Alissa Nutting

Ben had been living in the South Florida timeshare for almost three weeks, quite by accident. Though moments like the present, when he was sitting in the plush throne of the corduroy reclining chair adjacent to the television with a large glass of iced tea-flavored beverage sitting in his hand (it was made from an aspartame-sweetened powder; nearly everything in the pantry was sugar-free, causing Ben to believe that one or both of the owners were likely diabetic), it was difficult not to feel like an invisible trail of crumbs had indeed led him straight to the place. It was perhaps the first encounter, after thirty-plus years of life, that he’d ever had with a benevolent God. With each passing day, he felt the narrative of breaking and entering recede further and further into a tale of divine magic, like a too-hot bath he was inching into, until finally this story and no other surrounded his body, held him buoyant and newly born inside of it: I’m supposed to be here, he reasoned. I know this because something showed me the way.

But having to flee Nashville was the result of bad choices. His impetus for travel certainly couldn’t be attributed to divine will. And just to prove that he wasn’t delusional, Ben was even willing to admit that his behavior in Tennessee had been wrong. Deeply unchristian. Evil was likely going too far, but the past was the past, and if the penance being asked of him now was to admit to evil deeds, he supposed it was a burden he could shoulder.

Ben pulled the reclining chair’s lever with a small amount of dramatic flair and watched his sunburnt ankles elevate. The timeshare’s male owner was several inches shorter than Ben and had a penchant for tropical prints with salmon or turquoise color palates. In places the fit of his trousers was awkward on Ben—some bunching at the crotch, and the way their tapered ankles fell far above the intended destination and constricted the meat of Ben’s calves—but overall they did just fine. For his morning and evening strolls on the beach, Ben had taken to wearing the closet’s loudest shirts, garments densely forested with pineapples and toucans. He’d arrived in an odd sort of land where sticking out was required in order to blend in.

And it wasn’t as though he’d arrived with a suitcase. Nashville’s departure did not allow it. There’d been a run to the bus stop and a buying of a ticket that went as far south as the few bills in his pocket would take him. A hiding out in a stall of the bus depot’s bathroom until he heard his destination called over the loudspeaker and a hooded, eyes-down shuffle into the vehicle. Days without food. A drop-off in rural Georgia where he’d moved for awhile on foot until his tank of patience ran dry, sleeping at night in groves of farmed peach trees amidst the thrum of insects and a fermented humidity. There’d been the shirt on his back growing dirtier, and the looks of strangers following suit. His hands growing sticky with stolen fruit flesh, then stickier still. There’d been the Woodbury bus station robbery that he wasn’t proud of, but he could say for sure no real harm had been done—Canadian tourists, kids really, their oversized ruck sacks brimming as they made their way on a summer jaunt around the country. They’d regarded his knife with a supernatural fear, like a myth that had come to life—it made him wonder if they used knives of any kind in Canada. Perhaps it was a land where all meat was tender. Perhaps they used no silverware but spoons.

Their money had gotten him to coastal Florida, where he’d stepped off the bus in a middle of a rainstorm. A monsoon, really—he could barely see in front of him. But he’d walked for hours like that, enjoying a feeling that seemed nearly clean. Eventually, passing block after block of snowbird housing, it had caught his eye from the back porch: a vintage mobile of a cartoon mouse. He’d had the same one as a child, a relic of the only vacation, and only memory, retained of his father. The act of recognition was so surreal as to make him feel diarrheal; a hot pain had surged through his abdomen, and he’d felt both shock and wonder. What if it wasn’t simply identical to the mobile he’d had—what if somehow it was actually the exact one? He had to touch it; that was all he’d wanted at first. One touch could certainly tell him whether or not it belonged to him.

But when he stepped over the gate, his recollection of the mobile spread throughout the condo itself, like a spoonful of ink dropped into a pitcher of water. He knew he’d never actually seen the bamboo mini blinds on the condo’s sliding glass door, but they held a familiarity nonetheless. The mouse on the mobile was giving him a wide, permissive smile. I chose this place for you, it seemed to say. The mobile was his flag, an outright claim to the condo’s land. The gleaming steel grill tools dangling from the side of the BBQ looked like oversized keys, and functioned in that manner—a few prys of the tongs, picks of the skewer, and he was inside, the slightly brothy and medicinal smell of elderly bodies greeting him like a sort of homecoming.

They even had cable.

At first he thought it best to relegate his comings and goings to the evening hours—there was a small amount of petty cash in the nightstand drawers that he used to buy alcohol, and a safe in the closet that he worked on so dutifully for several hours each afternoon that it now seemed like a job; it was inevitable that he would stumble upon the combination sooner or later. But the response he got when he would come across any one of the neighboring owners in the hallways—a large smile, a wave, a chastising joke about him getting too much sun on his cheeks—was so pleasant that he found himself adopting the daytime schedule of the residents in order to gain more of those warm exchanges. Boiled a ham-pink from his time on the beach, his mustache shaved and hair trimmed, dressed in the too-small but festive attire of Oscar Chastain (whose name Ben learned when he began picking up the mail, finding it amusing to fit his large fingers overtop the impossibly small key and open the box that reminded him of bank vaults in the movies), it wasn’t as though he might be recognized. But as an extra precautionary measure, Ben liked to wear Oscar’s oversized wrap-around sunglasses, which were polarized and made the world look as though it was being hit with light from a wholly new planet. In some ways, the saturation of their yellow seemed to make things feel like the past—like as he walked along the beach, he was merely viewing video captured from a different time—in a way that inspired safety: nothing bad could happen, because everything that was going to happen had already done so.

But back in the condo, he always had to take off the glasses and admit, with the uncomfortable realization of waking to a hangover, that the party never lasts. Still, it seemed to be far from over. In twenty-three days, he’d had only one inquiry—one!—from a cataract-ridden hunchback in a muumuu who’d approached him as he unlocked the door and asked if he was Oscar and Marjorie’s son.

“Nephew,” he’d replied with an overly toothy grin, then immediately felt a pang of worry from his creativity. Perhaps both Oscar and Marjorie were only children? Perhaps this low-flying bat of a woman knew intimate trivia about the couple that would render his story false? But she merely nodded, a full body nod—the uppermost two feet of her spine seemed like the only thing above her waist that still retained autonomous movement—and shuffled along. That was a week ago. Nothing had come of it.

But eventually, he knew, much would come—namely Marjorie and Oscar. He’d actually spoken to Marjorie once on accident. He’d begun to answer the phone—usually telemarketers asking for Oscar, which allowed him the chance to slip into an acting role and glean satisfaction from his believed performance. He even received a productive feeling from the calls, like he was accomplishing corporate business—“well send me some information on your product,” he’d instruct, “I’ll take a look,” which led to follow-up calls, “I received the informational booklet, yes. But I have some additional questions I’d like to ask you.” These were profitable hours of the day, time for socialization with no risk of proximity. Then one afternoon he answered the phone and there seemed to be a few seconds of palpable vacuum, as though air was being sucked through the receiver to the other side of the call.

“Hello?” sounded a pinched voice. “Who’s this?” The timbre of her question was notable for its alarm.

Ben thought on his feet. “Haverly floral shop,” he responded. It was a stupid answer; Haverly was his mother’s maiden name.

“Oh,” the voice responded, somewhat incredulous. “Well I guess I dialed the wrong number.” She hung up without delivering any sort of earnest apology or expression of embarrassment. The moment he hung up the phone it rang again, but this time Ben didn’t touch it—it went to the answering machine, which filled the kitchen with a grainy static that despite the computerized recording did not feel modern at all; in fact it seemed to match the past of the polarized sun in a way that angered Ben—it felt like legitimacy that the phone, the sunglasses and their strange light, the entire beach all belonged to the Chastains and not to him. He heard the touch tone beeping of remote voicemail access and knew he could never answer a phone call again. This was a considerable loss.

Relaxing at sunset in a pair of Oscar’s tan boxer shorts—comically, pornographically short and tight on Ben’s frame—he sipped a glass of Oscar’s scotch and took two Tylenol with codeine, prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis, from the generous bottle in the medicine cabinet. His former realization about how theirs everything was now seemed like a bruise that, beneath the warm helmet of the alcohol and the painkiller, he was beginning to find he liked the pain of pressing upon. It wasn’t a wound at all but a source of pleasure: nothing at the place was actually his, but that wasn’t a problem—in fact, he reasoned, that was likely what made the digs so comfortable. The place revealed nothing about him.

But how long could it last?

With the bedroom window open so he could hear the distant waves, he smelled the strange metal odor of Marjorie’s purple shampoo on the pillow and knew that in time that smell would fade. One night the bed linens would cease to feel foreign. The ratio of cupboard contents that he’d bought vs. the ones that had been left would shift in power and bestow upon him an unwelcome sense of ownership: eventually he’d wake to find that the place had become his to ruin. And that would be the time to move on, the natural point when he’d have to go somewhere else, whether or not he’d made any sort of decision as to where that somewhere else might be.

It could be staved, though. For months still, possibly a year or longer. Likely longer than Oscar and Marjorie would stay away for. This truth was the only real lump that occasionally came into his throat, often during the most celebratory occasions—after grilling a perfect burger on the porch while the sunset oozed color like a cracked egg, or after a satisfying comedy program on television that made Ben feel connected to life’s humor—there would be the day that they’d return, except he wouldn’t yet be ready to leave. What comforted Ben when this thought seized up in his chest was the respectful way he’d refrain from getting rid of any of their possessions, except for their bodies, after he’d killed them. It wasn’t as though he was trying to take over their home. When he took his final exit every knick-knack and photo would be exactly as he’d found it, especially the framed portrait resting on the nightstand: Oscar and Marjorie aboard some happy cruise ship.

In fact he looked at this picture of them every evening in the twilight as he fell asleep—it had become an act of foreshadowed mourning, a time when Ben reflected with sadness that they had to die at all, under any circumstances, but also when he eased into the duty, tried it on for fit and feel, that he would be the one to make them.  Occasionally he fought these truths with quiet tears. Yet redemption seemed to be there with him in the bed, lying upon Oscar’s side like a partner: redemption in the fact that he grieved for Oscar and Marjorie now, and would continue to grieve for them after they were gone, with the same ferocity of a beloved son or nephew. And redemption, yes, in the sound of the sea just yards away, with its monotonous roar, that the world and its ancient, shapeless forces were so much larger than any tragedy he could create.