It should have been a magnificent day in North Hollywood. Except magnificent would be pushing it. In all truth, the day was okay. Bearable at best. Intolerable, if one was being honest.
Marley stood in the canned vegetable aisle of the grocery store staring at the display and wondering where her marriage had gone wrong. It was Thanksgiving, although comical Halloween witches and friendly ghosts highlighting sales prices and
specialty items still decorated the store, hanging motionless among red and black streamers.
Marley smiled sadly, the irony of a frozen Halloween not lost on her.
It was hot in the store because the air was off. And quiet. She’d never thought the day would come when she actually missed Muzak, but that day was here. Staring at the cans, Marley was unable to choose. Amazingly, deliveries were still randomly being made, and many stores hadn’t been emptied out entirely.
As Marley inspected some Del Monte seasoned vegetables, someone shuffled past. She stilled. It wasn’t the vaguely familiar neighbor who had been in the candy section earlier. And it definitely wasn’t her husband. Where was Sean?
Poking her head out, Marley saw a middle-aged woman in a brightly flowered housecoat shuffling aimlessly forward like a sleepwalker. In other times, Marley would have assumed she’d been drinking. Heavily.
A loud clang issued from the back of the store, echoing like a gong strike. The automotive section. Sean. It was a tiny little display and she didn’t even know why he bothered. Especially since they hardly drove anymore. Marley watched as the housecoated woman’s step stuttered then picked up with renewed vigor, as if she had just remembered what she’d come into the store for. She beelined straight for the back.
Marley started to yell but then stopped. No loud voices. She glanced around. Where were the cops when you needed them? The ones who had stayed, anyway. She scooped up a can of lima beans, intent on hurling it in the opposite direction, like someone trying to lure a T-rex from an unsuspecting herbivore, but was suddenly paralyzed as bitterness and regret launched duel attacks on her psyche.
What if she didn’t warn Sean? Wouldn’t that just be…nature in action? Evolution? Fate.
Movement. The neighbor popped out of an aisle, swinging something over his head, but suddenly Sean lurched out of nowhere and grabbed his arm. The neighbor shrieked in terror and Sean bellowed, “No!” as the woman bore down on them. A resounding crack pierced the dead air of the store. The woman collapsed, her flowered housecoat fluttering daintily around her. Both men stood panting, the neighbor still gripping the axe, handle-side-up, because Sean had forced him to knock her out instead of splitting her skull open.
Sean zeroed in on Marley, frantic. Spotting the can in her hand, his expression immediately shifted toward…what was that, exactly? Was she imagining things? No, she was not. Suspicion and doubt raced through his eyes, but not fast enough for her to miss it, and invisible steam blasted from her ears. How dare he? How dare he! As Sean and the neighbor began to argue, Marley turned on her heel and left.
She stood on the deserted sidewalk coaxing her blood pressure down and only succeeded in amplifying the unpleasant images that signified the state of her and Sean’s union: impatience, sarcasm, snipes, bickering. She looked inward, trying to pinpoint the origin of the rot that had steadily swollen then burst its borders with a sickening pop. Stepping carefully over a dead squirrel, Marley fast-walked past a deserted Starbucks, intent on getting home before Sean, even though she knew she shouldn’t be out here alone.
For a while, the first two years at least, they had been inseparable. The honeymoon period, it was called. It was real. The most perverse April Fool’s joke nature had available. A delusion borne of crazed oxytocin and dopamine hijacking poor serotonin, then all of them leaping head-first into a super-obnoxious biological rumspringa.
They had met in Griffith Park one sunny Saturday, united by a strange incident involving a diapered toddler wandering around the parking lot alone. Each had zeroed in on the child from opposite directions and met in the middle, the boy their perigee. Amidst flashing smiles and thinly veiled suggestive banter, they’d delivered the child to park authorities.
A year later, they were married. Now, five years after that…what had she been thinking about today? That it was unbearable? Yes. No. Intolerable. Intolerable. And, yeah, the strange new flu that was causing an almost-worldwide epidemic was pretty bad too. But that wasn’t personal. Her marriage was.
And frankly, about the world situation, she wasn’t surprised. In fact, Marley found it ironic that something which had been the subject of conspiracy theories for years had finally been proven true and had ultimately brought the fall of humankind. Or a lot of humankind. Humankind in certain countries. That thing being the fluoridation of water.
Hearing a new sound, she tensed again, but it was only Sean across the street, pulling his pointless tire iron out of his backpack.
That look in the store, practically accusing her of premeditated murder, was enough to get him the silent treatment for days. Maybe she’d fantasized about life without Sean for five seconds—so what? She wasn’t a monster.
Across the street, Sean walked silently but then suddenly swiveled, surprising her with a smile. He was very passionate but didn’t hold grudges. Even for a sneaking suspicion of possible attempted murder. It wasn’t a big smile. Just a small, rueful smile like, “We’re really in the shit now, aren’t we?” and her heart melted a little to feel a tiny bit of that feeling again like, “It’s all downhill from here. But at least we have each other.”
Unfortunately, he destroyed any good feelings she was clinging to when he announced at home later, “We’re going to my parents’ today.”
Hardly anybody liked their in-laws, and Marley was a clichéd member of that club. She had tried, at first, but the in-laws had made it clear through body language and coded verbal messages that they didn’t approve of Sean’s choice.
Sean’s parents were from Brazil and claimed to be distant relatives of Machado de Assis, one of Brazil’s greatest writers. If that was true, Marley thought you would never know it from meeting Sean, who had been a professional motocross racer. He wasn’t dumb by any stretch, but he wasn’t a writer, and he wasn’t creative at all except when it came to engines and wheels and dirt and how their synchronization enhanced the purpose of the universe.
Now 36, he was semi-retired, dedicating his time to sponsorships, commercials, and guest appearances. Right now, of course, he was doing nothing, due to the almost-worldwide pandemic.
Marley watched Sean as he darted into his parents’ bedroom with a bucket half-filled with saltine crackers. A series of spine-tingling noises erupted from within, a disturbing clamor of gagging and gibbering.
Sean backed out quickly. Something thudded and scratched against the closed door. Sean’s parents. Then the crunching began. They loved saltines. It had been a happy discovery. Sean had experimented with everything before that: cooked and uncooked meat, rotting fruit, moldy bread, sardines, fish, cookies, salami. Then one day when he left some imported Harzer cheese and saltines, the next day the cheese was still there but the saltines were gone.
Sean needed a shave and his black, curly hair hung past his ears. He looked tired. After retrieving a soda from the fridge (power and water were still going strong) he slumped down on the dusty sofa and popped open the Orange Slice, holding it out to Marley first. She declined.
Sean’s parents had returned to “life” five days ago, so the hurt was still recent for him. The dreadful tableau describing their end had played out before them through grisly, static clues when they had arrived at the house one sunny morning bearing supplies from Whole Foods: a toppled ladder outside, his father’s neck at a gruesome angle, his mother’s heart pills spilled along the floor.
What had his father been doing, anyway, cleaning out the gutters on the roof? During a semi-worldwide pandemic? Marley imagined him careening off, and then the mother running outside, shrieking, her heart stuttering. But then she realized her former father-in-law was like many others who believed that things would go back to normal one day. He had no choice but to keep up the equity in his home.
The last they’d heard on the news two days ago was that everybody was taking a break in the flu-cum-fluoride-poisoning emergency because the Festival of Sam Fermin, Diwali, Glastonbury Festival, Octoberfest, Maitisong Festival, and Morocco’s Fez Festival, along with many others, were combining for the first time ever, like a humongous cultural Voltron. Festivities were slated to take place simultaneously somewhere in Western Europe and Northern Africa for a two-week balls-to-the-wall self-congratulatory “dodged a bullet” drinking and dance party. They had been smart enough, after all, to either ban fluoridation years ago or to never even consider doing it in the first place. The same could not be said for Singapore, Australia, Israel, the U.S., and the other fallen fluoridated countries.
Marley agreed. Anyone in their right mind would need time off from a sudden flu-like disease that reduced people to a shambling fugue state. Or for the really unfortunate—coming back to life after dying. The top brains in the world couldn’t, for the life of them, figure out how fluoride and some yet unnamed element within those who succumbed had combined together to create what was essentially zombies. That were blackout drunk mean.
At first everyone thought the fuguers were clawing at people to eat them, like the movies. That was why Sean had tried the German Harzer cheese with his parents, thinking the hideous odor might fool them into believing it was intestines. But the violence turned out to be accidental, attributable simply to poor coordination. Most of the time, the fuguers didn’t do much except just try to bite you.
Eyeing Sean’s soda, Marley’s stomach rumbled. Both of them had lost weight, more from stress than a lack of food, since things hadn’t gotten that bad yet. A plus for Marley at first, except that now even her breasts were shrinking, and she needed them, as “the twins” were a major male attraction.
Marley caught herself with a start. This was the first time she had actually been making plans. She wanted out. From Sean. She watched as he jerked at a particularly loud thud against the bedroom door. Marley felt pity for Mr. and Mrs. Sousa. They would suffer endlessly because one-time Junior Motocross champ and three-time pro Supercross champ Sean Sousa possessed an innate glowing optimism that even this fluoride-induced purgatory couldn’t dim. In short, he believed everyone was going to get better.
Marley couldn’t even broach the delicate subject of “dispatching” them. Sean would have an aneurism. The only saving grace was that the awkward chit-chatting and stifled silences of before were gone. The house was now flooded with guttural grunts and groans, wheezy breathing, clawed hands thrusting out mindlessly, reminding Marley of the strip club where she’d once worked.
Marley’s own parents had divorced when she was a child and her mother, from whom she was estranged, still lived in Ojai where she worked in a farm-to-table restaurant. Her father was a musician and her parents’ hippie-dippy ways were the reason for her stupid name, an altar erected in honor of Bob Marley. Marley had no idea what was going on with her mother and, sadly, cared very little about her or her loser beatnik friends.
Later, heading home, they walked in silence. Many buildings and houses were normal while others had boarded-up windows like a scene from The Birds. You could leave if you wanted to (but why would you; it was the same everywhere else in the U.S.) through one of the major checkpoints, if you weren’t sick.
Conveniently, symptoms began to show almost immediately for this disease: a steep drop in temperature (instead of a fever), loss of coordination and speech (as if drunk), and most noticeably, the whites of the eyes turned a deep bloodshot red. In other words, if you looked and acted like Keith Richards on a bender, you got a one-way ticket to quarantine.
Marley and Sean continued down the sidewalk beneath the cawing crows. Sean’s condo was several blocks away from Sean’s parents’ house, but obviously not far enough. They passed an apartment complex where an elderly woman in a jarring neon orange track suit stood pouring water out of a bowl onto a square of yellow, brittle lawn. The woman glanced at them and waved, though her face remained expressionless. Sean waved back. The hair stood up on the back of Marley’s neck.
The next block over she spotted a discarded set of shelves lying on its side that, even in its dilapidated state, she recognized as an Ikea product. Shuddering, she imagined the stray souls that might be stuck in the Ikea across town, shuffling aimlessly around. The definition of hell, in Marley’s opinion: bumping over and over into an Ekorre rocking moose or walking head-on into a Sallskap glass door cabinet for eternity. She was familiar with the products because she had worked at Ikea for half a year while she was still in high school.
Sean grabbed her hand and squeezed once before linking their fingers. He carried the tire iron in his other hand, swinging it back and forth jauntily like an umbrella or maybe a top hat. He used it to hold the fuguers back or to give them a good shove.
“Did you see that set of Expedit shelves back there?” Marley asked conversationally. “It was one of the most popular shelf sets at Ikea.”
Sean glanced at her and grinned. “Why? Are the instructions written in English instead of ancient Viking?”
Marley smiled tolerantly. “They discontinued it,” she said dreamily. She wasn’t sure where she had picked that information up, not having been involved with Ikea for many years. It bothered her. If her mind was a mysterious, powerful sponge that absorbed facts with a minimum of effort, then why hadn’t it gotten her further? Ingvar Kamprad had been 17 when he founded IKEA. Despite being dyslexic. What excuse did she have?
She knew why, though. She hadn’t necessarily wanted to work for success. She had thought her looks would get her far. Compared to Sean’s mocha skin and brilliant, seductive smile, she was his complete opposite with her pale cheeks and wispy blond hair but yet just as attractive, she thought, with her girl-next-door looks. Which made Mr. and Mrs. Sousa’s antagonism toward her even more disconcerting, because she’d thought Brazilians were super into white people.
Which led her to suspect that, even though Sean swore up and down that he’d never told his parents about her stripping (which she’d only done briefly; under a year) he was lying through his teeth.
Marley sighed, switching mental gears. “Why do you think we’re still alive?” She wasn’t expecting an answer. She knew Sean did not have an answer. Sean’s fingers, insanely strong from hanging onto various handlebars for dear life for ten years straight, clamped down hard, painfully compressing her knuckles.
“I don’t know, man,” he said softly. Sean always called her “man.” He called everybody “man.”
If you had to pick something from the list of everyday no-nos that went on, though, it could have been anything. Nobody was sure which bad thing had crashed into the other and then had taken a joy ride on fluoridated water straight into the DNA of the unsuspecting populace. Considering all the horrible things they were doing to the planet, it was kind of amazing that this hadn’t happened sooner. It was amazing that she and Sean remained virtually untouched. Or maybe their innards were floating, right now, in a menacing toxic cocktail, just waiting to be triggered…
Marley was torn from her reverie as Sean yanked her down roughly. She hissed, feeling gravel and dirt grind into her off-white culottes. They were on the sidewalk beside a dusty Audi with two flat back tires. Sean’s arm snaked up past Marley’s head and eased the passenger door open.
“Get in,” he murmured.
Hearing subdued panic, Marley obliged him. It was a 2014 model, so it wasn’t hard to scramble past the gearshift into the driver’s seat. She looked through the windshield. Two parking tickets lay motionless beneath the wipers. Beyond that, down the street, a dozen or more fuguers were shuffling straight toward them.
Where the hell had they come from? Once in the passenger seat, Sean eased the door closed. An odd scraping noise grew in volume. They sat rigidly as the small crowd approached the car and then swarmed past.
The group consisted of Mexicans, white people, and Black people, a mix you would rarely see together in L.A. Here they were ambling down the street like old friends after a barbecue. Some were blood-streaked, sporting bites and bruises, hair torn out, some pristine, as if they’d just exited a day spa. Their eyes were as red as a handful of fresh cherries from Trader Joe’s.
One man limped along, his foot swollen and purple, jammed between the spokes of an expensive mountain bike which he dragged behind him, creating the scraping noise. Having worked in a bike shop for several years, Marley identified the brand immediately.
The infected rider’s bright yellow biking outfit was missing from the waist down and Marley ogled the mangled remains of his manhood with muted horror. Beside him trudged a small woman dressed in a pale blue power suit, pristine except for one slash down the right sleeve. Something about her expression caught Marley’s attention. The eyes…looked almost focused. And not as red as the others either. Maybe just like someone with a bad case of pink eye.
Once the walkers had plodded several blocks away Sean said, “Come on, let’s go.”
“You need to put your parents out of their misery,” Marley blurted out, thinking of the bike rider wandering endlessly through North Hollywood with his damaged junk. She wasn’t sure why she cared, but even your worst enemy didn’t deserve that, did he? As expected, Sean’s newly-lean face blanched beneath his rich South American complexion.
“I can’t believe you just said that, man.” This, almost whispered. Then, louder, “Could you do that?” And louder still, “If it was your mother?”
Marley rolled her eyes. Sean made a disgusted sound.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I forgot. You hate her. Because she actually cares about people. Because she runs a community garden. Because she feeds the homeless. She’s disgusting. Let’s behead her!”
“I don’t hate her,” Marley hissed. Her ribs felt like sharp knives barely holding in her guts. “But that hippie-dippy stuff doesn’t get you anywhere! Where did it get the hippies from before? Most of them just sold out and became yuppies later! And my mom’s just getting by. Like she always has.”
“Your mother isn’t a hippie because she feeds the homeless. What are you, crazy? You’re hung up on that word, man! And even if she was a hippie, she’s the coolest hippie I’ve ever met.”
Sean had met her mother once after they’d gotten married and then they’d all gone out again a year later. It was like he was in love with her or something. But he was only in love with an idea, the theory of philanthropy. The way Marley had been in love with the idea of marriage, which had only turned out to be a flimsy ideal, at best, like almost everything else.
“Hey, man,” Marley mimicked him, “did you tell your parents that I used to strip?”
Sean struggled to turn his big, athletic body in the passenger seat of the abandoned Audi.
“I told you I didn’t, man. Why don’t you believe me?”
“Because they’re never nice to me. Even now. I’ve never seen a corpse look so disgusted. They’re dead and they still remember how disgusted they were. They won’t let go of it.”
Sean stared at her, running his tongue along the inside of his cheek. More and more of that as the marriage went on. When had it started happening? She couldn’t remember. Supposedly, everyone went through it. And some people survived it. She didn’t know how that was possible, though, because her heart felt blocked off, like a construction site surrounded by scaffolding, like there would never be more funds to complete the project, so the scaffolding would never be taken down.
Sean shook his head slightly. “You think my altered—sick—parents…” He would never utter the D-word. “…are holding a grudge against you?”
She knew how ridiculous it sounded, but she knew how they’d felt while they were alive, before they were altered, as Sean would say, and she could sense that they still felt the same way. Like they were still in there. Like they hadn’t really died but were in some kind of suspended animation holding death at bay. Which would mean, inconceivably, that Sean was right, and nobody should be killing the fuguers.
Sean exited the car without speaking and Marley followed suit as the sound of screeching tires punctured the silence. Far down the street, a troop of cops clad head to toe in Hilason Bite Suits and protective head gear poured out of a black van and began herding the fuguers into the back. The dog training suits really had been genius, because the group clawed and bit and scratched and fumbled, but the padded troopers were untouchable.
One of the cops scanning the street spotted Sean and Marley and froze, raising a testing hand a moment later. When Sean and Marley responded in kind, he turned away, satisfied, and aided his brethren with their grim duties.
After the van departed, Marley joined Sean on the sidewalk, continuing home in silence. Not holding hands now. Sean muttered under his breath, and Marley knew it was ire directed at the police and the unknown destination of the infected. They passed a man slipping inside the glass door of an office building on Victory Boulevard who pretended not to see them. Then at the last minute he turned and called, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
Sean and Marley responded automatically, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
They crossed Victory, heading north, and were almost home when they were ambushed by someone hurtling out from behind a tree. All Marley saw were gigantic breasts before Sean unceremoniously shoved her aside, swinging the tire iron before him. Marley scrabbled backwards along the ground into a piece of wood. She grabbed it and stood up, shaking.
Sean yelled, “Oh, my God!”
Thinking he was reacting to the fuguer (What was wrong? Was her head teetering on her shoulders, connected only by sinew? Was a Chihuahua chowing down on her tongue?) Marley raised the wood high. This would be her first time assaulting a random stranger.
“No, wait!” Sean yelled, barring Marley with his arm. And then he said the last thing on earth she expected him to say.
“It’s my ex. It’s Sofia!”
Sean sat on the sofa at home, his head in his hands, probably wondering how he was going to keep Sofia alive. They had tried giving her saltines, but she apparently had different nutritional requirements than his parents. Now Sean was worried that she actually did want to suck on a raw pancreas, and how was that achievable? Since being a pacifist and a gentle giant meant that you were incapable of providing your beautiful ex-girlfriend with dogs or cats to tear limb from limb, it also meant your beautiful ex-girlfriend might starve to death.
Marley lay on the carpet in her sullied culottes listening to Sofia’s muffled groans and nails scratching on the door of the guest room Sean had locked her in. Of course, thought Marley. Of course this was Sofia. Sean had mentioned her once or twice before. But he had never fully described her, and she could see why. The sultry epitome of feminine womanhood locked in the back room was a beautiful Hispanic girl seemingly no older than her mid-20s. When Marley had met Sean, she had been in her late 20s. Now she was 32. Sean was 36. When had Sean dated this girl, while she was in high school?
To top it off, she possessed enormous breasts. They’d been the only thing Marley could see during the attack, blocking out everything else. Real. Not fake. Marley could tell.
Yeah, she was fugued out and Marley wasn’t, but so what? It was the irony that counted. The fact that the “world” had ended during Halloween. The fact that Sean had run into, of all the people in Los Angeles, his ex, a beautiful girl with breasts that had room to store the mysteries of the stars inside them. The fact that an all-consuming rot was forever seeking dominance, on so many levels, and Marley was powerless against it. The only comfort was that she wasn’t alone. The world was powerless against it too.
Due to the turn of events, they forgot to eat the deli turkey slices and cornbread they had made earlier to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Several days later, Sean caught some rats in a hamster cage. After trying everything under the sun to feed Sofia, including the failed saltines, he had finally given in to the thing he abhorred the most: murder. Even rat murder. He and Marley stood in the backyard of their condo, the dead grass poking at their feet over the sides of their flip-flops. It was a temperate 78 degrees outside. Now that Thanksgiving was past, Christmas would be here soon. It would probably be 85 degrees by then. Time to break out the shorts and tank tops, suck some gas out of abandoned cars, and head for the beach.
Sofia was tied to the fence with one of Marley’s silk scarves. She reached out listlessly now and then, swinging her hand in their general direction.
The experiment was on. Before they had come out here, Sean had taken four Entertainment magazines and wound two each around Marley’s arms, securing them with duct tape. She had no idea why they were even out here, why they weren’t just tossing the rats into the room with Sofia and locking the door. She sighed, at a loss to even begin to glean Sean’s thought processes.
“Where are your magazines?” she asked, holding out her awkwardly bundled arms.
He shrugged, preoccupied with the rats and the cage. “I’ll be fine.”
Which was actually funny, because as Sean lifted the cage, trying to decide the best way to feed the unsuspecting rats to Sofia, Sofia was suddenly standing beside Marley, also watching Sean.
Marley jerked, throwing up her armored arm, which Sofia immediately seized and sank her teeth into. I bet he used a half hitch knot, Marley thought incoherently, her gaze locked on Sofia’s light-pink (pink?) eyes. For some reason, Sean’s fondness for half hitch knots had only increased with time, despite the fact that they’d failed him in many situations.
Sean dropped the rats and threw himself at Sofia, grappling for her wrists. The diminutive woman ducked her head and nicked Sean’s forearm before he could yank it away. Not a lot. Just a nip. But there was blood.
Marley sat on a chair in the living room staring at Sean.
He lay on the sofa, one arm thrown over his face, eyes closed. It was many hours later, and he still didn’t seem to be displaying any symptoms, although he seemed a tad feverish, which was good, she guessed, because fever wasn’t part of the sickness.
Marley could hear Sofia in the back room trying the doorknob. At least that’s what it sounded like. That was weird. After the incident, she had helped Sean restrain Sofia and together they had delivered her into the back. Then they had dumped half a container of peroxide on his arm followed by antiseptic swipes followed by many globs of Neosporin.
Marley realized as she stared at Sean that she was mentally packing a duffle bag in her mind. No canned stuff. Too heavy. They had lots of potato chips, string cheese, wine (also heavy, but pretty much a necessity), the corn bread.
Out of nowhere, the abandoned toddler who had brought her and Sean together sprang to mind. He’d be about eight now, and with parents that dumb, he was probably hiding in the broom closet while his folks wandered in wide, clueless circles around the family room. She started tearing up and was rubbing her eyes when Sean woke up.
“Please don’t kill me,” he said immediately.
She sat up in the chair. “Why? How do you feel?”
He paused, assessing. “I don’t know, man. I feel okay.”
Marley leaned back, exhausted. She dropped her face into her hands. She couldn’t just leave him now. Could she? Maybe she was a monster.
“But when it happens…don’t kill me. I mean it, man. It would be a mistake.”
Marley considered that for a moment. Maybe for Sean it would be a mistake. Or Sofia, who looked okay. Or that lady in the power suit who had seemed fine other than a torn sleeve. But the guy with the mutilated genitals? Did he really want to miraculously wake up from this nightmare only to be immediately thrust into a new one?
“Marley. Marley. You hear me? Promise me.”
Marley looked up. “I promise.”
“And don’t kill my parents.”
She hesitated for two beats then nodded.
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m not going to kill any of you,” she snapped.
Beside them, the Entertainment magazines lay on the coffee table where she had torn them off. The one bearing Sofia’s teeth-marks lay prominently on top, a sad reminder of Sean’s wise forethought.
“I’m not going to kill you,” she said, more softly.
Sean exhaled and rolled onto his side. His teeth flashed in his face. He laughed. “Jesus,” he said, laughing. Marley laughed a little, too. It was contagious. And Sean had a great smile. She sniffled a little, feeling blue.
“Hey, babe,” said Sean, holding out his arms, “Come here.”
It was hard to resist Sean. That was why she had married him in the first place. She slowly lowered herself to the carpet and crawled over and laid her head on his chest.
“It’ll be okay,” Sean was whispering. “Don’t cry.” He rubbed her back gently in comforting circles. “I feel okay.” And then, the coup de grace. “Maybe nothing’ll happen.”
There it was again! Maybe, hopefully, if we’re lucky, possibly, probably. Pulling away, Marley sat back on her heels and gazed into the middle distance. She wasn’t Sean and would never be Sean with two parents who adored her, possible literary genius running through her DNA, and a talent for riding motorcycles which the excitement-seeking throngs elevated to a god-like status. Of course he was an optimist, coming out of that environment. Marley’s mother had been raised in a semi-commune, gotten pregnant early, always said, “It’s all good,” when it wasn’t all good. There had been times when Marley had been hungry as a child. Was that all good?
As Marley stared off, Sean heaved a tremendous sigh. A moment later he asked her, “What are you thinking about?”
“Ingvar Kamprad. The guy that founded Ikea.”
Sean closed his eyes, crossed his arms over his chest, and lay completely still as if he was dead. Marley pushed on.
“Can you even wrap your mind around the incredible potential,” Marley began in a low, passionate voice, “of a 17-year-old boy…starting a furniture store—not thinking about, not talking about—actually doing it, even though it was just a catalogue business at first, but still…” Her voice began to rise. “To be so young and so driven…and for this…catalogue business to turn into Ikea, this world-famous, multinational conglomerate…”
Sean had opened his eyes and was watching her with growing unease as if witnessing a terrible motocross accident unfolding before him.
“And then…” Marley continued, faltering. Her eyes filled with tears. “His stuff turns into crap.” She sniffled. “Everything turns into crap.” She lifted her shoulders and dropped them. “All that…red…hot… boiling…potential…” She gestured around her helplessly. “…just leads to cheap, rickety crap?”
Marley and Sean regarded one another silently. Then Sean swiped his weirdly damp brow with his wrist. He smiled without showing his teeth. “It’s not all crap,” he said softly. And then, “What about happiness?” He seemed sad. “He made a lot of people happy.” He closed his eyes again and didn’t move for so long, Marley thought he’d fallen asleep.
“Bring the rats in here,” said Sean said suddenly, and Marley started. “Let them loose. Sofia and I’ll catch them.”
The rats were still on the lawn in the cage where they had fallen. Outside, the sun was setting. Marley shook her head. “They’ll escape. You’ll never catch them. They can collapse their ribs, you know, and squeeze through a crack half an inch big.” Marley knew this because she had, at one time, worked in a pet shop for a year and a half. She had worked everywhere, and ended up nowhere.
She crawled back over to Sean and laid her head on his chest again, conflict raging through her. She couldn’t change who she was. Could she? She felt carved out of stone, immutable, as if her very being were a vast beach strewn with fatalism instead of sand. But some small part of her sensed a degree of alteration, a slight shift. She would change her mind—she would unpack her mental duffle—if there was proof otherwise. That in the midst of the boiling desert that it was okay, that it was not insane, to continue slogging forward through the desiccated soil, devoted to the promise of some yet unseen oasis.
Barring that outcome, she knew she couldn’t live with someone like Sean anymore. She saw now that his stale optimism and enthusiasm were a terrible delusion, part of a story he kept telling himself in order to keep going forward. Tomorrow will be better. Next week will be better. Next month will be better. Next year will be better. Don’t focus on the crap. Think of the happiness.
She was a realist. Maybe she couldn’t autopsy ruin, locate the origin of its wretched birth, prevent it from happening. But she could prepare for it. She could live her life knowing that love didn’t last. Hope was a crutch. And while fluoridated water might keep cavities from forming, it would also, in the end, kill (almost) everyone in sight.
“Then…bring ‘em in…leave ‘em in the cage,” Sean was whispering, sleepy again.
Oh, God, oh, God, was this it? The end? Marley felt like her heart was bruised and broken, but how was that possible, when it was protected by all that scaffolding?
“Leave ‘em in there and…we’ll figure out how to get ‘em out…”
In the middle of Sean’s brainstorming about the best way to consume the rats (as if he would ever eat a rat) something happened.
Sean stopped talking and opened his eyes. Marley lifted her head from his chest. They both looked toward the guest room. And then it came again. A voice. Someone was speaking. It was Sofia. It was Sofia. Sofia’s hoarse voice came rasping across the quiet room, “So thirsty.” A light cough. Then: “Can I have some water?”
Marley jerked upright, her spine rigid, and Sean’s fingers clamped, vise-like, on her arm. They stared at each other. Sean started to grin. Marley, aghast, stunned, stayed still, barely breathing, listening, waiting.
Stacey Bryan has worked at a dude ranch, as a gymnastics coach, an editor for a former Buddhist monk, and now closed captioning. Her work has appeared in Ginosko, The Rag, Eclectica, and the International Human Rights Art Festival, among others. She is working on Day for Night, a paranormal comedy series.