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I was eleven when I realized I wasn’t Jesus.

I mean, I wasn’t entirely certain at first. It was more of a probability: 99 percent. No, wait. I didn’t know what probabilities were then. So this is just a guess. This is me looking back and putting a number to a feeling.

Maybe more like 90 percent.

I wasn’t an idiot in the fourth grade. Nor was I delusional. I was a daydreamer. The kind who might look out the classroom window at a passing cloud and wonder if it could be hiding a spaceship. Hoping it was. Even if that spaceship wasn’t particularly friendly. Like maybe it was on a mission to determine the air defense capability of Timnath, Colorado.

That wasn’t where I lived. I’ve never even been there, but I’d seen it listed on a map once (I was looking for Pike’s Peak). The town name stuck with me because I had misread it. I thought it was “Tinmath” at first and that sounded interesting. What would tin math be? It would probably be easier than iron math. More durable than clay math. And surely less complicated than fourth grade math.

I wanted to learn tin math. In Timnath.

Instead I was struggling to understand the difference between isosceles and acute triangles in Antioch, Illinois. I was a bit obtuse then. That’s a geometry joke.

Antioch might as well be in Wisconsin. Here’s how you get there. Go north from Chicago. When you get to the Wisconsin state line, turn left and go that way for a few miles. Keep an eye out. If you find yourself in Iowa you clearly have no understanding of what “a few miles” means. Use a map next time.

They say you can still find arrowheads in Antioch. The Pottawatomi Indians lived there before we sent them packing. But I lived there pretty much my whole life and I never found any.

There were a bunch of arrowheads in a display case at school, though, so someone obviously had. The display also included a commemorative plaque. “Thanks Pottawatomi Indians. For leaving so we could build this town and pretend it was ours all along.” It didn’t say that exactly, but the whole thing seemed more than a little dismissive. You’re right. I didn’t know that word then. I was eleven. But I had a twisty-sick feeling in my stomach every time I passed the display. Even though it was only there for a week (someone complained, it might have been the janitor), the sick feeling continued all throughout the fourth grade and half of fifth, up until the day Miss Morris took over as our teacher. (Mr. Jenkins had gotten cancer. I don’t think it was from us, though. We were good students. There was very little goofing off and nearly no spitwads. Nearly.)

Miss Morris provided a final confirmation that I was not, in fact, Jesus. I didn’t need more evidence, really, because I had decided that already (90 percent) in the fourth grade, but the probability became incontrovertible truth the moment she walked into the room. She wore a thin white blouse with the top three buttons undone (three!), and a short red and yellow striped skirt that aimed every one of those stripes at legs that were so long and lithe they defied the attempt at sabotage asserted by school-policy-required panty hose.

Her skin was olive and sun-kissed and dangerous, not the safe milky Midwest white of my mother or my Aunt Louise. It was dot-to-dotted with freckles that drew pictures of Mykonos or Monaco or Milan or one of the other exotic places I’d read about in the encyclopedia when I was supposed to be writing a report about monkeys.

And she had a voice like silk. The only silk I knew then was the gray border of the decaying baby blanket I kept hidden in the bottom of my dresser drawer, but it was the softest thing I’d ever brushed against my lips. (So far.) I didn’t sleep with it or anything when I was eleven. I just couldn’t get rid of it. Not yet. The circle of red stars had turned pink against the thinning white, and the smiling circus lion in the center of them had become a ghost, but you don’t throw away old friends no matter how faded they get.

But the feelings, oh the feelings. Miss Morris gave me a different kind of twisty stomach.


Gotta admit I miss that feeling.

Anyway, I went to church every Sunday as a child. Sunday school first, then the “big people service.” I drew tiny pictures of cars and wars and Martian attacks in the margins of the bulletin – I stole that idea from Mad Magazine – but was attentive in Sunday school. I didn’t have much choice. There were only seven of us. Or six, when Erin was sick. (She was sick a lot. I mean more than half of the time. I wonder what happened to her?)

When there are only seven (or six) kids in a room, you can’t hide. So I did my homework. I read the Bible. I listened to the teacher talk about how the Israelites kept screwing things up in the Old Testament. Then about how Jesus came to save the day by taking all the screw-ups and wearing them like skin so they could be destroyed along with him on the cross. I didn’t fully understand what atonement meant, but I got the general gist. Someone else got punished for all the sins everyone had ever committed including all the ones they hadn’t yet thought of. (You’re thinking of one now, aren’t you. Yeah. That’s how it works.)

I was a really good kid. I didn’t lie. I didn’t cheat. I didn’t say bad words or take more than my fair share or pretend I had done my chores if I hadn’t gotten to them yet. And I won more Bible sword drills than anyone. The teacher didn’t keep track. I did. Not to gloat, mind you. Just because I liked to count things. I had a notebook filled with tallies of the different kinds of vehicles we passed on family vacations. (Mostly white sedans. But lots of semis, too. Not enough VW Bugs, though.)

I was a daydreamer. I already told you that. But that wasn’t a sin unless you were daydreaming about sinful things. It’s not like I wanted the aliens to take over the world or anything. I just wanted to meet one.

The Sunday before I realized I wasn’t Jesus we had learned about the Second Coming. You have to capitalize an event like that when you write it out. I pictured Jesus riding a silver cloud like the Silver Surfer down from the mountains and everyone cheering except for the cheaters and liars and bullies, who would probably just be really quiet or hide under their desks.

But then I had a thought. A Big Thought. (You can capitalize that, too.)

Jesus had come to earth the first time as a baby. Great story. And not just because we got Christmas out of it. So I started thinking, what if God said, “hey, that worked out pretty well, apart from the crucifixion and stuff, so why not try it again?”

I know it was a crazy idea. I see that now clear as day. But this is where my theology got tangled up in all the questions that had already begun to fill my head. Mostly “why?” questions. I asked that a lot. About everything. Why was I born in Antioch, Illinois? Why did I end up with these parents? Why was I white? Why was I a boy? Why did my brain ask impossible questions?

And in the middle of that tangle, it hit me.

What if I’m Jesus?

What if I’m the Second Coming Jesus, God’s clever and unexpected way of signaling the end of the world and the coming of heaven. No, my Big Idea didn’t line up with Sunday school. Or the snippets and snatches of sermons that found their way to my brain despite my distractedness.

But somehow it stuck. And so I started to think about my life so far. Had I sinned yet? I mean, really sinned? I was snippy to my mother once. Does that count? Jesus got angry once or twice.

I remember staring at the empty wall in my bedroom – I can see it now plain as day. There was a diagonal shadow painted there by the hall light outside the half-open door. It was after nine and my parents were in the living room, talking about parent things, filling the air with the sounds of safety and comfort.

I asked the question a dozen times in my head, looking for an answer to appear on the wall. That diagonal line seemed like a great place for a magic finger to write using fancy cursive. God did that kind of thing in the Bible. No words came.

But just because you don’t have an answer doesn’t mean the question isn’t important. So I started working it out, logically. If I was Jesus, I would have to live a perfect life. I was reasonably confident my life so far qualified. Did God want me to be perfect for the rest of it? Could I be?

Looking back, I can see that this was the real question. Could I live a perfect life? It was a silly question.

But at eleven, I didn’t know it was silly and the prospect was staggering. Me? A perfect life?

I rolled a swear word in my mouth, tasting it. Second Coming Jesus wouldn’t say swear words. Would he taste them in his mouth?

I don’t want to be Jesus. I don’t want that kind of pressure.

I think I said those two sentences aloud, because my parents stopped talking and the air was suddenly unsafe and the fate of the whole world was resting on my shoulders.

Shit, I said.

The word just sat there in the room for a million or two years and then I finally heard my parents’ voices again filling the air with the sounds of safety and comfort. I sighed and lay back in my bed, closing my eyes and inviting dreams of an alien invasion. I wasn’t Jesus. I couldn’t be Jesus.

And that was a relief.

Despite the long hair, I’m still not Jesus, but to answer your question, I don’t think you’re going to hell. Everybody fucks up. See? I did it right there. Apologies for my French, but the truth is, we’re all misfits. Maybe you should just forgive yourself and move on.

Anyway, thanks for the dollar. Most people just bring me coffee or an Egg McMuffin. I’m not complaining. I like coffee and Egg McMuffins. But you can’t buy drugs with breakfast.

I’m kidding. I promise not to buy drugs with this. Drugs cost way more than a dollar. Besides, I need a new toothbrush.

Have a nice day. Maybe you’ll find an arrowhead. I hear that’s good luck.

Alan Rickman’s Voice

Nathan Jenkins hadn’t seen nor read the final chapters of the Harry Potter Saga, so Alan Rickman seemed like an odd choice for a fantasy lover. Unless he had misheard Helene, the woman in 6E. Sometimes the vents played tricks on him, sending voices to him like the random spin of a radio dial. There was a loud man’s voice of complaint about dinner or the president or the state of modern healthcare. Another woman’s voice would skewer his favorite time of the day with a tirade about horrible men, or worse, a fingernails-on-chalkboard song about lost love. And then there were the obnoxious young people who lived directly above him. He suspected the yelling and gunshots and whoops of victory stampeding through the galvanized steel had something to do with video games or bad movies, else the police surely would have arrested them for a few hundred murders by now.

In those moments when Helene’s perfect voice was clouded or overwhelmed by an intruder’s, he would press his oversized ear tighter against the Victorian vent, as if by sheer will he might send the interlopers scurrying away like the mice that sometimes stole his secrets. Instead, all he managed was to imprint a swirling floral pattern on his check and deep red lines across his ear that would remain there for hours.

He remembers the first time he awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of Helene’s voice floating up from the apartment directly below his. His transition from asleep to awake was seamless, and as he heard her talking – probably on the phone to a friend, it was as if the woman he had been flirting with moments before at a coffee shop on the moon had dripped out of the dreamspace and into the real world.

For the longest time, he did his best to avoid running into her. He had fallen in love with her voice, but was afraid he might be disappointed by her smile. Or her eyes. Or her body. Or the way she wore her hair.

But a chance meeting in the elevator (on one of the few days in the history of the apartment building when it was actually operational) shot that plan to hell.

The door was closing, but the prospect of a rare elevator ride made Nathan risk life and limb, mostly limb, as he stuck his arm between the closing panels. The doors pressed against his forearm with a gentle castigation, then opened in slow motion, like they were savoring the moment.

As they opened, he found himself staring a little too intently at the sole occupant of the chrome and mirror box – a woman in her mid-forties who wore her age like a badge of honor, and her lack of makeup like a promise of sincerity. She was wearing faded jeans that fit snugly across her not-too-thin hips, and a white t-shirt under a black jacket that neither accentuated, nor hid her appropriately middle-aged curves. Her hair was as black as ink.

Her eyes were brown. Her olive skin was dotted with a compelling constellation of freckles – the skin of a woman who defied sun-block perhaps on principle, but probably more out of habit or circumstance. He imagined her growing up on the west coast within walking distance of a beach. Or maybe on a Greek Island, just a sudden breeze away from a spray of ocean mist.

She smiled and the gentle lines that appeared around her eyes nearly broke his heart. Not because he found them unappealing, but because he found them infinitely beautiful.

They nodded hellos and rode six floors in silence. Hers, probably the uncomfortable kind. He had lost the lottery of good looks to a million other men, winning instead oversized ears and a too-big nose and a tired metabolism that kept him distinctly on the flabby side of average, no matter how hard or often he exercised (not often) or how much bacon he chose to leave behind in the buffet line (not much).

As the elevator doors opened in their deliberate dance, the air swirled her scent just enough for him to linger in it. Sometimes having a big nose was a boon, he thought. He was able to gather the scent of lavender in her hair, the slightest hint of perfume – something that reminded him of vanilla, and the tang of sweat that carried her unique signature, and hold all three in a daydream that lasted all the way to the front door of his apartment. That’s when the bitter smell of pot from 7D reminded him of the downside of having an unusually competent olfactory sense.

He had glimpsed her left hand while standing beside her. One simple silver ring on her index finger. A decoration. Perhaps a declaration. This only confirmed what his listening had already told him – that she was single. He had heard about the divorce. She was bitter for a time. But now she was enjoying the quiet. He knew all this from the simple math of adding up all the spaces between her words.

She had at least one good friend. Another woman, if he had correctly lined up the clues from his eavesdropping. Or a gay man, perhaps.

This is how he learned about Alan Rickman.


That night, after he could no longer hear her voice – sometimes he would wait for an hour or more, hoping she might call a friend or watch TV or hum to herself – he pushed up from the floor, feeling every one of his fifty two years as he stood. He stacked the three gray pillows he had purchased exclusively to make the awkwardness of lying on the humidity-warped wooden floor slightly less awkward, and made his way to the small desk that was the only piece of furniture in the second bedroom, a room barely bigger than a closet. His boxy computer sat on that desk like a prop in a movie about a lonely hacker who couldn’t afford modern technology. Nathan was stealing Wi-Fi from a neighbor, but he didn’t consider that hacking. That was just good luck.

He watched Alice in Wonderland first. Stopped it halfway through, wondering how much of what he had seen was actually on the screen and how much was the result of a contact high from 7D. Then Sweeney Todd, with much the same result. He didn’t care for science fiction, so he sped through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another film where Alan Rickman didn’t actually appear on screen, and a story that had been infinitely better as a novel. Douglas Adams. Hadn’t he died? Now there was a tragedy, he thought. He nodded off at his desk not long after pressing “play” on Love Actually.

In the liminal world where he’d first met Helene, he made sense of her love for Alan Rickman.

It was his voice. It had to be his voice. Perhaps she found him handsome in a way. But without that voice, Rickman was just another sixty-something actor wearing a face that could no longer hide his years behind a mask of pretending.

All that next day, Nathan’s thoughts were crowded out by a growing obsession – he needed a voice like Alan Rickman’s. Helene might be able to overlook his elephant ears and his Jimmy Durante nose and his tweedle-dum body if he had that voice.

His first attempts to become a better-sounding Nathan Jenkins were met with abject failure. He hired a vocal coach, once he learned such a thing existed, then spent half of his meager savings to listen to Jake Barnes yell at him to “use your diaphragm.”

“You sound like a goat,” Barnes had said in their first session. “A pathetic, bleating goat. I will fix that.”

He didn’t. Or couldn’t. Not even after seven sessions. Nathan didn’t go to the eighth. He went to a bar instead. He sat there at the counter sipping soda water, picking at the limp sliver of lime, feeling a familiar pinch between his eyes that was both a warning signal and an invitation.

And then he went home.

He paused on the sixth floor landing to wonder what the woman in 6D was doing right that moment. Someone had spray-painted a smiley face on the door. While he stared at the red paint, he rehearsed his best accidental meeting speech, mouthing the words he would say to her if she happened to be heading downstairs to walk across the street to Zuckerman’s Deli for a turkey sandwich. Turkey on whole wheat, though he wasn’t entirely sure of that. Turkey and ham are difficult to differentiate through an unwashed storefront window.

Then he sighed loud enough that the sound echoed off the pale gray walls of the claustrophobic space before climbing one more floor and shuffling down the hallway to his apartment.

He learned her name on a day when she had a friend over for drinks. A woman friend. Nathan could barely hear the friend speak for the first half hour or so of his evening listening session. But then the friend’s voice began to grow louder, the volume likely following a similar uptick in the amount of red wine consumed.

“Helene, you are insane!” she had squawked. He didn’t hear anything that followed, so smitten he was with the name.

Helene. It couldn’t be more perfect.

Some time after their fateful meeting in the elevator, he wasn’t sure exactly how much time, Nathan ran into Helene again. At a bookstore. Not quite by random. He had heard her say something about a book signing event. One she couldn’t miss.

Nathan had been to the bookstore just once before – on a disappointing field trip arranged by his former boss, Albus…no…Albert? Albert…something. No one but Albert knew where they were going that day, what exactly they would be doing while playing boss-sanctioned hooky from work on a sunny summer afternoon. But of all the places they could have landed, a movie theater, a baseball stadium, a park, or a bar – any bar, Nathan never could have predicted “bookstore.” He didn’t hate books, he just would have chosen a more interesting place for the one half-day a year when the losers who worked on the nineteenth floor were allowed to pretend they were something more than accounting drones.

On the evening of the book signing, Nathan spent an inordinate amount of time getting dressed. He felt like a fool as he tried on one shirt, then another, then another – fully cognizant of the fact that he owned no magical shirt that could make him suddenly handsome. Time decided his wardrobe him. He ran out of it while wearing the blue button-down shirt and the size 42 waist khakis that reminded him of his donut obsession in particular and his failure as a human being in general.

The bookstore was so full of people it seemed more like a rock concert than a book signing. Somehow, Nathan was able to weave his way through the crowd enough to glimpse the object of all this attention – a fit middle-aged man with a mop of un-brushed hair and serious eyes and a smile that looked like he was up to something.

Nathan scanned the audience looking for Helene, but there were at least a hundred Helenes here. And twice as many women half her age. Nathan glanced down at the book that everyone was holding. The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

“Do you have a ticket?” A young woman wearing a name tag was speaking to Nathan.

“A what?”

“This is a ticket only event,” she said, her smile betraying the kind of frustration that comes from having said the same thing a hundred times to a hundred different people, each of whom were hearing it for the first time.

“No, I was just…” He looked around at the bookstore. “I was just looking for a book.”

“We have lots of those,” she said. He expected her to offer help, but instead she simply walked away to another person who wasn’t holding a copy of the magic ticket, which he was beginning to think was the book itself.

He found himself in a relatively quiet corner of the bookstore, absently fumbling through a medical textbook. He flipped it open, but kept his eyes trained across the room to the spillover of anxious fans awaiting wisdom from their favorite author.

It could have been fate or coincidence, but the moment he looked down to see a chapter titled, “Assessment of Voice and Respiratory Function,” the author cleared his throat. His voice, amplified by a sound system that might have been state-of-the-art around the same time as Nathan’s computer, was resonant and distinctively British.

Nathan flipped the book closed and laughed when he saw the title: Surgery of Larynx and Trachea.

He listened to the man talk about his book and the creative process. He listened to the laughter that frequently filled the bookstore. For a brief moment on his way to the bookstore he had wondered if becoming a successful author might be enough to distract Helene from his outer shell. But that idea had been squashed with author’s clearing of his throat.

Yes, she might think this one is handsome, too, he thought. And maybe his books are better than most. But his voice.

That voice.

He looked down at the book weighing heavily in his hands. Is there a way? he asked. He flipped through the pages again, this time studying them, looking for clues about the science of voices. Was there such a thing as a voice transplant?

He stayed in the bookstore for hours. He was a medical student or a surgeon, depending on which wave of false confidence he was riding in any given moment. When he drifted off into the half-awake space that felt most like home, he found himself holding a scalpel. He looked down to see the author from the other room lying face-up on a steel table, his eyes open wide in panic, his mouth sewn shut with white shoelaces. There was a dotted red line from just under his perfect chin to his breast bone and a smiley face painted in that same red around his Adam’s apple. Nathan whispered an apology in a reedy voice and pressed the blade against the man’s skin.

He coughed himself out of the daydream, feeling the sharp scratch of a dry throat as a punishment. The crowd had thinned considerably, so he stood and walked as casually as he could back to where the author had been speaking. Helene was at the front of a line that snaked around bookshelves, holding her book out to the author with the nervous excitement of a schoolgirl. He spoke as he wrote in the book, then handed it back to her with that up-to-something smile.

Nathan left before she could see him.

He spent days, maybe even weeks studying articles about the larynx and fighting off the encroaching fear that it was unlikely he could have his voice surgically replaced. During this time, he also tried to teach himself how to speak with a British accent, choosing to emulate the author (whom he had learned was called Neil Gaiman) rather than Alan Rickman, mostly because Rickman’s voice was harder to mimic. He knew he wasn’t very good at it, but it provided yet another distraction from the fact that he was no longer employed.

The news had come as a shock not only to him, but to the three other employees of Jenkins (no relation) and Associates who were let go on the same day. “Downturn in revenue,” is what his latest boss had said. “Losers without distinctive personalities had to be let go,” is what he heard. The other three shrugged their goodbyes and disappeared from his life like his parents had when he was eleven.


The word came to him in another half-dream while seated at the dark, rarely-clean corner table in Zuckerman’s. He didn’t know what to do with it at first, but after some research (at the library, since his unwittingly generous Wi-Fi neighbor had moved), he found a palpable hope in embracing the uncertainty of magic that had escaped him while attempting to challenge the certainty of medical science.

He didn’t have the money to travel to Europe or Asia, so he decided he would have to find a local gypsy. Preferably one with lots of experience in the art of stealing voices. Nathan was aware how crazy his thoughts sounded when spoken loud, so he simply never spoke them aloud. He let the scattered belief that he would find a way to a new voice settle into his head like falling confetti. The universe owed him far more than a deeper voice. But he was willing to settle the account with that.

Besides, the rest would come in due time.

Meanwhile, he had begun reading Neil Gaiman’s books. It began as a distraction – one more thing to fill the growing empty space – but quickly turned into an obsession. If the library didn’t have the book he was looking for, he spent some of his rapidly-dwindling cash to buy one. Used, if he could find it. New, if he couldn’t.

The obvious magic in Gaiman’s fiction didn’t do much for Nathan, but the stuff underneath it all – the il-defined things that lurked or loomed or haunted or waited – those fed Nathan’s hope. There is more to this world than meets the eye, he would mouth to an imagined Helene while pausing on the sixth-floor landing, staring at the spray-painted Swastika on the door. He heard himself saying it with Gaiman’s voice. He envisioned Helene’s reaction. A half-smile – the kind that says “you know me so well” and “let’s get coffee” and “don’t you just love American Gods?” and “I’ve been waiting for someone exactly like you to show up in my life, where have you been?”

Upstairs, he sometimes said aloud.

He made a point of carrying whatever book he happened to be reading in such a way that the cover, particularly the author’s name, was visible to any passersby. Only once since the bookstore event had he happened upon Helene heading the other way. She shouldn’t have been home – it was mid-afternoon on a Thursday. But there she was, walking out of the apartment building as he was walking in. Coraline was cradled under his left arm, but in his haste to position it so that the cover was facing Helene, he dropped the book. Face down, as fate would have it. She offered a polite “sorry” smile and kept moving, anxious to get somewhere.

But there was no following her on this particular Thursday. Not after she’d made eye contact with him.

He climbed to the seventh floor and sat in his computer room staring at the blank screen for nearly an hour, inviting an answer to his relational dilemma that never came.

Until, quite by accident, it did.

It was a Saturday – he could tell by the ebb and flow of faceless strangers heading nowhere or everywhere – and he was walking past the used bookstore in his neighborhood (the one where he’d found a coverless copy of The Sandman, Volume 2) when a woman wearing far too many layers of clothes, all of which were stained and moth-eaten, called to him by name.

“Neil,” she said.

He paused. No, Nathan. Nathan is my name. He looked at the book in his hands. Cover facing out.

“You look like the sort who might want his fortune read,” the woman said through yellow teeth and empty spaces where yellow teeth would have been an improvement.

“Are you a gypsy?” he asked.

She was taken aback at first and Nathan wasn’t sure if he’d said something horribly insulting, or if she’d simply been surprised that he had seen through her disguise to the truth.

“Yes,” she said. Then she looked him up and down, as if measuring him for a suit that surely would fit better than the thrift-store purchase he was currently wearing. The suit hadn’t yet found him a new job, but he had been pleased that it drew fewer judgmental stares than his usual outfit of too-tight copper brown jeans and a lilac-colored V-neck t-shirt hidden under a black jacket that might have once been part of a fat drum major’s outfit.

“Do you know any magic spells?” he asked. It was as direct as he’d ever been with a stranger.

“Most of ‘em,” she answered. “What sort of spell are you lookin’ for?”

“I want someone else’s voice,” he said.

She measured him again for that imaginary suit, then said, “Do you have twenty bucks?”

He did, but not on him. He asked her to wait – told her he’d be back in fifteen minutes, twenty tops. He waddled off down the street to his apartment building, prayed that the elevator might somehow be working, cursed the god of elevators that it wasn’t, then climbed the stairs to his apartment as fast as he’d ever, paying for the pace with wheezing that doubled him over at the sixth floor landing. He didn’t linger there for obvious reasons, stopping only long enough to offer a polite nod to the skull and crossbones spray painted on the door. When he entered his apartment, he headed straight for the kitchen to collect the last twenty from the Mickey Mouse mug in the cabinet above the sink. When he stepped out into the hallway, he nearly knocked the gypsy over. She was standing there with one hand on her hip, the other held out to him.

He scrunched his face into a question, then held the twenty out to the woman. She pinched it between thumb and forefinger, lifted it to her nose and took a long whiff, then began folding the bill this way and that. Nathan tried to keep track of her movements, but her fingers were surprisingly nimble. A moment later, she held a tiny swan in her hand. A single laugh escaped her chapped lips, then she unceremoniously stuffed the swan-twenty down the front of her shirt.

“Whose voice do you want?” she asked.

“I’m undecided on that,” said Nathan. “I was going to say Alan Rickman, but then I heard Neil Gaiman speak and…”

“Alan Rickman? You mean Snape?”


She laughed and held her hands to her chest. “Oh my, you do aim for the stars, don’t you. That’s gonna cost more than twenty.”

“I don’t have…” He did a virtual walk-thru of his apartment, looking for loose change and forgotten hiding places. “How much for Neil Gaiman?”

“Never heard of him.”

“I might have a five somewhere,” he said. He slipped his key into the lock and turned the knob. “Wait here.”

“Don’t have no where else to be,” she said.

He left the door open and walked through the living room back into the kitchen. He opened each cabinet in succession, from left to right, trying to jar his addled brain to remember where he’d hidden the rest of his money.

“You check the cookie jar yet?” Nathan jumped, bumping his head on one of the open cabinet doors. The gypsy was standing next to the stove.

“How did you?” He gathered his composure, rubbed his throbbing head, pulled down at the edges of his suitcoat to straighten the wrinkles. “No. There are only cookies in the cookie jar.”

“Any good?”


“Are the cookies in the cookie jar any good?”

“Probably not.”

She walked to the counter, lifted the lid, pulled out a cookie and bit into it.

“You’re right,” she said. Then she grabbed a handful and stuffed them into one of her many coat pockets.

Nathan stood dumbfounded.

“I don’t think I have any more money after all,” he said. He started to guide her out of the kitchen and into the living room.

“Might not stick, then,” she said. “Costs more to make spells stick.”

He weighed his options. He had already given her his last twenty. It was unlikely he’d get that back. It was even more unlikely that she could deliver on her promise of magic. He wasn’t a complete idiot – he knew there were plenty of con men and women who would do or say anything for a quick buck.

“How do I know you’re a real gypsy?” he asked when she wouldn’t budge from the living room.

“Do I look like a gypsy?”

“I don’t know what gypsies look like.”

“They why’d you ask if I was one?” She picked up a framed photo from the table by the door. It was a picture of his mother when she was a child. Time and tired sunlight had faded the image into that of a ghost. There wasn’t much left of her. “Pretty girl,” she said.

He took the frame from her and set it back down.

“Alan Rickman’s voice,” she said.


“Close your eyes.”

He hesitated.

“You want his voice or not?”

He nodded, then closed his eyes, certain he would regret this decision. At first, all he could hear was her raspy breathing, then he felt her breath on his face. He had expected it to smell rank, but it was sweet, like vanilla. Like fresh-made cookies. He felt her fingers wrap gently around his neck. Then they began to squeeze tight. He squirmed but didn’t try to break free. He pictured her magic as tendrils snaking from her fingers through his skin to his larynx. He felt his throat constricting into something new. And just about the time he thought he might pass out, she let go. He opened his eyes and was alone. He opened his mouth to speak and nothing came out.

He ran into the hallway, looked both ways. It was empty. He ran back into his apartment and searched every corner for evidence of the gypsy. There was no sign of her. He walked into the bathroom and studied his reflection in the mirror. His neck was marked with bruises the shape of fingers. He tried speaking again.

Still nothing.

That night, he lay down on the floor in his usual spot, cradled by his faithful gray pillows, his big ears trained on the vent. A few voices came and went, but none of them belonged to Helene. He fell asleep and dreamed he was an orchestra conductor who had lost his rhythm. When he awoke, it was dark inside and out. A familiar voice filtered up through the vent.

“I’m sorry,” Helene said. “I can’t do this any more Dorian.”

Who was Dorian?

“It’s over, Dorian,” she said.

And then silence. Or was that crying?

Nathan opened his mouth to say her name. All that came out was a croak.

The next morning, Nathan took a cold shower, put on his too-tight pants and a t-shirt and a relic of a turtleneck to hide the bruises, then walked out of his apartment. He turned as he always did toward the stairwell, but paused when he heard the muted bell of the elevator. He spun around and walked in through the opening doors, pressed “1” and waited.

The doors closed like a reluctant book, then the elevator started descending. One floor later, it stopped. The doors opened even more slowly than they’d closed and there stood Helene.

She nodded her hello, then walked in and stood next to him. She pressed the same “1” he had a moment earlier and for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate, this thrilled him.

He wanted to say hello, but he hadn’t tested his voice. What if he still sounded like a goat?

What the hell, he thought. “Rainy day,” he said. The voice that filled the elevator wasn’t his own. It was rich, resonant, deep. And quite possibly British.

She looked up at him, tilted her head slightly. “Is it?”

He blushed. Was it raining?

“In England, I mean,” he said. Again, that amazing voice.

She laughed and he could have lived the rest of his life in the middle of that sound.

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” she asked.

There was a frog in his throat but he dared not clear it lest he lose the voice. He practically gargled his response.

“Once. The last time the lift worked, I think it was.” He had never called it a lift.

She smiled, turned a half-turn toward him and held out her hand. “Helene,” she said.

He mirrored her action. “Nathan,” he said.

“I was just heading out for coffee,” she said. “Would you like to join me?”

Nathan was certain she could hear his telltale heart.

“That sounds lovely,” he said. The words were too garbled. He cleared his throat, prepared himself for the worst, then repeated himself. “Pardon me. Frog in my throat.” Alan Rickman, he thought. “I was trying to say – that sounds lovely.”

“Good. It’s a date then,” she said.

The elevator lurched to a stop at the ground floor and they waited together for the ancient doors to peel themselves apart. Nathan gestured for her to go first, an action he had seen more than a few times in the movies but had yet to use himself. That small act brought a smile to his face.

They stepped out onto the sidewalk just as the sun slid behind a fast-moving cloud. Helene looked up at the sky that peeked between the skyscrapers.

“Huh,” she said. And at that, it began to pour.

They ran across the street to a coffee shop, ordered tea and sat at a small table near the window. She asked him what he did. He told her the truth; that he used to be an accountant but was currently between jobs. He asked her what she loved. She seemed surprised by the question, then answered, “books.”

“Tell me about one,” he said.

She told him about The Ocean at the End of the Lane and then Neverwhere. She talked until time didn’t matter, her enthusiasm never waning. Nathan loved the way her mouth moved when she spoke. The way it turned from a smile to a smirk without hesitation or apology. The way it puckered up into a thought before the words tumbled out.

“I’m sorry,” she said, finally. “I don’t know what got into me. I guess I had a lot of words in the queue.” She reached across the table and touched his hand. “I’m afraid I need to get going. Work calls me. But next time, I want to hear you talk.”

Next time.

They stood, said their goodbyes, and he watched as she walked through the door into the rain, then dashed down the street. He must have stood there for a long time, because when he finally snapped back to reality, his table had been cleared and an impatient man in a bespoke suit was pushing his way past him into the seat he’d vacated.

“Sorry,” the man said, though he wasn’t. “Thought you were leaving.”

“I am,” said Nathan. In his goat voice.

He spent the rest of the day in a frantic, and ultimately unsuccessful search for the gypsy woman.

He stopped listening at the vent. He stopped pausing at the sixth floor landing. He avoided bookstores and libraries and coffee shops. He found a stash of money he had forgotten about in a box under the kitchen sink and used it to buy a better job-hunting suit. He went on interviews, studied the classified ads for cheap apartments.

He walked everywhere, pausing on every bridge to look down at the traffic or the water below for a sign or an answer or a sufficiently deadly landing spot.

He kept one eye out for the gypsy and the other out for Helene. And he only spoke when he absolutely had to.

Weeks after their coffee date, he walked into an office building and wove his way through the morning crowd to the elevator. He punched the button for the tenth floor. He stepped off and walked to the glass door for the accounting firm of Fitzgerald and Scott.

“I’m here for an interview,” he said to a woman who was facing away from him at the front desk. The woman turned and looked up at him.


Her hair was different. Shorter. Grayer. Her wrinkles more pronounced than ever. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.

“I kept hoping I’d run into you again,” she said.

He sighed. She’d already heard his goat voice. There was no point in hiding it anymore. “I’ve been…busy.”

“You look good,” she said.

“You too.” And she did, despite looking ten years older than she had the last time he’d seen her. Or maybe because she looked ten years older.

“And you’re over your cold,” she said. “Well, of course you are. It’s been weeks. Has it been weeks?”

His cold?

“I think so,” he said. He hated the sound of his voice. Hated it. Hated it. Hated it.

“Mr. Scott is busy with another applicant at the moment, but if you’ll have a seat…”

He didn’t wait around for the rest of the sentence. He ran out of the office, turned the wrong way and ended up at a door marked “Stairs.” He felt like a fool for running, but what else could he do? He paused at the sixth floor landing, noted the spray-painted question mark on the door, then continued down the stairs. He burst out of the spinning front door and walked into pouring rain with a pressure in his chest that felt like a heart attack. He wandered for blocks among the blurring crowd until he finally collapsed on a park bench.

A shape emerged from out of the mist and walked toward him.

“I know lots of spells,” the shape said. “Got another twenty?”


“What’s his deal?” The young intern pointed to the man curled up on the floor next to the radiator.

“Him? The usual. Schizophrenia,” said the woman in scrubs. “Thinks he’s somewhere else most of the time.”


“Hard to say. Used to live in New York. Could be there. Or Narnia for that matter.”

“So why is he here?”

“His wife left him years ago. And then he went a little nuts. He’s a writer, though, so he was probably nuts to begin with.”

“He looks familiar.”

“I always thought he looked a little like Mickey Rooney,” said the woman.

“I don’t know who that is,” said the intern. “I meant – I’ve seen his face somewhere.”

“Back of a novel, maybe.”

“Yeah, that must be it.”

She sighed. “Just wait until you hear him speak.”

“Does he talk a lot?”

“Not much, and mostly to himself. But his voice…it’s incredible.”


“God yes. Deep, rich. I think he’s English. Or maybe he just thinks he is. Breaks your heart, really. Such a waste. He should have been an actor.”

“Any family?”

“His mother comes around once in a while. You can’t miss her. She looks homeless. Smells homeless, too. But she’s really quite sweet. So patient with him. She tells him stories. Clever stories. I try to eavesdrop when I can.”

“A writer, huh?”


The young intern looked back at the man. He had climbed up onto a table and was standing there like he ruled the world. Or at least the room.

“Shouldn’t we get him down?” The intern made a move toward the man.

“No, no. Actually that’s a good sign for Nathan. It means he’s going to have a good day.”

“So where do you think he is, exactly?”


Nathan stood on the ledge of the office building, looking down at the street far below. The crowd had grown to at least a hundred people. Some of them were yelling at him to jump. He closed his eyes and saw Helene. She was lost and alone and afraid. Her hair was as black as ink. She called to him.

He allowed a half smile, then spread his arms wide and willed them to become wings.



He has a recurring dream of magazines.

The first came years ago, before the losses started to add up.

In the dream, he is standing in front of an entire wall of magazines. The smell of ink and paper is competing with the redolent, sweet scent of tobacco that distinguishes the other half of the dark, dingy, downtown shop inspired by one he visits in the waking world.

The wall of magazines is an infinite playground. Five rows in the lower section, six above, both stretching to the left and the right like an artist’s exercise in perspective drawing. Every inch of the pale, pinewood rack shouts with color and typography. Women’s magazines in pink and white and yellow promise perfect skin. Wood-crafting magazines in walnut brown and forest green promise six steps to a perfect dining room table. Business magazines in black and silver and gold promise perfect portfolios.

Even in his dream state, he doesn’t care for such pointed promises. He has always been drawn instead to vague hope, the kind you find at the intersection of uncertainty and possibility.

He stands before the rack, scanning the shelves. He knows what he’s looking for – a science magazine, a commentary on the art of film, and one or two literary publications. In the waking world, he could name the magazines that define his desire. But in dreams, all of the magazines are new to him.

In the first dream, he finds everything he’s looking for and more. He carries a dozen magazines to the counter with an almost boyish glee. He is addicted to the drugs of anticipation and wonder. He buys two candy bars and a pack of gum and his mouth salivates before the dream fades.

In the years that follow, the magazine dreams continue. But what was once a wall of magazines in a magazine shop, over time, becomes a tiny, dusty display in a convenience store most notable for its lingering stench of burned coffee. There are only a few magazines to choose from, and he rarely finds one he wants. He thinks about the evolution of this dream when he is awake, and tries to convince himself that the diminishing magazine selection is merely symbolic of what’s happening in the real world. He knows that’s only a piece of the truth.

He hopes the magazine dreams end before the racks are completely empty.

His screensaver at work is a collection of pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. The images confound him in all the right ways. Sometimes when he is daydreaming, he wonders about the edge of the universe. He is no scientist, but he’s read enough to know that astrophysicists are always attempting to define its boundaries. Once, he asked this question of a co-worker: “What kind of math could possibly exist that has the breadth to constrain or define the infinite?” His co-worker had been impressed by the rhetorical question, but quite rightly had no answer to give.

During the slow moments at work, and there are many, he imagines himself escaping his cubicle through the ceiling, rocketing through the Earth’s atmosphere, out of the solar system, past the Milky Way Galaxy, and straight on to the end of everything. The closer he gets to the imagined edge of the universe, the more he thinks about Horton Hears a Who. It’s the only explanation that makes sense to him. There has to be something bigger than the biggest thing. Something to look after the things that are smaller. When he returns from his daydream, he reaches over and caresses the closest of the Russian nesting dolls that decorate the only shelf in his cubicle. He owns seven sets of dolls. Six of the seven were given to him as gifts by friends and family who believed anyone who had one set of Russian nesting dolls must be a collector and want many. He has never opened any of them more than one layer deep.

There is a familiar song playing on the radio. He listens almost exclusively to one station at his computer. It’s a station that plays movie scores. Not the popular songs that define so many movie soundtracks these days, but the instrumental cues that in years past had always been performed by orchestras and probably are all done on computers now.

Movie scores are as close as he dares get to classical music. Any closer and he is overwhelmed by the weight of history and the embarrassment of having retained so little from his music appreciation classes.

The music that’s playing is from a movie he hasn’t seen, and never will. The hesitant interplay of piano and cello and the slow progression teasing resolution that never comes is its own movie. It’s a heartbreaking scene of such perfect beauty and perfect pain that he has to turn off the radio if he isn’t in a safe place for tears. His cubicle at work is usually one of those places because he keeps the music loud enough to mask the whimper and choke. But even there he sometimes changes the channel to chase away the memory of her skin and the look of desperate longing in her eyes.

“You okay in there?” It is his supervisor’s voice. She is a smart and kind woman. She knows how important it is to give him space to do his magic. And it is magic. This is the one positive truth he is able to hold onto about himself. His supervisor’s hair is wild and dark and the same wayward strand falls in front of her face whenever she bends down to study the mock-ups he’s assembled for a book cover meeting. She smells like fresh earth and her eyes are green, but they’re not quite the right shade of green so he doesn’t fall in love with her.

“I’m fine,” he says. “Just working on something big.” He uses a variation of this excuse every time she worries aloud. She always accepts it because she knows brilliance sometimes comes with tears and she doesn’t want to do anything to frighten it away.

The drive home takes twenty-seven minutes on average. It’s a well-researched number, which he calculated only after recording the daily return times for more than three months. He doesn’t know how long it takes to drive to work. He’s always the last to arrive.

Often during the drive home he holds two competing thoughts in his head for at least three of those 27 minutes. One is a wish that he had an ice pick. The other is thankfulness that he doesn’t.

If he had one, he would retrieve it from the empty passenger seat where it would have been rolling around with every stop and turn, distracting him from the traffic on the road and the traffic in his head. He would play with it in his right hand, feeling the smooth grain of the polished wooden handle and the sharp point of the short, cold spike. He would wait for one of those rare moments in his commute when the road was empty and no one was staring into his window thinking, “Ichabod Crane,” and then he would thrust it into his thigh.

Sometimes when he imagines this he gasps. Sometimes he sighs.

And sometimes he makes a fist and punches his thigh instead. Never quite enough to leave a bruise. But always enough to remember why he’s thankful he doesn’t own an ice pick.

At the intersection of Ninth Ave. and Garden St, he slows for a red light. As he rolls to a stop, the ground begins to shake. He feels unbound for the briefest of moments, then he begins to laugh. It is an earthquake. This is the first he’s experienced while in his car. He looks over at the empty passenger seat and imagines the ice pick vibrating a warning like the cup of water in Jurassic Park.

He turns on the car stereo as the rumble subsides, and the same piano and cello tune begins to play from a CD he’d forgotten he’d made. Two blocks later, he approaches the town’s only Tobacco and Magazine shop and sees a rare empty parking space in front of it. He pulls into it, leaving the car running. There is a sign in the window he hasn’t seen before. “Now Leasing.”

This isn’t a magazine dream. This is the waking world and the shop has gone out of business.

He turns off the car and the stereo, and listens to the sound of his own tears without accompaniment or distraction.

It is a curious sound. A sad and beautiful sound.

The first aftershock shakes him out of his reverie and back to the smell of concrete and exhaust. When he realizes he has been rubbing his thigh, he stops, wipes a tear from his eye, then starts his car.

“There has to be something bigger than the biggest thing,” he says aloud, surprised by the strength in his voice.

Then he backs out of the parking space, and rockets away to find it.


Today I am Martin.

This is the first time I’ve used it. I thought it might be cool to pronounce it like “Martian,” but every time I said that out loud while practicing in the bathroom (words sound better there), I saw Jacob and David laughing at me and Missy wondering if she should join them. I don’t care so much about Jacob and David. They’re jerks anyway. But Missy would make a terrible jerk.

So it’s Martin. Mar. Tin.

My father is in the basement again. He’s always in the basement. He calls it the “cellar,” because the walls and floor aren’t finished like the rest of the house. He used to say, “someday we’ll fix up the cellar and make it a proper basement,” but not so much lately. I don’t care. It’s finished enough for me. The scratches on the concrete floor where I play roller hockey for the Green Bay Slicers is proof of that. My dad’s on the team, too, along with a bunch of people we made up. We’re the world champions. Again. He taught me how to play. He got in trouble when he was teaching me because Mom came down to see what the noise was and saw all the scratches on the floor. Or maybe it was the black marks on the walls. Here’s a tip: Don’t use black rubber pucks when you play cellar roller hockey. Use the fake plastic ones.

Dad’s back has been hurting a lot, though. You can’t play cellar roller hockey with a bad back. Everyone knows that.

Mostly these days he just sits at the desk in the corner by the window well and types things on his desktop computer – the one he named “Old Stupid.” If you tried to play a game on it you’d understand. But it works okay for writing emails and stories. That’s what he does when he’s not helping out at Aunt Louise’s dairy farm.

I read one of his stories once. He forgot to turn off the computer and it was right there staring at me. I had been playing basement bowling and I guess I was being too loud or something because he just slammed his chair into the desk and went upstairs without saying a word. Basement bowling is fun when you have someone to set up the pins, but not so much when you’re the only one playing.

The story had a name. “Entropy.” I had to look it up. That didn’t help much. It was about a guy named Lawrence. Lots of bad things happen to him. Like for one, he falls down a flight of stairs. But that’s not the worst thing according to Lawrence. According to Lawrence the worst thing is that the girl he loves more than anything stops loving him. At first I thought Lawrence was an idiot. The worst thing would be the stairs. They were metal stairs. Metal! But then I thought of Missy and the way she smiles and how she is the opposite of a jerk and I kind of understood what Lawrence meant, even if I still don’t understand the title.

Every day I walk to the train tracks. It takes me 27 minutes. I decided that 27 minutes equals one Train Minute. Just because. I used to count things in Train Minutes. Once I wanted to know how long the school day was in Train Minutes. I needed a calculator. The answer is one of those numbers that goes on and on: fourteen point four four four four four and an infinite number of fours after that.

I think that’s when I stopped counting things in Train Minutes. Infinity hurts my head.

My dad doesn’t like it that I go to the tracks, but he lets me go anyway.

“I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” he says. “There haven’t been any trains on those tracks in years.”

Ever since the bombings. I know about that. I learned about it in school, like everyone else. Terrorists blew up some trains. A whole bunch of people died. No one wanted to ride the trains anymore so most of them stopped running. Simple math, really. Not like infinity.

“The trains will never come back,” he says. But the way he says it makes me think he isn’t really talking about trains. I don’t think he’s talking about Mom either. Because she does come back sometimes. She doesn’t stay long, though. Just long enough to tell me she loves me and tell Dad she doesn’t love him, I guess.

I want the trains to come back. I read a really cool story about trains a long time ago and it was kind of like finding out that time machines were real. But when I tell dad that he just gives me one of his sad smiles and says, “Some things never come back, Byron.”

Byron is my real name. I was named after a dead poet. He was a Lord, but not the kind you learn about in church. (Don’t ask how I know that. But I’m glad we don’t go to church anymore.) I looked up some of his poems. They’re kind of like entropy and infinity. I don’t understand them. But there was this part in a poem called “When We Two Parted” that I liked so much I memorized it. (Ask my teacher. This is a big deal.) It goes like this:

The dew of the morning

Sunk chill on my brow–

It felt like the warning

Of what I feel now.

That’s how Lawrence feels in Dad’s story. And it’s kind of how I feel when I sit on the train tracks. My dad is right, they’re never coming back. My dad is always right. He was right when he said Mom would kick him out for a while. (He was gone for a month. The longest month in the history of life.) He was right when he said she would be the one to leave for good. (She did, though she visits sometimes, like I said already.) He was right when he said people would make fun of me because I change my name all the time. But he was even more right when he said it didn’t matter because I could choose any name I wanted.

“A name is just a way of talking about a thing,” he said. “You don’t love someone’s name, you love the person inside.” He was talking about me, but not only me. He wasn’t talking about Mom, though. I mean, he loves her in a way. You have to love the person you share a name with. But that’s not the same kind of love. I told him that and he laughed and said something about “irony.” I looked that up, too. Don’t ask.

“Some things never come back.” He says that about the trains, but I know he mostly means Marie. That’s not her real name. That’s the name Lawrence uses. I didn’t tell you this yet, but I’m pretty sure the story about Lawrence is really about my dad. Lawrence was married, too. But he loved someone else.

He loved Marie. She’s the one who stops loving him. After he falls down the stairs. It hurts just thinking about it.

When I go to the tracks, I just sit there and listen. I know what a train horn sounds like. I’ve heard them online. I also have a pretty good idea what the track would feel like if a train were coming. I think it would be like the way the whole house vibrated when Dad dragged Mom’s dresser to the garage last year. I was sitting on kitchen floor eating a Pop-Tart when he did it and the crumbs bounced on the linoleum like they were trying to fly. Mom calls Pop-Tarts empty calories, but I always feel pretty full when I eat them so I’m not sure what she means.

Entropy, maybe.

Or maybe she’s just wrong. Sometimes Mom is wrong.

Today is Saturday. When there’s no school I walk to the tracks right after breakfast. (Usually Pop-Tarts.) I like weekends because I can go early. The “chill on my brow,“ and all that.

I was only two when the trains blew up. The tracks are rusty now. And cold. And broken in some places. Some things never come back.

My dad is always right. But I don’t think he wants to be.

Tomorrow I’m going to be Timmy.

And I will wait for trains.


[Author’s Note: This short story is based on a very minor character in my current novel-in-progress. I know that’s kind of meaningless, considering the fact that the novel is still “in-progress” and you can’t go out and buy it anywhere. But someday you’ll be able to. And when you do, you’ll be among a select group who can say, “Hey, I remember that Byron kid.”]


His last thought is “Finally.”

The black, breathless shroud. An emptiness to end the emptiness. ​An infinite, dreamless sleep.

Then, interruption.

The IV is a cold finger on his skin. Its slow drip of forgetting ushers him from the black into the gray. Thoughts float like ashes and dissolve like cotton candy. Images flash like lightning and fade like Polaroids peeled too soon. Beginnings. Endings. A lingering embrace. A longer goodbye. There is freckled skin, warm, alive, eager. And then her fading scent on an empty pillow. Hope disappears like an almost-kiss.


The gray is an Escher paradox. Impossible paths leading everywhere and nowhere. At the center of the chaos, a tremulous pause, a hesitation where never-arriving calm threatens shadows into panic.

He opens his eyes. Shapes like faces hover. Some familiar. Some strange. They smile. They stare. They curse. They pray. They ask why.


There was a song. A very specific song, repeating, repeating, repeating. Were there pills? He remembers music. Not this music. Electronic beeps and clicks, a rhythm without a melody. Soulless machines singing soulless songs to save his soul.

What was that song?

It made him feel. One last feeling before the black.


He is dizzy, swirling. He is Scrabble tiles looking for words in a tornado. His feelings are woodland creatures – sad bunnies, angry chipmunks, happy squirrels. They stand in formation across a meadow, then turn at the edge of a blazing forest to shrug before losing themselves in the smoke of it. Don’t go, he says. He wants to cry for them, but they have his tears.

Days and minutes blend into each other like the side of a rotting barn against a storm-welcoming sky. He sleeps for a moment and a year. When he wakes, the gray is gone. It does not go gently, like a woman teasing her lover awake with a song. It runs away like rabbit on fire. The room lights that seemed distant as stars pierce him like spotlights pressing for truth. They water his eyes. A false tear drips disappointment down his cheek and through the blur he sees a woman’s face.

He wonders if she will speak. If she will yell at him for trying to leave. If she will try to understand with words what he doesn’t understand with or without them.

He remembers now. There were pills.

Knives stab his stomach. Hammers pound his brain. Pliers pinch his arms. Chlorine and urine assault his nose. He feels the blood pump in his veins, defying him, teasing him back. He wants to be angry. He is too weak. He wants to be sorry. He doesn’t know how.

What was that song?

He listens for it. Strains to hear its echo. There is nothing but the beep and click. And then, a sound like a sob. Another tear falls down his cheek. It is warm, and he wonders if it’s hers. She reaches down to wipe it away.

Her fingers are cold and their touch surprises him. The sobbing stops. And then she begins to hum. It is a sweet melody that reminds him of Christmas mornings.

That’s not the song. That’s not it at all. That’s the opposite of the song.

He opens his mouth to complain. She presses a finger to his lips. You’re not alone, she sings. You are never alone. We are all broken. And we are okay.

She closes his eyes with her cold fingers. Rest, she says.

When he opens his eyes, she is gone.

He feels the throbbing in his chest and wishes it would stop. His bones ache.


He sleeps for another moment and a year. When he wakes, he looks for her.

Where is she? he asks the nurse.


The woman who sings.

You’ve had lots of visitors. Do you know her name?

She has cold fingers.

The nurse laughs. I don’t know, she says.

He sighs. My head hurts, he says. It hurts so fucking much.


More gray sleep. More stairs that lead nowhere. More waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping to the incessant beep and click. And then, a different sound. Whispers.

He opens his eyes to a room full of people. His brother is here. His ex-wife. The friend who found him. Not the one who broke him.

Where is she? he asks.

Let her go, they say. She’s no good for you, they say. They don’t mean the woman with cold fingers.

A nurse stands over him.

How do you feel? she asks.

Everything hurts, he says.

Do you want something for the pain?

He looks at their faces. His brother, his ex-wife, his friend, the nurse. They are silent. They are waiting. They are listening.

You’re not alone. You are never alone.

That’s not it, he yells. That’s not the goddamn song!

We’re all broken…

A tear rolls down his cheek. That’s not the song, he sobs.

His tears last a moment and a year. Then, a smile from nowhere and everywhere gently twists the gray into blue. He says it again, but this time his voice is a laugh like Christmas mornings.

That’s not the song.

He looks at his brother. His ex-wife. His friend. The nurse.

He sees everyone.

And begins to sing.