Glory O'Brien's History of the Future


by A.S. King

PROLOGUE

The clan of the petrified bat

So we drank it—the two of us. Ellie drank it first and acted like it tasted good. I followed. And it wasn’t half bad.

When we woke up the next morning, everything was different. We could see the future. We could see the past. We could see everything.

You might say, “Why did you drink a bat?” Or, “How did you drink a bat?” Or, “Who would do something like that?”

But we weren’t thinking about it at the time. It’s like being on a fast train that crashes and someone asking you why you didn’t jump before it crashed.

You wouldn’t jump because you couldn’t jump. It was going too fast.

And you didn’t know the crash was coming, so why would you?

BOOK ONE

The origin of everything

School is the same as anything else. You do it because you’re told to do it when you’re little enough to listen. You continue because someone told you it was important. It’s like you’re a train in a tunnel. Graduation is the light at the end.

Hippie weirdo freaks

Ellie Heffner told me that the day she graduated would be the day she left her family and ran away forever. She’d been telling me that since we were fifteen years old.

“They’re freaks,” she said. “Hippie weirdo freaks.”

I couldn’t argue with her. She did live with hippie weirdo freaks.

“Will you come back and visit me, at least?” I asked.

She looked at me, disappointed. “You won’t still be here then, will you?”

I had one week to go. Three more school days: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and optional Baccalaureate on Friday and then a weekend wait to graduate on Monday. I still got postcards and letters from colleges and universities in the mail every week. I still threw each of them away without opening them.

It was Sunday night and Ellie and I were sitting on the steps on my front porch facing her house, which was across the road.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I have no idea where I’ll be.”

I couldn’t tell her the truth about where I thought I’d be. I almost did a few times, weak times when I was gripped by fear. I’d almost told her everything. But Ellie was… Ellie. Ever since we were little, she’d change the rules of a game halfway through.

You don’t tell your biggest secrets to someone like that, right?

Anyway. I had a week until I graduated. I had zero plans, zero options, zero friends.

But I didn’t tell Ellie that either because she thought she was my best friend.

It was complicated.

It had always been complicated.

It would always be complicated.

The origin of the bat

The bat lived at Ellie’s house. We saw it first on a weekend that February. She pointed at the tiny lump of fur lodged in the corner of the back porch and said, “Look. A hibernating bat.”

We saw it again in March and it hadn’t moved. We talked about the bat’s upcoming awakening and how it would soon swoop to the surface of Ellie’s pond and eat newly hatched insects and touch its tiny wingtips off the water.

But spring came and the bat didn’t move. Didn’t swoop. Didn’t seem to be dining on any of the tasty neighborhood pond bugs. One of its elbows—if that’s what bats have—stuck out a little, like it was broken or something. We talked about how it might have an injury or a birth defect.

“Like the way I can’t bend this finger down all the way since I broke it,” Ellie said, showing me her right-hand index finger.

Life on Ellie’s commune was different. They used hammers before they could walk. They didn’t have any plastic. They swung on a homemade swing with a wooden plank as a seat. They played on the frozen pond without adult supervision and had chores that involved livestock. Ellie was in charge of chickens. One time when she was seven, she broke her finger while hammering a door hinge on a chicken house back into place.

I was convinced that the bat was out of hibernation and was simply nesting there at night in the exact same place under the eaves of her back porch. If we were in any way smart, we’d have stayed until dusk that night to watch the bat leave in order to answer our curiosities about it, but we didn’t. Ellie had commune chores and a secret boyfriend. I had reluctant homework and senioritis. We were happy believing the bat was fine.

When we met on Easter Monday in late April, the bat was still there, elbow pointed to the eastern horizon like it had been since winter. Ellie found a stick and poked it and then sniffed the stick.

“Doesn’t stink,” she said. “And there are no flies or anything.”

“Don’t bats have fleas?” I asked. “I heard they carry fleas and ticks and stuff.”

“I think it’s dead,” Ellie said.

“Doesn’t look dead,” I said.

“Doesn’t look alive, either,” Ellie said.

She poked it again and it didn’t move. Then she nudged the stick up into the siding where she could force the whole bat out with one slice and it fell into her mother’s sprouting summer lilies. Ellie reached into the lime-green and came out with this oddity—perfectly intact, still furry, still with eyeballs, still with paper-thin wings folded like it was resting.

We leaned down and looked at it.

“It’s petrified?” Ellie said.

“Probably more like mummified,” I said.

She ignored my correction and placed the bat on the picnic table and went into the house and got a jar. I took a picture of the jar. I named the picture in my head. Empty Jar.

“It’s so light,” Ellie said, weighing the bat in her palm. “Do you want to hold it before I put it in?”

I put my hands out and she placed it in my palm and we looked at it. Even though it was dead, Ellie seemed to see it as a new stray pet that needed a mother or something. When I put it in the jar, she sealed the lid and held it up and said, “I christen thee the petrified bat! Hear ye, hear ye, the petrified bat is king!”

“Might be a queen,” I said.

“Whatever,” Ellie said. She inspected it through the glass. “It’s alive and dead at the same time or something.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s the closest I’ve ever come to God,” Ellie said.

“Amen.” I was being sarcastic. Because Ellie said stuff like that sometimes and it was annoying. Because we were seventeen and this was silly, us finding a bat and acting like it was something special. This was what nine-year-olds did.

But then something serious came over me. I said, “Hold on. Let me see it.” Ellie handed the jar to me and as I looked at it—a tiny lump of mummified fur—I said, “Maybe it is God.”

The bat was dead but somehow it represented life because it looked alive. It was mysterious and obvious in one hollow, featherweight package.

“We’ll put it in the shed,” Ellie said. “My mom will never find it there because that’s where we keep the cleaning supplies.”

Ellie’s mother didn’t believe in cleaning.

My mother was dead, and I had no idea if she was ever a clean freak or what.

The ballad of Darla O’Brien

My mother wasn’t conveniently dead, like in so many stories about children, whether they jarred dead bats or were attracted to beasts in woodland castles. She didn’t die to help me overcome some obstacle by myself or to make me a more sympathetic character.

She haunted me—and not in some run-of-the-mill Hollywood way. There were no floating bedsheets or chains clanking in the night as I tiptoed to the bathroom to pee.

My mother, Darla O’Brien, was a photographer. She haunted the walls of our house with pictures. She was always there and never there. We could never see her, but every day, I saw her pictures. She was a great photographer, but she never became famous because we didn’t live in New York City. Or that’s what I’ve heard she said.

Getting dead didn’t make her famous either.

Regardless, having a dead mother isn’t convenient, especially when she died because she stuck her head in an oven and turned on the gas.

That is not convenient.

Although, I’d argue that there is some convenience in having a death machine right there in your kitchen waiting for the moment you finally get the nerve to do it. I’d argue that’s more convenient than a fast-food drive-thru. You don’t even have to leave your house to stick your head in the oven.

You don’t even have to change out of your bathrobe.

You don’t even have to take your kid to preschool where it was Letter N Day and she was ready to show off her acorn collection. You don’t have to remember to do anything but breathe in and breathe out.

That’s about as convenient as it gets.

What’s inconvenient is: Living in a world where no one wants to talk to you about your dead mother because it makes them uncomfortable.

What’s inconvenient is: Not having a mother at middle school graduation. Not having a mother when I tried to figure out how to shave under my arms. Not having a mother when I got my period. My dad was helpful; but he’s a feminist, not an actual woman.

I always knew that one day, it would be inconvenient as hell not having a mother at high school graduation. The last few weeks of senior year were filled with all the girls in my homeroom talking about buying dresses and shoes and all I could think about was how small those things seemed.

I sat in homeroom thinking Shoes. Dresses. Disposable bullshit.

I sat in homeroom thinking Where am I really going, anyway?

Though my yearbook photographer duties were over because the year’s book was done, I still carried my camera with me everywhere. I took candid shots of those girls talking about their dresses and shoes. I took pictures of my teachers trying to teach near-empty classrooms. I took pictures of the people who thought they were my friends, but who I’d never let all the way in.

I didn’t let anyone sign my yearbook. I decided: Why fake it?

Everything tasted like radiation

Ellie hadn’t been to public school with me since we finished the eighth grade, and in the four years since, she’d said, “Homeschooling is faster because there’s no repeating everything all the time,” about eleven trillion times to me. Maybe it was true. Maybe not. Seemed to me homeschooling was just another way to keep all those kids in the commune from seeing the real world.

I didn’t like the real world, but I was glad I knew about it.

Darla O’Brien didn’t like the real world either, so she stuck her head in an oven.

My dad loved the real world. He ate it up. Literally. He weighed two hundred and forty pounds now. Not a bad weight unless you were five foot four and 120 pounds when you started out.

Dad had never replaced the oven. Not even with an electric one. Our kitchen had never had an oven since Letter N Day. Just a freezer full of food that could be cooked by the microwave.

Everything tasted like radiation.

Ellie wouldn’t come to my house if we were cooking because she believed microwaves gave you cancer. She never could understand why we didn’t have a huge stove like they had on the commune—a stove that could pickle and blanch and reduce fruit into jam for the winter.

“It’s not like that could happen twice, right?” she’d said once. By that, she meant Darla sticking her head in the oven.

I’d answered, “No. No, I guess that couldn’t happen twice.”

But it could. Right? There were still two people left in my house. I was one of them. Whenever I thought about what Ellie had said, my guts churned. Sometimes I got diarrhea from it. Sometimes I threw up. It wasn’t as easy as it can’t happen twice. Anyone who knew anything about what Darla did knew it sometimes did happen twice because it’s often hereditary. But Ellie just said things without thinking. That was hereditary too.

Ellie’s mother, Jasmine Blue Heffner, believed that the microwave oven was no different from an atomic bomb because it was invented by defense contractors during World War II.