A Letter To My Future Self
dear future self,
you are not your past
you are not your problems
you are not your enemy.
you are a bright shining star
who deserves nothing but
love and happiness.
after all you've been through,
you deserve to be happy.
you are strong.
you are worth it.
you are a warrior.
your 18 year old self
Let Them Have Cake
We were a healthily unhappy family, each with an equal share of responsibility for everyone’s unhappiness. But we were not willing to admit it, so each of us took turns being single-handedly blamed for the collective misfortune. It was Lindsay’s turn this time.
Mum and dad were sleeping in separate beds again. Although Lindsay swore she didn’t know the reason, they both looked at her as if she was somehow responsible for the crisis in their marriage. Even I was feeling angry at Lindsay lately. I didn’t know why. But when you’re a high school junior, your senior sister doesn’t have to do much to piss you off — just exist. She annoyed me with her good mood, her easy laughter, with the way her permanent mental peace contrasted with our constant dissatisfaction. And, of course, with her cake. I hated that stupid cake.
Mum and dad agreed. It looked out of place in the dull whiteness of our fridge, in between mum’s cottage cheese and my 1% milk. An exuberant chocolate cake. It didn’t fit — just like Lindsay’s smile didn’t belong in the breakfast table with our traditional Saturday morning frown.
—What? Are you a morning person now?— dad asked. Lindsay just kept smiling.
—Of course not, honey. If she was a morning person, she wouldn’t be late for breakfast again— mum remarked. Lindsay ignored her, too, and calmly poured my 1% milk in her cereal.
Two shots, two misses. It was my turn to try and take that stupid smile off her face, and I was not in the mood for small talk.
—You know what? This is bullshit.
—Language!— said mum, out of reflex. Dad also seemed displeased but allowed me to continue. I knew it was okay to break the rules of politeness if the intention was to take a shot at Lindsay. And, unlike mum and dad, I had managed to catch her attention.
—It’s bullshit. It really is. You taking all that space in the fridge with this stupid cake for your friend’s party. It’s not even your party.
Lindsay sighed. We couldn’t see that annoying little smile anymore. I had scored. Smelling blood, mum pounced with her biggest weapon, which we all knew and feared.
—I have done so much for this family, Lindsay. Do you remember how many cakes I have baked for you? Do you see how I cook and clean for you every day? And now you bake this stupid chocolate cake with your friends, leave it in our fridge, and you don’t even share it with your family. No! All you care about is that party of yours!
There were tears in mum’s eyes when she was finished. We had seen that scene enough times to know that she could cry on cue, but that didn’t make her performance any less effective. Lindsay was sulking now, staring at the bottom of her half-empty cereal bowl. She had lost her appetite — very unusual for her. Dad took advantage of her weakness to deal the final blow.
—Party? I don’t remember giving you permission to go to any party. Not a chance. You have upset your mother and your brother. You and your cake are staying home tonight.
That was the kind of moment when we felt most united as a family: a victory against a common opponent — which always happened to be one of us. Breakfast had been just an appetiser: Lindsay’s tears would be our main course. Knowing her, though, she wouldn’t give us that pleasure. Lindsay was great at disguising her anger as indifference. If tears were mum’s superpower, that was hers.
—Whatever. You can have the fucking cake. I’m not hungry anymore.
She went to her room before they could ground her. Dad and I exchanged annoyed looks. One step ahead of us, mum opened the fridge. Yes, we didn’t get the sweet, intoxicating taste of Lindsay’s tears, but why would we skip dessert? With her cake now on the kitchen table, we each took our share of the victory spoils.
Half an hour later, dad and mum went to their room before they could finish reading the paper. Weird. I thought they were separated. Maybe our triumph against Lindsay had rekindled their relationship. I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate it, though. I soon started feeling lightheaded, a little sick. I knew better than to disturb my parents when their door was locked, so I texted Lindsay.
—Do you know where they keep the paracetamol?
—You’ll be fine. Come up to my room. Bring some cake.
It took me an enormous effort to climb the stairs. I expected Lindsay to be angry at me, but there it was: the same silly smile on her face again. She laid some cushions on the floor for me, told me to relax and started showing me some of her favourite music. I didn’t know she was into Pink Floyd. We began with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and chronologically made our way up to The Dark Side of the Moon, which we played in sync with The Wizard of Oz on her laptop. It was crazy fun. Having an older sister wasn’t that bad, after all.
I confess I lost track of time, but it was getting dark when dad knocked on Lindsay’s door and told us to go to the kitchen. He and mum had ordered pizza — lunch and dinner. Lindsay didn’t seem upset with them at all. If anything, she was amused. Dad kept telling jokes. I don’t remember any of them. They must have been pretty good, though, because everybody was laughing. When there was no pizza left, mum took some leftover cake out of the fridge. I followed Lindsay’s advice and skipped dessert. Mum and dad had two slices each and went back to their room.
Lindsay only told me the truth about her cake a week later, when she came to me for help. Mum wanted her to bake another cake for all of us, but her allowance was not enough to buy the secret ingredient. Not for two weekends in a row; not for four people. I was happy to help. We weren’t even halfway through the Pink Floyd discography yet.
Our parents only found out several months later, after mum insisted on getting the recipe and preparing Lindsay’s chocolate cake for her friends from church. Lindsay ended up having to confess. I said I knew it, too. It was unfair for her to take the blame alone.
For someone as uptight as he used to be, dad was surprisingly cool with it.
—If it’s legal in this state, it’s legal in this house.
Mum had second thoughts and went to the reverend before she agreed to our new arrangement. With his blessing — “in moderation, and never before coming to mass” — the cake became our Saturday tradition. Lindsay and I loved to hear the news. We were a healthily happy family now, sure, but each should pay their share for the collective happiness. It was about time mum and dad started to chip in.
I could be wrong, though that is rarely the case. Often I will offer up my quiet viewpoint. I know that my view is considered by some, discounted by others, and agreed with by a rare few. And then I wait. I am a patient creature. Eventually, the naysayers and disagree-ers come to the same conclusion as I have already given. Sometimes months or even years later. But I do not triumph and gloat over this fact. A person’s lack of clarity and understanding and rapidity of conjecture is their concern, not mine.
But in this particular case, I am fairly sure that my presumption is correct. That new young lass in the office, Clarrie or Carrie or some such, is most definitely pregnant though she may not even know it herself yet. Her movements and energies have grown sluggish where before she was as light and quick as a hummingbird. Her face is pale and drawn, her eyes suddenly older and wiser, seemingly overnight. Yes, she is with child and it may not be an experience she is longing for. In fact, I would go so far as to say the thought would fill her with dread.
Davina, the office accounts lady, approaches my desk. Her very demeanor and deportment overflow with anticipated gossip and the heralding of news. Her eyes are bright and she sparkles with expectancy. Tiny electric sparks fly from her arms and her hair and her ample cleavage trembles and glows with excitement. She greets me, and offers me refreshment. Then she waits. Another must be soon to join us.
The day is heating up and the office is starting to become a little stuffy. I look up at the big white clock on the wall, it’s black hands inching toward 11.00 am. Any minute now. Sure enough, right on the hour, the air conditioner kicks in and a cooling breeze reaches my desk. Bliss. Just enough to bring benefit, not too much to be unpleasant. I shiver with pleasure as the cool air gently strokes me.
Davina looks up. The companion she was waiting for has arrived. It is Valerie, the middle-aged busybody from Despatches. I should have guessed. Valerie looks at me without seeing me and then looks at her friend, picking up on the air of excitement. “What is it?” she asks eagerly.
Davina leans forward conspiratorially. She looks around the office importantly. She lowers her voice. “I can’t say much at the moment,” she says, though I know full well that she has plenty to say, “But I have heard that there is to be a redundancy.”
Valerie gasps, shocked. But I am not shocked. This is old news to me, and the news is confirmed and most definitely true. I know for a fact that Tony Little is to be served with a redundancy notice this coming Friday and will be escorted from the building before 10.00 am, clutching his briefcase and his redundancy payment, his head spinning, and his future unknown. I have known this fact for some days now but no one has stopped to asked me if I have heard anything or if I know anything. People seldom do.
Davina beams, proud to be the imparter of such unexpected and shocking news. I know that this will be the highlight of her day, nay of her week. Valerie is reeling, her little eyes wide in her puffy face, intent on finding out more. “No! Who is it? Why is there to be a redundancy? Is the company in trouble? Are there going to be more redundancies in future?” Valerie, lover of gossip, is also the owner of a strong sense of survival. She needs to know if her job is safe. I know this too. Valerie has not told Davina, but she told Michael the Accountant within my hearing. Valerie’s husband recently lost his job and Valerie’s wage is imperative for the family’s livelihood right now.
Davina shakes her head. Her whole story was the one line. She has no further information to share. She had overheard the word mentioned between two superiors and has nothing to add except speculation. I know this too, as I watched it happen. But she is dying to talk and speculate and build the story, with the help of Valerie of course. Gossip is of no use unless shared and spread around, tacky and viscous. And she will receive no input or information from me. I am a listener. I am not a conversationalist and I am most certainly not a gossip.
“We’ll meet at the coffee shop after work,” says Davina, drawing out her role as the bringer of news, the one source of juicy tattle. By using this ploy, she will remain Queen of Information for the remainder of the day, regardless of the fact that she has no further information to impart. “Don’t mention this to anyone else,” she says, her voice low. Both ladies glance at me, disregard me, and disperse back towards their own departments. Davina’s cloying perfume hovers in the air and I retract a little. I don’t like the smell of artificial scent.
I stay where I am, gazing out upon the office. This is my desk and I have learned that I do not need to leave it to hear of the office tales. The stories invariably come to me. I just wait patiently and they soon arrive. My desk is nicely positioned in a sunny spot with a good view of the room, but far enough away from the other occupants as to enable a little privacy. More news will come. It always does.
Sure enough, less than two hours later, Rob from Sales stops in front of my desk. He is impatient with me and often barely acknowledges me. I know that he thinks there is no place for such as me in a modern office but I do not allow his opinion to trouble me. I really do not care what he thinks. He is rarely in the office. He spends his days’ conning potential clients and polishing his ego on other people’s opinions. However, such is the salesman, and without this type of personality, the company would not grow. Therefore, I am lenient of his attitude and I am understanding of his feelings towards me. The man is destined for an inward-looking life unless he manages to harness his ego and learns to empathize and sympathize with others. But that is his journey and concern, not mine.
Rob taps his fingers impatiently on my desk as he waits for the arrival of his colleague. The drumming is vaguely irritating, but he does not notice my annoyance. Beautiful Crystal soon arrives. I have a lot of time for Crystal. I hold myself a little straighter as she approaches my desk. Not only is her physical appearance stunning, but her energy and love surround her in a sparkling aura. She is truly beautiful, inside and out, and there aren’t too many who can claim that. And even better, she is aware of her power but she does not use it in any way but for good. Crystal leans across to touch me gently and smile at me before turning her attention to Rob. I feel myself tingle where her fingers lightly brushed me. Ah, beautiful Crystal.
Rob is clearly smitten. He leans toward Crystal, all aspects of his salesman persona concentrated on making the sale and closing the deal. He radiates sexuality and attractiveness and availability towards Crystal. He hopefully assesses her, judging if she will be open to his offer. Oh, beautiful Crystal, please don’t be swayed by his untruthful charms. Unfortunately, I can see that she is pulled into his web. She blushes under his gaze. Rob casually rests his hand on my desk, beside Crystal’s small and delicate hand, and he allows a finger to seemingly accidentally touch hers. The jolt of lightening is massive; I am nearly blinded by the force of it. They both pull back, shocked, and they gaze into each other’s eyes. The connection was more than they anticipated. It was more than even I had anticipated or expected. Now there is no need for small talk. I am forgotten. Not that I was ever considered to a part of this meeting. I glower as I watch the young couple. It is clear that with such an intense sexual pull the young people have eyes and feelings and yearnings only for each other.
Rob clears his throat and stands upright, struggling to gain the upper hand and assert his alpha male personality. He still looks shocked by what has just happened. I watch silently as Crystal, beautiful Crystal, struggles between her goodness and her almost overwhelming desire to leap at Rob and kiss him passionately. Her struggle is real. She is not one to throw herself at men but the force of Rob’s magnetism has rocked her.
“Can I meet you for a drink after work?” Rob asks.
Crystal looks down, her lashes lowered to hide her expression and modestly cover her raw lust. “I would love to,” she murmurs. They agree on a meeting place and the couple part ways, one last lingering look exchanged between the two.
I sit sadly at my desk, alone again. I know that my appearance would never allow me to have a close and intimate relationship with someone such as Crystal, but I cannot help but feel downcast. If only my physical form was more in keeping with her expectations. If only, if only, if only. I rouse myself. I don’t usually give into such morose thoughts. Generally, I am happy enough with my lot. I have a good life. I am healthy and well. I can happily enjoy the feel of the sun and the freshness of the air. I am involved in the lives of those around me, even if it is from a peripheral vantage point. I have no complaints. I should not dwell on what might have been if I’d been served a different dish in the great buffet that is life.
It is now nearly time for the office to close and for the occupants to head home. Already the early leavers have departed. The office is emptier than it was earlier, the clerks and salesmen and managers gone for the day. Edward, the Senior Manager, stops by my desk. Edward and I have a long history. It was his wife who first found me and encouraged him to appoint me to my role in the office. I am grateful to her, and Edward has kept a benevolent view towards me since my placement in this position. He will often stop by to compliment me on my looks or on my health, and I know that he feels confident discussing issues that trouble him in front of me. For he trusts me and he knows his words will go no further.
Edward sighs and drops a pile of documents on the surface of the desk. He stares off into the distance for a moment. Penny, the Payroll Clerk, waves a hand to capture his attention. “Edward? Do you have a moment?”
I watch as he moves across the office towards Penny’s desk. From this angle, I can clearly see the thinning hair on the crown and back of his head. I wonder briefly if he is aware of the extent of his balding. I picture his wife’s pleasant and friendly face, her love for her husband obvious in every glance she directs his way, every hand she places on his arm. I doubt that she would have told him that he has already lost enough hair to allow his scalp to show through the wisps. She does not strike me as the type of person who would ever cause another to feel anxious or less confident.
Penny is looking up at her manager, gesticulating animatedly while she talks. I do not know Penny well. She is a straightforward and business-like person. I do know that she has no time for ones such as me in an office environment. She has never, not once, approached my desk to pause a moment and chat with a colleague, comment on my occupancy in the office, or offer me refreshment. I do not hold this against her. Penny is here to do her work, and by all accounts, she does it well.
The office is now emptying rapidly. The black hands of the clock are now well past the 5.00 pm mark. Someone switches the air conditioner off and the sudden change in low-level noise is at first difficult to comprehend. The office begins to settle into the quiet stillness of its night-time hours. The harsh overhead fluorescent lights are switched off, leaving just the lights on the walls remaining. The office transitions quickly into its after-hours persona. Penny nods her head in response to some Edward has just said. She turns off her computer and begins to pack away her documents and papers, her movements brisk and efficient as always.
The Senior Manager says goodbye to the few remaining staff as they leave and he walks back over to where I wait. Edward shuffles his papers on my desk, fanning them out, then reshuffling them again. He does on this occasion appear to be quite troubled. He has not yet even glanced at me, let alone mentioned my state of health. Which is not like him at all. Eventually, he looks up and smiles at me and I feel myself blossom under his kind stare. “You are looking wonderful,” he says. “Your stable influence in this office is much appreciated. You bring a refreshing glow to this dreary corner and I am pleased to see you flourishing so well. And I am thankful that my wife was persistent enough to argue for your placement.”
I blush, I cannot help myself. I bow for a moment, then I hold myself proudly upright again. “Thank you, Edward. Now please tell me what concerns you.”
Edward sighs and again gazes off to a distant corner. He has no words for the moment. Perhaps he does not even know what exactly it is that is troubling him. I wait. He sighs again. “The world is changing,” he says eventually. “Business is changing.” He gestures around the now empty office. “This business is changing. And sometimes I fear whether I can keep up with it all.” He sighs again and pushes himself away from my desk. “Good night.” He leaves the office, switching off the lights and air conditioner as he goes.
Tomorrow is another day. Within hours the early arrivals will be here and the fates and fortunes, lives and opportunities, successes and failures, truths and untruths, of the office inhabitants will complete another day under my watchful gaze.
For I am the Peace Lily, and my abundance of soothing green leaves and white lily-like flowers oversee the daily ebb and flow of office life.
Carrie turned the lock in the back door and reached around to switch on the light. The fluorescent tubes on the ceiling flickered once, twice, and then settled into their unholy white luminescence. The kitchen looked bare, cold, and unwelcoming at this time of the morning but it was the perfect environment in which to get her work done. She shut the door behind her and locked it again. She pulled her apron down from the hook on the wall and tied it on, wrapping the strings around her waist and expertly tying the knot at the front.
Humming to herself, Carrie opened the large stainless steel door of the chiller and began to collect up her supplies for the morning. Quail eggs and duck eggs, exotic berries and nuts, briny corpulent olives, lusciously fat red tomatoes, soft and hard imported and local cheeses, fresh lettuce leaves and tangy baby rocket, sensuous just-sprouted sprouts, voluptuous green and red onions, a handful of fragrant herbs, finely-seasoned relishes, succulent pickles, decadent jams, and more. She carefully carried the goods over to the large bench and began to prepare her work space.
She was engrossed in her work when a rat-tat-tat knock at the front door of the café made her almost jump out of her skin, though of course she had been expecting the arrival of Ralph. His face was pressed up against the glass pane, a pitch black back-drop of 4am darkness behind him. She waved her knife at him before hurrying over to pull back the snip and open the door. A blast of cold air greeted her, along with the mouth-watering, toe-curling fragrance of freshly baked bread and rolls.
“Hey, you.” Ralph pushed past her and inside the café, his arms laden with bread crates. He sat them atop the counter beside the cash register. “Service with a smile.” He grinned at her, the missing tooth at the front of his smile an expected black mark on his handsome face.
“Thanks, Ralph.” Carrie signed the receipt with a flourish. “Busy day?”
“Fridays are always busy. Lock the door after me.” He was already part-way out the door. He looked back at her and dropped his eyelid in a lecherous wink. “You don’t want to be tempting any undesirables in.”
Carrie scoffed and waved him away. All the same, she walked over and re-locked the door. The lights of Ralph’s van reversed away and she watched them disappear up the street. She returned to the stacked bread crates and the intoxicating aroma of the still warm bread. Today’s selection included flour-dusted brown rye, plump rolls of brioche, round cobb loaves with the tops enticingly cracked, achingly delicious sourdough, flat and robust Turkish loaves, buttery croissants, and crusty golden buns.
She took the blackboard down from the wall and erased yesterday’s menu in a flurry of sneeze-inducing chalk dust, smiling with satisfaction at the bare slate. There was nothing quite as evocative as a blank slate. She set the blackboard down on the countertop and returned to her sandwich making.
Carrie carefully washed, chopped, diced, sliced, and cleaved her ingredients, spinning tantalizing sandwich ideas through her head as she did so. White meat, cranberry, brie, and walnuts on sliced rye bread. Lean meat, rocket, cream cheese, honey, and olives in golden buns. Sliced, salted, preserved meat with pear slices, basil, lemon curd, and camembert on brioche. Turkish bread stuffed full to overflowing with juicy, beefy meat slices, tomatoes, lettuce, onion, and tangy relish. Her mouth was watering at the very thought of it.
Finally, she was ready to assemble the sandwiches. All she needed now was the freshly sliced meats. She opened a drawer under the bench and pulled out a steel. She expertly sharpened her knife, marveling at her own dexterity as she watched the blade flash against the rounded steel. She dropped the steel back into the drawer and turned toward the second chiller, the chiller which she always kept securely locked. She pulled the key, linked on the end of the fine gold chain which she wore around her neck, out of her cleavage and placed it in the lock. The key turned with a resounding click and she opened the door, switching on the light as she did so.
Four pairs of terrified eyes stared at her from the walls of the chiller. The four men struggled and fought against their bindings, but it was to no avail. She was very good with knots. The duct tape on their mouths prevented their screams from being heard – people came to the café for peaceful enjoyment and relaxation, not irritating and discordant noises. She looked thoughtfully at her captives. Tim was the freshest, but Kevin’s lean body had proved popular with the patrons yesterday. Beefy Richard’s succulent flesh was a definite addition to today’s array. David was a little pale, clearly his job as a computer technician kept him away from the sun, but his white flesh would pop with her cranberry, brie, and walnut combination. She glanced at Tony. There was not a lot left of him but he was beyond complaining. His flesh had preserved beautifully. She’d had comments all week on the quality of her salted beef. Humming happily, Carrie took a large serving plate from the bottom shelf of the chiller and began to carve.
“Alex, for Chrissakes, move your elbow. God, you eat like a pig.”
Alex turned to his partner, his face full of pizza. Tiny dregs of pepperoni and cheese lay scattered down his uniform like ghostly remnants of confetti. “What? You wanna slice?”
“Nope, Sally made me a sandwich. I already told you.” Eric pulled out the brown paper bag containing his dinner. He opened the bag and looked at the salad and tuna sandwich glumly for a few minutes, then he glanced at the remaining slice of pizza sitting greasily on Alex’s lap. He suddenly had no appetite at all. He screwed up the brown bag carefully, mindful of any crumbs. He wound down the window to heft the rubbish towards the bin at the side of the car. Missed. Grumbling, Alex opened the door and went to retrieve the bag before picking it up and dropping it into the bin. A light mist was falling and the street lights glowed dimly through the shroud of drizzle. He shivered and turned the collar of his uniform up a little. He glanced towards the building. The doors were firmly closed and the curtains were drawn.
“Here, throw this out for me, will ya?” Alex was leaning out the car window, the empty pizza box in his hand.
As Eric got back into the car and pulled the door closed Alex burped and farted simultaneously, loudly and fragrantly. Eric grimaced. Oblivious to his companion’s distaste, Alex took the sheaf of documents from the dashboard and flicked through the papers. He hummed under his breath. Eric watched as Alex's greasy fingers left orange-colored stains on the pages.
“She’s a bit of a looker,” Alex commented. He was staring at the page printed with an image of Krystal Lee, tonight’s assignment. “I wouldn’t mind introducing her to a bit of corruption and debauchery myself.”
“Chrissake Alex, she’s seventeen years old. Get your mind out of your pants. We have a job to do. It has to be done efficiently and effectively. No room for error or diversions. And pass me the air freshener. The car reeks of pizza and stomach contents. It's making me feel ill.” Eric bent his head to peer through the window at the building they were watching. “No sign of any movement in there.”
Alex yawned widely, the action exaggerated. “God it’s boring, all this waiting. Why do we need two of us anyway?” He squirted a few sprays of Nil-Odor towards the dashboard, the droplets hanging in the air for a moment before settling on the faux leather trim.
Eric sighed. He picked up his hat from the back seat and placed it on his head. He checked his reflection in the rear vision mirror. “It's a safety factor. I’ve already explained. If it’s too boring for you, you don’t have to come out again. I can find myself another partner.”
Alex turned the rear vision mirror towards himself to pick at a piece of pepperoni caught between his teeth. "Nah, it’s alright. I can do with the extra dollars.”
Eric glanced at the time and picked up his phone. He scrolled through the list to find the contact and texted a message: “Due to enter building to collect Krystal Lee. Thank you for choosing Eric’s Professional Taxi Services, the secure personal collection and superior safety transport service for your teenage son or daughter.”
“Pass me Krystal’s photo, Alex. I’ll never find her among all those giggling teenagers otherwise. Back in a minute. And put your hat on. This is a professional organization.”
Dr. Heller never mentioned his problem, but everyone at the clinic knew about it. We were shocked by how normal he acted afterwards. He didn’t even take a sick leave or anything. A couple of days after his incident, Judy decides to bring in a vase of flowers for his office, some ugly artificial thing with a heavy cluster of lilies and roses and ferns. Dr. Heller thanks her and sticks his face in them and we all laugh because we think he's fucking with us. Turns out, he thought they were real.
Judy later discovers him in his office and we can hear her screams throughout the building.
The clinic is in a state of excitement, the staff milling around. Everyone keeps saying that he was fine all morning. We keep saying, how could this have happened. We keep talking about what we could have looked for, the warning signs. We repeat how much we miss him. A get-well card circulates around the clinic and everyone signs it from their hierarchical order of importance—the surgeons, anesthesiologists, RNs, the receptionists, even the fat, ugly custodian who only creeps in after everyone leaves for the day.
We draw lots to elect a person to go visit him. Our clinic’s been a family for more than ten years and is heavily involved in each other’s lives. We take care of our own. (Only the receptionists get recycled out every so often for newer, younger candidates. We take pride in appearances here.) Also, everyone is dying for more news about the late and great doctor.
No one volunteers to go, so we draw lots. I get chosen. They all clap my back and say, sucks to suck.
He is a beautiful man. His forehead is taut, his eyes etch upwards at the corners. The sides of his nose are perfectly symmetrical lines. With a ruler, you can measure the alignment of his eyes to his ears. Even now, hunched forward with his shoulders drawn up so he looks like a turtle receding into a shell, his flesh is smooth and hard like plastic. He adjusts his position over the edge of the bench as if uncomfortable, and his hands are spread claws digging into the wood.
Smile Dr. Heller, I say and lean closer to him. I take a picture of us on my phone, me with a huge smile and Dr. Heller looking lost.
The sun is out, but it’s cold. The sunshine deceives us. We sit on a bench on the lawn. His personal caregiver is in a chair a few yards away from us and glances at us over the cover of her book.
He is wealthy enough to have escaped the indignity of sanitariums, where they throw together the psychotic and the mentally ill indiscriminately. He has that small mercy for him. His wife is filing for divorce now, I hear, and will soon have sole custody of the kids and house, a substantial fortune built upon the splicing and reconstruction of flesh. Maybe this is his punishment for tampering with natures works, sullied as they are. Maybe this is punishment for playing God.
I take his face with my hands and kiss him. I feel his perfectly sculpted lips with my tongue.
It’s ok, Dr. Heller.
You’ll get over this.
Everyone at the clinic misses you.
Remember Mrs. Lebowitz? She threw a fit when we told her you went on vacation. She says no other doctor in the city does skin as good as you.
It’s dark when I leave. The neighborhood is unsettling in its quiet, undisturbed by traffic or people. I miss the dirty mess and the noise of the city. The stars are like dim, sad echoes of the city lights.
But, if I crane my head, I can see the city lights glow like a distant fire.
The wind whistles harshly through the top of the pines, a strange and eerie sound from down here, close to the sand, where only the slightest of breezes ruffles my hair. I'm not wearing any footwear. My jandals lie discarded outside the back door of the bach. My only focus had been on getting away from the claustrophobic confines of the cabin, where the children screamed and fought with one another, and the mosquitoes swooped and whined, and my partner sat silent and glowering. This holiday was nothing close to what I had expected, but I should have known better than to build expectations. I had set myself up for failure from the outset.
The cool silkiness of the sand is a surprise. My feet harbor a memory of sand the temperature of an oven, burning and gritty and painful. I'm not sure what to do with this alternative sensation. I dig my toes in, seeking the heat of the day, but I find nothing but more coolness and an almost damp earthiness. I can hear Jase, my son, screaming in rage from the bach on the dunes. I move further away. Mike can deal with him. I'm on holiday too. I deserve a break.
I can see the ocean now. I've been able to hear the sound of the tides since I left the bach. The waves roll in relentlessly with a hiss and a whoosh. The sea looks pretty by the light of the moon. Different. I could be in another world. My toe stubs against a piece of driftwood and I jump away, memories of the prickly and horrifying carcass of a dead hedgehog still too close to my thoughts.
I sit down on the white expanse of the sea-washed log at the top of the high-tide line. I dig my toes again into the cool sand, spreading then out before scrunching them in again. The wind in the pines howls behind me. I can no longer hear the kids. The waves suck and pull at the tiny particles of sand on the shore. The moon lays its benign light across the smooth waters of the ocean, out past the waves, where the sea appears as innocuous and flat as a lily pond.
Lulled into a false state of meditation, I don't notice the splash for a minute or two. My subconsciousness finally registers the sound and relays it to my conscious. As if in a dream, I turn my head, sluggish and slow. The dead walk out of the sea, their steps laborious and stilted. Hung with seaweed and stiff arms reaching for salvation, their moans drown out the sound of the pines.
My conscious mind screams RUN! My meditative self remains still and watches with interest. With painful determination, the dead raises one decaying leg after another and slowly emerges from the waves. As one, the dead turn their heads on flimsy and tattered necks and fix dark and empty eye sockets upon me. I envy their simple dedication to their task. I had desired a break rife with explicit simplicity. Instead, I got crying children and an unresponsive partner. I watch as the dead move across the sands towards me, their souls hungry and murderously focused. In a few short steps, they will reach me.
RUN! My conscious mind is already at the top of the sand dunes, gesturing frantically for me to join her. I sit a moment longer. The dead, bringing with them no thoughts or dependents, are peaceful and free. They have what I need.
RUN! BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE! I stand up slowly, my movements leaden and heavy. The stench of the dead reaches my nostrils - rancid and stinging, tinged with sulfur. I finally wake with a start. Without further thought, I plow through the grasping cold sands of the beach towards the calamitous and claustrophobic safety of the bach.