QUIETUS FOR A PLAYER

After too many balls went out and never came back, we went out to check.  It was long walk–he always played deep.  Finally, we saw him, from a distance he resembled the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.

It was hard to tell how long he’d been lying there, sprawled on his face.  Had he been playing infield, his presence, or lack of it, would, of course, have been noticed immediately.  The infield demands communication–the constant, reassuring chatter of team play.  But he was remote, clearly an outfielder.  The infield is for wisecrackers, pepper pots, gum-poppers; the outfield is for loners, onlookers, brooders who would rather study clover and swat gnats than holler.  People could be pretty much be divided between infielders and outfielders.  Not that one has a choice.  He didn’t so much choose right field as accept it.

There were several theories as to what killed him.  From the start, the most popular was that he’d been shot.  Perhaps from a passing car, possibly by one of those gangs.  Or maybe some pervert with a telescopic sight shooting from a bedroom window, or a mad sniper from a water tower, or a terrorist with a silencer from the expressway overpass, or maybe it was an accident, a stray slug from a robbery, or a shoot-out, or an assassination attemptable away.

No matter who pulled the trigger, it seemed more plausible to ascribe his death to a bullet than to natural causes, like, say, a heart attack.  Young deaths are never natural; they’re all violent.  Not that kids don’t die of heart attacks.  But he never seemed the type.  Sure, he was quiet, but not the quiet of someone always listening for the heart murmur his parents repeatedly warned him about since he was old enough to play.  Nor could it have been leukemia.  He wasn’t a talented enough athlete to die of that.  He’d have been playing center, not right, if leukemia was going to get him.

The shooting theory was better, even though there wasn’t a mark on him.  Couldn’t it have been, as some argued, a high-powered bullet traveling with such velocity that its hole fused up behind it?  Still, not everyone was satisfied.  Other theories were formulated; rumors became legends over the years.  He’d had an allergic reaction to a bee sting; been struck by a single bolt of lightning from a freak, instantaneous electrical storm; ingested too strong a dose of insecticide from the grass blades he chewed on; sonic waves, radiation, pollution, etc.  and a few of us think it was simply that, chasing a sinking liner, diving to make a shoestring catch, he broke his neck.

There was a ball pinned in the webbing of his mitt when we turned him over.  His mitt had been trapped under his body and was coated with an almost luminescent gray film.  The same gray was on his high-top gym shoes; as if he’d been running through lime, and it was on the bill of his baseball cap–the blue felt one with the red C that he always denied stood for the Chicago Cubs.  He may have been a loner, but he didn’t want to be identified with a loser.  He lacked the sense of humor for that, lacked the perverse pride that sticking with a loser season after season breeds.   He was just an ordinary guy, .250 at the plate, and we stood above him not knowing what to do next.  By then some guys from the other outfield positions had trotted over.  Someone, the shortstop probably, suggested team prayer.  But no one could think of a team prayer.  So, we all just stood there, silently bowing our heads, pretending to pray while the shadows moved darkly across the outfield grass.  After a while the entire diamond was swallowed and the field lights came on.

In the bluish squint of those lights, he didn’t look like someone we’d once known–nothing looked quite right–and we hurriedly scratched a shallow grave, covered him over, and stamped it down as much as possible so that the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, wouldn’t trip.  It could be just such a trivial stumble that would ruin a great career before it had begun, or hamper it years later the way Mantle’s was hampered by bum knees.  One can never be sure that kid beside you isn’t another Roberto Clemente, and who can ever know how many Great Ones have gone down in the obscurity of their neighborhoods?  And so, in the catcher’s phrase, we buried the grave rather than contribute to any further tragedy.  In all likelihood, the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, would be clumsy too, and if there was a mound to trip over he’d find it and break his neck, and soon right field would get the reputation as haunted, a kind of sandlot Bermuda Triangle, inhabited by phantoms calling for ghostly fly balls, where no one but the most desperate outcasts, already on the verge of suicide, would be willing to play.

Still, despite our efforts, we couldn’t totally disguise it.  A fresh grave is stubborn.  Its outline remained visible–a scuffed bald spot that might have been mistaken for an aberrant pitcher’s mound except for the bat jammed in the earth with the mitt and blue cap hooked over the handle.  Perhaps we didn’t want it to disappear completely–a part of us was resting there.  Perhaps we wanted the new right fielder, whoever he’d be, to notice and wonder who played there before him, realizing he was not the only link between past and future that mattered. As for us, we started to walk back, but by then it was too late–getting on supper, getting on to the end of summer vacation, time for other things, college, careers, settling down and raising a family.  Past thirty-five the talk starts about being over the hill, about Nolan Ryan still fanning them as if it’s some kind of miracle, beating the odds.  And maybe the talk is right.  One remembers Willie Mays, forty-two and a Met, dropping that can-of-corn fly in the ‘73 series, all that grace stripped away and with it the conviction, leaving a man confused and apologetic about the boy in him.  It’s sad to admit it ends so soon, but everyone knows those are the lucky ones.  Most guys are washed up by seventeen.

 

 

LAKE OF LIFE LOST

That night, Janette woke from real life, and found herself by the side of the same lake as the night before.  Though the bank on which she lay was hard clay, cool and damp as the night around her, a mat of sewn magnolia leaves had been laid out beneath her, filled with moss.  Under her head was a celadon-green pillow made of cloth softer than any lamb suede she had ever felt.  A single magnolia blossom drifted down from the branches over her head and brushed her throat, as it tumbled noiselessly onto the mat.  She sat up.

She was alert now.  Waiting.

She stood.  The lake’s incandescent surface was the tranquil dark silver of a black pearl.  It reflected the reeds and rushes surrounding it.  For a moment she worried about her appearance and considered walking down to the shore to check herself in the water.  Just as she had the night before, however, she knew without a doubt that there was no need to be afraid.  She was beautiful.  She looked better, much, much, better than she did in real life.

Her hair would be long, fine, and straight, but fluid.  A russet-gold.  Her face would be long, the bones underneath strong and curved as if made by someone who carved violins from expensive wood.  Every line would be softened by the quietest of shadows and her skin would match the color found on the palest Siamese cat, creamy with a faint tan.  The complexion would be unmarred.

She was dressed in a fine mail,  the chinks made from rose alabaster carved into the shapes of leaves and fitted one over another.  It did not feel heavy.  She was strong.  In her grasp was a book of poems and stories written in another place, by a no longer childish but not yet fully adult hand.  Her hand.

Her wait was short.  Out of the cloudless sky flew a magnificent black swan, circling over the water.  Its wingspan was more than twenty feet across, its eyes and legs the same silver black as the lake.  So dark were the bird’s feathers they were barely distinguishable from the night until it dipped below the level of the reeds and landed with a graceful splash.  Its breastbone as it cut the water left behind gentle ripples, like the raised ornamentation on the back of a woman’s hand mirror.

The swan drifted back and forth on the lake, eyeing her warily but with interest.  Whether it was shyness or reluctance or fear she couldn’t say, but it had done this last night for what she figured to be nearly an hour.  Then it had taken off again and stroked towards the horizon long before dawn was due.

Tonight, however, she grew impatient.  Instead of holding still she moved quietly to the water’s edge.  The swan noticed at once and stopped in the center of the lake.

She didn’t understand.  Every time so far, every detail had been under her control, everything ordered and predictable and eerily peaceful, just the way she wanted it.  Why wouldn’t the swan come near?

Though she wore short gray boots more exquisite than any she could ever hope to own for real, she didn’t care.  She stepped into the water and began to wade toward the swan.  It surprised her then.  Suddenly swimming toward her.

Janette backed out of the lake and up the bank, almost returning to the magnolia tree.

Gliding, the swan reached the shore.  Sweeping itself onto dry land with a single beat of his wings, he was bird no more.  Rather, he was a young man, as she’d known he must be; a year or two older at the most than she was.  He was built sparely, with refined, supple arms and chest and neck.  His black hair ruffled in the breeze like feathers blown against their grain.

He bowed his head slightly as he walked up the bank, lowered gaze watching algae give way to bare clay and then low moss.  Shame seemed an indelible part of his expression.  She didn’t understand it.  It wasn’t what she had expected.

She went to her mat and sat down on it, thinking he would follow.

He shook his head.  “You don’t want me to,” she felt, not heard him tell her.

“Yes, I do,” she said aloud and stood up again to fetch him.

But when she tried to embrace him, he no longer had arms.  They had become wings again.  Her encounter with his human form was so brief, she had time to touch his hair only once, running fingers along soft locks as razor-edged as feathers, before her arms encircled a swan’s neck, and the bird nipped her on the shoulder to make her stop.

 

Janette opened her eyes and stared at the tray positioned over her hospital bed, vials of drugs lined up against its near edge, waiting for injection into her IV.  She still clutched her journal, but its cover was grimy and discolored from holding it with feverish hands.  She could feel that her panties were wet.  The nurses would know she’d had a wet dream, but say nothing.  The nurses knew everything about her.

Janette fell into a fitful lethargy after writing only a few lines of her dream into her book, woke to write a few more, than became only semiconscious once again.  The third time she dredged herself out of the fever, her parents were perched on the edges of their chairs at her bedside, her father looking angry as he usually did, not angry at her, just angry, and her mother surreptitiously inventorying the increasing sarcomas covering her daughter’s hands and arms, using their size and number as an indicator of the amount of time left.

“Those hard-hearted legislative bastards may  not have any feelings,”  her  father started, “. . . or guts . . .” he digressed, “Don’t any of them have daughters?  Doesn’t one damn politician in this country have children anymore?”  Though he didn’t notice it, he punctuated almost every word by stabbing himself in the back of the hand with his pen.  The short blue marks made an inappropriate counterpoint to his expensive manicure.

Janette looked from her father’s to her mother’s hands.  The more widespread the sarcomas on Janette’s hands became, the more obsessively her father had begun caring for his own hands.  Her mother, however, no longer painted her nails or cared for her cuticles, or even put lotion on her hands.  Her mother’s were penance and a statement of self-consciousness and the desperate state she had been put in by her daughter’s illness.  They were also meant to ease the horrible contrast between the diseased and the healthy.

Janette hated how much their hands told her, but she knew both her parents loved her.  She smiled at them.

“I swear,” her father said, “if I could just get my hands on a few of those condescending idiots and–.”

“How are you today, honey?” her mother interrupted.  “Are you still recovering from your trip?”  Her mother’s voice caught after ‘recovering”, as the censor in her head must have told her what an awful choice of phrasing that had been.  “Do you need me to talk to the doctor?”

About morphine, was what she meant.

“ . . . but the rest of the state is behind you, Janie sweetie.  Look what started pouring in today.”  Her father hefted two huge canvas sacks, with scuff marks all over them, from the post office, and stuffed with letters, padded envelopes, and boxes.

She thought of the stories regularly carried in the tabloids, about sick people whose lives were spared by letter-writing campaigns from concerned readers,  as if the human body was a television show you could save from cancellation.

The pressure in her head was so severe it was frustrating trying to listen to him.  She felt like part of her brain was being forced against the inside of her forehead, which was what her rapidly growing lymphomas were doing.  Just enduring the pain made her want to hyperventilate, as if she were putting forth some great physical effort, running the hundred-yard hurdles over and over again, endlessly without a break.  Under such a regimen even the best athlete would break down, cramping and moaning.  But she couldn’t breathe deeply or quickly at all.  The tumor had already damaged her lungs, she needed to take oxygen periodically.

Even lifting her gaze to meet her parent’s depleted her as well.  She kept trying to do it, kept trying and trying.  She couldn’t believe something so simple as moving her eyes was such a big deal.

So she continued to stare at their hands.  After awhile it became impossible to concentrate on her father’s voice anyway, and she closed her eyes.

“Do you want me to talk to the doctor?” her mother asked again, sounding very close to Janette’s right ear.

“No, Mom,” she said.  She didn’t like to talk anymore.  Her words were slurred because of the tumors.  It scared her mother so much.

Hoping her smile followed her into unconsciousness, she let herself drift away.

 

The swan circled and circled overhead.  Monotonously.  Calmly.  Conserving energy.  Gliding.  Beating his wings only when it was necessary to stay aloft.

He was stalling.  He was afraid to come down.

But she had called him here so eventually he had to come down.

When he did, he landed at the end of the lake farthest from her, so far away she didn’t even hear his wings ruffling the surface.  He swam aimlessly about a tiny inlet, acting as if she wasn’t there.  Every once in awhile, however, the swan’s head and neck would loop gracefully around, on the pretense that the bird wanted to preen his feathers.  But she knew he watched her.

Janette decided to walk around to his shore.  For some reason her mail felt heavier that night, the air lukewarm instead of cool.  Her surroundings weren’t as invigorating as they had been during her previous visits.  Her stride grew short, then shorter, until finally, no matter how much she pushed,  she couldn’t prod her legs beyond a listless walk.  It took her most of the night to round the lake.

He never left, though.  He never moved to an inlet farther on.  It was almost dawn when she crouched by the water’s edge on a beach made of taupe-colored pebbles the size of peas, and watched him swimming idly twenty feet away.  For several minutes she studied him, while scooping up water and listening to it sift through her fingers, dribbling back into the lake.

“Why are you ashamed to come to me?” she asked finally.

He didn’t answer, but flew toward her onto the shore, transforming into the same young man as before.  He walked past her, up a low hill covered knee-deep in poppies.

Turning, he beckoned to her, then disappeared over the crest of the hill.

She followed and came soon to a peach tree, alone on the landscape.  Its long, narrow leaves were so dark a green that the logic of this world suggested they used the darkness the way other trees used sunlight.  The tree was filled with ripe fruit.  He plucked one and gave it to her.  Its skin was velvety black.  She cupped a hand over it, then hesitated and let go.

Sensing her fear, he urged it on her again.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, “but . . . “

Reaching for it, he stared at her with a serious expression and then took the first bite himself.  His throat quivered slightly as he swallowed, reminding her of the swan.  The fruit inside the black skin was a rich rose-orange.

He offered the peach to her again, holding it with the tips of his fingers so that when she took it, there would be little chance of physical contact between them.  Once more she wrapped her hand around it.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  Then she darted around his out-stretched arm and kissed the juice left on his lips.  “But it’s not what I want.”

Startled, he shied back, dropping the peach.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“You can’t let me touch you,” a soft, clear voice circled her thoughts.  “I’ll kill you.”

“Why would I be afraid of that now?  Do you think I’m afraid?”

“I’m not talking about fear.  You’ve called Death’s child,” the tones grew shaky.  “I’m the son of the first death.”

His transformation into bird did not go smoothly.  His face was still human as he lifted above the trees, his breast more skin than feather.

She couldn’t tell if he had made himself completely over before he disappeared.  She picked up the peach.  The exposed flesh was covered in hard, little nodules of dried mud, which she carefully brushed away.  Raising the fruit to her lips, she tasted his taste again, hot and sweet, juice too startling and potent to drink, like tea made from mead instead of water.

 

Coming to, she saw a nurse by her bedside with a needle stuck into her IV.  They’d begun morphine.  Her body and mind relaxed into a deeper useless.  The new drug wouldn’t get rid of the pain, so much as deny her access to it.  To her, the drug was making her smaller in a sense, making her . . . less, so she was able to feel less’

“Have you been practicing your lucid dreaming?” a male voice asked.

“I’m sorry, what?”  It was her therapist sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the bed.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

“Have you tried it yet?” he asked with sincere interest.  For the first time she noticed that his hair was black.  Was he the source of the dream swan?  She wasn’t sure, she didn’t want to discount it, but he seemed too old at twenty-eight and, she thought ruefully, definitely too heavy to fly.

“The dreaming?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I was wondering if you’d tried it and if it was helping.”

“No,” she told him.

She couldn’t say if he believed that.  He sat patiently waiting for her to begin, for her to give him a topic to latch on to.  She couldn’t start and right then that determined the subject for this session.  They were going to talk about anger, about her getting the disease, and about living out the rage it had engendered no matter the amount of time she had left to do it.

 

Her mother was back next morning, babbling under pressure.  No doubt she’d received a bad report from the doctor before she’d stepped in.

“Daddy and I were thinking,” she said, “about your journal.  You write so well, and I can tell from looking at the book that you’ve just about used all the pages.  Would you like us to do something special with it, um, when you’re done with it?”

Though Janette hated to show how possessive she felt about it, she clutched the book closer to her under the sheets.

“Perhaps take it to a publisher?” her mother asked.

Thankfully, their conversation was interrupted.  Out in the hallway, they heard a fight going on with someone in a wheelchair.  Janette figured it to be around six-thirty in the morning, the time they got the more ambulatory up and moving toward their various therapeutic destinations.

“Let me walk, damn it!” shouted a male voice emptied of most emotions other than resentment

Rubber soles and rubber wheels squeaked sharply, sounding like a tussle on a basketball court.

“Why can’t you just let me push you?” another man’s voice.  “Survivors know better than to waste their strength on the trivial stuff.  They save it up, to use for what’s important.”

“I’ve been putting my strength in a goddamn Keogh account for the last two days.  I’m tired of being in beds and wheelchairs and loungers.  Now, please!  Let me walk!”

Several seconds of nothing but background hospital noise.  Janette’s nurse moved on the next bed.  A horrendous sigh came from outside.

“Okay, Bruce, that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do.  Come on, get up.”  Stifled grunting.  A wheelchair sent banging into the wall just to the left of Janette’s open door.  Uncoordinated feet shuffling forward in vinyl-soled slippers.  “But if you get sick and puke up your entire intestinal tract like the last time, I’m not taking the heat.”

“That’s what I love about you, Harold.  You’re just a demon for responsibility.”  This said by the tall male patient finally being helped past her door on foot by an orderly.  Bruce, the hospital worker had called him.  He looked both younger and older than Janette estimated him to be, about twenty-four.  Younger because he was big-boned and meant to carry a lot of weight, which he wasn’t now.  And older because the pain lines and the uneven complexion of disease were already settling into his face, the skin graying around his lips and eyes.

Bruce must have begun exhibiting his full symptoms only recently.  He still looked pretty much okay.  His hair, cut in big blunt shocks, flopped down over his face, but it was still shiny and thick.  It wasn’t drained of life yet, being a healthy dark brown.  While he’d clearly lost weight, he still had an athlete’s shoulders, and his calves, visible below the hospital gown, made her think of a pole-vaulter she’d had a crush on in her sophomore year.

Just then, Bruce turned his attention away from the orderly, a gesture of defiance, and glanced into Janette’s room.  Since she was closest to the door, she was the first person he saw.  Only his eyes registered his sudden discomfort at the sight she presented.  Then he recognized her.  The intensity in her eyes said he was adamant about that recognition, though he couldn’t place it.

Ten feet from now, he’d figure out who she was.  He’d remember her face from the news.  The young woman who’d testified before state and federal health agencies for more money to educate teens on the dangers of careless sex.  The girl who wanted politicians to spend more money for shelters and hospices.  The girl who some critics said used her condition’s gruesome appearance as a terrorist tactic.

His last impression as he passed the door was fright, very personal and deep.  He’d seen times to come in her.  She turned her face sharply away.

Don’t look at me, she thought.  Please.

 

Janette’s mat was turning brown and brittle.  Before, the magnolias’ foliage had always stayed green, eternally new, but now the leaves were dying.  They took on scalpel edges and sharp points like the disposable lancets used to draw drops of blood for testing.  Dozens of them stuck her in the arms when she rolled over and sat up.  From inside the mat, the moss padding wheezed dust with each movement.

The dampness was gone, the night’s cool, too.  Heat had shrunken the lake and evaporated the midnight-blue clouds that often lingered near the sunset horizon.  The reeds and rushes smelled brackish.  The air was fever dry.

For hours she sat motionless on the mat, wishing she could wake up.  What good was this place now, when the swan wouldn’t come to her, and the disease was taking it over?  She’d never known that dying magnolia blossoms felt exactly like pieces of old, popped balloons, rubbery and tired.

Every once in a while, she thought she detected movement far away in the sky, a familiar silhouette.  But each time it was only her imagination, or a shimmer in the rapidly heating atmosphere.

 

She woke to hear someone bawling and choking and coughing up.  

It was her.

I’m suffocating.

She could feel them; her lungs heavy and sodden as steaming cardboard inside her chest.  Ever since the doctor had listed the side effects she could expect from the tumors, Janette had lived with a constant, justified panic of not getting enough air.  The struggle between what her involuntary reflexes wanted and what her body could still deliver was a losing one.

Crying hoarsely for the nurse, she raked at her chest and fumbled for the call button.  A hand she couldn’t see pulled hers away from the controls.  She scratched and wrestled for them.  Desperation gave her the edge to wrest the call switch back, then press the button again and again.

Until she felt the oxygen tube being shoved up her nostril.  The chill rush of oxygen streamed through her nasal passages and down her windpipe.

“Shh, Janette,” said the graveyard duty nurse.  “We’ve got the oxygen going.  The doctor will be here in a minute, sweetie.  So you try not to fight so much, okay?”

She tried to quiet herself, to be good and please the nurse, but the panic wouldn’t go away, and she realized she no longer had control of her emotions.  They weren’t even valid emotions anymore, it seemed, but noises her messed-up brain was using to save her.

When the doctor came in, he pronounced her to have pneumocytosis, “which we were prepared for, Janette.”  Trying to reassure.  “We haven’t been caught off guard.  We know how to deal with it.”

Stupid things, she thought.  They all say such stupid things.

She spent a restless, terrified day, trying to breathe better and clear her badly blurred vision by blinking again and again.

She did survive this first battle with pneumonia.  Antibiotics worked for the time being.  Her vision improved a little, but it was closing down, the epripheral portion gone and the bouts of bleariness becoming longer.  Her headaches reached a point where she’d black out periodically from the pain.

During the sleepless times, she missed her world by the lake, but even when she could sleep, she didn’t go there.  Every time she felt herself lapsing she told herself she’d wake up there, but it never happened.  It wasn’t that she didn’t dream any longer.  She dreamed.  Of all the things she should be doing but was too lazy to work on anymore.  She began to wonder if the part of her mind that would normally allow her access to the lake was already destroyed, dead before her.

For hours she stared at her TV.  This thing will never leave my arm, for as long as I live, she thought.  It drove her crazy, kind of.  Made her want to rip at the needle.  In fact, she dared herself to, worked herself up to the idea during the most delirious moments, and would have done it a couple of times if she hadn’t felt so drained, so beyond will.

During her next visit from the staff psychotherapist, she told him about her urge to do it.  She tuned out his response though, and put herself on automatic for his questions.

What must it be like for the therapist to be here? she wondered instead.  What a weird concept, therapy for the dying.  Social services version of last rites, she thought, a fundamental anathema, and sort of a an extravaganza of resources, too.

She may not have listened, but the therapist must have spoken to someone.  When she was feeling only a little bit better, they made a special exception and wheeled her out to the atrium one morning.  A registered nurse had to sit nearby to monitor her alone.

Janette had been trying to catch up on her stories about the dreams ever since the pneumonia.  She’d put off chronicling that last dream by the dying lake for days.  Always, she’d been an overachiever.  Her parents had been proud of that fact, and she’d been proud of it.  There had never been a time when she didn’t have about ten projects going at once.

“You feel anger, don’t you?” the therapist had asked her once or twice.  “Towards the disease.  Anger about what it’s doing to you.”  He never asked if Janette had anger toward herself.  Or what she really had.  Guilt.

Guilt because she no longer worked at anything really.  She had allowed college and her parents to fall away.  She felt like a loser.

Today, though, she determined to accomplish something, even if all that meant was a couple of paragraphs about the last dream.  If all she did was explain why she’d needed to make up the world by the lake.

She tried convincing herself that sitting out among the greenery, basking in the sunlight coming through the greenhouse windows gave her the energy she needed to work.  She took up her mechanical pencil and arduously aligned its tip with the first blank line of a page she could barely make out.

Seconds later her fingers cramped and she lost her grip on the pencil.  Two sentences were evidently beyond her.  The pencil rolled and dropped to the floor.

“Here, let me,” said a male voice she knew.  The pencil was picked up and laid next to her hand splayed on the wheelchair’s tray.

Bruce.

“Doesn’t look broken, “ he said, picked it up again, clicked some fresh lead into the tip, then laid it down.

Janette didn’t move to retrieve it.  All her concentration was placed in keeping her hand from jerking spastically in front of him.

He still looked good.  Relatively.  Of course, it had only been about two and a half weeks since she’d seen him outside her door, but she suspected he’d be the type to stay almost handsome until close to the end.

“You know, if you want, you could dictate to me,” he said.  She could him discreetly reading over her shoulder.

“No.”  With her good hand, she softly closed the book.  She was terrified of what he might have read.  “Thank you, though.”

“What is it?” he asked.  “What you’re writing, I mean.”

“Personal.”

He nodded.  He’d been standing when he retrieved the pencil for her, crouching beside her chair while he talked, with his hair smelling incongruently of Physoderm, instead of shampoo or, worse, sweat from too many days of restless sleep.  Now he sagged to the white-tiled floor and sat cross-legged next to her.

“What do you write about?” he said, persisting.  “Do you write about being afraid?  Maybe letters to people that’ll, you know, live on?  Apologizing?  Wishing them well?  Or just what you’re feeling from day to day?”

“Dreams,” she said.

He glanced up very intent.  His eyes suddenly had too much concern in them, even for someone sensitized to this issue.

“What type of dreams?”

Her response was bitter, but she was proud of the honesty.  She’d never been so forthright.  She wasn’t ashamed of the bitterness.

“Things I don’t ever get to have,” she told him.

Bruce flinched.  He looked down at his knees.  In a few minutes he got up and moved to another part of the atrium without having said another word.

She was puzzled and hurt by the reaction.  It destroyed her confidence in publicly admitting her bitterness, just as swiftly as she’d mustered it up.

 

The sky was purple-white with lightning, striking again and again, split seconds apart.  It was coming her way.  Thunder cracked so loudly, it felt as if she were shut up in a room with it, as if it bounced off the ceiling of her world by the lake.  Rain refused to fall, though, and the clouds looked thin and empty.  Not even a breeze came up to brush the final leaves off the magnolia or spread the piles of them beneath it tumbling along the shore.

Janette sat against the tree’s trunk, idly tearing the mat apart tiny piece by tiny piece.  The mat had represented so much to her when this place had been alive.  Now it only made her angry.  Each leaf was surprisingly tough, stiff like water-ruined leather after it’s dried.  Almost impossible to rip.

She knew she should get away from the tree.  Besides herself it was the only object of any height for the lightning to strike.  But this was her world and she understood the lightning intimately.  She couldn’t escape it.  The disease had finally broken into her night kingdom.  This was a dream, after all.  Not reality, but an analog of it.  The lightning was going to hit her no matter where she went.  She knew exactly what it would feel like.

Like sharpened thorns in her blood, the pain pricking new wounds deep inside her where neither she nor doctors could get to them; excruciating tears in muscles and artery and bone.  Such agony could drive her mind into that surreal place where mad people lived, never precisely awake, nor living the temporary terrors the healthy dreamed while asleep.

So while she pictured herself running over the sullen landscape, the barren hills, hunting for shelter, crouching uselessly in shallow ravines, it seemed more reasonable to simply sit and wait.

The swan dove at her from behind, surprising her from a direction he’d never chosen before.  His wings raked her face as he flew around the tree, one claw ripping out a strand of her hair.  Had it been intentional?  His feathers smelled of ozone.

He stalled out his flight prior to reaching the shore, and landed as a man with his back facing her.  He was furious.  He was frustrated.

Knocked flat by his pass, Janette hadn’t gotten to her feet when he spun about.

“Who do you think you are to keep calling me here?  You know I don’t want you to.”  his words burned in her mind’s ear.

“This is my world.  I’m in control here.  And I want you to give me what no one else will or can,” she said.

“Release from your pain,” he said accusingly.  “You want me to take it away by taking your life.”

“I want you to touch me.”

“And kill you.”  Nearly hissing.

“I’m already about to die.  Why do  I have to keep saying it?  I’m about to die.  I’m ready to die!”

“But if I touch you here, you die that much quicker.”

“So?”

“It’s a choice.”

“And I’m making it.”

Suddenly her cheek stung.  It had taken this long for the slap from his feathers to register.  “. . . I wasn’t asking you to kill me.

I can’t say it.  She couldn’t.  but she wanted to.

She had to.

“I was asking you to make love to me.”

He looked at her in silent incredulity.

“So I wouldn’t have died without knowing what real love felt like,” she explained.

“When I was a little girl I’d go to church,” she went on, “waiting to hear God’s voice, looking at the stained glass and expecting to hear God whisper in my ear, desperately wishing he would speak up.  He wouldn’t have had to say much, just call my name.  But you know I don’t think he  speaks to people anymore.  Not really.  You know it in your heart, but don’t want to admit it to yourself.  You think, how powerful is this God anyway?  How real is he if he can’t even whisper, I love you, Janette, in the golden voice you imagine him having.

“That’s the way it was with the man who gave me this.  I kept thinking the act would make us lovers,  that this special intimacy was waiting for me, because that’s what the movies say happens.  But I knew it wasn’t really special, not with him or anyone else before.  I kept telling myself over and over that it could be that way if I only believed.  But I never heard the words, I love you, Janette.  I never even felt them, I love you, Janette.  Never.

That’s why I called you here.  I thought you could show me how love was supposed to feel.  Even if there’s nothing after I die.  I wanted to know there was something real about love when I was alive.”

He didn’t move.  Not a muscle in his face moved.

She felt horrible.  Rejected.  She didn’t bother to apologize as she turned away.  He could probably tell from the stunned regret she showed that she was sorry.  She walked toward the tree, to sit on the other side and forget the lake until she finally woke up.

Three steps later, a ticklish breeze lifted the hair behind her ear.  Turning for a last look, she was startled when her face met his hand, which he cupped gently about her cheek.

His eyes meowed with mistrust, not of her, she thought, but of what he did as he took her down roughly to the bank’s powdery dust, dust so fine it puffed and rippled out around her head like silk.

There was a great deal of sorrow in his passion, a great deal of love in his anger.  He made love as if this were the only pleasure he would ever be allowed, and she realized that in that way they were too alike.

Afterward Janette lay very still next to him in their world, one hand resting on her breast, feeling her speeding pulse tapping against her fingers at a dozen places just below her skin.  It felt like rain pattering inside herself.  As it slowed, the storm finally broke.  Droplets stippled the dust on their faces, and cooled their feverish bodies.

 

She woke weeping silently.  Of all the ways she had expected to fell, she never thought she would cry.  But she was awake for only the briefest of moments, just enough to taste a tear on her lips.

 

“Your hair is russet-gold,” he murmured.  “The bones beneath your face are curved and strong, as if sculpted by one who makes the finest violins . . . each line softened by the quietest of shadows.”

 

MAGIC MAN

There must have been a hundred kids in Sandra Sommerfield’s backyard, back then on her birthday; everyone from Findley Place it seemed like, and the rest from places I hadn’t even heard of.  While I was getting dressed that morning I heard Aunt Beverly saying to Uncle Jim it was a waste of good money, but I just thought it was plain and simple silly.  Sandra had turned ten, but you’d think she was the stupid Queen of England the way people were fussing over her.  It was making me sick to my stomach.  I was only ten then, too, but you didn’t see people acting like that around me.

Of course, that was then–before I learned about my hand.

The way Sandra’s mother set it up, we had to sit on those little wooden chairs that fold up when you’re done with them, and I had to sit on the end in back because of my leg that I had to keep straight sort of.  I could have adjusted the brace, I guess, but I didn’t feel like it.  Sandra was prancing around in a pink dress and a pink ribbon in her hair, and I almost couldn’t stand it she was acting so bad.  So I kept the brace tight and kept my leg out, hoping all the time she would prance by and trip over me so her mother would scold her and I could pretend how bad it hurt.

She didn’t though, so I had to be good, even though I would’ve rather have been back in my room, thinking about . . . things.

Actually, I didn’t mind sitting in back.  I could see pretty good, because the yard bunched up into a little hill there before it sloped down to the river, and all the big kids had to sit on the ground in front so the little kids didn’t have to stand up.  And way down there at the bottom was the Great and Astounding Albert, doing his tricks in a black suit that made him look like he was going to a wedding.

:Nothing up this sleeve,” he said.  “And nothing up this sleeve.”  and the next thing you know he had a little bird in his hand or a blown up balloon or flowers or miles and miles and miles of pretty ribbons and streamers.

Mrs. Sommerfield and my aunt were sitting on the ground right behind me, and after awhile I could hear Sandra’s mother whisper, “Oh, dear, do you think he’s having a good time?”

And my aunt said, “Sure he is.  Why do you say that, Nancy?”

“Well, he seems so . . . so solemn, I guess.  Damn, you don’t think anybody was teasing him, do you?  About, well, you know.”

“No, dear, he hasn’t been teased, believe me.”  and she sighed like she does when Uncle Jim tickles her in the hall.  “He’s just studying, that’s all.”

I didn’t turn around but my aunt was right.  Right the, right there in the backyard with the hundred kids and the million trees and all the cake and ice cream in the whole world sitting there on the card table, I decided I wanted to be a magician when I grew up.  I couldn’t play ball or anything because of my leg, and my mother always told me that the best person you could be was the person who was nice to other people all the time.  Well, the Great and Astounding Albert must have been a nice person, because he was making all of us laugh and clap, and he was giving out pretty things and winking at the girls, so I spent the whole time trying to see how he did it.

Nothing up this sleeve, and nothing up this sleeve.

Steven, I told myself then, you could really do that if you tried, you really could.

So the minute Aunt Beverly took me home and supper was over, I went into my room and I practiced.  I stood in front of the mirror and tried to figure out how the Great and Astounding Albert got all those birds and ribbons and things from his sleeve.  It had to be a trick, though, because there’s no such thing as magic, and when I couldn’t do it I almost cried.  I almost gave up.  But I didn’t.  when you have a leg like mine and you can’t be like other people, you don’t give up just because you want to cry.  You try and try again, just like my mother told me.  Try and try again.

So I did.

I took spoons from the kitchen and sticks from the yard, and I put them up my sleeve and tried to make them drop into my hand just like the magic man did.  It never worked.  And by the time two weeks were gone I was moping around the house and not eating and just making myself miserable.  That was silly, I know, and I should have went ot Uncle Jim right away, but I wasn’t used to him yet.

See, it was raining one night, and my mother and father and three sisters and I, we were coming home from the restaurant where we always go when something good happens at my father’s store.  Then all of a sudden there was this tree and a lot of light that hurt my eyes and a lot of darkness that hurt me, too.  And the next thing I knew I was in this funny-smelling room, and lots of people in white were standing around, and beverly and Jim were there in the corner.

Beverly was crying.  Jim wasn’t smiling.

They told me Mother and Father and Shirley and Beth and Karen had passed away in the accident.  That meant they weren’t coming back.  I knew that, and it hurt for along time.  It still does, at night, when my covers need tucking in and Aunt Beverly tries to do it, but she doesn’t do it the way my mother used to do it and . . . well, it just isn’t the same.  I know that because I  heard Uncle Jim say that one night when I was supposed to be asleep instead of going to the bathroom.

“Dammit, Bev, I feel sorry fro the boy, you know I do, and Fred was my brother, for God’s sake, so I have an obligation.  But that still doesn’t change the fact that you and I hadn’t planned on children, and suddenly we’ve got one ten years old, and a cripple at that.  I mean, it just isn’t fair.”

He really isn’t mean,  but he doesn’t understand sometimes.

So it was awhile before I told him what I told him what I wanted to do, and after he looked at me funny for a minute he grabbed me up from the floor and took me out to the car.  We went right downtown to this gigantic bookstore, and Jim picked out four or five magic books he thought I’d understand.

On the way home he said, “It’s funny, Steven, but there was a time when I wanted to be a magician, too.”

“So why didn’t you?”

He shrugged a little.  “I guess I didn’t want it badly enough.  See, when you grow up and you have to decide what it is you want to do with your life, you really have to want it badly enough or it isn’t going to work.  If you want to be a doctor, you have to raelize there’s an awful lot of school to go through–”

“Boy, I sure wouldn’t want that.”

“–and money and things like that.  Or if you want to be a teacher you have different things to learn, or a writer or a–”

“Magic man,” I said, grinning.

“Right,” he said.  “A magic man.”  then he reached over and touched my leg.  “Now you listen to me, pal–this magic stuff is hard work.  It takes a long time to get it right, and I don’t want you to give up.”

“Oh, I won’t,” I promised.  “I’m going to be the best magic man in the whole world when I grow up.”

He didn’t say anything for a while.  Then: “Why, Steven?  Why magic?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Because it’s nice.”

And it was work.  Boy, it was hard work.  Some things I couldn’t do because my fingers were too short or I didn’t have the right hidden things and I couldn’t make them or buy them because I hadn’t saved enough.  But I got pretty good with cards and the shell trick and the coin trick and things like that.  And every night I would show Beverly and Jim a new trick, and they would applaud and ask me how I did it.  I never told.  I never told them once.  You never tell a trick or it isn’t magic anymore.

But I still couldn’t get anything to come out of my sleeve.

Then it was May, and I was sitting out in back, wishing our house was on the river like Sandra’s.  I was wearing shorts because it felt good on my leg–though I still couldn’t look at it all pink and shrively  like that–and I was trying to get a pebble out of my sleeve without lowering my arm.  The kitchen window was right over my head, and it was awhile before I realized they were arguing in there.

“Well, I don’t care,” she said, like she was about to start crying.  “I just don’t care.”

“Bev, please be reasonable.”  and I could see without seeing him that he was standing with one hand on his hip and the other shoved in his hair, with this look on his face like nobody ever listens to anything he says.  “Bev, this is the chance we’ve been waiting for, and we simply cannot take Steven with us.”

“But why not?”

“Dammit, Bev, use your head!  Kuwait isn’t London, y’know.  It may have tons of money, but it isn’t the kind of place I’d want the boy to grow up in.  it’ll be at least a year, and he’s barely hanging in school as it is.  God, doesn’t he have enough problems?”

“We could get tutors.”

“Beverly.”

“We . . .”

I couldn’t hear anymore for awhile, but it didn’t matter.  The sun went cold, and the trees seemed like they were covered in ice.  I snapped my brace back on and walked out to the street.  Sandra and a few others were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk across the way, but when they called to me I didn’t answer.  I didn’t feel like it.  They only played with me because their mothers told them to.  Not all of them, some of them.  And it was hard to tell from one day to another which one it was.

So I walked for a couple blocks until I was in front of the luncheonette, looking at the pictures of the sundaes and sodas that are all white from the sun.  then this man walked out, and before I knew I grabbed his arm to stop him.  It was the Great and Astounding Albert, only he didn’t look so great and astounding without his wedding suit or moustache.

“Mr. Albert,” I said, and then I saw what I was doing so I tried a smile that felt real silly and backed away from him.

He stared down at me from about a mile up, frowning like he thought he should know me but he didn’t.  we stood there for a couple of seconds before I told him where I was from and where I saw him, and he smiled and nodded as if he’d guessed it all along.  And when I told him I was going to be a magic man when I grew up, he put a hand on my shoulder and took me inside where he lifted me onto a red counter stool, and we each had a double ice cream soda while he told me all the places he’d been and the famous people he’d known, and how all the other magic men used to come see him but now they don’t anymore.

It was the first time I noticed how old he was.

“It’s hard, Steven,” he said, suddenly sad and tired looking.  “I’ve lost the knack, it seems, to make grown-ups believe.”

“But it’s all tricks, isn’t it?”

“Sure it is.  But the real trick is to make it look like it isn’t a trick, but magic.”

I thought about that for a moment, not really understanding.  Then we talked some more, and he reached out and pulled a dollar bill from behind my ear.  I brushed a hand through my hair and laughed, before I knew it I was telling him how I couldn’t pull anything out of my sleeve because every time I let my arm down the things would fall out.  Well, he looked really serious at me for awhile, and I was afraid I’d said something to make him mad.  There were other people coming in and going out and buying the paper and smiling at me like they knew me, but I didn’t pay them any attention because just then the Great and Astounding Albert held up his arm and pulled down the cuff of his jacket and said, “What do you see up there, boy?”

I kind of leaned forward and squinted.  “Air.”

He snapped his arm straight out and I ducked, frowned, looked up the sleeve again and said, “Still air.”

Then he made a pass in front of me, slow and gentle, like a snake charming a robin.  Slow and gentle before he cupped his hand like there was something in it.  I waited, and one by one his fingers opened.  “Now what do you see?”

I didn’t know what to say.  “Air.”

“And that’s all there ever is, son.  Air.  Everything else comes from someplace else, and ther’s nothing up my sleeve but air.”  he closed his fingers again, blew on them, opened them and said, “What’s there now?”

It was getting awful silly.  “Air.”

“See?  Now you try it.”

Well, I thought he was kind of crazy being so old, but he told me again so I rubbed my hands together, made the moves as he did as best I could, and pulled air from my sleeve, making the kind of trumpet sound from my lips like they do on television when the elephant disappears.  Then Albert laughed and I laughed, and before I knew it I’d made the slow pass in front of the waitress’s face and tucked the air back in my sleeve.  She giggled at first and then started to cough, wheeze and gasp for her air back, but I was excited because I suddenly knew what Albert was saying about tricks and magic, and I thanked him politely because my mother always told me to be polite, then I slid off the stool and hurried home as fast as I could.

Sandra and the others were still playing hopscotch, and when they saw me run-hobbling like that they thought something was wrong so they ran across the street.  I told them not to worry, though, and before I could stop myself I had shown them my trick.

“Hey, that’s not magic,” Sandra mocked, twisting up her face like she’d eaten something terrible and falling to the sidewalk.

“That’s what you think,” I told her, then ran-hobbled inside and went straight to my room.  I practiced.  I practiced hard.  And after dinner that night I told Beverly and Jim I was going to put on a big show for them.

“Steven, I’m really not in the mood,” Jim said.  “I’ve had a bad day.”

“Oh, Jim,” Beverly said.  Her eyes weren’t normal; they were all red and swollen, and I knew it was because of the things I’d heard.

“Hey,” I said, “it’s all right, don’t worry.  I’m going to be such a great magic man that Uncle Jim can stay home and he can tell his boss to–”  And I snapped my fingers in the air.

I thought they would laugh.

They didn’t.

Jim only got a funny red in his face, and Beverly started to cry again.  Then Jim put his hands around my waist and pulled me in close and said, “Steven, there’s no better boy in the world than you.  And I swear, if I ever regretted having you with us I take it all back.”  I think he was going to cry, too, but he swallowed hard and didn’t.  “But, son, this is the most important part of my career right now.  If I make this move and do a good job, I’m going to be the most important man in the office.  And when your aunt and I–”

The telephone rang.  Beverly went to answer it, but Jim kept on talking.  I didn’t hear him though.  There was this noise in my head, like the sound of the ocean when you listen to a seashell.  I was trying with all my might to know what he was saying to me, but all I got was that I was going to stay at a place called Greenbriar until they came back from the Arabs and that was going to be a very long time.  I didn’t like that, and I tried to tell him my magic trick was all we ever needed, but just then Beverly came back.

“What is it, love?” Jim asked, pushing me back a little and getting up.

“That was Nancy.”  she looked at me and I looked back and all of a sudden she was on her knees and hugging me, telling me it was going to be all right, dear, and it sometimes happened, and it sure was a along time before I figured pout that Sandra and her friends had gone to where my parents and sisters had gone, that night in the rain.

Beverly thought I was going to feel bad, but I didn’t.  Sandra wasn’t a family person.  She was the little girl who lived on the other side of Findley Place, and there were a lot of little girls like that around here, so I was sorry for Sandra’s mother instead.  But I wasn’t all that sad about it.  I just said that if they didn’t want to see my new trick because of Sandra’s mother then that was all right, and Beverly said would I mind waiting a day or so, so I said no, that was okay.

The next day in school the teacher had us all be quiet for a moment for Sandra and Jennie and Eddie and Sissy and Kristy, and then the nurse came in and looked at our tongues and felt our necks and foreheads, and a couple of kids were sent home to their doctors.  I was glad I didn’t have to go home, because it was hard for me in scholl some days because I missed a lot whenever I had to go into the hospital for the operations to fix the bones and muscles in my leg.

I did all my work the best way I knew how, got a gold star for my spelling and a silver for arithmetic, and brought the papers home to show Beverly and Jim.

But there was no one in the kitchen, and no one in the backyard, so I decided to go upstairs and practice my new magic.  I was almost to my room when I heard the noise down the hall.  It sounded like laughing, but the kind of laughing you get because something hurts but not enough to cry.  I was scared.  I didn’t want anyone to  be sick, or go where Mother and Father went, so I ran down there and opened the door.

Jim and Beverly were in the bed.  Jim was on top of my aunt, and he was naked.  And she was shaking her head all over the pillow and making those laughing noises, and I didn’t know what to do so I just stood there until Beverly opened her eyes and made a squeak, like a mouse.  Jim rolled off her and pulled the sheet up to his stomach.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  he was mad, real mad.  “Explain yourself, Steven.  Why were you watching us?”

I tried to think as fast as I could, and the only thing I could think of was the magic.  So I started to talk, so fast I couldn’t understand what I was saying.  And while I was talking I went over to the bed and winked at Aunt Beverly and made a slow and gentle pass in front of Jim and tucked the air up my sleeve.

“What,” he said, “the hell was that supposed to be?”

I blinked.  “Magic.”

He looked at Beverly, but she only shrugged and tried to smile.

When he looked back at me, though, he wasn’t smiling at all.  “Steven, I don’t know what to say to you.  What you’ve done . . .”  he swallowed, and I thought he was going to cry again.  He coughed and punched his chest.  “You’ve got to learn . . . you’ve got . . .”  He frowned, then reached out and pushed me away.  I fell back against the wall he pushed me so hard, but I didn’t cry because the next thing I knew he was lying on the floor, his legs all tangled up in the sheets and his face so blue it was almost purple.

Aunt Beverly screamed.

So I screamed, too.  But when I crawled away like I was some kind of snake or something, screaming and shrieking and making my head ache.  I ran away.  I should have stayed there because I had heard the screaming before, at night, in the ran, while the fire came in the car and took my parents away.

I heard footsteps on the stairs a few minutes later.  A lot of people running in and out.  A doctor came in and checked me over, and it wasn’t until I slipped off the bed and went into the hall that I heard someone say that Uncle Jim was dead.  I don’t know what the word was, but it means you don’t have any air left in your lungs.

I looked down at my hand.  I looked up and saw Aunt Beverly in her pink bathrobe watching me.  Nancy was standing beside her, and she was watching me, too.

“I don’t want Uncle Jim Dead,” I said, feeling the tears and the bump inside my chest.

A policeman came by and another doctor, and they all started talking.  And I started thinking.  It wasn’t very hard, though, to know what the Great and Astounding Albert had taught me, and I felt so bad that I could barely see through all the crying.  I started to walk down the hall, down to Jim’s bedroom, and no one paid any attention to me.  Beverly was making little sounds, and the policeman and doctor were talking very quietly, and Mrs. DePaul was somewhere there, so no one saw me when I went into the room.

There was a stretcher on the floor.  And two doctors were kneeling by Uncle Jim’s body, looking like they were getting ready to put him on this green plastic stuff that looked like a garbage bag.  I didn’t want Jim in a garbage bag.  I didn’t want him dead.  So when the men turned around I went over there and knelt beside him and took his hand and put it next to my cheek, and I promised him I would never do magic again.  Then I took the air from my sleeve and made a slow and gentle pass in front of his face.  The doctors yelled at me.  Beverly screamed again, and suddenly everyone was jumping around and pushing me away and Jim was sitting up with a nothing look on his face.

A nothing look.  Nothing behind his eyes, and spit coming out of his mouth, and he wet himself like a baby while Beverly fell to the floor.

And there was nobody left to take care of me.

They took Aunt Beverly and Uncle Jim away in an ambulance.  Then a nice woman in a green dress said she was from the city and would see that I wouldn’t be alone anymore.

And that’s how I came to Greenbriar.

A lot of brick buildings and kids like me who have something wrong with their legs or their arms or they can’t get out of bed, teachers and classrooms and lots of television and special ways to play ball.  Every Saturday afternoon they show movies in the little theater.  Evry Saturday night and on holidays someone comes to do a show, like cowboy singers and clowns and people with animals . . . and a whole lot of magicians.

On Sunday there’s visitors.

But no one for me.  Uncle Jim is in a place like mine, only I don’t think it’s as much fun, and no one will tell me what happened to Aunt Beverly.  The kids from my old school don’t come at all, and I’ll bet that’s because their mothers won’t let them.

And maybe it’s wrong, but I don’t care.  I have my own little room and I practice every night.  And as soon as I’m good enough, I’ll go away.  I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m going to do.  See, it isn’t any fun to be the best magic man in the world if nobody wants to see you.  So I’m going to this place way down on the other side of the park.  I’m going to do slow and gentle passes.  Then Shirley and Beth and Karen and Father will come home with me, just like always before that night in the rain.

And Mother, of course, because she was always my friend.

Like Uncle Jim said–if you want it bad enough, you can do it.  And I want this very badly.  After all, who’s going to stop me?

With nothing up this sleeve, and nothing up this sleeve . . . but lots and lots of air.

ELEVATOR

It was a stifling summer outside when suddenly everything stopped.  The faces of the little girl and her father went pale; maybe the father was even more terrified than the little girl.  She wasn’t able to recognize real fear, nor was she aware of the danger of the situation.  She only felt that her father’s grip had suddenly become tighter, and this caused her face to turn white as a sheet.  As for the others: the tall fellow—destined always to experience life from so presumptuous height—was wobbling to such a degree that he had to lean on the inside wall with his elbow.  Actually, he wasn’t so much leaning as bumping against the wooden surface of the wall, taking advantage of its proximity to avoid collapsing on the floor.  The elderly couple were huddling together quietly and moving gradually into the corner, as if trying to conceal themselves.  The remaining four—the soldier, the man with the beard, the woman in red, and the man in the suit—were dispersed in all directions; one fell down, the other hit his forehead on the edge of the panel with the buttons, the third tumbled onto the floor, and the fourth pulled at the tall man’s sleeve and stumbled forward.

Out of all of them, the woman in red, with the pierced navel, responded to the event the loudest, letting out an inarticulate sound followed by a salvo of curses, but nobody objected—as they might have under different circumstances.  The man with the beard, who knew precisely what was happening, continued to lie soberly on the ridged, rubber floor, caressing the hairs of his beard with his fingers.  The gentleman in the suit—a striped jacket and trousers of indeterminate color—quickly stood up again and looked at his expensive watch, demonstrating to everyone that he was in a terrible hurry to get somewhere.  The soldier was the only one with his fleshy hands on his forehead, in noticeable pain, although he had on no way admitted defeat.  After the first wave of shock had passed, the father concluded that the elevator was indeed stuck.  The rest of them neither confirmed nor rejected this conclusion.  It seemed too soon for them to replace their usual formal head-nodding on stepping into the elevator or stingy salutations when exiting with alarm, sympathy, and unity in a common cause.  But it wasn’t long before it seemed that everybody, except the two silent old people, had accepted the reality that they would have to communicate and work together.

The man with the beard suggested pressing the emergency button, but, as was the case with all the other elevators in town, nobody believed that it would actually work, despite what the law required.  Maybe one of them even put his thumb on that big round circle, without the least hope that this would lead to an observable result.  Wanting to determine the height at which they were stuck—as if that would solve the problem—they tried to guess the floor they were on.  At first, the digital readout only showed two eights, indicating that the power supply had been interrupted, throwing off its calculation.  The soldier smacked the number display and then rapped on it with his knuckles; perhaps as the expression of some naïve thirst for vengeance on his part?  However, not only did the screen still refuse to display their vertical location, it now lost even those few flickers of life it retained.  The passengers began a verbal inquiry, the last person who’d come in, the tall fellow, who was sitting at the rear of the car –he’d gone in the back, since his destination was the top floor—confirmed that he’d entered the elevator on the tenth floor.  Now they were asking each other on which floor they’d joined the party, and where each had planned to exit the elevator, and concluded finally that they must be somewhere between the tenth floor and the fourteenth—the destination of the father and his little girl.

The father, a doctor, holding the little fingers of his daughter tightly, went up to the soldier after a while and looked at his bruised forehead in the dim elevator light.  The doctor examined the head of the man in uniform, and told the soldier that his injury couldn’t be treated in these conditions, and all they could do was try to make him comfortable.  They looked for a hard object to bandage against the soldier’s bump, which looked like a small horn growing on a newborn calf.  Not having too many other options, the doctor’s daughter pointed to the soldier’s belt where a gun hung in a white holster that would have been more or less level with her head.  The soldier reached for his gun slowly and bashfully, checked the safety, and put the handle on his forehead.  The sudden coldness surprised him and he dropped the weapon.  It bounced off the door and fell on the floor.  Some of the passengers looked at each other silently—keeping their fears to themselves.  The woman in red was the first to reach for the gun.  But rather than give it back to the frightened and clumsy soldier, she went up to him and pressed the handle to his reddened skin herself.  Yet, it didn’t bring him relief; on the contrary, now he was embarrassed as well as in pain.

 The old lady whispered something to her husband and he kneeled on the floor and started poking around the man with the beard (who, meanwhile, had informed the others that he was a painter); soon the old man was squeezing carefully through the other people’s legs.  The old lady explained that the sudden stop had caused her glasses to fall off, and she’d only just realized that they were missing.  Some of the other passengers kneeled then too, wanting to help the old man, who was still on his knees, impressing the younger people with his endurance and persistence.  The number of people in the car blocked a lot of the light from the weak fluorescents, their silhouettes casting numerous shadows—the deep darkness on the floor making their joint quest more difficult.  The man in the striped suit–a stuffed shirt, really—didn’t pitch in with the search, but instead started calling for help.  He started yelling various names, as if he knew important building personnel who were in charge of keeping the place running day to day.

No matter the volume, it was all in vain.  the building’s elevators had only recently been installed and they were, as it was said, absolutely cutting edge.  they had thick walls and solid insulation, which kept their movements perfectly quiet–an utter joy.  nothing like those rickety, terrifying, ancient elevators you find in older buildings, their decrepit mechanisms straining to pull vibrating cords tied to old tin cans up musty tunnels.  No, these new models moved quickly and silently, and always stopped with the utmost gentleness.  They gave the passengers a feeling of trust and security.

But everyone present had no choice but to accept the fact that the system wasn’t working properly–perhaps a flaw in the installation process?  Soon enough, when he noticed that his yells were useless, the man in the suit started to slam his open palms violently against the metal doors–something of a shock for everyone else.  when he figured out that even this wasn’t loud enough, he lifted his briefcase and started to smack it against the silvery, mirrored surface.  The echoes from this latest assault bounced all over the elevator car, occupying every plane and angle, and inciting even more unrest among his fellow passengers.

Suddenly the tall fellow grabbed the stuffed shirt’s hands.  Having gotten his attention, the giant then pointed toward the little girl who was covering her ears with her hands and looking at both with confusion.  Her father tried to convince the panicky man to apologize to the girl for the scene he was making. but he refused, explaining that what he was doing was for the collective welfare and common interests of all the stranded passengers.  The doctor didn’t give up, however, but continued dignified persistence until their juvenile bickering turned into a heated argument.  This was the first actual fight of their ordeal, and it put everyone even more on edge.

Moments later, when he realized that he’d already missed his meeting, the man in the suit removed his jacket, holding it in one hand while clutching his briefcase in the other, as though there was something strictly confidential in it.  The other passengers began to notice that the temperature, which should have been regulated by the ventilation system, was now increasing in waves, each even more unbearable than the last; they had to do something about that.  Most of the men removed some layer of thri clothes, and loosened their ties if they had one–or if they didn’t, like the painter, they rolled up their pants.  the old lady pulled out an old magazine and begin fanning it in front of her face, turning to her husband’s from time to time, letting her husband work it when she got tired of waving it.  Everyone else was wiping their dewy with everything within reach–their sleeves or facial tissues that they had been keeping in their pockets, thinking that they would never have to use them–everyone, that is, except for the soldier and the woman in red, who were chatting incessantly on various subjects.  At that particular moment, the soldier was explaining to the girl how his gun worked, how to switch the safety on and off, how to aim and shoot–things that he shouldn’t be talking about so nonchalantly in other circumstances.  The father interrupted them, saying that it would be appropriate to try, for a change, to keep quiet and listen, in case anything was happening outside–whether the elevator next to their was moving, for example, or whether they might be able to hear any workers trying to fix whatever malfunction had stranded them all there.  They should be trying to hear any updates and instructions that rescue teams would surely be calling out, discussing their prognosis and planning the best possible way to get them out of there.

Except for the rumblings of their bodies, however, there still wasn’t a sound to be heard.  By now the old man had already stated his hypothesis that the tall fellow was the culprit.  Despite everyone’s reasonable rejoinders, the old man blamed the tall fellow and his capricious decision to force himself upon the collective in the elevator for stranding them in this situation; the elevator must have had a weight limit, and the tall fellow must have caused an overload.  On account of his being the cause of all their troubles, the old man then asked that the tall fellow–who had revealed that he was a historian–tell everyone some stories, which would put their own unfortunate situation in the proper perspective.  So the tall man told them their time in the elevator was historically insignificant and spoke about the old legends, for instance when the galleys of the Githiesh navy got lost at sea and couldn’t take part in an important battle, thus not providing sea support to their infantry.  Later, however, when the sailors worked together, and all the captains coordinated their movements, they surprised the enemy from behind, and thus defeated them utterly.  The tall fellow would have certainly continued to dig through these musty catacombs if the well-dressed gentleman, who been grinding his teeth all the while, hadn’t suddenly–after ferociously mashing his phone’s key pad—put his phone to his ear.  Not a word was spoken, until this small cause for hope was extinguished as well: there was no signal.

It would have been one thing had the tenants of the building simply not cared not cared about the passengers trapped in the elevator—that wouldn’t have concerned them quite so much—but the fact that there had been no sign of life, that not a single sound had penetrated the car, and that the passengers had been unable to get a single message through . . . this seemed to threaten their assumptions and beliefs about the state of the world they’d recently left.  Time was passing, and soon the woman in red, who was sitting on the floor with her back against the wall and her hands wrapped around her knees, declared quite loudly that she was about to faint from hunger.  The soldier had leaned his head on her and was already dozing off.  Swallowing his self-importance, the well-dressed man addressed the group as a whole, concluding that the day must now be over, it was probably night outside.  The passengers had long since begun licking their dry lips, hoping to relieve their increasing thirst, and it was then that the artist pulled a small water bottle out of his bag, and, after taking the first sip, passed it on to the others.  When he was first offered a sip from the bottle, the man in the suit politely—albeit with a grimace—declined; a little later he was quick to grab the bottle and fiercely drink down what was left.  The water seemed to calm the passengers, and now they all lay down on the floor—inasmuch as this was possible—which had seemed wide enough at first, but now felt much smaller.  Except for the soldier, who would occasionally wake up to keep an eye on his fellow prisoners, and the little girl, who kept complaining to her father—even though he was doing his best to placate her by telling her stories, patiently and quietly—the others soon fell asleep.

The snoring and the deep sighs that became from the passengers on the floor mixed with other bodily sounds, until the entire group sounded like a small joyful band.  Some of them bumped their heads together accidently, or pushed aside their neighbor’s belongings, but overall there was no hostility, no angry shoves.  This temporary respite didn’t last long, however.  Their peaceful dreams were interrupted by a jarring bang.  Almost everyone jumped to their feet, save for the artist and the man in the suit, who—as if stuck to each other—didn’t’ budge.  With messy hair and bleary eyes, they rose their sight toward the light of the elevator’s ceiling; this time they looked at each other not with suspicion, but terror.  Now several of them mentioned that they had to answer the call of nature.  For a while they were wondering just what to do about it, until the tall historian came up with the idea to use the empty water bottle while the rest closed their eyes or turned their backs.  Then they all fell asleep for the second time.

There were no outbursts of desperation come morning, only the gurgling noises of their empty stomachs, like abandoned kittens mewling on someone’s porch, permeating the car.  Their shared vulnerability had turned into a mutual compassion and softened their hearts.  The woman in red went on and on about some recent events in her neighborhood.  Reminiscing remorsefully about her lack of compassion for a stray dog that had been playing in front of her building, she promised she would mend her ways once they got their lives back.  Now they all started to evoke similar poignant memories from their lives, as if standing in front of some invisible adjudicator who would soon make a final decision about their destinies and allow only a few to go back to address their errors.  Through these recollections they felt they were somehow guaranteeing their futures, giving evidence of their own worth—or their pretentions to superiority.  After the soldier explained what had brought him to the building the previous day, his companions concluded that he shouldn’t have been there in the first place—he’d gotten the wrong address.  But squeezed between the bodies of the father and the woman in red, who every so often was taking out a book and pretending to read attentively, the soldier didn’t regret his mistake for a minute.  The businessman, on the other hand, suddenly turned toward the old man and his wife, saying that he’d never liked old people and almost never let them cross the street, when he was driving—he’d zoom right into the crosswalk and cut them off.

After they’d all purged their souls, they went silent again.  The painter dozed off, snoring loudly.  When they began to stir again, they noticed that the heat coming from the ventilation system had been replaced with cool air.  It was blowing steadily from above and now everyone started to put their clothes back on and lie closer to each other.  Some of them switched their seats, depending on their ability to tolerate the chill.  Some time later, you could hear a sort of chewing sound coming from one of the elevator’s corners, shortly followed by a loud smacking of lips.  Those who were closer to the old man and woman could see for themselves, and those who were farther away could simply sense that they were chewing candies without sharing.  The woman in red crawled closer to them and begged for some.  At first the old woman held tightly to her bag and wouldn’t give in.  she relented soon enough and opened the bag to give the woman a single piece of nicely wrapped candy.  This only served to reaffirm dislike of the old couple, especially given the way the doctor’s young daughter was staring with watery eyes at the woman eagerly munching her prize.

A new ray of hope emerged when the elevator restarted, moving down one floor.  And yet, they were all certain that—if, for some reason, the elevator resumed its travels—it should go up, not down.  Still, this development reassured them that their ordeal—which had lasted more than twenty-four hours—was nearing its end.  The well-dressed businessman and the tall historian jumped to their feet and again started to yell out to their invisible saviors and bang uselessly on the doors with the soles of their shoes.  This time no one complained.  This supposed glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel made them increasingly impatient.  For a while now, the painter had been scribbling caricatures of the various passengers on the smooth walls of the car, using a pencil he’d taken out of his pocket.   He claimed to be an artist, but, in fact, his drawings seemed more like imperfections being introduced onto the surface of the hitherto spotless elevator, which, until then, had been shining like a crown jewel.  But such purity was lost on the car’s current inhabitants, who were staring at the painter without complaining or criticizing his sketch.  The painter was scrawling from the floor to the ceiling, slowly turning their dungeon into a sort of scribbled whirlwind that they all felt they were being drawn into as time went by.  To them it seemed that these lines were the only thing expressing their situation—cold, hungry, thirsty, tired—forced to contend with all the fallacies that their current ambiguous state brought into relief.  It was because of this that the painter—who hadn’t said a word since beginning his drawing—became an object of renewed suspicion, since the passengers would have dearly liked to find someone to blame for their predicament.  Spitefully, though with curiosity as well, they began to question the bearded man.  The old woman accused him of stealing her misplaced glasses when she’d been unable to find them on the floor.  The historian, who’d previously blamed everything on the inevitability of history questioned the painter’s decision to keep the water bottle a secret for so long.  The old man concluded that only the painter seemed as though he’d been fully prepared for this incident.  The soldier, the woman in red, and the father and daughter all refused to take part in this new trial, only mumbling quietly on occasion, as if trying to douse this fire.  It was the father who eventually succeeded in calming everyone down and saying that it was useless to worry about who was responsible for the accident, and how it would make more sense to do so afterward, when they got out.  They realized he’d said “when” instead of “if.”  This was somehow the final blow.  Exhausted, they all gave up on the idea of being rescued.  The soldier and the woman in red were hugging each other; he was playing with her belly-button ring while she was tracing the tattoo on his left forearm.  The little girl finally calmed down and sat in her father’s lap, while the painter gave up on his drawings and dropped his blunt pencil onto somebody’s shoe, without checking whose.

The old man was exhaling into his wife’s hands to warm them up—the least he could do.  Although it was cold in then car, the man in the suit had already begun to make himself a bit too comfortable; he’d dropped his suit jacket onto the floor, loosened his tie, unbuckled his belt, and even taken off his expensive watch that he’d been staring at so often in the dusky elevator light.  Almost half naked, he then leaned back, stretched out across the elevator’s door like a gatekeeper.  They were all petrified, just waiting for this performance to end and the curtain to fall.

The following morning, the elevator finally moved up.  As if some mysterious crown wheel had finally loosened, the elevator car cut silently through a thick layer of air.  At first, the passengers who were awake—or were only half-sleeping—thought that they were imagining things, that they were hallucinating, and this meant they were on their last legs.  Soon enough they realized that they were actually moving, but they couldn’t decide if the elevator was simply moving up to the next floor, where they were initially supposed to stop, or of it was headed for the very top of the skyscraper, or perhaps it was about to drop down into an eternal abyss.  Regardless of what was happening—as the elevator rapidly accelerated—no one had any intention of detaching themselves from one another; their bodies were more or less glued to each together.  Likewise, they had no intention of preparing themselves to make their long-awaited reentry into the civilized world with dignity.  All they did was sit still, with no expectations at all, just sitting quietly and breathing heavily.

They only moved when the doors opened in front of them, but only to close their eyes, or cover them with whatever was at hand.  An emergency team jumped in, making sure everyone was okay.  The passengers clung to the elevator’s walls as if caught on fish hooks and grabbed onto each other’s arms, making it difficult for the emergency team to coax them out onto stretchers.  Even as they were exiting one by one, the paramedics couldn’t help but notice that the members of the now disbanded group were all trying to reach out to each other, perhaps waving weakly, as though to hoping to schedule their next meeting as they passed each other in the hallway.  Indeed, the presence of all these newcomers evoked a look of fear, uncertainty, and suspicion in the passenger’s eyes, as if the emergency crew had been sent with the express purpose of separating their little band from whatever invisible and mysterious feeling that their captivity had created, and which was now being taken away from them.

When there was no one left in the elevator, and the ambulance sirens could no longer be heard, a lady with various soaps and detergents, a rag, a scrub brush, and a bucket full of water walked into the empty car.  With her wet rag, she wiped away the thick, full lines of the drawings that covered the interior of the elevator.  Scrubbing away the painter, the soldier, the woman in the red dress, the doctor and his daughter, the historian, the old man and his wife, and, lastly, the man in the suit.

 

SWITCH

Loriana had been living in the big house and hating the tall pine trees around it for what seemed like an eternity when she discovered the secret panel in the master control console of the house.

The secret panel was simply a narrow blank of aluminum–she’d thought of it as room for more switches if they ever needed any, perish the thought!–between the air-conditioning controls and the gravity controls.  Above the switches for the three dimensional TV, but below those for the robot butler and maids.

Peter had told her not to fool with the master panel while he was in the city, because she would wreck anything electrical, so when the secret panel came loose under her aimlessly questing fingers and fell to the solid rock floor of the patio with a musical twing her first reaction was fear.

Then she saw it was only a small blank oblong of sheet metal that had fallen and that the space it had covered was a column of six little switches.  Only the top one was identified.  Tiny glowing letters beside it spelled TREESand it was on.

 

When Peter got home from the city that evening she garnered her courage and told him about it.  He was neither particularly angry nor impressed.

“Of course there’s a switch for the trees,” he informed her deflatingly, motioning the robot butler to cut his steak.  “Didn’t you know they were radio trees?  I didn’t want to wait twenty-five years for them and they couldn’t grow in this rock anyway.  A station in the city broadcasts a master pine tree and sets like ours pick it up and project it around homes.  It’s vulgar but convenient.”

After a bit she asked timidly, “Peter, are the radio pine trees ghostly as you drive through them?”

“Of course not!  They’re as solid as this house and the rock under it–to the eye and the touch too.  A person could even climb them.  If you ever stirred outside you’d know theses things.  The city station transmits pulses of alternating matter at sixty cycles a second.  The science of it is over your head.”

She ventured one more question.  “Why did they have the tree switch covered up?”

“So you wouldn’t monkey with it–same as the fine tuning controls on the TV.  And so you wouldn’t get ideas and start changing the trees.  It would unsettle me, let me tell you, to come home to oaks one day and birches the next.  I like consistency and I like pines.”  he looked at them out of the dining room picture window and grunted with satisfaction.

She had been meaning to tell him about hating the pines, but that discouraged her and she dropped the subject.

About noon the next day, however, she went to the secret panel and switched off the pine trees and quickly turned around to watch them.

At first nothing happened and she was beginning to think that Peter was wrong again, as he so often was though would never admit, but when they began to waver and specks of pale green light churned across them and then they faded and were gone, leaving behind only an intolerably bright single point of light–just as when the TV is switched off.  The star hovered motionless for what seemed like a long time, then backed away and raced off toward the horizon.

Now that the pine trees were out of the way Loriana could see the real landscape.  It was flat gray rock, miles of it, exactly the same as the rock on which the house was set and which formed the floor of the  patio.  It was the same in every direction.  One black two-lane road drove straight across it nothing more.

She disliked the view almost at once–it was dreadfully lonely and depressing.  She switched the gravity to moon normal and danced about dreamily, floating over the middle-of-the-room bookshelves and the grand piano and even having the robot maids dance with her, but it did not cheer her.  About two o’clock she went to switch on the pine trees again, as she intended to do in any case before Peter came home and was furious.

However, she found there had been changes in the column of six little switches.  The  TREES switch no longer had its glowing name.  she remembered that it had been the top one, but the top one would not turn on again.  She tried to force it from off to on but it would not move.

All the rest of the afternoon, she sat on the steps outside the front door watching the two-lane road.  Never a person or a car came into view until Peter’s tan roverappeared, seeming at first to be motionless in the distance and then move only like a microscopic snail although she knew he always drove at top speed–it was one of the reasons she would never ride with him.

 

Peter was not as furious as she a had feared.  “Your own damn fault for meddling with it,” he said curtly.  “Now we’ll have to get a man out here.  Damnit, I hate to eat supper looking at nothing but those rocks!  Bad enough driving through them twice a day.”

She asked him haltingly about the bareness of the landscape and the absence of neighbors.

“Well, you wanted to live way out,” he told her.  “You wouldn’t ever have known about it if you hadn’t turned off the trees.”

“There’s one other thing I’ve got to bother you with, Peter,” she said.  “Now the second switch–the one next one below–has got a name that glows.  It just says HOUSE.  It’s turned on–I haven’t touched it!  Do you suppose . . . ?”

“I want to look at this,” he said, bounding up from the touch and slamming his martini-on-the-rocks down on the tray of the robot maid so hard he made her rattle.  “I bought this house as solid, but there are swindles.  Ordinarily I’d spot a broadcast style in a flash, but they just might have slipped me a job relayed from some other planet or solar system.  Fine thing if me and fifty other multi-megabuck men were spotted around in identical houses, each thinking his was unique.”

“But if the house is based on rock like it is . . . ?”

“That would just make it easier to pull the trick, you dumb bunny.”

They reached the master control panel.  “There it is,” she said helpfully, jabbing out a finger . . . and hit the HOUSE switch.

For a moment nothing happened, then a white churning ran across the ceiling, the walls and furniture started to swell and bubble, and then they were alone on a rock table as b ig as three tennis courts.  Even the master control panel was gone.  The only thing that was left was a slender rod coming out of the gray stone at their feet and bearing at the top, like some mechanical fruit, a small block with the six switches–that and an intolerably bright star hanging in the air where the master bedroom had been.

Loriana pushed frantically at the HOUSE switch, but it was unlabeled now and locked in the off position although she threw her weight at it stiff-armed.

The upstairs star sped off like an incendiary bullet, but its last flashbulb glare showed her Peter’s face set in lines of fury.  He lifted his hands like talons.

“You little idiot!” he screamed, coming at her.

“No, Peter, no!” she wailed, backing off, but he kept coming.

She realized that the block of switches had broken off in her hands.  The third switch had a glowing name now: PETER.  She flipped it.

As his fingers dug into her bare shoulders they seemed to turn to foam rubber, then air.  His face and gray flannel suit seethed iridescently, like a leprous ghost’s, then melted and ran.  His star, smaller than that of the house but much closer, seared her eyes.  When she opened them again there was nothing at all left of the star or Peter but a dancing dark after-image like a black tennis ball.

 

She was alone on an infinite flat black rock plain under the cloudless, star-specked sky.

The fourth switch had its glowing name now: STARS.

It was almost dawn by her radium-dialed wristwatch and she was thoroughly chilled, when she finally decided to switch off the stars.  She did not want to do it–in their slow wheeling across the sky they were the last sign of orderly reality–but it seemed the only move she could make.

She wondered what the fifth switch would say.  ROCKS?  AIR?  Or even . . . ?

She switched off the stars.

The Milky Way, arching in its unalterable glory, began to churn, its components darting about like midges.  Soon only one remained, brighter even than Sirius or Venus–until it jerked back, fading, and darting to infinity.

The fifth switch said DOCTOR and it was not on but off.

An inexplicable horror welled up in Loriana.  She did not even want to touch the fifth switch.  She set the block of switches down on the rock and backed away from it.

But she dared not go far in the starless dark.  She huddled down and waited for the dawn.  From time to time she looked at her wrist and at the night-light glow of the switch-label a dozen yards away.

It seemed to be growing much colder.

She read her wrist dial.  It was two hours past sunrise.  She remembered they had taught her in third grade that the sun was just one more star.

She went back and sat down beside the block of switches.  Loriana picked it up with a shudder and flipped the fifth switch.

The rock grew soft and crisply fragrant under her.  It lapped up over her legs and then slowly turned white.

She was sitting in a hospital bed in a small blue room with a white pinstripe.

A sweet mechanical voice came out of the wall, saying, “You have interrupted the wish-fulfillment therapy by your own decision.  If you now recognize your sick depression and are willing to accept help, the doctor will come to you.  If not, you are at liberty to return to the wish-fulfillment therapy and pursue it ti its ultimate conclusion.”

Loriana looked down.  She still held the block of switches in her hands and the fifth switch still read DOCTOR.

The wall said, “I assume from your silence that you will accept treatment.  The doctor will be with you immediately.”

The inexplicable terror returned to Loriana with compulsive intensity.

She switched off the doctor.

She was back in the starless dark.  The rocks had grown much colder.  She could feel icy feathers falling on her face–snow.

She lifted the block of switches and saw, to her unutterable relief that the sixth switch now read, in tiny glowing letters: LORIANA

 

 

 

RIFT

Miranda discovered there was something in the apartment.

It was behind the TV set in the corner of the living room.  But later in the evening when she phoned Grant, who had left on a business trip a few days earlier, she made no mention of her discovery.  Why make him worry?  He had other things to worry about out there in the distant metropolis.  Or maybe he didn’t?  Doubt started gnawing at her: only the other night she’d dreamed of her husband in bars and the things he was getting up to with sluts; though they might go by a different, fancier name in those parts—Miranda couldn’t remember the exact word—she was quite sure they were just sluts, engaging in slutty practices.

After the routine call was over she sat in the kitchen until late at night, and as the light of a small lamp illuminated her hands and fingers, and long shadows crept along the floor and opposite wall, Miranda wondered why this had to happen to her, of all people.  Actually, not just to her, to Grant as well—but Grant didn’t have an inkling of it.  Or did he?  Was he lying in a hotel bed somewhere with an inkling?  Was he on the twentieth or thirtieth floor of a skyscraper, in the middle of negotiations, with an inkling?

Miranda had grown up in a family where nothing ever appeared behind the TV set.  Her parents had never mentioned such a possibility to her, though they were happy to discuss in her presence the petty scandals involving their neighbors or people at work.  But perhaps they had it in their bedroom too.  Their daughter had never been allowed to go in there.  Could it have been in their bedroom?  Did they take it along when they went on vacation?  One of those trips they used to go on, leaving their daughter with her relatives in the countryside?

She went to the hallway and called a friend, for she felt the need to discuss this unexpected problem with somebody.  A few sentences into the conversation she replied, baffled, “You mean I should go and see a psychiatrist?”

“Of course.  You’ve got to.  What if you’re just imagining it all?”

“You mean hallucinating?  You really think I’m hallucinating?”

“But what if it isn’t there at all?    From what you’re saying, it’s almost the size of a wardrobe closet . . . Could something like that even fit behind the TV set?”

“Candra, believe me, it’s there!”

“I doubt it.  Look, you know Dr. Acker . . . “

“The one with the beard?”

“No, the one who goes to Britt’s”

“Where does he sit?”

“Right at the back, underneath the speakers.”

“I don’t know him at all.”

“Well then you know the other one, what’s his name . . . help me out . . . “

“You mean Dr. Frechette?”

“Exactly.”

“But he’s not a psychiatrist, he’s a psychologist.”

“All right, all right, a psychologist might do for starters . . . “

“What do you mean, for starters?  It’s as big as a wardrobe and you’re calling this starters?”

“I’ve already told you there’s no way it could be as big as a wardrobe.  Just calm down.  I’m sure it’s much, much smaller.”

“So how big do you think it is?”

“Let’s agree it’s the size of a matchbox, at most.  It’s absolutely tiny.”

“Listen . . .  How about you come and take a look?”

“That’s out of the question.  I can’t.”

“Why?  Look, come over!  Please help me.”

“But how?  What’s this got to do with me?  And anyway, I’m in a complicated situation.”

“I don’t understand.”

“ . . . “

“What is it?  Can’t you talk?”

“Uhm.”

“All of a sudden you can’t talk when I need you to do me a favor.  Can’t you even whisper?”

“I can do that.  But what am I supposed to whisper?  You’d better go and check again . . . “

“But I’ve been watching it the whole time.  Actually . . . not the whole time, just now I was looking out the window . . . at the door to the hair salon . . . you know where I mean . . . “

“Of course, I do.  At the door.  So what’s there?”

“There . . . “

“C’mon, what is it?”

“Nothing!  Nothing at all!  Don’t you understand?  It’s not there.  It’s only here, behind the TV.  Why don’t I imagine it’s out there, too, if I’m only imagining it?  Let me tell you why: because it just isn’t out there, only here.  And you were lying.”

“How was I lying?”

“When you said you could only whisper.  Just now you were so curious about what was there by the door to the hair salon that you started shouting.  Out of curiosity.  And the only reason you found it so fascinating was because you go to that salon yourself.  So the only time you’re willing to listen to me, without accusing me of being crazy, is when it involves you too?”

The phone call ended on a rather uneasy note.

Miranda sat down at the kitchen table, picked up a mirror, and examined the pale skin of her pale face.  It shone in the kitchen night.  The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the corners of the mouth.  Thoughtfully, Miranda went on to examine her shoulders, chest, and legs.  It would have been almost impossible to distinguish the whole from others of this kind.  Or perhaps sometimes, thanks to one’s clothes, the ways in which the clothes were discarded, a body’s particular way of being naked.  The way of being naked?  Yes: see yourself for who you are!  Step in front of the mirror, get to know yourself from the outside, but intimately!  Let the inside follow.  Follow the inside!

Miranda stood up, then sat down again.

 

Grant came home a few days later, left his bags in the hall, took off his shoes, went to the bathroom, took a shower, and, after thoroughly drying himself with a thick bath towel, headed for the living room.  She was waiting for him there.  Thinking of the sluts and the bars.  And also of herself, her role.  Was she supposed to float up into the sky now, all dreamy-eyed and happy?  Or should she let barbiturates, medication, or a psychiatrist take care of everything?  She stepped back a little to let Grant pass.  He sat down in the armchair and switched on the TV with the remote.  The flickering light carved objects out of the dark.

That’s when Grant noticed it.

It was moving slowly, sinister and inevitable.  Grant didn’t say anything.  His face looked like a mask stretched on a rack of bone.   Only when his wife whispered hysterically to him did he respond, commenting that, in his view, it made the living room even cozier than before, covering himself with his statement as though it were a precious tapestry. 

Miranda ran out of the apartment and called Candra on her cellphone.  She was panting:

“I know everything!”

“What do you know?”

“It’s turned up at your place too!  That’s why you can’t talk!  It’s watching you!  It’s listening to you!  It’s growing!”

“ . . . “

“Don’t you have anything to say to that?”

“I told you I can’t talk.”

 “Well, whisper then.”

“Yes, it turned up here, too.  But that was a long time ago.  It’s stopped growing now, although, I admit, it’s not getting any smaller either.  We’ve gotten used to it.  As it is.  Look, I know how you feel, it’s not easy to come to terms with the new situation at first . . .  But is it really new?  Okay, I know you never counted on this.  You didn’t expect . . . didn’t visualize it quite like this.  What woman would expect such a thing?  I was hoping it wouldn’t happen to you—to you and Grant.  Last time you called, I thought you might be exaggerating a little.  Because in our place it didn’t grow quite so fast!  Peter and I had been together for six years by the time we first noticed it!  But times have changed, life is moving faster . . . I know I’m probably not putting it well, but then the fact is, the world’s gotten faster, so that you and Grant . . .  Even though you’ve only been together for two years—it’s been two years, hasn’t it?  Or three?  Anyway, for some reason it’s happening faster.  Oh dear, I guess I am just behind the times.”

“Candra, I love you, you’re my only friend.  But why did you have to keep this secret from me, of all things?”

“I’m telling you: I was hoping it wouldn’t happen to you.!”

“And what about your parents?  At home, when you were growing up . . .  Did they have a problem too?  You know what I mean.”

“Of course.  Nearly every family in our building had it.  I remember the Jacobsons, they had to move because of it: it simply pushed them out of their apartment.  One morning it was overflowing into the hallway.  Can you imagine how delicate the situation was?  Bursting out of your door?  And you and your children have to sleep on the stairs because you have nowhere else to go?  Well, my parents took their children in for a few days, they stayed in my room, but I didn’t like them.  It eventually turned out to be for the best.  It followed them everywhere; in the end they were staying in a place in Coon Rapids, but one night, after it caused a scandal by swelling up, making the whole place burst, they took a radical step; moving to another state.  Now they have a wonderful life.  She’s living in the Dakotas with the kids and he’s somewhere in Boston.  They split up as soon as they left the state.  Don’t you get it?  It was a question of life or death.  But actually, in cases like this, it’s always a question of life or death.”

“But why did my mom never even hint at it?”

“That’s what women are like: though we can see—right from the beginning, actually—how things happen and how they’re going to end, inevitably we keep hoping . . . and making the same mistakes.  We just don’t learn our lesson.  Typically.  Not even seeing the way that our own parents have ended up prevents us from letting the same thing happen to us and our children.  From their earliest days, we push them toward doing the same thing to their kids when the time comes.  It’s like some compulsion, can’t you feel it?”

“Candra!  I thought I was going round the bend!”

“That’s right.  You are going round the bend, but nobody will notice you’re mad.  It’s a collective madness.  You’re no different from anyone else.  How can you diagnose madness if everyone is mad?”

Miranda had no idea.

She could see it was watching her intently from behind the set.  Or rather, not from behind but from underneath the TV, which by now was floating on top of it, swaying from side to side like a swimmer on an air-mattress.

Miranda stood on the balcony.

She leaned against the stove.

She even dreamed of going for a hike in the genuine, unadulterated countryside.

And wherever she happened to be, she wondered what it was that she and Grant actually wanted from one another.  Wherever she might be she also wondered how she could get into the closet where she kept her large suitcase from before she was married, because by now the thing was cluttering up the whole room, blocking the way to the closet.  And when it got especially bad, between the thirteenth and fourteenth cup of coffee, between a wistful stare from the balcony down to the street and at the high-rise opposite—into the windows of prison cells similar to her own—between calm resignation and quiet horror, in addition to other more important and essential things, Miranda thought that you need a partner to close the clasp on your necklace, and that you need a necklace to find a partner. 

Ladies In Waiting

Halper, the village real estate man said with a squint, “You’re the same people that looked at that place back in April, aren’t you?  Sure you are.  The ones that got caught in that freak snowstorm and spent the night there.  Mr. and Mrs. Sommerfield, isn’t it?”

“Sommerfeld,” Norman corrected, frowning at a photograph on the wall of the old man’s dingy office, a yellowed, fly-spotted picture of the house itself, in all its decay and drabness.

“And you want to look at it again?”

“Yes!” Linda exclaimed.

Both men looked at her sharply because of her vehemence.  Norman, her husband, was alarmed a new at the eagerness that suddenly flamed in her lovely brown eyes and as suddenly was replaced by a look of guilt.  Yes–unmistakably a look of guilt.

“I mean,” she stammered, “we will want a big old house that we can do over, Mr. Halper.  We’ve never stopped looking.  And we keep thinking the Creighton place just might do.”

You keep thinking it might do, Norman silently corrected.  He himself had intensely disliked the place when Halper showed it to them four months ago.  The sharp edge of his abhorrence was not even blunted and time would never dull his remembrance of that shocking expression on Linda’s face.  When they stepped through that hundred-seventy-year-old doorway again, he would hate and fear the house as much as before, he was certain.

Would he again see that look on his wife’s face?  God forbid!

“Well,” Halper said, “there’s no need for me to go along with you this time, I guess.  I’ll just ask you to return the key when you’re through, same as you did before.”

Norman accepted the key tag from him and walked unhappily out of the car.

 It was four miles from the town to the house.  One mile of narrow blacktop, three of a dirt road that seemed forlorn and forgotten even in this neglected part of the state.  At three in the afternoon of an awesomely hot August day the car made the only sound in a deep silence.  The sun’s heat had robbed even birds and insects of their voices.

Norman was silent too–with apprehension.  Beside him his adored wife of less than two years leaned forward to peer through the windshield for the first glimpse of their destination, seeming to have forgotten he existed.  And there it was.

Nothing had changed.  it was big and ugly, with a sagging front porch and too few windows.  It was old.  It was gray because almost all of its white paint had long ago weathered off.  According to old Halper, the Crieghtons had lived there for generations, having come from Salem where one of their women in the days of witch madness had been hanged for practicing demonolatry.  A likely story.

As he stopped the car by the porch steps, Norman glanced at the woman beside him.  His beloved.  His childhood sweetheart.  Why, in God’s name, was she eager to come here again?  She had not been so in the beginning.  For days after that harrowing ordeal she ahd been depressed, unwilling to even talk about it.

But then, weeks later, the change.  Ah, yes, the change!  So subtle at first, or at least as subtle as her unsophisticated nature could contrive.  “Norm . . . do you remember that old house we were snowbound in?  do you suppose we might have liked it if things had been different . . .?

Then not so subtle.  “Norm, can we look at the Creighton place again?  Please?  Norm?”

As he fumbled the key into the lock, he reached for her hand.  “Are you all right, Hon?”

“Of course!”  The same tone of voice she had used in Halper’s shabby office.  Impatient.  Critical.  Don’t ask silly questions!

With a premonition of disaster he pushed the door open.

It was the same.

Furnished, Halper had called it, trying to be facetious.  There were dusty ruins of furniture and carpets and–yes–the impression that someone or something was using them, that the house had not been empty for eight years, as Halper had claimed.  Now the feeling returned to Norman as he trailed his wife through the downstairs rooms and up the staircase to the bedchambers above.  And the feeling was strong!  He wanted desperately to seize her hand again and shout,  “No, no, Darling!  Come out of here!”

Upstairs when she halted in the big front bedroom, turning slowly to look about her, he said helplessly, “Hon, please–what is it?  What do you want?”

No answer.  He had ceased to exist.  She even bumped into him as she went past to sit on the old four-poster with its mildewed mattress.  And seated there, she stared emptily into space as she had done before.

He went to her and took her hands.  “Linda, for God’s sake!  What is it with this place?”

She looked up at him and smiled.  “I’m all right.  Don’t worry, Darling.”

There had been an old blanket on the bed when they entered this room before.  He had thought of wrapping her in it because she was shivering, the house was frigid for April, and with the car trapped in deepening snow they would have to spend the night here.  But the blanket had reeked from age and she had cringed from the touch of it.

Then–”Wait,” he had said with a flash of inspiration.  “Maybe if I could jam this under a tire! . . . Come on.  It’s at least worth a try.”

“I’m cold, Norm.  let me stay here.”

“You’ll be all right?  Not scared?”

“Better scared than frozen.”

“Well . . . I won’t be long.”

How long was he gone?  Ten minutes?  Twenty?  Twice the car had seemed about to pull free from the snow’s mushy grip.  Twice the wheel had spun the sodden blanket out from under and sent it flying through space like a huge yellow bird, and he’d been forced to go groping after it with icy wind lashing his frozen face.  Say twenty minutes, certainly no longer.  Then, giving it up as a bad job, he had trudged despondently back to the house and climbed the stairs again to the front bedroom.

And there she sat on the bed, as she was sitting now.  White as the snow itself.  Wide-eyed.  Staring at or into something that only she could see.

“Linda!  What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.  Nothing . . . “

He grasped her shoulders.  “Look at me!  Stop staring like that!  What’s happened?”

“I thought I heard something.  Saw something.”

“Saw what?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t remember.”

Lifting her from the bed, he put his arm about her and glowered defiantly at the empty doorway.  Strange.  A paper-thin layer of mist or smoke moved along the floor there, drifting out into the hall.  And there were floating shapes of the same darkish stuff trapped in the room’s corners, as though left behind when the chamber emptied itself of the large mass.  Or was he imagining these things?  One moment they seemed to be there; a moment later they were gone.

And was he also imagining the odor?  It had not been present in the musty air of this room before; it certainly seemed to be now, unless his senses were playing tricks on him.  A peculiarly robust smell, unquestionably male.  But now it was fading.

Never mind.  There was someone in this house, by God!  He had felt an alien presence when Halper was here; even more so after the agent’s departure.  Someone, something, following them about, watching them.

The back of Linda’s dress was unzipped; he realized then.  His hands pressing her to him, suddenly found themselves inside the garment, on her body.  And her body was cold.  Colder than the snow he had struggled with outside.  Cold and clammy.

The zipper.  He fumbled for it, found it drawn all the way down.  What had she tried to do?  This was his wife, who loved him.  This was the person who only a few weeks ago, at the club, had savagely slapped the face of the town’s richest, handsomest playboy for daring to hint at a mate-swapping arrangement.  Slowly he drew the zipper up again, then held her at arm’s length and looked again at her face.

She seemed unaware he had touched her.  Or that he existed.  She was entirely alone, still gazing into that secret world in which he had no place.

The ret of the night had seemed endless.  Linda lying on the bed, he sitting beside her waiting for daylight.  She seemed to sleep some of the time; at other times, though she said nothing even when spoken to, he sensed she was as wide awake as he.  About four o’clock the wind died and the snow stopped its wet slapping at the windowpanes.  No dawn had ever been so welcome, even though he was still unable to free the car and they both had to walk into town to send a tow truck for it.

And now he had let her persuade him to come back here.  He must be insane.

“Norman?”

She sat there on the bed, the same bed, but at least she was looking at him now.  Not through him into that secret world of hers.  “Norman, you do like this house a little, don’t you?”

“If you mean could I ever seriously consider living here–” emphatically, he shook his head.  “My God, no!  it gives me the horrors!”

“It’s really a lovely old house, Norman.  We could work on it a little by little.  Do you think I’m crazy?”

“If you can imagine living in this mausoleum, I know you’re crazy.  My God, woman, you were nearly frightened out of your wits here.  In this very room, too.”

“Was I, Norman?  Really?”

“Yes, you were!  If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never stop seeing that look on your face.”

“What kind of look was it, Norman?”

“I don’t know.  That’s just it–I don’t know!  What in heaven’s name were you seeing when I walked back in here after my session with the car?  What was that mist?  That smell?”

Smiling, she reached for his hands.  “I don’t remember any mist or smell, Norman.  I was just frightened.  I told you–I thought I heard something.”

“You saw something too, you said.”

“Did I say that?  I’ve forgotten.”  Still smiling, she looked around the room–at the garden of faded roses on shreds of time-stained wallpaper, at the shabby bureau with its solitary broken cut-glass vase.  “Mr. Halper was to blame for what happened, Norman.  His talk of demons.”

“Halper didn’t do that much talking, Linda.”

“Well, he told us about the woman who was hanged in Salem.  I can see now, of course, that he threw that out as bait, because I told him you write mystery novels.  He probably pictured you sitting in some Dracula cape, scratching out your books with a quill, by lamplight, and thought this would be a marvelous setting for it.”  Her soft laugh was a welcome sound, reminding Norman he loved this girl and she loved him–that their life together, except for her inexplicable interest in this house, was full of gentleness and caring.

But he could not let her win this debate.  “Linda, listen, if this is such a fine old house, why has it been empty for eight years?”

“Well, Mr. Halper explained that, Norman.”

“Did he?  I don’t seem to recall any explanation.”

“He said that the last person to live here was a woman who dies eight years ago at ninety-three.  Her married name was Stanhope, I think he said, but she was a Creighton–she even had the same given name, Prudence, as the woman hanged in Salem for worshipping demons.  And when she passed away there was some legal question about the property because her husband had died some years before in an asylum, leaving no will.”

Norman reluctantly nodded.  The truth was he hadn’t paid much attention to the real estate man’s talk, but he did recall the remark that the last man of the house had been committed to an asylum for the insane.  Probably from having lived in such a gloomy place for so long, he thought at the time.

Annoyed with himself for having lost the debate–at least, for not having won it–he turned from the bed and walked to a window, where he stood gazing down at the yard.  Right down there, four months ago, was where he had struggled to free the car.  Frowning on the spot now, he suddenly said aloud, “Wait.  That’s damn queer.”

“What is it, Dear?”

“I’ve always thought we left the car in a low spot that night.  A spot where the snow must have drifted extra deep, I mean,  but we didn’t.  we were in the highest part of the yard.”

“Perhaps the ground is soft there.”

“Uh-uh.  It’s rocky.”

“Then it might have been slippery?”

“Well, I suppose–”  suddenly he pressed closer to the window glass.  “Oh, damn!  We’ve got a flat.”

“What, Norman?”

“A flat!  Those are new tires, too.  We must have picked up a nail on our way to this stupid place.”  Striding back to the bed, he caught her hand.  “Come on.  I’m not leaving you here this time!”

She didn’t protest.  Obediently she followed him downstairs to the front door.  On the porch she hesitated briefly, glancing back in what seemed to be a moment of panic, but when he again grasped her hand, she meekly went with him down the steps and out to the car.

The left front was the flat one.  Hunkering down beside it, he searched for the culprit nail but failed to find any.  It was underneath, no doubt.  Things like flat tires always annoyed him, in a properly organized world they wouldn’t happen.  Of course, in such a world there would not be the kind of road one had to travel to reach this place, nor would there be such an impossible house to begin with.

Muttering to himself, he opened the trunk, extracted the jack, tools, and spare and went to work.

Strange.  There was no nail in the offending tire.  No cut or bruise either.  The tire must have been badly made.  The thought did not improve his mood as, on his knees, he wrestled the spare into place.

Then when he lowered the jack, the spare gently flattened under the car’s weight and he knelt there staring at it in disbelief.  “What the hell . . . ?”  nothing like this had ever happened to him before.

He jacked the car up again, took the spare off and examined it.  No nail, no break, no bruise.  It was a new tire like the others.  He had a repair kit for tubeless tires in the trunk; he recalled–bought one day on impulse.  “Repair a puncture in minutes without even taking the tire off the car.”  But how could you repair a puncture that wasn’t there?

“Linda, this is crazy.  We’ll have to walk back to town, the way we did before.”  he turned his head.  “Linda?”

She was not there.

He lurched to his feet.  “Linda!  Where are you?”  How long had she been gone?  He must have been working on the car for fifteen or twenty minutes.  She hadn’t spoken in that time, he suddenly realized.  Had she slipped back into the house the moment he became absorbed in his task?  She knew well enough how intensely he concentrated on such things.  How when he was writing, for instance, she could walk through the room without his even knowing it.

“Linda, for God’s sake–no!”  Hoarsely shouting her name, he stumbled toward the house.  The door clattered open when he flung himself against it and the sound filled his ears as he staggered down the hall.  But now the hall was not just an ancient, dusty corridor; it was a dim tunnel filled with premature darkness and strange whisperings.

He knew where she must be.  In that cursed room at the top of the stairs where he had seen that look on her face four months ago, and where she had tried so cunningly to conceal the truth from him this time.  But the room was hard to reach now.  A swirling mist choked the staircase, repeatedly causing him to stumble.  Things resembling hands darted out of it to clutch at him and hold him back.

He stopped in confusion, and the hands nudged him forward again.  Their owner was playing a game with him, he realized, mocking his frantic efforts to reach the bedroom, yet at the same time seductively urging him to try even harder.  And the whispering made words, or seemed to.  “Come, Norman . . . sweet Norman . . . come come come . . . “

In the upstairs hall, too, the swirling mist challenged him, deepening into a moving mass that hid the door of the room.  But he needed no compass to find that door.  Gasping and cursing–”Damn you, leave me alone!  Get out of my way!”  he struggled to it and found it open as he and Linda had left it.  Hands outthrust, he groped his way over the threshold.

The alien presence here was stronger.  The sense of being confronted by some unseen creature was all but overwhelming.  Yet the assault upon him was less vio0lent now that he had reached the room.  The hands groping for him in the eerie darkness were even gentle, caressing.  They clung with a velvet softness that was strangely pleasurable, and there was something voluptuously female about him, even to a faint but pervasive female odor.

An odor, not a perfume.  A body scent, drug like in its effect upon his senses.  Bewildered, he ceased his struggle for a moment to see what would happen.  The whispering became an invitation, a promise of incredible delights. But he allowed himself only a moment of listening and then, shouting Linda’s name, hurled himself at the bed again.  This time he was able to reach it.

But she was not sitting there staring into that secret world of hers, as he had expected.  The bed was empty and the seductive voice in the darkness softly laughed at his dismay.  “Come, Norman . . . sweet Norman . . . come come come . . . “

He felt himself taken from behind by the shoulders, turned and ever so gently pushed.  He fell floating onto the old mattress, halfheartedly thrusting up his arms to keep the advancing shadow-form from possessing him.  But it flowed down over him, onto him, despite his feeble resistance, and the female smell tantalized his senses again, destroying his will to resist.

As he ceased struggling, he heard a sound of rusty hinges creaking in that part of the room’s dimness where the door was, and then a soft thud.  The door had been closed.  But he did not cry out.  He felt no alarm.  It was good to be here on the bed, luxuriating in this sensuous caressing softness.  As he became quiescent it flowed over him with unrestrained indulgence, touching and stroking him to heights of ecstasy.

Now the unseen hands, having opened his shirt, slowly and seductively glided down his body to his belt . . .

He heard a new sound then.  For a moment it bewildered him because, although coming through the ancient wall behind him, from the adjoining bedroom, it placed him at once in his own bedroom at home.  Linda and he had joked about it often, as true lovers could–the explosive little syllables to which she always gave voice when making love.

So she was content, too.  Good.  Everything was straightforward and aboveboard, then.  After all, as the fellow at the club had suggested, mate swapping was an in thing . . . wasn’t it?  All kinds of people did it.

He must buy this house, as Linda had suggested.  Of course.  She was absolutely right.  With a sigh of happiness he closed his eyes and relaxed, no longer made reluctant by a feeling of guilt.

But–something was wrong.  Distinctly, now, he felt not two hands caressing him, but more.  And were they hands?  They suddenly seemed cold, clammy, frighteningly eager.

Opening his eyes, he was startled to find that the misty darkness had dissolved and he could see.  Perhaps the seeing came with total surrender, or with the final abandonment of his guilt feeling.  He lay on his back, naked, with his nameless partner half beside him, half on him.  He saw her scaly, misshapen breasts overflowing his chest and her monstrous, demonic face swaying in space before his own.  And as he screamed, he saw that she did have more than two hands:  she had a whole writhing mass of them at the ends of long, searching tentacles.

The last thing he saw before his scream became that of a madman was a row of three others like her squatting by the wall, their tentacles restlessly reaching toward him as they impatiently awaited their turn.