About the Feature

Photo by Graham Holtshausen on Unsplash


After Carl left me for a woman he met buying manure off Craigslist, I put in for an out-of-state letter carrier transfer with the postal service. I wanted a fresh start, a chance to discover something. It didn’t matter what. I wanted to learn something I never would have learned in Jacksonville while married to Carl. To feel like the person I’d once been, a person I’d liked being. The first trade that came up was in Happy, Texas, a town of 603 souls outside of Amarillo. The carrier there was eager to move to Florida to be near his twin grandsons. My new route consisted mostly of cluster boxes I could drive right up to.

Happy’s motto was “the town without a frown.” I set up a bank account at Happy Bank, got my Texas driver’s license at Happy City Hall, and waited for a line of pickup trucks to follow a hearse into Happy Cemetery. I found an apartment on Happy’s main street, Main Street, above an event hall called Marcy’s Wedding Pavilion. The apartment had two bedrooms—plenty of space for my equipment. The stove didn’t work and there were no closets, but the ceilings were high and there was a filthy skylight in the kitchen that Randall, the property manager, told me was put in after a meteorite came through the roof in 1999. The meteorite sold me on the place.

It had been almost too easy to divide up our life. As if deep down, we’d always known the break was inevitable. He kept the landscaping business, I kept my pension. We didn’t have kids and had rented a condo rather than buying a house because Carl didn’t want to do another yard. I took the car I usually drove and he took the car he usually drove. The only asset split unevenly was my equipment, but Carl didn’t want anything to do with that.

In my spare time I was what the online community calls a skywatcher. I scanned outer space for signals. You could search any part of the sky. The visual data came in sine waves, like monitoring a heartbeat. What you were looking for was irregularity. A break in the pattern. Something unusual that might point to intention, agency.

I wasn’t a UFO nut or conspiracy theorist. Just a person doing my part.


The first event at Marcy’s after I arrived was a quinceañera. Standing in my kitchen I could hear entire dinner conversations as if I were sitting at the table. The family was from Happy, and the great-grandmother lived over in Amarillo, where she was still slaughtering her own pigs at age ninety-one. She’d stopped driving six years ago, when she backed her car into traffic and hit a motorcyclist.

“Was the guy OK?”

I couldn’t hear the answer.

A DJ started around eight. The bass made my glass of rum and Coke dance on the table. How late would they go? My rum, or maybe it was the Coke, wanted to know what the scene was like down there. Maybe my old self would show up. Maybe I’d find some friends—the only people I’d met in the month I’d been there were a few of the other carriers.

I went downstairs and stepped out onto the wide sidewalk. Under a streetlamp, two sets of teenagers gathered. The boys wore tuxedos and the girls were in violet dresses. A strap on one girl’s dress kept slipping off her shoulder, and she kept pushing it back up. Occasionally the girls would say something to the boys, or vice versa. They all looked incredibly beautiful to me, as if the universe had beamed a spotlight on their youth, their durability, their wholeness. Not one of them glanced my way.

Inside Marcy’s, everything glowed blue and purple. I melted into the colors. Against one wall was a huge spread: barbeque, tamales, cheese and charcuterie platters, white cake with red filling. I took a plate of cake and stood near the dance floor. A disco ball shot pins of light onto everyone. Little kids and old people formed a circle around the girl—young woman—wearing the biggest dress of them all. Royal purple. When she waved her hands in the air, you could see she had Band-Aids on every finger. I felt for her—I also picked my cuticles.

A man around my age with curly hair passed me, his arm lightly brushing mine. There was an article going around about the five elements necessary for love. One, I recalled, was unplanned contact. The man’s cologne made me think of the afternoon storms we had back in Florida—the electric scent in the air right before the clouds opened up. It also made me think of sex, which I hadn’t had in over two years. I took a seat at an abandoned table full of cups of wine and soda and plates of partially eaten cake.

On the chair next to me was a scrap of notebook paper with a list written on it. There were two categories: HOTTEST and UGLIEST. The “hottest” were Jessenia, Jade, Isabella. The “ugliest” were Liliana, Ana, Itzel. Jade and Itzel were circled.

I finished my cake, drained the closest cup of white wine, and stuffed the paper in my pocket. I didn’t want Itzel, whoever she was, to come across it.

Carl had remarried a few months before. His new wife, Giselle, didn’t make her social media accounts private. Anytime someone complimented her wedding dress, she mentioned that it had pockets. When you Googled her name the first thing that came up was her and Carl’s wedding registry. A smart toaster with a “happy finishing chime.” Organic 800-thread-count, fair-trade bamboo sheets from Ecuador. A very long pillow that said THRIVE.

It’s not that interesting. Carl needed control over the people in his life and my accident reminded him how little he had. Sure, he’d inherited his dad’s landscaping company and had twelve employees at his command, but the employees didn’t like him. They didn’t work as hard for him as they had for his dad. Once when I was sitting with him outside a job site, he called one of the guys, and I watched Tom glance at his phone, say something to Javier, and then put the phone away.

The man with curly hair was watching me. When our eyes met again he smiled and I smiled and he raised his hand like “hi” and I felt myself stand and move toward him. I saw him see my limp and accept it. A little kid came out of nowhere to my right and almost ran into me, but I swerved at the last second and caught my balance so close to the man I could feel his body heat. It was like slipping past a door as it’s falling shut.

“I’m Ray,” he said over the music. “Like the gun!”

I wanted to dance, or wanted to be asked, despite feeling self-conscious about the way I moved. Maybe it was seeing those girls outside, spilling over with life and energy. Maybe it was the way the boys shuffled and postured and pretended not to see the girls and yet you could tell they saw them with their entire bodies.

Ray stepped toward the dance floor and extended his hand in invitation. I took it. When he asked how I knew the family, I said I was a neighbor.

He was the uncle of the birthday girl, the one with the Band-Aids. He told me the young woman—the quinceañera—wanted to become a biologist and listened to podcasts about the natural world. She was especially interested in bees.

“They’re incredibly intelligent creatures,” Ray said. “They can calculate the position of the sun even behind a cloud.”

I wanted to ask the quinceañera’s name but didn’t want Ray to know I hadn’t been invited. Instead I told him how eating local honey had cured my allergies. He nodded. “Not many people know to do that,” he said.

His palm on my waist was thrilling. I was moving better than I had in years. In fact, I hadn’t danced like this since my wedding. The music switched to a slow song and people paired up. Ray led me toward a dark edge of the floor. The quinceañera, flushed and awkward, danced with a boy whose head came up to her shoulders.

Ray was an electrician, so I asked if he’d ever been electrocuted.

“Are we flirting?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I said. Then, right there on the dance floor, he began to unbutton his shirt.

He stopped partway and pulled the shirt open. The right side of his chest from the collarbone down was covered in what appeared to be the silhouette of a tree with too many branches.

“Hundred twenty volts,” he said. He wasn’t smiling.

I told him I’d been in a car accident, a bad one. I knew about hospitals and therapy.

“Why don’t we go somewhere?” he suggested.

We went outside to wait for the Uber. A group of kids stood near the streetlight, girls and boys together this time. The girl from earlier had given up on keeping her shoulders covered and let her spaghetti straps dangle over her arms. Was one of them Itzel, the ugliest? They were beautiful: lined eyes, collarbones like sand dunes, hair like rope. One girl’s voice rose above the others. Her arm rested on her tall friend’s shoulder. The tall girl was standing on the backs of her ballet flats. “You don’t understand it, but it goes right in your heart, and your heart understands it,” the first girl said, her voice breaking. The tall girl started to cry.

As a kid I believed I possessed the power of telekinesis. But I understood it was a latent power; I needed practice. I’d stare at the salt shaker, willing it toward me across the dining table, or concentrate on the horizon to make a shooting star appear. Sometimes it felt like it almost worked. That the shaker did tremble, a little, or the movement out of the corner of my eye was the burn of a meteor. The possibility that my desire could be wielded in this way made me feel powerful and mysterious.

In the car Ray held both my hands, kissed my neck. He had a fish tank in his apartment but didn’t know what kind of fish were in it. There were bookshelves, with books on them, which I took to be a good sign.

“Vodka?” he asked.

“No need.”

The sex was straightforward, missionary. We locked eyes. I was glad he didn’t get creative. I’ve always enjoyed lying there, observing, putting my hands wherever I want. I traced the pale pink branches on his chest. “It’s called a Lichtenberg figure,” he said, then pulled out, took off the condom, and came on my stomach.

“Can I get you off?” he asked.

“In a bit,” I said. I wanted him to keep looking me in the eye. It had been a long time since someone really did that. Seen me.

He asked about the scar on my forehead. I told him how I’d woken up in a hospital bed, a thousand mallets striking nerves in my thighs, abdomen, forearm, chest. My face swollen, limiting my field of vision.

“God damn,” he said tenderly, running his thumb along the place where my head had split open.

After three months in the hospital and five surgeries on my leg and face, I came home. My leg was, as it still is now, held together by three metal pins. It hurt to walk, but I was supposed to do it every day, otherwise I might never do it again. My face was marked too; my left eye did not open completely and I had the scar along my hairline. I spent a long time angry about that—though I couldn’t prove anything, I sensed the plastic surgeon hadn’t done his best. I felt betrayed by the other driver for texting while driving, betrayed by the universe for putting me in her path. That surgeon was the only one who had the power to ease that burden. He should have tried harder.

“And your ex cheated on you during all this?”

“He took care of me at first. But it got weird when I began to recover and get stronger,” I said.

“I can tell you’re very intelligent,” Ray said. “You think with both frontal and rear lobes.”

“Intelligent like a bee,” I said. I began to masturbate. Ray seemed surprised, then interested, then very interested. After I came, we had sex again. Then we spooned. I had planned on leaving, but I started to think about staying over.

Ray handed me his phone. “Here. Put your number in.”

Feeling happy, I did as he asked, and sent myself a text so I’d have his number.

I lay back and asked, “What attracted you to me?” It was a stupid thing to ask, but I was feeling safe and secure there with him, and felt he owed me something for coming so fast that first time.

“You were the prettiest girl in the room,” he said. “I always start there.”

“Right.” I hadn’t even been pretty before the accident. Still, I found myself blushing.

“It was when you put that piece of paper in your pocket.”

The list.

“You were reading it and you looked pissed. And then you put it in your pocket. What was it?”

I felt around for my pants on the floor and pulled out the piece of paper.

He unfolded it and read it. “Poor Itzel. She’s had a hard enough time as it is this year. Especially with her dad, you know?”

I nodded, and just as he asked, “Remind me, how do you know Itzel?” I said, “Remind me, which one was Itzel?”

“Wait. Did you—?”

“Shit. Yeah—I was crashing. I live in the apartment above the event hall.”

His face changed and he almost said something.

“What?” I felt the old panic in my chest. Maybe he was annoyed that I hadn’t invited him up to my place.

“Nah, nothing. That’s pretty funny.” He rolled to his feet and walked naked to the fridge. “Beer? Topo?”

I took the water. He started to get dressed, so I did too.

He said, “So you know, this isn’t my apartment. It’s a friend’s. He’s out of town.”

“So that’s why you don’t know about the fish.” I felt him slipping away. I wished he’d look at me again.

“Man, that’s pretty funny,” he repeated. “Pretty funny.”

I said, “I’m gonna call an Uber.” I waited for him to protest, to ask me to stay, but he didn’t.


When I got back to the apartment, Marcy’s was dark, and the only evidence of the party was a pile of purple glitter on the sidewalk out front. Inside, the microwave read 0:00.
Had I really screwed things up with Ray by telling him I crashed the party? It didn’t seem like a big deal. People met in much stranger ways—manure sales on Craigslist—and we’d had a connection. Hadn’t we?

Sleep did not feel imminent, so I booted up the equipment. The delicate cry of the receiver powering on soothed me.

I liked to start in the area of Proxima b, a potentially Earth-like planet just over four light years away. I’d listen to Proxima b’s pulse and think about what I was doing 4.2 years ago, when that pulse originated. In fact, that night was creeping up on a personal anniversary for me in Proxima b time: four years and three months since the accident. Soon I’d be able to listen to the pulses being emitted from this distant world at the moment the yellow Hummer slammed into the driver’s side of my postal truck, sending me and five thousand pieces of mail sailing through the windshield and into the bitter December air.

During my recovery I signed up for SETI@home, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program where you let them use your computer to analyze data from radio telescopes. But that wasn’t satisfying since it didn’t require anything of me beyond paying for electricity. I wanted to be the one searching. I wanted to find something no one else had found.

The first time I met Giselle, she told me a hilarious story about almost adopting a pair of mini donkeys, but the man who raised them refused because her aura wasn’t the right color. Oh, I’d laughed! The second time, I complimented her sweater and immediately hated myself. The third time, and this was after she and Carl had started up, her personality was all but gone. I should’ve known—and maybe I did. She was like spinach exposed to steam. The way it shrinks down so small.

SETI never confirmed any alien signals, but they did identify several “noise spots,” positions in the sky with unexplained spikes in radio intensity. When someone in my group posted instructions for making a mini radio telescope out of an old satellite dish, I thought, why not? I grabbed our old DirecTV and computer monitor, dropped a few hundred bucks on a receiver and low-noise blocker, and got to work. I admit, the finished setup looked stupid.

“You’re a storm chaser now?” Carl asked. “Couldn’t you take up something normal, like knitting?”

I showed him how, even though it was pouring outside, I could see the sun. And there was a satellite, moving pixel by pixel across the screen.

“Or reading. You’re always saying you wish you had more time to read.”

I liked scanning the sky, looking for signals. Even when nothing happened, there was still that heartbeat. It was a space—it was space—where I could process what was happening in my life. Of course, the night of the quinceañera at Marcy’s, I thought about Ray. Or not Ray so much as the way things happen every day you never could have imagined. A meteorite through the roof.
I picked up my phone and read the text I’d sent myself from Ray’s phone: 120 volts. I opened the contact and added his name: Ray Like The Gun. I decided I wouldn’t text him unless he wrote first.

I’d gotten into the flow of the search—clicking, listening, floating someplace above my body, when I heard crying outside. I went to the window that faced the street and opened it. On the sidewalk, a young woman stood sobbing with her face in her hands. She was dressed in gray sweatpants and a pink camisole top. An SUV idled at the curb beside her with its door open.

“Are you OK?” I called down. “Do you need help?”

The woman looked up and when she did, I could see her fingers, which were taped with Band-Aids.

“Itzel?” I said. “Itzel, honey, stay there. I’m coming down.”


“How do you know my name?”

I told her Ray had told me, and then I showed her my cuticles, which I had picked on the ride home from his place. The blood on my right thumb convinced her to trust me. She turned off her car and came upstairs and I poured her some Coke. When I told her about the meteorite she said, “That was before I was born.”

She had snuck out of the house to look for her dad, who had not shown up that night, the night of her quinceañera, the biggest event of her life. She said, “I came back to make sure I didn’t miss him even if he got here too late for the party. That’s happened before.”

I refilled her glass. In the next room, my equipment was doing its thing. Red and yellow pulses onscreen. Normal.

Also, the boy she liked didn’t ask her to dance until her cousin forced him to. The men in Itzel’s life had let her down. Everyone in Itzel’s life had let her down.

She said, “I’m so stupid to think he would show up.” Her face was raw, pinkish, freshly scrubbed. A couple specks of glitter clung to her hairline.

I said, “It’s not stupid to be hopeful.”

She was trying not to look at my scar. It was a look I knew well. “Do you want to know what happened to me?” I asked. She nodded. I told her the whole story. She listened and didn’t interrupt.

When I was done she gestured with her empty Coke glass to the equipment in the next room and asked, “What’s all that?”

I stood. “C’mon. I’ll show you.”

She sat in front of the monitor and I explained what everything did.

Itzel was intrigued. “So you sit here, and watch and wait?”

“You’re looking for something that feels alert.”

She clicked around the universe.

“Let the scanner settle in for a minute before you move,” I instructed.

We watched several areas of the sky. At one point she stumbled on a satellite—Piers V, one of the cooler digital signatures—and let out a giggle of delight. I explained how the Piers gave off its unique effect.

“I feel like I’m about to find something,” she said. She had become determined to discover alien life that very night.

Scanning, scrolling, clicking, with the focus of a starship captain: “So you just met Cousin Ray tonight, randomly?”

“You mean your uncle?”

Itzel laughed. “Nah. That dude is like my third cousin twice removed. You’d have to ask my mom how we’re related. I haven’t seen him since Hector’s baptism, and Hector’s like ten now.”

Itzel looked at home on the equipment. Maybe this is when the signal will appear, I thought. After all, no one else has used the equipment but me. It’s possible I’ve unconsciously been searching in patterns that have limited my results.

“Did you even talk to him first?” she asked.

“Of course. Do you know him well?”

“Not that well. But like, enough that I get it, you know? His branding is not subtle.”

I texted Ray: So you’re not an uncle, and I’m not a neighbor. Looks like we’re even. I added a smiley face so he’d know I was kidding. The three dots of an impending response appeared, then disappeared.

Itzel continued to peer into the screen, clicking the mouse every so often. I watched with her. I liked having her there.

Itzel’s phone dinged. “Shoot, it’s eleven,” she said, and stood abruptly. “My mom will freak if she notices I’m gone. I only have my permit and I’m not supposed to be driving at night.”

I didn’t want her to go, but what could I say? I walked her downstairs and she drove away. Her lights got smaller and smaller and then she turned and the lights were gone.

I stood on the sidewalk a long time. The moon was thin and low and all the stars were out. How tiring it is to want so much from a universe with no stake in us. Before I went back upstairs I brushed some of the purple glitter from the sidewalk into my palm. In my bathroom I smeared glitter on my forehead then went back to watch Proxima b. Maybe now.

Or now.


About the Author

Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail and Pull Me Under, a Book of the Month Club selection and one of Elle’s Best Books of 2016. She was a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute and serves as editor of Electric Literature’s The Commuter.