Rolling beneath the door and making a crescent path on the carpet, it made Janice think of the toothache just below her bottom left molar she had experienced last month. The toothache was never a harbinger of an impounded wisdom tooth. She had tried adjusting her bicycle helmet strap to a different spot beneath her chin, and the pain had gone away by the time she met Betsy Lynnwater for the Indian lunch buffet on Tuesday. Just that easily.
The marble on the floor was the exact shape and size of the object she had imagined her gums were trying to give birth to. Janice clenched her jaw, fearful that she would feel the throb in her left molar again.
It was transparent, tinted a color that wanted to be something fancy like rose. Suspended in the center was a ripple of dark green; the color suggested a crumpled leaf, but the shape was that of a drop of egg white hitting boiling water. Her fingers involuntarily massaged the bottom of her cheek as her eyes walked from the marble up to her hand on the doorknob.
She held it slightly cracked. The marble had rolled out of the room the moment the door budged. Something else would leak out of the room if she opened it any further. Tyson was awake. It was eleven-forty PM and the little brat was awake and fishing for attention. Tyson was Janice’s ten-year-old nephew whom she had gotten roped into babysitting for the week while Therese was in Chicago with her fiancée the graphic editor. Janice had no idea what a graphic editor did.
Janice was angry, tired, on the verge of a psychosomatic recurrence of a trivial toothache and was already picturing four distinct ways she could murder the brat and dispose of the body. Janice was a certified anger-management coach. Where the hell did Tyson get a bag of marbles?
Her arm clenched itself around the door handle. She held her breath for nine seconds, inhaled slowly for six seconds and exhaled for four. That was what she told her class to do when that twinge of rage set fire to their bodies. Anger had an on-off switch. A specific object always triggered it, and a specific action could just as easily defuse it.
Janice had a client at the counseling center at eight AM, and if she got any less than seven hours of sleep, the woman might as well unfurl her emotional problems to the potted gardenia on her desk. Betsy Lynnwater shared the office with her, and they always went for coffee across the street at seven forty-five.
Janice was showered, her teeth brushed, her hair tied in the back, her retainer sitting by the sink, ready for her appointment with the pillow. At first the only thing standing between her and it was the light on in the kitchen. That was at eleven-o-five.
She had tiptoed into the hallway in her underwear to make sure all lights were off; this was becoming a compulsive bedtime habit. The first time Frank had slept with her, he had asked what she was doing when she went for the door and flashed him the be right back finger signal. She disliked the tone with which he asked, like he were a lecherous prison warden taunting his boy-toy with blackmail, so she dismissed the question. He held onto her leg and said you were about to check the door handle a third time to make sure it’s locked. C''mere, my little OCD. She jerked away when he tickled her. Not only did he guess incorrectly, but he thought she would be genuinely turned on by his belittling her idiosyncrasies. The fact that he had noticed her checking the door handle might have struck her as endearing if presented at another time and place.
She shook her head at him with that feminine reprobation that was the domain of all liberated women when dealing with a chauvinistic jerk in the bedroom. It was as much a test of intelligence as it was a disciplinary training maneuver; if it had power over him, that meant he was an evolved male who had potential. Frank’s response put him somewhere in the gray area—his erection had slackened and the blood went straight from his penis to his forehead to affect a quizzical expression. The stupid man was actually concerned, and offering her ten dollars to stay in bed was his idea of an intervention.
You''re an asshole.
He put it back in his wallet. It would drive you crazy all night if you didn’t check, wouldn’t it? Is there anything that could make you forget the-
She turned away from him and said not that as she made for the door again.
Janice, seriously, what are you doing?
She knew before the conversation went any further that she would not be sleeping with Frank again.
I’m checking the light in the kitchen because this is my house and my kitchen light-
If it’s your house, why are you being defensive?
She glared at him.
No, it’s just, I watched you shut that light off the last time you checked the door.
I’m double-checking, is that all right with you? Should I request a permission slip?
Actually, double-checking is what you did ten minutes ago. This would be called-
She stuffed her pillow into a ball that almost fit into her fist and threw it at Frank’s face like a baseball. When she returned from triple-checking the light (and the door while she was at it) Frank’s lips mouthed an apology to her thighs, and they accepted. His tongue always knew just the right things to say when his vocal cords were not involved. When she was about to climax, he lifted his head up, looked her in the eye sadistically and said promise you won’t check the light again.
She had checked it seven times while Frank lay sleeping.
Frank was in Alaska, and a ten-year-old was in the guest room thinking ten-year-old thoughts, dreaming ten-year-old dreams, playing with marbles…
Tyson had gone to sleep in the guest room at nine-thirty and she had already been in to check on him. The brat had been snoring and drooling onto her freshly washed beige linens. Tyson was not a light or a doorknob that needed to be checked repeatedly. The boy was a self-contained universe.
The only light on was the reading lamp in the study by the bathroom that she always kept on. And then just before drifting off, she had gotten up again to check one last time. There was no reason to do that. When she walked into the hallway for the second time, there was a light on at the bottom of the stairs.
Something inside her chest detached itself from the rest of her body like a puzzle piece breaking away and blowing off in the wind.
She was aware of her own fury and did not care to criticize herself for it as she flicked the light switch off with a karate chop from the wrist and walked briskly back to her bedroom in the dark in her slippers.
She counted the minutes on her digital alarm clock radio that was set to The Dandy Douchebag Morning Show on KOSS FM. Everywhere her mind drifted was a dead end that looped right back to the fact that the light was probably still on. She jumped to her feet and marched down the stairs to confirm that the light was indeed on again. She purposely bumped into the railing and bruised her hip without slowing down to massage the ouch on her way back to bed from turning it off again.
It wasn’t until the fifth time the light came on that she thought of Tyson. Tyson rolling in his own prepubescent drool with his curly hair and Dracula pajamas. The little prankster. Therese could have given her some warning.
With a professionally cultivated calm, Janice opened the door.
When Tyson was nine, he had played hooky from school on Halloween and spent the day in a graveyard. The groundskeeper who found him had run hysterically into the nearest church, believing the kid to have been actually possessed by evil spirits.
Tyson was so smart that rebellion was his only option. That was how Therese explained it over family dinners. Janice wondered if she used the same wording at PTA meetings. Whenever he was asked a difficult question, his eyes would roll down into his sockets—one would think he had the World Encyclopedia printed on the insides of his eyelids. And then the corners of his lips would tease upwards for an instant of self satisfied bliss to ground the circuit that had just been completed in his intellect—two wires in a power surge. That meant he knew the answer. He always remained silent when quizzed, and because nobody suspected coyness or modesty in him, insolence was the only remaining explanation. Antisocial was the word that best fit the documentation. They gave him detentions.
She didn’t blame Therese for dumping the kid on her for the week.
Janice had never particularly enjoyed Tyson’s company, but when she imagined the look on his face—that tremulous smile dancing at the very ends of his lips like frayed shoelaces in a heavy wind—after his stunt at the graveyard, she felt a certain love for the boy. There was an unassailable smugness about him that did not need to be nurtured, and required no audience.
The jackolantern nightlight glowed in the corner of the room, strewing shafts of light onto the chubby mass of blanket disorder on the bed. She could not see his face.
Her right slipper skated forward on two spikes of pain that compressed the arch of her foot. Her brain sent a rapid message careening and subdividing through her body like a crack in a windshield, and the message was a single exclamation point. Her left foot found flat carpet in time to save her the embarrassment of falling on her butt in front of a ten-year-old.
Her tooth spoke to her.
The floor was covered in marbles, all rolling away from the bed. She looked only at the floor as she shuffled her feet towards him. She didn’t see the blood until she was looking directly down at the hole in Tyson’s neck where the marbles were shooting out of his trachea in a spurting fountain.
The abstract shapes in the centers were globs of exploded kidney and lung. She didn’t know what the dark green came from, but the egg drop soup was his brain matter.
Tyson’s chin curled up to the top blanket that was soaked through and crusted at the surface in pulpy snot like an undercooked pastry. His face swam into the light.
His left eye opened, although the bulbous protrusion was not his eye. It was a marble three times the size of all the others. It was the master marble. The brain marble. Its surface was covered in a web of crimson thread radiating from the black kernel in the center to look like veins. When she leaned close to look at it, it emitted a sound like wet television static.
The mother marble that controlled all the others emerged to the surface of Tyson’s skin, pressed its mass through his eyelids that stretched and split at the corner, and rolled slowly down his face leaving a trail of orangish yellow jelly from the bridge of his nose to his earlobe. His nostril quivered and inflated. Something gray and pointed emerged and slid down to pinch his upper lip. It was Janice’s tooth.
The kitchen light was on again. Frank was in Alaska. The kitchen light.
Her kitchen light. Her house.
Midnight. Alarm set for-
Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Her breath poured itself over the fire.
Four. Three. Two. One.
Her house. Her anger. Under her control. Her career. Her house. Her kitchen light.
The marble brain was levitating and the red veins were alive and transmitting.
All the marbles were rolling toward her on the carpet, circling her. Lines of cold plastic spheres were crawling up her ankle, magnetized to her skin by some subtle static electricity that Frank might have understood in his most non-verbal moments. They rolled under her nightgown, fought at the elastic of her underwear.
She picked them off one by one and held them up in front of the jackolantern nightlight. Tyson’s lips were white and slackened.
Janice hung up the phone because Therese’s accusations had no grounds. Because hearing any more would have been as productive as staying awake and checking lights.
Fact: Tyson had come to her the first time he ran away from home, when he was eight.
Fact: The police report officially declared Tyson a "missing person" thirty-four days ago.
Janice had to hold the receiver a few inches away from her ear when Therese’s invective combusted through a film of live mucus like digestive fluids bubbling up through the plastic mesh. My son is in your house eating Popsicles and watching cable skin flicks because you let him, and you''re hiding him, you cunt. You''re taking the side of a ten-year-old, and you’ve never even been a mother, you don’t know-
Any first year psyche student understood the denial cycle, understood why Therese would say that. As a therapist, Janice understood a lot more than a first year psyche student. As a sister, she had no obligation.
She hung up the phone.
That was when she started checking the doorknob.
Two whirlpools drilled into the crown of her skull from the inside. The first consisted of Tyson, marbles, Frank and lights on in the kitchen.
The second was a darkened room.
They were spinning, twisting in opposite directions. She didn’t notice until she felt the tug of a rupturing pinpoint in the center of her head that detonated an instantaneous flare of light illuminating the darkened room.
The pillow just wanted to melt like butter in her hands. Her eyelids had an eleven-o-clock appointment with her eyelids, and Janice was always on schedule.
Frank was in Alaska.
Her bottom left molar had ached because her bicycle helmet had been strapped too tight. She required no dental work.
Janice stepped onto the porch and lit a cigarette. The house had no lights on.
The two poplar trees that guarded the house shook like they were possessed by spirits. The corners of Janice’s lips felt the electro-negative charge in the moistened air and completed the circuit with a shiver.
Betsy Lynnwater would have stories to tell at seven forty-five, and the coffee would have louder ones to tell. Janice could listen to both.
The bed in the empty guest room was always made.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED