Meet the Author
Johnny appeared in Best American Erotica 2003.
Edited by Susie Bright and published by Touchstone Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.
The Specialist appeared in McSweeney's Issue 11,
published in the summer of 2003.
I first met Johnny Sisnowski at a transsexual pool party in Hadley, Massachusetts, three months after his surgery, twelve months into the change. I am not transitioning and I've never been what they call gender-ambiguous. I'm just a plain old gay man born gay and male and no, I am not on a life journey to anything other than gay and male. I've never been fashionable or political. Up until that fated afternoon, the whole transsexual movement had just passed me by. While everybody else was busy rearranging their sexual proclivities or their sexual parts I was just standing there in my tan Dockers and lace-ups looking for a good man to take me from behind.
When Johnny emerged from the pool, his tan shoulders and long tan back glistening in the hot afternoon sun, a slick dome of blond hair dripping pool water across the patio, I just about dropped my spatula. A gorgeous boy with great biceps and a set of mysterious scars on his chest is not what I expected to find that afternoon. Johnny shook the water out of his hair, slipped on a pair of Buddy Holly glasses, pulled a bottle of beer from the cooler and headed straight toward the grill. He stared down at the sizzling meat. The first thing Johnny said to me was that the sight of raw meat made him queasy.
"I love it," I said and I pressed the juice out of a turkey burger with my spatula. The coals flared and sizzled. "I'm Greg." I put out my hand.
Johnny shook it, despite the meat. "I'm an F to M," he said.
"A female-to-male." Johnny flashed a winning smile.
He wore the beach version of club-boy clothes: oversized red swim trunks and green goggles that hung loosely around his neck. He held a Corona in his cool, white hand.
"What are you?" he asked.
I stared up at him. His blond hair, slicked back against his scalp, softened as it dried. "Isn't it obvious?"
"Nothing's obvious," he replied. "Not anymore."
I flicked ash from my Pall Mall into a can on the metal side table and prepared to flip the burgers. Johnny tapped his beer bottle against the side of the grill and stared into the red center of the coals. I was required to lean over him to reach the grill and as I did my face came close to those two scars-young and red-where, I realized, his breasts used to be. They shined up from his broad chest, resting like narrow crescent moons right under his pecks. It made my eyes burn to look at them.
"I'm a fag," I said, "and no offense, but I'm not into girls."
Johnny let out an audible sigh. "I'm not a girl."
"You were," I replied and I lit another cigarette off the burning ash of my last.
"My former gender is a subject we could debate for hours, but right now, here, this minute, I'm a guy. A 'he.' That's the pronoun you're looking for," Johnny said and he took another swig of his Corona.
I remained silent throughout this speech and tended to my burgers, jogging the spatula up and down in my hand and watching the pink meat turn hard and white. Johnny waited for me to respond. When I didn't he asked me if I would care to see his license.
"It's proof that I'm legally male," Johnny said and he went for his wallet.
I shook my head. "That won't prove anything. I know a guy when I meet one; I can tell by the way they smell. "
"You don't think I smell like a guy?" Johnny asked and he stepped up to the grill. "Try me." His voice cracked. He held out his wrist, nodding toward the upturned arm. "Smell."
I looked down at his arm, the blue veins threading out just under the smooth, tan skin. I turned away from Johnny and stared out across the patio area. Our hostess, an aging drag queen in a blond wig and an off-the-shoulder chiffon tea dress, lounged under a moth-infested rose tree. She was engaged in what appeared to be a rather deep conversation with a skinny, bearded guy with huge breasts. He wore a white shirt that read "boy-girl." It must have been five in the afternoon. The party was winding down and I was late with the burgers.
"Bear with me," I said. "I'm new to this game. I don't even know what I should call you."
"Why don't you try 'boy.' That's what I've been called all my life," Johnny said and he looked away from me.
I followed Johnny's gaze out over the little picket fence by the garden off into the Holyoke Mountain range. The sun was setting and we watched the light fall in soft striations across those green hills. Just then "boy-girl" handed his glasses to our hostess, pulled off his T-shirt, stepped up to the pool, and launched into a perfect dive. As his body cut through the water and disappeared beneath that cool, aqua surface I turned back to Johnny.
"Kind of nuts, don't you think?" I asked.
I gestured with my spatula, sweeping my arm around me. "This party."
Johnny tilted his head to one side and blond hair fell across his tall forehead.
"Everybody gets all their sexual organs surgically rearranged," I took a long drag on my cigarette, "and then they come here and strip down and show them off all in the name of a good swim."
Johnny paused before answering me. He took a swig of beer. The evening light fell across his tanned shoulders and he looked away from me again. "Why'd you come then?" he asked.
"I'm supporting a friend."
"I'd hate to be your friend," he said and laughed a high, soft giggle.
I was not invited to the next transsexual pool party. I can't say that I was surprised, but I must admit that I was oddly disappointed to think that was the end of Johnny, the scarred, beautiful boy in the oversized red bathing trunks. But that was not the end.
Three months later I was in New York for the weekend, trawling the streets of Chelsea in my beat-up Honda Civic looking for a parking space-a futile endeavor. I was double-parked on twenty-first near the corner of Eighth and I'd just popped into Bendix for another coffee. When I came back out there was Johnny, in an Armani knock-off, a silver shirt, and matching silver tie, his tight little ass pressed up against my driver's-side door, arms folded across his chest. He looked different and it was not just the clothes. In those three months he'd grown into his new manhood. He looked less like a petulant boy and more like a man, I thought. But I was damned if I was going to tell him that.
"Hey," I called as I approached the car.
"Don't worry," he said and he stepped toward me. "I know you. I mean, we've met before." He pointed at my Honda. "I recognized the car."
I looked down at his suit. "What happened to club-boy?"
"What?" he asked.
I waved my hand. "Never mind."
I interrupted him. "Johnny. I remember."
I went to shake his hand and spilled coffee on him. He wiped it away. I said something about his new suit and then I apologized about the coffee, but he put out his hand and stopped me. He said it was nothing. Then we stood there and stared at each other. His hair was close cropped-somebody had been merciless with a razor around the ears and neck. His fingernails were buffed to a luminous shine. He nodded at me, asked what brought me to New York. I said business, which was a lie. Johnny slipped his hands into the pockets of those slim dark dress pants, rocked back on his heels, squinted up into the sun and said he had best be on his way. He started to walk his brisk, hopping gait across Eighth. I called after him.
"You still a man?"
He stopped dead in the middle of the street, turned around. "You still a fag?" His voice cracked. A cab rushed past, almost clipped him.
I waved him over. "Get in," I told him.
He practically leapt into the car. "Where we going?" he asked.
I had no idea, but I had been double-parked for half an hour, the cops were circling the block, and I knew we had to go somewhere so I turned over the engine and pulled out into the rush of traffic on Eighth Avenue. I looked over at Johnny, his long legs folded into the front passenger seat of my Civic. His silver tie, catching the bright afternoon light, glowed along with that absurd silver shirt, as if his chest was made of some precious metal. I told him that it looked like he had got some sun and that it looked good on him. He blushed and even through that ruddy tone I could see the pink rising on his skin.
"I've been out west," he said.
"I see," I said. "Out. West."
We nodded. I glanced over at him as I drove and pressed my hands into the wheel. A little dip in the center of Johnny's upper lip caused his mouth to look permanently pursed. It lent Johnny a pensive, altogether trusting air. I traced the line of his jaw with my eyes and something on his chin caught my attention. There, collected on the tip, was a tiny almost imperceptible patch of silky blond hairs.
"Looks like you missed a spot," I said.
"Shaving. If you insist on being a man you better learn how to use a razor."
Johnny rubbed his chin. "That's my goatee."
I never did find a parking place. In the end we sat in traffic for the entire afternoon. Johnny ducked into Le Gamin on Ninth and ordered us cafe au lait to go. We drank it and drove around. My hand brushed his thigh every time I downshifted. I don't remember everything Johnny and I talked about that day. I think I finally admitted I had come to town looking for action and he said I didn't seem like the type. But all that is immaterial. It was just a bunch of hot air and empty salutations leading up to the moment when Johnny showed me the photograph. As we waited at a light in midtown, he pulled it out. I looked down at the small ten-year-old snapshot with beveled edges and a crease down its center where it lay cupped in the palm of Johnny's hand and I found myself staring into the face of a sixteen-year-old girl. Slim, busty, her long hair curled into a feathered flip that fell across her cheek and neck. I glanced up at Johnny and saw again the small wisps of hair curled around his narrow chin. Then I looked down into that smooth face, the salt shine on the hairless cheeks and those slim, gorgeous legs on that California girl. Draping one muscled arm over the rim of her surfboard, she looked out at the camera. I am not a connoisseur of beautiful women, but this girl, I knew, was stunning.
"You?" I asked.
"But it was you," I said.
Johnny did not reply.
"You were a knockout."
Johnny nodded. "36 D."
"Why would you want to go and change?" I asked. "Why mess with perfection?"
Johnny looked out the window, rolled it down further and pointed at a hotdog stand. "You want a dog?" he asked. "I could pop out now and get us each one."
"Did I say the wrong thing?"
Johnny ignored me. "The way this light's going we'll be here for a while," he continued.
I knew then that I had just been given some sort of test and that, yet again, I had failed Johnny. The sky had shifted and the sun disappeared behind clouds, but still somehow his shirt glowed and Johnny in that impossible get-up glowed right along with it, all silvery and bright.
"You're a beautiful man, too," I said.
Johnny looked out of the car. His arm was draped over the lip of the door. "Not handsome?" he asked.
"Yeah. You're handsome." I said.
He looked over at me. "Now you're blushing."
I tapped his knee. "Go get us some hot dogs."
Johnny snapped the car door open and unfolded himself out onto the street. He left the photo on the dash. When he returned with two chilidogs I was still staring at it. Chili paste wound its way down his little finger. He held the dog out to me. I took it. The bun was warm and soft. Then I remembered something.
"I thought you were a vegetarian?"
Johnny bit through the skin of the dog. Steam curled out and fogged his glasses. "People change," he said. He grinned at me.
In the photo an older woman stands on the girl's left, just on the edge of the shot, her hand on her hip, a camera slung over her shoulder. She wears a wide felt hat, patterned with red windmills.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"She's not your mother, too?"
"Not according to her," Johnny said and he popped the end of his hotdog into his mouth and slapped out a quick, sharp rhythm on top of my glove compartment.
"She's a pretty woman."
"Yeah," Johnny said. "People say we look a lot alike."
Johnny has inherited her eyes. Wide-set, Slavic, with a slight blue cast to the whites, as if the definition between the iris and the white orb around it had been pierced, the boundary broken somehow and that dark, glowing blue melted out.
"They call them watershot, instead of bloodshot," Johnny said and he tucked the photo back into his pocket.
He began to talk about himself and I wanted to tell him that he shouldn't, that he was making a mistake, that I hardly knew him, I clearly didn't understand him, but something made me keep silent and listen. He was from L.A. A transplant, he said. He made a bad attempt at a joke, something about transcontinental and transsexual. It wasn't funny, but I laughed anyway. He grew up in a religious family close to the beach, and no, his parents hadn't accepted "the change." They still called him Jennifer, when they called at all. I put my hand on his wrist.
"Jennifer?" I said.
"Yes. That used to be my name."
He looked down at my hand. I moved it away.
I left him off near Penn Station around four and drove out of the city. I was tired of the traffic and the tall buildings and somehow I had lost my desire to hook up. On the way home I stopped by Hammenasett State Park, just outside New Haven. I paid for a day-pass even though the day was almost over, and walked the short path across the boardwalk and down the sand to the water's edge. The sky was shining and dull at the same moment, like hammered pewter. Cupping my hands around my eyes I blocked out the parking lot and the bathhouse and the beach walkers in their neon oranges and greens. All I could see in the round frame of my hands were the marshes, the hibiscus, and the golden rod, fading down to the line of sand and finally to the dark swirl of ocean water. And for a moment, that is all I wanted, just that blindered view of the world with its rosy fruit shuddering in the breeze. It was late in the season for swimming. I hated cold water, but that autumn day, the sun just setting, the wind whipping down the beach, biting into my cheeks, I stripped down to my boxers and walked in. The sand was pebbly and coarse under my feet. Cold flinders of water reached around the backs of my knees. I trembled at the water's edge for a while and then, finally, I dove.
It was not the West Coast, it was the wrong ocean, but I wanted somehow to enter that photo of Jennifer and her mother, to walk into Johnny's past and find him before the change. The worn elastic of my boxer shorts grew soft in the coming tide. As I swam under the waves I thought of Johnny in the surf on the other shore, across the continent, a lifetime ago when he was more than just a boy; he was a boy in a girl's body. And I thought of my own boyhood in the dingy walk-up apartment with my mother in Cleveland Heights. I had felt out of step with life as a child. Coming out had addressed some of that, but often I was overcome with the feeling that I would always be a castaway, adrift between two shores. That day I felt it. There in my faded khakis and my pink oxford button down on the streets of New York, yet again, the next big thing had come along and I had thumbed my nose at it, I had let it pass me by.
Under the water at Hammenasett I kept coming back to the moment when Johnny leaned forward and pulled himself out of the car. He turned back toward me for one moment and, touching his finger to his forehead, he saluted me. I wanted to stop him, to keep him there with me, but the only thing I could think to say was Why? Why did you show me the photo? Why trust me, the fool, the wallflower, the one who insulted you at the edge of the pool? I wanted to tell him to be more careful with his past. But he seemed fragile and untouchable at that moment, one eyebrow cocked, the light bouncing off those tan cheeks, as if, should I reach out for him, he would dissolve in my hands. Before I could decide what to do he turned around and walked away-just disappeared into the throng on Thirty-fourth Street. I leaned out of the car and watched his blond head grow smaller and smaller till I could no longer see it. And for a second time that year I thought I had lost Johnny for good.
Then, in April, I came across him in a downtown restaurant, in New York-I don't recall the name of the place. This time I made the first move. He had changed again. Gone was the club-boy and the Armani-man. This time I found him in rumpled corduroys and a tweed jacket with elbow patches leaning against the bar, cupping a brandy snifter and chomping down on a pipe. I tiptoed up behind him.
"Professor," I whispered in his ear.
He started. "You must have me confused with someone-"
Then he turned and saw me. He took the pipe out of his mouth (I noticed it was unlit). He called my name and put his arms out for a hug. I walked into them.
"Nice pipe," I said.
"Oh, that," he sighed and slipped it into his pocket.
"How have you been, old man?" he asked and before I had a chance to answer he flagged down a waiter and was arranging a table for us. "This place is a madhouse on Friday nights, but I know the maitre d'. He'll set us up with something."
A half-hour later he had us seated at a noisy table in the back. We were required to yell over the rattle of pots and the sizzle of oil as the noise of the kitchen wafted into our cramped corner of the dining room. We spent about an hour shouting into each other's ears before we gave up and quitted the restaurant. When we got outside, the streets were wet. It had rained during dinner. The sidewalks shined. The air was heavy and sweet and the smell of exhaust mixed with the scent of sugar-roasted nuts. I looked over at Johnny as he strolled down First Avenue like he had all the time in the world. He slipped his hands into the pockets of those wide wale corduroys and said,
"I've a party that I'm going to tonight. Perhaps you'd like to come along."
"A party?" I asked.
"What sort of party?"
"Come along and you'll find out," Johnny offered.
I agreed to accompany him. Johnny put his hand out and hailed a cab. We hopped in back and before I knew it we were barreling along over a bridge at breakneck speed.
"It's in Brooklyn," Johnny said.
"I gathered," I replied. I pulled out my pack of cigarettes and then thought better of it and tucked them back into my jacket pocket.
"It's a bit out of the way, but really that's for the best," Johnny said.
I knew he was being cryptic on purpose. I refused to ask any more questions about this mysterious party. I sunk down into the black vinyl seat, let my head fall back, and stared out at the fog-covered sky.
Twenty minutes later the cab deposited us on a deserted street. It looked to me, from the decorations in the tiny rundown front yards, like a Portuguese neighborhood. The streets were quiet and there were no signs of a party. Johnny appeared unfazed by this. He walked up a few blocks, checked the street sign, and ducked down a side street.
He waved me over. "It's just around this corner."
He knocked on the door of a brownstone and girl in a leather halter top appeared. She wore a pink party hat that frothed over with fuchsia ribbons. Besides that one spot of color she was clad entirely in black-a half rubber, half leather getup with so many straps and belts and hooks and laces I imagined it took her the better part of the week to get into it.
"Welcome to Chez Alice," she whispered in a low throaty voice that was decidedly not her natural way of speaking. She took a better look at us, squealed and threw her arms around my companion. "Johnny! It's you. You dog. Where have you been? We'd half given up on you." She planted a kiss on his luminous cheek, pulled him in, and then peered at his outfit. "What's with the Oxford get-up?" she asked. Then she stared down at me. "Who's this?" Her eyes narrowed. "He's not on the guest list."
"It's okay, Paige," Johnny said. "He's with me."
Paige looked me up and down from my faded Lee jeans to my Swatch wristwatch. "Is he with you," she asked, looking deep into Johnny's eyes, "or 'with' you?" As she said this she lifted her gloved hands and drew quotation marks in the air in front of her bosom.
"We're all free agents here, aren't we, Paige," Johnny quipped and the girl smiled, revealing a charming gap between her front teeth.
We were ushered into a darkened living room. Every lamp in the room-and there were many-was draped with scarves in deep reds and oranges. Someone must have gone wild with a spray bottle of patchouli because the room reeked of it. In that half-light I could just make out the silhouettes of couples or sometimes clutches of three or four. A bad, bootlegged copy of a Ziggy Stardust concert played in the background. On the couch writhed three young things in dominatrix get-ups who seemed to get as much pleasure out of the idea of all that moaning and panting as they did out of each other. Besides Paige, I could not quite place the gender of anyone in the room. I had figured out enough by now to know that if you were looking obviously male, you probably hadn't been born that way. The whole scene made me a bit dizzy and I leaned over to ask Johnny exactly what he thought he was doing bringing me to such a place, but he was gone. I accepted a glass of pink punch from a being in a red leather evening gown, pushed aside the beaded curtains, and stepped deeper into the apartment, looking for Johnny.
I passed by a game of spin the bottle and stumbled through a room where a woman in a black teddy was fellating a dildoed girl in chaps. Johnny was not there. At this point I was not sure what solace, what island of safety or familiarity Johnny would provide, but I became desperate to find him. Finally, a mustachioed young man pointed his riding crop in the direction of the back stairs by the pantry and nodded,
At the top of the stairs I found myself in a badly decorated bedroom. The bedspread, the curtains, the throw rug, the wallpaper-all of it was covered with enormous roses, close-ups of the buds just as they were about to burst open. Pretty tame stuff, but in these circumstances those roses with their overripe blooms, wet and bursting, took on a sinister quality. And in the midst of all this I located Johnny, straddling a boy. He must have been about twenty-one, this boy, and he was almost as beautiful as Johnny. Dark and slim, he wore a pair of Levi's, red lipstick, and that's all. Johnny had a paddle in his right hand and was smacking this boy's upturned ass. Each time the paddle made contact with his ass the boy shivered and squirmed; I watched the muscles of his abdomen ripple and shine in that half-light. Johnny grabbed the boy by the hair and pulled him back till his mouth was in reach of the boy's ear. He bent over and whispered something in that exposed ear, something that made the boy whimper and tremble. He kept whispering and the boy nodded his head in tiny, bird-like bobs.
It was then that Johnny looked up and he saw me. I felt the blood rush to my head. The scarf slipped off the lampshade and suddenly Johnny's face and torso were washed in a dusty and speckled brightness. As he leaned over the boy, looking up at me, I swear he looked like he'd stepped out of a Vermeer painting-that same impassive look of concentration, that same intimate, unselfconscious absorption that makes you feel as if you are witnessing something very intimate, even if it's just a girl pouring water out of a pitcher. Of course the difference was that I happened to be witnessing something genuinely private, or at least I had always thought of sex as a private act. I knew I should walk away, I should just turn tail and leave him, but I could not stop staring. I stumbled further into the room and leaned against a chair. Placing my hands on the back of it, I felt myself stiffen under the soft denim of my jeans. I was glad for the chair, that it hid the bottom half of me. On Johnny's flawless, impassive face, only his eyes moved, taking me in, up and down. He glanced down at the back of the chair and I think he knew what I was hiding for at that moment the corners of his mouth tipped up, just a flicker. And then he returned to stroking that boy's white skin.
Perhaps it was just the scent of patchouli mixed with hair gel and gin, but the world began to dim for me at that moment, to shimmer and grow fuzzy around the edges. I felt faint. I tried to watch, to stay with it, as I knew Johnny wanted me to. With one arm Johnny shoved the boy down on the bed. His biceps flexed as he reached round, unbuttoned the boy's jeans, and pulled them down. Then he leaned over and kissed that white, upturned ass and as he did Johnny moved his hands to his own boxer shorts and unbuttoned them. As Johnny entered that boy I imagined the long night of sedation when he crossed the ocean from girl to boy. And I thought this is what Johnny wanted me to see: proof that he had reached the other shore.
As we left that party the next morning, Johnny, glistening with sweat, shivered as the cold air hit his wet skin. He tucked his chin into the collar of his corduroy blazer, and leaned in toward me. Just then I caught the scent of him: patchouli off the lamps had worked its way into his clothes and the tangy chemical-smell of that boy's makeup. But that wasn't what struck me. Under the perfume and the cosmetics I smelled the Pacific Ocean, and burning asphalt and a child running in the orange groves, the sun just setting, girls behind her calling out, boy, boy, dirty little boy, the small hips tightening as Johnny ran and ran. I smelled the scent of dried sweat and fear. Of hiding. Of waiting. Searching for the shore. The sting of alcohol on his skin and, it's only a pinprick. I smelled the cool rush of the oxygen, the rubber mask, the scalpel shining in the antiseptic light, pressing in.
"Johnny," I whispered as we walked out into that cold morning, the dawn soaking up the night like a stain. "You smell like a man."
The first one said it was incurable. The next agreed. "Incurable," he sighed. The third one looked and looked and found nothing. He tapped her temple. "It's all in your head," he said. The fourth one put his hand in and cried, "Mother! Mother!" The fifth never saw anything like it. "I never saw anything like it," he gasped as he draped his fingers over his stethoscope. The sixth agreed with the first and the seventh agreed with the third. He parted her legs and said, "There's nothing wrong with you."
Alice sat up. The paper gown crinkled. Her feet gripped the metal stirrups. "But it hurts," she said and she pointed.
"Maybe it's a rash," Number Seven said and he gave her some small white pills. They did not help. "Maybe it's spores," he said and he gave her a tube of gel. This made it worse. "Maybe it's a virus." He gave her a bottle of yellow pills. When Alice returned for the fourth time and told Number Seven it was not better, he slumped against the examining table, his white coat trailing. "There's nothing left," he said.
"Nothing?" Alice asked. "What am I going to do?"
He put his finger to her lips and shook his head. "Not here," he said.
That evening, Number Seven took Alice out to dinner. He leaned in over the herb-encrusted salmon croquettes. "Do you mind if I call you Alice?" he asked.
Alice frowned. "What's wrong with me?"
Number Seven pushed the fish around his plate. "I don't know," he said and then he started to cry.
"It's okay," Alice murmured. "At least you tried."
He touched her hand. She held her napkin. She could not eat. Everything tasted incurable. The rice, the saffron asparagus souffle, the flaming liquor in the dessert-all of it, incurable.
The eighth told her it was the feminine bleeding wound. "All women have it," he said. The ninth told her she didn't use it enough. "It's atrophied," he said as he peeled off his latex gloves with a little shiver.
"But," said Alice as she sat up on her elbows, "it hurts."
The tenth said, "Call me Bob, why don't you?" He looked inside and shook his head. He sat next to her. Alice held on to the edge of the metal table. "I've been thinking," he whispered. She could smell the Scope on his breath. "I've got something that could fix this."
"Oh?" said Alice and she brightened. She felt the hair on his arm brush against her thigh.
"Yes," said Bob. He nodded his head up and down. It was then that she caught sight of the bulge inside Number Ten's slacks.
Alice decided to try a new town, a larger one. Back East, she thought, where the civilized people live. This town had underground tunnels with trains inside. On her first day, Alice descended the cement stairs, walked onto a waiting car and sat down. The orange plastic seat cupped her thighs. The doors sighed shut. The rails rushed along beneath her. She liked the dark, jerking movement of it, the idea of the ground flying by, right beside her. When the car stopped and the doors flew open, Alice emerged. She walked up another cement staircase and found herself in an entirely different part of the city.
"Brilliant," Alice thought.
She road the underground trains for days.
Then Alice discovered take-out. As she did not have a phone in her one-room walk-up, she had to call from the payphone on the corner when she wanted to place an order. But she did not mind. Alice liked everything about take-out. She liked the warm white boxes with their fold-away lids, the plastic utensils, the stiff paper bags that held in the gooey warmth. She believed that a city which could deliver such delicacies right to your door was a city of great promise. Alice stayed up late, ate Indian lentil soup from a box and said, out loud, "This is it. This is where I'll find it."
She found a job stocking shelves in a book store.
The eleventh told her try something different.
"I've seen this before. There's nothing for it," he said and he gave her a card with a number on it. "Try this anyway." Under the number were printed the words, "Psychic Healer."
This card led Alice to Number Twelve. She was alternative. "Find a piece of gold," Number Twelve said, "real gold. Boil it for three days and keep the water. Store it in a cool place. Drink this water every day for a month."
Number Twelve nodded. Alice nodded. "It aches," she said.
A pinched smile lighted across Number Twelve's face. She clasped her hands together. Gold bangles tripped down her arms and she nodded some more.
Alice did not have any gold. No ring, no broach, not even a pendant. So she bought a set of gold-rimmed plates at the Salvation Army and boiled them for three days. The painted flowers dissolved into the water, turning it pink, then green and then, finally, the color of mud. Alice slurped at her box of green lentil soup and stared into the murky liquid.
The thirteenth was also alternative. He said, "Imagine a white light entering your body. Its energy fills you. Imagine this white light healing your internal wound."
"A wound?" Alice thought. "Is that what I have?"
Alice ordered more take out.
The fourteenth was recommended by the thirteenth. This one did not even have a card. Instead, he had fountains, dozens of them. In the waiting room tiny gurgling pumps sprouted out of copper bowels. Held in place with river stones, they bubbled and chattered all around her.
Number Fourteen was a mumbler. He swallowed his words, half-spoken. He talked into the collar of his shirt. Alice leaned in. She could not hear him over the sound of running water. "I beg your pardon?" she asked.
"Become one with the water," Number Fourteen mumbled, "and you will find your cure."
"How?" asked Alice.
Number Fourteen spread his arms. He smiled. He closed his eyes. Alice leaned in and waited. He said nothing. She thought perhaps he had fallen asleep. "Sir," she whispered. "Sir?"
But Number Fourteen did not answer.
Alice found an indoor lap pool. After her morning shift at the bookstore, she swam up and down between the ropes. The water soothed her-the buoyancy of it, the soft fingers of cold. That winter, Alice swam and swam. She swam so many laps that her fingers pruned and her shoulders grew broad and taut. Every day, when she had completed her laps, Alice would linger in the pool. She held on to the side, gasping for breath, and floated. She spread her arms, tilted her head back and let the water surround her like a shapeless, soft eraser. But every time she stepped out of the pool, the ache returned.
Alice waited. She thought perhaps what she needed was rest. Perhaps what the ache wanted was to be left alone. So for an entire year she tried to ignore it. She did not see a single doctor. She swam up and down between the ropes. She shelved books. She rode the subway. Closing her eyes, she leaned her head against the plastic seat and waited for her life to change. Every night, she called for take-out from the pay phone on the corner. Every day, she gazed down at the neat lines of bills in the bookstore cash register.
Through it all, the ache zinged and popped. It burned and festered. And the pain of it, began to eat away at her. At times, Alice felt certain there must be little left inside her. And that year, the-year-of-not-trying, something cold and hard slipped inside Alice and her heart became like a knife drawer. Sharp and shining, she kept it closed.
Then Alice met The Specialist.
"The best in the city," her coworker whispered handing her a card as she adjusted the sale sign by the overstock books. "He's a specialist."
Alice shook her head. "I'm done with doctors," she whispered back.
"Just try," her coworker said. "Try this one."
Alice had to wait a month for an appointment and when she did finally see him, when at last she climbed up onto his metal table and leaned back, the Specialist said she was empty.
"Empty!" he shrieked, his head popping up from behind the paper sheet. "There's nothing there!" He probed deeper. "It's cold," he cried. "It's so cold!" And then something strange happened, something entirely new. Alice heard a muffled shrieking and a great sucking sound. The room filled with a gust of cold air and then-silence. The Specialist was gone.
Alice sat up on her elbows and looked around her. "Where is he?" she asked the nurse.
"In there!" the nurse cried as she pointed between Alice's legs. "And he's caught!"
Alice plucked at the sheet, looking beneath it. Nothing. She leaned over and peered under the table. Still nothing. The Specialist was nowhere. Alice sat back on the metal table, her feet suspended in the stirrups. She lay very still and listened. She could hear a distant sound. The Specialist's voice, frantic and screaming, echoed somewhere below her. Alice looked over at the nurse. The nurse shook her head. Alice crossed her arms and waited.
After twenty minutes Alice shifted her weight and moved to rise. As she did, the distant echo grew louder. Then, with a terrible rush of cold air, The Specialist reemerged. His head rising above the paper sheet, his teeth chattering, a single icicle hung from the end of his nose.
"This is unbelievable," cried the Specialist. He pressed a red button. "Code Blue," he screamed into a mesh speaker in the wall. "I need a second opinion!" He paced. The icicle at the end of his nose began to melt. "I've got to get documentation," he said. "I need pictures. I need verification." He pressed the red button again and called into the mesh speaker. "Please, can I get some help in here!" His icicle dripped on the paper sheet.
"I'll help," the nurse said. She set down her clipboard.
"No," said the Specialist. "I need a doctor. This is, is. . ." he looked down at Alice and shook his head, "unprecedented."
"I don't know about that," said the nurse and she ducked her head below the paper sheet. "How deep did you get?" she asked.
"Deep enough," the Specialist said.
"Hmm," said the nurse.
"Oh!" said the Specialist, "If you don't believe me, I'll prove it."
The Specialist rushed out of the room. He returned moments later with a snowsuit, a pith helmet, and a flashlight. He suited up. "I'm going in," he said. "Do you need anything?" he asked Alice.
"Why don't you order Chinese," he said. "I may be a while."
"Take-out," thought Alice, and she warmed to the Specialist. "Even if he did say I was empty and cold inside."
The Specialist put his hand inside Alice, then his arm. Before he could say another word, there was a great sucking sound, the room filled with a gust of cold air and, for the second time that day, the Specialist fell inside Alice.
The hours passed. The take-out arrived. Alice slurped her noodles. She asked for a pillow, but the Nurse was busy peering into the pages of an enormous black book. She wondered where the Specialist had gone. She stretched her arms up over her head, sat back, and picked up her box of noodles.
An hour later, the Specialist emerged. When she saw him rise up from between her legs, covered in icicles and shivering, Alice set down her chopsticks.
"My God, there's nothing in there!" the Specialist cried, his face shining with cold. "Nothing! Miles of it! I could not even find the edges of her."
Alice gazed at the Specialist's chapped hands. She had to admit that they did look quite frostbitten. Alice reached for her sweater. The Specialist set down his flashlight and rushed away to record his findings. The nurse followed, waving a clipboard. Alice was alone.
One at a time, she removed her feet from the stirrups. She stretched out. She pulled the paper gown tight against herself. She looked around the room. On one wall hung a print of a field of poppies, red and bursting. On the other, a picture of a snowy tundra. After waiting on the table for quite a while, Alice sighed. "They must have forgotten about me," she thought. She looked at her watch. If she didn't leave now, she would be late for her shift at the bookstore. She stood up, found her slacks and blouse, and began to dress.
Just as she was stepping into the second pant leg, the Specialist burst into the room holding a camera. "I must have you for my new research project," he cried. "You must stay with me and work." He grasped her shoulders. Alice held on to the waist of her slacks. "A woman with nothing inside but a cold, hard breeze!" he gazed out beyond her, at the field of poppies. Then he looked down at Alice, as if he were seeing her for the first time. "I've never found anything like you," he smiled. "Come with me! We'll travel the world. We'll meet all the great doctors. We'll stay in the best Hotels. Separate rooms, of course."
Alice thought for a moment. She knew it could not be true. She knew that there was something inside her, something more than a cold, hard breeze. But no one had made this much of a fuss over her before. No one had ever seemed to care like he did. This Specialist may not have understood her, but something about her thrilled him.
"Maybe that's more important than understanding," Alice thought. She looked into the Specialist's eyes. They were green, the color of shallow ocean water. She felt a little pull in her chest, a soft tug, as if the drawer of her heart were opening. She saw the roped lane at the swimming pool and the beige mouth of the bookstore cash register, gaping and she realized that she was lonely.
"Will you help me, then?" she asked. "If I go with you, will we find a cure for the constant ache? The pain of it, it tires me so."
"Pain?" The Specialist tilted his head to one side. No one had told him this. "You have pain?" He paused a moment, then he shrugged and embraced Alice. He picked her up and swung her around twice.
The rush of air past her face, the whirl of the white, sanitary room as it flew by, it startled Alice. A new feeling, a feeling she could not quite describe, flooded her veins. It was not happiness, but it was close. The closest she had been in a long time.
* * *
In Atlantic City they praised her, treated her like royalty. "The Queen of Emptiness!" they said. In Hershey they offered her a complimentary sun-suit with a picture of the arctic printed on it, and a sash that read: "Miss Iceberg," its pink letters marching across the white satin.
The Specialist developed a slide show to accompany his demonstration. "Dim the lights," he said. Alice liked this part best. She hated it when he called her up on stage, when he poked and prodded with his cold, clammy hands. Alice sunk back in her seat and watched the photographs glow and shimmer against the white screen. She never tired of looking at them. "A distant landscape," the Specialist barked, his hand on the remote. "Cold, empty, devoid of life as we know it." Alice watched as the mysterious vistas appeared before her: a blue wash of glaciers, a white seamless line of snow. "The Interior of Alice N. is like a frozen tundra. Nothing can live there!" the Specialist bellowed across the darkened room.
This is where Alice always lost track. It never failed. Every time the Specialist started in on the part about the cold and the snow stuck up inside her, Alice felt the room begin to spin. Her vision tunneled. She watched the Specialist's mouth move and she knew that he was talking, that he was explaining to the crowd of doctors behind her what it was like to be her, what it was like to be inside of her. But she could not make out what he said.
In Gainesville she could smell the ocean, but it was too far to reach. She wanted to swim. The Specialist said, "We have no time for recreation." And so she lay on the bed while he rifled through his papers. She imagined herself in the water, the salt shine rising up, coating her white arms.
In Louisville they laughed her off stage and the Specialist after her. "There's no such thing," the doctors said. "No such thing as a woman with nothing inside but a cold, hard breeze!"
"You don't believe me?" the Specialist said. He pointed at Alice, "Then why don't you look for yourself?"
The room fell silent. The doctors blanched. They stepped away from the stage. Someone dropped a clipboard. It skittered across the concrete floor.
The Specialist nodded. He stepped up to the podium once again. "I thought so," he said. "I thought that would stop you." He put his arm around Alice. "When you're ready to do some real research, you'll know where to find us." He guided her off.
They headed west. Later, years later, long after the National Guard had captured him, the Specialist would say that it was Los Angeles where it all started to go wrong. For it was there, swept along by the bright lights and the promise of fame, that he decided to put Alice in the talk show circuit. "To broaden your audience," the Specialist said and he spread his arms wide to make his point.
The Specialist bought her a new suit. He said it was a present for their success. "Now we've hit the big time!" he beamed at her.
Alice met the talk show host in the dressing room moments before she was to go on air.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Empty," he said and he kissed her cheek.
His mustache made her sneeze. Alice wiped her nose and asked for a glass of water. The host smiled at Alice. His white teeth shimmered under the green room lights. He leaned in close to Alice and looked at her, into her face, closely. It had been so long since someone had looked at her like that. Alice tipped her head down. She blushed. She placed the rim of the glass against her lips and sipped.
"She's going to need make-up!" the Host bellowed.
After her make-up session, the host guided her on stage. Under the bright lights, the makeup felt like a thick, gooey mask.
"Here's the little lady with the big empty!" the Host said.
An applause sign popped up. The Host turned toward the Specialist. He wanted to see all the comparative charts. He wanted the entire history of his research. "Start from the beginning," the host said, leaning forward in his over-stuffed chair, "and don't leave out a thing."
The Specialist was happy to oblige. He pulled out statistics on the discrepancy between the size of Alice's outside and her inside. "The circumference of her torso," he said and he pointed at one chart, "as opposed to the circumference of her interior." He pointed to a second chart. "Alice defies logic!" This is where he always got excited. "She's an impossibility!" he cried. "And here she sits before you."
The Host smiled. "A woman who laughs in the face of science!"
The camera cut to a psychiatrist who spoke about the physical-manifestation-of-a-mental-state-brought-on-by-extreme-stress. He ended with, "It's remarkable. Quite remarkable."
The Host opened the discussion up to the audience. Alice was asked questions about her personal life that puzzled her. "How much do you eat?" "Do you like cold weather?" "Do you have a boyfriend?" Alice squirmed in her seat. The Host broke in. "Don't worry," he patted Alice's hand. "We'll find you a boyfriend," he said. "No doubt about that!" The audience cheered. Then a woman from the back row stood up, tapped the mike, and asked, "Does it ever hurt? I mean, does it ache?"
Alice felt her face flush and tingle. Finally, a question that she wanted to answer. She cleared her throat. "As a matter of fact," Alice began and then she lost the thread of her thought. She faltered.
The Host tapped his fingers together and waited. The Specialist shifted in his seat. "Go on," he nodded.
"As a matter of fact," she tried again, but the words would not come.
The Host put his hand on Alice's shoulder. "Hold that thought," he smiled. He turned and spoke to the camera lens. "We'll be right back."
"We're going back to Gainsville," the Specialist said the following morning while they were in a cab on the way to the airport. "You're not ready for the big time. We need to rehearse."
As they handed in their boarding passes and headed for the gate, they were intercepted by a man in a black suit with an ear prompt. "Excuse me," he said. "I've been sent by the talk show. They want you back."
The Specialist blinked. "Really? They want us?"
The man held his ear prompt and nodded. It turned out that Alice was a hit. Alice and her frozen tundra were the topic-of-the-day on every major morning newscast.
So Alice and the Specialist returned to the studio. Alice submitted to the creams and cover-up, the blush and shadow of the make-up artist. Once again, Alice and the Specialist found themselves under the hot studio lights, awaiting further instruction. The host beamed at them. The second interview went better than the first. The Specialist showed more slides.
Alice was relieved when they dimmed the lights. The monitor flooded with the bright grays and whites of the frozen tundra. A distant sun bounced off all that glacial terrain. Before she knew it, the show was over and Alice found herself in her new suit in the green room once again, scraping make-up off her face.
By the end of the week Alice and the Specialist were regulars on the talk show. "It seems like everybody wants a piece of the little girl with the big empty," the host smiled. He winked at Alice.
Reporters hounded them. Hotel staff hovered. Crowds formed around them wherever they went. And then, one day, the tide turned. The skeptics arrived-researchers and doctors, lab technicians and the geologists-all of whom did not believe in the cold-and-empty theory. They sat in the studio audience, crossed their arms and waited. "For some solid evidence," they whispered. "For one verifiable fact," they sneered.
The skeptics stared dubiously at the Specialist's charts. They recalculated his measurements. They scratched their heads. They lifted their chins. "Impossible," they said. "There's no such thing."
The Specialist was right there, his hand on Alice's shoulder, starting in with his challenge. "If you don't believe me," he began, "then why don't you see for yourself?"
Again, the room fell silent. Someone dropped a pen. They all stepped back.
"I thought so," the Specialist said.
But he spoke too soon. From the back, a white-coated lab technician with a shock of bright red hair, stepped out of the crowds and raised his hand. "I'll go," he said. "I'd like to see."
And then another stepped forward. And another. And another. They all wanted to see this empty landscape, firsthand. Soon there was a line forming at the edge of the stage.
"We'll go," they cried. "We want to see this cold hard breeze for ourselves."
"But," the Specialist stammered, waving his arms above his head, "it's too dangerous! It's not for the faint of heart!"
They would not listen to reason.
In the end, four men suited up and approached Alice. Each one ducked below the paper sheet. Each one slipped in, slowly at first, and then, with a rush of cold air, they disappeared.
Only three came back. Snow-crusted and shivering, one by one they climbed out of her, a gust of wind sweeping through the studio as they stepped onto solid ground. They brushed the snow off their shoulders. They straightened their wool caps. They rubbed their chapped hands together. They clapped each other on the back and nodded.
"It's true," they said. "It's huge and empty."
They nodded. They smiled. They looked around and counted. One. Two. Three. Their smiles faded. The fourth man was not among them. The three men turned around and stared at Alice. They gazed at the modesty sheet draped over her knees. They peeked under it. Nothing. So they sat down and waited.
"I'm sure he's just late," said the first man. "He stopped to take some photos," said the second. The third shifted in his seat, brushed the snow off his mittens and said nothing.
And so they waited, all of them, the three men, the Specialist and the studio audience. The Host paced. "This is highly irregular," he muttered. Then the network offered him round-the-clock coverage till the fourth man returned and the Host brightened.
The hours turned into days and still they waited. A vigil formed around the examination table. Doctors trickled in throughout the day, journalists clamored at the studio doors. The three men sat up front, right next to Alice. They called for him, the lost man, alone and wandering up inside Alice.
"I told you," the Specialist cried. "I warned you all!"
But no one was listening to him. The three men talked of extreme temperatures, the endless landscape, and lost provisions.
"Did he bring any food?" an audience member asked. "Did he pack his canteen?" asked another. "Did he wear his long johns?" his mother cried over the television satellite. Then someone suggested forming a search party. The three men who had survived to tell the story of Alice's insides shook their heads. "Why?" the people asked.
"Because it's cold in there," the three who came back said. "It's damn cold." They held their arms and shivered.
The Specialist nodded. "That's true," he mumbled as he sidled toward the door.
Someone grabbed his arm. "Where are you going?"
"I forgot my lunch," he said. "I'll be right back."
The doctors all shook their heads. "You'll stay right here," they said, "until you return the Fourth Man."
The Specialist threw up his hands. "Don't look at me! I didn't take him." He pointed at Alice. "She did."
Alice lay on the studio's examination table. By the third day, her back was in knots. Bed soars formed on Alice's skin. They grew weepy with infection. She asked if she could get up and try shaking him out. The doctors huddled in the corner and discussed the possibility. They nodded at each other. One of them stepped forward. "It might work."
Slowly, very slowly, Alice removed her feet from the stirrups, first the right and then the left. She slid her body to the edge of the examination table and placed one foot on the ground.
Alice shook and shook. She stomped her feet. She jumped up and down. She walked up the center aisle of the auditorium. She walked down the side aisle. She held on to the edge of the stage and stomped until her feet burned and her breath came hard. But it did not work. The fourth man did not emerge.
The three men who made it back alive helped her up onto the examination table. They tried calling his name. They tried playing his favorite music, pressing the speaker against Alice's exposed abdomen. They tried baking his favorite foods. They called in a diviner with his forked stick. They called in a meteorologist. He lined his instruments up and down her body, and shook his head. "Storm's coming," he said.
The doctors leaned in. "Storm's coming?" they asked. "Where?"
The meteorologist pointed at Alice. "In there."
They called in an Eskimo. "There are 437 words for snow," he whispered.
"But how do we get him out?" the doctors asked.
The Eskimo nodded, his fur cap shining under the examination lamp. "437 words," he said.
By then, it was day six. The doctors shook their heads. "There's no way," they whispered, "what with the exposure and the lack of food, there's no way he's still alive."
On the seventh day of the vigil, they sent for the lost man's wife. She spread Alice's legs, bent down and shivered. "What do I do?" she trembled. "What do I do down here?"
"Call to him," the doctors urged. "Call his name."
She called. "Honey?" she crooned. "Come out, come home!"
There was no answer. The wife began to sob. She clung to Alice. Her arms wrapped around Alice's bent legs, "Give him back," she pleaded. "Give him back!"
* * *
For a while, the story of the girl with nothing but a cold, hard breeze inside her swept through all the news stations. When the drama heightened with the missing fourth man, the network's ratings went through the roof. It was all anybody could talk about: "What does it mean that she is cold and empty inside," they asked. "Where did the fourth man go?" When Alice and the Specialist disappeared, the story made international news.
They had slipped out one night, three weeks into the vigil for the fourth man. It was not a well-planned escape, but somehow it worked. They tip-toed right past the studio security guards, cut the wire that led to the exit alarm and crawled out onto the highway. They flagged down a passing car. The driver took them all the way to the Nevada border. Desert rain washed across the strangers' windshield as Alice huddled close to the Specialist. They were on the lam together. For once, they were running in the same direction, with the same goal in mind-to get away from the doctors. A week later, he left her.
It was an eerily still day. They were holed up in an Econo Lodge outside Las Vegas. "We're going to split up," he had whispered, his hands grasping her shoulders as they had on their first meeting. "I'll go north. You go west."
"Why?" she asked.
He let go of her, walked over to the motel window. Parting the curtain an inch with his index finger, he stared out at the parking lot. "If you don't know that by now, I'm not going to be the one to tell you."
Alice gazed at him. There he stood in his rumpled seersucker suit, pigeon-toed and balding, a slice of desert sunlight cutting across his stricken face. Despite his odd theories, Alice had grown fond of the Specialist. She stood up, smoothed her skirt, and crossed to him. He held a photo in his hand. In it, the Specialist stands in full gear, his bright blue parka shining in the winter sunlight, surrounded by vast fields of snow, miles of it mounding up, soft and seamless and white. He smiles into the camera. Alice took his shaking hand in hers. "That's not really me," she said. She looked into his eyes-warm and moist, green as the sea.
"But I have evidence," he whispered back. "I have irrefutable evidence." He looked away again, out at the cactus shivering in the hot wind, just beyond the motel parking lot.
He left the next morning, before dawn, with one blue Samsonite carry-on and a hotel face cloth shielding his balding head from the hot Nevada sun. Alice feigned sleep throughout this long departure. As he folded his three dress shirts and zipped up his utility bag, as he combed the last few strands of hair over the crown of his head and trimmed his beard, Alice watched. Through half-closed eyes she saw him place a single envelope on the bedside table, cross to the motel door, unbolt the lock and slip away into the rising heat. After he left, she opened the envelope. There was no note, no instructions, no forwarding address, nothing, but a single photograph of a man standing in a field of snow.
That afternoon, Alice dyed her hair. She slipped into the motel laundry facility and quietly removed a pair of jeans and a new T-shirt from one of the dryers. Alice had never stolen anything before and the thrill of it, the getting-away-with-it feeling flooded her veins. Flushing with pleasure, she shimmied into the jeans. She sold her one good suit and bought a bus ticket back to California where she found work at a bakery on a strip right near the boardwalk. From her station behind the kneading tables, she could smell the ocean.
Back at the studio the Host was shocked by their disappearance. "How could you let this happen?" he asked his staff. "Right out from under my nose." But the two were gone. Not a single trace of them remained. A search party was formed, the Host leading the effort. "In the name of science," he blustered. "In the name of justice!" The camera recorded it all.
Following an anonymous tip, they headed north. They hired dogsleds and glided through the Yukon. They assumed that Alice and the Specialist, partners in this absurd crime, would always be together. The Fourth Man's wife came along. She rode just behind the dogs, a fur-lined parka framing her face. She called his name. Her voice echoed across the frozen landscape.
And for a while, that was all Alice saw. Every night before she fell asleep in her little apartment above the bakery, Alice turned on the evening news and there she was, the fourth man's wife. Chilblains had swollen her fingers. Her nose and cheeks were rubbed raw from exposure. She blinked into the camera. "Wherever you are, if you can hear me, call this number," the wife pleaded. "We don't want to hurt you. I just want my husband back."
The heat from the large ovens burned the hair off Alice's arms. It opened her pores and sweat ran down her back, formed half moons under her shirtsleeves. She reveled in the sloppy warmth of the bakery, in the easy camaraderie with her co-workers. Evenings, after the baking was done, her co-workers unfolded lawn chairs on the boardwalk and watched the red ball of the sun slide lower in the sky till it sat on the edge of the ocean. When it broke open and began to sink, the colors bled across the water. Alice often joined them. She liked the feel of the ocean breeze on her arms and neck. The wind lifted her hair and fluttered across her cheeks. She closed her eyes, leaned back and listened to the bakery girls talk about their boyfriends.
In the mornings, when the other bakers wandered outside for a smoke break, Alice would slip into the back room. Nestled into the tiered rising racks, lay warm mounds of dough, resting like sleeping bodies, between the sheets of metal shelving. She gazed at the pastries. The raw, white buns, dusted in a soft layer of flour, slowly expanded as the yeast pulled in the surrounding air and the soft bodies of dough rose. One morning, when the owner was late and the other girls lingered over their cigarettes, taking one last pull, wandering further away from the back door out toward the beach, Alice slipped her hand in between the rising racks and caressed the new, white flesh.
All the while, miles away, deep in the north country, a search party combed Alaska and the Northern Territory. They found nothing. No sign of Alice. No trace of the fourth man. For eleven months they rode up and down over the snow-packed ground, the dogs barking in the cold, the fourth man's wife crying into the wilderness.
Then, a year later, the Host got a new tip and this one was solid. It led them right to the Specialist. He had taken refuge in a tiny Inuit community, trading his gold watch for the price of a safe haven for twelve months. But, at the end of the year, when he started conducting research, running experiments on the local girls, looking for another Alice, the villagers turned him in.
The morning the authorities went out and found him, Alice was in the middle of cutting dough for hot-crossed buns. The girl who ran the cash register rushed in, calling, "They caught him!"
"Who?" asked Alice, sliding a baker's knife through the dough.
"The Specialist! They caught the Specialist."
Alice let her hands fall to her sides. The girl turned on the TV. Once again Alice found herself gazing into the frozen tundra. The dogs barked outside the Igloo. The snow was so cold it had turned icy and blue. They had the igloo surrounded and still, The Specialist would not give himself up. In the end, they smoked him out. Alice watched as the Specialist ran, half-naked across the fields of snow. They shot him with a stun gun and he fell like a wild deer, his body sliding across the ice.
Alice stepped out onto the beach. The sign above the bakery switched on. Neon flooded the glass tubes, hovering and jumping to life in the crystalline air, calling to her, calling out OPEN. She remembered the poppies, bright and red on the wall in the examination room, and the Specialist's shallow-water eyes. She remembered the hotel in the desert, the stillness of the morning air, the cactus shuddering outside her window and the moment-before he left her, before he was gone-when she held his hands, still and cold, in her own.
Alice walked toward the shore, stepping closer to the ocean than she had allowed herself to go in a long time. At the edge, she bent down and placed her fingers in the water. Her hands and arms were coated with pastry flour, rendering her whiter than usual, white as a ghost. The flour dissolved off her skin. It shimmered and flickered, falling away from her, toward the sand below. She let her wrists slip into the water, then her forearms, and her elbows. Waves crawled up her skin, licking the clouds of flour until the whiteness shifted. It moved off of Alice and into the water. The air around her grew solid and soft, as if it were made of pillows. And the ocean, which for hundreds of thousands of years had been whining outside the door, falling over and over itself, reaching for the shore-the ocean stopped. The white foaming crests of the waves stilled. The green water, shallow and undulating below her, grew viscous; it grew hard as fine crystal. Slowly, what lived inside Alice-the bright, soft, swelling snow, the cold hard breeze, all of it-slipped out, and the ocean became a field, and the field became a tundra and it rolled out before her.
As Alice gazed out on the tundra she noticed beyond the last snowy hill, something bright and shining, something calling to her, crying, "Alice, Alice, I'm here." She stepped forward, away from the huddle of shops by the boardwalk and the flickering light of the neon sign and onto the white glaciers. She walked toward the tiny speck and as she walked the speck divided into a shock of red hair and a white lab coat and there before her in the distance stood the fourth man. His hand floated above his head as he waved and he called to her, his voice bugling out, a reveille, calling her name, calling out across the frozen fields of snow.
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