Maddie woke up sweating, wrapped in her sheet, but the migraine was gone. She lifted her head and felt air on her neck. She didn't want to vomit. Relief. She sat up slowly and put her feet on the floor. She was weak, racked. Her mouth was dry and tasted sulphurous.
The day was gone. She didn't press the button that would illuminate the alarm clock. She sat in darkness. Her feeling was that it was deep into the night. She rose to her feet and closed her eyes, testing. She stepped into the bathroom where it was cool and clean. She pushed her hair off her face, then lifted it and clipped it back.
Next she went to the shadowed scene of the living room. The abandoned couch, blanket, cup of tea. The papers on the table. A book sprawled on the arm of a chair like a cat on a fence. She remembered previous episodes when the pain was so bad that she acted like a drunk, forgot everything except finding comfort. She panicked and checked the stove.
No disaster there.
The microwave sat with its glowing green teeth in the corner, but again she didn't check the time. She wanted this feeling of prehistoric, of animal.
She pushed back the patio door and stepped out onto the small square of concrete, then grass. No moon. But stars. She let her eyes stay with one. It was the first light she stared into willingly since her skull seized the previous afternoon. Sirius. It was bright, white. Almost searing. But she could take it.
Simultaneous to intuition, she looked down at her feet. Next to her heel, a small round frog. She could have crushed it. It was so close, she could have her foot on one of its front hands. It didn't move. She wondered if it were dead.
She lowered herself, and as her heels rose in that physics, the frog hopped a tiny distance from its original position. Maddie extended a finger to touch, then stroke its back. It slow winked its eyelids.
If Maddie were to personify it, she would say it was cautious. It was waiting for her next move. Maddie would not personify. She wouldn't allow herself. Nature didn't need to be human to be understood.
She picked it up. She didn't know why. She was surprised at herself. Once she had it, the sense of accomplishment turned into power. She knew she was being ridiculous. She had a frog in her hand. Quickness and luck. Not even luck. She couldn't let it go. She'd grabbed it, and her brain, finished with pounding mercilessly for hours on end, set to work searching for meaning, purpose. Justification.
She was standing now. She was facing the creek at the back of the property, a few yards away and down a hill. She could walk to the edge and put the frog at the beach of it.
She didn't move. She became aware of a small weight in the left pocket of her house dress. A knife. Folded and safe. Useful.
She laid the frog on its back in her palm, held it flat. She looked at its white belly, like a newborn son. She tucked her thumb into the tender skin over the pharynx to hold it in place.
Of course she thought of high school, her science class, grouped with three other girls for dissection. The smell of formaldehyde and their cackling, dumb squealing for attention. They weren't afraid, they were bored. They were pretty and they made her do the work. Scalpel. Slit. Ovaries. Female.
It was easy. This would not be easy. She took the tip of her knife and pressed it at a spot beneath her thumb. The pressure needed would be like pushing a crochet needle through a tight loop. She was in her back yard and the night air was on her skin and her head wasn't throbbing, even at the light of clear, bright stars hitting her retina. She made a decision.
The next time she woke to daylight, there was pain again. Not her head. A stinging in her hand, like hot coffee. She looked, found one deep, long slit on her palm. Like a gill.
When Thomas stepped out of the theater, the street was steaming. A rain shower had doused the city some time during the film. He checked his watch, crossed the street, and tucked into a dark bar with a stool propping the door open. Just inside, a fat man with a dirty apron wiped his hands down his front. He was faced toward the door, stock still. He was in Thomas’s way. Thomas approached close, then slid by as if the obstacle was planned. As he passed, Thomas caught the man’s breath. Beef and bad hygiene. Before he could get two feet away, the man turned and hollered, “This idiot is coming back!” Thomas’s eardrums rocked. He winced. No one noticed. There weren’t many patrons. A woman at the bar, smoking, and two men at a booth, deep in discussion, papers between them. The woman at the bar was in her fifties. She sat slouched, a short glass of amber liquid in front of her. She was reading a magazine. As Thomas took his seat three stools down, the man from the door stepped behind the bar. He had a scraggly beard, sparce and too long. He stood in front of Thomas and asked, “What do you want?” Thomas wondered if they were closed. He tried, “Are you serving dinner yet?” The man looked away, just shy of rolling his eyes, saying “I’ll get you a menu,” turning his back. He walked behind a door into the kitchen. Simultaneously, a figure burst into the bar, kicking over the stool at the door. A thin replica of the fat man. Dirty apron, dumb look. Over the apron, he was wearing a jacket. He came close behind Thomas, nearly knocking into him as he marched toward the kitchen. He shoved the kitchen door with both hands, blasting it open. The door closed behind him, then shouting from the kitchen. A few moments of silence passed, and the fat man came out, walked quickly toward Thomas, threw down a laminated menu. He stood and stared at Thomas, expecting a decision. Thomas ordered a Reuben and a beer. He didn’t bother with the menu. He passed it back. The fat man walked back to the kitchen again. More shouting. Thomas waited for his sandwich. He waited fifteen minutes. A old man, aproned, brought his sandwich out, set it down quickly without speaking, then rushed back to the kitchen, using a towel at his side to wipe his hands. Thomas was not more than a few bites into his meal when a loud thud came from the kitchen door, then it opened just enough for the thin man to come out. He wasn’t wearing his jacket. His arms were up, his hands covering the top of his head. He was bent slightly forward. He stumbled, knocking into a counter, not looking where he was going. Then suddenly he dropped his arms, stood up straight and still. There was blood on his face. His mouth was open. He stared at Thomas. He swayed in place. Thomas stared, stood up from his stool. The two men in the corner were turned and staring, half out of their seats. The woman at the bar leapt up from her stool and took several quick steps backwards. Her voice, “What?” and the bleeding man’s eyes shifted slowly toward her. There was a large, black hilt of a knife tucked under his left cheek. Thomas wondered at how long it took him to notice such a thing. The bleeding man began looking around wildly. He looked behind him. He seemed to give up on the patrons he’d encountered outside of the kitchen. He turned toward a hall at the back of the dining area. He stumbled toward, then down the hall. It took a long time. Thomas stood and watched. They all stood and watched. One of the two men at the booth had a cloth napkin in his hand, and it unfolded toward his feet. Finally, a sound that was the bleeding man’s shoulder finding a door and shoving through. Sunlight, then another sound of the door closing. Dark. Silence. The woman turned and looked at the men. The two men at the booth stood still staring toward the door. Thomas stepped forward, down the hall, following the path laid out by the bleeding man. He went to the door, touched it. He pushed it open. He expected it not to give. He expected the bleeding man to be on his ass outside, leaned up against it. But the door opened. Easily. Thomas walked out into an alley. He looked one way, but not the other. The other direction seemed implausible somehow. The man was gone. A few feet away, a cat. The cat was gaunt. Thomas stepped forward, slow. The cat was gray with markings, but also there was blood. The cat stood and crossed the alley, showing its other side. Its other side was a barn fresh painted red.