Once upon a time, before fish could talk and before The Canons of Cantor became more popular than the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah, there was a town nestled in the curl of a river beside a mountain where science and superstition blended as seamlessly as blue sky and the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a town born in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The residents embraced the frontier culture and believed they could impact faraway places through magical connections known as ley lines. But by the summer of 2042 the townsfolk had vanished, and Assurance, North Carolina, was continuously inhabited by a single person—Nadia Holkam, a slim forty-two-year-old woman with long blond hair and green eyes that spoke of a Scotch-Irish heritage and the despair that comes from traumatic loss.
There were only two people in Nadia’s universe. One was Nadia. The other was a man who barked at the moon.
“Yip! Yip! Yip! Awoooo!”
Nadia studied her caretaker as he danced and howled in the open doorway of her Appalachian home on a sweltering night in early June. Berky Benson’s hairless, pasty-white, moon-lit body resembled an obese, 6-foot-6-inch mole-rat. His naked buttocks rippled like curdled cheese. Next to him, a black cat circled the lid of a food tray, stopping and starting and bowing as if enacting some voodoo ritual.
Berky was twenty-nine years old, thirteen years younger than Nadia and much stronger as he demonstrated with delight in their every sexual encounter. Now, ignoring her pain, she struggled to her feet, then found a knitting needle she had left on the end table near her favorite padded chair. The effort exhausted her. She knew she couldn’t muster the strength of limb or will to kill him with this makeshift weapon, however much she fantasized about it. Still, the cold hardness of it in her hand was comforting. Quickly picking up her clothes from the floor—clothes that Berky had torn off just moments ago—she slipped the needle into their ruined folds.
Berky howled again in the doorway. “A-wo-o-o-o-o!” A long, triumphant yowl.
Somewhere on the edge of the Nantahala forest, an animal returned the call.
“Listen,” he said to her, eyes darting.
The animal wailed again.
He cocked his head. “That’s a wolf—a top predator. They’re coming back. God has willed it.”
“Maybe not,” she said. Her stomach wrenched at the timid act of defiance. She steadied herself on the table, hand atop her clothes, feeling the hard, thin spine of the needle underneath. To distract him, she raked her other hand through the blond hair draped against her naked, bruised breasts, and inched closer, within striking range. She could smell the raw onion aroma of his sweat from three feet away.
Berky turned from the open door. “You doubt me?”
“No,” she whimpered, holding her balled-up clothes in front of her like a flimsy shield. “I would never doubt you. Other people—people who know less than you—say they’re Shelties, not wolves. Escaped pets that have adapted to life in the wild.”
Berky stepped closer, towering above Nadia’s five-foot-six frame. He batted the clothes aside, and the needle skidded across the floor. When he saw it, he squeezed her cheeks with a powerful hand. “Sheep Dogs are what they use in genetics labs to make Testrial.”
Her voice trembled, but her eyes looked up and fixed on his. “It’s just what they say. There are so many of them now.”
“That’s a wild animal. It’s not a fucking dog. You can’t tame a wolf. And when you try, we fight back.”
“I didn’t mean to disrespect you,” she said.
“We have to combat the ungodly acts of terror,” he said. “Rise against blasphemous interference with divine biological selection. We need to put things back the way they were. We’re an endangered species. You’re killing us.” He pulled her to the floor and sat on her butt, facing her feet.
“I can’t breathe,” she croaked, as she struggled, stomach pinned to the floor under his weight.
“I am the salvation,” he said. “I have the cure.” He lifted his eyes and raised his open hands into the air. “I have the perfection.”
He grabbed one of her ankles, pulled it toward his face, and thrust her big toe into his mouth.
She yelped as he tugged at the toe with his teeth, snarling like a playful dog.
When he finished ravaging her feet, he turned her over, licked her face from eyeball to nose, then shoved his tongue into a nostril, smiled lovingly when she choked, slathered the side of her head, and licked her ear wax. “You are my cupcake, my lollipop,” he said. “You are my perfect woman.”
He continued licking until her skin was a lacework of ropy saliva, as if a rout of snails had traversed her body. Now spent, and his submaxillary spittle glands dry, he said, “Darling, you must be famished. I want you to eat what I brought. You need your strength.”
The cat hovering next to the tray pawed at the lid, sniffing the air and licking its chops. Berky moved quickly and swatted it with an open hand. “Schrodinger! Stop it! That’s Nadia’s food.”
She was still lying on the floor, physically and emotionally beaten. Both of her big toes felt raw, violated. She crawled to pick up the meal, dreading what always came next.
When Berky departed, he took Schrodinger with him, driving toward the bridge and the forest and the world beyond. From the open door, Nadia watched his taillights merge with the whirl of lightning bugs, then dissolve into darkness.
She stretched her arm out the door and toward the moon as though reaching for freedom, and said to the darkness, “I wish . . .” Her mind wandered. If Diana were here, she’d know what to do. She was always good at fixing things. She breathed the words: “Diana, I need you.”
A wave of nausea swept through her body. She jerked her trembling hand inside as though the moonlight had burned it. The shadows beyond the doorway marked a world she was incapable of entering—a place where reality writhed and twisted, and sometimes whispered. Fireflies became pinpricks into unseen dimensions, and sources of conflicting voices that only Nadia could hear: “Beware” and “I’ll help you” and “Death awaits, but so does hope.” The world would kill her if she stepped outside her house. This was as certain as the vomit rising in her throat and the sudden weakness in her limbs and the dimming of her vision.
When the whispers said, “He won’t return,” she withdrew her gaze from the road, the bridge, and the forest, gently closed the door on objective reality, and took refuge in the shower, where warm water caressed her skin and washed away Berky’s stink. With eyes shut, she turned her face into the stream and cleansed her mouth, filling it with water but not swallowing or spitting, just letting it overflow and run down her jaw.
She huddled in the spray, imagining a rainy summer day from childhood—better times. The sun will come out soon, and I’ll get dressed, and Papa will ask me to help with the bees, and after we’re done in the garden and I’ve eaten supper, he’ll tuck me in and read me a story. She almost felt human again. She dried and dressed and bandaged her toes.
An empty stomach drew her to the food tray. When she removed the lid, her throat clutched. She hated fish and the chalky undertaste of its flesh as much as she hated the stink of Berky’s sweat. The fishes figured in her dreams about the end of the world, where only fish remained, and they were laughing.
Berky always claimed his actions were altruistic. Yesterday he said, “Fish genes can hold far more memory of their environment than human genes. They adapt faster. So you need to eat lots of fish. I’m doing this for you, Nadia, to preserve the memories in your brain—the engrams. And how your cells read your genes. I’ll keep these memories alive long after you die.”
She wondered about the engrams.
I don’t know who I am anymore. I have so many memories that seem to swim away when I think of them. It’s like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands when it knows you’re looking. How will Berky or anyone else find the slippery engrams when I can’t?
She resolved to redouble her efforts to write a comprehensive history of Assurance. That and the proper indexing of artifacts in the museum seemed like a more practical way to guard against memory extinction.
The book was a message to the future from the last living resident of Assurance. It would tell of a town that, for most of its existence, seemed undecided about whether it wanted to live or die. It would explain how the South Prong River kept Assurance alive until the day the water turned black and its inhabitants vanished. It would describe why mountain culture represented the best of all possible worlds. It would reveal who she was and who she wanted to be.
The book was a solution to Nadia’s problem: she was a ghost in a ghost town, unknown and unremembered by anyone except Berky. Her agoraphobia—her fear of open spaces—made her a prisoner in her own home. She was Berky’s resentful but obedient pet. She was nothing. Nadia was “nada.”
She reached for her notebook and wrote, Poof!