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Vol. 5, No. 1

Disentangling
by Peter Rock

I. Walter Austin

 

The edges of the Schuylkill are frozen, the ice faintly reflecting the lights spaced along the bridge above. Out in the middle of the river, the water runs thick and black and slow. Michael sees a few people walking on the bridge, only their heads visible, sliding there; he's down on the bank, searching, skirting frozen puddles. Sixteen years old, he wears a nylon jacket with round cigarette burns in the shell, dirty cotton batting seeping out. He carries an empty canvas mailbag over his shoulder. His pants are a special kind that can be turned into shorts; the legs zip off. Now the zippers, circling his thighs, are icy cold against his skin. Wind slips between the metal teeth.
    He has been searching for hours without much luck. It's late, after midnight, and cold, and he wishes he could sleep.
    "White boy!"
    Someone throws a can from above, but it misses him, clattering twenty feet away. At the sound, the birds rise from their night places; they clap their wide, black wings and settle again. Michael heads under the bridge, kicking at the piles of trash, checking the coils of old wire, the abandoned clothing. He knows what Walter Austin wants. It can't be too fresh for that, Michael could just kill any dog, and he wouldn't ever do that-but it can't be just bones, either. He steps under a streetlight, takes the assignment from his pocket; the ten-dollar bill and the strip of paper inside the envelope, both folded twice.

ASSIGNMENT: ROADKILL OR DEAD DOG.
LARGE SIZE BEST. AND FRESH. DROP OFF
TOMORROW. 8 AM. 24TH AND LUDLOW.
YOU ARE THE MEANS + THE CAUSE.
SILENCE ALWAYS

He has worked for Walter Austin since April, and now it's almost Christmas. He has never met him, directly; he can't even be certain he's ever seen him. The assignments keep coming, and asking questions might change that. Michael does whatever is asked of him. Once, he met a woman in a red hat and told her "Wednesday." Another time, he watched a street corner for three days, taking notes about anyone who lingered, worrying about his spelling.
    The envelopes are delivered by all kinds of people, always different. And the slips of paper the assignments come on always say that he is the means, the cause, but they never hint at the end or the effect. Michael never stays behind, nor tries to follow. His restraint is not from fear of Walter Austin, of losing the money or receiving some kind of punishment; it is closer to a sort of honor, an agreement that he respects, that provides a place where he can understand himself.

~

Plastic bags, broken glass, and scraps of clothing litter the on-ramp. Here, he's even more exposed to the wind, which slices right through, barely slowed by his thin body. There's something farther along, down on the shoulder, but it's only a dirty blue blanket, empty when he unfolds it.
    Then he's worn out his bad luck, and everything begins to turn. The dog is thirty feet from the highway, where the shoulder slopes away and a chain-link fence, at the bottom, sifts all the trash.
    It's a long, rangy kind of animal. Black, with a curved tail and floppy ears, a dried tongue that twists out, only three teeth at the front of its snout. Perhaps it was hit so hard it was knocked all this way, or it dragged itself this far before collapsing, or perhaps someone left it here. None of that matters; all that matters is that he's found it. Few things have looked so beautiful to him. He leans closer, his nose almost touching the fur, and still he smells nothing but the frost, the cold air. It's too cold for the dog to stink, too cold for bugs.
    A rag in his hand, Michael takes hold. The dog's legs move a little, but its knees don't bend. It wears a half-rotted leather collar, no tags. One eyeball is gone and the other is like an old grape, loose in the socket. The skin is unbroken, but Michael can tell just by the feel that things aren't right inside. Broken bones, organs swollen and torn up. Unclasping the buckle from the cord, he pulls the mailbag's mouth open wide and, with his feet, slides the dog inside. Walking, he carries the bag, then sets it down and rests, then drags it half a block, then picks it up again. Sirens cry out, not far distant. He stays in the shadows. Just because he's not doing anything illegal doesn't mean he'd be able to explain it, or wishes to try. Now he turns on 23rd Street, out of the wind, and follows the river at a distance. Closer, along the bank, he knows Denny and the other boys are working the bushes, waiting for the men who will pay them. Michael won't go back to hustling; he has his new place, his assignments.
    He crosses the train tracks, goes under the bridge at Market Street, then Chestnut. Beneath the bridge at Walnut, he pauses. Dragging the canvas bag into the tall grass, he opens it a little and pulls it back around the dog's head, in case anyone gets curious.
    A rope hangs close along one of the thick round bridge supports; above it, far out of reach, is a metal ladder, screwed there when they were putting all the wires and everything inside, when they built the bridge. Michael checks that no one's watching, that no police cars are rolling past with their headlights dimmed.
    His breath whistles through his teeth as he climbs. The ladder is so cold it hurts his fingers, though they're already numb. At the top of the ladder, he slides the piece of plywood away and sticks his head through, into the hollow space between the bottom of the bridge and the street above.
    At least twenty people are sleeping around him, all wedged into their places, their breathing collecting with the hum of the pipes. Michael slides the plywood back. He can stand up straight, barely, between the girders. Farther along, two boys sit around a camping lantern that smells like it's burning gasoline; it casts light over a purse and two wallets, round coins, a car radio with wires snaking from it. The boys' wrists are bleeding a little, the kind of cuts Michael has had himself, from reaching through broken windows. That explains the sirens, before.
    "What are you looking at?" one of the boys says.
    In his corner, Michael has a double thickness of dirty foam rubber, two sleeping bags with broken zippers. He listens to the water slapping gently below, the cars and buses and trucks-he can tell the difference-close overhead. He tries to sleep, his back against a warm steam pipe, and his feet pressed to it, farther down. His teeth hurt.

~

In the morning, the dog is exactly where Michael left it. Looking up, he checks the time, the lighted numbers circling the top of the PECO building. 7:36. He spits up a gob of black phlegm, then shakes his head against the muzziness of breathing exhaust all night. Closing the bag, he lifts it in his arms and begins to walk.
    The morning is cold and gray, with no chance of sun. A bus rolls past, blurred faces staring out the windows. He sets the bag down, catches his breath, then starts again. The corner is not far, only a couple of blocks; he is thankful for that.
    No one is around. He eases the bag down off his shoulder, onto the pavement, right at the edge of the street. Stepping back, he leans against the brick wall. He wonders if anyone would guess that it's a dog inside the bag; the stiff legs stick straight out in four points, making it look like the side of a box.
    A white van passes. The second time, it stops. A man climbs out, leaving the engine to idle as he opens the two back doors. The man wears a blue knit ski mask, with round holes for his eyes and mouth, and an orange down vest that looks like it's for hunting. He is barely taller than Michael, but much heavier.
    "Walter Austin sent me," he says, taking hold of the dog. His gloves are also orange; the fingers are thick, rubbery.
    Michael moves closer. He watches as the man gently sets the bag inside the van, which is completely empty, and clean, with a white metal gate separating the seats from the back. The man does not open the bag, doesn't ask about its contents.
    "Didn't think you were supposed to be here," he says.
    "I probably wasn't," Michael says.
    "Not that it matters." The man slams the double doors. "Not that I know a damn thing about it."
    Michael watches the tailpipe cough, once, as the van drives away.

~

Hours later, he's found half a piece of pizza, three chicken wings with plenty of skin left on them. Michael doesn't like to spend money on food. Wrapping it all in a piece of foil from a hot-dog wrapper, he sets it on a steam grate to warm; an old man's sleeping there, too, shoes under his head, icicles on his sleeve and pantleg where they've settled off the edge. Clouds of steam slip under his arms, between his legs. Sleeping that way keeps you warm, Michael knows, but it can make your skin go all soggy and strange, it can leave pockets of water beneath the surface.
    Another man stands behind Michael, at the pay phone, checking the coin return for change, from the sound of it?and then walks away, repeating a number aloud, his voice fading. Michael sits in the sun, gnawing on the chicken bones, his expression serious. He's bored, but wants people to believe he's doing something, or waiting, or thinking a problem through. Men and women in suits hurry past, not even looking his way. The Chinese delivery guy clatters down the sidewalk, his bicycle's rear tire flat. Time passes; the line of shadow shifts. Pigeons pick cigarette butts out of the cracks in the pavement.
    The pay phone rings. Four times, then it stops. A minute later, it rings again. Five times. It seems the man on the steam grate is stirring, as if he might answer the phone, but he is only turning over, cooking his other side. The next time the phone starts, Michael stands and steps closer. He shivers, but he feels good, the food settling inside him. He picks up the receiver before the fifth ring.
    "Hello?" he says.
    "Yes." It's a woman's voice. "We have to get together."
    "We what?"
    "You're interested in love, right? People coming together?"
    "I think you don't know who this is," Michael says.
    "The boy wearing those pants with the zippers all over them? Is that you? That's who I want."
    Her voice sounds black. Michael holds the phone to his ear, thinking. The man on the steam grate sits up, laces his shoes, and slaps the icicles from his clothes; they shatter around him, and he walks away, eating the crust of pizza Michael didn't finish.
    "Are you there?" the woman says.
    Yes."
    "We have to meet."
    "You said that," Michael says. "You know where I am, I guess."
    She pauses, waiting to answer, as if she's covering the receiver while she asks someone else what to say.
    "But I'm busy," she says. "I'm thinking in a few hours. I'm thinking like five-fifteen."
    "Is this a special assignment?" he says.
    "You can call it whatever you want."
    "I found the dog," he says. "I dropped it off this morning."
    "A young man like yourself," she says.
    "What?"
    "You're lucky," she says. "Ninth and Diamond. In front of Kentucky Fried Chicken."
    "That's a ways from here," he says, then waits out the pause. He stares down a businessman who's waiting for the phone.
    "You've been chosen," the woman says. "It can be no other place."
    Then she whistles, and it hurts his ear, and when he listens again there's no one there.

~

Michael wastes the hours. It's too cold to sit on the benches in Rittenhouse Square, or to rest anywhere, outside. He zips up his jacket, tight, until the zipper bites his throat. He walks, thinking of the woman's voice on the phone, everything she said. He wonders if the phone call was a new way to get assignments; he is uncertain, but can't risk the chance that it was a message from Walter Austin. The details are always changing, and he is proud to be able to follow.
    As he walks, he sucks on a packet of fake sugar until the paper gives way; when the sweetness is gone he spits the pink pulp against a parked car. It sticks. Days like this, mostly, he just tries to stay warm; sometimes he talks to someone, a little bit, a person waiting for a bus or working somewhere where they can't turn away. Today, though, he doesn't really feel like talking, even if anyone wanted to talk with him. He just keeps moving-through City Hall, onto Market Street, walking deeper into the afternoon. Patches of ice catch the light, salt resting on bare stretches of pavement. There is no one he's looking for, no one he wants to find. He does not have a mother or a father. No sisters, no brothers. Since he never had them, he does not miss them. All he knows is his feet are cold, that he's dependable, that his broken shoelaces are fixed with knots that won't go through the eyelets. His shoes are loose, but these are not bad times, when the sun is shining and he's not hungry, when he has an assignment for Walter Austin and he does it well.

~

Around four o'clock, he opens a door and steps into the warmth of the mall. The escalator carries him down, among the fake plants and wooden benches, mannequins watching through windows. Michael eats another packet of fake sugar. He doesn't like the feeling of other people's eyes on him, especially the other people his age, traveling in groups. They hold him off with their eyes, keep him at a distance-really, he'd like to be closer to the girls, to say something and have them listen. It's not figuring what to say, for him, it's the approach that has to be gotten past. No one will let him get close enough. And if he hangs around too long, watching, some of the boys will come ask him if he has a problem. He remembers the woman's voice on the phone, what she said about love, about people coming together. He wonders how it would be if one of the girls came and sat next to him, and talked to him, telling all about her room and her house, inviting him there. He imagines her thigh brushing against his own on the narrow bench. He wonders if she would listen to him, if he would lie to her.

~

It's after five-thirty, and the sun is gone. Michael stands below the fan that vents from the kitchen of the Kentucky Fried Chicken; warm, greasy air blows around him, making him hungry. Inside the restaurant, it's bright, the plastic chairs and tables shining. Most of the tables are empty, but a few people are working their way through buckets of chicken, eating little cups of coleslaw and mashed potatoes. Looking in, Michael gently kicks the wall, trying to keep his toes from going numb. He doesn't like it this far north, or east; he feels more comfortable when he's closer to the Schuylkill than the Delaware.
    Across the street, there's a boarded-up drugstore, next to a tall building that's covered, down low, with that Mexican graffiti he can't read; the sign next to the door says HOTEL LANCASTER. He waits, watching for the woman he talked to on the phone. He imagines what she'll look like-probably wearing some kind of boots, and a matching coat, slippery, with her hair in tight braids and her eyes on him. All her words will be saucy, teasing. He tries to imagine what those boots will sound like, their sharp heels leaving no echo at all.
    Finally, a man approaches, coming along the sidewalk. Huge, looming, in a black overcoat that almost reaches the ground; his shoulders are rounded, as if by the weight of the two leather suitcases he carries, one in each hand. When he sets them down, there's the sound of metal, settling. He looks at Michael, then across the street, then at Michael again. His skin is pale, yellow in the light from the restaurant. His black hair is long, lank, hanging almost to his shoulders, swept back from his forehead. A mustache rests on his thin upper lip.
    "I was very much afraid you would not make it." His eyes are set close together, his nose thickens at its tip, and his small mouth stretches as he speaks. He is somewhere between middle-aged and old. "I hope you weren't waiting long," he says. "The bus was very slow, this evening. They are not always dependable."
    The man's voice is low, almost a whisper, the ends of words slightly lisped off. He holds out his hand, short fingers thick as broomsticks. Michael takes a step back rather than shake the hand. He doesn't want the man to have hold of him.
    "Is something the matter?" The man withdraws his hand. "I realize things are not entirely clear. For the moment, that must be the case."
    "I think you're mixed up," Michael says.
    "The phone call," the man says. "That is what has brought the two of us together. There has been no mix-up."
    "I might have to go pretty soon," Michael says. "I'll probably have to get going."
    "You will not," the man says. "This will be worth your time, I can assure you of that. You will have to trust me. I'm afraid I can't say it any other way."
    Now there is a ten-dollar bill in his hand, extended.
    "I'm not doing anything for ten," Michael says.
    "You are not going to do anything," the man says. "No one will even touch you, and you will not touch anyone."
    "What about the woman on the phone?" Michael says.
    "She told you the truth." The man's hands are empty again, the money put away somewhere. "Only it's more complicated than that. You'll have to come along with me, if you wish to find out. Are you hungry, before we start?"
    "Start what?" Michael says. "No, I'm not hungry."
    "There is no reason to have anxiety. No cause. Did I tell you my name? I'm sorry. My name is Bender."
    "Bender?" Michael says.
    "Yes. Now, you see that hotel across the street? I'd like it very much if the two of us could go in there together. I'd like that very much. There's something inside that I'd like for you to see."
    The man, Bender, takes a step forward, and Michael turns away, steps into the street. He feels trapped, yet curious. Bender walks slightly behind him, hulking, ready to reach out if he turns aside or tries to run. There's the whispering scrape of galoshes, sliding on the pavement, and the metallic sound inside the suitcases, as if they are filled with silverware, filled with knives.
    The floor of the small lobby is dirty tile, pale lights flickering overhead. Behind a high desk, an old woman nods at them. She wears a Phillies cap, a hearing aid. Michael keeps walking, Bender silently herding him. A radio, mumbling through static, rests on a shelf, above the old woman's head. On a pad of paper, she marks one X, then another.
    Bender reaches a huge hand past him, taking hold of a door with a round, wire-reinforced window; he swings it open and pushes aside a metal gate, which folds in on itself. The floor of the elevator is a slight step up. Michael enters first. There are mirrors in the corners, where the walls meet the ceiling, and Bender's head almost touches them; the reflection shows the round bald spot on the back of his head. Michael sees himself-small, his white face shining and scared, his body tailing away to nothing, down by the floor. He presses himself against the far wall of the elevator, but he's still within reach. He watches as Bender hits the 4 button with a thick finger.
    They begin to rise, very slowly. Michael realizes his face only reaches the middle of Bender's chest. He is breaking one of his main rules-no enclosed spaces-but he has his reasons. His suspicions are gathering. Perhaps this man can impersonate voices, can sound like a woman or anything else. Then there was the ten-dollar bill-very familiar.
    In the window, floors pass; he catches glimpses of empty hallways, each like the last. The elevator loses momentum, then lurches upward again, as if remembering itself. Michael keeps his gaze turned down, so he won't meet Bender's eyes. On the suitcases, next to the shiny steel hasps, tiny numbers are set on metal wheels. Combinations. He resists the temptation to reach out and spin them.
    "What's in there?" he says, pointing.
    "Instruments," Bender says. "You need not concern yourself with them."
    "Do you know Walter Austin?" Michael says.
    "No. I am not familiar with that name."
    The answer comes a little quickly, perhaps; Michael is not sure what to believe. It's even possible that this man is Walter Austin, but recognizing that aloud would not be wise.
    Bender's body seizes into a kind of shiver, then relaxes again. He turns his head one way, then the other, cracking the vertebrae in his neck; his hair hardly swings at the movement, all its strands together in a solid mass.
    Michael cannot tell if Bender is nervous or excited, or if this is how he always acts. The front of his overcoat, Michael notices now, is covered in short, black hairs. The cologne in the air is like medicine, like mouthwash, and it mixes with the smell of sweet, stale smoke. Michael almost asks if he knows anything about the dead dog, but decides to wait, for now. Even if this is related, if it is part of the whole plan, it is probably best to be quiet. It is never his place to understand.
    "What is your name?" Bender suddenly asks.
    "Michael," he says, not sure if the man already knows, or if he is only checking, to be certain.
    "You won't see me again, after this evening," Bender says. Then, as they reach the fourth floor, he hesitates. He takes off his galoshes and holds them in one hand. His hair hangs in front of his eyes, a black curtain; he sticks out his lower lip and tries to blow it out of the way.
    "Quiet," he says.
    "I haven't said anything."
    "What I mean is no talking from this point forward. No sound at all. If we are discovered, it would be a terrible misfortune."
    He pulls the gate aside, then holds the door open. Michael steps into the hall. The carpet is matted, with hard dark shapes where things once spilled. One door is open, revealing only a toilet; the air smells like a subway tunnel. Above, paint has peeled, hanging from the ceiling in stiff white tongues.
    Bender takes a single key from his pocket and scrapes its tip along the plaster of the wall, the sound a dry kind of whistle. There are straight lines above and below the key, identical to the groove it's making; there are also lines on the other side of the hall.
    The key opens the door to room 419. The hinges give way unevenly, like the knuckles of fingers, interlocked. Bender stands aside, so Michael can enter.
    Beneath his feet, the floor is gritty. He takes another step, expecting to stumble or to kick something. Bender closes the door behind them, then stands still, as if allowing the room to settle. Michael keeps waiting for the lights to be switched on, but they are not. Gradually, his eyes adjust.
    The room is square, twenty feet across. A sawhorse stands in one corner, and a metal chair with bent legs rests on its side. One of the two windows is covered with cardboard; a streetlight shines dimly through the dirty glass of the other.
    Michael steps to the window. Mouse droppings line the narrow sill. Down below, he can see the cold yellow lights, the sidewalk where he'd stood. If he was back there, half an hour ago, he would not wait; he would not be here now.
    It is not cold in the room, though not exactly warm. Somewhere, unseen, a radiator is clanking away. Turning, he watches as Bender takes off his overcoat, opens a door, and hangs it carefully in a closet. Now he wears a long white coat, like a doctor's, which makes him easier to see, in the dim light. His body seems to hang suspended; it almost glows.
    Michael would like to ask if Bender is a doctor, and why they're here and what they're waiting for, how long will it be before the suitcases are opened. He wants to remind Bender how the old woman at the desk downstairs made the two X's, how she has counted the number of people who entered the hotel and how she must expect the same number to eventually come back out.
    Next, Bender crosses the room, steps around behind, and takes hold of Michael's collar; the jacket's zipper gives way as he gently pulls, and then the sleeves slide off Michael's arms, and then Bender is hanging the jacket in the closet, next to his overcoat. Michael watches this. He does not ask any questions. He was told not to speak at all, and he believes that questions would be met with action, not answers.
    Bender now holds up his hands, the pale palms as wide as Michael's face, as if something is about to begin. He stands next to a square on the wall that is slightly darker, a piece of cardboard hanging by one nail. He spins the cardboard on the nail, so it slides upward, and then, there, in the space that had been covered, something shines.
    It is a hole in the wall. An inch across, or less, the size of an eye. A wedge of light is cast from it, almost like the pale beam of a movie projector. The beam grows wider, then dissipates before it can reach across the room.
    Bender motions for Michael to come closer, and he does so. A heavy hand on his shoulder, he bends slightly, facing the hole in the wall; he closes his left eye and squints with his right.
    Two people are standing still, facing each other, in the next room, through the wall. They are only fifteen feet away from him. A man and a woman, wearing loose white clothing, and they stand so still that at first it's hard for him to tell if they're real. The room is the same shape as the one Michael is in, only cleaner, with no furniture except a brass bed, set out in the middle. There are lights shining from a hidden place, in different directions; the man and woman each have two shadows, in V's behind them, joined at the feet. The man's sideburns are thin and sharp, pointing at the corners of his mouth. He is a little shorter than the woman, and he is black. She is white, and her dark hair is up, piled atop her head, away from her pale face. Her dark eyes blink once, then again. That's the only movement.
    And then, slowly, the man raises his arm. He reaches out and takes the pins from her hair, so it loosens in sections, unfolding around her. He bends down and sets the pins in a straight line on the wooden floor, then stands and gently touches the woman's cheek.
    She smiles at his touch, but there's something sad in her smile, a tremble in her lips. She steps past him, and he turns to watch as she stands at the window, looking out. Again, all movement ceases. A streetlight shines, the same light at the window in the room where Michael stands, watching.
    He can tell, by the expressions on their faces, that the man and woman have known each other for a long time, that they care for each other. His forehead is pressed against the rough, gritty plaster of the wall, sharp against his nose. He fights off a sneeze; he can hear Bender's ragged breathing, he can feel the warm breath on the skin of his face. Pulling back, opening both eyes, Michael sees that Bender is only six inches away, staring at him. For some reason, he feels less afraid, less wary; he is not sure why. He gestures for Bender to look through the hole, into the other room, but Bender just shakes his enormous head and points back, nodding as if no time should be lost.
    The man and woman resume their movement. She turns, smiles, and steps away from the window. Neither of them has said a word, as if this whole floor of the hotel is silent. Next, she undoes laces, and buckles, and her white skirt slips away-but there's another skirt beneath that one, and then another. They rustle, loosened, collapsing down. The man does not help her; he only watches as the skirts settle around her ankles, as she slips away from them. There's only one thin layer left, the shadows of her legs visible through it.
    Next, she unlaces the bow at her neck as she keeps walking, the V of her shadow tilting and sliding across the floor, dragged behind her. She sits on the edge of the bed, her nightgown hanging slightly open. Dark shadows collect along the curved line of her clavicle, and in the hollow of her smooth throat. Slowly, she stretches backward, then rolls over, on her side, facing away.
    Michael hears a low whistling, and wonders if it is her, or the wind, somehow. He cannot tell. As he watches, he tries to keep it from happening, but still his dick gets hard, pushing against the zipper of his pants. He keeps expecting Bender's hands on him, but they do not come; there is only the ragged breathing, to the left, the crack and whinge of the floorboards when Bender shifts his weight.
    Through the wall, in the other room, the man now moves. His hands come alive, rising in front of him; he undoes the drawstring of his pants, and they drop around his feet. He steps out of them, his legs so black they look burned into the white sheets behind them. The shirt he wears reaches halfway to his knees, and he sits on the edge of the bed, rubbing his hand up and down the woman's bare arm, as if smoothing or polishing it. His other hand rests on her hip, then her thigh.
    The man is saying something, his lips moving, but his voice is only a murmur, the words impossible to make out. She doesn't turn over; she still faces away from him. He rests his hand along the nape of her neck, now, then takes hold of her robe, there. She bends her elbows, slips her hands through the armholes of her gown so it can slip farther down, revealing the pale skin of her back, arching slightly, and the dark shadow of her spine, the sharp curves of her shoulder blades. The man's fingers trace shapes across her skin, as if he is spelling words for her, as if she might guess. She reaches behind, where she cannot see, and strokes his leg, just once, very gently.
    Slowly, slowly, he pulls up the hem of her gown, until all the fabric is bunched there, around her middle. The edges of her legs are hard to see, against the white sheets. Her hips are wide, but her thighs are thin, so there is a space between them though her knees touch, resting one on the other. His hand slips from her hip, out of sight, and then the tips of his dark fingers show, in that space between her thighs.
    The woman laughs, then coughs. Soft, then harder, folding in on herself. Once she falls silent, both she and the man are motionless again. There is the sound of the wind, the glare of the lights, time passing around them, and then the man stands and slowly walks around the head of the bed. He kneels there for a long time, his face wide and full of care, all open as if nothing can be hidden or held back. His mouth moves again, his whispers lost.
    Michael had not noticed the man's hand straying toward the foot of the bed, but then the sheet is being pulled up, without stopping, all the way over the woman's head and settling, hiding her entirely. Now that the man and woman have fallen motionless again, Michael is not certain what has happened, only that everything is finished, that it can go no further. He feels it-sharp, like a surprise, as if nothing in the other room will ever move again; and if it does, if they manage to rise, they will no longer be the same people. It is an ending, and he feels it spreading to him, as well. As if he, too, must change.
    A pulse ticks in his eye, and at his wrists, and at the back of his knees. He feels hot inside, heat rising off his skin. He stares at the man, kneeling next to the bed, and the shape of the woman beneath the sheet; he does not want to forget them.
    When Michael finally steps away, Bender is standing calmly beside him, holding out his jacket, open, so he can slip his arms back inside.

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