I am a simple creature: I see free shit, I take.
So when I spot the filing cabinet, alone on the curb, FREE sign taped to the drawers as the online post described, I don’t even park. Just leave my car huffing in the road, hazards clicking, feeling blessed. The street is narrow, pompous oaks churching overhead. A nice neighborhood, which pisses me off. The filing cabinet is scratched-up, dusty, a rusty tarnish seething up the sides, some stray files, and a cobweb cosmos in the drawers. It’s the same greenish beige as a half-healed bruise, and it’s perfect.
It makes ice-in-blender sounds against the pavement as I lug it to my car. So loud that only after I’ve heaved it into my trunk do I hear the buzzing. Obnoxious and close—of course I recognize the sound of one even before it enters my peripheral: yellow carbon-fiber body, glassy camera lens, four blurred rotors. The drone is a new brand, a bit sleeker but just as loud. I think of turning to face it, but the other day I read something about facial recognition software. So I close the trunk and get into my car, faking casual. I don’t look at it, but I know, as I drive away, it looks at me.
Back in Menlo Park, I spray down the filing cabinet with the garden hose and watch the sky. It’s droneless and cloudless, boring August blue. I leave the cabinet to dry, go inside, lock the doors, shut the blinds, turn on all the lights, and replay ancient voicemails. My mom asking how I am, my dad saying to call back.
Later that night, Lewis calls.
Actually: The next day, at three in the morning, Lewis calls.
My mistake is assuming he’s in trouble. Real trouble: a kidnapping, a pregnancy. I answer and expect the worst. Instead, he tells me that last night he threw up outside an absinthe bar near Oberkampf.
“Absinthe,” I say. “That’s classy.”
“I know, but listen.” And then he proceeds, mistaking sloppiness for a personality, to recount in vivid detail the contours of his night. I am horizontal in bed, barely alive. My breath smells. I comprehend at most one-fifth of his story: He “rallied” after “yacking.” Crowded Metro. Chain-smoking on church steps. Get-together with some Dutch past the Periph’. Almost got punched, almost got laid. Is something buzzing? He banged his head.
Something is buzzing.
I look around, but the room is just one dark gulp like the inside of a throat. Why the drones would be flying at this hour, who knows—but sure, fine. Like Lewis, they have no obvious function beyond making me hate them. While he gabs about banh mi or whatever, I hold the phone away from my face and try to place the sound. The screen displays a matrix of call options and behind that, a picture of Lewis. Him at his high school graduation, the blue tassel and clean shave. It was May then, and searing. The ceremony was outside, in a shadeless quad. My mom fanned herself with the program. Dark angel wings of sweat had soaked through my dad’s button-down. Why is this my picture of him? The buzzing is coming from his end, just city sounds.
“Anyways,” he’s saying. “You’re not supposed to drink the tap water.”
I bring the phone back to my ear. “Where are you right now? Outside?”
He’s chewing. “Yeah. Why?”
I place him near some throbbing intersection in my mind, cross-legged at some cheap café. The smoky garland of his eighth cigarette decking his shoulders. Pushing the greasy slab of a croque-monsieur past his teeth. “No reason.”
I continue to wait for the purpose of this call to reveal itself.
“Are you, like, hurt or something?”
“Hurt? Pourquoi?” Imagine using French unironically in conversation: that’s Lewis. “Because of my nose?”
“It’s three in the morning, Lewis. People sometimes sleep at this time.”
“Right, but you never sleep,” he says, which isn’t wrong. “How are you? What are you up to?”
“Menlo Park. And you—”
Sometimes, sometimes, I wish for honesty. That I could tell Lewis unemployment isn’t artistic. That degeneracy is still degeneracy if you’re doing it abroad. That you weren’t going to find yourself by sticking your tongue down enough backpackers’ throats. But honesty takes too much work, and evasion is almost the same thing, so:
“—are still in Paris, I’m guessing.”
“Mariel, I can’t leave. It’s a perfect city.” The buzzing swells on his end. “Just living, you know. Day by day.”
Living! Day by day!
“I have this one buddy, right?” he said. “And the other week he bought two grams of—”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“Wait,” he says, but I kill the call before he can finish his question. How am I? What am I doing? What are my plans? Before he can even say goodbye.
Why let someone finish, after all, if you already know what they’ll say?
How am I? I’ve been living in Menlo Park since my parents passed. I moved into their house, to my childhood home, at first, in order to move out forever. To clean it up, decide what to keep and what to throw away, and then to sell it. It was a secret even to me that I was really returning to smell the carpet and drink my dad’s collection of fancy wines. The house isn’t particularly nice, a Seventies bungalow that looks it: wood-paneled ceilings, an oversized stone fireplace. But the location alone meant that none of these details mattered. If it ever went on the market, as Lewis wanted, it would sell for millions.
If I’ve been making Lewis seem like my dumb child, that’s because he is a dumb child, just not mine. It has always seemed perfectly obvious to me that he was an accident, a life my parents created because they were in their forties and probably thought fertility was behind them both. They had him when I was fourteen. Our age gap made it that you could hardly call Lewis and me close. I left before he’d even entered kindergarten, and he was nineteen when they died. After the funerals, Lewis promptly dropped out of college and fucked-off to Europe without telling me. Now, all I see of his days is what he posts: blurry shots of buildings and landmarks, his oversaturated face, location tags.
What am I doing? These days: Staring. Sitting. Hypnotizing myself to infomercials for air fryers. Absorbing news about rising nationalism, fires, stagnant wages, obligatory optimism. A mommy blogger I hate-follow posted about two hundred children being found in a trailer in Georgia. Some kid in Florida used Uber to run away from his Mormon family—good for him. I watch video tours of mega-mansions in Florida. But mostly, I troll for free stuff.
What are my plans? The morning after Lewis’s call, I open a bouquet of internet tabs and wait for someone to post something I want, refreshing repeatedly, sorting by new. What do I want? I could want anything. The gizzards of a sofa, snap bracelets, twenty Nancy Drew books. Everyone wants free shit, so it’s important to be quick. After fifteen minutes of clicking, what I want today are fifty travertine tiles and a busted space heater in San Jose.
You could call what I’m doing a public good. Like recycling. I am doing to these microwaves and kiddie pools what mushrooms do to dead trees. On the long drive between stops, I talk to Lewis, or myself of the past. My car is my therapist. I fantasize about rarer finds, functional mini-fridges, vintage Beanie Babie heaped like a mass grave, a pool table. What the fuck would I do with a pool table?
I drive through all those south Bay exurbs crammed together like bad teeth. On the Dumbarton, cars flip by like yearbook pages, awkward stares and squared shoulders. Everyone looks vaguely teenaged behind a wheel, and also vaguely dead. I follow the car in front of me into Fremont, staring at its bumper sticker. Functional Adult 2020.
The space heater’s been taken from the house in San Jose, but not the tiles. As I’m stacking them in my car, I see a drone high above, far enough that I at least don’t have to hear its buzzing. I’ve waited patiently for them to become illegal, but instead they’re just everywhere now. Toys for adults to pretend they’re flying, to watch the world from above using the drone’s camera. More than once I’ve thought about attending a city council meeting to make a public comment. But doing that would mean acknowledging I am now crotchety and suburban enough to actually attend a city council meeting just to complain to people’s faces. I don’t even have a mortgage.
Besides Lewis, the only people I talk to are the realtors. Dereks and Brads in Eastery button-downs, chinos, all side-parts and smiles. Sometimes they’ll stop by to give me their little spiels about the market, about what a great time it is to sell. But I have no intention of selling anymore. If I ever did, they would do to this house what had already been done to everything between San Mateo and Cupertino. I would be replaced by a rental for a young venture capitalist or a startup incubator with a dozen stoned twentysomethings coding tech no one asked for and yet would still end up selling, like the house itself, for millions.
After the travertine tiles, I head to Fremont for a “move-out giveaway.” Sure enough, the lawn is crowded with things. Hand-me-downs, a couch without cushions. A Fisher-Price chair, the kind you’d buckle a baby into and rock them to sleep, low to the ground. The fabric is printed with cartoon lions and elephants. Splotched and crusty now, but when it was new I’d bet it was soft as lamb.
A man and woman come out of the house, each carrying the end of a dresser. She lets out her breath as they heave it onto the lawn, pushing the hair out of her face. “Taking something?” she says to me. “Thank you so much.”
“Just looking,” I lie.
“Well, whatever you want is yours. Who knew we had so much!”
I nod and gaze intently at their junk like I am really weighing if I should take something or not. She has a pimple like a third eye between her thick eyebrows. He is not ugly, per se, but about fifteen percent less attractive than her—which is how I’m sure they’re married, that and their rings. I inspect the baby rocker with extreme care, testing the buckle and bounce of it as if I’ll ever actually use this thing.
“Some heat!” she says, fanning her face with both hands. I can feel her stare as I pretend to still be undecided about the baby rocker. “How old is yours?”
Lewis’s stupid face pops into my head. “Oh, he’s pretty old now,” I say. “But he needs one of these.”
A little boy emerges from the open door next, and then a younger girl wearing a tutu. I pick up the rocker before I have to deal with the kids. The woman waves me goodbye and thanks me for taking it, as if it’s a huge favor to take on other’s people’s junk.
“It’s nothing,” I say, then leave.
When I get back, I make a few trips to my car, unloading the tiles and the rocker, finding open spots for them around the house. I lug in the filing cabinet from yesterday. I turn on some lights when the sun goes down, but it’s still empty all the way through.
A few years ago, Lewis sent me a text in the middle of the day that said, jsyk I’m safe, so don’t freak out or anything. I hadn’t seen anything on the news, but it turned out he was referring to attacks that were happening in Paris. I didn’t realize he was in France. Last I’d heard, he was in Germany. We talked the next day and he said he was fine. I considered telling him I loved him, but he would have made it weird. The next day, I woke up to fifteen texts, a cement-gray stack of exclamations and half-sentences. I tried contacting him, but he didn’t answer. Hours went by, days. I poured gin with shaky hands, stubbed my toe walking into the room of the house that had once been his, which I’d appropriated into a place to store DVDs and books and back issues I’d been picking up. The worst part was, I didn’t have anyone to call. Did Lewis have friends over there? Was he also alone? There had been some sort of panic at the vigil, I learned through the internet, but no deaths. It was surreal to read bad news about other people. It was like after our parents passed, the same vomit of writing about lone wolves, mental health. The same shock and not-shock. A week later, I got drunk enough to leave him a twenty-eight-minute voicemail telling him I was not going to listen to another ringtone all night waiting for answers, and that if he didn’t call back I would just assume he was dead, too. He called the next morning to laugh with me about it, like it was some joke, but it didn’t feel very funny to me.
I lay low the next few days. Watch sunlight beam trapezoidal on the carpet, take hours-long baths, get into imaginary fights with Lewis (about his lifestyle) and my four still-living grandparents (about mine). It took a while to remember how to live in this house—too easy to revert to my old ways here. When I moved in, I became myself at eighteen. I slept in my same old twin bed with the navy covers. I sat in the shower. I poured my gin sneakily as if there was anyone left to catch me.
I don’t leave until I’ve run out of food. Saturday morning, and here I am: large coffee, sausage breakfast sandwich. Driving towards the city as I chug and chew. The sky above is paper-white and just as blank. But then the fog looms and the temperature drops and the traffic slows to nothing and entering the city feels, as it so often does to me, like entering the land of the dead. The Salesforce Tower is a half-built middle finger, trolling the skyline. I’ll find one thing, I decide, and then go home. It doesn’t matter what. A gimp-legged office chair, a slow cooker, more scrap wood. If I find one thing, I can pretend the day was productive. Ten minutes of refreshing later, I am presented with this: 10 years old. FREE and looking for NEW family.
No pictures, no context, just an address in the Sunset District. I check the URL, just to make sure I haven’t strayed into some site where people sell their livers. The post is three minutes old. With one touch, the location appears on my phone and a route has been navigated. A blue line veining west. It doesn’t matter what you call it—morbid curiosity or maternal instinct or messiah complex—because the fact is that I take the exit for Brotherhood and drive up Lakeshore, and I follow this line.
Free, the post said. A free person. What kind of world is this? The yellow stain of a drone buzzes over my car, shoots skyward, and disappears into the gloom, which is a kind of answer.
I don’t know what I’m expecting when I reach the end, a mint-green tract house on 40th, but it’s somehow not a girl sitting alone on the curb with a sign taped to her shirt. Literally: for free. Her arms are crossed, and she has a backpack at her feet. The kind of girl that, kidnapped, would explode into national news overnight. By which I mean: This is a good neighborhood, and she’s white. She looks up when my car stops in front of her. I roll down the window, click on the hazards.
“Are you . . . ?” For free is right there on my lips. I’ve always pictured the typical browser of free shit to be male, older, stunted. Unmarried mid-life bloopers, sad and lonely and hateful—like Lewis, actually, but with more Hot Pockets. The point is: She should be grateful it’s only me.
“Are you selling lemonade or something?”
She points at her sign and says, plainly, as if I’ve just asked about school or vegetables, “I’m waiting to be taken.”
The rest of the street is empty. The rank vanilla of exhaust invades my nose through the open window.
“Are you in danger?”
“Yeah.” She hoists her backpack up and tries the back door of my car, but it’s locked.
“Do you need someone? I can call.”
“Can you open this?”
I think about leaving, just peeling away and shrieking towards the highway. But I don’t. I unlock the car and she climbs in, pushing three decades of National Geographic out of the way to make room. I watch her close the door, looking through the window at the house she was sitting in front of.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Why?” In the purely legal sense, I understand, this is an abduction. “What will happen if you stay?”
“I’m not staying. I need to go.”
“Who are you?” This at least gets her to look at me through the rearview.
“I’m India,” she says.
India. This alone tells me her life. The inside of her home—bundles of half-burnt sage, a Buddha statue being used as a paperweight. Her parents—people in their fifties who go to Burning Man. Her school—private, of course, with a community garden and—
“Can we get moving now?”
Actually, we already are. My foot’s off the brakes, the car snailing forward. I figure this is either a prank or performance art. But if she is in trouble. If she is in need. It would require energy to drag her out anyways.
“Okay, we’re going,” I say, mostly to myself. India buckles up.
My family was perfect. While everyone I knew had parents that divorced, dads that hid their gambling addictions, or moms that hid their alcoholism, my parents never disagreed, never fought. My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh, and my mom watched Oprah, and I grew up in such a happy and stable environment that I can remember almost nothing of it. I loved when I got to say the prayer at dinner. I hated tomatoes. I thought Jesus was a girl from the pictures until I was eight. I decided my signature was ugly and spent a whole day designing a new one in fourth grade, with a particular flourish on the M. My seventh-grade math teacher didn’t believe in evolution. My mom only pulled my hair if she was tired and I really wasn’t listening to her. And when Lewis was born and I was in high school, I would come home from school and change his diapers, take him on walks and people would think I was a teen mom, and I wouldn’t correct them. When he was learning the names of things, I convinced him that apples were pears, and pears were apples. When he was four, I explained death to him until he realized he was mortal and started crying, and the only thing that calmed him down was when my dad told him his soul would never die.
I hate when stuff returns to me like this. All insistent.
I am in the kitchen with them. My mom is cutting away strawberry stems with a paring knife, her thumb on the blade. My dad is rubbing marinade into a rag of beef. And Lewis is in the other room, playing a video game. My mom shouts through the wall that he needs to help, but he doesn’t. And I don’t either.
Sometimes, driving, I’ll see everything I pass so hard that I stop thinking or even seeing anything at all. And then I come back thirty miles later with no memory of how I covered that distance.
“You live here?” India says. Somehow, we’re home.
She goes stony once we’re inside. What had her posting said? New family? She’d been looking for debugging, an overhaul to her life as painless and automatic as an app update. The FREE sign sways perversely on her body as she walks through the living room. “This is your real home?”
“Can you take that off?” I say, pointing at her sign. “It’s creepy.”
The sign comes off with a long hiss of tape. Beneath, in glittery cursive, her shirt reads, Je t’aime. She looks at the floor. “Is it okay if I leave my shoes on?”
“I don’t care.” I pick up her backpack and carry it into the kitchen, put it on the dining chair that Lewis always used to sit in. The drawstring is just white plastic with the Apple logo on it. “You know I’ll take you home,” I tell her again. “It’s fine.”
She looks down at the floor. “Can I use your restroom?”
My restroom! “You don’t have to ask me if you can go.”
“I don’t know where to go.”
I take her down the hall. Past my room, Lewis’s, my parents—all those closed doors. The bathroom sink is reefed with dried toothpaste and spit, the toilet water amber from my stagnant pee. A gnarled turd floats within. But again, she says nothing. Someone has taught her not to speak when disgusted.
“So, yeah. Have at it,” I say.
There’s an almost-done roll of toilet paper on the lip of the bathtub, which I pick up and hand to her.
“And you can use this to, you know, take care of business.” Sometimes I hear what I’m saying from the outside and almost can’t believe it. “Anyways,” I say, and then leave. She closes the door behind me, clicks the lock.
I go tinfoil once I’m alone again. Convince myself this is all some conspiracy. I pin those red strings to the newspaper clippings in my brain, detective-style. This is Lewis’s fault, I somehow know. I pull out my phone, and see a text from him. Its presence mutates into a smoking gun. If you had actually let me finish the other day, I was going to tell you happy birthday. So, happy birthday.
I type, I know what you’re doing. Then read what I’ve written, realize what I’m doing, and start over: It’s not my birthday, I write. My birthday is in April, not August. I hear India flush the toilet.
She looks as though she’s just seen a ghost.
“I’m hungry,” she says. “Do you have any food.”
“India, I think it’s time to go home,” I say. “This was all a mistake.”
“I’m never going back there,” she says. “My parents are evil.”
Of course they are. She hasn’t been abused. She’s in no trouble. She just wanted to torture her family for a few hours, make them think she was in trouble. When in reality, she’s just a brat.
“Well we have to call someone,” I say. “You can’t just live here.”
“What do you have in your kitchen?” She goes for the cupboards. What she finds are toasters and coffee grinders, a countertop shawarma rotisserie. Stale bags of chips and buckets of licorice. An unopened bottle of Tanqueray, bitters. I tell her she won’t find anything in there that she wants, but then she comes out of the pantry with a squat jar of honey still wrapped in blue ribbon.
“Is this special?”
It’s something from Lewis. A souvenir. He gave it to me at an In-N-Out after I picked him up from SFO. About a year ago. Last time he was in the Bay. Obviously the In-N-Out was crowded, but Lewis said all he’d craved abroad were animal fries. His hair was longer, his lips chapped. His beard more scraggled than ever. He was trying to look French, I think, stylishly disheveled, but instead he looked like death. His spit cracked when he talked—dry mouth. He might have been high. I wondered if, beneath the ocean-blue flannel he had on, I’d find forearms bruised and scabbed over. Traveling to Paris just to visit oblivion was about the most Lewis thing ever. Or he might’ve just been thirsty. He was twenty-one, still a kid, but our parents being gone didn’t make me his guardian. So I sucked on a strawberry shake and said nothing and watched him devour browned onions and vomit-colored sauce, lecturing me on the intricacies of some cartoon show he was obsessed with. “The humor is extremely subtle,” he was saying, “and without a solid grasp on theoretical physics, most of the jokes will go over your head.” He was an open-mouth chewer, and each time his lips parted, harp strings of spit grew taut in the gap between them. When a blob of sauce fell onto the table, he used his actual burger to mop it up. Maybe this is our biggest difference: When I wallow, at least it’s intentional. “I got you something for your birthday,” he said and pulled a crushed gift bag from his backpacker’s backpack. Inside was the jar of honey. He talked about it the way certain men talk about grills. “You’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s from this place in the Ninth—Maison du Miel? You’ll love it.” I don’t even like honey, but I told him it was perfect.
“It’s nothing,” I tell India.
“So can I have some?”
“Honey actually never goes bad.” She twists at the lid and breaks the seal with no effort. She pulls a spoon out of a drawer, and takes the honey to the table, sits in the chair Lewis used to sit in, and begins to scoop it straight into her mouth.
“Do you want something to eat it with? Bread?”
“This is fine,” she says. I watch her eat the honey and think of worms and how they’re basically sentient intestines and have two heads, or something. She scoops the honey out and lets it ribbon back into the jar. It catches the afternoon light and turns to gold.
I pretend to do dishes. On the counter is a half-drunk cup of tea, the bag’s bloated corpse floating around within. I look out the kitchen window to the street. The sun is high, but going down. My life now is such that I only ever have the energy to complete one action per day. Today, I picked up India. Maybe a night and a sunrise are required before I can do anything about getting her home.
“My house is going to stay super clean,” she says. “Houses are temples. They get sick if you don’t put the right stuff in them.”
“You mean bodies.”
She looks over, and I see a tear of honey fall onto the ground. She can barely move her lips from all the stickiness.
“It’s just a saying. Bodies are temples. And watch out.” I point at the spoon. “You’re making a mess.”
She looks down, shrugs. “It’s already a mess.”
And why wouldn’t it be? Who am I cleaning for?
“It’s like this because I’m moving out,” I say.
She doesn’t believe me, I can tell. “Where are you moving to?”
I don’t get a chance to answer, because right then I hear it. Something is buzzing. I look out the kitchen window and see it across the street. Looking straight at where I am, straight inside. I move out of sight and hear the buzzing grow louder, see the shape of the thing hovering right at the window, looking in and seeing—what?
“India, get down,” I say. “Stay quiet. Do you hear that?”
I watch her face as she listens to the buzzing, watch it relax. “The drone? We’re hiding from a drone? My dad has one of those.”
She begins to rise, but I reach for her hand—“Don’t.” My voice is faster than I mean for it to be, hushed and barely there. “We can figure this out tomorrow. Just be quiet. Just don’t move.”
Barely there, but there.
“Just please stay here with me.”