They sit together in a dark house, at the foot of a dark hill, in the middle of a dark night.
Their house is silent only to them. A stranger would notice the rustling of the pages of the book in the man’s lap, the click of the needles held carefully in the woman’s hands. The wheezy lungs—still working—of the both of them. His exhalations matched with her inhalations. As if they are sharing their very breath. For the past fifty-seven years, they have been. But maybe not for one second longer.
The fire before them pops and dies in one great final rush of air. The lamps flicker out. The dog that lies between the man and woman, its muzzle snow dusted with age, stirs mid dream. It yawns at the new blacker darkness and goes back to sleep.
In this new blacker night, both the man and the woman know they are no longer alone. Someone else sits with them in the dark. The pages stop rustling; the needles quit clicking, both perhaps for the first time in ten, twenty, one hundred years. The man and woman hold their shared breath. They wait for this stranger to speak.
“A deal I have come to make,” says the stranger. “I bargain in shadows; I work only in umber. My work fades in the light like dreams in the morn. Before the fire rekindles, decide. Before the clouds slide from the moon, choose. Make haste in doing so, before you can see clearly once more.”
The man feels the stranger’s breath in his ear, stirring the nest of white wire hairs. The woman feels the stranger drawing closer as it whispers, scuttling across the floor towards her.
“I can rewind the clock. Reverse the flow of sand,” the stranger says, so near to both of them. “Oil your creaky bones; iron your crevassed hides. Plump that once was plump, slim that once was slim. Pleasant memories that faded, the painful ones that stayed in their place, could all be remade or averted. Found again or lost for good. All you must do is agree. Be quick. Be rash. Choose before you can see my face. Decide before you can look in one another’s eyes again.”
The man asks what the catch is. The woman says there always is one.
“In your renewed splendor, you will never meet. Your paths will remain untwined. Your heartaches and your joys will be with others; the packages and parcels you carry now will be handed over to me and forgotten.”
The wood in the fireplace crackles, embers beginning to glow once again. Outside, a wind stirs the clouds. In the dark house, the shadows will soon break apart.
“Choose! Time, like life, grows thin. You must know there is only darkness beyond here. It will soon rise up to meet you as you are. If you don’t let me catch you, the fall is all that remains for either of you. Think! Dusk forever, or the brightness of dawn. A new day, endless possibilities spilling out in front of you in all directions. And the time to take them! To follow them wherever they may lead you!”
The stranger falls silent. The man thinks of his wife, free of the pain of so brittle bones. The woman thinks of her husband with a thump thump thumping heart, able to pump fresh blood to fresh limbs. They both think of a new life for the other, with another chance at all the might have beens.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “I am selfish and can’t let you go.”
“I’m sorry,” the man says. “I am selfish and am glad.”
The fire springs back to life. The lamps flicker back on. The stranger is gone. The man and woman are once again alone. Pages soon rustle, needles soon click. They sit together in a dark house, at the foot of a dark hill, at the end of a dark night.
The man and woman think of the other and how even their picked clean bones would feel like home.
“Please,” the man says, his words whistling through an overcrowded mouth. “You must be still. At least twenty seconds.”
The man removes her gag and steps back towards the camera. A daguerreotype type. In the dark, its lens is the dull glow of a Cyclopean eye. The woman is tied to the mattress of her own bed, discreetly, the ropes hidden behind sheets and pillows. If not for the tears, you’d think she was relaxing at the end of a long day.
In a voice hoarse from screaming she asks the intruder, “Why? Why are you doing this?”
The man smiles, his fangs hanging from his mouth like passengers from a sinking ship. “Why, I always take pictures of my food.”
Some say that up to eighty-five percent of household dust is made up of your own dead skin cells. Little bits of who you were yesterday covering your desk. The old you obscuring the picture on your television screen. Everything you once were at the bottom of a sweeper bag.
Some say that up to eighty-five percent of household dust is death. Your death. Take a deep breath. Breathe it in. You haunt your own home without knowing it.
You’ll be happy to know, dust is really comprised of many things. Not just your own dead skin, but your neighbors’. Your pets’. Even perfect strangers’. Take a deep breath. Breathe it in. Your home is haunted by more things than you’ll ever know.
When you sweep the dirt into the dustpan, try not to notice how some of it tries to get away. When you watch television at night, pay no attention to how the dust forms a face on the screen to watch you. When you reach into a dark, dusty corner, try not to scream at the hand that reaches for you.
This, I’m afraid, is simply a fact you must face. Quickly.
She lied about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. She lied about how carrots help your eyesight, and how touching yourself damages it. Everyone did notice that pimple on your nose, that time, just like you were afraid of. Your parakeet is probably not in Heaven. And, about Heaven, well, we don’t have time for that.
These lies are all understandable. If you were going to live long enough to have any, you might have even told some of them to your own children. You won’t. Live long enough, I mean. You’re already thinking your last thoughts.
As the water rushes over your head, and you’re swirled down like a stray hair or soap sud, you have just enough time to think, “Why lie about being able to fit down the bathtub drain?”
The knife slides through the tomato and makes a solid sound as it hits the cutting board.
Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk.
A rhythmic beat that pairs well with the sizzling coming from the stove top.
“Just a side effect from a prescription, that’s all?”
“That’s all,” he says, using the knife edge to scrape the diced tomato into the skillet. A symphony of hisses and pops. “Fancy name for it though. Capgras Syndrome. Sounds like something Rod Serling would’ve cooked up, doesn’t it?”
“It was, darling,” she says, leaning against the counter, taking a long sip from her glass. “It really was like the Twilight Zone. I can’t believe you didn’t—That you would think I was some sort of—of stranger!”
He stirs the slowly browning beef, and smiles. “Not just any old stranger.”
“Worse! Much worse.” Her hands snake around his waist, she hugs him. “Are there really other people with this…syndrome?”
“I’m not one of a kind, but it’s not that common, either, I suppose.”
“And they all think their spouses were replaced by robots?”
“No. The doctor said most sufferers just think someone in their lives—or even they themselves—have somehow been replaced by a double. A duplicate. It doesn’t necessarily have to be robotic in nature.”
“I’m just lucky.”
“Yes, you are. I could have thought you were a very fetching alien. Oh, and before I forget. The doctor wanted you to look over something.”
He takes a sheet of notebook paper from a kitchen drawer and lays it on the counter between them. Written on the sheet is a string of letters and numbers. The characters are scrawled closely together and waver between several lines. They don’t appear to spell or represent anything, but instead seem randomly chosen.
“What is this?”
He hands her a pen. “All you have to do, is copy what it says.”
“What it says? It doesn’t say anything. It’s—It’s nonsense!”
“Exactly! I’ve had my tests for today. This is yours. It’s simple, darling. Just write what it says. A child could do it.”
He sleeps on my pull-out couch and knows the binomial names of over ten thousand types of insects. He likes watching Mythbusters and the mail being delivered; he puts the crusts from his sandwiches into Ziploc bags before throwing them out. Autism is frightened by cats and those automatic vacuum cleaners.
I could have it worse. A woman I know lives with Cancer. She says it started in her Barcalounger and metastasized to a floor lamp. From there it got into the wiring. Now, she says, you wouldn’t believe the number of light bulbs they go through a month.
She says it could be worse. She could be living with Crohn’s disease.
The elevator opens. I step inside, pressing the button for the floor I need. A man follows me into the car, so quiet and close he could be my shadow. The elevator closes. The man does not press a floor button. He does not move, he stands facing away from the doors, staring at me.
The man smiles, bobbing his head.
In the mirrored elevator doors I can see his hands clasped behind his back, resting against his dirty overcoat. His fingers wriggle and twist, like he is fighting to keep his hands together.
“How are you today, son?” The man asks, head still bobbing. It causes the few wisps of white hair on his head to wave as if caught in a breeze. His scalp is knobby, pale with patches of red scales, like a skinned knee.
“Super,” I say.
I switch my backpack from one shoulder to the other and watch the lighted numbers above the man’s head. I try not to meet his gaze. I try not to notice the smell coming from him. The odor of industrial strength cleaner. The kind they use in schools and hospitals, on things like vomit or shit. Or blood.
The man looks over his shoulder, disappointed, as the doors shudder open. He still doesn’t move, so I have to squeeze by him. I will myself not to run down the apartment hallway. I take one look back to see the man still watching me. “Be seeing you,” he says, waving, as the elevator closes.
I reach the apartment, letting out a slow steady breath. This is it. It’s Thursday, she has Yoga class, so I’ve plenty of time. I take the key I had duped from my pocket and unlock her door. I flip on the hall light switch, like she does every night. I let my fingers rest there a moment before turning the lights back off.
Gingerbread, her cat, pads into the hall. He meows up at me, hesitant before rubbing himself against my legs. I stroke the cat’s fur, and rub under its chin. I lock the apartment door.
I walk into the living room. The apartment is small and neat, just like her. A vase of fresh flowers sits on the coffee table. They are not the ones I sent her. For the first time, I look through her windows from this side. It is a beautiful view and I lose myself here. When I come to, time has passed. The dimensions of the room have changed, the shadows different.
I take the vase of flowers into the kitchen and feed them, one by one, into the garbage disposal. I look in the fridge. It is almost empty since she does her grocery shopping on her Saturdays off. I take out a white Styrofoam container. It is sweet and sour chicken. I eat some, imagining it warm and fresh, eating it with her. Gingerbread comes in and hops up onto the counter. I feed him a piece of chicken and let him lick my fingers. He purrs and I snap his neck. The body is surprisingly heavy. I place it in the freezer between a half empty bag of ice and a carton of Rocky Road ice cream.
My time is running short. I go into her bedroom. I breathe in the smell. Thankful it isn’t in the hamper, I take my favorite dress of hers from the closet and lay it out on the bed. I don’t dare open her dresser drawers, there simply isn’t time. What undergarments she is wearing will have to do.
I push my backpack, filled with my supplies, under the bed and slide in after it. I wait. While lying there, I think about the man on the elevator.