"I forgot how to cry," Cerie said, "so I don't. They say cry if
you can but I can't. They told me to write everything down, even
a poem or a song, but who the fuck knows how to do that? I can't
make up a song. I don't know how to write a poem. I walk around
downtown thinking about it but nothing comes. And it's spring,
now. Spring is supposed to be some kind of release but all it
does is wind me up. They tell me to let it out but you know how
it feels? Like a bone stuck in my throat. I can breathe but it
never goes away. I keep clearing my throat, but ... it's not
really my throat – ya'know?"
"I know," Paul said.
"What do you think? Am I fucking nuts?"
Cerie had a light rash extending from her chest up onto her neck.
The black t-shirt did nothing to hide it. At a distance it looked
like a blush. Come closer, it looked like sun burn. Closer still,
close enough to smell her breath, it looked like what it was.
Some of the guys called her a dwarf, but Paul thought "short" was
good enough. She was built like a little fullback. Thick strong
thighs. Small breasts, barely puckering her shirt. Short and
squat, her spout stuck out, he thought with a smile. But she
looked all right when the light was down. She kept the lights
down whenever she could, but not because of how she looked. How
she looked was the last thing on her mind.
"What the fuck are they going to do with us?"
Paul was in the chair beside her in the waiting room. Her breath
made him wince, an exhalation of something sour in her gut. It
was really bad. He angled his face away and breathed through his
mouth. She couldn't help it. She said they gave her some pills to
clear it up but it took time.
"It was easier over there, in a way," Paul said, turning to talk.
But he saw that Cerie had left the room. He watched her eyes,
She came back into focus in a minute. "You say something?"
"I said, it was easier over there, in a way."
"Uh. Yeah, in a way," she said. "There was nowhere else to go.
Nowhere to put it. When you got filled up, you went and got
drunk. Then you started again the next day. There was no way off
the roll call, was there? Did you know Lewpinski?"
"I know who he was. I heard about him."
"Then you know. Would you fuck with a guy like Lewpinski?"
"I don't know, probably not. Go along, get along."
"That's right. And he made sure you knew what he could do. He did
it, too. He did it to Kenny Love, this good old boy from
Mississippi? You know Kenny?"
"He had a problem with it, OK? So Lewpinski sent him out on
patrol. Over and over again, until he got killed."
"I didn't know him. I heard about one other, Mickey Felts. I
think he was a colonel. He didn't like it and said so, so they
did the equivalent to him, too. From what I understand, he never
came back." He thought about what he had heard. He thought about
clouds of dust moving over the landscape like some kind of
malicious spirit. He thought about the coppery taste he would get
in his throat. "Where were you?"
Cerie said nothing. "I'm not even supposed to say, now, am I?"
Paul shrugged. He looked around the waiting room. The
infrastructure etched into the ceiling, sprinklers and wiring and
framework, might have easily concealed a bug. For that matter, so
could the lamps, the telephone on the check-in counter, anything
at all. They could turn on the mic in your cell phone, for Christ
sake, and listen to every word.
"No," he thought it best to say. "I don't need to know."
Cerie in her cut-off jean shorts and black t-shirt stretched her
hands out in front of her, cracking her knuckles. She kept her
left hand out, up where he could see it. With her right thumb she
pressed the top of the lifeline.
"You know?" she said. "Know where I mean?"
"Yeah, I think so. That other place, not the one where everybody
"That's right. OK, so ...." Her broken thumbnail traced a line to
the center of her palm, then turned right across the lifeline and
stopped at the base of her fourth finger. "Ya'know?"
"Ah. Right," he said. "I heard about that."
"I bet you fucking did," she said. "But you didn't hear the half
Paul nodded. He extended his own hands and cracked his knuckles,
interlacing his fingers, some kind of futile cover move as she
continued to do the same. Maybe like yawning they would think it
was contagious, cracking our knuckles together like that.
Across the room, a guy who was also waiting had one leg. Paul
examined the contraption the guy used instead of a foot. It
looked pretty slick. Better than flesh in some ways.
Cerie's soft belch made him angle away.
"Sorry," she said. "I know it stinks."
A nurse appeared from around the counter.
Cerie got up and moved with more grace than Paul expected, her
center of gravity low to the ground. He watched her glide across
the room after the nurse and disappear into a hallway. The nurse
led her to an office. "Make yourself at home. The doctor will be
with you in a minute."
Cerie sat back in the chair, her body sinking into the brown
cushion. She closed her eyes. She wished she could sleep but felt
as if she had too much caffeine, her closed eyes wide open inside
a shell. The dream machinery started to work, making crazy images
move around the top of her mind. Maybe she did sleep a little,
because she jumped when the doctor touched her arm. She sat up
with a jerk.
The dentist said hello and told her to open wide. He wore a mask
so she didn't worry about her breath. He examined her teeth and
gums. Some of his poking made her wince.
"You have two cavities," he said at last, "that need drilling.
They're pretty deep. I better give you some Novocain."
"Forget it," she said. "I hate that shit. Just drill."
The assistant beside him, her prettier face making Cerie aware of
what mattered, was looking down at her, looking concerned.
"It's pretty deep," the dentist said. "Are you sure?"
"OK," he sighed, turning to look at his assistant with eyes that
shrugged. "Raise your hand if you want a shot. We can always stop
and do it, OK?"
Cerie nodded, closing her eyes again and breathing very deeply.
She concentrated on her breathing, how it came in, then how it
went out. She was lulled by the rhythm and settled down, focusing
on a longer out and a shorter in, then a longer in and a shorter
out, riding the measured tide. The next thing she knew, it was
real quiet; she opened her eyes and the dentist and Miss Pretty
were staring down, looking different.
"What?" she said.
"I've never seen anyone do that," he said. "Have you?"
"No," said the pretty woman.
"We're done," he said. "I just drilled both teeth. We went pretty
deep but you barely moved."
"Yeah, well," she said. "I don't know. You just move out here,"
she gestured with her left hand.
Cerie sat up, using both hands to show him. "You take yourself
from wherever you are like in the center," moving her right hand
toward the left, "and go out here. You go outside. Then you
watch. Like it's happening to someone else."
The doctor watched her hands drop to her lap. "I see."
"Yeah, so you going to fill them now?"
"Yes," he said. "Compared to the drilling, this'll be nothing."
"The drilling was nothing," she said. "I told you. You just go
out of the room."
"Ah," the doctor said. "I see."
But he didn't see a thing. Cerie wouldn't waste her breath,
telling him a third time. What did it matter, anyway? The guy
stayed at the VA. He stayed inside. He never had to leave so he
never learned how.
She saw Paul in the waiting room, both of them going out. She
told him she got a couple of fillings. He said all they did was
tell him to stop grinding his teeth. The pain was real, but
nothing was wrong with his teeth, it was all what he did when he
"Fat chance controlling what happens during sleep." He shook his
head. "At least we don't have to pay for this shit."
"Oh, yeah?" she said. "Buddy, we already paid for this shit." She
laughed, making Paul think maybe she wasn't as dumb as they said.
"You want to get some coffee before we split?"
Cerie shrugged so they walked toward downtown until they found a
coffee shop. They hadn't been back long enough to get used to
coffee that cost so much. Paul said he guessed you could sell
anything to anyone, is how it looked to him.
They sold the goddamn war, Cerie said. People want to believe it.
They believe their leaders know what they're doing. People need
beliefs, I guess. They'd rather die than give one up.
"I can't even begin to talk to one of these fucking assholes
about even the littlest shit," she said. "Nobody wants to hear
it. Nobody wants to know."
They had ordered lattes and Paul scooped foam with a wooden
stick, sucking it off the end, waiting while Cerie dumped in a
lot of sugar. The coffee shop had a fireplace with a gas fire
going although it wasn't really cold, not for that part of the
world. The pastries heaped in the glass looked like a royal
feast. Muffins and scones and cookies of all shapes and hues. The
lighting was subdued, earth tones off-color, and through the
plate glass window, he could see people coming and going and the
traffic and buses and buildings behind.
"Sure," she said.
Cerie sat with her back to the window and scratched her rash with
a spoon, using the smooth. She didn't seem aware that he was
watching, treating her body like condiments or a coffee cup, a
thing that was simply there. When she finished she used the spoon
to stir more sugar into her foam. Then she sipped it, making a
"Pretty shitty coffee."
"Yeah, well," Paul said. "That's what they do."
He watched someone stop and look in the window. He went on alert,
searching the guy's face for a motive or intention. What the fuck
was he looking at? The guy examined the people inside as if he
had something in mind. He started to leave but stopped and stood
at an odd angle, half on his way to somewhere else but not
moving. Not going anywhere.
Paul half-rose in the booth, feeling the wood on his back. He
looked to see what lay between the window and himself. Damn near
nothing, he realized, getting up and sliding out of the booth.
"What is it?" she had her coffee in her hand and was up and out,
turning to see the guy at the window. She set her coffee down and
stayed facing the window, daring him by her stance to make a
move. Her hands were loose at her sides, then her right hand felt
for a fork and picked it up. She was almost in a ready crouch,
watching the asshole take the measure of everybody in the shop.
Then the guy walked away from the window and down the street.
They waited for a minute, then picked up their coffee and went to
the back of the shop. Cerie got in so she faced the window across
the longer distance, telling Paul, "My turn to ride shotgun,"
making him laugh. She sat with her back to the wall and all of
the furniture, tables and booths, between them and the street.
They both knew now that the rear exit was just around the counter
then down three steps to the alley behind the shop.
The nice thing, Paul thought, was not having to explain what they
were doing. It didn't matter that they had little to say. It
mattered that nothing had to be said, at all.
Paul went back to his apartment and Cerie went downtown. In her
cut-off shorts and t-shirt and thick boots with her short hair
and rash, no one would notice her knuckles. No one would see the
scars. She was pretty much invisible, she concluded, having been
home for weeks now, no one thinking to ask anything, no one
thinking to speak to her, ever.
She walked an easy leisurely pace on the uncrowded sidewalks.
People stayed inside, here, something she hadn't noticed before
but now saw everywhere, having lived in a place where the streets
were crowded, the cafes crowded, the moon huge over the desert
and the midnight heat stifling. The moon looked like you could
climb a ladder and be there in a minute. The desert moonlight
illuminated people, traffic, animals, everything, all the time.
Here you could fire down the street at high noon and not hit a
But an hour, two, three, of walking the downtown streets was
enough. A welcome fatigue set in and she headed back to her
brother's place. It wasn't that she liked it there, but unless
she went home to the rented room in the big house they had split
into little apartments, there was nowhere else to go.
She made sure it was after dinner. She did not want to sit
through another one of those.
"Hi, Aunt Cerie," the twelve year old said. Lucy was her name.
"Hi, Lucy," said Cerie. "What are you doing?"
"Chatting," she said, "and homework, and listening to music."
"All at the same time, too," Corey's wife, Charlene, said, making
it sound funny. Charlene was out of shape and always shopping for
loose-fitting clothes. She wore sweatshirts and big-woman slacks
that had plenty of room for ballast. She seemed to need to
overflow, and not only her clothes, like she filled the walls of
their small house with wooden shelves, then filled the shelves
with dragons – plastic, glass and ceramic dragons –
an idiot way to spend more money than Corey could make. Lucy had
a computer, a TV, and her own cell phone, and while the computer
played music, she worked on a paper for school, plucking quotes
from here and there using Google, plugging them in,
while a box in the corner let her send text to her friends who
were always popping up, sending her music and pictures, saying
stupid shit, and Lucy asked if Cerie wanted to look at, search
for, play with anything, Cerie saying no, she would just watch.
She stood behind her niece for an hour, Charlene watching cable
in the other room. Corey wasn't home and Lucy's brother Fred was
out with friends. She liked how Lucy's hands danced on the keys,
clicking the mouse now and then, changing the background, the
music, her friends. They plugged in and played like the flash of
a kaleidoscope and Cerie didn't mind that she didn't always know
what was happening on the screen, it was something to do, stand
there and look, her hands on the chair in which her niece was
sitting and bouncing as if the computer was a pinball machine and
she needed some English to make it work, Cerie engrossed in the
constantly changing screens.
"Cerie!" Corey said, not exactly shouting but damn near.
She jumped and turned.
"What the fuck are you sneaking up on me like that? Are you
"Christ!" he said, "I been trying to say hello for ten minutes.
You were gone again."
Lucy's hands hung for a moment over the keys. The music played
but her friends had to wait. "BRB", she told them, typing –
Be Right Back.
"Daddy, be nice," she said, sounding like her mother who had said
the same thing a million times since Cerie returned. "Aunt Cerie
was just out of the room for a while."
"Everybody makes excuses," said her brother. "All you women stick
up for each other all the damn time."
Lucy went back to full immersion. Corey was standing too close,
making Cerie back off. She backed all the way to the kitchen
Her dumb-ass brother, a beer in his hand in that stand-there
slouch that he thought was so cool, had that goddamn look in his
eye again. She didn't even have to ask. He didn't have to say a
"You don't know," she said, her voice real low, so low in her
throat that he put down the beer and backed into the hallway
without even knowing. "You don't have any fucking idea."
He watched the way she said it, the way she held herself, and he
didn't have to know what was going on to know that she only
seemed to be inside his house, in the kitchen, his wife in the
livingroom watching one of her soaps on HBO, Freddie out
there somewhere and Lucy doing her homework, the only sound that
made any sense – the voices on the TV, the melodramatic
formulaic story at least coherent, characters so familiar they
seemed like friends.
by Richard Thieme
... who is a professional author of books, stories, and articles,
which are indexed at Thieme
Works online. His Richard Thieme's Islands in the
Clickstream (July 2004) is a collection of past works, while
"Entering Sacred Digital Space", New Paradigms for Bible
Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (June 2004) and
"Identity / Destiny", Prophecy Anthology (vol 1, 2004)
were anthologized. His "The Changing Context of Intelligence and
Ethics: Enabling Technologies as Transformational Engines"
appeared in Defense Intelligence Journal
(January 2007). His stories have been published in Analog
Science Fiction, The Puckerbrush
Review, Timber Creek Review,
Porcupine, Pacific Coast
Journal, The Potomac Review,
Red Wheelbarrow, Heartlands,
The Circle Magazine, The Listening
Ear, Words on Walls, Nth
Degree, Down in the Dirt,
Golf, Rogue, and elsewhere. His
articles have been published in Forbes,
Salon, Information Security,
Secure Business Quarterly, Village
Voice, Wired, Counter
Punch, Common Dreams, Internet
Underground, National Catholic
Reporter, Asia Times Online,
The Witness, and elsewhere. This short story has
been excerpted from The Room, a forthcoming book.