Micah Dean Hicks is an author of fables, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories. His work is published or forthcoming in over forty magazines, including Indiana Review, New Orleans Review, and New Letters. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, was recently published by New American Press. He is a PhD student at Florida State University, where he studies creative writing and folklore.
He must have been born that way. Inherited all his bad luck—“From your side,” his mother would say. “From yours,” said his father. And there were plenty of relatives to blame. A crazy aunt who quit her job to follow butterfly migrations through the Americas in her old car. An uncle who'd caught a shark while fishing and had it pull him clean out of the boat, taking his fishing gear and his foot. A cousin who renamed herself Gresenda, shaved her head, and opened a yoga studio for dogs in Louisiana. Strange things. Not all bad, but not all good. Different. It was that way with the man, only worse.
He'd get sick as a boy, and it was always something extraordinary. New kinds of avian flu breaking out in Singapore, things you couldn't catch unless you flew halfway around the world. Flesh eating bacteria like you hear about in the news. Any kind of parasite, even those that weren't supposed to affect humans. His mother inoculated him against everything, even dog and cat diseases. He'd never had something so mundane as the common cold.
He got in the kind of trouble that took hours to explain. Caught bringing a herd of cattle from a nearby pasture and leaving them on the basketball court to scuff the wood with their hooves and shit on the gym floor. He'd misheard a coach that time, had thought he was doing what he was told. When his science projects didn't work, they always caught fire—even with the bean garden, though no one could explain that—and usually caught his classmates' projects on fire too. There were worse things. Once, a sinkhole opened in the back yard and swallowed his swing set, but he hadn't been home. Once he'd been swimming in the lake and some vast shape rose from the deep, the boy getting back to shore and running away just in time. One night, the sky caught fire in the field behind his house. Alien lights descended on him, but his mother tackled him in the grass and the lights fled.
His problem as a boy and later as a man was the same: love. He was handsome and good. People liked him. But it took a toll to be with someone like that. When he was twenty-one, he spent an entire first date broken down on the roadside. His trunk popped open in traffic and spilled all his school papers, his tires went flat, the fuses blew out, the gas gauge stopped working. The man and his date spent hours under the car and trying to flag down people for help. They got covered in engine grease and sweat. When it got dark, they made out hard in the back of the car, and things seemed fine then, his urgent mouth on hers. But then a cop mistook their license plate for a wanted man's, a difference of one letter. Lights cut into their dark, intimate space just as he'd gotten her underwear off, six squad cars surrounding them and police demanding they get out of the car. “Who could be with someone like that?” she asked him. “Nobody.”
He believed her. For years he didn't date. He lived in a dusty little house outside of town, worked tending the most dangerous animals at the zoo, and dealt with one calamity after another. He had a friend, a woman who designed the dark habitats for spiders and insects. She loved when he told her about his problems. “How was your weekend?” she begged. So he told her about the giant flies, stony bodies the size of your hand, that had invaded his property and kept him shut away in the storm cellar for days. About a local cult of teenage Satanists who'd taken a duck from the park and sacrificed it on his lawn, then later apologized and insisted they take him out for dinner. Most of them planned to go to college somewhere, preferably out of state, and the man told them to study hard. Or about the time a lion was sick, so he brought it home in his truck and took care of it around the apartment for a few days. His boss was pretty upset about it. But things like that didn't seem odd to the man. Nothing did.
There was something kind in him, a helplessness against the immensity of the universe. The woman wanted to protect him. She helped him relocate garden snakes by the bucketful one year when his house became a hibernation spot for them. Brought him camping equipment when lightning sent a power surge through his house, consuming his appliances in fire and smoke. One time, the ceilings came down. A huge column of mold had grown in the attic, fed by rainwater and hanging thick off the rafters, and finally it fell of its own weight, crashing down and bombing the rooms of the house with its black spores. It was the kind of horrible thing no one had ever heard of before. Journalists came from all over to see it before the house was burned down. Professors from the university took samples. Carpenters came and whistled, shaking their heads. While he had no place to live, the woman told him to move in with her.
The man didn't want that. He knew that strange things would follow him wherever he went. But she insisted, and she made him happy. He couldn't say no to her. Before he knew it, they were dating. The woman had mistaken him for a good luck charm, maybe. She'd seen him walk into a room minutes after a zebra had died, after the vet techs had given up, and had seen the animal gasp back to life. Had seen a child fall into the tiger pit and vanish, only for the man to come around the corner with the girl on his shoulders, safe and untouched. Had seen a deranged woman pull a gun on the zookeepers, but the gun wouldn't fire.
In their apartment one night, the man left the window open. They didn't notice it and went to bed. When they woke up a few hours later, the house was filled with bioluminescent moths, covering the walls and bed, scattered over the floor, little chips of shining blue light. The woman had studied them in college, and she knew they didn't exist on this continent, and they weren't supposed to swarm like this. She'd never seen them in person. She held the man tightly in the bed, both of them staying still so they wouldn't scare the insects. The woman whispered to him that he was going to marry her the next day. The man cried. He was happy. He was also afraid.
Things weren't always good, but they weren't always bad. Every day, there was some new thing to deal with. The woman didn't mind. The two of them could deal with it together. Mostly, it was funny. Like how everyone at their wedding got food poisoning, except for the two of them because they were too excited to eat. Or how the washing machine flooded the basement one morning, and when they got up, their son was sailing his plastic boats on the water. The dog running away and returning months later became normal, not something to worry about anymore. Sometimes it was expensive, dealing with all the problems, but they both worked, and her job paid better than his. They'd have long conversations into the night where they talked about life and people, tragedy and the universe. They decided their lives were more full than other people's, better. They decided they wouldn't want to live any other way.
All of that changed when their son was taken. The woman and her little boy were sitting in a field, watching fireworks, when the aliens came back. Had the man been there, he would have remembered them. He would have told his wife and son to drop, cling to the grass and make themselves small. But he was grocery shopping. The sky opened in an orange blaze, light consuming the field, so bright that the woman couldn't see anything. There was a deep resonance, vibrations all through her body. When the light went away, her son was gone.
Years later, the woman would be embarrassed for how she reacted. She told the man that this was his fault, that something was wrong with him. She said that he brought trouble wherever he went, and now he'd brought it to their son.
He cried and wiped his face with both hands. “What about the lion?” he asked. “The zebra? The cloud of moths?”
She left the house and went to spend the night in a hotel, just to get some time alone, some time to think. But the man didn't know that. He saw the door close behind her, and he thought he'd lost her forever. The first thing he did was try to hang himself with a belt in his closet. First, the belt broke. Then the bar in the closet collapsed under his weight. Then he tried to take a bottle of pills, but there were only three left in the bottle. He packed his things, put them in his old truck—a miracle that it still ran—and he left too. The next day, the woman returned to say that she was sorry. She came into a home full of their old pictures, their dishes on the table, their son's toys scattered all over the house, the whole life they'd built together. But the man had left.
Over the next year, the woman took a leave of absence from the zoo and looked for the man. She got a passport and subscribed to weird news alerts from all over the globe, and she followed them. Balls of fire floating up from a river in China. Volcanoes sprouting up overnight in the middle of cornfields, the heat popping the corn on the stalk. A jungle clearing in Brazil where church bells pealed constantly with no cause, the sound echoing through the forest and deforming the trees into a ring cupping the heavenly noise. She went to these places, always looking for the man. She only avoided crop circles, sightings of disks in the sky, houses claimed to have been visited by otherworldly beings. She wasn't ready to confront those things yet.
Finally, she found him living in the far north. His small house sat on the snow without electricity, a place where he thought he could never bother anyone or be bothered ever again. Archaeologists had torn his yard apart, excavating a herd of mammoths that had been entombed in ice mid-migration. It was the most ever found at one time.
The woman drove him into town and bought him coffee, massaged his icy hands, ran her fingers through his ragged beard. His eyes were red and swollen, like he'd never stopped crying, not one day in a year.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “And I'm bringing you home so I can help you.”
“The strangest things happen with me,” he said. “No one would want that.”
They both thought of their son, pulled away into the stars and gone, maybe forever. Every time either of them walked under an open sky, it was impossible not to look for him.
“I need strange,” the woman said. “Listen. Here's the strangest thing of all. Our son comes back. He is the same age. He isn't hurt. And we spend the rest of our lives with him like this never happened.”
The man rubbed his hands together and picked up the tiny Styrofoam coffee cup, careful not to spill it. “That's too good. It would never work that way.”
“With you it could happen,” she said. “Only with you.”
She pulled him into her car. They squeezed hands and stared up at the clouds. Outside, crazy things happened. One miracle and tragedy after another, following them the whole way. They laughed, and in small moments, they remembered how to be happy again. When they got back home, maybe their son would even be waiting for them. It wasn't the most impossible thing.