My heart raced as my eyes darted back and forth across the garage. I looked for anything that would serve as a weapon. Old, dusty cars sat half-covered in disorganized rows. Shelves and racks ran between them, lined with odds and ends of rusted-out auto parts. Nothing resembled anything close to a weapon. I sniffed. The pungent smell of oil filled my nostrils.
A goddamn wrench. That was all I needed.
“Look, buddy,” I replied, backing away. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Oh, yeah?” he scoffed. “S’pose you’re just here for a tune-up, huh?”
My shoulder brushed one of the shelves. Out of the corner of my eye, a dull metallic glint caught my attention. I froze.
“Something like that,” I said, weary over just how bad a day I was having. The case started with a missing girl. Little did I know that it would lead to a gang of car thieves. Still, time was running out. I had to find her. Only one person remained standing in my way.
Desperate, I looked past him at the door in the far wall. I let my left eye twitch, then looked back at him with a sigh of false relief. He fell for it.
The barrel of his piece dipped as he glanced over his shoulder. The brief distraction was all I needed. Reaching for the shelf beside me, I grabbed onto the rusted bulk of an old catalytic converter. With what strength I could muster, I swung it at him. The metal mass collided with the side of his head with a satisfying crunch. His head jerked back, but not before he fired off a shot. The bullet went wide, bouncing and ricocheting off into a corner of the garage.
He stood dazed. Blood trickled down the side of his face. I poised, ready to fight in case the first attack failed to take him down. As he looked at me, his eyes glazed over then rolled back into his head. He collapsed to the floor like a rag doll.
“I can’t believe that worked,” I said aloud, catching my breath. I dropped the converter. It clanged against the concrete floor.
The thumping sound came from a darkened corner of the garage. I stumbled over to find an old Buick. I opened the door, located the trunk release mechanism and pulled. With a clunk, the old car’s trunk popped open. I rushed around and lifted the lid. Maggie Robbins, bound and gagged, lay sobbing in the trunk. She looked up at me with wide, trembling eyes.
As I carried her out of the building, I grinned in spite of myself. The girl was alive and safe. The stolen-car racket was out of business. Case closed. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad day after all.
“Just be normal.”
Those words echo inside your head and you already know it’s going to be one of the bad days. You wonder why you even bothered to get out of bed. Moments like these one has to wonder why we get out of bed at all.
You drag yourself to the kitchen and take a long sip from your mug, its contents nothing as innocent as coffee for years. It has been getting gradually harder to reach that divine numbness these days.
The tremors return, but you know you’re not actually shaking.
You take another big gulp. It’s like your body is shaking from the inside.
Maybe you are sick, perhaps you are dying.
You are not even moderately surprised you find the thought liberating.
“Why can’t you just be like the other boys?” You hear your father say.
It’s cruel that years after he threw you out you still remember his voice. It must be the universe’s twisted way of punishing you for disrupting its perfect balance with your existence.
You make your way to the bathroom. The short distance seems like miles.
You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and just can’t look away. You stare; lose yourself in the eyes of that strange broken creature in front of you. You want to cry, but you can’t. Your sadness runs deeper than that.
For long moments you stay there still, almost frozen, but your head is buzzing and your mind is screaming in sheer panic.
“That’s not me!”
There’s nothing worse than knowing in your heart that you are one of God’s mistakes; an overlooked flaw existing only in order to highlight nature’s perfection.
A woman trapped in a strange man’s body, an interloper, a misplaced soul. For the umpteenth time in your life you pray to any deity that might listen that there’s a way to fix you, a way to cure your madness; some sort of lobotomy, a high-tech thought converter; anything to ease the pain and cut through the misery.
Even as you dream of happier days something inside you snaps. The world be damned – you don’t need to conform to their rules.
You are unique. You are special. You are worthy. Even in your darkest moments there’s a voice somewhere inside you chanting those words with so much certainty and passion that they must be true!
Pride and courage flood your chest and you feel your lips turn up ever so slightly.
“Just leave us alone, you freak!”
It’s your brother’s voice now and your illusion of hope shatters.
You feel sick, helpless and just collapse on the cold floor.
Happiness has never seemed so far away.
Should unconditional love be such a commodity?
Is acceptance really too much to ask?
Riley slides the mug across the kitchen table without looking at me. Lights her pipe with a long match – the easy-strike kind made for campfires and charcoal grills and all that happy family bullshit that I’ve only ever watched from the periphery – and holds the stick out, a kind of offering, a temptation. I watch the flame lick its way down the length of the stem, the wood curling into a comma punctuating the silence between us. Light dances around the bend of her wrist and up the pale length of her arm, catching in that tangle of red curls. It scorches me, the look of her. I take the match and fish a cigarette from my pocket so I got something better to do than stare at her face and see all the ways I’ve betrayed her. Take a long drag and hold it in. Let the heat build in my lungs until the match burns down to the tips of my fingers. I shake it out, extinguishing the light between us, and exhale.
My right eye weeps where the boys beat it shut. Tears worm their wet trail down my cheek, eroding the crust of dried blood. I feel the wounds open. Riley hands me an old dishrag from the sink, and I press it to my face.
“Why?” she asks.
I study my swollen knuckles. Tap my cigarette against the rim of the mug.
Way I see it, you gotta be kinda dried up on the inside to steal shit in the Deadlands. Most people out here were farmers once upon a time, before the crops withered and the winds stripped the land clean. What folks own, they hold close. Something like a car inherits layers of meaning, becomes more than the sum of its parts.
I used to watch my old man stagger out to his pickup with a bottle of cheap gin and idle for hours just stroking the wheel, arm slung over the passenger headrest like Mama was beside him and not smothered beneath six feet of dirt. Once, while helping him replace the catalytic converter, he told me it was the only way he could remember what happiness felt like. I sassed him about it later and got my ribs stomped in, but it stuck with me, the value of inanimate shit out here.
So I know I must have a real famine of the soul to steal from Riley. Worse than that, I led those drug-hungry alley boys to her just to get at my old Harley and feel the rush of the road again.
“You’re too smart for this shit,” she says
“Wednesday. Didn’t think you’d be home,” I say.
Beyond the panes of the kitchen window, the last flicker of daylight burns its way across the horizon, those embers of daylight red and raw at the horizon. We stand there until the sky cools into night, the stars like ashes.
The room was filled with the scent of summer.
Seren Lark closed the book and placed it on the bedside table next to the untouched mug of tea. She wiped a tear from her eye.
‘I know it’s silly to cry over a children’s book, but…’ Seren gazed at the old woman in the hospital bed. She looked peaceful. The corners of her mouth turned upwards; her sunken eyes flickered beneath her lids. She was probably dreaming of a terrific pig.
‘Sleep well, Mrs Lewis,’ she whispered.
As Seren walked from the room, Mrs Lewis took her last fragile breath.
The scent of fear and disappointment, loneliness and regret. The filthy stench drifted around her like a thick fog as she walked through the wards. She could change them. But at a price: one final wish, their last chance of happiness, in exchange for their soul. The temptation was overwhelming.
Dizzy, she stumbled from the building into the chill of the early morning air. The streets were bare. Shopkeepers worked tirelessly, setting the stage once more before the city awoke.
A young man wrapped in a blanket was ushered away from a restaurant doorway. He staggered off coughing, phlegm rattling on his chest.
A bitter scent of abandonment trailed behind him.
She couldn’t resist.
Seren followed him into an alleyway. He slumped against a skip. She knelt down and took him in her arms, cradling him like a mother with her child, rocking him back and forth.
Then she sang.
Words were limiting, but a song spoke to the heart. A smile formed on his dry lips. The aroma of roast beef and potatoes smothered in gravy filled the air.
It was the dying man’s wish.
She looked into his cloudy eyes as his life slipped away.
‘I can’t do this,’ she whispered, ‘I mustn’t.’
His lungs filled with life as she released him from her touch.
The young man lay on the floor gasping. ‘I saw the future unfold before my eyes,’ he stammered. ‘I was a sculptor working clay with my hands. I had a studio, a home, a wife, a child and a garden filled with pretty flowers.’
Tears ran down his face.
‘I watched my boy grow into a handsome man and take a wife of his own. I held his daughter in my arms.’
‘Forgive me, I should not have interfered.’
‘What did you do to me? Who are you?’
Seren unfolded her golden wings; they shimmered with every beat, gently lifting her feet off the ground.
‘I am Serendipity Lark. I am the converter.’
The young man’s eyes widened.
Seren laughed. ‘Live your life, Henry. We’ll meet again, many years from now, when it’s time for your last wish.’
‘Then, what I saw…. that was real?’ Henry asked.
But Seren had gone.
He watched a lark fly out of the alleyway, disappearing into the gathering dawn, a yellow feather twisting on a stray breeze.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I felt happy. I’m not saying my job is bad, just boring, and boredom can do strange things to the mind.
Like a power converter that changes direct current into alternating current, I turned my boredom into apathy.
My boss was an overweight, vindictive bitch who used to bring food in for the clerks every Wednesday. At first, we thought it was a nice gesture, until Tom said that he didn’t like her crab puffs. The change in her demeanor was total and terrifying.
Tom didn’t work there much longer. He just didn’t show up one day.
No one criticized her food after that, no matter how bad it was. We ate whatever concoctions she made as she towered over us, waiting for approval. No one dared to hint that it wasn’t the most delicious thing they had ever tasted.
For months we endured this forced feeding. If you looked back over the records, I’m sure you’d find that the most absenteeism occurred on Wednesdays.
I say this as I hang by a pair of handcuffs chained to her basement rafters. I guess I shouldn’t have said I hated her corn dogs, but I just didn’t care anymore.
The door opens and the stairs creak as she descends into the basement. She is wearing a plastic smock over her clothes, and a smile. Of the two, the smile seems more odd. It isn’t warm or friendly, but the look of someone who has struggled with the balance of sanity and finally teetered over into ‘unhinged’.
“Comfortable?” she asks as she lumbers over to a large wooden table with a meat cleaver stuck in it.
“What are you going to do to me?” I ask, trying to remember how I got here.
“Nothing. I just came down to get a roast from the freezer for tomorrow. It’s Tuesday night, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint your coworkers.”
She pulls a roast out and sets it on the table. I glimpse the marking on the package and retch.
“What’s wrong? Are you sad you won’t be there? Don’t worry, I’ll save you some leftovers. You need to keep your strength up.”
She pinches my cheek, then mounts the stairs again. I watch her go, hoping one of them will snap under the strain and the fall will break her neck.
No such luck.
She pauses at the top and looks back.
“It’s a good thing you came along when you did. This was my last piece of meat.”
Memories flood back to me as she slams the door.
The parking garage.
A handkerchief over my face.
And worst of all, the marking on the roast that said, ‘Tom’.
When you talk about the great converters, you know, people that can somehow convince you to do a 180 in your life, you probably think about gurus like Jesus or Muhammad, or maybe even Hitler. But I knew a dude that had them all beat—Billy Fascino.
I met Billy in eighth grade. As usual, I was sitting in the stands reading Harry Potter while the real world buzzed with activity. “Hey, nerd.” Hermione’s spell was broken. “We’re short a player for flag football. I already asked the band girls. They were busy blowing the Varsity’s flutes, so you’re it.” I was about to say no thanks, when he smiled and tossed me a flag belt.
Billy had a gift. It’s kind of hard to explain because it’s so very rare. In a nutshell, Billy could charm your pants off and he knew it. Already a handsome kid, Billy used his super-charm to beguile and bed giggling girls as we slogged through high school. The great converter, I once called him, after he added Lilly “White” Henderson to his harem of honeys.
“Let’s join up.” Billy had elbowed me as we stood in ranks for our high school graduation. The Army recruiter promised us we would be stationed together and that we would see action. The war in Iraq was well underway and Billy didn’t want to miss the fighting.
Captain Jennings sipped cold coffee from his Happiness is a belt-fed weapon mug as he read aloud the Op-order. “Sargeant Fascino, Specialist Schafee. You two will patrol the southeast corner of Fallujah Red.”
It didn’t take long to understand why Captain J. didn’t lock eyes with us while assigning the dirty work. Fallujah was still a hot zone and they knew we were coming.
Billy saw him first, a hajji with an RPG strapped on his back, ducking into an alley. Selector switches on burst, we pursued.
Just a kid, no more than 10, crouched behind a pile of trash ready to introduce us to Allah. Billy didn’t dive for cover or even raise his M4; he slowly reached up and tugged down the bandanna covering his nose and mouth. Then he smiled.
The boy holding the rocket launcher relaxed; the weapon was suddenly too heavy for him. Just as he was laying it down, a shot rang out behind us.
Her eyes, the only distinguishable feature behind her burqa, were blazing with hate and fear. Smoke curled from the barrel of the ancient rifle. Before she could chamber another round I emptied half a clip into her. I turned back to Billy, lying in the dust with a ragged hole in his back, his blue eyes beginning to glaze over. The boy, raising his hands in surrender, earned the second half of my magazine. I unstrapped Billy’s kevlar and placed it under his head. His eyes became lucid again and he smiled with blood-red lips. “You are free now,” he whispered, and died.
When I saw him, the boy whose face wraps around my “#1 Mom” mug, I thought it was just my imagination. I guess with everyone appearing out of nowhere, it makes sense that I would create the person I wanted most. But he’s really here, sitting in still air. His eyes run in circles. Away from mine. He doesn’t say much. I speak to fill the gap between us. I tell him about the dead people.
They started appearing out of nowhere, the dead people. I’m not the only one who sees them. This is not one of those stories. I guess someone far away decided to give them back. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the sidewalk in front of our empty house, empty but for me, and a figure will fade into view. No wild gust of wind or a scream announcing an arrival. It’s not like the movies. I remember meeting the woman who lived next door for the second time. She wore that dusty-blue dress and her cheeks were still blushed lively red from the funeral.
“Oh, dear. I didn’t notice you. Am I really here? It’s been so long.”
She placed her hand on my shoulder, almost to comfort both of us. She was really there, but her hand was cold. Winter must have crept through those six feet and laid across her body in sleep.
“Where are we? This doesn’t look like our street.”
You’re in front of my home. What’s left of it, at least. It looks the same from here but, inside, it’s less. I’ve heard about you on the news. All around the world people are showing up. No one’s sure what’s going on, or what it means. And then she walked away. I walked away, too. We didn’t walk together.
But, now, having another beating heart in this kitchen is strange. I heard his familiar sigh before I saw him. I found him in the kitchen this morning, looking through the new contents of my fridge.
His eyes finally land on mine. His deep brown gaze is the converter of an absent voice. Even after all these years, I can still hear his thoughts through the thick silence in which he wraps himself.
I think about asking him why he left. He chose to do it. His neck grins purple and blue to prove it.
Instead, I let him be quiet. He doesn’t need to speak. This is our happiness. A frightening happiness, but happiness nonetheless.
Gorman slammed his mug down onto the desk. “You can’t expect me to work another Sunday. What do I tell my wife? You’ve made me come in every weekend for months.” Not that he ever looked forward to going home, but he hated his job even more.
“Your happiness, or lack of it, is not my concern.” Bessie Ravens had a disconcerting way of wobbling her jowls when she spoke. “I made you V.P. for a reason. You’re supposed to be loyal to the company.”
“Yes, Bessie, I get that, but I…” His sentence trailed off when a chain of daisies swirled past his window. Gorman’s office was on the thirty-second floor. “Strong wind today.”
“I was just out for lunch. Still as a pharaoh’s tomb out there. Now, can I trust you to deal with the Xu-Lin account on Sunday?”
Gorman was too fascinated by the sudden shower of Queen Anne’s lace blossoms to pay attention to Bessie’s words. “What? Yeah. Sure.” The right side of his desk vibrated slightly. The lacy flying flowers turned purple. “Did you see that, outside?”
She didn’t look. “Probably a bird. You’ll take care of our best clients, right?”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“You better.” She turned and left.
Now a thousand dancing primroses flitted in the space between Gorman’s office high rise and the building across Seventh Avenue. Soon they turned to bluebells, twirling in concentric circles like in a Busby Berkley movie. Just barely, Gorman heard a melodic tinkling through the thick glass window. “The music of bluebells.” He sighed appreciatively.
“Mister Williams? It’s Mrs. Williams on line one.”
“Thanks, Yolanda.” He lifted the receiver, keeping his eyes on the mid-air floral festival. “Yes, dear?”
“You better not miss dinner Sunday. My folks are coming in for the week.”
It was weird: that news, which should have sent Gorman’s blood pressure skyrocketing, had no effect on him. “I’ll do what I can.”
He was hardly aware of hanging up. The bluebells had morphed into some sort of ivy, which braided itself into ladders falling past his window.
That was unexpected. “I can escape?” From a vibrating desk drawer he pulled a black plastic box labeled “Stress Converter” and squinted at the instructions on the back. “‘Pleasing images to calm you.’ Doesn’t say anything about escaping.” He pondered the vines outside. “But a ladder is a ladder.”
He forced the dial on the box three ticks clockwise. What had been mild vibrations turned to pulses so strenuous he almost dropped the gadget. With wobbly hands he placed it on the floor and was thrilled to see the results of turning it up: gardenias inside, tulips outside, orchids swimming in his head. And those thick vine ladders still hung from the clouds.
When Gorman threw his desk chair, the window shattered more readily than he might have thought.
“Mister Williams? Mister Zhang from Xu-Lin Industries is…”
He didn’t hear the rest.
The phone vibrates on the desk, illuminating a screen resplendent with messages. From behind a pile of books, Karin lurches over to cycle through the conversation her friends are having.
I can’t do this anymore.
How much have you studied so far?
I’m going to fail for sure.
Fml, I’m going to bed.
Through blearing eyes Karin begins to type.
I need a break, going to make coffee and prepare for an all-nighter.
Signing the message with a sad-face emoji, she seals her fate.
Reaching into the far corner of a press in the kitchen, Karin unearths an old cafetière. It had been her grandmother’s, a classic piece with a dramatically cinched-in waist juxtaposing the harsh chrome exterior now dulled with age and discolouration. Its handle, jiggling loosely from the screws, had been repaired so many times that it had lost all aesthetic value but this was immaterial. “It’s a special instrument,” her grandmother used to say. “A magical converter crafted by faerie folk to grant those suffering from all sorts of soporific maladies a sweet reprieve.” Karin giggles, remembering how strange she thought this description, peppered with words that would mean nothing to a child but everything now.
Spooning three heaped portions of ground coffee into the filter, Karin fills the base with water before securing the device. Placing it on her stove, she turns the knob, clicking a gentle blue flame into life. The whirring of activity is almost instantaneous, a mystical alchemy that would produce the heavenly elixir she has come to thrive on. Heady aromas begin to fill the small space, wisps of happiness floating through the air, enticing with every breath.
Her mug, the only one she’s ever really owned, flaunts a symmetrical image of pandas on both sides and a precarious chip that always necessitated rather uniform drinking. Her parents had bought it for her on a visit to a wildlife park when she was younger and from that moment she’d demanded that all of her drinks should be served in it. “PANDA CUP!” she would yell if she ever spotted a foreign vessel on the dinner table. It always brought a smile to her face, a more inconspicuous safety blanket that she was able to bring into adulthood with her.
Bringing the pot off the burner, Karin decants the dark solution into the mug, steam rising in a quick plume as the hot, amber-framed liquid hits the chilled porcelain. A drop of milk and one sugar, a distasteful habit that her grandmother would most certainly have disapproved of, finishes the concoction.
Setting the mug down on her desk, she pushes loose papers and aging textbooks to the side. Raising the mug to her lips, she takes a generous sip, letting the bittersweet nectar run through her body. It is instantly warming and reinvigorating, jerking her mind back to action; she is granted a new lease of life in this final hour. “Okay Grams,” she sighs, “let’s make magic.”
His green uniform suited his strong build. He smiled a coy smile while she sipped the mug, leaving her favorite lip color on the rim.
“Come on,” he coaxed. “What time is it?”
She took another sip, this time spilling a drop on her new dress.
“I told you, you’re my converter. I don’t understand military time.”
He took her hand, caressing her smooth skin, asking her why she was so beautiful. His gaze stayed on her mouth as she spoke of her grandmother’s journey from Kyoto to the US long ago. How her grandmother was the most beautiful girl in Japan and how her grandfather courted her for only three weeks before they were united as one. Her long raven hair draped over her milky shoulders like black silk as she continued her story of her family. He regretted not keeping the box the jeweler gave him. He could feel the stone digging into his hip. His foot tapped under the table, riddled with nerves and excitement. She figured he was keeping a beat as Chattanooga Choo Choo played on the radio. She halted her ancestral story for a moment to squeeze his hand tight.
“Do you think you’ll be stationed right here for a long while?”
Her pleading expression gave him the courage to ask. He stood up, his napkin falling to the ground. A fresh breeze from the ocean tousled his blond hair. He knelt down before her. Her trembling hand covered her smeared smile. Tears rolled from her cheeks and onto her hands. He slipped the ring on her finger. It was the wrong finger, but neither one noticed or cared. Before she could say yes, a rumbling from the heavens startled their perfect morning. The red sun symbolizing her grandparents’ birthplace was imprinted on numerous buzzing aircrafts above. The first loud boom pierced their ears as others at the café ran for cover. Their hands remained entwined as they held each other under the table. During the eternity of those two hours, they embraced, whispering, crying, and trying to preserve their happiness. He kissed her face. Despite the fear, she still had the face of an angel. As the smoke rose from the water in the distance, they stumbled to their feet. As the nation’s leader spoke of retaliation and infamy over a crackling radio speaker, they knew what was to come. His call of duty was certain. He had to go. She would stay behind of course, but now with the face of the enemy.
My daughter Amy is coming to take me for a drive. She’ll bring tiny sandwiches and a thermos flask, from which she’ll serve me a plastic mug of revolting chamomile tea.
Sandra, the fat nurse, comes into my room and shouts, “Let’s get you all dolled up! Aren’t you the lucky girl!”
I try to tell her that first, I am not a ‘girl’ and second, I’m not at all lucky, but she doesn’t listen.
I hear voices approaching. My hearing’s good, contrary to what you might believe, listening to Sandra and the other carers at the Twilight Home yell at me. What a name! Twilight Zone, more like. I recognize Amy’s voice with its scratchy smoker’s timbre. But who’s with her?
My granddaughter! Sweet Suzy, lover of grunge and punk, slides in behind her mother. Her hair is spiked and orange, her eyes circled in black, resembling a raccoon, her jeans more hole than denim. And my heart lifts with unexpected happiness. I love this girl, this sixteen-year-old rebel with her big heart and her fiery temper. She reminds me of my dead husband, Brett. Somehow his genes have completely bypassed Amy and settled on Suzy. Who is now telling me that she is, from this day forth, to be known as Sierra.
“A spiky mountain range! How lovely!” I exclaim.
Amy sniffs. “For God’s sake, Mother!”
In the car, I sit in the back with Sierra, who tucks her arm through mine. “Want some gum, Moll?” she asks, holding out a battered packet of Trident. She has never called me Grandma, much to Amy’s horror. We sit happily chewing until Amy pulls in at a gas station, where she orders Sierra to take me to the bathroom.
The restroom is outside, so I wait in the sunshine for Sierra. I lift my face and close my eyes, enjoying the warmth on my skin. When I open them, a beautiful, long blue and silver car with elegant fins has pulled up beside me. Not just any old car, a true 1950s automobile. The driver gets out and goes into the Men’s room, leaving the engine running. I gaze longingly at it, remembering that trip along Highway 66 with Brett way back.
Sierra comes out of the restroom. “Sweet wheels! No catalytic converter for this baby.”
“Okay guys,” Amy says, “Get in the car while I pop in the little girls’ room.”
Sierra rolls her eyes. We turn to walk back to the car. And then, together we stop and stare at the automobile, the sweep of its lines, the curve of its fins, chrome glinting in the sunlight. “Can you drive?” I ask.
“Doing Driver’s Ed,” Sierra replies, with a huge smile. “Just a sec.” She picks up a broom that’s leaning against the wall of the restrooms and slides it through both door handles. “That’ll give us a bit of extra time!”
We climb into the shiny auto, slam the doors and hit the road.
“I know it’s…ambitious,” Aaron said, pushing a piece of paper across the desk. Steve read the number scribbled there. “But in six years, I’ve grown our subscriber base from six thousand to eight thousand, when there is an industry-wide declining rate of subscriptions. I deserve a sizable raise this year.”
Steve sighed. “The subscription rate has grown thanks to our dedicated email converter campaigns, which are Claire’s responsibility.”
“I helped with that,” Aaron said.
“Look, I can give you cost of living. Three percent.”
“Three percent!” They were both silent a moment. Then Aaron said, “How about a little wager?”
Anything to get this over with, Steve thought. “What did you have in mind?”
Aaron set down a twenty-sided die on the desk. Steve wasn’t sure where it had come from. “You roll it. I guess the number. If I’m wrong, you don’t even have to give me three percent. But if I’m right, I get ten.”
Steve hefted the die. He remembered using them to play Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager. He wouldn’t actually have to deny Aaron the three percent raise, and it would put an end to this encounter. “Deal,” he said.
Aaron shielded his eyes. “I’ll call it when I hear it hit the desk.”
Steve rolled and Aaron said, “Seventeen?” The die came to a stop on…seventeen. “Was I right?” Aaron looked. “Oh shit, no way!” He laughed. “Let’s go again, okay? Double or nothing.”
Steve rolled again and Aaron said, “Four?” The die showed a four and Steve felt his stomach knot. How was he supposed to explain to the Board a twenty percent raise for the laziest member of his team?
“Oh shit,” Aaron said again. “Okay, sorry, boss.” His happiness was palpable, and despicable. “One more time.”
“I’m not giving you any more money,” Steve said.
“Okay, how about something else? How about…your job?”
“You must be crazy.”
Aaron raised a hand. “Do you want to explain yourself to your boss? How will you explain my twenty percent raise?”
“I owe you nothing—” Steve said.
Aaron was calm. “Come on, man, one more roll and this is all over.” His teeth, when he smiled this time, were gleaming with saliva. Steve looked away. “I’ll call it before you even roll this time,” Aaron said.
Steve felt his bowels loosening. “Fine.”
Aaron said confidently, “Eleven.”
The die felt like a living thing in Steve’s hand, a thing with twenty little wiggling legs. He threw it down just to stop touching it. He knew it would be eleven.
Aaron scooped up the die. He looked expectantly at Steve, who got up from his executive chair, took his half-empty coffee mug, then walked to the door and opened it. When he turned back, Aaron was settling his soft rear into Steve’s chair.
“Do you want me to leave this open?” Steve asked, one hand on the doorknob.
“Close it please,” said Aaron. He picked up the phone.
Winds whisked the clouds from ash to soot above a roiling sea painted by murky upheavals of the seabed. The sun hid its face, surrendering to the shadowless composition.
Amassed along the shoreline, Pharaoh’s cavalry stood side by side with their emancipated slaves and freshly shaved men in cargo shorts and flap hats. Set back and above the scene, the movie’s director surveyed the view from the hand of a large metal crane, his practiced eyes considering the image through a converter lens that simulated the epoch expanse of mythology. He welcomed the dynamic weather as a gift and hurried the crew and cast to their places.
Spotlights crackled awake, casting shards of incandescence across the water’s surface, finding luminance on the crest of waves. The director called for shutter adjustments to capture sufficient light and his vision.
A multitude remaining at the fingers of the sea lifted a roar to the darkening sky, their shouts echoing cries from past millennia that implored a reward from faith and the fulfillment of a promised milk and honey happiness.
The ground shook in thunderous response, throwing the director from his perch and his beverage from its mug. Cursing his good fortune and those on whom he depended to execute his objective, he heard each tick of the clock twice while accepting raised thumbs confirming universal readiness. He braced himself against the sides of his roost and released the building pressure like a pin on the skin of a balloon.
“Action!” he demanded.
Again a roar, more vital and urgent, rose from the throats of those along the muddy banks. A spray of brilliant spider webs crashed against the opaque sky and a breath, less divine than demonic, creased the sea, its waters swallowing the congregation transfixed at its edge.
“Are you rolling on this?” the director shouted, rushing down from the crane.
A storm of panic blew by him, seeking escape from the oncoming torrent. He ran too – too late to flee the deluge. Lifted, tumbling, beneath the flood, the director’s storyboard was revealed to him as a surreal reflection of his cinematic blueprint. A stench, like sewage and death, filled his nose with each desperate search for air. His face appeared in a passing camera’s eye that tarried to torment him with a picture of terror.
Before his chest could expand in a breathless plea for life a sudden silence stilled the tumult. Souls thought lost were saved while others perished in a haphazard application of mercy or fate.
Silt and sludge grasped his legs, holding firm, insisting witness to the surrounding ruin. On one knee, his balance lost in the yielding muck, the Director looked beyond broken bodies, dreams and futures scattered around him. He thought, could a live camera have captured the calamity? He smiled, clawed to his feet, surveyed the carnage, but sank forever away from the sight of man.
Vera fell in love with my mug when it appeared as a TV news blurb. She confesses this as we lie in bed hugging, smooching, toking one joint after another.
“I thought I was ugly,” I laugh. “You look like a villain,” she says, squeezing me tighter, robustly. “From when you stole our chandelier from that old lady’s house, right?”
Yeah, broke in with my sack of tools and found a ladder in the woman’s storage closet. I carried it to the entrance hall, climbed up and systematically unscrewed the bolts connecting the chandelier to a plaster ceiling. A gem—glass crystal pendulums, maybe a hundred. Brass structure. Had to be at least two centuries old. I knew this antique dealer who would shell out for a piece like that. So there I was carrying the thing down the street when the fuzz cruised by. I tried to run but they caught me, confiscated the chandelier, arrested me on the spot.
“What about the old lady?” she asks.
“I heard she fainted when she came downstairs and found a big hole in her ceiling. Hell, I spent thirty days in jail for nothing. They found her spreadeagled on the floor, revived her, re-attached the chandelier. I’m glad to hear she’s ok now. She even asked about me, said anyone who steals something beautiful deserves to have it. Imagine that.”
“You’re what’s beautiful,” she says. “I like bad boys. Maybe you could steal something beautiful for me? It would be so romantic.”
So soon enough I’m back at the old lady’s house. This time I knock and when she answers I ask if I can steal her chandelier again since, as she told the cops, I deserve it. She smiles, nods and lowers herself onto a tapestried nouveau sofa.
“I got this replacement for you,” I say. “High tech model from Home Depot. It has a built-in converter to transform 110 volts to only 30 with the same brightness. Save you a bundle on the old utility bill.” I don’t tell her I stole it too right off an open Depot truck preparing to deliver it somewhere.
Once again traversing the streets with the chandelier cradled in my arms, the crystals bobbing all over the place. What a nuisance. Not exactly theft this time so I’m not worried.
I stop by my antique friend’s shop and ask him what it’s worth. “It’s worth what somebody pays. I’ll give you a hundred cash.”
This means it’s probably worth a grand or two since my friend is another kind of thief. So I ask myself, what’s love and happiness worth? How long will it last? Say, five months max?
Vera and I lie in bed on our backs, naked, our hips almost glued together, the freaking chandelier settled atop our bodies, undulating as we breathe. She coos as she fondles each crystal, whispers she could use some silverware. Maybe a new sofa. I am so aroused I could burst.
James burst from the basement, grinning like a toddler who’s learned to speak.
“I’ve done it!” In his hand he clutched a small black box, with a large conical microphone on one end and a wire connected to a small speaker on the other. On top was a solitary bulb, which glowed red, as if indicating a recording was in progress.
“Dad, WTF?” Kylie said, looking up from her phone.
“He’s turnt,” said her brother Brayden, who didn’t. “What’s that smell?”
“It’s him. TFW your dad smells like a homeless dude.”
“Dat outfit doe,” Kylie added. “On fleek.”
“HA – shots fired.”
Their father stared at them without comprehension, his smile a beaming monument to pure happiness, his bathrobe an earthy testament to an entire weekend spent in his cellar workshop, complete with coffee stains from more than one spilled mug, and small burns from minor wiring issues.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Store. But don’t have FOMO, she’s just getting groceries.”
“I made her a present,” James said. He flipped a switch and the red light dimmed. He pressed another button and a robotic voice crept from the speaker.
“Dad, where have you been? We were worried,” it said.
“I think he may be intoxicated. What’s that smell?”
“It’s him. He should probably take a shower. His current odor brings shame on our family.”
“That was unnecessarily harsh.”
“Despite the unpleasant scent, his outfit is pretty stylish.”
“Good joke. I hope he doesn’t take it the wrong way.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“She’s at the store, but don’t fret, she’ll be back soon with the food and drink necessary to sustain us.”
The playback ended, and Kylie and Brayden simply stared.
“WTF was that?” Brayden said.
“My gift to your mother. It’s a millennial converter. It takes all your nonsense phrases and converts them into intelligible sentences that real people understand.” He flipped it back on.
“Wait, so you can understand us?” Brayden looked at his sister. “The struggle is real.”
“I can’t even,” she replied.
“Talking is kind of overrated TBH.”
“Keep it 100?”
“Squad goals.” They turned their gazes back to their phones and began typing furiously. James stopped the recording and turned on the converter.
“Wait, so you can understand us? That is an unprecedented invasion of privacy.”
“This information is difficult to process. I don’t know that I can communicate verbally anymore.”
“In all honesty, I had always considered audible conversations to be a bane of human existence.”
“Should we make a pact to only converse digitally for the rest of our natural lives?”
“I’m proud of you, brother. Together we can do anything.”
The voices faded, and James stood in a silent room, his children pounding away quietly at glass screens. He trudged back down to the basement, and the teenagers heard him scream obscenities with the ferocity of their high school principal.
“What did he say?” Brayden texted Kylie.
“NSFW,” she typed back.
Sexton Blakes: fakes. My studio is littered with them.
Canvasses hug the walls resembling fanned out slices of thick bread. Some are commissions waiting for collection. Most are studies in vermillion or viridian in the likeness of my current favourite, Renoir.
Epithets stick like mud-splats: counterfeiter, falsifier, forger. But the one closest to the truth is simply ‘the converter’. That’s what I do: convert exquisite, priceless masterpieces into affordable works of art.
A tap at the door squeezes my heart in anticipation. My present undertaking is for a friend who wants to immortalise his daughter. Alice dances into the studio, dragging her mother by the hand. I turn my back and pour a mug of coffee while Alice strips to her underwear. Her mother has brought a white sundress sprigged with buttercups for her to pose in. The child’s long auburn hair is adorned with an orange ribbon but left unfettered to skim her shoulders.
Without instruction, Alice scrambles onto the chaise longue and scoops up the trug of freesias I’d collected from the early morning flower market. She rests it on her lap and gazes at me. Her brown eyes and plump lips speak of the woman she will grow into. The merest hint of a smirk plays at the corners of my mouth and I raise a splattered hand to cover it. But her mother misses nothing and I sense this will be the last time Alice sits for me.
My paintbrush flies across the canvas, as though Renoir stands at my shoulder, guiding, urging. In my head, I see his painting of the ‘Little Girl with a Spray of Flowers’. I’d fallen in love with this on a trip to Sao Paulo two years ago. The postcard I bought in the museum shop lies next to my palette and I’m careful to refer to it. My eye is drawn to the bracelets of baby fat that crease above Alice’s wrists and I agonise over this detail.
I am so absorbed in the task I fail to notice Alice’s mother creep behind me until her breath raises the hairs on my neck.
‘Do you like it?’ I ask with paintbrush poised mid-air.
‘I’m not sure. You’ve caught Alice’s likeness but there’s something unwholesome about it.’
‘Unwholesome? How curious.’ A pinprick of perspiration forms on my brow.
‘Can I see, mama?’ Alice pushes between us and stares at the painting. ‘It’s like looking in a mirror.’
‘I’m sure it will give your husband a great deal of happiness, madam,’ I say, pulling a handkerchief from my pocket and pressing it to my forehead.
‘Only if I give my approval. Come, Alice, we’re going.’
I sigh, thinking of Les Puces de Nice where, in a dusty shop, art treasures languish amongst worthless curios. I flip through my collection; it’s time to rub the art world’s nose in the proverbial and facilitate the discovery of a rare Renoir.
Not Alice, though. It’s too soon to part with my beautiful Alice.
Lara tilted Christian’s chin upward so the light fell more evenly. For an underwear model, he had a lovely face.
He always asked about her dog, the one topic they could safely discuss.
“Great.” Lara stroked blush over Christian’s cheekbones.
“Did he like the toy?” Christian had presented her with a brown paper bag after last week’s shoot. She’d peered inside, fearing it might be a sex toy, but it was a knobby rope tug obviously intended for Bowser.
“He destroyed it. So yeah, I guess he did.”
Lara stepped back to survey her work. Her job was to concentrate on Christian’s face while standing so close he could have kissed her thigh.
She was old enough to be his mother.
She nodded to indicate she was done. Christian made his way to the set: a corner designed like a 19th-century boudoir. Lara could have watched but looking at his body, even from a distance, would be dangerous. Instead, she opened her anatomy textbook and tried to concentrate on the bones of the foot. How had she ended up with her happiness tied to an underwear model? It wasn’t just the sex. She’d had plenty of that after the divorce. Somehow Christian seemed bound to Lara’s reinvention of herself.
The photographer ordered Christian this way and that on the velvet couch. Lara was too far away to hear. She imagined the crisp thwack of the shutter eating Christian’s body bite by bite. He loved to mug for the camera but never for her. With her, his face was sweet and serious and his touch as tender as a boy’s, cupping his hands around a wounded chick.
Lara forced her eyes to the page. Accessory navicular syndrome. The precise descriptions made anomalies seem manageable. The words became a converter to transform life’s chaos.
She knew how it would go. After the shoot, wearing sweatpants and a hoodie that made him look even younger, Christian would stop by the table where she was packing and slip her a scrap of paper. He’d expect her to show up at the appointed time and place because she had on five or six earlier occasions. It was a pattern, a habit, or maybe something more dangerous.
She crumpled the paper and practiced what she could never say to Christian because she didn’t have his number, couldn’t contact him except at photo shoots or by showing up at one of those addresses. I’ve got class tonight. This has to end. It’s not healthy.
Lara crossed the concrete floor, nodding to the photographer’s assistant who was vacuuming the velvet couch. Beside the door a trash bin overflowed with water bottles and empty food containers. She hadn’t memorized tonight’s address. She would drop the paper in the trash and that would be the end of Christian.
Lara stood for a long time beside the bin, squeezing the pulpy ball in her palm.
“Just drink it!” he said, thrusting the mug into my hands. He’d repeated the directive five times but he still wouldn’t tell me what it was.
“Really, Jim? Just tell me what it is! I don’t like surprises.” I pushed the mug his way but he refused to take it. I couldn’t detect any foul scent but I still didn’t trust him completely. He’d poured something into the travel mug, then put the lid on before I could see what was in it. I was supposed to trust him after that maneuver? I thrust it toward him again and he stepped back.
“Drink it, Meg. Do you think I’m going to poison you? Do you still not trust me?” Jim shook his head as he walked further away.
I realized that he was serious about not telling me what was in it. The set of his shoulders and jaw told me he wasn’t going to budge. Was this a control thing? Was it a trust issue? Was I overthinking a simple kind gesture on his behalf? Was it…
‘Stop it, Meg!’ I berated myself silently and mentally smacked myself. Overthinking. Always my issue. It made me grumpy and pensive and it was so tiring. Always thinking. Worrying. I could feel the muscles of my mouth working overtime in my lifelong frown. A frown that was deepening with each passing moment. Why couldn’t I just drink it?
Jim turned around, silently watching. I wondered what my face showed. Could he see smoke coming from my ears as the wheels in my brain worked overtime? Did he interpret the deepening frown as displeasure in him? I didn’t want to ruin this relationship as I had many others. But…couldn’t he tell I was distressed?
“Fine. I’ll tell you one thing about it. You’ll feel instant happiness. And you will like it. And if not, I’ll walk out and you won’t have to worry about me surprising you anymore.”
Jim’s words shocked me. I didn’t want to lose him over a silly drink! I raised the mug to my lips. Another quick sniff. Nothing foul and it was almost sweet. Maybe a little bitter but not in a bad way. I could do this. I could trust this man, right?
Swallow swallow swallow.
“I love this!” I felt the ends of my mouth turn up. Was that…a smile? Was I smiling now?
Jim walked over and touched the ends of my lips that were indeed upturned.
“Told you so.”
“Please tell me what this is!” I knew it sounded like begging but I didn’t care. I had to know what it was!
“It’s a simple beverage called coffee; many people on earth drink it. But based on how you look, I’m going to start calling it ‘Alien Face Converter’.” Jim’s words made me smile more as he took the mug to refill it. That was coffee? Human ways would never cease to amaze me.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my genes. Or Steve’s.’
‘I’m not suggesting there is, Mrs Cobb,’ said Eva. ‘May I call you Sarah?’
Eva was keen to recruit the Cobbs into her research project; cases like theirs didn’t come along often. But, instead of obediently signing the consent form, Sarah was wasting time asking questions.
‘Your daughter reacted badly to her medicine because she can’t metabolise it properly,’ Eva explained. ‘Amy’s what we call a non-converter. We believe she may have inherited an inactive gene from you and Steve. Even if each of you is a normal converter, you can still be a carrier for a recessive inactive gene and then it’s down to chance if your children inherit it. But, don’t worry, Amy will be absolutely fine now we’ve switched her to a different drug.’
‘Is that true?’ said Steve.
He had been silent until now despite Eva’s efforts to engage him.
‘Absolutely. She’ll be discharged…’
‘No. I mean that.’ He pointed at the mug on Eva’s desk. It bore the cheery message “Happiness Is…In Your Genes!”
‘Oh – this. My colleagues gave it me as a joke after I argued on TV with someone who claimed there was a “happiness gene”, of all things.’
‘And there isn’t?’
Eva suspected that a comprehensive answer would be wasted on Steve.
‘It’s complicated. But it’s highly unlikely that a complex emotion like happiness is controlled by a single gene.’
‘Have I got this right?’ interjected Sarah, keen to get the discussion back on track. ‘You want to do a test on all three of us and see if Amy has inherited a dodgy gene from Steve and me, right?’
‘That’s exactly it,’ said Eva, hiding her amusement at the term “dodgy gene”.
‘Sounds okay to me,’ said Steve.
Eva pushed the consent forms and pen across the desk but Sarah checked her watch.
‘Hadn’t you better move the car, Steve?’
‘Already? We’ve still got…’
‘We don’t want another parking fine, do we, sweetheart?’
With Steve out of the room, Sarah asked, ‘Do we get to know the results?’
‘Certainly. You have the right to know the results. Or not, if you prefer – but it’s not like the information is sensitive in this case. It’s all explained in the consent form…’
‘So Steve will know if he is a carrier for the faulty gene or not?’
‘Frankly, if our theory is right – and I’m pretty sure it is – then the only explanation is that, as Amy’s mother and father, you both carry an inactive gene.’
As she spoke, Eva understood. Sarah figured that Steve would very likely learn he was not a carrier for the defective gene. Even he could work out what that meant. Eva replaced the forms and pocketed her pen.
Sarah stood up, buttoning her coat. ‘Steve’s a good husband. And father. No point hurting him unnecessarily.’
With a wry smile, she nodded at Eva’s mug and its dubious slogan.
‘Like you said – it’s complicated.’
Her lipstick was still on the mug.
“Goddammit!” Rolland shouted, watching as the red mixed with the black; the blood oozed from his sliced finger, blending with the grime and the gunk that coated his hands. He walked briskly to the bathroom sink. “Fucking catalytic converter,” he whispered to himself, turning on the faucet. He put his hands underneath the piping hot water and watched as the sink turned colors, a porcelain canvas of machine and man. “Last fucking thing to put in and my hand slips,” he said. The steam felt good on his face. He dried his hands off. His finger was still bleeding. He’d forgotten to buy band-aids, so he put pressure on the cut with the towel.
He wandered back into the garage and stared at the car: a 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. It was baby blue with a white leather interior. It had a 350 V8 four-barrel engine so loud that it had embarrassed Rolland to drive it as he got older. But the car had never ceased to thrill Annise. She would shimmy her shoulders in excitement and put her hand on his thigh when he put it in drive. She loved that car, and she had loved him in that car…they had two kids to prove it: Oscar and Madi. They were now grown up and had cars of their own, ridiculing their parents for their Monte Carlo with the low gas mileage and the frame so big that it looked like a boat. For years, the kids teased them.
Finally, on a Sunday morning many months ago, Rolland asked his wife if they could go to a dealership. She stopped drinking her tea and put her mug down to look at him. Her smile had grown tired, but she was still the wild one who had attracted him all those years ago, when her happiness was just Rolland and that car and a stretch of road that led to a dark section of town where they could talk and fool around and maybe ask the world for a little privacy. But, despite all of this, she said, “Sure.” He beamed. “Get your shoes on!” he said, grabbing his keys. She didn’t linger. She was right behind him, her hand squeezing the small of his back as they left the house.
Rolland hadn’t seen the other car run the red light.
He just felt it.
Annise didn’t feel anything. That’s what the doctors told him, at least. Rolland’s mind returned to the present. He stared at the Monte Carlo. It had taken a year to replace all the parts. When he’d retired as a mechanic all those years ago, he had relished the thought of never picking up a wrench again…
“Sorry, babe,” Rolland said, the words echoing in the small, lonely room in the small, lonely house. He looked through the doorway from the garage and into the kitchen.
Her lipstick was still on the mug.