The five of us were having Christmas Eve dinner together. Friends only, no family. This meant that we could make jokes about things like new songs, bukkake, crushing loneliness, dick pics, and family; this meant that the food was show-off great and we could drink all we wanted and definitely smoke weed at the dinner table right before dessert to make ourselves hungry again; this meant that no one there had to love you unconditionally.
We had reached a certain point in the meal, an actually very nice stage that not every dinner has, when you started eating directly from the serving platters because by then you'd tried everything and talked to everyone and you were the food and you were everyone, spit germs and all. I was seated next to Paul, Willa's new boyfriend. Paul was quite good to look at, trim and compact and hairy, so hairy that his arm hair seemed to have belonged to a taller man, bunching up on Paul like too-long sleeves would. When Paul went to the bathroom, I leaned over and elbowed Willa. Hot, I mouthed, and Huda and then Michelle noticed and did the same, and as this silent Hot traveled around the table, Willa grinned and shimmied like it was her body we'd been complimenting. Without fail, Willa dated handsome.
Many of us did in fact love each other, like me and Michelle, the woman whose new house and old table and good weed it was. I met Michelle on the train a few years ago. I had been on my way to a store to examine a shirt in person that I had seen only online, and on the train ride over I was already imagining how the store would not have the shirt in stock, so I then anticipated the weirdly shaded pleasure of not getting what I wanted but still resting assured that I knew exactly what it was that I wanted and that it would be out there somewhere. Michelle was reading a paperback with a cover that had an Art Deco–style illustration of a naked woman with her arms and head thrown back and her legs butterflied to reveal glittering circuitry and wires tucked away inside of her. The title: Lost in the Motherboard. "It's better than the cover," Michelle said. I realized I had been staring. "I like the cover," I said. "It's actually incredibly classy, against all possible odds." Michelle liked that, though even I couldn't tell if I was being coy or sarcastic or earnest or something else entirely. Then she found out that I read science fiction, seemed relieved/pleasantly surprised that I wasn't a writer, and insisted that I come along to a science-fiction reading with her. I agreed to meet her there later, and when I discovered the shirt did not exist in physical form anywhere, I actually made good on my promise. Michelle turned out to be a science-fiction writer of note; everyone there wanted to talk to her, to the point where it took her 15 minutes to walk 15 feet to the restroom, even though she had to and eventually did take a giant diarrheic shit. This I knew because she told me.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Michelle and Huda; Paul and Willa; Me.
Paul said, "This older girl who liked me would put cigarettes in with her love notes. She'd write 'Love you' and stuff in Sharpie on the cigarettes, and right off the bat I noticed how smoking them would fuck you up a little, so I started drawing big stripes on my own cigarettes in Sharpie—"
"Oh, no," said Michelle.
"I called them zebras."
"When I built up a tolerance, I had to draw bigger and bigger stripes until I was coloring the whole cigarette black. One day, the school counselor of all people catches me smoking one. He was an older guy who'd had this job forever, had definitely been hating it for longer than I'd been alive. He sees me smoking a zebra behind the classroom trailers and I almost think I'm about to get beat, but all he does is take it from me. He sniffs it, leans closer, and whispers, 'You've killed your mind. The fun you're feeling is the feeling of your mind dying.' And then he takes a big hit, hands it back to me, and walks away."
In the middle of this, Michelle's girlfriend, Huda, had come back from the bathroom and wanted to know exactly what was a zebra in this context, so Paul told the story again. Sometimes it was hard to retell a story to someone who had missed it the first time — everyone focused their attention on the one new listener's face, and if the listener looked scared or bored or annoyed, they'd ruin it for everyone. But Huda was always perfect. She wasn't one of those lazy, irritating "But then what happened afterthat?" people. "How old were you?" Huda said.
"I was 12," he said.
"Oh!" Huda said. "Oh, Paul, your poor, tender young brain. It worked out fine, though. You must have had brain to spare."
In the whole of the house, only the dining room was illuminated. Our dinner felt like an exhibit in a natural-history museum: a small scene with people assembled like they'd just appeared there, arranged around a variety of carefully selected contextual objects (phone here, framed Polish Blade Runner poster there, a sinuous wooden napkin ring), bent into archaic postures, surrounded by darkness. Michelle looked over at me; she always noticed when I zoned out. She was older, had big tits and hips, and cared deeply, but was not in the least bit maternal — what she reminded me of most was like a sentient, wise, filthy tree. She was extremely tall, talked loud, moved slow.
But Michelle spoke quietly now. "You good?" she said. I nodded, smiling sleepily, and she turned back to the conversation.
After Huda had returned from the bathroom, I had started feeling worried. I looked at all of us around the table, and suddenly realized what it was: I had the nagging sensation that someone was missing. No one was missing. There were supposed to be five of us tonight. I even counted again.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Paul told us that later the counselor killed himself and that Paul had been left with the paranoid belief that he had ruined his brain permanently at the age of 12 (even though this did not make him stop doing those kinds of things; rather, he did more). In a near-religious way, Paul mourned the loss of his unblemished self — the he who would have been brighter, more complex, less emotionally labile.
"It's your brain dysmorphia talking," said Willa. In our eyes, she was responsible for him, and she knew it. Though Paul had been quiet at the beginning of the evening, aware of his place as the only man, he was definitely very chatty now. Maybe he liked us, maybe he was drunk (he was also definitely drunk), or maybe he was like so many men who tried to be feminist, polite, different, but to do this was like holding in a voluminous fart, and sooner or later he would burst, because ultimately he could not forget how important he was.
Maybe he liked us, maybe he was drunk (he was also definitely drunk), or maybe he was like so many men who tried to be feminist, polite, different, but to do this was like holding in a voluminous fart, and sooner or later he would burst, because ultimately he could not forget how important he was.
Willa could see that we didn't want to stop liking Paul even though we very much wanted to stop assuring him that he was smart, so she began stroking his back with the kind of touch that is affectionate, but is also a secret coded message: won't youplease shut up, please. He got the message.
Someone was still missing. Although I had tried to to deal with my worry by counting everyone, I was still worried, and then I realized why. It was like someone had been here and they would be back. Any moment now, they would return. God, I still had that feeling: the absence, the expectancy. But guest lists were changeable things. I was probably just confused.
"Was someone else supposed to be here?" I said.
Everyone looked at me. I had interrupted Willa. I apologized.
"We were bored," she said. "You could not fathom the — purity and strength of our boredom. When we'd go driving around late at night, which was always, because, small-town Kansas, we'd stop by the cornfields. We played this game where we went into the fields and snuck up on each other to throw corn as hard as we could. We called it Corn Hunters."
"Like laser tag but with corn," I said.
"Yeah!" said Willa. She started snorting to herself. "Maizer tag."
Michelle and some of us screamed. "Willa!" said Michelle.
"I thought you were so good!" said Michelle.
"How am I not good?" said Willa.
"Being bad to the corn!"
"OK. I'll give you that. The farmers started getting really angry about it toward the end. Sometimes we'd tear up a lot of the field."
"The last time we played Corn Hunters, this girl Bethany was there. Bethany was kind of an off-and-on, satellite-type friend of one of the core group, so it was her first time playing. She was just normal. It actually seemed like she was trying to be normal, like she could have been prettier or smarter or cooler or even more … noticeable, not just some smiley ponytail chick, but I didn't think about it too much.
Something else about Corn Hunters is that we threw those fuckers hard, to the point where we'd have giant bruises in school the next day, which was cool. But Bethany didn't get it. Later the rest us of talked about it. Tracy said she thinks she was the first to hit her. When she whanged Bethany right in the thigh with the corn and Bethany turned and saw her … she looked so scared.
That was the point — it was the good, fun kind of scared. But not for Bethany. Maybe she didn't know it would hurt or she didn't know us well enough to trust us. She was running, trying to avoid us, getting more and more lost until I found her. I could see Bethany very clearly in the moonlight. I could see her seeing me about to throw the corn, and I still threw it. The corn arced into the air and smacked her right on the skull. She staggered but didn't fall and stood there looking at me. It was mean of me. I knew right away. Hell, I knew before and during. But I never got a chance to apologize, because she ran away deeper into the field, and none of us ever saw her again.
It was the summer before some of us were going away to college. Bethany had lived with her aunt, who seemed to not care what happened to Bethany after she turned 18 and was actually probably expecting her to go fuck off. So it wasn't as weird as it could've been that Bethany just disappeared. It was only weird to us. Seriously: straight from the field, she just vanished."
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
"Wait, did she die? Was she kidnapped?" said Michelle. "Why didn't the police get involved?" "That's the thing," said Willa. "We kind of waited for people to notice, but Jenna finally called the police and they said Bethany wasn't missing. They wouldn't tell us anything else. A year or so later, Joe found Bethany on Facebook. He'd been searching her name. We knew it was her from the picture and name, but she wouldn't add any of us back, and we didn't have any friends in common. All we know is: Bethany is out there, and we'll never see her again unless it's by accident. Or if she wants to come see us."
Something crashed into the trash bins outside, and I jumped. No one noticed except for Huda, who smiled at me. It was always strange to assume that you alone were the outsider and observer but then suddenly notice someone observing you and to realize that although you were two steps outside of the scene, they were three or four or five — their vision of the scene being more expansive and true because it encompassed you. I didn't like being encompassed. But I liked Huda.
Huda, with her care and precision and exactitude, reminded me of something I'd heard about robotics: that it was extremely challenging to create a robot that could pick things with the right amount of grip, like you couldn't just expect it to switch from picking up a refrigerator to squeezing a tomato without squeezing the tomato into pulp because how was it to know how to do both? Huda, the robot; everyone else's feelings, the refrigerator or the tomato; it didn't matter, for she could handle both; she could handle it all. Not to say that Huda was like a robot, Huda loved when she chose to love.
While Michelle, sloppy, tall tree-Michelle, loved according to nothing, seemingly. It just happened. Usually I had to try so hard for people to like me. But when it came to Michelle, I didn't have to do anything. It was unfair and wonderful. Whatever I wasn't doing, it was working.
There was a shuffling thump down in the basement. I tried to ignore it. Huda gave me a shrewd, understanding look. "I meant to answer your question from earlier," she said. "To be honest, we had considered inviting other people, including family, but we wanted to keep it small. Just the best of us." She touched my arm. Michelle and Willa, unable to reach me, grabbed onto each other and Paul and Huda, smiling at me.
The noise began traveling up the steps. "You don't hear that?" I said. Everyone shrugged. I gently shook off Huda's hand and stood, rattling the dinner table. I walked quickly to the hallway and opened the door to the basement. Nothing was there. Only a cool gust of air from below. I took a breath and closed my eyes for a moment, then turned to go back into the dining room.
I reentered, already preparing my smile for the group. "I'm so sorry," I said. "I—" My voice died somewhere in my throat.
Everyone was staring at me, but I couldn't speak. I had no answers. Who had been added? Was it me? Was it one of them? And would it ever stop?
Again, I counted.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Alice Sola Kim's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in places like Tin House, McSweeney's Literary Quarterly, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. She tweets sometimes @alicek.