"As We Look Back in Regret" by Grace Lee.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
EVERYTHING IS MORE
by Mary Renzi
Kathy Warren stared out at the avenues from the passenger seat of the Buick sedan. A sickening vibration had tormented her body for the past week, as heavy and constant as a limb. She accepted the anxiety, simply, as a new expression of her genes. Her husband did not appear to notice. He whistled the Andy Griffith theme song as they turned down Gomez Street.
Kathy saw the coyote again. Their headlights grazed its ocher eyes. The beast weaved in and out through tufts of rabbit brush. It trotted beside their vehicle, through the pebbled lawns, keeping pace and escorting like a loyal dog. Then the creature darted towards the Gonzales house, and Kathy lost sight of it in the chemise.
The Gonzales boy, Jose, was washing dishes at his sink, framed by lit glass.
Kathy Warren hated him. Fully and mechanically. She knew what he had done to her son. What they had done together.
They pulled into the driveway and Kathy stared at Jose while the car idled.
She said, "He took the bike, Rick, I'm sure of it."
"I don't know," he said. "Well, we can't prove it, Kathy."
It was almost a year ago that someone had stolen the bike from their Sangre ski-cabin. The thief had smashed through the glass panel of their door with a bottle of children's cough medicine, leaving behind a tread print in their mudroom the color of green apples.
"And he never goes to class," she said. "I've seen him at the café on the plaza, smoking cigarettes and reading D.H. Lawrence."
"Well, it doesn't sound like he would have much use for a bike, then. He isn't very physical, is he?"
"Yes, well he would sell it, Rick," Kathy said.
They walked the flagstones.
A large Hunter's Moon dominated the horizon. The highlands beyond the asphalt conducted their strident score of birth and predation. Kathy had never, and would never, love that land. She loved the well-laid streets of their subdivision. She loved the perfect, terracotta houses. But in twenty years, she had never felt one ounce of love for the fatal desert, and did not understand those who called it beautiful.
Something raked the dry grass beside her, and Kathy jumped back with a scream and launched her handbag. Her attack sent a small rodent scurrying beneath the portico.
"It's nothing," Rick said. "A prairie dog."
He was surprised at her outburst but left it alone. Kathy did not like him to ask after her condition. She considered it fawning.
"It's so dry here," Kathy said. "You can hear everything. It's ridiculous." Then she straightened her blouse, retrieved the handbag and climbed the front porch.
When she finally fell asleep that night, Kathy Warren dreamed she was being crushed beneath a gigantic mill-wheel.
She woke up late morning. The sun had passed her casement hours ago, and the bedroom was dark. The harsh red digits of her alarm clock blinked at her. Kathy lay in bed and listened to the empty house.
She flipped on the bathroom light, while talk radio played. The mirror reflected her ruined image back at her—the powder-blue walls of the room were riven by it. She had aged. It was mostly her eyes. They looked small and starved, and she was shocked by them, the way you are sometimes shocked by a friend who removes their glasses—you did not expect their expression to look so violent, or innocent, or dull.
Kathy combed her dark hair. It was cut short in an executive style with one hard jet of gray. Her skin was olive-toned and her lips a watercolor shade of hibiscus. Clients trusted her instinctively. She imagined it was because she radiated a tough, yet feminine strength.
"Things are fine," she assured her reflection.
On her way down the stairs she stopped at the landing, disrupted by the memory that, as children, Jose and Atticus had been bitten by the same dog. Her head was split by the image of the rabid canine. Was that the reason? But no, it was too impractical. She was still running on dream logic, she told herself. She just needed her coffee. She did not understand that these convulsions of late were her mind's attempt to stabilize a deep contradiction within her, and that caffeine could never fix it.
She measured six even-scoops of grounds and poured water into the top of the machine. An opened box of applejacks rested on the counter. It was her daughter Anne-Marie's breakfast of choice. Kathy put the box away and peeled slick bits of Arugula off the Formica while her coffee percolated and steamed.
The Arugula was Atticus. Her son ate salad for breakfast every morning, for as long as she could remember. He once explained to her that the human body was a delicate machine and should be run on high octane. They had been standing in the kitchen when he said it, and to prove his point, he set his forearms on the counter top and raised his muscled legs parallel to the ground, then easily up past the crown of his head.
The human body was his main, creative interest, and Atticus inhabited it with the intention of an artist. He seemed to be constantly aligning with invisible forces, allowing his weight to fall into his feet, pivoting always on the ball-bearing of his center, falling easily into balance with the gravity and dimensions of whatever space he moved through. He flowed like water. And he was beautiful. Kathy noticed how all eyes followed him filled with light. It had been a source of great pride for her. But he had ruined it. Shamefully.
She remembered the day she had discovered the truth about him. A fine rain had been falling from the tinted October sky. She was back to grab her planner, and caught sight of him in an upstairs bedroom of the Gonzales house. He gazed out, bare-chested and tousle-haired, at the coal-colored mountains to the north. Jose was behind him. He rested his chin on her son's naked shoulder and kissed his neck gently. If they had looked down, they would have seen her frozen there.
Kathy had hurried away like a thief. She sat down on her couch and inexplicably removed all her jewelry as her heart jackhammered. She rummaged through her purse searching for her phone to call him, but what would she say? She could not think. Her thoughts had devolved into a weather pattern of reaching and crosshatched association. His delicate manner of talking. His lack of girlfriends. All the time spent with Jose. As a child Atticus had danced with pink flowers in his hair. At four, he cried inconsolably when she slaughtered the June Bug. Sensitive boy...
The violent sound of air brakes outside had woken her, and Kathy rose from the couch and stumbled next door like a concussion victim. She was certain that she had been separated from her son in a final and irrevocable way, and the realization aroused in her sudden, titanic anger. She smacked at the oak panel of the door with her open palm and kneed the lock rail, injuring herself. She was maddened, disoriented, on the verge of, something, she did not know what. Of course, no one had answered her clamoring.
And since that day, Kathy had not seen her son during the daylight hours. When she went down to the basement (for meat from the chest-freezer, or to gather laundry from the dryer) she half-expected to find him in a dark corner, as though he were some new breed of vampire who could no longer coexist with the sun.
She had never confronted Atticus, or outlined her requirements. And she had not told Rick of her discovery. Her mother, dead now fifteen years, would have used the word ineffectual to describe her handling of the situation. It was only because she could not see a way through that would definitely end in her favor.
The shame of it ate at her.
Kathy drank the strong coffee and agonized.
When the doorbell rang it was May Demming. She stood on the porch in her prune colored corduroys and a baggy white sweat shirt. The shirt had an airbrushed pastel of a wolf and a sunset.
"I'm early," May said. "I know." She held a stack of clipped articles in one shy hand, and a plastic grocery bag in the other.
"Yes. For our lunch date. "
"Yes," Kathy said, "Come in, May."
It was not that she had forgotten the meeting. Instead she thought it was likely, when they made the plans, that May would not keep them. May Deming was a recluse by most standards. She had news and groceries delivered to her place on Gomez street. She often worked in her herb garden, rarely leaving her plot of ground.
May sat down in the dining room and Kathy brought in a thermos of coffee and two porcelain mugs. She sat beside May at the table, but then felt a certain resistance to speech, as though her ability to make small conversation had atrophied. It seemed that it required too much effort.
May untied the grocery bag and spread the top, revealing airy clusters of light green leaves.
"It’s lemon balm," she said. "You can use it as a garnish, like mint. It's native to Southern Europe."
May grabbed the stack of articles from the table beside her and shuffled through them lovingly, like they were archives of great importance. She had brought them for Kathy. On top was a glossy photograph of a coiled rattle snake. The photo was surrounded by the microscopic print of a technical journal.
Kathy could not imagine why May thought she would be interested in such things. It showed a certain disconnect to the pulse of others.
"I have an idea," Kathy said, taking the papers from her, "Let's have lunch on the plaza instead, at Diego's. And I'll look at these tonight, if you leave them."
"Snakes," May said, "can see your body heat, Kathy. Actually see it as if you are a map laid out for them."
"Tell me about it," Kathy said, "over warm food. It is good for you to get out, May. The world is not so scary."
The woman nodded. Her translucent face shone with the fatigued innocence of a sick child. And like a child, she trusted Kathy Warren beyond reason. It was because Kathy had helped her after the long summer of fires and floods.
For the life of her, Kathy Warren had not seen this relationship coming. It was almost a month ago that she first knocked on May's door. She had been walking home from church, and a single blue flower caught her eye, curving up towards the sky from the oaken window planter. The flower was stunning and intense—its petals the clean, drenched blue of a mountain lake. Kathy had knocked to pay May her compliment, and to ask about the exotic plant.
There was no answer. The front door was open, though, so she had walked inside, calling her name. Something fine and sharp in the air had sent her immediately into a coughing fit.
The whole place was humid, and patches of soft-white fungus clung to a flood damaged rug. Two mollusks resided in the damp corner, fat and nourished on the scum.
Kathy had gasped as though struck from behind, paralytic in her Sunday clothes. It was unfathomable to her that these conditions existed on their clean and quiet street. She felt indignant, and something started to grow inside of her. Something like a sense of justice. So she had organized the neighborhood and they had pulled the carpet up, they pumped the crawlspace, they did a million small things and made the house livable once again, and Kathy Warren was respected in their community for spearheading this charity. She was known by all to be a woman of grit and volition. A woman who acted, who set things right.
So even as her mind fractured, Kathy marshaled her energy to maintain this reputation of strength. She was committed to May Demming.
Kathy said, "We will beat the crowds, and get the best table." Her authority over the woman reassured her. She felt the fog in her mind burning off.
They drove the tortuous streets towards downtown. May stared out the window, tongue-tied by the pulsing activity as they drove the main artery.
They parked at Diego's, and May asked, "Has Atticus decided on a school yet? I'm sure he is scholarship material. He gets his brains from his mother, of course." She smiled.
"Atticus is a junior, May. He still has one year left."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I knew that. This is somewhat nerve-racking for me."
At the mention of her son, Kathy Warren became locked into a delicate, frozen terror. She felt that she was made of glass, and that any sudden movement might shatter her silicate heart. His name—Atticus—the word—Atticus—set firmly in her mind, eliminating all reason and sense. She could not get away from it. It launched her tired body into an unchecked red-zone. It was the same sickening vibration of seeing him in the window. She thought she might throw up. She walked automatically in the direction of the restaurant. She commanded herself—Stay together.
Two bearded vultures circled the parking lot. It seemed to Kathy they were zeroing in on her from above.
The two women climbed the stairs, and the young host led them to a table of distressed wood and handed over the calfskin menu. It was illuminated with black buffalo and tiny, brick-red labyrinths.
The walls of the restaurant were sea-green, riven by murals of large white peacocks. Kathy remembered thinking the design very chic on her previous visits. Now the pattern was strange and offensive, and the garish white birds overwhelmed her senses.
May ran her finger over the raised ink of the menu and said, "Oh this is lovely. This is too much, Kathy."
"Nonsense," Kathy said. "You have to treat yourself." She was swooning, yet managed to sit up fully in the rustic chair. She clucked her tongue and scanned the room, relieved to find no familiar faces. She caught a grossly transfigured glimpse of herself in one mirrored-wall, her face drained and bloodless, her small eyes scared back into her skull like some caricature.
May unfolded the plied napkin and lay it down on her lap. She beamed as though she were the guest of royalty. It was a strange reversal, Kathy thought, that she should feel so crippled, as May lightly hummed her tune.
And it seemed her neighbor had emerged from her hermitage with a tidal flood of speech. As they ate, May thanked Kathy for saving her, and spoke of her dream the previous night, in which the two of them flew over vast dark oceans, diving with white birds beneath the oiled waves. She told her—Kathy was not certain she had heard this right—that she had woken on her couch just the other morning to find the image of Jesus Christ burned onto her plasma TV screen. It was unmistakable, she said. It was Him. This was significant, May insisted, don’t you agree with that?
To all this, Kathy Warren nodded and interjected at the correct points, with a tone of mild condescension which maintained the hierarchy between them. The interaction was skillful, considering Kathy was in fact feverish and very weak. Too weak, almost, to handle her ice-water. It seemed that her once powerful limbs had deossified beneath her skin, and that she was now some soft-boned creature, meant for the dark ocean bottom.
They finished lunch and walked together towards the center of town and the central shops. The sun beat down on Kathy audaciously. She felt exposed by the light, and filled with terror by her son.
Nadine Parker stood just ahead of the women near the entrance to the office park, working her weekends, Kathy realized, as usual. She was the top broker at R.R. Hart, and Kathy the second, which roiled her blood. She watched Nadine set her attaché case down on the bench and spring the gold buckles, then begin searching through her documents self-importantly. Her coworker was predatory and intelligent. Kathy knew that Nadine would smell her hidden shame, like a dog sniffing cancer, and revel in it.
Kathy quickly turned onto the footpath before the woman could spot her. The path was sheltered with the bright yellow litter of Cottonwoods and Aspens. It followed a wash that ran strong from the recent rains.
"Water," May clapped. "Oh, how beautiful." As though she had forgotten that such things flowed.
"We should do this more often," she went on. "Every Tuesday."
Kathy resented the pluck in May’s voice. Kathy watched May wander down to the water, then kneel beside a Cottonwood tree and dip her hand into the frigid shoal. The roots of the Cottonwood overhung the muddy bank like large wooden knees.
That was when Kathy spotted it.
A coyote watched the women from the opposite shore. It held a small, mangled finch in its jaws. Kathy watched with horror as the bird thrashed one useless wing. The canine's casual posture as it shook its meal communicated both impish disregard and superiority. It was her coyote, yet now the sun light revealed huge swaths of inflamed mange covering its body like scabrous continents. The canine pranced across the water and trotted down the chip-seal, glancing back at Kathy with a muzzle full of squawking feathers.
Kathy whispered, "Wait here, May. I have one quick errand." She spoke hypnotically. She was lured by the beast despite her revulsion.
She followed it down the path where, at pavement's end, the coyote darted away through a bosque. Kathy lost sight of it in the mesquite, and found herself alone beside the cemetery gate. The small pitched roof of the entrance and the ponderous cross were familiar. The creature had delivered her here.
Kathy grabbed the iron bars of the gate and stared through to a sea of grass and headstones.
Her son lounged with his lover at the opposite end of the yard. They sat beneath a thick-trunked Elm tree. Even from such a distance, she recognized his flaxen hair, the feline attitude of his body, the salmon-colored sweatshirt which he wore much too often.
She was aware of her role as voyeur and this thrilled Kathy, and also had the effect of calming her, so that she was able to watch the young men from a quiet psychological space. She felt still for the first time that day, and awaited her revelation.
The boy Jose rose and walked to a stone outbuilding where he filled his jug with water from the spigot. When he was back, he dug into his pack and retrieved a loaf of bread, which he passed to Atticus, and the boys ate their bread and drank their water under the canopy like two pilgrims.
When Jose stood again, he held a large book open in his hands. He paced the ground in front of Atticus and his voice soared with fiery verse. He might have been ministering to the interred souls, or mocking them with his raucous health. Atticus listened with an ear turned to his companion, and when Jose was finished, he leapt from his spot and held his arms wide open to the sky, then howled a yelping war-cry at the sun the moon and the stars above him. Jose joined in, intoxicated—and Kathy watched in stunned fascination as they barked their primitive sun-salutations to a cathedral of sky. And she felt a flame of tenderness burning within her as she watched the ritual, although the heat of the flame was dulled by ice and the fuel decadent and impoverished. Still, the warmth was there, and it burned as she watched her son's vital movements, watched his golden hair blazing like a sunburst. He shone with the exacting brilliance of cut quartz. She could not remember a time in her life when she had ever felt so young, or inspired. She did not know how long it was that she watched them.
The young men made their way out finally, pausing as they went to read the heavy stones, and to marvel at the sea-green copper of the saint's statue. She lost sight of them in a stand of trees.
When they were gone, Kathy felt thoroughly exhausted. She rested against the gate and looked at her watch. It was only one-thirty. How was the day still so young?
When May found her, she lay asleep in the dirt below a giant wooden cross.
Kathy added lemon to the preparation of glaze as Barbara Streisand played through a single speaker on the cabinet radio. It was Rick's birthday, and it was important to her that things should go perfectly for her husband. Their family had not dined together in some time.
In the two weeks since the cemetery, Kathy had returned to work and had resumed her duties as head of the Warren household. She paid the bills, enforced curfews, kept up with housework, and got on, more or less, normally. But the shadowy presence of a monstrous shame haunted her body—it hid out in a slim cavity, nestled between a jigsaw of organs, ready to blossom at the slightest touch like oil in a gulf. She had been holding her breath for two weeks.
When she was through preparing the meal, Kathy brought the serving dishes into the dining room and arranged them on the sideboard. She sat and watched the clock impatiently. Rick relaxed at the opposite end of the table with the paper and his Earl Grey. He set his article down, sensing this was appropriate.
The long table left a chasm between the couple. The time was past when they had anything of interest to say to one another. It was the horror in domesticity. They awaited the children.
Kathy attempted to conjure a feeling of warmth. She smiled and told Rick, "Well, everything is set."
"It looks perfect," he said. "It smells unbelievable."
Kathy surveyed her spread. She had set the table with the company dishes. The plates were painted with dark red birds in the style of a woodcut, and the tablecloth she chose was deep red, matching the birds. The hibiscus colored walls of the room, she imagined, gave its inhabitants a sensation of wine.
A large portrait of her mother hung from one wall. Kathy revered the woman beyond reason. More in death, even, than in life. The widow had raised Kathy alone.
The Victorian proportions of the giant frame dominated the room, and her mother's dark hair was pulled back tightly from an angular face toughened by weather. Her hard eyes watched the dining area with an expression both grounded and righteous. Her severity gave the photograph historical presence, as if it had been culled from some frontier archive, and restored to color by the magic of modern technology.
Anne-Marie tromped down the stairs loudly in her combat boots and slunk into her chair. It was exactly seven, so she had arrived on time, if resentfully.
"Happy Birthday," Anne-Marie said to her father. "Where's Atticus? He has to be here for this."
The girl had dark, literal eyes which resembled her mother's, only Anne-Marie's were sharper, and clinical. The cable-knit sweater she wore matched her coal black hair.
Atticus breezed in through the front, as if in answer to his sister. The boy was covered in red dirt. It shaded the hollows of his eyes. It darkened the folds of his skin. It dusted his clothes, and was caked thickly under his nails.
"Perfect," Anne-Marie laughed.
"I'll wash up," Atticus shouted. "Back in two." He took the stairs in bounds.
Before he returned he had cleaned himself over the sink and quickly changed his shirt. The new threads were Indian blue with two solid, yellow lines at the center. Kathy thought the symbol looked familiar.
Atticus held a rough stone in his hand. "I found this in an arroyo," he said. He tapped the rind against the table. The stone clacked hollowly. "There's quartz inside. Don't worry, dad. It's not your main present."
"And now that we are all here, we can start." Kathy stood and went to the sideboard and started to chain dishes clockwise around the long table.
There was the scraping of silverware, and the clearing of throats as they ate. A bird's eye view of the room would show four bodies, placed equally around one central table, with the portrait of the deceased matriarch lording over the setting, and the whole scene wooden if not for one glowing young man. And Atticus understood his role in these situations—it was to break the pack ice. It was to warm the blood of the others and to share his oxygen.
"Las Conchas is different now," he said. "It looks like the moon. Even the rocks are charred. "
"Well, I hope you were careful," Kathy said.
"I won't mention the slab I was scaling, then. And trees falling left and right. I'm alive, though."
Kathy watched the tendons of his neck hammer smoothly as he chewed. The fabric of his shirt clung thinly to the curves of his back like a second skin. He was beautiful. Perfect. She didn't understand how it could be...
Kathy sensed the cliff's edge, and turned back.
Atticus spoke to Anne-Marie. "I broke my egg, Anne. Day one."
"And how should I interpret that absurd statement?" she asked.
"Our psych assignment? Caring for an egg like it's our kid, supposed to teach us to be parents? "
"Boil it," she said. "Harder to break."
"And now it's smithereens?" Rick asked him.
"It was Jose's idea to take it. Said it would make the climb interesting. Now we have one egg left between us. That little guy is so precious."
"Why don't we just talk about something else, other than eggs," Kathy blurted. The idea of her son and Jose caring for an egg together like their doll-child was too much. She drained her wine.
"Okay..." Atticus said.
"Family values are a sham, anyway," Anne-Marie intoned. "The family unit promotes tribalism and factions. It’s all, take care of your own and exclude others." She looked hard at her mother. "Of course, the Warren's fail there too, fail even as a tribe. We’re hobble-footed and crippled."
"Hey, let's calm down, everyone," Rick suggested.
"You talk like a book," Kathy fired. "A ridiculous book. No one even knows what any of that means."
"No one? You mean you don't know..."
"It's almost time for dessert," Rick said. "Who's ready for cake?" He raised his hand.
Kathy turned to Atticus. He was the one who always kept her from sinking. "Now, what is that on your shirt?" she asked him, civilly. "Is it some kind of ancient Chinese symbol?"
"Not exactly," he told her. "It stands for marriage equality."
And in one protracted moment, Kathy Warren felt her resolve leave completely. It was a sensation of tumblers unlocking, and it was also a great relief, as though she had decided, finally, to stop swimming upstream and to let the tide take her, even though it could break her against the rocks.
"Marriage equality," Anne-Marie hissed. "That symbol is everywhere. You don’t have your finger on the pulse of anything, do you? Besides property values."
Kathy sat quietly in her seat and trembled like a leaf.
"Anne-Marie, the ice-cream is in the chest-freezer," Rick said. "Go get it."
"That’s in the basement."
"Go get it," he said, more pointedly. "Take your time."
"That’s just Anne-Marie," Rick told his wife once the girl had left.
Kathy didn’t speak. Her eyes were locked on the portrait.
Atticus went to her. He laid his hand gently over Kathy's. When he did, she relaxed her grip on her fork, which she had been clutching unconsciously as if a weapon.
"Mom, you're purple. I want you to say something to me so I know you're breathing."
"I'm breathing," she whispered.
"I want you to drink this." He slid his water over.
"No," she said, "this is what I need." She lifted her wine by the stem and drained it, then refilled it to a rich, red globe.
Just then, the portrait of her mother began to breathe.
Kathy's own breathing fell into step with the respirations; both chests rose and fell evenly. Kathy was certain that in order for the transformations to continue, she needed to keep these developments to herself.
"I understand it's just Anne-Marie," she lied. "Thank you," she added, sipping the water, "I'm feeling much better now." Her voice roared in her skull like an ocean.
Then Anne-Marie was back, and there was cake, and Rick opened his gifts, while the portrait gained dimension. The gray hairs strayed from the widow's temples like live wires. Her skin took on a nutritive luster. Her clean eyes surveyed the dinner party with the moral certainty of a woman who knew exactly where she stood on her grandson's issue. Everything else was distant.
"It's my first published story. ‘Death and Ice.’ I signed it for you.”
"That’s wonderful, hon. I love it."
"It's a skinny tie, dad. It's a much better look for you. Trust me."
Kathy watched the surface of the portrait pulse in a kind of wave-like algorithm. It wavered with the sensitive modulations of nerve endings. She was not alarmed, though. She felt silvery and smooth. She was possessed of a supernatural sangfroid, borrowed from her mother.
The widow's lips parted and she moved her imaged hand, but when her limb broke through the glass it became a web-like organ at once organic and mineral, casting a net of soft living vessels sheathed in fine exoskeleton. The whole room was overtaken by the feather-light anatomy, and it had the effect of hushing the scene. The widow's voice was transubstantiated to blood and protein. She spoke with her daughter genetically, delivering an age-old and undeniable message—love was between a man and a woman. Anything else was dangerous, an unnatural perversion.
And Kathy knew this to be correct. Her shame dissolved. The salt it left behind was pure righteousness.
She turned to Atticus. She spoke her words clearly, so as not to be misunderstood. "You are not welcome in this house any longer. You queer," she added.
Her eyes stayed fastened on her son's in a silent locking of horns.
Anne-Marie stood from her seat suddenly, rattling the table.
"Now hold on, what the hell is this Kathy?" Rick demanded.
Atticus searched for some sign of softness in the woman's hard eyes. He found none. His mother could not hear an echo of love over the din of hard values. Her mold had, in fact, been cast long ago.
There was nothing to say to it. He was driven out. Atticus looked quickly at his father. It was an admission of guilt, and the father buckled to see his son so shamed. Atticus stumbled towards the front door of the house and he walked into the night.
Kathy looked to her husband, "I have the evidence to support my claims. Your son and Jose are lovers. Atticus is no longer welcome in this home. Not one more day."
"That’s not your decision, Kathy," Rick said. He scrutinized her with brutal condescension, as though he had woken to find her subhuman. "I'm bringing him back tonight. If he can stand it." He left the table, followed by his daughter. Kathy heard the front door slam after them.
When they were gone she sat alone at the dinner table, staring at the festive crumpled paper, and at the small plates of melting ice-cream. The portrait was quiet now. The widow had done her work. Kathy Warren felt made of stone.
She did not know how long it was that she sat in the empty house. When Kathy finally stood up, she walked outdoors. Checked the mailbox. Swept the porch and shook out the mat. Atticus’ running shoes sat off to the side, caked with drying mud, and Kathy slammed the soles together and put them away inside. Then she put on her parka, grabbed a fresh bottle of Bordeaux, and left.
She drifted through the familiar neighborhood streets and made her turns thoughtlessly. Right on Cactus. Left on Dome. Right on Canyon. A parcel of birds flew in strict formation above her, and an albino squirrel skittered past her numb feet, its ghostly coat matched by the fat, white moon on the horizon. Kathy followed the footpath through Church Park and stopped to rest on the weathered bench. Her chest felt molded from broken concrete, and her head jackhammered, sending sharp, cold pain shooting through her skull.
Had her husband found Atticus, she wondered? Were they back at the house, right this moment, preparing for bed? Had her authority been completely overruled? Kathy started to piece the night together in her mind. The memories were dream images, changing shape and refusing to come into focus.
Kathy went for her bottle of Bordeaux, but brought up an empty hand. When she tried again, it was the same bizarre outcome. Each time she commanded her body, it responded with the mirror image. This confused her, yet she felt no strong emotion toward it, as it was somehow in keeping with the rest of her evening.
It is amazing, she thought, the endurance required to live.
She watched a young woman angling through the park with her canine. The mutt jerked the girl along as it probed each ash tree. Kathy thought of calling out to the stranger, but at the last moment lost her nerve, and the pair plodded by silently with a jaunty rattle of dog tags.
She felt that if she stood from the bench and attempted to walk, she would likely find herself in the dirt, as she no longer had good reason to trust her body. It was apparent by now that it was not her servant. Her body was her brutal master. She was, quite simply, stuck, and Kathy considered for the first time that she might be in real danger.
She tried the wine again. This time her hand obeyed her, although it had been transfigured into something monstrous. Volcanic, ridge-like tendons snaked down her arms towards the tips of her fingers. Both hands were claw-like and reptilian, hooking into rigid half-fists. Kathy dropped the wine bottle, and it shattered at her feet. Her head hammered wildly. The pain was excruciating.
A voice told her, "We have a serious problem."
It said, "This is a stroke."
It told her, "You need to call Rick."
She had experienced transient attacks before. This was much worse.
Kathy reached into her pocket and by some miracle retrieved her phone. The light from the screen burned her retinas like wildfire, and it took incredible concentration to remember her husband's number, and all of her ambition to press the keys in the proper order.
Then something shut off. It was clean—like a circuit breaking—and in an instant Kathy Warren was gone from the world of Church Park, and the world of her phone, and the world of calling Rick. She was still conscious: in the way that an unfurling leaf is conscious of the sun. She no longer had the faculty to organize, to plan, or make sense of things. There was no telling where her body ended, or where the cracked timbers of her seat picked up. She dissolved and vibrated in accord with some universal electricity.
It was fantastic.
Then the circuit reopened, and she found herself back at the small wooden bench, clutching a phone in her hand.
The numbers on her screen had changed to irrational hieroglyphs. She did not remember where she had left off dialing. She reset the screen, and through some conditioned knowledge, managed to push the first three numbers in the proper order.
A diesel engine gunned on the road parallel, throwing out a jet of black exhaust. When Kathy looked up, she saw the pack of wild, ocher eyes staring out at her from the chemise. A pair of eyes rose towards the sky, as if a beast was climbing to a standing position. As its shadow came towards her, Kathy felt the same shift coming on; it was heralded by a vibrating of molecules, a dense tingling at her fingertips. She kept her finger resting on the last number, so that when and if she returned, she would know where she had left off dialing. It wasn't much, but it was the only plan she had.
The space that she went to was one of connectivity. Thought and concept and memory did not exist in any conventional sense. There was a certain order to everything which she felt essentially—certain distilled patterns in the thrilling textures of the early winter evening. The wind howled through the park formulated by light. It parted the darkness like a biblical sea, and the mass of the moonlit air settled on her warmly like cotton, and the trilling of the insects was wintery-toned. Forty-three years of emotional baggage seemed to steam from her skin in a palpable, warm fog.
Everything is more beautiful here.
She thought that and Kathy Warren also thought of her son. Rather, she conjured him through some faculty more subtle than thought. She felt him as a tremor of contracting muscles, as an electrical storm bulleting down her spine that projected outward to the tips of her fingers and toes. She felt him as a molten arrow through her heart.
She saw Atticus as a child. Chevrons of war paint decorated the boy's downy cheeks. He ran through the tortuous streets of the old neighborhood after the monsoons passed, collecting frogs in his small, cupped hands. He thought that the frogs had rained down from the sky.
She also saw him as the young man that he was now, eating bread in the graveyard under the shadow of saints, saluting the burning sun boldly as his oldest and most divine friend. The good flame within Kathy burned and grew. As it expanded, her whole body was swallowed in blue ambiance.
Kathy understood everything, but could fix nothing.
When Kathy came back to the matchstick world of park, of bench, of phone, of her plan, it was no longer good enough. It seemed much too thin. She needed to get up. She needed to make it home. She needed to start her vehicle, and would not rest until she had found her son. It was all that mattered.
Kathy moved from the bench. Her body would not listen and she found herself in the dirt, with her limbs jerking rudely. Her phone had fallen just out of reach.
She stared at the device as though she could will it into her hands. As she did, Kathy thought,
I need to call Atticus and let him know I am leaving the porch light on.
I will remind him the key is still under the mat.
Mary Renzi's fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Newer York, Short Fast and Deadly, Jersey Devil Press, decomP, and many others.