Isabel is already awake. Her comforter lies heaped on the floor, bottom end folded under the mattress (as always). Peter lies naked on her bare mattress. She should cover him up but she likes him like this, back rounding ass into thigh like a parabola, little bumps of vertebrae poking up like the ridge on a lizard, all rolled into a ball, sunk blue in the deep end of sleep. He’ll only know he’s cold when he emerges.
The bedroom is small enough that there’s no way for Isabel to turn without feeling her own presence rubbing against the edges. The ceiling cuts a deep slant through the room, and the twin bed is wedged against the beams. Clothes lie clumped on the floor, limbs twisted inside out. The bedside lamp is on now.
Isabel stands smoking by the window in white underwear. It’s dark out. The window reflects the room back to her, translucent like a celluloid still held up to dim light. If she angles right, she can see both of their faces. Isabel has black hair, eyes that don’t always look yellow, and a big nose (but he says he likes it). Peter has brown hair. When he buzzed it she thought it would feel like the loop side of Velcro, but it feels like the hooks. Isabel was preparing to say goodbye, but now she may never need to. She’s about to open the window to ash her cigarette. She wishes for a moment that she were wearing nicer underwear.
That’s when the meteor hits.
She’ll find out later that it was five stories tall, that it weighed ten thousand tons and exploded through Earth’s atmosphere with five hundred kilotons of energy, like twenty Hiroshimas. Right now it resembles a star. It starts high in the left side of Isabel’s sky, small and green. It stretches like warm gum, down and to the right. Its front coalesces into a large white ball. In ten seconds the whole world is brighter than day: a time-lapse sunrise. Isabel’s pupils constrict and her limbs go numb. Then the window reflections are gone and she can see outside. Everything slows.
There’s an old gray road lined with pines and telephone lines but no streetlights. There are fields beside the road, covered in snow. In one of them sits a rusted metal drum. The road curves left, through the center of Miasskoye in Oblast, Siberia, the town her father wants to leave behind. Then the road curves right, through vast plains and toward the Ural Mountains.
As the meteor gets brighter, the shadows of all things lengthen and darken, swinging in opposition to its motion. And when the meteor is at its greatest fluorescent brilliance, just above the tree line, it fades to a little orange LED and flicks out. It drops black by the foothills of the mountains, silent at first. Isabel starts to count while she waits for a sound, like after lightning, but can’t remember what it means.
Peter is awake and behind her now (did she scream?). In the pause, he leans down and whispers what the fuck into her ear, small and shy like a lover’s secret. Then the crash sound arrives and the pandemonium begins. Isabel can hear a distant chorus of car alarms, cracking walls, and muffled voices.
Her father is awake now and probably thinking about the American missiles of his childhood nightmares, big white raindrops that fly sideways. He’s shouting her name. Isabel slips into an old dress, puts out her cigarette, and pushes Peter into a corner out of sight. He stands there naked with his toes turned in while Isabel opens the door.
“Isabel! Thank God! I thought…” Now that he’s seen his daughter alive his adrenaline begins fading to confusion, “I’m not sure…”
“I saw it too,” Isabel says. She leads her father into the living room, turning on the cable television on the floor. The screen comes into focus on a series of phone videos of the meteor’s fall through the sky. A voice says that this may be one of the largest strikes in recorded history. Ground zero: Lake Chebarkul. Shockwave of undetermined radius. Casualty count as yet unknown.
“Thank god you weren’t there,” Isabel says. Her father knocks on wood and mimes spitting over his left shoulder. He catches fish on Lake Chebarkul that get turned into pickles.
The screen cuts to aerial images of the old pickleries by the lake. Isabel’s father used to sell to those factories before they closed and he had to begin shipping to big pickle corporations for almost nothing. The TV zooms in on a crumbling factory, and there’s a clip of the shockwave blowing in the windows, played on repeat. It looks like sci-fi to Isabel.
“Can I borrow the truck?” Isabel asks, “To … to visit Peter?”
“Just be safe,” her father says, “Have you told him yet?”
“I’ll tell him today.”
Isabel’s father goes off to pray in his corner full of crosses and painted icons and then call his brother-in-law in Moscow. Isabel heads back to her room. Peter has been smoking in bed, listening. She climbs in with him.
“It’s a meteor,” she kisses him, “It’s like the apocalypse out there.” He kisses back.
The sex is great then. Isabel is thinking about dinosaurs: giant, craning their necks, squinting their big wet eyes, reaching up with little arms to wipe away the dust kicked into the sky. She and Peter running from dinosaurs. She and Peter in a prehistoric cave filled with stalactites and extinct oversized ferns, and he’s fucking her one last time while the world ends. She’ll tell him later and they’ll laugh about it because it’s embarrassing and funny.
Afterwards Peter turns to her. “Tell me what?” he asks.
“Oh,” she says, “It turns out we don’t have the money to move to Moscow.”
“Holy shit,” he grins.
“About one hundred thousand short. So we’re staying.”
“We’ve got to get something to toast with,” he’s laughing.
“It’s such good news.” Her smile comes after her words.
“Look at that,” he says, “a shooting star comes crashing down and grants my wish.”
“Probably flattened the whole town along the way,” she says.
“The TV said it dropped in the lake.”
“Probably caused a tidal wave.”
“It probably just plopped in softly like a stone you hoped would skip.”
Isabel is driving Peter in a slowly warming pickup truck. Old pines lean over them, and now their needles, fresh and green, scatter across the road, gust-plucked by the shockwave. They’re alone outside. Siberia is ten percent of Earth’s land, but it feels like all of it. The plains are flat, and when you move toward an edge the planet unrolls more land in front of you. Isabel pictures the world from afar, like a ball and only she and Peter are on it, large and cartoonish, made of paper. She’s giddy with the image of it, thinks she likes it, although she can’t think about it for too long. Her wool gloves begin to feel like cellophane, and she takes them off one by one to stretch her fingers. Peter adjusts a winter hat clinging to the stubble on his head and hums low. He has a beautiful voice that rubs against something in his throat before it comes out.
“Let’s go to my house,” he says, “Tell my brothers that you’re staying.”
“They’ll pull out our best bottle, and the four of us will sit and drink it to the bottom.”
“We have to see the meteor.”
They’re driving through the center of Miasskoye. Rolling bits of paper trash fill its cramped streets.
“This summer after we graduate I’ll take you out on my father’s boat.”
“By then it’ll be your boat.”
“Sure, on my boat.”
“I have to see it today.”
Black buildings line the road, extending into an empty industrial park to the right. The windows are broken into jagged open mouths. On the ground it’s hard to tell glass from ice. The Urals loom ahead, inestimably close or far in the peculiar way of large objects on the horizon. As Isabel and Peter drive over the top of a hill, they see the lake below. It sits in a vast field under the mountains, covered in snow. This close to the impact the snow is melted unevenly, icy and dripping, with little holes to the ground like the sad bottom of a frozen drink. There’s a hole in the lake, eight meters across. It’s perfectly round, and so deep its blackness looks flat, like a pupil sometimes does. Isabel looks around and stops the car. Red tape encircles the field. Boxy VAZ-114 police cars with flashing red lights patrol the perimeter. Men in goggles and puffy nylon jackets sift through the snow.
“Well this is pretty close.” Peter says.
Isabel turns the wheel to the right and fishtails into the industrial park. She weaves between the factories and down the hill, parking behind a large black building right on the edge of the field, and turning off the truck.
“This is closer,” she says and jumps out. A faded sign on the building says Miasskoye Picklerie, Factory No. 6. The doors are bolted. Isabel leads Peter carefully through a shattered ground floor window and into an enormous empty hall that must once have been filled with machinery. Light streams through stacked rows of window sockets. They can see their breath. Snowflakes drift through the air. The bare rusted arches remind Isabel of giant ribs. The walls are covered with wet-looking graffiti. A bearded man smokes a pipe with a bouquet of roses popping out of the bowl in psychedelic shades. A fat fish with popping eyes is squished inside a tiny jar.
Isabel pulls Peter across to the lakeside windows, glass crunching beneath her feet. They are fifty meters from the red tape now, one hundred from the hole.
“Wow,” Peter says from behind her at the window, “You were right. This is amazing.”
“It looks,” Isabel pauses, “it looks kind of small though doesn’t it? From here?”
“The hole. Doesn’t it look kind of small?” she says, “Like just a little hole in the ice?”
“What do you mean?”
“And it all looks so contained. It looks like some Ministry has the situation under control and everyone else should, you know, go about business as usual. Undisrupted.”
“People have to live their lives.”
“I know this sounds crazy, but I’ll bet you not even one person died. I’ll bet not one,” she looks at him, “That’s not what I mean. I don’t want anyone to die. It just seems like if something’s a disaster then … I don’t know … then it should be disastrous.”
Peter turns Isabel around and pulls her in. “I certainly hope no one died,” he says, kind of laughing. He kisses her then, sweet as always. She thinks to herself, Would this taste different if it were our last? Hard, heavy, salty? She’s glad she doesn’t have to worry about that. But when she opens her eyes they feel dry from the cold. She blinks and looks away.
On the ground outside the window is a spray of debris (mostly glass and wood) and Isabel notices something in the snow. She climbs out into the open. Her eyes go vacant, searching for what they’ve lost. Stillness. She reaches down and picks it up off the ground: a little pockmarked black rock.
She climbs back in. “Look at that,” she says.
“Wow,” he grins, “That’s great.”
“Yeah,” She looks up, “What do you mean by, just, ‘great’?”
“Great that you found it.”
“You know what this is, right?”
“Sure,” he says, “It’s a little piece of Sputnik.”
Isabel drives home with a glow you can’t get from something earned. She’ll find out later that the meteor exploded into at least fifty-three little meteorites. If she knew that now, she might be trying to come up with one fifty-third of a wish. As it is, she feels like anything is possible. She calls a few friends on the way home to tell them what she found. She’s already dropped Peter off at home. She realizes that she wishes he had been a little bit more moved by the meteorite. Why wasn’t he in love with it, a little terrified? It’s midday now, and women look out their windows as she drives through Miasskoye. She passes under the pines, and by the field with the metal drum. The sun is high and the snow is bright.
Isabel’s house is narrow, with vinyl siding and windows that don’t line up. When she sees it today, Isabel thinks it looks less like a house and more like an upside-down boat. She imagines the snow melting and the whole steppe turning into a lake. Her house rolls over and buoys up on the deep hull of its roof. All of her belongings clatter to the floor, and she sits on top of the heap, sailing away, past the factories, past the lake, over the mountains, and along the Reva Moska, landing wedged in a narrow alley in downtown Moscow. The buildings are all muddy pastel versions of their original paint colors. There are billboards that are actually television screens, pulsing with women’s legs and collarbones. The taste in the air is all sticky tar, spiced pork belly, fresh magazines, strawberry-scented toilet paper, men’s bodies. The taste in her mouth is the way her room smells after sex. And Peter misses her desperately. It’s a crazy dream, more of a thrilling nightmare really. Isabel kills the engine and walks into her house, trying to think of a better wish. Her father is sitting on the couch watching a soap her mother used to like.
“I still think this is garbage,” he says, as she kisses him on his big cheek.
“Me too,” she says, sitting down to watch.
“I think I’ll save up for a new boat motor,” he says, “Your uncle says he can send me one from the city.”
Isabel wakes up late to find a white car parked outside her window. When she walks into the living room, her father looks up at her from the couch. There’s tea on the table. A strange man stands from the leather chair as she enters. He’s very young, she thinks, with eyebrows as thick as her thumb. He looks at her as if he’s comparing her to a photograph.
“This man is a scientist,” her father tells her.
“Pleased to meet you,” he says, “My name is Dr. Konstantin Ivanovich, with the State Institute for the Study of Astronomy and Physics at the University of Yekaterinburg. It’s Isabel isn’t it?” His breath smells like uncooked dough. He smiles with a warmth that reminds her of small bureaucratic kindnesses.
“I’m so sorry to drop in on you unannounced. I’ve been working with the research team over on the lake.”
“He is studying the meteor,” her father says.
“But this morning when I was getting my breakfast in town, nice warm butterbrots and coffee, I overheard a conversation about … well, it was about you. You’ll have to pardon my eavesdropping, but I overheard that you found something yesterday. Something buried in the snow.”
Isabel’s jaw clenches.
“What was it?” he asks.
“A rock,” she says.
“A little one?” he smiles, “a little black one?”
“Yes,” she answers. Her father is looking down. Dr. Ivanovich’s presence is ballooning into the room.
“Do you know what the meteor was made of?” he asks, “The minerals?”
Isabel looks at her father. He shakes his head. She shakes her head.
“Neither do we, not exactly. Some townspeople are claiming that fresh pieces heal the sick and improve male erectile function, if that’s not crude to say,” he laughs, “I’m not so sure. My guess is that it’s mostly iron and nickel. Some chrysolite and some sulfite, maybe. What do you think? Do you think it’s magic?”
“Well we at the Institute are just dying to find out. Events like this one are exceedingly rare. We’d like to run a variety of tests to figure out what exactly this object is and where it came from. All in the interest of protecting Earth from future catastrophe. We need physical samples for those tests. The problem is that not many fragments survived impact. The largest piece is submerged in the lake, inaccessible for now. Smaller pieces should have fallen around the crash site. Apparently one hit an elderly woman on a morning stroll. Burned right through her coat and into her pocket, according to the story in town. Do you believe that?”
“No … I mean I don’t —”
“But Yekaterinburg is four hours away. By the time my team arrived on the crash site, children in town had already made a game of snatching up the little fragments that they could find and running back into their homes.” Dr. Ivanovich smoothes back an eyebrow, “How large is yours by the way?”
She holds up a circle made of her thumb and index finger.
“Good,” he smiles, “Now it’s hard to say for sure where these civilian-discovered meteorites are now. We know that many people have sold their pieces into the black market. We see them popping up on Internet auction sites, going for exorbitant prices. But you wouldn’t do that would you Isabel? Because that would be illegal.”
“We are not criminals,” her father says.
“Good,” Dr. Ivanovich nods to him, “Well neither am I. I won’t steal it from you. To keep up with our black market colleagues, my Institute is prepared to offer you an exchange. You give us the meteorite, and we give you one wish.” Isabel is confused. Dr. Ivanovich chuckles, “If that wish happens to be a state-funded tax-free monetary compensation equal to one hundred thousand rubles.”
Isabel’s father looks up at her.
“Your father can join your uncle’s business in Moscow,” Dr. Ivanovich smiles. “You can see the city.”
She looks at her father, who looks away. Her thoughts are blurry and vibrating.
“It’s your choice, Isabel,” says Dr. Ivanovich. “Of course I’ll have to the take it to the lab for some preliminary testing first.”
Isabel retrieves the tiny black rock from her drawer and places it in Dr. Ivanovich’s upturned white hand, watching it settle into the basin of his palm.
When Peter sneaks into her house that night Isabel is lying in bed awake. He’s carrying a bottle of vodka and two glasses. She’s wearing her nicest underwear.
“I have to sell it,” she says to him when he climbs into bed, “I have to go.”
“No,” he says.
“I have to.”
“You can stay with me.”
“It’s for my father.”
“Just think about it. My mother won’t mind.”
“She’s always wanted another girl around the house.”
“I’ll miss you.” The words feel full now, resting on her chest like the rumbling of low music. She kisses him. When they have sex she imagines Peter freezing below a second story window she’s never had, throwing rocks and beer cans, screaming. She imagines an ache in her stomach that’s horrible and exciting.
But when it’s over, all he says is “Is this for your father or for you?” His eyes are withdrawn. She wants him to break something. She wants him to love and to hate her, to give her something overflowing and large. Maybe he knows, because instead he gives her something small: he tells a joke.
“Did you ever hear the one about camping,” he asks without explanation, “It’s from my favorite episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from NTV in the Eighties,” he smiles, “Vasily Livanov as Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as Watson. Great chemistry between them.”
He’s lying still in bed next to her, looking up.
“They’re out in the woods, pitching their tent in a clearing. And in the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson up and asks him to look at the stars. ‘Tell me what you see, Watson,’ he says. ‘Well, I see what appear to be billions and billions of stars,’ Watson replies. ‘And what does that mean to you?’ Holmes asks. ‘Well, if there are billions of stars, we can reasonably deduce that at least a few million must have planets orbiting around them. And if even one planet in one million is like Earth, then there must still be life out there somewhere.’ It’s the height of the space race, and all that. ‘And someday,’ Watson continues, ‘we may go off and find it.’ But Holmes just turns to his friend. ‘No, you idiot,’ he sighs, ‘It means somebody has stolen our tent.’”
Isabel says nothing.
Peter says, “You can keep the bottle.”
In the morning, Dr. Konstantin Ivanovich is back.
“I was right, if you’re interested,” he says, smoothing down his tie, “Iron and nickel.” Isabel’s father looks confused. Dr. Ivanovich pulls the tiny meteorite out of his pocket and holds it up. “Do you know what this is made of?” he asks coolly, “Black granite. Most likely mined in Koyelga. Most likely crumbled off a wall in your industrial park.”
He places the rock into Isabel’s hand.
“I thought it might be.”
Isabel’s father rushes to bring more tea.
In the afternoon, Isabel leans out her open bedroom window, bundled in coats. Her elbows are pressed against the sill’s wooden edge, but she doesn’t mind. She drops a cigarette into the snow, and lets the smoke drift out of her. Her phone is in her hand. In a minute she’ll call Peter and he’ll say, well now we know. They’ll laugh about it. It’ll all be such a relief. But right now, everything is still. In the distance, people are back on the road, but you can’t tell if they’re moving, and it’s all so flat.