virus at first. He prescribed antibiotics and Phenegran for the vomiting. After a week, he ended up in the emergency room for dehydration. He couldn’t keep any liquids down, even when he switched over to suppositories to try and get the anti-nausea medicine in his system.
He didn’t want to go back to the hospital, which seemed odd for him. Aidan usually jumped at any opportunity to have doctors poke and prod at him. He was half-conscious when I made the call for an ambulance, his skinny white limbs splayed out and shaking like he was making a snow angel, even though the linoleum wouldn’t change its shape.
“No. No. I’ll be okay,” he mumbled. He must have known something was wrong.
Seven hours passed by in the emergency room. Three different nurses took turns trying to get an I.V. started in his dry veins. His arms looked like they had been attacked by miniature machine guns. Bloodstains trailed off in various directions on the white bed sheets like a fiendish treasure map. I stood by and clutched my hands while periodically shouting, “It’ll be okay” over the nurses’ heads as he moaned.
The doctor on call emerged from a two-hour absence with a clipboard in hand. He didn’t look at Aidan while he ran the back of his pen down the papers in front of him. That’s when I knew the news would be bad.
Leukemia. I didn’t even think adults could get it. I asked the doctor if there could be some mistake. Doctors aren’t the infallible gods we make them out to be, after all. You hear about people waking up to find they’ve amputated the wrong leg all the time. Aidan just raised his head, looked at me and dropped it back down into his hands.
“I knew it,” he whispered.
He later told me he wondered if all his previous worries about illness had somehow brought the cancer on, as if the habitual temperature taking and Vitamin C popping sent a message out into the universe and boomeranged back in the form of this disease. Like he was somehow responsible.
“That’s a lot of voodoo bullshit,” I said, which made him smile, but didn’t do much to lessen his twisted sense of guilt.
“And you! What you must be going through!”
Leave it to Aidan to think of whatever I was going through when he was the one who was sick. Of course, when the doctor gave us the news he might as well have plunged a knife through my gut, but I couldn’t let Aidan see that. I squeezed his hand and told him we would beat it together.
Aidan’s cancer was the reason I didn’t tell him what was going on at the university. He already knew the head of our English department was on his way out and a few of us were vying for the position. I had been there longer than most and I always went above and beyond duty when called upon so I knew I was a front-runner. As I saw it, there was only one worthy competitor: George Kenner. He boasted an ever-expanding list of awards and publications and brought some much-needed celebrity to the faculty list. George was a major factor when it came to drawing funds into the program and he knew it. I hated him from the top of his poofy-haired head down to his shiny loafers.
“What’s going on with the department?” Aidan often asked. I knew what he meant, he wanted to know if there had been any word about the promotion. He knew how badly I wanted it. The subject usually came up at some point during our breakfast conversations. He saw how animated I would get analyzing my chances, fueled on by caffeine. I couldn’t let him know that I had withdrawn my name from contention. All those extra responsibilities wouldn’t be compatible with my husband’s illness.“Oh, you know George will get it. It’s okay. I’m happy for him,” I said, finally putting an end to it.
It’s amazing how quickly Aidan went downhill. The chemo took most of his strength in a matter of weeks. He spent most of the day on our big green couch, a giant Tupperware bowl at his side to catch the vomit that would come up too quickly for him to make it to the bathroom, not that he would have had the strength to make it there anyway. I kept telling him it was all normal, part of the process, and he would feel better soon. Even though we both knew that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, it put him at ease. It didn’t do much for me.
Our whole lives changed. That day-to-day groove I had worked myself into since starting at the university was blown to smithereens. I used to wake up before Aidan and go for a run up and around Audubon Park. I’d get back, put on a pot of coffee, and take a quick shower while it was brewing. Aidan was an IT manager and didn’t have to be in until ten, but I had morning classes, the ones idealistic freshman signed up for but didn’t much show up for. Sometimes Aidan would hear me in the shower and sneak out of bed so I would be surprised to see him already finishing up breakfast. Scrambled eggs and toast, the extent of his abilities in the kitchen. Sometimes we would have breakfast on the little balcony, balancing our warm plates on our knees.
I didn’t really need to keep working out anyway. Practically lifting Aidan back and forth to the bathroom was enough of a workout. I was getting thin, too thin, but not like Aidan. Once, Aidan brought up the idea of a bedpan. He looked down, barely able to say the words, his voice unsteady.
“Nonsense,” I said, “You don’t need it.”
I went on indefinite leave at the university. They were great about it all. Even George Kenner, who wanted me to know I could call him for anything. Of course, he knew they were just words, that we were never close enough for me to call him for the kind of help I needed, but I appreciated the act all the same.
The only person I could really talk to about it all was Jack. He offered to come down for a while but I knew how competitive and hectic his job was. I tried to make it seem like it was pointless, to uproot himself like that, because Aidan wasn’t doing so bad and he was on his way to making a full recovery. I don’t know if I said that more for me or for him. I said it so much that it started to sound phony to the both of us.
Jack could see through me. Always could.
“I’m sending you something. You’ll have to sign for it, so look for it, okay? Maybe it’ll help. I don’t know.”
And there they were the very next day, sitting on the dresser, waiting to be devoured. I probably would have lost the tiny things had they arrived just a few months earlier. They would have disappeared in the piles of paperwork and powder-covered jars of make-up. Aidan’s cancer turned me into a neat freak. Everything had to be in order, everything in its right place. My idea of order constitutes chucking most things into the trash, so the dresser was bare. Our bedroom, normally draped in tossed-aside clothes that outnumbered those folded or hanging neatly in the closet, became antiseptic. White walls, crisp cream linens, a scrubbed-clean pine sleigh bed, the over-sized dresser and a delicate nightstand with barely enough strength to support the antique brass lamp that Aidan’s grandmother had left him. It might have been too cold to stand if it wasn’t for the Louisiana sun. It emptied easily into the room, through the gauzy curtains, and enveloped the room in its orange light. Our room was a blank canvas, waiting to be painted upon with each new day.
Jack had them Fed-exed. They were wrapped in cotton, cloth, and then tightly taped. He knew as well as I did that this was a federal offense, sending them through the mail. I don’t know what kind of charge the pills themselves would’ve brought since they were so new and underground and the government didn’t know what to make of it all yet, if they even had a clue. I sat at the kitchen table and stared at them in my hand. I couldn’t stop looking at the damn things, like I couldn’t believe they existed. Small robin’s egg blue pills. No indication of what they could do, but I knew right away what they were, even before I read Jack’s note stuffed in the corner of the cardboard envelope.
“I hope these can provide some temporary relief. Love, Jack.”
I hadn’t taken them yet and I was already addicted. I shook my head, gave my cheek a light slap and put them on the dresser. I didn’t have to hide them away, Aidan slept most of the time and didn’t open his eyes much. I would show them to him soon enough. I just had to take it all in first.
“You shittin’ me?” he said when I presented them later that night. I smiled. We had been together for a long time. Since the beginning of time, I would always say. We talked like we were one person, medical marvels who happened to walk independently but shared the same brain. Jack had heard someone mention the rumors about The Tens on a local talk radio show. The host laughed it off but one caller insisted they existed, said she knew firsthand. The host embarrassed her, said she was just looking for attention. He said he didn’t know what to make of it all.
“Would I shit you, Aidan?”
When I told him they had come from Jack he finally let it sink in. I could see it glaze over his eyes. He put his hands to his mouth like he expected his tongue to fall out, readying himself to catch it.
“You’re kidding!” he said at every pause in my explanation. An energy I had not seen enter his body in what seemed like a lifetime suddenly emerged. Neither one of us thought about the cancer then, not for the first time in months. Asking him if he wanted to take them with me seemed like a formality. The real question was: How many?
We were the same age, which made the decision a little easier, and I had already given the subject plenty of thought. I wondered why I hadn’t I told Aidan about The Tens when Jack had first told me about them.
“Let’s be twelve again,” I said.
“Sounds good,” he replied, “Anything but forty-two sounds great.”
He was ready to grab them from my hand when I jerked back.
“Wait! Hold on a minute. What about having somebody to watch us, to take care of us if we need help.”
Aidan rolled his eyes playfully. “Come on. Twelve might be young, but it isn’t that young, is it? It’s not like we’ll be rolling around in our feces or anything.”
I held them behind my back.
“Look, we can leave a note to ourselves, huh?” he said. “We can explain it however we want. We’re at the sitters and Mom and Dad will be back soon. Or, hell, we could write, ’You’ve both taken drugs and will be back to normal in ten hours. Don’t lose your shit and jump out the window. Love, The Drug Fairy’ for all I care. Let’s just take them!”
I had to admit that the note idea wasn’t a bad one. Besides, I couldn’t think of one person that I would trust with this secret besides Jack who was practically on the other side of the world from us. Aidan was getting impatient, exhaling heavily, like he had already gone back and was about to throw himself on the ground in a full tantrum. He was so happy. I didn’t want to take it all away from him.
We woke up next to each other on the bed. There was something familiar about the person next to me but I couldn’t quite place him. He was the size of a man but with the face of a boy, ambiguous, almost fuzzy. Maybe he was big for his age, I thought. He returned the fixated, confused stare.
He jumped up suddenly.
“What… what is going on here? Who are you?” he asked before he noticed the note pinned to his shirt, a large sheet of yellow paper torn from a legal pad.
“Our parents? But… but…”
“Let me see,” I interrupted, tearing the note from his hand. I had scribbled something about our parents leaving on an emergency and being left in good hands, although I didn’t recognize the messy script as my own. It was all a little vague, which I would eventually remember was exactly the point. We thought that being too specific might be the wrong way to go.
“Why do I feel so funny?” I asked myself out loud.
“How the heck am I supposed to know? I don’t even know who you are.”
“Sophie. It says right here in the note, genius. I guess our parents are friends?”
“I guess. How come I don’t remember anything, like coming here. And why would they leave us alone?”
“Why not?” I protested. “My parents leave me on my own all the time. I am twelve, not some kid.”
“Well, mine say I’m not old enough to watch my little sister yet even though I’m twelve too.” I felt proud that I was an only child then, that I was left with responsibilities like a grown-up. I was always treated like an adult because there were no other kids around to be a kid with. I was jealous that Aidan had a sibling.
We bickered for the first hour or so, each trying to assert some authority, before we surrendered to our situation and decided to make the most of it since our parents were due back in just a few hours. We were strangers with no memory of our life together, of how we held hands as we walked, of how we slept together -wrapping our limbs over and around the other’s in a strange geometry. The idea of sex and love was beyond our scope, intangible rumors giggled over at recess. I had seen pictures of Aidan when he was a child and thought that I would have liked to have known him then. He told me that he was a trouble-maker and it was best that we met later in life.
We snooped around the apartment silently as if someone could enter at any moment. We had stowed away any incriminating evidence beforehand. Pictures, bills, our marriage certificate, anything that could ruin it all. I eventually opened the front door and stepped out onto the balcony.
“Hey! I can see the streetcar from here!” I knew exactly where I was, far from my home in St. Mary parish.
I had always thought of the streetcar as the ultimate symbol of grand New Orleans, like I imagined the Statue of Liberty is for New Yorkers. It was like seeing it for the first time. No memories of its shut-down because of Katrina, how the grass growing over the tracks had made me weep.
“Hey, I found a whole goldfish bowl full of quarters! Let’s go out.” Aidan shouted.
Before I could protest in my usual goody-goody way, Aidan took me by the hand and started running down the stairs. I pulled my hand away and stood firm at the bottom of the metal stairway.
“But what if we get caught?”
“Yeah. You’re right. What if?” He held out his hand, waiting for me to take it. There was something about him. I couldn’t say no. I choked back a smirk and took his hand, doing my best to appear reluctant.
I can’t remember it all, everything we did. My memories from that day begin with such clarity and then grow muddled with each passing hour. I remember hiding behind trees and houses as we ran down to the Quarter, pretending to be spies and hiding from suspicious adults. I remember music, horns and banjos. I remember “X”s and numbers on doors and trying to understand what they meant. I remember batting at mosquitoes that attacked the beads of sweat on my forehead and running out of breath. I remember Aidan calling my name. I remember Aidan not looking sick.
The next bit of clarity I have is back at the apartment. Aidan and I threw the bedspread and pillows on the floor. An opened jar of peanut butter with a spoon sticking out sat at my right. Aidan was face down on the pillow, his arms tucked beneath his chin. My head felt light when I sat up.
“Aidan. Oh, Aidan,” I whispered in his ear. I grabbed his shoulders and gave him a little shake. I couldn’t wait to talk to him, to see what he remembered, to ask him what he thought of it all. I was forty-two again but as giddy as a child.
Aidan rolled around and sat up. He opened his eyes and recoiled, screaming.
“What? Hey are you… What the…”
“Aidan, it’s me! It’s okay. It’s over.”
“No. No. You look like her but something is different. Where’s the girl? Where’s Sophie? Where are my parents?”
I could see it in his eyes, the fright, the confusion. I tried to explain, to snap him out of it. I showed him pictures of us, our wedding, but it was no use. He didn’t see the things that I saw, not in the same way. I had come out the other side but Aidan had not. I ran to my side of the bed and picked up the silver alarm clock, the metal ringing in my hands. Fourteen hours had passed. He should have come back.
Aidan paced in the background while I called Jack. Although I talked a million miles a minute, Jack eventually made sense of what I was saying and started panicking in turn. He said he would call around to the people he got them from or anyone he could think of and get back to me. He didn’t know of anything like this happening before.
I had to think of something to calm Aidan down so I decided to play the game. I told him that he was right about me, that I was only playing a joke on him. His parents had to go off on an urgent trip, a medical emergency, and I was in charge of him, a cousin he had never met. He tried to run off, but he was too weak and dizzy to make it down the stairs. Fatigue made him surrender to my ridiculous lies. His body could not keep up with his mind.
Aidan was just as fond of sitting on our balcony as I was. Balconies are important in New Orleans. An outside space in which to soak up all the sun we get is essential. I wouldn’t have considered renting our apartment at all if it didn’t have somewhere to sit outside, even though we were desperate for a place at the time. The university needed someone right away, to fill a vacancy left by an assistant professor who had gone into rehab. We scrambled to find a place that would fit into our limited move-in budget, to move away from Patterson. I couldn’t believe our luck when we drove past the “For Rent” sign after a morning spent circling and crossing out ads in the newspaper. A buxom old lady with a thick Cajun drawl was just posting it up on a telephone pole. She took the sign down when we asked, more concerned about relieving herself of the effort to find tenants than profit. It was cramped but clean, the perfect location, and topped off with a wrought-iron balcony just big enough for us to sit side-by-side.
We sat out there on Sunday mornings, people watching. Aidan was out there every chance he got once the change happened. It was as close to the outside world as I was willing to let him be. He perched himself there, most times with me sitting next to him, to keep a close eye, as he asked me a tidal wave of questions.
“Who’s that?” “What are they doing?” And his favorites, “Why?” and “When do I get to go home?” My excuses were wearing thin. I spent those days alternating between desperate and unfruitful conversations with Jack and trying to amuse Aidan, to keep him from attempting escape. Our bare apartment left little in the way of interest for a twelve-year-old. The arrival of the morning newspaper or the mail delivery were the only halfway interesting occurrences over those next few days. He learned to time them so that he wouldn’t miss them taking place. He would wave at the mailman in his squat truck with the little energy he had and the mailman handed the letters to Aidan first so could rifle through them.
On Sunday, three days after it happened, we opened the sliding glass door to faint music. Trombones. Cymbals. Slow and deep. The wind picked up and seemed to swirl the notes around us. It grew louder with each gust. A solemn dirge. A woman’s voice cried out, a guttural wail that broke the music’s rhythm. They came marching at a careful pace, each step heavy and deliberate. The band swayed their golden instruments down and side to side. Women in short-veiled hats and black feathers held onto each other. The men wore suits and rallied the procession towards the church a few blocks from our building.
“What is it? A parade?” Aidan asked.
“It’s a funeral,” I said. “Someone has died.”
I expected more questions to follow, questions that were difficult to answer for anybody, of any age.
“Oh,” he said, but nothing more as he watched.
It was then that I knew I couldn’t keep him locked up forever. We were going stir-crazy and the heat became too much for the old air conditioning unit wedged in the front window. The Tens had taken their grip with no sign of letting up. I looked for any indication that they might be wearing off, when he was very still, when he was just waking from his sleep. I would chant under my breath, my body tense, please, please, please, please… Then he would look up at me with those eyes, clear and blue, like morning sky, and I knew that nothing had changed before he opened his mouth to speak.
I planned the day out with military precision. People would think what they wanted. It was no concern of mine. Aidan needed to start living again and he seemed more at ease with me. His strength was good that morning, if only temporarily. I thought he would enjoy a walk down through the Quarter, down to Jackson Square and over by the water. We could grab beignets like the tourists do and make a powder-sugared mess of ourselves while watching the boats come down the river.
It was all going according to plan. He held my arm for support and walked slowly under trees that obscured the harsh summer sun, a momentary reprieve. Looking at Aidan, the wonder in his eyes and joy emanating from the corners of his mouth, it was like seeing it all again for the first time for me too. It was one of the only times I can remember then that I wasn’t thinking: What I can I do to change it? When will it wear off? Why did we do it in the first place? And when I was desperate: Maybe it will just take a little more time, he will learn everything again, and be just as he was.
The closer we came to Jackson Square, the thicker the crowds became. Bead-heavy shops spilled out-of-towners into the street. Men on horse-drawn carriages called out to passersby. A gathering of sightseers wearing matching pins followed a tanned woman holding up a tour sign. They swept past us as we tried to find our way across the street to the cafe. Someone knocked into me. I tried to save myself from an unpleasant meeting with the sidewalk, catching myself with one hand and nearly breaking my wrist in the process.
“Oh, Jeez. I’m sorry. I’m not used to this,” came a voice from somewhere, an outstretched hand coming towards me. A graying, mustached man emerged, lifting me up and apologizing a thousand different times in a far-off North Dakota accent.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry, really…” I looked around him, trailing off and breathing heavier with each passing second. Aidan. I couldn’t find him. I had lost my hold on him. I pushed through people like they didn’t exist. I pried them apart, shoulder from magnetized shoulder, each heavier and harder to get between from the last. I jumped onto a bench and screamed his name.
“Have you lost someone? How old is he? What does he look like?” asked the tan tour guide.
“Blond hair, tall… ummm, about 6’2”…” she looked shocked and somewhat relieved, dropping her shoulders. I could have punched her lights out right then and there.
I spent a solid hour searching for him before I ran back to our place. As I turned the corner onto our street I noticed our blue Honda civic was gone. I ran up the stairs and found the barren hook where we always hung the car keys. The shaking grew more intense, starting in my hands and branching out into a full-fledged fit.
Where could he be? Where would he go?
Home. Back to Patterson. Back to the home he had grown up in. He had no idea it was abandoned years ago, an empty shell left near the bayou he had loved to play near.
His silhouette was unmistakable. The moon drew its light around his long body. The fog left little interpretation of where the ground began and ended. Aidan seemed to float, a creature of the midst. My first instinct was to scream his name, to release the panic I had felt for each minute I had lived while he was lost, but the sticky silence of the bayou would have none of it. It filled my lungs when I inhaled, snuffing out the sound. All the better, I thought, lest I scare this apparition away.
I crept up behind him, easy enough on such soft ground, silent for his sake and my own. He didn’t hear me, not even when I was within arm’s reach and whispered his name. I laid my hand on his thin shoulder. He turned his head towards it, knowing me instantly, and lifted his own hand to lay on mine.
“You weren’t lying, were you?” He turned his head forward, to fix upon what he had been fascinated by. It was only then, when I took one more step and looked out over his shoulder, that I saw it.
My uncle told me about them when I was a child. The Feu Follet. He said they were the souls of babies that had died before they could be baptized. Souls trapped between worlds. He said that they would lure people deep into the swamps at night with their brilliant glow and disappear suddenly, leaving their victims stranded in the wet darkness. They were mesmerizing, hard to shake off. Since they wanted more than anything to die, to find a resting place once and for all, you could drive a knife, face-up, into the ground and it would be drawn towards it, trying to impale itself on the blade while you made your escape. I wept quietly all that night when he told me about them. It seemed so unfair.
It hovered over the swamp like a cloud of fairies. It glowed like nothing in this world. The reflection of the lights flickered in Aiden’s wide eyes.
“Feu Follet” he whispered.
He knew, as well as I, that the Feu Follet was the result of flammable gases the swamp produced. Science had unlocked the mystery long ago. Time dissolved childhood fascination and replaced it with grown-up knowledge.
“Time to come back, Aidan.” He was still. I couldn’t compete with the brilliance that had him entranced. I took his hands and lead him out of the swamp, pulling him back while he struggled to return to the lost souls of the bayou.
We were soaked through with perspiration by the time we made it back to the car. Pink bumps were already swelling on our arms and foreheads from the barrage of bug bites. I hadn’t been accosted by mosquitoes like that for twenty years, not since we drifted towards the bayou at night, catching fireflies in jam jars.
By this time, Aidan had given in. He was quiet and obedient, sitting silently in the back seat of the car. I had imagined finding him a thousand times on the drive to Patterson in George Kenner’s black Mercedes, a gesture that made me ashamed to have thought so badly of him. I wondered if, somehow, The Tens had finally worn off and he would look at me as his wife again. I looked at him through the smudged windshield, his hands folded between his knees, head of dirty hair hanging low, and felt my knees buckle.
Aidan looked remarkably thinner since he had gone, only a few hours but thinner all the same. I bathed and made him fried chicken, his favorite. Aidan had always been the type that could eat exhaustively and not gain an ounce, but now I was contending with the whims and picky-ness of a child.
After nearly a week of failed negotiations I realized that Aidan was not just being selective. He simply didn’t seem hungry and grew thinner and paler each day. He spent most of his time staring out our bedroom window or on our balcony if I could keep an eye on him. He watched people, birds, the path of the wind as it made its way across the trees, anything. His cheeks sank and sallowed. It was eating him from the inside.
“I want it to go away,” he said. “I don’t like this. Please. Make it go away,” he said.
I called Jack that night and he agreed without question. He had them Fed-exed the next morning. I didn’t tell Aidan right away. I taped them behind the painting of the goddess Venus that hung in our kitchenette.
He started dry heaving the next day. He collapsed and whimpered next to the toilet each time. I lifted him out, wrapped my arms around him and buried my head in his shoulder.
“Shhhhh. It’s going to be okay.”
I told him that night, when he finally emerged from an exhaustion-induced sleep that I had watched him slip in and out of all day. I sat at his side. I held them tightly in my hand when he came to. He opened his eyes wide as I explained everything, saying it all slowly and precisely so that he could understand as best as he could. What we had done, how he was sick. All of it.
I held them in my palm. Aidan took them from me the moment I stopped speaking, all three. He brought them close to his chest. He put them in his mouth and swallowed.
I didn’t move. I watched. Aidan turned away from me and towards our window. He pulled the pillow out from under his head and squeezed it towards his chest, bringing his knees up to encircle his soft sanctuary. I lay down beside him and worked my hand under the pillow, resting on his chest, feeling his steady heartbeat. He drifted off to sleep, though I could not. His heartbeat was too loud and the light too bright from the sun that rose and filled up the empty room.