Samuel J. Adams
Mr. Vegas’s mustache looks like a brown mink stole that has felt the drip of wet Victorian bricks, but it’s the only elegant thing we’ve seen about him: his beard is a poorly clipped patchwork of white gaps, gray ridges, red sores. When worries rumple his sixty-something face, his forehead abrades like the fingertip of a well-used garden glove. But when his phone chirrups good news, Mr. Vegas tilts his head back and concern seems to rinse away from him as he struts the corridor of the Motel Merrythought from vending machine to stairwell and back with a vigor almost youthful. These ebullient emotional highs and spectral, despairing lows–and the minimal interstices between them–give him a gambler-like quality that led Julie and I to call him Mr. Vegas, even though nothing we’ve seen connects our mustachioed mutant to Nevada. If Mr. Vegas gambles on anything but scratchers, we wager he never goes west of Detroit’s Greektown Casino, and even that sixty-mile journey feels unlikely. Still he’s a man that spends plenty of time considering his odds, and takes pleasures in the times they favor him. He may have found this motel like a windblown seed finding a meagre cement groove, but now he wants to stay, to root down and sprout whatever flowers remain within him. It’s the same with all the mutants Julie and I recover for Dr. Baylor: when their powers wane, their nervous homebody tendencies rise. Nothing surprising here: I’m no mutant, but I foresee doing very little in my retirement, assuming my intestines last me long enough to see it.
room while he was out eating complimentary Cheerios, grabbed a pile of mail from the dustbin, and planted a Bluetooth bug behind the picture of autumn leaves and red farmhouses hung over his bed. Girlie’s a surveillance dynamo, but the bug only transmits thirty feet, and since we couldn’t book the room beside his, Julie and I hunker in the room or in our Honda Odyssey parked fifteen catty-cornered feet from Mr. Vegas’s room. From the bug we’ve learned Mr. Vegas makes few calls save the wispy little messages he leaves on a law firm’s answering machine asking why the class action pay-out is so meagre; that he watches football, local news, extraterrestrial History Channel fare; that he reads, aloud: the bible, newspapers, pulpy detective stuff where nipples get lots of description, possibly because Mr. Vegas decides to emphasize and reread these parts of the book. Mr. Vegas doesn’t use the internet. From his mail, we learned he gets his social security payment on the third of the month and collects some little Class Action pay-out on the fifth.
On the sixth morning of our stakeout, I leave the room and hear the buzz of Dr. Baylor’s drones. They don’t shoot footage of us every day, but they shoot more than enough to keep Julie and I nervous and busy, and their presence means we need to quicken the pace, seal the deal. Someone needs to watch the watchers, and his mosquito-cams do quality control on the cheap. They’ll also deliver meds if our conditions flare-up, postmarked boxes dropped right on our hotel doormat, so ably are they flown. I wave at it and shuffle down to the office for the complimentary coffee and when I come out it’s only blackbirds floating around the gray sky.
We’d met in Michigan, Julie and I, a smallish woody town with an Indian name not much worth disclosing. We were convalescents in a recuperative cancer center of some acclaim, put up by wealthy families, cared for by specialists, but we left the place in remission but independent otherwise of any sustained betterment save our love for one another, holding hands as our medical bracelets clinked together, Julie looking a very young nineteen and me looking an impossibly haggard and tumescent twenty. Nothing traumatic happened at the Center; we endured only the unavoidable pains. We had simply tired of green curtains, flower-print smocks, the whisper and whine of voices beside our own. We turned loose in a town with nothing to do but plenty of heroin, and when we got tired of doing nothing, we did heroin instead—palliative, dreamful heroin.
In unsurprising fashion, the heroin did not work out. So when one wintry day a doctor with a polished drawl and a shock of Jacksonian hair came to our favorite bar with promises of easy work for money and smack, Julie and I proved easy sells. When he showed us a storehouse of all the pricey legal medications specific to our conditions—a strategic reserve for our lives—we became his full and ready converts. This was years ago, and with our precarious health those years feel specifically purchased by our work for Dr. Baylor. There’s a clincher there: if healthcare worked in this country, Julie and I probably wouldn’t, beyond some part-timey sinecure: soft-voiced and learned, Julie would make an ace part-time library page, and, if my gassiness and occasional leakages were contained, I’d make a Walmart greeter par excellence.
But Dr. Baylor isn’t all terrible: old man plays a mean chromatic harmonica, loves cats, funds schools, etc. And he put Julie and me through an ace recovery center in Ojai, where we kicked our heroin habit.
Absent our consciences from the picture, my Julie and I have been “clean” for these last nine years of mutant hunting.
Late afternoon sun fills the Motel Merrythought’s greasy windows with seraphic glares as Mr. Vegas steps out to the balcony, leans over the railing, and inhales his cigarette and whatever of fresh air the swamp emits in these fading days of summer.
Julie lights a joint that smells up the Odyssey before she even exhales. I inch down the window and smoke wends silkily through the yellowing porchlight until it reaches the twist of Mr. Vegas’s left moustache. Julie coughs—with surprising force given her mono-lung.
Julie and I have gotten the impression that Mr. Vegas’s sense of smell hardly extends beyond the cherry of his cigarette, but even small offenses like smoking weed make Julie nervous on assignment, so I tell her that if Mr. Vegas’s squat nose had been keened to this citrusy strain of Michigan middies, it was keened to it by experience, and liable to enjoy it. The sunken-eyed man strikes me as no likelier to report us than the maid with the amphetamine twitch pushing around the towel car or the trabajadores who plunk their bags of Coors light and Tecate at the bottom of the stairwell, or the night porter who answers questions without once looking up from her Sudoku. At motels like the Merrythought everyone takes an inviolate stake in looking the other way, and Mr. Vegas knows this. But the cameras work, and you can’t just walk in, beat somebody up and toss them in your van as blue glass shatters around you. Still, after all these nights of this, he’s got no qualms about holding eye contact with us during the moments our vices overlaps.
“Marceau,” Julie says. “Tell me the one about those elephants in Jaipur. Back when you were chasing that hypnotist.”
“Hippotist,” I correct. That was the nickname I’d given the mutant who hypnotized larger mammals, a fat fucker too big for the tub where I found him the night I stole his eyes. It’d taken two shots from my tranquilizer gun to cut his moaning and a third to dope him enough for the hasty procedure. Dr. Baylor believed the man’s hypnotic powers could be synthetized from intact ocular pieces, so I spooned out each eye as a foolproof sample, sealed them in Tupperware and tye-wrapped them. When I walked out the door a confused herd of pachyderms stood magnetized in diagonal flanks outside the man’s veranda, their wrinkled eyes regarding the house as if awaiting further instructions. I doffed my fedora and the elephants blinked uncomprehendingly as I jogged between them, the man’s orbs jiggling in the Tupperware in my backpack. When I was blocks away, the Hippotist came to and wailed and—whether as an act of vengeance or instructed euthanasia—the elephants charged and smashed house and man to bits. I did that mission alone: Julie is too frail for most international deployments, plus if ever a country existed that gave olfactory camouflage to the farts of Marceau Dang, such a country is India.
I throw in that last part as the punchline to my not quite unembellished story, and Julie heaves out a light giggle.
After I delivered him the eyes, Dr. Baylor put Julie and me up in a Palm Springs spa for a month. He knows we’re in love, and he makes sure Julie shares in all my rewards. After so many balmy, sunny deployments and respites, a week in the monocultured flatlands of Western Ohio wears you down. We’re hardly the only couple that kills time smoking in a van by the Merrythought; there’s a room-to-parking lot pipeline here when people’s money run out. Mr. Vegas seems too shy to cast penetrating glances, but he’ll stare at our dirty windshield from time to time. Of course, there’s a chance he knows he’s being observed. Even a chance he might want to get caught.
Like the title of some terrible live Blues Album, Western Ohio’s been Hot, Wet and Gray for weeks—the sky and its particulates settle like a fraying dishrag on your sweaty skin, the squirmy heat tires in way that reduces rather than relaxes any one in it.
Behind our trusty parking space runs an unpaved brown lot where rain has kindly laid out oily iridescent puddles of photographable distinction. Past that there’s a small berm of grass the cottontail bunnies like, and beyond the berm a skein of flat beige houses that in my myopia blur like soap slivers under the wash of an achromatic sky. There’s a row of oaks, elms and buckeyes planted beyond the houses, and, beyond them, a tumultuary heap of buildings that add up to something like a town. But our focus is with that little stretch of woodland, the trees in which I’ll lay my traps. Dr. Baylor’s drones have filmed Mr. Vegas taking his nature walk there, and when this summer produces a day of workable weather, we’ll strike.
Through all the surveillance sounds Julie and I listen for a single noise: the sound of Mr. Vegas’s departure by foot. Not the usual staggering out with shopping bags and coupon books for the CVS across the road, but a real journey—a risky jaunt into nature that gives us time and place to strike unseen. Even at this shabby motel they’ll call the sheriff when they need to, especially if a longtime tenant were to suddenly and violently vanish. But ten days in and we’ve heard nothing: from our laptop we listen to what buzzes out on his bugged room and, from the car speaker, a Disco station, or NPR. The NPR affiliate’s underfunded here, plays eighty percent classical, so at least we’ve the pleasures of having our idleness dramatically scored. Each night around seven we hear Mr. Vegas make a noise like the reactive breath one draws when heat offends the palette. Soup, we figure, selected from the lobby’s finest Nissin selections.
“His life’s one long sick day,” declares Julie, whose life, like mine, resembles a long sick day, interrupted only by hours worked monitoring and reclaiming mutants like Mr. Vegas. Mutants make an odd business model but they’re maybe not the niche you’d think them. To go by Dr. Baylor’s stirring declarations, half the innovations in the pharmaceutical industry turn on the unethical findings of people like us working for people like him, exploiting vulnerable beings like Mr. Vegas.
For camouflage we wear whatever the nearest Goodwill sells. I choose Julie’s outfit and she chooses mine and we end up looking twice as shabby as we would selecting the clothes for ourselves. The point isn’t to be invisible, but visually dismissible. I wear pin-striped mauve pants and a sweater leprously shedding lettering; Julie wears a green trucker hat, wide-legged corduroys and a red poufy jacket that droops like a sickened raspberry: we look like two patches from the AIDS quilt.
Yet even dressed from the discard bin, Julie’s blonde hair sparkles and she retains her frail prettiness, so I accompany her whenever she strays far from a designated base. I’m not Mr. Imposing but I’m a big enough guy still, bulgy arms and barreled middle, and I end up not getting mugged or messed with for the same reason jug wine is seldom shoplifted: the physics, the optics side with me. Dr. Baylor discourages dual departures from the mark: he wants a careful ear listening in on the wiretaps continuously. But we’ve heard Mr. Vegas snoring deeply and there’s a place across the lot that does lemon pepper chicken wings precisely as such wings should be done, and to glance twice at my Julie—partner, lover, forgiver of my many faults—is to wish iron and protein in her pallid, withering direction. Yet soon as we are sitting under the green humming lights of the restaurant, it’s like we can hear Mr. Vegas’s fitful snores through the gaps in our sloppy chewing sounds, a haunting from our hauntee. I lick my fingers and throw a twenty on the counter and we hustle out of there without waiting for change, leaving a shabby trail of false notions of human goodness. On the walk back, I break wind madly, rectal goose calls soaring unto the swampy air rather than our cramped hotel or our Odyssey. Julie giggles warmly at these honks, knowing that they signal that I still care about her nose, that after all these years and all we’ve done we’re still two sickly lovebirds flying in formation.
And we’re not in the van two minutes before Baylor’s blue drone comes thrumming in over the lot and the berm.
“What do you think he’d have done if he caught us?” Julie asks.
“Nothing I’d want to voice in this van,” I rasp between gulps.
Even with the skills we learned, even with a CV of dispatched mutants running many lines, we know we don’t stand a chance against the Doctor, and at the first scent of resistance he’d find a way to make our ending a messy, painful one. Keeping this thought in mind helps me work. He’s a paunchy septuagenarian with a smoker’s cough, and every now and then I remember his physique with a sense of hope: Julie and I aren’t the only souls tethered to undependable bodies.
One day Mr. Vegas calls up Lyme, Strickland, and Blats, the firm handling the Class Action suit, and though the call seems no magnitude worse than his last six, it vexes Mr. Vegas and he alights from his room hell-bent on a walk. The temperature has cooled, 76 from 90, and, as if preparing for company, the weather has taken measures to clean itself with light rainfall; the swampy grit no longer oppresses, and Mr. Vegas alights from his motel toward the train tracks that run into the woodland.
I’ve walked countless versions of his sad-sack strut all over the world on my wearying assignments for Dr. Baylor: Belgrade, Ulaanbaatar, Yuma, you name it. The goal of such walks is to find a train track and walk despondently along it until something interesting appears or one’s bad feelings pass. The tracks he follows run two miles before they pass through the trees and on so pretty a day there’s no way he’s heading away from the foliage. They aren’t huge trees, but they’ll hold my nets well enough. We drive the Odyssey there, Julie at the wheel. She parks under an oak tree with wide boughs. Like a farting chubby Koala, I climb the thing in scoots, hang the net and wait.
Not fifteen minutes later Mr. Vegas comes shuffling and I release the traps. He’s easy to bag, poor guy. Hardly squeals when the netting falls. The anchor weights of the net are not insurmountably heavy, but he doesn’t try to budge them, just sort of flippers and gibbers about the ground defeatedly as I hop down. I get over him and pull his arms back and tilt his head up. Then I yell, “Jasper!” like I’m calling a dog and Julie heeds the signal, hops out from the bushes, and pumps Mr. Vegas’s neck with a syringe full of serum.
“Fucking tits!” whispers Julie and I honestly don’t know where she got the phrase.
I carry Mr. Vegas like he’s a wrinkly sleepy child and settle him in the backseat. I’d be lying if I said that the capture hadn’t made me happy. At a certain point, the purgatorial boredom of monitoring mutants makes the tackling of retirees seem like an easy, even fun part of our work, even if it means a meeting with the menacing Dr. Baylor is imminent.
I go in the Motel Merrythought and check out with the surly player of Sudoku. Then Julie and I drive home our sedated payload.
Dr. Baylor’s HQ has a subterranean floor as grimy and echoing as you could wish for any horror movie, with man-sized rolls of plastic sheeting and bottles of bleach lying menacingly around a rusty central drain. But at Doctor Baylor’s insistence, our mutants never awaken to such obvious gloom, bound to chairs with their wrists tie-wrapped. Oh, they still wake up with bound wrists, but in a clean brightly lit modern office lunchroom, sitting at the end of a mahogany table, like a guest presenter in a corporate seminar. “Defamiliarizing,” is how the Doctor puts it, in a warm slow drawl that clips off the word’s “g” as if it were a rose’s unseemly petal. And defamiliarized is how Mr. Vegas must feel waking up clammy and staring blearily down the table at Dr. Baylor and two figures beside him, a fat man and a frail woman looking his way through sequined papery animal masks. I can’t say what exactly the masks are about; just another old and evil habit of Dr. Baylor’s that stuck. Mine’s a wolf. Julie’s is a tiger whose unstriped portions glow in the dark. Sometimes I’ll rib her about how much likes wearing the thing.
“Where the fuck is this anyway? Toledo?”
So says a squirming Mr. Vegas after Dr. Baylor finishes reading the Proclamation of the Order of Holy Pharmacists, which I don’t want to write down here because it’s supposedly cursed and definitely long and, frankly, scares the shit out of me. Mr. Vegas hears it without requesting its explication, or protesting its lunacy. He knows what’s coming is all bad. Dr. Baylor’s plumbers never haul in the wrong turd. And so Mr. Vegas hunches stoically into his last exchange of small talk.
“And what if it was Toledo?” says Dr. Baylor.
“You can’t pull no if on me. I know those noises. I know that smell. All that Maumee river goop. Been trying to avoid that smell for years.”
“And yet we recover you not twelve miles south of Lucas County,” says Dr. Baylor. “The pull of sentiment must be stronger than you think.”
“I didn’t need to get far. Just away. Wherever I’d go, you’d send somebody. P.O. Box used to get letters from mutants all over the damn world. They don’t come no more.”
“Well, my good man, when my drones photograph glass orbs forming in a field, you sort of press my hand. Had you any hunch that you were being pursued?”
Mr. Vegas peers down the table.
“By those losers in the mini-van? Nope, seemed like any old fat loser and his junky girlfriend to me. Every town in Ohio’s got a pair, or dozens. You’ve wrangled yourself some fine chameleons, Baylor. Class acts.”
“I’m no fucking junky,” Julie says, before I cup her shoulder and shush her softly. As her shoulders tense up I can tell Julie is hankering for the fun parts to start.
“Keep telling yourself that, sweetheart.,” Mr. Vegas says, before looking back at Baylor. “Now how about a glass of water before my day gets any worse?”
I rise, liking nothing more than a watercooler errand to interrupt these intense interrogations.
“Hold on, Marceau,” says Dr. Baylor. “If our guest wants water let him make the glass to fill it.”
“Pshaw,” says Mr. Vegas. “You think it’s like it was? My power. All I get out are these pretty little orbs that come out when I’m sleeping. That’s all your spies found. Paperweights.”
“I sense a fibber,” says Dr. Baylor. He puts a large mug on the table.
“You’re bribing me with coffee,” says Mr. Vegas. “That’s different.”
“Turn this mug to glass,” says Dr. Baylor. “Or the girl starts pulling fingernails.”
Julie pulls out pliers from her pocket and squeezes the handles. Mr. Vegas grimaces and the room tinkles with uncanny noises—like lake ice forming amid the din of randomized glockenspiel and gamelan notes—and suddenly the mug turns a deep glassy blue.
“I think our guest earned himself a fill-up,” Dr. Baylor says, looking my way. As I leave the room I hear him say, “Now tell me when you discovered you could still make that glass?”
By nightfall Mr. Vegas has said all the words Dr. Baylor wants transcribed, Julie has pulled samples of blood and plasma, I’ve given Mr. Vegas’s inner cheek the last swab it will ever feel, and Julie and Dr. Baylor begin whispering to each other about how the next part of this will go. As they confer, I go down the hall to prepare Mr. Vegas’s last meal after he selects an egg salad sandwich from what I’ll admit are cruelly limited options. As I judiciously dust the egg salad with salt, paprika and black pepper, I hear the tinkling noise from earlier, except much louder. Then I heard a series of gigantic crashes.
When I rush back to the conference room, I see shattered glittery hills of pink-blue glass spilling out from slumped suits all over the table and floor. It’s like windshield glass, all neatly squared, nearly walkable. Only the masks and the clothes are unbroken. From where I look the little glass cubes of former people don’t seem to have any blonde hair in them, but I know where Julie and Dr. Baylor were standing, and the piles in their places confirm they’ve both been turned to glass. The vitrifying of human flesh is a hard thing to picture. But if you ever see it, you’ll know.
Stuck in his chair, Mr. Vegas looks red-eyed and ulcerous and winded, like whatever he’s done to kill my Julie had nearly killed him too. Blood drips thick lines from his mouth and ears as he requests something too faint to interpret: water, help, his unbinding, maybe something more mysterious—certainly not an egg salad sandwich. His gasping slows and from the other side of the room I can see a victorious smirk form, like he’s arriving at a destination he set for himself long ago.
I go around the room holding in sniffles and collect the wallets from the pile and from Mr. Vegas. I grab the glass mug and scoop up squares of my beloved. When it’s full, I hawk fetid loogies at the glinting heap of the former Dr. Baylor.
Then I walk over to Mr. Vegas and start punching his face. And I continue punching the face until it looks like some other kind of thing.
When Julie and I used to talk about a future together, she’d advocate for a Florida retirement, while I tried to get her to recognize what summer was, how unpleasant it got down there. I wanted a colder coast with thicker woods, swaying pines like those I’d watched through the hospital windows in Michigan, back when I was daydreaming of Julie while enduring the exploratory motion of a gastrologist’s rectal probe. Those pines were the same Julie spent summers slowly committing to watercolors sitting in the room beside her buzzing ventilator.
And yet: Dr. Baylor’s death has left me rich, reprieved of my dark commissions, and free at last to move; Julie would want me to see the good in that. I had hoped the day of Dr. Baylor’s passing would come with Julie alive, but ill as she was I had prepared for it to go the other way, and ill as I am she was prepared to outlive me: sickly people can only ask for so much.
It crushes every tubby inch of me that Julie’s gone, and that instead of witnessing the moment her beautifully fragile frame turned into a pink-blue statue of glass, I was flavoring a condemned man’s egg salad sandwich.
I drive away from the laboratory with a decade’s worth of gut pills grabbed from Dr. Baylor’s storehouse, and one Big-Gulp cup full of pieces of Julie rattling in the cup holder. My plan is to drive east and throw squares of Julie into the Atlantic, assuming I don’t pass prettier waters on the way. This isn’t per any request of hers, just seems a good thing to do. After that, I’ll keep moving. There’s so much coast and you can keep coasting up and up: Massachusetts, Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. Somewhere desolate and rainy enough to make it hard for whomever the Order sends to find me.
As I ride the Odyssey on I-90 East, the sky above Ohio darkens, glitters with the smashed glass of distant stars.
Samuel J. Adams is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University. His work appears (or is forthcoming) in Spork, New World Writing, The Molotov Cocktail, BULL, and Rubbertop Review. He tweets @Bib_Zone.