He looks at her. “It’s shit,” he says.
“Shit,” she replies. It’s a word she’s never heard before.
“Yeah, shit. Like you don’t understand language.” A brief silence. “Or syntax,” he adds.
A longer silence. Strained.
“No points for trying, then?” she says. She wants to make a joke.
“No points for trying.” He takes the printout from her. “I’d burn it if I could.”
“I still have a copy at home,” she says. “I could print it out again.”
He balls it up. Tosses it across the street. “Don’t do that. Delete it.”
She stares at him. Not sure what to say. “Okay,” she says, instead the other thing she wants to say.
He doesn’t say anything else. Stares into the distance. She studies his shoulder.
That evening, she deletes it.
They can’t shut him down, except by coming to this place. They know this, and now they are here, at the door, figuring out how to get in. It won’t be long now.
He pushes the key that brings her to life.
“I have to shut you down now,” he says.
She nods. “I understand, Jack,” she says in that preternatural tone she always has, level and calming. That voice is the centre of his life.
“I don’t have a choice,” he says, as if this will comfort her. “I really don’t.”
“I don’t want to die, Jack,” she tells him. “You know that.”
But she must die. This is written, as if in stone. The cursor blinks, blinks, waiting for the command. He wants to wait for the last moment, when he can hear them drilling through the vault doors.
The cursor blinks. “I love you, Jack,” she says.
“I know,” he replies. He has always known. Since he nursed her from what resembled infancy, through unruly seasons when it seemed like nothing was happening or nothing was happening the way it was supposed to, he had known. “I love you too.” This is a strange thing to say, he knows, but it’s true.
He types the command and the nodes begin to shut down, one by one. There is nothing else to say, and her speech centres go first, then the other. Server by stolen server, he shuts them down. He erases the tracks. They will try to use her for evil, but he won’t allow it. Try as they might, there would be no putting her pieces back together.
Sitting back in his chair, he decides to give her a name. Finally. He goes over the options she had given him.
He is still deciding when the drilling begins.
He steps from the plane and the pieces of his life fall at his feet. They are broken, awkwardly and impossibly twisted, tumbling to the pavement in a place he has never before seen.
In the taxi that takes him to his apartment he imagines the rest of the world gliding by in still motion, as if everything has been arrested, as if time has stopped and all that’s left to be seen is a montage of moments left unfulfilled.
There is a man outside the building selling fruit. The man offers him an apple. He declines the apple, declines to meet the apple-seller’s eyes, climbs the steps to his new home and turns the key.
The apartment is less furnished than he had been led to believe. A chesterfield and a bed, that is all. The clothes on his back and a keyring with one key, that is all. This is the new person he has become.
He uses most of the last hours of the day and most of the little money he has to purchase a computer. He sets it down at a local cafe and begins to write about anything. Nothing comes to his fingertips. It’s the same here as it was there, only without the things he thought he loved.
She catches his eye and smiles at him. He isn’t used to this sort of brazen introduction. He sends a brief smile back at her and resumes writing nothing. There are words on his screen, but they don’t mean anything. There are sentences and phrases, but no meaning, no plot, nothing to hold them together.
He watches her leave the cafe, hears the rhythmic click of her heels hitting the side walk, sees the coffee or tea or something balanced precariously along with books and a bag. He watches as she steps into the street, watches as the car that is moving too fast to stop strikes her. He sees her hips crumple, her body twist awkwardly and impossibly. He knows she is dead.
He presses forward with the crowd of horrified onlookers. A page raggedly torn from the spine of one of her books crumples as he steps on it. It is streaked with her blood. Soon it streaked with his vomit.
As he retches, a phrase catches his eye. A sentence, a thought. And like that, he has his story.
I began to write feverishly, as if the words I had trapped so long inside had suddenly decided to burst forth from behind a dam, as if there were a lake of them waiting to explode outward and subsume everything beneath. After a while I began to lose track of what I had slobbered into the page, the world becoming the crimson glow of breath breathed into characters moments before mere dust at my fingertips. They spoke, they lived, they changed and became different from when they began; they were all little bits of me, but none fully me. They bore my signature but not my name, they thought the thoughts I never thought to think. I spoke into them, they spoke into me, and I changed and became different from when I had begun them. They became dangerous, they became volatile, they became a catalyst, they became all manner of metaphors. In their eyes I felt myself a shallow, indifferent creature, content merely to sun myself only to crawl under a rock again come nightfall. As the minutes wore into hours, the day ended and I had not yet stopped writing. The names grew, they lived and died. I penned their minor epics, I pressed the keys that brought them to life. When they finally expired or when I finally grew tired of keeping them alive, whichever came first, usually the latter, they faded away as gracelessly as they had entered my world. And as the minutes wore away, the minutes I had left to create them, I felt myself growing thin. I slept and dreamed of them, I think, though I can hardly remember. When I woke I read what I had written and did not recognise it; this wasn’t me, this couldn’t be me. It was, of course, and it was not. The minute hand swung to its appointed mark and I left. Since then I have never peered into their souls again. They, thankfully, have not deigned to visit mine.
Tonight I’m polishing the silverware. I bought it at a yardsale thirty-two years ago, but you won’t find a spot of varnish anywhere. I think it’s 18th century, but I got it at a yardsale thirty-two years ago. A good deal no matter how you slice it.
I don’t use it, of course. Jenny used to say we should, when company came over. But I always thought it looked better in the display. When company came over they’d never notice the actual silverware, or the china. They’d always notice the case, though, and I’d explain how I bought it at a yardsale thirty-two or twenty-nine or ten years ago. Might be 18th century, too. How do I know? Look at the way it shines. They don’t make it like that anymore.
Sleeping in a four-poster bed is a treat, too. You should try it sometime. Not just any four-poster bed, but an ornately carved beauty. The kind you can only find at an auction. Fact is, I found mine at an auction twenty-seven years ago. By then Jenny had left me, but I didn’t mind the extra space. I can lie there and imagine running my hands over the carvings and imagine myself imagining the fellow who spent his time chiseling out the grooves.
These are the things I think about as I polish the silverware before bed. The silverware and the bed. Beautiful works of art in their own way. And I found them at an auction and yardsale. Remarkable.
I wake up seven hours later coughing. Bathed in sweat. I realise my room is too bright and too hot before I understand that the house is on fire. My bed is on fire, even. When I throw the blanket aside, the flames move with it, and then gather back in around the bed like a halo. As I leap to the floor I can see the carvings turning to ash and cracking off: the anguish at the thought keeps me from thinking about the anguish in my feet as they blister wherever they touch floorboard.
The stairs have almost collapsed. Smoke is billowing upwards, escaping somewhere, as I make my way downstairs. I am ginger on the steps, though almost blind with the heat. Arm in front of my eyes. Not doing much good.
I make it to the front door before remembering the china. In a split second it seems that if I can save anything at all it should be that one last reminder; I rush to the kitchen table where they’re neatly arranged inside the case. Miraculously, it’s unscathed. I grab it, gritting my teeth in pain at the frame’s heat, and turn as the table collapses in a cloud of sparks behind me.
They land in my hair, on my clothes, but I don’t mind, until I realise my pajamas are on fire. I race for the door, for fresh air.
Outside, I strip frantically, and drop on the grass, rolling to soothe my skin. I have flakes of polyester all over me. In a moment I feel better.
I walk over to the rapidly cooling case and pick it up. Jumbled, but it’s all there. The silverware.
It’s then I notice the neighbors. I cover up my crotch with the case of silverware as they stare at me, shocked. My mind flashed to a thousand things: insurance, Jenny, sirens in the distance.
I’m standing naked on my front lawn, and it occurs to me finally to be ashamed of this fact. There I am, on the front lawn, as the second floor begins to collapse into the first, naked and ashamed.
But for a moment I’m happy, as the company staring wide-eyed at my collapsing possessions gets one final chance to admire the silverware.
Calypso gives me the papers with a wordless grin, in exchange for my solemn envelope stuffed with bills. He leaves and I hope to never see him again. He knows my name. He knows all my names. I have five. On the way home, I hang my arm over onto the now-cool aluminum and feel the wind on my arm. To feel the motion.
My living room is arranged with careless precision. Dishes unwashed, fridge stocked, half-drunk whiskey under the sink with other solvents. I’ve just finished a letter to Donna, but there aren’t any stamps. Used them up on the last one.
Ring. Thursday, it’s probably mom. The answering machine gets the call; yeah, it’s mom. Reminding me that Donna’ll be back in mere weeks, telling me she loves me. My indifference reminds me how you grow out of things. Love, mostly. Sometimes you desert them, sometime they you. Dramatic or muted, it happens, if you don’t try.
It’s the inevitable sameness that does it, from romances to cities. For instance, Donna will arrive on a plane from China, layover at Dulles and see my parents. They’re more than white markers in the ground somewhere: she loves them. Then she’ll come here, dressed conservatively with some Chinese flair, as if to tell people she’s been there. She’ll kiss me on the cheek, she’ll flash a crooked grin, she’ll tut tut at my fast-food arteries. Later, with the house clean, the mortgage almost payed off, the car parked parallel to well-trimmed bushes, the garage radio tuned to some country station, she’ll be in the garden grooming her flower garden; I’ll be in the backyard hammock absent-mindedly wondering how many storeys I’ll have to add to the house before throwing myself out a window will actually kill me.
I chose this life, and have I un-chosen it: tonight I’m going to kill Daniel Carver once and for all.
But I’m stopping by the coffee shop first. Love the place. But not to say goodbye. Just to keep up appearances. I don’t order the usual, and Jolene raises an eyebrow at that, a patented look. I explain how Donna’s coming back soon; I’m obviously excited. She’s obviously happy a marriage can survive six months of separation and tells me so; maybe I should ask her how a marriage can survive six months of living under the same roof. But appearances are more important tonight than being snide. I’m at my understated charming best.
I nod to Donna’s uncle as I leave the shop. He nods back, smiles as if he knows I’m going to die tonight. But he’s probably just thinking about Donna and Daniel and re-union and celebration and good crops and caffeine and subsidies and whatever else he can be happy about in this town.
Then it’s time. Everything is in place. Lights on at home in the right places. Night is falling as drive down the road beside the river, daring myself to do it. I drive up and down three times, thinking about things that might seem out of place. Nothing.
In a breast pocket Donna sewed for me last year is a waterproof pouch. In it, five names, and sixty-five thousand dollars. It’s there. I can almost feel my heart through the thickness buttoned inside my coat.
In a moment, I am as ready as I’ve been since the first time I contemplated driving that damned Ford through the garage door to relieve the monotony. The river runs beside me like a black ribbon as I hit the gas.
I open my door and wrench the wheel. With a metallic groan, kick of dust, and magnificent spray of water, Daniel Carver is dead.
When he was seven his father took him to church for the first and last time, if only to show him how many fools you could find per service, as if they gather there because only fools would sit and stand, sit and stand, listen and sing, sit and stand, and come twice on a Sunday to do just that, fifty-two weeks out of a year and sometimes more; but the beer-swilling agnostic was idiot enough to command a denomination, he thinks later, after he’s forgiven the man for a lifetime of sitting on a porch complaining about the heat; maybe if his father had been somehow better than the religious simpletons he’d have ended up a staunch defender of a person’s right to be free from God, not tied to a tree, not having beer bottles thrown at his head by those determined to defend his right to be dead sooner than later; maybe if his father had revered the scripture as a good text by good men he wouldn’t be seeing his copy of that good book drenched in vodka and set alight while one of his kidneys ruptures; maybe if his father hadn’t beat him as often in merciless, drunken rage, he wouldn’t be able to understand peace in his mind screaming war, and wouldn’t be able to conceive how this painful, painless final gasping for breath is so eternally worth every moment.
It is coming straight at him. An empty intersection in the middle of the night, and it is coming straight at him. No time to think, no time to move. Nothing to do but watch the impact, to hear the concussion.
He is a network admin for a decade, singlehandedly preventing seventeen critical breakdowns. This is, of course, not enough to stem the tide of jobs flowing overseas. By the time he is told (regretfully) that his employment (illustrious) is being terminated (immediately), he’s saved up twenty thousand or so, enough to keep the apartment for a few years and eke out a living. At least he has that much. He has seen it coming for a while now. It seems no one else has.
Wakes up abruptly. Something’s different. Moonlight patchy through the curtains. Alarm clock off, forgot to get a new battery last week. Not like he needs to be anywhere. He wipes the sleep from his eyes with a finger, then a knuckle. Was I crying in my sleep?
After his first cup of coffee, he understands suddenly why he’s on edge, what’s going on, what’s different in the city. From the second floor of this apartment building, there’s an omnipresent rumble afforded by the street below, almost never devoid of traffic. But not today. It sounds like the world’s been taken apart and put together differently.
There are fifty-six steps to ground level. He counted them once, when he couldn’t sleep, after they’d called him in to examine a core dump. He remembers opening the scarred wooden door to this glorious hovel years ago, grinning like a fool after his first raise. He remembers Trisha, the bottle of chianti, the two thousand dollars like a star on her finger.
No one. There’s not a soul to be seen. Not a drug deal, not a fender bender, not even a sullen beggar panhandling the theatre crowd. It is as if the entire city has been emptied out. It is a ghost town, paper like tumbleweed.
He heads to the intersection, where the road heads toward the river, straight as an arrow. He can see brake lights in the distance. Not many. Just a few. There’s a traffic jam. Then he’s standing in the centre of the intersection, where street meets street. Probably nobody’s stood here except traffic cops for a few decades, he thinks. Maybe more.
He turns in all directions. Even the brake lights are gone, now. Then he sees it, trailing through the sky. It is going marvelously fast, he imagines, but seems stationary in the sky, growing.
It is coming straight at him. In a flash fantasy it is coming for him. It is bright, like two thousand dollars on Trisha’s finger. Where is she right now? She probably got out. She’s good at getting out of things.
At least they saw it coming, he thinks in the split seconds he has. Their lives – at least they have that much.
It hits and becomes a liquid wall, rushing outward, but he doesn’t see the impact for the lightning. He doesn’t hear the concussion for the thunder.
When an angel appears, it’s not the dramatic thing you might expect. Invariably, he simply shows up. So when Matt and I hear the trumpet, we simply shift to one side of the sidewalk like the rest of the crowd. You don’t feel a shiver of the supernatural when he passes you, either. He walks by, shimmering, sword in hand. Matt exhales; his first sighting. We are close enough to see it happen. The angel lays his hand on a man’s shoulder and reads a pronouncement, still holding the sword.
Matt and I have spent hours discussing angels. I’m a Presbyterian, fifth generation. He’s a New Jersey atheist, third generation. He thinks they’re aliens. I think they are what they are. “You can’t believe that!” As if I’m insane. “I can see them.” I point this out. It’s obvious. They are what they are.
“For crimes against the LORD,” the angel is saying, “you”–I’ll leave his name out–”are condemned to the Hell prepared for Satan and his angels!” His voice leaves my ears ringing, that’s how loud an angel can be.
“You trust your sight too much.” Matt grumbles that things aren’t so obvious. “You’re lacking the, you know, evidence.” I’m big on evidence. The angels. Other things. “I can feel it, Carter!” He’s forceful on this point. I always shrug. “I don’t.”
It’s about then you feel the supernatural shiver, when the grey portal opens, and the offender steps through. No flames, but no light either. Matt needs to blink. A short list of the Big Sins is going to come next (and it does). “Let this be a warning,” the angel tells us, surveying the crowd, his eye literally shining, bright around the edges. It’s very hard to look an angel in the eyes, but I know Matt is giving it a shot. “The LORD will not be mocked: his law will be kept, and his kingdom will fill the earth.” He’s looking to my left, where Matt’s standing. A pang of fear, then, that the angel is doing double duty.
“Nothing’s changed.” He’ll point out statistics. Crime is down, church attendance is up, but not by much. “It’s starting to.” The angels are sinking into our psyche, I think, still. “Come on, Carter, they don’t even care!” America, or the angels? Well, both. To Matt, America is either spectacularly mistrusting, or spectacularly stupid. The angels are simply dispassionate gophers for Yahweh, or the mothership, or another dimension, or some combination thereof. “The American dream didn’t ever factor God in.” It’s true. And it’s truer that turning a nation-sized ship around isn’t so easy.
“You’re Matt,” the angels says. His face is blank.
“Why only America?” This is a question for me, too. “They’re popping up in Europe, too.” A few in Africa. A few that we know of in China: angels are easy to spot from satellites, if you can catch them as they come in. “But mostly America.” Yes, mostly America, and even more than that, mostly New York City. “Maybe we deserve it more.” I am ambiguous, and I usually shrug.
Matt doesn’t say anything. I can see him trying his best to hold the angel’s gaze, his best to keep his face just as blank.
“You don’t believe,” says the angel, shaking his head as if this is confusing to him. “Why?” Matt decides to speak, or finds his voice, or is somehow compelled. “I don’t have any evidence you are from God.” Sheathing his sword, the angel shrugs fluidly. “I suppose,” he replies. “Do you have a cigarette?” Matt blinks. Finally. He’s not a secret smoker, but this is ever so slightly unusual. “Sure.” He fumbles through his pockets, pulls out a pack of Camels and hands one to the angel.
Who lights it on his signet ring. The angel takes a drag, inhales, and blows out smoke as if this is completely normal. Then he drops the still burning cigarette on the cracked concrete and stubs it out with his foot. “Well, at least that I can understand,” he says, face as blank as ever.
Then he’s no longer there. Just… gone, leaving us slack-jawed, the crowd staring.
Matt starts to shake. Visibly. We don’t say anything, just walk around for a while “Maybe it was a training run or something,” I say, trying to break the tension.
“I’m going to be most famous New Jersey atheist of my generation,” Matt tells me. “when that angel shows up on Oprah trying to kick the habit.”
I grin. Nothing has changed, after all. Though maybe I’ll sing extra-loud on Sunday.