Friday, June 25, 2010

A World Apart

He looked up, locked eyes with me.

“What are you … how …” He sputtered to a stop, dropped the book in his hand, and launched himself across the porch at me. The look on his face was so horrified, so elated, that I started to step back. Too late—his arms were around me, and he was kissing me.

It seemed like forever, that moment, with his hand on my hair, his nose pressed to mine like it had always had a home there. I must have made a sound, because he broke from me and looked deep into my eyes.

“What’s the matter?”

I didn’t have an answer for that one.

But I said it anyway.

“Are we—together?”

His face went white. His eyes widened, but only slightly.

“You’ve been gone,” he told me, like that explained anything.

“No, I haven’t, I just went for a walk. This morning. From my place, I was headed here, and there was …” I stopped. He was looking at me with a calm sympathy that I would have found obnoxious if I’d had any idea what was going on.

He took my hand and stroked it.

“You’ve been gone for eleven months,” he said.

I shook my head.

He nodded.

I shook my head again.

He touched the side of my face, and I felt nothing but warmth and love from that touch. I took a deep breath and thought back to that morning.

I’d gotten up early, gone for a walk. Scarf wrapped around my throat, good walking shoes on. I was going to see a friend of mine who lived a few blocks away, never minded my dropping in. I was watching the scenery go by, looking at the houses with their tidy gardens, the lawns of green and gray, the trees throwing their annual striptease. The sidewalk had jagged cracks, the same as always—dust drifted into them, dust with microscopic seeds that would grow into life come spring. Further along there was a fresh crack, one I didn’t remember, one that looked like it had glitter caught in it—one that I suddenly very much wanted to cross, one that shimmered at me, one that once I went across, I felt different. Calmer. At the time I’d chalked it up to someone spilling leftover craft supplies, but now, suddenly, maybe a little too late, I wondered.
I could feel memories bleeding in from the edges, memories of being with him. Memories of doing just this almost every morning—taking a walk, dropping by his apartment, and there he’d be, sitting out front with a book and a mug of coffee, then looking up like he’d been waiting for me. And he had. But there was more—trips we’d taken. Movies we’d seen. Nights spent on the couch, curled together, old episodes of shows no one else watched anymore, popcorn. All the mundane things couples do, but with him, they all meant more. Added up to a reality I didn’t want to believe was possible.

“I thought I imagined all of that,” I said. Daydreams, that’s all. Odd moments when the sun slanted just right, and I would dream of what it would be like to be with him—if he was there with me, holding me, asking me, touching me just as he was doing right now. I mean, I knew I had a hell of an imagination. But had I imagined this into reality? That was just crazy.
He folded me back into his arms, and I laid my head against his chest. “If you did,” he said, and hooked his chin over my head, “or if you didn’t, all that matters is, you’re home now.”
I relaxed against him, felt his head dip, and he kissed the side of my head. Tiny tears squished against my eyelids.

This was pretty crazy, all right. But I could get used to it. Again?

We went to the little table on the porch, a little table I was very familiar with all of a sudden. I traced the mosaic pattern with my middle finger, saw him watching me. I smiled at him, and he looked at me like he still couldn’t believe it.

“Tell me,” he said.

I blinked at him. No words would come.

His face went hard. “Then I will. You left,” he said. “Didn’t say a word to anyone. We found your purse, had everything in it, on the sidewalk. The last time I saw you …” His face contorted then, and I saw he was trying not to cry. Then he cleared his throat. “We had fought.”
I was starting to remember.

“You wanted to get married.” I said it. His eyes narrowed.

“I’ve thought a lot about that conversation,” he said. “Had a lot of time to. I wanted you, wanted to make you part of my life, wanted to make you happy. And I thought I was doing all right at that.” Like a dagger, right into my heart of hearts. “You kept telling me how much you loved me, how fast the future was coming on, and so I thought … I thought that’s what you meant.” He was talking fast, in a rush to get words out that were so hard for him to say.

I laid my hand on his.

“The police said you’d run off, especially after I talked to them.” He took a deep breath, steadied himself. “I knew that wasn’t right. But you’d been kind of distant, like you were thinking about something that you didn’t want to talk about. I respected it,” he said, and looked dead at me. There was heat in his eyes, and I didn’t blame him. “I respected it, damn it.

“So where did you go?”

I closed my eyes, lowered my head. Trying so hard to remember. I knew exactly what he was talking about, could remember what I was thinking while we’d been having the conversation—remembered that I had wanted to be with him, but was terrified that life would end for me if I went through with it. Remembered that I’d walked out, furious, feeling trapped, had been walking down the road, heard someone approach, but after that, nothing. Nothing but a vague unease and blackness. And my other life was there, laid over it like a projection of a film I starred in but couldn’t remember the lines.

“I don’t want you to think I’m making excuses.” I was looking at my hands, folded in my lap, fingers twisted together. “Please, listen until I’m done, that’s all I ask.”
He didn’t say anything, so I plunged ahead.

“I was scared. I was mad. I felt … I felt eternity closing in on me. I wanted to think, didn’t want to have a panic reaction, you know? So I left. Went home. Was going home. And this’ll sound insane, but … all of a sudden … I wasn’t here anymore. I crossed into that other life, the one without you.”

I looked at him then. He was staring, but not angry.

“So you went to a place where we weren’t together.”

I nodded.

“For eleven months.”

He sat back, rocked his heels.

“I don’t know what happened, but I do know that I hurt you, that my being gone … really hurt you.”

“It damn near killed me.”

I cringed. Sorry wouldn't come.

“Am I too late?”

He closed his eyes. Without opening them, he began to speak. “I never stopped thinking of you.
Even when everyone said there was no hope, that you’d just been grabbed, that you were going to turn up in a reservoir, I still thought … no, I knew. So I kept looking, waiting, hoping. Do you know what that’s like? Do you know?” He was looking at me now, his eyes blue fire. I sat very still. He looked away. “And here you are. A miracle.”

“But it’s not me.”

He slanted a look at me.

“I mean, it’s me. But I don’t think it’s me the way it was before.”

Tears rose in my throat, near choking me. “I can’t make you understand. I don’t understand it. I just … you were my friend, this morning, and … and I can remember being with you, I can remember not being with you. I don’t know what that means.”

He sat for a moment, quiet. “You’re not too late.”


“But. But nothing. I loved you, I love you now, and I know you love me too. You said we were friends?”

“Yeah. Yeah, we were.”

“You were alone when I met you.”

I felt the smile start, grow, bloom. “So I was. But not anymore.”

“No,” he said. “Not anymore.”

He opened his arms to me, and I went to him. Again.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Corporate Gag Gift

“Listen Frank, I don’t want to do this anymore.” He slammed the stack of papers on the desk.

Frank thinned his lips between his teeth. He was about at the end of his rope with this guy. “You were hired for a job, here, fella,” he said, and was met with a glare of an intensity he used to think only he could match.

“I never asked for this part of it, Frank,” he snarled. “You want to get personal about it, fine, but don’t you call me anything you wouldn’t call yourself.”

“We all call ourselves things we wouldn’t call others. You know that as well as I do.”

Frank stood, hands clenched, shoulders relaxed. It was a forced posture, he knew, but it looked good and would fool anyone but the closest observer.

Just his luck.

“What made you think I would want to do this shit anyway? It isn’t like I have ‘Slave’ tattooed across my forehead.”

“Might improve your looks,” Frank said, and watched with grim unsurprise as his look was returned with a vigor that did not surpass his—but it was a close call.

“Why don’t you do this yourself if it’s so important?”

Frank strode around the desk in three quick steps, long steps that were not lost on his companion. His hands reached for what might have been a bad idea—clamping onto another person’s throat, never a good idea. He managed to stop himself in time, however, collected his thoughts and took in a deep breath. He let it out and tried a smile. Really he ought to be more patient, he reminded himself. He was in a leadership capacity here after all.

“I brought you on board because there are certain parts of this job I don’t want to do,” Frank said in what was, for him, heartbreaking agonies of truth. “Paperwork being one of them.”

“What made you think you not wanting to do them would make those aspects any more appealing for me?”

Frank paused.

“Yeah, you have a point there.”

They locked stares. A long moment passed, one heartbeat, two, three. Frank would not be the first to break the gaze, but it was looking like he wouldn’t have a choice.

Just then, the door opened.

“Mr. Gascar, your eleven o’clock is here.”

The door closed.

“That was close.”

“I won’t argue with me. I mean, uh, you.”

“Well … ” He paused for consideration. “Can we agree that this is new to both of us, and we ought to work on just keeping from killing each other for the time being?”

“Yeah.” Frank closed his eyes. Never did he think this would wind up being so complicated. Otherwise he might have thought twice before going ahead with the process. “Maybe the rest will sort itself out.”

“Due time. It’ll tell.”

Frank turned his back and walked toward the window. Its wide vista showed rolling hills and a few buildings, none of which were important to anyone but those who worked and lived inside. Frank had never wondered about their occupants. He didn’t have much of an imagination, and thought that maybe this was part of what had led to the present situation. But there was no real objective way to tell. He shook his head, not even sure what he was denying, and went back to the conversation without turning around. Addressing the window seemed the safest course of action for the moment.

“I guess you’re right. But it seems like maybe … someone’s bound to catch on.”

“Your secretary there didn’t seem to notice anything.”

Frank huffed out a short laugh. “She doesn’t tend to.”

“Didn’t she order the kit for you?”

Frank stopped again, looked his way. He nodded. “You know, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it, but she did tell me she thought it was a great boss’ day present. Double my work output, you know, we both had a laugh, oh ha-ha, then I put it on the shelf over there and didn’t think anything more about it … until, well, you know.”

“The Winkerman account.”

Frank grimaced. “Yeah, that one.” He still had nightmares. That night, when he’d been sitting at his desk, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, fifteenth cup of coffee cooling next to the desk organizer, finger-shaped furrows plowed through his hair, a living embodiment of every stressed corporate stereotype, and his eyes had lighted on the gift box. Some stupid corporate gag gift, he thought. A corporate gag … but he had a break coming, and after seventeen hours of staring straight ahead at line after line of bullshit, he was more than ready to believe anything. Or something, anyway.

And the direct result was now staring him in the face, a problem on top of a problem, whose presence was supposed to be a solution but had wound up as a serious complication.

“I don’t even know what to call you,” Frank said.

Frank grinned back.

“I don’t know what to do with you. Everything I can do, want to do, I already do. So what good are you?”

Frank continued to smile, but Frank thought it started to falter.

“You’re the one wanted a clone, Frank,” Frank said.

He waited. Frank didn’t answer.

His hand moved.

Frank froze. His throat wouldn’t work to push words out. But his mind knew exactly what he was going to say. To the syllable. But Frank’s dawning terror had gripped him. And hard.

Frank reached for an award he'd won for fifteen years of loyal and faithful service to the company. Finally coming in handy.

“Frank,” Frank said. “Now, Frank. Don’t do anything … hasty … you know, bloodstains can be a bitch to … get out of carpet … Frank … Frank!”

Frank wasn’t listening. But he was advancing. The chain clinked steadily against the heavy bar—a very heavy bar, the kind that wouldn’t bend when used to tighten a cinch. Why he had this in his office, he couldn’t say, but it was certainly coming in handy. If Frank would just stand still!
He was cringing back, pressing himself into the wall as though hoping Frank would forget he was there. But there would be no such luck, tonight.

“You were right about those bloodstains,” Frank said, and his voice sounded very far away.

Frank’s panic broke. He snapped out of his position and went running across the room, making a break, Frank realized, for the giant plate-glass window overlooking that view he was so fond of.
A plate-glass window that would be a real pain to replace.

Frank ran toward himself only to see him strike the window, full-force, but instead of leaving a Frank-shaped hole, he left a Frank-sized skid mark as he rebounded and bounced off the floor.

He was knocked out.

Frank smiled. As if his job weren’t easy enough.

He wrapped the chain around his throat, and the twisting began.

Look for another version of this story at this loverly web site!