EDITOR’S NOTE: We are thrilled to present Kelly Link’s weird and wonderful short story “Lull,” with special permission by the author. “Lull” copyright ©2002 was first published in Conjunctions 39 and reprinted in Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners (Random House, 2014).
There was a lull in the conversation. We were down in the basement, sitting around the green felt table. We were holding bottles of warm beer in one hand, and our cards in the other. Our cards weren’t great. Looking at each others’ faces, we could see that clearly.
We were tired. It made us more tired to look at each other when we saw we weren’t getting away with anything at all. We didn’t have any secrets.
We hadn’t seen each other for a while and it was clear that we hadn’t changed for the better. We were between jobs, or stuck in jobs that we hated. We were having affairs and our wives knew and didn’t care. Some of us were sleeping with each others’ wives. There were things that had gone wrong, and we weren’t sure who to blame.
We had been talking about things that went backwards instead of forwards. Things that managed to do both at the same time. Time travelers. People who weren’t stuck like us. There was that new movie that went backwards, and then Jeff put this music on the stereo where all the lyrics were palindromes. It was something his kid had picked up. His kid Stan was a lot cooler than we had ever been. He was always bringing things home, Jeff said, saying, You have got to listen to this. Here, try this. These guys are good.
Stan was the kid who got drugs for the other kids when there was going to be a party. We had tried not to be bothered by this. We trusted our kids and we hoped that they trusted us, that they weren’t too embarrassed by us. We weren’t cool. We were willing to be liked. That would have been enough.
Stan was so very cool that he hadn’t even minded taking care of some of us, the parents of his friends (the friends of his parents), although sometimes we just went through our kids’ drawers, looked under the mattresses. It wasn’t that different from taking Halloween candy out of their Halloween bags, which was something we had also done, when they were younger and went to bed before we did.
Stan wasn’t into that stuff now, though. None of the kids were. They were into music instead.
You couldn’t get this music on CD. That was part of the conceit. It came only on cassette. You played one side, and then on the other side the songs all played backwards and the lyrics went forwards and backwards all over again in one long endless loop. La allah ha llal. Do, oh, oh, do you, oh do, oh, wanna?
Bones was really digging it. “Do you, do you wanna dance, you do, you do,” he said, and laughed and tipped his chair back. “Snakey canes. Hula boolah.”
Someone mentioned the restaurant downtown where you were supposed to order your dessert and then you got your dinner.
“I fold,” Ed said. He threw his cards down on the table.
Ed liked to make up games. People paid him to make up games. Back when we had a regular poker night, he was always teaching us a new game and this game would be based on a TV show or some dream he’d had.
“Let’s try something new. I’m going to deal out everything, the whole deck, and then we’ll have to put it all back. We’ll see each other’s hands as we put them down. We’re going for low. And we’ll swap. Yeah, that might work. Something else, like a wild card, but we won’t know what the wild card was, until the very end. We’ll need to play fast—no stopping to think about it—just do what I tell you to do.”
“What’ll we call it?” he said, not a question, but as if we’d asked him, although we hadn’t. He was shuffling the deck, holding the cards close like we might try to take them away. “DNA Hand. Got it?”
“That’s a shitty idea,” Jeff said. It was his basement, his poker table, his beer. So he got to say things like that. You could tell that he thought Ed looked happier than he ought to. He was thinking Ed ought to remember his place in the world, or maybe Ed needed to be reminded what his place was. His new place. Most of us were relieved to see that Ed looked okay. If he didn’t look okay, that was okay too. We understood. Bad things had happened to all of us.
We were contemplating these things and then the tape flips over and starts again.
It’s catchy stuff. We could listen to it all night.
“Now we chant along and summon the Devil,” Bones says. “Always wanted to do that.”
Bones has been drunk for a while now. His hair is standing up and his face is shiny and red. He has a fat stupid smile on his face. We ignore him, which is what he wants. Bones’s wife is just the same, loud and useless. The thing that makes the rest of us sick is that their kids are the nicest, smartest, funniest, best kids. We can’t figure it out. They don’t deserve kids like that.
Brenner asks Ed if he’s found a new place to live. He has.
“Off the highway, down by that Texaco, in the orchards. This guy built a road and built the house right on top of the road. Just, plop, right in the middle of the road. Kind of like he came walking up the road with the house on his back, got tired, and just dropped it.”
“Not very good feng shui,” Pete says.
Pete has read a book. He’s got a theory about picking up women, which he’s always sharing with us. He goes to Barnes & Noble on his lunch hour and hangs around in front of displays of books about houses and decorating, skimming through architecture books. He says it makes you look smart and just domesticated enough. A man looking at pictures of houses is sexy to women.
We’ve never asked if it works for him.
Meanwhile, we know, Pete’s wife is always after him to go up on the roof and gut the drains, reshingle and patch, paint. Pete isn’t really into this. Imaginary houses are sexy. Real ones are work.
He did go buy a mirror at Pottery Barn and hang it up, just inside the front door, because otherwise, he said, evil spirits go rushing up the staircase and into the bedrooms. Getting them out again is tricky.
The way the mirror works is that they start to come in, look in the mirror, and think a devil is already living in the house. So they take off. Devils can look like anyone—salespeople, Latter-day Saints, the people who mow your lawns—even members of your own family. So you have to have a mirror.
Ed says, “Where the house is, is the first weird thing. The second thing is the house. It’s like this team of architects went crazy and sawed two different houses in half and then stitched them back together. Casa Del Guggenstein. The front half is really old—a hundred years old—the other half is aluminum siding.”
“Must have brought down the asking price,” Jeff says.
“Yeah,” Ed says. “And the other thing is there are all these doors. One at the front and one at the back and two more on either side, right smack where the aluminum siding starts, these weird, tall, skinny doors, like they’re built for basketball players. Or aliens.”
“Or palm trees,” Bones says.
“Yeah,” Ed says. “Sure. Palm trees. And then one last door, this vestigial door, up in the master bedroom. Not like a door that you walk through, for a closet, or a bathroom. It opens and there’s nothing there. No staircase, no balcony, no point to it. It’s a Tarzan door. Up in the trees. You open it and an owl might fly in. Or a bat. The previous tenant left that door locked—apparently he was afraid of sleepwalking.”
“Fantastic,” Brenner says. “Wake up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom, you could just pee out the side of your house.”
He opens up the last beer and shakes some pepper in it. Brenner has a thing about pepper. He even puts it on ice cream. Pete swears that one time at a party he wandered into Brenner’s bedroom and looked in a drawer in a table beside the bed. He says he found a box of condoms and a pepper mill. When we asked what he was doing in Brenner’s bedroom, he winked and then put his finger to his mouth and zipped his lip.
Brenner has a little pointed goatee. It might look silly on some people, but not on Brenner. The pepper thing sounds silly, maybe, but not even Jeff teases Brenner about it.
“I remember that house,” Alibi says.
We call him Alibi because his wife is always calling to check up on him. She’ll say, So was Alec out shooting pool with you the other night, and we’ll say, Sure he was, Gloria. The problem is that sometimes Alibi has told her some completely different story and she’s just testing us. But that’s not our problem and that’s not our fault. She never holds it against us and neither does he.
“We used to go up in the orchards at night and have wars. Knock each other down with rotten apples. There were these peacocks. You bought the orchard house?”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “I need to do something about the orchard. All the apples are falling off the trees and then they just rot on the ground. The peacocks eat them and get drunk. There are drunk wasps, too. If you go down there you can see the wasps hurtling around in these loopy lines and the peacocks grab them right out of the air. Little pickled wasp hors d’oeuvres. Everything smells like rotting apples. All night long, I’m dreaming about eating wormy apples.”
For a second, we’re afraid Ed might tell us his dreams. Nothing is worse than someone telling you their dreams.
“So what’s the deal with the peacocks?” Bones says.
“Long story,” Ed says.
So you know how the road to the house is a private road, you turn off the highway onto it, and it meanders up some until you run into the house. Some day I’ll drive home and park the car in the living room.
There’s a big sign that says private. But people still drive up the turnoff, lost, or maybe looking for a picnic spot, or a place to pull off the road and fuck. Before you hear the car coming, you hear the peacocks. Which was the plan because this guy who built it was a real hermit, a recluse.
People in town said all kinds of stuff about him. Nobody knew. He didn’t want anybody to know.
The peacocks were so he would know when anyone was coming up to the house. They start screaming before you ever see a car. So remember, out the back door, the road goes on down through the orchards, there’s a gate and then you’re back on the main highway again. And this guy, the hermit, he kept two cars. Back then, nobody had two cars. But he kept one car parked in front of the house and one parked at the back so that whichever way someone was coming, he could go out the other way real fast and drive off before his visitor got up to the house.
He had an arrangement with a grocer. The grocer sent a boy up to the house once every two weeks, and the boy brought the mail too, but there wasn’t ever any mail.
The hermit had painted in the windows of his cars, black, except for these little circles that he could see out of. You couldn’t see in. But apparently he used to drive around at night. People said they saw him. Or they didn’t see him. That was the point.
The real estate agent said she heard that once this guy had to go to the doctor. He had a growth or something. He showed up in the doctor’s office wearing a woman’s hat with a long black veil that hung down from the crown, so you couldn’t see his face. He took off his clothes in the doctor’s office and kept the hat on.
One night half of the house fell down. People all over the town saw lights, like fireworks or lightning, up over the orchard. Some people swore they saw something big, all lit up, go up into the sky, like an explosion, but quiet. Just lights. The next day, people went up to the orchard. The hermit was waiting for them—he had his veil on. From the front, the house looked fine. But you could tell something had caught fire. You could smell it, like ozone.
The hermit said it had been lightning. He rebuilt the house himself. Had lumber and everything delivered. Apparently kids used to go sneak up in the trees in the orchard and watch him while he was working, but he did all the work wearing the hat and the veil.
He died a long time ago. The grocer’s boy figured out something was wrong because the peacocks were coming in and out of the windows of the house and screaming.
So now they’re still down in the orchards and under the porch, and they still came in the windows and made a mess if Ed forgot and left the windows open too wide. Last week a fox came in after a peacock. You wouldn’t think a fox would go after something so big and mean. Peacocks are mean.
Ed had been downstairs watching TV.
“I heard the bird come in,” he says, “and then I heard a thump and a slap like a chair going over and when I went to look, there was a streak of blood going up the floor to the window. A fox was going out the window and the peacock was in its mouth, all the feathers dragging across the sill. Like one of Susan’s paintings.”
Ed’s wife, Susan, took an art class for a while. Her teacher said she had a lot of talent. Brenner modeled for her, and so did some of our kids, but most of Susan’s paintings were portraits of her brother, Andrew. He’d been living with Susan and Ed for about two years. This was hard on Ed, although he’d never complained about it. He knew Susan loved her brother. He knew her brother had problems.
Andrew couldn’t hold down a job. He went in and out of rehab, and when he was out, he hung out with our kids. Our kids thought Andrew was cool. The less we liked him, the more time our kids spent with Andrew. Maybe we were just a little jealous of him.
Jeff’s kid, Stan, he and Andrew were thick as thieves. Stan was the one who found Andrew and called the hospital. Susan never said anything, but maybe she blamed Stan. Everybody knew Stan had been getting stuff for Andrew.
Another thing that nobody said: what happened to Andrew, it was probably good for the kids in the long run.
Those paintings—Susan’s paintings—were weird. None of the people in her paintings ever looked very comfortable, and she couldn’t do hands. And there were always these animals in the paintings, looking as if they’d been shot, or gutted, or if they didn’t look dead, they were definitely supposed to be rabid. You worried about the people.
She hung them up in their house for a while, but they weren’t comfortable paintings. You couldn’t watch TV in the same room with them. And Andrew had this habit, he’d sit on the sofa just under one portrait, and there was another one too, above the TV. Three Andrews was too many.
Once Ed brought Andrew to poker night. Andrew sat awhile and didn’t say anything, and then he said he was going upstairs to get more beer and he never came back. Three days later, the highway patrol found Ed’s car parked under a bridge. Stan and Andrew came home two days after that, and Andrew went back into rehab. Susan used to go visit him and take Stan with her—she’d take her sketchbook. Stan said Andrew would sit there and Susan would draw him and nobody ever said a word.
After the class was over, while Andrew was still in rehab, Susan invited all of us to go to this party at her teacher’s studio. What we remember is that Pete got drunk and made a pass at the instructor, this sharp-looking woman with big dangly earrings. We were kind of surprised, not just because he did it in front of his wife, but because we’d all just been looking at her paintings. All these deer and birds and cows draped over dinner tables, and sofas, guts hanging out, eyeballs all shiny and fixed—so that explained Susan’s portraits, at least.
We wonder what Susan did with the paintings of Andrew.
“I’ve been thinking about getting a dog,” Ed says.
“Fuck,” we say. “A dog’s a big responsibility.” Which is what we’ve spent years telling our kids.
The music on the tape loops and looped. It was going round for a second time. We sat and listened to it. We’ll be sitting and listening to it for a while longer.
“This guy,” Ed says, “the guy who was renting this place before me, he was into some crazy thing. There’s all these mandalas and pentagrams painted on the floors and walls. Which is also why I got it so cheap. They didn’t want to bother stripping the walls and repainting; this guy just took off one day, took a lot of the furniture too. Loaded up his truck with as much as he could take.”
“So no furniture?” Pete says. “Susan get the dining room table and chairs? The bed? You sleeping in a sleeping bag? Eating beanie weenies out of a can?”
“I got a futon,” Ed says. “And I’ve got my work table set up, the TV and stuff. I’ve been going down to the orchard, grilling on the hibachi. You guys should come over. I’m working on a new video game—it’ll be a haunted house—those are really big right now. That’s why this place is so great for me. I can use everything. Next weekend? I’ll fix hamburgers and you guys can sit up in the house, keep cool, drink beer, test the game for me. Find the bugs.”
“There are always bugs,” Jeff says. He’s smiling in a mean way. He isn’t so nice when he’s been drinking. “That’s life. So should we bring the kids? The wives? Is this a family thing? Ellie’s been asking about you. You know that retreat she’s on, she called from the woods the other day. She went on and on about this past life. Apparently she was a used-car salesman. She says that this life is karmic payback, being married to me, right? She gets home day after tomorrow. We get together, maybe Ellie can set you up with someone. Now that you’re a free man, you need to take some advantage.”
“Sure,” Ed says, and shrugs. We can see him wishing that Jeff would shut up, but Jeff doesn’t shut up.
Jeff says, “I saw Susan in the grocery store the other day. She looked fantastic. It wasn’t that she wasn’t sad anymore, she wasn’t just getting by, she was radiant, you know? That special glow. Like Joan of Arc. Like she knew something. Like she’d won the lottery.”
“Well, yeah,” Ed says. “That’s Susan. She doesn’t live in the past. She’s got this new job, this research project. They’re trying to contact aliens. They’re using household appliances: satellite dishes, cell phones, car radios, even refrigerators. I’m not sure how. I’m not sure what they’re planning to say. But they’ve got a lot of grant money. Even hired a speechwriter.”
“Wonder what you say to aliens,” Brenner says. “Hi, honey, I’m home. What’s for dinner?”
“Your place or mine?” Pete says. “What’s a nice alien like you doing in a galaxy like this?”
“Where you been? I’ve been worried sick,” Alibi says.
Jeff picks up a card, props it sideways against the green felt. Picks up another one, leans it against the first. He says, “You and Susan always looked so good together. Perfect marriage, perfect life. Now look at you: she’s talking to aliens, and you’re living in a haunted house. You’re an example to all of us, Ed. Nice guy like you, bad things happen to you, Susan leaves a swell guy like you, what’s the lesson here? I’ve been thinking about this all year. You and Ellie must have worked at the same car dealership, in that past life.”
Nobody says anything. Ed doesn’t say anything, but the way we see him look at Jeff, we know that this haunted house game is going to have a character in it who walks and talks a lot like Jeff. This Jeff character is going to panic and run around on the screen of people’s TVs and get lost.
It will stumble into booby traps and fall onto knives. Its innards will sloop out. Zombies are going to crack open the bones of its legs and suck on the marrow. Little devils with monkey faces are going to stitch its eyes open with tiny stitches and then they are going to piss ribbons of acid into its eyes.
Beautiful women are going to fuck this cartoon Jeff in the ass with garden shears. And when this character screams, it’s going to sound a lot like Jeff screaming. Ed’s good at the little details. The kids who buy Ed’s games love the details. They buy his games for things like this.
Jeff will probably be flattered.
Jeff starts complaining about Stan’s phone bill, this four-hundred-dollar cell phone charge that Stan ran up. When he asked about it, Stan handed him a stack of twenties just like that. That kid always has money to spare.
Stan also gave Jeff this phone number. He told Jeff that it’s like this phone sex line, but with a twist. You call up and ask for this girl named Starlight, and she tells you sexy stories, only, if you want, they don’t have to be sexy. They can be any kind of story you want. You tell her what kind of story you want, and she makes it up. Stan says it’s Stephen King and sci-fi and the Arabian Nights and Penthouse Letters all at once.
Ed interrupts Jeff. “You got the number?”
“What?” Jeff says.
“I just got paid for the last game,” Ed says. “The one with the baby heads and the octopus girlies, the Martian combat hockey. Let’s call that number. I’ll pay. You put her on speaker and we’ll all listen, and it’s my treat, okay, because I’m such a swell guy.”
Bones says that it sounds like a shit idea to him, which is probably why Jeff went and got the phone bill and another six-pack of beer. We all take another beer.
Jeff turns the stereo down—
Madam I’m Adam
Oh Madam my Adam
—and puts the phone in the middle of the table. It sits there, in the middle of all that green, like an island or something. Marooned. Jeff switches it on speaker. “Four bucks a minute,” he says, and shrugs, and dials the number.
“Here,” Ed says. “Pass it over.”
The phone rings and we listen to it ring and then a woman’s voice, very pleasant, says hello and asks if Ed is over eighteen. He says he is. He gives her his credit card number. She asks if he was calling for anyone in particular.
“Starlight,” Ed says.
“One moment,” the woman says. We hear a click and then Starlight is on the line. We know this because she says so. She says, “Hi, my name is Starlight. I’m going to tell you a sexy story. Do you want to know what I’m wearing?”
Ed grunts. He shrugs. He grimaces at us. He needs a haircut. Susan used to cut his hair, which we used to think was cute. He and Andrew had these identical lopsided haircuts. It was pretty goofy.
“Can I call you Susan?” Ed says.
Which we think is strange.
Starlight says, “If you really want to, but my name’s really Starlight. Don’t you think that’s sexy?”
She sounds like a kid. A little girl—not even like a girl. Like a kid. She doesn’t sound like Susan at all. Since the divorce, we haven’t seen much of Susan, although she calls our houses sometimes, to talk to our wives. We’re a little worried about what she’s been saying to them.
Ed says, “I guess so.” We can tell he’s only saying that to be polite, but Starlight laughs as if he’s told her a joke. It’s weird hearing that little-kid laugh down here.
Ed says, “So are you going to tell me a story?”
Starlight says, “That’s what I’m here for. But usually the guy wants to know what I’m wearing.”
Ed says, “I want to hear a story about a cheerleader and the Devil.”
Bones says, “So what’s she wearing?”
Pete says, “Make it a story that goes backwards.”
Jeff says, “Put something scary in it.”
Alibi says, “Sexy.”
Brenner says, “I want it to be about good and evil and true love, and it should also be funny. No talking animals. Not too much fooling around with the narrative structure. The ending should be happy but still realistic, believable, you know, and there shouldn’t be a moral although we should be able to think back later and have some sort of revelation. No and suddenly they woke up and discovered that it was all a dream. Got that?”
Starlight says, “Okay. The Devil and a cheerleader. Got it. Okay.”
The Devil and the Cheerleader
So the Devil is at a party at the cheerleader’s house. They’ve been playing spin the bottle. The cheerleader’s boyfriend just came out of the closet with her best friend. Earlier the cheerleader felt like slapping him, and now she knows why. The bottle pointed at her best friend who had just shrugged and smiled at her. Then the bottle was spinning and when the bottle stopped spinning, it was in her boyfriend’s hand.
Then all of a sudden an egg timer was going off. Everyone was giggling and they were all standing up to go over by the closet, like they were all going to try to squeeze inside. But the Devil stood up and took the cheerleader’s hand and pulled her backwards-forwards.
So she knew what exactly had happened, and was going to happen, and some other things besides.
This is the thing she likes about backwards. You start out with all the answers, and after a while, someone comes along and gives you the questions, but you don’t have to answer them. You’re already past that part. That was what was so nice about being married. Things got better and better until you hardly even knew each other anymore. And then you said good night and went out on a date, and after that you were just friends. It was easier that way—that’s the dear, sweet, backwards way of the world.
Just a second, let’s go back for a second.
Something happened. Something has happened. But nobody ever talked about it, at least not at these parties. Not anymore.
Everyone’s been drinking all night long, except the Devil, who’s a teetotaler. He’s been pretending to drink vodka out of a hip flask. Everybody at the party is drunk right now and they think he’s okay. Later they’ll sober up. They’ll think he’s pretentious, an asshole, drinking air out of a flask like that.
There are a lot of empty bottles of beer, some empty bottles of whiskey. There’s a lot of work still to be done, by the look of it. They’re using one of the beer bottles, that’s what they’re spinning. Later on it will be full and they won’t have to play this stupid game.
The cheerleader guesses that she didn’t invite the Devil to the party. He isn’t the kind of guy that you have to invite. He’ll probably show up by himself. But now they’re in the closet together for five minutes. The cheerleader’s boyfriend isn’t too happy about this, but what can he do? It’s that kind of party. She’s that kind of cheerleader.
They’re a lot younger than they used to be. At parties like this, they used to be older, especially the Devil. He remembers all the way back to the end of the world. The cheerleader wasn’t a cheerleader then. She was married and had kids and a husband.
Something’s going to happen, or maybe it’s already happened. Nobody ever talks about it. If they could, what would they say?
But those end-of-the-world parties were crazy. People would drink too much and they wouldn’t have any clothes on. There’d be these sad little piles of clothes in the living room, as if something had happened, and the people had disappeared, disappeared right out of their clothes. Meanwhile, the people who belonged to the clothes would be out in the backyard, waiting until it was time to go home. They’d get up on the trampoline and bounce around and cry.
There would be a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and sooner or later someone was going to have to refill it and go put it back on the pantry shelf. You’d have had these slippery naked middle-aged people sliding around on the trampoline and the oily grass, and then in the end all you’d have would be a bottle of olive oil, some olives on a tree, a tree, an orchard, an empty field.
The Devil would stand around feeling awkward, hoping that it would turn out he’d come late.
The kids would be up in their bedrooms, out of the beds, looking out the windows, remembering when they used to be older. Not that they ever got that much older.
But the world is younger now. Things are simpler. Now the cheerleader has parents of her own, and all she has to do is wait for them to get home, and then this party can be over.
Two days ago was the funeral. It was just how everyone said it would be.
Then there were errands, people to talk to. She was busy.
She hugged her aunt and uncle good-bye and moved into the house where she would live for the rest of her life. She unpacked all her boxes, and the Salvation Army brought her parents’ clothes and furniture and pots and pans, and other people, her parents’ friends, helped her hang her mother’s clothes in her mother’s closet. (Not this closet.) She bunched her mother’s clothes up in her hand and sniffed, curious and hungry and afraid.
She suspects, remembering the smell of her mother’s monogrammed sweaters, that they’ll have fights about things. Boys, music, clothes. The cheerleader will learn to let all of these things go.
If her kids were still around, they would say I told you so. What they did say was, Just wait until you have parents of your own. You’ll see.
The cheerleader rubs her stomach. Are you in there?
She moved the unfamiliar, worn-down furniture around so that it matched up old grooves in the floor. Here was the shape of someone’s buttocks, printed onto a seat cushion. Maybe it would be her father’s favorite chair.
She looked through her father’s records. There was a record playing on the phonograph, it wasn’t anything she had ever heard before, and she took it off, laid it back in its empty white sleeve. She studied the death certificates. She tried to think what to tell her parents about their grandchildren, what they’d want to know.
Her favorite song had just been on the radio for the very last time. Years and years ago, she’d danced to that song at her wedding. Now it was gone, except for the feeling she’d had when she listened to it. Sometimes she still felt that way, but there wasn’t a word for it anymore.
Tonight, in a few hours, there will be a car wreck and then her parents will be coming home. By then, all her friends will have left, taking away six-packs and boyfriends and newly applied coats of hair spray and lipstick.
She thinks she looks a bit like her mother.
Before everyone showed up, while everything was still a wreck downstairs, before the police had arrived to say what they had to say, she was standing in her parents’ bathroom. She was looking in the mirror.
She picked a lipstick out of the trash can, an orangey red that will be a favorite because there’s just a little half-moon left. But when she looked at herself in the mirror, it didn’t fit. It didn’t belong to her. She put her hand on her breastbone, pressed hard, felt her heart beating faster and faster. She couldn’t wear her mother’s lipstick while her mother lay on a gurney somewhere in a morgue: waiting to be sewn up; to have her clothes sewn back on; to breathe; to wake up; to see the car on the other side of the median, sliding away; to see her husband, the man that she’s going to marry someday; to come home to meet her daughter.
The recently dead are always exhausted. There’s so much to absorb, so many things that need to be undone. They have their whole lives ahead of them.
The cheerleader’s best friend winks at her. The Devil’s got a flashlight with two dead batteries. Somebody closes the door after them.
Soon, very soon, already now, the batteries in the Devil’s flashlight are old and tired and there’s just a thin line of light under the closet door. It’s cramped in the closet and it smells like shoes, paint, wool, cigarettes, tennis rackets, ghosts of perfume and sweat. Outside the closet, the world is getting younger, but in here is where they keep all the old things. The cheerleader put them all in here last week.
She’s felt queasy for most of her life. She’s a bad time traveler. She gets time-sick. It’s as if she’s always just a little bit pregnant, are you in there? and it’s worse in here, with all these old things that don’t belong to her, even worse because the Devil is always fooling around with time.
The Devil feels right at home. He and the cheerleader make a nest of coats and sit down on them, facing each other. The Devil turns the bright, constant beam of the flashlight on the cheerleader. She’s wearing a little flippy skirt. Her knees are up, making a tent out of her skirt. The tent is full of shadows—so is the closet. The Devil conjures up another Devil, another cheerleader, mouse-sized, both of them, sitting under the cheerleader’s skirt. The closet is full of Devils and cheerleaders.
“I just need to hold something,” the cheerleader says. If she holds something, maybe she won’t throw up.
“Please,” the Devil says. “It tickles. I’m ticklish.”
The cheerleader is leaning forward. She’s got the Devil by the tail. Then she’s touching the Devil’s tail with her pompoms. He quivers.
“Please don’t,” he says. He giggles.
The Devil’s tail is tucked up under his legs. It isn’t hot, but the Devil is sweating. He feels sad. He’s not good at being sad. He flicks the flashlight on and off. Here’s a knee. Here’s a mouth. Here’s a sleeve hanging down, all empty. Someone knocks on the closet door.
“Go away,” the cheerleader says. “It hasn’t been five minutes yet. Not even.”
The Devil can feel her smile at him, like they’re old friends. “Your tail. Can I touch it?” the cheerleader says.
“Touch what?” the Devil says. He feels a little excited, a little nervous. Old enough to know better, brand-new enough, here in the closet, to be jumpy. He’s taking a chance here. Girls—women—aren’t really domestic animals at the moment, although they’re getting tamer, more used to living in houses. Less likely to bite.
“Can I touch your tail now?” the cheerleader says.
“No!” the Devil says.
“I’m shy,” he says. “Maybe you could stroke my tail with your pompom, in a little bit.”
“We could make out,” the cheerleader says. “That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? I need to be distracted because I think I’m about to have this thought. It’s going to make me really sad. I’m getting younger, you know? I’m going to keep on getting younger. It isn’t fair.”
She puts her feet against the closet door. She kicks once, like a mule.
She says, “I mean, you’re the Devil. You don’t have to worry about this stuff. In a few thousand years, you’ll be back at the beginning again and you’ll be in good with God again, right?”
The Devil shrugs. Everybody knows the end of that story.
The cheerleader says, “Everyone knows that old story. You’re famous. You’re like John Wilkes Booth. You’re historical—you’re going to be really important. You’ll be Mr. Bringer-of-Light and you’ll get good tables at all the trendy restaurants, choruses of angels and maître d’s, et cetera, la, la, la, they’ll all be singing hallelujahs forever, please pass the vichyssoise, and then God unmakes the world and he’ll put all the bits away in a closet like this.”
The Devil smirks. He shrugs. It isn’t a bad life, hanging around in closets with cheerleaders. And it gets better.
The cheerleader says, “It isn’t fair. I’d tell him so, if he were here. He’ll unhang the stars and pull Leviathan right back out of the deep end of the vasty bathwater, and you’ll be having Leviathan tartare for dinner. Where will I be, then? You’ll be around. You’re always around. But me, I’ll get younger and younger and in a handful of years I won’t be me at all, and my parents will get younger and so on and so on, whoosh! We’ll be gone like a flash of light, and you won’t even remember me. Nobody will remember me! Everything that I was, that I did, all the funny things that I said, and the things that my friends said back to me, that will all be gone. But you go all the way backwards. You go backwards and forwards. It isn’t fair. You could always remember me. What could I do so that you would remember me?”
“As long as we’re in this closet,” the Devil says, he’s magnanimous, “I’ll remember you.”
“But in a few minutes,” the cheerleader says, “we’ll go back out of the closet and the bottle will spin, and then the party will be over, and my parents will come home, and nobody will ever remember me.”
“Then tell me a story,” the Devil says. He puts his sharp, furry paw on her leg. “Tell me a story so that I’ll remember you.”
“What kind of story?” says the cheerleader.
“Tell me a scary story,” the Devil says. “A funny, scary, sad, happy story. I want everything.” He can feel his tail wagging as he says this.
“You can’t have everything,” the cheerleader says, and she picks up his paw and puts it back on the floor of the closet. “Not even in a story. You can’t have all the stories you want.”
“I know,” the Devil says. He whines. “But I still want it. I want things. That’s my job. I even want the things that I already have. I want everything you have. I want the things that don’t exist. That’s why I’m the Devil.” He leers and it’s a shame because she can’t see him in the dark. He feels silly.
“Well, what’s the scariest thing?” says the cheerleader. “You’re the expert, right? Give me a little help here.”
“The scariest thing,” the Devil says. “Okay, I’ll give you two things. Three things. No, just two. The third one is a secret.”
The Devil’s voice changes. Later on, one day the cheerleader will be listening to a preschool teacher say back the alphabet, with the sun moving across the window, nothing ever stays still, and she’ll be reminded of the Devil and the closet and the line of light under the door, the peaceful little circle of light the flashlight makes against the closet door.
The Devil says, “I’m not complaining,” (but he is) “but here’s the way things used to work. They don’t work this way anymore. I don’t know if you remember. Your parents are dead and they’re coming home in just a few hours. Used to be, that was scary. Not anymore. But try to imagine: finding something that shouldn’t be there.”
“Like what?” the cheerleader says.
The Devil shrugs. “A child’s toy. A ball, or a night-light. Some cheap bit of trash, but it’s heavier than it looks, or else light. It shines with a greasy sort of light or else it eats light. When you touch it, it yields unpleasantly. You feel as if you might fall into it. You feel light-headed. It might be inscribed in a language which no one can decipher.”
“Okay,” the cheerleader says. She seems somewhat cheered up. “So what’s the next thing?”
The Devil shines the flashlight in her eyes, flicks it on and off. “Someone disappears. Gone, just like that. They’re standing behind you in a line at an amusement park—or they wander away during the intermission of a play—perhaps they go downstairs to get the mail—or to make tea—”
“That’s scary?” the cheerleader says.
“Used to be,” the Devil says. “It used to be that the worst thing that could happen was, if you had kids, and one of them died or disappeared. Disappeared was the worst. Anything might have happened to them.”
“Things are better now,” the cheerleader says.
“Yes, well.” The Devil says, “Things just get better and better nowadays. But—try to remember how it was. The person who disappeared, only they didn’t. You’d see them from time to time, peeking in at you through windows, or down low through the mail slot in your front door. Keyholes. You might see them in the grocery store. Sitting in the backseat of your car, down low, slouching in your rearview mirror. They might pinch your leg or pull your hair when you’re asleep. When you talk on the phone, they listen in, you hear them listening.
The cheerleader says, “Like, with my parents—”
“Exactly,” says the Devil. “You’ve had nightmares about them, right?”
“Not really,” the cheerleader says. “Everyone says they were probably nice people. I mean, look at this house! But, sometimes, I have this dream that I’m at the mall, and I see my husband. And he’s just the same, he’s a grown-up, and he doesn’t recognize me. It turns out that I’m the only one who’s going backwards. And then he does recognize me and he wants to know what I’ve done with the kids.”
The last time she’d seen her husband, he was trying to grow a beard. He couldn’t even do that right. He hadn’t had much to say, but they’d looked at each other for a long time.
“What about your children?” the Devil says. “Do you wonder where they went when the doctor pushed them back up inside you? Do you have dreams about them?”
“Yes,” the cheerleader says. “Everything gets smaller. I’m afraid of that.”
“Think how men feel!” the Devil says. “It’s no wonder men are afraid of women. No wonder sex is so hard on them.”
The cheerleader misses sex, that feeling afterwards, that blissful, unsatisfied itch.
“The first time around, things were better,” the Devil says. “I don’t know if you remember. People died, and no one was sure what happened next. There were all sorts of possibilities. Now everyone knows everything. What’s the fun in that?”
Someone is trying to push open the closet door, but the cheerleader puts her feet against it, leaning against the back of the closet. “Oh, I remember!” she says, “I remember when I was dead! There was so much I was looking forward to. I had no idea!”
The Devil shivers. He’s never liked dead people much.
“So, okay, what about monsters?” the cheerleader says. “Vampires? Serial killers? People from outer space? Those old movies?”
The Devil shrugs. “Yeah, sure. Boogeymen. Formaldehyde babies in Mason jars. Someday someone is going to have to take them out of the jar, unpickle them. Women with teeth down there. Zombies. Killer robots, killer bees, serial killers, cold spots, werewolves. The dream where you know that you’re asleep but you can’t wake up. You can hear someone walking around the bedroom picking up your things and putting them down again and you still can’t wake up. The end of the world. Spiders. No one was with her when she died. Carnivorous plants.”
“Oh goody,” the cheerleader says. Her eyes shine at him out of the dark. Her pompoms slide across the floor of the closet. He moves his flashlight so he can see her hands.
“So here’s your story,” the cheerleader says. She’s a girl who can think on her feet. “It’s not really a scary story. I don’t really get scary.”
“Weren’t you listening?” the Devil says. He taps the flashlight against his big front teeth. “Never mind, it’s okay, never mind. Go on.”
“This probably isn’t a true story,” the cheerleader says, “and it doesn’t go backwards like we do. I probably won’t get all the way to the end, and I’m not going to start at the beginning, either. There isn’t enough time.”
“That’s fine,” the Devil says. “I’m all ears.” (He is.)
The cheerleader says, “So who’s going to tell this story, anyway? Be quiet and listen. We’re running out of time.”
She says, “A man comes home from a sales conference. He and his wife have been separated for a while, but they’ve decided to try living together again. They’ve sold the house that they used to live in. Now they live just outside of town, in an old house in an orchard.
The man comes home from this business conference, and his wife is sitting in the kitchen and she’s talking to another woman, an older woman. They’re sitting on the chairs that used to go around the kitchen table, but the table is gone. So is the microwave, and the rack where Susan’s copper-bottomed pots hang. The pots are gone, too.
The husband doesn’t notice any of this. He’s busy looking at the other woman. Her skin has a greenish tinge. He has this feeling that he knows her. She and the wife both look at the husband, and he suddenly knows what it is. It’s his wife. It’s his wife, two of her, only one is maybe twenty years older. Otherwise, except that this one’s green, they’re identical: same eyes, same mouth, same little mole at the corner of her mouth.
“How am I doing so far?”
“So-so,” the Devil says. The truth (the truth makes the Devil itchy) is, he only likes stories about himself. Like the story about the Devil’s wedding cake. Now that’s a story.
The cheerleader says, “It gets better.”
It Gets Better
The man’s name is Ed. It isn’t his real name. I made it up. Ed and Susan have been married for ten years, separated for five months, back together again for three months. They’ve been sleeping in the same bed for three months, but they don’t have sex. Susan cries whenever Ed kisses her. They don’t have any kids. Susan used to have a younger brother. Ed is thinking about getting a dog.
While Ed’s been at his conference, Susan has been doing some housework. She’s done some work up in the attic which we won’t talk about. Not yet. Down in the spare bathroom in the basement, she’s set up this machine, which we get around to later, and this machine makes Susans. What Susan was hoping for was a machine that would bring back Andrew. (Her brother. But you knew that.) Only it turns out that getting Andrew back requires a different machine, a bigger machine. Susan needs help making that machine, and so the new Susans are going to come in handy after all. Over the course of the next few days, the Susans explain all this to Ed.
Susan doesn’t expect Ed will be very helpful.
“Hi, Ed,” the older, greenish Susan says. She gets up from her chair and gives him a big hug. Her skin is warm, tacky. She smells yeasty. The original Susan—the Susan Ed thinks is original, and I have no idea if he’s right about this, and, later on, he isn’t so sure, either—sits in her chair and watches them.
Big green Susan: am I making her sound like Godzilla? She doesn’t look like Godzilla, and yet there’s something about her that reminds Ed of Godzilla, the way she stomps across the kitchen floor—leads Ed over to a chair and makes him sit down. Now he realizes that the kitchen table is gone. He still hasn’t managed to say a word. Susan, both of them, is used to this.
“First of all,” Susan says, “the attic is off-limits. There are some people working up there. (I don’t mean Susans. I’ll explain Susans in a minute.) Some visitors. They’re helping me with a project. About the other Susans, there are five of me at the moment—you’ll meet the other three later. They’re down in the basement. You’re allowed in the basement. You can help down there, if you want.”
Godzilla Susan says, “You don’t have to worry about who is who, although none of us are exactly alike. You can call us all Susan. We’re discovering that some of us may be more temporary than others, or fatter, or younger, or greener. It seems to depend on the batch.”
“Are you Susan?” Ed says. He corrects himself. “I mean, are you my wife? The real Susan?”
“We’re all your wife,” the younger Susan says. She puts her hand on his leg and pats him like a dog.
“Where did the kitchen table go?” Ed says.
“I put it in the attic,” Susan says. “You really don’t have to worry about that now. How was your conference?”
Another Susan comes into the kitchen. She’s young and the color of green apples or new grass. Even the whites of her eyes are grassy. She’s maybe nineteen, and the color of her skin makes Ed think of a snake. “Ed!” she says, “How was the conference?”
“They’re keen on the new game,” Ed says. “It tests real well.”
“Want a beer?” Susan says. (It doesn’t matter which Susan says this.) She picks up a pitcher of green foamy stuff, and pours it into a glass.
“This is beer?” Ed says.
“It’s Susan beer,” Susan says, and all the Susans laugh.
The beautiful, snake-colored nineteen-year-old Susan takes Ed on a tour of the house. Mostly Ed just looks at Susan, but he sees that the television is gone, and so are all of his games. All his notebooks. The living room sofa is still there, but all the seat cushions are missing. Later on, Susan will disassemble the sofa with an ax.
Susan has covered up all the downstairs windows with what looks like sheets of aluminum foil. She shows him the bathtub downstairs where one of the Susans is brewing the Susan beer. Other Susans are hanging long, mossy clots of the Susan beer on laundry racks. Dry, these clots can be shaped into bedding, nests for the new Susans. They are also edible.
Ed is still holding the glass of Susan beer. “Go on,” Susan says. “You like beer.”
“I don’t like green beer,” Ed says.
“You like Susan, though,” Susan says. She’s wearing one of his T-shirts, and a pair of Susan’s underwear. No bra. She puts Ed’s hand on her breast.
Susan stops stirring the beer. She’s taller than Ed, and only a little bit green. “You know Susan loves you,” she says.
“Who’s up in the attic?” Ed says. “Is it Andrew?”
His hand is still on Susan’s breast. He can feel her heart beating. Susan says, “You can’t tell Susan I told you. She doesn’t think you’re ready. It’s the aliens.”
They both stare at him. “She finally got them on the phone. This is going to be huge, Ed. This is going to change the world.”
Ed could leave the house. He could leave Susan. He could refuse to drink the beer.
The Susan beer doesn’t make him drunk. It isn’t really beer. You knew that, right?
There are Susans everywhere. Some of them want to talk to Ed about their marriage, or about the aliens, or sometimes they want to talk about Andrew. Some of them are busy working. The Susans are always dragging Ed off to empty rooms, to talk or kiss or make love or gossip about the other Susans. Or they’re ignoring him. There’s one very young Susan. She looks like she might be six or seven years old. She goes up and down the upstairs hallway, drawing on the walls with a marker. Ed isn’t sure whether this is childish vandalism or important Susan work. He feels awkward asking.
Every once in a while, he thinks he sees the real Susan. He wishes he could sit down and talk with her, but she always looks so busy.
By the end of the week, there aren’t any mirrors left in the house, and the windows are all covered up. The Susans have hung sheets of the Susan beer over all the light fixtures, so everything is green. Ed isn’t sure, but he thinks he might be turning green.
Susan tastes green. She always does.
Once Ed hears someone knocking on the front door. “Ignore that,” Susan says as she walks past him. She’s carrying the stacked blades of an old ceiling fan, and a string of Christmas lights. “It isn’t important.”
Ed pulls the plug of aluminum foil out of the eyehole, and peeks out. Stan is standing there, looking patient. They stand there, Ed on one side of the door, and Stan on the other. Ed doesn’t open the door, and eventually Stan goes away. All the peacocks are kicking up a fuss.
Ed tries teaching some of the Susans to play poker. It doesn’t work so well, because it turns out that Susan always knows what cards the other Susans are holding. So Ed makes up a game where that doesn’t matter so much, but in the end, it makes him feel too lonely. There aren’t any other Eds.
They decide to play spin the bottle instead. Instead of a bottle, they use a hammer, and it never ends up pointing at Ed. After a while, it gets too strange watching Susan kiss Susans, and he wanders off to look for a Susan who will kiss him.
Up in the second-story bedroom, there are always lots of Susans. This is where they go to wait when they start to get ripe. The Susans loll, curled in their nests, getting riper, arguing about the end of some old story. None of them remember it the same way. Some of them don’t seem to know anything about it, but they all have opinions.
Ed climbs into a nest and leans back. Susan swings her legs over to make room for him. This Susan is small and round. She tickles the soft part of his arm, and then tucks her face into his side.
Susan passes him a glass of Susan beer.
“That’s not it,” Susan says, “It turns out that he overdosed. Maybe even did it on purpose. We couldn’t talk about it. There weren’t enough of us. We were trying to carry all that sadness all by ourself. You can’t do something like that! And then the wife tries to kill him. I tried to kill him. She kicks the fuck out of him. He can’t leave the house for a week, won’t even come to the door when his friends come over.”
“If you can call them friends,” Susan says.
“No, there was a gun,” Susan says. “And she has an affair. Because she can’t get over it. Neither of them can.”
“She humiliates him at a dinner party,” Susan says. “They both drink too much. Everybody goes home, and she breaks all the dishes instead of washing them. There are plate shards all over the kitchen floor. Someone’s going to get hurt; they don’t have a time machine. They can’t go back and unbreak those plates. We know that they still loved each other, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Then the police showed up.”
“Well, that’s not the way I remember it,” Susan says. “But I guess it could have happened that way.”
Ed and Susan used to buy books all the time. They had so many books they used to joke about wanting to be quarantined, or snowed in. Maybe then they’d manage to read all the books. But the books have all gone up to the attic, along with the lamps and the coffee tables, and their bicycles, and all Susan’s paintings. Ed has watched the Susans carry up paperback books, silverware, old board games, and holey underwear. Even a kazoo. The Encyclopædia Britannica. The goldfish and the goldfish bowl and the little canister of goldfish food.
The Susans have gone through the house, taken everything they could. After all the books were gone, they dismantled the bookshelves. Now they’re tearing off the wallpaper in long strips. The aliens seem to like books. They like everything, especially Susan. Eventually when the Susans are ripe, they go up in the attic too.
The aliens swap things, the books and the Susans and the coffee mugs for other things: machines that the Susans are assembling. Ed would like to get his hand on one of those devices, but Susan says no. He isn’t even allowed to help, except with the Susan beer.
The thing the Susans are building takes up most of the living room, Ed’s office, the kitchen, the laundry room—
The Susans don’t bother with laundry. The washer and the dryer are both gone and the Susans have given up wearing clothes altogether. Ed has managed to keep a pair of shorts and a pair of jeans. He’s wearing the shorts right now, and he folds the jeans up into a pillow, and rests his head on top of them so that Susan can’t steal them. All his other clothes have been carried up to the attic
—and it’s creeping up the stairs, spilling over into the second story. The house is shiny with alien machines.
Teams of naked Susans are hard at work, all day long, testing instruments, hammering and stitching their machine together, polishing and dusting and stacking alien things on top of each other. If you’re wondering what the machine looks like, picture a science fair project involving a lot of aluminum foil, improvised, homely, makeshift, and just a little dangerous-looking. None of the Susans is quite sure what the machine will eventually do. Right now it grows Susan beer.
When the beer is stirred, left alone, stirred some more, it clots and makes more Susans. Ed likes watching this part. The house is more and more full of shy, loud, quiet, talkative, angry, happy, greenish Susans of all sizes, all ages, who work at disassembling the house, piece by piece, and, piece by piece, assembling the machine.
It might be a time machine, or a machine to raise the dead, or maybe the house is becoming a spaceship, slowly, one room at a time. Susan says the aliens don’t make these kinds of distinctions. It may be an invasion factory, Ed says, or a doomsday machine. Susan says that they aren’t that kind of aliens.
Ed’s job: stirring the Susan beer with a long, flat plank—a floorboard Susan pried up—and skimming the foam, which has a stringy and unpleasantly cheeselike consistency, into buckets. He carries the buckets downstairs and makes Susan beer soufflé and Susan beer casserole. Susan beer surprise. Upside-down Susan cake. It all tastes the same, and he grows to like the taste.
The beer doesn’t make him drunk. That isn’t what it’s for. I can’t tell you what it’s for. But when he’s drinking it, he isn’t sad. He has the beer, and the work in the kitchen, and the ripe, green fuckery. Everything tastes like Susan.
The only thing he misses is poker nights.
Up in the spare bedroom, Ed falls asleep listening to the Susans talk, and when he wakes up, his jeans are gone, and he’s naked. The room is empty. All the ripe Susans have gone up to the attic.
When he steps out into the hall, the little Susan is out there, drawing on the walls. She puts her marker down and hands him a pitcher of Susan beer. She pinches his leg and says, “You’re getting nice and ripe.”
Then she winks at Ed and runs down the hall.
He looks at what she’s been drawing: Andrew, scribbly crayon portraits of Andrew, all up and down the walls. He follows the pictures of Andrew down the hall, all the way to the master bedroom where he and the original Susan used to sleep. Now he sleeps anywhere, with any Susan. He hasn’t been in their room in a while, although he’s noticed the Susans going in and out with boxes full of things. The Susans are always shooing at him when he gets in their way.
The bedroom is full of Andrew. There are Susan’s portraits of Andrew on the walls, the ones from her art class. Ed had forgotten how unpleasant and peculiar these paintings are. In one, the largest one, Andrew, life-sized, has his hands around a small animal, maybe a ferret. He seems to be strangling it. The ferret’s mouth is cocked open, showing all its teeth. A picture like that, Ed thinks, you ought to turn it towards the wall at night.
Susan’s put Andrew’s bed in here, and Andrew’s books, and Andrew’s desk. Andrew’s clothes have been hung up in the closet. There isn’t an alien machine in the room, or for that matter, anything that ever belonged to Ed.
Ed puts a pair of Andrew’s pants on, and lies down on Andrew’s bed, just for a minute, and he closes his eyes.
When he wakes up, Susan is sitting on the bed. He can smell her, that ripe green scent. He can smell that smell on himself. Susan says, “If you’re ready, I thought we could go up to the attic together.”
“What’s going on here?” Ed says. “I thought you needed everything. Shouldn’t all this stuff go up to the attic?”
“This is Andrew’s room, for when he comes back,” Susan says. “We thought it would make him feel comfortable, having his own bed to sleep in. He might need his stuff.”
“What if the aliens need his stuff?” Ed says. “What if they can’t make you a new Andrew yet because they don’t know enough about him?”
“That’s not how it works,” Susan says. “We’re getting close now. Can’t you feel it?”
“I feel weird,” Ed says. “Something’s happening to me.”
“You’re ripe, Ed,” Susan says. “Isn’t that fantastic? We weren’t sure you’d ever get ripe enough.”
She takes his hand and pulls him up. Sometimes he forgets how strong she is.
“So what happens now?” Ed says. “Am I going to die? I don’t feel sick. I feel good. What happens when we get ripe?”
The afternoon light makes Susan look older, or maybe she just is older. He likes this part: seeing what Susan looked like as a kid, what she’ll look like as an old lady. It’s as if they got to spend their whole lives together. “I never know,” she says. “Let’s go find out. Take off Andrew’s pants, and I’ll hang them back up in the closet.”
They leave the bedroom and walk down the hall. The Andrew drawings, the knobs and dials and stacked, shiny machinery watch them go. There aren’t any other Susans around at the moment. They’re all busy downstairs. He can hear them hammering away. For a minute, it’s the way it used to be, only better. Just Ed and Susan in their own house.
Ed holds on tight to Susan’s hand.
When Susan opens the attic door, the attic is full of stars. Stars and stars and stars. Ed has never seen so many stars. Susan has taken the roof off. Off in the distance, they can smell the apple trees, way down in the orchard.
Susan sits down cross-legged on the floor and Ed sits down beside her. She says, “I wish you’d tell me a story.”
Ed says, “What kind of story?”
Susan says, “A bedtime story? When Andrew was a kid, we used to read this book. I remember this one story about people who go under a hill. They spend one night down there, eating and drinking and dancing, but when they come out, a hundred years have gone by. Do you know how long it’s been since Andrew died? I’ve lost track.”
“I don’t know stories like that,” Ed says. He picks at his flaky green skin and wonders what he tastes like. “What do you think the aliens look like? Do you think they look like giraffes? Like marbles? Like Andrew? Do you think they have mouths?”
“Don’t be silly,” Susan says. “They look like us.”
“How do you know?” Ed says. “Have you been up here before?”
“No,” Susan says. “But Susan has.”
“We could play a card game,” Ed says. “Or I Spy.”
“You could tell me about the first time I met you,” Susan says.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Ed says. “That’s all gone.”
“Okay, fine.” Susan sits up straight, arches her back, runs her green tongue across her green lips. She winks at Ed and says, “Tell me how beautiful I am.”
“You’re beautiful,” Ed says. “I’ve always thought you were beautiful. All of you. How about me? Am I beautiful?”
“Don’t be that way,” Susan says. She slouches back against him. Her skin is warm and greasy. “The aliens are going to get here soon. I don’t know what happens after that, but I hate this part. I always hate this part. I don’t like waiting. Do you think this is what it was like for Andrew, when he was in rehab?”
“When you get him back, ask him. Why ask me?”
Susan doesn’t say anything for a bit. Then she says, “We think we’ll be able to make you, too. We’re starting to figure out how it works. Eventually it will be you and me and him, just the way it was before. Only we’ll fix him the way we’ve fixed me. He won’t be so sad. Have you noticed how I’m not sad anymore? Don’t you want that, not to be sad? And maybe after that we’ll try making some more people. We’ll start all over again. We’ll do everything right this time.”
Ed says, “So why are they helping you?”
“I don’t know,” Susan says. “Either they think we’re funny, or else they think we’re pathetic, the way we get stuck. We can ask them when they get here.”
She stands up, stretches, yawns, sits back down on Ed’s lap, reaches down, stuffs his penis, half-erect, inside of her. Just like that. Ed groans.
He says, “Susan.”
Susan says, “Tell me a story.” She squirms. “Any story. I don’t care what.”
“I can’t tell you a story,” Ed says. “I don’t know any stories when you’re doing this.”
“I’ll stop,” Susan says. She stops.
Ed says, “Don’t stop. Okay.” He puts his hands around her waist and moves her, as if he’s stirring the Susan beer.
He says, “Once upon a time.” He’s speaking very fast. They’re running out of time.
Once, while they were making love, Andrew came into the bedroom. He didn’t even knock. He didn’t seem to be embarrassed at all. Ed doesn’t want to be fucking Susan when the aliens show up. On the other hand, Ed wants to be fucking Susan forever. He doesn’t want to stop, not for Andrew, or the aliens, or even for the end of the world.
Ed says, “There was a man and a woman and they fell in love. They were both nice people. They made a good couple. Everyone liked them. This story is about the woman.”
This story is about a woman who is in love with somebody who invents a time machine. He’s planning to go so far into the future that he’ll end up right back at the very beginning. He asks her to come along, but she doesn’t want to go. What’s back at the beginning of the world? Little blobs of life swimming around in a big blob? Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? She doesn’t want to play Adam and Eve; she has other things to do. She works for a research company. She calls people on the telephone and asks them all sorts of questions. Back at the beginning, there aren’t going to be phones. She doesn’t like the sound of it. So her husband says, Fine, then here’s what we’ll do. I’ll build you another machine, and if you ever decide that you miss me, or you’re tired and you can’t go on, climb inside this machine—this box right here—and push this button and go to sleep. And you’ll sleep all the way forwards and backwards to me, where I’m waiting for you. I’ll keep on waiting for you. I love you. And so they make love and they make love a few more times and then he climbs into his time machine and whoosh, he’s gone like that. So fast, it’s hard to believe that he was ever there at all. Meanwhile she lives her life forward, slow, the way he didn’t want to. She gets married again and makes love some more and has kids and they have kids and when she’s an old woman, she’s finally ready: she climbs into the dusty box down in the secret room under the orchard and she pushes the button and falls asleep. And she sleeps all the way back, just like Sleeping Beauty, down in the orchard for years and years, which fly by like seconds, she goes flying back, past the men sitting around the green felt table, now you can see them and now they’re gone again, and all the peacocks are screaming, and the Satanist drives up to the house and unloads the truckload of furniture, he unpaints the pentagrams, soon the old shy man will unbuild his house, carry his secret away on his back, and the apples are back on the orchard trees again, and then the trees are all blooming, and now the woman is getting younger, just a little, the lines around her mouth are smoothing out. She dreams that someone has come down into that underground room and is looking down at her in her time machine. He stands there for a long time. She can’t open her eyes, her eyelids are so heavy, she doesn’t want to wake up just yet. She dreams she’s on a train going down the tracks backwards and behind the train, someone is picking up the beams and the nails and the girders to put in a box and then they’ll put the box away. The trees are whizzing past, getting smaller and smaller and then they’re all gone too. Now she’s a kid again, now she’s a baby, now she’s much smaller and then she’s even smaller than that. She gets her gills back. She doesn’t want to wake up just yet, she wants to get right back to the very beginning where it’s all new and clean and everything is still and green and flat and sleepy and everybody has crawled back into the sea and they’re waiting for her to get back there too and then the party can start. She goes backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards—
The cheerleader says to the Devil, “We’re out of time. We’re holding things up. Don’t you hear them banging on the door?”
The Devil says, “You didn’t finish the story.”
The cheerleader says, “And you never let me touch your tail. Besides, there isn’t any ending. I could make up something, but it wouldn’t ever satisfy you. You said that yourself! You’re never satisfied. And I have to get on with my life. My parents are going to be home soon.”
She stands up and slips out of the closet and slams the door shut again, so fast the Devil can hardly believe it. A key turns in a lock.
The Devil tries the doorknob, and someone standing outside the closet giggles.
“Shush,” says the cheerleader. “Be quiet.”
“What’s going on?” the Devil says. “Open the door and let me out—this isn’t funny.”
“Okay, I’ll let you out,” the cheerleader says. “Eventually. Not just yet. You have to give me something first.”
“You want me to give you something?” the Devil says. “Okay, what?” He rattles the knob, testing.
“I want a happy beginning,” the cheerleader says. “I want my friends to be happy too. I want to get along with my parents. I want a happy childhood. I want things to get better. I want them to keep getting better. I want you to be nice to me. I want to be famous, I don’t know, maybe I could be a child actor, or win state-level spelling bees, or even just cheer for winning teams. I want world peace. Second chances. When I’m winning at poker, I don’t want to have to put all that money back in the pot, I don’t want to have to put my good cards back on top of the deck, one by one by—
Starlight says, “Sorry about that. My voice is getting scratchy. It’s late. You should call back tomorrow night.”
Ed says, “When can I call you?”
Stan and Andrew were friends. Good friends. It was like they were the same species. Ed hadn’t seen Stan for a while, not for a long while, but Stan stopped him, on the way down to the basement. This was earlier. Stan grabbed his arm and said, “I miss him. I keep thinking, if I’d gotten there sooner. If I’d said something. He liked you a lot, you know, he was sorry about what happened to your car—”
Stan stops talking and just stands there looking at Ed. He looks like he’s about to cry.
“It’s not your fault,” Ed said, but then he wondered why he’d said it. Whose fault was it?
Susan says, “You’ve got to stop calling me, Ed. Okay? It’s three in the morning. I was asleep, Ed, I was having the best dream. You’re always waking me up in the middle of things. Please just stop, okay?”
Ed doesn’t say anything. He could stay there all night and just listen to Susan talk.
What she’s saying now is, “But that’s never going to happen, and you know it. Something bad happened, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but we’re just never going to get past it. It killed us. We can’t even talk about it.”
Ed says, “I love you.”
Susan says, “I love you, but it’s not about love, Ed, it’s about timing. It’s too late, and it’s always going to be too late. Maybe if we could go back and do everything differently—and I think about that all the time—but we can’t. We don’t know anybody with a time machine. How about this, Ed—maybe you and your poker buddies can build one down in Pete’s basement. All those stupid games, Ed! Why can’t you build a time machine instead? Call me back when you’ve figured out how we can work this out, because I’m really stuck. Or don’t call me back. Good-bye, Ed. Go get some sleep. I’m hanging up the phone now.”
Susan hangs up the phone.
Ed imagines her, going down to the kitchen to microwave a glass of milk. She’ll sit in the kitchen and drink her milk and wait for him to call her back. He lies in bed, up in the orchard house. He’s got both bedroom doors open, and a night breeze comes in through that door that doesn’t go anywhere. He wishes he could get Susan to come see that door. The breeze smells like apples, which is what time must smell like, Ed thinks.
There’s an alarm clock on the floor beside his bed. The hands and numbers glow green in the dark, and he’ll wait five minutes and then he’ll call Susan. Five minutes. Then he’ll call her back. The hands aren’t moving, but he can wait.