This story contains references to parental neglect and child endangerment resulting in minor injuries.
“Daddy, are we friends?”
Ella Jane’s question breaks the customary dinner table silence. But Dr. Williams doesn’t hear his fourth-grader as he watches his two-year-old boy bob up and down on the stacked phone books, reaching futilely for the large ceramic centerpiece. Just as she is about to ask again, Dr. Williams turns his head ever so slowly toward her. He looks into eyes so like the ones he grieves that he can catalogue every difference. He delivers the only appropriate answer, as if reading from the fatherhood script, hoping that words alone will give Ella Jane the emotional sustenance she needs.
“Of course we’re friends, Sweetie.”
Another lapse into silence, broken only by soft chewing.
“Do you wanna hear about my day at school, then?”
But Dr. Williams has already retreated to his inner space, where he has spent increasingly more time since his wife’s death in the office fire a year ago. She died alone, unreachable on the fifteenth floor, and he still imagines her choking and burning and screaming helplessly for endless moments.
Excitement for his psychology research has been replaced by apathy. Verbal reports. Facial expressions. Reflex responses. EEG helmets. It’s all bullshit. His tools don’t touch his object of study. Voices and faces and brains can’t tell him how another human being perceives the world, can’t show him the merest glimpse of such a subjective thing as consciousness itself. The only way two people can truly know each other is if they fall deeply in love, spend twenty years together, and begin to empathize so strongly that they experience each other’s pain, that they read each other’s minds, that they need not exchange words.
Dr. Williams believes in the supernatural power of love. But he is deeply skeptical that he can ever find it again.
Yet he needs to, for the sake of his children. He would do well to treat Ella Jane half as dotingly as the couple next door treats their kids.
“Honey, what do you think about our new neighbors?” he asks his daughter.
“The Ushers? I think I like them. The twins are nice, at least. Rod and Maddie, right? And their mom was really nice when they brought over the wine.”
“Mm-hm. Nice is the word I was thinking, too.”
Dr. Williams has a theory about the Ushers. It’s the kind of theory that by its nature can never be proven, and yet he feels uniquely qualified to intuit the truth. It would never change his behavior toward the Ushers, could never outwardly change anything at all. Yet there’s something important about knowing whether there’s a soul behind your neighbors’ eyes. About knowing whether a cohesive story of experience and desire plays out on the Cartesian Theater in Mr. Usher’s head. About knowing whether a genuine spark of life burns beneath Mrs. Usher’s smile and politesse. About knowing whether Ella Jane will play with persons or with convincing zombies.
“I’ll do dishes.”
As Dr. Williams rinses plates, he looks through the water-streaked kitchen window at the Usher house. It is partially obscured by the shifting tendrils of mist, fading in and out of focus like some mystical cabin in someone else’s dream. He wonders which room is the twins’, and if they are lucky enough to share an extrasensory bond.
Now some windows are bright, now others. A slow dance of yellow squares on and off like signal fires, like Morse code, like the winks of subtle flirtation. What does it mean? An invitation? A pleasant family dinner? An SOS?
“Help!” He has learned not to let the distraught voices of damsels in distress—the ghosts his grief throws at him—derail his thoughts.
He glares across layered clumps of fog like so much prefrontal gray matter and realizes he can never know. The house looks just like every other house in the neighborhood—just like this house. Unless it cleaves open to confess its inner spaces, he can never know how deep is its basement; how alike, or unalike, are the lives within.
“Daddy!” He imagines the cries of little Maddie. In his mind’s eye an image coalesces unbidden; the girl screams for her father from the inside of a coffin.
The house stands in profile, exposing the innocent, familiar brick of its western face, coils of vapor hanging lazily about the shingles like amorphous bangs, twirled gently in fingers of breeze, so coy, so openly showing him absolutely nothing of the inner life behind those eye-like windows, those opaque windows, those one-way, outward-facing windows—the windows are mirrors reflecting back the same house the same life the same face the same thoughts but what is a mirror except an image familiar and comforting to the viewer because it is made by the viewer but nothing behind it no depth no dimension nothing behind the perfect illusion so if the mirror shatters-
A shout too visceral to be spectral. Scalding steam is rising from the sink in waves. His son’s reverberating wail assaults the air. He flinches back from the heat.
“Dad! Look! Please help!”
He turns slowly and through fogged glasses sees his boy bleeding on the kitchen floor, the ceramic table vase in pieces around his bare feet. His daughter is now lifting his son, struggling with the squirming cinder block weight. His son is screaming, which means pain. Like the pain in his own hands, the scalding. “DO SOMETHING!”
Pain requires treatment. He walks to the medicine cabinet, still slowly because that seems to be the speed of the world now. His world. He thinks he might be dead. He thinks he might be alive. There is a note of truth to each thought. He opens the cabinet in dazed ambiguity, stares at labels through fog. “WIPE YOUR GLASSES!”
He wipes his glasses and can read clearly. Grabs peroxide, Neosporin, Band-Aids. Turns to see his daughter running toward him in her impatience, stumbling after several awkward steps, his two children falling together in front of him, now crying together. And this all seems like a dream. His dream. He is a dreamer awakened to the fact that he is dreaming, only to realize he must go on dreaming or perish. He bends down to go through the motions in the midst of his unbelief. Cleaning, dabbing, soothing. Then, hesitating for one more instant as he meets his daughter’s confused, accusing eyes, wonders if those shimmering wet surfaces are windows. But all he can see in them is himself.