IV

That’s it.

You’re watching me sleep.

I can feel it. The dim warmth of the box around me, cooking my skin or whatever the hell it does. Like standing under a heat lamp. It’s starting to come back. Like waking up. Foggy.

I must’ve gotten cozy and drifted off. This is a dream. A test. We’re in the lab. I’m in the box. You’re observing me. Gordon and Dr. Ritz and Kaplan are hovering, waiting to see what happens when you microwave a guinea pig. Gordon has his hand on Dr. Ritz’s shoulder.

That’s it.

They must have called you in so you could see the results in person. You’d want know.

You’d want to know it didn’t work.

I bet you’re devastated.

You’re standing out there, right now, and I’m sitting inside your life’s work, passed out like a goddamn bum. That sadness in your eyes every time.

We’ll get it next time, babe

“Tell Kaplan to push her tits against the glass!”

I yell this as I’m walking down the apartment stairs, baby in one arm and a pile of letters in the other—as many as I could carry in one scoop, since the sirens could be here any minute.

A shadow at the bottom of the stairwell. Footsteps. A figure. Looking at me.

“Fuck you! I’m a stripper now? Fuck you, maaaan.”

I don’t know how to respond. Legs. Feet.

My brain spits gibberish.

Error.

The figure offers a grunt. He shakes his head and stumbles past the stairs without another glance up. He’s got one shoe on. His shirt has no sleeves, but it definitely used to. Long ones.

My legs pull the stairs up around me. The building rotates on an axis until I reach the bottom step. Outside World comes into view. The figure, stage right, halfway across the parking lot. Walking away. Five foot nine. One-sixty. Narrow hips. A grifter maybe.

Just some fucking crazy.

What a relief.

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What the hell kind of dream is this?

Make my way to the sidewalk and pass my eyes over the cars in the lot. Find our little sedan. Watching the grifter: He points up at the top of the trees across the street. Footsteps swinging wide. Too many whiskey, pal. He’s pointing at the trees again. Walking up to a very clean-looking white sports car. Cackles, taps his other hand against his hip. Drumming a beat. Grinds a cigarette onto the hood. Spits. More cackling. Spiral of smoke on the hood. He doesn’t look back. Points at the trees. Echoing laughter.

Okay, it’s a very vivid dream, but still. The mind is a beautiful and mysterious thing.

I’m ready to come out now,” I whisper, almost sullenly. Fumbling for the keys in my pocket. The baby hasn’t stirred once since I picked her up. The cool steel of the gun in my waistband tethers me to the moment. It’s gotta be late—the loathing of knowing the sun will be coming up soon and I’m still awake—and I’m not worried about the grifter, but I don’t know who’s looking for me. They could be watching snap out of it.

No one is looking for you. This isn’t real.

Better yet, I don’t know who took Amara.

That’s ridiculous. You wouldn’t do this. The Amara I knew would never leave a newborn baby to die in a trashed apartment. That’s not Amara.

That’s not my wife.

My wife is—you are—pure light. You ran over a bunny last week on your way home from work. Sadness in your voice when you opened the door. That look. Instant sobriety. Put your keys down on the counter and threw yourself around me. Big tears rolling down your cheeks. Not sobbing, nothing dramatic. Pure, real sadness. A child’s sadness. That innocence. Genuine love for life such that the unnecessary death of a rodent in the street is cause for heartache. Breathing heavily into my chest. Arms around me. Squeezing. “It’s okay, hun. I’m sorry. You didn’t do it on purpose.”

No dice.

“He just ran out in the road!”

At first I thought you were talking about a dog. In retrospect: why would I think killing a dog is any worse? Man. I’m fucked up. The emotional bond I shared with my last dog was deeper than my connection with most humans. You feel that way about all living things.

“I tried to slow down but he doubled back. Why would he do that?”

Look up. Lock eyes. Wet. Beautiful.

Bury yourself again. Your cheek damp on my neck. Quiet sniffles. Tears that hurt. You can’t even make a sound, just close your eyes and let them fall, let regret seep in, store it in that inner place where all compassion and tenderness live inside you. That place inside that lets you love me.

I hurt with you.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” I want to tickle you and make you laugh. Dead rabbit jokes don’t fly for the first forty-eight hours. After mourning ends. House rules.

It must be exhausting. Being that kind. The cost, the real cost of kindness, is

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Where are you?

“Okay,” I say. Quieter this time, so the grifter won’t hear. “You can pull me out now,” I say this to no one, pointing my keys at the car. If I push the button, I know what will happen.

Headlights flare. The click of the doors unlocking is barely audible over the roar of the cicadas. The grifter mutters some remark, but I can’t hear him. He can’t hear me. He’s leaning forward in an empty section of the parking lot, hugging himself. Not hugging. Liquid on pavement. He’s pissing.

Maybe it’s some kind of perversion simulator. You put me in here to observe my brain’s reaction to subjectively averse stimuli. Introduce miscellany until cohesion occurs, then sample the results and replicate indicators producing the desired effect. In this instance, you want me to feel discomfort. It’s soobvious.

It’s working.

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