“Libby” by Aaron Hellem

Water Drops from Stainless Steel Faucet

Billy glows in the dark. Not as green as money or Jello, but a softer incandescence.

Elizabeth reaches out and lays her palm flat against his stomach. Billy leans over her, kisses her forehead and down her nose. Finds her lips in the dark. Finds her buttons with his eyes closed.

She wraps her lips around his whole body as if to swallow him and burn on the inside from whatever makes him glow in the dark.

The water boils when it rushes from the tap. Glaciers are melting quickly somewhere in the world, but that’s not what makes the water boil when it rushes from the tap. Billy’s father, at the table, looks like he’s melting into his coffee and buttered toast. His skin sags like a turkey’s neck. Dark circles around his eyes. Sores on the end of his nose. He doesn’t look good.

Dad, Billy says, you look awful.

Thanks, son, his father says. Now, will you please pass me the goddamn shitting son of a bitching salt?

He doesn’t look up from his toast.

Outside a tanker truck shifts gears and screams down their street. Children aren’t supposed to play outside for stretches of time longer than forty-five minutes.

What do you do there at the plant, Dad? Billy says.

Put food on the table, his father says. Son of a bitching bacon on this goddamn shitting table. How do you like that? He looks up at Billy. His eyes are entirely black. Sheen, like a fish’s.

How do you like that? he says again. Your sister’s shitty ass shoes and your son of a bitching college fund. His left eye twitches in manic spasms.

All right, dad, Billy says. The whole side of his face looks ready to burst, his eyeball ready to pop out and roll across the table.

It’s all right, dad, Billy says.

I know it’s all right, his father says. You don’t have to tell me it’s all right. I’m the one who son of a bitching slaves away all shitting day in that worthless asshole shitbox. You don’t have to tell me.

Billy nods. He’s too young for this, he thinks. Too young to have a melting father. Too young to glow green in the dark.

Elizabeth is late, and the ultrasound shows them their baby, as big as a fish. With flippers. The doctor doesn’t say anything. Quiet, like he has to tell somebody a loved one is dead.

They’ll go away, Billy says to Elizabeth. They all look like that initially.

Right, doctor?

The doctor points at the screen and shakes his head.

The baby glows green just like its daddy. Elizabeth cries. Billy holds her hand. Just tell us straight, doctor, he says.

The doctor cries. His finger on the screen. It’s a fish, the doctor says. He traces the gills and the bottom of the baby where a tail protrudes.

Elizabeth squeezes Billy’s hand as though she’s falling from the top of a building. Off the edge of a cliff. Dangling only by metacarpals.

Gills? Billy says.

Oh god, Elizabeth sobs, I see the tail.

Where? Billy says. He squints at the screen.

I see it! Elizabeth cries.

Where? Where is it?

The doctor’s shoulders shake. His hand trembles. He points at it. As long as the tip of his finger.

There, he says.

I see it! Elizabeth cries. She closes her eyes and turns her head away.

The bones in Billy’s hand are crushed to chalk dust; he doesn’t feel a thing. Oh god, Billy says.

I don’t want it, Elizabeth says.

Are you sure you don’t? the doctor says.

I’m sure, she says.

And you? the doctor asks Billy.

He already has gloves out. Already has a rod and a hook ready. Bait all ready to go. The baby shifts on the screen. On the screen, glowing green, flipping and flopping. The doctor hooks the worm.

Billy? Elizabeth says.

We need to do this now, Billy, the doctor says. Billy nods, but doesn’t watch. He holds on to Elizabeth like he’s the one falling now. From a mountain. Off a bridge.

It’s all right, Elizabeth whispers into the sides of his head. She holds onto him as the doctor dangles the lure in between her legs. It’s all right, she says again. Billy feels the green bursting inside him, squeezing into the backs of his eyes and from the inside of his ribs, thrashing to get out. He feels the glow burn on the tips of his fingers and the ends of his hairs. Can feel his teeth from white-wash to Chernobyl green. Ghoulie green. Gangrene.

Billy works the night shift because his green glow allows management to cut out the lights at night. He walks so he won’t wallow. Elizabeth won’t answer his calls. Her mother threatens to call the police. The police know Billy, and are afraid to touch his skin to handcuff him.

Billy makes his rounds, sings so he doesn’t sob. Other night-watch men have mentioned hearing voices at night, sneezes and screams from down the hallways. It used to be hospital for those too sick for reality and those not sick enough for a real hospital. Some physically defected from the contaminated water they drank and poisonous soil they played in as children. Those who ate vegetables grown in their own backyards and those who ate fish from the river. They were sent there when the tumors were too big to
carry. It’s where his father will go when he finally melts into a hole in the ground; his voice will boom in the dark at Billy: Get your son of a bitching ass back to motherfucking work! His ghost will haunt in a puddle, oozing underneath the door cracks and mail slots.

Billy doesn’t have a flashlight. He has a belt of keys instead. One for every door in the building.

There are, at least, a hundred doors. One key for each of them. Sometimes two. Billy doesn’t open them. Down the dark hall, he hears the ghosts flopping towards him. With tails rather than chains.

With fins stretched out. You’ll know your father, Billy thinks, by his green glow. By how he goes in between the worlds of light and dark.

His father melts into his slippers. A puddle of skin pooled in the bottoms of his worn slippers. Does this mean you’re not going to work? Billy asks him.

I can’t take the day off, his father says, his voice as quiet as though on the other end of a telephone.

No goddamn son of a bitching vacation time for this sorry old bastard son of a bitch. His father sighs.

Crap, he says.

Is it time for me to feed you now? Billy says. He envisions breakfast in a blender, down a straw into his father’s deflated mouth and down his deflated throat, leaching into his deflated intestines.

I don’t need nothing from you, pissant, his father says. I’ll melt right into my goddamn grave before I take a son of a bitching helping hand from you.

The horoscopes are printed right next to the air and water quality reports. The air is better today because of a front blowing through. The water still needs boiling before using. Billy’s horoscope tells him not to expect anything extraordinary from loved ones. He hears two tiny voices: one tells him to turn down that son of a bitching green glow and the other tells him to run. He leaves the dishes where they are, leaves the newspaper scattered on the table, and leaves his father in a skin puddle rippling with each miniature expletive. His legs carry him down the street like wheels.

The light in Elizabeth seems extinguished. I’m sorry, she says. Her hands shake. Her bottom lip, too.

Splotches of red in her pallid eyes. A ping in her palliation.

It was nobody’s fault, Billy says. Rocky Mountain creases across her forehead. He takes her hand to infuse her with his green glow heat. It radiates into her palm and up her forearm. Her eyes widen, and it spreads into her chest and her clothes combust and fall off her in sparks.

I’m sorry, she says, and the words fly out in flames, bursting brightly in the air like popping fireworks.

I am, she says. I am, I am, I am, I am. Each one a flowering flare as though spit from a roman candle.

We are, Billy says.

Outside of town, they lie down in the middle of a field. They stare up at the other small suns scattered across the Big Sky Country night. That one, she says, and points at one that glitters.

It looks tropical there, he says.

Clear blue water, she says.

She finds her way around him in the dark. He delights in the way his skin lights up hers.

The way they see perfectly when they should be blind. The heat of her skin smolders new lines into his fingerprints. They burn a circle around them where they fall asleep in the grass.

Again: Elizabeth is late, and this time the doctor smiles and points out the carpometacarpus in the ultrasound. You know what this means, the doctor says.

They don’t. Elizabeth squeezes Billy’s hand tight because ultrasound news pushes her from high heights.

The doctor traces the outlines of a beak. The webbed feet.

I don’t understand, Billy says.

Not again, Elizabeth says. I don’t think I can take it again. She closes her eyes and cries.
No, the doctor says. You’ll see for yourself. The doctor calls in a nurse.

I’m not ready, Elizabeth says.

I’m afraid that doesn’t matter, the doctor says. He snaps gloves onto his white hands. Do you wish to stay? he says to Billy.

I’m not going anywhere, Billy says. He offers Elizabeth his other hand. She holds onto both of them as though the world might reveal a drain and wash her down it.

I’m not ready, she says again.

Billy wonders what haggard creature his defective genes will wreck into the world. He imagines the worst: a scaly dragon breathing fire into all the dark corners. Crushing the tops of houses with incredible talons. Scorching those trying to run. A pitiful and painful end to Libby at the fire and talons on his progeny.

I’m not ready, she says again.

I’m not ready, Billy says.

A nurse enters with a syringe, a press, a mop. Her clothes swish and crinkle as she turns on machines and readies the room. Right here? she says to the doctor.

There’s no time to move her, the doctor says.

Don’t leave me, Elizabeth says.

Never, Billy says. He can’t help the images flashing through his head, strobe-like ultrasounds glowing green. The nurse places Elizabeth’s feet in stirrups.

Oh god, Elizabeth says. She closes her eyes and bites down on Billy’s arm. Billy doesn’t feel a thing.

Here we go, the doctor says. The sound of an earthquake, of continents scraping together until one acquiesces, rips and rifts and tears. The screams and the song. Their son bursts out of his mother like canon fire, unfurls wings and flies, twice around the room then through the window. Wind rushes in as their son soars out, slow and powerful as airplane propellers. Ascends into an existence of its own that owes nothing to Billy. He watches out the window as his son fades into the horizon. The nurse dabs at Elizabeth’s head with the hot water press. Sticks the syringe in the fat part of her arm.

I felt him love me inside, Elizabeth says.

Billy watches from the window.

Billy, Elizabeth says.

He’s sure his son’s wings will help him accept the malaise and keep him above the film of scum on top of every water body. Will help him rise high enough to see for himself the only kingdom up there is an illusory one, a thinned vaporous one erected out of rarified air. He can’t blame me, Billy thinks, I’m the one who gave him wings. It’s true I gave him life, but the wings and the songs will save him from that. Billy has only his glow, and he glows as the sun sets.



Aaron Hellem lives with his wife in Leverett, Massachusetts and attends the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  His short stories have recently appeared in Fourth River, Xavier Review, Ellipsis, Phantasmagoria, Amoskeag, Quay Journal, Menda City Review, Mississippi Crow, 13th Warrior, and Beloit Fiction Journal; also, works of his are forthcoming in Lake Effect, Oklahoma Review, Parting Gifts, Crate, Cause and Effect Magazine, and Confluence.