Beauty

I take the subway to work every morning, and back home every evening. Yesterday on the subway ride home, there was a girl sitting down a couple steps from where I clung to the silver pole, swaying.

She wasn’t anything much. Her face was round, eyes lidded and downcast, with a long straight nose and thin lips. Hair swept in wispy strands around her face, escaping from a ponytail. She was sitting next to an old woman in a bright orange hat, who’d fallen asleep and was gently collapsed on the hard plastic seat. The darkness of each tunnel flushed over the car, until it emerged again into the stolid bustling light of a station. I wasn’t getting off until 28th.

The girl was reading something. It was buried in the coat she held in her lap – hardly necessary in the sudden burst of heat that had overtaken us – and the purse clutched close to it. I couldn’t tell what it was, among the folds and edges. Perhaps a book, or a pamphlet, or a magazine. Whatever it was, she was reading it intently, her eyes steady and fixed and her mouth tight with concentration.

I was looking at her idly, and as she bent over the words in her lap she struck me suddenly. She was not pretty, and nothing about her was extraordinary. Still, as she read so carefully, she inclined her head toward what she was reading. It was simply that which was striking. The angle and shadow of her collarbones, and the little hollow made by her tension, and the graceful sloping curve of her neck until it disappeared into that feathery hair.

My stop came up quickly, as it wasn’t a very long subway ride. I got off and walked home, marveling. Even now I cannot forget that ordinary girl, and the very beautiful way she bent so still and quiet. The loveliness, the stark beauty, hasn’t faded. The line of her neck sinking into her shoulder still traces through my mind, and I am awed.

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Toasters and Death

The mall was quiet that day. There were only a few people around, sitting on benches or strolling, relaxed and clasping arms, from storefront to storefront. There was a couple, the woman with a red hat and a round face and several shopping bags swinging from her arms, and the man blank-faced as if he would switch back on when they got home. They walked idly past stores, chattering, the woman’s voice eager and sweet as he nodded companionably. The teenagers sitting on a bench nearby snickered at them, but quietly, and the husband’s eyes slid over before he nodded again. The kids were clustered around one, in the center, a tall blond boy who was showing off his new tattoo. Several of them were round-eyed, but a few were biting their lips and glaring behind calm faces.

A man walked through this peaceable crowd briskly, upsetting the gentle waves of shoppers with the wake of his motion, pushing them to the side with his presence. They looked at him a bit oddly. He was frenetic as he walked, and they watched him go with lips parted and eyes puzzled. He needed a toaster – his had broken this morning – and he hurried through the mall with his brow drawn close and worried, his eyes shadowed and his lips tight.

He tried to avoid things like malls at all costs. Crowded areas – even scattered with the remnants of a Tuesday afternoon, like today – and especially streets, and sidewalks. He never ate in restaurants, never went to bars, never had gotten a job in an office, tried to go to supermarkets when they were emptied of harried housewives.

Sometimes it couldn’t be helped. He knew the mall was never quite empty, and it was usually more full than this. Probably everyone would drift away as soon as he left, that was how these things went.
He did his best not to look at anyone though, shielding his eyes from the giggling teenagers and grimacing as he passed the couple, the wife now clinging to her husband’s arm as she pointed to a very pretty dress in a window. The husband patted her elbow absently.

The man pushed on. The woman was going to die quite soon. The visions, though they weren’t truly that, got so much stronger, more distinct – more solid, perhaps – the closer the death was. They weren’t visions only because they didn’t take place in his head; they took place in the world in front of him, the world he could see and hear. The woman’s death was overlaid, blurred atop her form like a transparency roughly pushed in between her body and his eyes. She was there, pointing, but the shifting shape showed her terrified as she was pulled toward the window with the pretty dress, the windshield exploding in her face and the glass sprinkling across her skin. She slumped forward, her neck twisted, on a dashboard that wasn’t there as the husband pulled the reluctant woman toward the next store. He saw this, not sequentially, but over and over, as if each motion was entwined with every other, and as she dragged her feet he saw her sprawled flat, he saw the fragments of glass sparkling in the passing headlights, and quite faintly he heard her wail as the metal twisted and broke around her.
He shuddered and kept walking. The husband’s death was very far away, faint around him, and the old man coughing and hacking into stillness was barely discernible before the young man’s indifferent expression.
The man couldn’t see his own death. It was the only one. He often wished, staring at the mirror and seeing only his own gaze, his own ordinary face, that he could see it. Perhaps he’d know if he died an old man or despaired sooner, the mirror showing him with a pistol in his mouth or a noose tied and yanking before the crow’s feet around his eyes deepened.

He ducked his head as he passed the teenagers. He couldn’t look at them, always tried to hide his eyes from children. It was almost as if his vision ensured their death, as if his knowledge of their impending doom hastened it to them. The blond boy was still holding court on the bench, and he caught only a glimpse of a face twisted with disease before his feet, tripping, took him past them. He wasn’t even sure which child it was. Perhaps it was another one.

This was always the challenge he faced. When he first realized, or first gained this power – though he couldn’t remember a time before it, and he certainly didn’t feel powerful – he puzzled over what it meant. It should have been easier. Death was natural, something he knew must come to all. Even if that was difficult, it should have worn into him, he should have gotten used to the faint screams and the crashes, the cries of rage and fear, and the choking gasps that hadn’t yet been heard. It had never become bearable.
So he hurried through the mall, head down, hoping to be untouched by death. He hunched his back, and winced occasionally, but he kept on. He needed a toaster.

The people at the mall – shopping, sitting with a drink and a pastry, chatting with their friends – looked after him curiously as he pounded across the floor, wondering.

In the Basement

They moved into the house at the end of the street. It looked almost exactly like all the others; the roof was a bit differently shaped, the pieces of wall rearranged, but it was like a picture of house with its pieces mixed up in each green-lawned lot. Their house was almost unique, in that once they moved into it they painted it a cheery spring yellow. All the other houses were painted grey or white or sometimes blue. The houses were probably the same on the inside too, but they didn’t know the neighbors well enough to find out. There were all the necessities for a standard house in the flat middle of suburbia; a kitchen, bedroom, a couple bathrooms and a rather dank basement. There was a tiny room to the side of the basement, right past the stairs to the left. It looked a bit as if the architect hadn’t liked the space jutting out and had closed it off with a wall and door just to have something to do with it.

The room wasn’t really used for anything much. It was small, and had a single lightbulb screwed into the ceiling with a cord hanging down from it, which got progressively grubbier despite rarely being used. There were a few packages of paper napkins and other hefty items that needed storage and weren’t often needed, stacked against one wall. Hanging on the opposite wall was a large rectangular mirror, which the husband — John — had tried half-heartedly to pull off and given up when they were first reorganizing amidst still-unpacked boxes. It had a crack in one corner and a determined mist of dirt that had settled on its surface with serious intent to stay. Every few months the housekeeper ventured into the room to attack it with Lysol and paper towels, and found herself giving up surprisingly quickly at the grime’s refusal to lift.

John had only ever been in the room those few times, stacking packages or prying at the dirty mirror. His wife, Emily, had been there once. She got spooked easily, and the shadows in the corners seemed to flit closer when the door swung closed. She’d run to John a bit pale, barely trembling, and never gone in again.
For the most part, they lived a lovely normal life. They read the papers in the mornings with steaming mugs of coffee. They came home from work and cooked together, or argued over the menu for Chinese takeout.

It was on one of these nights that Emily disappeared. The two of them were sitting at the kitchen table, cartons of wontons and spring rolls and spareribs scattered among crumpled piles of food-stained napkins. They had put a package of napkins that was nearly empty in the middle of the table, and now only the plastic wrapping remained as a centerpiece. Emily put the last morsel of her wonton into her mouth, and said, “Would you go grab some more napkins from the downstairs room, sweetie?” Her fingers were slippery and the sheen of grease on her lips shone as she smiled at him. He pushed himself up from his chair, leaned across the table to kiss her glistening lips, and started down the stairs.

Emily ate two more spareribs, and scraped the sauce from her hands with her scrunched-up napkin. She didn’t hear anything from downstairs. She refilled her glass of water, and bit into a spring roll, and crunched contentedly on it.

After ten minutes and the rest of the spring roll, Emily wandered to the top of the stairs, wondering what was taking John so long. She hung from the doorframe, peering down the staircase, and called, “You need any help with that, John, honey?”

She heard his voice answer back, strained and spiraling from the basement, but she couldn’t distinguish the words. Emily walked down the stairs to the basement room, its door open and casting a shadow that sliced across the neat linoleum floor. She stepped around the door and into the room, hesitantly. She could see only darkness and the dim shadowed corners or the room. Her voice quavered on “John? Love?” and she reached out blindly, swiping at the air, for the cord to the lightbulb.

John dropped the full package of napkins on the table squarely on top of the empty plastic wrapping, which crackled satisfyingly. “Em?” He called out, and ripped open the plastic. There was no answer. He popped half of a wonton into his mouth, crunched. “Em?”

The basement door was still open. Maybe she had gone to look for him. He called down the stairs, but still heard no answer, and shuffled down the staircase to check just in case. The door to the basement room was shut. The knob was cold to the touch and stiff as he tried to—it had turned easily, just twenty minutes before. He wrenched it open and pushed the door forward, which swung silently into the room. He yanked on the overhanging cord, which flashed on to reveal an empty room. He glanced, tugged the light off, and pulled the door closed behind him as he turned to go back up the stairs.

Most of the wontons and the spareribs and the spring rolls disappeared in the next hour, and John called his wife’s name intermittently in increasingly perplexed tones. He checked the garage, where the car was parked, untouched, and the bedroom, undisturbed. After another hour, bewildered and upset, he curled up in bed and stared unseeing toward the blank stretch of wall until he fell into sleep.

Emily didn’t come back. John’s days went as before, but alone. He never saw her again.

Every once in a while, he hoped she was just around the corner. Maybe she was coming up the walk, about to ring the doorbell and fall into his arms again and everything would go back to normal. He would wait and hold his breath and hope, and nothing would happen. She had simply disappeared.

She couldn’t have left the house. The car was there, and he hadn’t heard so much as the slam of a door or the purr of a motor. She was just gone.

He stayed in, mostly. Drank the glass of wine they used to share each night, ordered Chinese until half-full cartons were stacked on each shelf of the refrigerator, filling it with a slow smell of soy sauce and rot. He hit the buzzer on the alarm until he had just enough time to dress for work, and slept early each night.

John almost never went into the basement now. He spent most of his time at home in the kitchen or the bedroom, curled up with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He buried himself in the even black text that told of other people’s tragedies, the things that definitely happened, the hard evidence, the quotations and dates and photographs that marked their pain. He sat each day and leaned into the shelter of the stacks of papers. They stood between his face and the windows and helped somewhat to block the brightness of the light.

The housekeeper stopped coming. She explained, frankly, to John, “Look, sir, I like you and the lady. I don’t know why she’s not around anymore though and I don’t want to get in the middle of nothing. There was a whole mess like that at the last place I worked, and not the kind I’m paid to clean up.” She was chuckling. John nodded dully, pretending he couldn’t hear her. She didn’t say out loud that the odd smell made her nervous, or that she thought to herself once in a while that she didn’t know what she’d do if she came across the wife’s murdered body hidden somewhere and had to call the cops on him, such a nice man. She left, the door clicking closed gently behind her, blotting the sunlight out from the cool shadowed hall. After that, nobody else came to the house.

Six months passed this way. John padded around the house in his socks, read his newspapers, sipped his coffee in the morning without thinking about what it tasted like. He got used to making coffee every morning just for himself. He divided up the packets, shaking half of the powder into the filter from the bag, and tucking the edges neatly over the top and pushing it back into the cabinet. Eventually this was routine. It felt if he’d always shoved the coffee back, half-empty, every morning. He spent the rest of each day struggling to stay awake.

He didn’t see a trace of her. He didn’t hear from her—no phone call, no postcard with a glossy picture of some exotic place, explaining why she’d left so suddenly. The fastest he ever walked was to the mailbox, to check eagerly each day if she was somewhere. She never was.

One night, eating Chinese food with his newspapers as always, John ran out of napkins. He crammed the rest of a wonton into his mouth and swallowed it like a lump of dry dust, and dropped his head into his grease-coated hands. After a long moment, he wiped them off on the one crumpled napkin he’d been using. The door to the basement room swung open easily at his touch. He pulled a dusty package of napkins into his arms, and stopped the door from swinging closed. John flicked tired eyes back into the room and his heart caught on a beat. Echoing, faintly, from the too-close corners there was a sound he thought he could almost hear. It sounded like Emily’s voice. He thought he could hear her calling out, the words blurred together and faded. He paused and listened. The door clicked closed gently, flat with the wall again, and the strains of her voice faded to silence. John listened to it for a second, and then went upstairs with the new napkins.

Twice more in the next few months when he needed more napkins — and once when he’d run out of toilet paper, he heard her voice. Once he thought he saw her out of the corner of his eye, only a flicker that he knew would vanish from his peripheral vision. He held very still and didn’t move so much as an eyeball, so he could keep the impression of her image in the corner of his eye.

Her voice began to echo in his head after the second trip down to that basement room. The second swing shut of the door that blotted the faded notes of her laugh from his ears pushed them into his mind. He heard her when he was drinking his half-packet of coffee in the morning, and when he was trying vainly to be engrossed in breaking news on the front page of the paper. He saw her just out of sight when he was sitting in his swivel chair at work, and when he was trying to sleep he could almost hear her laughing at him.

He stopped visiting the basement room after he couldn’t sleep for the sound of her, for feeling her breath on the side of his neck when he knew it wasn’t there. She was everywhere. All he heard and saw and felt was Emily, and she was gone. Disappeared. He thought, maybe, if he disappeared too, he’d be in the same place. Maybe, somehow, he could see her, and hear her, and feel her, and she would be there again.

He ate Chinese takeout again one night, after long days of sleeplessness and full packets of coffee, torn newspapers and crinkled napkins. He stood, slowly, when he was finished eating, and he walked downstairs to the basement. The door was closed, as always, and he couldn’t see anything but the blank white rectangle before him. He took a tentative step closer, and he thought maybe he could hear her voice. He thought, maybe, it was louder this time. Almost like it was real. He hesitated, and glanced up the stairs as his arm moved almost of his own volition. He turned back to the room, and his hand hovered over the doorknob for a moment – and then he nodded, and smiled, and opened the door.

Watcher

There was a man – let’s call him Harold – and he watched a woman. Her name was Jessica. He was sure of it.
He knew almost everything about her. He was familiar with the motion of her hands as she spoke and the sound of her voice out loud; he knew the curve of her throat and the shadows of her shoulders. He remembered the folds of her skirt when she moved. The line of her smile. Her habit of waking and sleeping, her style of dress, the odor her perfume left in the air. The scuff on the right heel of her everyday shoes. Nearly everything about Jessica, because she was nearly everything. The details were immensely important, for together they comprised her being. He watched her in the street as she walked, hurried, checked her watch and shuffled shopping bags. He watched when she typed at work, and when she laughed at distractions. He watched her conversations with friends, her quiet coffee dates, her dinners and dinner parties. He watched while she slept until her features blurred and his own eyes began to close.

He lost himself in watching her. He watched her expressions shape her face until he forgot his own. He knew her moods and her ways so well that they molded his life. Her own joy caused his. Her dead cat provoked his tears as well as her own. He was giddy with her over her promotion and felt her secret resentment at her best friend’s engagement. Even more – he noticed the wry smile as she listened to her co-worker ramble, and the polite boredom when her boss talked and waved his hands in the air. Her feelings and thoughts, her every movement, were more important to him than anything. He, himself, mattered barely at all. She was the idol of his life, and he worshiped everything she was, everything she did. He didn’t think about this; it was natural, the shape of his life, as if nothing else had ever been. If it had, he certainly couldn’t remember it. There was nothing before Jessica.

Eventually, he knew he had to meet Jessica. He couldn’t just watch from afar anymore. He had to see her up close, had to smell the scent of her skin and see the glint of her eyes. He wanted to hear her voice speak to him. He planned for nearly a month; picked a date, a place, and a time. He decided that he would approach her after work, when she busied herself cleaning and correcting and finishing the day’s odds and ends. He would say something inconsequential to her, and she would answer, and her words would be a message. He imagined that they would give meaning to his life, perhaps, they would tell him who he was or how to act or what to do. He speculated as to what she would say. He was nearly sure, though, that she would brush him off and murmur that she had something she had to go to, something more important. It would be true, too.

As soon as he got into the office, though, everything started to go wrong. He was more afraid than he’d ever been, shaking with anticipation. Of course his own anxiety didn’t matter. Only she mattered. But when he made his way to her desk, forcing each foot to step forward, her eyes showed fear too. Bewilderment, maybe. She looked as if she couldn’t understand why someone, even unimportant as he was, that she didn’t even know was walking toward her with such purpose. He stopped in front of her desk, and he looked at her for a long minute. She fiddled with the pen in her hand, and she looked back at him, but she didn’t say anything. Finally, trembling, he opened his mouth to speak. That was when it occurred to him that he had prepared no words, and come undecided. Words spilled out in a heap, fragmented and jumbled; “Hello. Erm, Jessica. Hi. I just well, I wanted to say, to tell you, to talk to you. I wanted to talk to you for a long time.” He lurched to a stop, looked helplessly at her. She looked confused and her beautiful eyes were lost, drifting and dizzily vague.
“Why do you want to talk to me? What for?”

He almost gasped at the question. “You’re – well, because you’re important to me. I know you don’t know me but I think you’re important.” He stopped again. He knew he had said too much, that she wouldn’t want to hear it and that she would want him to go away. She was about to tell him that he wasn’t important enough to tell her so.

She looked down for a long moment, and then turned her lovely face back to him and said, “Important to you? That doesn’t make sense, though. I’m not important, not nearly at all to anybody.”
Harold waited for a long moment. He knew that her face was sad, that her eyes looking up at him were confused and he could see the glint of weary sorrow in them. He couldn’t focus, though, couldn’t look at her; he was choking on a disappointment he had not expected. Harold shrugged and turned, and as he left he felt that something monumental had lifted itself from his life, had left him with nothing. He didn’t know what he was going to be, if she wasn’t important. He bent his head and walked on. The woman still sitting at the desk put down the pen still clutched in her hand, and bit her lip, and watched him go.

Under the Sea

A man walked down the dock and stood at the edge, curling his toes around the damp cold wooden slat that marked its end. Then he dove off into the dark sea.

He dove down and down and down, past the shock of the cold crashing waves and the pull of currents, the crush of the deep toward the blackness below. Then he saw a mermaid, coiled on a rock set in the sandy sea bottom. The mermaid had floating black curls twisting through the saltwater, and a gray- green tail, and her eyes lit bright like dying sunlight on the waves when she saw him.

He drifted down toward the mermaid, and she reached up and grasped his hand, outstretched to dive down. She pulled him to her, and he curled beside her. The mermaid spoke, and her voice was muted by the water. She said, “Hello, strange man. If you stay with me, I will tell you a story.”

The man nodded his heavy head, and nestled closer to her, and put his head on the mermaid’s scaly lap.
The mermaid began her story. “Once, there was a girl. This girl could run and dance and swim under the sun like all other. She was carefree, and cared not a whit for anyone. Then a man fell in love with the girl. He was a powerful man, and moved the fire of the sun and the waves locked in the earth with his desires. He wanted the girl, and wanted her, and she wanted nothing but to run and dance and swim under the sun. She wanted none of his desires. The man got angry, and when this man got angry, stones shook and stars trembled. He trapped the girl in another form. He trapped her dancing legs together, bound them in a fish’s wriggling fins forever so she could dance no more, and never again run from him. But still she swam away, with rage and fear now and not just disdain. So it wasn’t enough for this man to change her body. He trapped her too in one place, pinned her down to a story. She became something everlasting and immortal, bound by the laws of the sea to follow the path of legend.”

The man on the mermaid’s lap twisted and pawed at her waist, his eyes half- lidded. He asked stupidly, his voice slurred and dulled, “Do you have a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, or a merfriend?”

She smiled at him sadly. “No, sweet, and I can’t, not ever. I’ll tell you why, for it’s in my story. The legend he bound the mermaid to, it was that of a siren. He bound her to sit on a rock and comb her hair, to watch the waves far above and dream of more monotony. And any man that ventured near would be trapped too. Any human too close met the same fate. The girl had to tell her story of woe and pain and loss to any traveler passing by, and that poor soul would be lost as well.”

The mermaid was quiet now, lips barely moving, her voice muffled by the stir of the saltwater. She threaded her fingers through the man’s hair, but he didn’t look up. So she spoke again, “That’s how the lover I never wanted condemned me to this life, lifetimes ago. How the foolish girl I was became the sad creature I am now. How I came to be here, sitting on the sea floor and telling stories to the dead.”

The edges of the scales rubbing against the man’s face had cut into his skin, but he didn’t notice. His eyes were closed and his breathing shallow, his arms wrapped around the mermaid’s waist and unmoving. She stroked his hair absently. The light from far above shifted and swirled in broken fragments over his still face and the mermaid’s bent head as she waited, silent, for another foolish human to listen to her story.

I usually don’t write stories of my own life

There was a summer afternoon. Sun was falling full on the trees and their scattered light of leaves, on the curve of grey asphalt as it rose and fell. I was looking out of the window from the dim inside of my parents’ car. We were going to a graduation party – for Rachel, the daughter of a family friend. I had played with her when I was small, dressed in princess clothes and singing to the full width of small lungs. I hadn’t seen her since, and I wasn’t thinking at all about any of it as we drove to her house. I was fighting with my sister.

My mind was murky in an afternoon that cast long shadows, and I had to be with my family. I bickered, and she bickered back, and at this point I’m really too old to fight with my fifteen-year-old sister but that’s hard to remember in a bitter mood.

So we bickered. I was only half paying attention, even, and then my sister said something that struck me hard and stung tears into my eyes. I protested, blistered. Then I watched as my sister became indignant and my mother leapt to her defense and my father sighed and tried to ignore us all. I sank into silence against the cold hard window, forehead leaning against the separation from the sun. I watched the bright-lit leaves wash by, and closed my eyes against the hurt.

Finally we were there, parked tilted on the hill that led to their house. We trooped out of the car and headed into the house of these people I barely knew. My parents made introductions and I offered a smile and pleasantries to match. I griped behind the lilt of the pleased new conversation.

Once everyone had arrived, people went one way and another to get food and beer and seats in the grass or on the porch in the heat of the fading afternoon. I picked myself a plate and carried it to the table under the shade of the tent, away from the porch and far from my parents. There were four people at the table already. They were all wearing yellow polo shirts.
I sat, and scooped up a bite. After a minute, I said, “You’re all very yellow.”

Three of them – two greying men and a middle-aged woman with a bob – laughed to agree. They were the brothers and sister of Rachel’s mother, I gathered, and they had all worn yellow purely by coincidence. The fourth seated at the table was their mother, a wrinkled and bent woman who did not laugh at the coincidence. She looked too pinched to open her mouth at a moment’s notice for such triviality, but her eyes gleamed dark and merry at me from within their nest of wrinkles.

With several forkfuls of rice gulped down and an entire yellow family for distraction, I began to talk to the brothers. I might as well. The bearded stocky one inquired as to my school and interests, told me of his house in Chicago and about his job (all of which I’ve quite forgotten now). The other, a beaky drawn man with thinning hair, joked about the desserts and the amount of fat and sugar surely hidden treacherously within them. This was his means of a transition, whereupon he launched into querulous complaint about his diabetes. The sister, a plump-faced woman with lines curving around her mouth, gave the occasional kind comment or question. She wanted to know if I enjoyed college, and how lovely that was really that I did.
The consensus among the siblings was their mother. She was silent until apparently she found something interesting or entertaining. Then she would start up in her plastic chair and emit a cracked sound entirely incomprehensible to the table at large, though sometimes one of the siblings would attempt a translation.

She was very consistent about her movement, if not her contribution to the discussion. She sat hunched in her folding chair, sunk into herself, and as we talked and watched her, she slid slowly and inexorably to her right. Her shoulders would sag as if she were trying to lie prone on the ground, suddenly but gracefully slip to the grass straight from the height of her seat. Every time she slid down to the level of the table, her daughter would grasp her shoulders and right her, firmly and gently.

Her three children watched her slip slowly toward the ground. They rolled their eyes, or shrugged, or puffed sighs of exasperation. They tossed forth the occasional mention of her state and their voices were worried. But when she didn’t need setting straight again and they weren’t immediately preoccupied with looking to see her start sliding again, they talked in animated voices and ignored what she tried to say.

Halfway through the stolid party, one of the brothers – the bearded one – announced his intention to get more food, as it was reasonably good. The old mother burst into a cackle of laughter, and lifted her heavy grey head. She looked up and said, “Isn’t that funny?” and her mouth gaped smiling and pleased.

The siblings shrugged. I shrugged. The old lady sighed with laughter and drooped into place, shoulders bent and dragging slow through the air again, downward. She understood something secret and faraway, and simply couldn’t find the means to tell us. We went on. The son stood to get the food he had promised himself.

When he came back, we spoke a bit more quietly. We talked about cars and other countries and old books. A half hour passed that way. My mother came over to tap me on the shoulder to say they were gathering to go soon, and left again. I talked for a minute about literature and loving stories.

The old lady slid in her chair and rocked with laughter again for a moment. “That’s funny, now, it is,” she said. She nodded vaguely at me from her place curled against the plastic tablecloth. I shrugged again, somewhat helplessly. Her daughter lifted her, pushing her back upright to sit again. She tried vainly and briefly to adjust her mother, to pull her shoulders against the back of the chair, and she plucked for a moment at her mother’s limbs before settling into her own seat again.

The old lady looked up at me once more, chin lifted and black eyes focusing on mine for a hard moment. She looked at me, and then her voice was cracked but clear. She said, “Take the bitter with the better.” Then her voice swung in a sob of laughter once more, and she bent back down into the shade against the spreading sunlight of summer.

An Apocalypse Story

I walked into the great meeting room, cold and tall and bare as it was, and I was sweating and shaky. I sat in the chair at the very end of the long curved table, lay down the papers I’d been clutching to wrinkles, and set my damp palms flat on its cool surface. Then I sat there, concentrating on breathing evenly, for the twenty minutes it took the council members to file in and seat themselves. I sat and stared at the huge picture windows on one side of the room, looking not at the bustling city beneath that it showed, but at the reflection of the room and its occupants.

When I coughed, and cleared my throat, not a one of them looked up. They were murmuring, small conversations that buzzed in the big room. Finally I stood, and leaned forward.

“Friends.” I said loudly, clearly, my voice echoing off the high ceiling, and now they looked up at me, “Council members, thank you for coming. We have today to discuss a most important order of business. I have proposed a change that would affect the world and have a huge influence on every living being. We are here today to have a conversation about the ramifications of this change, and any and all of its positive and negative aspects.” Once I finished this introduction, I sat down gratefully, and the buzz mounted again. I called out, “You all have with you copies of the plan, I presume? I would like you to take this time to read it over.”

I leaned back in my chair and watched them all dig out the folder from within briefcases or handbags. They all set the papers on the table before themselves, and read with furrowed foreheads and frowns and the occasional recurring buzz of mutters. Whether they liked the plan or not, I could not tell, though I doubted it somehow. When most of them seemed to have moved their eyes from the pages, and could now find no place to affix their gaze, I stood again and drew the darting glances all in one direction again.

“Men and women of the council,” I said, sounding as calm as I could manage over my anxiety and excitement, “I move that we put this proposal to a vote.”

“This is preposterous!” interrupted a baggy gray-topped man halfway down the table. “This plan should never have seen the light of day, much less be subject to discussion by the sane people in this room—mostly sane, that is” with a pointed glance at me.

I nodded, and sat down. I was almost relieved to have gotten the first objection over with, until the woman across from the paunchy man stood too. “I agree completely. This plan is pure lunacy, and you put it into legalese to make it seem less monstrous. I move that we disregard it completely, as well as any attempt to legitimize it at all.” At once the whole room erupted into outcries, the word “insane” sounding quite a lot from the mouths of these stolid suited people.

After a minute I stood once more. I tried several times to catch the attention of the group, but my quavering voice was not loud enough. I caught a deep breath and shouted, as loudly as I could manage, “Council! Enough. This sort of commotion can lead to no agreement whatsoever. If you will permit, I will explain to you the reasoning behind such a seemingly drastic plan.”

Bit by bit, the council stood down and eventually they sat back, still tense but listening, in their chairs.
“Council,” I began, “You will, I am sure, all agree that the earth nowadays is plagued with many disastrous problems. Overpopulation is among the worst of them, leaving humanity little recourse in its desperation. We also have encountered pollution, and famine, and disease. Neither has war ever left our so-called civilizations. Sometimes the most effective way to solve problems of such severity is to eliminate the causes entirely. As it is, the causes of all of these problems– all of them, ladies and gentlemen—is humankind itself.” I held up my hand as a buzz threatened to turn into shouting again. “No, hear me out. Humans live on this earth with a certain responsibility toward it, would you not agree? And in multiplying beyond possible capacity, in using every resource to its last and sucking the earth dry, it seems that humanity has shirked its responsibility grievously. The only way to eliminate the problems humanity has caused is to eradicate humanity.”

I finished my speech, inhaled and exhaled and felt my heart slow almost to normal. I sat down and almost immediately three people were standing. I raised my hand to stop them once more, and added, “Of course, as the earth is a resource of man, eliminating man completely would not accomplish a goal any more nearly than leaving things as they are. The painless process that would deal with the problem of humanity, leaving the rest of the earth intact, could be adjusted. I move that the wise arbiters of humanity’s fate be spared, in order to lead the remains of the earth into a new world.”

The atmosphere at the table changed quite perceptibly at my words. The tension was there, but rather than fear, I felt the anticipation of the group. Two of the people standing lowered themselves to their seats hesitantly, and the woman remaining said, “You mean, we would leave some people? Which people do you mean, arbiters of fate?”

I smiled benignly at her, heart thumping with enthusiasm now. “Well we are the ones deciding the fate of humanity, are we not, dear Councilmember Karlen? As the council responsible for all of mankind, it seems only fitting that we last into the next wave of humanity to guide it.”

A sigh of relief, or maybe satisfaction, swept around the table, but a balding man near me looked up unhappily. “Our families?” he said.

I looked down at him, allowing a touch of disdain into my face. “Your families are part of the problem, Mr. Rosty. They are not here with the good of humanity in mind, are they? The labs and machines of the world will remain, and you may all recreate those important to you, have new children who will grow up in our triumphant new world. After the change, there will be no misery or pain. You will spare those you love the trauma of a loss they weren’t expecting, and their memories will live on through the people fortunate enough to be born in our golden era. I suppose if you don’t choose this then eventually someone else will, and you can die along with your family.”

I sat, and looked around the room at the speculative faces, the calculating expressions. “Shall we put it to a vote? For a decision of this import, it seems necessary that we reach unanimous consensus on the issue in question.” Several of the members looked up, as if they were startled or suddenly overwhelmed, but I plunged forward. “All in favor?”

Eight hands went up at once. Five more, after seeing the initial favor, raised their hands too. The seven remaining, among them the paunchy man who had first objected and Councilmember Rosty, watched their companions with fear in their faces. They leaned toward the center of the table, and the debate broke out again. Those who had already cast in their votes gave their persuasive arguments, sounding more or less convinced themselves. After two minutes of the persistent buzz, I stood yet again. “Councilmembers. I believe it is time for you to make a choice. I suggest you think about what choice you are making and consider its implications. In voting for this measure, you will be choosing the good of the planet, the good of future generations—indeed, Council, you will be choosing the good of humanity itself.”

I stood and looked at the seven undecided until they cowered under my determined gaze, until one by one their votes joined the rest—all except for Councilmember Rosty. He sat stubbornly, face crumpled in bewilderment, looking around him through the big room and seeing no support left. The room had stopped humming with talk completely, and the Council watched Mr. Rosty. They stared at him, filled with disapproval at his weakness, his preference for humanity’s existence over its benefit. Finally, after interminable minutes, his face crumpled and his head dropped down, and he raised his hand slowly. I nodded, and stood, and proclaimed the measure passed.

For the next fifteen minutes, the Council and I sat in silence and watched out the window as the poison spread through the air and humanity was saved.