For weeks, Gibb has noticed that Celia makes the game of peek-a-boo into an Olympic sport. As a girl, she tried softball, field hockey, golf, and classical ballet. Efficient in all, she was expert in none. With peek-a-boo, she shows promise. She might be interrogating a baby spy.

“Where’s Auntie Celia? Where did she go?”

Celia’s an actor, which makes it easy for Gibb to remember what she looks like. She grew up with his wife and Gibb used to sit through plenty of films and unfortunate productions of Shakespeare-in-the-Park. He last saw her as Ophelia, doling out the rosemary in a muslin dress the color of snow. He remembers her tiny nose. Eyes the same shade as her glasses: celery-green.

“Where’s Auntie Celia! Where is she!”

The baby’s on his lap and Gibb’s leg is a horse, taking his son for a trot. They’re alone. Patrick has taken Iris into the yard to brag about his wide open spaces. The neighborhood, found at the far edge of Queens, is so new that no one has any fences. It’s their first house, a gift bestowed on each other for their tenth anniversary. How did they afford it? Patrick and Gibb’s wife are both musicians. Iris tutors and plays in a wedding band but Patrick just sits around and waits for another orchestra to beg him to play the bassoon. His resume says he’s played for the New York Symphony, but that’s just a polite way of saying he has experience not making money. Gibb’s certain that Celia paid for the house herself.

“I’m not letting you move to D.C.,” Celia says. “No, I’m not! No, I’m not!”

“Are you talking to me or him?”

“No, I’m talking to your son. You can live where you like.”

Celia is thirty-five, or at least she was the last time he checked; like most actors, she gets younger with each passing year. She has a playful alto, as if she sprang from the depths of her husband’s bassoon. Born in Quebec, she long ago adopted the Mid-Atlantic accent she needs for television and film. But if you listen hard enough⸺and what else can Gibb do?⸺the east end of Montreal still slips through. It happens now. “Live” becomes leaf. No has that vague French inflection: non.

“This job better be worth it,” she goes on. “What is it again?”

 “Desk work.”

“Is that the truth or do you have to lie for the sake of national security?”

“You think they’d let me be a spy?”

“I think you’d be perfect. Who’d suspect you? Come on. You can tell me.”

She has coffee-breath, pungent and a little bit stale. If he can smell it, she’s  pretty close to him. She’s pretty close to the truth, too. Gibb really has been given desk work. The desk just happens to be in a certain intelligence bureau he’s not allowed to name.

“Here, you hold him,” he says. “Point me towards the latrine.”

She lifts Jackson away. Gibb strains to keep hearing the gurgles, but his son has gone silent in her arms. Out of sound, out of mind. He might have disappeared.

The new house feels monstrous. The peeled wallpaper flaps like flayed skin and everything creaks. This is what you get when an actress makes a down payment. Her bathroom has smelled the same for years. Lilac Dream: the perfume she promoted in her first national commercial years ago. It involved Celia walking down Fifth Avenue while portraying the confidence of a woman who knows how good she smells. It was a watermelon dress and Celia, twenty-two at the time, wore a smile that stretched to her ears. Who could blame her? She and Iris had been in New York for less than a year and already she had a commercial, an agent, and a boyfriend who played the bassoon. She didn’t need Lilac Dream to smell good: she already bore the whiff of success.

Fumbling out of the bathroom, Gibb makes a wrong turn and is ambushed by a moving box, fat as a dog.  Down he goes. A chill hits him even as he tumbles: for all he knows he could be about to topple down the stairs. But the ground rises up and he catches himself with his flailing hands. It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the noise. From downstairs comes the rush of movement. “I’m all right,” he calls. But it’s too late. He’s still picking himself up when a cloud of sweat and baby powder appears at his side. His wife.

“It’s fine,” he says. “I’ll live to fall another day.”

Iris takes him by the elbow and doesn’t let go until he’s on the stairs and has the railing in his fist. He imagines her trailing behind him, muscles tense, ready to catch him at the first misstep.

Patrick calls to him from far away. “Sorry for the assassination attempt. All those boxes will be gone by Saturday. You’re still coming, right?”

“Ask my C.O. I’m just a grunt.”

“You can leave Jackson at home for one night, can’t you?”


“She says she isn’t sure,” says Celia.

“But you have to come,” says Patrick. “It’s going to be wild. When was the last  time you were wild?”

More silence.

“She says they haven’t left Jackson alone yet,” says Celia.

“Children,” says Patrick, “ruin all the fun.”

Patrick likes to say he doesn’t trust children, but he’s actually the animal lover who’s allergic to dogs. In other words, he wants kids and his body has failed him. Patrick knows that Iris knows and Celia knows that Iris has told Gibb but no one told Patrick that Gibb knows so Gibb has to pretend he doesn’t know a thing. Gibb sees all this as good practice for his life in Washington. Over there, he supposes, he’ll have to pretend he doesn’t know anything all the time.

“We should go,” says Gibb.

“Let us know if you change your mind,” says Celia.

It’s a frosty morning and Gibb shudders in the car while Iris puts Jackson  in the back seat. If their son’s laugh is any indication, she’s become an expert at silly expressions. Jackson continues to bubble as they drive and Gibb reaches into the back to toy with his son’s foot. The five little piggies wiggle like worms. He’s lost his shoe and sock.

“I hate when you do that, you know. Talk in sign language around me. I hate that.”

Iris turns on the radio and turns up the sound.

“I don’t like being shut out. Where’s that thing I bought you?”

Iris honks the horn.

“I think we should go to the party.”

The car slows down and then jerks to the left. It slows down and stops. There’s motion and movement. Her purse rattles. She prefers the big ones, the noisy ones, with their pockets and clasps and buckles. Her snorts are those of a racehorse, chomping at the bit.

A robot speaks. We’re not ready to puppy tree alone.

“See? That wasn’t so hard.”

 I detest this object. It never tastes the way it must.

Last month, Gibb bought Iris a pair of Talking Gloves: they have sensors that talk to an app on their tablet. It translates her sign language and turns her gestures  into an electronic voice. It’s science fiction turned reality but Iris is right⸺it never tastes the way it must. Iris uses too much shorthand and slang. The poor tablet reminds Gibb of all those Afghan interpreters they used overseas. It was hard for them too. Something always gets lost in translation.

“It’s better than leaving me in the dark,” Gibb goes on. “Pun fully intended.”

You never carry your cane.

“That’s not the same thing. How is that the same thing?”

You don’t love to carry your cane. I don’t love to carry the glove.

They’ve experimented with plenty of voices and settled on a computerized female who, like Celia Jordan, speaks as if she was born somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. It’s a minor improvement from the app on Iris’ phone. It talks as she types, which means it’s more accurate. But it only has one vocal option which means Gibb always sounds like he’s married to an English Australian Male.

 Is that pleasant or would you love to keep fighting?

“We’re not fighting. Eye. This isn’t a fight.”

The gloves land in his lap. The material is vinyl-smooth with ridged lines like hardened veins. No, it isn’t perfect. But he doesn’t like having to rely on others. Afghan translators often fed them misinformation. It’s their fault his last mission was his last mission: they gave the intelligence that ensured his squad would be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“We’re going to the party,” says Gibb.

Iris bangs on the dashboard twice.

“When was the last time we had any fun? Everyone thinks we need help. Canes and gloves. No one thinks we can have a normal life.”

He takes out his cell and tells it to call Patrick.

“Why are we living with your aunt if we can’t leave Jackson alone with her? We won’t have her in Washington, we might as well enjoy her while we can. Hey, Patrick? I staged a mutiny. We’ll be there Saturday. What we can bring?”

On Saturday, Iris and Gibb leave Jackson with his great-aunt and take a cab back to  the edge of Queens. Celia smells like she’s over-dressed. Her heels clack and she has too much lilac dream hanging off the neck. “I wanted it to be a white tie event,” she whispers to Gibb. “Swallowtail coats and those great gloves that go to the elbow….” The guests are the finest selection of their most obnoxious friends. Natalia has strong opinions but a weak handshake; Jameson talks like a man apologizing for his own existence. There’s a violinist who stinks of pot and a cellist with a glorious Irish lilt. Everyone drinks white wine spritzers, except for Celia, whose been sober three years and counting. Gibb drinks three in quick succession. The wine goes to his head while the spritzer’s spritz stings the back of his throat. The conversations vary from the renovations Patrick intends to do on his own to the celebrity the violinist saw on the street. As for Iris, you’d never know she hadn’t wanted to come. It’s her first time drinking since the baby and she’s the life of the party. Celia translates every time she signs, a party trick they’ve been performing since high school. Inevitably, someone always tells them to take their show on the road. Everyone laughs as Gibb dives into his fourth drink.

Natalia and Jameson⸺they appear to be married⸺announce they’ve decided to adopt. “We looked into the medical stuff,” says Natalia. “But it’s just so expensive. Each time they do the procedure, it’s another mortgage on the house.”

“I could never adopt,” says Celia. “I would want it to be mine.”

“It would still be yours,” says Patrick.

“Only in the way that couch is mine.”

“That couch is yours. What’s the difference?”

“You should try adopting a dog,” says the violinist.

“A baby is not a dog. I’ll just have to take out a second mortgage.”

“They almost didn’t give us the first,” says Patrick.

Gibb extricates himself and is pleased to find the bathroom is exactly where he left it. After, he wanders along the second floor hall and finds his way into a quiet room. He calls home for a full report. Iris’ aunt sounds like she’s mocking him. Of course, the baby is fine. Why wouldn’t he be?

“Eye asked me to call,” he says. “She’s just a little scared.”

Hanging up, Gibb finds he’s wandered into the middle of the room. Always dangerous, the middle of the room. The walls could be anywhere. Furniture, too. His heart beats loud in his ears. He imagines gaping holes opening like mouths in the floor. Gibb extends a shaking hand and shuffles along until he finds something solid. A wall lined with books. Tethered again. He focuses on the books. The spines are soft and worn. He tries to remember Patrick’s library. Murder-mysteries. Thrillers. Gibb pulls one down. Heavy. Well-loved. Dog-eared. The voice of some old librarian comes at him from the dark. Only vandals dog-ear books, Gibson Callaghan. You’re not a vandal, are you?

“You always sneak away from parties to read Sherlock Holmes?”

Celia’s deep voice is full of mirth. She sounds like she did in her commercial for  Lilac Dream. Her footfalls whisper against the hardwood floor. She’s taken off those clacking heels and approaches on a breeze of Diet Coke.

“Practicing how to skulk, Lieutenant?”

“I was a corporal. And I had to call home.”

“You were worried.”

“Ever since he was born, I hardly eat and never sleep.”

“Sounds like being in love.”

“It’s not as bad as that.”

“It doesn’t sound bad at all. I loved falling in love. I used to do it all the time.”

“Those poor boys.”

She swats his arm.

“I don’t mean them. When you’re young you get to play lovers. Juliet and Rosalind. Now all I do is play old queens.”

“You’re not old.”

“What do you know? A voice doesn’t age. You don’t know how lucky you are. We’re all getting old and you’re the only one who will never know.”

That Diet-Coke-breath spills into his. Gibb has the sense that if he shifted forward, even a bit, his mouth would find skin.

“I’ve been sent to track you down,” she says. “We want to play a very silly game  and we can’t do it without you.”

A few months ago, Patrick and Celia went to a party thrown by one of Patrick’s friends. The symphony of musicians had been unmemorable until the hosts had introduced a game involving balloons. “All the men sit in chairs with a balloon between their legs,” Celia explains as she leads Gibb back through the house. “Inside each balloon is a piece of paper with a man’s name. We play music and each woman takes a turn circling the men. When the music stops, the woman has to pop the balloon of whoever is in front of her. Of course, she can’t use her hands. At the end, you read the names and at midnight, you have to kiss whoever’s name you pick. I had to kiss Edwin O’Toole. Actually, I kissed his cheek. He wouldn’t let me do anything else. Musicians aren’t half as liberated as they want to be. Let’s see if you and I do better.”

In the living room, Natalia is tearing paper and demanding to know the proper spelling of everyone’s name. There’s the whine of cheap rubber until someone blows too hard and then a blast, sudden as an IED.. A wave of nausea hits Gibb even as he suppresses a cry. Someone takes his hand and draws a circle with a dot in his palm. Iris. Their private signal so he knows it’s her. The nausea fades. She kisses his cheek and the scent of booze reminds him of their very first date, after his first tour of duty, when they had sat close in a bar  and written out their conversation on napkins. When they sent him back, he had dragged those napkins with him. They had been in his pocket the afternoon those interpreters betrayed them; his blood had seeped into them, ruining them for good.

Gibb joins the men in the middle of the room. A balloon falls into his lap, firm as an over-poached egg. He feigns amusement. Here is a party, here is a party game. Here is Gibb, the Good Sport. An old Prince song plays and the women hoot as if Prince has been resurrected. The music stops. There’s a howl followed by a smattering of applause.

“Your wife’s crawling towards Patrick,” says Jameson.

Iris, so silent in her movements, must be making no noise as she slides across the floor. He has no idea what she wore tonight. When he was convalescing, she used to describe her clothes. It’s the green top you bought for my birthday. I’m wearing your favorite yellow bra. She lost the habit while pregnant and he supposes that now her wardrobe has changed, that the yellow bra doesn’t fit and the green top has fallen out of style.

“Don’t use your hands!” calls Celia.

Right. She’s handless too. So she must be balanced on her knees and tilting towards Patrick’s lap. She won’t have much trouble with the balloon. She plays the clarinet; her mouth has muscles others don’t. The balloon burst makes him jump but it’s still a blessing. She’ll be moving away now, albeit with the name of some other man she’s destined to kiss.

“Don’t read it yet,” says Patrick. “It’ll ruin the fun.”

No one narrates the action for Gibb and for the next few minutes he finds it hard to reason out what’s happening. Pop! Another small explosion, another small palpitation deep within his chest. He’s so focused on his breathing that he doesn’t notice when the song stops. His time has come.

“Don’t tell him who it is!” says Patrick.

Gibb fights an anger rising up through his belly, as sour as yesterday’s lunch. They’re trying to cheat him. The others were allowed to know who was crawling towards them. Why change the rules now? It’s a petty cruelty, like subjecting him to the ballet. But it’s not going to work. Gibb has an ace up his nose. There’s Diet Coke and lilac dream on the wind. Celia grips his knees for balance and the violinist emits an A-plus snort. The world tightens. The hooting is a cage and the tightening of her hands might as well be clamps. He keeps thinking about the balloon between his legs. Bracing himself for the explosion, he manages to do nothing but shudder when the thing finally pops. Sweat soaks the back of his shirt. Celia squeezes his knees and floats away.

From his pocket, his phone calls out to him. Each of his contacts have their own ringtone: Iris’ aunt’s is a high pitched scream. Grateful for the excuse, he springs to his feet and answers even as he finds his way into the hall.

“Iris isn’t answering my texts,” says Mabel. “The server crashed at the office. I have to go in.”


“Yes. now. You need to come home.”

When Gibb returns, it takes him a few moments to sort out what’s happening. The cellist has read out the violinist’s  name. Patrick has Iris while Jameson is doomed to kiss his own wife.

“We have to go,” Gibb says to the room. “Mabel’s having a crisis.”

“What did I tell you?” says Patrick. “Children always ruin the fun.”

Mabel’s ruining the fun. Leave the children out of this.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” says Celia.

“What’s that?” says Gibb.

“Iris thinks only one of you needs to go.”

Gibb scowls. In his platoon, there was a man who had a habit of talking over you. In the middle of a conversation, he’d steal the spotlight before you even finished your thought. It burned Gibb then and it does it now; Iris shouldn’t be talking when he is.

“Just call me a cab,” he says.

“Keep your money,” says Celia. “I’ll give you a ride.”

“You can’t leave your own party,” says Patrick.

“The only way I’ll ever stay sober,” she says, “is if I see it has some use.”

Her Chrysler smells of cigarettes and once they’re inside, she lights up even before she starts the engine. This, Gibb reasons, might be the other reason she was so quick to offer him a ride. Patrick doesn’t want her smoking in the new house. He takes a deep breath, sucking in frosted air and cigarette smoke, warm as steam. Until Iris, his lovers had been one Lady Nicotine after another. Sometimes he missed them, those smoking girls. He had loved sitting down with two fresh pints and an unopened pack. It had the whiff of possibility, the hint that they were on the brink of some new adventure. All that was gone now,. You can’t smoke anywhere anymore; the world’s smoking sections are street corners and the frozen interiors of an old car.

Celia coaxes the engine to life and they lurch into motion.

“We’re going to miss the moment when everyone kisses everyone else,” she says. “Poor Iris. Patrick’s like a dog. Nothing but licks and slobbers.”

“Is that why he suggested the balloon game? A form of self-improvement?”

“What else is there when you don’t have kids? We’ve got nothing to do but   become better versions of ourselves.”

“Can I have one of those cigarettes?”

“I just took the last one. Let’s stop at the store.”

“I should get home.”

“I’ve known Mabel for as long as I’ve known Iris. She doesn’t just cry over spilled  milk⸺she laments.”

“Should you be going so fast?”

“Should you be giving driving advice?”

“How bad is the storm?”

“Calm down, Corporal. It’s really nothing but a squall.”

When they get to the store, Celia once again links her arm with his. Her elbow is  sharp and pointed. Nothing about it feels natural. The store is warm and Gibb’s nose starts to run.

“I’m starved,” says Celia. “Aren’t you starved? Everytime I’m at a party, I spend   more time making food than I do eating it.”

“I eat all the time. I think I’m getting fat.”

“You’re still the fittest man in the brigade.” Celia pulls him closer, so that elbow, arrow-head sharp, cuts into his side. “You know, it’s midnight now. I think we owe each other a kiss.”

“It was just a game.”

“Yes, but we played it. Pucker up.”

She sweeps in and touches his mouth. He’s seventeen again; he’s also eighteen and twenty-one. She’s Lady Nicotine, a world of possibility with musty-stale breathe. Her mouth is cold and Gibb envisions himself expanding with the chill of her breath. He even thinks he might be whining from the effort, like all those cheap balloons.

“We just kissed in the personal hygiene aisle,” she whispers. “How’s that for romance?”

At the counter, she buys cigarettes and chips and tissue for Gibb’s nose. “Forty-two-fifty,” says the clerk and a paper bag crackles as it’s whipped into shape. Celia presses the tissue into his hand so he can wipe the greasy snot from his face. That she kissed him with this wet little nose revolts him. He wants to drag her back to the personal hygiene aisle, just so they can do it right. But now she’s leading him outside and a new blast of winter hits as they step through the doors. The snow doesn’t tickle now. It’s broken glass. The squall has moved on to bigger and badder things.

In the car, Celia gives him a fresh cigarette and her lighter. She starts the engine and then steps outside to wipe off the snow. Gibb’s fingers tingle as they warm up. It’s been a long time since he’s had a cigarette. It’s different now. The smoke is stronger, the cigarette more distinct. It could be six feet long.

Celia comes back inside. “It’s snowing cats and dogs now.”

“These are expensive cigarettes.”


“Forty-two fifty….?”

“I told you, I was hungry. And you needed to clean your nose.”

She starts the car. Something rattles on the roof like tiny bits of shot.

“What did you have to buy?”

“It was just bathroom stuff. Magic elixirs to keep me looking young. This is where you say that I don’t need them.”

“I’m sure you don’t.”

“What an absolutely perfect thing to say.”

As she drives, she takes his hand and squeezes his fingers. Gibb runs his fingers over hers. He notes her hangnail and skeleton and skin. She is a victim of time. Her pointed elbows are the least of her concerns. Gibb raises the hand to his mouth and presses it to his lips. Her response is a cry; she jerks her arm away. The car slips into a skid and the world starts to spin. “I’m sorry!” Gibb yells, as if the spinout is the punishment for the kiss. Round and round goes the car and Gibb shudders and shakes. In a moment as terrible as any he had overseas, he remembers that he never fastened his seatbelt. Celia screams and there’s an crash and Gibb is a bullet: he’s out of his seat, he’s moving through glass, he’s in the storm, he’s yelling, he’s screaming, he’s begging for help, he’s smashing into the snow.

He calls out, but there’s no one to reply.


Gibb dreams different in winter. Things are blue and silver, even if he’s back in the desert. He’s there now, marching towards Qalat on sand the color of oceans and steel. It’s a cold, cold world, though the sun blazes overhead. A wail of sirens drifts in as they pass an orchard. Pop pop! Pomegranates explode. The platoon dives down. The wind bites his skin. Something like wet confetti falls against his face. He’s not dreaming. Or, rather, he is and he isn’t. He’s still in that steel desert but he’s also in a snowbank in Queens.

They place him on a spine board and secure him with straps. Tie him down while telling him that the very fact he hadn’t been tied down is what saved his life. He shuts his eyes for a moment, or so he thinks, because when he opens them again, there’s antiseptic in the air and he’s somewhere new. The inside of his mouth is metal. His cheeks have been frozen, like when he’s at the dentist. Trying to move, he’s pushed back, gently, and told, not so gently, that it’s best to keep still. He has a fractured wrist and severe laceration down the side of his face that cuts close to the edge of his mouth. But frostbite didn’t ruin him, at least not in a permanent way. Lucky, they say. You’re lucky. It’s Gibb’s least favorite word. The military said it too. Lucky. He feels a great swell of resentment for the snowbank that broke his fall. Another hospital, another convalescence. A sickbay commando once again. One piece of luck can be dismissed as the gift of fortune. But when it starts to pile on, you have to wonder about the cost.

“Celia. Where’s Celia?”

“You really shouldn’t speak.”

“Is she hurt?”

“I can’t sew you up if you don’t hold still.”

“I want to see my wife.”

“I need you to relax. Your wife isn’t here.”

“His wife is here,” says someone. “She’s demanding we let her in.”

He drifts again and when he comes back, Iris’ baby-powder-smell is upon him. She cries into his chest, though of course there aren’t any wails. When Iris weeps, she’s nothing but breath and tears. Gibb holds her with his good arm. They met online while he was on his first tour and in her emails, she devoted whole paragraphs to Celia Jordan, her somewhat-successful friend. It was often said that if Celia hadn’t approved of him, Iris would have walked away. Whatever has happened to Celia, whatever happened tonight, everything can be traced back to that first moment when she looked at him and told Iris yes.

While Gibb is being stitched and patched, Iris sits by the bed and spends too long stroking him like an injured dog. She runs her plump fingers across his scalp, untangling the knots in his thinning hair. At last, when they’re alone, she takes out her phone and comes at him in the guise of an Australian English Male.

The police want to ask you questions. But I need you to explain something first.”

While Gibb and Celia were driving to the drugstore, Mabel was sending angry texts to her niece. Iris had been on the verge of taking a taxi home when the police called Patrick: they had found him thanks to the plates on Celia’s car. Gibb was gone by the time Iris and Patrick reached that intersection in Queens, but Celia was still there, her body caked in glass and snow. While Patrick talked with the police, Iris had wandered towards the wreck, slipping beyond the yellow caution tape while everyone was looking somewhere else. Had the car been destroyed, Celia’s secret would have been lost. But only the front had been ruined when the car, twisting on a patch of ice, had slammed into the meridian. Through the window, Iris had spotted the bag from the drug store, its contents sticking out so they could easily be seen. By the time they found her, Iris had retrieved the bag and was studying the receipt. There was the date; there was the time of purchase.

She tells Gibb she would have hidden the discovery had there been time, But the police found her poking about and Patrick was nearby and by the time they were allowed to leave, both of them were asking the same thing.

“Why would Celia buy a pregnancy test?” asks the Australian English Male.

Between the anesthetic and the stitches, Gibb can barely move his mouth. It’s just as well. He knows as much his wife does, which is to say, nothing at all. Celia had kept them all in the dark.

For the next few days, after he comes home, Gibb smells cigarettes and dreams up Celia’s laugh. It’s hard to do more. His memory is stubborn. When he cleans the wound on his cheek, his mind is blank. But when he cuts an onion or cleans his gun, there’s a crack and he recalls the point of her elbow and the engine’s cough as she brought it to life. Waking one night, Gibb finds the bed empty and Celia talking from downstairs. Iris is watching one of Celia’s films. It’s that independent film in which she played the dysfunctional therapist hired to soothe a dysfunctional family’s dysfunctional dog.

“You’ve heard of doctors running off with their patients?” says Celia. “Let’s just say there’s a reason my house smells like the pound.”

There’s a skip in the sound.

“Queenie’s my girl. Aren’t you! Aren’t you!”

Gibb makes his way downstairs. “Aren’t you!” Celia demands of the dog, sounding just as she did when she had played Peek-A-Boo with a vengeance. The track repeats. This time there’s no skip between the end of one line and the start of another. Iris must be splicing scenes, creating a new movie entirely her own. Gibb stands in the doorway and tries to listen to his poor, silent wife who, even in grief, cannot release the howl of loss. Mumbling is all he can do: if he opens his mouth too much, he just starts to bleed.

“Is it morning? Or is it still last night?”

Iris strikes the button on their talking clock. The clock is cheap and so is the voice: it’s disjointed and genderless with pauses after each word. The. Time. Is. Three. Thirty. Five. A. M.

“Queenie’s my girl!” says Celia.

“Is this for the funeral?” says Gibb.

Iris clacks at the keys. The laptop’s voice is that of a Female from the U.K.

There’s no reason. I’m just doing it to do it.

 “Was she in anything else? I mean, is she going to appear next month hocking   mouthwash or something?”

She was up for a TV show. They gave it to someone younger.”

 “She told me she was worried about getting old.”

Iris types. She deletes. She types again.

  “Just say it already.”

Did she tell you this before or after you went to the drug store?”

“It was at the house.”

The wind rattles the windows. The refrigerator hums. A car speeds down the   street outside.

Was she drinking?” asks the Female from the U.K.

“What? God, no. Is that what you think?”

It’s what we both think. Patrick and me. We’re waiting for the coroner’s report.”

 “Have you talked to him? He hasn’t returned my texts.”

He’s ignoring them.” Iris sighs. There’s no pitch to it, but he loves hearing it. It’s one of the only sounds she has and it’s distinctly her own. “He doesn’t want you coming to the funeral.”

Gibb chews the end of his thumb. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

You must see how it looks.”

“I don’t know how anything looks.”

Is that supposed to be funny?”

“Nothing happened between us.”

Nothing happened between you that night.”

“Now that’s just offensive. Honestly, it’s a disgusting thought.”

Patrick has it too. He can’t habe kids. So why is she tajing you to but a pregmancy   tst?

She’s getting upset; she never bothers to proofread when she’s upset.

“I don’t know she was buying a pregnancy test.”

You were supposed to go home. To tabe care of our som.

“She wanted cigarettes….”

But he hears himself and he sounds pathetic. A candidate moaning that the only reason he lost was because the election was fixed. He was planning to tell Iris about that kiss in the drug store; he was planning to confess that Celia didn’t have two hands on the wheel at the time of the crash. Now he swallows the truth and marches from the room. The rest of the night is spent shooting monsters in the dark. Gibb purposely chooses a game that hasn’t been designed for the likes of him: he’s been memorizing the audio clues and is becoming a better shot now than he ever was overseas. It’s a comforting little foxhole. With the headphones on, the house vanishes and there’s nothing but his alien planet and synthetic music pulsing in his ears. He dies, of course. Again and again. There’s comfort in this too.

The funeral arrives on the same day Jackson is supposed to see the pediatrician. Iris wants to reschedule but Gibb makes a command decision. “I’ll get my sister to drive me. It’s not like we have anything else to do.”

Deidre and Iris have never gotten along; Mabel moved in specifically to keep Deidre from doing it herself. She’s a meddler and Gibb knows it but right now she’s what he needs. He’s too injured to risk taking Jackson alone. Both Mabel and Iris stage a protest but neither have the strength to see it through and when the day of the funeral comes, they abandon the struggle. Almost as soon as they leave, Gibb regrets not sending a message. Some remark or a prayer to be muttered over the grave.

The pediatrician has a vague lisp and the prancing steps of a deer. Deidre recommended her. The two went through school together and Gibb can remember Anushri Doctor when she and Deidre would come home drunk. Now she’s Doctor Doctor and the appointment becomes a minor reunion. Iris wouldn’t want Deidre in the examination room, but Gibb hardly has the power to keep her out. Since their parents died, they’ve been an army of two; she’ll always be his commander-in-chief.

“I don’t thee any problemth here,” says Doctor Doctor. “How much tholid food ith he on?”

“Not enough,” says Deidre.

“He gets three milk feedings a day,” says Gibb.

“And the retht of the time?”

“She gives him the same thing every meal,” Deidre snorts.

“Well, hith weight is good and everything elth checkth out. Have you found a doctor in Wathhington yet?”

Washington. He’s forgotten all about it. “I haven’t been thinking about it.”

“How can you not be thinking about it?” says Deidre.

“I have other things on my mind.”

“His wife’s friend just died,” Deidre tells the doctor.

“She was my friend too,” says Gibb.

Jackson goes back into the sling which Deidre is wearing on account of Gibb’s wrist. Stepping off the elevator, Gibb catches a hint of lilac and feels the jagged pinch of an elbow in his side. He runs his hand over his watch. The funeral will be in motion now. The people are gathering. Jameson, Natalia, that cellist with the Irish lilt. Patrick is probably hanging his head. Celia’s parents, reunited after years of divorce, probably hold each other’s hand. The mother, he recalls, is deaf, which is why Celia was able to talk to Iris when they were young and there were no cell phones and robot voices to help bridge the gap.

“Can you watch him for a few hours?”

“I thought we were going to the museum.”

“Go to the museum. Show him a good time.”

“You better not be going where I think you’re going.”

“I just need to run an errand.”

“You can’t just ride in and fix this, Cowboy. It’s FUBAR, at least for now.”

“Are you going to watch him or not?”

Deidre sighs. “I’m not taking you there. You want to have a bad idea, you have it on your own.”

They drive away in Gibb’s car, leaving him and his cane to make their way across the parking lot. Gibb instructs his cell phone to give him his exact position and summons a cab.

At the cemetery, Gibb lurks along the edges of the fence, his cane striking nothing but snow. The wind has made him brittle. He can’t wear gloves over his cast and his exposed fingers are fat with cold. Voices approach and Gibb goes still, but it’s hard to hide when you don’t know what you’re hiding from. The voices stop. No. They downgrade to a mutter. Someone approaches and the snow breaks like cornflakes beneath their feet. Either his heart expands or his ribs shrink: either way, his chest is tighter than before. Gibb is in a horror film, swimming through shark infested waters, and everyone but him can hear the music; everyone but him knows who’s coming his way.

“What are you doing here?” says Mabel. “Where’s Jackson?”

“Deidre’s introducing him to Chagall.”

“If they see you, there’s going to be blood.”

“I think you’re overreacting.”

“And I don’t think you’re reacting enough. He’s shattered, Gibb. They all are.”

Mabel has fingernails like teeth. She drags him away and since she has his good   arm, he has to extend his injured one so he can follow the trail of the fence. A   skeletal branch brushes his wounded face. In the distance he can hear the   mourners. Jameson and Natalia and that cellist with the lilt. Everyone who was   there where Celia attacked a balloon with her teeth. “Don’t tell him who it is!”   Patrick had said. That lousy game. And that lousy joke to keep him in the dark even more than he already was. Now he’s doing it again. Banned from the funeral, what does Gibb know of what’s being said? Do people know what Iris found in the car? He strains to hear them, strains to hear what Mabel sees. “When they were girls, they were terrors,” Mabel says. “Celia made all these plans for them. Before she came along, I don’t think Iris thought one way or another about the future. I don’t think she thought she had one.”

“She’s the reason Eye started online dating. Celia wrote her profile.”

“You really should go home.”

“Don’t you think I deserve a little sympathy? I mean, I could have been killed.”

“Oh Gibb. Honestly. You don’t think we know you’ve had a bad time?”

“I almost died. Again. Patrick is treating me like the villain and you and Eye are letting him.”

“Are you still talking to that army shrink?”

“I don’t need the shrink. I need my wife.

The voices and footfalls are fading.

“It’s not just pregnancy test,” says Mabel. “Apparently, Patrick’s suspected   something for months. And Celia always lit up when you walked in the room. Iris   will be looking for me. Go home, Gibb. There’s nothing you can do.”

Gibb waits in his corner, sniffling and tearing as the roar of the car engines die away. They’ll be going back to Patrick’s place. Another party. They might even serve the same food. Gibb summons another cab and has it take him to the edge of Queens.

Patrick’s house is Number 17, but he has the driver drop him off at Number 2, which is on the corner. The driver gives him his bearings: facing the house, the street stretches on to his left while the intersection is at his right. Assured that he’s on the front stoop, Gibb makes his way into Number Two’s backyard. His heart takes on a familiar, comfortable beat. Here’s that rush of adrenaline, the throb of masculinity that had him each time they left the safety of base camp. Someone might be waiting among the pomegranates. The enemy is always out there; you never know when you’re in his sight. Patrick had told them that the houses were so new there still weren’t any fences between them. Gibb’s counting on this as he feels his way through the snowy yards. He’s helped by that symphony of guests, whose chatter comes at him through the frost. Finding a wall, Gibb positions himself below a window. His cane is upright against his chest. He’s back in the desert, seconds away from a firefight he cannot lose.

A crunch in the snow. He reels, cane pointed.


Nothing. No claps, snaps, or stomps. No Australian English Male. Her own particular silent treatment. What was it Mabel said? That everyone was shattered. As if his wife didn’t have enough challenges in life. Now she had to deal with this too. He can’t feel his cheeks. For the first time since the accident, his wounded face doesn’t hurt at all.

His cane  is snatched from his hand.

“Look, I know I’m not supposed to be here. But she was my friend too.”

A roar splits the air. Gibb has only a moment to recognize his mistake before his own cane whips him across the face. That painlessness had been a respite; the Gods, looking down on the scene, had known all too well what was about to occur.

“We got the coroner’s report,” says Patrick. “She lost the baby.”

Down comes the cane again. He’s a paper house, crumpled and creased. He   doesn’t get the blessing of a blackout. He has to endure the pain in his chest and   listen to his gasps as Patrick whips him again and again. A thick, sour phlegm   rises up and dribbles from his mouth. Someone cries out. The cane strikes him again. Patrick makes a barbaric, not-quite-human wail. A hand falls on top of Gibb’s head. He cowers, screams out, tears open the stitches in his face, pulls his knees to his chest, rocks on his side in the snow. Someone has to fight to take his hand, fight harder to force him to unclench his fist. A thin finger draws a circle on his palm. Her scent smells like home but Gibb won’t relax until Iris kisses the top of his head: he won’t be fooled again.

Deidre meets him at a diner near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a few days after the funeral and Gibb staggers in, still shaky from his wounds. His heavy coat protected him from the worst of the assault but his wrist had to be reset and more stitches are now splayed across his face. He’s a patchwork doll, a man with a face that looks to be cobbled together from pieces of other things.

“You came here alone?”

“They took Jackson to the zoo.”

Deidre shakes her head. “What’s wrong with them? You shouldn’t be going across town by yourself.”

“I might as well learn. I think I’ll be going to D.C. without them.

His sister shifts in her chair. “They can’t really think that baby was yours. It isn’t yours, is it? You can tell me. It’ll never leave this room.”

“All we did was kiss and we only did that because of that stupid game with the balloons. She didn’t tell me what she was buying. She wouldn’t tell me. She didn’t want me to know.”

When the waiter appears, he orders the soup: like a man in the gulag, he’s surviving on gruel. The restaurant is quiet enough that he can hear a conversation to his left. Some young couple who are full of laughs. Perhaps this is the morning after and they’re still muddle-headed from the night before. He used to love those mornings. In a diner like this one, over waffles and eggs, he and Iris had smiled and enjoyed each other’s hands.

“Does Iris believe you?” asks Deidre.

Gibb can only shrug. Iris is sleeping in the baby’s room right now. Each time they talk, he can only fumble at conversation. Do you need anything? Is there anything I can do? Eye always knocks twice in reply.

“I don’t think she knows what to believe. Celia always told her everything. But she never told her about this.”

” You tell her that either she believes you or you two are through. Stick up for yourself. Who better than you to go to war?”

That afternoon, Gibb comes home to Celia’s voice echoing through the house. Queenie’s my girl! Aren’t you! Aren’t you! The sound cuts to Ophelia-in-the-Park. “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day. All in the morning betime…”

Coming upon the armrest, Gibb finds his wife’s feet. He lifts the legs and slides into place.

“Don’t spend your day in a nightmare,” says Celia. “Lilac Passion: live the dream.”

“Is Mabel here?”

Iris knocks twice.

“Jackson asleep?”

Iris knocks once. Gibb runs his hand along Iris’ shin. She hasn’t shaved and there’s a pleasing tickle to the fuzz.

Patrick leaving. Going back house.

She’s trying to use the gloves.

“Is he going to apologize first? Or is he just going to fly away?”

She sweeps her legs away. He’s losing her: any moment she’ll disappear and he’ll have to claw through the universe to find her. Gibb leaps across the couch, hands outstretched. His fingertips brush her face. Snatching her sleeves, he tries to pull her close but Iris only moves away, as if it’s improper, as if she’s another man’s wife. He sinks down and crawls into her, resting his scarred cheek against her chest. He can’t hear her heart through those milk-fat breasts. He worries that it has stopped.

“You’re either on my side or his,” he says.

This is tying up seizing tall.

“I hate that thing.”

He reaches for the gloves and slides them free. There’s a wet sound as rubber   smacks the wall. Iris runs her palm along the back of his neck. Her breasts heave   as she slips into that silent sorrow that is so entirely her own. She reaches for her   phone, for pen and paper, for her laptop, but Gibb clamps her in place. Once upon   a time, over waffles and eggs, they hadn’t spoken at all. Surely they can find that   place again. Their son never needs a conversation in order to eat. He just puts his   mouth to her breast and feeds. That’s all Gibb wants. The same physical   connection, the instant gratification between having the need and having it   fulfilled. He wants to open her nursing top and taste her for himself. Iris takes his   face in her hands, mindful of the many scars, and raises his mouth to hers. She   plants a hard kiss and breathes into him and Gibb breathes back and soon they   are both expanding, each of them taking what they need to be restored,   exhausted as they are by the continual, ceaseless desperation for words, words,   words.

Joel Fishbane’s debut novel, ‘The Thunder of Giants’ is available from St. Martin’s Press. His short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines, most recently the Saturday Evening Post, The Massachusetts Review and Witness. For more information, visit