FICTION: When the Bats Come

When the bats come out, or, rather, don’t come out, the sun is setting, it’s hot, my back is perspiring, and Dave is holding my hand so hard that it hurts, but I let him squeeze because I know that he is hurting, we are hurting, and this moment is meant to relieve us, somehow.

We are on vacation.

It’s our last night in Austin, Texas, and we’re sitting on a greenbelt overlooking Lady Bird Lake, swamped on all sides by scores of tourists, which is to say, I guess, that we’re swamped by scores of us. There’s got to be over a hundred people here, and they—we—are camped out on blankets and lawn chairs, watching with increasing anticipation as the sun sinks behind Congress Avenue Bridge, from where, once it’s dark enough, the world’s largest urban bat colony will emerge and swarm into the night.

Next to us, on the grass, a young couple is consoling a baby who is crying and laughing and has also just thrown up on itself. One of the mothers is wiping the baby’s chin and saying, “Calm down, baby, calm down,” and I wonder if the baby’s name is Baby. I put my hand on my stomach, which Dave notices, and which only gets him more on edge, and so of course he starts Googling stuff, which is like his whole thing.

“1.5 million bats,” Dave says, scrolling. “Can you even imagine that many of anything?” He whistles, and I shake my head, because no, really, I can’t. “Like, imagine if it was 1.5 million prairie dogs. 1.5 million lobsters.”

I had hoped that this trip would be good for us. That we’d be able to focus on the here-and-now for a few days. That Dave might spend more time with me than with his Android. That I’d be present enough to not even notice how rarely Dave looks at me. Splashes of pink are reflected across the lake, and there’s a version of us, a year ago, that would be kissing right now.

The sun is nearly extinguished—the bats should be out any moment—and the soft blue hue of Dave’s phone looks almost otherworldly. “Did you know,” he asks, “that these bats we’re about to see? They’re Mexican Free-tailed Bats. They came here from Central Mexico.”

“No,” I say, still touching my stomach. “I didn’t.”

“I’m on Batcon.org,” he says, and I just shrug, because it’s kind of a dead-end, conversationally. The compulsive Googling was cute at first, back when Dave would ask the internet things like, Corvallis date ideas, or, Best Netflix documentaries, but as our relationship matured, his searches took on an increased authority.

How to know if you should move in together.

How to know if you’re ready to have a kid.

How to prevent a recurrent pregnancy loss.

Google is his doctor and his therapist. His mother. His obsessive searching has been at an all-time high this past month, ever since that rainy night in June when we sat on the bathroom floor with our backs against the drywall, holding hands and staring at the results of my third pregnancy test. He gripped my thigh with one hand and his Android with the other. “Did you know,” he asked, quiet, hopeful, a little guilty, “that after two miscarriages, there’s a 65% chance of a successful third pregnancy?” When I didn’t say anything, he added, “That’s pretty good, actually,” and I just started sobbing.

Back on the lawn, in Austin, Dave keeps rattling off bat facts, but during a breath I interrupt him. “Hey,” I say. “It’s been dark for like ten minutes now. Shouldn’t the bats be out?”

“Or hey, how about this,” Dave says, ignoring me. “Did you know that bats eat 10-20 thousand pounds of insects each year? How many pounds of Chipotle do you think Americans eat in a year? If you had to ballpark it.”

The crowd is getting anxious. Next to us, an older guy wearing a polo and a sailing cap asks, “What’s taking so long?” and a second person says, “Did something happen?” and a third someone tells her friend, “I’m sure they’ll come out. They always come out.” The chatter continues to rise until the last hint of sunlight has faded. A handful of tourists shine cell phones and flashlights towards the bridge.

“Apparently some bats can live for over twenty years?” says Dave. “Although: that can’t be right. I need to double-check that.”

“Dave,” I say. “I think something—” I’m about to tell him that I do not feel, as he does, that trivia will make things any better for us, but before I can, there’s this siren, this awful, wailing siren, all high pitched and horrible, and the crowd is silent, anticipating gunshots, and Dave even looks up from his phone, and there’s this voice, booming, from who knows where, dense like over a loudspeaker, saying, over and over:

THERE ARE NO BATS YOUR GOD IS DEAD.

THERE ARE NO BATS YOUR GOD IS DEAD.

THERE ARE NO BATS YOUR GOD IS DEAD.

THERE ARE NO BATS YOU–

And everybody’s screaming. Running. Crying. Like mass chaos. Someone bumps into me by accident. And then another someone. There are kids getting trampled, and Dave’s fingernails are digging into my palm, so deep there’s blood, and soon teenagers are joining in, a cacophony of

THERE ARE NO BATS YOUR GOD IS DEAD THERE ARE NO BATS YOUR GOD IS DEAD THERE ARE NO

but they’re breaking rhythm, laughing, way more animated than the monotone of the original voice, their volume rising as strobe lights, from everywhere, descend upon us. And I’m thinking: drones? UFOs? Only I’m not thinking it that articulately. It’s just like: this is crazy. All I know is that we need to get out of here. I’m scared about getting crushed. Someone stepping on me. The baby. Getting knocked over. The teenagers are pushing people, too. Like in a mosh pit. Real slick. Shouting in people’s faces. Thrashing. I catch a glimpse of one out of my periphery and it’s almost like she’s dancing. I wonder if this thing in my stomach will live to be a teenager, if it will live to be a thing, and a man runs between us and steps on my hand. At first I don’t even feel it. I’ve never seen my fingers bend this way before. One of the mothers is running away from us, towards Congress Avenue, holding Baby to her chest. I can’t tell if she is screaming or not and I don’t know where the other mother is. My knuckles are bleeding, and the pain reminds me that I need to move, and so I scramble to my feet. “Dave,” I say, motioning that I’m ready to go, like let’s run, let’s keep running until we get away from this, from the sirens, from these teenagers, from the stasis in the sky and in my stomach. But Dave won’t move. He is planted on the grass, staring dead-eyed at his phone and typing, “What do you do if there are no bats and your go—”

I scream something. I want it to be, “Get up,” or “Help,” or “I love you,” but I’m not sure if I any words even come out. Dave is scrolling through a Yahoo Answers thread and furrowing his brow and also he is crying.

I manage to say: “Please.”

Dave’s eyes are sunken. “Internet says to remain calm,” he says, hoarse. He looks back to his search bar, types, How do you maintain your sense of self in the face of uncertainty and oblivi

And I know I’ll have to leave him.

When he first read up about Lady Bird Lake, Dave told me that he wanted us to go because he wanted to see was a sky that was “imperceptibly alive.” This was how he said it. “Imperceptibly alive.” Something in his phrasing there, a flash of something broken, and I have this vision of the kind of night we might have had if things were different, sitting together in the dark, safe and in love, hopeful and watching as a shifting sea of bats blanket out the stars.

Just before taking off towards Congress Avenue—to safety; to find out if this is an aberration, or if there are no more golden retrievers in the suburbs, no more rats in Brooklyn; to look for the mother, the mother with Baby, and ask her how she could ever keep a thing like that alive in a world like this—I look up to the sky, and I’m struck by the notion that its dark, yes, just like it should be, but that here, tonight, there is no room, no chance, no hope for movement.

Chris Vanjonack is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a reader at Ninth Letter, and a former language arts teacher from Fort Collins, Colorado. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One StoryThe RumpusCarve Magazine, and elsewhere. Read more stories at chrisvanjonack.com

Image: Flying Fox, Vincent van Gogh, 1886

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