As I walk down Highway 9, I can smell the wet-redwood smell and hear the tinkle of the rivulets from the recent rain forming tiny streams that will trickle into the San Lorenzo River all of 20 yards away across the street. I feel awkward, unsteady on my feet, but otherwise fine.
I’m just passing the laundrette when a car with two people comes toward me from the south. The car pulls in, blocking the parking spots in front of the laundrette, and the driver, a woman in her 50s, smiles at me. Her passenger, a small man with a mustache, doesn’t look at me.
“You’ve been out long enough. It’s time for you to come back.”
I freeze. I don’t know this woman. I’ve never seen her before. I turn and run back the way I came. The woman has gotten out of the car, as though she meant to open a door for me or something, so she has to get back in and start the car back up. I run straight up the street, stumbling over redwood roots and clumps of foliage since there’s no sidewalk. Dashing across the street, I run down the driveway of a house set back from the pavement. The driveway slopes steeply downhill for about 50 feet and the entrance is partially obscured by redwoods, so I hope that the woman didn’t see me.
The morning overcast, compounded by the shade from the redwoods overhead, mean that the house is in shadows except for the kitchen. Through the open door, I can see a man at the table with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I don’t bother knocking.
“Help me!” I shout as I run across the threshhold and stop myself against the table. “There’s a woman chasing me! I’m afraid of her! Please, you have to help me!”
Cliff put his paper down. He was thin and slight, with a fringe of thin white hair that went from one ear to the other around the back of his head, set off by a deeply-tanned dome up top. He wore a vest and a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and had half-moon reading glasses perched at the end of his nose.
He looked across the table at the woman who had just burst into the kitchen. She was in her late 30s, maybe. Fit-looking, long, curling brown hair hanging lose around her shoulders, a face that would be attractive if it weren’t drawn with worry. She was screaming that someone was chasing her. He’d been expecting it. He put the paper down in front of him, exposing the photo of the same woman, taken at a time when she hadn’t felt under threat. I thought she looked pretty, but he didn’t care for her kind of looks. He was all eyes for his wife. I have a weakness for men who are in love with their wives.
Herb came in from the garage. He had heard the commotion and came to see what it was, and he stood in the doorway looking from Cliff to the woman, back to Cliff again.
When the second man comes in from another room, I feel like I have to start over in my story, although I haven’t really said anything. I can’t talk to the guy at the table because, in some ridiculous way, he reminds me of a shoemaker. The second one is fatter, with black, curly hair. The pink of his cheeks make him seem a little friendlier than the dour shoemaker.
“Help me. There’s a woman. She stopped her car in front of me and told me to get in. I’ve never seen her before,” I’m trying to create some kind of flow, some list of the facts that will make these two men understand why what just happened terrifies me, although the longer I stand in this cheerfully-lit kitchen in front of two men with quiet expectation on their faces, the less sure I am about why I was so scared.
“Who was she?” the shoemaker asks.
“I don’t know.”
“What kind of car was she driving?”
“A light tan sedan with white interior, but an older one.”
“Was she alone?”
“No, there was a man in the car with her.”
None of their questions sounds like they don’t believe me. They both look friendly and interested. I think if they thought I was crazy, they would look different, but I’m not sure how. I open my mouth to say something else, but I have no idea what else there is to say.
“I. I. I don’t think I’m … human.” I didn’t expect to say that. And still the men don’t look skeptical or condescending or even surprised.
Cliff pushed a button under the table. The bookshelf behind the kitchen table slid back to reveal a hidden niche with a phone in it. He picked up the phone and pushed its only button. “Gary? She’s here.”
Herb brought her a cup of tea and took her into the living room. He told her to take a seat on the sofa, handing her the tea once she was comfortable. He kept up a steady stream of soothing words, and none of them sounded like the kind of words one uses to keep a lunatic calm. They were more like the kind of words that one uses to reassure fellow combatants just before a battle.
“We’ll get through this. Help is coming. We’ve got a plan.”
Before anyone could talk about this plan, another woman burst through the now-closed kitchen door without knocking. The woman in the living room, hidden in shadows, froze, but Cliff and Herb regarded the new intruder.
“Hello! I’m sorry to burst in on you like this!” Her bright, cheery smile looked straight out of tv, and she pulled an iPad out of her shoulder bag. The screen showed the woman in the living room, in the same photo as the newspaper showed. Herb moved between the new woman and the kitchen table, and while he was obscuring the table, Cliff quietly folded up the paper like he was done reading it.
“A friend of mine is missing,” the woman continued. “I’m really worried because she needs medication and she’s missed several doses. She’s not well, and we need to find her before something bad happens to her.”
Neither man said anything, and both kept their faces pleasantly neutral, but as Cliff came around the table craning his neck like he wanted a closer look at the picture on the screen, he pulled a gun out and took a shot at the woman. His arm had been in motion and his shot went wide, the bullet hitting the wall behind her and to her left. The woman’s smile disappeared and she shoved her hand back into her shoulder bag, dropping the iPad and bringing out a pistol of her own, Herb had ducked behind the door to the garage and was shooting at her from there. Cliff crouched in the hall doorway. The woman was backing into the doorway she had just come in, but it was a mistake. She was exposed, and before a dozen shots had been fired, she was down. Where had the guns come from?
When the shooting stops, I get up off the couch. The woman’s body doesn’t look right. There’s whitish goo puddling on the floor, and swirls of oily black, and the skin around the bullet holes looks like burned fabric. The men are good shots – there are seven bullet holes in her.
“You okay?” the shoemaker yells from the hallway leading off the kitchen.
“I’m good. She grazed my arm, but it’s fine. You?” the fat one yells. I’m glad he’s not hurt.
“Never touched me. They’re lousy shots.”
The shoemaker comes back into the room and looks at me. “You should go back into the living room. There’ll be more of them.”
I bend and pull the iPad from the woman’s bag, but when I try to turn it on, the screen is locked so I can’t see it.
“Here, let me have that,” the fat one says, taking it gently from my hand and leading me back into the living room. I’ve just sat down when the man with the mustache comes in, gun drawn. I’m afraid to move, because I know that I’m in shadow, so as long as I’m still, he won’t see me.
The mustache man comes in, but before he can fire a single shot, the fat man, hidden in the shadows of the living room, shoots him three times in the head. Before he goes down, the mustache man turns and looks the fat man in the eyes, his face expressionless. He raises the gun, then falls over the body of the woman. I know that I should feel something about this. It’s not natural to be in a position like this and feel nothing. But apart from a confusion about who these people are and why they want to kill me, and I presume they do want to kill me, I feel nothing. I continue to stay absolutely still, and the two men talk so quietly in the kitchen that I can’t hear them.
From outside, more shots. It occurred to me to wonder how long it would be before the police showed up. The two bodies lay in the doorway, and Herb and Cliff had to sort of hop over them to get out the door. From inside I could hear voices, but because everyone was yelling back and forth, it was impossible to tell whether they were friendly or not. The woman was frozen, standing next to the couch, not even daring to turn her head to look around her. Only the occasional flicker of light against her moist, slick eyeballs betrayed their movement from the bodies in the doorway to the curtained window.
Through the window, only a sliver of the view shows through. The drapes are a golden color, and they frame the green of the shrubs outside like the filling of a pie oozing out when the golden crust is first cut. Flashes of color cut in front of the green and I get ready to duck, or to run, or to do whatever I will need to do, even though the woman is dead and I’m not sure that if someone I don’t know comes through that door I’ll know whether they’re friendly or not. Something nags at the back of my mind. Those things in the doorway. I can’t even call them “people” or “bodies” anymore because they look like nothing but machines. Am I like them? One of them? Are machines self aware? Does my computer miss me when I don’t open it up? Does my smart phone think I’m stupid? If I’m one of them, why did they want to kill me?
Did they want to kill me?
When Herb walked through the door, she almost burst into tears. She stumbled out of the living room, fell into his arms, stood there, weeping and shaking for a long moment. Once the crisis was past, he stood her back up and helped her sit down at the kitchen table. Cliff came in, followed by Gary. The men carried the bodies into the garage, saying nothing as they worked. When the bodies were gone, the woman stole back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She snuck the paper open, looking for the picture of herself. It was buried deep in the B section of the paper, on page 8.
I’m still not sure what I’m reading. I see my face, but I can’t make out the words. It’s like trying to read in a dream, where you know that it’s writing, but the letters morph, or they’re unfamiliar glyphs or they’re in nonsense configurations. But there’s my picture. It’s me. And I can’t understand why I’m seeing my picture and, at the same time, seeing me sitting at the kitchen table, looking at my picture. Is the me standing a few feet away being watched by another me who sees her seeing me seeing the picture? How far out does that recursion go?
The men aren’t back from the garage, and I can’t hear them talking or working or anything. I think it might be time to go. She folded the paper and left it on the kitchen table, shutting the door behind her as she went.