Alex was not a man of diversified interests. He did not surf the Internet, watch television, or own a musical instrument. Diversity diminished obsession. Any more obsessions couldn’t be maintained or they would slip into the lesser realm of “hobby.” His obsessions were the Fertile Crescent Wetlands Initiative, his role-playing group the Haymarket Dragons, maintaining a perfect bicycle, and Lyn.
She sometimes wondered the ranking of these but that they were collectively paramount and singular in Alex's attention was a certainty.
The FCWI was the non-profit Alex had founded to campaign for the protection and restoration of the marshes of Iraq. Before that he had served two tours in Iraq building bridges and blowing brains out. He wrote her extensive letters detailing the losses this exploited spot had endured. He kept tabs on every endangered fish, the thousands of dwindling bird habitats, the ever-diminishing flux of salt content in the marsh. The breadth of his capacity for details was staggering and this way he’d taught her what obsession was.
The Haymarket Dragons club was not like this. He rarely spoke of it except to inform her that there would be a meeting and to leave a number where he could be reached. She suspected that because role-playing games were rumored to be uncool, he preferred to keep it to himself.
At the outset of their relationship it was one of those things mentioned in passing, like a tiresome co-worker or an infrequently touched upon knitting project. If something was worth mentioning at all, Alex would share it. But as they grew closer and discussed the litanies of tax forms and grocery shopping, the Haymarket Dragons was never something he seemed interested in expounding upon.
She came to think of it as his familiar, the part of him that he kept private so that his individualism was not lost in the confines of an otherwise unsteeling commitment to a transparent and honest relationship. Out of respect for this perceived need, Lyn squelched her natural curiosity and never asked him a single question about it. He never offered any information and she accepted this as confirmation of her theory. She had been raised in a family where secrets were nurtured, and she respected their power.
In exchange for leaving her laundry, Lyn brought home some groceries for Tyree. She suspected Ty had only brought it up as a way to buy time before Lyn got home.
If she’d come in the downstairs door, they’d have heard her right away. The door from Tyree’s apartment down to theirs wasn’t shut properly. Probably one of the EMTs had gone upstairs and not closed it carefully. Lyn pushed it with one finger and a woman’s voice was audible. She stepped onto the stairs.
The voice was soft and kind. “You have to get it together. This is too important. If you fall down, I can’t just go ask some other guy on the street to do your part. I need you.”
Lyn’s foot shifted and the stair creaked ever so slightly. Well she hadn’t really been trying to listen in, not consciously, she was just so surprised in the moment that she didn’t think to move. But when the wood creaked she came down the stairs just as the soft voice whispered, “…hear that?”
“Is there someone—Oh, hi.” They must have been sitting at the little table squeezed into the kitchen of their one-room apartment, but by the time Lyn reached the bottom they were standing. The girl didn’t seem like the type that would be into tabletop gaming. Her hair was thin and silky and long, a light auburn that was too perfect to come from anywhere but a hair salon. She wore a sundress with a cherry pattern.
He’d showered, combed back his wavy black hair and changed out of her tights and into jeans and an XKCD t-shirt. But he still looked like he was under a higher gravitational pull. Lyn crossed the one-room apartment to where they stood by the modest round table.
“Alex, you’re here.” She hugged him, hoping to cover any awkwardness about how long she’d been standing there.
“Whatcha’ guys talking about?” Lyn asked. She was trying to find some entry in her limited knowledge of role playing games that could fit with the seriousness of the girl's tone. Her mind was reporting back zero correlation.
“Lyn, you remember Sophia? She also works on rivers issues. I thought you were at the laundromat.” Alex said, like it was a question, but she didn’t answer.
“This is your role-playing game? Aren’t you supposed to have game books?” Small meeting with just him and this girl.
“Still waiting for a few people to show up. We had to move the meeting at the last minute because of the power outage. It was completely dark…timing is everything, you know?”
Actually, she didn't know.
“Why don't you go up to Nomad Coffee and get a sandwich. My treat.” He retrieved his billfold from his back pocket.
“It's fine. I'm fine. I just have some sketching to do. You won't distract me.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing to have someone watch us play.”
How could he be just standing there, when hours ago she thought he may be dead? It was like seeing a ghost; had this morning even been real? She touched her sleeve where the fresh cuts were hiding. Yes, it was real, the pain reminded her.
Lyn thought of Ty’s accusation. What if she were to get pregnant? If she had a little piece of him growing in her loins, she would have to consider whether she wanted him around for a whole lifetime. And since he had become the kind of man who was haunted by his own nightmares, who broke into angry outbursts when car tires screeched, she couldn't even begin to wonder.
She was sure it was wrong to spurn a lover for their service to her country. But if the things he'd seen had changed him, if the night sweats and the outbursts were going to continue on forever, she knew she could not commit to that. And if these were reasons to break it off down the road, why shouldn't they be reasons to break it off now? She didn't want to leave Alex, but she couldn't imagine them staying this way either. She had always thought he would make a terrific father: compassionate, honest, reasonable. But that was all before. A baby would bring into sharp relief what the changes in him meant for their relationship. She wasn't ready to examine those changes; she wasn't ready to accept that Alex had changed at all.
It's not as though she had to settle. Men had coveted her. She hated their slovenly advances. They were like wolves, panting and pouncing and waiting to feed. She loved them too because in their eyes she was beautiful. They would get their fill of her and, once satiated, be gone. Since it never lasted, she had learned to be skeptical of their affections. She was only pretty when the wolves were hungry.
She hadn't chosen Alex. She had said “yes” to him as she had to all the others and somehow his hunger for her had continued on, through the next day and the day after. Was that what love was? He had said, “Do you love me?” and she said “Yes.” She always said yes: “Will we be together forever?” “Do you want to meet my parents?” “Am I better than the other guys who came before me?” Yes, yes, yes. She knew no other answer.
Lyn almost gave in, but she remembered the preacher-kid’s words, What do you want more than anything, and stood as firm as a toddler fighting bedtime. She felt a determination to be with her art supplies, she couldn’t remember ever feeling so resolute. She found a word she thought she’d lost.
“No,” she said.
“Hey, relax. Just saying. I think there’s a band playing there tonight.”
“I have stuff to do. If you don’t like it, leave.”
He hesitated. Her arms were crossed but he pulled them apart and kissed her closed hand. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, Alex; stop being weird.”
On the bus ride home, Lyn had written Tyree’s little speech in her journal. The first thing she did was translate Ty’s words into pictures. There was so much she wanted to get down, but she liked the pressure to work swiftly. It made her better.
She was adding the sickening details on a drawing of a figure half-made of blood. It was a girl, thin and pale like her. She drew it with her asymmetrical, thin dark hair. But seeing herself as this sticky red character made her stomach turn. She inked the hair longer and added a cowlick and wave nothing like her own flat hair. Above the drawing were Tyree's words: tears…sea of blood. Enough blood for half a person.
With her earbuds tucked into her ears the sounds of Portishead swallowed her up, leaving Alex to his familiar. For once the music was too loud, and Lyn kept nudging the trip-hop down to turn the real world up, but Alex and Sophia offered only whispers. Why were they whispering?
Alex asked the girl about someone named Ed. She heard him say, “There's been progress in the past. We have to try every alternative before...” She realized she was watching them when two pairs of eyes turned her way. Lyn looked up, pretending to be lost in thought. “...We have to try absolutely every alternative.”
Alex’s eyes were hidden in shadows. Lyn looked at their faces to see if she could use one for a model. There certainly seemed to be an apprehension in the room that would fit into the drawing she was attempting. And again she felt the edginess that was pointed in her direction.
A man in a trucker cap and tattered jeans arrived shortly. He sported a bold set of muttonchops.
Lyn was having an argument with the volume control of her mp3 player. She really, really, really wanted to concentrate on sketching. Get in the zone. Turn up the music, push the outside world away. But then somehow the volume would creep back down, revealing tid-bits of whispers. Surely the volume did this of its own accord.
What else could she remember? Rain. She drew a cloud over the owl, and a puddle beneath it. The proportions she saw in her mind’s eye overflowed from one page into another. Everything was too big to fit on the pages of her sketchbook. She looked up at the mark where her secret drawing peeked out from paisley fabric.
Before hitting the play button, Muttonchops nudged Alex and pointed her way.
She closed her eyes tightly and began to sing out loud, pretending to be engrossed in the music: Mama never told you How you were s'posed to treat a girl. Papa never told you, now you're all alone Out in the world.
“I said I lived here with my girlfriend.”
Lyn caught herself leaning toward them, but still couldn’t hear what Muttonchops said in reply.
“If you trust me, let that be the end of it” Alex said this with what Lyn thought was impressive finality.
Muttonchops said nothing more but she felt his red hair glaring at her across the room.
The trio gathered around the tiny kitchenette. While they seemed comfortable enough with one another, propping their feet up and trading jokes about the varieties of crazy they had encountered on the train, they bristled with the containment of something.
Muttonchops said, “Well frankly we aren't ready. I need more time…getting all the necessary materials.” Again this pause and Lyn couldn't help thinking the man had looked at her then. This time she didn't look up but she heard discreet murmurs. Alex's voice was among them.
Lyn told herself to ignore them.
She had drawn the shape of the head but not filled in the face. She wasn't sure how she wanted it. Its hollow blankness haunted her. She poked at her mp3 player, skipping to a track that didn't suddenly fill her with the long-fingered boogie men of her youth.
They'd sent the girl her way.
“Hi.” Sofia said.
Lyn feigned surprise. “Oh! Hi.”
Sofia had her hands curled out at the waist like Wilma Flinstone. “It's kind of weird, this meeting going on and you over here by yourself, not knowing anyone. I'm still Sofia.” She offered her hand and Lyn shook it. It was likely the smallest and softest hand ever offered to her in handshake.
Sofia said, “I'm super-hungry. Do you think you could hook me up with some bread and jam?”
Lyn sighed. She suspected this was a ploy, but she couldn’t resist the temptation to get Sophia alone. “I think we have yogurt. Or crackers. No bread.”
“Alex said there was bread upstairs. But I didn't want to go poking around up there. He said it wasn't your apartment up, that it was the Landlord's?”
May as well let the paint dry. “Can't do toast, no power. I could make PB and J.”
Though it wasn't her house, Sofia led the way up the stairs. Lyn admired her white tights and the thin ankles they covered. The girl had an anklet with little red charms that jingled when she walked. It looked expensive. From the tips of her shiny Mary Janes to her perfect French manicure, the girl had the kind of meticulous grooming that made normal girls uncomfortable.