Can We Be Difficult Together?

by Anna McCarthy

The first sign of weirdness among the nine- and ten-year-olds came when the adults were in a meeting. Thorndon Lofts is a cohousing community, so we have a lot of meetings. And because we’re a cohousing community for self-avowed difficult people, our meetings frequently involve conflict. This time the fight was between my fellow mods, Vanessa and Darwin. Vanessa wanted to schedule our annual pathogen and allergen inspection, which was overdue. Darwin wanted her to hold off. He said he’d made a priority list and mending the geodome roof was at the top. We couldn’t afford both. And he reminded us, unnecessarily, that last year it had rained every day from February to June, that hurricane season had lasted through December, and now, after a record winter snowfall, spring had brought yet more rain. The damage to the roof was only going to get worse.

Vanessa swooped the talking stick from Darwin’s hand and in her jolly, English boarding school way said, Oh I agree. The weather is the exact reason P and A inspections are so important! You wouldn’t believe the nasty stuff that grows in damp human dwellings.

Darwin took back the stick to reply, but I didn’t hear what he said. I was distracted by the noxious sound of water dripping from the ceiling. It was late afternoon, so the buckets were pretty full. Another wet sound entered my awareness, a slapping noise. I thought it was the tarp on the roof, but then I saw that people were clustering at the dome’s triangular windows and pointing at the source. I got up and joined them, looking through the rain and the greenery at something moving in the courtyard.

It’s the nines and tens, someone said, and then I saw them. They were stamping in unison, their bodies stiff. Some kind of dance, I thought. A crowd of older kids had gathered to watch. They were calling out and hooting, but the nines and tens paid no attention.

The parents and teachers were already running out of the dome, stumbling to put on their shoes. The rest of us followed, the debate about roof repairs and pathogen inspections forgotten by all. All, I should say, except Vanessa. As I was gathering my rain gear in the foyer I felt her hand on my back, then braced myself as she spit-whispered into my ear: we have to decide! Before Darwin buggers off on his conference! Without waiting for my reply she hurried off toward the courtyard. I got there right after, and like everyone else I stopped short and gaped. The twelve blank faced children were moving in formation. Their arms were spread, and they were all leaning forward at the same angle, each pair of eyes staring at some invisible point. They ignored the adults as we crowded around them.

What’s this silly business, Vanessa asked the older kids. No one spoke. She reached out a finger and poked Karimah, the oldest of the LiMurrayWallaces, the largest family in our community.

No clue, Karimah said. They just started doing it out of nowhere.

But what are they doing?

It sort of looks like a bent over Best Mates, said Karimah.

Vanessa looked at me. Best Mates?

It’s a dance from a legacy gaming site, I explained.

We stood and watched in silence. The rain was pouring down but they maintained the rhythm as they hopped from foot to foot, their plastic ponchos flapping.

It happened yesterday too, a voice said. And maybe the day before.

I turned around and saw Guthrie, parent of Kenn and Samm, twin ten-year-olds. She looked tiny and worried.

Some of them got together and did this exact same movement for almost an hour, she said. And they wouldn’t acknowledge anyone else while they were doing it. Then suddenly they stopped and went their separate ways. I tried later to get my two to explain, but they all they said was it’s not a big deal. I’ve begged them to say more but they won’t.

Couldn’t they just be rehearsing for Golden Day? Vanessa asked.

That’s a month away, said Guthrie. And why would they refuse to talk about it?

Golden Day is a big tradition in Thorn communities, a day in late spring when kids put on a show, with dancing and speeches. Originally, it was a day when the kids made the adults do unpleasant chores. One year we all had to go fishing for fatbergs in the seepage pit. Now, thankfully, all we need to do is make breakfast pizza, and spend a few hours at the school listening to what the kids have to say. Traditionally, the big performance is staged by the nines and tens, which is why Vanessa thought they might be practicing. But when we discussed it later, she had to admit that it hadn’t looked much like a rehearsal. Both of us had noticed the inhuman way the children stretched their necks forward. What had seemed at first like choreography was something else. Vanessa said it looked as if they were in a trance. I said the sight of them gave me a shiver, the kind of shiver I get when people post insect content on Thorntube and I forget to mute the sound.






The next day was Saturday. Usually on weekend mornings I teach a kids’ class on the Five Golden Thorns, the basic principles of our community. But last night we’d hastily decided to keep the nines and tens apart for the day, canceling activities and playdates. The membership would meet in the evening to check in. At a loss for something to do, I went over to the Gymeteria to help Beverly, our crisis coordinator. Disaster prep is a regular thing now at the Lofts, and Beverley’s always begging for volunteers to assemble emergency supply kits for areas of the city that might flood. That morning she had us sit on the floor in a circle with an assortment of essential items, from menstrual cups to solar lanterns, at the center. Each of us had a hemp plastic cube to pack. It was an involved process, because all the items were different shapes, and needed to be placed in a specific order. We were still figuring this out when Vanessa arrived, dripping water onto the warped floorboards. Same old Gymeteria pong, she said, fanning the air in front of her nose.

Vanessa squeezed into the circle next to Jens LiMurrayWallace and his co-son Frith, a lanky, silent twelve-year-old and a recent addition to our community. Frith presents as the kind of kid who wants to avoid attention, but unfortunately, he’s not very anonymous here at Thorndon Lofts. Frith is what is known as a separee. He transferred out of his family of origin in Thorndon Two, our rural outpost in the Hudson-Lenape Highlands. It’s been a little awkward for those of us who know Arvind and Anne, his parents of origin. In truth it would probably be awkward anyway, because the Separee Program, which allows kids aged between eleven and fifteen to become temporary members of a new family, is one of those initiatives from Thorn Group International that produces significant intensities among the membership.

As we worked on our cubes, Vanessa attempted some chat.

Gosh, Frith, I can’t believe it’s been three months. How are you getting on?


It was hard to see his face under his hair. He appeared to be concentrating on the cube in front of him, tucking the space blanket in beside the condoms, packing the conical spray bottle upside down. He didn’t look up as Vanessa continued her questioning.

Are you excited for Golden Day?

Frith gave a shrug.

I always think Golden Day is going to be torture, Beverley said. But it inevitably ends up being fun. The five-year-olds are adorable, with their little Thorn stories.

Vanessa said to Frith, you’ll be doing a presentation. All the older kids do one. You pick an issue and talk about it. Basically you’re doing a Thorncast.

And the grownups really do listen, added Jens. It’s because of a Golden Day Thorncast that the skateboard ramp has separate hours for kids and adults.

I wonder if there’ll be a dance performance this year, said Phara, the school librarian.

That’s a question for the meeting tonight, said Vanessa. The adults all exchanged looks.

In the ensuing silence, Beverley said, it’s always nice when kids share their interests. What do you like to do, Frith? Any hobbies?

Uh, I… Well, I like erasing the backgrounds in photos.

Oh very interesting, said Vanessa. And how do you decide what’s the background and what’s the foreground?

Frith hesitated, frowning at his now filled hemp cube.

I just try to move stuff between different content universes, he said.

Jens took the cube from him, placed it on the stack and stood up, saying they needed to go home and make lunch. To us he said, I’ll see you all at the meeting tonight.

We watched them leave, their stockinged feet slipping on the Gymeteria’s uneven floorboards. When they were gone, Phara said, I have a story for you guys. Instinctively, we all drew closer, although I saw wariness on Vanessa’s face.

Okay, said Phara. You know how we keep religious books in the school library? Everything from the Bible and the Koran to the Popul Vuh. So last week, it’s raining, as usual, and the kids are in the library for self time. And Frith comes in.

Vanessa said: is this a story about Frith? A Frith is weird story?

Phara took the question as encouragement, not seeing the grim look on Vanessa’s face.

Yes it is, she said. And it’s more than a little creepy. Because I’m like, Hi, Frith!, all enthusiastic, whereas Frith on the other hand doesn’t say anything. He sits down by the religious books and starts reading The Children’s Bible. Oh Frith, I go. That’s a classic choice!  I tell him there are some wonderful stories in there. The story of Joseph, for example. Still no response. Finally, Frith goes: I want to start with the crucifixion.

At this point in her tale Phara paused, looked around, and repeated the words: I want to start with the crucifixion.

I suppose it’s a weird thing to say, said Vanessa. But let’s face it. Our kids are weird. Is it a big deal?

Ignoring the question, Phara said: our kids are weird. Totally agree. Also, I have to say, something about the way Frith said this to me was not good. He said it with a little smile, like he expected the crucifixion would be enjoyable reading. I left him to it, but frankly, I was quite appalled.

Beverly shivered in sympathy. The crucifixion! The most violent part of the scripture!

Plus, said Phara–okay, I told myself not to talk about this, but it might be relevant. You know Frith’s OG mother, Anne, from Thorndon Two?

We all nodded, except Vanessa, who was sitting with her arms folded.

Well, said Phara, eyes glittering. She’s the library coordinator up there. And I specifically remember checking books out to her. Four or five years ago. She was always getting children’s titles. I remember them because they were all the same kind of thing. “Hands are not for Hitting,” and “Boo for Biting.”

We sat with this information. The rain tapped on the roof. I became aware of that very specific Gymeteria smell.

I don’t know, said Phara. I just wonder if in some way Frith is connected to this weird behavior in the nines and tens.

I’m going outside for a puff, said Vanessa, lurching up and fumbling for the vaporizer in her pocket. There was a catch in her voice; she hurried away, head down. I made my excuses soon afterwards and went to look for her. She was in her usual spot behind the gingko tree and she was crying, little yips like a puppy.

They’re so fucking hateful, she said. I can’t stand it. He’s a kid!

I told her not to listen to Phara. She’s always got a bee in her Birkenstocks, I said.

Vanessa frowned. That was a very Founding Family thing to say, she said. Reduce it to individual personalities.

I felt well and properly squashed. It’s not if I could help being born a Thorner. On reflection, I should have replied to the jab with one of the suggested phrases in the Thorn Guidelines conflict script—something like, ouch, that was a real thorn—but I rarely have the presence of mind to confront people in the moment. Besides, Vanessa was ranting.

It’s always the same ones, she said, puffing savagely and exhaling clouds. Phara and the paranoid parent types. And Darwin. Fuck Darwin. We’re supposed to be a team, and he dismisses every suggestion I make. Like this pathogen inspection. Oh, and by the way—

She stopped. I thought for a second she was having some kind of seizure, or maybe in her emotional state she had puffed too much on the vape and had lost her train of thought. Then, in the silence, I heard a wet, slapping sound. My eyes followed Vanessa’s gaze.

Somehow the nines and tens had escaped their domestic lockdowns and were dancing again, spread arms dangling at the elbow as their legs kicked back and forth.






Vanessa oversaw the meeting that night. She stepped onto the platform and thumped the talking stick three times, silencing the assembly.

Something’s wrong with our kids, she said. Pointing at Darwin, who had his lapbook open, she told us he was searching to see if any other Thorn communities had experienced behavior like this.

Share your Thorns, she commanded, proffering the stick to the line of people forming at the front of the room. Phara went first.

I just feel scared, she said. I mean, these are good kids, but they’re so unreachable when they do this dance thing. What if the other kids start doing it too?

Jens was several turns behind her in line, but nevertheless he stepped forward at this point, reaching for the talking stick. Vanessa took it from Phara and handed it to him, meeting his eye in a way that suggested she knew something about what he was about to say.

Listen, said Jens. Let’s cut the shit. We know you’ve been trying to blame Frith for this weird dance thing.

The room went still. Jens passed the stick to Livia, his coparent.

We know what people are saying, Livia said. That it only started after Frith arrived. Livia offered the stick to Kylie, their coparent, who shook their head. Meanwhile, the other parents and teachers were looking around at each other, cartooning wide-eyed astonishment. Then they all began speaking at once, the protocols of the talking stick entirely forgotten.

What? Wait. Are you saying—?

—Why would you think that?

The three coparents remained silent. We could hear the rain.

Frank, one of our most talkative members, said: okay, we might have discussed it in the textile repair shop one day.

Phara said, it was just speculation…

Others rushed in:

He does have a cosib in the nines and tens—

—And he’s friend with Kenn and Samm…

We really love Frith, but he’s…

We just think, out of all the kids, he is the most—



Having screamed these words, Vanessa grabbed the talking stick from Livia and hammered the floor, baring her teeth in a primate display. A snowfall of glitter dropped from the stick’s felt tassels and Darwin looked up from his lapbook. I glimpsed a dice game as he closed the screen.

I’m sorry, said Vanessa, but Frith is a child. Tell me, how does a twelve-year-old, a very shy twelve-year-old I might add, get to control other kids’ minds and bodies?

She gave the stick to Jens who said, you only need look at Frith, you only have to talk to him, to see how truly impossible it is for him to have anything to do with this behavior. He’s as confused as the rest of us!

I was watching Phara, wondering if she was going to say something about Frith and the crucifixion. But instead she started crying. I’m sorry, she said. We’re just all so scared.

This is an emergency, said Vanessa. She glanced at Darwin, then at me, and said: we have to call Thorn Medical. We need help.






At 08:00 the following morning, Vanessa and I were in the mod office, wearing our pajamas, still trying to get through to the central triage line. We’d abandoned internal Thorn telecom at some point the previous evening and were now trying to outwit the call queue randomizer by dialing simultaneously from our own phones. A ridiculous tactic, really, because they’re still Thorn phones, just with privacy enabled. But Vanessa seemed to think it would speed things up. Since Darwin was en route to his conference on Communally Held Crypto Assets, I sat at his desk and stared at the static images on the security monitor while hitting redial. The rain added an extra layer of grain to the screen. Then, unexpectedly, I saw movement: a tall guy wheeling a cargo tricycle toward the compound’s main gate. He bent down to wave at the camera.

Hi, I said into the mic. Can I help you?


No, I replied. Would you like to speak with her?

She’s my contact.

I looked around. She was standing behind me.

Buggeration, she said. It’s the inspector! I forgot!

She ran to the door, flinging a poncho over her pajamas and stepping into a pair of boots (mine) before running out into the rain. In the monitor I saw her open the gate and usher the guy toward the covered bike rack. When she returned, he entered the office behind her.

That’s the drip zone, she said, pointing at the square mat below the coat hooks. Obediently he stepped over with his wet backpack and started removing outerwear. The metallic green letters stenciled on his white T-shirt spelled out Mold Bro. Seeing my questioning look, he said, I’m the P and A inspector.

Oh! I looked at Vanessa, wondering how she’d convinced Darwin to change his priority list.

Tell me your name again, Mold Bro, she said.

Freddie, he said. Or just Fred. He was changing into full body PPE.

But Darwin’s not here, I said. You must have the wrong time, Freddie.

It was me who made the appointment, said Vanessa. I made it for now because I knew Darwin was going to be away.

I stared at her in surprise, but she pretended not to notice.

Mmkay, said Freddie, looking at a map of the Lofts on his phone. So you said to start with the Gymeteria, right?

Vanessa looked at me. Well, it does have that funny smell, she said. And the foundation slab cracked when it flooded last year. Right, Jane?

Sure, I said, thinking: does my opinion matter?

Vanessa said, we would come and show you but we’re on hold with Thorn Medical. Bit of an emergency.

He nodded, pulled a poncho on over his backpack full of equipment, and left us. Vanessa took an apple from her bag and took a loud bite.  I immediately put my headphones on, suspecting that she was triggering my misophonia to avoid having a conversation about going behind Darwin’s back.

As I listened to the lofi folkhop tapping and jangling on the cellular line, Vanessa gnawed and chomped while watching videos of people enjoying the latest Thorner fad: herd jogging vacations, which match groups of athletes with owners of working breed dogs. At one point she turned the screen to show me two collies and a cattle dog scrambling through a ravine to drive a flock of neon clad runners into a corral. I tried to look interested, but my face was a big blank emoji. Eventually she threw her apple core in the compost and motioned to me to remove my headphones. I did so, aware I was pantomiming reluctance.

Oh come on, Jane, I had to do it. Darwin’s little priority list goes against all the guidelines. And there are funds to cover it in the Dialogue and Wellness Mod’s discretionary budget.

We’re supposed to get bids for this sort of thing, and give preference to Thorners.

This mold bro is a Thorner! I mean, he’s not one of the founding families—she said this in a la-di-da voice—he’s someone who actually needs the work. He’s a DebtShare member with a listing in the Shit Jobs section of the Thorny Vine.

I let the founding families dig go, because I wanted to ask about the use of DebtShare labor. It’s supposed to be approved by the entire Thorndon Lofts community, something Vanessa should know perfectly well. But before I could speak the Mold Bro burst in, bringing the damp air with him, and something else, a sense of excitement, or urgency, or accomplishment. Vanessa put her hands on her hips.

Well, Freddie?

Standing on the drip square, still in his poncho, Freddie said, it’s a good thing you called me. He shook his head. Do kids use that room regularly?

Only one group, Vanessa said. The nines and tens. It’s their classroom. Why? What’s going on?

Freddie paused and, like a mind reader, asked: so, these kids, how’s their behavior? Are they doing stuff they don’t usually do?

Vanessa and I looked at each other.

They’re being very weird, I said. In fact that’s why we’re calling Thorn Medical.

Freddie shook his head. That’ll take forever. I’ll set you up. He took out his phone and sent a message then, looking up, asked: do you guys have PPE? There’s something you might want to see.






Vanessa and I went to the Data Center, where Darwin keeps a locker filled with chemsuits and biohoods. We put them on under our waterproofs, then waddled like penguins along the potholed path to the Gymeteria. Freddie met us inside, a crowbar in his hand. As we watched he wedged it between the floorboards, which gave way with a wooden shriek. The Gymeteria smell grew stronger, the hole in the floor a rotten wound.

Look at this, he said, and reached in. Pieces of damp plywood subfloor came away in his gloved hand.

Looks like water damage, said Vanessa.

More than that, said Freddie. He got out his flashlight, pointing it into the crawl space underneath and told us to look again. Vanessa bent closer.

I can’t see anythi—

She grabbed my arm. Oh God what is that?

I took a step away from the illuminated hole.

Yeah, Freddie said. There’s some biological activity.

Vanessa leaned in again, then leaned back and exhaled a nauseated groan.

Freddie said to me, you’re totally safe in PPE. You should take a look.

I got on my knees and shuffled over to the hole as he angled the light. A yellowish filament, as fine as hair, had webbed itself throughout the narrow space under the Gymeteria floor. It covered all the joists and formed branching patterns on the rubble strewn concrete slab.

Cladosporium Dzielskii. The mycelium is fruiting heavily. There’ve been reports of a couple of outbreaks, said Freddie. It grows so fast you don’t have a chance to eradicate it before you start seeing symptoms in kids. It only affects younger ones. In fact, your nines and tens are the perfect age for hosts.

He stood up, replacing the floorboard as Vanessa and I looked at each other through our acrylic eye panes.


Freddie said that the chorea, as the symptom is known, would go away once the kids got started on anti-mycotics. They would have to isolate. Thorn Biocontainment would coordinate everything from this point on.






The next day we waved goodbye to the nines and tens as they and their families drove away in an electric school bus borrowed from the nursing home up the street. They were going to quarantine in the forest cabins at Thorndon Two. White-suited figures were already bustling about the compound at Thorndon Lofts, taking air samples and marking out zones of remediation with luminescent paint. As the Archive mod, I set myself some tasks for the week: doing oral histories of the mold event and collecting files for the repository. I’d also started outlining a final account of the entire occurrence for the official Thorn Chronicle.

That was the moment when I really did think things could get better. Shortly after the nines and tens left, the rain lightened, then ceased. There was abundant sunshine every day. After two weeks we received word from Thorndon Two that the kids were acting normally again. By then Darwin had returned and the mold eradication process was underway. Since the affected families weren’t allowed to move back until it was complete, he opted to spend most of his week up there with them, doing distance learning tech support. Or so he said. Vanessa suspected he was sulking because she’d ordered the inspection without his consent and, fortuitously, solved the mystery of the nines and tens in the process.

Then, before we knew it, Golden Day was upon us. With so many people off site we made it a virtual event. I organized a gathering in the geodome for those who wanted to watch on the big screen. First the fives and unders presented declarations about the things that concern them—millet casserole, baby pigeons, screen time—all framed in terms of the First Golden Thorn (Some People are Difficult.) Then came a sad little video of the nines and tens waving and smiling from their isolation units. After lunch we reassembled to watch the older kids present their Thorncasts. I worried about what Frith was going to say. Anne and Arvind were in the webinar participant list. Could reports of that meeting have reached his OG family? It had been an ugly little moment in the life of our community.

I needn’t have been concerned; Frith’s Thorncast was amusing and enlightening. It compared the crucifixion scene in The Children’s Bible to a crucifixion scene from a canonical horror film called Carrie, asking why the movie has all sorts of warning labels in the library’s content database but there aren’t any warning labels on The Children’s Bible. There’s a whole bunch of not-safe-for-kids stuff in this book, he’d said. There’s like tons of gore, plus demons, plus reanimated dead people, plus speaking in tongues and whatnot. Kids deserve to know what to expect.

When the Thorncast was finished, Phara led the cheers. In the following days everyone seemed to agree that Frith had made an important intervention. Darwin said he thought we should write a Facebook Reparations Grant to create a kid librarian position, with Frith the inaugural honoree. Phara said she’d be glad to help.

I had some reservations about Frith’s goal in making this presentation, but as everyone was being so positive I kept them to myself. It had seemed pretty clear to me that Frith was poking fun at Christianity, yet it was equally evident that his intentions didn’t matter. Even if he was just a weird kid having a joke at our expense, the important thing was that everyone at Thorndon Lofts had welcomed him into the group. It felt like a direct affirmation of the Fifth Golden Thorn: We Can be Difficult Together. After everything we’d been through—the rain, the nines and tens, that terrible meeting, and now the quarantine and the mold remediation—his call for censorship had brought us into community.

I wish I could say the feeling lasted. But soon enough the rain came back, and our day-to-day lives shrank. Thorndon Two was dealing with the threat of a mudslide, so Darwin went back upriver, leaving me and Vanessa to handle things down here. Not that there was much we could do except stand with the rest of the membership and watch, helpless, as torrents flowed across our sun-baked grounds, sending debris to destroy vegetable beds and polytunnels, crumpling the skateboard ramp, tearing up all the paths we’d just finished mending. And even inside it was impossible to feel entirely safe. Some areas, most notably the geodome, had been designated compromised by Thorn Biocontainment. Now, to enter, we had to wear special three-micron masks, which were hot and made everyone’s nose run. It’s to Darwin’s credit that he never said told you so when the biocontainment team told us we really should have mended the roof sooner.

The mod office wasn’t contaminated, and with Darwin away there was plenty of space. But that doesn’t mean the atmosphere was good. Vanessa was busy with a new hobby, removing backgrounds from photos. It was relaxing, she said. She spent whole days on the couch, rubbing away at the images on her phone while I tried—am trying—to write. The headphones are no help because she’s always poking my arm to show me some trivial thing on the screen, a nope or a meme or a peep. With all this proximity I’m forced to grasp the thorn in our relationship. I cannot ignore what I’ve been trying so hard not to say: that I really, truly, cannot stand Vanessa. I wish the rains would wash her away. What I want is a massive and very precise flood, stronger than her iron will and oh-so-confident opinions, a flood that would surge into this office to carry Vanessa, and only Vanessa, out to sea.

Anna McCarthy teaches cinema studies at NYU and edits the journal Social Text Online. Her stories have appeared in The London Reader, Short Fiction, and Litro.