During the stormy night under the starless heavens, thunder and lighting reigned the sky. Bolts of violent light blasted through the heaven like the raptures of human veins. Stiff uprooted trees lay dead in the trembling grass, frail huts shivered at the sound of the cracking fury and the living buried themselves from the rage. This was the night when Gods cracked their whips at the sins of men and the winds, full of evil, haunted the scattered villages. It was a violent and tempestuous night, ordered to conceal the secret birth.
Peter changed into his pyjamas, brushed his teeth, shaved and settled in front of his computer for the Friday night whole-family video call that Mary had started when the lockdown began, ‘to keep their collective spirits up’. She lived two streets away with her husband and twin daughters. David dialled in from Napa Valley. Between Annie’s drawings, Katie’s handstands and David’s virtual tours of his vineyard, they didn’t get much talking done, which suited Peter just fine.
The only good thing about these calls was that he didn’t have to make eye contact. If he pasted a benign smile on his face and stared somewhere in the proximity of the camera, he could get through the whole call analysing his own receding hair line. It helped that Olivia preferred to dial in from her own phone from her own room.
Hunt & Peck Publishing
101 Avenue of Avenues
New York, NY 10001
September 8, 2015
2 Common Place
Crimea River, NJ 08080
Dear Ms. Turner,
Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, it does not meet our present requirements. We wish you luck with other publishers.
To Harry Furniss, working for a corporation felt like wearing a clown suit: a façade that made it easy to avoid taking anything seriously. After all, working for a global brand lubricates some people’s social lives better than a bottle of Scotch. Turn up at some hotel bar, and before long a slightly heavy nonentity in middle-manager casuals (polo shirt, belted chinos worn above the navel) will ask what business you’re in. After comparing your burdens, from regulation to office politics, you’ll stagger back to your room with a card in your pocket, plus an invitation to visit him and his wife next time you’re in Pensacola. Or Reykjavik. Or wherever.
We noticed the cat—a standard tabby, dusty from dandruff or dirt—upon entry because we expected the residence to be empty. It gawked from a corner, one muddy eye fixed on us, misaligned other paralleling the wall—not unusual for a cat but it made the stare appear vacant or as though it were looking through us. It also appeared to grin, the way its mouth was set. Ava commented on how the listing made no mention of pets and our agent deftly responded that “it also doesn’t say that there are no pets.” We ignored the cat for the next hour or so, our guided tour, opening cabinets and peering in empty closets, inspecting oddball nooks not really knowing what to look for. The remodeled bathrooms and kitchen had farmhouse sinks and stainless appliances; there was a mudroom in which Ava and I glanced at each other and she absently touched her tummy; in sum, the house was just about perfect. We were already talking about making an offer before we got to the backyard, which is when the cat escaped. It slipped between the agent’s legs in a stealthy trot, nearly knocking her on her ass. “Ope,” she said.
He looks like a trout. Or at least, he has the kind of facial expression that you’d think a trout might have. If the trout were on a train, that is. Pursed lips, pale skin as if he’s not used to coming out into the light, one of those creatures of the deep. A baseball cap pulled down low, snakey hips. The first class carriage is almost empty, just myself in one of the big chairs along the side with my own table, and snakey-hip trout-face, sitting at the big four-seat table near the door, thumbing his mobile phone.
I think I fancy him.
He’s wearing a tracksuit, this prominent cheekboned lad, all bright colours, red and white reflecting back from the dark window like there’s two of him, a team mate, perhaps, in whatever sport the tracksuit advertises. He looks confused as he fumbles with his phone, and the tracksuit makes his body shapeless and crumpled. I can only guess at its proper shape and definition. Oh no, Troutface is now making a phone call.
We were in the garage by Christmas. The temperature refused to drop from 35 degrees at nine in the evening, our stomachs stuffed with prawns, ham, fruit cake and beer. John was half cut and I felt on edge from the heat and stench emanating from my husband. We lay there on our bed, surrounded by old push bikes with flat tyres, a set of golf clubs from the 1970s and tools upon tools hanging from the walls. It’s pretty hard to fall asleep when there’s a two-foot bow saw in your eyeline. Peaceful dreams I think not.
‘What a year,’ John said.
What a year. Part of me wanted to pull the bow saw off its hook and saw John’s face off. Or at least his tongue. The other part of me wanted John to roll over and hold me, tell me everything would be alright. That the next year would be better, that we were still young and free, the best years yet to come.
She couldn’t remember how she got here, but she wasn’t supposed to. Her name, her place of birth, her family, were all lost to her. Sometimes she came close to remembering, seeing slivers of her past life cut through the memories forced on her. Those slivers, whether good or bad, were hers and she cherished them for seconds at a time. There were other memories drowning her real ones, parasites controlling their host.
The parasites were injected by people whose faces remained hidden. There were no windows, no night and day. The lights in her room always shut off at some point during the day, announcing her bedtime. Yet days still lost their meaning without dates or the seasons. She measured time with her memories, counting the moments between a new one being added.
“When I was twelve I got lost in the woods.”
“That’s like the opening line to a book. Or a film monologue. First scene, no music. It starts with a black screen and as you tell the story, it opens to a meadow like this.”
“But no music.”
“Fucking exactly. Nothing but the voice.”