When I get home from work the next night, I’m feeling good. I’ve had a perfect day. Literally. Not one wrong keystroke. I think Cynthia wonders if I’m using drugs. She keeps walking by my cubicle and staring at my fingers as they fly effortlessly across the keyboard, error free. But she doesn’t say anything, just watches, and although I can feel her eyes in my back, I don’t turn to look at her, just keep feeling the rhythm of the keys. I’ve never enjoyed my work; it’s mundane, but today, somehow, it’s like conducting the greatest symphony ever written, but on the edge, without a score. We saw Zubin Mehta do that one night at Disney Hall, conducting Beethoven’s ninth. His face was intent, body gesticulating, entirely involved. We always try to sit facing the conductor now.
When I leave work my bus pulls up almost as soon as I hear the building’s door whispering closed behind me. No crazy homeless men are waiting to deliver secret messages and few people request stops, so I make it home early, feeling good, like I said.
“I see you’ve been busy,” I say, as I drop my purse in the living room, along with my jacket. The dining room table flutters with random papers, most covered with notes, some crumpled, having traveled far in a single day. Jonathon doesn’t even hear me, so absorbed is he in what’s on the table. All of the dark artifacts are laid out in what I see now is a pattern that looks vaguely like a figure; I touch Jonathon’s back lightly and he jumps back.
“Jesus, Hellene!” He’s sharper than he means to be because as soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wraps me in his arms and says, “I’m glad you’re here.” Then he holds me at arm’s reach to look in my face. “Turn around, and take off your shirt.”
“Well, okay,” I say, giving him a mischievous smile as I show him my back. The expected caresses never come, and when I turn my head back over my shoulder to look at him, I realize he’s looking me over clinically, checking for something.
“Good, you’re still clean.”
“I’ve had a great day.”
“Tell me about it.” His arms are crossed across his chest, and I can see that he’s waiting for a serious answer. So I tell him all about my speedy, perfect typing, and how I full of energy right now even though I ate only a Yoplait breakfast smoothie for lunch. He doesn’t seem pleased by this answer and bends over his notes, searching.
“I’m also really thirsty all the time. That reminds me, I need to take a couple of extra waters to work tomorrow.” I walk toward the kitchen door, but he grabs my arm.
“No, you’ve got to stop drinking so much water.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, everyone needs water.”
“Not you, not now.” He pulls me back to the table. “Take a look at this, remind you of anything?” He’s pointing at the pieces on the table.
“It looks like a little man,” I say.
“That’s right, in a way,” he says. “But today I found out what a few of these symbols mean. Some of them talking about blockage, see, here and here.” He points out a pair of matching symbols on the two leg pieces. “Up here, on the head piece, there’s an S-curve that’s often associated with water or blood in many cultures. I don’t like the position on the head though, blocking flow in the brain causes a stroke.” He holds my hand, pressing it hard as if to make me pay attention.
“But this has got nothing to do with me.”
“No, you’re wrong, I think it might.” He shakes his head and closes his eyes, concentrating. “Listen carefully now, tell me about the man who gave these to you, what did he look like?”
“He was just a big fat homeless guy. Very smelly.”
“I’m serious, Hellene, give me some details.”
I pull out a chair and sit down. “I don’t know, baby, I was trying not to look at him—or smell him—most of the time.”
“Just try.” He hovers over me, and his concerned look starts to scare me.
“He always wears a baseball hat, filthy, couldn’t tell what color his hair is, but it’s stringy. He has a big beer belly, that’s why I never want to give him any cash, if he can afford the beer to maintain that gut, I figure he doesn’t really need it.” Jonathon starts writing on a clean sheet of paper.
“Geez, I don’t know, his legs are so fat they’re wrinkled around the knees, sometimes he wears shorts, I just don’t really know. He’s white, maybe in his 50s…”
“How about his eyes?”
“Now that’s the funny thing about him. Everything about him says slob, but his eyes are bright, focused, intelligent-looking. But he can’t speak quite properly, like he had a childhood lisp or’s learned English later.”
Jonathon nods. He has his thinking look on, the one he wears when writing a paper for a class. His eyes dart around the table, looking for something. Suddenly, he slams his hand down on the table, grabbing another sheet from the pile. “Look at this!” He gives me the paper. It’s crumpled, from being in his pocket, I suppose, but there’s a drawing of some kind of mechanical device.
“What is it? A robot?”
“Close, you’re close. It’s a cave drawing from Central America, dating back to prehistoric times.
“That’s got nothing to do with robots!”
“No, it does, listen.” He starts reading from a paperback that’s been spirited from his back jeans pocket into his hand, miraculously opening to the page he wants. “The Semean tribes wrote an account, in symbols of course, of creatures who invaded their territory. They had powerful weapons and took some of their women after burning their crops. They only came during one season and never returned. The tribe was decimated and died out in a few generations, not enough females to keep the gene pool or the birth rate going.”
“I still don’t get the connection to these.” I point to the table.
Jonathon picks up the center triangular piece and shows me a primitive figure, but I’m unconvinced.
“I guess it looks similar,” I say. “What about this one?” I pick up a piece that he’s laid out on the table where a hand might be in my left hand. After that, all I can hear is Jonathon screaming. And darkness. Then nothing.
* * *
What seemed like a long time later, I woke up flat on the hardwood floor to find Jonathon sitting cross-legged beside me, his head in his hands. I tried to speak, but found it difficult. Finally, I managed to make my lips move, through sheer force of will.
He lifted his head and his eyes were shining with disbelief. “I thought you were dead. I couldn’t find your heartbeat.” I could see a few tears on his stubbled cheeks.
“No, but what happened?” I whispered.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. You picked up the piece, there was a bright flash of light. I couldn’t see afterwards, only found you by feeling around on the floor.”
“It’s alright, don’t cry.” I felt strange, calm again, unconcerned with what had just happened, only wanting to be near him.
“I couldn’t find the pulse in your arm,” he repeated. “I thought maybe the piece was poisoned or had infected you somehow.” He laid down beside me, but took care not to touch me, I noticed.
“I still can’t move. Why don’t you let me hold the piece again and let me see if that helps, okay?” My voice was still quiet, and I felt convinced that this was the right thing to do.
“You don’t understand, I can’t.”
“Come on, Jonathon, I know I’m right about this.”
“It’s not that. The piece…” He paused, swallowing. “It’s gone.”
“What do you mean, it’s gone?”
“I couldn’t really see what was happening because it was so bright, but it seemed like it glowed brighter and brighter and then was just absorbed into your arm.”
I closed my eyes. This sounded unbelievable, but part of me knew that’s exactly what had happened. My hip ached. I must have fallen straight down to the ground.
“Help me into the chair, will you?”
Jonathon shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“No, I mean I really can’t. When I tried to feel for your pulse, it was like an electric shock grew stronger the longer I held onto you until I had to let go. And that was only at first. Watch.”
He moved his hand closer to me, but when his index finger was about an inch away from my skin, I saw a sparks sparkling between us, and then Jonathon was a foot farther away from me than he had been a moment before.
“What the hell?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Well, I can’t stay here on the floor all night. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you move that chair right up next to me and hold it still, and I’ll see if I can pull myself up.”
Jonathon hesitated, but then did as I asked. He really was a good sort, after all, taking orders from a suddenly freakish girlfriend. But then, it dawned on me that he might be afraid of me, of what my body might do if he didn’t go along. I decided not to think about that. It was just too disturbing. I touched the chair leg with my left hand and wished that I could just sit in the chair and feel like a normal person for a minute. Just like that, I found that I was sitting in the chair. Jonathon yelped in surprise, and ran around to the front of the chair.
“How’d you do that?”
“I’ve no idea.” Now I was tired and hungry. My day might have been perfect, but the night was becoming weirder by the moment.
“Did you make dinner?”
Jonathon looked at me, surprised, and then laughed. “How can you be so calm?” I shrugged my shoulders, and he went on, “I forget about the time completely looking at all this shit.” He waved toward the table, than sat down in another chair. “Want to order pizza?”
“No, let me try something. If I could wish myself into this chair, then who knows what else I can do?” I closed my eyes and imagined one of our favorite appetizers from the little bistro up the street, a little French restaurant on a dirty city boulevard, but you walk in and feel like you’re in a little piece of Provence that’s been transported here to California just for your benefit. The cheese plate was divine, especially the little piece of Roquefort with softened butter on a nice piece of baguette. Also, when the white asparagus were in season, and the seared salmon. I suddenly felt ravenous and opened my eyes. Jonathon was staring dumbfounded at the table. Right on top of all the notes, everything that was there undisturbed, were all the dishes I had just imagined. I grinned at him, “Hey, why don’t you pour us some wine to go along with this feast?”
“How’d you do that?”
“No idea, but how about we just roll with it for now and try to figure it out later.” So saying, I reached out for a piece of warm sliced bread and prepared for the deliciousness of melt in your mouth butter and cheese. “Come on,” I said, “this blue is screaming for a glass of red.” Jonathon looked like he wanted to say something else, and then he just shook his head and went into the kitchen. I chewed slowly, savoring it. I could hear him foraging around in one of the drawers looking for the corkscrew, then the soft unsealing vacuum sound of the wine refrigerator door opening, the switch as the lead label came off the bottle neck, the little squeaking sound as the screw burrowed into the cork, the tiny pop as the cork came out, the gurgling droplets of wine falling into the glasses. I swallowed hard, realizing finally that I shouldn’t be able to hear all of that from the other room.
I closed my eyes and concentrated, focusing on the rest of the house. Yes, the hum of the lights, the gas heater’s pilot sputtering and hissing in its valve, the refrigerator generator cycling on, the chimes on the front porch tinkling, a car’s muffler rumbling down the block, Mrs. Crayson’s phone ringing and her cat pouncing down to the floor from some high place.
“Here you go, what shall we toast?” Jonathon asked.
I paused, wondering whether or not to tell of my heightened sense of hearing, and decided against it. The guy had had enough for one night, I thought. Instead, I smiled and said, “Here’s to living in a new world.”
“Absolutely!” Our glasses clinked and we both tore into our dinners as if we’d never eaten a meal before. Really, I thought he was probably desperate to avoid talking any more about what had happened, to feel normal, and I felt willing to go along with the charade as the wine began to travel from my stomach down through my legs to tickle the bottoms of my feet. That was one of the things I loved about alcohol, the body rush I got after the first few sips, especially when sitting down at the end of a long day.
Jonathon cleaned up the leavings of our dinner, loading the dishwasher with our newly acquired dishes and silverware, and stood at the sink for a long time, washing the wine glasses by hand. I just sat in my chair, lacking the energy to move, and stared at his back as he finished his slow work. Finally, he put the last of the dishes away and turned to face me. “I think I’d better sleep on the spare tonight.”
I thought of the electricity that had passed between us, about his fear that I was dead, and felt momentarily sorry for him. “That’s probably a good idea. I don’t want to accidentally send you into cardiac arrest in your sleep.”
He didn’t laugh. I finally got the energy up for the short walk to our bedroom and saw that he had taken his pillow and moved mine to the center of the bed. I wondered how long I’d have to sleep alone. But I was too tired to consider it completely and just stripped down where I stood to my bare skin and crawled into the bed. Lying there, I held my hand in front of my face and searched for a sign of the piece that had been absorbed there, but my whole forearm and hand looked flawless, too perfect. I brought my right hand up next to my left and compared; they were different. The left looked more like it had back in my early twenties, not really wrinkled, and fewer freckles. I had forgotten what my younger skin looked like. Tomorrow, I thought. We’ll figure this all out tomorrow. And I rolled over and turned the light off, turning the alarm clock to face the wall so its big red numbers couldn’t keep me awake as I lay there waiting for the minutes to tick by until I could fall asleep, which turned out to be nearly impossible because I could hear Jonathon’s every breath, rustle, and snore as he slept fitfully through the night. I tried to shut out the sounds, but the more I thought about them, the more they seemed to intrude. Hell, I could even hear the cat purring to itself as it slept curled in a ball in a bed of leaves outside our bedroom window. I thought about getting up, but it felt too cold in the room, so I just lay there, wondering what was happening to me, what the chip had done to me, and what I should do about the rest of the pieces on the table. I could hear them too, finally. They were emitting a low hum, subsonic, a sound only a dog could hear. But I could hear it, and that thought disturbed me more than anything else that had happened that evening. I could also hear, only just hear, an impossibly quiet scuffling, almost like the sound of many footsteps, but the pieces overwhelmed them. They seemed to speak to me in a language that I didn’t know but could almost recognize and what they said was frightening. They were calling me, calling me to touch them, to take them into myself, and I was afraid. Thinking these frightening thoughts, I was finally distracted from the other noises of the world enough that I fell asleep, wondering what the next day would bring.