Our wedding came and went in a blur of color and mutant aunties coming from the Affected Territories. Everyone seemed to know a few people from those places, and we were no different; both of our families had far flung relatives who’d refused to move when the warnings went out and who stayed even after the area was deemed an International Crisis Zone and then later, when the mutations started, they still decided to stay put.
—Where do we put all these things? we wondered aloud, sitting in our new house together. It was a wedding gift from the combined force of our parents and step-parents, who numbered at least a dozen altogether as far as we could tell (and what to call a step-parent’s new spouse? A step-step-parent? A step-parent once removed?). We appreciated the house, which had nooks and crannies to use as storage for the inevitable tchotchkes that wedding gifts yield.
—Uncle Fred always gets us the most beautiful junk, we agreed. We were sitting in the living room, fully furnished with awful white sofas that we’d only gotten because we couldn’t find anything else that we both liked. We’d decided not to let it stain our marriage—marriage! We occasionally stopped to marvel, rubbing our new bands of titanium. Not gold, because all the gold in the world had been bought up by a few rich folks who fled as far as they could from the Affected Territories to their fully functional private islands. They figured, we figured, that gold would still be valuable even if we all mutated and lost brain cells because of its gleam. We opened Uncle Fred’s gift and found a gorgeous carved and painted wooden replica of the first mutant cat documented on film. Sucker, as the cat had affectionately been named, had outsized teeth, red eyes, and was behaving like a vampire bat rather than a cat. No one was quite sure why it had mutated to start sucking the blood of dead and dying animals, but it was apparently thriving on some farm in the Affected Territories where a newly fused pair of twins occasionally released new videos of it playing with yarn or a Dracula plushy or the still-beating heart of a deer. We laughed at the gift for a few minutes and then put it in one of the crannies with its red eyes facing the wall, so we wouldn’t get spooked during the night, when we wandered around our too-big house wondering what the years ahead of us would look like.
After unwrapping all the presents and putting all the checks in a neat pile that we said we’d deposit through our mobile phones later when we were getting high and watching TV, we decided we’d done enough work and it was probably time to get high and watch TV. We forgot about the checks that night, though, and ended up taking them to the bank, where we watched a teller slowly deposit each one before staring us straight in the eyes—she had two extra; there were a lot of people who had second thoughts after living in the Affected Territories for a while and decided to move away. She told us that we could do this at home, with our smartphones, and that we didn’t need to come all the way in. We thanked her, each of us looking at a different set of eyes, and felt ashamed.
About a month later, we got our last wedding gift. We hadn’t even realized we were missing one relative because we both had so many and they all signed each other’s cards as if they were yearbooks. The final present came from one of the aunties in the Affected Territories that we’d both forgotten about because she was quiet and not very crazy or interesting. —Which one is she? we asked each other. —The one with the third leg? The one who got drunk and sang all the lyrics to My Heart Will Go On? The one who kissed Grandpa Pavia behind the wine bar?
—The purple one, we finally recalled. This was Aunty Romalia, who lived in what once used to be New York City and was now Affected Territory A. A was the worst of them. A was where some people had lost their minds along with their eyelids or bottom lips. It was where bands of dogs with laser pointer eyes and spiked tails roamed free. It was where we heard stories of a new religion involving old practices coming back, people who believed in magic rather than radiation, in potions curing cancer but not liver failure.
Aunty Romalia had been quiet at our wedding, hobbling along behind other folks, not complaining about the food, sitting where we put her (—Where did we put her, we tried to remember, and failed). She had come up to us after the ceremony, in the receiving line, wearing sunglasses even though we’d gotten married inside, on a gray day in July. None of us had seen the sun in months, maybe years, so her dark glasses were curious, but we didn’t want to say anything, just in case in addition to being purple she also had laser eyes, like those we’d seen dog packs sporting in the viral videos on Facebook.
We opened her present slowly, both us missing that thrill we’d had at the beginning, the feeling that whatever we unwrapped was from someone who thought of us, who’d attended our nuptial celebrations or had only sent a gift from afar. We missed feeling that freshness of new things. Our house was so full by now that we weren’t always sure if we were seeing each other or just one another’s reflections in the various surfaces, all of which seemed to be so clean that we had to tiptoe across and around them. We didn’t want to ruin anything, and our new house had, as a result, been strangely quiet in the weeks since we’d become officially, legally bound to one another forever and ever.
—What is it? we asked as the packing peanuts came out. They wriggled a little, so we stuffed them right in the garbage, in case some mutated bug had come across with the gift. Another box inside the big one revealed itself eventually and we looked at one another. Was this one of those games where there would be a box inside each box? But no, as we pulled out the inner box we saw it was different. It was made of wood, not cardboard, and was heavy. It had a latch, which we unlatched. We flung the lid back.
—Bone china, we exclaimed. —She got us wedding china!
We pulled each piece out and admired it. There were two of each kind of plate, salad and dessert and dinner. There were two delicate teacups nestled into the corners. We smiled over the intricate patterns painted along the edges and turned over the plates to see where they were made. There was no maker’s mark there, no brand name stamped or serial number etched. —Do you think, we wondered, and then, —No, she couldn’t have, and then, when we tapped our nails against the plates and held them in our palms trying to gauge the weight, —Could she?
Without any need for discussion, we piled the plates back into the box and tucked it underneath the kitchen sink, a cupboard we avoided at all costs because it held cleaning supplies and we had no interest in cleaning our own house. We hired people to do it. We hoped, without saying so, that the man who came to wipe down doorknobs and mop the floors would steal the bone china. We hoped he wouldn’t try to understand what it was made of or who had painted the edges to look, upon increased observation, like capillaries and vein systems.
We never looked at those dishes again, but we remembered to write Aunty Romalia a thank you card, though delivery to the Affected Territories was notoriously fickle so we never knew whether she received it or not.
Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Joyland Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is also a book critic with publications in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the LA Times, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring fiction writers, and is a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.