When I was fourteen I hated my life, and it was no longer Nancy Drew's fault, but Dana Scully's. Yes, Agent Scully from The X-Files. I wanted to embrace the sexy danger, mystery, and wonder that surrounded her in every episode, and never see a well-manicured lawn again. Back then I wrote protest songs and stood outside malls, flailing away on a guitar and screeching at everyone who dared to walk by. I had the kind of passion I thought would fuel my heart forever, but always burns out eventually.
Even though I like my life now, some days I miss feeling like I'm giving off so much light, people have to look away or go blind.
My teaching position doesn't pay much, so at twenty-eight I'm still tutoring elementary school kids on the side--just like in grad school. The one I've tutored longest, a scrawny firecracker named Damon, is sitting next to me on his couch, not finishing his math homework. I pretend I'm patient. I don't grab him and shout, "Just do the freaking problems!" You have to give this kid some slack or he won't get anything done.
He's given up trying to balance his pencil on his nose. "Ms. Callembert, does everything make noise?"
"Not in a vacuum," I say.
He looks dissatisfied, like I didn't really answer the question. "I found something that doesn't make noise even if you hit it with a bat."
I don't need to ask how he learned that. Damon's half nineteenth-century natural scientist, half wrecking ball. His favorite words are "wow" and "oops."
I tap my foot on his old, stained carpet. "Finish your homework, then you can show me."
He grins and digs into his math problems. Within minutes I'm telling him okay, let's see this thing, and zap, he's in the basement. He makes me feel old enough to need a walker.
I haven't been in Damon's basement since his eighth birthday party, when the plumbing broke. His dad made a pinata out of a pillowcase, hung it from the water pipes running along the unfinished ceiling, and gave all the kids hockey sticks. His dad tries, I'll give him that.
Damon calls out, "Over here Ms. Callembert!" I yank on a chain and an overhead light glows reluctantly--as if it isn't too sure it wants to see this either. Damon's in the corner farthest from the stairs, pointing to a crack in the concrete where the floor meets the wall.
About two cups of something gelatinous, waxy, and almost transparent has oozed up through the floor. Damon takes a baseball bat that was resting against a wall and whacks the floor just before I tell him not to. The sharp noise makes me flinch.
"Oops," he says. "Sorry Ms. Callembert. But, wow, you've gotta see this." He bends down and reaches for the ooze. By the time I say "Don't," he's already smearing it over the floor.
I try to sound like his mother would, if she hadn't run off years ago. "How do you know that stuff's safe to touch?"
"'Cause I did this before!" He swings the bat again, striking the ooze-coated concrete even harder, and there is no sound. For a moment, I wonder if I've gone deaf.
"I'll do it again," Damon says, rearing back like an old-time railroad worker about to pound a spike in. I take the bat away.
"Aww." He lifts his foot. "I can still stomp on it."
"Shhh." I examine the end of the bat that hit the gooey stuff. None of the ooze stuck to it. Using the bat, we take turns tapping the naked parts of the floor and the ooze-coated parts. The uncoated floor produces nice little thunk sounds that echo off the walls of the mostly empty basement. The coated floor doesn't.
"Isn't it cool?" Damon asks.
I look into the crack in the floor. There doesn't seem to be any more of the stuff. "Damon, can I borrow this goop for a while?"
"Uh . . . okay."
A surprisingly long time passed between "uh" and "okay." I give him my most suspicious look. He shuffles his feet and asks, "Why do you want it?"
"To figure out what it is." And how it works, of course. Unlike some ex-boyfriends, I don't think this stuff will mind when I analyze it to death. I ask Damon to find me a jar big enough to hold it all, and he comes back with a toy pail, the kind preschoolers play with on beaches. I use the bat to nudge it all in there. The stuff is surprisingly heavy; the pail ends up weighing about ten pounds.
"Ms. Callembert, is it okay that I found this stuff?"
"Why wouldn't it be?" Though when I carry the pail to my car, the world feels strangely electric, like a storm is coming. Damon stares at the pail as he trails after me. He knows something he's not telling, but I've never learned how to get him to talk when he doesn't want to. If there's one thing this kid can do, it's keep a secret.
At home, the stuff provides hours of semi-scientific entertainment. I end up feeling nostalgic for the chemistry labs I played in before being led into a field where I might not set so many desks on fire. It stretches like taffy. With effort it can be separated into portions that recombine like wet clay.
Beanie, my adopted cat, comes over to see what new thing has been introduced to his apartment. He sniffs it, finds it uninteresting, and pads off somewhere. For the first hour, I don't learn any more than he did. Slowly, though, the stuff--which looks like petroleum jelly, feels like coagulated hot fudge, weighs a bit less than a bowling ball, and smells like rubber cement--reveals its secrets.
Even though it looks sticky, it only adheres to itself. When I slap it onto a wall, it falls off. I put it on the couch, which is covered with cat hair, and when it's lifted off, not one hair is removed. More intriguing is how it silences anything it's spread over. I coat pencils with it and break them: no sound. I spread it over a blender, and the blender works silently.
But what happens to the sound? I can't see how it could be emitting modulated waves like some noise-canceling devices do, and it glows blue when it's coating something noisy enough. So does it convert sound into light? I guess what's really going on when I scrape the gunk off the blender and get a nasty shock. I confirm it with a few more experiments.
Somehow, this stuff converts sound into electricity.
At this point it's almost midnight and I've figured out that by sticking the blender's plug into the goop, I can make the blender work just by yelling at it. This is officially the Coolest Thing Ever. One amazing idea later, I shove all the goop right up against one speaker of a portable CD player, stick the player's power cord into the goop, scream loud enough to get the goop energized, and the CD starts playing. The music from the CD is enough noise to keep the CD player running, so now it's powering itself!
Then my cell phone rings. It can't be my neighbors; they just bang on the walls. "Hello?"
Something seems to tickle my brain for a moment. "Dr. Callembert?"
I've never heard such perfect diction--his voice is as clean as a brand-new car, and so strong he seems to be right behind me. And he called me "Doctor," though I just finished my grad work four months ago. Plus it's pretty late to be calling strangers, especially on a Sunday night.
What really unnerves me, though, is how he pronounced my last name right: like the cheese "camembert," but with a less nasal "a". No one ever gets it right.
"Who is this?"
"Dr. Callembert, you have something that does not belong to you."
I've never heard anyone calmer or more certain. He sounds the opposite of how I feel. "So do you. How did you get my cell number?"
"Marie," he says. He sounds so reasonable. "I believe you're an honest person. What are you doing tomorrow morning? That class you teach doesn't start until one o'clock, right?"
I feel like I'm caught in someone's rifle sights. The rational part of my mind tells me this is a prank call. But the rational part's not in charge right now. I not only hang up, I give a little scream and shove the phone towards the couch like it bit me.
It bounces off the couch and lands at my feet. I stare at it like it's making fun of me. Then I pick it up and call my best friend, Sarah.
Sarah's a cop.
Police arrive with sirens blazing. The cops ask obvious questions, like whether this guy might be one of my co-workers or ex-boyfriends or something. I'm not prepared for questions and every time my mouth opens, something nervous and defensive comes out, and they look doubtful. Finally Sarah shows up and takes over.
I feel stupid and grateful. "I'm such an idiot," I tell Sarah after the other cops leave. "There're probably fifty people being murdered right now and I'm . . . "
"I don't work homicide," Sarah says.
She could though. She's tough. And it's a good thing she's at the end of her shift because she listens to me blather for a good hour. Then her radio comes on. The cops took my cell phone, and they were able to trace the call to a pay phone outside a convenience store in Oklahoma. They say I can pick up my cell tomorrow morning.
I absorb the news. "Oklahoma's what, a thousand miles from here?"
"So it probably was a crank call," Sarah says. "Some hacker broke into a cell phone directory, looked up some names, found you on the college web site . . ."
In her mind, it's over. But she doesn't know about the Coolest Thing Ever, or the weird tingling I felt when I answered the phone, and she can tell I'm not convinced.
"Look," she says. "All this guy said was, you have something that's not yours. That would apply to almost anyone. Even me! I borrowed some shoes from you last month, remember?"
She did. We have the same big, ungainly feet. On her, though, they fit; she's tall and broad, like a tree.
I'm still not convinced, but she sees through me and now I'm insulting her police training. I come up with a half-assed explanation for my concern, like whether a hacker could mess with a phone call to make it look like it came from Oklahoma, when it really came from my attic or something. Not that my one-bedroom apartment has an attic, but I know those old horror movies by heart. Sarah the childhood friend tells me I'm being paranoid. But Sarah the cop offers a quiet police escort to the hotel of my choice.
I say no. Then I imagine sleeping in this apartment without anyone around, and say yes. I pack everything I think I'll need for my classes tomorrow, then scoop the Coolest Thing Ever into a Tupperware container, seal it tight, and wrap it in a bag. When everything's in a suitcase, I pet Beanie, give him some extra food and water, and let Sarah drive me to a hotel of her choice.
Just in case Voice Man knows me so well, he knows what hotel I'd pick.
The next day I'm fine, except I forgot to pack clean underwear. And deodorant. And professional shoes. I don't feel normal enough to go back home yet--or to work, for that matter, but I can't afford not to--so I steel myself to teach back-to-back Economics 101 classes in Donald Duck flip-flops.
I retrieve my cell phone from the police, get through two classes full of students who keep snickering at my shoes, then go home and find Beanie hiding in my bedroom closet. He hisses when I open the door, then recognizes me and looks relieved. He cranes his neck forward to get his ears scratched.
While scratching, I notice that the clothes in my closet are hanging just a little bit to the left of where they usually are.
I turn and look around the bedroom. The bed is made neatly, not sloppily like I always do it. Plus the X-Files poster is hanging too level. In the living room, there are still a few loose bills and coins on the dining table, but didn't I leave them closer to the edge?
I call Sarah and tell her someone was in my apartment while I was gone.
She suggests checking for prints, but the apartment repair crew is in here all the time. She makes other reasonable suggestions too. I realize as I'm begging Sarah not to bother the other cops about this that I'll never be like Agent Scully. Scully could get chased all over a farm by werewolves and still believe there was a sensible answer to everything. Sarah tells me what I need to do--file a report, let the police check the place out, etc.--and I tell her I'll do it, and hang up. I haven't even shut the phone when it rings again.
The phone says it doesn't recognize the incoming number.
I don't answer it. When the cops come by, they find nothing useful.
I don't get much sleep that night. Because there seems to be no better solution, I keep the heavy tub of goop in my handbag, and lug it around as I teach classes, grade exams, tutor a girl with dyslexia, and go home only long enough to look after Beanie and pack for each night's hotel stay.
The week passes quietly. Sarah calls once a day and I tell her nothing's happened, and she believes me. By Friday the hotel bill is ominously large, so I go back home. My cell rings within minutes, but it's Damon.
"Hi Damon," I say.
"We're moving," he says.
I stop petting Beanie. "What?"
"Dad got a job in Denver. We sold the house yesterday. Some guys are gonna pack up the whole place tomorrow."
My mind is spinning. I ask if his father was even looking for work in Denver, and he says no, and puts his dad on the line. His dad rattles off a story that makes no sense: some corporate headhunter decided he was perfect for their new Denver office, gave him a signing bonus, offered to pay for his move . . . they even helped him find a buyer for the house, he says. Things like this happen every day to high-powered executives, but Damon's dad is a janitor. He told me when I met him three years ago that the only reason he can afford his house is because his grandparents paid off the mortgage when they owned it. I give him a big discount on Damon's lessons.
Damon's dad can't even remember the name of the company that hired him. He's giggling and almost crying as he asks me if he is, or is not, the luckiest high school dropout who ever lived.
I speak without thinking again. "That stuff was in your basement."
"What?" He's so high on his good fortune, his voice comes through the phone like bubbles.
"I'd like to come by tomorrow, when the packers get there," I say. "I want to say goodbye to Damon."
"Sure! Ten o'clock!" He starts singing.
Next morning, I'm in Damon's living room. Damon's dad is in the middle of everything, directing traffic and yelling goodbye to his neighbors. My idea about convincing him not to take the job drains away as I watch him act like a rapper, making weird gestures and trying to rhyme his instructions to the moving crew. He's too happy to feel embarrassment, so I feel it for him.
Damon puts his hands in his pockets. Someday he's going to look like this at the end of a date, when he's at a front door, hoping to be invited in. "I guess we're leaving," he says.
"Will you miss me?" That's what his posture makes me think.
I hug him and rub his tight, curly hair. "Don't lose that honesty, kid. Women value it." Then I get serious. "Damon, did you tell anyone except me about that weird stuff you found?"
His face tightens. "No. Only you. I knew you'd believe me. Can I have it back?"
What can I tell him? "I think it's dangerous. In fact, I'd like you to stop talking about it. Let's make it our secret, okay?"
He rubs his hands together and stares at them. Then he shrugs, but there's still something he's not telling me. Instead he says, "Dad says he's gonna start dating again. Maybe I'll get a mom someday."
"Would you like a mom?"
He squints, considers. "I'd rather get a dog."
I love this kid--for no other reason than he seems to be the best-adjusted person on this planet right now, and he makes me feel good.
I'm not needed here anymore. I say goodbye to Damon and his dad, who tries to serenade me, and then I head out to my car. There's a man about sixty years old standing next to the moving truck, watching everything. He's wearing a light gray suit and a fedora--does he think it's still 1950? I figure he's a neighbor, but then he twists his head slightly as if he just recognized me, and my mind shudders the way glass vibrates when the right high-pitched notes are played.
"Dr. Callembert," he says in that perfect voice.
I gape at him. "You bought their house."
He smiles. Movers walk past us like nothing's happening.
"I won't let you get away with this," I say.
He tilts his head again, more curious than concerned. "With buying a house?"
"You know what I mean."
"You were in my apartment."
"Damn it, don't you--"
"Dr. Callembert," he says, "where I come from, it's considered wrong to take things that don't belong to you. Children must be given room for error, because their moral sense isn't fully developed. But isn't that what adults are for--especially teachers? To show them right from wrong?"
I feel like I'm in an alley late at night, surrounded by hairy men who are fondling knives and staring at my breasts. One of the movers says, "Excuse me, miss," and nudges past me. Voice Man looks so gentle, any mother would beg him to baby-sit.
I fold my arms and hope I can pull off my tough-bitch look. "You know, ownership implies responsibility. You've met my cat. Did you know he was a stray? I think his owners abandoned him."
"So you took him," Voice Man says.
"Yes. People who don't take care of what they own don't deserve to have it."
He nods slightly. "Suppose the cat's owners appear and demand him back? Wouldn't you be obliged to return him?"
"No. If I had to, I'd take them to court. And I'd win."
He's looking at me like I'm a hole in the sidewalk, and stepping around me is going to more take effort than he really wants to expend. "Suppose the cat just got lost. Suppose the owners were good, well-meaning people, who have been searching for their little Beanie for years. Then what would you do?"
He knows Beanie's name! And Beanie doesn't wear a nametag because I never let him outside.
When I know I won't stammer, I stop talking in metaphor. "Is that stuff dangerous?"
"Hmm?" Genuine confusion colors his face.
"Does it cause cancer or something? Is that why you want it back?"
His intellect, which was shining through his whole body a moment ago, withdraws. He's contemplating. And I'm kicking myself. Why don't I ever think? All he has to do is say yes, it's dangerous, and I'll have to give it back.
Movers come in and out of the truck behind me, and he still doesn't answer. Now he's the one who's screwed up. If it were dangerous, he'd have said so by now. I stare at him, hard. He closes his eyes and opens them in a very slow, awkward manner. Then he does it again. It's like he doesn't know how to blink.
"I bet there's plenty of that substance wherever you come from," I tell him. Something intense and angry appears under his mask of polite distance, and I step closer to see it better. "You've got something unique and beautiful and you can't stand sharing it, even though it can't hurt anybody."
Voice Man takes a small step back. "You know nothing about me."
"Then tell me--that job Damon's dad is taking. Is it real?"
His "harmless old man" routine evaporates. His eyes blaze; his pupils are scorch marks. My mind feels like something inside it is trying to scratch its way out. Then he looks at my car, where my huge handbag is, where the Coolest Thing Ever is. His eyes focus on the handbag.
Did he read my mind? Is that even possible?
"Take one step towards my car," I say, "and I'll have the police here so fast you won't know what hit you."
He stares at me with those nasty eyes for a very long time. I test the theory that he can see my thoughts by vividly imagining him getting run over by a truck. He flinches as my mental truck flattens him.
We're staring at each other now like we're holding a contest. It's amazing. He's in my thoughts, but I'm in his, too. He's so angry and powerful! I sense now that he could crush my mind and leave me drooling on the sidewalk, but he's angry with himself, not me. He knows I know what the silent goop does. That's how he found me. I see a memory of him noticing a blinking light on some control panel somewhere. We both know that light means someone's figured out how to use the goop as an energy source. Even though he could easily, and permanently, fix the problem I pose, I can feel his strong conscience, and the dilemma it creates.
Whatever is between us breaks. He adjusts his hat. "You are a very stubborn person, Dr. Callembert."
He drives off in a brown car that's so plain, I hardly even noticed it. I don't think to get the license plate.
I do, though, remember that my bank is open until noon on Saturdays, and it's not even eleven yet. I get to the main branch in time to sign up for a safety deposit box, and I lock the container of heavy silence inside it.
Contractors work on Damon's old house every day after Damon and his dad fly away. I know because every evening, I drive by to look. I pester them to let me contact Voice Man. They have no idea who I'm talking about. They're working for "David Anderson," who paid for all the work in advance, and who is out of town indefinitely. I do a little sleuthing and talk to some of the contractors' bosses, but everything appears legit.
Three days later, I'm lecturing about Keynesian theory when I figure out that David Anderson is a name taken from the two stars of The X-Files: David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. I jump so high I almost hit the ceiling.
My students applaud. I swear they only come to class to see how I'll humiliate myself next.
A week later, Damon calls. He loves his new school, and his dad's getting training at a community college--just like the kind I teach at. Damon finds this fact meaningful in a great, cosmic way. He asks what I did with "the stuff" and I tell him he should forget about it.
"Was it really dangerous?" he asks.
I think about Voice Man. "Yes, it was."
When the contractors are done with Damon's old house and some random couple buys it with no sign of trouble, I'm convinced I'm safe, so I go to the bank and get the Tupperware container. It's too light. What only looked like petroleum jelly has been replaced with the real thing. A note taped to the container says, "Thanks for watching our little kitty."
It's signed, "A good, well-meaning person."
The bank manager hears my shriek and comes running--is anything wrong? I stand there like I've just been shot, and say, no, there's nothing wrong. I tell her I just don't need my deposit box anymore.
How did he do it? Since the day he drove off, I never once felt my mind being messed with. Could he have followed me to the bank that morning? Did he hack into a computer somewhere, like Sarah suggested?
I go home and stare at my X-Files poster. I wanted a life like Dana Scully's, and got it--I found something that has the potential to turn the whole world upside down, and some powerful, invisible force snatched it from me. Unlike Scully, I don't think I'll keep running into things like this until I stumble across a globe-spanning conspiracy that could doom the whole planet. I think I'm going back to my pathetically normal life, like nothing happened.
In truth, hardly anything did. For the first time ever, I consider taking the poster down.
I need to talk to Sarah.
Two nights later she comes over and I buy the pizza. It's an apology she'll recognize and accept. I dance around exactly what I found, but tell her everything except the telepathy, which even I have trouble believing. I can tell my vagueness grates on her from the way she tears her pizza into little bits before eating it. She lives in a world where everyone hides the most important facts, the ones that explain everything. We're friends because I'm not like that.
So I tell her to pretend it was a formula for unlimited free energy, something the oil companies would want suppressed. I hint at secret meetings, payoffs, men in trench coats, sultry women with cigarettes and red lipstick. Her expression, which says I'm full of crap, never changes. First and last, Sarah's my friend, but I worry about the middle sometimes.
My land-line phone rings its strange double ring: someone wants to be buzzed into the apartment building. Without needing to ask, Sarah answers it for me. "Are you expecting a package?" she asks me.
"I'll sign for you, then." She leaves and returns with a small box wrapped in brown paper. It's from Damon.
I cut the box open. Under some crumpled newspaper I find a small, heavy tin, plus a jewelry box, a thank-you card from Damon's dad, and a note from Damon.
While Sarah's looking at the card and jewelry box, I pocket the little tin and read Damon's note. It says, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you I hid some of the stuff before you came over that day. You have it all now. I'll keep our secret. Thanks, Damon."
Sarah takes a necklace out of the box, approves it, and hands it to me. I'm grinning like an idiot and happy things flutter in my stomach. Either Voice Man's mind reading doesn't work on kids, or he never thought Damon could be involved.
Sarah knows I'm happy, but she's wrong about why. I can't tell her, either. Sarah plays by the book. She'll report what I've got, and I'm positive Voice Man is out there somewhere, waiting for that little light on his control panel to flash again.
Let him wait. He'll see that light when I'm ready for him: when I've got the right people in the room, people who will recognize what's going on, and who will have some idea what to do about it. Then I'll give them the Coolest Thing Ever. I don't live in Agent Scully's world, where every authority figure who matters is under alien control, and the rule to live by is "Trust no one." Voice Man's going to figure this out, soon. He's messing with the wrong world.
Sarah is staring at me and wincing like she's looking at the sun. "Marie," she says, "I swear, you're so happy, you're glowing."
x x x
When I write a Gavin McQue story, I choose to use present tense because I like the way it sounds. It sounds like a joke you’d tell to a buddy in a bar. This story has the same sort of sound. Maybe that’s why I like it. Tell me if you do on our BBS. -GM