A squeak, a complaint of old wood and tired metal forced together by the weight of a footstep on the seventh tread of the outer stair, alerts me to an approach. I haven’t invited anyone to drop by.
A second creak and grate, much like the first, suggests not only are there two persons about to reach the upper landing—a precarious proposition at best—but that neither is concerned about stealth. Four jarring blows to the cheap, hollow-core barrier between myself and the outside world intrude upon my already divided concentration.
“This is the Eff Bee Eye!” says a voice loud, firm, and authoritative. “Open the door, Ms. Cozinki. We have you surrounded.”
“You got the wrong address. Cozinki lives in the dump over the garage next street over.”
“No mistake, Ms. Cozinki.”
“The place is a mess and I’m busy. Go away.”
“We can do this easy, or we can do it hard.”
I brush aside the magnifier on its swing arm, switch off the fusing tool, and sleeve it. The stool top swivels me toward the door.
“I’m not decent.”
“Don’t make us use the gas.”
It’s not exactly a short walk to the door. I kick a pizza box and a couple fair-sized clumps of packing material out of my path. There’s a sweatshirt in the dish drainer that’s at least a three out of five and I shrug into it. It’s suitably baggy and hangs discretely to mid-thigh. Emblazoned on the front is a tender sentiment:
LEAVES AT NOON
BE UNDER IT
I have to yank the door against a customary resistance. It swings inward with a metallic protest. I hadn’t noticed it was pouring rain, but the two men on the landing, without benefit of an awning, have a bedraggled, stray-like appearance. I motion them inside.
“Benn, you know you’re not capable of disguising your voice, right?”
Benn’s a ropey, wholesome-looking boy. He’s got a warm smile for me and it feels nice. Denny looks haggard, his face hollow beneath grizzled stubble. The silver in it is new. His eyes are bright with excitement, though. We exchange air-hugs as he steps past me.
Both shuck off their hats and saturated outerwear, hanging them behind the door on hooks that were already there when I moved in. Handy.
I pull a hand towel off the refrigerator door handle and toss it underneath their coats to catch the runoff. Standing water makes the laminate flooring warp. It’s not so much the appearance I’m concerned about, as it is my cleaning and damage deposit. Besides, it was time to change that towel out anyway.
“What brings you boys out on a glorious afternoon like this?”
“We missed your company.” Denny says. He’s already halfway to the end of the kitchen counter where my STM’s framework is bolted to shock pads—you know, like you do.
“You look like hell,” I say to his back.
He’s pulling on nitrile gloves with a snap. “Pot. Kettle.”
He wakes the coffee maker and worries off one shoe with his other foot. Then the other. He slips through the triple plastic drape surrounding the equipment, his hands moving across the surfaces, caressing them, activating primary power, component systems, laptop interface. I feel more than hear the compressor under our feet come on-line.
“You’re contaminating my space with your sloppy protocols.”
Benn plops a damp, doubled, brown paper shopping bag in my hands, bulging with booty.
“And you,” I tell him. “I’m wary of geeks bearing gifts.”
“The Trojan Bag ploy only works if Denny and I can both get inside it. Besides, the ruse is pointless once we’re already at large within your gates.” He fixes me with an ominous look. “We have you surrounded.” He nods, indicating Denny, a specter behind the drape, oblivious. “You should surrender now.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
My hands are full, so I tip my head toward Denny. “What’s going on? Where’s he been?”
“I don’t know. Holed up for days. I figured he was emulating you, or something, and let him be. Couple hours ago, he called and said we were coming to see you.”
“I have a phone too, you know.”
“We knew you’d be here.”
He begins to extract items from the bag.
“You’ll probably want to save these for later,” he says, presenting me with two twelve-packs of Pepsis in tiny aluminum cans. Sweetened with real sugar, not corn syrup. Not even ten ounces. I call them ‘shots’. I don’t know why I crave that carbonation after-burn so much. But sugar? No mystery there. And no, we still haven’t converted to metric yet, stubbornly hanging on to our medieval standard.
Benn sets the shots aside and digs a bit deeper, producing an economy-sized air freshener with a handy pistol-grip sprayer, pressing it into my hands with a head-tilt.
“Oh, no you didn’t.”
He looks surprised and innocent and adorable, but mostly innocent.
“You don’t invite yourselves over and then criticize my environment’s carefully modulated atmosphere. That’s just impolite and I resent the implication.”
“Gosh, ma’am, I sure didn’t…”
“That delicate fragrance to which you so disrespectfully allude is a painstakingly faithful recreation of one my great grandfather developed in France during double-you double-you one, called eau de bee oh—which, by the way, I intend to begin marketing under the brand name, Gymnasium Number Five; patent and trademark pending.”
“Sounds divine. Regardless, the ambiance will benefit from a good spritzing before we open these,” he says. Both hands in the sack now, he pauses, real dramatic like.
“We had neither the time nor cumulative experience between us to bake a cake, so we sincerely hope this will do.” He withdraws an unopened package of Oreos, a half-gallon carton of milk, and two pints of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.
Nobody swoons anymore. Have you noticed that?
“Happy birthday, Erica.” He stacks them on the counter. “Hey, Den, where’d you put the candles?”
Denny’s voice is muffled behind the plastic barrier. “Thought you had ’em.”
“This is… I don’t know, catastrophic or something.”
I’m still holding the paper sack in both hands.
“Anyway, we got this for you too.” Benn dredges a final package from the bag.
It’s wrapped in plastic. We affect an exchange.
He crumples the brown paper into a wad. It traces a high arc over his shoulder, tips off the rim of the trash can, and joins the general strew around the base.
“Good effort,” I tell him.
I can hear as well as feel the STM’s vacuum pump thrum to life beneath us.
Benn fixes an expectant gaze on the gift in my hands. It’s flat and narrow and doesn’t look particularly dangerous, slipping out of the plastic into my hands. An expedient gift-wrapping of newsprint and strapping tape proves resistant. I worry a slit under the paper with a ragged fingernail and it peels away from a top-of-the-line e-reader tablet. Books and pictures and music and video in a cargo pocket-sized hand-held. It looks new, no fingerprints or wear on the touchscreen either.
“You shouldn’t have,” I say, thumbing the tablet’s oh en button.
I think everybody says that when they clearly don’t mean it. I don’t; they totally should have.
Denny shoulders through the plastic drapes with the STM’s notebook interface in one hand. He snags a steaming cup from the coffeebot with the other and steers his way across the room toward the workbench.
“I practically stole it from some sport in Portland on Craig’s List,” he says. “It’s clean and I eclipsed the after-market tracking, of course, so you don’t have to.”
“You know me so well.”
Benn gives my shoulder a brotherly pat. “We did pre-load it with some tasty subject matter, though.”
I bring up the content menu with reservation, relieved to discover it’s not hyper-realistic Japanese tentacle porn.
“It’s Calvin and Hobbes,” I say with what I pray did not sound anything like a sob.
I know they know it’s not really my birthday. I think I have something in my eyes.
“Would you boys excuse me a minute?”
“Take your time,” Denny mutters, preoccupied again.
I clip the oh en switch of the stereo receiver on my way into the bathroom closet just for some radio noise. I don’t mind if they can hear me blow my nose, but I gotta pee, too.
Instead of music, though, I’m at the “we’ll be right back after these messages” leading edge of what will be several minutes of tedious, poorly produced local commercial content: enthusiastic, rapid-fire patter, uninspired jingles, and none of it adequate for my immediate needs.
I twist a spigot to run some water in the sink. A familiar shudder of the pipes is followed by a gasp of air cleared before the flow. I call ’em sink-farts. I wonder if they’ll think I made that noise.
Running water serves a secondary purpose, I suppose, as it takes a while for hot water to work its way up from the tank in the space below. By the time it does, its temperature’s sufficient to liquefy flesh. I temper it from the other tap and scrub my hands and face.
Reaching for a towel, I catch my reflection in the hazy mirror and wish I hadn’t. I also wish I hadn’t wiped it for a better look. I look like a carnie in a bally show pitched on the boulevard to the Gates of Hell. My complexion, particularly in this fluorescent light, is best described as ‘pasty’.
I know I’m not pretty. I have an unusual face. It’s not gross or anything, but it’s definitely my own. The bulky sweatshirt I’m wearing easily obscures what was once deemed a satisfactory, if minimalist figure. Not so much right now. Also, it’s been some time since I shaved my legs and…
Why am I looking at myself in the mirror again wondering if I have crud between my teeth?
I twist the spigots closed with a jerk. It makes the old pipes bang into an interstitial radio silence. I scrub my face again, harder. Maybe it’ll bring some pink back into my cheeks for a couple minutes anyway. I can’t do much about the hair; they’ve already seen me. I search the astonished face staring back at me.
“Who are you and what have you done with me?” she says. I hook a thumb at the door and she leaves.
It appears Benn’s given up looking for clean bowls and decided to wash some he found in the sink. The closest thing to a dish towel is under their coats, so he’s bunched up paper towels to swab the bowls out. He chucks the soggy glob at the wide-mouth a good twelve feet away and, just like that, he’s one for two.
I hit the oh ef ef switch on the receiver just in time to squelch a standard Grateful Dead impersonation of a garage band. I dig a pair of jeans out of a pile and shimmy into them. I’m buttoning the fly and look up to see Benn with the carton of milk in one hand, tumbler in the other.
“Are you wearing a merkin?” he asks, like he’s just wondering where the spoons are kept.
“Are you trying to get frisky with me?”
His face says this is the first time that’s ever occurred to him. He lifts carton and glass in his hands and says, “Do you want milk with your cookies?”
I pluck the bottle of air freshener from the counter with a grumble and apply it to the less genteel corners of the room, away from the ‘birthday feast’ and sensitive electronics. Also, as a supplementary measure, I give a couple shots under the sink.
I’m afraid I’ve become inured to the odors I’ve spawned around me over time, but I can detect the difference immediately. It’s actually kind of pleasant. Not floral, more like clean linens or something. Huh.
A couple shots at the wide-mouth couldn’t hurt either before I put the unnatural thing away again.
Denny’s leaning in over the notebook. I can’t see the screen, but I know he’s prepped and staged his sample in the machine, fussing now, positioning the probe so we can view whatever it is. Precision work by a quick study. I don’t believe I could have done it better.
Benn’s melting ice cream over the Oreos in the microwave. I capsize the heavy duffle onto a relatively unoccupied section of floor space and roll the chair into another for his comfort and viewing ease. Who says I’m not a considerate hostess?
Meanwhile he’s capped the milk and opens the refrigerator to put the carton inside. If I’d been paying closer attention, I suppose I could have warned him.
“Hey, Erica. What is that?”
“A science project?”
“Mesmerizing, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s… wait. No. It’s got pseudopods.”
“Hold on. Erica, is it trying to climb out of the bowl?”
“Yeah. See, the light tends to agitate it. You should probably close the door now.”
“Wh…? It can SEE?!”
He’s still staring at it. “Jesus CHRIST!”
“You’re starting to piss it off.”
I think it’s a real testament to Benn’s character that he’s able to ease the door closed instead of slamming it shut and rearranging all my condiments. He leans his back against it, breathing. I’m not sure if he’s pantomiming or not.
“I had no idea your sensibilities were so delicate, little fella. Here. Try not to think about it.”
I lift my sweatshirt up over my boobs, give him two seconds and a smile, retrieve my bowl, and leave him to reboot his operating system.
Denny’s scooched the barstool over to his corner of the workbench and settled into it. The view into the microverse beckons. I haul my cajón over beside him and sit down on it.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Tell me what you think it is first.”
“I mean you. What is it with you? You’ve been a ghost for almost two weeks. What, are you dying or something?”
“You have no idea how disturbing you look, do you?”
There is a depth in his eyes difficult to interpret.
“Never mind. You’ve arranged this get-together, and I have no doubt, like last time, you’re going to show us something else stupefying. I mean, it’s not like we’re used to it yet.”
“You’ve got to admit, that last one was pretty impressive,” Benn says.
Denny’s gaze seems impassive, coming from a greater distance than the few feet between us. I touch his sleeve and give his arm a squeeze.
“Cone of silence,” I say.
Benn’s sprawled in the chair where I parked it for him, feet up, bowl in one hand, mouth full. He makes a winding motion in the air with his spoon. Denny turns back and searches my eyes, as if the words he’s looking for are in there.
“I’ve been afraid to sleep. Afraid everything will have changed when I open my eyes.”
There’s an analog clock on the wall above the trashcan and, if I had replaced the battery a couple months ago, I could’ve watched it ticking off seconds into dead air right now.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” is all I can think of to say. I want to ask him if that means everything might change for him alone, or for all of us. “Has anything changed yet?”
“How would I know?”
“Well, you’d probably be the only one who would.”
“Odd how that doesn’t help me feel better.”
“We’re all still here so far. That seems promising.”
I can see him sifting words and stringing them together.
“Remember the midget from my dream?” he says.
“I met him.”
Now it’s my turn to try stringing words together. They pile up on top of each other like vehicles on the curve of an ice-glazed freeway. The first few to work their way past the jam are not the most conversationally useful. I know it as they come out anyway.
“The proper term is ‘dwarf’,” I say, “and it wasn’t a dream.”
“Yes, it was.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Are we going to do this again?”
“It was a dream, Erica. Dream-Benner even told me so.”
“Are you even hearing yourself? You had a quantum experience…”
“MIDGET!” Benn’s shout is a thespian’s exclamation, clear all the way in the back row.
Denny’s head and mine turn in unison.
Benn takes a slug of milk and wipes the froth on his sleeve. “The midget. Finish your story, Den. I don’t know about her, but the suspense is killin’ me.”
Denny’s stool rotates so he can look at us both. This close to him, he seems feral. So, I scoot back to give the man some space, and he tells us this story.