The red fabric seats held nothing but dust. That made him uneasy. He didn’t know what to expect, but he did expect someone. The letter told him the exam would be held the following day, at the old theater, and that he should take a seat in the main auditorium. It also told him he would be safe, but little else. A voice through speakers was the only entity welcoming him. “Please sit,” it said. “Where?” he asked, but there was no reply, so he just strolled down the aisle and stopped more or less in the middle. He had never been at the old theater before, not even when it was a new theater, with different plays opening every month, and long lines of people curving the corners for tickets.
“Can we raise the curtain?” the voice asked. He wanted to say yes, but only a shriek came from his throat. He felt nervous. The voice insisted. “You can, yes,” he finally coughed out.
A faint orange glow framed the stage curtain from behind, an old piece of cloth ripped at places and stained all over. It rose slowly, and as it did the man grew increasingly agitated and confused.
“What do you see?” the voice asked.
“What is this?”
“You must tell us what you see.”
“I see four children. They are sitting in wooden chairs, looking at me.”
“What are their names?”
“I,” he began, but then he paused for a moment. “I don’t know these children.”
The man moved inside his seat with discomfort. The tie was too tight, the bloody red tie he didn’t want to bring anyway. He gave it a pull to loosen it up a bit. “They wear old clothes,” he said. “Well, not old, but antique. They are very still.”
“Describe each one.”
“Why are they so still?”
“Describe each one, please.”
“I don’t understand,” he began. “There are two boys and two girls, but the two boys are the same, and the two girls are the same also. They don’t look the same, they are the same. Not like twins, more like copies.”
“The boys are brown eyed and brown haired. They wear leather boots under cotton trousers, and white shirts with red suspenders.”
“The girls wear a floral themed cotton dress, white sandals, and green ribbons on their heads. The hair is lighter than the boys’, but they have much darker eyes.”
“Can you tell us their names now?”
“This is odd, but yes. I know their names now. Martin and Anna. How do I know their names?”
“You told us there were four children, but only gave us two names.”
“I told you they were copies of each other. Two boys called Martin. Two girls called Anna. Their eyes are open, but –” and he stopped.
One hand started to swing his tie from side to side, while the other was clamping so hard on itself the nails started to pierce the skin.
“Yes?” the voice insisted.
“They are not alive,” he finally said. “They are not dead either. They have never been alive.” He shivered and felt an urgent need to close his eyes. Once he did, he surprisingly thought of her, always angry at him, always telling him he’s always breaking things. Truth be told, he did brake her, and when he did it was serious.
The voice pulled him out of his thoughts. “You cannot keep your eyes closed. Please, tell us what you see.”
The man gave a better look. “They are not children,” he said. “They look like children, they look exactly like children, but they’re not. They are mechanical. I know it. I know they are mechanical.”
“What do you mean?”
“They are made of cogs inside. I can see them.”
“Are the children transparent?”
“No, but I can see the cogs somehow.”
“You mean you can sense them?”
“No, not sense them. I can see the cogs. It’s hard to explain. And they are moving. I mean, these children things are still, they are very still, but the cogs inside are moving.”
“But the children are completely still?”
“Completely. It upsets me.”
“Do you wish them to move?”
“I think I’m afraid.”
“Of what are you afraid?”
“I’m afraid of what will happen when they start moving.”
“You fear they may attack you?”
“I’ve been told I would be safe.”
“What are you afraid of, then?”
“I don’t know. I’m just afraid. I shouldn’t be, but I am. That is all.” He was trying to keep a calm voice, but it was hard. “Martin,” he said.
“What about him?” the voice asked.
“He is raising one arm. Now the second Martin is doing the same.”
“Are you afraid now?”
His hands were spiking his legs. His skin starting to soak. His eyes as open as moon craters. “I’m safe. I’ve been told I would be safe. I shouldn’t be afraid. I’m not afraid,” but he closed his eyes nonetheless, and she was once again on his mind.
“You’re safe,” he told her.
“You’re drunk,” she said. “You’re an idiot and you’re drunk.” Always such a bloody prudence goddess, he thought.
“They were just a couple of beers. I can drive. I can keep you safe,” only he didn’t. They crashed. Her right arm broke in three different places and she had a concussion. He was by her side the whole time she was at the hospital, but they didn’t speak, they didn’t look at each other, six full days mutually ignoring one another. One day he accidentally touched her hand while going for the remote, but the hand quickly slid away from him, and her whole body closed upon itself with a shiver.
“You have to open your eyes,” the voice said. “You have to keep telling us what you see.”
He obeyed. “The children,” he said.
“What about them?”
“They don’t look like children any more. No, I was mistaken. They never looked like children. They are – “
“They are a spider, a mechanical and enormous spider. And the cogs inside, they were never cogs. They were small spiders, black ones, moving inside the big spider.”
His panting made his voice come out as thin as a strand of web. His eyes were jumping out of his skull, while his body was trying to bury itself inside the seat.
“The spider is all over me. It is so big, so bloody big. It is trying to touch me. And the sound it makes –”
“Don’t you see the children any more?”
“You don’t understand. The children are the spider.”
“You mean the four children compose the different parts of the spider?”
“And the sound it makes! Oh! The sound it makes!” He was holding both hands at his hears, fighting not to close his eyes again. “The sound comes from the mouths of the children. They scream like they are dying. This is their dying scream. Make it stop! Please make it stop! ”
“How can they be dying if you told us they were not alive?”
“I don’t know, I swear I don’t. I don’t want to look any more. Please don’t make me look any more.”
“You have to.” He was trying to obey, fighting to keep his eyelids from shutting down, but they were so heavy, so bloody heavy, that the theater vanished once more behind them, and now she was eating soup at his side. She held the spoon with her left hand, since her right arm was wrapped in cast. The letter was beside the bowl.
“It came today. I need to take the exam tomorrow,” he said.
She ignored him. He knew what it meant. It meant she couldn’t care less, but it also meant she thought he would fail. He tried to remember the last time they exchanged something other than hatred, but that only made him angry. He also tried to remember the last time he didn’t fail at something, but that only made him angrier.
“It is mandatory to take the exam once you’re called,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone who has taken the exam. My sister’s cousin had a friend. I think she took it. I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll pass.”
“The exam is tomorrow,” she said.
“That’s what I said.”
“This soup is terrible,” was the only thing she answered.
“You must keep telling us what you see,” the voice urged.
The sound of the children had faded to a low hum. He opened his eyes. On stage he no longer saw the children and the spider. He saw something else.
“What is the meaning of this? I see –”
“I see my wife. Why is my wife here?”
“Describe her to us.”
“What are you doing here?” he shouted.
The voice on the speakers grew impatient. “Please, describe her to us.”
“I don’t understand. Why is she part of the exam?”
There was no reply. The man sprang to his feet and walked down the auditorium. “She’s wearing her green dress. I hate that dress, and her hair, her hair is a mess,” he said, while jumping onto the stage. “Why are you here?” he asked, but then he paused, gazed, shivered. “It is not her,” he finally realized.
“Who is it, then?”
“It is not even a woman. It is a mechanical thing that looks like her, made of small, mechanical spiders. And each spider is made of those four children, only now they are as small as ants, as small as ant legs. No, smaller than that.”
“The spiders form a mass, and the mass looks like her. It’s a trick. I can see it now.”
“You think this is a trick?”
He started to laugh. He laughed so hard he had to hold his bladder in.
“I can prove it,” he said, still laughing, and then he reached for her.
“Describe us what you are doing.”
“See? I’ve ripped her left eye out, but it is not an eye, it is a spider. See? I’m throwing the spider at the floor and I’m crushing it.”
“I’m taking out all the spiders, one by one. I’m dismantling her. Not breaking her. Dismantling her. Do you see?”
“The spiders crack under my boot. I’m dismantling her and breaking the spiders. I’m not afraid. Not anymore.”
“And the children, the mechanical children? And the low hum they’re making?”
“The hum stops as soon as I fall on them with my shoe.”
The voice did not reply.
“It wasn’t my wife. It was never my wife. All around me nothing but crushed mechanical spiders, crushed mechanical children.”
The voice did not reply.
“You saw what I did?”
The voice did not reply.
“Did you see it?”
The voice did not reply.
“Did you see it?” He was not laughing any more. “You did, didn’t you?”
A loud crack reverberated in the room, and all the lights died.
He never thought of himself as a sunset person. Some people find them spectacular events. He didn’t. He felt that orange light always rendered everything a bit wrong, but at that particular moment, he finally realized, it was the sunset in itself that felt wrong.
When the lights went out inside the theater, he knew the exam was over. The letter told him where and when he had to be to begin, but it said nothing of what he should do after finishing it. He waited a while for instructions, but after a few minutes he came to the conclusion there wouldn’t be any. He was in the dark, but not afraid, not any more. He waved his hands around, searching the floor as a blind man, but he found nothing, no children, no spiders, no wife. So he just started to feel his way out of the auditorium. He touched a door. Then another. Then another. A final door opened outside, and he saw the sunset behind the rooftops. It didn’t feel wrong. Not then.
He took a deep breath and tried to recall what happened. “What did I do?” First it was pure doubt, then it was pure terror. “They made me do something, didn’t they?” He knew it had been a trick, but it turned out to be a different kind of trick from what he thought. “Did I kill her?” It was the moment to be afraid, he thought, so he put his feet into a panicking motion and headed home.
When he arrived at his doorstep, all out of breath, he felt that something had been wrong the entire journey. First he thought of the people, or their absence, to be precise. He didn’t see one single person the whole way. Such was odd, but that was not it. Then he looked at the trees and the vivid green of the leaves. It was not November green, and it was November. Such was odd too, but that was not it. He then checked his clock. Still little past three in that orange afternoon.
That was it.
What he felt as wrong the whole way was the sunset. There are no sunsets at three in the afternoon, not where he lives anyway. That was wrong, that was definitely wrong. Even so, he took his keys, opened the front door and went inside, not sure of what he expected, not sure of what he wanted.
She was at the study, holding two books in her hands and looking up at a high shelf. He was so quiet going in it spooked her. “Oh, it’s you,” she said. “You pushed me this close to a heart attack, silly thing.” She surprised him with a kiss, and went back to shelving the books. “How was the exam?”
“It was good, I think,” he said, while his fingers touched his lips.
“Did you pass?”
He had not thought of that until that moment. Truth be told, he didn’t know. He didn’t know what kind of exam that was, if it was the kind where you pass or fail, or where you find out something about yourself. He knew nothing, nothing at all, and so he lied. “Yes. Yes I did.”
“That is very good,” she praised. “We should celebrate. You know what we could do? You could cook that lasagna of yours, and I’ll open the bottle of Douro.”
“It sounds good. Yes, it sounds wonderful.” He was then surprised by her arm, and how it was all clean and free of cast. “How is your arm?”
“It’s fine, silly thing. Just fine.” Then she laughed. He had forgotten all about that laugh. He had forgotten all about the high pitch that started it, the throat tremble which followed, and the deep chest finale. He had forgotten all about that laugh. “Don’t just stand there. Go cook.”
Such loveliness was intoxicating. He was twenty one all over again. When she walked away, he didn’t walk after, he floated. That’s how it felt anyway. He floated into the kitchen, he floated while he cooked, then he floated out of the kitchen, carrying forks and knives and plates and glasses, and he was floating when he saw it, framed inside his own house, on top of his own sideboard, two photographs, one of a boy, one of a girl, Martin, Anna.
When her wife heard the sound of braking porcelain in the dining room, she rushed to see what happened. “You are always breaking things,” she said, but she was not angry, not at all. She was smiling, she was smiling a midday sun bright smile. “Would you kiss me?” he asked suddenly. Her smile toned down. It was no longer a midday sun bright smile, it was a sunset smile, but it didn’t feel wrong. She held his head gently and gently she kissed him. First she just touched his lips with her own, then she opened them and slid her tongue inside, then she devoured his breath, his body, his soul. He had forgotten all about that kiss. When she stopped, he looked deep into her eyes, and that’s when he saw the spiders moving inside her pupils.
“The lasagna is ready” he said, “but we’ll need other dishes.”
She laughed again. “Well, I can see that. Go get them. I’ll open the bottle.”
The whole meal he stared at her, drawing a fake smile every time she raised her eyes at him. Her eyes infested with spiders. The smiles she gave him, however, didn’t feel fake. They felt as pure as she had ever given him. They ate without a word. They washed the dishes without a word. They took a shower together without a word. They fucked without a word. They fell asleep without a word.
He woke up two hours later and looked outside. It was still sunset. She was deeply asleep, wearing that beautiful sleep expression of hers. He had forgotten all about that expression. “It is not her,” he told himself. He felt thirsty and headed for the kitchen, but first he stopped at the dining room and looked at the framed photographs. Martin and Anna were gone. They had been replaced by photographs of him and his wife. “They must suspect I know,” he realized, “and they are trying to confuse me, to put me off track.”
The kitchen still smelled of béchamel and red wine. “I’m so bloody thirsty.” He filled a glass of water and drank it. He filled a second glass of water and drank it. He took a deep, satisfied breath and went back to his room, calmly holding a kitchen knife in his right hand.
The room had an orange hue. Sunsets always render everything a bit wrong, he thought. Outside the window he saw no one. He sat at his bed, next to her. With his left hand he caressed her cheeks and felt her hair, with his right hand he held the kitchen knife on top of his thigh. She opened her eyes briefly and smiled.
“Everything fine, silly thing?”
“Everything perfect. Everything just perfect.”
And she went back to sleep.
“This is a cast saw,” the doctor said. “It is specially made to cut through the cast without harming the skin, but tell me if you feel any pain, any pain at all.” She nodded and the saw started to vibrate. She looked away.
The wall had a reproduction of a painting by J. M. W. Turner. Nothing but orange paint, she thought. She closed her eyes and thought of the sky and of how it was nothing but orange too when he told her she was safe. She told him he was drunk. He wasn’t, not really, but he had been an idiot that whole afternoon and she wanted to insult him, to be angry with him, to hurt him. They were always at each other’s throats for the last two years. They were at each other’s throats when the curve came and the setting sun lightened the wind shield up like it was Nagasaki.
“All done,” the doctor said.
She opened her eyes.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
She didn’t answer. She was staring at the Turner reproduction. Eighteen thirty to thirty five. Tate Britain.
“Feeling any headaches? Nausea?”
She shook her head.
“How about difficulties sleeping?”
“Of course I have difficulties sleeping.”
“I understand. Do you want to take something?”
She stood up and reached for the Turner print. There was no texture. Sunsets have textures and sounds and tastes, she thought. They did now, at least.
“Something? Like what?”
“Something to help you sleep better.”
“I don’t want to sleep better,” she said, and she closed her eyes again.
Blue lights were flashing all around. “We’ll take you out of there, lady,” someone told her. She remembered the flash light at her eyes, the cervical collar, the loud sound of the siren as they drove her to the hospital, the questions, “Do you know your name? Do you know where you are? Do you know what day is it today?”
“Anna, my name is Anna.”
“Anna,” the doctor called, “you don’t need to go through this like that.”
“It was not your fault.”
“I didn’t say it was. Is it all? Can I go?”
On her way out she saw the room where she thought he moved his hand to touch hers. He was going to be fine, we wasn’t going to die or anything like that. No yet. “We’re optimistic,” they said. “We need to do this head exam to know exactly what to do next,” they said.
Anna tried to remember him before the accident. She could remember things she did with him, but she couldn’t remember him. She tried to recall the first time they had sex. He cooked lasagna. It was an awful lasagna. The béchamel was too thick and the meat as salty as the dead sea, but she lied and ate it with a smile. She remembered the wine and the taste of the wine, but not the taste of his mouth, she remembered what they did in bed like items on a list, but not what it felt like, and she knew by heart all they talked about afterwards, but she couldn’t remember his voice. The voice was what hurt the most. Anna left the hospital and took a bus home.
When she arrived at her doorstep, the sun was setting over the rooftops. The keys were in hand, but she showed no intention of opening the door. She just stood there. She stood there for a few minutes, then a few minutes longer. The sharp January air sliced through her clothes, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was listening to the doctors, she was listening their words from November. “We’re optimistic,” they said. “He will probably make it,” they said. But then something happened during the exam. It was little past three in the afternoon. “He had a seizure. We don’t know why. His vitals went down so fast.”
The front door opened. “How long have you been here? You’re ice cold. Get in.” Anna went inside. “You’re freezing, dear. I’ll fix you up with something hot.” Anna’s mother-in-law moved slow and heavily. She brought her a cup of tea, a blanket and ordered her to rest in the sofa. “What were you doing out there?” Anna didn’t answer. “What did the doctor say about your arm?” Anna didn’t answer. “Well, suit yourself,” she said as she left the living room.
Anna got up and went after her. “I’ll cook tonight,” she said. “I’ll make lasagna.”
“Are you sure? Can you use your arm?”
“Well, I guess that is quite all right, then.”
Before starting to cook, Anna went to her room. It was already dark outside, but she didn’t turn the lights on. She didn’t want to look at him. “He’s in a stable vegetative state,” they explained. “He won’t be able to move or interact. Sometimes he may have his eyes open, but he doesn’t see or hear. His brain is disconnected from his senses. Do you understand this?”
Anna said nothing.
“You also need to understand he doesn’t need a machine to live, so he must go home.”
“Is he still in there?” she asked.
“Some part of him, maybe, but nobody can say. How are you feeling?”
Anna said nothing.
“Do you understand what this means, Anna?”
“I’ll take him home. I’ll feed him through a tube. I’ll change his diapers and keep him clean,” she said. And she took him home, and she fed him, and she kept him clean.
Anna and her mother-in-law ate the lasagna in silence. They were quietly drinking cheap red wine when her mother-in-law said, “You need to be strong, Anna. We need to be strong. For Martin.”
“That is not Martin,” Anna replied. She thought that when that sentence were to finally come out, it would be shouted out, each word a heavy stone, each word relentlessly violent, each word the whole message. That. Is. Not. Martin. That’s why a smile almost grew on her face when she heard how softly she was saying it, like a sweet secret whispered between lovers in one single breath. Thatisnotmartin. Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, threw her reply as furiously as she could. “That is Martin. That is my son, your husband.” Anna said nothing.
The rest of the evening they didn’t speak. The table was cleared in silence. The kitchen cleaned in silence. In silence, the mother went to check on her son, then retired to the guest room and turned the TV on. Anna knew it would stay on until morning. It helped her mother-in-law sleep.
Anna smoked in the kitchen while looking outside. The night is dark and heavy and filled with silence, she thought. I am the night, she thought. After taking a shower she went to her room. Martin had his eyes open. That scared her. That always scared her. She closed them gently and noticed his lips were dry, so she gave him water with a small sponge before trying to get some sleep. One hour later she was still awake, and her own mouth was dry.
The kitchen still smelled of béchamel and red wine. Anna drank a glass of water, then she lit up a cigarette, then she drank another glass of water, and then she lit up another cigarette. This last one she didn’t smoke, she just let it burn away in the ashtray. She repeated this until the pack got empty and the sun started to rise. A sunrise is just a sunset in the opposite direction, she thought. That’s when she decided to go back to her room, calmly holding a kitchen knife in her right hand.
Credit To – Rohnes Loraf