Archive for the ‘ fiction ’ Category

Lesion

“Can I help you?” the clerk asked, looking up over the top frame of her glasses at the man looming over her desk.

“You are something,” he said to her.

She titled her diamond-shaped chin further upward and fixed her wide, brown eyes on him. “Excuse me?”

“I’m just thinking about how nice it would be to run my hands all over you,” he told her.

“Excuse me! Do you have an appointment for this court?” she barked.

“Oh, yes, Terrance Johnson. I think I’m up in five.”

With a huffing exhalation, she turned her eyes down to her records, snatching the summons from his hands in a chelydra snap. “You, Mr. Johnson, were supposed to report at 8AM.”

“Yeah, but I know how it goes,” he answered with a smile.

“Go take a seat inside.”

“Sure, sure,” he said. “And I’ll be thinking of you later when I jerk off.”

Her mouth dropped open as he walked by and swung open the door to the courtroom. “Asshole,” she gasped, looking aghast at all the unknowing bystanders in the antechamber.

He settled in and watched the proceedings until he heard a court officer call out, “The State of California vs. Terrance Johnson.”

He rose, a spindly man with an even coating of black hair against the brown skin of his high forehead, and grinned to the court.

“Mr. Johnson,” the judge said grayly, without looking up from her briefs. “You are accused of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, stemming from an incident on February 13th of this year, is that correct?”

“Guess so.”

“According to these documents you ran a red light and when officers attempted to pull you over, you actually sped up and led them on a chase.”

“Seemed like the thing to do,” he said, bobbing his head.

“Excuse me?” the judge was looking at him now.

“I’d always wanted to try that,” he added.

“Try what?”

“You know, car chase. Run from the cops. Haven’t you ever thought of doing it? Just to see what would happen?”

“I most certainly have not, and you can see what happened, you are here facing charges. I need you to enter your official plea, though with the admission you just made–”

“Oh, plea? Like guilty or not guilty?”

“Or nolo contendere, no contest. Given what you’ve just said, that might be appropriate.”

“What would ‘guilty’ really mean? I mean, the road was empty.”

“Excuse me?”

“It wasn’t going to hurt anybody. It probably gave the guys here,” he gestured toward the two uniformed officers waiting patiently to testify against him. “It probably gave them the thrill of the night. Right, boys?”

The two men did not respond.

“Mr. Johnson,” the judge said sternly. “If you do not begin to comport yourself in a more respectful manner, then I will find you in contempt of court.”

“I assure you, your honor, I have no contempt for your court. I am mildly annoyed at having to be here, but who wouldn’t be?”

“That’s enough, Mr. Johnson–” She paused, though, when the double doors into the courtroom swung open and a small woman, round in the bust, rushed through swinging a bulky purse with each hurried step.

Breathlessly, she came to Terrance’s side. “Why didn’t you wait for me like I asked,” she whispered.

“Excuse me,” the judge asked the woman. “Who exactly are you?”

“Oh, I’m Jeannette. I’m Terrance’s wife.”

“Your husband is about to be found in contempt, Mrs. Johnson. I suggest you–”

“Oh, God,” she wailed, her overloaded purse plunging to the floor. “What did you say, Terrance?”

“I told her that I didn’t have any–”

The gavel resounded through the courtroom.

“I’ve had about enough of this. Bailiff–”

“Please, your honor,” Mrs. Johnson pleaded, hands outstretched. “Please, let me explain.”

The Judge cocked her head at the woman’s quivering cheeks, but said nothing.

Mrs. Johnson continued. “Terrance, he can’t help it. Maybe–no, you should. You should probably just suspend his license. He can’t help it, though. Six months ago–he just isn’t the same,” she stammered breathlessly.

“Mrs. Johnson–”

“Terrance, baby, turn your head. Let the judge see.”

He shrugged and pivoted his skull to the right. For the first time, the court officers saw the extensive scarring along the side of his scalp.

“See,” Mrs. Johnson explained. “He had an accident. It was at work. He was just sitting in his office and a forklift from the garage next door came right through his wall. It caught him in the head there. He just hasn’t been the same since.”

“What do you mean, ‘hasn’t been the same?’”

“Oh, he says things. He’ll say the damnedest things. It’s like he’s just too damned honest now or something.”
“Honest?”

“Oh yes,” she pleaded. “The doctors said that sometimes, with brain traumas…sometimes it affects the personality. They said that it seemed like the accident damaged part of his brain. Maybe something to do with impulse control, they said. He…he just doesn’t act the same anymore. He says things that drive people crazy. He does things without thinking about what other people will think. But…but he’s still a good man. He’s not exactly the man I married, but…but he’s still a good man. Like that night with the ticket. He swears there was nobody out of the road. That’s why he thought it would be fun. He wouldn’t have done it if he thought anyone might get hurt. See, he’s a good man.”

“She’s so sweet to me,” he said, staring at his wife with the same fixed smile.

“Please, your honor, couldn’t you just suspend his license. I’ll take him home and he won’t be a trouble.”

“Too honest?” the judge asked.

“Sometimes, yes, your honor,” she answered.

“I need you to enter a plea, Mr. Johnson,” the judge instructed.

“Well, like I said–”

“Just say, ‘guilty,’ baby,” his wife insisted.

“Oh, I guess I’m guilty then. If she says it, then it must be true. God knows I’m never right, am I?” he asked her. “Every little thing I do, she’s got to make right.”

“Very well,” the judge said. “I sentence you to a suspended license and court costs. See the clerk.” The officer handed her a sheet of paper and she nodded in gratitude.

Johnson followed his wife out, shuffling behind her through the doors. The clerk pinched up her lips in recognition.

“This is for my husband,” Mrs. Johnson said, laying the form down in front of the clerk.

“He’s your husband?” the young woman sneered. Mrs. Johnson did not bother to respond. Perhaps she felt a slight impulse to apologize, but for that she would have to ask about the offense, and the bags under her eyes hung too heavy at that moment. She simply took the scorn along with the paperwork, carried them warily to the cashier’s counter in order to pay the court costs.

As she moved, thusly burdened, he laid his hand on her shoulder. “You do too much for me, sweetheart,” he said. “I’d be nothing without you. Never would have,” he added. “Never would’ve amounted to anything.”

“I know, baby,” she said as they moved across the tiled floor, and she allowed a tremor at the edge of her lips to become a faint smile as she set her purse on the cashier counter and dug out her checkbook.

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Criteria for Publication?

You know, I need to figure out some sort of consistent criteria for elevating stories to the actual stories page. As of now, what I seem to do is just sit on a story long enough and if it occurs to me to do so, I go ahead and elevate to permanent link status. So it is with “Daemonus galateus,” which is now linked in on the stories page.

As an unrelated side note, autocorrect keeps trying to change the second half of the title to “gluteus.” Go figure.

Update, Dec. 2013: “Daemonus galateus” pulled for revision.

Rota Fortunae

It was overcast and the heat got stuck above the thin clouds, so he found her just leaning against the side of her goldish Honda Civic in the parking lot of the stadium–just where they’d discussed in the brief phone conversation three nights before.

“You Michael?” she asked, not budging from her repose.

“Yeah. You Brenda?”

She didn’t exactly answer, but popped up off the side of the car as she took out her phone. She held it up and pointed it at his face. He heard the camera make its artificial shutter sound. “Can I see your ID?”

He nodded and fished it out of his wallet, cracking a flake of old leather off in the process. It floated lazily toward his boot’s toe as he passed over the plastic ID card.

She lined it up in her hands in front of the phone and snapped another picture.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m texting these to my brother. He’s six foot four and a Navy Seal. The share-a-ride people have got your info already, but I want you to know that he’s got it too, in case anything happens to me.”

He shrugged awkwardly and nodded.

“I don’t mean to come off as paranoid, but you know, insurance.”

“Sure, sure, I understand,” he said, hands in his pockets.

“Alright, let’s go.” She bounced around the front of the car. He watched as the meat of her fleshy thighs quivered with each step while the pinching denim skirt kept the bulge of her buttocks locked in place.

After throwing his single bag in back, he opened the passenger side door and sat down. Still fumbling to pull back her hair in a band, she cranked the engine with her free hand and then kneed the gearshift into first.

The car lurched forward and she swung toward I-35.

“So,” she began, pinching her lower lip under her teeth for a second before continuing. “You a student?”

“No, just came out here to work.”

“So you’re from El Paso?”

“Yeah.”

“God, it’s awful to be going back, isn’t it? I wish they’d let me stay in my dorm. I mean, Jesus, who wants to spend spring break in Hell Paso.”

He shrugged and kept his eyes off the peak of cleavage below her violet top.

“You hungry at all?”

“No,” he said, then added, “thanks.”

“I guess we can stop later. I’ve already got like three quarters of a tank, so we won’t need gas until we’re at the ass end of the hill country.”

He nodded.

“I’ve got to warn you, though. I piss like five to ten times an hour, so we’re going to need potty breaks.”

“That’s okay,” he said.

“Geez, man, I’m just kidding with you,” she said. “I was trying to see what would get a rise out of you.”

“That’s cool.”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Twenty-two.”

“I would’ve guessed that,” she said, but then gave up for a time on conversation. Every few miles she would pop in with a comment–on the traffic or some restaurant they had passed or the outlet malls.

He never did much more than grunt in reply.

Past Dripping Springs she started telling him about Austin–“Not the city,” she explained. “That was his name, my ex.” She told him how they’d dated their whole freshmen year, but then spent a summer apart, “to grow,” she said. Coming back that fall, things had been awkward. She’d noticed changes in the way he approached her sexually. “You don’t mind me talking about that sort of stuff, do you?” she asked.

“Nah, I don’t,” he said.

“Good. You never know. Some people are so repressed. I didn’t know if you were unusually religious or anything.”

“No, not really.”

As she talked on, with her eyes always on the road as if it was her listener, he relaxed from the stiff-backed posture he’d held for the first hour of the trip.

“So I really started to wonder if he was gay,” she said, explaining the climax of the Austin story. “Now I’ll tell you what, some guys can take that. Some guys you can say, ‘Hey, I think you might be gay,’ and they’ll be like, ‘No, I’m pretty sure I’m not,” and there’s like no problem. But not Austin. Holy shit, you’d think I’d killed his mother!” She described his fury, the shouting, the feeling she had that he was on the verge of getting physical, leading to her flight from his apartment without her shoes on. “So that was the end of that.”

He was silent for a moment, but he sensed he needed to say something, so he ventured, “Maybe that’s because he really was gay.”

“See!” she shouted. “Thank you! That is what I was telling my cousin just the other day. See what I mean? People are so repressed.”

They drove on through the dusk as the terrain shifted and the green of foliage dropped out of the world in favor of beige horizons dotted by olive-colored desert bushes. Without ever having stopped for the promised restroom breaks, they finally pulled off the road to gas up.

Having agreed that he would pay for the next tank, she left him at the pump, telling him, “Pull it along side the shop when you’re done. I need some privacy.”

Michael twisted his face up in confusion, but she stomped away too quickly for him to complain or question.

The auto-catch on the gas pump was missing, so he stood beside it, holding the lever in place to fill the car up. The rhythmic pulsing of the fuel flowing through the hose seemed unusually slow and his eyes began to wander. First over the white edges of the gas station sign at twilight, then over the distant ridges of the horizon. Finally, he looked inside the glowing white cube of the shop. Brenda was at the counter with a pile of chips and other junk food. The clerk, a middle-aged woman with graying hair was laughing at something the girl had said. From outside, they looked like life-long chums.

The pump stopped. Despite shaking the nozzle against the inlet, a drop of gas still caught his boot as he hung it up. Inside, he saw Brenda was still talking to the clerk–her groceries remained heaped in front of her on the counter. He did as she’d asked and brought the car around to the side of the shop.

A few minutes later, she came around the corner toting two plastic bags and smiling.

“Everything good?” she asked.

“Yeah, all done.”

“Great, feel like a break?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

She twisted and squeezed her torso into the space between the two seats, brushing up against his shoulder in the process, and fished out a plastic bag from one of her suitcases in the rear.

Next, she produced some rolling papers from the little compartment behind the parking break and raised her eyebrows to entice him.

“Nah, I shouldn’t.”

“You don’t get high?”

“Trying not to.”

She shrugged and lit the joint, inhaling a long draw and popping the seat back in a single motion. “Oh, sorry,” she said, scrambling for the window control to add some ventilation.

She enjoyed another hit before looking up at him, sitting erect and silent again.

“So what’s up with you? What’s your story?”

“No story,” he answered.

“Everybody’s got a story. You’re not a student, but you’re going back to El Paso. Is it home?”

“It was, yeah.”

“But you left.”

“Right.”

“So, why’d you leave?” she asked before placing the joint back between her lips.

“Things just got messed up. I wanted to leave and some friends of mine were going to go to Austin, start a band.”

“And now?” she asked, peering through a haze of her own exhaled smoke. “Why’re you going back?”

“It was time.”

“That’s mysterious. There’s a girl, right?”

“What?” he asked with sudden alarm.

“There’s always a girl. Go on, tell me. What happened?”

He sat back in the chair and shook his head with a huffing laugh. “Might as well,” he said and then began. He first told her about meeting Selena, about how he knew she was too young, but thinking it would be alright, that it was just a little fun. Then it was more than a little fun and they’d ended up saying how much they loved each other. “And I did,” he told Brenda. “I loved her a lot, but she always wanted to hang out. I had work and my friends. We fought a lot, but I did. I loved her.” When he graduated from high school, though, and she was only a sophomore, he thought it was time to move on. He hadn’t done it well. Just stopped calling. Started messing around with other girls. “Then one day, I just saw her. I saw her at the mall with her parents and I saw her belly.”

“She didn’t tell you?”

No, she hadn’t, and yes, it was his. The scene in the mall had been ugly. Her father had shoved him. Michael had taken a swing in return.

It was his parents who had forced him to sit down with Selena’s family about a week later. They spent a few hours working out a plan for the two of them to “take responsibility” and “create a life together…for the sake of the baby.”

They’d lived with his family. When the baby was born, things had seemed manageable. They started saying they loved each other again. Selena, holding him and the baby at once, had said one night, “Maybe this was right all along. Maybe we were supposed to be together.” And they had smiled at that, both of them.

But then she went back to finish high school, and his mother pressed him to take care of the baby alone. “My mom said she was too old to be starting over and that it was my responsibility.” The tension started to build. Selena, worn out from feedings and colicky fits, struggled at school, and she brought the stress home. “I knew it was wrong, but I just never wanted to go back there, never wanted to be shut up in my old bedroom with a crying and fussing baby and its mother. All the disappointed looks. My mom and her would look at me the same way whenever I walked in the door.”

Brenda laughed. “They say you marry your mother, you know? You always pick someone just like mommy without meaning to.”

He continued, “After work one day I went out. At first there were a couple of us all together, but eventually it was just me at this one girl’s apartment.”

“Oh shit, I know where this is going.”

“So she left. Selena took the baby and went back to her parents’ house. My parents acted like they hated me, so I left. I crashed with friends for awhile, but eventually I just cut out of town.”

“And now?”

“The last few weeks, I’ve been talking to her.” Selena had gotten her G.E.D. She wanted to go into nursing. She could do it alone; she always could have. But she could use a partner. It could be him. “I talked her into giving me another shot,” he told Brenda.

“That’s what you want?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “Austin didn’t work for me. I lost two jobs. I was never happy. Nothing was right.”

“Without her?”

“Right.”

“Without them,” she corrected.

“Exactly.”

“How long you been in Austin again?” Brenda asked.

“About a year.”

“She’s taking you back after a year?”

“A year that shouldn’t have happened,” he said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Definitely. I screwed up.”

“So, you’ve changed, huh?”

“I’m going to.”

“I don’t mean to piss you off,” she said, letting out a long trail of smoke between her grinning lips. “But people don’t plan to change. That shit happens, or it doesn’t. So either you’ve changed, or you haven’t.”

“I’ve changed then.”

“If you say so,” she whispered, closing her eyes. He watched her breasts heave up and down with each breath, wanting to throttle her.

“Let me drive,” he said through his teeth.

“Yeah, okay. I feel like a rest.”

He tore the Civic onto the road after they switched seats, but if she was aware of the driving expressing any emotional message, she gave no indication. Saying nothing more, she rolled into a ball against the passenger side door and dozed.

For two hours they rolled through the dark. The radio stations evaporated in the black and he rifled through a stack of unlabeled CDs looking for something to listen to. In the end he shut it off and drove in silence. He looked over at her every few minutes and muttered “bitch” under his breath, but each time he also looked at the back of her calves tucked up close to her. Occasionally, he would catch her stirring in the dim light and see locks of wavy hair slide over her cheeks. He fantasized repaying her for her remarks with debasing sexual acts and gripped the steering wheel tighter.

He wasn’t watching her when she woke suddenly and moaned, “Dude, let’s pull over.”

She startled him, but he made an effort to hide it, saying quickly, “We don’t need gas.”

“I need to stretch my legs,” she countered.

Van Horn was just ahead. As they pulled off, he turned the nose of the car toward the nearest gas station, but she wagged her finger and pointed away from the lights of the highway. “Over there,” she yipped. “Over there!”

She led them to a small adobe bar sitting among some sparse, low grass on a side street.

“We should keep going,” he objected.

“Night’s young.”

“You’re not even 21.”

“I haven’t met a bartender I couldn’t charm,” she said and slammed the car door behind her.

He made a show of dragging his feet behind him as she pushed open the dingy wooden door of the bar. There was hardly any activity inside. Two different couples sitting in booths along the wall looked up at them, but the patrons at the bar itself–three men in boots, but no hats–didn’t react to their entrance.

Brenda strutted past the bartender with a wink and disappeared inside the bathroom in the back. Michael sat down without ordering.

“Did I piss you off or something?” she asked when she returned.

“I didn’t like what you said.”

“What did I say? Shit, man, I’m sorry, when I’m high I don’t know what I say. Come on, let me buy you a drink…friends?”

She placed her arm around him and grinned madly.

He agreed to a shot or two. She began prattling on again, and as the warmth of the tequila hit his core, he found himself watching her mouth move while she talked.

She tried chatting up the bartender, but he was late thirties going on fifty from hard, leathering days in the sun, so she stayed in orbit of Michael.

“We’ve got to enjoy our last stop together,” she told him.

“We’ll still need gas,” he said, but his voice was light now and she laughed and he laughed back and they were friends now, drinking and enjoying one another.

“One of us has got to stay sober,” he reminded her after another pair of shots.

“We can just sleep it off,” she said before crossing to the jukebox and queuing up a rock ballad no one had heard since the late 80s.

She swung her hips from side to side in a parody of a music video half-remembered from their youth.

He laughed on with her, remembering the shape of her legs in the night outside.

Before he knew why or how or when, they were there again, outside in the dark, leaving a trail of boisterous goodbyes for the barkeep and the quiet couples and the silly old jukebox and laughing again as their feet crunched the gravel in the parking lot.

He climbed into the driver’s seat and she giggled her way into the passenger side. He tried to say two or three times that he shouldn’t drive, but never did. As he made the attempt, her chuckling subsided and they found themselves alone together in the shadows.

She turned toward him in the faint orange buzz from some lamp outside and he saw what was going to happen. He saw all his resolve melt and he knew, knew that somehow this would be the end of all his aspirations, of everything he hoped for.

He reached across the parking break and laid his hand on her hip.

The Itch and the Resolve and All the Other Things

It was a failure.  A miserable, total, catastrophic, unbelievable failure. My New Year’s Resolution. Complete fuck-up. I watched that clock. I watched it and I waited for those tall, skinny-man numbers to go 12:00. As soon as I saw it, I blinked. Closed my eyes on those particular photons and held ’em in my brain. This time’ll be different, I said. This time for sure, I told myself. I was done. Done being the fool I’d been for as long as I can remember. It just couldn’t last, though. I felt it right away. There’s some switch inside that let’s you know, like one of those railroad signs that blinks slow and steady when the track’s been diverted the wrong way. That’s how you know when you’re lying to yourself. No matter how much you convince yourself that you’re on the right track–there’s that signal going in even, slow pulses. Maybe that’s what starts the itch. Maybe they’re related. Because right away, you get the itch. It’s like the equal and opposite reaction to trying not to think about it. Addiction. You think it’s thoughts when you first realize you’re hooked. But no, when you get in deeper, when you’ve tried to turn your back on it a few times, that’s when you figure out that thoughts are just a symptom. If you succeed, even for a minute, in chasing away the thoughts, in getting mental control, that’s fine, but the addiction is still in you somewhere. That wanting is going to be expressed somewhere in your being, somewhere. Me, I get the itch. It turns up right beneath my skin. All over. Like my back itches. I have to scratch my back and I know, I know that’s really the longing. So right away, even as I held the red 12:00 in my head and vowed never and never and never again, right away there was the itch. I caught myself scratching. Every second, some part of me wanted to be scratched. Unless I thought about it. If I thought about giving in, about what giving in to my longing would feel like, well, then, no itch. But that’s worse, you know. Thinking is closer to it than the itch. So of course, I failed. I failed pathetically. Not even a day. Not even a day and I was done.

So now it’s almost Lent. And I wonder: should I try again? Give it up for 40 days? Could I? Would that be easier? If I knew it was only temporary? If I tell myself that it’s just for Lent, just until Easter…and then if I make it that long…no, can’t really admit that part, because then I’ll know, I’ll know what I’m up to and then I’m just as screwed as ever. But maybe, maybe for a little while, maybe if I tell myself it’s just for Lent, for a spiritual sacrifice, then maybe, maybe then I can give you up.

 

Daemonus galateus

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 7.11.28 PM

When she first saw the creature, it was naturally the eyes that captivated her. He told her that it had been the same with him when he’d first found it.

“Should you have removed it?” she asked, letting the wide black circles track her as she moved her head back and forth across its field of vision. “If it’s so rare, unique even, shouldn’t it be considered endangered?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Something just compelled me to collect it as a sample. The eyes, I suppose.”

“Yes,” she agreed, stepping back from the plexiglass enclosure. It followed her shape for a second longer as she stood still, staring at it. Then the creature’s gaze drifted back toward Robert, hovering just behind her.

It was small, rodent-like. Its whole face was dominated by the eyes.

“They don’t seem to be afraid,” Susanna commented.

“Afraid?”

“Its eyes. It watched me, but I didn’t have the sense that it was afraid. It didn’t seem like an animal monitoring a threat.”

“It’s tempting to anthropomorphize it,” he said. “But it’s clearly just an ingrained behavior. It’s simply orienting toward novelty.”

“But you’re not new to it,” she countered. “And it’s watching you now.”

“Me?”

“Definitely.” She leaned back in to observe it more closely, but the animal’s attention did not shift back to her. With each pulse of its slow, steady breath, the moss-colored fur shimmered under the fluorescent light. “Why is it green?” she asked.

“That’s the mystery,” he answered. “I’ve never seen a mammal with coloring like this. Some sloths appear to have camouflaged fur, but that’s due to a symbiotic algae. This fur actually appears to be green.”

“You’re sure it’s a mammal?”

“Of course. Look at it. It must be some kind of tarsier.”

“What’s that–a mutant lemur?”

“It’s a primate native to the region.”

“Robert, you might have damned a whole species by bringing it here.”

“I tried for two weeks to find another specimen. I swear during all that time this one just stayed at camp, as if it was studying us.”

She’d met Robert at a reception in his honor. In her work preparing graduate students for their dissertations and combing through old newspapers for insights into centuries-old public policies, she would not ordinarily have met one of the biology professors from the other side of campus. Robert, though, had recently been awarded with a slew of prestigious awards, the names of which she was only vaguely familiar with, for his study of the genes associated with a particular protein. It was beyond her, but it had turned him into enough of an asset to the university that corporate dollars were pouring into his work and he earned a reception large enough that even members of the liberal arts faculty wound up on the guest list.

A little playful flirting had led to a dinner. A few dinners had settled into a routine and an awkward conversation in which he sought earnestly to define the “parameters” of their relationship.

“Are you asking me to go steady?” she’d asked with a laugh.

To her surprise, he’d said, “I guess so.” There was a catch, though. His windfall of support and resources had allowed him to organize an expedition to hunt for specimens in Southeast Asia. There was some evidence that indigenous plants in Borneo might synthesize a cousin to his famous protein and he wanted to investigate. He and five grad students would be leaving in two weeks. It had to be now; the seasons were sensitive and the plants might be impossible to locate out of bloom. He’d had the first series of shots to prepare for the jungle that morning. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m expecting you to wait around for me or something.”

At first, she hadn’t much felt like waiting either. As his absence entered its second week, though, she found herself missing him more than she’d expected, and when an old acquaintance, newly divorced, asked her out to dinner during a chance meeting at a coffee shop, she found herself saying she couldn’t. “I’m seeing someone,” she’d said.

The two months alone allowed her to focus on a few projects, dedicate some time to an article that had sat at the edge of her desk with the annoying “revise and resubmit” letter gawking at her. She made reading his e-mails from the jungle a nightly ritual–except for the days when weather prevented him from getting a signal to send anything.

She hadn’t thought much of the message that first announced he’d discovered something “odd” but “fascinating.” His cryptic references to it in subsequent messages didn’t intrigue her so much as endear him to her with his boyish enthusiasm for what she imagined must be a bizarre kind of fungus or unheard-of subspecies of toucan.

When he’d returned, she’d met him at the airport and shared a warm kiss that she instantly told herself had validated her “waiting.”

She insisted he take a night to settle in and that they would have dinner the next night. Not long into that meal, though, he had brought up the subject of his unusual find. “Even though it’s not my area, I’m fascinated by it. I’ve got the latitude to kind of take a detour and spend some time studying it.”

“You haven’t told me what it is,” she reminded him while sipping her wine.

So he’d shown her.

That night, after turning the lights out on those peculiar eyes in the lab, they’d gone back to her place and made love. They spent most of the next two weeks together like that. Dinners out with her friends or his. A trip to the theater with his sister who was visiting from Montreal. All ending up with them sleeping beside each other in one of their apartments.

It was actually her own work that disrupted the easy rhythm of it. Department politics exploded in a surprise resignation from the chair, and in the shuffle, she found herself taking on an additional class for the coming semester. Robert had–quite politely, she’d thought–volunteered to ease off their routine while she prepped a syllabus.

Once the term began, it seemed harder to find time together. One night, she’d called him and announced that it was “criminal” they hadn’t seen each other in eight days.

“I know,” he’d answered with a forced chuckle, which was really the best he ever managed for her jokes. “I know. I’ve got a lot to see to tomorrow, but why don’t you swing by the lab and we can go to lunch at this place just a few blocks over.”

Of course, when she’d arrived, she’d asked casually about his green monkey thing. He’d led her into the lab and pointed.

“This isn’t the same animal,” she said, peering through the glass into the larger cage.

“It is,” he assured her.

“It’s enormous.” Though the wide, dark eyes remained unchanged, the face around them had transformed. The tiny, inchoate mouth had widened, drooping down with the chin while the brow had grown, revealing a taller skull than it had earlier possessed. The body, too, was reshaped. The gecko-like, barely prehensile paws had thickened. The digits were now slender, grasping fingers with visible nails. The fur seemed to be receding as it grew, revealing verdant, grass-colored skin.

“Susanna, this may be the most important find…can I say ‘ever?’”

“Is that a hyperbole?”

“Remember you asked about its coloring?”

“Yes. It’s even more striking now. Before it looked like it could’ve just been dyed green. Like you’d found a little tribe of punk lemurs. Now you can see that the skin is actually green. It’s the thing’s natural pigment.”

“I don’t know if ‘natural’ is the word, though. It’s some kind of chimera.”

“Chimera?”

“You know it?”

“I know the mythological creature, sure. But I don’t see a goat head here.”

“Chimerism is a blending of different organisms’ DNA. Frankly, in this case, it’s a hollow term. This goes beyond anything ever recorded.”

“Are you going to tell me this thing is part plant?” With a grin, he led her to a microscope just across from the enclosure and invited her to look into the eyepiece. “You know I don’t understand what I’m looking at, right?”

“Here,” he said, drawing her toward some glossy print-outs. “I’ve got some enlargements. This is a sample cell from her.”

“Her?”

“It’s definitely a female,” he said, while indicating part of the image with his index finger. “You see this structure here?”

“Yes.”

“According to all my tests, it’s a chloroplast.”

“You’re really trying to make me recall high school biology, aren’t you? Is this some kind of test to see if I’m qualified to be in a relationship with you?”

“Chloroplasts are the cell parts that manufacture chlorophyl, the compound that allows for photosynthesis.”

“Chloroplasts only occur in plants, right? They can make their own food.”

He nodded slowly, still wearing the grin.

“So you really are telling me this thing is a plant.”

“The cell membrane is completely typical of an animal cell and the lysosome count indicates it’s animal, but it is clearly photosynthetic.”

She looked back to its cage and the black space of the window behind it. “Good thing it’s got a window, then.”

“It eats, too, but it’s somehow also capable of photosynthesis.”

“Robert, I’m no biologist, but I do remember high school bio a little bit. That’s not possible.”

“There are some aquatic species that appear to have borrowed genes from algae and other plants, but those are sea slugs. This is a mammal.”

“You said there were no others around.”

“We never saw another one, and this one never left us once we’d seen it.”

“You means once you saw it.” She looked again at the image. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to a dark, crescent-moon shape inside the cell.

“That is an excellent question,” he said while staring over her shoulder. She looked back at him, but he said nothing.

“Are you not going to tell me?”

“Oh,” he replied with a smile. “I’m sorry. I mean it. It’s an excellent question because I have no idea. It’s unlike any cellular organelle I’ve ever seen. I’ve extracted some proteins from it, but I can’t determine its function.”

“So let me get this straight, Mr. Future-Nobel Laureate,” she began, turning back toward the animal. She was startled to find its eyes still fixed on them, even across the room. “It’s an animal that can go through photosynthesis, a trick so far only accomplished by really talented sea slugs, and it also has a mystery organelle that is found no where else in nature. Is that about it?”

“Apart from the obvious, yes.”

“What’s the obvious?” she asked.

“You already mentioned it. It doesn’t look like a tarsier anymore.”

That lunch was not followed by another meeting for five more days.

As their time in each other’s lives grew more and more sparse, he would protest over the phone that he was “so, so sorry,” but that he was having to conduct so many of the tests himself on this new find. His graduate students were all plant specialists. As she listened to him complain about their shortcomings for this research, she began to feel that the real problem was that he didn’t especially trust any of them going near the creature.

This absence did not unfold as sweetly. The new class wore on her patience, even as her students progressed admirably on their own work with minimal input from her. She felt idle. Wasted.

One day she said to herself that the relationship had gone sour. She said the word aloud to test it, and it felt apt. Their diminishing time together wasn’t the only gripe she found herself reflecting on as she pronounced the word a second time. There had long been a gesture she’d thought of again and again when considering the future of their relationship. He had a habit of looking away from her when she laughed too loudly at her own talk. She had noticed him do it, with exactly the same slow rotation toward the right, both during dinner conversation and in bed.

She ran an experiment. It felt petty as she was doing it, but still somehow necessary. She didn’t call or text him and waited to see how long until he would notice.

Six days later, he left a message on her voicemail while she was in class, apologizing for being out of touch.

She sent him the “we have to talk” text.

He urged her to come to the lab right away.

She typed first as a reply, “I don’t think that’s where I want to do this,” but deleted it and changed it to, “I was thinking of somewhere else.”

He called her. “I know I’ve been unavailable, but you’ll understand if you come here. I swear.”

“I am sorry,” he said again as she followed him into the lab. She had imagined him being immersed in his work, and so had conjured up certain expectations. She half-expected to find him bespectacled, confused by the light, and sporting a five-day old stubbly beard as he hobbled around his workstations, Igor-esque in his mad-scientist depravity.

Instead he seemed virile, moving briskly and certainly ahead of her through a maze of cardboard boxes and other discarded packaging.

“I’m not saying you owe me an apology,” she answered. “I just thought we might talk. We have something, Robert, and I don’t mean to sound needy, but there are certain things I think I can reasonably expect. You’re not delivering on those.”

“No, no,” he answered, pausing and turning back to her. “I completely understand how you feel. I do care about you and our relationship, but I’ve just become so engrossed in what’s happening here.”

“What is happening here?” she asked.

“See for yourself,” he said, gesturing toward the door into the main lab.

She pushed open the door and was greeted immediately by a pair of eyes that seemed at once alien and familiar. The creature was perched, in an almost feline repose, atop a stainless steel laboratory table.

“Holy shit,” she gasped. It turned its head toward her, but only for a moment, flicking dark irises over the length and breadth of her before fixing again on Robert. Its skin was still green, but little else was unchanged. It held the table before its folded legs with thin fingers, thumbs bent forward. The torso was lean and muscular, with small, high-set breasts beneath a delicate, bird-like collarbone. As she shook her head, Susana’s gaze landed on the feet, tucked behind the curvature of the thighs and buttocks coiled as if ready to spring. The feet were unmistakable. A gentle arch from ball to heel. Small, round toes.

“My God, Robert,” she gasped. “It’s human.”

“I know.”

“It’s out of the cage,” she added.

“Oh yes,” he answered. “She doesn’t stay in it anymore.”

“When did you let it out?”

“One morning I arrived and she was out, waiting for me much like this.”

“Is she dangerous?”

“She’s never shown any sign of aggression, no.”

“I don’t mean like that.”

He shook his head, unable to understand her.

“How can she be real, Robert?”

“I don’t know,” he gestured toward the new equipment all along the opposite wall. “I’ve been running DNA tests for weeks, trying to map her genome, but it changes so quickly.”

“Her genome changes?”

“That strange organelle I told you about. That crescent moon in her cells. I still can’t make out it’s function, but it exchanges a lot of genetic material with the nucleus.”

“Which means what, exactly?”

“It must have something to do with her mimicry ability.”

“Mimicry?”

“She’s a genetic mimic. She’s able to imitate the DNA of other organisms she comes into contact with. When she first arrived, she must have mimicked a plant species and only later worked her way up to an animal.”

“What do you mean, ‘when she first arrived?’”

“I can only assume she’s extraterrestrial. She defies everything we understand about chimerism. She’s a whole other class of being.”

Susanna looked over the creature–the girl–perched on the table. She stepped closer, and the girl turned her head momentarily to watch her approach. Susanna looked at the the slender lips beneath those dark eyes. She saw them twitch.

“Robert,” Susanna said slowly, suddenly guessing. “Has she spoken to you?”

He did not answer for some time. “A few words here and there,” he finally admitted. “Again, it’s just mimicry.”

“For now,” Susanna said quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s come this far. You know she means to complete the transformation. She has to. Soon you’ll come in and she’ll be wearing one of the lab coats.”

“I have to tell someone about this, but I don’t know how. You can’t just publish this in a journal. This is our first contact with an alien life–possibly with an alien intelligence.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve told you. There’s nothing like this. Anywhere.”

“Has it occurred to you she might be something from myth. A wood nymph or a fairy.”

“You’re joking.”

“Folklore is full of stories of changelings, Robert.”

“This is a scientific pursuit, not a metaphysical one,” he scoffed.

“But maybe you’ve discovered the missing link. Maybe you’re seeing something with scientific eyes that human beings have only ever witnessed from a more primitive perspective before. Maybe that organelle, that tiny cell part you discovered, maybe it’s a seed of wonder. Maybe it’s magic.”

“Ordinarily,” he said. “I’d dismiss that kind of suggestion pretty quickly. But I can’t eliminate anything at this point.” He sat down on a stool behind her. “I still think her being an alien is more reasonable, though.”

“But I don’t think her motives are so alien.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s becoming human.”

“Yes.”

“Genetically human.”

“Yes.”

“Mimicking human DNA,” she said pointedly.
“Yes, precisely.”

“Where’d she get the DNA, Robert?”

“What?”

“You’re the only one she’s touched, aren’t you?” He didn’t respond. “If we compared both your DNA–hers and yours–would they match?”

“Yes.”

“But she’s female.”

“Male chromosomes only differ in one way.”

“So she could have just duplicated your X chromosome to stay female, right?”

“You make it sound like she’s making a choice.”

“I think she is.”

6:04

causality

At first he felt a kind of confusion.

He looked down at his shoes as if to make sure that the plank of cement he was standing on was, in fact, his driveway.

Then he looked up again at the empty space where his car should have been.

 

After calls to the office postponing a meeting and shifting a proposal revision to an underling, Robert waited impatiently on the same slab of concrete for the police while his wife stood beside him apologizing.

“If I hadn’t filled the garage with those fabric samples then this wouldn’t have happened,” she said, clinging to the edge of her robe and shaking her head.

“It’s alright,” he answered without looking at her, glad that she had offered it up before his resolve wore thin and he said it himself.

When the police arrived, he gave them all the relevant information about the car, casting more and more frequent glances at his watch while he became more concerned about what he was missing at the office than the missing car.

“Was that an ‘ES’ you said?” one of the officers asked.

“No, ‘LS.’”

“Hmm,” she mumbled back.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

“You said you had your keys, sir?  You couldn’t have left them in the vehicle?”

“No, no, they’re right here.”  He showed them the keyring.  “Why?  I don’t understand.”

“It’s just those cars are pretty hard to steal,” the other officer explained while eying the garage door.  “Do you know where your spare keys are?”

“My wife has them in her purse.”

“Are you sure?”

“We can check when she gets back from dropping off the kids at school, but I’m pretty sure.  Couldn’t they have just hot-wired it or something?”

“Actually, no.”

“No?”

“Nope.  The security features on your automobile are excellent, sir.  Can’t be started without the key–or a dealer’s key.”

“We’ll canvas the dealers and see if one’s gone missing or if there are other reports of thefts.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Meantime, have you contacted them yourself?  That vehicle has a standard GPS.  They should be able to lock it down.”

“Um, yes, I called.  They said they couldn’t locate it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, that’s what they said.”

“See, that’s weird, too.”

“It would take a real professional to hack the car and do all that.”

“Was there anything else special about the car, sir?  Any special features that would make it worth all that?”

“Engine of solid gold, maybe?” one asked with a smirk.

“Not that I know of.”

Deb pulled back in from dropping off the kids and he made his excuses to the officers so that she could drive him to the train station.

“We’ll let you know if we find anything out, sir.  Have a good day.”

“As good as possible with this kind of start,” the other suggested.

 

In the car ride, he didn’t talk to his wife, but instead spent the time navigating the touch-tone menus of the insurance company, cursing at each new list of possible buttons to push and eventually shouting into the phone, “Just give me a damned human being.”

Deb rolled to a stop at the station, “Sorry again, honey.”

He shook his head at her as if to say it was nothing serious and climbed out.  He offered a half-wave over his shoulder while he trotted toward the train, cursing at the computerized voice coming off a computer server in San Antonio.

He bumped into Davis in the elevator and ran through several scenarios for the portfolio they were putting together for their clients in Tokyo on the ride up, then the two men split paths at the ding of the elevator and Robert headed for his office.

At the desk out front, his assistant Sophie stared blankly at the window thirty feet away and didn’t register his approach.

He called her name and she started, shaking her head twice.  It looked like the kind of affected gesture a bit player on a sitcom uses when, as some kind of punchline, someone else enters the room covered in honey and feathers or dressed like a hooker clown or whatever.

“You with me, Sophie?”

“Yes, sir, sorry.  Just really tired this morning.”

He imagined derisively what might have kept her up so late on a Sunday, maybe an all-night bender with the girls from the outer office or more likely a drugged-up orgy arranged by the SoHo-wannabe boyfriend he imagined she must have.

“You remember what kind of morning I’ve had, right?” he said, looking down at the seam of brown roots showing through the center of her supposedly blonde, shoulder-length bob.

“Oh, yes, sir.  Did they find your car?”

“No, afraid not.  Get me Suzanne Myers on the phone, will you?  Then I’ll take whatever other notes you have for me.”

It felt impossible to catch up.  He didn’t even have time to take a lunch, instead spending the whole day on the phone, pouring through spreadsheets, or popping between one office or another shoring up planks in their presentation for the following week.  When Sophie returned ten minutes late from her lunch break, he buzzed her and asked her to stay a little after five to help him catch up, figuring that saying nothing about her tardiness would leverage the extra time.  He kept her going through past tax filings all afternoon.

The outer office started to clear as long shadows fell over Broadway, eventually bringing on a long, grey eclipse.

Eventually, Sophie came in with several folders and set them on the edge of the desk as he paced behind his chair, staring into the gray chasm outside and laughing through the cell phone connection at something ridiculous Williams upstairs had just said.

When he hung up and turned, Sophie started explaining her progress in a rapid staccato.

“And this folder has everything from ’09,” she said, laying open one of them and flipping past the first few pages.

“Let me see.”

Robert stepped in, but Sophie didn’t seem to sense him coming and in reaching for the folder, his hand brushed over the length of silk covering her right breast.

The girl jumped back soundlessly.

He grabbed the paperwork without looking at her.  He refused to indulge her penchant for melodrama.  A few months before she had had to be coaxed teary-eyed from a bathroom stall over some imagined insult.  He didn’t have the time and patience for it now.  He felt her jostled, nervous little bones stiffening and her eyes going doe-wide behind him, but he simply refused to be drawn into some awkward exchange with her.

In fact, suddenly, he didn’t want to put up with any of it.

“That’s great,” he told her.  “Just put it all back in order for me and we’ll go from there tomorrow.”  He picked up his phone off the desk where he’d set it down and turned.  “It’s been a long day, I think we’re good now.  I’m going to head home early.”

She said nothing else as he walked past her and out of the office.

 

He called Deb and told her that he’d be early–in time for dinner on a weeknight for once.

The boys were elated.  Taylor and Dillon prattled on endlessly about their days at school.  Taylor, in particular, had been captivated on a lesson about Impressionism where they got to plop big dollops of paint on coarse paper.  Robert smiled and nodded, wondering what kind of curriculum taught first graders about Monet.

The kind you’re paying twenty-two hundred a month for, he answered himself.

After dinner, the boys cleared their plates and headed upstairs for baths.  Robert stayed at the table, letting Deb pour him a glass of wine–some Shiraz she swore by.  He listened to her talk about her contract for Yale’s alumni association with the same feigned interest he’d allotted to Dillon’s summary of his alphabetical studies.

Then came the knock on the door.

He shot up quickly and waved Debra down when she offered to get it.  He also shouted into the kitchen so their live-in wouldn’t bother either.  Through the chiseled glass of the front door he saw two unfamiliar figures.  Out of habit, he rested one hand on the alarm console’s panic button while he pulled open the door with the other.

The two men introduced themselves as Detectives Bransford and Mentelle and, “Would you please come with us, Mr. Blancstone?”

“Did you find my car?”

“No, sir, you are under arrest,” and then, quite absurdly, they followed the whole script from the TV shows.  He had half a mind to press the panic button and summon the real police, but he thought the whole thing might be some sort of harmless joke.

He told them as much.

“It’s a serious charge of sexual assault, sir.  Are we going to have to physically restrain you, sir?” Mentelle asked, with a beckoning motion of his hand.  Robert noticed for the first time that Bransford’s hand was resting on his holster and that cuffs were already clasped in his other hand.

“No, but…I need to…” he said weakly, turning behind him.  Naturally, he thought of Sophie, but he clamped his mouth shut before saying anything.

“You need to come with us, sir.”

By now Debra had come to the foyer with curious eyes that quickly transformed when she saw the look on his face.

“Robert–”

“Deb, call Martin.  Have him meet me–hey, where are you taking me?”

That answer turned out to be complicated.  There were apparently some logistical dilemmas in play since he was being arrested in one jurisdiction, but the alleged crime took place in the city.  Four different officers explained this conundrum to him as he was ferried about, waiting three hours total for his interrogation to finally begin.

By then, though, Martin was there.

His lawyer–or rather, the company’s lawyer–sat beside him as a new pair of officers explained the accusations.  After the parade of law enforcement personnel he’d been treated to, he didn’t bother to catch these latest names.

Robert was told that, after her shift was over, he had ordered his secretary to remain behind and then instructed her to join him in his office alone.  Then, without warning, he had pushed her forward over his desk and violated her.

This seemed beyond the reach of Sophie’s histrionics.  He found himself running through the possibilities.  Had someone else come into the office just after him?  “This has got to be some kind of mistake,” he said, shaking his head.

“I think the mistake was taking advantage of your secretary,” the taller of the two said.

“Administrative assistant,” Robert corrected.  “We have to call them administrative assistants now.”

The officer opened his mouth with an extension of his jaw that suggested he was about to play through his best “bad cop” routine, but Martin leaned forward and interjected.

“Officer Rice,” he said calmly.  “Let’s go over this moment by moment.  You allege that this attack took place at approximately 6:15 in the evening.”

“Correct.”

Martin produced a computer tablet from his brief case.  “This is a security image from our lobby’s cameras.  You will see that this is clearly my client, Robert Blancstone, and that the time stamp indicates that Mr. Blancstone was in the lobby at 6:07 PM today.”

“We–” the other officer tried to say.

“We will of course make the original files available to you and the district attorney,” Martin continued.  “Granted, your witness’s recollection could be off by several minutes, but Mr. Blancstone’s wife’s call record also indicates that he initiated a phone conversation with her at 6:03.”

“Maybe–”

“It I could continue,” he said, and did so without waiting for any further remark from the police.  “Likewise, I have confirmed that the call log from one of Mr. Blancstone’s associates, Kelley Williams, confirms that Mr. Blancstone hung up with him at only 5:52.  Now, that leaves a narrow eleven minute window for the alleged crime.”

“A rape like this doesn’t require a lot–”

“I’m aware of that, but you need to also be aware of our office culture.  Mr. Blancstone is in high finance, gentlemen.  They do not generally leave work early.  Mr. Blancstone did today because he had a particularly trying morning, but generally, these men and women can be found in their offices until eight, nine, later.”

“What’s your point?”

“There are two offices adjacent to Mr. Blancstone’s.  Both were occupied until well after seven o’clock today.  I’ve spoken to both parties and both have assured me that they are willing to give depositions to the effect that they heard no unusual disturbances in Mr. Mountblanc’s office during the time period in question.”

“How did you get all this information so quickly–”

“It was not difficult, but I’ll invite you to confirm all of this after we leave.”

“Leave?” one of them said in alarm.  “Your client is being charged with a felony.  He’s not leaving any time soon,” he said.

The other officer, though, laid his palm on his partner’s back and gestured for Martin to continue.

“Additionally, as to Mr. Blancstone’s whereabouts and behavior, I spoke with a member of our maintenance staff who was in the outer office this evening between 5:45 and 6:27.  He specifically recalls both seeing Mr. Blancstone leave his office and that the door was open prior to his departure.”

Both officers’ eyes seemed to withdraw, as if being pulled back by coils into their sockets.

“Finally, these are personal documents for Ms. DeClara,” he said, passing over two faxed pages.  “You’ll see that she has twice filed sexual harassment complaints that were never substantiated.  The second case was investigated by the NYPD and your colleagues could not find any evidence to support her complaint.”  Martin closed his case.  “Now, you gentlemen can make the mistake of pushing for arraignment, but I would not recommend it.  You can confirm all this independently, but Mr. Blancstone is in the midst of very important business for our firm that is time sensitive.  If Mr. Blancstone is kept here overnight, then you will be endangering millions of dollars in revenue for the company.  If that were to happen, we would be compelled to seek restitution in civil court for wrongful arrest.”

The officers rubbed their foreheads a few times and then excused themselves.  Martin patted Robert on the shoulder and assured him that the whole affair was almost over.

Robert didn’t even have time to finish saying, “This is a night–” before the officers returned and he was given an apology for his lost time.

After regaining his possessions, Martin met him on the steps outside.  “I’ve had someone from security contact Ms. DeClara at the hospital.  She’s being told that she is not to reenter the building.  She’ll be given a generous severance package and her personal belongings will be mailed to her.”

“Jesus,” Robert gasped, pulling up his home number on the screen of his phone.  “I just don’t know why she would do this.”

“Who can say,” Martin said.  “Come on now, we’ll get you home.”

Robert called home to tell Debra to go to sleep, he’d be home soon, but she was jittery and wanted more explanation.  “It’s just like Martin told you,” Robert explained.  “All just a big mistake.  It’s all cleared up now.”  His explanations didn’t satisfy her, but he was too weary to talk further so he urged her again to go to sleep and hung up.

 

Against Deb’s protests, Robert rolled out of the driveway the next morning in a rented car he’d arranged in the city.  “There’s just too much to do,” he told her, bleary-eyed.

He spent most of the drive on the phone, explaining the details of his ordeal to three different senior partners in the firm, all of whom concluded the calls with something to the effect of, “Unbelievable.  Thank God Martin was able to clear it up for you right away… now you just focus on Tokyo.”

He did.  He found the folders Sophie had organized lying on his desk and a moment later was greeted by his new assistant, an eager woman of thirty-five or so whose wide smile didn’t alter even as she spoke.  He did his best to bring her up to speed to make use of her and then sent her out to Sophie’s old desk, which had been cleared by security before he’d arrived.

He ate lunch with a half-dozen other members of the team.  It was a rich, languorous meal, full of bluster and confidence.  They dreamed in short phrases and long words about sixty million dollars hanging in the near future like a shimmering pleasure dome.

After returning to the office, they worked through the afternoon and evening in committee until one of the senior partners appeared and, waving his hand like a magnanimous bishop, gave them his blessing to call it a night.

When Robert brought the rental into the driveway, there was already a car there and two figures talking with his wife beside the front door.

As he climbed out, she looked to him in the dim light with a curious blend of despair and horror.

The detectives turned–they were new, not people he’d met the night before–and greeted him.

“We located your car, Mr. Blancstone.”

“Really?  That’s great.  Did you find who stole it?”

“No.  It didn’t really appear to be stolen at all.  It has some superficial damage to one fender, but that appears to be a paint scrape from another vehicle.”

“What?”

“It’s been parked in Queens for the last forty-eight hours, but it is securely locked.”

“In Queens?”

“Were you in the city Sunday night, sir?”

“Me?  No.”

“Can we ask where you were that night?”

“Here, at home,” he made a feeble gesture toward his wife, but she said nothing.

“Your wife says she and the children went to bed by nine o’clock.  What did you do after your family went to sleep, Mr. Blancstone?”

“Are you–”

“There are some empty liquor bottles visible inside the cabin of the automobile, sir.  Could it be that you don’t remember because you were drinking too heavily?”

“That’s absurd.”

“Can you account for–”

“I’ve had about enough of this.  My time was spent reviewing projections and interest reports all night.  I don’t have time to go on some drunken rampage, thank you very much!  I’m going to have words with your superior.  My car is stolen and you come here with recriminations against me!”

He continued shouting until the two officers sheepishly apologized.  Debra wilted by the door, saying nothing.

He demanded the address where he could find his car, which they provided, and then opened the door.

Startled, Debra shuffled inside.  He followed her and slammed the door without saying anything more to the officers.

“Jesus,” he gasped once inside.

“What is going on, Robert?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you’ve been accused of two crimes in a week.  And rape?”

“Debra, you’re acting like I did something wrong.”

“Keep your voice down,” she hissed.  “Were you having an affair with that woman?”

“What?  She’s crazy.  She’s got some sort of personal problems.  Didn’t Martin explain all that to you on the phone?”

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, Robert.”

“What?  How the hell can you say that?”

“Were you having an affair with her?”

“I never touched her.  How can you ask me that?”

“I’m just confused by all this.  I just want you to tell me that you aren’t getting mixed up in anything that’s going to endanger our family,” she said, dropping her head and rubbing her brow.  “Can you tell me that?”

“Of course I’m not,” he said, storming past her.  “Jesus,” he said again.

 

She went to sleep early after bathing the boys.  He made do with what food he could scavenge in the kitchen and ate it alone at the breakfast table with the TV rumbling barely audible in the corner of the room.

He thought about Deb’s eyes–her recriminating, doubtful eyes–staring at him as though he had done something wrong, as if he was responsible.

He’d seldom felt so angry at her and he sat very still at the table, staring at the TV screen without understanding what was happening on it before the anger subsided enough for him to think about going to bed.

When he finally felt ready, he took a bottle of Scotch from the bar and poured himself a drink, then another to steady his nerves.

After another hour of sitting in silence, he climbed the stairs to the bedroom.  Deb was a pulsing mound in bed, the sheet rising in a steady, tidal beat with her breath.

He brushed his teeth, went to the toilet, and then dropped his clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor.  He slipped into bed wearing only his boxer shorts and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.

He woke groggily without the alarm having rung.  The clock read 6:04.

Deb was already up, though he heard no stirrings through the open bedroom door.

He called out to her as he stretched his arms going through the jamb.

She didn’t call back.

The bathroom between the boys’ rooms was open.

“Boys?”

He stepped closer to it and saw that the light through the window was catching something slick and wet on the tiles.

One more step and he saw the ends of five little toes at the edge of the slick, red spot.

“Taylor!  Dillon!”

Both were there, face down on the tile.

Deep gashes had gone black on their backs.

They were absolutely still.

“Deb!”

He launched, without thinking of calling the authorities with the phone beside the bed, to the stairs and sprinted through the open spaces downstairs.

He found her in the kitchen.

The cuts were more severe.  Whole parts of her were hanging to the body by only sinewy lines of tissue and gossamer sheets of skin.

The house was still and calm all around him.

He stumbled backward through the kitchen door and when his back met the wall, he stopped, slid to the ground where dawn entered the house through the crystal in the door and rested there, just in sight of the pool of blood around Deb’s body.

His hands shook.  For a long time that was all that happened, all that he felt.  The shaking of his hands beside his knees.

Then another feeling.

The slow, steady sensation of pressure, of one being submerged, not in water, but in something thicker, deeper.

He was then sure that he had done it.  Though when he looked in the steady yellow glow of sunlight he saw his hands were clean, immaculate even.

Still he knew that it had to be him.  Finally.  Who else could it have been?

 

Departure

out

On the first day, the sky went out.

Davis had trouble remembering what they’d been doing when the noise started.  Whatever it had been, they had carried on unperturbed.

When the lights, television, and air conditioning gave out with the power, though, they all rose and looked about.  Hannah pried open the blinds with two fingertips coated in orange acrylic and said, “I can’t see anything.”

They could hear it, though.  Without all the background noise of whirring motors and vibrating speakers, the rumbling sound of the wind seemed overpowering.

Davis went to the front door and pulled it open.  He was struck by how suddenly the world simply was not there, the cracked cement walkway leading down to the street and the usual band of blue with wispy whitish accents replaced by a featureless brown howling.

“Some storm,” he said, forcing the door shut against the pressure of the wind.  A fine dust had coated the entryway in the few seconds he’d left it open.

“Guess there’s no Olive Garden for lunch,” Marcy said.

“Why not?” Hannah whined.

“We’re not going out in that,” her mother told her.  “Besides, their lights might have gone out, too.”

“I was looking forward to those breadsticks,” Davis said.  “I’ll call them, see if they’re open.”

But there was no signal on the phone either.

“Huh,” he grunted.  “The cell phone towers are out, too.”  Hannah exhaled a noisy puff of disgust and went to her room.  “Some storm,” he repeated.

For dinner, they ate cereal by candlelight, muttering their hopes that the power would come back soon so the rest of the milk wouldn’t spoil.  With nothing but the wind and dark to occupy their senses, they turned in early.  Marcy and Davis made love quietly and then lay still for two hours hoping to hear the hum of electricity returning to the house.

Hannah played games on her cell phone until the battery died.

 

In the morning, the brown haze had been replaced by gray.  When Davis opened the door again, the wind snapped at him and soaked his shirt almost immediately.  He still couldn’t see anything beyond the basic outline of their front porch as he pushed the door closed again.

Marcy brought him a towel.

He sat down in the living room, watching the sheets of water wash over the slits of window showing through the blinds.

At breakfast they went through the fridge, now nearing luke warmth, and used up as many perishables as possible.  They laughed about the combinations.  Ketchup and eggs and cheese and yogurt and a glass of orange juice and milk for each of them.  The sodas they left alone, but Davis joked that they had to use up the horse radish.

“At least we’ve still got the gas,” Marcy remarked while scrambling the eggs over the top burners.

For dinner Davis would figure out how to light the oven without the digital controls and they would use up a frozen store-bought lasagna that was still unspoiled in the freezer.  Throughout the day, the three of them sat around in the living room telling stories.  Hannah reenacted everything she could remember from their vacation to Costa Rica when she was eleven.  Though they remembered it as clearly as she did, her parents just smiled and nodded and laughed at all the right places.

Next, Davis told the story of setting up a picnic for Marcy just outside the university computer lab as a surprise for her while she’d been working late on her master’s thesis.

Marcy, though, got Hannah in stitches telling her about Davis’s brush with the swine flu–which turned out to be low-level food poisoning.  “He said, ‘Honey, if I don’t make it, don’t remarry until Hannah’s in high school, okay?’” Marcy chortled.  Davis bobbed his head good-naturedly.

The next morning, nothing had cleared up.  There was still no world outside.

“Should we try to drive to work?”

“We can’t see three feet,” Davis said, shaking his head.

“But we can’t call in either.”

“They’ll know.  Half the city must be stranded.”

“I told you we should have kept a land-line.  It would’ve still worked even without the power.”

“For thirty bucks a month?  How often is something like this going to happen?”

She shook her head as he closed the blinds.

Davis dug out some books he’d had boxed up in the garage and pushed the couch closer to the window to get enough light to read.  He looked up twenty pages later and caught Hannah sweeping the floor.

“What’re you doing?”

“I don’t know,” she answered.  “I’m bored.”  She kept sweeping.

The leaks started that night.  Every few minutes, one or all of them would leap up and chase the sound of a drip in the dark, damming it with tupperware and dirty towels.

By morning, most of the bulwarks had held, but Hannah was eager to mop up the areas where buckets had overflowed or towels had given up under the weight of super saturation.  They kept rotating and dumping most of the day.

That night, Davis and Marcy curled together in bed.  They told each other the storm would have to break.  It couldn’t go on much longer.  These whispers soothed them as they drifted off to sleep, only to wake at three in the morning (Davis checked the one wrist watch in the house) when they heard a crashing noise outside.  After the sudden explosion of metal ripping into metal, a car alarm roared above the trembling sound of the wind beating against the side of the house.

Davis went downstairs, shirtless in flannel pants and opened the front door.  He could hear the alarm more clearly and as the wind buffeted him with wet fists he thought he could make out a pulse of orange light behind the wall of gray outside the door.  He shone his flashlight into the mist.  No shapes emerged.  He reached his foot to step beyond the threshold, but suddenly, as if in warning, the wind gusted and forced him back.

He closed the door on the sound of the car.

By morning the noise was gone.

They tended again to the intruding water, let the rotation of pots and pans structure their day.  When the light gave out, they had a meal by candlelight.  Hannah complained about the offerings: cans of corn and beans and some Ritz crackers.

The next morning they noticed that the water coming out of the faucets was growing more and more brown.  By late afternoon, it was almost sludge.  Davis cut the water to the toilets and they began using the rainwater to fill the bowls.

“We’ve got water,” he told them.

“You want us to drink what’s coming through the roof?”

“We’ve got water,” he said again.

That night, Hannah did not complain: more cans of corn and beans.  The Ritz were gone, but they had a dessert of four Chips Ahoy cookies.

He misplaced the watch.  The three of them looked around, overturning sopping towels and shuffling around picture frames and knick knacks to move their shadows.  With the house so dark and the batteries on the flashlights failing, they abandoned the search.

He read to them the mornings after that.  He picked a yellowed copy of Ender’s Game to begin.

“I loved this book when I was a kid,” he told them.

He was amazed when, sometime in what must have been the next afternoon, he closed the book on the last chapter.

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole book in two days before in my life.”

“And out loud, too,” Marcy said warmly.

“Can I go next?” Hannah asked.

They began sleeping in the living room, Marcy and Davis bundled together on the couch, Hannah’s feet dangling off the edge of the love seat.  They tended to the water invading the house, following an unofficial but increasingly efficient routine, and they read and talked together in the den.

As the light began to fail after Marcy had gotten forty pages into Little Women, Davis took one of the remaining candles into the kitchen and swept its orange glow back and forth across the open cabinet doors.  He sighed to himself and rejoined the others in the living room.

Once he heard Hannah’s breathing slip into long, steady sighs, he whispered to Marcy, “We’ll have to do something.  There’s no food left.”

“We’ll ration what’s left.”

“We’ve been doing that,” he told her, gripping her upper arm firmly.  “There’s nothing left.”

“There’s some.”

“Better now, before we’re weak with hunger.”

She wrapped her fingers around his and said nothing more.

In the morning, before Hannah stirred, he quietly fished out his winter coat from the hall closet and found his racquetball goggles in his duffle bag.  Still wrapped in blankets on the couch, Marcy shook her head at him.  He shrugged in reply and turned.

He walked to the front door and placed his hand on the knob.

It felt cold, colder than he’d expected.

The door came open easily, blown inward by the unrelenting wind.  He pulled the goggles over his eyes and wiped the rain off his lips.  He took two moon-landing steps into the gray outside and squinted, still unable to see anything.

He reached back and grasped the doorknob from the other side.

With a heave, he pulled it shut behind him.