It’s been two years. There is a clean incision that cuts you off from that time, as if the person you were prior to the visit finally reached his expiration date; spoiled a little. Sometimes you forget things; on other occasions, all of it surges back—violent and uncontrollable, as real as the sticky summer when everything came to an end. You’re afraid that certain unguarded moments will rupture the veneer of normalcy you’ve so painstakingly cultivated over the last several months. A hemorrhage in the space-time continuum will swallow you up; spit you back into the abyss. Then what? But these are only passing thoughts.

You see Mr. P. around the office from time to time. He barely looks at you, and the others go about their business with all the ease that ignorance affords. You like it that way. For reasons not spoken, staff have been instructed to be on their best behavior when he is around. He is scarecrow-like, with haunted eyes, a whispery baritone, and a shaggy mop of dark hair that shivers across his forehead, and makes him seem like one of the derelicts who shoot up in the back street behind your apartment. People are too polite to stare, but despite the pretend deference, they talk among themselves until you almost feel sorry for him. Then you’re reminded, and think better of it.

Despite all your complaints to friends about corporate anonymity, you secretly like your job. You appreciate the tangibility of your allotted space—a ten-foot cube delineated by particleboard and eggshell walls. You like to keep your desk clean, uncluttered by the picture frames, piles of books, and glossy calendars that all serve to define the rest of your colleagues. You enjoy peering into other people’s cubicles, however; there is something both comforting and intimate about knowing your boss had blonde hair on her wedding day eighteen years ago, or in reading an inspirational quote about your role as co-creator of the universe on some taciturn IT guy’s bulletin board. Even the platitudes give you insight into these people, who, for all intents and purposes, are strangers to you.

Silent and dark as the days are, in work, there is solace. Work is stout and gray, bald and crumbling, the roof sucked miserably up into the hunkering remainder of 8 a.m. fog that afflicts this particular area of town. You’ve been told the other side of the building has a lovely view of the ocean, but you’ve never had the opportunity to confirm.

The interior is just as nondescript, harboring the sickly, slightly antiseptic glow of fluorescent lights, which endow your skin with a yellow-green pallor when you coyly study your reflection on the mirrored walls. The place is filled to the brim with the industrial affectations of buildings that were once dot-coms; distressed brick walls, concrete floors fashionably equipped with self-conscious fault-lines, revealed beams, and the unfortunate lack of privacy that all loft configurations guarantee. But the place is a ghost of its former glories.

You’ve heard that before the bust, a massage therapist came every Thursday to alleviate aching joints and lecture employees about proper ergonomics. Apparently, there was also an add-on kitchen for end-of-week happy hours and take-out from the French bistro down the street. Today, people only nod their faux sympathy when anyone complains about carpal tunnel, and the kitchen is little more than a modest refrigerator and toaster oven overflowing with breadcrumbs.

This morning, something happens on the bus. You are reading a book but you look up for a moment, rub your temples, catch sight of a surly dark-haired woman slumped against a graffiti-splattered window. Her eye is fixed on something in the front of the bus, but one glitter-covered fingernail lies wedged in the pages of a fat novel, like it’s the only way she could remember where she left off. Almost against your will, you tilt your head to make out the title of her book. She notices and responds with an expression that’s half annoyance, half dolor. Your cheeks turn red and you automatically drop your eyes to your lap. You’ve broken the silent code of public transportation apathy.

Oh my gawd!—The freckle-faced girl next to you squeals, her eyes piggishly wide as they dart back and forth between you and the woman at the window.—You guys look just like each other!—A man who reeks of whisky and sweat shoots back a barbed response, words slurred in disdain:—Thing is, they all look alike—.
Shocked that you didn’t notice, you are compelled to consider your double once again, just to see if it’s true, but she has already sprung from her seat. Apparently, this is her stop.

There is a strangeness in the incident that you can’t put your finger on. Déjà vu, perhaps? Or more accurately, a certain symbolic significance that snags on the corners of a vague recollection. You’ve encountered doppelgangers in the past, those exact mirror images that threaten to subsume your personality entirely. You wonder what this one might have been like, if you would have allowed that indifferent trespass.

You turn on your computer but the image of that woman on the bus, misty and indistinct, still troubles you. That’s when you get the call from Rochelle.

Can you come over? I have a task for you!— she exclaims with the feigned enthusiasm of a schoolteacher. You offer a wan response, attempting to match her timbre. Ever the good sport. Or at least you try.

You’re going to take a looong drive up north.—She widens her mascara-outlined blue eyes when she sees you approach. Before you can respond or speak to the ramifications of being without a vehicle, she plops a sheaf of papers atop her desk and says,—These need to be delivered to Mr. P. We usually get a courier for this kinda thing, but what with all the budget cuts … — Her voice trails off. She rolls her eyes and purses her lips into a “you know how it goes” smile. Somewhere behind all the casualness, you sense something forced.

You feel a vein somewhere on the side of your neck pop out, but you say nothing. Rochelle mistakes your silence for irritation. Sweetness gives way to a furrowing of eyebrows. Rochelle, Rochelle. You say her name in your head, contemptuously. Names like hers, the made-up ones that almost approximate real and respectable ones, have always bugged you. But she fits it well. Pretty and ersatz, bubbly and just a little ridiculous.
You calmly explain that you have a million deadlines that need taking care of, though you’re fully aware she must know it’s been a slow week for you. You’re a terrible liar. You’re wondering if she can hear the shakiness in your voice. At the same time, you are deeply annoyed. You want to dispense with all the courtesy, shout at her, ask her why she can’t deliver the damn papers herself. But your throat feels dry and impaired, and your palms are clammy. You almost call her Michelle.

Apparently, she isn’t convinced anyway. She changes gears a bit, fluffs her blonde hair, lowers her voice to a conciliatory coo. Her primary persuasive tool is seduction, whether you’re interested or not. You almost envy that in her.
Listen, if you do this for me, I promise I’ll cover your ass the next time Joan bawls you out for being late on something … and you can even have my car for the rest of the day. Go out to dinner, put it on Joan’s tab. You can thank me later!— She gives you a conspiratorial wink. Yes, master. And it’s settled. Your reticence and your backstories have no place here, anyhow. The air lightens a little bit. You’ve more or less reached a détente. You think you hear her breathing a sigh of relief as you leave. The receptionist looks up from Us magazine, affixes you with a cursory stare that you can only imagine to be sympathy.

The bitch. You feel like a rudderless ship. It’ll take you at least two hours to get there and you’re not the best driver either—you’ve lived in the city too long to achieve the certainty and aplomb of the commuters in neighboring lanes, who careen with ease through a narrow network of lanes, as indecipherable to you as another language.

All driving is decision-making, which is why you’ve never been good at it. You know the way the story tends.

The bridge, the circuitous, slinky drive down sun-drenched Highway 1 … they’re like lines on a lover’s palm, forked with possibility, always leading to certain ruin. But as you proceed through traffic, you catch your body completely belying your state of mind. Your hands on the wheel are smooth and poised—they remind you of a mannequin’s, perfect as plastic.

Despite the fact that you haven’t ventured beyond your urban confines for months, you’ve memorized every aspect of the drive. It’s quite uncanny, since you’ve only been on this road three or four times before, once with a man who insisted on weekend getaways. Memory. It’s one of your strong suits, you suppose—your sense of direction is dictated by a mind that throbs with recollection. A music box only slightly out of tune.
Your chagrin makes you lose your composure for just an instant. A sudden reflex nearly jolts you into the neighboring lane. You hear the SUV next to you honk. As you resume position, the woman in the SUV whizzes by, narrows her eyes, and lingers long enough to mouth “cunt” before vrooming away.

Your knuckles tighten around the steering wheel and stay that way until you get to the bridge. The person at the tollbooth is an older Sikh man with kind brown eyes. You hand him a wad of cash. He smiles at you, and you can see numerous tartar stains on his teeth, which hang around his lips like a snowman’s corn-cob pipe, desiccated with age.

He speaks to you in broken English as he hands you the change.—Beautiful, very beautiful. Where you from?—He is about to say something else but then catches sight of the blue spot on your upper arm. Thinks better of it.

Your head feels like scrambled eggs as you, too, glance down. When did you take off your sweater? You can’t remember. You try to look intentional, nonchalantly sling your right arm across your chest as if to ward off the cold. Cover the bruise. Drive away.

There is something banal about urban fears. You remember all the horror flicks you would watch with giggling girlfriends at slumber parties. They always involved anemic-looking heroines charged with almost supernatural staying power, struggling through snaky tangles of leaves and neighborhoods shrouded in perpetual nighttime and silence. Such frighteningly pastoral regions—dominated by masked psychopaths and deformed zombies—made the awful promise of rapists in alleys or shoot-outs at downtown bars nearly pedestrian.

But you already know that bad things tend to happen in the presence of many people. Just last week you encountered a woman who was mugged on the corner of 1st and Market. —In broad daylight!—she exclaimed, almost proud as she displayed splotches of red on the places her assailant had touched. Her friends, jaded and cool, only remarked that she was lucky he hadn’t made off with her new Fendi.

Thirty minutes ago, you passed the last stretch of highway. Now you’re wending your way up a nearly perpendicular two-lane road, pencil-thin, trailed by a semi. You should be delighting in the view of the ocean, a 360-degree vista of winking cerulean. But you and the truck driver are the only ones on this road, and all you can do is imagine his eyes boring into the back of your head, blood-shot with drink and murky impulses.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, you lose him when he stalls on an embankment off the side off the road. The paths become curvier, darker. You guide the car through a grove of redwoods, their thick straight trunks and clouds of foliage blacking out the sky. Your window is rolled down, because the air is thick and humid. There goes the caw of a crow, the gurgle of a nearby lake. Quiet. You remember the scary movies—the killer in a hockey mask who drowned in a lake when he was just a baby. Quickly, you roll up your windows.

You are startled to see a hitchhiker huddled by a clump of manzanitas. Cloaked in an awning of dirty hair and flannel, he shuffles his feet in the gravel when he sees the car, pokes his thumb out, gives you a listless grin. You wonder for a moment why he’s out here, in the middle of nowhere, before reaching for he button that locks your doors.

By 4 pm, you’re at your destination. The sky is, by now, a severe, iron-clad blue—peregrine and particular to this region. The trees, towering and maternal, are almost a cliché, bunched together like broccoli against the earth. When you open the car door, you are met with the stiff, clear, resonance of nature sounds: keening egrets and pelicans, the rustle of deer in the undergrowth, the crackle of grass, which wafts its piquant odor to your nostrils.

You pluck a low-leaning stave of twigs from your hair, breathe deeply, and feel your feet as they move, crunching across beds of dry leaves. You are amazed at how little everything has changed. There is something unrepentant, pagan, when it comes to the tenacity of places like these. It all looks the same, though you can’t see the water. There is a boat on a dock in the water. Somewhere, there is a boat.

You near the house—a modest cabin of wood and brick, small and compact, deceivingly ordinary. A transom on the side of the house reflects the dimming sun. You are hypnotized by its beauty. Your head feels like it’s swimming with light.

When you get to the door, you don’t even have to knock. The first thing you see is his hands, the pale pediment of skin stretched tautly over bone. His fingernails are caked with dirt.

Rochelle told me I’d be expecting you.—His voice is a monotone, registering nothing. In your memory, he is unremarkable, generic. But you have taken in those eyes completely. Bottomless pupils that nearly swallow the steely blue of his irises, the hue of ice melting in the sun.

Calmly, you respond. But your voice is unrecognizable—a hollow concatenation of branches and raspy wind. You are handing him the papers. You are exchanging words.

The grass is brilliant, green. Gnarled branches catch, brambly in your damp hair. A canopy of wetness, sycamores and oaks, curves around a bowl of pale aqua sky. It’s September on the river, and the water’s low. That mud smell all around seems appropriate, wet and organic, like shit and things that have been growing unchecked for a million years. It’s a strange moment to think of food, but you’ve never been hungrier in your life. There are sounds that exist far beyond the trees. Houses. You think you can hear a car starting up, or the tentative bark of a yard dog … the whir of a ceiling fan, the static-ridden interdiction of a satellite.

You try to keep focusing on the things that exist out there. It keeps the ear-popping emptiness that’s in your head at bay.

Sunlight creates a menagerie of gold and black spots against your eyelashes. The whole time, your ass is pressed against warm metal, but the breeze offers its own tender placation. Water splashes on your skin every now and then, causing it to erupt in hives of goosebumps even though it isn’t cold. And you’re burning.

Inside, you feel your thoughts like a screaming kettle, but you’ll keep quiet. As long as you think of places the sun can’t touch, like the mud squeezing up between your toes. Darkness in a patchwork of light things, earth-like, slippery and soft.

Out of the corner of your eye you see an old-fashioned barn, like something out of a book. Brick-red and spilling with hay and manure. The color of autumn. Rust and verdigris. For some reason, you are thinking of what your mother told you the day you turned 13, her hands methodically demonstrating the age-old procedure: Rinse in soap and water right away. Make sure it’s cold water, and do it as soon as you can after seeing the stain. Blood. Then soap and water.

Then he shows you his second self. His most secret self. And you scream. And scream and scream.
You go home after that, and you are so numb that you wonder if you made it all up. You fumble through all the steps, just as your mother told you, but it takes you hours to get the stain of him from out beneath your fingernails, your skin.

It was September. You were wearing a green halter dress, your skin ruddy from the elements, baked beneath the auspices of an unduly warm season. Your shoes were paper-thin flats—you could feel pebbles and soft mud beneath your soles as they thwacked against the earth. You were light, airy, a fleshy spearhead of summer and happiness.

You touch your bare arms absently—they are raised with goosebumps, which you finger as if they were Braille. As if they actually meant something. The sense of losing yourself in that memory becomes so palpable, so startling, that you revert to today’s details, anything to convince yourself you’re okay. Oatmeal for breakfast, sprinkled with raisins and honey. Peppermint tea, which you sipped from a flask on the bus. A rickety metal tube full of sleepy-eyed passengers. You were reading Elizabeth Bishop poems. What was that line you found so inspiring, so empowering? You are an I. Elizabeth, you are an I. I am an I.
Heart’s pounding. Dizzy. He is looking at you in askance.—Something wrong?—Almost concerned. You can’t look at those eyes, those twin abysses of alkaline blue, so you focus on a place above his head. A wet stain on the wooden parapet.

You want to wreak irreparable violence, the kind that can’t be taken back. You would have prepared yourself for today—heaven knows it’s something you have mulled over for months: the feeling of someone else’s life in your hands. Would you be capable of it? Something in his voice makes you hesitate, convinces you he doesn’t remember. You want to search those eyes to see if it could be true. It was nearly two years ago.

There’s turnover. He sees too many people. He sees not enough people.

You say something to indicate that you’re fine, you’re just a little tired from the drive. You say something in that voice you’ve determined is not yours. Before he can invite you in—as you know he will—you back up, run your hand along the smooth balustrade as you make your way down the porch steps.

You find yourself counting the steps. One. Two. Three. Four. How many until you’re back to the car? Shouldn’t you know this by now?

Before you can stop yourself, you’re running, the wind whishing through your hair, rocks and patches of grass biting at your feet and making you stumble. Tears are cascading down your cheeks, and you’re screaming. This time, you don’t care if he can hear you.

When you get to the car, you punch your fist, hard, into the passenger window—and are startled into wordlessness when you see a delicate meshwork of not quite caved-in glass, dotted with tiny spiricles of blood. You examine your hand in wonder, mulling over the gossamer slivers of tinted green etched into your skin. And in those tiny pieces of glass, a face reflected that is not yours. You’re not even thinking of what you’ll tell Rochelle. All you can feel is the pain, its kindly immediacy.

Judges comments:
“This is a story that stares you in the face and refuses to blink. It is told aggressively and confrontationally. I ranked it highly for its brashness of style and swaggering confidence.”—Ray Deonandan

“Afternoon at Mr. P’s” gives us an intriguing villain from the start, as well as an accessible and very human narrator. With its second-person point of view, the writer skillfully draws the reader into the narrator’s strange trip to the country, and into the dark recesses of her past.”—Shanthi Sekaran

Nirmala Nataraj is a critic, playwright, producer, poet, and erstwhile filmmaker.

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