A Fully Imagined World
Kyle saw her from across the far end of a large artificial glacier, its walls illuminated from behind by blue lights, a curving synthetic stretch slick and jagged just like real ice, demonstrating
how the entire world had frozen over millions of years ago and stilled the land. She was folding a map, her hands searching for the glossy paper’s deep grooves. He knew it was Serena. Lately, she often filled his thoughts with secret pleasure during the day: when he was folding laundry in the basement and hearing the footsteps overhead of his wife and daughter; driving home from the grocery store, the paper bags in the trunk of his station wagon rustling together as he turned through his neighborhood; sitting in front of his computer with copies of his resume and boxes of old legal correspondence covering the dining room table. Now, stepping away from the glacier and the cold air pumped through the display to mimic the freezing temperatures of an ice age, his eyes latched onto her, and a delicious tension squeezed away his breath. Kyle smoothed his shirt, one plucked from a hanger this morning rather than off the floor, pleased he was wearing something with a collar.
“Where the birds, Daddy?” Kyle reached into the stroller and ran his fingers through his daughter’s curly hair. What Ellie meant was pterodactyls but at age two, everything with wings was a bird.
“Across the room, sweetie. We’re going there next.”
“See the birds?”
“Yes, to see the birds.”
His daughter clapped.
All morning, Ellie had clung to Kyle, asking for juice or toys, spitting out endless questions about nothing at all, his daughter’s shrill and constant chatter the only sound he could hear in the still air of his house. A headache growing acute behind his eyes, he had desperately proposed a trip to the museum to see the dinosaurs, one of Ellie’s favorite things. At the ticket office, he had pulled the last twenty from his wallet, fingering the corners and picturing the dwindling numbers on his ATM receipts, how being unemployed for six months had drained more than just his bank account.
Since the law firm terminated him — after five years of eighty-hour work weeks — his days were driven by Ellie’s needs, rising daily not to meet clients and peruse legal briefs, but instead, wearing old jeans and wrinkled T-shirts that were easy to wash the stains from, his time and energy was bent to his daughter’s fascinations and whims. His thoughts were all that remained his, and more and more, growing with exponential detail and intensity, they were about Serena: ten years ago, for just one night, they had been lovers. And, now, here in view, her presence was so remarkable that it couldn’t be just a coincidence. He was sure there was a meaning to this.
“Yes, sweetie, we’re going.” Kyle pushed the stroller forward, swinging them in a wide circle of the field trip group.
Cincinnati’s Natural History Museum felt tremendous, the curved ceilings and half-moon archways far above his head the remnants of the train and bus station this building had once been. Layered over the turn- of-the-century architecture was the museum veneer: thin, clean carpet in a muted blue; a series of raised and lowered platforms of individual displays and interactive models; tracks of light angled to showcase maps, diagrams, and statues; and all throughout the room, a series of oak and redwood trees that rose above the lighting, their artificial branches spreading wide and disappearing into the dark ceiling. In the Fossil and Re-Creation Center, the displays created a panoply of mechanized noises. Roars of polar bears standing tall and menacing on their hind legs. The heavy roll of boulders. The cracking of ice.
Serena handed the folded map to a boy, maybe five years old, and then they joined a group of children so large Kyle wasn’t sure how he hadn’t seen them earlier: the children’s chattering voices, the tiny slaps on shoulders and hands, squeaking shoes, zippers ripping up and down jackets, cries of “Gimme!” and “Nyuh-unh!” Serena appeared to be one of three adults, all women, all probably field trip volunteers. At the back of the group, the teacher held up her hand and called for attention.
Kyle steered closer: Serena was still gorgeous. She had jet-black hair that tumbled in waves to her shoulders. Her face was perfectly symmetrical, and even now, years since he had last seen her, her skin was flawless. Though her hair hid them, he knew that her earlobes were connected, a feature he found on other women elfish and repulsive but made her somehow more striking. Above her left eye was a scar that cut a razor of pale skin through her dark eyebrow. She’d fallen from a tree when she was nine. Eight stitches.
The wheels of his stroller squeaked. Kyle never realized he was holding his breath.
He pushed the stroller down a wheelchair ramp, and into one of several sunken areas in the room, and they were standing face-to-face with the re-creations of two massive dinosaurs: a stegosaurus, its huge plates rising out of its back, tail raised against a tyrannosaurus rex, their skin and eyes so vivid Kyle could actually picture them moving. Above, pterodactyls loomed, lit up by small track lights angled along the ceiling. Sharp, bony teeth protruded from their triangular mouths, their eyes following Kyle like an optical illusion.
“Lemme out! Lemme out!” Ellie tugged at her seatbelt. He unstrapped her and lifted her out of the stroller.
“Down! Down! Down!” He placed her on her feet, and she ran to the nearest display. On floor level in front of her, pterodactyls stood on a rocky terrain, watching over their eggs and their newly hatched babies whose beaks were lifted to the sky. The faces of the smallest pterodactyls, Kyle thought, were softer than the parents’, probably to appeal to children. From a hidden speaker, a mechanical pterodactyl shrieked.
“I see, sweetie. Aren’t they pretty?”
“Pterodactyls were very large birds. Some as big as airplanes.” Ellie, mesmerized, wrapped her fingers tight around the wire guardrail. He knelt down and watched her absorb this idea.
“Do they move?” Ellie asked.
“No, sweetie, they’re just statues.”
“Oh,” she said. Statues. What was that like? Hearing a word for a first time, not knowing what it was but somehow, in the way children do, storing it, ready to use it in some unexpected fashion months from now. Ellie crept down the guardrail, keeping her small hands latched on the steel wires as she walked. She was loveable then, unlike the times when she cried and howled and chattered, times that had been growing in frequency, times that made being a father a torturous, horrible thing.
“Are you tired? Do you want to ride in the stroller?”
“No, I okay,” she said. Her eyes expanded again as she spied a small, sloth-like creature trapped in mud. “Eeyore!” she yelled, pointing.
Her high-pitched squeal made several adults turn, including Serena. A fist closed inside Kyle’s chest, squeezing the air against his spine. Had she seen him?
“Let’s look at Eeyore,” he said, steering Ellie. His eyes remained on Serena, who looked at them with indifference and then back at the group of kids. She must have been too far away. He bent down and ran his fingers through Ellie’s hair and watched her large, pretty eyes take in the donkey.
“Is that really Eeyore?” she asked.
“No, sweetie, that’s a statue. Remember what a statue is?”
“Uh-huh. Make-believe. Right, Daddy?”
He craned his neck and looked at Serena again: a woman he bought coffee from for a few weeks when he was in college. He remembered seeing her in the bar that night so many years ago, the awkwardness of their hello outside the coffee shop, the way he knew after a few minutes she would invite him home with her, and then standing in the kitchen of her drafty apartment he was surprisingly conscious of how much he wanted this moment, this one unplanned, raw experience, right before they made love three times. After, Kyle traced the scar on her eyebrow and listened as she explained leaping for and missing a branch attached to a friend’s tree house. In the morning, he slid his jeans up over his legs and as she slept, he went into the kitchen and poured a glass of cold water and wrote a note on a paper towel and wrapped it around the water glass, a note with no phone number or request to see her again, and set it gently on the nightstand and he leaned in, and —though he isn’t sure if this happened, he prefers to remember it this way — she whimpered softly when he brushed his lips against her temple, pushed a strand of her hair away, and left. Walking down the street that cool morning, alive and confident in who he was in the world, he decided he would never call her, wouldn’t set foot in her coffee shop again, just because he could make such a choice. Nine years later, one night with Serena had become a physical ache, a dream he could call up and see and touch. What he was perhaps only half-aware of was his need for the feeling not in her apartment but the certainty of walking away, the clarity of a still-uncharted life ahead of him. Kyle conjured that moment now with a richness far beyond anything a museum or book or anything else could possibly imagine.
He took Ellie by the hand. “C’mon, sweetheart.”
“Where we going?”
He stood, his left arm draped downward, clutching his daughter’s hand, which was caked in something confectionary. Where was Serena? He pivoted, searching for the flock of children.
He snaked around groups of adults, ignoring Ellie’s stumbling footsteps. He crept forward, tugging his daughter along with one hand and with the other, twirling his wrist, loosening his fingers, trying to shake the tension from his body. He smoothed his hair, licked his lips, and concentrated on slowing his breathing. This is stupid, he thought. No: daring. Bold. Assertive.
They passed women in business suits sitting on benches with their hands folded in their laps. They looked tranquil, as if they had just escaped the office, if only for an hour. For a moment, Kyle thought of work, all the long hours at the firm, the expectations of being made a partner one day, and the suddenness of the downsizing followed by days of disbelief: businesses always needed attorneys. Wasn’t there a promise from law school and the firm, a promise of a piece of the future, a promise that hard work would provide stability? He forced this question from his mind by bending down and scooping up Ellie, her eyes darting around at the constant din of volcanic eruptions and screeching dinosaurs. He strode toward Serena with his shoulders held back and a half-smile on his face.
A museum guide was explaining to the children how The Cave had a real, live colony of brown bats inside and that they were to stay in groups, not wander off. Serena stood on the outskirts of the group, her arms folded across her chest, an expression of pleasant boredom on her face. Her jeans were low cut and expensive; her white blouse — silk fabric, good stitching, a stylish collar —had the top three buttons open, revealing her smooth skin.
“Excuse me,” Kyle said. He set Ellie down, loosely holding her hand high to his hip. “Serena?”
She glanced first at Ellie, then him, and feigned polite recognition. “That’s right.”
“Do you remember me? I used to come into the coffee shop in Clifton. It was a long time ago. About ten years.”
“Oh, sure, Insomnia. That was a long time ago.”
“It was one of my hangouts in college. I always used to get a double espresso.” He grinned. “I’m Kyle.”
“I stopped drinking caffeine after I graduated. I was jittery from drinking so much, and really, it does horrible things to your skin. Even the smell of those places bothers me. The ubiquitous modern coffee shop.” She smiled at her own observation, and tapped her fingers absently against her necklace. Narrowing her eyes, she took one step back and reappraised him. “Did we work together?”
“No, I was a regular.”
“I see. Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but there were probably five hundred customers every day. I’m sorry, it was a very long time ago.” “That’s okay.” Ellie leaned away, playing some sort of balancing game, and his shoulder dipped to handle her slippery hand. “I just recognized you and wanted to say hello. Are you with your son?”
“Yes, my Avery.” She turned her head in her son’s direction, and absently brushed back a strand of hair, revealing an understated, expensive, diamond earring. Toward her son, Serena gave a smile so genuine and breathtaking it made Kyle, with painful acuity, aware of his insignificance. In his thoughts, he never saw her as anything other than the pretty girl at the coffee shop, and it startled him that in his mind, she had always been unchanged.
Serena studied Ellie. To Kyle, she asked, “Are you on a field trip, too?”
“Yes,” he lied. “A day care group.”
“You have the day off.”
“You really don’t remember me?”
Serena smiled cruelly but said no more. If she didn’t remember him, she certainly seemed to recognize him for what he was now. He focused on the scar cutting through her eyebrow and didn’t notice when Ellie wiggled free from his grip.
“Well,” he said, offering a curt nod. “It was good to see you again.”
“I’m sorry I don’t remember you. Did you say your name was Kyle?”
“Yes. I’m Kyle.”
He held her gaze. Remember me, he thought. Please remember me. If his memory of their night together was to continue to be liberating for him, it had to be shared. He waited for a glimmer of acknowledgement. Instead, she nodded blankly, then glided away to rejoin her son’s group. She stood at the entrance to The Cave, shepherding the children, and then they all entered and she was gone. Pressure mounted behind Kyle’s eyes, his shoulders curving forward as if a great weight had been placed against his neck, and a little dizzy, he lowered his chin. Something terrible had just happened that he couldn’t quite understand. He turned the palm of his left hand upward, as if the answer would be in a book he held, and discovered Ellie had let go of his hand.
She was gone. He blinked. This was impossible. She couldn’t vanish like this. There seemed to be a large radius around him, several square yards of bland carpeting where no one stood and Ellie should be. He took a step forward and scanned around the legs of the nearest people. Curls, curls, curls: her blonde hair should stand out. He crouched to the floor and spun in a slow circle, seeing nothing but knobby adult knees, and he repeated her name in a soft panic, as if calling to a scared animal.
“Eleanor?” Kyle said. “Ellie?”
He stood and walked quickly to the stroller. He peeked inside and found it empty. His heartbeat echoed in his ears and he slammed his hand down on the stroller. Racing by a group of seniors, surveying the entire room, he hurried into the next corridor. He yelled her name again. Did you see a little girl, he blurted out to anyone, with blonde hair and purple pants? They shook their heads. He jogged from room to room and his hands began to shake. What if someone took her? What if some pervert preyed on children in museums, paying admission to wander the rooms and find little girls looking for birds and Eeyore and promising them that Winnie and Piglet are just outside? He screamed for her, his voice shrill, piercing, terrible.
“Sir?” Kyle whipped around. An old man with deep-set eyes and impossibly white teeth placed a hand on Kyle’s elbow. “Did you lose somebody?”
“My daughter. She was right here.” He shook his head in disbelief, and the stranger’s strong grip on his elbow tightened. “I don’t know how I lost her.”
“Let’s walk to the front. Security will do a page and we can wait by the front door. Children wander off. She’s just fine, I’m sure.”
The old man was too calm, somehow hypnotic. He led them, striding with military precision, to the museum entrance. Kyle explained to the security guard what happened, where he was with Ellie, and with glazed eyes the guard nodded and pushed buttons on his computer. Six monitors showed various rooms of the museum; even in black and white, the pictures were remarkably clear. The guard tapped buttons slowly, and Kyle fought the urge to shove him aside as he panned through the entire building, floor by floor, until Ellie appeared on the screen, standing in front of a pair of interactive monitors, her hands hovering over a series of buttons. It was as if she somehow knew they were seeking her, and she was mocking their search.
“That’s her!” Kyle said.
“Sector 11,” the security guard said. “I’ll take you there.” He picked up his walkie-talkie and radioed to that area that they were on the way.
“See?” The old man said. “She didn’t even notice you were gone.”
“I turned away for one moment. Just one.”
The man — his shoulders wide, his beard neat and trim — spoke in a clear, sonorous voice. “It’s for women, you know. Watching children.”
“You shouldn’t be here. Being here is a horrible thing.” And with that, the old man fished a plastic lighter from his shirt pocket and dipped away, disappearing into the rotunda crowd. Kyle turned to the security guard, searching for a witness to this strangeness. The guard merely made an impatient smacking sound with his lips, wet and fishy.
When they found her, Ellie was standing transfixed by the blur of water bombarding a coastline, trees bending until they snapped loose, small cars spinning down flooded streets. The audio was broken; her eyes were wide. Kyle scooped her up and buried his daughter’s head under his chin.
“Baby,” Kyle said. “Baby, baby, baby.”
The security guard nodded at Kyle, turned on his heel, and left.
“Sweetie, in public, you have to stay with me. You can’t wander off like that.”
Ellie wiped her mouth. “Daddy, look! Storms!”
He looked down. Animation showed how low atmospheric pressure over warm ocean water and the air above it loop together and, according to the green arrows, push air up into a vortex, creating the eye of the storm. Everything in the eye of the hurricane remained calm; outside, the ocean churned, creating triple-digit winds that turned the sky into a nebulous threat of purple-and-black clouds. Then the picture changed, and a coastline, building by building, was ripped apart. They watched in silence.
Kyle slumped on the edge of Ellie’s bed, watching her sleep with the stuffed pterodactyl he bought for her at the museum gift shop tucked under her arm. His wife Molly was a financial advisor and often
met her clients late in the day when they could leave work an hour early and beat traffic to her office. Her bonus and recent promotion was a badly needed cushion after he got laid off. Once, they had wanted four children; now, Molly was uncertain if she wanted another child, let alone several, and Kyle’s image of a family was beginning to fade. He thumbed the stray hairs back off Ellie’s brow. He stood slowly, careful not to make the mattress rise too fast, crept downstairs, and opened the sliding door to the backyard. Outside, the late evening sun was beginning to set, and it was that time of autumn when the days were warm but as soon as the sun set, it became unbearably cold.
He stood on the patio and remembered when he was a teenager at St. Xavier, and the starting quarterback of Cincinnati’s number-one team. He missed the certainty of football’s controlled aggression. He pictured the dogwoods at the end of his yard as goal posts, and he moved with quick hops, bouncing backwards, feeling the pass rush and stepping forward, the sound of pads slamming into one another, hard grunts and curses, the brush of meaty hands pawing at him. The crowd roared. Eyes downfield, elbow up, the wide receiver running ahead, making the cut but not yet open, and here it was, the anticipation of the crisp pass, the knowledge of where his teammate would go if he placed the pass just right, firing the football into the air, the ball spinning perfectly against the Friday night lights, and his teammate, hands out and in perfect stride, catching the ball and racing into the end zone. The cheering crowd; the band playing the school fight song; the public address announcer’s voice muddled but elated. Kyle carried on the shoulders of his lineman, the crisp autumn smell of work and victory. He imagined all this with startling clarity, and its vividness made his chest ache with longing for this glory, this purpose.
Kyle pulled out a chair from their lawn set, and dropped. With his foot he dragged another chair close, the metal scraping the concrete, and propped up his legs. The sound of the scraping was still echoing in his ears, the tiny vibrations in his calves, when he heard the garage door mechanically tug up the rails and come to a jolting halt. Molly was home.
When they had first moved in, they would make dinner together, talking in the dining room long after their plates were empty and the food in the kitchen was cold; later, she was reading books on motherhood, shopping for baby furniture online. Now she came home and collapsed on the couch, exhausted, barely interested in him or Ellie, and she would recite the events of the day with a dispassionate anger, as if she was the sole survivor of a horrific act of mass violence and was reciting the facts to a historian. He shifted on the cold metal and waited for her to find him. The sliding door pushed open.
“What are you doing out here?” she said.
“It’s getting cold.”
“Then bring me a blanket.”
He could feel her standing there, considering the demand. Then he heard the door close and reopen, then her shoes clacked on the concrete and an afghan was around his shoulders, its thick fabric settling against his neck.
Molly walked to the chair opposite his and placed her hands on her hips. The setting sun was behind her, forcing Kyle to squint, the tints of gray in her blonde hair visible in the light. She was pear-shaped, and the extra weight from pregnancy hadn’t fully come off, giving her figure a more natural and pleasing appearance, almost as if motherhood was what finally grew her into her body. Her eyes, hard and small, seemed to expect denials and evasions, and in her tailored charcoal suit, she appeared in control. Seeing her this way, Kyle missed wearing a tie, the snug fit of the silk knot around his neck. For a moment, her jaw tensed and the veins in her neck stood out. Then, with what seemed like enormous effort, her face softened, and she gave him a playful smile. “Guess who I saw today?”
“That was today?” Kyle leaned forward. “Who came back?”
“This time it was him.”
They were one of Molly’s first client couples. Handsome in middle age, with fine jewelry and expensive haircuts, these clients were both on their second marriage, and during the initial screening with Molly, they held hands, smiled at each other’s jokes, agreed on their financial goals — retirement, college funding for their four pre-teen children, vacations every year, setting up their investment properties as a limited liability corporation, and so forth. But ten minutes after they left together, the wife called back, returned to the office, and admitted to owning nearly fifty thousand dollars in accounts hidden from her husband. Over the years, Molly discovered that he too had assets his new wife didn’t know about, and periodically, she met with each of them individually to discuss their secret accounts.
“What happened?” Kyle asked.
“I knew one of them would call. They came in separate cars. Five minutes after they left, he called from the parking lot and came back upstairs.”
“What did he want?”
“Nothing interesting. He still has accounts in the Caymans, and he just wanted to check their status. He said once they were for his youngest son to go to college, but I doubt it. I don’t think the money is actually for anything.”
Kyle drummed his fingers on the table. “I took a philosophy class in college, and we had to do a thought experiment. Did you ever do one of those? Where you imagine something to prove a theory? Anyway, we had to imagine having twenty million dollars under our bed. But the thing was, we couldn’t tell anyone we had it and we couldn’t spend it.”
“So the money is worthless.”
“Exactly. It’s just paper in a box. There’s no value when it can’t buy something.”
“But it has. It bought my client peace of mind.”
“Maybe not happiness. Something else.” She flattened her hands and spread her fingers as wide as she could. She pursed her lips, concentrating on her knuckles, and the tension ebbed back into her face. “Why are you sitting out here?”
“You already asked me that. I don’t know.” He crossed his arms. “Ellie and I went to the Natural History Museum today.”
“The pterodactyls? Did she like them?”
“Loved them. I got her a stuffed one from the museum store.” She eased back into her chair. He squeezed his hands together and waited for the lecture about overindulging their daughter and spending money he was no longer earning.
“I had a Popple when I was a girl. Remember those?”
“Popples?” Kyle cocked his head. “You never told me that.”
“Sure I did. I had this Popple, orange with blue ears. I called her Maggie.”
“Are you sure you told me this?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Of course. I slept with that thing until I was almost ten. Sometimes Maggie was a bear. Other times, I curled her into a ball by rolling her into her front pocket. Imagine you could fold a kangaroo into its own pouch and make it a ball. It was like that. I bet my mom still has it somewhere in my old room.”
“Isn’t it weird how much Ellie loves dinosaurs?”
“I don’t think so. I had a Popple.”
“Hey,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
What was wrong was that she asked this question without placing a hand on him, or leaning across the table and rubbing his forearm, without coming behind him and wrapping her arms around him so she could breathe in the faint scent of his spicy, thick aftershave that still lingered this late in the day, and he could again feel significant. What was wrong was that he didn’t quite know that he felt all of this. He tugged the afghan around his shoulders.
“I lost Ellie today.”
“You lost her?”
“We were at the museum and I got really interested in a display, and when I looked back down, she had wandered off.”
“Is she okay?”
“Fine. She didn’t think anything of it.”
“She isn’t hurt.”
“She’s fine. I’m upset. Could you ask about me, just once?”
He stood, knocking his chair over, the metal shuddering against the concrete. He marched into the house and snatched the nearest glass. From the freezer he grabbed the vodka and took a long drink. The vodka’s burn down his throat was a relief. Why hadn’t Serena remembered him? He filled the glass with ice and poured another, and stood in his kitchen, his breath and the sounds of the outdoors — the hum of a lawn mower, the squawk of birds —crept into his ears. When he returned, Molly sat unmoved with her arms folded across her chest and her lips drawn tight.
“Do you wish my hair was longer?” she asked.
He sensed she already knew the answer. When they were young, he had liked to sneak up behind her and brush her hair aside and kiss the nape of her neck, wrap his arms around her. She had cut it short after Ellie was born: she hated getting their daughter’s tiny, sticky hands tangled in her hair.
“Longer?” he repeated.
“Like when we first met.”
“I love you no matter how your hair is.”
She frowned. “That wasn’t very convincing. And that’s not what I’m asking.” H
e focused on some distant point at the end of the yard. She stood up and went inside; when she returned, she was carrying the vodka and a glass. She poured a large drink and left it untouched on the table; Kyle held his glass in his lap with both hands as if it could save him.
“A guy in my office made a pass at me about a month ago.”
“Why is that funny? That’s not possible?”
“No, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Yes, you did.” She picked up her glass but didn’t drink. “It was at the end of the day and we were reviewing some client agreements in my office. The door was open. I’d leaned over to write something and he slid his hand over mine. I locked our fingers. And then, with his other hand, he gently ran his fingers into my hair, right above the collar.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. That was it. We looked at each other, and I could feel that I was smiling, and then I said something dumb about going home, and he nodded, because he’s married too, and that was it. And then I came home.”
“You didn’t kiss him?”
“Aren’t you hearing me? I came home. You asked me what I did, and what I did was come home.”
“And you think you shouldn’t have.” “You aren’t listening. I came home. To you. To Ellie. And what do I get? Vague accusations about, Christ, who knows what?”
“You have no idea what I go through every day.”
She tapped the rim of her glass, and stared at him. “That’s bullshit,” she said evenly. “You’re being ridiculous right now. I’m sorry you got laid off, I really am, because that’s hard on both of us. But whatever existential crisis you’re going through needs to stop. Right now.”
Kyle pushed the blanket off his shoulders; he wanted to feel cold and be able to complain about it. Somehow, he lost all sense of what it was that made him sit outside in the first place, what it was that hollowed and angered him about his life.
“There was an old man,” he said, hopeful and aware of how manipulative this would be. “He didn’t tell me his name. But I was running around the museum looking for Ellie and he helped me. He was so calm. It was like when I was a boy and watching TV with my father, and resting my head against his belly, and how soothing it was the way his chest would rise and fall, rise and fall.” He folded his arms across his chest and gave what he believed was a sad smile. “That’s how it felt today, soothed, like all the things I was worried about would be okay.”
“Jesus Christ, what are you talking about?”
Kyle fumed. His head throbbed and he set his empty glass down on the table. The ice rattled like broken piano keys. He lowered his head and scratched his fingers back over his scalp, wishing he could tear the skin from his skull.
“I’ll start dinner,” she said. “Come inside when you’re ready to start acting normal.”
She stood up, and after Kyle heard the door close, he walked into the yard, the grass swishing against the cuffs of his pants, the lawn’s unevenness now obvious. The three dogwood trees were spaced evenly apart, and the grass was green, neat, and dark. A few autumn leaves sprinkled his lawn. Where did those come from? He glanced at the other backyards, and couldn’t see the splashes of brown and orange and red in the branches. He saw a uniform, solid green. When the season did turn and the leaves bled fully into their dying colors, he would only see change when every tree was dropping its leaves, when the fall could no longer be ignored.
He turned. Upstairs was all dark. A sliver of light appeared. Ellie’s door had opened. Downstairs, through the kitchen window, Molly was preparing dinner, ducking in and out of sight, hot steam rising from the kitchen sink invisible beneath the frame, and he wondered what it was she was making. The ray of light above was gone. Then, directly in front of him, through the sliding doors, Ellie appeared. Several lights were flipped on, throwing a soft glow on the family room, and she turned on the television. She sat down on the floor, holding something in her hands. Kyle was aware then that he always moved on someone else’s time — his wife’s, his daughter’s — and the idea of being left alone to choose suddenly frightened him. The lit windows of his house looked tangible and close. Above, the darkness upstairs, like a great nebulous sky devoid of clouds, hovered over his family, framed in the spotless, unmoving glass. He saw his life with a new brilliance. He saw that living in dreams was a dangerous thing. Kyle moved forward, closing the visual of his house, which had appeared unreal and too large, walking onto the concrete, past the blanket and his empty glass, and pulled open the sliding door. Neither his daughter nor his wife acknowledged his presence, and inside it was warm, the air thick with a smell of oregano and garlic that Kyle did not notice. He moved toward Ellie.
She sat cross-legged on the floor, the pterodactyl in her lap. On the screen, cartoon characters Kyle didn’t recognize argued about which direction to go: toward a waterfall or into the forest. He bent down, his arches tugging painfully away from bone, and his knees popped and groaned as if carbonated. He put his hands on Ellie’s shoulders and rested his chin on the crown of her head.
“They’re lost,” she said.
“Who?” He pressed his lips to the back of her head, closed his eyes, and imagined nothing. ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼