By Rhiannon Marino
A thin beam of car headlight slipped around the edge of the heavy curtain that stood in its way. It fell across the mound of blanket that lay beneath the windowsill, tracing the folds of woven fabric, searching for life. An eyelid fluttered open from deep beneath the shadows of pillows and downy comforters, as illumination danced across it.
Milo’s retinas shrank painfully to accommodate the sudden blaring ray that had somehow infiltrated his carefully darkened room. He jerked the curtain back into place in irritation, the car was long gone but his seventy-two hour nap was now ruined. He shut his eyes, attempting to drift back into dreams, but the light had done its damage. He could feel a migraine brewing from the unwelcome exposure so he gave up on sleep and rolled over to find the clock glaring at him. The stern digital numbers chastised him silently. 10:26 PM. He lay still for a moment longer, sulking under the clock’s disapproving gaze, before sitting up and letting his legs fall over the corner of the mattress and onto the floor below.
He made his bed carefully out of habit, tucking his blankets around the corners of spotless white sheets. The room was almost invisible with the curtains drawn, but he found his way to the hallway from memory. He liked the dark; it made him feel small and inconsequential. It ate up his body as if he didn’t exist. He disappeared into the cavernous black of the corridor, running one finger along the cool plaster until he brushed polished wood and opened the door to the bathroom.
A tiny window was cut into the wall above the shower, modeled after the feeble slits that illuminate prisons. A dying beam of light struggled to cast even a dim glow across the shining white tiles that spanned the floor and crawled halfway up the walls. The bathroom was pristine, as if no one had ever used it. As if it was part of a model home on display for the masses of prospective buyers who attended simply for the free finger food.
Milo shielded his eyes against the subtle glow and reached blindly for the shower knob, turning it all the way to HOT. He watched as a dense cloud of condensation crept across the mirror over the sink, slowly smoking out his reflection. With one hand he cleared a dripping window for his lower jaw, exposing the three days of beard that sprouted from his chin. He swathed his face in shaving cream and set about attacking the coarse hairs with a disposable Schick razor. Clean-shaven after much work, he doused his body in the steaming flow of water, washing away the specks of cream and blood that dotted his jaw.
He dressed slowly, his body clean but still weighted with sleep. He stripped himself of the pajamas he had been wearing for the past three days and replaced them with fresh boxers and undershirt, brown tweed slacks, matching jacket, black socks, and Doc Marten’s. He withdrew a small, unadorned cardboard box from the deepest corner of his closet and from it pulled a shiny black bowtie, which he threaded around his collar and secured. It had been a present from his mother for his seventeenth birthday. He had never worn it and she hadn’t given him anything since, so he felt it was appropriate for the occasion. A final “fuck you” to all those involved.
He made his way to the kitchen, still shrouded in darkness. The refrigerator was making a pleasant humming sound and he closed his eyes for a moment to listen. The sound lulled him; soothed his nerves and calmed his prickling migraine. The moment he opened the heavy magnetic door, the room was flooded with cold, harsh light and the humming stopped. He dipped his throbbing head into the vacuum of cold air to find only a small triangle of ungrated Parmesan cheese sitting alone on the topmost wire shelf. When was the last time he had eaten something? His stomach turned at the thought and he shut the refrigerator tightly.
His view no longer blocked by the fridge door, Milo noticed a persistent shimmer in the living room and went in to investigate. The black and white figures of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall embraced onscreen, throwing flickers on the opposite wall. He must have left the television on the last time he was down here. He couldn’t even remember watching television.
You’ve forgotten one thing – me.
What’s wrong with you?
Nothing you can’t fix.
Bacall whispered the last line against Bogart’s lapel and The End traced itself across their stiff kiss. It was the kind of embrace that old movies upheld as the “nice” way to kiss; awkwardly pressed against one another to simulate passion. But there was no “nice” way to be passionate, Milo thought. Passion was the dirt and grit of it all, the bare bones of our animalistic nature when pure instinct replaced rationale. There was no “nice” way to be in love.
He had been in love once. Her name was Laurie, which he had read off her nametag in the produce section of the twenty-four hour grocery store on Derby St. She worked the midnight shift and carried a little black hose, spraying each vegetable with individual care to keep them looking fresh. Her shift coincided perfectly with Milo’s shopping habits, for he only did so in the dead of the night, when only the drunk and homeless wandered the grocery aisles and shoppers had to bag their own groceries because employees were scarce.
The first time he saw her, he was struck by how meticulously she cleaned each item; she went about her task with an innate rhythm, as if she had been put on this earth for the sole purpose of cleaning vegetables. He stood behind her and watched her work, inching towards her almost obliviously, drawn in by her emanating nurture. When he was almost peering over her shoulder, she sensed him behind her and turned abruptly, spraying him square in the chest with a steady stream of cool liquid. He reached for one of the endives she had been working on, afraid to meet her eyes, as she apologized profusely and offered him her apron to dry off with. He waved away her hands and took a peek at her face. She was smiling nervously, exposing a gaping window of black where two front teeth should have been.
But he shook away these thoughts like mosquitoes hungry for flesh. They buzzed and hummed and burrowed tiny holes into his brain. He didn’t have time anymore for pests, for nuisances, for thoughts, for passion. He was finished with it all.
He glanced at the living room clock, the wooden analog one whose second hand clicked away with its own agenda. 11: 18 PM. He had better hurry if he wanted to make it.
Outside the sky was black. Milo’s car was draped in yellow and orange, but there was no light with which to appreciate the detail. In three days the world had turned from autumn to winter and now the trees stood bare, their fiery garments thrown at their feet. He opened the door of the Honda Civic and a handful of leaves fluttered onto the front seat. Without bothering to brush them off, he climbed inside and started the rickety engine.
He drove in and out of streetlamp glow, past empty sidewalks and warmly lit houses. He drove until the streets he knew turned into streets he had only heard mentioned in the voice of strangers. He drove until the buildings thinned and the trees grew and the starless sky reigned over the landscape.
He drove as if the cops were after him, radioing ahead for back up as their headlights searched the blackness. He sped on, uncatchable; a misunderstood outlaw with a heart of gold. He straightened his bowtie and draped his arm around the passenger seat as if he was riding with a fast-talking beauty who knew how to sling a gun and spin a mean alibi. Bogart and Bacall. Milo and Laurie.
But she hadn’t come. His stomach lurched at the memory and he slowed his frantic speed.
He had followed her home three nights ago, all the way to Furnace St. on the other side of town. From his car, he watched her enter the duplex apartment, fiddling with the radio to calm his nerves. When she vanished into interior light, he waited a few more minutes just to be safe.
…make sure to set your alarms for this weekend, folks. Saturday night, 1:00 AM. The largest meteor shower in history, scientists predict. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I would advise you not to miss it. It will be…
The radio sputtered into static and Milo left the safety of his car.
He climbed the four cement steps to her front door, turned around and came right back down again. With an intake of breath, he forced himself onto the porch once more and his finger against the little doorbell button that flaked paint as he touched it. He didn’t have to wait long before she came to the door, laughing into the warmth behind her.
“Hi…can I help you?” Her voice slipped as she hit syllables that relied on front teeth to be pronounced properly.
Milo faltered, taken aback by the way she addressed him. Didn’t she remember?
“I’m sorry, if you’re selling something we’re not interested.” She began to close the door.
“I was wondering if you wanted to watch the meteor shower with me on Saturday.” His thoughts erupted, stopping the door in its tracks.
She looked at him blankly, waiting for recognition to hit, expecting it, but it never came.
“What…I don’t think I understand.”
“Well, it’s just that I know this beach, see, and I haven’t been there since I was a kid, but it had this wide open sky without any city lights anywhere near it and…”
His words were blocked by a shadow that had joined Laurie by the door. A stern shadow that draped an arm around her shoulder and blocked the glow that poured from inside.
“What’s going on? Who is this?”
She didn’t answer, her eyes fixed on Milo, unblinking.
Suddenly a word hit Milo like an anvil: We. She had said “we”. That mean, little word made up of two letters that excluded all others. He clutched at the railing; afraid his legs would fall from under him. He had not been prepared for this. How could she be a “we”?
“Look, buddy, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. If you’re not off my porch in thirty seconds I might have to call the police.”
The door shut on the whispered words: “He’s just a drunk lunatic. Probably harmless.”
Milo stumbled down cement steps, his open wound festering in the cold night air.
12:28 AM. He didn’t have much time. Fields fell into valleys as his car hugged the edge of highways cut into steep hillsides. Only a thin metal blockade stood between him and the drop below, but he wasn’t afraid. He had no time to be afraid. He drove until the landscape flattened once more and a mist of salt hung in the air.
He parked and climbed from the car, his suit crushed and wrinkled from sitting. He could hear the crash of heavy water against sand as he scrambled over a slippery dune. From the top, the ocean spread out like spilled ink, seeping into the black fabric of the starless sky. He walked slowly down the other side of the mound, letting the loose sand pull him further with each step.
He had vague memories of a picnic here: a straw hat and suntan lotion. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sand in his peanut butter. His mother kissed the top of his head. Maybe some strawberries.
He walked directly across the shore and when he hit ocean water he kept on walking. His Doc Marten’s filled quickly with heavy fluid and he kicked them into the froth that lapped at his ankles. The waves came at him like slithering carnivorous animals, foam dripping from their jaws as they raised their heads, ready to pounce. Don’t be afraid of the ocean, for it can smell your fear, someone had whispered at the picnic long ago. But he wasn’t afraid. How can a person be afraid without passion, without feeling, without desire for life?
He stopped waist deep in the spiraling water and looked up. The sky hung just as black as ever, lit only by the gaze of a feeble moon. A tiny pinprick of light fell from the darkness and then the sky erupted.
His soaking suit dragged at his body.