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A New Sister

Jeb Burt

This technician was one of the saints. Her healthy Midwestern face a collision of farm hardness and pale urban soft sublime: her clear eyes cut his dirt when she looked at him. Those ample shoulders. Lank hair sprayed down her lab coat in unspliced electrical wire. Washed-thin cotton leggings. Worn, and earthen. (He smelled stove smoke, saw wood cabin in forest, her making them food at a deck barbeque through the holy languor that comes from fucking when there is nothing but time to fuck, early, before eating, on the rough floor, her hair gripped large hips coming to his in smooth gloom, the rhythm when the biting need poured into each other and the cumming became routine as breath and simply to sit, dulled, was absent and heavy—.) He saw heaped winter socks at her ankles. He saw them now below his hand that held the edge of the table. The socks must have stirred the idyllic associations: a Yuletide pattern, snowy, cut with lasers that passed for artisanal.

Harmon was a good director and no one in his department would deny it, a strong indicator that he was not only a good director but an ineffectual one. He sat at the back of the men and women in their cubicles and studding the wet benches like wasps or walking the halls with purposeful smiles over the squirm of their sexual heats and the tiny panics of the Professional, those trainees and technicians that worked in his laboratory. And those unknown-role people he couldn’t place, and no one installed under him or before him could place he was sure, with unknown faces that appeared like shooting gallery cutouts over the rims of spectrometer and urinal, in their critical function, something unknown and even unknowable; saints. If you held them by the arm, stopping them in the hall, and stared into their face they would fall into a hole where there had been a sweet elevator smile.

The smiles of plaster saints, especially the figurines in poor south American churches he’d seen once outside a resort, served a similar purpose. The bulbing smiles glued the weaker parts of a story. And if you looked too close, you would fall.

She was one of these saints. She worked in his laboratory. It was easier to stare down the gradient of her look than not to.

He wanted no more details. They had finally found somewhere.

She had just told him about sex with the boy. He did not judge her. Someone found out, but there was a settlement, he was sure, some hushed negotiated lawsuit—the family did not want it to have happened. But they wanted money more. They threatened her directly, she resigned; or they alluded to it to her administration obliquely to avoid involvement of law enforcement and get their money. The overwashed tights told him the technician came from money. The boy would become a savage man who had touched mystery; or he would melt, traumatized by the trace of her mouth on his skin, feeding her one night.

The boy knew her, she told Harmon, loud, drunk. He knew her the instant he met her. He found her in this room of refugees and strangers, and he knew exactly what to say to her. Their conversation had merely been interrupted at some point they could not remember before they were alive. Everything he said to her was in a language within the apparent words he spoke.

Harmon felt swallowed by her eyes, burning; pregnant, he was sure, she had lived in her hell and the boy’s confused hell. Consequence finds the innocent. She was the innocent.

The ambient music became a metal synthesizer. A clean incision: they felt light.

She was glad he understood.

“Yours,” she shouted.

“My sister,” he told her. He had to repeat it. Her eyes became cold when she understood. The warming sensuality in them tin-like and flat into an insect glare.

“Sister,” she mouthed in the metal tines. Puritan.

Down one side of a wall, behind him, safety: director, the veneer the world wanted. The director had joined a structure, and they left him alone. They thought he was above them. Down the other, the dark call, to dissolve truly and fully into it, to become a porous arch for a wild music to move through that washes the bones of dead queens, a music no one catches but the one who has no home, the music that holds every secret need.

But now her eyes were moral. Clean ice under pig lids, ready to freeze his accounts if his deviance was the wrong kind. She had loved the boy, she had said. The boy spoke a language she alone heard. It was shouted.

He told her and in a short time she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t a bad story, it just was not her story… and it demanded. She stirred her drink. She wasn’t thinking about her teen and she wasn’t listening to him, really; she stirred her drink slowly. A technician thinking in textures of touch and measurement and the strains of her day: blood dropped in coagulation vial; glove on the glass of pipet; hair thinner than she wanted lately; incipient hemorrhoids, she worried; teeth stains—no, now she remembered: she had them cleaned a week ago (she smiled, the thought uncurled a muscle); almost coming with the phlebotomist a while ago, decent cock, old skin, sloppy attachment, whose warm eyes watched her across the fluorescence over the counters the next days with a smothering cry, a smothering that was cut, like cool icy lard, by the knife of the thought of this director who had stunning eyes and gentle panache and perversion leaking from him, where was he now? This director? cut like diamond, she had accepted the drink with? The craving in that clean thought did not match the man across the table telling this story not well and in her impressions she vaguely was sure he was somewhere else, diamantine and big, waiting to thrust the teen boy from his altar. She craved the director! and wished she was with him—would she see him tomorrow in the light of the laboratory in his shining coat, and would he finally ask her, and their cinematic stares link? Like clapping magnets the worlds folded: he was here, across the table. The music grated. There was no him. There was this man. She came into hearing the story. He thought she was still not listening. It was foul, but didn’t matter to her, even so. Now he was spooling out the last disconsolately, like a man lowering himself into a cistern as he ran out of rope… She did like the feeling his growing desperation gave her, of needing her to push up his feet because otherwise he would fall. She watched him, eyes slim as if reserving judgment.

He drained his whiskey.

She said, “I hear you.”

Later he closed the blinds against the city’s glassiness. Some eye in him in painful glaucoma. He did not go to work the next day. Or after that. He let the dark apartment and the dim melody of the traffic draw him deeper into a quiet sea.

The consoling data and routine of his work receded. The raw wound the girl had scraped in his nerves began to scar: her knives had surprised him where her disgust cut up through the gentle, plaster saint. Now in the swallowing of the apartment and rising associations, loosening like softened teeth inside his head, he saw how he could’ve played her three-beat sound back to keep her, echoing the rhythmic story of Her. But that was done.

He stopped drinking water and waited.

The fever that came stopped on the third day. A flat hum. He looked out at the new night. Stars and blue fires on a pyramid up to the smile of the moon.

They came now from the corners of his apartment, which had expanded into its own kingdom, as if the sheetrock had unfolded like a game. He felt the shapes more than saw. They danced and swayed. And through their dancing figures—blinds slapped, doors in the high-rise corridor outside his apartment slammed in desert wind—he felt her at his back, coming forward. The dead sister.

The technician had not sent him a message of incrimination or calculating diplomacy, and then, receiving too many messages from the lab, he put his device in a glass of water.

They circled. The dead-eyed saints ballerinas in the pines in the wind, her branches and leaves; their eyes the armadas of her spine crossing the night.

He waited, not daring to look.

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Jeb Burt is the author of the short story collection Lost Americans (published by PS Publishing). Some of his art and translations can be found at oidil.com.