Experimental Trials (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

After the first, which was of course televised, a silence swept over the land. Networks later reported a full four minutes and thirty-nine seconds of dead air during which the camera simply recorded the creeping progress. It was the black-haired man—whose body was slowly rising from the exam table, carried by invisible hands to hover six inches above the linoleum tiles of the vaccine site—who finally broke the silence. “Jesus,” he whispered.

From his ratty armchair my father said, “Those nonbelievers on Possum Drive must be shitting themselves right about now.” Over the course of the four and a half minutes, during which the man’s body had moved steadily, gracefully through the air, my brother Jeb had scooted closer and closer to the television. The blues and golds from the screen illuminated the soft round skin of his cheeks. My mother crossed herself and said, “God is good.”

My father included the black-haired man, Jacob Blackwell, in our evening prayers that night. Fingers twisted into my nightgown, I tried to focus on his wooden voiced recitation, but another moment hung in my mind, twisting and flashing and untwisting on its long string, a suncatcher grabbing all the surrounding light and scattering it, fracturing everything with its sharp angles.

# #

The floating man was on the front page of the Kentucky Gazette the next morning alongside an interview with a scientist who spent a lot of time talking about density and gas in the body and possible chemical reactions in the bloodstream.

“These people wouldn’t know God if He hit them upside the head with a two-by-four,” my father said, letting the thin pages flutter back into place on the table. “Miracle!” he declared over the rim of his coffee cup. “Miracle!”

My mother flipped to the case count for Alabaster. “Two more deaths.”


There was quiet in the kitchen as she rifled through to the obituaries.


My father nodded. No one from the congregation had died of the virus.

As I was pouring cereal, we received a call from the Grace Fellowship phone tree. Ma put the call on speakerphone, so we could all listen to Sister Alice share the pastor’s message about God’s gift. Sister Alice had a stutter, and Jeb was bouncing in place, impatient to return to his Lincoln logs long before she finished. She got it out at last. The plague was over. The earth had been cleansed of wickedness. Sloth, gluttony, covetousness, wrath, pride, and lust had been wiped out. Adulterers, homosexuals, murderers, rapists, criminals, and thieves had received their judgement. God had sent a sign that it was time to begin anew in His holy name, and Jacob Blackwell was that sign.

“Amen,” we said as one into the speakerphone, and then my mother hung up and called the Bradburys to repeat the message. My father cut Blackwell’s picture out of the paper, emptied a gold picture frame of a photo of his mother, and inserted the floating man. He hung it in the kitchen between a print of the Madonna and a brass crucifixion.

At school the Grace fellowshippers were already talking about Blackwell as the Second Coming. After lunch we piled into the gym.

“Six feet apart! Six feet apart!” Mrs. Kanoffel kept yelling as the science teacher fussed with the projector which was showing nothing but blue. In the echo chamber of cement bricks, I heard Millie Zarturo laugh, or I thought I heard her laugh. She would be in the back with the nonbelievers. I didn’t turn my head to look for her. Then the Fox News logo came into focus. It was warm in the gym, and the breath in my mask slipped up to fog the lenses of my glasses until I had to take them off and wipe them every few minutes. Blackwell was still floating. They showed a short clip of him hovering around the hospital room where he was being kept for observation, eating his breakfast in mid-air. They were doing it again, this time with a woman. She had short red hair that curled out on either side of her face. Black wires and electrodes were connected to her temples, her chest, and just about everywhere. The doctor administering the vaccine stepped back as soon as the liquid entered her body.

At first, nothing happened and the fellowshippers sitting together in the front row of the bleachers nodded at one another. “He shall come again in glory to judge—” Shirly Baker began, then there was a tugging on the wires. The camera frame zoomed out. Her legs were lifting. Her shoulders rose. There she was, a solid two inches above the red pleather of the exam table. I think she could have gone higher if she weren’t hooked up to all those machines which just kept chugging along. Nothing beeped rapidly like in those hospital shows. No plunging red lines appeared on the monitors. A few of the nonbelievers on the back rows of the bleachers laughed.

“There seem to be no adverse side effects,” one doctor said later, standing beside the floating woman.

When we got home from school, Dad wasn’t there. We ate without him and didn’t hear his car in the driveway until late. Every afternoon that week after lunch we trekked to the gym to watch the breaking news coverage. Our experiments for the county science fair went forgotten. The trifold was tucked away in the back of my closet, and although I often thought of those five green dots left by her sleeping hand, I did not take the board out to study them. I tried to let the dust settle over my guilt.

On Wednesday, an older man levitated six and a half inches off the ground. On Thursday, a young woman made it nearly a foot. On Friday monozygotic twins hovered at exactly the same height. On Saturday, to quiet Jeb, Ma ushered us into the station wagon, and we drove the two hours to the Louisville Slugger Museum. “Your father needs to rest,” she said when Jeb asked why he wasn’t coming.

On Sunday, in the sun-filled sanctuary, which smelled overpoweringly of disinfectant, the pastor gave a sermon called, “Are You Worthy of God’s Kingdom?” He began with the flood. Our congregation, he said, was a mighty ark which protected us from the waters of destruction because we were found to be righteous in His eyes. The virus had cleansed the earth of the sinful, but only those who were truly pure of heart would enter heaven. Pastor Pierce explained that the vaccine was a test of holiness. The higher we floated, the closer we were to God. My father, clean shaven for the first time this week, seemed finally at peace in the warm glow of the pastor’s words.

The monozygotic twins died of back-to-back heart attacks that night. The doctors said it had nothing to do with the injection, but suddenly nobody besides us wanted anything to do with the clinical trials. Government funding was cut overnight, and the plan for the multi-city pilot delivery program was halted. That’s why the experimental trials were moved to Alabaster. There was such a clamour for it from Grace Fellowship that those white coats packed up their Erlenmeyer flasks and came on out here in two weeks flat. Everyone wanted to know they were worthy of God’s kingdom. It was the school nurse who told me, when I couldn’t stop crying during the annual 7th grade eye exam, that children wouldn’t be included in the experimental trials.

“Not until you’re eighteen,” she said, eyes kind over her powder blue mask.

So I tried to erase the memory of Milly Zarturo. If I couldn’t remember the sin, maybe it wouldn’t count.

# #

The doctors thought the floating would dissipate with time, but Blackwell was still averaging four and three-eighths inches off the ground three months later. Soon the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly were full of floating men and women. Nonbelievers would ask my mother to hand them the last box of Bisquick on the top shelf, and she would extend her arm. Jeb and I had to get the groceries on the bottom shelves. Once you were up there, floating, it didn’t seem you could come down so easily. The bike shop in town had offered to install clips on the brake and gas pedals, so vaccinated adults could drive, and soon all the elders in the congregation were floating around in cycling shoes.

I had thought it would be a sort of graceful gliding, but my father, one of the highest floaters at eleven and a quarter inches, couldn’t carry a cup of coffee to his armchair without spilling it. “At least I don’t have to wear those dang masks anymore,” he would say cheerfully every time the coffee sloshed from his mug. The floaters walked through the air, which seemed to be an invisible bumpy surface beneath their feet. Sometimes they stepped into holes, sinking to nearly an inch above the floor. When this happened, they stumbled, but they didn’t seem capable of falling. Something in the air seemed to catch them before they reached the ground. Mrs. Popejoy with her flowered cane and thick prescription glasses had taken to shuffling everywhere so as to avoid the craters.

Not long after all the adults had been vaccinated, Grace Fellowship began a petition to allow children into the experimental trials. Pretty soon news vans were parked outside the church day and night. Men and women with perfect hair, wearing tailored suits and surgical masks, milled around in the courtyard as Pastor Pierce preached about salvation and waved his clipboard in the air. One of the Sisters had tied a pen on a string to the clipboard, and it shook and trembled and jumped as the pastor gesticulated.

A girl from the high school, a nonbeliever named Sarah-Bell, dressed up in a Grace Fellowship jumper and kerchief and gave an interview to Robert MacNeil. A couple of fellowshippers saw it on the PBS news hour. Apparently Sarah-Bell talked a bunch of BS about wanting to float and how her ma told her she would throw her out of the house if she didn’t make it at least five inches off the ground. Jeremiah showed me the clip in the library while we were working on our social studies homework. “You can tell she’s trying not to laugh,” he said, as Sarah-Bell lifted a hand to cover her face. The shot switched to a closeup of Mr. McNeil looking directly into the camera. He sighed deeply and began talking about societal pressures in religious communities. I pulled off the headphones, looked out the window, chewed on my lip, then looked back at Jeremiah. “Did you hear about Mayweather?” He shook his head.

There had been a rumor going around the school that Tommy Mayweather had sex with a nonbeliever back in September, but when he got the vaccine on his eighteenth birthday, he floated eight and a half inches. I whispered this to Jeremiah over the large, laminated map showing Christopher Columbus’ travels which we were supposed to be copying into our notes. “Maybe God doesn’t care if you have sex. Maybe all this time we’ve been wrong about what He has forbidden.” Jeremiah’s tongue was protruding from his lips, and the tip wiggled slightly as he glanced at the map and then back at his drawing, forehead scrunched in concentration. “Or maybe that whole thing was a rumor and Tommy never had sex with anyone.”

At night in bed, after Jeb had turned out the light, I lay awake wondering how God measured sin. Apparently none of the adults had a sin heavy enough to keep them on the ground, even Mrs. Perzinsky who used to be an underwear model. Pastor Pierce had said the virus cleansed the world of wickedness, and I was still here, so that must mean my sin had been forgiven, at least part-way. I tried to forget about Millie Zarturo and the shimmer of tiny golden hairs on her flushed cheek and the scent of the warm air just above her skin.

# #

In November, a lawyer from Grace Fellowship sued the experimental trials on the grounds of religious freedom, saying children had a right to receive the vaccine. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. It took a long time, and during those months I tried to be good and righteous. I did visualizations like when the gym teacher told us to imagine the ball striking the center of the bat. I imagined washing the stain from my soul the way Ma had taught me to scrub the menstrual blood from my underwear. I closed my eyes hard until I could see the soap froth turn pink and feel my fingers become icy beneath the cold water, until I saw the stain stream over the porcelain basin and spiral down the drain.

We were hanging garland at the church, getting ready for the Christmas pageant later that week, when one of the older boys poked his head into the sanctuary and yelled, “They found one.” He took off down the carpeted hall. We clutched the skirts of our jumpers and followed.

The large room in the church basement was packed. The television showed a grainy recording of a woman I didn’t recognize. She was small with short brown hair and a stern mouth. After nine months of the pandemic, a few nonbelievers had shown up for the experimental trials. All had floated.

A man in a white coat administered the vaccine. There was a long silence. The digital timestamp on the bottom right of the footage flashed away the seconds. Nothing happened. The woman’s feet remained on the floor. The scene cut back to a bright newsroom where Robert MacNeil was interviewing a scientist. The red and white headline along the bottom of the screen read, “Anomalous Woman.” I looked around for the pastor but couldn’t find his face in the crowded room. “What does it mean?” one of the younger kids asked in a whisper. My father, leaning against a beat-up piano in the corner, said simply, “God missed one.”

She was dead by the eleven o’clock news. From my hiding spot, I peeked through the slats in the banister. They showed the crumpled sheet-metal of her white Honda illuminated in the darkness by flashing ambulance lights at the intersection of fifth and Broadway, and then a bunch of photos from her Facebook page. She had been a nurse and a single mom. Two of her coworkers had recently died of the virus. “She was desperate to protect herself and her son,” a crying woman explained to a shaky camera beside the accident site in the gently falling snow. The screen cut to a photo of the woman on a sled, holding a child on her lap. My mother turned off the television and rose from the couch with her tea. It was then that I noticed the empty armchair. My father was still at the deacon’s meeting.

At school the next day, Ronny Buckman said his older brother had seen the woman walking the boulevard plenty of times and that she had been a prostitute. He said all those photos of her in scrubs were just from a Halloween party. By lunchtime there was a rumor that the car accident had been a setup, and that Pastor Pierce had something to do with it. I wasn’t sure if the rumor came from a fellowshipper or a nonbeliever, but suddenly it was everywhere. Older nonbelievers shouted the rumor to one another with a smile in the hallway between classes. In the cafeteria, a group of older fellowship boys began banging on the table and chanting Pastor Pierce’s name until Mrs. Kanoffel approached with a stern look.

It was taco day, and the beans had soaked through the bottom of the hard-shell taco, so it tore in my hands and spilled in my lap when I lifted it to my mouth. I put the taco down and drank two cartons of chocolate milk. I glanced across the cafeteria to where a group of nonbelievers were exchanging gifts. Millie Zarturo was somewhere behind the shiny gift bags and thick red ribbons, but I could not make out her face.

It was the last day of school before Christmas vacation, and we had a test in every class that afternoon. When I asked Jeremiah what he thought about the rumor, he just shrugged over his flashcards and said the woman’s death was inevitable, i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-e. It was one of the words on our English spelling list. “Of course God was going to intervene. I-n-t-e-r-v-e-n-e.” But did he think Pastor Pierce had intervened? “Only He is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.” And he proceeded to spell each word.

# #

In February, they came out with another vaccine that didn’t make you float. Most of the nonbelievers in town got vaccinated with the new one, and things finally started to feel normal again.

That spring every boy in fifth grade signed up for the baseball team. We went to every game, my parents hovering over the last row in the bleachers, behind the nonbelievers and the out-of-towners. Jeb played shortstop like Pee Wee Reese, pounding his left hand into his glove and spitting into the red clay. His raggedy bowl cut was too long, and he was forever shaking the hair from his eyes before crouching into his low stance, glove hovering in the air before him. He refused to let my mother cut his hair all season. He said it was his good luck charm. When my mother repeated the Grace Fellowship adage, “There is no such thing as good luck, only God’s luck,” he only shrugged and went to his room.

One Saturday he jumped nearly three feet to catch a rogue hit, the maw of his red-brown glove roaring into the air. The out-of-towners gave him a standing ovation. My father whooped and clapped and said, “Just think of when he can fly.” Pastor Pierce had started to call it flying, even though you still had to lift your feet to move, and no one seemed to be able to make it higher than fourteen inches. A girl from the school newspaper caught the play with her camera, and the picture was on the front page, “Miraculous Catch.” My father shook his head over the headline. “These people wouldn’t know a miracle if it hit them upside the head with a two-by-four.”

# #

We were in the middle of Kentucky-mandated standardized testing when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Grace Fellowship. None of the teachers told us, but we knew because Grace Fellowship parents started picking their kids up early. I imagined holding the sin in my hand, closing it in my fist, pictured it compacting, draining, shrinking to nothing. How much sin were you allowed to carry into His Kingdom? How much was too much to fly? What if they gave me the shot and I rose a quarter of an inch and nothing more?

From inside the silent rooms with butcher paper hanging over the reference charts on the walls, I could hear my father’s voice in the hallway, arguing with Mrs. Kanoffel. “She can finish the test later.” “State rules require-” He was already walking towards the door. I knew the skid and shuffle of my father’s footsteps, knew them in the aisles at church, knew them coming down the stairs early on Sundays, knew the soft sound as he moved through the uneven air. I could hear my blood rushing through my ears like a river rushing towards an edge. Ma and Dad had taken us to Niagara Falls when I was nine and Jeb was six. For a moment I could feel the clouds of cold mist on my skin, feel the force of the water stampeding against the eroding rocks, and hear the middle-aged woman in the blue raincoat behind us muttering to her friend, “They never talk about how many people died going over those falls by accident.”

On my way to the front of the room, I passed Millie Zarturo’s bent head. The tributaries of her brown curly hair split off one after the other, revealing a sliver of her milk-white scalp as she meticulously filled in perfect circles with her number two pencil. Millie was a nonbeliever. She would finish her test uninterrupted. She would walk home, maybe stopping at the corner store for a pack of gum, then she would watch some after-school sitcom my father would never let us see. During the commercial breaks maybe she would check the local news, but she wouldn’t think of me. I was nothing to her, and she didn’t know; it was the only reason I hadn’t asked her to forgive me. I had thought about apologizing a hundred times, but I couldn’t apologize without telling her what I had done. I thought if I never said it out loud, maybe it would cease to exist.

“Hurry up,” my father kept saying as we walked down the hallways covered in student artwork. “Hurry up. There’ll be a line already.” Jeb was with him, and as we ran to keep up with my father’s long strides, I could hear the hiss and rub of his backpack straps. He was holding his glove. It was a Tuesday, which meant practice. The playoffs were next week.

My hands were trembling, and it took several tries to secure the metal tongue of the seatbelt into place. Pastor Pierce says we all choose our path. Man makes his own fate. Sweat slid down my training bra. I was in seventh grade, and I had already ruined the rest of my life.

The sun was in my eyes as we drove to the vaccine site. I raised a hand against the bright orb, but my face still felt hot in the shade of my palm. We rode across the train tracks, and as the car jolted over each bump, I realized I wasn’t going to heaven. The car lurched once more and puke erupted, orange and stinging from my nose and mouth, coating the yellow and blue atlas in the backseat pocket of the passenger side, the center console, the window. My gray jumper was warm and wet against my skin. I blinked back whatever else threatened to come up. My father pulled over, but there wasn’t much to be done. We drove the rest of the way with the windows down.

The line was the longest I had ever seen in my life, reaching its thin arm down County Route 603. The afternoon sun baked the vomit onto my dress until it formed a crusty continental outline. We waited, and I watched the shifting of our shadows with the sun’s trajectory across the sky. The whole congregation seemed to be here, but the kids were quiet. Ronny Buckman was two places ahead of us in line, but he didn’t seem to have any jokes today. He just chewed on his fingernails until his mother slapped his hand out of his mouth, and then he scrunched his eyes against the sun and stared into the distance. It wouldn’t be long now.

When she got off work at five, Ma brought me a new jumper and we waited in line together. As the vaccination tents drew nearer, the claps and whoops became audible. Then we could see them, the newly risen emerging from the plastic flaps, boys from the school band, girls I had played tag with at the church potluck, floating slowly, unsteadily, to the glistening parking lot. I flexed my fingers incessantly as I waited until the skin, brittle from so much hand sanitizer, cracked and began to bleed.

It had been over four hours, and I decided I couldn’t get the vaccine.

My father was down the line talking to Neil Caringo, hands pushed deep into his pants pockets, leaning back on his heels, so I turned to my mother. She had her eyes closed against the sharp angle of the sunset, and her lips were moving which meant she was praying. In crowded waiting rooms, when nonbelievers pulled out their cell phones, my mother closed her eyes and talked to God.

“Mom.” I spoke quietly so the McCutchins behind us in line wouldn’t hear. Her eyes remained closed. I tried again. “Mom.”

“Yes, baby.” Her eyelids were pearly orange against the setting sun. I knew I had interrupted her conversation.

“I can’t get the vaccine.”

“Of course, you can, baby.”

“No, I can’t.”

“It’s a small needle. Just a little prick and then it’s over.”

“I don’t feel well.”

“This’ll just take a minute. Don’t you have a minute for Him?”

Her eyes were still closed, the familiar wrinkle lines on her forehead smoothed away, her face a placid lake into which I was throwing an infant to drown. She held one hand in the other, cupping them softly over her stomach. She had come straight from work, still in her dental hygienist’s scrubs. On her breast pocket, an orange tabby batted at a ball of yarn. The toes of her brown clogs were scuffed, and her blue orthotics peeked out by her heels. Around her lake-like face, wisps of hair branched out like streams. If I told her, everything would change. I looked down to hide the water welling in my eyes.

“Mom. I—”

“Baby, if you got something you need to get off your chest, tell it to the Lord.” She opened her eyes now and nodded towards the tents, the dwindling line. “We’ll soon know His reply.”

My stomach clenched around my secret.

“I really don’t feel well,” I tried again. “I read you shouldn’t get a vaccine if-”

“Excuse me.” My mother tapped on the shoulder of the woman in front of us. “My daughter’s got a stomach ache. Would it be okay if we moved up the line, so we can get her home as soon as possible?”

My lip split beneath the pressure of my teeth as we moved rapidly up the remainder of the line this way, stepping ahead of quiet nods and muted smiles until we were next. Jeb stood at my mother’s side, buried in the pages of a baseball book from the library. There were claps and cheers from within the tent in front of us, and then a ninth grade boy with an electric pink Band-Aid on his bicep floated through the flaps.

“Next,” a woman in pink rubber gloves waved.

“Jeb can go first.” I shoved my hands into my pockets to hide their shaking.

“I’m not doing it,” Jeb said, nose still in his book.

“What’s that?” My father was at my mother’s side now, ready to go in with us.

“I’m not doing it,” Jeb repeated.

“Is the kingdom of heaven not-” my father began, but Jeb interrupted.

“Coach says we aren’t eligible for the playoffs if we float.”

The woman with the pink gloves put a hand on her hip. From the tent beside her, another woman poked her head out and called, “I can take whoever’s next over here.”

“Come on,” my mother said, stepping forward. My father reached for Jeb’s hand, but Jeb pulled away and took off running. A ripple passed down the line as folks turned their heads to watch the Douglas boy sprinting down Route 603, his too long hair flowing like a ribbon in his wake. Maybe if I had run too, everything would have turned out differently.

Then my mother’s hand was in the small of my back, pushing me forward. The tent flaps drew back. The woman with the pink gloves was scrubbing my upper arm with an alcohol swab. I closed my eyes and told God I would pay any price to atone for my sin and be allowed into His kingdom. I felt the sting of the needle and imagined the plunger in reverse, imagined the woman drawing the sin out of me, those two minutes of my existence exiting my body, filling the syringe with a thin blue substance which would never again enter my life.

It was back in September, the day Jacob Blackwell floated, in the darkness of morning hours long preceding the school day. The science fair was Wednesday, and I had carried our unfinished trifold over to Millie Zarturo’s house. Thin bodies of markers rolled over the slanted bedroom floor and collected in a dip beneath her bed. When I was finished with my third of the trifold, I reeled myself up from the pool of that exhausted compliance and found Millie asleep on the floor. The uncapped green marker in her hand had left several small dashes on the poster where her sleeping body had shifted.

I found the green cap and reached for the marker, but my fingers settled instead on her mask, and then they were unhooking the elastic from the seashell of her ear. I wanted her to be a fellowshipper. I wanted to walk to church with her and gossip after choir practice. I wanted to brush the hem of her jumper with my pinky as we sat on the worn wooden pews. I wanted to see what was under her mask. Milly’s pink lips were parted in sleep. Her cheeks were flushed, and as I leaned closer in the shine of her desk lamp, I could make out the shimmer of tiny golden hairs, a whisper of the down that covered the goslings in spring. I pulled my mask off and leaned closer, bringing my nose to the warmed air above her cheek. The faintest aroma of laundry detergent and peppermint rose to meet me, and another smell I couldn’t pin down, something gentle, the smell of warmth if warmth had a scent. My lips brushed her cheek, gliding over those soft downy hairs, my mouth opened.

I felt a sharp pain as something was removed from my body; then I heard my mother clapping.

# #

It took my father and the other men from the church a long time to find Jeb. When it grew dark, they returned to the house for flashlights. Still unsteady in the air, I crouched by the hutch in the living room, scrounging for more AAA batteries for our camping lantern. I was still awake when the phone rang in the middle of the night, and I knew that meant they had found him.  “They’re taking him now? God bless,” I heard my mother say softly into the hallway phone.

The next morning, my mother woke me at six to get ready for school. It took longer than usual, being up so close to the shower head, having to crouch to reach the bottom drawer of my dresser. I was running late by the time I entered the kitchen. Jeb sat at the table in front of a bowl of Cheerios. Dark circles crouched under his eyes. My mother hadn’t brushed his hair, and it poked out at awkward angles. An electric pink Band-Aid peeked out from beneath the lip of his shirt sleeve. When my mother grabbed her keys wordlessly, Jeb stood, feet still on the floor, and reached for his backpack, and I knew God had heard my prayer and answered with His swift and terrible judgement.

Olivia Fantini grew up in Massachusetts and spent six years teaching middle school. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Minnesota where she was awarded the Gesell Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly. She is currently at work on a novel and a memoir.