So a scaly reptilian humanoid monster with a color-changing throat kaleidoscopically replaces my long-term lover Janet at breakfast. Sometimes you can catch things before they hit you, like the Frisbee at the office field day in which you masterfully display your physical prowess even though you are a short-term temp and Janet is not yet a long-term lover but rather the exec in that blazer you are trying to impress; but other times, those things hit you in the face, like the holiday football thrown by your mother’s second husband Dean who thinks that just because you both sleep with women you’ll enjoy tossing prolate spheroids while grunting.
On the morning the reptile comes for me, I wake up to soggy and tangled sheets, the imprint of her body left behind like a crime scene. Everything smells too sweet, as if someone has been baking cookies. I feel clumsily for her body and find a viscous slime so thin it is transparent. I rub my fingers together and feel stickiness. It is not from sex. I have neither entered nor been entered by my long-term lover Janet in weeks. It is not sweat either, which I have been familiar with for upwards of three months—ever since Janet started working out every morning in the gym below her office, making her arms bulge like soup cans under those blazers and her thighs delineate carved muscle, her strong lines made stronger like the coffee she makes too early, too bitter, when everything is still too dark. She receives discounted personal training in that gym. Personally, I would rather train a more practical skill, like becoming an astronaut or cooking an excellent soufflé. Which is what I said when she invited me to join her. Janet says that is my problem, that I will “wait until I’m on fire to jump in the water.” However, I think the much more pressing problem is that soufflés cannot rise in space.
She does not ask me to join her in that gym anymore.
My long-term temporary assignment in the office above the gym ended six months ago, anyway.
The transparent trail crosses the carpeting, bending the individual strands over like something heavy has been dragged from the bed. I see I must follow this slimy trail of evidence. I am not the best person for this job but I am the only person. I am only a person and a very average one at that. But if there is anything I have learned from the unexplained phenomenal television that I watch between midnight and two in the morning while Janet snores, it is that even the most regular person can—and should—follow the clues to where they terminate or more likely than not, where someone has been terminated.
Who is more normal than me? I own three pairs of jeans.
I kneel to examine this carpet closely.
I wonder if Janet has been taken from me.
What I know from my viewing of paranormal programs is that if you ever have the opportunity to touch carpet fibers, you do not let that privilege pass by. Anything could be a clue. Best practice is to rub them between your fingers and then smell what you find. I pinch some strands. Crusted and dried. Organic matter? Perhaps. I lift my fingers to my nose. Smells like cookies. Oatmeal? No, chocolate chip. I track the trail out of the bedroom into the kitchen. On the tile the trail becomes slippery. The kitchen is too dark. I sink to my knees and touch each tile in succession to see where the stickiness takes me.
“What are you doing?”
I stop six feet from the kitchen table, where Janet sits hunched away from me, facing the window. The sun is draining the dark from the sky. Her body is formlessly shadowed, a silhouette blacked out like the identity-protected testifiers in I Was Abducted and My Wife Found Me!, the show about Midwestern husbands who were abducted by aliens and then their wives found them. Most often naked in an empty cornfield.
“Did you bake cookies?” I ask Janet.
“No.” Her voice comes out like melted Chapstick. “It’s six in the morning.”
“It smells like cookies.”
“Are you having a stroke?”
“No,” I say, crouching over the kitchen tile, caressing the cheap linoleum with my fingers and sniffing. “I’m just having a good time.”
She remains silent, staring out the window, coffee cup serving up steam. Once you start working out before seven in the morning you lose your sense of humor. This is the exchange rate for a very strong body. One of us must stay grounded so right now it is me, so close to the ground while simultaneously prepared at any moment to launch into space just to learn how to whip some egg whites in a small ramekin. This is what my mother calls “give and take” as in “I am giving Dean a vacuum for Christmas so he stops taking me for granted.”
Standing up, I try and fail to understand the shape of Janet’s bulky shadow. I hear a disgusting sizzling and dripping. Sink must be leaking again? I pour myself some coffee from the French press on the counter and sip. Too bitter, too dark in this room.
“Big day at work?” This demonstrates that I understand the many demands my long-term lover faces as a career-driven woman. I, too, am driven by career—although the car I am driving breaks down for weeks at a time on the side of the highway. This is something my mother would say. So maybe my career is more like piloting a spaceship. I must train for years before my stomach grows strong enough to survive zero-gravity without vomiting. This metaphor is breaking down like the car but space has been on my mind, clearly. A point of contention. Janet thinks the shows I watch while she snores are overproduced and dumb. Entirely fictionalized for entertainment. But I do believe there is life out there. There must be an explanation for all the naked husbands who have been found by all those wives in all those cornfields and I would prefer the most exciting one.
Janet nods. Sips her coffee. All I can see is her shadow and all I can smell are cookies and all I can taste is too-bitter coffee.
“Headed out soon for the gym,” she says.
She grunts atonal in the same husky way she handles the name of her personal trainer. Mandy. I have not yet met her even though I keep saying we should have her over for dinner. I can try the soufflé recipe my mom sent. Janet says yes definitely but instead I eat lukewarm canned soup while Janet kickboxes past sunset with this heavily tattooed fitness instructor contractually incapable of wearing a shirt over her sports bra.
“Can I turn on the light?” I ask.
She grunts. Turning away, I flip the light switch and her shadow cast by the glow onto the tile is several sizes too large. The cookie smell stuffs itself up my nose and down my throat. It turns into panic and claws its way back up.
Bulging urine-yellow eyes resting inside a long, narrow head tapering into a crackled snout blink at me. The neck stretches accordion-like, teetering above the rest of her crusty human-shaped body layered in thick, multicolor scales that catch light nauseatingly like a kaleidoscope: first a boiling royal purple, then a sea blue, then teal, then forest green, then sunset red. The muscled arms end in sharp, pointed claws grasping the coffee cup. It sits on its haunches on the chair while a long, thick tail paddle-waves absently. It wears my long-term lover Janet’s ratty gym t-shirt, arms bulging against the fabric. No pants on bottom. It leaks a yellow, bubbling liquid drip-by-drip from its snout, which falls into the coffee, solving the mystery of the terrible leaky faucet hiss.
“Did you have trouble sleeping?” it asks.
I find it hard to breathe. “A little.”
“Up again for a while?”
“A few hours.”
“Watching those shows?”
“That garbage won’t help you sleep.”
It peers at me. “You doing okay?”
“Just smelling cookies.”
“Are you sure you’re not having a stroke?”
I feel sick. I feel dizzy. It dismounts the chair and waddles over to me with a large, swinging dinosaur belly and sashaying tail.
“You don’t look so well,” it says, eyes crusted with accrued yellow gunk, breath reeking of moldy birdcage.
It shrugs its bony scaly shoulders. The snout zeroes in on my exposed cheek and plants a slippery lick across my face, my own dear face, scalding the thin hairs on my cheek. I hold my breath.
“Okay. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
She leaves. I stay.
I am only a person, and not even one who knows how to make a soufflé. Yes, I have never been to space, but I do know someone who knows several someones who probably have, and that is Sher, the host of I Was Abducted and My Wife Found Me! She wears dark-wash jeans and a cowboy hat while she stares up at the starry night sky and her own voice narrates, It’s a big, big world up there. This next woman did not give up her search for her husband for over a decade. I think about what Sher would urge me to do if she were reconstructing my journey through stilted interviews and over-produced B-roll. Shot of a black cat on the fence line. Stock footage of the earth from space. Shot of a hand typing at the computer. She knew she saw something… inexplicable. She knew she needed to… follow the clues.
I drink too much coffee and get to work on this investigation. I read too much Kafka until I am nauseated by the metaphor. My situation is the farthest from figurative. So I see what the brightest thinkers have to say in upvoted posts on internet blogs about acute acid trip hallucinations—I did, after all, consume half a Benadryl eight days ago. Three different bloggers describe their mother rescuing them in the end from a dragon, or a flood, or a flood of dragons. Irrelevant. My mother is too busy cleaning to rescue me from anything. I read about extinct lizard species and dinosaurs before checking medieval plague records. I examine so many pustules and none of them look like kaleidoscopic scales.
What choice do I have? Oatmeal? No, chocolate chip?
I need more information. I put on a pair of jeans and follow the creature’s residue into the damp day outside. The clouds spit drizzle. The sidewalk is slick. From the rain? Only partially. I kneel and feel the ridged cement, glossy in the center where the creature has slithered. The rain slides off this creature’s trail like water on oil so I can follow its path. I look up to the camera that is not watching me and hear Sher’s scripted affirmation, her husky voice so soothing. This wife needed to take the investigation into her own hands if she wanted her husband safely back in his La-Z-Boy ever again.
I trace the trail towards the office we used to share, back when I was on the long-term temporary assignment that introduced me to my long-term lover whose apartment I moved into when my short-term lease was up at the right time—or the wrong time depending on how you look at it. I don’t look at it. I am too busy looking at this trail over these two miles of city sidewalk that have held our lives for two years. Past the small grocery store where I’d buy ingredients for a soufflé if only given the chance. Across the street from the big grocery store where instead I buy the canned soup I have been eating since Janet started missing dinner to kickbox. A right turn at the coffee shop that we used to stop at on our way to work back when I had to borrow her blazers because all the clothes I own have sweat stains.
I am on the street that leads to the gym. Morning rush hour is crowding my progress. My mother calls me. I ignore her call. She calls again. She always knows when I’m up to something.
“Are you up to something?” she asks after I tell her I am busy. Cold mist assaults me. The sound of vacuuming behind her, always the sound of vacuuming.
“What are you doing?”
“So you are up to something.”
“It’s about Janet.”
“It’s about Janet, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I just said that.”
“I knew it. I could sense it. Can you stop for a minute, Dean?” she yells.
“What?” Dean yells back.
“I’m on the phone! With Val!”
“Oh, hi, Val!”
Still the sound of vacuuming, always the vacuuming.
“Dean says hi.”
I push through a throng of suits to find the trail swerving where I knew it would, into the gym below the office we used to share. I can see in through a long stretch of one-way window but the physical specimens moving their fleshy bodies within only see themselves.
“What’s wrong with Janet? Did she cut her hair?” my mother asks.
“Good. She really found the right length for her bone structure.”
I observe these bodies testifying to their own humanity: sweat flinging off the brow, thighs tensing and quenching, throats engorging as they gulp water out of paper cones. Nested inside this sea of flesh, sweat, and stink is the scaled impostor in the corner of the gym where the mirrored walls meet and refract endlessly. She stands at the marriage of these two reflections, facing me at the window directly. Beady eyes blank and unfocused as she grunts and heaves two heavy free-weights up above her spindly, towering head. I can see all sides of her through the infinitely mirrored reverberations. The terrible scales flushing red as she pushes. The white underbelly, the tail smacking into each mirrored wall in rhythm with her upward thrusts.
And behind her, straddling that tail, is Mandy.
Wearing only a bra. Her hands on the rough approximation of the creature’s hips. I see Mandy nodding, whispering into the creature’s ear holes. The creature stares at me with those terrible eyes and I stare back, but I know that it is only seeing itself when it looks at me.
“Are you still there?”
I remember I am on the phone.
“Mom, I need your help with an infestation.”
“Oh, no,” she says. “You two have bed bugs again?”
“Lizard? I guess.”
“Terrible news. How long has it been happening?”
“I can’t be sure.”
“Okay, honey. Okay. I’ll see what I have.” Her is voice strained, the vacuum still vacuuming. “Dean! Can you please pause for just one single moment?”
The creature puts down the weights, huffing through its narrow snout. Mandy squeezes the creature’s shoulders with both hands. The creature is all pink all over. It turns toward Mandy, and then they are both laughing. Mandy’s hands have not left the creature’s horrible body.
“Can I come over, now?” I ask.
“I’ll get out the tubs from the basement but I’m sorry honey, if you’ve been having an infestation, I can’t let you inside. We just dealt with some mice in the walls. Dean found a dead one on Tuesday by the dog’s water. Sucked it right up in the vacuum. Clogged the filter. Had to get a new vacuum. That’s the one he’s using right now.”
“I thought you got him a new one for Christmas.”
“I did. This is the second vacuum in two months, can you believe it?”
“I can be there in thirty minutes.”
“Great. I’ll be done baking these cookies by then.”
Even when the trail reached a dead-end, she was not swayed, Sher narrates as I board the train to my mother’s house in the suburbs. At the end of the day, she just really, really wanted her husband home.
I am now sitting in my mother’s backyard on a sunken beach chair too low to the ground, tasteless cookie in my mouth, while she digs through large plastic totes of infestation eradication supplies on the lawn chair across from me. The sound of vacuuming inside. Always. She is wearing latex gloves and a face shield. Her white hair is pulled back so tight her cheek bones protrude. I have eaten four cookies so far with no plan to stop.
“You never should have let it get this bad,” she says. “You have to stay on top of infestations else they’ll overrun you.”
“I didn’t realize.”
“You know your head is always in the clouds, Val.”
“I don’t mean like a pilot. Though that would be a great career for you, by the way, Susie’s son Paulo makes six figures flying for United, you know. I’m just glad you’ve found Janet. Good head on her shoulders—with a great haircut. People need to find their opposites in everything, except cleanliness. That’s what being with your father taught me. You need to be exactly the same kind of clean as your partner. But if one of you is out to lunch, the other needs to be making lunch.”
She produces an unmarked plastic tub and thumps it on the ground with gravitas. She looks at me with red-veined eyes. “Now, honey, this is filled with a very poisonous powder. You find where these lizards are nesting and you flood them with this, okay? And then you need to fill every crack in your home, and listen honey, you want to be doing this consistently every night because it’s the only way to ensure they stay away for good. I do this regularly and have not had an issue since Dean moved in, as you well know. Except for the mouse that took down a very nice vacuum.”
I want to ask about Dean’s resemblance to a lizard, if his rail-thin bony aging man body has developed scales, if his neck elongated overnight, if his eyes crust blood-red-yellow when he looks at her.
“How’s Dean doing?” I ask, instead.
“Dean? He’s fine. I’ll make us lunch, soon. He said hello.”
“He can’t hear you. He’s vacuuming.”
I take the powder from my mother. She smiles at me joylessly, eyes wrinkled and a brow so creased. “I just want you and Janet to have a clean home. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“This will help.”
“I hope so.”
I take a bag of cookies when I leave. It must be mid-day. I try to hug her with the powder in hand but she holds up her gloved hands toward me, like, I’m innocent. She says she cannot risk infecting herself with what I am carrying.
“It’s nothing personal,” she says. “It’s just a very important value that Dean and I both share.”
I’m back on the train. Powder in hand.
I’m home. Powder opened.
Smell of cookies overcome by toxic chemical astringency. Thick gloves over my hands, hands into the tub. The powder is chalky and substantive between my fingers. I start to fill the cracks of the home we now share—into the quarter-inch gap between the floorboard and the wall, inside the thick ridges between the cheap tiles in the kitchen, under the door frames where monsters can crawl through.
I reach the bedroom.
I look at the bed.
The imprint of her body still in the crumpled sheets. I hold the rest of the powder over the bed and dump it. I dump all of it. I fill the crime-scene outline that her human form once made. The cloud of chemicals bounces into my nose and I breathe it in, grateful for the scalding and caustic cleansing by this very poisonous powder that promises to rid me of the creature I do not know, the one with arms that are too strong from all the weightlifting, the one whose beady urine-yellow eyes pierce me, how they cut into me, how they cut me apart and slice me open and leave me here, breathing this poison in. It is in my throat. I am coughing. I am feeling better. I am feeling poisoned. I am needing more cookies.
I retreat to the kitchen. Tear open the baggie of cookies from my mother and eat all of them.
No, chocolate chip. They taste like nothing. They chalk in my mouth with the poison cloud. Tears grow out of my eyes but not due to sadness. I am triumphant. I have followed the clues and secured the home and locked the doors. Sher somewhere is wearing her surest jeans, she is sitting across from the blacked-out shadow of the wife who followed the trail where it led, and Sher is saying, What you did was tremendous, and Sher is saying, He would have died of exposure, naked in that field, if you hadn’t kept looking.
So I can breathe easy, by which I mean choking on a very poisonous powder. Maybe this is training for space, where you do not even have the luxury of poisonous air. Up there you cannot breathe so down here on the ground where I am grounded, I should feel lucky, I should feel grateful. Every partnership needs contrast and maybe tonight I’ll finally make that soufflé. This is called self-care.
Tonight, the creature who used to be my long-term lover Janet will return and this poison will salt her like a snail. Shriveled, she will shrink and fit in the palm of my hand and I will flush her down the toilet. Finally I will eat my dinner in peace.
I will keep the cracks in my apartment dusted. Where my long-term lover went, I cannot follow. Which is into a gym. And I will never join a gym, not when there is so much space to conquer. I am only a person and for this I should be grateful. Not everybody has this luxury. When Sher asks, Please, let me and the viewers at home know— at the end of everything you’ve been through—do you believe there’s life out there?
I will answer no. I do not believe there is life in here. Not after this poison. Not anymore.