• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
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  • 35. Zorion

    By Alex Henderson

    This is the first published story by Alex Henderson. His characters, Hector and Zorion, are real and unforgettable, and his talent—for capturing the frankness of childhood, the losses of adulthood, and the awkward challenge of early and certain mortality—marks him as a writer of great promise. Help me welcome him.

    From the moment the boy entered the room, he wouldn’t take his hand out of his pocket.

    He was going to be a new student, my teacher told the class, but he spoke no English. The rest of us were already in our chairs. He wore a dark blue jacket with the word FUTBOL stitched across the shoulders in fuzzy mustard-colored letters. Mrs. Dernell took his slim wrist in her fingers and led him to an empty seat near her chipped pale desk. His left elbow triangled out as she pulled him, but his hand wouldn’t budge. She smiled real big at him when he sat down. The rest of us just gaped.

    He was tiny, darker skinned than any of us, with jet-black eyebrows, ears that poked out, hair that tufted up in the back, and blue eyes like twin hailstones. He’d just moved to Boise from Bilbao, Spain, which is in Europe we learned, and he was going to join our fifth grade class for the rest of the year. He sat straight-backed in his chair and stared at the overhead projector, not looking at anyone else. His half-zipped jacket flared out at the top to reveal a collared T-shirt at least two sizes too big for him. It was striped bright yellow and green, like layers of ripe and unripe bananas.

    The whole day, even during lunch, he kept his left hand in his little jacket pocket. When he sneezed in the cafeteria, he reflexively pulled the jacket over his head trying to cover his mouth, which just got snot all over the sleeve. No one tried to make friends with him. Who would want to be friends with such a weird kid?

    Still, I was curious. After school, I climbed to the top of the monkey bars. A frigid breeze brushed my face, and the hard, December-chilled bars cut into my thighs. My eyes teared against the wind, but I could still see the new kid sitting all by himself on the curb on the other side of the bendy playground fence. I jumped down, hopped the fence, and walked up to him.

    “Heya,” I said.

    He turned his large eyes toward me but said nothing.

    “I said heya. Don’t you know heya?”

    His silence told me he did not.

    “It’s like hello, you know? It’s what you say when you meet someone, you know? And then you say your name.”

    I waited for him to say his name. Mrs. Dernell had already told us, but I had forgotten.

    I had also forgotten that he didn’t speak English.

    “I’m Hector, Hector Young,” I said, gesturing to myself in an ad hoc sign language. “That’s my name. What’s yours?”

    No response.

    “Whaaaaat iiiiiiiis yoooooour naaaaaame?”

    Still nothing. Then I had an idea.

    “Watch me,” I said, and poked my own chest while repeating my name. “Hector. Hector.” I watched his eyes to make sure he was following my moves. I elaborately mimed my own name three or four more times, making sure he saw the connection. Then I reached down to take his wrist to make him mimic me, hoping he would realize what I was asking.

    He had been sitting on the curb with both hands in his pockets. I couldn’t remember which hand he’d kept hidden all day. It didn’t matter to me. I was confident that my plan would succeed. I wrapped my hand around his wrist at the point where it disappeared into his pocket. Then I pulled out his arm.

    He gasped and jerked it back. I didn’t let go, but his quick movement caused my grip on his wrist to slip down to his newly exposed glove. I squeezed harder to keep him from whipping his arm away from me, and that’s when I found out what he was hiding.

    Even in the chill December air, I felt his hand through both of our gloves. The sensation shocked the strength out of my fist.

    His hand was frozen solid.


    Frojsa’s Disease entered my life the same day that Zorion did. The disease had only begun to manifest in him earlier that year, starting in his left pinkie and spreading to his whole hand by the time we met. Back then no one knew anything about Frojsa’s—not in Bilbao, where his parents had lived most of their lives, and certainly not in Boise, Idaho, USA. No one had any inkling of the risk Zorion was taking in just growing up.

    His disease made him less a new kid and more of a curio to me, and it took a while for the exoticism of it to wear off. His fingers and palm, cold to the touch, stiff as icicles, unbending, frozen, right up to the wrist. Even indoors, even with gloves on, even when he took a bath—frozen.

    Mrs. Dernell defended his privacy at school, so no one but me knew his secret. They just knew he had a secret, which, in the fifth grade, made him wounded prey among wolves. Everybody wanted to know more about him at the expense of his privacy, and some kids even claimed to be his best friend to get closer to him. I started wanting to be his best friend, too, just because everyone else did. And besides already knowing the secret everyone else sought, I held the trump card—he had moved onto my street.

    My parents, too, were intrigued by our new neighbors.

    “That Izotz family,” Mom said one morning after I’d made my discovery of Zorion’s disease. She was slicing carrots into little orange coins for my lunch. I hated carrots, but Mom insisted I have a vegetable at school every day, so we reached a compromise with the carrot chips. I ate them and brooded while my friends popped open their bags of potato chips with a salty belch. “They don’t seem to fit into the neighborhood very well, do they?”

    Dad glanced up from pouring coffee. “How do you mean?”

    “You know the Richardsons, who used to live there? How they had that tire swing hanging from the tree out front? Well, I was driving back from the grocery store yesterday and I saw them, the new family. That man was out there cutting down the big limb that sticks out over their yard with the swing still on it.”

    Dad took a sip of his coffee. “Maybe they just don’t like swings?”

    She didn’t seem to hear him. She half-turned from the sink, facing the refrigerator, and bobbed her vegetable knife loosely in our direction. “And another thing—what’s with their boy? I never see him out playing. Where do they keep him all day? Did they want to move to America without having to live here?”

    “Margaret, they’ve only been here for a week.”

    “I just think it’s strange, that’s all.”

    “Well, how do you think they feel? In a new country, new customs, a new culture and language suddenly all around them.” Dad took another sip of coffee, eying my mom’s lively knife hand, and missed his mouth slightly, dribbling on his work shirt. He made a silent disaster face and reached for a napkin. I continued eating my cereal.

    “I bet they feel like they’re the only normal ones in the city,” he said, dabbing at himself in vain. “We should make an effort to welcome them, I say.”

    “Funny you should bring that up,” she said. “Wouldn’t you know that Pam and I already took over a basket of apples from that tree in Pam’s sister’s back yard.”

    My dad gave up dabbing his shirt and began experimenting with different tie positions to see which concealed the stain best. None did.

    “That was certainly nice of you,” he said, somewhat distractedly.

    “That’s not all.” My mom had stopped paying attention to my carrots entirely. “When we rang the doorbell, nobody came.”

    “Maybe no one was home?”

    “Oh, they were home,” she said. “Trust me.”

    “Honey, don’t read too much into it.”

    “I’m just saying.” The chik-chik-chik of rapid slicing resumed. “Why did they come to Boise, anyway?”

    “They’re Basque, honey. Boise is where all the Basque people come when they move to America.”

    She stopped cutting again and turned fully around to face us. He quickly threw the newspaper back up.

    “And where in the world did you hear that?”

    “Discovery Channel,” he said from behind the front page. “Besides, haven’t you ever driven by that Basque museum over on South Capitol?”

    She eyed him suspiciously, then turned back to the cutting board. I slurped the last spoonful of Lucky Charms into my mouth.

    “That kid has something wrong with his hand,” I said, tipping the cereal bowl to drain precious sugar milk from the bottom. When I set the bowl down again both my parents were staring at me. I stared back at them. “What?”

    Despite his parents’ reclusiveness—and my mother’s xenophobia—Zorion and I eventually became neighborhood friends. I felt a little sorry for the way I’d outed him the first day, so I made up for it by acting as his bodyguard, protecting his secret even more vociferously than he did. Lots of kids played at nearby Sherwood Park, so the same scene repeated every week:

    “C’mon, Hector, we just want to look.”

    “No.” I was dead firm. “Go away.”

    “How come you always get to sit by him?” Terry whined. “We want to see what’s wrong with him, too.” A group of other boys behind him grunted and murmured in agreement. A cool wind blew sandbox grit up around their exposed knees.

    I assumed the self-righteousness of the victimized. “Who said there’s anything wrong with him?” I made a haughty and disgusted face. “Go eat poop and leave us alone.”

    Terry turned away, but the next week it was Josh, then Will, then Jonah. And so on.

    Eventually I stopped caring about Zorion’s hand. The disease dissolved into the background of the friendship it had sparked, and we just never talked about it. Except (and I know it sounds horrible now) when we used it for pranks. It was too easy not to—like I said, no one in Idaho knew what Frojsa’s was. It was a crime how many people we snookered. In the summer before sixth grade, most people still assumed he didn’t understand English, so they were way more tolerant than they had to be of his “accidentally” freezing-cold handshake. I think people thought he was stupid because his English wasn’t very good. As dumb as this was, it facilitated our hijinks so I never tried to correct them. It felt too good to have a secret weapon.

    Of course, like most pranksters, we soon found that our golden era was short-lived. The truth about Zorion, or at least a version of it, eventually got around, and people wised up enough to end our fun. I would hear snatches of rumors in the hallway between classes: His hand is fake. No, it’s real, but dead, stuffed like a hanging moose head. No, it’s not stuffed, it’s embalmed, like a dead person, that’s why he never takes it out of his pocket. Can’t you smell it? No, actually, they keep it half-alive and full of fake blood and chemicals, cryogenically frozen to prevent a worldwide plague, swear to god. Actually, his mom and dad are siblings; he’s a mental freak and his hand is hideously deformed from inbreeding. Yeah, that’s probably it. And so on.

    I asked him if the rumors bothered him.

    “No, not really,” he said, his accent still strung between his words like snow-strewn branches. “I have hear about other Basque who suffer much worse only because they are Basque. At least here they are whispering behind my back instead of calling the name Black Basco to my face.”

    I jiggled the latch to my locker, which was purple and hideous. It was the same locker I’d had since fourth grade, with the same infuriating latch problem. After a full year, I still hadn’t gotten the hang of opening it. I just messed around until it worked, which I had learned to do from watching my dad bang on the old TV in the basement. It usually took me about four tries to get it open.

    “But don’t you, you know . . .” I said, paying slightly more attention to my locker than to the conversation. “Don’t you ever want to just tell them the truth, so maybe they’ll understand and stop spreading rumors? About your hand and about your English?”

    With a clank, the locker latch finally lifted and the door swung free into the air between us. I exchanged notebooks, cramming my backpack so I wouldn’t have to deal with my locker again before the end of school, and slammed the vertical metal door shut. Zorion stood on the other side, looking up at me with the saddest blue eyes I had ever seen.

    “I do not think that the other kids, they will understand about me. I see what way they are treating each other, which are all the same kind of person, but they find a reason to say hurtful things anyway. For me it is okay just to hear whispers and nothing more.”

    That was how fifth grade ended, and we started middle school as best friends. I had soccer games, basketball games and baseball games, and Zorion started soccer, too, despite the doctors’ exhortations against physical stress. He blew me out of the water. Even with a wrist that’d barely bend, he showed such grace on the field that you’d think he was born with a ball at his feet. I might have been jealous of his talent, but I wasn’t. Playing soccer with him, on the same team or against each other, was one of the highlights of my childhood. I’ll never be good enough at anything to experience greatness, but I was able to watch Zorion play futbol, and that was close enough for me.

    Middle school also meant that homework began to intrude nightly into our lives. This was not nearly as fun as sports, but unlike me, Zorion never complained. I never saw him get flustered at all, actually, not even after losing the championship game that year on a technicality. He always had a quiet joke or a disarming remark that deflected attention away from him and tempered flared emotions.

    In addition to all the new stuff we had going on that year, Zorion had a second life that I wasn’t a part of. Although most of the time we were brothers in arms in everything from soccer practice to collecting comic books, there were days when Zorion just disappeared completely. These were the days when he entered that other world and acted out his other life.

    In hospitals, doctor’s offices and research centers throughout the state, he played the part of the scientific celebrity, jumping through medical hoops for specialists tracking the progress of Frojsa’s Disease throughout his adolescence. This other life overlapped the real world only so often, usually in the form of missed practices or skipped sleepovers, but when it did intrude it was a stark reminder of the ultimate difference between us.

    “I have to go back to St. Jude’s this weekend for another checkup,” he said, brandishing his stiff hand explanatorily. His English, by this time, was close to perfect. We were walking back to class after lunch, his face flushed from an impromptu game of hackey sack. My skin felt hot as well.

    “Lame,” I said. “Tyler’s mom is going to take us out to laser-tag for his birthday Friday. You can’t get out of it?”

    He shrugged. “I’ll ask my mom, but she’ll say no.”

    She always said no. He never got out of it. He’d tell me afterward about everything the doctors did, which was more boring than I’d imagined: temperature readings, x-rays, optical tests, joint fluid measurements. The only time anything mildly exciting happened was when they wanted to shave off a frozen piece of him, but his mother refused.

    His parents never mastered English, or even came close. They’d moved to America so that Mr. Izotz could work for his father-in-law, who ran a gourmet restaurant downtown. The Izotzes stayed in their community, though, speaking only Basque and sometimes Spanish, and their language wasn’t the only thing that resisted change. Their Old World mentality regarding medical science proved endlessly frustrating for the doctors who treated their son.

    “Dr. Gottfried says he wants to schedule a stress test of my hand,” Zorion translated for his mom on the phone one day when I was over at his house.

    “Absolutely not. Tell him absolutely not,” his mother responded, drilling her dark eyes into her son but speaking loud enough for the doctor to hear on the other end of the line.

    He un-cupped the phone receiver held between his ear and shoulder. “She says—”

    “I can tell what she said, Zorion,” Dr. Gottfried said wearily. And that’s how things went.

    The medical checkups and experiments continued throughout middle school, the doctors on one side and his parents on the other and Zorion stuck in the middle. His disease remained largely a mystery to the scientific community. They knew that he had it—that he was slowly freezing from the fingers up—but they didn’t know why it was happening, or how. All they knew was that he Frojsa’s showed no signs of slowing down.


    School wasn’t letting up, either, and worse waited on the horizon. We were both trying to salvage terrible test scores before eighth grade graduation—his in history, mine math—when Zorion told me the bad news. It was a bright day in March, and we were in his driveway after school.

    “You’re moving?” I said. “That sucks. Why?” Zorion was investigating an anthill that had sprung up between sidewalk slabs after a storm a few nights earlier, and my shoes lay kicked off against the brick garage wall. I was balancing both feet on a basketball I had found in the grass by the side of the house. “Come here a second, I need you.”

    “There is a very big community of Bizkaians near Grove Street,” he said, walking over to stand next to me. “Dad thinks I’ll be able to make some more friends if we move.” Zorion was several inches shorter than me—the perfect height for stabilization support—so I placed one hand on his head like an absurd sacrament and let my weight roll into my palm. His eyes flicked cross-eyed to study my wrist from below. “He says I need to be around more people like myself.”

    I wobbled, regained my balance, my toes turning dead-fish white as they strained to keep me upright. “But what’s the point in moving?” I said, concentrating on my equilibrium. “You aren’t like anyone else.”

    “Thanks, asshole.”

    “No, I mean—you know what I mean. Don’t—oh, come on, dude.”

    Still receiving my mock blessing, Zorion reared back with his right foot and fired with the same caliber he used on the field. Except this wasn’t soccer, and the basketball shot out from underneath me into the yard, and I had just enough time to twist my trunk around so that when I fell, I fell on him.

    “Ack!” he yelled, crumpling. “Gerrof muhmff.”

    “Sorry,” I said. “I can’t hear you. Your accent is too thick.” I dug my elbow into his ribs. “Try speaking a . . . little . . . slower.”

    “Dake dif,” he said, muffled.

    “What?” I rolled off a little so he could breathe.

    “I said, take this.”

    And suddenly a glacial chill stabbed up my back. My consciousness succumbed to a hurricane of polar cold; he was poking his hand into every warm and private place I had. And he wasn’t going to get away with it.

    War ensued, until we both lay defeated, panting on our backs in the grass.

    “Don’t think . . . your moving away . . . will save you,” I said.

    “I was going . . . to say . . . the same to you.”

    Out of this truce came a promise, that we’d not let the move to different high schools be too big a deal for us. We would stay friends no matter what changed.

    But, of course, that was the first thing that changed. My first day at West Boise High introduced me to Victoria Adams—beautiful Victoria, whose long brown hair draped over her shoulder like sculpted chocolate, whose body danced even when she was standing still in gym, whose honeyed lips called my name even in the quietest moments of math class. My friendships with Victoria and her two best guy friends, Mike and Trevor, soon developed into a whole new social circle that Zorion couldn’t be a part of. Not that I didn’t try to involve him, to invite him along to do things with my new group. Our lives just separated too fast.

    Different schools meant different classes, different schedules, different friends, and, for Zorion, different doctors. They were learning about the disease, but they called him in constantly for more tests. As the freeze crept up his forearm and into his elbow—which was fully functioning until halfway through freshman year—Dr. Gottfried had an idea. He met Zo and his parents to discuss a preemptive sling fitting, which would provide for a comfortable angle when the elbow did freeze. But then another problem arose. Most kids get their driving permits after tenth grade, but Zo had to get all kinds of doctor’s permissions for special driving courses, which meant he got his license way after me, which meant I spent more time driving to meet my new friends at places where Zorion couldn’t go. When I went out bowling, he went to physical therapy. While I was at the movies, he was at the doctor’s. When I invited him to sleep over, Dr. Gottfried’s had already scheduled an overnight hospitalization. Little by little, the overlap between our lives vanished.

    In our junior year, we played soccer at the same park; though we were on different teams, him as a forward and me as a fullback, we still made it a point to ride to and from practice together. My mom usually picked us both up, took us to get milkshakes, and then took Zorion home.

    One day, I was waiting for him at the usual spot in the parking lot after soccer practice—but today no Zo. I sat on the curb squinting into the afternoon sun that hung over the woods by his school’s field. It was about 5:30 P.M. I’d been waiting ten minutes longer than usual already, and still no sign of him. Suddenly a car’s brash honk jarred my calm.

    “Hector! Come on!” I turned and saw my mom in the family station wagon, idling in the gravel lot pointed toward the street. She was leaning across the passenger seat, one hand on the wheel, yelling through the passenger side window. “Where’s Zo?”

    I shrugged, stood up, brushed gravel dust off my athletic shorts, and walked over to the driver’s side door.

    “Do you know if anything’s wrong?” she asked.

    “I don’t know. It’s probably just a team meeting or something.”

    She made a worried face. “I hope nothing’s wrong.”

    Just as I opened my mouth to answer, Zorion appeared around the back of a parked SUV. I signaled my mom to wait a second, and walked over to him.

    “Hey, man,” I said. “What took you so long?”


    “Nothing?” I said, taking his sports bag from his shoulder and hefting it onto my own. “Nothing what?”

    “Nothing nothing. Coach Mike just wanted to talk to me a little bit.”

    “Talk to you?” I slid my feet apart, the weight of the bag pulling me down, my cleats tracing fat gray lines outward on the ground. A chalk-dust cloud of gray lifted up about our ankles. “Talk to you about what?”

    “About the team.” He pretended to pick at a loose knit in his arm wrapping. He had to wear a gauze and foam arm brace to protect his left arm when he played. “The team and me.”

    “The team and you? What do you mean? Are you getting captain?” I said it with excitement. He’d deserved it for three years. It was about time.

    “No, not that.” He stared at our feet through the lingering gray haze. “I’m . . . not on the team this year.”

    “Not on the— what?” I was dumbfounded. “Zo, you’re the best forward in your whole school, probably the whole league. Why would he cut you?”

    “He said it was getting to where . . . he was afraid of me getting hurt on the field and it being his fault. He needs to push us this year, he said, and he doesn’t think I can . . .” He shrugged his left shoulder. The whole apparatus—shoulder, arm, brace, strap—rose and fell as a single, solid object. “’Cause of how it’s not as flexible anymore.”

    “But even with one arm you’re still better than everyone else on your team. He can’t replace you.”

    “I don’t know, Hector. I’m not that good. And there’s still Mark—”

    “Mark McFarlane? That bald kid? That kid sucks. He couldn’t—” Mom honked her horn again. I rolled her a big impatient nod and then turned back to Zorion.

    “Don’t stand for this shit, Zo. Your parents pay taxes, you get good grades—there’s nothing they can do to keep you off the team, like, legally. It’s against the law.” We walked to the car. I looked at him sideways. “Even if McFarlane is a little faster than you.” Zorion grinned and punched me in the arm. We got in the car.

    Next week, I saw Mark McFarlane in Zo’s spot. After finishing my final sprints, I broke from my team and went to find Zo’s coach. When I came around the corner of the school’s equipment shed, I ran into Coach Mike and some parent, at each others’ throats. I hesitated. Should I wait for the fight to end to talk to him? I watched them fight for a few more minutes, unnoticed and small next to their adult anger, afraid to feel that anger turned toward me and angry at myself for that cowardice. Then I crept back around the corner and walked slowly to the car. That was the first week I rode home alone.


    My friendship with Zorion became a long-distance relationship. I hung out with Victoria and her group exclusively. Being around them made me feel tuned-in, electric. And my unfortunate crush on Victoria only intensified in the face of her lack of attraction to me.

    We went water tubing at Roaring Springs; we went skiing; we went camping. When I got back from these trips, I’d call Zorion, and we’d talk about the beach and the mountains while he watched me play Final Fantasy in my basement. He’d tell me about his doctor’s visits and his Frojsa’s progress during our increasingly one-sided basketball games. I listened to each new update intently, hoping for good news, but nothing ever changed: the same slow freeze, the same lack of a cure. Eventually we stopped hanging out.

    “Whatever happened to your Spanish friend?” Victoria asked one day while we were in line waiting to get ice cream at some place downtown. She was a vision in green flip flops and spaghetti straps, her red checkered shirt tied around her waist, underlining the breasts that dominated my imagination that summer.

    “He’s, uh—” I said. “He’s doing good. Do you want swirl or plain chocolate?” She gave me a withering look, like I shouldn’t even ask. “Two swirls,” I said to the kid with the goatee behind the counter. He handed us our cones, but while Victoria ate hers, I just watched mine melt in the summer sun. Ice cream takes hours to freeze, I reflected, but only seconds to melt. I sat and watched as the two flavors melted into beige and dripped off the cone to star the hexagonal sandstone sidewalk tiles below.

    “If you weren’t going to eat yours, you could’ve given it to me,” Victoria broke into my reverie.

    “Oh, sorry.” I extended the soggy cone to her. “You can have it.”

    She made a disgusted-girl sound. “I don’t want it now,” she said, looking at the limp cone. So I threw it in the trash.


    College approached. I worked on my applications furiously, afraid I wouldn’t get in. Then, in January, responses began to trickle back: half good, half bad. One of the thumbs up was from Idaho State, so I enrolled.

    In the middle of May, in that senior year, it occurred to me that I didn’t know where Zorion was going to school. I called his house, and he picked up the phone on the third ring. I asked how he was.

    “Not bad. I’m just getting ready to head to St. Jude’s.”

    “You got a checkup today?”

    “Yeah. They want to do a temperature thing. Like every month.”

    “Cool, cool. Well, I was calling to tell you . . . I got into—”

    There was a sound like static mixed with a thump.

    “Hello?” I said.

    Silence, then a scuffling sound, then Zorion’s voice. “Shit, hey, sorry.” He sounded flustered. “Dropped the phone. What were you saying?”

    “Oh—just, I got into Idaho State.”

    “Wow, man, that’s great.” He sounded genuinely happy. “You’re gonna go for sure?”

    “Yeah, I think me and Trevor are gonna room together. I was kinda torn whether to try the random roommate thing or go with someone I know, ’cause, you know, you’re supposed to meet new people in college and everything.”

    “Yeah, well—cool, man. You’re gonna have fun.”

    I nodded absently, struggling to peel a banana while holding the phone in the crook of my shoulder. “I hope so,” I said. “But, anyway, where all did you apply to?”

    Before he could answer, though, my banana broke in two. I watched helplessly as the top half tumbled to the dirty kitchen floor. “Damn it,” I said.

    “What’s wrong?”

    “Nothing. Dropped my damn banana.” I bent down to pick it up and dropped it in the trash.

    “Oh. That’s too bad.” He suddenly sounded distracted, or like he was stalling; then his voice strengthened again. “Hey,” he said, “I have to go to my checkup now. Thanks for calling. Congratulations again.”

    “Thanks,” I said. “Congratulations to you, too . . . ” Only after we hung up did I realize that he hadn’t told me where he was enrolling.


    By the end of the summer, my stuff was all packed away into four big cardboard boxes, a plastic laundry tub and my grandpa’s old suitcase, along with a pile of black trash bags. I soon forgot about Zorion’s hasty retreat on the phone, busying myself with dismantling my life and shipping it to Pocatello.

    Life outside of Boise, I discovered, was quite different from what I was used to. My education expanded profoundly: I discovered Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, along with Indian, Persian, and Ethiopian food. I went to indie rock shows. I went to dorm parties. I went to the dining hall. I met people my age with shared problems and insecurities, and I met people my parents’ age with the same problems, but better hidden. I learned that some of what my parents had taught me growing up had been right, but that most of it was wrong. By the end of second year, I was spending almost no time at all in my room. Instead I DJed for our radio station, cosponsored a student record label, and joined a literary group that met in unlocked classrooms and off-campus basements. Most nights I stayed up later than I should have. Sometimes I stayed up all night.

    I decided on a department to major in (psychology) and two departments to actually care about (anthropology and history, double minor), and graduated eight semesters later with a 3.00 GPA. During my last semester, I received a travel grant to study historical and ethnic subgroups in continental Europe. The grant placed me with a program of post-grads all wondering what to do with our humanities degrees. I was eager to chew up the real world and spit it back out. But spit it back out as what? I didn’t have an answer. After a summer of preparation and scrimping, tutoring for cash and working for friends’ dads, I set out.

    My adventuring group, Approaching Horizons, comprised one senior anthropologist, two second-year graduate students, and a swirling cloud of acolytes. This latter group included myself and a short, quirky-cute young woman named América Quételain, for whom I soon developed a raging attraction. She was raven-haired, South American, and spoke three languages, which was both practical and unrelentingly romantic. Our group’s primary subject was the Romany people of Central and Eastern Europe, but I had made sure from the beginning that Dr. Flynne set aside time to study Basque communities as well; there was always the possibility that I might run into Zo’s grandparents somewhere. How many Izotzes could there be, anyway? América laughed and said she loved my idea.

    My life became a series of long days of field research and short bursts of evening revelry. América and I usually split from the group after dark and spent the moonlit hours exploring Old Europe’s cobblestone streets and ancient castles. Many times we found ourselves retracing our steps from the work day: Romany saloons in Miskolc, Hungary; campgrounds outside Munich; an abandoned train station in Prague. We were getting a broader picture of the people and places we visited, unhindered by the loupe of academic rigor. One night, skirting the fringe of Athens’ tourist district, América gave a saucy laugh and an impromptu epic performance:

    “Thy rage, implacable! Too well I knew, the Furies that relentless breast have steeled, and cursed thee with a heart that cannot yield. Yet think, a day will come, when Fate’s decree and angry gods shall wreak this wrong on thee; Phoebus and Paris shall avenge my fate, and stretch thee here before the Scaean gate.” Her hand outstretched like an upturned claw to release the spirit of her muse. “That’s from The Iliad,” she said, looking up at me. “Hector’s dying words, aimed at Achilles. Does it make you want to get revenge?”

    I was confused. “Revenge on whom?”

    “On the Greeks!” She waved a hand toward the Athenian city center, her accent a sort of glow. “Does the mighty hero of Troy feel no resentment in the very land of Achilles, throat-poker extraordinaire?” I stared at her just a second too long, uncomprehending.

    “Your name!” she said, just as I was saying, “Hector! The Trojan War, yeah, I get it.”

    She rolled her eyes. “Homer says Hector next ‘ceased. The Fates suppressed his laboring breath, and his eyes stiffened at the hand of death, yadda yadda.’”

    I coughed for effect. “The bit that Hector says—the dying words part? Seems kinda harsh.”

    “Well, what would you say to a guy who just shoved his spear behind your windpipe?”

    “Promise me,” I said, rubbing my Adam’s apple with my thumb, “you’ll never let history repeat itself.”

    “It’s not such a bad way to go,” she said, poking a finger in the side of my neck. “Better than to fade away, yeah? Who’d want to dissolve when they could go out with a pop?” She reached up on tiptoe and pecked me on the lips with a kiss, then bounced off laughing. I watched her skip away without following, affronted by what she’d said but unsure why.

    A week after we got back, Dr. Flynne called a meeting in the hostel lobby. The twelve of us sat in a semicircle; Dr. Flynne sat on a stool in the middle, his windshield spectacles slanting fluorescent light over his pupils.

    “I think it’s time we had a re-briefing, if you will, on appropriate conduct within the Approaching Horizons curriculum,” he said, looking at me dispassionately. “That is, appropriate conduct between members of our group.” I glared daggers at Tony. That Italian, bucket-headed fuck. I knew it was he who’d complained. He had a thing for América and he couldn’t stand that she’d chosen me. “So as of tonight, I’m instituting a new policy on interpersonal communication.” What he meant was, no hooking up. I locked eyes with América across the semicircle, but she looked at me like she’d never seen me before, and then she looked the other way.

    Fuck this, I thought. I don’t need you either. So I left Approaching Horizons. Even without all that drama, I was already getting fed up—rankled by Dr. Flynne’s narrow focus and Roma-centricity. I would have complained about it earlier, but América had convinced me to keep cool. Well, enough of that. I packed up my things, which fit into a single red hiking backpack, and set out.

    This was in the commune of Pau, not too far from France’s Northern Basque Country. I had done as much research on Basque communities as I had on the Romany, so I felt that there was no better time to catch a train. Bilbao, where Zo was born, lies across the border on the northern coast of Spain, but I figured I’d visit some French Basque spots before crossing south. I bribed a Pau station official to sell me a same-day ticket and settled into my red plastic train seat for the pleasantly uneventful trip.

    I arrived in Bayonne, France, just ahead of dusk. Picking a direction at random, I stepped out of the train station and went looking for a place to sleep. Twenty minutes later, I stood paying for a bed at the Bayonne Youth Hostel. The evening clerk was friendly, African—from the Ivory Coast, she said. I told her, Wow, I didn’t think I’d ever met anyone from ththe Ivory Coast before. She laughed, and said that’s funny: until yesterday she hadn’t met anyone from Boise, Idaho.

    I stared at her. Her laughter trickled down, stopped.

    “Is something wrong?” she said.

    That’s when someone behind me spoke my name. I turned around.

    The lobby behind me was dimly lit, its layout haphazard but amenable. Mod furniture mixed with Middle Eastern tapestry and baroque sconces set into the copper-colored walls. An oil painting of a lit fireplace was the only piece of art in the room. The hearth itself was cold and bare. But someone had pulled a plush red armchair out of the way—and there he sat, in a wheelchair, in front of the fireplace.

    “Zorion?” I said. I couldn’t believe it. “What the fuck?” I took a step forward. “What the fuck?

    His face was one big smile. I dropped my backpack where I was standing and took three quick strides to reach him. Aside from us, the lounge was empty. My questions echoed off the shadowed walls.

    “What are you doing here?”

    He grinned up at me from his wheelchair, the first one I had ever seen him in. He was so much older and skinnier. How long had it been?

    “Fancy seeing you here,” he said. His ears looked bigger, more prominent; his hair was shorter, too, as if he’d shaved it and it was just growing back. He wore a navy blue ski jacket and faded jeans. His eyes were two glowing blue stones.

    “What in the world are you doing here?” I said. I wanted to hug him. He looked so much older.

    “I’m taking a trip,” he said with a wag of the head. He was chipper, smiling broadly. “Checking out the land of my people and all that.”

    “But how did you get here? And how are . . . you?” I stuttered, nodding toward his wheelchair.

    “I’m okay. I have to use this dang thing,” he said, rolling forward an inch on the dirty rug. His right hand rested on the top of the wheel; his left was not in sight. “Which makes it harder to explore my ancestral homeland, but you know. I’m not bad.” We laughed, and I sat down next to him.

    “And you just decided to come to Europe?” I said. He nodded, but I shook my head. “No, not just to Europe—to here. To the very same town I just took a train to, at the very same hostel where I just happened to end up at random, tonight out of every night of the year that you could possibly be here?”

    He shrugged awkwardly, one shoulder limber, the other anchored to his collarbone. “I guess so.”

    “That doesn’t seem weird to you? What are the chances of this happening in, like, a million years, Zorion?”

    “Not as small as the chances of you telling me you’re glad to see me, apparently.”

    “Pff. Shut up,” I stammered, embarrassed. He shrugged again. I marveled at his cool and decided, finally, that stranger things had happened. I could question fate later if I really wanted to.

    I sat back in my chair and smiled at him. “So how long are you here for? What have you been doing?”

    “What about you, first?” he said. “It’s not like I came to Bayonne expecting to run into my best friend.” He laughed again, with a cheer that made my own laugh feel suddenly hollow. Best friend. When had I stopped thinking of him that way? Had I ever?

    Trying to shrug off the feeling, I told him all about my summer mission, about Approaching Horizons, with a few vague dismissals of the drama with América. He seemed genuinely interested, so much so that at one point he leaned so far forward in his chair that it started to roll. But I wrapped up my story quickly, eager to hear more about him. Was he traveling by himself?

    “Yeah,” he said, running his fingers through his jet-black hair, which at this length bristled like a charcoal grill brush. “I just had to get away from everything in Boise. All the doctors and tests. I wanted to make better use of my time, you know? It was getting too crazy.”

    “Are you planning on going back?”

    “Sure. It’s really expensive traveling here, for one thing.” I nodded gravely. “Second, it’s kind of hard getting around these old cities without any help. In the U.S. there are wheelchair ramps everywhere. But here? Forget it.”

    “Is it worth it? What have you discovered?”

    “I’m not trying to discover as much as just experience.” I looked up at him in the lamplight. The waxy light shone behind his head, limning the individual hairs and granting his skull a sort of backlit corona. I was dark by comparison.

    “Where are you headed next?” I asked.

    “Bilbao, eventually. I still have extended family; they’ll take me in for a while if I want. My parents helped arrange it.” He reached out and gave my knee a friendly jostle. “How about you?”

    I gave a mirthless laugh. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing.” I looked him in the eye and half-smiled. “I thought that coming over here would be, like, The Answer, you know? I thought it would all unfold perfectly, opportunities lining up like in a video game or something. I always thought that there was this big, like, Life Event waiting just on the other side of college, and once I found it, it would imprint itself on me and give me some sort of definition from there on. But now I feel like I’ve just wandered into nowhere.”

    “That’s not so bad. Look who you wandered into.”

    I laughed again. “Do you know what I mean, though? About that feeling you get in college that the world is just waiting to give itself up to you?”

    “I think I know what you mean, but not exactly.”

    “Huh,” I grunted, sitting back in the chair and rotating my ankles to hear them pop. “What was your college like?”

    “I didn’t actually go to college.”


    “I didn’t have a way to go. I just—” he rolled his eyes to his left arm in resignation, as if struggling with how to express himself. “I just couldn’t.” Frojsa’s, then, had kept him from college. I could see how embarrassed he was, so I tried to change the subject.

    “To tell you the truth, I won’t be happy until I can relax,” I said. I stood and stretched and my bones cracked loudly. “Today was a little stressful.” He smiled and nodded. I went and got my bag and room key, thanked the girl at the desk, and walked back to Zorion. “Can I help you back up to your room?”

    “My stuff’s already up there, and there’s a lift, so I don’t have too much trouble. What room are you in?”

    I looked at the slip of paper. “Uh . . . seven.”

    “Oh, cool—I’m in ten.”

    I instinctively grabbed the push-bars behind his head and wheeled him around to face the elevator.

    He immediately tensed.

    “Oh,” I said, releasing the bars. “Sorry.” He took over rolling himself, and I walked behind him, mortified. It was several minutes before the feeling wore off.

    The elevator was tiny, ancient, one of those you have to pull open by hand like saloon doors. I held it open for Zo, and he maneuvered himself in, facing an identical door opening onto raw cement on the other side. I squeezed in beside him, my bag propped high against the purple carpeted wall.

    “Let me put my stuff away and we’ll catch up for real,” I said. I patted his shoulder with my free hand. The elevator ascended surprisingly smoothly, then gave a slight jerk as it stopped. The back door opened onto a hallway, narrow and creepily orange. Zorion rolled ahead.

    At one point the hall widened to accommodate a column, which Zorion had to roll around. It occurred to me for the first time that, as a one-armed wheelchair operator, he lacked the benefit of two-wheel pivoting. A conventional wheelchair would spin in circles if rolled by one hand alone; his chair’s wheels were rigidly connected, so that when he pumped with his right hand, both wheels moved—an inevitable compromise, but one that limited his turning options. I was about to say something when he slowed to a stop. With his right hand he reached right-to-left across his torso, released some sort of latch, then grabbed the right wheel again and pulled back on it, turning the whole chair to the right. Then he repeated the reach-latch-and-return motion and started rolling straight again. The whole procedure took about five seconds. Once he’d gone five feet around, he repeated it, this time rolling the right wheel forward to point himself further to the left, around the column. Once he had rounded the column completely, he repeated the move one more time to point himself back down the hall. I watched the whole thing in patient amazement.

    When he was done and rolling again, I caught up beside him with a skip.

    “You have to do that every time you want to turn?”

    “Yeah,” he said. “Kind of a hassle.”

    I fell back a pace or two. Kind of a hassle? It seemed a brutishly obnoxious workaround.

    “They don’t make these any easier to steer with one hand?” I asked. “You can’t use your feet to do some of it?”

    He laughed gently. “I can only use one foot anyway,” he said. “The other is frozen. And anyway, think about it—why do people usually need wheelchairs in the first place?” He looked up and over his left shoulder, smiling at me.

    “Oh,” I said. “Right.” That was the last question I asked about it.

    “Your room’s right here,” he said, “and mine’s there. Give me a knock when you’re done.”

    I nodded, stuck the old-fashioned cast-iron key, into the lock’s curvy opening, and jiggled the handle. After a few tries, I got the door open and stepped into the room. Two pairs of bunk beds, with a table in the middle scattered with wine corks. Sleeping bags hung from the sides of the top bunks like the discarded skin of giant caterpillars. I wondered if their owners spoke English.

    I shoved my stuff under the empty bed, changed my shirt and socks, and brushed my teeth in the little sink in the corner of the room. There was a window, too high to look out of comfortably. Outside was dark, raindrops spitting on the pane. I went across the hall and knocked.

    “Second,” Zorion called. I could hear him rolling to the door, which then opened. “Come on in,” he said. I was surprised to see the back of his head. He had rolled backward to the door and opened it from behind. Pretty clever.

    “Heya.” I stepped in and shut the door. The first thing I noticed was that there was just one bed, against the right wall. “Wow,” I said. “Did you pay for a single bedroom?”

    He shook his head. “It’s one of the perks of being a biological catastrophe—people give you stuff like this without even asking.”

    I sat down on the bed, which was spartan and white. “So how long have you been staying here?”

    “Just two days.” He rolled up to me. “Do you want a beer?”

    “Sure, what do you have?”

    “Dunno. I think it’s Spanish. I found a cooler under the bed the first day here with some cold cans inside it. I don’t know who left it there, but I figured if it’s in a can it’s probably safe to drink.” He rolled over to the end of the bed to my left. “’Cause even a tiny hole will fizz out if it’s been tampered with, right?”

    “I’ll believe that,” I said, doubling forward and reaching between my legs to help him fish the cooler out from under the spring-slung mattress. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

    Inside the red-and-white cooler—which looked for all the world like the one my mom used to pack with carrots and broccoli snacks for my soccer team—was some standing water, a few floaty bits of ice, and seven cans of Estrella Damm. The beer was as watery as the ice, but it was smooth enough that I managed to drink three in just half an hour without even thinking about it. Zorion drank more slowly than me, more thoughtfully, as if he were trying to extract all the flavor it could offer.

    We talked. He told me more about his trip, about the trials he’d had to face as a disadvantaged traveler and the kindnesses people had shown him because of it. I told him more about my fiasco at Approaching Horizons, about my lingering feelings for América, and my overall sense of failure on the trip so far. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around meeting him here, I told him, but the pleasure of his company was too wonderful to suffer any skepticism.

    It got to be late. I shifted from drunk to drunk and sleepy. The beers were gone, the cans crumpled and replaced in the cooler, and the cooler was replaced under the bed for the next tenant to discover.

    “I think I’m gonna turn in,” Zorion said, yawning and stretching with one arm.

    I regarded his wheelchair-bound form with bleary eyes. The bed looked pretty high up for him.

    “Do you need any help?”

    “Nah, I can get it.” His tone was exceedingly casual. I cocked an eye at him.

    “Are you just trying to show off?”

    He laughed while turning his chair around to abut the foot of the bed. “Yeah, I’m showing off how cool it is to be frozen. Watch this.” Facing up the length of the bed, he reached up with his good right hand, grabbed the frame and started hauling himself forward, face down. The act looked painstakingly frustrating. I remembered the fluid ease with which he used to move around the soccer field, like hot water sliding past ice cubes. He was the best player I’d ever seen, and now he was reduced to this.

    My drunken mind wandered, then came back to the present. “Hey, remember when we were little, and I used to keep kids from picking on you?” I asked, slurring a bit. He grunted, holding himself halfway up onto the bed with his good foot while his frozen left leg stuck stiffly into the air, bent at the knee. “You remember that?” I asked again.

    “Kinda . . . busy . . . ” he said.

    I sat there fidgeting for a moment. He looked so helpless. Finally I stood up.

    “Let me help you, dude,” I said. I reached up and put my hands under his armpits to heave him toward the head of the bed. The sensation was shocking. On one side his healthy armpit was sweaty and warm; my fingers found ample soft flesh to hold. On the other, though, it was like sticking my hand into a freezer. I couldn’t believe how cold it was, even through his jacket. I held firmly, pulling up against the rigid underside of his frozen armpit, but there was barely enough room for my fingers to slide between his stone stiff arm and his torso. He protested, grunted, but couldn’t resist.

    I bent my knees until they came to rest on the edge of the mattress and leveraged my weight against his, yanking him up all the way onto the bed. My right hand, which was on his cold left side, couldn’t keep its grip on the frozen flesh beneath, and soon he was slipping away from me, rolling backward toward the wall. He landed on his back, pulling me with him. I toppled onto the bed, and the side of the mattress where my knees had rested now bounced up and down in protest. The whole structure convulsed, with us on top of it.

    I started laughing, drunken giggles directed nowhere in particular. He was laughing, too. He couldn’t breathe very well at that angle, so his laughter came out wheezing, which made both of us laugh even more.

    “You sound like . . . a dying cow,” I said, breathing hard.

    “Sh—shut up,” he said between wheezes.

    I laughed more than I had laughed in I couldn’t remember how long. The sour memories of the group trip were swiftly washing away.

    “I’ve missed you, man,” I said. “I really have.”

    “Yeah, me . . . too,” he said, still panting. “Especially how . . . you need to get off me.”

    “Oh, shit, sorry,” I said and rolled away, giving him the space to readjust. He started working his frozen left leg down into the space between the wall and mattress, until his foot was resting comfortably against the floor, allowing him to lie flat on his back like someone dozing in a hammock, one leg drifting toward the ground. Was that the only way he could sleep?

    My head began to feel like a bag of sand. I didn’t feel sick, just out of it.

    “Ahhh, damn it,” Zorion said, puncturing my embryonic haze. “I forgot to take off my coat.”

    “That’s okay,” I said. “I got it.” With his working arm, he tried to wriggle the jacket off, but in this position he was pretty helpless. His jacket was a pullover, not a zipper, so I grabbed a wad of its hem and pulled up. His undershirt came away with it when I pulled, revealing a bent naked forearm and a clenched fist held tight against his clean chest. The vision lasted just a moment before his right arm pulled free of the jacket and brought his shirt sharply back down. The image was burned on my retinas, though. Growing up, we spent so much time around each other—but I had never seen his frozen arm before. Nor had I ever felt what I was feeling right then: a mix of warmth and cold, of surprise and shame and revulsion and exotic privilege. Could he feel in that arm, at all? Was it completely numb? What about the edge, where healthy skin met frozen? I knew that I knew all the answers, but right then my brain was sinking beneath something, some obscuring fluid that pushed my body forward and downward with its own rocking motion. The glow from his laptop screen lit the room like a moon over dark water.

    Before I knew what I was doing, I was leaning toward him. The jacket bunched up and off his head, spilling onto the pillow in folds. My left hand found his short black hair, which was warm under my chilled fingers, and his chin fell into the crook of my elbow, and then I was wrapped around onto him.

    He sputtered. I was close. He pushed at me. I felt heavy.

    “Wha—?” He breathed onto my face. “Hector, no.”

    His words swam through my waterlogged mind, too slow to stop my body in motion. I was sinking down. I felt the heat of the laptop on the back of my neck, a heat so hot it would melt anything. That heat was what I wanted. What I wanted to give.

    Our foreheads touched. Just for a second, lips not quite touching. And then I rolled aside. My heavy head pulled me down, face first into the wrinkled sheet. My face in the sheet was cold. My fingers felt so warm.

    Zorion twisted; his ear brushed my wrist. The ear was frozen solid.

    The shock made me gasp.

    His cold skin unstunned my thoughts. I let go of anything I was holding onto, recoiling into a ball in fear of the cold. He tried to pull his good arm from under me, but he was pinned between the mattress and wall. His frozen elbow thumped into the wall. The sound made me horribly lucid.

    “Fuck, Zo.”


    “Oh, God.” A spasm shook my bones. “Oh, fuck. I don’t know what to— I’m so sorry, Zo.”

    I sat up. He was sitting against the wall, breathing hard.

    “I’ll— I’ll—” I was shaking, warmth and cold waging war inside me. “I need to—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. I stood up, banged my knee into the wheelchair, and stumbled sideways. The wheelchair squeaked forward, struck a desk chair, stopped moving. I turned to look at the bed, cast now in the shadow of the wheelchair’s spokes as they were illuminated from behind by the laptop screen. Dark lines sprayed across his body, the far wall and bed.

    I left the room without a word. Across the hall I fumbled desperately with the key, got the door open, and spilled into my room and into my bed. I wrapped myself in the blanket provided by the hostel, drunkenly running through my own thoughts. Already I was having trouble piecing it all together, the last five minutes—everything was slippery and fragmented, like heated, broken glass. I pulled the blanket tightly around myself, covering even my head. It didn’t help the feeling, but then it stopped mattering. My thoughts churned to a crawl, slowed by the twin draglines of denial and exhaustion, and then in another moment I was dreamlessly asleep.

    The next morning I awoke remembering everything from the night before, mortification slamming into me like a stretched spring suddenly released. I couldn’t bear the thought of facing Zorion in the daylight. I had to leave before that could happen. Nothing else mattered. I packed up everything I had unpacked the night before, dashed down the hall and through the lobby without looking up, sprinted down the street, and went straight into the train station. I bought another same-day ticket to Bordeaux and sat tapping my foot nervously on the platform waiting for it to arrive. I spent the whole trip to Bordeaux staring at the cabin window but not seeing through it.

    I stayed in Bordeaux one more night, booked the next cheap flight I could find, and flew back to the United States the following day.


    Something changed after that. Something intangible in my future. I had felt pulled before, pulled forward toward some spot on the horizon, some Life Event that would envelop me and bear me the rest of the way onward to happiness. But I didn’t feel that way anymore. The happiness that had pulled me forever toward it was gone. Had it ever really been there in the first place? Maybe I’d only been chasing a mirage, and I had finally come close enough to see the truth. Or maybe I was suffering not the disappearance of some future prize but the sudden confusion of having left it behind me.

    These are questions I asked myself only later. At the time of my return I was too worried about finding a job and feeding myself to contemplate much else. I spent a year and a half looking for anthropology work in California, hoping the search for the right career would reenergize my spirits. I knew someone living in Berkeley, a friend who had dropped out of Approaching Horizons in the first week due to a death in the family, and I crashed his couch on and off from August to March. And despite my poverty, I was excited, at least superficially. I thought maybe this was the trigger, the time when the first steps of my life path would finally appear under my feet. But of course they didn’t.

    So I went back to Boise.

    I got a job in BSU’s psychology department. It wasn’t great, just lab assistant stuff, but that’s what my degree was in. I turned twenty-four, then twenty-five, then twenty-six. I met a girl, Patricia Roclus, through the university. She taught English and creative writing and had flaming red hair that screamed for attention. She laughed at all the same things I laughed at, so we started hanging out. Eventually we moved in together for cheaper rent. I got promoted, made more money, and decided to start taking classes toward a PhD in college counseling. I turned twenty-seven, then twenty-eight, then twenty-nine.

    A lot of people come back to Boise. I started hanging out with my high school and college friends again, and in just a couple years I had my old social circle back. (When I met Victoria’s screaming three- and four-year-old kids, a triumphant wave of relief washed over me.) I was reliving my youth, like starting a book over in the middle before reaching the end, but I wasn’t unhappy. All my friends liked Patty. She was a great storyteller, better than me, and she always had a group gathered around her at parties. My parents loved having me back home for so long, and I might have loved it, too—I don’t know. I never felt I was moving forward so much as that the world was going past.

    I enrolled in a doctorate program, picked up a masters along the way. My grandma came up from Louisiana just to be there. My parents and Patty’s pressured us to get married, but we were happy where we were, so we ignored them. We moved into a bigger apartment, got a cat, watched Aliens a lot. When I thought about Zorion it was only with guilt and regret, so I didn’t think about him much. I turned thirty, then thirty-one, then thirty-two.

    In May I earned my Ph.D. Then, in June, I heard a rumor. One of my coworkers in the psych department at BSU had heard that the med school faculty was all abuzz about something—which turned out to be the most advanced case of Frojsa’s Disease seen in a human being. By this time his parents, or maybe Zorion himself, had decided to shun the medical spotlight, so locating him proved difficult. The med school faculty told me his visits were sporadic, and they didn’t know when they’d see him next. The news made me restless, irritated and troubled.

    I dug up his parents’ phone number, not sure what I wanted to do with it. Patty sensed that something was weird. I’d never told her about Zorion. It’s funny how two huge parts of your life can coexist, without ever crossing, until one day your girlfriend finds you standing in the kitchen with a piece of paper in your hand. After dinner that night I told Patty everything about our friendship, from my first meeting with Zorion up until college. I didn’t tell her about the hostel in Bayonne, but I did tell her the last time I’d seen him was the summer of my trip to Europe.

    Patty was amazed. I said I guess I’d known him for so long it just wasn’t that interesting to me anymore. This is exciting! she said. You should call. But I dithered. I waited a few days.

    And then he called me.


    “Heya, Hector?”


    “It’s me, Zo.”

    We arranged to get coffee, and I asked Patty to come along. I didn’t know how it would go. I didn’t know how far his Frojsa’s had gone. He was already at Dawson’s Coffee when we got there, sitting in the corner at a little round table with a multi-colored ceramic spiral inset in its surface. There were two empty chairs pulled up. A female assistant was standing behind him. He looked terrible.

    “Hector! It’s been a dog’s age,” he said when he saw me, embracing me with his glittering eyes only. The empty pleasantry, combined with the strength of his gaze, almost tore me in two. His body was contorted, drawn inward and rigid. My smile was from the heart, but I had to inhale deeply to keep tears from ruining it. Patty squeezed my hand once before I stepped forward.


    We couldn’t shake hands, so I gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder. It was like punching solid ice. He chuckled.

    “Don’t hurt yourself.”

    We all laughed. Patty and I sat down. I sought his eyes, hoping to find some recognition of our past, whether forgiveness or condemnation. But his eyes wouldn’t rest. They darted over all of us, innocent and greedy, wanting to hold everything at once: me, Patty, the plainclothes waitresses, the colorful cafe art, the tables behind us with their quietly chatting college kids. What had he been doing since he came back to town? Did he come to places like this often? Or was he taking the opportunity of our meeting to remind himself what coffee shops were like, how casual life was for everyone else?

    He could turn his head, but just barely, and he retained slight control of his right hand. The assistant, a straw-haired young woman named Anne, helped Zo drink his coffee through a straw. I barely touched mine; it sat and got cold after maybe a couple of sips. Patty asked disarming questions, relevant yet sensitive, to make Zorion feel comfortable and attended to. I appreciated her presence; it gave him a reason to unfold his story, from start to finish, while filling in the gaps I was too embarrassed to ask about. I added wry remarks here or there, where I thought I could get a laugh, but for the most part I let Zo do the talking. When he was done, I did have a few unanswered questions, mostly about the present and the progress of his disease.

    “How precisely are they able to predict its advance now?” I asked.

    “Not very,” he said. When he spoke now there was a slight distortion in his sounds. Something inside was starting to freeze that wasn’t apparent on the surface, I guessed. “What they’ve been doing is taking the measure of the amount of mass left in my head and torso and comparing it to how fast different other parts of my body were frozen. That gives them an idea of how much longer my vital functions will survive unimpaired.”

    “How much longer is that?”

    “Well,” he said. “Every time I go in, they give me a different number. Last time, it was one.”

    “One . . . ?” I trailed off, unsettled but trying not to show it. One what? my tone asked.

    “One month until It,” he said with a grin.

    “What is It?” Patty asked.

    “Terminal frozen mass,” he said, mock gravely. Then he stuck out his tongue, childishly. “Popsicle!”

    “Do you believe them?”

    “I don’t even think about it. If they’re wrong, then I’m working myself up over nothing. And if they’re right, so what? That won’t change how long I have left, only what I think about it. And I can decide that on my own.”

    “Is there literally no way they know to reverse the disease yet? Even to slow it down?”

    He sighed as deeply as his frozen chest would allow. “Nope.”

    “But—” I leaned back, crossed one leg over the other, just like my dad does, and tilted my head to the side. “What do they know?”

    “Quite a lot, actually. The Frojsa’s statistics look much better now than they did ten years ago. There’s nothing they can do for me, but the incidence rate is like a third of what it used to be, when I was diagnosed in fourth grade. They’ve been poking at me for more than thirty years now, and it’s really made a difference in people’s lives.”

    “So because of you, fewer kids are being born with Frojsa’s?” Patty asked.

    Zo nodded as much as he could.

    “That’s great,” I said, “but how?”

    “Don’t ask me. Remember, I wanted to be a soccer player, not an . . . ice scientist.” He laughed.

    “How do you feel about it, though? Having them tell you you’ve got so little time left. Are you scared?”

    “Nah,” he said dismissively. If his hands weren’t frozen, he would have waved, as if to brush away a fly. “It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming. In a way, it’s what my whole life has been leading up to, you know? So I might as well embrace it, and the life that will lead me there.”

    “Well,” Patty said, “I’m having people over for my birthday next week, the twelfth of January. If you think you would be healthy enough to come, we would love to have you.”

    Zorion smiled self-deprecatingly. “Who would want me around like this at a party?”

    “We all would,” I said. “As long as you’re not afraid of something, you know . . . going wrong.”

    He tried to smirk. “I’m solidly built, now. Nothing will happen.”

    “Oh, I didn’t say that,” I said, smiling with fake cockiness. “Something will definitely be happening. Patty’s parties are some of the best of your life.”

    Patty and I made plans, sent out invitations, bought booze, stapled party hats, and told everyone we knew to come by or they’d regret it. I had fun helping her with all the party details, but I couldn’t help sobering up quickly whenever I thought about Zorion. And if my emotions were this turbulent, I thought, what were his like?

    The twelfth came, and about fifty people came with it—a much higher turnout than I had expected. Everyone’s eyes were on Zorion. He was able to move around a little bit, using the joystick that controlled his motorized wheelchair, but I saw how much trouble he had keeping his fingers wrapped around the device. His assistant, Anne, shadowed him, leaning down every few minutes to whisper in his ear and nod when he replied. Every so often she made small adjustments to his chair or position, or helped his fingers wrap around the joystick; then she would fade into the background. He remained the center of attention.

    The only thing she didn’t assist with was alcohol. That was my job. We all drank and took turns opening cans for Zo. He didn’t want much, but he let us help him to a couple beers. He was having more trouble moving his head than just a week before, and his forehead muscles seemed entirely paralyzed in a half-inquisitive lift—only his eyes and mouth could move. I took advantage of this to make him take a shot with me.

    “Come on, man!” I said. “This is it, man! This is your time!” (I had already finished all the beers Zo had rejected, plus my own share.) “It’s time to do it, Zo!”

    “Bud, I’m already haffing fun,” he said through sluggish lips. His neck had frozen at an angle, slightly canted to the left, which made it hard for him to look at you. It was as if he had already begun to detach from the lives of the people around him. His eyes, though, were no less immediate when he spoke. “I dod’t want to miss anything.”

    “Miss anything?” I was leaning a bit closer to his ear than I strictly needed to. “Man, this is anything! This is what you don’t want to miss.” I was starting to get a little loud, as I sometimes do when drunk. “Me, you, Greg, Thomas, Mike—you remember Mike?—Patty too, Sandra, Kenneth, Ron, Diane. We’re all gonna do it with you, all of us. You gotta be in, man!”

    “Well . . .”

    “You gotta.” I pulled back, giving him a mock stern look. “You gotta.”

    The photograph is up on my refrigerator now, with “The Shot—Jan. 12, 2008” written on the back in drunken red-ink scrawl. I don’t know whose handwriting it is, or even who the photographer was, but it’s the last photo I have of us together. Zo is in front, with everyone else crowded around behind his chair, most of us leaning forward (voluntarily or not) with our hands on the back of his chair for support. We look for all the world like a bunch of kids at a birthday party, except the birthday boy isn’t looking straight at the camera. It must have driven him crazy, to be unable to look in the camera with everyone else. But in his expression in that picture, in his eyes, there’s not a shred of frustration, not even the tiniest hint of resentment. Just happiness and an undeniable warmth that lingers even today.

    After the group dispersed and the photographer wandered away, I was left standing next to Zo alone. Anne had gone to the bathroom, and no one else was taking notice of us. Everyone at the party had already come up and greeted him at least briefly, said they were glad to see him and hoped he was having a good time. Then, without fail, they had orbited away and not returned. Even though plenty of people were watching him, no one was talking to him except me. They seemed relieved that someone else was engaging him so they didn’t have to.

    “It’sh okay.”

    I looked down. Zorion’s eyes rolled up as far as they could go, trying to catch mine. I bent down facing him.

    “What is?”

    “Thad no one wands to talk to me. I dod’t mind.”

    I was quiet for a moment. I had assumed—for my own comfort, apparently—that Zorion hadn’t noticed the berth the party had granted him.

    “Really? I hope it doesn’t make you feel singled out—not included?” Though I was sure it nust.

    But he just chuckled. “They never did. They haven’t since we were kidsh on the playground.” In the back of my mind I heard the second, silent half of his thought: I stopped letting it hurt me long ago; you should, too. I sat on my heels, watching the people swirl, drinks in hand.

    Someone I didn’t know came up and attached streamers and tinsel (where did they find tinsel?) to the spokes of Zorion’s wheelchair. He watched them come and go, then turned his eyes back to me when we were alone again.

    “Are you still okay with all this?” I asked. “The party?”

    He hesitated for a second, saying nothing, then blinked rapidly a few times. “Oh, shorry,” he said a bit sheepishly. “I wash drying to nod.” I laughed, not sure it was a joke. His speech was pretty slurred, and he’d barely been drinking. The music was pumping fairly loud, so I leaned in close enough to talk.

    “I can’t believe we’re here, having this conversation,” I said.

    “Yeah.” He gave a small laugh. “When we were kidsh, it sheemed like it would dake forever to grow up.”

    “It kinda did take forever. I mean, when you think about it, thirty years is a long time.”

    “I only wish dat I could remember more of it.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, it’sh just— When I wash in high school, and they would dake me in for checkups, I would have to sit in their machines for hoursh, and I would alwade pash the time by thinking about the fun I usht to have with you, in your back yard and my basement and wherever. And I usht to go through and try to remember everyding as shpeshifically as I could, usht to play dish kind of game where I tried to recall with as exact detail as I could the adventures we usht to have, the way the brambles tore at our clothes when we would walk down that little creek in our neighborhood. I would try to relive those partsh because it made my life feel bigger to be able to go there again, in my mind at leasht.”

    “I remember that creek,” I said quietly, sipping my beer.

    “But, like, man . . . I can’d remember id anymore. I can’d remember huge partsh of my life. As hard as I tried, I can’d remember everything. Partsh I spent watching TV or just sitting in the car, or whadever. I can’d even remember what it feelsh like to feel wid my left hand, anymore. And I’m afraid that’sh part of me that’sh lost, that I won’t be able to dake with me wherever it ish I’m going next.”

    He closed his eyes. I put my beer down, and put my left hand on his knee. It was painfully cold against my skin, but I didn’t move it.

    “Do you remember in France, when we met up?”

    His eyes opened slowly, almost fluttering. He smiled.

    “Of coursh I do.”

    “I want to apologize. I know it was years ago, but still—I need to apologize. I felt— I don’t know what I felt.”

    “Hector, it’sh okay. You dod’t have anyding to apologize for.”

    “Yes I do, Zo. I— It made me think a lot, what I did. On the plane home, I couldn’t stop thinking, Why did I do that? I couldn’t figure out what I wanted back then. From you, from myself, from anybody.”

    “Lotsch of people never figure out whad they want.”

    “I know, but I felt like I was on the cusp of something. I certainly wasn’t happy, but I must have had some instinct, you know? For what would make me happy. I just don’t know what it was. What was I reaching for?”

    “What have you ever reached for, Hector?” He spoke with slow deliberation, eking each word out through his slowly stiffening mouth.

    “Shit.” I shifted my crouch, hand still on his freezing knee. “I don’t know.”

    “Dod’t forget,” he said. “You shtill have time to figure id out.”

    I was silent. The party swirled around us; every couple minutes, someone else would come over to make small talk and then peel away again. Zorion was exceedingly polite, long-suffering of repeated banalities, and as cheerful to each person as he was to everyone.

    Then we were alone again. I asked him, “So what about you? What have you ever reached for?”

    He thought for a moment, eyes drifting slowly and more slowly around the room, until they alit once more on mine. Then, very slowly, he spoke.

    “For shomething that would lasd.”

    His answer surprised me. I studied his face, its frozen lines and rich, deceptively warm color, and tried to imagine what it was like to be on the inside of that skin. But I couldn’t.

    “And did you ever find it?”

    The corners of his mouth crept up into a thin smile. My hand on his knee was numb, had been numb. His crystalline, hailstone eyes were wide open, sweeping across the entire room in ever-slower arcs. He was trying to see everything, everything in the world. I twisted to look over my shoulder, to see what he was seeing. But everyone was looking at us. I turned back around. And there were the ears still sticking out to the sides, more than ever before, the dark eyebrows that had seemed so heavy on that tiny fifth-grade boy, the faint stubble that showed who that tiny boy had become. There was his sad smile and his blue eyes and in them my reflection, frozen.

    © by Alex Henderson. Used by permission of the author.

    Alex’s website is currently under the knife. But you can contact him directly at alex.w.henderson@gmail.com !

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