The last time I saw the other Ryan we were grown men, sitting in the same church pew where we had been boys, still blood brothers only now not quite believers, listening to the bishop talk about the devil flaying souls in outer darkness, that unimaginative name in Mormon cosmology given to the place for souls so damned they’re beyond hell. It’s somewhere out there, the bishop said from the pulpit, waving his hands against the invisible, out there in the emptiness of space.

Leaning closer, close enough that if I’d been a dog I could have smelled his breath soured by the leukemia he never told me had returned, I asked the other Ryan if he still had the roadkill photo album we collected as boys. Crows, racoons, possums, snakes. Lots of neighborhood cats. That bloated deer carcass off the highway in the Mojave Desert where the car broke down. Little Lucifer, we nicknamed the other Ryan, because he jokingly prayed to Satan at church, because he played in a goregrind band writing songs like “Fecal Smothered Dildo Punishment.” But despite his affinity for grotesques, his gentleness was astonishing. I once saw him pause in the middle of a busy intersection just to rescue a caterpillar.

There was that jellyfish too, he whispered as our mothers, falling back on old habits, shushed us. It’s strange how much the mind is a tentacle because no sooner did he say it than I remembered that mauve bubble glued to the parking lot asphalt, its iridescent tentacles fanned out like an alien castaway seemingly enticing us to touch it and be abducted. It would be years before I felt holy envy for the jellyfish. Immortal things that can recycle their cells and mature backwards into childhood, over and over becoming a medusa whose touch can slow down the world.

We dared each other, but the other Ryan had been stung before. Like hellfire dancing under the skin, he said.

As boys, we believed in hell even if we didn’t yet know there’s no such thing as empty space. Just like we didn’t know that telescoping the darkness would yield a different kind of jellyfish. Clusters of spiraling galaxies out there in deep space. When a disc of these old dim stars with a bulging black hole at the center drifts too close to another galaxy it begins to spaghettify. Pressed through a sieve of rich, superheated plasma, one galaxy tears apart its brother, the unimaginable pressure stripping away the celestial body and creating a bread crumb trail of new stars bubbling to life in the hot gaseous plumes that spread across thousands of light years like cosmic tentacles.

Maybe the bishop was right. You get too close to some things and they’ll rip you apart. But I’d still rather be a wandering thing. A smeared haze of star stuff adrift on the night ocean looking for an island to call home.

The jellyfish down here are not afraid of dark places either. Deep in the ocean they wander. Fanning out tentacles wreathed with microscopic nematocysts: a gelatinous monastery of cells housing barbed venomous coils waiting to paralyze prey. But their fragile skins also store luciferin and luciferase. Two chemical dancers in an unstable tango oxidizing over and over to create bioluminescence. The brainless, boneless, bloodless jellyfish float like little lucifers, holding light and poison side by side until one or the other—or maybe both—leaks out.

Not long after leaving that pew, around the same time my wife was going into labor, annoyed with the doctors who said she was still months away from having the baby when it felt like an entire world inside her, the other Ryan was hooked up to an IV tree with tubes delivering blood and plasma and a cocktail of radioactive chemicals that leaked into his veins and brains and guts until he scratched his skin open trying to let the fire out. His lungs filled with fluid and he drowned with a fever reaching 107°.

Yet somehow he is on the beach in this nematocyst called memory. Picking that jellyfish off the asphalt with a stick and flinging it back into the ocean, he stretches out his arms and fans out fingers as he turns in circles faster and faster, like a compass needle on an Arctic night spinning in the white mute ice.

C’mon, he tells me, let’s spin out of our bodies.

You can’t, of course. Until you can.

Ryan Habermeyer is the author of prize-winning short fiction collection The Science of Lost Futures (BOA 2018). His stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Flyway, Massachusetts Review, Blackbird, Seneca Review, Cincinnati Review, and others. He teaches creative writing at Salisbury University.

Artwork by Barbara Gillette Price