by Sandra Maddux-Creech
At work, he fantasizes about an accident in which the car throws him,
and his body slides along the pavement, abrading the skin on his chest
and legs. It shames him, but thinking about it makes his breath heavy,
makes him close his eyes. Every time his mind wanders to her, he comes
back to this fantasy. It focuses his thoughts to a point of light, as he imagines meditating would. Before he knows it, it's four o'clock.
He drops her off last in the carpool every day. She sneezes every few
minutes, sniffles a lot, but she keeps coming to work. Her eyes look
glazed and she zones out at the other cars passing by. He isn't sure
she's heard him, so he asks again, "Should I stop at a drug store? Get
you some cold caplets or something?"
"I need sleep," she says in her soft voice, so fragile in its volume and timbre,
though every word she speaks is definitive. Always with the quiet last word. Her
gentleness makes him feel huge and small at the same time.
She looks younger today, almost like a teenager. Her hair seems lighter,
and her face too pale to be real. Her book bag seduces him, as always,
printed with an Edward Gorey drawing from The Gashlycrumb Tinies,
reading, "K is for Kate, who was struck with an axe." He imagines
himself and not little Kate lying in the snow, an axe buried in his
chest, black blood all around.
"You know," she says, startling him, twisting her shoulders so she's facing him.
"I'm not contagious." They hardly speak to each other at the library. When he's not
in the bindery, he spends most days down in the cage—the barred-off section of the
basement where the rare, expensive, most-tempting-to-steal books are kept, along
with the back issues of Playboy. There, he makes entries in the electronic card
catalogue via laptop computer. Whenever he surfaces from the basement, she always
"It's an allergy," she says, "not a cold." She faces front again, moving
slowly, like something might hurt or maybe she's sad. He knows it has
nothing to do with him. Nothing about her has anything to do with him.
When he drops her off at her apartment building, she takes a pen from her purse and
writes a phone number on his forearm. Without a word, she gets out of the car and
walks to her door, doesn't look back before going inside.
For a minute, he can't move his arms. When he does drive home, he's surprised he
doesn't get pulled over because he can't keep the car going in a straight line.
In the morning, his day off, he wakes from a dream about a robbery during which he
is shot several times. He lies in bed until the leftover sensation of hot smoky
holes in his chest has passed.
He takes a shower, pours some orange juice, and calls her.
"Hi," she says when she picks up after the third ring.
"How do you feel this morning?" He wonders if she'll recognize his voice.
"Curious," she says. "Hesitant."
He shakes his hand through his wet hair. He's standing in his kitchen, naked,
holding a Bugs Bunny kiddie cup. He's had it since he was a child.
"Come on over," she says. She hangs up the phone.
Her apartment is chilly, the tables and counters bare. It's as if no one
really lives there. She wears a sweatshirt and pajama bottoms, and she
looks cute with her messed up hair and sleepy eyes.
"Your place is very neat," he remarks.
She sits at the kitchen table with her arms folded. "Help yourself to a drink."
He opens the refrigerator and finds a bottle of Blue Curacao, a jar of horseradish,
and a package of shredded mozzarella. He's ready for disappointment if she's about
to make him the butt of a joke, or already has. "Do you mind if I use your
bathroom?" he asks.
She points down a short hallway.
In the bathroom, he reasons with himself. She's probably not the person he wants her
to be, soft with a hard center. An iron marble in the center of a ball of yellow
cotton candy. In the shower stall, the dish on the wall holds a bar of white soap. A
bottle of baby shampoo is set on the high windowsill. He rolls his eyes at himself
in the bathroom mirror and runs some water into the sink. He flushes the toilet and
leaves the bathroom.
She's asleep on the couch, curled under an orange afghan.
He wants to sleep beside her, but not scare her. The woman with the iron marble
inside wouldn't be scared. But there's no room on the couch. He heads for what he
assumes is her bedroom, the only room he hasn't seen. The cotton candy girl would
never mind him lying on her bed, above the blankets, feet hanging over the side.
A red and yellow quilt covers her bed. Nothing decorates the walls or adorns the
dresser. But along the wall are milk crates, piled six feet high and at least as
wide, in bookshelf fashion—bright blue, orange, red, gray, olive, and emerald,
engraved with such phrases as Property of London Dairy; Help us keep prices down,
return this container; and Thou shalt not steal. They hold books. A label on the
spine of each book shows its Library of Congress call number. She has reference
books, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. He realizes his mouth is hanging open, and he
"Are you going to turn me in?" she asks. She's snuck up behind him.
"Are you starting your own library?" He's more fascinated by her than ever.
"I have a book thing." She shrugs. "Kind of like you have a sex thing."
"A sex thing?" That would explain why she gave him her number—she's got him confused
with someone else.
"You spend all day down there with the Playboys," she says. "And I see you getting
euphoric when you think no one is looking."
He really thought no one was looking. Especially not her.
She looks like she's going to yell at him, but she sneezes.
He jumps but says, "Bless you."
She goes to the bathroom and blows her nose. "I'm allergic to something," she says
over her shoulder, tossing the tissue in the toilet. "They can't figure out what. I
swear, I'm not contagious." She returns to his side. "So, are you? Going to turn me
"If you were afraid I'd turn you in, why did you invite me over?"
"You didn't know I was stealing them?"
He shakes his head.
"Why do you give me that look every time I bring that big book bag home?"
K is for Kate. "Too much time with the Playboys?"
"You didn't know." She seems impressed with herself. Her face and voice still
angelic, she says, "Now I'll have to kill you."
He takes a breath of her chilly apartment air. She's probably kidding, and he
doesn't want to die, but if she wants to strangle him a little.
"Are you all right?" she asks. He's seen this look on women's faces a
"I like you," he says. "I don't want to scare you away."
Her face is white marble, surely incapable of any expression other than this nearly
"I won't turn you in," he says, "if you hurt me."
Her blond eyebrows lower, her mask broken. "Hurt you how?"
She kneels on the bed and drips peroxide on the scrapes she left on him. He feels a
dull pain, relaxing. She's looking at him with more interest than anyone has in
"Have you ever used Tiger Balm?" she asks.
"I've never even heard of it."
"I have some in the medicine cabinet. It's for sore muscles. It makes your skin feel
like it's burning."
In her stolen library, one of the spines reads, The Highest Altar: The Story of
"So we keep each other's secrets?" she asks.
"Yes," he whispers.
The following day, he emerges from the bindery as she heads for the library exit
with her Gorey book bag. The pimply boy at the circulation desk seems to have
nothing to do except watch the people filing through the scanners at the door.
He tells himself love makes him do it, though he knows other terms to describe it
with. He approaches the boy and asks him to check the lost and found for a set of
keys. The boy ducks behind the circulation desk.
Codependence. That's one term people would use.
She pushes her bag around the scanners and walks through.
Symbiosis. Mutually beneficial. What word fits when it's mutually destructive?
What is destructive?
The boy is unable to find a set of keys.
"I'll check back tomorrow," he says to the boy, and he starts to follow her out of
But she's not going anywhere now. The bald guy from security holds her arm in one
hand and her Gorey bag in the other, leading her back to the offices, shaking his
He hopes no one notices his arms trembling like he's an addict going into
withdrawal. She isn't even out of his sight yet, and his need pulses in him like a
second heartbeat, thumping counter to the one that gives him life.
He hopes breaking into her place won't be too difficult. He wonders how many milk
crates he can fit into his car.
In the evening, he's back at his apartment, reading The Story of Human
Sacrifice, willing his body to be still, his mind to concentrate on one
slow word at a time. Voluntary sacrificial victims have been revered
throughout the centuries, pampered and coddled right up until the moment
when their hearts are sliced out. He lays the book aside and stretches
out on his living room floor, arms and legs spread wide, imagining the
dull knife digging into his chest.
She slips in without knocking, but he feels her or smells her,
"I'm fired," she says, "but the police couldn't find any of the recently
missing books at my place, so the library isn't prosecuting." She nods
at the crates stacked against his wall and kneels beside him. "I've
brought you a present."
He doesn't move except to help her undress him.
The Tiger Balm does feel like fire on his skin. He imagines that a new
kind of slow-burning flame has engulfed him, one that will never burn
out. She smears the balm onto him until he's no longer aware of her
presence or even the floor he lies on, until he's floating in a vacuum
of ecstatic agony.
He always thought, eventually, he'd meet a quiet sadist, but she doesn't
enjoy this. When he's finally able to look at her, her teeth are
clenched and her eyes closed.
He doesn't need to push a bag past the scanners. Along with full access
to the rare books in the cage, he has keys to the back office and
basement exits. When he works late, security even requires that he leave
through the back. But there are cameras. He doesn't look at them, but he
feels them watching him, studying his eyes for guilt and his coat for
Under his coat tonight is a present for her, a book about the ancient
Celts, who she told him ritualistically ate their dead. It's a big book,
but no one is watching him too carefully yet.
Cooperative devastation? Baneful symbiosis? There must be a word for
It's only a matter of time, he knows. They'll catch him. But tonight, he escapes
into the cool night air, holding the book next to his chest with one hand in his
In the other pocket, he caresses a jar of Tiger Balm, a tiny jar of heavenly fire.