We’re halfway across the High Desert on our way to get a pooka when I finally see one of the fissures—just past the sign for Apple Valley. I bang on the window, calling for Curtis to stop, but he refuses, even though there are lots of other cars pulled over, drivers holding their phones at photo-height. Curtis says he knows one of the guys working the crew and can’t stand him. There’s always a reason. I don’t want to show him how disappointed I am, so I lean into the air conditioning and stare out of the hot window.
The fissure shimmers in the air like a mirage, maybe three feet in diameter. From the side it’s almost invisible, but from the front it’s a whirling pool of opalescent light. I first saw them on the news back when I lived in Kentucky, and I knew I had to see one for myself. They look different than on TV. Deeper, realer, like the world is wallpaper peeling from the wall of yet another shitty hotel, but someone’s torn through it into a tunnel of clear, sunlit, tropical water.
I only get a short look before guys in sand-colored cammies lift this big beige tent over it. They’ll be the DoD, the crew Curtis says he worked for before he got shot in the leg. He doesn’t limp, but I’ve seen the scar: a little pinch of white tissue over one knee. It’s small—when I run my fingers down his thigh, I can hide it with the tip of my index finger.
It’s been twelve years since the fissures started appearing in California and still no one knows why. They’ll just be there for a few hours or a few days, and then they’re gone again. Meanwhile, pookas are always coming out of them—these creatures that shouldn’t exist. They’re always small, because the fissures are always so little. But they’re also always neat, like a whole pile of fluffy, pillow-sized pyramids that sing without any visible mouths, or an orange, furry snake that’s no thicker than a pencil, but over twenty feet long and able to stand up on one end. There was a lot of talk about containment early on, but it’s been tricky because nobody knows where the fissures are going to show up. Plus, as you might guess, nearly everybody wants a pooka. Including us.
Curtis is always talking about his crazy connections he’s picked up in all the different jobs he’s had, like when he was a Hollywood cameraman, or when he was in the Marine Corps. He says he knows a guy outside Barstow who sells pookas. That’s technically illegal, but loads of people have them already, so it’s not like it’s a big deal. And the things aren’t dangerous. Hardly anyone’s ever been hurt by them.
I look back toward the fissure, but we’ve come too far, and now all I can see is chaparral dotting the empty desert. I wish he would have stopped. If he knew a guy there, we probably could have seen a fissure up close.
Curtis has noticed I’ve gone quiet, because he makes one of his big sighs. “Okay, Eric, what’s wrong now?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” I try really hard to sound like I mean it. But I was in a college play a year back, and we both agreed I was a pretty shitty actor. “I’m just distracted, I guess.” I look back at him and give him a smile.
He’s not what you’d call conventionally attractive. He’s balding, with wispy red hair, narrow-set eyes, and a pushed-in chin that sort of makes me think of a baby. That’s not why I love him. It’s because of everything he’s done for me, how much we have in common, the way he shelters me from so much of the ugly shit out there in the world. And besides, loving someone is always better than not loving them.
Right now, though, he’s giving me the squinty look that says he’s expecting a fight. “You sure? If something’s wrong, we don’t have to do this.” He peers up the road. “There’s an exit. I can turn around.”
“Nono,” I say. “I’m really excited. I promise. Thanks so much for doing this.”
He relaxes, and so do I.
We turn down a gravel road and drive for about twenty minutes, which makes me happy. Dirt roads always take you to more interesting places than paved ones. In this case, it takes us to an old trailer home sitting in the middle of the desert. There’s one of those huge old satellite dishes to one side, and behind it, a fence encircling what looks kind of like an open-air workshop. There’s three different trucks parked out front, all in different states of repair, and two dogs chained up to a clothesline rack.
“The pooka guy lives here?”
“Yup.” We get out of the car and Curtis slams the door hard.
The air is stiflingly hot and dry and smells of creosote. The dogs—one black and one brown—bark and jump at the ends of their chains, making the clothesline rack spin around and around.
A skinny guy with thick glasses steps out of the trailer. I sort of expected a redneck, but he kind of looks like a geek. “You’re Curtis, huh? Allen. Glad you found it.”
“Oh, no trouble,” Curtis says. “I know these roads like the back of my hand. I did a lot of cell tower installations through here.” Another job I didn’t know he had.
Allen squints with his mouth open, showing his upper teeth. “Out Yermo?”
“Well, I guess you wanna see the merchandise. Come on back.”
Allen lets the door swing shut and leads us to the fenced-in area. “Pepper!” he calls. “Come here, Peppermint!”
The scrabbling of claws comes from the underside of an upended blue plastic paddleboat, and a creature about the size of a large housecat runs over. Its gait is fluid and undulating, and it takes me a second to register that it’s running on six legs. Its fur is pure white, with candy-red stripes from nose to tail tip. When it reaches the fence, it dances back and forth, blinking up at us with large, pink eyes. It has little nub-like ears and a pointed snout like a weasel’s, filled with sharp little teeth that show as it looks back and forth between us, jaws apart. I fall in love with it immediately.
“She eats plain old cat food,” Allen says. “Litter trained, too. You’re gonna want to line your walls with some plastic, though, or she’ll tear ’em right up climbing them. She likes to run around on the ceiling and such. Doesn’t bite. Loves attention.”
Curtis nudges the wire fence with the toe of his boot. Peppermint perks her tiny ears at his shoe and pounces on it. “She doesn’t run away?” She gnaws at the toe.
“Nope, she sticks around whoever’s feeding her. Seems to like company.”
“How come you don’t keep her inside?” I ask, looking around at the hot, dusty work yard.
Allen jerks a thumb toward the trailer. “Got a bobcat in there, and they don’t get along.”
I reach my hand over the fence, holding it out to the pooka. She makes a low, cooing noise and trots over to investigate. Her breath is warm on my fingers, and makes them feel strange, like they’re floating. She pushes her head up into my palm, her white fur downy soft. Then I nearly tip over into the enclosure as she scrambles up my arm, her tiny claws digging into my skin. She settles around my shoulders and begins crooning into my right ear. I don’t know why, but I want to cry.
“She likes you,” Allen says. “So I guess you’ll be taking her.”
“I dunno.” Curtis reaches out and strokes at Peppermint’s silky, white tail. “What do you think, Eric. You want her?”
I look at him for cues. His smile is a generous one, one that says he’s pleased to be able to do this for me.
“More than anything,” I say.
He grins. He loves nothing better than a chance to make me happy.
A few months later, I wake up one Saturday morning to find Curtis’s side of the bed empty, which is unusual, since I usually wake up first. Last night, he took me to dinner, we had a bottle of wine, chilled out with a movie, a little sex. Good times. Maybe he’s out making breakfast. I try to dislodge Pepper’s weight from my knees and she gloms onto my wrist, holding it in place. She’s got little fingers at the end of her paws that she can use to climb, and once she holds on she likes to tap them on me—one-two-three, one-two-three—listening like I’m a drum. I sometimes think she’s like me, with her drumming and her cooing, trying to make a music that will take her someplace else.
“Not now, Peps.” I pull my arm free and go out to the living area of our little apartment. Curtis isn’t there, either. Not in the bathroom, not in the apartment courtyard. I pull on some shorts and check outside. His car’s gone. I’m feeling a little anxious now, because we had plans to go up to Six Flags for a day trip. It’s one of my rare Saturdays off from work at the bookstore, so I’ve been excited all week. We should have left… already, honestly.
I’m breathing heavier, but there’s no reason to freak out—I just overreact to everything. I dig up my phone from where it’s squashed down in the couch cushions and call him. His phone buzzes on the kitchen table. He probably just went out to get something for breakfast. Or maybe he had to do a work thing last minute. And didn’t want to wake me. And forgot his phone.
My stomach is a fist. Nothing to do but wait. Pepper pokes her head out of the hallway and gives me a questioning coo. She’s hungry, probably. I fill her food dish with cat food and can’t help smiling at her little dance of excitement, but then the horrible gnawing fear that he’s just left, gone somewhere without me, settles over me again. I browse the web, watch TV, but all I can see is the clock going minute by excruciating minute past ten, past eleven. He’s not coming back.
I feel like I should call a friend, go somewhere else to hang out, but what if he does come back and I’m not here, ready to take our trip? Besides, I don’t have other friends in the area anymore.
I met Curtis through a couple people I thought were friends. They seemed cool and were the first people I really knew out here. I had been crashing with them during my couch-surfing days, but I could tell they were getting sick of me after a couple of weeks. Then Curtis said I could stay at his place for a bit, and I took him up on it—it was exciting, because he’s into so much of the same stuff as me, and he has all these connections related to stuff I’m into, like when I told him I was super into wolves, he explained how he worked at a wolf sanctuary for a while, and when I said I love writing music, he told me all about his industry hookups there. He’s promised to get me a meeting with them once I get a good demo put together. I write my songs using my keyboard and software, and I just have to get them played on real instruments. But I’m still working on it. Like Curtis says, you don’t want to waste your one shot on a shitty song.
Anyway, I headed back with Curtis for the weekend and on Sunday he got off the phone outside, came in and sat me down. He told me how the people I was staying with preferred that I not come back. I started to tear up, I told him how this always seems to happen to me and asked what I did wrong, but he just said that I said some things that he thought were innocent, but they were pretty pissed off about. He told me that they were assholes anyway if they couldn’t see how awesome I was, and that I could stay with him as long as I needed to. And I hugged him and felt so grateful, and we had this really sweet and intimate night together.
Two years later, I’m still here. But now I’m alone in the apartment with no friends I can call, and without Curtis, I’m just lost and miserable. I can’t focus on anything. One o’clock rolls by, and still he’s not home. Feeling hopeless, I go down to the carport again. Maybe his car’s not really gone. Maybe he left a note that I didn’t see. Of course, he’s still not there. And now it’s far too late for our trip. He wouldn’t waste my day off on purpose. I sit on the sofa, staring through my laptop screen, and think about maybe just draining the bottle of rum in the cabinet.
Pepper crawls into my lap and shoves the laptop down my shins. I can’t help but smile at her. She grapples at my arm with four legs, drumming at them, four sets of fingers going one-two-three, like she does sometimes when she’s hoping for a little cut-up banana. When I don’t hop up to fetch her one, she gnaws at my thumb. Her little teeth are sharp, but don’t hurt much. I grin and ruffle at her belly, and then she wriggles upright. She braces her paws on my chest, looks right into my face, and then convulses like a cat coughing up a hairball. She emits a squeaky hiccough.
The air before her snout ripples, and suddenly there’s a hole there, a tear in the air about the size of a quarter. It ripples; it’s deeper than the air, the water of a tropical sea. I lean back from it, afraid to touch it. “Pepper! You made a fissure!”
She stretches her mouth back too far, exposing an array of blunt fangs as she does when she’s pleased with herself. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I stare into the hole, and cool air blows through it into my eye; it’s actually a bit gusty. Beyond, I think I can see green hills and a blue sky, but the rippling in the air make the shapes indistinct.
I scoot away from the fissure, pulling Pepper with me. She gives a displeased grunt and twists free, hopping onto the sofa and running up one wall.
Pookas have been known to do some strange things before, but I’ve never heard of one creating a fissure. From the side, it’s completely invisible; from the back, it looks the same as the front: a shimmering tear in the air. I run to find a couple of pencils.
The first pencil I push into the fissure; it doesn’t come out the other side. I slide it in as far as I can get it without touching my fingers to it, and let the pencil go. It disappears, all except for a bit of the eraser and metal collar, which drops to the floor, sliced cleanly apart. I pick up the eraser—the sheared side is cut perfectly. I run my finger across the sheared surface; it’s smoother than anything I’ve ever felt, and warm.
The next pencil I move across it sideways; it severs in two without effort at all. I look at Pepper. “I have to find more stuff to try.”
An hour later, I’ve got a whole pile of broken objects: plastic, an apple, a nail, a bit of iron fencing from the carport—all of them shaved and cleaved and sliced into pieces with buttery-smooth shears. I love running my fingers over the cut surfaces, feeling the almost frictionless glide.
When I look up again, the fissure is gone. Pepper chirps at me and pushes herself into my lap, drumming her fingers on my arm again. I go to the kitchen and cut up a banana for her, and she sings sloppily around mouthfuls while she eats it. For a while, I don’t mind that Curtis is gone.
By the time he gets back, I’m a wreck again. It’s after nine o’clock at night, and there’s been no word from him at all. I’ve been imagining for the past several hours that something awful has happened. He had to go to the hospital suddenly, or he’s been in a car wreck. I’m trying to distract myself with television when I hear someone coming up the steps.
I hug Pepper to my chest, and she grunts in mild annoyance.
Curtis comes in the front door, carrying a take-out box from a restaurant. I push myself down into the sofa—I want him to see that I’m hurt. “Hey,” he says.
“What happened?” I want to know. “Where were you?”
“Oh. I went to Six Flags.” He says it casually, like he went to the grocery store or something.
“Without me?” Pepper wriggles from my grasp and bounds over to him, scurrying up his leg and side to perch on his shoulder.
“Ow. Dammit Pepper, that fucking hurts!” he shouts. She squeaks at him and paws into his hair. “Yes, I was going with a friend, and he wouldn’t get along with you. I told you that.”
“No, you didn’t. We were supposed to go together.”
He squints his eyes like he does when he’s getting annoyed. “So you’re saying I’m lying to you?”
I shouldn’t push this—I know I shouldn’t, but I’ve been losing my mind all day, and how could he do that to me? I still love him, but right now, I hate him and feel like I’m choking on all the bullshit he feeds me. “You didn’t tell me. And even if you did, so what? It was supposed to be our day.”
He leans on the table, and I can see his fingers going white. “You know, I’m getting sick of this shit from you. I have my own life, you know. Now I can’t go out and have a day with a friend I hardly ever see anymore because you pissed him off? This is why I didn’t want to tell you I was going, because I knew you’d pull this shit.”
“What are you talking about?” I shout the words; I can’t help myself. “I spent all day cooped up in this apartment going crazy because I didn’t know where you were or what was happening. You make me miserable. You’re a fucking asshole.”
He looks around at me. His nostrils are flared, his lips pushed out. “Say that again.”
And now my traitorous anger is gone, leaving me standing here with the words I spoke. “No. Please, I don’t know what I—I’m sorry.”
“Say it again!”
There’s no way out of this. I run for the hall and into the bathroom. He charges after me and pushes through the door before I can close it. I skid on the bathmat. My shoulder bounces against the side of the mottled plastic shower door. Curtis grabs my shirt and yanks me about. The fabric digs into my armpits, my neck. He shoves me up against the wall. The towel rod is jamming into my upper back. He leans closer, breathing heavily through his mouth, spittle flecking on his lips. His face is enormous and red in my vision.
One hand is around my neck. I struggle, trying to breathe. His other fist trembles an inch from my face. “Say it again,” he spits at me. “Make me do this.”
I always thought that in situations like this there would be things you could do—pull the person’s hand away, push at his chest, kick his nuts, slide down to the floor. I don’t think of any of these things. I can’t understand what’s happening. I sort of push at him a little, but most of me is just trying to breathe, trying not to get hit.
He lets me go, and I fall to the floor. “You don’t pay rent here, last I checked,” he says. “So if you don’t like living here, there’s the goddamn door.”
I sit on the floor crying for a while, until Pepper comes in and sits on my feet.
Curtis is kind to me that night. He holds me and sobs his regrets. He tells me he’s just so scared he’ll lose me. He tells me how he’s lost others before, that they used him up, took his kindness, and once he really loved them, they abandoned him. He says he knows I’m going to do that too, and it scares him.
“Not me,” I tell him. “I love you. I’ll always love you. But you can’t do that to me again. You don’t do that to people you love.”
“I know,” he says through tears. “I’m weak. But I’m getting better. You make me better.”
Things are good for a long time after that, so good it feels like it was at first. But every time I walk by the bath room, I see the hole in the drywall, the towel rod hanging like a broken arm.
The first time we nearly lose Peppermint, I’m at work. I get a call at the bookstore, and it’s Curtis. He’s on speaker, and I can hear the sound of his car. “I have some really bad news, Eric,” he says. “Did you leave the door open when you left?”
“No, I locked it.”
“Are you sure? Because Pepper’s gone. I’m in the car looking for her now.”
“Should I come home?” My boss won’t like that at all, but it’s Pepper.
“No, you won’t be able to do anything. I’ll keep looking for her.”
He hangs up. I can’t keep my mind on the register, so I ask if I can work stock instead. We got a note from the landlord a few weeks ago: This is an official notice to warn you that you are in violation of your rental agreement by harboring a cat in your unit. You have seven days to find a new home for the animal or remit a six hundred dollar pet deposit.
We don’t know how the landlord found out—maybe he saw Pepper in a window. She does look a little like a cat from a distance. Or maybe he saw the holes in the wall from her climbing or smelled her litter pan when he came to our door one time. But we paid the landlord the pet deposit, so I don’t know why he would have taken her.
My phone rings again about an hour later. “I found her.”
I slump with relief.
“But she’s a little hurt. I’m not sure what happened. I took her to a special vet. She says Pepper might’ve got hit by a car.”
We’ve been to the exotic pets vet once before, for care and feeding advice. Owning pookas is technically illegal, but I guess the logic is that it’s better to help sick and injured animals than not help them. “Oh my god, how bad is she hurt?”
“Don’t know. She’s getting stitches in her face now.”
It’s two days before Pepper comes home. When she does, she’s got a big scar running up the side of her head, and one tooth is missing. More surprising is that she’s got big, stiff blue casts on each front leg. She seems groggy and listless, but growls at us when we get close. Even weeks later, after her casts come off, revealing glossy nubs where her little fingers used to be, she will hide in the closet for a long time.
“What happened to her feet?”
“Oh,” Curtis says, “I had her declawed at the same time. That way she won’t be running up the ceiling or scratching up our legs with those talons of hers anymore.”
That fall, though, Pepper, who is back to her old self and as playful as ever, coughs up another fissure. This one’s bigger, about the size of a saucer, hovering in the air next to the front window. This time, I’m ready for it. Whenever Curtis and I go hiking, I look for rocks of unusual grain or color, and I’ve collected a whole pile of them by now. I slice them cleanly in half using the edge of the fissure. The cut sides are as smooth and polished as gemstones. Some of them have brilliant colors—all pale blue or rust red or crystal green.
I hold one out to Peppermint. “Look what you did!”
She sniffs at it with a contemplative expression, and then climbs up on my knee, staring into the fissure.
“What do you see in there?” I peer with her, but see nothing but swirling shapes of green and blue. “Is that your home? You want to go back home?”
She hiccoughs, but nothing else comes up. The fissure isn’t big enough for her to move through; it’s barely wide enough to admit my hand. She makes a low, keening sound.
“I know,” I say. “I wish it were big enough for me, too.”
I tell Curtis about the fissure when he gets home, but it’s already gone. All I have to prove it is a pile of half-polished stones.
As the months pass, Pepper produces three more fissures, each bigger than the previous. The third one is so wide I could almost crawl into it, and it cuts a narrow, almost imperceptible line into the floor. It’s big enough for her to jump through, but she doesn’t. She just sits next to it, watching me, and cooing as though pleased with herself.
The second time we almost lose Pepper is probably because we’ve started feeding her cheaper cat food. She doesn’t like it as much, but there’s not much choice about it. Curtis got laid off, was out of work for about two months, and now he’s doing some really low-paying tech support. I used to have loads of extra money since Curtis never asked much from me for rent, but now nearly everything goes to keeping our place and trying to pay down his credit cards, which he apparently maxed out buying all the nice stuff I always wanted.
I come home from closing up the bookstore a little after midnight and find Curtis sitting with Pepper. She’s lying on her back between his knees, emitting low moans and breathing heavily.
“She’s sick,” Curtis says. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” His cheeks are wet, his eyes puffy and red.
I stroke at her little paws, her tummy. Something is definitely wrong. Her belly feels all hard and lumpy. She keens and wriggles a little when I touch it. “We have to get her to a vet.”
“With what money?” Curtis demands. “I’d have taken her already, but it’s vet or rent this month.”
I hadn’t any idea things were that bad. Curtis hadn’t acted like it; we’re still going out to movies and dinners every now and then. Pretty much any time I ask, in fact.
Pepper lies still, just opening and closing her jaws, her pink eyes half-closed.
“Let’s just call,” I say. “We have to do something. We can’t just let her die.”
The vet’s not open, so we resort to Internet advice. A hard, sensitive tummy seems to be constipation, for which the cure is to feed her some laxative or petroleum jelly. She won’t eat it, though. She just groans and tilts her muzzle away.
As a last resort, we get a small enema bulb from the drug store and squeeze mineral oil up under her tail. She squeaks faint protests, but lets us do it. Curtis holds her and pets her head the whole time, sobbing, “My little girl, my little girl.”
It’s a moment that stays with me: his tremendous empathy, his tenderness, his inability to accept suffering, even of an animal. Sometimes it’s like he’s a kite caught in the winds of his own passions, torn back and forth, helpless to fight them.
We don’t sleep much that night. I hold his head to my shoulder as he cries. I’m scared that Pepper will die too, but when I have the chance to care for someone, to be the strong person for once, my own concerns seem distant, almost unimportant.
Curtis is in a stormy mood—not even talking to me tonight. He’s been working longer hours, and not coming home until late, and when he does, little stuff pisses him off in big ways. keep trying to change what I’m doing, trying to figure out the way to act that won’t make him more upset, but some days it’s impossible. He’s been rough with me a couple more times—once on the street, and someone comes up and tries to stop it. I don’t know why, but that upsets me. Our fight is our business. Still, it scares me that Curtis doesn’t even care who sees it. It’s best to stay out of his way, so I scoop up Pepper and head back to the bedroom to play a computer game.
Pepper scampers around and tries to run up the wall again—it’s been more than a year, but she still doesn’t seem to understand that she can’t do that anymore, that her claws are gone. I turn on my keyboard and put it down on the floor for her—I sampled the little cooing sounds she makes, and it enthralls her endlessly to press down on the keys and hear her own voice crooning back at her. That’s harder for her these days, too, but she still seems to enjoy it.
The door opens. Curtis is standing there, scowling. He’s got my phone in one hand. “I see you talked to Mark last week.”
“You’re going through my phone?”
“Sure, why not? Is there something there I’m not supposed to see?”
“It’s just—we talked about this. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t. What were you doing talking to him?”
Mark is on Curtis’s shit list. Apparently he’s been going around telling everyone some kind of lie about Curtis, something about him stealing something or lying about something, I don’t know. “He was missing his sunglasses and thought he might have left them here with some other stuff. He just wanted me to look for them. So I did.”
Curtis gives me his silent fury look—face dead, eyes distant, like he’s figuring out what he’s going to do to me. “So you went through my stuff. And you talked to that asshole even though I nicely asked you not to.”
“Yeah, but it was just—”
I jump to my feet as he plows across the room toward me.
Pepper rolls to her feet and stands between us. Just as Curtis gets close, she hiccoughs.
A fissure appears in the air, a door to someplace else, bisecting the room between me and Curtis. It’s maybe four feet high, big enough for me to crawl through. The line of it cuts through the room, severing the edge of the computer desk, a bit of particle board dropping to the floor. And the other side of it slices off the very edge of Curtis’s hand, from wrist to pinky. He stops still, staring at the fissure. For a second, I see a smooth pale area along the edge of his hand. It’s almost white, not red, like he’s got no blood at all, but his whole body is made of scar tissue or tendon or something. He doesn’t even react, and for a second I wonder if he can even feel it. But then blood wells all along the edge of his hand in dark red beads, and makes a trail down his forearm.
He howls, yanking his hand back, and his blood sprays through that door to fertilize the ground or water or who knows what in some other world. He looks from me to the swirling fissure in the room to Peppermint, who coos up at him, tilting her head and blinking her large pink eyes. She wiggles her forepaws, and I know she’s trying to drum her fingers again, but she doesn’t have them anymore.
“You fucking bitch,” Curtis says, and then he lunges at her and with one heavy punch slams her into the floor. She screeches.
I scramble back in horror, selfishly concerned only for myself for one second. “Stop it!” I don’t mean the words to come out, because it’ll just make him angrier, but I hear myself shouting them. “Stop it, you’re killing her.”
He pounds down on her again, his fist landing against her head, smashing it into the carpet. I hear a crunch. Her jaw is apart. It doesn’t look like it will fit back together. And I know—I knew—what happened to her that night he said she got away and was hit by a car.
He turns to me, holds up a fist red with his own blood. It has to hurt, but when he gets like this, it’s like he doesn’t feel anything. “Do you want some of this too? Is that what you want?” He’s ready to charge me.
And I think, I could die now. He’d kill me. He would. I shrink back against the wall, trying to see if I could get out of the apartment before he caught me. I could jump through that fissure maybe, but I’d have to be careful, or I could slice my head right off. “No,” I say. I’m shaking.
He turns back to Pepper, who is trying to drag herself across the carpet. He hits her again and again and again and again until he’s sure she’s dead. Then he stops, swaying back and forth like he doesn’t know where he is.
I run. I scramble to my feet, dash out of the room, grab my keys from the table, and get out the door.
I’m shaking in my car as I drive away. I can’t remember the good times now; they seem flimsy and ephemeral. All I can think about is the ugliness in him—the lies, the anger, how easily he can make me feel so meaningless, so miserable. And the violence. Why did I blind myself to it? I don’t really know where I’m driving. Out into the desert somewhere. I’ve made this drive before. I’ve gone off in the middle of the night and left him behind, dreaming about leaving, entertaining the notion that I could somehow make it work. Each time I come back, he’s repentant apologetic, promising to be better. And each time he is, for a while. And each time I come out here, I drive a little farther. I wonder how far I will drive this time.
Some people say they like animals better than people, and it’s always struck me as shallow. A pet will never be complex the way a person is. They may be demanding, but they’ll never challenge you. They’ll never take you outside of yourself, never have their own opinions or points of view that you have to make room in your life for. All you have to do is take care of them, give them food and shelter, a treat every now and then to make them happy.
But I think now that if I just kept going, there’s not one thing I’d miss about Curtis, not like I’ll miss Pepper and her chortles while she ate a banana, the strange musky-sweet way she smelled, how she could spend hours fascinating herself with my keyboard.
Something gleams in the darkness. I drive further up the road, and there it is: another fissure, this one huge. I stop the car along the shoulder and get out.
The night air is cool and clean-smelling. Insects trill in the bushes. The fissure hangs in the air before me, bright as day, completely silent. My shoes crunch in the gravel as I move toward it. Behind me, my car pings, urgently informing me I’ve left my lights on.
I stand before the portal, staring into it. A warm breeze blows through, smelling of flowers and salt. This is it, a doorway to another world—the thing I’ve always dreamed about. It’s escape, one I longed for as a child, huddling in my room, unable to think about anything but the beating I’d get when my father came home—or as a teenager, lost and isolated, struggling to understand why God had made me gay. The fantasy novels I’d loved had promised me someplace better, someplace I could be important. Someplace magic.
All I have to do is step through. I lift my hand and push my fingers through the rippling surface. It feels awful for a moment. I once broke my hand and had metal pins put in. Having them pulled out was agonizing, like the bones were being drawn out of my hand. That’s what this feels like. And then warmth, like the sun on my fingers. Cool droplets.
I yank my hand back. My fingertips are wet, but unharmed.
I almost step into the fissure.
But if I go through, I could be trapped someplace terrible—someplace with nothing to eat, or with people who don’t understand my language, or who might do awful things to me, or even kill me. I have no idea what’s out there. I want so much to escape, but I can’t escape to nothing. I have to have something to move toward, some place that is real to go. That’s the cruelty of all that fantasy: escape is a lie.
I park at work and sleep in my car that night.
When I get home, Curtis sits up from where he’s fallen asleep on the couch. He rushes toward me, and I’m scared he’s going to hurt me, but instead he just hugs me roughly, crushing me to his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” he weeps. “I’m a monster. I’m going to get help, I promise.”
“I—good,” I say. I pat him on the back. “I’m glad you’re going to get help. I think that’s the right thing to do.”
“I thought I lost you forever,” he says. “I was so scared. You must hate me.”
“No,” I say. “I don’t hate you. I love you.”
“How can you?” he asks.
I think about that for a minute, sorting out my words, and when I don’t answer right away, he cries harder. One thing I’ve figured out is that Curtis isn’t really that smart, not in a traditional sense. He’s good at sensing the things that people want to be true and telling them that. All the big promises he made in the early days, the jobs he pretended he’d had, it was just so I’d stay. And that sucks, but all I see is how vulnerable he is, how afraid of being alone and unloved. It haunts him. He needs someone who won’t let him down. “Because I understand you,” I tell him. “And I don’t think you can understand someone and not love them.”
We are both exhausted, and we want to go to bed, but there’s work to be done. Pepper’s body is gone, but the carpet is stained with her blood and shit. Curtis weeps. He says he can’t bring himself to look at it, and I tell him I’ll clean it up. It takes a good half-hour of scrubbing at the carpet and the stains don’t really come out. Halfway through, I feel so numb that I can’t go on. I lie on my side and stare at the wall. I earned this job, though. I came back. And for a few minutes, I don’t know why I did. I don’t move, trying to understand who I am. But I made my choice, so there’s nothing else to do but go on.
Finally I’ve got the stain out as much as I can, and we go to bed. He cries for a while, holding me so tightly that it’s difficult for me to sleep, but I’m comforted by it.
Because here’s the thing: no matter how fucked up he is, no matter how angry or manipulative or cruel he can be, Curtis loves me. Love, real love, is a hard thing to find. I know. I’ve looked. And to find someone else in the world who can actually love someone like me, with all my awkwardness, my selfishness, my laziness—I have to believe that that’s something rare, something precious, something you don’t take for granted, no matter where it comes from. If you can find someone in this huge, cruel world who will actually love you, you have to love them back.
You have to.
Author Bio: Ryan Campbell is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop. He has contributed to ROAR, X, New Fables, and Abandoned Places, and is the author of The Fire Bearers trilogy: God of Clay, Forest Gods, and the in-progress conclusion, God of Fire. Other published books include Koa of the Drowned Kingdom and Smiley and the Hero.
Author Site: https://www.thependrake.com/