The Angel of Mercy
Tablet Original Fiction: a mansion, a storm, and a poolside shattering
The mansion was older than the two of them combined.
“There’s an overhang,” he said. But they walked past it and lay on their backs on the exposed stone stairs, a half-inch of space between them in the oppressive humidity. It was midnight. The cloudbanks lit up one at a time with heat lightning, going entirely white like neon signs. Piano music drifted out from the top-floor balcony, one of the composers playing a slow familiar melody that neither of them could name.
“ ‘Für Elise’?”
“Is that a joke?”
“This weather gives me a headache,” he said.
Her hair, still wet from the swimming pool, was spread around her head like a halo. “We’re in a movie right now,” he said, and he turned toward her and kissed her a little, up on his elbow. They had known each other for six days. “That didn’t feel like fucking,” he’d said the first night. “It felt like making love.”
She was his.
The clouds blinked on and off, and the wind came up all at once. They heard it before they saw it, roaring across the smooth surface of the pool, across the close-cropped lawn, and then it was above them, in the wide treetops spread out overhead. The branches shook and bent to odd angles. The sharply defined borders of the clouds dissipated too, the banks of white and gray spreading out into an undifferentiated haze, dark violet and bruised with a violence neither of them were prepared for. There was too much at stake; there was nothing at stake except the shell of a life they could only make out by squinting. A possible life. And another old life breaking apart in the storm.
“You have a wife?” she’d asked earlier, her eyes wide, but she’d seen the ring on his finger. She already knew, somehow, that the story was more complicated.
“She has a boyfriend.”
“Your wife has a boyfriend?”
“She’s in love,” he’d said, miserable, but pretending to himself he didn’t care. This was what he’d agreed to, for some reason that would or would not be revealed.
There was another loud moan from the sky, an unearthly, apocalyptic sound from nowhere and everywhere at once. “A tree is going to come down,” he said and, despite the size of him, the shoulders and big hands, she could see the kid in him, his earliest, softest self made suddenly apparent.
“You look Jewish,” she said.
“Yeah. I get that a lot.”
He leaned into her.
“What are you most afraid of?” she asked, and he said, “Everything. I’m afraid of everything.”
The deal was struck. She would be the one to carry the strength.
“No tree is going to fall,” she said. What were the odds.
She danced in the pool house with the other artists. Loud thunk of hip-hop on the stereo, bourbon in everyone’s blood. One by one she beat the poets at ping-pong, waiting for him to arrive.
‘Bring some bug spray,’ she texted. And he wrote back, ‘Okay!! I will. I’m crazy for you, btw…’
Later, they floated on their backs in the pool.
“So, what are you saying?”
She ruffled the water’s surface.
“After I walked you back last night I couldn’t fall asleep,” he said. “I was thinking about you.”
His leg was against hers. She leaned in. He put an arm around her shoulder and flipped her onto her stomach in the water, bringing his lips close to hers and touching them gently, then with force. “Where did you come from?” he whispered.
They bobbed toward the step. He sat down and she straddled him, water up to their shoulders. His hands in her hair, his big palms holding her face. The bulk of him, his torso, the muscled quads.
“I know about you,” he said.
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“Oh, oh!” he laughed, feigning offense. “I do. You’re famous.”
She scoffed and kissed him again. They moved weightlessly around the shallow end, sinking up to their noses before they remembered to come up and breathe. They bumped up against the side of the pool. The perfect amount of booze in them, the perfect bright spattering of stars. He took the top of her bathing suit down, put a nipple in his mouth. “You’re so badass.”
“I’m not! I’m good,” she moaned, helpless.
“You’re so badass.” He laughed. “You’re a lot, you’re a boss, you’re a big deal, you’re beautiful.” He paused. “You’re famous.”
“I’m not famous,” she protested truthfully, but she couldn’t stop giggling.
“Canada,” he said, hesitant, like he was asking a question.
“Name a city in Canada.”
“Other than Ottawa.”
“Oh,” he said. “Um. Windsor?”
She could not stop laughing. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She clenched her stomach. “Windsor!”
“What?” He faked indignance.
“I’m going to pee,” she howled.
“Do it. Let it go.”
He held her in his arms while she peed in the pool.
She got hold of herself, rearranged her face. She asked, “Do you have a condom?”
“No, I don’t,” he said, his voice full of deep regret.
She began to shiver on the steps of the pool. They talked about where they could go. To her studio, to his.
“Or we could just wait until tomorrow night.”
“Why are you only staying for a month?” he asked.
She said, “A month is enough time.”
They got out of the water. She was shivering hard now, drunk in the heavy heat. “Windsor,” she giggled.
He said, “I’ll get you a towel,” but she already had one. He pulled her close, he held her. They stood, hugging. His chest wide enough to fit all of her in.
“I might cry if we sleep together,” she said. “I’m going through a hard time.”
He wasn’t the only one with a broken life back home.
“I love you,” she whispered in his ear before she could stop herself, but she was sober enough to qualify it: “I love you a little.”
He pushed her gently back by the shoulders so he could see her face. “I love you a lot,” he said.
The star-spangled sky.
“Where do you live again?” she asked.
He laughed. “Indiana.”
The wind picked up again, sounding only like itself, like a wild summer storm ripping through the forest. A few fat raindrops smacked against the stone porch. She put a hand in his dark curls, massaging his scalp. “It’s OK,” she reassured. But he trusted his instinct in the face of her confidence. “A tree is going to fall,” he said.
On cue, the sky squealed and pushed them up off their backs, the wail of an emergency. It drew out the man in him, the desire to act. He was up on his feet, chin tilted up, hands raised instinctively like a boxer’s. And then there was the creaking, the slow high-pitched whine as the giant pine fell in slow motion toward the mansion behind them.
There was a sound like crumpled tinfoil as the roof caved in.
“You saw that, right?”
Her mouth was hanging open.
“We are totally in a movie right now.”
No siren started; there was only the wind.
They went in through the French doors. The mansion was dark. They moved through room after room with flashlights, like deep-sea divers, lighting up the frescos and canvases. There was no damage from the inside. They could not match the geography of what they had seen outside with the big house’s interior. Something had fallen but they didn’t know where it had landed, couldn’t yet account for the damage.
Now there was a composer, an Asian woman who had been sitting at the grand piano, her haunting music drifting out over the storm. She came downstairs like a harbinger, like the Angel of Mercy, her eyes wide, her face sweaty. “I heard a big bang,” she said.
The three of them conferred. No conclusion was reached. The pianist floated back from wherever she’d come.
“What’s her name again?” he asked, but she didn’t know. Artists were coming and going every day. Still, they felt a shared guilt at not knowing, a feeling united in their collective body. Their experience had been fused like vertebrae so everything that happened to one of them happened also to the other.
Now he moved away from her, though; he went to call the groundskeeper. She crouched under the overhang, and the wind stopped all at once and the rain came down in earnest, a deafening, biblical downpour, falling into the trees and into the swimming pool out beyond it. Then he was behind her, his hands on her hips. “I left messages on the landline and the cell,” he said. He paused. “My headache is gone.”
They sat down on the step and he pulled her against him. She knew this was the moment she would try to get back to later—being chosen, being adored, and the accompanying certainty that it was OK to be alive. An unspeakable sadness rose inside her. She leaned her head on his shoulder. They watched while the lightning ripped the darkness apart and the rain made everything clean.
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