By Lauren Kardos
“How can this work with our opposite schedules? You’re a night owl, I’m a morning person…”
If he were here, Darius would counter that 12:47 A.M. is technically the morning. As the last year dragged on, my full moon rendezvous with the Mothman have dulled to routine, like the retired couple who silently sip the café’s soup special every Wednesday from the corner booth. Laden with provisions, I lug my backpack beyond the parking lot, over the chain-link fence, and across the field of razed earth to our meeting point.
But tonight, I wait alone on the river’s steep embankment. Darius is late. My shoulders throb, so I fling the pack down and take a load off. Darius likes dinner crushed anyway. Every sound pricks my ears as they probe for the swoop, flap, and thrum of wings.
“You’re so closed off. I feel like I don’t know you…”
It’s for Nan that I cram my JanSport with chocolate bars, maple syrup, and Frosted Flakes and trespass on federally-seized land. I’m an open book, but Darius is a moth of few words. After devouring his fill and fulfilling our agreement, he rockets upward, melding with the night sky.
Though this summer, he’s lingered after disconnecting with Nan. Last moon, he waxed poetic about his unknown origins and his fixation with our mountain range. He’s drawn here, like his distant cousins’ lamp obsessions. “Maybe you’re a sixties baby,” I wondered aloud. “That’s when the factory closed and they ‘misplaced’ uranium waste all over the county.” He shrugged and cupped cereal dust to his mouth straw.
Another night, as I shivered in the late spring chill, Darius complained about the prophecy rumor. His talent has always been séance. In the hundred or so miles he flies each night, he bounces between towns that, according to him, “have the buzz”. Darius doesn’t mention his other feeders — or their deceased — beyond hatred of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. In betraying him to the media, his former feeder’s thirst for fame transformed Darius into a cartoonish demon. “The statue of me in their village center does not even bear my likeness!” he hissed once, ripping a Doritos bag in two.
It’s one in the morning and still no Darius. Worry cramps my neck, making it hard to breathe, so I run through a different script: what I hope to say to Nan tonight. I want her to be at peace. I want to move out of town like she was always harping about when breath filled her lungs. I want to tell her I might not speak to her next month. Or ever again. Darius usually crouches during these sessions, immovable like a boulder, but will he react? My stomach churns. Do I have to find him another human?
“I’m just too damaged. You could find other people to care for you…”
Darius must hear what Nan and I discuss, so this seems like an obvious entrée to “the talk”. But breakups require both parties; it’s 2:13 A.M. and I’m still waiting. From Nan’s treatment through hospice, distraction was my strategy to survive each waiting room and prognosis. Aided by the darkness and lapping current, I allow nostalgia, syrupy-sour, to trail from head to toe.
Which Ben & Jerry’s pint was I sobbing over last August when Darius rapped on my driver’s side window? I’d come nearly to this same spot, parked as close as the fence would permit river access. If I sat long enough and close enough, I thought, the remnants of the nuclear facility would deliver me to Nan. That the contaminated earth would bless my blood with a short life. Ah, the ice cream was Nan’s favorite: Phish Food.
The glass fogged as I wept. I didn’t see what tap-tapped outside, but knowing my luck, it’d be the sheriff. I rolled down the window. A hand — black-gloved and palm-up in offering — extended into the car from what appeared to be a dark cape. That was odd. But the following question, and its Shakespearean inflection, was more bizarre.
“May I barter your dessert for a communication?” asked the voice.
Red eyes burned deep within the speaker’s hood. Instead of slamming the gas to reverse out of there, I smiled up from my handkerchief, the glowing gaze warmed my chest. Radiation was already setting in, said my mixed-up brain swimming with Nan’s cremation the week prior. I handed over the ice cream. Chocolate dribbled onto the gravel as the shrouded face slurped.
“I am Darius,” he said after a raucous belch. He tossed the empty container over the fence then cradled my hands. “With which departed soul shall I commune this evening?”
My mind flashed to Nan. Not Nan in the previous weeks, tube-constrained and pallid, but the Nan who played dress-up and, later, helped me save for the college tuition which eventually paid for her chemo. Darius’s fingers — furry instead of gloved, I realized — pulsed along my knuckles in time to Nan’s laughter filling the car.
“It’s not you, it’s me. I think I’m ready to move on…”
At three o’clock, when I start pacing, I know this is the correct tactic. Nights with insomnia I spend googling: what are city buses like, is urban crime really that bad, how to write a resume. Like a jealous spouse, I also snoop on Darius’s travels. His stops from Tennessee to Maine, like my Pennsylvanian town, are sites of abandoned munitions plants and mines. We’ve never met, but his other feeders and I share something deeper than DNA — rot from government neglect, broken families, lost futures. And we feed Darius in exchange for moments with our loved ones. Am I ready to release the part of my soul tethered to Appalachia?
I peel off my socks and submerge my feet. Trout, recently returned to these toxic waters, burble to the surface. Dawn will creep above the mountain on the opposite bank before long.
A breeze sweeps my ponytail into my face. Darius’s great wings hum, his eyes blaze, and his cheeks clench in what I’ve come to interpret as a smile. I toss him the box with the big orange tiger.
Next month I’ll be ready. That’s time enough to find a city job, give notice at the café, and find a replacement feeder. Tonight, I need to know where Darius has been.
Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. The Molotov Cocktail, Rejection Letters, HAD, (mac)ro(mic), Best Microfiction 2022, and The Lumiere Review are just a few of the fine publications that feature her work. You can find Lauren on Twitter.