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Welcome, Karate

Jock and the real estate agent crunched toward each other across the gravel lot. A gust of hot desert wind flattened Jock’s fleece sweater against her torso. The sweater was the most presentable item of clothing she’d shoved in her duffel two days ago and twenty degrees below this here and now. She waved, sleeve tips bunched in her fingers.

“Missy?” the real estate man visibly did a double take at the thin old woman she was. He straightened out of a phone-tapping hunch. His shirttails pulled apart. Underneath was a wedge of yellowed t-shirt.

“Most people call me Jock,” she said, smiling tight to hide her missing molar. “Short for Joquard. My last name.”

“Pretty good name for this property,” the real estate man winked. He had a raw looking nose. “It’s this way.”

Ahead of them, a washed up, washed out shopping mall. The mall entrance drifted open and closed. Muzak and cool air seeped out. A uniformed store worker emerged, tapping a box of cigarettes on their wrist. Jock and the real estate man did not enter, swung a wide left, around a corner. The sun always shone hot here. Jock remembered. She riffled the fronds of a stubby palm tree as they passed. It was crawling with a network of hoses, dribbles of water staining the sandy bed where the rubber had been intentionally punctured.

“Laird’s Fitness Center,” the real estate agent read off a peeling white decal. He fussed with a ball of keys. “You owned a gym before, right?”

“Martial arts studio,” said Jock amiably. “Street style Zan-Do.”

“Like karate?” He found the key. “See, that’s why I give the quiet drunks their space at the bar. Karate. You never know.” The glass door came unlocked with the sound of a metal tooth sliding home.

“Here we are, Missy.”

The entrance had the funk of mildewed towels, though there weren’t any to be seen. The estate agent flipped a few light switches, decided the electricity had been cut.

“I’ve actually never shown anyone around this bad boy,” he admitted. “We don’t usually bring private buyers to properties like these—a bit niche.” He pronounced it hard, a spitball: nitch. Jock’s French-Algerian grandfather did a head flip in the grave. “But the market’s different now.”

Different, bad. It didn’t take a fancy college degree to see that. This tour wasn’t the sort of luxury normally extended to a seventy-two-year-old woman with a stringy mullet and fading dye job courtesy the cheapest drugstore boxed hair catastrophe money could buy. Nothing in the way of references, just an emailed promise of immediate cash payment. Well, and a link to a build-it-yourself website dominated by a solitary fisheye shot of a stripmall martial arts dojo half the country away, empty of students or teachers, jigsaw mats on the floor a garish nail polish pink. The rips worn along the length of the mats could’ve been the gouges of long claws.

“Reception and back room through there. Weights and machines area. No machines—old owner sold them on for scrap. The weight racks are still installed, which is nice.” The real estate agent was vibrant now, performing with his whole body. “Office, including two computers in good order, security desk with a camera system, changing rooms, male and female, staff kitchenette. Space for a little juice bar over here. Licensed to serve food, which is pretty cool.” He briefly checked a piece of paper with penciled notes on it. “Oh. License might’ve expired. We’ll find out. Back here,” he said, unfazed. “Indoor pool, Missy! Laird’s used to advertise the hell out of it. Radio jingle, Give your boss the slip, drop in for a dip!” Surprisingly, he could carry a tune.

Now he charged toward a set of heavy double doors. They were painted a fetching blue, somewhere between sky and navy. Smell of warm chlorine. Below Jock’s feet, the carpeting had given over to a runway of tiles, the grout between each square blotched in browns. It wasn’t clear whether the doors were Push or Pull. The estate agent set his shoulder against one, then the other. “Locked.”

There was no keyhole to be seen. A promising looking keypad, but at the sight of it, the agent hmmed.

“Anyway, you can smell it. Doesn’t get realer than that! Olympic-sized if you can believe it. We’ll get you the access code later.”

“Love to swim,” Jock said, her first words of the tour. She needed him to understand that she wanted the place. Her face could be hard to read. She knew that. She pressed a couple of underfoot tiles with the toe of her sneaker. The agent smiled and tucked in his shirttails.

“I can really see this place being perfect for a gym rat like you. Do something fun with the space, martial arts for the kids, CoreBlitz for the mommies. You like it?”

Jock imagined two hammerfists to his temples, a push-kick to his solar plexus. The pool doors flying open under his weight. The splash. The musk of pool was giving her a headache.

“I like it a lot,” she said very slowly. “When can I sign?”

Trail Mix, Chips, Popcorn. Jock had been down the same grocery store aisle three times. All she had in her basket was a big bottle of water and a jar of own-brand crunchy peanut butter. The groceries lolled around heavily, pinching the basket against her thigh any time she paused to examine a package.

This was rock bottom. That was the problem with having lived so long: a lot of life to compare to, and a little extra sting at every new low.

But it wasn’t rock bottom. Yeah, she’d handed over a literal duffel bag of money to a real estate agent whose nose grew angry-red as he unzipped it in one long, oval motion. Yes, it was pretty much all the money she had in the world, and that was why the four-dollar party-sized Doritos in her hand were an unbearable weight on her conscience and her budget. But it was a fresh beginning, and she deserved one of those. They came at all ages, in many incarnations.

A couple ducked into the popcorn end of Jock’s aisle: two teenage boys, one shivering into a thin hoodie in the arctic AC. It was close to one am. The store open all night. Jock preferred to shop late. The boys swooped big bags of some puffed legume health chip off the shelf. “Two?” asked one. “Three,” said the other. Jock stared. Her age made her a clear lens, difficult to spot. That was the beauty of it. To be so unremarked.

Outside, it was a full, swimming moon, and humid. Fresh set of keys in one hand, bag of groceries in another. It was no shameful thing to sleep in a place that was hers tonight, Jock thought. She’d paid for every inch of it.

Paneled in glass, Laird’s Fitness Center gorged on moonlight. Inside, silver knives of it everywhere. Jock had made a comfortable corner in one of the changing rooms: clothes balled inside a pillowcase, a towel—her own, not mildewed—for a mattress. The space was noisy in repose; its panes whistled and moaned when the wind rose up, and metal tapped metal when it gusted. Jock carried her toiletries to the sink, a long trough, and pointed her phone flashlight to see. She flossed and observed herself in the mirror that went with the sink. You Look Sweaty . . . It Suits You, the mirror said, tops of the vinyl letters curling away from the glass. Behind, darkened toilet stalls. She chose the middle one, peed very little and was glad she’d bought the bottled water.

Back out to survey the gym floor one last time. She forced a steadying exhale. There was an empty planter in each corner, and in the ceiling corners, dead security cameras. The gym flooring was some kind of marbled plastic or rubber. She couldn’t tell much detail by the moonlight. The locked double doors to the pool caught her unawares as she scanned—she remembered suddenly that there was a big body of water in this place—improbably big—this place—this water—now hers. That realization, finally, made her feel something.

She slept very little, but wasn’t expecting to. The new energy of the space, the enormity of the decision, an immense solitude, warred with her all night.

Sun Street. In the backwaters of Jock’s memory, a row of butchers and florists, and one very good sandwich shop, where subs piled high with baloney or shaved turkey or salmon and cream cheese stewed in the concentrated heat of the window display. None of that remained. On Sun Street, now, one long, empty, street-level facade belonging to a block of condos so new it practically still smelled of cellophane, and beyond, a gargantuan U-Stor-It. First month on us, conditions apply. Hitching her hip against a muscle complaining about the night on the floor, Jock crossed the road, and found what her phone had told her would be there: Sun Street Copy Shop.

At the door she jousted with a customer coming out.

“Excuse me, sorry.”

“Excuse me.”

She looked up and saw traces of a familiar face. Held her noncommittal smile, held open the door, waited until the other patron had gotten clear, and stepped inside.

The sound of copiers was like the drone of a low-tide ocean. Jock fished the thumb drive out of her jeans pocket, dusted off specks of lint. She chose a massive scan/copy/print rig in the corner. The first hot flyer came swanning out in a fug of ozone.

Laird’s Fitness

New Management, New Offers! First Class Free!

Street-Style Zan-Do Under Master Joquard, 3rd Dan.

“Missy,” said a timid voice behind Jock.

It was the woman from earlier, with the familiar face. She’d circled back from the street. Half a century since Jock had called this town home, and she struggled earnestly now to peel back the years.

”I’m sorry,” Jock said. “We know each other. Can’t quite place your face.”

“Iris Alles,” said the woman.

Oh.

Butterfly-blinking fresh coats of mascara. Smiling until creases cut through caked foundation. Under bathroom spotlights. Hib’s Chicken Drivethru. Some swimming hour between one and six am. Push-up bras. Mai Tais. Volleyball team. Boys. Girls. Each other. God and the devil of the self. The tamer devil of this town, preying on its young.

“Iris,” said Jock, with the softest surprise she could manage.

“Hiiiiii.” Iris pulled her in for an unasked-for hug. “You’re back?”

“Yeah. I—just bought that fitness center over on DeVine.” Jock’s instinct had been evasion, but Iris was already reaching around her, sliding a flyer off the freshly minted stack. “So I’m here to stay, I suppose.”

“That is wonderful,” said the old lady whose existence seemed to prove that Jock, too, must be an old lady. She read on. “I’ll drop by.”

“Please do,” said Jock, heartened and apprehensive in equal measure. “And tell a friend.”

Somewhere in the years of her living, Jock had become committed to the overflow of her imagination. To be, or see, or want just one thing felt like a betrayal of something—of, maybe, the out-thereness of the wide and incredible universe. And to be a straightforward kind of person—that had always struck Jock as the worst life imaginable. This way that she was, it had driven many dear and kindhearted people away. Sometimes she spent the small hours recalling their faces and good deeds.

Now her mess of ideas had brought her here. To an unstaffed gym, with a couple hundred dollars left of a dubious inheritance.

She couldn’t panic. She couldn’t lose her nerve. She decided the thing to do was to clean.

A sticky patina coated every surface in the gym. She wiped and scrubbed and tested the equipment frames with the side of her shoulder until her skin stopped adhering like fingertips to an old jawbreaker. It took most of the morning.

She was tired but refused to rest, pulled on some ball shorts and a ratty Gold’s Gym shirt with cut-off sleeves. At a squat rack she fitted plates onto the bar, gazed out onto a singed communal lawn badly maintained by an unknown party. Jock began light and deep, squatting into her heels and haunches as she’d learned to do watching countless flavors of Coaching Level 3 VHS tapes, and later, DVDs. Her body hated the exertion. It complained in dull and sharp vowels.

Then a sound came that wasn’t her body groaning, a sort of ice-crackling sharpness. Jock racked the bar untidily, pulling some minor muscle in her shoulder (she had tried to learn, but never could, all the fancy Latin names). She hung from the bar for a while, ears pricked, an unpleasant sweat breaking across her skin. The noise came again, a glacier resettling, an iceberg breaking off, incongruous against the blazing heat of the world outside. The ancient bricklike mp3 player in Jock’s basketball shorts swung gently against her thigh. She considered blasting her workout playlist. Decided no.

She wasn’t spooked, anyway, just observing. A new home came with quirks, lots to learn. That had always been twice as true here, in this town with its collective tics and its fierce conformism. Jock hadn’t jibed with it the first time around, that was true. But she was determined to make it work.

A flicker at the edge of her vision. Jock craned up, saw a dead camera, wiring dangling loose beneath it like a feeler. The lens of the camera was dusky, the whole black orb of it inert and unsensing. A visible layer of dust coated the wall bracket holding it in place.

Jock panned around without blinking. Minutes seemed to tick away. She untangled herself from the bar of the squat rack, stood upright, took in a chestful of oxygen.

“No coming loose from reality, old man,” she admonished herself. “Life still has ideas about you.”

There was a very deliberate and human knocking on the main door of the fitness center, followed by a plaintive “Hello?”

Jock went to the glass door and saw a smiling Iris. At her side, a much younger man, maybe thirty.

“We’re here for our first free class,” said her former friend. “You didn’t list a timetable, so we thought we’d try our luck.”

The gi, Jock’s name embroidered on the breast in Japanese, looked dreadful in the glare of the overhead lights: wrinkled to high hell from being crammed in her duffel, almost too unkempt to wear. The shame was stifling. She wrapped the faded black belt around her waist anyway, made the four-step knot that fixed it symmetrically at her navel. She was skinnier, frail in this outfit that insinuated mastery. Teaching an introductory Zan-Do class, right then, was the last thing she wanted to be doing.

Iris and Phil (as his name turned out to be) idled in the group exercise hall, doing stretches in their track pants, t-shirts, and bare feet, mirroring each other. Phil kept pausing for a glug of water. “My nephew,” Iris had said of the sweet-faced man with a varying density of wiry facial hair. Jock felt a closeness to him. Their worlds shared something, she was sure, though they’d struggle to name the common ground.

Jock smoothed her hands down the rough canvas of her gi, gestured at the two students for their attention.

“First, we bow, to show respect.”

“What karate is this again?” asked Phil.

“Zan-Do. It’s not karate,” said Jock. “We have begun, so please hold your comments until after class.”

“Missy is a 3rd Dan,” said Iris to Phil.

“Zan-Do—is that like Taekwondo?” asked Phil.

Jock shushed them. “Please form a fist.” Ah, there: the tiniest exhilaration. To do this once more. She demonstrated, flattening her palm, then tucking her fingers snug against the meat of her grip and curling them.

Phil seemed to be following along, but Iris was hopeless. Her elbows were crooked and her thumbs poked out. Jock took three brisk steps toward her and made some adjustments.

They stood face to face, age-gnarled hands on age-gnarled hands. Where Jock’s nails were short, her thumbnail blackened—souvenir of an unlucky door smash—Iris’ nails were painted a serene coral.

“You’re so different now, Missy.” The whisper was velvety and conspiratorial, as if delicious in Iris’ mouth. “Look at you! So impressive. We were just two girls, you and I, remember?”

Jock belly-breathed through the words for a long moment. Was she hurt? She searched herself for entry wounds. Iris was not trying to harm her, that much was clear.

The ice-crackling noise came again, from some room beyond.

Jock didn’t break posture.

“Tuck in your elbows when you extend the punch,” she said in the end, and went back to the head of the class.

“I enjoyed it, I guess,” said Phil, drinking the last of his water, toweling off as though he’d run a marathon. It had only been a thirty minute demonstration of the basics.

Jock was forming her sales pitch, remembering how to sound the syllables of ‘membership’, when a deliberate knock on glass came again.

“Missy Joquard?”

She went to the entrance. It was the real estate man.

“Look,” he started, visibly irritated. “My office is still managing the building’s services; they move over to you next week. But we’re getting a motion alarm from one of the cameras. The video feeds in our office are blank.”

Jock didn’t know where to start unpacking this. “From the group exercise room?”

“No,” said the estate agent. “The swimming pool.” He jiggled the many pockets of his cargo pants. “I’ve brought the code this time.”

Iris tapped Jock on the shoulder. “Thank you so much for the class.”

Phil, standing uncomfortably close, looked searchingly into his aunt’s eyes, adjusting a plastic bag from one arm to the other. Gully’s Hardware, it said. Family owned since 1935.

“Is there a camera recording in here?” asked Iris, exchanging a look with the estate agent. “I hope they take care of it.”

There was an edge to Jock’s discomfort then. “What?”

Iris swiped the comment out of the air with a cavalier hand. “Now, listen, before we go. Phil and I would like to invite you over for dinner tomorrow night.”

Iris grinned at Phil, who in turn beamed wholeheartedly at Jock.

“Baked tilapia on Friday,” he said. “In onion gravy.” He smacked his lips.

Jock’s stomach gave a treacherous growl beneath the folds of her gi.

“Please come,” said Iris, grubbing bare toes into her flip-flops. Rubber squeaked against rubber. “It must be so lonely here, alone, after so long away. We just want you to know you still have people looking out for you.”

Behind them, at the door to the swimming pool, the real estate man punched codes, punctuating every few presses with a soft, mournful ‘shit.’

The thought of a hot meal, Jock’s first in weeks, was almost eye watering. Could she politely ask for a portion to be left on a windowsill? On top of the trashcan behind the house, to be shared with the raccoons?

“I’ll be there,” said Jock. “Thank you for inviting me.”

The real estate agent fiddled with the door for a long time after Iris and Phil left. “Listen, Ms Joquard?” he finally said, coming over. “It’s not a good idea to leave the cameras running unattended.”

“Aren’t you here to fix it?”

“I can’t,” he admitted. “None of these codes work. They’re labeled ‘pool’, see?” He showed her the piece of paper. “But they don’t work.”

Jock felt the same tightening in her face as when she delivered a strike. She and the agent looked at each other with open animosity.

“Is it very expensive?” she asked.

“What?”

“The cost of the cameras running.”

“It’s not a cost issue,” he said, pulling on a light coat to go, though it was disgustingly humid outside. “Just be careful.”

“I’ve never even been in there,” said Jock.

“Right,” he said, his nose red as a car siren. “That’s part of the problem.” Jock saw, in his agitation, a freeze-frame of compassion. “I’m late to pick up my kid from my ex’s. You’re not from here and there’s no way you would understand. But we need to get in there and turn that thing off.”

There was something about Jock that caused this sort of problem. Her body, her way, all of her. Springs somersaulted loose from machines. Dependable clocks ran slow or fast. People saw things they shouldn’t see, said things they shouldn’t say.

“Saturday morning I can get a locksmith out,” said the real estate man. “See you then. Be careful.”

“You too,” said Jock, feeling a moment later that she’d reciprocated a happy birthday, or a get well soon.

Iris’ house hadn’t changed in fifty-five years. The gate still unlatched in the opposite direction to what you’d expect. The same tree with its arthritic knees still trespassed onto the drive. It dropped seedpods that hid in the overgrown grass, bristly as little naval mines.

Jock rang the doorbell. She was late, having spent too long picking out a bottle of something both thoughtful and affordable. Her fleece was zipped all the way up her neck; her boots were neatly laced. She didn’t look great—but she didn’t look destitute.

Phil opened the door and leaned in to kiss her cheek in one awkward motion. “Welcome, karate,” he said. He led her down the hallway, his acrid cologne layering over the smell of fish. The inside of Iris’ home, the home of Iris’ departed parents, was frozen in time too, as if they’d hermetically sealed it and cracked it open just for her tonight.

“How do you and Aunt Iris know each other?” asked Phil at precisely the moment they rounded the corner and found themselves in the steamy kitchen. His question went unanswered. The kitchen table, scattered with wine bottles, corks, and various pale dips just liberated from fronds of supermarket packaging, had four women seated around it.

“Oh my god!” warbled one. “Missy Joquard! No way!”

Iris appeared at Jock’s shoulder. Sorry, she mouthed. I can explain.

But the warbling woman beat her to it. “When Iris mentioned you were back in town,” she said, “we bribed, begged, and pleaded until she invited us over tonight. Just like the old days!”

Jock made a noise that sounded nothing like the chuckle she was trying for. She set the sparkling apple juice on the nearest counter.

When she turned back to the room, one of the guests was very close to her. “Audrey, remember?” And Audrey pointed at the women one by one. “Susan, Joanne, Betty. Iris, obviously. The gang!” Audrey smiled.

Jock had forced herself to forget. But memory was so dogged. Yes. Their evening walks to the gas station, stale hotdogs under the neon carwash sign, the paper Jock had written for Susan in the tenth grade about free will and liberty, weekly meanderings to the mall to shoplift scoops of jellybeans from the candy store’s unattended buckets. Later, they had matched each other’s fantasy futures: the same collegiate ambitions (just enough), the same rich husbands (Jock, even then, playing along), the same number and sexes of babies, the fantasy mansions, cars, and careers.

What, she wondered, had in the end manifested? And how would she ever stop these people from asking that question of her?

“Missy, sit down,” said Betty. “Red or white?” She spoke slower than Jock recalled. Her hair was grey and the ubiquitous scrunchied ponytail of their teenage years was gone.

“Iris says you’re back to run a karate club.”

They oohed.

“We were just saying,” said Susan, “we lost touch so suddenly after you went East. You changed numbers and addresses so often in just a few years and we lost track of you.”

“We asked your mother for your news, but then of course . . . ” Jock’s mother had died a decade after Jock skipped town. It was part of the reason the inheritance from her disapproving aunt had been so generous—when it came to blood relatives, there were so few of them left.

“Did you ever get that biology degree? Did you ever get married? Heck, kids? Grandkids?” asked Betty.

Phil opened the door of the oven and a savory vapor cloud mushroomed. Jock was starving. She found the empty seat at the kitchen table, lowered herself into it as though she were being motioned by someone brandishing a gun.

“Red, please,” she smiled at Betty. “Gosh, I don’t know where to begin. I’m a little overwhelmed.”

“How about we start with this,” said Iris, depositing a casserole dish of white fish in a bubbling lake of brown sauce in the center of the table. It didn’t look appetizing, but smelled good. Phil hustled in with a crusty loaf torn into chunks and a plate of unhappy looking boiled vegetables.

They tucked in. Soon the silence was curdling, heads bent to forks and knives giving way to lingering eye contact and smiles of curiosity.

“Tell me about all of you!” said Jock after her first few bites. Offense was sometimes the best defense. It was what she taught her students. “It sure is a long time to catch up on.”

“Well,” said Audrey, “Joanne is a famous news anchor around here.”

Joanne demurred. “You tell your own news!” She swatted Audrey with her napkin.

The women took turns relating their life stories as if they’d been waiting fifty patient years for the chance. The riches, the bankruptcy, the children, the husbands, affairs, divorces, the illnesses and tragic deaths—they told it with gusto, making drawn-out noises at each others’ stories as they picked fish bones out of their teeth.

Spent, they turned to Jock, who’d been nodding along and raising eyebrows and frowning with all her might.

“How about you, Missy? Tell us everything.”

Well. What was there to say? She was suffocating. Who was she, compared to these people? They’d won and lost, but they were on a clearly marked path, with signposts and landmarks and each other. She’d dropped out of college after not even a semester, hitchhiked for six months with a man twenty years older who she’d met at a church potluck. She’d gone for the free food. He turned out to be Master Brian, soon-to-be founder of Zan-Do. She’d watched him study a stack of old martial arts magazines they’d stolen from a rest stop diner, devising the new art’s signature economy of motion. He’d scribbled a dōjō kun, a code of conduct, in the back of a van. His large, ungraceful hands made a mess of the pad of paper in his lap, curling its edges. He announced, “Zan-Do. Good ring to it, right?” They rolled a joint to celebrate. Years later, she’d gotten sick of Master Brian’s personal code of conduct, especially the sexual favors he felt entitled to, and headed East once more. She met Mariah. They lived together for fifteen years; Jock had helped raise Mariah’s two kids. Somewhere in that morass of time, Jock’s mother died. The kids got old enough to hate the weird lady sulking about their house and told their mother it was either Jock or them. She hit the road again, duffel braced on her shoulder. She was so finished the day she left Mariah that the wind whistled through her. She could’ve been the thinnest glass. Her aunt had found out about the drugs, extracted Jock’s number from a cousin, called her screaming hellfire. She met Alta, then Jane. She was an assistant mechanic, a school cafeteria cook, an usher at a movie theater. Her favorite movies were the black and white oldies, how the audio tracks buzzed and the actors’ kindly voices warmed you up like a crackling fire. Administrator at an aerobics studio, photography studio, owner of an ice cream van. Finally, personal trainer, and around then, she had shed the old name, dusted off her gi. Years passed. Her aunt had found out about the women, called again. There weren’t any left, though—women—that was the irony. By that point, Jock was irreparably alone.

Now she laughed with no feeling. Iris, Audrey, Susan, Joanne, Betty, and Phil regarded her with expectant stares. Phil worked a toothpick with his lips. It drew an infinity symbol in the air.

“Come on—what’s with the suspense?” teased Joanne. “Look at your hair, your clothes.” Jock sat up straighter. “Look at you! You’re a total stranger. No one would believe we all went to school together. That you were born a few blocks away. How’d you land on karate? Did you meet a nice man out there? Have some kids?”

Six pairs of eyes bored into her. She missed the dizzy light of the all-night grocery store. She missed being a clear lens.

“I’m not—” she started. Petered out.

“Go on, darling,” encouraged Susan.

“There’s . . . something happening,” said some reflex in Jock. “A camera or something? Recording in the swimming pool at the fitness center.”

“There’s a camera recording?” asked Joanne.

“I thought they fixed that,” said Iris. She looked serious, even angry.

“They didn’t fix it,” said Jock.

“They have to,” said Susan.

“It can be very bad, Missy. They have to fix it right away.”

“It’s dangerous,” said Audrey. “It’s bad news.”

Jock stared around the table.

“It’s nothing. Just,” said Iris, setting a boiled carrot she’d just dipped in ranch dressing down on the rim of her plate. “These incidents—”

“The first time was a little while after you left, actually,” said Joanne.

“A couple incidents through the years. You know,” Iris waved dismissively, “fires, sinkholes, electrocution, always some structural problem that wasn’t there before. Always a camera involved.”

“Cameras filling in what the eye can’t see,” Phil said. “Basically.” He forked a bite of fish straight from the casserole dish.

Jock had set up the diversion, but realized she did not want this. They were messing her up, scrambling who she was until she was convinced, through someone else’s eyes, that her life was something else, something horrifying.

Her chair stuttered backwards against the floor. “You’re right. I’d better go.”

“Do you want to stay here tonight?” asked Iris.

“No.”

“Listen, take Phil—”

“No. No. It’s fine.” The zipper of her fleece caught the skin of her throat as she tugged it. She went into the humid night. Seedpods burst beneath the heel of her boot. She strode toward Laird’s Fitness. Homeward, if home meant someplace Jock could hide.

It was after midnight. In front of one of the gym’s full-length mirrors, Jock shrugged off her top. She regarded herself in her sports bra, the signs of age on her white skin like the marks of a snake’s passage along a dune: she’d stretched and torn at this skin for seventy-two years, fighting to be citizen of some other body. But she was no monster. It was everyone else who was monstrous, monstrous in how they insisted on knowing and making her, on seeing and unseeing her.

Spears of moonlight vanished beneath her shadow as Jock went deeper into the gym. Carpet gave way to tile. The funk of chlorine soon overpowered the scent of her exertion, her panic. The heavy blue double doors to the swimming pool could’ve been carved into the side of a mountain, could’ve been the entrance to a mausoleum. The faint sighing of water reached her from beneath the doors. Jock stopped in front of the keypad the real estate man had struggled with. She was surprised to find not numbers but the alphabet printed on it.

So she thumbed in J-O-C-K.

The doors gave a click. She was afraid. Iris and the women had shaken her. A harmless thing—a camera quietly surveilling—had become terrifying. She imagined a whole TV studio in there, waiting to extract a confession, live, on-air. But why did she have to confess? It was so hard to understand.

Jock put her shoulder to the door-between-sky-blue-and-navy. And pushed.

The space beyond carried a tremendous echo, the moaning of water singing her in. Jock had the sense of an infinite area. Oh, and there it was, the security camera, mounted just above head-height on a side wall. A yellow light that could’ve been a faraway star shone in the center of it. The pool, Jock now realized, was only a quarter full. The water danced, tugged, and churned. Not the way water moved in the tide, but the way water moved in a gale.

She stepped nearer. An Olympic-sized pool, for her Olympic-sized imagination. For her disappointment of a life. She tried her voice just to hear the bigness of its echo. It was the first phrase of Brian’s dōjō kun that came to her: be true. She’d murmured this so many nights, tried to mean it every time. The echo twisted her words around the sound of water.

The air grew cold as Jock stepped to the edge of the pool. Thin tendrils of water, almost vapor, twirled skyward. For the first time, she looked up—impossibly high up, higher, surely, than the premises of Laird’s Fitness Center could possibly be.

It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

From the ceiling hung an ice sculpture, gargantuan. It was a stalactite Atlas, realistic down to the straining tendons, bent upside-down on one knee beneath a shouldered burden. The burden was not a celestial globe, but a forty-five pound weightlifting plate, grasped in blocky, short-nailed fingers. Those hands were Jock’s own. The inverted Atlas, unmistakably her.

She sat at the edge of the pool and splashed in, neck still craned up. She waded into two feet of bitter-cold water in her slacks, then glided on the numb balls of her feet until the swimming pool floor began to slope. Her sneakers were heavy, her slacks were sodden to the thigh, her bare torso trembling and puckered. But she was mesmerized. This was what, maybe, she’d always been. The watching eye had rendered her better in ice than Brian, Alta, Mariah, Iris, Phil—better than anyone ever had in her life.

She heard that distinctive crack, and knew now that it was exactly what it had sounded like—a rending of ice. The heavy plate squarely above her head tilted and caught itself at a sharp angle, snapping half of Atlas’s fingers off with it.

Was it possible to wade to safety? She could. She couldn’t.

“No coming loose from reality, old man,” Jock said, very loud, almost shouting. Echoes shouted back. She could not look anywhere but up. The giant ice weight cracked free, and hurtled. Hurtled. And hurtled down.

About the Author

Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her resting London face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.