He felt that there was something he’d forgotten at the office on the way home, but could not remember what it was. There was a brown paper bag on the table when he came in, and music was playing. She was in the kitchen. She talked about a coworker that was talking behind her back and the news got around to her, and she was perplexed as to what to do about it.
“I don’t know,” he said, and ate an olive.
He went to the bathroom, and as he came in he looked at himself in the mirror and he looked tired and alien, like someone he didn’t know. As he sat on the toilet, the curtain brushed over his knees and the breeze came in. The window was next to the toilet, which sometimes made him feel exposed. The air filled the bathroom, and he felt again like he’d lost something and it hurt him to think that he would never remember what it was he’d left behind. The pain would leave if he could only remember.
He sat for a long time, and then got up and left the bathroom without having used it.
He was restless, and came through the kitchen and ate another olive. He went into the bedroom and lay down.
She was in the kitchen cooking, although she was tired from work. She didn’t always cook; it was special when she did. Cooking, she thought, is tedious. The steps were too long, and the ingredients, which were supposed to be tangible substances, were abstract. Even between her fingers, the paprika and cilantro and salt and onions were just cold properties pulled from a bag, fulfilling a script. But the heat should add something, she thought, and turned on the stove. And the fire and the heat did, to her expectation yet to her genuine surprise, seem real.
The sun died down behind the buildings and there was a warm afterglow outside. She was cooking chili and cornbread and as the cornbread baked and the dark aroma of baking crept through the apartment, she sat and read the Sunday newspaper from a few days ago. There was a long article about a family that had lost their home and was living in a shelter. Illness and unemployment and a bad mortgage had converged, more or less at once, to upend their lives and the family of five had been dispossessed. There was a picture of the house, a long flat suburban ranch house. It was different from this apartment, which was one narrow unit in a chopped-up Victorian. The house the family had left was miles away, but now they were living in a shelter that she knew of, just a few blocks from here among huge, squat buildings that had been built for industry and then left behind, for other uses, after industry had moved on.
Before dinner they smoked a few puffs from a joint he had rolled. He had mentioned he was feeling depressed, that the repetitive grind of work was getting him down, and she empathized. After some time in bed he’d gotten up and wandered slowly through the small apartment, putting things in order, and then rolled the joint. After they smoked, he got on the Internet and she stayed in the kitchen. For a moment she regretted smoking, feeling anxious about the meal, about her job and his, and about their lives and about the future. Then she got absorbed by the food and finished cooking. She moved the food to serving plates and placed them on the table, which was by the window, and filled the sink with the pots and pans he would later clean.
“Could you get it ready?” she called into the next room.
They sat down to eat. He had set out the worn flatware and the soft bandannas they used as napkins. He had turned off the overhead and turned on the lamp. He asked her, “Would you like some wine?”
She nodded and he poured.
It was while he was pouring that they heard the helicopter. It grew from a distant machine drone to a gathering substance, and then they knew what it was.
“The cornbread is good,” he said.
“It’s great,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. “I make it because you like it.”
The helicopter sound became louder.
“It’s dark out there now,” she said.
He nodded. They continued eating for a while. The vibration, which inhabited the walls and the table and enveloped the apartment, died down but not very much, and then it rose again and became overpowering.
“I guess they’re looking for someone,” he said, raising his voice to be heard.
They continued eating, eyes fixed on their plates but their attention broken.
He stood and craned his neck towards the window.
“Do you see anything?” she said.
“No,” he said.
She leaned over in her chair until her nose brushed against the screen, but she couldn’t see anything either. He walked to the lamp and turned it off, then into the other room and turned the lamp off in there. Now it was dark in the apartment and dark outside and the sound, though no less loud, seemed more bearable. They looked at the dark street between the street lamps, and under the sound a white light shone. Out there, a milk-white shock of curbside trees, parked cars, the broad flanks of buildings. The pool of light was held suspended under the helicopter’s invisible bulk, a heavy darkness hovering in a cloud of noise.
The light swept down the sidewalk and washed over cars. Anything it touched became flat and naked; it was so bright that it left an impression on their eyes after they looked away. The helicopter went a few buildings down, moving laterally over streets, shining the light in an ethereal beam into lots that they could not see now, only the glow as the spotlight scoured them.
“Did you lock the front door?” she said.
“I’m sure it’s locked.”
“Do you mind checking it?” she said.
“It’s locked. I’m sure of it.”
She was still holding her fork. She put it on her plate.
“I cooked. Do you mind getting up and checking?”
He left the table and then came back.
“It’s locked. I told you it was.”
He lit a candle on the table and then they had some light to eat by. They sat in the small light of the candle and resumed eating.
“Who are they looking for?” she said.
He waited before saying anything. He drank some wine.
“Imagine being so desperate you would run from the police,” she said. “He must be violent.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘he’?”
“It’s always a he,” she said. “Doing violent things.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re right.”
She considered his agreement too hasty, too casual. She studied her plate and ate some more salad. It was no laughing matter, really, not at all.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t know what causes them to use the helicopter.”
“True. We don’t. But I’m sure they don’t use the helicopter unless they have a reason to. Unless there’s someone they really want to find.”
The helicopter then got sharply louder, and descended to someplace close where the rush of wind from its blades came flooding in the window. The spotlight then flashed in and illuminated them in an instant of daylight that rendered every eyelash and shirt wrinkle crisp. They looked away from the light which blinded them and at each other, rendered hyperreal, noontime overexposures, then back into the light and the roaring wind.
As the light shone in his face, he knew they were coming for him. He was the guilty one, and now it was all over. They had caught him. It didn’t matter that he had committed no crime, that his hands were free of blood. The helicopter saw into his heart, and he would soon be dispossessed from this place; this apartment, this home he had found when he met her, when she had allowed him in. He passed through paranoia to resignation, allowing that it would be alright, that he could take the punishment, whatever it was, that the helicopter was bringing. There was always an end to innocence, and his guilt had finally been found, and he gave up—he would not try to hide. Then the light moved on and with it the helicopter.
They sat listening until it quieted down.
“I’m not sure what’s more terrifying,” she said. “The thought of being chased by that helicopter, or the thought of the person they’re chasing and what he did to warrant that kind of attention.”
“I know what I find more terrifying,” he said.
“Being chased by the helicopter. Running around as that machine in the sky is closing in on you. Knowing you can’t outrun it.”
“I guess so,” she said. “But what did that person do? God, he probably raped or killed someone.”
“Yes,” he said. “I guess so.”
He did not mention the feeling he had when the spotlight shined on him, the irrational thoughts.
“The candle blew out,” she said.
He found the lighter and lit the candle again.
They went to bed not long after dinner since they had eaten late and were tired, and had to work the next day. The helicopter was still roaming, and she remarked that it must have a large gas tank in order to stay in the air that long. He responded by saying that helicopters take long trips, and are used in the military in places like Afghanistan every day, and he figured they must have helicopters figured out pretty well by now since they used them so much. She said fine but it still seemed weird, and they must not have caught the guy yet since they were still out looking for him. He said she should not worry about it, that they were safe in here and who knows what really happened.
They went to bed and she held onto him and fell asleep quickly as the helicopter droned on outside the apartment still roving over the streets of their city.
He woke up very early in the morning. The moon was coming in through the window bright and he looked at her and thought that this was the thing that he was trying to think of earlier, after he got home and went into the bathroom and found himself looking alien in the mirror. It was this feeling, the feeling of belonging in himself. It was strange, how the feeling of belonging in himself came and went. How sometimes he did not seem to belong in his life. He was a stranger, an intruder who had come climbing in the window fleeing a helicopter.
He realized that this feeling, the one he had now, was what he had been trying to remember earlier, to claim. Being awake at night in the presence of the one you love and in the quiet and the solitude of night, seeing that person asleep, and knowing you were at home, while outside it was cool and moon-washed and desolate and the horrors that multiplied daily were safely outside. Inside it was home, and he would be home, and he would always be home with her and she with him.
Justin Allen studied creative writing at San Francisco State University, and has worked as an editor, designer, and technologist for leading arts, activist, and news organizations. His short fiction has been published in Crannóg, Catamaran, Spectrum, Fiddleblack, and Transfer. His journalistic work has appeared in Full Stop Quarterly, EdSource, Sacramento News & Review, San Francisco Public Press, and other publications. He lives in Oakland, California.
Cagibi Issue 5