Jake stepped out of the elevator. The office was already a bustling hive of shuffling papers and chirruping phones. He sat down hard in his chair, throwing his messenger bag under the desk of his cubicle. There were a pile of papers stacked up in his inbox. His computer always took forever to boot, so he hit the power button and started sorting through the mess on his desk.
“Hey.” He heard Joe say from over their shared cubicle wall.
“Hey, man.” He replied.
“Beth’s been looking for you.”
“Yeah… I know. I talked to her on the phone.” Jake looked out his cubicle down towards her office. The door was closed.
“So what’d you do last night? Let me guess. You Season 2 of Lost and day old pizza?” Joe laughed.
“Nah. Actually I went out for drinks last night.” Jake said, logging into his computer. As the saccharine sweet melody of the loading screen played, Joe popped over the top of the wall like an incontinent prairie dog.
“Whoa! You… out in the world?” Joe grabbed his phone and put it to his ear. “Hello, New York Times…”
“Congrats, man. Seriously. You’re getting back out there. I’m proud of you.” Joe leaned against their wall, smiling. Jake shook his head dismissively. “So what’d you do?”
“Just some drinks with my friends,” he said. “It was my birthday.”
“Well happy belated birthday, man. Where’d you guys go?”
“I don’t remember, we hopped around a bit. I don’t remember much after the second bar.”
“Hah! My boy’s got a hangover.” Joe said loudly.
“Dude. Will you shut the fuck up!” He peered out of his cubicle again. Beth’s door was still closed. When he sat back up, Joe was gone.
“Looking for someone?” He heard behind him. Beth was standing over him, stack of papers in one hand, highlighter in the other. A ball-point pen stuffed into her tight bun.
“Uh.” Jake stared, dumbly. “I was…”
“Yes. Well… make sure you get the Makenzie report done and submitted to Barbara before noon.” Beth said, lingering for a few moments. Jake was poised to turn back to work, but something about the way she was staring unnerved him. Her eyes pinioned him to his seat like hazel gimlets. Jake could see a swath of Beth’s dark auburn hair had escaped her tight bun. It fell wistfully over her face, momentarily accenting her high cheekbones, before she brushed it back behind her ear and left.
Jake rolled his chair back to his computer and dug through the papers on his desk until he found the Makenzie file. He looked at the clock and sighed. But, as Jake turned his eyes to his computer, his mind returned to the globe.
The strangeness of the past few hours blew through him like an icy, October wind. He kept thinking that the outlandish new addition to his living room had to be a prank. Some elaborate plan by one of his friends to take his mind off Rita. Steve’s denial had only cemented that thought. But this was too absurd. From the dark reptilian recesses of his mind, Jake knew this was different.
His living room was practically destroyed. Even if he could replace the couch and coffee table somehow, they would still have to find some way to get rid of the wrecking ball in the middle of his floor. Jake knew his friends were worried about him, but property damage? That was too far. He didn’t want to think how much it would cost. Would his renter’s insurance cover it, or would it be filed under the ubiquitous umbrella as an ‘act of God?’
Jake shook his head, kneading the tiny knot of muscle over the bridge of his nose. For the third time in as many minutes, he looked at the clock.
“The Makenzie report,” he told himself.
“What?” Joe asked.
“Nothing, just… talking to myself is all.”
“You know what they say about talking to yourself…” Joe mused.
Jake didn’t answer. The thought had no place in his head, not right now. Of course he couldn’t be making it up. Steve had seen it. And Pavel, too. Hell, Pavel had brought a blowtorch. But… no. That’s not possible. It was there. He felt it. Its stony surface, slightly warm to the touch; the dull, hollow ring when struck; these couldn’t be figments. He dimly remembered tripping over it last night, when he came home. It was there.
But, his mind countered, you could have just imagined touching it. Imagined hearing it ring. Imagined the perfect semi-circles inscribed into the furniture.
“But Steve was there…” Jake spoke, a little too loudly.
“What buddy?” Joe said. Joe’s music drifted softly from his headphones.
“Nothing. I’m… the Makenzie report.”
But if you made up the stone, his mind chimed, why couldn’t you make up Steve and Pavel? You know them. You know how they’d act. They could have just been characters in your little play. You pull the strings and then prance to your melody.
No. Things had been tough the last few months, but nothing like this. Sure, there were some days where Jake didn’t even want to get out of bed, especially in the beginning. He remembered more than a few times where he spent the whole day in his pajamas, crashed out on his couch with a bag of cheese puffs, eyes glazed and half-closed from sixteen straight hours of TV. Sure he cried. He wasn’t proud of it, but he did. Rita had been his whole life for more than five years. It would have been inhuman not to cry.
Jake sighed deeply. That was all over now. They had both moved on. Or, at least, that’s what he kept telling himself in the mirror.
He went to the printer bay next to Beth’s office and stood as the pages of the Makenzie report spat slowly out. He made two copies. Stapling them together, he dropped one on Barbara’s desk, and went to knock on Beth’s office.
“Come in.” She said. Her phone was ringing idly on her messy desk. Papers and thick, manila envelopes covered every available surface. Post-it notes were haphazardly stuck to file cabinets and the bulletin board above her. She was sitting in front of her computer, legs crossed, daintily typing up a storm.
“I’ve got the Makenzie report.”
“I told you to…”
“Yeah, Barbara’s desk. I did. I just figured you’d want to take a final look at it before it goes out.”
Beth glanced back at him over her shoulder. She finished typing and swiveled her chair towards him, hand out. Adjusting her glasses, she quickly pored over the papers. Jake’s heart skipped a beat when Beth’s hand went for a highlighter, but she seemed to change her mind mid-grasp.
“That’s fine,” she said, looking at the clock, “and with time to spare. Good job.”
“Thanks,” Jake smiled, nervously.
“I was being sarcastic.” She said over the tops of her glasses.
“How are you going on the quarterly numbers?” She asked, gliding back to her computer.
“Mostly done,” he lied, “I’ve just got to do some due diligence with accounts receivable and I should have it on your desk by the end of the week.”
“Make that Wednesday.” She said, not bothering to look at him
“Ok,” Jake swallowed, anxiously. “You’ll have it by Wednesday.”
Jake closed the door behind him. His mind was anywhere but work. On his way back to his desk, he grabbed some coffee. Hopefully that would help. It was almost lunch, but he had a lot to do if he was going to get everything done. He might have to skip it.
“So,” Joe asked, pushing his chair into Jakes cubicle, “you meet any honeys last night?”
“Honesly, Joe, I’ve got a lot of shit to do today, so…”
“Ok, ok,” he said reluctantly. “No need to be snippy.”
“No, I…” Jake began to say, but Joe had already sulked off to his own desk.
Jake slumped tiredly into his chair and sighed. Turning his eyes to the quarterly numbers, he went back to work.
The key turned in Jake’s front door.
“Shh. He could still be in apartment.” Pavel opened the door, slowly, religiously. Underneath his arms, two smallish children stood in hushed awe.
“Is it really here?” One of them said.
“Is here, yakob,” Pavel said, not without pride. Turning suddenly, Pavel pointed sternly at them with his gnarled forefinger. “Yakob. Chebja. Be knowing not to touch.”
“Ja, Ja.” They spoke in unison.
The three of them entered the musky dark of the living room. Yakob and Chebja did not cling to their father, they were boys after all, but they stayed very close behind him. Pavel crept closer to the strange orb, whose presence has already passed from rumor to legend. He had talked to the pretty lady in 4b about it just after leaving Jake’s apartment. Her sink had been leaking and while his hands were busy, he told her of his strange morning. After that, he talked to old Mrs. Rubinski in 1d. After that, it was only a matter of time.
They all wanted to see it.
Pavel and his two youngest boys stood before the implacable grey stone. He could still smell the sharp electrical tang in the air from the shattered metal. Looking around, he could see Jake hadn’t cleaned up the twisted, blackened shards of his hammer.
“Careful where your feet are putting,” he said. His knees cracked loudly as he bent to examine them closer.
“Can we touch it, Papa?” Yakob pleaded with his mother’s big, dark eyes.
“Ja. Ja. Careful.”
Yakob, the elder of the two, extended his hand tentatively towards the stone. Chebja cowered behind him, clutching Yakob’s shirt. Inching his hand closer, Yakob stopped just shy of the surface. Chebja hid. Pavel, having watched this sacred ritual of boyhood, burst out laughing. Slapping Yakob’s back, he jerked his hand back as soon as it made contact, clutching it to his chest as if he’d been burnt.
“Is not fire, see…” Pavel roughly patted the surface of the rocky globe, like a pet. “Nothing. Chebja, do you want touch?”
Chebja reached out with the singular bravery of a villager after the monster’s been burned. He smiled, front tooth missing, as he ran his hand over the warm stone. As his brother was walking around, examining the ruined furniture, Chebja put his ear to the orb. Pavel tussled Yakob’s hair, bringing the boy close to him. Suddenly Chebja cried out and ran for the door. Pavel followed. As he chased his youngest son through the door, he ran into a very confused and angry looking Jake.
“Pavel?” Jake eyes moved incredulously from Pavel to his open door and back.
“Um. Mr. Lasko. I …” Pavel watched as his youngest ran past Jake and down the stairs.
“Where you just in my apartment?”
“I am…” Pavel furtively met Jakes eyes.
“With your kids?”
“I am checking,” he says, meeting Jakes eyes and crossing his arms defiantly, “damage to floor.”
“Pavel, I’d like it if you didn’t let yourself in my apartment when I’m not here unless there’s an emergency.”
“Yes, Mr. Lasko.”
“And I’d appreciate it if you left your kids at home, next time as well.”
“Of course, Mr. Lasko. Yakob.” He called back through the door. Cautiously, Jake saw a blonde mop of unruly hair peek out from the door before nonchalantly walking past, avoiding eye contact the whole way.
“Thank you.” Jake watched as they walked down the stairs. Pavel looked back, guilt carved deeply on his face. Sighing, Jake went through his door and shut it behind him.
Jake tossed his messenger bag onto the couch, in its usual place, it came to rest against the globe. He could see that his answering machine was blinking. Shaking his head, Jake hit the button.
“Um… Mr. Lasko, I’m calling to confirm your doctor’s appointment at…” Jake hit delete.
“Yeah. Your order of Buxom Backdoor S…” Jake hit delete.
The next message played. He could hear breathing and behind it, the wind blowing. His heart teetered on a wire. Then, he heard her voice.
“…Jake. It’s me.” There was another pause. “Rita, in case you were wondering.” Strained laughter escaped her lips before being quickly caught. “I know I shouldn’t be calling you. You don’t deserve…” She sighed.
Jake’s knees weakened, as his heart struggled desperately to beat its way out of his chest. He sat down.
“Listen. I was just wondering if… I mean I know… I don’t deserve another…”
Jake’s head lolled against the wall, his unfocused eyes coming to rest on the grey blur in his living room.
“I just miss you.” Jake’s heart fell.
“I know things can’t go back to the way they were, and I’m fine with that…” her words tumbled out like trash out the back of a garbage truck. “… I was just wondering if you wanted to meet up… sometime… maybe for coffee? I know there’s that place you like on Hudson, we could meet there.” Her pleading voice broke as her throat closed over tears.
“Fuck” he said, banging his head back against the wall.
“Just, you know… call me if you want. You should still have my number. Shit! I mean… well in case you don’t, its 555-416…” Jake hit the delete.
“DUDE!!! WHY DON’T YOU ANSWER YOUR PHONE!?!” Steve’s voice screamed through the machine. “WHAT THE FUCK MAN? Some crazy space-nugget lands in your living room and you GO TO WORK?! Shit, we can charge people money to look at that shit. It’s a gold mine.” Jake hit the delete.
“LASKO, ANSWER YOUR PHONE!!!” Jake smashed the delete button again and again, until a cheery robotic voice told him he had ‘no more messages.’
Jake immediately got up, went to the door, pulled the chain and turned the deadbolt. When it was locked, he leaned back against the door, rolling his head back to rest against the firm Oak. In his pocket, he blindly flipped the off switch to his cell. Jake expected Steve to be knocking down his door in an hour or so, so he went to the kitchen for another drink.
A stiff double whiskey in hand, Jake sat on his couch. He liked this couch. The one he had with Rita was too lumpy, and always covered with tiny, colorful pillows. They fought constantly about those pillows. Of course they were Rita’s idea. She had decorated their whole apartment. It had a scheme. When Jake would come home from work, he would just toss the pillows casually to the side before he sat down. They she would yell at him, telling him how expensive the pillows were, or how he didn’t respect her stuff. In the end, Jake would just shrug and surrender.
But now, Rita was gone, and Jake could do what he liked. He flipped on the TV. He had to struggle to see around the globe, laying down on the couch with his head on the armrest. Scanning through the channels, he finally settled on a rerun of Law & Order. Not the original, one of the other ones. Jake half-watched/half-dozed as he awaited Steve’s inevitable return. It wasn’t long before he was asleep.
Jake woke with a start. It was dark outside; the moon yet to rise. The TV was still blathering on, unwatched. Jake turned it off. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he looked towards the front door. Wearily, he got up and went to look out the peephole. There was nobody there. Confused, Jake turned on his cellphone. 19 text messages.
Amidst the hectoring, all-caps messages from Steve, there was one from Rita. I miss you, it said. He deleted it. Reading through Steve’s messages, he saw that Steve had tried coming by his place, but couldn’t get buzzed in. So he had gone away.
Jake spun, still disoriented from the opium-draught of sleep. It sounded as if something big had hit the side of his building. He ran to the window, looking out at the rain drenched landscape of his block. Opening the window, he leaned out as far as he safely could. He looked down the ledge in both directions for any possible hint as to the source of the noise. The three-quarters full moon had just crested the top of the building across from him, bathing his modest apartment in blue light. He checked the fire escape. Nothing.
Jake wheeled around again. He looked towards the door again, but his eyes fell short as they found the globe. Thin, serpentine cracks coursed over the surface of the stone. Edging closer, Jake could see their web-like pattern along the entirety of the globe. He reached out, plunging a fingernail into one of the larger cracks. He could feel the exterior of the orb move, like the broken surface of a crème brulee.
The shock shot up Jake’s fingers and through his arm. Falling back on onto the floor, Jake saw new cracks splay out from where he touched it. Tiny chips had started to fall to the floor where the cracks met.
Jake scampered to his feet and backed up against the living room wall. Moonbeams illuminated the dust that had started to shake off of the orb.
Jake made for the door.
From behind him, he heard a large thunk and then another smaller one. Hand on the door, Jake turned back to look one last time at the globe. Underneath the stony shell, he could see the glint of glass. Heart pounding in his chest, Jake stayed. Every neuron in his brain was screaming for him to bolt out the door and never look back, but he remained still. Some perverse curiosity arrested him. He had to see it. He had to see inside.
Cautiously, Jake stepped forward. His heart leapt as another piece of shell tumbled to the floor and broke like ancient pottery. Now he could clearly see moonlight shining through it. As he got closer, he peered into the murky translucent depths of the stone. Inside, a shadow lay curled and twisted like languorous smoke.
Then, it twitched.
Jake jumped back, knocking a coin-filled bowl onto the floor. Change skittered, bounced and rolled under his feet, but his eyes did not leave the sphere. He tried to catch his breath and still his stampeding heart. Renewing his threadbare courage, he advanced on the orb.
He ran his hands over the smooth glass, revealed by a huge craggy fault in the stone. It was hot to the touch, and slightly oily. He rubbed his fingers together under his nose and smelled the sea. He saw the shadow wheel and gyre in the opalescent dark. As his hand probed the stony edge of the crag another small piece of shell dropped off.
Delicately sliding his fingers under the edge, he pulled. A lust filled him as he peeled. The feeling as he undid a girl’s bra for the first time: the delicious transgression of a fragile taboo. His heart pounded when he finally caught sight of the forbidden geography of womanhood; ripe, but not quite in bloom. Every vessel in his body swelled with eager blood.
He peeled madly, carelessly littering the floor. Underneath, the glassine dome shone bluish white, broken by the oil into tiny rainbows. He bent down, scraping the remaining pieces off the bottom. With this acc0mplished, he stood up.
Through the foggy interior, Jake could see the silhouette of a girl. She appeared to be asleep, naked and floating, curled up with arms crossed in front of her bare chest. Her long dark hair wafted off her head as if caught in a breeze. He could see the smoke whirl as she breathed. Each time she exhaled, the smoke came out in a thin plume. The fog was settling now, as the girl drifted slowly round and round again.
He watched her for silent minutes, as she hung almost ornamental in the smoke. Eyes closed delicately, arms crossed, she drifted motionless. Until, without warning, she would roll or kick like a dolphin, sending her in another direction. It was beautiful. She was beautiful. But something about her face struck him.
Her eyes were too big. Looking closer, Jake could see her ears were slightly pointed as well. And her fingers, gingerly draped over her chest, were longer than they should be.
She wasn’t human.
Jake tumbled backwards, bounced off the couch and slammed his head against the coffee table. Darkness closed around him.