Short Story: Some Other Day
I wrote this way back in 2005 and it was published in 2007 in All Possible Worlds. It was science-fiction. But today… NPR just published a story about scientists doing pretty much this exact thing.
Some Other Day
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Josie Langdon leaned back from her microscope and rolled her neck to ease the kinks. After days spent staring at slides, her eyes strained to refocus on the university lab around her.
“How’s it going?” Stan Kozelka leaned against the lab door; his grin peeked out from his full beard. Of the other grad students, Stan was the only one who never harassed her. She was not sure he knew who her father had been.
Josie shrugged. “Larvae are still dying. They won’t kick into pupae phase.”
“Ah.” He crossed his arms and tilted his head, straggly hair falling into his eyes. “And you?”
The corner of her mouth turned up wryly. “Also dying.”
Stan winced. “That’s no good.”
“My own fault. I could’ve picked another topic for my master’s, but noooooo…” She groaned as she pulled a slide out of the microscope tray. “I don’t want to think about mosquitoes ever again.”
“Have you talked to Professor Hadley?”
“Not yet. She’ll say, ‘I told you so.'” Josie spun on her seat, turning her back on him. “I was so sure that if I knew the original mechanism and I had the gene map, I could repair the damage my– the West Nile Intervention introduced.”
“At least you pinpointed the damage.”
“Yeah.” She sighed and looked at the floor. “I know, I just–I wanted…”
“It doesn’t matter.” Josie tugged on her hair. “I can’t make girls. It’s still nothing but boys, boys, boys. It’s driving me crazy.”
“Is it…?” He stopped and Josie waited for the inevitable question about her father. The question about why she researched mosquitoes. The question Stan had never asked. He cleared his throat. “There’s a group of us going to the Alibi. Want to come?”
Josie let the tension out of her with a sigh. “Sure.” She turned the light off on the microscope, and put her slides away. “The Alibi is always fun.”
The summer the mosquitoes died began as the best one in Josie Langdon’s childhood. As she dived through the sprinkler in the front yard, the cold water sparkled as if someone had hung a beaded curtain upside down. She gasped with laughter, then turned and jumped through the curtain again.
“Hey, Jo-bug!” Her dad walked up the sidewalk, home early from work.
“Daddy!” She ran to meet him, dancing as the hot concrete steamed against her feet. He towered between her and the sun and made a small spot of shade for her to stand in.
Not minding that she dripped with water from the sprinkler, her dad picked her up and swung her around. She shrieked with laughter.
“Frank?” Josie’s mom came out on the porch. “What are you doing home?”
“We got the results from the release.” He grinned. “It’s unbelievable. The modified Toxorhynchites is going after males of the other genera, so—”
Josie’s mom laughed. “Frank, slow down I’m not getting all of that.”
He pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead. “Sorry, I’m so darn excited. MetroCorp sprayed to kill most of the mosquitoes, then we made an über-male from a type of mosquito that naturally attacks and kills other mosquitoes. So our modified one is not only breeding with the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus, it’s attacking and killing the other types of mosquitoes too.”
“Does that mean no more mosquitoes, Daddy?”
He swooped Josie up and swung her around again. He smelled nice, like her grandmother’s rum cake. “They won’t all go away, but it’ll mean a lot less bites for you, Jo-bug.”
The tinny sound of the ice cream truck echoed down the street, as the recorded electric music played the same eight measures of “This Old Man” over and over and over.
“Hey!” Her dad set her down. “Who wants an ice cream to celebrate?” He was already waving at the ice cream man and pulling his wallet out of his pocket.
Josie got an orange push-up. She remembered that.
The Alibi always reeked of smoke. Even though no one had lit up for years, the smell had soaked into the velvet paintings and the straw mats covering the walls. Tiki-kitsch grinned at Josie from every corner of the place.
The other biology students wandered over to the karaoke lounge and one of them wailed through a rendition of “Easy Money.”
Stan winced and twisted his gin and tonic in its circle of condensation. He had splurged on an actual lime and the smooth green rind sparkled among the ice. “The crazy thing is that on these camping trips, I have a hard time finding tadpoles because of all the fish that used to eat mosquito larvae.”
“That’s just it.” Josie laid her hand on the table and leaned forward. “I mean, as early as the mid-aughts, Glausewitz warned about the environmental imbalance. MetroCorp released them anyway.”
“Be fair. No one thought the über-male would be this effective.”
Josie sat back in her seat. Couldn’t there be one person who treated her normally? “You don’t have to protect me.”
She stared at her amber beer. “You’ve never made a crack about my dad and his ‘Frankenskeeter’, but you don’t have to protect my feelings.”
“Josie.” His brows twisted upward. “I’m not interested in your father. I’m interested in you.”
Josie looked away, suddenly warm. “Oh.” She slid her fingers down the pint glass, wiping the beads of moisture away.
Stan was quiet for a long time. Josie took a sip of her beer and looked towards the karaoke stage. “Easy Money” wrapped up his song and another grad student bounded toward the mike.
Stan cleared his throat. “So, um… have you thought about looking for egg floats from before the West Nile Intervention?”
“Yeah.” Josie pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Me, and every other entomologist.”
“Then, you wouldn’t be interested in looking for egg floats while I catch frogs I guess?” He picked up his gin and tonic and sipped it, looking over the rim of the glass at her.
“Marsh lands won’t help. I mean, yeah, Aedes vexans laid their eggs in flood regions, but the idea of trying to find a place where it hasn’t flooded for the past…” In her head, she counted the years since the West Nile Incident. “Seven years?”
“Going to the mountains.” Stan took another sip. “They’ve got flash-flood warnings, if you’re interested in that sort of thing…” His eyes hooded into a studied nonchalance, as if he did not care which way she answered. He set the gin and tonic down carefully in the condensation ring, and did not look at her, but twisted the glass on the table. “Want to come?”
Josie almost said there was no point; mosquito floats were the size of a grain of rice and every entomologist in the world had already looked for them. Then her heart tripped. Stan already knew that.
He was asking her out.
It was a crazy biologist’s kind of date, but after months of uncertain flirting, she would take any move at all. “Sure. The mountains would be great.”
Stan looked up and smiled. “Good.”
Josie felt a flood of warmth and hoped she had not blushed.
In her memory of the autumn, Josie stood in her bedroom while her dad sat on her bed looking through her notebook. Each spiral bound page had a chart carefully drawn on it with line after line of sightings. Purple Martins, Starlings, Sparrows, Blue Herons… one Bald Eagle–the date she saw them, where she saw them, how many she saw.
She tugged on her scout uniform and straightened the banner of badges across her chest.
“Nice work, Jo-bug.”
He flipped backwards through the book. “You’ve taken bird-watching a lot more seriously this year.”
She frowned. “No I haven’t.”
“Well.” He held up a page from the previous year. “You didn’t record nearly as many birds last year.”
“There weren’t as many.”
“Josie.” He tilted his chin down and looked out from under his eyebrows. He glanced at the book and then back at her. “They should have told me at the lab if there was a higher bird-count this year.” He flipped through the pages again. “Are you sure about these?”
Josie remembered nodding as she pointed out the window; three hummingbirds flirted with the feeder. The year before she had only seen one.
Stan slept in the passenger seat of his car while Josie took her turn at the wheel. As the road rolled past, Josie stared out the window at the fields covered with netting. Flocks of birds swarmed, dipping and wheeling over the nets as they looked for any opening to enter. Beneath the nets, protected swarms of bees pollinated each sheltered flower.
She counted the links of the broken chain in her mind. No larvae? Fish that ate mosquito larvae eat other water bugs and tadpoles, which meant fewer frogs; fewer frogs meant more moths, flies and wasps. No larvae? No adult mosquitoes to spread avian viruses. Birds multiply over the land consuming the plentiful crops. The famine, which should have helped keep the birds’ population from exploding, had never happened thanks to those crops, and the sheer amount of food people threw away.
A dark blur flew across the road. A crow. It smacked into her windshield and bounced over the car. Josie shrieked and then laughed.
Stan jumped in his seat. “What?”
“I’m sorry.” A cloud of feathers fluttered after them. “I hit a bird.”
“No worries.” Stan eased his seat forward. “You’ve got a nice laugh.”
She glanced at him, but he was staring out the window at the fields. His cheekbone made a crisp line under his eye, before disappearing into his beard. Josie wondered if his beard was soft.
Why was the silence suddenly awkward?
Stan pointed to a rest-area sign. “Want me to drive?”
Josie nodded. “That’d be great.”
She eased the car off the interstate, into the parking lot of the rest area. Pigeons, crows and sparrows perched on picnic tables eating leftovers from the truckers and families passing through.
When Josie got out of the car, she bent over to stretch her tight muscles. A layer of ashy droppings covered the ground under every tree and the branches seemed to blossom with wings.
Under a sign that read ‘Don’t Feed the Birds’, a little boy scattered breadcrumbs for ducks while his mother watched.
“Crazy…” Josie snorted, and shook her head.
“Oh.” She shrugged. “I just saw The Birds for the first time.”
“The remake?” Josie could tell Stan was watching her, but she kept stretching.
“No, the original. Hitchcock.”
“Whew.” Stan wiped his brow with mock relief. “Thought I was going to have to take you back to the university.” He shuddered. “Hitchcock remakes…”
She grinned and nodded to the boy feeding the ducks. “I was thinking the movie must have been scarier before.”
In the edge of her vision, Stan shook his head. “I was a kid when it happened.”
“Me too.” She thought of her father. “All those diseases people were afraid of catching, and they were the major thing keeping the bird population in check.”
“Wonder what Hitchcock would say?”
“I told you so, probably.”
Stan laughed, rich and deep, bouncing through an octave. The corners of his eyes wrinkled, and his teeth shone from his beard.
Josie held out the keys, grinning. Their hands touched as he took them; he had calluses on the tips of his fingers.
For a moment, he stood close and she could see herself reflected in his eyes.
Stan wet his lips. “We should get going.” He turned around and got in the car.
Josie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out carefully as she opened her eyes. “Right.” Her voice was too small. “Let’s go.”
The summer after the mosquitoes died, Josie’s family piled out of the car as the horizon ate the sun and last orange glow escaped the western sky. Other families hurried to the stadium for the fireworks display.
Josie bounced anxiously from one foot to the other while her mom dug for the mosquito repellant.
“We don’t need that.” Her dad came around the car and shook his head.
“With her allergy, it doesn’t hurt to be safe,” her mom said.
“She won’t get bitten.” He looked at Josie. “Mosquitoes giving you any trouble, Jo-bug?”
“Nope.” Josie held out her arms. Mosquitoes used to leave giant welts on her arms and legs, on her neck, on her back, on anything the mosquitoes could reach. And the welts had itched for weeks. So, she knew, one hundred percent certain, no mosquitoes had touched her. “Not one.”
“You said they wouldn’t all die.” Her mom shook the can of spray.
“Numbers are lower than we thought.” He shrugged. “Think of it like a field test.”
“Josie is not a guinea pig!”
Josie stopped bouncing to stare at her parents. Her mom took Josie’s dad by the arm and pulled him to the side.
“Look! If you don’t trust me–” Josie’s dad held up his hands, as if he were pushing something away and walked off.
Josie stood very still as her mom came back with tension straining the lines of her face. “Well, Josie,” she chirped, “Let’s make sure you’re safe tonight.”
She shook the can of mosquito repellant and sprayed the white mist against Josie’s arms and legs. The fog chilled her despite the July heat.
She remembered shivering as she looked for her dad.
Stan had borrowed a friend’s mountain cabin, which sat on a hill close to the creek he wanted to check. The creek meandered down the mountain and then into a pond trapped between walls of earth and rock. Logs cut off its escape down the channel and gave refuge to a family of beavers.
Below the beaver’s pond, the sides of the mountain narrowed, forcing the water to trickle in a thin brook with tiny still pools nestling among the rocks. Stan had spent the last hour fishing in each pool with a small aquarium net as he looked for tadpoles.
Thunder rumbled overhead.
Josie looked up at the blue sky peeking through the canopy of leaves. “Should we head back?”
Stan glanced at his spattered and mud-stained clothes. He stood in one of the shallow pools below the beavers’ dam, wet to mid-thigh despite his rubber boots. “I don’t mind getting wet, if you don’t.”
Her shirt stuck to her back with perspiration. “I think it’s too late for me.” She looked back at the sky.
“Any worries about flash floods?”
Stan hesitated and tapped the aquarium net against his hand. “Let me get a few more tadpoles and we can go.”
The first drops fell on the pool, making gentle rings on its surface. Then the sky opened. Sheets of rain plastered Josie’s hair to her head in seconds.
“So much for that plan.” Stan had to shout over the sound of rain hitting the pond. He held his net out. “Think I can catch them falling out of the sky?”
She tilted her head back and laughed. Her shirt clung to her like a second skin. Josie raised her arms to the liquid sky, knowing it did nice things for her body; it lifted her breasts and made her waist look long and narrow. When she lowered her arms, Stan was watching her, the net forgotten in his hands.
Four beavers dove past them, scampering up the side of the hills that held the creek. She and Stan turned to watch the animals claw their way up the hill. Their flat tails left a line in the mud.
Stan understood before she did. “The dam.” He threw the net down and grabbed Josie’s hand.
She splashed after him. Under the driving percussion of the rain, she heard a low rumble. A wall of water rushed into the pond and the dam groaned. Stan pushed her up the side of the hill. She scrambled, her feet sliding in the mud. He clawed up next to her.
The dam broke.
The water splashed up the sides hungrily and grabbed for Josie. Stan held tight to her. She pressed her face against the earth, clinging to it as the water surged below her.
The water pushed the logs in front of it and roared away from them. They climbed higher, scrambling over the edge of the embankment. In minutes, the pond emptied, leaving only a channel of water cutting through the mud. Breathless, Josie lay facedown at the top of the hill. Stan sat beside her, his hand resting on her back.
She rolled over to let the rain wash the mud from her face. Stan studied her, his face open and exposed to the worry beneath. Josie sat up. She leaned close, put her hand on his thigh, and kissed him.
His beard was soft.
Josie sat in the back seat of her parents’ car at the end of the summer. She was hot. She wanted to go home. Her mom and dad stood outside, talking with a man in overalls. He shook his head and gestured to the field behind him where blueberry bushes squatted beneath the weight of birds. Other cars slowed at the U-Pick sign, and then drove past.
Her family had done that at three other fields.
Josie leaned her head back and looked at the ceiling of the car. If she let her eyes unfocus, the tiny holes in the ceiling liner moved and made the ceiling look farther away than it was.
She focused and unfocused her eyes. Far, near. Far.
Her dad yelled.
Josie jumped and craned her neck to see. She could hear the angry tone of his voice, but not the words. He thumped his chest and pointed at the field covered with birds. The farmer spat and walked away.
Josie’s breath skittered in her chest. Her dad stood next to the field, his shoulders bent. Then he picked up a rock and threw it at the birds. They swarmed up in a dark cloud and settled again on the bushes as if they had always been there.
He shook as though he were laughing.
Josie’s mom put her arm around him and rocked him, like she did when Josie skinned her knee. They stood for a long moment before turning to walk back to the car.
When they opened the doors, Josie leaned forward to ask what had happened. She stopped with her mouth still open.
Her dad’s cheeks were wet.
“Let’s go home.” Her mom touched his hand lightly.
Putting his hands on the wheel, he nodded. “Okay.” He looked over his shoulder and tried to smile at Josie. “Sorry, Jo-bug. No blueberries this year.” He looked forward at the writhing field. “You were right about the bird-count.”
She remembered that. He had said she was right.
Stan lay on the cabin’s bed with his head thrown back and one arm over his eyes. Josie ran her fingers through the hair on his chest. He wrinkled his nose and turned to smile at her.
Reaching up, Stan traced the line of her jaw with his finger. Ran it up her cheek and back down her nose, lightly. Her skin tingled with a trail of his touch.
“You’re a remarkable woman, Josie Langdon.”
She kissed his palm. “Why do you say that?”
He stroked her hair as he considered her. “Everything you went through as a kid and you’re still so… vital.”
“Vital?” Her mouth twisted, as she deliberately ignored the first part. “Interesting compliment.”
Stan laughed deep in his chest. “I’m not good at compliments.” He hesitated, and then smiled bashfully. “I have a confession to make.”
She held her breath.
“I–When you came to the university, when I met you I…”
“I googled you.” He plucked at the sheets. “I feel weird about it now, but I wanted to know everything about you, and I figured people had pestered you enough. I didn’t want to be one more person who quizzed you.”
The stillness melted out of her and she rolled on top of him. Her hair shrouded their faces. “Stan. You can ask me anything you want.” She grinned. “Or do you know everything already?”
He pulled her down and kissed her. “What’s your favorite color?”
“Food?” He took her thumb in his mouth.
“Ahi tuna, lightly seared.”
“Movie, but answer carefully.” He brushed the inside of her wrist with his lips. “This could be a deal-breaker.”
“Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast,” Josie gasped as he nibbled her elbow.
He ran his hand down her spine and traced tingling circles in the small of her back. “Interesting choice.”
His hand stopped. A single vertical crease appeared between his eyebrows. “What’s the question you hate the most?”
Without hesitation she said, “How did I feel when my father killed himself?”
Stan wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tightly to him. She buried her face in his shoulder, letting him smooth her hair with his hands. The roughness of his voice surprised her. “Are people idiots?”
“Yes,” she said.
Stan’s sudden laugh vibrated through her breastbone, rumbling in her ear. She slid to the side, her sweat-damp skin clinging to him, and giggled as the tension broke inside her.
Stan rolled onto his elbow and kissed her again. “If I call the school and tell them the flood washed the road out, will you stay longer?”
“Good.” He laid his hand on her leg and smiled at her. “Then the only other question is, ‘How do you want to spend the rest of the week?'”
Josie pulled him closer. “You already know the answer.”
Josie leaned against her bedroom door with her knees pulled tight to her chest. She could hear her parents fighting. She held her breath as she listened.
Her dad shouted. “No, I will not calm down!”
Murmuring incomprehensibly in the background, her mother answered him.
“I can’t find any! They’re all dead. Do you get that? They’re dead! I can’t undo the damage. I can make plenty of boys in the lab, but the girls die in larvae. Nothing but boys, boys, boys.”
His laughter cut through Josie’s door.
“Yes, siree. I built what they asked for. Look at that.” Her dad paused, and then shouted, his voice tearing from his throat. “Go on! Look at it!”
Silence. Josie closed her eyes and prayed for the quiet to continue.
“Langdon’s Frankenskeeter.” His voice sounded too jolly. “I’m on the front page of the newspaper! Why? Because I did what they fucking asked me to do!” He laughed and laughed and choked on sobs. The raw, angry cries hurled themselves at Josie. She plugged her ears and wept.
Josie remembered crying until her throat hurt.
The sunset slid through the trees and gilded Stan’s car. In their cages, the frogs chorused as if singing of pond and stream. Josie handed a cage to Stan and scratched her arm while he stowed it. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she stood on her toes to kiss the nape of his neck.
“Ah, Josie.” He sighed and leaned back against her.
She rested her head against his shoulder. “I don’t want to go back.”
In the evening sun, his body radiated heat and comfort. Josie squeezed him tightly. She could see his cheek wrinkling with a smile. He brushed his fingertips along her forearms and looked down.
“Wow.” He traced a circle on the back of her wrist with his finger. Her skin prickled where he touched.
“Where’d you get that?”
“What?” Josie released him and pulled her arms back. On her right wrist was an angry red welt. It itched. Josie sucked in the moist air. “Oh my god.” Her knees felt weak.
“Josie?” Stan took her hands and bent down to look in her eyes. “Are you okay?”
She looked up. “That’s a mosquito bite.”
Stan grabbed her shoulders, his eyes huge. “Are you serious?”
The itch drove through her memories. “I was allergic to them when I was a kid. Nothing else did this.”
“But they’re extinct.”
“Aedes vexans laid desiccation resistant eggs in places that were infrequently flooded. The eggs could be dormant for years. They pupate within four to five days of egg hatch.”
“The beavers’ dam?”
Josie scratched her arm and slowly grinned. Stan laughed and swooped her off the ground. He spun her round, the trees twirling dizzily past. Josie shrieked with laughter. He set her on the ground and kissed her.
“I want to see if I can catch her.” She kissed him back and bounced on her toes. “She might be the only one.”
“What’s the good of that?”
“I can make boys in the lab.”
“What if it’s not a her?”
Josie scratched the welt on her arm. “Boy mosquitoes are vegetarians.”
Stan threw his head back and hooted. He kissed her again and ran to the cabin, shouting over his shoulder. “I’ll grab a specimen jar!”
Josie could hear him throwing cabinet doors open as she turned in a circle with her eyes closed, listening for the whine of a mosquito. Josie whispered, “I found them, Daddy.”
Stan leapt out of the cabin and dumped a jar of tadpoles into a salad bowl. He dried the jar out with his shirt and held it out to her, beaming. “Aren’t you glad you came?”
Josie pushed the jar to the side and slid her arms around his waist. “I’ve been glad for a week.” She tilted her head up to kiss the tip of his nose. “Remember that.”