“Bill! I’ve been meaning to text you.” Jason said as he turned around, pointing with his beer. His eyes burned into Bill, and his attention was sudden and startling. Jason and Bill often saw each other at these church barbecues, they’d sometimes exchange a polite word or two, but Jason was coming right for him with warmth and recognition, as if they were really friends after all.
It was everything he had wanted, and he hated himself for it.
“Really?” Bill laughed nervously. “Why’s that?”
Jason’s hand was already on Bill’s shoulder, and he leaned in with the conspiratorial air of the exclusive secrets of friends. “Melissa, and I want to have you over for dinner to discuss some potential work. Melissa’s dying for new kitchen cabinets, and, in my opinion, if we’re gonna go through all the trouble, we ought to go to the best. Am I right?”
“I don’t know if I’m the best,” Bill dismissed. “But I would love to come over and have a look.” He felt his face heat up with the power of the compliment, the hot pressure of Jason’s hand on his shoulder. It was terrifying to be a person in the world; to want things, to be at the whim of your own desires, of the energy pulsing through the universe, denying and giving. Denying and giving. He hated himself for being such an animal, for being just a predictable insect, striving toward the light.
Her mother helped Allison pick out her outfit because she was not feeling well. She had not felt well for a long time.
“I am a sick, sad girl,” she had just written in her diary. “My whole world is paper thin. My whole world is bland paper and I try to tear it down but there is just more paper.
“Is there a difference between who I am now and who I was before? It doesn’t seem that way, but people act as if I am different. Other people are different. The world is different. But I want it to be the same, like before. I want them to forget.
“I am constantly closing my eyes, hoping to be in the past when I open them again.
“Is this all I am or ever will be? A wounded bird to be pitied?”
Her mother had deleted their Facebook profiles yesterday. She had aged so much, almost overnight. A spell had been cast, irreversible and inalterable. Allison wanted to snatch time back for her mother, for all of them, but instead they were pushed by a monstrous current, battering them up against rocks, carrying them to an unknown sea. Time seemed to move forward, but was it forward? Maybe time was a dripping down, like a melting candle. We are all just turning into puddles, and sometimes the fire burns bigger, so we melt faster.
Bill was concerned about the potential awkwardness, of course, but he knew he wouldn’t cancel. You had to live your life, not constantly hide from it.
Still, the thought of letting go, of drifting to nowhere, was more attractive now than it had ever been. He knew now, at 42, that there was no chance his dreams would ever come true. He had been a fool, but what did he have to risk now that his dreams were so diminished? Now that he knew there was so little left for him?
He would never be real friends with Jason Fuller, but why not stand next to him for a while and steal a portion of his glow?
He was invited inside Jason’s home now. He would get to touch the hand, maybe kiss the cheek, of his wife. He could see what his furniture looked like, what he hung on his walls. His daughter would be there, and who knows? Maybe she would fall in love with him.
Maybe Jason’s daughter Allison would marry him, once she realized how intelligent and interesting he was. They would all be family. They would dress well and eat well, and laugh at people with less charmed lives.
He knew this was impossible, but why not dream of it?
Everything in life was such a chance, and so unfair. We were all unformed voids and the lottery of life constantly turned up numbers of reward and punishment. One minute you think you’re losing, and the next you may be winning. “There’s no real reason to it,” Bill thought. “No reason why Jason has a beautiful life and I am so unfortunate. But this could be the moment my life is changed by the randomness of the universe. This could be my moment.”
“We have very few choices in our lives, but the few choices we do have, matter quite a lot,” Melissa told Allison. It was hard for her to say these things. It was hard for her to talk at all.
“I just don’t know,” Allison said. “I don’t know if we always know the right choices to make. And I think you and Dad maybe don’t have this choice to make. Everything isn’t always about you.” Allison was pale and closed in on herself, but she had stopped crying.
“You’re still a child developmentally, and in the eye of the law, and that’s why this is our choice to make,” Melissa replied. “If only you knew how much we loved you.” She was not pale, she was hot and bright with anger.
It was not a blind rage, her eyes and head were clear. It was a massive white heat that consumed every part of her. It gave her new eyes, and new heart. The face in the mirror wasn’t the same, and she was glad of it. She felt transformed. It was not a welcome rebirth, it was forced upon her, and inside was hiding a limitless despair she would someday need to feel. But not today. Today was not the day to feel such things.
It was only in the last few weeks that she had realized, with horror, that her daughter was truly separate from herself. The two of them, who had been as close as any human could ever be, were as foreign to each other as strangers passing on the street. They were both alone. Their sameness had been an illusion. Of course, she had always known this, but it is one thing to know, and another to accept.
She didn’t know how to save Allison, or anyone, but she would not give up. She would not drown and struggle. She had to swim calmly, with deliberation, and sacrifice herself, with clear eyes, if she needed to.
“Welcome to my home,” Jason told Bill when he arrived. He had a cold, open beer all ready for him, which Bill swiftly accepted. Jason felt wild and high, his insides ablaze with rage and terror. He thought Bill looked nervous, like he was trying very, very hard, and the thought of that steeled Jason’s veins, his heart, his rushing thoughts. “Transcendence,” he thought to himself, focusing on just this strange, still moment. No, it wasn’t still, it was buzzing, it was electric.
The fireplace blazed and crackled in the corner of the room, making parts of it too hot while the rest of the room had whisps of a chill. Melissa and Allison came from the kitchen, pretty and smiling. Allison held a champagne flute full of juice, and looked as poised as a 20-something young professional, or maybe a sophisticated grad student. Seeing her this way unearthed an uncomfortable sadness, a sadness that transcended all time, but this was the manifestation of his dream for her. Parents want to forever have their children at all ages, not this horrible slip of growth and aging that crystallized one stage forever, never to come again, and made the next an uncertainty that might never actually happen.
Bill and Jason chatted stiltedly about sports and then Bill brought up the cabinets. “Oh no,” Jason said. “That can wait until after dinner. We worked so hard, don’t want it to get cold.”
The cornish hens sat as a glistening centerpiece, circled by mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots. A spotlight shone on a decadently decorated cake. “We’re usually more laid back with dinner, but tonight is special,” Jason said, pulling out a chair for Bill.
Bill blushed, “I hope no one went to any extra trouble at for me.”
“Oh, but we did,” said Melissa, pouring wine. “And we don’t regret it.” Her voice was bright and clean. Her face looked completely alien to Jason, but she was so beautiful in that moment. He wondered who this woman was, who this person was inside of him right now. They were different people now, ready to engulf themselves in their own flames.
Bill snuck a look at Allison.
“Allison,” Jason said abruptly. “Will you help me get the bread?”
“Yes, father,” she said. She had never called him “father,” her voice had never sounded like that.
They went into the kitchen together, but only Jason returned. In one swift movement he grabbed Bill’s arms and cuffed his hands. Melissa, like a ninja, like a spirit, was suddenly upon Bill too, with a rope. After a moment of shock and disbelief, he begun to struggle, but Jason and Melissa’s strength was enormous, inhuman. As Jason taped Bill’s mouth, Bill bucked back, trying to turn the chair over, but Jason was an iron statue. He was unmovable.
Melissa appeared again, moving like a ghost, her smile white and red, with a poker from the fire. “We know what you did! Did you come into our house thinking we didn’t know?” she screamed, brandishing the hot metal. Time slowed down for Jason, the orange glow seemed to have a trail like in an overexposed photo. Was it like this for Bill, or was it all moving too fast?
“You delusional scum! You audacious shit of a human walking into our home, expecting to eat our food, take our business.” Jason screamed at him. He could feel his face contorting. He felt himself changing, becoming his outrage. “You are the nightmare of the world, a failure of humanity, a curse of a man. I don’t want to kill you, but you will suffer at my hands.”
Jason jammed the hot poker at Bill’s crotch, and through the tape he screamed a scream Jason had never heard before. It was a sound he could not have imagined, but it was the sound he was looking for. It was a primordial sound echoing through time and coming out of Bill’s mouth.
Jason scorched Bill again, and Bill whimpered. They had taken his screams from him. Jason applied the poker again, fearing it was cooling off, but Bill didn’t make a sound this time. Melissa’s hands were at his throat, and Jason had no idea how long they had been there.
Allison drove to the next town and checked into a dingy hotel. The woman who checked her in lobbed at her the questioning tones of the suspicious, but Allison didn’t care. She sunk into her little room with its odd smells, got under the covers and turned on the lights. She sent texts to her parents that simply said, “I love you.”
Everything was even less the same than it was. Her parents were trying to avenge her, but she didn’t know exactly how, or what would come of any of it. All that was left now was a blackness ahead. Time was not a candle. It wasn’t anything.