FORECAST 42: CHAPTER 19 by Shya Scanlon
Forecast is being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast.
In her dream they were still together. Unhappy. Asseem scowled at Helen, clearly blaming her for the movement of her arms down the sides of her body and onto her back. Her fingers poked and prodded, roaming freely as her hands pulled them across the fenceless farm of skin. The couple was in an immaculate bedroom, and as Asseem stared at her in disgust he walked around and picked at small scabs on the wall. She tried to speak, but her accent was so thick she couldn’t understand herself—some kind of vowel-heavy heaving and moaning, a familiar word escaping now and then only to be pulled back in, kicking and screaming, to the vague morass of soupy sounds. She watched as he made his way from one side of the room to the next, the open sores behind him oozing, pus running down the walls. She looked out the window. Rain was coming down in puddle-size drops, and she began to hear it on the roof, a series of thunderous beats that blended into a steady roar and shook the walls. Helen looked back at Asseem and again tried to speak, to call out above the noise, but her voice was entirely drowned out by the rain, and her boyfriend continued to pick scabs and stare cruelly, his judgment distorting his face so much it took on twenty years, growing older as she watched. Then the puss began to take shape. It slowly pooled together at Asseem’s feet and formed into the bric-a-brac of childhood, cluttering the floor. Helen tried to stand, wanting to plug the leaking holes, but she was held in place by her arms, their white knuckles blending in with the bleached cotton sheets. The sound of the rain grew louder, Asseem’s scowl deepened, and the floor was filling up, now a sea of small objects: toy cars, pens and pencils, stuffed animals and books along side so much trash. It was climbing up her boyfriend’s legs, building beneath him as he dug deeper into the walls, his eyes now filled with a blank stare that was not, she realized, looking at her, but past her, through her. He was being consumed. Fearing for Asseem’s life Helen began to yell, to overwhelm the room’s racket with her own, and though she could still not understand her words she could begin to pick her sound out within the cacophony and it grew, louder than the beating rain, louder than the mounting rumble of debris until at last it finally broke like a fever at its peak and all sound stopped.
The room was empty. The sky outside was clear. Her arms where they belong. But rather than feeling relief at having averted catastrophe she felt a deep and building horror that she’d made Asseem disappear along with everything else. That she’d killed him. How could she have let this happen? She began to tremble. Her body shook and she buried her face in her hands. They felt clammy, wet, and began to pet her, wiping their wetness in an effort to calm her down.
She woke up to Rocket ridiculously licking the sweat off her face. She held him back and looked into his brown eyes, which would only look back in passing until he pressed forward again, tongue out, and went to town. She briefly thought of Joan, and whether this was a trespass—the nose of her neighbor’s dog nuzzling her awake, his honest doggy adoration goo-ing up her face, but decided it didn’t matter. Joan was busy with her new African children. And in less than 24 hours she’d grown quite accustomed to Rocket. Helen found it hard, thinking back, to believe that until so recently the primary source of interaction between them had been telling Joan his whereabouts, stumbling over him on the way to the car, and hearing him whimper outside their bedroom window when she and Jack made love.
Helen felt a small but noticeably sharp pang for her husband, and decided she’d better get up and into motion before whatever had drawn her to Jack in the beginning brought her back, scolded her, and she wound up grounded or worse. She’d return to him, of course, but not now. Not until she finished here. She was, in an oblique way she only half understood, doing this for him, after all. All she wanted to do was pull her own weight.
I know her.
Rocket wandered off to a corner, following his nose, and Helen took the opportunity to right herself and stretch. The low moan of the ETMs down the hall came into focus as she peeled away the sleepy layers of sleep still dulling her senses and blocking her brain’s access to finer details of the room. Getting up, Helen realized that she now had a chance to poke around, vaguely considering the unfortunate fact that there was no toilet.
The room was larger than the office she’d been in before with Busy and Blain, but not by much. The couch she’d slept on was in roughly the same spot as Busy’s desk: to the left of the door, against the far wall. A couple of stuffed chairs were spaced apart across from her, with a pair of small tables nestled up under their arms. The most significant difference was that where the first room had been almost eerily bare, this one looked lived-in, and bore the normal characteristics of a useful space: floor lamps, TV screens, a small refrigerator in one corner. There were dirty cups lying around that still hadn’t made it to the composter under the sink, and a couple unkempt indoor plants, their rather pitiful lives born out by habit rather than joy. But perhaps the room’s most urgent inhabitants were magazines, the bulk of them men’s lifestyle magazines, the kind that mixed high-tech gadgetry with low-brow sexuality, so that in what was obviously a room most frequented by men, women were everywhere. Strangely post-coital female faces stared up from almost all available surfaces. The room was an orgy just after, everyone still supine, replaying the recent events. Helen was torn between amusement and repulsion, and picked carefully through the clutter, looking for any variation she could find. Though the room lacked charm, Helen’s interest was piqued by the idea—completely correct—that it was probably typical for the break room of an organization with a largely male staff. (Ours, to my dismay, is practically identical.) The more attention she paid to the particular objects in the room, the more she sensed that her interest was not for the space within these four walls per se, but for the exact strangeness of it, for the fact that it was unlike any she’d seen in years. There was something alienating and disarming about the placement of the magazines, the discarded cups, something that excited Helen in a way none of the swirling hulks of metal she’d seen in the great car cave, or the enormous perspiring ETMs down the hall, had managed to.
Helen was suddenly very eager to leave. The dream was still on her mind, the sterile fantasy of it, but she felt that it was premature to judge, to leap into a bad omen argument before she’d actually set foot into even the nearest future. The gates to good places are often guarded by demons. She went to the small sink, splashed water on her face, and took a long slow look at herself in the mirror. Her hair had unlearned the style she’d taught it the day before, and it ran around her head and neck like a brush fire. Her eyebrows cowered away from the blaze, pooling in the center of her face and leaving only faint traces at the temple. Were there a few new freckles? She got them when she worried. She leaned in for a better look but before she could count a doorbell rang, and Busy’s voice instructed her via intercom to put in the earplugs, that he was going to open up and come in. She did as directed.
“Don’t forget Rocket,” he said. Clearly he could see her.
She looked around the room as she plugged Rocket’s ears, trying to find the camera.
“They’re all over the place,” said Busy’s disembodied voice. “The factory’s full of them.”
Helen forced a smile, and nodded. She wasn’t surprised, really. Embarrassed, at most, for having been caught before the mirror taking what she’d always thought of as too much interest the minutia of her changing face. But between Asseem (who’d always kept a close watch on her, or had someone else do it for him) and Jack (who, though clumsy, would routinely steal peaks at her in the shower as if he’d never seen her before) she was used to being watched by the men in her life.
Busy entered: the dull roar, the following unnatural calm. He’d brought her a cup of coffee and a donut, some food for the dog, and went straight for a place on the couch, going through the motions. He brushed aside some magazines, put his feet on the coffee table, and let out an exhausted sigh.
“I tell you what, Helen,” he said, staring at the wall before him, “having you around makes it a heck of a lot harder to concentrate on work.”
“I’m sorry Busy,” she said, “I’ll be out of your hair really soon. I just need to use the—“
“I meant in a good way, doll-face. You know I got into this business for the excitement, right? And alls I got out there now is a bunch of assholes walking around like it’s a fuckin’ Hallmark card, everybody happy and la-tee-da we’re just stealin’ cars! Nothing fun going on here!” Busy’s voice was raised a bit, but there was so much sadness in it I didn’t bat an eye. Helen went to sit with the big unhappy creature, and Rocket followed her to sit at their feet, tail wagging, mouth open, tongue.
“You know Busy I think I know what you mean.”
“I know you do, H. That’s why I like you.”
They sat there for a second, and Busy gave the dog a couple solid pats on the head.
“Look Busy I’m really sorry but…” Helen began. She had an urgent need to piss, but she didn’t want to interrupt the man’s pain with her bladder blather. After how nice he’d been to her, she thought, the least she could do is hold it a while. Let him get it off his chest.
“Helen,” Busy toughened up. He rubbed his hands over his face vigorously and shook his head. “I’ll say this one more time: no apologies.” He looked her in the eye. “We got a deal?”
“Good. I think you’re great, and I want to help you. If you were putting me out or being some kind of pain in the ass or whatever, we wouldn’t be here now, would we.”
“No. So what I’m saying is let’s just, you know, whatever we gotta do is what we do from here on out, am I right?”
Helen’s bladder was burning. She was squirming a bit in her seat, and afraid he’d notice. “Right as rain, Biz.” Helen froze. Some people hate nick-names.
Busy held her gaze for a bit, then softened, winking.
“Right as rain, right as rain,” he repeated, then paused, growing pensive. “Now who the hell do you think came up with that one, you know?” They were golden. “I mean since when is rain a good thing?” Water, piss, water, piss. There was just no way.
“I know that’s weird hey Busy can you take me to the bathroom please?”
“The bathroom? Didn’t I show you last night?” He got up, started walking across the room. “I’m sorry doll-face I must have forgot. Bathroom’s over here.”
Helen watched Busy march right up to the wall to the left of the sink, and disappear. Holographic. She should have felt around.
He poked his head out of the wall and smiled, opening his mouth to make a joke, but Helen was already up and rushing in past him and he quickly hopped out, a gentleman, and returned to his seat on the couch. Helen barely made it.
In the room alone, Busy kept her talking as he organized the magazines into a few neat-ish piles, picked his nose, and reached down to staple Rocket’s collar with a barely visible bug. I made a note to have it removed.
“So we’ve done a little research, Blain and I, and we’ve come up with two different Asseems that are roughly your age,” he paused, “which I’m assuming is around…”
“30!” Helen called out.
“30, good. We figured right.”
“Wonderful! Thank you so much!”
“No need, Helen, no need. Like I said, this is the most excitement I’ve had for…” He thought about it, and shook his head.
“So when can we get started?” Helen emerged from the bathroom and joined Busy on the couch. She flushed with optimism and looked around at the remaining faces, larger than life, staring up from magazine covers on the coffee table. She suddenly understood the appeal.
“Well just as soon as you’re ready, I suppose.”
Helen sprang back into a stand.
“Like I said we found two fellows that go by Asseem,” continued Busy, “so I guess we should decide which one we want to see first.”
“I’m open,” Helen said. She just wanted to begin. She felt like she’d been in that underground pit for days.
“Well one of these guys is some kind of real estate mogul, and the other one is basically a monk, or whatever they’re called.”
“Right. He lives in the Islamic sector and wears one of those long, you know…”
“Exactly. Sound like your man?”
As Helen listened to Busy, correcting him, she was surprised to find traces of a bitterness she thought she’d left by leaving Zara, a mild disgust at the idea that so many people were ignorant of the basic elements of this faith, this colossus that could be found everywhere and still not be understood by anyone outside it. It was something she’d inherited from Asseem, of course.
She’d been curious, at first, about how he maintained his distrustful distance, his balance between two worlds he found so flawed but would defend to the death. He seemed to divide his attention equally between the raw materialism that afforded him, through his own efforts, an escape from the relative poverty of his parents, and the religion he still clung to, despite the slow evaporation of his faith as he climbed higher and higher toward the apogee of his capitalist agenda. It was almost funny, she thought, that the two men they’d found conformed so perfectly to the dystopic dichotomy that was her ex-boyfriend.
She suddenly felt oddly embarrassed for not having a ready answer for Busy, a choice between these two disparate men. Didn’t she know her own friend? The inclination she had at the moment was to flip a coin, but she thought she owed the situation more than that. Why not just pick one? Asseem could easily, thought Helen, have finally fallen in with his father, renouncing the material life he’d been living. It had always been a specter in their relationship, after all – her boyfriend buying her something extravagant (in the beginning, perhaps nothing more than a fancy pastry, and toward the end a jeweled fop for the key to her benz) and then going into hysterics when he saw her with it, as though the act of giving could be somehow completely devoid of a recipient. She saw Asseem sitting on his feet and facing east, his eyes staring determinedly through any earthly obstructions, then driving his forehead forward ‘til it barely touched the floor before him.
Or maybe not.
She could see him in a penthouse, too, overlooking Seattle from his abstracted perch. He’d always loved rich fabrics, though he’d often took pains to avoid them, but now, perhaps, having surrendered to the passion of the purse, he’d be surrounded by them, shocks of broad cloth hanging from high ceilings.
It hadn’t been more than a few seconds, but I couldn’t help feeling like Busy was bearing down on her with a suspicious gaze. By this point we’d done background checks of course, all of which revealed a personality spectrum non-deviant from the standard range of misanthropy and lawlessness fixed for people with Busy’s background and occupation. He was clear. But with the bugged collar and clearly atypical desire to actually help, I was ill at ease. Fortunately, before I felt compelled to act on these unfounded suspicions, Helen made her decision.
“The fundamentalist,” she said.