Fiction: They Who Stay
By Jon Fain
I see my wife every Sunday. It could be more than that, because even though I didn’t get the full package, I’ve become intimate with the techs, and they would provide access at their site whenever I want. But I’ve kept it to Sundays so far.
The place where I watch has two large black and white monitors, each with a split screen showing four camera displays, providing video coverage for most of the house. Some rooms are shadowed, drapes drawn; some rooms have flats of gray sunlight on the floors.
My wife might be in any of the shots. Sitting on a chair in the kitchen. Laying without any covering, arms and legs locked around the pillows on what was our big bed together. Kneeling on the couch in the living room, looking out the window like a kid waiting for the ice cream truck.
Regardless, wherever she is, she’s dressed in a sweat shirt and sweat pants, the top darker than the bottom. Her pale face glows out from the screen. When her lips move it’s speculative on my part because there’s no sound, but I imagine she’s singing snatches of songs, reworking diatribes, praying to some goddess.
And one other thing. My name is going to be silently tossed out sooner or later. I know she blames me for abandoning her, although I haven’t, I really haven’t. I am not one of those spouses who runs away when things get tough. Not completely anyway. I am still keeping tabs, as they say.
Speaking of names, we had them for everything. Pet names for each other. Slang for the pills she took. Names for neighbors whose names we didn’t know. Well, we had them for everything, except for what was going on with her.
I watch my wife go from room to room, from one image to another, as if filling squares in tic-tac-toe. In spite of everything, I carry a crashed but still moving wrecked love for her.
For her mother, she was albatross, worry beads polished dull; burden, lament, black hole of disappointment. For the father, who gives a fuck. For her sister, embarrassment, nuisance, demon seed, whatever happened to Baby Jane?
From the first, I pretended to have nobody too. In defense of my actions, I admit that I framed my circumstances, and purported a world view, to match hers. It was just us, together, against all.
Because I was enthralled. Beyond the inherent physical attraction, she was musical, artistic, and confident in the kitchen. From the first time I saw her, I looked upon her with deep amaze.
As we came together, and lived together, and married, we settled into a routine. She kept the home kettle bubbling, a mix of unique ingredients all her own. I pretended I liked the surprises she threw in.
Beyond that, it was just knowing my role. I had to keep re-learning the lines—the ones she wouldn’t cross, and the ones I shouldn’t say.
Another monitor links to the cameras outside. One covers the deck in back, the other the front porch. It’s fall, but insects are still active, and while they’re only one of the contributors curating her besiegement, if I ever see her outside, it may mean that the newest miracle med—this one, not a pill, a self-administered shot—is working.
So far, she’s sticking herself on schedule; that’s why I’m at the Acme View Shed™ Sunday evenings, and stay until she gets on the bed, facing the full-length mirror on the door to the bathroom. The tiny camera is above the mirror, so she seems to be looking right at me, as she searches her ass for some place to inject.
That’s what I’m waiting for. In the meantime, I rock the on-duty tech, whose own ass is up as she holds the arms of one of the chairs, the back of it banging against the control panel desk. Images on the monitors flicker in rhythm. While the tech and I are doing it from behind, as I wait for my wife to appear on the bedroom-corresponding screen, I think of our first time together—she somebody else’s girlfriend, but well-known for being free-range.
It was a Sunday then too, warm early spring, the campus full of people here and there, but not so many in the central quad of classroom and admin buildings. We found the ivy-covered main one unlocked and headed up the stairs. To make it work height-wise on the big brown seminar table, I kicked off my boots, then held hers as I spread her legs far and wide. The next place she wanted to go was the gym, the women’s locker room. After that, we headed to the freshly blooming garden between the campus cemetery and faculty housing. The soggy ground stained the back of her blouse and the knees of my jeans with mud. We were marked for each other, by each other, no choice in the matter.
It didn’t have to go the way it went, though of course, nothing does.
It began the night when preparing dinner she saw a curled piece of tan onion skin on the counter and thought she had cut off the tip of her finger. When I said she hadn’t, look, I said—she insisted she didn’t feel anything because she was in shock. She explained this repeatedly, carefully, as if her words had glass bones.
Soon after, she stopped wearing clothes or doing anything at all and one weekend stayed on the couch in the living room—a different one than she’s kneeling on now because she stained that old white couch with lady blood. I took photos of her as she lay languid, propped by pillows, posing naked for some imagined Great Master, that I decided might as well have been me. Her expression stayed frozen, as if she was trapped in broken memories, until Monday morning, when I got up to find her gone from the soiled sofa, in the kitchen, making pancakes.
Then came a stretch when she stopped sleeping. At night she turned on all the lights in the house, and the spotlights outside, so that brightness flooded our property, eroding the banks of darkness. When I asked what was going on, she said that she was being watched, stalked, that some woman, another artist, had stolen her ideas a long time ago, and become famous, and now had returned to extract more. This enemy was buying up all the houses in our neighborhood, to create a base for her spying. My wife had to be vigilant against her.
I woke up one morning at 4AM to the sound of loud voices. Blinking against the harsh light, I found her in the living room with two cops. She had called 911 because footprints in the snow outside proved that someone had been out there, looking in for more inspirations to steal. She wouldn’t accept that those prints were mine, when I’d gone back and forth to the car and mailbox.
The next morning, I tried to talk her sister into coming. Older, professional go-getter, a mother, a dedicated daughter, but a not-so-fast sister, she would not, even though she lived less than an hour’s drive away. But she did contribute. She made me take stock, convinced me to consider some things, one in particular.
My wife heard me on the phone. How can you talk with her? She’s in Heaven! The only way you could be speaking to her is if you’re—so yes, in the time that was spent waiting for the police to return, this time with an ambulance, and a fire engine for some reason, I made the effort to show her I wasn’t dead. But after she finally agreed to be strapped to the stretcher and rolled out the door and into the ambulance and driven away, when I sat down next to the stain on the sofa, I wasn’t sure.
During the span when she was hospitalized I decided it was better if I moved out. I didn’t come to it easily, but as I learned from her sister it’s become more of a thing these days—a newborn industry to market in the “Keeping Tabs Space.”
Supportive Abandonment™ is how one company packages it; another, Sincere Distancing™. Acme calls their version of the service Virtual Vicinage™. It sounded the most sophisticated. It didn’t hurt that there was a special promotion going on—they threw in a Free-For-90-Days Drone.
It’s stationed on the crest of the roof, behind the chimney, ready to be dispatched if my wife ever ventures out into the yard, or even more unlikely, beyond the property; since I left, in fact before that, since she returned from the hospital, she hasn’t been out except to get the packages I send, but even that has stopped.
What’s sitting in the brown boxes on the front porch are cereal, soup, dried fruit mix, and the only type of bottled water she’ll drink. Peanut butter crackers, but because peanuts are poison, the kind with almond butter. A new pair of pink flip-flops, the only thing she’ll wear on her feet. Hot sauce, multiple varieties. And tea tree oil, which she puts on to ward against the bugs—flying, crawling, hopping, or otherwise.
The last delivery person re-stacked everything. On the outside monitor I watched them put their box on top, even though it was bigger, though hopefully not heavier, than the others. It could be it’s this particular formation that has my wife spooked. The stack will keep getting bigger and bigger if I don’t do something.
I have tried, since I moved out, to talk with her, to prove I’m still here (there?) for her, but she never answers either of the phones when they ring. The message boxes for both the old landline and her cell are full and won’t take any more of my sounds.
As almost always when I’m watching on Sunday before she moves into the bedroom to do her shot, she’s kneeling on the couch, looking out the front window.
The tech, who except for the pants is back in her uniform, points to the outside monitor, where someone new is at the bottom of the steps leading to the front door. It’s not another delivery. He’s carrying a rake, and it reminds me I’ve got to hire someone to do our yard since I’m not there to do it anymore.
I lean closer to the monitor. Even with the shadowy resolution, I recognize the Poor Bastard.
His house is across the street, and I used to hear his wife yelling at him, especially in good weather, when I was outside too. She’s never outside herself, but she keeps a close eye on him as he’s puttering around, doing yard work, or just walking around on his semi-circular driveway, confined like a dog held back by an electronic invisible fence.
I watch the Poor Bastard on the monitor. From that view and the one sent from the camera in the front hall, I realize he and my wife are talking. I’m stunned she opened the door. He’s waving his arms, gesturing. I didn’t get the full package, like I said, and now I really want to hear what they’re saying. I won’t call it jealousy; it’s like waking from a dream, and you’re pissed because you know something interesting has been going on but it’s fading fast and you’re going to miss it.
Besides its camera the drone has an onboard mic and is even two-way-talk-enabled and I’m on Day 88 of 90 of the free trial and with the drone I think I would be able to hear them. I tell the tech what I want and she goes to the control box, turns on the dedicated monitor.
The drone and its cameras snap to life. Shuddering, it lifts off from behind the chimney, knocks into the stainless steel cap, rights itself and shoots toward the oaks, flush with big brown leaves, which ring our yard.
The tech is not so experienced on this particular stick. But she gets it up above the trees, then spins it around, facing the house. The only problem is, the conversation between my wife and the Poor Bastard is finished; he’s down off the front steps of the house, and she’s shut the door. She hasn’t brought in any of the packages either.
What she has done is come back in the house and return right away, as I see from the main monitors, to her usual spot on the living room couch. And I think this is what she’s been looking at so much—she’s not waiting for any ice cream truck bringing me back to her, she’s staring out at the Poor Bastard raking his leaves or walking in circles.
The tech jockeys the drone, sends it circling up, and I see how stained the roof shingles are, how the paint is peeling off the back side of the house, and all the leaves that have come down in the yard. The tech then swings the drone around and I see the Poor Bastard, the man who gets to talk with my wife instead of me. After waiting for a couple of cars to pass, one in each direction, he crosses the road, back to his property. Perhaps his wife is calling. Of course his wife is calling.
Buzz ‘em? the tech asks, but she knows what to do without me saying so.
As the drone swoops down at him, the Poor Bastard hears it coming, primarily because the tech has opened the mic and I’m screaming into it, like an ignored package that’s become demonically possessed. He starts running, trips over the blue tarp he uses to collect and haul leaves. He staggers forward on his knees, as the tech swings the drone around again.
The Sunday forays are getting exhausting. I’m pretty played as I return to where I’ve been staying. I’m so crapped out, I don’t realize until I get back how hungry I am.
My sister-in-law isn’t not much of a cook, possessing none of my wife’s creativity at the stove, but as usual she’s put aside a modest supper of what she didn’t want to eat and hasn’t thrown out yet.
The place we’re in is one of those condo types where the kitchen, dining area and living room are all of a piece, and while I sit at the table, she’s across from me, phone in hand. She went with Sincere Distancing™, different company, more of a boutique start-up, and I have to admit, if only silently, it’s a better package and for pretty much the same money.
Her husband’s in their house with the three kids, and she can call up the shots on her phone, either playing one at a time, in a cycling cascade, or as a small cross-hatch of tiles she can choose from. She watches as her youngest daughter is put to bed, her husband helping, the middle one on her bed, on her phone, and the oldest sneaking out the window in her room, to rendezvous with the next stupid thing to come her way.
You do know she’s faking right, my wife’s sister says when she’s finished with her family tabs-keeping, as I work at the crumbs and bits and drops she left me. I wish I had some hot sauce.
Who! Jane… your wife.
Is that what you think? I say.
It’s obvious, isn’t it, she says. She stole the whole idea from someone else.
Later, she reads me a bedtime story, from one of her kids’ books, one of the ones she took from their stash. Presumably to remind her of them, or something, hard to know with that one. The story’s about how drones are stealing the sky. How there are so many drones, they block out the sun. Grass can’t grow, birds won’t sing, and trees weep stunted leaves to the ground.
Ok, maybe it’s not a kids’ story.
No matter what it is, I have been around the barn enough times to know not to wait for a happy ending that makes you shake your tail in the air. On the contrary, it’s the type of thing that leaves you knowing that the world is full of lost light.
If I start to cry, let me, I tell her. Then tuck me in, and wake me, when Sunday flies around again.
Jon Fain lives in Massachusetts. Some of his recent publications include short stories in The Broadkill Review and King Ludd’s Rag; flash fictions in The Daily Drunk and Reservoir Road Literary Review; and micro fictions in Blink-Ink, The Woolf, and CLOVES Literary. His chapbook Pass the Panpharmacon! will be published in 2023 by Greying Ghost Press.