This page is everything that I have posted from my novel in progress, Separated Fog.
There was always one spot on her chin where the hair could be felt but not removed. It was like a prickly, bumpy reminder of age. But not really old age, because if she were old, the hair would have become thinner, or so she read, so this follicle was really a reminder that she was both too old and too young to be carefree and live without tweezers in her purse.
There was a new treatment where they froze the hair away. It seemed like they froze everything now. Fat, hair, moles. “One day we will all just be perfect figurines encased in cubes of ice,” she thought, but until then the ice hair removal was expensive and tweezers are cheap.
“What do you think, Joan?” The voice interrupted her meditation on facial hair and its implications for the zeitgeist. She hadn’t been paying attention, which was apparently evident because Ms. Foster never asked nor cared what she thought unless it was an opportunity to humiliate her. Not to say Ms. Foster had it in for her, specifically—she did it to everyone—but Joan made it too easy. “Perhaps the old bat wasn’t feeling well today,” Joan thought, “that she would go for such low hanging fruit.” Nope-no, not time for that now. Focus on crafting an answer that saves your dignity.
“Um...” Swing and a miss. “Ummmm, I think...I think that we should remember who the main client is here.” Total, utter nonsense, but Foster’s face showed no indication of interrupting. “Because...” Shit. What was the topic of this meeting again? Where is that agenda? She stretched out her back and casually paged through her tablet, past the gossip column she had open and her friend’s wedding page and the restaurant she thought might be good for lunch until—there it is. Longest stretch in the history of time. Client Retention and Multifamily Sessions. What a load. “Because there is a potential for focusing on the family member who is causing the most friction and forgetting who the original client was. The loudest person shouldn’t determine the course of treatment, even if that means the family sessions stop.” There. Not only did she thrown in relevant nouns, maybe Foster would see the last sentence as a deliberate dig at her managerial style, or lack thereof.
“Multifamily sessions, Joan, but I agree with you.” Well, so much for causing her to pause and reflect. “Keep in mind we are trying to craft a new paradignmia for supravidual care.” God, her vocabulary was annoying. Maybe if she dug hard enough into her chin, the hair would come out. Her thumb nail flickered back and forth, scratching over the tiny bump and the friction echoed through her skull, dampening the sound of one woman talking. Dampening, but not muting.
“I just think...” scratch, scratch, scratch, “...we can’t pretend like...,” scratch, scratch, scratch, “otherwise, in my opinion, the whole exercise...” scratch, scratch, “...but that’s just based on my experience.” Joan felt sorry to have missed such a definitive statement of therapeutic philosophy. After all, whoever this person was, she did seem to have a lot of experience.
She craned sideways to see who had been talking. No one was giving off the telltale signs of having just spoken in a meeting. No sidebar conversations between two women, eyes shifting toward the former speaker. No one attempting to look overly casual and unaware that she had just made a conscious and unrequested announcement of her opinion. Whoever it was, she really was experienced, because she was a ghost.
The meeting ended shortly after the phantom speaker. Joan collected her belongings with the same care and diligence employed by a post-graduate paleontologist who was looking for tenure among the brachiosaurus bones. Anything was better than going back to her desk. She had just begun the totally necessary task of rearranging the items in her bag when she heard her phone vibrate.
She emptied all but the most incriminating objects out onto the table before she found it, a magical device that manages to be the size of a small hoagie, but still impossible to find by touch, unlike a small hoagie. She pressed it against her cheek until the soft foam formed around her jawline. With her hands free, she started ever so slowly to refill her bag.
“Hey, babe. What are you doing for lunch?”
“I hadn’t decided. Did you see the link I sent you?”
“Yeah, but I was there last week. How about Gina’s?”
She had been to Gina’s a few days ago, but she was afraid another setback in the planning making would end the negotiations, so she agreed.
As soon as she pulled the phone off her face, she realized she wasn’t alone in the room.
“Gina’s is awful.” It was the same voice that had spoke in the meeting. Now Joan realized why she hadn’t been able to find her in the crowd.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was bored. There was nothing to do around the house.” Joan thought about all that could be done around the house, like cleaning or more cleaning. A flash of anger traveled across her face and made her forehead twitch.
“You shouldn’t have come here. And you definitely shouldn’t have talked during the meeting.”
“You mean the presentation? I don’t consider your stellar contribution to have turned it into some sort of collaborative event. Anyway, nobody saw me and you were the only one that was listening, barely.”
“I just don’t want to get us in trouble.” She immediately regretted saying that out loud, until she remember that the harm was in the thinking it, not saying it.
“Right, but that’s what makes it so much fun,” the voice’s smile was nearly audible, “because I do.”
Joan sighed. There was no arguing with her and in any event her next appointment had started thirty seconds ago. She glanced casually at the green light emanating from her bag. It dimmed slowly and grew brighter with every cycle, reminding her how late she was becoming. She felt the humidity of the room increase. “They must have shut the air conditioning off now that the meeting is over,” she thought. How cheap.
The hair on the back of her neck started to stick with sweat. She ran her hand upwards to smear the wayward strands against the sections that were still up. She thought about leaving the room without saying goodbye. It seemed like it was going to be unavoidably awkward no matter what she did, so she just left.
Down the hallway she could see a row of floor lights. Everyone else had made it to their appointments on time. Her dark light was like a missing tooth in a mouth full of cheap carpet. She stopped to fill her mug up with water. She couldn’t start a session now. She needed time to cool down, to prepare herself.
However, sipping water in the hallway was a great way to ensure Ms. Foster would appear, so she made her way to her office. Once she shut the door behind her, the interior lights warmed and dimmed. She sat down in her chair and swiveled around a bit, as if the three by three space could somehow become improved if she approached it from another angle. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass barrier between her and the client area. The combination of the poor lighting and the monochromatic décor gave her reflection the appearance of an etching. Crafted only in contrast, she looked much older.
“They probably do that on purpose,” she thought, “so that we want to bring in the client as soon as we sit down.” if they did, it was one of the few things they ever planned correctly. She hit the large button hidden behind a generic picture of somebody else’s cat that she kept on her desk to “humanize her” and waited for the client to appear.
Gina’s was awful. Perhaps more awful than she remembered. It has this cloying futuristic-kitsch theme, so all the waitresses wore neon clothing and white lipstick. Their hair was shellacked back and to the side, like they were perpetually standing in the bed of an eastbound pick up truck. The entire restaurant was cold to the point of being uncomfortable, but it would have been ridiculous to wear a sweater in the middle of the summer, so she chose to tough it out. The menus were written onto the table in fonts that were too playful for a store serving up dead meat by the barrel. She was tired and the conversation wasn’t lifting her spirits much.
“Don’t you get it? We use the sweat off people who are exercising. We burn it into steam.”
“I get it. I just don’t understand how that is going to work.” Where were her fries?
“The point is the vapors. We catch the vapors and that gives us the source residue.” He took a monstrous bite out of his sandwich and kept talking, “We don’t need to catch all of it, just enough to catch it and amplify it.”
“It just seems like there should be an easier way.” She looked down at both their quickly emptying plates. The fry situation was really getting critical at this point. “I mean, are you going to make people work out or just try to screen them when they are working out on their own?”
“That’s the beauty of it. They don’t even know we’re doing it. We can set up at the park on a Sunday morning. Turn on the device to a certain area of the track, and wait for people to come to us.”
“Yeah, see, that just doesn’t seem like it should be legal.” Maybe if she added more salt to the burger, she would forget the lack of fries.
“Right, but it is, for now, and I’d rather take advantage of the opportunity and test the machine out while we can do it for free.” He swirled his last bite around in a puddle of ketchup. “If they ever do get around to making any of this illegal, at least we’ll have the technology developed. We can always sell it to the government.”
“That’s exactly who I would want to have the technology to harvest my essence.”
He smiled. “Don’t say ‘essence’ or ‘harvest’ for that matter. It implies we are taking something permanent. We aren’t.”
“I don’t think harvest implies permanent removal. Just the opposite.”
“You know what I mean. You make it sound like we are violating people and we aren’t. They don’t even know it.”
“So you think. But have you ever tried it on yourself?”
“Of course I have, and I’m fine, aren’t I?” His tone was getting more aggressive. This was clearly a conversation he had had before, possibly with someone more authoritatively knowledgeable than a girl who is forced to eat a burger with no fries because she doesn’t want to bother the waitress.
“I’m not saying there is anything wrong with your plan. It just gives me the creeps to think you guys are out there—sucking or borrowing or harvesting or doing whatever it is that you do—and people don’t know.”
He didn’t respond right away, which meant that all of a sudden the ambient music seemed much louder. It was the shrill voice of a woman, singing in a language she couldn’t identify. Something sad.
She got home from work late. Eating lunch took longer than she expected and then she had lingered on the walk home, stopping to look at every third pair of shoes, not because they were interesting, but because it slowed her down. The end result was that she had to stay late to finish inputting her notes. The last few were just copied and pasted from a particularly good one she wrote last week.
“Where have you been?”
“Work. Is there any dinner left?”
“I never made it.”
“What? Why not?”
“I went out for a while and I didn’t get back in time.”
“What am I supposed to eat?”
“There are Pop-Tarts.”
“I don’t want Pop-Tarts. I’m an adult. I want an actual dinner.”
There was no response. Joan slammed her bag down on the couch and kicked her shoes off in opposite directions. The left one whipped by the cat and into a dried fern, which exploded in a confetti of former life and present dust. The cat didn’t flinch.
“Dammit,” she scolded herself. “I really wanted to keep that one alive.”
“Which one, the cat or the fern? Because the cat is technically still alive.”
“The fern. That was the one I got when I first moved in. It’s been with me longer than you or the cat.”
“It hasn’t been ‘with’ you for months. How could you not notice?”
“I dunno. I’ve been busy.” She peeled a corner of the plastic cover off her dinner, and she realized what had just happened. “Hey, don’t do that. I told you I don’t like when you talk to me in my head. You did that earlier today when we were at work.”
“What does it matter? We’re alone.”
“It just makes me feel exposed. Like I don’t have any privacy.”
“You don’t have privacy, not from me, at least. I can’t pretend I don’t hear you.”
“Yes, yes you can.” She slammed the door to the oven with more force than she was expecting to use. It startled her, but she didn’t think about it for long. Crossing her arms, she tilted back on her heels as the plate rotated. She was doing her best “middle-distance” stare, like when she would need to use the oven at work but another team was having lunch. Somehow she felt like if she avoided eye contact, she would be invisible.
The nice thing about using the microwave was that she couldn’t hear her when it was on. In fact, she had discovered that she couldn’t even come into the room. She wasn’t sure why, but she took full advantage of it. “I mean,” she reassured herself, “I don’t have to listen to her, and I do need to cook my dinner, since no one else did.” Also, there was so much about her that she didn’t understand. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal to add one more thing—a thing that actually made her life easier for a change.
And all she had to do was get used to overcooked green beans.
The next morning she woke up on the couch, scrunched up in a ball for warmth. The cat had managed to cocoon itself in the afghan and return to its exact location without waking her.
She lurched off the couch half-heartedly. Lumbering into the kitchen was easier than the bathroom, so she made coffee first. She filled the chamber with coffee beans, then the next chamber with milk and then the final chamber with water. All involved trips to the opposite sides of the room. It didn’t seem to be any more convenient than the old coffee maker, or, for that matter, forgetting the whole mess and buying coffee from the store.
“It was easy to be dressed and gone before she woke up,” Joan thought. Based on the timing of her text messages, the day begins when the hour has double-digits. That would never work for Joan, though. The earlier the better. She liked to leave when there was still fog and the sun would cut through in certain places during her drive. She never understood why people said that the sun burned off the morning fog. It didn’t feel like burning. Burning was slow. Burning left ash. The sun obliterated the fog. Nothing was left.
The fog had stayed late into the afternoon the day she first met her. Met her. That isn’t the best way to describe what happened. Joan hadn’t ever decided what the best word was. “Discovered” connoted too much intent. It gave her too much credit. But “met” made it all seem mundane. People meet at a party or over lunch. She hadn’t met her.
The drive this morning left plenty of time to think about that day. The roads were empty, as they often were this early, but so many of the bridges were up that it took forever to get to the city. In the fog, she couldn’t see what types of boats were crossing. There were just patches of red and blue metallic paint that floated through her line of vision. She sipped her coffee thoughtlessly as she waited for the chain of color to end and the metal arm to push through the haze, its flashing lights hitting the airborne water molecules and revealing their movement. The air was always moving, even if she wasn’t.
As she was waiting for the bridge to lower, thinking about everything and nothing, she stared off into distance, alternating her focus between the windshield and the lights ahead of her. She imagined the water lapping against the side of the ship that was passing, how it would be smooth and methodical at port, but would peel away as the ship began to move. Eventually it would just be a constant stream alongside the hull, a steady flow with only the slightest undulation. It was such a calming thought, a transformation with so little effort or destruction. Nothing about it was permanent. She wondered if it was because the ship was so big and the water so vast. Whether the whole process seemed much more tumultuous to the fish or whether they were too small to even notice. “There used to be much bigger fish in the river,” she thought, “They probably would have noticed.” So perhaps its better they were gone, confined to the farms where they never had to worry about bothersome ships or where the delicious little fish were hiding. They would just wait for the plum of feed to engulf them and eat and swim until their number was up. Joan thought it probably wasn’t a bad way to live or die, assuming one had to do both.
No sooner had that thought passed from her mind and into the ether, than a car sped by her, passed through the warning lights and disappeared into the fog.
She had never gotten out of her car in the middle of the road before, and the idea was most unsettling. A part of her felt it was unnecessary. There was nothing she could do and she would be making herself vulnerable by leaving the safety of her car. Still, how would it look if she didn’t. Pretty bad. The whole bridge was monitored. The footage would probably be on news within the hour, assuming the driver couldn’t be identified, in which case, it would show up as soon as the family was notified. She would become the driver of the blue car that didn’t care enough to look. She would never hear the end of it at home.
She lifted the door slowly and looked both way before she stepped outside. The dampness of the air and the proximity to the water gave her a chill, even though it wasn’t cold. She closed the door without looking. Her gaze was already focused on the bridge. She walked slowly toward the lights, just as the sirens started in the distance. Within minutes the port police would arrive. She had to at least be past the threshold by then. She turned around and saw that her car had half disappeared in the fog. She might as well keep going.
The arm had lifted about halfway before it froze in place. She let touched the bar lightly although she didn’t have to crouch to go under it. The ground under her turned from solid metal to a woven grate. She could hear the water hiss and whistle. She looked down. The fog probably blocked any view of the water, but she swore she could see it rushing under her. Maybe it was the sound. She started to feel dizzy and looked up quickly.
As the ever-obedient dance partner to the arm, the bridge had lowered about halfway, maybe a little more. She couldn’t see to the other side or around it. There was a narrow walkway on the left that was striped with rows of rebar to make it a ladder when it was vertical. She grasped the railing and started climbing.
The top of the bridge was very high. Higher than she had ever been on foot. There were birds that had perched at the top. They looked at her as she approached. They weren’t afraid. They didn’t know enough to be afraid. They had probably spent their whole short lives flying around this bridge and had never seen a human. It’s not like people drove off it everyday. In any event, they stayed there as she reached the top. And they looked over the edge with her.
All she could see were grey swirls of water and fog. There was no sign of the car or the driver. Suddenly she felt something grab ahold of her leg and yank her downward. She slammed her chin against the metal bars and bit her tongue. Cold, wet rubber skimmed against her cheek and caught her hair in its friction.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” It was a man’s voice. He smelled of cigarette smoke and diesel, or turpentine. Some sort of accelerant.
“Let go of me!” Joan screamed, but her words were muffled by the rustling of heavy fabric and then by sirens. How had she missed the sirens before?
Like a rag doll, she dangled helplessly while he climbed down the ladder. The lights flashing below them became more defined and she could make out the contours of several police cars and a fire truck. It seems a little excessive, but then, what else was there for them to do this early in the morning?
Once they were off the bridge, he picked up his pace until they were behind an ambulance. He set her down directly in the path of the exhaust, which was strangely warm and comforting after being above the water.
He didn’t leave, but he also didn’t say anything. After a few minutes of standing their awkwardly, she thought perhaps she should utilize her skill set and attempt to communicate with him.
“Um. Thanks. But, I mean, I could have climbed down on my own.” He didn’t answer. He looked around nervously and scratched under his chin. The only thing she could arguably have called his response was a quick half-smile, but that could have also been gas.
Their moment was interrupted, mercifully, but a younger woman in equally unflattering khakis and work shoes who had snuck up on them while they were immersed in the discomfiture.
“Hi, Ms. Gulioso?” She pronounced it like “Ghoul-ioso,” which made Joan cringe. It was bad enough that her parents had saw fit to give her an alliterative name, but the alternative pronunciation just seemed needlessly difficult. Joan usually thought it compounded the problem to correct it. She looked up at the woman and raised her eyebrows.
“My name is Katy Williams. I’m with Emergency Response. Do you mind if we talk?” Joan shrugged. Something about being asked to talk always made her talk less.
“Great,” Khaki Williams continued with a practiced smile. “Why don’t we climb in and head over to the hospital?”
“Oh. No. No, I can’t go to the hospital. I have to be at work. I’m probably already late.” Joan fumbled around for her phone, but she must have left it in her car.
“We’ve already called them. Don’t worry about it. They just want to make sure you are ok.”
“Of course I’m ok. I really don’t think that is necessary.” She added, “Also, I don’t want to leave my car here.”
“Well, it is your decision Ms. Ghoul-ioso, but I think it would be best if you agreed to come with us.”
There was something in her phrasing that was off. Off, but familiar. Joan started walking to her car. Khakis followed her at what had to be a calculated distance. It made Joan nervous. She reached for the door handle hastily. It bounced back into place with a snap, taking her middle nail with it.
“Damn that hurt!” Joan looked up with embarrassment, but Khaki just smiled again on cue. Joan started patting her pockets for her keys. Her face burned with embarrassment.
She had locked them in the car. There they were on the seat, right next to her phone.
“Ok, I guess we can go for a ride after all.”
She seemed abnormally pleased to learn she had gotten what she wanted. Like perhaps she was too invested in whether Joan decided to come to the hospital or not. Joan remembered that some programs paid by the service, so maybe Khaki got a nice little bonus for bringing someone in. She climbed into the back of the ambulance and onto the stretcher, which she imagined was probably against policy, but she had been thrown around enough for one day. Khaki climbed in and sat next to her on the bench seat. From her place lying on the stretcher, Joan could see directly up her nose. It seemed like an overly intimate act to engage in, seeing inside someone, even just her nose. Joan looked away. She felt the ambulance driver release the brake and then slowly they started moving.
They didn’t speak on the way to the hospital. Every once in a while Khaki would look down at Joan and smile. Or smile more. Her initial smile didn’t really change. It just expanded to different parts of her face. Joan closed her eyes and tried to enjoy the silence.
The trip was too short. When they arrived, Joan attempted to get off the ambulance herself, but unlike at the bridge, the hospital staff wasn’t laissez faire about much of anything, including how patients entered. She was immediately surrounded by several staff members who suggested, physically and wordlessly, that she sit in wheelchair. They wheeled her back to a small room with a clear door that automatically opened when they approached. There was a high, hard bed in the corner and two chairs that Joan noticed were bolted to the floor. Aside from those three pieces of furniture, the room was empty. It was also cold.
They asked her to change into a gown, which she refused since she couldn’t determine how she would do so without flashing the entirety of the emergency department through the clear plastic door. Her refusal sparked a flurry of side-eyes and eventual shrugs from the more senior staff.
A young woman came in and asked for her identification. Joan explained that her phone and purse were all locked in her car but that she should be in the system because she worked for Behavioral Networks.
“Oops, yep, I see you,” the girl remarked. “Sorry about that. Can I take your picture for our system? The one we have here looks old.” Joan nodded and a flash went off from an indeterminate source in the room. It reminded her of when the old picture had been taken. It had to have been over five years ago. She had started working at BN and was so excited to finally have a full-time job. She remembered how happy she looked in the picture. Now it was gone.
“Do you automatically overwrite the old photos?” Joan asked.
“Only for users like me. Your old photo is still archived on the main server.”
“Good. I would hate to lose the old photo. I looked so happy and now I’m going to look like a crazy person who just got pulled off a bridge.”
The girl laughed. “Most people do. At least you have an excuse.”
Joan thought about how correct that statement was, how many times she was waiting for a new client, looking at the system I.D., only to have a total stranger appear. She had always chalked it up to being bad with faces. Everyone looked alike to her.
“And just what is so funny in here?” A nurse had walked in. Her tone was jovial enough that Joan decided she was kidding.
The girl answered before Joan could. “Oh, me and her were just talking about how bad these photos are.” Joan wasn’t particularly happy to be associated with just bad grammar, but she decided it wasn’t worth alienating her new friend, whom she would probably never see again.
“Oh man, I know.” The nurse exclaimed and shoved her I.D. badge into Joan’s face. “Who on earth is this person, right?”
Joan smiled but she hadn’t really seen the picture. She didn’t think she really needed to have seen it to participate in the exchange, so no harm done.
“Now, let’s see what we can do for you. How are you feeling, Joan?”
“Fine. I guess I’m a little cold.”
“We can get you a blanket.”
“That isn’t necessary. I don’t plan on staying.”
“Of course not, but blankets are one of the few things here that are free. That, and coffee, but it’s decaf.”
“Ugh. I’ll take the blanket.”
She ultimately regretted asking for the blanket because it covered most of her work clothes and having it on her made her look sick and weak, like she belonged there. But she didn’t want to throw it off her because that seemed rude. So she sat there, looking like an overdressed invalid.
A woman came in with a clipboard. Her outfit was both casual and impractical for physical activity, which immediately identified her as a counselor, rather than someone who would be lifting sick people all day.
“Hi Joan. I’m Sarrin. Can we chat a bit? I promise it won’t take long.”
Joan never knew when to tell people she was a counselor. Now seemed like a good time, but she thought it could also appear like she was bragging or trying to make herself look special. Obviously counselors had counselors. There was no reason identifying herself as one should change what Sarrin did.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Well, Joan, we are just very concerned about what happened today.”
“I would hope so.”
“Right. So I wonder if you could tell me what you remember?”
“Nothing much, really. I was sitting waiting for the bridge to come back down and this car sped by me. I didn’t see it fall or hear it. I didn’t see who was driving.”
“Ok, and that’s when you decided to climb up the bridge? After you saw the car?”
“Yeah. I just—I mean, I don’t really know why I did it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
“What were you going to do when you got to the top?”
“I dunno. Look down? Maybe see something? I hadn’t quite figured that out.”
“Uh-huh” She started writing on her clipboard. “And the car, do you remember what color it was? What model?”
“Um, blue. It was definitely blueish. Model-wise, I don’t know. A sedan, but sporty. Maybe it had four doors. I didn’t get a good look.”
She waited for the furious scribbling to stop. “Not to be morbid, but why does it matter what I remember? I would think the car could be found pretty easily. Don’t they get diving teams out?”
Sarrin looked up from her clipboard and then back down. Her shoulders raised and lowered in a deep sigh. “Joan, there was no car.”
“What? Of course there was.”
“No. There wasn’t. The police were there for you. To keep you from jumping off the bridge.”
Joan paused for a moment. She wasn’t sure how to respond. “That doesn’t make any sense. I heard the sirens before I was on the bridge. Why were there sirens if I hadn’t climbed the bridge yet?” Airtight logic. Weasel out of that, Sarrin.
“I don’t know what you heard, Joan, but the police didn’t come until you tripped the alarm system.” Right. Joan realized that if people were willing to believe she was seeing things, it wasn’t a great stretch for them to believe she was also hearing things.
“This is crazy. I saw the car. I got out to check. I’m not suicidal.”
“Of course not. But you can see why we are worried?”
“Who was this ‘we’ everyone kept referring to? What annoying habit,” Joan thought. Take ownership of your stupidity.
“No,” Joan said flatly, “I can’t see why you are worried because I know I saw the car and I know I’m not crazy. I also know I wanted to go now.” She got up from the bed and Sarrin moved deftly to the door. “Yeah,” Joan thought, “I know that move, too.”
“You can’t leave right now, Joan, we aren’t finished.”
“No, you aren’t finished. We, as in you and I, are done. I want to leave.” She moved toward the door. Suddenly a wall of dark blue scrubs blocked her path. She continued walking. Someone grabbed her. She jerked her arm away. She felt a pinch, then darkness.
She was dreaming of the road. The way it winds and whittles into the distance. She saw the road, but she wasn’t moving. The road was moving under her, but she floated above it. It was if the road and she were both movies, but she was moving at a different frame rate. She felt hot and lost and empty.
She saw her apartment. Her car. Her cat. Her dead ferns. Her friends. Her Friend. They were all moving along the road, but at different speeds. Occasionally it would seem like one was going to collide into the other, but instead they would just melt together. Except for the one. She never ran into anything. Things just seemed to get out of her way before a collision was even imminent. She couldn’t figure out how she was doing it, but she knew she was dreaming because she could see her clearly, without relying on catching the light or ambient air. As soon as she realized she was dreaming, the dream came to an end.
When she woke up it was dark. She could tell she was in a hospital room though, because of the smell. Hospitals always smell like sanitized illness. Like the way menthol cough drops halfheartedly cover the smell of sinus drainage. “Gross,” she thought. Only she would think about it that way.
She stirred in the bed and it made a crinkling sound. “It must have a plastic cover under the sheets,” she reasoned. She made a mental note to intentionally wet the bed to punish the people that put her here, but then she thought that wouldn’t help her get out sooner.
She stumbled out of bed and lost her footing briefly. Immediately, a young woman ran into the room.
“Are you ok? Do you need to use the bathroom?” She reached out and Joan thought she was going to grab her, but instead her hands hovered inches away from Joan’s shoulders.
“No. I just—I was just tired of sleeping. Am I allowed to walk around?”
“Of course. We just don’t want you to fall, you know? So maybe lets take it easy for the first few minutes. You’ve been asleep a long time. Why don’t I walk you to the bathroom and then I can get you something to drink?”
Joan nodded. The hands that had been hovering rested on her arms lightly and guided her into the bathroom stall. She really had been asleep for a long time. Her mouth was dry and she felt like she was empting the all the possible liquid she had in her body into the toilet stall. When she got up, she saw that the there was a strange film over the water.
“What is that in the toilet?”
“Oh, it is probably the drug screen. It is easier than having you go in a cup. Did it light up?”
“Like, glow? No.”
“No. Like, did it change colors?”
“Um. I guess not.”
“Well, that’s good news, right? At least you weren’t drugged.”
“Nope,” thought Joan, “I guess I’m just naturally crazy.”
The next few hours were spent answering questions. Where she grew up. Whether she was sick a lot as a child. Who was her next of kin. No one asked her about the bridge. There were just whispers and knowing smiles.
Joan wasn’t sure how long she had been in the hospital. There weren’t any clocks and she wasn’t allowed to have her phone. She didn’t want to ask because she thought that would make her seem even more out of it. Better to be quiet.
Still, it seemed like she had been there a while and eventually she hoped someone would notice she was missing. Unless they called. But that didn’t make sense, she thought. Who would they call?
She ate her meals in her room. She didn’t want to sit with the other patients. She ate alone at home most of the time, she reasoned, so why would she change now? The food was decent. Mostly pastes and broths. She would probably lose some weight, depending on how long she had to stay here.
Somewhere outside of town, across the bridge and past the marshes, where apartment buildings nestle between rows of expertly manicured trees, a cat yawned in the sun and scratched at the upholstery of the couch. The cat stretched, almost twice its typical resting size, and then repositioned itself in a ball for the long day ahead. The sun caught the particles of dust and hair that stirred when the animal moved. The particles swirled around in the air, until they almost made the faint outline of a face. A face with eyes that had just opened.
It had been three days since Joan had left for work and hadn’t come back. She had rather enjoyed the unusual modicum of privacy. She spent the first evening hesitant to do anything too fun, because Joan could have just been a little late coming home, although she never stayed late. By the second evening it seemed more likely that Joan was never coming home, so she decided to stave off grief by eating all the ice cream in the house and leaving the carton in the sink, still coated in sugary residue that was perfect for catching cat hair. Joan would have been furious had she seen it.
Eating the ice cream was admittedly difficult, but she also had nothing else to do. Watching TV was what she did on a regular night. Tonight was special. Tonight she could make a mess.
It was one thing to move objects. That was easy. She could blow open the door, even the door to the refrigerator, which had been sticking since the time Joan kicked it upon learning there was no milk for her cereal.
She could also pick up the spoon and the carton. Dipping the spoon into the ice cream with sufficient force was tricky, but no trickier than when Joan tries to do it before it thaws. She would just need to press harder.
Pressing. Pressing was difficult. It required substance and force, sustained over time. This had to be more than a gust of wind or a shove of the cat. She had to keep the spoon in her hand, press into the ice cream and keep doing both as she moved the spoon through the ribbons of caramel and chunks of cookie dough. She could almost taste it.
Of course, tasting and chewing and digesting would be the next hurdle. Even if she got the spoon to her move, she still had to keep it from sinking right through her and landing on the floor. This is why it was best to try such new things when Joan was gone. No one would yell at her for leaving a pile of melting ice cream on the kitchen floor. She never understood why Joan yelled at her for things like that. If she couldn’t hold well enough to keep from dropping, how was she supposed to clean it up?
But now she thought she wouldn’t even need to clean it up. She would just let the cat eat it. Or not. It could sit there until the ants came. It was all the same to her. She would rise above it. Ha. Word play was fun.
It would have been more fun had Joan been there to hear it and roll her eyes, but she dismissed that thought as illogical, since if Joan had been here the whole idea would be moot. In any event, time was wasting.
She brushed past the freezer door to get the container. It opened easily, but when she attempted to pull the cardboard box out of the ice, nothing happened. Angered, she wrapped her arm around the box and pulled furiously. She felt herself give way and her arm burst into the ether. She had mustered enough force to kick herself back, but the ice cream didn’t move.
This is what Joan is good for. Solid things like dislodging food and moving the cat. Perhaps making a mess of the ice cream wasn’t as fun as it initially seemed. Joan had been gone too long.
It was amazing to Joan how quickly she adjusted to life in the hospital. She liked the quiet. The way her food just materialized when she was hungry. The way she could sit and watch TV all day. The way she could have a pill whenever she got upset. But she really didn’t get upset anymore. There was nothing to get upset about.
Every once in a while a woman would come into her room, introduce herself, make some small talk, and eventually ask Joan about the incident on the bridge. The pattern of communication was eerily similar, but then, so was Joan’s response.
“I saw what I saw.”
Upon hearing her answer, the woman would nod softly and start to leave, pausing only to ask Joan if she needed anything.
There was one woman who would ask something different as she got up. Not whether Joan needed anything, but whether Joan wanted to do anything. That’s all she would say, “Do you have any thoughts of doing anything?”
Joan never knew how to respond. In truth, she didn’t want to do anything. She just wanted to stay at the hospital and relax. Not worry. But that sounded terrible. It didn’t sound like something an adult would say. Joan was ashamed to tell the woman this, particularly because the woman was clearing working and it was such a selfish statement.
So, instead, she would look down at the ground. She wasn’t lying, and then the woman would leave. It was a perfect solution.
“So when are you getting out of here?” His voice was tense. He was clearly uncomfortable being there, not that he really was there, but it was apparently too much for him even holographically.
“I’m not sure,” Joan replied, picking at her cuticle and pushing it back toward her knuckle. No reason to get hangnails just because she’s locked up in the loony bin. “They don’t tell me much.”
“Are you doing everything they tell you to do?”
“Yes.” Her voice was testy. She was very attuned to any inference that this was her fault or that she was drawing the process out for her own gain.
“I don’t get it then. Why aren’t they letting you come home? Can I talk to them?”
“If you want. I’m not sure what that would do—if it would help.”
“Why wouldn’t it help? I can just tell them you’re fine. You seem exactly the same to me as you’ve always been.”
“I think they want me to say I didn’t see the car.”
“So...say that.” He was almost sarcastic.
“I can’t. That’s a lie.”
“You lie all the time. Just last week you told me you were going to work and when I called they said you had called in.”
“That’s not a real lie. If I tell them I didn’t see it—I’m either lying then or I’m lying now.”
“But it gets you out of here and home.”
Home. She didn’t even want to think about what home looked like right now. It taxed her sense of realism to believe she had been keeping it clean. The cat was probably dead. Or not. Both outcomes were equally likely.
The mist rose of the water in a slow, steady stream of choreographed dances, each unique, yet blended seamlessly with the next. The water was calm. No boats had passed by for hours. There was a soft undulation of the surface. It would have been hypnotic except it was too much like her to have an affect. The undulations weren’t different from how she felt. There was no contrast, the way a solid person would feel. Instead, she sensed the undulations begin to pull at her feet, her knees, her hips. The mist caused her stomach to turn and twist as it took over what little of her form was visible. It climbed up her torso, across her chest and to her neck. She could feel every chord of each—the waves and the mist—as it consumed her. She took a final look at the sun to make sure she was heading in the correct direction, and then she was gone.
“I said I wanted mac and cheese.” Joan tapped her plastic spoon on the counter. The heat from her body as she became more annoyed caused her hospital gown to change color.
The nurse was unimpressed. The novel gowns had lost their ability to decrease staff response time much quicker than had been advertised. “The sheet says a cheeseburger. I can send it back, but you will have to wait until the second round.”
“UHH!” The gown flashed red and orange. “I hate it here. I want to go home.”
This was enough for the nurse to look up from her tablet. She slid it back into the interior pocket of her coat and came from around the desk.
“Joan, you can go home whenever you want, but we have to know you are going to be safe.”
“Why would I not be safe? I was safe before I came here. This is bull—“ Joan caught herself. She remembered what happened the last time she yelled at the staff. “Look, whatever I need to do, I’ll do it. Whatever you want me to say.”
It was amazing how much of her self-righteous determination could be lost in the face of the wrong lunch order.
The wind raced by her, pushing against the outline of her frame. She could see the water around her, below her, inside her. She felt empty and fufilled at the same time, like this is what she was meant to do forever even if it destroyed her.
She saw the shoreline and felt sadness and relief.
“When is the doctor going to be here?” Joan felt like she spent the majority of her time tapping on the nursing station desk. In the many hours she stood there, she had memorized the various views and staring points. The clock across the room. The lockers where the nurse’s kept their purses. The back of the transcriptionist’s head as she click-clacked away on her computer.
Once she had tired of the view, she had studied the scratches and dents in the polymer of the desk. There were faint outlines of inscriptions and signatures carved into the frosted plastic. The original depth had been buffed away, but the outlines remained. She thought about all the other patients that had stood where she stood, tapping their fingers and waiting to be heard. It just made her angrier.
“He’ll probably be in around lunchtime.” That was always the answer and it was never true. He was typically in right before 3, which was “nap-time,” or, as Joan called it, “involuntary nap-time” because she swore she was never tired at 3, but the minute she laid down on the bed, she fell asleep. They had to be pumping something into the rooms. She wanted to ask, but she had become very cognizant of how her statements would be interpreted. If she was too curious, they would ask her if she felt people were plotting against her, which a trained chimp could tell was an attempt to test her level of paranoia. If she were too indifferent, they asked her why she didn’t care about what was happening to her. There was really no happy medium, other than silence and the occasional pleasantry.
“Why don’t you go watch TV and we’ll tell you when the doctor comes in.” It wasn’t a suggestion, so Joan begrudgingly complied. As she walked away, she heard the staff talking about plans for the weekend. Her baseline scowl deepened.
She hadn’t sat for more than ten minutes when a nurse came rushing into the TV room.
“Joan? Joan, the doctor wants to see you immediately.”
Finally. Joan hurried into the office, pressing her hospital-issued shirt against her stomach in a futile attempt to get rid of the wrinkles and look presentable.
The nurse followed her in. The doctor was seated at his desk, writing on his usually yellow pad of paper. Joan couldn’t see what it said and she didn’t want to get caught looking.
“Well, Joan,” he began, “I see you have decided to admit what happened. I’m proud of you.”
“Um, yeah, I totally get it now. I was just really stressed and—I mean, yeah. I guess I was tired.” There was nothing convincing about her explanation, but he seemed eager to believe her for a change.
“Doctor, I have some concerns—“ the nurse began, but he didn’t let her finish.
“I understand that, but I feel it would be best to let Joan determine what happens next.”
Both the nurse and Joan shared a look of confusion, but refrained from looking at each other.
“So, that will be all. Joan, if you could stay so we can discuss your plans.” Joan didn’t look at the nurse, but she could hear the door slide shut. The doctor kept writing on his paper. She thought the pen strokes looked strange, overly expressive and wide. She strained to see what he was writing, but he shifted the angle of the pages.
“Well, I guess we don’t have much to talk about. I assume your plan is to go home?”
“And go back to work?”
“Good. I can give you a note of course. Wouldn’t want you to get in trouble with that boss of yours.”
Joan’s eyes narrowed. She had never spoken about her boss in her sessions with the doctor. In fact, to the best of her recollection, hazy as it may be, she had never mentioned her job. She stood up and walked towards him. He looked at her. His face widened into an eerie smile. Wider, wider, until it was no longer human, but a grotesque, putty-like mask. She lifted her hand and jabbed into his shoulder. Her finger went clear through him and jammed on the chair. He laughed.
“You!” She exclaimed. “What are you doing here?!”
She rolled up to the shoreline with so much speed that she nearly overshot and tripped onto the sand. The hospital loomed in the horizon. She saw a bright blue car speed around the corner and into a parking spot up front. In the front seat she could see a balding man checking his tablet. He seemed legitimate—convincing, and in any event, she liked his car. It was sporty.
She had never done a complete form before. Usually she would do a half or a quarter—some shade or shimmer that only a few people would see from a certain angle. That alone was exhausting. Keeping everything together in order. She imagined that was what it felt like when Joan held in her stomach all night on a date. Except this wasn’t her stomach. This was her whole body.
He got out of his car and slammed the door. The vibration traveled through the ground and made her uneasy. She hated the quick, jerky movements that seemed to dominate the solid world. It just seemed so jarring. She decided to use that annoyance as her anchor. She focused on the feeling, pressing her mind against it. Layering one thought after another until brown masses started to appear below her. Oxfords. New. The calves would be a trouble. Was he a runner? Perhaps it didn’t matter. What were the odds his pants would hang differently. She made a hasty decision to go with an average muscle tone because she was afraid if she hesitated too long she would lose her focus and spill onto the pavement. That would be humiliating.
The car was a different story. Much more difficult than she anticipated. Difficult, but not impossible. Not once she got the metal right. Actually, the metal felt comfortable. Cold and fluid. She liked the way the air ran over its surface. It felt like a new layer was forming and then, as quickly as it appeared, it was whisked away.
She ran down the road, past the hospital, past the store where Joan would buy that terrible bread they both hated. The wind whipped past her. She felt out of control, but still pushed in one direction. A steady, demanding stream of chaos dominated her mind. She saw the cameras posted at the stoplights and shifted slightly to bend the light around her. For the next few intersections, she developed a pattern of race and bend, race and bend, until she missed one by just a little and set off the flash. Three months later the good doctor would be shocked to find he had run a red light while he was in a particularly difficult session with a patient.
That mistake aside, it was easy to avoid being detected. Easy to be a shimmer in the peripheral vision of an old man waiting for a bus or a reflection in the window of a shop selling cakes. The cakes looked good. She should stop there on the way back.
She thought it would be fun to surprise Joan and show her how well she could control her forms. If she hurried, she could catch her before she went to work, especially today, since Joan had been up late watching television on the couch. There was no way she would leave on time.
By the time she got to the house, though, Joan’s car was gone. “Typical,” she said to no one, “She’s never around when I do something interesting, but the minute I make a mess she appears out of thin air.” Maybe she could catch her on the way. She sped down the road Joan took to work, cutting through the fog, the sun burning against her. The roads were empty, so she reached the bridge in what seemed like no time at all. She could see Joan’s car waiting for the bridge to lower. She slowed down. Now that she was here, it occurred to her that she should use the opportunity to its fullest potential.
There were two cameras aimed at the area around the bridge. One was focused on the base of the bridge and the other on the span, but from the opposite side of the road. That would be tricky. She would really need to torque around to avoid reflecting any light in either direction. She wasn’t optimistic. It seemed more likely she would lose it all after the first camera or that she wouldn’t shift in time and the second camera would get her. Given the choice between the two, she opted for the one that was less painful, less...explosive. She was a little worried about showing up on camera, but that could always be rationalized, assuming anyone even noticed. She had already thought about it too much. Really, it was just the easiest way to mess with Joan and that appealed to her. She rocked back on the wheels, relishing the feeling of the rough asphalt beneath her, and then she pushed forward.
She didn’t realize that without the normal friction, she would go much faster. On the way to the house and then to the bridge, she hadn’t thought to use any landmarks to judge her speed. But now, she reached the bridge so quickly, she almost forgot about the first camera. At the last possible moment, she dodged and then, before she could even think about the second camera, the fog surrounded her, distracted her, pulled against her. She tripped. And she lost it.