At the Boys’ Day School, they called themselves the Gang of Ten and oozed bravado. Like all bullies, they were cowards, so they taunted and harassed only the weakest they could find.
Brian was a particular favorite. They called him the fairy. Whether Brian actually fancied other boys, the Ten neither knew nor cared. They found him an unresisting target.
Out in the evening and up to nothing good, the Ten crossed paths with Brian, running an errand. With, “Hey, look, it’s the fairy!” the chase was on.
Down the side streets and alleys he knew well, he nearly lost them, but they were ten and had split up. In an empty square with a decrepit but functioning fountain, he stopped and took stock. First, they were nowhere, then everywhere. Determined at least to make things difficult for them, he headed for the fountain, waded in, and crouched behind the statue at its center. Cries of “Fairy! Fairy!” followed him.
As the gang closed in, a column of water the size and shape of a human adult rose from the fountain. In a voice like the burbling water, but amplified, it said, “You called for a fairy. I am here. What do you want?”
A frozen minute later, they scattered home, those who had wet themselves to change, all to cower in their sleepless rooms. Brian had heard but was too close behind the statue to have seen. He peered out just as the column collapsed. Satisfied that his tormenters were gone, he made his own, cautious way home.
School became less stressful for Brian, as the Ten stayed far away. None was in his advanced English course, so none saw him smile as his classmates read from King Henry IV, Part 1:
Glendower. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur. Why so can I, or so can any man;
but will they come when you do call for them?
— end —
Gordon Cash is a lifelong professional scientist. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife and their six cats.
The week always started with Terry crumpling the letter into a tight ball. The letters came once every Monday over four years, and Terry Jamison crumpled all of them. He knew better than to tear them into slivers. It would only add an arts-and-crafts hour to his routine with an added cost of Scotch Tape.
Instead, he squeezed the paper ball harder than he did on any previous Monday morning. He then uncrumpled the letter and read the demands he had typed for himself over four years ago. Outside his bachelor apartment, the rumble of city traffic waited to annoy him further. The myriad of cars waited like circling, growlsome lions, eager to get closer and even more intrusive. Today’s letter, from his old extroverted self, would throw him into that swirl of noise and stenchy exhaust.
The letter recapped his orders from previous years: he had to dress up and continue becoming a master street magician, a sort of clown, really. He had to practice, privately and publicly, for two hours each day in rain, wind, or whatever tortures the winter out there dumped on him. Today, however, his old self gave an extra instruction, one Terry could hardly remember having written all those years ago. The old Terry wanted more humiliation for the new, starting today.
Terry closed his eyes, but the gist of the demand remained as though typed on the inner side of his eyelids. He blocked it out with the help of a long grunt. A couple thumped past his apartment door, discussing their nighttime adventures. For once, he listened in, just to distract him from the nightmare in his hands.
He slid the crumply letter into a binder which loosely held the previous unballed letters. The folio sat on his steel kitchen counter for convenience. The cover had gathered grime and spatters from the nearby stovetop. A good housefire would take care of the whole collection, but even the old freewheeling Terry wouldn’t like that.
He opened the steel cupboard and whisked out the one pill bottle among the stacked, alphabetized cans. He swallowed two pills with 50 milliliters of tap water from a steel mug. The meds doubled his metabolic rate. Logically, the pecan shake he had guzzled earlier should replace some of his bodily atoms at a faster-than-natural speed. A femur bone regenerated itself entirely, atom by atom, over three months. The brain took only two. A whole human body, however, took over five years to replace itself via diet and breathing. Terry looked at the dust on the binder, his dead and shed, dried and drifted skin cells. The dust layer looked about twice as dense as anything he had ever neglected to clean under his bed. He tried to smile.
He paced, wondering if he could really win, if regenerating his body and brain a bit faster would restore his personality to that of the old, chattery Terry. He hated that Terry, but that former self technically existed first. The old Terry had primacy. And that young man had wanted to live out a sociable, frivolous life with all the embarrassments included. The first letter to himself had made a surprisingly logical case for self ownership.
Each step on the kitchen floor, however, made him feel as rigid and stuck as the metal tiles. He grabbed an equally durable steel pitcher and chugged a liter of water. It would flush out more ions, slowly erasing his newer, opposite self. But could it really change him back when combined with four meager years of remolding himself as a card magician? No one had beaten the justice system before by reclaiming the old self, one’s original deportment, through gradual reversion.
Terry put on his costume, a tuxedo and ascot over a pinstriped vest. He wore two sweaters under that to protect him from the cold. The tight top hat pressed on his ears with a fleece lining he had sewn on for added warmth. With a loud sigh, he donned his modified, felt-lined gloves and polished shoes. The weighted coattails practically clamped down on him too, so the suit jacket wouldn’t flop in the wind.
The accouterments shackled him. They felt like the straps of the Reverser chair, the colossal machine which had punished him for murder four years ago. The chair certainly had tighter straps than the tuxedo cuffs he wore now. However, even that most severe legal procedure had seemed less humiliating. The transcranial magnetic forces had modified his neurons in billions of ways, all while he slept under a state-administered sedative. He remembered how the guards treated him respectfully before and after he awoke as the new, opposite Terry. They had bored expressions on beefy, lax faces.
Life had seemed just as lax and procedural afterwards with his new, reversed personality. Seclusion and routine soothed him. The thought of shooting another wounded, helpless burglar felt grotesquely illogical, something a flailing gorilla might do. But the old Terry had wanted to shoot based on a spontaneous lifestyle and the whims of an overemotional brain. And the original Terry wanted those things back.
So the letters came. The court needed months to wrap up a murdered burglar case, and old Terry wrote plenty in those months. He had plenty of freedom too, so he paid an obscure delivery company to mail the letters in sequence.
The self-imposed punishment felt far worse than anything the state intended. Terry went outside and instantly wished he had a weighted scarf around his neck. It would break audience immersion, though, even without flopping in the wind. A scarf would remind spectators to hustle away to escape the cold themselves. Thus, the freezing wind cut into Terry’s face and loitered there, as it did every December morning. The fog of his breath blew away before it could warm the tip of his nose.
He stifled his sighs all the way to Garden Road, a 16-minute walk from his apartment. Despite the name, the commercial strip looked neither like a garden nor a road. Frost and filthy slush nestled along the lanes. A minus-ten wind calmed the regular noise that came with all the ugly faces on warmer days. Schmucks and people in their prime alike lacked cars and looked disgruntled about it. They clacked along to their nine-AM shifts like funeral goers, staring at nothing along the way. The cold kept their eyes down and their chins bent into their scarves.
Terry took from his pocket a folded hat, a little bowler the damn old Terry had loved and would still love. He unfolded it and punched the inside to restore its dome shape. He placed the bowler on the sidewalk just before his feet. It stayed there against the wind, secretly weighted, right-side up, and with a little sign attached which read FREE MAGIC. Terry rose with a groan, knowing some spectators still wouldn’t get it and would toss coins onto the hat’s tiny rim where they could.
He took one of the decks of cards from his pocket and began holding up aces to no one. They vanished into the deck again and reappeared in his pockets. The jacks and kings hopped through the deck as though chasing one another, until the jacks teamed up in a quartet to make the kings run off for good. Across the gray street with its frozen-out stains of road salt, the buildings themselves watched every trick–a perfect, silent audience. Waitresses flicked past the windows of a tiny restaurant in front of him. The place looked almost squashed, tightly wedged between a larger restaurant and a barber shop that charged fools quadruple what a haircut cost in the country. The gelid wind watched him harder. It slapped his face for its applause.
Pedestrians did occasionally stop, their interest piqued by a random trick in Terry’s 24-minute looping routine. He spotted one dumpy woman, dumpy as everyone else in their winter wear, who stayed annoyingly long. Terry had to stretch out the last several tricks by slowing his gesticulations. Otherwise the woman would see the routine loop over. Slowing down felt childish, probably even more so for the crowd. The woman finally scampered to the nearby bus stop, and the tricks resumed their normal speed.
Spectators looked at the bowler hat with its sign and repocketed their money. Some held up coins, forcing Terry to interact and shake his head. He waved their gestures off with operatic gestures of his own. Some set their coins on the hat’s rim anyway.
They eventually walked away, sometimes confused by the FREE MAGIC sign, but always smiling. At the one-hour mark, the puffy man in his more colorful suit arrived by the bus stop. He played his regular saxophone tunes to the urbanites who stomped past. Terry performed to the drifting music. He even matched a few card reveals to the climatic parts of whatever familiar radio songs the sax man played. The letter from last Monday said to draw from the environment.
A fluke housefire could still burn that letter, burn all of them, and the thought of it kept Terry warm.
More passersby came along and huddled to watch, bored with the junk and clutter of consumerism. They seeped from their steely, utilitarian apartments to the freezing urban circus outside. They gawked at Terry’s arms which swung robotically as though cleaning invisible windows with fanned cards. The grumpy kings and stoic queens did funny feats and dances Terry’s old self would enjoy. In the music he leeched from the sax man, Terry could almost see a stuffy pub interior, the curb no longer his stage.
He plucked out every preselected card and palmed them, all while wearing thick gloves against the brutal Canadian cold. His forearms twirled smoothly just like the magicians he had admired in childhood. His fake smirk never flinched, even as he recalled how the Reverser had utterly changed his attitude. Fumbles and failures would make that long-gone Terry giggle. Now, however, in the frozen rot and gusts of winter, a slip-up would feel excruciating. Only his stiff gestures and perfectionism gave him any relief at all. The wind tilted his top hat despite its tight strap, and his hands could only press on through the maze of pockets and moves.
After his two-hour performance, Terry picked up the bowler hat and shook off the coins. They tinkled onto the concrete and rolled away. He folded the hat and stuffed it in his pocket next to a stack of hidden kings. He walked away from the little crowd. They all clapped except for one familiar mustachioed man at the back of the huddle. He followed Terry in a suppressed huff, a plodding man with too much bulk around the middle for sure and more bulk likely hiding under the rest of his trench coat. Inspector Hanlon appeared for the act once a week like a joker ruining a flush. Lately, he had learned to do his legal stalking on Mondays, the same day the letters arrived with new instructions.
Terry sped away from the applause. He pretended the boom of loafers behind him belonged to a stranger, someone in a hurry for eggs cooked in a diner. Then, the greater boom of Hanlon’s voice hit him like yet another gust.
“Have you tried transcranial magnetic stimulation?” Hanlon asked. “I’ve seen felons walking about with homemade TMS helmets four times bigger than your top hat.”
“No,” Terry said. He stared ahead while he walked, as though the card show went on.
“Well, good,” Hanlon said. His mouth contorted into a simper which would probably last all Monday. “Dangerous stuff, trying to warp their brains without the proper warehouse-size machinery. They can, at best, manage to knock out some brain areas–nothing even close to the big switch back to their old selves.”
“Hm,” Terry said.
Terry stopped and waited for a crosswalk sign to signal walk. He checked the traffic eight times. Inspector Hanlon nearly huddled against his shoulder, blocking the view of South Street. With no winter hat, his ears turned a comical red.
“Yep, some people go pretty far trying to cheat the criminal justice system,” Hanlon said to himself as he checked the traffic too. “But not everyone. I just checked up on this one guy, actually, who choked a prostitute to death. Hated prostitutes. Wanted them burned off the Earth with godly fire. Well now he goes up and down Hollis street cracking jokes to them. He buys them coffee, the expensive stuff.”
“Right,” Terry said as he frowned at the sky.
Terry inhaled deeply and hurried across the street a second before the lights switched. Hanlon puffed along, all smirks and glances.
“Naw, I didn’t see any funny hats or geek-helmets on that guy,” Hanlon said. “He pays for his crime by embracing his new self. How about you, Mr. Jamison? Got any proclivities about trying to become the old you?”
“Yes,” Terry said.
Hanlon feigned a boyish look of surprise. He caught up until he and Terry walked abreast. Pedestrians swerved around them, around the wide waist of one and the stiff, weighted suit jacket of the other.
“Well, I have a duty to check up on your freaky new experiments,” Hanlon said. “I assume the old Mr. Jamison often replied honestly and abruptly, all spontaneous and carefree. So I guess you answered honestly just now to adopt that old personality, even though it stings a little.”
Terry walked into the headwind, his lips pressed closed and his gaze aimed at the pavement.
“Now, I appreciate all the times we’ve chatted, Mr. Jamison,” Hanlon continued. “You’ve got a respectable coolness about my sleuthing. But you must realize this reversion strategy of yours, including whatever you do at home, won’t work. You come off as stilted, stressed out, dogged, and dour. Only your dapper appearance gives you enough dignity to avoid a mental breakdown. It must feel painfully awkward, deigning to do this ridiculous act everyday. Despite your costume and card tricks, you still appear reserved, solemn even, just as the Reverser rebuilt you.”
“Sounds like a fitting punishment to me,” Terry said.
“But the system wants you reformed more than punished,” Hanlon said with a majestic wave of his own. “Our sunken economy can’t support life sentences anymore. The Reverser absolved you by giving you this new personality. But you INTJ types try to beat the system more than any other felons. That Introversion-Intuition-Thinking-Judgment combo gives you all the stubbornness and willpower needed to force your old self to reemerge. They try to restore their Extrovert-Sensing-Feeling-Perception lifestyles. But they live in constant stress trying to emulate their former ESFP selves. Give up pretending, Terry, or you’ll end up on the same heart medications as me.”
“I suspect the Reverser tampers with more neurons than it should,” Terry said. “It certainly changes more than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, your simplified version of the science.”
“It ought to,” Hanlon said. The pitch of his voice lowered. “You brutally shot a man in the face while he lay wounded with one in his gut. You did it with those same graceful hands of yours. With all this stress of reinventing yourself, maybe you’ll kill a second time and get the automatic death penalty.”
“How illogical,” Terry said. After a long, annoying walk in silence, he added, “Satisfied?”
“A few INTJs get desperate,” Hanlon said. “A gang of them broke into the Reverser facility. They tried to start up the machine without the committee. They would have strapped themselves one-by-one to that chair unsedated if the police didn’t haul them out of there hogtied. I wonder what you will do instead, when the faces wear off those cards.”
“I see a worn-off face everyday,” Terry said.
Terry turned sharply. He flounced through the narrow driveway to enter the parsimoniously small apartment complex where he lived. Hanlon stayed behind, whether from laziness or from having reached the limit of his legal encroaching.
Terry felt the cold still embedded down to his bones, even while he stood over his kitchen counter. He had turned the heat up instead of down prior to leaving, in preparation for the upcoming sauna routine. He pulled today’s crinkled letter from the binder and reread it with a groan. As with previous letters, it summarized his orders from the original Terry with his old ESFP preferences. The old self had known how sickening such demands would sound: looking up trendy magazines to learn about current fashion and fun, calling relatives and old friends often, buying them birthday cards, and espousing a lifestyle only a blabbermouth would enjoy. The old Terry had assumed temptation would arise to skip such orders, to crumple the letters and leave them crumpled for months or to burn them on the pavement just outside. The demands, then, needed repeating.
Terry skimmed the instructions, those draining, agonizing tasks which he still had to complete today. He looked up and bared his teeth to the ceiling fan. The last paragraph introduced a new technique, one even more humiliating than all he had accomplished so far. It told him to perform impromptu card tricks, to combine them spontaneously, to do them in random order, and to risk screwing up the whole routine. The last line told him to do what feels right.
He had failed to do any of that today. He had performed as procedurally as a parking meter until his two hours ran out. Only returning home felt right, even with Inspector Hanlon nagging him all the way.
The cupboard before him had a bank receipt taped to it, and the little numbers offered little hope. He could stay unemployed and keep the magician facade going for another 16 days. Then, the money saved from his old secretary job would run low, and his temporary retirement would end. Then, the job hunt would commence just as the letters dictated. He dug through the stack of them in the binder for guidance, but gave up. He already knew one of them hinted at a career as a gallivanting showman. He remembered writing the letter himself, to himself, but with a different attitude.
Terry slammed the binder shut and closed his eyes. He could at least appreciate the financial strategy of magic shows, if not the fun his old self had intended. He might even earn decent money in a world of recommodified human performance. The era of materialism died a bit more everyday out there.
Decent money. He could almost smell the beer breath of pub goers flowing over him, their chuckles and burps soaring up to the stage in a disgusting chorus. Their applause would surely sound like chaotic gunshots.
Terry stripped off his costume and the clothes beneath it and threw the bundle on the kitchen table. The big ball of cloth looked like a boulder to him, more permanent than the steel tabletop on which it rested. To fold everything neatly as he usually did would seem uncharacteristic of the original Terry, too obstinate for sure. But leaving the costume unfolded would save time in tomorrow’s dress-up routine, a more efficient move–also uncharacteristic of the old Terry. Either choice meant failure.
In the tiny bathroom, Terry placed a scorched clay flower pot on the bottom of the bathtub. He donned oven mitts and brought in the pan of baseball-size stones from the oven. He had let them slowly heat up during his torturous routine outside. They hissed and steamed while he poured tap water into the pot. With the door closed, and with a towel pressed under it, the cramped bathroom became a makeshift sauna.
He performed free-weight squat presses until sweat rolled off him like rain. Once exhausted, he sat on the toilet lid. It felt like another boulder of sorts, hard against his sweat-drenched boxers. His skin excreted not only toxins, but molecules of his INTJ self. Somewhere in the mix of today and tomorrow, a bit of the old Terry would replace whatever got pushed out of his sweat glands.
The steel walls seemed to breathe with him. Clouds of steam bounced off them in rhythm, as though the bathroom also wanted to transform its rigid design. Water dribbled down like sweat in the spaces between the indestructible panels. The heat rejected the ceiling and suffused through Terry instead. It hurt, but not as much as going out there among those ugly, gawking strangers. Their warm breath, full of chatter and random breakfast, always hurt more.
Terry stood and wiped the steam off the mirror. He stared while the glass quickly fogged up again. He saw only a ghostly blur, a man without eyes. He saw the soft capital punishment the cheapskate society had given him, the death of his old self and the slow, self-imposed erasure of the new one. The vague creature which struggled to look back at him could indeed break the system, but perhaps only by committing murder again. If the new personality strove to destroy itself, then the state had simply made a suicider.
He waited for the alarm timer to buzz in the kitchen. Instead, a series of thuds and clacks made their way through the door. It sounded like a raccoon clawing at garbage bins just outside. The city, however, with all its lifeless concrete and metal, had no raccoons.
The sounds came from the little window behind the refrigerator. Terry hurried to the kitchen. All his efforts to endure the sauna now dissipated, his time wasted like the steam which billowed out the bathroom door. He stood in his boxers before the fridge, staring at the puny curtains drawn across the window. The beads of sweat and steam on his skin turned to goosebumps.
A set of impatient hands fiddled behind the glass, hidden by the curtains. They jammed a levering tool, probably a short crowbar, between the sliding window’s stile and its casing. The plastic creaked, but the latches held. The tool slipped repeatedly, but the clumsy hands kept trying.
Terry sidled to the counter and grabbed the two biggest carving knives from the kitchen drawer. He returned to the window and waited with both blades raised and ready. A hand would soon slip inside. He would pin and yank it further inside, and kill anything above it with a dozen upward jabs. Any man could die with the right stab through the armpit. The oaf out there had interrupted the sauna, the one sure task that pushed out the newer self, if only an ion at a time.
Surely, Hanlon deserved multiple stabbings for his infringement. The man probably wanted it, and what other man would break in at noontime besides the Inspector? He wanted to take the bullet or the blade himself. It would spare Terry’s next random provoker the trouble of dying. Hanlon admittedly had heart disease anyway, and though he probably couldn’t fit through the window, he did know the first-story address. He knew who lived here: the nation’s most likely reoffender, the system’s greatest risk.
Terry’s blood both burned and chilled. He felt every rhythmic wave of adrenaline. He saw his future self strapped to a different padded seat, the one that administered lethal injections to repeat murderers. He didn’t care. Logically, Hanlon would keep overstepping his legal boundaries. He would only get snoopier and push harder to prevent a crack in the justice system. Even better, he could cause that crack now by creating the first reoffending murderer to leave the Reverser chair. Hanlon would give his life for the state to eliminate that flaw quicker.
The timer buzzed from the oven clock. It toned only once, but loud enough to feel like electrocution on Terry’s nerves. The bumbling hands outside froze, but soon resumed their prying on the window. Who else but the persistent Inspector would continue a break-in now? Hanlon even knew the daily routine. He knew the renter stayed home at this hour, exhausted and bitter from a morning full of social interaction.
One of the latches cracked off the window frame. Terry squeezed the knives like handlebars just before a motorcycle crash. He looked at the oven which stood there stiffly like a giant, waiting tombstone. He too stood just as solidly and still. The digital clock ticked away the last seconds before his commitment to murder and suicide. It would free him from the unbearable stress of extroversion. It would free others from the intolerable Inspector Hanlon.
By rote–he did everything by rote now–he pictured the original Terry standing so rigidly in his place with a calculated plan, one that included geeky levels of stealth. He had to smile. That old Terry had, of course, simply grabbed his handgun in a panic and shot. He had shot again much later in spontaneous rage.
Now, Terry felt the weight of the tuxedo, four years of it, pressing his whole, nearly nude body. He felt the hellish layers of it, the sweaters in winter, the underarm deodorant clinging to him in summer. He felt its hundreds of pressures all donning him at once and a new, eccentric street magician confined within that heavy, black cage. He felt the top hat clamped on his head, a black ball and chain. The second latch popped off the window casing. It clattered on the floor, and the window slid open enough for a chubby hand to slip through.
Terry screamed. He bellowed long, the way he imagined a howler monkey might do it in the steam and frightful shade of a jungle. The old Terry would have done something almost as crazy, though not as preposterous as an eight-second roar.
Outside, a metal object fell and clanged on the concrete driveway. A scuffle of loafers ensued followed by a scrape sound as hands rushed to pick up the tool. Loud footsteps thudded away and faded. An ever-pesky wind pushed its way through the curtain, making it bulge like a pumping heart.
Hanlon had probably run away from the apartment permanently. He would not face such a pent-up howl again. It would put a pounding into his ailing heart fast enough to kill him in a less heroic manner.
Terry put the knives away and closed the window. Neighboring tenants open their doors, and their muffled sounds annoyed him. Though clammy and cold, he donned his heavy tuxedo and went outside again. He returned to his spot on the street, his least favorite block of concrete out of all those ever stepped on. People gathered before him again, up close and breathy and full of blubbery giggles and susurrations. The ones who had watched on their way to work now watched again on their lunch break. Their snickers at each trick sounded just as squealy and grating. They did, after all, get to see a man perform graceful card tricks in puffy winter gloves.
While he mingled determinedly, Terry plucked a balled-up paper from his pocket. He held it up in feigned and exaggerated surprise, an improvised move to satisfy the demands of today’s letter. The audience expected a card, and they got garbage instead. With their ensuing chuckles, a pang in Terry’s chest also ensued. He paused to ease the strain of breaking the safe routine, to help temper the chaos, to calm the fire still in his blood from the botched break-in. He stared at the paper ball pinched in his fingertips, the first letter which he always kept with him on the street. It still served as a sort of ugly eyeball. It watched and made sure he obeyed.
He could almost see the words folded over themselves, crumpled and compressed. The old Terry had written one of his many whims there: he never knew why he picked street magician over all the other bubbly careers.
But now Terry knew. Beyond the fascination, the boy in him had always wanted to master the tricks. Although a reversed personality could never change back to its old self, he could instead change into his very old self: a child with a dream. The justice system never thought that far back.
He pocketed the ball of paper and found the king in his other pocket. To the crowd’s laughter, it had become a jack. Hanlon watched from the back as always, though paler now. He clapped along with the crowd, his eyes stoic and his mouth hidden behind his big mustache. For once, Terry didn’t know which trick the Inspector clapped for.
It was the morning of the 12th when 34-year-old Simon Baker first noticed The Change.
He was sitting on the toilet in his cramped upstairs bathroom when he saw a sudden flash of yellow in the vanity mirror to his left. He leapt to his feet, thinking a bumblebee had gotten into the house. He and his wife, Loretta, had been having problems with them lately. What he saw in the mirror stopped him in his tracks. For nearly a minute, he stared at his reflection.
The yellow he had seen was his own hair.
But how? His hair had always been black. He had never dyed it. Whenever Wendy, his stylist, suggested putting various lotions and potions on it, he always politely declined. “As long as it stays on my head,” he’d say, “just cut it.”
He rubbed his eyes in disbelief and ran his fingers through his hair. Yup, definitely blond. Even the stubble on his face was blond. His arms, his chest. . . everywhere . . . blond. Frightened, he ran down the hall to the bedroom. “Honey!” he called.
Loretta grumbled and pulled the comforter over her head. “Let me sleep,” she pleaded. “I told you that I don’t have to be at work until ten this morning.”
“But, sweetheart –”
“Go take your shower. I’m not ready to face the world yet.”
“But it’s important!” Simon pleaded.
Loretta unhappily poked her head out from under the comforter. “What?”
“Is that all you have to say?” he asked incredulously.
“What, honey?” she replied, sitting up in bed.
“Look at me!” He gestured at his entire body with his hands.
Loretta did so. “Yeah?” she asked.
“Don’t you see?”
“Simon,” she answered, after a yawn, “I’m in no mood for games.”
“I’m a blond!” he exclaimed.
“You just noticed this?” his wife replied.
“You’ve always had blond hair,” she returned. “Now let me sleep!” She settled down on the mattress and pulled the comforter back over her head.
“Loretta, please,” Simon pleaded.
“You’re talking to the dead,” she replied. “You’d better get ready for work.”
“Go!” Loretta exclaimed, her right index finger jutting out from under the covers like The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Defeated, Simon gave up and shambled back to the bathroom. On the way there, he passed the series of pictures hanging on the wall, including the one from his and Loretta’s wedding day – when he had blond hair.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong,” Dr. Manderson said, opening Simon’s file and flipping to a certain page. “Look here,” he continued, pointing at a particular line. “Hair: Blond.”
“Are you saying I don’t know what color my own hair is?” Simon asked, squirming on the examining table.
“Are you saying my records have been wrong all these years?” Manderson countered.
Simon sighed. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve been a patient of mine since your twenties,” the doctor went on. “Don’t you think I would have noticed that mistake by now? Something simple like that. . . well . . . it’s Doctoring 101.”
“Can we assume for a moment that I’m right?” Simon asked.
“On a medical point?” Manderson replied.
“OK,” the doc answered after a pause, “but just to play devil’s advocate.”
“What could cause something like this to happen?” Simon asked, gesturing at his hair.
“Nothing I’m aware of.”
“How about that alo. . . Oh, what is it called?” Simon fumbled. “A guy in the office had it.”
“Alopecia?” the doctor suggested.
“Alopecia makes your hair fall out,” Manderson explained, “not change color.”
The next morning, The Change had continued.
“Honey,” Simon began, stomping into the bedroom.
“What is it this morning, dear?” Loretta asked, completing her work outfit by putting on her earrings in front of their dresser mirror.
“My eyes,” Simon continued, pointing at them.
She paused and turned to her husband. “What about them?”
“What color are they?”
“More of this?” Loretta said, getting exasperated.
“They’re blue,” she answered. Ready for work now, she took a few steps forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Blond hair and blue eyes,” she continued seductively, giving him a peck on the cheek. “What girl wouldn’t have fallen for you?”
“But have my eyes always been blue?”
Loretta sighed and released him. “Honey,” she said, “you have nothing to worry about but, if you are concerned, maybe you should go see the doctor.”
“I saw Manderson yesterday.”
“I wasn’t talking about him.”
“Then who. . . You mean Segal, don’t you?” Simon asked.
“He could help.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me upstairs!”
“If you say so.”
“And I refuse to visit a psychiatrist,” Simon said adamantly.
After Loretta left for work, Simon started poking around the house. In every picture he found of himself – even from the days before he and Loretta met – he had blue eyes, not, as he recalled, brown. Even on his driver’s license, it said “Eyes: Blue.”
He grabbed a Coke out of the fridge, sat down at the kitchen table, and tried to think about his problem like it wasn’t his problem. If one of his pals came to him and mentioned that he had this weird problem, what would he advise him?
It occurred to him that The Change must be happening overnight, while he slept. Everything was as he remembered before he fell asleep: He had black hair; he had brown eyes. If he just stayed awake. . .
But how long could he do that? One night, maybe.
It turned out to be less than that and, when he awoke, he was taller.
He went to his toolbox and got out the tape measure. Measuring his height with the cranky metal thing wasn’t easy, but his best guess was six-foot-three. No one in his family had ever been over six feet tall.
Even stranger, when he got dressed without giving another thought to his new-found height, he discovered that all of his clothes still fit! How could they? He bought them for someone five-foot-ten. Had they grown with him? The tags on the clothing proved him wrong. They were all in sizes he had never purchased. . . sizes that would have been swimming on the five-foot-ten him.
Maybe he did need to see Dr. Segal after all.
“It’s like looking in a mirror.”
From his tattered clothing, dirty appearance, and the bedroll he was sitting on while leaning against the drugstore’s outside red brick wall, Simon assumed the grizzled old man was homeless. He approached him carefully. The old guy noticed his cautious footsteps and, amused, motioned him over with a cupped hand. “I won’t bite ya!” he said with a chuckle.
“What did you say?” Simon asked, standing in front of him at what he deemed a safe distance. “Something about a mirror.”
“I looked like you once.”
“Many years ago,” Simon added.
“Not as many as you’d think,” he continued. “Blond hair, blue eyes.” He looked Simon up and down. “I see she made you taller though,” he added.
“She?” a confused Simon inquired.
“The Mrs.,” the old man explained. “Loretta.”
“How can you –” Simon began, surprised.
“That is her name.”
“Who are you?” Simon asked.
The old man stood to face him. “Harold Dixon,” he answered, holding out his hand for Simon to shake. “I’m Loretta’s previous husband.”
Simon started laughing. “Did I say something funny?” Dixon asked, withdrawing his ignored hand.
“That’s a good trick.”
“To get money out of me.”
“I don’t want your money,” Dixon told him.
“Right!” Simon replied with a chuckle. “And that bit about being her first husband. . .”
“I didn’t say first,” Dixon clarified, pointing at Simon. “I said I was her previous husband.”
“Oh,” Simon continued, amused. “How many husbands has she had?”
“I’m at least number 4, that I can prove,” he went on. “There may have been one or two more around the time of the American Revolution, but I couldn’t nail down those facts for certain.”
Simon laughed. “You are nuts!”
“I was married to your wife.”
“You’re more than twice her age.”
“And I’m 18,” Simon replied sarcastically.
“Does she still have that heart-shaped birthmark on her left shoulder?” Dixon asked. Simon was shocked. How could anyone else know that? “She did this to me,” Dixon continued. “I displeased her, and she did this. I swear,” he went on, “I’m not much older than you.”
“Loretta’s never been married before.”
“She told you that too, huh?” Dixon continued. “She never admitted it to me either, but, once I started doing some research, I learned the truth.”
“Which is?” Simon asked, prompting the old man to speak.
“That’ll cost you a cup of coffee,” the old man said after a pause.
“I knew it!” Simon replied, starting to pace. “You are trying to get money out of me.”
“Not money. Coffee.”
“Which costs money.”
Shaking his head, Simon stopped pacing and turned to walk away. “Aren’t you the least bit curious?” Dixon called after him.
Simon stopped in his tracks and turned to face the old man. “About?” he asked.
“How I knew your wife’s name, for one. How could I guess a name like ‘Loretta?’” he inquired. “It’s not like she’s named ‘Mary.’”
“OK,” Simon responded, taking a few slow steps closer to Dixon. “You got me there.”
“And the birthmark?”
“Yes,” Simon replied. “That too.”
“There are some other things that you really ought to know. . . things that could save your life.” Dixon motioned at the doughnut shop across the street. “Coffee?”
Simon returned to the table carrying two large, black coffees. Dixon thanked him as he put one down in front of the old man. Simon didn’t really believe him, but he was curious to see how far Dixon would carry on this charade and to learn what was behind it.
It reminded him of the old joke where the man invites two Jehovah’s Witnesses into his home. He makes them a nice lunch and then asks them what they want to talk to him about. The two Witnesses look oddly at each other. One of them replies, “I don’t remember. We’ve never gotten this far before.”
“So,” Simon said, sitting down across from Dixon, a small circular table between them. “Spill it.”
“I asked you here,” Dixon began, “for some privacy too. I didn’t want to tell you what I need to tell you out in the open.”
“Very considerate,” Simon said, amused.
Dixon took a big swig from his cup, as though to steel himself. “Loretta’s. . . a succubus,” he said.
“Is she?” Simon replied, smiling.
“Yup,” Dixon continued. “A demon who thrives on the strength and souls of young men.”
“Uh huh,” Simon continued.
“Is the sex good?” Dixon asked nonchalantly after a beat.
Simon practically spat his coffee. “What?” he said incredulously.
“Is the sex good?” Dixon repeated.
“That’s none of your goddam business.”
Dixon chuckled. “Yeah,” he said wistfully, “it was good for us too.”
“Mr. Dixon –”
“Some of the best I ever had,” he continued wistfully, though Simon didn’t want to hear. “A strong woman. Insatiable. Every time we finished, I felt like I had been hit by a truck! That’s how she first gets to you – saps your energy. . . and your soul.” Simon began to rise. “She’s everything you ever wanted in a woman, isn’t she?” Dixon asked quickly.
“She is,” Simon answered, sitting back down.
“It’s like God Himself made her for you?”
“And now, she’s re-making you for herself – making you into what she wants – her ideal man: Blond hair, blue eyes, tall. Every morning, it’s something different, isn’t it? I call it The Change.”
“You’re quite a storyteller.”
“That’s when she’s best able to take your life force. . . when you’re asleep. You’re the most vulnerable then.” Dixon reached forward and grabbed Simon by the shoulder. “Think about it, man!” he stressed. “These changes you’ve been going through, what’s the common element?”
Simon shook his head. “You’ve lost me.”
“You’re not changing yourself, right?”
“Hell no!” he answered.
“Then all that’s left is. . .”
“Loretta?” Simon offered.
Dixon took a big drink. “She can assume any shape she wants – whatever her victim finds attractive.” He removed his hand from Simon’s shoulder. “She’s using you and, eventually, she’ll drain you dry.”
“Then how are you still around?” Simon asked.
“I recognized what she was doing. I ran, but not fast enough. She was able to take some of me permanently.” He touched a hand to his chest. “This is all that remains,” he sadly said.
“Why would she have stopped?”
“I don’t know,” the older man continued after a sigh and a swig. “Maybe she figured she might need me again. Maybe she had you in the on-deck circle and saw no reason to kill me. Why waste energy, right?”
“Or,” Simon went on, “maybe you’re full of it.”
“You can think that if you like,” Dixon said, peering down sadly at the table. “I felt an obligation to tell you, and I’ve done that.” He drained his cup, rose from his seat, leaned on the table, and continued. “If you wake up tomorrow a. . . a ‘changed man,’” he said, “don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“If what you’re saying has the slightest bit of truth to it,” Simon asked, looking up at Dixon, “and that’s a big if, what would you have me do?”
“Run!” Dixon answered, slamming a palm down on the table and speaking a bit too loudly. “Run fast and far. Forget how good the sex is and run. . . before you end up old before your time – like me.”
Simon was glad Loretta wasn’t home from the market yet. He quickly Googled “succubus” on his laptop. A lot of what Dixon had told him was there; some of it wasn’t. He was reading the Wikipedia entry when he heard his wife’s car in the driveway. He quickly shut down his computer and went to the front door to meet her.
The last of the groceries put away, Loretta asked Simon, “So, what did you do today?”
“Nothing much,” he replied, closing a cabinet door. “Just some errands. The drugstore, stuff like that.”
She seductively walked up to him and slung her arms around his neck. “Your nurse is right here,” she whispered. “I’ve even got the uniform. Remember?” She started planting several small kisses on his chest.
“N-Not tonight, honey,” Simon stammered.
“I thought you’d liked my nurse’s uniform,” Loretta went on, pretending to be hurt.
“Oh, I do, I do,” her husband continued, chuckling uneasily. “There are a lot of good memories in that outfit!”
“Then what?” she asked insistently.
“I’m. . . just not feeling too well.”
“What is it?” “A cold coming on, I think,” he answered, throwing an errant sniffle in for good measure. “Achy and sniffly. Feeling. . . blah.”
“Anything I can do?” Loretta asked, concerned.
“Thanks, but I don’t think so,” Simon answered. “I’m gonna take a couple of aspirins and call it a night.”
Simon awoke with a start in the early morning light. He knew he’d had one of those can’t-get-away dreams. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow and looked at the blankets-covered sleeping form of Loretta beside him.
His wife. His love. How could she be anything but the woman he had fallen for? Why did he allow himself to even think otherwise? He spooned into her, which always calmed him, and waited for sleep to return.
In an instant, he realized that something was very wrong. Loretta felt. . . different – hard and wrinkly. He boosted himself up on one elbow and slowly pulled the covers from her shoulder. “Honey?” he said, shaking her gently.
He had never screamed so loudly.
What he had been spooning to were the very dead remains of Harold Dixon.
All the “air” had been let out of him. He looked like one of those “Happy Birthday” balloons several days after the big event. His deflated face was contorted in the agony he must have felt at the moment of his death. Afraid to touch the man’s remains anymore, Simon kicked it from the bed with his bare feet. It landed with a squish on the hardwood floor.
Loretta walked calmly into the bedroom from the hall. She appraised the situation for a few seconds and looked pleased. “You really should delete your browsing history,” she said.
Simon sat up nervously, glancing alternately at Dixon’s corpse and his wife. “You mean
it’s. . . it’s. . .” he stammered.
“True?” Loretta suggested, walking toward their bed. “Yes.” She sat down on the corner of the mattress and reached out for him. Simon pressed himself against the wooden headboard. Loretta chuckled. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked.
“You should be,” she said.
“Why did you. . .” Simon began, looking down at Dixon’s remains.
“Covering my tracks,” she explained. “When I saw what you were Googling, I knew you must have run into Harold. He was my only living ex-husband.”
“But you let him live.”
“Only because I had found you, and you could do whatever I needed. . . and more. . . better than he.” She sighed and added, “I’m not happy with what you did, sweetheart.” Her words visibly frightened Simon, who tried unsuccessfully to push back beyond the limits of the headboard. “But I’ll forgive you. . . this time.”
“Where. . . Where do we go from here?” he asked nervously.
“Just a few minor tweaks should be enough,” Loretta explained. “If I say ‘jump,’ I want you to say ‘how high?’”
“Of course,” Simon quickly answered.
“If I have some womanly needs to be satisfied, I’ll expect you to be there.”
“You got it.”
“You should know,” she went on, “that I don’t have anyone else lined up. If you’re not good to me, you’re gone. I won’t be as lenient as I was with Harold here.”
“Not to worry.”
“I prefer to make the changes overnight,” Loretta continued. “But I can make them while you’re awake too. I’ve made you handsomer, lover. I can also make you uglier.”
“I’m. . . I’m sure you can.”
“How would you like to be the size of a garden gnome, to be covered in warts, to be a hunchback?” She reached out and cupped his blond, stubbly chin in her palm. “You’re so pretty now. Don’t make me angry.” She stood quickly and, looking down at Dixon’s deflated remains, said, “Now get out of bed and clean this place up.”
There has been no trouble at the Baker house for many months. Simon believes that his eyes have become bluer and his hair blonder, but he can’t be sure. There’s no sense in asking anyone. He’s begun doing little things for his wife that he never did before, especially if she doesn’t seem too happy in the morning when she leaves for work.
Loretta doesn’t have to tell him to be good. The slightly stinky garment bag hanging in his closet, which holds the decomposing remains of Harold Dixon, is reminder enough.
I first saw Melusina perched on a rock alongside the narrow river that runs through our local park. I assumed she was wearing a swimsuit, but her long auburn hair concealed it. She didn’t notice me, but I was close enough to see her pupils dilate when she looked at Freddie, who was posing with a football, showing off his prowess to the neighbourhood bimbos.
I sat beside her. “You fancy him, don’t you?”
She turned to me. Her eyes were so dark, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of an open coalmine. “Why does that concern you?”
I took a mental step back from the black chasm. “I’m his sister.”
She laughed, and a shiver ran down my back. “Relax. Your sibling’s safe. I’ve vowed never again to get involved with a mortal, but there’s no harm in looking. Right?”
“Right,” I said, “but are you telling me you’re not mortal?”
“I’m not telling you anything. I was thinking aloud.”
“Well, keep doing it. I’m interested.”
She turned the coalmines on me again. “What’s your name?”
“Fiona. What’s yours?”
“Melusina. I’m a river witch.” She slid off the rock, into the water, and I caught a glimpse of her true form. “You can Google me.” She flicked her tail and swam away.
Google was illuminating, as always, but not necessarily true. No problem, I thought. I’ll check the details when she comes back. I knew she would. How could a badass version of the little mermaid resist Freddie with his pop-star smile and ballet dancer grace?
The following Saturday afternoon I spent an hour in the park sketching my brother, as he lounged on a lakeside bench, playing his guitar and singing a self-penned protest song about oppressed workers: ironic, as he was a stranger to anything resembling work. The song was mediocre but he was a good model: blond hair gelled to rigidity, high cheekbones and hips as slim as a Barbie Doll’s. You know the type.
I finished the sketch, packed my pad and pencils into my satchel and left him basking in the adoration oozing from his latest squeeze, Sophie Melancamp, the receptionist from Vision Express. She lay on the grass at his feet.
I walked alongside the river that fed the lake, and I wasn’t surprised to see Melusina swimming close to the bank. We reached her rock. I sat on it. She stayed in the water.
She didn’t preamble. “What’s your brother’s name?”
She sighed. “That’s what I used to call Siegfried. He reminds me of him.”
“Google said Siegfried was your one true love. Was he?”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember. A thousand years is a long time to hang onto trivial emotions. What other pearls of wisdom did Google cast before you?”
“You left him and your children because he spied on you taking a bath. Why so modest?”
“I didn’t wish to see fear or repulsion in his eyes when he witnessed my transformation.” She pulled herself out of the river. Her tail shed its silver scales and divided into long slender legs, and she draped her hair across her shoulders, covering her naked body.
“Yet you allowed me to witness it.”
“You’re not a man.” She made it sound like a dismissal. Why should she care about my reaction? I didn’t matter.
“Was he frightened or repulsed?” I said.
“I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d warned him. I’d stay with him if he promised never to watch me bathe. That was our bargain. He broke his promise.”
“But how could you abandon your children?”
“I knew they’d manage without me, and they did. One of their descendants married the English king, Edward IV. Your royal family are of her bloodline.”
“Do they grow tails when they’re in the bath?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them in the bath.” She reached for my hand and kissed it. “May I stay with you for a while, Fiona?”
My stomach fluttered. This was a disturbing turn of events. I knew she was dangerous and I should scream and head for the hills, but she fascinated me, and I didn’t pull my hand away.
“You may, if you let me paint your portrait.”
“You’re an artist?”
“Trying to be.”
“It’s a deal. Bring me some clothes.”
I brought her a summer dress, sandals and underwear. She pulled the dress over her head, slipped her feet into the sandals, and threw the bra back to me, “That won’t fit,” followed by the panties, “They’d get in the way if I had to transform in a hurry.”
I took her home to my one-bedroom flat and led her into the living room that doubled for a studio. “You can have the bedroom,” I said. “I’ll use the bed-settee in here.”
She looked at the paintings leaning against the wall. “They’re good. Have you sold many?”
“Not yet. I make my living illustrating children’s books, but if I can get together enough paintings to hold an exhibition I hope people will start buying them.
“I can make it happen.”
“I’m a witch, remember? Put my portrait in your exhibition.”
We began next day. She posed naked. “Can you make the tail come?” I said.
“No. I can only transform when I’m submerged in water.”
“I could fill a bucket and chuck it over you.”
“If you do I’ll hit you with the bucket.”
I painted the tail from memory.
Our time together was the happiest I’d ever known, but I knew it wouldn’t last. She was interested in Freddie, not me. She examined my sketches of him serenading Sophie in the park. “Is he a musician?
“No, he’s a university student.”
“What’s he studying?”
“Social interaction via the medium of graphic novels.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t seem to involve much work.”
“Does he visit you often?”
“Yes, whenever he wants money.”
He turned up one evening with an empty wallet and a winning smile. Melusina was sitting in my antique rocking chair plaiting her hair.
Freddie ignored me, sat cross-legged on the rug beside her, and said, “Hi. I’m Freddie.”
“I know,” she said, sliding out of the chair, and joining him on the rug. “I’m Mel.”
I sketched them getting acquainted: the whispers, sly, predatory smiles, and touching fingers. The following week she moved in with him. I coped with my desolation by focusing on my artwork. The sketches would form the basis of the final painting for my exhibition.
It was a success. Agents for two foreign businessmen offered me obscene amounts of money for my portrait of Melusina with the tail. I sold it to the highest bidder for enough to finance a comfortable lifestyle even if I never sold another painting. I did, however, sell others, and continued to do so as fast as I could produce them. My reputation as an artist grew. So did my bank account.
I found a new apartment. It had a large studio situated to catch the setting sun’s blue and gold light, and two bedrooms, in case Melusina came back. I had everything I wanted except her. Freddie had her.
I sent them details of my new address. They sent me a ‘Good Luck in Your New Home’ card, bearing a picture of a country cottage. I suspected it came from The Card Factory’s discount shelf.
Six months later she turned up at my door, pale, trembling and her hair in a mess. She sat in the rocking chair, gave a deep sigh, and closed her eyes. I placed a cushion behind her head and poured her a brandy. “What’s up?” I said.
“Your brother’s given me a gift I didn’t want.”
I knew what she meant. I’d anticipated this. “You’re pregnant.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I came here to say goodbye. Freddie won’t want a child and he’ll lose interest in me. I’m leaving before that happens.”
“Don’t go,” I said. “When the baby’s born bring it here. We’ll raise it together. I’ve always wanted a child.”
She drained her glass and passed it back to me. “So, why don’t you have one of your own?”
“I don’t like men.”
“Use a sperm bank. You can afford it.”
“I’d still have to give birth and I don’t want to do that. Please bring your baby here.”
“You may not like men, but I do.”
Of course she did. I’d been fooling myself. “So you’ll flick your tail, swim away, and in a thousand years or so another pretty boy will take your fancy.”
“No. I’m done with mortals.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“Yes, but I’ll have my child with me this time.”
“I thought it was a gift you didn’t want.”
“It was, but maybe motherhood will help me to grow up.”
“Mel, please don’t go.”
Her dark eyes seemed to see into my soul, and I knew she understood. “You don’t want just any child. You want mine.”
“Yes, if I must lose you.”
“Alright. I’ll stay until the baby’s born, I’ll give it to you, and then I’ll go, but there’s a condition.” I held my breath. “I’ll come back in seven years time and you must allow the child to choose between us.”
I had to agree. If I refused I’d never see the baby.
I spent the next five months stocking up with everything a new baby would need. I was terrified, but happy. Seven years might be all the time I’d get to be a mother, but it was better than nothing.
She returned late one night. Her belly was distended and she leaned against me for support. “When’s the baby due?” I said.
“Sooner the better. I’m in labour.”
My throat dried and my heart pounded. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No,” she screamed. “Nobody must see it when it’s first born. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. You can help me.”
I barely remember what I did, but it was an easy birth. After we cleaned and dried her son his tail split into legs. We laid him in his cot and he slept.
I made her comfortable. “Will you be alright?” I said.
“Yes. I heal quickly. Thank you, Fiona. Now go to bed.”
When I awoke next morning her bed was empty.
Later that day Freddie came looking for her.
“She’s gone,” I said.
“I don’t know, but she’s not coming back.”
He glanced at the baby in my arms. “Is that—?”
“Yes. It’s your son.”
“What am I supposed to do with him?”
“Leave him with me. It’s what Mel wanted.”
He looked puzzled, but not distressed. He was always too selfish to be distressed for long. He and Mel had made a good match. I wondered if the outcome would have been different if she’d revealed her true nature to him and he’d accepted it. I doubted it. “I suppose you expect me to give you money,” he said.
I laughed. “Oh sure. Like I expect the Tooth Fairy to show up when required, and leave a gold coin under his pillow. Close the door on your way out, Freddie.”
A month later he phoned to say he’d left University and was taking a gap year, exploring the Australian Outback with Sophie Melancamp. It’s more likely that they were sunbathing on Bondi beach.
I named the baby Alexander. Each time I bathed him his chubby legs fused into a golden-scaled tail. I took him to a deserted beach on moonlit nights, and we played in the breakers. He swam, dived and twisted, gurgling with contentment in his natural element.
I sketched him, painted him, and added his image to one of Melusina’s portraits. I told him stories about his mother: the beautiful mermaid. He was interested, but she couldn’t compete with Spider Man and the Ninja Turtles. I also told him about his father, but as Freddie had no super powers to recommend him he had no place in Alexander’s list of priorities. I did. He called me Auntie Fi, he loved me, and he was dearer to me than his mother had ever been. We were happy, but a dark dread haunted me
On his seventh birthday I took him to the river. Melusina was sitting on the rock where I first saw her. “Xander,” I said, “this is your mama.”
She slipped into the water and beckoned to him. “Come and swim with me, Xander.” I resented her using my pet name for him.
He pulled off his clothes and joined her. His legs fused into a tail and he laughed and reached for her hand. I sat on the bank and watched them. He waved to me. I waved back and tried to smile while my heart was breaking.
“Would you like to come and swim with me in the sea?” she said to him.
He called to me, “Can I, Auntie Fi?”
“Yes, if you’re sure you want to go with her, but she won’t bring you back.”
“You can come with us.”
“I can’t, Xander. I don’t have a tail.”
Melusina said, “You can come, Fiona. I’ll transform you, and I’ll take care of you and the boy.”
I thought about what she was offering me: a life of freedom, roaming the oceans with the only two people who were ever important in my life. If I refused I might lose them both, but I knew she’d never change. She’d continue to leave discarded lovers and children scattered across the five continents, and some day she’d discard us too.
“Thank you, but no. I’m a mortal and I belong on the land.” I turned to Alexander. “You have to choose between us.”
He pulled himself onto the bank, transformed, and ran into my arms. I kissed his wet hair and held him close, waiting for his answer. “I want to stay with you, Auntie Fi.”
The fear that had oppressed me for seven years scuttled off into the sunset. Good riddance. It could take the river witch with it. I looked at her, expecting to see either sorrow or anger in her coalmine eyes, but I saw relief to equal mine.
She inclined her head in acceptance, dived beneath the rippling water, flicked her silver tail, and was gone.
“On the other side of the mirror there’s a real forest,” Gavin said.
“What are you talking about?”
“You should know, Sabrina. You’re the one who gave me that box.”
A treasure box had seemed like the perfect birthday gift for a little brother who was always collecting things. At six, it had been hockey cards. At seven, the bones of whatever unfortunate animal carcass he could find around the yard or the beach. At eight, dried leaves shaped like needles and ovals and squares. At nine, the sayings from every fortune cookie received by family members in Chinese takeout packs. He’d needed a place to put all that.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sabrina had picked the treasure box out herself, bought it with saved-up allowance, and she was quite proud of it. The lacquer shone on the wood. She’d learned about the different types of wood and chosen oak because it meant strength. She’d picked this particular box because it was big and had a mirror inside.
“Let me see that forest?”
“Maybe later. I want to keep it to myself for now.”
“Then why are you telling me about it?”
“Because you gave it to me, stupid! I thought you’d like to know.”
He walked off, fists swinging, back to the room and that stupid box.
It was a year ago that they’d stopped playing pretend games. How many times had they hidden themselves in the big hall closet, hoping to run into talking beavers behind the bedsheets and cleaning supplies? It had all ended one day with Gavin’s folded arms and declaration, “Beavers can’t talk. That’s stupid.” The truth had struck Sabrina one night as she was failing to get to sleep, distracted by cars rumbling sporadically outside the window: she’d needed the games more than Gavin had. And now that there was some magic landscape in the box, he wouldn’t show her.
Forests weren’t that exciting anyway, she told herself. There was one just down the road. It had raccoons and skunks in it. If that’s what he wanted to imagine in his box, let him imagine it.
◊ ◊ ◊
First, Gavin made sure that his door was locked. His parents didn’t like him locking it, and would yell at him if they discovered he was keeping others out, but sometimes it was necessary. He ran his hands over the smooth, shiny wood. Slowly, he opened the lid and looked into the glass that lined the top.
His features stood out crisply, and then began to blur. Bushes bloomed over his nose. A spruce sprouted from his forehead. He watched as a tiny rabbit tracked across the ground—boing, boing, boing. Branches moved with the stirring of a minuscule wind. Soon there was no face in the mirror at all.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sabrina took her book into the yard, which smelled of decaying leaves and sounded like cars rumbling past. She was on the last installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. The battle was bloodier than usual for that kind of book… Tash was revealed to be an evil god, Aslan a benevolent one…almost to the end now…
◊ ◊ ◊
It was past Gavin’s bedtime, and raining. The kids in Narnia ascended to heaven, a disappointment. Susan was excluded because of her interest in lipstick. Sabrina decided that if she ever wrote a book, the queens would wear lipstick and no one would care.
She wondered what was going on in Gavin’s forest.
She hadn’t meant to do it, but her hand moved to her brother’s doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It wasn’t like Gavin to lock the door. “Best leave him alone,” sang her mother’s voice in her head, while a younger, stronger voice called out “Go in there!” She’d read a detective story that explained how to pick a lock once, and practiced on her old diaries until she could produce that satisfying click. She’d never tried it out on a real door, but she did have a hairpin.
Her feet clumped through the dark room, past the night light with its tiny flicker, to the lump on the floor that was the treasure box. On the bed, her brother stirred and Sabrina stopped in her tracks. His breathing remained even.
Slowly, slowly, she knelt beside the box. Lifted it. Stood up, careful not to make the floorboards creek. Carried the box into the hallway, where the light was on.
Fingerprints smudged the gleaming oak surface. If she’d known the box would smear so easily, she would have bought Gavin a different one. No—they weren’t fingerprints but paw prints, tracks left by an impossibly small animal. Her breath caught in her throat as she lifted the lid.
Lights from the windows of Brennan’s Fishing Lodge seeped through the ground fog ahead—a welcoming beacon for lost souls.
Brennan’s rested in an oval spit of land that jutted out into the St. Lawrence Seaway in the heart of the Thousand Islands of Southeastern Canada just above New York State.
The traffic light turned green. The battered gray pick-up to my left pulled away. I remained trapped in thought at the intersection in the mist of a cold October afternoon. A car drove out of Brennan’s long, sinuous driveway, stopped and turned left towards Gananaque, a quiet town about five miles west. We’d go there and walk the village when it rained and it was impossible to fish. But mostly so my brother and I could buy fireworks—boxes of fireworks, every kind and size of fireworks. The rarest of adolescent contraband and parental indulgence.
We were teenagers, when we first came up to Brennan’s in 1966. My father and his friends had fished the St. Lawrence and Alexandria Bay for years before their poker group disbanded. One of the players had accused another of cheating and the other four were forced to take sides. A meaningless squabble breached a friendship that was born before my older brother. After that, we came up as a family whenever my father could afford it, which meant a long weekend every other year or so.
Brennan’s was a spacious private home that had suffered through several poorly thought out renovations. When their children married, Molly and her husband Bill decided to put their hospitality and excellent fishing location to better use. There were four bedrooms upstairs and two smaller ones on the first floor that were in constant demand.
Guests were picked up every morning at seven o’clock by guides who tethered their launches to the long dock that poked into the bay. Molly ran the kitchen and accommodations and smiled constantly. Bill arranged for the guides and managed the finances. Bill was the straight man, while Molly plied the small dining room after dinner, ladling out homemade vanilla ice cream on top of homemade chocolate layer cake mixed with local folklore and terrible jokes.
The body of water was so vast you could spend an entire morning without seeing another soul, overcome by the beauty of lake, land, and great natural bounty of the northern rim of the Adirondacks.
Under the calm of a Canadian sun, there were no distractions from this glade of isolation and retreat. And if you were skilled, but above all patient and fortunate, you might catch a pike, perch, or smallmouth bass. If the gods embraced you, a muskellunge or northern pike would take your line for an unforgettable ride.
The light turned red then green again. The sirens called as they had a week ago. So a phone call was made and clothes were gathered and my rod was taken from the closet and memories were dusted off and confronted.
It was Wednesday. By tomorrow night, the lodge would be filled with guests and expectations, and the few who longed for solitude. I unpacked, ate alone nodding cordially at the two other families steeped in laughter and familiarity. After dinner I withdrew, as is my tendency, and had coffee on the porch overlooking the seaway. Stars twinkled above as they had on my last trip and the one before it.
“What do you know that I don’t? Probably everything. Send me a comet, a flash, or bolt. A marker. A word of truth to save me from myself,” I said pondering the possibility that the almighty may be a woman who’s been humoring the assholes of mankind simply in order to continue the experiment. Mosquitoes darted around my ankles searching for dessert.
My alarm drew me from a deep, forgiving sleep the next morning. The wind rattled the windows on the west side of the home. I washed and dressed and was greeted by Molly who scolded me for being late. I should have known better, she said, concerned that Captain Jack would be pissed.
She was right. “Does the condemned man get a last breakfast?”
Molly was about to further her rebuke. “I’ll tell him your shower wasn’t working. Sit down and I’ll get you something.”
Molly’s something was bacon, eggs, sausage, blueberry pancakes, and steaming coffee. She remembered I liked oatmeal cookies and prepared a fresh bag offered with an affectionate pat on the head as I made my way down to the landing. Captain Jack Hutchinson sat facing the morning sun, his back to the lodge adjusting a reel. A lifeless cigarette slung from his lips.
A ripple rose on the lake surface a dozen yards out to my right and moved toward the dock. It struck the piling as I passed over then disappeared under the dock. It didn’t come out the other side. I stopped and waited, but the surface of the water to the left of the dock remained still.
The first thing that strikes you about Jack Hutchinson—besides the pinch of gray hair that slipped between his coat collar and baseball cap, his cracked canvass brown skin, slight hunch, and torn black turtleneck sweater—were his eyes—a fire of cobalt blue shaded by thick brows, receding into depth and distance, set in a wasteland of cracks and crevasses, etched lines marked an absolute intensity. Captain Jack wasn’t simply looking at you, but scanning your soul for flaws.
I introduced myself. He nodded thoughtfully. We were the last boat to clear the dock. It had to bother him.
I came here because I had to, only I wasn’t certain why. Just that this was the place for me to be this weekend. This is what I told my friends. They were silent, hoping that I would find a foothold out of the miasma that had held me in its grip for these many months.
Captain Jack attended to the helm and his intuition. The sun’s glare showered us from the east, the wind confronted us from the west. I pulled my reel from my gearbox and attached it to my pole. I threaded my line and opened the bait box. A swarm of minnows frantically looked for deeper waters.
His launch hummed along like a fine tuned musical instrument. We skirted the shoreline for another ten minutes until we came around the crest of Pelican Cove. Jack throttled back the engine and slipped past a bed of thick marshes and tangled horse reed. He let the boat drift a while then dropped anchor near the trunk of a half-submerged oak.
The boat settled. The sway felt good, comforting under foot. How many times had I set my line and sent it flying out across sun-speckled water? How often had I dreamed of being up here rather than working in New York City or flying to client meetings in Atlanta or Philadelphia or kidding myself that there was still time left for me to find happiness?
“You were out with Andy Larsen,” Jack said.
Andy Larsen. “A long time ago.”
“You caught a five and a half pound smallmouth bass off King’s Point with him.”
I let the weight of the minnow drag on the line then flipped it back and sideways twenty yards off the stern. It landed near the tree stump. I’d caught my first pike out here. I remembered the cove, and Andy Larsen.
“Terrible breath,” I said, working the line.
“As long as I’ve known the old badger.”
“He knows I’m up here?”
“His back’s real bad or he would have taken you out himself.”
“I gave him a hard time.”
“You caught the biggest damn smallmouth bass he’d seen in years and twice the catch everyone else caught for the weekend you were up here.”
“He’s a good man.”
“With a blown out back,” he added as the boat drifted toward a rocky outcropping close to the shore, “Give it a toss over there.”
I dropped my line again a few yards from the outcropping and let it sink. There’s no telling where a school might be. It depended on the weather, the time of day, the current, if others boats have been around in the past few days, and luck. Even the dumbest fisherman can get a bite if luck rides his line.
“I never got that fish.”
“I know. Bill was embarrassed. Molly too. Everyone round these parts heard the story.”
“It’s probably hanging over a mantelpiece a few miles from here.”
“A prize like that’s hard to pass up.”
It was stolen from Molly’s freezer before it could be picked up by the taxidermist. “Even twenty years ago?”
“I was the one who Bill wanted to mount it for you.”
I looked into those cold blue eyes. “You’re that Captain Jack!”
A fragile grin broke across his grizzled jowls. “Ain’t another within a hundred miles.”
Captain Jack! “That’s what Molly wanted to tell me.”
“I thought she had.”
“No. I was late getting down to breakfast. There was a problem with the shower. She fed me and sent me right out to your boat.”
“Watch you don’t snag your line there,” he said, noticing the boat was turning toward a sunken branch spiking up through the surface.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said again, to the man Bill Brennan guaranteed would give me the finest fish mount in Canada. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who took it.”
“I thought about it for a long while when it happened. Everyone around these parts was surprised. Doesn’t look good for business. When word got around what happened, the local who took it, and it had to be a local, wouldn’t dare brag about his good fortune.”
I was nineteen. It took me a half an hour to bring that fish to the side of the boat. Andy kept maneuvering the bow of the boat to keep my line clear. The fish sounded, and then ran off half my line. I took him square on my flimsy six-ounce test line and he fought until the end. Andy lifted the bass out of the water and dropped it into the holding tank with our other catch.
“A very big fish,” was all he said.
It was only when we brought it back to the dock and Bill weighed and measured it against the catch from the other boats did we grasp what I had landed.
Old Andy Larsen. “What if.”
Jack turned to me, “You say something.”
“You ever play, what if?”
“Never heard of it.”
That’s because I just made it up. “Something to pass the time.”
“How’s it go?”
“Ask yourself what if you could have whatever you wanted. Like change something in your past, or live to a hundred?”
Jack thought this through. “Longer.”
“Whatever you wanted. Anything.”
“A man asks himself that all his life.”
“Every time he sees a loved-one sick or dying,” I said.
“Or wishes he’d have said something instead of remaining silent.”
“Or what if he could have gone back in time to change his life?”
He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. Hard question to answer, I mean off-hand.”
I felt a sharp, biting tug. The line tightened and sliced left, then right, through the water. A fish will grab bait and swim with it in its mouth undecided as to whether it should be swallowed. Only if it’s swallowed can you set the hook. If you pull back too quick on the line, a fish will simply let go of the bait. The fish came around near the stern, swam on a little longer, and then released the bait.
“He’s down there,” I said pulling up my line.
Jack released the dead minnow and set a fresh one and I let it drop over the side. Jack lit up a cigarette and hung his legs over the side of the boat. He dropped the beak of his baseball cap over his eyes letting enough light in to see where my line had entered the water.
Tiny waves lapped up against the launch. I was glad to be back.
I could feel a nudge, a ping on the line. I was being tempted and teased. I moved to the center of the boat to steady my balance and gave a slight tug. Nothing. Another tug brought with it a tug in turn.
I dropped the tip of my pole closer to the surface. “What if?”
“What if you could see the fish?”
Captain Jack came off his haunches. My line jerked to the right, then steadied itself. “What if you could see the fish?”
“Wouldn’t be much sport there,” I answered.
“It would be like hunting elk or lion. You set up the crosshairs and squeeze off a shot from a hundred yards out. Hardly call it a sport the way it used to be.”
“That’s what makes fishing different. You never see what you’re going after or what you’ve hooked until it comes to the surface. Could be anything.”
“You have to feel it, not simply pay an expensive, ill-mannered guide like me to shuttle you to the quarry.”
“What if you could predict where all the fish were all of the time? Would you still want to fish?”
He shook his head. “Not much thrill in that.”
“It’s more important to know where and how to stalk.”
“It’s about the journey.”
“That’s what most people fear.”
“Ain’t no point knowing everything.”
I gave a slight yank on the line and set the hook. Jack pulled anchor and let us drift as I worked the line. For the next ten minutes, I reeled in, then let the fish swim away as its strength overcame the tension on my reel.
“Nasty little critter.”
I pulled back some line and he surfaced a few yards out. “Pike. Nice one too,” Jack said reaching for the net.
“The tension on your drag is too taut.”
I immediately released the drag screw on the side of the reel letting my line run out faster. The fish ran out line and sounded again. We maneuvered for a few more minutes until he came to the surface for good. Jack scooped him into the net and held him out to me. “Got to be six or seven pounds.”
“Nice catch,” I admitted.
“Nice day’s catch.”
It was ten-fifteen. We went back to the lodge at twelve-thirty with another, smaller pike, two respectable smallmouth bass, and a large perch. No other boat did as well. The other guests sat at tables in the dining room while their guides went around back and ate in the kitchen or on their boats.
We returned to reality and went back out at one-thirty. The afternoon wasn’t as productive or as animated as the morning. We were relieved to see that the rest of the boats had fared as poorly.
The next day was cloudy and cool. A stiff breeze from the west set a coating of fine ripples rubbing the surface to a froth. Fish would be biting today as they came to the richly oxygenated surface. Guests were down early and eager. Breakfast was taken in greedy quantities, as if we were warriors preparing for certain battle.
We spent the morning combing Jack’s favorite spots, zigzagging across a body of water with no beginning and no end. Everyone should spend a day on this stretch of nature’s imagination—hold a pole in their hands and test themselves against a wily adversary who harms no one and provides endless hours of pleasure and, if you’re available, an opportunity for reflection. In the morning, I caught a sizable pike and had my line snapped clean, Jack insists, by a muskie he knew lived nearby. We went back to the lodge for lunch, reluctant to disclose our failures. By the evening, I had added three smallmouth bass.
As we tied off, Jack asked me if I would like to have dinner with him. I accepted. I told Molly about it. She said Jack never invited guests home. Guides never exposed themselves to such familiarity. But she approved.
West Benton Pond Lane. A winding, rolling dirt road that sprang from nowhere four miles out of town, marked by small, widely separated cottages and undulating stretches of Canadian grandeur. I was early and enjoying the scenic route. Jack said his house wasn’t much while Molly disagreed. Jack Hutchinson was an excellent cook who participated in life when his wife was alive. His daughter had moved down to Albany to work for the government. Molly said she was very pretty with her mother’s fire green eyes, her father’s sharp tongue, and a native innocence about her that belied a quick, resourceful mind. Jack saw her and his grandchildren every chance he got.
I turned onto the dirt road that twisted and rolled until a quarter mile later I saw the house that Jack built obscured by thick underbrush and a rangy stand of Canadian scotch pine. I got out with my bottle of wine in hand and knocked at the door. Something I judged as stew wafted down from the chimney.
The door opened. “Good evening,” the woman said, moving back from the door.
My first thought was that the woman in her early forties was his daughter. I strained for similarities around the eyes and mouth. A young girl in her twenties came out of the kitchen. She was as beautiful as the one who introduced herself as Gretchen. Younger, but here was a definite similarity in the high cheekbones, complexion, and the full, sensuous mouth.
Gretchen put on her coat and wished me a good evening. She kissed the younger girl on the cheek and closed the door. No other car or pickup was in the driveway. Laura introduced herself and asked me how I fared today. I recounted my mediocre performance. She curled up her legs and listened attentively. I was as captivated by her as she seemed to be transfixed by me.
She moved closer on the sofa. “You have sensitive hands,” she said taking my right hand in hers. She stroked my palm, examining the surface of each finger the way I searched for ripples on the water. “A long life and a strong mind and a willingness to explore new opportunities.”
“You can tell all that?”
She wrapped my hand in hers. “I can tell you a lot about yourself,” she announced quietly.
Her smile and charm was transparent and without guile. There was a childlike innocence and yet a depth of maturity. “Can you tell me where the fish are biting?”
She laughed. “No. I can only tell you where I am going to bite.”
I heard no other movement in the house. If Jack were about, he was either standing quite still or sleeping. “I feel at home here.”
“I’m glad.” She seemed genuinely relieved.
“And with you.”
“I felt that too when you came in. I’m usually not so trusting. Neither is Gretchen. I think you were quite taken by her.”
“She’s very beautiful. You both are.”
“And, if you had to choose one?”
“I’m very happy to be with Laura.” And I was.
“What if you could have us both at your side? Don’t most men think about that sometimes?”
“Maybe. I guess so. Maybe as often as women think about being in the company of two men.”
“Well, I think she was as taken with you as you were by her, and I don’t mind.”
“You’re very pretty,” I heard myself say.
“I feel very pretty with you.”
“You have a beautiful home.” She did. Or she and Gretchen did. Wouldn’t Molly have warned me about the possibility of a threesome? And Jack was apparently late for his own dinner. I was expecting something quite different, though what I could not immediately recall.
“I’m happy you came.”
I didn’t know who she was, or her companion’s purpose. I did not know who these women were to Jack Hutchinson. I was tempted by this girl but fought to respect my boundaries.
“We’re alone. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid,” I said and reached out and she fell into my arms.
I knew time had passed as I counted the kisses before I could count no more. She got up and took my hand and guided me to the bedroom. We held and touched and caressed, confirmed and relieved each other. I had come to Canada to find a sanctuary and had been delivered to this room not by circumstance but a design that I made no attempt to fathom.
The wind picked up outside. No one was in my room in the lodge. The wind would shake no one awake. My wristwatch said it was past midnight. I had been here four hours. Impossible! I turned and Laura curled herself into me.
She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, or held. Who she was pleased me immensely. She was darker than Gretchen. Possibly bigger boned, fuller in the chest and waist, though not heavy. Her youth wore her instead of the reverse. She was understated where Gretchen’s silhouette was more obviously seductive.
Her hands were never at rest, constantly stroking and probing and searching for delights and to please. She pinched and bit and laughed and her lips were always upon me. By the time I entered her, we had known each other forever. I did not want this night to end and was already burdened by the thought of leaving when I heard the front door open and close.
A jacket was being hung on a brass hook in the living room. Sighs of relief from the cold outside. Cabinets were opened and secured. Footsteps in the kitchen. I was concerned for Molly and Bill. These were good and decent people who deserved more in friendship than they were getting from me.
Laura turned away from me in her sleep. An omen I thought. It was an opportunity to get out of bed. Instead, I kissed the back of her neck and traced my hand down her back. I caressed her backside and moved it up in front until I could feel the heft of her breast in my hand. She moaned agreeably. I was erect and wishful.
Footsteps moved closer to the bedroom. There was no purpose in pretending nothing had happened. Laura’s touch and tenderness had vanquished the spirits that had seized my soul captive, which had shackled and burdened me. I was inspired and relieved. A sense of passion had been released and restored that I had not felt for some time.
The door opened to reveal a smattering of light from the kitchen. Gretchen came into view, turned towards the bed, and closed the door behind her. She went to the closet and removed her sweater and unbuttoned her shirt. She slipped out of her skirt. The light streaming through the bedroom door crack cut up her thigh and buttocks and shadowed her breasts. I could see the measure of her body—beautiful and full. She closed the door completely then came to my side.
“I’m sorry I got back so late,” she said taking up the corner of the comforter and slipping in next to me as though this had always been her practice. “I don’t want to wake her,” she said and set herself in the crook of my arm.
I left just before daybreak and parked in Brennan’s driveway as a delivery truck pulled out. I went up to my room showered and dressed and considered how I would reconcile with the friends I had betrayed.
I bounded down the steps as though I had been relieved of a terrible burden. I had been exorcised of a pall that had taken over and made my life less than what it could have been for too long. The casualty of my relief was that I had dishonored my friendship with Captain Jack.
Bill greeted me and Molly served me and the other guests. Molly made no inquiries as to how my evening went. When I was the only guest left, I got up and put my coat on and walked down the pier.
“Morning,” Jack said and untied the bowline as I unhitched the stern line.
He got in and I pushed us away from the pier. I checked my pole and bait box. In the corner behind Jack’s seat was a long battered box tied off with a piece of string that cut into the corrugated as though it were born to it. I opened the thermos of coffee Molly had left on my table and offered a cup to Jack.
“No thanks,” he said throwing the boat into gear.
Instead of hugging the shoreline, we headed to the open bay and dropped anchor.
I set my bait and cast out. The minnow flew long and straight over the surface and arched down over the spot in my mind’s eye. There was a moment’s pause after it struck the surface then a stiff tug at the line. The fish sounded immediately. A few minutes later Jack scooped up the fat, thrashing pike.
“Let’s throw him back.”
Jack hefted the fish whose bright eyes and fins marked an adult with an excellent instinct for survival. He looked surprised. “It’s a prize fish!”
“I know. But let someone else bring him in.”
Jack examined the fish. “You don’t want to keep him?”
“Cut the hook and let him go, Jack.”
“Not a man on the lake wouldn’t give up a day’s wages for this one.”
This was something I couldn’t explain. It went in the face of the man’s job, what he did for a living. Bringing the fish back to the lodge was as much a distinction for him as it was for the one who landed it. “Cut him loose.”
Jack removed the hook and dipped the pike into the water. The pike started wiggling immediately and lurched out of Jack’s hands. He wiped off on his pants and picked up the battered corrugated box that was the size of a vacuum cleaner. “Here.”
I took it. “What’s this?”
Jack sat down on the engine housing still smarting from my largesse but with a grain of ulterior satisfaction. “I shouldn’t even give it to you after that,” he said making reference to my recent act of irrational generosity.
“What is it?”
I put the box on the bait locker and cut open the string. The corrugated box nearly fell apart in my hands. There was a thick roll of old newspaper in it. I peeled back the newspaper that revealed another string that was tied around a smaller bundle of newspapers. I cut the string again and stripped away the final folds of newspaper. The first thing I saw was the eyes then the teeth, then the bony dorsal spines and finally the entire body of my prize smallmouth bass.
“Andy called me yesterday. He told me he’d have it for me after nine. That’s why I couldn’t make dinner last night.”
“Yeah. I left you a message at the lodge. Maybe you’ll come by tonight.”
I spread the newspaper back. How many years had it been? “I never thought I would see this. I gave up hoping decades ago.”
Jack came closer and examined the taxidermist’s handiwork. “Someone did a first class job.”
“As good as you?”
“This wasn’t done around here. I know the best in this province.”
“Then you know who took it?”
“Andy said he didn’t know. Only that someone called him and said they knew it was his and told him where to pick it up. What with his back and all, I went for him.”
“Just like that?” I believed him.
“After all these years and on the very weekend you’re up here; just like that,” he said clearing away the old newspaper, “you finally got your fish.”
We examined the sheets of newspaper. They were all dated the week that I had been up here. “And tonight?” I asked.
“If you’re up to it. You can tell me the story of how you caught it over dinner.”
“One-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane.”
Jack stood up and looked curiously at me. “You don’t want to go there.”
“That’s the address you gave me,” I said pulling the slip of paper I wrote out as he described for me yesterday before we docked.
He read from it. “One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane.” Then handed it back to me.
One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane. There it was. Clear and unmistakable. “Why not one-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane?”
“There is no one-thirty-two West Benton. West Benton is a rutted dirt road that was never completed. Not a house on it—one-thirty two or otherwise. Now let’s make the best of the morning and bring back enough fish to cover the lodge in trophies.”
I could still feel Gretchen’s biting my shoulder as she snuggled in beside me. I could still feel where Laura’s lips paused before she consumed me. I could still feel the warmth of love and desire.
I could still feel my soul sigh with relief.
One-thirty-two West Benton was as real as any fish I’d ever caught and as exciting as anything I’d ever done, and part of a weekend where all my ‘what ifs’ came true.
Margo’s cigarette swelled orange and a mist floated from her mouth, the smoke mixing with her breath in the cold night air. She leaned back on the railing of my balcony. Her elbow brushed my arm. The city lights shone through her hair, adding a glow to the red and purple dye I helped apply the night before.
“I can’t really say where it is,” said Margo. “I think it’s in a different spot for everyone.”
“And the double, it’ll be in there? Guaranteed?” I said.
“He’s not an ‘it’, Simon. He’s you. He’s got your experiences and your personality. He’s existed up until now and he’ll keep existing after you leave. Well, unless you, uh…”
“Nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“So he’s like a doppelgänger?”
Margo made her cigarette glow again and shook her head. “No, because a doppelgänger is an evil twin, and he’s not evil. He’s just another you. Identical and separate.” Smoke puffed from her mouth with each word, like an engine fighting the cold.
I had always been too scared to try, but I didn’t mind Margo’s smoking. I enjoyed the way it looked. The smoke and the sparks and the glow. It was like she carried the last burning moments of sundown with her into the night.
I swallowed. “So this place…”
“Right, Borden’s. It’s the only place you’ll find him?”
“If he exists now, and he keeps existing after I leave, what stops me from just running into him on the street? Now or after?”
“I think it’s like, he just lives somewhere else.”
“If he lives somewhere else, then he can’t have my exact experiences.”
Margo shrugged and tried to hide her smile behind her cigarette.
I bent over the railing, intentionally leaning into her arm, but not too much. My apartment was on the second floor and I could see all the way down the street. I lived a few blocks south of main street, just past the border between downtown and the area with a lot less working street lights. Margo and I spent many nights walking up and down these streets, sharing stories. I knew this area like it was a part of me.
“What do people do there?”
“That’s up to you,” said Margo. “That’s kind of the point. Not a lot of people talk about it. I know of one person who didn’t say anything. He didn’t think his double would have anything to offer him. Like, no information or stories that he didn’t already have. So they just kind of looked at each other. He got a drink and he left. There’s someone else I know who—well…”
She paused, her cigarette staying at her side. “Okay, a friend of mine told me about when she found it. She went in there, saw her double, and killed her.”
“Why did she do that?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think she should have gone in there in the first place. She’s not exactly the most ‘together’ person. Lots of insecurity issues. She always puts a lot of effort into making herself unique, and I guess she really didn’t like the idea that she wasn’t.”
“So she responded violently, like to a threat.”
“Yeah, I guess. Maybe she didn’t know exactly what to expect, like it hadn’t been explained to her properly, so what she saw scared her. I’m not sure. She kinda started crying on me before she got to the motivation part of her story.”
“I know.” Margo stuffed her cigarette in my flowerbed, lighting another before the first finished smoldering. “It’s actually kind of scary to think about. I mean, what if you go in there and your double decides to kill you?”
I thought about that. “I think, if your double is one hundred percent you, then that’s something you’d know to be worried about before you walked in.”
“Hmm, that’s a great point, dude.”
“Still, I wonder.” I hesitated.
“Do you know if there have been any suicides related to this?”
“Not that I know of, why?”
“Well, it’s like the other side of the coin, isn’t it? If you’re someone who puts a lot of pride into being unique, finding out you aren’t is like a punch to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you. You might even get violent. But depending on your view of things, that violence might be directed towards yourself instead of your double.”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Think about it, you come out of Borden’s and a thought occurs. Maybe it’s immediate, maybe it comes to you slowly, like a sickness. But it’s the thought that, if you died, it would have no impact on the world. That after all is said and done, you are not important.”
Margo looked at me, maintaining eye contact—a rare thing for her. “Simon, you’re scaring me.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, touched by her concern. “This isn’t something I’d do. I’m just trying to empathize. This is interesting to me.”
“I can see what you’re saying. But the problem with that is that you shouldn’t value yourself based on how useful you are, like it shouldn’t be your reason for living. That’s how people get used.”
“Right. No, I completely agree. I’m just speculating.”
She held my gaze for a moment, then gave a tentative nod. “Okay.”
“Still, which is worse?” I said.
“Suicide or murder?”
“I think they’re the same in a lot of ways.”
“What, because it’s your double?”
“No, just in general.”
We took a deep breath of silence.
“What about the guy who didn’t say anything?” I tried to keep my words level, to match Margo’s, but I knew at this point something else was seeping into my voice. It was apprehension—fear, mixed with the excitement of exploring uncharted lands—a potion both hot and cold.
“What about him?”
I turned towards Margo and shrugged.
She met my gaze, then returned it to the street. “I think it’s kind of selfish to be honest.”
“He didn’t talk to him because he didn’t think his double could offer him anything. As if every conversation has to get him something.”
“Hmm, well okay, what did you do?”
“What makes you think I’ve found it?”
“Because when I asked you where it is, you said you couldn’t say, not that you didn’t know.”
She smiled and took a long, slow drag, thinking about her answer. “I guess I took it as an opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can truthfully say they know themselves, y’know? So for one night I was able to talk to myself as an outsider. I mean, I think of becoming my ideal self as my life’s goal, so it really helped me get perspective on stuff. When I was in there, it was like a time-out from everything, where I could take a good hard look at myself before moving on.”
“So you’re glad you did it?”
She nodded. “Absolutely, dude.”
Past Margo, the street below us faded into the night. I let my eyes relax. The thoughts drifted through my mind and settled like a snowfall—my double out there, somewhere, living my life, me in every way that mattered. I noticed a light flicker on in the distance and it brought my vision back into focus. It was a neon sign, half purple, half red. “Borden’s.”
Margo turned to face me, her back to the sign. “You see it, don’t you?” she said. Her voice grew excited, her eyes widened and she smiled with her teeth—something she never did.
“What are you gonna do, Simon?” she said, watching my face. I didn’t answer.
Leaving Margo on the balcony, I walked through my apartment and out into the hall. I half expected it to disappear, but when I emerged from my building and turned toward the darkness, there it shone. It did not surprise me, not really. When the sign flickered on, it was like it had always been there.
I did not turn around, but I could feel her on the balcony, probably on her next cigarette by now, watching me pull open the door, and walk inside.
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Joshua Storrs is a writer living in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He writes for The Communicator and conducts interviews for a podcast called Worlds Longest Voicemail. He has previously had poetry published in the fall 2015 issue of Confluence. Joshua enjoys live music, mac ‘n cheese, and sleeping in strange places.