by Daniel Marcus
The house was full of people and the insect hum of their voices. Their presence made his living room look oddly foreign and it was easy for Bob to imagine for a moment that he, too, was a guest. He stood awkwardly next to the fireplace, drink in hand. People approached, inquired, veered off. Nearly everyone had brought something to eat or drink and every available surface in the kitchen was loaded with casseroles, salads, plates of cookies, sushi mandalas, paella pans. There was something about bereavement and food. It wasn’t comfort — there could be no comfort — but it was deeply tribal nonetheless. What Bob really wanted was a good, stiff drink, but he was afraid of where that would lead, so he sipped his glass of Pinot and tried to not look like he wished they would all just fucking leave.
A cluster of Jenna’s friends, bristling with piercings and spiky hair, huddled near the door. Bob had known most of them since pre-school. A willowy girl in sleeveless denim, Lu, caught his eye. She walked up to him and gave him a loose-limbed hug.
“You guys okay?” she asked.
Bob had a sudden, vivid memory of a trip to Marine World, maybe six years back, an impossibly distant other life. It was just Jenna, Lu, and him. The girls orbited about him like wild, giggling moons as they explored the park. They slept, curled up in the back seat together, the entire drive home. It was a good day.
Bob shrugged, smiled sadly. How could we be okay?
“Sorry — stupid question.” She looked away, biting her lip. A single tear tracked down her cheek. She took a breath, looked up at him again. “How’s Mrs. P. holding up?”
“She’s hanging in there. I’m really glad you came, Lu.”
In fact, Mrs. P. hadn’t stopped crying for three days and was upstairs now in a shade-darkened room, tossing in a sweat-drenched Ambien doze. Bob was almost glad of his hostly duties because they took him off the front lines with her. He felt a stab of guilt at the thought.
Jenna’s friends were the first to leave. Lu turned on her way out and gave him a sad, little wave. Bob’s colleagues from the office were next — a handshake conga line and a pat on the shoulder from the head of the firm. His secretary hugged him and cried a little.
“Give my best to Allie,” she said.
“I will,” Bob promised.
After the neighbors left, and a few other parents from the school community paid their respects and backed out the door looking guiltily relieved (fellow travelers for many years, their connection now abruptly severed), there was just Allie’s sister, Darcy, and her deadwood husband, Frank.
Darcy flitted about cleaning while Frank helped himself to a healthy dose of Glenlivet from Bob’s liquor cabinet.
“Hell of a thing,” Frank said. “So young.”
Bob remembered Jenna’s description of him as “that fucking retard Aunt Darcy married” and nearly smiled, then caught himself, and a wave of grief rushed through him like the ocean through a rocky channel, leaving him breathless for a moment.
“You okay, Bob?” Frank asked, a hint of slur in his voice.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Frank. I just need to sit down.”
Bob sat in one of the two floral patterned wing chairs bookending the fireplace. Frank stood watching him for a moment, then sat in the matching chair, resting his drink on his thigh.
They spoke no further and Bob tried to will his mind empty of thought.
After a few moments, Darcy appeared, pushing back an errant blonde lock from her forehead.
“All clean,” she said. She was a ditz, but Bob had come to like her, even love her, over the years. Her luck with men was almost comically abysmal.
“Thanks, Darce,” Bob said. “You didn’t have to do all that.”
She leaned over and pecked him on the cheek. “Don’t worry about it. You just take care of Allie and yourself.”
When they left, silence descended on the house with the finality of a closing curtain. Bob returned to the chair next to the fireplace and sipped his drink.
Upstairs, Allie awakened and began to weep, a soft, desperate keening that seemed to come from everywhere in the house at once.
Bob sighed. He didn’t want to face her and felt it again, that pinprick of guilt. Her grief was no more acute than his, he felt, but it demanded more attention. Infinite attention, really — a black hole that swallowed all solace. He didn’t blame her at all. He just didn’t know how to help her. He couldn’t even help himself.
He set his glass on the coffee table and went upstairs. The hallway was dark. The door to Jenna’s room was open a crack. He walked past without looking in. His bedroom door was shut and he placed his palm flat against it. From within, the sound of weeping continued.
There was no answer.
He gently pushed the door open. The air in the room was humid and had a strange, oceanic smell. Allie sat on the edge of the bed. Her grief had an animal quality: primal, pre-verbal. He sat next to her, put his hand on her shoulder. She vibrated with a fine tremor, like a bird. Every now and then she would gasp, a breathing reflex. The keening would catch, then continue.
Bob pulled back the collar of her nightgown just a bit, kissed her bare shoulder, and left her there.
Bob’s home office was a long card table in a corner of the garage. There was a multipurpose printer, a big monitor, a keyboard. Several rows of shelves sagged under a haphazard collection of tools, books, and boxes with faded, peeling labels. In the opposite corner, amidst a litter of discarded plastic lawn toys, sat a red bicycle with flat tires and training wheels. Faded blue ribbons dangled limply from the handlebars.
He sat down and stared at the flat, grey screen until he imagined motion within its depths. He pushed back his chair and went back in the house. He cocked his head to listen. Allie had stopped crying. He imagined her sitting on the edge of the bed staring off into nothing. The furnace sighed on. A car whispered past on the street outside.
Bob poured himself two fingers of Glenlivet and returned to the garage. He sat at his desk and took a sip of whiskey. His eyes watered and his chest filled with heat.
He missed her so badly. It was like a physical hypersensitivity, a migraine or an opiate withdrawal, a painfully acute awareness of smells and changes in light.
He double-clicked a shortcut on his desktop and her homepage appeared. There were dozens of pictures, mostly of Jenna smiling, occupying a center of gravity among several friends, a couple of somber art-school poses and several with Allie and Bob. He was glad that she wasn’t embarrassed to post them.
In her most recent photograph, just a few days before she died, she had shaved her head and carved, in the emerging stubble, swirling Maori-like designs. She had a pierced eyebrow and upper lip. This too was something of an art-school pic, but in spite of its edginess, it seemed to capture better than the others the essence of Jenna as a much younger girl. He could see her peering out, smiling, just behind the hardware and the adolescent piss-off frown.
Her profile said she liked basketball (he knew that), Rimbaud (he had no idea), and motorcycles (he’d have to have a talk with her) — and it hit him again, that surge of grief (have a talk with her) so acute he lost track of himself for a moment.
Her status read:
Smith is nice. Mt Holyoke is a gothic prison. Amherst is Amherst. In Logan now, waiting for the plane home. I love airports, monuments to transience. The static hiss between stations!
She must have posted from her cell phone, minutes before the explosion. Bob tried to imagine it – an instant of heat and light, intense pressure, a sound like the sky ripping open. He hoped it was fast, that she didn’t have time to register what was happening. He wondered if she thought of them in those last milliseconds, then cursed his narcissism.
It seemed he was living half the time in fugue – replaying snippets of time with her, random moments, conversations real and imagined. They surfaced haphazardly, pulled him in, played themselves out, and left him stunned and empty.
His eyes kept returning to the icon in the upper right corner of the screen, a yellow smiley-face in side profile beneath a word bubble. Inside the bubble: Clik2Chat.
He slid the cursor over the icon, hovered for a moment, then willed his finger down on the mouse button.
Jenna’s avatar appeared next to his keyboard: a smiling, translucent, foot-tall pixie. Tiny diamonds of dust swam in the light beams emanating from small, twin sources beneath the screen. The scan had been taken about a year before, so it captured Jenna before her severe phase. Her hair was shoulder length and she wore jeans and a plain, green t-shirt. She tilted her head, a coltish gesture he knew well.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
Bob’s breath caught in his throat. The voice was almost right – Jenna, with syllables oddly clipped. He knew it was nothing more than a bit of digital magic cranked out by a kid hunkered down in a cubicle amidst a litter of Nerf toys and empty soda cans, but it was still a shock.
Jenna tilted her head the other way.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
This is stupid, he thought.
“Hi, Jen.” His voice cracked.
“Hey! How are you?”
Bob didn’t say anything. The avatar shifted her weight, brushed back her hair.
“You’ve probably figured out that I’m somewhere else right now. My little Doppel-G here will record whatever you want to tell me and I’ll have a look at it later.”
“We miss you terribly.”
Jemma frowned disarmingly.
“Sorry, didn’t get that.”
“We love you.”
Jenna smiled. “I love you, too, Dad.”
“We’ll always love you.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
From far away he heard the high whine of engines, a plane settling in to SFO final approach. He cocked his head, listening, until he couldn’t hear it any more.
“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go. Bye!”
“No!” Bob shouted, startling himself. “Wait!”
Jenna tilted her head again, looking, he imagined, just a trifle impatient.
The static hiss between stations, he thought.
Something rustled outside, probably a raccoon. He closed his eyes and saw clever, busy hands.
“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go. Bye!”
He did nothing this time. After a few seconds, the image winked out.
He sat there for a long time. When he was ready, he pushed his chair back, stood up, and stretched. He let himself back into the house and went upstairs. Allie was sleeping again, her breathing deep and regular.
He slipped his clothes off and slid under the sheets, careful not to wake her. She whimpered softly, turned on her side facing away from him, and backed closer. He curled to fit her, feeling her warmth, draping his arm across her hip. He shifted restlessly as he drifted off to sleep and she moved in response, their somnambular dance as familiar as walking.
Daniel Marcus’ short fiction has appeared in many literary and genre venues, including Asimov’s SF, ZYZZYVA, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Witness. Some of these stories were collected in “Binding Energy,” described by Salon.com as “a cross between Raymond Carver and William Gibson.” He is also the author of the novels Burn Rate and A Crack in Everything. He has taught Creative Writing at the UC Berkeley Extension Program and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.