A growling, glassy shimmer stuttered down the enclosed walkway from one end to the other, rattling disconcertingly beneath her feet.
What's that? Shook the whole land, rolling. Thunder? Earthquake? Sonic boom?
Half way across the otherwise unoccupied skywalk, Susan Stepford moved to the side and looked out over the street, raising a hand near her face to put her fingers against the glass. The straightest streets were crooked and filled with rubble: no different from any other day. Nothing but traffic lights and an ugly network of power lines cutting up the perfectly blue sky. No clouds. It couldn't have been thunder. No crashed airplanes or buildings teetering on their foundations.
The moment passed, dependable, familiar stability returning. Not even the traffic lights were swaying. Cars passed unimpeded on the road below her. She could feel her heart was thumping from a pulse of adrenalin.
What did I expect? she wondered, chiding herself. The Rapture? End of the world? It was just a jet plane somewhere. Although I don't recall hearing them around here before. Midtown. Strange.
An unbidden memory flung itself at her out of the remote past. They'd just stopped the car to get something to eat, on the way back home from a trip to San Diego. What had they done there? Gone to the beach, or the zoo? She couldn't remember. It must have been afternoon, and they had just got out of the car in the parking lot when the earthquake struck. Her father instructed them to remain where they were by the car, trying to hold on to each other when the stable ground had grown infirm like a pail of water beneath their feet. That place, out in the open, seemed to him the safest. She remembered seeing a tall sign shaking furiously against the sky. The trembling went on a long time, but no one was hurt and there seemed to be no damage when it was over.
How can I remember that? I was so much younger. A little girl.
She looked at the glass pane where her fingers still pressed against it. Cool surface. She could see her reflection, her nut-brown hair framing darkish features. Skin that looked silky, but she felt it could shatter like glass. Vulpine, someone had once called her. Who? She'd had to look it up. Like a fox. Crafty and cunning, did he mean? She wondered who had said it. A long time ago. Still attractive, she thought, turning her chin slightly. Thin, though. Her hair came down over the shoulders of her brown suit. The years were treating her well. Although. . . .
Best not to complete that thought.
She wondered about her reflection in the glass. From outside the skywalk was one long, mirrored tube angling up over the street. Why could she simultaneously see both the day outside and her own intruding reflection? Refraction, she thought. Some light bounced back, some passed straight through. Transparent. But if it was transparent, why did some light bounce back?
It only seems transparent. It's a trick. For all that's revealed, there's always some that remains hidden. And you never know who's looking in through the backside of the mirror. Remember that.
It must be getting on three o'clock. The afternoon would get away from her. She had to be going, but still she lingered at the glass, wondering why.
When I was a child, she thought. A little girl.
That was it.
She never thought about the past. It was all too long ago. She'd been too many people since then. She'd done too many things that she never thought she'd do. Quite a story tacked on. What had happened to the little girl? She'd been captured somewhere along the way.
The lure of success.
That was it, in part. But once you started down that road, certain expectations followed you, too. Took on a reality of their own.
I used to have dreams, didn't I? When did following dreams get replaced by meeting other people's expectations?
She studied her reflection. Attractive, yes. But there was something else there, too. Some more menacing something, as though she carried a lingering aftertaste of corruption within her that she'd unwitting acquired along the way. Some kind of barely noticeable contamination that she sometimes felt clung to her body. She imagined she could almost see it beginning to glow through her skin.
She tried to shake off the feeling. Such strange ideas must come to everyone. Contaminated by the world. Besides, she'd never been an idealist. She'd been. . . .ambitious? No. Well, maybe. But more than that, just. . . .
She'd always fallen into positions and eased herself effortlessly up the corporate ladder. Walked through the right doors: a long corridor of doors, that was her life. You do what you have to do. Of course that was why the idealists never made it very far, she thought. But advancement had come naturally to her, as if it were foreordained.
She thought of the meeting she'd just come from. These meetings followed a pattern. Excitable, pushy middle-aged men in suits with gleaming smiles and bright red ties and shiny black shoes and with crushing handshakes who thought they'd overpower this pretty little girl merely with their masculine presence. She smiled sweetly, playing up to their fantasies, before deploying her weapons. Always they acted so shocked and personally wounded when she flayed them with numbers. Can't finesse the numbers forever. Then they grew predictably defensive and hostile. Sometimes self-righteous, even. This is a hospital! We're concerned with human life. Dignity!
No matter. Really they were only discovering that they had never been the powers they imagined themselves to be. Crumbling sandcastles. So often within minutes of her leaving their offices, they would call back to her office in search of a man to talk to about their liquidity problems. Then they'd discover there was no higher authority to be appealed to than she herself.
This one had been like so many other meetings. They grew tedious and indistinguishable.
Dignity. Words like that were reliable indicators of desperation in these compassionate times.
I don't think you fully appreciate the role we play in servicing this community.
She'd been through this hospital and its wards numerous times before. Little different than most. The left hand completely ignorant of what the right was doing. The buildings were decrepit. Maintenance and upkeep had been excused away by financial officers across the entire country years ago. Once you got away from a few small islands of bright waiting rooms you found this hospital to be little better than a shabby warehouse for the sick and dying. Like almost all hospitals. Decades of persistent administrative strangulation had left morale among the staff generally crushed, with employee attitudes running the gamut from happy and stupid to hot-tempered and adversarial, ending always in the burnout stage of self-protective indifference.
I'm central to the systematic strangulation, she thought.
It couldn't be helped. The sick and dying were too reliable a source of revenue. They stunk with deteriorating flesh and with the reek of money. Wall Street's probing roots extended far and wide, and investors demanded profits. In a way the purpose of her job was to facilitate the transfer of profits out of the hospitals and to administrative levels higher up. Corporate headquarters and insurance mills. Profits must be optimized. The beast must be fed.
Still staring out the window, she forced down the sigh that threatened to come. What's wrong with me today?
Yes. Maybe it was Jim.
He was from another firm, in New York. They'd met at a conference in San Francisco six months ago. He was in town for a few days, and he'd asked her out tonight: nothing fancy, just a pizza parlor near his hotel. She'd agreed, and she wasn't sure why. He was ten years older than she, he was below her station, and if she recalled correctly, in San Francisco he'd shown her wallet photos of his wife and children. He wasn't even particularly attractive to her. In fact, what she remembered most clearly about him was his hungry, wolfish eyes and cynical smile.
So why am I wasting my time on Jim Grayson?
No answer. Just that recurrent vision of a long hallway full of doors. Other possible lives left behind.
Were they left behind? She thought of her grandfather, who'd been a pilot stationed at Brisbane with MacArthur. He'd been a family treasure, always trying to lord it over everybody even at his age. A war hero. She remembered how her father and the old man used to talk endlessly about politics when she was a little girl, and about the news, and about that old war, and about history in general. Captain Victor Stepford could never get over fighting in the war. It used to drive her mother and grandmother crazy how much enthusiasm the men had for that ancient history. None of it had ever mattered to Susan either, of course, but a few years before she went off to college, the old man had said something so strange that she'd never forgotten it. The two men had been sitting around the kitchen table talking about the Russians, the way they did, and her father had said that what surprised him the most was that the world hadn't been destroyed by all the atomic bombs both sides had. Old Victor Stepford had agreed. Then he'd grown strangely thoughtful and said that maybe it was a one in a million chance that the world hadn't been ruined in a nuclear war, but then he added, of course, if that had happened, then they couldn't be there to talk about how improbable it was. And maybe the world really had been destroyed, many times over, but we were only living in some rare, alternate history in which nuclear war just by chance hadn't taken place. It was as if, Susan thought, maybe many different pasts really did exist, maybe they all lived on forever, side by side, but you only knew the one life you found yourself inhabiting.
Years later she'd thought that maybe other versions of herself in different pasts had made different choices. Had opened other doors. Had gone down those different paths.
Maybe other Susan Stepfords aren't standing here staring out at this grimy city through dirty glass.
She had work to do, she reminded herself. And then Jim.
They all have hungry, wolfish eyes.
No. . . .
There had been a boy. . . .She couldn't remember his name. His eyes had not been like that. She remembered. College.
His eyes were on fire with passion, though. Burning. Too intense! And yet. . . .He was kind. And real. Not a wolf. What was his name? I never told him goodbye. I wonder. But he probably was an idealist. He must have been, with eyes like those. Not like these dirty windows. Truly transparent. But now. . . .
Too many doors closed behind her.
She closed her eyes. In a moment they snapped open and she shook her head. She continued down the walkway.
No more wasted time!
She hated this walkway and the buildings it connected. She would be glad to be out of it. Then into the dark parking decks beyond, shoved up right next to the projects full of crackheads. She always felt as though she'd be mugged in there.
I'll get my work done, and I'll see Jim tonight. Everything will be alright.