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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: February 02, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: February 02, 2018

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A A A


 

 

 

 

 

Meta

 

by

Taylor Fox

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Either a body absorbs light, or it reflects or refracts it, or does all these things. If it neither reflects nor refracts nor absorbs light, it cannot of itself be visible.”—H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man

 

 

 

Jack looked out of his car window.  Ahead of him a sign along the highway read International Border 1 Mi.  Beyond, bats weaved around the edges of the outermost edge of light cast by his headlamps.  Every cactus stood like spiked centurions, their arms raised and threatening.  Jack passed a row of liquor stores, tire stores, shanties with cage wire across the closed store front with a board that read Mecánica in red lettering, propped against a stack of tires. 

Jack pulled up to one of the inspection booths.  It was ten to midnight.  The other lanes were also empty.  Beyond them, near the International Boundary Line itself, three men in khaki outfits paced.  They held their rifles pressed against their chests, their barrels and faces pointing straight down like they were contemplating shooting their feet.  The CBP officer in the booth was busy texting something on her phone, and held up one index finger for him to wait.  She then put her away her phone and motioned for his passport. 

“U.S. citizen?”  She asked.

“Yes.”

“Where are you returning from?”

“Mexico.”

She gave him a bored look.  “What part?”

“Chihuahua.”

“Chihuahua.”  She tilted her chin toward him.  “Purpose of your visit?”

“Visiting a friend.”

She peered into the vehicle.  Jack looked around with her—empty passenger seat, empty rear seats.  Some empty coffee cups and a water bottle on the floor.  Some change and wadded up receipts in the cup holder.  A half opened backpack containing papers from work in the back seat.  He flipped through his Pandora playlist on his phone that he had plugged into his car, pretending to search for a different song.  Beyond the cinder block walls of the inspection station and the tall chain link fences rimmed with barbed wire and surveillance cameras, Jack saw the dim outline of Arizona desert mountains. 

She snapped his passport shut and handed it back.  “You’re good,” she said, waving him through, her eyes already returned to the flickering images on her phone. 

Jack felt a sharp need to exhale and pinned it down against his lungs.He rolled up his window, exhaled in a warm whoosh of air, and drove across the boundary line, careful to reach across to the passenger seat.  He felt around until he found her hand and held it, as the car pulled onto the two lane highway and slowly picked up speed.

 

 

******************************************

Ana was a place to him before she ever was a person.  Her profile pic showed a girl, her black ponytailed hair fanned out across one shoulder like bundled strands of licorice.  Her profile slogan even described her as a place: Erin from Ireland.  She wore a derby and a wide smile, a pale blue tie in between her teeth.  The photograph had the filtered blends of light and shadow that signaled a professional touch.  Jack did not like this. 

People who crave attention are insecure.

People filter their profile pics to get more attention.

A person with a filtered profile pic is insecure.

After almost a full night of looking at all of her photos she had posted, jack IM’d her.

So u r not from Ireland?

She did not answer.

The day after texting her, Jack conducted an experiment.  He superimposed her profile pic into some of his Facebook travel photos—hiking in the Smokies; on a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi; deep sea fishing off of the Gulf Coast; white water rapids with his advanced physics lab classmates on spring break.  He then showed the cropped photo to a series of people, and gauged their reaction when he told them this was his girlfriend.  He showed them to three people, all on the same day:  the security guard to the lab where he worked; from the UPS delivery woman; and, standing in line at the fish taco stand two blocks from the lab, a late teens boy with black hair and dyed blond streaks, a skateboard tucked under one armpit.  The UPS woman gave it a polite glance, then asked him to sign for the package.  The teenager popped up his skateboard into one hand and looked closely at the photo.  “Nice, bro,” he said, then hopped back onto it while he waited in line.

Only Ilmer refused to believe it.  He took Jack’s phone, held it to the lab’s track lighting as if unearthing the keystone to an ancient language.  After a few seconds he handed it back to Jack.  “No,” he said, unsmiling, and resolutely shook his head.  “She is not girlfriend.  You joke on me.” 

“It’s no joke.  That totally is my girlfriend.”

“Your sister.”

“No.”

“Or friend’s sister.  Being nice to you and letting you take sexy photo of her, to impress me.”

“Why would I want to impress you?”

He shrugged, an expansive sweep of his outstretched arms, and smiled his sloped, tight smile.  “Ask yourself.”

“Very pretty,” his mother said when he showed her during a Facetime chat.  In the pixilated background behind her, it looked like the foyer of a bright, marbled mansion.  “Is she a pro?”

“I don’t think pros use VenusNow, Mom.”

“Yes they do.  I read about it in Huffington Post.  Dating sites are their new Back Pages.”

“Let’s assume she is not.”

“What are you asking?  You’re asking your divorced mother for dating advice?”  She was tipsy already.  Jack saw the stem of a wine glass filled an arterial color.  “I don’t know.  Does she know what the Lars Hard-on Collision is?”

“Large Hadron Collider.”

“Whatever.”

“No.  We have not discussed physics yet.”

“Well.  For her sake she better learn it.”  She sipped from her glass.  “Go for it.  The worst that happens is, you make her realize how stupid she is compared to you.  And then she dumps you.”

Jack gathered up his breath to reply, but he could hear her talking to someone else in the background, and before he could say anything, his mother’s end of the line flattened into an unperturbed silence.

 

**********************************************

The next day, the girl text Jack.

No I’m not from Ireland

Sometimes I pretend I’m from somewhere else like Ireland

Jack:

Why Erin?
The girl:

Erin is Irish for Ireland, u know

He texted back:

So you have an alias.  Are you a spy or a mobster

Not if u r a cop

So what is your real name

Ana what is yours

Jack 

Jack-o-Lantern?

No just Jack

Okay Jack-o-Lantern

Jack sat back, matted down a few hairs reaching upward from his dome of bay colored hair.  He read and re-read her texts, walking to the front window of his one-bedroom apartment.  Below him he watched a car flashing its brights and honking at another car that had pulled into its parking spot.  Two women got out and began screaming at each other.

Flirting is a sign of affection.

Joking is a form of flirting.

Joking is a sign of affection.

This was impenetrable logic, Jack thought.  But if she was not from Ireland, then where was she from?  And how did she—

So how did you get here?

What do you mean?

Here.  In the United States.  How did you get here.

The phone rang then, and Jack picked it up.  “Oh, Jack,” a woman’s voice said on the other end of the line.  She was laughing.  “You do get to the point of things.”  He had not yet met her, but he saw her smiling and pulling her hair into a ponytail like, she was getting ready to go to work, back breaking, grimy work.  “‘How’ is the easy question.  How does anybody get anywhere?  Legs.  The harder question to answer,” she said to him, as the women continued screaming on the street below, “is why do they stay.”

Three days later, they went on their first date.

 

******************************

The day Jack had left for Arizona three years earlier, his father hobbled out to the front stoop with a check for $227.

Jack looked at it.  “Thanks Dad.  That’s a pretty exact number.”

“Well,” he said, scratching the folds of stubbled skin below his jaw, “it’s actually $300, minus the $73 you owe me for having such a kickass dad.”  He then slapped Jack on the back.  “It’s what I had left at month’s end.  Don’t let any rattlers bite you in the ass.  Snakebite venom is pretty pricey.  $40,000, I read somewhere?”  He then went inside, his cane knocking both lengths of baseboards in the entryway. 

Through the window Jack then saw his father lean the cane against one of the kitcheonette walls and pick up the Exacto Knife that he had been using to cut to spec the tail rudders of a model Stuka.  Hank Mentzeger had always been a prankster at heart, with a long and proud resume of workplace pranks at the J.D. Mulvaney Pre-Cast, Inc. concrete plant where he had worked for 27 years.  Then the Karmic Prankster got Hank back, in spades, by putting a newbie behind the wheel of the cement mixer of which Hank was at the time cleaning the inside of the drum.  On what turned out to be Hank’s last day of working—ever--the kid had turned on the mixer, Hank got his leg pinned between the drum and chassis while trying to get out through an inspection hatch.  “Spiral fracture.  They make it sound so pretty,” he had said to them that first night in the hospital, in between morphine shots.

Jack walked over to the electrical panel on the other side of the house.  He flipped off the switch marked “kitcheonette”.  As he drove away he could hear his father cursing and searching for his cane and a flashlight in the dark morning.  When Jack got on to the highway he thought about his father’s cursing, the last sound he heard from his father.  Then Jack was shooting down a highway, shooting westward while the ridgeline shrank behind him in the rising dawn light, and his father sat somewhere miles behind him in a dimly lit room, assembling a model plane.

*********************************

“So what exactly do you do?”  She took a sip from the straw protruding from her water glass.  She had chosen a Persian restaurant that was shoved between a tire shop and a Laundromat.  Waiters dodged each other coming and going through the swinging doors of the kitchen, like bees from a cracked hive.  Their palms balanced platters of puffy pieces of meat carved in long rectangular shafts.

Jack took a sip of water, then pointed to her water glass.  “How about if I show you.”

She steepled her fingertips and leaned forward.  “Like a magic trick?  So you are a magician.”

He slid reached over and slid her glass to his side of the table.  “What do you see?” He said, pointing to her glass.

“A glass of water.”

“And?”

“A straw.”

“Yes.  A straw.  A single, unbroken straw.  But.”  He slid the glass to the center of the table, into a shaft of light.  He moved it again.  Together they looked at the straw—now, in the light’s diminishing late afternoon rays, it looked like it had broken into two pieces, with the half below the water staggered just off of its upper half.“It’s all about light.  Light is just, like, this guy flying down the highway in a really fast sports car—”

“How about a motorcycle.  A Ducati!”

“—or a Ducati.  And this—” tapping the water glass—“is a highway about 20 miles from a big city, so he has to slow down, just a little bit.But he’s still cruising pretty fast.  Then he gets to just outside the city.  This.” He shakes the glass, nodding at the water sloshing around.”  “He’s basically skirting the downtown.  Like, he can practically throw a rock and hit a skyscraper.  And there’s way more traffic.  So he has to slow down even more. 

“But what if”—he now took his straw and put it in the water glass, so that it was directly across from her straw.  He carefully bent it so that it pointed in the opposite direction of the other straw.  “What if we could completely redesign the highway.  Re-design the downtown.  So that instead of just a little change”—pointing to the broken straw illusion—“we could make a big one, so that the guy on the Ducati drove backwards instead of forward.  Or so that there wasn’t any traffic for him to worry about at all, and he could just ride straight through downtown.”  His face was flushed, and his voice had risen a half notch.  Why was he telling her all of this?  No one cared about the hours of tedium and weeknights that lab rats like him spent, bending light in a cramped lab that was, irony of ironies, sunless.  All people wanted were the shiny gadgets produced by the rodents’ labor.  “Anyways, that’s what I do.  I guess.  I figure out the different directions we can get the guy on the Ducati to go.”

“So you are a magician.  I knew it.” 

“But you know what would really be cool?”  His voice returned to its piqued pitch. 

“What?”

He lifted his glass toward hers, and poured.  “Figuring out a way to turn that guy and his bike into a ghost.  So that he could pass right through everything.  The skyscrapers, other cars.  Everything.”

“Like a shortcut?”

Jack leaned forward, closer to her, looking from side to side at the tables crowding around them.  “Better.”

*******************************************

In September they agreed to meet each other’s parents on consecutive weekends.  Julia Mentzeger was first.  “Come over to Monroe’s,” she mumbled over the phone.  She was either drunk or speaking directly into the phone, forgetting that she still had the speaker on. 

“Monroe Street?”

“No.  Mon.  Rowwwwww.”

“Who is Monroe?”

“You’ll love him.  A prince of a man.  A king, actually.  He’s too rich and old to be a prince.”

Monroe lived on an estate with an expanse of lawn punctured on the hour by sprinklers that doused it with water siphoned from the Lake Mead Reservoir.  Its half-circle driveway, tiled in pale blue and mauve pavers, held a runway of bright red, yellow and orange sports cars too exotic for Jack to recognize.  Pillars rose in front of the house in false support of a house made not of bricks and mortar but stucco and styrofoam.  Jack thought of burning plantations passed by Sherman during his march.

They sat in Monroe’s crowded garden, a well pruned mishmash of bougainvilleas, pink azaleas, firethorn, cinquefoils, rain lilies and lentanas, all fenced within tall blue-grey wooden fences that were themselves covered in vines and thorny bushes. 

“Well, you are certainly prettier than your picture Jack texted to me.  Monroe gives his regards by the way, he had to fly out to the West Coast for an emergency meeting.” 

Jack declined to ask what Monroe did for a living.

The majority of the conversation was Julia discussing Monroe’s shrewd investments in fixed income funds and Forex trading.  “And, he was one of the first to climb on credit default swaps.  That’s how he survived when everyone else was drowning.”

“That’s terrible,” Ana said.

“Yeah.  For them, not for us.”

“Ana is studying to become a vet,” Jack said, reaching over to fill Julia’s empty water glass.

“Vets make shit,” Julia said, waving the water carafe away.  “You’re going to cut something open, you might as well make some real money and do it on a pair of tits.”

“Someone made some money off of you, I see,” Ana said.
“What’s that?”

“She said she will take that under consideration,” Jack said.  “We need to go, we have dinner plans I think.”

“Take Jack for instance.  He could have been anything.  You realize that?  He could be making some real money at Lockheed or Northrop Grumman.  Instead he signs on to this pissant research grant and lives in a one-bedroom roach trap that his mother can’t even visit without getting de-loused on the way out.” 

Jack swirled his drink.  At the edge of the lawn, woodpeckers hopped in and out of a palo verde, their beaks striking like anvils at the sparrow eggs in their abandoned nests to which these marauders now laid claim.

 

***********************************

When they were in the car and turning out of the semi-circle driveway,  Ana turned to Jack. 

“Jack-o-Lantern.”  Ana was gripping the steering wheel.  Her knuckles whitened by the second.  “She is your mother.  But even mothers can get punched in the face.”

Jack laughed, then put his forehead to hers, then hugged her, then kissed her.  He already loved her by then, but had kept that hidden from her, or hoped that he had.

 

****************************************

“It is beautiful,” Jack said.

“It is gorgeous,” Ilmer said.  “Like all of my girlfriends.”

Beneath the microscope, it looked like a ghost town made from gold and silk.  Intricate layers of shimmering composite alloys layered horizontally and vertically.  Split ring resonators like iridescent smokestacks.  Treeless boulevards, skyscrapers.  But this micro-town was no artifact.  It was a prologue.

The metamaterials onto which these NIMs had been placed covered roughly 1500 square microns—roughly the width of about fifteen human hairs bunched together.  But to Jack the maze of nanomaterials and composite alloys had created a vacant tiny metropolis awaiting its people.

“Negative refractive index score?”  Jack asked.

Ilmer leaned across the counter toward a panel festooned with dials and digital readings.  “Holy Molly.”

Jack tightened his grip on the edge of the counter.  “And?”

Ilmer looked at him.  “Negative one point two.”

“What spectrum?”

“Four hundred to eight ten Terahertz.”

Jack pulled off his goggles.  “That’s the entire visible light spectrum.”

“Yes.”

“We did it.”

“Yes.”  Ilmer, his hand unsteady, gulped down half of his Sprite, then fumbled to put the cap back on.  Now what?”

Jack slid his wheeled seat back from the counter.  He scratched the back of his head.  On the other side of the glass partition, two other scientists wearing lab coats over t-shirts and jeans ate sandwiches from Styrofoam containers and munched on open bags of chips.  They lifted their heads up and looked across the partition to Jack and Elmer, their sad eyes like gazelles scanning the high grass for hyenas. 

Jack fastened his goggles back onto his the red line its suction had left on Jack’s face.  He leaned back over the microscope to look at his vacant city from the future.  “Now we turn it into a liquid.  And try it on.”

 

***************************************

Two days before Ana was going to take Jack to meet her mother, Jack got a call.  It was Ana, introduced by an automated voice informing Jack that the call was from a federal immigration detention center in Eloy. 

“Ana?”

“They came and got us.  Last night.”

“Who?”  The background was all static mixed with overlapping shouts and metal against metal. 

“Me and my mom and Jorge.”  One of her younger brothers.  “They rounded us up like cows.”  A pause, then:  “You asked me how I got here.  Now you know.”  Her voice had the remnants of earlier crying.  It softened, quieted, her voice, like a night’s heavy snowfall laid across a boulevard. 

“Ana?”

“They’re telling me I have to go.”A stentorian click, a dial tone, and the call ended.

 

***************************

By the time he had been able to get a live, helpful, voice on the other end of the line at the Eloy Detention Center the next day, he learned she was already gone.  “Yep.  Signed her waiver and was driven down to today,” the voice said, and Jack heard what sounded like someone grazing on a bag of potato chips.  “I’m looking at her paperwork right here.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means.  That her paperwork.  Is here.  And I’m looking at it.”

Well.  Could you call someone?”

“No.”

What do you mean, no?”
“Just like I said.”

“Why can’t you call someone?”

“Because it says it right here.  In her paperwork.”

“So that means that everything written on there must be true?  Because it’s on some piece of paper?”

“Yessir.”

“Good.  Then it must say on there that you’re a fucking asshole.”  Jack hung up and thumbed through his Twitter feed—blurbs about a new app that could monitor stress levels through retinal scanning.  North Korea threatening to blow up Honolulu.  A woman who filmed an ostrich attacking another woman at a zoo in Kharviv. 

He texted Ilmer.  Can you come into the lab this weekend and help me out?  I need to finish what we’ve been working on.

 

************************************

The week that the summer’s first monsoon hit, Jack received a text from an unknown number. 

Jack-o-Lantern

Jack called the number immediately, but it went to a voicemail box that had not been set up.  He texted:  Where are you?

Chihuahua

They dropped us off at the border

We had no money on us so we had to hitch 3 different rides

We just got in this morning

He sat, quiet, and for a long time thought about what to say to her.  Then he texted her.

You want to see something amazing?

 

*******************************************

On his drive south, Jack did not see any Border Patrol vehicles until he was five miles from the border, at a pyloned security checkpoint set up in the middle of the two-lane highway.  He watched them load into a van a dusty line of four men and a young woman, none of whom stood as tall as his shoulder.  One wore a Wrestlemania XXX shirt; another wore a Shaquille O’Neal Orlando Magic jersey.  One wore just a torn bed sheet across his body.  One had no shoes.  They walked hunched over, staring at the scrub brush at their feet as if a single hand pressed the backs of their heads.  As Jack drove by them, one BP officer stared at him with the angry yellow rimmed eyes of a grackle. 

At some point Jack made a left and drove for miles down a paved road, past the maquiladoras.  Jack watched blue uniformed workers trudge from their rusted cars across an oceanic parking lot and into a field of smokestacks that seemed to be falling toward the street.  Miles later Jack took a right, and past the sagebrush, past the sahuaro and the desert milkweed and the agaves and the white brush and the Mexican cliffrose, Jack saw the solar plant with its rows of solar panels like a crop of curved razor blades.  He drove past taco stands, beer stands, toddlers in rags handing out tamales in cellophane while their mothers did the same on the other side of the street. 

He drove until he found what he was looking for, the liquor store with the large Dos Equis bottle perched twenty feet above the store.  The two Xes were pockmarked with holes.  Jack pulled into the dusty lot, almost hitting an old man with stringy gray hair that fell across his shoulders and face.  He carried a zippered pouch full of cigars and pipes for sale.  He did not hear Jack’s car, and walked into its path.  When he saw it out of the corner of his eye, he was neither startled nor indignant.  Instead, he held up his zippered canvas for Jack to view the merchandise.  Behind the store Jack saw two teenage boys passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth, while a boy no older than ten kicked a soccer ball in between them.

Jack waited until nightfall.  At the edge of the desert that surrounded him, the sun slunk away into a barely visible slit.  By eight o’clock Jack admitted to himself that she may not come.  His last text he had sent her while he was driving was very unlike a scientific sensibility:  Trust me.  Maybe she did not.

To have faith is to trust.

Love is an act of faith.

To love is to trust.

Jack checked his phone again.  No message.  Around him, the parking lot was nearly empty.  The teenage boys with their whiskey bottle had left hours ago, as did the younger soccer players, leaving the torn ball stuck in between the narrow space between the store and an adjoining shed.  A pregnant dog eyed at Jack and the store door nervously as she nosed around the barrel of trash next to the gas pump. 

Jack got out of the car and picked up the soccer ball.  It was soft but not quite flat.  Torn leather patches gaped like open wounds.  Jack kicked it against the wall.  The dog ran off from behind the garbage can.  Jack could barely see the ball or his own foot as he kicked it; the two dim sodium lamps planted above the gas pumps barely reached him.  But he kicked, and kept kicking, anonymous and distracted.  He never played soccer; his father refused to let him to sign up for soccer in the second grade when his best friends Stevie and Emmett begged him to join them, telling 8-year-old Jack to play Pop Warner instead.  He ended up playing neither.

Headlights swept over him and the ball, illuminating them and casting tall, emaciated shadows against the cinder block wall.  The passenger door opened, a woman got out, and the car pulled back onto the highway and drove south.  Ana.  She had a large mountain climber’s backpack slung uncomfortably over one shoulder.  Her hair was pulled up into a bun, and tucked under a camouflage baseball cap.  Beneath the faded lamplight she looked like a soldier heading to war.

When they were both in his car she turned to him.

“Now what?”

“Now we drive.”  He pointed north.

“This is your plan?”

“Yep.”

She sighed, but it was one of sadness, not frustration or disappointment.  “Oh Jack-o-Lantern.”

He turned on the interior light.  “You still want to see something amazing?”

She turned to him again.  This time he was holding a stainless steel canister with a black rubber spray nozzle.  He held up her forearm and shook the canister, and sprayed.  They both stared at the fine silver mist that fell across her arm. 

Nothing happened. 

Jack had turned away to conceal tears that were erupting from their ducts, despair that erupted from somewhere deeper.  He looked to the moon, split in half like a melon.  He asked it:  What do I do now?  That was when he heard Ana gasp. 

He turned back to look.  Her left hand and forearm were dissolving.  Her skin ebbed from its center in both directions, like a dry leaf lit in the middle by a candle.  Jack kept looking from Ana’s dissolving arm to her face to see if it hurt, but her face registered only joy.  Her left arm, from the elbow down, had disappeared. 

She got out of the car, and he followed.  She waved her half disappeared arm in front of her.  She skipped around the gas pump.  They walked out past the parking lot, beyond the reach of the lamplight.  They walked across the empty highway and over an embankment, until they stood among cacti and a spatter of stars. 

A few yards away, Ana did clumsy pirouettes around a saguaro in bloom, then stopped and turned to Jack.  “What now?  When does this reappear?” She said, waving the stump of her half-visible arm.He nodded to the car.  “I have another spray canister for that.  It returns it to the visible light spectrum.”

She stopped in mid-pirouette.  “And what about after?”  He thought about a future spilling with unanswered questions:  where would she live; where would she work; how long could they keep her invisible; how long would they have to keep her invisible.  He looked around at the empty roadway, the empty desert and the parking lot, empty except for the two of them and the stray dog, following a store bag that was picked up and carried a few feet by a warm gust. 

“I don’t know,” he finally said.

She had returned to her ballerina leaps, and turned to him with her arms reaching up, one shortened by half, until she resembled the form and shape of the lopsided arms of the saguaro with which she danced.  “Oh, Jack-o-Lantern.  Let’s just get in the car and drive until we find something.  It worked for you so far.” 

************************************

 

They found the carnival twelve miles east, in the town of Sinaluz.  The smell of churros and candy apples dipped in warm caramel filled their heads as soon as they parked.  Roller coaster cars sped along its chipping painted turquoise track.

Jack took her into the fun house first.  It was four double wide trailers soddered together, two by two, sitting atop a bed of cinder blocks, with a wooden ramp leading up to its entrance.  El Mundo Nuevo, read the large glass letters and the filament within it that pulsed alternating red, green, and yellow light.  The man tending to its entrance was short and paunchy.  He wore a white tank top and board shorts.  On a little round wooden stool next to him was a digital radio playing music at low volume.  The man kept his eyes toward the ground, took the forty pesos Ana handed him, and waved them inside. 

The first room had a spinning disc with a self-operating handle.  Jack pulled it, and it spun them around.  Jack and Ana laughed and screamed until their sounds mixed into a single note.  They tried holding onto first the handle, then each other, until the spinning disc threw them off, and they tumbled up against the padded walls. 

“Look.”  Ana moved a sign that read pasaje oculto with an arrow pointing to a plastic white bookcase beside it.  She found a handle on one side of the bookcase and pulled it open.  Behind it was a revolving tunnel of kaleidoscopic shapes and light—the throw-up tunnel, Jack called it when he and his brother and sister went to the carnival in Chatanooga.  They tiptoed across it, like lost soldiers in a mine field.  When they crossed it, a young boy stood in front of the curtain into the next room.  He wore grimy jeans cut off at the knees, flip flops, and a stained tank top that had Ren and Stimpy printed on the front.  He looked up at them with unblinking brown eyes.  He could not have been older than seven.  He slowly sipped soda from a straw.  He offered his drink to Jack, who took it.  “Don’t get lost,” he said in unflinching English.  He shuffled past them and through the throw-up tunnel without a single misstep. 

Jack pulled the curtain back and walked in to find himself encircled by rows of full length mirrors encased in red plastic frames.  The House of Mirrors.  His hand slipped from Ana’s as she walked around a question mark shaped partition of mirrors and disappeared behind it.  He was alone then, surrounded by warped versions of himself:  to his left, one curved mirror made his head squish like it had been placed in a vise, while his torso had bloated like he was a bullfrog.  His legs were nubs.  He opened and closed his mouth in smiles and frowns.  He turned around to look at his reflection, now like a squashed soup can.  He closed his eyes, did a little jump and turn, and opened his eyes to find a version of himself that had withered and folded like crumpled parchment.  He did another turning jump, and now faced his reflection dissolving in layers, like the wax waves around the rim of a melted candle left burning all night.

Jack turned to find his regular reflection telescoped and multiplied, each reflection staring at him, waiting to see what he would do next.  And, as Ana emerged behind him in a row of mirrors that jutted from his own, he did not know. 

He reached to where he thought she was, but instead felt the hard, flat surface of the mirror.  A row of Ana’s images had her back to him.  She stared off at some unknown point, her hands clasped to her cheeks, her elbows resting on some imaginary table.  She turned as if she had heard someone say something.  Her hands dropped and she smiled, and Jack saw an endless procession of her profile, like the stamped profile of a million coins as they fell from the conveyor.

Jack had studied light—how to guide it, divide it, manipulate its effects on the eye.  He could look around and explain the specific causes of each distortion of his form as light refracted off of each mirror.  But for him this madness of light dancing between mirrors was still magic, and magical.  Jack could not see the actual light moving but he knew it was there, darting like fledgling falcons in a glass cave.  He looked around at this place, where he and she had multiplied:  visible but hidden. 

A little girl in a white skirt with purple dolphins patterned on it ran past him, shrieking with joy as she stuck out her tongue, first at herself, then at then.  She ran with her arms out, careful to feel for the open space that led to another mirrored hallway.  A hand reached into his, and he turned.  Ana.  They followed the little girl through a tunnel of curved mirrors that made them look like floating bubbles about to burst.  This hallway led to another, then, finally, to a door.  The girl rammed herself against the metal bar and the door opened, a whoosh of damp summer air crept past them and then they were both outside.  The again girl stuck her tongue out at them, then waved goodbye, darting between the cotton candy and caramel corn stands.

When they returned to the car they just sat for a moment, staring at the roller coaster as it stopped, and its last passengers of the evening departed.  Jack reached into the glove box and pulled out the canister.  He shook it, then motioned up and down the length of Ana’s body.  “Ready?” 

Ana looked at her half-hidden arm.  Jack saw her hands shaking, like a glass of water jostled by the convulsion of a faraway earthquake.  They looked ahead as the blurred lights of the roller coaster and the swing ride slowly snapped off, one segment at a time, as the operators returned steel to sleep.  Miles beyond that, they saw the vestigial shape of the mountain range partition between them and home.

She inhaled, a sharp, excited sound, then nodded.  He sprayed her, and they both watched the tiny silver particles nestled on her skin.  Outside, the carnival emptied.  Children holding onto their parents’ hands blew long trails of bubbles, and held up stuffed toys that their fathers had won for them.  They walked by, without even a curious glance into the car in which Ana was slowly disappearing.  She reached and grabbed Jack’s hand and held it to her cheek and kept it there, as bubbles floated into night, until his hand looked like nothing more than a single clenched fist.


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