Everyone likes to say that Lux is too much around the eyes, around the hips. How people grow full of her too quick and too soon. Lux knows. Every morning, Lux peels back her fist like something holy, sinks her teeth into the flesh of her own brilliance, as if it were red-hot and crackling. Everyone gives a collective hiss. Arrogance. As if it were something to be avoided. As if there were no better word for this looking, for this touching, for this wanting.
Lux goes to public school, where her calculus teacher called her Lust for an entire semester before she corrected him. As if there were a difference. Lux, like lust, is hard to swallow and even harder to conceptualize, like Gucci handbags or cheap foiled chocolate. Lux, like lust, is never true enough to be light. Her calculus teacher has a lisp and her name flops in the gap between his two front teeth. And, well. So does lust.
After school, Lux works at the local grocery. The manager likes her. She's quick and reliable, doesn't complain, does as she's told. The pay's all right, too. And nothing funny's going on. They say the strangest things happen in groceries. You're helping this nice lady out, she looks up, you realize she has no irises. The little kid loitering by the entrance knows your dead mother's name. You blink, and a dead woman appears in the freezer. And, no, there's none of that around here, except for this rumor about the grocery girl before her, how she swallowed a goose whole and jumped off a telephone wire. Was going to migrate north, apparently. Now, the girl is half-blind and huddles by the broken vending machines. They say the goose in her belly chewed off her tongue. She'll show you, if you ask nicely.
The thing is, there's this kid that Lux's always seeing. That'd be you, I guess. You, under the eaves; you, copper penny teeth; you, with a string of pearls around your neck. You're no one she recognizes. There are some people who are just like that. Lux doesn't know where kids like you come from, but they're always right there, right at her heels. Like geese.
It's autumn when she first approaches you. Lux, well, she's quick and she's reliable, and she's the brightest thing in this town. You look up, and a scream rises in Lux's throat. You have no irises – oh, but you do. There, right there, just a trick of the light. Hard to miss, too, black as they are.
Can I help you? Lux says.
You shake your head.
You haven't sprouted prophecies in Latin or attempted exorcisement, and that's good enough for Lux. So she lets you stay.
Later, when her shift is over, Lux walks home with the better end of a licorice stick in her mouth. In this part of town she's passing by, there are these train tracks that cut straight across the meadow, raw like an infection. Some years ago, Lux's mother was there. Now she's not. When the licorice stick is worn down to a nub, Lux spits it out onto the tracks, watches it ricochet off the wooden planks. The inside of her mouth tastes like corroded metal.
Sometimes, Lux sees things that can't possibly be true. Like the time some kid version of herself stepped past the yellow line and the bus crushed all the bones in her foot. Or the afternoon a girl that looked like her swung her legs over the railing of the apartment balcony. Each time, Lux could feel herself reeling, this her that is not her. But that was how it always went. Lux is here; Lux is there. Lux is too much; Lux is not enough. Lux has died a thousand times; Lux is still walking, still listening, still shuddering.
At the foot of the apartment building, Lux snags her finger on the wired fence, wonders if this is what it means to be unclean. If this is proof enough of her existence. Lux knows a lot about ghosts, about purity. She knows a lot about waking up with one ear stuck in some grayscale dream. Half here and half there. Like the grocery girl before her with the cataract in her left eye, fogged over like a cow's. Half here and half there, body split and sewn and shelved away. Lux falls asleep with the thought nestled in her mind, dreams of black irises that swallow up all the infection in the world.
Lux is too much palm. When she cries, the meat of her hands dips, fills with salt. Years ago, her mother washed herself clean of Lux, and Lux, unclean and glassblown, wakes up every morning with the scent of dishwater in her mouth, like a dream she can never hold onto for very long. Lux goes to school with this caught-dream mouth, words spilling into a yellow paste.
You have a name like Jiang, river, a parting of the teeth, of the throat. Or, at least, that's how Lux says it. Jiang. River-kid Jiang. Mouth spurting like a faucet.
Lux finds you when the sun's near gone, and you're standing there with ice cubes in your mouth, chewing, chewing, until your teeth are raw. Lux says, stop that, what do you think you're doing? The ice turns to water under your tongue, the water that was your mother, which now seeps into you like spilled black ink. But it is more than this. The way there is more than one reason your family is drained of water. The way there is more than one reason for off-white eyes and a mother who speaks slanted and fumbled.
You're a funny kid. Not just because your name is Jiang, but also because your skin curdles like old parchment and your eyes squint too much. You know a lot about this town, how there's these train tracks that scrape like a scar across the stomach, how there was a grocery girl before Lux, how she swallowed a goose feet first, with the beak resting against her throat like a child, how the child swallows the voice of the mother, how the mother chokes with water twisted in her tongue.
You never found out what happened to her.
Lux says, Can I have some of that?
You press an ice cube to her palm. For the tremors, you say. For children who steal their mothers' voices, fistfuls of light, of lux.
Lux passes to you a stick of cherry-flavored gum. For the nerves, she says. Swings back and cradles the ice in her palm. Like your mother in the laundromat on the other side of town, nowhere near Lux's mother, who felt her way to the train tracks one April morning and never came back. When the ambulance arrived, all they could do was shovel the white winter bones, the flakes of mottled skin, the red raspberry lips into a rumpled trash bag, as if that were all she were. Trash. How your mother and Lux's mother are not so different, how the difference lies in the weights of their breaths, in the amount of jewelry each wore at the point of contact.
And that's how it begins. Ice cube between your teeth; ice cube in her hand. Water, too, is a form of connection: teeth and hands, tongue and fist, like pressing your mouth against the dampest part of the sidewalk and expecting it to flow back to you.
Sometimes, Lux is not enough. Once, there was a boy who came to school every day with an empty milk bottle. His mouth airtight, clenched teeth: Lux as a fish, as a lie, as the sound of her name swallowed against the milk of a child's teeth. He comes to her often, with the name of Lux's goose mother strung around his neck like weeds. Like a hand, searching.
Lux knows a lot about clenching, about simmering, finds herself whispering until her throat's hoarse. Something about a woman at the grocery who walked into the freezer and never came back out. By the time they found her, she was so cold the coroner could reach in and scoop the breath out of her, puffed out like the head of a comma.
I keep seeing myself doing that, Lux confesses. I keep seeing myself stepping in, shutting the door. Maybe it's some kind of omen.
I have irises, don't I? you say. And there aren't any geese here.
What do you know about omens? Lux spits back.
What do you know about omens? Gasping fish, bottles of sour milk, a woman who looks like your mother calling out to you at the supermarket. There's a string of pearls around your neck, and you're still not sure what it means. Just that they're clean and you like things that are clean.
Nothing, you say.
Nothing, Lux echoes.
Lux saw the former grocery girl the other day. The grocery girl was trying to light her shadow on fire, but all she got was ash, a sad sort of cremation. She looked fine, otherwise, though there was a cataract in her left eye and all the eye juice leaked white down her cheeks like squashed lemons. Lux bought her an apple, and the grocery girl said thank you and fed it to the broken vending machine. Pearls popped out into Lux's hand, and the grocery girl said, swallow them, won't hurt you. Instead, Lux asked, how's your goose, and the grocery girl stuck out her tongue so Lux could see the pink nubs. The grocery girl said, you know, the Chinese believe we reincarnate into geese after we die. It sounded foreign enough to be true.
Sometimes, when it's dark out, Lux sees a goose and thinks of swallowing it whole. Thinks of filling her stomach with something feathered and white. She imagines it'd taste like cotton pillowcases and soggy breadcrumbs, which is too close to the truth. And that's why she's worried.
So, when you see geese or open freezers, warn me, Lux says. Okay?
Sure, you say.
For months, Lux dreams of waking up with her face slanted against a shelf of seawater, a vibrating column of air like a throat she could put her hands around and squeeze. In her dreams, her calculus teacher is standing over her, tongue clucking Lust Lust Lust over and over, like the pink pearl gums of a butcher. The boy with the milk bottle is there as well.He is silent. This is the girl Lux is not: Lux with ash hands, Lux with pigeon tongue. When Lux breathes out, perfectly spherical bubbles rise to the surface, bursting with the fullness of Lux. Lux, bursting. Lux, a stomach of helium. Lux, an apple-fist, pulling herself up to the surface of the bathtub like some final awakening.
When winter comes, the grocery girl disappears. Lux knows because she asked. Because she waited by the vending machines for eight mornings straight, before they started telling her to go back to school.
You remind Lux that the grocery girl hated her. For weeks, all Lux could hear was the cracking of geese bones under her gas pedal. When she visited the grocery girl – Killed another? They're coming to get you. You know? In the next life – and the next life is when Lux ascends to a goose, tangled feathers on a windshield and an unmarked grave at the side of a wheatfield.
And isn't that what you want, Lux? Isn't that all you ever wanted? You told me once, Lux. You told me once and you never talked again. And isn't that what happened to your mother, Lux? One look and she's on the train tracks. Another and she's gone. You told me she grew to be too full of you. You told me how you spilled quick. You told me you were lust only at roll call, only in those linoleum hallways. You know, the milk bottle boy is the only one who pronounces your name correctly. Why don't you listen to him next, Lux? Lux?
She pulls up the news stories and hospital records because the grocery girl has to be here, somewhere. Because no one can leave quite so cleanly. You remind Lux of the way the city washed itself clean of her mother, not a dusty cabinet or a leaking bathtub to remember her by, the way her autopsy report was bodiless. Mothers and the things they leave behind.
Before you realize it, Lux begins to sleep on the grocery's yellow-stained floor. She begins to leave the freezer door open, stacks empty milk bottles along the checkout counter. One morning, Lux whispers to you feverishly, I think I've found her. I think I finally know where she went.
The day Lux's mother left, all the glass in the house shattered and the only reflection left was the one Lux could reach with her fingertips. The only self left was the one that stepped too far past the yellow line. Lux rebirths as a calf. When it rains, her bones soften into butter, spill into the streets. Now, Lux does not dream. Now, Lux spends her nights with an ear pressed to the train tracks, listening for something she does not know the name for.
The authorities tell her to go to school. But she's so close! When she closes her eyes, she can still see a flash of light, that lux, before everything fades to black. Too fast.
Lux is too much palm. No, not enough. Lux is a goose, some sort of higher being – no, that's not it either. Lux Lux Lux, says her calculus teacher. Lust Lust Lust like something clipped at the tongue. Women without irises, pupils an egg leaking black and the yolk yellow the fluorescent lights and the freezer, the mother with her nails chipping like soldiers, how she froze how yellow her eyes shone. Yellow like a turned cheek or a sighing mouth or wrinkles where the limbs connect. Yellow like a prophecy delivered in a milk bottle by a mute boy. Yellow, the grocery girl and her colorless tongue, the Chinese believe we reincarnate into animals after we die, what animal will Lux be next. Jiang and a thousand geese feathers, snow on pretty head. Jiang with clean hair, pearls for irises, tongue like summer stripped skinny. Look: the grocery girl swallowed her lover. Look: the geese pinch tongues all winter long. Look: the woman in the freezer is mouthing your name, Lux. Lux, the boy has your name gripped between the teeth like a dying fish. Lux, the calculus teacher wears your fake name like mascara, thick on the skin. Isn't that what you are, Lux? Skin? Oh, Lux. Here is your apple; here is your fist; here is your voice emptying itself out into the bathtub. Can't you hear it? It's calling for you, Lux. It's calling. Lux. Listen.
They say the grocery girl found her mother. They say they met in a city not so far from here, where the sky gapes open every Sunday morning and out falls rows and rows of apple cores, strung together like a vision clenched between teeth, caught between breaths.
Seven weeks later, a girl named Emma shows up at the grocery, snapping cherry-flavored gum. You, you're still looking. You don't know where girls like Lux end up. You don't know much about apples, about groceries, about Lux. You don't know Lux. You don't know.
The manager does. He's a sad old man, even sadder when he says, “They all go, sooner or later. Don't stay for more than a week. Like geese.”
“Sure,” you say.
His forehead crinkles like wet dough. “You know,” he says. “You could be one of my grocery girls. Pay's all right. Work's not hard. What did you say your name was?”
“Eve. Eve Jiang,” you say, slipping like a hand under a faucet. “And, it's all right.”
“Sure,” he parrots.
You don't know much. How to dip yourself in saltwater and still come up gasping. How to forgo milk and butter and still have your arms fold right. How to prick your finger and still live to see the morning. How to dribble secrets like spit. How to confess. How to spill.
And, well. You don't need to. Because, look, over there. The sun's up. The sky's real. You. You are real, realer than anything else you know. And you already know how secrets taste. Like that, there, on your tongue, a spike of saccharine, the aftertaste of a Hershey's Kiss, that stickiness. Your shadow skips blue on the concrete and the windows and the horizon and you. And you.
And you. Someone calls your name. You turn, the beginning of something rising in your throat.