The man's voice carried out into the wide hallway corridor. His yelping commanded four guards with body armor and automatic weapons away from their stationary posts and into the entryway. They leveled their rifles at the large, shining elevator doors as the man's sweaty fingers punched in the pass code to his secure room atop Everson Tower. Even after the steel reinforced blast doors closed and he heard the hiss and lock announcing their security, and even after the lovely British woman's voice assured him the door was secure, he fought to breathe. His wheezing worried him. Even with a double dose of his medication, it seemed worse than usual, and there would be a dozen more deep breaths before he would realize he wasn't dying and that he had fallen down onto his two-hundred-thousand dollar antique Sarouk Farahan Persian carpet.
Once convinced he would live to take stock of the evening, he crawled to a row of nearly invisible cabinets lining the floor of one of the safe room's six walls.
“The elevator is locked down, sir, no one up or down!”
The built-in speakers crackled on the first three syllables, then evened out. The man fumbled with his phone, wiping his hands on the floor to dry them enough to provide his thumb print identification to unlock the home screen. The phone shook in his hands, but his thumb print had been accepted. After two more taps and swipes, four monitors above him on the wall illuminated.
“We stay right here until your say-so,” the voice from the speakers said. Now, the man could see the security officer talking. The officer gave a thumbs up to the closed circuit camera above him, and the man gave a thumbs up to the screen. Neither man saw the other.
“No one gets in, you hear me? No one comes up!” The man yelled.
After another thumbs up on the monitor, the man slid down the wall and let his weight settle into the floor. He closed his eyes, started the breathing cycles his doctor advised. He envisioned his beach house in Malibu, but the image of beach combers and the ugly, cheap boats flitting across the water a few hundred yards out made him change his mind. He flew instantly to Paia, his Hawaiian paradise. He felt the warm, Maui breezes on his face. He watched his grounds keepers sweating into their beige uniforms and beige hats and imagined himself in a light, flowing silk Versace robe, red and purple, of course.
A fast, aggressive breath in...
He imagined the sound of the sea, waves crashing like applause, heralding him, celebrating his victories.
A slow, long breath out.
He tried to avoid thoughts about recent deaths in the city, tried to push out what it might feel like to take a knife to the throat, like Senator Evans had in his downtown office two days ago. He tried to dismiss the image of a bloated, drowned chief of police, killed in his own bathtub.
Deep breath in...
Tried not to think about taking a sniper's bullet, like Judge Kaysin.
Long breath out.
The election had been brutal. Between the travel and the speeches and answering the endless and insulting questions from the press, he was glad to be back home, back in New York, back in a place he controlled and understood. Sure, the news of multiple social and political leaders falling suddenly ill or disappearing or being openly murdered by a new, unnamed, brash guerrilla group had been alarming, but some rag-tag group of computer hackers and wannabe GI Joes didn't stand a chance of reaching the highest levels of power. The man reminded himself of the structural soundness of his safe room, of the security systems in place, of the armed guards here on his floor and the armed guards on nearly every floor below.
There are attack helicopters flying overhead for God's sake.
He took solace in state of the art technologies and tactics. He took solace in his power.
Back to Hawaii. He pressed through the unwanted thoughts like tall grass, letting them sting his hands but not letting them completely block his view of the paradise beyond. His garden, his workers, a table of grilled pineapple, mango, and fresh crab legs. A saucer of melted butter.
Fast breath in...
His maid, scrubbing a nearby table, her skirt almost short enough for the man's liking.
Long slow breath out.
His mind flashed to images of Washington lobbyist Elizabeth Shurmer. She'd been wearing a skirt when she was shot twice in the head on the steps of her townhouse. He tried to pull his thoughts back to Hawaii, back to security and power and health. For a moment he was back in Hawaii and his maid's skirt was shorter and he tried to keep her face from changing to Elizabeth Shurmer's face.
A breath in...
The skirt got shorter.
A breath out.
Elizabeth Shurmer's bloodied face smiled back.
“Careful, you'll use up all of our air.”
The man jerked upright, ramming his head into the secret cabinet doors behind him. It wasn't the voice, it was the piercing squeal and then the crackle of the speakers that startled him. He grunted to his feet and checked the monitors. The security team was still positioned around the elevator doors down the hallway, guns still leveled.
“What was that?” the man asked, palming the intercom button he'd pressed before.
The figures in the hallway didn't move. There was no response. When the man pressed the button a few more times and yelled a few more questions, they still didn't move.
The intercom blared again:
“Do you need a towel or something? That sweat is intense.”
The man wheeled around, surveying the rest of the safe room. It was nine hundred square feet, one partial wall separating a living room command room combo from the bedroom beyond. Overhead lights ran the length of the ceiling, but he hadn't turned them on yet. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he knew, he felt, before it was illuminated, that a figure was sitting in one of the leather chairs.
“Don't turn on the lights,” the intercom blared again, “I like the dark.”
The man immediately lunged for the light switch and clicked it on. He looked up, expectant, into darkness. The only light was now the faint glow of the security monitors.
“Like I said, I like the dark.”
No screech, no crackle. Now the voice was just a voice, quiet and patient with a slight accent the man couldn't place. Now it was simply another voice.
Another voice inside the safe room.
“Do you prefer this?” The intercom again. In the darkness, the figure brought something down from his head and placed it in his lap. Before he could speak again, the man was pounding on the intercom buttons and screaming.
“Help! Help me!” he yelled, punching the buttons and pulling every switch and toggle on the control board. He fumbled across his pockets for his phone before remembering that he left it on the ground. He dove for it, snatching it up like a live grenade that needed its pin put back in. He frantically pressed his thumb against the screen. Too wet, too much sweat, and he wiped it wildly on his shirt, on the carpet, and pressed it to the screen again. He never stopped screaming for help.
The figure shifted slightly in the chair. It would have been hard in the darkness to see the figure pressing his fingers into his ears amid the screaming. The man didn't see it, he was busy staring into the blank screen of his six thousand dollar smart phone. In between screams he begged the phone, pleaded with it to open and give him a lifeline to the outside world.
“Oh no, is your phone not working?” the voice again, without the intercom. “Typical, right? What do you have, Sprint? T-Mobile?”
The man was too busy punching buttons and screaming to respond.
“Oh I know, you have some special, top-secret billionaire illuminati world domination type provider. You probably get great reception all over the world, huh? You have a data plan?”
The man continued screaming:
“Get away from me!”
“Unlimited talk and text?”
“Get away, you stay away! Help!”
The man dropped the phone on the counter top and activated one of the cabinets. Small lights glowed slowly from dark to dim to soft white, illuminating a weapon cache, complete with foam cut outs in the shape of a nine millimeter Glock seventeen, three Glock seventeen clips, an MP5, and a clear plastic container of bullets. The bullets remained. Every other cutout was empty.
“No one can hear you screaming so could you please stop?”
“Help me, help!”
“Please, if you just listen...”
“If you listen I think we could come to an underst—”
“In here, he's in here! Help!”
The man was screaming at the monitors, banging his hands against the surrounding wall panels. He wouldn't look at the figure, wouldn't even glance, the way a child ignores danger by covering ears and shutting eyes. Thoughts of Hawaiian maids and Maui and Mai Tais were retreating to the edges of the man's consciousness when the gunshot shook the room. It echoed, the tinning drum of enclosed metal and exploding gunpowder pounded on the man's ear drums before he could get his ears covered. He fell to the ground, holding his ears and moaning, as the figure finally stood. The figure walked to the monitors and took his time, smiling into each one. The security team was very determined to keep those elevator doors secure. The figure remembered a time when he looked like that: young, raw, eager. But he was never that raw.
He picked up the man's phone, removing a nearly identical phone from his own pocket. He held them next to each other, smirking, humming as his thumb print activated his phone. With another few commands, the other phone lit up, as well, and in twenty-four seconds, the exchange had taken place. The figure dropped the man's phone onto the floor.
“Are you ready to listen?” the figure asked. The man was still moaning, rocking back and forth and trying to find a seated position and a hand-over-ear pressure that would quiet the high pitched hum in his head.
The figure dropped a folder on the floor and knelt down.
“Please allow me to introduce ourselves, Mr. President.”
The man's hearing started to clear. He heard the end of the sentence, heard the title he'd won in election, the title he'd carried for almost four weeks now. A strange man infiltrated his safe room in one of New York's most secure buildings and the President knew what he was about to hear.
“Our name, Mr. President... is Karma. We are a powerful force for balance in the world. We wish to swing the pendulum of power back from unfeeling corporate military industrial enslavement to something a little more... equitable. More sustainable. Less... murdery. You can understand that, right?”
“Please,” the President said, his eyes closed and his hands trembling in front of his face.
“Mr. President, sir? Honestly, it didn't take this long acclimating the others to the conversation, and I thought the acting director of the world's largest military superpower, the leader of the free world, would have a little more sack than this. I'm surprised. I'm... disappointed. My colleagues will all be very disappointed.”
The President brought his hands down from their shielding position in front of his face. He started to open his eyes, allowed himself to look into the face of his nightmares. He'd been watching for this, waiting for it to come, for almost four weeks, when he received the nomination and watched, the next day, as news came in that FBI director James Gibson had been killed. Everson Tower became a second White House, the safe room stocked with months of food and water and outfitted with the servers and software he would need to continue operations in case of emergency. The President and his inner circle had seen to the specifications personally, in preparation.
He can't know why we did that, can he?
As the fog of his panic lifted, he realized the room had been designed to be nearly impossible to break into, and no amount of screaming would alert the people outside. They wouldn't have even heard the gunshot. It would take a cruise missile to get anyone's attention without the intercom.
“What do you want?” the President asked.
The figure smiled, “I'm so glad you asked. It's really quite simple.” He dropped a folder on the floor and motioned the President to open it. He opened the folder, expecting pictures of a dead FBI director, pictures of Elizabeth Shurmer and Senator Evans and Judge Kaysin, maybe other deaths he didn't yet know about. In the last moments before seeing the first item, an image of his wife and daughters, tied up and gagged, bloody, or simply dead, flashed into the frame of possibilities.
There were no pictures of dead politicians or kidnapped family members. The folder contained paper, documents, official transcripts detailing confidential CIA operations. As the President flipped through them, he started to feel like photos of bullet-induced blood spatter and exposed brain matter would have been better.
“These first pages are the records of all of the CIA's drug movements through New York Harbor. We were wondering why the shipment size and frequency suddenly increased two months ago and we figured it might be related to developments we were tracking in Syria.”
The President continued thumbing from page to page. He could feel the pressure rising in his chest again, could feel his inhales getting shorter. His heartbeat swished in his ears and thumped in his neck.
“Oh, I love this part, page five? Probably my favorite. These are files detailing communication between CIA operatives and a Mr. Asan Al Zarkali. Did you know that? We wondered why the CIA would set up a meeting with a top member of Al-Qaeda's command, and why he would show up to such a meeting, and why the CIA wouldn't then kill him at said meeting.”
The President stopped turning pages. He started shaking his head.
“Oh don't stop now, you're at the best part.”
He knew the story, he didn't have to read it out of the confidential documents stolen by an international hacking organization. He knew members of the CIA made contact with Zarkali to convince him to set up a small team of followers for an attack on the White House. The men would be supplied with the implements and instructions for building a small thermobaric bomb, one that could be carried in the back of a moving truck. If the truck could get close enough to the White House, the blast would level it and all surrounding buildings, killing everyone inside. Their plans included assuring that the President would be out of the White House at the time.
“The White House?” the figure asked, shaking his head. “Now, we're not super keen on all of the machinations and institutions of the current government. We don't tend to get too hung up on special people or special positions or special buildings. But blowing up the White House?”
The President closed the folder and let his head hang between his knees.
“What do they call that? A false flag event? It doesn't matter, we intercepted this information six days ago and Zarkali and his team are no longer an issue. But that brings me to the reason for this whole night.”
The figure sat down in front of the President and crossed his legs. He assumed the pose of a teacher, a wise old yogi... apart from the pistol in his right hand.
“You... need to stop. You, and all of the people like you, just need to stop. America is ready to move past all of this. You ran on a platform that suggested you were a man who could move past all of this. Inciting riots, staging 'terrorist attacks,' usurping democratically elected leaders around the world, the dissemination of information and disinformation designed to keep China, Russia, and the middle east suspicious of us and of each other. Humanity is ready to move past the 'chaos for prophet' model. We don't need dark rooms full of rich old men trying to carve out their ownership of the world. It's stupid. It's unnecessary. Now, the reason I'm here with you is because your position gives you power for real change. It would only take a few men and women like you, in positions like yours, to change these flawed political structures. When you were on the campaign trail, you claimed to be ready to make real changes, to shake up the system, to fight for the people, for freedom. What was your slogan?”
“You know what it was,” the President mumbled.
“I do know, I remember it clearly. But I would love, just love love love, if you'd say it for me. I think it would mean more if you said it.”
The Glock shifted slightly in the man's hand. The President turned over a few more pages. His mind was still cycling through options for escape, but being locked in a sound proof box, alone, with no means for communication with the outside world and no weapons to use against the man now questioning him kept his options limited: kill the armed assailant in hand to hand combat, or acquiesce.
“Take your time,” the man said, “I want to really feel it. I want the version you belted out in Ohio and Michigan. I don't just want to feel it, I want to feel it in my balls!”
The man stood, grabbed his crotch, and returned to the leather chair.
“Come on, Mr. President, hit me!”
“An America we can be...”
The man stopped him, “No, no no, don't just give me the punchline, I want the last paragraph. I want the monologue, the passionate call to action. Inspire me!”
The President dropped his head, dragging his chin back and forth across his chest as he started to shake his head again.
“I know it's just me in here, Mr. President, but I'll help. I'm sure your chanting crowds helped at all of those campaign trail stops. You ready? Pick it up whenever you feel lead by that passionate American spirit.” The man cleared his throat. “From coast to coast, from our highest mountains to our lowest valleys...”
The man leaned in, looking out of the tops of his eyes at the President's mouth. He was waiting. He knew it would come, he simply needed to wait.
“… from the Pacific North West's crystal lakes to the Louisiana bayou...”
The man funneled his hands around his mouth and tried to create the sounds of a wild crowd. When his hands withdrew, he rested the Glock on his knee, leveling it at the President's chest.
“This is my favorite part so I'm really going to need your help here, Mr. President.”
The President stopped shaking his head. The man saw it, the moment, acquiescence.
“From the crystal lakes of the Pacific Northwest...”
“There you go.”
“To the heat and hospitality of the Louisiana bayou...”
“I hear it.”
“From the schoolhouse to the beach house to the penthouse to the White house...”
“Preach it, brother!”
“An America we can be sure of...”
“An America we can be proud of...”
“America... leading the way!”
The man stood from the leather chair with his arms raised and belted out his best “Yeehaw!” It echoed like the gunshot.
“Oh man! That stuff just gets me, you know? It just gets my juices flowing! Woo! I love it, I know why you won, that stuff just works. I don't even know why, just something inside me comes alive and I want to... take over something, you know? I just want to bomb some poor brown country and take all of their natural resources. I get it, man, I get it! A lot of people in the media and on the left didn't get it, still don't get it, but I get it.”
The man strode to the President's side and slapped him on the back.
“Good stuff, my man. Now... quick question... where in the 'America, leading the way' slogan is the part about staging a fake terrorist attack on the White House and killing hundreds of American citizens to establish grounds for a war with Syria?”
The President watched the gun appear from behind the man's leg. The black metal swung slightly in the man's grip, peering from behind him like a second interrogator.
“You know what I hoped? I hoped all of your rhetoric on the campaign trail was just that, rhetoric. Words, meant to set you apart from your Democratic opponent and the previous administration. I thought, with your knowledge of social media and manipulating the mainstay press outlets, that you might be catfishing us. I hoped, somewhere deep down in my heart and soul, in my very being, that you were going to lie your way into the White House by using fear and racism and xenophobia and misogyny, only to turn around at your inauguration, accept the role of President, get sworn in, and then give your speech. In my sweetest dreams, it would have included thank yous to all of the people who voted for you. All of the misinformed, misguided, manipulated people who voted for you. I envisioned you laughing as you detailed some of the things you said to other world leaders, to your party members, to your own family and friends. I hoped you would read direct quotes you made that contradicted themselves or other statements you'd previously made. Or both! I thought you might give America a stern talking to. I thought you might lecture us on totalitarianism and the folly of dividing America and the world into an us versus them playing field where the biggest, loudest, meanest, most violent players win. I saw you waving your hands and asking how we elected a known thief, a repeated liar, a womanizer teetering on the edge of full-blown sexual predator, and then I saw you calling it all a big show. You would reveal yourself to the people for the real you, the man who truly did want to get America moving in the right direction. And, silly me, I even thought America might respond positively to such a brash and bold piece of performance art. I had such hope.”
The man returned to his yogi pose in front of the President.
“But then you spoke at your inauguration. And then you spoke again the next day, and the next, and we got to see your speeches and your press conferences and your emails and your Twitter page.”
The man pulled another, smaller folder from his vest.
“You're a performer, Mr. President. You've never been a businessman, a politician, or a leader. You're a performer, and you're performing for the wrong playwrights. We'd like to change that.”
The man dropped another folder on the President's lap and the pages slid out together. The writing on these pages was different. This wasn't a collection of intelligence documents or operational transcripts.
It was a script.
“We'd like to try what I envisioned. We're a little late, it won't have quite as much power at this stage, but like I said, Mr. President... you're a performer. The people will need convincing. The people will want to be shocked. They will want that wow factor. They will want to tune into the rest of your TV show if you grab that microphone and you melt their faces off. Now, I know this is a lot to take in, and you're probably thinking about ways to kill me, or thinking about how I expect to get out of this safe room alive, but none of that matters. What matters is that you've been given this opportunity to make real change. You've been given a chance that no one has had since John F. Kennedy, rest his soul. You will pull back the putrid scab that is American politics. You will dig the chiggers out of America's skin and help her begin to heal. You will not arm al-Qaeda members with the means to blow up the White House and send the world, yet again, into war. We're starting a new act in the play, now. We're going to act three in this crazy show we call America.”
The man rose, stepping to the control panel and raising his phone to the screens. A few seconds of key tapping satisfied him and the phone returned to his pocket.
“When men approach you and threaten you or threaten your family, don't be afraid. I'm here with you in one of the safest and most secure rooms in the world and I will be gone soon and, if you'd like, you can pretend I was never here and none of this ever happened. No one else will know I was here. That is how good were are at what we do. Please know that our skills work both ways, offensively and defensively. If I tell you we will protect you and your family, they will be safe. On the other hand, if you insist on continuing to make decisions that will get more people killed and ruin more lives, I will have to come back and talk to you again. Do you want to talk to me again?”
The President shook his head.
“Well jeez! Tell me how you really feel!” The man checked to make sure the Glock still had a round chambered. “You've got a big speech on Tuesday, right? Sounds like a perfect day for real change. I'll know, within the first thirty seconds, your decision. We have some amazing writers on our team. I hope you will join us.”
The man secured a small tactical pack and unloaded the pistol. He left the bullets on the floor and the clip and Glock on the leather chair.
“One more thing, Mr. President... do you like the men out there on security?”
“The men out their guarding the elevator, do you like them?”
The President understood the question and nodded slowly.
“They're good men,” he whispered.
“Aw, see, you're already making better decisions.” The man looked at his watch. “Mr. President, it's been a pleasure. I hope you're not afraid of the dark.”
Before the President could answer, the monitors clicked off and the room went black. A hiss called out from the blast doors and the President could hear them opening. He almost screamed out for help again, but stopped himself. He waited, listening, as the security team called out directives in the dark. One by one their bodies hit the hallway floor, and everything was quiet.
The President got to his feet and shuffled along the wall toward the door. Before he reached it, the blast doors hissed again and began to close as the lights clicked back on. Light from the hall streamed in briefly before the doors shut, and when he looked to the monitors, all four guards were down, motionless. The man was nowhere to be seen.
The intercom crackled to life:
“Remember, Mr. President... an America we can be proud of. Lead the way.”
The President scooped the file and the loose papers from the floor. He flipped through the first few pages of the script and drew a long, deep breath.
Act one: honesty.
To give this speech would mean shaking the political foundations of the entire world. It would be on every news station in operation. It would, overnight, change foreign relations, the effectiveness of representative government, the concepts of nationalism and borders, and would make him the most famous, or infamous, President, or maybe even leader, of all time.
Do you want to continue the status quo, or become the most influential leader in human history?
By the time the effects of the gas wore off and the guards recovered, the President had the first ten minutes of Tuesday's speech nearly memorized.
“Katie, would you like to go to Prom with me?”
That's a perfectly normal thing to say to the most beautiful girl you've ever seen, right? The Prom is in twelve days so it would be normal to walk up to her and ask. Just ask, ask her your question, Alex. It sounds good in your head so now you just need to get it out of your head. Easy.
It does sound good in my head. Mostly. Its sounds as good as any thought can sound. But I know what it would sound like if I actually said it, if I actually walked up to her and looked into her face and saw her looking back into my eyes and I opened my mouth to try and form the words.
The way her shoulders round, just so, the way her neck curves up to those delicate ears and her round head, that perfect kind of round, makes me want to be there, leaning in, my cheek resting against the warm strands of straight brown hair she's pulled together and draped over one shoulder, her right shoulder. I want to smell her hair and I know immediately how creepy that sounds in my mind and then I know just as immediately and even more creepily that I don't care if it's creepy. I want to walk up behind her and run my hands down her shoulders, down her arms, down to the elbows, and I want to hear her smile as she turns towards me and I want her to kiss my cheek as I lay my head on her hair and wrap my arms around her and...
A voice rips me from my dreams. It is a whisper, too close, with breath very near to lunch's peanut butter and jelly sandwich with sour cream and onion potato chips. My stomach hollows out. I can't believe I didn't notice him walking the desks. It is Mr. Kenton, my English teacher.
“Master Stevens, despite my suave demeanor and charitable face, I will give you a zero in participation for the day if you don't, you know... participate.”
“S-s-suh-horry Mr. K-Kuh-henton.”
I don't stutter his name in my thoughts. I don't usually stutter my thoughts. A doctor once told me that stress might affect my stuttering. By affect it I mean make it worse. A lot worse. I believe him. I can see myself walk up behind her and wrap my arms around her and imagine her kissing my cheek and smiling and it's all very effortless and natural and... right. It's perfect. We don't have to talk. She can talk. In most of our mental interactions, she talks. Sometimes she tells me about her day. Sometimes she tells me about her hopes for our future together. Sometimes she sings. Sometimes she whispers. She can talk or sing or whisper and I can listen. I enjoy listening. When I do imagine talking to her, even on the false set pieces and in the ridiculous scenes and scenarios I set up for us in my head, I still feel the stutter. I sense the pressure in my mouth, the heat in my head. I hear the sound – usually on the S or hard K words, sometimes on N's and M's – I hear it catch and crush my tongue into the roof of my mouth. The K sound rattles around, bouncing off of my teeth, until I have to swallow it and continue the word without the hard K. I usually replace the hard sounds with the softer, easier H sound, so Kenton becomes Kuh-henton. The stuttered K's crash outward into the air like fireworks, sudden and bright and impossible to ignore, and the soft H finishes the word like the quiet streaming of red and orange and blue flames burning back to earth. People murmur, in awe, at my voice.
Maybe 'awe' is the wrong word.
In my mind, we laugh, we hold hands, we kiss, and we say what we need to say without words. Here, even in the safety of my own mind, even in my idealized scenarios where I can create any interaction with her I want, I still can't talk to her.
There's no way I'll be able to talk to her in real life. To express what I want to express, even if I skipped her name and, like a robot, jumped right into the question of her going to Prom with me, it would still be like walking a minefield with magnet boots. I'd stay stuck on the W in “would” for at least three beats, probably more, and then immediately get snagged by the Y in “you.” I'd finish the end of “you” at the ten to twelve second mark, and by then I'd want to skip every other unessential word in the sentence. I could skip right to “Prom.” “Would you Prom?” She would understand that, right? I think most women, if approached by a moderately attractive man and asked, “Would you Prom?” the answer would be a resounding “Yes, yes of course I would Prom,” and the two would go to the Prom and be the big hit of the Prom and they would end up married with five kids and live happily ever after.
Mr. Kenton is looking at me again. My stutter is well known around school. It's been well known since first grade when it appeared in all of its social-life-ruining glory. I can still hear the laughter of the kids in my class, if I want. That isn't too hard to deal with. What I really remember is the worry in their voices, their questions to each other and to the teacher. 'Why is he like that?' 'What's wrong with him?' And my favorite, 'Ew, that's weird.' There were meetings with teachers and counselors and therapists and 'specialists.' There were many specialists. They all fed me the same lines, that lots of famous people have had stutters like mine, and that soon I'd be speaking like John F. Kennedy, or Alec Baldwin. When my parents told me who JFK and Alec Baldwin were, it made me feel even less hopeful. The kids all think I'm weird and stupid but someday I'll speak like the President? Even back then, I smelled the rising stink of adult lies. I smiled, to be polite, and I did my best with their exercises and techniques. They said they were hopeful, but that year my teachers were made aware of my condition. As were my teachers the next year, and the next.
Mr. Kenton has been aware of my stutter for a long time. Generally, this makes him hesitate to call on me to answer questions or read passages from our books aloud. Now, seeing his eyes twisting toward me, seeing that I have, yet again, drifted away from his ingenious lecture, it seems like he might disavow my sanctuary and call on me to read. Even my internal pleas are stuttering.
P-puh-pull-ease d-don't call on-n-n me.
I shake my head slightly. His stare softens and his eyes return to the novel in his hands.
“Ms. Williams, you get to close us out. The rest is all yours.”
He went from nearly calling on me to calling on her? Does he know how I feel about her, is it that obvious? It probably is that obvious. She has her book laid out on her desk, and she stoops to read it. Even hunched over her book she is art. With her head tilted forward, the gentle bumps of her vertebrae catch the sunlight from the windows on the southern wall. Her shoulders slump toward her delicate hands. From the back, it looks like she might be cradling a baby bird.
Then her voice.
We're on the last page of The Great Gatsby. Class struggle, identity, acceptance, I get what Mr. Kenton has been saying about it and why we should find significance in some of its characters' experiences, but overall I just haven't been into it. It's a classic, apparently, but I don't feel that as my classmates read it. Not until she reads:
“He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... and one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
That last page would have taken me months to stammer through. I would have branded an eternal hatred into my heart for Gatsby and Fitzgerald and the republic's dark fields. I would have borne the book ceaselessly into my past.
But to hear her say it, to hear her voice float lines down over the class like silk threads and to scan along with every word as it leaves her lips makes the last few hundred words of the book seem like the greatest thing anyone has ever written. I want to hear her read the whole thing. I want her to narrate the entirety of my Sophomore curriculum. Science, math, history, I want her to read all of it. I don't know if my stutter makes me more susceptible to the smooth beauty of her voice, but I want her to follow me around and speak for me. To have her be my mouthpiece, I would gladly never speak again.
“Thank you, Ms. Williams. So, first off, pat yourselves on the back, you did it. You read an entire F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, a classic. You can put that on your college applications. You can write it into your resumes. You can bring it up at parties and Bar Mitzvahs and job interviews. You should probably get it tattooed on your ribs in Chinese or Sanskrit. That's what the cool kids are doing these days, right? But why? The eternal question that begins all deep and meaningful understanding: why?”
Mr. Kenton is moving through the desks again. Everyone watches him and pretends to be interested in what he is saying, until he looks directly at them. Then they look back to their books, intent to appear studious in their attempts to crack Fitzgerald's secret code. Eye contact is your enemy in this scenario. Eye contact is almost a guarantee of being called on for an opinion.
Mike Hill is the first to slip. He doesn't look down at his book quickly enough when Mr. Kenton scans that side of the classroom.
“Mr. Hill, you seem to have stayed awake for much of the reading, help us out. 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.' This is one of the more famous closing lines to any book from the 20th Century. How do you feel about it?”
The room, everyone except Mike, shudders with the rush of not being chosen. Our relief is an affront to his sad fate, an emotional slap in Mike's face, but we don't care. Sucks to be you, brother.
“Ceaselessly, that's the word that grabs me. I can see how you might read this last line and think they were inspired in some way to battle the current, to start again at a similar spot where they began once before.”
Wow, Mike, you have been reading along. Or maybe Googling literary analysis of The Great Gatsby?
“To battle the current is admirable and brave. To be willing to accept your past and accept being defined by it is brave, in a way. But ceaselessly, to row and row against the current and find yourself carried ceaselessly into the past, without a hope for something different? To me, that seems pretty dark.”
Mr. Kenton stops to turn toward Mike. I don't think I'm the only one surprised by Mike Hill's thoughtful answer. Everyone waits to see what Mr. Kenton will say. Everyone except me. I am watching Katie Williams and wondering what she would say.
“Mr. Hill, that's a bold conclusion. Are you saying this story ends with Fitzgerald suggestion that the battle for overcoming humble beginnings and climbing into the highest positions of social and economic power and influence is hopeless?”
“It seems pretty hopeless,” Mike says.
“What about this line, 'It eluded us then, but that's no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... and one fine morning...' that seems pretty hopeful? One fine morning we will catch that thing that is stretching out before us, we will reach out and our efforts will reward us with, something. Hope, right?”
The class is waiting, but is somewhat deflated. Katie's head dropped a few inches when Mr. Kenton finished his question. I think she felt Mike had lost, that someone had finally posed a serious point with actual merit and Mr. Kenton might have to deem the idea thoughtful and worthy in some way. I think she felt like we, as a class, had won something. We, too, were stretching out our arms for some lofty prize. But she slumped at the thought of Mike being done.
But Mike wasn't done.
“It could be hopeful and it could be inspiring, if any of the people who were reaching out had survived the novel or succeeded in any real way. The people reaching, like Myrtle, or George, or even Gatsby himself, all failed. Gatsby died and no one went to his funeral. He reached out his arms and grabbed nothing. The truth is, not everyone who reaches their arms out or runs faster toward their goals finds that great tomorrow. Many people, maybe most people, go ceaselessly into the past, back to the same life they've always had.”
“Ceaselessly, huh?” Mr. Kenton says, looking once more to the novel in his hands. “It is a strong word, Mr. Hill, a very strong word. Despite my better judgment, I am inclined to agree with you. I think Fitzgerald was so disillusioned and, probably, disgusted with the American upper class of the twenties that he saw the greed and dismissal of the lower classes as endemic. I would imagine he had little hope of it ever changing.”
He did it. Mike Hill did it, he said a thing and Mr. Kenton agreed with that thing. I won't say it's unprecedented but it's pretty close to unprecedented (I wonder how long it would take me to say “unprecedented” out loud? Eight seconds?) I'm not alone in my amusement, I can hear the winds of praise stirring at the edges of the classroom and whispering their ways through the tall grasses of English Lit 201.
“Your reports on this great American novel are due one week from today. At thirty percent of your grade for the class, I'd reach my arms out and run faster and paddle ceaselessly for that insightful and provocative paper. Take a note from Mr. Hill's responses and stun me with your genius.”
He did it. Here, nearing the end of our Sophomore year, Mike Hill garnered the respect of the historically disrespectful Mr. Charles Kenton. He gets a few smiles and a handful of playful insults from his friends. His paper is going to be good, and I feel, somehow, that hearing him today will somehow make my paper good. Or at least better.
I've been inspired by teachers before. I've been introduced to big ideas and made to feel significant and special. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Flowers, took me into the world of adults. I'd been sent to the Principal's office because I punched Dan Saunders in the face after he made fun of my stuttering (for the last time). When I got back to the classroom, she noticed my change in demeanor. She could tell I'd been chewed out, told that fighting and violence were never the answer and that if I ever did anything like this again, I would be expelled. She knew the drill. But as everyone was heading out the door at the end of the day, she called me back in. I figured it was so she, too, could chew me out. She put a hand on my head and looked around to make sure we were alone before saying, “You know, just because he is the Principal, doesn't mean he is right.” She didn't go into details, she didn't say anything else, she just opened a tiny window into the worldviews of different adults in leadership and let me take a quick look.
Inspiring. The real kind, not the empty “you can do anything you put your mind to” kind. Mike Hill echoed this inspiration today.
Tomorrow, I will leave for a boy scout weekend in the mountains. I won't see Katie until Monday, if even then. What if she isn't in school? What if someone has already asked her to the Prom by then? What if someone has already asked her to the Prom now?
Katie, will you go to the Prom with me?
I feel my tongue thickening as the words roll through my mind. I might be able to rush through “Katie,” the W is going to get me, but I might be able to push through it with two, maybe three extra syllables. The “you go to Prom” section is all barbed wire and bear traps. Those words are going to grab my tongue and play hot potato. But I don't care. I'm reaching my arms out farther. I'm running faster. So what if I stutter? Maybe she will think it's cute. Maybe she will sense the bravery it took for me to talk to her. Maybe she will feel sorry for me and say yes. I wouldn't even feel bad, I'll take a date to the Prom with Katie Williams however I can get it. I'm not proud.
Another hot PB&J whisper, the sting of the sour cream and onion chips trailing behind. It was Mr. Kenton, and he smirks back at me on his way out the door.
When I stand my legs aren't with me. They want to follow Mr. Kenton.
Katie, will you...
Lauren and Margot are talking to Katie. I can tell Margot is about to leave, and I can only hope Lauren will be close behind her.
Katie, will you go to the...
“See you at three, girl,” Margot says. As she passes me, I get a smile and a quiet, “Hey, Alex.”
“Hey,” I say. It's good, distraction is good.
Katie, will you go to the Prom with...
I have to stop because Lauren isn't leaving. I can't walk up to two girls talking and stand there like a weirdo right before I potentially stutter my way through an awkward Prom date request and receive a resounding “no” for my efforts. The only other person in the room is Mike. He is still packing up his papers and binders and books. I could walk over to him, strike up some stupid conversation about his Gatsby insights. Then I would have to talk. I have found that volume doesn't help my stuttering. Quite the opposite. Also, I might get stuck in a conversation about 20th Century literature and the role of rural industrialization on the stock market crash of 1929 and I would end up politely nodding along with his factual recitations and his own hypotheses as Katie walked out the door and out of my Prom dreams and out of my miserable stuttering stupid life.
It's my voice. I don't know who is guiding this crazy train but it is my voice and she and Lauren are now looking at me. They way they are looking at me, I must be making a very strange face.
“I'll see you at three?” Lauren asks, confused, still looking at me. Katie nods and Lauren walks past me. She doesn't give the same polite acknowledgment Margot gave me.
“Hey, Alex, what's up?”
I think that's what she said. I'm not hearing things anymore. I can see her mouth move, see her eyes wondering. She is waiting for me to say something and I have forgotten what it was I wanted to say. Maybe I put it out of my mind on purpose, to save myself the pain of embarrassment and rejection. It's probably best that I just walk away at this point. She doesn't deserve this. She doesn't deserve to be made to feel so awkward, to have to entertain the class charity case, that kid who the teacher never calls on because he can't talk, that kid who has never had to answer a teacher's call in class. Katie shouldn't have to be forced to either turn down a lame invitation to Prom from the charity case, or say yes out of pity and be seen at Prom with me. It's not fair. I hadn't thought it all the way through, but it's not fair. What was I thinking? I was thinking about myself. I wasn't thinking about Katie, about how sad it would be to be seen at Prom with the weird stuttering kid, Alex Stevens. I wasn't thinking about her conversations with her friends, with her parents, about showing mercy on the kid who no one wanted to hang out with. Hey, want an awesome date? Go out with the guy who takes four minutes to answer a question. Go out with the guy who takes an hour to tell a joke. There is no reason for me to be standing in front of the most beautiful girl in school a week and a half before Prom and taking up any of her time.
I can't take it anymore.
“Sorry,” I mumble as I turn and walk away. I pass by my desk and I hope I'll never see it again. I don't want to be sitting at that desk and looking two desks forward and one to the right at the back of Katie Williams' perfect head. When I pass the last desk and turn toward the door, I hear a voice behind me. I can't make out the words, but it is a female voice.
And it is a question.
“Don't you want my answer?”
It is a female voice. It is Katie's voice. When I stop and turn, she is looking back at me. I expected to turn and see her staring back at me, angry, annoyed, her brow furrowed or her eyes rolling back in her head, disgusted, dismissive.
She isn't angry or annoyed. She isn't disgusted. She is... confused.
She is confused, but she is smiling.
“Your a-a-ans-swer?” I stammer.
“Ask me, again,” she says.
Did I ask her? Did I say the words I've been practicing in my head for six months? I don't even remember saying anything. Is she reading my mind?
She sees the question on my face.
“Ask me again,” she repeats.
I turn and slowly step back toward her. I look over my shoulder. We are alone.
“Um,” I start, but I shut that down. You can't start with Um, it makes the stuttering worse. Um is death. Um is the devil.
I start again.
“K-Katie... will y-you...”
She is nodding. Why is she nodding?
“G-g-go to P-pr...”
“Yes,” she says.
She said yes, why did she say yes?
“Pr-prom with m-me?”
She is still nodding.
“Yes,” she says again, stepping toward me. “I thought you'd never ask.”
She walks past me. At the door, she stops, turning back toward me. She wants to say something but instead, smiles. She walks out.
I hear another voice. It is a male voice, deep and triumphant. It is a guttural scream, maybe followed by fist pumping and leaping around the English Lit 201 classroom. The voice is stuttering the loudly yelled word “Yes” over and over again, and will continue to do so until the end of time.
Upward mobility is real. Dreams are possible. Reaching out and running faster works sometimes. Most people don't know when they've said the most important sentence of their lives. I do. `
Suck it, Gatsby, I'm going to Prom with Katie Williams.
What you are about to read is based on actual events. All of the characters depicted in this story are real. This really happened. Really. A lot of this really happened. As you read it you will think, Yeah no, I don't think so, I don't think this really happened, and you would be wrong because you're not psychic and you didn't write it and I did and you can't prove it's not true and much of it, many of the things, these tremendous things, they were just tremendous and these were the best things and they totally happened and look at my face right now and you will know in your heart and in your feet and in your butt cheeks that this all could have probably happened if it did happen.
The interrogator clicks the record button on the small camera. It beeps on its tripod, the sharp red pupil of its digital eye dimming to black.
“I'm sorry, are we cutting? I didn't hear cut but it looks like...”
The interrogator's fist slams into the man's forehead. His head totters over the back of the steel chair. The chair's metal legs screech at their bolts against the cement floor, accenting the man's maniacal laughter.
“Whoa, sorry, I'm sorry. Was it that bad? You know, you're right, if I'm being honest you're right. That was a little stiff, a little forced. Again, I'm sorry, that was the first take so maybe if we could just take it again from one.”
The second punch sends the man's head back again, harder, and the base of his skull bangs into the metal. A hallow, tinny note hums in the air.
“Okay okay okay, wow, easy! That was a hard one, do you all hear that, the ringing? Is that a high D? Ah, sorry, of course, more takes, more money. We're going to Clint Eastwood this thing. Cool, I'm down, I guess I just need a little more direction. What is my character feeling in this scene? What is his motivation? Fear of jail? Fear of a beating?”
A broad man in a black suit rubs his knuckles, not because they hurt, but more like he is rubbing in the feeling, letting his knuckles savor it.
“Got it... fear, more fear, let's go again.”
“The incident,” the interrogator says.
“Pertinent facts. Where is your wife, Mr. Sortor?”
“She's crazy. Can I start with that? I guess you already know that but the lady is nuts. Are you married? Sorry, not pertinent, right? Seriously, though, are you? The anger, that rage bubbling up around your neck and jaw, would suggest that you are married. Are things not going well?”
The next punch finds the man's rib cage, first left side, then right.
“Sorry, sorry,” the man wheezes, still laughing. “We all have our soft spots, I get it.”
Another punch, solar plexus. This one takes a few seconds...
And then he's back.
“That one felt extra angry. Do you work with your wife, is she nearby? That punch felt like she is on the other side of the glass? If she is watching you right now so you can't answer honestly, stare at me menacingly.”
The interrogator cocks back his fist.
“Oh my God she's your supervisor?”
Another punch to the head. This shot draws the first blood. The man lets it drip from his mouth in gloppy strings and laughs at the shapes the blood makes on the floor.
“Agent,” comes a quick chirp over the intercom. It is a woman's voice.
The man laughs. “Oh no, oh no I was just kind of reading the room and shootin' from the hip but I nailed it, didn't I? I accidentally nailed it. Of course I did. That was her, wasn't it? That was your lady on the intercom, the old ball and chain. She is your boss!”
The man's bloody, crazed smile causes the interrogator's hand to draw back again. The fist is about to swing when:
“Ha, look, a caterpillar!” the man says, looking down at the spit-spattered blood. “Well, I see a caterpillar but that's just my perspective. What do you see, agent fluffy fists? Do you see your bread-winning super successful and I'm-the-boss-of-you wife? You should be happy, with your wife leading your family you can focus on the things in your life you care about. Like...”
The detective's hand disappears into a pocket and returns with a switch blade. The man in the chair smiles into the glinting metal as it nears his face.
To his left, the only door into the room opens. A figure steps in without a word and the interrogator stops. The blade slips back into place and is pocketed. A woman steps forward as the interrogator leaves.
“That guy is great,” the man says, spitting another swirling nebula of blood onto the floor.
“What happened tonight?” the woman asks.
“I feel like if you'd let him live his passion, he'd be a much easier person to be around.”
“Just think, you could come home to a piping hot dinner he made from scratch. He could tell you all about his day taking hip hop lessons and crocheting Charlie Brown sweaters for his pet hamsters.”
“Where is your wife, Mr. Sortor?”
“I'm going to tell you about her, I am, really. There's nothing I want more, the weight of it all off my chest will be just so...”
The man brings his formerly handcuffed hands up over the table and drops the lock-picked handcuffs onto the steel surface with a sort of drum roll melee.
“Freeing,” he finishes.
He looks to the window and smiles. The woman puts her hand up so the interrogator doesn't come back and shoot the man in the face.
“He's so mad right now, whew. I hope it doesn't make things harder for you when you're alone with him tonight. The last thing I want to do is drive a massive, spiked, poisonous wedge between you two. Everyone needs their cuddle time.”
The woman collects the handcuffs and slides them silently into the inside pocket of her gray blazer. She pulls out the chair on her side of the table and sits, hands folded.
“Mr. Sortor, please, tell me what happened tonight.”
The man sits back, snapping his fingers and humming. A smile is building on his face. He can't contain it.
“Oh, alright. I'll tell you, but you have to promise to tell only the people who will be terribly upset by the story. Can you do that?”
“How will I know before telling them whether or not someone will be upset?”
“Terribly upset,” he offers.
“Terribly upset,” she echoes.
The man shifts again and slaps the table.
“Well, my wife, like all wives, is crazy. Quite crazy, I would say quite crazy. And I don't mean that in a bad or a mean way. I know some wives are crazy in that bad way, that 'Do you like this dress?' and 'Why haven't you given me a baby yet?' kind of crazy. That crazy isn't much fun. I prefer the type of crazy in a woman that is like working on a rubix cube that sporadically sprays mace in your eyes or becomes ferociously hot before freezing and then exploding in your face because you 'fart dismissively.' The truth is I AM listening, most of the time. It's just hard to listen fully and follow everything she says all the time when she is saying crazier-than-the-designated-hitter-rule type nonsense for sadistic fun. But you know what? I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to be that husband who is arrested when his wife goes missing and just badmouths her to a police station full of strangers. And truthfully, when I say my wife is crazy, I mean it as a huge compliment to her, because her crazy is so unique and elegant and hilarious, it is one of the things I love most about her: 'Oh my God, smell this!! Smell it, do you smell that? It smells like radiation. Do you think the Fukushima plant leaked radiation into this imitation crab meat? Oh my God I have radiation poisoning, I know it, I do! I can feel it. I'm getting a headache, I can't breathe.' Of course you can't breathe, you're holding your breath, honey. 'Blurry vision, I have blurry vision, is that a sign of radiation poisoning?' I don't know, sweetie. It's been so long since the government used my radiation-sniffing abilities to diagnose imitation crab meat viability. I felt like the worst superhero of all time. Imitation crab meat radiation smelling guy, to the rescue. The past few weeks started to feel like every classic hero movie. I was being asked to come back from retirement for one more job, to put my skills to use one more time.”
“We need you, Sortor, now more than ever!”
“I don't know, Captain, I'm not that guy anymore. My nose isn't what it used to be, I don't know if I still have what it takes.”
“Dammit, Sortor, you were the best. Even on your worst day you could smell three microns of cocaine in a strippers ass crack from two rooms away!”
“I can't go back to that life!”
“Wow, you are gone. The man I knew would never have backed down from an assignment. The man I knew wasn't a quitter.”
“I'm not that guy anymore.”
“You're not a MAN anymore.”
“DAMN YOU, ROGER, YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE!!”
The woman puts a hand up.
“Mr. Sortor, please. This isn't your Netflix comedy special.”
The man's smile fades. He lets his head drop forward, lets a pout pull at the corners of his quivering mouth.
“You asked me about my wife and I'm telling you.”
“Something tells me between 95% and 100% of what you just said was a lie.”
“Well, if you don't want to hear the rest of my amazing story, that's fine. No, no, don't tell me to finish my story. You're fussy fists' boss, not mine!”
The woman sighs, settling back into the chair.
“Of course. Please continue.”
“Well, I'll just close the story out with a 'don't worry.' In the end, I find a reason to re-enter the life I left behind and I sacrifice myself valiantly, heroically to save all mankind from radiation poisoning and death and destruction. It's kind of a big deal, is all I'm saying. So anyway, my wife can smell radiation, apparently, and she asks for my help in deciding whether something is deadly or toxic or actively giving her cancer at that very moment. I used to be very understanding. I used to try and help quell her fears and reassure her that the donut she was eating would definitely not send her into cardiac arrest. But now, I'm not as helpful. After years of my reassurances being ignored, I found it harder and harder to give them out. If she was just going to waste my empathy and sympathy, I was going to save them for people who valued them... and maybe be a little less helpful to her. 'Oh, wow... yeah I think you're right, it does kind of smell like radiation, hon. Matter of fact, it smells like it's already affecting you. You didn't already eat any of this crab meat, did you? I think I can smell your hair dying. I can smell you prematurely aging. I think I can smell your ovaries drying up like apricots in the vicious central California sun.' You know, the usual husband and wife banter.”
“Oh my God,” the woman says.
“I know, right? Women, what are you gonna do?” the man asks with a shrug. “She glares at me to show her disdain, but that just fuels me. It sustains me, num num num. Sometimes, I'll top the sundae off. Something like, 'Wait, there's something else... it smells like your friends all secretly hate you and love to trash you behind your back. It smells like they are being catty about you RIGHT NOW, and loving every minute of it. It smells like you are going to grow old before your time and die alone, surrounded by a crowd of your most painful regrets.”
“Okay,” the woman says, “so we've established that your wife probably hates you.”
“Strangely enough, these most recent exchanges caused her to ask my opinion of smells and such less and less. Who cares, it's adorable and hilarious, great fun for me.”
“Adorable and hilarious, yes, thank you. What a beautiful back story, very moving and informative. You have such a knack for storytelling.” The woman is mumbling with disdain. “You know what I want?”
“What you really really want?” the man asks.
“I'll tell you what I want.”
“What you really really...”
“I wanna... I wanna...”
“Now you're doing it!” the man yells.
“I wanna know why your house exploded tonight, why we picked debris out of the neighbors' yards four hundred feet away, and why you don't have a mark on you? I wanna know that and I wanna know where your wife is?”
“You know, agent boss lady, it was amazing getting to know my wife before we got married because she did things and thought thoughts that I had never heard other human beings admit to doing or thinking. Up to the age of about seven, she thought that if she had her mouth closed that any noise she made, only she could hear. She thought it stayed in her head, her own little secret conversations. She thought only she would be able to hear it, and it gave her comfort and satisfaction to chirp and bellow to herself in class. It worked, too, for a long time. Too long. It worked for a long time because she was so weird and crazy that no one dared question why she was making those noises.”
Hey, that crazy Kristina girl is making those whale and chimp noises again and I can't concentrate. Tell her to stop.
You tell her to stop.
I'm not going to tell her she is closer to you, you tell her.
Holy Jesus she is looking this way.
“She would stare at them like a lion guarding a kill, eyes wide and wild, teeth clenched under grinning lips, her frantic pencil scribbling little drawings of flowers and vampire bats. I always pictured her crouched over her school room creations, speaking madness she thought only she could hear, like Gollum from Lord of the Rings: Precious... our silent mouth chirps is precious. We can hears its but they cants hears it. No one can hears its but us, precious, NO ONES!!”
“So I don't know how many years she got to babble crazy talk to herself but eventually a teacher told her she was audible and disturbing to the other students, and possibly autistic, and she took it pretty well. She didn't speak publicly for 8 months and frequently peed her pants in class. Problem solved, done and done.”
The woman leans back in the chair and folds her arms. She knows she has to listen, and she knows the man is going to continue spouting nonsense and it seems like he could do so for the rest of the night.
“I should say that she is also very normal in a lot of ways. I shouldn't sit here and ramble on like she shows nothing but lunatic behavior all day every day. Examples, examples... well, she tells me I have to wash my dishes before I put them in the dishwasher. I was skeptical about this the first time she said it, but turns out it's true. You are supposed to wash your dishes off before you put them in the machine called a dishwasher. Isn't that fun? What else? Oh, she wants me to bathe and practice at least semi-decent hygiene on a semi-regular basis. I'm not a huge fan of general daily hygiene, but that seems like a pretty normal request. She says things like, 'I can smell my brain,' which is normal, right? Oh, and she reserves the right to believe that I could, at any point, become possessed by a demon, and she has lovingly assured me that if this happens, she will promptly shoot me in the head or stab me about the face and neck until I am dead.”
The woman sits up suddenly, slamming her feet into the floor. The handcuffs jingle in her pocket and she folds her hands and tries to play off her reaction.
“Normal stuff, you know? Things women need to feel safe and to feel loved, so I grant her these simple things.”
“So much of what you've said is silly, but that last one felt so specific. If that is true, why would she have the worry that you might become a demon and...”
“Yes, become possessed, the process of shifting control of the human mortal to the eternal, formerly divine high being, now derogatorily referred to as 'demon,' is possession. Possessed.”
“Possessed, okay. Why would she be worried about you becoming possessed by a demon?”
“Great question, boss lady, best question of the night. Four months ago, about a year into our marriage, we were lying in bed. The lights were off and I was nodding off to sleep. It had been a hard day, I was sore, mentally done, so I was happy to be in bed and winding down. She was lying there, next to me, quiet and peaceful and, I think, totally asleep. There's nothing quite so soothing as finally settling into bed next to your partner after a long, tough day, right? So my thoughts were quieting down, I settled into a steady breathing pattern, relaxed, let my eyelids close...”
The man slowly presses his palms together and lays his face against them, closing his eyes. He smiles as he simulates peaceful sleep and light snoring. The woman squawks when he suddenly slams his hands down on the interrogation table.
“Screaming! Suddenly the bed was filled with her wild screaming and kicking as she thrashed back and forth under the covers. Her fists slammed into my arms. She was kicking at my legs, the covers were whipping up around us, and I felt her toenails dig into my tender calf flesh and tear out a bunch of my ample leg hair. My heart exploded up to 200 beats per minute, eyes shot open, I was ready to defend her against whatever ninja or alien or infamous puddin' pop comedian was attacking her.”
“I WILL DEFEND YOU, MY LADY!!!”
She stopped. She just lay there panting out exclamations of relief.
“Holy crap, what? What's wrong, are you okay?”
“At that point I was coming back to a normal level of consciousness and starting to make guesses about what could possibly have elicited her response. First thought, someone was in the house, that she was screaming because we were about to be robbed, murdered, or zombies were going to chew our faces off. But I quickly realized the house was silent, there was no one else in the room, and she didn't try to get up and run anywhere, so that wasn't it. Next thought, anyone? What could have woken the sleeping beauty into such violence? Spider. Must have been a spider, or what she thought was a spider, crawling over her feet or something. And yeah, that is one of the most horrifying possibilities in the universe. What's that, there is an 8-legged arachnid crustacean creature with 8 eyes and toxic venom and huge fangs that drinks liquefied bug guts and it carries it's babies on its back and can jump like a hundred times its own body length and produces one of the pound for pound strongest filaments in the world from its BUTTHOLE!!! THAT THING, just crawling around my bare legs a mere inches from my genitalia? Yes, by all means, you scream and I'll scream, too. Let me scream like a tiny newborn and be freaked out of my mind. I'd kick and punch whoever was next to me if it meant I wouldn't have to get bitten by a spider. I'd elbow my wife in the throat to get out of a spider bite. I'll head butt a baby, I don't care, that baby will recover, it would be a light head butt, I have control. But if a spider crawled up my inner thigh and jabbed its two slimy, venom-dripping, bug-blood soaked fangs into my pale flesh, I would never be the same. I would never sleep peacefully again, I'd be ruined as a human being. Every time my back hit another bed I would feel hairy exoskeleton legs tap-dancing around my crotch, scrawling little Xs to mark the spots it would want to BITE ME AGAIN!!! I would never stop feeling the tooth pinch, never stop seeing those eight crazy eyes looking at me when I closed my eyes, so yes, if she did indeed feel a spider crawling on her leg or something, thrash away. I fully support your decision. Mash that little bastard up into bed lint. Crush his essence, smash his very memory from earth, TEAR HIM FROM THE BOOK OF LIFE!!!”
The woman scratches at her neck. She can feel the spider legs tickling.
“So I was like, 'What happened, is something in the bed?' I wanted to know. For her, sure, to protect her I guess. But I needed to know for me, too. She was hyperventilating, sweating, pawing blindly into the darkness and looking to take hold of something solid to assure herself of her safety. 'Oh my gosh... oh... man... I thought... I thought your foot was a hoof.' I blinked two or three times before responding with, 'Um, what?' I thought maybe I was still groggy from the sudden pull from near-sleep, and from the mental and emotional trauma of my wife screaming me back to reality. It sounded like she said she thought my foot was a hoof. So I asked her to clarify. She said, 'I thought your foot was a hoof. It felt like a hoof.' Hmm... okay, first off, rude! Very rude, I loofah these bad boys at least three times a week. They are soft and supple and shiny and beautiful, so how dare you gently rub up against them and think they might be hooves. Second, you thought my foot was a hoof? Tokay, I guess that is scary, I guess, because it is more common than you might think, that your husband will turn into a goat at night when you fall asleep. Most of the time we turn into goats, sometimes llamas or alpacas, sometimes we turn into common sheep. Horses, zebras, deer, bison, water buffalo, pigs, depending on how we're feeling, but usually we turn into goats. Anyway, besides the point, whatever... a hoof, animorphing into some other being? Yeah, that would be scary. But in that vulnerable moment, I made a mistake. I started laughing. Hysterically. At the time it was so mind-blowingly funny to hear my wife tell me she thought my foot was a hoof and be completely, sincerely honest about it. It was adorable, like when a child comes to you, teary eyed, and tells you they saw a monster in their closet. Something very sad about it, and this other part, a darker part, that is eyes-tearingly, gut-shreddingly hilarious. As you might guess, she didn't share my feelings that it was hilarious.”
“Shut up, it was scary. I thought you were turning into a demon.”
“Boom. Forget goats or pigs or horsies, my wife thought I was becoming a horned, hoofed, hairy, fanged, drooling, winged, fire-breathing fallen, a spawn of Satan, an enemy of God. Spiders? HA, I laugh at spiders, I'm a demon sent from hell to my wife's bed to gently rub my hairy hoofed leg against hers. No towers of screaming fire, no smoke or violent speaking in tongues of strange hellish language that when played backwards are the lyrics to the songs of Matchbox 20. Just a gentle leg to rub, that is what a demon would do, though, right? I guess some demons might come in with locust swarms and flames and Hootie and the Blowfish playing. But I guess demons are different, at least as different from each other as humans are from each other, right? Some might melt your skin with mouth lava. Other might sink their fangs into your throat and swallow your head and carry the rest of your lifeless body out to the nether realm. Maybe others are just a little bit weird and creepy, not too over the top. Subtle. Maybe some demons just like creepy whispers, strange noises, hoof to leg contact in bed. Seems possible.”
The woman stands, dropping the handcuffs back onto the table. She walks to the door, opening it, and looks back.
“Mr. Sortor, I'm going to leave now, as I am done having my time wasted. If you feel like actually saying something important, kindly let your guard know and he will arrange another meeting for us.”
“Wait, you don't want to hear the ending?”
The woman shakes her head and goes to leave.
“But it's the best part,” the man whines.
“The best part of your ridiculous stories, Mr. Sortor, is when they're done. And guess what... they're done. Enjoy your stay. Maybe after spending the weekend in a cage, you will feel like telling a story that is a little more helpful.”
The woman leaves, closing the door on the man's pleas for her to stay. The interrogator is standing in the dark waiting for her.
“He's fun,” the interrogator says without smiling.
“He's insane,” the woman replies. “This guy has worked for the city, for the mayor's office, he was on the Governor's staff for two years and he is completely out of his mind.”
“Positions of power always draw the finest people.”
“His wife was killed tonight in an explosion at their home and all he can do is joke about it? If she survived the initial explosion then she most likely burned to death, and look...”
Through the viewing window they watch the man pose his fingers on the table like they are legs. The hands walk toward each other and stop to bow before dancing across the shining metal. He is humming. It is quiet but the woman recognizes the tune.
“Once upon a dream,” she whispers.
“The song... he's humming the song from Sleeping Beauty, Once Upon a Dream.”
Her faraway look brings the interrogator to his feet. He grabs her shoulder.
“Hey, you okay?” he asks.
“What?” she says, still looking through the window. She forces a smile.
“Sarah,” he says, shaking her slightly.
This time she doesn't respond. She doesn't look at him, she is watching something else. When the interrogator looks through the window, the man is waltzing his hands across the table and humming. Words begin to emerge from the intercom, quietly at first, louder every few seconds.
“I... know... you...”
Sarah joins in, “I walked with you once... upon... a dream.”
Soon she and the man are singing the song in sync.
“Sarah, what the hell is going on? Stop it!”
“I... know... you...”
“That look in your eyes... is so... familiar a gleam...”
The interrogator stands in front of her and stares directly into her eyes. His hands go to her shoulders to move her out of the room. Pulling at her shoulders is like trying to move a tree at its base. She doesn't budge. He raises his sleeve cuff to his mouth.
“Interrogation room three, I need backup immediately, over!”
The voice on the other side comes back, but before it can complete a response, the interrogator's earpiece sends a piercing beep into the center of his mind. The noise destroys all thought except remove the earpiece. He yanks it, tossing it across the room, and the skull-splitting noise stops.
But there is another noise below it, rising.
“And I know... it's true... that visions are seldom all they seem...”
The interrogator goes for his gun. He takes a step toward the door but stops. Sarah pulls him back to the viewing window and slaps the gun from his hand. She grabs the back of his head and holds his face to the viewing window. She has impossible strength, and she holds him in place while still singing along.
“But if I... know you... I know what you'll do...”
“Sarah! What are you doing, stop! Don't do this. Stop!”
She slams his face against the glass.
“You'll love me at once...”
He winces against the pressure.
“The way you did once...”
When he opens his eyes, the man at the table is still seated, his hands folded on the table in front of him. He is smiling. The interrogator can see the man's lips moving in sync with Sarah's last line.
“Upon... a... dream.”
A darkness begins at the floor of the room and spreads up the walls. The man's pants shift beneath the table, and at first the interrogator can't tell what is going on, not until the man stands and rips the table from its bolts in the floor and tosses it into a nearby wall.
“This isn't happening,” the interrogator hisses into the glass. “This can't be happening!”
The man stretches out his arms. His shirt begins to tear at the seams as his flesh churns and expands beneath it. The interrogator can't fully process what he is seeing but two large dark masses appear behind the man. They open up and stretch out toward the wall and ceiling, shuddering slightly. If his mind were working, he might think he saw the man getting taller, and wider. He might even say the massive dark appendages were wings.
“Please, Sarah... please!”
Her grip on his head and neck don't change. He tries to close his eyes but they are being held open by a force he can't see.
They are being held open so they can see everything.
The man doubles over and his head begins to change shape. Two sharp edges appear from the top of his head and sprout up and back. Thin spikes stretch up into the darkening air from the man's back. His hands are thickening, his fingers lengthening, and sharp nails are extending from his finger tips. A cough rocks his body and smoke chugs from his now snarling and fanged mouth. Another cough doubles the smoke, then sends fiery embers sparkling to the ground. After the creature is still for a moment, it looks up at the viewing window. Its eyes are glowing red. Its teeth are clenched and small streams of smoke escape between them. When it stands up to full height, its horns stab into the interrogation room's ceiling, ripping the plaster apart.
“A cage?” Sarah's voice, but not her. She is whispering into the interrogator's ear now.
“Oh, detective Carter, this isn't a cage.”
The beast swings a massive, horned tail against the viewing window glass. It explodes inward, the shards hailing down on Sarah and detective Carter. The beast leaps in front of them, roaring hot saliva into their faces, singeing their skin and hair with lashing flames.
“Not a cage, detective... this is a buffet!”
Four days ago, I gave my name and credit card number to anonymous online merchants who promised discretion in the packaging of their product and discretion in the company name that might show up on a credit card statement. Now, I'm worried about this purchase showing up on a credit card statement no one else will ever read. If I had a wife, or a girlfriend, or if my two female roommates were even remotely nosey, I might have reason to worry. There is no way anyone else knows or cares about this purchase, and yet I can imagine the feeling of coming home from yoga, or from my creative writing class, or my job at Starbucks, and knowing, before the handle on the front door turns, before the door opens, before my girlfriend/wife/roommates' tilted shoulders and tilted eyebrows and tilted questions roll over me, of the shame I would feel. I can simulate the dread. I can feel a trap door open and my balls drop out. Even now, sitting on my bed with the package on my lap, my blood pressure is rising, and I don't even have a girlfriend.
I do have two female roommates. But their problem with this purchase would be that I didn't make it sooner and I didn't include them in the shopping process.
“You bought what? How can you even live with yourself?”
“You aren't a stable person and we think you should move out.”
They would never actually say those things. One of them teaches first grade and the other runs a construction company, but...
“It's a ridiculous outfit, but your ass is going to look good, though, ugh. I will give you that.”
They might say that. It's stupid, even my anxiety and harsh self judgment sneak in a little positive spin. You're a monster but your butt will look good?
I think the devil on my shoulder is critical, and a joy thief, and a liar, and rude to strangers, but he does have a thing for fashion. While he is shrieking in my ear about how bad my screenplay is and how fat I'm getting and how only a terrible person would get karaoke-bar-level drunk at their father's funeral, I'll hear a faint whisper about the shoes I bought.
I guess even terrible people like to look good.
It's a shy compliment in a land of extroverted cruelty, and I'll take it. Every time, I'll take it. My therapist says it's a temporary fix for a deeper issue.
Did you say fix?
I open a pair of scissors and slide one of the blades across the box's side creases. Then I carve down the main middle crease, leaving the last few millimeters of tape intact so I can pull it apart with my hands and hear and feel the satisfying pop.
The company lived up to their advertisement, it is discreet. Most people don't know that you can buy a police officer uniform online for $24.99 and have it arrive in a box from Walmart. Granted, the cuffs are plastic and the shirt and pants have velcro that allows for easy speed-removal.
Like, if you need to rip them off in one uber masculine, hyper-sexualized movement.
They should be able to survive multiple rippings and re-rippings, if the wearer survives their first bachelorette party. The badge says “Officer Frisk,” which I chose over “Lt. Dangle” and “Officer Ken I Seymour.” Now, turning the badge so the light hits it just so, I feel I made the right choice.
You're the worst.
The shirt is adequate. The badge works. In the box, the pants seemed awful but now, looking in the mirror, I feel like I make them work. I'm not sure they'd be worthy of the village people, but I'm not far off. I have a shiny pair of shoes ready. I'm not sure which of my fake mustaches I'll wear, or if I'll even wear one at all.
No, I can't. I can't wear a mustache, or these pants, or this shirt or this badge. I can't do any of it. I hear you, devil, I hear you and you're right. This is stupid. I AM pitiful. No normal, decent person would buy these things, and no normal, decent person would ever wear them in public.
Of course not.
Or in private.
I like how you said you were done with this life.
No, no, I never said I was done. Yes, I know what I said. I said some things. I never told myself I was done with this life. I said, in a dark moment of nauseous ennui and staring into a muddy puddle of regret, I might have said I didn't want to do this anymore. But everyone says that sometimes, about everything: jobs; family; relationships; life. No, this isn't rock bottom, it's just a silly outfit. I know the handcuffs are plastic, it's the softer side of fantasy.
It's so cliché.
Hey, you wear a cape and carry a trident, so maybe be careful with the accessory critiques.
So you are going to do the show tonight?
I don't have to make a hard decision yet, relax. I can just cancel and they could get Bruce, or Gary. Bruce and Gary are great and I'm not feeling one hundred percent anyway, so... yeah, that squat workout wrecked my glutes and then we did stairs and my hips are fired up and I spent too much time out in the sun without my coconut water and Carol wants me on register for seven hours tomorrow so I'm leaning toward no. I haven't prepped my set, I don't even know where my iPod is. It's been at least a week since I twerked at all, so I don't know. I shouldn't do it, I'll say that. I should pass it off to Gary, but let me just... let me just look at this stuff. I just want to look. I know, I should just tape the box back up and burn it in the kitchen sink. I should melt it in acid in the bathtub or throw it into a volcano, but...
Wait, is that...?
Oh sweet meatballs I forgot. This is the main reason I ordered this particular outfit in the first place. I can't believe I forgot, in four days, about the shining police officer hat. It's a peaked cap with a golden medallion and I know I shouldn't be this excited again about something I was this excited about four days ago, but I am. I mean, I'm sure it won't fit because standard hats, especially those most likely manufactured somewhere in Asia, never fit me. I have a big round head. I should be proud of my big round head but I'm not. Alec Baldwin seems proud of his massive head, shouldn't I try to be more like Alec Baldwin?
Is Alec Baldwin proud of his bald spots?
They're not bald spots, you ass! Sure, my hair is thinning a little, is that so terrible? Mom and dad's sides both had baldness, it's not my fault! And furthermore, I feel like still having this much hair past thirty is pretty good. I'm good, I'm all good.
So you're back, then?
No, I didn't say that. I'm curious, can't I be curious? I'm just going to try it on. There's no harm in trying it on. It is here, right here in my hands, after all. Someone slaved over this outfit for hours.
Yeah, a child slave.
So what? So what if a child made this in a factory? I didn't make him make it. In fact, I think to not buy the child's precious labor is exploitative in its own way. What, should we throw away all products made by children so the children worked for nothing? Or, should we honor their sacrifice by rocking these pleated pants and this navy blue button up and badge and tip this peaked cap to a room full of cackling bridesmaids?
You're a hero. So you're back in, then?
These pants are tight. Why did you tell me I could get a MEDIUM Dairy Queen blizzard? You know what ice cream does to my hips!
Aren't you going to be ripping those pants off, anyway?
It fits. It fits! The hat fits my beautiful and perfect head. I told you it would fit.
Whatever you say, officer.
I do look the part. Why didn't I become a cop?
Probably something to do with the two DUIs before you turned 18.
Look at me, I should've been.
How about your germaphobia?
Eh, sani wipes. This isn't even my best mirror and look at me. Who wouldn't want to get a ticket from me? I look like someone who could slap the cuffs on you, take you downtown, and throw you in the slammer. I look like someone you better listen to, or else.
Don't taze me, bro.
Gary, you're going to have to sit this one out.
What am I doing? I told myself I'd never do this again. They told me I was great but it doesn't matter if I don't feel great. They told me I was the best but I don't feel like the best. I still feel the rough edges in my chest where the last bachelorette party scooped out hunks of my soul. All those sweaty wads of one and five dollar bills. All that pawing and shrieking, and... objectifying. I am a human being!
And yet here I am again, having texted the maid of honor twenty minutes ago to tell her I was on my way, then two minutes ago that I was here, and now I'm standing in front of the large double doors of a two-story colonial in Pasadena and listening to the wall-buffered rumblings of Katy Perry.
You like Katy Perry.
That's not the point. I can feel the plastic handcuffs digging into my left butt cheek. It's been almost three weeks since I wore a thong and my ass doesn't remember how to handle it. It's itching in protest. I can hear the women singing along with the music and squealing with delight and they are definitely drinking and definitely not preparing their physical boundaries or washing their hands regularly and if they swarm me in the state I'm in, I might just lose it. This is a mistake, this is a huge mistake, I should leave. It's still not too late to leave, right? I could still call Gary and...
I got you.
What have you done?
“Girls, was that the doorbell?”
That's her, that's the voice from the phone. That's the woman who set this all up. I could still run to my car and drive away and never look back. I could be in Mexico in a few hours.
You should run. You're not ready for this.
My legs won't respond. My feet weigh a thousand pounds.
The door opens.
“Oh no, what seems to be the problem, officer?”
Before I can run, the shift begins. It's been so long since I worked a party like this that I'm not prepared for the fever to take hold of me. A smirk fights its way up. I can't stop it. The woman looks me up and down and her eyes go wide and she has to cover her face to conceal a crazed shriek. My hands cross over my chest. I raise an eyebrow to tell her she needs to control herself. My eyebrow lays down the law.
The training is trying to take over. One step over the threshold and I'm back in the familiar rhythm, the swagger, the sass. I want to let them look at me, let them take me in. There's a lot to take in. Wide, round shoulders, a swimmer's back, long lean calves, abs for days, and a couple of honeydews in the back. It's a sight to behold, take it in, ladies.
Then I notice the dining room. On the floor in the corner, there are two baby bounce chairs, chunks of mouth-moistened Cheerios and Goldfish crackers dotting the plastic rims. As I look around the room, I can tell that whoever lives in the house has a number of kids, and she isn't the only one. The way the women are sitting, leaning on the arms of the couches and chairs, the way they try to stifle their whispers and their giggles, the way they are downing the margaritas and wine, all has the feel of a room full of women who are still coming down from the high of simply not having their kids following them around and screaming at them for a few rare and precious minutes. Their mom masks are cracking. The essence of wild womanhood is starting to seep out. I've been here before, in this wind tunnel of margaritas and Rhianna medleys and crumbling female inhibitions. I've patrolled these streets. I know the laws around these parts, letter and word. These women are ready for an escape, ready for release.
These are dangerous women.
You know what you're doing.
Why did I wear this belt and these leather holsters?
Why did I fill these holsters with plastic pistols?
What have I done?
“Oh no, the cops are here!” one of the women yells before putting her hands over her mouth.
The bride-to-be rolls her eyes and smiles. She finally sees what's happening and her hands go over her face. The cackling squeals of the others surround her. They're like Hyenas circling a kill.
I want to let go. I want to forget about the cracker crumbs and smeared drool and snot and the galactic laser light show that I'd see if I hit this place with a black light. I want to ignore the sticky tile in the entryway, and the gritty crunch of the dirty carpet under my feet right now. I might find serenity if I thought there might be one spot, just one little spot, that I could touch that wasn't crawling with child-borne diseases.
So you shower afterwards, big deal.
I need to find a point of reference so I don't continue to look around the room.
Too late, I see a toy box, and in her rush to prepare her house for guests, Carrie didn't put all of the toys back inside the box. She stacked some toys on top, and a few trucks and blocks are on the floor next to it. I can see the crusted applesauce. I can see fingerprints made with now dried and sticky jam.
Focus on the job.
I slip Carrie my iPod. She's been told what to do.
“Cut that music off! Cut it off!”
Again, Carrie abides, Rhianna is silenced. The other women turn and their dancing and giggling slows to a nervous stop. They see Carrie at the stereo system. They hear the sudden silence. But they don't see Carrie plug in my iPod.
“I need your full and undivided attention, ladies! Now, my name is officer Frisk and I'm responding to a noise complaint. From the looks of it, I'm in the right place.”
The wall at the base of the staircase has a crosshatching of jagged crayon scribbles, drawn by small, frantic hands. Hanging from the banister is a dog leash, a poo bag tied around the end.
They have a dog, too?
“Now, by law, I'm supposed to make you aware of the noise complaint and give you a warning.”
I feel like I'm going to get dog hair in my mouth. My hands float, on their own, to the heels of my pistols. At least I know those are clean.
“I usually give my verbal warning and go about my business. But now, standing here, looking around the room at all of you... ladies... I'm worried. I'm worried that maybe you don't like to follow the rules.”
The women giggle as they pull the bride from her place on the couch and stand her up in front of the large leather recliner in the middle of the room.
God only knows what levels of food and filth are living under its cushions.
“Now, I'm going to ask this once and only once. If you lie, I'll know. Who... is in charge... around here?”
Arms and hands and pointed fingers guide me to the bride. They point to her big white crown and her long lacy veil. When she bends over and buries her face in her hands, the women pull her back to upright and begin moving the other chairs to the edges of the room. Then they move away as I approach. One woman – the biggest, seemingly drunkest woman – gives the bride a slap on the ass before stepping away.
When I stand before the bride she tries to step back, catching a foot on the recliner behind her. She falls into it, and is suddenly sitting and looking up at me.
She is trapped. There is nowhere to go.
Time to go to work.
Oh God, is that baby powder?
“Is that true, little miss? Are you the boss around here?”
Before she can answer, Carrie comes in hard with, “Yeah, she's the boss. What's it to ya?”
“What's your name, boss lady?”
I lean down a little and turn my right ear toward her.
“Rachel,” she whispers, the name catching in her throat.
I lean a little more.
“I'm sorry, you're going to have to speak up.”
“Rachel,” she says, a little louder.
“And Rachel, are you in charge of these... outlaws?”
The girls all nod and affirm.
“Well, boss lady, I deliver my warning to you: lower the noise, or be prepared to face stiff consequences.”
The girls hoot and howl at that. One utters a sassy “uh oh” while two others clink their margarita glasses together and down the drinks.
The arms of the recliner are worse than I thought. The leather is smooth up to a point. As I lean in, my thumb hits a sticky section. I pull it away but it's too late, some mystery residue is now on my thumb. I need to scrub it under hot water. I need to soak it in Purell.
I stand and step back.
“I don't want to have to come back here. It's just a warning... this time. This time, you lucked out. You got good cop.”
I straighten my shirt and secure my hat. I turn and head toward the door. Under one of the chairs, a baby spoon sits on the carpet. Crumbs and dirt are stuck to it. Curly hairs are sprouting upward from the handle.
Don't you dare throw up.
As I reach for the door knob, I consider ignoring the plan and just leaving. But Carrie's voice catches me.
“Hey!” she yells. I turn and look back toward them all. “What if we want... a bad cop?”
The stereo silence ends. Her high end speakers fill the room with a roaring guitar.
The show starts with “Bad to the bone.”
The women erupt. As I make my way back into the living room, they take places on the chairs and couches, turning them to face the bride. I am a Manchurian candidate. When the song begins, what I want no longer matters. I can't resist the call. As George Thorogood and the Destroyers fill the house with grinding guitar riffs and his tales of pleasing women, I carry on his tradition.
I take off my badge and flip it over my shoulder.
I pull the pistols. They spin in my hands, first upward, then downward. Then one upward and the other downward before I toss them in the air and switch hands. I spin them again, faster now, and when I've heard a few oohs from the ladies, I holster one and I blast off the six caps from the other. I try to shoot to the beat. The women gasp. The pops are louder than they expected, but they soon screech their delight. I don't pull the second pistol. Instead, I pull the bride to her feet and turn. I bring her up behind me, put her hands on my hips, running them up and down my thighs to the rhythm of the song. But I'm still wearing my pleated pants and my striped shirt and my peaked cap.
I'll keep the hat on.
I bring the bride's hands around my chest to the buttons on the shirt. I use her fingers to undo the top button, then the next one, and after those two, I don't need to help her with the others. She sees what we're doing. As the last button pops free, I take her wrist so I can spin her twice around and lay her out over my left arm. I dip her backward and she bends and squeals. I offer my right cuff for her to unbutton. When she does, I pull her up and spin her twice around and into my other arm. She undoes the button in that cuff, as well. I pull her back to standing and turn. My arms go out and I throw my head back and wait for her. She immediately knows what to do. She pulls at the collar and slides the shirt open, out across my back and down over my shoulders. Every inch she pulls the shirt, every new inch of tanned skin, every new ripple of muscle, brings the hooting and howling of the other women up another notch. When she gets the shirt past my biceps, the big drunk lady cheers. I can smell the tequila pouring from her breath, and after her cheer, she surprises herself with a wet belch.
I command my nose not to take it in. I will it. I beg God and Zeus and Krishna and the universe to spare me the smell.
I rip the tearaway pants off in one triumphant arm swing and hip thrust. All that remains are my shoes, the belt and holsters, and my shining golden thong.
And my hat, of course. Normally, I would put it on the bride-to-be. It tends to make the women feel less weird, somehow, if they are wearing it while I dance for them. There is no logical reason for why this would be true. It just is.
But, I want to be able to wear it again so I don't want to put it on her head. She probably lets her friends' babies play with her hair. I bet she feeds them and burps them on her shoulder and they spray-belch a fine mist of milk and stomach acid onto her braided ponytails.
Do it, put it on her head.
If I put it on her head, I will never get rid of the image of wearing a baby vomit hat. It will feel like long, stringy trails of barf are oozing their way down the sides and back of my neck. Stringy barf hair, I don't want stringy barf hair.
You won't get stringy barf hair.
The women cheer louder when I pull the too large hat down over her hair. It slides to the side, just so, in a way that some might classify as cute. But there is a price for the hat. As she grabs the edges to adjust it, her wrists get close enough together that I can handcuff her.
I can still phone this in. I have a simpler act, shorter, easier for me and easier for her. Three more songs, a brief full frontal, and I'd be out. It wouldn't be my best but they wouldn't know that. My mediocre is still pretty damn good.
Ugh, is that a grape-scented Yankee Candle?
I could run most of my normal moves. This carpet, while stained and sticky, feels good enough for a back flip. A back handspring might be better. I don't know if my hips can handle a drop into the splits today. Maybe after I get going.
The bride isn't a big girl, but she isn't small, either. Could I pull off a Magic Mike?
You have to do the Magic Mike. Either a Dirty Dancing or a Magic Mike.
The other women are starting to drop dollar bills into the bride's lap. When she doesn't work fast enough stuffing them into the band of my thong, they jump in to help. The first two hands are polite enough, maybe a little grabby.
So many different types of hand lotions. There's no way they all washed their hands before doing this.
Through the second song, the bride is starting to loosen up and enjoy herself. She even gets tired of placing individual bills, and she shoves a wad of ones straight down the front of my goldies. When I bring her hands to my chest, they don't smell weird. Maybe this will be fine. She isn't drunk and she seems clean enough, as long as none of the other women...
Another set of hands hits my shoulders, then another on the other side. It's one of the margarita chuggers on my right and...
It's the big girl on my left. As I turn to look at her, I hear her giggle way too close to my ear. I feel a puff of hot drunk breath just before a wet sponge hits my cheek.
Is she licking me?
She is licking you.
She grabs my head and pulls me in, spreading a wide, slow, wet path of saliva from my chin up to my ear. Her tongue rolls up over my earlobe, then dives down deep. It squishes around for way too long and creates a suction. When she rips her head back with a satisfied cackle, my ear pops and it starts to ring. The air on the saliva sends icicles into my bone marrow and my butt cheeks slam shut.
Rachel loves it. I can't hear it, but I can see that she is scream-laughing. I wait for Carrie to jump in as the voice of reason and escort little miss licky lick to a safer distance, but when she lets go of my head, another set of hands grab it from the other side and another tongue explores my face. This one, too, settles in my ear, and this tongue didn't feel like the last tongue spent enough time rooting around. A similar suction is created and when the tongue slops out and I turn to look for Carrie, I see that it is her holding my head. It was her tongue in my ear.
You're losing control.
I lost control.
I'm trying to ignore the saliva-induced deafness, trying to ignore the layers of saliva now drying all over the sides of my face, when a hand hits my right butt cheek. I'm rotating my hips clockwise in front of Rachel, and when I swing my hips out to the left, the left cheek gets slapped, and when I come around to the right, the right cheek gets slapped. I go around two more times but the slaps are getting harder and harder. When I stop gyrating, the slaps stop.
Then there is a hand on my crotch.
One of the women has reached up, from behind me, between my legs and is mashing my junk around in a circle.
They're out of control, what do I do?
It's escalating so quickly.
I can't take much more of this.
Time to Magic Mike this bitch.
I ignore the slaps and grabs. I lean forward and squat down so I can slide my hands down under and around Rachel's thighs. I need to reach deep enough to clasp my hands around the back of her waste. This puts my face right between her legs. Luckily, curiosity puts the other women back in spectator mode. They want to see exactly what I'm going to do here.
My hands dig across the recliner seat and squeeze their way toward each other. I can feel my fingertips touch. I squat lower. The women scream louder. I throw Rachel's feet over my shoulders.
The women lose their minds.
My fingers are almost interlocked. I can feel the drunk one getting impatient. I know it before she gets to me. She wants to cram my face into Rachel's crotch. I can feel her approaching footsteps. If she rams my face into Rachel's crotch it's over. I will lose it. The actual police will have to be called.
There is a rise in the women's shrieks. The drunk one is moving in.
My back ripples and my quads engage. Once my hands clasp together, I pull Rachel closer to me and hoist her up over my head. I am her chair, her royal throne, and she is now riding my well developed shoulders and biceps around Carrie's living room like a queen while her loyal subjects cheer for her from below. In that moment, my ears clear and we lock eyes. She is cry-laughing. It is ugly and beautiful. She is nearly crushing my head with her panicked leg squeeze and her monkey-like grip. She tensed so hard when I picked her up that she broke my handcuffs.
I can feel the other women cheering, and secretly wishing they were Rachel. I can feel the waves of envy. We ride the waves together and I start to spin her. Song three comes on, “It's raining men,” and we twist and twirl around the living room, above the crazed women below us, above the crumbs and the stains and the mind-blowingly immense civilizations of bacteria living all around us. I tell her to put her hands on my shoulders. The fear only flashes across her face for an instant and then she complies. She presses down into my shoulders and I press her hips up over my head. A Magic Mike into a Dirty Dancing. I don't question it, I don't even think about it, I just do it. It just happens. Rachel's hands are on my shoulders and my hands are on her hips and her legs extend high into the air and we are eye to eye and spinning and for a single, shining moment, we both know who we are.
We are loved and understood.
Then her foot hits the ceiling fan.
An hour later, I am told bits of what followed our glorious moment. The fan changed the momentum of our spin and Rachel's hands slipped from my shoulders. She twisted in my arms and came down, face first, into my nose. It is broken, they tell me. The way it feels, like a cantaloupe hanging from my face, I believe them.
After smashing our faces together, the spin speed sent me sprawling back across the cookie table and into the dining room's china cabinet. Rachel kept spinning as she fell, straight down, like I'd executed some secret wrestling move. I was nearly naked and oiled up and there was music blaring and there were people cheering for us, so it may have looked, to an outsider, like a devastating WWE finishing move. But neither of us won. I was knocked unconscious by a falling cabinet and Rachel's face hit the floor and her feet hit a nearby coffee table, shattering the glass top.
I remember why I stopped stripping.
Carrie brings me a brown paper grocery bag. It has a sexy cop outfit, broken plastic handcuffs, and a peaked officer cap. Some of Rachel's blood is still on the brim. Carrie didn't notice and I don't tell her. She also hands me an envelope and smiles.
It is full of cash. A lot of cash.
She says it was one of the best nights of her life.
I tell her I'm glad she enjoyed the show. I tell her it was not one of the best nights of my life.
She asks me if I'm free August 17th.
Can you recover from a broken nose in four weeks?
You bet your pretty little pistols I can.