“Tell Me a Story” by J.J. Roth
Celia upends a funnel of green olives into the already full black plastic bin. She holds the funnel there just long enough so that, when she lifts it, the olives remain molded in a bumpy pyramid, their pit-holes pointing every which way like vacant eye sockets. She does the same with the maraschino cherries, stems like magnified hairs curving into space, and the pearl onions, glossy and too aqueous to hold the shape on the first few tries.
On the fourth try, she succeeds. She grins at Thomas, does a five-second victory dance and stands back to wipe her hands with a rag. Then she puts a pink and yellow paper umbrella in a small, boat-shaped finger bowl. She slides the bowl along the bar’s slick zinc surface, past the garnish pyramids, until it clinks into Thomas’ Martini glass.
She bends her arms at wrist and elbow and juts them back and forth in a walk-like-an-Egyptian movement.
“It’s the Nile,” she says to Thomas. “Remember the Patsy Cline song?”
Thomas, whose name is actually something other than Thomas, something that Celia, or any human, wouldn’t be able to pronounce, remembers the song. There isn’t anything he doesn’t remember. Memories are his stock-in-trade.
He remembers every trip to Egypt; most recently, walking like a shadow among the chanting throng, the pressing bodies smelling of saffron and sweat the night before Mubarak’s ouster.
He remembers the early 1950s, and an English advisor’s wife with chestnut hair and brandy-colored nipples, wrapped from the waist down in a twisted, almond-hued sheet on an otherwise naked bed in his Cairo apartment. She sang “You Belong to Me” to him, on that steamy July evening through a Dunhill and Remy Martin haze, after they made love and she told him her stories.
A few days later, he watched from across the street as she and her husband were herded into a black Rolls Royce. Her eyes met his before her chestnut head ducked into the Rolls — blank, without even a hint of recognition. He watched the swooping fender turn the corner and left for Seoul with the Englishwoman’s stories.
He will tell Celia none of this. She’s never been to Egypt. He knows by her scent she’s never been in a city more than a few hundred years old. She lacks any hint of the pungent earthiness, like the inside of a sarcophagus, which clings at a cellular level to those who have walked the ground where ancient civilizations stood.
Thomas is sitting on a high-backed zinc bar stool, drawing circles in his Martini with his long index finger, absorbing the flavor through his skin. His skin will remember this flavor, as it remembers the soft touch of a woman’s lips and the burn of dry ice, the tastes of gunpowder and napalm.
He smiles at Celia. Each corner of his mouth pulls the same distance and height as the other down to the angstrom. This isn’t something he does consciously or through effort. The face his superiors gave him just works this way, and the symmetry makes him attractive to humans — attractive and unmemorable, like an underwear model for Macy’s. His face has everything to recommend it and nothing to distinguish it.
“Justin Bieber’s covering Patsy Cline these days?” he says, because Celia’s just at that age, the upside of thirty-five, where so many women start becoming sensitive about numbers. A compliment doesn’t hurt in these situations.
“You’re silly, but sweet,” she says.
Celia pilots her pretend boat past the olives once more and smiles at Thomas before asking the man several barstools away what she can get him. She turns her ear to the man, the better to hear his answer. Six small silver rings lace the delicate ear’s edge, ending in a pewter cuff. A sparse fringe of dark brown hair, cut short like a boy’s, dusts over the ear.
She rattles the cocktail shaker to either side of her head like a maraca and pours the man’s drink, then she’s back in front of Thomas, biting her thin lower lip as she threads a toothpick through an olive’s hole and lifts it gently from the pyramid’s apex without sending the rest tumbling. She drops the olive into the drink.
A few minutes later, she pushes a check on a silver tray toward Thomas. His fingertips touch hers as he reaches for the tray.
She yanks her hand away. She starts to speak, shakes her head, steps back and says nothing. Her hazel eyes sweep across the floor; a tell as sure as a poker player’s twitching cheek muscle. It’s only a matter of time. She nods toward men in pinstriped suits standing at the entrance, their gazes settled on Thomas.
“I closed out your tab. You’ve got company.”
He ignores the men. “Tell me a story,” he says.
“Not on your life.” She wags her finger at him and chuckles deep in her throat. “I’m working.”
He tosses a hundred onto the bar as he does each time she makes his drinks, twice a week for the last six months. He slides from the bar stool holding his Martini and slings his suit jacket over his arm.
“I’m off tomorrow.”
“Then the next day.”
Thomas greets the Russian ambassador and his aide and gestures them to a table. Celia’s watching him, wiping the inside rim of a glass with a rag, a bit of barkeep stage business so stock it’s comical even to Thomas. He’s across from the bar, in a black leather-upholstered booth, laughing, and looking past the ambassador’s security detail to Celia. She turns away, a wry twist on her mouth that says nothing surprises her.
That twist was what made him want her, when he came into the restaurant with her friend, a CIA analyst, six months ago.
From what he’s learned from her friend and work colleagues, Celia lives alone. Everyone close to her has died: her parents in a car accident; her brother, Ray, fighting in Iraq; her husband and son innocent casualties of a convenience store robbery that turned bloody.
Thomas watches Celia’s clavicle above her boat-neck black blouse, carving hollows that ripple as she moves, her ear cuff catching the light and winking a nonsensical semaphore.
Celia’s a tough one. They talk enough, but just when she seems about to give him something of her past, she holds back. It’s as if she knows what’s at stake, though if anyone told her, she wouldn’t believe a word.
His superiors want him to find out why.
It’s not that Celia’s stories are any more important than those of others. She’s not a domino whose personal fall will begin unraveling the fabric of this world. She’s just a bartender in an upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant, however easy on the eye. What she says or doesn’t say to him won’t change anything but her.
It’s her resistance that’s the problem. If she can sense his purpose and withhold, others likely can as well. He hasn’t seen this much natural resistance since 16th-century England, and that woman was a queen.
Celia and Zoe, the Langley analyst and the only friend Celia has kept in touch with since her husband died, meet twice a week to spar at a boxing gym downtown. Then they shower, dress, and head back to Celia’s apartment for a smoothie, heavy on the protein powder, feeling smug and healthy.
They sit on Celia’s couch, on a baggy pink and green floral-patterned slipcover that screams ‘90s shabby chic. Celia pulls her straw up from the smoothie, frowning. A banana hunk the blender blades missed sticks to the end of the straw. She mouths the banana off the straw and mashes it against the roof of her mouth with her tongue.
Zoe sets her glass on the coffee table and reaches over to squeeze Celia’s bicep. “Nice,” she says. “You’ve really defined those arms. No wonder you’re punching so hard.”
Celia flexes her bicep and feels it with her other hand. “I hadn’t noticed,” she says, though this isn’t true. It’s easier to deflect the discussion than to engage, because this isn’t really what they want to talk about.
“Look,” Zoe says, cutting through the tension that’s hung between them for five months. “Seriously, if you want to see Thomas, you should. We’re over. It was too short for me to even be sad about it.”
“You don’t mean see him. You mean sleep with him.”
Zoe sighs, pins the straw against the glass’ side with a brown-skinned finger, brings the rim to her lips and tilts her head back to get at the last sip.
“Dave was my friend, and he was a great guy. But it’s time, girlfriend. He’d want you to move on. And he’d want you to go back to being a lawyer, too, not mixing drinks for rich schmucks who think they’re better than you. But that’s another discussion.”
“I don’t know.”
Celia’s gaze drifts to the framed photo of Dave and five-year-old Spencer on a sailboat. Dave’s hand on the tiller, steering down the Potomac. Spencer, a mass of golden curls over a puffy orange life vest.
Until their deaths three years ago, Dave and Spencer were the only people alive who had been with Celia day in and day out for longer than a weekend. Her memories of Dave, with whom she’d spent her entire adult life, grounded her in her own personal history, in her identity. “I mean, I don’t know if I want to move on to Thomas,” Celia says.
If he was anyone else, she’d have told Thomas that her grandmother used to sing that Patsy Cline song while she peeled potatoes for stew, as they sat on the porch of her grandparents’ dilapidated farmhouse on 300 acres outside of Joliet. The story would have flowed into the conversation from the first mention of the song.
She’d have segued from that into how she and Ray used to visit that farm every summer. All the things they did that all kids should have a chance to do. How one of their favorite things was holding a prickly, hairy, yellow rope slung over the barn’s unpainted rafters, launching themselves from the loft and swinging out over a pile of fresh hay, fragrant with coumarin, to let go.
Once, when she was twelve and Ray was ten, on the first swing of the season, Ray had dropped onto the pile and disturbed a sleeping massasauga rattlesnake which sank its fangs into his bare calf. Celia had grabbed a hoe and lopped the snake’s head off, then ran for help. That was how she became Ray’s hero. That was the first time she knew she could handle whatever life might throw at her.
But around Thomas, she hesitates to tell her stories. Something about him makes her not want to open up.
“You know that thing he says, ‘tell me a story’?” Celia says.
Zoe points to Celia’s half-consumed smoothie and says, “Are you going to drink that?” When Celia shrugs, Zoe commandeers the smoothie and takes a long swig. She melts into the couch, her lids at half-mast, and says, “Yeah, that ‘tell me a story’ thing. He’s an amazing listener.”
“You told him stories?” Celia has shifted to the couch’s edge, her leg jiggling like a hyperactive tween’s.
“I don’t know. I guess so. Isn’t that how you get to know someone?”
“And you’re okay? Everything went okay?”
Zoe raises her left brow and slides her slit eyes toward Celia. “Why wouldn’t it? You’re freaking me out just a little, here.”
“I’m freaking me out, too.” Celia breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth, making a long shshshshshsh sound like a massasauga rattlesnake, a cleansing breath. Her leg stops jiggling. “I get this disturbing vibe from him, like I could get sucked into him so far I could lose myself.”
Celia’s quiet for a few minutes. Zoe’s sleepy head drops to her shoulder. “The scary part is, a big part of me wants that –to get sucked into him so far I get lost,” Celia says, more to herself than to her dozing friend. “That part doesn’t care that something about him feels off, maybe even dangerous.” She elbows Zoe, who startles awake.
“It’s lust, honey,” Zoe says. She smacks her lips as though she’s been sleeping for hours. “And believe me, I get it. The guy’s all charm, but too intense for me. Just have fun.”
When Celia thinks of Thomas, fun is not the descriptor she uses, though it’s true, they’ve had some laughs. “We did have a good time that night after my shift, when you two were dating. When we all sat at the back table, and Thomas asked for a story. You told that hilarious one about your last boss.”
“The one who had to resign after a bender, when he told his assistant to put documents intended for Israel into the pouch for China by accident?”
Zoe’s face turns to a question mark, the look Celia has seen on black-out drunks who sit at her bar the day after she’s cut them off, when she gives back the credit card or cell phone they left behind before crawling into the cab she called and going home to drink more. The look she’d seen on her son Spencer’s face the morning after a night terror, when she asked if he remembered screaming in his sleep.
“Did I go home with him that night?” Zoe asks.
“I think so. You left with him, anyway.”
“My God,” Zoe says. “I have no memory of that. I just remember going to work the next morning feeling relaxed. And happy? Like after really good sex. Did I drink too much? I thought I had one Mojito and a lot of water.”
Celia, who bought that one Mojito for Zoe with her tip money, is sure Zoe did not drink too much. Celia prompts, as she does with the drunks, as she did with her child, but even as she does, her leg starts jiggling again. “You don’t remember anything about that night after we were all together?”
Zoe pinches her nose at the root, her fingertips pushing into the corners of her eyes. “I can’t remember anything else. Could he have slipped something into my drink? Rohypnol? GHB?”
“I was there the whole time,” Celia says. “I guess I could have missed it. Shit. If we’d known about this then, we could have had you drug tested.”
Zoe says what Celia’s thinking. “There won’t be anything to find after all this time.” Tears leap from Zoe’s eyes, now wide open. “I know I wanted the guy. But God, I wish I could remember what we talked about. I must have told him stories about myself. He always asked for stories.”
Celia hears Thomas’ voice in her mind, always the same question, always the same tone: “Tell me a story.” Her stomach tightens. The thought pushing into her mind is utterly insane but would explain so much — Zoe’s memory loss, Celia’s instinctive resistance to opening up to Thomas. Even things Celia hasn’t allowed herself to consider, like why she feels drawn to Thomas with such force when she’s pretty sure she shouldn’t want to be. Her leg is jiggling so violently the movement makes her voice quaver.
“Zoe, are there other things you can’t remember? Things you might have told Thomas that night?”
Zoe is still for what seems like much too long. Then she springs from the couch and paces the room, shaking, pushing the heels of her hands into the sides of her head. “Jesus, Celia. It’s like there are big gaping holes in my life I don’t remember being there before. Whole conversations, whole experiences, I know I had, I know I could remember six months ago, gone.” She’s pleading now, crying for help. “Who do we go to? Who do we tell without sounding like fucking idiots? Lunatics?”
They’re rhetorical questions from a Langley analyst, who knows far better than most what will be believed and what will be dismissed as crackpot raving. What will launch a serious investigation and what will land a person on long-term disability. They’re rhetorical questions, but even so, they have an answer as Celia the bartender, once lawyer, knows.
No one. Because the theft of memories can’t be proved.
She’s been standoffish lately. Brusque, even, as though he’s done something wrong but she won’t say what. A week ago, his Martini sloshed over the glass’ rim when she set it down, and she tossed a handful of napkins onto the bar and left him to mop up. It’s as though they’re already lovers, going through one of those early-stage spats over an unintentional slight. The sort of thing that’s unavoidable until a couple settles into an emotional rhythm. It’s as though she knows, or thinks she does, but can’t accept the truth her reason and her heart deny.
Thomas has experienced this before from time to time, and not only with the English Queen. His memory of the young Chinese cliff-carver, wrapped in sheepskin and lying next to him under the Damaidi stars, is particularly sweet, though almost 8,000 years old. “I know,” he’d said, taking Thomas in his arms. “I know, and I want to tell you anyway.”
Thomas has been sitting in his usual spot, twice a week as always, watching Celia. He hasn’t pursued. Every so often he’s floated some words, like trial balloons, across the bar. Something to remind her she’s interested, no more.
She’s stopped wearing her wedding and engagement rings. Once, he traced the pale band of bare skin on her fourth finger when she delivered his check. It was the first time she’d ever let him touch her. She’d stared at his finger on hers until he moved away.
Three weeks into this dance they’ve been doing, he takes his place at the bar. She reaches for a Martini glass as soon as she sees him. Her features have softened. Her scent has changed. She’s ovulating.
While she mixes his drink, Thomas floods his body with androstenol until he gives off a faint odor of sandalwood. His internal chemistry blends its own cocktail — oxytocin, beta-endorphin and endocannabinoid –- and sends the heady, potent mixture through his pores. He reaches into his pocket and coats his palms with an undetectable substance humans have yet to discover: a substance that amplifies the effect of organic compounds on organisms and transmits the amplified compounds into another’s bloodstream through skin contact.
She brings his drink. She stands in front of him longer than she has in weeks. She avoids his eyes and places the drink in front of him, her hand resting loosely around the stem, covering the base. “Thomas, I’m afraid –” she begins. Before she can say more, it is done.
Viper-fast, his hand closes around hers. She takes in a sharp breath. With her other hand, she reaches across the bar and touches his cheek. He kisses her palm and covers that hand, too, with one of his.
“I have to go back to work.” Her voice, timbre raised with estrogen, is thick and hesitant. She doesn’t move. He releases the immobilizing grips on her hands and holds them, gently.
“I’ll wait.” Her pulse, strong and fast, beats against his skin through her fingertips.
She nods and walks to the end of the bar to take a woman’s order, turning her head over her shoulder twice to look back at him, as though she can’t quite believe he’ll be there the next time she turns around.
He will be.
His apartment is a whirl of black and white, grays and silvers, with bolts of flashing color — a tangerine throw pillow on a Mies van der Rohe-style couch, a mustard triangle streaking across a gray-toned, geometric-patterned area rug, a chartreuse splash through a silver lampshade — shooting to her retinas as she and Thomas spin through the expansive suite of rooms to his bed.
She is vaguely aware of orchestral music. Wagner? No, Mahler, but her hearing has taken a back seat to the rest of her senses. The thought that Dave is no longer the last man she’s made love to flits through her mind, leaving a golden trace like fairy dust, but she doesn’t feel the urge to mourn as she’d thought she would.
She feels the urge to let go.
Afterward is the time she’ll be most open, most vulnerable. Pleasure, bonding, empathy, all rushing through her, chemicals breaking down barriers, making her want to give to him.
Chances are he won’t even have to ask. He strokes the bare arm she’s flung across his chest. He doesn’t feel this way with all of them, but once in a great while, he does fall in love. For a moment he wonders what it would be like to wake up to her every day.
But of course, that’s impossible. If she falls in love, too, he’ll make sure she doesn’t even remember him, like he did with the English advisor to Egypt’s wife and with the Chinese cliff-carver. It’s easier for them that way.
Celia lifts her head from his shoulder and smiles. “Let me tell you a story,” she says.
When she decided to tell him, she planned to start with something she wouldn’t miss. Test the boundaries with something that happened so many times in her life that if one instance disappeared, she’d barely notice. Perhaps one of her hundreds of runs through Potomac Park, the air fragrant with the green, floral scent of cherry blossoms. Or finishing a sparring session with Zoe, the insides of Celia’s gloves damp with sweat, the vague taste of plastic from the mouth guard still on her tongue.
But now, lying next to Thomas, enveloped in pure chemical bliss, the thing she wants to tell him is so intimate, so perfect, she could not live without the memory.
“I haven’t felt this way since the day Spencer was born.” A wave of relaxation courses through her, perfect happiness in its wake. Her lids droop, and finally close. “When I pushed him out after all those hours of labor –” Spencer warm on her chest, waxy with vernix and streaked with her blood, the pearly, blue-white umbilical cord trailing from his belly, gazing at her with an expression as old and wise as a god’s. Dave on the hospital bed, too, curled around them both.
Even as she thinks these things, her mental images begin to fade. It’s as though the color is washing out of them.
She becomes aware of unnatural heat in a spot on her forehead the size of a half-dollar. Her lids feel like half-ton weights, but she forces them up and looks toward the ceiling. A fog of light and color coils from her forehead, twines into a rope, and streams into an identical spot on Thomas’ forehead. Spencer’s minutes-old face flashes by each time the fog-rope rotates, each time closer to Thomas’ head, Celia’s memory diminishing with each passing turn.
Celia screams and grasps the coil. She’s astonished to find it solid. She clamps both fists around it and pulls with all her strength. The rope lengthens, coiling at her feet as she pulls it from Thomas’ forehead. As soon as she relaxes her grip, the rope begins to rotate toward him again. She pulls again, but the rope continues to move.
“Shit, Thomas! Stop -– give him back!”
Thomas says nothing. He’s unresponsive, as though he’s in a trance. So this is how it goes, a part of Celia thinks amid her panic. This is what he did to Zoe and who knows how many others. This explains the feeling Celia got from him, why she resisted telling him her stories.
Seeking leverage, Celia tries to toss the rope over an antique wrought iron chandelier hanging from the twenty-foot ceiling. She misses by several feet.
She groans and whips the rope higher, chokes and cries as it hooks over the fixture’s curved arms and slips off again. Absurd thoughts parade through her brain, of cowgirls with lassos, of schoolgirls with jump ropes turning double-dutch, of burly lumberjacks in red and black plaid shirts teaming for tug-of-war.
On the fourth try, the rope catches. She winches it toward herself, using all her weight. She realizes: no one ever opens their eyes. They never know what’s happening. That they could fight back. Or they know, and are too happy under his spell to care.
The rope drills into Thomas’ skull, lifting Celia from the bed. She clings to the rope, remembering Ray falling into the hay, the snake raising its head to strike. She drops to the bed and straddles Thomas, shaking him by the shoulders. He doesn’t respond.
“Give me back my baby, you son of a bitch!”
She can think of nothing more to do but draw her fist.
The right hook takes him on the chin and his head whips to the side. Celia punches left, right, left, tears blinding her, until Thomas’ eyes roll back in his head and the rope stops rotating. She hears his voice, though his lips don’t move and he appears unconscious. “Take him,” it says. “Take him. I give him back to you.”
She heaves on the rope. There is no resistance as the coil’s end springs from his head. She falls backwards, off the bed to the floor, under the force of her own effort.
She grabs her bag and her clothes and races out of the building, forgetting her shoes. She tugs her dress over her head behind a hedge and runs through Washington barefoot, feeling nothing as she dashes over the broken glass, bits of metal and broken hunks of concrete that litter the streets.
At home, she huddles in front of the bathroom mirror afraid of what she’ll see. But it’s only a pink circle on her forehead that feels warm to the touch, like sunburned skin. She sits on the couch in the dark, trembling, and forces herself to think about Spencer’s birth.
She remembers. Every last detail.
Since he’d arrived on this world, a handful had resisted. But none had fought back, not even the so-called Virgin Queen. None until Celia, who had lost everything that meant anything to her except her stories. She would have died without them, and his instructions are not to kill, at least not yet.
This is what he communicates to his superiors. He leaves out the rest.
The instructions that come back are to placate her. Keep her content. Her mortal life will end soon enough. It’s barely a blip on their scale of time. For millennia, Thomas and others of his kind have probed the weaknesses of Earth’s human population, collected information, found and fragmented the identities of linchpins whose destabilization will leave humans vulnerable to control without destroying them, and destroying with them their hospitable world. Thomas’ kind will be ready when the time comes.
Thomas still comes to the bar a few times a month. He hasn’t stopped loving Celia. Since she won’t let him have her stories, he can’t make her forget him. Or forget that, despite what he is, he let go — and why.
She dabs a mountain of whipped cream onto the top of an African Queen she’s made for a customer at the far end of the bar. “It’s Kilimanjaro,” she says. “Remember the Hemingway story?”
He smiles and takes her hand. He recalls a blue-eyed U-boat captain on shore leave, reading the story to him from a four-poster mahogany bed in a remote Bavarian cabin. When Thomas left for Buenos Aires the next day, the Hemingway story was the only one he left behind.
“How was Tanzania?” she asks, with her twisted smile.
“The same,” he says, tracing the simple gold wedding band on her finger. She’d chosen it over the women’s version of the platinum studded with diamonds he’d picked for his own — golden, human warmth over icy, alien metal.
“I’m taking that new job,” she says. “In the Office of the General Counsel of the CIA. I start next week. We’ll both be traveling for work now.”
“Congratulations,” he says. “Well deserved.”
“I should get back to work,” she says. “No point in getting fired before my last day.”
“I’ll wait,” he says.
He lets go of her hand, the taste of her still on his skin.
|J.J. Roth lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and two teenaged kids. She spends most of her time these days lawyering for an awesome tech/content company and trying not to get too sucked into teenage drama. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Nature, PodCastle, Urban Fantasy Magazine, and a number of semi-pro and small press venues. For more information, please visit her website at www.jjroth.net, find her on Facebook where she is JJ Roth, or follow her on Twitter where she is @wrothroth.