Their kitchen window faced the power lines that sent all the energy to all the people in their neighbourhood. In the morning, the power lines gleamed as if the electricity stored within them was radiating out in a dramatic display of technological advancement. An old man careened down a hill, begging for mercy. He thought there was a giant bee inside his head.
Ha ha ha ha.
Cliff rubbed his short beard and started in on his breakfast of coffee and toast. Soon he would set off in his family-size sedan to his office, in the even more outskirtish suburban industrial area where the public television station he worked for was located. His son, Jasper, was already seated at the kitchen table, sharpening his switchblade on a whetstone. Mallory, Cliff’s daughter, was in the shower, and had been in the shower for nearly one half-hour. And his wife, Gwen, was still in bed.
It’s my birthday tomorrow, Jasper told his father.
Yes, I know that. Would you like me to buy you something you can stick that weapon into?
Jasper rolled his eyes. He folded the knife back inside the handle and kicked his chair away from him. He took a pair of mirrored sunglasses from the pocket of his leather jacket and ate a bite of his father’s toast. Written in whiteout on the back of Jasper’s jacket were the words “SON OF FUCK.”
Have fun at school today, Cliff said.
Sure sure. That’s what.
What does that mean?
Jasper left a trail of cement dust in his wake as he squealed out of the driveway in his muscle car.
Hi, Mallory, Cliff said, as his daughter walked into the kitchen. She opened up the door to the backyard deck and stood there motionless, her towel wrapped around her. She was still sopping wet from the shower. When damp, her brown hair looked ink black.
What are you doing? Cliff asked.
Studying the air for weather disturbances. Anomalies. Aberrations.
Earlier in the week Mallory had purchased a copy of Twister at McDonald’s along with a Happy Meal. Watching the film’s computer-generated tornadoes seemed to have affected her. Her consciousness had altered, the way a child’s first nightmare can break them free of solipsism. Cliff felt kind of proud of her.
She removed a jar of grape jelly from the fridge and a spoon from a cabinet. She sat down next to her father and fed herself the jelly.
That’s almost the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen you do.
What’s the most, Dad?
That day you were eating grape jelly like that after your wisdom teeth were removed and your mouth was so numb from the novocaine that you didn’t realize there were these huge purple braids of spit hanging off your chin. You couldn’t feel your lips.
Mallory rolled her eyes. That’s a joke?
Is your brother involved with some sort of cult?
They’re called gangs, Dad.
I’m not up on my lingo.
The ulcer is giving her trouble. She was up all night moaning and groaning. The smell of aluminum hung in the kitchen air. Cliff finished his coffee and left for work.
Mallory decided that instead of going to school she was going to ball up in a corner and tremble all day.
Gwen was, in fact, not in bed, but on the floor with her legs akimbo. She ground her teeth together and squeezed the metal trunk of the lamp beside her.
I must be pregnant, she surmised. This feels like labour. She recalled her secret intimacies with Rosy as contractions blinked the muscles of her abdomen.
Mallory, she screamed, come up here!
Mallory came up the stairs and into her mother’s room and saw her on the floor. Her mother was a short woman with striking black and white eyes.
Why are you doing that? she asked, when she saw her mother’s position.
I’m giving birth.
Doesn’t that involve doctors and hospitals usually?
Gwen let out a shrill sound and then suddenly something appeared from her vagina. Mallory had never seen a newborn baby before, but she was confident this was unusual.
It was a thumb.
Along with a placenta and half a litre of murky liquid, Gwen had given birth to an ordinary, adult-sized thumb. The thumb had a hard thumbnail and all the crinkles and marks that are expected of an aged thumb. It lay there on the floor between her legs. The cuticles needed pushing back.
What is it, she asked her daughter, a boy or a girl? She wiped an arm’s length of sweat off her brow.
Mallory replied, It’s a thumb.
Ha ha ha ha.
Gwen let her hand slide along the banister while looking straight ahead blankly. She came to the kitchen and yanked a string, causing the venetian blinds to shoot up and away from the window. Sunlight shone through her white nightie. She shook her legs.
Mallory called from a corner, I think Dad is depressed.
His eyes look all droopy, I don’t know.
Well, don’t tell him about this thumb.
Because. He’s depressed.
She opened her hand and considered the thumb she was holding.
Jasper kicked the asses of a few losers.
Don’t mess with me, he said to the losers, and struck matches off their faces. I’m in a gang! And it’s my birthday tomorrow!
One of the ass-kicked losers replied, You used to be our friend!
Jasper’s fellow gang members drank cola and leaned against a brick wall. The girl members hooked their clawed fingers into the white shirts of the boy members. One girl, whose platinum-blond hair was tied up into a ponytail, blew Jasper a kiss that landed on his cheek.
Pow! Jasper said.
They sped off down the street.
At around 1 P.M. Mallory crept out from her hiding place, between the philodendron and the bougainvillea, went to the living room, and put her copy of Twister into the DVD player. A charge of static leapt from the television screen as she polished it free of dust. Right off the bat, a terrified family is running for their cellar! She grabbed the arm of the sofa, watching intently, emphatically, as kitchens, cars, and fathers got vacuumed into the fluxing air. White spikes from the tornado’s internal electrical storms attacked the earth. She’s right there with them.
Meanwhile, in the cool comfort of darkness, Rosy read the brittle, yellowed pages of a medical journal. He slid his fingers along the crests and kinks in the vein patterns of a human body. It could have been him in that picture, he thought. So transparent.
Cliff looked through his day planner. The ceiling to his office was full of small holes, and a vent seemed to pump out air by the looks of the red plastic ribbons that flapped endlessly from the grate. Cliff often thought of his office as being below ground, even though it wasn’t. When employees passed by his door they looked at him out of the corners of their eyes like the guilty patrons of a freak show.
Cliff’s boss poked his head in and said, Big meeting tomorrow, Cliff-o. Show some balls!
Gwen listened to Rosy on the telephone. The occasional vehicle passing, an eighteen-wheeler, a motorcycle, accompanied his slow, heavy breathing. She sat on the couch, and held the thumb. The breathing continued, stirred with low moans. Sensual.
Ha ha ha ha.
On one side of their house the sun still shone vaguely, and on the other side, the moon crept up into the blue sky. Cliff came in through the front door and kicked his shoes off into a closet. A tangle of dust and hair was stuck to a screw on the heat vent. He greeted his wife by kissing her on the cheek. Her skin tasted of pear.
Let’s have sex right now, Gwen.
I’m going out to buy a turkey for Jasper’s birthday dinner.
Buy some of that delicious boxed stuffing too. I just can’t get enough of that.
Gwen put on a pair of plastic sandals and was out the door.
Cliff watched her drive away and squeezed the crotch of his jeans.
Upstairs, Mallory was flushing her eyelashes down the toilet.
Jasper had been home in his room all afternoon, having been rudely expelled from school for lighting a fire in the palm of his hand. He answered the phone when it rang.
Mallory came out into the hallway, hoping the phone call was for her.
Jasper, is that you? the voice on the other end asked. It was the platinum-blond gang member.
Yes. What is it, baby?
Some new kid wants to join our gang.
What’s he look like?
He’s got a big chin. No one likes him. We need an initiation. Something that’ll scare him off. Got any ideas?
Just then Mallory put her ear to her brother’s door.
Yes, Jasper said. On the evening of my birthday, we must all perform a satanic suicide pact. At exactly 8 p.m., we must all remove our switchblades and slice vertical lines up our left and right arms until we die.
Mallory moved away from the door, stunned and shaken by her brother’s remarks. She blinked her bare eyelids and raced downstairs.
Jasper continued on the phone, How does that sound?
Mallory came to her father, who was hunched over the fireplace sifting through the soot. She startled him by calling out and he sucked in a gulp of the hearth’s carbon flakes. He coughed and rubbed his sooty hands across his face, making him appear to be half in shadow.
What is it? he said, expelling puffs of black smoke from his mouth.
I just overheard Jasper talking to one of the members of his gang on the phone about a suicide pact.
A suicide pact? I don’t like the sounds of that.
At 8 P.M. on Jasper’s birthday they’re all going to kill themselves with their switchblades in some kind of a satanic gang suicide pact.
Sounds like I was right.
Right about what?
They are a cult.
Dad. This is serious.
I know. You’re right. What can we do? Where are your eyelashes?
Gwen drove the family-size sedan along a gravel road, past a babbling brook outside of their suburb. She was outside of the city limits, and the trees and the sky opened up to her like lips. With the windows down the air came in and blew her hair around, and the smell of freshly laid manure and pesticide swam up her nostrils. The sunset was magnificent, as amber as a streetlight, yet it did nothing for her, because she was racked with guilt. Every time she saw the thumb rolling around beside her on the passenger seat, she felt all the more a sinner. Did Cliff drive me to it? she thought. Was it me or him that drove me to love Rosy? Finally, she stopped the car at the edge of a long, deep ditch full of lush overgrowth. Briar and bramble vied for domination among seeded dandelions and wildflowers. She stepped away from the vehicle and began to climb into the thickening hair of the ditch.
She found her way through the weeds with a pair of sewing scissors she had brought, cutting a path to a rusted and long-forgotten storm drain. An echoey voice came from within the drain. Gwen, it said.
The storm drain lay ahead of her, its rippled aluminum entrance poking out from overgrown earth, its innards cloaked in absolute darkness.
Again, like from a fairy tale or adolescent hallucination, a voice came from within the drain. Gwen, it said.
She followed the voice into the drain. She could also hear the comforting sound of water dripping onto tin.
Now louder, the voice encroached upon her. Gwen, yoo-hoo, it said.
In the dark she came upon a pair of arms that tightened around her chest, holding her possessively.
You smell of tar, the smell of the urban, said the voice, now directly against her ear. The two bodies held each other, delicately feeling one another’s skin in the dark.
I have something to show you, Rosy.
All righty, said Rosy.
A match was lit and put to the wicks of a few candles, and suddenly a thousand shadows appeared, flickering and dancing. Calcite stalactites and stalagmites had become no less than teeth inside the storm drain’s maw. Gwen looked over to her lover, who could not return her gaze because he was terribly bashful.
I don’t find your disfigurement grotes-que, Rosy, you don’t have to be shy around me. Gwen took his soft wet hand. She could see every vein beneath his skin. His eyes were surrounded by millions of these veins, resembling the tree roots that hung through the cracked ceiling of the storm drain. Behind Rosy and Gwen lay stacks of books, mostly non-fiction, and hanging haphazardly were inexpensive framed reprints of the works of Caravaggio and Pontormo. A water-stained mattress was raised off the ground on a U-Haul trailer. Gwen felt the map of Rosy’s ear as he kissed her breasts and collarbone.
I gave birth to this thumb this morning.
I think it’s ours, said Gwen and rolled her eyes guiltily.
Holy crap, I’m a father, said Rosy.
Ha ha ha ha.
Cliff poured Mallory and himself glasses of cola and they sat at the kitchen table and drank. The wood blades of the kitchen fan cut the air above them. Mallory and Cliff took sips of their colas.
Good cola, Cliff remarked.
What are we going to do? We can’t let Jasper kill himself.
I know. I have to admit, Mallory, this really gives me the heebie-jeebies.
More scared than the time I thought I was pregnant with the child of a pro wrestler?
Let’s not compare.
They could hear Jasper in the living room sharpening his switchblade.
Gwen came in the front door with a turkey in a bag. She had left the thumb for Rosy to look after, and he had put it in a silk-lined box usually meant for expensive jewellery, and had fashioned the thumb its very own little pillow on which to rest its fingerprint.
Gwen asked her son, Where’s your dad?
In the kitchen with Mallory, drinking cola and looking earnest.
Gwen walked across the living room with the turkey in the bag and opened the door to the kitchen. Neither Cliff nor Mallory saw or heard her.
Well, she heard Cliff say, we can’t tell your mother that we know.
Why not? Mallory said. We can’t keep it a secret.
Think of her ulcer. If we can somehow deal with this without her knowing, it will save her the stress. They mulled this over. Suddenly Mallory realized she was now keeping one secret from her mother and another from her father. A thumb and a suicide. She took a sip of her cola.
Gwen closed the kitchen door quietly. She turned and looked to her son and whispered to herself, What am I going to do? They know about Rosy. Inside the kitchen, Cliff continued, We’ll have to find a way of stopping Jasper from committing suicide without her knowing.
Gwen stood beside the door to the kitchen and spoke loudly to her son, Hi, Jasper! I’m home now from getting the turkey for your birthday dinner! Now I’m going to put it in the freezer! In the kitchen!
O.K., Mom, Jasper said and rolled his eyes.
Cliff and Mallory heard this, changed their posture and attempted to look casual. Gwen came in and the three of them greeted one another calmly and collectedly. Gwen stuffed the turkey in the freezer and then stood there. The three of them smiled.
Well, Gwen said and yawned, I’m tired. Good night.
Good night, Mom.
She ran upstairs and quickly dialed the number of Rosy’s pay phone. On the seventeenth ring Rosy picked up.
Rosy, Cliff knows. He knows all about us. I think he might do something drastic. Something primal.
There was a pause, and then Rosy replied, That doesn’t sound very good.
Later, in bed, Cliff leaned over Gwen and kissed her chin. The digital numbers of their clock read ten-thirty. He felt for his penis inside his pyjamas.
Remember how we used to scream each other’s names out, like two people searching for each other in a storm, while we had sex?
Well, I can’t do that tonight.
Gwen could not turn to look at him. She thought of infidelity.
Why not? she asked.
I’ve got a lot on my mind, Cliff said.
In the field near the power lines an old man collapsed. His dog tugged helplessly on the leash hooked around his owner’s hand.
Ha ha ha ha.
The next morning, Cliff awoke with more than the normal feeling of dread. He went to the bathroom to have a cool shower and, as he passed the mirror, saw an enormous hematoma on his forehead. He stopped and returned to look at his reflection again. The sound of the bathroom vent hummed in his ear. He carefully put a finger to the bruise-coloured bulge on his forehead, almost as if he did not believe it to be real. But when he touched it, a sharp prick of discomfort went straight back into his brain. His head began to throb. The hematoma pulsed erratically against the rhythm of his heartbeat.
Gwen came into the bathroom and saw his head. What is that? she said.
I don’t know.
Did you hit your head on anything?
Maybe you should see a doctor.
You can’t trust doctors, Gwen. They make grown men and women wear paper nighties. That’s not right-minded.
Jasper was already seated in the kitchen sharpening his switchblade when Cliff came down in his pyjamas for his morning coffee and toast. A glint off the blade caught his attention; the hematoma pulsed.
Cliff stuck two slices of bread in the toaster.
It’s my birthday today, he told his father without looking up from his knife.
I know that. Happy birthday.
Don’t you have any other hobbies? Do you want me to teach you fly fishing?
Jasper said, I’d rather kill myself than learn to fly fish.
No fly fishing then! Me too. Ha ha. I stay as far away from that harmless sport as I can.
Jasper rolled his eyes.
Have you ever thought of carrying around a spoon?
They can come in handy. When you need to eat soup. Or dig small holes. I eat soup with my switchblade. I dig holes with my switchblade.
Is this a plea for attention? Cliff came over behind his son and gave him a hug.
Get off me.
We can spend the day together if you’d like. The toast popped up.
What the hell is on your head?
It’s a carbuncle. Pay it no attention. Now, what’s the plan today, birthday boy?
Cliff listened to his son rev off down the street, rock ’n’ roll music fading away with him. Then there was nothing but the various electrical hums to keep him company. He felt deserted. He ate his toast dry. He drank the entire pot of coffee. By the time Mallory came to the kitchen for breakfast, he was shaking.
A bump, he said. People get bumps.
When Cliff had left for work Gwen came down and sat beside her daughter.
I know, Gwen said.
That Cliff knows.
Oh, Mallory said. Knows what?
I heard you tell Cliff last night, about the thumb. What’s he planning to do?
Fine, Gwen said and stood up, ruin our family.
Jasper slouched in the gravel beneath an overpass and listened to the thrum of the cars passing above. Beside him, the platinum-blond gang member was applying rose-red lipstick. She turned and regarded Jasper with gangish affection. She combed his hair with her hand.
Happy birthday, Jasper, she said, and kissed him.
You should come to my birthday party tonight and meet my parents. Then you’ll know why I’m so bad.
Gwen stood at the lip of the storm drain and peered into the darkness. A bird pecked at the berry of some bush and then fell to the ground dead. Finally, a figure began to emerge from the heavy veil of the drain.
I’m afraid, spoke Rosy, still within the shadow.
Come to me, Rosy, said Gwen, and waved for him to approach.
As gentle as water rippling, Rosy’s membranous body exposed itself to daylight. Under his skin, the veins glittered like threads of red and blue silk. It did him no good to squint, since the sun went right through his eyelids, but it’s only natural to want to squint in sunlight, so he tried. He raised an arm to shade his face, but the sun went straight through his arm too. Gwen held him, loved him more than she thought even possible. A crazy kind of emergency love, saved for occasions just like these. She kissed his clear lips. They wept together in the flora of the ditch.
Cliff and Mallory watched the television all afternoon. Death’s presence at the birthday party felt unavoidable. Mallory had insisted they watch Twister, but Cliff told her he didn’t like that kind of movie, that he’d rather just watch plain old television. The hematoma on his forehead had grown twice as large since the morning, and was now ripe and shiny.
Dad, Mallory said, I have to tell you something.
But the telephone rang and Cliff answered it. It was his boss.
Cliff, where the hell are you?
I’m sick. I told your secre—
Sick! You’re a fucking puss! His boss hung up.
What is it? Cliff asked his daughter as he tugged at his hair.
Nothing, I guess.
You need a new pair of socks, the TV said.
A dull reflection off the living room window hung over the television screen like a ghost. Sitcoms, cop shows, infomercials, rock videos, biographies, soap operas, cartoons, made-for-TV movies, awards ceremonies, family dramas, documentaries, the news, the sports, the weather, and sitcoms, and even more sitcoms. Someone tripped down a flight of stairs and a live television audience laughed madly.
Ha ha ha ha.
At the birthday dinner that night, the turkey came out of the oven hot and golden, its liquefied fat bubbled and spat in the pan. Gwen put the pan on the kitchen counter and took the turkey from it. Rosy stood beside her trembling and cupping his digit offspring in his hands.
Gwen said, we’ve got to be honest about this. The whole affair.
She placed the turkey on a white oval plate and took the plate to the dining room table. She smiled at her family. It was seven-thirty.
Hey, I don’t have a knife, Jasper said, and looked under his napkin. His bare arms made Cliff flinch.
Who needs a knife?
You’ve got one, Dad.
Cliff threw his knife behind him, Who needs it! His hematoma throbbed.
I do! And I can’t find my switchblade either.
I threw it away.
I thought I’d get you a nicer one. That one was so dull and unintimidating.
No it wasn’t.
Yes it was.
Gwen stood at the door to the dining room and said, Before we start to eat, I have a surprise guest I want to introduce.
Me too, Jasper said.
Jasper stood up and went to the living room. The family looked at one another. Jasper brought back with him the platinum-blond gang member.
This is my fiancée, he said. We’re engaged to be married.
Mallory and Cliff exchanged glances.
Jasper and his fiancée sat down. They held hands under the tablecloth.
Cliff took the knife from the fiancée’s place setting and said, Like husband like wife!
Gwen then said, wringing her hands, Maybe you already know about my guest. She opened the door to the kitchen. This is Rosy.
Rosy, Cliff whispered. He and Mallory were confused. The chandelier above the table seemed to quiver. The electricity coursing through the house was audible. In came Rosy, his skin glimmering like waxed fibreglass.
A monster! Cliff exclaimed. Mallory yelped.
Rosy cringed behind Gwen. Please don’t hurt me, he said. No one moved. Cliff’s carbuncle protruded from his forehead. All was silent as Rosy, looking polygonal under the chandelier’s light, made his way to a place at the dining room table. Cliff promptly removed all the knives from the table and tossed them on the floor behind him. It was seven-forty, Jasper was due for satanic suicide in twenty minutes. Gwen stared at her lap.
Jasper said, I’ll cut the turkey then, and reached for the big serrated knife. Cliff lurched from his seat.
It’s my birthday!
They each grabbed the handle, leaning this way and that over the dinner table as they fought. Rosy cowered each time the knife swung over his head. To him, the family seemed forever moving, expanding and contracting monstrously, as vivid and intense as neon.
I won’t have dessert if there is any, said the platinum-blond gang fiancée. Finally, Cliff was able to separate the carving knife from his son’s hands. They stood across from one another, breathless and upset. Cliff waited a moment. He said to his son, First pickings, how’s that?
First pickings? Who cares? I wanted to carve that bird. That was the whole point. Why don’t you spoon out the mashed potatoes instead.
The whole family, Rosy, and the platinum-blond gang fiancée ate in silence, with only spoons and forks. They raised shreds of turkey to their mouths and chewed. Mallory and Cliff watched Jasper with the intensity of sharpshooters, almost daring him to attempt his suicide. They could hardly contain themselves as the minutes passed toward eight; it was now five-to.
Aren’t you going to say something, Cliff, Gwen shrieked. Rosy lifted his head.
Cliff. Aren’t you going to say something? She was trembling.
Was I? He looked to Mallory. She shrugged at him and turned her attention back to Jasper. Gwen glared at her daughter.
No, Cliff said, I was just eating.
Although no one was paying any attention, it was possible to watch Rosy’s dinner travel down his oesophagus and into his stomach, where it was visibly digested by gobs of acid.
At exactly 8 P.M. Jasper went for the knife to carve himself some more turkey.
Ha ha ha ha.
Mallory saw her family as a tornado. How a tornado can pick up objects and toss them anywhere it wants, how they frantically and carelessly destroy landscapes, how they drop from the sky, filled with electricity, and can tear the roofs off houses and expose them like secrets. Her family was spiralling like a tornado at a great speed, dangerous and impossible to predict, spinning faster and faster, sucking people into their sick familial vortex. She believed that if she were to stay very still as the eye of it dropped down on her, she might escape alive.
At 8:01 P.M. the carving knife was embedded in Gwen’s flank. Rosy was screaming like a monster. Jasper’s platinum-blond fiancée was on the floor covered in mashed potatoes and peas. In desperation, Cliff had been forced to grab the carving knife by its serrated blade and the teeth had bit into his hand. He saw no alternative as he watched his son scoop the knife off the table to presumably slaughter himself.
Cliff’s carbuncle was now gigantic.
I won’t let you! Cliff screamed over and over as he and his son fought. The table kicked back toward Jasper and the bowl of mashed potatoes catapulted into his fiancée’s face. Fragile girl. She collapsed on the floor in paroxysms, her limbs bouncing and kicking electrically.
The momentum of Cliff keeling over the felled table plunged the knife into his wife’s abdomen, just to the side of her womb. She screamed. Then Rosy screamed like a monster. Jasper burst into childlike tears as his mother spiralled toward the dining room wall with blood quickly drenching her blouse. Rosy rose from his place at the tipped table, reached forward for Cliff’s throat, and began to strangle him.
I love your wife, Rosy growled. You bastard! Look what you’ve done.
Cliff choked, What?
With one hand Rosy strangled Cliff and with the other he displayed the thumb. See this? Rosy continued. This is the product of our love! Your primal rages won’t erase that, not in a million years, mister!
Rosy, Gwen muttered from her twisted position on the floor, her hands dripping with fresh blood. Although she was lapsing into shock, she was still conscious enough to register and be quite moved by Rosy’s exclamation of love.
Cliff squeaked, I don’t understand. I’m just trying to save my son from killing himself.
Mallory was curled up in a corner being very still.
Rosy said, Your son? He was still strangling Cliff.
Kill myself? Jasper said. I’m not going to kill myself.
Your son? Rosy repeated.
Then Cliff’s hematoma burst.
Jasper was wiping away the frothed spit and mashed potatoes from his fiancée’s lips, trying to stuff a napkin into her mouth.
Don’t bite your tongue off, baby, he cried.
Rosy had one last chance to scream like a monster.
A noxious black-turquoise smoke poured thickly from the hematoma crater on Cliff’s forehead. The smoke moved slowly through the air, seeming to grow and bubble up like awakened yeast. No sooner had it escaped from Cliff’s carbuncle than it enveloped Rosy’s head. Rosy coughed, and everyone watched the smoke pollute his nostrils, mouth, and lungs. There was a silence. Rosy took his hands from Cliff’s throat with the slowness and gravity of a doomed gesture. He gasped and fell away from Cliff and onto the floor. The adult-sized thumb rolled away from Rosy’s hand and across the dining room. Rosy became dead.
Ha ha ha ha.
Cliff stared at his bloodied hands.
Good God, Cliff said, I think I can see bone. His shirt sleeves were dark red.
Don’t die, Jasper whimpered. His platinum-blond fiancée’s breathing was shallow, her face very pale. There was a pea wedged in her nose.
Mallory did not move.
Gwen pulled the carving knife from her side and dropped it beside her with little effort. A new gush of blood came from the open wound.
The chandelier was swinging back and forth above them, and the glass jewels that hung from it tinkled like the chimes in a dream sequence. Food was everywhere. Cliff found he still had a piece of turkey in his mouth that he had not finished chewing, so he did that now.
Gwen, Cliff said, there’s a thumb on the floor. Is that mine?
It’s my baby!
Jasper looked up at his father. My fiancée needs an ambulance!
So do I, Gwen shrieked. So does Rosy!
Rosy was dead. The chandelier had almost stopped moving. Jasper was performing some misguided form of C.P.R. on his fiancée, which did not seem to be reviving her.
Phone 911 somebody.
Calm down, Jasper. Let me get my bearings.
Cliff! Call 911!
Call 911, Cliff repeated. He looked around the room at the disorder. Something had gone very wrong this evening, he thought, but he couldn’t pinpoint the moment when things turned sour. Had his wife said “baby”? He saw Mallory in the corner, huddled up and shivering, her eyes as white as plates.
Mallory, he said, phone 911 for your family.
I can’t, she said.
Why not? Cliff was perplexed. And dizzy, he felt dizzy.
I can’t move, Mallory said. I’m too afraid.
Afraid? What’s making you afraid?
Oh, Cliff nodded. He surveyed the dining room again, and looked down at Rosy, who seemed to be turning into mud. He picked the thumb up from the carpet.
This isn’t mine.
Cliff, it’s my baby. Gwen reached out from across the room. Cliff looked down at the thumb and then to his wife.
You had this with Rosy here?
Yes. She could barely admit it.
Why didn’t you tell me?
He went over to his wife and knelt down on the floor beside her. She was bleeding, he was bleeding. There was a lot of blood. He brushed some hairs from her face and gave her a small kiss.
I think I understand, he said and gave her the thumb. I’m always so busy, is that it?
Ha ha ha ha.
Near midnight, Cliff’s hands were doused with antiseptic and wrapped in thick gauzy bandages by a young ambulance driver with a crooked moustache. The same treatment was applied to the peculiar cavity on his head. The ambulance driver’s partner attended to Gwen’s stomach wound, putting a few layers of gridded fabric and cotton under a big Band-Aid. The paramedic told her the knife had only tucked under the first few layers of skin. No one noticed Rosy. He looked like just another spilled plate of food, a huge bowl of rice pudding or something.
Mallory watched them clean her parents’ wounds. She felt the eerie contentment one feels from following the advice of a premonition. Her body was restless for the first time she could remember, and she walked through the living room as the paramedics aided her family.
The family watched them raise Jasper’s fiancée onto a thin bed with wheels and roll her to the front door.
My fiancée, Jasper said, and leaned on his father and began to sob. Cliff held his son and patted his shoulder with his bandage mittens. They stood like this for a long time, and the longer they stood, the harder Jasper held to his father. His tears were long coming.
Sometimes the worst things make the most sense, he told his son.
You were trying to save me from something I wasn’t even going to do.
The paramedic with the crooked moustache turned back and addressed Gwen. So, do you want to press charges? I mean, do you want us to call in the police?
No, Gwen told them, it was all in a whirlwind. A big accident.
She lied and said that when Jasper’s fiancée had keeled over convulsively, they all panicked and wounds resulted. She had the thumb hidden in her fist.
Looks like a lot of good food got wasted.
What can you do? Cliff said, and shrugged.
The ambulance people nodded and waved goodbye. Cliff, Gwen, Mallory, and Jasper went to the window and watched the ambulance skid out of their driveway and shoot off into the dark toward the hospital, while its siren laughed endlessly and its red lights spun through the neighbourhood, narrowly missing an old man holding his head while teetering down the street. The orange street lights hummed calmly in the cold summer night, the heavy purple clouds were lit by the white beacons from the airport, and the engines in the power stations continued to generate electricity.