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Rob Lithim Used to Be Two People

Brynn MacNab has been reading speculative fiction since before she knew there was any other kind, and writing it for almost as long. Her work has also appeared at Flash Fiction Online and in Kazka Press's 713 Flash contest.

***Editor's Note: Adult language and adult story***
He stood momentarily lost in the heavy beat of the club, lights and bass line pulsing together. On stage longhaired boys screamed and writhed and clutched their guitars, while a mass of bodies bounced before them. Nearer Rob, by the bar, a few sweaty lonely folks had peeled off from the crowd to converse in shouts and homemade sign language.
Ahead, he caught sight of Tam's short spiked hair and the tattoo breaching the space between her mesh tank top and low black jeans. He put his hand on her bare shoulder. She ignored him and kept on talking to the man in front of her--this non-entity with his dark eyeliner, his many earrings, the self-satisfied set of his shoulders--kept on talking to him until Rob got angry, so he held onto that shoulder and let his anger flare, flash-flood through him, and she turned around fast enough then, mouth forming a, "What the fuck?" obliterated by the sound of the band. She did not touch him even to slap him, but stood staring accusations with her eyebrow ring lifted.
Instead of apologizing he kept his gaze off of the new scar on her shoulder, handed her the note, and backed away.
In the workroom, in its dust and dimness, in the beat of his own breathing, he meditated on this mantra: Till death do us part. The soothing insistence seeped through his bones, skull to ribs, pelvis to knees. Till death do us part. Something ordinary people would swear to, and nothing to fear. Nothing of which to be ashamed.
He shook his head at the squeak of the door, pinched the bridge of his nose once, and silently promised to believe this time in reassurances. And the two shall be one--it couldn't be such a sin, after all. Not put like that.
She stood silhouetted, skinny in the sunlight.
"Tam. Thank you."
"You fucker. My fucking shoulder. Looks like a dragon-baby spat up on me." She shrugged the offended body part forward to show him.
"I love you." It was all he had to offer for explanation. When light had broken that morning he'd given up on assessing emotional nuance. These three were certain: his heart held in the crook of her elbow; his life locked in the line of her lips; his brain blighted and boiling when she spoke to another.
"Whatever. The note said you want to go back again."
"Once more. I feel strange. I still feel guilty. It's weird, because I know--"
"Okay, once. But that's it: once and then we're through. And then you leave me the fuck alone. I got a right to move on too, you know."
"Only once more," he agreed.
Black spikes of hair shifted with the movement of her head: flicked in irritation (probably his tone was wrong), then rolled around to snap-crack-loosen her neck before she stepped in for the flashback kiss. "If you try to feel me up, I'll destroy you," she said, and he nodded humbly.
Their lips met like mom and dad, combined like H2 and O, intersected like the x and y axes, held onto each other and let something else be: and the past returned.
Morning light wakes Lithim. That and a pair of birds squabbling in the hedge bushes outside Rob's open window. She rubs crusted goop from her eyes and peers around at his square piles of clean and dirty clothes, and the neat stack of half-completed job applications on his bureau. (He found just enough hours to pay his share of the rent, and seems content to eat Fritz's food--although, of course, he's still officially looking for more work.)
Lithim scoops up her own mound of clothing and takes it with her to the bathroom. Fritz will be in the kitchen by now, if he hasn't left for work, and Rob's seen her naked enough in the last couple of weeks that it can hardly be interesting anymore--a thought that she pushes aside, shaking her head. She's got to be cheerful this morning. Mature. Attractive. Come on, Lithim, she thinks. Compete.
In the mirror, her eyes are bloodshot. She gets a pen out of the junk drawer under the sink, sits on the toilet and writes across the top of her left knee: You are ugly when you cry.
In the kitchen, Rob hears Lithim pass through the back hallway. He glances up from his newspaper at Fritz. "Why don't we go on a pilgrimage?"
"This is becoming something of an obsession." Fritz's eyes stay trained on his Bookseller's Magazine. (He's a capable professional; he seems to multitask practically as a point of pride.)
"We didn't end up going, though. Not on a pilgrimage, really."
Fritz taps the briefcase beside his chair. "Can't," he says. "Ye olde employment calleth." What is it with you, anyway? Rob imagines him saying--but then, Fritz would never ask that, would he?
Lithim comes down the hall, into the kitchen. Her long blonde hair is bed-tousled, pushed sloppily to one side.
Fritz says, "Your boyfriend's on the pilgrimage kick again."
"He doesn't want to go today," Lithim says. "He's got plans."
Rob makes his mouth a solid line, to stop any protest from escaping. If she wants to think that way, she can. Instead of replying, he watches her pour herself some orange juice--watches the careless tangles of her hair, the beads around her neck, the skin softening into the first thin wrinkles above those beads. She's beauty. She is life. But he won't coddle her jealousy.
"What time is Tam coming?" she asks.
He shrugs one shoulder. "She hasn't gotten back to me yet."
Fritz says, disregarding the tension, "What have we got re: the rock 'o doom? Know what it does yet?"
"No," says Rob. "Not really. That's why she's coming."
"That's one interpretation," says Lithim. When Rob glances toward her, she turns abruptly and dumps the rest of her juice down the sink. "Anyway. I want to be there."
"That's fine."
While Lithim bangs around getting a bowl of cereal, Rob looks back at his paper. Probably just PMS, he thinks. Or, adds a small doomsday part of his mind, she could be pregnant. Not that he couldn't like being a father. It might be pretty sweet, sometime. But he's got to get this rock figured out first--it makes him see the world all cockeyed, when he sits too long beside it. He starts to want to possess politicians, instead of just plants. Or he thinks about all the prison locks he could become, or the appliances he could animate in the homes of people who piss him off in the grocery store. He always wanted to have a power like the one he's discovered; he just didn't know he'd be so drawn to its misuses.
Fritz leaves without farewell, letting the screen door bounce behind him.
Lithim sits, crunching loudly. Rob reads a few more items of news: an eagle scout built a wooden castle for the playground, and the library book club is doing On the Road this month. Rob could go into the castle and beat the hell out of anyone who deals drugs on the playground. He could go into twelve copies of On the Road and see all the book club members in bed.
"Forget it," he says under his breath. He can tell by the flicker of Lithim's eyelids that she heard, but she doesn't ask, so he doesn't bother explaining.
He washes his own dishes and Fritz's, while Lithim crunches away, and then he heads out back.
On his way through the yard he glances at the high wooden privacy fences. When he first moved in, he remembers, he wished they knew the people they lived near. Now he sort of wishes he didn't even know the people he lives with.
The rock sits on his workbench, collecting every possible ray of light to glow not-quite-supernaturally, leaving the rest of the shed dull and dim. Rob pulls his chair a little back and sits to contemplate this gold-flecked stone. (And checks to see: there are no new voicemails on his cell.)
When she hears the back door click shut, Lithim lets her shoulders sag. "Are you fifteen?" she whispers. "Imbecile!" She flings her spoon toward the sink, but her aim is poor and the utensil ricochets off a cabinet, leaves a milky impression, and lands on the linoleum.
She takes a deep breath. "All right. Be cool." That is, after all, who she's worked so hard to be: the surfer-dude-girl, the one who rolls with the punches and wears the same clothes two days in a row and "forgets" to brush her hair. She gets up, collects the spoon off of the floor, and dumps milk, cereal, bowl, and spoon into the sink. She leans back against the counter and looks out into the front yard.
Be cool. But somehow Rob, always so chill himself, makes that a lot harder. If I could, I would breathe up a desert island just for us. A few grains of sand waft out on her exhalation, fall to the floor, and bounce around. A new locale is not really what she needs, she knows--rather, a new self. I would breathe up thin arms, a flat stomach, new elasticity for this aging skin. I'd breathe away the jealousy, all the stupid neediness... Then he'd always love her.
But even superpowers have their limits, always always, so she breathes out only the comforting everyday scent of coffee and cigarettes (which she never smokes, though her parents both did), blinks her puffy eyes, and considers the merits of going back to bed.
And sees Tam drag her bike past the windows, straight for the back yard.
Tam isn't into knocking; she's there, pushing the door open in front of her. Eyebrow ring, lip ring, fingernails filed to black points. She gives Rob that jolt when she shows, that gut-level yeah, but that's all. Lithim doesn't know what she's talking about, Rob thinks: a stomach lurch is not a love affair. Half of it is the suddenness of Tam's arrival, anyway.
"So what do you want?" she says. "I've got stuff to do."
"It's this rock."
"The one you took from our apartment."
"Yeah. I just think it's important."
"Great. Congrats."
"No. Not--not in a good way. It's kind of creeping me out, actually."
"So chuck it."
"Just listen for a minute? Just, did the Night Lady ever talk about it? She must have told you something."
Lithim's voice makes Tam flinch, when she speaks from the doorway: "Not everybody tells their girlfriend everything."
Rob tilts his head back and makes a mental catalogue of the spider webs up by the ceiling. He needs to sweep in here. He wishes he could go straight into Lithim's brain and nudge a few mental pathways.
"That is even assuming the 'Night Lady' had anything to tell," Lithim goes on, her voice growing unpleasant. "From what we saw, it might as well have been a lover's quarrel as an evil plan."
Tam muses, "You must be used to some fucked up relationships to think that."
"All right, all right," says Rob. The rock is tugging at the edge of his consciousness--at least, he's grown used to thinking of it as the rock's fault. It's not a malevolent We shall rule! or anything--just a slightly twisted All the Places You'll Go! Right now, if he wanted to, he could go into a hurricane a thousand miles away from these sniping women, a thousand times more powerful than they'll ever be. He could go into Tam's raggedy T-shirt and feel what her skin's like without any messy "cheating."
His eyes have wandered to that T-shirt, he realizes--and glancing at Lithim, sees she's realized it, too. Her nostrils flare. Listen, he wants to say, I love you, okay? What do you want me to do?
"Well," says Lithim quietly, "Thank you for coming, Tam. That's all for now."
"No, it's not." He puts his hand out to touch the rock, scarcely thinking about it. "We need to talk--Lithim, maybe you should go in? Huh? I'll be in for lunch, and we'll discuss... whatever, then. Okay? Got it?"
Of course, Rob isn't the only person this stone is reminding of his--or her--powers.
"Oh, I get it all right."
Tam's backing up against the wall even as Lithim turns to go, so when Lithim spins back exhaling, Tam's well out of the way.
You think you can dismiss me, you bastard? The fire licks over her gums like warm water, but it singes her lips.
Rob drops that stupid rock and puts up his hands.
Lithim closes her eyes, and then his hands--how are his hands not burned?--are on her face. He whispers, "I love you," once, and he's pulling all the fire, all the breath out of her, and pulling deeper than that. Pulling her in--into the one proof. Into the one place they can always be alone together.
When Rob wakes, on the workshed floor, there's a goose egg on his temple where he hit the bench going down. His hands are covered in blisters, and his lips are so chapped that they crack and bleed when he closes them to swallow. Tam is gone.
He goes to the house. It's getting dark. Someone is making noise in the kitchen. Rob stops in the bathroom. In the mirror, his skin is a little too pale, his eyes not quite the right shape--and when he leans in close he can see flecks of blue in the brown.
He goes into the kitchen, where Fritz is putting away groceries.
"I think--" his throat is so dry it makes him hack and cough to speak. He drinks two glasses of water, while Fritz ignores him. Then he says, "I think I absorbed Lithim."
Fritz gives him a disgusted look. "I don't want to know."
"No. I mean... look." And he tries to feel around in himself, and exhales, thinking, pink air. Two packs of bubble gum fall out of his mouth onto the counter.
"Oh," Fritz says, after a moment.
"I'm done, then."
They lock eyes. "Okay," says Rob. "I mean, sure. Of course."
Fritz whistles a complicated little tune, and after thirty seconds two big suitcases fly out of his room, bump open the screen door, and settle on the front porch. Fritz grabs his briefcase, ignoring Rob's abortive hug gesture, and is dialing his cell phone as he leaves the kitchen.
"Yeah, hi, I need a cab at the corner of--" Rob hears him say, phone pinched between ear and shoulder, as he carts his things down the porch steps and the front walkway.
Tam broke the kiss. "Done." She was supposed to tell him that it wasn't his fault, either as Rob or as Lithim, wasn't any cause for shame. To assure him that dumping that rock into the Pacific--giving up all his research that way--was more than enough atonement, was actually quite noble. "Don't find me again."
He thought he'd like to take hold of her once more, and pull her inside. The end for now could be, Rob Lithim Tam used to be three people.
"I love you."
"Get the fuck over it." She slipped out, slamming the door in her wake.
Rob Lithim sat, meditated, held himself together. Existed in negation. He did not hunt down the man Tam preferred at the club. He did not become her mirror or her toaster or her bed. He did not dive for that rock, did not become a fish who could find it. He simply became the boards of his work shed as the sun set, to feel the way wood feels reflecting pink and gold.
Then he breathed out once, and as those shed walls burned he went inside the house to get supper.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 14th, 2014

Author Comments

I'm fascinated by relationships--love, jealousy, obsession--and I wondered what kinds of things we might do if we could make our emotions visible and tangible instead of leaving them knotted up inside ourselves.

- Brynn MacNab
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