Bartering for Happiness

The morning after (continued)

She moved to put her crumpled clothes in the hamper, moved slowly, treating herself like a glass puppet, delicate and ungainly. Last night’s jeans were sandy and smelled mildly of rotting. She dropped them back to the floor, feeling completely unequipped to deal with beach water and muck.
Instead she pulled on a tank top and cut off sweats and drifted out to the living room. The room was dim, all of the blinds turned against the day, even in the kitchen, normally the sunniest room in the house. She went to the refrigerator and considered a glass of orange juice, but instead stood squinting against the cold light, waiting for yesterday to disentangle from her dreams. The cool air prickled the skin on her legs and she absentmindedly rubbed her calves together soothingly, balanced on one foot. She let the door close with a soft sigh, opting instead for tap water. She drank from the kitchen tap, hand cupping the water to her mouth, her mouth passively receiving the water and swallowing slowly, feeling the cold trickle down her throat and fill her stomach.
She still felt an unplaced dread and a blank in her night that refused to fill in. She kept expecting the memories to fill in like eyesight recovering from the black of standing too suddenly, first spotty around the edges and dizzy, but clearing to normalcy. Absently she reached for the blinds, twisting the rod to allow in more light. As the room lightened, her fog increased. She squinted against the brightness. The tree branches outside the window did not do enough to filter the light, the twigs instead pointing, accusing, guiding the solar rays like infiltrating assassins through her window, stabbing behind her eyes suddenly and throbbingly.
She retreated from the kitchen, exploring her apartment for comfort, but everything looked strange, a little unfamiliar, like a bearded friend who has just shaved, or a sighted friend in glasses, eyes suddenly hidden and shielded. She was fully awake now, awake enough to begin to feel nervous about last night. She knew something happened. She knew something important happened, but the grey would not lift.
A full minute passed while she stood frozen in her living room, arms clutched around her middle, staring at her couch, her throw pillows, a rumpled and cozy afghan, laptop sitting on the coffee table, cord snaked to a convenient outset, power light its throbbing heart.
Suddenly impatient, bored with her anxiety, she popped into action. In the dim light her headache was gone. The water was not sloshing, but felt as though it had already swept through her system, plumping her veins, hydrating her fingertips. She returned to the bathroom, first pulled her hair into a ponytail then knotted the bag liner, pulling it free from the small plastic can. She walked to the front door and stepped into a pair of sandals sitting on the entry way tile, unlocked and opened the door and walked out to the brighter landing. She navigated the stairs with eyes lightly cracked, lids sleepy, not squinting. She walked the long hallway to the back entrance and stepped out into the alleyway and dropped her bag into the bin.
As soon as the lid dropped the enormity of the sky reached down like a hand and grabbed her behind her solar plexus. She pinned, targeted, exposed, like every invisible bit of air was full of eyes and hands, and suddenly she was the center of attention. Under the spotlight, or the point of light under the magnifying glass. With an immense surge of will she snapped her eyes shut and scurried back into her building. She navigated the hallway and stairs at a blind jog, almost falling on her landing when her feet ran out of stairs before her feet stopped climbing. Then she was back on the other side of her door, bolt thrown, but the scrutiny and ill will persisted and the unknown of the previous night rose up like a faint and everything went black.

Last year

The phone was ringing as she slid her key into the front door lock. A practiced jiggle and turn had the lock released and door open, then she kicked off her shoes and dropped her bags, two steps across the hall to the ringing handset.

“Hello?” her answer was bright and cheery, expectant of good news or good favor.

“Zoe,” her family’s solicitor’s voice was familiar, though never so flat.

“What is it Frank?”

“Zoe, I’m so sorry, but something terrible has happened.”

She let it sit in the air for a long moment. She already knew. Her mind recoiled from the conversation, from Frank’s soft, sincere grief, back to an hour ago, walking from the University home, the sun breaks in the clouds glimmering on rain-damp leaves starting to uncurl from new Spring buds. The air smelled headily of chlorophyll and hope, and she had paused along the way to marvel at the crocuses blossoming haphazardly around the stone retaining wall of a neighborhood house, one flower in particular cupping a remarkable amount of rain water in a delicately tense sphere, a natural magnification of the flowers sex organs, flagrant and orange.

She knew with a certain practiced despair that Frank must have terribly bad news, life-changing news, because good omens always turned dark. Any glimmer of hope she ever allowed herself always turned cutting.

“What happened, Frank?”

“It’s Sue and Charlie, your parents, Zoe,” Frank paused and cleared his throat. Was he crying? she wondered. Stoic, kind Frank, yes, he would cry.

“They were in a car accident last night. I just got off the phone with the hospital. Charlie died before EMS arrived. Your mom, she’s in intensive care right now, but they don’t know if she’ll ever wake up.”

“Without Charlie she won’t want to,” Zoe sounded cold to her own ears, but it was only true.

Another five minutes on the phone with poor Frank and Zoe had arranged to get on an airplane and fly across the country to the hospital. She spent the time on the plane reading a novel. Frank met her in the airport and drove her directly to the hospital. She was sitting beside her mother’s bed, holding her hand and dozing when Sue died. Later, when she finally got to a hotel, showered off the chicken marsala smell of the plane and the ammonia of the hospital, stretched out nude on the clean starched sheets, pillows and bedspread pushed to the floor, lying on her back, anonymous hotel room ceiling filling her view, tears finally leaked from her eyes tiredly, dripped across her temples and merged with her damp hair.

Frank made all of the arrangements. No funeral, no one wanted a funeral. She signed papers without reading them. Frank took her back to the airport.

The morning after

She woke gradually, surfacing to an awareness of her body. She felt inflated, her abdomen hollow and echoing with distress and bile. Slowly she opened her eyes to the dim room, her room, inching towards awareness, her consciousness spreading from her middle to her extremities like an itch. She slowly rolled from her bed, feet on the floor, head pointed to the ceiling, and wobbled her way on thick limbs to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet and leaned over the small trash bin, clean plastic liner, used Q-tip, a tissue, and felt her vomit pour from her like she was a vessel.

When she was done she wiped her mouth with toilet paper, blew her nose. Wiped her eyes. She stood and flushed the toilet, even though the bowl was clean, and moved to the sink. She ran cold water over her hands, made a cup of them and drew the sweet clean water into her mouth. She swished it around and spit it out, the faucet still running and rinsing her spit unseen down the drain.

Avoiding the mirror, she dried her hands and face and went back to her bedroom on steadier feet. Her feeling of being inflated had passed and now she just felt a deep emptiness, like a discarded juice box, straw rattling like her bones, loose among her sinews.

A conversation

“You’re not safe anymore.”

“What are you talking about? What did he do to me?”

“You’re seeing them now, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what I am seeing. Did he give me something? Are you in on it?”

He face looked anguished for a moment, before settling down to a neutral, compassionate softness, like someone trying to calm a distressed animal.

“He did something to you, but not like you’re thinking. What you’re seeing is real.”

“That doesn’t make sense. I’m seeing things that can’t be real!”

She pressed her lips to a tight line, her hand involuntarily flying up, eyes panicked. She hadn’t meant to admit she was actually seeing the things he suggested. The things that looked like eyes peering from the tree branches out the windows, like gnarled hands in the storm drains, that disappeared with second glances, turning to birds and bundled sticks.

He started to reach for her shoulder, to touch her, to comfort her, but his hand hesitated inches from her skin, hovering in indecision. She could feel the warmth of him radiating from his hand; her skin was chilled and goosebumped.

Finally she took a breath and continued, “If these things are real why am I only seeing them now? What did he do?”

His face became grim for a moment before he again schooled his features.

“Come, sit, I will try to explain.”

Hand still hovering inches from her skin he escorted her to the couch before perching on the edge of a well-worn chair himself.

“Before… Before the thing that happened it was kind of like you were an ostrich with your head in the sand, but the things that you couldn’t see couldn’t see you either.”

The look of distaste on her face made it clear his metaphor was a poor one.

“Okay, consider scale for a minute. We’re surrounded constantly by microorganisms that we cannot see, and they aren’t really aware of us, either. It’s like we live in completely different but overlapping worlds. Average people don’t even know they are there. Well, nowadays maybe, but imagine a hundred years ago, or whenever the microscope was first being developed to the point where people could first see things that small.”

“Yeah, but people still caught the flu. Just because they couldn’t see them doesn’t mean they weren’t affected.”

“Yes, but people who could see them, people who sought out the microorganisms were much more affected than the average person. It’s like lions. I know what a lion is, you know what a lion is, but a lion-tamer knows a lot more about lions than I ever will. Who do you think is more likely to get mauled? Me or someone who spends every day face to face with them?”

“So you’re saying we’re like lion-tamers to whatever it is that’s out there? That I could reason with them?”

“No, we’re more like the one’s thrown to the lions. I don’t think we have the tools to reason with them.”

“What are they? I don’t have words for what it feels like when they look at me. You’re right, they might be lions, but I feel like a mouse. Too small to be food, but maybe something to play with. To torment.”

He was nodding his head now, her color was returning, her shoulders unclenching. She turned her eyes on him suddenly, gaze sharp and cutting. He’d never noticed the small green fleck in her left eye before; maybe he could see it only because her pupils were so constricted, dark pinpoints in the rich brown irises.

“Okay, let’s say I believe that whatever is going on, whatever those things are, are real. I don’t know if I’m willing to accept that, but for arguments sake. Fine. Semi-invisible alien monsters are real. Why can I see them now? What did your brother do?”

His eyes dropped to study his clasped hands. Embarrassment and fear warred to color his face, a flush in his cheeks while his brow paled.

“You were there, don’t you remember?”

Fear suddenly clenched her stomach and she wrapped her arms tightly around her middle, cold again. She remembered.

She remembered the semi-drunken stumble along the river path in the moonlight, her hand grasped warmly in his, his confident grin the only visible feature in the dim light. The way he laughed and cajoled when she came to a sudden stop when she saw the group in the clearing on the narrow beach by the water. He drew her forward in the circle of strangers, everyone strangely quiet. No greetings were voiced, but as soon as they stepped up everyone was calmly taking action, pulling things from pockets, handing around candles, incense, lighters. In moments everyone was circled by tiny flickering flames and the smell of sandalwood. Still without talking two different people poured the contents of metal flasks into a cup that someone else held forward, then they held it to each other’s lips, one to the next, taking turns. She lost track of the cup for a moment, suddenly queasy, leaning forward, hands to knees, faint but not wanting to embarrass herself, or him, by retching or leaving. Then his hand drawing her up, his eyes still shadowed, but his teeth flashing, the cup pressed to her mouth and she drank.

She remembered the taste of alcohol and herbs burning her throat as she swallowed. She remembered him pressing the cup into her hands and turning her, and she held the cup to a man’s lips and he drank.