I've been told to imagine scenarios. It's very simple. You take into account all the known relevant facts and then try to frame them into some sort of coherent narrative both psychologically probable (that is, the person concerned would likely have acted in that way) and that encompasses the physical laws of displaced matter and the shakier ones of abject destruction (that is, you'd have had to have been there to do it, and if you'd been there, you wouldn't have been able to do it).
I have sent Cully to the refrigerator to fix me up some peanut-butter sandwiches. She loves these little chores, as if I need rewarding for all the privations, all the horrors that narrowly missed falling to my lot, death not nearly the worst of them, not realizing I've felt them by proxy. They resonate through me like the drums of that no-good hobo in the next apartment.
I owe my life to Cully, as she owes me hers. Strange to start out on life's parallel journey with such overreaching gratitude. Perhaps that's why I spoil her, can't get angry with her, can't look at her with the slitty-eyed warning glare of motherly wrath. I might not have been able to do any of these things or had anyone to do them to, and being able to and having someone, I make the choice not to. Choices. Something else that could have been taken away—as if we ever choose. As if the theory of free-will wasn't so firmly rooted in the man on the subway next to us, that wasp that flies up into the lampshade and never gets burnt, or that fragment of bodily dust, lit up by a stray sunbeam into a thread of golden satin.
Perhaps Karen was at her desk. If she was at her desk, there would have been a computer screen in front of her, beaming into her eyes the names of high-class customers for the upstate smart hotels' conference facilities. The names of hundreds of strangers she would never know, never meet, but who, because of her, would receive a flyer in the mail about the The Grand This, The Royal That, which would then get spattered by sugar-encrusted milk before ending up in the trash can.
"Just a few details to update our database. Can I just check if you're at the same address?'
Her fingers would go click, click-click if someone had moved recently; they would hover, pensive, if the couple had a 30-year mortgage. She would place these lives into their respective pigeon-holes, consigning them to a New York state condo, a Manhattan penthouse for months to come.
My saviour, my life, ginger-haired Cully skips into the room, looking every inch Marv's daughter, and Karen's goddaughter. She brings me two peanut-butter sandwiches, two slices of fresh-baked wholemeal infused with a good dose of filial affection. She blinks quickly, smiles, lights up her eyes into two sparks of fire.
"Mm, lovely... perfect..."
She needs my approval about everything, as if a beginning so right just has to go wrong somewhere along the line, or because she needs to impress on me the usefulness of her own personality, rather than as a timely sojourn from work.
"Are they're still bodies lying down there?"
"They cleared all the rubble away. Tons and tons. Nobody—no body—was left behind."
"Unless some of them were ground to dust."
I used to say to Karen, marry Marv, put your relationship on an even footing, rather than on the medal-podium inequality of one partner allowed to play the field and the other expected to toe the line of pre-marital monogamy.
"I don't want to be tied down by marriage. It's what my mother did when she found out she was having me. It ruined her life for the next 15 years."
"There's no chance of Marv ruining your life."
"While we're as we are I have the chance, always, to clip his wings, by marriage. Always."
"Who's to say marriage will clip his wings?"
"It's a vow. He'd take it seriously."
I'd hoped he would, it would have solved a problem for me, taken a possessive weight off my back, as it were. He didn't.
If she was in the bathroom, chrome reflecting light back at all three of her dimensions. Just the flush of Kleenex down the pan, a final touch up of lipstick as if preparing herself for a divine rite, her divine right. Final pout. Then the floor, the lights, torn asunder, ripped to pieces, some work-experience kid in a Disney Pixar editing suite acting out his desire for wanton destruction. Time to know what hit you? Time to worry about smudging your lipstick?
The following behind me in the queue at Starbucks:
"What would that be like? Seeing the face of fanatical extremism coming towards you where no person should be?'
"You wouldn't see it for long."
Somebody saw that face. A nanosecond would have been too long.
Wouldn't the soul cry out where the voice wouldn't have time, I want to live. I deserve to live. I have the right to live.
My coffee and sandwiches add up to $9.14. Close. When that price, that date comes up, something lurches, crumples up inside me. It's always a relief when they mention dollars and cents.
Perhaps she'd never been up there. Perhaps she rang in sick and sneaked off to an apartment over on West Side where a fur rug and a glass of champagne awaited her. And then an idea—the ideal time to slip away, start a new life, begin again with the life she should have had before a nine-to-five, boyfriend-on-alternate-days-routine had pulled her into its groove. The fur rug became a coat and the champagne a daily tipple. She now lives in an apartment overlooking Miami Beach, mornings find her having sun cream rubbed into intimate crevices before she absorbs the rays of the sun—a sun she thinks she deserves, feels she owns, because she might not have had its rays to kindle her flame—which had flickered once before the call in sick.
Marv comes in the door. Sometimes I can't believe he's my husband. How can one event give someone everything they have, everything they have ever wanted, while taking the world away from someone else? The ying and the yang's gone too far to the yang, it seems.
"How did your day go?"
I caress his red hair as he bends down to kiss me.
"Just the same bunch of middle-class penpushers trying to drag themselves on to the next rung of the real-estate ladder. But the rot's taken hold—and just watch them fall."
I ignore a stray blonde hair resting, snug, just inside his collar.
As if we're not all on that ladder, property or something else, but at least if you're at the top, there's no one to fall on you. I would like to speculate on our position on the rungs, but I might get fooled by delusions of grandeur. It wouldn't be the first time.
The insurance money helped. We were told, but how can money be compared to, or compensate for, a person? How can one person replace another person? Spend years trying to prove they can't, they've gone and done it anyway, years ago.
I won't sleep tonight. On the YouTube nights my hand on the mouse can bring her back into being, hold her there somewhere between life and death, those two diverging infinities, a click of my finger all it takes to send her into oblivion. During the day a gap-toothed skyline scowls at me in defiance.
I refuse to settle for any one narrative of her last moments. While all options are open, I can break her down into her smallest components and then reassemble her, hold her with her head bent over the computer, her hand paused in the act of applying lipstick, her feet treading water forever in the Gulf of Mexico. I can make her and remake her as I please, never tiring of the possibilities. She deserves these posthumous lives.
On the nights Marv works late at home, I often sleep. Occasionally I hear a small shock of intaken breath, smothered by flames and ash and falling masonry. Sometimes I am her, and I see it all from within. At the point I die, if and when I die, I wake up.