Hypocatastasis

The last goddess

She steps inside. The door hangs open for a fleeting moment, then crashes back into its frame, sealing off the hallway. Despite herself she is terrified.

She makes an unsuccessful effort to strip the fear out of her voice before it can leave her mouth.

“I’m the . . . lady Titania,” she says. A shaky start. She can’t help her nerves. She can’t even see what she’s talking to. Her eyes are reconfiguring themselves, adapting to the gloom, but so slowly.

“I have to apologize,” she says, “for your present . . . circumstances, but we’ve got to protect ourselves. We don’t intend to be your captors, though I know we are, in a way, at the moment.”

Not, she reflects, the best way to put it. Should have at least stopped before that last sentence.

Her eyes have nearly tuned to the dark room’s frequency. As the cage crawls into definition, she’s reminded of the most ancient history, when the first life crawled onto land. Now, three billion years later, that land is gone. There is nowhere to crawl.

Should have saved ourselves the trouble, she thinks. Should have stayed in the sea. Should have stopped before that last sentence. Should never have come in here. Should never have given Sila the nod for this crazy enterprise.

The last time Titania saw the cage it was empty. This is no longer the case. She sees bands of broken light in there, grappling with the splinters of shadows. She waits for a shape to coalesce, but stops waiting when it dawns on her that this will never happen. There is no form here, no overriding physiognomy. At least not one she can comprehend.

This is another kind of being entirely.

She decides the time has come to explain herself, to detail the reasons she allowed any of this to happen.

She begins with, “We badly need your help,” and before she can even finish this sentence a shriek, high and thin, flies from the cage and juliennes the air.

Titania’s courage crumples.

This, she thinks, is my cue to leave. She knows the reinforced lattice is strong – it was Sila’s design, after all – but now, confronted with what it was built to contain, she’s not so sure it’s up to the task.

It seems to her that a caged goddess can’t possibly stay caged for long.

*

Back in the hallway Titania is breathing hard. With considerable effort she calms herself down.

Sila leans against the wall with a frankly infuriating insouciance. She seems to expect her to say something. Titania shakes her head, but Sila, who never quite got the hang of nonverbal communication, says, “See? I wasn’t kidding, was I? I found it.”

“Yes, Sila. Yes. You found her.”

A man approaches from around the corner. He is tall and thin, but far from lanky. His skin, tightened to the point of near-translucency, strains to contain cords of thickened musculature. Stick a needle in this guy, and he might just explode.

She can tell this is one of Sila’s constructors, and not just from his freakish physique. A deep bagginess underscores each of his eyes.

She wonders how many months it has been since this man last slept.

She wonders, also, if she has seen him before. If she has, she can’t remember what his name is, or if he even has one. Not all of them do.

The man touches a palm to his forehead and says, “Lady Titania. Officer Sila.”

Sila says, “You’re a little early.”

“I heard a scream. I hurried over.”

Titania raises an eyebrow. Sila ignores this and says, “Go ahead. Just touch the lattice and it’ll slide back.”

Once the man has stepped into the room she adds, as though by way of explanation, “I read up about it. It used to be traditional to make sacrifices.”

Titania hears a shriek, and she cannot be sure whether it’s the man or the goddess.

Sila says, “This is the fourth time I’ve fed it. I’m still not quite sure how it eats. It never leaves a trace. Not a scrap of clothing, not a drop of blood.”

Titania, who is getting dizzy, says, “Let’s get out of here for a while.”

*

The men, with their literalist lingo, talk not of sea and sky, but of “the heavy water” and “the light water.” They may, without knowing it, be anticipating the future. For as long as Titania can remember, the sea and sky have flowed into and out of each other. Another few years and that miscibility could well progress to unity.

Today, more than ever, the horizon looks more implied than real, a faint slash that separates something dark from something slightly darker. You’d never see it if you didn’t already know it was there.

Everywhere distinctions are weakening. Forms are eroding and collapsing. Not even the goddess was immune to the decay. She thinks, again, of that flickering collection of caged non-shapes. Not what she’d imagined, certainly not what she’d hoped for.

Sila says, “You’ve been staring out that porthole for almost half an hour.”

Titania rolls over, rests her head in the crook of an elbow. She peers up at Sila, who sits with a pillow between her back and the headboard, a sheaf of papers fanned across her lap.

“I’m trying to figure out what to do, Sila. It’s not easy.”

“Why not? We have it.”

“I was expecting we’d have some way to communicate.”

Sila says, “I don’t see how that’s important. It would be good to have some cooperation, that’s true, but the fact is, we have it. It’s not the other way around. We have an advantage there.”

“This isn’t some power struggle, Sila. She’s a goddess.”

“I wish you’d stop calling it that.”

Titania rolls over again and closes her eyes. She wonders how two people can be so close yet fail to understand each other so completely. She and Sila are nearly touching. There is no clothing between them. Sila’s skin is so familiar to her that it might as well be her own, but of course it isn’t.

Atoms decay and cells divide. It is easier, she thinks, to take a thing apart than to put it together again. Heavy and light water. She and Sila are two entities, not one.

*

On deck Titania breathes the light water, which is damp and thick and redolent of brine. She gets dizzy if she spends too much time up here. Sila has long discouraged her from coming up. “Let my constructors do that for you,” she always says. “That’s what they’re for.”

Yes, the constructors, with their modified Y chromosomes, their ability to function without sleep, their supercharged musculature, their hardened lungs, their . . . minimal personalities.

Once she admitted to Sila that they creep her out.

“Well, that’s irrelevant,” Sila said. “They give us a chance at survival. You know we didn’t have any use for the men before, and now look what they can do. We’re alone on a ship, Titania, in the midst of an ocean that may well have engulfed the entire planet by now. We’re not in a great situation. If we want to survive, we’ve got to be ruthless.”

Hence the capture of the goddess. The last goddess.

The wind blows. Titania hugs herself, hooking her palms into her armpits. She watches the water, ripples and waves spurting out of its turbulent surface only to be pulled back underneath.

She is not sure how long she’s been on deck when she hears the clunk of the hatch opening behind her.

Sila, hands on her hips, says, “What are you doing?”

A reasonable question, Titania thinks. I’m not sure myself.

“I wanted to collect my thoughts before talking to her again.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You know that. What if you’d passed out? What if the constructors had come up only to find you, the lady Titania, lying dead?”

“Bad for morale, I guess.”

Sila furrows her brow. “Well, morale doesn’t exactly apply to the constructors.”

“I know, Sila. I was trying to make a joke.”

“I don’t think this is the time.”

They watch each other.

Finally, Titania says, “I better go talk to her.”

“Again,” Sila says. Titania tries to ignore her smirk.

*

She steps inside, again. The door hangs open, again, for a fleeting moment, then, again, crashes back into its frame.

She is about as terrified as she was last time. Maybe a little more. Last time she was only terrified of the goddess. She’s still terrified of the goddess, but now she’s even more terrified of Sila.

She speaks into the darkness. “This is Titania. The lady Titania. I . . . you might remember me.”

There is no acknowledgement that she has been understood.

“I . . . my partner is a woman named Sila. And while I love and respect her, we have . . . different views on a few things.”

“We both want your help, but I see you as a goddess, and Sila sees you as a ruined thing. I want your cooperation, but she doesn’t think you need, or have, a choice. If I can’t figure out a way to communicate with you, she will destroy you. She’ll do it slowly, granted, and she’ll keep you fed with her constructors, but she’ll drain everything she can. She’ll do to you what she thinks she needs to do to you for us to survive.”

And she may even be right to do so, Titania thinks. We’re lost at sea. There is no land in sight, or even in existence. To the last humans, maybe the last goddess really is just a resource to exploit.

By now her eyes have adjusted. She sees the goddess’s physical form, or what remains of it. Those thrashing shadows.

There’s a flash, an explosion of light that seems to come from inside her head. It bypasses her eyes, sets the optic nerve itself ablaze.

A voice that is not a voice tells her, without speaking, that she’s worried over nothing. That she and Sila and the constructors and the goddess will all disintegrate, in the end, and the end is nearer than it has ever been, and this is all that matters.

For the first time in longer than she can remember, the lady Titania is at ease.

The man who paid in confessions

My daydream – it had been such a good one – evaporated when, with a thump, the car slipped off the road and onto the graveled shoulder.

“Jesus!” Vince said.

I pulled hard to the left. The car followed, the wheels on its passenger side scrabbling against the asphalt’s edge as they climbed back to the lane.

“Minor course correction,” I muttered.

I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye – Vince shaking his head.

“Look,” he said. “I’ll drive.”

I slammed my foot down on the brake. It screeched like a broken tin whistle. As the car stopped I brought it back to the shoulder. With a finger I silenced the radio. A cloud of fine white dust was rising from the front wheels.

I turned to Vince.

“You want to drive,” I said.

“Well, yeah.” Vince looked puzzled. “You seem a little out of it.”

“I had to make a minor course correction, so now you want to drive.”

“Jackson, that wasn’t the first correction you’ve made today. You’re tired. It’s okay.” Vince spoke in gentle tones, the way you speak to a special needs child.

I squeezed the steering wheel. “Don’t patronize me, Vince.”

“Hey, chill out.”

That’s right. If you want to know what kind of guy Vince was, he was the kind who’d constantly tell you to “chill out.”

I said, “I’ll chill out when you shut up and let me drive. This is my car, Vince. My car. My trip.”

“Your trip? Our trip!”

“My trip,” I said again. “My rules. Here is the first rule: shut up.”

“Okay,” Vince said. “Okay. Jesus.”

The next hundred miles of interstate unspooled in uncomfortable silence.

*

My trip. My rules.

Maybe I was a jerk to say it outright. I’ll give you that. But listen: it was true.

Everything had started a month before, when I paid Vince a visit. His room wasn’t too far out of the way – just three floors down, number four-zero-one.

The door had a whiteboard 3M’d onto it at about eye level. There was a line of text there, written in a large, looping script. Rounded letters. Every I dotted with a delicate little circle.

“Vince,” it read. “Hugs and kisses! from Iris.”

I scowled . . . and then I rearranged my face into a smile.

I only had to knock twice, and there was Vince, resplendent in his lime-green jockey shorts. He was not wearing a shirt. His torso glistened with sweat.

His room was so tiny that my view from the doorway – even with Vince in the way – was panoptic. Three undershirts were rakishly draped over a lounge chair. A pair of fifty-pound handweights squatted on a furry Ikea rug. Vince’s roommate sat at a desk, peering into the stygian depths of an LCD monitor.

“Jackson!” said Vince. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Come in!”

I did. Vince shut the door behind me and picked one of the weights back up.

“Shoulder presses,” he explained. “How have you been?” He grunted and I saw a series of muscles tighten, thick cords under his skin.

“I’ve been okay,” I said. This could not have been less true.

“Good to hear.”

“Who’s Iris?”

“Friend of mine,” Vince said. He grunted again.

“And you?” I said. “How about you?”

“Never been better, Jackson.” He put the weight back onto the rug and looked at me, panting, a goofy grin spreading across his face. “Never been better.”

And yeah, that’s it. That right there.

That’s the moment that clinched it for me.

“Vince,” I said, “what are you doing this spring break?”

*

My teeth could not find purchase upon the length of pizza I had shoved into my mouth. The dough was resilient, like a new mattress, and even my saliva’s enzymatic assault proved useless. A lesser man might have dismissed the pizza as inedible, but I would not give up. Mere pizza, defeat me?

Never.

I chewed doggedly. Dough and mozarella and pepperoni eventually separated – albeit with great reluctance.

When I’d swallowed the last of my pizza I grinned. Then I stopped grinning. I frowned. I looked across the table at Vince and grinned again. He returned my smile hesitantly, uncertainly.

“What are you thinking about, Jackson?”

I said, “Nothing.” For once it was the truth. Now that the trip was underway there was no longer anything to think about. We were on the path I had preordained.

Planning was over. Execution was underway.

“You’ve been acting strange,” Vince said. He hadn’t touched his corndogs. On his plate they lay side by side, pale and listless and bloated, like overweight albino twins trying to catch some rays by the pool. I pointed at them, raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not hungry.” Vince took a breath. “You know,” he said, “you’ve been acting strange.”

“Strange. Strange how?”

“You don’t seem like you’re in a great mood. Lighten up! This is supposed to be a fun trip into the mountains, right? You ought to relax a little.”

“I ought to chill out, you’re saying.”

I clawed a napkin off the table and into my hand. It was a cheap napkin and it felt rough against my lips. I had, you might as well know, very delicate lips. So did Vince. I’ll give him that.

“I ought to chill out,” I said again. I looked over Vince’s shoulder, through the glass behind him and into the parking lot. Trucks pawed at the ground like caged animals. They itched to leave, to get back onto the highway, and so did I. The sun wouldn’t set anytime soon, but midday had passed, and it was on the downhill side of its course.

It would be best to get moving soon, and I was about to say something to that effect when Vince’s cell phone buzzed.

“Excuse me,” he murmured, and raised himself from his chair.

“Hey!” he said into the phone, “What’s going on?”

His voice faded until he had passed out of earshot altogether.

I drummed my fingers on dirty formica. I sipped at my fountain drink, which tasted, at best, like a watery approximation of the Pepsi it was supposed to have been.

Here was Vince now, striding past racks and shelves of beef jerky and cigarette lighters and heavy metal cassettes and souvenir shot glasses that celebrated western Kansas – because, I suppose, something had to.

I stood.

“You ready to head out?” I said.

Vince shook his head. He seemed pale.

“First,” he said, “I want you to explain something to me.”

I sighed. “Yes?”

“I just got off the phone with Ben Harris.” He gave me a significant look, as though this was supposed to have meant something to me.

“Yes?” I said again.

Vince said, “I told him we were on our way to Seraphim Falls. He was surprised. Ben says you never invited him along.”

“I guess I didn’t,” I said.

“But you told me you’d invited him. You told me he couldn’t make it because he had to go to a family reunion. He didn’t know what family reunion I was talking about!”

I shrugged.

“I guess I lied,” I said.

*

An inevitable decay had pulled Vince and me apart over the years. It was as though our friendship passed an expiration date. It continued to exist, but only after undergoing a fundamental change, like a tub of old yogurt that has grown a head of fuzzy green hair.

We used to be inseparable. My very first sleepover – I couldn’t have been older than seven – was at Vince’s house. We played outside, running through his backyard sprinkler again and again. We played inside, hammering at buttons until his videogame console overheated. We ordered a deep dish number, Chicago-style, from my future employer. In the morning Vince shook me awake and we tiptoed downstairs to build fortresses of Lego until, hours later, the doorbell rang and my father picked me up.

One of the better nights of my life. But what happened then? In junior high we rode separate academic tracks. They said Vince was gifted. They said I was unremarkable. Vince got heavily into extracurriculars. High school came around and by sophomore year he was a football hero, a talented swimmer, a reporter extraordinaire with the school newspaper, a drama geek who had played the leading role in two separate productions. He sang in choir. He played the viola. He was a National Merit Scholar.

Me? I was no one. I’d pass Vince in the hall and he’d wave cheerily. People meeting me for the first time would say, by way of greeting, and in tones of awe, “Aren’t you the guy who knew Vince growing up?”

Vince could have gone to Harvard, if he’d wanted. He could have gone to Yale, or Amherst, or Columbia, or Cornell. The entire northeast was recruiting him hard.

But Vince said he would stay in Kansas.

He said he had family. He had friends. He had grown to love our town, and it went without saying that our town had grown to love him.

Except, I think, for me.

*

The interstate widened after it crossed the state line. Trucks bearing their freight to Denver merged pushily into our lane. I overtook them all, tracing a sine wave across the stark landscape. The Kansas prairie by then had yielded to a slope so gentle that I would have thought it a plateau, had I not been able to see the mountains beyond as they crept up from behind the horizon.

I had driven more than eighty miles into Colorado by the time I saw an exit. By then the day had long since surrendered to night, and my energies were fading.

I flipped my signal and turned off the highway. It was time to call it a night.

The only motel in the area was a hulking stucco monster. The building was dark, but the sign (“Super 8″) pumped a sickly fluorescence into the night.

“Affordable,” read one marquee. “Pets welcome,” read another.

I parked the car.

Vince snored softly next to me, in the lowered passenger seat. I placed a hand on his chest, felt it rise and fall.

I lifted the hand, brought it back down.

“Vince,” I said. “Vince, wake up.”

Vince grunted. His eyes fluttered open. He reached for my hand. I swept it away.

“Jackson?” he said.

“We’re staying at a motel tonight.”

Vince looked around. “Where are we?”

I shook my head. “Colorado. What does it matter? It’s late. We’ll check in.”

*

The lobby was aswirl with cold conditioned air. Gooseflesh rose on the backs of my arms. An man in late middle age with a face like a condemned housing project raised his face, with no apparent embarrassment, from a magazine opened to a pornographic photo spread.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Two rooms,” I said.

Vince tapped me on the shoulder.

“Two rooms?” He seemed surprised.

“Isn’t that what I said?”

Vince mumbled something, turned away.

I ignored him, finished our transaction.

“Rooms 203 and 204,” the man said. He held the keys out to me but his gaze was on the pages before him, fixed doggedly to the nubiles in their frozen poses. He licked his lips. I rolled my eyes.

“Go outside, turn left. Take the stairs. On your right.”

I thanked him, but I’m not sure he heard.

*

Vince and I faced each other on the balcony, between rooms 203 and 204.

“Good night, Jackson.”

“Right,” I said.

“What time do we get going tomorrow morning?”

“About eight.”

“When do you think we’ll get to Seraphim Falls?”

“Oh,” I said, “tomorrow afternoon at the absolute latest.”

I smiled. “We’re not far now, Vince. Not far at all.”

*

At last, in my room, I was alone on thin carpet. I unwrapped a bar of soap and took a shower and wrapped myself in a towel. A motel room, once a few hundred travelers have passed through it, is a uniquely delicate space. It hardly asserts its own presence. The miniature bars of soap are pathetic, shrunken things. The towels are too thin.

I sat on the bed and I thought about Vince. It occurred to me that Seraphim Falls might not even be necessary.

I could just go next door, right now. That would be it.

But why? I had come this far. I would do Seraphim Falls justice.

I couldn’t help but smile at the thought.

That night I slept hard and heavy, like a brick. I dreamed, bizarrely, of pineapple. Not everyone likes it, I know, but I think it’s a solid topping.

*

I started delivering for Pizza Hut in high school. It was about eighteen months ago, the summer before my senior year. I got the job because I wanted the pocket money. I kept the job, even into college, because it was easier than quitting. I had, frankly, nothing better to do with my Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights.

I saw the job as a great way to stay occupied without being too occupied, if that makes sense. In this GPS-enabled age, delivering a pizza’s just a matter of picking up a box, punching in a destination, and keeping an eye on a screen. You turn up some music and zone out. You drop the pizza off and if you’re lucky you get a nice tip.

Certainly I encountered my share of strange, memorable characters. One guy tipped me a single cent because his order, he claimed, was “four entire minutes late.” Another guy took a tape measure to his pizza and demanded a refund because the pie’s diameter, from crust to crust, was eleven-point-nine inches rather than the advertised twelve.

And then, late last year, there was the most memorable guy of all. The one who told me that he couldn’t pay me with money, but – if I was willing to listen – he would pay with a confession.

*

“If you ask me,” he said (and I hadn’t), “guilt is the only currency in this world that’s worth even a tenth of a damn.”

He said this after he’d received me at his door and cajoled me into his living room. I don’t think I’d have gone in there under normal circumstances, you understand, but the man was harmless. He was clearly just a garrulous but good natured old fella who had realized too late that he couldn’t afford the pizza he’d ordered. He was, it seemed to me, inventing this convoluted “confession” nonsense to save face. This was my last delivery of the night, and I saw no harm in humoring him.

So we sat across from each other in two identical armchairs, the pizza box warming the small glass table between us, and he told me that guilt was, in his estimation, a psychic burden nonpareil.

“I pay in confessions,” he said, “because of the power they have. Forget about money. Confessions are power. The right confession from the right person can send your life off in a direction you never expected.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. I tried to keep the sneer out of my voice, but the old man must have heard it.

“You’re skeptical,” he said. “So be it. Let me tell my story and you’ll understand. You’ll believe me.”

He told me his story, and I understood.

I believed him.

*

I put the car into park and shut off the engine.

“We’re here,” I said.

Vince said, “I don’t understand.”

I raised my arms. “It took us a while, Vince, but we made it.” Without waiting for him I opened my door and stepped out of the car.

I had taken the interstate through Denver and into the mountains. Then I’d taken a series of knotted, meandering backroads into a forest. When the last of these roads had come to an abrupt end, I’d stopped the car.

We stood surrounded, densely, by tall evergreens. I raised my face to the sky and laughed.

“We’re here!”

Vince came out of the car. “Jackson,” he said, “I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“Are you feeling all right?”

“I’ve never felt better in my life, Vince. I feel so good that I want to tell you a story. Is that okay, Vince? Can I do that? Tell you a story?”

I didn’t bother to wait for his consent.

“Once upon a time, Vince, a man lost someone very dear to him. A friend. A lover. Someone who’d been by his side for years. Someone he trusted, and relied on. Someone he lived for.”

A tear rolled down Vince’s cheek.

“Go on,” he said.

“With this person lost, the man was no longer happy. He felt sure that he’d never be happy again. He took a walk in the park every day, alone, nursing his sorrow and bitterly cursing the young couples that passed him by. He just didn’t understand, Vince. Why should they live, if his beloved had to die?”

“One day he put an ad in the paper. An opportunity for what he described as ‘the vacation of a lifetime.’ An all-inclusive package, at a very reasonable rate. A luxurious tour bus. A five star hotel. A week’s worth of delightful activities. His ad attracted several newlyweds – eight couples in all. He signed them up and took their money. He hired a tour bus and a driver. He himself rode with them – but incognito, of course. He took them here, Vince.”

I paused for effect.

“Here?”

“This is Seraphim Falls.”

“I don’t get it. What are you trying to say?”

“Vince,” I said. “I am not going to spell this out for you.”

With one hand I opened the rear door on the driver’s side. I fumbled for the bag that I knew contained what I needed. I did this while keeping my gaze steady, and steely, and fixed upon Vince’s face, searching for a sign of understanding.

Yes, I saw it – actually saw the intuition pass through him like an electric shock. I could have sworn I saw a spasm, a sudden paroxysm of comprehension, as the enormity of the situation fell down upon him.

I imagined he was very angry with himself. It should have been obvious. He should have seen this coming, should have recognized my trap for what it was.

I was dumbfounded to see Vince’s face light up. His eyes shone.

“Aw, Jackson,” he said. “You were so subtle about it. I guess you were shy, huh? Well, listen, I’m touched that you’d say that about me.”

“That I’d say what?”

“You know – that I’ve been by your side for years, that I’m someone you trust, someone you live for. That means a lot.”

“I wasn’t talking about you!” I said. “I was talking about someone else, about a woman who – “

“A woman!” Vince said. “That’s a good one. It’s all right, Jackson. We don’t have to be ashamed.”

“Vince,” I said, “you’ve really got the wrong idea.”

In the bag my hand touched cold metal.

“I thought I saw this coming,” he went on. “When you invited me to come on this trip with you, you said some of your other friends would come along – but I’d be willing to bet you didn’t even ask any of them! You wanted to make sure it’d just be the two of us.”

“Vince – “

I hefted the rifle in both hands.

“But I’ve got to say, you sure confused me last night, when you said we’d sleep in two separate rooms! Now I see that you just didn’t want to ruin the surprise, that speech you gave just now. You really planned all this out, didn’t – “

I brought the rifle to my shoulder and shot Vince in the head.

*

So there’s my confession – and there’s your payment. I told you I’d change your mind, didn’t I? About confessions?

A confession is worth a lot more than money.

You can do what you want with me now. You understand that? You could turn me over to the police and I wouldn’t even resent it. I did something criminal. I might as well pay for it, even if it was forty years ago.

Or you can do what I did.

You can do a horrible thing.

And you can tell a story.

And we’ll keep this thing going.

Whatever it is.

But before you leave, one last thing. One more confession. Don’t worry, this one’s short.

I’ve never told anyone this, but I miss Vince.

Sometimes I miss him a lot.