In which translucent legs burn but aren’t consumed!
Oso spent many hours speaking with the Minä on that first birthday, until he finally checked his watch and realized he needed to collect his son from Mrs. Weaver, who had taken him home with her. Gilly had left hours before, after he realized he couldn’t get a word edgewise in the conversation between these two men of like minds.
Oso stepped out into the late evening, and as the Tomi Corp building was located in the Northeastern Heights, he was caught by the spread of summer lights in the valley. What he and Gilly had accomplished that day suddenly overwhelmed him, and he leaned against a stuccoed column, feeling the prickly pieces of stucco jutting into the back of his sweat-drenched button-down. The air smelled like the accumulation of the day’s heat.
And then it hit him—the tingling warmth that spread from his hands to the rest of his body. The air swirled around him as though he had entered a place of ether outside of time, a cloud of omniscience. He waited to remember.
He was in an upstairs room, a lingering taste of meat, chile, and bourbon in his mouth, with another taste of…of her. Bernadette. After all these years, he couldn’t erase her fragrance and taste in his mind. He held her in his arms, smelling her sweet perfume. It was dark, and she was like a shadow, but she was still very real. A physical presence—and a ghost nonetheless. And he wasn’t sure whether the memory brought him sadness or joy. It held long ago memories, too, of a different, thinner, younger Bernadette. She was both young and old at the same time.
He rose from the bed where he held her and drifted out of the room, into the shadowy interior of a living room. On the couch, Adam lay with a blanket pushed down to his feet and his thumb in his mouth. He drifted toward the front door, as the broader world waited on the other side, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. He was tired, for a start. Not that he was tired as a general trait or rule, but that he was tired in a satisfied, I have accomplished much way. Not that there wasn’t more to accomplish. There always was. Each success had its own sense of completion, however.
So he turned back around and reentered the dark, peaceful place where Bernadette slept.
He jolted awake from the memory and swallowed hard. His mouth was drier than it had ever been. It felt like he’d been on a multi-day bender before stuffing his mouth with a blanket and sucking on it. With weighted feet, he walked back in the Tomi Corp building, using his key card, as the doors had been locked for the night, and purchased a bottle of water from the Aguamagica machine. He drained the bottle and refocused his mind.
He did not want to get into a relationship with Bernadette. He’d had no intentions of doing so, but that was his memory. Could he change his future memories? Wouldn’t that defy physics? Didn’t future memories, in themselves, defy physics?
Despite his fully conscious thoughts, his feet walked right back out of the building and to his car. And then his car seemed to magically drive to Bernadette’s. With a jerk, he turned instead towards Mrs. Weaver’s house. He needed to pick up Adam. And besides, Adam had been in the future memory.
Good God, he thought. No, he didn’t believe in God. And yet, he seemed trapped in a maze of fate that ended at Bernadette’s apartment. Once Adam was buckled into his booster, the procession to Bernadette’s apartment continued.
Once at the buzzer outside the downstairs office door, his instinctive energy failed him. He and Bernadette had a messy past. Throughout high school, they’d maintained an on-again, off-again relationship. In the interim known as “off-again,” he’d filled his life with dating college girls, while she’d pursued no one else. She was the perfect female: beautiful, and his alone.
Except she hadn’t been his alone, and he was delusional to believe she had.
All these years later, it was too bad for Oso and not for her. Bernadette, at least from outside appearances, was content with her life as a single. The memory of her rejection was like the shop door in front of him: it locked him up tight. Inside, it was dark, as her business was closed for the night. Up above, where she lived, a light glimmered through the gap where the curtains weren’t drawn tight. Adam wiggled in his arms.
“Why aren’t we going inside?” the boy asked. “I wanna see Bern’dette.”
Why aren’t we going inside? It was her voice from the summer after graduation, as they stood outside San Miguel church in Socorro.
The night before, they’d gotten drunk together off the Beñat home brew, and then went out to his dad’s workshop to find the pot stash. After a while, Oso was so stoned he’d ceased being able to stand up, and he’d consequently spread himself out on the bench as though he were his dad’s latest project, which was absurd. His dad didn’t treat his children as projects.
Bernadette was sitting cross-legged, her bare brown limbs settled on the sawdust floor, busying herself sorting stray nails. Her beautiful soft brown hair hung down over her face; the straps of her tank top fell away from her shoulders.
His spinning brain suddenly couldn’t fathom leaving her behind when he went off to college. That was why the words burst out without thought: “Marry me,” he demanded. “Come to LA with me.”
She let out a peal of silvery laughter, as though he’d told the funniest joke in the world. And then she told him no.
The day after, cranky and hungover, they’d risen from Oso’s futon, to which they’d both managed to stumble and fall asleep on, and gone out walking in search of sustenance. Because neither had much money, they ended up in the courtyard of the historic mission after a breakfast of McDonald’s fries and Coke.
Bernadette was Catholic and attended mass every week with her family. Oso often wondered what it would be like to have a family that did meaningful things together. Oso read the plaque dedicated to San Miguel, who had, by legend, slain a dragon.
“Why aren’t we going inside?” she asked.
“Because I’m not Catholic,” he said.
“That doesn’t matter. The sun is hurting my head. I want to hide.”
And she tugged on his hand to pull him through the arched entryway, past the heavy doors. She dipped her hand in the holy water before making the sign of the cross. At least it was cool inside, with its thick adobe walls that rose to the belfry. The church had been ringing the hours to draw people into its peace and shadows for hundreds of years. They slipped onto a back pew, where they could gaze up at the Christ figure above the altar. Strangely, the place calmed him.
“What do you get out of this?” he whispered.
She shrugged. “It makes me feel loved,” she said.
This surprised him, as from his perspective, she had a loving family. “Don’t you feel loved when you’re not here?”
She shrugged. “It’s not the same. Look around you at the statues.”
“The statues love you?”
“No.” She sounded a bit exasperated. “If you walked around the church, you’d see they tell a story of a guy who sacrificed himself for others. I think that’s beautiful, and it makes me feel loved.”
“What if it’s made up?”
“It’s not. And even if it was, you can’t believe every story of self-sacrifice is a myth. Sheesh. Even you rushed in a burning trailer to rescue someone.”
His body stiffened. It had been five years since the fire, and they were under a vow of silence. They did not discuss this subject, not even after the nightmares wouldn’t go away. Over and over, he woke up in a cold sweat, the image of her leg burning in the fire. It was always the leg, though sometimes it looked like a real leg with charred skin, and other times a prosthetic. And sometimes it was buried under rubble. Once, he’d dreamed he’d run back into the trailer to rescue the leg, and in the middle of the flames, it glowed and didn’t burn. It was a translucent and ergonomic robotic leg, the likes of which he’d never seen. It was nothing like what he and Gilly built in the outbuilding.
Oso swallowed hard and fixed his eyes on Christ’s gaunt white figure with three women at his feet adoring him. Otherwise, he might get distracted by Mary holding the Christ child to the left of it and start crying. He’d spied the Mary and child statues when he first entered, and their images stabbed him in the chest. He didn’t think his mother had ever held and comforted him that way. Not after the fire. Not ever. Not that he needed it. It was the principle of knowing she should have tried.
Bernadette didn’t say anything else, but instead laid her head on his shoulder. In response, he put his arm around her. It felt nice, innocent. Maybe that was her way of saying yes to him after she’d mistakenly said no. Maybe her refusal the night before had meant nothing, but an inability to respond correctly because she was too high to trust her feelings.
“You’ll come to LA with me. Right? You have to.” He couldn’t help jumping to conclusions. It was his way. He remembered the future, didn’t he?
“You always just demand things.” She lifted her head from his shoulder and groaned. “I’ve already registered for a psych degree. I need to learn how to fix your bad behavior, Osito.”
“Don’t call me that. And, yes, fix my behavior. But please, please, come with me.”
“Can’t come with you. Stay here with me. We belong here.”
“No, I’m going to UCLA. Don’t ruin everything.”
“I wouldn’t even know how to ruin everything.”
Oso rubbed his head, which was threatening to split apart. “After I get out of student housing, we can find an apartment.”
“Oso, we’re eighteen. We can’t get married.”
“Actually, we can. It’s legal.”
“I’m going to State in like two weeks. I’m all ready to move to Las Cruces.”
“Come with me, instead. I’m the most devoted person you’ll ever meet. When I make a decision, I stick to it. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“I’m not ready to get married. Can’t we just let it rest a little and visit each other at breaks?”
“No. If I leave for California and you don’t come with me, it will be over. I won’t carry on a long-distance relationship.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“Yeah, it is. I’m not into playing around. From now on, when I’m done with a relationship, I won’t look back. You won’t get another chance.”
“Oh, well, then. Too bad for me.”
Too bad for me. She hadn’t sounded like she meant it at all. He was the loser, not her.
“I want to go inside!” Adam shouted, startling Oso from the memory of rejection. Then the boy lurched in Oso’s arms, swinging for the intercom button and hitting it squarely. Adam knew what to do, unlike his dad. He’d been there enough times.
Soon enough, Bernadette’s gentle voice drifted through the speaker. “How may I help you?” she asked.
“Hey, Berna. Adam wanted to come over for a visit.”
“Did he? How sweet. I’ll be down in a minute to let him in. And you, too, if you want.” She laughed—a gentle, ringing laugh.
“Did Adam take the advice?” Stephanie asked her granddad when he wound down his narrative, and it was clear he didn’t want to go further in the story.
“I guess it wasn’t advice exactly. Samson told him someday he would kill a serpent and collect his bride. Did he?”
“He got married, didn’t he?”
“Does that involve killing serpents? Did you kill a serpent and collect your bride?”
“Who do you think I am, Perseus? I asked your grandma to marry me a second time, more than twenty years later. Finally, she said yes. Mostly because she wanted to be Adam’s mom. That was one of her regrets, choosing to live a life of singlehood after her husband died. She wanted kids.”
“Why did she decide to be single?”
“Who knows? She claimed she repented of her lustful ways after I debauched her, and she didn’t want to get married a second time. That left her almost a nun until I came along. She was always religious.”
Stephanie packed up her things, and she looked out the window in search of Mark. “So does it go one generation on, one off? Because my parents didn’t raise me to be religious.”
“A disappointing outcome. I’m sorry about that, Stephanie. I wish they had.”
Stephanie wasn’t sure it mattered either way. She suspected that religion wouldn’t have discernibly altered her parents’ behavior, her mom’s extreme sense of responsibility, and her dad’s lack of it.
“Call Uncle Adam,” she told her car as it made the drive back down to the valley.
This time, however, neither her aunt nor uncle answered, and she had to leave a voicemail that sounded about like this: Did you slay the snake like Samson told you to, and by the way, what do you remember from that day?
“There’s some specific questions for you,” Mark said. “Nice journalism, Steph.”
Stephanie lay back in Mark’s arms and relaxed. She didn’t care that he mocked her. “Thanks,” she mumbled. “Do you wanna come over to my parents’ for dinner? My mom’s an okay cook, and my brother Javi will probably be there. He usually slips in to eat, and then slips back out again.”
“I’ve always wanted to meet your brother to talk shop. He with his virtual reality reporting, and me with mine. Not to mention he sounds crazy.”
“He’s really very normal.”
“I’ve also been waiting for you to invite me to your parents’ house for months. This is a big deal. Unless you take all your boyfriends there.”
“All what boyfriends? Since when do I have boyfriends? All I’ve done since high school is work. You’re it.”
“You were dating that dweeb in sales when I was hired.”
“He’s not a dweeb, and we went on three dates. If that. And I dated another journalist who’s no longer there. And there was that guy I met while covering the Minä refugee camp. I mean, there’ve been a few, but three dates seems to be my max before one of us gets bored. It’s kind of disheartening.”
“So you’re not bored with me yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“Gee, I feel so honored. All I have to do is hold on until you get bored with me, and then I can take out that cute blonde at the coffee shop.”
“What cute blonde?”
“The one who gives me free coffee to thank me for all the work I do disseminating truth. The look in her eyes says she’ll never get bored. Or boring, if you catch my meaning.”
Was it possible to roll her eyes with her lids closed? She jabbed him in the waist with her elbow because the eyeroll hadn’t worked at relieving the pang of jealousy that rose up inside. How dare a cute blonde at the coffee shop give him free coffee? What coffee shop was this, anyway? And how could Mark afford coffee? Oh, wait, it was free. What was she thinking?
“You’re as bad as my granddad.”
“You’re granddad is the best man I’ve ever met. I want to be just like him.”
“What, a billionaire?”
“Not really. Having money would be great and all, but what I admire about him is that people listen to him. He has so much charisma.”
“You do, too, Mark. I mean that. And people listen to you because you disseminate truth.” It almost came out in an even, nonsarcastic tone.
He jabbed her in the waist this time, and then proceeded to wrap his arms around her and leave his hands hovering on her bellybutton for the duration of the trip. She sighed.