Cover Photo: We're Just People by Brandon Taylor

We're Just People

The testing facility is on the opposite side of town, and so Micah has to get up two hours earlier in order to make his appointment. His mother is already gone by then, though she has left him a small breakfast of toast and some eggs. He folds the toast over the eggs and chews aggressively while he searches for clothes to wear. Their apartment is dim. The lights are off again, but the trade-off is that there is water when he turns on the shower. It’s cold, of course, and it smells faintly of rust, but it gets the job done. He scrubs himself clean with the narrow bar of yellow soap, and he leaves the shower smelling like creekwater and almonds.

For the last two months, Micah has been undergoing weekly tests. The first week, they sat him in a chair and pressed some strange black machine up to his eyeball. It squirted various, stinging liquids into his eyes, pressed and squeezed his eyeball, plucked his eyelashes right from the lids, and then there was a searing light so bright that it was like staring into nothing at all, a white emptiness. After that, they stuck him in a whirring machine that scanned every part of his body. He became a sea of data swimming through the air via a wireless interface. There had also been IQ tests, logic puzzles that needed untying, word association, riddles inside of riddles, strange and fleeting glimpses of figures that they expected him then to recreate from memory. He returned each week for the money. Fifty bucks every time he sat there and let them scan him and poke him and question him and spin him around and around. Fifty bucks every time they drew the dark blood out of his body and took it away for various tests. Fifty bucks to put into his mother’s hand, to ease the weight that raising him had brought to her shoulders. Fifty bucks.

They had not always lived the sort of life that could be made easier by fifty bucks. When he was much younger, they had lived in a small yellow house out in the country. There was a garden out back, full of fat tomatoes and some collard greens. He helped his mother take in the vegetables and to make stews from them. He remembers squatting next to the spigot and letting the clear water rush down and all around the little cherry tomatoes in his hands, the way that water had felt so cool against his skin. Out there, the rest of the world had seemed so far away, beyond the hills and the woods and the trees and all those fields; the world had been a distant thing, like the shadow of a thumb on the other side of the sheet turning into strange, wondrous shapes. But that had been then. Before they’d lost the house and moved to the city, before the world came swooping in on them and snatched them up.

Micah steps off the bus and stands in front of the facility. It’s a squat, gray building, unremarkable in every way. The door slides open and a woman, the same woman that he has seen every week for the last two months, approaches him. She’s tall and dark-skinned. Her hair is soft brown and curly. She has bright eyes.

“Micah,” she says, her voice drawing across his name like a silk scarf. Her tone is neutral, as ever, and there is nothing in her face that suggests that they have ever met before. He does not know her name.

“Hello,” he says.

“This way,” she says, and they enter the building, which is five to ten degrees cooler than the outside, where it is just beginning to be spring. They walk down a short, dark hallway and suddenly, they are in a large, open room full of light. Every surface is white, so that all the shapes in the room bleed together, and dimension and depth begin to break down. He blinks slowly to acclimate himself. She does not have any trouble at all navigating the sea of whiteness. She walks quickly with her hands folded behind her back, her nails neatly trimmed and the pale undersides of her palms revealed to him. He watches these, so different from the air around him, in order to ease the strain on his eyes.

“What is it today?” he manages to ask, though he knows she won’t answer. She sighs a little instead.

“In we go,” she says. A door slides open in what had previously been a flat wall. How is it possible to get a door so flush to the line of the wall, he wonders. But only for a moment because she takes his arm firmly and pulls him through the doorway into a smaller, dimmer room. There is a round table and two chairs. He takes the seat that puts his back to the door. She exits through another door, and a man seems to pass through a wall. He sits on the other side of Micah.

“Hello, Micah,” he says.

“Hello. What is it today?”

“Just some questions,” the man says, and he pulls out a folder. He clicks a pen. His smile is friendly. He has the sort of face that makes you want to trust him, which Micah knows is a trap. He doesn’t trust anyone except his mother. Other people are full of corners that you can’t see around, full of possibilities that cannot be accounted for. This man is no one to him.

“Okay,” Micah says. “Let’s do this then.” He slouches in his chair a little. His hair is curly and dark. He takes after his father, who was Irish in this way. Curly and dark and slouching, like a sad boy. His mother gave him his height, the breadth of his shoulders, the color of his skin, which is medium brown. There are other things his father gave him too.

“Micah, do you know why you are here?”

“To be tested.”

“Do you know why we are testing you?”

“No,” he says, and perhaps for the first time, it occurs to him that he does not yet know what the summation of all these tests could be. He assumed that it was some kind of medical thing, some kind of strange research project. Why else would they have advertised in the newspaper? It does not concern him. He does not care very much what becomes of him. The money is nice. The hours are not inconvenient. He isn’t losing much by being here. He shrugs. “No one told me.”

“I see. Well. Would you like to know?”

“Oh,” he says. “Well, I mean. Sure, I guess.”

The man frowns. “You aren’t curious?”

“I guess I just didn’t think about it very much. The ad just said they needed someone to participate in a study, and I came over and they took blood and signed me up. I guess I just didn’t think to ask.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. Do you want to know?”

“Sure,” Micah says, but then catches himself. He is repeating himself. “I would like to know.” This is the right answer because the man smiles again and nods. He writes something on a piece of paper.

“Well, we have some exciting news for you. As you know, we’ve been doing various tests on you. We’ve measured pretty much everything about you that can be measured. We’ve compiled it all. We have a perfect picture of who you are stored on our servers here.”

“Okay,” Micah says. His palms are damp now. “Why?”

“Because, Micah, we want to send you to Mars.”

There is a moment of silence in the room, a moment during which Micah is not entirely certain what he has heard, a moment during which Micah is certain that the man has not actually said anything at all. The sheer impossibility of what he has heard leans into him and settles all around him like a dream.

“That’s not real,” he says. “That can’t be real.”

“It is,” the man says. “We want to send you as part of the first team to Mars.”

“I don’t understand,” Micah says. “I don’t know anything about space. I don’t know anything about that at all. I’m just a person.”

“You have excellent biometrics,” the man says. “You have all the traits we need."

“I dropped out of high school,” Micah says. “I don’t even have a GED. I can’t. I don’t know anything. I can’t even drive.”

“We can teach everything you need to know,” the man says, his smile placid. There is something terrifying about the peacefulness in his eyes. Micah is shaking.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “I’m just a person. I’m just a fucking person.”

“Of course we would compensate you,” the man says slowly. Micah stops.

“How much?”

“Seventy-thousand dollars,” the man says. “Per year.”

“For how long?”

“Every year you’re on Mars.”

Seventy-thousand dollars. Seventy-thousand dollars could change the shape of his life and his mother’s life. Seventy-thousand dollars could get them lights and water and food. Seventy-thousand dollars, and they could maybe find a small place out in the woods somewhere and live as they had before. Seventy-thousand. The sum is a ward, a charm against potential disaster. He holds fast to it. The man senses this, sees the change in Micah’s body and nods.

“So, what do you think?”

“Sure,” Micah says. “Sure.”

“Perfect,” the man says, and he slides a piece of paper across the table for Micah to sign. “Just here, on the line, and we’ll change your life.”                                                           

                                                 ***

After the facility, Micah takes the bus back across town, but does not stop at home. Instead, he climbs the three flights of stairs to his boyfriend’s apartment and lets himself in with the key. Grigor is not home yet. He’s still at the docks, where he works slinging fish and crab and other things hauled up out of the sea. Micah makes himself a sandwich and hops up onto the counter. He plugs his phone into the wall so that it can charge for the first time in days.

He knows that Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. He knows that it is the red planet. He learned this in third grade, from a large, dark-haired teacher with mean eyes and a harsh voice. He remembers the cardboard model of the solar system that his mother helped him make, the two of them leaning over their tiny dining room table with glue and markers and glitter. He remembers her laugh when he accidentally glued some of Saturn’s rings to his fingers and walked around like Freddy Krueger, a joke that was not funny, but then, his mother had always been kind enough to laugh at him, gentle enough not to reveal her disappoint in him even when he came home after years of bullying in high school and told her, flatly, that he wouldn’t go back. And that if she made him, he’d walk directly in front of a bus and leave this life behind. No, she had not looked at him with disappointment then, but had rather had put her arms around his head and kissed his hair then cheeks and said, simply, “Okay.”

Mars, red dot spinning cold space, simultaneously on fire and frozen. The thought of flinging his body through that unfathomable distance, on a machine darting through the void, is enough to chill him. He cannot drive, and the mere prospect of piloting a machine makes his hands shake. If he cannot direct a car on Earth, where gravity and traffic laws and God himself keeps them all together, what will he do in space? And yet he signed on the line, signed his life away, because the money, how could he leave behind the prospect of the money? It would do so much good for his mother, who had loved him, steadfastly through life.

Grigor gets home a little later. The sun is going down because the days are still sort of short. Grigor is tall and broad. He has a thick red beard. He is handsome and a little fleshy around the middle, his arms a sea of freckles. But it’s the space between his shoulders that Micah loves most, that tender red spot nestled between the high arches of his shoulder blades. Micah kisses him here often, and Grigor, more mountain than man, smelling of ocean, turns into a small, quivering thing.

Grigor is in a mood tonight. The air is heavy. He lets the door slam shut behind him, not bothering to gentle its closure.

“Oh, look who’s here,” he says. “Finally.”

“My phone was dead,” Micah says because by now, he’s managed to get it charged and on and sees now all the text messages from Grigor, and the phone calls. “I’m sorry.”

“I thought you were dead,” Grigor says. “I thought you had been run over by a damn bus, or something.” Grigor stands between Micah’s knees, and Micah puts his head against Grigor’s chest. He can feel Grigor’s fingers in his hair, a gesture which is meant to soothe them both.

“I’m alive.”

“So I see.”

“You smell,” he says.

“I know. Some of us have to work,” Grigor says, and he does not make it sound like a joke or like play or like anything else kind. Micah is stung by this, both by the words themselves and by the fact that Grigor wouldn’t consider his feelings, but then, he has brought this on himself.

“Of course,” Micah says. Grigor is watching him, searching out the shape of his hurt. Micah conceals as best he can. He will not give him the satisfaction of it. “What did you do today?” Grigor asks. “Did you find a job finally?”

“Why are you being this way?”

“I’m just asking how your day went.”

“It went well,” Micah says. “It went really fucking well. I have a job now.”

“Oh, doing what? Delivering cakes and pies?”

“I’m going to Mars.”

“Oh please,” Grigor says, sighing. He steps away from Micah. “I am too tired for this.”

“I’m serious,” Micah says. He pulls out the brochure from his back pocket and slaps it on the counter. “Right here. See. I’m going to fucking Mars.”

“That’s not a real thing, Micah. Did some homeless guy on the street give this to you? What, did you get it from some Mormon?”

“No,” he says. “I got it from the fucking place I’ve been going to. I got it from the testing place.”

“Testing place,” Grigor says. He takes up the brochure, which is glossy and blue like the sort of thing you might expect for a timeshare. “What testing place.”

Micah slides his sleeve up to show Grigor the bandages where they’ve been taking blood, the bruise from last week still there against his skin.

“They take samples, I don’t know. They spin machines around me. They measure stuff.”

Grigor is reading the pamphlet, not really listening. His eyes make slow progress down the length of the laminated paper, each word dissected and stored away. He’s reading it phonetically, which is the only way he knows how to read. The smell of his body is growing. It’s heady and fishy and musky and very much like him. He’s got his fingers tucked into the inside of his pants, and the edge of his skin is visible to Micah.

“What the fuck is this,” Grigor says finally. “What the fuck did you do, Micah?”

“I signed up. They’re going to give me seventy-thousand a year.”

“To go to Mars?” Grigor repeats. “To go to Mars, Micah? They…they are going to send you away. Do you understand what that means?”

“That I’m going to space, or something. That I won’t be here. But they say I can leave the money to someone. That I can set it aside and they’ll pay whoever I say to pay. That’s what I want.”

“The money? You need money that bad? Why?”

“Because I’m not like you, Grigor,” Micah says. “I’m not like you.”

“What does that even mean? You don’t want to work? You don’t want to sling fish like me? You too good for me?” 

“No. I’m not. But I have to support me and my mom. You just have to support you.”

“Oh, so I don’t support you too.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean, Micah? What do you mean?

Micah pauses because he doesn’t know exactly what it is he’s trying to say. Grigor looks hurt. There are scales sticking to his shirt and to his fingers, little bits of iridescent color glinting in the low light of the apartment. The television is on in the bedroom, a news program murmuring softly. He knows that Grigor is thinking about the two-hundred dollars from last month that Micah borrowed to pay down his mother’s title pawn. He knows that Grigor is thinking of the seventy-five dollars from last month that Micah borrowed for groceries at his mother’s apartment. He knows that Grigor is thinking of the fifty dollars that Micah took from his wallet after they last had sex, after that ugly argument wherein Grigor had said that Micah only wanted him for money and Micah had taken it, had said, “If I'm your whore, then you have to pay me.” All of those sums are converging in the air between them. Both of them are adding, calculating, building up a pile of money.

“I’m sorry,” Micah says.

“It’s okay,” Grigor says. They kiss, and then they pull on each other’s clothes, and they fuck in the kitchen. It’s distinct from the softness of their lovemaking, which typically happens in the laziness of predawn hours. This is ugly and hard, like they’re trying to break each other’s bodies. There are gnashing teeth and scraping nails, and when they climax, all the pleasure feels like agony.

                                                 ***

In Grigor’s bed, they are lying close to one another, but not touching. Grigor’s apartment is small, but tastefully decorated. It is surprisingly clean for a fishmonger. The window is open, and there’s a cold breeze coming through.

“Are you really going to Mars?” Grigor asks.

“I am,” he says. “I signed up already.”

“Do they even let gay people in space?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean—it’s not like, easy to go to space. It’s not like you’re going to be able to pop down here and pick up some kids and take them back. You have to make them the old-fashioned way.”

“I don’t think I have to fuck women to go to space.”

“But why would they let a gay guy into space, when there’s a chance he won’t be able to perform? Why wouldn’t they send a straight guy?”

“I don’t think they’re too worried about it, one way or another.”

“I guess I don’t see it, us in space.”

“Us?”

“Gays? You know? Like, they won’t take our blood when our own are dying, but they’ll send us into space? To die? For what?”

“I’m not going to die.”

“Wake up, Micah,” Grigor says, his voice soft and angry. “Wake up.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m awake.”

“You don’t have a job. You don’t have a diploma or a degree or goals. All you have is your body. They’re using you.”

“Everybody uses everybody,” Micah says. He’s flushed with anger. His body is sore.

“Not me,” Grigor says. “I don’t use anybody but myself.” 

“You don’t use me? You didn’t just use me?” 

“I wasn’t using you, Micah. You were letting yourself be used maybe, but I wasn’t using you.”

“I’m going to Mars.”

“Do they even know you’re gay? Do they know that you like to get fucked, Micah? What are you going to do up there, spend the rest of your life without men? Without sex? Stuck up there on a rock in space?”

“I don’t care,” Micah says. He sits up. He puts his arms around his knees, leans into them for support. “I don’t care if I’m up there without men. I don’t need sex.”

Grigor laughs softly. “Oh, is that true?”

“It is,” Micah says. “If I stepped out of here right now and it was the last time I ever sucked cock, I wouldn’t care.”

“You’d care,” Grigor says. “You’d care a lot.”

“The money will be good.”

“You are going to die, Micah. You aren’t going to come back. This is it.”

“So what?” Micah asks. “So what if I die? So what? You already said that I don’t have anything, that I don’t give anything.”

“But you could, Micah. You could stay. Please. Stay.”

There is a silence that drops behind Grigor’s words, and in that silence, Micah sees the possibility of another life, a life in which he and Grigor and his mom move back to the country. He sees Grigor and his mom canning vegetables for the winter. He sees all of them around the table, laughing and crying together. He sees in that moment the possibility of life here on Earth going on and on, but he knows that in order for that to be true, he must step outside of himself. If he goes to Mars, he can secure the place in the country. He can secure enough money so that his mother and Grigor might live a good life, a better life.

“If I stay, I can’t give you what I want to give you,” he says. “If I stay, I won’t be able to make you happy.”

“If you leave, you’ll make me unhappy. You’ll kill your mother.”

“No. I won’t. I won’t tell her.”

“How can you not?”

“I’m going to tell her that I’ve been hired to go to South America, to help relief efforts.”

“What relief efforts?”

“There is severe flooding there. The facility has already prepared the documents for me to show her. She’ll think I’m doing something good.”

“God, Micah. Why?”

Micah smiles and turns to look down at Grigor who is still lying on his back, looking for all the world bereft and sad, as if he’s already been left alone.

“I’m just a person, Grigor. That’s all I am. That’s all I can be.”

“Bullshit, Micah. That’s all any of us can be. That doesn’t mean you go around lying to people, leaving, running away, dying.”

“True,” Micah says. The ethics of lying to his mother are not pleasant. He finds it distasteful, but the alternative, telling her the truth and having her cling to him like a heavy stone, tying him to the Earth is almost unbearable. He can appreciate the necessity of change. Breaking inertia, slipping free of gravity. He knows that if he stays, if he does not take this opportunity to make something of his life, that he will not only regret it, but he will do irreparable harm to them both. He is leaving to make her life possible. Lying to her then, he feels, is justifiable. It is a small lie. It is not entirely removed from the truth.

The project to go to Mars is in fact a relief effort of sorts. The plan is to pack enough people into various ships of various sizes with various purposes and launch them into space. Upon landing, they are to begin colonization, spreading mankind across the surface of Mars until they have built a solid foundation. And then, the great exodus, the streaming life from Earth to Mars, relieving Earth, at long last, from overcrowding and overpollution. They are killing the Earth, slowly at first, but so much faster these days. In the facility, they showed him the graphs charting the accelerating demise of Earth, the need to get things going quickly if they are to save this planet. And oh, Micah loves the Earth, blue and luminous, so full of possibility and hope. He wants to preserve this planet because his mother lives here, and he wants her to go on living here. Relief is when you send your burden into space.

“What about me?” Grigor asks. “Don’t I get a say. You just plan to leave me?”

“I’m sorry,” Micah says. “I’m really sorry. I do love you.” He is startled to find that this is true. He had only meant to say it as a way to assuage Grigor, to make this easier for them both. But he feels in his chest the moment the words are out of his body, the ache there, the cessation of his breath, the hair-raising cold on the nape of his neck. He loves Grigor, who is leaning up, his face rising to meet Micah. They kiss again, this time gentle, this time sweet.

“I don’t want you to leave,” Grigor says as he’s sliding into Micah from below. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to die.”

“Don’t think about it,” Micah says. He kisses Grigor’s eyelids, hopes that Grigor isn’t imagining the shuttle rising into space, bursting into a thousand stars. “We’re just people.” 

What he does not say is that because they are people and because people are small, temporary things, that their loss is not insurmountable, that one death, no matter how significant, is really, truly indistinguishable from any other. That, even if he does not die, he has already died millions of times because there are millions of deaths in human history. His death is at once behind him and before him, happening at all instances of his life until this very moment, happening even as Grigor moves inside of him and repeats again and again his request for Micah to stay.

But in truth, Micah is already gone. He has always been gone.

Brandon Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also currently the assistant editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. He’s been both a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction.