At the curled end of Thurston Place sits a house beneath a darkening sky. Like other homes along the cul-de-sac, it has decorative dormers, two unseeing eyes across its shingled brow. Like the other homes, a dew-strung lawn encircles freshly planted flowerbeds. There are rosebushes in front; on the side, pink hydrangeas. Between the hydrangeas stands a man named Elliot, his hands in his pockets, his face almost touching a large windowpane. The window and the plantings belong to a man inside, also named Elliot, also facing the window. The outside Elliot looks in on a golden-lit kitchen where a domestic scene unfolds: husband, wife, and child—all sitting at the table eating dinner. Their hands hold steak knives and lacquer-handled forks; their plates hold brown slabs of meat with bloody interiors. They chew and chew and sometimes speak. The child, a boy around eight, drinks milk. The adults drink wine.
The inside family can see only their reflections glinting back at them in the window’s blackness. They cannot see the man outside; cannot see that he looks identical to the man inside except, perhaps, his eyes seem hungrier. They cannot see the boy standing beside him, a child of about eight, his head barely cresting the windowsill. Both inside and outside sons have dark, shiny hair and dark, shiny eyes; both inside and outside sons are named Adam.
The outside Adam cranes his neck and complains that he can’t see until the outside Elliot picks him up beneath the armpits and raises him higher.
“There,” Elliot says. “They’re only eating. Nothing exciting.”
“What does it taste like?”
“I don’t know,” Elliot answers and, after a moment, adds, “I’m sure it’s nothing special. Look how much they have to chew.” He releases the boy and takes a step back from the prickling branches. He pats the boy on the head, the same way the inside Elliot pats the inside Adam, as he’s doing so now on his way to clear the dishes from the table. The plates are almost spotless but for a pinkish residue. The inside family are hearty eaters.
A crescent moon slices the night above the symmetrical rooflines of Thurston Place, only bright enough to cast fractured shadows across the lawns and flowerbeds. Crocuses strain upward into the moonlight; frogs begin their nighttime chorus; newly hatched moths take wing for the first time. There is a neatness and orderliness to the changing of the season.
Inside, the household breathes its steady rhythm. Dinner is over, television has been watched. The inside Adam lies asleep beneath a bedspread covered with Totoros. His face is serene in the amber glow of his two nightlights, one on each side of his bed, an impenetrable ward against monsters. The nightlights are a matching set: one the face of Mario, red and cheery; the other, his brother Luigi. The inside Adam likes Mario best and has Mario shirts, a Mario backpack.
“I would have a Luigi backpack,” the outside Adam confesses to his outside father.
“Is that so?” Elliot says, only half listening. His attention is focused on the other Elliot. The man inside is in bed beside his wife, now holding her, now kissing her. Her name is Hiroko, and the outside Elliot thinks she’s very glamorous, far more beautiful than the man beside her deserves. The outside Elliot wonders what she sees in this man and his paunchy torso. When her husband slips her nightshirt over her head, the outside Elliot presses forward until his forehead rests against the glass.
“I want to see,” Adam says.
“You’re too young for this. Go back to your own window.” Elliot watches the man inside kneel behind Hiroko. Slivers of moonlight glance off their skin as they rock forward and backward. Hiroko arches her spine, catlike. Her eyes are shuttered tight and her lips pulled back in almost a snarl. Their mechanical motions ebb, their faces go slack, then her eyes flit open looking straight ahead, straight at the window, through the window, locking onto the Elliot outside. He leaps back, almost tripping over Adam, then steadies himself. When he looks inside again, she is scanning the landscape behind him, dreamily, and he reminds himself that she couldn’t have seen him. He leans against the sill and watches the lovers slip on their nightclothes and settle into their sleeping positions: Elliot on his back; Hiroko on her side, facing the window. When she smiles, Elliot can’t tell if her expression is aimed at him or something else unseen.
Morning in the neighborhood: garage doors open and lower; cars exit their driveways; a gaggle of children stand at the end of the cul-de-sac, Adam among them. He wears a red bookbag like his friends, a blue raincoat like his friends. The weatherman has forecast rain, but the morning air is bright and stained with optimism.
Sunlight slants against Elliot and Hiroko’s home, shines across their manicured lawn, across the asphalt drive that Elliot resurfaced himself. The drive leads to a closed garage door painted Restful White. Beyond the garage door sits Elliot’s sedan, a sensible Toyota, high-miled but well-maintained, and Hiroko’s BMW which they leased after her last big commission. Inside the Toyota, in the backseat, is the man who looks just like the inside Elliot. He sits and waits, patiently, quietly, fingering a piece of ten-gauge wire, the remnants of one of Elliot’s DIY projects. Last month it had been tiling the kitchen backsplash; the month before, regrouting the bathtub. Elliot is very handy, and both he and the man in the car have worn, calloused fingers. Thus, when minutes later one Elliot wraps the wire about the other Elliot’s throat and pulls, the wire barely cuts into his hands. He doesn’t have to pull long.
The new Elliot exits the car and folds his old self neatly into a jumbo plastic bag. He double ties the bag and pulls it with some effort out to the curb. It is trash day.
“Good morning, Elliot,” calls Martha Gaitskill from next door. She strains to pull a large, wheeled trashcan from her garage.
“Morning, Martha,” Elliot calls back. “Need a hand with that?”
“Well, Henry was supposed to take it out before he left for work. One of these days he’ll remember. But thanks for the offer. I can manage,” Martha says, but Elliot is already hurrying over. Despite her stout frame, she’s getting up in years.
“I said I’ve got it,” she says. “I’m not over the hill yet!” Even so, she allows him to help with the final stretch, until the can stops with a ponderous thunk at the bottom of her drive. Elliot considers asking her what’s weighing down the can, but thinks better of it and waves goodbye. He doesn’t want to be late for work.
The new Elliot finds the Toyota easy to drive. The pedals feel right beneath his feet, the steering wheel just loose enough. As he pulls into the factory parking lot, it occurs to him that he’s never driven here before—never driven anywhere—that he’s never seen the brick and concrete warehouse framed against the sky, and yet somehow he recognizes it and knows that the old Elliot always parked closest to the south entrance in the shade of the Japanese maple. He nods to the receptionist he’s never met—her name is Cindy—and Jim, the security guard, who he knows has a child Adam’s age, who he knows likes to talk sports with the old Elliot. He knows his supervisor’s name and his supervisor’s wife’s name, knows how to suit up head to toe in white coveralls and mask, knows the intricacies of shuttling test tubes from one end of the factory floor to the other, which computers operate which machines, where to stand during the centrifuge process. He knows all of this, somehow remembers each detail, and the strata of the memories shift and settle within him, cooling into something firm and immotile.
The new Elliot likes the Clean Room, its mechanical whines and whirrs, and its almost blinding whiteness everywhere: the white trays with their translucent samples, the glossy white robotic arms with their argent steel claws, the white computers operated by white-clad workers in their cottony coveralls: no trace of dirt, no smudge of ink, only cleanliness and order. Elliot finds the steady rhythm of the machines not dull but a comfort, a soft familiar hum. He remembers with clarity the first time he stepped onto the factory floor years and years ago, when he was newly married, before Adam was born. The memories of standing in the hydrangeas, of watching himself sleep until after the sun rose, of a length of wire in his hand—those memories drift all about him, settle on his white coveralls like dust, and threaten to be inhaled by the Clean Room’s filters. When, at quitting time, he strips off his clean-suit, the memories barely cling to him.
Beneath a salmon sky, Elliot pulls back into his neighborhood. Children bike up and down the streets and sidewalks, Adam among them, tilting his head into the breeze. His eyes are forward and careless, not looking to his sides or behind him, oblivious and blithe. Elliot slows the car and scans the streets for hidden dangers: cars backing out, roaming dogs, unseen threats hiding between the houses. But there are only the neighbors—Martha watering her garden, the Scurfields walking their Boston terriers—and the children running and biking among them. Elliot angles his car into his drive and waves to his neighbors and they wave back and the children ride on.
Inside the garage, everything looks clean and serene. His tools are all in their place. His wife’s car sits neatly beside his. There are no signs of the morning’s events, the events that seem gauzy and uncertain in the evening light. Improbable and unsensible. Was he really in the backseat this morning, or was he the one behind the wheel, the one inserting the key into the ignition? He runs his fingers across his neck in search of a ridged scar but only feels the lump of his Adam’s apple.
Inside the kitchen the light is more subdued than he expected or, perhaps, remembered. An image of him looking in on himself from outside flashes across his consciousness. But outside the yard is empty. Dusky shadows cling to the tree line beyond his property. Shapes move in and out of the shadows, but they are only deer: four does and a yearling buck. Above the tree line, the sky has turned a tenebrous blue like crushed velvet.
His wife is in the living room. She sips a mineral water and gazes out the large window at the children on their bikes. She’s still in her work attire, a red and black dress short enough to reveal sinuous legs. She smells of vanilla and sandalwood. Elliot steps behind her, places a hand on the small of her back. She turns and studies his face. “Oh,” she says. “You’re new. When did you get here?”
He blinks his surprise back at her. “I just got home.”
“No. You know what I mean. What did you do with the old one?”
“The old one?”
“Don’t look so surprised. It’s not the first time, you know. Your eyes are a dead give away. Obvious if you know what to look for.”
Her own eyes flash darkly: inky pools that devour light.
She turns back to the window, crosses her arms. “They called Adam into the principal’s again. For being ‘disruptive.’ I’m just glad it wasn’t another fight. They want to schedule a conference.”
“How many times?”
“This is, what, his fifth? Since winter break, anyway.”
“No. Not Adam. How many times has there been, you know…”
“A replacement? Oh, I don’t know. I’ve lost track. Maybe a dozen or so?” She gives him a wan smile and presses her hand against his arm. “It’s really not a big deal. All the others forgot about it within days. Or hours even. I’m sure you will, too.”
“And Adam? Has he—”
“No, not yet. The younger ones don’t have enough initiative. And besides, our son is tough.”
Elliot nods slowly and works his jaw in circular motions, as if trying to discern the shape of the words in his mouth. “What about you?”
“I’m much too careful,” she says and squeezes his arm. “Now go call Adam for dinner. We’re having chili.”
Bruised clouds crawl across the neighborhood and crouch above the houses as evening gives way to night. A patio light floods Hiroko and Elliot’s backyard. Moths and midges flit in and out of the halogen glow. Their wings ripple and buzz. Some plip against the glass door like pebbles in a futile attempt to get inside. On the other side of the glass Elliot stands, staring into the night. A child-shaped shadow crouches against the blackness beyond. It doesn’t move. When Elliot looks closer, he sees it is only the wisteria that he planted however many selves ago.
“You’ll attract bugs with that light on,” his wife says to him, silently stepping into the kitchen behind him. She flips off the light switch. Darkness outside. Only Elliot’s reflection in the window now. “That’s better,” Hiroko says, and Elliot nods. It is better.
“I’m going to bed,” she announces. Elliot nods again and follows her. He pauses at the entrance of Adam’s room. There, the two nightlights blaze like sentinels amid the toys and books. Watchful. The boy sleeps on his stomach, his legs flung in every direction. His nostrils flare with each breath, and he doesn’t stir. The father watches this son for a long while.
When Elliot enters his own bedroom for the first time, a woman he is supposed to love lies under the sheets and watches him watching her.
“You took your time,” she says.
“I suppose you want sex now.”
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Usually the new ones can’t wait,” she says and rolls to her side, away from him and toward the window.
“Maybe I’m different.”
“Doubtful,” she answers, but he doesn’t hear. He has already left the bedroom, his bare feet padding down the carpeted hall and into the empty space of the living room. Beyond the window, the night ticks forward like a widening steel jaw.
Garage doors open along Thurston Place in the humid morning. Cars ease onto the pavement to begin their daily migration. Adam merges with his group of schoolmates and jostles his way toward the bus stop. None of the children notice the shadows following behind them, eager shadows that sluice along the dewy lawns with hungry eyes.
Still inside, Elliot rushes to shower and shave, his head pounding. Why had he slept on the couch all night? He didn’t remember drinking much, no more than a couple of beers. A ghost of a memory scratches at his consciousness. A dream, a whisper. Hiroko shouts at him to hurry.
He arrives at the factory thirty minutes late. He has never been late before, not that he recalls, and he suits up and joins his coworkers on the floor, nodding at them apologetically and casting anxious glances to the blank windows of his supervisor’s office. The other floor workers glide about him as if he was never absent, moving quickly up and down the line, each a white-clad clone of the next worker—maybe taller or shorter, but from a distance almost indistinguishable from one another. Perhaps nobody has noticed his tardiness. Elliot relaxes at the thought and settles into the rhythm of the job until, just before lunch, his supervisor calls him off the floor. He stiffens at the sound of his name over the intercom. He has never been in trouble before.
There’s an emergency, his supervisor tells him, an emergency at school. It’s your son.
“Is he hurt?”
Not hurt, the principal explains, the school nurse explains, the vice principal, the counselor. They’re all there in the principal’s office: a grim cortege. Not hurt, they say, but the other boy.
“Who was he fighting?” Elliot asks, his voice rising to a shrill timbre. “Was it another child who looked like him?” He’s unsure why he asks this, why a vision of Adam wounding a mirror of himself enters his mind like an electrical flash, an eely current of thought.
They sit Elliot down. They tell him they have to take action. These incidents cannot be tolerated. For Adam to use a rock like that. The other child is fortunate to only require stitches. We know Adam knows right from wrong, they tell him. We know Adam knows better than to pick on kids for being different, they say.
The expelled child sits on his bed in front of them, hangdog and contrite. His parents stand, arms crossed in anger, disgust. Elliot asks, over and over, how could he do such a thing. His voice is wrapped in disbelief, in wonder where he had gone wrong. Hiroko’s voice seethes. She had to leave an important client, may have lost a sale because of him. “And quit your crying,” she shouts at him. “If you don’t learn how to behave,” she says, her voice growing quieter, colder—and here, she bends forward so that her head is level with the boy’s, and she pulls at his chin so that he’s staring into her own flashing irises. “If you don’t behave,” she continues, her voice almost a whisper, “we shall replace you with a son who will listen. A son who won’t disappoint us.” These last words hang in the air around her mouth, then wreathe the boy in their truth even though he knows such a thing to be impossible. He swallows. His tears stop.
She straightens and looks at her husband, a smile playing across her face. The smile wavers at his visage. He is pale and shaking and won’t look at her. She pulls him out of their son’s bedroom and firmly shuts the door.
“There. That’s done,” she announces.
Night encircles the house at the end of Thurston Place. The air fizzles with electricity. In the west, distant lightning flashes. Inside, the son is still in his room, asleep, his cheeks stained from weeping. Now Elliot steps into the room; now Elliot places a hand on his son’s chest. Feels it rise and fall. A crackle of thunder ripples into the room, and only then does Elliot notice the open window. The screen still in its place, no sign of forced entry. Beyond the wire mesh, a steady rain whispers. Another flash turns the grass a pearlescent white then black again. No faces peer at him from the dark.
“What are you doing?” Hiroko hisses from the entrance of Adam’s room. Elliot’s hands are on the top of the sash, trying to ease the window closed. He drops his hands to his side and looks to his son, then to Hiroko, then back to Adam.
“You were serious then,” he murmurs to himself. Lightning flashes nearer now, the faces of Mario and Luigi flicker and go dark, and the ensuing thunder seems to warp and bend the floor beneath his feet.
“Of course I wasn’t serious,” Hiroko whispers in the darkness, her voice close now. Elliot feels her push him aside, hears her close the window and latch it back in place. When his vision finally adjusts, he sees her bending over Adam, stroking his hair and wiping his cheeks clean. She doesn’t look up when she says, “Go check the breaker. The alarm system is off.”
Outside, the entire neighborhood is swathed in electricity. Neat rows of houses suddenly awash in green-white light that fades to magenta in the retinal afterimage. Shadows streak across the yards. Clouds hurl down their rain. Beneath the eaves, dozens of figures huddle for warmth and shiver beneath their wet skins, now white and electric, now dark again. Another flash, another deafening clap. A lovely, forlorn sight.
Elliot stands at the top of the basement stairs encased in darkness. He holds a flashlight, shines it down the stairs, and descends. The sounds of the storm recede with each step. The electrical panel is on the far wall of their basement, beside the large freezer where Hiroko stores all of their meat: pork cutlets, sausages, flank and skirt steaks. Beyond the freezer, a glass sliding door leads to the backyard. A lull in the storm has left the outside as dark as the inside, and Elliot can only see what’s within the flashlight’s weak beam. He opens the panel, finds the breaker and flips it, then blinks in the sudden flare of the basement lights. He pockets the flashlight and goes to the slider. Locked. He can see nothing beyond his warm reflection in the glass. Cannot see the figures standing in the rain ten paces away.
The rain stops in the predawn hours. As the night recedes, so do the clouds, and the sun glints off the black asphalt that hisses beneath the tires of the commuters. All up and down Thurston Place garages open, Elliot’s too. There he stands between his and his wife’s car, inhaling the ozone scent of spring showers. When he opens his car, he does not check the backseat, does not look for signs of intrusion. Why should he? He lives on a safe street in a safe neighborhood.
His car starts with ease and backs out onto the glistening pavement. He rolls down his window to let in morning air and feels refreshed, contented. He always sleeps well through thunderstorms.
He presses the garage door remote and shifts the car into drive. In the edge of his mirror, a female form sidles toward the garage as the door lumbers downward. Martha, he thinks, but the figure is too tall and lithesome. When he looks over his shoulder, the door is shut and the house stares at him blankly.
Now the sun is ratcheted across the sky, its orange light tossing mauve shadows about. The houses in the neighborhood turn their lights on one by one. Mothers and fathers call out to their children that it’s dinnertime and the children scurry, ant-like, back indoors. Adam among them, beaming, panting with the exertion of play. His parents smiling back at him. He’s too good a kid to keep indoors.
“What’s for dinner?” Adam asks.
“Steak,” Elliot answers.
“There was a sale at the meat market,” Hiroko adds. “Now go wash up.”
Elliot is glad she agreed to unground Adam. “Is it so bad he defended himself?” she asked. “Doesn’t that show grit?” Elliot nodded. His wife always knows how to frame things. She’s a good wife, he thinks. Smart and beautiful and kind. He feels himself brimming with pride and gratitude, and he smiles at her. She artfully chews her steak and regards him. Her lips curve upward and her eyes, those inky pools, gaze at him, assure him that life is good, that their future is brighter than ever. He chews his steak. It has never tasted so good.