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American Dream Serialization (Early Chapters)
Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Maurice Stoker
Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Tom Bradley
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: American Dream Title Page by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 1 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 2 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 3 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 4 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 5 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 6 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 7 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 8 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 9 by Jim Chaffee
01-01-2015
Modern Tragedy, or Parodies of Ourselves by Robert Castle
01-11-2014
Totally Enchanté, Dahling by Thor Garcia
01-04-2014
Hastini by Rudy Ravindra
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 5 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
01-01-2014
Unexpected Pastures by Kim Farleigh
10-01-2013
Nonviolence by Jim Courter
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 4 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
07-01-2013
The Poet Laureate of Greenville by Al Po
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part VI by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 3 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
04-01-2013
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part V by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part IV by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 2 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
01-01-2013
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part I by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part II by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part III by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 1 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
10-01-2012
DADDY KNOWS WORST: Clown Cowers as Father Flounders! by Thor Garcia
RESURRECTON: Excerpt from Breakfast at Midnight by Louis Armand
Review of The Volcker Virus (Donald Strauss) by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
01-07-2012
Little Red Light by Suvi Mahonen and Luke Waldrip
TEXECUTION: Klown Konfab as Killer Kroaked! by Thor Garcia
Miranda's Poop by Jimmy Grist
Paul Fabulan by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
01-04-2012
Operation Scumbag by Thor Garcia
Take-Out Dick by Holly Day
Patience by Ward Webb
The Moon Hides Behind a Cloud by Barrie Darke
The Golden Limo of Slipback City by Ken Valenti
01-01-2012
Chapter from The Infinite Atrocity by Kane X. Faucher
Support the Troops By Giving Them Posthumous Boners by Tom Bradley
01-10-2011
When Good Pistols Do Bad Things by Kurt Mueller
Corporate Strategies by Bruce Douglas Reeves
The Dead Sea by Kim Farleigh
The Perfect Knot by Ernest Alanki
Girlish by Bob Bartholomew
01-07-2011
The Little Ganges by Joshua Willey
The Invisible World: René Magritte by Nick Bertelson
Honk for Jesus by Mitchell Waldman
01-04-2011
Red's Dead by Eli Richardson
The Memphis Showdown by Gabriel Ricard
Someday Man by John Grochalski
01-01-2011
I Was a Teenage Rent-a-Frankenstein by Tom Bradley
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Fred Bubbers
10-01-2010
Believe in These Men by Adam Greenfield
The Magnus Effect by Robert Edward Sullivan
Performance Piece by Jim Chaffee
07-01-2010
Injustice for All by D. E. Fredd
The Polysyllogistic Curse by Gary J. Shipley
How It's Done by Anjoli Roy
Ghost Dance by Connor Caddigan
Two in a Van by Pavlo Kravchenko
04-01-2010
Uncreated Creatures by Connor Caddigan
Invisible by Anjoli Roy
One of Us by Sonia Ramos Rossi
Storyteller by Alan McCormick
01-01-2010
Idolatry by Robert Smith
P H I L E M A T O P H I L I A by Traci Chee
They Do! by Al Po
Full TEX Archive
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Idolatry

By Rob McClure Smith

I was only on comfort break for five minutes tops, but by the time I get back in there Frank has gone and went and hotdesked me again. Fifth time this month. I come in to find him swiveling his fat ass around in my caster chair, this nasty evil smirk plastered on his aftershave-reeking ugly mug like a neon bowtie. I notice too how he's whiteouted his own initials in the earpiece of my brand new headset. I feel like crying.

"What's up, Pizza Face?" he says.

"Nothing," I say, commencing to wipe off the far corner turret, the one wedged under Cameron's window. No one wants to sit there. The keyboard is smeared with a thick dusting of those dead ladybugs that aren't real ladybugs. They're something else altogether, an insect from China (I think) that isn't a ladybug but looks like one: this fake ladybug wannabe impersonator.

"Because if you've got a problem with me," Frank says, gesturing in my direction, "we can surely talk about it."

"I haven't got one," I say, tapping return and punching the new access code.

"Well," he says, smirking up a storm now, holding forth so the whole office has to hear him. "That's not my concern. I mean, if it's a case of you not having got one, dude, as has been well suspected in these parts for months by the way, all I can recommend is major plastic surgery. Maybe them doctors can sew a little teensy-weensy one on for you. Hey, then you might even be able to pee quicker too, eh?"

The tribe of neanderthal buddies get started braying at that one.

"I haven't got a problem," I say, quietly. "You can let it go now." I hear myself sounding all small and whiny and pathetic.

"Eh? What's that? You want me to let it go? You sure? Because I'd be more than glad to talk about it, Pizza Face. Yeah, outside in the corridor if necessary."

Now Frank's come over and he's standing right beside me, which I hate, with his wet spittle flying in my face like that, and I can feel myself start to shaking a little. He called me Pizza-Face twice in a row just so the new girl would hear it. That's why he moved desks. So he could sit opposite her, and him with that slaggy girlfriend with the hair too. I mean, pathetic much?

I've already forgotten the new girl's name. Cameron introduced her to the shift earlier. She's small and pretty in that Reese Witherspoony way and not at all like Cameron's usual female newbies, which tend in the dumpy and frumpy and semi-retarded direction. But this one is interesting to consider. See, when you work in a place like this you get headset hair, with that weird-ass parting stretching across your scalp from ear to ear. It's a regular occupational hazard in this business. The new girl had already figured out, a real quick study, how to adjust her set so that it propped up nice at the back of her neck and so didn't muss that pretty little hairdo at all. This showed me she was smart. And the look she shot Frank's way when he called me that name said she was likely as not nice too. But I didn't look at her real close. I don't really look at other girls. Si-Chan doesn't like it. Jealous as anything she is. Anyway, this new one had thick ankles also. Which is something I could never abide. Makes me queasy.

"Yo Pizza-Face," Frank yells. Which is number three. "That there's Megan over there. Megan, say aloha to Pizza Face here." Four.

"Hi," she says, smiling mirthlessly. I can still make out grey-green eyes and a half-moon's worth of dimple.

"We call him Pizza-Face on account of his fucking pizza face."

Five or six now, depending. Me, I don't say anything. I don't ever say much of anything. But I'm realizing now that Megan is the spitting image of the Facebook picture of the elf from Changeling LARP who, when I finally met her IRL, looked nothing like. Nothing like her picture that is, as opposed to nothing like an elf, which she did resemble some, unfortunately. Said poison-dwarf also observing much the same about me. About how come my picture didn't match the actuality of my being or some such. That was a ways before Si-Chan though. Before the time I was happy.

"What's your name?" Megan calls, quietly.

"Marcus," I say, not looking at her. I don't even try to pull off the Mark stuff.

"Just like a fucking Roman gladiator, right?" Frank scoffs. He's big with the scoffing. "Have I not entertained you?" he screams now, waving my brand new stapler that's still in cellophane up by the low fluorescent lights like it's a weapon of some sort. I am led to believe it's something to do with a movie. I hate people touching my stuff more than anything. He knows that. Plus, he's got his arm slung across my shoulder now too, which is worse, causing me all to shrivel inside. "Just joshing with you, dude," he chortles and drums his big fingers the length of my collarbone. "Christ, Marcus. Get a fucking sense of humor wilya? A guy wears as much black eyeliner as you needs a sense of humor."

Then Cameron sticks his head round the firewall partition and gives him the get-back-to-it once-over and Frank bows theatrically and wheels and strutty-struts it back to his desk. My desk.

The Catalogue That Cannot Be Named is pushing 'SAD Lights' for people who don't cope well with winter gloom. Said lights 'may' sooth people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder with their bright 'simulation day light' and relaxing ‘dolphin music.' Dolphin music turns out to be double-valium-strength Enya, who might be a fish herself for all I know. Which would explain a lot actually. Unfortunately, this latest one is a ‘blended’ campaign, meaning we're inbound and outbound. No calls in; we cold call. Our team hates blending because after six hours straight we all forget whether we're coming or going, literally. Customers hate blending because they're trying to talk to this confused schmuck can't remember for sure if they just dialed or answered. Cameron though, he just adores blend campaigns since it's relentless and pointless and no time goes to waste. I have a clear view of him from my new location, sitting behind the perspex wall fiddling with his hand's free mic, observing his drones grafting in the turrets to convince the Great American Homemaker she's suicidal because of January twilight and not because she's just been on hold for two days being subjected to pan-pipe instrumental versions of Phil Collins' greatest crappy hits.

"Can I take your name?" I ask customer473, the bitter one who still angrily maintains, all evidence to the contrary, that he's been on the do-not-call list forever.

"Why?" he says. "What's wrong with yours?"

Si-Chan would like me to quit the call center and get a more fulfilling occupation, but I don't know if I ever will. It's not so bad. Sometimes I think the job would be almost bearable, if minus Frank. It's only that scummy dipshit really makes it so horrible. So I take out my hankie to blow my nose and, as if on cue, he starts in right away at Megan, pointing my way. Seems now I can remember her name just fine though.

"Pizza-Face there has had that fucking cold since June. We think he might have developed an addiction to that there Sinex nasal spray seeing as how he squirts it up his nostrils every ten seconds. It's hard to imagine a habit more totally gross and disgusting, right? This one week Wendy, from HR, decides he's likely allergic to atmospheric conditions in the office, and has us move all the plants out to create a unique eco-system for him. I mean, it's like working with the fucking boy in the bubble."

Megan smiles at that crack and I wonder maybe if she's not so nice after all.

Before the second shift clocks in, Chad the techie comes round to install the new call-monitoring software. He looks like Hagar the Horrible. To every single question of mine, his beard responds: “No, you need to go through support to get that done.” I think he's probably programmed to say that. He does teach me how to ping though, which is cool. I like the submarine sounds.

After he leaves, Megan shows up at my desk with a stupid question of her own.

"Excuse me, Marcus," she says. "Where’s the 'any' key on our keyboard?"

"The 'any' key?" Naturally, I have no clue.

"Yeah, the prompt sheet says 'To initialize the Wrap Report, press any key.'"

For a minute I think she's kidding, that she has this really bizarre sense of humor, and when I realize she's not I get to wondering just how colossally dumb she really is.

"There isn't an 'any' key…what it means is…"

"Oh, my God," she laughs, covering her mouth with her hand, blushing up nice. "You must think I'm so unbelievably stupid," she says.

And I'm thinking, "Yeah, actually I do." But what I say instead is: "Well, if you'd have asked Chad, he'd have had you try support." And Megan laughs again, which is something only Si-Chan has ever done around me before, and I get to glimpse those half-moon dimples of hers again, which makes it all almost worthwhile.

So I figure we've established some kind of rapport because, come the ten minute lunch break, she sits down next to me in the lobby by the Coke-machine-that-has-no-Coke and starts in telling me about her appalling abusive psychotic boyfriend. She sounds like every other girl who has ever had an appalling abusive psychotic boyfriend and simply has to share said pathetic experience at infinite length with many not interesting details, and is probably fourteen times as boring. But I like her voice.

"Everyone says I should dump him and start over but, you know…we've been a couple since junior high. And I doubt Ryan couldn't get by without me. He played free safety, All State, but now he just substitute teaches over at MacAndrew. With him hating kids too. Plus, that I love him is a big factor in this equation also."

"You guys sound like me and Si-Chan," I say, without thinking.

"Sayshan?" Megan wrinkles her nose, which is not un-snail-like when all smooshy like that. "That's a funny name. Where's your girlfriend from exactly?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, she's half British, half Japanese, which is nice because I've always had a thing for both British and Japanese culture. So that works out quite well as well."

Megan frowns. "But you must be very different then?"

"No, not at all. Actually our clothing style and taste in music is very similar. Like, we're both Goths, for one thing." Megan nods. She knows all about Goths. "Bauhaus is our favorite band. I like the Cure too. Si-Chan's way more of a Siouxsie than a Robert person though. We enjoy a lot of the same things too, movies and that. We're very compatible."

Then, before I know it, I'm telling her all about Si-Chan, about how my model girlfriend's everything that turns me on in a woman: beautiful, loyal, a great listener, then all about how me and Si-Chan do most everything together, including playing Doom till dawn sometimes. How she's not just my girlfriend but so, so much more.

"She's like my best friend in the world, you know" and, saying that, I can feel myself choking up bad.

Megan likes that a lot. I think for a minute she's going to bust out crying with appreciation or sympathy or something. Instead, she puts her hand on my knee and says "Well, I'm really happy for you guys. Seriously." And—given what all I've been hearing about the pathetic state of her relationship—that's likely enough true. I don't like people touching me, it gives me way the wrong kind of chills, but for Megan I realize I will likely make an exception. Si-Chan must never know, obviously. Mum's the word.

On arriving home, I realize I maybe painted a little too rosy a picture of domestic bliss. The first thing I notice when I walk in the door is this 34D athletic bra tossed in the hallway. Si-chan is not without flaws, and tidiness is not one of them. The worst is her tendency to get a bit manic-depressive. There are weeks on end when the girl is just insanely perky. Then, other days, given the massive amount of time Si-Chan spends in bed (aside from the getting up for occasional photo shoots), she seems prone to bouts of laziness that border on narcolepsy. Today, for example, she's apparently just been lying there toasting on our electric mattress pad since I left at the crack, a copy of Sexton's Transformations lying unopened by her pillow. I remonstrate with her, make her get up for dinner, cook us linguine in white clam sauce, her favorite.

On the whole, though, I'm not complaining. She's a great girl, and a comfort. I don't know what I'd do without the warmth of her in bed beside me, spooning, cuddling. In the wee hours of the morning I reach across and touch her hair, tug her around to look at me. Her eyes are open. My fingers trace the curve of her back and sliding soft between her thighs, find her ready for me. I rip the packet with my teeth, slip on the condom, sliding myself inside her. She says nothing, staring at me, wide-eyed, ecstatic, while she inclines into my rhythm. It's always dreamy almost. She's the first girl I was ever with, but it feels like we've done it forever. I like to look deep in her eyes when I come. I like to tell her I love her over and over and then afterward, both destroyed by that love of ours, whisper in her ear how I will never leave her, or she me. I mean it. I really mean it.

This morning, during the quarter-hour buzz session when the majority of the team usually nods out, Cameron decides it's time for us to be the audience for this major speech. We all were assuming the worst: that the call center was finally going to be moving to Bombay as has been long rumored. I try to imagine Chad in a Sikh turban, and it really isn't that hard. But moving wasn't it at all.

"Friends," he announces, "I regret to inform you that we have a vandal in our midst." The Great Leader looks constipated with annoyance. "An individual in this room is stuffing paper down the u bend of the bathroom toilets. Jamming it in there with the lavatory brush. Then this individual proceeds to flush. As you can imagine, the flooding that ensues causes considerable damage to the floor, the plumbing, and the brush."

Cameron stops and scans the room and fixes his gaze on Frank, who's trying hard not to dissolve in hysterics. "Stop that, Crowell," he says. "Quit your sniggering and grow the hell up. This," he adds, "is a serious problem that I regard with the utmost…seriousness. I want you all to know I'm currently addressing this behavioral malfunction in a systematic way and, when the. . .um. . .saboteur is identified and apprehended, the individual responsible will be terminated forthwith." He says "forthwith" one last time before he stalks off back into his booth, being sure to give Frank the evil eye en route.

I assume terminated just means fired as opposed to something more drastic and homicidal. At lunch I overhear Sarah, the office manager, tell some of the others that she's been tasked to construct a high level analysis of toilet activity for the past month to identify trends or patterns of behavior and to calculate visits over time. That would be totally ridiculous if it weren't for the fact that all our behavior is prescribed a unit of productivity on the call-monitoring software: on the main computer, the length of each individual call is indicated by a phone icon; the time it takes to wrap-up after the call by a notepad icon; the length of break by a coffee cup icon; and comfort breaks by a toilet icon – complete with a little smiley face on the potty. By Monday, Cameron will have on his desk a spreadsheet itemizing the bladder and bowel movements of the entire call center. He'll also likely as not have figured out it was me.

I don't know why I do things like that. It's possibly related to anger management issues, or boredom, or insufficient toilet training. Sometimes I wish I could make myself stop for it creates enormous employment difficulties. I know exactly when it all began too. The fourteenth of July 1990, at two o' clock in the afternoon, at the Talbot's in the Rumsfeld mall. That would be the day when Mom came out from the dressing room—in that blue cotton pantsuit she never got around to buying—to find her little boy conversing with a mannequin in a short tennis skirt. She was beautiful, more beautiful by far than my mother. I still remember the beauty of her stillness. I won't deny it: I was trying to chat her up. But I do believe that would be the day Mom first came around to accepting that there might really be something the matter with me, a glitch in my make-up, bug in the software. And that was the same night I left the plug in the bathtub and, cocking both taps, flooded the keeping room downstairs. I remember being grounded for a month after that but Mom never actually got around to talking about the incidents again, she just paid for the five full years of therapy that didn't help any either.

In this regard, Si-Chan is the best $6,499 (plus shipping) I ever spent. It’s not like I need a car. For the most part, I suppose it's just like being with an organic woman. Even the sex is likely pretty comparable. I practice regular safe sex to cut down on the douching. I mean, I can't be heaving Si-Chan in the shower three times a week with a turkey baster. Well, I suppose, more accurately, it'd be the equivalent of actual sex with a woman who doesn't say anything and is brimful of Quaaludes. But in some regards I think that's every man's dream too. They might even admit it, if pushed. Frank likely would. Cameron too, I bet.

And this is where my mind is when Megan comes over to sit beside me. Today she has serious headset hair and I realize she has been infected by the virus, is too fast becoming one of the drones. She'd better quit soon or it'll be too late for her.

"Marcus," she says. "Can I ask you a very personal question?"

Megan has this grimly serious expression on her little elf-face and I'm thinking, 'Shit, she knows. She knows it's me with the bathroom insurgency.'

"Sure Megan," I say. "But I actually have a pretty good explanation for…"

"Frank doesn't believe you have a girlfriend," she blurts out. "He says you must have made it up. He says you make all kinds of things up. Is that true? Did you?"

I look at her sadly with the doleful sad face I practice in the mirror for ten minutes every Tuesday evening, and she keeps right on yapping anyway.

"Because," she says, "I know you're shy, and it would be O.K. if you had. Made some things up. I'd understand."

I reach around behind me and pull the leather wallet mom bought me for my nineteenth birthday out my flannels and, rifling through it, find and hand Megan the picture. I hope I don't look as hurt as I feel. "That's Si-Chan there," I say.

"It's kind of blurry," Megan says after a while.

"It's the only one I have," I tell her, more than a tad frustrated now. "Si-Chan doesn't like having her photograph taken."

"I thought you said she was a model?" Megan says this in a kind of suspicious-accusing way and I feel as if at this rate I might have to hit her soon.

"Oh, she doesn't mind doing photographs for work. It's at home she doesn’t care for them. You know, because that's all she does when she's off on a shoot. Photos. She doesn't want to be doing that a lot when she's not working too, right? Took me forever to convince her to pose for this one. And she moved. Just as I was taking it." I offer Megan my bemused laugh. Then I point at the photo: "That's in my apartment that is."

"She looks nice," says Megan. "I think."

When she hands me back the photo, Frank's there too, pummeling the coke machine. "What, now there's no fucking Sprite either?" he yells, exasperated, once again defeated by an inanimate object. Then he sees us. "Hey, what's all this about you having a model girlfriend then, Pizza Face?" He takes out and matches a Marlboro, which is a big no-no. He's staring at Megan all the while, obviously fancying her like mad. It's all very sad and pathetic. "You have one active fantasy life, dude."

"I just saw her picture actually," Megan says, looking prim. "Marcus's girlfriend is pretty, with long black hair."

"Right. Sure she is. How many arms and legs?"

"And a mole under her left eye, right?"

"Right eye," I say. Right eye.

"And she was wearing glossy red lipstick and a sheer tank top that showed off her breasts. She also had…"

"What?" Frank says, sneering.

"A hoop through her left nipple."

Frank looks totally stunned at that one. That's way too much information. His own girlfriend resembles two buckets banging together. He looks quickly from Megan over to me and back again, sort of panicky. "Yeah, you think I'm falling for that?"

"Yes, that's right, Marcus's girlfriend is beautiful and sweet and kinky. What do you think of that?" Megan is pouting now and that pout of hers really is super-pouty.

"I don't think nothing about that," he says. Frank looks all peeved and confused, grinding his cigarette underfoot un-puffed, and then he's stomping off suddenly.

"What's your girlfriend like?" she calls after him. He stops, and then keeps going. And I nearly feel bad for him, but don't.

"It's probably him," Megan sneers. "With the toilets, you know. He's just the type." She frowns. "Jerk-wad."

And for this one stellar moment everything is right with my world and my skies are bluer than blue. I'm talking about that blissful second right before Megan gets started in about the possibility of a double date some night at Applebees with her and the psycho kindergarten minder.

"Do you think you guys would be up for it?" she says.

"Well," I tell her, "it's hard to say."

"How'd you mean?"

"Well, like I said before, Si-Chan doesn't get out much."

"I think I know why that is too, Marcus," she says, staring at me, those gray-green eyes brimming with concern. I had a dream the night before that Si-Chan had those same color eyes, very weird. I feel myself flushing to the roots. Christ, she does know. "I mean it's totally O.K. though," she says, "I already figured out that she's disabled. You know."

"No, she's not." I feel myself getting angry. "Not that. Si-Chan can do anything you can do. Anything. She's just… Well, it's hard to explain. She's…"

"Agoraphobic?"

"Yes." The word pops out as a sigh and to tell the truth I'm relieved as anything, but then I can't seem to stop talking: "She never leaves the house. I need to look after her. It's so terrible. Oh, yes. YES. But if she did go out…and it's hard to say how she would be if she did more…because she doesn't…really… I think she'd be more open minded, sarcastic, like an artistic intellectual… Yeah, I mean if she were to go out more she'd walk around with Sylvia Plath books under her arm and be off drinking and dancing with her girlfriends and watch foreign movies and love decaf cappuchino lattes and…"

"She's an agoraphobic model?"

It's then I realize that Megan's looking at me funny and that I've likely as not blown my new friendship sky-high.

So I'm home and safe and happy and cooking chicken piccata for us. My comfort food, and Si-Chan's too. She looks beautiful tonight, the way her pale blue eyeshadow matches that special order lapis lazuli kimono. These days Realdoll is manufacturing the latest upgrades with Western features—the 'American I-Doll' line it's called—but for me there's just something about the Asiatic face, which is nothing at all to do with Japanese women being subservient. Might be all those years of anime though. Tonight, Si-Chan keeps sliding down in her chair (she has terrible posture sometimes, plus enjoys a glass or two of wine till slightly tipsy) and I'm up to lean her elbows on the kitchen table when I hear this tappity-tap at the door. My door. To say I'm startled would be a mega-understatement. No one ever comes by my apartment. Ever. I hoist all the one hundred pounds of Si-Chan up and prop her against the stove, her fingers resting on the dial. I point to the burner and tell her not to let the rice boil too long.

It's Megan.

"Hi, Marcus. Can I come in?" she says. Me, I'm just staring at her shoes, which are these strapless red pumps just like Si-Chan wears. "I didn't know if you'd heard what happened at work second shift. I thought I'd better…"

Megan seems awfully excited right enough and I lead her into the sitting room where she flops down on the settee without me saying it's fine. It's the same settee I photographed Si-Chan relaxing on. The kitchen door is closed though.

"Frank got fired," she says. "It was him all along."

"What?" Of course, I'm more than surprised. Hell, I'm nonplussed.

"Mr. Cameron compiled some kind of chart thing and—whenever the toilet business happened—well, Frank was up out of his seat. He couldn't deny it either."

"Wow," I say. And I mean it. Like mega-wow. I still have a job.

"Hey," I ask suddenly, "how did you know where I live?"

"Oh, Frank told me," she says. "I went out for a sympathy Guinness with him after work." She looks embarrassed now. "I felt kind of bad for him, you know?"

"And how the hell does he know where I live?"

"Oh, all that info is on Mr. Cameron's main computer, I guess. Frank hacked it from his station. He's very irresponsible in some regards. But when you get to spend more time with him one on one, you realize he's just insecure, a really insecure guy. It's kind of cute. He broke up with his girlfriend recently too. Which is sad."

"He tell you that?" I say crossly. But I really don't care anymore and so want to be alone with Si-Chan right now. And here comes the awkward pause always arrives when I'm alone with another woman. "I'd ask you to stay for dinner," I tell her after a while of silence. "But…" I point to the kitchen. "She's…"

Megan looks at the closed door, inquisitive. " I understand," she says. "Should I at least pop my head in there and say hello?"

"No," I shout. Then, more quietly, whispery, "No, she gets awful jealous…"

"Well, I'd better just be heading out then." Megan stands up, nodding. For one really horrible moment I think she's going to try to shake my hand. "I just thought you would really want to know about Frank and that," she says. "By the way, I quit too."

"You're leaving? Already?"

"Yeah," she says. "It was kind of… I don't know…soul destroying." We're standing together by the front door now and she's leaning toward me, looking deep in my eyes. "Say," she sniffs. "What's that terrible smell? Like burning plastic?"

I guess when silicone gel melts it really doesn't smell like much of anything else, that combined with the fact I'm always so stuffed up anyway these days it takes me a moment for my senses completely to process what was happening, at least up until the smoke detector goes berserk. So by the time I race in there, Si-Chan is totally blazing, these huge orange flames streaking through her silk hair. I reckon she must have slipped somehow, lurching forward, her head tipping right into the burner's flame.

I throw her onto the ground and roll her back and forth in my Aragon and Legolas dishtowel like I've seen people do on the T.V., which strategy just causes my linoleum to catch fire into the bargain. But after a while and a basinful of water the fire is out and there's only this dense smog of thick choking fumes to deal with. I throw open the porch windows and breathe deeply. There's a smattering of stars where they usually are. My eyes are smarting something awful and when I finally manage to keep them open I see that Si-Chan is lying there on her back like she always does. But her face is a sticky black hole now and it’s framed by this interlacing mess of drippy strands of toasted wet plastic. Her kimono is singed and there's an ugly brown welt, ridged and still bubbling that runs from her ankle to her melted breast. Before I can help it I'm sobbing for real even when, through the misting of tears, I see Megan is standing framed in the kitchen doorway, very still.

Then she isn't.

I pull myself together, bend over and lift Si-Chan gently, sitting her by the kitchen table again. "It's O.K. Honey," I say. "You'll be better soon." I take a moment to spoon some rice in her bowl and it seems that only the stuff in the bottom of the pan has burned black and that dinner might be salvageable. "There, there. You'll be much better soon, my love. I promise." I lean across the table and stroke the length of Si-Chan's cool wrist with my fingernail. "Much better."

And you know what? She will be. She will too.

© Rob McClure Smith 2009