The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.
— Carl Jung
Tick Tock, Six O’Clock
Billy and Biff decide to go on a walk after their mother tells them to get some fresh air. They are being rowdy, they are being bad boys, shoving chunks of hamburger meat into each other’s hair, spilling streaks of warm milk across the kitchen floor, warm milk that was meant for the baby. Mrs. Henderson flounces in on high heels, pearls sifting around her neck, grabbing each boy by the scruff and tossing the both of them into the front yard.
“Be back here before the sun goes down,” she calls. “Remember, bad things can happen to little boys after the sun goes down. I’m going out with your father, so the babysitter will put you to bed, okay? Harry? Harry, hon, have you seen my purse?”
They’re the ones with the girl who died, aren’t they? Drowned in Lake Arrowhead, came out all blue and gray, and now he has to make small talk with them for an entire evening, gab gab gab, Harry this and Harry that, because Martha says they don’t get out enough and that proper couples must socialize. The girl was so beautiful, too, not the brightest student he’d ever had in his class, she was no scholar on Dickens, that’s for sure, but the way those soft blond curls looped around one another, her lips like the ripest of ripe red cherries — oh yes, he was being clichéd, he knew — her dark eyelashes fluttering as if she were trying to fly away.
He hikes the winding dirt path back up to the Observatory, repeats it in his head, again and again. “It’s James, not Jimmy, not Jim, not Jimbo, not Jamie, but James, okay? James.” Not that anybody cares now. He doesn’t speak to people. He just watches them, waits for them to toss out a half-eaten sub, an extra slice of pizza, some French fries, and then he’ll swoop in, and that’ll be dinner, a mighty fine dinner, yum yum. Afterwards he’ll go back on in to the Observatory and tuck himself away in the bathroom for awhile, feet up on the toilet seat, wait for the staff to lock up the doors until it’s just him, all alone in there.
She wants to run away with the baby. Sometimes she imagines getting into the car, the baby by her side, the two of them speeding down the 5, vroom vroom, until they are far away from everybody else. She loves the baby girl so much more than she has ever loved the boys. There are some things a mother cannot say but she can think them as much as she wants. There is something special about the baby. There is something different.
“Come on, Martha, finish up in there. We’ve got to get a move on or else we’ll be late!” Harry’s voice ripples across the tepid bathwater still left in the tub.
Tick Tock, Seven O’Clock
A hike, that’s all, a short hike before the sun goes down. They always choose the same one, the one that goes up to the old zoo. The city closed the old zoo a few years ago, claiming it was inadequate, ugly, poorly designed and under-financed. So they said. But as far as Billy and Biff are concerned, it was haunted, that’s what the problem was, why the city had to move all the animals to the Los Angeles Zoo instead. That’s why the animals kept disappearing and dying. The old zoo was haunted. The old zoo is haunted.
“Hurry up, Billy, last one there’s a rotten egg!”
Billy runs, he runs ahead, he punishes the gravel dirt under the soles of his sneakers. He pushes ahead of Biff.
A rustling in the bushes. Somebody is watching.
They drive by the park with all those green trees cascading down the sides of the hills and the sun beginning its purple descent into night and he thinks about asking Martha, about suggesting it to her, just pulling into that lot by the merry-go-round and traipsing behind the trees for a little, you know, fun in the dirt, in the leaves, in the twigs, rolling around, a bit of an appetizer before the dinner party, right? Why not be naughty? He can feel himself, well, he adjusts his bowtie, tightening, constricting around his neck like a hand threatening to choke —
Screech to a halt, just in time. A cat in the road, a dumb old orange cat that has some kind of death wish.
Her heart ricochets back and forth inside of her rib cage, the cat slinking away, a specter into the dark. Maybe she would leave the baby behind. It would be easier that way, to just slip away, disappear. No diaper changing, no formula, no caterwauling in the middle of the night. She could go down to Palm Springs, hide away in the desert, or maybe up to Cambria. She’s always loved Cambria, those sheer cliffs above the ocean, the smell of pine needles like some mountain town. She smiles. The baby has colic but tonight she doesn’t care. The babysitter will deal with it. Maybe the babysitter will take the baby. Maybe Martha doesn’t actually love the baby all that much. There is something different about the baby. Something off.
Tick Tock, Eight O’Clock
James climbs down from the toilet seat, takes his usual couple of laps around the building to stretch his legs. He passes beneath the mural spreading across the ceiling of the Observatory’s main dome. In ancient times, people used myths to understand what they saw in the skies. Atlas holds the zodiac signs, Jupiter carrying his thunderbolts. Venus, Saturn, and Mercury chase Argos, the god of war. A woman clutches the Star of Bethlehem. Beneath the mural is James’s favorite exhibit, the Foucault Pendulum, a 240-pound bronze ball suspended on a 40-foot cable, in constant motion as the Earth turns beneath it, proof of gravity, proof of rules. He also enjoys the Hall of the Sky, where they have giant telescopes that let you look out over all of the solar system. James likes to imagine that maybe someday he could go out there, swerve through the stars, far, far away from this place.
Today would have been James’ high school graduation. He thinks of all of his classmates in their black gowns, tassels hanging down over their eyes, the principal droning names, parents dripping tears. He likes it better this way. He’s been gone exactly two months now. He’s surprised they haven’t found him. Could it be that nobody’s looking?
“Did you hear that?”
“Probably a tiger they accidentally left behind.”
“Not funny, Biff. I think somebody’s here.”
“It’s just the wind.”
“Maybe we should head back. It’s gonna get dark soon.”
“We’ve still got at least a half hour. What are you, chicken?”
Snap. Snap. SNAP!
“There it is again!”
Harry is performing just as he is supposed to, shake the hands, smiles and nods, oh yes, that pot roast does smell so lovely, and yes, I did hear about your daughter, so sad, so sorry, a young mind lost, a boating accident, the worst, and no way, no how do I touch myself at night thinking of her limp, bloated body reborn from the depths of the lake. No, not that part, he doesn’t say that part, he didn’t even think it, not really, a joke, imagining their faces curdling in response. No more dinners at the Mulligans, nope nope! No more dinners ever again.
“Harry, Martha, come in! Come in! Let me take your coats,” Mrs. Mulligan insists. Harry slides off his sleeves, glances out through the glass sliding doors into the backyard. A coyote streaks past, crooked legs loping, a prize in its mouth. Its lips curl back in a smile to reveal the sinewy chunked tendons of the family’s Maltese.
What if the babysitter decides to leave early? What if the babysitter scalds the baby’s mouth with too hot milk? What if the babysitter accidentally suffocates the baby as she hugs the baby against her globular double-D breasts? Martha closes her eyes and the baby is blue, the baby is bloody, the baby is decapitated, head rolling down the cul de sac. She should have never let Harry convince her to see Rosemary’s Baby at the Cinerama Dome. People have always told Martha she looks just like Mia Farrow. No, actually, nobody has ever told her that.
Tick Tock, Nine O’Clock
The baby figures out how to escape the crib. She figures out how to climb onto the countertops, how to unbolt the deadlock on the back door. She soldiers on through the wet grass, barely toddling at this point. She has a mission to fulfill, a mission that only she can understand.
The babysitter never came. There is no babysitter. Maybe there never was.
Biff beats his fists against the bars, a warbling echo in the descending darkness. Billy sits on the twiggy floor, rocks back and forth on his heels, arms wrapped around his knees. He did not remember to bring a sweater.
“That wasn’t funny, Billy. That wasn’t funny at all. Now we’re locked in here and it’s practically dark!”
“I told you, I didn’t lock us in here! It just locked on its own.”
“Cages don’t lock on their own.”
“Well I didn’t do it!”
Billy’s eyes well up with briny tears. Biff sits down next to him. “It’s gonna be all right. Somebody will find us.”
“What do you think used to live in here?”
Just then they hear a throaty growl, a slashing of damp orangey-beige fur against their vision, the thump of leathery paws against the packed soil.
It takes only moments before all of their clothes are off, the four of them rolling around on the living room carpet, streams of saliva hanging in loose, waving webs between their mouths, Lydia Mulligan’s pink nipples erect as Harry touches between her legs, Martha moaning as Arnold Mulligan slides his tongue around the edge of her left ear. This is what it should all be about, sharing and loving and freedom and all that. The kids have it right. The kids know what they’re doing.
“Harry, can you pass the roast?” Harry blinks. He is not paying attention. Harry is staring at a spot on the ceiling. Martha often has to ask Harry to pass things across the dinner table two or three times before he hears her. The Mulligans, though, they know how to pass. Martha already has heaping piles of green beans and mashed potatoes on her plate.
Martha wonders if Harry is thinking about the Mulligans’ girl. She knows he was there, up at that lake cabin, the two of them together, the weekend that she croaked, kicked the bucket, swam with the fishes. She enjoys a bit of dinner theater, waiting to see if Harry will say anything, if the Mulligans will guess. The school will know soon enough, an anonymous note from a concerned parent, and then it will be bye-bye Harry, see ya later! It’s not as if they’ll miss him. He never has been a particularly good teacher.
Harry finally looks up, realizes his faux pas. The roast swings its way around the table. For just a moment, Martha considers that its snout looks vaguely dog-like. Whatever did happen to the Mulligans’ Maltese?
They filmed Invasion of the Body Snatchers here at Griffith Park. That’s one of the reasons James came. Alien plant spores fallen from space, loved ones’ bodies mysteriously disappearing, but nobody will believe them, nobody will believe! Until it’s too late, that is.
James lets himself out the back of the Observatory, sits down on one of the white concrete ledges bordering the edge, gazes out into the violent sunset against the hills overlooking Downtown to the south and Glendale and Burbank to the north, the transition into darkness combatted by the constant orange haze of city lights. He has never liked the city, has never felt at home. He is quite sure he is supposed to be elsewhere.
James looks up into the grit of stars just beginning to appear in the night sky. He squints his eyes, waiting for a sign. He’ll keep waiting, for as long as it takes, until they forgive him for whatever he did wrong and let him come back to his home planet.
James traces lines between the stars with his index finger. A home far, far away.
Tick Tock, Ten O’Clock
Billy and Biff are stuck in a cage. Billy and Biff may not escape. They are too frightened to yell or scream. Urine dribbles down the inner leg of Billy’s pants. They are sweltering hot even though it is only 50 degrees out.
A tiger, a tiger in the cage with them. The boys cannot see the tiger but they can smell its sour musk, hear its deep chest rumbling breaths, its paws padding around in the dirt, licking its teeth.
The tiger approaches.
“What if one of us dies tonight?”
The tiger growls.
“Maybe we should make a run for it?”
The tiger pounces.
The tiger eats, the stench of blood ripe in the air.
The baby is not particularly good at hiking, but she figures now is as good a time as any to practice. Her baby Ked sneakers kick up bits of dirt and rocks. She craves milk, breast milk. She must go on without it, though. She has never been awake this late before. It is past her bedtime. This makes her smile. She follows the winding path up the hill until the Observatory comes into view.
Harry cannot stay at the dinner party. He has to get out. He is feeling ill. He can see it in Martha’s eyes. She knows. She knows everything. Harry excuses himself to go to the bathroom as the others lean back around the dinner table, waiting for the coffee to brew before digging into their dessert. He remembers that the Mulligans’ guest bathroom has a window, a large window just wide enough for a man his size.
He leaves the car behind. He is not that cruel of a husband, to make Martha walk home alone in those high heels, and plus he does not know how long he’ll be, if he’ll ever return home. He heads toward the park. He likes the idea of the anonymity of the trees, the hills. Oh, what a mess he’s made. What a mess.
Tick Tock, Eleven O’Clock
“And then, you know, I said to Lydia, I said why wait? Let’s go to Europe now!” Martha hates the Mulligans, Mr. and Mrs. Fakey Fakerson, fake grins and fake stories and even a fake, fake house built out of nothing more than cardboard and Elmer’s Glue, ready to keel over with the next gust of wind. She imagines what she would do if she had a gun, if she could prevent herself from shooting it through the rest of dessert, Arnold’s mouth a septic mess of brownies and cognac. At least she and Harry are self-aware. They know who they are. They know they are performing.
Maybe the Mulligans’ girl didn’t even die. Maybe the Mulligans just made it up. Maybe the Mulligans just sent her away to boarding school because she wouldn’t stop fucking all the boys on the football team.
Harry hears the crying from half a mile away. He decides whoever it is, he will help. He will prove himself a respectable man, a good Samaritan of the highest order. He walks faster. He runs. He will be the first to arrive. He trips and falls over a python branch. He scrapes his left knee and knocks out a tooth. Blood seeps down into his tie, but still he will not stop. He stands, sees him. His stomach turns.
“Biff? What are you doing here?”
“Dad? Are you okay? You’re bleeding. You’re hurt.”
Harry stumbles forward. Perhaps he shouldn’t have had so much wine at dinner. He holds the tooth he knocked out in his palm. “Where’s Billy?”
“Oh, he’s home, I think?”
“You know, a boy your age shouldn’t be out in the park this late. You should be in bed.”
“Sorry, I got lost.”
“Well, come here and I’ll walk you home, all right?”
Biff pushes open the door to the cage, the hinges creaking in the still night air, not a single paw print in sight. There is blood stained down his chin and the front of his navy shirt, fragments of skin and dirt under his fingernails.
His mother was right. Bad things do happen to little boys after dark.
The baby locks eyes with James, the baby who is perhaps not a baby at all. Her eyes are so blue, like a depthless lake. They stand on the concrete steps leading up to the Observatory.
The baby points a finger up at the sky, at a crackling star moving closer and closer against the black tar of the night. James picks up the baby, cradles her in his arms as she coos. She has come for him. She’ll know what to do next.
Together they’ll escape into a universe far beyond. Together, they will go home. They are not of this Earth. They were never meant to be here.
For a moment, James’s mind flashes to his mother, sitting alone on his bed, smoothing out a wrinkle in the covers, using her blouse to wipe a smudge off his prized photograph of the Apollo 11 launch. He tries to push the image out of his head, but he can’t.
Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock . . .
Martha bids farewell to the Mulligans, slipping on her coat, the furry fringes along the collar soft and comforting against her neck. Lydia and Arnold teeter in the entryway. They sway back and forth, too many bottles of red wine. Martha is still a little drunk too, but her house is close, and she’s driven this route many times. She has no idea where Harry is, and suddenly she misses him. She misses him and Billy and Biff and the baby.
Martha takes a step onto the brick porch out front, her heel landing in a small divot in the mortar. The world is off-kilter, as if everything has shifted a few degrees to the left. Martha feels the urge to turn around. She feels sick, though not from the wine and not from the food.
“Again, I’m sorry about your daughter. I can only imagine . . .”
Lydia blinks several times, as if she had just again remembered her daughter was dead. She looks down at her feet. “It wouldn’t be so bad, you know, if it weren’t for the news. Everything has to be so sensational, so titillating. But death isn’t like that. Death, violence, they’re not exciting like in the media and the movies. They’re exhausting and ugly in the most mundane way.”
Martha nods. She doesn’t know what to say. She tucks a strand of hair back behind her ear, her cheeks flushing pink.
“You know, Harry was up there, the weekend that — ”
Lydia pats Martha’s shoulder. “Harry was here, Martha. We all had dinner together. Don’t you remember?”
Just then, the Mulligans’ Maltese springs out from the bushes, trotting inside. Its little white tail propellers back and forth as Arnold scoops the dog up into his arms.
MICHELLE MEYERS is a fiction writer and playwright originally from Los Angeles, CA. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, DOGZPLOT, jmww, Grey Sparrow Journal, Juked, and decomP, and she has received awards and honors from Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Wigleaf. She was a 2015 PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama’s Creative Writing program. Her debut novel, Glass Shatters, will be published in April 2016.