Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Junior’s dad came in while he was studying at his desk. “Well? How’s it coming along?” Dad looked over Junior’s shoulder, mouthing a cigarette.
“Good . . . Hey, aren’t you supposed to light those things?”
“Oh, right. I keep forgetting.”
Dad produced a lighter from his pocket and lit the cigarette. He drew the smoke into his lungs.
“Come on, Dad. You’re the one who’s always saying that we can’t forget to act like Earthlings.”
“Got me there. Sorry, son . . . I know it’s up to me to set a good example for the family. As Earthlings, it’s our responsibility, regardless of the time or place, to carry on our way of life. To be the very model of a family. Especially since we’re so far away from Earth, out here on our own.”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” He examined his father’s outfit. Dad wore a black double-breasted suit, paired with a black shirt and a white tie. Red rose thrust in the buttonhole of his lapel, hat on his head, thick rings cladding his fingers.
“Spiffy, huh? Pretty sharp for your old dad. I took a couple of cues from a guy I saw on a video I was watching earlier, all dressed up and dancing.”
“Hey, I watched that one too. So I guess that makes this a dancing costume?” Junior weighed his words, careful not to sound like he was talking back.
“Ridiculous.” Dad puffed out his chest. “In other videos, I’ve seen guys wear this kind of thing while riding in cars, or having their nails trimmed at the barber shop. And everyone who sees them treats them with respect. Which, if you ask me, makes this the perfect outfit for a father.”
“OK, but how come you’re almost twice as fat as yesterday?”
“You have to be this big, or else a double-breasted suit won’t look right,” Dad ventured, lacking conviction.
Junior decided not to argue. He shut his book. “I’m making decent progress with deciphering for the day. Honestly, now that I’ve got the hang of it . . . It’s kinda fun.”
“No one’s forcing you to enjoy it . . . I wonder if this book’s legit, though. Seems there are three kinds of books: ones that are all lies, ones that are half lies and half true, and ones that are true through and through. Hard telling which is which.”
“You got that right. Why is that? Why bother stringing all those words together if the end result is one big lie?”
Father and son pondered the question. This was a persistent mystery to them. Junior in particular was skeptical. They assumed the videos, at least, were telling the truth, but what were they supposed to do if those were lying, too?
“We human beings are complicated creatures.” Dad sighed. This observation, while not exactly helpful, struck him as a pretty cool thing to say.
“I think this book is true, though,” Junior said. “It even provides a date for everything.”
“Righto! Keen observation, boy. So smart. Like a father, like a son.” Dad beamed. “You know, I failed to notice that myself. It’s hard to tell what aeon most of these books come from.”
“This one’s set in nineteenth-century America. I found it on the map. It talks about the War Between the States. But the main character’s a woman.”
“Once you’re finished deciphering, tell me if they explain why humans ventured into space.”
“I’m not so sure they will, but I’ll keep going anyway. This woman just had her heart broken. Look how many pages I still have left though! So maybe there’s time yet for her to wind up on a spaceship. I mean, when people get jilted, don’t they usually skip town?” The gifted son spoke with certainty.
“Suppose so . . .” Dad cocked his head.
“You know, like take a trip? You hear a lot of that in songs.”
“I guess so.”
“I kinda want to try getting my heart broken.”
“I think you’d need to be in a relationship . . .”
“What about my sister?”
“Right. Sure, worth a try.”
“First, though, we have to meet up at a dance party, or go on a date or something.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. There’s only four of us Earthlings left, after all . . . Who else would you invite? The monsters that gambol they beyond the hill they do?”
“Wait, but can’t those guys transform so that they look exactly like us? We could make them tons of nice clothes with the replicator. Then they’d have something to wear.”
“They don’t have any interest in that kind of thing. The concept of a civilized existence is beyond them. We’re lucky they’re tame. They won’t do us any harm, but they’re obviously a different form of life. Who knows what they’re thinking? They’d have a lot more fun if they were living in our automated city. But they insist on roughing it. They must prefer it that way.”
Mom poked her head into the room, hair knobbed with curlers. “You need to talk some sense into that girl . . .” She wore a bathrobe and held an orange and a glass of milk.
“What’s wrong?” asked Dad.
“She’s hiding in the closet again.”
“Huh? What’s bothering her this time?”
“It’s these awful books. Now she’s started reading about how daughters hate their moms and love their dads. As if I needed this today.” Mom shook her head.
“What?” Dad asked, perplexed. “What’s she been reading?”
“Psychology or something. What a load of baloney.”
Junior assumed a noble air. “Don’t worry, I’ll get her out.”
“Let me do it,” Dad insisted. “I call the shots around here, see.”
“Yeah, but Dad, what do you know about books?” Junior left the room.
“How long are you going to keep this up? Get out of there right now!” Mom pounded on the door.
“Go away!” said Sis. “I’m being rebellious.”
The response was muffled, as if her face was buried in a cushion.
“You’ve got it wrong, Sis,” Junior said.
“How so?” she asked. “I’m an adolescent.”
“We’re supposed to be going on a picnic!” Mom shrieked.
“Get out this instant!”
“Hush a minute, will you?” Junior pushed Mom aside, but pushed too hard. She tumbled to the floor and bashed her forehead. For a while she lay still. Leaving her like that, Junior crossed his arms.
“Were you reading about the Electra Complex?”
“Yeah,” Sis answered from the closet.
“Did you know that there’s a negative Oedipus Complex, too, though?”
“Huh?” Her voice was quiet. “What’s that?”
“It’s when you form an attachment to a parent of the same sex.”
“. . . Isn’t that the opposite?”
“Exactly. In psychology, for any given case, there’s generally another case that constitutes the polar opposite. Though not in every single situation.”
“. . . Really?” Sis was losing confidence in her position.
“I’ve read more books than any of us, right?”
Mom sat up, feeling woozy. She rubbed her forehead for a while. Apparently it wasn’t serious. She went over to the replicator.
“Besides, do you realize how bored you’re gonna get if you stay cooped up in the closet?” Junior was changing strategies.
“. . . But . . .”
“You call yourself an adolescent, but that’s bogus. This place has a different orbital period than Earth. Not like I’ve actually done the math, but I bet they’re different alright.” Junior tried to sound as nonchalant as possible.
“How old are you again?” he asked. “In local years.”
“Um, I guess . . . like seventeen or something?” Sis was earnest, but sounded doubtful. “I’m not sure though. Sometimes my calendar stops working.”
“Know what you mean. After a week, it’s all a blur. I’ve been trying to pinpoint when it was that human beings invented time. I’m still trying to figure it out, but evidently time was a big deal.”
Junior pulled up a chair and sat. In imitation of his father, he had a smoke. When he ashed on the floor, the robovacuum scurried over.
“Yeah, but that’s exactly why I’m doing this.” Sis fidgeted in the closet.
“Don’t you realize?” Junior asked. “Time is bogus. After 3 p.m. today, for all we know it’ll be 7 a.m. four days ago.”
Mom craned her neck at Junior. She was in the process of pulling a bamboo basket from the replicator. “What are you saying? Time is passing just fine, thank you very much. We’re the ones who need to make sure that we keep on acting normally. Now get your sister out of the closet. Once I’ve got everything together, we’re heading out. This has been on the docket for quite a while.”
“I get it, OK?”
Junior turned around, knitting his brow. Sometimes, it was OK to get upset with your parents. It was a regular occurrence in the dramas on TV.
“Let’s talk about time later. Seventeen, huh? That’s pretty old to be going through adolescence.”
“. . . So, what am I supposed to do?” she asked reluctantly.
“Well, women in their late teens wash their hair excessively. They stand in front of the mirror, trying on tons of different clothes. Sometimes they go on dates.”
“Is that supposed to be more fun?”
“Yeah, absolutely. Tons of fun.”
The door slid open from inside. Sis was sitting in the top compartment of the closet, hugging a pillow. Nimbly, she jumped down to the floor.
“Whew, I’m tired. I was in there six whole hours. Mom took forever to notice.” She reached both arms up and stretched.
“We were busy, that’s all,” said Junior, attempting to console her.
“I try to be rebellious, and our folks don’t even notice.” Just like that, her voice was buoyant.
Mom headed for the kitchen, arms full of picnic fixings.
“What’s that woman doing?” asked Sis.
“Making us lunch. And it’s a little weird to call your mom ‘that woman’.”
“It’s fine once in a while.”
“If you say so.” Junior didn’t really know himself.
“I’m going to get ready,” Sis said.
His little sister stood before the replicator and punched a series of buttons.
“INSUFFICIENT VEGETABLE OIL,” quoth the replicator. Among the contents of the basket Mom had set beside the machine was a tub of margarine. Sis scraped the tub clean with a knife, emptying it into the hopper. The processing light flickered. At length, two tubes of lipstick popped from the machine, accompanied by a gentle tone.
“Hey, think it can make some stuff for me?”
“Let’s see . . . I’ll need a comb and some pomade. Or maybe gel instead.”
“Changing your hairstyle?”
“Yeah. Can’t decide if I’m gonna spike it up or do a pompadour.”
Junior thought of all the coming-of-age movies he had seen. All the different styles showcased in the bromides. Granted, the movies had a tendency to overrepresent the American Graffiti look.
“I’ll have some pomade.”
“What make?” Sis shot back.
He hadn’t thought of that. “Do I gotta be specific?”
“The devil is in the details. If you care anything about fashion.” Sis was a stickler for minutiae.
“What kinds are there? I don’t know where to start.”
“So for your different brands of product . . . there’s Yanagiya, Fiorucci, Lanvin . . .” Sis was showing off.
“That many kinds?”
“Then there’s Nestlé, Ajinomoto, Kewpie . . .”
“Gimme one of the good ones.” Sis manipulated the machine and pulled out a jar of pomade. It had a Kewpie emblem on the lid.
“It’s the little things in life that matter.”
“So I hear.”
“I know way more about this kind of thing than you. I read the women’s magazines. I even know more about Sunday brunch than Mom. Girls are supposed to eat yogurt and fruit. Oh, and cheesecake.”
“Look at you, acting like a real girl now.” Junior was genuinely impressed. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you used to be a boy?”
“Think so. It’s all kind of vague. Mom and Dad decided that having one boy and one girl would make for more variety. But the hairstyle and clothes are totally different. It’s a real pain. If I was still a boy, I could just copy you.”
Junior thought back to when his sister was a boy. They both wore shorts and chased each other around, playing tag. Mom was adamant that a child with a girlish body should be raised to be a woman. So his little brother became a little sister. Sis seemed fine with it. After dressing as a girl for a while, her body was much softer looking than before. Thanks to no small effort on her part.
“Where’s Mom?” Nothing else to do, Junior paced around the room.
“Isn’t she getting dressed?”
“What’s taking her so long?”
“Hellooo! When women go out, it takes them a long time to get ready.”
“But all she has to do is change her clothes, comb her hair, and put on a little makeup.”
“That’s not the point . . .”
“Well, what else is there?”
“I dunno . . . but moms have a lot of stuff to do, like all the time. Families depend on every member acting out their roles.”
Junior went back to his room. He lay down on his bed and put on a tape. Pretty soon, he nodded off.
It took Mom two and a half days to get ready. The four of them left the house carrying baskets and thermoses. What a clear, gorgeous night it was.
“Aren’t we driving?”
“Then it wouldn’t be a picnic, dummy.”
They strolled along, buildings towering on either side. It would appear this city had no residents but them. The windows shone a secretive blue. The buildings were dark inside, cloaked in quietude. Far off in the distance, a steady humming could be heard. Automated switches flicking on and off. Following the curving road, the mercury lamps looked like a string of race cars.
“The view is awful over here,” Dad whispered.
“Don’t people usually go on picnics to enjoy the scenery?” Sis asked her brother.
“They go to fields and hills and stuff. Places with big trees.”
“But isn’t it unsafe to leave the city?”
Mom turned, eyeing them anxiously. Not a single one of them had any memory of being outside the city, but somehow, they shared an understanding of what the world outside the city looked like. It ended abruptly. Rather than a gradual thinning of the buildings, there was a stark line at the edge, as if the whole metropolis had been sliced out from somewhere else and plopped down on this planet. Like the family, it came across as woefully isolated. They had no idea when this city came to be. Settlers from Earth had built this settlement, and for one reason or another fled or all but died out, leaving the few perseverant souls from whom they were descended. At least, as Dad would have it. Outside the city, hills and fields stretched off into the distance, where prowled the blue-black monsters. Thick bristles on their crowns and backs, squat-legged creatures they. Trotting about on their hindlegs. Their front legs were brawny; black claws grew from their fingertips. They appeared to be indifferent to the presence of this Earthling clan.
Though none of them had ever seen one of the monsters, they knew how they looked and behaved. Inexplicably. The monsters subsisted on tree nuts and were exceedingly benign. Or perhaps not benign, Dad told them once, so much as indolent. It was unclear whether they were napping or slacking off. Hence, they could not be human. Human beings, he said, were supposed to lead orderly lives. Their family being a prime example.
“Dad,” asked Mom, “did you read the morning paper?”
“Yeah,” Dad answered solemnly. He was the one who had insisted they read the newspaper, to “keep up with the Joneses.”
A person who neglects to read the news each morning is a bum, like those who fail to pay their cable bill. But then again, they only used the TV to watch tapes. So who cares about the cable bill. It’s not like there were any stations anyway. The newspaper, however, was indispensable. The fact that there was no newspaper company was no excuse.
Using articles from magazines and old newspapers, Dad made his own gazette. Each night before bed, he pushed the shuffle button. If he was too punctilious with the selection, it would spoil the surprise. And he made sure he set the postometer accordingly, so that the paper landed in the mailbox at 5 a.m. each morning.
“Anything good?” Mom had no interest in the news but let on like she cared.
“Price of wheat’s gone up.”
“Again? That’s the sixth time this month.” Her response was artificial, and why not? The articles were artificial too. All that mattered was that they went through the motions.
“It plateaued for a while, though.” Dad was being difficult. “Look, I’ve been giving it some thought.” He crossed his arms and watched their son and daughter, who were now a little ways ahead. “I think it’s time we built a house.”
“Why is that? What’s wrong with where we’re living now?”
“We can’t stay there forever. The only plus about that place is that we’re settled in. It’s been too long already. We need to resist the temptation of perpetual convenience, every corner spic and span. Human beings only grow through hardship. Building a house is a man’s life’s work.”
“Where will we go?” Mom figured why not ask. She knew it was ridiculous, but when he got like this, she had to do her best to play along.
“Where? That’s why we’re here . . . to find the perfect spot.” She wouldn’t dream of living outside the city. Besides, Dad had no clue how to build a house.
“I will avoid a casual approach to life at any cost.” But Dad immediately qualified himself, to smooth things over. “I simply don’t want us to wind up the butt of the joke. When people behave shamefully, their children follow suit. Children only notice when their parents make mistakes. One false move, and pretty soon they’re . . . You know, whatever you call it.” Dad flapped his hand impatiently.
“Right, right. In no time flat. Who knows why, but kids love being delinquent.” He was emphatic, though not exactly sure what being a delinquent entailed. It sounded like something from the newspaper, but then again, he was the newspaper.
“I blame it on the motorcycles.”
“Damn straight. Great point, Mom. That’s the problem. Motorcycles and cars!”
“But they already have both. They made them with the replicator.”
“Hmm, I don’t like the sound of this. We’ll have to figure out a subtle way of talking sense into them. Discipline is all about taking the right approach.” They continued down the deserted street.
“How much further?”
Junior produced his comb and ran it through his hair, making a ducktail at the back of his neck. He took care to ensure that the hair met in a vertical line. A solitary bang fell across his forehead. I got this, he told himself. I am the coolest cat. Sis wore an evening gown with a lengthy train. The proper attire for going out at night. She knew the deal. She had debated wearing something disco-formal, but it’s not like they were going to a disco, so she gave up on that idea. Someday, though, she hoped to see a disco, at least once, but Dad refused to let her go. He called them dens of ill repute. Thanks to him, she never got to go where all the groovy kids were at. Wherever that was.
“Hey, we’re not leaving town, are we?” asked Sis.
“Uh, actually, I think we are,” said Junior. He popped the collar of his button-down shirt, just for show. Maybe he should untuck the front.
“I wish there were an ocean nearby. Seaside highways are so dreamy.” She was thinking of a scene from one of the videos.
They arrived at a plaza, theaters on all sides. Fountain in the middle. All the lights were out.
“Hey, what happened here? It’s usually so spectacular.”
“Late at night, they turn the lights off.”
“What time you think it is?”
“Hard to say,” said Junior. “Besides, clocks are bogus. I even get the feeling that time flows differently depending on what part of the city you’re in.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets.
“We left early in the evening, though. And we haven’t walked for very long.”
“Now that you mention it, yeah.”
Lately, he’d been losing confidence in how to live his life. Some days he had no idea what to do with himself. Especially when time started expanding and contracting. That really screwed him up. Seeing the sun go down while he was still working on his morning coffee was deeply upsetting. If he sat up doing nothing all hours of the night, his parents scolded him, saying nighttime was for sleeping. When he said he wasn’t sleepy, they told him to pretend. Anything else would be indecent. He wasn’t to be doing anything disgraceful to society. He had no idea what they meant by “society.” What were they referring to? If he asked, his parents screamed, “You’ve got no common sense! At your age, shouldn’t you have some common sense already?” So he waited for his common sense to arrive on its own. He’d been waiting for a while now. No sign of it anywhere.
Junior worried all the time. (Books told him growing up was about agony and doubt. So maybe this was how it was supposed to be.) He sat down beside his sister.
“Hey, do you think time is made up?” Sis looked at him.
“Anywhere there’s no people,” he said, “there’s no such thing as time. It’s something people made up, out of convenience. To impose order on events.”
“What about history? We’re trying to find out what really happened. When and how human beings made it here. Don’t you want to know what it was like when they first arrived?”
“These days, I’m not sure I really care about that anymore. Feels immaterial.”
“Watch what you’re thinking, boy.” Dad called to him from the bench where he sat.
“Enough. Quit jabbering.” He shook his head. “You’ve got it all wrong, son. Why do you think we read books and watch videos? To learn about the way of life of those who came before us. That’s why. They offer us a clear example of how to live life right. We must keep on the straight and narrow. If we go astray, we’re toasted.”
“I think each person should live life how they like.”
“That’s immaturity for you. At your age, you should be going to school, getting drowned in homework. You should be thankful for being spared that fate . . . Though life would be a whole lot easier for me if there were a school around here. And for you too. On Earth, they had something called entrance exams.”
“It would do you good to have an outlet for your youthful vigor. Burning your glory days on tests—ah, that takes me back!” Dad spread his arms theatrically. “That’s what being young is all about! Testing your mettle. The satisfaction of giving it your all. The beauty!”
“You want me to be some kind of clean-cut poster boy?”
“What else is youth good for?”
“No thanks. Sounds pretty lame. Lately, I’ve been doubting the advisability of giving anything your all.”
“I’m saying this for your own good, son. Your folks would not mislead you. So listen up.”
“Is that why you’re having me create a history of Earthlings, in place of sending me to school? Why do you care so much about history and time, anyway?”
“Have you gone rotten, boy? So, you think you can get away with being a delinquent, huh? Bad kids always spout the same blatherskite.”
“Listen to your father. You’ll regret this one of these days. It’s like the saying goes: there’s no use holding a village at the family grave. Once we’re dead, it’ll be too late.”
“Don’t you mean vigil?”
“Same difference. You little brat.”
Junior shut his mouth. He understood the problem, however tenuously. His parents were uncomfortable with playing Earthlings on this foreign planet. In an effort to conceal their discomfort, they obsessively adhered to social customs, codes of behavior. Since they were unsure of what, exactly, was the best way for an Earthling to behave, they held themselves and their children to impossible ideals. Their pursuit of the history of their ancestors, too, was a function of their desire for peace of mind.
“Are you a bad boy now?” asked Sis. “Just a few days ago, weren’t you a goody two-shoes?” She asked this sincerely (not as an accusation).
“That’s right. I find it pretty odd myself. While Mom was getting ready to go out, I started thinking about time. After two and a half days of thinking, I realized the idea of linear time does no one any good. If all that matters is survival.”
“I only took an hour. Is your head screwed on OK?” Mom, who was wearing a neckerchief for the excursion, shook her head with vigor.
This got Junior thinking. What if I’m the only one unstuck from time?
“Hold on, dear. I think that’s going too far.”
“You’re probably right. I only want our children to be safe. Sometimes I get carried away . . .”
Mom giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. Then she looked up at her family and gave them a command, in a voice honeyed with enthusiasm. “Forget I said anything. Let’s eat.”
The monsters were huddled together, flank to flank, asleep. The cushy undergrowth provided matchless bedding. A sweet smell wafted from the earth, but the sensual aroma of the trees was overpowering. The beasts were fast asleep, without a care. Except for two. Eyes open to the night, they pondered time and the liberty of other living things.
The Earthling family chomped their sandwiches in silence. Before they swallowed their first bites, dawn visited the planet.
“Hey, what’s going on? This can’t be.”
“What did I tell you? Don’t forget to bring your watch,” Mom said. “Who knows what ungodly hour we left the house.” She nudged Dad with her elbow.
“This can’t be happening.” Dad’s jaw fell open.
“Can’t? It’s happening, alright, clear as day. What now?”
“I don’t see why we can’t picnic during the day,” said Sis. She ate her sandwich beatifically.
“Don’t point fingers at me,” Mom snapped. “Your father’s the one who picked the time.”
“I wanted it to be like in that movie, Picnic on the Night.” Dad hadn’t a leg to stand on.
“Isn’t it Picnic on the Battlefield?” Junior interjected.
“Don’t talk back, you little shit!” Mom said. “If we wanted to do that, we’d have to march off into a warzone! Do you realize how hard it is to find a proper battle in this day and age? Of course you don’t. Because you don’t know anything. You’re confused.” Mom was borderline hysterical.
“Isn’t there a Picnic on Nearside, too?” Sis looked at the faces of her family members. None of them seemed to know what she was talking about.
“Oh well. Let’s go home.” Dad spoke with much chagrin. They took their leave.
Something scurried by and stole their picnic basket. A girl. She glanced back at them from the entrance to a theater. Fulgurous eyes and hair of gold had she.
“Hey, what gives!” Dad yelled. “That’s ours.”
“My cutwork napkins are in there!” Mom cried. “Don’t let her get away with that.”
The girl slung the basket over her shoulder and darted off. She was fast. The family pursued.
“Dad gave me those for our anniversary, in a set with the tablecloth. They’re priceless.” Mom wailed as she ran.
Just when they thought they’d lost her, they saw the girl at the next intersection, waiting for them on the corner.
“She not an Earthling be! I’m positive that we’re the only actual Earthlings left!” Dad was out of steam.
“Are there unactual Earthlings? What would that involve?”
“Quiet! This is no time for insubordination.”
“Can’t you make more napkins with the replicator?” asked Sis, keeping pace.
“They have sentimental value! They’re the only ones in the entire universe!” Mom was blowing things out of proportion.
This game of tag—running full speed and stopping short, then dashing off again—continued for some time.
“If she’s hungry, we would’ve shared, but this is unforgivable.”
“I bet she’s trying to lure us off somewhere.”
In which case, you would think they would’ve given up on chasing her, but the parents ran like mad. Junior and Sis chased the girl, too, though not without a modicum of glee. They reached the edge of the city. The girl atop a gentle hill stood she.
“No one makes a fool outta this family. We’ll get you yet!”
“Stop, dear, it’s too dangerous.”
The four of them stood their ground, eyes trained on the hilltop. An elder appeared from the shade of a great tree and stood behind the girl.
“Sorry for your trouble. I hoped to speak with you, but our kind, as a rule, cannot enter the city. Not because we are unable to, but because we hate it there. It’s made by human beings for human beings. No place for us.” The elder’s speech was stilted, though his voice was soft.
“Give it back!” Mom was frantic.
“When we are finished, I will return your things. Long we have been watching you. Not with our eyes, but with our minds. Since this is something that you’re capable of too, I think you’ll understand?”
“We have no clue who you are!” Dad was flushed with anger.
“Please, hear me out. Once upon a time, we lived in peace. We may not have manufactured or consumed, but our existences were rich. Alas, in any group, there will always be misfits. Some of us began to wonder why they were alive and where they came from. Their thoughts consumed their every moment. Eventually they set off for the city. The city made by denizens of another star, and then abandoned. Once there, they spent their days deliberating about time and history and origins.” The elder didn’t sound the least bit elderly.
“Are you talking about us? Well, you can quit while you’re ahead. We’re not like you. We were born in this city. Lived here our whole lives!” Dad was livid.
“So you don’t remember. The memory, however, has a tendency to reorganize itself rather conveniently. I figured it was time to set you straight. Which is why we’ve led you here. Why do you insist on roleplaying as Earthlings—or whatever riffraff you purport to be? You can be free, without such pageantries of humankind. A calm existence, unplagued by these anxieties, is within reach.”
Dad swelled with malice. His body literally swelled. Violent shockwaves daggered from his person. Foul electricity, filthy purple. The waves crested the hill and zapped the elder and the girl, killing them instantly. The family had no idea what was going on. They had never suspected their rising tempers could physically kill someone.
“Phew!” Mom pointed. “Not human after all.” Two blue-black monsters slumped at the top of the hill.
“Man, what a surprise!” Junior snickered. When he beheld the faces of his family, he saw three monsters.
A breeze swept the tranquil hillside. The monsters who had posed as a family stood stock still, overtaken with amazement.
They could not wrap their heads around what had transpired or why. Feeling stupid, they remembered now that monsters (such as them) were able to take any form. Perhaps they had been so convinced they were Earthlings that they began to look the part.
The wind changed.
Disregarding one another, the monsters loped off, each heading its own way. Leisurely, with no particular place to go, stewards of a new anxiety.
From Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki. The story first appeared in Japanese in The Covenant(契約 鈴木いづみSF全集), a larger collection of Izumi Suzuki’s short stories © Bunyusha 2014. Translation of ‘Night Picnic’ © Sam Bett 2021. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books.
Izumi Suzuki (1949–1986) was a writer, actress, model, and countercultural icon in Japan. In the last decade of her life, she produced an influential body of radical, punky, and groundbreaking fiction. Terminal Boredom is the first colelction of her stories available in English.
Sam Bett is a writer and Japanese translator. Awarded Grand Prize in the 2016 JLPP International Translation Competition, he won the 2019/2020 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for his translation of Star by Yukio Mishima. Sam has translated fiction by Yoko Ogawa, NISIOISIN, and Keigo Higashino, as well as essays by Banana Yoshimoto, Haruomi Hosono, and Toshiyuki Horie. He is also a founder and host of Us&Them, a quarterly Brooklyn-based reading series showcasing the work of writers who translate. With David Boyd, he is cotranslating the novels of Mieko Kawakami for Europa Editions.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.