White-Blue Light
Eventually the hole closed and the pain began to stop. Not right away, not quickly, but the hole did close. When it did, it left a puckered pale scar—a kind of callous in the tissue of her memory. She could still hear, on the inside, on the other side, something like screaming. Her screaming. The silence of an endless waterlogged afternoon. It was almost the same sound. When she slept, she saw the teal ripple of the fish tank’s glow, fingers of clear oil spreading within its rectangle and its half-dollars of life—black, orange, white—flipping back and forth, panicking under the umbrella of the opening fluid hand. For a time, when Samantha first started to have these dreams, to awaken from them and grasp for the pillow next to her, she woke someone else: a kind of replacement him. These hims would brush or swat away her palm, or they mistook her gesture for something else, an invitation. The other hims would never know about the things that made her do it, about other side of the dead-flesh hole, about the white-blue light. 

This was how it happened: on September 6, 2000, he stepped into a cab, the cab took him to the airport, and she never saw him again.  It was with those two steps that the hole that swallowed her life swiftly and unstoppably began to open. It was like a movie in her head, a projector whirring: the back of his head, three quarters of it from just behind the right ear, the profile of his Roman nose, the quarter-moon of his earlobe within the kaleidoscope of leaves, the glint of silver at his wrist as he lifted his phone to talk. Central Park was behind them. She glimpsed her face in the taxicab reflection, her raven-black hair, the heart shape of her face in the slippery dark glass. 

This was the gift he gave her before the hole opened.

“It’s harder for you, than for me,” he said.

It was a pillow. Inside it was a sleeve of clear plastic. She slipped a case over the pillow and the sleeve. The next night, they were apart. Aircraft took them in opposite directions: she flew to Johannesburg to study the paint on a canvas, to sign a paper and make its owner wealthy; he flew to New Mexico to study a man in a cell, a human being in a box who was already starting to dry and crack apart in the desert. She waited for the gift to work, that night, in her hotel room. The sleeve inside did what was promised: soft light, radiating white-blue through the cotton case. Wherever he was, he was sleeping. She touched the top of it, in the dark, and the fabric was cool under her palm. 

Before the hole, for twenty months, there had been happiness, nearly complete. There was a lot of travel between them, but he made her happy and she made him happy. They met in restaurants, in cities where she did not know the restaurants, when the airplanes on which they lived their weeks brought them to these places. Or they met in restaurants in cities where he did not know where to eat, when their airplanes deposited them in those places. He ate thoughtfully and shared dishes in both kinds of cities. They walked in parks near the restaurants, or, where there were no parks, no drooping willows, no arched stone bridges along their paths, they shopped in windows. They would do this whether it was day or night.

Sometimes, in hotel rooms papered in cream-tan bamboo, rooms detailed with delicate squares of oatmeal-flecked soap on black marble countertops, his handwritten cards—gentle words in a gently sloping hand—arrived next to her favorite breakfast, and sometimes there was also a single white daisy on a silver tray. She liked to eat two slim cranberry pancakes and drink a single espresso—the ritual of it dependent upon the slow pour of sugar with which she started. Outside, planes crawled the morning sky—skies slate or bright blue—silent through the impenetrable hotel-room glass. Their first night, she had stood by such a window, her skin the color of blood oranges in the urban sunset. She had watched the last of the lights from the night’s final flights, noiseless arrows across the window’s rectangle. Later, she had felt his ear, cooler than anything around it, when he pressed it against her back.

There was a loft, a modest Chelsea loft, a long hardwood loft, with two high-ceilinged spaces at either end. Between these, along the kitchen with its purring silver refrigerator, a mirror-polished granite counter ran its length. An elevator connected the loft to the lobby, its smooth black metal doors opening onto one end of the kitchen. Sometimes he came through the doors and she was not there; sometimes she came through them and he was gone. He left her notes on the miniature handmade-paper cards. Sometimes he put them in the bathroom off their sleeping space. Sometimes he placed them on the sink of the half-bath off the kitchen, next to the elevator, or in the refrigerator, next to the cream she kept for her coffee. The notes always promised his presence in some form or another, and his presence was delivered. Men in black shirts, carrying carefully prepared meals, appeared between parting elevator doors. A morning call came from a car that would, within the hour, take her to porcelain-white rooms filled with lavender-scented steam—places where ginger fingertips applied cooling ointments and liquids. These days would nudge her toward naps, toward restoration.

He never mentioned the disparity between the two of them, on these counts, that she, before her sudden flights to London, to Barcelona or Hamburg, never left behind these kinds of touches for him. Sometimes, in her seat on the tube of metal and fuel, lifting from the tar ribbons of a runway in Newark or Long Island, she thought of her omissions. He shushed her when she mentioned such things.

When they were together, he planned less elaborate surprises. The days, if they had them to share, could sprawl: never quite spontaneous, but never without some tucked-away cafe, or some ordinary thing that seemed like only theirs when it was his suggestion. He liked to walk with her along the banks of the river, among the bikers and the joggers, among the families eating sandwiches. In the summer it was with fingers interlaced. In the fall, it was his calfskin glove around her gray wool mitten. Sometimes he talked quite a lot about his cases, sometimes he was quiet, as if thoughtful, holding her hand and making small noises of acknowledgement when she spoke to him about the galleries, about the buyers, about the madwomen painters in oil-spotted overalls, measuring, trimming, stretching and filling their canvases in spots only she could find, out there, at the end of plane rides. When he was gone, she slept in the loft, under the canopy of their dark wood bed. The ceiling was a series of swells and troughs, like electrical waves—sine waves of plaster. By ten-twenty, the gift glowed next her. Sometimes she lay awake, looking into it, until the light left phantom squares against her eyelids. She waited for sleep in that blue-square glow.   

*   *   *

There had been no fights, none to speak of. She told the men and women who eventually came to talk her, after the taxi cab, after the hole had opened, that she knew something about all of his more-recent cases, but nothing significant. She told these men and women about the cab into which he’d gotten, and about that long first night when no call had come, when there had been no white-blue light. They told her that he had never arrived in San Francisco, that his seat had never been filled on the plane. They showed her a black and white image, a still from the airport cameras. In the crowd, she could see him, his head turned to the left, his face inscrutable in the low-resolution distance. Him, she said. Him. Him. Him. They wanted to track his next steps, but the banks and the ticket desks showed nothing. He never used the cards again. He never gave the clerks his name.

She had not slept, after seeing the picture of him in the airport, and she did not during the days and nights that followed, but she called his number, over and over. Sometimes she thought of the act, and did it; sometimes she found her thumb on the keys of the phone, dialing it in the dark of the loft, only the icy green digits showing against her skin.

In the gray wash of those first days, punctuated by the phone calls from family and from law enforcement, and by the interviews she endured under the administrations of police and other kinds of agents, she sat still. She tried to decide what had happened. It was that he was dead, one day. It was that he was alive, another, but unable to tell anyone; he was injured and alone. It was that he had left her. It was that she had driven him away. Eventually, she decided that it was only his death or that he had left her. She sat still, looking into the face of this equation—this almost-binary pair of possibilities—unable to reconcile either with the happiness that preceded the change. She felt the circuit she had used to process her old world lose cohesion, and the cloth-covered wiring inside of her started to heat and fray. When the cables popped off, they made soft noises, like bubbles bursting in the quiet that had crept up around her. 

*   *   *

There were things she did to break the world that they had held between them. She drank, but not very effectively, taking cabs from one bottle-service table to another, leaving most of the bottles. The light from the illuminated tables at which she sat made the clear liquor inside seem a vaporous translucent world. She tried taking a server home once. The next night she brought home the hostess instead, who’d watched her for nights from the door, from inside a switchblade dress. To roar along the conduit of an impulse, this made the world seem more broken to her, and more broken worked, at least for a while.

She intentionally missed phone calls; the darkness and quiet of the loft deepened. She watched the crystal pane of her phone’s faceplate tell her which gallery was calling, which Brussels cafe, which bank or hotel in Berlin. After a time, the faceplate lit less often. Sometimes, she sat up at night, in the window overlooking West 22nd, drinking dusky red wine and wishing unhappy lives upon the couples that walked the sidewalks. She met a man from Phoenix, and she let him give her cocaine, but she hated the feeling: the addled bobsled evenings and the blistered next-day fogs. She got a prescription for little blue tablets, instead. It was easy, once she told the doctor about the darkness and the quiet, and the hole that opened. The man from Phoenix stayed around for a while longer, the powder up his nose, but inexplicably listless between her legs. For a while she let him linger, then he was hardly there, and then he was not there at all. There were other, somewhat better hims, but they faded as well.

*   *   *

Rain fell into the grid of New York City, a steady down-press curtain that clapped against the windows of the loft in a constant electrical wiggle. Outside, the air was the color of charcoal. Inside, she shook her orange plastic prescription bottles, taking one pill from this container, one from that, forcing them down with the dregs of the burgundy until the bleach-white numbness stripped out whatever was left.

She woke up, fully garbed, face down, half in the shower, soaked to the waist in water gone cold. Her sneakers squeaked as she crossed to the dresser, where she peeled the clinging wet clothes from her body, meaning to pull on a sweater and some pajama bottoms, to fill the ache in her middle with anything, with green tea and peanut butter on bread. The dull throb in her neck and back—the ghost of the broken pose she’d struck—promised to blossom into paralysis. She drifted. Back in the bathroom, downers drained out of her body in urine; the soles of her feet felt bruised and they tingled. She wandered through the loft, not dressed at all, and leaned against the countertop for a time. At some point she swept it clear of the empty orange bottles.

Her phone bleeped, somewhere, its pale light nowhere to be seen. She stood in the kitchen, the cold black tile under her toes, mixing water and powdered pancake batter in a bowl, whisking into the thickening goop the final clumps of dried cranberries that came from a plastic pouch she found in the refrigerator door. There was no butter. She poured oil into the pan and watched the half-dollars of life in the fish tank collect at the nearest corner. They gathered expectantly, fins forward. She tipped the mixing bowl so that the beige stream of batter kissed the warming aluminum, expanding in a ripple, bullets of cranberry tumbling along the length of the soft rope, collecting in the middle of the circles she made. The phone bleeped again. She set the bowl aside and the fish moved as a unit, left then right. The Frisbee of pancake fought with the oil. She found the phone, answering it by the window, where she could see her own white slip of a shape in the glass.

“It’s his watch,” said the voice on the phone. It was Marcel, from the agency; Marcel who still took her calls, forwarding her only the ones that allowed her to preserve the job, to hedge her bets on healing, on the future. She presumed he was making handsome commissions off the ones she ignored.

“They’ve found his watch, Samantha,” he said.

She stood at the window, water connecting and breaking apart across the glass.

“I’m eating,” she said. “I’m cooking.”

“Well, good on you for listening to a little advice.”

“It’s raining here,” she said.

“Jesus,” he said. “Listen, the detectives are going to come talk to you again. Do you understand?”

“They’re burning,” she said. “I’m fucking them up.”

*   *   *

Nobody was killed when the fiberglass and canvas body of the little plane crumpled and tore itself apart. The impact drove bits of it into the late-summer soft soil. Minutes later, its fuel caught fire, burning a scar into the fallow clearing. Its two occupants spun from the disintegration before that, however, their bouncing ejection and rolling stop tearing skin from their arms and legs and foreheads, but not so much skin and tissue that they could not lie there for long minutes afterward, feeling the heat of the fire they’d avoided. These two survivors slipped back and forth between what hurt—almost unimaginable pain—and otherwise mysterious unconsciousness. They did not die, though, and so the story slipped away, soon uninteresting to the local television producers, to the small town newspaper editors.

When the inspectors came to look at the pieces, to analyze how the training plane had failed, they found the watch. Its silver band glinted in the brilliant blue Pennsylvanian morning. Later, they dabbed away the grease and soot. All but the hour arm was broken from its face, the short limb at almost ten. On the back of the battered watch was a name, etched into the now-blackened silver, but it was neither that of the pilot nor that of the student.

Phone calls were made, and the watch led the New York investigators back to the Manhattan loft, just as Marcel predicted. They rode back up the elevator with their now year-old files in hand. They spoke again to Samantha, who was thinner and paler than before, who listened to their questions and murmured loose replies.

“No, he never mentioned Pennsylvania,” she said, and so on.

The investigators talked about her for a while, in their cars, going back to their offices. One of them remarked to another that her fish tank looked like everything inside of it was dead. The watch ended up in a cardboard box, on a metal shelf in a downtown evidence room, in the dark. For a time, its surviving short arm glowed a steady pale green.

*   *   *

The fish were all dead.

She stood in the spot between the kitchen and the room with the dark wood bed. Behind her, now, the olive-oil bottle was empty beside the tank. The fingers of its clear insides opened across the top of the water, tendrils arcing downwards into the blue—the liquid aquamarine—like the threads of light that left the mushroom clouds in photos from Los Alamos, photos from some Pacific island.

The pancakes had burned, the phone still in her hand, back when the news of his watch was still fresh in her ear. She had raced from the window to the kitchen, snatching up and throwing the pan—still white-hot and full of oil—into the wall. It left a black streak—sort of the size and shape of a cigar—on the white plaster by the bathroom door. Oil splashed back, a single line of it, pencil thin, flash frying a brown fan-shaped tattoo across the floor. To her, the scream she unleashed sounded like something coming from the loft’s farthest end. The fish flipped, dispersing then regrouping. In her ears, the hole roared, replacing the scream, the sound of its vacuum ingestion like a jet engine, a turbine turning just over her skull.

She stood beside the bed, on his side, where she never stood, where she never slept, and she fumbled with the covers, which were rust-red, the color of old metal. A second pillow covered the gift, but she could see it underneath because the white-blue light fanned from the edges, thin spokes across the burnt crimson linens. She knocked the top pillow aside, and reached for it, its surface a pool of turquoise in the near black, the smell of scorched cooking oil and the gradual, awful silence of the dead tank. The radiance filled her features, washing them away, except her eyes, which remained twin garnets in her alabaster smoothness. She cleared the bed of its clothes, ripping the long-unwashed linens from the mattress, something that felt like a mild solution of battery acid slicking her eyes and cheeks. She shook the gift; she threw it. She stomped on it. She placed it in the center of the dark wood bed and she kneeled naked on the mattress, her knees making two dimples into its foam top, causing the gift to tilt toward her. She said his name. She waited, under the hole, as an animal waits under the eye of a storm, waiting for the roar to return. She said his name, but nothing happened, and she kneeled on the bed, in its glow, waiting in the impossibility—waiting in the white-blue light.

*   *   *

Sometime after that, or during the tail end of that—where the after and the before blurred—she sat on the floor between the loft’s two rooms, against the granite-top counter. She talked to her mother on the phone for the first time since her first empty days. When her mother believed, at last, that she was not going to leave New York to live instead on the wide-plank floors of the house overlooking the gentlest side of the bay, they talked about her missing Steven. They talked about the hole, and about all of the things that had flown into it. Out of it. Into it and out of it. Finally, she pressed the end button on the phone and laid down in the dark wood bed, where she felt that the hole that hovered just above everything, blotting out everything, was perhaps an inch or two smaller. Maybe it was going to close.

She started looking for a different place to live. She packed most of their things into boxes and handed them over to a nonprofit that outfitted specially acquired Chelsea apartments, places for survivors who were paying too much for what lifesaving substances the world could cough up, busy as it was developing oil drills, busy as it was concocting cock-propping pills. These were the people he would have helped, the people he flew to find, leveraging courtroom options, eking out one more month of comfort, guaranteeing some say in the way death came, and in the things death left behind.

She watched the white panel truck take her things away in the autumn afternoon, just a year, now, after the hole first opened. She saw, in her mind, someone walking into some future mercy flat for the first time and finding his things, finding her things. They would never know the story of these items. They would never know about the hole from which they came. She moved into a new space, a smaller apartment—older, less comfortable—the kind of apartment an actor from Iowa would take in the first flush of new weeks in Manhattan, still full of dream and dizziness and expectation. It was her own mercy flat on the outskirts of the neighborhood. She started taking jobs again. She started to fly again, starting slowly, still plucking at the pink edges where the hole had closed. By the end of her first awful cab ride across the New Jersey bridge, and the first tug of liftoff, she felt the muscle behind the scar tighten. Strengthening with time, possibly it would not tear. 
*   *   *

There was one other thing, though. It took weeks to convince someone to help her. In the end, it came in the form of an e-mail from an anonymous account—someone in technical support for the company in San Antonio. The information was a location, a last transmission from the chip in the band that he wore, but this data came from that moment in the loft, that instant when the gift flickered to life under the pillow, under the covers, while the tank went silent in the other room.

"This isn’t definitely it,” the e-mail said. “But it's the most probable location.”

She sold art to hotels like the one in San Francisco, and so eventually the nice girl who answered the phone for the chain’s corporate buyer did what she asked. Again, the information came from a blind e-mail account, four digits at some free-account-dot-com. The address bounced when she sent back a thank-you. Account no longer registered; smart girl, she thought. It was not a name, but a list of names. The list was long, but not as long as she’d imagined it would be. His name was not on it. It took her days to narrow down her choices to one. And then she made new calls.

The hotel to which her plane took her was nothing remarkable—another slab of building along the wheel of a metropolitan airport. She checked in and took the elevator to the fifteenth floor. She should have told the police, she thought on the way up. She might; she didn’t know if she ever would.

The doors opened onto a lobby between two hallways. Three squat square chairs with charcoal upholstery formed a kind of triangle around a glass table. Fronds of brown reed  leaned out of a tubular vase half filled with water. She walked the halls until she found the right room (she would never know if she was right, really). Her key card was white, and the reader-light turned green. She opened the door to the room and went inside. When it shut behind her, it latched with a soft snick. The gift was under her left arm. This was the room from which it came, that last white-blue light on that one night—a night long after Central Park, and glints of silver in taxi-cab windows, and her own face rippling across the curve. Then, as now, she knew: the sender was a long time gone.
JAMES O'BRIEN'S poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. His fiction is forthcoming in Mixer and in Margin Walker, and new poems are forthcoming in Tidal Basin Review. In 2011, his short story "Bing Red" won second prize in The Pinch's Literary Awards, and he was named a Writing Fellow at the St. Botolph Club, in Boston. For more information, visit jamesobrien.cc
finalist for the 2011 Fulton Prize