“Weekend before last,” Denny says, “I’d driven home. Didn’t tell anyone I was going. Planned to meet Mom and Kath at the mall by the river.
“I got to the food court first. Busy. Lots of people. I bought a sandwich, found a table, and was just digging in when I saw this woman. Big. Linebacker big. No neck, but head and shoulders above anyone else standing at the time. Came straight up to my table and sucked every bit of oxygen out of the room. Nobody else seemed to notice the sudden vacuum. Maybe I’m just sensitive to it.”
“What did she look like?” says Benn around a mouthful.
“Like that old trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie,” Denny says without missing the proverbial beat. “Her cheeks were blown out like that. Her entire face was, really, but her features were all crushed together in the middle. Lips squeezed into a bow-tie pucker. Broad, flat nose. Didn’t look like she could breathe through it. Tiny, close-set, ball bearing eyes. Shark eyes. No eyebrows.
“Black. Did I mention that? Like obsidian-black black. Head shaved smooth except for a pile of bright red hair on top all bunched together with a scünci. Like a shock of flaming wheat. Bazooms like a truck bumper. Front-ass like a snowplow. Bulging back fat, hips to here, balloon-butt, cankles…”
“I am so sorry Benn asked you what she looked like,” I say. “Please stop.”
“Overall,” he sounds like he’s summing up, “she looked like she was smuggling medicine balls inside three layered tank tops and pink stretch pants. I seriously didn’t know whether to laugh in her face, shit my pants, or do both and hope security was already on the way.
“Oh, and her feet…”
“Oh, for the love of God! I don’t want to know this!”
Denny sighs. “She just sort of loomed over the table. Looked me up and down like I was a pork chop. Plunked a little groznic down in the middle of the table, about the size of a pack of cards. Told me to leave it alone. Even her voice sounded fat. Then she shambled away, jostling chairs, tables, people… making herself conspicuous. Shouldered her way into the line at the Sbarro counter. While everyone was watching the show, the midget climbed into the chair beside me.
“I can only imagine the expression on my face. He called me by name. Said I was not hallucinating and there was no need to draw attention to ourselves by making a show. So, I pulled it in. We shook hands. You know what? His fingers really are like sausages.
“He talked some. Braden is his name, by the way. Braden Fane. He only said it once and didn’t leave a business card. Seemed worth remembering. He told me to hang on to the little device the behemoth left on the table.
“There was a commotion over at the Sbarro counter and he was gone. I think I caught a glimpse of him once between the tables. Maybe. Gone is the operative word. The Hulk stalked off in another direction and Mom and Kath showed up all of half a minute later.”
Denny stops talking and searches my face a while. I can wait. He hasn’t touched his birthday feast-in-a-bowl, but he finishes off his coffee and sets the mug aside.
“I told you that story so I could tell you this one,” he says.
Benn levers his chair into a recline.
“I got a text from him the next day. Your guess how. He asked to meet me whenever, wherever I choose and I thought, what could it possibly matter now? I mean, in terms of my privacy and personal security. All that’s been breached now by what appears a flesh-and-blood breathing human being in the exact image of someone I met in a dream… or a vision, or a psychotic episode. I don’t know, Erica. What do you want to call it now?”
“I can let it go if you will.”
He nods. “I thought, what difference if I meet him in a crowded place or an empty lot in the dead of night? In for a penny, you know? I either trust in what’s happening and embrace it or go hide until it’s over. So, I invited him to my apartment. That evening. Him and Abbey. That’s her name.”
“Abbey what?” from the peanut gallery. “Normal?”
“Yes, I know I’ve painted her in an unflattering light. I meant to do that. See, this time they showed up together and I didn’t even recognize her.
“Braden was the same: short, charismatic, casually impeccable. But towering over him and me both was this… I’m sorry, I’ve been searching for a word to describe this creature. Goddess is a little dramatic, but closer to the mark than ‘tall, strikingly handsome woman’. Same obsidian flesh as the kaiju I’d seen the day before, same red hair, only luxurious now, and… terrifying, once I realized who or what I was seeing.”
“You’re sure it was her?”
“Good question. When you meet her, look in her eyes.”
“Maybe you were dreaming again,” Benn says.
“You’re really not helping,” I tell Benn and, to Denny, “Go on. Benn and I are done interrupting you now. Aren’t we Benn?”
He shoves a deliberate spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. “Mmm hmm.”
“We talked,” Denny says. “Braden and I did. Abbey doesn’t say much. Braden showed me some stuff. I showed him some stuff. Then Abbey showed me some stuff with my own stuff and that’s pretty much when I stopped sleeping.
“I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening to me. Around me. I realized that others swept up in this, like yourselves, might be trying to understand and make decisions about what’s happening to and around them as well and what to do about it.
“I’ve involved you this far because I needed to process what’s happening with me and because I… trust you. I didn’t know if I could withstand it alone. I didn’t know anything. And then I knew too much. Now you do too.
“You didn’t ask for this and I’m not oblivious to your plight, either of you. I’m sorry you’re in it now up to your…”
I grip Denny’s shoulders and turn him until we have eye contact.
“Are you shitting me? Plight?! You and Benn are the most interesting people I’ve met in the last,” I pretend to count on my fingers, “twelve years. And you’re sorry?! This isn’t all about you, you know.”
“I thought you weren’t going to interrupt me anymore.”
“. . .”
“I saw Abbey again this morning,” he says.
“Which one?” Benn says. Apparently, the entire non-interruption contract has been abandoned without pretense.
Denny’s face is reliving that moment only a few hours distant. I thought he had appeared haunted before.
“I was taking trash out to the street and she was pushing a shopping cart up the sidewalk. A crone, withered onto the graceful frame I’d seen last, twisted, and wrapped in a shawl. She looked ancient. Braden was sleeping in the cart, bundled up on a bed of blankets. No, really. Sound asleep. Peaceful.
“Remember before, I said her voice sounded ‘fat’? This morning it was wind churning dry leaves in a culvert. She said Braden wants to talk to all of us after we look at this.” Denny indicates the laptop screen. “I would add, of course, only if you choose to do so. I have not presumed your level of commitment to this whatever-it-is we’ve done here beyond this point.”
I hear the words he’s saying. They have a certain peculiar kind of continuity; I’ll give them that. If I didn’t know he wasn’t making it all up, I’d be a lot less agitated by it. I have questions.
“You said she said, ‘all of us’. How do they know about ‘all of us’?”
“I think you mean, how do they know about you.”
“How do they know about me?”
“Remember that quantum experience’ you mentioned a few minutes ago?”
“Doesn’t really explain it.”
“It kind of does, unless you want to have it both ways. I’ve never spoken of you. Braden hasn’t asked me questions about you, but he speaks of you as a matter of fact. And Benn.”
“Benn’s hardly a mystery.”
“I am too!”
Apparently, I’m not the mystery I think I am either.
“Given the unique circumstances of the last weeks, not to mention current events, I’m willing to give some latitude to my misgivings. And you. So, let’s see it.”
“Remember the whizbang you were invited to take home with you from that first meeting? It’s in your pocket right now, isn’t it?”
I tap out an up-tempo paradiddle on the cajón until he shows it to me.
It looks like a flip-phone, but sleek like flip-phones weren’t then. Or ever. It doesn’t open up like a flip-phone either. He puts it on the workbench between us.
“That’s not the deal just now. This is.” He redirects my attention to the laptop. “The night Braden and Abbey came to my place, Abbey shaped it herself from a stillpoint I made. In real time. No STM, no tools, no gimmick.”
“How do you know? Maybe she prestidigitated it.”
“Maybe,” Denny says. “First time I’ve seen it like this too.”
“Do you know what it is?”
I want to look, and I know when I do, I will know something new that will challenge some of my cherished biases, a holographic moment to change my perspective and, with it, everything. I am not sure I want that much understanding.
And, you know, how can I not?