Kak couldn’t remember ever being so bottomless. Eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes, orange juice and coffee disappeared, making little impact on her hunger. The food, unfortunately, was as bland as every other meal since Langone. But her body required fuel so she ate to fill the awful void in her belly.
She attacked the omelet on her plate, considering it as she chewed. The omelet didn’t remember the eggs. It only knew it was an omelet. In her path forward from here she had to forget the eggs. To make room for the voices trapped inside her she’d have to discard the voices coming from the outside. Philip’s voice. Evelyn’s. Stammer’s. Even Rudy’s, that had whispered to her in such sweet urgency while they made love.
Like food, the sex had been tasteless. It was no reflection on Rudy. Had she been herself, before stopping her heart, she imagined she’d have torn the sheets off the bed. Regardless, she’d seen it as necessary. She’d theorized that in addition to setting him up for rejection and depression, sleeping with him would make her so upset with herself she’d be driven to anger in that manner. A reciprocal reaction to an action. Isaac Newton couldn’t be wrong.
She watched Rudy while they ate. Whatever last night had been for him, it hadn’t been casual. She wasn’t some woman he nailed on holiday, a story for his friends before being forgotten. It would make what was coming hard on him. She was counting on it. That was necessary for both of them to move on, for her to have any chance of living. She reminded herself of it between bites, intentionally watching him, waiting for their eyes to meet before smiling and lowering hers. Maintaining closeness increased the likelihood of his mood cratering. Cruel? Yes. Especially after the story about his mother. But there was nothing to be done. With stakes this high she had to be mercenary. It was all part of the omelet.
“I’m going back to Sanibel today,” she announced.
“For the end of the world,” he said. “That’s here already?”
“I thought it was Saturday.”
He’d paid attention, knew her time frame. He just didn’t know that by 4 o’clock Saturday she’d either be in full denial and free of this mess or on the beach pumped so full of doxepin nothing would ever matter again.
“I’ll buy myself a ticket,” he said.
“They don’t sell tickets to the end of the world.”
“In that case I’ll just get one for the ferry. It doesn’t leave until later this afternoon. We have lots of time.”
And there it was. We. He already thought of them as a couple. Believed he was going with her. It hadn’t been hard at all. She told herself to let that sit awhile. To let him get comfortable with it, steep in the warmth of their budding relationship. With any luck it would quicken the coming depression. Deepen it.
After brunch they walked down Wall Street’s cobblestones and he held her hand. A further positive sign. The sun brought the heat. She commended herself for the wisdom of buying the Tidepool sundress as she pulled him through the arched entrance to the Key West Shell Warehouse.
She wandered the shop with a specific target in mind. Past the corals. Around the sea biscuits. Through the horse conchs. Sand dollars. Tritons. Starfish. Giant clams. Sponges. If it lived or crawled on the ocean floor and could be dried out, it was here. And Evelyn would need a larger shell.
Nothing in the bins of smaller snail shells proved suitable as a new home. She ran her hand over apple murexes. Beautiful but abrasive. Then she saw it. A polished African Turbo. Smooth as a jewel. The mottled surface blended splashes of caramel, mahogany, butter cream and mother of pearl into each other as the whorls spiraled down tighter and tighter, giving the finish of the shell a satisfying depth. What hermit crab would not count itself lucky to rush into this showplace? She hesitated at the sixteen-dollar price tag but paid it and went in search of Rudy.
She found him deep in thought, holding a large queen conch to his ear.
“They’re born innocent,” she said.
It startled him from his thoughts. He put the shell back in the bin. “Old habits,” he said. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“The Queen conch. It’s free-swimming at birth. Flying through the water. Soaring. Then life begins to happen to it. To cut it. Scar it. So it has to grow a shell to protect itself. But the shell grows thick and heavy, weighing it down. So it spends its life crawling on the sea bottom, held down, looking up, wishing it could still fly. After a while it forgets it ever could. It has no choice but to stay there. And when it dies, everything it really was goes away.”
She picked up the shell he’d put back. “All that remains is its tragic defense,” she said. “And people like us collect it and call it beautiful. Isn’t that sad?”
“The world is full of sad things,” he said, slipping his arms around her waist and pulling her close. “Maybe the trick is to find what makes you happy and hold onto it.”
She let the shell drop from her hand into the bin. It was time.
“Rudy,” she said. “You won’t need a ticket for the ferry.”
He pulled back, grinning. “It’s a long swim. So if it’s all the same to you—”
“It isn’t. All the same to me.”
This stopped him. She let it sink in.
“You don’t want me to go?” he asked.
“I have a world to get back to. So do you.”
“On the boat you said it was the end of the world.”
“All the more reason.”
“What was last night?”
“What about it?”
“That was just sex?”
The confusion on his brow was good. “I thought we had a little more than that.”
“It’s like you said that first day when your taxi pulled up at the Bean. I have sympathy but it isn’t my problem. And the clock is running.” She didn’t want to say it but it had to be done. She watched her words harden him.
“And the whole thing,” he said. “You come toward me, I come toward you? Bargaining? One step closer to the beginning? Baubles at your feet?”
He’d been listening. Next she’d talk about Liliana. It was an obvious sore spot.
“Right,” she said. “The baubles.” She extricated herself from his arms. “Turns out they’re just shells and other bits of trash.”
It stung him. “I was trying to grab them, I guess,” he said.
“Well. It didn’t work. But thanks for helping me try.”
“What do you want me to say? You’re welcome?”
His phone rang before she could answer. He made no move for it.
“That’s you,” she said.
“No. My phone isn’t on.” But he was already extracting it from his pocket. It was on alright. She could see the screen, an incoming call from Carter.
“How the hell does this keep happening,” he muttered, putting it to his ear. “Hey. I’m in the middle of—”
But whatever Carter said stopped him. A fine furrow creased Rudy’s brow, deepening as he listened.
“When did this happen?” he asked. The response from the other end of the call did nothing to improve his countenance. “Where is she?” He listened. “Where are you?”
He disconnected the call.
“Is everything okay?” Kak asked.
“Lili lost the baby.”
Kak felt Nono’s grip on her, pulling her close, making her assure him she’d check on Liliana. She’d forgotten it. The promise had been lost somewhere between the eggs and the omelet.
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