Thank you, Mr. Spellman, and we shall hear from you again in due course.
I would in the usual now follow the custom of offering my name, which, as you know, from the fore, has been Anna Appleby. But there has now been a revision in the temporal fold, a change so magnificent as to overwhelm even the most epochal of shifts in the teutonic plates as we know them, for Anna Appleby has been nothing short as transmogrified, she has simultaneously evaporated and morphed, her ethers seeping most magically into the form of her resuscitated self/other, her beloved, her Chloe, who had been no more, but has arisen, to assume her rightful place, from a coalesced Anna/Chloe union into a perfect Chloe/Anna whole.
And what has become of the pasty shell formerly known as Anna Appleby?
She is no more.
I had to refute my journey as a challenge, let go, and begin with a breath, for there was nothing in my past experience that could help me. That was the one lesson from my past that fixed to me more than any, obliterating all else. Name, self, other, mother: I had subjugated them all with more success than I had ever dreamed possible, enough I hoped for myself to become essential, in the purest form of that word. My cerebral guide, albeit briefly, had been Ms. Dickinson, but now was the time of letting go of all that, to engage as she must have engaged, in a world fresh with every breath, new with every synapse fired, stuffed with wonder previously repressed from a grasp, a primary, echo-world more profound than any politic, any discourse, any narrative or teaching, any space of a few musings added up and called a life. I knew enough about Ms. Emily to know of her association with the so-called transcendentalists, but I was wary of that, as I was wary of all knowledge acquired, for wasn’t the whole of that already tainted, already pushed through the sieve of a subjective never your own? We were all swimming in that diluted mess, gripping tight our artificial lungs, praying the current would last. I’m not sure if I floated to the top or sank to the bottom, but honestly, it didn’t matter, nor did I care. That was all useless analysis to me now, the sort of didactic wanderings that populations find so useful and necessary, that which now to me appeared bunk and moot. I wasn’t going to retain anything, I wasn’t going to deduct anything, I wasn’t going to reason, reduce, speculate or solve, I wasn’t going to so much as be, for I couldn’t contemplate the I, I couldn’t satisfy the I, I couldn’t remember or fixate or sanctify the I, for there was no I, and I was all there was. So, with no spirit or self or other to guide me, I set about my day, in servitude to nothing and all, reading, tending my mother, marking and forgetting my breath, in the attendance of none, the thrall of unseen stars that may or may not exist.
With time all locked away in a mind-cabinet the afternoon simply arrived, and I veered to my responsibilities, got into disguise, got into the car, and went to pick up Chloe from school. I half-expected to be passed by multiple emergency vehicles racing to douse the burning embers of what was left of Griffin Hills High, but even if that was the case, I wouldn’t be alarmed. I would simply find Chloe if I could, and drive off into the sunset, or something like that. The point is, as I hope has well been stated by now, I had given up all care. It was how I was to survive the apocalypse. Events would fall where they may, and I would revert to my virgin state of nothingness.
My other contemplation on that drive again concerned nomenclature. It occurred to me that I should address Chloe as Anna, that this could help her in her role at school, that asking her to be two persons at this early stage of her new development was quite possibly too demanding, so why not make it easier for her. My addressing her by her new name would also function as a test, revealing to me how Chloe was responding at school to her new character. Yes, it was a good idea, I thought to myself, as I pulled the car to the same place I had dropped Chloe off that morning, which was our agreed meeting place for picking up directly after school. There were no sirens or SWAT teams or news vans milling about, so I had to assume Chloe hadn’t gone on some killing spree after all. I smiled to myself at my little joke. It was a rare thing for me to do so I savored it.
Problem was, Chloe was not there. A burning panic sensation flooded my bloodstream, and I remember thinking that this had somehow reduced my lifespan by some indeterminable yet undeniable time. Be calm, I told myself, regress with courage. I pulled the car to the curb and parked, checking the clock again on the dashboard. I was precisely on time. I would wait, and hopefully the burning would fade. I took deep breaths and kept my eyes peeled on where Chloe should be appearing, down the road a bit, near but not-too-near the school.
A minute passed and I was roused from my concentration suddenly as Chloe opened the car door and took her place in the passenger seat. She had not taken the same path she had taken when I dropped her off in the morning, instead she had walked to the car from the side, taking me by surprise, though I was sure that wasn’t her aim. She appeared calm.
“Geez!” I exclaimed. “You came out of nowhere!” Chloe simply stared into space, expressionless. I started the car and got out of there. The less time anyone saw us there the better, despite my disguise.
All was normal as I drove home, parked in the garage and led Chloe into the house. I saved our conversation until we got home and could both sit comfortably in the living room. Chloe for her part followed all my instructions to the letter and without any disobedience whatsoever. I had her sit on the large sofa, and I sat next to her, not too close, and not in a confrontational way either, for I considered us as equal partners in our new life together. The room was as dark as it could be in the mid-afternoon, which is to say a hazy autumnal yellow permeated the curtains and cast us both in a pleasant aura suggesting a timelessness which I thought appropriate. I spoke gently to her.
“I’m going to address you as Anna from now on,” I began. “My name is my gift to you. And since Anna is who you are outside this home, I think you should be Anna inside this home, too.” Chloe did not look directly at me, but past me at perhaps a three-quarter portrait. She looked lovely in the pale light. I could see us both in her face, and it pleased me to no slight degree. I thought it time to ask her a simple question, to gauge if she had progressed to speaking.
“How was school?” I asked. Chloe just stared straight ahead with no acknowledgment at all, but I was okay with this. “Good,” I said, “no talking is good. I can understand you without words anyway.” I remember feeling pleased that our interaction was at this rudimentary level. I didn’t want her to feel pressured or uncomfortable. “I bet you’re hungry,” I said, “stay here and I’ll make you something to eat.”
But just I rose to go to the kitchen, it happened. Chloe spoke her first word. A single, solitary word.
“James,” she said.
Of all the million first words in the English language, this is the word she chooses to speak. My burning blood returned to me.
But what did it mean for her to say this? I had to be calm, scientific even. I needed to know the context. I stood near her now, but took a tiny step back, to show her I was not a threat.
“James?” I said with all the phony naiveté I could muster. “What about James?” Chloe still did not look at me, but instead maintained the exact same posture as when I was sitting. It was as if she was speaking to the air.
“He’s not quarterback anymore.” This is what’s running through her sorely underdeveloped head? Football? But I had to keep the conversation light. I smiled and responded, as if we were just two innocent teens having a friendly after-school chat.
“No way! So who’s quarterback then?”
“Paolo. Paolo’s quarterback.” I must have really been in character, because I jumped all over this.
“Paolo? Paolo? That little runt? That’s completely fucked up! Is Coach nuts? James is way better than Paolo! I mean, the team has no chance in the big game with Paolo as quarterback!”
Where the hell did that come from? Chloe for the first time turned her head toward me a little, her eyes reaching up to meet mine. They seemed sad. I calmed myself down and smiled at her.
“It’s so wonderful to hear your voice,” I said. “Did you talk to anyone at school today?” But Chloe didn’t answer. “Never mind then,” I said, “and never mind about James as well. He doesn’t like us anymore anyway. And what do we care about football?”
I chuckled out loud to lighten the heaviness I sensed was creeping in. I don’t know if Chloe could ascertain that my last question was rhetorical, but she was quiet in response nonetheless. I got the impression that she had said all she was going to say. I theorized then that the James benching must have been big news at the school, and so it mightn’t be that unusual for Chloe to report it to me. Perhaps it was just something that had imprinted her sense receptors, and nothing more. And James was the most popular boy at school. I mean, I never expected her to have no memory whatsoever of anything at Griffin Hills High (for example, I had trusted her to find her way to classes). And she was eventually going to have to function fully as the new Anna, and she couldn’t remain silent forever. So I calmed myself with these thoughts, knowing it was important to remain calm in Chloe’s presence, lest any drama befall us, à la Doris.
I changed the subject. “I’ll cook us some dinner. We’ll have a quiet night in. I’ll read you some poetry.” Chloe sat quietly staring straight as before. I retreated to the kitchen and busied myself with preparing the meal.
There’s really nothing unusual to tell about the remainder of that evening. Chloe spoke no more words, and I asked her no more questions. We ate in a pleasant manner, with some light music in the background. I chose classical, some radio station on my mother’s little stereo. I don’t know much about music, but I know that having it was calming, which was good. Silence would have demanded conversation, so music was better. After dinner we went upstairs and I read Chloe some poetry as I had promised. It was Emily Dickinson, of course. And although it was strangely early, and the sky had only just darkened, I thought it best for us both to retire to bed, for it had been an eventful day, how could it not have been? Chloe did as I asked and dressed for sleep without protest, and I soon followed (after tending to our mother), satisfied that the day had gone well. I tucked Chloe in and kissed her goodnight, then went to bed myself. As I faded off to sleep, I remember feeling optimistic about the next day to come. Our new family had survived the first day unscathed. I felt confident that tomorrow would be even better.
How wrong I was.