The Fiction

What They Came For

From the Winter, 2019–2020, issue 

(No. 44)

Matthew Daley

It was so cold that three layers of gloves couldn’t protect Lorna’s hands when she fed our neighbour’s horses. The sunrise barely cracked the frozen black sky, but it was her birthday all the same. So we bundled up over our nice clothes and drove into town to the Tutankhamun exhibit.

“Storm’s coming,” warned the kid at the museum counter who took our coats, over-boots, and toques, slid them into a plastic garment bag, then disappeared into a back room.

While Lorna gazed at the gleaming, astonishing jewellery, the brittle cat mummies, and a dagger shaped from a meteorite, I read the inscriptions. Turns out King Tut was just a boy, the product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and her weird, embarrassing brother, and who was murdered halfway through building a lavish city out in the desert that was abandoned after his death. Tut couldn’t walk without a cane, suffered from malaria, then died when he was nineteen, at most, likely a combination of the malaria and an infected broken leg. Lorna couldn’t get enough of the peaceful expression on his gold death mask. To pry her from the exhibit, I bought her a miniature replica at the museum store near the exit.

“All this put me in the mood for sushi,” Lorna said, mystifyingly.

I kissed her on the lips—brief, perfunctory—and we went to retrieve our coats.

As the sky clouded over, and the mounting wind screamed into Right Now Sushi behind each patron who entered, Lorna ordered hot, salty soup, slippery raw fish, and strange, sweet rice. I thought about Tut: the poor kid, sick all his life. His advisers ran the kingdom—with one eventually succeeding him—and when he died, they did the bare minimum, throwing together a substandard tomb filled quickly with the junk of another dead pharaoh. So paltry was his legacy, nobody bothered to find him. Through myriad incidents of near discovery and centuries-long biological and meteorological luck, archaeologists found his incredibly well preserved resting place and went nuts.

We’re dumb about our ancestors, I know that much.

From behind Tut’s golden death mask, fashioned as it likely was for another, female pharaoh, then swiftly fitted for him, he speaks for the rest of us—the unexceptional. For those of us born ugly, for those of us who never became brilliant medical specialists, for those of us who keep out of the news. Driving home, as Lorna slept quietly in the passenger seat beside me, I figured that one day trace elements of my own life—the metal in my molars, the gasoline in my clothes, the Red Bull and Doritos and other evidence of the combination 7-Eleven–gas station at which I diligently earn my keep—might be uncovered by distant descendants, and instill a sense of reverent, uncomprehending awe.

I could be exceptional at last.

I had no way of knowing that exceptionality would find me much sooner than that.

The next morning, we woke to grey slivers of light as snow fell steadily and ominously outside our window. The storm had begun. We’d wait it out, passing our evening with grim stoicism, candles and masses of blankets on hand in the likely event of a blackout, feeling the house’s bones buck and strain under the alarming weight of the storm. This morning’s snow fell thick but was as loose and powdery as the fake snow in old movies, which was rumoured (Lorna disclosed, over a foul can of breakfast tuna) to have been real asbestos, packing the lungs of the rich and beautiful Hollywood stars with tumours.

“Asbestos! Imagine, Mel. Imagine hunkering down to make a snow angel in that poisonous stuff, lighting up a cigarette between takes,” she said, as she lumped another spoonful of mayonnaise into her tuna. For a guilty moment I longed for her smoking days again, starving herself fawnlike with Jell-O, celery sticks, and Virginia Slims. How young we were. It’s winter seven months of the year here, but I remember those days as constant summertime, long and gold.

As the car warmed, I scraped frost and long knots of ice from the windshield. How we used to long for each other, Lorna and I. When we were together, I couldn’t keep my hands off her. When we were apart, I couldn’t bear it, shaving five minutes here, ten minutes there from the workday wherever I could, then speeding home. Sometimes, when I’d arrive at five fifteen instead of five forty-five, dazed in the kitchen and frantic from a day of rushing, of rushing for her. We’d lock eyes and I’d almost smell how slow her day had been—the fading scent of toast, the drone of the television. She’d wonder without speaking what all the hurry was. And I’d feel silly, but the nice sort, the sort of silly an eminently lovable man can afford to feel. All of it would add to the day-long burn she so easily soothed.

“I must have her,” I’d write, starting poems that went nowhere. “I’m burning, I’m burning up.”

I wrenched open the car door, knocking loose the ice that had settled around the handle. Of course, we still love each other, we’re attached to each other. But our orbits differ now; we’ve slipped further and further from heat, slowing down in the dark.

I rarely leave my little circlet of comfort, driving ten clicks to the 7-Eleven, then back again. The storm’s torments unscroll around me relentlessly: cars near-colliding, swerving wildly after coaxing gas from the frozen pumps; the homeless, those brightly coloured sleeping bags bundled and ominously still in snowy doorways, and nubs of snowmen. All sharp reminders from the beginning of the storm, before the frightened hush settled into the afternoon. Dark falls before we know it. The boys who work for me barely speak, anxiously rearranging the bags of corn nuts, sneaking hits from their vape pens when they think I won’t notice. I send two of them, a pair of young brothers, home early. They live with their parents—their mother is overbearing, tends to call the store even on the best of days. The youngest has only just learned to drive.

Dawes remains with me, insists he’ll stay through the night shift. I like Dawes. He wears his hair in a long, thinning ponytail, and he’s extremely pale. In a strange way, he’s handsome. He moves like a bird.

The hush settles in, freezes us in place. We can barely see out the windows, save for the dark, lumbering shapes of trucks gliding up now and then, like whales. Dawes ducks outside periodically to check on the pumps. He leaves his coat inside, and I know not to comment on this. The lumpy parka sits beside me, covered in strands of his long hair.

All at once, a very different hush falls over the store, a silence like being under a thick, staticky blanket. Bright blue light blazes in through the windows, scrambling the letters on the lottery tickets under my palms. The hairs on Dawes’ jacket seem to twitch.

As in those dreams I dread, I cannot move or speak. My palms are stuck to the counter, my feet are cemented to the ground. The light recedes a little, shimmering, and I see that someone new has materialized in the store, right in front of me: a woman. Her face takes a moment to cohere, its features running together and then settling in place like dew drops on a shaken leaf. When I recognize her, I start to tremble. It’s Stacey Smith.

Stacey was the object of a humiliating obsession all through tenth grade. How I loved her long straight hair, her serious face. And there she is, standing by the stacks of kitty litter. She’s wearing jean shorts. She’s deeply tanned. Her toes wriggle slightly in thinly laced sandals. Her toenails are painted red.

“Mel,” she calls to me. “I don’t want you to be alarmed, O.K.? I’m just here to ask you some questions.”

I open my mouth and try to speak. All I can manage is a groan.

“Mel!” she says, and a warm rush of courage floods through me. Those deep pangs of longing for Stacey, and Lorna after her—those golden summer moments—where did they go? When I remember them now, where do I find them? Do they melt, rearrange themselves, and materialize if I try hard enough? Are they here?

“Have you ever been in love?” Stacey asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I’ve been in love.”

She walks by the kitty litter and then turns on her heel, disappearing down the candy aisle. Her voice reaches me, and one of her eyes meets mine, peering through the gap between stacks of Kit Kats.

“Have you always consummated that love, Mel? Every time you’ve been in love?”

“No,” I say.

Suddenly she’s right at the counter, placing both of her palms on the glass that covers rows of lottery tickets. She slides around to the other side of the counter. Now she’s inches from me. She wears a mood ring on every finger. One has a tiny photo of Kurt Cobain framed in it, another, Layne Staley, from Alice in Chains.

The night Layne died, I rode in the back of Stacey’s boyfriend’s car, watching her toss her hair, aching horribly. The three of us sang along to a Chains tape. Her boyfriend cried. When he wasn’t looking, she leaned through the gap between the driver’s and passenger seat, and kissed me right on the mouth.

“May I?” she asks, pointing at Dawes’s stool.

I think she’s going to bump his coat to the ground, but instead she picks it up, folds it in half, and brings it to her chest.

“You may,” I say, my heart going fast. Is she eighteen? Am I?

“So, those times you were in love, why didn’t you consummate it?” she asks, leaning against my chest, the crown of her head resting right beneath my chin. Her thin, centre-parted hair smells lovely and sour, like mealy magnolia petals gone brown in the sun.

“I don’t know,” I say, suddenly aware that I’m too hot for the first time in months. “Uh, sometimes it was because they didn’t feel the same. Sometimes, they didn’t even know I was alive.”

“Do you love your wife?”

“Yes,” I say—quickly, easily, and honestly.

Right beneath my chin, Stacey’s hair shifts on its own, each strand almost watchful. I want to press my lips to it, close my eyes. To slow down my heart, to stop breathing.

“Is your wife the only lover you’ve ever had?”

“No.”

“Have you wanted others?”

“Yes.”

“How do you stay faithful?”

“I don’t know. It’s work,” I say. “You know, desire is all action, it’s all pursuing. But love is active, too.”

“When you love a woman and can’t get hard,” she continues, her voice humming against my chest, “what do you do?”

“I’ll tell you when it happens,” I say, crossing my legs in vain against the hot, growing mass of myself.

“Do you want to stroke my hair?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to fuck me?”

“No.”

“You don’t?”

“I don’t.”

She winds the Layne Staley ring around with her thumb.

“Why is love worthwhile to you when it can be painful?” she asks.

I think about that.

“It’s never the same twice,” I say.

“How do you feel?” she asks.

“I don’t know.” I swallow hard. “Terrified.”

“I’m not really Stacey.” Her voice comes to me, gentler than before, a little muffled. “I’m not supposed to tell you that. I could get in trouble.”

“Trouble—with whom?”

“We thought it would help, to show up as people you’ve cared for. But—I don’t want you to be scared. It’s just that there’s some things we don’t understand yet.”

“I don’t understand anything,” I say, wondering how true that is.

“Thank you, Mel,” she says.

And with that, she vanishes. The clammy weight of her, its strange and musty fragrance, is simply gone. My arms close in on nothing, then on my own chest. The store darkens. Lit only by our fluorescents, it seems to shrink. I stare down at the lottery tickets and find I can decipher them again: 16, 18, 26, 31, 39, 44 . . .

I slip from my stool and crouch, rubbing my eyes. The lip of the counter cups the top of my head. The snowy wind resumes, howling so loud that, once thirty seconds have passed, it’s like it never stopped. A burst of cold, and the wind screams through the doors as they chime and slide open: Dawes is back.

“I finished the rest of the za. Sorry, man,” he says. The pizza box sits, greased stained and empty, right by my knee. I ease myself back up onto my stool.

“Did you see the, the thing? Anything?” I ask.

“One of the long-haul guys there, he needed directions. We got to talking,” Dawes says, tilting his head out toward the pumps. “Says he saw someone frozen outside a motel back in Windsor. Same day, one of his buddies just falls asleep at the wheel, veers right off the road into the woods. Hell of a thing.”

“Hope the kids got home all right,” I say.

He smirks.

“You think if they hadn’t, their mom wouldn’t’ve given us a call by now?” he asks. “Because she would’ve.”

“Jackie, the older one,” I say. “He’s turning eighteen next week.”

“Hell of a thing,” Dawes says. “Eighteen, still can’t drive.”

“Yeah.”

We listen to the storm awhile.

“Dawes,” I say, wanting to ask him about Stacey, but the words refuse to come.

He looks over at me.

“Mel,” he says, and laughs.

Lorna had hidden her vibrator so well from Mel even she couldn’t find it. So she switched on the TV and got out the ice cream. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.

“Do you know why they’re laughing?” says Dr. Ted, gesturing to the TV audience.

“No,” goes the wife on the show.

“Because this is a ridiculous situation. Because they don’t want to stand up and say, on live national television, what the f— is this?”

The audience applauds heartily.

“Well f— this,” goes the husband, yanking the mic from his sweat-stained shirt, fiddling with the wire, storming off the stage.

“Ronnie, please,” moans the husband’s mistress, seated opposite the woman and his wife, reaching for his arm as he passes.

“If you’re looking for the exit, it’s that way,” says Dr. Ted, pointing stage left. The audience laughs as the man halts in his tracks and rubs his bald head. “They’re the ones full of s—,” the husband yells, unmiced, his voice swallowed up by the bright colourful space between him, the cameraman, the television screen, and Lorna.

“Well, since you’re talking for them, I’ll speak for them,” says Dr. Ted, crossing his arms and leaning back toward the audience. “Are y’all O.K. with that?”

“Yes!” roars the audience.

“They’re laughing,” Dr. Ted says, staring directly into the camera from beneath his heavy eyelids, drumming his shiny, expensively manicured nails against his suit. “They’re laughing because of your total and complete lack of insight and your narcissistic commitment to your own bulls— is more than they can take. And that should be a huge wake-up call to you! You should thank them!”

The audience roars again.

“They’re not making light of this because it’s funny,” says Dr. Ted, climbing slowly up the steep flight of stairs separating one half of the squirming, cheering audience from the other. “It ain’t funny at all.”

One audience member, a man, perhaps somebody’s husband, stretches a long arm into the aisle for a high-five. Dr. Ted ignores him, keeps climbing.

“Imagine Mel at one of these things,” Lorna says to Peaches, who hasn’t moved in hours except to roll over onto her back and kick, very gently, each one of her paws.

“And you.” Dr. Ted pivots on his heel, points back down at the stage and directly at the wife, who’s wiping her red, swollen face, a wobbly, tentative smile beginning at the corners of her mouth, which freezes under his gaze. “They can’t believe why you keep sitting around, waiting for him to decide what happens in your life!”

The audience screams its approval. The camera cuts to a young woman with glittering eyes, slamming her hands together, her breasts bouncing. Lorna winces and turns down the volume.

“And you . . .”

All of a sudden, Dr. Ted’s voice fills the room, which has flooded with sunlight.

Lorna jumps and the remote drops on the rug. Trees erupt from nowhere and fill both windows, twinkling with leaves like gems.

Summer unfolds into Lorna’s lap. Dr. Ted is in the room.

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you,” Dr. Ted says, his voice not a noise filtered through wires but a real voice. He couldn’t be more than six feet away from Lorna. He’s standing in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, leaning against the door jamb. He’s wearing the same suit, blue and expensive-looking, and his signature sneakers are bright and clean like they’ve never touched the ground.

“May I?” Dr. Ted says, his big knotty hand outstretched toward the couch.

“Yes,” Lorna squeaks.

“Thank you.” Dr. Ted sits with a sigh, then looks over at her and smiles.

“Now, I know you almost called in to my show in 1998,” he says. “Don’t you try to deny it, darlin’. You sat with that big ol’ ceramic phone pressed to your ear for damn near an hour. And what did you want to say?”

“I wanted to say that I love you,” Lorna whispers.

“And I love you too. I do. Don’t you know I do?”

Lorna sighs.

“Now I see it,” she says.

“Do you believe, Lorna, that if you love someone long enough, they’ll feel it and love you back?”

“I do,” Lorna says.

Dr. Ted leans over and slides his arm around her back. She leans against his chest. He strokes her hair.

“How did the love happen, Lorna?”

“I . . . I guess I watched your show every day. First by accident, like by flipping channels. I found you, and then I’d wait every day for twelve-thirty to come, so I could see you. The old opening song—you know: ‘Da, da, doo, Dr. Ted, yeah, he’ll fix it’?—it was like heartbreak when the song changed, but now the new song, it gets my heart going just as much. I’ve been watching you since before you got your new hair, if you don’t mind me saying so, and gosh I was thin—so thin and pretty then. And lonely. He, my husband, he was travelling then, selling sales solutions to businesses, which, honestly—”

“So you were lonely,” he interrupts.

“Yes, I was, and I did as much as I could. I couldn’t tape your shows because I couldn’t think of a label for the videotape that wouldn’t interest him, my husband, when he came home. He’d watch anything. He hates fish, and he’s seen Free Willy, like, twenty times, you know? So on my grocery pad list I’d write love letters to you, take them with me in the car, then scrunch them up real small and throw them out at the grocery store. I had to be careful. But one time I wrote one and wrapped it round a penny instead, threw it in a fountain. I watched the pigeons at the edge of the fountain, bopping their heads like they heard your song, too. I guess I thought, ‘This kind of love ain’t no harm.’”

“What kind of love does harm, Lorna?”

He smells and feels familiar, but distant, like the aftershave of a teacher from long ago, or the shadows in the back of a black-and-white family photo that never look the same twice.

She thinks about it.

“The kind on your show. People get pregnant, people lie.”

“What does the right kind of love feel like to you, Lorna?”

She imagines her husband’s shirts and socks drying out on the line, filling in and out with breaths of wind.

“Not this,” she says.

Dr. Ted seems hurt. He pauses.

“When did you first feel love, Lorna?”

“This guy, Buck Thurgood, he was a mechanic knew my dad. He took me for drives in the nicer cars he’d fix. God, his hands. But I don’t like to remember. Because I was a child,” she says. “And he wasn’t.”

Dr. Ted’s hand, stroking her hair, grows still.

“How does a mother’s love differ from erotic love, Lorna?” he asks.

“You don’t want to fuck your kids,” she says, feeling the nubs of his spine through his shirt, vest, and suit jacket. “We didn’t have kids,” she adds.

“How long does a broken heart take to heal?”

“I’ll tell you once it has,” she says.

“Has love ever made you do something brave or strange? Made you feel strong or weak?”

A low, warning growl from the edge of the room. Peaches is awake.

“Why are you here?” Lorna asks suddenly, caught between annoyance and fear. “Why do you want to know these things?”

The light in the room flashes a searing pink, then white-green, before resettling into that deep summer yellow. Lorna hears Peaches bark, a frightened yap, but can’t see her. She pulls away from Dr. Ted, looking for her dog.

“Why, darlin’—”

“You’re the one who tells people about love, don’t you see? Every single day for thirty years, seems like. So why come here just to ask me?”

“Like I said, Lorna,” Dr. Ted goes, in a defeated voice, like he’s ashamed of himself. “I’m here because I love you.”

“Prove it,” Lorna says, leaning heavily against his chest and breathing in deeply. He smells both living and electric, like those grey-green moments right before a thunderstorm.

Peaches howls.

“I can’t,” he says, his voice going strange, like the static, the snow that would slide through the screen of her first television set. “And Lorna, you can’t.”

She knows full well that he can’t. But she can, can’t she? And how is that any different? So she kisses his lips. They’re cold, colder than anything should be in this hot, honey-yellow room, as the elm trees positively barf their masses of seeds at and against the windows.

“You want me,” she instructs.

“I want you,” he says.

She kisses him again and opens her mouth, kisses harder, runs her fingers through his odd clumps of hair, which cluster and cling like dirtied fur and shake like frightened mice. His tongue presses up against hers, and she recoils: it’s dry.

As if sensing something is wrong, he stiffens, and the room darkens. But she forgives him that strangeness too, seeking his free hand where it lies limp on the sofa and lacing his fingers through hers.

“Love’s what I say it is, because it’s something I know and you don’t,” she thinks, without needing to say it out loud. She knows he can hear her.

He freezes, his mouth hanging open in a kind of horror. He flickers and disappears.

All at once, the phone rings, Peaches barks, and the living room goes dark, lit only by the TV. It’s a kind of flickering light that flits along the walls, refracted and blue, like it might look seen through gallons of water.

Lorna fumbles for her phone, letting out a strange, dry sob. She wipes her hands on her neck, then slides her fingers across the screen, accepting the call.

“Baby?” Lorna says.

Mel’s voice comes to her.

“Tell me what you’re wearing.”

“What?”

She looks down at Peaches. Peaches looks up at her.

“Hardly anything,” Lorna says.

“Oh, that’s good,” he goes. “That’s really good. Do you remember our first time? We put your seat all the way back. It was so cold, so dark, so late. I didn’t think we’d ever get home.”

“Is Dawes there?”

A sigh reaches her, hissing like sand and ashes through an electric fan—distorted, no doubt, by the storm, by the speaker.

“He’s gone,” Mel says.

“How is it? The roads? Is it safe over there?”

“It’s cold and it’s quiet. All I hear is the wind.”

Lorna leans back on the couch.

“I remember. Of course I remember,” she says. “You popped two of my buttons off when you were unbuttoning my shirt. Pop. You saw my tits and said, ‘Wow.’”

“I— Ha. That’s all I had to say? No, I said, I remember saying, ‘Please.’ I kept asking for permission.” There’s a pause, a loud rustling. Perhaps he’s switching his phone from one ear to another? Then: “Please, just a little further. A little more. I couldn’t believe my luck.”

Really, he couldn’t have gotten there—on her, inside of her—fast enough, as he parted her shirt, as he caressed her thighs, as he discovered the wet of her. So gentle and reverent, his thin fingers so cold. She’d ached so deeply that she feared she’d combust somehow—throbbing once, enormously, and winking out of existence forever.

“You wait, you wait right there,” he says. “I’m coming home to you.”

Victoria Hetherington's debut novel, Mooncalves, focuses on the implosion of a Quebec-based cult, and was named one of several cult narratives “filling a particular, and dark, societal need” by Quill and Quire. Last updated winter, 2019–2020.
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