Combustion


“I hate it.”

I stare at him. How can he hate it? It is my face. I can understand not liking my face, certainly, but he has never said that he does not like my face, in fact quite the opposite.

“Don’t put it up.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to.”

“Again, I say why?”

He stomps away and before I can turn from this latest recording of my reflection, he is up the stairs and on the roof, forming an alliance.

“Did he show you that shit?”

Rebecca is caught mid-mouthful and mumbles incoherently. I join them, still caught in a tangle of confuse emotions. I have never found myself completely human, that is true, but my face is as balanced as any other: two eyes, nose, mouth – all slightly odd, but all in place. It meant a great deal to me to take that photo out into the light of day, to digitize and disseminate it to an artist so far away there would never be a risk of discovery. But here he is, hands on hips, glaring down at Rebecca as if he is my father, she my mother, and I have been caught smoking cannabis behind the Seven Eleven.

She dabs the corners of her mouth. “Um…You mean the picture?”

“Yeah, duh! I mean the fucking picture.”

Her gaze swivels to mine as if to imply one of her usually onomatopoetic rejoinders, like “Whhhhaaaaaaa?”

“It’s his book, his face, his life.”

The muscles in his neck tug as he scowls. “You’re okay with this?”

Jimmy, silent at the barbecue, flipping his hamburgers with purposefully stooped shoulders, finally glances backward. “Yo! Wanna relax?”

“No! No I do not want to relax!” He looks around him at every face, young or old, until finally, he realizes that no one feels nearly so strong as he does. In that instant, his ire is redirected to me. “What the fuck are you thinking?”

“Language!” Porter grumbles. The children look up from their table in the open greenhouse. Katherine’s face peeps above the window sill. He turns abruptly and latches onto me with an iron grip. I am dragged bodily from the roof, and down the stairs, following behind him in a shocked silence.

You know me, friends — if I may be permitted to call you that — and you know how much I dislike being given ultimatums. Quite possibly, you also understand that while I am willing to make enormous allowances for the sake of those in my care, I respond to anger in kind.

However, Chef is different. When he is upset with me, something happens to my organs, that results in a complete and utter shutdown of my nerves, tongue, or capacity for greater reason. I wither, in an entirely embarrassing fashion.

I apologize. This is again one of those times when I am acutely aware of the divide I traverse by discussing events out of chronological order. You see, since the publication process began, I have had to develop a system with my editor. I send all my diary entries to her on an almost daily basis. She reads them and tells me whether or not they are “plot”. I have no idea what “plot” she is referencing. Usually I do not have the slightest concept of what any one volume of my life will be “about”, until she has curated the entries. She scrubs detail, alters names, transforms the events so that they do not match any newspaper articles or news programs, and then arranges the entire thing so that it at least has some adherence to the standard publishing models of the industry. For this, I pay her a substantial salary and my literary agent sings her praises, but there are unfortunate side effects, such that when I receive Kristina’s emails (some half dozen a day), I am often told what I can and cannot discuss with my readers directly, as those details may arise in further sequels.

Why am I telling you this? So that you understand that the relationship I now have with Chef is a very different one than is detailed in my first novel, and do not think that in some way, I have misled you about my character. Believe me, I do not enjoy having multiple personality disorder, or frankly disorder of any kind, but this is the only way I am allowed to keep my dear website intact, concurrent with the published works.

When Chef pulls me to the car and steals the keys, I am surprised by the violence of his feelings. While he drives, I sit quietly, staring at myself in the wing mirror, wondering what I have done to earn his distemper. He does not ferry us very far; we end up at the river docks, parked facing the bridges.

“You can’t put it up.”

“Why?”

He closes his eyes and covers his face with his hands. “You know what they told you. They said no pictures. No evidence of any kind.”

They are not in control of my life. Nor does one commissioned portrait constitute a declaration of war. It is a drawn image, based upon a photograph. It is not documentation.”

“Simon, please…”

I cross my arms stubbornly. He makes a series of sounds and throws himself out of the car, pacing up and down its flank like a puma. I slowly unfold and emerge, barricading myself behind my door, arms draped over the roof.

“Explain to me what is really at issue here! You have never once seemed to care about them. Why all of a sudden?”

The metallic gaze slices up the bridge of my nose, and runs me through. “Really? With all the times I’ve had to stuff food down your throat and stitch you up with cooking twine to make sure the skin closes properly? Really?”

“You exaggerate.”

“I am not exaggerating and you damn well know it!”

“Chef—”

“I won’t allow it! I’m telling you not to.”

The air thickens around us as the full weight of what he has said settles. Never in all our acquaintance, not even since discovering all the many facets and implications of our partnership, has he ever seen fit to leverage my actions with that old magic. It is a betrayal, of all that we are, and as I look him in the face I see that he knows it. He knows I will not forgive him, and is willing to pay that price, if only to rescue me from a fate he believes I am ignoring.

“Is this a command?” My voice is a hiss, and comes out more sharply than I intend, but I cannot hide the disgust that I feel at the very notion of being anyone’s slave.

“Please, Simon. Do not post that picture.”

“And if I do?”

“I can’t watch you get hurt again.”

“Nothing will happen to me.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

I close my eyes, and think that if something did happen, it would merely be one in a long line of new things, new adventures that have made the last five years bearable.

“I just do. Far be it from me to once again cite my age and experience—”

He snorts. “Yeah, but here we go.”

“I am older and more knowledgeable than you. They will not bother me, and if they do, I will handle it. Stop manufacturing ancient clandestine cults out of a few stragglers who communicate by smoke signals.”

“Now you’re exaggerating.”

I slip around the car. Somewhere nearby a fishing boat trades its grateful use of the first month since the fisheries reopened, for the more lucrative task of tugging civilians out onto the water for the festivities. As I wrap my arms around his neck, the brine and anxiety mingle. He tastes of Hemingway burgers. Gunpowder wafts on the breeze as the fireworks displays are arranged.

“Nothing will happen to me,” I soothe. “Please stop worrying.”

“I can’t.”

“I know.”

He tugs on my hair and smashes his face to mine. “You can put it up, but please take it down if they ask you to.”

“I will,” I say, but in all honestly, I am disgusted at the thought of being at anyone’s behest. They know this. They know I will not bow out so easily, and they are right to fear my reply should they argue.

“Let’s stay here. This is a good place.”

The lot has begun to fill with other onlookers carrying lawn chairs and children. The sun has dipped below the water and the sky has darkened. Soon there will be sounds that put the canon fire of my youth to shame.

Strange that humans should celebrate their unions by blowing something to pieces.

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