Naoma Miller had eyes the color of neon, and when she turned them on you, you could feel the aliens. They shone like emeralds, coal-black at the centers, and flecked with gold along the rims. When she was angry, her sharp chin would sink and her eyes would smolder beneath her midnight brows. But when she smiled, her eyes were the color of sap- lings when you scrape away their bark; dancing, laughing, alive.
“Do you think there’s oil under here?”
We were lying in the very center of the field, and I was memorizing her. Her skin was paper-white, and glowed in the darkness of 12:57 A.M. We lay in parallel to each other with our heads together, our bodies sprawling toward opposite ends of the universe. The stars
blazed in her eyes.
“No,” I told her. “It would all be sucked up by now even if there had been.” She raked her fingers over the ground, pulling up the soil and rock. Her gaze flicked to the dark wires stretched across the sky to the east. The telephone poles were built like crosses, draped over and over with great humming bundles of cable. I listened to her silence.
“No, Naoma. I don’t believe there is coal under this field.”
She pursed her lips, cocking an eyebrow at me.
“The coal comes from the mountains.” I raised my index finger. “That’s what the trains are for.” I traced the shadowy outline of the tracks along the edge of the field, raised on a black bed of shale and coal. She worked her lips for a moment, digesting.
“Coal is the most dangerous thing in the world.” There was danger in her voice.
“The dust. Because it has perfect camouflage, drifting around in even the air you breathe. Always with you. Normal.” She hissed the word. “But if it doesn’t get what it needs, if you aren’t treating it right, watering it down, containing it, the smallest spark will set it off.” Her body was taught, electric. “Coal dust turns the air into a weapon. We’re breathing it right now, you and I. We’re breathing the world’s most mistreated, most dangerous—”
I touched two fingers to her right shoulder.
She stopped. She closed her eyes. She unclenched her fists. As she exhaled, her spine relaxed and her body settled into the Earth. It was silent again. We were alone with each other and the coal dust. We breathed.
Her eyes flicked open. “They’re coming to get me, you know.”
Her dark lips drew up at the side nearer my face. “The aliens.”
I raised myself onto an elbow, above her. She wasn’t looking at me.
“They live in a kingdom that floats in the sky. Everything there is lights and sounds. The women wear hardly any clothes at all, only scraps of skirts and big jeweled belts crossed over their breasts. And their hair is all different colors, streaked.” She spoke slowly this time. Calmly. Her voice was low, rolling like a thunderstorm. “And there’s a mist up there that makes it so you can never feel sadness. Really. Not ever. They know magic. They’re going to take me away and teach me, and then I’ll never suffer again.”
She sighed, her chest expanding and contracting beneath her T-shirt. Her silk-black hair weaved into the grass, soaked with night. I let myself empty the tension in my shoul- ders. I exhaled her pain. It was here, in this place, where she could surrender and breathe. Without the scrutiny of others, she could be peaceful.
My eyes traced the line of her arm, from the slope of her right shoulder down to the delicate crease of her elbow and beyond to where her arm curved into her wrist. There, where the purple-blue veins spiderwebbed underneath, were seventeen horizontal scars, raised in little hills, one after the other, tilled into her skin.
I reached for this landscape with my lips, confining kisses to this tiny slice of humanity. She angled her left cheek to the sky and watched me. I lay back down in the grass, closer to her, so my forehead rested on the side of her thumb. I closed my eyes, feeling her gaze on me, and tried to sense the rotation of the earth. The grass beneath my cheek was pulsing stringy vitality, drawn up through the soft clay and spilling out in the music of crickets and the shak- ing of the wind. I felt the points where my body connected with the earth and thrilled in my own stillness. Most of all, I felt my face on her hand, the expansion of her lungs rustling my hair. I felt how loud the world was, even in perfect silence, and wanted only to touch her, just this little bit, forever.
“I can feel it, Noah.”
I opened my eyes. Her gaze was in the stars again.
“I swear to God, I can feel the earth moving. I can feel the universe expanding. Can you feel that?”
“Yes,” I said. And I could.
She was quiet again.
“They’re coming. I won’t be here forever, Noah. You know that, don’t you?”
I listened to the wind. The calling of the insects speckling 1:00 A.M. “You’re here now.”
She rolled over, cradling my face between her fingers, and I knew I had said the right
“You’ll be with me? When I do it?” Her eyes were in mine. “You’ll be with me when they
I kissed her.
The next day I had my head pressed against the cool of my desk, the etchings from the stoner before me imprinting themselves into my cheek. Rain drummed on the ceiling and slithered down the glass. Something resembling math was happening on the board, but the
twelve years I had spent at school had so advanced that once-graspable subject that it was now decidedly beyond my understanding.
Naoma understood it though. She calculated limits and traversed theorems with a flu- ency and confidence unmatched by the other mortals in our Calculus class. The teacher adored her, but she was unaffected by his praise. She was totally secure in her singularity. I lifted my gaze to watch her.
She was sitting forward in her seat, her back slanted toward the front of the classroom, her hands entwined on the edge of her desk. Her heels were pressed against the steel legs of her chair so that she was perched on her toes, poised to soar away at any moment on wings
of intellectual achievement. She slid her neon gaze to my eyes to make sure I was watching. I
The corner of her lips slipped back, drawing an “s” down her cheek with the flexion of the muscles there. Her eyes were molten green. Her coal-black hair slid in tender tendrils down her face.
“Noah?” The professor’s stringy eyebrows were nearly buried in his snowy hair. “Yes, sir?”
“Could you repeat for the class what I just said?”
“I could, sir.” He shifted his weight, rocking onto the leg farther from me and crossing
his arms. I said nothing.
“Well, I said I could, sir. That is different from saying that I would, sir.”
For the smirk Naoma caught in her hand, I would take two hundred detentions.
It wasn’t until the end of the day when I was inspecting the disciplinary slip, that I noticed what she had written there. On the back, in precise, sloping handwriting, was “Same place, same time. Bring your space suit.”
That night, cords of white Christmas lights blazed in a canopy above the field. Thick wires sent energy to the lights and the sound system, rigged haphazardly to the power lines. People swayed in the grass, stomping and throbbing. The sky was hazy, smoky clouds blur- ring the moon until it was a silver-white blur in the sky. Our town was loosely situated around this field, and though the distance between it and the nearest house was considerable, Naoma could certainly have gotten help stringing up the lights. But the bulbs seemed to have ap- peared the moment they were illuminated. Even watching from my window, I could not explain where the gathering had come from. One moment, it was Naoma, wandering alone in the wind, and the next, a pulsing crowd had gathered beneath the blazing Christmas lights.
The ground was soft, soggy from the drizzle of the morning, and water seeped into my sneakers. The music was still distant when I found Naoma. She was waving her body from side to side, her raven hair swinging, refracting light. Her dress was breezy and white. The lacy fabric fell gently around her. She had a pale ribbon tied around her wrist.
We reached the throng just as a new song began, and I lost her in the delight of the others. They threw themselves at the music, whooping and hollering and snatching at each other’s bodies; they had everything to prove, but they weren’t sure to whom. Nevertheless, they were determined to make clear their inner nature to be free and wild, to release their inhibitions and inhabit the almighty stereotype our age group both despises and imitates. Naoma could navigate the choppy seas of social expectation simply because everyone wanted her. No one understood why she didn’t inject herself into “society,” being as beautiful and as coveted as she was. But of course, no amount of beauty or desire is of any consequence to a person when they cannot see themselves as beautiful or desirable. Any compliment becomes a lie. And thus friends become traitors.
In the center of the crowd, I found her again. She was dancing in circles with her arms above her head, praising the sky with pearl fingers. Her feet were bare and muddy. The circle of earth where she danced had been pounded raw. The music swelled. Naoma closed her eyes. With the grace of the empty, she flung her arms about herself, whipping into a desperate
twirl and threw herself skyward, left leg perpendicular to the ground, stiff and strong, right leg drawn up to hip level, toe at her knee. She painted herself with mud, splattering back to Earth and rolling her body with each pound of the song. I caught her wrist in my fingers, feel- ing the ribbon rub against the humps of her scars. Her flesh was cold. Delicate.
She gasped as I touched her. Her back to me, she sobbed once, caught it in her hand, and swallowed it. She straightened. She turned slowly, toe by muddy toe, and brought the brilliance of her face to mine. She drew her dark lips into a smile.
“Thank you for coming, Noah.”
I stared at her. Her neon eyes searched from one corner of my face to the other and then dropped to the ground. She cleared her throat.
“What do you think?” She pointed her chin at a particularly sweaty couple, locked together, legs, hands, and faces. “Feast your eyes upon the exploits of the finest in our generation.”
I did so. All around us was a mosh of heat and hormones, grinding into each other, squishing and splashing in the mud.
“Why this?” I didn’t have to explain to her why I hated parties. They were the same rea- sons she always confessed to me. Her pale shoulders rose and fell.
“I wanted to dance.” A wink and a smile. She gazed at me for a time, waiting for me to understand. Then that time was up. “Noah,” she pleaded, “you know what this is.” I looked around. The train tracks were illuminated by the party lights; coal dust was drifting in and out of sight. The people were stomping and wriggling to the beat they all knew, that they all seemed to need to know. And the song was blaring, and the lights were blazing, and I looked in her emerald eyes, and I didn’t want to know.
But she told me anyway.
“Sacrifice, Noah! They won’t take me if I don’t. You understand.” She grabbed my wrist. “You understand.” She was pulling me now, her eyes locking mine away; away from the field and the lights and the victims. “You and I both know they are meaningless, Noah.” She was walking away with me. And she was dragging me. Or I was following. “This is a pageant of an inferior race. Look around you! We’re weak! We’re fragile! All we have is our intellect, and some don’t even have that.” We reached the telephone pole. It was ancient, stained and splintering, wound over with a hundred wires. I stopped. She did not.
From the hip-high grass clustered around the pole, Naoma drew a square, metal gasoline can. She twisted the cap, and it came loose in a dusting of red rust.
She paused then. Her shoulders were resting, open and light. She stared at me with her eyes sparkling, the means in her grasp. Her feet were apart, her chest lifted, excited. Around me I felt the universe soaring, the grass and the mud and the trees begging her not to go – or maybe it was only me. Naoma lifted the gasoline between us. A toast.
“To life, Noah. And to the aliens.”
I remember screaming her name, how it tasted in my mouth the last time. I remember covering my face. I remember the moisture on her skin, her hair, when she tipped the liquid onto her body. How it fell over her, splattering into pools above her collarbones, dribbling down the curve of her hips. I remember the way the field looked after she lit the match. How the air exploded in deadly stars, how fire chased itself along the telephone wires, how the people ran, shelled in mud with wide open faces.
Mostly I remember the way she looked with her body wrapped in flame. The way her arms were ringed with fire, the way her hair blazed. They never found her body. And I knew why.
I had watched her rise above the trees, burning against the darkness of 12:57 A.M., and I had seen her body evaporate into the stars.