Connections » Profiles

The Margin of A Moment

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 17, 2017

The truth was that while she'd been scared out of her wits, she had also been angry when she pulled the trigger. But she kept that truth far from her thoughts as she explained to the police how Keith had manhandled her, had pushed her into the small kitchen closet, his hot boozy breath washing over her as his profanity-littered threats rained down.

It wasn't an admission that would have had any legal consequences: It was her house, for one thing, and the state's Stand Your Ground laws were so broad as to allow just about any altercation to end in blameless bloodshed. No, she hid the thought from herself because of her own guilty conscience and because if she admitted the truth in her own mind she'd have to give it voice to her sister. Karen now glared at her with black accusation.

She'd gotten the gun only a few days before and she liked it from the first moment she felt it snug in its holster, resting against her body. It was confidence in the shape of well-forged metal, a Sig Sauer - the kind her brothers told her she should get if she was going to get any gun at all.

Keith knew she had it but he probably forgot. In the heat of the moment he probably forgot everything except the social media feud they'd stoked for over a year, ever since the election. President Kirsch was an asshole, and she had posted daily sentiments to that effect. Keith was blind to Kirsch's faults, immune to facts, uncaring for reason. He didn't give a shit about the suffering of others or even his own future. Liberal, Keith had responded on her FacePalm wall, spelling the word in a variety of ways. Fancy pants, he called her, and moon bat. A few times he had launched into multi-paragraph denunciations. You better look out, the gist of Keith's rambling tirades went. He's gonna lock you up next.

Keith was angry about more than their political differences. He was pissed at all the times she'd slapped his hands away, told him he was a fuckbeak for hitting on his wife's sister. Keith had even tried, once, to convince her that under the new gender laws, and with no man of her own, she was as good as his property, him being a relative and all.

To which she had responded, he wasn't a relative at all, just her sister's poorly chosen husband. And she had two big brothers could beat the fucking shit out of him any time she felt like letting them know what a creep he was.

But she'd always preferred to fight her own battles. She didn't get the gun because of Keith; she got it because all the other men in the world had, over the last two years, seemingly gotten as boorish and predatory as Keith. Even in broad daylight she couldn't walk the three blocks home from the train stop without men shouting lewd comments and invitations. She had tried at first to ignore the rising tide of implicit rape but finally the men on the street had gone too far - they started describing in shouted voices the sexual acts they wanted to force onto her, all in the name of showing her a good time, or making sure that she wasn't some goddamn lesbian.

Well, of course she was a lesbian. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that. Or at least they had, until all her familiar neighbors started moving to the exurbs to escape the mean and meaner streets.

Everything was changing -- especially now, after the shooting. It wasn't just Karen who looked at her differently. Her boss seemed to be giving her less important work. He didn't seem eager to have her on the team any more. She suspected he was maneuvering her into a position where he could fire her on the claim that her contribution was minimal, her position no longer needed.

All because of Keith, because he pushed and pushed and then pushed too far...

She woke up after a nightmare in which she relived those confusing moments in the closet, a mélange of rage and terror. His beery breath and his heavy body, pushing her back into the shelves. A white hot flare had gone up in her, exploding in her head, wiping out rational thought; her hand tucked under her sit jacket to the holster, emerged with the gun in one fluent movement, a draw she had practiced in front of the mirror and at the shooting range for weeks. Perfect muscle memory followed a lovely arc, like something from an astronomical chart, fast and graceful: From holster to the spot just under his ribs, just to the side of where his ribs met in a cathedral arch. How easy it was to squeeze the trigger, how powerful it felt with the gun's recoil in her hand. How satisfying to hear the gunshot, then his one short bark - almost a scream. How safe she felt, how relieved, when he crumpled, his corpse first sagging against her and then falling away, falling backwards, spilling out of the closet and onto the kitchen floor... Karen had come running in, horror on her face, staring at Keith's dead body. Then her gaze traveled, unblinking, to look her in the eye, and Karen's expression changed with the same fluency as that deadly movement of hand and gun... switching from horror to hatred...

It was that expression that hit her in the heart like a knife, punctured her certainly and her rage, pierced her armor and allowed doubt to seep in.

But she wouldn't back down. She couldn't. She held the hard kernel of truth for a moment: She'd been angry, angry for years, disgusted with him, disgusted with all the men like him. Yes, she had been afraid as well - but that was something that shifted on the surface. Beneath her fear was a hard anger, an indignity and outrage at being made the victim, having to defend her space and her body.

She woke up with all of that pounding at her, the truth of it like a bright silver ball that she juggled from hand to hand, from one hiding place to another, the guilty knowledge that whether or not she'd had to kill him she had wanted to kill him. She found new places to bury that ball but it always worked itself free, rolled into view at moments of vulnerability. It smote her with self-doubt.

The recurring nightmare was always bad but this time it felt like it had taken the breath right out of her. She struggled to get enough air. Once the panic subsided, it was still a labor to breathe. Her chest felt tight, her muscles sore. Maybe it was just the stress - maybe she needed a hot bath or a massage. She'd wait until after work to decide what to do.

After a quick shower she was out the door, walking to the train station, grateful that the louts who hurled insults never appeared this early. The morning was lovely, the light gauzy and dreamlike, the air cool. Everything seemed more tranquil somehow, more restful, dark green leaves tossing languidly in the trees and the occasional cat moving lazily across scraps of lawn or strips of garden. Everyone who was up and around at this hour seemed to feel it too; they moved in an unhurried way, as though enjoying this rare and serene hour.

Even so, she felt heavy. It was like everything cost her more effort - each footfall, every gesture. Once on the train she sank back wearily. Her state of mind was affecting her. She needed to cleanse herself of this dark and this heaviness. But whom could she talk to? Who could she tell?

They said that talking with a stranger could be therapeutic, and that was what she'd attempted the evening before. Tired, depressed, looking for something better to do than head straight home and plough through a sea of harassment on her own street, she'd decided to risk a trip to the city's more exotic quarters, stay out late, maybe have a drink.

She had ventured to the edge of market town, which abutted all the ethnic neighborhoods. Azerbaijanis, Indians, Pakistanis, various Asian nationalities, they all had their particular strongholds around here and the market town was a glorious intersection where multiculturalism was still celebrated in practice if not in rhetoric. She wandered the streets, marveling at how the dense swarm of people somehow translated into greater security: Here she wasn't a lone woman on the pavement; she was one more face in a continual blur of colors and bodies. Nobody had any reason to pick her out of the crowd.

But someone did pick her out, as it happened. She had paused outside a small storefront, trying to work out what the place sold. Just as she realized it was some sort of teahouse, an elderly man sitting at one of the tables by the single large window caught her eye. He smiled at her - an avuncular smile, genuine and bright. He mimed raising a cup to his lips - a gesture he need not have mimed since he had a cup and saucer on the table before him, along with a teapot... and, she saw now, a second cup, placed across the table from him at an empty seat. He pointed at the empty seat and its attendant cup, then tilted his head toward her, his face lit with invitation.

She hesitated. Then she decided it was the best offer she'd had in - well, maybe ever. She was tired of suspecting people, tired of mentally and even physically having to fend them off. It was a rare luxury to be invited by someone who seemed nice, who seemed like a decent, sane person.

She stepped through the small black door and into the tiny teahouse...

The train came to a halt, its poorly maintained brakes screeching. She looked up in sudden panic, realizing she was at her stop and needed to hurry off the train before the doors closed.

The morning's languor seemed universal, and it persisted throughout the day. Her co-workers seemed dazed, slow to speech and movement. Was everyone on drugs? She tamped down her irritation at her lethargy, and theirs. She already had a rep as a killer and didn't need to frighten anyone by getting impatient. But it felt like an imposition to have to make super-nice all the time.

She felt heavier as the day went on. She thought back to the conversation she'd had with the kindly old man over cups of fragrant tea. It had been a relief just to get her worries and regrets off her chest. He'd listened impartially, imposing no judgment. As the workday ended she thought about making another visit to the teahouse, but then chose to go straight home. Maybe the tea had affected her sleep. No wonder she was dragging. She just needed a good night's rest.

But deep, untroubled sleep evaded her. She kept waking up, gasping, hot and restless. The feeling she couldn't get enough air was even more intense. She opened a window, positioned herself on the bed so that she could catch what mild, sluggish breeze blew into the room, and slept as well as she could.

When the alarm sounded, its electronic tone was different - more of a warble, and in a deeper register than normal. She picked up her clock and frowned. It tiny green diodes blinked too slowly. The clock was an antique; it had belonged to her mother, and she had taken it out of a box of old junk forty years earlier when she was scrounging for useful stuff to take with her to college. The clock had accompanied her through graduation, then six moves until she'd settled here. Now the old thing seemed on its last legs.

Well, aren't we all, she thought, setting the clock to the side. She picked her PCD off its charging station and pulled up her task list. BUY NEW CLOCK she tapped out, then stopped to laugh at herself. Her PCD had an alarm, of course; she could just use that. But she was going to miss the soft green glow of her mother's clock standing guard on the night table every night.

Again, the morning was cool and still, the light gauzy and cheerful. It had a certain cast to it, the light did; a little rosy, like something from a movie when the cinematographer wanted to indicate a sense of nostalgia, a light that was soft and painterly. The train commute was uneventful; everything seemed to sway with a gentle, somnambulant undulation - the car, her fellow passengers, the streets and buildings rolling by outside the windows. It was as though the entire world had been submerged in soothing warm water - the fluid of the womb, perhaps. Even the train's shrieking brakes seemed subdued, less shrill.

That sense of moving under water persisted as she entered the office. Even here, the light seemed aquatic - a different hue filled the rooms, and her colleagues drifted around her as untroubled as sleepwalkers. Time itself seemed to be hauling anchors, it passed by with such unusual elongation. She had done what felt like half a day's work was was hungry for lunch by the time ten a.m. rolled around.

It wasn't until eleven o'clock that she realized something really was wrong with her colleagues, and it wasn't just her own mood that made it seem like they were walking around in slow motion.

They were moving in slow motion.

"Sandra, I really need the final documentation for the end of month reports," she said to the office manager.

Sandra stared at her flatscreen with an unconcerned expression.

"Sandra? Okay?"

Another moment dragged by and then Sandra slowly blinked, her eyes rolling up at her. Then she seemed to engage with the moment. "I'll have them to you by noon," she said, almost in a drawl, with a sort of lazy quality that almost seemed calculated to annoy.

She didn't want to come across as pushy. She didn't want to be the mad killer everyone tiptoed around. "Okay, that will do fine, Sandra," she said, trying to sugarcoat the words. "Thanks so much."

A smile was blossoming on Sandra's face with the gradual spread of molasses. "Had an extra cup of coffee this morning?" she asked, still lazy, still without concern.

She started at Sandra for a moment. This just didn't seem normal. Sandra's smile hung on her face a few moments more and then she turned back to her screen without hurry - as in she were distracted, in fact, and the motion were an afterthought.

Having nothing more to say, she retreated from Sandra's desk. Walking back to her office, she took note of Robert, a young guy in his mid-20s, walking past the desk of a pretty young woman about his own age - what was her name? Elise? Elinore? Robert was an athletic sort, and he always had a powerful, purposeful way of walking. He was taking his time moving past Eliza's desk... or whatever her name was... and his glance, turned sideways, with a flirtatious grin, seemed to linger longer than was appropriate for the office setting. She frowned. Robert had never struck her as being like those pigs on the street. But maybe all men were alike, deep down.

Then it struck her that Robert's stride looked strange. He wasn't moseying along with short steps; his stride was long, his entire muscular, lithe body engaged. His stance looked very much like it usually did, that of a strong man in swift movement - only, his movement was hardly swift. What she'd first taken to be another example of the generally relaxed mood in the office today was actually something different.

She slowed her own walk to look more closely - but she didn't stare too long. She didn't want to make Robert, or anyone else, nervous. The way Robert was walking, his long stride casual but almost unending as foot left floor, transited in a gradual arc, and then returned to the floor, was impossible. If he had been moving at his usual clip, it wouldn't have seemed odd. But as slowly as he walked, it seemed that his overly long strides should not work at all. He should topple over in the middle of his stride, not having enough momentum to overcome gravity.

But he didn't topple. He seemed perfectly stable. And he didn't notice her staring at him; his own stare was fixed on Elsa. Elida? Electra? Whatever.

She swung her own gaze straight ahead and continued on to her office. She sat down at her desk and took a few minutes just to watch through the windows that comprised her office walls, paying close attention to what was happening around her. Marnie, a husky woman in her mid-50s, was at the coffee cycler; she seemed to be focusing very hard on positioning the sealed, single-serving coffee pod before closing it up in the chamber. Then Marnie seemed to study the simple controls with unwarranted care before reaching out, tentatively, and tapping the switch to trigger the flow of hot water. The machine gurgled - she could hear it all the way from her office - but the gurgle, like the train's brakes and the alarm clock's beeps, sounded different. The process seemed to take much longer than usual; Marnie stared down at her cup for almost a minute before reaching, with a ridiculously slow motion, to take hold of the cup.

An impossible thought occurred to her then: Her office mates weren't taking longer to go through their habitual motions; time itself had slowed. That was it. She thought back to the green diodes on the old clock, which had blinked on, remained lit for a couple of seconds, then gone dark for an equally too-long time. She thought about how she'd kept waking up throughout the night, too hot, feeling suffocated. How the breeze through the window - usually too stiff for her liking - had felt like barely a stir. She thought about the rosy cast of the light, the deeper timbre of the alarm and the coffee cycler. Then she thought back two nights ago, to the evening she had her conversation with the old man at the teahouse...

He'd barely said anything, just gestured for her to join him at his table. "Is anyone sitting here?" she'd asked as he extended a hand to the chair across the table from him, where a teacup already sat waiting.

"Not yet," he said. "This chair is for - whoever."

"Whoever happens along?" she asked.

He smiled.

"That's a cool idea," she said. She sat. He poured. The tea had a lovely floral scent. It took her a moment to place it. It was jasmine tea - she hadn't had jasmine in years, had forgotten all about it.

"Thank you," she said.

He nodded.

"Is this, like, a random acts of hospitality thing?" she asked. It seemed to her that she had read something about that - it was a minor craze, evidently. Restaurants encouraging people to share empty spots at their tables. Supper clubs. The world was, in some ways, pushing back against the wave of incivility that was sweeping the streets.

"Well, I'm, uh... am I supposed to introduce myself?" she asked.

"Doesn't matter," he said. Did he have an accent? Was it Chinese? Indian? He didn't look it... but then, he didn't really have any distinguishing features. A kindly face, a nice smile, dark eyes, white hair. Otherwise, she couldn't have said what he looked like.

"Well, I... what do I do?"

"Drink tea," he said. "Talk if you want. If not, don't talk."

She had thought she might just enjoy the tea in companionable silence, but after a time she found herself asking him about men, about their drives and way of looking at the world, why they were so aggressive and intrusive. They had to make a spectacle of themselves, make a nuisance, make a mess.

The old man simply listened and poured her cup after cup of tea.

She found herself telling him about Keith - about his rough, hard-handed assault in the kitchen, her enraged and terrified whiteout, the feel of the gun in her hand, the instinctive press of muzzle against flesh and the way she'd squeezed the trigger. That detail stood out to her. It was the thing she fixed on, the thing that suggested deliberation and cold intent: She didn't yank on the trigger. She squeezed it, with a smooth application of pressure, just as she'd been coached. Was it muscle memory, or was it a rational choice carried out with stony will?

"But how do you know after the fact what really happened? How do you even know in the moment? No action is just one thing," she said. "I remember it differently every time, and I can't stop that one action replaying in my mind, over and over again, him bearing down on me, him pressing in on me - and that tiny place of calm. That one action, so clean and unhurried. I squeezed the trigger."

"What happened then?" the old man asked.

"He yelped. Then he just slumped down. It was that fast. He was already dead."

"Very fast," the old man said.

'Yes. Very fast. Faster than I could do anything about it. Faster than I could think what else to do. And now... and now I can't take it back."

"No," the old man said. "You cannot take anything back. But do you regret it?"

"I just wish I could have had a moment, a freeze frame," she said. "I just wish I had a margin of a moment when it was still possible to reverse time, to jump back and re-set a few seconds. A way to catch up with myself, when my thoughts could catch up to my impulse. My impulse to... to kill. Or not even kill, but just - just make him stop. The law is on my side, but does that make it right? Everything happened so fast. And all of life, it just keeps going too fast. Always, always faster. I can't keep up with it..."

And the old man had smiled, and reached over to place his worn, warm hand on hers, and then he poured her one last cup of tea.

A margin of a moment, she'd said. She had told the old man that she wanted time to catch up with herself, get in front of events that were speeding too fast. "That's what's happening," she whispered. "Everything else is either slowing down, or I am speeding up... either way, to me it's like there's more time. But..." She leaned back. She realized now she'd been shifting in her chair almost constantly. "But that means air doesn't circulate as quickly as it needs to. It means air is harder to move through. And..." She looked around the office again. If anything, the people around her were moving more slowly than ever. The slowing down, she thought, was speeding up.

She pushed up from her desk. The air, she noticed, really did feel thicker - more resistant. It was even getting a little syrupy. It snatched at her hair as she stood... of course, because from any perspective other than her own she was now moving in fast-forward. She started to walk away from her desk, out the open door of her office, across the floor. Nobody seemed to notice. But they would in a little while; she noticed how the air seemed to press back at her, how it seemed to yield only with reluctance and form invisible swirls that cleaved around her. She noticed the edges of loose papers starting to lift from desks she passed. She was creating a wake, and those papers were going to fly up - but not until she was already out the door.

She made her way out of the building, having to push hard against the door to get it to budge. She pressed into the thick air once again. It abraded the exposed skin of her arms lightly, but continuously. She had miles to walk if she wanted to get to the teahouse.

But would it help to go and find the old man? Had he done this? Or had she somehow done it to herself? Had her chat with the old man opened a door to clarity, to the recognition of her own uncertainty and the sin that uncertainty contained? Had she determined her own guilt and her own penance?

She pressed on. The air was harder to move through - less like wind than water. She was starting to choke on the air, which poured into her lungs as sluggishly as fluid. She tried to heave it out of her chest, but it just wouldn't move quickly enough. She fought harder to make progress, to move toward her goal, but then she began to wonder what her goal really was. In the back of her mind she wondered what she must look like to everyone else: A madwoman? A video played at a dozen times, a hundred times normal speed?

The air was turning to concrete. Freezing her in place. The sunlight was taking on a deeper red hue, getting a dimmer... She fought on until she could move no more. The air trapped her like amber. Her body burned with a need for oxygen she could not get into her lungs. A rush of animal fear overwhelmed her. She felt herself go into a last paroxysm, her body straining for air. She'd lose consciousness and die any moment...

Only, she didn't. She hung in the margin of that perpetual final moment, and hung, and hung. Finally, she understood: She wasn't going to die.

A desperate sensation of clenching restriction in her chest, a scream trying to erupt from her throat, a wild despair that shoved everything else aside, eradicated even her guilt and her terror - this was a moment without end.

This was eternity.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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