Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Pink Microscope, continued.....

Night comes. "What did you do?" He asks Marya.

She is sitting in the wooden chair he reserves for undergraduates. Not sitting; floating, as if an approximation of sitting were somehow necessary for his benefit.

She smiles, displaying those bright teeth. Is Allan only now just noticing their needle-sharp tips?

"I don't know what you're talking about. Let's get to work, shall we?"
Must push against this smiling thing. "What did you do with Missy?"
"Who?"
"Marya--"

But suddenly she is changing color, a steely gray that begins at the ends of her hair, working toward the roots, then her skin, flooding down over her body, the cape-tutu thing. All of it, in an instant, a glassy gunmetal, an new-age architectural material sheathing an already impenetrable edifice. "You're forgetting what I am," She says. Gone is the sweetly musical lilt; in its place is a hoarse growl, barely comprehensible, an unutterably strange sound with undertones of grinding machinery.

"You're a microscope," Allan says in what he hopes is a reasonably level voice. He is terrified.

Marya's cheerful pinkness returns. "That's right," she agrees, and her voice is a concatenation of music and femiminity and that awful machine sound. "I am a microscope."

She produces the disk, and Allan blissfully forgets himself in the wondrous experiment opening before him.

Driving home that evening, he reassures himself that this will soon be over. Marya has promised him the material is nearly ready for release. Missy will likely return, or at least contact him with her resignation. (Maybe he should purchase a Palm Pilot, or a Blackberry. Put important dates into it. He imagines himself briskly tapping into the tiny machine, elegant little stylus in hand. Tina and Betty and Missy, all recalled, all showered in remembered roses. Knaffler admiring his nifty gadget.) He would hire another manager, somebody equally organized, but less aggressive. Maybe an Asian woman with a head for numbers. The University's accounting offices are filled with these ladies, tiny women with limited English, subservient smiles, and terrific accounting skills.

Yes. Changes were afoot, but hadn't he longed for change?

The house is dark, not even the usual porch light left on. The bulb must be out. Allan jabs the keys blindly at the doorknob. It's late, it's dark, and though his neighborhood is an exclusive one, in these unstable times, nobody is completely safe.

Success, the key slides in, the knob turns. No light in the foyer, either. Power failure? Tentatively his fingers find the wall switch. The light comes on. Allan feels a surge of irritation. Is it so much for Betty to leave a couple lights on? He drops his keys on the small table in the foyer, an antique writing desk now used to hold mail, keys, sunglasses. Betty has left him a note. She is tired of his lies. She is staying with Tina and Robby.

Allan restrains himself until seven a.m., then dials his daughter's telphone number, convienently written on the whiteboard beside the kitchen phone.

Robby answers, sounding surprised but polite. Robert Harnack is always polite to his father-in-law. Before marrying the surpassingly dull Tina, Robert made a discreet trip the County Assesor's Office. Allan Nyman bought his house on Scenic in 1965 for $42,000. Since then it has quadrupled in value. And Tina, praise God (something Robby does, each Sunday, in various churches around the area. It's wonderful way to meet clients), is an only child.

Allan asks to speak with his daughter.
"I'm sorry, Dad, she's at yoga class."
"Betty, then. Is she awake? Can you put her on the line?"
"Mom's not here, Dad. She called Tina yesterday. Said she was going to Italy. Some Italian Farmhouse cooking thing."
It crosses Allan's mind that his son-in-law may be lying. But it is wishful thinking and he knows it. Further, there is no way he can extricate himself smoothly from this conversation. "Sorry to have bothered, you. My best to Tina."
"Sure, Dad."
"I'm not your fucking father," Allan says into the dead receiver. He could check their joint bank account, look up recent credit charges, find the plane ticket, the reservation for one at some charming little castle outside Rome.
But he knows he won't find anything.

How did he get to work? He does not recall leaving the house, the short drive to campus. But he's here, unshaven, still in yesterday's clothing. Standing over the box. She's in there, he can tell. The slats move slightly, regularly. There is the occasional rustling sound as she shifts in her sleep. Is it sleep? Or some state of suspended animation?

Allan closes his door. It's a Sunday at year's end. Even Gong is gone. The lab, indeed the entire building, is deserted. The building manager has turned down the thermostat. The air is chilly and dark.

Allan sits in his desk chair. He does not turn on the computer or poke through the endless drift of papers on his desk. He waits.

He is determined to sit here until night falls, to confront the thing in the box. He is afraid, yes, but he is also a scientist, a man of inquisitive mind. And he must get to the bottom of this.

Such thoughts march through his head, stiffening his spine, filling him with righteous resolve. Until, chin drooping into his chest, he falls asleep.

He wakens confused, back and neck aching from sleeping upright. How long has he been out? Hard to say, though dark has fallen. Six hours? Eight?

Time, it's time to talk with her. He clears his throat, looks at the box--

It's empty, the lid carelessly tossed aside, trails of shredded pink paper tissue strewn about, as if a child had been playing in the packing material.

Allan turns about the office, even looking in the tiny coat closet. He searches the lab, the darkroom, Missy's office.

Marya, the microscope, is gone. As are Missy and Betty.

Must not panic. Must not become hysterical.

Allan stumbles back to his office, almost tripping. Dropping to his knees before the box, he plunges frantically through the torn bits of paper, God there's so much of it, does a ton of shredded paper weigh as much as a ton of feathers?

His fingers close on a square of hard plastic. Truimphantly he pulls it free, sending paper in every direction. The office looks like a shredder exploded in it. Allan doesn't notice. Jamming the disk into the zip drive, he waits for the icon to appear on the desktop. There, there. Allan double-clicks, forcing himself not to jimmy the mouse. Breathe. Slow down. His heart is pounding, he can feel the blood rushing through his eardrums.

It's garbage. Gobbledygook. Meaningless strings of letters, numbers, with occasional bolded bits or randomly italicized chunks of text. For one tiny second Allan wonders whether this is some sort of code, a further safety device installed by Marya, something the programmers could figure out.

He stares at the screen, mind racing. Something must come to him, was he not a Keck Fellow, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, second in his class at the University of Washington?

Absently he swiped his upper lip with the back of his hand. So hot, he's always so goddamned hot, like a menopausal woman.

Focus, he commands himself, then laughs aloud at the injunction, a bitter short bark.

But look at this sequence of numbers. He leans closer to the screen, nose nearly touching it, as if proximity will lend clarity.

7 18 5 5 4 2 4
6 15 15 12 9 19 8
13 1 14

The numbers are scattered throughout the rest of the mishmash--pages and pages of garbage. But those numbers always appear in the same order, sometimes bold, sometimes italic, sometimes a jagged mixture of fonts and sizes.

Allan has always been adept at puzzles. This one takes no time at all. Each number represents a letter of the alphabet: a child's code. He scrawls each letter with its corresponding number on his desk blotter.

FOOLISH

GREEDY

MAN

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