She’d dropped her hair, abandoned the silky tie. She was going out, planned to return late…if. He sat deep in the couch, hugged Tia’s Doctor Who pillow, gazing out the front window at the sunny street. She’d stopped asking him to come, stopped begging him to stand, move, to move on. How he asked the empty apartment.
The radiator groaned.
He wished he drank. Maybe he’d take it up. Would she count that as progress? He sang Williams’s lines, “I am lonely, lonely, I was born to be lonely, I am best so,”stretched his legs under the chest-style coffee table. He felt it, something under, monkey-pawed it with his foot. Tia’s phone, “STAR!” bedazzled in chunky pink and purple rhinestones. He hated the phone. She’d always been in it, always chasing after her mother through threads and posts, moving deeper into its virtual corners. Always further from the world, from him. He tossed it on the coffee table. Its glinting sequins stared at him. He picked it up and swiped it open. The wallpaper—Tia staring back, awash in sparkles, a super close-up sunlit selfie, impish smile, dark kinks shining. He thumbed into Tia’s pictures, losing air with each. So many moments she’d lived that he’d missed: learning one-arm cartwheels; gaggle of girls at SkateCity; swap meet with her mother. He couldn’t. He put the phone down.
He picked it up, scrolled through Tia’s videos. He tapped one from last summer: their drive through Arches, red-rock pillars beneath bright swirled skies. Tia panned from vista to him in the driver’s seat as he argued with her mother. Tia turned the phone on herself, and consoled in a whisper it’s okay it’s okay. He powered down the phone, tossing it in the white inlay box on the coffee table.
He was awake. Asleep.
Tia’s bulbous ivory urn crept off the mantle, scuttled like a hermit crab. He jerked his dangled foot up from the hardwood, held himself still. Only the shallowest breaths.
Hours later, she came in, tipsy. She stood over him, reeked of cigarettes. She didn’t shake him gently or tell him to come to bed. Once she would have. She stumbled down the hall to the bedroom they used to share, the bedroom where they’d created Tia: inverted words a throwing of bones.
He was asleep. Awake.
A tiny, muffled wail woke him. Tia’s phone. He pulled it out. “STAR!” was recast: the rhinestones had pinwheeled—a throwing star. Four a.m.: another dream? He browsed Tia’s videos, watched them one by one: clowning at the Judo tournament; the grey cat lurking on the fire escape; Tia danced, lip-syncing Cardi B. No videos of Tia singing with her own voice. She just channeled others.
The radiator gurgled.
It was too much. He looked down the dark hallway. Maybe she was awake? Would walking down the hall to her be progress? Would sitting next to the bed, taking her hand, be? He scrolled down through Tia’s videos to the last—to that day. He hoisted his thumb. He froze: he couldn’t touch the screen. Instead he powered down the phone, dropped it in the box, and buried it under the remotes.
She called after work. She was going to happy hour with the girls. He spent the evening wandering. He walked the apartment, back and forth: Tia’s room…the big window…Tia’s room. He pawed at cereal, cycled through the channels, watched nothing. Upside down on the couch, he sang “People say I’m craaaaazy, what a wonderful way to be…” The coffee-table box rattled, a low-long moan. He snatched out Tia’s phone—rhinestones all gone—and swiped it open. He thumbed back into the videos, mashed the last: Tia twirled in living sunlight in her room, singing her song with her sing-songy voice:
When the stars fall
hear me call
I’m a star
but I won’t fall
I’m a star—
He wept. She stopped twirling, singing, and grinned into the phone: Daddy…
“Tia I miss you.”
I love you, Daddy
Her grin bent into the deepest corners of her upper cheeks, her gaped mouth hiding her face. The video ended. He ran to their bedroom.
When she came in, she found him erect on their bed. He sobbed, babbled, and shoved the phone at her. She yelled. He blurted the rhinestones…the rhinestones! She slapped him, hard and again. He started the video again and yanked her close by her sweater, shoved the phone in her face. She smacked the phone away and drove him out of the bedroom, back to the couch. Two minutes later she marched out with her big blue suitcase. She left the apartment for the very last time.
Noon, Tuesday? Wednesday? She’d left days ago, but he wasn’t alone. Chittering, the urn slinked from the mantle, patrolled, the cat, lolling on the fire escape, leaning on the window. He put down Tia’s phone so he could yank the nails staking the window to the frame. He hefted the window up a few inches, threw out a slice of ham. The cat nibbled, purred, curled in the sun. He picked up Tia’s phone. It had died the day before. He couldn’t find the charger. The cat’s tail dallied into and out of the open window, swirled the fresh air with the muskyapartment air. The urn skittered into the coffee table: some Tia spilled.
He teetered at the edge of the couch:
“Qui est le barman?…C’est moi!”
In one hand he clutched a near-finished bottle of bourbon, in the other, Tia’s dead phone. The cat mewed: “Pas pour toi,”he scolded.
“Une autre?” He took another slug: “Pour moi?…OUI!”
Tia’s dead phone groaned and shrieked, bit his palm. Pink glittery rhinestone teeth, a three-quarter moon smile, dappled with his blood—above it, swirled purple eyes. He swiped it open and found a new wordless text from Tia. A video was attached. He played the video: the blackness shifted, rustled. The image swiveled, captured the ground. A wash of gray light, a giggle, a tiny hand, the rip of a zipper. It was a suitcase…Her big blue suitcase. A giggle and the tiny hand pulled up the suitcase’s lid. The video jumped inside and the jumbled image danced, attempted focus. A sweater…Her sweater. Her hair, straggly over Her blued face, her open eye. Her milky eye rolled upward, stuck inward. Her, folded into the suitcase. The video jumped out of the suitcase and a whisper: Now I’m sneaking! The video bounced toward the gray light—a cracked door. The video hustled, trucked around a corner, zoomed in: a cat mewing in the sun outside the window, and him, hand dripping blood, watching a video of him…watching a video of him…watching.
He put the phone down. Something dragged up the hall.
Its lid spinning, grating, the urn nattered excitedly near the coffee table. He dropped the phone, wrapped his hand in the comforter. The urn skittered through the dribbled blood, and the big blue suitcase spidered around the corner on pairs of bifurcated arms and legs sprouting from its every side. The suitcase shoved the coffee table aside, straddled the now humming urn, very near the couch. A three fingered half-arm reversed its angle and jutted up, its three elongated digits tickling the air like antennae, sniffing for him, as the suitcase inched toward him. The cat watched this all from the sill.
He raised the bottle: “Notre horrible famille!”He took a last drink.
He turned from the creeping suitcase and watched the cat. The cat arched and hissed.
Apartment 2C was at the end of the hall. The door was shut. The Containment Tech eyeballed the Filter receptors near the top of the doorframe. They seemed intact. He followed the wires from each receptor to the scanning unit, a small gray box bolted high on the wall. He opened its small shell. It seemed to be functioning. Then he saw it: a strand of blue wire that didn’t belong. A bypass. Another paranoid, he thought. Another who thought the Filter hoarded data, or read minds, or caused cancer. Their own fault he thought. Basically invited them in…
He tried the knob: the door was locked, but he had been given a key.
He pushed the door open all the way. He fidgeted and held fast: this was his first solo call-out. He surveyed the apartment: from the right, a long rectangle of sunlight stretched across the living area, and the trunk-like coffee table shifted, slid backward a few feet on eight scabrous half-limbs sprouting through its base, trembling on two- and three-fingered hands, and on feet with similarly varied toes. It wobbled deep into the kitchen shadows.
The Tech waited. He had been warned about these families and their connivings: Never rush in. He slid a trap six feet into the apartment. A tiny urn scampered from the dark nowhere and sprang it, the urn’s lid snapping snapping as the light webbing snared it. The urn wailed plaintively. In the kitchen, the coffee table chuffed like an octopus.
“Shit…” The Tech didn’t think he’d be this scared.
Let the aggressive do the work for you. He took one step inside and slid out a second trap, halfway to the first, and laid a third right at his feet.
The coffee table warbled and charged, bounding over the light-webbed urn and tripping the second trap: the trap’s vibrant webbing arced for an embrace but didn’t catch the leaping coffee table. The Tech hopped back as the coffee table landed squarely on the third trap, becoming entangled in its pulsing web. It stretched its splayed, eager limbs toward him through the banded light. Before he could retract and reset the empty trap, a blue suitcase brachiated along the wall from his left and lunged for him, knocking him to the ground in the apartment doorway. The suitcase clenched his legs with all its limbs and wound him up, feeding him into the unzipped mouth.
When threatened, flee the den. The Tech hung to the door frame, heaved himself into the hall with all his strength, and dragged the masticating suitcase a few feet, his legs numbing. The suitcase released him with four of its limbs, and stretched the others back, clambering toward the apartment, gripping the hallway tiles with its three-fingered hands and two-toed feet.
The neighbor in 2B opened her door: she saw the suitcase eating the struggling Tech. She paused, casually adjusting her satchel strap. The suitcase shifted and spun toward her. The Tech kicked and kicked and the suitcase released him and scampered back into the apartment. The door slammed shut. The Tech breathed heavy, stared at the ceiling. The neighbor stepped over him and down the hall. His legs pricked and tickled, dozens of cuts stinging his ankles and shins. He couldn’t comprehend it, how a family could go so bad.
He dreaded the phone call he had to make to ask for help: the other Techs would never let him live this down. He regretted that he’d lie again tonight and tell his daughter there’s no such thing as monsters before singing her to sleep.
Ken Farrell‘s work is forthcoming/published in numerous anthologies and in journals such as Iris Literary Journal, Pilgrimage, Sport Literate, Watershed Review, Coffin Bell, The Piltdown Review, and elsewhere. Ken holds an MFA from Texas State University and an MA from Salisbury University, and he has earned as an adjunct, cage fighter, pizzaiolo, and warehouseman. Ken is currently revising and shopping poetry and fiction, and responding to his daughter’s challenge, who participated in NaNoWriMo, he is writing his first novel, a tale about a world where ghosts serve on juries, the sky is off limits, and shards of souls are commodities. Ken can be found online at his website and on Facebook.