Click the links below to read one of Kelly’s super sweet short stories.
Lucien awoke the moment he felt the sun glimpse over the highway flyover in whose shadow he slept every night. Barely an inch over the elevated concrete, and he could already feel the heat of another impending hundred-plus degree day, just another in a very long string of hundred-plus degree days that had plagued West Texas for weeks. Lucien felt the pounding in his head return before he felt the heat, something that always happened when he was dehydrated, even back in his human days. The oppressive heat and prolonged drought had kept things dry for as long as he could remember. In fact, it had only rained here once for about twenty seconds since he’d been reincarnated, the only moment of relief the colony of cockroaches of which he was now a part had seen in so many weeks.
Before the change, he’d never believed in reincarnation. He’d certainly known about it; he was a well-educated guy in his former life. His Masters from Northwestern had landed him a ridiculously high-paying job as Director of Collections for one of the largest auto financiers in the country (for some reason, even though it was in a previous life, the reticence to divulge the actual company name was still ingrained in him). And he was good at it, too. Not because he had no heart, as he was often accused of in his former life, but because he just didn’t feel sorry for people who overextended themselves over something as silly as an ATV. Every one he repossessed, in his mind anyway, deserved it. God, or Allah, or Buddha – whoever was dealing out the cards here – must’ve had it in for him. Hell, he’d even been called a cockroach in his former life… years of taking and taking would do that, he guessed.
Still, Lucien thought, it could be worse. The cockroach species wasn’t plagued by bleeding hearts like humanity; everyone was in it only for themselves, the way it should be, and there were plenty of ready-and-willing chicks to fuck any time he wanted – big, Texas-sized, full-bodied chicks with long antennae to tickle at his sides. The thing that really sucked was the scavenging. In his former life, it was nothing for him to seek out the nearest white-napkin restaurant and order the most expensive thing on the menu with a vintage Cabernet and a sweating cold glass of ice water. Nowadays, he’d give one of his right legs for just a couple drops of water. If he wanted food, he had to seek out a nasty Whataburger dumpster and hope to God (or Allah, or Buddha, whoever was pulling the strings) that the waste food wasn’t poisoned to keep his kind from venturing inside. Most respectable places anymore had roach cineplexes – not the rinky dink little roach motels his kind laughed at and usually scavenged around for breakfast – gigantic, multi-compartment structures the size of his old work laptop. All your grocery stores had em, right on the other side of the wall where they kept all the ripe, Texas-sized produce Lucien would’ve loved to get his legs on.
It usually meant he and his cockroach acquaintances (you didn’t really have friends in this world, but Lucien was mostly used to it as he wasn’t exactly a well-liked guy in his human days, either) would have to resort to seeking out sustenance in people’s homes. Forget what they say about going for the big suburban castles; Lucien knew the best places to get the most food in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort were densely populated places with lots and lots of kitchens – apartment complexes, condominiums, even housing projects. Plus, Joe Castle wasn’t allowed to water his lawn in this Level 2 drought without being smacked with a huge fine from the city, whereas the apartments had wide-reaching sprinkler systems with reliable timers that Lucien could count on, judging by the position of the ever-present sun.
Lucien felt his stomach turn and his head pound, knowing he’d have to venture out for some food and water today. He barely felt he had the energy to fuck the pretty-looking thing a few feet up the alley from where he was, but only barely.
One of his usual haunts was Great Hills apartments, mostly because the apartments were not that great (ancient, leaky windows, door frames covered in wood rot, poorly insulated kitchens) and there were no hills for miles around. He could easily tell from the shade of a nearby cactus that the tenants were, one by one, leaving for the no-doubt despicable jobs that allowed them to afford the shit two-bedrooms they came home to every night. He had yet to find an apartment that could even come close to the penthouse he’d jumped from after his company had discovered he’d been embezzling from them for years.
Today he was going to try building six, the building nestled at the farthest end of the complex under a light layer of mildew that had long since dried and solidified into a dark gray powder. Behind the building, trees stretched as far as the eye could see, perfect for a strategic getaway after he cleaned the building out. Start at one end and work your way back; that’s what Lucien did. Like taking candy from a baby, Lucien thought, eyeing the nearly-empty parking lot and poorly insulated patio doors.
He was out of breath by the time he reached the patio of the first apartment, crawling between the legs of a camp chair that hadn’t been sit in for a very long time, probably since the hundred-plus degree days started. They’d set out some of the rinky-dink roach motels near the door frame that Lucien leaned against to catch his breath and listen for signs of activity inside. It was hard to tell at this building, where both the overworked air conditioning units and the sprinkler system gave off a loud, constant hum, but he was certain there were at least no children watching cartoons inside. You never took a chance with kids; they were fearless and they wouldn’t hesitate to rip off your antennae and legs one by one just to watch you squirm.
Lucien began squeezing his long, hard body through the sliver of darkness that told him he could come inside. It probably helped, he thought, that he’d barely had anything to eat or drink in about three weeks. His head began pounding harder than before as he felt the cold indoor air on his head and the relentless Texas sun on his hind legs. All this trouble for some fucking food and water.
He peeked his head around a corner and the dining room, living room, and kitchen came into view. No dining room table, which meant the tenants probably ate most of their meals in front of the TV, bits of sauce and spices dripping on the carpet just in front of the hand-me-down sofa. Still, this carpet tasted new, not like the apartments that kept the same tenants year after year and held dirt like a greedy carnival worker. Best to go straight for the kitchen, plus he couldn’t wait to feel the cold tile floor beneath his legs.
He tenuously moved across the carpeted living room floor, darting his beady eyes from side to side, searching for signs of life inside the apartment. As he hugged the wall all the way to the kitchen floor, he noticed a tenant enjoying the cool, gray tile – a disheveled, drooling dog, about 50 pounds or so as far as Lucien could tell. He began to shiver, knowing the beast could devour him in a single bite, more out of instinct that anything else. Not that he cared if he died again, in fact, he welcomed death and had tried to end his existence several times. If he was going to be reincarnated for eternity, there had to be an existence that was better than this one. His body was stronger than he’d figured, and his immune system ridiculously resilient. He’d read somewhere that cockroaches in the lab survived as long as four years. He couldn’t take four years as a cockroach; he just couldn’t.
The dog stirred at the sight of him, flattening its fluffy, pointy ears as it inched closer, its untrimmed paws clicking against the tile. Lucien eyed the dog nervously, smelling its foul breath as it slowly stretched its nose out to sniff him and lick his chops. That’s it, thought Lucien, a little protein for Fido. But instead of snapping its jaws over Lucien, the dog moved backwards with an almost imperceptible whine, lowering its head and sticking its tail between its legs. It didn’t want to eat him like the beagle in building four or play with him like the lab in 202; in fact, it looked almost afraid of him as it cowered against the kitchen cabinets, pretending to mind its own business. Lucien rolled his eyes and made his way under the shadow of the refrigerator door, where ice cubes, beverages, and crumbs alike go to be forgotten.
He’d found something that tasted like pineapple, or what he remembered of pineapple anyway, and had nearly orgasmed as he bit into it. It had been a long time, and he could barely wait for the fulfilling nap that would follow under the twisted branches of a tree in the woods outside. He bathed in the afterglow as he moved across the carpet back the way he came in. He almost didn’t hear the keyboard clacking in the background, but was startled into running in a circle when he heard the high-pitched scream and saw the body it came from. She looked a lot like Stephanie, his old secretary – shiny brown hair, shapely legs, and perky tits he would have loved to suck on. She screamed all the way down the hallway past him to the kitchen, where she grabbed a plastic drinking cup which she immediately clapped down over him.
Lucien ran a few laps around the circumference of the cup before he tried climbing up one side of the clear plastic, at which she swiftly scooped the cup end over end before clapping a matching cup on top of the one that held him. No way out now. He hoped she would flush him down the toilet. The death would be quick, and after days and days of this drought, drowning would be an all right way to go. His head pounded from the residual force of the scream. He looked through the walls of his conic prison at his captor. She’d stopped screaming, but her beautiful chest heaved from the adrenaline of the chase. He wished he’d felt the adrenaline too, but it happened so fast he barely knew it was happening in the first place.
Their eyes locked for a moment. Hers were blue with a hint of green at the edge of the irises, just like Stephanie’s. Sexy lashes, too – the kind that used to veil the eyes that stared up at him during one of her coffee break blow jobs. He wondered if she could tell he was getting turned on by her, wondered long enough for her to break the stare and begin to make her way across the apartment.
Lucien closed his eyes hoped his next incarnation would be better. He couldn’t imagine it being any worse – people trying to poison you, screaming at the sight of you, tearing you limb from limb. Maybe God, or Buddha, or whatever would make him a dog that liked to eat cockroaches in his next life.
He felt his body hit hard, but instantly knew it wasn’t water he was hitting. He opened his eyes to find himself gazing into the cruel sun, tossed over the patio railing the same way he’d come in. He turned his head just in time to see the Stephanie lookalike shutting the door and bolting it behind her. His head pounded. He’d be back. Maybe at nighttime, when he could crawl up the valley between those beautiful tits.
Barbara fanned her face with the Google maps printout with one hand and frantically scrolled through the email string with the other, the trackball on her Blackberry barely able to keep up with the pace of her thumb. She’d already read the email a million times, but was worried she’d glossed over some detail that he would bring up immediately during their conversation and she would be clueless about. After all, she wasn’t the one who wrote them. Urging herself to calm down, she dropped the phone into her large designer purse and cracked the window for some fresh air.
She sat in her Cadillac, parked inconspicuously across the street from Reilly’s Coffeehouse, where she was getting ready to meet Robert for “date zero,” her first one since she’d started using the service. They had introduced her to the idea of “date zero,” a quick meeting in a public place that didn’t require a great investment of time or money, and allowed you to figure out if you could stomach spending more time with the other person. It was supposed to be a no-pressure kind of situation, yet Barbara felt more nervous for this less-than-first date than she had for most movie-and-malt-shop dates back in her heyday.
Her oldest daughter – who would soon be blessing her with her first grandchild – had been on her case to get out there and start dating for the last five years, but Barbara had put it off for just as long. After divorcing following twenty-four years of marriage, she didn’t know the first thing about how to get back on the horse. Everybody was dating online now; it wasn’t like she could meet someone in class or study group the same way she met her ex-husband, so when she saw an article about a service that would let her outsource all her online dating, she looked them up with a cautious yet curious eye.
As soon as she dropped the check in the mail, they called her up for a two-hour interview, wrote up her profiles for Match and eHarmony, describing her in way she never could have herself (and she was a writer!), and sent her a list of semi-retired fellas near South Beach that she might be interested in. After perusing the profiles and approving a few, they then sent the first messages for her, in a confident, playful tone she never would’ve been able to muster on her own. They’d emailed back and forth a few times until one of them asked for a date – FL2907 – a man she’d only spoken with on the phone for five minutes to set the time and place. So she sat in her car across the street, not wanting to be the first one to show up, and hoping for a chance to get a good look at him before she sat down with him for a cup of coffee.
She’d read their conversation over and over since the phone call, making sure she knew exactly what they had said to each other (or what he had said to the person he assumed was her). As the humidity from the August air settled on her forehead, Barbara began to wonder how this whole thing would play out. Would they get all the way to date five? Date ten? At what point would she have to tell Robert that the person that captured his attention online was really a twenty-six-year-old grad student at NYU who worked for the service and used her initial interview to pretend to be her? Would she have to tell him at all? She wondered if she should feel pathetic or deceitful for hiring someone to create her profile, sift through her matches, and communicate with them, or just chalk it up to being a busy woman who didn’t have time to do all the heavy lifting herself. Though as a recent retiree, not having time for anything was virtually impossible.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a motorcycle Barbara recognized from Robert’s profile. He bought them in states of disrepair, restored them with his daughter, and sold them for a profit – according to inbound message number two in the string. She sat back in the driver’s seat and narrowed her eyes for a better look. He was a little heavier than his profile pictures had led her to believe, but she was what the people at Match called “curvy” so she had no room to complain. Still, something about his girth immediately made him look like the kind of guys who went to the gym in jeans and loafers and walked around the track at the same pace they used to walk around at the grocery store. As he dismounted his motorcycle, she saw his head dart around for any sign of her. He probably didn’t want to be the first one to walk in by himself, either. Except for a couple other cars, the coffee shop parking lot was deserted – one of the advantages of meeting late afternoon on a Tuesday – he’d be easy to spot.
He paused to read the special board outside the door of the coffee shop, probably to look like he wasn’t deliberately passing time while waiting for someone else before going inside. Barbara started the car, blasting the AC to cool her nerves. She hadn’t been on a first date since Jimmy Carter was in office, and she’d never been on a “date zero.” Stopped at the street light, she lifted her arms so the AC could blow at her armpits and evaporate the cold, clammy sweat she always got when she was anxious. She checked her appearance in the rear view mirror. Her teased hair had only fallen a tiny bit, but no less flirtatious and fun than the person in the magazine had made it look. Her eye makeup was spot-on, and made the crow’s feet that gathered at the corners of her eyes look dignified instead of sad. She’d worn what her daughter called her best first-date outfit, a shimmery green blouse that looked great with her ass-slimming black pants and the emerald-studded ghost orchid pin her children had given her for Mother’s Day seven years ago. So what if her profile pictures were a couple years old? She was still a stone fox for her age with a lot to offer – if she could just keep from sticking her foot in her mouth or holding it shut the entire time.
The fresh coffee smell she’d always loved wafted out into the parking lot as she strode from her spot right next to Robert’s motorcycle to the propped-open front door of the coffee shop, where she too stopped to pretend to read the special board, shifting all her weight onto her left foot and putting one hand on her hip, hoping he was watching through the window. The service had told her she should walk in smiling, as though she’d just come from a wonderful time somewhere else and like she was confident and excited to be there, so Barbara mustered all her strength to exhale deeply and glue her best smile to her face.
Robert sat at a table for two near the window, on the side of the table facing the door. Men always seemed to take the side facing the door, Barbara had noticed. This meant the first time he’d seen her face clearly, she’d been smiling. The service said that was important. He smiled back, indicating with his hand for her to sit down. Barbara followed his lead, extending her hand the moment she sat down to shake his.
“Hello, Robert,” she said cheerfully. “I’m Barbara. Or Barb. I answer to both.”
“Well, I answer to no one, but my name is indeed Robert.” His eyes twinkled as he made her chuckle. A sense of humor was always a good start. It was how the kid from the service had gotten him to keep talking to her in the first place.
Forty-five minutes had gone by, the exact maximum amount of time that the service said a date zero should last. Always leave them wanting more, they had said. It was supposed to force them to plan the next, first date. Barbara didn’t want to leave. She and Robert could have been lifelong friends who’d just never happened to meet before. He was from a large, Irish Catholic family he visited all the time, he sang in the church choir, and he even loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They were connecting in a way she’d completely forgotten about. It was like the coffee shop only existed in the background and the entire world was rotating around their conversation right then and there. Still, she was under strict orders, and if she’d had so much coffee that if he made her laugh one more time she might pee her ass-slimming black pants.
“This has really been a blast, Robert, but I’m afraid I have to run off. I’m meeting my daughter in half an hour.” She smiled. Her daughter lived nine hours away.
“Aw, really? You just got here.” He pouted a little, only momentarily. Always leave them wanting more. “When can I see you again?”
“I don’t know,” Barbara said, tossing her flirty hair to one side. “When are you free?”
“How about Thursday? The fish market gets their shipment in on Thursdays. Come over. I’ll cook you a cedar plank salmon that will knock your socks off. Your profile said you like seafood, right?”
Barbara nodded, rising out of her chair. “How could I say no to an invitation like that?”
Robert followed her lead and stood. “Excellent. I’ll text you the address. Seven okay?”
“Yes, absolutely.” She extended her hand for the stereotypical date zero handshake, but was immediately scooped into a powerful bear hug, followed by a kiss on the cheek that rendered her spine rigid and her toes numb. Instinctively, she smiled and grabbed on to his elbows for support.
He smiled back. “I’ll see you then. Let me get the coffee,” he said, picking up the check. A gentleman. Also a good sign.
“Okay, thanks.” She stood awkwardly for a moment, regaining feeling in her toes before turning with a playful wave. She made sure to walk tall, confident, and shake her Skecher’s Shape-Ups toned butt slightly just in case he was watching her walk away. She bit her lip to keep from squealing with joy. She wasn’t pathetic or deceitful. She’d just wait until a few more dates to tell him the truth about the service. Or a few more after that.
Sophie Locke exhaled heavily before lifting the tarnished brass knocker, tiny shards of green paint chipping off with each of her three rhythmic knocks. She unhappily claimed weird Aunt Maisie as her only living family member. Sophie’s mother had always said at thirteen years younger, Maisie was more like a daughter than a sister, and while at only ten years older than Sophie, Aunt Maisie should have been a contemporary, her eccentricities made her seem immensely older. Sophie didn’t see Aunt Maisie and Uncle Stony (whose real name she’d never known) very often, especially since her parents had died in a car accident; they mostly kept to themselves in their old country house fifteen miles North of where Sophie lived.
When Aunt Maisie had called to invite her out for Christmas dinner, Sophie was less than excited, but, having been out of work for the last five months, wasn’t in any position to turn down a gigantic free meal. Besides, Aunt Maisie and Uncle Stony were the only family she had. As she stood shivering at the front door, eyeing the neglected exterior of the old farm house her aunt and uncle called home, she began to wonder if she’d have been better off spending Christmas Eve alone in her one-bedroom apartment with a bag of Doritos and a bottle of Arbor Mist.
She smelled Aunt Maisie before she heard her turn the doorknob, a familiar scent she’d associated with Aunt Maisie for as long as she could remember but could never pinpoint – some strange mix with identifiable notes of Windex, minced garlic, and vinyl records.
“Come in, darling!” Aunt Maisie screeched in the narrow, wood-paneled vestibule, wearing a mile-wide smile doused in fuchsia lipstick.
Dinner was delicious, awkward, and relatively uneventful, with Uncle Stony’s eyes glued to his lap and Aunt Maisie beaming intently at Sophie during the entire meal. Conversation had been minimal and strained, as Sophie had nothing in common with her aunt and uncle, and didn’t have the “how’s the job going?” talk to fall back on. As she spooned the final bite of Aunt Maisie’s strawberry pie into her mouth, Sophie couldn’t get over how full the house was, not because the house was small by any means, but because there was stuff everywhere. Stacks of newspapers, boxes full of VHS tapes, towers of plastic cups from the local Mexican restaurant, and curio cabinets on each wall that reached from unswept floor to yellowed ceiling, all crammed full of miniatures and other knickknacks. And the smell – the Aunt Maisie smell – invaded every corner of the house, attacking Sophie’s senses every time she leaned away from the high table and the mouthwatering aroma of the brined turkey, now a splintery heap of bones and ligaments. She hadn’t been in this house since she was a very young girl.
As if reading her mind, Aunt Maisie dotted the corners of her fuchsia smile with her napkin and chirped, “Would you like a tour of the rest of the house, Sophie?”
Uncle Stony sat bolt upright as if someone had poked him in the side after falling asleep in church. He shot Maisie a look of concern. “Are you sure there, dear?” he asked in a low, barely audible voice. Uncle Stony had always kind of creeped Sophie out.
“Well, of course,” Maisie said, turning from Stony to Sophie, all the while still wearing the toothy perma-smile she’d managed to maintain ever since Sophie had walked in the door.
Sophie glanced at the spot on her wrist where a watch would have been, feeling woozy from the two glasses of plum wine she’d had with dinner. “Sure.”
As they stood from the table, Sophie again smelled the Aunt Maisie smell, and she tried to mask the wave of nausea that came over her as they walked through the dining room into the formal living room, where the heads of all Uncle Stony’s hunting trophies stood poised over the unlit fireplace under a thick layer of dust.
Sophie followed Maisie and Stony as they led her through an anteroom, nearly tripping over a bright red fire truck. She regained her balance, and looked down at the fire truck. Even among the piles of random crap littered throughout the rest of the house, it seemed out of place. As she lifted her gaze from the floor, head slightly spinning, she found herself in a nursery. The fire truck had spilled out of a blue toy box brimming with shiny new toys. A pristine white crib stood against the far wall, a mobile with lazily spinning ABCs and 123s hung overhead. A matching rocking chair with a stack of fresh linen blankets draped over it sat ready on a cloud-shaped area rug. Sophie’s blurry eyes went up and down the walls, each painted in exact width stripes the ascending colors of the rainbow. Each of the four walls followed the same unending striped pattern: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. There was no clutter. This room was new. This room was for someone new. Sophie said the first thing that came into her spinning head.
“Aunt Maisie, are you pregnant?” As she turned from a rainbow wall to face Maisie, she saw that the smile she’d worn all night had fallen into a colorless flat line beneath two faraway, expressionless eyes.
“No, darling,” Maisie said in a vacant voice, “That’s your job.”
Sophie’s spine tingled, trying to think of the layout of the house so she could get back to the front door as quickly as her feet could carry her. She turned to run, only to find Uncle Stony standing behind her as she crumpled on top of her numb legs, catching her limp body as she attempted to flail her arms at his empty face. She could only faintly feel the needle pierce the soft skin of her tight neck.
The first thing Sophie could see when she regained consciousness was the brightly colored rainbow striped walls. She couldn’t remember where she was, and briefly entertained the notion of having drunk too much cheap beer at a carnival before passing out in a pop-the-balloon booth, until she realized her arms and legs were bound with medical tape to a rocking chair. The rocking chair in Aunt Maisie and Uncle Stony’s nursery. She jerked upright and looked around frantically. The room had no windows, and just one door, which Aunt Maisie and Uncle Stony were leaning against. She searched their faces.
“What are you doing?” was all she could think to say. They sat silent for several seconds. Sophie had no idea what time it was, and she could tell she’d peed her pants.
“WHAT the FUCK are you DOING!?” she screamed, causing Maisie and Stony to flinch.
“There’s no use in screaming, child,” Uncle Stony said, his voice sounding foreign and stern. “No one will hear you out here.”
“What do you want with me?”
“We just want you to give us the baby we could never have,” Aunt Maisie said, bringing her hands up to her chin.
“I can’t. Let me go.” Sophie’s chest rose and fell between pained breaths.
“It’s too late for that,” Maisie said, turning and opening the door. A short, dumpy woman with dark skin and artificially red hair waddled into the room.
“This is Connie, our midwife. She performed the implantation.”
Sophie’s eyes widened with terror. “Implantation?”
“Stony and I found out years ago that my womb won’t carry a child to term. All we ever wanted was a child, and our lives have felt empty. We met Connie in a support group, and she told us all we needed was a surrogate.”
“Then why didn’t you hire a goddamn surrogate? Why did you drug me, kidnap me, and perform surgery on me!?”
“We tried,” Stony said, looking at the floor. “We didn’t want any of those whores to carry our child.”
“And,” Maisie said, inching closer to Sophie’s bound frame, “You’re family.”
“You can’t do this. People will come looking for me.” Sophie could feel her skin scraping open as she jerked against the arms of the rocking chair.
“Who’s going to come looking for you, darling? You don’t have a job. You can’t keep a boyfriend for more than two weeks at a time. All your friends have families of their own. We’re all you’ve got. We’ll take care of you. You’ll get to rest all day, eat anything you want; we’ll take care of everything.”
“I won’t do it. You can’t make me.”
“You’re right,” Uncle Stony said, drawing a buck knife from his back pocket and holding it against Sophie’s flushed cheek. “We can’t make you do anything, but we can make your life a living hell if you don’t cooperate.”
Sophie could feel a tear fall down her cheek and drop onto her paralyzed lap as midwife Connie changed her feeding tube. She’d refused to eat anything for nearly a week before they’d forced Connie to put in the tube. Nearly three months had gone by, and every day had been nothing but the changing of the feeding tube and old movies on the small VCR-TV combo they’d sat on top of the toy box as she sat bound in the rocking chair. She turned to Connie as she raised her squat body up.
“You can stop this,” she said in nearly a whisper. Connie pretended not to hear her.
“You can cut me loose. You can let me go. You can run with me.”
Connie sighed deeply and held the used tube in front of her face. “You’re really doing this to yourself, you know. There’s a big pan of macaroni and cheese in other room. I can put in another one of these, or I can go get you a big bowl right now. The baby needs you to eat real food.”
“The baby. Their baby. What have they promised you? Why are you going along with this?” Sophie choked back tears.
“I have my reasons. Why won’t you eat real food?”
“Why are you going along with this?” Sophie repeated.
“Why won’t you eat real food?”
Sophie banged her head against the back of the chair. “You could at least cut me loose. You could lock the door and I could at least move around a little bit.”
“No,” Connie said, crossing her massive arms over her chest. “You might try to injure yourself of hurt the baby. I can’t have that. My duty is this child.”
“Their child.” Sophie seethed, gritting her teeth.
Connie leaned in, unfazed, “I think it’s a boy. Do you want that macaroni and cheese now?”
Without the aid of windows, Sophie could tell it was summer because her hair was resuming its annual summer curl. Two summers ago, Sophie had enjoyed her curly hair on a beach in Tampa with four of her best friends. This year, she sat bound in a creaky white rocking chair, watching The Money Pit for the seventeenth time, feeling the baby kick at her insides every few hours. It was the only measure of time she had. She sat, she ate, she shit, she watched movies from the eighties.
Connie entered the nursery, and hit the pause button, a fading blue ring of bruises around her left eye from Sophie’s elbow the last time she’d taken her out for some exercise. Every day, Sophie tried to figure out more about Connie, but she was a brick wall. Aunt Maisie had stopped coming in to visit Sophie after she’d taken to screaming as loudly and continuously as she could every time Maisie entered the room. It was just as well. Sophie had lost all will to scream, all will to fight, all will to live. Despair kicked at her insides harder than the growing baby she couldn’t wait to get out of her body so they just could kill her and get it over with. She turned to Connie, unable to hold back a snicker as she viewed the black eye.
“You should put some makeup on that. I’d lend you some, but I’m a little tied up at the moment.”
Connie shook her head and lifted Sophie’s snug t-shirt to rub some baby oil on her expanding belly. “Did it take you all day to come up with that one?”
“I didn’t have any other pressing engagements.” Connie’s hands were cold on her skin that would normally be a rich bronze this time of year. She said nothing.
Sophie sighed. “I’m not going to fight you anymore. I’m not going to run. I just want to be untied. My feet are starting to swell and I need my hands to move the baby when it starts kicking my pelvis.” She blinked rapidly to keep the tears pooling in her eyes from falling.
Connie did not look up from her work. “You did not say you would not hurt the baby.”
“I’m not going to hurt the baby. He could be born today for all I know, and he didn’t do anything wrong. Stony and Maisie want this baby; they’re gonna get him. I hope he’s hyperactive and has behavioral problems.”
“He?” Connie asked, her cool brown eyes meeting Sophie’s.
Sophie turned from her gaze to the obnoxious rainbow stripes on the wall. “Or she.”
“You called the baby a ‘he’.”
Sophie shrugged. “Feels like a he.”
Connie walked back to the rolling cart she brought in every day, three times a day, and picked up a small brown box. “I thought you might want this.”
“What is it?” Sophie asked, taking the gift from Connie’s outstretched arms.
“Just open it. And don’t say thank you. It’ll help keep you from getting depressed.”
“What if I’m already way beyond depressed?” Sophie asked, opening the package at one end. She withdrew its contents. It was the first three seasons of Lost. She looked up at Connie.
“Unless you’d rather keep watching The Money Pit. It all works out in the end this time, too.”
Sophie’s jaw ground heavily, full of rapidly melting ice cubes. She was in her eighteenth hour of labor, and was ready to push. Sophie heard the heavy plastic of the tarp laid across the nursery floor crumple as Stony and Maisie entered the room. The Aunt Maisie smell almost made her vomit. Her entire body flushed with rage as she eyed their anticipating faces. She tried to summon all her will to lift her body off the floor and lunge at them, but her pain was so intense she could barely move. Desperate, she began kicking her wide legs in hopes that she’d at least hit one of them. They huddled in a far corner of the hideous rainbow striped walls. Sophie’s anger quickly turned into a bellowing blast weep.
“HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?! YOU’VE RUINED MY LIFE! JUST KILL ME AND CUT THIS GODDAMN BABY OUT OF MY DEAD BODY!” She could feel her eyes flashing pure terror at Stony and Maisie. They looked at one another, frightened. Connie came running in as fast as her squat little body could carry her.
“Okay, step back. I’m going to give her something to calm her down.”
Connie brought her cart close to Sophie so that her body was blocking it from the view of Stony and Maisie. Sophie watched her withdraw a large syringe and turned away so she didn’t have to see it as Connie stuck it into her arm. She’d always been uncomfortable around needles. Sophie then felt Connie press something hard and cold into the palm of her open hand. She turned to view it. In her hand the overhead light flashed a bright reflection on a clean, shiny steel scalpel, honed to razor sharpness. Sophie eyes widened and she looked up at Connie, who wore a knowing look on her aged face as she lifted the cuff of her always-long sleeve to reveal a ring of perfect pink scar around her wrist. Sophie knew the scar well. It was the same one she had on both wrists from forty weeks of medical tape, most of which involved struggling to get free. Connie furrowed her eyebrows and nodded.
“There you go,” she cooed. “All calm now?”
Sophie nodded, feeling a rush of energy surge through her body.
“Are you ready to push now? Wanna take a stab at it?”
Sophie nodded again, propping herself up on her elbows and taking a deep, easy breath before digging her scarred hands into the floor for the first push.
Forty-two minutes later, Sophie heard the first blood-curdling scream of the baby and she collapsed into a tired heap.
“It’s a boy!” Connie cried, holding the baby up for Maisie, Stony, and Sophie to see. Sophie realized tears were falling freely down her hot cheeks.
“We want to hold him!” Aunt Maisie squealed, gripping Uncle Stony’s hand tightly.
Connie toweled off the baby, tight-lipped. “You’ll have to wait. He needs to be held by his mother first.”
“I am his mother,” Maisie pressed.
“Not today you’re not,” Connie snapped, her brown eyes sharper than Sophie had ever seen them before.
Maisie pouted, but did not press the issue further. Still, her eyes never left the shrieking baby as Connie gingerly laid him on Sophie’s heaving chest. Sophie’s left arm wrapped around the shaking infant as his cries halted suddenly. Her right arm tightened its grip on the base of the scalpel.
“We should name him Sam,” Maisie said to Stony, who nodded an expressionless head.
No, Sophie thought to herself, gazing at the face of the trembling newborn. His name is Henry John Locke. After his grandfather, and the true hero of Lost. She glanced around the nursery, across the four rainbow striped walls, her gaze finally settling on Maisie and Stony, who stood locked in a proud embrace. They’ve got to go, Sophie thought to herself. And these striped walls need to go, too.
A.J. McCarthy knew his wife was cheating on him.
He stood staring out the double patio doors at the dandelion seeds pirouetting in the weak April breeze through a haze of burning eyes. He hated this time of year. To him, it was a seemingly endless trial period of finding the right combination of steriods, antihistamines, and decongestants for the year, of feeling the demonic desire to forcibly extract his eyes from their sockets and run his lazily trimmed fingernails over them again and again no matter how much he’d regret it moments later. His tired chest wheezed in front of the box fan on the dining room table of the kitchen they’d outgrown looking at his wife’s car that no longer fit in the garage turned storage unit. All he could see was the pollen bath.
That’s what their oldest daughter Stella had called it. The thin dusting of yellow pollen that rested on the family Volvo when they went to visit Grandma in Pasadena, or when they stocked up at the Costco on 45th. This time of year, the pine trees spit it out like expired cough syrup, leaving a thick haze of the expelled pollen to hang suspended on the air and finally settle on anything that stood still. A.J. paid twenty dollars a month for the privilege of parking three blocks away from his office, just so he could avoid getting the pollen bath on his car.
His wife Leslie was an orthopedic nurse at Mercy Central, and parked in a giant maze of a parking garage. The only dust that ever got on her car was from the construction of the new pediatric unit they’d been working on for the last two years. They weren’t allowed to leave the grounds for their lunch shift, and her after-work Pilates class was in a part of town where trees were all but outlawed. But for the last four days, Leslie had pulled up the driveway, her black sedan sporting a fresh yellow pollen bath.
He’d tried to convince himself that there was some other logical explanation. Maybe she’d been visiting an old friend. Maybe she’d gone to her mother’s. Maybe the wind was just really strong and the pollen was blowing into the garage just right. He calculated the possibility of each of these, and every other half-brained idea he’d thought of, every which way he could think of, but no level of anomaly could support any of his theories. The calculating was silly anyway. A.J. blew his red nose on a double-soft aloe-infused tissue he’d paid way too much for. Through the tissue, he could feel the skin on the tip of his nose starting to peel.
Leslie had always found his constant calculating annoying and uninteresting, and wouldn’t hesitate to let him know. Over the years he’d tried to work on it, to leave his probability generator at the office where he’d worked as an actuary for the last ten years, but there was only so much calculation-free life he could live. She’d always wanted him to take more risks, but the only risks he knew were calculated. Leslie had been a calculated risk for him, but no more so than any of the members of the small pool of women he’d dated in his lifetime. Love was a calculated risk, and God, did he love her.
He figured the man she was sleeping with was probably a risk-taker, a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. He was probably everything A.J. wasn’t – cocky, broad-shouldered, good with people. He could probably spend a whole day like today driving around with the windows down without struggling to keep his eyes open between sneezing fits. He was probably one of those well-polished, gregarious pharmaceutical reps that traipsed through the corridors of her hospital guiding lost families to the various wings of the building.
A.J. wondered if it would be better for Leslie’s lover to be completely like him or completely opposite of him. If he were just like him, maybe it meant that there was something within him that she wasn’t getting from him, but the potential was there and maybe there was still hope for making her happy. Then again, if he were a complete opposite, naturally excelling in every way A.J. was deficient, maybe Leslie was just looking for a curiosity fling instead of a romantically involved relationship. He didn’t even want to think of the probability of Leslie being in love with someone else. He figured he would probably have an easier time forgiving her for having a strictly-physical adulterous relationship than for having one with the kind of love she’d promised to have only for him.
It wasn’t just the pollen bath. If it had been, he’d certainly have noticed the change, but would have been far less likely to reach the conclusion he had. He estimated that Leslie had been cheating on him for about two months, right after Valentine’s Day. That’s when her after-work Pilates class schedule had changed. Before the new Pilates class, Leslie would come home, fix dinner for herself and the children (A.J. had never eaten the same dinner as the rest of the family; his allergies were too sensitive and he was too paranoid about additives), sit down to dinner, and then go shower off. The new schedule had thrown a wrench into her evening routine. Now she showered immediately when she got home and prepared food she’d set out to thaw sometime in the morning before she left for the kids’ daycare and then the hospital, at least a full hour after he left for the office. He’d thought about asking her why she suddenly felt the need to shower as soon as she got home, but he was too afraid she’d come right out and say because I don’t want our children to smell another man on me besides Daddy.
He hadn’t confirmed the legitimacy of the Pilates class schedule change either. He didn’t have to. At first, Leslie had attempted to explain away the change, saying the instructor’s children’s daycare had implemented new policies about when the children could be picked up. A.J. didn’t think much of it, what with the way their own daycare instituted its own ridiculous policies seemingly willy-nilly, but since this explanation he’d noticed things to suggest that she hadn’t been to Pilates in nearly two months. He was first tipped off when she stopped wearing the black pants he liked so much – the way they sculpted her Pilates-toned butt and accentuated her long legs. He’d thought awhile before realizing that she hadn’t worn them because since stopping Pilates her butt no longer looked so toned, and the black pants would have been a liability.
He also knew she haphazardly wadded some exercise clothes in the bottom of her tote bag every day before work to take to Pilates, and that the bag came home smelling of body odor, the dried sweat lines on the clothes drawing a slighly opaque white cloud like year-old chocolate. One day last week, while Leslie had been taking a shower, A.J. had hunted down the tote bag, which proved more difficult without the trail of smell to follow, and saw an unworn set of exercise clothes that had been wadded in the bottom of the bag so long they sported crisp wrinkles, the kind that only came out with a new washing.
She’d gotten sloppy, and now she was coming straight home from her romantic rendezvous without the slightest attempt to cover her tracks. A.J. had been waiting for an opportunity to confront Leslie for the last four days, ever since the pollen bath first pulled into the uneven driveway, but no opportunity had come. And even if it did, what would he say? He’d rehearsed about twenty versions of the conversation where he outed his wife’s adultery, none of which sounded like they could plausibly come out of his mouth. They all sounded contrived and melodramatic, like he was an amateur reading a script for a Hollywood movie. Maybe, he thought, she wanted to be caught. Then her marriage to the medium-build, medium-height, medium blonde, median salary range actuary would be over. She and the girls could start a new, more exciting life somewhere with flowering shrubs and trees that bathed their new not-black family car in vivid yellow pollen every spring. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
His fluid-filled ears heard Leslie turn off the shower. The door to the chartreuse bathroom they’d never gotten around to painting stood open the width of A.J.’s right foot, which he used to ease the door open wide enough for him to stand in the doorway and lean against the frame. He watched through the frosted glass as she toweled off her slightly neglected figure. He could smell the citrusy shaving foam, the same brand Leslie had used since their first year of marriage, the smell that used to tell him he was going to get lucky. This was the first in several years she’d shaved her legs this early in April. He felt her feel his gaze, becoming uneasy, slowly sliding back the shower door. She looked at him intently, vigorously working the towel through her short black hair.
“What?” she asked, glancing around the four chartreuse corners of the room to avoid his stare. A.J. smiled and looked down at the peel-and-stick vinyl tiles he and Leslie had installed as their first house project.
“The girls are all washed up for dinner.”
Ben had had a goddamn amazing day. First, he’d scored a free ticket to the football game between Kansas State and Kansas, a Thursday night game on a perfectly clear, sixty-degree evening in early October. Then he got to cut out of work early to make the short drive from Kansas City to Lawrence in time to get adequately shitfaced before kickoff. Finally, he watched voraciously as his Wildcats beat up on the Jayhawks – ending in a mindnumbingly sweet score of fifty-nine to seven. Ben walked with a top-of-the-world swagger through the streets of Lawrence, aided by the three beers he’d chugged at halftime, loudly singing the KSU fight song with his far drunker friend Tyson as they passed the diminutive stone shack that served as the campus radio station.
“Dude,” Tyson cried, crouching down on the half-gravel, half-asphault street, “I found a camera!” Tyson raised the artifact over his head in victory, laughing hysterically. He began randomly pushing buttons in the dark.
“I don’t think it works,” Tyson said.
“Let me see it,” said Ben, taking the camera from Tyson and focusing his eyes. A moment later, a blinding light shone from the camera as it started up, illuminating both their faces.
“It works!” shouted Tyson, ignoring the angry stares from the KU faithful making the walk of shame back to their cars.
Ben and Tyson stared into the tiny screen as the last taken picture came into view. It was two young women, probably students, holding on to one another’s hitched up legs and sticking out their tongues as far as they could. Ben and Tyson nearly doubled over with laughter.
“Oh my God,” said Ben. “I’m totally keeping this.”
The next day, Ben was looking through the pictures on the camera with his wife, Sally. There was something inexplicable yet genuinely hilarious about looking at someone else’s pictures, and the two were cackling loudly with each push of the Next button. Most of the pictures were nearly identical each other. Nearly all of them included the same two girls, either on campus or on Massachusetts Street, and they were all taken within the last two months. As Ben and Sally got through all the photos on the memory card, they had to take a break to wipe the tears of laughter from their eyes.
“You know,” said Sally, “We might be able to track down the camera’s owner.”
“Yeah, right,” said Ben. Though on second thought, it wasn’t really outside the realm of possibility. Lawrence wasn’t that big of a town, and they had the internet on their side. If nothing else, he figured it’d be a fun challenge to see how close he could get to finding the camera’s owner based solely on the photographic data it contained.
“We’re gonna need a closer look at these pictures,” Ben smirked.
Ben’s computer immediately recognized the memory card from the camera, named ZOs_cAm. He double-clicked the drive and watched the files build in an ascending date-ordered list before selecting the first one, taken on August 16, 2010. It appeared to be the same girl from all the rest of the photos between what Ben figured were the girl’s parents, standing in front of one of the residence halls. The next was the same day, of the girl and her new roommate, standing in the entrance of their dorm room. Looking past the smiling pair at the gloomy, bleak room behind them, Ben could almost smell the mold and bug spray of his freshman dorm and feel the bass of the obnoxiously loud rap music from the guys who roomed across the hall.
The next few pictures stayed inside the dorm room as it grew more hot pink and KU crimson and blue. The camera owner, who Ben and Sally had taken to calling Ralphie because of her affinity for sticking her tongue out for the camera like she was getting ready to lick an icy flagpole like in A Christmas Story, took several pictures of herself lying supine on her fluffy pink bedspread. The roommate modeled her Rock Chalk Dancer uniform. Ralphie and roommate filled the tiny dorm bathroom with makeup and hair gadgets as they prepared for a big night on Mass Street.
In September, the roommate danced her first KU home football game, and Ralphie took about 40 pictures. Then Ralphie and roommate lamented the first loss of the season at an off-campus party with a lot of coeds and Joose, a ten-percent alcoholic energy drink that tasted like cough syrup and yielded a wicked hangover. Ben knew it well; Dragon Joose was his favorite. Sally could never get past the smell enough to take the first swig.
Labor Day for Ralphie and roommate was a road trip down I-70 West to some small town that was probably still in Kansas. From the looks of it, it was home for the roommate. Her parents were Presbyterian and still had several children at home. There was a barn party with Coors Light and several young men in Carhartt coats and steel-toed boots. It could have been Ben’s or Sally’s hometown. The last picture on the card was Ralphie and roommate seatbelted in the roommate’s car, wearing matching aviator sunglasses.
Ben figured he’d have the best luck finding the camera owner through the roommate. He started by searching for the KU dancers website, where he found a link to the 2010 Rock Chalk Dance calendar. He followed the link only to get to a PayPal site where he could buy the calendar. There were no previews. Thinking quick, he did a Google image search for 2010 Rock Chalk Dance calendar.
“Holy shit,” said Sally, pointing to a thumbnail near the bottom of the page. “That’s totally her!”
The roommate was April by month, and Summer by name. There was no last name, just Summer. This time, he asked Google for “Rock Chalk Dancer Summer. ” The first result was an article entitled “2010 Senior of the Week: Summer Easterly” from the Council Grove Republican, the daily newspaper of Council Grove, Kansas. The sentence “Summer will be following her dream of being part of a professional touring dance company to the University of Kansas, as a member of the Rock Chalk Dancers” appeared in the description.
Ben and Sally looked at each other in disbelief as the reality of finding a person’s full name based on a photograph and an article in a small town newspaper whose title made them feel stalkerish and old at the same time.
“Maybe we should stop.” Ben looked at Sally to guage the look on her curl-framed face. She looked both creeped out and curious.
“I think Ralphie would want her camera back.” Sally said, drawing her mouth into a long, horizontal grimace. “It is pretty creepy, though, huh?”
Ben nodded. “A little bit. Keep goin’?”
“We’ve already stalked this much. Let’s do it.”
Ben pulled up Facebook and ran a search for Summer Easterly. He clicked on the familiar face on the first page of results, in the University of Kansas network. Her profile wasn’t completely private, so he could see that she was, in fact, the Summer Easterly of Council Grove, Kansas who was a member of the Rock Chalk Dancers. She had 1,216 friends.
“Are you kidding me?” Sally exclaimed as Ben clicked the link to the list of friends.
“Well, that settles that. I’m not going to look at 1,216 profiles just to figure out who Ralphie is. She’d probably think we’re psycho anyway.”
“Wait a minute,” said Sally, crouching down beside Ben. “The memory card was ZOs cAm. Maybe her name is Zoey or her initials are Z.O.”
Ben scrolled to the last page in the list, where he found Zoie Peterson of both Pasadena, California and the University of Kansas. Her profile picture was a bright, sunny outdoor shot of her with her hair all done up and her tongue sticking out.
“Zoie is Ralphie!” cried Sally. “Should we send her a message? Do you think she’ll think we’re criminal stalkers?”
“I don’t know,” said Ben, leaning back in the chair that made fart noises when you leaned back in it. He smirked. Sally began dictating and Ben began typing.
I recently found your camera after the K-State game in Lawrence. I am not a stalker or anything, but I found you through your roommate Summer
He quickly highlighted the text and erased it. He began again.
This is probably going to sound strange, but I found your camera.
He erased it again and looked at Sally, who shrugged.
I think I found your camera.
“I don’t know,” said Sally. “That sounds kinda creepy.”
“Creepier than ‘I’m not a stalker or anything’?”
Ben hit the Send button.
The next day, Ben woke up to an alert from Facebook on his iPhone: Zoie Peterson sent you a message. He rolled over and shook Sally, knowing she’d want to see the response and determine exactly how much line crossing they’d done. He touched the small screen and launched Facebook.
yay!!!! can i get it?
For the first time since before the separation, Tara Ambrose had slept for more than four hours at a time. As she slowly tugged the furniture across the brown shag carpet from the living room into the kitchen, inch by inch, she could feel the sweat beginning to bead at the crown of her curly black hair, and it felt good. She was feeling like her old self again, the self who was never content to sit around and do mindless work just to keep from thinking, the self who liked getting her hands dirty, eating food that was really bad for her, and singing along loudly to girly music because there was no one around to complain about it. She’d finally found the place she could do all the things her old self liked to do. This was the place – her first place.
Her first place, that is, as the reclaimed Tara Ambrose. Her first place alone, without her parents, without roommates, and without Ben Goebbels. It was more space than she needed for just herself, probably, but it was space that was all hers. At first, she was concerned about filling the space. Right now, she was using the space in the three bedrooms quite nicely. She liked to call the first bedroom an office, through it was just a desk and a chair, and a bunch of random boxes she had yet to unpack, filled with stuff she had to figure out what to do with. The second bedroom was a nice big sewing room, where she could spread out her ironing board, cutting table, and two sewing stations and still have room to maneuver between them all. She grunted heavily as she eased the futon across the carpet, remembering the days when her sewing room was the landing of the Goebbel’s shared apartment steps.
The third bedroom, the master bedroom, was her favorite room of all, because it was the room that was full of things that never been the Goebbels’. Determined not to take the bed she’d shared with her ex-husband, and equally determined not to trade it in for a defeatist twin, Tara had stumbled across a lucky deal for a king sized waterbed, and she’d jumped on it. The deal, not the waterbed. She’d traded up, and even managed to snag some nightstands from a friend moving out of town. Yes, it was a room full of new-to-her things to go with her new-to-her life. There was just one problem – she didn’t have any blankets that were appropriately sized for a king sized waterbed. So for the last two weeks, nearly every day since she’d moved in, she’d been working on a machine-quilted comforter, which was finally ready to be put together.
The living room was the only place in the house with enough open floor space to stretch out the whole quilt to pin together, which was why she was clearing the furniture out, to its temporary home in the kitchen. And she didn’t need any man to help her do it.Using the back door just through the one-car garage, she let her newly-adopted dog Ruby outside so she wouldn’t get in her way, and then retrieved the solid black bottom, giant rolls of batting, and funky black-and-white patterned top of the quilt to put together.
The top of the quilt was slightly smaller than the bottom. She tried to stretch it as much as possible, but settled on trimming a few inches off of one of the sides. It was still going to fit just fine. It felt so good to be sewing, and she couldn’t wait to add the comforter she was making to the sheets she’d already made as she slept in her new king size bed. Ever since the initial separation, Tara and nearly all Tara’s belongings had been staying with her best friend, until the divorce was final and she could finally get her own place. Buried under bags of winter clothes and piles of busywork Tara had volunteered to take on (because it was better than sitting around feeling depressed, and she wasn’t sleeping anyway), the sewing machines hadn’t seen use in a long time. Yet another reason to feel things were finally reaching a semblance of normalcy.
She began pinning at the top-right corner, ridiculously close to the south wall, when she felt a sharp pain in her lower belly. Cramps. She cursed aloud to the empty room, having thought her period was yet another week away. She sat up on the heels of her bare feet and arched her back, breathing deeply in and out, waiting for the cramp to pass. It didn’t. The pain, sharp and steady, sat in her abdomen like a big plate of biscuits and gravy. She began to feel light-headed.
I better go lie down, she thought to herself, the pain steadily increasing and turning her light-headedness into outright diziziness. As she ambled down the hallway from the living room to her beloved master bedroom, bent over in discomfort, she glanced at Ruby in the chain-link fenced back yard, running in her triangular traffic pattern that in just two weeks’ time was now devoid of grass. Her head hit the pillow, covered by a pillowcase of black jersey knit with a glittery silver heart pattern, with an audible thud. She hazily pulled a throw blanket over herself, trying to ignore the pain and find the longing inside her that had not slept for months and wanted to catch up on sleep.
This was the longest menstrual cramp she’d ever had. She’d had bad cramps before, especially in high school, but they never lasted this long. The bedroom was silent, warm, and dark from the heavy black curtains she’d made at the house she’d shared with Ben but never put up, a perfect combination for a Sunday afternoon nap. But she couldn’t find sleep. The pain had stretched its arms out of her abdomen and was now tapping at her lower back. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but something was wrong, and she knew it. After a few minutes, she instinctively rolled over, looking for nurse Ben Goebbels. He’d know what to do, even if he was an asshole. But he wasn’t there.
Through vision blurred by pain, Tara rolled over and grabbed her cell phone, resting on the nightstand she’d gotten from the friend, connected to the charger in the wall by a thin cord. She looked at the phone, wondering who she had called in case of emergency before Ben. Dad, probably. But Dad lived over an hour away. He couldn’t drive her anywhere anytime soon. She entertained the thought of driving herself for about two seconds, but dismissed the thought immediately as she flipped the phone open, unable to see the glowing text through the blurry clouds and tears that were coming to her eyes – from desperation or pain, she didn’t know which.
Unable to think, she pressed the button for the address book, and began scrolling. Amanda Bettis, her best friend, was on top. She lived all the way across town, but Tara knew she’d drop everything to be there as soon as she could. She hit the send button with her jagged thumbnail. It rang eight times before going to voice mail. Tara snapped the phone shut.
There were a couple of coworkers in the As, people she could probably call if she couldn’t find someone else, but no one she wouldn’t feel weird about calling. The Bs were old friends and distant relatives, no one to call in case of an emergency. She realized she was, truly, scrolling the phone looking for someone to get her to a doctor, and a wave of desperation came over, stronger than anything she’d felt besides the unfounded guilt and constant sadness she’d felt for last six months. And where were they going to take her? It was 4:00 on a Sunday. Her doctor’s office wasn’t open. She didn’t know where any urgent care centers were, because she’d never set foot in one. Her only trip to the hospital was after a car accident two years ago, and she’d ridden there in an ambulance while an intoxicated Ben talked to the police.
She scrolled down to the Cs, and saw Casey Ambrose, her brother’s wife. Yeah, she could take her to the emergency room. She only hoped they wouldn’t think Casey, at eight months’ pregnant, was the one in need of the emergency. She dialed. Casey picked up after the second ring.
“Hey, Tara. What’s up?”
“Casey?” Tara asked, turning more to her side to the let the black jersey knit pillowcase soak up the tears welling up in her green eyes.
“What’s wrong, hon?” Casey asked. She knew Tara too well. Tara could tell she sensed the despair in her voice.
“Sorry to bother you. Can you take me to the hospital?” Tara bit her bottom lip, trying to keep from sobbing, the pre-sobbing heaving in her stomach only making the abdominal pain stab harder.
“Of course. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Just hang on, okay.” She didn’t ask what was wrong. Tara knew she didn’t care.
“Okay.” Tara flipped the phone shut and rolled out of the giant waterbed onto the shaggy brown carpet, and crawled to the front door, where she stayed, lying in the fetal position, until she heard the loud rattle of Casey’s car in the driveway. It could have been five minutes, it could have been an hour. Tara had no idea.
She’d thrown up in the waiting room of the ER, trying to sit as upright as possible in the uncomfortable plastic chairs, the pain so sharp and severe it demanded all the room in her stomach and forced the bacon and pancakes Tara had made for breakfast at 11:00 out. They got her in quickly after that.
It felt good to lie flat on the hospital bed, even if the pain was making her shudder all over. Still, it hadn’t kept the technician from getting to the veins a rookie could hit with his eyes closed. The ride to the hospital was a blur. She remembered hearing sirens nearly the whole time, and Casey’s voice telling her to hold on. She thought she’d heard the hospital staff mentioning a bad accident. Maybe that’s why it had taken so long to get her in. In that time, the pain had only grown steadily worse. Tara finally had to admit to herself there was no way it was a menstrual cramp. She had no idea what it was. She just knew she needed something to take away the pain, or soon she wouldn’t even be able to describe it to someone in the position to do something about it.
Tara’s bed was sitting in a vacant room. It wasn’t a patient room; it was too blue for that. A nurse had come in a few minutes ago to take her blood pressure and temperature. She wasn’t sure why, but she bet her blood pressure was probably through the roof. Casey was waiting in the patient room that was going to be hers, but she was waiting here. For what, she didn’t know.
Out of the corner of her right eye, she saw a pair of sensible shoes connected to a pair of pleat-fronted khaki pants walk in, holding a clipboard. As the clipboard came into full view, Tara saw a perma-smiling pair of bright red lips and a nametag that read SALLY, Guest Services. She hardly felt like a guest.
“Hello there, Tara,” Sally said in a syrupy voice with the faintest trace of a Southern accent she’d probably been trying to minimize for years. “My name is Sally and I’m from Guest Services. I have just a few questions I need to ask you.”
“Okay.” No, my stay has not been pleasant, Tara thought, shifting in the bed uncomfortably.
Sally poised the clipboard on her left forearm, resting the base of it just below an American flag pin attached to the mango-colored breast pocket of her formless button-down shirt. “The young lady with whom you arrived gave us your insurance card, and we’re just a little bit confused. The name on your driver’s license is Tara Ambrose and the name on your insurance card is Tara Goebbels. Now, we have prior hospital records for a Tara Goebbels, but no prior records for a Tara Ambrose. Is it possible that the name on your driver’s license is incorrect?”
Tara looked away as Sally’s smiling eyes shifted from the clipboard to meet hers. She wasn’t sure how to answer her. She opened her dry mouth to speak, knowing her words would come out in a stutter. She stuttered a lot when she was nervous.
“No, my license is correct. I am not Tara Goebbels anymore. My name is Tara Ambrose.”
“Okay,” said Sally, looking back to the clipboard, making notes with a fancy pen, smile unmoving. “Then I assume you have remarried?”
Tara felt her face flush. “No. I’m divorced.” Thirty days divorced, she realized, and this was the first time she’d said the words out loud. They sounded strange and enhanced the taste of bile she hadn’t had a chance to brush out of her mouth.
“Okay.” More notes, unchanged voice and smile. “Can you confirm that the insurance policy for Tara Ambrose is current, then?”
“Yes, my insurance is valid.” Tara tried shifting in the bed again, the abdominal pain growing more insistent with each awkward question.
“Oh-kay.” Sally pushed her glasses up with her middle finger, eyes still fixed on the clipboard. “We show a Ben Goebbels as your emergency contact. Would you like us to contact him for you and let him know you are here?”
“No,” Tara exclaimed, louder than she intended to. She was growing tired of Sally’s inability to read between the lines. “He is my ex-husband. He is not my emergency contact.”
“Ohhh-kay.” More note taking. She turned to Tara and smiled. “Who would you like us to list as your emergency contact?”
Tara searched for an answer. For the last six years, she’d never been tripped up by this question. She always had a name for an answer before the question was even finished. Even before that, she had a name. She wondered if she should list her dad as the emergency contact, but he worked eighty hours a week and lived over an hour away. She then thought of listing her brother, but she didn’t know his phone number by memory. In fact, only the small handful of people whose phone numbers had not changed since she had first learned to dial a phone were committed to her memory. That’s what cell phones were for. This list included Grandma, her high school, and her first place of work, none of which she felt she could comfortably list as her emergency contact. Sally was still waiting for an answer. Tara felt the sobs she’d suppressed throughout the day begin to rise in her chest.
“I… I don’t know.” She pretended to scratch her eyelid as she wiped away a tear.
Sally put the fancy pen down. “Well, all right. If someone calls and asks if you’re here, may we tell them you’re here?”
Tara buried her face in her hands and nodded, knowing full well no one would call the hospital to see if she were there. She heard Sally exit the room in her sensible shoes and she began to cry – not the kind of cry she often had after a condescending interchange between someone who’d found out she’d gotten divorced – a full-on blast weep, complete with labored breathing, chest heaving, and deafening wails into the antiseptic-smelling hospital pillow. She no longer cared if anyone heard or saw her crying, or how much worse it made the pain. She just couldn’t hold back any longer.
The contrast fluid for the MRI tasted like a bacon-flavored protein shake that had been frozen, then microwaved, and then refrigerated for about a day. Tara’s brother held her hand as she choked it down as quickly as possible. He’d since taken over for Casey, whose eight-months-pregnant body needed a rest. He hadn’t said much, but Tara could tell how worried he was for her. She knew when his first baby came in just over a month, he would be a great bedside coach and companion; his presence had a calming effect on her. That and the morphine drip.
It wasn’t her appendix, like they originally thought. They weren’t sure what it was, which was why they ordered the MRI, and ordered her to drink the horrible stuff that looked like but most definitely did not taste like Tang. She’d have to wait an hour after finishing the liquid before they could do the MRI. She didn’t want to sit here waiting for the MRI, and wondering whether or not she’d have to fight with her insurance company to cover it. She wanted to go home and sleep it off like a bad hangover.
She tilted her head back to finish off the chalky liquid, which left her throat drier than it had been after vomiting her breakfast all over the waiting room floor and left a taste in her mouth equally as appetizing. She asked her brother for a styrofoam cup of water in a raspy voice, thinking about how good the cold fresh water would taste, even better than it did after one of the long runs she was taking more and more often as of late. The water was lukewarm and metallic.
Amanda Bettis held Tara’s hand as the nurse pressed the sonogram camera hard against her belly. They still didn’t know what was wrong with her. Tara lay motionless on the hard bed they’d wheeled her around on all day. She couldn’t feel anything anymore, not the pain in her abdomen, the heaviness of her eyelids as she sensed night coming quickly, the tears stinging the backs of her eyes. All she could feel was a drowning sense of despair that pressed her down against the bows in the back of the hospital gown she vaguely remembered pooping on a little bit on her way to the bathroom after the enema they gave her.
She’d lost count of the nurses she’d seen throughout the day, and was getting tired of hearing that they still hadn’t found anything. She wished for a tumor, shrapnel, something, anything they could find so they could find it and she could go home. She was tired of liquid – the contrast fluid they’d made her drink before the MRI, the fluid they’d jammed up her hindquarters, the forty ounce bottle of lukewarm meticallic water they’d made her drink before the sonogram. She wanted something solid. She began to think about a big juicy burger but it just made her stomach turn as the nurse moved the camera from one side of her pubic bone to the other.
“Do you see anything?” Amanda asked the nurse in a voice that she used when she needed a tough answer out of people. Just the right mix of insistence, concern, curiosity, and comfort. Tara didn’t know how she did it.
“Well, the doctor will be able to tell you that,” the nurse replied, her gaze never moving from the monitor neither Tara nor Amanda could see. Tara felt like screaming at her, but the despair that had washed over her left her with no motivation to do so.
It was an ovarian cyst rupture. Happens to women all the time, they said. It would probably happen again. Even if they surgically removed all the cysts she currently had on her ovaries, there were no guarantees more wouldn’t just show up out of the blue and rupture all over again. And when it happened, Tara just had to take the Vicodin she could get with the light blue slip of paper they gave her and wait it out. Part of her wondered why it took a pelvic exam, an MRI, an enema, and a sonogram to figure out something that supposedly happened all the time, but the rest of her just wanted to get the damn Vicodin, eat a fuck-ton of food, and go home.
Amanda walked Tara out the front door of the hospital where Amanda’s husband was waiting with the car. The fresh air felt cool and clean as she breathed out the air she’d been sharing with sick people for the past eight hours. She thought of her warm waterbed and the quilt she couldn’t wait to finish so she could snuggle up underneath it on her egregiously-sized bed in the soft groove sandwiched by two over-filled tubes that kept her from tossing and turning during her less frequent sleepless nights. She lamented at the thought of curling up under a throw blanket tonight as she eased into the back seat.
The prescription was two dollars a pill, but she didn’t care. It was past two o’clock in the morning, and all she cared about was making a run for the border and getting some real sleep, even if it was Vicodin-induced. She ordered three chicken gordita supremes at Taco Bell, which had never smelled more delicious. Usually one for waiting out the few blocks’ travel instead of attempting to eat in the car, Tara devoured the gorditas with the voracious tenacity of a bulimic velociraptor. Not a single shred of lettuce hit the floor of the car that drove her home, where the lights were still on.
“Do you want me to walk you inside?” Amanda asked softly.
Tara shook her head. “No, I’ll be all right. Sorry you guys had to be out so late.”
“Stop it. We’re just glad you’re okay. If you need anything, you call, okay?”
Tara nodded, exiting the car Amanda and her husband were taking home together, to the house they shared together, and into the bed they shared together. Ruby was barking loudly from the fenced yard. And just where have you been all day?
Tara threw her hip into the door to open it, gave Amanda a quick wave, and let in Ruby, who wanted to jump up on her belly. In the kitchen that still smelled faintly of bacon, the furniture was crammed together except for a single path which led to the living room, where the quilt lay stretched out and partially-pinned on the thick brown carpet, just like she’d left it. A half-full glass of orange juice sat next to the VCR, which had long since spit out the tape of the football game she’d been recording. The hum of the refrigerator and Ruby’s panting alone penetrated the heavy silence that hung like cigarette smoke in the full-yet-empty house. Tara used the warm half-glass of orange juice to wash down two Vicodin. She’d never felt more alone.
Dentenia Zickafoose hated her name for six reasons.
Her first name was the first reason. She hated it because it was her mother’s choice. Her mother had been Karen Lee Smith for twenty-eight years, a name she always used to joke was handed out to indecisive parents of little baby girls at the hospital if they hadn’t picked a name by the time the baby was born. Having lived these years with what she thought was the most boring name on the planet, Karen Lee Smith jumped at the chance to marry Keith Zickafoose, at least for long enough to have a child she could give the name she’d read in her favorite book at age fourteen – The Tachyon Web by Christopher Pike. Dentenia was a cameo female character in the book; she guessed it was just dumb luck she’d had a girl, although Dentenia thought a boy would have an easier time with it.
Secondly, she hated it because her mother hadn’t even given her the solace of having a normal middle name to fall back on. Instead, she had given her Ibby. Not Libby. Not Izzy. Ibby. When she gave her mother the most credit, she could see how giving her the initials D.I.Z. could be fun (in fact, she tried to go by this whenever possible, because it was, sadly, the most normal-sounding variant of her name). When she gave her mother the least credit, she cursed her for giving her the world’s strangest middle name.
Yeah, she hated her last name too. From fingerpainting to physics, she had always occupied the rightmost seat in the last row in every classroom. In fingerpainting, the nicknames had just been silly: kick-a-moose, lick-a-goose, pick-a-noose. When it got to physics, the nicknames got slightly less appropriate: dick-caboose, lick-a-poops, sick-and-loose. Like her mother, she longed for marriage, if only to move up, even a little bit, in the alphabet. She was envious of Shelly Aaron, an executive assistant in her office whose name always showed up first on company-wide e-mails. Her coworkers had to scroll down at least three times to see Dentenia’s name, always the last one in the list.
But she hadn’t been married yet – the fourth reason she hated her name. For some reason guys were either too intimidated about the thought of pronouncing it or their initial intrigue by her amazingly unique name was just a setup for a big letdown when they found out what an amazingly common person she was. She was a medium-height accountant with medium-brown and medium-length hair, an average-weight two-bedroom condo owner who wore average-cut jeans, a plains-state plain Jane who loved plain yogurt. The closest she’d ever gotten was with her college boyfriend Rashid Bendenja, but even Dentenia Zickafoose was better than Dentenia Bendenja.
Besides DIZ, the name also didn’t lend itself well to abbreviation. If she were a boy, she could be Denny, or even Dent (in fact, if she’d been a boy, she thought that Dent Zickafoose would’ve been a very senatorial name). She’d tried Tenia – pronounced ten-ya – her freshman year of college, but people kept screwing it up by saying teeny-a or ta-nigh-ah, and she didn’t like that much either. Plus, she’d just have to start all over the next semester, with a whole new panel of professors and and whole new auditorium of students. Reason number five to hate the name.
But the sixth reason, the most important reason, the reason above all reasons that she hated the name Dentenia I. Zickafoose, was that someone else in the contiguous forty-eight states had had the same idea for their little girl.
Dentenia had first started getting notifications intended for the other one when she was sixteen years old, and had been getting them ever since. The other Dentenia Zickafoose, Dentenia Isabel Zickafoose to be exact, had been a child actor on a non-basic cable sitcom called Loosey Goosey. She’d been raised in a hippie commune outside Los Angeles. She was brought up on prostitution charges in Idaho when Dentenia was in high school but jumped bail and hopped around the country for six months before they caught her. During that six month period, Dentenia’s houseguests had included fourteen detectives, three pimps, and sixty-two reporters. Each time, her mother Karen had to explain that it was just an odd coincidence – she just happened to also be named Dentenia Zickafoose. One of the reporters had been so hard up for a story that she’d actually taken the time to do one on Dentenia, but it never made it past the managing editor. The other Dentenia Zickafoose got out of jail on good behavior when Dentenia was twenty-one.
Like the episode of Friends where Monica gets her credit card stolen by someone who takes her name and spends her money on outlandish things like skydiving and salsa dancing lessons, Dentenia had to check her credit report at least four times a year after the other Dentenia Zickafoose had abandoned a BMW convertible she’d bought only four months earlier somewhere in North Dakota, whose reconciliation was turned over to a collection agency that was too lazy to look up a social security number. Except, unlike Monica, she didn’t get to have fun for a sliver of an episode and then go back to her normal life.
Dentenia’s first job fresh out of college had been at a large accounting firm that hired a lot of people fresh out of college, because they could work them for eighty hours a week during tax season and hire a whole new batch the next year when the first batch got sick of the crappy treatment and left to go somewhere that only made them work sixty hours a week during tax season. It was during one of these fourteen-hour days in February when a strung-out, ninety pound junkie with stringy blonde hair and a faded butterfly tattoo on her emaciated bare belly threw a brick through the tempered glass door of Dentenia’s office building and threatened to kill the receptionst who should have gone home hours ago with a handgun (Dentenia didn’t know what kind) unless she immediately took her to Dentenia Zickafoose.
The terrified receptionist – to whom Dentenia had been close since they shared the solidarity of having unfortunate namesakes (hers was Janisha Terwilliger) – had taken the gunwoman to Dentenia, whom she immediately recognized was not the other Dentenia Zickafoose. Unfortunately, this did the opposite of satisfying her desire for revenge, and instead caused her to do another $36,000 worth of damage to the building. The detectives later told Dentenia that the other Dentenia Zickafoose had been working as a stripper in Denver, right about 100 miles from her home in Cheyenne, and had stolen a large amount of heroin and an equally large amount of cash from the junkie who’d held up the office. Large to her, anyway. Because the junkie had come looking for her, it was up to Dentenia as to whether or not charges would be pressed. The accounting firm wanted her to, but she didn’t, because it meant she might have to find the other Dentenia Zickafoose. So she didn’t press charges, and got fired.
Somewhere along the way, the other Dentenia Zickafoose had conceived a child – a little boy the state of Louisiana called Mark. She knew the boy’s name, age, and place of birth because the state had tracked her down, thinking she was the boy’s mother. The other Dentenia Zickafoose had fled the hospital hours after he was born, with an unfortunate and blatantly obvious addiction to heroin. Dentenia knew the social worker’s name – Hannah Maxwell (a perfectly normal name) – because she, to this day, kept in touch with her out of curiosity and concern for the foster child. Today, Mark was six, starting kindergarten with a brand new jumbo box of Crayola crayons in Shreveport, and living with a family that had a typical last name, a last name the kids wouldn’t know to make fun of until at least fifth grade: Johnson.
Thanks to MySpace, she often got tagged in photographs next to strange people. She had, at one time, sent a friend request to the other Dentenia Zickafoose, just for kicks, but to this day, the request was still pending. In every photo she was mis-tagged, Dentenia would notice slight shifts in her doppelganger’s looks: her hair would be shorter, she’d have a new shade of lipstick, the holes that once supported an eyebrow ring had closed up. In fact, the other Dentenia Zickfoose looked less and less like the life-in-the-fast-lane floozie who’d been a prostitute at eighteen and more and more like one of the normals. More and more like her.
She remembered one photo in particular, one she had studied intensely after she’d been mistakenly tagged. It was in a bar that relied heavily on red lighting and had a team of perfectly-toned women dancing in matching fishnet pantyhose, leather hotpants, and scissor-happy versions of what once were t-shirts that boasted the bar’s name: Nasty’s. The other Dentenia Zickafoose was facing the camera with her arms outstretched, her skinny belly and moderate-but-respectable cleavage resting on an uneven bar table with deep cracks in the wood. She was wearing a St. Patrick’s Day green tank top that was too small, bright lipstick in the truest shade of red Dentenia had ever seen, and silver earrings that brushed the top of the table. Her long dark hair glistened with fresh sweat at the crown of her head and spilled haphazardly over her shoulders and onto the sea of empty pint glasses, car keys, and coasters that littered the table. The flash from the camera made the eyes that Dentenia knew were green a devil red, and she was smiling a genuine smile – not the smile she wore in the childhood picture all the tabloids ran in their fall issues – a smile that meant she was having a good time with all the people crowding around her at the table for a chance to be in the picture with the girl who was having such a good time.
Although she’d removed the tag, Dentenia couldn’t help but look at her own library of posted pictures – here was Dentenia and her mother at her graduation, here Dentenia standing in front of the Washington monument, here standing next to her best friend at her wedding – all in a forced, unnatural position wearing a forced, unnatural smile. She wondered if the other Dentenia Zickafoose ever got tagged incorrectly, only to look at her pictures and think of what a boring life she must lead. But since she had yet to accept Dentenia’s friend request, she couldn’t look at all her pictures to discover the truth.
About six months ago, Dentenia had received a letter from a fan obsessed with the other Dentenia Zickafoose. She had never really understood why there, to this day, remained a small but strong group of people who were obsessed with the forgotten child star, but then, there were probably remnants of fans for every celebrity, no matter how brief or obscure. From her on-again, off-again following of the press’s love affair with the other Dentenia Zickafoose, Dentenia recognized the name of the fan, not because it was a particularly interesting or charming name, but because he had a record of arrests, all centered around his obsession with the other Dentenia Zickafoose: breaking and entering, harrassment, stalking, you name it. His name was Kyle Brewer.
The letter arrived in an envelope the same shade of fucshia pink her high school debate coach had worn. She didn’t recognize the handwriting on the front of the envelope, but she could tell whoever had addressed the letter was someone with bad handwriting who was trying very hard to use his or her best possible penmanship in addressing the letter. It wasn’t often she got hand-addressed letters from people, and since there was no return address, she figured it was a thank you note from her insurance agent or something.
She tapped the envelope against the sweaty palm of her opposite hand and tore a sliver from the empty end of the envelope. The letter was written on plain college rule notebook paper, triple folded. Dentenia puzzled at the idea of such a fluorescent envelope for a letter written in half-cursive, half-print on a piece of looseleaf notebook paper, but as soon as she read the opening of the letter, she abandoned all thoughts of its presentation, and was frozen by its contents.
My Dearest Dentenia,
I thought I’d never find you again after I got to visit you in the hospital when you had your adorable baby boy. He looks so much like his father. At least, I think it’s his father. I know you were seeing him for a long time even though he wasn’t treating you the way you deserve to be treated. Like a queen.
So you can imagine my surprise when I saw that you were now living in Cheyenne! It’s quite the change from Denver, I’m sure, but I bet the fresh air is doing wonders for your beautiful face. I can’t wait to see your beautiful face again. I thought I saw you about a month ago, and I almost couldn’t breathe, that’s how excited I got.
I know you still don’t believe it, but one day you will come to see that you and I belong together. And when that day comes, I’ll be there as fast as I can to come rescue you from whatever hell you’re enduring in Cheyenne just to stay out of the spotlight. We can even go get Mark, and deliver him from the suburban nightmare the Louisiana child services call a life. Then we’ll have a life together. You, me, and the son that should have been ours.
I’ve been re-watching every episode of Loosey Goosey every day for the last six years, ever since you abandoned the child that should have been ours. I’ve been looking everywhere for you. How is it you’ve been in Cheyenne all this time and I didn’t even know it? Oh well. It doesn’t matter now. All that matters is that I know where you are, and we can finally live a quiet life together, wherever you want.
As soon as I can get away from work, I’ll be on the first bus to Cheyenne, where I will greet you in my best dark gray suit with a single red rose, the same color as your luscious lips.
I’ll see you soon.
Yours in heart and soul forever,
This was the reason Dentenia Zickafoose was going to meet the other Dentenia Zickafooose.
Dentenia rolled the windows to get some fresh air. She had been in the car so long and drank so many cans of Vault Zero the cab was beginning to fill up with empty cans and smell like the odd smell all green-colored soft drinks have but no one can identify.
For years, people had asked Dentenia why she didn’t just change her name if it bothered her so much. In her response, she’d always felt she sounded sort of like the Michael Bolton character in Office Space who refuses to just go by Mike. Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks. She’d always said that as much as she hated her name, it was still given to her by her mother, who she loved unconditionally despite all her quirkiness and vapidity. Plus, she felt that the other Dentenia Zickafoose owed her to change her name. After all, Dentenia had never done anything to taint the life of the other Dentenia Zickafoose. She’d never gotten any house calls from crazy ex-boyfriends; Dentenia barely even had any ex-boyfriends. In fact, Dentenia’s mere existence was probably improving the life of the Dentenia Zickafoose. Her credit score was probably better. Her rental history was probably better. Her employment records were probably better, albeit less flashy.
For the last six months, ever since she’d gotten the letter from crazy Kyle Brewer, Dentenia had been a nervous wreck. She’d sold her condo and moved into a modest two-bedroom rental house across town for fear that he would come a-knocking, rose in hand, at her hard-to-shut front door. She called her mother and her best friend every night when she got home from work, which was later and later every day, just so she’d feel less alone. She’d even stopped charging her friends for filing their tax returns to ensure she’d have plenty of work to keep her mind off the other Dentenia Zickafoose.
And she obsessed over the other Dentenia Zickafoose. She’d troll the internet every night looking for previously undiscovered articles about her, print them out, cut around the advertisements in the side panes, read them, highlight information she didn’t already know (pink for information associated with her love life, yellow for professional, blue for any law-breaking, and green for rumors), organize them chronologically into tabbed manila folders, file them away into a drawer in one of three four-foot gray metal filing cabinets, and then finally lock and double-check each drawer.
Sleep was evasive and infrequent. Before she could fall asleep at night, Dentenia found she needed to watch at least one complete episode of Loosey Goosey and take notes on the other Dentenia Zickafoose’s nonverbal communication cues, just so she could make a point not to repeat them in her own repertiore of facial expressions, gestures, and poses. She wanted to know everything about the other Dentenia Zickafoose so that she could be nothing like the other Dentenia Zickafoose.
It was for all these reasons that Dentenia was making the trip from Cheyenne to the other Dentenia Zickafoose’s last known permanent residence in Denver. She was going to face her fears once and for all. She wanted to come out and tell the other Dentenia Zickfoose that she was ruining her life, and one way or another, one of them was going to change her name.
Dentenia had not showered for eight days. She hadn’t slept in two days, and the last time she did sleep, it was in the back seat of the dusty rental car outside Star’s Diner in a no-horse town 50 miles south of Los Angeles, the latest city in her wild goose chase to find the other Dentenia Zickafoose, and yet another dead end. What had started out as a road trip had turned into what seemed like a ride on a narrow tributary of a rushing river on a raft held together by fishing line. She’d been from Denver, to Dallas, to Vegas, to Phoenix, to Los Angeles in the span of four weeks. She hadn’t even bothered calling the office; she already knew she’d lost her job. Accountants were all the same. They could find another Dentenia Zickafoose in a matter of hours. She just wished she could do the same.
In Denver, she’d visited the hospital where the other Dentenia Zickafoose had given birth to her baby boy six years ago, the last place anyone had any record of her presence for more than twenty-four hours. The doctor who’d delivered the baby was retired but still living in the Denver suburbs. His name was Kenneth Murders, and upon hearing his name Dentenia wondered if he’d chosen the medical profession just for the irony of it. Dr. Murders agreed to meet with her, and told her the sad story of Dentenia being wheeled into the ER by a woman with, in his words, veins the size of Texas, only to spend twelve hours excruciating hours in labor and then not remember a thing, and finally lying to the nurse about getting a little bit of sleep after Mark did the same for the first time since clawing his way out of the womb.
That had led her to Dallas, to the sixth-floor steel door of an apartment belonging to Kelli Fox near the Deep Ellum district. If Dentenia hadn’t known better about the other Dentenia Zickafoose’s entourage, she’d have assumed from her name that Kelli Fox was a reporter for Action News at six. Instead, Kelli Fox was the waitress-slash-convenience-store-clerk and recovering junk addict who’d wheeled Dentenia Zickafoose into the Denver hospital six years ago. Kelli Fox, disappointingly, did not have the stereotypical news hair Dentenia had always wanted.
What she did have was the skinny on the man who Kyle Brewer suspected was the father of the other Dentenia’s child. When they’d lived in Denver, Dentenia Zickafoose and Danny Twain had shared syringes and everything else. Danny was a bartender at a dive nearly under the interstate with a predominantly Hispanic clientele called Ace of Spades where he practiced his blackjack dealing skills in a semi-organized gambling ring. Danny and Kelli Fox had an on-again off-again sexual relationship the entire time he and the other Dentenia Zickafoose had been together, so he’d told her all about moving to Vegas and trying his luck at being a blackjack dealer there once Dentenia told him about the pregnancy. Kelli said she’d even tried going out there with him, but explained that trying not to do drugs as a stripper in Vegas is like trying to keep your skirt down in a tornado.
Dentenia had never seen anything like Vegas. She was on a tight budget, but with a picture supplied by Kelli Fox in hand, she managed to hit up every blackjack corner of every casino starting at one end of the strip until she found Danny Twain, who was just going by Dan now. When he spoke about Dentenia, there was a strange mixture of sadness, anger, and sea foam green in his large eyes. They showed the most sadness when he told Dentenia about how the other Dentenia Zickafoose broke the news of the pregnancy to him.
They showed the most anger when he spoke about the day he decided to give up his old life and make it work with Dentenia, only to find her huddled in a dark corner of a seventh floor studio apartment with her bony elbows propped up on her just-noticeably pregnant belly to find a protruding vein. And they showed the most green when he followed Dentenia from the blackjack table to her car after his shift was over, only slightly less green when he admitted that he and Kelli Fox had had a recurring love affair that the other Dentenia Zickafoose suspected and accused him of, but never confirmed. He had gone to Kelli after finding Dentenia in the apartment, and the two of them had packed for Vegas.
The day Dentenia gave birth to Mark, the hospital called Danny’s mother, who’d called him, but it was his first day as a dealer at a casino on the Vegas strip, instead of some nasty once-white-but-now-stained-yellow-with-cigarette-smoke joint whose foundation was halfway in the putrid swamp near Henderson. He’d all but forgotten about Dentenia, Mark, and Denver when one day she showed up at his door, her skin pallid and ghostlike, her eyes nearly swollen shut. He said she looked like she hadn’t eaten or slept in days. She had said she wasn’t ready to be a mother, and all she wanted was a fresh start, with or without Danny. Abandoned by both Dentenia and Kelli, Danny sent her out the door with $500 and a business card for a hotel in Phoenix belonging to his brother Eddie.
Eddie’s story hadn’t been nearly as interesting, nor his eyes nearly as responsive, and his hotel – the Rest Haven Court – was even worse than the nastiest ones Danny had worked at in Henderson. The neon sign that buzzed loudly over the interstate advertised vacancy and television, but because the space on the sign was limited it looked like it said “Rest Haven Court TV”. When Dentenia had introduced herself, Eddie had tried to move in for a kiss. It took three explanations before Eddie finally got the point that she wasn’t the same person; it was just a coincidence, to which he’d indicated he was glad, otherwise he’d have had to ask her for the $6,000 she’d taken from him.
She’d been cleaning rooms in Eddie’s hotel and had gotten friendly with a regular customer named Frank Berger (but whom the staff called simply Frankburger) who frequented Phoenix and the Rest Haven Court to courier large sums of cash and cheat on his wife Sylvia. Frank hadn’t returned to the Rest Haven Court since he’d convinced the other Dentenia Zickafoose to come back to LA with him, and Eddie didn’t know about the status of the Berger’s marriage. To get Frankburger’s address, Dentenia slept with Eddie.
Frank lived in a faded pink bungalow Sherman Oaks under house arrest for embezzlement. His name had been mistyped on the Rest Haven Court’s occupancy records as Frnak, and Dentenia had been introducing herself to an imaginary guy named Frnak (pronounced fra-nack) the entire trip from Phoenix to Los Angeles.
Frank and Sylvia were as kitsch as they came. Frank wore aviator sunglasses indoors with off-brand Birkenstock sandals, tube socks, khaki shorts and a loud floral patterned shirt. Sylvia wore tarnished silver earrings that rested on the shoulder pads of her bright sequined sweater dress, which she wore over black leggings with badly scuffed red pumps. Frank knew she wasn’t the same Dentenia Zickafoose he knew, but since Sylvia didn’t, her announcement didn’t go over well. Dentenia came back after a couple of hours.
When she returned, Frank regaled her the story of his time with the other Dentenia Zickafoose while Sylvia talked loudly on a pink wall phone with a badly tangled and twisted cord. Frank had many “business associates” to whom he’d introduced Dentenia. She’d taken small odd jobs with several of them, most of which involved two things: using her sexuality to get someone to do what she wanted, and Brandy D’Angelo, her Los Angeles roommate.
The only reason Frank knew anything about the other Dentenia Zickafoose’s whereabouts was because he’d helped her invest her earnings from the odd jobs with his associates into a mutual fund. Because Frank was listed as the associate investment officer, he received monthly carbon copies of the mutual fund statements for the other Dentenia Zickafoose, complete with her mailing address: 44415 Allison Road, Chula Vista, California. Except the statement wasn’t addressed to Dentenia Zickafoose; it was addressed to the same fake name under which the mutual fund was installed: Carmen Jones.
When Dentenia heard this she’d laughed out loud. Carmen Jones was the first and only musical she’d ever seen on the stage. Dentenia had always remembered how bold and proud Carmen Jones was, how much she wanted to be like her, complete with the normal-sounding name. She laughed at the irony that the other Dentenia Zickafoose, who had already the identity of the person she was now, had also already stolen the identity of the person she wanted to be.
But she wasn’t laughing now. The identity theft of Carmen Jones was like a scab Dentenia kept picking at with her mind, letting it bleed a little into her frazzled psyche long enough to harden, then pick at again. As she turned onto Allison Road, she wondered if there were an unfortunate woman named Allison Road who lived somewhere on the expanse of street that stretched across much of the west end of Chula Vista. It was entirely possible, as Allison Road was riddled with nondescript duplexes as far as the eye could see. The same driveway, the same mailboxes, the same shutters, the same palette of gray, beige, white, and yellow in the same alternating pattern. She was driving on the 44000 block. Four more blocks of the duplex palette to go. Perfect place to disappear, thought Dentenia.
44415 Allison Road was beige with tightly closed universal off-white mini-blinds exclusive to rentals. No one was home at either 44415 or 44417, the other half of the duplex. All the lawns were the same length, judging from which it had been awhile since the service had taken care of them. Many of the duplexes had silly doormats on the single concrete slab that acted as a front porch and all-season wreaths on the heavy-duty plastic front doors, but the other Dentenia Zickafoose’s doorstep was as unwelcoming and nondescript as her own at her at her rental back in Cheyenne, where her trash had by now undoubtedly sprung maggots and whose emptiness had likely piqued the curiosity of her neighbors. They had probably fabricated elaborate theories about her dying in her sad rental house, since her own car remained parked in the driveway and her unwavering routine of coming and going had been disrupted. They’d be disappointed when she finally went home. Maybe if she’d gotten a doormat or an all-season wreath their theories would be more plausible. Maybe she was no better than the other Dentenia Zickafoose. No, I’m better, she thought. I wouldn’t name my son Mark Twain.
For all the days filled with nothing to do but drive to the next destination and think of everything she was going to say when she finally came face-to-face with the other Dentenia Zickafoose, Dentenia had no idea what she was going to say when she came face-to-face with the other Dentenia Zickafoose, weighing her steps as she climbed the steep incline of the concrete driveway.
She already knew no one was home, not because she assumed the absence of a car implied the absence of the tenant, but because she had a gut feeling about the duplex’s vacancy that was stronger than anything she’d ever felt before. Still, she knocked to be sure, and just to feel like she was still conforming to some social norms.
When no one came to the door, she began looking for a spare key. She started to look under the doormat, only to realize there was no doormat. Maybe that’s the only reason people have doormats, she thought, looking around for other possible platforms for spare keys. The doorframe was a negative, as was the mailbox with no name on it. She was confounded. She thought there was no way someone as flighty as the other Dentenia Zickafoose wouldn’t have a spare key hidden somewhere for the inevitable times she would lock herself out. She was about to give up when she noticed the porch light. The fixture surrounding the yellow bulb was a dusty black box with flimsy plastic panes on three of the four sides. She stood on her swollen tiptoes to reach the top of the light fixture. She heard the key before she saw or felt it.
The interior of the duplex was largely unfurnished. There was a well-worn couch whose color she identified as cadet blue below the windows Dentenia had been unable to peek into, and a small tube television on the opposite wall. The coffee table between the two had a cracked-but-not-broken pane of glass below a stack of partially opened mail and a cordless phone. The kitchen, which Dentenia could see from just inside the front door, boasted standard apartment-issue white appliances and coated particle-board cabinets. The laminate counters boasted no ancillary kitchen gadgets, just a beige microwave with dials instead of buttons and a dirty toaster.
In fact, the interior would have been completely devoid of decoration if it hadn’t been for the photographs, framed and unframed, occupying every unused surface area of the television and coffee table and kitchen counter, taped to the walls painted flat white to fill the nail holes of the previous tenants, stuck to the white refrigerator with bare black magnets. Each photo included the other Dentenia Zickafoose and a sassy-looking woman with curly black hair who Dentenia assumed was Brandy D’Angelo, sometimes individually but mostly together, hugging or half-hugging. If she hadn’t known better, Dentenia would have assumed from the photographs that the Dentenia Zickafoose and Brandy D’Angelo had been friends for a long as people conceivably have friends. That or sisters. Or lesbian lovers. But Dentenia knew they had only come together a little over two years ago, and had only moved out to Chula Vista together eighteen months ago. She hadn’t been mistakenly tagged in any of these photos on MySpace. All these photos were new.
The bedroom doors in the middle of opposite walls of a single hallway were covered with photographs. Dentenia immediately recognized the background of one of the photos as Frank Berger’s knickknack-filled living room. In it, the other Dentenia Zicakfoose sat, half-smiling, in Frank’s brown fake leather easy chair. Just like the others strewn haphazardly around the duplex, the other Dentenia Zickafoose’s hair in this picture was a few shades lighter and a few inches shorter, strikingly similar to Dentenia’s. She wore no makeup, a blazing difference from the MySpace pics of the past, where her eyeliner stretched as far as possible without looking abnormal and her evenly-sized top and bottom lips always sported a fresh coat of radical red lipstick. Her arms were crossed naturally over a fuzzy pale gray sweater that Dentenia was sure she had hanging in her own closet, next to the other gray shirts and the suit she wore every Tax Day.
Dentenia lost track of time staring at the photo. It was no wonder Kyle Brewer had thought he’d seen the other Dentenia Zickafoose. Without a background of neon, a beer bottle in hand, the thin sheen of what her mother would call glisten, not sweat, or a brightly-colored top that showed as much skin as possible, the other Dentenia Zickafoose looked just like her. Well, her when she had more sleep and hadn’t been wearing the same clothes for a week. She even parted her newly-tamed hair on the same side as Dentenia.
Dentenia walked back to the living room to look at the discarded mail on the coffee table. Half of it was addressed to Brandy D’Angelo, the other half to either Dentenia Zickafoose or Carmen Jones. She wondered if she hadn’t been wasting her time; maybe other Dentenia had already changed her name, had already started living as someone else. She wondered what had happened to the wild, carefree, dangerous girl she had been mistaken for more times than she could count on paper but never in person. That girl had disappeared and reappeared so many times, maybe she had finally just faded into the background. Enough fuzzy gray and flat white could do that to a person, Dentenia knew.
But why would she want to fade? What had happened to her along her crazy pilgrimage Dentenia had only just learned of that would make her want to take the name but not the persona of the character whose love interests referred to her as “heatwave”. Dentenia scratched her aching, filthy scalp as she scanned the mail. There were no letters from crazed fans, no Loosey Goosey royalty statements, no notices of warrants for her arrest. Instead, there were utility bills, grocery store coupons, credit card offers. The mail of normals. The other Dentenia Zickfoose Dentenia knew in her head wasn’t a normal; she was the heatwave, the real-life incarnation of Carmen Jones.
Dentenia had always avoided but craved being the heatwave. Growing up, the other Dentenia Zickafoose had been the heatwave for her. She’d waved vicariously through her. Looking around the scantily furnished, flat white, incandescent duplex, Dentenia realized she could no longer live vicariously through the other Dentenia Zickafoose. She had already faded into the background. This Dentenia Zickafoose wasn’t the kind to leave a home behind, to not go back to a steady job that allowed her to pay the utility bills every month, to drive across half the country just to meet the figures of someone else’s past, to slam down the last twenty dollars she had on a blackjack table in Vegas. She wasn’t here to see this Dentenia Zickafoose. She was here to see the other Dentenia Zickafoose. She wanted to see what it was like to live like the other Dentenia Zickafoose.
She nearly jumped out of her anemic-looking skin when she heard the key in the lock she’d completely forgotten about locking back after she’d entered. The other Dentenia Zickafoose walked in, a large tote bag with the grocery store’s logo filled with the staples of normals: bread, milk, celery, and apples in one hand, and the keys to a Ford in the other. She was recognizable as the girl in the MySpace photos, but only barely so. She wore a pair of medium blue boot cut jeans and a rich brown turtleneck. Dentenia should have liked it – she had several just like it in her closet back in Cheyenne – but she didn’t. The only thing that made Dentenia sure that she had the right person was that the other Dentenia Zickafoose didn’t even flinch at the prospect of having a complete stranger in the living room of her once-locked duplex. Her green eyes, once so full of mischief and vitality, met hers as though she were a family member, dropping in for a surprise visit.
“Hi,” the other Dentenia Zickafoose said, bending at the knees to set down the hefty tote bag of groceries. “Who are you?”
Dentenia swallowed, easing a wayward strand of greasy hair behind her ear, feeling every ounce of exhaustion in her spine as she stood up from the shabby sofa. “I’m Dentenia Zickafoose.”
Dentenia felt stifled by the thick, swampy air as soon as she opened the door of the taxi dropping her off in front of a cul-de-sac house on Constitution Court bricked in the front but sided everywhere else. She hadn’t decided yet if she liked the way the humidity ravaged her long hair, but she was accepting it for what it was. The driveway to the cul-de-sac house was lined on either side with an alternating pattern of red geraniums and yellow begonias. It was almost July, and a wooden Uncle Sam that looked like he was purchased at a craft fair leaned against the brick wall next to the garage to welcome YOU to the home.
The tag of her neon green halter top itched the back of her neck as her vivid violet high heels walked up the freshly repaved driveway. She could smell the fresh asphault over her musky perfume. Through her heavily-mascaraed lashes, she could see an all-season wreath hanging behind the screen door, with a banner that read THE JOHNSONS in navy blue comic sans. As she pressed her red-painted thumbnail to the doorbell, she heard a high-pitched tone muffled inside the split-level ranch cul-de-sac home, followed immediately by the annoyed yapping of a small dog, followed by the anxious footsteps of a child, and finally a matronly-sounding faraway call.
“Mark, wait for me!” the indistinct voice rang through the unopened door.
The door opened with a smile on the woman’s face, which immediately changed into a look of pure confusion and a flush that matched her melon-colored track suit.
“Can I help you?” the voice said.
“Yes,” Dentenia said, removing the screen door from the matron’s pristine hands. “I’m Dentenia Zickafoose.”
She stared up at the white ceiling, her colorless eyes half-closed, mostly awake but still disoriented from the meds. Her sense of touch from the bony fingers lying dead at her sides told her she was still wearing her wedding dress, as did the hammering pains shooting up her back from the little white buttons beneath. She tried to open her eyes all the way, blinded by the intense fluorescent light directly above, and moved them from side to side around the room, careful so as not to move her neck. Her room looked the same as it had the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that. The single set of cabinets on her left was still royal blue with black plastic handles. The door in front of her still was composed of varnished plywood—she could tell from the mixed scents in the air that they had varnished it recently. The green line directly beside her right ear still made a big zigzag every second or so. The machine behind her still beeped in rhythm with the little green line.
She needed to get out of bed and go to the mirror in the bathroom behind her to the left to get ready. The ceremony had taken so much out of her that she had gone straight back to her bed and slept—she didn’t know for how long. The room had no clock, except in the bathroom. As usual, the first thing she did was lift her right hand to the cold steel bedrail. The pulse ox felt heavier than the day before, and it had felt heavier the day before than the day before that. She tried to grip the rail, the muscles in her hand screaming no. The left was next, but it went to the controls wired to the bed. She had told Nicholas to keep the ring small so she could move her hand. He had smiled, his teeth shining as white as the walls, sheets, and ceiling surrounding her.
“Shhh… don’t talk.” He looked up at the cabinet across the tiny room, the one she had compared to his eyes a few days before. He reached into the back pocket of his surfing shorts and pulled out a page out of a catalog. She recognized it immediately. She’d looked at that magazine every day since the day she’d met Nicholas.
“Now here are the rings down at Miller’s. I’m going to point at every one on this page. If you don’t like it, blink once. If you do, blink twice. If you don’t like any of them, I’ll call around and we’ll do whatever it takes to find you the one you want, okay.” She watched his rough hands intently as he worked his way across the page, blinking not only for means of communication with him but also to smear the tears out of her eyes. She wished she could take a big red marker and circle the one she wanted four or five times, but she was too far gone by then. She could not even hold his rough, tan hand while they looked at rings.
An hour or so later—she couldn’t really tell how long it was, there was no clock—she had scooted far enough to the left to get into the wheelchair that sat beside the bed, dead even with the top of the mattress. Normally a nurse or two would have lifted her into the wheelchair, but she had given strict orders that no one bother her until she called for it. As she moved her eyes to examine what little of her body she could, she could already see bruises forming on the undersides of her skinny, yellow arms and blood seeping through the old ones onto her mother’s white wedding gown.
Her mother had flown halfway around the world the minute she heard that her only daughter was sick. Nicholas had called her, against his beloved’s advice. She knew her mother was frantic enough without something tangible to worry her. Mom had called her every day since she’d been there. Every day without fail. She’d followed her around for five hours while she packed her bags.
“What if you get eaten by an anaconda? I saw that movie, you know.”
She turned around and glared at her mother with her piercing green eyes.
“There are no anacondas, Ma. I’m a grown woman. Are you going to act like this every time I go out of the States?”
She pursed her fuschia lips. “I’m still your mother. That’s my right.” Her daughter did not respond. “But you could get malaria or West Nile Virus.”
Her eyes were bigger than quarters when she said the “la” in malaria.
“Yeah, Ma, I could.” She threw some skimpy red underwear into a cheap green carry on bag so hard they bounced out of the bag. She threw her long, shiny red hair around to look at her mother. “And I could have gotten malaria in Brazil, but I didn’t. I could get West Nile Virus here, but I don’t have it, now do I, Ma?” She turned back around to finish packing. “Besides, that’s why we always have a doctor go with us. The company isn’t going to just let us go into an extremely foreign country without a doctor present. They want us to finish the job. They’ve paid too much money for us not to.”
“Well, I hope some Aborigine strings you up naked to a palm tree and uses you as a virgin sacrifice.”
“That would mean I’d have to be a virgin first, Ma,” she yelled after her as she stomped away.
When Nicholas had approached her about wanting to marry her daughter a few days earlier, she’d clapped so hard her hands went numb and hugged him in a way he’d described to his fiancée as the feeling of a big, fat wave coming down on top of your body when you least expect it. She then reached into her purse and withdrew her old wedding ring and held it up for him to see.
“My fingers have gotten too fat to wear it since Paul died. I know it’s too small for her right now, but when she gets better I’m sure it will fit her fine.” She smiled, the lines in her face hiding behind her cheeks.
Nicholas looked down at the dark sand beneath his feet, watching the wind blow it into little four-lane highways. He only nodded, for while he prayed incessantly that she would, he knew nothing would ever make her get better. A single tear fell to the sand, stopping traffic in one lane. “Thank you.”
“I know it’s a little tarnished too, but so is my daughter at the moment. I’m sure she won’t mind.”
“Yeah.” He looked up, but could not look into her eyes. They reminded him of her. The way she used to look at him. The emerald city that froze in her irises was mirrored in her mother’s, although the smile was different.
“Do you always carry this around in that continent you call a purse?” he asked.
“Well, my daughter is twenty-eight. I’ve been waiting awhile. You never know what she’s going to do. I figured I’d better keep it on hand just in case.”
She cried out in pain as her butt hit the seat of the wheelchair. It was probably the strongest cry she’d heard herself utter in a month, and she felt it sting the back of her throat with pain, felt the warm trickle of blood run down her tongue and across her white lips onto the dress her mother had worn forty-six years earlier. In the pictures that lined the hallway of her parents’ house, the dress had been like snow, freshly sparkling and clean as it covered the ground, outshining the bright pink and red flowers that blossomed underneath, glistening in the sunlight directly overhead. When she was young, she once took six old red milk crates and lifted the top off the box that protected her mother’s wedding dress. She had undone every tiny intricate button that now cut into her weakened vertebrae after washing her hands three times just to be sure to get the chocolate off. She had jumped on the king sized bed, spinning around in front of the mirror that crowned her mother’s dark pine vanity in the stunning gown, calling herself the most beautifullest woman in the whole wide world. She’d even folded every stratum of crinoline, every ribbon of tulle, every layer of satin, and every sprig of organza perfectly into its shape before she had taken it out of the box so that her mother would never know she’d violated the sacred garment. The straps were now cutting into the wet-toilet-paper-like skin of her emaciated shoulders even though the dress hung on her like it did when she was a kid. She would never have a daughter of her own to wear it. It would never be worn again.
The pain was too severe. She cried for the nurse stationed behind the varnished plywood door in a voice that seemed silent compared to the scream she’d had seconds earlier. But the nurse was trained to respond to her cries, even though her patient could not hear them herself half the time. Her voice had been used so much in the last few words she spoke that the blood now trickled steadily out of her injured mouth. Ycana gasped when she opened the door and saw her in the chair, the once -white wedding dress blanketed with fresh ruby blood. She called for the doctor. They were going to have to stop the bleeding again. Especially if she was going to do what she was supposed to do tonight.
She said thank you in Bislama to Ycana, a trick she had learned from the sociolinguist who was traveling with them. Karen had been one of the fifty percent who had not died in the crash when they landed in this beautiful place she was just beginning to embrace as home. A home with the man she loved. Nicholas had a beautiful home, one she would never get to share with him.
It crowned the sand of the north beach just beyond the thick woods above it. The first time she’d seen it she’d envisioned redesigning it, giving it a woman’s touch, making it seem a little less like a workaholic bachelor’s pad. His paintings lined the long, spacious hallways, covering the walls and stacking against one another on the floor leaning up against the stucco walls. The kitchen table, the nightstand in his bedroom, and any other flat surface in the house was covered with unfinished paintings, dried palettes and scraggly-looking brushes. All shades of green and gold. Shades of green she never knew existed. Shades of green he saw in her eyes.
Gold was the color of Karen’s hair, but not a brilliant gold. The bland woman (what other kind would be a sociolinguist) always had it pulled into a tight bun at the base of her neck. She had first met Karen at the team meeting just before they’d all flown out, literally as it turned out. Struggling to breathe, she wondered what the rest of the team was doing just then. Karen was probably in the waiting room along with her mother and Nicholas. Her boss was dead already—he’d died in the crash. The cameraman was probably off jerkin’ his gherkin back in thr States. And then she thought of the doctor. She was so weak the mere thought of the woman who had put her in her hospital bed, the last bed she’d ever sleep in, made what was left of her muscles ache severely.
At least she’d thought she was a doctor at the time. She knew now nothing could be further from the truth. She now knew she was a con artist, a desperate moneygrubber with no regard for anything human, least of all life and love. From the minute she first saw the doctor at the meeting, she’d felt immediate distrust and hatred. She’d walked through the door, first only her foot visible, a small ornament with new acrylic toes strapped in by a vibrant red stiletto with a heel so high just looking at them made her feet hurt even then, when she was at her strongest. The rest of her then came into view, hair as vivaciously red as her own, skin that looked as though it had been painted on by an artist as skilled as Nicholas, every inch of her perfect. So perfect it made her feel like a Picasso. Too perfect, too good to be true. But those eyes. Eyes as dark as the heart they belonged to, like a captured portrait of the alley no one passes through, eyes enclosing pure evil. She smiled, a smile as fake as her perfect breasts, revealing teeth as brilliant and white as her mother’s wedding gown, but the eyes did not smile along with the mouth encircled with blood red lips. Her boss had trusted her—the good doctor—and had given her no choice but to try and do the same.
Of course he had trusted her—he’d seen her on paper long before he ever did in person. If she thought she looked good in person (which she very much did), she looked even better on paper. She had impeccable credentials, both as a con artist and as an epidemiologist with over ten years of tropical disease research experience. Environmental Issues Quarterly, the journal the now-newlywed worked for, had put up a fantastic sum of money to make its third documentary in New Zealand regarding introduced species. When the plane didn’t land in New Zealand, leaving four people dead (including the man in charge of that fantastic sum), three wounded, and the good doctor unscathed, she started doing some research of her own. Turns out she was trying to get that money, but the money had gone down with the plane, a huge speed bump in the doctor’s elaborate plan. But then Nicholas came along. And Nicholas had money.
And Nicholas had her. She cried, tearless and silent, in her hospital bed, now complete with fresh white sheets. The doctors had had to cut off the once beautiful gown and replace it with a gown of a different sort, one she was sick and tired of wearing. She could hear Nicholas’s soothing voice beyond the plywood door. She wanted to hold her husband, to run her fingers through his hair and absorb his strength. But she was not ready yet. She could rarely even be around him.
She’d just gotten out of bed the morning of their first day of filming. Wearing nothing but a Clorox white bathrobe, hair still mussed, teeth unbrushed, she went outside with a cup of coffee to get the Daily Gazette, not that there was anything of any interest to her in there, but it made her feel more human to do so anyway. She wanted to call their copy editor back in the States and read just one sentence to her to see how loud she’d laugh. When she leaned over to get the paper, she caught a mouthful of exhaust, spilling her coffee all over the front of her white bathrobe. When she looked up at the lime green 1970 Hemi ‘Cuda she recognized the face behind the steering wheel from the hospital—the one she’d visited for a broken leg right after the crash landing, the one she now lived in. He went there every day to bring coffee to the patients, gross coffee in white Styrofoam cups with little caricature portraits of the patients drawn on them.
“Coffee guy?” she squinted her green eyes to see through the exhaust. She saw him throw his head back in laughter and exit the car.
“I guess you could call me that,” he said, walking around the rear of the car as it dieseled to a stop. “But my name is Nicholas.” He reached his hand out to shake hers.
“But everyone at the hospital just calls you coffee guy,” she said, shaking his hand firmly at arm’s length, maintaining a safe personal distance, trying to give herself more distance for the spark to travel, hoping it would get tired and not turn around and travel back to its source.
“Hey, they give me the coffee. I just doodle on the cups.” He smiled at her.
She quickly looked away. “Hospital coffee. That explains a lot.”
“What do you mean?” he raised a blond eyebrow.
He laughed again, this time blushing as his laughter hit the big feet that shifted back and forth below him. He looked nervous.
“So what brings you to 51A Main Street on this lovely morning?” she asked, crossing her well-toned arms. “Fishin’ for a couple bucks for your ‘doodles’ as you like to call them?”
“No. I uh… I just wanted to stop by and see if your leg was any better.”
She poked the bottom half of her leg through the opening in the bathrobe and watched him blush. “All better. Thanks.” She turned around to go back inside.
“Well that’s good.” He puts his hands in the pockets of his wrinkled shorts and watched her begin to walk away. “Actually I was just wondering what you were doing today. There’s a place with great waffles right by the beach. Have you had breakfast?”
She stopped and turned around to face him. “I don’t eat breakfast.”
He shrugged his shoulders and continued to shuffle his feet, speaking to the driveway. “Well, you should. Most important meal of the day.”
“I suppose. If you’re seven.”
“I guess I’m just childlike in that way.”
“Hmmm. Have a nice day.” She turned again.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again for an hour or so?”
“I’m sorry, but I really have a big day ahead. It’s our first day of filming and I need to get my things together.”
“All the more reason why you should eat a well-balanced breakfast to start your day. You know, complete with coffee, orange juice, waffles, syrup, butter.”
“That doesn’t sound like a well-balanced breakfast to me.”
“Well, I may be childlike but I never could master that balance beam.”
She chuckled, trying not to crack a smile.
“Listen, I’m running out of witty things to say. Are you going to come with me or not?”
She looked, for the first time, directly into his eyes, trying not to fall in. “If I don’t?”
“Then I’ll have to sabotage the cameras around lunch. You have to eat some time.”
“If I do?” She asked. She could tell the question had caught him off-guard. An awkward silence followed.
“Are you trying to ask if you do will I leave you alone?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well I don’t know either.”
“All right.” She smiled at her bare feet. “How about tomorrow? I really do need to get going. I promise I’ll wake up a little earlier.”
“Tomorrow it is.” He threw up his hands and laced them behind his head. “It’s a date.”
“It’s not a date. It’s an appointment.” She turned again, this time with the full intention of going back inside with the paper, not that she had time to read it now. “Nice to meet you Nicholas,” she said over her shoulder.
“I didn’t catch your name.”
“I didn’t throw it at you.”
He had come to see her every day when she was in the hospital the first time. She still had the caricatures of her drawn on the white Styrofoam cups—they stood in a row next to her bed. He had come to see her every day since the first day he’d asked her to breakfast (it would not be the last). He now lived with his wife in the hospital, sleeping on the floor, the waiting room chairs, occasionally a spare bed.
The doctor had fled the country a month or so earlier, immediately after she had been found out (mainly due to the patient’s tireless research) but not until after devastating damage had been done to Nicholas and his new wife’s lives. She was definitely as cunning and she was stunning, and it was all Nicholas could do to resist the wily charms of a beautiful, successful doctor. Even though he was very much in love with the woman he now called his wife, and despite the latter’s pleas that the doctor could not be trusted, in the end—right before the fateful truth was discovered—Nicholas’s fidelity was scathed. After all, the other woman was very sick, and would not live to spend his life and money with.
But she was sick because of the woman they called a doctor. As she sat upright in bed trying to stop sobbing (it did no good to cry—she was always too dehydrated to weep real tears) she pictured her inner self pushing the memory that came back to her every night into a dark corner in the back of her mind, the memory of the night she was proposed to, the last night she remembered before getting sick. The picture, however, was stronger than the little person inside her head, and would not be pushed away. Her selective retention was not as strong as she wished. It was still as bright and vibrant as the night it had happened. She could see it now, wincing her green eyes and grinding her weak teeth. They were sitting around a campfire on the beach near Nicholas’s house, roasting marshmallows and drinking margaritas.
“Thank you all for coming to our campfire engagement celebration,” Nicholas shouted, his tanned arms outstretched. “You all know my wonderful, beautiful, talented, beautiful, smart, beautiful FIANCÉE.” He pointed toward her. “There are still some hot dogs left. There are plenty of veggie dogs left. My FIANCÉE has a much smaller appetite than I thought possible. So, everyone grab a margarita from Dr. Sullivan over there and if you’re still hungry, dogs are on the grill, there are marshmallows aplenty. Enjoy.” He walked over to her, leaned down, and gave her a kiss. “Do you want one?” He pointed in the direction of the margaritas.
“Mmm hmm.” She watched him walk away, admiring his butt. Karen came over and sat beside her.
“Congratulations.” She pushed up her big glasses as she talked. She had barely sipped out of her glass.
“Thanks, Karen. I’m glad you decided to come instead of reading in bed or something.”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
The rest of the group had begun to settle in around the fire a start up some conversation. Karen addressed the group.
“So, Nicholas, are you going to move back to the States once you two get married?” The newly engaged looked at one another. She decided to answer.
“We haven’t decided yet. As much as I love Vanuatu I don’t think I could stand to be away from my mom.” She took a large sip from her margarita, looking at everyone’s reaction through the red glass.
“And as much as I love Vanuatu and as much as I hate the hectic American life, I haven’t conned her into staying yet,” Nicholas laughed. Either way, I know the rest of you aren’t going to stay here. What are you going to do when you get back, Karen?”
“I was thinking about starting my own business. I’m tired of being locked away in the research basement back at the government liaison’s. I know nine languages; I’m thinking about starting up something along the lines of a… I don’t know. Something. Something different. Hell, anything different.” She took another sip.
“Good for you. What about you, Chase? What are you going to do?” He aimed this question at his fiancée’s best friend who sat to the left of her. She was the photographer back at the magazine.
“I’m going to open up my own photo studio. You’ll see. All this environmental crap has really been good for me. I’m going to be the next Hansel Adams.” She was working on her third margarita.
“You mean ‘Ansel’ Adams?” Nicholas said.
“Whatever,” she shrugged and took another large gulp.
“Hon, if we end up moving to the US what are you going to do?”
She sighed, staring into the fire. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to start my own business, so that’s out. I can’t take pictures, so that’s out. Once this documentary goes public I think I’ll have more money than I know what to do with, so maybe I’ll do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
“What’s that?” It was the good Dr. Sullivan who answered.
“I want to write environmental fiction. Reach a new audience. You know, like T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth.” She surveyed the faces of the group sitting around her. They were nodding. The doctor was staring right into her eyes through the tall blaze of the fire, her gaze was like gasoline, propelling the heat into her face. Uncomfortable, she stood.
“Looks like everyone wants to be self-employed but me,” Dr. Sullivan answered, throwing her beautiful head back and cackling cruelly. “I just want to find some rare finding down here and retire comfortably.” She looked again across the fire to the woman standing. “You empty?” She nodded toward her glass, her red hair bouncing. “Let me fix you another.”
A day or so after the party her stomach had starting hurting. She’d said it felt like something was taking tiny bites out of her throat and making pinpricks in her stomach. Once she started feeling worse she started to think that maybe she had been poisoned. She went again to the hospital and they found the culprit. Glass. Glass ground so fine it could pass right through her stomach and enter her veins, making tiny slices in every one, filling her vital organs with blood. She’d joked about it at first, remembering an old dramatic monologue she’d heard over and over in high school. “THE NUNS FED ME GLASS!” she’d exclaimed when she found out what had happened. She continued joking until she discovered the damage was irreparable—that even if they were careful, she had precious little time.
Only there was no nun. She immediately figured out that it had to have been the margarita. The glass could easily have been slipped in with the ice unnoticeably. Still, as much as was her distrust for the doctor, she found it hard to believe that she would stoop to put glass in her drink. And why? What motive could she possibly have for getting rid of her? So she decided to do some research on Dr. Macy F. Sullivan.
Only there was no Macy F. Sullivan, not before a year ago. It was the “F” that led her to discover the doctor’s true identity. Not only was she Macy F. Sullivan, she had also been Sidney F. Elliott, a Hollywood director who had made off with 3.5 million for a big action flick; Adrienne F. Hughes, a Washington intern who had managed to tap into the federal reserves; and many other middle-initial-“F” women who were implicated, though never charged, with some very serious thefts. But by the time she finally managed to discover all this information, it was much too late. The woman had fled and had left her in critical condition.
She called the nurse in to help her get ready. Slowly, steadily, painfully she eased onto her wheelchair, cringing as the pain stung her butt sitting down. Ycana wheeled her into the bathroom. As much as she hated being here, she couldn’t help but admit how very fortunate she was. All the staff was incredibly helpful and friendly to her, and the administrators had gone out of their way to get her the nicest room possible; after all, she was an American who was getting married to the Nicholas Forrester. She had the biggest bathroom in the whole hospital. As she entered, she caught a glimpse of the clock above her head by rolling her eyes upward. It was 2:46 a.m., Monday, June 15, six hours after she’d said “I do.”
Ycana parked her in front of the mirror. She choked back tears as she stared at the image in front of her. Her once radiant red hair fell in wet, stringy clumps of dull brown around her face. She heard the door open. Ycana asked who it was in Bislama.
“It’s me,” Nicholas’s voice reverberated off of the white walls and calmed her. She managed a smile, even though it hurt, and bent her fingers into an ASL “I love you.”
“She says she loves you,” Ycana said in English.
“Honey, I’m not going to look in or anything I just wanted to get you some clean sheets, okay?” He shut the door to the bathroom, careful not to look in.
“Okay, let’s get this hair clean huh?” Ycana said. She felt the gentle hot water touch her scalp and trickle down her back. She heard it drip drop onto the tile floor and trickle down into the drain beneath. She was excited. She felt like it was her first time, even though she knew it would be her last. Gently Ycana toweled her hair. Her mother had said goodbye to her just after the wedding, trying not to cry. She had brought every stitch of makeup between the two of them and a special chemise designed to bring out her eyes.
Ycana was trying to do the same with the makeup. She stared at her eyes in the mirror, so dull, so lifeless. Not even a glimmer of the enthusiasm and vigor she used to have, the emerald city Nicholas used to describe. On the inside her enthusiasm grew stronger by the minute, the anticipation more intense. But Ycana took her time. She knew her patient wanted everything to be perfect. She gingerly brushed her hair, trying to keep any clumps from falling out with little success.
Ycana opened the door to the bathroom, smiling at her handiwork. As the room came into view, she saw the white walls illuminated with candles, heard the familiar sound of Chopin playing softly from a tiny radio next to her bed. Her bed, which was now covered with green sheets, the beautiful green her eyes used to be, and sprinkled with rose petals. She laughed out loud, thinking to herself how cheesy this would seem to her in any other situation, ignoring the pained that roared in her throat. Ycana kissed the top of her head and said goodbye in Bislama. The light of the candles danced on the front her satin chemise.
Above the bed Nicholas had hung a photo of their wedding. She laughed again, this time for two reasons. One—she was in absolute marvel at how beautiful she looked in her mother’s gown, even with tubes snaking out from the long train. Two—she knew Nicholas must have taken it to a one-hour photo just so she could see how beautiful the wedding really was, that despite all the ugliness she felt inside, just to see herself beautiful for one last time would be enough.
She began to cry. Real tears, the kind that make lines in makeup as they run down the face and drench dry eyes with hot, salty, tangible emotion. As she looked at the photo, letting the tears flow freely down her emaciated body, the pain started to dissipate. She stopped fighting and let herself do what she needed to do in order to finish the task she set out to do today. She heard Nicholas knock softly. She knew it was him. He always used the same knock—three staccato knuckleknocks. She accepted the sadness that enveloped her as he entered her room, smiling as though it were the first time he’d seen her. She was a married woman now.
But this was not the way she imagined her wedding night.