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Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic

Category Archives: Fiction

“Ayelet? Ayelet wake up.”

Her eyes opened slowly. She saw the concrete floor. The brick walls, damp, dripping. A curtain did it’s best to separate her from the rest of the large, open room. Beyond it she could see people huddled around a stove, its feeble flames flickering against the oppressive darkness. She began the focus on things closer to her. The curtain was really a thread bare olive green wool blanket. The walls were covered in a similarly green moss. The floor was cracked and stained. The woman calling her from sleep had a soft face, its sagging lines suggesting it had once been full. The wrinkles around her mouth and eyes suggesting she had once, perhaps still, smiled a great deal.

“Devi?”

“Ayelet, meri jara, you are awake! You must get up, I will bring you something hot to drink.”

“How long was I asleep?” She rubbed her eyes, ran her hands through her hair, trying to grab at memories that were flying away. She had been in the woods, but before that? After that?

“Devi, where is…” She stopped, closing her eyes. Seeing. His eyes. His skin. Everything. Ayelet folded herself in half, putting her head down on her knees. Devi reached out a warm hand to her shoulder, attempting to comfort, but Ayelet moved away. Devi cleared her throat.

“You need to get cleaned up. Malcolm is waiting for you. I’ve kept him back for this long, but…well, you know Malcolm.” She smiled, and rolled her eyes, trying to attempt some sort of co-conspiracy against Malcolm, who had been his best friend, a loyal follower, a great warrior, if not quite a great mind.

Ayelet could not think of Malcolm. She played with the blood stained bracelet on her wrist, gazed as serenely as possible on the mud caked between her toes. She just wanted to sleep. To go back to a time when she hadn’t known what she knew now. When she didn’t know that he was gone. When she didn’t know who, what he was, or anything about the war, the Adumbrations, the Underground.

Ayelet had grown up away from the world, just her and her mother. And her brother, Jakob. She and Jakob would play in the seemingly endless woods and fields surrounding their small cabin. Games of non-sense, enjoying nothing more than the freedom of being together. At times they would fight, once Jakob smeared mud in Ayelet’s long, red hair, she threw mud back at him. They settled their fights together, the same way they played. There had been a time when Ayelet would have ran to her mother, crying, wanted her hair smoothed and tears wiped. Then around the age of ten or eleven, her mother began to go days without looking at her, and then would suddenly grab her by the shoulders, peering at her green eyes as if she was searching for something. It was beyond Ayelet’s grasp. She just wanted to be a child, and to play. Until Jakob was taken.

The day was hot, hotter than most. The heat radiated up from the ground, sticky and sweet, smelling of grass. The air was buzzing, vibrant and full. Jakob and Ayelet were heading down the hill their house sat on, out of the woods, across a wide field to a cool running stream. Jakob had ran ahead of her, he always sprinted to the edge of the woods, bursting from the forest as water from a dam. This day Ayelet had stopped to watch a nest of birds, craning her neck to the point of impossibility. And then something changed. At her young age, she couldn’t put a name to what it was. The air? The energy? The spin of the Earth? She was dizzy. She didn’t know. She only knew that something was different, and that she had to find Jakob. She thrust each skinny little girl leg into the ground, trying to reach them out as far as possible, to eat away at the ground between herself and the treeline. She broke out into dazzling sunlight, gasping, both from running and from this new sensation which was now baring down on her with more force than the sun.

In the field was a…she had no words for it. She had never seen any human besides her mother and Jakob, never knew anything besides the descriptions she had read in the dusty, grainy pages of the books scattered around the house. This creature was not in those volumes. It certainly had the form of a human, but its skin was translucent, its nose flat, and its eyes naught but saucers. Its long, slim, scaley limbs restrained Jakob, who was lying face down in the grass in front of it. One clawed hand traced lines into his young flesh. It stopped when it saw Ayelet. The creature began to move as if it were going to lunge at her, reaching out a hand dripping with her brother’s blood, and then quickly withdrawing it as if burned by flame. The creature made a sound, a screech, a whisper, a scream, nothing, and wrapped its arms once again around Jakob’s body, and was gone, leaving nothing but shimmering summer heat in its wake.

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The sky was whispering down through the greening foliage. There was a rustling in the grass towards her right. A bird kiltered off of a tree branch. The sun just barely touched his skin, illuminating a pale lavender tint. The shells of beetles, the slow crawl of maggots, the vibrating wings of flies, the hummingbird, all made the ground and the air around where he lay shimmer. She walked towards him, singing softly, placing each foot down carefully. As she approached she made sure her long cotton skirt was lifted off the ever softening ground. She saw his eyes were cloudy, she paused to gaze upwards and see if the sky was the same. Kneeling beside him she picked up his waxen hand, removed the woven bracelet from his wrist. She stayed there for a time, taking in the mud in his shaggy, curly hair. Noting she could not see the chain of his necklace. Seeing the marks carved into his bare back. The filth on his jeans, his bare feet. She sat on the ground, her legs crossed, her skirt spread over her lap like a blanket, soaking up the blood and bile from the ground. She played with the bracelet absentmindedly as her singing became humming. As the sky became the soft lavender of his skin, as the moon rose unseeing like his eyes, as the air became cool as his blood, she sat there, vocalizing a song whose name she did not know, or did not care to think about.

They came just after dawn, the sweeper team, taking up those who were not able to get away fast enough, those who had given up caring how fast they could run. The old, the sick, the weak, were always sent away, but some slipped, and were sieved through the net of the sweeper team. Behind this net were Shadows. A shadow touches, engulfs, darkens and extinguishes everything it passes over. A Shadow lays itself over the people left behind, those smart enough to hide, strong enough to run. The Shadows drape themselves over the landscape, and when they are gone, so are their targets. And so it was in the forest just after the hint of chill had began to burn out of the air, the sweeper team lead through, somewhat loudly, taking sickles to the undergrowth, staining their flashing, sharpened blades with the sticky green blood of the plants. They found no one, and did not look at his body as they passed over it. They did not seem to notice the mix of wild, red curls among the green and purple leaves surrounding a towering tree.

Ayelet noticed everything. From her place behind the jeweled leaves she noticed the Sweepers kicking up the dirt, the dust into the air. She watched them unintentionally disturb the flies around his body. She noticed the hummingbird fly away. They fumbled their way through the forest, past her, with no art, finding no lives to tow in their wake. No sooner than they had gone, than did the air begin to still. Around his body the shimmering stopped, the wings of the flies hovered in the light of his skin, the maggots stopped their feasting. The particles of sunlight that had been washing over her, over him, past his eyes, slowed their descent to the ground on which he laid. It was at the edge of her line of vision that they came. As darkness formed from nothing, from a lack of light, they came. They lay over the landscape, not quite belonging to the ground, not quite to the sky, something about the way they shifted, Ayelet thought, something about the way they moved, not moving, not quite belonging to themselves. This is why they call them the Shadows. Or possibly their soft gray suits, the way their cars made no sound, they appeared seemingly from nowhere. In the underground, they were called Adumbrations, things that obscured.

They stood still, eyes not scanning, but flicking from one thing to the next. To the greening sky. To the dead leaves picked up by the strengthening wind. To the bugs and insects and all things crawling retreating slowly into the ground. To the body before them. And then away. To the patch of green and purple leaves surrounding a towering tree.

They’d seen her.

 Buzzati The Falling Girl

It seemed to be late at night now. He touched her skin, and then he thought, ‘Yeah, she is beautiful, but she don’t mean a thing to me.’ She was sitting up on the bed, he let his hand slide down the line of her spine. She stood up, he appreciated her shape as she crossed the room to the chifforobe, took out a vibrantly pink satin robe, wrapping it slowly around her form, the speed for his benefit, the coverage for no ones.

“Hey, maybe we can go out tomorrow night? I’ve never met any of your friends. We could go to your golf club, maybe we can?” Her voice was like her skin, creamy, smooth, lovely. Everything it was could not hide everything it wasn’t.

“No. Not tomorrow. Maybe some other time, maybe.” He rolled over, the bed coils of her cheap single mattress squeaking under his weight. He would never take her to meet his friends. He would never take her to the talkies, or down to the lounges to show her off. He could. He just wouldn’t.

“What, are you ashamed of me?” There was a playful lilt to her voice. She was secure in her beauty. She knew that men would worship at her feet, she didn’t even have to ask. Worship at her feet, her legs, her hips, her breasts, her face, her hair. She had even had a john once who had an unnatural attachment to her belly button. But this one, oh boyo, she thought, she couldn’t peg down what he worshipped about her, and it drove her crazy. She slipped into bed next to him, pressed her forehead to his back, wrapped her soft arms around him. He sighed, and she smiled. He was thinking of her, he had to be thinking of her.

He closed his eyes. Her embrace felt right, he told himself, this is what you are supposed to want. But all he saw through his closed eyes was olive tone skin, taught muscles, dark short hair. A crooked smile. Two nights ago he and Charlie had walked up six flights of stairs in a broken down tenement.

“Damn, man. I could get a better work out doing…” He paused to take a breath, and smirk at Charlie behind him. “Doing something else at least. Why the hell are we in this shit hole?”

“This guy, he’s a friend of mine, he just came in. He’s never heard jazz, on your life, can believe that? So we are going to properly introduce him to our city.” He knocked on the first door at the top of the stairs, running a hand through his hair, his tongue over his teeth. The door swung open, somehow sudden and unexpected, as though the outcome of knocking on a door should be anything but a swinging of the hinges. In the doorway, obscured by the angular shadows cast by the bare bulb above the entry way, was a man. Dressed in only an undershirt moist with sweat, his aristocratic brow damp with it, the subtle smell moved down the stairway. He could not help but stare at this man’s form in the doorway, it was an assault not on his senses, but on his sensibilities. His stomach should not be jumping, he should not feel slightly faint. He should not be nervous. Excited.

“Albert! What a hole man!” Charlie put an arm playful around his neck, and pulled him into the apartment. The radiator was obviously broken, steam poured into the room, creating a miasma that was somehow fitting. Albert shrugged, smiled, walked over to the radiator and turned it off.

“And how. But you take what you can get, my friend, you take what you can get. Hello, I’m Albert.” Albert wiped his hand with a towel and extended it across the silence. It was calloused as though it belonged to a laborer, but the palm was soft, a laborer who may read poetry?

“Walter.” He quickly withdrew his hand, and made a moment of wiping it on his trousers. “Put your shirt on, you want to run around having people think you’re an Ethel. We don’t roll like that.”

Walter steadied his breath as they left the apartment. Maybe it was the heat. Soon they were on the stairs. Maybe it was the stairs. Soon they were out on the street. Maybe it was the sticky night air. Soon they were in a speeding cab. Walter’s heart hadn’t found it’s regular rhythm, he began to ignore it. He watched Albert.

“Al, call me Al.”

He watched Al. He was Mediterranean, Italian, perhaps. His hair was slicked back with pomade, the latest style. His lines was long and lean, his body taut, seeming constantly ready to spring, to move. To attack. He stretched his legs out in the cab, let his head fall back, the air from the window rolling over his face, lifting his suit lapels. Al did not seem aware of his surroundings, more accurately, he did not seem to care. At the night clubs he smiled at the girls, but chatted up the flappers. He was at the same time disinterested and radiant. At the door of the speakeasy, a door that did not exist as much as it did, he looked the doorkeeper in the eye, slipped a greenback in through the slot, and got them in. And then he drank. But for all his bravado, Al had never had the strong bathtub whiskey, he gulped what Walter and Charlie sipped. Before the evening was anywhere near over, the bravado was gone, Al was slumped in his chair, his foot vaguely tapping to the jazz washing down slow and strong from the stage. His head rolled over, his dark bleary eyes opened.

“Walter…what is this? This…Walter, this sounds like jabber…” He laughed, reached his hand out, to no where really, but it found the side of Walter’s face. “Walter…this jabber…”

Walter lowered his head, his lips accidently brushing the palm of Al’s hand. “Shhh, just listen, it’s talking to you. The horns, they are blowing life at you! The bass is a…a heart. And there is no wrong in jazz, even in misstep it is good. Even when it is wrong, it is right.” The sheer volume made Al lean closer and closer. His breath warmed the side of Walter’s face, whose heart beat quickened.

“I cannot get your words in here. I want to go, can we go?” Al’s face was lacking the composure that had kept him cool all night, the whiskey and jazz had washed it away, and perhaps something more. Charles was lodged in line of fire of some vamp, trying to get a snuggle bunny for the night. Al was already drunkenly moving towards the door. Walter threw down money for their tab, and followed him out into the night air. Al did not hail a cab, but was drunkenly stumbling in the vague direction of his run-down apartment. Walter did not quite know what to do, to follow Al, making sure he got home safely, to ask him to come and stay at his loft, where there was no broken radiator, or just to forget this friend of an acquaintance, go home and sleep.

“Al!” He cursed himself as he called out, Al turned, a simple drunken smile on his face. “ That place is a hole, why don’t you just stay over at my place tonight?”

They walked in not so awkward silence, for ten blocks. The squeaking of theirs shoes was the only conversation, their only jazz. As they reached the steps Walter slowed his walk, he put Al’s arm around his neck, helping him to the apartment. Once inside, he dropped Al on the couch. Walter stood for a moment, shifting, to the left, towards the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, to the right, to reach down and brush a lock of hair out of his face. He had always fought this, this longing to be close to men. Just wanting to touch them, to talk to them. Men were supposed to be men, though, to take women and to care for them. So if Walter were to reach out, to smooth the hair out of Al’s dark eyes, to let his thumb run over Al’s soft lips, to…to ask him to…would that still let him be a man?

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Screw the cat. If curiosity killed her, then at least she was dead. The cat did not have to go into eternity searching for what began the day as a passing fancy. The cat did not have only thirty minutes to right an upturned home before her husband got home from work. The cat did not have to tell her children she was looking for a rat she saw scurry across the kitchen. The cat did not feel guilty for laughing inwardly as they screamed in terror and ran away. The cat did not have to deal with the disappointment of unsatisfied curiosity. Because she was dead. Lucky kitty. Meow.

The day had not started with me reveling in the death of non-existent household pets. It started pretty much the way it had every day for the last five years. Wake up, get Doug up, get the kids up, let the dog out, get the kids up again, make breakfast, kiss husband, drive to school, drive to the market, clean the house, watch some trash tv, pick up the kids, start dinner, help with homework, finish dinner, kiss husband, serve dinner, clean up again, put kids to bed, watch more trash tv, go to sleep, repeat. In our first six months of marriage, before the first kid was born (I know the math doesn’t add up, different kitty, still too curious) I would have added ‘get naked’ in between ‘wake up’ and ‘get Doug up.’ That was three kids ago, it is hard to think of ditching your panties when you’re holding your fourth newborn, trying to stop a fight between your middle two kids, answer questions from your oldest, and all the while attempting not to rip your newly in place stitches. But today whilst cleaning the house I tripped on my sons Tonka truck, nearly going headlong into the entertainment center. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, they were too busy being caught by a picture of me and Nina hiking through the woods with our dogs. Not the same white, fluffy, ratdog that passed for a family pet now, my daughters thought she was ‘precious’. A pitt bull and a mastiff. We were wearing hiking boots and no make-up. I remember the day this picture was taken. The sun had baked my bare shoulders, the weed had baked my mind. I was wearing a silver lily on a long chain around my neck. It was three weeks before Nina left for Oregon and we became “Hey, I’m going to be in town…” friends. It was just five months before I stopped wearing that necklace. For a second I willed my head to hit the corner of the wooden alter.

I let myself lay on the floor, retracing five years worth of steps. Where had I left that necklace? I hadn’t thrown it away, I knew that much. There were boxes in the attic filled with my kindergarten drawings and videos of my high school speeches, bound copies of graduate research papers. My book. Useless memorabilia that was just there to collect dust, and occasional accompany a very large glass of wine and a little intellectual sadism. That had to be where the necklace was. I jumped up, energized, aware, at the very least. I walked up the stairs, kicking toys aside, determined that they not exist for now. I had to jump to grab the little knob-ended string connected to the attic access panel. It was stifling hot, the humidity oppressive. I let it crush my lungs as I went through box after box, it had already killed the people I used to be. I pushed aside the ill-fitting skins, looking for the one I wanted. A lifetime, an eternity, an hour went by and I found nothing but a growing fanaticism. Maybe it was in the chest at the foot of the bed, under baby blankets and binkies and booties and blah blah blah. The somehow unnatural smell of cedar accosted me as I threw open the lid.

“Come on, come on, come on, c’mon, c’mon…” Madly speaking to myself, trying to summon…something. No, I was narrating, there was nothing to be summoned. I just needed to find the damned necklace. I needed to conquer something today. Other than getting Jordan to pee in his potty.

“Mama?” little voices spoke and sticky little faces peered in through the bedroom door. Damn, nap time is over. Maybe if I don’t answer they’ll go away.

“Mama? I’m hungry.”

The snacks were made, on the small table in the corner of the breakfast nook, like they had been every day for their entire lives. But they needed Mama.

Oh God. Sacrine, sweet, motherly: “Yes baby, I know, Mama will be there in just a second.”

I took a deep breath, let my head hang, watching them toddle off through the curtain of my hair. There was nothing in the damn chest anyway. I resisted the urge to slam the lid down, rose, pasted a smile on my face, and went to administer snacks and tickle and play with my children. When would I have time to wear it anyways? It’s silver filigree would only get bent, tarnished, tugged on, and broken. Lilies don’t grow in this area anyways. Not since I can recall.

But my mind was fixated. Retrace your steps. I had gone hiking with Nina, we drove home in my green rag top Cabriolet, one hundred and eighty pounds worth of dog crammed in the front seat with us. Laughing as their joyous salivation hit Nina’s Josh and him in the face. The four of us worked together to make dinner. When Nina and Josh were doing the dishes we slipped away, throwing our passionate reflection onto the yellowing, cracked mirror in the bathroom. He went back to work on Monday, surprisingly suited up as an intern for an environmental law firm. I stayed home to write and drink coffee and crunch about the house like a little granola pseudo-wife (if I felt like it, quite often I didn’t). I didn’t take it off when we cooked dinner together, took the dog for walks, (I had it on.) went hiking on the weekends, shared showers in the morning. I wore my cotton nighty, my broomstick skirts, my hair down, my hair in braids. (I always had it on.) I ran to the market to get food and wine for a dinner party we were having to celebrate his hiring by a firm in Washington state. I don’t quite know why I grabbed the umbrella, I loved the feel of summer rain against my skin. But I was just wearing the necklace (I had it on.) and a white linen peasant blouse, and jeans. Plus I wasn’t going to the bodega that was a twenty minute walk from the cottage, where I could wear whatever I wanted and no one would care, because I was short just a couple of last minute items, and the wine, and only had time to make one stop. So I drove to the supermarket, and was acutely aware that I didn’t look like the people moving in like moths to the flame, and that the droplets of rain I had attempted to dodge from the cottage to my car had turned my blouse from white to opaque. So I grabbed an umbrella from the floor of the car, and walked up to the store. I stood before the confused automatic doorway, opening and closing, shaking my umbrella. I gave it a final diagonal swoop but instead of finding only air I found the thigh of a passing man. His face was fixed into a frown, but then he started laughing.

“Look at you! You’re kind of a mess, huh?” He continued to chuckle, trying to wipe his trouser leg off.

“Yeah, perhaps I am,” I said nervously, bending slightly to knock the water off his pant leg, I didn’t see him look down the front of my blouse, “but at least I am not trying to dry myself off before I go out into the rain. Sorry for the trouble.” I righted myself, smiled apologetically, and started to make my way into the store. (I had it on, I touched it for reassurance) He grabbed me by the arm.

“I’m Doug. What’s your name?” He was smiling. His eyes were very blue.

I looked around (I had it on, I clutched it tightly). “Ayelet. I’m Ayelet. And I am really in quite a hurry.” I attempted to move into the store, but he detained me again.

“Ayelet? That’s odd. Well, Ayelet, if you ever want to reimburse me for dry cleaning, or buy me a cup of coffee in apology, here’s my card.”

I took it, went into the store. I glanced behind me. Doug was watching me walk away. (I had it on?) I quickly finished my shopping. I got in my car and drove back home. He had come home and started cooking dinner, we shared a long kiss. (I had it on!) I then uncorked a bottle of wine, stole the joint from his mouth, found my skin again. And we had dinner. We celebrated his, our, good fortune. We talked about the job, about the impact he would make. We talked about the futility of current environmental policies. We made fun of ourselves for being neo-hippies. We drank. We laughed. We talked about the move. We went outside, built a bonfire, passed around a drum and a joint. We talked about my writing, a fictional narrative on post-colonial diasporas. We talked about the wedding that was coming up, after the book was published. (I had it on.) He left for Washington two weeks later. I was ripped in two as he walked away from me to board his flight. (I had it on…)

The first week without him crawled by. I planted new flowers, I played with the dog. (I had it on.) I stared at blank pages, I called Nina.(I had it on.) I scrubbed the house from top to bottom. I cleaned out my purse. At the bottom was a slightly soggy business card, a cell phone number on the back. I called the number, was answered with a laugh. (I had it on?) Doug and I went for coffee, our talking was not really talking. He laughed at my lifestyle, I laughed at his obvious ignorances, and short comings. We went for drinks. I choked when he boldly told me his yearly income, Doug giggled when I told him about my book. (I had it on?) The world started to tip a little. We went back to his apartment for coffee. There was no coffee. (I had it on, God forgive me.)

I woke up the next morning wishing my head were detachable, and left the leather-bound apartment as soon as possible. The next month I was a good girl. I called him every day. (I never took it off.) I was counting the days until my book was officially picked up, and I could run away to Washington, forget what I had done. How I had risked my paradise. How I closed my eyes and saw Doug just as often as I saw him. How I couldn’t tell which one I wanted to touch more. And then I missed something. Stress? Ok. I calmed down. (I had it on. I prayed with it in my hands.) Cancer? Oh Please God. (I had it on. I wished that maybe I was allergic to the metal.) The stick turned blue. (I had it on. I thought about selling it for the necessary procedures.)

I got rip roaring drunk. I got high. I looked long and hard at a clothes hanger. I called him. (I had it on. I prayed to it, find us some sort of salvation.) He was silent. He started to speak. He was silent. He hung up. I waited. (I had it on.) One day. I waited. (I had it on.) One week. I waited. (I had it on.) Two weeks. I waited. Nina told me he was flying into town to get the rest of his things. I waited. (I took it off. Allowed it to stare at me from the dresser.) I watched him from down the street, saw him take the dog, take a few boxes of stuff to his car, take an envelop out to my car. (I stopped glancing over at the dresser for it.) I told Doug. He insisted we marry quickly. We did. I moved in with him. (I don’t remember what I did with it.)

Retrace your steps. It was on the dresser. He went inside, got his things, went out to the Cabriolet. I didn’t see it anymore. He went out to the Cabriolet. Then I didn’t see it anymore. The car! I pushed my son off my lap, ignored the smoke alarm over the kitchen, and ran out to the shed, where my Cabriolet rested after its long life, except for the one day a year it went out to pass inspection. I tore the cover off, struggled with the door. Please, please, please, it had to be there. Please. I needed to find it, to know where it was. Inside, the smell of dust, oil, drying leather. Not between the seats. Nothing under them but roaches. Not the trunk. The inaptly named glove box? I reached for it. I wish I could say that time slowed down, or I thought the better of dredging up my past, or in a split second I decided I was in love with my children and my husband and my life. But I can’t. I can say that I had to know, had to satisfy my curiosity. I had to find that necklace! So I reached, and I compressed the latch, and I held my breath. The little bulb still worked, casting its yellow light onto a yellowing white envelop. It was not flat. I grabbed at it greedily, tearing it open as soon as my fingers touched the paper. The tarnished silver chain pooled as water in my hand, the splashing rock was a silver filigree tiger lily, shining the same way it did when he gave it to me. My life flashed before my eyes. My real life. The one I was supposed to have, before one mistake that led to another mistake that ended up in four mistakes. And I was happy. I almost didn’t notice the note left in the envelop. A folded piece of paper, I recalled the pad we kept by the ancient avocado refrigerator, and his impossible to read handwriting. Not impossible to me.

“Put it back on.”

My hands shaking, I unknotted the chain, looked at it in the dim light of the shed. I shivered as the surprisingly cool metal slid against my neck, startled at my muscle memory as I easily fixed the clasp. I had it on, holding it tightly against my chest. And then I knew. I knew that as I had found the necklace I had lost, I could find the life that I had lost. I slipped into the front seat of the Cabriolet, ran my hand over the visor for the keys. It would run, it had to run. I turned the keys, listened to the engine sputter and then gain confidence as a worked the gas. I pulled it around front, my three young children watching me, confused, scared. Mama had gone crazy. I put them in the car, not bothering with their toys or booster seats or juice boxes, and drove them three blocks to the babysitter, telling her Doug would pick them up on his way home. Back at the house I grabbed toothpaste. Toothbrush. The picture of me and Nina. My book. I called Doug.

“Doug? I have a class-party planning committee meeting at Sheryl’s, pick Kelly up from school, and the others at Janine’s. Yes, dinner is cooked, I’ll be home later.”

I looked around the house I had kept for the last five years, the life I had lead. I was looking not for memories, but for something to write with, and some paper.

“I am sorry I hit you with my umbrella. It was a mistake.”

I drove west, towards Washington, holding the now warm silver to my chest. I had the necklace on, and this time it was not coming off.

 The worst part about the long trips was that Jess never got to see or talk to Patrick. Sometimes the void that existed between them was more tangible than the desert, the mountains, the ocean, the roads. It was the fact that she was living a life that he was not a part of. Her weeks, sometimes months spent in a region ravaged by hatred, soaked with blood, was a far cry from him, sitting in their little apartment, at a dining room table, surrounded by piles of books, books filled with theory about law he would probably never practice, but still books that gave him meaning. He knew that these books were paving stones on the path that was going to take him to a place where his mind, the way it worked, would be valued in a way that very few had valued it before. Jess saw his mind from the beginning. And as he sat there in their tiny dining room, she was worlds away remembering the time she had said “I really can’t see you being a lawyer.” At this moment, there were shells crashing down on the bureau, she was sitting typing her copy, wishing she had never said this to him. She wished that all the stupid words had never come out of her mouth, and the right words would flow freely as they did in her mind. When they were first dating she would plan her conversations with him. Now that they were married, she never did. They had been married four and a half years. And she was planning a speech. “Patrick. We always said that after you got out of law school we would reevaluate. Maybe change where we live, what I do. Patrick. I don’t want to leave the field. I want to feel like I am relevant, like I am alive. And I am still me. But the thing is, I am not just me. And now we are three and not two. Patrick. I am pregnant.”

Another shell crashed overhead. This one hit home, the building shook, and pieces of the sky began to fall in on her. Everything that kept her together started to fall apart. When the universe starts to disintegrate around you, what do you save? When it seems like the great spirit in the sky is the only thing keeping you alive, is it your life or your legacy that you cover? Jess, the woman who existed, she would save her legacy, her work. She would have taken last seconds to make a hard copy of the story. She would have turned on the tape recorder and narrated what she was seeing, feeling. And then she would have deployed her last moments to guaranteeing that work was found. And in that she would live on.

Not this time though. This time the radio that played in her head was shuffling between the music she and Patrick used to sing to when they were young and the songs he would serenade her with while she was home. And all she could think of was that they were three now. And that universe was different. That universe was not lit by the cold sunlight reflecting off the moon. And that universe did not have dimensions that let the very hand of God pick her up off of her feet and throw her against the wall. She slumped on the floor, curled up over her womb. It had started out the same though. Over six months ago.

*****

Jess was ready to go home. Everything made her want her tiny apartment and her husband. They had married right after she graduated college, deciding that she would do the gallivanting reporter thing while he focused and finished his undergraduate degree and went to law school. Essentially they had decided to spend the first five years of their marriage apart. Both being strong willed, independent people, this seemed like no problem at all. For the most part it wasn’t, they were both thrown into their respective works. They took a small apartment, and when she was home she lived there as a guest. Jess did not know that when she was gone Patrick would play her favorite music on a loop and spray her perfume on his pillow. Patrick did not know that Jess would watch bad-B horror movies and kept a photo of him under her pillow. They did know, however vaguely, that this was temporary, a stage between complete independence and the stability of marriage. But they loved each other so much that sometimes words failed and Jess would listen to him talk about this or that and all she could think of was how deeply she felt whatever this feeling was. How the word “love” just didn’t seem to cover it. At times Patrick would lay awake listening to her snoring, realizing that everything that had seemed disjointed now fit.

Jess had been away for three weeks. This trip hadn’t been that bad, the weather had been mild, the fighting light, the news even lighter. She had gone on a tip that riots were set to break out surrounding elections, but the skirmishes in the street were secondary to the successful election. Jess put out three weeks of sweet fluff about growing rights and increased approval ratings for fledgling government. She was supposed to be gone for a full month but the boredom, and the pain, was unbearable. She told her bureau chief she was taking the next flight out. Over twenty hours and three stops later she was in a taxi cab on her way home. When the cab pulled up to her apartment complex her breathing finally slowed. She unlocked the door and the air smelled of the same feeling she felt the entire time she was gone. Jess quietly put her bag down and tiptoed through the apartment to the bedroom. Patrick was sound asleep, he didn’t even shift when the door creaked open. She showered and let her hair dry before she collapsed, sleep deprived, into bed. As soon as she settled Patrick rolled over and pulled her closely to him, holding her tightly. Neither of them said anything, but lay there silently, listening to the sound of their breath sync up.

When she woke up the sun was high in the sky, gaudy bright light burst through the mini-blinds in the bedroom. The hum in the air told Jess the day was already well underway. Patrick’s side of the bed was vacant, and under the sound of the music filtering through the door was the nonexistent disturbance of pages turning. She slipped on her robe, hastily discarded on the floor on her way to sleep, and walked to the living room. He had his back to her, hunched over the table, reading, underlining passages. She tiptoed, even though he had already heard her leave bed, and removed his glasses gingerly from behind him, placed her hands over his eyes.

Hey! You…cut that out.” He pretended to be offended, startled.

No. Guess who?”

Zed?”

She laughed. He took her hand and pulled her around and onto his lap, smiling. He touched her hair, but couldn’t stop looking at her eyes. He hadn’t seen those eyes in so long. He kissed her softly, wanting to linger in that kiss for forever. She usually would take a kiss like that too far, turning it into a hungry bridge from kissing to elsewhere, but this time she was just happy to be so close to her husband, to be able to feel the warmth of his arms around her. So she kissed him softly, and pulled back to just look at him. She smiled, and started to get up.

Coffee?”

Wait… just…” he pulled her back, to where she was standing in front of him. When she had stood up her robe had gaped, showing the milky skin underneath. “I think you should be wearing less.”

She laughed, this was something he said when he was feeling cute, usually he specified an article of clothing that she should be wearing less of; pants, shirt. “Do you really? Why is that?”

He placed his hand on the belt of her robe, pulled gently, allowed the satiny linen to fall to the ground. Standing there exposed, she shivered slightly, watching him watch her.

******

Jess’ eyes fluttered open. There was silt in the air, her lower half felt too warm. She tried to stand, but couldn’t, the sky was holding her down, remnants of the ceiling covered her legs. She tried to talk, to cry out, but she had no voice. She found that she could move her hands, though. Slowly, painfully, she reached down to spread her fingers across the tightening drum that was her abdomen. Something was wet, was thick, was too warm. Blood. Her hand was covered in blood. Jess found her voice to weep, to cry out helplessly for her child. “You’ll be ok. We’ll get out of this. Mommy will get you out of this.” She made her first promise to the life she carried. She attempted to drag herself out from underneath the beams and wreckage that covered her lower half. A spasm of pain washed over her, she felt her flesh tear where a beam was dug into her abdomen. The baby was moving inside of her, kicking her wildly. She gasped, trying to catch her breath. Jess found she was able to shift herself to one side of the pile, to where it was mostly stucco and wood, not steel and stone. She took a deep breath and imagined her child. Trying to survive. Trapped inside her failing body. She saw Patrick. The look on his face if he ever found out he was a father. He would be a good father. Perhaps too blunt at times, but he would love his children; try to fill their lives with joy. She saw their family, perfect in this moment of impossibility. She took all of these thoughts and used them to replace her waning strength. Jess lifted up on the weight that was holding her to the ground. Her legs, once free from the weight, worked minimally and she used them to push herself free, dragging a trail of blood behind her. It was her intent to continue moving towards the only exit she could see, a crevice over a hill of debris. But the red river that poured from the slice on her stomach, and now from her womb as the baby became more and more distressed, had left her weak. She could move no more. Her child’s movement was slowing, the baby was tiring. Jess did the most logical thing she would think of at that moment, where she existed as a mother with a tired child. She sang. She sang lullabies. Melodic assurance that on the other side of sleep there was hope, she kept to herself that it may have been false. Desperation filled every cell of her body, washed over her, rinsing away any resolve she had left.

******

For almost a month her life was slow. Three days a week she would go in to the affiliate office, not too early, around ten. She would put out two stories, three at times, and then sit back and watch as the younger reporters scrambled to take them over, to bring them down a few levels with their new fresh “style.” Jess did not mind, it was like she was helping them cut their teeth, and as long as her byline was on the international section of the flagship paper, her editor did not care either. Most afternoons she was home by five, time enough to tidy up the apartment, to cook dinner before Patrick came home from the library. Some nights she waited up for him to get home from the movie theatre where he worked part time as a ticket taker. She kept dinner warm, and suppressed yawns as she listened to him talk about his day. The best times were when he would skip class, come home in the middle of the day and take her where he found her, kissing her feverishly. It was quick and giddy, but the way he desired her followed Jess around all day, reaffirming that more than stale vows kept them together.

The first few days her ear was always trained to her cell phone, anticipating Beethoven’s 5th symphony, her editor calling her in. Every day of silence from the phone was like another layer of insulation for the new state of marriage she existed in. Eventually she stopped anticipating when it would happen, or that it would happen at all. She cooked, she cleaned, she read books, watched movies, she slept in and made love with her husband. She lived as fully as possible on borrowed time. Until one night, she and Patrick were laughing over dinner and the most surreal sound came from her telephone. Beethoven’s 5th, but from worlds away.

“Hello?”

Apparently there had been a coup. The government that had, just one month ago, been a huge success, had fallen to the military power. Hellfire was raining down. Her plane left in 8 hours. Jess hung up the phone. Patrick had cleared the table, and was finishing the dishes in the kitchen, methodically wiping down the counter. The rag moved over the same place again and again and again. Each time his eyes tried to focus on it, but they couldn’t. He carefully folded the towel and stood frozen, bracing himself against the sink. She wrapped her arms around his waist, rested her head against his back. He cleared his throat.

“When?”

“Tomorrow morning.” A lump was rising in her throat.

“How long?” he turned around, stood with his arms crossed, erecting a barrier between them.

Jess hesitated. The reality was, this would be the longest trip she had ever gone on. The violence was raging, predicted to spill over into other countries. It was dangerous, and the borders may be shut down by what was left of the government.

“Three months, maybe more. You see; there was this coup…” she tried to wrap her arms around him, to snuggle into his broad chest, but he pushed past her, and she heard the bathroom door slam. The shower turned on. She waited outside the door. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Steam rolled from the crevice at the floor. She jimmied the loose handle and let herself in. He was standing in the shower, forehead against the wall, arms limp to his sides, the water leaving angry comments on his back. She wanted to cry, he looked so vulnerable, so used. He did not even look up when she stepped into the shower, still wearing her summer dress, placing herself between the hot water and Patrick.

“It’s just a few months, you’ll be in school, studying for your bar exam. You won’t even notice that I am gone.”

He scoffed. His eyes were blood shot, his body shaking slightly. He kissed her, held her close, desperately.

“Please, let this be the last time. Every time you go it is more dangerous. The trips get longer. We said this would be temporary. I graduate in the spring. We’ll have enough money, you could take a job that is smaller, closer…”

She turned off the water, stepped out of the shower, removed her wet clothing and started to towel off. She glanced back at him and took a deep breath.

“Patrick, when the time comes, we’ll talk about that. I love what I do. It makes me feel alive, and worthwhile. If I can’t go out there and feel the bullets whiz past me and tell the stories that matter, then who am I? More importantly, who would even care to ask that question if I didn’t do what I do?”

He stood there, dripping, listening to her commit what felt like verbal adultery. There were other spouses, at cocktail parties and airport terminals, who had called their “plan” naïve, idealist. They told him he would always be second to the story.

“Do you love your job more than you love me?” The words spilled from him, desperate and unbidden.

Jess had just been gut checked. Not by the question, she knew it would come some day from him, she had already heard it from her father, from close friends. She just never thought it would sound so honest. He wasn’t playing games. He really wanted to know if she loved him most. He really needed to know that he was the first thing on her mind. That he was the road and the destination. She walked to him, slowly, placed her hand flat on his chest, quieting his heart.

“I love you more than words. I love you more than I need to breathe. I love you more than clichés can cover. It doesn’t matter whether or not I love my job, because without you, I couldn’t do my job, because I would not exist. I am not me without you.”

She left much as she had come, in the dark of night. Only this time Patrick was awake, to put her in the cab to the airport. She felt sick to her stomach, but it had to be regret and nerves. She turned around in the cab to watch him diminish through the back window. He watched her until she no longer existed.

******

This was a mild hit, comparatively. The first three top floors were completely demolished, the fourth floor was sans ceiling, and the bottom three were fairly intact. According to the owner, no one was in there, today had been the day off for the news bureau who rented the building in the ravaged downtown area. The check was a routine sweep, a stroll in hard hats. The first three floors were clear.

“Can we just pack it in? There is no one here.”

The squad leader said they had to at least finish this floor. No sooner had the words come out of his mouth then they heard a voice limp down the stairs from the collapsed fourth floor.

“What the hell is that?”

The squad leader stood still, stone still, and listened with every molecule of his being.

“Lullabies?”

They launched themselves up the stairs, but their momentum soon slowed, they hit a veritable wall of rock. There were beams and ductwork, steel and exposed wires, at least six feet up. The singing was louder here, but still just a shadow of sound. One of the younger men started to climb, the wiring bit at him and the ground shifted beneath his feet. He reached the top and began to clear a space to pull through the stretcher, the aid kit, and maybe a human body. The more he shifted the rubble aside, the louder the singing got. It was a siren song.

Jess could hear from the space where she was floating between life and somewhere else, that there was movement from behind the wall of debris across the room. She kept singing. The baby had stopped moving what seemed like hours ago. He was sleeping; his mothers singing had comforted him, Jess thought. She saw the rescue crew scale the pile of rubble, heard them shouting to one another as they passed through their gear. As they reached her she called out.

“Please…the baby…”

It was the colors that stopped the squad leader in his tracks. Usually when they found a victim time had past. The blood spilled by fruitless conquests was dried brown like the mud and shit lining the city streets. This woman was surrounded by a sea of red. Roses. Cardinals. Lips. Cherries. A pure crimson that she seemed to hover in. A color so bright that it made the bleached and dusty stone of the floor become nothingness. Her hair was golden. Her slim greenish veins visible through her ivory skin. When he finally got to her, saw her eyes open, they were almost surreal in their intensity, blue, green and gold. She was noticeably pregnant. So beautiful and terrible was this image, something deep and perverse rose inside of him, wanted to order the team back so he could stand there and watch her in these moments. Stand away so he could see all the colors that existed between life and death. This moment existed beyond reality; it was religion, reverence, rapture.

******

Jess stood in front of the cracked and yellowing bathroom mirror. Her little room was an oasis. Fourteen hours of her day were spent in the hot desert sun, blankly staring at dead bodies, having tea with warlords who, out of proprieties sake, refused to look at her, an uncovered woman, and would only answer questions when directed through her photographer. An easy work day was sitting in a cramped room on the floor with other reporters, waiting on some General or Ayatollah, someone who dared make sense out of the senseless. When this was her day in and her day out, she came home to a room filled with silk tapestries and soft cushions. Wide open windows and cool marble floors. An old clawfoot tub. Fresh greenery she bribed the land lady for. And silence. The noise of the street dampened by the sheer weight of the air. This silence was her friend. All thoughts would slip from her mind and she would fill the void with music. Now there was only the deafening tick tick tick of the seconds filling the clock. Three minutes.

She hadn’t bled in three months. She was fatigued. Nauseated. Tender. In these impossible three minutes she tried to find some rationality. Malaria. Influenza. Cancer. Anything but…

It had to have been the morning after she came home. She recalled every second from a detailed film reel stored in her brain. His lips. His bare shoulder. The hair on his chest. His abs. He had taken her slowly, caressing every inch of her body as if it were the first and last time he had ever touched her. She had played games at first, resisting his touch, standing slightly away. Watching his eyes slide luxuriously over her curves. It was a game he won, more quickly than usual. The meeting of their hips, her nails in his shoulder, his quiet whisper “oh my God.”

She never imagined she would regret a private moment with her husband. Never thought that the pleasure she had once craved would be so detestable. Never fathomed that the act she had waited 25 years for would be so worrisome. Never thought she would hate her husbands hands, pulling her in. But standing in her oasis, in the middle of the desert, holding a stick with a little blue plus sign, she wished Patrick had never touched her.

******
Jess woke up and the first thing she noticed was the smell. Antiseptic, disease, death. She started to panic but felt the comforting weight of the baby against her pelvis. A nurse was standing next to her bed, taking down the numbers from a monitor, recording her chances for life on a clipboard. The nurse had clear caramel skin and long raven hair in a braid. She saw that Jess was awake and smiled warmly. Jess tried to speak, but found her throat too dry for words. The nurse handed her a glass of water.

“Please,” she said in a language that was not her own, “is my family alright.” Jess used the word for family because in her muddy brain she could not find the word for ‘baby’ in the vocabulary of the second tongue she had spoken for years.

The nurse smiled again, but nervously this time. Jess thought she had misspoken more severely. Said something ridiculous. “Your husband is with the Doctor. He will be here soon.” The nurse patted her hand and left quickly.

Patrick rubbed his eyes. The doctor was staring at him. It had been mid-morning when they called him, told him there had been an accident and said little else. He took some of their meager savings and added it to what his parents willingly gave and took the next flight to the desert that had finally consumed his wife. He called his professors, her parents, a few friends. Every time he hung up the phone he couldn’t even be sure what he had said. Was he coherent. Jess. Building. Stable. Injured. They don’t know. Nothing else.

He had been greeted at the airport by her editor and bureau chief. They started to apologize but upon seeing Patrick’s face they remained silent all the way to the hospital. The doctor was waiting for him in the grimy post war lobby. Patrick listened silently, stoically as he heard about his wife’s crushed leg, her vicious laceration, the blood loss and internal injuries. He was a man, but kept up right only by words like “stable” and success and progress. It was words such as “fetal heart rate” and brain activity that gave him hope. He smiles.

“Jess wasn’t pregnant. You have the wrong woman.” Patrick was happy. This woman, God help her, wasn’t his wife. She was off, somewhere, traversing the streets, trolling for a story as always, and she had forgotten to check in.

The other three men shifted their eyes toward each other, and then down.

“Pat. Um, I don’t even know how to tell you this man.” Her editor cleared his throat. “She was about six months pregnant. She tried not to tell any of us, but you know, you see a person every day…”

Patrick reached out, put his hand on a table beside him. Pregnant. His wife. He searched his mind for the when and the how, but came up with nothing. Nothing except the image of Jess holding a small bundle, smiling. The sound of cries waking him up in the middle of the night. The feeling of looking down at another life, the result of his entire heart, his love. He was a father. He looked around at the other men, expecting, waiting, for the clichéd smiles and pats on the backs, getting nothing.

The doctor cleared his throat. “The stress of the accident, the pressure placed on her abdomen by the fallen beams caused the placenta to hemorrhage. By the time we had stabilized you wife, there was nothing more we could do.”

He collapsed. Nothing more they could do. Patrick sank to the floor. He reached for the ground but couldn’t find it so he fell, slowly, through the possibilities he had just been given. Through little smiles. Through first words. He fell through fatherhood and landed on the grimy hospital floor, mere feet away from his damaged wife and his dead child. He retched and vomited on the ground.

The doctor pulled him up, snapped for an orderly. “Sir, your wife does not know about the still birth. She has only been awake for a half an hour, and very groggy from the medication. We thought it best if you informed her of the situation.”

The situation was this: the baby had suffocated trapped inside Jess. Her internal injuries prevented her going through a natural stillbirth. There would be a C-Section. The child would look like a very small baby. Its skin may be torn back in some places, would be very pale. They could take pictures, name it if they wanted, and the baby would be taken away. All of this looped through his mind as he walked the light years to her room.

Patrick had not seen his wife in five months. He had not talked to her in over a week. How could she have not told him she was pregnant? Rage crept through his veins. His hands shook on the doorknob. Words battered him. Some were screams. She robbed him of being a parent. If she had told him when she found out there could have been months of fatherhood. Others were whispers. She had her reasons. She was not the one who bombed the building, ultimately killing their child. From a darker placed was the hiss of a reminder. She could have taken the child out of a war zone. Jess could have come home and this would have never been a possibility. People’s babies did not die where they came from. Like a parasite this ate at him. He opened the door.

All the thoughts were silenced. She lay in the bed, on her back, unnaturally. Her faced was badly bruised; she had stitches on her forehead. Her leg was in a cast. She was sleeping. It was in the rise and fall of her chest that he found her glory. Patrick knelt beside her bed, he gently lifted her hospital gown and looked at the natural perfection and wonder that was his wife’s pregnant belly. He kissed his child, let his lips graze the stitches and staples holding together the wound that had rendered them childless.

“I am sorry I didn’t tell you.” Jess, awake now, stroked his hair. “I just couldn’t come to terms with changing my definition of me. But now I know that my definition can include him, it has to. Oh, it’s a boy, the nurse told me so. You’re a daddy.”

A sob wrenched though Patrick, tears leapt unbidden from his eyes. He tried to breathe but there was no air. He took her hand and kissed it. Looked her full in the face.

“We are two and not three.” He laid his other hand full on his wife’s stomach, his long fingers covering her womb, satisfying some need to protect his child, for his son’s sake it should have been sooner. “Our son is dead.”

When the words reached her, Jess cried with no sound. She had no sound left. How could he be dead? He was still tucked safely inside her. She had sung him to sleep. In the background Patrick was talking, giving her meaningless details. She existed in silence. She felt no heart beat. No movement. Just the aching quiet of her womb, surrounding her and filling every inch.

Much more quickly than it came to Patrick the thought came to Jess. Murderer. You killed him. As sure as if you scheduled an abortion or put a gun to your belly. By ignoring him and staying put in the war zone you killed him. By working overtime on your day off, you killed him. By not telling Patrick, not letting Patrick know so he could protect the child from his mother’s selfishness, you killed him. By getting pregnant, you killed him. Patrick was standing over her, he tried to gently kiss her forehead, but she turned away from him. She never wanted to look at him again. She couldn’t bear to see if there was blame in his eyes.

Jess wasn’t saying anything. She wasn’t crying, just staring out the window. Well, staring towards the window, but seeing nothing. Patrick, weeping openly now, tried to hold her hand, to touch her, but she inched away. He was alone, standing in a room filled with shadows and missed possibilities. Alone. Wanting, desperately to ask his wife questions about her pregnancy. To feel connected to what had happened without his knowledge. Alone.

The doctor came in and asked Jess if she consented to the C- Section. She took a deep breath. She tried to objectify the being inside her. Tried to see a fetus, a growth, an unplanned, unwanted and unwelcome pregnancy. She tried to think of this as doing what she should have done in the first place. But all she saw were tiny fingers, tiny toes, and bright smiles.

“Cut it out.”

The doctor nodded and left. Patrick cringed at the harshness of her voice. Those were the last words he would hear from Jess for a long, long time.

The baby came out cleaner than Patrick expected. He was swaddled and placed in Patrick’s arms. His skin was like pale blue paper, his lips crimson. He was small, could fit in Patrick’s palm, and somewhat alien. The most beautiful thing.

They waited in the desert. Waited for Jess to wake up. Waited for her to eat the meals given to her. Waited for her to walk on her damaged leg. Waited for her to heal. Waited for the doctor to release her, waited for her to talk. There were no words. And despite the grief counselor’s warnings, Patrick took his utterly silent wife home. On the plane he wanted to kiss her, hold her hand, to talk. He waited.
******
Jess was deep in the middle of her evening routine. She had made dinner, somehow the mindlessness of cooking and cleaning soothed her. She listened, but did not respond to Patrick’s forced conversation. In the beginning he had tried these dinner conversations off the cuff, but now on his lunch break at his law firm he would sit at his desk and research talking points, write outlines and questions. He would print out news articles that would interest her, brought home papers and magazines, gloriously scented used books and cd’s he had mixed. He would quietly place the stack of no less than four or five items on the chair in the hallway. On good nights after he had eaten and she had picked over her food she would silently pick up these tokens on her way to the bathroom, where she would lock herself in and slip quietly into her former existence, devouring the news, the stories, listening to music that at one time would have made her soul sing. On bad nights she bypassed the chair, or threw the items Patrick brought home away. Behind the locked barrier she would turn on the shower, let the room fill with steam. Jess would remove her clothing, and examine her body in the mirror. She had lost weight, her bones, ribs, collarbones, knees, all more prominent. She would trace her fingertips along the jagged scar that turned into the surgical precision of the abortion. Cesarean. Whatever.

This was a bad night. The mirror fogged as she ran her fingers over the barely perceptible ridge of the scar. She placed her hand over her stomach, covering the void in which her womb had once existed. They took it when they took the baby. The fetus. She closed her eyes. Recalled the feeling of the child kicking at her ribs. Of him responding to the sound of the music she played or the sound of her voice. She saw his pale curled hand as they took him away from her. She saw the blood pouring from her body as she tried to drag herself out. She remembered she almost didn’t go to the bureau that day.

******

In the middle of the night she quietly left their bed, slipped on her shoes, and walked to her car. At first he thought she was just going for a cigarette, she had taken up smoking since she was released from the hospital. But the sound of her car idling made him get up, to peer out the window. Jess was just sitting with two hands on the wheel, her forehead on the back of her hands. This was not right. He grabbed his truck keys, and by the time he got outside she was pulling out of the parking lot. Patrick was able to follow her just by watching her taillights weaving through traffic ahead of him. She headed out of town, driving erratically. Patrick felt a foreboding creep into his being, but at the same time, he was calm. He didn’t think about calling the police, the ambulance, her father. He just followed her as she drove out to the river bluffs where they used to go hiking through the fall, where they would swim and canoe in the summer. His unconscious version of the future was that he would quietly observe her while she sat in the moonlight, while she picked at the grass, while she cried. The same thing he had been doing for months. It was only when he lost her taillights on the curving country rode that fear rose inside him. By the time Patrick pulled into the gravel parking lot Jess was out of her car, no where to be found. It was at this moment that the last seven months hit Patrick. Before he had always seen a light through the bleak grey existence they lived after the baby. She would get better. She would smile again. She would let him touch her again. She would work again. She would be Jess again. She had to. But now the air that rushed past him as he ran through the woods trying to find her, calling her name, that air seemed to contain bits of her essence, like it was perfume. Pieces of her she had discarded on the way, to where he did not know. A broken branch here, a muddy footprint there. Moving towards the bluff, he thought. When he reached the clearing he saw nothing at first, just a wide expanse of green grass made neon by the moonlight. He heard nothing but the gentle running of water not but 10 feet below them. And then a flash of light from under a boulder, right next to the cliffs edge. It was the eye of the moon in the cold shine of a blade.

“Jess?” He cursed himself for keeping any knifes in the house. The doctors had warned him about the trauma she had suffered; maybe he should keep the collection of blades locked up. He had except for the one he usually kept in his pocket.

“Did you know that I felt him move? The baby. They used to call that the time of quickening. When the little zygote becomes a little human.” She chuckled strangely, shook her head. “He was a little human. With little fingernails and little toes. And a heart that beat. And I tried everything to not recognize that he existed. I should have come home the moment I knew. I should have told you about it. I could have protected him…”

Patrick began to move slowly towards her, so aware of her movements. He had taught her to handle that knife, to toss it into the air and catch it closed, to roll it over her hand to open it, even to spin it by the tip of the blade, as she was doing now.

“Jess, there was no way you could have done anything more to protect him. You know how they found you? Do you know what you were doing?”

She had heard the story recounted dozens of times by now. The chattering of all the voices. Family. Friends. Doctors. Coworkers. All insisting. You did the right thing. Did all you could. No one could expect more. Its ok. Its fine. It. Is. O. K. Jess shook her head, shook away all of the words that had been spoken at her since that day.

“I KNOW!” she screamed, followed by a dry, racking sob. “It wasn’t enough after the fact. I should have never let it happen. I killed him, Patrick. I killed our baby. I couldn’t just settle in to it all like I was supposed to. I had to go chasing blind spots. Parts of my life that I should have been able to see right there I tried to find half-way across the world. I had to be tough. Unconventional. The woman who becomes a mother and barely notices, because she is grander than that. I acted like I was too good to care about him, and now…”

Patrick kneeled before her. Tried to look her in the eyes. For the last eight months he had been trying to look his wife in the eye. He felt as if they held some magical power, if he could just make eye-contact with her the spell would be broken and she would smile and crack some stupid joke, or sing again. All would be well. He hadn’t seen the dark blue and green and gold in so long, he didn’t know if he would recognize them if she was to look at him.

“You loved him while you could, how you could. There is no shame in that.” He tried to touch her hands, but she pulled away. As she did so she looked him in the eye. They were dull. Grey. Flat. He wanted to look away, but he just couldn’t. He stumbled backwards, away from her. For some reason this made her smile, an awful, disgusting smile, as if some invisible hand was pulling back on the flesh of the dead.

Jess smiled, that was the last light to extinguish. He was aware now that she did not exist. For months she wished in her heart to see this from him, to see him acknowledge what she felt. That she was without worth, without essence. That she was a shadow. For months the only thing keeping her from this point was Patrick, she was like the moon, only relevant because his light reflected off of her. And now…now he was moving away from her. She turned her attention back to the knife in her hand. This was the first knife he had ever taught her to handle. She rolled it open in her hand, sat there for a moment that lasted a universe. He started to move towards her, but everything was slow motion. Jess dug the blade into her soft, white skin at her narrow wrist, and cut precisely along the vein to her elbow.

Patrick was going nowhere fast. It seemed that no matter how fast he tried to get to her from the point he had retreated to, not even five feet away, there was no way he could get there as quickly as her life hit the ground. He tried. Watched her stand. Take the red blade. Lift her shirt. Cut along the scar left on her abdomen, the injury that had ultimately killed the baby. He reached her, tried to hold her, but she stepped backwards.

She looked at him, at the desperation in his eyes, the blood on his clothing. It was funny that after all of this, Patrick still loved her. He still looked at her when he could. She supposed that if she still existed, she would love him too. She recalled the desperate way they had once craved each other, not too long ago. How they would stay in bed all day long, just to feel as much of each other as possible. How she had thought he was so weird when they first met, and eventually all of his eccentricities would fascinate her to the point of a minor obsession. She remembered their wedding day, how handsome he looked. How he had tears on his cheeks when he lifted her veil. She remembered how scared she had been on their wedding night, how, despite his impatience after three years; he had been gentle, slow. He was a good man.

“Patrick…” she was starting to fade, weaving slightly on the edge of the bluff.

He was two feet away from her, his hands and knees cold and wet from the grass beneath, his breath heavy and ragged. Patrick was helpless. He didn’t even know how to reach her. There was an invisible barrier. He looked away from her eyes, to her feet, standing in a pool of blood. He saw her take one step back towards the edge. Now nothing was slow. He reached up to grab her shirt, her hand, anything to keep her from falling into the water, but she slipped away.

“JESS!”

Patrick was oblivious to the fact that a police vehicle and an ambulance had pulled up behind him. Apparently someone noticed them driving in so late at night, and then heard him yelling for Jess. Hands grabbed him back from the edge, but the ribbons of red drew him back, and he dove in after her. He knew she was gone. There was so much blood. He hit the water, and found her floating like a mermaid, and pulled her up on the shore.

Jess heard him scream. It didn’t matter. The air on her skin felt new, refreshing, like she had never felt air before. She fell for years. She fell through her life. She saw her failures, her triumphs. She saw the baby, too pale, covered in her blood, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She saw Patrick, dancing in the living room with him. She saw Patrick. Patrick. This universe was shaped just like the Earth. She hit the water. Her blood mixed with her surroundings, and she finally felt clean. She was suspended in the water. She closed her eyes and smiled. She would just float away. Until she felt a familiar arm around her waist. And that contact was the first contact in the world. The air she gasped as they broke through the surface was the fist molecule of oxygen to ever exist. The cool pebbles and mud of the bank were so comfortable.

“Patrick. My heart feels good. It isn’t made of wood…”

“Shhh…I know. I know. I am going to fix this. This isn’t your fault.”

Behind them medics were scrambling down the bank. He held her tighter, thinking they would rip her from his arms, but they worked around him, attempting to stem the flow of Jess from the world. Patrick kissed her, she kissed him back with all the strength she had. He looked into her eyes and they were blue. Green. Gold. Vibrant. Nothing mattered at that moment, they removed themselves together, listening to nothing, not the strained orders of the medtechs, not the whispers of onlookers, not the police taking reports, there was no sound, nothing, except their breath syncing up.

 

 Mother always said it was the little things that made living here special. Everybody had green grass on their lawns. Two and three quarters inches. Everybody had kids. Three point two. Everybody could walk to school. Four and one half blocks. It was the half-block that always got me. It was on the other side of the cross-walk, guarded by Mr. Strope. Five foot, six inches. His skin was pale and waxy, a fine crust of spittle stained by tobacco juice surrounded his mouth. Six cans per week. He did not chew on Sunday. I know this because one day he told me so.

“Hey! Y’know that on Sunday you s’posed to rest? Whatcha daddy do on Sunday, Nigger, he out robbin’ lil’ old women? Course he is…sin makes yo’ skin that black, y’know? Thats why I ain’t usin’ no chew on Sunday. I ain’t gonna do the littlest bit o’ work.” He spat on the ground at my feet, leaned over and picked up his stop sign. Seven days in a week.

I lived for the weekends, like any kid did. I would wake up early on Saturday and pour milk over my cereal. Two percent. Then I would race back upstairs to clean and organize my room. 15 stairs, two at a time. I would put away all of the fresh laundry Mother had deposited, and then straighten the papers, pencils, and etceteras on my desk. Ninety degrees. I moved through my homework, my pencil running over the pages, history, english, spanish, and the best: math. Numero uno. When I went through the extra math workbooks Mother brought home for me, the world divided itself into smaller and smaller pieces until all that was left were the numbers on the page. 17 problems per page, 25 pages per book. I could not notice the phone ringing in the kitchen, my brother calling from the city, the world of the fast life or Mother ignoring it with loud and inappropriate epitaphs. Four-letter words. I paid no attention to the freckle-faced neighborhood boys walking in packs down the street, going to play football in the perfectly manicured park, not stopping to invite me. Seven boys, 14 high tops. I did math, and the weekend found its sum too quickly.

Mother stopped me at the door on my way out, handed me my lunch, kissed me on my cheek, and said her standard line: “I love you, make me proud, be good, and promise to cross at the cross-walk.” I ran down the front stairs, out into the sunlight. Two at a time. On the street I met the closest thing to a black person in Evensville. His name was Josh, he was Jewish. 14600 days in the desert. The other kids didn’t invite him to play football on the weekends, or kickball after lunch. We would sit underneath the tree in the corner of the schoolyard, playing marbles. Our white Pearls hitting the dark Indies out of our perfectly formed circle. We would lean close to the ground, fannies in the air at forty-five degree angles, finding the trajectory through squinted eyes, always mindful of the other boys, lest we get kicked and lose our shot. 6, 2, 3, 1, 5, 8, 7, 9, 4. We never did keepsies, but it was still great to win, to have someone to play with. The city had been filled with kids, the streets had been full of them, and someone was always up for a game. Evensville was filled with kids, but they didn’t add up the same way, I guess. I was always left over. Remainder one. I subtracted the days of the weeks from my calender, I moved to the left to avoid Mr. Strope’s stream of foul smelling tobacco. At school I was a good student, I stayed under the linear gaze of my teachers, did exactly what they said, and caused no trouble. I stayed in a perfect line. I obeyed my mother, kept my desk neat, I ignored the ringing of the phone. 50 decibels. Mother kept reminding me how lucky we were to live here. How good the schools were, how neat the yards were. There was no crime. No one was ever shot and killed in Evensville. Three bullets, fourteen hundred and fifty feet per second.

It was Friday. I hesitated for a second on the top stair, promising Mother I would be good, follow the rules, cross the street at the cross-walk. Three houses down I met Josh, his Mother waved kindly at me from her front porch. We observed the other neighborhood boys traversing ahead of us, so we modify our steps. Two steps forward, one step back. We do not speak. As we come to the last half-block, our pace slows. Silently we savor the last few moments of undivided peace before Mr. Strope caught site of us. Two beady eyes.

“Well all be damned, the kike and the nigger, aren’t you little faggots just thick as thieves, I’m surprised the good people of Evensville hadn’t ran you outta town yet.”

We barely broke our stride, just kept our heads down, our eyes down, “no sir.” And went on to school. Mother always said it was better to ignore, to be quiet, to not make a scene. If you just keep to yourself, no one can do anything to you, if you just follow the rules. So I wasn’t looking up, at doors of the school. I was watching my shoes, concentrating on not hearing. One step, two step.

“David!”

The simple sound of my name in this setting, something I did not hear very often was enough to startle me. The fact that it was a voice I knew, a deep, steady voice from the not too distant past, that was enough to set my heart pounding. One hundred and ten beats per minute. I looked up, noticing the fourteen long windows on either side of the door The four large maple trees in the yard.