We originally published this story in Issue 5, back in June 2014. Video artist Emma Hadley recently adapted Sam’s story into a short film, which we couldn’t help publishing above, along with the original story below. –The Editors
by Sam Martone
Down started raining down. Not the pillow guts that make me sneeze my head off, but the word down. It was like any rain but instead of water it was words. Well, one word. Down came down in heavy, bolded lines of text, just down, always those letters in that sequence. The pavement was slick with serif. My father said, I have to write all this down, and he looked out the window flecked with droplets of down, at the people catching down in their hands, opening umbrellas so their hair wouldn’t get wet, weighed down with all that down. My grandfather didn’t like it. He said, Next thing you know, scientists will reverse engineer it. He said soon we’d see a person holding onto the stem of a p, floating on up into the sky, just to see what it’s like.
I went out into the downpour. I caught a bunch of down in a tin bucket. The words pinged against the bottom. I took them to the hotel where Sylvia worked as a lift girl (Lift person, she corrected). We rode up and down the floors talking about the down, holding the watery words in our hands. I peeled the d from one. I wanted to give her own, something to be only hers, but the letters melted away in my hands. After that, she took me to her suite for the night. Room 217. Two queen beds. She’d already switched out the pillows.
The next day, the down came down even worse than before. People shoveled it out of their walkways. The city deployed snowplows, rebranded as downplows. They circled the streets, piling up mounds of down on the sides of roads. When I got home from the hotel, my father was still writing. I looked over his shoulder at the screen. It was just the word down over and over again. I think I’m onto something, he said. Sometimes the downs switched into different fonts, sometimes their lowercases oscillated to upper, but it was all the same. My grandfather was watching the news. He grunted hello. He didn’t leave his chair much since Grams died. It was why we moved in with him. It’ll be good for all of us, my father had said. On the news, no one could explain what was happening. They talked to climatologists and meteorologists, linguists and typesetters. It’s all mumbo jumbo, My grandfather said, They’re all talking out their ass.
Sylvia, she said it was the strangest thing: after a few days of the downpour, she was unable to say the word down, as in Going down? And the hotel guests, well, they wouldn’t say it either—they avoided looking at the glow of the down arrow, said Lobby, please. There was too much down outside. It meant something else now. She told me all this in the long double bed of room 1634, after I said I wanted to go down on her and she said, No, no, call it something else.
When I arrived home in the morning, my grandfather was out of his chair, tearing up my father’s manuscript. My father was shouting at him, grabbing scraps of paper from the air, the torn-up pieces becoming their own snowy down. I stepped between them, pushed them apart. My dad dropped to his knees, trying desperately to piece the papers together. On the news, people rioted in cities across the country. They scooped handfuls of the down into their mouths, trying to find a way to say down again. The downpour had stopped, but people stared fearfully at the sky, scared that another kind of rain would take a different word away. Down is only just coming back to us, all these years later. Until today, I wasn’t even able to write it down.
I hated to leave them in that house with each other but I couldn’t be around them anymore. I walked through the city for hours, kicking at the ankle-deep flood of down, trying to make the shape of the sound with my mouth: down, but it didn’t come easy anymore. I kept ending in the rocky t of doubt or the hushed hiss of douse. I imagined a commercial for antidepressants: Down got you down? At every turn, there were car accidents, people screaming about the end of the world, scabby men in trenchcoats selling miracle down remover. But in one yard, children had built a downman, made downangels. Through the bay window, I could see the family seated around a table, heads bowed, thankful for what they had.
That night, Sylvia took me up, up, up. There were thirty-five floors in her building, but we went past even the thirty-fifth floor where rich people spun in the Cirrus Ballroom, oblivious to the world below. We came out on the roof. We lay down and stared up at the night sky that no words were falling from. I told her about my father, my grandfather, how they hadn’t been the same since Mom left, since Grams died. They’re relearning how to live, Sylvia said. I asked Sylvia if she would ever leave and she said, I’ll never let you go, which wasn’t an answer to the question, and I suspected she meant to say I’ll never let you down. There were rooms in the hotel we still hadn’t spent the night in, but she asked if we could spend the night at my house sometime. Then she said Look, and pointed as a shooting star streaked across the black. Then came another, and another. Meteor shower, she said. I held her hand in mine and we watched all the shooting stars and I blinked and blinked to see the afterimage of them burned into my eyelids, to see if the meteors weren’t meteors at all but words chalk-scraping the blackboard sky. I thought I could see letters in that light, letters that would lift words right from my mouth, but we lay there in silence. I never wanted to go back down.
Sam Martone lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona.