The brown package had come at the wrong time of day. Loeb stood on the porch half awake and barely dressed in his blue bathrobe. There was a breeze, and the morning’s sunlight was falling in through the old oak that left dappled patterns of white and yellow on their small front yard.
For such a small package it sat heavy in his hands, and Loeb had never seen a piece of mail quite like it; perfectly square, clean and, with smooth edges. He saw no mail delivery stamps and he thought how someone must have dropped it off on their stoop overnight. The only markings he could find were his wife’s name written on one side in careful, elegant, handwriting. Below that, almost to the edge, were the letters “S & B”.
Loeb smiled to himself at how it had an air of pretension.
S&B. Stan & Boyd. Sonny & Bono. Satan & Beelzebub.
He stood there for another moment and stretched before going back inside to where the kitchen met the den.
“Julie?” He paused and waited for a response he knew wouldn’t come. “Package came.” Still nothing—but the silence of the house allowed his mind to wander, and he thought back to the time when the house wasn’t as quiet.
Julie would be in the kitchen again, dancing, and dressed in her pajamas. She would grab his free hand to try to make him dance. But he didn’t like to dance, and she knew this. And instead, he would stand, and smile and he would try to make her laugh but would fail. And she would smile back, and he would grab her by the waist to pull her in and smell her hair and it would smell like almonds. And then she would see the package in his hands and her eyes would widen, and she would jump into his arms and she would be so light that he would give in finally and dance with her right there in the kitchen, still hanging off of him as if she weighed nothing.
But now a shadow had passed over her, and there was the silence. At times he thought he could see the shadows as they came on. But even if he missed the shadow, he could see the change come to her eyes. How it would come and go and would remind him of how sunlight changes in a field as the clouds shift overhead. Yes, it was just like that. She called them “her shadow friends,” and as time went on these friends had begun to visit more often and she had begun to hate him more and to blame him for all the things she thought had been done to her. Loeb kept his hand on the package briefly and then went to go change for a run.
When he got back, he entered through the side door. He was older now. He knew this. He also knew that his body took a lot longer to bounce back from things than it had in the past.
I’m as old now as my father was when I was a teenager.
Strange concept. The idea of it. That it would always be just him and Julie. That the doctors had confirmed the reality that he now accepted, but that Julie never would. That even after years of trying, even after years of methods and procedures, each more extreme than the last, there was no way out of it. This reality in his mind was simply another example of the universe just being the universe—to dole out servings of cold hard irony, and to bring together two people who were both equally hoping to have many, many children, and who were both equally unable to have any.
As he walked back into the kitchen, the sweat was still running off of him, and he heard the television moaning from the backroom. The kitchen table where he had placed the package earlier was now empty.
I see you’ve taken what you wanted.
He assumed she had taken it while he was out, and this fact didn’t bother him. Neither did her likely retreat with it back into the downstairs office, the same office which had lately become her place of refuge. What did bother him was the laughter he could now hear coming from that same place of refuge. Laughter that was not his wife’s, and which had came on so soft and distant, that he thought it had come from somewhere outside or up the street.
Relax. She’s fine. You’ve both been so spooled up lately. All that weight on your backs for no reason.
More laughter came from the office. This time it was louder, more metallic sounding. It seemed to linger in the air, like so many voices from an old radio. Loeb stared toward the office and imagined Julie talking to no one in particular behind its closed door and then he heard her.
“Loeb, are you here?”
Her voice was muffled from behind the door, and he didn’t answer at first, partly from his lack of desire to deal with her right then, and partly from the fear of the state of mind she may be in. But when she called out again, he finally walked over and put his ear to the door, grabbing its brass handle as if he were going to open it. But he didn’t open it.
“Julie, is that you?”
His question went unanswered with a silence that he had become accustomed to. It was a silence which seemed to grow louder each day, even if their lives had become emptier. She said it was the silence that she couldn’t stand. It was the silence that had caused her to retreat into that office each day—and it was him.
“We can fill it with kids,” she said. “Adopt enough to fill a whole house.”
We can fill it.
And they had tried to. They had filled out the paperwork. They had done the interviews. But the interviews didn’t go well, and the whole complicated process began to stall out. And when Julie fired their adoption consultant, things quickly went downhill. On the final day of what would become their last interview with the last agency on their list, she told the interview panel, if they didn’t approve them right then and there, she would kill herself. They didn’t even get a rejection email after that one. Instead, one week later Julie went back down to their lobby and threatened to kill the interview lead along with her family.
But time moves on, as it tends to do. The silence of the house remained, and Julie began to fill it in other ways. Her favorite and most regular method was to keep the television on constantly, and loud enough for her to hear it wherever she was in the house, which was more often than not, the office. Loeb found this annoying at first, but he eventually grew accustomed to the constant noise.
He had finally told her there would be no kids. No kids, Julie. None of it. At least not until they figured things out. Until she got some help. But she would have none of it. He was to blame. And now, here he was, standing by this closed door, listening for his wife, and hoping she was all there. She had not answered him yet.
“Julie?” He said.
The door opened with a part of Julie’s face showing through the cracks. She looked him up and down with her eyes, as if he had just knocked on the front door to sell her rain gutters. It had been so long since he had seen her eyes–really looked at her eyes, and he had forgotten about the green in them. He thought of that green, and he thought of Italy all those years ago when he had first noticed that about her.
You remember don’t you, Julie? At the fountain, in the Piazza Navona? But now your face looks so tired. We’re both so tired.
“Christ, Julie. You scared me.”
“What are you doing there?”
Loeb tried to look past her, to see what she had been doing, but she noticed and closed the door to block his view, leaving only a small crescent of her face still visible.
“I heard laughing. I thought maybe you had a friend over,” he said.
She scrunched up her nose. It was in the way that she used to. Then she smiled, and this surprised him, and he smiled also.
“It was probably the t.v. You left it on all morning again,” she said.
Loeb paused for a moment to reach out to her but touched the door instead.
“Yes. You’re right,” he said, “I shouldn’t have that thing going constantly like I do. It can get expensive.”
“Mmmm,” Julie responded. Her face changed, and she looked at him like she had remembered something she had forgotten. “We don’t have many expenses like other couples our age. I think we can afford to leave the t.v. on.”
Before he could speak again, she closed the door, and in the background of the house he heard a talk show go to commercial and the sound of laughter again.
The day moved on and Julie hadn’t come out from the office. The house began to retreat into dusk with the waning blue-grey light entering in through the kitchen windows. Loeb stood at their kitchen counter, eating, staring toward the coarse electric yellow light coming in from under the door to the office.
Up the street a dog barked. He finished eating and walked to the office door once again and put his hand on the cold doorknob and waited.
Nothing, still. It can’t keep going this way.
He heard Julie’s voice begin to come through the door in steady rhythms, as if she were having an earnest conversation with someone on the other side. It was a rhythm that she had often used with him in the past, but as she spoke, he could hear another voice intermixed with hers. This one was fainter and more muffled, but it was there, and in a rhythm that seemed to answer Julie’s voice, as if it were responding to her questions.
“Julie?” He heard both voices stop.
“Loeb? Come in. Come here.”
“Hi. What is it babe?” Loeb said.
“Come here,” she repeated.
Loeb pushed at the door and it relented and opened up, and his eyes bristled as they adjusted from the darkness of the rest of the house to the brightly lit room.
“I’m right here,” she said.
She was sitting cross legged on the floor in a pair of her floral p.j.s behind their dark wooden desk. The package sat open and empty on her lap, and her stomach moved to the rhythm of her breath. She was staring at the wall as he walked over and there was a shadow falling on her face that magnified her pretty looks but made her look tired at the same time.
“You okay? You feeling ok?” He said.
She looked up at him with an annoyed look that was quickly replaced by a smile. Her face brightened and she scrunched her nose again.
“Come closer, silly. Let me show you something.”
Loeb walked over and kneeled beside her and put his hand on her cheek.
I still love you. Sometimes we are born at the wrong time though. Sometimes all the feelings in the world can’t change bad timing. This can’t last, you know? It can’t go on like this much longer.
“Look,” she said. She was excited and her hands were shaking as she reached down and picked up a small black vial the size of a jelly jar.
“Look,” she said again. Julie placed it in his hands.
It was light, very light and very small, and he didn’t understand how that was possible.
“That’s it? That’s all that came?” he said.
“That’s it. It’s all I need; that and the instructions. Look. Just—look.” She was almost on the verge of tears from happiness.
“I don’t understand. That package was so heavy. There had to have been more.” Loeb said.
Julie, giddy, started to laugh. “Loeb. Stop talking and look at the label.”
He looked at the label that was off-white and had the same elegant writing he had seen earlier.
No.6 Pregnancy Balm
“The Morning Star”
The blood rushed to his head and Loeb could feel his ears begin to burn and his face turn red.
Julie reached out and gently touched his hand with hers.
“Here. Read this,” she said as she handed him a piece of paper. “This explains how it works.”
But Loeb pushed the paper away.
“Goddamn it, Julie. Goddamn.”
Loeb could see a shadow come over her face again. It was like a shade closing behind her eyes. The pink of her ears turned white and with a burst of energy that surprised even him she bounced to her feet, propelling herself toward him and began pushing and punching him in the chest.
“Jesus, Julie, relax. Stop. I don’t get it, that’s all.”
“What don’t you get, Loeb? I’m stupid?”
“I didn’t say you were stupid. But this…” he held up the vial, “this, is stupid.”
He grabbed one of her arms with his free hand, and this seemed to stop her, at least for the moment.
“Come on. Jules. Listen to me.”
Her face darkened even more at the sound of his pet name for her.
“No!” She said, and she pulled her hands free and slapped him in the face.
“Julie. Please. Just relax. Let’s talk about this.”
Loeb leaned forward past her and put the vial down on their desk. She was crying now, silently crying in quiet fits and convulsions, and he could hear the moaning of the television in the background. He went to hug her since he wasn’t sure what else to do.
“No, you don’t. No, you don’t. You don’t get to move past this like you usually do. Not now. You know exactly what this is all about.”
She turned back and picked up the vial from the desk. Loeb grabbed her hand, trying to take it back from her.
“No. But that’s the thing. I don’t, Jules. I don’t know what this is all about. Except that this looks like scam to me. I’m more pissed that some company could take advantage of you like this.”
“Doesn’t matter.” She said, shaking her head. “It’s going to work. They said the Program would work. They showed me how. They showed me everything. I saw how it all worked and it was beautiful.”
“Ok. And who’s ‘they’ anyways?”
“What’s the point? You don’t care.”
“I do care. S & B. That’s on the label. Who are they?”
“The Company. The ones that run the Program. There’s an online questionnaire to start, and later they email your initial profile back to you and you go on from there to the next steps. They work with you through the whole thing.”
Her face looked tired, although there was a strength to her voice that seemed to propel her forward. He knew that this strength was derived from anger based on that same emptiness and silence that she blamed him for. She had never received what she had wanted and had been promised. It was the thing that she considered taken from her.
“Julie. Listen to me. What could they possibly offer that could solve our issue with a single product? What kind of questions could they possibly ask that could give them any insight into our situation?”
“They ask the things you would expect, Loeb—family history, life goals, medical history, how long you’ve been trying, what the particular issue is, things like that. Later, they go into more personal things. In the end, I talked to them for hours, for days, but afterwards it was like a giant rock had been lifted off of me. It felt so good, Loeb. It felt so good. I felt so unburdened by it all. And then they analyze the specific chemistry of your body and all your genetic predispositions based on the blood and saliva samples you send in—”
“Blood samples. Julie, seriously do you hear yourself now? Do you?”
“Whatever, Loeb. Then they customize the first phase of the treatment plan—”
“I know it was disappointing for you. I know you wanted this bad. Maybe we talk adoption again. There’s always another way.”
“We’ve already tried all of that. If you had really wanted that it would have worked out, but you really never did, did you? I know you always thought it wouldn’t be the same, and anyways, it’s too late for that now.”
“What do you mean it’s too late? What does that even mean? Listen to me. You’re an educated woman. But you should know better. You’re just having a rough time of it lately. Just take a breath.”
“I hate you.”
With that Julie turned away and began to read to herself from the pamphlet, looking occasionally at her watch, before looking back to the instructions again, and then back to the watch. He stood there, watching as she took a bit of cream from the vial and spread it on her stomach, then placed the vial down and went back to silently reading from the pamphlet. The conversation was over, so he walked back to the kitchen and the door slammed behind him.
It was well past midnight when Loeb woke up in the living room where he had fallen asleep earlier in the evening. As he went to the kitchen he saw the same flow of light coming again from under the office door, but also the occasional quick shadow of busy movement from inside.
Still at it.
From outside came the sound of aluminum cans hitting the ground. It was close, and Loeb walked into their bedroom to the window that had a full view of the front street. But before he could get to it he found his wife, fast asleep and naked, laying on the comforter of their bed. Loeb’s mind quickly went back to the movement he had just seen coming from under the door of the office. He had seen light, he was sure of it, maybe not the movement, maybe he wasn’t remembering that part right, but the light, yes, he was sure he had seen light coming from under the door. But when he ran back to the office, this time with baseball bat in hand, no light came from under the door. And of course, when he opened it, all he found was darkness, and no one there.
I’m remembering wrong, that’s all. I’m just tired.
He heard the sound of a car starting now. It was loud and sounded like an older model accompanied by the whirring noise of a worn or loose fan belt. Loeb ran back to the bedroom where Julie still lay sleeping, unmoved by the noise, and he looked out the window.
The car had its headlights off and was idling out front of their house. The front end had a deep red rust color with the back half an ugly pea green. Heavy exhaust billowed from the muffler, and its cab was completely dark, save for the red glow from the cigarette of the driver. The car revved its engine again and began to slowly accelerate, rolling down the block and away from their house, before coming to a full stop. Loeb looked down at his sleeping wife and walked to the porch. As he got there, he paused to look at the still idling car, which began to slowly accelerate again, as if it were reacting to his presence. He could still see the red cherry of a lit cigarette. Loeb took a step down the stairs but as he did, the car gunned the gas, and took off in an explosion of noise and fumes, and sped off, disappearing past the darkness of the intersection by the corner of their house. Silence returned to the night.
“Dick,” Loeb said out loud to himself and he walked back inside. He found his wife, awake and naked standing in the hallway just outside their bedroom, staring past him toward the front door.
“Jesus. What are you doing?” He said.
Her eyes shifted back to his face and she spoke slowly.
“Living with my choices Loeb. That’s what I’m doing.”
Loeb shook his head. He was too tired.
“Julie, I can’t do this now. It’s late.”
Julie looked at the door again and this time kept staring at it as she spoke.
“You can’t wait for them, Loeb. Even if you’re excited and you really, really, want them to come. That’s the very first rule they tell you.”
“What rule? What are you talking about, Jules?”
“You. I’m talking about you,” she said. “They just saw you outside hovering like an idiot and they probably didn’t deliver the next treatment. So now I have to wait until who goddamn knows when. And I’ve waited long enough. You’ve already made me wait long enough.”
Loeb looked at the front door and then back at Julie.
“Who. Tell me who that was out there, Julie.”
“Maybe if I call them they’ll come back, I don’t know.”
“Is this still about the cream? Was that them just now? Do you have any idea how shady that is? They weren’t delivering anything. They were casing our house. That’s probably their endgame here—that would make more sense anyway,” Loeb said.
“Well, they weren’t Loeb. No one was casing our house. They were here for me. To help me.”
“Julie, it’s a scam. You know the only thing that will help our situation? Science. Modern science. And we’ve already tried all of that. So internet cream won’t fix it. Nothing will fix it. Nothing will either of us. Ever.” Loeb stopped speaking. He had gone too far and softened his voice. “Listen, don’t you think it’s just a little weird that a company would swing by late at night in a crappy car to deliver the goods? You don’t think that’s strange?” he said.
His voice trailed off. He heard the television again.
“No.” Julie said. “What I want isn’t weird at all. You may think so, but I’m trying to fix something that’s been broken for a long time now. Something you broke. I want a baby, Loeb. They said it’ll work, and I can feel it working. I can feel it filling in something that wasn’t there before.”
“But Julie, do you hear yourself?” Loeb continued speaking softly and placed one hand on her face. “You’re an educated, intelligent, modern woman, but you’re also talking crazy.”
She began to cry again.
“I’m crazy? I’m trying to do something here and all you can do is sit there and judge me and sit in this goddamn house waiting for something. Well there’s nothing to wait for Loeb, because this house is dying, and I will not sit in its silence another day with all that weight falling on me. I won’t do it anymore! A baby. I wanted a baby!”
All of her anger, all that buried anger, came spilling out now, and everything else seemed to drop away from around them. There was nothing left. Nothing else to say; nothing left for them to do really. And so she walked back to the office, and she closed the door behind her.
The next day Julie didn’t leave the office. Loeb left the television on for her. He went for a run. He ran errands. The day went on as it should, and at its end he was tired even though he had no reason to be, and so he walked into the bedroom and found Julie, who had finally left her sanctuary, already there, fast asleep on top of the covers. She was naked, except for a thin wrap of gauze wound tightly around her belly. Deep pockets of shadow sat below her eyes. He looked at her face and then back down to gauze that had cream around its edges.
We’ll work through it. We always do.
“But it only works if I’m involved in some way, Julie,” he said out loud. He watched her blonde hair rising and falling with each breath as she slept; the rising and falling of it.
It all keeps going around us, doesn’t it? Going and going. None of it ends, until the breathing stops. It’s all a miracle no one understands, really.
Loeb lay next to his wife, and he felt his tired body start to let go to sleep and separate from itself like he could float above it—like he could look down at the chaos below him before floating back off into nothingness he had come from. He thought about this feeling for a while, and then he fell asleep.
He woke up sometime later in complete darkness. His head hurt. He could see nothing but could smell cigarettes. For a moment he wasn’t sure where he was. It was like a light switch had been turned off inside him. He had been blindfolded, and he realized his arms hurt as well, and they were spread apart above his head in the shape of a “v”. His head began throbbing more with pain and he could feel the slow movement of liquid, likely blood, down his face. His mouth was unbound, and he felt it was the only free thing of his that was without pain, and he let out a slow strange noise that grew in the air. He seemed to hear that sound outside himself, and he was surprised that he could make a sound like that. Then he felt hands and he smelled cigarettes, and he could no longer feel the pressure of the blindfold on his eyes and could see again. Around him on the walls were mirrors, all partially covered by white cloth. A large mirror sat on the floor in front of the bed, uncovered and facing him. There was a slash of blood on the wall next to him, and in the corner an old man sat watching. The Old Man’s skin was yellowed and tight and sat like a mask on his face. He looked over at Loeb and smiled, showing teeth that were orange and black, either from long term neglect or decay, or both. Loeb watched him take a drag from a cigarette.
Julie walked out from the bathroom. She had a knife in her hand, and she looked at Loeb and began to walk towards the side of the bed.
“Julie, who is that? What are you doing?” Loeb said.
She reached the bed and smiled, lifting the knife above Loeb’s feet before pausing and then jamming the knife into the bedpost where it remained. She pulled the bedspread down from the rest of his body, and he realized he was naked. She made tight folds with it around his ankles.
“Honey, what are you doing? Who is that? Why is he here?”
Julie said nothing. She began to walk along the wall staring into the mirrors as she went. The Old Man took a folded piece of white cloth from the nightstand and covered the mirror on the floor. He took out a small vial of liquid from his pocket and poured it onto Loeb’s stomach. Loeb tried to break free, convulsing as the Old Man began to rub the liquid into his stomach, and thighs, then down to his legs.
Again, Loeb tried to free himself, but the ties wouldn’t give, and he collapsed onto the bed.
“Julie, let’s talk about this. If you’re caught up in something, it’s ok. We can get through that. But don’t do anything you can’t take back.”
Julie took the knife again from the bedpost and slowly traced the outline of his chest cavity with its tip.
“I told you already, Loeb, they’re here to help. They made a promise. I made a promise. They’ve given me what I wanted. It’s all very clear and specific. The debt has to be paid with the blood of the father.” The Old Man smiled as she said this.
Julie, her eyes glass-like, dead, looked at the knife in her hand before bringing it to the center of his chest.
“You don’t need to do this. I love you. I can help you; I can show you.”
She moved the blade to Loeb’s lips to quiet him, then down his chin and back to the center of his stomach.
“You’ve already helped by just being here, Loeb,” she said. “We’ll all be fine soon.”
“Look. Look. Look. Please…we can fix this.”
The Old Man was still watching, still smiling, as he reached over to take a pillow from the bed.
“Shush now,” he said as he placed the pillow down over Loeb’s face.
“Don’t worry Loeb. Don’t worry, I love you too.”
Later that morning a strong wind will pick up and the blue light of dawn will come through the green leaves again. In all the front yards, tired parents will watch their wide-eyed children play, and the older couples, whose children have moved on and had children of their own, will drink coffee on their porches. The sound of the morning will visit the air again. Then we will watch the cold, low sun burst through the trees and turn all the shadows into color. That light will dance on the grass in the yards around us and it will dance in the empty streets. All the lovely people will think to themselves how the day will be warm, quiet, and bright.
M.P. Domingos is a writer living in Northern Virginia in a house full of people and animals. He writes when he can, often on an old computer, and edits at night after the kids have gone to bed. He has previously published poetry in the Dillydoun Review and Rue Scribe. You can find him on Twitter at @mdomingoswriter.