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"Happier Lands" by Ernie Wang

“But now there was nowhere to hide, at eleven possessing the physique of the bodybuilders gracing the cover of supermarket novels.”

“But now there was nowhere to hide, at eleven possessing the physique of the bodybuilders gracing the cover of supermarket novels.”

by Ernie Wang

Josh was eleven when he surpassed his dad Gary in muscle mass. He had surpassed him in strength years earlier, at seven or eight, but he feigned weakness and perfected his acting craft, and his exhales drew out longer and his face contorted with pained effort before he let Gary beat him in their nightly after-dinner arm-wrestling bouts. Josh would look at him with awe, to which Gary would look pointedly at Josh’s mom Sally. Sally, stone-faced, would studiously dip her spoon in her soup in even intervals, ignoring them both. Josh wanted to hug her and tell her everything was okay, or strike her with a single blow to send her flying across the room and scream nothing was okay. 

But now there was nowhere to hide, at eleven possessing the physique of the bodybuilders gracing the covers of supermarket novels. The doctors had discovered this within a week of his birth, explaining after numerous tests his genetic mutation, the complete absence of myostatin suppressors. Studying him, they said, would allow the medical community rapid advances and possibly breakthroughs in curing muscular dystrophy. They also warned, depending on his weight trajectory, of the risks of his heart giving out as early as in his thirties. The key was to study him while they still could, these doctors serving this sleepy mining town deep in the Carolinas said. Sally nodded and hardened her gaze, still reeling from the extraordinarily difficult delivery, while Gary rubbed his soft bicep and studied baby Josh sleeping peacefully in his hospital crib.

“Are you faking on me?” 

Josh froze. His right arm remained on the dining table in the defeated position. 

“What, Dad?”

“Are you faking on me?” Gary turned to Sally. “Is he faking on me?” 

Outside Gary’s peripheral vision, Josh shook his head. Sally considered him for a moment, but then, as if to reverse course, her face hardened, erasing both the wrinkles lining her eyes and forehead and any hope Josh held for a co-conspirator.

"Josh, why don’t you answer your father.”

He felt his face burn, imagined its redness and splotches rivaling the pepperoni pizza pushed to the side of the table. 

“I am,” he said. “But only a little.” 

Gary withdrew his hand. He flexed his fingers hesitatingly before he found refuge for them at the back of his head, where he plucked at the patch of hair that had gone grey. Josh folded his hands in his lap and slumped in his chair. 

Gary shook his head. “You should never fake anything,” he said. “That’s being dishonest. You hear me?”

Josh nodded.

“Go to your room.”

He stood, and with his eyes glued to the floor, trudged out the dining room, bumping his shoulder into the doorframe on the way. He gritted his teeth, and making his way to his room, deliberately shut the door without a trace of sound. 

In the sanctuary of his bedroom, worlds apart from the dining room that had long since come to signify the nightly peak of his duress, he collapsed on his bed. In his mind, he reconstructed his response over and over again, in each case inventing an increasingly brilliant answer, and one that instead resulted in his dad finally laying this farce to rest. I’m definitely stronger than you, Dad would say, and Josh would say, yes, yes, you are, and Dad would say, these arm-wrestles are no longer needed, and Josh would say, fine, okay then.

He unclasped his hands, and lifting his arm, flexed his bicep. He watched in disgust as the ball of muscle sprung to attention and swelled and stretched his sleeve. Relaxing his arm, he sighed and flipped over and buried his head deep into his pillow, his thick forearms snaking up underneath and coming to rest between the sheets and the pillow’s flip side.

He heard their muffled discussion intensify through the closed door. He rose off his bed and made his way to the door and cracked it open. Sitting crossed-legged, he leaned forward and peeked through the crack. 

Gary, he’s a kid. 

A week ago, Josh had peered into an uncovered street manhole. It had begun to rain, and streams of water rushed over the edge and disappeared into its depths. He remained transfixed, his hair and clothes plastered on his skin, as passersby looked at him curiously and then continued on their way. 

We need to change things, Gary.

Once, Josh heard a fable about the farmers of Siberia, where such was its desolation that occasionally the farmers would leave everything behind and walk west, toward the setting sun. They would continue to walk without resting or eating or drinking until they collapsed, where they would forever remain, the wind and rain eventually sweeping their rotted flesh clean off their bones. Josh had wondered, if he were ever to find himself faced with such absence of hope, how far away he would walk, his disproportionate weight burning into the fuel to go on for thousands of miles, before he would finally succumb and drop to his gravesite.

SALLY I’M TRYING.

Gary slammed the table, halting her in mid-sentence. Josh heard his mom rise from the table and begin to stack plates. After a moment, he heard his dad get up to help, and the clattering of plate on plate and the clinking of glasses and rattling of forks and knives filled the silence. 

He stood and shut the door and waited for the soft click before flipping the light switch and returning to bed. In the darkness, he crawled underneath his covers and draped his forearm over his eyes and willed himself to sleep. He drifted to and fro, his mind getting heavier as the minutes passed, and then he lost all sense of time, and then of place. At some point, he might or might not have heard the soft knock on the door, or imagined his mom or his dad on the other side wanting to come in and sit at the side of his bed and stroke his hair that had grown long and explain how everybody was trying their best to make sense of what was going on and how hard it must be for Josh, and he must not forget that they are his parents, and they love him, very much. At some point, he finally fell into a restless sleep, and then he dreamed he became smaller, and then he could fly, to escape to happier lands where everybody lacked myostatin suppressors, but in mid-air he grew large again, bringing his flight to an abrupt stop and sending him crashing into the ground.

“I’m not hungry.”

She knocked again. “Josh, can I come in?”

She cracked open the door and slid her head in, in time to see him disappear underneath his covers. 

“Sweetie, you’ve skipped the last three dinners. You can’t keep missing dinner like this.”

His outline shifted. She entered the room and sat by the edge of his bed and rubbed his back through the covers.

“Won’t you join us?”

The covers shook with his head.

“Are you avoiding your dad?”

The covers shook.

“Why won’t you join us?”

His response was muffled.

“What’s that, Josh?” She pulled back the covers, revealing his head.

“I just thought,” he said, facing the wall, “if I skipped dinner then maybe I’ll get smaller.”

She continued to rub his back and said nothing. 

Over a summer decades ago, one of a string of summers whose memories had dulled and merged with all other summer memories in creating for Sally an aggregate childhood recollection that felt inconsequential and forgettable, yet now returned with clarity, Michiko had moved from the Hokkaido island of Japan to Sally’s town. Sally befriended Michiko, ostensibly as a gesture of goodwill and Carolinian hospitality, but really Sally just needed friends.

In Sally’s bedroom after school, Michiko would widen her eyes and keep them raised, so that she looked to be in a perpetual state of astonishment, even as they ran out of things to talk about. And then, amidst the quiet, and her mind wandering, as though her thoughts might have returned to the life and friends she left in Japan, she would momentarily abandon her efforts to keep her eyes enlarged, and they would revert to a more natural state.

“Michiko.”

Michiko, snapping to attention, slowly and furtively re-widened her eyes.

“Why do you do that?” Sally asked.

“Do what?”

“Try to make your eyes round.”

Michiko’s face reddened. She mumbled incoherently.

“I can’t hear you.”

“I’m trying to look American,” she said more clearly. Then she looked up hopefully. “Is it working?”

Sally had said nothing, because she had no idea how to respond to something so ridiculous. She knew she felt something; in the pit of her stomach swirled discomfort and pity and compassion and disdain. But she was at a loss when it came to vocalizing those feelings. You’re pretty the way you are would not properly convey her irritation, plus it would be lying, and stop feeling sorry for yourself was not quite accurate either. 

And that was how she felt now as she stared at the back of Josh’s head, wanting to say something, but again she failed, and her response was constrained to the circular motion of her hand on Josh’s back, to which she poured all her grief.

“Er.”

They looked up. Gary stood in the doorway, holding a tray. 

He spoke in his typical halting way. “I thought, maybe, we could have dinner here. In your room.” He turned toward Josh. “If that’s okay with you.”

Josh sprung out of bed. Gathering the covers in his arms, he tossed them in the corner.

“We can sit here,” he said. 

Gary placed the tray on the desk. “Okay. I’ll just set this down here,” he said. He drew a chair next to the bed and handed a plate to Josh. “You hungry?”

Josh nodded, and they commenced to eating. They were quiet, but this was nothing out of the ordinary. It was a household that would never acclimate to small talk.

“So,” Gary said between mouthfuls. “I was thinking, after this, we could go back to the dining room and have one more arm-wrestle—I’m kidding, Sally. Jesus, you can’t ever take a joke.” He muttered to himself and speared his potatoes.

Sally glanced at Josh, but he was smiling, and she relaxed. She turned to her husband.

“Careful now, Gary, don’t make me set Josh on you.”

She looked at them and rolled her eyes. “I’m kidding, guys. Relax.”

And for the rest of the bedroom dinner they were quiet, and it was awkward and slightly uncomfortable with so much left unsaid, but as their family did not care for dinner talk, they certainly did not care for expressing the things that burned unextinguished in the vast fields of their consciousness, and they were content with the fact that they were eating together as a family, even as they were making a mess on poor Josh’s bed.

He had his first heart attack at eighteen, in the middle of fourth period. Ms. George had been discussing the Pythagorean theorem when she and the class instead stopped and stared at Josh clutch his chest and heave for air. Years of anticipation had prepared him for the mechanics of the required response: he crushed the aspirins and grimaced as he sprinkled the bitter crumbs under his tongue, and he swallowed the nitroglycerin capsules he carried in his pocket, then he asked Ms. George if she would send for an ambulance and his parents—but nothing could have prepared him for the explosion of shock and terror and despair and confusion in its aftermath, which then gave way to the sick realization that this was maybe the beginning of the end, and the stubborn discovery that actually he really did not want to die just yet. 

It was the middle of September, still sweltering and shimmering outside, stuffy and warm indoors, and in a class of cut-off shirts and short shorts and shiny foreheads, he stood out, not just for his enormous back and neck but also for the long pants and dark sweater that draped over his physique, even on the hottest of days, a visual and sweaty reminder to all to never offer comments—complimentary or critical—even as they secretly wished they had his body and stared at him for as long as they thought they could get away with.

It was always that winter sweater that broke Ms. George. As she put her phone away, the dispatcher having reassured her that an ambulance was on its way, and after she instructed Gary and Sally to go straight to the hospital and meet their son there, she could not help but stare with pity and revulsion at him drenched with sweat, his eyes squeezed shut as he fought back tears. She wanted to rush to his side, to embrace him, and tell him he was going to be okay, and then slap the snot out of him and tell him to remove that foolish sweater, to stop feeling embarrassed and ashamed. Then, for a guilty second, staring at him, the agony in his adult body and on his face, she was reminded of her last lover, his confusion resembling Josh’s in the moments before she had banished him out the door for the last time. But in that moment, Nurse Haskins and Principal Krawczyk rushed into the classroom, and she put aside her thoughts as she explained to Haskins everything she saw. 

They kept him in the hospital overnight. You should go home, he said, but they would have none of that. He cracked open his eyes a little before the sun was to rise and saw his dad finally asleep sitting in his chair, his mom having nodded off on his dad’s shoulder hours earlier. As the skies started to lighten, he tried to imagine how it would feel to be gone forever, the significance of not existing. The only eternity his family ever believed in was the one in which the consciousness, once drained, never returns. For the first time, it began to dawn on him how truly permanent and irreversible death was, but the more he considered this, the more abstract and overwhelming and frightening the concept became, until he squashed the thought by burying his head into his pillow. He was not afraid of losing his body; he had hated it from the beginning. It was losing his consciousness that terrified him. And as he listened to his parents snoring softly by his bedside, as dawn gave way to the soft rays of morning twilight, he had never felt so alone, so small, which tragically provided him his only source of comfort. The EKG attached to his exposed chest beeped and the green lines on the monitor blipped, and he closed his eyes once again, finally falling asleep as the day was to begin.

He was discharged that morning. The cardiologist, normally a man with no shortage of words, did not have much to say, and Gary and Sally could not mask their disappointment as they drove home, both having wished that the doctor would have said more. 

“Are you guys mad at me?”

Sally turned around from the passenger seat. “Of course not. Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t be silly, Josh.”

Actually, Gary was angry, all the time, even, though he had no idea who he was angry with, much less why. Gripping the steering wheel, he recalled the time in his childhood when the middle school bully, who had been particularly appalling to Gary, lifted him by his armpits and lugged him into the gym locker room and threw him into a bathroom stall. As he forced Gary’s head closer and closer to the toilet, the terror Gary felt morphed into panic, then into hysteria, then—with a snap that came from somewhere unidentifiable, but close enough to his ears that he heard the distinct pop—into rage, blind and numbing and liberating. He launched himself into the bully—he long ago forgot what his name was—and took him down to the ground by surprise. Straddling the bully’s chest, he laid one strike after another into his bloodied face, even as his own tears and snot dripped onto his tormentor, silent now; Gary’s cries ricocheted across the bathroom walls and through the closed door as a crowd of kids began to assemble silently outside. 

Gary wondered why he recalled this now, and for a fleeting moment, the thought crossed his mind that maybe he was actually not angry, but instead terrified, in the same he had feared the bully, even to this day, terrified of losing Josh, terrified of a life without Josh, who at the moment was looking at him through the rearview mirror, his eyes wide and lost, but Gary was unable to meet his son’s gaze. Instead he redoubled his focus on the road that lay ahead of them.

Sally woke up in the middle of the night to the faint sound of the television. She entered the living room to see Josh sound asleep on the couch. She retrieved his blanket and folded it over him, and then muted the television. On the screen, Axl Rose silently hopped across the stage in his bandana and cutoff shirt. She drew a chair and sat by his side, her son’s face occasionally flickering from the reflection of the television. When he stirred, she bent over and caressed his hair, until he was still once more.

It had been four days since Josh’s heart attack. In that time, Sally had resigned from her job, surprisingly to Gary’s full support. He should be watched, just in case, he said when Sally shared the news with him. He then stood there stiffly when she hugged him.

Unable to sleep, she went into the kitchen and scooped coffee grounds from the jar. 

“Make me one too?” 

Gary stood in the doorway, his eyes mostly closed and his body nearly swallowed up by his t-shirt and shorts. 

They stood patiently and watched the globlets of coffee slowly fill the pot. She narrowed her eyes.

“Since when did you start drinking coffee?”

“Since today.”

“You’ll want plenty of cream and sugar,” she said.

“I’ll have it the way you do,” he said. 

She raised her eyebrows. “I drink mine black.”

“That’s how I’ll have it.”

A minute later, she stifled her laugh as he spit coffee over the kitchen floor.

“Josh is sleeping,” she scolded him. She retrieved a rag and was about to wipe the mess when he crouched forward and laid his arms and head on the counter. Here he remained, silent and motionless. Fighting her urge to scold him further, she wrapped him from behind in a tight embrace. This time, he did not fight back.

“Gary,” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Next time use cream and sugar, okay?”

It was Friday night at King’s Bowling, Gary’s favorite place, where they were celebrating his birthday. Gary took bowling very seriously. He would bring not one, but two custom balls, the second reserved for splits, and tonight, being his birthday, he wore his particularly lucky bowling shirt, the one brassily emblazoned with the letters “GARY” across the back and front. 

His walk-up approach started with a quick flex of the shoulders and fingers and a stutter-step that gradually morphed into a kind of hunched swoop, and his gaze was a GPS system locked on the middle pin at the end of the lane. Behind him, Sally and Josh exchanged smirks. He released the ball, which glided down the lane in a perfect arc and crashed into the pins, knocking them all down, a most emphatic strike. He pummeled the air with his fists, then turned to face his wife and son, but not in time to catch them rolling their eyes.  

Sally and Josh, not at all concerned about their own scores, were currently teamed up in an attempt to have their combined scores top Gary’s. It was close, and also, Gary was trying very hard. 

Sally was up. Josh high-fived her as she stood and made her way toward the lane. She hoisted her ball, and lurching forward, flung it. The ball behaved well initially, rolling down the middle of the lane, but as it approached the pins, it began to veer to the right despite Sally and Josh’s pleas and ending by taking down only the three rightmost pins.

Sally shrugged apologetically at Josh, who remained unfazed.

“You got this, Mom,” he said, ignoring the probable fact that she did not have this.

The ball returned. Sally hoisted it once more, and then, as though just wanting to rid herself of it, flung it down the lane. The ball reacted accordingly, making a beeline for the gutter. She stole a glance at Gary, whose expression seemed to vacillate between amusement at her score and annoyance that she wasn’t trying very hard.

“Come on, Josh,” she said, as Josh stood. He gently picked up his ball, which looked tiny in his arms, and then stepping forward, gracefully lowered it to the ground. It rolled down the lane steadily, ending close to the middle of the pins, knocking down all but one. Sally cheered.

“Way to go!” she said, high-fiving him again. As they waited for the ball to return, Sally turned to him and quietly sad, “No pressure, Josh, but we really need to beat your dad.” Josh nodded dutifully and picked up the ball.

For the first time resembling Gary in his seriousness and concentration, Josh paused to focus on the remaining pin. Then, deliberately, he stepped forward and released the ball. It rolled forward, surprisingly in a straight line, given its modest speed, and Sally found herself actually feeling a little nervous, before catching and reminding herself that it was just a silly game.

The ball looked as though it would just barely miss the pin, when in the last second, it curved slightly, tapping the pin on its side. The pin wobbled in circles before toppling over and disappearing into the maw beyond the lane. 

Josh raised his arms and whooped. Sally did the same. She looked at Gary, who, uncharacteristically, was cheering as well. She returned her attention toward Josh, whose eyes glinted and whose grin pierced her heart, and she wished that they could continue like this forever, that they could suspend into infinity this one moment. She imagined the room beginning to spin, slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly, until she became dizzy and disoriented. Still spinning, she imagined a kind of powerful centrifugal force flinging her into the air, rising past the bowling alley and high into the night sky, rising above the rows of orange street lights disappearing down below, rising into the galaxy of stars, at first fiery and piercing and blinding, but eventually fading into darkness.

Ernie Wang holds an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is an incoming PhD candidate at the University of Houston. His other fiction and nonfiction appear in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Threepenny Review, PEN America Best Debut Short Stories, and others.

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