Jack had disappeared. Burke went upstairs to get his coat and Jack was gone. There was a red aura surrounding the chair where Jack had sat for lunch. Burke touched the chair and the aura soaked into his hand, and it felt alive, more than before, warm and itching with vitality. Where was Jack? The car was in the garage. The TV was still on, muted over the news channel. Burke turned it off and looked in Jack's open bedroom. Nothing doing. It upset Keiko when Burke asked where he might be. "That's what I get for sleeping in your bed," she said. "Are you taking your meds?"
“Yes,” she scowled, eyes watering. "Those pills that keep you from losing your mind and hurting people? Those meds. Are you taking them?"
"Of course I am, but—"
"I don't need this from you."
"But he was—"
"Shut up, Burke!" He sat perplexed on the couch. She stood over him briefly and walked away, the dog following her back downstairs. "You should take a walk," she resolved. "It's only a mile back to town. Get some air. Clear your head."
When the world expands, it takes a moment to warm up again. What's the question, given a certifiable narrator, dignity or happiness? There are happy and unhappy places. Erica, I love you. And we resume where Burke encounters spirit-beings on the walk back into town in the January chill. He buttoned his coat and left his girlfriend's house without an argument, walked the hundred yards back to the highway, proceeding north along the side of the road. It was clear, cloudless and cold and bright, early winter. One hand warm and eager, the other still and secure in the other pocket. He held his hand up, looking for an aura, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Cars passed by on the highway heading into Lawrence from the south. I should call my doctor, he thought, ask him if everything is okay, if I need new meds or something.
Jack died not one year ago and Burke was ashamed of himself for coming unhinged before Keiko. Burke met Jack a few times before he and Keiko became steady together. Burke wondered for a moment why Keiko tolerated him, but the idea was unbearable and frightful. The truth was unbearable. He slipped back into fantasy and visions of tomorrow and the future, worried for his lost and frightened and small soul. Ashamed for offending Keiko, he choked up and began to sob, slipping on an icy patch and tearing a ligament in his knee, now limping into city limits, his knee inverting painfully on each pace. You're over, Burke, he thought, you make everything over with. Jack died last year and you attended his funeral. Keiko bought you those clothes you wore. You listened to her eulogy. She worked on it for a month with her father in the hospital. You’re really over with, Burke. Now she hates you and you're over with. Everything is done.
None of this was cogent to him in the moment, nothing he could recall. When he got to town he looked back, wondered how the walk had passed by so quickly, looking at his watch, puzzled. He saw a minor devil, fallen recently, looking for a way back into good grace, pushed back down by a minor angel, who marked Burke with neutrality and demilitarized him.
Burke limped into a truck stop and got a cocoa, the bored young clerk asking if it was cold enough outside. I don't know, Burke said. How cold is it?
"It's snowing again."
"It is winter," snarled Burke.
"Yes it is," the clerk dispensed Burke's change, saying, "you have a nice day."
Burke sipped the hot chocolate outside in the diesel fumes and slush of wet snow and motor oil, the smaller, blue sun cresting around from behind the larger, orange sun, low in the sky. The blue sun cast aurora clear across the north and west by dusk, curling around the north, some trick of the magnetosphere in early winter.
It was another mile back to Burke's house. His knee hurt and his hand was crazy. Susan and Jane were home, talking about going out for the evening. Jane had a crush on Burke, especially at his most pathetic. He limped into the living room and fell back on the couch by Susan. "What are you guys doing tonight?" he said.
"Girl stuff," Susan exerted.
"Where is everyone?" Burke said. Jane looked at Susan for support, waiting for her to speak. "They went to Johnny's half an hour ago," Susan said. "Do you want a ride?"
"Oh, no thanks," he said. "I think I'm over with."
"You are thoughtful," she said. "Let's go, Jane. See you later, Burke."
"Bye, Burke," Jane said politely. "Don't hurt yourself."
Burke called the doctor as the women left. "Yes, hello, is Dr. Paulsen available?" There was a pause and the secretary asked if it was a crisis. Burke said so, and another pause, the sound of papers shuffling— "Burke, hello? I'm Nicole Hyatt, on call for Dr. Paulsen. Do you remember me?"
"We talked when I first came in. My meds aren't working. I'm seeing ghosts and angels." The shuffling of papers stopped. He could hear the creaking of a reclining chair. Another pause. "When were you last in to see us, Burke?"
The chair creaked again, papers shuffling. "Hold on a minute," she said. He heard typing, then the chair and the papers. "We only gave you three refills, Burke. Your prescription expired over three months ago." He considered this for a moment, sure he was taking them all along, now not so sure at all. She asked him to hold on the line as she called the scrips into a nearby pharmacy. "You can pick them up again within the hour," she said when back on the line. "Same as before, then I want you to come in at nine on Monday, okay?"
"Okay," Burke said, hung up the phone, and went to bed, waking up in his clothes, the alarm clock reading 3:14 AM. Pi, he thought, three point one four, nauseating. The basement was cold. He thought of Jane in the next room, of how she must feel, pure and serene and peaceful. He felt its terrible envy, anger and frustration because it was too early for all this weird stuff, and because it was really happening and it was disgusting and there was nothing he could do. He rolled onto his back, practicing a breathing exercise, extending his diaphragm with each inhalation, holding it in and exhaling slowly, something Erica taught him in Texas, how to breathe. Don't breathe into your chest, she had said. It makes you anxious. He looked at the clock again, switched the alarm off and stood up, taking a change of clothes to the shower. The hot water washed away yesterday's pains and reinvigorated him, washed away the awful feelings, washed away the dread. Brushing his teeth and shaving, he looked alive in the mirror, clean and calm, just like anyone. Nothing glowered in the shadow. Nothing laughed through the wall. Nothing scratched on the door. Everything was okay.
When you fall far from help, you want to know what to keep sacred, against all hope and fear. What to vouchsafe, or whom, etc... for when the party's over. For Burke it was Erica, but there was a toll. Not a big investment for the future, but a pittance by the day, by the hour. No big upside. Some call it the torch, the passing of the torch, the baton, the namesake... nomenclature without claim on truth or goodness, only for the love of the other. Please, let me continue. I apologize for slowing and stepping aside. And especially if you feel bored by these little sentiments of mine, then I beg your pardon, but we were talking about beauty, the argument or case for beauty, however absurd, over life and love. It's a disaster and we should want to change course. The show must go on.
“Say cut,” the engineer said.
“Cut,” I said.
“Say it like you mean it,” she said.
“Say, that's a take.”
“That's a take.”