They do not talk.
Once, that would have bothered Kane: sitting across from Lena, utterly silent, words on the tip of his tongue, words flowing out of him like water, and her, quiet, like a stone, unyielding.
The silence, unending. The questions, unanswered.
Some version of him would have hated this. Raged over it, even.
But now, it suits him. Words feel thick and heavy in his mouth. Something woolen, ropy, fibrous, strangling him from the inside. An itch behind his teeth. A fire straight down to his gut.
The words just sit there, unsaid, because he can’t ever find the right ones. There are words he knows, and many he doesn’t, and when Lena does talk to him, sometimes he can’t tell which is which, and which words mean things like good and home and safe and alive , and which mean something else entirely.
So they do not talk.
What does home even mean, anyway? Is it what it says in the dictionary?
The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. A place where something flourishes, is most typically found, or from which it originates. The finishing point in a race.
Is it more? Is home an idea, a concept, a structure?
What is a home when the one you had is broken and defiled, a place of trauma, lies? What is home now when that is gone?
What does it even matter, then, that their home is the four walls of this isolation room. No, worse: the four walls of plastic sheeting that segregates them even further. That is home now.
The guard sitting outside, he is not home.
They have this: one hospital bed. One chair. One table, on wheels. Assorted machinery, beeping and humming and clicking, saying: yes, this man is alive. Yes, this woman is, too. The machinery doesn’t measure what makes them human, what makes them less than human. It just measures oxygen in the lungs and the pumping of blood.
What is home, when you don’t even know who you are or where you belong anymore?
Lena waits for sleep to come.
She doesn’t even know if she’s slept since coming back from the Shimmer. There were tests and questions and more tests: blood draws, psych profiles, x-rays, a MRI, more blood draws.
Lena doesn’t know how she possibly has any blood left.
She lifts her hand, looks at the wires and tubes spilling down her arm.
If she looks too long, it looks like the wires are slithering, huge writhing cables escaping her arm and worming their way free.
Lena blinks. The motion is gone. They are just wires and tubes.
She sighs. Lets her arm fall back to the bed.
“Who are you?” she asks him sometimes.
He has no answer.
“What are you?”
And still: nothing.
He knows what he is not. He knows he is not really her husband. Not really the man she spent years beside, in this little house, lounging in bed as the sun drenches them in light. Or in barracks in the desert, afraid to talk too loud, too much. Or passing one another in hallways, unable to do much more than cast curious glances at one another.
Mostly, he knows who he was because she’s told him stories, even if he knows she’s leaving details out. There’s something sad and angry lurking in the back of his head, and so when she talks at him about their life together, pre-Shimmer, he can feel it snarling, frothing, trying to break through.
All of those memories, the good and the bad, are there, somewhere. They’re a jumble, though, nothing more than fragments he can barely piece together, no matter how hard he tries.
He doesn’t remember the moment his other self fell in love with Lena. Doesn’t remember the moment she broke his heart. Doesn’t remember when he said goodbye.
Everything in his brain is fragmented, punctuated by the blinding white light of a grenade, and the pulsing, writhing of something that he can’t quite get rid of.
They are released home. To their actual home, the one with photos hanging and half-painted walls and dishes moldering in the sink because no one was even allowed to clean up before Lena was whisked off to the Southern Reach.
There is an armed guard. There are daily, graduating to weekly, check-ins. There are random medical tests, at all hours, unannounced.
There is a surveillance van, parked conspicuously down the street.
It is home only in the sense that it is a building which Lena and Kane own, their names on a mortgage document in a safety deposit box somewhere.
“Do you want anything?” Lena asks.
It’s a useless question. Anything in the refrigerator has gone to rot, probably. No one thought to deliver food to them.
Kane’s hands wrap around a glass of water. He does not drink. When he taps the side of it, the water ripples. He taps harder, then tilts, and some of the water sloshes over the side.
“No,” Kane interrupts.
“You didn’t even—”
“Does it even matter?” Four words. The longest burst of speech, she thinks, that he’s had since they came back. And then, more: “Does any of this fucking matter?”
Lena bites her lip, creases her brow, then walks away.
They lie in bed together. Sometimes, Lena wishes for more — wishes he would reach for her, or roll away, or leave the room, or something.
She wishes he would rage, even. Yell. Throw things. Kick a wall or scream into a pillow or say the hurtful things she knows are trapped under his tongue.
Instead, he lies still and silent.
No words. No
Lena’s not sure; maybe he doesn’t even need to sleep.
Sometimes, she feels like she doesn’t need sleep, either, and she’s not sure if it’s adrenaline or fear or stress or something else.
Sometimes, she doesn’t even blink.
She doesn’t think she needs to anymore.
Lena feels something brewing inside of her. It’s worst when the sun’s rising, a golden glow peeking out over the treetops.
There’s something about that color, the way the light sparkles and dances, that feels familiar to her.
No, not to her. To whatever’s inside of her.
She starts waking before dawn. It’s not hard. Her body tells her when it’s time to rise, and in bed next to her, Kane doesn’t protest. He doesn’t sleep, either, but he also doesn’t move to stop her when she rolls out of bed, slides into a robe, and heads outside.
In the rising sun, she closes her eyes. Lifts her arms, palms up, to the sky. Her skin tingles as the sun starts to find her.
Lena digs her toes into the ground, the damp grass squelching beneath them.
She wants to keep digging. She can feel things wriggling beneath her. Beetles, worms. A mole, maybe. She wants to unearth them all. If she comes up with a great handful of dirt, mites and spiders and little crawling things, how long will it take for them to become part of her?
Josie walked away and gave into the Shimmer. After all this time, Lena thinks she gets it, gets why she’d listen to the voice that was calling her. It’s so loud. So, so loud.
The voice is inescapable now. It’s in her head. Her teeth grind in her skull the louder it gets. Her jaw clenches. Her very bones vibrate with it, her guts churn.
If you cut her open, would she look like that poor soldier? Even here, even now, out of the Shimmer?
She should ask Kane. He wouldn’t have any answers, but she still wants to look him in the eyes and ask: what is inside of me .
From the Shimmer we came, she thinks, and to Shimmer we shall return.
He touches her. Just the once.
His hands are soft on her skin. She can’t stop fixating on that.
Kane, who spent months in the unforgiving heat, the whipping sands of Afghanistan and Iraq, who had calluses on his hands from hard work, secret work, work he couldn’t tell her about, even when they were both still serving.
She remembers the way his rough hands pressed into her skin.
This — this is not that. She can barely feel him now.
She reaches down and clutches his hand, wrenching it away from the soft skin of her thigh.
When she pulls his hand above the covers, into the light, his hands are utterly smooth. Not a single scar, bump, callus.
She stares closer.
He doesn’t even have fingerprints.
Lena drops his hand and skitters out of bed, dragging the sheet along with her, trying to cover herself as she stumbles backwards.
“What are you?”
Kane looks at his own hands. Turns them over, stares at his knuckles.
“I don’t know,” he says. He doesn’t look at her.
Lena backs away, away, away, out of the bedroom. She slams the door after her, then makes it halfway down the stairs before she stops, bends double, presses the sheet to her face, balled up in her fists, and screams.
Sometimes, Kane thinks he hears a voice. It’s not Lena, he knows that. It’s not her, in his head. He knows her voice well enough now, knows the words she says most often. Why and how and what .
What he hears, it isn’t her.
This voice screams, makes awful guttural sounds that Kane can’t always figure out.
But if he listens hard enough, he hears it.
Just one word, and if he’d open his mouth and let it out, it would change everything.
Just one word.