by Hall Jameson
A foamy swath surrounded Libby—her own personal rain puff. It was a typical Tuesday—the day of limbo—where the week threatened neither to begin nor end, but merely sat quietly. Nothing horrible ever happened on a Tuesday.
She had many pet names for her protector: the persistent mist, the love bubble, the shimmering nimbus, or – her favorite – soap suds, shortened to just “Suds.” Whatever she chose to call it on a particular day, it rarely left her.
Today, Suds was purplish-blue like a bruise. Some days it was dark green; other days it was ochre, or red. She looked through its skin and the world was tolerable, subdued.
Libby plucked a piece of crumpled paper from the trash and smoothed out the flyer that she had tossed earlier. The pleasant face of the man on the flyer looked back at her patiently as she tacked it to the refrigerator. The tagline beneath his photograph proclaimed: Achieve Ultimate Fitness! Let me be your Personal Trainer!
She stared at the photograph—his face wasn’t quite right. Even so, it made her feel better to have it on him the fridge until she found The One. Suds shimmered and sighed, draping over her head like a veil.
As she hopped on the trolley there was barely room for the two of them, and Suds swirled around her, agitated. None of the other passengers seemed to notice, even though it tickled their bare necks and mussed their hair. They probably blamed the wind.
The trolley dropped Libby off in front of the building where she worked. Suds tightened around her body as she entered the sterile concrete structure. It did not like it here, and became compact and tense. Libby didn’t mind it though, she felt safe in her cubicle with its beige walls, beige phone, and beige desk. The only thing that wasn’t beige was her stapler—it was red: the exclamation point of her workspace.
Suds detested her stapler! It could not mute that red no matter how hard it tried! She did not like the discord between the two of them. She could switch staplers with someone else, but all the other workers had red ones too. Besides, she tried not to talk to the others. They were always whispering about her, eyes flicking in her direction then darting quickly away when she looked up.
She thought they were strange. Suds rubbed her shoulders in agreement.
Libby was hungry after four hours of tabbing through data entry screens and stabbing buttons on the ten-key. She looked at her stapler and it winked at her. She frowned and wandered into the break room for lunch, hoping that no one was there, but two women sat quietly eating pale sandwiches and pickles. Their conversation halted as soon as she entered the room. She hated that!
She felt Suds release, and the room became brighter. She squinted at the harsh lights and vivid colors: the avocado fridge, a poster with a florescent sunrise and the caption Every Day is a New Beginning, the aqua bottle of dish washing detergent on the corner of the sink. All of these things hurt her eyes.
She knew that she should have been alarmed when one of the women began to gurgle strangely, eyes bulging, but she was not. The woman started to hack as she tried to dislodge the food caught in her throat. The other woman jumped up and pounded her on the back, looking at Libby with terrified eyes, but she couldn’t move. Suds engulfed them. It was a fiery orange, like the sunrise poster.
“Stop it!” Libby yelled. Both women looked at her, confused. Finally, one horrible retch later, a chunk of pickle freed itself from the woman’s throat and landed in a slimy puddle in the middle of the table. The orange cloud evaporated, and the light of the room became diffuse, as Suds settled back around her. The woman looked at the pickle chunk in stunned fascination. The other woman glared at Libby.
She turned and went back to her beige cubicle. She would skip lunch today. The pickle incident had made her lose her appetite.
She settled back into her beige chair and stared at the computer monitor. She should be angry with Suds for its escapade in the kitchen, but she was not. It got bored here at her work; she could not fault it for that. She sighed and looked at her stapler. It winked at her again as if they shared a secret.
Her phone rang and she jumped. She picked up the receiver and heard the excited voice of a man. It was the Private Investigator and he had news. She abruptly hung up the phone. She did not want to hear his news today. She hadn’t expected him to work so quickly.
When Libby got home the number on her answering machine proudly displayed a “4.” She knew all four calls were from him. She stabbed the erase button and exhaled as the number changed to “0,” a safe number with no sharp edges. Much better.
She removed the personal trainer’s flyer from the fridge and replaced it with a real estate brochure that she had picked up at the bus stop. Let me help you find your Home Sweet Home! was the caption below the picture of a smiling man in a smart suit.
Libby smiled back and sipped her amber tea.
When she reached her desk the next morning her stapler was gone and there was an awkward bare spot on her beige desk. She wondered if the pickle-woman had taken it.
Today the coworkers were whispering more than ever. Psh! Psh! Psh!
Suds tried to block out the murmuring, but only succeeded in amplifying it. PSH! PSH! PSH! The sound swept back and forth across her skull. Her head was starting to ache. Suds tried to massage her temples, but she brushed it away angrily. She got up and pretended that she was going to the restroom; it never followed her in there.
On her way, she snatched a long sheet of bubble wrap from the shelf next to the copy machine. Once inside the bathroom stall, she undid her shirt and wrapped the bubble wrap around her torso. It felt right against her skin. She felt safe.
Libby washed her hands and smiled in the bathroom mirror, but her reflection returned a grimace rather than a smile.
Back in her cubicle, there was a single, quiet pop! as she settled into her chair, but thankfully, Suds didn’t appear to notice.
Libby woke feeling sick; listless. Her head was pounding. The little red light on her phone was blinking. She knew it was him. The office was quiet and some of the cubicles were dark. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep. She hated it when she lost snatches of time! Suds covered her like a quilt, snug up to her chin. She decided to go to the walk-in clinic down the block before she caught the trolley home.
Suds respectfully lingered in the waiting room as she went back for her exam. Libby put on a light blue Johnny and boosted herself up onto the examination table. The doctor checked her throat and listened to her heart. He tapped her arms and legs with a small rubber hammer. As the doctor checked her ears, Libby plucked the badge from his clinic coat. It had a great picture and he was about the right age. The doctor flicked the plastic cone-shaped speculum from the end of the otoscope into the trash. He smiled and told Libby that she was fine, but suggested she try yoga or tai chi to reduce her stress. Libby frowned when she remembered that she had thrown away a yoga flyer just last week; the man on the front hadn’t been quite right. As the doctor filled out a prescription for her headache, she wanted to tell him Of course, I’m fine; Suds didn’t come in here with me.
Libby left the exam room feeling neither better nor worse. She pulled Suds over her head, threading her arms through it like a sweater, and headed back to her apartment. She took the real estate flyer off the fridge and replaced it with the doctor’s badge, clipping it to the bottom of her calendar. The doctor looked back at her seriously. His eyes followed her as she moved about the room. Libby looked back and smiled.
When Libby got to work the next day, her stapler was back in its usual spot. She stood in the entrance to her cubicle for a moment and stared at it distrustfully. There was something underneath it. It was a flyer, printed on blue paper, with a photograph of a handsome man on the front. He looked back at Libby with calm eyes and a warm smile. The flyer was for a lecture on forgiveness. The man in the photograph was a psychologist. There was a handwritten note scratched below the photograph. It was from him.
Have been trying to reach you. This is the man you’ve been looking for, it read.
Libby examined the man’s picture. He had a square chin and dark eyes that she recognized as her own. He was perfect.
Libby sat in the auditorium feeling small under the veil of her protector. She felt numb. It was hard for her to be so close to the man. When he asked for questions at the end of the seminar, she surprised herself by standing. She opened her mouth and heard her voice.
“You are my son?” she blurted. She hadn’t meant for it to come out as a question. “I lost you long ago…” her voice trailed off. She saw several members of the audience turn towards her in surprise, their faces—pie plates with dark “Ohs” stamped in the center. She could feel Suds wrapping its fingers around her throat, squeezing, attempting to silence her.
The psychologist stared at her in an expression nondescript. Suds had tightened around Libby’s windpipe, so she couldn’t speak, and her vision was starting to quaver. She started to sink into Suds, yielding to its insistent tugging. She wanted to disappear into its center void where it was warm and comfortable. Why had she come here?
The psychologist now stood in front of her. He took Libby’s hands in his own and smiled. He made as if to brush Libby’s hair out of her eyes, but instead gave Suds a gentle swipe. He unraveled it from Libby’s head and from around her neck. His eyes locked with hers.
“You and I should grab a cup of coffee. I think we have a lot to talk about.” His voice was kind, not the condescending tone that she so often confronted.
Libby heard a horrific shriek. She didn’t know if the sound issued from her own throat or was merely in her head, but she felt Suds loosen. She watched as it slid down onto the floor and slithered into the heat vent. She wanted to run after it and pull it back, so she could wrap herself in it.
The psychologist gave her hand a squeeze, and Libby smiled back shyly.
They walked towards the exit together, and she chanced a look back over her shoulder, but there was no sign of Suds. A man in the back row was putting on his overcoat. He reached down for his brief case, and Libby saw a smoky scarf wind loosely around his neck. It was periwinkle blue—a happy color. One end of it floated up and waved at Libby. She gave it a nod and put on her jacket. She heard a quiet pop! when she zipped it up and smiled. She walked out into the light of day.
HALL JAMESON is a writer and fine art photographer. She was born in Damariscotta, Maine, and lived in New England for thirty years before moving west in 1997. She currently lives in Helena, Montana. When she’s not writing, Hall enjoys hiking, photographing grain elevators, and cat wrangling.