Elliot can prognosticate, a little. Hope helps, as does darkness: Elliot flips off the kitchen lights, steels himself, and points his nose into the future with as much fervent optimism as he can muster. Todd, ever punctual, is on his way: Elliot and Cindy’s high school friend and church youth group buddy, Todd was best man to them both at their wedding. If Elliot has something certain to tell him, his plea will have more punch. What will befall Todd in Afghanistan? Gripping the edge of the laminate counter, Elliot peers into indoor dusk.
Time sprays around him like water against a figurehead.
Where dim cabinets were, Elliot sees dunes, sand bags, blocky white houses on empty streets. Is this the future, or catalogued memories from CNN? As Elliot strains to see over the blast walls and sand bags, more blast walls and more sand bags rise, nudging appliances from their path, till a maze of makeshift military architecture colonizes the kitchen. Frantic, Elliot longs to hold Todd in place with the weight of his body to keep him from war.
Cindy’s voice stiches bright holes in Elliot’s vision. “Why aren’t you helping?” she says. “I’m doing my best, though I frankly don’t see why your pendant-thingy is so important. Why offer what you know Todd won’t take?”
“Todd is polite,” says Elliot. Elliot watches a soldier edge into an alley and kick a door. Inside, women huddle with children. The men are gone. An old woman yells, but the translator is outside. Tears of rage stream down the old woman’s face.
“Elliot?” says Cindy.
“Todd is polite!” says Elliot, snapping back to the present. “He can only refuse something so many times before he gives in.”
“We’ll see,” Cindy says. “Why you store heirlooms in the kitchen, I’ll never understand.”
The pendant — a rare artifact from Elliot’s new age childhood, when his father’s family and their hangers-on hailed him as a prodigy for his halting clairvoyance. In its ornate center, a smoky white orthoclase presides, like a moon in tarnished clouds. Ruddy garnets stud its nimbus. Once Elliot’s grandmother’s, the pendant is meant to protect what goes forth, and draw back what is lost — though their difficulty in finding it suggests its mojo has soured with time. Todd doesn’t believe in pendants anyway. Todd believes in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Still, Elliot is determined to offer it. The pendant is part of his master plan.
If they can find it.
“Wouldn’t it make sense to keep the pendant on the shelf with your grandfather’s cufflinks?” Cindy says.
“Different side of the family,” says Elliot. He rubs his eyes, then rests his head on the counter. “I keep the pendant in the kitchen so I know where it is.”
“Then where is it?”
“In the kitchen! We are not looking all over the house. Thanks to my foresight, our confusion is localized.”
“Some foresight,” Cindy says.
Here is what she doesn’t say: Can’t we just turn a light on? Cindy fears she may cut herself in one of these darkness-filled drawers. And though part of her wishes her weary husband would stop torturing the future — she still hopes Elliot will learn something.
When they moved in, it was Cindy who organized the kitchen; Elliot had little interest beyond hiding odd objects in places logical to him, if baffling to her. Cindy pictures the Cindy of two years ago, Cindy with long hair, Cindy careening between A Dance with Dragons and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest while waiting for her Holland Bulb Farms shipment to arrive. Peering into the newly married, Arya Stark-loving, tulip-planting Cindy’s mind, she wonders, couldn’t that Cindy have stowed Elliot’s weird family pendant in a more memorable place?
Like the animal crackers tin on top of the fridge. That would have been a good place for it…
Cindy reaches for the tin, and pries off the lid.
A moonstone glints at her through cookie crumbs.
“Thanks,” says Elliot. “You always come through.” He takes the pendant and puts it safely in the refrigerator — so it may be offered, and refused. By the timorous fridge light Cindy’s red hair gives a muted glow. She is good at remembering, good at finding things, this wife of his. Elliot has lost so many of the people he has loved, he must be sure to hold Cindy tightly.
Cindy wraps her arms around Elliot’s back and rests her head on his thin chest. Dark hair sprouts from his polo shirt. If they lose Todd, Cindy worries she will lose Elliot too, the Elliot she knows and loves. Todd will be the loss from which her vision-haunted husband does not rally.
But now she is thinking like him.
They haven’t lost anyone yet.
Todd Calvin stands at the foot of Cindy and Elliot’s driveway, wondering what they’ll make of his boot camp souvenirs — twenty pounds of muscle and a stubbly scalp. Despite their late-night attempts to sway him, traditionalist Todd has withstood Cindy and Elliot’s progressive drift. It stings him that they disapprove of his enlistment; Cindy and Elliot are the closest thing to family Todd has known, his one constant through a lonely adolescence, and an adulthood of strict Christian self-denial. He thinks of his friends — with the faintest aftertaste of rue — as the perfect couple.
So, stealing time to gather his nerve, Todd slows the day. A few minutes, at most an hour, and his eyes will water and his head will throb — and time will march on. When younger, Todd thought everyone played tug-of-war with the minutes, but no one spoke of it. As an adult Todd suspects only he can resist time, and only he is held back — time washing around him till he can fight no longer and is hurled into the present.
If time tugged Todd through twenty-six years, two foster homes, state college, intermittent construction work, and a recent enlistment, he has been tugging back the whole way. Todd believes he is special only in this — and in being a better-than-average athlete.
So he holds the day by the tail. Yellow tulips along the driveway blur. A dimming sun trembles in sweet agony. Whirring past Todd’s head, an early wasp slows, and stops, shivering. Todd sees the pixels of her eyes. The present will rush forward to meet him when he lets go, the driveway tulips jerking on their stems, the wasp hitting warp drive, the sun plummeting to the horizon.
But only Todd will move. Todd will move, but not yet.
Even at the last moment, as Todd is coming up the driveway, Elliot gives her one more chance to back out.
“I said I would do it, and I want to do it,” Cindy says, angry for the first time since they started down this path. “Remember?” She lets go of him, takes her books from the kitchen counter, and disappears down the hallway, leaving Elliot to abrade the darkness alone.
Elliot shouldn’t doubt her, Cindy thinks, taking the hallway in a few bold paces. She loves Todd, loves Elliot, loves Elliot’s friendship with Todd, and finds their devotion rather touching.
And, Cindy has something to gain here too. She and Elliot very publicly decided that to burden the ecosystem with more humans is genetic vanity, when the world teems with unwanted children. But only a lunatic would think that one option cancels every other.
Cindy stops by the bathroom, sets her books on the sink, undoes her jeans, and sits. Elliot. Loony, mystic Elliot. As her husband wandered from the liberal Christianity that became their common ground, Cindy watched him go, baffled, and a little betrayed. How the moldy esoterica of Elliot’s childhood could still sway him mystifies her. She remembers the Chesterton quote. Chesterton? When people stop believing in God, they start believing in everything else.
Cindy stands, flushes, wonders if she chose rightly in marrying Elliot — but is careful to halt the onset of regret.
In Cindy’s world, regret spurs change.
Todd enters without knocking. The screen door slams; Todd flips on the kitchen light. “Time to shut off the Gloom Machine, Dr. Morbid,” he says.
Elliot blinks; his irises curdle; his pupils pin. “Bastard,” he says.
A hug would be in order, but the kitchen counter divides them. The light makes Todd a glarey angel. When Elliot was the hunted new boy at school — after his mother’s divorce and their subsequent move — Todd became his Christian Warrior, suspended for fighting the bullies that incited Elliot’s panic attacks. In Elliot’s eyes, an angelic glow lingers about Todd still, this bright figure against roiling, mortal shade.
“Where’s Cindy?” asks Todd.
Elliot glances into the darkness of the hallway. “Making the bed,” he says.
Elliot pours Todd a glass of milk; Todd thanks him. He won’t ask about Parris Island — there were emails — and he won’t ask about the flight back. Todd’s first visit was to Talitha, his girlfriend, who now runs the Bible Bastian Community Church youth group where Todd, Cindy, and Elliot met thirteen years ago.
“What did she say?” asks Elliot. “Will we be your best man this time?”
Todd takes a ring from his pocket and sets it on the counter.
Every color scintillates in its hard heart.
In the southwest corner of the house, Cindy and Elliot’s bedroom gets the day’s last light. Orange sun squares glow on the closet door, tastefully overlooking a laundry-strewn floor, and a bureau littered with abandoned plates and cups. How does their bedroom get so messy so fast? According to Cindy and Elliot’s agreement, each does the chores that they enjoy. Stacks of clean folded clothes in the closet please Cindy. An artfully made bed pleases Elliot.
The windows are speckled with grass and dirty old rain.
This morning, Elliot went to fuel the lawnmower before making the bed or doing any of his appointed tasks. Cindy will do his, as well as her own — and settle for imperfection.
She’ll prepare the room first, she decides, and then herself.
“But what did she say?” asks Elliot.
“After no?” says Todd. “Talitha doesn’t want to start a life and then have a big weird chunk cut out of it. She’ll marry me when I return. She cried. And she said we could make out.”
“Yes.” Elliot sees Todd is still intoxicated by it. Abstinence has given his friend an extraordinary sensitivity to pleasure.
“And that’s it?”
“Yes sir, sir.”
Though Talitha’s no comes as no surprise, Elliot finds it tragic that anyone might die a virgin. Especially someone as beautiful as Todd. Still, he saw this coming. Todd and Talitha keep faith with their beliefs. Marriage was Todd’s best chance.
“I’ll come back and we’ll get married then,” says Todd.
Elliot looks at him.
“There are fewer casualties with this war than with previous wars. Thanks to body armor.”
Body armor. The phrase strikes Elliot as redundant, but irks him in other ways too. Body armor may or may not be delivered. Body armor may get you home alive, but unable to pick up your children with your prosthetic arms.
But, Elliot reflects, tirades are futile. Todd’s worldview is founded on sacrifice: blood spilled in a far-off desert is freedom’s bribe. Todd — the unwanted foster child who became everyone’s hero, fantasy, or both — is content to end his life as a stop-gap jesus.
Elliot stares into the shadows of the hallway. If he could see something definite, one way or the other, it could be the lever he needs to keep Todd here — or release him with a tranquil mind. He knows when the visions are sure; there’s a stark clarity.
He hasn’t been wrong yet.
Browsing for a place to start her brood, the queen wasp is back at the bedroom window. It was a Shaw preface, Cindy remembers; the wasp eating jam though its wire waist had been snipped. For Shaw, the wasp was a symbol of empire. For Cindy, the tragic wasp, unaware she has been cut in half, stands sharper and brighter than what she has been used to represent. Cindy pities the wasp, trapped in Shaw’s wit like amber, a fountain of jam eternally flowing from her snipped body.
Cindy gathers the cups and plates she and Elliot have left on the bureau and dumps them in the master bath sink. She takes a rag, runs it under the tap, and dusts the shelves above their bed — where lonely artifacts from the evangelical side of Elliot’s family skulk between the scrapbooks Cindy uses to meticulously archive her history. As she cleans, Cindy takes up her habit of tallying her current life’s surfeits and shortfalls — the wasp at the window a companion to her musings.
Cindy loves their house and neighborhood. With the exception of the mortgage, they are nearly out of debt. The relationship is working, as it damn well should: she put a great deal of thought into it. Elliot is a magical combination of adorable and brainy. Too magical sometimes — but unlike her previous, and only prior, boyfriend, Elliot wants to hear her ideas about mixed-income neighborhoods, memory as spiritual discipline, and how the physical world is vanishing now that we live in virtual space. He values her insight, her instincts, her judgment.
You weigh your options so thoughtfully, he tells her.
He thinks it’s because she’s a Libra.
But. The backyard is a shambles because neither of them care to weed or mow. Her mother and sister are out of their minds. Teaching at Bible Bastion Academy — where she is not allowed to read J.K. Rowling to her students — is killing her soul. Graduate school is looking better and better.
And, they are losing Todd. To distance, if nothing else — and neither she nor Elliot have power over distance.
The wasp at the window gingerly considers her possibilities. Cindy watches her, hoping she will not start her nest under the bedroom eaves like last year. She regrets asking Elliot to knock it down with a broom.
But it’s not too late to make amends.
When you’re Cindy, it’s never too late to make amends.
Cindy turns from the window with a smile, throws the dust rag in the hamper, washes her hands, and gets an idea. Scooping the mugs and dishes she had piled in the bathroom sink, she returns them to the nightstand and bureau, and pops a tea candle into each one. She lights them. Perfect. Satisfied with the room, Cindy has a look at herself. The mirror over the bureau offers a tallish, lanky, and, she thinks, conventionally pretty reflection. She pulls off her jeans and T-shirt, throws a sundress over her head, brushes her hair, and reapplies deodorant. Her throat and wrists get a spritz of lavender each.
That leaves the bed; Elliot’s task, her least favorite. Cindy plumps the pillows, tugs the corners of the comforter, and assesses. Elliott would have done better. She flops on the quilt and scans her books: Kingsolver, Lamott, L’Engle, Rich Christians in a Hungry World, Gardening for Pollinators, Kierkegaard’s Repetition. The latter a treasured gift from her stepmother.
Cindy chooses Kierkegaard, and turns on the reading lamp above the bed.
Future-Todd wavers in the darkness of the living room archway. Flares rise around him as he scales a dune, rifle across his chest —
“Stop,” says Todd.
Todd flicks the living room light on. Elliot rubs his increasingly dry eyes. “I know what you’re doing,” says Todd. “You’re cheating. Stop being Martha. You are worried and upset about many things, but only one is needed. Choose what is better. Be Mary; make food.”
“Martha made the food,” Elliot says. “Mary just looked worshipfully at Jesus. Probably wanted to shag him.” But he goes to the refrigerator, gets the fixings for a sandwich, and sets them on the laminate counter before Todd.
Bread, ham, turkey, provolone, American cheese, old family pendant. The square setting and heavy chain hit the counter with a portentous thud.
“What’s that?” says Todd, peeling cheese from plastic.
“Family heirloom,” says Elliot.
The sleepy orthoclase and dull garnets wake in the kitchen light. Moonstone and bloodstone, Elliot’s grandmother, Bridie Byrne, called them. Elliot remembers his grandmother’s fiery eyes, flashing over her notebook of mystic alphabets: Saint Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota, Edward Kelley’s angelic scribbles, the Irish tree runes of the Ogham. Seeing his knack for it, she taught him to read cards, stars, and, basest of all, palms — carnival tricks to cloud his natural abilities, he thought at the time.
He wishes he could consult her now.
Elliot watches as Todd spackles mayonnaise onto wholegrain bread, layering cheese and ham in a neat, alternating stack — a leftover tic from Todd’s fragmented childhood, Elliot thinks. He slides the pendant toward his friend. “I want you to have this,” he says.
“It’s been in my family for generations.”
“What is it again?”
“That’s an orthoclase, and those are garnets.”
“It looks like a gob of splooge surrounded by scabs,” says Todd, mouth full of sandwich.
“We want you to take it with you.”
“Because I might show up at base with that thing on my person.”
“It could stop a bullet.”
“But not an IED. I thought you stopped believing in hoodoo.”
“I did. Before I met you.” Elliot takes a bottle of wine from under the counter, and gets down two glasses. “Think of it as symbolic. It calls back the thing you most fear losing.”
Todd sets down his sandwich, wipes his mouth, and puts his hands on the counter. The gesture is as plain a refusal as any no.
It doesn’t matter. The pendant works if it erodes Todd’s resolve. Elliot pours a glass of wine. Step two.
“Are you trying to get me drunk so I take your geegaw?”
Elliot silently scrapes the pendant off the counter and into his pocket. He shakes his head.
“What’s up with you tonight?” says Todd.
“Hospitality is sacred,” says Elliot, pushing a wine glass toward Todd. “Even Jesus drank wine.”
“I’ll pass,” says Todd.
“Paul told Barnabas to take wine for his stomach.”
“You mean Timothy. And my stomach is fine.”
Elliot pours a second glass.
“Don’t — seriously — you can have mine.”
“That one’s for Cindy,” says Elliot. “She wanted to see you alone. In the bedroom. I’m going to mow the lawn.”
“You hate mowing the lawn. And it’s dark out.”
Elliot nods. The screen door shuts behind him.
This is becoming a strange reunion. Todd holds a wineglass full of a liquid he has never tasted, and is standing at the mouth of a hallway he’s not sure he belongs in. Behind him, the engagement ring he bought for Talitha twinkles on the kitchen counter. He needs a moment to think. The hallway becomes a well. The room with Cindy in it is one step from the vanishing point.
Todd has told no one of his time-stretching gift. It’s between him and God. The gift has spiritual benefits; Todd associates it with the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in the New Testament. Slowing time helps him avoid temptations he might otherwise fall into. Like this one. Todd thinks he knows what is being offered here, and though he is grateful, this surely counts as sin.
Todd uses his bonus time to call on the Holy Spirit. Do not let me quench you, he prays. But he senses he has not invested the words with the sincerity needed to draw down real power. There are prayers you pray because you hope for deliverance, and prayers you pray so you can say you made the effort.
Todd allows time to pull him one step forward — or, time spills a little over the dam that is Todd.
Cindy is in the room at the end of the hallway. She has been a stumbling block for him before. He wants to stumble again. This would be a good time to call his accountability partner. Fortunately, Todd’s phone is in the car.
Time spills over the dam and he is halfway down the hallway.
He wants this. Todd can go five weeks without touching himself, but if he sees Cindy in the day, he will not be pure that night. Talitha got him heated up already, and Elliott’s dark needy gaze can really radiate his molecules. Even if he turns around and goes home, he’s going to blow his wad before the night is out.
He should have just taken their stupid amulet, split, and tossed it from the car window on his way home.
Time urges Todd on; he’s two steps from the bedroom door.
Cindy is the most beautiful woman Todd knows. Talitha has never captivated him the way Cindy can. Cindy’s hair, red as embers, her hips, sleek as raindrops. Her smile, her snub nose, her mature, womanly eyes burn into his mind.
He loves to watch her talk.
If the Spirit really wanted to give him the power to hold out, it would do so. Now. Right now.
Todd lets time pull him onward. He wants this. St. Paul himself wouldn’t turn it down. Forgiveness waits on the other side of capitulation. Christ will still be on the cross. Todd isn’t the only one keeping him there.
Time has him in its undertow and Todd flows forward with it. He opens the door and steps in. The room’s only light comes from some glowing dishware and a streetlamp’s flicker outside. In the trembling haze, Cindy is a zoetrope, a turbine, a hovering swarm in the shape of a woman.
In the yard, darkness settles over the trees. Elliot wheels the lawnmower from the shed, parks it by a rusty chaise lounge, sits, and swills some wine. The pool’s cement rim looks hard and rough, the pool tiles, hard and cold.
Everyone wants this, Elliot thinks, taking another swig. This is what everyone wants.
The sky swirls with omens and doubt. For Elliot, God’s shadow.
If one word passes between them all is lost. Cindy walks toward Todd, takes the wineglass from his hand, and sets it on the dresser.
He watches her put it down.
Todd is not tall; she is nearly eye-to-eye with him. She considers letting him make the first move. No, she thinks, his nerve will fail, and this will turn into a conversation. Or it won’t, and later it will be harder for him to forgive himself.
The lawnmower starts up outside. Cindy reminds herself she wanted this. Todd smells amazing. She still wants this.
She shrugs the shirt from Todd’s shoulders. His body is a man’s body now: broader, slower, more muscular. ROTC and the Marines gave it a new architecture, one that is not Todd’s own. What have they made you? she wonders. Something baroque, something biddable. RoboTodd.
He looks at her.
She helps him by tugging the straps of her sundress off. This would go more smoothly, and feel less awkward, if she hadn’t worn a bra. She pictures herself getting dressed, the wasp outside the window. The bra disappears. Todd’s hands move up her sides.
It takes her back to the first time.
They were sixteen, it was summer, they were in his tent at the Cornerstone Music Festival. They went farther than Cindy intended when she ducked through Todd’s tent flap that night. Boyz4HIM rapped about Jesus on the main stage; Cindy and Todd groped for each other in the darkness, to the smells of sunscreen and polyurethane. Todd’s touch was rough, and his movements had the speed of guilt. They were out of their underwear before Cindy had a chance to think about consequences. Luckily, Todd finished before he could even get inside her. With little basis for comparison, Cindy thought it went pretty well.
After, she had to tell him to stop apologizing. Todd didn’t cry, thank God, but it was looking likely for a moment there. It was the first time for both of them, and though it was far from perfect, Cindy has never been tempted to go back and tamper with the details.
Todd regretted it immediately and spent the rest of the night in prayer. The next evening, he looked for Cindy at the Augustine’s Hippo set, then stopped by her tent to make sure she was okay. They had sex again, and on and off through their sixteenth year. Till Lent.
Lent, season of remorse, offered Todd forgiveness in exchange for repentance. He took the bait. Repentance, as the Bible Bastion Youth Pastor told him, is a turning away. Todd shared this in a break-up letter with Cindy that was all one paragraph.
Now, in the bedroom she shares with Elliot, Cindy has the Youth Group’s golden boy back for the first time. What does she think of her choice to let him drift away? Todd is more beautiful than the man she married. On a purely chemical level, Todd’s scent, his taste, please her more than Elliot’s faint sour milk smell. But though Todd’s gallant purity appealed to her once, Elliot is the interesting one. Elliot may be graceless and beaky, but out of his polo shirts and khaki pants his pale hirsute body takes on an appealingly feral look. Her husband is the better lover of the two men: more adventuresome, more surprising, more thoughtful. Elliot is the one with secrets, hidden depths, and a lunatic, caring heart.
This came through in his emails, when he was at Swarthmore, she was at Eastern, and Todd was at Penn State. It was Elliot’s emails that were worth rereading. Todd may have been steady, stable, and good. But Elliot sees the future. He balances her perfectly. What can Todd do?
Todd can slow time. Trained to his hand, he is reaching his peak before he wants to. He drags himself backwards, stretching his sexual zenith to a plateau. The sound of the lawnmower dips into basso profondo range; its rhythm becoming a slow savage drum, counting each second till Todd lets go, and time rushes in, flooding the room.
Todd collapses onto Cindy, his head in the space above her shoulder, thinking of the conversation he will have with God about this later. Adam’s excuse is at the ready, but to his credit, he’s too honorable to use it. He was tempted, true, but he saw this coming before he set foot in that hallway.
Amulet, wine, Cindy.
“Are you okay?” says Cindy.
“Yes,” says Todd. “Thank you.”
“I’m not okay. I can’t move my arm.”
He rolls off her. “Sorry.” He doesn’t know what else to say. He says “Seems like old times.”
She smiles at him, and gives him a last kiss on the shoulder before wrapping herself in the sheet and rolling over. “There aren’t any times but new times,” she says.
Todd has a feeling she has said this before, in other places, to other people.
He turns on his side, hugging his arms to himself. The pillow smells musty, astringent: Elliot’s pillow. Elliot should be here.
With Cindy on one side, and Elliot on the other, Todd would be home.
But what would Elliot make of what’s happened here?
He remembers it was Elliot who sent him in. He wants to talk to Elliot; he’s too embarrassed to find him. What Elliot doesn’t know about Todd and Cindy’s past saps some of the meaning from this gesture.
As Todd’s euphoria ebbs, so does his assurance of grace. He has forfeited God’s protection, just as he will forfeit Cindy and Elliot’s. While he wasn’t looking, the night brought him one step closer to leaving again, and robbed him of his confidence.
Now he’s as convinced of his doom as Elliot seems to be.
It’s okay. Todd falls asleep thinking about his funeral. The guys from his college lacrosse team will carry his casket. Someone important will give the eulogy. A state senator. Or a radio pastor: John Piper, or R.C. Sproul. They’ll put up a plaque at the old high school, out front, by the flag. No, on his locker — the top part that swings open when you flip the lever in the lower part. That’s where his plaque should be. He wants his old locker soldered shut with a piece of him buried inside. His hand. His plaque will say, Todd Calvin. With this hand I spread democracy, I squeezed a few off, I signed holiday cards for people I did not love, I touched the shimmering skin of Cindy Amberson.
Elliot sits on a lawn chair in the chill darkness of a spring night. Beside him, a roaring lawnmower, a cracked wine glass, a stain on cement. He tucks himself back into his pants, zips up, leans over and silences the mower. He stands.
After turning off the lights in the kitchen and living room, Elliot shambles down the hall, hands in his pockets. In the bedroom, Cindy and Todd sleep. The streetlight casts its tremulous glow on the two most important people in Elliot’s life. He wishes he could climb in with them, breathe their mingled scent, power down his noisy brain.
There is a photo of Elliott and Todd on the dresser, a photo of Elliot and Cindy beside it — taken the same day, at a Youth Group amusement park trip. The one with him and Cindy shows his nose at its worst angle.
Darkness is everywhere, thick in the air above Todd and Cindy. Elliot could use his big nose to stir fate a little. But he’s exhausted, and so are the shadows. He’s stripmined them already.
Elliot finds the pendant in his pocket, and turns it in his hand.
There are things Elliot knows without consulting the shadows. If Cindy conceives, the child they raise will be a salvaged scrap of Todd, a living heirloom, a human pendant. Feted by his father’s family and their circle for his early abilities, Elliot knows what it is to have a persona that is bigger than his self. He has been too private, too wary as an adult. Will his and Cindy’s view of the meaning of Todd’s child change the way they raise it, caging it within their expectations?
Elliot traces the pendant’s scalloped edge with his thumb.
Something else troubles him. He and Cindy chose not to procreate in an already overburdened ecosystem. Does conceiving a war orphan betray their values, or fulfill them?
In the light from the streetlamp, Todd and Cindy’s limbs form a lustrous ideogram, glowing letters from an alphabet Elliot wishes he’d learned from his sibylline grandmother. That moments like this could come, bright with meaning and possibility, with no means to translate —
But even if he could parse the human proverb on the bed, Elliot knows it would be incomplete.
The three of them, together, spell something only God could read.
Elliot searches his memory for some word of Bridie’s to make sense of his confusion and despair, but can fish out only what his grandmother said about the pendant in his hand. If that thing has any brio left, you might get one use from it.
Todd rolls from his side onto his back, opening his chest to the ceiling, and opening his hand in a shifting pool of street light.
Elliot looks into it, idly following its lines.
The pendant falls to the floor.
Cindy watches Elliot from the bed. He stands above them, looking into Todd’s palm.
She recognizes a certainty that chills her.
So Todd dies in the end of this one, she thinks. That leaves Plan B. Elliot can see the future. Cindy can change the past — if she was there the first time around. God granted her, she thinks, a knack for changing small things only, things of importance to her alone. She has learned from experience that larger changes will sting. Cindy may fix a test answer, retroactively post a birthday card, or remind a past self to take the bus tokens from the tea tin on the windowsill. The mysterious lever she wields will not move heavier things.
Unless she sacrifices a living piece of herself — the memory of the life she leaves.
And she will. She will come through for all of them, and hold Todd down with the weight of her body. She is nineteen. Todd is proposing to her over the phone. Sleet hits her window. She’s in her dorm, her roommate is crying in the hallway. She forgets why, she just remembers that it struck her funny the first time.
Time is chutes and ladders. Cindy takes a last look at Elliot, shrinking away from her like a pupil in bright light. Standing by their bed, hands in his pockets, he is lost in a future bedroom that will never be — their life together one of a thousand tesserae of possibilities. Cindy hovers by him for a moment, as he stands, lost, in the room they made. She may take this one image with her only.
Dazzled by the thousand lives before her, Cindy darts through the pinch in the hourglass.
The characters, their love and concern for each other, and the suburban house where the action takes place were the beginnings of “Always Forever Now”. Many of my friends logged time in the evangelical movement before departing for new places; it’s been fascinating to see the branching paths they take, what they keep, what they throw away, and how they make sense of that world as it recedes. Cindy, Todd, and Elliot are at different stages of that journey. As I wrote “Always Forever Now” I kept in mind the work of a writer whose stories I admire, a master of short fiction, Karen Joy Fowler, and set out to structure it as I imagined she might.
Garnet and Diamond necklace by Ernesto Moreira is offered by the Houston Museum of Natural Science under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.